"To him that you tell your secret you resign your liberty."
After all this time whoíd have thought it would be bugs that would get Ďem? Heíd done everything by the book and a few things that werenít. Nothing helped. The bugs got Ďem and he had stood there and watched the progressive destruction and finally the death. And there wasnít a damn thing left to do, but mourn the loss.
The rose bush was dead.
Aphids, the guy at the nursery had said, like he knew what he was talking about. Aphids, my Aunt Aliceís ass. Heíd bought all the crap Mr. Blooming Idiot had recommended, had suckered him into buying. Heíd filled the cart with everything guaranteed to make your backyard look like some Rose Parade float on steroids; pampered, trimmed, even used distilled water. Hell, he would have brought Doc in on a consultation, but her price for a house call would have broken him when she found out it was for a sick rose bush. Even Carter had failed him, informing him snidely that she was a physicist, not a botanist, and putting to rest once and for all the rumor that there was nothing that Carter didnít know.
Jonas had offered up suggestions claiming that he watched the Gardening Network faithfully, but after the dried banana peel fiasco, the Kelownan had wisely kept his thoughts and his lame-ass homeopathic remedies pretty much to himself. Who the hell would have thought dried banana would attract moles? Now his freakiní backyard looked like a scene from ĎThe Great Escape.í Where was Steve McQueen when you needed him?
And the bush had still died.
Turned out it wasnít aphids at all, but some microscopic bug with a name that looked like the letters after Carterís name that had attacked in force. So now he had a backyard pest tunneling happily through his irises and peonies, pissed off neighbors because of Mighty Moleís frequent excursions into the pristine fescue on the other side of the proverbial fence, and Hammondís promise of demotion if he snuck a Zat or a staff weapon from the armory to take care of the problem once and for all.
And a dead rose bush.
Jack sighed as he gazed on the dried husk that had once proudly boasted fragrant blossoms; blossoms which had overpowered the smell of scorched weenies on the grill as heíd sat relaxing on his deck sipping a brew and inhaling their wafting aroma. Heíd miss that. One of those seemingly insignificant details that made his life a little richer. He sighed again.
The pealing of his cell phone broke through his melancholy reverie. Pulling the phone from his pocket, he frowned at it as the phone chirped out the tune ĎDisco Duck.í Dammit, it never failed to annoy him that his cell phone did that. He could almost see the smirk on Danielís face. No doubt, in whatever plane of existence Daniel now called home, he was laughing his cosmic ass off that Jack had foolishly asked him to change the ring on his phone. Then Danielíd gone all glowie before heíd had the chance to make him change it back. He still had nightmares about the time the stupid thing had gone off in a briefing with Hammond and the SG team leaders. Oh yeah, Danny-boy would have loved that one. Freakiní Marines. He guessed he could go to Siler or one of the other techno-geeks, but it was just too damn embarrassing. Carter? Forget it. Sheíd think disco was cool, even an asinine song like this.
Breaking off the tender strains of Rick Dees crooning, ĎFlapping my arms I began to cluck. Look at me . . . Iím the disco duck.í, Jack snapped, "OíNeill." He listened with mounting irritation as General Hammondís aide efficiently rattled off a long list of paperwork that he was being ordered to complete ASAP, effectively cutting into a major chunk of his plans for his day off. Therein lay the cusp of being near the top of the military food chain. Heíd learned long ago: too high up to avoid the avalanche of paperwork which blanketed the mountain, but not high enough to reach for the stars and pass it on to subordinates.
Snapping the phone shut, Jack shoved it in his jeans pocket and walked towards the garage. No use putting it off. He had just enough time to deal with the dead bush and grab a quick bite to eat before he headed over to the base. As he walked over to retrieve the shovel, he frowned at the oil stains on the concrete. Great, another thing to add to the list that he never seemed to get done. Now his truck was complaining that he wasnít attending to its needs by leaking oil. Geesh, worse than a wife.
At least Sara hadnít made him walk when heíd ignored her needs. In fact, sheíd been the one to do the walking. Snatching the shovel off its hook, Jack issued a soft curse at the harsh memories that thought evoked. He was so not going down that path today.
It didnít take long to dig the rose bush up, not nearly long enough to dispel the bad mood that enveloped him. Jack had hoped that some yard work would quell the mood which had followed him home from Planet Hala, but apparently it was not to be. Like some skinny stray dog you take pity on and feed, this mood refused to budge, despite his half-hearted attempts to dissuade it.
Kneeling down to eye-level with the toppled bush, Jack couldnít see the creatures responsible for its death. Who knows, theyíd probably gotten what they wanted and had moved on to greener pastures. Wasnít that the way it worked? Suck the life out of you and then leave the empty, worthless husk behind.
Jack rubbed a calloused hand over his face, trying not to think about how calloused his thoughts had become lately. What the hell was wrong with him? Nothing Doc could fix with her magical mystery medicine show, he was sure of that. Reaching for one of the branches to carry the dead plant to the burn pile, Jack yelped as a thorn pierced his finger.
Bright red blood welled in a small crescent.
Squeezing the wounded digit with a muttered curse, Jack watched, mesmerized, as the crescent burst, overflowed and trailed a crimson stream down his hand. He stared at it and kneeling there next to a dead rose bush, Jack lost himself as red-stained memories blotted out the crisp Fall day.
"Charlie, Iíve heard just about all I can take." I didnít look up from what I was doing. For the last two and a half weeks, Iíd been looking forward to this and Iíd be damned if I was going to let anything, or anyone, ruin my first day off in over a month Ė not even my own kid.
"But, Dad, itís not fair. Everyone else is going. Why canít I?"
Squinting, I fiddled with the tiny metal clasp. I was going to need a smaller set of pliers. These wouldnít work; they were way too big to get the job done. I dropped them down on the wooden worktable in the corner of the garage and stepping around my eight-year-old son, started digging through boxes and drawers. Where had Sara stashed all my tools?
"I swear to God, if you tell me one more time that Eric Thompsonís father said it was okay, youíll never play with that kid again. You hear me?" Crap. I shoved a box back on the shelf and grabbed the next in line. I was gone a little over two months and when I got back all my stuff was either missing or misplaced. It pissed me off. What gave her the right? "Whereís your Mom?"
He mumbled something unintelligible.
"Where?" I finally looked at him. He had a little metal car in his hand and, apparently, heíd been running it along the side of my truck the entire time heíd been standing there. "Dammit, Charlie!" He flinched and stared up at me, wide-eyed. "What the hell are you doing?" I squatted down beside him and roughly grabbed the hand with the offending toy, forcing him to look at the parallel lines of scratches that stretched from one side of the door to the other. "I canít believe you just did that."
"Iím sorry." His eyes watered.
"Do you know how much this little stunt is going to cost me?"
I looked up to find Sara standing in the open doorway of the garage, watching us. The sun was behind her and I couldnít see her face, but I could tell by the tone of her voice that she wasnít happy.
"What?" I snapped.
"Whatís going on?"
I still had a tight grip on Charlieís hand and heíd begun to cry at the sound of his Momís voice.
"Look at this. He ruined my truck."
"Charlie," Sara stepped into the garage and smiled down at our son, "why donít you go in the house. I think there are some Oreoís with your name on them in the cookie jar."
Tentatively, gently, he pulled his hand from my grasp as I stared in mute anger at the scratched paint.
I wet my finger and ran it along one of the scratches as if my own spit would miraculously restore the finish.
"I canít believe he did that. Do you let him get by with stuff like this when Iím not here? Iím not home twenty-four houĖ"
"Jack," she grabbed my shoulder. I looked up at her as if seeing her for the first time. "Whatís wrong?"
"Please. Tell me whatís wrong."
"Well, look. Youíve got eyes." I pointed at the truck. "Whatís wrong is, that kid gets away with ruining my truck and youĖ"
"That kid is your son, Jack, and he didnít ruin your truck. He scratched the paint." She squinted at the driverís door and shrugged. "I can hardly even see it."
"Dammit, Sara, youíre making excuses for him."
She squatted down beside me, smiling coyly. "I make excuses for his Dad all the time, too."
"Yeah?" I smiled tightly. "Whatíd you do with my stuff?"
If she was disappointed with my cold response, she didnít show it. "What stuff?"
"My tools. My fishing gear. My . . . stuff."
"I didnít do anything with it. It should be right where you left it."
"Well, it isnít." I straightened and turned my back on her, pulling another box off the shelf. I dug through it, emptying its contents, tossing things haphazardly onto the cement floor. A small, well-manicured hand settled softly over my own large, calloused one.
Her hand had tiny blue veins running along the back of it. They looked delicate, extremely vulnerable.
"Look at me."
Finally, I did. I looked at her. Really looked at her for the first time since Iíd gotten home. Weíd made love last night; a frenzied, desperate act performed within the dark confines of our bedroom. I hadnít even looked at her then; sheíd just . . . been there. Sara had lines around the corners of her eyes that I didnít remember. I started to reach up to touch one of them, but stopped myself.
"Tell me whatís bothering you, because it isnít paint scratches and it isnít your fishing gear."
I looked at her, knowing I couldnít tell her. God help me, I wanted to. I wanted to unload it all, the whole damn mission, the entire fucked-up mess. It had been a complete disaster before weíd even shipped out and when weíd finally arrived, it had been worse than Iíd anticipated. Iíd thought I was prepared. That Iíd seen it all.
I couldnít tell my sweet wife about the dead, the dying, and I certainly couldnít tell her how Iíd contributed to it all. Surrounded by the gentle scent of her perfume, how could I describe the odors that had assailed us when weíd hit the ground running and had been faced with bodies that had been rotting, bloating in the desert sun for days. I couldnít, thatís how. I couldnít. So, I did the next best thing.
"Charlie doesnít want to go with me. Heíd rather go with his friends to a stupid water park than go fishing with his Dad." I stared down at that dainty hand. It was still resting on mine.
"You have a headache."
I looked up at her, slightly confused. "What?"
She smiled and leaned close, kissing me gently, chastely, on the mouth. She was right. I did have a headache. Suddenly. A blinding, painful, nauseating pain that started somewhere between my eyes and stretched towards the back of my skull. I staggered slightly.
"Tell me, Jack."
I shut my eyes, leaning drunkenly against the worktable. "I told you . . . Charlie
doesnít . . ."
"No. Not about Charlie. About the codes."
Codes? What the hell was she talking about? I moaned softly. "Sara, I donít feel so good. I think I. . ."
"Heíll die, Colonel," she whispered seductively against my cheek. "If you donít tell me, Charlie will die. Again."
I heard myself screaming, and I couldnít stop.
The long fingers beat out an impatient rhythm on the steering wheel of the truck. The interminable line of traffic had ground to a halt. Craning his neck out his window, all Jack could see was a barricade of orange cones funneling the traffic into an ever-diminishing space.
Swell, road construction. Dammit, he so didnít need this today.
The cadence of the drumming fingers increased, unlike the speed of the traffic. Turning on the radio was a study in futility, giving him the information he already knew in spades. Traffic sucked. Tightening the muscles in his butt, arching his back and rotating his aching neck, Jack hoped he could alleviate some of the strain of his tired muscles. He stretched his neck again, hoping to see how far it was until the next exit. Who the hell cared that this exit wasnít the one that went to the base? Heíd figure out a new route as he went. Just as long as he was moving. This waiting was driving him freakiní nuts.
Jack inched the Ford forward another half car-length. The exit ramp was less than a quarter mile away. Suddenly out of the passenger mirror, he saw an ancient Cutlass driving along the shoulder, the driverís sights obviously fixed on the nearest exit ramp as well. Even though he had the same goal in mind, the guyís shortcut and blatant disregard of the rules royally pissed Jack off.
Twisting the wheel hard, the big truck cut directly into the path of the Olds. The carís driver slammed on the brakes, rocking the rusty frame back and forth. An angry blast of the carís horn sounded, as the driver issued Jack a middle finger salute.
Rolling down the passenger window, Jack leaned over as far as his seatbelt would allow. "Get back in line, like everyone else, asshole."
The driver yelled an undecipherable comment concerning Jackís parentage through the windshield. The traffic chose that moment to surge ahead another few car-lengths. Issuing a mocking single finger salute of his own, Jack pulled forward, but continued to block the Oldsmobile until he was able to gun the truckís engine and escape via the exit ramp.
Thirty minutes later, his hands shoved deep into his pants pockets, he fixed his eyes on the grey tile pattern of the floor. Jackís posture reflected his desire for anonymity as he walked towards the elevators.
Grey . . . the color of his world.
Grey floor . . . grey walls . . . grey hair . . . grey matter . . .
Grey, the essence of black and white. Dreary, dismal, designating a vague, intermediate area . . . his life lately. Where the hell was the color in his life? What cosmic entity deemed him worthy of being the Ďno where maní? No family, no friends, no freakiní life outside this grey mountain.
The guard had his back turned as Jack walked up to the check-in desk. It was easy to see he was engaged in an animated conversation on his cell phone. The guard paid scant attention to the fact that a senior officer had approached. Jack waited impatiently for the clipboard, his ire growing as the conversation continued.
"Airman, are you, or are you not, on duty?"
There was a brief pause, as nervous eyes flicked in Jackís direction, and then with a mumbled apology to the unidentified party, the conversation ceased immediately as the guard snapped to attention. Eyes locked on a point beyond Jackís shoulder, the sentry reeked of nervous anticipation.
"Iím sorry, Colonel OíNeill. That was my wife. Sheís pregnant and she just got back from her OBGYN. The doctor told her itís a boy. She couldnít wait to . . ." He stopped and glanced nervously at OíNeillís face, hoping to read some understanding in the stony features of the normally friendly officer. There was none. "I apologize, sir. I shouldnít have been on the phone. It wonít happen again."
Snatching the clipboard from the manís hand, Jack scribbled his name. "See that it doesnít, Sergeant." Turning towards the elevator, he glanced over his shoulder. "Consider yourself on report."
The afternoon trudged by slowly as Jack sat at his desk diligently completing the required paperwork. Initialing requisitions from the various departments, reviewing supply lists, balancing and juggling numbers until the figures tap-danced across the page beneath his bleary gaze. The knot of a tension headache was blossoming at the base of his skull. Jack leaned back and rotated his neck trying ineffectually to work the knot loose.
Checking his watch, Jack saw that he had worked through supper. Crap, that didnít used to happen. It didnít seem that long ago that he would have been interrupted from completing his paperwork half a dozen times by different members of his team, either dropping in to chat, or calling to see if he wanted to grab a bite to eat. Talk around the water cooler always had Jack at the hub of the SG-1 social circle, but the reality was that any one of the members was just as likely to initiate an impromptu get together as OíNeill. After Daniel left, those gatherings had died away like his rose bush. Sure the team still got together to eat occasionally, but the easy spontaneity had vanished. More and more, Tealíc was spending his time with Jonas. Carter spent most of her time holed up in her lab or hanging around the other science-geeks. That left him . . . the odd man out.
Funny how something like that had the ability to hurt. Hell, he should have been used to it. Heíd left behind that whole best friend shit for a long time after Frank and Iraq. Why the hell did you need to let someone into your life when they would only shit on you in the long run?
It was easier to give people surface access only. Let them think you were a cold son-of-a-bitch who they were better off avoiding. After Charlie, he didnít have to pretend. He became the Real McCoy, genuine grade A, one hundred percent prime, son-of-a-bitchiní bastard. He shut off his wife, his acquaintances, his work, until at last his only friend was a bullet in his gun. But he found he didnít even have the courage to allow it the access to what was inside Jack OíNeillís head.
Then along came Daniel and eventually the rest of the misfits of SG-1. And for the first time in longer than he could remember, he felt like he belonged. He had a purpose. He had friends. Sure, he still played the clown, kept them laughing so theyíd forget that he never shared beneath that surface crust. But it was enough. He should have known it was too good to last.
So now he was back where he started. Eating alone.
The headache seemed to be feeding off the melancholy thoughts. Coffee sounded good. And maybe just a change of scenery would help. Hell, maybe Tealíc was hanging around the dining hall looking for an excuse to eat another piece of pie.
Jack was washing his hands, when the door flew open and two young officers walked into the latrine.
"Man, you are so full of shit, Blackburn. No wonder your eyes are brown."
"Look in the mirror, Nalley. You got it coming out of both your ears. Thereís no way she said that." He punctuated his statement with a punch on the shoulder of his companion.
"Hey, donít worry, Buddy, I told her what to expect so she wouldnít be disappointed. I explained that you had trained with the Seals and spent a lot of time in cold water so shrinkage . . ." At that moment both men realized they were in the company of a senior officer and snapped to attention despite their inauspicious surroundings.
Jack turned, the flash of memory of he and Frank in their early Special Ops days stung him for a moment. Theyíd been just like these kids. Loud, obnoxious, know-it-all smart-asses. Well, heíd been like that, but Frank had learned fast.
"Gentlemen." He nodded towards the two young men as they stepped back out of his way.
Tealíc wasnít hanging around drooling over the pie. In fact, the hall seemed surprisingly empty until Jack realized just how late it really was. Moving over to the counter, he nodded an unspoken greeting to the head of the night shift and reached for a mug.
Walking to a table by the wall, Jack sat down heavily. Taking a cautious sip, he grimaced as the strong brew burned a path to his gut. Setting the mug down, he cradled the warmth between his hands and stared into the imperceptible depths.
Oh, God. I was going to die. Right here. Right now. My lungs were going to implode and I was going to fuckiní die. What a way to go.
I sank lower into the dark depths . . . trying to remember what Iíd learned; trying to relax; trying not to think about things like drowning and breathing and oxygen and . . . my chest heaved. Oh, shit.
Okay, just relax, OíNeill. You are not going to die. Do you hear me? Just suck it up. Oh, God. Donít say Ďsuck it upí to someone whoís drowning.
A precious bubble of air escaped me as I gulped back a laugh. I cracked myself up . . . even when dying. I . . . I killed myself. Another bubble rose through the murky swamp water, headed for the surface.
I opened my eyes, but could see nothing and only managed to add burning corneas to a rapidly growing list of complaints. But, at least the stinging roused me, cleared my head and my thinking somewhat. I had to move. Slowly, I inched my way forward along the submerged depths of the swamp. If the enemy had been watching, Iíd just given myself away and lost precious oxygen at the same time. Real smart, OíNeill.
I plunged my fingers into the thick mud and pulled myself along the bottom. I tried not to think about the slimy, unidentifiable objects that were brushing against my hands and my face; I tried to ignore the searing agony that was my lungs. Please God, donít let there be gators.
The need to breathe was indescribably urgent. It was hard to believe that just a few short minutes ago Frank and I had been slogging through chest-high swamp grass and knee-deep mud, smoking Lucky Strikes and laughing about the irony of how easy it would be to pick up girls when they found out we were Special Forces, and here we were, both of us, newly married.
Lucky Strikes? Oh, God, whyíd I ever start smoking? Iíd give anything right now for just a centimeter more of live lung tissue. If only Iíd . . .
I jerked and opened my mouth in a water-filled scream as something hard clamped down on my right shoulder. I shot out of the water, heaving and gasping for breath, fighting against whatever had me in its grip.
Sucking down noisy, desperate, soggy lungfuls of air, I managed to get my feet under me.
"Just what the hell do you think youíre doing?"
"S . . sir?" Still heaving, blinking water from my eyes, I faced my commanding officer.
Major Cox was the worst officer Iíd ever served under. Ever. It was hard to explain, but he managed to be the most stupid, most cunning bastard Iíd ever met. I think the man could probably manage to choke on his own sock, but heíd slice open his own throat in order to save himself. Frank and I and every other man in our unit had a running string of jokes involving nothing more than the manís name and rank, but honest to God, Iíd eat my own arm before Iíd let him hear a single, solitary one of them from me. Cox was the biggest, meanest, most unforgiving son-of-a-bitch Iíd ever met, bar none. Heíd as soon stab you in the heart as to look at you, and I have to tell you, he scared the shit out of me.
"You stupid, little, shit-faced, rat-assed, slimy, bastard! Your Irish ass is dead, Airman! Dead! Do you hear me?"
He was standing so close, he was spitting in my face. How could I not hear him?
"Sir, yes sir!"
"Now, do it again!"
He shoved me under before I could even draw a clean breath. I squeezed my eyes shut and pressed my lips tightly closed, prepared to die all over again. Over and over again, if necessary. I dug my fingers into the mud, clung to the bottom of the swamp, and swore on my Granddadís grave that Iíd die for real before Iíd give up. Giving up wasnít in my nature.
As soon as I made the decision, a calmness settled over me. I floated down on the surface of the mud and relaxed. Immediately, the burning in my chest eased. Once again, I opened my eyes and stared up through thick, green water towards the hazy light that was the surface.
This was what Iíd wanted. Not this moment in particular, not drowning in a murky swamp somewhere in the heart of Louisiana, surrounded by gators and the worst our military had to offer, but this . . . Special Forces. I would pass. I would make it out. I would be one of the small percentage that didnít give up. I would. Me. A scrawny nobody from Chicago. Me and Frank.
And Sara. Despite my surroundings, I felt a smile form on my face at the thought of her. My pretty Sara, who had me wrapped around the third finger of her left hand. My bride, my . . . my mechanic. My smile widened at the image of her leaning under the hood of my car, doing whatever it was that she did. It was beyond me, the stuff that she could do with those delicate hands. Those delicate hands . . .
Something roughly yanked me to the surface. Several sets of hands clamped onto me and I was suddenly exposed to the hot, humid air. I breathed deeply, but calmly.
"My God, OíNeill, you gotta death wish?"
Dripping swamp water from my nose and ears, I stared at Cox and spat back at him the only thing he ever wanted to hear proceed from our lily-livered mouths. "Sir, yes sir."
He opened his mouth to reply, then just shoved me towards solid ground. Frank was there to give me a hand up.
"Damn, Jack. What the hell were you doing under there?"
I smiled over at him as we began marching back through the soggy marsh towards our camp. "How long was I under?"
"Iím not sure, but I think you set a record, buddy."
"Yeah?" I shook my head, trying to empty my ears of water. "It didnít feel like that long."
"I thought you were dead." Frank lit a cigarette and held it out to me.
I started to turn it down, then reconsidered. Hell, Iíd survived, right? What was one more smoke? "Me, too. Thought Iíd died a couple of times actually."
Frank lit a second smoke for himself and shook his head, laughing. "You did, you little shit."
I took a drag on the cigarette and frowned over at him, waiting for the punch line. "What?"
"You did." He was suddenly serious. "You died more than a couple of times."
I stopped walking and stared at him. "Thatís not . . ."
"Funny?" He smiled around the cigarette which was dangling from the corner of his mouth, then reached over with one hand to tap me playfully on the forehead. "No, it wasnít. Not when you kept doing it. Over and over and over. It hurt, didnít it?"
I rubbed my forehead where heíd touched me. Pain blossomed. "Frank, what the hell are you talking about?"
"You know . . . when he left you there? It hurt. Because he could have helped you, but he didnít. Did he, Jack?"
"I donít know . . .," but my words were silenced as I clutched my head against the sudden agony which seemed to fracture my skull. I groaned loudly.
"It hurt," he whispered.
I felt his hand brush along the line of my jaw. His touch left a streak of searing pain in its wake and I tried to pull away from him.
"Kinda like with Charlie, huh, Colonel? It hurts when someone you care about deserts you."
I groaned and felt the swamp fall out from under me.
Jack sat in silent irritation. He picked up his pen and using the cap of the Bic, began to clean under his nails. The sludge cooling in a mug next to him was testimony to the fact that the coffee pot in the Briefing Room had been unattended since early morning. Thick, black, potential fuel for a nuclear reactor graced the bottom half of the pot. Jack had taken one cautious sip of the intimidating liquid and quickly pushing the mug away, resorted to the Bic method of nail care to pass the time until the rest of his team and Hammond showed.
The door swung open and Jonas and Carter breezed in together, discussing the merits of the upcoming mission.
Jack watched Jonas move around to his usual seat - Danielís seat. Even after all this time, it was still Danielís seat and it irritated Jack every time the Kelownan sat there. Today more so than usual.
"Jonas," Jack nodded a terse greeting at the man shuffling through and organizing his paperwork. "Major, whereís Tealíc?"
"Heíll be along in a couple of minutes, sir." Carter continued to pour through her pre-mission notes without looking up. "Sergeant Siler asked for his help in the Gate Room. Something with a routine check on the Gate."
"Would you like me to go check on him, Colonel? Maybe I can do something to help." Jonas half rose from his seat.
Issuing a weary sigh bordering on exasperation, Jack looked into the eager-to-please face. "Jonas, sit down. Tealícís a big boy. He knows the way. Here," he pushed the mug of paint thinner across the table, "I poured you a cup of coffee."
Jonasí easy smile faltered momentarily as his brow knit in bewilderment. Recovering, he took the proffered mug and smiled his appreciation. "Thanks, Colonel."
A predatory gleam lit Jackís eyes briefly as he watched Jonas sip the strong brew.
"Whoa!" The mug hit the table with a ceramic thunk that sounded loud in the quiet room and brought Samís head out of her notes. "Thatís strong."
The watery-eyed distress on the manís face nearly made Jack snort in amusement. "Itís called espresso, Jonas." Disappointment colored his words, "Iím surprised I have to tell you that."
"Espresso? They serve that at Starbucks, donít they? Doctor Jackson mentioned it in his notes." Jonas made a brave attempt to swallow down the bitter after-taste coating his tongue.
Carter threw a suspicious look towards OíNeill which he refused to acknowledge.
"Thatís right, itís expensive and considered a gourmet treat. Donít tell me you donít like it? Iím disappointed. It was one of Danielís favorites."
Jonas grinned weakly, but shook his head quickly. "Oh no, itís not that I donít like it. I just wasnít . . ."
"Good, glad to hear it. Then drink up and enjoy. Thatís an order."
"Colonel?" Carter began.
"You have something to say, Major?" Jack gave her a warning glance. "Would you like a cup? Iím sure I could scare you up a mug."
"No sir. No thank you," she answered quickly. "Iím trying to limit my caffeine intake."
"Good idea, Carter. Youíve seemed a little edgy lately." Jack was interrupted from further comment as General Hammond walked into the room from his office.
"Good afternoon, people. Colonel, whereís Tealíc?"
Jack was interrupted by a loud sputter followed by a round of harsh coughing across the table.
Hammond looked in surprise at Jonasí red-face. "Are you all right, Mr. Quinn?"
"Iíll be all right in a minute, General Hammond," a hacking cough stopped him momentarily. "I guess espresso takes some getting used to."
"Espresso?" Hammond shot a questioning look at OíNeill, who gave a noncommital shrug in innocence. "While Mr. Quinn recovers letís get started, shall we? Major, would you please begin?"
Jack leaned back, his face devoid of expression, as he watched Jonas reach shakily for the pitcher of water. Slowly he rocked forward, placed the heel of one hand on the table, while rubbing his thumb back and forth along the edge of the table as if polishing out a persistent smudge.
Carter glanced briefly at her notes and shooting one worried look at Jonas, she began in her succinct, professional manner. "P3-X54C, or Ruina as the indigenous persons call it, appears to be an excellent possible location for a secondary camp for the Rebel Jaffa. Braítak has expressed concerns to Tealíc, the wisdom in having a single location for the bulk of their forces. Malek, of the Tokíra, agrees."
A sarcastic snort interrupted her. "Thatíll be a first." The words, although mumbled, were clearly understood by everyone in the room.
"Did you have something to add, Colonel?" The frown on the Generalís face plainly spoke of his irritation with Jackís breach of decorum.
"No, sir." OíNeillís eyes remained fixed on the spot where his thumb continued to rub. "Itís just that it has been my experience that when those two groups agree on anything, it means nothing but trouble for us."
"Colonel," Jonas cut in, "is that really a fair assessment? After all, look at what has been accomplished on the Alpha Site, P3X-984. The Toíkra and the Rebel Jaffa have worked together to build . . ."
"I was there, Jonas. You werenít. I think that qualifies me to know what the hell Iím talking about rather than someone who just reads it in a report." He scowled across the table at his startled teammate.
"I didnít mean to imply that you didnít, Colonel. I was simply making an observation based on your report."
"Yeah, well, sometimes you have to know when to read between the lines." He looked down at his thumb and added bitterly, "And sometimes you have to know when to shut up."
"Colonel OíNeill, are you all right?"
Jackís eyes slowly met his superiorís. "Just fine, General." His look dared Hammond to disagree.
The Generalís eyes narrowed and his normally stern features hardened further. "Very well, please continue, Major. And Colonel, try to contain any further comments, albeit ones based on your personal experience, to yourself until the appropriate time. Understood? After all, Mr. Quinn isnít the only one to glean information second hand."
Jackís eyes dropped to his hands. The thumb was polishing again. Back and forth . . . rubbing . . . massaging . . .stroking . . .
"Yes, sir, understood."
We all had one. In our line of work, it was a requirement. In fact, some of the guys had already gone through their first one and had found a replacement, for various reasons Ė overuse, a victim of the fighting, or they were merely unsuited for one another. It was difficult to not get too attached, because our lives depended on them. Particularly here, under these circumstances. The irony was that we tried to pretend that we didnít miss the States all that much, then we each of us gave our girls a name that reminded us of home Ė something that was easier to pronounce than their real name, and if we admitted it, a name that had a special meaning.
Bender called his Maria. There was Lilly, Farrah, Nancy, Kelly, Lucinda. The list went on and on. I couldnít remember them all, but it didnít matter. Other than my own, I couldnít tell them apart. Frank had Noreen. He said it was after some movie star, but I knew for a fact that Noreen was the name of the young woman Frank had had his first crush on in high school. Heíd told me all about her one night after heíd had three too many drinks.
Mine, I dubbed Colleen. Iíd told the guys I had to call her that; hell, Iím Irish arenít I? But the truth was, Iíd named her after my Mother. Yeah. What kind of sick monster does that make me? That Iíd want to be reminded of my Mother at a time like this? But I thought about my Mom a lot these days, particularly at dawn. It had been her favorite time of day. Sheíd told me once that at daybreak, anything was possible.
I looked around at the camp full of dirty, exhausted, human killing machines being illuminated by the rising sun, and realized that, unfortunately, my Mom had been right. Too bad I couldnít tell her so, but she had been dead for over five years and even if she were alive, there would have been no way to get in touch with her.
Five years . . . and still there were times when I couldnít believe she was gone. When Iíd first met Sara, when Iíd recognized that she was the one, Iíd found myself reaching for the telephone to tell Mom that Iíd found someone willing to put up with me. Iíd dialed three numbers before it hit me that Mom was no longer there.
And here I sat, running my hands along Colleenís dark, sleek frame, thinking of my Mother. It shamed me to think that Iíd dishonored her memory in this way. I only hoped that if Mom were looking down Ė and I prayed to God that she wasnít Ė but if she were, I could only ask that she would forgive me.
I wasnít even thirty yet, and I had already accumulated a long list of things for which I needed forgiveness. God help us all if I lived to see forty.
"Morniní, Jack," Bender dropped down across the fire from me and watched as I massaged oil onto Colleen, polishing her to a dull gleam. I did it so often that my fingers were stained the color of the pungent lubricant. "Youíre gonna wear the damn barrel off, you keep rubbiní her down like that."
I smiled over at him, knowing he was only half kidding. Bender didnít believe in treating Maria any differently than any other weapon in his personal arsenal. I glanced down at the 24-inch barrel beneath my calloused hands. "One of these days youíre going to regret ignoring your rifle."
Bender snorted and poured himself a cup of coffee. "Doesnít make the killiní any more clean, you scrubbing her down."
I flinched as if heíd hit me. Iíd worked and struggled to get through Special Ops, and finally I had what I wanted: I was a member of one of the most elite killing forces the U.S. had to offer. A sniper. I set Colleen aside and began re-checking my magazines and scope. Finally, I wiped a smear of mud off the bipod and began stowing my gear.
"Jack," Benderís voice was low, totally out of character. I didnít look up. "Jack."
"What?" When he didnít answer, I finally ventured a peek. He was still holding his coffee cup; wafts of steam were floating up towards his bearded chin. He frowned at me and looked away as if embarrassed. I had a feeling I knew what was coming, and I began fiddling with my pack.
"I forgot. I wasnít thinking." He paused, probably waiting for me to respond. "You did the only thing you couldíve done, considering. Iím sure some of the other guys have had to do the same at one time or another."
Despite the fact that he was trying to be kind, my voice was hard. "But not you?"
"Well, no. But . . ."
In the stillness, I could hear someone taking a leak in the bushes just to the south of the camp. Frank. Iíd seen him head out that way just a couple of minutes before.
"I hope if Iím ever faced with the choice you had to make, Jack, that I . . . that I have the guts to do what you did."
I felt something inside me snap and I jerked around to glare at him. "Guts? You think that took guts?" I shook my head in disbelief. "You asshole. You stinkiní pile of Kentucky shit. Where the hell do you get off?"
"Hey, whatís going on?" Frank dropped down beside Bender, whose face had gone pasty white. Bender was a big guy who looked dumb as an ox but wasnít, and right now I would rather have picked up Colleen and blown his fuckiní brains out as to look at him. "Jack?"
I looked over at Frank, the designated peacekeeper of our ragtag unit of serial killers. "Bender here thinks it takes guts to blow the head off a kid, thatís whatís going on here."
"You did what had to be done." Frank stared at me, his face so serious I wanted to laugh. "Thatís all. What had to be done."
I turned back and began stashing clips in my vest. My hands were trembling. No sniping today, OíNeill. I laughed softly to myself just before I was hit with a vision of the little girl whoíd come running out of the small farmhouse yesterday evening. Sheíd been chasing a scrawny pup. Running around barefoot just trying to catch her stupid dog, for cryiní out loud. Then sheíd spied Grady stalking along the fence near her home. Weíd tracked three of the enemyís best snipers to the house two days before. Grady was supposed to draw them out, but we werenít ready. No one was in place except for me, and Grady and Norton were sticking out like sore thumbs. Thatís when I saw the kid open her sweet little mouth to call out. I barely had time to think about what I was doing. There was just a brief moment in time when I saw what was happening, saw my men, and then I was aiming Colleen Ė my mother of a rifle, an M24 outfitted with a scope and homemade silencer. Without thinking, I centered my sights on dark braids of hair, had a second to notice the tiny green ribbon, and then squeezed the trigger. She dropped without a sound; the puppy yipped and danced around her dead feet.
"Hey." Someone touched me on the shoulder, breaking my trance, and I swung blindly. Frank ducked. My blow landed on nothing causing me to fall awkwardly onto my knees, panting. "Geesh, Jack. I was just . . ."
I looked at him. I looked at him and suddenly I felt nothing but hate for these men. All of these assholes with whom I was destined to spend an eternity in hell. In hell for killing. For taking innocent lives along with the guilty. "Donít touch me."
"What the hell is your problem, OíNeill?"
I pointed a shaky trigger finger at Bender. "Keep out of it. I swear to God if you open your mouth to me again, Iíll shoot you."
"And you would, too," he muttered softly.
"What?" Bender blanched as I rose up to face him. "What did you say?"
He glanced up at me, then eyed Frank who was moving in to referee. I suddenly realized that Bender was filthy and he stank and he disgusted me. "Why do you think we send you in first, Jack? Youíre an eager beaver." He smiled, and laughed softly.
"You son-of-a-bitch," I launched myself at him before the words were even out of my mouth.
Frank stopped me. He wrapped his arms around my shoulders and held on for all he was worth. He was yelling at me, and he was yelling at Bender for saying what he did. I fought and kicked and tried to wrestle my way out of Frankís grasp, but other hands joined in to stop me. Later, Iíd be glad they did, but right now all I could think about was getting to Bender. Even while fighting, I made the decision that I wouldnít waste my ammo. Iíd take him out with my knife. A clean thrust through the ribs and into the bastardís cold heart.
Gasping, I found myself firmly in the grip of my comrades. Frank was facing me.
"Stop it! Dammit, just stop it!"
I began to calm and then saw Bender moving closer. Frank put out a hand to stop him, but not before the guy could lean near me. He reached up a grimy hand and grabbed my hair, pulling hard.
"Truth hurts, donít it?"
I roared and managed to kick someone. I heard a strangled cry and felt the hands on me tighten.
Bender smiled. "The truth. Just tell me the truth."
"What the hell are you . . . ."
I groaned as he pulled harder, pain lancing across the top of my head. "You blew the kidís head off. You. No one else. It was all your fault. It didnít have to happen that way."
I felt myself beginning to sob, and it enraged me.
"Charlie didnít have to die like that, Colonel. All that blood."
I froze. Nothing moved except the tears that I felt sliding down my cheeks. "What?" My head throbbed.
"Tell me the codes, Colonel. Donít make Charlie die again."
"Well, Carter, this planet is about as appealing as a turd in a punch bowl." With ill-disguised impatience, Jack took off his cap and wiped his sweaty brow. He had done that a lot since SG-1 had gated here. Apparently the planetís atmosphere allowed more of the sunís rays to penetrate to the surface creating a lush, if somewhat steamy, environment. Carter had offered an involved explanation which fascinated Jonas and made Jackís head throb with the effort of not telling her to shut the hell up. "Havenít these people ever heard of the Greenhouse Effect?"
Carter looked up from her instruments and grinned. If she was aware of OíNeillís mood, she masked it well under her trademark cool professionalism. "Apparently not, sir. I seriously doubt the natives have any concerns about a thinning atmosphere and polar melting."
"Well, they should. Make a note, Carter. When we get back home, Iím ordering a subscription to National Geographic for this planet."
Her mind obviously on her calculations rather than her C.O.ís offer, Carter mumbled a reply and continued to study the data she was collecting.
Unable to get a satisfactory rise from the Major, Jack walked towards the lush foliage somewhere within which Tealíc was patrolling. "Postage would be a bitch," he muttered as he disappeared down a narrow, nearly invisible path.
They had been informed that the elders would meet to discuss a proposed Beta site at the hour of Ur, which Jonas translated loosely to mean when the moon rose. That meant hours of down time. Carter happily took advantage of the unexpected gift by experimenting with her techno-toys, delighted that for once she wasnít having to play snatch-as-we-go with her samples. Jonas seemed content in his role as lab assistant.
Having struggled along the pseudo-path in a wide circuit around the Stargate, Jack stopped to mop his face, take a drink of tepid water, and check up on his team. He toggled his radio. "Carter, anything to report?" Irritably, Jack brushed an over-zealous frond from his face as he waited for her reply.
"No, sir, everythingís clear. Jonas and I are continuing to run samples, but so far weíve found nothing of interest."
"And that would be a good thing, Carter?" Jack realized his impatience was bleeding through, but he couldnít find it in him to curb the irritability that was seething just below the surface.
Apparently, he was masking it better than he thought. That, or more likely Carter was in full diplomatic mode, because her business-like manner never wavered as she answered. "Yes, sir. Nothing, is exactly what we want to find. If we canít find anything of interest, hopefully neither will the Goaíuld. Weíre hoping theyíll think this planet is a wash and beneath their notice."
Got a news break for you, Major: This planet is a wash. Jack swung his P-90 upward, trying to keep the heavy, damp foliage out of his face. With a look of disgust, Jack pressed the button again. "Carry on, Carter. Keep an eye on Jonas."
As Carter acknowledged the order, OíNeill pushed ahead through the brush. The path, if thatís what you wanted to call it, was littered with seasons of dead growth. Huge, beetle-like bugs scattered as he pressed forward. Damn, he hated bugs, especially honkiní big ones. A six-inch centipede parachuted from the overgrown greenery above him, its wiry legs digging for traction as it scurried up his pant leg double-time. Jack let out a yelp that would have tarnished his tough-guy image for all times to come had anyone but the myriapod in question heard it. Using the barrel of his weapon, Jack flicked the trespasser off to the side of the path where it slid unharmed into the leaf litter. Jack shuddered, despite the oppressive heat. Wiping his face, he moved forward.
Thinking to rendevous with Tealíc, Jack picked up the pace despite the humidity and poor traveling conditions. He was sweating profusely, his t-shirt soaked through under his vest. Jungles had never been big on his hit parade list. Too many unknowns. Too many variables. Jungles had a way of reminding you just how insignificant you were in the big picture. Even as a kid, Tarzan had taken a distant second to Robin Hood. Guess it was a matter of degree of wooded area you had to deal with but as far as he was concerned, Sherwood Forest rocked.
He was still thinking of childhood raids against the evil Sheriff of Nottingham when without warning he suddenly found himself face down in a foul pool of muddy water camouflaged by dead brush. Sputtering, and royally pissed at himself for allowing his thoughts to distract him and make him careless, Jack pushed his way into a sitting position. The decaying plant matter filling the pool in slimy strands now decorated his head and shoulders giving him a look Ozzie Osbourne would have envied.
Disgusted, Jack swept the offensive stands from his hair. Fishing around the murky bottom, he located his abused, sorry weapon. Dammit, did he have a cosmic target painted on his back? Couldnít God, or whoever was in charge of these things find someone else to piss off just once in a while? Would it cause Armageddon if occasionally this shit happened to some other chump?
Jack figured it was a pretty safe bet heíd get no satisfactory answer, cosmic or otherwise, even though it was pretty obvious the handwriting was on the wall. Jack OíNeill was destined to be the universal punching bag whenever somebody up there got bored or needed to work off some steam.
Heaving himself carefully out of the muck, Jack slogged his way to the far side of the stagnant pool. He stood there a dripping, stinking, pissed off mess. He shook and stomped himself free of the worst of the fetid pond scum, breathing through his mouth in order to cope with the smell. He stank worse than Danielís fish tank when he forgot to clean it. Worse than Ferrettiís socks. And God only knew how bad that was.
Not wanting to waste the water in his canteen, but seeing that he had little choice, Jack dampened his handkerchief and wiped as much of the offensive matter from his face as he could. As he ran the cloth over the back of his neck he felt another fat clump of decaying refuse. Unable to shift it with his handkerchief, a look of utmost distaste plastered firmly on his face, Jack reached up to remove it.
"Holy shit!" His cry was swallowed up by the living umbrella surrounding him. "Holy freakiní shit." Leeches. He had blood-sucking leeches stuck to him. A sick feeling squirmed in his stomach. Looking at his arms, Jack realized with sudden nauseating clarity that the clumps of mud that littered his arms were in fact rust-brown worms that had latched onto him and were even now happily sucking away at OíNeill type ĎOí negative blood.
Dreading what he had to do, but having no choice, Jack prodded one of the fat bloodsuckers with his finger. He swallowed and closed his eyes hoping when he opened them he would discover it had all been a huge mistake. Right. Like the cup had ever passed him by. Nope. Wasnít gonna happen. And so he did what he had always done when life pissed on him: He sucked it up and moved forward.
Grasping the soft, fat body between his thumb and forefinger, Jack pulled. The leech stretched, unwilling to release its meal. Longer and longer, until he feared he would pull the creature in two. And suddenly there was a minute pinch and a trickle of blood seeping from a tiny wound on his arm. He flung the offensive creature to the side and as his face skewed in concentrated disgust, Jack reached for another. Had he mentioned that he hated jungles?
It was late afternoon before Jack walked back into the clearing where he had left his team. Tealíc stood nearby watching his approach, but otherwise the scene looked remarkably unchanged from the time he left. Carter looked up as he approached and dumbfounded surprise shot across her face that in other circumstances might have amused him. Not today. Today it simply pissed him off more, if that was possible.
To Carterís credit, her vast intelligence kicked in and she stopped herself. Jonas, unfortunately, had less experience dealing with pissy superior officers. "Colonel, youíre all wet and muddy. Did you have an accident?"
Jack gritted his teeth and did a mental ten count to reign in his temper. "No, Jonas, I found a lovely little pool full of mermaids who beguiled me into coming for a swim. I spent the afternoon making love and listening to their songs of unrequited love." His voice raised, "What the hell do you think happened, Jonas? Youíre the one always saying youíre a quick study. Figure it out."
The wounded look on Jonasí face made Jack realize he probably should have counted to twenty, but he was just too irritated to even considering apologizing. "I need to get cleaned up." So saying he yanked open his pack, pulled out clean clothes and his kit, and moved towards a distant clump of trees.
"Colonel, we need to be at the village in a little over an hour." Carter blew out a relieved breath and cast a glance at Tealíc and Jonas when Jack simply gave her a wave of acknowledgment.
By the time OíNeill had returned, the rest of the team stood waiting for him, ready to make the hike to the village. As he repacked his kit, Jack looked up at Jonas. "You got the blanket and beads ready to trade the natives for this worthless piece of land?"
The puzzled look that colored the younger manís face was proof that he was concerned he had forgotten to pack vital supplies. "Iím not sure what you mean, Colonel. I didnít realize I was supposed to pack beads. Doctor Jacksonís notes never menĖ"
"The Major understands, donít you, Carter? You know exactly what Iím talking about."
"Sir, the story of Manhattan having been purchased for beads from the Native Americans has been brought into question as a myth recently. Besides, I donít understand what relevance it has to us?"
Angry eyes bore into her face as Jack snapped, "Donít you, Major? Well isnít that just peachy. Are you really telling me you donít have a problem with this whole operation, Carter?" His voice was low and angry. "Cheating the natives out of whatís rightfully theirs."
"Sir, I donít understand."
"What the hell, Carter. Isnít that what itís all about? What any of this is all about? History repeating itself. Taking what we want. Giving as little as possible in return. Isnít that what we do? What weíve always done? Take what we want from less evolved societies who are perfectly happy without our interference and convincing them our way is right and theirs is wrong?" His voice had risen and suddenly he was aware that the rest of his team was staring at him as if he had sprouted wings. He shook his head, staring in disgust at the ruined uniform in his hands. "Letís move out and get this over with."
I stared at the pieces of paper without seeing them. I didnít need to see them any longer. I knew what they said. Four sheets; three columns each. The sum total was branded into my brain. I rubbed my thumb over the paper again, as if by doing so I could erase the ink, change the outcome. The paper softened, curling slightly on the edges from the heat and sweat of my skin.
I ignored her. In all honesty, I barely even heard her any more.
"Jack." She tugged on one of the sheets of paper, but I held on. "Please."
I didnít look up at her. She was beginning to disgust me. I was slightly surprised to find that I could no longer look at her. Iím not sure when that happened . . . when Iíd stopped looking at her, at anyone.
"Dammit," she sobbed angrily, "just give me the damn thing!"
She was openly crying. The sound made my head throb and I was suddenly nauseous. I allowed the papers to slip through my fingers. Let her have them. Maybe then sheíd go away. Just go away. I stared at the tabletop, at the place where the papers had once been.
She left for a while. There was quiet. No peace, merely solitude . . . nothingness. Later, she came back. She always came back. It made me tired . . . trying not to hear her.
"Come on. You have to get up."
I felt nothing for her; I merely wanted her gone.
"Youíve been sitting here for over 16 hours. In case you didnít know it, thatís not normal, you stupid jerk. Jack, please," she sniffed loudly, "youíre scaring me."
My world swayed oddly, drunkenly, and it took me a moment to realize that she had her hands on my shoulders. She was shaking me; her face mere inches from mine. I blinked and stared at her, through her. I refused to focus on his eyes, his nose in the wrong face; I tried to see my way past her and this.
"You bastard. You sorry son-of-a-bitch. I canít do this. Do you hear me?" Her breath was vile, too warm against my face. Once again, I felt the urge to vomit. "Please, stop doing this. I need you to. . ."
I shut out her words and stumbled to my feet, my desire to escape stronger than the process of wasting away. Her hands dropped from me as I turned and made my way to the stairs. Numb, I forced myself upwards, clinging to the bannister for support, her shouts pushing at me from behind. Out of habit, I made my way to the bathroom and stood in front of the stool, fumbling with my zipper and my own flesh.
I wasnít sure how long I stood there, staring blankly into the mirror. I saw nothing but an empty shell where life used to be. I couldnít even pee. I had nothing left to give. I couldnít remember when I last ate or drank, but I wasnít hungry, my mouth wasnít even dry. Inside, I was nothing but dust. Dust to dust. Or ashes. Finally, still staring at the strangerís face looking back at me, I zipped up and walked to his room.
Nothing had changed. It was as heíd left it . . . except for the slight dent in the covers near the pillow where Iíd taken to sitting when Sara became too much for me. I went there now and sat, my hands folded politely, safely, in my lap. Closing my eyes, I inhaled his scent. That little boy smell of outdoors and sweat and innocence and energy. A lump filled my throat and I sensed a groan of pure agony building. With a loud gulp, a choking cough, I forced it down. I couldnít let it escape me. I had to hold it in. Keep it with me. The grief was a part of him and I couldnít let any piece of him go.
It had come in the mail, days ago. Sara had opened it; left it laying on the table next to a stack of cards that seemed to grow daily. Wandering aimlessly through the empty house, searching for something that was irretrievably missing, it had caught my eye. I had sat down and picked it up. Stunned, appalled, angry, I had held it until sheíd forced it from me.
Blindly, I reached under Charlieís mattress and pulled out the pistol. It was a familiar, comforting weight in my limp hand. It held the promise of a sudden end to the waking nightmare that had become my existence. A beckoning alternative to the slow death-spin that held me in its grip.
The act of living was bleeding me, slowly sucking me dry.
Sara needed something nameless from me; she was constantly following me, touching me, crying and sobbing. Two nights ago, sheíd made love to me; at first, gently and sadly, then in anger. Not caring, Iíd allowed her to use me, silent even in my release, and then without speaking, Iíd turned away from her. Sickened at the touch of her skin on mine, Iíd stared into the darkness, my soul hardened to the sound of her soft sobs.
Family members called daily, insisting that I speak to someone, that I get help. Mike was a constant, annoying presence; quietly, firmly telling me that I needed to get over myself and pay attention to his daughter for Godís sake. Saraís priest, a young man whom Iíd met only twice before, stopped by every few days. It angered Sara that in the midst of his rambling, I would get up and leave the room, unable to listen to his hollow platitudes and rehearsed sympathy Ė as if he had the slightest clue as to what I had lost. And why.
Someone else was bleeding me. The hospital dared to place a price on the death of my son? They couldnít keep him alive and I owed them for that? Iíd handed them my bloody, struggling, frightened child and they wanted something for the nothing Iíd received in return?
I was tired. So tired. I just wanted this to stop. To be over. To go back to what we were, who we were, before the sound of that shot. Beyond that, I wanted . . . nothing.
I tightened my grip on the pistol. I wasnít sure I possessed the strength needed to make the decision, to lift it, to place it beneath my chin, point it towards the back of my skull, and squeeze. But I found comfort in the thought that my last moments could mimic those of my childís. Like father, like son. Like son, like father.
Somehow, over the sound of my own relentless heartbeat, I heard them coming. Their steps fell crisply, precisely, upon treads where small feet had so recently raced, and I knew who they were. Why they were here. Wearily, sinking deeper into the mire, desperately lunging for the bottom, I slipped the pistol beneath the pillow.
I didnít answer. I had no answers, not even for simple, age-old questions. I listened as they informed me I was being recalled, reactivated.
I sighed. They, too, needed something from me.
Need. Bleeding me; sucking me dry.
I stared at the dresser. At the baseball on the dresser. Evidence pointing towards my sonís life, his existence, and thus at my own.
"Sir, did you hear me?"
I tilted my head, watching as a door cracked open inside me. A possible escape route.
"Sir?" I felt the movement as one of the uniformed men stepped closer. "Colonel OíNeill?"
Finally, gathering my strength, I turned my head towards him, looking through him, trying to see past this.
"Sir," he knelt down to eye level, trying in vain to force my dazed focus onto his face, "can you just tell me? Itís okay." Still blankly staring, I flinched when a cold, strange hand brushed my jaw, traveled almost hesitantly up the side of my face, dropped gently, painfully, onto the crown of my head. "Itís okay, Colonel. If you just tell me, it will all go away. It will end."
I swallowed air, my head throbbing, and pulled my vision back to search his face. He smiled kindly, looking vaguely familiar. Greying hair, handsome features.
"It will go away, Colonel, I promise, if you just tell me. Tell me the codes. The addresses."
Jack could feel their eyes watching as he pinched the bridge of his nose as if that would hold the pounding at bay. He could hear the unspoken concern as their sideways glances ricocheted across the table like a hustlerís poolball. He could taste the tension in the air, filling his senses with their anxiety. He was completely aware of his teamís veiled scrutiny. And it pissed him off.
The mission to the Land Oí Leeches had gone smoothly. At least that was what Carter and Jonas had babbled on about for the past forty-five minutes. Just how much could you say about a planet with nothing of interest? He wasnít sure he wanted to know. Thus far, his contribution to the debriefing had been a succinct description of his impromptu pool party with the wildlife and a couple dozen sighs of exasperation which had earned him a glare by Hammond and the focus of his teamís solicitude.
Jackís eyes snapped open and his hand dropped away from his surreptitious attempt to ward off his headache. "Yes, sir?"
"Are you all right?"
The General had that look. The one he kept on the shelf and only pulled off when he asked that particular question to recalcitrant colonels who where foolish enough not to keep their feelings better hidden.
Damn. Hammond had asked him the same thing in the pre-mission briefing. Youíd think a two-star would have something better to do with his time.
"Fine as frogís hair, sir." Jack gave Hammond a charming grin and sat up straighter, plastering on a mask of feigned interest while he pulled his notebook closer and picked up his pen ready to take notes. The model kid in class. Well, color his nose brown.
Jack chanced a quick look to see if Hammond was buying the act. One look told him his answer. No freakiní way.
"Colonel, after the debriefing, I would like you to report to Doctor Fraiser for a checkup."
"But General, Fraiserís already passed me on the post-mission check-up. I sure as hell donít . . . " Jack realized a fraction of a second too late his vehement denial had sealed his fate. His voice trailed off into a mumbled, "Yes, sir."
"Very good, Colonel. It wasnít a suggestion." Hammond nodded towards Tealíc. "Tealíc, is Master Braítak agreeable to the conditions set by the indigenous persons of P3-X54C?"
"He is, General Hammond."
The debriefing continued and as the minutes ticked by, Jack thought how the Chinese Water Torture had nothing over what he was being forced to endure in this never-ending liturgy about Planet Nothing. But, his guard was up and he was aware that Hammond had added his frequent glances to the pot. So saying, Jack had his mask firmly in place, the Lone Ranger had nothing on him. Now, if only the team would quit talking so he could get the hell out of Dodge.
He might have actually figured a way out of Fraiserís clutches short of disobeying a direct order if Hammond hadnít placed a call at the end of the debriefing informing the doctor that Colonel OíNeill was on his way for a check-up. And then to add insult to injury, he had ordered Tealíc to escort him into the lionís den.
At least Tealíc had refrained from asking the boatload of questions Jack could see every time he looked at Carter and Jonas. And now add Hammond to list. Shit, everyone was itching to find out what was bugging him.
Tealíc had merely nodded his head in affirmation that he would indeed see that OíNeill was delivered to the infirmary for the tests.
They walked in silence towards the elevator, Jackís anger evident even in his silence. The men watched the doors close and the numbers begin their ascent. "So, howís it feel to be Judas, Tealíc?" His voice was low and his eyes never left the flashing numbers.
"I do not understand, OíNeill." Tealíc turned his head towards Jack, but turned back towards the front of the elevator when OíNeill refused to make eye contact.
Jack gave an angry snort. "Yeah, well, ask Jonas, or better yet Carter. She can tell you. Guess all of you have had some practice lately, huh? First on the bridge of that damn ship and now you join the party." The doors opened and Jack led the way towards the infirmary doors, anger punctuating every step.
So now he had been sitting on this damn exam table with his ass exposed for who knew how long. If he ever met the sadistic bastard who designed these exam gowns, he was going shoot him in the butt and see how he liked rear-end exposure. And while he was at it, he might take out a few nurses who could be heard giggling through the curtain after coming in to ask Fraiser some lame-ass question. It might not have irritated him so much if he hadnít caught Fraiser giving one of them a quick wink as she scribbled her initials on the proffered report.
It annoyed him to be poked, prodded, x-rayed, and stuck. It downright made him mad to be told to provide a urine sample when he had given one only a few hours before. And now, after all of that, Fraiser stood wearing that puzzled frown of hers that said she wasnít going to quit looking until she found what she was looking for. Crap.
Jack traced a faint rusty stain on the sheet with one long finger and wondered vaguely if he was the one responsible for it as Janet looked through the pages of test results. "Doc, just so you know, I hate it when you stand there beside the exam table."
Janet looked up at him. "And why would that be, Colonel?"
"I feel like youíre looking right up this damn skirt you made me wear and if youíre trying to see my underwear, forget it. Itís not going to happen."
"Because youíre not wearing any, right sir?" Janet laughed and set her clipboard aside. "Old joke, sir."
Jack snuck a peek at Janetís notes, but she had laid it upside down, thwarting his efforts. Damn. "Yeah well, an oldie, but a goodie, eh Doc?"
Janet smiled again. "Quality all the way, sir. Iím not finding anything in the tests weíve run other than your blood pressure being slightly elevated. General Hammond tells me you seem unusually irritable, Colonel." She paused as tension lines replaced the grin the good natured bantering had wrought. Making a mental note, Janet continued cautiously. "Anything particular bothering you, sir?"
"You mean besides people asking me that kind of question and being ordered to submit to a bunch of worthless damn tests that arenít going to show squat?" Jack stopped, realizing he was inadvertently illustrating Hammondís accusations. He took a deep breath and glanced back down at the stain. Trying for an attitude of nonchalance, he asked, "Havenít you ever been in a bad mood, Doc?"
"Frequently, sir, but not since the last time you were a patient in my infirmary."
The smile that graced Janetís eyes took the sting out of her comment. Okay, he deserved it. Damn, Doc was getting good with the sarcasm.
"Colonel, letís go down the list and see what we can eliminate. Are you sleeping? Any nightmares? Do you have a headache? Are you eating okay? Any unusual stress?"
There was a pause as Jack decided how straight to play it with Fraiser. "Like a baby; none that I can remember; manageable; yeah; youíve got to be kidding."
"Thatís good, sir." Janet picked up her clipboard and jotted down a couple of illegible notes. She glanced up, expecting to see the Colonel attempting to read what she had written as he oft did. The clipboard was forgotten and a frown puckered her face. Jack was sitting in the same position, his eyes fastened to the stain on the sheet, oblivious to his surroundings.
"It wonít be that bad. And itíll be over before you know it." Sara snaked her arms around my neck. I was sitting at the kitchen table and she was standing behind me, whispering softly into my left ear. When I didnít respond, she shook me gently. "Come on. Please. For him."
I followed her gaze and looked at Dad, who was standing at the stove with his back to us, making breakfast. I suppressed a shudder as I nodded once. "Okay."
She patted me on the shoulder. "It might even do you some good. You never know."
"What?" Dad turned just as Sara released me from her grasp and stood upright.
She moved across the kitchen, joining him at the stove and speaking louder to accommodate his failing hearing. "I said, weíd love to go."
Dad beamed at her, then looked at me, his smile fading slightly before he turned his back to me once more. "Good. You know, you should be going every week. If your mother knew you werenít, sheíd be rolling in her grave."
I frowned and stared down at the tabletop, splaying my trembling hands out and pressing my fingertips against the cool, smooth surface. My fingers looked unnaturally red and tender. Sara said it was because Iíd been washing them too often. I suppose she was right; it was just . . . I couldnít seem to get them clean. Even now, with a layer of skin freshly scrubbed off, they felt dirty.
I pressed harder, causing the red digits to turn bloodless, white. Despite the pressure, they trembled slightly. Sara set a cup of coffee between my outstretched hands and planting a kiss on my check, went upstairs to check on Charlie. Trying not to think about the tiny convulsions plaguing my hands, I stared at the cup.
"Youíll like Father Kelley. Heís a nice man. A vet himself."
I flinched, whether because Dad had surprised me by sitting down across from me or because of his choice of subject matter, I wasnít sure.
"I told him all about you. Heís anxious to meet you. You two have a lot more in common than youíd think."
I glanced up at the stranger sitting three feet in front of me, but said nothing. Dad fidgeted in his chair, uncomfortable under my gaze. Seems I make a lot of people uncomfortable these days. Dad smiled despite his misgivings, the OíNeill stubbornness not allowing him to back down.
"Hey, you remember those Murphy boys?"
He stared at me, a broad, forced smile creasing his aging face. I blinked heavily. It was barely 7:00 in the morning, and I already had a raging headache. He was still smiling at me. I shook my head.
"Oh, come on now. You remember them. They had that little sister . . . what was her name? A cute little blonde thing that used to think the sun rose and set on you." Dad laughed softly and my head throbbed painfully. "What was her name? Becky? No, thatís not right. Jessica?" He seemed to think about it a minute and I pressed my sore fingers into the table. "Yeah, Jessica. Anyway, she got married to one of them Porter boys from up near 132nd and Walnut. Canít remember which boy; the middle one I think."
I squeezed my eyes shut, willing the pain away. It was a constant. When I opened my eyes, he and it were still there.
"Anyway, I know you remember them. The Murphys. That pretty little blonde girl and all those big, ugly boys. Every one of them as black headed as they come and your Momma always wondered about that Ďcause Claire was red-headed as a rooster and their Daddy was . . ."
I stared at the fragrant, steaming mug in front of me, Dadís voice rattling ceaselessly, agonizingly, inside my head. Tentatively, I reached for the cup.
". . . so you had to wonder where all those black-headed boys came from. Anyway, the one boy, Earnest I think his name was, the next to the oldest, he was over there in the Middle East, too. Like you."
Concentrating, I lifted the cup.
"The other boy, a year or two younger . . . oh, shoot. Uh," he snapped his fingers causing me to flinch, "Carl. Carl was his name. They sent him over a year after Earnest."
The cup shook.
"Carl was killed in an explosion. Head blown clean off. Earnest, heís fine and he . . ."
Despite my efforts, perhaps because of them, the shaking worsened and coffee sloshed over the rim and onto the table. I bit my lip, willing my hand to obey.
". . . he came back and . . ."
The trembling cup stretched between us like the net on a ping-pong table. I looked over it at Dad. He was staring at me, his words dying in his throat, and his eyes full of emotion. Sadness. Regret. Pity.
I slammed the cup onto the table, spilling what little coffee remained. Dadís hand settled over mine, trying unsuccessfully to still the tremors. I sucked in a breath and jumped; I hate being touched. Sara is the only one allowed to touch me, and even then I can barely tolerate it. But Dad latched onto my hand, refusing to let go. Panicked, my breathing shallow and my head throbbing, I pulled steadily, trying to ease my hand from his grip.
"Son, please," his voice was quiet, pleading. "Maybe if you talked to someone like Father KellĖ"
"Glenda," I offered breathlessly. A name for my freedom.
Sweating, my entire body trembling, I pulled gently, desperately. "Her name was Glenda." I couldnít breathe.
He looked confused.
"Dad," Saraís voice, polite but firm, came from somewhere behind me. "Let him go."
He looked up at her, but held on.
"Let him go," she repeated. "He . . . he doesnít like to be touched. Please. Just . . .," she reached over my shoulder, our young son cradled on her hip, and pried Dadís fingers from my hand.
Suddenly, I was free. I gulped down a sob of relief, and quickly pulled my shaking hands into my lap, afraid heíd try to grab onto me again, against my will. Sara touched me once, lightly, on the shoulder, then walked to the stove to finish our breakfast. She was chattering on about something, but I couldnít hear her. I was struggling to regain control of my pounding heart and my shaky breathing. My headache had reached nearly blinding proportions.
Refusing to look up, I could feel Dadís eyes on me, and shame washed over me. I had lost control of myself. Somewhere, somehow, during my captivity, I had given control over to my enemy. I came home, but I left the greater part of myself over there in the hands of my captors. Trembling hands, quaking heart, scared, out of control, panicky; I couldnít trust myself. I felt judgment in the eyes I couldnít meet.
My chair scraping noisily across the tiled floor, I stood up on unsteady legs and turned to go, to hide, to escape.
I stopped, but didnít look back at her.
"I laid your uniform out on the bed. I thought you might want to wear it."
I nodded, or thought I did.
"Do you want to wear it?"
I nodded again. "Okay," I said, hating the way I sounded. I waited a beat or two and when she said nothing further, I left the kitchen and staggered into the hallway, where I leaned up against the wall, panting and sweating. I stood there, hating who I had become, not knowing what to do about it and listening to them discuss me.
Dad cursed, something Iíd heard him do only a handful of times my entire life; Sara murmured something too softly for me to hear. Then she told him that I was going to be fine. That the doctors said it was just going to take time. That, eventually, Iíd come around.
Come around? As if this were a choice Iíd made. As if going crazy or hanging onto my sanity was no more complicated than deciding what color to paint the house or whether we should or shouldnít get a dog. Still shaking, I pushed myself away from the wall and forced myself upstairs to get ready for Mass.
The whole idea was a mistake. I should have never agreed to it. Unfortunately, I found myself agreeing with a lot of things just to shut people up. The ride to the church was uneventful, except for the moment when Dad was going to insist on my driving. Once again, Sara insinuated herself into the scene, coming to the rescue of the man who had once been her hero. Silent, I rode in the backseat next to our young son. While Charlie babbled quietly to himself, playing with a new toy Dad had given him when weíd arrived two days before, I stared out the window at a bleak city-scape that was only vaguely familiar.
St. Matthewís hadnít changed. The only surprise came as we entered the vestibule. There was a slightly damp, musty odor that reminded me of the dank cell that had until recently been my home. I took a deep, shaky breath, causing Sara to glance at me. When she questioned me with a glance, I merely forced a tight smile and followed my family into the church.
It was so odd, the things that bothered me. I had always been an outgoing person. Even in high school, I hadnít been afraid to get up in front of a room full of people and speak my mind. But now, I sat there clenching my fists and my jaw, dreading the moment when the service ended and I would have to meet Dadís priest and his fellow parishioners, many of whom Iíd already met but had long since forgotten.
Sara nudged me and I jumped. Smiling, she pointed towards the front of the church. Without thinking, I followed her and Dad in order to accept the sacrament. I stumbled numbly forward and knelt alongside them. I watched as Father Kelley worked his way down the line towards me, trying not to think about the twice-daily queue for a small bowl of cold, greasy gruel.
The priest placed the wafer on Dadís tongue, then handed him the cup with the wine. Dad drank. Crossed himself. Father Kelley stepped closer, repeated the steps with Sara. He stepped in front of me. Out of habit, I opened my mouth; allowed him to place the wafer on my tongue. He held out the cup of wine; my trembling hands grasped it and I sipped, keeping my eyes averted from his face as he moved to the next in line.
Then I saw it. A single red drop.
I gasped loudly. Sara glanced over at me and I saw the priest hesitate as he moved to hand the wafer to the stranger on my right.
I stared, feeling the sweat beading up on my forehead. Breathing shallowly, I blinked. When I opened my eyes, it was still there. A tiny dot on the cuff of my white shirt. I needed to reach over with my other hand, tug the sleeve of my jacket down in order to hide it. I couldnít. I froze.
Wine. I took a breath. Just wine. I exhaled loudly.
"Jack?" Sara leaned close, whispering, frowning worriedly.
I stared at the red blotch; watched as it turned into blood that began to drip onto the back of my hand. I had to get out of here. Now. Mumbling an apology, I tried to pull myself to my feet and swayed drunkenly. I heard both Dad and Sara speak to me, saw them reach for me. I pulled away.
I had blood on me. Blood. I needed to wash. To scrub. I groaned, searching in vain for the nearest exit, for any exit.
Staggering, I could hear a growing murmur in the building. I heard someone telling people to remain seated, to stay calm; the same voice was telling Sara and Dad to wait there. Then, a firm hand was gripping my arm, pulling me towards a door. For the first time in a long time, I welcomed the sense of touch. I needed to wash. I needed to be clean again.
Panting, I leaned against my rescuer. We slipped through the doorway and I heard it click shut behind us. Strong hands pushed me down onto a chair and I felt something cool brush my forehead. When I looked up, it was into a face much like my own.
"Youíre Jack." His voice was kind.
"I . . . I need," I held out my trembling, blood-stained hand in silent supplication. "Please. Get it off."
"What? Get what off?"
He couldnít see it? Blood was dripping from my hand. The blood of others. The ones Iíd killed. Iíd been punished. I remembered that. But not enough. They said it would never be enough. I moaned softly.
"Jack, what do you see?"
What? I studied his face, looking for deception. For a trick. They were always tricking me into saying or doing something that would bring another round of punishment. The man, the stranger, looked greyer than Iíd thought he was just moments ago. He was handsome. He smiled kindly and grasped my hand, the bloody one.
"This? Is this what you see?" He held the incriminating hand in front of me and I struggled against him. "What is it?"
"Blood," I replied hesitantly, hoping it was the answer he sought.
"Yes," he smiled. "Blood. How much blood is on your hands, Colonel?"
I tried to pull away from him, but he merely placed his other hand on my forehead, causing the headache Iíd been suffering to swell miserably. I moaned softly.
"What would you give?"
"WhĖwhat?" I felt sick, nauseated.
"What would you give to be rid of it?" He smiled. "Codes? Addresses?"
"I donít . . ."
"No?" He pressed harder on my forehead, and I cried out as agony shot through my already aching head. "Why do you insist on resisting me?"
I struggled to see him through the haze of pain. I didnít understand. Was I still there or not? Had my time home with Sara and Charlie been a ruse? A trick of the mind? Drugs?
"I know," his mouth was near my ear. I could feel his breath, cold and alien against my cheek. "A trade. You give me the codes, and the blood on your hands goes away."
"Colonel?" Janet reached out and placed her hand on Jackís. Even though her touch was gentle and her voice soft and calm, he surprised her as he started violently.
Jerking his hand away and clutching it protectively with his other hand to his chest, he hissed, "Donít touch me. Just keep your hands off me." His eyes were dark, nearly black, the pupils huge and unfocused. Janet could see sweat beading on his forehead and dampening his collarless gown. His breathing was erratic, as if he had been exercising.
Or sobbing, Janetís maternal side added unconsciously.
"Colonel OíNeill, itís Doctor Fraiser. I wonít touch you, sir, but please relax. Do you know where you are?" Janetís voice was calm, soothing, in control, all the while her frantic thoughts were a maelstrom of questions.
What the hell was going on? A seizure of some sort? A flashback? Sheíd seen enough of those after Desert Storm. But the symptomology was wrong. "Colonel, can you tell me whatís going on?" She watched as the trapped animal look slowly faded and the troubled eyes flicked her way, acknowledging her presence and reality, before closing, shutting her out. A shaky sigh issued and Janet watched as Jackís hand made the trembling journey from the safety of his chest to cross the bridge of his nose, a sign she recognized as the Colonelís way of attempting to deal with a headache.
He gave a feeble nod of affirmation, his forehead wrinkled in pain.
"Bad?" Janet already knew the answer. Sheíd had years of experience reading between the lines of Jack OíNeillís body language. But she also knew that whether or not the Colonel deemed fit to answer her question, the mere fact that he was listening to her voice was grounding him, leading him back from whatever dark place his mind had taken him. His second nod of affirmation surprised and alarmed her. It wasnít like the Colonel to admit to pain, even non-verbally, without the threat of a crowbar. Slowly, as if dealing with a wary animal, Janet reached out and clasped the trembling hand.
Noting but ignoring the flinch caused by her touch, she unobtrusively counted out his racing pulse. Fast, but slowly returning to normal. On the verge of calling for the blood pressure gauge, Janet was surprised when Jack quietly but firmly pulled his wrist from her grasp. The one brief glance the Colonel permitted her to share told her that he had recovered sufficiently to erect his normal battalion of guards. The ĎNo Trespassingí sign was written indelibly on the set of his jaw. Anger hardened his features.
But beyond the obvious, in a place she had much experience looking, Janet could see flickers of something else. Fear, doubt, worry . . . poked their heads above the defensive line of barbed wire he had retreated behind.
Although it had been years since Basics when Janet had crawled on her belly through the mud beneath the gleaming shards of barbed wire as the instructors fired in simulated battle conditions above her head, it wasnít something you tended to forget. Be it physical or metaphorical, Janet had been trained to allow nothing to stand between you and your objective.
And right now her objective was hidden behind those troubled brown eyes staring pointedly beyond her shoulder. Staring and smoldering like a temporarily dampened fire left unattended and forgotten, waiting only the right moment to reassert itself and blaze to life. Woe be the person who ever forgot that when playing with this match you would not only undoubtably get burned, but most likely incinerated. Hell, Janet had seen the unwary rookie who had the misfortune of irritating the Colonel suddenly realize he was trapped in a wildfire which he had foolishly underestimated. But long ago, Janet had traded in her kid gloves for the more durable asbestos variety when dealing with OíNeill and she had no intention of allowing this mountain to become her pyre.
"Colonel, what just happened?" It was a tactical maneuver she had learned early in her days at the SGC. The Colonel had no patience for subtlety. Sometimes a direct approach worked, sometimes it didnít.
The fire sparked and Janet caught a whiff of smoke. Apparently, this time, it would be the latter. "How the hell should I know? Youíre the doctor, you tell me." The fire blazed momentarily. "Better yet, donít tell me, Doc."
Janet stepped back involuntarily as the Colonel slid off the exam table and glared down at her. "Just get me my clothes and Iíll get out of here."
Quickly regaining the ground her inadvertent retreat had wrought, Janet shook her head. "Not a chance, Colonel. Get back up on that table and just relax. Youíre going to be here a while." When her glare failed to produce the desired effect, she added, "You may as well give it up, Colonel, and cooperate. Iím the mother of a teenager so Iíve had lots of practice in the glaring department myself. You donít stand a chance, trust me." As his combative stance slowly drained away, Janet reached out and laid her hand on Jackís chest. "Trust me," she said again quietly.
The tests were over, thank God. At the best of times the infirmary left him feeling violated. This was not the best of times, Jack thought, as he hurried through the halls towards the sanctuary of his office. Slamming the door shut, he leaned against the cool metal, willing his raw emotions to calm. Fraiserís minions had failed to find anything of significant interest. There was nothing out of order other than a pounding headache and the elevated blood pressure. Even Doc hadnít been concerned with that, knowing it was just a byproduct of his unwillingness to be trapped in that situation.
Nothing wrong. Sliding down the door, Jack pressed his cheek against the smooth metal, resting in the safety of its strength. He closed his eyes. What the hell had happened? A flashback? He remembered a time when he had sought the safety of the womb, the closet in Saraís and his bedroom after he had come home, broken and frightened of the freedom he suddenly had been granted. The first time he had snapped out of the flashback, Sara had been there weeping and calling his name. He was ashamed. Ashamed to allow his wife to see the wreck of a man to which she was married. And he had retreated.
This was different. Not a flashback. Heíd weathered those before. This was something twisted, something real. Evil.
Jack pressed harder against the door. His eyes opened in the dark room, searching in vane for movement, for light, for confirmation that he was alive. He hugged his legs tighter. This must be what it is like to be blind, he thought suddenly. So dark, so very dark. A well, a bottomless pit seeking to pull him in and devour him . . . a cave.
He thought of a dive he had gone on years ago in a cave off the coast of Mexico. Everything had gone great until he had suddenly become disoriented. He surfaced where he knew there should be an air pocket only to bang his head painfully on solid limestone. Inching his way around, his flashlight failing to cut through the murky blackness, he could feel the vestiges of panic gnawing at him. Knowing that if he gave in to his feelings he was dead, he fought, using his training. But the darkness became a living entity stifling his efforts to think rationally, clouding them with fear. It pressed in around him until he could hear his own heart beating through the diving equipment causing him to deplete the only thing that was keeping him alive. Jack remembered the claustrophobic feeling that swept over him and how more than anything he had wanted to see his hand in the darkness, proof that he was alive. He remembered how he had pressed his hand against his face, kneading until the nails cut the skin around his mask.
When he finally had found the right tunnel and surfaced in the cavern only feet from the mouth of the cave and safety, he discovered he had clawed bloody scratches in his face attempting to prove to himself that he was alive.
Long after those marks had healed and faded away, Jack found it impossible to look at himself in a mirror without the sickening fear of that dive re-emerging.
Jack pressed against the door, staring into the darkness. What the hell was going on?
"Aagh!" My own yell awakened me and I sat up, clutching my head in an attempt to put an end to the agony surging through my skull.
I was panting, breathing shallowly through an open mouth, trying not to vomit. Swallow, breathe. Breathe, swallow. The pain and the nausea remained undaunted.
My hands still pressed against my temples, I dared to open my eyes. Bright, yellow pain flared and then . . . blackness.
My chest still heaving, my stomach roiling, I blinked and looked again. Nothing. Only blackness and unbelievable, agonizing pain.
Where was I? When was I?
I wanted to call out but I was afraid to. I didnít know if the person who might hear me would be friend or foe. So I sat there, trying to calm my breathing and my stomach, and desperately wracking my throbbing brain for answers.
Tentatively, I forced my hands away from my head and stretched them out into the darkness. Nothing. It was warm here, wherever Ďhereí was. Tilting my head, I sensed the movement of fresh air and heat on my face. I was outside. I patted the ground around me. Dirt. No . . . sand.
Moaning softly against the pain, I rolled to my hands and knees. My stomach lurched and I froze, panting my way through another round of nausea and dizziness. Dizziness? How could I be dizzy when I couldnít see?
I waited until the dark world settled then gently reached out, patting the sand to my left and to my right. In front of me. Iím not sure what I was searching for, but I found nothing. Nothing except . . . something swung lightly, delicately against my chest, bumping me rhythmically when I moved. I lifted one hand and felt a thin rope, followed it to its terminus. Sunglasses. I had sunglasses strung around my neck.
I held them up in front of my eyes and squinted, staring into a black void. I could see absolutely nothing.
Okay. What was the last thing I remembered?
Biting my lip, trying not to dwell on the severity of the pain lancing behind my useless eyes, I struggled with the facts. Finally, exhausted by nothing more than the acts of thinking and feeling the sand around me, I lowered my head to the ground, pressing my forehead into the warm sand.
What the hell had happened?
Start with the basics, OíNeill. You know who you are, so where are you? No idea. Next question. What year was this? That was easy Ė 1997. What else do you know? Charlie, gone; Sara, gone; retired Ė no, wait. The Stargate project. General Hammond. My team.
My God, my team!
Shit! That was it: the last thing I remembered. My team and I were leaving for planet P-something or other. I could never remember those damned planet designations. Anyway, it was somewhere hot and arid, like Abydos, but not. I remembered stepping through the Gate and onto a world that was nothing but bright yellow sand. And sunlight. Piercing sunlight.
Sunlight. Panic surged and I raised my head slightly, blinking and rubbing my eyes. Still nothing, despite the fact that I could feel the warmth of what felt like the sun. So was I blind? Gasping, I dropped my aching head back down and rolled onto my side, curling up and hugging my knees.
Blue rock things. I remembered seeing them. Hundreds of them. Thousands. All cracked, chipped or broken. Iíd wandered away from my team and had come upon another huge area of the blue rocks. The destruction there was just as complete as at the first place weíd come across, except for a single, perfect, blue formation that rose out of the stone graveyard like a beacon. It was approximately two feet tall. I had knelt down in front of it, admiring its beauty. It had reminded me of a sapphire.
Thatís all I remembered until waking up, blinded and seemingly alone.
Come on, OíNeill. Get a grip.
Forcing myself up onto an elbow, I cleared my throat. "Hello."
My voice was tentative, shaky. I tried again. "Hello," I managed a bit louder. "Is anyone here?"
Nothing. Cursing my own stupidity, I fumbled for my radio. "Carter? Daniel? Tealíc?" I paused after each name, waiting. Nothing.
One-handed, I patted myself down. I felt no wounds, no sticky blood. In fact, with the exception of my cap and P-90 which seemed to be missing, I appeared whole, untouched . . . but for the fact that I was sporting the Migraine From Hell and I couldnít see diddly squat. Grunting, I dropped back onto the sand and shut my eyes.
Even worse than the pain, was not knowing what had become of my team. Were they laying just a few feet away? Injured? Dying? Already dead? Was I the lone survivor? God, please, anything but that.
Head throbbing mercilessly, feeling scared and helpless, I lay there until I dozed.
When I came to, the headache was the first thing I noticed. It throbbed sickeningly. The second thing that hit me was the heat. I had fallen asleep wearing my jacket and I was now sweating profusely. I moaned and shifted my weight, opening my eyes.
"God." Gasping, I covered my eyes with my hands, trying to shut out the bright light that stabbed at my retinas. "Oh, shit." My vision was back . . . with a vengeance.
I sat up and tentatively lowered my hands, squinting out at an overly-bright yet blurry landscape. Eyes watering and head pounding, I slipped on my sunglasses and surveyed my surroundings. It was still very yellow. Yellow with a small patch of blue no more than fifteen feet in front of me . . . the rock thingyís. I squinted harder, but could make out no details.
Thank God, I saw nothing that resembled a prone human form. And thank God, I could see anything at all . . . even if it was blurred and painful.
I glanced around the immediate area, trying to locate anything that might be my P-90 or my cap, but saw nothing aside from the yellow sand and the hazy blue circle. Finally, swaying and groaning, I got to my feet. Giving a wide berth to the blue things, I staggered my way back in what I hoped was the general direction from which Iíd come.
The deep sand made walking difficult even before the birth of the Migraine and the blurred vision. I stumbled up the short dune, following what I thought were my own tracks from earlier. I reached the apex of the hill and looked out at more sand and random blue patches. Panting, I toggled my radio and called each of my team members again. Still no response.
I rubbed my eyes once more before continuing the arduous return trip. It was nearly twenty minutes before I dropped down on the sand where I thought the M.A.L.P. should be. In the place where the machine had sat, there was a large circle of ruts in the sand. And nothing else. No one else.
Out of breath, head still pounding, I yelled at the top of my lungs for Carter and Tealíc. Screw anyone listening. In fact, I hoped to God someone was listening. Right now, Iíd just about settle for an alien. Even an angry one.
No answer, not even my own voice echoing back at me. As I squinted down at my shadow my stomach finally gave up the ghost, depositing its contents on the dark patch of sand in the form of my own image. How very fitting.
"God." I felt like crap. Like shit, to be perfectly honest. My head was pounding as bad as ever, and my vision was still messed up Ė blurry and slightly Ďoff.í Now, even my stomach hurt, cramping and threatening another round of Ďwhat did the Colonel have for dinner.í Worse . . . I was scared. Jack OíNeill doesnít do scared. He doesnít like it. Not at all.
But, dammit, my team was missing. The M.A.L.P. was missing. And Iíd been attacked by something . . . I wasnít sure what. That blue rock thing? Still kneeling in the tracks left by the M.A.L.P., the stench of my own vomit wafting offensively upwards, I glanced over at the nearest patch of blue.
So did they do it? Kill my team? Injure them? If so, how?
"Where are they? Whatíd you do with them?"
The only response was a fierce, stabbing pain behind my eyes.
Had they been killed or injured, and then hauled off to some alien sand pit somewhere? Were they just over the next hill? Or the one after that? Had they been incinerated? Zatted once, twice, three times? By what? By whom? By a bunch of blue rocks? And did it matter? Dead was dead. Unless there was revenge in it for me, all that mattered was that they were gone . . . and finding them. Finding them mattered more than anything else.
Maybe they left without you.
"No," I whispered. I couldnít believe the thought even occurred to me. No way would they have left without me. No. Frigging. Way. Period. End of story. They wouldnít do it. Never.
I jerked around at the sound of the strange voice, my head spinning dizzily and my left hand landing in the edge of my still warm vomit as my right grabbed for the Beretta. I pulled the gun and, hands trembling, chambered a round before pointing it towards the chest of the man whoíd suddenly appeared behind me. Squinting up at him, I saw what I thought was a wide smile on his face. He seemed to pay scant attention to the weapon.
"They left you here."
"Who are you? What have you done with my team?"
"Youíll die here."
"WhoĖ," I squinted harder, leaning slightly forward in an effort to see him better. There was something vaguely familiar about him. I had the distinct impression that Iíd seen him before, that I knew him from somewhere.
"Do you mean so little to them that they leave you here to die alone like a wounded animal?"
"You donít know what the hell youíre talking about. Now, where are they?"
"I told you. They left." His arm swept grandly to the right, and I swung around to follow the gesture.
I was suddenly sitting at the base of the steps leading up to the Stargate. The event horizon shimmered, painfully bright. I gasped and looked back at him but he was gone.
"You are nothing to them," his voice whispered into my ear.
I jumped at the feel of his cool breath on my cheek and scurried backwards through the sand like a wounded crab, keeping the pistol trained on him as he rose to his feet and stepped forward, keeping pace with me.
"Give them up."
"What?" He made no sense and yet, somehow, I thought that I knew what he meant, what he wanted.
"I tire of this."
Pain slammed through my skull, making the earlier aches negligible, laughable.
"Oh, God." Weapon forgotten I fell back onto the sand, writhing and struggling to escape him. "Please."
"Yes. Beg." I felt him lean over me, his face mere inches from mine. "What would you give to make the pain go away?" His voice had a distracted quality, as if he were talking to himself. "What would you give?"
I was moaning loudly and I couldnít stop myself. Without warning, I spewed what was left of my meager stomach contents onto myself. Laughing softly, he reached down and yanked the sunglasses from my face. My eyes immediately watered against the flaring of the sunlight overhead.
"How much can you endure before you will give me anything I desire?"
"Please." He wanted the codes. I remembered now. Codes would buy my way out of this.
He cocked his head, studying me. "Not enough. What else would you give?"
"No." Panting, nauseated at the stench and warmth of my own vomit on my face and chest, I squeezed my eyes closed, shutting out the painfully bright light and the sight of the monster hovering over me. "Why are you doing this? Why?"
Even with my eyes closed, I was aware of the world dimming at the edges and I desperately groped for the blessed relief of unconsciousness. I strained towards it.
"Please," I begged for it.
"Why?" His voice followed me into the abyss. "Because I can."
With frightening suddenness, the darkness closed in on Jack, pressing him down as if intent on suffocating him. "No!" His voice sounded loud, foreign, panicked in the silent room where his ragged breath had been the only sound to breach the virgin silence. Pressing the heels of his hands against his temples, his teeth clenched against the pain which flared unmercifully.
What was going on? Was he finally going nuts?
The darkness pressed its advantage. He had to get out of here. The phone rang causing him to jump and fight his way to his feet, frantically groping for the door handle. He had to get out now. The phone rang again, the sound magnifying in Jackís pounding head, ricocheting back and forth like a rogue pool ball. Out. Out. He had to get out.
The door was yanked open with a violence that startled a young airman passing by, as Jack flung himself into the artificial safety of the light.
"Sir? Colonel OíNeill are you all right?"
As Jack leaned against the wall outside his office, his eyes closed, his chest heaving, it slowly registered that someone was speaking to him. Forcing himself to take a couple of deep breaths, he ordered himself to regain control and pull himself together. As his racing heart slowed, he drew a shaky hand to his forehead, wiping his damp brow, and scrubbing his tell-tale damp palms on his leg.
"Colonel, do you need me to get someone?"
Jack looked at a face full of concern without really seeing it. He managed to shake his head. "Iím okay."
The incredulous look penetrated his fog and a blaze of anger temporarily cleared his head. "Dismissed, Airman." The hesitation on the manís face stoked the anger building in him: anger at something he didnít understand, anger at the pain in his head, and especially anger at himself for cowering in the dark like some damn kid afraid of the boogie man. "I said, dismissed!"
He watched as the airman wisely moved down the hall. Slowly Jack peeled himself off the wall. Taking a shaky breath he stood there, lost and alone in a mountain full of people. He thought about Janet, about her concern and desire to help. He thought of his team. But they had left him, left him hurt and alone on that planet. Hadnít they? Jack ground his fingertips into his closed eyes, willing the pain and confusion to vanish.
Slowly he reached a decision. He couldnít trust them. They had betrayed him, betrayed his trust. They had demonstrated that they no longer had faith in his command. Heíd deal with this his own way. Gradually, anger and resentment flooded the compartment filled with confusion and fear. Drawing himself upright, Jack fed off the anger. His face hard, he walked purposefully towards the gym.
Tealíc pushed open the door and silently observed the scene before him. OíNeill stood at the heavy bag, his back to him, punching in a steady rhythm at the bag. Even from this distance, Tealíc could see the tension knotting his friendís neck and shoulders. The breathless grunts were testimony to the time and effort OíNeill had spent on the activity as was the sweat-stained t-shirt he wore.
Although he walked silently to where his friend was working out, Tealíc knew he need not announce his presence. He waited patiently. Finally Jack turned to face the Jaffa, never breaking the rhythm he had established on the bag. "What do you want?" His face was flushed and he expelled his breath in controlled anger.
"OíNeill, have you not spent adequate time at this activity?"
"No, I have not spent adequate time." He glared at the impassive, dark face. "Go away and leave me alone."
"I do not think that is wise. It is obvious you are not yourself. Would it not be wise to share that which is disturbing you?" He glanced over at a pair of Marines working together on a weight machine. He noted that OíNeill jumped as the weights clanked noisily.
There was a slight pause and something unidentifiable flashed across Jackís face before the emotion was shoved beneath the surface and drowned in the anger which surfaced. "I said leave me alone."
"That is something I cannot do, OíNeill. It is obvious something is disturbing you . . ."
"Dammit, Tealíc . . ."
". . . and you are in need of assistance." Tealíc smoothly ignored the angry retort. "I am in need of a sparing partner. Would you do me the honor?"
Jack had stopped his workout and stood staring in ill-concealed exasperation, his gloved hands hanging limply at his sides. "Youíre not going to leave me alone, are you, T?"
The dark eyes lit with muted laughter. "Indeed, I am not."
"Didnít think so. Get geared up and Iíll meet you on the pad." Tealíc moved off to retrieve his gear. "Has anyone ever told you youíre one stubborn son of a bitch?"
"Yes, OíNeill. It was, in fact, you that noted that aspect of my personality. I believe you would say, I learned from a master." Without looking back, Tealíc walked into the locker room effectively hiding the brief smile that graced his face.
They stood staring at each other. Warriors . . . companions . . . brothers. But as Tealíc gazed into OíNeillís face he saw lines of worry furrowing his friendís features. He saw turmoil in the dark depths of his eyes. He saw tension in his normally easy stance. What surprised him, although he carefully concealed it, was the anger radiating from OíNeill. Lifting his gloved fists, he signalled silently that he was ready.
OíNeill was normally a worthy opponent, capable, crafty and skilled. But the force with which OíNeill struck surprised Tealíc and confirmed that something was amiss. The first blow was immediately followed up by another and another. The pent anger Tealíc read in OíNeillís eyes seemed to be determined to escape through the blows of his gloves. Again and again Jack stuck, giving no ground and forcing Tealíc into the unlikely role of defense.
Tealíc kept his gloves in a protective stance, shielding himself as OíNeill had taught him, allowing his friend to vent his feelings. Hopefully, OíNeill would soon be able to work out what was bothering him.
Jack pressed harder, connecting solid hits to Tealícís muscular upper torso. His grunts were laced with curses as he fought with a consuming fierceness. "I canít, damn you. Wonít. I wonít do it. Just leave me alone."
"To whom are you speaking, OíNeill? What is it you are being required to do?"
A hard left snapped Tealícís head back. "I canít."
The desperation in OíNeillís voice caused Tealíc to change tactics. The time had come to quite literally knock some sense into his friend. Feigning to the left, with a grace that belied his size, Tealíc snapped upward with his right catching OíNeill directly in the face and driving him neatly to the mat. He watched as Jack sat stunned and blinking away the tears that glazed his eyes.
"Are you injured, OíNeill? There is blood on your lower lip."
Remaining in his undignified position on the floor, Jack shook his head in an attempt to clear it. He wiped across his lower lip with the glove, grimacing at the sting of leather against the cut. "No, itís just a split lip. No big deal. Thatís one hell of a right upper-cut youíve developed there, Big Guy. Been watching Rocky reruns again?"
"Thought so." Jack wiped another bead of blood off his rapidly swelling lip.
Despite his external serenity, Tealíc felt a wave of relief wash over him. The blow seemed to have brought OíNeill out of the dark place he had slipped into. His friend appeared to once again be himself. Tealíc heard the good natured teasing of one of the Marines as his partner struggled to lift a weight. A gasp immediately brought his attention back to OíNeill. The man was staring at the tiny rust-colored streak on his glove. His fixed eyes gave no indication that this was the same man who only a moment before had been making a good natured jest.
"You donít understand." The voice was harsh, whispered, forcing Tealíc to strain to hear. "God, donít make me do this. Donít make me. Please."
The axe was rusty. Bet it hadnít been sharpened since the last time her husband had used it . . . whenever that was. I took a half-sick, shaky breath and swung the axe again, the movement jarring my aching head. Feeling awkward and nauseated, I picked up the next short section of log and set it on the stump. Damn rot-gut.
"She is a fine woman."
I grimaced and glanced over at Paynan. He looked as bad as I felt. "Yes, she is." So, did this mean everyone knew?
"Took you long enough to see that. I was afraid you were going blind."
Three months. That wasnít so long. Well . . . it hadnít been. Not back home. But now? Here? I squinted behind my dark glasses. Paynan was right. Three months was a lifetime. I knew for a fact that in the space of three months you could go from one lifetime to another. "Well, if Iíve gone blind, itís from whatever we were drinking last night."
Grunting, I swung the axe again. Thanks to Grampsí wood chopping lessons in that other lifetime, the blade bit into the wood perfectly, then stopped when the rust caught on the dry flesh of the log. I wiggled the handle slightly, causing both axe and kindling to topple from the stump. I was too sick to do more than kick the wood free of the axe.
"Tolka . . . has a bite to it."
I leaned over, my head throbbing sullenly. "Yeah. Yeah."
Feeling dizzy, I placed the next log on the stump and tried to balance it with one finger. I pulled my hand away and watched as the wood fell to the ground. Heaving a sigh, I picked it back up, righting it, then swung the axe again. Damn rot-gut. I was never going to touch the stuff again.
I continued chopping wood after Paynan had left, until the stack of lumber was finally depleted. Then, I picked up the hatchet propped against the house, and took it and the axe to the grinding stone. Mindless chores. But then, werenít they all? Making nails. Harvesting crops. Hunting. Fishing. Rebuilding barns and houses. Having sex.
The hatchet slipped from my hands and dropped to the ground, narrowly missing my foot. Smart, OíNeill. Make Gramps proud, why donít you. Head still pounding, I retrieved the hatchet and glanced up at the bright sky. I was raised to think that our dearly departed looked down from heaven and watched our every move. To tell you the truth, the very thought used to freak me out. Still did if I thought about it too much.
Question was, could they still see me? Clear out here? Wherever Ďhereí was.
I ran a hand over my throbbing head and sighed deeply. What the hell was I doing?
I didnít love her. I just . . . I needed something to hang onto. Iíd lost everything: house, job, truck, friends, family. Even my fucking toothbrush, for crying out loud. I missed the drive to work, waiting in line at the bank, falling asleep on the sofa watching hockey, my books, listening to opera, and hot dogs.
I wished Daniel or Carter were here so I could be bored to tears by their mindless chatter. I wanted the company of someone who could understand my jokes, even if they didnít appreciate them. And God, Iíd give my right pinkie for a single picture of my kid. Better yet, an entire hand in exchange for the cigar box tucked inside my locker.
And Laira had offered me another.
Biting my lip, I turned back to the grinding stone, experimenting with the angle of the blade against the wheel.
As if Charlie could be replaced.
But then, it had nothing to do with Charlie. Laira didnít even know about him. Iíd never told her. Actually, she didnít know anything about me. Not really. She didnít know that Iíd been married. That Iíd had a kid and that heíd died because of my own negligence. That Iíd drink even the cheapest wine, but was a snob about beer. That I liked all of Tom Hanksí movies except for ĎSaving Private Ryaní because war movies gave me nightmares. That I preferred red jello over blue, and boxers over briefs.
She knew I was a soldier, but she had no idea of the atrocities Iíd seen, nor the ones Iíd committed. Actually, in that respect, I guess she and Sara had a lot in common. It was funny. Iíd always wished I could tell Sara more about what I did. Iíd hated keeping so many secrets from her. Now I was with someone that I could tell those things to, and I didnít want to.
It seemed almost shameful . . . the thought of allowing that world to mingle with this one. It was as if by telling Laira about my past, I would be admitting that the other world . . . my world, was lost to me. And I couldnít admit that. I wouldnít.
My cheeks flamed as I thought of the Stargate still buried out there somewhere. I hadnít given up Ė I would never give up Ė but other things had become more pressing than digging for the Gate. Things like preparing for the coming winter.
I cleared my throat and frowned down at the task at hand. It sounded good . . . in theory. But how did I justify an evening spent drinking and dancing when I could Ė no, should have been out there digging my way home? Having sex for the sake of sex with a woman I didnít love when I might have been calculating angles and depths in an attempt to locate what was buried?
I tested the blade with my finger, set the hatchet aside and picked up the axe.
Laira had been nothing but kind to me since the day Iíd arrived, but Iím no fool. She took me into her home for one reason: she was lonely. I was available and as much in need of someone as she was. More, actually. After all, at least she came with a roof over her head and food on her table. I came with nothing more than a set of BDUís, my weapons and a pissy, woe-is-me attitude.
And so Iíd given her what she wanted . . . or Iíd tried anyway. Iíd slept with her. Truth be told, I couldnít even remember if she enjoyed it and to be perfectly honest, I wasnít sure I really cared. It hadnít been about pleasure. It had been a simple transaction. She got what she wanted and I paid for my keep, with the added bonus of relieving three monthsí worth of frustration. Iíd thought seeking shelter in her arms for the night might make all of this seem better, but it hadnít. In the light of a new day, being here still felt like shit . . . like some damnable nightmare from which I couldnít awaken. And somehow, sex with Laira only seemed to worsen the ache inside my chest.
Oh God, what if she did get pregnant? What then? That would make this better how?
Groaning softly, I stopped the grinding wheel and leaned my sweaty forehead on the hard, gritty surface. All this, plus I was hung over from Paynanís homemade brew.
"So, did you enjoy it?"
Still resting against the stone, I turned my head. The boy was leaning against the front of the house, watching me.
"Hey, Garan. Whatís going on?"
"Did you enjoy it?" he repeated.
"What? Enjoy what?" Because if he meant Paynanís moonshine, Iíd have to say Ďno.í
"Sex with my mom."
I was stunned. I lifted my head and stared at him. I hadnít thought how this would affect him, but hell, it would have to. Wouldnít it?
"Shit." Seemed I hadnít thought much beyond the end of my own penis. I guess I could have blamed it on Paynanís drink, but that would have been nothing more than a flimsy excuse. It had been my doing. All mine. "Garan, listen. Iím sorry. I shouldĖ"
"So was she good? How did it feel . . . exactly?"
My mouth worked, but no words came out. I liked Garan, I really did, and I would have expected him to be upset, but this seemed out of character, even for the teenage boy that he was. "I think maybe youíd better stop. I donít think itís . . . appropriate for us to talk about this. Not like this."
He stood up straight and stepped a few feet closer to me, his hands casually shoved into his pockets. "You spend the night screwing my mom and you donít think Iím acting appropriately?" He chuckled softly, knowingly. "So, Jack, was she a good fucĖ"
"Hey!" My headache pounded with my quickening pulse. "Donít! Just . . . stop it."
His laughter died and he glared at me. It had been a long time since Iíd been on the receiving end of such hatred. "Just go home, Jack."
My head throbbing, I studied his face. He looked different somehow . . . older. Maybe it was a result of the bitterness and anger radiating off of him. "I canít, you littleĖ," but I stopped myself.
He stepped closer. I could feel his cool breath hitting the base of my throat. "Sheís pregnant."
I snorted and turned back to the grinding stone. "How would you know?" I still held the axe in my hands and I ran a thumb along its edge, not looking at him.
"Look at your hands."
I glanced up at him. "What?"
He was older. And closer. The toe of his shoe brushed against the side of my boot. He smelled like . . . nothing. Not sweat or flesh or soap or fresh air or even his last meal. Nothing. He grinned; a shiver ran down my spine and my headache flared.
"Look at your hands."
I did and gasped, dropping the axe and backing away from the stone, stumbling away from him. My hands were dripping with blood and chunks of gore. "Shit! What theĖ," I looked back up at him. He hadnít moved. "Whatís happening?"
"She lost the baby, Jack. Your baby."
And then I saw her . . . Laira. She was laying on the ground beside him, her dull grey dress soaked from the waist down in bright red blood. "Oh my God." I started to go to her, then froze. She was obviously dead. Had been for some time. She was bloated and the skin around her ears and on her fingers was beginning to blacken. "What . . . what did you do?"
"You did it. It was you." His voice had a pleasant, conversational quality. "Your seed killed her. The baby you put inside her. Another son, by the way."
This couldnít be happening.
A streak of bright pain struck me between the eyes, sending me to my knees. I pressed gore-drenched hands to my temples, crying out at the pain.
"I can put it back." His voice was calm, self-assured.
I was struggling with the piercing agony, rocking on my knees and moaning. Cold hands wrapped around my wrists, pulling my hands away.
"Jack," he shook my hands gently, trying to get my attention. I squinted at him. He was kneeling in front of me, smiling kindly, but his face looked evil, inhuman . . . as if two faces were overlapped, with the edges not quite lining up. "Calm down. I can put it back. The baby." He grinned as if that were proof enough that he was telling me the truth.
"Who are you?" I whispered.
"What will you give me to put it back? Something. Anything." His smile softened. "Anyone."
"I donít know. I canít."
Tealíc stared as OíNeill seemed to shrink, a shadow of the confident man who had won his loyalty. The man whom he called brother and friend. "OíNeill?"
"To whom are you speaking? Share what is troubling you and perhaps I can help." Tealíc glanced gratefully at the empty weight machine. He could hear the distant friendly banter in the locker room as the Marines prepared to shower. Others should not see OíNeill in this state. "We are alone, OíNeill." Kneeling down, Tealíc gently lifted Jackís unresisting hands and quickly unlaced the gloves, tossing them aside. He was troubled by OíNeillís features, his eyes fixed in a terrified stare at something only he could see.
"Who are you?" The ragged whisper was as close to begging as Tealíc had ever heard his friend come.
"It is I, Tealíc. You know this, OíNeill," he reached out and gently thumped Jackís chest, "in here. Trust your heart, my friend, and not what your mind is telling you."
He knew the instant OíNeill returned from whatever dark place that had held him captive. His eyes, one moment staring and fixed, suddenly blinked and focused upon his hands. Although, from the way he was staring at them, Tealíc had serious doubts as to whether he was actually seeing them.
"OíNeill, are you well?"
There was a long silence and he began to wonder if OíNeill would answer at all. "I donít know, Tealíc." The voice was frayed, worn and tired. "I just donít know."
"Is there something I can do to help?" He spoke quietly, knowing his friend would recognize his sincerity.
"Gotta get a shower." Jack struggled to his feet. "Weíve got that debriefing with Hammond."
This was a weary stranger speaking. Someone giving the correct responses by rote. There was none of the emotion and zest that Tealíc normally associated with OíNeill. This voice was flat, forsaken, lost. "OíNeill, perhaps I should summon Doctor Fraiser."
OíNeill shook his head. He turned towards the locker room. "Itíll be okay, Tealíc. Iíll meet you in the briefing room. I have to grab a quick shower."
Tealíc watched as OíNeill moved slowly towards the door. Never before would he have felt compelled to describe his friend as old, but that was the impression one would have to look at him now.
"I just have to wash off the blood."
If the comment disturbed Tealíc, it was impossible to read it in his stoic expression. "I shall wait until you are finished, OíNeill. Then we will attend the debriefing with General Hammond together."
Hammond took his customary seat at the head of the table and glanced over the report before him, confirming what he had already studied thoroughly. Clearing his throat he looked up at the group awaiting his orders to begin. Everyone was present. "Letís get started people, shall we? Major, I trust you and Mr. Quinn have had adequate time to assimilate the information the Asgard obtained concerning the success and ramifications of SG-1's mission to Hala.
"Yes, sir," Carter acknowledged with a crisp nod.
"Very good." He had expected nothing less. "Iíve asked Doctor Fraiser to attend this briefing and share some information concerning this missionís follow-up. Major Carter, due to the fact that we postponed this briefing until the Asgard shared that information, why donít you give us a brief recap of the mission before we review the new material in order to refresh everyoneís memories." He shot a quick glance towards Jack expecting one of the Colonelís usual sarcastic comments. He was surprised to see OíNeill sitting uncharacteristically silent with none of the normal fidgeting, simply staring at the open report in front of him. Covering his surprise, the General nodded towards Carter, giving her permission to begin.
"While aboard the X-303, SG-1 was approached by Thor. The Asgard requested that we accompany them back to Hala, the original planet settled by the Asgard, where they had used the android Reese to issue a call forth to the Replicators. A great battle ensued allowing most of the population to evacuate and allowing the Asgard to use the planet to set up a time dilation bubble. The time dilation device created a field radius of .16 light years, basically creating a bubble in space within which time is slowed down by a factor of ten to the fourth power. In other words, sir, one year to the Replicators would equal about 10,000 years outside the bubble. An hour would equal more than a year."
"And why did the Asgard need our help, Major?"
Without taking his eyes from the report, Jack gave a snort, "Because it didnít work, sir."
"Care to elaborate on that a bit, Colonel?"
OíNeillís eyes flickered to Hammond before returning to the report. "No, sir. That about covers it."
"Well, Colonel, for the benefit of the rest of us, do you mind if Major Carter shares a bit more insight into the situation?" Hammondís forehead furrowed as OíNeillís head tipped in apathetic consent.
Rushing to fill the awkward silence that ensued, Carter continued. "Well, sir, in a manner of speaking, Colonel OíNeill is right. The Asgard knew they had, well, screwed up." She smiled apologetically as OíNeill snorted with rancor. "They needed our help and our ship because . . ."
". . . of its vastly inferior technology," OíNeill finished for her. "Same song, different dance, General. They needed someone stupid enough to land the good olí US of Aís piss-poor excuse of a ship on a planet infested by Replicators and hope to God the bugs wouldnít give a ratís ass about stopping them. Guess we fit the bill, sir. There was only one glitch in their little superior plan. It didnít work and it left us sitting with our ass in a sling . . . again, sir."
He could feel their eyes crawling over him, like those damn bugs in the Russian sub swarming him, eating away at his control. The knot in his stomach grew, twisting and coiling, a writhing mass of snakes. God, he wanted out of here. Out from under the scrutiny, from their casual discussion of that mission. Clinical . . . matter-of-fact . . . just another day in the life of SG-1 . . . another one that they had pulled out of the fire.
"Iím fine, sir." He could feel the tension in his jaw mount as he held Hammondís gaze.
OíNeillís eyes dropped back to his file when the General seemingly accepted his words. "Very well, Colonel, if you say so." The unspoken, ĎBut I donít believe you for a minute,í fouled the air around Jack. "Doctor Fraiser, you have some information you would like to share?"
Janet dragged her attention away from her observation of the Colonel. "Yes, sir. When SG-1 returned from Hala, they reported that the Replicators had performed some sort of a mind . . . reading, for lack of a better term. Major Carter, Jonas, and Tealíc all reported a vague feeling as if they had experienced a nightmare."
"What about Colonel OíNeill? Did he report the same feeling?"
"No, sir." Janet shot an uneasy glance towards Jack. She knew how much he hated being discussed like this, but the General was leaving her little choice in the matter. "Colonel OíNeill stated that he remembered absolutely nothing of the experience." Janet knew she looked and sounded as skeptical as she felt.
The General was nobodyís fool and he knew how to read his people Ė what they said and more importantly, what they didnít. "Colonel, youíre saying you donít remember anything? Nothing at all?"
Jack shrugged almost too casually. "Nope. Nothing."
"General, the situation described by SG-1 amounted to essentially, well . . . rape, sir. Mind-rape, if you will." Janet watched the muscles in Jackís jaw tighten, the only flaw in the casual persona he had donned. "I recommended the members of SG-1 report to Doctor MacKenzie to discuss the event. He met with each person individually." She laid her hand on the report. "He finds no just cause as to why they cannot be on active duty status." The look on Janetís face left no doubt that she would have liked to have questioned her colleagueís judgment.
Silence filled the room.
No one seemed eager to break into the silence. Hammondís glance was shrewd as he stared at his people: Tealíc, impassive as always; Carter and Jonas, puzzled, but interested, despite their victim status in the whole episode; Fraiser, wearing that pissed Terrier expression that said she couldnít quite put her finger on something, but was determined not to quit worrying at it until she had her answer; and OíNeill . . .
They couldnít hear me screaming.
I didnít understand. How could they not hear me?
I wasnít sure how long Iíd been here. Or why. Only that Iíd been here forever.
And I was going to die.
I knew that. Iíd suspected for some time. But now, listening to their voices, hearing them discuss me with clinical stiffness, I knew.
I would die eventually without their help . . . agonizingly, slowly. But they couldnít wait for that; they were going to kill me.
I screamed again, silently, and writhed without movement. They paid me no attention. Huddled into a tight group, they discussed their options, plotted against me.
Earlier, Iíd called out to God. The God of my Father and Mother, Grandma and Gramps. Iíd begged Him to release me from my agony. My lips had formed the words, "May this cup be taken from me." Words Iíd forgotten I even knew.
My pleas were ignored. But I didnít blame Him. I had abandoned Him so long ago that even when pleading and screaming from the pain, Iíd recognized that I didnít deserve His mercy.
But theirs? Hadnít I earned theirs?
Only one had shown me kindness. The alien; the one who least and most resembled me. He stood beside me . . . comforting, protecting, guarding, but in the end, powerless.
I forced my weary eyes open and looked down at them. Despite the drugs flowing through me, heat and pain visibly radiated from my body. Breathing shallowly, agony consuming the entire left side of my chest, I watched as the one who swore he wouldnít leave me walked away. He turned his back and moved to take a stand with them. Against me. Against what I was becoming.
"If you do so, OíNeill will die."
"Heíd want us to try this . . . I know it."
I couldnít escape. I was trapped. Cornered. Pinned. I couldnít even plead. I hadnít the strength or the voice for it. I was no longer whole. I had become . . . something else. I was out of control and abandoned.
I realized someone was talking to me, but caught only the softly spoken, ". . . if what we are about to try is a good idea or not, but you have the right to know: You might not survive it."
My hand grasped at the last human touch I would ever feel.
Seconds later, I was shaken. Once, twice, three times.
"Open your eyes."
I looked up into a pale face hovering over mine. He smiled kindly and a cool hand stroked my hot, sweaty face.
"I can save you," he whispered.
"Are you . . .," I licked my dry lips and grimaced at the lingering pain, "are you God?"
The smile widened. "What will you offer me to save yourself?"
Desperately, I searched my cluttered thoughts and memories for something, for anything, for the answer to his question. I caught a glimpse of Gramps fishing, teaching me how to cast the line just so; Grandma straightening my tie before Church; Momma cutting my meat into bite-sized pieces; and Daddyís strong arms as he picked me up and tossed me, giggling, into the air.
I sobbed, smiling at the slightly familiar face. "My soul?"
. . . and OíNeill looked like he was wound tighter than Granddaddyís watch spring. With reluctance Hammond gave his full attention back to Doctor Fraiser and the matter at hand. There would be time to corner the Colonel if he had to hog-tie him first to do it.
"I take it from your expression that you donít necessarily agree with Doctor MacKenzieís recommendations." He had already read the psychological reports detailing the events described by the others and the Colonelís adamant denial of any memories of the Replicator Firstís invasion of his mind, and had some serious questions of his own.
"Well sir," Janet began cautiously. It was never good to state categorically that a colleague was off base on an evaluation. Things like that had a tendency to turn around and bite you in the ass, particularly when working on a small base like the SGC. Her motto had always been to tread lightly and if you were going to second guess another doctor, make damn sure you were right. "Psychology is certainly not my field of expertise, but I have done some extensive study on the effects on victims of stress related trauma." She looked towards the General.
Hammondís brisk nod affirmed that he was following her so far.
"Janet, are you suggesting that weíre suffering from the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Because if you are, I feel fine." Sam looked across the table at her teammates.
They could almost see Jonas sifting through the vast quantities of material he voraciously consumed until he located the topic at hand. "Me, too, Iím feeling just fine. How about you, Tealíc?"
"I suffer no ill effects, as well, Doctor Fraiser."
The General held up his hand, calling a halt to their interruption. "People, let Doctor Fraiser continue. There will be a time for your input, but right now I want to hear what the Doctor has to say."
"Sorry, sir. You, too, Janet."
Janetís smile told them all she wasnít irritated by their breach in decorum. In all likelihood, she wasnít even surprised. "Sam, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a lot more common than most people think. This condition was once associated mainly with war induced trauma, battle shock, severe wounds, POWs," her eyes drifted involuntarily to the Colonel, before she realized what she was doing and upbraided herself. She hurried on to safer ground, then realized that in this conversation safer ground was in reality quicksand. Taking a deep breath, she plunged ahead. "Today, PTSD is used to describe a much wider range of trauma victims: rape, crime, survivors of natural disasters, torture victims," she fought to keep her eyes from drifting towards Jack again, "abused women and children, those involved in severe car wrecks, even women who have miscarried, or someone who has experienced job loss. Under todayís definition, even police, firefighters and nursing personnel are at high risk."
"Doctor Fraiser, how could, letís say for instance, a person who has lost their home to a tornado fit into the same category as a soldier fighting in a battle?"
Janet turned to Jonas, grateful that she could look at him rather than fighting the losing battle of staring at the Colonel. "Jonas, while each survivorís history and coping techniques are unique, it is important to realize that they have all basically been rendered helpless in a dangerous situation. The fact that one situation is a natural occurrence that the person had no control over and in the other the person may have voluntarily placed themselves in danger has no relevance."
"What symptoms should we be concerned about, Doctor Fraiser?" The General cast an eye over his people. Weighing what the doctor was sharing against his gut feeling for each person. Carter and Jonas sat relaxed, but eager to hear the information being shared. Tealíc gave no visible indication that this information was of any great concern. The Colonel appeared to be paying scant attention. Nothing new there. OíNeill was notorious for his impatience and short attention span during lengthy briefings. In fact, heíd have been tempted to reprimand the Colonel, except for the fact that he knew Jack would be able to quote verbatim the contents of the briefing, whether it appeared he was listening or not. Even now, his eyes were fixed to the folder before him as he doodled in the margin of the official report. Hammond shook his head in silent amusement. God only knew why the Colonel was sketching a window.
"Well, sir, there are a variety of common reactions and some less common. You need to understand that a person probably wouldnít suffer from all of the symptoms and certainly not all to the same degree. For example, one person might experience insomnia and anxiety, while another has nightmares and bouts of self-doubt. Unfortunately, war-related flashbacks have been glamorized in movies. These can be debilitating and lead to other reactions tied into the root cause. Things such as depression, anger." Again she felt her eyes drift toward the Colonel who was apparently oblivious to her words as he added a latch to the window he had sketched. "Substance abuse, avoidance strategies, even the inability to speak, feel, or move." The silence of her brief pause was disturbed as Jackís pencil lead snapped.
"Janet," Sam tore her attention away from Jackís ruined sketch, "are there certain personality traits which make a person more susceptible to developing PTSD? I mean, do things like mental stability or previous psychological state play into it?"
"Youíd think so, Sam, but actually those factors have limited bearing. The critical variable seems to be the degree of stress to which the victim was exposed. With that in mind and with the Generalís permission, I thought it might be a good idea if each of you could briefly describe what you remember about the mind-invasion by the Replicators." She looked at Hammond for permission to continue.
"If you believe this will shed some light on this mission, Doctor, you may continue."
"Thank you, sir. Call it a gut feeling, but I just feel like itís important that the members of SG-1 be informed as to what to look for should something unusual arise from this experience. Sam, do you want to start?"
A frown puckered Carterís forehead. "Honestly, Janet, I donít know how much I can tell you. Everything is sort of fuzzy and vague. It was like having a nightmare, but once it was over, it was really no big deal." She sat quietly, obviously lost in thought until she began to speak in a quiet voice. "I remember my mom. It seemed like we spent a lot of time thinking about her: the fun we had together, the things we did, her death and how I felt about it." She paused and blinked away tears which threatened to spill over. "It was a little like that Blood of Sokar, but more inclusive. It was like the Replicator wanted to experience as much of my life as possible. Iím sorry, I donít remember much more."
"Thatís okay Sam. You did great. Tealíc, how about you? Do you remember anything that could be useful?"
"There is not much I can tell you, Doctor Fraiser. As Major Carter stated, it was not a pleasant experience; however, it was not something which I cannot overcome. I sensed curiosity. Some of the memories were unpleasant; some, however, brought me much joy, such as the birth of my son. I have experienced no undue distress."
"Thank you, Tealíc. Jonas?"
Before Jonas could answer, he was interrupted as Jack pushed back his chair and meandered towards the coffee pot, pausing to look out the window at the activities below. Arching his back, and rolling his head as he stretched the cords of his neck, the Colonel gave the impression of someone in bad need of a break.
"Colonel OíNeill, is something the matter?"
Turning, Jack eyed his commander as if trying to determine just how far he could push the situation. "No, sir, itís just that weíve been sitting for quite some time. Doc got kind of long-winded. No disrespect intended, Doc." He tossed her a lazy smile.
"None taken, Colonel," Janet replied with a grin. "Perhaps you should go next. That might alleviate your boredom, sir." She watched as his smile wilted and his eyes hardened. Despite the signals she was receiving, she plunged bravely ahead. There was something important here. She couldnít put her finger on it, but if it was related to that episode in the infirmary then sheíd risk the Colonelís wrath. Damn the torpedoes full steam ahead into the hurricane. "Jonas, if you donít mind."
Although obviously a bit confused by the turn of events, Jonas shook his head. "No, not at all. You go right ahead, Colonel."
A hardness had settled over the Colonelís features which obliterated any sign of the friend Janet knew, the man she trusted with her daughterís life. This man was a stranger, cold, distant, frightening. Janet was hard-pressed not to shudder as she struggled to maintain her composure. She searched in vain for a hint of recognition to the comfortable relationship they had developed over the years, at times easy-going, at others volatile, but never like this. Suddenly, Janet had an idea why the Colonelís wife had fled all those years ago. Janet marveled that the others appeared oblivious to the change in the climate of the room, to the glacier emanating from those dark eyes which were attempting to swallow her alive.
Taking a shaky breath, Janet squared her small shoulders and stepped out to face the demon. "Colonel," she began slowly, choosing her words with care, "would you please tell us what you remember of your encounter with the Replicator known as First?"
For a moment Janet was sure Jack would break a tooth, so tightly was his jaw clenched. But as she watched, it was as if she were watching an actor on a stage. The pressure around his jaw eased, his shoulders dropped slightly in a relaxed manner, he leaned against the windowsill casually and gave her the gift of one of his drop-dead killer smiles, guaranteed to have all but the strongest nurses swooning into their bedpans. "Donít remember a thing, Doc. Zip, nada, nothing. Sorry to disappoint. Maybe next time."
His cavalier dismissal and refusal to cooperate pissed her off. Pissed her off royally. Damn him for thinking he could dismiss her like that, especially when she knew deep in her gut that it was all an act. "Actually, Colonel, itís quite common for victims of PTSD to experience numbing, and in some cases partial or total amnesia of the event." Take that Colonel Asshole. No one treats me like the little woman and gets away with it.
OíNeill shifted uncomfortably, his butt pressed against the window pane, as if he were trying to push his way through the glass barrier to his freedom.
"Colonel, please cooperate with Doctor Fraiser. Do you remember anything that might be construed as symptomology of the things she has described?"
There was silence in the room except for OíNeillís deep, ragged breath. "What?" Even though she had been awaiting an answer, Janet nearly jumped as he barked out the question. When she didnít respond, he continued, the anger pouring off him in hot waves. His eyes locked onto Janet and for the moment everyone else vanished from existence. "Iíve danced to this tune before, Doc, you know that." There was the tiniest hint of a plea in his voice, one that she forced herself to ignore. "You didnít think Iíd recognize it for what it was?"
The pregnant pause of silence answered his question.
"Colonel, there are methods that could help you remember. Techniques such as hypnosis."
That actually made him smile, albeit a brittle shadow of the real thing. "Hypnosis? Come on, Doc, remember who youíre talking to. Special Ops 101. It wonít work on me." His eyes laughed as he played his trump card. "And even if it did, Iíd have to kill ya."
Janet allowed a tight smile to break through, before she shook her head. "Iím sorry, Colonel, I just donít believe you. Call it a gut feeling."
"Damn it, Doc, what about my gut feeling? I told you nothing happened. Now let it go!" He took a step towards her.
Hammond was on his feet. "Colonel OíNeill, calm down! This is still a briefing and you will sit down and cooperate."
But Jack was rushing towards the door. "Sorry, sir, but I need a break."
"In a few minutes, Colonel."
"Sorry, General, itís an emergency." Without another word, he bolted from the room.
The room was dark. And empty.
I was alone. I could tell without looking. I didnít need to raise my head and squint around at the darkness. If they were here . . . if He were here, Iíd know it. The Bastard would have made His presence known the moment I regained consciousness.
Naked, I was stretched out on my stomach on the dirt floor, my head cradled on my right arm Ė the same arm theyíd dislocated three days ago. With Jerryís help, Iíd managed to get the joint back in place, but apparently weíd done a half-assed job of it; my elbow was still swollen and throbbed like a son-of-a-bitch.
Jerry had been my cellmate ever since my capture over twelve weeks ago. Had been . . . until yesterday. Yesterday theyíd killed him. Heíd killed him. The Bastard had finally gone too far. Already suffering from the effects of The Bastardís previous torture sessions, the half-starved father of two from Cleveland hadnít survived the last round of beatings. The twenty-three year-old had died strung upside down from the rotting rafters of a stinking, blood-splattered room. The Bastard had forced me to cut him down and bury him in a shallow grave inside our cell. If I opened my eyes, I would see the outline of his already decaying body within armís reach of where I lay.
Jerry was dead and tomorrow, the smells would begin.
Jerry was dead and I was pissed.
At both of them . . . The Bastard and his victim.
I wanted it to be me. It should have been me.
Jerry and I had made a pact. One of us had to make it out alive. Whichever one went first, the other had to swear to make it out. He had to get back so that wives and children would know what had happened. Weíd exchanged information . . . names, addresses, last messages. We had spent days memorizing what the other wanted . . . needed, to say. Last words to loved ones to be delivered through the mouth of a stranger.
Jerry had won. Heíd died first . . . leaving me with a mission. I had sworn an oath, an oath heíd died trusting I would honor. I had messages to deliver to Amanda, to four year-old Cody and to Jenny who was turning two in five weeks. Amanda had a tendency to withdraw and I was to tell her that she had to get out, to keep going to church and to keep working. She couldnít let herself hide away and wither. Jerry didnít want that. He wanted her to date, to find someone else Ė someone who would love her and his children; someone who would help her raise his kids.
Cody was now the man of the house. He had to help his Mommy with his little sister. He had to clean his room, and feed and walk the puppy that heíd gotten for his birthday. He had to remember to give Mommy a kiss every morning. And most especially, every Sunday during the Spring and Summer, he was to give her and Jenny a flower apiece from Mrs. Nortonís flower garden next door . . . just like Daddy always did when he was home.
Jenny was to get a hug and because she was too young to remember him, the picture in the top drawer of Jerryís dresser Ė the one of him holding her when she was a yawning newborn Ė was to be framed and put on display. He wanted her to always know that her Daddy had loved her.
I had it memorized. I knew exactly what to say. I would tell them his last thoughts had been only of them.
I wouldnít tell them how heíd screamed and begged for mercy.
And I couldnít tell them the day heíd died. I suspected it was late January, possibly early February. Maybe I should pick a date . . . give them an anniversary, a moment in time, to remember, to memorialize.
I had messages to deliver.
But I didnít want to.
I wanted that mound, the one just beyond my reach, to cover me instead. I didnít want to have to survive this. I just wanted it to stop.
My arm throbbing, I lifted my head and stared over at the far corner of the cell. A shallow indentation in the ground was my bed. Only a thin layer of dirt separated it from the grave which lay before me. Groaning, I pulled myself towards the meager refuge of my cold, hard bed.
I stretched my left arm forward, shoved with my knees and inched my way across the floor. Halfway there, mere inches from where Iíd started, I had to stop to rest. I was shaking and out of breath. My legs ached and my stomach cramped, threatening to loose itself. I lay there panting, riding out the pain in my gut. I was far beyond the humiliation of shitting myself; it was the thought of worsening my already dehydrated condition and the inability to clean myself that empowered me.
When I had gained a modicum of control, I inched forward again. Twice more over the course of four feet I was forced to rest. But finally, I pulled myself into the familiar outline my body had worn into the hard floor, and I curled up into a naked, shivering ball. I huddled there like a frightened dog and stared at the mound of dirt: a grave stretching between me and the door; an abyss between me and freedom.
I shut my eyes, searching for death. When I opened them, it was there, kneeling before me.
I didnít even flinch. I think Iíd lost the ability to be surprised. Iíd lost it and so much more over the course of the last twelve weeks. And earlier today.
Jerry smiled. "How you doing, buddy?"
I didnít answer. I lay there like a wounded fetus and stared at him, dry-eyed.
"Donít feel like talking, huh? Thatís okay." He settled down onto his butt and made himself comfortable. "Bad day at the office, Jack?"
I shivered and ran my eyes over his neat, clean BDUís.
He saw my glance and fingered his shirt, laughing softly. "Yeah, about these . . . sorry, but I donít think theyíre your size."
He sobered and looked at the parts of me that he could see. His eyes took in the swollen elbow, and the cuts, bruises and dirt that mottled my skin like refugee camouflage. I saw him wince at the raw, infected wounds around my wrists. His eyes traveled downward, lingering on the fresh bruising on my thighs. As if in response, I was suddenly aware of blood trickling down the backs of my legs.
"He did it, didnít He? The Bastard finally did it." Jerry shook his head, his eyes beginning to water slightly. "God, Iím sorry, Jack. So sorry." He slammed a dead fist on the hard ground. "After all this time, I thought rape was something weíd be spared. Did HeĖ"
"Take me with you." The plea was softly spoken and more to shut him up than anything else. I had no real hope that heíd grant my request. I didnít think he could. I mean, I was dealing with a dead guy.
Jerry stopped his ranting and as I watched, his shoulders drooped. "I . . . I canít, Jack. You know that. Besides," he forced a smile, "we had a deal, remember?"
"Dealís . . .," I groaned as another wave of cramps gripped me. I panted my way through it. "Dealís . . . off."
"No. Itís not. You owe it to me." He was growing angry. "And if not to me, then to Amanda and my kids." I hugged my stomach tighter and watched his eyes harden. I shivered at the cold hate emanating from the dead man in front of me. "You swore."
"I canít. I donít think . . .," I swallowed back a dry sob. "I canít do this. Just take me with you." I shut my eyes, willing him to go away and drag me with him to the hole out of which heíd crawled. "Please."
He was silent for a moment. When he spoke, his voice was shockingly close and uncaring. "You miserable coward."
I opened my eyes and shook my head at the apparition.
He loomed over me. He smelled odd and unpleasant. "Sorry, worthless piece of shit."
"No," I whispered. But he was right. I was. All those things. I was scared and worthless and miserable and sorry . . . so sorry. So sorry, Sara, but I just want it over.
Jerry stopped talking. He didnít move. I looked up into his too clean face. It wavered, shifting in and out of focus. The face of my only friend melted into another . . . one that I thought I should know. The head tilted towards me and I was graced with an inhuman smile.
"What will you give me to take you away from here?"
Shivering, my stomach cramping violently, I studied his eyes, looking for hate or anger or curiosity . . . anything. But there was nothing I could recognize.
"First," I heard myself say, without knowing why.
The smile tightened.
Codes. He wanted codes. And addresses. Gate addresses. Suddenly, I thought of Daniel and how much I missed him. And Jerry.
First shook his head, reading my mind. "No, something more." When I hesitated, he glanced towards the door, then back at me. "Hurry. Heíll return and do it again."
I felt my thready pulse quicken. "Me. Take me."
He smiled again. "Better. But not enough."
* * * * *
The door slammed shut behind him. The room was empty save a lone airman he didnít recognize doing his duty saluting the urinal. The man gave him a casual glance one might given his current occupation.
Jack stood there, his jaw rigid, his breath coming in spasmodic gusts though flared nostrils. "I said haul ass now, Airman!"
The airman tossed Jack a classic Ďyou-have-got-to-be-shitting-meí look before frantically attempting to stop in mid-steam and stuff the family jewels back in the vault without pissing his pants or damaging his chances at future fatherhood. It might have been funny, another time, another place . . . another lifetime. As it was, Jack stepped silently aside allowing the man to stagger past him before reaching to bolt the door. Stumbling into a stall, he fell to his knees and braced his palms on the hard plastic seat just as warm, sour vomit spewed from his mouth and splashed into the bowl.
Drained and shaking with exhaustion, Jack rested his head in the crook of his arm, desperately trying to quell the ache in his cramping stomach. First? Iraq? But that made no sense. Why after all this time? Why now? Heíd locked those dark days away. Years ago. In a place no one could ever find them. Not even him. He shuddered, his sweat-drenched uniform chilly and uncomfortable in the air conditioned climate of the mountain.
Jerry? Oh God, heíd been gone for so many years now. Buried and forgotten despite failed efforts to bring him home. Guess the Iraqi government didnít want proof of their deeds dug up. Fourteen years. Was that possible? The kids were nearly grown. Hell, little Jenny was driving. Amanda had remarried. A guy from her church. She seemed happy the last time heíd checked. But it was awkward. Damn awkward, as he sat there on her paisley couch in her beige living room with the perfectly pleated drapes and the knickknacks dusted and on display, her thigh pressed against her new husbandís, her hand clutched tightly in his. Sheíd said all the right words - polite small talk - that had his teeth on edge in a matter of seconds. Jerryís name came up only once - in the introductions. ĎRandall, this is Colonel OíNeill, he was a friend of Jerryís.í Then he was buried and relegated to off limit status. And Jack knew it was over. The mission was complete. The file closed, just like that chapter in his life . . . until now.
A whiff of sour odor caused his stomach to cramp painfully. Jack groaned and pressed his face harder into his arm trying to escape the smell. His emotions were raw, painful in their own right. He felt out of control and it pissed him off. Pissed him off at Doc and Hammond, his team and Jerry. What right did his former cellmate have to resurrect and interfere in Jackís life after all these years? He was pissed with that damn Replicator, First, for being somewhere he shouldnít, but mostly he was pissed at himself for not being in control and for allowing this to scare the shit out of him.
If he could have managed the logistics, Jack would have planted his size eleven and a halves right on his own ass. He would have told himself to pull it together, OíNeill, because if you donít, MacKenzieís gonna throw away the key to the rubber room they lock you in and there wonít be a damn thing Hammond, Doc, or the rest of SG-1 will be able to do about it. Kiss it goodbye, Jack; youíll be eating pancakes with a toothpick and counting the fucking minutes till your next sponge bath! Thatís what they do with guys like you when you go nuts. No second chances, no miracle cures, just tan mucho tiempo, imbťcil, so long sucker, and youíre off to Lala Land in a drug induced stupor for the rest of your life.
Bleary eyes opened and Jack stared down at the tiled floor. A lone square of toilet paper lay there crumpled, soiled, forgotten, waiting only to be swept away and destroyed. The irony was not lost on him. God, life sucked when you felt a kinship with discarded toilet paper.
He had to pull himself together and get back to the briefing. Hammond would have the MPís out looking for him if he waited much longer. Averting his eyes to the mess in the stool, Jack reached out blindly for the handle, flushing the evidence of his offering towards insanity and his own weakness away. He eased himself off his aching knees, not at all surprised at how shaky and weak he suddenly felt. Moving mechanically, he made his way to the sink and cupping his hands, Jack washed his face with cold water, reveling in the frigid bite against his flushed skin.
Snagging a paper towel, he wiped away the moisture and looking over the top of the towel he suddenly found himself staring at a reflection in the mirror he barely recognized. God, who was that? A trembling hand slowly traced the lined, weathered face staring at him. When was the last time he had looked at himself? He shaved every morning. Did that count? If it did then why hadnít he noticed who he had become before this? This was a stranger staring at him. A frightened, confused stranger that had somehow invaded the space he used to inhabit. Those eyes werenít the confident, oft-times defiant orbs that Sara used to call the windows to his soul. These eyes were flat and empty, as if a plug had been pulled and all the life drained away. Heíd seen eyes like this before . . . back there. Fixed and staring in a face that used to be a friend, but was now an empty husk waiting to be cut down and flung in a hole. Dammit, no wonder Doc wouldnít let go.
Years ago, when he was just a kid, heíd had an uncle his Mom had insisted was eccentric, but everyone else called crazy. Uncle Shawn would walk onto the back porch at Grampsí and in a God-awful fake British accent yell, ĎThe fox is aground. Loose the hounds.í Jack remembered laughing along with the adults at his uncleís antics, not understanding the laughter but feeling very grown up by proxy. Looking in the mirror, Jack had a sudden empathy for that hunted fox of his uncleís imagination. Somewhere, somehow, the hounds had been loosed in his own mind and were bent on running him into the ground. The hounds of Hell.
A deep shaky breath exhaled slowly as Jack rolled his head back and forth, hoping to relieve the tension building in the cords of his neck. Pull it together, or your life is gonna make that toilet paper look glamourous by comparison. If you donít, youíre both going down the crapper.
The briefing room was empty when Jack, plastering what he hoped would pass as a look of casual confidence, eased the door open and stepped into the room. Crap, were they all out looking for him? He hadnít seen any MPís in the hall, but that didnít necessarily mean they werenít out searching the base for him. He was a little surprised that Hammond had pulled the plug so quickly. Heíd have thought the General would have given him a little more leeway before he snapped.
Dammit, hadnít he earned a break or two?
Walking over to his old friend the windowsill, Jack leaned the heels of his hands on it and rested his forehead against the cool pane of glass as he looked down into the Gate Room. There was too much activity down there for it to be routine. The blast doors slid open, just as the fully armed SFís barreled into the room, perfectly timed to the lighting of the first chevron. Well that explained the pre-empted briefing. Jack didnít know whether to be worried or ecstatic over the nature of his sudden reprieve. He didnít give himself time to dwell on it as the alarms began to announce the off-world activation message that always sent adrenalin pumping through his veins, temporarily squelching all other feelings and emotions as he went on auto-pilot. Jack turned from the activity below and ran for the door.
They were all there, save Doc, just as he knew they would be. Carter sat at one of the Gate monitors, her eyes glued to the screen, her forehead puckered in concentration. Hammond stood at her shoulder, staring at the screen, awaiting her to decipher and share the incoming information. Tealíc and Jonas stood in the background, each wearing their own brand of concern, out of the way of the bevy of technicians who seemingly appeared from thin air. There was a tension in the air which Jack had come to expect. Nodding at Tealíc and ignoring Jonas, Jack quickly moved to stand beside the General. Glancing at the computer screen, he made no attempt to make sense of the data, waiting rather for Carter to enlighten him. "Sir?"
Hammondís customary frown never wavered as he glanced towards his second before returning his eyes to the screen. "Colonel, weíve had communication from Orban. A distress signal."
The nod of affirmation with which he responded gave no indication of the sudden knot that formed in his gut. Merrin, the alien kid heíd kidnaped in a last ditch effort to save her from her own sense of duty, was on that planet. He hadnít seen her since the day SG-1 had been recalled by Kalan to see the results of Merrinís averium, the thought of which was enough to give him nightmares for a month. Something he so didnít need right now. He was saved from the path his own thoughts were treading as Carter glanced over her shoulder. He could feel her concerned eyes rake over his face, but thank God she kept her comments and questions about the state of his well-being to herself, concentrating rather, on the matter at hand.
Facing the monitor, she listened intently on the earphones before sliding them around her neck and swinging the chair around to face Hammond. "General, itís a message from Kalan. He says that Orban is under attack from what he assumes is a Goaíuld. From what he describes, sir, it sounds like an approaching mothership. No ground troops have come through the Stargate, but smaller vessels have made short attack runs through the city. So far damage has been minimal and the leaders have managed to keep most of the citizens safely underground in the catacombs beneath the main part of the city, but Kalan feels that itís only a matter of time before the attack intensifies. Sir, despite what theyíve learned about the Goaíuld from us, the Orbanians have little hope of defending themselves without our help." She paused, her eyes pleading silently.
"General, these people are our allies." Like Carter, Jack stared at Hammond. "We have to help them."
Hammondís eyes glittered steely blue as he weighed the options. "Colonel, get geared up. Youíll take SG-1 and SG-5 and be ready to debark for Orban within the hour. Major, inform Kalan that help is on the way."
Jack took a step back. "Yes, sir, thank you." Raising his voice he included the others awaiting his orders, "Letís go kids. Weíve got work to do."
Nodding his thanks to the General, Jack turned to follow his team. The Generalís words stopped him. "Colonel, donít make me regret this decision."
Jackís voice was soft. "You can trust me, sir."
Hammondís glare was unwavering. "Iím going to hold you to that, Colonel."
* * * * *
Groaning, I stared down at the arrow which pierced my right arm. "Dammit."
I turned my head and looked into familiar blue eyes. "Daniel?"
"Donít move." I was leaning against him, allowing him to keep me upright. He worriedly studied my face, then shouted at someone I couldnít see. "We need a medical team in here. Now!" He turned back to me, frowning. "Itís okay. Itís going to be okay."
I blinked, feeling sleepy. What the hell was he going on about? It was just an arm wound, for crying out loud. The damn arrow had shot out of the wormhole and penetrated the glass in the briefing room window, knocking me to the floor before Iíd even realized I was hit.
"Hang on, Jack. Janetís on her way."
Inexplicably, I found myself laying on my side on the carpeted floor. I wasnít sure but I thought I could feel a chair leg or maybe Danielís foot pressing against my back. Hammond and the rest of my team were just beyond Danielís shoulder. Suddenly, I was aware of a sudden rush of activity around me as the room swarmed with armed SFís and medics. Everyone was talking and yelling at once. I saw Tealíc hurry across the room towards the stairs and realized someone else had approached and was kneeling next to my legs.
Feeling breathless, I glanced down to find my second in command staring at me, her face pale. "CarĖCarter?"
"What . . . happened?"
"Jack, donít talk."
I glanced back at Daniel, who leaned close and was doing something to my chest. Why my chest? It was my arm that . . .
Pain flared, sweeping across my torso like a raging fire.
"Oh, God." I moaned and struggled to push him away from me. Crap. What the hell was he doing? "DanĖ," but it turned into a scream.
As I watched, his face lost all color. "Shit. Sam?"
I tried to lift my head to see what they were doing. Tears were blurring my vision and my hands were engaged in a desperate battle to protect my chest.
"Colonel," Sam had moved up near my shoulder and she was trying to keep my hands away from whatever Daniel was doing. "Please, sir. Danielís trying to help. We need to stop the bleeding."
I gasped loudly and shuddered. My head dropped back to the floor with a dull thud and I felt my entire body begin to shake. The noise around me swelled and the room darkened.
* * * * *
Trembling, the dull echo of pain still burning through his chest, Jackís clinched hands grasped the edge of the bench where he sat surrounded by his gear. He couldnít afford to allow himself to be distracted, not by his own disjointed thoughts, not by some picture in his head that some damn Bug Boy had planted. There were too many real things, real people, depending on him for him to allow himself to fall apart.
His team needed him and as screwed up as he was, there was no way heíd allow them to go without him. Not into a battle situation. Tealíc could handle himself and Carter knew the ropes. Even Jonas had proven himself over and over, maybe not in battle, but by using that insatiable appetite for learning and then applying it in the best possible times. When heíd first come to the SGC, Jonas had seemed about as useful as tits on a boar, but the kid had a way of growing on you like jock itch, and even when he was annoying as hell, he was still part of the team. But as good as each of them was, this dance was for a foursome and he was still leading.
His mouth set in determination, Jack reached for his vest, automatically running a mental check of the contents of his equipment as he geared up. Looking up, he found Tealíc watching him as he donned his own gear. Silently they stared at each other, communicating with the mutual understanding they had established and honed over the years. No words were necessary. Two brothers whose actions spoke louder than their words.
Had it been anyone else, he might have been tempted to explain why it was so important that he be allowed to go on this mission, but any explanation to Tealíc would have been tantamount to convincing himself. So he didnít try, but instead basked in the acceptance and understanding he read in the dark eyes. No matter what happened, no matter how many times his brain short-circuited, he could trust Tealíc to cover his six.
Breaking eye contact, Jack pulled a velcro strap taut. What would they find on the planet? How many times had they been too late? He couldnít keep the thought of a dozen possible scenarios from flashing through his mind.
He thought of Merrin. Of the way she had looked up at him as she sat with the box of color crayons heíd given her. There had been no recognition in her eyes, but her calm trust had been obvious as sheíd scribbled boldly on the wall. It was impossible not to remember Cassieís planet and others they had seen over the years. Children, their parents, harvested as hosts, sold into slavery, or killed outright. Suddenly, he felt old and very tired.
* * * * *
"Ėpressure on that. Come on, people."
Fraiserís voice was brisk, self-assured. I felt someone settle an oxygen mask over my face and hands were tugging at my shirt. I heard the familiar sound of cloth being ripped with a pair of scissors. I forced my eyes open and stared up at the ceiling.
"Colonel? Sir, can you hear me?"
I was on my back. Daniel and Carter had been replaced by Janet and her minions. Doc leaned over me, a tight smile firmly in place. I opened my mouth to speak, surprised to find I didnít have the breath required to ask even a simple question.
"Colonel, youíre at the SGC. Your team is fine. You have a chest wound, sir. You were shot with an arrow."
Chest? I could only remember getting shot in the arm. Although, that would explain the pain that emanated somewhere just to the right of center. I swallowed and sucked at the clear plastic mask blowing air in my face. It wasnít enough. Frowning, I tried to take a deep breath. My second mistake of the day, apparently. Not only did it not work, pain reared its ugly head once again. Groaning, I tried to roll to my side. Immediately, hands were grabbing at me.
"Colonel, you need to lie still."
They were holding me down. The ceiling above me was fuzzing in and out, and Janet loomed over me.
"Sir, donít fight this. Okay?" She smiled softly.
* * * * *
Jackís head jerked up and he gasped. He was suddenly back in the doorway, staring out at a cloud of dust created by the exploding foundation.
"Are you injured?"
"No. No, Iím . . . fine."
Jackís mouth was dry as he fought to clear his mind. This couldnít be happening. Not here. Not now. Struggling to regain control of his senses, his gaze roamed the open courtyard. Damn First for fucking with his mind and damn the Orbanians for not heeding the military knowledge they had gleaned and leaving a backdoor in this section of the city. Damn them for leaving the Urrone kids behind, even unintentionally.
Kalan had frantically informed the team that the Orbanians had been unable to successfully reach one wing in the hall of the Urrone children. Despite his personal feelings towards the Orban manís previous actions and stubborn refusal to consider options other than the averium, Jack couldnít deny the fatherís anguish as he had pleaded to be allowed to try and reach Tomin and the others.
"Colonel, please. In the confusion of the attack, some of the Urrone children were left behind. Tomin, Solen, and Merrin were with them. Zaren and others, as well. We must reach them. Please help us. I fear for my sonís life."
The men had stared at each other and in the end it had been OíNeill who had looked away from the fatherís honest fear and pain.
"Morrison, you and your team get these folks undercover," heíd ordered, "and then hold the Gate. Carter, stay with them. Tealíc, you and Jonas are with me."
They had dodged through the empty streets, slipping in and out of doorways, praying they would reach the lost children without challenge. Their luck had dissipated just as theyíd neared the building. A glider had screamed in low through the abandoned streets. It was obvious the moment the pilot had caught sight of them. Rather than the haphazard destruction insouciant of a particular target, they had suddenly found themselves bombarded with a deadly rain.
An elaborate mosaic fountain had exploded near them, showering them with tiny ceramic missiles just as Jack had reached the relative safety of the doorway. He had been aware without looking when Tealíc had reached the temporary haven only a fraction of a second behind him.
Now, one hand clutching the doorframe to steady himself, rocked by the blast and by the flashback that had hit without warning, Jack could see Jonas still crouching behind the remains of the fountain, his face dotted with flecks of blood caused by the sharp shards.
"Jonas, get your ass in here," he shouted. "Thatís an order! Move it now, or Iíll shoot you myself."
The startled look on the young manís face left no doubt heíd heard OíNeill.
The glider buzzed past, preparing to make another run. Jonas immediately launched himself from behind his inadequate shelter and dove towards his companions. Tealícís quick reflexes saved the Kelownan another tumble.
"You okay?" Jack eyed the manís bloody face.
Too spent to waste breath on needless words, Jonas simply nodded.
His eyes on the sky, Jack reached for his radio. "Carter, report."
There was momentary static as he waited impatiently for a reply and the strings of worry pulled his mouth into an ever increasing line of tension. Just as his fingers twitched in preparation of toggling the switch again, Carterís voice provided a strange mixture of relief and dread from the unmistakable sounds of battle in the background.
"Sir, I canít be sure, but it looks like this attack is more for show than any serious threat." The transmission scrambled and static crackled.
Jack shook the radio, his frustration at the necessity of splitting his team under battle conditions obvious. "Come again, Carter. Youíre breaking up."
"Sorry . . ." More static ensued. ". . . Colonel. Two gliders making . . . strafing runs over the city." Jack strained to put together the broken message. ". . . third glider down . . . somewhere." The signal broke off.
"Dammit," Jack snapped. "Carter, do you read me? Weíve got a third bogie on our ass. Carter?" With a look of undisguised irritation he muttered, "Ah, hell." The radio static ceased and there was silence, save the sounds of Jonas struggling to catch his breath and the distant scream of the glider engine.
Shooting a quick frown towards Tealíc, Jack peered out into the empty courtyard. "Two or three gliders. Does that make sense, T? Can we expect more company?"
Tealíc was silent as he considered the options. "Perhaps. But it may be that the Goaíuld is not a System Lord and has limited resources to expel on the capture of this world."
"Which would be a good thing," OíNeill interrupted.
"Indeed." Tealícís eyes were as grave and shadowed as the doorways within which they had taken refuge. "Until we are able to identify our attacker, it is impossible to say with certainty; however, OíNeill, if it is a Haítak vessel, then by the time it arrives it may be too late to save these people."
"Then letís go find those kids before we get company." Leading the way into the shadows of the stone structure, he added, "And Jonas, wipe that blood off your face. We donít need to scare these kids anymore than we have to." As Jonas lifted a hand to wipe his face, Jack felt his world slip away.
* * * * *
I was awakened by the sound of my own breathing.
It should have been comforting. Might have been, had it been natural. The fact that there was a tube shoved down my throat and a machine pumping air into my lungs detracted from the ambiance. I must have moved because suddenly she was there, leaning over me. Fraiser. Doc. Working at saving me once again.
"Youíre in the infirmary. Youíve had surgery. Are you in any pain?"
The machine hissed, my chest rose, and I thought about her question. Yes, there was pain. But it was manageable. I blinked up at her.
"We . . .," Docís lips pressed together and I saw her dark eyes filling with tears. She squeezed her eyes closed and I was amazed to see large droplets track down each side of her face. "Sir, there was too much damage. Iím afraid . . ."
I was suddenly aware that sheíd been holding my hand. The machine hissed. My chest rose.
So this was it. Iíd finally bitten off more than I could chew. Iíd somewhat successfully dodged bullets for years. All this time, I should have been watching for arrows.
The machine hissed. At least my team was safe. My chest rose. My eyelids drooped.
* * * * *
Jack opened his eyes and found himself quickly moving, along with the others, through the halls littered with Aztec-like statuary that would have had Daniel in raptures Ė if he hadnít already been raptured, Jack thought with a twinge of customary pain that had become as much a part of him as the pain in his knees. In one of the rooms off the open courtyards they found the missing children, frightened and huddled together.
Breathless, shaken by much more than the threat hanging over the city, Jack performed a quick head count which eliminated the option of simply hustling the kids back the way they had come. There were simply too many of them to make their way through the streets under the threat of the death gliders.
Tealíc had irritated him when he vocalized the obvious. He resented hearing that which his own mind was telling him. "OíNeill, it will be impossible for these children to return to their parents until the Jaffa threat has been eliminated."
"Yeah, I figured that out," he snapped. Tealícís face remained impassive as he waited patiently for OíNeill to offer further thoughts.
Eyes dark with decisions, his face grim as he looked at the children in his charge, Jackís eyes lingered on Jonas Quinn as he comforted a young girl and gently stroked her hair. "Tealíc, number one priority is to get these kids out of here. I wonít let some damn Snakehead waltz in here and play attack of the body snatchers."
"I understand, OíNeill."
"Okay, Plan ĎBí." He made an effort to hide the knot of worry that twisted in his gut as he looked at the kids and spotted Merrin watching him from the back of the group. "Come on, kids," he said with feigned jocularity, "Uncle Jackís gonna teach you a new game. Itís called ĎHide and Seek.í"
* * * * *
A soft, cool touch on my forehead. The sign of the holy cross. From the days of my childhood. From the days before I had made a habit out of killing people.
The machine hissed.
"Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in His Love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit," a whispered prayer.
A soft, cool touch on the backs of my hands.
"May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up."
Freedom from my sins.
I recognized the offer of comfort to the dying and opened my eyes. They were all there, crowding around me. Hammond, Doc, my team, and a robed priest, his head bowed against my passing.
Seeing me awaken, Fraiser stepped close beside the bed. Her eyes were red, swollen, but she was smiling as she clasped my hand in hers.
"Colonel." She leaned down and ran a hand along the side of my face. The touch felt good, although final.
The machine hissed.
I looked at Hammond. His stoicism didnít fool me. I knew him too well. He stared back at me, then nodded slightly as if to acknowledge our time together.
Tealíc . . . the Jaffa stood tall, his strong hands clasped behind his back, but his eyes glittered with unshed tears and his lips trembled. Surprisingly, of them all, I thought I would miss Tealíc the most.
Daniel was there, standing slightly behind Jonas. Only Daniel met my gaze. His head lifted and he forced a tired smile. Jonas stared at the floor.
Carter completed the circle. Her large blue eyes held mine. Tears ran unchecked down her cheeks and she shivered as she hugged herself.
A strange hand touched my arm.
"My son," the priest whispered, "what sacrifice do you bring?"
Confused, I looked up into a now familiar, smirking face. First . . . the last face I would see.
The machine hissed.
* * * * *
Jack groaned and shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. All in all, Plan ĎBí sucked. Despite their quick search of the area, the only viable alternative had been to lead the children down into a stone cellar beneath the building. None of the other basement rooms had proved to have a practicable escape route and Jack had refused to take the chance of exposing the children to the possibility of being hit. And so they had dug in and hoped for a miracle that somehow they would be overlooked or deemed unimportant enough to search out.
Firstís question still ringing in his ears, Jack heard the unmistakable sound of armored feet echoing down the hollow, tunnel-like hallways, gaining strength as they grew closer.
"They are coming, OíNeill."
"I hear em, T." Turning to look once again at the children, Jack was struck by just how young Jonas looked sitting there among his charges. Something dark and dreadful shifted inside Jackís mind, and he was nearly overwhelmed with a horrid sense of deja vu that he couldnít place. Despite his worried expression, the young man held an aura of almost child-like innocence that was diametrically opposite to that of he and Tealíc. Jack took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Jonas, it looks like weíre going to get company soon. Try and keep everyone quiet and if they start firing on us, you get those kids down. Understand?" Almost as an afterthought he added, "And donít forget to make sure your own ass is covered."
Jonasí eyes darkened anxiously, but he nodded. "Yes, sir. Iíll do my best."
"OíNeill, there will be little to gain in an overt fight. It will only insure the probability of injury or death to the children."
The frustration of the choiceless situation lent a rough edge to his voice. "Yeah, I know, Tealíc, but dammit, I canít just let some Snake grab these kids and do nothing."
"I understand." The men looked at each other, dark eyes staring into darker. "Do you wish to fight then?"
And in that brief moment of unspoken communication, Jack knew that his friend and brother understood far more than his brief words proclaimed.
"Letís just play it by ear and see what they want. Maybe the Girl Scouts are branching out to boost cookie sales."
Tealícís head tipped as he pondered the statement. "If that is so, OíNeill, then put me down for three boxes of Thin Mints."
Jackís mouth quirked. "Youíve gotta be kidding, Tealíc. Tagalongs rock. Thin Mints suck."
"Indeed they do not."
A haughty voice interrupted further cookie discussion. "I come in the name of our god. I am sent to harvest that which is his. Kneel slaves and prepare to do the bidding of Pelops, the Creator and Giver of Days."
"Colonel." Jonasí voice sounded loud in the sudden silence. "Pelops? Isnít he the Goaíuld on Argos who was experimenting with the nanotechnology that aged you?"
"That would be the one." Jack grabbed for his radio. "Carter, now would be a good time to come in. Weíre running out of options here." The empty crackle of static filled the room.
Jack peered through the open door, facing the leader of the small squad of Jaffa waiting with weapons drawn. "What exactly do you want, Quasimodo? Because T and I have decided to cut back on the sweets so if youíre selling cookies, we arenít buying."
The Jaffaís puzzled frown bought them all of ten seconds before the buzz of staff weapons charging filled the tiny room, interrupting Jackís monologue. "Enough! You will send out the harvest of our Lord or we will take the chaff with the wheat and allow Pelops to have the pleasure of winnowing the entire crop himself."
Jack stepped out into full view. "Okay, take me then." He ignored the muted cry of disapproval from Jonas as he stared straight into the eyes of the First Prime.
"You are not from the harvest of my Lord." He stared with smug assurance at the grey haired man standing before him. "You are not worthy of such an honor. I give you one final chance."
Jack stepped back into the room and turned to face Tealíc. He stared into his friendís non-judgmental features. "Iím sorry, Tealíc. I have no choice. I canít let him have the kids." His voice dropped to an agonized croak. "Iíd go myself if heíd let me. You know that, donít you?"
"I do. There is no choice, OíNeill, and yet you are the one who must choose. A sacrifice must be made."
* * * * *
I watched Tealíc place Ryaíc on the ground. The boy was wet with sweat and even from where I was standing, I could tell he was burning up with fever. Dreyíauc and Tealíc leaned over their son.
"He no longer draws breath, Tealíc."
The panic I heard in Tealícís voice struck a familiar chord. A numbness crept over me. "We should try to make it to the Stargate." My mind in a tailspin of harsh memories, it was the only solution I could think of. Get him to Fraiser. Get the dying boy to the doctors. They could save him. They had to save him.
I realized Tealíc had spoken when I heard Dreyíaucís mumbled, "No, no, no."
The same words Sara had spoken when Charlie. . . .
I suddenly knew what Tealíc was going to do. What he was doing. My breath caught in my throat and my heart raced. I felt a knot growing, hardening inside me, and I opened my mouth without considering what I was going to say. "Tealíc, you want to think about this? You canít live for more than a couple of hours without that thing."
Braítac looked me in the eye. "It is a fatherís right."
His words stung.
A fatherís right.
Speechless, I watched as Tealíc began removing his armor. He spoke, but all I heard were Braítacís words. I stared at Tealíc and his son, but saw only the look of accusation in Braítacís eyes. As the symbiote slithered from father to son, I felt sick with disgust and had to look away, swallowing bile.
A fatherís right.
"Forgive me, my son. Forgive me."
I looked at Tealíc. Did he know about Charlie? Did Braítac?
A fatherís right.
What the hell did they know about a fatherís right? What the hell did these Jaffa sons-of-bitches know about a fatherís right?
Nauseous, I put a hand to my stomach. Where had been my right to save my son? Did they think I wouldnít have given anything to save him? Did they think I wouldnít have given my own life to save him? I would have given it twice over. Without hesitation.
Feeling the blood drain from my face and hate taking its place, I watched as Tealíc saved his dying child.
* * * * *
Patience had never been a virtue for the countless Jaffa they had encountered over the years and apparently this guy felt no need to buck this time-honored tradition as he punctuated his demand by firing his staff weapon and chewing off a piece of molding. It was a shot meant to intimidate, but it effectively dragged Jack back from another planet a galaxy away. The frightened screams of the children and Jonasí frantic attempts to follow orders mingled with the distant sobs of a distraught mother. Sweat beaded, trickling down his forehead, stinging his eyes, as Jack found himself staring into the face of the man who had just been allowed the choice of saving his son.
Tealíc reached out, placing a supportive hand on OíNeillís forearm. "OíNeill?" The unspoken question hung thick in the air like the smell of ozone and dust from the blast.
Jack flinched visibly at the touch. "You had a choice, Tealíc. Why? Why the hell didnít I get the same chance?" His voice lowered to near whisper. He shook his head. "It isnít right. I would have done the same thing. I just never got a chance."
Tealícís face remained impassive, but in the dark depths of his eyes Jack read a bevy of emotions stirring. "I cannot answer a question I do not fully understand, OíNeill, but I do know I have been given many choices in my life, just as you have. As a warrior and a leader of men, we both have made choices and will continue to do so. Thus is the mantel of command."
Jackís voice dropped to the barest of whispers, hidden beneath the sounds surrounding them. "But what about the mantel of fatherhood?"
Strong fingers tightening their grip on his arm was his only answer.
His eyes stung and Jack suddenly found he could no longer look his friend in the eye. Blinking away salty moisture, he stared where the children lay curled and clinging to one another on the floor. Jonas, his eyes dark, huge in the dim light, crouched protectively over his charges on one knee, his weapon poised. His grim expression a lifetime away from the zealous enthusiasm of norm. Jack sighed. The transformation of the young scientist would be yet another sin to heap upon the mound that would eventually bury him.
Jack could feel the eyes of his teammates on him, awaiting him to pronounce judgment, to seal their fate. Time slowed until he felt like it was he who was trapped back on that God-forsaken nightmare of a planet, Hala, instead of the Replicators.
The decision was made. Jack swallowed hard and licked his lips, his mouth suddenly dry. Finally, he spat the words out as if he could rid himself of the taste of failure, cowardice, and betrayal. "Iím sorry." His voice sounded loud in the sudden silence of the room and he was almost overwhelmed by the release of pressure as if Doc had lanced the inflamation of an infected wound and the build-up of purulence and pus had poured out.
His radio crackled to life.
* * * * *
"You didnít want Tealíc to save him."
I swung around at the sound of the voice.
First stood at the base of the ramp, hands clasped behind his back, looking up at me. His face was serene.
"Thatís . . . thatís not true."
Behind me, the open wormhole shimmered, blue light dancing across his face.
"I didnít want him to die."
"Are we speaking of Ryaíc, Colonel? Or are we speaking of Charlie?"
"Why are you doing this?"
First smiled. "You intrigue me."
"Thatís not a reason," I whispered. I felt tired, exhausted, and my head was pounding.
First stepped onto the ramp. "Oh, but it is, Colonel."
"I thought," I rubbed my throbbing head. "I thought you wanted codes, addresses."
"Yes, I did. But you wouldnít give them, remember?"
I frowned. No, I couldnít remember. Things were all mixed up. Memories and nightmares and vague images threatened to flood my senses. I staggered slightly.
"Even when I . . ."
My head snapped back with the impact of the single shot and I saw Charlie lying on the floor, bleeding, then First was back.
". . . did that."
"Donít," I ordered.
"All right." He approached me, calmly walking up the ramp until he stood less than ten feet away. Cocking his head to one side, he studied me. "I must admit I underestimated you, Colonel. But while you havenít given me the information I wanted, you have not disappointed me."
"Well . . .," I was going to grace him with one of my smart-assed comebacks, but I was too tired, in too much pain. "Stop this."
"Now that I know how you operate, perhaps we can . . . negotiate."
"Please donít dismiss me out of hand, Colonel. You have yet to hear my offer."
"Oh," he smiled again and I felt a chill wrap itself around me, "but I think you are."
* * * * *
"Sir, weíve entered the building and have the targets in sight."
At the sound of Carterís voice Jack shuddered, dragging himself out of the cold chill of the depths of the abandoned Gate Room. He was trembling and as the pain in his head slowly subsided to a manageable level, he suddenly realized his fingers were cramping from his tight grip on his P-90. Shame flooded his pale features when he saw the frightened faces of the children staring at him and the volumes of concern in Jonasí eyes. He quickly loosened his death grip and ran a shaky hand over his clammy face. Shit, he could have wiped out everyone in the room trying to eliminate an imaginary enemy who had taken root in his head. How close had he been to pulling the trigger? He looked at Merrin. It wasnít safe to have him in here with these kids. He couldnít trust himself. Dammit, he needed to be locked up where he couldnít hurt anyone.
"OíNeill, you are needed." Tealícís yell grounded him just as his touch had moments before.
"Jonas, keep those kids back." Away from me, he added silently. His eyes bore with steely intensity into Jonasí, brooking no arguments. "And Jonas, if you see me zone out, start acting weird, if you even think Iím posing a threat to you or these kids in any way, Iím ordering you to take me down. Tealíc can take care of himself, but you and the kids are a different story. Do I make myself clear?" He ignored the owl-like surprise on the young manís face, the questions and disagreement sitting at surface level, and continued rapidly. "Youíve got a weapon. Use it. Thatís a direct order." His voice was lower, but no less intense as he added, "And Jonas, I mean take me out. DOA. No chance for walking wounded. Are we clear on that? Aim right here," he touched his forehead briefly, "just point and shoot like weíve practiced, until Iím down. In this close proximity you canít miss. I know itís not fair to ask you to do this, but I donít have a choice. You have to trust me on this, because Iím trusting you." Jonas hadnít lost his anxious stare, but he slowly gave a nearly imperceptible nod. Jack moved over to the doorway and crouched opposite Tealíc just as the first clatter of automatic weapons sounded in the hallway. Together, they joined the foray, trapping the enemy with deadly efficiency between the two forces.
Jack sighted and squeezed the trigger, watching as the stream of bullets climbed from groin to throat of the First Prime, slamming neat holes in his armor. Dust motes celebrated his death as the Jaffa toppled forward and hit the floor.
Chaos ensued in the Jaffa ranks as they spun, trying unsuccessfully to fight two enemies who were shooting fish in the proverbial barrel. Within moments it was over. The sudden silence was nearly deafening, broken only by a few half-hearted sniffles from the children and Jonasí earnest murmurs. Jackís arms fell heavily to his sides as he slowly rose to his feet, so spent he was barely able to maintain his grasp on his weapon. He watched numbly as Carter, leading two members of SG-5, secured the area and checked the bodies.
Carter skirted the casualties and stepped towards Jack. "Colonel, are you alright, sir? We lost radio contact and Major Morrison and I determined you might be in trouble when you didnít return or check in. The rest of SG-5 is holding the Gate, sir, and it looks like the remaining bogies bugged out." She looked over at Jonas and his charges. "Looks like the children are fine." Sam frowned at Jackís lack of response and pale worn look. "Colonel, are you sure youíre okay?"
Dull brown eyes met her gaze for a moment before darting off again. "Yeah, Carter, Iím fine. Good work. See to the kids and letís get the hell out of here."
"Yes, sir. Thank y . . . ,oh, I almost forgot." Stepping to the door, Sam stuck two fingers in her mouth and gave a sharp whistle. Waving a slender arm, she signaled someone to move forward.
Kalan stepped out, eyeing the dead Jaffa with trepidation, but with obvious determination to reach his child.
Jack watched the Orbanian man without comment. Then he walked over to the children, handed Jonas his weapon, and held out a hand for Tomin. The child reached for him with complete trust and Jack led him to his father.
Closing his eyes briefly against the pain which hit him with sickening force, Jack made himself not turn away from the unadulterated joy that washed over Kalanís face as he fell to his knees and hugged his child.
The man looked up at Jack, his eyes bright with unshed tears. "Thank you, Colonel OíNeill. Thank you for giving me back my son."
Jack turned and walked away, closing himself off from the reunion of father and son.
* * * * *
"I can give him back to you."
I stared at First, studied eyes which revealed nothing. "Who?"
He smiled. "Your son."
"You donít believe me." Feeling sick, I tried to push past him but he grabbed my arm, stopping me. "You think Iím lying, Colonel?"
I glared at him. "What I think is that youíre a sick, demented son-of-a-bitch who doesnít deserve to live. And the first opportunity I get, Iíll see that you donít."
Smiling, he shook his head and ran a cold, dead hand over my face in an intimate gesture that left me feeling dirty and weak. Then, unexpectedly, he released his grip on me and I stumbled down the ramp, away from him.
Gasping, I froze. "No."
"Colonel, before you leave, perhaps you should say good-bye to your son."
I squeezed my eyes shut. "No."
Oh, God. Charlieís voice. Charlie. This couldnít be happening. It wasnít possible.
Despite knowing, I couldnít stop myself. Slowly, I turned. My son was standing in front of First. The maniacís hands were resting on Charlieís narrow shoulders.
"Please donít do this." I stared at Charlieís face, but spoke to First. "Please."
"Dad, can I come home with you?"
First smiled, as if proud of his creation. "Well, Colonel? Charlieís waiting."
"IĖ," but I couldnít speak. I groaned softly and stared at my sonís face, at the copy of my own crooked smile.
"You still donít believe me." Sounding disappointed, First gave Charlie a little shove and my son ran down the ramp and threw himself at me, wrapping his arms around my waist. Oh, God. Tears rolling down my cheeks, I stared at First, my arms hanging limply at my sides.
"Well, go on, Colonel. Hug your son."
"Dad?" I looked down. Charlie was smiling up at me. "I missed you."
My legs failed me. I sat down hard, Charlie clinging to me, struggling to help me. He insinuated himself onto my lap and into my arms. Wrapping myself around him, I buried my face in his neck and cried like I hadnít when he died.
"Oh, God. Charlie."
A small hand patted my back. "Sshh. Itís okay, Dad. Iím here. Itís okay."
I sobbed and rocked my son in my arms. Iím not sure how long I sat there, cradling my child, allowing him to comfort me. Clasping him firmly in my grip, I looked up at First who was still standing at the top of the ramp.
"What . . . what do you want?"
* * * * *
"Colonel?" The soft voice had a tentative quality to it that somehow managed to edge its way around the question he had asked First? At a gentle touch, Jackís eyes snapped open and he found himself looking into the anxious blue eyes of his second in command. Carter was squatting next to him on the floor while Tealíc and Jonas stood like cement lions on either side of her. "Sir, may I have Solen now? Weíre done here and we need to leave. Solen needs to go with Kanan to find his family."
What the hell? Jack blinked slowly as if coming out of one of Janet Fraiserís drug-induced stupors. "Major, mind telling me what the hell is going on?" He suddenly realized he was sitting on the floor of the cellar room. He was clinging to a young boy who was sitting in his lap. Charlie? No, this child bore no resemblance to the child he had clung to with frightening ferocity a moment before in the Gate Room. To his horror, he realized that his face was wet with tears and he was trembling. Looking up at his team, Jack read compassion, pity, and concern by the boatload on their faces. Slowly he released his grip on the child, allowing Carter to take the boy.
"Carter," he slowly forced himself to meet her eyes, "effective immediately, Iím hereby relieving myself of command. Youíre in charge." He handed her his sidearm.
Though clearly uncomfortable, Sam didnít argue as she reached out to accept the weapon. "Yes, sir." Standing, her eyes betrayed the falsehood beneath her calm, professional demeanor. "Tealíc, would you go topside and make sure weíre clear for go before we extract the children?"
Tealíc nodded and although his dark eyes were troubled, he left without comment.
"Sir, are you going to be alright to get to the Gate?"
The wry look caused Carterís cheeks to flush. "Sorry, sir. Iíll just go check with Tealíc and make sure itís safe to leave." And then realizing she was babbling, her cheeks flushed deeper and she led the children out of the room.
Jonas held out a hand offering a nervous smile. "Allow me to help you, Colonel."
Ignoring the proffered hand, Jack heaved himself to his feet and in one fluid movement he had the Kelownan pinned against the stone wall, his hand twisted in the collar of Jonasí t-shirt. His voice was low, intense and threatening. "Listen, you son-of-a-bitch, when I told you to keep these kids away from me I meant it." His face was hot with the rage he could feel building. He tightened his grip to emphasize his point. "It wasnít an option. It was an order I trusted you to carry out and you fucking screwed that trust."
Jonas fought down the panic, knowing to fight back was useless. "Colonel OíNeill, sir, Iím sorry." He was stammering, grasping at something to defuse the manís anger. "I thought with the threat of the Jaffa over, well . . . Iím sorry . . . but nothing happened. You werenít hurting the child. I thought . . ."
"You thought wrong!"
Jonasí face had turned red. "Itís just that you didnít seem to be hurting the boy. You didnít seem to be . . ."
"What? Didnít seem to be threatening enough for you, Quinn? Well how about now? You feeling threatened now?"
"Colonel, you just seemed scared and lost for a few minutes." He hesitated before adding, "You were crying."
The anger suddenly drained from him as if someone had pulled a plug leaving him void of support. Slowly untangling his fingers from the material, Jackís hands dropped in defeat and he stared unseeing at the ground. He was tired and afraid. Heíd crossed the line with Jonas. Heíd crossed the line with himself. Heíd lost control and it scared the shit out of him. Lost control of his actions, his mind, and his honor. Heíd crossed the line and he didnít know if heíd ever be able to make it right. "Letís go home," he said with weary resignation.
If he hadnít been so exhausted and beaten down, if his mind hadnít been on other things and other times, Jack would have laughed out loud when two hours later he heard the first words out of Carterís mouth."
"The mission was a success, sir. Colonel OíNeill led a group into the area where they were successfully able to locate and protect the Urrone children until reinforcements arrived. From what we have been able to piece together, sir, the Goaíuld, Pelops, was instrumental in planting the nanite technology in the Orban society as part of an experiment to increase the human potential for knowledge transfer."
Hammond frowned. The debriefing was well underway and according to all reports it appeared to be a resounding success. But his gut was telling him there was more than one fox in the hen house with this mission. One look at OíNeill told him more than any report could. It was simply a matter of knowing how to smoke out the fox or foxes, as the case may be. "But Major, according to Doctor Jacksonís original mission report, it was the Orbanians themselves who developed the nanite process," he glanced down at the open file in front of him, "fifty-two years ago."
"Thatís true, sir, but what we didnít realize was that the Orbanian scientists had been compromised by Pelops."
Jonas, who had been silent up to this point in the debriefing, interrupted. "Yes, sir, apparently Pelops was able to convince a small contingency of scientists of the benefits of an alliance."
"The proverbial dangling the carrot?"
"More like curiosity killed the cat, sir," Carter smiled. "He basically handed them a Pandoraís Box and let the nature of scientists do the rest." Having the good grace to look abashed she continued. "Weíve done it ourselves, sir. Think about the orb from P5C-353." At Hammondís unspoken question she added quickly, "The orb we mistook for the time capsule, General. The one that pinned Colonel OíNeill." Her eyes fell on Jack who had spent the entire debriefing silent and withdrawn, fiddling with a pencil and staring at the open file in front of him. "Sorry, sir," Carter muttered.
Without looking up, Jack waved off her apology.
When it became apparent Jack did not intend to speak, the General nodded permission for Carter to continue. "It appears that this attack was nothing more than Pelops checking out his lab experiments. With all due respect, sir, the so-called attack was pretty low-scale for a Goaíuld."
Tealíc had remained customarily silent up to now. "Many minor Goaíuld spend much of their time and efforts infiltrating rather than conquering a planet. In the manner of a jackal as opposed to a lion, they will invade and attack with a few smaller vessels hoping to intimidate the populous of a planet. When challenged they flee, seeking a more timid opponent to bully.
"So are you saying that Pelops will come back to Orban?"
"Although it would be wise for the Orbanian people to remain diligent, General Hammond, I do not believe the Goaíuld will return any time soon."
"Good." Hammond closed his file. "Well, people, if thatís all?"
Carter shot an uncomfortable glance at Jackís bowed head. She looked at Jonas and shook her head minutely.
"You have something else to add, Major?" Sam looked up to find Hammond watching her shrewdly. "Something you may have forgotten to include in your report perhaps?"
There was silence, thick and uncomfortable. Only Tealíc and Hammond looked relaxed.
The silence was broken when Jack, still refusing to look up, spoke. "Sir, permission to speak with you privately?"
Hammond looked sharply at his hitherto silent second. "Granted, Colonel. The rest of you are dismissed."
"But, sir," Sam began.
"I said dismissed, Major."
Clearly uneasy, nevertheless Sam stood and collected her reports. "Yes, sir."
The room cleared quickly, leaving Jack and Hammond in silence. "Colonel, I have a couple of quick calls to make. Now obviously, this is difficult for you to talk about. I can respect that. But I am going to get to the bottom of this, so I suggest you use the next few minutes to pull yourself together and be prepared to discuss this in detail when I return." He paused, but when no response was forthcoming he added, "Do I make myself clear?"
Jack sat, wishing he could walk across the room and get a glass of water, but afraid to move. Finally, he worked up enough spit to swallow. "Yes, sir, I understand." It just wasnít in him to come back with a snappy, smart-ass remark. And as Hammond left to make his calls, Jack sat feeling trapped and afraid.
* * * * *
First sauntered down the ramp towards us. "I want to know what you will give for the life of your son."
It was a mistake. Never allow the enemy to see your vulnerabilities. But it was too late. He knew me. He knew everything about me. "Anything. Iíll give anything."
"Really?" First knelt down in front of me. He started to reach out a hand towards Charlie, to touch him, but I recoiled and he stopped. Drawing his hand back, he smiled almost sadly. "Yes. Perhaps you will."
He stood and walked across the room. Then he turned and studied us, Charlie and I, sitting there on the floor. We were wrapped around one another, our flesh and our sweat and our tears mingling.
"A life for a life."
"What?" I frowned, understanding but not wanting to. "What do you mean?"
"Charlie may go, but someone must stay. In his place."
Pushing Charlie from my lap, I struggled to my feet. "Me. Iíll stay."
First smiled and shook his head. "No."
He stared at me, through me. "There are three others."
Three others? "But I donítĖ," and then it hit me. "My team."
His smile was no more alive than the rest of him. "Choose one."
"No. I canít. I wonít."
He glanced down at Charlie and back at me. "Wonít you?"
Oh, God. "Please. Donít make me choose."
"Come, Colonel. It shouldnít be difficult. You make life and death decisions every day."
"Thatís . . . thatís different."
"Is it? Shall I help you then?" When I didnít respond, he began pacing as if deep in thought. He stopped and looked at me. "Jonas Quinn."
"No." I shook my head. Despite his inauspicious beginnings, the young man had ingratiated himself into our lives. "No."
"All right. Then, Samantha Carter it is."
"No. Stop!" Carter. Smart, funny, young, bursting with life. "Not Carter."
First approached me, stopping halfway across the room. "Then, as you would say, Ďthe decision is made.í The life of the Jaffa in exchange for the boy."
Tealíc would give his life in a minute, in a heartbeat. I knew that with a certainty. I glanced down at Charlie, who was staring up at me, wide-eyed. I gave him a comforting smile and squeezed his shoulder. I would take care of him. Except for the one time it counted, I always had. I blinked back tears and looked at First.
"Jonas," I offered. "Jonas Quinn."
* * * * *
"Thank you, Doctor." George Hammond hung up the phone and studied the open folder in front of him. He hadnít needed more than a cursory review of MacKenzieís report and a quick telephone call to the psychiatrist himself to know that Doctor Fraiser had been right: Jack was suffering from PTSD. And, he wasnít talking.
Jack OíNeill was a good man, and he was a damn fine officer. Smart-mouth aside, he was one of the best men George had ever served with or commanded. And, as he had once told the Colonel, it wasnít even close to his first barbecue so Hammond recognized Jackís mouth for exactly what it was: a defense mechanism. It was expertly applied to repel people or to suck them in, to divert attention or to draw it; the intent and effect depended on the circumstances.
Jack could be as irritating as hell. When he was on a roll, which he often was, he could be more annoying than a baying hound with a treed raccoon. George couldnít even count the sheer number of times that he had inwardly cringed when he saw Jack preparing to share a piece of his mind with some visiting Tokíra or someone from the Joint Chiefsí office. Honest to God, the manís aim was just as deadly, and a hell of a lot more painful, when flinging words as it was when he was wielding a loaded weapon.
But push come to shove, there wasnít a man under the face of this sun or any other that George would rather have watching his six or leading his people through the Gate. When it came time to step up and pay the tab, despite what he might profess to the contrary, it didnít really matter to Jack if he liked you or not Ė he was just as apt to take a bullet for the likes of Kinsey as he was to take one for his team.
There were times when George thought he understood Jack better than Jack understood himself. Then there were times when he thought the man was more alien than Tealíc. Maybe it was because George had learned from his wife, Claudia, the benefits to be had from talking things out and getting things off your chest. But it seemed that Jack, through circumstances beyond his control, had been taught to hone the ĎIím fine, no problem hereí routine into a first-rate art form. Speaking of which. . . .
George rose and walked over to the window, staring out at the man in question. Jack was still sitting at the conference table, stiff and absolutely still. That in itself spoke volumes about the state of the manís mind. Jack OíNeill was neither of those things. He was a man in constant motion. So the question was: what had happened to change that?
MacKenzie and Fraiser both agreed it had something to do with SG-1's mission to Hala. Jonas Quinn, Tealíc, and Samantha Carter all reported nightmare-like experiences when the Replicators had assaulted them. Apparently, the initial assault had lasted an ungodly thirty-seven hours. Only Colonel OíNeill denied any memory of the assault. Only Colonel OíNeill was suffering from PTSD. Hammond didnít profess to be a mathematician by any stretch of the imagination, but he certainly knew that two and two didnít equal five.
Watching Jack, he felt his blood pressure climb as he observed the glazed eyes. The manís body visibly tensed and George could observe from here the rapid and shallow breathing that indicated OíNeill was at this very moment seeing and experiencing something that existed only in his mind and perhaps in his past.
Dammit! George rubbed a shaky hand over his upper lip, wiping away a layer of sweat. His first instinct had been to confront Jack outright but after observing the man throughout the debrief, he seriously doubted that a confrontation was the best course of action. After a brief call to MacKenzie, he was sure of it. The problem was: George didnít know what to do.
The only thing he knew for sure was that if he were given access to First, heíd take the damn machine apart building block by building block just for what heíd done to Jack, to say nothing of what the Replicator had planned to do to the rest of the galaxy.
But First wasnít here. Jack OíNeill was. And while one begged to be destroyed, the other was destroying himself . . . in silence and without protest.
* * * * *
Jack cleared his throat and glanced around. No one had seen him. He still had time to make his getaway. Hearing the muted sound of voices coming from inside the house, he faced the door and rang the bell. Typically when he came here, he went around to the back. Today was different. Today he was here under orders.
Kayla flung open the door. "Uncle Jack!"
"Hey, Fido. How you doing?"
She smiled and grabbed his hand. "Grandpa said that you and I are in charge of making the burgers."
"Really? Even after last time?" Jack couldnít help but grin as she pulled him towards the kitchen.
"Last time wasnít our fault. Grandpa said."
"I said what?"
"General." His smile slipping, Jack nodded a greeting to Hammond who, along with Tessa, was elbow deep in a bowl of baked beans. "Um, problem, sir?"
"Tessa lost an earring and is convinced that Kayla dropped it in the beans."
"Out of spite, Uncle Jack," Tessa pouted.
"I did not. Whoíd want your crummy old earring anyway. Itís probably got Rodney Hurteauís spit and cooties all over it. Besides, it was ugly."
"Was not, you little brat."
"Girls!" The room fell silent as the General pulled his hands out of the bowl and began rinsing them under the faucet. "So, Jack, would you like something to drink?"
"Come on. Help yourself. Thereís some sweet tea in the fridge. Or thereís beer."
Smiling at Tessa, who was feeling her way through the beans and eyeing her sister, Jack poured himself a glass of tea.
Hammond held out his own glass and Jack filled it. "Letís go sit outside. The grillís not quite ready."
Squeezing Tessaís shoulder as he passed, Jack followed the General outside and sat down in a deck chair overlooking the vibrant lawn. The men sipped their tea and watched in silence as a small covey of quail darted around on the back edge of the lawn, looking for all the world like tiny little Shriners in fancy headgear. Inside, the girls were at it again. As he listened, Jack suddenly remembered he and Sara timing a verbal dual between Charlie and his friend, Joey. The boys had argued for forty-three minutes over who would be taller when they grew up.
"I have no idea how I can find that relaxing."
Jack looked over at Hammond, who was still watching the birds. "Sir?"
George chuckled and turned to Jack. "Their arguing. How in the hell I can find that relaxing is beyond me. But it works every time."
He smiled and sipped his tea. "I have an inkling, sir."
"Yes. Iíll bet you do."
They settled back into not speaking; finally, even Tessaís and Kaylaís squabbling quieted. The only sounds were the soft noises of the birds and the croaking of a frog.
"Claudia and I used to spend all our evenings out here, weather permitting."
"Itís very nice, sir."
"She said this place brought out the best in us."
Jack stared down at his tea, gently swirling the glass.
"I never came home in a mood so foul that Claudia and this couldnít fix it. Most times, we didnít even speak. We just sat here."
Twilight was near. Shutting his eyes, Jack could feel it edging closer. He could also feel Hammondís eyes on him. Setting his glass on the deck beside his chair, he leaned his head back and listened to the soft squeaks of the feeding birds and the harsh protests of the frog.
"I think out of everything, I miss that the most: me and Claudia sitting out here in the evenings, not saying a word."
Jack missed waking up late on Sundays to the quiet murmurs of Sara and Charlie in the kitchen. That, and the earthy smell of a child fresh from a day of playing outside.
"I came very near to selling the place after she died. I didnít think I could ever enjoy this again."
Jack raised his head and opened his eyes. The quail had moved on to the far corner of the lawn. "What changed your mind?"
"Time. Time changed my mind. At first, it just didnít seem right. It was too soon after Claudiaís death. Then it was winter. Winter is never the best time to sell. When spring hit, I had to tend to Claudiaís rose bushes. And by the time summer arrived, they were in bloom and I just couldnít bring myself to leave them behind. They were too much a part of her. They had grown up on her sweat and blood."
Thinking of his own dead plants, Jack glanced over at the Generalís hearty rose garden. Here, stems were heavy under the weight of deep red blooms. Years after her demise, Claudiaís family and her roses thrived.
"It wasnít like I made a conscious decision to stay. I just sort of eased back into the place. One evening, I suddenly realized that Iíd rediscovered that sense of peace . . . right here where weíre sitting. Iíd thought that feeling was gone forever without her here, sharing it with me." Hammond finished off his tea. "Anyway, after that, staying or leaving wasnít a matter of choice."
Jack flinched and sat up straighter in his chair.
"What?" Hammond was watching him. "What is it?"
He grimaced and shook his head, glancing down at his clenched fists.
"What donít you want to remember?"
Jack shut his eyes, trying to pretend he was alone.
"What happened during those missing hours, Jack?"
He took a deep, shaky breath and opened his eyes. He was confronted by reality and flowers the color of blood. "I offered him Jonas."
"What do you mean?"
"He was playing with me. All that time, First was getting his kicks. He said he wanted codes and addresses. Thatís how it started."
"How what started?"
"The memories. He took my memories and he changed them, dirtied them. I thought I was there. That it was all happening again. Iraq, Charlie . . . everything. Then he offered to help me if I gave him what he wanted."
"But you didnít."
"I couldnít." Jack was ashamed of the sound of his own voice. He started to stand up. He wanted to leave, but he was suddenly frozen, weak and trembling. "A part of me knew it wasnít right. That he couldnít be there."
"Then what happened?"
He ran a hand across his face, wiping away a cool layer of sweat. "He found the one thing I wouldnít gamble with."
Hammond didnít move. "Charlie?"
Despite his best efforts, despite biting down on his lip, Jack felt tears fill his eyes. He glared at the bloody flowers. "He made him come alive. He made him hug me. Do you have any idea how many times Iíve prayed for the chance to hug my kid again?"
George had to look away. There was no adequate answer and both men knew it.
"The son-of-a-bitch gave me everything Iíve ever wanted." Jack rubbed tears from his cheeks.
"But there was a price."
"I offered to take his place. I wanted to do it." As he watched a petal drop from one of the blooms and drift lazily, gracefully, to the ground, he remembered Tealíc removing his armor and giving everything he had to save his son. Jack, too, felt stripped and empty, but unlike Tealíc, his child was dead and buried. "But he wouldnít let me . . . so I offered him Jonas instead. Jonas in exchange for Charlie."
"You said it yourself, Jack: he was toying with you. You think he didnít know you were willing to lay down your life for Charlie?"
Jack saw another petal drop, following in the wake of the first, as the cool Colorado evening plucked the petals one by one with a gentle touch.
"He couldnít have allowed it, Jack. He knew what cards you were holding. He knew going into the game how it had to play out. You did, too, didnít you? But because of the stakes, you had to take the chance." Hammondís chair squeaked as he shifted his weight. "But why Jonas? Why not Tealíc or Major Carter?"
Jack was quiet for a long time. "I keep asking myself that. Was it because Jonas is an alien? Not one of us? Because heís the newest member of the team? Because of . . . Daniel?" He ran a hand through his hair. "Honest to God, George, I donít know."
Hammond cleared his throat. "Jack . . . Son, whatever your reasons, I donít think under the circumstances anyone could blame you."
"Sir, I offered Jonas even when I knew . . . when I thought . . .," but he couldnít say it.
Hammond stepped up to the plate, pinch hitting for him. "Even when you thought it was impossible. When you knew in your own heart that Charlie was dead and that this was just another of Firstís mind games." Jack didnít respond. "But you offered one of your team because you couldnít take the chance that it wasnít."
Jack stared out at the lawn and shuddered at the sudden chill left by the setting sun. "So how do I tell them? How do I tell my team . . . Jonas, that I allowed that machine to get the best of me? That I was willing to sacrifice him in exchange for something that I knew wasnít real?"
Kaylaís soft laughter drifted out from somewhere inside the house and Hammond sighed, crossing his arms over his barrel chest. "You donít, Jack. You go to work, you go home, and you sit outside on your deck. You watch the quail and you listen to the frogs. And you give yourself time."
Jack looked at Hammond, studied the manís face in the dim light.
"And before you know it, winterís over and itís summer again."
Authorsí Note: Jack OíNeill spent 37 hours with the Replicator First, and came away from the experience with absolutely nothing to say about it. We found it impossible to believe that Jack would simply give in to Firstís demands. We also found it impossible to believe that Jack didnít remember what had happened.
© April 2004 Stargate SG-1 and its characters are the property of Stargate (II) Productions, Showtime/Viacom, MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, and Gekko Productions. This story is for entertainment purposes only, and no money exchanged hands. No copyright infringement is intended. The original characters, situations, and story are the property of the authors. This story may not be posted elsewhere without the consent of the authors.