For God and Country

 

by

 

Doc

 

 

Title: For God and Country
Author: Doc
Category: H/C, drama, adventure, intrigue, whodunit … with a smidge of S/J UST thrown in for good measure
Spoilers: Uhm … off the top of my head, Chain Reaction, Watergate, Shades of Grey, Emancipation, and First Commandment … plus gazillions of teensy-weensy ones, which I don’t remember. Gimme a break! This thing is some 270 pages long!
Season/Sequel: Sometime prior to Daniel’s demise
Rating: PG-13
Content Warnings: Violence, language, torture, language, Nietzsche, language … Did I mention ‘language’?
Summary: Take half a pound of politics, some borscht, a pinch of underhand aliens, a heaped spoonful of sociopath, mix thoroughly and simmer gently over two stargates. Garnish with one stubborn Colonel and a hockey stick. Serve hot, for a very bad time at the SGC.
Status: Complete (and noone’s more surprised by it than me)
Disclaimer: They said they would let me direct the movie, provided I curb this weird obsession with damaging major characters. HA! ... Anyway: Stargate SG-1 and its characters are the property of Showtime/Viacom, MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, and Gekko Productions. I have written this story for entertainment purposes only and no money whatsoever has exchanged hands. No copyright infringement is intended. The original characters, situations, and story are the property of the author. Not to be archived without permission of the author.
Author’s Notes: The basic idea for this really was very simple. Honest!! As in ‘What would happen, if …’ Unfortunately, it threw up the question of what would have to happen in order to get to the ‘if’ … which was roughly the point where this whole brood of plot bunnies scarpered from their cage. I’m pleased to announce that, eight months on, I caught every last one of them … I think … And no, that twitching pink nose under the stereo does not belong to a bunny! It’s my neighbour, okay?! She tends to take her nervous breakdowns in my living room.

 

As always, many, many thanks to Tanya, for being irresistibly encouraging, yelling at me to LEAVE RUBY ALONE, applying that infallible sap detector (in the nicest possible way), always screaming for more, and for that seminal conversation about creased paper napkins at tea-time ... Thanks, and lots of them, to Chris, too, for taking the time to beta this sucker and doing it so well and with such style. I’m still working on my Transsylvanian accent …

 

Any and all references to General Hammond’s hind quarters are dedicated to Chrisbod, and so is Little F’s brush collection. Should anyone discover any confused salmon or draught excluders flopping along carpeted corridors, please forward them to Frondfic’s Site Manager.

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

FRIDAY, JULY 23

 

 

“And how did that make you feel?”

 

“How the fuck do you think it made me feel?!” Sam Carter had leapt from her seat, stood leaning into the table, fists balled, staring at the man who’d been shrinking her head these past forty-five minutes. “How do you think it made me feel?” she repeated icily.

 

“We’re not here to determine what I think. You know that, Major”, he said with a serenity that bordered on indifference. “Please answer my question. How did that make you feel?”

 

Sam slowly sank back into the chair.

 

 

The Scientist. Small and slight. Smiling genteelly. A pristine white lab coat over navy-blue cashmere trousers, not a crease in evidence. Jet-black hair, meticulously cut, slicked into a side parting, baring a pale, ruler-straight stripe of scalp. Gold-rimmed spectacles, lenses glistening, masking the eyes, gliding across the room, arresting, choosing. Choosing. Eenie-meenie-manie-mo …

 

 

“How did it make you feel?” He was wearing a white lab coat, too.

 

What was it he expected to hear? ‘Angry’ always was a good one. Kept the likes of him happily playing for hours. “Angry”, she offered.

 

“And?”

 

“Like I wanted to dance a goddamn jig right there and then!”

 

“Major, please!”

 

The nucleus of a headache was beginning to throb behind her left eye.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

“But didn’t you agree to abide by military protocol when you joined the SGC?”

 

“Just goes to show that I’m the most naïve idiot since Pooh Bear met Tigger!” Daniel Jackson snapped. “You know, I thought all this bullshit about honour and looking out for others actually meant something!”

 

“I wouldn’t call you ‘naïve’, Dr Jackson. Do you really think you’re naïve?”

 

Daniel felt tempted to deck the man. Anything to dent that tranquilly sympathetic façade. “You’ve turned me inside out before! You tell me!”

 

“You are upset about the order in question?”

 

Upset?!” Now who was being naïve?

 

 

Forget about orders. It doesn’t matter. This is real. Can you smell this? This is piss! This is how it stinks when someone pisses their pants! This isn’t textbook, isn’t manual, isn’t a sit room where four-stars play games in a sandbox. It’s real. You can stop this. You can let me stop this. You can fix it later. You can change the code. Forget about orders. Orders can’t mean that much. You’re a coward! A rulebook-bashing coward!

 

 

“Yes. Upset. Are you?”

 

“No. I wouldn’t describe it as ‘upset’.”

 

“What would you describe it as?”

 

“Have you ever wondered about the inadequacy of human expression?” asked Daniel.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

“This is designed to help you understand what happened. In your own best interest you should try to answer my questions.”

 

“I do not require this aid. My comprehension of events is passable.” Teal’c noted with some satisfaction that the man seemed considerably less composed than he had been at the onset of the interrogation.

 

“In your mind, maybe. But how did you feel?”

 

“That is irrelevant. The events you refer to occurred irrespective of my emotions.”

 

 

The creature was what Teal’c had been once. He served his master. This in itself was not reprehensible, but one should choose one’s master wisely. Perhaps he had as little choice in the matter as Teal’c had had. However, Teal’c could not recall ever having taken delight in a task such as this. He would have obeyed, but he would have taken no delight. He was obeying now, bowing to necessity and burying his outrage and grief.

 

 

“Please, Teal’c. Just humour me. How did you feel?”

 

“I have humoured you for approximately one hour. That should be sufficient. I now feel the need for kel-no-reem. Please excuse me.”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

“Colonel O’Neill, you’re not helping yourself.”

 

Colonel … Get a grip! He was so fucking retired, it was undreamt of. Jack wanted to tell the man to stop calling him by his rank, but that would have been a tactical mistake. He couldn’t see his visitor, but the voice finally sounded brittle with frustration after a monologue that had lasted for the better part of an hour.

 

“Things would be a lot easier for you if you confronted your feelings.”

 

How did a sandwich feel? Wadding on top, wadding at the bottom, although at times it was difficult to tell which was which, and a huge honkin’ slab of dead meat in between. But in about forty-five minutes they’d flip him face-up again, so that was something to anticipate with bated breath. Maybe someone had painted the ceiling purple while he wasn’t looking. Ceiling. Floor. His whole world. And that asshole asked him to confront his feelings.

 

“Well, our next appointment is scheduled for day after tomorrow. Let’s see how you’re doing then … But I want you to realise that I’ll have to mention your lack of cooperation in my report.”

 

Sure. Write. Mention. Report. Don’t come back.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

THURSDAY, JULY 29

 

 

--- TOP SECRET ---

 

 

From: CinCSG, Cheyenne Mountain

 

To: General S Vidrine, USAF, Pentagon

 

Cc: Major P Davis, USAF, Pentagon

 

 

07/29, 2250 hrs

 

 

 

Attached are documents as follows:

 

1) Current medical reports SG-1. Source: J Fraiser, Major USAF, MD.

2) Preliminary psych evaluations SG-1. Source: L McKenzie, Colonel USAF, MD, PhD.

 

 

Urgently request permission to recommence full investigation into the events of P5X 081.

 

 

George S Hammond

CinCSG

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

FRIDAY, AUGUST 6

 

 

The marble stairs were baking in white afternoon heat. Francisco ascended, carefully adjusting his route to be at the median of the steps, body and motion lined up with the entrance above. He loved the symmetry of it, the balance. It seemed a fitting homage to the grave symmetry and consummate aesthetic balance of the building’s neo-classical architecture.

 

The people hurrying up and down those same stairs either side of Francisco were oblivious to it, of course. Insipid eyes, loosened ties, dark stains below armpits told him that they had no love or even reverence for the perfection they could attain if only they tried. He picked a tiny speck of lint from the sleeve of his lightweight tropical suit and entered the building.

 

“Afternoon, Doctor. Go straight on up. He’s expecting you.” The security guard tipped his cap respectfully, which pleased Francisco. “Fifth floor, sir.”

 

“Thank you. I know”, he said amiably and made for the elevators, finding the exact diameter and accurately dissecting the circular mosaïque that adorned the floor beneath the cupola.

 

After the blazing August heat outside, temperatures in the building seemed frigid. The citizens of a fledgling nation had elected to build their capital in the middle of a swamp. Their descendants employed wasteful apparatuses to ameliorate that misjudgement. Like all inventions worthy of the name, air-conditioning had been created to pamper the body and thus bore testimony to a sore lack of self-possession in the human race. Francisco trembled to think what greatness mankind could achieve, if only it paid a little less attention to physical whims. None of the people who rode up in the elevator with him looked as though they had even the faintest conception of that possible destiny.

 

Neither had the elderly secretary, who wore a clean pink cardigan to ward off the chill in her office. He imagined her taking off the cardigan to go outside. The absurdity of it made Francisco smile.

 

She smiled back at him. “Good afternoon, sir. Nice to see you again. Would you like to go straight in? He’s waiting for you.”

 

“Thank you. Most kind.”

 

“Would you like some coffee, sir?”

 

“No, not for me. Thank you.” He didn’t require stimulants, however weak. The meeting itself should be interesting enough.

 

His host rose and extended a hand when Francisco entered the room. “Doctor! Good to see you!”

 

“It’s good to be back, Senator. It’s been too long.” Francisco shook hands. The politician’s grip was soft and flaccid, like that of a senile clergyman.

 

“Oh yes, I keep forgetting. You’re a native of Washington, unlike the rest of us. Please take a seat, Doctor.” The Senator returned to his own chair behind the desk, sat, and studied Francisco. “I have received the reports. Yours and the other operatives’. I believe I don’t have to tell you that the results are disappointing. You weren’t able to procure what we needed you to procure.”

 

Francisco held his gaze. The man’s pale blue eyes were rheumy from thwarted greed. Greed probably was the only emotion he’d ever been capable of, never knowing that there was a whole rainbow of others, some of which could purify and perfect. Francisco had seen them, had been blessed to evoke them even, and the memory of it was so ineffably beautiful, it brought sudden tears stinging beneath his lids. “I wasn’t able to complete the work. You gave me your word that I wouldn’t be interrupted.”

 

“Yes, that was regrettable. However, the interruption was beyond our control. In fact, we did everything in our power to prevent it. Which turns out to be a stroke of luck for you, Doctor, because it means that you will, after all, receive payment for your fruitless efforts.” The Senator leant forward on the desk, steepled his fingers. “I’m not an expert, so I don’t want to question your modus operandi, but I should point out that I can’t help thinking you made a wrong choice. In my humble opinion there were two far more promising alternatives.”

 

“Let me assure you, Senator, selection was made after very careful consideration of a variety of factors. Perhaps there were more obvious alternatives, I grant you that, but the final choice was perfect.” He wished he could laugh at the man’s stupidity. So political, so thoughtless, so unimaginative. It truly was too depressing for laughter. The choice had been perfect. Francisco had found his perfect medium at last, the perfect clay to mould into a masterpiece, and he’d been cruelly denied the artist’s contemplation as it reached perfection, reached that sweet, sweet repose where all movement ceased, where limbs turned white and still as alabaster, and all that remained were the pure feelings and workings of the mind. Oh he knew now why Michelangelo had cried upon finishing the Sistine Chapel, why Beethoven had been torn by misery. Never to see, never to hear … A wave of despair shook him, and floating on it came a forlorn hope. “If you wish me to, Senator, I’d be happy to finish the task. I’m sure it could be safely - …”

 

“Don’t be a fool, Doctor!” The politician’s voice was cold, laced with contempt. “All we need is for you to go crashing in there and blow the Project wide open. We’re exposed enough as it is. You’ve failed. Live with it! We all do. This meeting terminates your government contract. I want you on the first flight out of here. Go back home, enjoy your handsome compensation, and forget this ever happened.”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

SATURDAY, AUGUST 14

 

 

--- TOP SECRET ---

 

 

From: General S Vidrine, USAF, Pentagon

 

To: General G S Hammond, CinCSG, Cheyenne Mountain

 

Cc: Major P Davis, USAF, Pentagon

 

 

08/14, 1534 hrs

 

 

 

SGC is not --- repeat: not --- to engage in any investigation into the events of P5X 081. This investigation will be conducted by the Pentagon directly. Expect myself and Major Davis to arrive at 1100 hours tomorrow.

 

 

S Vidrine

General, USAF, Pentagon

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

SUNDAY, AUGUST 15

 

 

General Vidrine forced a personable smile. “George! Good to see you. Thanks for making time at such short notice.”

 

“I wasn’t aware that I’d been offered an option, General.” George Hammond was not in the mood for diplomatic games. He hadn’t risen when Vidrine entered, and that breach of etiquette just about said it all. “If you’re here to tell me that I’m allowed to investigate what happened to my people, take a seat. Otherwise keep it short.”

 

Paul Davis perched on the armrest of a chair, which he seemed to regard as a suitable compromise. “Please understand, sir, we had no choice. It wasn’t our idea. Those orders came from Capitol Hill and were approved by SecDef.” He shrugged. “They weren’t too happy when you barged ahead with the rescue mission, despite having been advised to hold off. Just as well you were successful …”

 

“Frankly, Major Davis, I don’t give a flying turd about whether or not a bunch of wheeler-dealing political hotshots approve of a tactical move. I don’t tell them how to take their voters for a ride, so I’d prefer if they didn’t try to tell me how to run my command.”

 

“Did it ever occur to you, George, that they might be interested in strategy, not tactics?” Vidrine suggested smoothly, interrupting his survey of Hammond’s combat memorabilia on the wall. “The Governors of P5X 081 have expressed an interest in an alliance, hell, they’ve offered it on a friggin’ silver platter, and you - …”

 

“And we decided to turn Tollan on them, and for good reason.”

 

“Which would be another one of those unilateral decisions certain folks on the Hill aren’t exactly ecstatic about, George.”

 

“For the last time, General, I’m not in the business of keeping congressmen ecstatic. Do I look like a White House intern? I’m in the business of keeping this planet safe and my people alive, while I’m at it.”

 

Vidrine chuckled. “You wanna be careful about hanging around Colonel O’Neill too much! His brand of tact is rubbing off on you. How is he, by the way?”

 

“Maybe you’d like to see for yourself?”

 

“No … No, I don’t think that’ll be necessary.” The chuckling had ceased abruptly, and General Vidrine looked uncomfortable. As though his mother had just told him it wasn’t polite to stare at the poor cripple whom God, in His infinite wisdom, had seen fit to create. “What’s his prognosis?”

 

“Get real!” Hammond spat. Smalltalk was the last thing he needed. Especially when the topic was his 2IC. “If you’re not here to return this investigation to where it belongs, what do you want?”

 

“Your assistance, sir”, Davis said quietly. “Your assistance.”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

MONDAY, AUGUST 16

 

 

--- TOP SECRET ---

 

 

Interview transcript (1) (tape 1)

 

Location: Briefing room, SGC, Cheyenne Mountain

Date: 08/16

Time: 0830 hrs

 

Present:      S Vidrine, General USAF [Q] --- conducting the interview

              G S Hammond, General USAF, CinCSG [H] --- observer

 

              S Carter, PhD, Major USAF, 2IC SG-1 [SC]

              D Jackson, PhD, no rank, civilian advisor, SG-1 [DJ]

              Teal’c, no rank, classification applies, SG-1 [T]

 

Note:  The audio tapes contain background noises, such as klaxons, PA announcements, gate activation etc. Those are normal within the daily activities at the SGC and should be ignored. Any interruptions by other personnel will be indicated as such in the transcript. Observations as to actions, gestures, moods, etc will appear in italics and square brackets.

 

 

Q: Good morning. Please take a seat [persons present sit]. General Hammond will have informed you that this interview is being conducted as part of an official investigation into the events on P5X 081. You are not under caution at this time, which means you are obliged, as officers and/or members of a military command, to answer my questions fully and truthfully. I am aware that you will already have been through most of this in your debriefings, and I am also aware of your reports, which I have read. So please bear with me if some of this seems repetitive. Thank you. Major Carter, would you please state mission objectives as discussed in your briefing on the 19th of June this year?

 

SC: The mission objectives were to re-establish contact with the population of P5X 081, to assess the viability of a proposed alliance with Earth and, if advisable, negotiate terms for such an alliance. Initial contact had been made by SG-11 during a routine planetary survey sixteen months ago. At that time the possibility of a treaty was first raised.

 

Q: Wouldn’t this have been a mission more appropriately handled by a diplomatic team, like SG-12?

 

SC: Strictly speaking, yes, sir. However, the Governors of Drakalla, which is the native name of P5X 081, specifically asked for SG-1.

 

Q: How come? You’ve not previously been to the planet, have you?

 

SC: No, sir. But SG-11 had explained rudiments of the SGC’s operational and command structure. We got the impression that the Governors felt their status permitted them to deal with the SGC’s first field unit only. Their society is very class-conscious, sir, and - … 

 

[SC is cut off by DJ]

 

DJ: [agitated] General Vidrine, may I suggest that we confine ourselves to our own areas of expertise?

 

Q: I shall keep that in mind, Dr Jackson. You will have your say. For now, I’d be grateful if you let Major Carter finish. Major?

 

SC: Well, basically, sir, I reckon for the Drakallans it was some kind of a qualitative numerical thing. Number 1 being better than 2, and so on …

 

Q: I understand. Why was there a time lapse of more than a year between SG-11’s original visit and the SGC’s response to a Drakallan request for alliance?

 

SC: Because the Drakallans only sent back their Sagan box about eleven weeks ago. We got in touch with them, at which point they extended the invitation.

 

Q: So there hasn’t been any contact between the time when SG-11 left the planet and the day eleven weeks or so ago, when the Drakallans returned the Sagan box?

 

SC: That’s correct, sir.

 

Q: Thank you, Major. Dr Jackson, would you enlighten me as to your take on the main characteristics of Drakallan society?

 

DJ: Their society is strongly hierarchical, with a rigid class system in place. Sociologists call this an ‘inclusive society’ - …

 

Q: Meaning what, Doctor?

 

DJ: Meaning they’re extremely averse to accepting, let alone integrating, outsiders or members of so-called ‘lower classes’, which is another way of saying that prejudice is rife. The system is self-perpetuating, because it keeps people from being upwardly mobile, so - …

 

Q: So, in your opinion, this explains the difficulties Mr Teal’c, in particular, came up against? You don’t think it was to do with the fact that he happens to be a Jaffa?

 

T: Is it permitted, General Vidrine?

 

Q: Go ahead, Mr Teal’c.

 

T: I believe the two are connected. The Drakallans appear to have come into brief contact with the Goa’uld several centuries ago. If this is true, they may have derived the impression that all Jaffa are conscript troops.

 

Q: Thank you, Mr Teal’c. Do you agree, Dr Jackson?

 

DJ: I guess.

 

Q: The point I’m trying to make is that SG-11 mentioned none of this in their reports. Not only were they openly welcomed when they first arrived but, on the strength of that encounter, the Drakallans also became interested in a treaty with Earth and eventually invited SG-1 back. Correct?

 

DJ: SG-11 only stayed for two days, and they obviously had considerable curiosity value, which would explain the hospitality they described. To the Drakallans ‘alliance’ means the same as it meant to us back in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Great White Father allied himself to a Native American Nation if he wanted to exploit it.

 

Q: I see. And that would be one of the reasons why Colonel O’Neill argued against this alliance.

 

DJ: One of the reasons, yes. Jack - …

 

Q: Who?

 

DJ: Colonel O’Neill.

 

Q: Can we please stick to the Colonel’s rank and surname for the purposes of this interview?

 

[DJ shrugs]

 

Q: A verbal response for the recording, if you don’t mind, Dr Jackson?

 

DJ: Yeah, sure … uh … Colonel O’Neill also felt that the Drakallans were a little less than forthright where it came to their recent technological advances.

 

Q: In what way?

 

DJ: I suggest that Major Carter fields this question. She’s uniquely qualified to explain what makes a machine tick.

 

H: [irritated] Dr Jackson, you’ve been warned to stick to facts. Your sentiments are your private business!

 

SC: [with some unease] Thank you, General.

 

DJ: [unintelligible]

 

Q: Excuse me, Dr Jackson?

 

DJ: Fine. Whatever.

 

Q: Major Carter, if you please?

 

SC: When SG-11 first went to Drakalla, they reported a level of technology that was roughly equivalent to that of the United States in the mid-20th century. In other words, things like advanced internal combustion engines, audio and video broadcasts, carbon-based energy sources. By the time we arrived, they’d jumped to microprocessors and compact nuclear equipment. That’s just not possible, sir, and it’s merely two examples. In my opinion there has to have been some kind of outside influence.

 

Q: Any theories as to the nature of this influence, Major?

 

SC: No, sir. In fact, the Drakallans were trying to hide these advances from us and became hostile when we stumbled onto them.

 

Q: So who’s to say they didn’t have that stuff all along, and SG-11 just didn’t notice?

 

SC: Sir, the facilities we discovered were brand new and at a site that SG-11 had previously visited.

 

Q: I see. Okay, I’d like to recap on the sequence of events. You got to the planet, met with the Governors’ representative at the ‘gate. Then what happened?

 

SC: He asked us to surrender our weapons as a gesture of good faith.

 

*

 

“See, I’m trying to put this as diplomatically as I can, but in essence what I’m saying is: No way!”

 

“Jack, maybe we should - …”

 

“No, Daniel. We shouldn’t.”

 

They’d found themselves on the traditional red carpet in a vast, purpose-built steel and concrete structure, decorated with garish flags and glossy Technicolor murals extolling the virtues of Drakalla. Quaint. Someone even had thought to throw in two remarkably funereal flower arrangements on faux marble pedestals. From what Daniel had gathered, this was the ‘Circle Hall’, and it was under guard 24/7. At one end of the red carpet stood the stargate and at the other stood Councillor Durante, a tall, sixty-ish man in a bespoke charcoal suit, behind him a gaggle of less tastefully clad aides, two secretaries in pencil skirts and blouses to go with the flags, plus a squad-strength uniformed escort. Midway between these two poles stood SG-1, and Dr Jackson’s current estimate was that they wouldn’t proceed much beyond this point.

 

“Colonel O’Neill. The Governors were under the impression that you came here to negotiate terms for an alliance. Am I to infer that you wish to hold them at gunpoint during negotiations?”

 

“You’re to infer that I don’t wish to tempt the Governors into holding us at gunpoint, Councillor Duracell.”

 

“Durante”, hissed Major Carter, which earned her a withering glare as part of the routine.

 

“... Durante ... Besides, and pardon the pun, aren’t you jumping the gun a little? Before we enter into any negotiations, we’re to assess if an alliance is desirable, and I have to tell you, right now prospects don’t look so good from where I’m standing.”

 

The Councillor seemed aggrieved. “This is most deplorable, Colonel.”

 

“I knew there’d be something we can agree on”, Jack announced with a grin that matched the Councillor’s artificiality tooth for tooth.

 

Durante’s escort furtively lowered hands towards holsters; aforementioned holsters containing weapons that might not be quite as nifty as what SG-1 was carrying, but they looked like they’d nonetheless fulfil their function. Which would be the punching of large-ish holes into the human anatomy. Not to mention the racket they’d raise in this echoing barn.

 

Daniel stifled a sigh. Sometimes Jack’s tendency to conjure High Noon type stand-offs out of a baseball cap could grate on your nerves. This was one of these occasions. It wasn’t like they hadn’t been through this Surrender your weapons and we’ll play nice scenario at least half a dozen times before. They’d been through it with the Tok’ra, no less, at a time when nobody could perceive much of a difference between Tok’ra and Goa’uld. ‘The rose by any other name’, and all that ... So, making the first move and giving in to their hosts’ capricious demand wasn’t a total non-starter, and Jack was every bit as aware of it as Daniel. The real problem lay in Colonel O’Neill having taken an instant dislike to Councillor Durante. And vice versa, for all Daniel knew. When Jack took a dislike to somebody, he became a bear. Worse than that, he pretended to be a bear so far down the evolutionary ladder as to sport a prehensile tail. And as soon as his victim indulged in the dire misconception that he or she was dealing with an educationally subnormal yo-yo, Jack would pounce, and it never was pretty. For the purpose of interplanetary relations, it was murder. The best move was to try and outflank him, the danger on that score being that Jack’s dislikes were governed by gut instinct, and Jack’s gut instinct had a nasty habit of being bang on target.

 

“Councillor”, Daniel said, hoping to God he sounded conciliatory rather than subservient. The guy would have him for breakfast otherwise, and Jack would take care of the leftovers. “If I may? I think I can suggest a compromise.”

 

“Compromise? … Daniel …!” A low growl.

 

Shut up, Jack! ... If he’d read the subtle interactions between the Councillor and his entourage correctly, Daniel was on to a winner here. “Councillor?”

 

“Continue, Dr Jackson.” Embellished with a little flourish from the wrist that would have done Louis XIV proud.

 

Dr Jackson resisted the temptation to curtsy just for the sake of completing his own mental image, which included, amongst other eccentricities, a three-foot powdered wig. “Councillor, you may not be aware that, in our society, the possession of weaponry such as this is a privilege of rank. By requesting that Colonel O’Neill surrender his weapons, you did, in fact, insult him. However, as a sign of goodwill, we might consider relinquishing some of our arms to your safe-keeping, whilst retaining a personal weapon each. Would that be acceptable?”

 

Bingo. Councillor Duracell visibly cringed at the notion of having committed a social boo-boo. “Colonel O’Neill, please accept my apologies. No insult was intended, and the solution offered is satisfactory. Believe me, it is purely for your own protection. Lately we have had an unfortunate problem with undesirable elements, who will attack anyone openly carrying arms.”

 

Teal’c gave a barely perceptible frown. “O’Neill? Was not this to be a gesture of good faith?” he asked softly.

 

“Good point, Teal’c … Daniel, I - …”

 

“Sir, he might just have been embarrassed to mention that they’ve got some civil unrest here”, Sam cut in. “It’s not really something you’d advertise when greeting a potential treaty partner. At least let’s hear what the Governors have to say for themselves.”

 

“Sam’s right. Maybe Durante’s simply challenged in the social graces department …”

 

“If it were that, I’d trust him, Daniel. Hell, I’d probably even like him.”

 

“Jack, you don’t like half the people we meet!”

 

“True … But I like the other half.”

 

“Then, if you and your people agree, Colonel O’Neill, my men will collect the weapons you do not require”, declared Councillor Durante, recovering his poise and getting fed up with the impromptu pow-wow going on under his nose but out of his earshot.

 

Jack shrugged, apparently having reached a decision. “Go ahead, Councillor …” Under his breath he added, “Keep the zats, kids.”

 

At a nod from Durante, three members of the escort marched up, saluted glumly. A timid young private had the unenviable task of wrestling the staff weapon from Teal’c, who for once didn’t seem to be in a stoic mood. Daniel tried to offer some consolation by cheerfully surrendering his semi-automatic. The other two soldiers relieved Major Carter and Colonel O’Neill of their handguns, a pair of bowie knives, and a P90 assault rifle each.

 

*

 

--- TOP SECRET ---

 

 

Interview transcript (1) continued (tape 2)

 

Location: Briefing room, SGC, Cheyenne Mountain

Date: 08/16

Time: 1045 hrs

 

Present:      S Vidrine, General USAF [Q] --- conducting the interview

              G S Hammond, General USAF, CinCSG [H] --- observer

 

              S Carter, PhD, Major USAF, 2IC SG-1 [SC]

              D Jackson, PhD, no rank, civilian advisor, SG-1 [DJ]

              Teal’c, no rank, classification applies, SG-1 [T]

 

Note:  The audio tapes contain background noises, such as klaxons, PA announcements, gate activation etc. Those are normal within the daily activities at the SGC and should be ignored. Any interruptions by other personnel will be indicated as such in the transcript. Observations as to actions, gestures, moods, etc will appear in italics and square brackets.

 

 

 

Q: So, in your opinion, there was some doubt as to the veracity of Councillor Durante’s statements, but Colonel O’Neill still decided partially to concede the Councillor’s demands?

 

T: O’Neill is a man acutely conscious of his duties. In this instance those duties encompassed the necessity of assuaging the Drakallans.

 

Q: Did they also encompass compromising the safety of his team? By your own account, there was a squad of armed men in the building.

 

DJ: [rises] I resent the implication, General!

 

Q: Sit down, Dr Jackson! This is not an implication of any kind, it’s a perfectly justified question, especially in light of later events. If you have anything to add, above and beyond your displays of resentment, let’s hear it.

 

DJ: [sits] Jack … Colonel O’Neill … was treading a fine line at that first meeting, and basically it came down to weighing the team’s and his own safety against successfully completing the mission. General, in case you hadn’t noticed, the man’s a soldier! And he’s kept us alive so far. And yes, he distrusted the Councillor, but he’d never jeopardise a mission on a hunch alone. We knew that, and his decision to meet Durante halfway was supported by all of us … including Major Carter.

 

Q: Thank you, Dr Jackson. And in case you hadn’t noticed, I am aware of Colonel O’Neill’s profession. If I weren’t, we wouldn’t be here. So, what happened after you had surrendered your weapons?

 

SC: We were taken by motorcade to the Governors’ Palace at the capital, Zabrant.

 

Q: How long did that take?

 

SC: About ninety minutes, sir.

 

Q: Any details you feel are worth mentioning?

 

SC: The team was split up. Colonel O’Neill was asked to ride with Councillor Durante in his limousine; Dr Jackson and I followed in two separate chase cars with the Councillor’s aides. Teal’c had been assigned to join some of the escort in a troop carrier.

 

Q: Did the Drakallans give any reasons for this?

 

SC: No, it was presented as a fait accompli. Colonel O’Neill objected to the treatment of Teal’c, but Teal’c assured him that he didn’t mind.

 

Q: Is that correct, Mr Teal’c?

 

T: Indeed. At the time I believed it would be wise not to provoke any further confrontations.

 

Q: I see. Do you have any theories as to why you were split up?

 

DJ: I suppose it was partly to do with placing people according to their perceived rank or importance. It’s what the Drakallans do.

 

Q: You say ‘partly’. What’s the other part?

 

SC: Colonel O’Neill felt they wanted to check us out. Each of us on their own. I agree with him.

 

 

--- Major P Davis enters the briefing room at 1103 hrs ---

 

 

Major Davis: I apologise for the interruption, General, but the men and I are ready.

 

Q: Good. I’d like to go over a few things before you leave. General Hammond, you’re welcome to join us.

 

H: Thank you.

 

Q: Let’s take a break here. We’ll reconvene at 1330 hrs. Dismissed.

 

 

--- Interview suspended at 1106 hrs ---

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Janet Fraiser entered the room quietly, on the off-chance that Colonel O’Neill was asleep. He wasn’t. A melange of wariness, anger, and antagonism trickled across the strained, reticent face. He must have heard the light rubbery suck of the door opening, even over the steady sighs of the ventilator, pumping air through a tube to the incision below his larynx and from there into lungs that refused to do their job. That would change, though. One of the few things that could. Janet shut the door behind herself and stepped towards the bed. If you could call it that. He was listening again and suddenly allowed himself a wan grin.

 

“Hi, Janet”, he whispered, his voice sounding breathy, reedy.

 

She chose a spot that would enable him to make eye contact, if he wanted to. He didn’t. “How did you know it was me?”

 

“It’s a hospital, for cryin’ out loud. Anyone coming in here is either a doctor or a nurse or a cleaner. The cleaners bang their bucket trolley against the door every blessed time they show up, the nurse was here to check the catheter and swap the pee bag only about ten minutes ago, so all the odds were on a masochistic doctor.”

 

“Impressive, Sherlock. Except for the fact that, to my knowledge, you don’t usually bother to say ‘hi’ to any of the above. So how did you know it was me, Colonel?”

 

“Lucky guess.” His eyes flicked in her direction for a second, then they resumed their endless scrutiny of the ceiling. “You’re the only one whose walk doesn’t sound like the floor is covered with eggshells …”

 

“Are you trying to say I’m a klutz, sir?”

 

“You know what I’m trying to say ... You don’t - … Forget it!”

 

Janet had a memory of eloquent hands flying up in irritation. Sometimes the only way to read him had been to watch his hands. She’d have to start from scratch.

 

The grin was back, with a touch of vitriol to it. “Every time McKenzie comes for a rummage round my head, he tiptoes into the corner like a marabou, just in case this is catching … I’m probably wrong. It’s probably just that his y-fronts are a size too small …”

 

Inadvertently, the image in Dr Fraiser’s mind changed to that of a psychiatrist wearing restrictive undergarments and doing bird impressions. “Dr McKenzie has complained about you, Colonel.”

 

“He has?” For a moment, Jack O’Neill looked almost happy.

 

“Give him a break, sir. I agree, he can be a bit overbearing, but he’s only trying to help.” The shrink bird was dancing cha-cha-cha, and Janet silently admitted that she didn’t mean a word of what she’d just spouted.

 

“Help …?” He’d aimed for a laugh and didn’t quite make it. “By asking me what I feel? See, the problem there is that I can’t offer any enlightenment, because I can’t - … No, that’s not true … My feet hurt again …”

 

“Sir, you know what this is. We talked about it. I can give you something for it, if you like …” Crushing that false hope, too, with implacable gentleness, as though she were talking to an obtuse child. Not because she wanted to, but because it was going to be infinitely worse for him if she permitted him to harbour illusions.

 

“Yeah … phantom pains … you told me …” He lapsed into an interminable silence and counted spots on the ceiling again until there were none left to count. “It’s funny, you know … When I - … At the time … I remember thinking that at least I wouldn’t feel my feet anymore. Never figured … Can you stay a little?”

 

“I can for a while … Actually, I came to give you a heads-up. Day after tomorrow there’ll be a couple of people coming over to interview you.”

 

“Letterman?”

 

“Pentagon.”

 

“Why?”

 

“They’ve taken over the investigation. General Hammond got booted off the case, so to speak … “ Dr Fraiser wished she hadn’t mentioned that, but he had a right to know.

 

“They’re going after my team?!” An expression on his face as though he was thinking up ways of throttling somebody by willpower alone.

 

“Nobody’s going after anybody, sir. They’re debriefing your team again, but that’s about the extent of it.”

 

“Oh … How’re the kids doing?”

 

“They want to see you, sir.”

 

“No.”

 

“Colonel - …”

 

“No.”

 

She sighed. They’d just been through the 708th re-run of that particular snippet of conversation. He flatly refused to see anyone who was close to him. Janet Fraiser was the only exception he’d made, and that hadn’t been from choice.

 

“They’ve seen a hell of a lot more than they should have, Doc. ‘Nough’s enough”, he said softly.

 

“They’re not kids, sir, and they care about you.”

 

“Exactly … Daniel still not talking to Carter?”

 

“No … And I take back what I said about their not being kids.” Janet smiled wryly. “At least in Daniel’s case.”

 

“Don’t be too hard on him. He takes it out on Carter, because he can’t admit that he really is angry with me. Danny’s a well brought-up boy. He knows it isn’t nice to get pissy with cripples.”

 

“If that’s true, he ought to know that it isn’t nice to get pissy with girls, either … Anyway, I’ve got a bit of good news for you.”

 

“You bought me those inline skates?”

 

“No, but it’s nearly as good. The SCI specialist and I have had a look at the new X-rays. You’ll be out of traction in a few days.”

 

“So if I promise to be careful, I’ll be able to nod? Terrific!”

 

“Chances are you’ll also be able to shrug. Don’t knock it, Colonel.”

 

“What about the bellows?”

 

“Not yet. The physiotherapist’s optimistic, though. It won’t be long. Keep working on it.”

 

“I will. Mondays are booked, though … Mondays I go skating …”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

From:       skymaster@realgroups.com

 

Date:        August 16, 16:28

 

To:          patriotmessages@realgroups.com

 

Re:          Fieldtrip

 

 

Message:    b09ty11: Be advised that fieldtrip has started. Davis and five fellow travellers have arrived safely at 12:08 today. Cold Comfort’s people confirm that camp leaders are in place with orders to supervise and generate new ideas.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

The Senator almost wished he’d risked a meeting at his office. The heat was oppressive. After working hours the park usually was swarming with people, but today everybody seemed to have fled to the cool comforts of their air con. Even the stray dogs that forever roamed the park, begged for scraps of food, and crapped on your shoes if you weren’t charitably inclined, lay lazily yapping in the shade somewhere.

 

Staring into the stagnant waters of the pond, he squirmed uncomfortably against the moisture gathering in his armpits. A fine, sharp prick, his hand dashed up, reflexively slapping his jowls and lingering for a moment. When he took it away, there was a tiny black body stuck to the first phalange of his middle finger, and he rolled his thumb over it, squeezing until the chitinous little corpse burst and left a smear of blood down into his palm. This had been swampland once, he reminded himself, and, as such, was an apt location for the meeting after all. The only drawback was the admirable staying power of the mosquitoes.

 

A heavy-set, fair-haired man in his forties ambled along the path towards him, jacket casually slung over one shoulder. Once he’d closed the distance, the man leant against the wooden railing. “Scorcher today, isn’t it?”

 

“Yes. Should have stayed indoors.”

 

“Your people fucked up”, the man offered in flawless, idiomatically competent English.

 

Who did this Ukrainian swineherd think he was talking to? “I wouldn’t put it that way.”

 

“How would you put it, then? Part of their job was to keep those idiot Governors under control. Now, according to the reports I read, Governor Morin got greedy, and one of his more extravagant demands succeeded in tipping off the SGC team. They got within a hair of discovering our involvement.”

 

“Our operatives had no way of anticipating that Morin would lose his head!”

 

“Maybe. But your operatives sure as hell knew how important that code was.”

 

“There wasn’t enough time. Nor was there any way of anticipating that kind of resistance. Besides, the rescue mission should never have happened. Hammond disregarded orders.”

 

“And naturally, your operatives had no way of anticipating that, either.”

 

“As a matter of fact, no. You should be grateful that they were smart enough to go to ground when they did. If they hadn’t, your ass would be dangling from a very tall structure right about now. They safeguarded the Project.”

 

“Leaving that SGC team alive was an amateur mistake. Besides, what Project? Did it ever occur to you that, without the code, there is no Project?”

 

The Senator was peeling spikes of wood from the weatherworn railing and idly throwing them into the water. They spiralled down like midget helicopters shot from the sky by some microscopic freedom fighter. “Are we done with the ritual locking of horns?” Another sliver of wood. “You might be interested to hear that we solved both those problems.”

 

“Don’t tell me! You’ve acquired a magic wand to go with your crystal ball. Or are you simply going to drop a bomb on Cheyenne Mountain?”

 

“Nothing as vulgar as that. Vulgarity seems to be your bailiwick.” There was nothing like calling a Russian … or Ukrainian … nekulturniy if you wanted to provoke a reaction. The man’s face had turned livid, and he looked more than ever like a sweating peasant. The Senator smiled appeasingly. “My boys talked to your boys and hitched a ride back to P5X 081 from your end. Sorry about the delayed notification, but you were in transit while all this was going on. My boys also have the code, courtesy of the Pentagon.”

 

“In other words, the code’s been changed, otherwise even the Pentagon wouldn’t have got it!”

 

“Of course it’s been changed. Think! Somebody big and nasty comes asking for your safe combination. You may have guts enough not to give it to him, but afterwards you’ll change it anyway, just to make sure.”

 

“So what’s the point in all this? How does it solve our problems?”

 

“Disinformation, Comrade. You must remember that much from the good old days in the KGB. Disinformation. Very useful little tool. Makes all kinds of problems go away.” And it would, the Senator thought with some surprise at the rush of adrenaline this notion generated. ‘Plan B’ hadn’t been his idea, but he was not averse to selling it as his brainchild. After all, it was twice as good as the botched ‘Plan A’ … Before long they wouldn’t have one stargate at their disposal, but two ...

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

When Dr Fraiser returned to her office at the SGC, she found Sam Carter slouched in a chair, sans boots and socks, bare feet tucked under her in the seat. Next to her on the desk loitered a desiccated half-eaten donut and an untouched mug of coffee gone cold. Stranded between a grimy keyboard and stacks of Janet’s dog-eared case notes, the two items somehow managed to convey a certain distress at having failed to fulfil their simple purpose in life.

 

“Hi, Sam. You should have let me know you were planning to move in. I would have cleared some shelf-space.”

 

Major Carter almost fell off the chair. “Sorry, Janet. I was miles away … Didn’t hear you come in …”

 

“Never would have guessed. Can I do something for you?”

 

“No …”

 

“Sam, you look dreadful. Why don’t you go home, take a bath, get a good night’s sleep?”

 

“Can’t. We’ve been ordered to stay on base while the investigation’s going on.” Sam wriggled into a more upright position and pulled her knees to her chest. “I didn’t mean to come squatting, it’s just that … I’m hiding, I guess. Can’t stand being in my quarters, and I don’t want to hang out in the commissary. Daniel’s there, and if have to go another round with him, I’ll be out for the count … I’ll leave. Sorry.”

 

“Don’t be silly. You can stay as long as you like … Just scoot over and let me get to my desk.” The doctor’s gaze dropped to the wad of papers her friend was clutching. “You read those?!”

 

“I didn’t plan to …” Sam chucked the sheets back on the desk as though she’d just been informed that they were contaminated with some lethal virus.

 

“Dammit, Sam! Those notes are confidential. Fair enough, I shouldn’t have left them out, but that’s no excuse!”

 

“I know it isn’t. It’s just … I saw the name, and … Sorry”, she breathed for the third time. “Is it really … that bad …?”

 

“You know what they say about listening behind doors”, snapped Janet. “Don’t do it unless you can handle hearing things you don’t like to hear.

 

“Janet?”

 

Dr Fraiser closed her eyes in resignation. “What did you expect, Sam? A miracle? There is no cure. You know it, every child knows it. And yes, it really is that bad.”

 

 

The locker door stuck, stubbornly and solidly. He did what any hot-blooded male would do when confronted with this situation. He grabbed the handle, propped both feet against adjoining lockers and pulled. The handle did what any self-respecting handle would do when subjected to such treatment. It gave. End result: one Colonel, squarely on his ass. He came to his feet with a fluid backward roll and a flamboyant little skip, balancing on one leg for a second, not because he had to, but because it was fun. Because he could.

 

 

“He loves to move”, Sam said slowly. “I don’t think he’s ever been aware of it. It’s just part of who he is …”

 

“He’s aware of it now.”

 

“You’ve been to the hospital?”

 

“Yeah. And before you ask: no, he still doesn’t want you or anybody else to visit.”

 

“What’ll happen to him?”

 

“What has to happen.” Janet pulled up a chair and sat down, switching on her computer. “He’ll come out of traction at the end of the week. It’s the rehab centre after that. Before long he’ll be able to breathe on his own, with or without a phrenic stimulator. Rehab’s gonna help him with that. He’ll also learn how to use an electric wheelchair, either with sip-and-puff controls or with head touch, whichever suits him better.”

 

“And then he’ll get to go home?”

 

“He won’t, Sam. He hasn’t got that kind of money. Insurance won’t shell out for permanent private care, and the compensation he’ll get won’t be anywhere near enough. It’d cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. He’ll have to go into a care home.”

 

I’m scared, Carter. I’m scared.

 

Don’t listen behind doors if you can’t handle what you’re hearing … Sam rested her chin on her knees, and allowed herself to digest the information. Read, watch, listen, process, learn. It was how she functioned in her job, both her jobs, how she lived, and she’d always found it helped her understand things. Except, this time it didn’t work. There was no understanding, no spark of wisdom offering itself. Suddenly her head jerked up. “I hope to God he still believes in what we did … Because, so help me, I’m starting to believe that Daniel was right …”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

TUESDAY, AUGUST 17

 

 

--- TOP SECRET ---

 

 

Interview transcript (2) (tape 1)

 

Location: Briefing room, SGC, Cheyenne Mountain

Date: 08/17

Time: 0900 hrs

 

Present:      S Vidrine, General USAF [Q] --- conducting the interview

              G S Hammond, General USAF, CinCSG [H] --- observer

 

              S Carter, PhD, Major USAF, 2IC SG-1 [SC]

              D Jackson, PhD, no rank, civilian advisor, SG-1 [DJ]

              Teal’c, no rank, classification applies, SG-1 [T]

 

Note:  The audio tapes contain background noises, such as klaxons, PA announcements, gate activation etc. Those are normal within the daily activities at the SGC and should be ignored. Any interruptions by other personnel will be indicated as such in the transcript. Observations as to actions, gestures, moods, etc will appear in italics and square brackets.

 

 

Q: Good morning. Please be seated [persons present sit]. Before we continue, I’d like to recap briefly for the record. In yesterday afternoon’s session you described to me your impressions gathered during the car journey to Zabrant and detailed, to the best of your recollection, the conversations you had in the course of that journey. Would it be correct to characterise these conversations as attempts on the part of your respective companions to gather in-depth information about your individual roles and responsibilities within the SGC?

 

[indications to the affirmative from SC, DJ, and T]

 

Q: Good. Would any of you like to add anything regarding that car journey or the conversations you had?

 

[indications to the negative from SC, DJ, and T]

 

Q: Thank you. We’ll proceed then. I believe it was you, Mr Teal’c, who yesterday mentioned in passing that there was some kind of a gala reception at the Governors’ Palace that evening?

 

T: That is correct. Councillor Durante insisted that the Governors of Drakalla wished to honour their future allies by arranging these festivities.

 

Q: You say ‘insisted’. Does that mean that the reception wasn’t what it seemed to be?

 

T: I believe the feast was designed as a further endeavour to obtain data from the Tau’ri.

 

Q: The Tau’ri? You were not invited?

 

T: [reluctantly] I was not at first. However, it transpired that there existed some dissension among the Drakallan leaders regarding my presence.

 

Q: And just how did that transpire?

 

T: [obviously ill at ease with pursuing this subject] On the occasion of O’Neill’s taking exception to my not having been quartered in the vicinity of the remainder of SG-1.

 

SC: Sir, if I may?

 

Q: Go ahead, Major.

 

SC: When we arrived at the Palace we were shown to our rooms. At that point it turned out that, unlike the rest of us who were assigned guest rooms on the second floor, Teal’c was quartered in a remote wing where the palace staff was housed.

 

Q: And how did Colonel O’Neill respond to that?

 

SC: By giving orders that we all should move into Teal’c’s room, sir.

 

Q: Then what happened?

 

DJ: It got a bit cramped.

 

[indefinable reaction from H]

 

Q: I suspected as much. Thank you, Dr Jackson. General, you wanted to say something?

 

H: No.

 

Q: What was the Drakallan reply?

 

SC: Councillor Durante seemed flustered and went to consult the Governors. He returned after some fifteen minutes, apologising for the misunderstanding and saying that the room next to mine had now been made available to Teal’c, who also would be expected to attend the reception.

 

Q: So you moved back into the guest rooms?

 

SC: Yes, sir.

 

Q: You may find this amusing, and I’m sure Colonel O’Neill did, but taking into account the confrontation immediately after your arrival, don’t you think it might have been more diplomatic to overlook this ‘misunderstanding’ about the accommodation?

 

SC: We’re a team, sir. Which means that, apart from chain of command within the team, we’re equals.

 

DJ: It was the right thing to do, General. If the Drakallans really wanted an alliance, they had to understand that some things they take for granted would not be acceptable to us.

 

SC: Thanks, Daniel.

 

DJ: I was explaining Jack’s point of view, not yours.

 

Q: Can we please keep this on topic? Major Carter? Dr Jackson?

 

SC: Sorry, sir.

 

[DJ shrugs]

 

Q: So, in the evening you all attended the reception?

 

*

 

The Drakallans didn’t just have mid-20th century technology, they had the design to complement it. The Governors’ Palace looked like gloomy midnight doodles by a soulmate of whomever had perpetrated Terminal 1 at Paris Charles de Gaulle. Steel, concrete, escalators disappearing into the wild blue yonder, and a Mikado game of Perspex tube skyways randomly strewn in for good measure. Cosy. Not to mention confusing.

 

The décor of the rooms was a perfect match, right down to the futuristic chairs on toothpick legs. Unfortunately, so were the fashions. Sam Carter never thought that one day she’d be hankering after that muslin monstrosity the Shavadai had swathed her in. Well, she was. Yep. She definitely was ...

 

The reception had been billed as an evening dress affair and, strangely enough, SG-1 had neglected to pack ball gowns or tuxedoes. Apprised of their dilemma, Councillor Durante had told them not to worry, a selection of suitable attire would be provided in their rooms. The Councillor’s definition of ‘suitable’ clearly was a far cry from Major Carter’s. On inspection, her wardrobe had disclosed a stunning summer collection by the couturiers of Ming the Merciless. Right now she was standing in front of the mirror, dressed in a lively little orange number that at least wasn’t cut down to her midriff. Nor did it involve two-foot spiky epaulettes, which relieved her to no end. Orange was so not her colour! And it definitely didn’t go with combat boots. Sam balefully eyed the choice of footwear on offer. The stilettos looked evil enough to stab somebody. She’d probably break her neck trying to - … A knock on the door.

 

“Carter? Carter, let me in!”

 

Oh great! She’d never hear the end of this! Sam groaned, stomped to the door, opened, and barely swallowed a curse. Typical! The guys had got perfectly normal evening suits. To add insult to injury, she was forced to admit that the Colonel cleaned up rather nicely, apart from - … “You’re planning to wear this, sir?”

 

For reasons best known to himself, he’d rammed a black beanie hat over his head. “Let me in!”

 

She stepped aside, and he slipped into the room, removing the hat. “Oops …” said Sam in a valiant effort not to laugh.

 

“Your condolences are duly noted, Major.” He’d applied copious amounts of whatever the locals used in lieu of Brylcreem to try and slick down his hair. It had incited follicular rebellion. Bart Simpson on a Bad Hair Day.

 

“Colonel, if you don’t mind my asking … What exactly did you think you were doing?”

 

“Didn’t want the natives to labour under the mistaken belief that a classless society automatically results in sorry hairstyles. I mean, look at Teal’c! And as for Daniel …”

 

“Anything wrong with my hair, sir?”

 

“No, but you should reconsider the boots ... Carter, please! Any ideas?”

 

“Wash it.”

 

“No time. It took me a quarter of an hour to knot that tie, and we’ve got to be down there in twenty minutes.”

 

“Just take off the jacket, sir!” Major Carter dragged her CO into the bathroom, made him lean over the tub, and started the shower attachment running. “Keep still, else you’ll get wet, Colonel.”

 

“It’s hot!”

 

“Sorry …” The shampoo in her hands briefly fizzed into lather and gave up as soon as it came into contact with the sheer mass of grease in his hair. She’d need another go … “Is Teal’c okay now?”

 

“Yeah …” His voice sounded a little constrained. “I’m beginning to think that this isn’t about class at all … at least not completely …”

 

“In what way?” Sam squeezed more shampoo from the bottle and started scrubbing away vigorously.

 

“Ow! … You’re worse than my mother … If they’ve pegged Teal’c as some kind of bodyguard, which I believe they have, this was a deliberate attempt to get him out of the way.”

 

A puff of lather threatened to soak into the shirt. She gently brushed it off his neck, suddenly aware of smooth, warm skin under her fingertips, and sensing his minute shiver, just as her hands began to tremble. Taken aback, she reached for the shower attachment. “Why?” Her throat felt tight for some reason.

 

He let out a long, soft breath he seemed to have been holding forever. “Beats me, Carter, but I don’t like it, and I intend to find out.”

 

“Let’s check out the Governors tonight. See what we can see…” Sam rinsed off the soap, fished for a towel and tossed it over his head. “Done, sir. I need to get some shoes to go with the Satsuma.”

 

Ten minutes later a Perspex tube spat them out into the downstairs lobby; Major Carter in a pair of orange stilettos that promised to murder her ankles, and Colonel O’Neill slightly damp around the collar, but otherwise inconspicuous. Dr Jackson and Teal’c, chaperoned by Councillor Durante and a brace of aides, were waiting for them.

 

“What took you so long?” Daniel enquired.

 

“Don’t even think of it, Carter! … Nice hair, Teal’c.”

 

Sam, left to deal with the perplexed stares of both Daniel and Teal’c, shrugged non-committally. “Couldn’t decide which shoes to wear.”

 

“If you wish, Colonel, we can proceed to the ballroom now.” Durante actually bowed. Somebody must have read him the Riot Act.

 

The ballroom, so called, was a wood-panelled cavern the size and maybe half the height of a gymnasium. Light panes on the ceiling cast a cold glow on two-hundred-odd people nibbling on cheese cubes and sandwich corners and sipping sweet sparkling wine. Sam figured a barbershop quartet would have gone nicely with it and was mildly disappointed to find a sole melodramatic pianist harassing the native version of a baby grand. The polite hum of conversation tailed off when SG-1 made their entrance. His aides had blended into the background, and Councillor Durante led the team across polished parquet towards a group of some twenty men and women who dominated the centre of the floor in splendid isolation. The Governors and their lady wives.

 

The Councillor bowed again, more deferentially this time. “Sirs, ladies. It is my pleasure to introduce your guests from Earth. Colonel O’Neill, Major Carter, Dr Jackson, and” - an almost imperceptible beat here - “Mr Teal’c.”

 

After the fourth or fifth couple, Sam lost track of the Governors’ names. Only two of them stuck in her memory, because the men themselves had stood out. Governor Morin, a lean, hungry look on his predator’s face, refusing to greet Teal’c, not accompanied by a wife, but by a small, slight, bespectacled man in an expensive tailored suit, who vanished into the crowd during introductions. The other one, Governor Valdane, intelligent, suave, manipulative, and clearly the brains of the outfit. He made a point of chatting to Teal’c.

 

The overture concluded without diplomatic incidents, and they each ended up with a high-ranking guide who took them to meet and greet other, less influential members of Zabrant society. Predictably, Sam found herself under the matronly wings of Mrs Valdane and was ushered straight into the maws of what had to be the Drakallan Summit of Charity Chairwomen. The ladies, compared to whom she felt positively underdressed, in terms of style as well as colour, displayed a keen interest in needlepoint, skincare products, and terrestrial educational and connubial systems. Major Carter strove to answer their questions with as much enthusiasm as she could muster, whilst unobtrusively surveying the ballroom.

 

Morin’s short, dapper pal had resurfaced and stood ramrod-straight and collected by one of the French windows that opened out onto the grounds beyond the Palace. Under a potted palm tree across the floor she spotted Governor Morin himself in what seemed like a heated, if hushed, debate with two men who looked subtly out of place. Sam couldn’t really put a finger on it. It wasn’t their clothes. It was more to do with their manner, almost as if - …

 

“I hear you’re a scientist, Major Carter?” Governor Valdane’s smooth, cultured voice.

 

She hadn’t noticed him joining the ladies and started a little. “Yes. Theoretical astrophysicist, in fact.”

 

“How unusual! … Well, it is for us on Drakalla. Drakallan women are part of the workforce, of course, but they do not aspire to branch out into male domains like science.”

 

“Is that so?” Sam smiled radiantly.

 

“Indeed. I find your vocation most extraordinary. Both your vocations, I should say. But do tell me more. I am genuinely interested in your scientific work.”

 

Yeah, I bet you are! “Well, I am mostly working on deep-space radar - …” She saw Jack O’Neill drifting towards them in a way that was marginally too casual.

 

He’d given his babysitter the slip, and he obviously wanted something. “Governor, ladies, please forgive the intrusion. I need to abduct Major Carter for just a moment … Major?”

 

Sam followed him out of earshot of the group. “What is it, sir?”

 

“I want you to keep an eye on that sidekick of Morin’s.” The overgrown kid who’d made a mess of his hair had disappeared completely. He was deadly serious. “You know the one I mean?”

 

“Yeah, I’ve seen him. Why?”

 

“He’s been watching Daniel for ages. I think he’s on me now, but I can’t make sure myself. I don’t wanna risk tipping him off. If I’m right, try to find out who he is.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

He floated back among the crowd, and Sam Carter rejoined the ladies’ circle around Governor Valdane.

 

“Nothing untoward, I hope?” chirped Mrs Valdane.

 

“Oh no. Just a little procedural query that needed clearing up.”

 

Conveniently, the Governor hadn’t forgotten his question, and Sam allowed herself to be drawn out on the fascinating subject of deep-space radar telemetry, reciting scientific platitudes and concentrating on the man by the window. It was true. Unblinking behind thick lenses, his eyes tracked the Colonel’s tall, lithe form with rapt attention.

 

At last she ran out of things telemetric to say. “Pardon my curiosity, Governor, but who is that gentleman? I think I saw him earlier with Governor Morin, but I don’t believe we were introduced.

 

Valdane stared in the direction she had indicated. “I am sorry, Major. Which gentleman?”

 

The spot by the French window was deserted.

 

*

 

--- TOP SECRET ---

 

 

Interview transcript (2) continued (tape 5)

 

Location: Briefing room, SGC, Cheyenne Mountain

Date: 08/17

Time: 1640 hrs

 

Present:      S Vidrine, General USAF [Q] --- conducting the interview

              G S Hammond, General USAF, CinCSG [H] --- observer

 

              S Carter, PhD, Major USAF, 2IC SG-1 [SC]

              D Jackson, PhD, no rank, civilian advisor, SG-1 [DJ]

              Teal’c, no rank, classification applies, SG-1 [T]

 

Note:  The audio tapes contain background noises, such as klaxons, PA announcements, gate activation etc. Those are normal within the daily activities at the SGC and should be ignored. Any interruptions by other personnel will be indicated as such in the transcript. Observations as to actions, gestures, moods, etc will appear in italics and square brackets.

 

 

Q: Having listened to all your individual accounts of the arrival at the Governors’ Palace and the subsequent reception, it seems fair to say that, apart from you, Major Carter, and Colonel O’Neill, nobody actually recalls seeing this mystery guest.

 

SC: No, not as far as I know, sir. But the man was definitely there, and Colonel O’Neill was right in suspecting that he was being observed. Also, I had a feeling that Governor Valdane knew exactly whom I was talking about.

 

Q: Forgive my scepticism, Major, but let’s just look at the situation. You had a trying day, there had been some … shall we say ‘unpleasantness’ between you and your hosts, things were a bit tense, and there you were in the evening, tired, on your guard, drinks were being served, which I presume you partook in, and - …

 

SC: Excuse me, sir, but I don’t drink when on duty, and even if I’d been off-duty, I wouldn’t have touched any alcohol under those circumstances. Apart from anything else, I don’t like sweet wine. And to the best of my knowledge, Colonel O’Neill had drunk nothing but water, very likely for the same reasons.

 

Q: Humour me, Major. This was not an accusation of any kind. I ask you, isn’t it possible that you and Colonel O’Neill were a bit overwrought and simply imagined things?

 

DJ: General, I guess I saw the guy Major Carter means. I - …

 

SC: [surprised] You did?

 

Q: And you never once mentioned anything of the sort in your two-hour narrative?

 

DJ: I’ve been thinking back to when we were introduced to the Governors. There was somebody with Governor Morin. As a matter of fact, it could have been the same son - …

 

Q: Dr Jackson, there’s no reason for you to try and corroborate your team mate’s story. This isn’t - …

 

DJ: I’m not trying to corroborate anything. The last thing Major Carter needs or gets from me is help!

 

SC: [uneasily] Daniel, please! Can’t we - …

 

Q: Can’t we leave your personal differences, whatever they are, outside this room? Thank you. Now, Major Carter, would you please answer my question?

 

SC: General, that man was as real as you or I.

 

Q: How can you be so sure?

 

SC: Because we met him the following day.

 

T: I believe MajorCarter is referring to the man who - …

 

 

--- Lieutenant G Simmons enters the briefing room at 1658 hrs ---

 

 

Lieutenant Simmons: Sirs, ma’am, sorry to disturb. It’s just … uh … This just came in for you, General Vidrine, and it has an ‘Urgent’ flag. So I thought you might need it straightaway [hands a computer printout to Q].

 

Q: Thank you, Lieutenant. If I may … [scans document] General Hammond, I’d appreciate a meeting with you later on. 1800 hours, if that’s convenient?

 

H: Fine by me. Can I ask what that’s about?

 

Q: Not now, if you don’t mind. I’d like to go over this in detail first. Major Carter, Dr Jackson, Mr Teal’c, thank you. We’ll continue at 0800 hours tomorrow. Dismissed.

 

 

--- End of interview at 1703 hrs. End of interview transcript (2) ---

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Francisco sat upright in his chair, mindful of the linen jacket he’d draped over the backrest. Discarding the jacket had meant giving in to a physical need, if a minor one, but the heat still was such that he’d begun to perspire. The decision had been between denying the body or resembling, outwardly at least, the soiled, reeking mass of humanity that flooded the Promenade. He knew it was a weakness, but the latter had been unacceptable. Now he was subliminally aware of the differences in temperature that dapples of sunlight, filtering through the acacia tree’s foliage, created on his skin. Such an accurate instrument, Francisco thought. So complex. So sensitive.

 

“Your tea, sir.” The waitress plunked a cup and a coarse china teapot on his table. “Earl Grey.” Uttered without any idea of what she was serving, nor any desire to find out.

 

Not a complex, sensitive instrument, her skin. Blotched and coarse like the china, it was nothing more than rancid sheathing for musculature and bone. Exercise and pumice bars might improve it, but the waitress would consider neither, of course. Waitresses used to be called ‘maids’, and Francisco surmised with faint amusement that this one was, and would remain, a maid.

 

“Thank you, my dear”, he said brightly and left a disproportionate tip.

 

“You’re welcome!” The maid’s eyes lit up as she calculated how many servings of French fries the sum would purchase.

 

Francisco smiled and inhaled the luminous fragrance of bergamot oil in his tea. The scent stimulated his memory, as it always did, and now he let himself drift back, half fearing the nostalgia it brought. That complex, accurate instrument, sensitised to the point of agony, taut under the slightest touch. Perfect clay waiting to be moulded. Perfect choice. He’d come so close. So very close ... From across the pavement an abysmally tinny potpourri of Baroque music started blaring, and Francisco flinched because he had previously sampled the performance about to commence.

 

A black-clad man began his routine, cheap make-up already melting in the heat, painting pink streaks on a white face. Why he would want to perform to music and, more pertinently, why he had chosen mime as his vehicle, was beyond Francisco. The man had no sense of rhythm or movement. His hapless contortions were an insult to the genius of Bach and Vivaldi and a disgrace to the possibilities of the human body. Pedestrian cattle gathered and applauded, some even tossing money, as though shameless ineptitude deserved reward rather than punishment.

 

For a fleeting moment Francisco considered what it might be like to mould such flawed clay and then dispelled the notion in shame. It would be sacrilege, a waste of his art, his vision. Perfection could never be achieved here. What purity could stillness bring if motion was not understood? He tore away his gaze, concentrated on letting a spoonful of cream trickle into his tea. Ringlets of pale, fatty liquid coiled in clear amber, uncontrollable, unpredictable. Francisco no longer wanted the tea.

 

Compulsively he reached for the manila envelope that covered a creased, unappetising paper napkin. The envelope’s content had cost him two thirds of the generous fee the Senator had disbursed, and if the politician ever suspected its existence, Francisco’s days would be numbered. But it had been worth the risk and worth the price he’d paid. He had yearned for it until yearning had turned to obsession, and one of his former colleagues, ruled by greed and self-indulgence as they all were, had promised to deliver and kept that promise.

 

Moaning in reverence, Francisco pulled the grainy print from the envelope and studied it. A moment frozen in time. The moment of acceptance. Mere seconds after that harsh, whispered command, issued in full knowledge of what was to come. The face drained with awe, eyes closed before the intolerable truth of perfection.

 

A sigh of wind flitted through the acacia tree, made the sunlit dapples dance across the image, and Francisco gasped. Carefully, like a priest, he held the picture up to the light and searched it again, weeping almost. He hadn’t been mistaken. There were tears.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

--- TOP SECRET ---

 

 

To:    S Vidrine, General USAF, Pentagon, currently attached to SGC, Cheyenne Mountain

 

From:  P Davis, Major USAF, P5X 081 ‘Drakalla’

 

Date: 08/17

 

 

*Urgent*

 

 

I regret to say that preliminary enquiries contradict SG-1’s reports in virtually all points. Although they have taken umbrage to the SGC’s rescue mission, which they declare to have been absolutely uncalled-for, Drakallan leaders are extremely solicitous, cooperative, and eager to clear up any misunderstandings.

 

So far indications are that SG-1 was arrested after sabotaging a government research facility. The damage was shown to us, and it is extensive. The Governors insist that they and their representatives have done nothing to justify SG-1’s actions.

 

Neither my men nor I have been able to find any signs of allegedly advanced technology in the locations described by SG-1. We will continue with individual interviews of the Governors and return at 2100 hours your time on 08/18.

 

 

Paul Davis

Major USAF

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

“Well?”

 

“Well what?!” Hammond barked.

 

Contrary to appearances, General Vidrine didn’t enjoy this meeting any more than George Hammond, if perhaps for different reasons. Everything he’d seen or heard so far contributed to his growing suspicion that the Air Force had been disgraced by a maverick team under its loose cannon of a leader. O’Neill had paid a high price for his paranoia, but while that was regrettable, it sure as hell looked like the Colonel and his faithful troops were engaged in a concerted effort to shift the blame onto an innocent party, a potential ally, no less. And Hammond refused to acknowledge it. Which was one of the reasons why the investigation had been placed in Vidrine’s hands.

 

“Your people led you up the garden path, George.”

 

“Bullshit!”

 

“I’d say Major Davis’ findings are pretty unequivocal. Personally, I dread to read the full report.”

 

“Unequivocal, my ass! The Drakallans are lying. There’s unequivocal for you.”

 

“Dammit, George, be reasonable! You’re not trying to tell me that a whole government is lying?!”

 

“Watched the news lately, General?”

 

Vidrine sighed. “I know you’d fight tooth and nail for any of your people, especially for O’Neill and especially now, but by God, face it, man, he screwed up. Big time! Just be grateful that nobody else got hurt.”

 

General Hammond rose and walked to the door. It was his office, and although Vidrine outranked him, supposedly he could ask him to leave. Apparently it didn’t seem worth the effort. “I’ll make you a deal, General”, Hammond said calmly. “You prove to me that Jack O’Neill placed so much as a toe wrong, and you’ve got my resignation in the morning.”

 

“I intend to prove it, George. I have to. That’s my job. I’ll talk to him myself tomorrow, and you’re welcome to join me. And just between you, me, and the gatepost, all I want is to clean up this godawful mess. The last thing I expect is your resignation.”

 

“You’ll get it anyway.”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 18

 

 

--- TOP SECRET ---

 

 

Interview transcript (3) (tape 1)

 

Location: Briefing room, SGC, Cheyenne Mountain

Date: 08/18

Time: 0813 hrs

 

Present:      S Vidrine, General USAF [Q] --- conducting the interview

              G S Hammond, General USAF, CinCSG [H] --- observer

 

              S Carter, PhD, Major USAF, 2IC SG-1 [SC]

              D Jackson, PhD, no rank, civilian advisor, SG-1 [DJ]

              Teal’c, no rank, classification applies, SG-1 [T]

 

Note:  The audio tapes contain background noises, such as klaxons, PA announcements, gate activation etc. Those are normal within the daily activities at the SGC and should be ignored. Any interruptions by other personnel will be indicated as such in the transcript. Observations as to actions, gestures, moods, etc will appear in italics and square brackets.

 

 

Q: Good morning. I apologise for being late. There were some questions left open in our last session, but I’d like to postpone those to a later date and for now move on to the second day of your stay on P5X 081. According to your reports, you had breakfast with several of the Governors and their staff, and subsequently were taken to visit a number of facilities around Zabrant. Will you please describe the events in more detail?

 

*

 

“It is said that the best reflection of a society are its schools”, Governor Valdane remarked in the course of the morning meal, for which they had assembled in a private dining room, around a table that seated twenty-five.

 

“So we’ll go look at your schools then, shall we?”

 

If he had interpreted the overtones of the query correctly, it was not intended to be humorous, and this acquiescence of O’Neill’s came as a surprise to Teal’c. The Jaffa would not normally have expected his friend to express enthusiasm of any kind for a survey of educational institutions. Quite on the contrary. However, Teal’c could not be certain that O’Neill had been listening at all, or that his response had been anything other than automatic. Nervous fingers were manipulating an engraved silver fork, twirling and threading it between digits, until others, too, detected O’Neill’s preoccupation.

 

“Jack?”

 

“What?”

 

DanielJackson’s answer was a pointed stare at O’Neill’s left hand.

 

“Ah”, the Colonel acknowledged, and set the utensil back on the damask tablecloth. “Pardon my manners …”

 

The reply had sounded light, casual to the Jaffa’s ears, but his friend’s body told a different tale. O’Neill concealed it well, but a single person had absorbed his interest throughout. Teal’c had discerned it in the heightened tone of muscles, the subtly erect posture, the minute angle of the head, betraying alertness, suspicion, and the poise of a warrior prepared to strike.

 

“Excuse me, sir …? I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name …”

 

Smiling indulgently, the man addressed, slight of build and wearing gold-rimmed spectacles, interrupted his conversation with another member of SG-1. “Colonel. Major Carter intrigues me beyond words. I continually tell the Governors that they should revise their approach. Physical and material requirements mean nothing compared to those of the mind … You shall see when we visit the schools.”

 

“I doubt I’ll get it … Try Major Carter. She’s way smarter than I am.”

 

“Don’t sell yourself short, Colonel. You are uncommonly perceptive.”

 

For the space of a heartbeat, O’Neill’s eyes widened, and Teal’c understood that a message had been sent and received.

 

Governor Valdane rose, as though to terminate a dialogue he had not authorised. “I fear we’re running late, my friends. My colleague Morin will already be waiting for you to take you on your tour. The Doctor here shall accompany you, as a scientific advisor, if you will. Please enjoy yourselves, and please don’t be shy to ask any questions you wish to ask. Drakalla is very serious about this alliance, and we would not want to leave you with the impression that we are holding anything back.”

 

Teal’c had become accustomed to many Tau’ri rituals over the years, but this lingering after a meal, this clumping together in small chatty groups, still amazed him. It was different on Chulak, perhaps because food was not so plentiful and an imperative rather than a social occasion. If his assumption was correct, then this class of Drakallans had to have abundant sustenance, because they engaged in the same strange custom as the Tau’ri. Guests and hosts abandoned the table only grudgingly. The small, bespectacled man remained nearby, giving muted orders to two others who had newly entered the room. The Governor had referred to him as ‘scientific advisor’. Groomed with great precision, holding himself somewhat stiffly, he did, indeed, conform to the received image of a scientist, albeit one less unconventional than MajorCarter or DanielJackson. Teal’c chose to retain the appellation ‘Scientist’ for the moment.

 

At last, Governor Morin and the Scientist gathered SG-1 between them and escorted the team outside the Palace, to commence their induction to native culture. Two limousines transported them to their first destination, a large and dreary place of worship of doubtful architectural appeal. Teal’c found the religious precepts as confusing as the notions of class-consciousness the local deities were deemed to subscribe to. The edifice was comprised of four separate wings, to accommodate the four separate classes of Drakallan society. According to Governor Morin, the comforts provided in each wing allowed for conclusions as to which class would be worshipping there: Leaders, Administrators, Labourers, or Helots.

 

“What is a Helot?”

 

“A slave, Teal’c”, O’Neill replied brusquely.

 

“That’s a bit of a generalisation, Jack! Originally, in ancient Sparta, helots were bondservants for a limited amount of time, several years usually - …”

 

“During which they were slaves. Am I right or am I right?”

 

“They are not slaves, Colonel!” Governor Morin appeared put out by the term. “Our society simply is not permissive of outsiders of any description. We believe they do harm to its structure, destabilise a system that has served us well for centuries. People who cannot or will not fit into the three higher classes are Helots. If you came to live here, you would be Helots, at least at the outset.”

 

“Don’t worry, Governor. I think chances of any of us applying for a residence permit are pretty slim at the moment.”

 

The Scientist interceded, and his cursory glance at Governor Morin conveyed displeasure. “I’m sure the Governor did not intend to give offence, Colonel. He is somewhat orthodox in his outlook, and it is best to respect his views, as you later may wish him to respect yours. Shall we continue?”

 

The remainder of their tour led them to a library, an area for recreational activities, and an industrial unit where primitive audio-visual transmitters were manufactured. With the exception of that latter facility, which was peopled by Labourers only, the fourfold division of citizens applied everywhere. To Teal’c’s dismay, this also included the school they visited.

 

Its buildings were divided according to the class of pupils instructed in them, and with this came a significant variance in the quality of teaching materials and subjects taught. Administrators’ children were educated in mathematical and linguistic skills, Labourers’ children in manual skills, and Helots’ children in no skills Teal’c could directly identify. He sensed his comrades’ anger, and silently he agreed with them. It was criminal that children should be withheld tuition on account of their extraction, and it was obscene that they should be indoctrinated to preserve this injustice themselves once they had grown up.

 

“If you care to join me, I now shall show you where the pride and joy of Zabrant and the future Governors of Drakalla are educated. I believe you will be impressed.”

 

“Oh we will be. No doubt about it ...”

 

Missing O’Neill’s acrimony, the Governor guided SG-1 towards the building reserved for the Leaders’ offspring. Suddenly the piercing cries of a child disrupted the quiet of the hallway, and the screams seemed to originate from the courtyard at the centre of the complex. O’Neill was already moving towards the source.

 

“Colonel! I must warn you and your people not to interfere! The tutor is within his rights to enforce discipline!”

 

Teal’c concluded it would be wise to follow, despite the Scientist’s caution. Footfalls behind him revealed that MajorCarter and DanielJackson had come to a similar decision.

 

The sight was appalling. On the ground lay a boy of maybe ten or eleven years of age. Two older pupils were holding his ankles, immobilising them. A third person, an adult, was administering the caning. The child’s wails were growing frantic.

 

Momentarily, the Colonel stopped in his tracks, and the Jaffa saw his friend’s eyes harden in an expression that spoke of things best unremembered. Then O’Neill tackled the teacher, and they realised that the tutor’s right to enforce discipline extended not merely to students but also to interlopers. The man whirled around, his intended victim forgotten, and lashed out at O’Neill. The strike connected. A sharp red line sprang up across hands raised to protect the Colonel’s face.

 

With the heightened awareness that came from long acquaintance with danger, Teal’c registered the twin gasps from DanielJackson and MajorCarter, as loath as he to see O’Neill hurt, but he also noted the Scientist’s intense focus, riveted on them all. For a fraction of a second, Teal’c entertained the illogical thought that this scene had been prearranged to gauge their reactions.

 

Governor Morin brought it to an end. “It appears that our guests object to your task, Tutor. Drakallan hospitality requires that we heed their wishes. It is enough. You have done well.”

 

The teacher desisted with an obeisance to the Governor, and the reprieved child limped away to safety.

 

“Thank you, Governor”, O’Neill murmured at last, his fingers closing over lacerated palms. “I - … Thank you. What on earth … what did the boy do?”

 

It was the Scientist who replied. “He failed to satisfactorily answer a question, Colonel.”

 

“And you just split an infinitive. What’s the punishment for that? … Come on, kids. I think we’ve seen enough.”

 

*

 

--- TOP SECRET ---

 

 

Interview transcript (3) continued (tape 3)

 

Location: Briefing room, SGC, Cheyenne Mountain

Date: 08/18

Time: 1107 hrs

 

Present:      S Vidrine, General USAF [Q] --- conducting the interview

              G S Hammond, General USAF, CinCSG [H] --- observer

 

              S Carter, PhD, Major USAF, 2IC SG-1 [SC]

              D Jackson, PhD, no rank, civilian advisor, SG-1 [DJ]

              Teal’c, no rank, classification applies, SG-1 [T]

 

Note:  The audio tapes contain background noises, such as klaxons, PA announcements, gate activation etc. Those are normal within the daily activities at the SGC and should be ignored. Any interruptions by other personnel will be indicated as such in the transcript. Observations as to actions, gestures, moods, etc will appear in italics and square brackets.

 

 

Q: You mean to tell me that Colonel O’Neill attacked a Drakallan citizen without provocation?!

 

DJ: [heatedly] I’d like to hear what you think constitutes ‘provocation’, General! The punishment was barbaric, and I happen to know what I’m talking about. I’ve seen it in Egypt. If Col- … oh screw this! … if Jack hadn’t stopped that bastard, the boy would have been unable to walk for days.

 

Q: [with noticeable impatience] No matter how barbaric you consider it to be, Dr Jackson, it’s the Drakallan’s business, and only theirs. All of you, and especially Colonel O’Neill, should have reminded yourselves that you’re working for the US Air Force, not for Amnesty International!

 

SC: I imagine that Colonel O’Neill was reminding himself precisely of that. Sir!

 

Q: Then perhaps I should remind you, Major, that you just skated out onto very thin ice. Unfortunately I can’t force Dr Jackson to abide by military etiquette, but I sure as hell can force you!

 

H: I don’t believe that was called for, General Vidrine!

 

Q: It’s pretty obvious that you don’t believe it, George. Can we carry on? I have an appointment at 1300 hours. Major Carter, you’re saying that the man Mr Teal’c refers to as the ‘Scientist’ was the same man you claim was observing Dr Jackson and Colonel O’Neill during the reception the previous evening?

 

SC: Yes, sir.

 

Q: Well, I’m relieved that this time it wasn’t just you and Colonel O’Neill who saw him. What happened after the Colonel’s bleeding heart routine?

 

SC: Can the record please show that I respectfully object to General Vidrine’s tone?

 

Q: [calming himself] It can, Major, and I apologise. My tone and the last remark were out of order.

 

SC: Thank you, sir.

 

Q: So, what happened after the … incident at the school?

 

DJ: We returned to the Palace. Sam … sorry … Major Carter took care of Colonel O’Neill’s hands. He had a couple of pretty nasty cuts.

 

Q: And after that?

 

DJ: A light lunch was served.

 

H: Dr Jackson, please! You’re not helping.

 

DJ: Sorry, sir … In the afternoon there was a meeting with Valdane, Morin, some other Governors. That scientist guy was there, and two of the bureaucrat types that were floating around the Palace more or less constantly.

 

Q: And this meeting was designed to achieve what?

 

DJ: The Drakallans detailed their proposed terms for an alliance.

 

Q: Those terms involving what precisely?

 

SC: In return for access to Earth technology, the Drakallan Governors offered to provide the location and infrastructure for an off-world SGC base.

 

Q: Far be it from me to judge Colonel O’Neill’s thought processes, but that sounds like a pretty desirable offer to me. After all, the SGC has been looking for an off-world site for some time and rejected several planets. As far as I’m aware there always seemed to be a Catch 22, like a world that was advanced enough usually would already have come under the influence of the Goa’uld. This apparently isn’t the case with P5X 081. You found no signs of recent Goa’uld presence, so can you give me one good reason why the Colonel rejected that offer? And please don’t tell me it was because some kid got his butt spanked for not doing his homework!

 

DJ: It wasn’t his butt, though that would have been enough!

 

Q: Kindly stay on topic, Dr Jackson!

 

DJ: We are on topic, sir! The Drakallan class system and the way people are treated there were of concern to Colonel O’Neill, to all of us, as a matter of fact. I believe I’m right in saying that we all suspected the Drakallan leadership of potentially abusing any technology delivered by us.

 

Q: And you honestly think you’re qualified to make this judgment?

 

DJ: We were there, sir! We saw what they’re like.

 

Q: It looks to me like you saw what you wanted to see, or rather what Colonel O’Neill wanted you to see. I feel I need to point out yet again that SG-11’s reports differ drastically from what you’re describing. But just for argument’s sake, what kind of technology did the Drakallans ask for?

 

SC: It was a variety of things, sir, most of them no more sinister than cell phones. Although, with their level of technology the Drakallans shouldn’t even have guessed those were possible.

 

Q: That’s your opinion, Major. So, Colonel O’Neill rejected the treaty because he didn’t want to trade phones. That it?

 

SC: No, sir. Firstly, we had justifiable doubts that, in the event of an off-world base being established on P5X 081, the cooperation with the Drakallans was going to be as unproblematic as the Governors would have liked us to believe. And secondly, and far more importantly, Colonel O’Neill and the rest of us really got worried when Governor Morin demanded that a genetic sequencer be included in the list of technology we were to deliver.

 

Q: Ah, the infamous genetic sequencer. Why did that make you so jumpy? I mean, for God’s sake, if I remember my biology lessons correctly, Gregor Mendel kicked off genetics in the 19th century! Surely, with the Drakallan level of development, an interest in that field was to be expected.

 

SC: Sir, there’s a difference between growing peas to study heredity and trying to get hold of our most advanced means for mapping genomes! And Governor Morin’s explanation for his request definitely invited the assumption that the Drakallans were planning to use this equipment to facilitate experiments on the Helots. We’re talking the worst kind of eugenics here, General!

 

Q: Correct me if I’m wrong, Major, but don’t you need considerable computer capacity to use a genetic sequencer in the first place? For all we know, the Drakallans don’t have that capacity, so the nastiest thing they could have done with that sequencer was put it as an ornament on Governor Morin’s mantelpiece. If the Governor did indeed ask for such equipment, isn’t it far more likely that he heard you or somebody else talk about it and simply decided it would be a cool gadget to have?

 

SC: Sir, I can’t speak for the others, but I certainly didn’t talk about any such thing. Governor Morin shouldn’t have been aware that such a device existed. In fact, I’m convinced the request he made had not been authorised. The ‘Scientist’ and the two bureaucrat types Dr Jackson mentioned got agitated at that point, and Governor Valdane called a break to proceedings. It looked to me like they wanted to have a word with Governor Morin.

 

Q: So what happened during that break?

 

SC: Governors Valdane and Morin and the ‘Scientist’ retired to an antechamber. Dr Jackson, Teal’c, and I stayed and discussed Morin’s demand. Colonel O’Neill left the conference room.

 

Q: Why?

 

SC: Uh … He had to go, sir.

 

Q: Go where? Major?

 

T: O’Neill went to urinate.

 

Q: Oh … Thank you for clarifying that, Mr Teal’c … Eventually the meeting resumed, I suppose?

 

DJ: Yes, but Colonel O’Neill hadn’t returned at that point.

 

Q: Dare I ask why?

 

DJ: The Palace is a bit of a rabbit warren, and he’d got lost. He said he’d taken the wrong escalator, ended up on the fifth floor, and it took him forever to find his way back down. Well, that was the official version Colonel O’Neill gave when he returned to the conference room about twenty minutes into the second half of the meeting.

 

Q: The unofficial version being …?

 

SC: After the meeting, Colonel O’Neill said he’d found something he wanted me to take a look at.

 

Q: And just what did the Colonel discover on his travels?

 

SC: The kind of computer equipment to go with a genetic sequencer, sir.

 

Q: Of course. Well, we’ll go over that in detail tomorrow, at 0830 hours. I have to leave now. Dismissed.

 

 

--- Interview terminated at 1201 hrs. End of Interview transcript (3) ---

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Either the thermostat in his room was bust, or they’d mistakenly wrapped him in an 18-tog blanket … Actually, no, that couldn’t be it … Remember, Jack, the thermostat in your body’s bust, too. In fact, there was an above-average chance that the thermostat in the room wasn’t malfunctioning at all. Over the past two months he’d been given a crash course on Stuff to Go Wrong with the Human Physiology, and he’d learnt a lot. Faster than he would have liked. Presumably, the fact that his face and neck were glazed with a fine sheen of perspiration fell into the One of Those Things category. Ignore it.

 

He wished he could ignore the headache as easily. It had got progressively worse during the last hour, throbbing in tandem with the spasms that rippled through his shoulders, but he wasn’t about to say anything. He was going to get this over and done with. Just a pesky debriefing, for cryin’ out loud, and hell was gonna freeze over before he called for the smelling salts halfway through one of those. It probably was all in his head anyway. More than likely to do with General Vidrine clumsily plodding his way towards the part Jack really, really didn’t want to talk about …

 

Now, if somebody just killed the goddamn fly … How on earth it had got in was anyone’s guess. When it had landed on his face, he’d actually been aware of that instinctive response departing his brain. Raise hand, swat fly. Except, nothing ever happened. The image was there, clear as day, and for the ghost hand in his mind the process worked and the ghost fly took off. The real fly remained unimpressed, because his real body never moved. The real Jack couldn’t even shake his head … yet … because that was still held in place by a clamp bolted to his skull. Out of nowhere came that stupid joke about the little old lady who wants to do something about the moths in her attic and turns up at the drugstore twice daily and buys mothballs by the truckload and finally the store clerk says, ‘Scuse me, ma’am, but whatcha need all them mothballs for?’ and the little old lady says, ‘At my age your aim ain’t so good any more, sonny. I keep missin’ the darn things!’

 

Keep missin’ the darn thing, Jack, don’tcha? … The fly was crawling down the side of his nose now, airy tickles of six tiny clawed feet, and he was not, repeat: not, going to squint at it or develop a facial tic to get rid of it. Let’s hold on to a modicum of dignity, shall we?

 

Vidrine had lost track of his next question, staring in mute discomfort, embarrassment, damn-near panic, not wanting to stare, but unable to stop. The little aide with the tape recorder, too young to shave … Good God, those kids were getting younger and younger! … was stepping from one leg to the other, P-I-T-Y written all over him, in fucking great big capital letters, trying to grin a sickly grin, torn between some ill-defined impulse to help and revulsion at the thought of accidentally touching this travesty of a man before him … There stood the living reason why he’d never allow Carter or Daniel or Teal’c in the same room with him. He couldn’t bear it if he saw that look on their faces …

 

A podgy hand shot out, Jack blinked, and the hand chased up the fly, caught it. “Know the one about the li’l ol’ lady and the mothballs, son?” George Hammond asked softly.

 

“Yeah … Keep missin’ the darn things …” He giggled manically, controlled it, smiled at the General, and it was genuine. Hammond, bless his soul, treated him like a human being.

 

“You wanna take a break, Jack?”

 

“No, I’m okay.”

 

“Sure? … You look peaked.”

 

The General’s hand rested on his shoulder, and Jack forced himself to relax, suppressing a pathetic surge of gratitude. It’d been a while since anybody had touched him not because they had to, but because they wanted to. “It’s just a debriefing, sir …”

 

“Colonel, you were saying that you stumbled onto this so-called ‘computer lab’, while trying to find your way back to the conference room.” Having recovered his speech, Vidrine transfixed a spot on the wall, strenuously avoiding eye contact with the man he was talking to. “What did you do next?”

 

Jack wondered what General Vidrine would do next if the nurse breezed in and took the interviewee potty … diaper, to be precise. Come to think of it, she was overdue … “I’m hopeless with computers, so I told Carter, and we decided to go back later and check it out. In the event, the Drakallans weren’t too pleased with us.”

 

“So, what was Major Carter’s take on it, Colonel?”

“Carter was kinda surprised to find what she described as a ‘souped-up version of a Cray’.”

 

“A ‘Cray’ being what?”

 

“Some kind of extra-fast super-computer our government likes to use.”

 

“And why was she surprised?”

 

“Because the rest of the stuff the natives labelled as ‘state-of-the-art electronic equipment’ still needed those little paper cards with the slots in them. That’s a bit of a leap, sir. Even I could see that.”

 

“And despite your avowed ignorance of computers, you readily seconded Major Carter’s assessment that this was something the Drakallans couldn’t have achieved by using their own technology?”

 

“Sir, Major Carter single-handedly built machines everybody told her couldn’t be built. You bet I seconded her assessment!”

 

“Forgive me, Colonel, but aren’t you contradicting yourself? If Major Carter could do something like that, why not the Drakallans?”

 

“Because they don’t have the know-how.”

 

“General Vidrine, can we speed this up a little? Surely there’s no need to examine every comma, is there?” George Hammond sounded annoyed.

 

No, sir! Don’t ... Love commas … they’re safe … safe … Why did his head hurt so much?

 

“Yeah, fine, we’ll take that as read. We’ve been through it at length. I want you to tell me …”

 

Somehow the voice was fading … Please, don’t ask. Can’t talk about it … He tried to focus on Vidrine, but the man had moved from his limited field of vision, and even if he hadn’t, Jack wasn’t sure he could have made him out. There were myriads of flies in the room all of a sudden, big and black and blurred, dancing madly … Please. Not again. Don’t take me there again … His headache was getting more vicious by the second, and he could hear blood rushing in his ears.

 

“Colonel, I asked you a question!”

 

“Sir?” A croak that seemed to come from very far away. “Please …”

 

“Jack? … Jack!”

 

“Just a moment, George. Colonel. Tell me what happened after your ‘discovery’?”

 

“… trap … it was … a trap …”

 

Alarms going off somewhere. Noise and pain and nausea and Hammond shouting for a doctor, a nurse, somebody … For a moment Jack felt rivers of sweat running over his face, then his eyes rolled up and he passed out.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

--- TOP SECRET ---

 

 

To:    SecDef

 

From:  S Vidrine, General USAF, Pentagon, currently Cheyenne Mountain

 

Date: 08/18

 

Time:  17:05

 

 

--- For your information ---

 

 

You are aware of Major Davis’ preliminary findings on P5X 081, and as per your request, I have interviewed Colonel O’Neill in person. While his answers were consistent with those of the rest of SG-1, they served to corroborate our suspicion that the team developed a script prior to their return to Earth and are adhering to it. Coincidentally, the apparent animosity between Major Carter and Dr Jackson would support this assumption, as it may be a front to lend verisimilitude to their stories.

 

Unfortunately, I was unable to establish much more than the fact that Colonel O’Neill’s version of the early events on P5X 081 coincides with that of his team. When I attempted to probe into events surrounding his alleged discovery of advanced technology and the incidents following this ‘discovery’, Colonel O’Neill suffered an attack of some kind, which, as the attending SCI expert Dr Montgomery assures me, was genuine and in keeping with the patient’s present state of health. Although Dr Montgomery is of the opinion that stress was not a determining factor, I am inclined to believe that the Colonel’s obvious reluctance to touch upon the incidents mentioned above may have contributed.

 

I am fully conscious of the fact that, at this stage and aside from Major Davis’ report, any possible case that could be made for misconduct or worse is based purely on guesswork and unconfirmed suspicion. However, I hope to gain proof, or at least further insights, when Major Davis and his team return from P5X 081 tonight.

 

 

S Vidrine

General, USAF

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

George Hammond was sitting by the bed, guarding his 2IC’s sleep. They’d taken Jack out of traction, in order to be able to raise his torso, which supposedly helped lower his blood pressure. Dr Fraiser, who’d only got there after things had settled down, had explained the mechanics of what had occurred. Once she’d given up on being hopping mad.

 

The condition had a fancy name and, not for the first time, the General could relate to Jack’s habit of inventing his own monikers for terms he couldn’t be bothered to remember. Wonder what he’d made of this one … He was bound to have come up with some highly imaginative variation on the theme of ‘autonomic dysreflexia’. Jeez, it really was a mouthful …

 

By the time the monitor alarms had gone off and Hammond had run hollering for a doctor, Jack’s face, his neck, his shoulders, everything above that demarcation line drawn by the injury had been bright scarlet. His diastolic blood pressure had topped out at 146, more than twice as high as it should be, while his heart rate had slowed to a crawl. In a word or seven, Jack had very nearly suffered a stroke.

 

“Why the hell didn’t you say anything, you stubborn jerk?!” Dumb question, George. Real dumb question …

 

“So they hauled me back …?” The stubborn jerk was coming round, and he sounded tired and raw. “Wish they’d left well enough alone …”

 

Hammond winced. “Sorry I woke you … must have been thinking aloud … And I didn’t hear that last remark, son.”

 

“I’d be happy to repeat it for you, sir, and you didn’t wake me … Where’s Vidrine and the kid?”

 

“They left hours ago. You’ve been out for a while, Jack.”

 

“Did I miss anything?”

 

“You almost bought it. Dr Fraiser arrived after the fact and threw a tantrum first and Vidrine off the premises second. I think that was pretty much it.”

 

“What about you, sir? … Don’t you have anything better to do?”

 

“Not at the moment, son, no.” The General grinned. “Why? You want to get rid of me?”

 

“No. Not really …” Jack fell silent and suddenly seemed to realise that he was sitting up. After a fashion. “Doc said they’d unhook me by the end of the week … ’s been two months since - ...” He studied his legs with clinical detachment. “Not much of a view …”

 

Hammond bit down on an unexpected flare of rage and speculated on just how angry Jack must feel. And he hid it, like he hid everything that could give him away, too wary to show a chink in the armour, too scared to let anyone close enough to hurt him, especially now … And you know what, Jack? You’re right to be angry and scared and wary. Given half a chance they’ll hang you out to dry, you and Sam Carter and Daniel Jackson and Teal’c. Because you’ve done what you swore you’d do, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t look like somebody’s decided that your doing just that and then some caused them an inconvenience … I’m sorry, son. I wish I could fill you in on Davis’ report. Too bad I’ve sworn an oath, too … Makes both of us look like idiots, doesn’t it?

 

“Jack, are you absolutely sure you told me everything?”

 

“That’s kind of a za’tarc question, sir … What’s  Vidrine after? … No. Forget I asked that.” A small, crooked smile. “You’re going out on a limb here, aren’t you? … Let me guess … Vidrine thinks this attack was some sort of sign that I failed the lie detector test, right?”

 

Thank you, sir. I pride myself on my deductive reasoning skills.

 

He’d been being glib at the time, but that didn’t mean those skills weren’t alive and kicking. The General nodded. “Something like that, Jack.”

 

“Why the hell should I be - …? Sir, I swear I’ve told you the truth. You know what happened.”

 

“I know.” In fact, Hammond knew only too well. He was familiar with both versions, Colonel O’Neill’s own minimalist, matter-of-fact report, and the horrendous, detailed accounts of his team.

 

“It’s just … I’d just as soon not go over it again, General, that’s all …”

 

“I know that, too.”

 

“Besides, no disrespect, sir, but for some strange reason I don’t really care all that much … I mean, what can they do to me? Lock me up? Shoot me? One’s not gonna make a blind bit of difference anyway, and the other … Let’s just say I’d consider it a favour.”

 

“You should care, Jack. Because, whatever they do to you, they’ll do to your team.”

 

“You had to go and push that button, hadn’t you?”

 

“Yeah. I had to. I don’t wanna lose you, son.”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

From:       b09ty11@realgroups.com

 

Date:        August 18, 19:51

 

To:          patriotmessages@realgroups.com

 

Re:          Fieldtrip

 

 

Message:    skymaster: Seedling has been planted and promises to grow beyond expectation. Planning to apply fertiliser and to water thoroughly.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Sam had fled to her lab. It wasn’t that she had any real work to do. By the looks of it, the challenging stuff was being handed over to somebody not currently under investigation. But she needed to think, and that came more easily while she was tinkering. Attitudes had shifted, and she was willing to bet the world’s last tub of maple pecan ice cream on a causal connection with that despatch Graham Simmons had brought into the briefing room yesterday afternoon.

 

“Dammit!” A lump of charred, twisted metal, victim to some cataclysmic event or other, soared across the room and landed on the lab bench opposite with satisfying clatter.

 

She flopped into the swivel chair in front of her computer and decided to call up the results for a naquada reaction simulation she’d been playing with before the shit had got underway in random direction of the fan. After this morning’s session, Vidrine had driven off to interview the Colonel, General Hammond on his coattails. That much she’d picked up in the commissary, where mashed potatoes and gossip were dished out in commensurate dollops. Four hours or so later a page had gone out over the PA, requesting Dr Fraiser to contact the Air Force Training Hospital immediately. Vidrine had returned some time after that, very much out of sorts, but Hammond wasn’t back yet. Neither was Janet. Which more than begged the conclusion that something was wrong … wrong-er … with Jack O’Neill.

 

“Dammit”, she said again.

 

“You’ve got mail”, the computer replied.

 

Hate-mail from Daniel, probably … God, why couldn’t they bury the hatchet and try to mend what little could be mended? They’d been friends, hadn’t they? And no matter how angry he was, how badly he himself was hurting, he had to know that following that order had torn her apart. Still was tearing her apart, always would. There was no way he could not know that. But she’d done the right thing, hadn’t she? The Colonel had done the right thing?

 

There’s no choice, Daniel. There’s too much at stake. You have to understand, there’s no choice.

 

All of this would be so much easier on everybody if they still functioned as a team. Two months ago, the four of them would have been in here, or in Daniel’s office, trying to get a handle on whatever was happening. Now there were glacial silences or shouting matches, depending on the order of the day, and Teal’c must be getting some pretty painful grooves in the butt from all that time he spent sitting on the fence. And none of them had any concrete idea of how Jack O’Neill really was doing, because none of them had seen him since that medevac chopper had taken off from the parking lot topside ... Oh stop whining! Whining’s not gonna change anything. Check your mail, Carter!

 

Klaxons started screeching, and the email was forgotten. As far as she could tell, noone was scheduled to come back tonight. Propelled by habit and curiosity, Sam ran from the lab and down to the control room, only to discover that Daniel and Teal’c had obeyed the same impulse. At least Daniel’s cold stare somehow got lost among furtive glances from the control room staff. Apparently, SG-1 had contracted leprosy. The bush telegraph clearly was in commendable working order, thank you very much, but God only knew how those sound-bites could find their way out of a more or less quarantined briefing room and into the rumour mill. The only one who didn’t gawk at her like she’d got a zit the size of a hamster on her forehead was Lieutenant Simmons. He gawked like he had a monumental crush on her, and for once this actually qualified as redeeming feature.

 

General Hammond still hadn’t shown up, so Vidrine held the fort, looking none too happy to see her or Teal’c or Daniel. Well, that’s just too damn bad, sir! But we’ve not been charged … yet. What the hell is going on?

 

“Receiving iris code”, announced Simmons. “Special envoy.”

 

Special what?!

 

“Open the iris”, Vidrine ordered as though he’d always done it, and titanium petals scraped outwards to reveal the iridescent pool of the event horizon underneath.

 

What special envoy?

 

Paul Davis stumbled onto the ramp, followed by the Men in Black. Six of them, and all that was missing were the shades. Special Ops, like the guys Colonel Cromwell had brought in when - … So what exactly was Major Davis doing, special envoying around the galactic neighbourhood?

 

Behind them the wormhole disengaged, and Davis gazed up at the control room window, his already glum expression growing positively crestfallen when he spotted her. Nice to see you too, Major! And just where have you been? … Sam made a mental note to figure out whether there was a way of computing and displaying the point of origin of an incoming wormhole.

 

“Welcome back, Major! Meet me in the briefing room immediately. The rest of the men, please go for your medical check-ups. Lieutenant, would you mind showing them to the infirmary?”

 

Bravo, General! Handling the intercom like a pro, are we?

 

Simmons brushed past her on his way to the stairs, and a hand briefly dipped into the pocket of her BDU jacket. What the …! She felt the pocket and noticed soft rustling. Paper ... You’ve got mail ... If this was a billet-doux, she’d kill him. She was in the mood for it!

 

The ramp cleared. Vidrine left for the briefing room, Teal’c politely inclined his head at the General’s passing, and Daniel stood there like a pillar of salt, trying to make sense of it all ... See, Daniel, there are things we have in common ... God, she wished she could talk to him!

 

With a shrug Sam steered for the stairs, too, eager to get out from under everybody’s scrutiny. She was beginning to feel like an endangered species, being stared at by school classes in San Diego Zoo. Which still would be preferable to Leavenworth, she presumed. On the way back to her lab, she repeatedly fingered the piece of paper in her pocket, but some niggling hunch warned her not to take it out until she was on her own turf.

 

In the event, she even locked the door. The paper was a computer print-out, and the ‘Top Secret’ flag and the date on it told her that it must be a copy of the one Vidrine had received ... Holy Hannah! Have you completely lost your mind, Graham?! … Her first instinct was to do what common sense and the manual dictated she do. See your commanding officer immediately and hand over the evidence unread. The problem with that being that her commanding officer was unavailable, in a manner of speaking, and his commanding officer was nowhere to be found. Besides, she knew Graham Simmons. He probably never once in his life had done anything that wasn’t sanctioned by either the bible or military regulations. Arrows didn’t come any straighter than the Lieutenant. Meaning that he had to have a mighty compelling reason for illegally copying classified material and distributing it to unauthorised recipients. And unless and until Major Carter had found out what that reason might be, she wasn’t going to get Simmons into trouble. But in order to find out, she’d have to read it, wouldn’t she …

 

enquiries contradict SG-1’s reports in virtually all points ... Drakallan leaders are extremely solicitous, cooperative … My God! Vidrine had sent Davis to P5X 081 … SG-1 was arrested after sabotaging a government research facility … Oh that’s a good one! … damage was shown to us, and it is extensive … Yeah, it sure is. It’s fucking irreparable …

 

Smart. Very, very smart. But nobody ever said the Drakallans were stupid. She hadn’t realised they wanted that alliance quite so badly. If this whole thing still was about the alliance … And Vidrine and Davis and likely as not the entire Pentagon had swallowed it. Hook, line, and sinker. Crap! Now what? It confirmed what she’d already suspected, but at the moment Sam had no clue of where to go from here.

 

The mail notification on her computer screen kept blinking patiently … Oh yeah … Might as well check it. Email was something she could deal with. Simple, efficient, by necessity following predictable parameters. Reassuring, in short ...

 

No topic line, and the user seemed to speak a language largely devoid of vowels: svtln@rsrch.com … Well, obviously not Daniel then ... She opened the mail, scanned it and swore. This had to be a practical joke … Sam began tracing the user account, only to discover that it didn’t exist. Which was no more than she’d expected. But the message didn’t go away:

 

… they catch fire occasionally, but they keep perfect time … We have to talk. Hawk’s Point, 2300.

 

Which put Daniel back in the running as the practical joker. Only two other people had been present when he’d made that crack. One was Sam, and the other one … The other one was completely out of the question. Everything pointed to Daniel. He was good enough with computers to pull a stunt like this, and Hawk’s Point was within walking distance from the complex; plus, he knew they weren’t allowed off-base, and testing her willingness to work things out by making her disobey orders and go AWOL definitely was something only Daniel Jackson would think of.

 

“Okay, Dr Jackson. If that’s what it takes …”

 

It wouldn’t be the first time she’d climbed twenty-eight levels up that emergency escape shaft. Sam looked at her watch. Half past nine already. Better get a move on ... As an afterthought, she stuffed the despatch Simmons had slipped her back into the pocket. Daniel needed to see this. So did Teal’c. So did the Colonel, more urgently than anyone, but he was and would remain out of reach by his own choice.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

From:       skymaster@realgroups.com

 

Date:        August 18, 22:07

 

To:          patriotmessages@realgroups.com

 

Re:          Fieldtrip

 

 

Message:    b09ty11: Fertiliser approved. Do not, repeat: not, attempt to expand orchard plans without prior consultation. Cold Comfort has not yet been notified.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

“Major, do you have any idea of what you’re saying?!”

 

The question hung in the air like an offensive smell. Vidrine had risen to pace off his tension and was beginning to wonder if that had been such a clever move. He was feeling nauseous. Only now he realised that, despite his resentment and suspicion, part of him had hoped he was wrong and O’Neill and his team were above reproach. But as of ten minutes ago he had incontrovertible proof, and, as so often, truth outdid the wildest expectations.

 

“I do”, Paul Davis replied at last and in the tones of a bride who didn’t. “God help me, sir, I do.”

 

“Are you absolutely certain?”

 

“Sir, we turned the whole place upside down. Twice over. The second time after Governor Valdane had shown me this.” Davis waved a hand at the crumpled piece of notepaper sitting on the conference table. “I was searching for anything out of place, any contradiction, any hint that the Drakallans were lying, that they could have come by this any other way. We found nothing. No Cray computers, no ‘nuclear equipment’, not a whisker of ‘outside influence’, and no trace of that ‘Scientist’. Incidentally, Valdane looked at me like I was crazy when I asked him about the guy. They had no idea who the hell I was talking about. What they did have were arrest records, a suite of rooms that’s been gutted by an explosion … and this.” Another wave.

 

“Is there any chance at all that this is fluke? Suppose they were lying and made this up to corroborate their story?”

 

“General, this is a thirteen digit alphanumeric code. So, yes, I suppose theoretically there’s a chance of one in 302 trillion and change that the Drakallans could have hit upon the right combination … Does that answer your question?”

 

Vidrine had stepped in front of the window and stared down into the embarkation room and at the dormant stargate. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess it does … And they say he gave it to them?”

 

“Drakallan law is pretty Draconian … Forgive the pun … If it was one …” It had been an interminable two days, and Major Davis was exhausted to the point of rambling. “Espionage and/or sabotage carries the death penalty, and Valdane says SG-1 had been made aware of that when they were arrested. He also says that Colonel O’Neill gave up the code in order to buy his and his team’s release. The Drakallans had no idea what it was or what it did, but that was all the same to them, because they’d already decided to return SG-1 to Earth. Which happens to be why they felt so insulted by Hammond’s rescue attempt. It rings true, sir. Let’s face it, even SG-1 admit that the rescuers met with no resistance whatsoever.”

 

“The Drakallans never even asked for the code?”

 

“That’s what Valdane says. And it makes sense. They couldn’t possibly have known what to ask for.”

 

“Jesus!”

 

“Sir, if I may?” Davis had pushed himself to his feet.

 

“Go ahead.” Without turning, General Vidrine briefly gazed at the man’s reflection in the window. It overlapped with that of his own face, and the combined images blended into a surreal collage of shock and disappointment.

 

“Sir, Colonel O’Neill was already injured when he gave them the code. I reckon that maybe … Well, I can’t believe he was thinking straight. I mean, this is completely illogical. If he’d been firing on all cylinders, he would have realised that the Drakallans don’t have the technical wherewithal to make any use of that code. So, if it’s worthless to them, why offer it in the first place? I can’t believe he was thinking straight”, Davis repeated. “Besides, I’ve worked with the Colonel, and from all I’ve seen he’s no chicken, sir. I’m not saying it excuses what he’s done, but - …”

 

“You’re right, Major. It doesn’t excuse what he’s done, and it doesn’t excuse what he and his team are doing now. Colonel O’Neill was trying to buy his way out of a hole he’d dug himself into, and he was using highly classified information as a bargaining chip. And his team are aiding and abetting him. Yes, I do feel sorry for him, Major … what happened to O’Neill is a goddamn tragedy … but it’s his own fault, and I can’t overlook that. It’d put me on the same level and, frankly, I don’t wanna be there. I’ve sworn an oath not to go there, and so have you.”

 

“Are you going to tell General Hammond?”

 

“Not yet.”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

--- TOP SECRET ---

 

 

To:    SecDef

 

From:  S Vidrine, General USAF, Pentagon, currently Cheyenne Mountain

 

Date: 08/18

 

Time:  21:55

 

 

--- For your information ---

 

 

Major Davis has returned from P5X 081 with confirmation. I will confront SG-1 with the evidence tomorrow.

 

General Hammond has offered his resignation in the event that Major Davis should find proof. Although I rejected his offer at the time, I now advise with great regret that, in view of the severity of misconduct, the General’s resignation should be accepted, if only to shield him from further repercussions.

 

 

S Vidrine

General, USAF

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

The night was clear, and some of the day’s heat had dissipated under the stars, but warm air and warm rock still made her sweat. She climbed steadily. The moon hung as an August moon should, large and low and lazy, and its transparent whiteness shortened distances and cast the peaks and valleys into flat relief. The basin below cradled floodlights and guards, the perimeter fence and the grey jaws of the tunnel that led into Cheyenne Mountain, to NORAD, and to the secrets beneath. Cicadas scratched in the trees, a melancholic frog shared its woe, and from somewhere far above her came a plangent, drawn-out howl. Not a wolf. Probably its little cousin. But it still reminded her of home.

 

Hawk’s Point overlooked a gorge, now cloaked in sharp black shadows. It also had the advantage of being sheltered from prying eyes. She checked her watch. A little early yet, so she crouched by a tall spruce, hidden from view, but able to observe the path. Minutes later she heard footsteps softened by moss, the fine dust of drought, and fallen pine needles. Moonlight briefly caught on fair hair. Without realising it, she breathed a sigh of relief. The appointment would be kept. She only could hope it would bring the desired result.

 

“Samantha Jakobovna!” She rose, and the footsteps faltered for a moment, then resumed at a far quicker pace.

 

“You! … My God …”

 

“Whom did you expect?” Dr Svetlana Markov cocked an eyebrow.

 

“Daniel …” panted Major Carter. “I thought it was Daniel …”

 

“That doesn’t make sense.”

 

“It’s a long story … But it does make sense …”

 

“Ah ...” Markov grinned in wicked amusement and some surprise. She must have misread the signs.  “Dr Jackson and you are …” Her right index finger described a swift circle, substituting for a word that escaped her.

 

“No! Dr Jackson and I are definitely not …” Samantha Jakobovna replied emphatically and mirrored the gesture. “What on earth are you doing here?!”

 

“I needed to see you.” So she hadn’t misread the signs after all, but neither was there any explanation forthcoming.

 

“Yeah. I figured as much. Why? Why here?”

 

“Here, because I’m not here. I’m attending a Physicists’ Congress in Vienna. Unfortunately, I’m in my hotel, confined to bed with an upset stomach.”

 

A chuckle. “Sorry to hear it. So that would explain how you came to be not here. And why are you not here?”

 

“We have to talk. Let’s sit.”

 

“Fine.” Carter stepped towards a rock by the edge of the cliff and into a patch of brightness.

 

Svetlana grimaced. There were lines in Samantha Jakobovna’s face that hadn’t been there fifteen months ago. There were grief and care and anger, but mostly grief. “You look tired. Like … How do you say?”

 

“Shit?”

 

“Death on toast?”

 

“Yeah. We say that, too … Thank you.” She sat down. “You look great.”

 

Spasiba.” Dr Markov joined her. “I’ve come at a bad time. I am sorry.”

 

“You haven’t come at a bad time. In fact, if you’d come a day later, I might not have been able to meet you. Tell me why you’re here.”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

“Good night, Mr Secretary.”

 

“Good night. And thank you for coming.”

 

“Any time, sir.”

 

The Senator closed the door on his way out of the office, and finally relaxed a façade of concerned disgust he’d been displaying for the past hour. Five more minutes and his face would have become stuck in an enduring rictus … How the devil did actors do it?

 

Incredible as it was, the plan had worked. Davis had believed it, Vidrine had believed it, and now the Secretary of Defence believed it. At one point the Senator had almost lost control of his carefully arranged features. Hammond, of all people, had offered his resignation, and SecDef was going to accept it. The General had been the one obstacle they’d all feared. Now the coast was clear.

 

If the Senator trusted in fate, he’d start worrying. It had been too easy. Or perhaps it was fate, and this was the compensation for the complete failure of ‘Plan A’. The fun of it being that ‘Plan B’ was so much more elegant and so much more rewarding. Not one stargate, but two … Again he wished it had been his idea. It probably was time to remind J2 of who had raised the funds for the Project.

 

He turned a corner and reset his face to a scowl when he saw two Secret Service agents coming towards him. “Good night, gentlemen.”

 

“Good night, Senator.”

 

The pair called to mind a troublesome loose end some of their less upstanding colleagues would have to take care of. The problem had to be solved. Immediately and permanently. Until his little colloquy with Mr Secretary, he hadn’t known about the full extent of the damage the SGC colonel had sustained. The Senator wasn’t going to shed any tears over that, and the man sure as hell was beyond giving anyone grief, but it had highlighted an unforeseen risk to the Project.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

THURSDAY, AUGUST 19

 

 

From:       b09ty11@realgroups.com

 

Date:        August 19, 00:43

 

To:          patriotmessages@realgroups.com

 

Re:          Fieldtrip

 

 

Message:    skymaster: Orchard is growing and promises twice the expected harvest. Require meeting re: appointment of new gardener and to discuss pest control.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

He couldn’t sleep. He didn’t want to sleep, to be precise, although he’d learnt quickly enough that sleep at least shortened time. Nothing else ever did. Early on he’d kept asking for barbiturates, painkillers, sedatives, anything he could think of, and the nurses had given them to him. He’d managed to spend a full week in a stupor, half hoping the stuff would somehow accumulate in his system and knock him out for good. Until Doc Fraiser had twigged onto what he was doing and mercilessly blocked that escape route. He couldn’t stay drugged out of his skull forever, she’d said … shouted … and it wasn’t going to help him adjust. Adjust to what, for cryin’ out loud?!

 

Now, when he slept, if he slept without drugs, he could remember the dreams and, ironically, he was praying for nightmares. Mostly, he dreamt he was running. Not running away from anything. Just running. And then he’d stumble and wake up, still smelling a cool, bright autumn morning, still feeling a droplet of tepid sweat sliding down his back, still loving the memory of frost in the air that nipped at his skin … and he’d try not to fall asleep ever again. Or at least for as long as he could avoid it. The best he’d managed so far were fifty-three hours of which he’d counted every treacly minute.

 

If the only thing he’d ever be capable of doing was lying on his ass, why did he have to sleep at all? Because it hurt more that way?

 

McKenzie, cowering in his corner and preening ruffled feathers, had told him to think positive. There’d be lots of things he could do. Do what exactly? What? For the love of God, tell me! One thing. Only one. Is that so much to ask for?

 

Think positive, Jack! How many people can say they’ve heard their lives end? He’d heard it alright, and it had been surprisingly quiet, a soft sound, a gentle, almost languid crack that couldn’t even begin to do justice to the enormity of pain it caused, the enormity of what had happened to him.

 

Think positive, Jack! With your kind of luck you’ll live another fifty years … Minute by minute by minute by godforsaken minute, unless exhaustion finally takes over and forces you to sleep so that you can dream of running …

 

Oh dammit, no!

 

Tears on his face, almost welcome for a moment, because they haphazardly rolled into places he still could feel. But then they would cool and dry and leave sticky trails of salt itching on his skin, and he wouldn’t be able to do what any child could do without ever thinking twice about it.

 

Think positive, Jack! In a few hours a nurse will come and finally wipe your snotty nose.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

From:       skymaster@realgroups.com

 

Date:        August 19, 02:43

 

To:          patriotmessages@realgroups.com

 

Re:          Fieldtrip

 

 

Message:    b09ty11: Suggest dinner with ladies at the Country Club. 08/19 at 20:00.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Francisco had slept fitfully and woken long before dawn because the heat made the sheets cling to his skin like a smothering damp cocoon. He had changed the linen and taken a cold bath, scrubbing away sweat and dust with a small, hard-bristled brush he would have to replace soon. It was almost ten days old.

 

Now he stood on his balcony, one hand lovingly tilting the glass so that it would catch the reflection of the moon but not that of the streetlights. Due respect had to be paid. The glass contained a moderate measure of whiskey, an indulgence perhaps but a necessary one, because in a little while it would allow Francisco to return to sleep. And at least he knew how to celebrate it in the proper way. No ice. Ice had its uses, certainly, and some of them were of rare value. But there was a purity about Scottish single-malt that must not be spoilt with ice, no matter what the temperatures. It held the softness of Highland rain, breathed the flavour of peat and oak, was of a perfect balance and delicacy that would be squashed by the harshness of ice.

 

Like the perfect balance and delicacy of natural grace could be squashed. Grace like that pitiful, bungling oaf on the Promenade could never imagine … Francisco inhaled deeply, at last admitting to himself that it hadn’t been the heat that had broken his sleep. He had dreamt of it again, and again he had woken with a stifled scream of anguish. In its early stages the dream still breathed exquisite beauty, and he could feel its afterswell even now ... Body unbearably taut, skin taut, taut under his touch, each rebellious contraction of muscles humming through his fingertips ... But it got fainter every night, and every night the door fell shut a little sooner, and he was denied closure and the sight and sound of perfection.

 

He had hoped the picture, the treasured print, would bring relief. It hadn’t, and he had almost begun to hate it. If anything it had exacerbated the need to see and hear for himself. He supposed it was too much to ask for appreciation or even understanding, but he had to achieve completion as any artist would. The print could not speak, could not think, could not feel. Francisco hadn’t looked at it all day.

 

The glass burst, crushed by clenching fingers, shedding whiskey and blood as shards cut his palm. Francisco cried out with the jolt of sudden pain and the bite of alcohol in a fresh wound.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Sam’s thumb was massaging a spot over her left eyebrow, trying to cajole the headache into submission. It didn’t feel like it was going to be placated … One more thing to nag her, that was all. Seeing that it wouldn’t go away, she might as well go down to the commissary and grab a mug of early morning coffee, which would dilate her capillaries and give the headache an unnecessary boost. But it’d keep her from falling over, so that was something to be grateful for.

 

At half past five in the morning the base slowly started yawning and stretching and coming to life. Bleary-eyed airmen lurched past her in the corridors, mumbling things that half an hour later would have mutated into a sharply rapped-out ‘Good morning, ma’am’. For now, Sam was content with just the grunts, because they saved her from having to return each greeting with an equally sharply rapped-out ‘Good morning, Airman’.

 

A few night-owls or early-birds were slumped at tables in the commissary, also croaking their good mornings, but otherwise not keen on company or conversation, which was just as well. Sam got her mug of coffee and steered towards an empty table in the corner.

 

After she’d come back from her blind date, she’d spent the rest of the night poring over the papers Svetlana Markov had given her, without any real desire to find out more than she’d already heard. The scenario, if it was true … But why should Dr Markov lie? … was way too frightening for comfort, and definitely too frightening for one person to tackle on their own. Which was why Markov had absconded from the congress, flown to Denver, crept up to Hawk’s Point in the middle of the night and, to all intents and purposes, had committed treason. The physicist, Sam’s counterpart on the former Russian stargate programme, had come up against an impressive selection of brick walls in the course of cautious enquiries and ended up turning to her old rivals, by then afraid for her life if she dug any deeper. Given all that, she hadn’t been too thrilled to discover that SG-1 was currently defunct. Major Carter had promised to try and help anyway, and now was kicking herself for her lack of common sense. As if she didn’t have enough to worry about already ...

 

Bad things had a way of happening in threes and all at once, and she found herself dismally pondering just how appalling Number 3 would turn out to be … Unless Number 3 was the coffee, in which case she already knew. By the taste of it, somebody had set the machine to brew without first rinsing out the descaler …

 

The Russian programme hadn’t been closed down. Well, yes, officially it had been, and ostensibly even the military had lost interest in view of the astronomical cost of running a ‘gate and the attached facilities. But Markov was saying that, unofficially, someone had stepped in. A someone who hadn’t just replaced Harry Maybourne as a purveyor of classified information from the American programme but also supplied a majority percentage of the required cash. And with that came control. According to Svetlana Markov, the whole ‘Project’, as it was called, seemed to be a sub rosa venture, run jointly by an unknown American contingent … although you didn’t need more than three brain cells to guess who those guys might be … and a number of Russian hardliners, most of them ex-KGB and military intelligence. If nothing else, that combination sounded like it made for a downright cuddly working atmosphere …

 

Markov hadn’t known about any of this until three weeks ago, when she was recalled to Siberia, after the ‘Project’ had unexpectedly lost one of their experts in a ‘training accident’ involving an explosion. The man needed to be replaced in a hurry, and Dr Markov was familiar with the work. She’d been eager to be part of the programme again, but once she’d caught a whiff of the background machinations her enthusiasm started flagging to a point where she decided to seek outside help.

 

Sam couldn’t say she blamed her. The evidence Markov had smuggled out of Siberia was hair-raising. Somewhere in the back of Sam Carter’s mind connections began forming with the nebulous, disarmingly persuasive logic brought on by a sleepless night. Aware that she was reaching, arbitrarily groping for solutions to another, much more immediate difficulty, she shook off the thought.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

--- TOP SECRET ---

 

 

To:    S Vidrine, General USAF, Pentagon, currently Cheyenne Mountain

 

From:  SecDef

 

Date: 08/19

 

Time:  08:15

 

 

 

Upon consultation I agree that General Hammond’s resignation will be unavoidable. Should he fail to repeat his initial offer, you are hereby instructed to advise him to resign.

 

I trust your judgment to bring this unfortunate affair to a prompt, satisfactory and, above all, quiet conclusion, and I expect to be kept updated.

 

 

SecDef

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Any personnel working in the ‘gate room that morning and foolhardy enough to peek could see a silent drama being played out behind the briefing room window. Daniel, Teal’c, and Sam, on the other hand, had arrived outside a shut door at 0828 hours and got the sound without the pictures.

 

“Absolutely out of the question! And that’s my last word. Especially after what happened yesterday!”

 

“I’m sorry, George, but it’s not your decision.”

 

“The hell it isn’t! I’ll - …”

 

“It’s not your decision.”

 

“Dammit, he specifically asked that - …”

 

“George, this may come as a shock, but I don’t care what he asked for. It’s completely irrelevant here. So if you’re ready to go, shall we?”

 

The door crashed open, and General Hammond gusted past without so much as a nod, the look on his face making Dr Jackson want to shout I didn’t do it!

 

General Vidrine followed at a somewhat more dignified speed, a weary-looking Paul Davis in his wake. “Major, Dr Jackson, Mr Teal’c. I apologise for springing a change of venue on you unannounced. Please be assured that there are compelling reasons for it. If you’ll proceed topside, there’s transport waiting.”

 

“Uh … Excuse me, General, but where are we going? Fieldtrip?”

 

Davis answered, because Vidrine was already on his way down the corridor. “The hospital, Dr Jackson. General Vidrine insists on interviewing all of SG-1 together.”

 

“I do not believe that O’Neill will be pleased about this. He does not wish to see us.”

 

“The General is aware of that, Teal’c. Unfortunately, it’s essential, and I happen to agree with him. Colonel O’Neill’s wishes are of secondary importance in this case.”

 

“As they have been all along, isn’t that right?!” Sam exploded. “I bet he would have wished to get home in one piece, but that was of secondary importance! How the hell dare you!? Is it ever gonna be enough? Do you have any idea of what it’ll do to him if you herd us in there without so much as by your leave?!”

 

“He knows about it. We asked Dr Fraiser to tell him. I’m truly sorry, Major, but the Pentagon is pushing for a speedy result, and this really is the quickest way to get there. I’m sorry.” Davis tucked a document folder to his chest like a shield. “I’d better catch up with the General. I shouldn’t have told you this much …”

 

“Great. Just great ... Jack’s gonna have a fit”, Daniel growled half-heartedly and headed for the elevator. An unacknowledged selfish part of him felt ridiculously happy at the prospect of finally seeing Jack again.

 

The elevator ride was an embarrassment in andante moderato for twenty-eight levels. They hadn’t been that close to each other since … well, since then. Thankfully, the two generals and Davis had taken the previous car, otherwise it would have turned into a complete farce. Teal’c stood at the centre of the cabin, his back to them, obviously trying to hypnotise the overhead LCD. Daniel himself slouched in the corner furthest away from Sam Carter.

 

“Vidrine shouldn’t be doing this …” she muttered to herself. “He has no right …”

 

“Oh come on, Major! You can’t believe that he’s doing something wrong? After all, he’s following orders, isn’t he?” It was out before Daniel could stop himself.

 

She went a shade paler, and for the first time he noticed the black smudges under her eyes that betrayed a sleepless or near-sleepless night. And there was the little squint that signalled a splitting headache to anyone who knew Sam Carter … knew Sam Carter … Daniel had thought he knew her. He’d thought she’d never go along with it, having to watch, as he and Teal’c had had to watch … He’d thought Sam cared.

 

“Tell me, Sam, did you ever feel anything? I mean apart from, ‘Wow, I hope I’ll get his job’?”

 

The next thing Daniel consciously registered was a distraught outcry from Teal’c, and Sam staring at whatever it was that caused the nasty burning sensation on his face. She looked a hair away from crying. Too little, too late ...

 

“You can’t even begin to - … Oh God, forget it!” A kick to the wall, and she turned away.

 

The car jerked to an abrupt halt. Teal’c had hit the emergency stop button.

 

“Teal’c! What are you doing?! Get the elevator going!”

 

“I shall not, DanielJackson. Indeed, I shall keep us here indefinitely, unless you and MajorCarter agree to communicate at your earliest convenience.” The Jaffa had moved in front of the control panel, and it would take a battering ram to dislodge him. By his standards he looked hugely pissed-off.

 

“Fine, Teal’c, if that’s what you want ... I can’t see it changing anything, but fine, I’ll ‘communicate’ … Just get us out of here, okay? I hate enclosed spaces.” Daniel gingerly touched his cheek. There’d be finger marks rising by now … “Sam … It doesn’t alter the way I think or feel, but I’m sorry for saying what I said.”

 

The car gave a little jolt and with a gentle hum continued its journey past Level 15 and up.

 

“I lost it … Sorry. But I didn’t need pushing just then. Had a bad night … Which is no excuse, but it’s one of the reasons why we have to talk. As soon as possible. For the Colonel’s sake, if nothing else.” Sam wasn’t looking at him. Instead she seemed to have picked up where Teal’c had left off, mesmerised by numbers steadily shifting shape as the elevator ascended.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Daniel realised within seconds that Sam had had a point: Vidrine had no right to do this, and they had no right to be here. He’d known it as soon as he set foot into room 403 at the Air Force Training Hospital. Jack hadn’t shouted, hadn’t protested, hadn’t even commented. He’d closed his eyes and shut them out, shut them out with the same cruelly controlled mask he’d worn for three endless days, fighting with all he had to shut out the pain.

 

But more than anything it was the smell that made Daniel face the truth. The smell of illness. Not flu, not even a stomach bug, but the musky, unmistakable smell of illness here to stay. As a teenager, Daniel had bolstered his meagre pocket money by reading to an old soldier two afternoons a week. Old Mr Shaefer had been in the Air Force as well. He’d been a fighter pilot in the Second World War, but that had been a long time ago. When Daniel had met him he’d been bed bound for years, dying, excruciatingly slowly, from multiple sclerosis. The afternoons hadn’t just involved reading. They also had involved massaging the old man’s inert bladder and bowels at regular intervals, to coax them into doing their job. It was necessary, but it also was an unimaginable invasion of a person’s privacy, the ultimate testament to helplessness. He remembered the feel of soft, dry skin as his fingertips drew small, firm circles on an old soldier’s abdomen, and with it came the brutal insight that somebody would have to perform this very service for Jack.

 

Jack, who had exercised his right not to let anyone, least of all his friends, see him like this. Vidrine had taken that right away from him with a simple order, simple as Jack’s own order, the one that had taken away everything else ...

 

Mr Shaefer had asked to be read Saint Exupéry’s Night Flight time and time again, and only now, twenty years later, in a hospital room half a continent away, looking at the man who’d been his best friend, Daniel finally understood why. The story of a pilot, flying out over the desert one night, never to come back. The sadness it breathed on every page was craftily camouflaged by the lyricism of the language, by the sheer beauty of the desert night, but underneath it all was the tale of a man who vanished into a darkness so vast and encompassing that it eroded even the memories of who he’d been once. And now Jack was piloting that plane, already out over the desert and alone, perhaps already past the point of no return.

 

The loss hit Daniel with as much force as the slap he’d garnered in the elevator, and he called himself an idiot of cosmic proportions. Rationally he’d been aware of what had happened, he’d been there, for God’s sake, but it was as though his mind and his gut never connected on this particular matter. Pollyanna Jackson was going to hang a prism in the window, and everything would be hunky-dory … He’d thought, naïvely, that merely by coming here, he’d find Jack again. His friend; more than that, the big brother he’d never had, obnoxious most of the time, perfectly capable of snatching your toys just to annoy you and holding them out of reach while you jumped, but just as capable of unfailingly sensing when you needed him or of taking on the entire mob of neighbourhood bullies for looking at you askance.

 

The man in the bed was and wasn’t Jack. Even without knowing you’d have noticed what was the matter, purely by the way that body didn’t seem to belong to him, seemed glued on like a crudely assembled picture montage. Worst of all was the stillness. Jack had never been able to stand or sit still in all the years Daniel had been around him. It was as though the energy that once had sought release in restlessness had turned inwards to smother him while he was waiting. Waiting for this minute to pass, then the next, then the one after that. Waiting. Another thing Jack had never been able to do. Now it was all he could do.

 

“Son, I’m sorry.” Hammond finally broke the embarrassed silence. “I tried to stop this … I know you didn’t want to …” The General faltered at last, subdued by Jack’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge anyone.

 

The only one who seemed to remain unaffected was Vidrine, but Vidrine also was the only one who declined to look at Jack. “I’m sorry for this mass invasion, Colonel” - he swept a casual hand at George Hammond, Sam, Teal’c, Daniel, and Major Davis - “but I was hoping that their presence would help bring this whole affair to a quicker conclusion. It certainly saves time. Now then, I’d like to pick up where we left off …”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

--- TOP SECRET ---

 

 

Interview transcript (5) (tape 1)

 

Location: Room 403, Air Force Training Hospital, Colorado Springs

Date: 08/19

Time: 0933 hrs

 

Present:      S Vidrine, General USAF [Q] --- conducting the interview

              G S Hammond, General USAF, CinCSG [H] --- observer

              P Davis, Major USAF, [PD] --- investigating officer

 

              J O’Neill, Colonel USAF, CO SG-1 [JO]

S Carter, PhD, Major USAF, 2IC SG-1 [SC]

              D Jackson, PhD, no rank, civilian advisor, SG-1 [DJ]

              Teal’c, no rank, classification applies, SG-1 [T]

 

Note:  Any interruptions by medical staff will be indicated as such in the transcript. Observations as to actions, gestures, moods, etc will appear in italics and square brackets.

 

 

Q: Colonel, your little midnight foray into the computer lab and the events that followed, please.

 

[no reaction from JO]

 

Q: Colonel?

 

T: O’Neill felt it was imperative that we explore the computer laboratory. In his own words - …

 

Q: Coining a phrase, Mr Teal’c? Because that’s precisely what I’d like to hear. Colonel O’Neill’s own words. Not yours, not Major Carter’s, not Dr Jackson’s. Colonel, if you think you can win this by giving me the silent treatment, you’ve got another thing coming. Now, are you going to answer a question your honour as an officer obliges you to answer, or do I actually have to make it an order?!

 

JO: Irritating, isn’t it?

 

Q: Excuse me? What’s irritating?

 

JO: Asking for something and not getting it.

 

Q: I’m warning you, Colonel!

 

H: Jack, please. I know you’re upset, but this isn’t helping.

 

JO: Upset?! With respect, sir, don’t patronise me.

 

H: Colonel? Answer the General’s question, please.

 

JO: What if I can’t remember?

 

Q: Stop playing games!

 

JO: Maybe I don’t want to remember.

 

Q: You can forget about it after we’re done here, Colonel. Answer the question. That’s an order.

 

*

 

Instead of lying in bed as good kids should at two ack emma or thereabouts, they were creeping down one of the fully synthetic hallways on the fifth floor of the Governors’ Palace. Even the carpet was plastic. In the unlikely event that he ever found that room again, he’d probably electrocute himself the moment he touched the door handle.

 

“Sir, can you remember which door?”

 

Oh sure … If I could remember, we’d be in there by now, Carter! … Normally he was pretty good at directions, but this orgy in institutional green was enough to confuse a compass. The room had smelt funny, sterile somehow, so maybe … No, cleaning staff had used some kind of hideously perfumed carpet freshener to cover up - … Oops, palace cats’ve been spraying, have they? … Jack grinned faintly before annoyance with himself flooded back. If it had been Teal’c who’d discovered the room, he could have led them back to it blindfolded. Then again, Teal’c would never have got lost in the first place, ergo he wouldn’t have discovered the room … A whining buzz, like the sound his computer made when the fan came on, only louder. Bigger computer, bigger fan. This was it. A locked door that looked exactly like fifty other locked doors along this corridor. No number, no name, but a nice steady buzz behind it.

 

“That’s the one.”

 

“You sure, Jack?”

 

“Well, it could be a beehive … Ain’t nothing certain but death and Texas.”

 

“Taxes.”

 

“What?”

 

“It’s ‘taxes’, not ‘Texas’.”

 

“Daniel?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Shut up!”

 

“O’Neill. Is this the site you wished to locate?” Teal’c had picked the lock, cautiously nudged the door open, and done a quick scan of the inside. Now he flicked on the lights. “It is safe to enter.”

 

“Yeah … Yeah, that’s the one. See what I mean, Carter?”

 

She wandered into the room and looked around with the same kind of bafflement he had felt when he’d first traipsed in here yesterday afternoon. At some library or other Governor Meringue had shown them the latest in applied Drakallan computer technology. The computer had filled an entire room, boasted a revolutionary 2KB RAM, and sputtered and chugged and chewed up little strips of cardboard. It had managed to convey the distinct impression that the multiplication table of 13 would take just under a week to complete. With a minimum error margin of ± 2. Jack had been tempted to ask if it was steam-driven.

 

This place, however, was a about as far removed from the library’s computer room as Earth was from Drakalla. Modern work stations, gleaming white and dust-free, peripherals, stacks of hardware, and Jack couldn’t identify even half of the stuff. Hence the need to revisit with Carter in tow. She’d already homed in on a computer console that looked different, more complex, custom-made rather than ordered online from zones.com. Strings of letters were zipping across the monitor, and Carter’s face had that slightly reverential cast she always got when confronted with a particularly juicy high-tech plaything. Then reverence gave way to puzzlement and, eventually, to alarm. She’d made some connection and didn’t like the implications of it. Not one bit.

 

“Carter?”

 

“In an ideal world, this is what you’d expect to hook up to a genetic sequencer, sir. You need massive computing power for that, and this one fits the bill. If computers were cars, this one’d be a Ferrari. It looks like a Cray … a bit souped-up, though.”

 

“So who’s got the service contract?”

 

“Sir?”

 

“Carter, this may be difficult for you to understand, but just suppose I was the Drakallan guy driving your Ferrari … a) I wouldn’t know how to switch it on, and b) I’d be scared shitless of breaking it if I did. What I’m saying is, they had to have somebody to deliver this thing, install it, and show them how to use it.”

 

“I agree, sir, but don’t ask me where they got this stuff. Okay, so there are no manufacturers’ labels, but the equipment looks like it’s from Earth, and if we didn’t bring it, who did? … There’s something else, as well.”

 

“What?”

 

“The programme that’s running on the Cray? All the Cs and Gs and Ts and As? Those are amino acids. DNA building blocks. It’s analysing a DNA molecule. Which means they’ve already had access to a genetic sequencer.”

 

*

 

--- TOP SECRET ---

 

 

Interview transcript (5) continued (tape 1)

 

Location: Room 403, Air Force Training Hospital, Colorado Springs

Date: 08/19

Time: 1009 hrs

 

Present:      S Vidrine, General USAF [Q] --- conducting the interview

              G S Hammond, General USAF, CinCSG [H] --- observer

              P Davis, Major USAF, [PD] --- investigating officer

 

              J O’Neill, Colonel USAF, CO SG-1 [JO]

S Carter, PhD, Major USAF, 2IC SG-1 [SC]

              D Jackson, PhD, no rank, civilian advisor, SG-1 [DJ]

              Teal’c, no rank, classification applies, SG-1 [T]

 

Note:  Any interruptions by medical staff will be indicated as such in the transcript. Observations as to actions, gestures, moods, etc will appear in italics and square brackets.

 

 

Q: And you decided to do what exactly at that point?

 

JO: I didn’t get a chance to decide anything.

 

Q: Why this sudden lack of decisiveness?

 

JO: We got company.

 

Q: Company?

 

JO: Yes.

 

Q: [angrily] Dammit, Colonel, do I really have to worm this out of you word by word?! Where did those people come from?

 

JO: The guys working in the lab that afternoon obviously didn’t buy my explanation for popping up in their midst. They told their supervisor, or whatever, the supervisor told Durante, and Durante told Morin. Between them they figured, correctly, that we’d try to go back there and check it out. They set a trap.

 

Q: I’m delighted to hear that you’ve retained your ability to string sentences together. So, this company consisted of whom exactly?

 

JO: Fifteen soldiers, Morin, Durante, and … and …

 

Q: And who?

 

SC: The ‘Scientist’, sir.

 

JO: I can speak for myself, Major! I can’t do most things, but I can speak, so kindly allow me to do that at least.

 

SC: Sorry.

 

JO: Yeah. We all are.

 

T: The soldiers O’Neill mentioned were armed with Goa’uld weapons, both zat’nikatels and staff weapons.

 

Q: The weapons you say were taken from you after your arrival on P5X 081?

 

T: No. O’Neill had ordered us not to surrender our zat’nikatels.

 

Q: So, if the Drakallans hadn’t got those weapons from you, where did they come from?

 

T: I cannot say, GeneralVidrine.

 

Q: What did you do?

 

T: We were outnumbered four to one. O’Neill remarked that he did not wish to endanger his team by ‘re-enacting the Alamo’. At the time I was unfamiliar with the meaning, but I have since ascertained this reference. He made the correct decision.

 

Q: Commendable wisdom, Colonel. What happened next?

 

[no response from JO]

 

T: The guards disarmed us, and the man referred to as the ‘Scientist’ enlightened us as to the purpose of this and the two adjoining laboratories.

 

Q: Which was? Major Carter? Dr Jackson? Anybody?

 

SC: Basically, it’s a state-of-the-art biogenetics lab, sir. Including the chemical and nuclear facilities necessary to engineer controlled mutations. It turned out they already had a genetic sequencer, and Morin had been getting a bit greedy when he requested another one from us. Apparently he wanted to speed up the research … There … uh … there was a cryogenic chamber containing embryos … Human embryos, sir.

 

Q: The same could be said of any IVF clinic here on Earth, Major.

 

DJ: Oh? Did I miss something? I thought the Drakallans didn’t have that technology?

 

Q: I was giving an example, Dr Jackson, as you’re well aware!

 

DJ: General, this had nothing to do with IVF! The guy was waxing positively euphoric about how they were going to breed little Helots with barely more brains than they need to breathe and do exactly as they’re told. He was rambling on about mind-body divide, and how only the higher orders of people could control - … [DJ breaks off abruptly]

 

JO: You were saying?

 

DJ: I’m not saying it, Jack. He was. And you know as well as I do … God, you know better than anyone! … that he’s wrong.

 

JO: Do I?

 

H: Colonel? Dr Jackson? I don’t think either of you wants this conversation on tape for the Pentagon to analyse.

 

DJ: Sorry, sir.

 

JO: Good point, General. I don’t want to have this conversation at all, actually.

 

Q: If you’re quite finished, can we carry on? What happened afterwards, Colonel?

 

JO: We were detained.

 

Q: On what grounds?

 

JO: [irritably] The natural inquisitiveness that seems to be a Drakallan trait.

 

Q: So you were never charged with any violation of Drakallan law? Not even breaking and entering?

 

JO: No.

 

Q: Would you repeat this for the record, Colonel?

 

JO: My team and I were detained, but no charges were brought. Is there any particular reason for this, General?

 

Q: Major Davis, could I ask you to refresh SG-1’s collective memory? From the moment they entered the alleged computer and biogenetics labs?

 

PD: Colonel, isn’t it true that you went there to sabotage facilities which, according to the Drakallans and SG-11, who’d actually visited those labs, were dedicated to medical research?

 

DJ: [outraged] What?!

 

Q: Dr Jackson, for the last time, would you please control your temper?!

 

PD: The Drakallans said there was a massive explosion. I’ve seen what’s left of those rooms, Colonel. Chemical analysis shows the blast was caused by C4 charges - …

 

SC: But we didn’t have any - …

 

PD: C4 charges. Sir, I searched the debris. There were remnants of the usual stuff you’d expect to find in a lab, test tubes, Bunsen burners, centrifuges, that kind of thing, but no trace of any high-tech equipment. Witness reports state there was an explosion that night, and that Governor Morin, Councillor Durante, and several men of the Palace Guard came to investigate. None of the witnesses seem to recall the ‘Scientist’ you’ve mentioned.

 

Q: What did the Palace Guards find, Major?

 

PD: Three members of SG-1 were apprehended trying to leave the vicinity of the blast site. At the blast site itself the Guards found the fourth team member. You, Colonel O’Neill. You were caught in the explosion, which is how you sustained your injuries, isn’t it?

 

Q: Would you care to comment, Colonel?

 

JO: No.

 

SC: [shocked] But that isn’t what happened! … For God’s sake, tell them, sir! If you don’t, I will!

 

*

 

It was a subterranean interrogation room that could have come straight out of a late-night cop show. Grey concrete walls, grey concrete ceiling, grey concrete floor, plus the indispensable two-way mirror. The ensemble was completed by a grey metal door, a grey metal table, and four grey metal chairs, currently occupied by Durante, the Scientist, Morin, and Governor Valdane who had materialised from a Perspex tube as SG-1 was escorted into the basement at gunpoint. Behind this illustrious panel hovered the two men Sam Carter had first noticed arguing with Governor Morin at the reception.

 

Grey furniture seemed to be in short supply, because the team had been left standing. They couldn’t do much more than bear with it for the time being. Without a doubt there were armed men behind that mirror and more guards outside the door.

 

At last Valdane spoke. “My friend, the Doctor here, tells me that you have a very apposite saying. Curiosity killed the cat …”

 

“But satisfaction brought it back”, Colonel O’Neill supplied obligingly. “Your friend, the Doctor there, has been very forthcoming about your plans. Unfortunately, that’s kinda scuppered your alliance idea. We don’t do genetically enhanced slavery.”

 

“Don’t deceive yourself, Colonel. We will sign the treaty if we so wish. Of course, you weren’t meant to discover our little facility, but once you had we were persuaded that this might be a blessing in disguise, so to speak, as it justified your inevitable arrest. Understandably, you want to be released and go back home unscathed. I believe this should level the playing field and facilitate the flow of information. In view of this I have authorised the Doctor to divulge certain facts about our genetic research institution, in the hope of convincing you of my sincerity. However, I believe it now is time for you to return the favour.”

 

“Oh yeah? … Governor, I think I have another suggestion. You’re going to let us go, now, and we give you our solemn assurances that we won’t be back. Ever. No technology, no hassles. Easy, isn’t it?”

 

“Jack, what about the labs?! You know - …”

 

“That’s their business, Daniel. What’s our business is to see to it that they don’t get any help from us. Somehow I’ve got a feeling that the Helots aren’t gonna sit on their asses … Still having that nasty problem with unprovoked attacks by undesirable elements, Councillor?”

 

Durante flushed, and the Scientist shot him a vicious look. “Imbecile! You were told to keep your mouth shut!”

 

“Gentlemen!” Valdane’s voice purred pleasantly. “No offensiveness. Let’s try and keep this as civil as we can. Please forgive the display, Colonel, and let me congratulate you on your powers of observation. Notwithstanding, I regret to say that your proposal is not acceptable. There will have to be an exchange of some kind. To preserve proper decorum, if you will. It’s very simple, actually. You give us the access code for the SGC’s computer mainframe, then you can leave.”

 

“Excuse me?!” Jack O’Neill almost jumped, the blasé front momentarily cracked.

 

“The access code, Colonel. I know for a fact that at least two of you are privy to it. My guess would be that those two are yourself and Major Carter. Correct?”

 

“I don’t know what you mean, and you can forget about asking Carter. The Major’s rank isn’t high enough for her to have that kind of information.”

 

“Please, Colonel, don’t insult my intelligence! I was hoping we could come to an agreement. I’m still hoping, and perhaps our friend, the Doctor, can help clarify your situation. Doctor, if you please?”

 

“It will be my pleasure, Governor.” The Scientist rose, smoothing an invisible crease from a starched white lab coat. The glow of a neon light reflected on the ruler-straight stripe of scalp that parted his hair. He walked around the table, stiffly erect, and planted himself in front of SG-1 like a strict but concerned headmaster in front of a row of misbehaving pupils. “Gentlemen, madam. We have anticipated a certain degree of reluctance on your part, and, personally, I’m glad to see that you haven’t disappointed those expectations. The question now is for how long you will be able to sustain your reluctance. It really is very straightforward. We will allow you to contemplate our request for a few hours. However, as you have already failed satisfactorily to answer the Governor’s question … Please note, Colonel, that I refrained from splitting my infinitive … Where was I? … Oh yes … As you failed to answer, one of you will have to face certain consequences come morning, with a view to encouraging the others to come forward.” He cleared his throat, almost in embarrassment. “Now, I have to confess, my choice for the part of the whipping boy … or girl … has been debated. I hope you don’t mind my saying so, Governor?”

 

Valdane smiled amiably. “Not at all, my dear friend. But please don’t forget to add that your arguments and, not least, your little demonstration yesterday morning have convinced us completely.”

 

“Thank you, Governor. You see, gentlemen, madam, the task lay in finding the one among you whose being harmed would distress the other three most. Your admirable cohesion as a team made selection somewhat difficult, however, I find the final decision most appealing.” Eyes hidden behind gold-rimmed spectacles, lenses blanked by the light, gliding across the room, arresting. Eenie-meenie-manie-mo … “Major Carter, Dr Jackson, Mr Teal’c, I strongly recommend you hand over the code at the earliest opportunity or, in his own best interest, persuade Colonel O’Neill to do it himself.”

 

*

 

--- TOP SECRET ---

 

 

Interview transcript (5) continued (tape 3)

 

Location: Room 403, Air Force Training Hospital, Colorado Springs

Date: 08/19

Time: 1159 hrs

 

Present:      S Vidrine, General USAF [Q] --- conducting the interview

              G S Hammond, General USAF, CinCSG [H] --- observer

              P Davis, Major USAF, [PD] --- investigating officer

 

              J O’Neill, Colonel USAF, CO SG-1 [JO]

S Carter, PhD, Major USAF, 2IC SG-1 [SC]

              D Jackson, PhD, no rank, civilian advisor, SG-1 [DJ]

              Teal’c, no rank, classification applies, SG-1 [T]

 

Note:  Any interruptions by medical staff will be indicated as such in the transcript. Observations as to actions, gestures, moods, etc will appear in italics and square brackets.

 

 

 

Q: Very interesting, Major Carter. And a very plausible account, too, except for the fact that this ‘Scientist’ appears to be purely a figment of SG-1’s imagination. As Major Davis reports, nobody else on Drakalla seems to recall such a man. And of course you didn’t relinquish the code?

 

SC: As a matter of fact, no, sir.

 

H: [impatiently] Dammit, Vidrine, where do you think you’re going with this? I’ve warned you about getting hung up on that report Davis brought back from Drakalla! There’s absolutely nothing that’s in any way conclusive. Your ‘evidence’ stinks to high heaven! In your place I’d be concerned about why the Drakallans had this kind of equipment, why they had Goa’uld weapons, and where the hell they got them from!

 

Q: George, I’m telling you again that, for all we know, neither the equipment nor the weapons ever existed, at least not on P5X 081. You’re not in my place, and if you’re fed up with hearing things you don’t like to hear, feel free to leave whenever you want.

 

H: So you can take my people apart at leisure? No, thank you!

 

Q: Suit yourself. Major Davis would you please continue?

 

PD: If you care to take a look at this, Colonel … [PD shows a number of documents to JO] … These are copies of the arrest records the Drakallans have on file. It states here that you were charged with - …

 

 

--- Dr J Fraiser enters the room at 1228 hrs ---

 

 

Dr Fraiser: I’m sorry to interrupt, General Vidrine, but I have to ask you to stop. I’ve given permission for this against my better judgment and only on the condition that you take regular breaks. The first one’s half an hour overdue now.

 

Q: Fine, Dr Fraiser, if you insist.

 

Dr Fraiser: Oh I do, sir. I most certainly do!

 

Q: We will reconvene at 1430 hours. Dismissed.

 

 

--- Interview suspended at 1231 hrs ---

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Jack wanted to roll over on his side, curl up, hide beneath the blanket, whatever. Wanted it like he’d never wanted anything in his life. Vidrine had left, Hammond on his tail, biting general’s ass on the way out, and Davis had been bringing up the rear. The kids had stayed behind. It wasn’t as bad as he’d feared and fantasised about for two months. No pity, no melodrama, no awkward wondering what to do if, God forbid, he started drooling or something. It was worse than that. They stood there needing him. He could see it in their eyes, the unspoken pleas to let them back in, let them carry a little bit of this. In a minute they’d cease to be silent, he knew that too. He also knew that it wouldn’t change anything, and that he had to shut them out, for his own sake and for theirs. Again it came down to the simple things they could do and he couldn’t. One day, sooner rather than later, they were bound to move on, full of guilty promises to keep in touch, and Jack would stay precisely where he was now. It would happen, irrespective of whether or not he dropped his defences, except, if he did drop them, he wasn’t sure he could cope with the loneliness anymore.

 

“Get out!”

 

“You look like crap, sir, and I bet you didn’t sleep, so don’t bother being charming. We all know you get cranky when you’re tired.” Carter had straddled a chair.

 

“Major, I’m well aware that my discharge is only a formality now, but so far it hasn’t been processed. I’m still the ranking officer, and I just gave you an order. Out!”

 

“No, sir. This is important.” She pulled a piece of paper from her pocket, unfolded it, and held it so he could read.

 

Daniel and Teal’c craned their necks. Apparently this was news to them as well.

 

“It’s a frame”, Carter added unnecessarily.

 

Of course it was a frame. That much was glaringly obvious, at least since Davis’ riveting recital. The question remained who and why. Chances were he’d never find out. His options were somewhat limited, to say the least. But there was one thing he could do, and he’d do it, whether his team liked it or not ...

 

“How the hell did you get this, Major?!”

 

“I’m not gonna tell you how I got it, sir, except I didn’t take it. It was given to me. And I did consider informing my CO, but he wouldn’t see me.”

 

Touché … “Get used to it, Major. All of you.”

 

“Dammit, Jack! What are you trying to do? Punish us? Punish yourself? We’re friends. Or I thought we were … Then again, a friend wouldn’t expect us to stand by and watch and do nothing when - … Sorry …”

 

“It was my decision, Dr Jackson, and it was exactly what I expected you to do, and I’m expecting you to do it now. Is that clear? You’re part of a military operation, and if you still haven’t grasped it, I’m telling you for free: it’s dangerous for everybody if you get too attached to your team mates.”

 

“And of course you’ve learnt this lesson ages ago and always prospered by it, which would be why you’ve been refusing to see us. Right, Colonel?”

 

You had to hand it to Daniel. He had a unique way of using one’s rank as an insult ... But at least he was angry now, and Angry Daniel was better than Hurting Daniel. Angry Daniel was liable to overlook the fact that he’d been spot-on with this last snipe … “My reasons are my business, Dr Jackson. I’d thank you to grant me at least that much self-determination. I’ve got little enough left as it is!”

 

“Fine. If that’s how you want to play it, Jack, fine by me. See you around.” Angry Daniel started walking towards the door.

 

“Daniel!” Trust Carter not to let it go.

 

“What?!”

 

“Wait. Please.” She’d risen from the chair and was looking at him. “Sir, I know you don’t want us here, and I think I understand. But we’ve got to talk about what’s happening with this investigation. If we don’t fight back, they’ve got us by the short and curlies  … uh …” The image seemed to have come out more graphic than she’d intended, and she blushed.

 

God, how long had it been since he’d seen that happen? Tens of thousands of minutes …

 

“I am not familiar with this expression, MajorCarter.”

 

Go Teal’c! The big guy sure knew how to pick his moments. Jack almost smiled. … Come on, talk your way out of this one, Sam!

 

“Uh … it … it means we’re in trouble, Teal’c.”

 

“I see. How do you propose to secure our ‘short and curlies’?”

 

That was a joke … You made a joke … Don’t make me laugh, Teal’c.

 

Never underestimate the comic talent of a Jaffa … The Setesh Guard’s nose drips … Bad example. But Teal’c had very nearly breached the wall. Time to end this … “Major, you will destroy the despatch and not mention it to anyone else. You will also kick the butt of whomever has given it to you.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Apart from that, I don’t want you to do anything. That goes for all of you. You will say ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘Amen, sir’ to anything I might choose to contribute this afternoon. Understood?”

 

“But, Jack, they’re trying to - …”

 

“That’s an order, Daniel, and you’ll follow it, and if it’s the last thing you do. Is that clear enough for you?!”

 

“Yes, sir!”

 

“Sir …?”

 

“You’ve got your orders, Carter. Now beat it. All of you.”

 

Just pretend you can turn away, Jack. Think you’ve rolled over, curled up, hidden beneath the blanket. Or at least stare at the ceiling for a change ... He didn’t want to watch them leave. Unwilling steps, the door opening, two pairs of feet walking out. Then the third, taking a couple of paces and stopping.

 

“I believe I know what you intend to accomplish, O’Neill. I also believe you are wrong. I recommend you extract your head from your rectum.”

 

Fast strides, and the door closed.

 

“It’s ‘take my head out of my ass’, Teal’c …” Jack whispered.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

The woman ahead of him was afflicted with halitosis and the kind of body odour that stemmed from age-old unfamiliarity with the use of soap and water. The heat made her shuffle a lot, presumably in an attempt to evenly distribute … evenly to distribute … the sweat between her ample thighs, and each shuffle released a cloud of pungency that rose briefly and settled over the bystanders with suffocating weight.

 

Francisco retreated a little, wary of losing his place in the queue, and began breathing through his mouth, willing his olfactory sense to cease functioning for the time being, distracting himself with fantasies of twisting a flabby arm behind her back, dragging her away, working on her until she whimpered for the privilege of scrubbing herself down with his brush. Long and hard, until her skin was raw and alkaline water burnt in the scorings that the bristles had left. The notion was droll for a moment, then Francisco’s amusement faded. Nothing could substitute for what he had already achieved ...

 

Tight. Tighter. Tighter still. And finally a single gasp that betrayed the struggle for silent endurance.

 

Shuddering, Francisco broke the image. It was wrong to conjure it up here. The presence of the creatures around him would sully the purity of his accomplishment. All he could and should do for now was to cower patiently under this miasma of stench, because ultimately it would allow him to savour his masterpiece. That was the vision he must cling to. The only one. The relentless waning of the dream had made it an imperative.

 

The man at the counter to the right of Francisco finally terminated his transaction. He had chosen to wear a black pinstripe suit and a red and white chequered shirt, together with green socks and brown loafers. Francisco smiled at this uncouth aesthetic effrontery as he took the man’s place at the counter. The man, taken aback, insecurely bared his teeth in return.

 

The counter clerk was his opposite in every respect. Diligent application of every hint gleaned from the perusal of fashion magazines had produced the clerk. She represented the very epitome of the human disease Francisco sought to cure. But she smelt faintly and pleasantly of deodorant, and she was polite. On a whim, Francisco decided to forgive her and carefully straightened out a stray pen on her desk, lining it up until it lay parallel to the computer keyboard.

 

“There. That is better.” Again he smiled.

 

“Uh … Thank you ... What can I do for you today, sir?”

 

“I wish to purchase a ticket, my dear.”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

--- TOP SECRET ---

 

 

Interview transcript (5) continued (tape 4)

 

Location: Room 403, Air Force Training Hospital, Colorado Springs

Date: 08/19

Time: 1432 hrs

 

Present:      S Vidrine, General USAF [Q] --- conducting the interview

              G S Hammond, General USAF, CinCSG [H] --- observer

              P Davis, Major USAF, [PD] --- investigating officer

 

              J O’Neill, Colonel USAF, CO SG-1 [JO]

S Carter, PhD, Major USAF, 2IC SG-1 [SC]

              D Jackson, PhD, no rank, civilian advisor, SG-1 [DJ]

              Teal’c, no rank, classification applies, SG-1 [T]

 

Note:  Any interruptions by medical staff will be indicated as such in the transcript. Observations as to actions, gestures, moods, etc will appear in italics and square brackets.

 

 

Q: Having fulfilled Dr Fraiser’s stipulations, I hope we can continue. Any objections anyone? George? Colonel O’Neill? No sudden attacks coming on?

 

H: [angrily] If you have to go through with this farce, at least try to be professional about it, General!

 

Q: [ignoring Hs outburst] Colonel, can I ask you to tell us that mainframe code? You’re aware, of course, that it has been changed after your return, so I assume it won’t violate your impeccable moral standards and sense of duty if you quote it for us.

 

H: Dammit, I just - …

 

JO: QET700P864C01.

 

Q: Thank you. Major Davis, would you please show Colonel O’Neill and General Hammond what you’ve brought back from P5X 081?

 

[PD shows notepaper containing the mainframe code to JO and H; there is some concern from H; JO appears startled]

 

Q: Thank you, Major. Colonel, for the record, is this or is this not the code you claim not to have given to the Drakallans?

 

JO: It is.

 

Q: Then, would you care to explain to me how the Drakallans came by this code you’ve allegedly never given to them?

 

DJ: [with evident fury] You can’t mean to say - …

 

JO: General Vidrine, I’m prepared to answer your question, but I do have a request.

 

Q: This may come as a surprise to you, Colonel, but you’re hardly in a position to make any requests.

 

JO: Wrong, sir. I’m hardly in a position to make anything but requests.

 

Q: I suggest you stop playing on your injury, Colonel. It’s pathetic, and it doesn’t wash.

 

H: [impatiently] For God’s sake, what’s your problem, General?! … Okay, the request, son?

 

JO: I’ll tell you what you want to know. After my team’s left. I’ll also try not to offend General Vidrine’s sensitivities any further. I realise he’s put upon just being in a room with me.

 

H: Major Carter, Dr Jackson, Mr Teal’c will you please leave?

 

[strong utterances of dissent from SC and DJ; T seems concerned]

 

Q: George, I hate to break this to you, but this is my investigation, and I - …

 

H: I’ve watched you conduct this so-called investigation for four days now, and I’m fed up to the back teeth with your playing some twisted parlour game with my people. Colonel O’Neill has made his wishes perfectly clear. He did not want a visit by his team. You chose to ignore a justified demand against the advice of his physician and for absolutely no good reason I can discern. I’ve had enough of this. He’s already told you that he’ll answer your questions, and so I’m ordering the other three members of SG-1 to leave now. Try and stop me!

 

Q: Fine. [to SC, DJ, T] You’ve heard General Hammond. Will you please leave the room? But I would ask you to keep yourselves available, in case you need to be recalled.

 

 

--- SC, DJ, T leave the room at 1450 hrs ---

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

“Fuck! … If they have to send us on a stake-out, couldn’t they at least have hired a car with air con? It’s not like they’re pressed for money.” Smith wiped a greasy paw across his forehead and proceeded to dry it on his trouser leg. The fries he’d had half an hour ago were giving him heartburn, and he hated stake-outs. “What’s that jerk supposed to have done, anyway?”

 

“That’s for them to know and for us not to worry about. If we ever stumble onto it, we’ll probably end up staking out ourselves, if you know what I mean …” Smith’s colleague Jones replied, glumly staring at an utterly unremarkable clapboard house in an utterly unremarkable neighbourhood of an utterly unremarkable suburb of LA.

 

Needless to say, their surnames were neither Smith nor Jones, but they’d had the misfortune of having their travel documents procured at 2:00 am by a groggy secretary back in Washington, DC, who was either singularly unimaginative or a diehard fan of the 70s comedy western series. Jones had given up on trying to decide which was more reprehensible. With any kind of luck, this gig would be over by tomorrow. Just as well … The whole thing had been cobbled together far too hastily for his liking.

 

Literally five minutes after they’d arrived, they’d watched their quarry leave on some errand, so they’d done a quick search of the house. The guy had to be the last of the red-hot anal-retentives ... Jones had never seen anything like it in his life. Worse than his Grandma, and she’d slept with a mop and a scouring pad under her pillow. That guy even dusted the top of the skirting boards.

 

What really had freaked Jones out, though, wasn’t the sterile cleanliness that made you think nobody actually lived there, but how the guy’s socks were stacked in the drawer. You could tell a lot from the way a man kept his sock drawer. Not to mention the things you could tell from what else he stashed in there … Jones’ was a mess, chock-full with singles desperately looking for a partner or at least someone who’d mend the holes, and he didn’t even want to think about what Smith’s sock drawer would look like. Yikes … Now, Quarry’s sock drawer held socks only, which was no more than Jones had expected after seeing the rest of the house. But the pairs of socks were ordered by colour and aligned meticulously, with each other and with the sides of the drawer. And, frankly, that wasn’t normal. Not in Jones’ book. He’d briefly toyed with the idea of giving the VICAP nerds at Quantico a heads-up, just for the heck of it, and then discarded the notion. It might be fun, alright, but their employer probably would pitch a fit. Which was a rather entertaining image in itself …

 

“Hey, he’s coming back”, Smith belched. “Gee, he looks happy. Must have been a first-rate hooker … Think I should ask him for her phone number?”

 

“Idiot!

 

“What’s he doing now …? Fuckin’ hell, will you look at that?! He’s straightening out the doormat … Hey, betcha he’s gonna go get a level to make sure it’s straight … That guy’s a weirdo.”

 

“You’re to be congratulated on your psychological acumen. Next time check the doormat’s as you found it.”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

As Jack watched them file out, he breathed a soft sigh of relief. They wouldn’t be back. Not after this. It was yet another Pyrrhic victory, but it was better than no victory at all. No matter how pathetic Vidrine might think it to be, he had at least managed to exercise what little control he’d left over his life. He would have wanted Hammond to go as well, because this was going to be much more difficult with him around, but the odds of the General leaving were about as good as the odds of Jack getting up to do a jitterbug. Hammond stood at his bedside like an angry pit bull, ready to maul anyone who threatened its pups. That would change. It was bound to. The man could forgive many things, but breach of trust wasn’t one of them.

 

Jack had seen it coming ever since Carter had shown him the despatch. He’d suspected a frame even before. Now he was certain. He was equally certain that Vidrine and Davis thought they were doing the right thing. Whoever had set this up was brilliant. God alone knew how they’d managed to play that code into Davis’ hands, but it was perfect. Watertight. Somebody would have to take the fall, and he was about to make damn sure that it wasn’t his team, or Hammond for that matter. Besides, the solution held a promise … ‘a consummation devoutly to be wished’ … Hamlet?! … For cryin’ out loud …

 

“Colonel? Now that we’ve catered to your whims, will you tell us how the Drakallans came by the SGC mainframe code?” Vidrine was staring at the spot on the wall again.

 

For the first time, Jack realised that Vidrine’s refusal to look at him had little to do with the stealthy discomfort disability caused in a surprising number of otherwise open-minded people. Vidrine wasn’t looking at him because of what he firmly believed Jack had done. Vidrine was trying to convict a traitor and hating every second of it.

 

“Colonel?”

 

Here goes … He’d have to make up most of it as he went along, but he had a feeling that neither Vidrine nor Davis were going to pay too much attention to detail … “They had the code because I gave it to them.”

 

“Jack, that’s bullshit!” Hammond looked confused and pissed-off at even parts. It’d take a lot more to make him buy it.

 

“Please, George. Don’t interrupt! Why did you give them the code, Colonel?”

 

“I was under duress.” One way of putting it, Jack …

 

“Were you really, Colonel?”

 

Yes … my God, yes … Worse than anything, worse than the pain even, had been those hands on his body, drinking in every quiver, every ripple of muscles cramping to stay in control somehow, fingertips reading the Braille of agony, so that their owner could savour - …

 

“Colonel?!”

 

Snap out of it, dammit! Nobody cares!

 

“Colonel O’Neill! Were you really under duress?”

 

Wrong answer, Jack. So far you’ve got a miss rate of fifty percent. Keep it up and they’ll end up believing what really happened … “No. I’m sorry.” Quite. You’re a sorry son of a bitch, O’Neill. Use your head! That’s still working, isn’t it? … Fat chance of the Drakallans admitting to something like that … “I’m sorry.”

 

“I daresay you are, Colonel. So if there was no good reason for it, why did you give them the code?”

 

“They asked for it.”

 

“Is that a fact? They just ask for classified information they couldn’t possibly have known about, and you give it to them. What do think I am, Colonel? Stupid?”

 

Whatever you do, Jack, don’t respond to that … “Okay, so they didn’t ask for it ...”

 

“No, I wouldn’t have thought so, Colonel. Let’s just go back to the events in the lab and take it step by step from there, shall we? Maybe that’s gonna jog your memory. You went there why?”

 

Spin him a yarn. He’ll swallow anything as long as it tallies with Davis’ findings … “When I stumbled into the lab that afternoon, it had me worried. I didn’t trust the Drakallans, and I suppose I imagined they were conducting some weird experiments there. I mean, what do I know? Plus, they’d never mentioned the lab’s existence …”

 

“So there was no advanced computer equipment?”

 

“No, I guess not. But I ordered my team to say that that’s what we found, in case anyone should ask.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I felt we ought to close down the place, so to speak, but I was going purely on a hunch, and that doesn’t tend to look to good in a mission report, if you know what I mean.”

 

“As a matter of fact, Colonel, I don’t. Then again, unlike you, I’m not in the habit of doctoring mission reports or ordering my subordinates to lie for me to support these doctored reports. So you did sabotage the lab?”

 

“Yes. My team didn’t like the idea. Carter and Dr Jackson got pretty vocal about it. Teal’c was just … well, being Teal’c, but I could tell he disapproved. So I figured I’d better plant and arm the explosives myself … They know enough to turn a charge into a dud, and I couldn’t trust them at that point.”

 

Hammond bristled. “Dammit, Jack, stop this! I’ve no idea what you’re trying to do, but it’s a crock of lies! Your own second said you didn’t carry any C4!”

 

“You know me, General. I always carry … carried … a few optional extras. Carter wasn’t aware of the C4 until it was too late. Besides, she was under orders not to have seen it.”

 

Thankfully, Vidrine didn’t seem to have Hammond’s problem with swallowing the story. “So you planted the explosives. Then what happened?”

 

Good question … Think, Jack! You’re supposed to have been injured in the blast … God, at the time he’d have given anything to make it happen that way or at least to make it happen just a little quicker … “Uh … One of the timers malfunctioned. The charge detonated early and I got caught in the explosion, with all that debris raining down on me. That’s when I got injured.”

 

“And then?” Vidrine was lapping it up. Bull’s eye.

 

“I don’t remember that too clearly, but some of the Palace Guards pulled me out from under the rubble. They probably saved my life.” Nice touch, Jack. Your hit rate’s definitely on the increase …

 

“And I take it that none of them had any Goa’uld weapons?”

 

“No. None apart from the zats they’d taken off me and my team.”

 

“Where was your team at that point?”

 

“I think they’d been arrested. The Guards put me on a stretcher …” Shit, that’s a sick pun … “We were all taken to a detention facility and charged.”

 

“Charged with what?” Vidrine was actually looking at him now, his face set in some morbid mixture of fascination and disgust, like a gawker at some particularly gory car accident.

 

You’re winning, Jack. You’re winning … “We were charged with … with sabotage.”

 

“And?”

 

“Espionage?”

 

“Espionage and sabotage. And you were told which punishment they carry under Drakallan law, weren’t you?”

 

Prosecution is leading the witness. Much obliged … Jack hadn’t known, but now he could risk an educated guess. “The death penalty. That’s when I panicked. All I wanted was to get me and my team out of there. I figured the Drakallans were after techno-stuff, and I gave them access to our most advanced technology, so that they’d let us go.”

 

“Jack, you told me you - …” General Hammond had flushed slightly, which meant he was getting rattled. A small shove would do now … “You said - …”

 

“In a minute, George. So, Colonel, you’re now claiming that this whole heroic tale of how you refused to give up the code is basically a huge pile of bull?”

 

“That’s exactly what I’m saying, sir” … This was going to be one hell of a shove, but it had to be done … “I needed some kind of cover, so I made up the story and ordered my team to stick to it. They never realised that I’d actually surrendered the code, and that made them pretty credible. I knew General Hammond would be too angry about what the Drakallans allegedly did to me to ask any questions or wonder about inconsistencies. He likes me.”

 

The flush drained and Hammond went deathly pale. “Colonel, that’s enough! I’m ordering you to tell the truth.”

 

“I’m telling the truth, sir. I’m sorry …” I am, sir … Oh God, I’m sorry … “I mean, come on, sir, why do you think SG-3 met with no resistance when you sent them to get us out? I had a deal with the Drakallans.”

 

There was an endless pause, and at last somebody sucked in what sounded like a gallon of air.

 

“General Vidrine, I’ve made an offer, and I intend to make good on it. You can expect it by tomorrow. Now, if you would excuse me?” Hammond walked to the door, tiredly, slowly, never looking back.

 

You shouldn’t, sir. Never look back … He’d won. Hammond believed him. He’d won ... “General Vidrine, I realise my conduct was inexcusable, and I expect to be punished to the full extent of the law ...”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

--- TOP SECRET ---

 

 

Interview transcript (5) continued (tape 6)

 

Location: Office of Dr J Fraiser, Air Force Training Hospital, Colorado Springs

Date: 08/19

Time: 1739 hrs

 

Present:      S Vidrine, General USAF [Q] --- conducting the interview

             

S Carter, PhD, Major USAF, 2IC SG-1 [SC]

              D Jackson, PhD, no rank, civilian advisor, SG-1 [DJ]

              Teal’c, no rank, classification applies, SG-1 [T]

 

 

Q: I am very grateful for your cooperation, and I apologise for keeping you waiting. To all intents and purposes, this investigation is concluded, and I thought it only fair to inform you about the outcome as it stands now. I also may need to clarify a point.

 

DJ: So what’s happening? Half an hour ago General Hammond came shooting down the hall like a bat out of hell …

 

Q: Dr Jackson, I realise that you and your team mates were under orders to perpetuate this little conspiracy. However, those orders are withdrawn now, and - …

 

DJ: What orders? What are you talking about, General?

 

Q: Doctor, Major Carter, Mr Teal’c. Colonel O’Neill has made a full confession. I know that you were not aware that he had voluntarily surrendered the code to the Drakallans, and therefore - …

 

DJ: [shaken] Voluntarily surrendered the code?!

 

Q: Dr Jackson, please stop interrupting me! As I said, Colonel O’Neill made a full confession. He also says the three of you were acting under his direct orders in concealing certain events. Although I cannot approve of your lying to me and General Hammond, I acknowledge that the Colonel’s orders put you in a quandary. I’d just like to confirm this now. You were given your story by Colonel O’Neill and you were ordered to stick to it. Is that correct?

 

DJ: No!

 

SC: [very quietly] ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘Amen, sir’ …

 

Q: Excuse me, Major Carter?

 

SC: Yes, sir.

 

Q: Mr Teal’c?

 

T: Indeed.

 

Q: Dr Jackson? It’s already a majority vote. You might wish to reconsider.

 

DJ: [unintelligible]

 

Q: Would you repeat that?

 

DJ: Yes.

 

Q: Thank you. I would ask you to return to the SGC now and remain on base until a decision has been reached regarding the consequences you may or may not have to face. Dismissed.

 

 

--- Interview terminated at 1750 hrs. End of transcript (5) ---

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Number 3 … Now she knew what Bad Thing Number 3 was. Air Force coffee laced with descaler would have been infinitely preferable …

 

The ride from the hospital back to the SGC seemed to take forever. The first ten miles of it they’d spent in a wordless daze. Sam shifted in her seat, knees propped up against the backrest in front of her, staring out of the van’s window, blind to a scornfully glorious sunset, not wanting to see it, because he couldn’t. He wouldn’t, even if someone, somehow, spirited him out here … My God, sir, how can you do this to yourself?

 

 

A windowless cell. Drab. Then again, she couldn’t recall ever having seen a cheerful one. Mattresses on the floor, four of them, and at least they seemed clean. There was a bucket of water, and another one, empty as yet, for the obvious purpose. When the door slammed shut behind them, they all started.

 

“Let’s get some sleep.” The Colonel threw himself on a mattress and turned to the wall.

 

“Jack?!”

 

“I’m tired, Daniel.”

 

“Jack, you have to give them the code. I mean, what can they do with it?”

 

He continued to face the wall, but Sam saw his shoulders tense. “Carter, Daniel wants to know what they can do if they get into the mainframe. Tell him.”

 

Obediently she reeled out a long list of things. Classified information. Destinations from the Abydos cartouche. Control of the stargate. Control of base security systems. Etcetera. Etcetera … “They also could initiate auto-destruct and/or disable the manual override, I suppose.”

 

“Good enough for you, Daniel?” He still wasn’t looking at them and without waiting for an answer said, “Go to sleep.”

 

Daniel had fallen quiet and miserably curled up under a blanket. After a while, soft snores told her that exhaustion had won the battle with fear. Teal’c sat in a corner, sightlessly gazing into the gloom, pretending to practise kel-no-reem, but his slightly off-kilter breathing revealed that he’d failed to achieve the requisite tranquillity of mind. Teal’c was afraid. Afraid for his friend. Who wasn’t sleeping. Long fingers were obsessively digging crumbs of mortar from the wall.

 

“Sir?”

 

“I’ll be fine, Carter. I’ve … I’ve done it before. I’ll survive. Go to sleep.”

 

She sat awake, silently watching over him for four hours, until the fastidious little man with the genteel smile came back, five Palace Guards in tow.

 

“If you would like to accompany us? By the way, Colonel, if you don’t mind? You won’t require your shirt and T-shirt, nor your boots and socks.”

 

He didn’t move. “What if I do mind?”

 

“That would be unfortunate and most unpleasant for one of your companions.” Smiling genteelly.

 

Without another word, he took off his shirt, his T-shirt, his boots, his socks, methodically folding the shirts, leaving an orphaned mound of clothes on his mattress. He was led from the cell ahead of them. Bare feet on freezing concrete, and he looked so frighteningly vulnerable ...

 

 

“Why did he lie? How could he tell them he’d given up the code?”

 

The question, underscored by the monotonous roar of the van’s engine, guided Sam back to a safer present, and she was grateful for it …Yes, Daniel would be the first to break the silence. Always.

 

“And why did we let him get away with it?” he added.

 

Good point. She turned her head, saw a look of defeat on Daniel’s face that mirrored her own thoughts. “Because he ordered us to. ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘Amen, sir’. And before you start screaming at me again, I followed his order because … Daniel, don’t you get it? He’s trying to do what he’s always done. He knows it’s a frame, and he’s trying to protect us the only way he can.”

 

“We should have told Vidrine.”

 

“Told Vidrine what exactly?! That somebody’s setting up SG-1? That would have gone down really well. Daniel, you were there! We could have sworn on a dozen bibles, and Vidrine wouldn’t have believed a word we said … Guilty until proven guilty, or something …”

 

“So we’re just gonna let Jack take the fall? We’re gonna leave him behind, is that it? Like, he’s out of it anyway, so who cares what else happens to him, just as long as we get off?”

 

“No, dammit! Think! As long as we get off, we at least have a chance to figure out what’s going on. We can clear him.”

 

“Oh come off it! How would you even - …”

 

Teal’c cut in, uncharacteristically. “O’Neill would not thank you for clearing him, MajorCarter. I concur, he wished to protect us from unjust prosecution, but he does not foresee us to restore his honour. He has an ulterior motive.”

 

“Run that by us again, Teal’c.” Sam absentmindedly rubbed that spot over her eyebrow again. The headache hadn’t let up all day. “You’re saying what exactly?”

 

“O’Neill is attempting to kill himself.”

 

“What?!” Followed by a resounding thud. Daniel had leapt up from his seat and hit his head on the roof of the van. “What?” he repeated, slowly sitting back down.

 

“I believe among the Tau’ri, as among Jaffa, treason is punishable by death.”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

--- TOP SECRET ---

 

 

To:    SecDef

 

From:  S Vidrine, General USAF, Pentagon, currently Cheyenne Mountain

 

Date: 08/19

 

Time:  18:56

 

 

--- For your information ---

 

 

 

I have today confronted all of SG-1 with the evidence retrieved by Major Davis, and I am glad to report that this has brought the expected result. Colonel O’Neill has made a full confession and is clearly aware of the severity of his crime.

 

In view of his state of health, and regarding the fact that the code had been changed before the SGC could be compromised and any actual damage be done, I would recommend not to proceed with a court-martial. The Colonel is effectively under house arrest now and, according to his physicians, there is no indication that his condition will change at any point during his life. I therefore suggest a dishonourable discharge, which would enable us to close this affair relatively quietly and without any unwanted publicity attendant a court-martial.

 

As for the other three members of SG-1, Colonel O’Neill insists that a) they were unaware that he had surrendered the code, and that b) they were acting under his direct orders in concealing the events of P5X 081 from General Hammond and from this investigator.

 

These claims cannot be substantiated either way, but I am inclined to give Major Carter, Dr Jackson, and Mr Teal’c the benefit of the doubt, especially as they seemed to be acutely distressed by the Colonel’s confession. I would recommend that they remain assigned to the SGC, but are barred from joining off-world missions. The latter could be open to review at a later date, pending their conduct.

 

General Hammond has renewed his offer of resignation, which I have accepted as per your orders. I would like to add that the General has behaved honourably throughout and to the last moment believed in Colonel O’Neill’s innocence. In my opinion it is extremely unlikely that General Hammond was privy to the real events of P5X 081 prior to this afternoon’s interview. He only can be considered culpable in so far as he was too willing to trust the word of his officer. I suggest that General Hammond be allowed to retire with all honour due to him.

 

As for appointing his successor, I recommend a meeting of the Joint Chiefs as a matter of urgency.

 

 

S Vidrine

General USAF

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

What J2 jokingly referred to as the ‘Country Club’ was nothing if not ostentatious. Rockefeller’s idea of a log cabin, with ten staff to keep the home fires burning and the Chardonnay chilled. J2 came from old New England money and had married into old New England money, and that kind of aristocracy carried its perks. The cabin sat in a secluded spot in the woods along the shore of eastern Central Maryland, and being invited to dine here was commonly regarded to be a privilege just one step short of a long weekend at Camp David.

 

The Senator had sampled both in the past and found there was no comparison. He fully intended to make the latter his personal weekend retreat one day. For the moment, however, he contented himself with leisurely streaking a fingertip down the bare back of his companion, satisfied when it caused her to shiver pleasurably. Of course, he couldn’t be quite sure whether the reaction was genuine or born from proficient technique, but it sufficed to make him contemplate an extension of the original agreement and availing himself of her talents once the official part of the evening was over.

 

J2 had invited to an evening with ladies, but Mrs Senator had become ex-Mrs Senator a long time ago. The daughter of a small-town lawyer, in whose practice the Senator had taken his first tentative steps towards power, she had not been cut out to be a politician’s wife. She’d remained behind in Bumfuck, Idaho, pruning her Wisteria or mulching the cabbages or doing whatever else one did with plants, and eventually the papers had been signed, and that had been that.

 

Occasionally, like tonight, the Senator would require female company, but he’d never been foolish enough to trifle with the obliging ladies who roamed the corridors of power in the hope of catching a future President while he was still young. That kind of fling held risks compared to which STD was a minor irritant. No, on occasions like this, the Senator preferred the help of professionals and relied on the services of an exclusive escort agency. It was expensive, but it also was absolutely discreet, and therefore safe. Besides, the girls weren’t exactly repulsive, which helped.

 

Renée, this evening’s choice, was gorgeous, tastefully turned out, and capable of intelligent conversation, meaning that she beat Mrs J2 three out of three. The General’s dumpy wife sat at the table in a frock that would have looked inappropriate on a woman twenty years her junior, dolefully gobbled down an excellent tiramisu, and cast the odd ominous glance at her husband. J2 had instantly fallen in lust. Which, the Senator found, was another very good reason for using escorts. They tended to make his negotiating partners just a little addle-brained and therefore pliable. Renée smiled at Mrs J2 and under the table squeezed the Senator’s thigh, a fitting response to his casual caress earlier. Yes, she would be retained for the night. It also would earn her a few bucks more, which undoubtedly was what she’d been after in the first place. Not that the Senator had any problem with that. A clear-cut business arrangement, no complications, no lingering resentment.

 

“Well, Senator, care to join me for a cigar on the terrace?” J2 dabbed the corners of his mouth with a napkin and heaved himself from the chair.

 

The Senator rose. “My pleasure, sir.”

 

Initially, he’d classed the General’s appointment to the Joint Chiefs as another instance of POTUS’ foible for impractical antiques. The man was a fire-eater, an inveterate hawk, sometimes dangerous, always annoying, and he had co-founded their elite little club as a matter of principle rather than gain. But he was the one who’d turned abysmal failure into success by coming up with ‘Plan B’, neat, simple, and deadly in its simplicity. Consequently, the Senator had had to revise his original appraisal of J2. He now approached the man with caution and considerable relief at never having had to serve under him. Then again, if he discounted an exceptionally limber young lady from Toledo, Ohio, the Senator had never actually served under anybody …

 

After the cool, dry air of the cabin, the day’s residual heat out on the terrace felt like a moist down blanket. Someone had lit garden torches on the lawn, and the Senator watched moths sway in circles around them until the attraction became too much and they burnt with a soft, weeping hiss.

 

“If you don’t mind, sir …” He slipped off his jacket, barely waiting for the General’s nod.

 

“So …” J2 wrapped thick, glistening lips around the end of his cigar, sealing it with spittle. “Any news?”

 

Clearly, J2 wasn’t expecting the CNN digest. “Plan ‘B’ went like clockwork. Vidrine makes a good bloodhound”, the Senator said, lovingly lighting an illegally imported Romeo y Julieta over the flame of a torch. “Probably because he’s incorruptible. Anyway, the whole thing came to a head this afternoon, and our flyboy went down in friendly fire. No chance of his bailing out, either. Vidrine recommended to leave it at a dishonourable discharge, but SecDef will be open to suggestion on that point.”

 

“I agree with Vidrine.” The General’s mouth formed a sensuous ‘o’ and puffed out a cloud of rich smoke. “Leave it. The guy’s as good as dead anyway. He’ll disappear into some home for cripples, and that’ll be the end of it. A court-martial would mean an endless media circus, and I don’t think we want that, do we? What about Hammond?”

 

“Beautifully predictable. He’s another straight shooter. When he couldn’t help but believe that he’d been had, by his own second, no less, he made good on his word. We’ll have Hammond’s resignation by tomorrow.”

 

“I told you so.” J2 sounded smug. “George and I go way back. He’s Dudley Do-Right and Johnny Applecore rolled into one. Bet he’s having a high old time right now … What are they going to do about the rest of the team?”

 

“Nothing, really. They’re relegated to pushing paper around the SGC, clearance for ‘gate travel withdrawn, but that’s to be reviewed in a few months’ time, pending good behaviour.” The Senator knew this would let the air out of some of the smugness.

 

Sure enough, all of a sudden the flavour of the General’s cigar seemed to have deteriorated markedly. “Not as clean as I’d hoped, but I suppose we can’t really send them down if we don’t bust their CO’s butt …” A shrug. “Some you win, some you lose. At any rate, I daresay we can prime the new CinCSG to take care of them.”

 

Ah. Time to get down to business. The Senator took a deep drag, rolled the heady smoke around his mouth, and exhaled languidly. “So, whom do you have in mind, sir? Without wanting to sound impertinent, you realise that we can’t afford a debacle like General Bauer.”

 

“Bauer is an ass! Typical REMF. I should have had him shot … Dammit!” J2 slapped his neck, squashing a mosquito. “Hate the little fuckers! You’d think they’d get discouraged by the smoke, but no …”

 

“Whom do you propose, General?” The Senator gently steered his host back on track.

 

“Major General Charles DeVere. He’s ideal for the job. A protégé of mine, completely loyal to me and so decorated the Joint Chiefs can’t really refuse him if I push the merit button. I’ve taken the liberty of filling him in on our ‘club’, and he’s very keen to receive a membership application form.”

 

The man’s arrogance was unbelievable. He’d managed to force everybody’s hand. If this DeVere was aware of the existence of the club and its aims in relation to the stargate programme, they had no choice but to approve his selection. Rejecting him at the risk of his blabbing to the wrong people simply wasn’t an option. J2 definitely was getting to big for his pants.

 

“Fine”, the Senator ground out as though the word tasted of cod liver oil and decided to launch a counterattack. “What are your arrangements with Cold Comfort? We have to move soon. As far as I’m aware the merchandise is in place, and our members are getting a little tetchy. They’ve paid upfront, and now they want to see the goods. Besides, there are several new interests, and we’ve got to start thinking about how to coordinate the expanded Project.”

 

“All I need to do is notify Cold Comfort. Kuryagin is waiting to discuss arrangements with me.” The General squirmed a little, which meant his last statement translated as I’ve got no clue because I’ve done bugger-all about it.

 

It deserved a smile. “In that case, sir, I respectfully request you give this matter your most urgent attention. As I said, our members are getting impatient, and we really can’t afford to disappoint them. For any number of reasons, each of which could prove very unhealthy to us.”

 

“I’ll get onto it tomorrow”, J2 promised indifferently. “Our ‘members’ really are a minor concern to me.”

 

“They shouldn’t be. They finance the Project.”

 

“Alright, alright, I get the point … You mentioned something about pest control?”

 

“Oh yes … The … uh … expert we originally engaged to procure the code threatens to become a problem.”

 

“The guy was your idea, as I recall …”

 

One more condescending remark, and the Senator would stub out his cigar on J2’s bulbous nose … “He came highly recommended. The NID previously used him in a similar capacity, and the results were extraordinary. However, the good Doctor appears to be following his own agenda rather than ours, and indications are that he has been for a while. He far exceeded specifications on this last assignment. In other words, he’s unpredictable, and that makes him dangerous. As a precaution I’ve put two operatives onto him, just to be sure he doesn’t do anything … unwise.”

 

“Well, if you’ve already got people on him, have him taken out, for Christ’s sake! What are you? An old woman?”

 

Son of a bitch! If he’d done that without consulting first, the Senator would have been the one to be ‘taken out’ next. “Very well, sir. I’ll see that it’s done.”

 

“Good. Let’s go back inside. The mosquitoes are eating me.”

 

De gustibus non est disputandum, the Senator thought. He’d enjoyed a classical education.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

FRIDAY, AUGUST 20

 

 

Daniel blinked, largely because there was a smarting area on his forehead, the origin of which he couldn’t quite place. He saw greyish darkness and lighter, slightly blurred oblong shapes, too close for him to focus on, despite his myopia. Eventually it dawned on him that he’d fallen asleep over his computer keyboard. Chances were that letters E through P had left a permanent imprint above his eyebrows: ERTYUIOP. A dozy rummage through twenty-three languages lent no deeper meaning to the random assembly of vowels and consonants … he couldn’t very well call it a word … but it temporarily stopped him from dwelling on the images his dream had left him with.

 

Jack being led into that room, coming quietly, a look in his eyes that Daniel had never seen before, although he’d known him for years. It hadn’t been a look so much as a total absence of Jack, who’d withdrawn so far into himself as to be invisible. Even without any knowledge of the details, Daniel had intuitively grasped that this must be how Jack had survived four months in an Iraqi prison.

 

 

The room was bare, apart from a long steel table at the centre, restraints fixed to a crude pulley system at either end. It had to be custom-made, and that notion in itself was stomach-churning. Intellectually, Daniel had been aware of what would happen here, but finding the actual paraphernalia in front of him made it real on a visceral level and brought on a quivering wave of nausea. It mustn’t happen. He couldn’t allow it. Not Jack. Please, not Jack.

 

There had to be a way around it. There always was. You talk for a living, Jackson. So talk. Negotiate. The man’s a scientist, for God’s sake, he has to be receptive to reason. Slight and dapper in his fresh white coat, he stood there fondling a thin metal rod ... Don’t think about what he’ll do with it. Just talk!

 

“Uh … Doctor? … Surely you don’t have to do this. Why don’t we just - …”

 

Daniel hadn’t caught the Scientist’s subtle nod, but he sure as hell noticed the Guard backhanding him across the mouth. The blow shut him up, and it broke Jack out of that precious fugue.

 

“Daniel, don’t …!” Whirling around to face the small man with the rod, Jack hissed, “There was no need for - …” A cocked gun held to Daniel’s head stopped him mid-sentence.

 

The Scientist smiled. “Oh, but there was, Colonel. Please recall that Drakallans don’t take kindly to interference when discipline is being taught. Besides, it was crucial to persuade you to join in our little experiment. It just wouldn’t do if you didn’t fully share in the experience. So please stay with us, Colonel.” The man’s cold urbanity suddenly frightened Daniel more than anything else. There would be no reasoning. “Dr Jackson, Major Carter, and the Jaffa, if you would stand back against the wall so that we can begin? And be advised that any further disturbance will only lead to more ugliness, not necessarily for one of you … Now, Colonel, if I could ask you …? On your back, please.”

 

God, the son of a bitch made it sound like a doctor’s appointment … And Jack did as he was told, because he had no choice. They fastened the restraints around his wrists and ankles, and Daniel learnt what the pulleys were for. The Guards tightened them until he was sure that any movement Jack could possibly try to make would dislocate his joints. Fingers and toes helplessly stretched and splayed …

 

“That will suffice, I believe.” The Scientist waved off the Guards. “Listen carefully, Colonel. I want you to understand that, in your current position, you could harm yourself far worse than I intend to harm you today. So I would recommend you suppress your instincts and don’t let what I’m going to do to you persuade you to move.” The man’s fingers slid across Jack’s stomach and up to his chest, tenderly almost, like the caress of a lover, trailing outwards over ribs that stood out prominently and delicately. “You’re perspiring, Colonel. Please try to curb it. It repels me, and we haven’t even started yet … I told you to stop!”

 

With a swift, casual flick of the wrist the metal rod swung in on a rib, and Daniel heard the dry crack of breaking bone. Jack gave a strangled sound, like an abortive little cough, and started biting his lower lip.

 

“Very good, Colonel. Very wise. But you see, for me the challenge lies in puncturing that estimable self-possession of yours. Now … I believe there should be symmetry to it. Balance if you will …”

 

Three more flicks, three more ribs broken. Two left, two right. Symmetrical and balanced, and Jack’s teeth had drawn blood. Loud, discordant clanking announced that the rod had been discarded. Daniel lost track of time, but it was too long, too, too long, too much time during which a smiling, dapper little man inflicted a symphony of hurt on his friend. Knowing hands relentlessly probed and pressed and palpitated each fracture, over and over and over again, for what had to be hours.

 

The only sounds throughout were Jack’s ragged, sobbing breaths and, much later, maddening, rhythmic, incessant thudding when he began hitting his head against the tabletop in a desperate, compulsive effort to channel the pain. By then he was soaked with sweat, eyes wide and clouded, his face ashen.

 

After an eternity, the Scientist stopped. “I believe this will do. I wouldn’t want you to lose consciousness”, he remarked affably. “Allow me to say that I’m impressed.”

 

Daniel saw Jack relax a fraction, and alarm bells went off in his head.

 

Without warning, the man placed his hands either side of Jack’s ribcage and pushed hard, smiling in perverse, childlike delight when he was rewarded with a scream at last. “This concludes our lesson.” He turned to Jack’s team, the smile still blissful. “You can take him back to your cell. Please see to it that he’s washed.”

 

They loosened the restraints, gently as they could, certain that no matter what they did, they’d hurt Jack. Teal’c carefully slipped an arm under his shoulders, about to lift him up.

 

“Don’t … Don’t …” It was a barely audible whisper, hoarse and exhausted. “Walk … Have to walk … You understand? … ‘s important …”

 

Teal’c nodded. “I underst - …

 

 

“Daniel?”

 

The comforting clutter of his office leapt back into Daniel’s awareness, and he started and spun around on the chair. “What do you want, Sam?”

 

She’d slipped in quietly and was leaning against an overloaded shelf that held a disorganised collection of ushebtis from random dynasties of the Middle Kingdom, a few shrunken heads from the Amazon, a couple of Dead Sea Scroll facsimiles, and, shockingly out of place, a broken lava lamp an Egyptian foreman had given him for his birthday once. “Daniel, are you okay?”

 

Only then he realised that he’d been crying, awkwardly fumbled for his specs and slipped them on in a pointless attempt to conceal the evidence. “I … uh … fell asleep at the computer … bad dream …”

 

“Yeah. I try to sleep as little as possible …” She smiled wryly. “They make us take courses, you know. The military. To give us an idea of what it’s like. Accountant types from some psych section or other reel out statistics and methodologies. They haven’t got a clue … Having to watch and do nothing … It … it was the - … Daniel, I did care … I do care ...”

 

“I know … I’m sorry. I was angry. Still am. I didn’t mean to … My God, Sam, how could everything go so wrong?! … What did Jack ever do to - …”

 

“Don’t go there! It’s not gonna help. It’ll only make things worse … Look, Daniel, Teal’c’s right. We need to talk … He’s waiting topside. I figured now’s as good a time as any, and a bit of fresh air’ll do us all good. This place is driving me nuts … Are you coming?”

 

“Yeah. Let’s go.” For some reason he suddenly felt a little better.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

… therefore, with great regret, I feel honour-bound to resign.

 

 

George S Hammond

CinCSG

 

 

It was the ninth draft, and it was half past twelve at night, and it would have to do. He’d been through any and all utterances of disappointment and personal failure he could think of, and he’d grown weary of it. What did it matter whether or not he kept trying until he’d found le mot juste?

 

He rose sluggishly, walked over to the oak-panelled wall, and began removing mementoes that had hung there ever since he’d moved into this office. Well, they’d been taken down once before, and it had been Jack, quarrelsome and stubborn and recklessly courageous, who’d seen to it that they were put back in place by their owner a few days later.

 

Jack … The exercise in how to draft a stylish letter of resignation had done nothing to allay the troubling core of doubt he’d felt while listening to Jack O’Neill’s confession. On the contrary. Logically, the evidence was overwhelming. Plus, Jack had admitted to treason, repeated that admission, embellishing it with the stereotypical taunts expected from the villain of the piece … So why did Major General George S Hammond still trust his officer rather than his officer’s word? Because it all smacked of bad 19th century melodrama, that’s what ... Apart from that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs Lincoln? …

 

Ultimately, the reason for his precipitous, flustered departure had been a need to escape the stifling atmosphere of that hospital room and to go somewhere quiet, where he could think straight. He’d ended up in his office, for all the good it did him. The base had been quiet alright, quiet as a morgue, and he knew then that somehow the news had preceded him, although it was anybody’s guess by what intricate twists of the grapevine this had been possible.

 

At any rate, and vexingly, nothing about the afternoon’s disaster sat right. Jack O’Neill did not panic, and Jack O’Neill would argue to defend a decision until the other person turned blue in the face and fell over. This afternoon he’d confessed to one and neglected to do the other. Which was wrong. Pure and simple … Still, none of this intriguing polemic could annul the facts or the necessity of General Hammond’s resignation. If he didn’t go willingly, he’d be forced out. Justified or not, the deck was stacked against Jack and against him.

 

God, he was tired … The door flying open halfway through this nascent thought only drove home the point.

 

“Are you totally mad?! … Sir!” His CMO appeared to be in one of her more volatile moods.

 

Instinct and experience told him that he might be better off sitting down through this, so he returned behind the desk and lowered himself into his chair. “To what do I owe the pleasure, Doctor? And please, feel free to enter, take a seat.”

 

Dr Fraiser didn’t sit. She remained bobbing. “I heard! How could you let him do it?!”

 

“Let whom do what?” Which was a rhetorical question, but George Hammond needed to collect himself a little.

 

“I don’t know if he actually did give up that code, but personally I wouldn’t blame him if he had. Because what I do know … Sir! … is that this story about how Colonel O’Neill was injured in an explosion is complete and utter hogwash!” Anger raised Janet Fraiser’s voice way above her natural pitch.

 

“Dr Fraiser, General Vidrine had your findings re-evaluated by one of your colleagues at the Pentagon. He showed me the results tonight.”

 

“I suppose my so-called colleague is a vet with a firm belief in the Twilight Zone?”

 

“Invective won’t change facts, Doctor.” Inadvertently, the General felt a chuckle rising and swallowed it. Albeit a layman, he’d harboured similar thoughts reading the revised medical report, but for the moment he preferred it if Fraiser didn’t know. He wanted to hear her take on it. “It’s a second opinion, and it happens to differ markedly from yours.”

 

The petite doctor seemed to grow an inch or two and somehow contrived to look menacing. Fists propped on his desk, she leant into him. “Bull! Shit! Sir! You explain to me how somebody caught in an explosion could possibly sustain lateral rib fractures on both sides of the thorax. And what about the Colonel’s feet? Was he running around barefoot and somehow contracted severe trauma that’s mysteriously confined to the soles? And the SCI? … Oh don’t tell me! The ever-useful falling debris, right? Except, you see, General, there’s no way in hell that that’s an impact fracture. That happened very slowly, through persistent pressure to the spinal column, until the vertebra was crushed. Maximum pain, maximum damage. Whether you like it or not, and whether it fits your trumped-up evidence or not, those injuries allow for one conclusion only: Colonel O’Neill was systematically tortured … Jesus Christ, General, he’s lost everything else, couldn’t you at least have left him his honour?!”

 

“Thank you, Doctor. You’ve just confirmed my suspicions.” Hammond smiled at seeing Dr Fraiser abruptly deflated.

 

“Then … uh … you’re gonna tear this up?” She’d taken a step back from the desk and waved at the letter.

 

He shook his head. “I’m afraid I can’t do that. My resignation was a foregone conclusion, I guess.”

 

“So you’re throwing in the towel? You’re going to let the Colonel cope with this on his own?”

 

“I didn’t say that. As a matter of fact, I want to talk to him. I need to know why he confessed.”

 

Fraiser’s temper flared again. “With all due respect, sir, but are you blind? Firstly, he’s trying to protect his team, and secondly he hopes they’ll execute him. It’s his one way out.”

 

“All the more reason for me to talk to him. I won’t let him give up like that.”

 

“Frankly, sir, I think that’s up to him. I can’t actively assist him but, so help me, I won’t try to stop him if he finds a way. Don’t ask me how, but some people eventually learn to live with this. He won’t, and I can give you that in writing. Call me selfish, but I don’t want to have to watch this man die piece-meal.”

 

“You may have to, Doctor. Odds are there’ll be no court-martial. They’ll leave it at a dishonourable discharge.”

 

Janet’s shoulders sagged, and she finally dropped onto a chair. “My God, the poor devil’s really got the luck of the Irish, hasn’t he?”

 

“Isn’t there anything - …”

 

“No!” It came out vehemently, betraying that she must have spent weeks chasing after some glimmer of hope. “Researchers have been playing with nerve cell transplants from shark embryos for a while now. Success dubious, to say the least. The latest are neural prostheses that transmit impulses from the brain to motor neurons below the injury site. Some patients regain limited use of a hand with it … Get real, sir. This is Jack ‘Can’t sit still for a second’ O’Neill we’re talking about.”

 

“What if we contacted - …”

 

“The Tok’ra? General, you know as well as I do that, after today, the Pentagon considers him a security risk. They’d never give permission. Besides, I’m not sure it would work, and even if there were a guarantee, do you honestly believe he’d agree? Think again, sir! It’s probably the only thing he fears more ...”

 

“Yeah. I know. I’m reaching …” Hammond scrubbed both hands over his face. “I still want to talk to him …”

 

Fraiser rose. “If you like, you can come back with me now, sir. He won’t be sleeping. He never sleeps if he can help it.”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

The ringing tone droned on monotonously. Maybe it hadn’t been such a good idea to call the Senator’s cell phone at this time of night, but he’d insisted to be notified immediately in a case of emergency. If this didn’t qualify, Jones was at a loss to define what did. Still ringing. Smith stood outside the phone box looking like an overfed goldfish in a hat. Should be in here by rights ... Ringing. Jeez, the guy must have left his phone on the roof or something. If he didn’t answer after - …

 

“What?!” the voice barked, sounding slightly out of breath.

 

Almost instantly the penny dropped for Jones. Uh oh! Hope the lady isn’t too pissed-off … He bit back a titter. “Jones, sir. Sorry to disturb you. We’ve got a problem.”

 

“Dammit, Jones, take an aspirin and call me in the morning!”

 

“Sir, I’m sorry, but this is serious. The quarry made us. He split.”

 

Jones yanked the receiver at a safe distance, banging his knuckles against the glass pane … Hot damn! The lady might be a tramp, but that still didn’t excuse this kind of language in her presence. Some of the vocabulary was news even to Jones, and there also were several anatomically challenging suggestions. After a while it seemed like Mr Senator was winding down, and Jones experimentally put the receiver back to his ear. The voice was quiet now, and in the background he could hear frogs or toads or some other amphibian keen on copulation. So the Senator had the good sense of not letting the lady/tramp overhear this. Thank God for small favours!

 

“… I’ve warned you punks! I told you the guy was sharp. You deaf or something?! What the fuck happened?”

 

“I don’t know how exactly he noticed. He may have clocked that we searched his house -”

 

“You did what?! Christ, that guy keeps tabs on his dandruff to make sure it lands in the correct place, and you two amateurs go and toss his house?!”

 

Jones had had just about enough of this. “Sir, we most definitely didn’t ‘toss’ his house. We had a quick look around. That’s standard procedure. Went in cleanly, left cleanly. What we didn’t know, because we weren’t told, is that this clown is obsessively tidy. So yes, he may have twigged on to us having been there. He took off some time late afternoon; we don’t know when, because we didn’t have anyone to cover the back of the house, and that’s probably how he got out, unless he crawled through the sewers. I asked for more people on this job.”

 

“And I said ‘no’, so it’s my fault, is it? … Find him. I don’t care how you do it, but find him and take him out. Is that clear?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“And next time you make contact, I want to hear you say you finished the job.”

 

“Yes, sir. Good night, sir.” And fuck you, too, sir.

 

Jones hung up and left the phone box.

 

Smith was halfway through a jumbo bag of chips. “What’d he say?”

 

“We’re struck from his Christmas card list.”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

It seemed as though respite from the heat was imminent. Clouds had risen, obscuring the stars, and occasionally sheet lightning bubbled through them in a mute promise of thunder and rain and cooler temperatures. Teal’c would never have professed it, but he was fascinated by this climatic phenomenon, and he envied the Tau’ri for their thunderstorms. Despite its twin suns, his homeworld Chulak was too cold to bring forth anything as spectacular.

 

But now he hoped that the tempest would hold off until this present business was concluded. MajorCarter had requested a meeting in the open air, and although the Jaffa would have preferred the calming, candle-lit comforts of his own quarters as a venue, he had agreed. The need to resolve the smouldering dissent between MajorCarter and DanielJackson took precedence. He could not be certain what form this would take. Had his two friends been Jaffa and on Chulak, the stage to which the quarrel had progressed would require a physical fight. Once blood had been shed, both sides would be appeased.

 

The dispute itself might have angered him, but Teal’c recognised that it had been born from care and friendship, and therefore he could forgive it, despite its futility. Fundamentally, the decision had been O’Neill’s and his only, and that was as it should have been. But DanielJackson had been unable to accept it.

 

 

Teal’c had stood the top half of a mattress up against the wall, so that O’Neill could recline in a semblance of comfort. Their standard equipment would have contained medication to alleviate the pain, but it had been left behind in their rooms. The only recourse available was to make him sit up to ease his breathing, and to cool the contusions with damp cloths.

 

“Hang in there, sir ... I’ll try and stabilise your ribs a little.” MajorCarter began ripping her uniform shirt into long strips for bandages.

 

“Waste of a perfectly good shirt …” O’Neill whispered. “He’ll make me take ‘em off tomorrow …”

 

“I know …” She gave a tiny, bitter smile. “But it’s my shirt to waste, sir. Don’t talk …” 

 

“What do you mean, ‘tomorrow’?!” DanielJackson had been observing from a distance, not wishing to present an encumbrance. Now he abandoned his repose. “Jack? What do you mean?”

 

The ring of anguish and incredulity in the young man’s voice was distressing. Despite all he had lived through in the past, DanielJackson lacked the cold, uncompromising insight bestowed by such experience as Teal’c and O’Neill had gained, each in their own time and in their own way and at an unimaginable price. All DanielJackson saw was a friend in danger. All O’Neill could permit himself to see was a duty to protect. Teal’c saw both, and experience told him that the duty must outweigh the friend, no matter how inconceivable the sacrifice. He would have traded places with O’Neill in an instant, but that option did not exist, and even if it did, O’Neill would never agree to it.

 

“They will ask again, DanielJackson”, Teal’c explained bleakly.

 

The archaeologist paid no heed to him. “You’re gonna give them the code, Jack, right?”

 

“Daniel.” O’Neill’s words were uttered with quiet precision, and Teal’c noted the effort it took. “In a while Valdane and my special little buddy will show up and ask a question. They’ll go away with the same answer I gave last night. They’ll also go away with the same answer if they ask any of you rather than me. And that’s an order. Please, don’t make it harder. I can’t fight you as well.”

 

“Jack, for God’s sake, he’s killing you!”

 

“No, he isn’t … He’s an expert. Trust me on this …”

 

“Jack - …”

 

“End of discussion, Daniel.”

 

As O’Neill had predicted, Governor Valdane and the Scientist appeared within the hour. Much to Teal’c’s surprise, he sensed genuine dismay from Governor Valdane, who scrutinised O’Neill for a considerable period of time.

 

At last the Governor spoke. “Please believe I regret that this has become unavoidable. I had not expected the … damage … to be as extensive. That was not intended.”

 

“Oh I think it was”, O’Neill replied softly. “And please believe it won’t change my mind.”

 

“It will not be your choice, Colonel.” The Scientist smiled. “I couldn’t help noticing that Dr Jackson appeared somewhat put out by the proceedings. Unfortunately he is not privy to the code, are you, Doctor? … No, I don’t suppose you are …  Neither is the Jaffa, but he couldn’t be persuaded that easily anyway … Now, Major Carter on the other hand …” The smile brightened. “Major, today I made him scream once. Tomorrow he’ll scream himself hoarse, and you’ll be there to listen. Or you can all go home. It’s entirely up to you. The code, Major.”

 

“No.”

 

DanielJackson blanched. “Sam, please! You have to …”

 

“No.” Her features had hardened to a mask of repugnance, and most, if not all, of it was directed at her own person. “I’m sorry, sir ... I’m so sorry …”

 

For a moment it seemed as though DanielJackson might strike her, then he backed off, shuddering. “Jesus, Sam, I hope you can live with yourself!”

 

Teal’c could appreciate the impasse. Were he to obey his feelings, the Scientist’s lifespan would be counted in mere seconds. He could snap the puny creature’s neck with one hand or, better yet, mete out to the man the torture he had meted out to O’Neill. Teal’c was yearning to do so. However, satisfying as it might be, it would only serve to aggravate his friend’s punishment. Another would replace the Scientist, and Teal’c was fully cognizant of the worlds of agony that could be inflicted on a man’s body before it failed at last.

 

 

His assessment had been grotesquely flawed, the Jaffa conceded. Despite the inevitable consequences, another would have been the lesser evil. Another might not have been insane. It had been a gross misjudgement, and O’Neill had paid horribly for it. Nothing in Teal’c’s power could ever mend that, but the he would attempt to heal what could be healed and assume his friend’s responsibility in guarding those he cared for most.

 

Which explained why he was seated on a supple, fragrant mound of earth and moss, beneath an overcast nighttime sky that threatened to open its gates before long. There would be time for meditation later. Now it was mediation that was needed. Teal’c cocked his head, harkening after his thoughts and wondering if O’Neill would have appreciated the pun.

 

The faint sound of footfalls penetrated the pre-storm stillness around him, and he listened more carefully. Two sets of steps, and this was heartening. DanielJackson had agreed to join them. Seconds later he could discern voices. MajorCarter and DanielJackson appeared to be discussing submarines. It occurred to Teal’c that this was an odd manner of mitigating their disagreement, but without a doubt he would be enlightened shortly.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Francisco saw his own features reflected in the pressurised glass oval next to his seat, and he smiled. Beyond the glass and the double image of his face was darkness, broken by spiders’ webs of minute beads of light, long filaments branching out here and there, connecting one web to another. He envisaged the twin beads of a car’s headlights, far below and behind him, careening chaotically through the gigantic spider’s web that was the City of Angels, searching for the fly that had escaped from the viscid trap.

 

He had sensed more than known that his home had been invaded. Then a plethora of tiny hints had proved that sensation. The faint exhalation of overly greasy food permeating the rooms. The fringe of a rug disturbed. A drawer shut slightly askew. The papers on his desk not ordered by date anymore. His pulse rate had accelerated, his respiration had become unsteady, and he had begun to perspire heavily. A far-off corner of his mind had registered with some interest that the symptoms were identical to those the clay would exhibit whenever Francisco approached it after a first moulding. How curious … Hands flying, his very soul incensed by the trespass, he had searched his secret cache and found it inviolate. The manila envelope was untouched, the picture still safe.

 

There were two of them. A survey of the street had ascertained as much. The bland sedan was alien to the neighbourhood, and it had been parked across the road since just before lunchtime. Francisco had continued to observe the car and its occupants, until one had raised a camera with a high-powered tele-lens. This, finally, had made him laugh, dispelling any residual anger about the betrayal. Undoubtedly these men were in the Senator’s pay, but if the politician’s minions were as imbecilic as that, Francisco’s plans were in no danger of being disrupted. He merely would leave somewhat earlier than anticipated ... After a thorough bath and vigorous use of his new brush, he had dressed in a comfortable tan suit, packed a small suitcase, carefully stashing the picture between layers of accurately folded clothing, and left his home through the backdoor. He would not need to return.

 

Francisco despised air travel and all its concomitants, including the trite pattern on the worn-out, fake-plush seat he occupied. He had furtively spread a fresh newspaper on it before sitting down, lest he be soiled by the accumulated exudations of countless travellers before him. Still, the journey was necessary, and now, as he flew towards completion, he found himself unwinding. Expectation and increasing proximity had revived the visions. Images were whirling through his mind, pleading to be examined and cherished, and he felt entitled to a treat. Smiling, he retrieved his Discman, cleaned the earplugs, fitted them, and set the CD to play. Bach’s Magnificat in D Major. An excellent choice.

 

He dreamily gazed at the drops of condensation trapped between the glass panes of the window. Like beads of sweat on taut, trembling skin. Among the lilt of strings, a fresh soprano voice jubilantly launched into the first aria, Et exsultavit spiritus meus. Yes, his spirit had rejoiced. Oh but it had …After a day that had exceeded his fondest wishes, walking into the cell that evening had been one of the most harrowing chores Francisco could remember. He had dreaded the possibility of one of those four giving in to the demand. He’d considered it unlikely, but he’d dreaded it all the same. It hadn’t happened …

 

 

As he watched his pupil entering the class room, he almost wept with the beauty of anticipation. There would be more, another lesson gently to guide the pupil towards purity, to mould him to perfection. The body was marred slightly by the discoloration the previous day’s lesson had left, but Francisco had long schooled himself not to regret the unavoidable. It would pass. Besides, for this lesson he had chosen a mode of instruction that would limit the visibility of the damage.

 

He kept watching as the pupil was prepared, laid out, surrendered into complete submission. Francisco loved this part, when the clay was brought to a state of readiness, loved the way the skin became more sensitive, painfully taut, as though stretched over a drum, waiting to vibrate at every touch. The danger lay in overindulging, in not resisting the urge to keep tightening the ropes, in exceeding that subtle point of balance where only the pupil himself decided whether punishment would be inflicted or not, whether he could bear to move or not, whether he possessed enough control or not. That was what mattered. All that mattered. Break through, strip away the pupil’s control, reveal his essence, until that purifying moment when he toppled and drowned in the sensations instead of precariously riding their crest, when his world turned to perfect pain. Then he would begin to learn. Francisco heard the muted gasp and nodded, knowing he could risk tightening the ropes further to elicit a second gasp, perhaps a third.

 

At last he was satisfied and tenderly placed his hands on the pupil’s stomach, just below the arch of the ribcage that rose like the wings of a fragile bird, smiled when he felt muscles flex in an involuntary response to what the pupil had been taught yesterday. Reverence for Francisco’s touch. Even that much movement brought punishment. Francisco noted the sudden contraction of the diaphragm, the effort to stifle an awed moan. Eventually the effort would wane. The pupil would overcome his inhibition. He would moan and whimper and scream, and those dark, defiant eyes would betray understanding in the end.

 

Today, Francisco would but direct the lesson, content to observe and appreciate the body’s reaction. He preferred it that way, preferred the immediate contact with the clay. His hands caressing clammy, shivering skin, he sensed the pupil’s tremulous expectation, sensed that he was ready now, that it was time to begin. Francisco caught the Tutor’s eye. The Tutor was a native expert, and Francisco had the greatest respect for the man’s finesse. It was a privilege to study the effects of his craftsmanship. The first sharp stroke of a birch switch fell across the soles of bare feet. Francisco’s hands dipped with the muscles in a spasmodic expulsion of breath as a wave of pain lanced through his pupil. Wave after wave after wave, as stroke after stroke after stroke worked the soles raw and set fire to susceptible nerve endings that sent their agony resonating throughout the entire body. At one point Francisco found himself distracted by a quiet sob from the woman and hissed in annoyance. Normally he never permitted spectators, but in this case it had been a necessary requirement for conducting the sessions. And once Francisco had chosen his clay, he would have made any concession to continue …

 

Eyes closed, Francisco felt and listened. Listened to the gentle whistling of the switch, listened to the wet slaps as it landed on bleeding feet again and again and again, loving the infallible precision of it. Like a metronome it lent rhythm and structure to breathing that became more and more choked and laboured. Muscles quivered, contracted helplessly, singing the body’s distress through his fingertips, but in time Francisco began to long for a sound of acknowledgment, for that all-important first outcry that announced the faltering of control. Another would have granted him that much by now. Soon. Soon … The pausing of the switch almost came as a shock to him, until he realised that the Tutor felt the same need for appreciation as Francisco and had a means to obtain it. Francisco smiled, genuinely honoured by the Tutor’s willingness to instruct him.

 

Blocks of ice were pressed against the pupil’s soles, numbing the sensations for a while, and blood and water mixed and dripped to the floor in an incandescent rosy pool. Francisco sensed the body relax and decided to permit his pupil the treacherous minutes of relief. Before long he felt skin trembling again as the cold became excruciating, adding its own inescapable grip to what was there already. Feet chilled to the brink of freezing, it trebled the pain as the beating recommenced. Muscles danced madly under Francisco’s fingers, and the first hacking moan erupted. A sobbing intake of breath to fuel the next moan and another and another, filling endless time with sound at last. But he still wouldn’t cry out. Soon. Soon … At last, when he could bear the anticipation no longer, Francisco nodded to the Tutor and the switch rested. The man donned thin gloves, produced a small satchel, and began massaging fine, white dust firmly into the raw flesh of the feet.

 

Reluctantly, Francisco relinquished his contact with the pupil, stood back and watched in breathless expectation and nervousness. Now it would be decided. Now Francisco would learn if it was worth to proceed to the final experiment. He would see it and hear it, and it all depended on whether or not his pupil would break now, indicating that he needed to be chastised in that way, needed to be taught that the mind was more important than the body ... There. Francisco hadn’t foreseen that his joy would be strong enough to bring tears to his eyes. It was beginning. It was beginning. Moans changed to whimpers, grew louder, terrible in their desperation. The pupil was writhing in agony, bucking in the restraints, augmenting his punishment, a wet stain spreading along the inside of his thigh as the unspeakable torment imparted by the itching powder shattered his self-possession at last, and he screamed and screamed and - ...

 

 

“Are you alright, sir?”

 

Francisco flinched at the touch, opened his eyes, and blinked owlishly.

 

“Are you alright?” the air hostess asked again.

 

She looked at him with concern, and he noticed people in surrounding seats staring sneakily and uncomfortably. What had happened? … Francisco switched off the Discman, removed the earplugs, then he realised that he was breathing hard and glazed in sweat. He hadn’t expected the memory to become so intense.

 

He smiled. “I’m perfectly fine, my dear. I assume it must have been some strange dream …”

 

“Are you sure, sir?” She didn’t seem convinced. “I could bring you a glass of water … or something to eat, perhaps?”

 

Something to eat? Did she honestly expect him to tarnish the glory of his achievement by poisoning his body and consuming the revolting plastic insipidness the likes of her chose to call food? Francisco sighed and admonished himself to be patient. She didn’t mean ill. She simply didn’t know any better. Like all those people gawking at him now, she had no vision. “Water? No, my dear. But if you don’t mind, I would like a glass of Scotch. Single malt, no ice, please.”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

“For cryin’ out loud, just put it on the nightstand, Nurse, whatever it is!”

 

The growl aside, Jack was either completely enthralled by the mundane beige curtains on the window, or he simply didn’t care who entered his room, having fled into a solitude reserved for those who had burnt all their bridges. Which, of course, was precisely what he thought he’d done.

 

“If your nurses look anything like me, I’m gonna have to feel sorry for you, son.”

 

There was a minute wince, which George Hammond correctly translated as the equivalent of a desire to bolt, but Jack still didn’t turn his head. “Come to chew me out, sir? If you want me to tell you why I’ve done it, I’m afraid I haven’t got a good explanation.”

 

Hammond closed the door, pulled up a chair, and planted himself in Jack’s sightline. “Damn right I’ve come to chew you out! … Don’t you dare look away, Colonel! … Just how stupid do you think I am?”

 

“I told you, sir. I panicked. I - …”

 

“Cut it out, Jack! I know you! You’re mulish and unpredictable and downright infuriating half the time, and the other half you’re creatively insubordinate, but there’s no way in hell you’d ever do what you said you did. So give us both a break and quit lying to me!”

 

“Sir, I …” The iron control slipped for a moment to allow a flush that only underlined his pallor. “I don’t know what to say, sir …”

 

“Try: ‘Begging the General’s pardon, sir, having been a colossal jerk I solemnly promise to discontinue being same. Sir!’ … Why did you do it, Jack?”

 

“I’d hoped you’d believe me …” Jack O’Neill was rattled now, which constituted a rarity and would help.

 

“I did. For all of two seconds. And those were among the worst seconds of my life.”

 

“I’m sorry … I didn’t mean to …”

 

“Don’t change the subject. You were telling the truth about one thing. I like you. That’s why I wanna hear why you did it. And I wanna hear it from you.”

 

“Damage limitation, sir. They needed a fall guy, and I figured it’d be in everybody’s best interest if that was me rather than any of my team or you. Besides …”

 

“Besides what, son?”

 

“They execute traitors.”

 

The depth of hope that little sentence held made Hammond go cold, and his fingers cramped around the armrests of the chair. “It won’t come to that, Colonel. They’ll turf you out and forget about you.”

 

“Ah …” He attempted a grin, and it became devastatingly brittle. “The ultimate life sentence … and at no extra cost to them. They should publicise it. Take pictures … It’s a great deterrent …”

 

“Jack …”

 

The grin wavered a little. “Sir, thank you for dropping by and letting me know. I … I appreciate it. But I’d like to be alone now.”

 

“No can do, Jack. Sorry. I won’t let you give up like this.”

 

“Which way would you like me to give up?” Jack was gazing past the General at the curtains again, slipping away into a place where nobody but he had access.

 

Hammond knew the signs, and he knew that Jack could happily hide there for days and weeks while some paper tiger out front carried on the conversation. “Oh no, you don’t, Colonel! Stay with me. That’s an order!”

 

It provoked a mirthless laugh, so transparent that the fear underneath shimmered through brightly. “That’s what … he … told me to do, too. Stay with him. Stay with … it. Every time I tried to drift, shut myself off, he’d hurt Daniel or Carter. Couldn’t … couldn’t let that happen …”

 

“And you’re not gonna let it happen now, Colonel.” George Hammond suppressed a groan. He’d just found out five times as much as Dr McKenzie had in two months of badgering, and he hated what he was about to do. “They’re your people. You’re responsible for them. So you’re gonna chicken? Run away? Not as long as you’re under my command, Colonel. You’re still an officer, and you’re damn well gonna behave like one. Is that clear?!”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

Trapped. Trapped in a life he didn’t want anymore, in a body that didn’t want him anymore, in a duty that only existed on paper anymore. But he’d do his duty anyway, like he had, God help us all, when he let himself be broken on Drakalla, like he had when he denied doing his duty. And Hammond was here to lay that duty on him again, because it was the only way he could think of to get Jack to continue living.

 

“Dress and appearance are disgraceful, Colonel. What’s with those pyjamas? And don’t they shave you?”

 

“They tried …”

 

“Gave ‘em an earful, did you?”

 

“Guess so, sir.”

 

“Well, you can just try and do the same with me, Colonel.”

 

“Sir?”

 

The General had risen and marched out into the tiny cubicle that passed for a bathroom, only to return a few minutes later, armed with a towel, a can of shaving foam, a safety razor, and a bowl of warm water, which he deposited on the nightstand.

 

Jack cleared his throat. “Uh … Sir, you’re not gonna …!”

 

“You just watch me, son. I’ll make you a deal, though. You stop me, and I give you official permission to wear this face fungus for however long you like.”

 

“That’s not - …”

 

“I know it gives me an unfair advantage, but that comes with being the General.” Hammond gleefully slapped a handful of shaving foam across his 2IC’s face. At least he had Jack’s full and undivided attention now ... “Keep still!”

 

“I like wearing a beard!”

 

“The hell you do! Besides, that’s no beard, that’s a veggie grater gone horribly wrong. Keep still.”

 

“Dammit, sir, I can’t do much else, in case you hadn’t noticed!”

 

“Your mouth’s moving fast enough. Shut up.”

 

Swiftly and steadily, Hammond scraped away foam and stubble, in the process unearthing a face that was far too gaunt. He was beginning to understand the rationale behind the ever-same pyjamas. They were baggy enough to hide it. Not just the incipient atrophy of muscles, but mostly the fact that Jack was hardly more than skin and bones ...

 

General Hammond took the towel and gently wiped off a few flecks of foam. “I can see the reason for the beard, son. You look like shit! You’re not eating properly.”

 

“I eat regularly …” Dark eyes glowering, but somewhere just beneath the surface lurked a helpless, involuntary spark of amusement at the absurdity of this whole situation. “Whenever Fraiser threatens to shove that naso-gastric tube back into place. That’d be about every other day …”

 

“So if all else fails, you can always try to starve yourself to death, is that it?”

 

“I hate being fed, that’s all … I’m not a child!”

 

“Then stop behaving like one, Colonel! I need you.”

 

“Excuse me, sir, but you need me like you need a hole in the head! … You know what he said to me when they slipped me under that punch? He said only the ‘higher orders’ of people had minds that could control their bodies. He said he would make me understand that with as little control as I had, I didn’t deserve - …” His voice barely above a whisper, Jack fought to escape from the memory, digging his head into the pillow as though he hoped it would swallow him.

 

Hammond cringed. Make that ten times as much as McKenzie …

 

That quiet, tired voice carried on. “I’m no Stephen Hawking, sir. Not by a long shot. I wish to God I were, but I’m not … Nobody needs me. I don’t, my team doesn’t, the Air Force sure as hell doesn’t, and you don’t either. Try Carter, or Daniel, or Teal’c …”

 

“I can’t, son.” George Hammond really didn’t want to drop this on Jack, but it was better than letting him hear it through the rumour mill.

 

“What do you mean, sir?”

 

“I resigned. Effective from tomorrow … today, actually. You might wanna get used to calling me George …”

 

Jack went white as a sheet. “Oh crap … This is my fault, isn’t it, sir? They think - …”

 

“It’s the fault of whomever is behind this thing. Personally, I’d like to find out who it is. That’s why I need you.”

 

“For what it’s worth, you’ve got me, sir.” Jack’s soft chuckle came as surprise to both of them. “So you’re saying you had absolutely no right to shave me?”

 

“Don’t push it, son! I’d put you over my knee as well, if that’s what it takes. Plus, I’ll be in here every day, to make sure that you eat and dress like a human being. And now I want you to sleep. Fraiser says you’re not sleeping much, either.”

 

“I don’t - …”

 

“Go to sleep, Colonel. You’re exhausted.” George Hammond settled into his chair, leant forward, and took a thin, lifeless hand between his paws, knowing that Jack couldn’t feel it, but somehow that didn’t matter. “You’ll have to try a lot harder to be alone in this, Jack. A lot harder.”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

“So, you think Dr Markov’s story is somehow connected to … what happened?” Like all of them, Daniel was unwilling to put it into words, or even to try and find words for what had been done to Jack O’Neill. He stared at her sceptically, but the hostility was gone. “How?”

 

Sam shrugged. “I don’t know, Daniel. It’s just a hunch that won’t go away. To tell you the truth, I’ve got no idea if I’m just clutching at straws, or if I’m simply too bushed to think straight. All I know is that it was the first thing that shot through my mind. Rationally, I don’t see how there can be a connection, though.”

 

“And I don’t see how any of this, interesting as it may be, is gonna help Jack.”

 

 

Bloody footprints on dusty grey concrete. He shouldn’t have been conscious by rights, much less on his feet, but pride and scorn and an overwhelming need to cling to every shred of dignity he had left held him upright somehow. And so he unsteadily limped along the corridor, towards the cell, hands groping for the wall, each step so painful that he hesitated for an eternity whenever it was time to set a foot down.

 

 

He’d been beyond their help even then, but the only one who’d really understood it had been the Colonel himself ... Sam let her head drop back onto the top of the tree trunk she’d been resting against and stared at the sky. The storm had moved off without breaking, and the coming day would be just as hot as any other during the past week or so. The air smelt warm already, too warm for dew to fall, and dawn was spilling over the peaks to the east. Another sleepless night. She’d lost count of them.

 

“MajorCarter, is it not true that the Russians had to limit the activation of their stargate?”

 

Both Sam and Daniel started. Teal’c had been quiet for so long they’d almost forgotten he was there.

 

“That’s right, Teal’c. They had to time it so that their gate wouldn’t override ours. They’ve got the DHD, and the situation they were trying to avoid, obviously, was one of our teams landing on their doorstep.” She lifted her head and looked at him. “Where are you going with this?”

 

“Would this not have constituted an inconvenience?”

 

“Yeah, I suppose … Teal’c, what are you getting at?”

 

“On Chulak there are traders who will venture into faraway regions to retrieve the chal’mak’tai. They are - …”

 

Chal’mak’tai? That’s an - … Teal’c!” Dr Jackson’s voice had risen to a squeal, scaring the dawn chorus into silence, and his mouth twitched. “You … uh … you’re telling us that Jaffa use aphrodisiacs?”

 

Teal’c’s left eyebrow rose in response. “As and when required, DanielJackson, as I believe do the Tau’ri.”

 

“Uh … yeah …” Daniel blushed. “Uhm … You were saying? About those traders?”

 

“The chal’mak’tai is rare and difficult to find, and it commands a high price in the city of Chulak. Therefore the traders are fiercely competitive. They will attempt to lay claim to each others’ sources, impede one another’s trade caravans, even kill each other over a shipment.”

 

“Sorry …” Faintly frustrated, Sam began peeling pads of lichen off the bark on her tree trunk, pulling at the tough, leathery strands. “Sorry, Teal’c, I guess I’m missing your point. Could you try not to speak in riddles?”

 

“It was intended to be a parable, MajorCarter, not a riddle”, the Jaffa corrected mildly. “Do not the Tau’ri consider power to be an aphrodisiac?”

 

“You could say that. And?”

 

“Perhaps the ‘traders’ who now command the Russian stargate eventually would wish not only to have access to your sources, but they would also expend great effort to neutralise their rivals. You have already confirmed that the very existence of the SGC is an impediment to them.” Teal’c leant back, letting the implications sink in.

 

“My God …” breathed Dr Jackson.

 

At long last Sam murmured, “Occam’s Razor …”

 

“What is an occamsrazor?”

 

“William of Occam was a mediaeval monk. He held that, if you eliminate … shave off … all impossible scenarios, what’s left, however improbable, has to be your solution ... Anyway, what I’m saying is it’s an incredibly long shot, Teal’c. But it’s the only lead we have … and it’s a really ugly one to boot. Because, if Svetlana Markov is right, it would mean that … what happened … was arranged and ordered partly by people in our own government.”

 

“Orders and duty, eh, Sam?” Daniel said bitterly. “Orders and duty …”

 

 

“Carter?”

 

“Shh … It’s okay, sir. I’m here.” The threat had been fulfilled, she realised, choking with grief. Jack O’Neill had screamed himself hoarse. Sam slipped an arm around his shoulders and helped him drink some water. “You’re running a fever …”

 

He’d collapsed the moment the door had crashed shut behind them. Teal’c had caught him and carefully, as though cradling a priceless china doll, carried him to his mattress. They’d cleaned him up as best they could, grateful that he didn’t wake. There was nothing they could do to dull the pain, apart from praying he’d stay unconscious. Then they’d taken turns watching him.

 

“… sorry …” he whispered.

 

“What on earth for, sir?”

 

“… lost it in there …”

 

“Oh for God’s sake …” She set aside the cup and used one of the fresh patches ripped from her shirt gently to dab the sweat from his forehead, wishing she could take the hurt away as easily.

 

“Thought I knew what was coming … popular pastime in Iraq … they call it falanga … the last bit was news to me, though … sorry … didn’t mean to …” He was struggling for air, his face drawn and contorted with pain and self-disgust. “Whose pants …?”

 

“Daniel’s, sir. He decided he’d look better in boxers.” Which wasn’t entirely true. It had been Sam’s idea, put forward when Daniel had finally stopped yelling at her, and he’d agreed with that at least.

 

“Sorry …”

 

“Stop it, Colonel!”

 

“Valdane? And the … other guy … Have they been back?”

 

“No, sir.” Sam didn’t know whether to be worried or relieved about that. For a short while she’d deluded herself that Valdane, who’d obviously suffered an attack of conscience the previous evening, might have decided not to continue. Eventually she’d had to admit that the chances of that happening were minimal.

 

“Carter, promise me … Promise me you won’t tell them … Hammond hasn’t heard from us in two days … He’ll send a team … He’ll get us out … I … I can hang in there …”

 

That was a lie, if she’d ever heard one. She stared at Daniel’s sleeping form, knowing how he’d respond. He’d made his point repeatedly and brutally, and by now she desperately wanted to believe he was right, desperately wanted to put an end to this. “Sir …”

 

The Colonel had clasped her hand. “Sam … don’t even think of it … this doesn’t matter …”

 

“Doesn’t matter?!” She all but shouted.

 

“No, it doesn’t … Listen to me, Sam … Don’t give up the code … Whoever’s behind this, they must be from Earth … You know what they could do with the code … Please …”

 

“What about you, sir?” Sam didn’t dare to look at him. He didn’t need to see her cry. “What about you?”

 

“My friend, the Scientist, is getting his rocks off … Don’t pretend you didn’t notice … He’s having too much fun to kill me … and surrendering the code won’t stop him … but if you do it, you and Daniel and Teal’c are dead …”

 

“Sir, I can give them a false code, or change the code as soon as -  ...”

 

“No!” He’d put enough emphasis behind it to make him cough, jarring his ribs and provoking a soft gasp. “The moment they think they’ve got the code, they’ll kill us … I gave you an order … Major …” 

 

 

“Oh yeah”, she muttered. “Orders and duty, alright … Daniel, the Colonel suspected it …”

 

Daniel blinked, momentarily confused. “Jack suspected what?”

 

“That it wasn’t the Drakallans but somebody else, somebody from Earth, who wanted the code.”

 

“And how come you didn’t share that with anybody?” he snapped.

 

“To be honest, I didn’t give it too much credit at the time ...” Sam grimaced. “He was half delirious with pain. I couldn’t be sure he knew what he was saying … Besides - …”

 

“Besides, I was too busy shouting at you to listen.” Daniel gave a sheepish smile. “Did Jack mention anything about why he suspected it?”

 

“No. But think about it … The computers, the equipment … Except, they had Goa’uld weapons …”

 

He sat up, absentmindedly stroking a velvety fleck of moss. “What if it’s some Goa’uld trying to make it look like - …”

 

“That would be most unlikely, DanielJackson”, Teal’c said with some finality. “The Goa’uld would consider such tactics beneath them, designed for weaklings. They will resort to subterfuge, but never to conceal their involvement or their presence.”

 

“Then where did the weapons come from?”

 

“If Markov is right …” Sam mused again, “If she’s right, then they’ve already brought back enough stuff to start arming their units.”

 

“So?”

 

“So I think I should get in touch with Markov, and we should talk to General Hammond … if he’s willing to listen after the stunt the Colonel pulled.”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

From:       skymaster@realgroups.com

 

Date:        August 20, 05:32

 

To:          coldcomfort@coldcomfort.rsx.com

 

Re:          Trade opportunities

 

 

Message:    Cold Comfort: Clients are getting impatient. Please advise when first shipment of harvest is to be expected. Speedy delivery is desirable as continued flux of funds will depend on customer satisfaction. Expect further communication regarding expansion of operations.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

It was Gyorgiy Timofeyevich’s first day on the job, and he was already getting fed up. The workers who’d signed the contract had been picked up at dawn by an asthmatic truck and carted through the tundra for an hour, until they were told to dismount and assemble in a tall storage hangar that seemed to have been dropped from the sky and landed in the middle of nowhere. It couldn’t have been put there entirely unplanned, though, because a standard gauge railway track ended right beside the hangar.

 

Inside there were long rows of crude, collapsible tables, piled with all kinds of small and medium-sized metal items that looked a little like children’s toys. Gyorgiy’s nephews avidly collected anything to do with science fiction, the loud, colourful American kind, not the austere tales of Stanislav Lem. The boys probably would have declared the objects to be ray-guns or something similarly fantastical. But Gyorgiy couldn’t quite believe that somebody had actually started up a toy factory in central Siberia. A toy factory secured by armed guards ...

 

The workers were hanging around in little clumps, waiting, shuffling their feet, scratching their heads, some lighting cigarettes, only to be told that smoking was prohibited, others striking up casual conversations with whomever happened to stand next to them. Gyorgiy had just decided that it might be time for a small second breakfast and dug a chunk of rye bread and a slice of dried sausage from his bag, when the door opened to admit a man in a business suit and an officer in uniform who looked to be in his forties, heavy-set, with the flaxen hair of someone from west of the Urals. The officer began to speak, and Gyorgiy stealthily tucked the bread and sausage back into his bag.

 

“Welcome, men. I shall make this brief. I am Lieutenant Colonel Kyril Andreyevich Kuryagin. You will address me as Lieutenant Colonel. Your task is to pack the items you see here for transport. You do not need to know what these items are, and you do not need to know where they will be shipped to. All you need to do is your job.” Kuryagin stepped back, and motioned to the man in the business suit.

 

His Russian was clumsy and heavily accented, and Gyorgiy and several others blinked. They recognised this accent from their infrequent visits to the ramshackle movie theatre in the nearest town. The man was American.

 

“The Lieutenant Colonel has already pointed out the most important things you need to know, but let me underline another. You will not discuss what you are doing here, not amongst yourselves, not in a bar after working hours, not at home. You will not speak about this. All you will do is your job, and you will do it diligently. For this you will be paid extremely well. Nearly all of you have been unemployed before you signed your contracts. Talk about it and you will be unemployed again. Permanently. Your colleagues, on the other hand, those who know how to keep their mouths shut, will draw a generous salary, paid in US Dollars, for as long as they wish. That is all I have to say. Start working.”

 

A number of men, among them Gyorgiy, applauded. The job had become a lot less strange and aggravating all of a sudden … specifically, since the nameless American had uttered the magic words: US Dollars. They’d be paid in hard currency, not the all but worthless Rouble. For that Gyorgiy would quite cheerfully have traded his current girlfriend’s favours to the highest bidder. Just having to keep his tongue from wagging seemed a minor concession, by comparison.

 

Three of the guards showed them a smaller adjoining room where empty transport containers and huge bales of bubble wrap were kept and told them to carry those into the main hangar. Gyorgiy grinned and made a beeline for the bubble wrap. He’d seen it before, but he’d never actually had his hands on it. Now he stood there like a kid, popping tiny pockets of air, giggling every time another one burst, until he earned himself a rough shove in the back.

 

“Hey, you! Durak! You’re supposed to be working, not playing. Carry that stuff into the hangar!”

 

Gyorgiy and his neighbour Anatoliy ended up at the same table and spent the rest of the day cutting large squares from the bubble wrap, which had swiftly lost its appeal. They were packing ornate, sinuous pieces of metal. It wasn’t easy, and it took them quite a while and uncounted tries until they’d figured out how best to wrap the items that looked like chubby snakes. Two other men at their table had started fiddling with the objects and discovered that, if you pressed a certain engraving, the ‘neck’ of the snake would extend with a harmonic chime.

 

The guards had overheard the chime, arrived in a hurry, and escorted the two men from the hangar. Permanently unemployed, thought Gyorgiy, shivered a little, and lost all interest in what other things those metal snakes might do.

 

Eight hours later the shift had ended, and they were led back to the truck that waited for them outside, its engine coughing and wheezing. Gyorgiy was tired, and his feet hurt from standing all day. He’d also made a mental note to wrap up warmly in winter, if he still was working here then. The building wasn’t insulated at all, and the sun beating on the roof all day had heated it up like an oven. The myth that Siberia was cold all year round was just that: a myth. However, in winter it would be different. In winter temperatures inside the hangar would drop to well below freezing. Gyorgiy wasn’t sure if he still wanted to be here in winter. Well, he would see …

 

He clambered onto the truck and plopped down on a bench. Anatoliy landed next to him, smirking.

 

“Shh … look what I’ve got!” he hissed, lifting his coat a little.

 

“Keep it for the girls, Anatolchik”, Gyorgiy grunted droopily. “I’ve seen bigger and better …”

 

“No! Look!”

 

Anatoliy gave him a none too gentle nudge, and Gyorgiy finally took a peek, if only to keep him quiet. Hidden under the coat was one of the metal snakes. “Are you crazy? What if they’d have caught you?”

 

“They haven’t, have they? Pasha will love this.”

 

“Yeah … sure … You go and spoil Pasha. Just don’t come whining to me when they sack you. I want nothing to do with it. I’d like to keep this job for a while”, Gyorgiy hissed and scrunched his eyes shut. Pasha, the brat … Anatoliy was besotted with his ill-behaved little horror of a son.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

From:       coldcomfort@coldcomfort.rsx.com

 

Date:        August 20, 08:59

 

To:          skymaster@realgroups.com

 

Re:          Trade opportunities

 

 

Message:    skymaster: First shipment will be ready to go within a fortnight. Awaiting advice re: expansion.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

The Senator hid a yawn in his tea cup and admitted that keeping Renée overnight, whilst gratifying, had not been the brightest idea ever to cross his mind. He’d arrived at his office nearly an hour late and to a full schedule, the first item of which had already been cancelled by his secretary. One unhappy lobbyist had had a long-standing appointment postponed to a later date. Afterwards, Miss Harris had brought him his ritual morning tea, the White House Early Bird, and a memo from SecDef, which had arrived during the night. At least this had finally woken him up.

 

SecDef and the Joint Chiefs were in a meeting right now, deciding on the new CinCSG. Sometimes, and against all the odds, bureaucracy really worked, the Senator conceded with a grin. The ink on Hammond’s resignation could barely be dry yet … On the other hand, knowing about the meeting did nothing to further his concentration. He wished he could be there, influence the outcome somehow. As things stood, he only could hope that J2 would put his money where his mouth was and push through this General DeVere. And after that he’d have to hope that DeVere was going to play ball as tractably as J2 had claimed he would ...

 

“… so we’re simply asking that you consider this issue with regard to the upcoming legislation.” His constituent seemed to have arrived at the end of her long and tortuous and scripted and memorised exposition.

 

“Certainly.” The Senator blinked. He had absolutely no idea what the woman had been talking about. World peace? Abortion? Potato beetles? With her bony frame and prim dress she reminded him of ex-Mrs Senator, so there was a good chance that her concern involved matters horticultural. “After all, that’s what I’m here for, my dear Mrs - …”

 

“Oh please, sir, call me Minnie.” She smiled girlishly. “It’s such an honour to be here, and you taking the time as well, and …” Off the script now, her train of thought tapered out in awe and excitement.

 

“Minnie.” The Senator was thinking ‘Mouse’ and felt distantly grateful for the break. He’d forgotten the woman’s surname. Stupid gaffe. Something like this could lose you votes … He rose, forcing her to do the same, and escorted her to the door. “I will look into this very seriously. You have my word, ma’am. And please accept my thanks for bringing it to my attention.”

 

She tripped out twittering, crossing paths with the Senator’s secretary along the way. Miss Harris gave a practised smile and closed the door behind her.

 

“I’m expecting a call from SecDef, Miss Harris. Anything yet?”

 

“No, sir. I’m sorry, sir. Here are the notes for your 10 o’clock meeting.”

 

“Thank you, Miss Harris.” Screw the 10 o’clock meeting … Then again, by the time that was over, the Joint Chiefs hopefully would have made their decision. Unbeknownst to all but one of them, it would be a multi-million dollar decision …

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

From:       samc@telemetrynet.com 

 

Date:        August 20, 09:22

 

To:          svtln.chatgroups@tiger.ch

 

Re:          Perfect time

 

 

Message:     Planning a vacation. Still want to put me up?

 

 

Major Carter hit the ‘send’ button. She’d wondered whether to add more detail, but if Dr Markov needed to wave her off for whatever reason, it was better to keep the wording as inconspicuous as possible, although the mail would arrive on a Swiss message board and go practically unnoticed among all the other chatter ... Vacation. One way of putting it. Sam felt she could do with a real vacation …

 

She and Daniel and Teal’c had returned to the SGC just after six o’clock this morning and run into a wall of manic rumours, not knowing what to make of them. The confusion of gossip wasn’t helped by the fact that everyone instantly fell silent as soon as they set eyes on the threesome. Once the members of SG-1 had passed, voices would start burbling up again, audibly and viciously in some cases. They’d gritted their teeth and ignored it, until one enterprising ensign, keen on gaining his peers’ recognition, had gone too far and badmouthed the wrong person.

 

 

“Gee, they’ve got a nerve”, the man drawled as they walked past him in the commissary. “I wouldn’t dare to show my face around here if my CO was a traitor. At least the fucking coward’s got what’s coming to him!”

 

Teal’c, not usually clumsy in the slightest, rolled his right shoulder as though to ease a cramped muscle, his balled fist snapping back and connecting with the ensign’s nose. The Jaffa didn’t so much as look. Conversations in the commissary hushed, the man’s groans rose over the quiet, shocked buzz, and Teal’c finally turned around.

 

“Please forgive me”, he intoned disingenuously. “My hand must have slipped. You appear to experience a similar difficulty with your tongue, Ensign. Should you wish to have this problem corrected, feel free to come and see me.”

 

 

After that the sniping had ceased, as least while they were within earshot, but all in all the incident had made for a pretty charged breakfast. On the upside, they’d managed to ferret out Lieutenant Simmons, who’d joined them with a mug of coffee and done his best to separate rumours from fact for them. News of Colonel O’Neill’s confession had broken on base the previous evening, and the as yet unofficial upshot was that General Hammond had resigned. This definitely came under the heading ‘fact’, because Simmons had been the one to fax the letter to the President, SecDef, and the Pentagon. Above and beyond that, Graham had been fairly sure of one thing only: there wouldn’t be a court-martial.

 

 

“Thank God”, sighed Daniel. “I know … I know what Jack’s been hoping for … Call me selfish, but I’m glad … I don’t wanna lose him.”

 

“Neither do we, Daniel”, Sam murmured. “It’s just … It’ll be hell for him …”

 

Lieutenant Simmons glanced from one to the other. “Sorry … I don’t think I follow you …” He never got an explanation.

 

They sat in silence for a moment, until Teal’c asked, “How do you intend to proceed now, MajorCarter? We will not be able to obtain GeneralHammond’s help.”

 

“I can’t believe the General would just leave us hanging like that!” Dr Jackson said heatedly. “I can’t believe he could think that Jack really would - …”

 

“He hasn’t, and he doesn’t.” Janet Fraiser popped her tray on the table. “Can I join you?”

 

Sam grinned. “Sure. Sit down, Janet. Hey, going by your face you didn’t get any sleep either …”

 

“Thanks. And thanks …” The doctor crumpled on a chair. “Anyone tried the pancakes? … No? … Oh well … Just wanted to know if they’re still made of cardboard before I dig in.”

 

“What was that about Hammond?” asked Daniel.

 

“He never believed the Colonel’s confession”, Dr Fraiser chomped between two forkfuls of pancake.

 

“He didn’t?!” Graham Simmons looked very much like a startled squirrel, and Sam half expected him to leap to the ceiling and hang there for the rest of the morning. “B-but - …”

 

“Where did you acquire this information, Dr Fraiser?”

 

“Well, Teal’c, one hint was that he spent the entire night at Colonel O’Neill’s bedside …” Janet gave a mischievous grin. “According to the nurses, he gave the Colonel a dressing-down, shaved him, ordered him to sleep, and force-fed him his breakfast when he woke up.”

 

The startled squirrel crash-landed. “Shaved him?!”

 

“Shut your mouth, Lieutenant. It’s unattractive”, Janet Fraiser stated, mopping up maple syrup. “All I can say is that the General’s a heck of a lot better at bullying Colonel O’Neill than I am.”

 

“So if he didn’t believe Jack, then why did he resign?”

 

“I don’t think he had much of a choice, Daniel. From what he told me, he could either go voluntarily or be discharged …” The doctor pushed away the plate. “Cardboard …”

 

“In other words, we’re on our own …” Dr Jackson muttered glumly.

 

“On your own with what, sir?”

 

“I’m afraid that’s classified, Lieutenant.” Sam rose. “Which reminds me … Regards from Colonel O’Neill, and I’m to kick your butt. Consider it kicked.”

 

Simmons blushed vehemently and squirmed a little. “Yes, ma’am.”

 

“Good … And by the way, Graham?”

 

“Yes, ma’am?”

 

“Thanks.”

 

 

After breakfast Sam, Teal’c, and Daniel had escaped from the decidedly inhospitable commissary and holed up in Major Carter’s lab, trying to figure out how to deal with the problems General Hammond’s resignation had thrown up. They’d half hoped to sway him to call in a few chits and perhaps get a lead on who was behind the set-up, who had wanted that code badly enough to destroy lives. That route was barred now. They had to come up with a different angle. Proposals had been varied and ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime, until Teal’c had inclined his head in sudden inspiration and tentatively aired an idea.

 

“MajorCarter, why can we not investigate the source?”

 

Why not, indeed? Except, they couldn’t all go … Half an hour later, Dr Jackson had been ready to grant that, while Sam Carter’s Russian was feeble and she herself nowhere near as adept at undercover work as Jack O’Neill, she was the only one who had the necessary technical know-how. She’d also struck up a rapport with Dr Markov, which was more than could be said of Daniel.

 

Now all depended on whether or not they’d get the go-ahead from Svetlana Markov.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

From:       skymaster@realgroups.com

 

Date:        August 20, 10:49

 

To:          coldcomfort@coldcomfort.rsx.com

 

Re:          Trade opportunities

 

 

Message:    Cold Comfort: Joint venture will proceed as planned. New business-minded exec approved. Expect representative to discuss expansion plans.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Smith and Jones had decided that LA International was their best bet. Well, it was a start, if nothing else. At least here they’d get passenger manifests, which rendered this option eminently more attractive than bus or train stations. The mere notion of hanging around at the Greyhound station in downtown LA, showing mug shots to dozens of lethargic and/or stoned ticket agents was nerve-racking … On the other hand, this promised to be better only by degrees. They were sitting in a dingy, windowless, untidy office in the bowels of the airport, attempting to make some headway with their uniquely uncooperative host.

 

The security officer they were talking to wore a condescending smirk. He’d been wearing it ever since they’d introduced themselves. Jones had visions of poisoning that secretary’s potted plants or possibly abducting her poodle ...They’d told the security officer what they were after, and the man’s smirk was beginning to dissolve into a long-suffering, but still condescending basset hound stare.

 

“Of course you’re the experts, guys” - the smirk came back for a moment - “but if you don’t mind, just run this by me again … You’re looking for a fellow whose name you don’t know and who’s probably travelling under an alias, but you don’t know what that might be, and he’s off to a destination you don’t know either? … Well, that narrows it down.”

 

Smith had reached the end of his tether. He pulled out his ID card again, flipped it open and stuck it under the security officer’s nose. “You read, pal? You know what those two wiggly things stand for? That’d be ‘S-ecret S-ervice’. And, gosh, you know what that means? It means that if Mr Jones or I don’t like you, you’ll be looking for a new job by … uh … lunchtime, let’s say. Now, I can see Mr Jones twitching a bit already, so I suggest you pull your finger out of your ass, pal, and get real helpful. Double-quick. Just a suggestion, you understand?”

 

“Sure …” The man nodded. “I was just saying … Well, you can have a look at the passenger manifests, if you like, I suppose …”

 

“See, that wasn’t so hard now, was it?” Smith leant back, and his rickety chair groaned in protest. “Just domestic flights will do for now. And while we’re having a look, I recommend you round up any ground personnel on duty last night.”

 

“Hey! You gotta be - …”

 

Mr Jones twitched. “Yes?”

 

“Yeah, sure. I’ll see what I can do.”

 

“Much obliged, pal”, grunted Mr Smith.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

From:       skymaster@realgroups.com

 

Date:        August 20, 14:28

 

To:          patriotmessages@realgroups.com

 

Re:          Head gardener

 

 

Message:    b09ty11: New gardener confirmed to fill recent vacancy in orchard by tomorrow. Crop is expected to double. Contact me re: purchasing trip.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

The building was functional and unappealing, a purpose-built slab of concrete of the worst order. No balance, no symmetry, and yet, to him, it had become a shrine already, for it almost certainly held what he sought. Besides, the grounds were pleasant, shaded by graceful weeping willows, and there were clean, weather-bleached stone benches dotted across the lawn opposite the main entrance. He’d sat on one of them, half-hidden by a willow tree, and committed to memory the comings and goings throughout most of the afternoon. Staff and visitors entered and left, and every now and again an ambulance would pull up on the broad strip of tarmac that glistened and must have gone soft in the heat. It never seemed to be an urgent case. He assumed that those would be brought to the ambulance bay at the back, or flown to the rooftop by helicopter for an even more dramatic arrival.

 

Francisco permitted himself a few moments of contemplation, of trying to imagine that bright, defiant mind bereft of its most eloquent, most sensitive means of expression. Not a man of words. A man who hid behind words. That was what had made him so perfect. The perfect clay. If one wanted to know what he thought or felt, one had to watch for a movement, a gesture, a slight faltering in the step, the play of fingers. Francisco gave a small sigh at the notion of those exquisitely elegant hands being useless.

 

The consequences it had brought would be fascinating to study. He assumed that, in this case, insanity might be an eventual possibility, but he prayed that his masterpiece wouldn’t be tainted in that way. It would be such a waste. Insanity would numb the pain, numb the despair, and therefore numb the purity of the mind. No, it couldn’t be. Francisco had made the perfect choice. Perfect clay, too bright to bow to madness, too defiant not to suffer.

 

The entrance at the top of the stairs spewed forth several groups of chatting nurses and orderlies, still looking fresh and purposeful in their white uniforms, even after a long shift. Francisco approved and made a mental note of the time. As in most things, timing would be crucial, and he was grateful that now there were no outside forces to interfere with his work. It would be solely the artist and the clay. Nothing else would matter.

 

A small sports car arrived and backed into a free space in the staff car park. The tide of leaving personnel parted around the car, and the slight breeze carried cheerful greetings over to where Francisco was sitting. Clearly at least one of the car’s passengers was popular here. Doors opened to discharge a small, slender red-head and, on the off-side, a burly, bald man in his sixties, corpulent but not flabby. More calls ascertained the woman’s identity. She was a doctor. The parting nurses dispersed along the tarmac road and across the lawn, and the odd pair made their way up the stairs and into the hospital.

 

Francisco rose. It was time to leave. Dusk would be falling soon, and he had been watching for long enough, had learnt what he needed to know. Now he would have to make plans.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

From:       svtln.chatgroups@tiger.ch   

 

Date:        August 20, 18:34

 

To:          samc@telemetrynet.com 

 

Re:          Perfect time

 

 

Message:    If you want to come, I recommend you travel soon. Avalanche season is about to start, and things should get interesting. Notify me of your travel arrangements as soon as possible. I’ll be happy to pick you up. Have you considered taking the train?

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

For the first time in weeks he was wearing something other than hospital pyjamas. Not that the grey sweatshirt and tracksuit pants were a vast sartorial improvement, and he couldn’t have cared less anyway. Hammond had grinned, though, and for some reason it momentarily made Jack disregard his thumping headache.

 

Some time before lunch he’d been wheeled down to the OR, and Dr Montgomery had taken off the fastening plates for the Crutchfield tongs. Gradually, in the course of the afternoon, the anaesthetic had worn off, and his skull informed him in no uncertain terms that it was less than enthused about the removal of hardware it had just got comfortable with. Still, the headache signalled that at least this chapter was closed. No more traction. He’d hated it. Mostly because it had been a constant reminder … A lot less painful, but a reminder nonetheless …

 

“Hi, sir”, he said softly, strangely glad that Hammond had made good on his threat to come and see him in the evening, although he still couldn’t fathom how he could possibly be of any help.

 

“So you’ve reconsidered the piercings, have you?”

 

The chuckle sent a cavalcade of throbs rampaging through his head, and Jack suppressed a grimace. “You know how it is, sir ... Figured they weren’t my style after all.”

 

“Glad to hear it …” Hammond retrieved his chair from a corner and sat down by the bed. “Headache’s bad, is it?”

 

“Not really …” Jack had meant to shrug, but when his shoulders actually moved, a little awkwardly and not quite in the way he’d envisioned it, he still was surprised enough to forget that the greenish shade of his complexion would hardly support this flamboyant assertion.

 

“Uhunh …” The General sounded doubtful. “Look, Jack, if you’d rather do this some other - …”

 

“Sir, firstly, I’ve got no idea what it is you want me to do, and secondly, whatever it is, it’ll probably distract me. And distraction’s pretty hard to come by in this place …”

 

“Okay. Fair enough …” Hammond’s voice became a bit scratchy, as though he had something stuck in his throat. “Son, I want you to tell me exactly what happened on that day. I reckon I’ve heard pretty much everything else there is to know from Major Carter, Dr Jackson, and Teal’c during the investigation, but what with Vidrine going off on his tangent, we never got to that. I know you don’t wanna talk about it, and I guess I can understand why, but we have to do this.”

 

Jack supposed that, had transmission not been interrupted, he would have felt his stomach contract into a tight, panicked fist. “Why, sir? You’ve got my report …”

 

“What I’ve got is your usual laconic digest. ‘They roughed me up, and it wasn’t nice.’ I need details, Jack. The clues are there, in your head somewhere, but they ain’t gonna do us much good unless you share them. I need you to tell me everything, every small thing you remember. If it’s easier to do it on your own, I’ll get a tape recorder and leave you alone with it …”

 

“Thank you, sir, but I don’t think my pride deserves that much consideration …”

 

Hammond gave a grim little smile. “Personally, Colonel, I reckon your pride deserves every consideration it can get. If it hadn’t been for what you did - …”

 

“Sir, please …” Between his throbbing skull and useless body, Jack wasn’t sure he’d be able to handle the Above and Beyond the Call of Duty speech that was rearing its ugly head.

 

“I was going to say: I’d have been sitting in my office doing paperwork today. Instead I took my granddaughters for an ice cream.” Hammond’s smile broadened to a grin. “I owe you one, Jack.”

 

“Don’t make me laugh, sir.” He’d bitten down on another chortle before it could wreak havoc and launched his own bid at distraction. “I’m starting to get curious about when and where you learnt all those slick moves …”

 

“I’ll tell you sometime … when you’re really bored. So, what do say, son?”

 

As he slowly closed his eyes, Jack wished he could have held his breath for a moment and let it go again, like a swimmer did before diving the length of the pool. The ventilator’s steady, mechanical pumping wouldn’t allow it. He caught himself rubbing his head against the pillow in small rhythmic jerks and suddenly realised that this was a surrogate. He wanted to pace, to move, to ease the tension somehow. Wincing, he stopped and let himself drift back to the sights and sounds and smells of a basement room half a galaxy away.

 

 

Daniel’s face, white and angry. Teal’c, that fearsome fury invisibly boiling just beneath the surface. Carter, eyes wide, a fitful shade of violet. He could hear them adjust their steps to his snail’s pace as he hobbled down the corridor. Although he’d known just how bad it would be if he tried to walk, it didn’t make the experience any more tolerable. Stepping on pincushions. And then some ... But the leers of the Guards had told him that they hoped he’d crawl, and he felt ornery enough to spoil their day.

 

Valdane and the Short Prim Menace hadn’t been back. The question hadn’t been asked the previous evening, and if Jack remembered anything about etiquette in these circumstances, this meant that the question would be asked while they were doing to him whatever they were going to do to him. One more reason for not wanting his team there. Carter wouldn’t crack. Not his Carter ... But it would make it harder on her, on Teal’c, who wouldn’t show it, and on Daniel, who would. Then again, making it harder presumably was the point of the exercise, wasn’t it?

 

The room. That room … He felt himself go cold. On the floor beneath the table were dried pools of blood. His blood. He hadn’t noticed that he’d been bleeding quite so much ...

 

Guards. Shoving Carter and Teal’c and Daniel against the wall. Stay away from my team, you slimeballs! … Gee, you’re getting good at helpless rage, Jack …

 

One of the faceless bureaucrats that had been ubiquitous in the Governors’ Palace. Come to see the show? Probably. The guy was holding a camera. Working for Hello! magazine? How much for the exclusive rights? ...

 

The Scientist. And Jack didn’t like the looks of him, nor of that … thing … they’d mounted to one end of the table. He could tell what it was, but if he allowed himself to consider how it would be used, he’d get sick with dread before they’d even said - …

 

“Good morning, Colonel. Forgive me for not visiting last night, but I was unavoidably detained.” The Scientist stepped forward, amicably took Jack’s arm.

 

He cringed involuntarily, desperate to get away from the man, away from those hands on his skin. Broad, blunt hands, black hairs on the back of the fingers, and he’d never be able to forget them, to forget …

 

The Scientist smiled. “To be honest, I hadn’t anticipated to see you walk in here. Most impressive.” The hand let go of Jack’s arm, drifted to his back, traced the length of his spine. “Yes, very impressive. You’re showing remarkable backbone, Colonel. Unfortunately, people are getting impatient, so we will have to do something about that …”

 

He knew then, knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, tasted suffocating fear, not of the pain but of what would come after; fear, thick and bilious and heady, strong enough to make him retch, and he fought that down, like he fought down the sudden tantalising urge just to tell this man what he wanted to hear, fought it down and turned it into a prayer that they’d go too far, that they would kill him.

 

“Ah … You’re sweating, Colonel.” The Scientist smiled. “Did I tell you that I find you to be uncommonly perceptive? … Well, if you don’t mind …?”

 

Yes, he minded ... But there was the gun again, pressed against Daniel’s head. This time they made him lie on his stomach, causing his broken ribs to do things they never were meant to be doing. Restraints on his wrists and ankles, biting into patches he’d chafed raw yesterday and the day before. And the Scientist was droning on, quietly, politely.

 

“I’ve decided to alter the rules slightly”, the man said. “In deference to the fact that the effects of today’s lesson will be irreversible. You or your team may interrupt at any time, Colonel. Naturally, you will have to say the right words, but none of you should have any problem in figuring out what those are.”

 

Hands forcing his head down, his forehead resting on a wooden block, and then he heard the suck of hydraulics coming to life, felt the hard touch of a metal piston in his neck. His neck, not his back. His neck … Go someplace else, Jack, sometime else, some time and place that was good ... As the pressure of the piston slowly increased, he saw himself running along the pond by the cabin.

 

… The deer with the funny ears was hovering at the edge of the forest across the water, timidly sniffing the air, so it had to be the summer when he and Granddad had built the rafts. This was the morning they were going to race them, and the sun already stood high enough to prickle his skin. Granddad was waiting, balancing on his contraption, which to Jack’s expert 12-year-old eye looked like it would sink any second. With a rebel yell that sent the deer leaping, Jack flung himself off the jetty and into the pond, gasping and laughing at the sting of cold water, at flying droplets glittering in the sunlight, and he crawled off towards the boat-shed to fetch his raft for its maiden voyage. Cool, mellow darkness in the shed, the muted gurgling of water around planks and poles, the musty, sweet smell of damp wood and hemp. Legs kicking, he heaved himself from the water and onto the raft, came to his feet, tiptoed along one of the timbers as on a tightrope, stretched to reach the stake that leant against the - 

 

The thud of fists against body, a stifled outcry, nameless agony radiating from his neck and clawing him back into reality, a whisper next to him. “That’s right, Colonel. Welcome back. Please stay with us. You wouldn’t want Major Carter to get hurt, would you?”

 

“Sam?” He couldn’t see her, couldn’t turn his head, the brutal pressure from the piston pinning him down, pushing him down, making it feel as though his forehead would burst long before his neck.

 

“I’m okay, sir … Colonel, please …?”

 

Sounding thick with tears or aching from the blow, he couldn’t tell which.

 

“For the love of God, Sam, tell them. Can’t you see what they’re doing?” Daniel. Eerily persuasive, like a sorcerer reciting a spell. “You’ve got to tell them. It’s enough. Enough. Nothing can be worth that. Forget about orders!”

 

“No … No! … Sir?!”

 

Jack heard his own voice again, rough and distorted, barely recognisable, somehow filtering through that murderous fog of fear and pain and duty … duty? where did that come from?

 

“Don’t … Don’t tell them … ’s an order!”

 

… It had been his raft that had disintegrated, not Granddad’s. He’d swum ashore, stunned and disappointed, and Granddad had promised him they’d build another one next year. But then Granddad had died. Why was it that nobody kept their promises? …

 

A flash of light, burning red-hot behind his closed lids, red-hot like … Oh God, it hurt! … The bureaucrat had taken a picture … The flash almost the only thing loud enough to rise over the pain, that and the whisperings, someone drawing closer, that intimate voice right by his head, telling him that he couldn’t control … that his mind wasn’t strong enough … that he would have to learn … Learn what? … Learn how to hurt? … How to be afraid? … He was afraid now, so afraid he could smell his own fear, his own pain, could smell that and something else, an absurdly familiar scent that didn’t belong here … belonged to Granddad … Promise me … Promise me, Carter …

 

The scent leaning closer still … to listen like he did, listen for his life to end … soft, languid crack, cushioned in a horrendous explosion of agony, and everything crumbled to merciful, anodyne, velvety black.

 

 

“The scent … Sir, that scent …” Jack croaked.

 

Hammond had turned sickly pale. “I shouldn’t have followed those orders … I should have sent that team as soon as - … I’m sorry, son. I’m so sorry …”

 

“That’s why I didn’t want you to know the details ...” He’d gone back to rubbing his head against the pillow. “You didn’t do this, sir …”

 

“Jesus, Jack! You want to play mother hen to everybody? Tell me, somewhere in that cast-iron moral corset you’re wearing, is there any room for yourself? For what you need?”

 

“But I was right, sir.” Jack couldn’t really say why having had his life ruined for something other than mere principle should be so immensely important, but it was. “That scent?”

 

The General shook himself as though to clear out cobwebs. “What about it, son?”

 

“It was aftershave. Granddad always figured it was the height of style to wear Old Spice … Maybe the only thing I didn’t like about him ... Can’t stand it myself.” He grinned, for the first time in over two months feeling something like excitement. “One of those men, either the guy who took the shots for the family album or … the other one … was wearing Old Spice. Point being, sir, I don’t think the manufacturer’s got a franchise on Drakalla. Which means that at least one of them was on Earth or, more likely, is from Earth.”

 

The answer was a low, drawn-out whistle. “How the hell …?” Hammond blinked.

 

“The Russian ‘gate, sir. It’s the only explanation that makes any sense at all. Except, I don’t believe they were Russian …”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

--- TOP SECRET ---

 

 

To:    S Vidrine, General USAF, Pentagon, currently Cheyenne Mountain

 

From:  SecDef

 

Date: 08/20

 

Time:  19:15

 

 

 

At 11:30 this morning, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have confirmed Major General Charles N DeVere, USAF, as new CinCSG.

 

General DeVere is scheduled to commence his duties at the SGC as of tomorrow. I would ask you to remain at Cheyenne Mountain until further notice, to introduce General DeVere on his arrival and to facilitate the transition in command.

 

I can also confirm that I have received the resignation of General Hammond, and that the Joint Chiefs have unanimously agreed with your recommendations regarding the handling of SG-1.

 

My commendation and thanks for a difficult job well done.

 

 

SecDef

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

SATURDAY, AUGUST 21

 

 

“Good bye, sir. I’ll have tickets, visas, and your itinerary ready to be picked up tomorrow.” J2’s secretary gave him a fetching smile, bobbed her head, and closed the door after him.

 

He wondered how Mrs J2 would react if she found out that her husband’s secretary happened to be a buxom, black-eyed twenty-something …The Senator was livid. He had neglected to respond to J2’s rather peremptory demand to be contacted, having decided to wait until the General remembered his manners, and the upshot of it had been an order to attend a meeting at J2’s Pentagon office first thing in the morning. There had been no way of ignoring that, weekend or no weekend.

 

But the real newsflash was that J2 had the nerve to send him off on acquisition like some travelling salesman. And the Senator could do precious little about it. He did not have any compelling counterarguments, apart from those that could be dismissed as flares of paranoia. Effectively being taken out of the loop just as the General’s pet general was about to succeed Hammond worried him. He would have preferred to stay put and keep an eye on how things were developing at Cheyenne Mountain … Angrily barrelling down the staircase to the ground floor, the Senator almost knocked over a pair of lieutenants and gave an impatient grunt.

 

“Excuse us, sir!”

 

Yeah, yeah, yeah … To add insult to injury, he’d have to deal with that pompous cow herder Kuryagin again. Still, perhaps there was a silver lining to the cloud. Kuryagin was a boor, but he wasn’t stupid. Maybe between them they could just nudge the Russian ‘gate into a position of prominence … The controls were less tight, the possibilities more ample … Surely, Kuryagin would be amenable to - … The Senator’s cell phone played the first few bars of the Prisoners’ Choir from Nabucco. He charged through the main entrance and out into the parking lot and answered the call.

 

“What?!” He should have known it. Dumb and Dumber. That was all he needed.

 

He listened as Jones unfolded their problem. They’d spent the night at LA International, ploughing through passenger manifests and interviewing ground personnel in search of their quarry, and had finally sifted out two possibilities. Denver or Houston.

 

The Senator didn’t have to think twice about where the good Doctor was going. It seemed pretty obvious that the man was trying to settle some kind of personal score. If they let him go ahead, it could attract all kinds of unwanted attention. On the other hand, it would take care of an oversight on the Senator’s part. Since he’d found out what exactly had been done to that officer, he’d had a look at those pictures he’d ordered one of their operatives to take. He’d found them disturbing in more than one way. If the man had gone through that without giving up the code, he was more dangerous than anticipated. Possibly even now, and the Senator didn’t believe in letting sleeping dogs lie. Invariably, they’d wake up and bark or bite you on the ass. They always could take out the Doctor after he’d finished off that pig-headed flyboy … As ever, disinformation would do the trick.

 

“Houston”, he said. “Our guy’s headed for Houston.”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Jones hung up the phone and stepped out of the shell contraption that was supposed to provide privacy and in actual fact did nothing but amplify ambient noise. And there was a lot of that in the departure lounge.

 

Smith slouched on a bench, sucking the vanilla cream out of a Twinkie. “Well?”

 

“Mr Senator says Quarry’s off to Houston.”

 

“Whaddya think?”

 

That was easy. Jones thought that, in the immortal words of his dear, cleanly Grandma who’d hailed from the Old Country, Mr Senator was a gob-shite. Moreover, he thought that Mr Senator was yanking their chain. He picked up his bag, waited for Smith to inhale the rest of the Twinkie, dispose of its wrapper, and lever himself from the bench. Those tasks accomplished, they marched off towards the boarding gate and the flight to Denver, Colorado.

 

Half an hour after take-off they knew they’d been right, on every count. Mr Senator was a gob-shite, he had been yanking their chain, and Houston had been a red herring. One of the flight attendants had fallen for Smith’s lethal charms and identified the man in the mug shot as a passenger who’d flown to Denver the previous evening and behaved rather strangely en route. In the manifest this passenger was listed under the name of F Valdane. They could only hope that he would stick to the alias, otherwise he’d be impossible to trace after Denver.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

From:       samc@telemetrynet.com 

 

Date:        August 21, 11:13

 

To:          svtln.chatgroups@tiger.ch   

 

Re:          Perfect time

 

 

Message:    A friend of mine will be taking the TransSib and should be arriving on August 26. I hear you’ve been on the train before. Can you assist with travel arrangements?

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Somebody, presumably a somebody whose name started with a V, had decreed that the small herd of black sheep wouldn’t look good in the front row of the line-up, and so Major Carter, Dr Jackson, and Teal’c had been relegated to a safe place at the back, tucked away between admin personnel and cleaning staff. None of them minded much. The last thing they wanted right now was to make themselves conspicuous. Attracting people’s interest would only get in the way of what they needed to do.

 

Generals Vidrine and DeVere entered the ‘gate room. Out front, SG-2 had moved up a notch, and Major Feretti, their CO, cawed a despondent ‘ten hut’. Knowing that this should be Jack O’Neill’s prerogative, Sam came to attention with a pang. But going by the sound of his voice, Louis Feretti knew as well and felt like an impostor. It was a small consolation, and for a moment Sam wished they could tell Feretti the truth. He’d served with the Colonel, on and off, for longer than anyone else here and was one of the few who had trouble believing what the brass told them to believe.

 

“Good morning!”

 

DeVere had mounted the ramp, creating the impression that he’d just pranced out of a recruitment poster to resume his acclaimed title role in Wagner’s Parsifal. He was barely older than Colonel O’Neill, which started Sam speculating on the kind of ingenious political manoeuvring that had propelled him to Major General at his age. Somehow he didn’t strike her as a candidate for field promotion. Then again, perhaps DeVere simply didn’t suffer from chronic Foot in Mouth Disease, unlike someone else she could name … Dear God, she missed him. The irreverence, the rare, shy smile, the honesty, the gentleness, the stupid, stupid jokes, the tendency to argue about anything and everything, even the dark moods, when he was plagued by memories he’d never dream of sharing … Bless George Hammond for looking after - …

 

“At ease!”

 

Together with the other personnel, Sam shuffled to parade rest. Daniel nudged her and hissed from the corner of his mouth, “What’s his name again? You know, that moron from Toy Story?”

 

“I daresay rumours have preceded me” - DeVere flashed an expensively capped grin, and Sam decided she definitely disliked him - “but for those of you who for some reason haven’t heard them, my name is Major General Charles N DeVere. I will be taking over from General Hammond who has resigned, following the criminal misconduct of a senior officer of this command.”

 

He treated them to a judiciously timed moment of pained silence. Although Major Carter rarely revised her opinion of people so soon after having formed it, she did now. She didn’t dislike the man. She loathed him. Next to her, Daniel was fidgeting, and she could almost hear his rage crackling around him. Please, Daniel, keep your mouth shut …

 

“However”, DeVere continued his speech, “I am more than prepared to let bygones be bygones and to suggest we all start with a clean slate. I don’t want to see anyone victimised because of one man’s mistake, no matter how grave. This is the beginning of a new era for the SGC, and with your help I intend to make it a successful and memorable one. Thank you. Any questions?”

 

“Yes, sir! What’s the N stand for?”

 

So much for remaining inconspicuous. Nice one, Daniel! … Still, Sam had to bite down on a hoot and could have sworn she’d caught a snort from Feretti’s direction. Teal’c’s impassive features dilated into the baring of fangs he called a grin, Dr Fraiser turned very red, and everybody else froze in indignation.

 

“I should imagine you to be among the last people who’d want to engage in puerile behaviour, Dr Jackson!” General Vidrine looked like he was about to go through the roof.

 

“Ah … the Dr Jackson, I presume!” DeVere’s gleaming smile had soured a little. “I see you’re following in the footsteps of your intrepid leader … ex-leader … Any serious questions?”

 

There weren’t, at least none that could be asked openly, and the assembled staff and personnel were dismissed. Among disgusted stares and a few unfriendly shoves, Sam, Daniel, and Teal’c were jostling their way down C Corridor. A hand landed on Daniel’s shoulder.

 

“Hey, Jackson? Shall I tell you?” Feretti smirked.

 

“Tell me what?”

 

“What the N stands for?”

 

“How do you know?”

 

“Buzz Lightyear and I have butted heads before. I’m not surprised he didn’t own up …”

 

“Well?”

 

Feretti’s smirk grew positively gargantuan. “Think capital N, no period …”

 

“Wha-what?! … You’re joking!” Dr Jackson spluttered.

 

“Nope.”

 

“Napoleon?! … What were his parents thinking?”

 

“Bighead?” With another friendly pat on Daniel’s shoulder, Feretti moved off, whistling.

 

“Thanks, guys”, Sam muttered, asking herself how on earth she was going to get back into a frame of mind that would allow her to request indefinite leave from the man without bursting into giggles. “Napoleon …”

 

Half an hour later she stood outside General Ha- … Buzz Lightyear’s office, bracing herself for a skirmish. She could hardly expect DeVere to jump to the chance of doing her a favour … A hearty ‘Come!’ greeted her knock, and Sam entered and threw a crisp salute. Charles DeVere was seated behind the broad oak desk, pretending he belonged there. Then again, flying desks probably was his speciality … In a chair opposite sat General Vidrine, frowning when he saw her. Yep, pleased to see you, too, sir, and thanks for asking how Colonel O’Neill is doing …

 

“Major Carter, isn’t it?” DeVere beamed. “At ease. What can I do for you, young lady?”

 

Actually, General, you could go fuck yourself … Major Carter returned the toothy smile as angelically as she knew how. “Sir, I realise this is somewhat irregular but recent events have given me a lot to think about. If you can see your way to granting my request, sir, I would like to take some leave in order to consider my options. With everything that’s happened it’s vitally important for me to take the right steps.”

 

Vidrine’s frown deepened, but DeVere was oblivious to it. “That’s a very wise decision, Major. I’ve had a look at your file, and up until now it’s been exemplary. It would be a shame to ruin a career like yours simply because you had the darn bad luck of serving ... uh … under the wrong CO. No, you take off as much time as you need, and then you’ll come back to me, and we’ll have a chat about what’s best for you from here on out. Will that be all, Major?”

 

“Yes, sir. Thank you very much!” She struggled to keep a rein on her temper. The innuendo had been unmistakable and intentional; on the other hand, DeVere had been a lot more accommodating than expected, and she wasn’t about to spoil it by asking if the General also thought that Tailhook had been a hoot.

 

“Well then, dismissed, young lady. And please remember, any time you want to talk, feel free to see me.”

 

“I’ll keep that in mind, sir. Thanks.” Gritting her teeth, Major Carter saluted again and left, closing the door slowly enough to hear Vidrine’s comment and the remark that followed.

 

“General DeVere, you’re well advised not to underestimate Major Car- …”

 

“Oh, come on, Vidrine, I know the type. Daddy’s been in the Air Force, so daddy’s little girl’s gotta be in the Air Force, too. God knows whom that bimbo’s been screwing to get in here … Hammond’s a bit old for it … Think she’s been sleeping with O’Neill? I daresay that’s one thing he must be missing …”

 

DeVere laughed, and Sam noiselessly pulled the door to. She slammed a fist into the wall, finding out along the way that concrete was amazingly unyielding and that violence against inanimate objects did nothing to improve her mood. Sucking on bloodied knuckles, she hurried down the hall in search of her team mates and tried to dispel a nagging notion that DeVere had been altogether too happy to get rid of her. Which begged the question why Napoleon should be so eager to shoo her off base ... or why she felt like she’d evaded a rabbit snare only to step into a bear trap.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

From:       svtln.chatgroups@tiger.de  

 

Date:        August 21, 16:45

 

To:          samc@telemetrynet.com 

 

Re:          Perfect time

 

 

Message:    Your friend should contact Mr Arkadiy Volayev at the Russian Embassy in Berlin. Mr Volayev will be happy to assist with any requirements she might have.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

If one showed people what they expected to see, most things became astonishingly easy. Francisco smiled tolerantly at this little piece of homespun philosophy. The truth was that people only ever saw what they expected to see. In a hospital, for instance, people expected to see doctors, and nothing was easier than to show them a doctor.

 

Just after this morning’s shift change, Francisco had stolen into the deserted locker room on the hospital’s ground floor, and a short search of discarded lab coats had produced the foreseeable find: a forgotten ID tag. It proved another axiom: people were careless, had no sense of, or respect for, order. He had secreted the card and taken it to his clean, tidy room in a private boarding house, where two hours’ worth of diligent, scrupulous handiwork transformed it into the Air Force Training Hospital pass for a Dr F Valdane. That conversion achieved, a brief visit to a downtown medical supplies store provided the finishing touches, a lab coat of his own and the requisite stethoscope. By late afternoon he’d returned to the hospital.

 

Thanks to a chinless, grotesquely made-up receptionist who had fallen for Dr Valdane’s personable manner and was delighted to be of aid to an important visiting consultant, Francisco now sat in a spare office, scrolling through hundreds of medical files on his computer screen, until he finally found the one he’d been looking for. It was surprisingly voluminous, but he had time on his hands, and so he decided to do his pupil justice and study it in its entirety. He skimmed over the usual childhood diseases and teenage collection of broken bones. After that the entries became more interesting and varied, culminating in an expansive list of injuries, all dated at the same time, some ten years ago. Francisco read, and read again, and finally could not help but chortle at his own childlike naïveté.

 

He should have known at once. Then again, in the ecstasy of creation even artists occasionally failed to recognise the bigger picture … Of course … An initial twinge of jealousy at the thought of someone else having worked on that body was overcome by genuine appreciation for the evident quality of the craft. If the catalogue of damage was to be trusted, and there was no reason why it shouldn’t be, those Middle-Eastern men had shown sophistication and inventiveness, the hallmark of true talent. Unformed, unrefined talent, but talent nonetheless. Under his tutelage perhaps they could have come to recognise the higher purpose, could have outgrown the trivial utilitarianism that ultimately marred their achievement. Of course, that explained his resistance … Francisco chuckled and read on.

 

Several pages down into the part he chiefly was interested in, his lingering amusement vanished abruptly. This wasn’t true. It couldn’t be true, because it was impossible. Movement. Movement and sensation in the shoulders. It couldn’t be … An error. But error was inconceivable. Francisco planned and structured and created balance and perfection. He didn’t err. He couldn’t err. Error would place him on a level with all the rest of the human plebs …

 

Then it struck him, and he almost sobbed with relief at his own vindication. Not error. Never error, but instinct. The artist’s instinct had told him what he must do. His instinct had always anticipated that he would come here to collect his masterpiece. Preserve a small part to continue the lessons, before taking that away, too. Another hackneyed snippet of applied philosophy: to someone who had lost almost everything the little he had left would be priceless. Take away that, too, and … Francisco smiled, at peace with himself.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

“Sweatshirt … jeans … sweater …”

 

Sam crouched amid a heap of clothes in her lounge and called out the items like a surgeon. Doing his best impression of an OR nurse, Dr Jackson obliged by slapping them into her hands as she was stuffing a large travel bag. Teal’c, meanwhile, sat cross-legged on the floor, witnessing this strange ritual with placid bemusement.

 

“T-shirts … swim suit - …”

 

“You call that a swim suit?!” Daniel broke his mechanical rhythm and stared at the flimsy bikini he was clutching. “What the hell do you need it for, anyway? You’re going to Siberia!”

 

“Last time I checked that’s where they keep Lake Baikal.” Sam shrugged. “Besides, I’m told the tundra can get hot this time of year …”

 

“Uhunh …” Daniel Jackson grunted and relinquished the disputed object.

 

“Socks … boots … no, hang on … I’ll wear the boots … sneakers …”

 

“Do you wish us to inform O’Neill of your whereabouts, MajorCarter?” Teal’c asked suddenly.

 

“And how would you do that, Teal’c? Send a carrier pigeon? Jack won’t even take our phone calls ...”

 

“What is a carrier pigeon?”

 

“Never mind”, sighed Daniel, suspecting that his Jaffa friend had mentally amalgamated a cooing bird with a very large ship and arrived at a noteworthy result. Dr Jackson didn’t want to disillusion him. “Teal’c’s got a point, though, Sam. Do you want anyone to know?”

 

“Good question …” Sam sat back on her haunches and began toying with the laces of the sneaker she was holding, before long producing what looked like the Gordian Knot. “No, I don’t think we should let anyone know. Including Janet and General Hammond. They might tell the Colonel, and he’s got enough on his plate without worrying about us going on a wild goose chase ...”

 

“True …” Daniel nodded. “Do you think it is? … A wild goose chase, I mean?”

 

“I don’t know, but I reckon I’ll find out once I get there …” She gnawed her lip and added softly, “In all honesty, I don’t even know if I want us to be right … The thought that our own people did this to him … Just makes me wonder what kind of people and what kind of morals I’m sworn to defend, you know? … At any rate, it’s another damn good reason to keep quiet about where I’m going. If anyone asks, tell them I’m in San Diego, visiting my brother ...”

 

“As you wish, MajorCarter”, Teal’c agreed earnestly. “I believe this to be a wise course of action.”

 

Sam flashed him a quick smile and clambered to her feet, stretching. “Thanks … Listen, guys, I’m almost finished here, and we’ve got about an hour before I need to leave for the airport. You fancy some pizza and beer?”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Jack had fallen asleep at last, and George Hammond reclined in his chair with a sly grin. Starting to ramble about Dr Jackson’s recent foray into proto-Sumerian economics had been a brilliant tactical ploy …

 

He studied the thin, exhausted face that now, in sleep and before dreaming, looked relaxed and almost open. So unlike the mask of barely controlled suspicion he remembered from their first meeting. Colonel O’Neill, still retired and pathologically wary, expecting any superior officer to leave him twisting in the breeze at the slightest excuse; and General Hammond, approaching retirement and only by necessity putting up with the younger man’s antagonism and his ill-concealed indignation at having been hauled away from his beloved telescope. He’d got within a whisker of throwing that smart-mouthed yahoo either off his base or into the cooler for good. They’d come a long way from that, and Hammond felt oddly proud to have earned Jack’s trust. These days he tended to call his officer ‘son’, not from affectation, but because he had long acknowledged that, had he had a son, he would have wanted him to be like Jack O’Neill.

 

Back then, they’d both learnt an important lesson in the space of half an hour: Jack had learnt that General Hammond was a far cry from General West and his ilk, and George Hammond had learnt that Colonel O’Neill’s impertinence and devil-may-care attitude screened an integrity and sensitivity that made the man the most capable leader he’d ever come across. They also were a recipe for trouble, but this was the kind of trouble the General gladly put up with. Especially from his second.

 

Ex-second. Ex-general, ex-second. Hammond grimaced and forced himself back into the present so as to contemplate the future. His own seemed plain enough. He’d miss the SGC, miss the people, miss the excitement, miss the opportunity of doing something worthwhile at a time in life when others were reduced to polishing medals and memories whilst waiting for their last day in office to come around. But he had a family to go back to, and he wouldn’t mind spending more time with his grandchildren.

 

He had that. Jack had nothing, apart from a future that would see him confined to this bed, and there wasn’t a damn thing anybody, including the General, could do about it. At least they’d achieved a bit of a breakthrough … Feeling not at all guilty about having told a blatant lie, George Hammond grinned again. The trick in handling Jack was knowing which buttons to push, and over the years General Hammond had discovered a fair few of them. Tonight he’d managed to gain a concession Dr Fraiser had signally failed to gain in nine weeks of trying. It had been simple. All he’d needed to do was to suggest that Sam Carter, Daniel Jackson, and Teal’c interpreted their CO’s refusal to see them as a sign that he blamed them for what had happened. Colonel O’Neill had gone pale, then he’d gone red, then he’d sputtered a few unprintable things, and shortly after that he’d agreed to let his team visit. Really visit, as opposed to being dragged in here against his and their will … Hammond suppressed a chuckle. No doubt Jack would latch on to the ruse, and payback would be a royal bitch, but the end justified the means. He needed his ‘family’, and George Hammond would do his damndest to make sure that he finally allowed himself to accept that fact.

 

The General rose quietly, pulled the blanket over Jack, dimmed the lamp on the nightstand, and crept from the room. Out in the hallway he reflexively blinked at the bright glare from the strip lights and checked his watch. Half past nine already … Yawning, he made for the elevator. It was on its way up. Just as he arrived, the chime sounded and the doors whooshed open, discharging the car’s only occupant, a slight, dark-haired doctor who smiled amiably and nodded at Hammond on his way out. George Hammond stepped into the elevator and hit the push pad for the ground floor. As the doors slid shut he caught a glimpse of the man entering Jack’s room, and he muttered a curse. Couldn’t they at least let him sleep?

 

Scowling, he leant against the metal wall and noticed for the first time that the air was redolent with a fragrance he couldn’t quite pinpoint. Whatever it was, it sure reeked of the good doctor being off on a hot date later this evening …

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

“… which is why I’m proud to be American, and proud to be here with you tonight. Thank you.”

 

Amidst tumultuous applause, the Senator took a demure bow and sat back down at the table. Dessert was about to be served, but his appetite had left him. Charity banquets constituted a necessary evil for someone in his position, and normally he tended to put on a cheerful face and weather them. This one, however, a fundraiser for some veterans’ society or other, contained an irritating element of irony.

 

He’d given a rousing speech, extolling the merits of the armed services and reminding the representatives of a much-cited grateful nation of what they owed these men and women. The speech had been well received, and on the whole the Senator was satisfied with his delivery. This was discounting the phenomenon that, halfway through, he’d been assaulted by the unbidden mental image of one of those good men and true, strapped to a metal table, being savaged by some maniac spic in the Senator’s employ and at the Senator’s behest.

 

At least he’d had the presence of mind to disguise the gagging reflex this brought on as heartfelt emotion, which presently moved a bunch of carat-dripping society matrons to tears while they munched their taleggio. It had been a delightful picture … snot and gooey cheese bonding with fake incisors like so much Crazy Glue … but it had had the benefit of overlaying the original image.

 

There was a lesson in there somewhere. The Senator should have controlled his prurience and not looked at the photographic evidence. He couldn’t afford coming over all humanitarian in this. Too much was riding on the Project, and if it occasioned sacrifices, so be it. Besides, all that colonel had had to do was give up the code. It wasn’t like the man hadn’t been handed an option. Nobody had forced him to keep his mouth shut, so if he chose to play the martyr rather than applying some common sense, it hardly was the Senator’s - …

 

“Senator, that was a wonderful speech.” A plump, bejewelled hand settled on his arm. “So touching … And everyone could tell that you really meant it.”

 

He pasted on a smile. “Thank you ever so much, ma’am. I will confess that it is a subject close to my heart.”

 

“That is obvious, my dear Senator. That is obvious, and believe me, it has been noted.” The woman winked at him.

 

The Senator stifled a groan, but she had the good grace to move on, just as he waved off a waiter who was about to plant a plate of tiramisu in front of him … Not again! You’d think it was the only dessert on Earth! … He’d have a cup of coffee for politeness’ sake, and then he’d make his excuses as soon as good manners and politics allowed. There was no way he’d suffer through the looming entertainment section … God knew he had better things to do.

 

Tomorrow morning one of his aides would pick up the travel documents at the Pentagon, and by early afternoon he’d be on a flight to Moscow and from there to Irkutsk. And then he’d spend a hopefully fruitful ten days persuading Kuryagin that the Russian stargate should concentrate on netting the big fish, while DeVere at the SGC would be stuck with bringing home dainty knick-knacks. Money-spinning merchandise versus cheap souvenirs … So much for J2 trying to outmanoeuvre him. The Senator almost laughed.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

“Jesus Christ!” General Hammond was about to shove his car key into the door lock when he made the connection. He dropped the keys, spun around, raced across the parking lot and back into the hospital, legs pumping, running like he hadn’t been running since basic training.

 

“Call security! Right now!” he roared at a startled receptionist, huffing impatiently when he noticed the display above the elevator. The damn thing still was on the fourth floor. He couldn’t waste any time waiting. If that son of a bitch had laid so much as a finger on Jack … Four flights of stairs, two steps at a time, and on the way up George Hammond alternated between promising himself to lose weight and pure terror at the thought of being too late.

 

He crashed through the fire door and out into the deserted corridor. The floor was quiet, quiet as a hospital should be at this time of night. Assuming his hunch was correct, he would have expected Jack to call for help, and the absence of noise scared him more than anything. He’d come too late. Too late, for the second time … Rushing past the nurses’ station Hammond found it empty.

 

409 … 407 … 405 … 403 … The door was shut, no sound coming from behind. Barrelling into the pitch dark room, George Hammond realised at once that he’d been right. Something was amiss. The ventilator wasn’t working, the air reeked of Old Spice, strained sobs for breath punctuated the silence. He froze for a second, then understood that the gasps meant Jack O’Neill was alive. Trembling with relief, the General flicked on the lights.

 

Someone had attempted to roll Jack onto a gurney. One arm dangling over the edge, hair matted with sweat, he lay awkwardly on his side, struggling to breathe, staring at a slumped figure in the corner. Which would explain the empty nurses’ station … With three steps Hammond reached his second and carefully turned him on his back, trying to see if he was hurt, trying to ignore the sudden look of hopeless panic in his eyes.

 

“No …” The words were almost inaudible. “Leave … Go  …”

 

“It’s okay, son … Just me … It’s - …”

 

Something solid and reverberantly metallic struck the back of his head. George Hammond grasped, on impact, so to speak, what his 2IC had sought to tell him and called himself an idiot as he crumpled next to the gurney. The last thing he felt before passing out were strong hands closing around his throat.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

“For Pete’s sake, just switch that thing off, will ya?!”

 

Trimmed with a deafening burst of static their newly acquired police band scanner had suddenly spouted a crackle of voices, almost causing Jones to leap from his seat, belt or no belt. By some cruel twist of fate he had ended up as designated driver and was beginning to resent it mightily. He was tired, he was fed up, and their easy one-day gig had turned into a search for the proverbial needle in a state-size haystack. Okay, so it could have been worse, it could have been Texas, but if he had to squeeze one more motel clerk for information he’d throw up. Or go criminally insane.

 

Smith was back on the fries and in a joyous mood, because he had a gadget to play with. “C’mon, you never know whatcha gonna find out … Always nice to hear when the colleagues are busy.” By ways of a peace offering, Smith turned down the volume.

 

They’d thought they’d lost the trail in Denver, where a round of quick enquiries at rental car companies established that Mr F Valdane had hired a silver Ford to travel to an unknown destination. But then the enthusiastically helpful girl at the Hertz counter had double-checked her computer records and found that the silver Ford had been returned to a company branch at Colorado Springs the previous evening. Smith and Jones had demonstrated their undying gratitude by hiring something more flashy for themselves and drove to Colorado Springs. Where they’d been investigating motels, hotels, and dives ever since. Zip. Zilch. Zero.

 

At some point earlier in the day, Smith had had the bright idea with the scanner, arguing that Quarry might just get up to something not quite kosher … after all, Mr Senator had to have had a reason for wanting the guy out of commission. Hopefully, if and when Quarry tripped up, they’d hear about it. So far, and according to Smith, the highlight of today’s police band entertainment programme had been a 10-45, unexpectedly terminating several 10-7s, when the upstanding officers had to abandon their coffee and donuts to remove one deceased billy-goat of no fixed abode from a main thoroughfare. Jones was still wondering how on earth it had got there …

 

“Listen, I’ve just about had it … It’s past ten o’clock. Let’s call it -”

 

“Shh!” spluttered Smith, spattering half-chewed chunks of fries with spittle over the windshield and cranking up the volume again. “Get this!”

 

A voice emerged from the static. “… 10-4 … 10-31 at USAF Training Hospital, possible 10-96, male Hispanic … patrol unit 223 10-77 three minutes …”

 

Smith gave a beatific smile. “Told ya! Crime in progress and they’re after a mental spic … Let’s go gatecrash the party, whaddya say?”

 

“You sure you’re not making this up? You actually remember all those ten-codes?”

 

“My pappy was a portable”, Smith grunted around a mouthful of fries, as though that explained it, and added in a cod British accent, “The hospital, please, James.”

 

Jones sighed in resignation and forced the car into a U-turn.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

From:       svtln.chatgroups@tiger.ch    

 

Date:        August 21, 22:19

 

To:          samc@telemetrynet.com 

 

Re:          Perfect time

 

 

Message:    I’ve just learnt that we’re expecting a visitor from Washington. Your friend may want to reconsider her plans.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

CSI had been and gone, and he’d been advised that a detective would be round to interview him at some point. The few bits of him that still responded normally to shock felt cold and somehow managed to create the illusion that he was freezing all over. Jack wished they’d put him into another room, someplace else, just as long as it wasn’t here.

 

“You the witness?” The woman looked hardly older than twenty, wore a businesslike suit, and pretended to be Dana Scully. The door to Jack’s room had been left open, presumably so they could keep an eye on him and the crime scene, and she’d walked in without knocking.

 

“You the detective?” Jack asked back, still fighting to coordinate breathing and voice but beginning to make some headway.

 

“Jennifer Fields”, she said and brushed invisible dust off a chair before sitting down and producing a notepad. “And you are Mr …?”

 

“O’Neill.”

 

“Ah … So you were here when the nurse was killed?”

 

Where the hell else would he have been? … “No, I was taking a walk in the hospital grounds.”

 

He could see the chalk outline in the corner where the nurse had been killed and wanted to scream. It’d been his fault. Jolted out of the ever-same dream because he couldn’t breathe, his first thought had been that he couldn’t recall being so out of shape …

 

 

The scent came crashing in on him, he recognised it, recognised its wearer, noticed that the reassuring hiss of the ventilator was gone. Rolling his head to the side to activate the call button on his pillow was an instinctive reaction. Instinctive and wrong. Just how wrong, he realised when the nurse entered. Never drawing enough air to be heard, unable to warn her, useless, a waste of space … a waste of space … he had to look on as the woman was strangled. Her eyes, blue and terrified, searched for his, clinging on as though this would save her …

 

 

“Excuse me?” The detective’s pencil was hammering little grey dots onto the notepad. “Look, can you speak up a little?”

 

“Believe me, I’d love to …” It was the truth. He was dying to yell at the woman to leave him alone. The object lesson had been unequivocal. Anyone trying to stop this would die. “I thought Hammond had left …”

 

 

He suffered those kneading, probing, pinching hands on his body, grateful that he couldn’t sense them for the most part, observed as they experimentally snapped three of his fingers like twigs, watched with detached interest as muscles jerked and rippled spastically in response to pain he couldn’t feel, suspected that before long there would be pain he could feel, let himself be dragged onto the gurney. He didn’t care anymore, it didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered was to make that trance last, to lose himself in it, before he went insane with frustration and fear.

 

 

“Look, Mister, there’s no reason to whisper, really … So, who’s this Mr Hammond then?” Legs uncrossed and crossed again, and she looked indifferent.

 

“A friend … He tried to help … Don’t know what happened …”

 

 

Footsteps outside, the dragging stopped, and everything toppled into darkness, leaving him helplessly stranded in blind uncertainty. Someone storming into the room like a big, angry, comforting papa bear. When the lights came back on, he tried to shout, to tell him somehow, only to see the General go down as the nurse had gone down, to see his friend about to die, because of him, and all he could do was shut his eyes.

 

 

“In other words, you never saw the perpetrator leave, is that right?” Ms Fields chewed on her pencil. “This Mr Hammond? Did he survive the attack?”

 

I don’t know … God help me, I don’t know … “Noone would tell me.”

 

“Uhunh … What else can you remember?”

 

“Nothing that would interest you.”

 

 

Voices out of nowhere, many voices, security guards first, then police and CSI and nurses, murmuring, carrying George Hammond from the room, screening the corpse, transferring Jack back to the bed, fussing over him as though he were an old banger in need of servicing, injecting him with who knew what … Lubricant? … Setting and splinting his fingers … What on earth for? It wasn’t like he’d ever use them again … Let’s keep our cripples tidy? … Ignoring his reedy pleas to tell him what had become of the General, ignoring him when he said he wanted Dr Fraiser, ignoring him. Ignoring him. Like one would ignore a slab of dead meat.

 

They tried to put him back on the ventilator, hell-bent on stealing that little bit of independence from him, stealing the one good thing to come out of this nightmare, ignoring him when he begged them not to. If he could breathe on his own, he would. Anything, anything at all, to seem a little more human and a little less bionic. And so he tucked his chin to his chest, straining his neck and getting dizzy with the ache, preventing them from reconnecting the tube, until they gave up and someone at last decided that perhaps they should notify Dr Fraiser …

 

 

“You disappoint me, Mister”, said Ms Fields, her tone bored, the pencil now doodling along the margins of the pad. “See, you may think it’s original, but I’ve heard that story of the mystery perp who leaves the scene without a trace a dozen times over.”

 

Fear flooded back with numbing force, and for an interminable minute the next breath just didn’t want to come. Then some strange blockage released, and Jack only became aware of it because all at once he could speak again. “You … didn’t get him?”

 

“No. I don’t think he ever existed. It’s all a bit too convenient. I think you killed her.” She haughtily stared down at him, fully converted to the merits of her theory … “What’s so funny about that?!”

 

He couldn’t stop giggling, giggling hysterically, and only when he seemed to run on empty panic forced him to regain control at last and attempt to recoup the air he’d frivolously expended. It turned out to be much more difficult than he’d thought, but for the time being it kept his mind off the fear. Panting, Jack closed his eyes to banish the chalk silhouette.

 

Suddenly cool hands clasped his face, thumbs gently massaging his temples, and a soft voice said, “Don’t fight, Colonel. I know it’ll sound crazy to you, but your body knows what it’s doing. Just play along with it. You’re doing fine … Pretend it’s the hiccups …”

 

“Janet …” Someone who could understand, who would understand … “Pope John XXIII died of the hiccups”, he wheezed, so as not to cry with relief.

 

“You’re not the Pope. I daresay you’re low-risk …” She chuckled. “Will you just relax a bit, sir? Settle into a breathing rhythm first, then talk, okay?”

 

“Look, you!” Ms Fields chimed in. “I’m all for this alternative medicine stuff, but I’ve got an interview to conduct here, so can we save this for later?”

 

“First of all I’d like you to tell me what you’re doing interviewing my patient without my permission.”

 

Fraiser wasn’t holding him anymore, but one hand rested above his right collarbone, pushing down lightly each time his lungs decided to exhale, translating his body’s indecipherable activities into something he could feel. Jack allowed himself to indulge in a treacherous sense of safety, allowed the tension to slough off a little.

 

“I don’t need your permission, Doctor. Mr O’Neill has given his consent, and this is a police matter!”

 

“The hell it is! And that’s Colonel O’Neill to you!” came a gruff baritone from the door. “Somebody get this hack out of here!”

 

Major General George S Hammond looked considerably the worse for wear and was clutching an ice bag the size of a Volkswagen Beetle to the back of his head, but he was the most glorious sight Jack had beheld in a long time.

 

“Sir …” he whispered, his brain hollering at an indifferent body to jump up and hug his CO. “Sir … You’re - …”

 

“Shush!” ordered Janet. “Don’t talk, Colonel. Breathe!”

 

The security guard who’d followed in Hammond’s wake appeared confused. “Sir?”

 

“She’s a reporter for the local rag. I know her”, Hammond growled. “Take her downstairs and hand her over to the detectives. Tell them she’s been impersonating a police officer. That should put her out of commission for a few days.”

 

“You wouldn’t dare!” Ms Fields fumed, kicking the guard’s shins as he grabbed her arm. “I’m warning you! In tomorrow’s edition you’ll find a article about how the Air Force is covering up for a convicted traitor. Let’s just see how - …”

 

“Out!” Hammond bellowed. The roar bounced around inside his skull and made him flinch, but it had the desired effect. Ms Fields’ mouth hung open momentarily, then she let herself be escorted from the room, jabbering variations on the clichéd line about people having a right to know.

 

Janet Fraiser had blanched. “How on earth …”

 

“Doesn’t matter …” Jack murmured. “You’ve got to get me out of here.”

 

The doctor emphatically agreed. “I should think so! … Why they didn’t put you in another room - …”

 

“That’s not what I mean …” He sought Hammond’s gaze. “General, he almost killed you. He killed the nurse. Because of me. As long as I’m here, noone’s gonna be safe. I need to get out of this hospital, out of the state …”

 

“Jack …” Hammond sat down heavily. “I think you’re overreacting … We’ll put guards on you … We’ll - …”

 

“No! … Sir … He’ll get past them, and if that happens people will die. It’s me he’s after, so get me out of here.”

 

“I see your point, Jack …” The General didn’t sound like he did, glanced at Fraiser. “How soon can you arrange a transfer to the rehab centre, Doctor?”

 

No … no … Please, don’t placate me, don’t ignore me … “Sir, you’re not listening … I said ‘out of the state’. I don’t want anyone to know where I am, including you and the Doc.”

 

“Colonel, I don’t think that’s a good idea …” Janet started looking distinctly unhappy.

 

“I don’t want anyone else to get hurt … No visits, no contact.”

 

“Out of the question, son.”

 

“Dammit, sir …” Shouting just didn’t work … God, he had to convince them before he ran out of air for good, before he ran out of courage to deal with this on his own. The thought of being alone scared him out of his wits … Come off it, Jack! It’s what you said you wanted all along … He drew a cracked, stuttering breath. “You have to stay away from me. I’m not safe. If for no other reason, then because of what that reporter just said. I didn’t play charades with Vidrine to bring you and my team down with me … Sir, a coupla days ago you reminded me that I had to take care of the kids. This time ‘kids’ includes you …” Another wheeze. “No disrespect, sir, but if you were on my team, I’d have kicked your butt into next year tonight … You always … always … check behind the door, sir …”

 

“Yeah … I remembered that when I woke up …” Hammond’s face twisted in a wry grin. “You’ve got my permission to kick general’s butt, Jack … as soon as you’re able to.”

 

“It’ll be an honour, sir …” One more charade to play, and he’d play it because the only way of getting Hammond to do what he needed him to do was to make him think that Jack was just fine, that this was a piece o’ cake … Smile, Jack …

 

“As for the other thing, son …” The General reached out and gently squeezed his shoulder. “If it’s what you really want … Davis is still at the SGC. I’ll call him tonight and get him to arrange it immediately ....”

 

“It’s what I want, sir ... Thank you.”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Need. Need. Need. Scream. Need to scream. Need to. Need to. Shut up, little shit. Shut up, little slut. Screaming makes it worse. Shit slut. Slut shit. Worse. Worse. Slut. Worse. Shut. Slut. Up. Shit. Slut. Shut up. Slut up. Worse. Shuddup. Sluddup. Shut up. Up. Up-up-up … Slut. Slut? … Slut? …

 

Slowly, ever so slowly, awareness trickled back, and Francisco began to realise that the harrumphing noises that had been rising and ebbing and gurgling along behind the gag for so long had ceased. So had the jolting and bucking. Green irises, ringed with white, fixed and uncomprehending, stared out from the mess of blood and mucus that had been a face.

 

“Do I exist now?” he asked the eyes. “Do I exist?”

 

They said ‘Yes’.

 

“Do you acknowledge my art?”

 

They said ‘Yes’.

 

Soundlessly he set down the length of pipe he’d been using as an instrument of correction and wiped his hands on the lab coat. It was filthy. Filthy and creased, and he shuddered as he mechanically unbuttoned the coat and slipped it off. The stethoscope had dropped, lay coiled like the strand of a creeper plant in a puddle of blood. Sheathing his hands in the sleeves of the coat he picked it up and stuck the olives in the heretic’s ears, leaving the rubber tube and membrane to dangle over her breasts. Then he draped the soiled lab coat around her. One last time she would pretend to be somebody she wasn’t.

 

It might throw the detectives for a while when they found her. Perhaps the same detectives who had guarded the main entrance and had let her go, although the security guard who had led her from the hospital told them that she’d been impersonating a police officer. Francisco had overheard the ensuing conversation. She denied his existence. Denied it flatly, although the signs were there for all to see. The detectives, more intelligent than he had anticipated, had laughed and sent her away, for Francisco to purge her. Shaking with rage, at his failure, at her impudence, he had followed her, headed her off in the parking lot, stunned her and dragged her back into the hospital through a side door he had discovered by accident.

 

After having been forced to abandon his pupil and the fat man who had come to interrupt him, he had fooled the security guards. They had seen what they expected to see: a doctor, frantic to get help for his patient. Francisco had fled the building and unobtrusively mingled with an excited group of doctors and staff outside the main entrance, waiting for the appropriate moment to return to the only place where nobody would look for him now: the hospital itself. The heretic had not changed his plans. He simply had taken her with him to a secluded boiler room in the basement.

 

He climbed onto a box and peered through the grimy, grated window. The squad cars were moving off, the hectic blue and red undulations of their lights stilled at last. It was time. Unsteadily, Francisco stepped from the crate and surveyed the carnage, feeling a keen sense of shame at having let his control slip so completely. Unlike the nurse’s, the heretic’s death had been protracted and unpleasant. He had tied her to a hot water pipe and given free rein to his fury. The nurse had fulfilled a purpose, coercing the pupil into silent submission, and Francisco was nothing if not just, even though it meant denying himself. He had granted her an easy passage. This one had deserved no such mercy, and yet … The display had been beneath him, showed no grace, no symmetry, no balance. His feelings wounded, he had acted like an animal. Righteously, perhaps, but he should not have let himself go to that extent. He had betrayed his art, and he would have to do penance.

 

Weeping, for his lapse, for his failure, he pulled the precious picture from the inside pocket of his jacket, and placed it on the ground, next to the pool of blood, as an offering. It was time to go. But he would be back. To retrieve his pupil. Retrieve him and teach him all Francisco had to teach, gently and implacably, until he was locked in a world without movement, without sound, without sight, alone in his mind … It was time.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

SUNDAY, AUGUST 22

 

 

Groaning a little, because his head resented the unannounced cowtow, George Hammond picked up the Sunday paper, which sat patiently waiting on his doorstep. He felt like he wanted to go back to bed, having had perhaps two hours of sleep between returning home from the hospital in the small hours and getting up again at the crack of dawn to see off Jack, who’d been picked up by a chopper and flown towards an unknown destination.

 

Woken from the innocent slumber of youth, Major Davis had been taken aback by the General’s unexpected request, but experience seemed to have taught him that, given the mood Hammond was in when he phoned, saying ‘no’ or getting evasive simply wasn’t an option, irrespective of whether Davis liked it or not. Once the Major had realised that, he’d arranged the transfer with astonishing speed and efficiency. He’d even promised to do his best to ensure that, wherever Colonel O’Neill would be taken in the end, it would be a decent place.

 

Notwithstanding, General Hammond couldn’t shake the niggling worry that he’d made a huge mistake in going along with this idea. He hadn’t needed a diploma in psychology to see through Jack’s dismally cheerful act when they’d wheeled him out onto the helipad all geared up for transport. Hammond had been at the brink of calling the whole thing off right then and fret about the Colonel’s inevitable tantrum later. What had stopped him was his concern for Jack’s safety. The three police cars, screeching into the parking lot less than five minutes after the chopper had taken off, had come as a chilling reminder of how justified that concern was. The officers had been reticent about the whys and wherefores of their second trip to the hospital. All they’d been willing to divulge was that they’d received an anonymous tip-off …

 

George Hammond slapped the paper against his thigh and wandered into the kitchen, shrugging. Likely enough he’d find the answers in tomorrow’s edition. After the night he’d had, he deserved a pot of extra-strong coffee, the kind his wife had forever been nagging him about ...

 

A short while later he was ensconced at an old pine table, nursing a steaming mug and skimming the paper’s front-page. Nothing really intriguing, and he had trouble concentrating or even focussing on the print. The local press was one of the last bastions of the sturdily provincial, and even lead articles seldom dealt with anything more momentous than a bunch of kids being busted … again! … for DUI after having nicked their dad’s car or, a somewhat rarer occurrence, some farmer’s cow giving birth to a two-headed calf, this in turn giving birth to all the concomitant chatter about satanists, UFOs, and the randomly paranormal.

 

The door bell rang as Hammond was about to pour himself more coffee. He started, scalding his fingers and promptly dropping the pot, some of whose contents drenched the newspaper and completed the domestic disaster. What kind of cretin would get it into his head to ring other people’s doorbells at quarter past eight on a Sunday morning?!

 

With a choice expletive the General rose and stormed down the hallway, shaking remnants of the spillage off his hand. When he opened the front door and recognised the cretin, he was surprised enough to swallow any further utterances of displeasure. “What on earth are you doing here?!”

 

“Sorry for intruding on you like this, sir. May I come in?” a bashful Major Davis asked.

 

“Now that you’re here, you might as well come in and have a cup of coffee …” the General snapped somewhat less than graciously. “If there’s any left.”

 

There was. The newspaper, now sodden and brown and corrugated and still steaming slightly, had soaked up most of it, but there were two mugs’ worth of coffee left in the pot. Just. Hammond installed the Major on a chair and handed him the mug, his scowl stating clearly that Davis had better not object to black, unsweetened, and traditional Air Force strength. The kind of stuff that made your toenails curl the wrong way.

 

Jack sitting in that same chair, watching his CO’s granddaughters play in the garden, not saying much, only his eyes betraying the decision he’d reached. “You know me, sir …”

 

Yes, George Hammond knew him, inasmuch as anyone could know Jack O’Neill, which was why he shouldn’t have let him - …

 

“Thank you, sir”, Davis murmured meekly, evidently having got the message and yanking Hammond out of his reverie.

 

The General sat down and scrutinised the man. “So, what brings you here? I take it this isn’t a social call.”

 

“No, sir, it isn’t.” Any meekness had evaporated all of a sudden. “I want to know what the hell is going on … Sir.”

 

“Sorry, Major. That’s classified.”

 

“Not good enough, sir.” Taking a sip of coffee, Davis grimaced. “Look, last night you sounded like you needed help. I trust you, sir, and, odd as it may seem to you, I like Colonel O’Neill. So I helped you. But I don’t think I need to tell you what’s gonna go down at Cheyenne Mountain when General Vidrine finds out.”

 

“I reckon he’ll boot your ass all the way to Washington”, Hammond theorised with smug satisfaction. “And then you’ll get another stab at explaining ‘reasonable’ to the Pentagon.”

 

“That’s the least of my worries. Technically speaking, Colonel O’Neill is under house arrest, sir, which means I’ve just organised the unauthorised transfer of a criminal. That’s called aiding and abetting an escape, General.”

 

George Hammond snorted, but there was no mirth in it. “And how far do you think he’ll run, Major?”

 

“That’s beside the point, sir, and you know it.” Paul Davis leant forward, elbows resting on his knees. “I was at the hospital this morning. I wanted to make sure everything went okay.”

 

“How come I didn’t see you?”

 

The Major cringed. “Uh … I ran into Dr Fraiser … She … uh … she said if I went anywhere near the Colonel, she’d personally rearrange my physique in a way that would allow me to embark on a career as countertenor … Her precise words, sir.”

 

This time Hammond’s snort turned into a chortle. “So you figured you’d better not argue?”

 

“Something like that, sir ...”

 

“Well, where’s this going?”

 

“When I was about to leave those police cars pulled up outside.”

 

“So?”

 

“I hung around for a while. Turns out they found a woman battered to death in a boiler room. Really ugly, apparently. Then the receptionist tells me that this is the second body within the last ten hours. The other one was a nurse, killed in Room 403, in the course of an attack on the patient … Now, unless I missed something, 403 was Colonel O’Neill’s room …”

 

“Good thing Jack can’t move.” Hammond blew on his coffee. “Otherwise you might be tempted to lay this one at his doorstep as well.”

 

“Please, sir, quit hedging. I wanna know what happened. I think I’ve got a right …”

 

“You wouldn’t believe me, Major.”

 

“Try me, sir.”

 

“I already have. Last night a man you say doesn’t exist attacked Colonel O’Neill and killed the nurse. He also whacked me over the head and damn-near throttled me. Seemed pretty real to me ...”

 

“With all due respect, sir, but that’s ridiculous!” Major Davis set down his mug hard enough to make the coffee splash and add to the mess on the table. “You’re not gonna tell me that some fictitious guy from P5X 081 has travelled to Earth to pursue a personal vendetta against Colonel O’Neill! Jeez, General, you saw the evidence … I thought we were over that … You were there when he confessed, sir. Now, why would he do that if he isn’t guilty?”

 

“You tell me, Major. Other than General Vidrine you seem to be the leading authority on what Jack is or isn’t capable of doing. You tell me.” He enjoyed making Davis squirm.

 

“I couldn’t say, sir …” The Major clearly didn’t know whether his mistake had lain in trusting Hammond, or in trusting the evidence, or in coming here.

 

Davis was saved by the proverbial bell, and the General grunted. “Dammit! Does it say ‘Diner’ outside my door?”

 

“Uh … Sir? While you’re answering this …” A slight blush on Major Davis’ face semaphored his requirements.

 

Hammond was already on the way out. “Oh … sure … Down the hall, second door to the left …”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

“C’mon, open up, for fuck’s sake! We know you’re home, gramps!” Smith muttered irritably.

 

By the looks of it, ‘gramps’ was maybe five years older than Smith … Jones suppressed a sigh. It’d been like this all morning, ever since they’d found the body and Smith had lost all interest in the emergency Danish he’d swiped from the hospital cafeteria by ways of securing breakfast.

 

If truth be told, big bad Mr Smith was a softie who, one fine day, after having seen one too many woman or kid carved up by crackheads, had kissed the NYPD goodbye and applied for and got accepted into the Secret Service, with dreams of running behind the President’s car. Now, in his more realistic moments, he would admit that he was too old and too unfit to make Presidential Detail, and that the only thing on wheels he’d ever be likely to run behind was his estranged daughter’s baby-buggy, carrying his grandson. But the dreams still dangled that carrot in front of Smith’s nose, and that was why he’d signed up for Mr Senator’s personal and exceedingly well-paid moonlight unit. You never knew, the guy might get himself elected President one day, and surely he wouldn’t forget …

 

Yeah. Right. Mr Jones’ take on things was altogether more cynical. Sooner or later he’d get out and launch his own venture in the increasingly lucrative world of personal security. If Mr Senator was kind enough to finance the start of Jones P I Inc, so much the better, but the company’s prospective owner and managing director didn’t expect anything above and beyond that, except perhaps a lot of grief …

 

Which they seemed to be getting now. Smith might be growing wider … a lot wider … around the mid-section, but his nose was as keen as ever. At the hospital they’d run straight into a good-size police operation and in the general confusion managed to conduct their own enquiries. They’d walked the walk and talked the talk, and everybody had assumed they were there on legitimate business, happy to inform them that Quarry had attacked a patient, possibly with the intention of abducting the man, and had killed a nurse in the process. The part that Messrs Smith and Jones didn’t buy was the bit about Quarry vanishing into thin air after having clouted gramps. So they’d given the hospital a thorough once-over and come across the body in the boiler room shortly after the legit detectives had left. Thanks to the memento he’d planted and other evidence at the scene, they figured that Quarry was one warped puppy and that they’d missed him by perhaps ten minutes …

 

Smith had looked sick as a parrot, which wasn’t altogether surprising, given the state the body was in and the subject of the picture they’d discovered. A nice group shot of Quarry and the guy he’d supposedly been after, and it explained just what was wrong with that poor bastard. Jones had decided to filch the picture, although Smith had baulked at it. The compromise was that they’d do their civic duty, call the police, hang around in the background to chart developments, and then check out Poor Bastard and see what he could contribute. That last item on the agenda had been cancelled abruptly when they’d watched the guy being flown out by helicopter at first light. Gramps had been around for that, too, and so they’d settled for the next best thing, i.e. having a casual chat with him instead.

 

The door opened, revealing a sour-looking gramps. “Yes?!”

 

“Sorry to bother you, sir”, Smith cooed, wearing his most appealing Sunday school face. “We’ve got a few questions regarding the incident at the hospital last night, and we hear you were involved. May we come in?”

 

Gramps obviously didn’t believe in Sunday school, because he didn’t budge. “Is that right? … And you are?”

 

Jones took a step forward and flashed his ID for effect. “That’s Mr Smith, and I’m Mr Jones. Secret Service. Would you mind if we went inside, sir?”

 

“Uhunh …” said gramps, a touch of gormless uncertainty in his voice. “Well, in that case …” He retreated a little and let them squeeze past him into the house. “Let’s go into the kitchen, door’s open, just down there.”

 

Gramps followed them down the hallway and into the kitchen, and Jones silently thanked those long-gone teachers from way back when who had instilled proper respect for the authorities in their students. The elderly were so much easier to deal with, still tended to be intimidated by a shield or service ID and bossy demeanour. He gave the room a quick, unobtrusive scan. Judging from the state of the kitchen table, the old boy seemed to have the shakes badly enough to miss the mug three out of four times when pouring his coffee. This was gonna be a walk in the park. Frown at the guy, and he’d spill everything he - …

 

Smith harrumphed, a little artificial and flustered, and Jones turned around and found himself staring down the barrel of an immaculately maintained SIG Sauer semi-automatic, unsafed and trained on him and his partner without the slightest hint of a tremor. Apparently gramps had been picking up the hardware from some stash in the hall while he’d doddered along behind them … Oops.

 

“Uh … Sir …” Jones began.

 

“Shut up.”

 

You had to hand it to gramps. His gormless act was a darn sight more credible than Smith’s Sunday school number. Gramps’ placid rotund features had lost their cherubic cast and taken on the viciously stubborn aspect of an incensed mule. In the kitchen door behind him appeared a choir boy in Air Force uniform who looked like he’d just been to the toilet. His hands weren’t quite dry yet.

 

“Sir?” asked the choir boy. Obviously not the son then, unless this was an anachronistically patriarchal household.

 

“Major? Frisk Rocky and Bullwinkle here, would you?”

 

“My pleasure, General.”

 

General? Ouch … And obviously the real McCoy, not something that had trundled out of Gilbert & Sullivan in a fantasy uniform with rhinestone epaulettes … Jones promised himself he’d brush up his people skills. For the moment, though, he’d let the choir boy do the touchy-feely thing. The General probably wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. He’d sidled over to the phone on the kitchen counter, his gun never wavering, and placed a brief call to arrange for some gentlemen, presumably of the MP persuasion, to pick up Mr Smith and Mr Jones. Terrific. Major Choir Boy, meanwhile, proved to be less of a choir boy than you’d have guessed and patted them down expertly, promptly discovering the stolen piece of evidence in Jones’ pocket.

 

Choir Boy took a glance at the picture, then another, longer one, and his complexion gradually drained to the same mildewy tinge Smith had been wearing for most of the morning. “Oh God …” he stammered. “Oh God … You were right all along, sir … You were right … I’m so sorry.”

 

The General moved in behind Choir Boy and quickly peered at the picture, without ever losing his bead, and for a moment there was naked fury in his eyes. For the first time Jones began to think that Quarry couldn’t possibly be as clever as he seemed if he’d committed the lethal mistake of messing with someone under this man’s command.

 

“Well, gentlemen”, the General barked. “We’ve got some time before your lift arrives. You wanted to talk. Let’s talk. I wanna know everything you know. Starting with where you got this and what you know about it. Shoot.”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

TUESDAY, AUGUST 24

 

 

Groaning and swearing and muttering, Gyorgiy rolled off his girlfriend and out from under the blankets, groped for his shorts, and pulled them on, all but falling flat on his face. Then he stumbled down the narrow hallway to give a piece of his mind to whomever was trying to kick down the door at half past ten on a week night. When he opened, the tirade he’d planned to unleash on the unwanted caller caught in his throat.

 

Anatoliy was a mess, like he’d been in a brawl, his eyes were red-rimmed … in short, he looked drunk.

 

“What?” Gyorgiy asked suspiciously. “What’s the matter now?”

 

“Pasha … Pasha’s gone … He didn’t come home for dinner, and the wife sent me to look for him, and I can’t find him … been everywhere … can’t find him …”

 

He kept on rambling, and Gyorgiy grabbed his neighbour’s arm, dragged him into the kitchen, excavated a greasy glass from under the pile of unwashed dishes in the sink, and poured a liberal shot of vodka. “Here. Drink. I’ll get dressed, and then I’ll come with you. Have you asked around? Has anybody seen him?”

 

“No … Haven’t asked … Yet … I just went to all the places he normally goes … the copse … down by the stream … and …” Anatoliy stared at the glass as though he didn’t know what to do with it.

 

Gyorgiy scratched the stubble on his chin and swallowed a curse. Likely as not the kid and a bunch of his no-good friends were hanging out in a barn somewhere, demonstrating to each other how grown-up they all were by guzzling cheap kvass and smoking stolen cigarettes. Pasha deserved a good hiding and, so help him, this time Gyorgiy himself would do the honours if Anatoliy wasn’t man enough to teach his son some sense. Aloud he said, “Wait here. I’ll just put some clothes on. Be back in a second.”

 

In the end, it took him ten minutes, because the girl was not best pleased and required a lot of sweet-talking, but Anatoliy, who hadn’t so much as touched the drink, wouldn’t have noticed if he’d been gone for ten hours. “Come on, Anatolchik. Let’s go.”

 

They wandered from door to door through the entire village, pacifying grouchy people roused from their first sleep and asking questions, but nobody seemed to have seen Pasha. The only one who claimed to know something was old Kamarova, but that had to be taken with a ladle of salt. The woman had been funny in the head ever since her husband died, some twenty years ago. She’d been out in the woods, she said, and this much was probably true. She was out in the woods every day, searching for her Vassiliy.

 

“I saw your Pasha. He and Kolya were playing Cossacks”, she squawked.

 

Cossacks. Sure. Kids might have been playing Cossacks when Kamarova was little, which must have been well before Comrade Lenin inadvertently started  them all on the road to that ghastly muddle they were in now. “Thank you. That’s very helpful”, Gyorgiy replied politely and began lugging Anatoliy away with him.

 

“And then he just vanished”, cackled Kamarova, making a sizzling sound like fat dripping on embers. “Vanished.”

 

“Crazy old bat”, Gyorgiy muttered under his breath, and in the summer night’s perpetual twilight he saw tears in his neighbour’s eyes.

 

Anatoliy’s ruddy face had turned waxen. “What if it’s true? What if he vanished?”

 

“Don’t be an idiot! People don’t just vanish. Not even Pasha! … Besides, you know what Komarova’s like … Last week I ran into her, and she thought she’d found her Vassiliy and snogged me.”

 

The joke fell flat. Anatoliy didn’t even try to grin. Instead he whined, “I want to go back and talk to Kolya.”

 

“Anatolchik, we’ve been there already. Kolya’s dad nearly decked you because we woke him, remember? And Kolya says he hasn’t seen Pasha all day.”

 

By ways of an answer, Anatoliy turned around and marched back towards the centre of the village. As it turned out, they were spared the trek, or at least most of it. Halfway down the broad, dusty main street, they heard the most godawful keening and saw Kolya’s father, towing along his wayward son by a fistful of hair. Gyorgiy felt some sympathy for the boy, recalling occasions not too long ago when he himself was hauled trough the village in the exact same fashion and by his own old man. Compared to whom Kolya’s father was a beacon of mild-mannered gentility. The beacon came to a halt in front of them and shoved his son at Anatoliy.

 

“Tell him! Tell him what you told me, you sinful lout!”

 

Gulping and hiccupping with sobs, digging bare toes into the dirt, Kolya told his story. He and Pasha had been playing Space Raiders or some such thing … Cossacks, indeed! … in the birch copse near the river, where they usually went. Pasha had been showing off with the ‘ray gun’ his father had brought him, until Kolya had had enough of the younger boy’s bragging and wrested the gun from him. It had taken Kolya all of five minutes and a lot of jumping and twisting away from Pasha to figure out how to make the neck of the snake-like piece of metal extend. He’d also discovered that a gentle push against another engraving resulted in a spinning blue discharge, and this had been news to both of them. Suddenly the game became much more interesting, seeing that they now had a ‘ray gun’ that would shoot real rays. He had aimed at Pasha and fired, and his friend had fallen to the ground, juddering and screaming. Kolya had been convinced that Pasha, having resigned himself to not getting his gun back any time soon, was playing along gamely and being an injured hostile alien. He had zapped him again. The hostile alien had stopped his juddering and pretended to be dead.

 

“And then?” Anatoliy whispered tonelessly.

 

“Then I zapped him again, to make sure, like the soldiers do, and there was this blue light, and he disappeared”, wailed Kolya. “I didn’t mean any harm … I don’t know where he went ...”

 

“Liar!” Kolya’s father cuffed him, and the kid started bawling again. “I’ll teach you to tell tales!”

 

Gyorgiy grabbed the boy by the shoulders, shook him. “The gun! Where is the gun?!”

 

“I took it home … Pasha said his dad said not to tell anyone about it … I hid it under my mattress …”

 

“Show us!”

 

“Are you mad?!” Anatoliy was shouting. “Pasha’s missing, and you want to look at a toy?!”

 

“Shhhhhhh!” All Gyorgiy needed was a scene. He’d suddenly grasped the meaning of ‘permanently unemployed’ … If anyone found out about this, they’d all die. He pulled his neighbour aside. “Anatolchik, Pasha … Pasha won’t come back. Not ever. It’s not a toy, it’s a weapon, and we mustn’t let anybody know.”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

--- TOP SECRET ---

 

 

To:    W Carlisle, Joint Chief of Staff, Pentagon

 

From:  C N DeVere, General USAF, Cheyenne Mountain

 

Date: 08/24

 

Time:  07:13

 

 

--- For your information ---

 

 

I have been informed that J O’Neill has been removed from the USAF Training Hospital, Colorado Springs, to a new location as per attached transfer documents. This transfer was unauthorised and executed by Major Paul Davis, apparently at the behest of Dr Fraiser who had concerns regarding the patient’s safety, following an incident at the hospital on Saturday night.

 

In principle, I have no objections, barring the fact that I consider Major Davis’ actions precipitate in the extreme. However, I felt that you needed to be made aware of the development, considering the sensitive nature of this matter.

 

Please advise.

 

 

C N DeVere

CinCSG

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Quartz sand, P9W 888Top soil, P3R 654 … been there. Boring place … Schist, P6Q 379 … aaaaand … that’d be the last one on this page … Mufd … Mufd? … Mud, P0X 771 … the ‘POX’ bit was apt enough, though … The pox on whomever had come up with this!

 

Dr Jackson clicked the print icon, then realised that he’d forgotten to format the page. There goes another label sheet … Wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because he’d inserted it the wrong way up, and the whole enchilada got printed on the bit you were supposed to throw away once you’d peeled off the labels. Well, the trashcan was the only fitting destination for this stuff, anyway … He placed another sheet in the manual feed tray and, seeing that he’d got it right this time, Murphy’s Law kicked in automatically, meaning that the printer proceeded to chew up the page. Swearing a blue streak, Daniel ripped open the rear flap on the godforsaken contraption and extracted a neatly harmonica-ed sheet of labels that were good only for stopping cracks beneath a window.

 

He needed to get an axe. And then he’d first kill the printer, then the computer, then the sample tubes, then Vidrine. He’d have to travel a bit, but it’d be worth it … It was their first week under the new regime, as it were. Vidrine had left for DC day before yesterday, and this must have been his parting shot … Unless Charles Napoleon DeVere had conceived an original thought for once in his life. If DeVere was looking for a way of making Dr Jackson resign, he was moving in the right direction at the rate of knots. Labelling and archiving soil samples was not something Daniel would develop one of his notorious passions for, that much went without saying … Well, this lot could remain unlabelled and unarchived for the time being. He’d had nine hours of this and was fed up to the eye teeth …

 

“Have you completed your chores, DanielJackson?”

 

Trust the Jaffa to hit upon the right word. Chores. That was exactly what it was, and Dr Jackson felt like a kid condemned to clean out the garden shed by ways of punishment for some heinous misdeed or other. “No, as a matter of fact, I haven’t … but they’re still gonna be there in the morning, I reckon …” In a show of disgust Daniel flung the crumpled page of labels into the trashcan. “Someone sure knows how to employ people to the best of their ability … What did you do today?”

 

“I catalogued artefacts.”

 

“Rocks?”

 

Teal’c’s left eyebrow did a pull-up. “I believe you are familiar with the distinction, DanielJackson.”

 

“Just checking.” Daniel grinned involuntarily, grateful for the unexpected play on one of Jack’s mind-numbingly stupid jokes, grateful for the reminder. Lame puns and all, Jack had shaped this place more than any one person, more than Hammond even, and it would take a hell of a lot more than trumped-up charges and lies to change that …

 

Half an hour later he wasn’t so sure anymore. They’d decided to run the gauntlet and gone down to the commissary for dinner, mostly because smuggling a larger-than-life Jaffa off base always proved tricky. The mess was awash with rumours, and Dr Jackson couldn’t recall feeling this mortified since Emily Watkins had declined his invitation to the high school prom. Publicly.

 

Rumour #1 purported that day after tomorrow would see the arrival of an all-new SG-1, people from outside the SGC, whom DeVere had handpicked. This was reported to him and Teal’c several times and with varying degrees of gusto, and Daniel could believe it ... Happy trails, guys, he thought, munching a chunk of celery drenched in French Dressing and distractedly noting that it tasted vile … Let’s see how you get on when they lob you all the hot potatoes ...

 

Rumours #2 and #3 intrigued Teal’c and were outrageous enough to be dismissed as pure sensationalism. Allegedly there was a serial killer on the loose who went after female medical personnel and had killed seven nurses. Gossip also had it that General Hammond was suffering either from paranoia or senile dementia, seeing that he’d taken to calling out MPs for bizarre reasons and then waving them off five minutes from ETA.

 

It was Rumour #4, however, that made them lose any residual interest in their dinner. Rumour #4 claimed that the erstwhile Colonel O’Neill had been taken into custody. Or something. Noone seemed to be quite sure as to what exactly was going on but, in any event, he had disappeared from the USAF Training Hospital.

 

“I suppose we ought to have a chat with Doc Fraiser, what do you think?”

 

“Indeed”, murmured Teal’c.

 

In an ingenious circumvention of the laws of physics for the sake of convenience, the basics of which he’d picked up from Jack, Daniel stacked stray crockery back onto trays, dumped a brick that called itself chocolate cake into the French Dressing, and took the whole tottering load over to the tray trolley on the way out. They caught Janet Fraiser as she was about to escape into the elevator, and the look on her face told them that Rumour #4 contained at least a grain of truth.

 

“Where is he?!” Dr Jackson barked without preamble.

 

“We don’t know”, Dr Fraiser replied just as succinctly.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 25

 

 

--- TOP SECRET ---

 

 

To:    C N DeVere, General USAF, Cheyenne Mountain

 

From:  W Carlisle, Joint Chief of Staff, Pentagon

 

Date: 08/25

 

Time:  16:44

 

 

------ FYI ------

 

 

Upon perusal of the material, I agree with your conclusions, but find Major Davis’ choice of care facility overly optimistic. Given the circumstances, Mr O’Neill can hardly expect to receive compensation. Also, his insurance will not honour any claims he may want to make and will hold him liable for payments already made. I have therefore arranged for his transfer to a more suitable facility.

 

As regards Major Davis, I am inclined to issue a severe reprimand and otherwise let the matter rest. The Major may inadvertently have spared us unwanted publicity. We have a lead on the person responsible for the incident at the hospital and will initiate appropriate action.

 

 

J2

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

THURSDAY, AUGUST 26

 

 

Niki had finally stopped caterwauling, and Sam thought she’d never be so grateful for anything, although his most recent activity was hardly less obtrusive in the decibel department. He now forced the other two men in the compartment to try and talk over his snores … Amtrak it most certainly wasn’t, which probably explained why she enjoyed the experience, despite the decided lack of rest it entailed. Right now it was going on three in the morning, and even the soporific tock-tock, tock-tock of metal wheels rattling over bumpy tracks proved unable to lull her to sleep.

 

The pair who’d stayed awake to chat were Mongolian rug dealers, father and son, and it had taken Major Carter a while to overcome the pre-programmed flashbacks to the delights of Shavadai culture. She’d made their acquaintance shortly after the train had left Moscow. Sam had stood outside the compartment, wondering how to explain to them that their bale of prize rugs, together with a large dog and a samovar, currently occupied her seat. Eventually, the father had flashed a gap-toothed grin and beckoned her to enter, rapidly mumbling in a language or dialect Dr Jackson might or might not have been able to identify. Sam never got that far, and for all she knew the old boy was lecturing her on the finer points of haggling or possibly complaining about realty prices in the Mongolian steppe. She’d said da a lot, nodding sagely, and in the end this had prompted him to offer her a mug of sweet, strong tea from the samovar that swayed precariously on top of the rugs. Then he had mumbled at his son, and the kid had vacated his seat, climbed atop the bale of rugs, clamped the samovar between his legs, and grinned and pointed for Sam to sit down. That had been almost three days ago, and the two had been looking after her ever since, keeping her in tea, making sure she didn’t buy overpriced food from the dining car, chasing away pushy vendors intent on fleecing a tourist, and showing her which one of the peasant women who flocked around the stations sold the cheapest and best blini and pirogues.

 

Niki had been there since Moscow, too, but he was mostly asleep, thanks to the fact that his drink of choice wasn’t tea but neat vodka. When awake, he either sang, loudly and badly, or conversed with Sam in broken English that still was miles better than her Russian. She’d told him so, and his chest had swelled with pride, and he’d invited her on a vodka binge. Convinced she could handle it, Sam had accepted, partly so as not to hurt his feelings, partly because she hoped that getting well and truly plastered might blot out the memories for a while. It had worked, too, in a roundabout way. The alcohol had shredded her defences, and she’d spent half the night huddled in her corner, crying until she passed out. Niki, who seemed to consider this an appropriate response to undue consumption of vodka, had asked no questions and instead sobbed along for company after performing a mournful song or two. The hangover the following day turned into a twenty-four hour affair during which Sam was unable to gather even one coherent thought, which meant she’d certainly got her wish.

 

Fun though it’d been, she was glad that the trip was nearly over. At noon the train would reach Novosibirsk, where Markov was supposed to pick her up at the station. If she came … Mr Volayev at the embassy in Berlin, who’d turned out to be an old flame of Svetlana Markov’s, had been surprised to see Major Carter. It transpired that Sam must have just missed an email suggesting she might want to hold off for the time being, but it was too late for her to turn back now. At the very least she had to talk to Dr Markov to find out what was going on. After he’d got over his initial amazement, it had taken Arkadiy Ivanovich all of four hours to supply her with a business visa that permitted free travel without requiring her to announce a detailed itinerary to the authorities. The visa was stamped into an expertly forged American passport, issued to a Claire Tobias, and Major Carter reckoned she’d better not ask how Volayev had come to hear about that little titbit. The fake ID had its merits, though. In case anyone should feel the need to check up on the passport’s owner, Tobias boasted just the right credentials, and where Sam was going, someone of that mindset would be more than welcome. It wasn’t a widely known fact that Tobias and her pals currently resided at Leavenworth, thanks to Colonel O’Neill’s undercover stint a couple of years ago ...

 

To this day Sam felt sick with guilt to think that they’d bought the scam. With the possible exception of Teal’c, they’d all believed that Jack O’Neill was a liar and a cheat and a thief, had accepted it with regret but unquestioningly. Yes, by rights his performance should have swept the boards at the Academy Awards that year, but they knew him, or should have known him … They’d never even asked what the lies had cost and, rather than apologising for their cavalier dismissal of him, they’d waited for the Colonel to eat humble pie. Which he’d done, awkwardly and shyly, a fragile attempt at levity masking the hurt, as though the notion that the betrayal had been theirs never entered his mind.

 

The dog squeezed past legs and bundles to clamber over to Sam and pressed his cool, moist nose into her palm, snuffling. Dog did have a name. It sounded like a very long sibilant with a few pauses in it and was perfectly unpronounceable.

 

“Hey, dog …” She smiled and began scratching him behind the ears. The Colonel would have liked him …

 

He’d be furious with her if he knew what she was up to. Furious with all of them. But he didn’t know, and so he couldn’t order her … He couldn’t order her. Not this time … Jack O’Neill had bought lives, hers, Daniel’s, Teal’c’s, possibly the lives of every man and woman at the SGC, at a price so exorbitant it was beyond any hope of repayment. But she’d try to undo the thanks the Air Force had given him, if it was the last thing she did, and this once he wasn’t going to have a say in it. Tit for tat, she thought bitterly. At least, if anything went wrong, he wouldn’t have to be there and watch … watch … and listen …

 

Dog nipped at her hand and snapped her out of it. Sam dispensed a stern little pat. “Oy … You should meet this friend of mine … He’d like your attitude …”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

“All personnel and staff to the embarkation room.”

 

Teal’c frowned at the PA announcement. It was most unusual to be summoned to a plenary gathering in the embarkation room without some prior notification. These assemblies appeared to be of strong ritual significance to the Tau’ri and commonly were called to bestow an honour either on a visiting dignitary or on a meritorious member of the SGC. Occasionally both. For that reason, such gatherings tended to be planned in advance and plenty of notice was given to ensure that the event would proceed without embarrassing interruptions.

 

Naturally, there were no guarantees, but as a rule the Tau’ri still planned, proving amongst other things that they were woefully inept at anticipating anything O’Neill might do. The Jaffa almost smiled, recalling his friend’s unexpected dematerialisation, mid-sentence and in front of the very eyes of the entire SGC, a newly promoted MajorCarter, and the Secretary of Defence. At the time, Teal’c’s immediate assumption had been that O’Neill had orchestrated this spectacular disappearance himself, simply to avoid the uncomfortable task of giving a speech. That assumption, albeit likely, had been wrong, as were most assumptions made about O’Neill.

 

“I repeat, all personnel and staff proceed to the embarkation room.”

 

Apparently this was not an equipment test, and it might be prudent to comply. Teal’c found nothing objectionable in the prospect of leaving his tedious assignment for a while. He shut down the current inventory of artefacts on his computer and headed for the embarkation room. Airmen were hurrying along the corridor with him, casting uneasy sidelong glances, but none of them spoke. Ever since the unfortunate incident with the ensign in the commissary, they had chosen not to remark on O’Neill’s perceived betrayal in Teal’c’s presence. Either way, the Jaffa was not bothered by their beliefs. He knew the truth about O’Neill’s honour and valour, and that was enough for him. However, it was not enough for his friends, and Teal’c knew that, too.

 

The Tau’ri were peculiar in this respect. It seemed as though they never entirely trusted the truth as they saw it, unless their view was shared by others around them. O’Neill was the exception. As the Tau’ri would say, O’Neill followed a different drummer. He would only ever trust his own truth, even if everyone else disagreed. This trait was both his strength and his weakness, and it also was the trait in which he was most like a Jaffa, most like a brother to Teal’c. O’Neill would disregard what people thought, obeying the necessity to satisfy his truth.

 

The embarkation room was crowded and, as far as he could discern, everyone on duty was present. People appeared listless and chary of further upheaval, and the chatter that usually accompanied these occasions was notably subdued. In a corner, almost in the same place where they had stood to greet GeneralDeVere, Teal’c discovered DanielJackson and Dr Fraiser. Judging by Dr Fraiser’s face, DanielJackson had enquired yet again whether she had heard from O’Neill. Had he been Tau’ri, Teal’c would have sighed. O’Neill had stated unequivocally that he did not wish his location to be known, in order to protect his friends. The archaeologist, however, accepted this as reluctantly as he had accepted O’Neill’s decision on Drakalla.

 

The Jaffa made his way over to the pair, hoping that he might be in time to prevent an argument, and DanielJackson noticed him and waved. “Hi Teal’c. Do you have any idea what this is about?”

 

“I do not, DanielJackson.”

 

“Maybe Napoleon rounded them up to have us officially drummed out of the SGC”, the young man muttered acerbically.

 

“I consider this to be improbable. To my knowledge, nobody here is equipped with percussion instruments.”

 

Their speculations were halted by the entrance of GeneralDeVere, and the room came to attention while the General ascended the steps to the ramp. “At ease, men!” GeneralDeVere commanded and added with a chuckle, “And the ladies, of course.”

 

“Chauvinist idiot”, hissed Dr Fraiser under her breath, inaudible to all but Teal’c who shared the sentiment.

 

“Please forgive this interruption of your duties”, the man continued. “But I thought you’d all like to join me in welcoming the latest addition to our little family. I’m proud to introduce Colonel Caruthers, Major Hilliard, and Captains Fielding and Hightower.” As GeneralDeVere spoke, the officers filed in, saluted sharply, and took position at the base of the ramp below him. The General returned their salute and resumed his speech. “Colonel Caruthers and his men are the new SG-1, and I sincerely believe that their fortunes will be more salubrious than those of the last team of that name. They’re excited to be here, and I expect all of you to support them in every way you can …”

 

“Get this”, DanielJackson snorted softly. “’Salubrious’ … Buzz’s been dipping into the thesaurus again and picked the wrong page! I think he meant ‘lugubrious’ …”

 

“Shh!” Dr Fraiser retorted, stifling a chortle.

 

Unaware of the ridicule, GeneralDeVere had continued. “SG-1 will commence their duties immediately. As they’re still unfamiliar with this kind of operation, one of the existing teams will accompany them on each mission for the time being. In a strictly advisory capacity, of course, Colonel.” The General nodded at Caruthers and returned his attention to the crowd. “Well, now that this is out of the way, let’s get on with business. Colonel Caruthers, you and SG-1 meet me in the briefing room in five to discuss your first mission. Feretti?!”

 

“Yes, sir!” sounded the Major’s voice from the centre of the room.

 

“Get your team ready. SG-2 accompanies SG-1 on this one. You’ll gate out at 1300 hours.”

 

“Yes, sir. Do you want me to be present at the briefing, sir?”

 

“If I needed you there, I would have mentioned it, Feretti. Dismissed, everyone!” GeneralDeVere left the ramp and strode from the room, followed by the men who called themselves ‘SG-1’.

 

As ColonelCaruthers passed Feretti, he gave a thin, mocking smile. Teal’c understood then that the Colonel was nothing like O’Neill, and that this presumably was the very reason why GeneralDeVere had chosen him. This man would gladly refute both truth and honour if refuting them served his purposes. It gave rise to concern for MajorFeretti, whose mouth had tightened to an angry line, as though he were worried about uttering something that could be construed as insubordination or worse. To send him and his team out under the charge of a conceited novice and without proper advance consultation was irresponsible, and the Major must know this as well as Teal’c.

 

“Well, Teal’c? What do you think?” DanielJackson’s enquiry intruded on the Jaffa’s ruminations. “Worthy successors, aren’t they?”

 

Raising a contemplative eyebrow, Teal’c replied, “Had any of these men expressed the desire to become students of Master Bra’tac, he would have laughed them out of the city.”

 

What he did not add was that Bra’tac would have accepted O’Neill without question. The Jaffa wondered how he could be so certain and that the answer must lie in something unquantifiable, which O’Neill commanded and which had compelled Teal’c to stake his life on him within hours of their acquaintance. Only after he had taken that leap of faith, his instincts about the man had been proven correct. O’Neill cared. Cared about others, cared about doing what was right, to the point of denying his own needs, his own safety. As this thought took hold, Teal’c could not help but puzzle over the blindness of O’Neill’s accusers. It should be obvious that he was incapable of betrayal. Even a betrayal as ostensibly small as the one MajorFeretti had just suffered at the hands of his commanding officer.

 

Why could they not see it? The Tau’ri were a curious people. They rather clung to the quantifiable, at the cost of destroying O’Neill because he was different. For all their bravery, the Tau’ri were terrified of anything different, and in this they were surprisingly like the Drakallans.

 

Teal’c shook his head and made to follow DanielJackson and Dr Fraiser. He longed to have his brother back.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

From:       skymaster@realgroups.com

 

Date:        August 26, 18:35

 

To:          patriotmessages@realgroups.com

 

Re:          Pest Control

 

 

Message:    b09ty11: Pest control has failed signally. Will now take own measures. Perishable goods have been secured. Demand full explanation ASAP.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

FRIDAY, AUGUST 27

 

 

“Well, have somebody go out there and question the villagers”, Kuryagin snapped at some hapless security officer who stood there, goggling like a deer in the headlights.

 

The Senator grunted and inconspicuously tried to ease out a twinge in his back. He’d only once before in his life experienced his discs in such disarray, and that had been in the bad old days, during an official visit to Leningrad as was. Taking this into account, it allowed for the conclusion that the guest quarters at the Russian stargate base were furnished with hand-me-downs from former Intourist hotels … Cost-cutting still was endemic around here. But that would stop before long ... Despite the twinges the Senator grinned.

 

“Yes, sir!” The security officer scurried from the drab, institutional grey office.

 

Durak!” snarled Kuryagin who seemed to pride himself on the Spartan surroundings. He lit a cigarette, his face twisting in disgust. “Forgive me, Senator ... Apparently someone’s lifted a piece of equipment from the warehouse. One of those zat’nikatels. A boy from the village’s gone missing, and the guards suspect that he was killed with it. I’d just like to know what they expect me to do about it … Unless you constantly keep an eye on them, these people just won’t do their jobs. Do you have the same problem?”

 

Did he ever! Unfortunately, this time he only had himself to blame. He shouldn’t have sent those two clowns on a wild goose chase to Houston … There was an abundance of rocks in the western US of A, and the Doctor was bound to have crawled under the most inaccessible specimen he could find. No chance of smoking him out now … J2 was merely mouthing off, but that didn’t alter the fact that the General’s last email message had made the Senator sweat at the thought of their inevitable next meeting. What a way to start one’s day …

 

He grimaced. “Tell me about it … When I get back, I’ll have to mop up the mess two of my operatives made …”

 

Lieutenant Colonel Kuryagin barked a laugh. “Yeah … That’s one of the joys of chain of command you civilians have a difficult time understanding! Welcome to the club!”

 

Arrogant bastard! The Senator bit back a scathing reply. After nearly a week of ingratiating chit-chat he finally had Kuryagin where he wanted him, and he wasn’t going to spoil it by venting his spleen. Instead he sighed, “I’m beginning to understand … Although I’m not so sure the General will …”

 

“You’re having trouble with your tame Joint Chief?”

 

“He’s been a bit tetchy lately …” Maybe it wasn’t a bad idea to consolidate the incipient male bonding with an exchange of confidences … The Senator exhaled theatrically and said, “This whole tightrope walk on Drakalla seems to have stressed him …”

 

“I should think so. It had me stressed, and there was a lot less riding on it for me … The General isn’t upset about the … uh … damage to that Air Force officer?” Kuryagin asked warily. “That was a little crass, even by our standards.”

 

“Upset?!” The Senator chortled. “Hell, he as good as told me that he’s buried the man alive!”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Oh I’m assuming the General persuaded the right people that it would be an insult to the American taxpayer if a traitor received compensation or insurance … Meaning that our flyboy has disappeared into a place where he can protest his innocence all he likes.” The Senator had discussed this possibility with J2 a while ago, and there was no doubt in his mind about how the ‘perishable goods’ had been ‘secured’. “In among the ramblings of a few dozen arteriosclerotic old men nobody’s gonna hear him or take him seriously.”

 

Kuryagin let out a low whistle that veered between admiration and horror. “Ugly … Ugly, but effective … He’s a dangerous man, your Joint Chief.”

 

“Perhaps, but he’s got what he wanted now. To all intents and purposes, the American ‘gate is under his control … However, he may get upset if he finds out that what we’re starting here is going to render his position of power slightly more unstable than he would like. In your place I should be very careful not to give the game away. That would be dangerous … for both of us.”

 

“Don’t worry. I may be nekulturniy, but I’m not a fool.”

 

Was that supposed to have been a joke? Wonders never ceased … Still, it might be better to contradict, just in case … “Look, Colonel, I didn’t mean to offend you … I was rather wound up at the time …”

 

The man’s face said The fuck you didn’t! and that assessment was correct, of course. Aloud Kuryagin replied, “Forget it. I suppose I am nekulturniy … Why use a foil when a sledgehammer will do, eh?”

 

“Quite.” Dutifully, the Senator chuckled. “Speaking of sledgehammers … When will you be able to get the operation underway?”

 

The grin Kuryagin showed him grew feral. “I’ve got five units out there as of last night. Twenty men each, heavily armed, with orders to acquire, by any means necessary, anything that looks marketable according to your terms and isn’t larger than a house. I’m expecting losses, but … How do you say? … No pain, no gain, eh?” He shrugged. “They’ll be using Drakalla as an intermediate storage facility, and we’ll bring the merchandise Earthside one by one, so Dr Markov and her technicians can examine each piece and determine its function … Keeps our store rooms from looking suspicious. The Drakallan Governors have asked a price, though …”

 

“Not another one of those goddamn genetic sequencers?”

 

“No … They want a hundred of the handguns our operatives used when they were playing Palace Guards.”

 

“That all?” The Senator laughed. “We’ve got those zat-what’s-its coming out of our ears. By all means, give them to the Governors.”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Over the past three days Jack had been shunted around so much, he’d begun to feel like a surplus boxcar on a freight train. It had been draining and disorienting, and he’d barely been able to ascertain where he’d ended up geographically. East Coast, he guessed, somewhere in the Washington or Baltimore area. Talk about out of state … Out of sight. Out of mind. Which probably was the idea … They’d even taken away his name. That one had come without warning. The admitting physician and nurse had addressed him as ‘Mr Riley’ and ignored each attempt to correct them. Presumably they thought that, sooner or later, he’d see the error of his ways … At least it was an Irish name. Be grateful for small favours, O’Neill … Riley … whatever your name is … Funny that. He hadn’t realised that someone out there hated him quite so much … Or maybe it wasn’t hate, maybe it was cold indifference. On the way up here he’d amused himself debating what would be more intolerable and found he didn’t really care. Didn’t care because, if he allowed himself to do that, he’d lose it.

 

The headrest was way too low, making it harder to breathe, and he couldn’t see anything much, either. He’d asked the nurse half a dozen times to put it up for him and never got any reaction, until she’d finally broken her silence and informed him that the doo-dah was kaput. The doo-dah, it would seem, was a doo-hickey that levered the bed up and down. So he pushed himself into that Herculean effort and raised his head to look around, knowing even then that there was nothing he’d want to see, but obeying an obscure instinct that had been drilled into him over the years. Find out where you are, soldier, find out what the lay of the land is, preclude surprises, map your escape route. Escape. Sure. He’d do the miracle mile out of here …

 

Stains of mould on walls that must have been a cheerful pus green at some point, before damp and dirt and cracking plaster had rendered the colour anyone’s guess. One of the window panes had been shattered, likely as not around the turn of the century … the one before the last … and was boarded over with plywood. At the other end of the room, opposite the window, was a door, open, leading out into an endless, echoing, dark, tiled corridor. In between window and door, beds. Nine other men on the ward, old men, half-dead or dying, snoring, whimpering, coughing, rambling, crying, cursing, hoiking up … producing any and all noises brought on by decay and neglect. A holding pen for the unwanted and destitute, until they gave up and died. Dickens would have had a field day with this …

 

“Call me Smike …” Jack whispered, flinching at the spasms that racked the muscles in his neck and shoulders. At last the strain became too much and he lay down again, noting with vague interest that he had a very promising ceiling to stare at now.

 

It hadn’t been Davis’ doing, that much he thought he knew. Or rather, he refused to believe that Davis would be capable of this. The place he’d been sent to originally had been okay. More than okay. The Major had taken the trouble of finding a decent rehab centre that was outside of Colorado and, as Jack suspected, also fulfilled a stipulation Hammond must have made, namely to keep him reasonably close, just in case. The centre had practically sat on the state line, and he’d had all of two days there, just long enough to get used to things.

 

On the third day the centre’s accountant had paid him a visit, and following in his wake came a cadaverous-looking man who reminded Jack of an insurance rep. Quite possibly because the guy was an insurance rep. Between them they’d pointed out the one small detail Colonel O’Neill had failed to allow for in his endeavour to win a game of Musical Traitors against Vidrine. He’d admitted to having deliberately and criminally caused an explosion in which he’d been injured. And this, translated into Bureaucratese, read No compensation, no insurance.

 

‘Moreover’, the insurance zombie had added loudly and slowly, naturally assuming that, since Jack couldn’t move, he had to be retarded as well, ‘we will need to collect from you any sum already paid for your treatment. Do you have assets, Mr O’Neill?’

 

Assets?! Oh sure. Anyone can tell you that a lifetime in the armed services leaves a man filthy rich … He’d understood then that he’d lose everything he owned. No good moaning about it now. Should have thought of that earlier, Jack, shouldn’t you? Had your mind set on all sorts of clever plans, Jack, and your heart on that injection, hadn’t you? … But what difference did it really make? If he had to, he’d still do the same thing again …

 

The zombie and his sidekick had talked him through the formalities, slowly and loudly, and Jack had agreed for them to do what needed to be done. Only after they’d gone he’d realised that ‘everything he owned’ included his cabin and the land on which it stood, the only place that meant home to him. Waiting for the ambulance that would take him to an institution he could afford, he’d told himself that he’d never have been able to return to the cabin anyway. It hadn’t helped.

 

It didn’t help now. He shut his eyes, fighting to pry this ward and its sounds from his awareness, fighting to think of something, anything else, anything as long as it didn’t hurt too much. Endlessly hunting for ‘rocks’ Danny would go ecstatic over … stacks of paperwork in his office … no, too analgesic … white naked plant guys getting all tactile … there, that’s better … teaching Teal’c how to juggle … that had taken at least twelve loops, eleven of which had been spent explaining the benefits of juggling to a Jaffa … juggling … no more juggling … waking up in that cell, Carter stroking his hair, his face, helplessly trying to soothe his terror and failing … dancing, vaulting, leaping terror when he sensed only oblivion where his body used to be … I’m scared, Carter. I’m scared … Sam … Sam? … running …

 

Gradually, he drifted into an exhausted sleep and dreamt of running.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

MONDAY, AUGUST 30

 

 

Gyorgiy nervously popped a few bubbles, then caught himself and resumed his work. Cut a square of bubble wrap, place one of the ‘snakes’, ‘ray-guns’, weapons, whatever, diagonally across it, tape one corner of the square to the mid-section of the object and start rolling … He worked in silence, counting off finished parcels in his head. Across the table from him was a new hand, not from the village, and Gyorgiy didn’t know or trust him. Better not to talk. Not talking was something he’d grown up with, so it didn’t present a problem. Up until ten years ago, if you talked about the wrong things to the wrong person, they’d run off to the political officer and report you. Where it came to omerta, the Sicilians had nothing on the Russians … Or so Gyorgiy would have thought, but clearly he’d been mistaken. Somebody had talked, and they’d talked to the wrong person.

 

Saturday, at noon, the guards had turned up and taken Anatoliy, never saying a peep. Permanently unemployed. Anatoliy would disappear as completely as the two workers on the first day had disappeared, as completely as Pasha had disappeared. Ever since that moment, Gyorgiy had lived in fear. What if Anatoliy had told them that he, Gyorgiy, knew something? What if they learnt that he’d been the one who’d decided to keep Pasha’s death a secret? What if they knew that he’d hidden the ray-gun?

 

A door opened across the hangar, catching his attention, and one of the guards ushered in a woman. She was very beautiful, delicate, with even, classical features. Dark curly hair was tied in a chignon at the nape of her neck. Gyorgiy imagined that the Romanov princesses might have looked like that if they’d been allowed to grow up. Unafraid, in charge … She spoke to the guard, and the man stopped drooling at her for long enough to nod and point in Gyorgiy’s direction … No … The man pointed at Gyorgiy.

 

Gyorgiy’s head ducked of its own accord, and he pretended to be completely engrossed in his packing. It was no good. She was coming.

 

“Gyorgiy Timofeyevich?” she asked, her voice husky and educated.

 

“Yes, ma’am?” Gyorgiy stammered, surprised that he’d been able to form the words.

 

“Please don’t worry.” She smiled. “I’m Dr Markov. I need your help. Will you please come with me?”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 2

 

 

They’d flown back to DC. Just like that. Somehow Jones still couldn’t believe their luck, even as he was sitting in his cubby-hole of an office, successfully ignoring the equivalent of a medium-sized forest on his desk. He had more interesting things to do than paperwork …

 

General Gramps had cut them a deal. After they’d been cooperative enough to spill every last bean, obviously. Which wasn’t necessarily their usual MO, but the General’s gun had proffered some enticement, and then there also was the minor but relevant factor that neither Mr Smith nor Mr Jones felt particularly obliged to protect Mr Senator’s political butt rather than their own much more practical and immediate behinds. Once they’d said their piece, the General had offered to let them go, provided they’d forget they’d ever been to Colorado Springs, had ever seen the picture he’d confiscated from them or made General Gramps’ acquaintance. Who’d wanna go to Colorado Springs? What picture? And who was General Gramps, anyway?

 

They’d both nodded ardently, and the General had got on the blower and whistled off the MPs. He was running no risk in doing so, and he’d known it as well as Smith and Jones. If they valued their lives, not to mention careers, they’d make very sure that Mr Senator never found out about this whole stint in Colorado and especially their little tea party with General Gramps. Concealing that would prove surprisingly easy. Apart from the tickets to Denver and their rental car, there was no real evidence of where they’d been, nor was there any earthly reason why anyone should ever want to trace the tickets or the car. After all, Mr Senator had despatched them to Houston …

 

That little glitch on the Senator’s part was a blessing. He could hardly blame his loyal troops for losing Quarry if he sent them down the wrong trail to begin with. Thus having pretty much all their bases covered, Smith and Jones had travelled home contentedly, only to learn on arrival that Mr Senator was out of town for the time being. The news had made their week.

 

“Hey, you dig up anything?” Smith was poking his head through the door, eager curiosity pasted on his face.

 

“Yeah. A friggin’ great big No Trespassing sign!”

 

Smith’s jowls drooped in disappointment. “Shit. Sure woulda liked to know what’s so special about the guy to make Gramps flip his lid like that …”

 

“That’s General Gramps to you … And I didn’t say that the sign was gonna stop me, did I?”

 

“True …” Chomping on a pastrami sub, Smith squeezed into the room and peered over Jones’ shoulder.

 

Inquisitiveness was an occupational hazard, and upon their return Jones had spent days first fashioning a new untraceable user account for himself and then hacking into USAF personnel files. It had been like studying mug shots from every precinct in Washington, but after endless hours of scrolling through thumbnail pictures until his eyes watered, he’d finally hit upon a cluster of files protected by the most sophisticated firewalls he’d ever had the pleasure of finagling his way around. Sure enough, the cluster threw up Gramps, a very pretty blond bird, a mean-looking guy with a really unsubtle tattoo on his forehead … whatever happened to regulations? … a geek and, finally, the man he recognised from Quarry’s photo. A bird colonel, no less. Actually getting into the file had then proved to be a no-no, however. The window on the screen had shouted Access Denied no matter what he tried, and after the fifth attempt his machine had suffered one of the sexier system crashes he’d ever seen.

 

It had only served to tickle Jones’ competitive spirit. He’d done a little more research, come up with a few more tricks, and this was going to be the moment of triumph. Turning on the theatrics for Smith’s benefit, he laced his fingers, cracked his knuckles, keyed a few lines of code, hit Enter, and slumped back in the chair. “Ta-dah! Here goes … And quit dropping crumbs down my collar!”

 

“Sorry”, munched Smith, just as the file popped up, and then he grunted, “Awww …”

 

Jones blinked and stared at the screen, having lost all interest in that mysterious colonel’s file and feeling a little sick. Eventually, he shrugged it off and muttered, “Well … The state he was in, what did you expect? … Poor bastard …”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

From:       b09ty11@realgroups.com

 

Date:        September 2, 18:17

 

To:          patriotmessages@realgroups.com

 

Re:          Pest Control

 

 

Message:    skymaster: Regret pest control failure. Glad to hear that goods have been removed in time. Is this arrangement permanent?

 

First delivery will depart here tomorrow; shall be returning with delivery truck. Please arrange for further pick-up in six days’ time. New and promising items of merchandise are to arrive within 48 hours.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 3

 

 

Trees. Trees. And more … trees …

 

Major Carter had belly-flopped and lay on the muddy ground atop a ridge somewhere in the Siberian tundra, overlooking a valley and slowly soaking through and pretending mosquitoes didn’t exist and eminently grateful for the reprieve. Over Markov’s tentative protests she’d requisitioned the bike and traced back the railway tracks that ended at the warehouse. Three hours into her journey she’d discovered a closed military airfield. She’d also discovered that it made absolutely no difference to her hind quarters whether she rode pillion or drove herself.

 

The direct cause of the ongoing problem with her rear was Markov’s somewhat idiosyncratic idea of road transport. Sam had scarcely believed her eyes when the physicist turned up at Novosibirsk Station on a 750 cc Yamaha Virago. Svetlana Markov had misinterpreted Dr Carter’s open mouth, grinned sheepishly and explained that, until she’d be able to afford a Harley, she at least wanted to drive around on a look-alike. When they’d finally got there, six hours later, Sam had dismounted gracelessly, feeling like Rooster Cogburn after that last sharp ride. Markov, on the other hand, had displayed insulting energy, dragged Sam inside the house, given a tour of the facilities, and proceeded to pamper her guest … Over dinner she’d delivered the latest news.

 

 

“Kyril Andreyevich has been - …”

 

“Who?”

 

“Colonel Kuryagin. He has been unusually talkative since our visitor arrived. He likes to … how do you say? … brag. I overheard a conversation.”

 

“What visitor?”

 

“He came a few days ago. That’s why I thought you might want to postpone … He is a senator. An American senator.”

 

Sam unsteadily set down her spoon. From one moment to the next, the small wooden house with its low-ceilinged rooms and warm, colourful curtains seemed to have been bled of all cosiness and comfort. So it was true … “Do you know his name?”

 

“No … Kuryagin only ever calls him ‘Senator’. Why? Is it important?”

 

“It may be …”

 

“They talked about … Kuryagin joked about how he and the Senator set a trap for an SGC team off-world.”

 

“Did he say why?” She tried to sound casual, began fiddling with her napkin, realised that this was something the Colonel would have done and stopped … Answers. Answers at last, and Sam Carter wasn’t at all sure she wanted to hear them.

 

Markov took a sip of beer, no longer comfortable under Sam’s gaze. “The Americans wanted to destroy your stargate, destroy the SGC, so that our ‘gate here would be the only one on Earth, with them in control. Their plan was to force an SGC team into giving up the mainframe code, so that they could activate the auto-destruct, wipe out Cheyenne Mountain, and call it an accident later … It failed, obviously. They got the team, but they didn’t get the code.”

 

“No … No, they didn’t …” Sam’s fists clenched reflexively. Her knuckles whitened, and she felt the cutting sting of nails in her palms, kept pressing to drown out the other pain.

 

“Kuryagin boasted about how the team’s commanding officer was hurt … badly … when they … tried to get the code from him …” Svetlana Markov bit her lip. “I don’t know how to say this … I’m ashamed, Samantha Jakobovna. I’m ashamed that my people are involved in such a thing. And I’m sorry.”

 

“Not as ashamed as I am that my people are involved in it …” She had risen and walked to the window, hugging herself, staring out into the crepuscular Russian night. His instincts had been right on the money, he’d done the one thing able to save them all, and it was no consolation. Not daring to close her eyes for fear of seeing images that never left her, Sam could hear his screams all the same.

 

“Please believe me, if I’d known, I wouldn’t have asked you to - …” The voice broke off. Scraping of wood on wood as a chair was pushed back, slow steps. “My God”, whispered Markov. “Oh my God … It was you, wasn’t it? SG-1?”

 

“Yah.”

 

“Colonel O’Neill?”

 

“Yah.”

 

“Will he be … Will he be alright?”

 

“No. He won’t be. Not ever.”

 

“I’m sorry”, Markov breathed, and then the silence became deafening. At last she said, “So … what do you want to do?”

 

“The Colonel would want me to stop them, whatever it takes.”

 

 

Three days later, Svetlana Markov had introduced her to a guy called Gyorgiy, who told a disturbing story after reluctantly guiding them to a hideout in the woods, where he showed them a zat’nikatel. It had been stolen from the warehouse by one of his co-workers, and there’d been an incident with a little kid who’d got killed. The guards had wised up to it, asked around, and arrested and ‘disappeared’ the thief, the father of the dead boy, as it turned out. They hadn’t found the weapon, though. Gyorgiy had been the man’s neighbour, which tipped Dr Markov to suspect that he might know something. He’d denied it vehemently at first, but when they promised to send him west and to safety, Gyorgiy finally cracked.

 

By then, Major Carter had already seen enough to know that this wasn’t an NID-style exercise in procuring superior weapons for the right-thinking faction of the military, but a purely commercial enterprise. Alien technology would be sold to whomever was willing and able to pay … trigger-happy dictatorships panting to start WWIII, mercenaries, crooks on American and European streets … and that boy from an obscure Russian village would not remain the only victim. As that prospect sank in, Sam had started to toy with the idea of blowing up the packing hangar and everything in it. The weapons contained enough naquada to tear another great big crater in the middle of Siberia if they exploded. But ultimately, this would achieve nothing but the destruction of replaceable ‘artefacts’. The people behind the ‘Project’, Russians and Americans, would go to ground the moment they caught a whiff of sabotage.

 

Sam wanted those people, more than anything … well, excepting one thing, but that, short of divine intervention, would remain hopelessly unattainable … and so she had ignored her itch to fling a few pounds of C4 into the warehouse and continued gathering intel instead. Posing as one of Markov’s technicians, she’d picked up dribs and drabs, the type of goods, operational procedures, the Drakallan involvement. She’d also managed to get the names of some of the American operatives, but those were small fry. Apart from Kuryagin and the Senator … not Kinsey, as she had initially suspected, although the size of ego was deceptively similar … the big game she was after remained anonymous. So did the precise extent of these men’s plans.

 

Discouraged with her futile efforts at the base, she’d finally decided to concentrate on learning how the merchandise was shipped. Which explained the bike, the puddle Major Carter was sprawled in, and her interest in the airfield two klicks south of her position. For a closed airfield, the place was a veritable hive of activity. There were a couple of jeeps down there, a few vans, and about forty people unloading boxes from a train standing on a trunk line alongside one of the taxiways. Several other men were hopping around near a hangar, readying a fuel truck. They were expecting customers, or so it would seem.

 

She wasn’t particularly happy about her find, because she’d half hoped that they’d go for sea-freight out of Vladivostok or some other northern port. A freighter would have taken a couple of weeks or so to reach a likely destination in the USA, and that would have bought her precious time ... Soft humming to the northeast caught her attention. It quickly grew into the wail of engines, turbo-fan by the sound of it, still astonishingly quiet, as one would expect of Pratt & Whitney’s finest. And biggest. That wasn’t much of a surprise. Cessnas generally remained the conveyance of choice of Colombian drug dealers. This job would require something a little larger, and the runway was long enough to start and land a fully loaded 747. Okay, so it’d be a bit of a tight squeeze, but it was possible. They really didn’t scrimp, did they? Chartering a freight jet cost real money … The engine noise changed pitch, and she visualised landing procedures in her mind: flaps, throttle, landing gear, more throttle, more - … There!

 

Now she saw him, coming in from the east, nicely lined up for final approach. Wha - … Holy Hannah! Yes, it did cost real money, but they didn’t pay for it. Some poor fool of a taxpayer did, though. The fuselage was olive drab, which made it a military plane, unless British Airways had changed their corporate image yet again. Sam brought Markov’s binoculars to her eyes and checked for the markings. Nearly dropped the binoculars and checked again, swore.

 

“Hot damn! … Kiss your career goodbye, Major”, she murmured as Air Force Six-Three-Niner Tango Uniform touched down. It hadn’t been just any airman who’d authorised this flight, that much was for sure … By the looks of it, she was planning to bust some very lofty balls. If it backfired … Oh well, what’s life without a little adventure? And who wants a career, anyway?

 

Question was, where would Niner Tango Uniform go from here? Sam supposed it was too much to expect that Markov had another one of those incredibly handy old flames tucked away in air traffic control. The crew had to have filed a flight plan, at least for Russian air space, and while that might be fictitious to some degree, it couldn’t be totally phoney. Chances were it would at the very least give some clues as to whether they’d be flying across the Pacific or across the pole and for the East Coast. Would be nice … Sighing, she came to her feet and headed back to where she’d left the bike.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

“Yo!”

 

Outside stood the same brute who had tried to gain access to the dingy bathroom yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that, and his behaviour had escalated. Francisco abhorred mindless violence, it served no purpose, had no grace or artistry, taught nothing, proved nothing. Another thud struck the door, shaking loose a fine swirl of dust and splintered paint. The swirl settled on the scuffed, worn-out linoleum floor, which had long lost any discernible colour, adding to the filth there. He imagined he could hear a soft whisper as it fell, like needles of powder snow would hiss in winter. Snow was cleaner of course. Whispers of snow or of a birch switch.

 

He remembered the rhythm, that clean, soothing rhythm, and scrubbed in time with it, banishing the shouts and bangs to the very fringes of his consciousness. The harsh friction of bristles on his skin calmed him. Rough quills digging into the epidermis, pinching, pulling skin, scoring it. Clean pain, like needles of snow on skin, like lashes from a birch switch. Striations on the pupil’s feet, striations on Francisco’s thighs. Clean and ordered and safe. Whispers of snow and birch and bristle.

 

“The fuck you doin’?!”

 

Francisco’s brush slipped in the soap, raking across a livid bruise, and he whimpered as the memory dissolved into black, downy pustules of mould, coating a lopsided plastic shower curtain and feeding on invisible remnants of sweat and urine. The thing outside had struck him yesterday. The lack of reverence had hurt more than the physical blows. That thing knew nothing of Francisco, nothing of his mission, but it had judged, with its narrow, reptilian brain, it had judged what it couldn’t possibly comprehend. Even the pupil had only begun to comprehend it, but at least he had shown reverence.

 

 

The pupil was asleep, and Francisco spent several seconds relishing the anticipation of shattering that peace. He would do it slowly, tenderly, providing a chance to cherish the reunion, rather than springing a surprise. The implicit innocence of his pupil’s unawareness intrigued Francisco. In a few minutes it would be a half-forgotten dream, contrasting sharply with emotions as yet unfelt. Carefully, he pulled back the blanket and studied the body. It had lost weight, which annoyed him. The balance of proportions seemed disturbed. But this could be remedied, once he had the pupil in his care.

 

Smiling, Francisco reached out, switched off the ventilator, and observed how peaceful repose transformed into desperate toiling for air, pained gasps taking him back to the classroom, to the joy of readying the clay. The face twisted in sudden awe, and Francisco was delighted that his pupil should sense the artist’s presence without having to see. That was only appropriate. Eyes remained closed, but the head moved. Francisco let him proceed, knowing that some lessons inevitably needed to be reinforced. The pupil would have to be reminded of the price of non-cooperation.

 

Waiting for the nurse to arrive, he pondered that movement, the jerky angling for the call button on the pillow. It was ungainly and forced, and Francisco amazed himself by feeling a stab of melancholy for lost grace. Then he decided that the ultimate stillness of perfection had a grace of its own.

 

Once the nurse had entered and served her purpose, Francisco could devote full attention to the pupil at last. His breath came rapid and shallow, proof that he, too, had returned to the classroom, stretched motionless and helpless, submitting to instruction. As he did now, except restraints weren’t necessary anymore. He had learnt so much. Francisco’s hands glided over the body, probing and tasting, and although he had known what to expect, he found it difficult to reconcile its deadness with the warmth of living skin.

 

Humbled by the miracle of his creation, he took the pupil’s left hand and gently bent back the middle finger, further and further, until it snapped. Then, one after the other, the fingers either side, with the same tenderness and diligence. Symmetry and balance, balance and symmetry. Together they watched muscles dance in an effort to communicate pain to a mind that had become oblivious to it. Together. A shared moment, a sacred moment, and Francisco rejoiced in the knowledge that there were so many more to come. He looked up at his pupil, smiling when he saw that all defiance had drained from his eyes.

 

“Kill me”, the pupil whispered. “Please kill me.”

 

Francisco shook his head benignly, stroking the pupil’s face, overcome by gratitude. Oh he had much to learn yet. So much - …

 

 

“You son of a bitch! I gotta use the crapper!”

 

Foul language and crude mention of bodily functions. The animals living here were all like this, bawling and wallowing in their own filth, thrashing about and splashing it on anything or anyone within reach. Filth and sweat, sweat and filth. Still, he had had no choice but to come here. Too many people in this city knew him, and he needed to remain anonymous if he was to fulfil his task.

 

“You freak! I’m gonna squash your freakin’ head!”

 

“Go away!” Francisco screamed, aware that it would only buy him a minute or two but unable to tolerate the noise any longer. “I’m almost finished.”

 

He was sobbing from a mixture of dread and the relentless, blistering anguish that had set in when they had stolen his pupil from him again, had seen to it that his perfect clay, his masterpiece, was lost without a trace. The only thing that had enabled him to maintain his sanity was the fact that he knew who was responsible. The two men, the politician’s creatures, had been there when Francisco’s pupil was taken away from him, and he had understood then. It was a slight. The Senator was mocking him. The Senator would have to do penance. Only then would Francisco be able to retrieve the pupil. Only - … 

 

“I’m coooooooming”, the brute sang, and the hammering on the door resumed.

 

“Wait! I’m finished!”

 

It was time. Time to resume his chore of finding the politician, and find him Francisco would, no matter how long it took. And then the politician would be purged … snapping every flaccid digit of his senile clergyman’s hands …

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

From:       p.davis@tel.net 

 

Date:        September 3, 11:23

 

To:          georgesh@netservice.net 

 

Re:          Trouble

 

 

Message:    Sir: J2 had the attached documents forwarded to me yesterday afternoon. They’re self-explanatory. Unfortunately, the legal and administrative arguments are watertight, and I see no possibility of staving off the financial consequences.

 

Also, at this point I have no idea where Colonel O’Neill has been taken to. My request to see the transfer order has been denied, on the grounds that the Colonel himself asked for his whereabouts to remain unknown; I shall, however, attempt to find out where he is and hope to know more in about a week.

 

As for the other matter, I have made very little headway so far. I still consider it advisable to brief General Vidrine, and I sincerely believe that his reaction would be exactly the same as mine.

 

Regards,

 

 

P Davis.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

He was listening again. Nurse Somers could tell. The wary tension that seemed to be a constant had lifted for once. He’d angled his head a little, so his face would catch the sunlight reflecting from the windows of a brownstone across the street. Sometimes there would be a ghost of a smile quirking around the corners of his mouth.

 

That coveted window place had been occupied by old Freddy Brubaker, rest his soul, until yesterday afternoon. Next in line would have been Mr Chambers, who’d been here for over twelve years. But Mr Chambers was ninety-seven, completely deaf and nearly blind, so what good would it do him? Ruby Somers had made an executive decision, which undoubtedly would get her into trouble later, and given the space to Mr Riley. She liked him, so sue her …

 

Ruby’s momma, steeled through countless liaisons with countless beaus, would have called him a heartbreaker … Y’all stay clear of that there man, honeychile, he be breakin’ your heart … He had. Though not in the way momma had had in mind. A round quarter of a century in nursing should have taught Ruby not to let a patient get to her, but he did. It had taken him exactly three days. Shouldn’t have come on shift early that morning. Shouldn’t have taken the job at all, but who else would have hired her at her age and after a long marriage’s worth away from the profession?

 

 

Hilary was too inexperienced to be on nightshift, and she’d had no business becoming a nurse in the first place. In an IQ test she’d be outclassed by a goldfish, Ruby had decided within five minutes of meeting her. The girl’s main concern right now was to finish work and go home, so she rushed through the morning routine and finally plunked a glass of water and a toothbrush on his nightstand, mindlessly trilling her same old hackneyed line.

 

“Now, let’s all brush our teeth, Mr Riley, shall we?”

 

“I - …” He never got any further than that, because Hilary had already shot off to get changed.

 

A flurry of emotions chasing across his face, irritation being the least of them. Eyes squeezed shut, jaws clenched, he arched his head back into the pillow, rubbing steadily, rhythmically, trying to work off the anger, the hurt, the horrible frustration of not being able to do something even Mr Carling, wobbling with Parkinson’s, could do. It was nowhere near enough. The attack came on suddenly, starting in his legs, and inside a minute his whole body was convulsing. Ruby knew she couldn’t pin him down, but she could at least try to keep him from falling out of bed. Besides, he needed someone with him. He was fighting it, which didn’t help.

 

“I can’t stop … can’t stop …” It sounded like sobs.

 

“Shh … it’s okay, nothing’s wrong, I promise … it’ll be over in a tick … keep breathing … I’m here. Nothing’s gonna happen …”

 

“Can’t stop!” he hissed, crying with fury.

 

Not good. The more he worked himself into a state, the longer it would last. “Come on, kiddo … Stay with me!”

 

He drew a harsh breath and, as through a window that had suddenly opened, she saw a flash of nameless fear in his eyes. “Don’t”, he moaned. “Don’t …”

 

Then it was gone again, somehow he’d managed to lock it up, hide it, and he rode out another spasm. And another. And another. It took a full ten minutes until he finally calmed down. Eventually he looked at her, stunned, hurt, exhausted, still gasping as though he’d just run a marathon.

 

Gently patting his shoulder, Ruby gave a small grin. “Now, honey, that’s what I call throwing a tantrum.”

 

“What?”

 

“Nobody warned you, hunh? See, where I’d start hurling crockery, you start seizing. That’s all.”

 

“So I can’t get angry, either? … God, I hate this …” he murmured tiredly.

 

“Yeah … I bet you do …”

 

 

He’d slipped back into his habitual reserve, and Ruby had torn a strip off young Hilary at the next opportunity. She’d thought a bit of good old-fashioned venting might allow her to push the whole incident aside and stop puzzling over Mr Riley. It hadn’t, and Nurse Somers had committed the cardinal sin in a place like this. She’d got involved. And the more she tried to find out about him, the less she felt she knew. Smoke and mirrors. Where had he come from? What was he afraid of? Just how had he got injured? And how, in God’s name, had a quad ever contrived to break three fingers? Too many unanswered questions, and all she got instead of answers was a determination to help him, to make things a little easier somehow.

 

Ruby was studying him now while doing her rounds, taking temperatures. The question of the day was whom she’d have to shoot for sending him here. Whoever had done it either had a very sick sense of humour or a very good reason to hate him. It was the kind of thing a vindictive ex-wife might do, if he had one of those … But that was hard to tell, because noone ever came to visit him. Other patients had visitors once, maybe twice, a week, usually relatives in a regular act of contrition for having brought their brothers or husbands or fathers or grandfathers here. Nobody seemed to feel that way about Mr Riley. It was as if the world had forgotten him. He hadn’t forgotten the world, though. Bad enough to be buried here, but to be buried here if you had the intelligence and lucidity to know what was happening to you …

 

Rudy Giffen in the bed opposite Mr Riley’s had a slight temperature, which probably meant that his younger son, who’d been visiting yesterday, had sneaked in booze again … Shaking down the mercury, she again tried to make out which one of those sounds from outside was so fascinating. All she could hear were dogs barking, squeals and shouts and bursts of laughter from kids in the alley, the odd car racing past, some woman cussing at her husband or boyfriend, sirens in the distance, a bunch of winos brawling …

 

“It’s the kids”, said a quiet voice.

 

So he’d been returning the courtesy, watching her as she’d been watching him, catching her out. Ruby laughed a little, not embarrassed in the slightest. “The kids, eh?”

 

It made sense in a way. Lordie, he was only a kid himself, and never mind the grey hair. Any one of the other men was old enough to be at least his father, and Ruby could easily be his mother ... Only a kid, with his guarded, soft brown eyes and the handsome face …

 

“They’re playing street hockey …” he offered.

 

And for just a split-second the guard dropped, and she recognised an impossible longing there. It answered her next question. Ruby asked anyway, wanting to keep this unexpected conversation going. She assumed, rightly, that this was his way of saying ‘thank you’ for the window seat. “You play?”

 

“Used to … and ice hockey …”

 

Yeah. That made sense, too. Even now you could see it in his build, if you looked past the stillness, past the slowly encroaching spasticity of arms and legs. Tall and slender and long-limbed. He must have been fast. Fast and graceful … “Any good?” she asked, smiling.

 

“Not bad …”

 

The hint of diffidence in his reply told her that he’d been pretty darn good. “So, who’s winning out there?”

 

That actually brought a tiny grin. “The side that keeps crashing into the trashcans a lot … Would have been the others, but one of them broke his stick just now … I think …”

 

“How do you know?”

 

“I remember … I remember the kind of swearing you do when that happens …” The grin vanished as quickly as it had appeared, and he fell silent. Their chat was over, or so it seemed.

 

Maybe not. Ruby was disinclined to give up just yet. “Look, Mr Riley - …”

 

A subtle tensing of muscles in his jaw. The way it always happened when he was addressed by name … if he reacted at all. She didn’t share the blithe presumption of some of the other nurses, who figured that, since he was paralysed and as a rule didn’t talk, he probably was a bit dim as well. Ruby had come up with a rather less outlandish theory. It wasn’t his name … Well, now was as good a time as any to put that one to the test. “My name’s Ruby.”

 

“Nice name …”

 

“That’s what you think … Sixty-four years on I still haven’t figured out whether my momma was drunk or dating a jeweller at the time. How does Ruby Crystal Amethyst grab you?”

 

“Ouch …”

 

“You can say that again … So, now that you’re in on my deep dark secret, how about sharing yours?”

 

“What?!”

 

She saw a hint of that fear in his eyes and shook her head. “Your name, kiddo. I’d like to know your name. Because it sure as heck ain’t Robert Riley.”

 

“Oh … I’m … Jack … I’m Jack.” Said with a trace of bewilderment, as though he’d only realised this very moment that he had an identity, was a person.

 

“Jack, hunh? … I like Jack … Suits you better than - …”

 

Mr Rogers started keening, probably because he felt that this young whippersnapper by the window had garnered altogether too much attention, and Nurse Somers had to see to him. When she checked half an hour later, Jack was listening again. To the whooping of the kids, to a game he only could dream of playing.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

Some instinct had set alarm bells ringing the second she slipped through a side door into the huge concrete cube that housed the base and the Russian stargate, but it was already too late. An arm whipped across her throat, trapping her in a stranglehold, and she felt the muzzle of a gun digging into her ribs.

 

Her attacker had to have been on the lookout, observing her, otherwise he couldn’t have picked the right door to hide behind. And Major Carter had been blissfully oblivious to it, because on her way back from the bike shed where she’d locked up Markov’s Virago she’d been miles away. Several thousand miles in fact. In a hospital room in Colorado Springs, to be precise ... Stupid, stupid, stupid. And yet another reason for regulations being what they were. She didn’t need a wealth of imagination to guess what he’d be saying right about now … For cryin’ out loud, Carter, you always check behind the door! … embroidered with the mandatory threat of butt-kicking, at least into next year. He’d be right, too …

 

As the pressure on her larynx tightened, Sam prayed fervently that this would be some hormone-riddled, socially inept Russian soldier trawling for a date. That she could deal with. If the guy was American, though, he might not be after a date but after something else entirely. When he spoke, Sam’s hopes fizzled. The language was English, and the accent pure New England.

 

“Well, hello there”, he purred, breath stroking her skin, warm and moist and reeking of garlic. “Glad we finally meet. See, I think I know you from somewhere … Mind telling me your name?”

 

The throttle-hold eased just enough to let Sam talk. “Claire”, she gasped. “Claire Tobias.”

 

“Bullshit!” He gripped her harder, his forearm locked under her chin, tilting her head back and sideways until she had to look at him. “Claire’s an old friend of mine. And I happen to know that she’s doing hard time at Leavenworth. So, save the games, Major. It is Major Carter, isn’t it?!”

 

She didn’t answer. One of the bureaucrats. One of the bureaucrat types floating around at the Governors’ reception, seeming out of place somehow … Shit! … How come I didn’t see him before? … Don’t be an idiot, Carter. He came back through the ‘gate … Where are the others? … They’re not your problem right now. He is …

 

The man kept jabbering on, hauling her with him down a side corridor. “Shame we weren’t introduced on Drakalla. I mean, even back then I thought I’d have to get me a bit of this … Don’t worry, by the way, you’ll live long enough to meet our friend Kyril Andreyevich. He’ll be real interested … So, did you enjoy your stay? Drakalla, I mean? Oh no … I forgot … Your heroic Colonel had a tough time there, didn’t he? Something disagreed with him? You know, Claire loved that story. I’m told she laughed until she wet herself when she heard what we did to that bastard O’Neill … I gotta send her one of those pictures …”

 

The swine who’d taken the photographs … You’re dead. You’re dead, you son of a bitch … A washroom door right in front of them, and he was steering for it. End of the line. Nice secluded location, no witnesses, noone to spoil the fun. Fine. Sam had been playing possum all along, not resisting but letting him do the work, trying to get a feel for how he’d react … Not fast enough, probably … He was badly trained for starters, else he wouldn’t push the gun into her body, letting her know where it was, giving her a chance to slap it away … The grip loosened, he awkwardly leant forward, and then the muzzle lost contact. He was trying to open the door. The dimwit was trying to open the door. With his gun hand …

 

Two seconds was all it took. Perhaps three. Slip from his grasp, whirl around, gather momentum, aim for the jugular with the edge of your hand and with all you’ve got. Lights out. Done a thousand times in unarmed combat training. It worked. She thought she could discern a soft pop when the vein burst, and he gazed at her with a look of stunned disenchantment before dropping the gun and crumpling … You’re dead, you son of a bitch! … And then he really was.

 

A bubble of queasiness floated to the back of her mouth, and she gagged … Not now … Not now! … She took the body by the wrists, heaved it along the hall and pushed it behind three defunct steam pipes that rose through the floor like massive chrome boles, relieved when it was out of her sight. As long as she couldn’t see it, she could pretend nothing had happened … Sam rested her forehead against cool metal, tried to still the shivers. Bile was clawing its way back up her throat, and a cynical part of her thought that the militant do-gooders, the folks that expected professional soldiers to run around with bloody fangs and that merry homicidal twinkle in their eyes, should see her now. Tactically the decision had been right, it’d been either her or him, but somehow it didn’t make a blind bit of difference. Because she’d broken the First Commandment according to Jack O’Neill …

 

Okay, not that one … I'm talking about the no killing one. No matter what the reason, every time you break it you take one step closer to Hanson.

 

At the time Sam hadn’t truly understood what he meant, apart from trying to make her feel better about not killing Jonas Hanson when she’d had the opportunity. Now she understood. What had stopped her back then wasn’t residual feelings for her ex-fiancé but her inability to kill a man in cold blood and up close and personal. She’d crossed that line now, and she understood, as she knew the Colonel understood. There’d been a poignancy in his tone that couldn’t quite mask the self-loathing underneath. He’d spoken from experience, and he had the nightmares to show for it. So would she, no doubt. One step closer to Hanson. One step - …

 

A door fell shut in the main corridor, the clang echoing from concrete walls and high ceilings, and she heard footfalls coming her way. Reality check, Carter! You’ve got a dead body stashed behind a bunch of steam pipes, chances are that he’ll be missed before long, and if you’re really lucky your cover is blown … How about hauling ass out of here, Major?

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

“Over here! … Bring them over here! … And I want those x-rays of Major Griff’s head done right now!”

 

Nurses running, gurneys wheeling about in orderly fashion, like the bride’s party at a wedding rehearsal, and Walters, one of the medics, was pushing the portable x-ray unit alongside Griff’s bed and began setting up. Slowly but steadily her infirmary began looking less like the triage tent from M*A*S*H and more like … well, her infirmary.

 

Dr Fraiser walked over towards one of the beds to check up on Lieutenant Forrester of SG-3 who in her estimate had sixty-five percent burns, mostly on his chest, abdomen and legs. Not good … Walters had stabilised him in the ‘gate room, put him on oxygen, got a saline running to keep him hydrated, and wrapped him in burn foil. The other four members of SG-3 were wounded as well, two of them seriously, but unlike Forrester they weren’t critical.

 

A patrician head popped out from behind a curtain as she squeezed past. “Look, Doctor, can we speed up this post-mission medical? General DeVere expects my men and me for a debriefing!”

 

Colonel Caruthers, the … new guy. The one in command of … the new team. That bastard and his GQ models weren’t SG-1, not as far as Janet Fraiser was concerned. Lately quite a number of people seemed to have come round to her point of view. This had been the third outing of Caruthers & Co since they’d arrived a week ago, and each time there had been casualties, which always were mysteriously confined to the unlucky team baby-sitting Buzz Lightyear’s glamour unit. And word was starting to spread …

 

The doctor snapped. “Have a look around, Colonel! These are your men! They were your responsibility, and I’m afraid they’ll take priority over your tetanus boosters, because they ain’t gonna do any debriefings in a hurry. So I suggest you shut up, wait your turn, and let me do my job!”

 

Caruthers’ jaw hit the floor. Refreshing ... From the corner of her eye Janet noted a few approving nods and raised thumbs around her. Easy for them to nod. She’d hear about this from DeVere, that much was for sure. Too damn bad … Leaving Caruthers standing, she focussed her attention on Forrester. If these were regular burns, the man might stand a chance, but his injuries were from staff weapons, and Fraiser had treated those often enough to know their severity. She didn’t hold out much hope … The young officer was awake. Barely.

 

“Hey, Lieutenant … How’re you doing?”

 

A bloodied, grime-blackened hand came up and plucked the oxygen mask off his face. “Tell him …” he slurred, eyes tearing with pain. “Tell him …”

 

“Tell whom what, Lieutenant?”

 

“We’re sorry … tell Colonel O’Neill … He’d … He’d never have left us behind …”

 

“You tell him that yourself.” Janet smiled reassuringly, unwilling to admit that she didn’t have a clue where Jack O’Neill was, or that the chances of Forrester ever telling him anything were minimal. A small part of her felt vindicated on the Colonel’s behalf. The Marines, Semper Fi and all, had been among the first and most vocal in condemning him for his alleged crimes.

 

“He’d never …” Forrester started again, briefly put the mask back to draw a deep, agonised breath. “Caruthers and his guys ran … they were supposed to cover us from the ‘gate … we were holding off the Jaffa, and they just ran … Colonel O’Neill would never … I’m sorry …”

 

“I know”, whispered Janet, gently replacing the oxygen mask on the young man’s face.

 

Dr Fraiser also knew that this, undoubtedly accurate, version of events wouldn’t gain credence outside the infirmary. She’d seen it happen twice before. Caruthers’  own report would go on record, with the blessing of DeVere, and if anyone should take it into his or her head to contradict, they’d be relieved from duty before they could say ‘liar’. Louis Feretti had tried. His turn at keeping the so-called ‘SG-1’ out of trouble had earned him a hole in the gut and the loss of a team mate. At least Feretti would recover. Just in time for his court-martial, Janet expected. Still, word was starting to spread …

 

Two hours later things had settled back into their normal rhythm. Caruthers and his men had left, cleared by Dr Warner because Janet didn’t trust herself with them, Griff and the other wounded men were asleep, and Lieutenant Forrester had died two days before his twenty-fourth birthday … Fraiser was still sitting in the same chair, staring at an empty bed, which someone had already stripped and disinfected. A phone was ringing, insistently, annoyingly … God, somebody pick that up, would you?! … She’d stayed with the Lieutenant till the end, promising that, yes, she would tell Colonel O’Neill. If she ever saw him again …

 

The nurse appeared beside her so suddenly, Janet almost jumped. “What?!”

 

“Phone call for you, ma’am.”

 

“Thank you.” Dr Fraiser went into her office and took the call. “Fraiser here ...” When she recognised the voice at the other end, she responded unthinkingly. “Everything’s in hand now, sir. Give me two minutes, and I’ll be downstairs with the rep- … Oh …” She gave a wry chuckle. “Yeah, I know, sir. Old habits die hard … How’re you doing, anyway? … Uhunh … What? Tomorrow? … Well, no, I’ve got nothing else planned. Can I bring anything? … What?! … Uh … No, sir. She hasn’t come back yet … Yeah, sure. I’m sure they’ll make time … See you tomorrow at eight, then, sir.”

 

The doctor slowly replaced the receiver, frowning. He’d sounded as troubled as she’d ever heard him. Okay, so he’d done a pretty good job of concealing it, but she hadn’t served with the man for years without learning how to read the nuances … He was worried enough to invite them all to a barbecue that clearly was a barbecue only for the benefit of any potential eavesdroppers. Something was wrong. Janet Fraiser didn’t have to be a genius to take an educated guess at what, or more precisely whom, that ‘something’ concerned.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

The footsteps had turned into the side corridor, and Sam hadn’t stuck around to see who was coming to visit. Silent like a cat she’d climbed up a set of steep metal stairs and out onto the walkways that criss-crossed the space above the derelict power plant. From up there, the giant generators looked like something out of Alien … Jeez, Carter! Just the kind of thought you want to be hatching! And ‘hatching’ definitely isn’t a good word either … The Russian base had creeped her out the first time she been here; abandoned halls filled with industrial clutter, nerve gas, and dozens of dead soldiers and scientists. Now the base was alive … for the most part … but that was hardly any reason to feel safe. On the contrary. Somehow she doubted they’d buy it if she told them that the body behind the steam pipes was a leftover from last year.

 

She slid down a ladder on the opposite side of the plant and headed for the isolated wing that housed the laboratories, grateful that the corridors there tended to be deserted. As a rule, base personnel gave the scientists a wide berth, likely as not because they suspected they’d spontaneously combust or, at the very least, end up shooting blanks if they hung out at the labs for any extended amount of time. The door to Markov’s lab suite stood ajar, and Sam was about to dart inside when she heard voices. Kuryagin. And he obviously was on his way out. Crap!

 

Five yards down the hall somebody had parked a spare filing cabinet. She ducked into the shadows behind it and held her breath, straining to hear what he was saying.

 

“When she comes back, I want to see her immediately.” At least that was how it translated in Major Carter’s wonky Russian. When who comes back?

 

Da”, said Markov, which was plain enough.

 

Crap, crap, crap. Sam felt a cold sliver of suspicion digging its seat in her brain somewhere. What if Markov had sold her out? The physicist thought she was still off reconnoitring. Was that why she’d met with Kuryagin? What if this whole hush-hush manoeuvre of Markov’s had been planned from the start, like the trap on Drakalla had been planned? What if - … Kuryagin gusted through the door, past the filing cabinet, down the corridor, preoccupied, cigarette dangling from his mouth and stinking up the hall. Flattened into the corner between wall and cabinet, Sam prayed he wouldn’t suddenly realise he’d forgotten something and turn back. Only when he’d vanished down another hallway, she finally dared to move.

 

Now what? … Well, you’re not exactly spoilt for choice, Carter. You’ve got to get out of here PDQ. The nearest airport is Irkutsk, and that’s hardly walking distance, is it? Without Markov’s help you can forget it. Just be careful … She blew out a long, slow breath, which contrary to common opinion did nothing to relax her, and entered the labs. Markov was somewhere at the back, out of sight.

 

“What did Kuryagin want?” Sam hollered. Might as well cut to the chase …

 

“Oh there you are! I didn’t expect you so soon!” came the answering shout. “We got some of the big stuff in today. Come and have a look!”

 

Big stuff. Sam baulked at the heart-warming all-inclusiveness of the term. Big stuff … as in death gliders? … motherships? … what?

 

“Kyril Andreyevich is pushing for answers”, Markov continued. “I’ve already run some preliminary tests, and I’m waiting for the results to come back. He wants to see the report as soon as I’ve got it.”

 

“Uhunh …” Not knowing what to make of the information Markov had volunteered just now, Sam followed the voice and suddenly stopped cold. Of course! Russian pronouns were gender specific, even for objects. The report was a girl, and Kuryagin wanted to see ‘her’ ASAP … Holy Hannah, Carter! Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, hunh? … She gave a giggle of relief and threaded her way through rows of shelf units stacked with equipment, until she reached the far end of the room, near the loading dock.

 

“Svetlana? I - …” Dr Carter forgot what she was going to say. “Oh my God … ” Dizzy with shock, she groped for support, clutched a shelf.

 

On the bland concrete floor in front of the loading bay gate sat divine intervention itself. Next to it crouched her Russian colleague, fingers tracing in awe the decorations on this sample of the big stuff. It was squat and oblong, its dimensions roughly like a shoebox, only much larger, and it was burnished and ornate in that clunky, overdone Goa’uld way. Sam Carter felt her knees buckle.

 

Markov looked up, bemused. “Samantha Jakobovna? Do you know what this is?”

 

“Yes”, she whispered. “Yes ... Oh God, yes ...”

 

Burnished and ornate and clunky, it meant a fortune to the men who planned to sell it; it meant almost eternal life for the price of a rotting mind to the one who bought it; and it could mean everything to a man who thought he’d never move or touch or feel again.

 

“Samantha Jakobovna?” Markov asked for the second time, by now more worried than bemused.

 

“Sorry … I’m sorry …” muttered Sam, shaking her head. This miracle wasn’t hers; there was no way she could take it with her, however much she wanted to; and Markov was about to call a shrink for her ... Yeah, that roughly covered the situation. “Have you opened it?!” she asked sharply.

 

“No. I thought I’d examine the outside first ...” Alarmed, Dr Markov rose and shifted to a safe distance. “Why?”

 

“Because somebody might be at home, and you wouldn’t like to meet them. I guarantee.” Major Carter walked around the sarcophagus, searching for a name cartouche to see whose it was ... No known subject, and she would have needed Daniel or Teal’c to decipher the writing. “Give me one of those zat-guns”, she ordered. “And get one for yourself! When I open it and someone sits up looking peeved, shoot first and ask questions later.”

 

Without comment, Svetlana Markov obeyed, and Sam gingerly pressed the crystal that would open the lid, stepped back, and watched as the two halves parted and with a low rumble sheared sideways into a gaping V-shape. Her precautions proved to be needless. It was empty. Some Goa’uld would have to make do without the patented overnight anti-wrinkle formula. Poor li’l fella …

 

“So what does it do?” enquired Markov, staring into the warm golden glow of the interior.

 

“I think I can demonstrate”, Sam murmured. “Would you mind giving me a hand?”

 

Fifteen minutes later and with the help of an equipment trolley, they had retrieved the corpse and placed it inside the sarcophagus. It wasn’t redemption. There was no getting away from a breach of that ‘First’ Commandment, but she could undo the consequences.

 

Dr Markov had been stunned by Sam’s terse account of what had happened, and now she observed, mesmerised, as the scarab wings of the lid folded shut. “And?”

 

“We wait”, Dr Carter said drily.

 

It took another three minutes before the lid reopened and Markov started hyperventilating. While the physicist tried to collect herself, Sam tied and gagged the man she’d killed less than an hour earlier.

 

He remembered, too. The first thing he’d said when he set eyes on her was, ‘Didn’t you just …?’ Then he’d fainted.

 

“How?” Svetlana Markov had finally recovered her speech. “How does it work?”

 

“We don’t know … All we know is that it does, and that it messes with your head if you use it too often and without reason. Will … uh … will this be shipped to the States, too?”

 

“Yes. The shipment will go in five days.” Markov threw her a shrewd glance. “You think it can help Colonel O’Neill.”

 

“Maybe …” If we can nail the men behind this, Sam didn’t add, because she didn’t want to contemplate the possibility of the sarcophagus disappearing in some anonymous billionaire’s vault, like a priceless, stolen Van Gogh or Picasso. “I’ll have to leave first thing tomorrow. Our friend may have told someone else who I am.”

 

“I understand … Did I mention that there’s something I need to pick up in Irkutsk? Urgently?” Svetlana Markov gave a grin.

 

“No, you didn’t.” Sam tried to return her colleague’s smile and didn’t quite manage. “But thanks. For everything …” She nodded at the recently resurrected operative. “Do you have any suggestion of what to do with Lazarus here?”

 

“You should kill him again. He was one of the men who - ...”

 

“I know, and I won’t.”

 

Dr Markov shrugged. “I’ve got a few friends who’ll lock him up for us. Away from the base, no questions asked. Tomorrow morning I’ll tell Kyril Andreyevich that the lab has been broken into and a number of small artefacts have been taken. He’ll draw his own conclusions when this man is reported missing, and in a few days’ time someone will claim to have seen your ‘Lazarus’ in Vladivostok ...”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 4

 

 

From:       georgesh@netservice.net 

 

Date:        September 4, 08:20

 

To:          p.davis@tel.net 

 

Re:          Trouble

 

 

Message:     Major: Thanks for the heads-up. I’ll try to pull a few strings.

 

Do not involve General Vidrine for the time being. It might draw attention to our investigation and put him and yourself at risk. In the meantime, keep at it. I’ll let you know if I learn something.

 

Regards,

 

 

Hammond.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

George Hammond was seriously thinking about killing his bank manager ... Maybe garrotting him slowly with that neon-green company tie the man had been wearing. Or stuffing the guy’s toupee down his throat ...

 

Disregarding some forty years of sterling credit history, that bloated weasel in a J C Penney suit had refused George Hammond’s application for a loan. ‘So sorry, sir’, the weasel had tutted, not sounding sorry at all, ‘but you’re retired, and at your age … well, I’m afraid you’re a bad risk. Especially in view of the sum you’re asking for ... Can I offer you our free mouse pad?’

 

He’d been a hair away from telling the weasel where exactly he could shove the mouse pad and briefly considered demanding to see the guy’s boss, but gut instinct warned him that the answer would probably stay the same, and that this conversation would turn out to be just as frustrating as the one he’d had before driving down to the bank. Well, if nothing else, that one had been an eye-opener … Major General Hammond, retired, had naïvely assumed that he might rate at least one favour. Mr President, alas, didn’t see it that way, or so Hammond had been informed by the man’s secretary, and her tone had clarified the subtext, namely that he wasn’t to call this number again, be it on this or any other - …

 

“Holy shit!”

 

Swearing, he slammed on the brakes, and the car squealed and swerved to a halt. Time to calm down and think straight, before he really did run a red light or worse ... There had to be a way to get the money. Okay, so there was one way, but his daughter probably wouldn’t like it much. Might as well ask her now and get it over with … The lights went green, and Hammond, his mind made up, indicated and took a left into 3rd Street.

 

J2 … General Hammond wasn’t all that surprised, because he’d known Warren Carlisle for decades. Of all the officious, self-important busy-bodies, Carlisle had to go and stick his oar in where it wasn’t wanted or needed. And of course he’d managed to turn the whole thing into a political issue, deftly assuring that he’d come out of it smelling of roses and looking like the Defender of the Faith. Or the Air Force, which boiled down to the same thing, as far as J2 was concerned.

 

The American taxpayer cannot be expected to pick up the tab for a traitor … George Hammond snorted. The only reason why the American taxpayer still enjoyed the privilege of paying his or her taxes, not to mention being alive at all, was aforementioned ‘traitor’. About five times over … How Davis was hoping to find Colonel O’Neill was beyond Hammond, and he wasn’t going to hold his breath. The Pentagon, to use Jack’s phrase, had lost entire countries. Supposing they dedicated their bureaucratic resources to misplacing one man, the possibilities became mind-boggling …

 

His daughter opened the front door as George Hammond pulled into her driveway.

 

“Here goes …” the General muttered, grateful that his granddaughters were at school and thus wouldn’t become witnesses to the debate likely to ensue. “Hi kid.”

 

Carol led him into the kitchen and habitually set the coffee to brew, filling him in on her week, the comings and goings, on what the girls had been up to, and that Tessa was trying out for the school’s volleyball team. “So what brings you here, dad?” The smile was just like her mother’s. “Ran out of sugar?”

 

“Something like that …” He sat down, wondering how to put this. “I need your help … Well, I need your permission to do something.”

 

“Oh?” That had caught her interest. She gathered a couple of mugs and brought the coffee. “My permission?”

 

“Yes … You know how your mom and I always said that the house would be yours?”

 

“Yeeees?”

 

Drat! She definitely wasn’t making this any easier. Another trait she’d inherited from her mother ... Hammond sighed and bit the bullet. “I want your permission to re-mortgage the house. Something has happened, I need a hell of a lot of money, and I need it fast.”

 

She was laughing. “Dad?!”

 

“What’s so funny?”

 

“Dad, you haven’t got a girlfriend, have you?”

 

“Christ, no! Do look like I’m planning a trip to the Bahamas?! … Carol, listen to me, please! If everything turns out alright, I’ll get that money back, repay the mortgage, and no damage done … but there’s no guarantee. Which means you may lose the house.”

 

She trickled sugar in her coffee, stirred, and took a tentative sip. “I don’t suppose you could tell me what you need the money for?”

 

“I need it for a friend …”

 

“And?”

 

Hammond’s gaze wandered through the kitchen, a bright room with a view of the garden, the walls painted a sunny yellow, a sparkling glass mobile twirling in the open window, his granddaughters’ artwork pinned to the fridge door with magnets and exploding with colour. Cheerful, lived in, holding innocent memories, just like his own kitchen when Carol’s mother was still alive. Back then he’d never brought home anything that could have changed this happy state of affairs, and he was loath to start now, tainting his daughter’s home. But there was no alternative.

 

He told her as much as he could, leaving out more, names, places, the sickening details of what had happened. And even that, strictly speaking, was too much. He could see it in the way her face darkened, in the way she tried to fend off things she’d never wanted to know about him, about his work. At last he murmured, “I’ve got to do it, Carol.”

 

“Dad …”

 

“Look, Carol … That friend … that friend is the man who made sure that we won’t have to worry about Tessa and Kayla being picked up from school by people in black limousines.”

 

Her eyes widened, and something in her expression shifted imperceptibly. “Why on earth didn’t you say so in the first place?”

 

“Because I’m not supposed to, and you know it”, George Hammond growled, telling himself that what he’d just admitted to his daughter would hardly jeopardise national security.

 

“What are you waiting for? Go and get that mortgage, dad. And next time you show up around here, I want to see the deed.”

 

“You sure?”

 

“Yes, I’m sure. And by the way, dad?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“It’s your house. You didn’t have to ask. But thanks, anyway.”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

From:       coldcomfort@coldcomfort.rsx.com

 

Date:        September 4, 13:44

 

To:          b09ty11@realgroups.com

 

Re:          Fresh Fruit

 

 

Message:    Lab confirms that we’ve managed to obtain new, invigorating fruit. Sending sample with next delivery.

               

 

* * * * *

 

 

The sudden torrent, an afterthought to the thunderstorm, had caught Francisco unawares. He fled into a nearby bistro bar which, according to the name emblazoned on the awning above the patio, purported to be French. Petite Pigalle. How quaint. Undoubtedly the furnishings were handmade in Taiwan and chosen and put into place by an interior decorator from Montana. The tourist clientele, however, were unlikely to notice the difference.

 

He took a seat on the terrace and ordered tea, served by a gangly, unctuous waiter. They didn’t have Earl Grey, the man lamented. On another occasion Francisco might have taken exception, but today he was inclined to forgive the shortcoming. He was content. Today he had found the Senator. Now he was waiting for him to leave his office.

 

His eyes flitted from table to table, drawn and appalled at the same time by the patrons who were shovelling down their overpriced inferior lunches, rancid oysters and instant Soupe à l’Oignon and Cassoulet from a pack. Their dullness was as obvious as it was staggering. Some of them chewed with their mouths open, mashing food with saliva for all the world to see, gums and tongues smacking with wet glutinous noises. Francisco wanted to cut out their gums and tongues. Snatches of conversation. The weather. Which souvenir to buy. A congressman they had seen on television last night and spotted live this morning. Such a nice guy. Had his picture taken with Dot or Ethel or Flossie. The only reason why these creatures had flocked to the capital was that they craved importance by association. Craved it because they were too indolent to acquire importance of their own, because they had no vision, no concept of perfection. Francisco pitied them for their puny existence.

 

He averted his gaze and let it light on the puddle that had filled a depression in the flagstones. Raindrops punched a multitude of hectic, intersecting circles into the water. The unpredictability and absence of order disturbed him, and in his mind’s eye he coaxed the fall of the droplets to slow to the rhythm of a strained heartbeat, let the beads of liquid blush to a limpid rosy tinge. Blood and melting ice … A car honked, piercingly, indelicately, and with a start Francisco redirected his attention on the building across the street.

 

A never-ending succession of umbrellas surged in and out. Largely black with a few brighter colours spattered in here and there, they sheltered splashing feet in soiled shoes, scurrying up and down the steps. Francisco, sitting under the canopy at Petite Pigalle, thought of a famous Busby Berkley movie. He despised its saccharine Technicolor sycophancy and suddenly realised that the heroine, that unspeakable girl with the camp French accent, too disproportionately busty ever to have become a dancer anywhere but in Hollywood, reminded him of the Senator. He smiled in amusement. The politician was altogether too limp, too self-indulgent … yes, ‘flaccid’ was the right word for him. No force in the world could stretch his body to the alert, quivering tautness Francisco adored.

 

At the curb opposite a yellow cab pulled up, and from the portico spilled another umbrella, unseeingly clomping down the wide, sweeping stairs. The way the man moved was a calling card, at least to Francisco’s eyes. He either was naturally clumsy or else thought that heaviness of gait would somehow imbue him with added dignity and stature. Francisco suspected the latter. Radically different from the light, unselfconsciously graceful step that had first won his admiration in a ballroom on another planet … Leaving the precise amount he owed for a tea he hadn’t touched, Francisco rose and hurried across the street, dodging traffic and ignoring the shouts and raised fists of incensed drivers. He reached the vehicle at the same time as his target.

 

“I’m afraid that’s my cab. I ordered it!” Pale blue eyes, rheumy with greed and bloodshot from lack of sleep, glowered from under the rim of the umbrella. Then they widened in surprise and apprehension. “What are you doing here?! I thought I - …”

 

“Good afternoon, Senator.” Francisco smiled. “You don’t know how happy I am to see you.”

 

“I thought I told you to get out of town!” the man blustered, his weakness astounding. How had he ever got himself elected?

 

Francisco smoothly slid between the politician and the car, blocking the door. “Ah my dear Senator. This is a free country, remember? You purchased my services, but please don’t believe you bought me.”

 

“What do you want?!”

 

“Where is he, Senator? You took him. I want to know where.”

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’ve been paid, and our arrangement is terminated. Get out of my way!”

 

The politician tried to shoulder him aside. Francisco’s hand closed around the fist clutching the handle of the umbrella and squeezed hard enough to elicit a groan. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking I am as foolish as that. And don’t make me enforce a lesson on proper business practice. We had a contract. You broke it. In consequence I was unable to complete my work. I don’t like leaving tasks unfinished.” Throughout he’d been increasing the pressure, until the politician’s eyes began to water. Now he let go, wiped his fingers on a clean linen handkerchief. “Where is he?”

 

“I don’t know”, rasped the man. “I swear I don’t. The transfer was ordered by someone else.”

 

“Then I suggest you find out as a matter of urgency, Senator.” Francisco graciously opened the cab door for the politician. “I shall look forward to our next meeting. And please, don’t try to have me followed. I should take it as a personal affront.”

 

“Go to hell!” The man climbed into the vehicle, folding the umbrella and deliberately flicking drops of rain Francisco’s way.

 

The gesture, so reminiscent of a Catholic blessing with holy water, was deliciously at odds with the sentiment and Francisco chuckled. “I’d rather not. It would involve spending too much time in your company, Senator.”

 

As the door slammed shut and the cab nosed into a gap in the flow of traffic, he smiled. Now that he had made his presence known he could move to more appropriate lodgings.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

--- TOP SECRET ---

 

 

To:    C N DeVere, General USAF, Cheyenne Mountain

 

From:  W Carlisle, Joint Chief of Staff, Pentagon

 

Date: 09/04

 

Time:  18:39

 

 

Further to discussions with SecDef and the Appropriations Committee, it has been decided that you are to resume contact with P5X 081 and invite the leadership to visit the SGC. Their delegation is to be extended full courtesy and suitable apologies, as well as reparation for the damage caused by the former SG-1.

 

Your priority is to ratify the alliance treaty with the leaders of Drakalla and to ensure that establishment of an off-world SGC base on P5X 081 can proceed as soon as possible.

 

 

W Carlisle

J2

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

“Well, now you know pretty much everything I know, people …” Hammond’s voice trailed off and he looked tired and discouraged.

 

Some barbecue, Dr Fraiser thought. General Hammond actually had taken the trouble of firing up and putting home-marinated steaks on the grill and bringing out beers in a cooler, but his well-meant efforts had gone largely unappreciated after he’d begun telling them why they were here. For once in his life, even Daniel was at a loss for words and, ironically, none of them, including the General, found it funny in the slightest.

 

Janet glanced across the dark garden. He must have mowed the lawn in the afternoon, the tangy scent of freshly-cut grass still heavy in the air, mingling with jasmine and the fragrance of a last stalwart honeysuckle. It was a display of old-fashioned etiquette, which demanded that visitors be received in a tidy home, and its incongruity, its illusion of a world that was perfectly genteel and perfectly at peace, touched her. The last thing George Hammond could be accused of was being a romantic, but it almost seemed as though he’d tried to escape from the loss of a friend … especially that friend, and that way, that ugly way, of losing him.

 

“And?” Daniel Jackson said at last, his voice sounding like he had a fistful of dry leaves stuck in his throat. “Are you doing anything to find him?”

 

If he wanted to, Hammond could be quite the southern gentleman, and he wanted to now, refusing to rise to the bait. It wouldn’t have done any good anyway, wouldn’t have solved anything. Besides, all of them knew that Daniel was venting, lashing out to distract himself from his own pain. Fair or not, it was how he coped, because anger was easier to deal with than grief, and even Sam had been aware of it during their endless, hurtful battle. Out of the blue Janet wondered just what had happened to make those two put their sparring matches behind them …

 

“I’m retired, Dr Jackson. There isn’t a hell of a lot I can do”, the General replied quietly. That admission had to come hard. He was used to being in control, to that sublime state of affairs where things got done as and when the ordered them to be done. Now he was dependent on the goodwill of a handful of people, as the Colonel was, as they all were. Not a promising position to be in, considering the circumstances … “Major Davis is looking into it”, he added.

 

“Davis!” Apparently, Daniel had decided to bite the name if he couldn’t bite the man. “You can’t tell me you trust him, General. He happily believed every last lie the Drakallans chose to tell … Dammit, he’d just as soon spit at Jack as search for him!”

 

“I think you’re wrong, Dr Jackson.”

 

“How can you be so sure?! Just because he waltzed in here and told you what you wanted to hear?”

 

“Because I noticed his face when he saw this” - Hammond jerked his head at the picture lying on the table - “because he stuck his neck out in transferring Colonel O’Neill, and because he’s forwarded me stuff that never should have left the Pentagon. He didn’t have to do that.”

 

True. And that ungodly photograph would be enough to convince anyone. Janet Fraiser wished she’d never clapped eyes on it. Treating his injuries had been one thing ... During the early days she’d engaged in an intellectual exercise of deducing events from the damage. She’d had to distance herself in order to be able to treat him at all, or at least treat him without falling apart. It meant she could never allow herself to acknowledge fear or pain or hopelessness. The picture, cruelly intrusive, captured them all. By that stage the Colonel must have known exactly what would happen and how he’d end up. And he still hadn’t talked … And the powers that be had had the gall to brand this man a coward, to pull the rug out from under him financially, and to banish him into God only knew what kind of hole.

 

“Why?” asked Dr Fraiser. “What could they possibly hope to gain by it?”

 

“Nothing, in real terms”, Hammond said angrily. “It looks like it’s all about holier-than-thou posturing. J2 scored a few points politically, that’s about it.”

 

“Unless somebody’s trying to shut Jack up”, suggested Daniel.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“It was a frame, Doc. We knew it, Jack knew it. What we don’t know is who’s behind it. So far we haven’t made any headway in finding out, and there’s no guarantee that Sam … uhm …” He exchanged a furtive look with Teal’c, took a hasty sip of beer, swallowed the wrong way, and exploded into an alarming coughing fit. “All I’m saying is that there’s someone who’s got a vested interest in stopping Jack from talking to anyone who might believe him”, he finally wheezed.

 

“No guarantee that Sam what?” demanded Janet, not buying the act for a moment.

 

“GeneralHammond”, Teal’c piped up a tad abruptly. “The agents you questioned have mentioned a senator on whose behalf they were acting, have they not?”

 

“Yes.” Hammond nodded. “But it isn’t Kinsey, if that’s what you’re thinking. The guy’s name is Jasper Stevens. I checked up on him. He’s a Republican from Idaho, keeps a low profile, though lately he’s been rumoured to be quite pally with SecDef and our friend Warren Carlisle.”

 

“Would it not be advisable to speak to this Senator Stevens?”

 

“I agree, Teal’c. I’d really like to hear about his connection to the ‘Scientist’ and why he set those agents on him. Unofficially, according to them … As a matter of fact, I called his office, but his secretary told me he’s out of town. I’m thinking of flying to Washington myself and dropping in on him when he’s back. I also want to talk to General Vidrine - …”

 

“Oh sure!” Dr Jackson grimaced and poked at a roll in the bread basket. Eventually he picked it up and began ripping it apart, scattering crumbs everywhere. “I bet he’ll be falling over himself to help!”

 

The General sighed. “Doctor, no matter what you think, Vidrine’s a decent man, and he was set up as much as anyone else. He could have recommended a court martial. And we all know what the outcome would have been. He didn’t. What does that tell you?”

 

“It tells me Vidrine knew full well that Jack was praying for it!” spat Daniel and flung the tattered remnants of the roll back into the basket. “Sorry …” he muttered, trying to rein in his temper. “I hear what you’re saying, sir. It’s just - … Look, General, if you’re going to DC, I’m coming with you.”

 

“I don’t think I need anyone to hold my hand, Dr Jackson.” Hammond’s grin softened the rebuke. “Besides, don’t you have a job?”

 

“I concur with DanielJackson”, declared Teal’c. “I, too, shall accompany you, GeneralHammond. Our duties, such as they are, can easily by carried out by erudite simians.”

 

“Trained monkeys”, whispered Daniel.

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” George Hammond eyed them suspiciously.

 

Uh oh … Janet winced. On the way here the three of them had decided to spare General Hammond the sordid details of just what had been going on at the base since his retirement. He didn’t need that on his plate as well. A change of topic might be in order ... “Well, if you really want to go, I suppose I’ll have to come up with a good medical explanation to present to DeVere”, she proposed. “How do measles grab you, Dr Jackson?”

 

“Fine, as long as I don’t actually have to get them.” Daniel grinned. “What about Teal’c?”

 

“If I put you in home quarantine, he’ll have to care for you, won’t he? He’s immune.”

 

“I shall nurse DanielJackson to your fullest satisfaction, Dr Fraiser”, Teal’c intoned gravely.

 

“Uhunh … Don’t even think of it!” warned the hypothetical patient. “What about you, Doc? Aren’t you coming?”

 

“Remember the Exodus, Dr Jackson? The evil Pharaoh smelt a rat when not only Moses was gone in the morning, but all the Children of Israel as well. Besides, I might be needed here …”

 

“True …” There was no ‘might’ about it, and Daniel knew it as well as the doctor. SG-6 were next in line to get clobbered on behalf of Caruthers and his merry men. “If you don’t mind, General, I’ll use your phone and book the flights.”

 

“Would it stop you if I said I did, Dr Jackson?” Just as well that Hammond’s question had been rhetorical, because Daniel was already on his way indoors. The General stared after him for a moment, then turned back to Janet and the Jaffa. “Now, if you don’t mind, Dr Fraiser, Teal’c. What the hell is going on at my base? And what is Major Carter up to?”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

From:       georgesh@netservice.net 

 

Date:        September 4, 21:56

 

To:          p.davis@tel.net 

 

Re:          New Developments

 

 

Message:    Major: Friends and I will be arriving at Reagan National at 1225 hrs on Monday. Please arrange a meeting with General Vidrine ASAP.

 

Any news on Colonel O’Neill?

 

Thanks,

 

 

Hammond.

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

At least the band wasn’t bad. Mellow Gershwin at just the right volume, subtly lifting the expensive clinking of champagne glasses. The Senator weaved his way through the fog of conversation, a meaningless remark here, a trite joke there, playing the game, sucking up the boredom. A waiter came floating past eagerly with a full tray, and he took a glass and nodded his thanks. As a rule he stuck with Perrier water at official occasions. Tonight he felt he needed to unwind, though. By rights he ought to be in bed, but it was just one of those unwritten rules that kept Washington ticking over. If POTUS put in an appearance, you turned up, too, because you wanted to be seen with the man ... His most momentous exchange so far had been with a senile ex-ambassador to Luxembourg on the astonishing stability of the Swiss Frank. One hand raised to his face, as though he was about to scratch his nose, the Senator indulged in a discreet yawn.

 

On landing at Andrews, the pilot had cheerfully observed that Mr Senator had gained almost a whole day, but personally Mr Senator would have preferred to have gained a whole night. He was hideously jet-lagged, and fatigue made the insides of his eyelids feel as though they were coated with crushed glass. Being waylaid by the Doctor just as he was leaving his office to go home and change for this soirée was the last thing he’d needed. How come that maniac was running free in DC, anyway? According to J2’s message the man was supposed to be under surveillance …

 

Speaking of the devil … Warren Carlisle arrived in front of him with a smile designed to make a bulldog lose its lunch. The Senator rearranged his features into a genial grin, seeing that Mrs J2 was there as well, disguised as a seasonally displaced Christmas ornament.

 

“Mrs Carlisle! Delighted to see you again. You look stunning.” He kissed her puffy little paw with panache, narrowly avoiding a diamond-studded array of knuckle-dusters and reminding himself that he was due for his quarterly dental check-up.

 

“Elsie. Go and find someone to blether to. First Lady or somebody”, J2 barked, elbowing his lady wife aside.

 

“Sure, Woopsie.” She beamed and billowed towards FLOTUS who, by coincidence or plain good sense, turned on her heel and let herself be ushered to the opposite end of the room by the Ambassador of Malawi.

 

Woopsie? Now there was an affectionate conjugal nickname to be filed away for future reference … The Senator resisted an urge to chuckle. “General! Always a pleasure to run into you”, he announced suavely.

 

“Well, well, well … Home at last”, J2 observed unnecessarily and in the same disingenuous tone. “You might have let me know you’re back. I could have sent a limo to Andrews.”

 

As if … “Sorry, sir. I only arrived this morning …” And I bet the flight plan was sitting right there on your desk, the Senator groused silently, tasting the champagne. Lanson Brut Noir 1999, he reckoned. Not stellar but drinkable …

 

“No rest for the wicked.” Carlisle jovially slapped his shoulder, adding a symbolic exclamation mark to that cliché. “Let’s talk.”

 

“Here?”

 

J2 bellowed at a passing waiter to bring him a bourbon on the rocks. Then he steered the Senator past groups of chatting dignitaries, who pretended to have the time of their lives, and out onto a terrace above the sodden lawn. Which was about as private as it would get, unless they wanted to be soaked by the torrential downpour that had followed the day’s long awaited thunderstorms. Still, as long as they kept their voices low enough, their conversation would be drowned out by the machine-gun crackle of raindrops bursting on the awning.

 

“So, how was your little trip to Mother Russia? And how’s our friend Kuryagin?”

 

“The trip was informative, and Kuryagin sends his regards, sir.”

 

The waiter appeared, silhouetted in the French windows. “Sir?”

 

“What the hell do you want?”

 

“Your bourbon, sir.”

 

“Thanks.” J2 grabbed the tumbler, sniffed at it, and waited until the man was out of earshot. “Let’s dispense with the pleasantries, Senator. What’s happening over there?”

 

Ah … Could it be that the General was just a little nervous? The Senator savoured another sip of champagne, enjoyed the bracing tickle of bubbles at the roof of his mouth. Yes, the stuff was definitely drinkable ... “Kuryagin’s on top of things, and the operation’s running smoothly. It needed some fine-tuning, but I took care of that.”

 

“You took care of that?! I thought we’d agreed that there were to be no alterations without my consent?!”

 

We didn’t agree to anything, and with all due respect, General, you’re not in charge of the Project!” The outraged glare that observation provoked was nearly as bracing as the champagne. Time to take the man down a peg or two. His arrogance had begun to grate on the Senator’s nerves. “I was well within my rights to do what I thought best. Take it or leave it.”

 

“If you say so …” Carlisle backed down for now, pulled a cigar from his breast pocket, and lit it in a show of thoughtfulness. “Fine-tuning? How?”

 

The Senator sighed patiently and explained it in terms the man would be responsive to. “Unlike our programme, the Russians don’t have congressional oversight committees and all that other politically correct nonsense to worry about. Nobody cares what they bring Earthside, or where it goes. They can deliver the kind of technology we’d never be able to sneak past the NID. Let the SGC concentrate on supplying stuff that’s easily made to disappear … By the way, how are things going at Cheyenne Mountain?”

 

“Fine. DeVere’s taking some heavy losses, but I told him that securing the merchandise takes priority. His special unit has orders to go in, grab the loot and run, leave whoever’s bringing up the rear to cover their sixes. There’ve been grumbles from the troops, but sooner or later they’ll wise up to the fact that DeVere isn’t Hammond, and that they’ve joined the military, not the girl scouts …”

 

“Did DeVere consider upping the size of his units? Kuryagin has twenty men per team. They go in, hit them hard, take what they want, and whoever’s still standing legs it out of there.” The Senator shrugged. “Expensive, but effective.”

 

“Yeah, well. As you just pointed out, we’ve got such things as congressional oversight committees. How am I supposed to justify quadrupling SGC personnel? I suggest you leave the tactics to me and stick to politics and bartering, Senator.” J2 took a puff and exhaled a haze of smoke, morosely staring out into the pouring rain. “However, I may have a solution. I’ve given orders for DeVere to contact the Drakallans. We’re signing the treaty, and once the off-world base is established, we’ll see about that manpower problem. I suppose those ‘Helots’ on P5X 081 could as least come in handy as gun fodder.”

 

Damn the man! Kuryagin needed Drakalla as a staging area … The Senator could just see the raised eyebrows if a Russian team traipsed past an arriving SGC unit with a disassembled death glider in their tote bags. “I wish you’d discussed this with me”, he snapped.

 

“I was well within my rights to do what I thought best. Take it or leave it.” J2 grinned around his cigar. “Where’s the merchandise now?”

 

“At the agreed storage facility. A downtown warehouse owned by an off-shore company. Even if something goes wrong, the trail ends on the Bahamas.”

 

“It’d better. And nothing’d better - …”

 

“Wooooooooopsie!” The amorous trill gyrated through the French windows like a badly launched grenade. J2 flinched, but the Senator didn’t feel like laughing. “Woooooopsie! Mr P would like a word!” the voice chirped coyly. Mr P, it stood to reason, was the President.

 

“One day I’ll kill that woman”, snarled the General and shouted, “In a minute!” He turned back to the Senator. “When can I see it?”

 

“We’re expecting the second delivery from Russia in three days. Any time after that. I’m thinking of organising a viewing for the club.”

 

“Good. Keep me posted.” J2 stubbed out his cigar and was about to go inside.

 

“By the way, General?”

 

“What?!”

 

“Your efforts at pest control are hardly more effective than mine. The good Doctor is in Washington. This afternoon he jumped me outside my office, wanting to know where the flyboy is.”

 

“Shit!”

 

“We always could tell him, I suppose …”

 

 

* * * * *

 

 

 

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 5

 

 

From:       b09ty11@realgroups.com