The next thing Daniel heard was the screeching of brakes and a quite impressive blue streak that sounded as if it came from Sam. All of it on a background of traffic noises.

Huh.

Cranking his eyelids open even to the level of slits required a near-superhuman effort.

Huh?

They were heading down a four lane road, cars parked either side and behind them a seemingly endless string of neighborhood shops – drugstores, Chinese takeouts, hardware stores, you name it. The screeching of brakes and swearing of blue streaks probably had been caused by a motorcycle courier who now was blindly switching lanes and aggravating three other motorists in the process. Cue screeching of brakes etc.

Sam took a right onto a bridge or flyover that soared past what looked like a giant white rubber dinghy and toward the rain-slick glass and steel and concrete array of high-rises clustering at the city center. Through the gaps between buildings you could make out cloud-laden mountains.

“Morning.” Sam slanted a look at him. “We’re nearly there. All we need is a parking space.”

A department store, a mall, an art gallery, an enormous old hotel disguised as a castle, more skyscrapers housing high-end stores at street level.

“Carter! Over there!” Jack was pointing across the street at a car about to pull out of a parking slot.

“You want me to do a U-turn? Here?”

“Do it!”

Daniel was sure he heard her mutter something about Washington drivers, but she hung a one-eighty – likely as not illegal – and shot into the vacant slot. The maneuver prompted a concert of outraged honking, loudest and longest from the guy who’d been heading up the road in the opposite direction and had his eye on the space until Sam cut him off.

“Excitable bunch, aren’t they?” Jack observed dryly. “Teal’c maybe you ought to get out first. We want to keep complaints to a minimum.”

“Indeed.” As Teal’c peeled his six foot three out of the backseat and onto the sidewalk, the parking hopeful who’d been spoiling for an argument thought better of it, swung back into the traffic, and disappeared.

The high rise was set back from the road. In front was a small courtyard with fountains and greenery sprouting from concrete boxes. They headed up a set of shallow steps past the urban landscaping and to the front entrance, one of those automated glass carousels that had a tendency to get stuck as soon as you looked at them sideways. This one didn’t, quite possibly because Daniel, despite a solid hour of sleep, was too bleary-eyed to manage a decent sideways look.

Inside, the lobby, a gleaming affair of white marble and more glass, with a scattering of painfully cubic chairs thrown in, was deserted. At the back stretched a bank of four elevators. On the wall between the center two hung a brass plaque that informed the curious visitor of what was where.

Tip of his index finger rattling down the list, Daniel found it quickly enough. “Webber Holding. Top two floors.”

The elevator ride almost felt like home, except that the car was a little more upscale and dripped something syrupy for strings from invisible speakers. On the top floor was another lobby, this one sporting wall-to-wall windows that looked out over a bay and a tree-shrouded peninsula. It also sported an inhabitant who could have made a killing as a model. The woman was ensconced behind a reception desk the size of a small continent and stared in disapproval, first at them and then, more pointedly, at the dirty wet footprints they trailed across the carpet.

“Yes?” The word oozed through clenched teeth and a plastic smile. “Can I help you?”

Daniel put on a smile that was no more genuine than hers, but if she insisted on choreographed civility, he’d dance along. For now. “My name is Dr. Daniel Jackson. I’d like to see your boss.”

“May I ask what it’s about?”

“It concerns a matter referred to him by Dr. Dimitriades.”

“Ah.” An exquisitely manicured scarlet talon speared the talk button on the intercom. “Mr. Webber? There’s a Dr. Jackson here to speak to you. Regarding Dr. Dimitriades. Yes. Certainly, sir.” She disconnected, fluttered more talons in the direction of a double-panel oak door. “You may go right in, Dr. Jackson. Oh, do you prefer coffee or tea?”

Coffee. God, he wanted to weep with joy at the sheer concept of it! “Coffee, please. Uh… lots of coffee, if it isn’t too much trouble. Thank you.”

As Daniel headed for the inner sanctum, Jack, Sam, and Teal’c fell in behind him.

The model got agitated, civility springing a crack or two. “They can’t go in!” And, belatedly, “I’m sorry. Your friends will have to wait. I have no credentials for them.”

Plus, they looked unkempt, rumpled, and in need of a wash, Daniel figured. Not that he looked or smelled any different.

“Piece o’ cake. I’ll fill you in.” Jack swung around in a graceful arc that left a racetrack tattoo on the carpet, placed both palms on the reception continent, and leaned in. To his left and right, Teal’c and Sam took position like an enemy fleet off the continental coast. “This is how it’s gonna go,” Jack said, feigning a patience he’d never possessed in his life. “It’s all or nothing. Your boss wants to see Daniel here, he’ll have to see the rest of us. Think of it as a package deal.”

“My instructions are –”

“All or nothing.” Jack leaned forward some more, and the enemy fleet smiled and managed to loom a little closer.

If the model hadn’t suffered from claustrophobia before, she probably did now. “I don’t even know who you are,” she protested feebly.

“Major General Jack O’Neill, US Air Force.”

Going by the look on her face, the model was struck speechless, caught between bafflement and disbelief. Daniel knew how she felt. It sounded weird. Or maybe it was just some new-and-shiny factor. He’d barely acclimatized to the Brigadier, and now this. Fact was, he’d always think of Jack as Colonel O’Neill. Force of habit.

As if he hadn’t noticed, Jack carried on. “The cranky looking chick to my right is Colonel Samantha Carter, US Air Force. And the exuberant fellow here” – his hand came down on Teal’c’s shoulder loud enough to make the slap reverberate from the picture windows and bounce around the room – “is a big cheese in the government back where he comes from. So now that those pesky introductions are out of the way and we’re all skookum, we’ll just go in, shall we? Can’t keep the boss waiting.”

Mouth hanging open the model gave a slow-motion nod that, Daniel suspected, was prompted less by agreement and more by severe systemic shock.

“Excellent. Daniel, lead the way. Oh” – Jack wheeled around for a last look at his victim – “and don’t forget the coffee. Lots of coffee.”

Skookum?” Daniel hissed from the corner of his mouth as they headed for the door.

“You’re not the only one who speaks foreign languages,” Jack hissed back. “I’m fluent in Canadian.”

Chick?” Sam chimed in.

Daniel opened the door before Jack could do some more shoveling in that hole he’d dug for himself.

It was the corner office to end them all. Two walls of windows, and the antique oak desk seemed to float midair above the city of Vancouver. Daniel could only imagine the view on a clear day. How Mr. Webber ever got any work done was beyond him. Speaking of…

The man who rose from a leather office chair was older than Daniel had expected, roughly in his late sixties. Tall, lean, with close-cropped white hair and dressed in an Italian designer suit that probably cost half Daniel’s annual salary, he came across as the epitome of the hard-bitten corporate go-getter.

Webber stepped around his desk, hand outstretched. “Dr. Jackson, thank you for coming. I –” His eyes widened, gaze jumping from Daniel to the team. The hand dropped, and he turned ghostly pale. “Impossible!”

Daniel barely managed to catch him as he passed out.

“Holy buckets,” said Jack. “I knew we were good, kids, but I didn’t think we were that good.”