Jackfic Fiction Archive Story

 

The Hell Series Part Three:

Hell Reclaimed

by JodiMarie aka Shootem

 




The folder made a pleasant slapping sound as it landed on top of the 'out' pile, possibly an effect that was enhanced by the fact that the 'in' box was completely empty, a rarity anywhere in the facility but in this particular office, unheard of.

Colonel O'Neill leaned back in his chair and stretched out his lanky frame, he hated paperwork with a passion and it was more than phenomenal he'd managed to get through it with but a single curse. Before shutting down the computer and heading for home he tapped out the few keystrokes that would retrieve any waiting e-mail.

As usual the subject headings were more work related than anything else; with updates to personnel files, mission reports and possible new destinations identified by Carter's random dialing program with a little spam thrown in for good measure.

A simple one-word subject line caught his eye. 'Humpty'. The senders address was only a long string of random characters denoting the encryption used to hide the identity when it was sensitive in a 'top secret' classification sort of way.

He clicked it. Only one person ever called him that and it was ages ago. Dorsey was a Lieutenant Colonel back then and O'Neill had been a Captain, both Special Forces hot shots, or so they thought until O'Neill had taken that plunge out of a plane with a defective parachute. Dorsey figured his teammate was so screwed up by the experience he'd never come back. Just to challenge him, Dorsey started calling O'Neill Humpty Dumpy after the storybook character that took a 'great fall'. He taunted the young Captain time and time again about pulling himself together and getting back on that plane. Little did either of them know so long ago that what the fall from the airplane couldn't do, four months in a dank dark cell would at a later time. Broken could only begin to describe what had happened to one Jack O'Neill.

After months in a rehab facility he was recovered of his injuries from the fall and insisted on rejoining the team instead of taking the ticket for home he'd been offered. The whole team was thrilled to have him back since his special skills were often sorely needed. He *was* quite simply the best his Commander had ever seen, and that included the Navy's number one Seal team. As soon as his particular brand of genius was recognized in the academy, he'd been encouraged to go Special Forces.

While in training he'd often impressed senior officers with his ability to perceive a threat long before it was obvious and then show his strength of character by making whatever hard choice was necessary and dealing with it. Add to that his almost immediate understanding of any weapon placed in his hands and the young airman was a force to be reckoned with.

He rejoined his team, determined to overcome the setback, and in no time at all had found his 'edge', and was once again an integral part of the group. Then *it* happened. A mission gone wrong. Separated from the team. Left behind. He'd never forget the sight of the helicopter taking off and turning its tail to him and never forgive the men aboard her.

He shook off the clouding memories as the document loaded. Oddly it wasn't just a letter or note like he'd expected. It was a map with a specific site marked in red. The only words were a cryptic 'Tomorrow, 1930 Hrs'.

O'Neill squinted at the screen memorizing the location and hit the 'delete' key twice, permanently removing the message. The document disappeared from view and he leaned back in his chair again, this time not to relax but to consider the request. If this was about renewing an old friendship Dorsey had a strange way of going about it. He was certain it was about something else; he just didn't know what.

<><><>

"Second star, nice."

The older man almost leapt out of his skin. One minute he'd been sitting quietly on the park bench tossing bits of bread to a flock of pigeons while waiting for his 'appointment' to arrive and the next he was startled nearly enough to wet himself by the soft voice speaking no more than an inch from his ear.

Major General Dorsey composed himself in record time; he wasn't about to let his former teammate see how easy it had been to get the drop on him, despite the person doing it was admittedly an expert in the field of covert ops. In fact it was one of the reasons the General had kept an eye on one certain Colonel's career since coming out of retirement for, unbelievably, the second time. Skills like that were rare and needed to be utilized. Something Dorsey had seen to several times over the last few years.

"Jack. Glad you came."

O'Neill took a seat next to the General and eyed the man from head to toe. Older, of course, both of them were, but Dorsey had a bit too much of a paunch to his stomach, and far too immaculate a uniform with every crease just so. The man had become an ace paper-pusher. "Thought you'd retire as a Brigadier."

"Could have, but you know-" A tiny smirk began to show on his lips. He knew what O'Neill was thinking and despised paperwork just as much. "It's so damn exciting I couldn't pull myself away."

O'Neill allowed himself a full and genuine grin at his old CO. "Good to see you Dorce."

"I see you're still a Bird."

He shrugged as he answered. "Too many retirement breaks and too many little black marks in my file."

Dorsey looked away and off to the horizon. "Your file is just like mine Colonel, all the black is where the censors inked over the stuff we can't talk about."

A silence fell as the mere mention of the link between them dredged up memories best left forgotten.

"Why am I here?"

"Right to the point; you haven't changed much, you know. Okay then." The General took in a deep breath and blew it out. "Since your most recent 'reactivation' you've been called upon for a few missions that were shall we say, more akin to your previous occupation."

O'Neill's expression hardened just slightly; the older man now had his full attention.

"As you may have guessed it was me behind them."

Actually he hadn't, but now it made sense. Dorsey was the highest-ranking surviving member of the elite team of which they'd been a part and knew full well the Colonel's capabilities. O'Neill wondered how it was he'd been asked to take on a few 'special' missions over the past few years that were not related to his current assignment. The only one that had anything to do with the SGC itself had been to expose Makepeace as a mole and it was authorized by Hammond; the rest had come from somewhere in Washington.

Even Hammond had been privy to only two others; the remaining ones had taken place while he was on supposed 'downtime'. Luckily no one ever questioned why he sometimes came back from 'fishing' with serious jet lag or unexplained bruises, though once it was necessary for Fraiser to be contacted by a direct link from the Pentagon with orders to 'treat, ask nothing, and exclude from records'.

At first she'd been irritated and had stalked around the infirmary like a frazzled wet hen then threatened to go directly to Hammond. O'Neill had grabbed her arm and forced her into her own office and shut the door.

The manhandling didn't bother her so much, except to raise her ire even more, but when she turned and looked into his eyes all that changed.

In that moment she knew fear.

It had a name and a medical file three inches thick that she'd read cover to cover. Twice. She, possibly more than anyone else on base, save Hammond, knew exactly what the Colonel had been through during his career and the price he'd paid to get where he was now.

She felt the bile rise in her throat and hoped she wouldn't throw up.

He blinked once, twice, and it was gone, replaced with a quiet softness that she dared not intrude upon by speaking. Her breath finally came to her, and she prayed to never see that look turned in her direction again. For all the mock hostility she and her staff endured at the mercy of the Colonel, she'd always managed to stay in control of her little kingdom, that was, until now. Now she knew the truth; she only ever controlled him because he allowed it.

He shook himself as if the intensity of the atmosphere was something tangible he could remove like a cloak, and reached into his back pocket, producing a page from a newspaper folded upon itself until it was not much larger than a half sheet of paper. He plopped it on her desk, unfolding it partially so that a particular story was on top.

The infant daughter of a Texas senator was kidnapped and had just been returned two days before. The article was a blow-by-blow account of a vicious firefight between the kidnappers and Police and how when the captors knew it was over they decided to destroy themselves and the child with a couple live grenades. From out of nowhere an unnamed officer had appeared and grabbed the girl. The grenades went off and the man turned his back to the explosion with her in his arms to protect her. The rest of the story was about the flurry of activity as the Police Swat Team took over and returned the child to her parents. No further mention was made of the man who pulled her out of harm's way.

Fraiser looked at the Colonel and opened her mouth, but he shushed her with a look. Not quite as menacing as before, though just as effective. He turned the paper over to hide the story then slowly, and with obvious pain, removed his jacket and T-shirt and turned his back to her. The vest had done its job and protected most of him, but his upper arms and shoulders had several small lacerations, which had already been cleaned out and sutured as necessary. Her job would be to keep an eye on the healing process and take out the sutures when it was time.

When he turned back to face her she had tears in her eyes, perhaps the 'mother' in her showing. She helped him back into his T-shirt, and as their eyes met she smiled at him and mouthed the words 'thank you'. He'd come as close as he could to breaching classification protocol and telling her what happened, a gesture she'd remember for a long time. His only response was to give her a sharp nod, then pick up his jacket and saunter off. To anyone else it was just *him*, maybe a little stiff, but that could be chalked up to showing his age. Only Janet Fraiser and one frightened little girl knew what a hero he was.

Then again, only O'Neill and the unnamed source in Washington knew what a near failure the mission had actually been. The Colonel wasn't supposed to grab the child and get himself injured; that had happened only when events moved along faster than he'd anticipated. His orders were to neutralize the grenade threat and position himself to take out at least one of the men when the SWATs moved in. He'd earned a reprimand for foolhardiness from Washington and a handwritten note from the Senator thanking the 'anonymous officer' for what he'd done. Two sides of the same coin.

Dorsey continued. "Something has come up, another mission, and your skills and knowledge would be most useful."

"That's no different than before. So why reveal yourself now, and why meet in person?"

Dorsey's eyes fell to the ground. "This one's special. You remember Toby?"

"Sure, last time I saw him he was packing it in. Going home for good. He intended to keep his wife pregnant for three or four years and raise at least one of them to be a major league pitcher."

The General had to grin at that one. Toby was relentless when it came to baseball; he knew every stat for every year since before he was born. The grin quickly faded, and he raised his eyes to once more give his attention to O'Neill.

"Some of that happened. I think there are three kids, two of them boys." He paused before dropping the bomb his companion knew was coming. "Jack, he stayed in the reserves, got called up with this last war and shipped out."

"And?" O'Neill was becoming visibly impatient.

"And, four days before the end he was out on a routine patrol. They were ambushed and taken hostage. Six of the nine have been accounted for and are back home, two in body bags."

"Toby?"

"We've just recently received intel that even this long after the surrender, there are strongholds where people are loyal to Saddam, and some of them have American prisoners in their custody. One such camp is near where Toby's patrol was attacked. We believe he is there. The diplomatic talks are failing, and there's such an uproar about how bad conditions have gotten since we took over, who knows when they'll actually start talking prisoner exchanges and such."

In his mind O'Neill was already ticking off the logistics of a hostage extraction. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and squinted out across the small lake in front of them, deep in thought. "How good is your information?"

"Very."

"Precise location, opposing force strength and possible back up by locals, firepower estimates and usual patterns of the guards and anyone else who might be in the vicinity?"

"All available."

"Transportation?"

"You'll drop in as close as we can get you; for pick up we'll use Turkish Helos. They make frequent runs past the border, and the locals are pretty used to seeing them. Hardly pay attention to them anymore."

"Time frame?"

"From go to completion? A week or two, but you should prepare for more in case of complications, it *is* Iraq after all, and I don't expect it to be a one-man op this time, for obvious reasons. You can hand pick a team from the SF's attached to the local Command if you want, but keep the compliment small, two or three only." There was a short pause as the General gave O'Neill a moment to consider the options. "As usual I won't order you to do this, your choice alone. This could be a bad one and no official sanction."

O'Neill snorted at that. Since when had the government *ever* backed him up on one of these missions? He didn't answer right away but then suddenly sat upright and crossed his arms in front of his chest, a look of resolve on his face.

Dorsey's eyes brightened. "So, you in?"

"I'll need a cover story for Hammond, I'm not due for any time off right now."

"Don't need it, unless you want to work out something for everyone else who might be affected by your absence. Due to the nature of this mission I've decided to let Hammond into the loop if you agreed to go. I'll brief him within the hour and then head back to DC. You'll be ready to ship out at 0600?"

"Usual place?"

"Usual place."

O'Neill stood to his feet. "How many besides Toby?"

"Two others, I'll have files and photos of all relevant persons waiting for you on the plane."

"As usual." The Colonel nodded once then turned to leave. He shot a sly grin back over his shoulder as he walked away. "Two stars, huh? Wouldn't have guessed."

<><><>

The restaurant parking lot was full as a testament to their claim of having the 'best steaks outside of Texas', and the only parking O'Neill could find was on the street. This team outing had been planned several days ago and he'd been looking forward to spending some time with his 'kids' outside of work. He wasn't about to miss out on it completely despite running 45 minutes late and once again being called upon to do some extra-curricular work for good Old Uncle Sam.

Everyone was already digging into their plates by the time O'Neill stepped into the doorway. He nodded to Daniel who was waving him over then detoured to the bar to pick up a beer before joining the group at a long rectangular table set adjoining the recreation area. Teal'c and Daniel were discussing something decidedly 'X-Files' while Carter and Fraiser were eyeing the pool table and betting whether Carter could beat the current night's would-be pro.

O'Neill sat across from the women and nodded to Fraiser. It was nice to see her joining them. She wasn't specifically a member of the team but was always a welcome addition to the party.

"Ladies."

They broke from their giggling and greeted him. "Colonel."

"Sir." Carter glanced at the beer and back up at his face. "I hope that's not dinner."

"Actually," he turned the bottle and made it wobble on the table. "I might get something to take with me. I need to make this an early night."

"Hot date, Jack?" Daniel looked at him over the top of his glasses and took another bite of potato.

"Ah, not really." O'Neill's eyes stayed on the label of his beer, the only overt reaction being his eyebrows momentarily flicking upwards. "Something's come up; I've got to go out of town for a few days."

"Don't we have a mission coming up day after tomorrow?" Carter asked.

"Standard follow-up right? Known friendly. I don't see any reason to delay going on my account. You can handle it." He waved a hand in her direction. "Besides, Daniel's been looking forward to it for over a week; he hasn't talked about anything else."

"Hey! *He* is sitting right here! And what's not to look forward to? They've got a museum that rivals our own Smithsonian."

"Two-headed goats?"

The archaeologist groaned and shook his head. Leave it to O'Neill to pick the one anomalous thing out of the initial contact team's mission report. "You know a museum is about a lot more than oddities and bizarre deformities, how about history?"

"But they *do* have a two-headed goat."

"It's not a goat."

"The picture looked like a goat."

"It's still not a goat."

"As I recall it was a small horned quadruped." Teal'c offered as a compromise. The other two men both immediately looked at him trying to decide if this was another attempt at humor from the Jaffa.

Carter and Fraiser had been watching the exchange and burst out laughing at the same time. Sam leaned over to the Doctor and stage whispered an explanation. "Really, it *was* a goat."

O'Neill grinned and leaned back in his chair, saluting the younger man with his beer bottle. "Three to one."

Daniel chose to ignore him and called to the waitress for a refill on his coffee. Only twenty minutes later O'Neill stood to leave.

"I should be going."

"Anything we can do?" Daniel had gotten over his irritation and was curious about what would take O'Neill away from his post on such short notice.

"Nah, I just have to do something for a friend." He noticed the questioning look in Fraiser's eyes and stared back at her with a hint of sternness, an unspoken reminder of the nature of his occasional exploits.

"Goodnight all. Carter?" He nodded his head toward the exit asking her to see him out.

He didn't speak until they were outside and a short distance from the entrance. "This may take longer than a couple of days. In the meantime, I've talked with Hammond about the status of SG-1. I see no reason to put everyone on downtime because of my absence. You're well able to command, so you'll have the team until I get back." He paused. "If I'm delayed very long you might consider requesting a fourth."

"Sir?" Her eyes opened wide. Suddenly she understood he was up to something more than a social visit and was now preparing her for the possibility he might not come back. Ever.

"Colonel, what's this about?"

"Like I said, something for a friend."

"I don't buy it. If you can't say, then just say you can't say."

He balked at her words; the woman was spending *way* too much time around a certain archaeologist. "All right then, I can't say."

Carter stared at him for a moment blinking. She knew his history and understood covert and classified missions, but it was unsettling to find herself without clearance. She began to reach one hand out, imploring him, but caught herself and jammed both hands in her jeans pockets instead. She fought not to stammer as she spoke.

"Whatever it is, you know you could trust us."

A flicker of dismay crossed his eyes as he recalled the fallout from having left his team out of the loop before. It had taken several weeks for the team dynamic to get back to even close to where it was before he'd taken that mission for the Asgard and Tollan; he'd had to earn their trust all over again.

"I know, and I do." He looked her straight in the eye as he spoke then lowered his head slightly and continued in a softer tone. "Sam, it's all right. I just have to go."

Her head turned to the side, and she glanced at his hand where it had come to rest on her shoulder, his warmth evident through the thin fabric of her shirt.

"Just be careful, okay?"

He grinned as he released her and turned toward his truck. "Hey, it's me. Don't worry."

<><><>

The plane ride out was nothing special. O'Neill was given a courtesy lift out of Petersen on a commercial commuter flight and met his long-term ride at the airfield in Nevada. From there he wouldn't touch ground again until they were in Kuwait. It was there he'd put together his team, brief them, plan the mission and implement it.

Al Jaber Airfield hadn't changed much since the war's end. If anything it was busier than before. He noted the full hangers and a great many planes parked alongside the runway. Coming into the place via the dusty desert roadway the planes looked like a disorganized mesh of metal they were situated so closely together. Through the rising heat it was impossible to see where one ended and the next began.

O'Neill checked in with the base commander, General Marchman before going to his assigned quarters to rest for a short while. After that, he was set up to meet with the XO and choose his team. He sat on the bunk and gazed out a northward facing window. Just beyond the horizon was the one place on earth he never wanted to see again, and here he was, by his own choice going back.

He glanced at the stack of folders he'd set on the table and sighed. The top file was that of Major Tobias Sellers, the reason he was here. He lay down with his fingers interlaced behind his neck and legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. He knew sleep would not come now, but he needed to rest and get his body in sync with the local time of day.

Two hours later he followed an aide back to the command headquarters and met the XO. Jeff Sykes was a few years younger but matched O'Neill's salt and pepper hair and somewhat worn appearance to his face. His background was Special Forces too, and he'd already set aside several files of likely candidates for the mission. Not surprisingly all five of O'Neill's choices were on Sykes' list. He wanted to meet with each of them before choosing three to go. The remaining two would serve as backup and be waiting aboard the Turkish helicopter to assist with the extraction.

After the meetings O'Neill made his decision: Second Lieutenant Dwight McGhee, demolitions expert, Chicago native and avid wrestling enthusiast; Second Lieutenant Sean Blacksmith, communications and electronics wizard; and a Computer Specialist, Major Rick Barnes.

Colonel Sykes nodded his approval of the choices, his only addition was to add himself to the back-up helo crew, bringing the total number of men to be prepped and ready to seven. All of the men were able pilots and trained to handle any weapon currently available on the planet.

O'Neill had to smile at Sykes boasting; little did he know one member of the team was versed in a variety of off world weaponry as well.

Something niggled at O'Neill as he prepped the day before the mission was to go. His sixth sense kicked in, and he raised his head just in time to see the base CO standing in the doorway. "Colonel. Got a minute?"

O'Neill nodded and followed the General out of the building to a group of tables and benches situated off a small distance from the bunker. None of them were being used at the time, so he and Marchman were alone out in the open air. Somewhat similar to a meeting he'd had only a few days before with another General, O'Neill noted.

"How's the mission coming together?"

"As expected, quickly. You have well-trained men, a credit to your operation."

The General didn't respond right away, so O'Neill continued talking. "In, fact they are extremely well-trained. Makes me wonder just *why* it is I'm here."

"You are acquainted with one of the hostages."

"Yeah, about that; emotional involvement is the one thing that should have excluded me from this particular mission, especially given that you have such able personnel available." He watched Marchman's body language and was pleased to see him tense, tightening one fist until a knuckle popped. "And you brought me all the way from Colorado, too."

"Dammit, Dorsey didn't say what an irreverent smart-ass you are."

"Hmm. Just an observant one."

The General squared his shoulders and folded his arms across his chest then glanced around them making sure no one was approaching. "All right. Here it is. Yes, we've got a few men being held by Iraqis, and if we don't get them out soon I don't think we ever will. But that is only part of the actual mission. The man overseeing the opposing forces is one of Saddam's Generals whom we lost track of back near the end of the war. If he continues he'll soon be able to rebuild his forces to threat level. He already has the backing of hundreds of locals. They're calling him 'Bensada' the next Saddam." He paused before continuing. "You recall how little success we've had in neutralizing these leaders once they've gone to ground?"

O'Neill nodded. The success rate would be near zero except that they'd been very lucky.

"Well, we think there's a chance to take this one out, given the right person doing the job. Colonel, my men are good, but they aren't experienced assassins."

The final word brought the answer home to O'Neill. He winced at the sound of it. Assassin. So that was how the government classified him now.

"You waited until now to tell me this?"

"Didn't want to impede your commitment."

The Colonel frowned and narrowed his eyes. "General if we get in there, and I find out your intel is off by so much as a hair, that there are no Americans to rescue-" He smirked. "Let's just say, you're right, I *am* an experienced assassin."

Marchman stiffened. Under other circumstances he'd have the Colonel up on charges for threatening a superior officer. "It's not off. You'll see." He turned to face his now nemesis. "But we want that Bensada character neutralized. Am I clear?"

"Crystal." O'Neill answered in a flat and emotionless tone.

The General stood to his feet. "You'll find additional gear stowed under your bunk. If you need anything else specific let me know. The mission goes in-" He glanced at his watch. "Just over 30 hours." The General gave no dismissal, 'goodbye' or even 'good luck'. He just walked off leaving O'Neill to ponder the additional parameters of the mission before getting up and heading for his assigned quarters.

O'Neill knew he'd left his room locked, but just the same when he entered the first thing he spotted was an unfamiliar black case under his bunk. He pulled it out and laid it on the mattress, looking it over once before opening it. Lifting the lid he found a class 1 sniper rifle broken down to its components and tucked neatly in foam. He ran his fingers over the familiar metal pieces, and without even a thought picked up the appropriate parts one at a time and put the weapon together in ten seconds flat. He held it in his hands, testing the balance and weight of it. More than adequate, it was an excellent choice. A Teflon finished M25 with a match grade barrel. If he got a clean shot anywhere within 900 meters his target would fall. He slung it lightly over his shoulder and sauntered out of the room toward the base firing range; there was plenty of time before dark to verify the weapons accuracy and make certain he was comfortable handling it.

<><><>

It took two days to gear up properly and coordinate with the Turks, but in the end it was worth it. Their contact was an older man who'd been flying recon missions over northern Iraq for twenty years. Yazu had been shot down six times, had broken both legs and three ribs and had a skull fracture- though not all at the same time, and been hospitalized for three months with massive pulmonary edema from breathing superheated air in a fire. He'd had no choice; at the time he was trapped in the cockpit of a downed plane and was slowly being roasted alive. His god smiled on him that day, and a traveler who'd seen the plane crash showed up to offer assistance riding an absconded American Humvee complete with winches and rescue gear. The side of the plane had to literally be ripped off to allow for his exit.

After that incident Yazu quit flying planes in favor of helicopters, he figured he was too old to 'dogfight' anymore and ran recon and cargo runs between Turkey, Iraq and Iran, and Jordan. He tried to keep his political entanglements to a minimum but saw no problem transporting American 'GI's'.

Final weapons check was at 2200, and O'Neill allowed himself a little amusement at the differing opinions of what should be carried in their packs. Of course Blacksmith and Barnes being techno-geeks of one kind or another had their packs crammed with rolls of wire, clamps and an assortment of odd looking gizmos all of which had at least two blinking lights and some kind of gauge. McGhee's and O'Neill's own packs were weighed down with bricks of C-4, detonators, extra magazines for their weapons and various incendiary devices. They all had to carry basic things such as first aid kits and emergency field rations, but the only job-related item they held in common was each of them carried a large roll of duct tape. O'Neill promptly labeled them the Duck Brigade and dubbed his team Huey, Louie and Dewey.

The light-hearted feeling continued as they completed prep. O'Neill had a good feeling about this mission. Success was often the result of putting together the right team for the job, and this one worked well from the moment they were introduced. It felt good; too, to be doing something other than a solo op. Especially since becoming the leader of SG-1, he'd preferred a team to going it alone. He saw a few of them take note of his additional weapon and nod their heads in understanding. All of these men were trained snipers, but he didn't know which of them might have had the opportunity to make use of their training on that level. To O'Neill, their silence was an indication of their support of the situation; he accepted it gladly.

At precisely 2245, they were in position less than two miles from the compound where the Americans were being held. As the helicopter hovered, four corded lines were dropped, and O'Neill gave the signal to descend. Simultaneously all four of them slid down the lines to the ground and dove for cover until the Helo was well away from them.

Night vision goggles in place, they headed for the Iraqi compound.

O'Neill took point himself and led the group right up to a wire fence enclosing the stronghold. He motioned to McGhee who produced a pair of wire snips and quickly created an opening. One-by-one they crept in keeping their bodies hunched over. Up to now they'd had cover from either small trees and brush or abandoned buildings. Once inside the perimeter there was little to conceal their presence. As they neared the buildings, O'Neill made a sweeping motion down with his hand and dropped to his belly. The others followed suit without question. From here on, they'd have to crawl until they made it to the deep shadows around the buildings.

They needed to pass by three outer buildings to get to the prisoner's location, and it was a certainty that all of them would be occupied. Sticking to the shadows the group split up. McGhee stayed with O'Neill, and Major Barnes swung off to the left wall followed closely by Blacksmith, the other Lieutenant.

Within sight of their target, Barnes flashed a penlight toward O'Neill and motioned that there were two guards at the entrance. O'Neill nodded and motioned back that he and McGhee were set to take the rear entrance. They coordinated a two-minute count. Then they'd go in simultaneously.

The goal was to get in without firing a shot, if they were discovered too soon, none of them would make it out alive. One minute after the deadline O'Neill was standing in the middle of the central corridor admiring the work of his team. Six Iraqis were down, two dead, four likely to be unconscious for a very long time even though the only weapons used had been knives and bare hands. The only other indigenous life forms moving about were the field mice skittering away from the intrusion, as surprised as the guards had been by the silent invasion of their abode.

Finally free to speak O'Neill pointed to the back hallway and a solid-looking bolted door. "In there."

Blacksmith relieved one of the guards of a ring of heavy iron keys and proceeded to try them on the door. The third one fit. The heavy door slid open away from him leaving an additional scrape in the already rutted floor. O'Neill was first in and moved cautiously along the row of cells looking for his friend. Most of the cages were empty but near the back he heard sounds of rustling feet and saw a hand or two clasping at the iron bars.

He motioned for the Lieutenant to come up and begin unlocking the door as he moved all the way to the back, casting only an understanding nod toward the two Americans soon to be released. When he got to the end his shoulders slumped. Toby was not here.

O'Neill turned on his heel and marched back to the open cells just in time to catch one of the emerging men by the collar. He slammed the young man back against the bars and growled as loudly as he dared. "Where is he? The other one that was with you?"

"Sir?" The airman was not much more than a boy, and having been caged for so long, he'd lost weight and muscle. He was as limp as a washrag in O'Neill's hands. "I, I don't know, Sir." He was stuttering either from shock or fear, perhaps some of both. He feared the Iraqis for sure but somehow this irate Colonel had them beat.

O'Neill relaxed his grip but didn't let go for fear the kid would drop all the way to the floor. "Okay. We're getting you out of here, but we'd like to get everyone. Tell me your name."

The young man blew out a shaky breath and slumped but held onto O'Neill's wrist where he'd grabbed him. "Mark. Mark Johnson. I mean First Lieutenant Johnson, Sir."

O'Neill smiled at the cracking of the airman's voice. "Well, Mark, Mark Johnson, do you know who we're looking for?"

"Yes, Sir. It's Toby, right?"

"Good boy. Now, was he here?"

"Yeah, all this time up until five days ago. Some guard took an interest in his Special Forces tattoo and I guess they thought he might have more information than the rest of us. They took him off for interrogation and never brought him back."

At the fallen appearance of O'Neill's face he hurriedly continued. "But he's not dead. They're just holding him somewhere else. I just saw him this afternoon when they had him out in the yard. They let us all out for short periods once a day."

O'Neill brightened. "But you don't know where he is."

"Not exactly, but the guy who runs this place has his headquarters in that large bunker at the opposite end of the compound from here. They've got some holding cells, and it's a safe bet he'd be there."

O'Neill moved his hands and clasped the boy's shoulders. "Good enough, you feel like taking a walk?"

Johnson grinned. "Hell, yeah!"

Getting out proved to be easier than getting in. The guards were still out, and they weren't due for a rotation for another forty minutes. O'Neill took up the six, and just as they left one of the other prisoners called out. The language was a hill dialect O'Neill didn't recognize but the intent was clear. 'Take us too'.

The plan was supposed to have been to get the American prisoners safely away before the Iraqis had any idea they'd been infiltrated. Now with additional prisoners to think about O'Neill wondered at the possibility of compromising his own people. If he released them and left them to find their own route to freedom, the chance they'd all be found out might be increased. Leave them behind, and it was for certain; he knew they'd raise such a ruckus he'd have no time to get his team and their charges to safety.

O'Neill snagged the keys from his Lieutenant and held them up to the man in the cell. He tapped his watch and motioned holding up ten fingers.

The man nodded and answered in English, though with a heavy accent. "Ten, yes, ten minutes. We wait." O'Neill touched his finger to his mouth in a gesture of shushing and tossed the keys through the bars. He watched as the man slinked to the back of the cell and hunched down, whispering to another man in the adjacent cell. The Colonel hoped they valued their freedom as much as he and would be quiet when they made their move.

The now party of six moved quickly from shadow to shadow and then crawled across the open expanse before getting back to the fence. After passing the barrier they picked up their pace as much as they could with the two haggard officers in tow.

After they'd gone past the first hill Barnes paused and radioed to the helicopter waiting just beyond the border. They didn't want to have to wait at the pick up point for too long; he gave them an estimate of forty-five minutes to the rendezvous.

Just as he started to move out, he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see O'Neill.

"Major, a moment." He waved McGhee over to join them.

The Lieutenant trotted over to the men and offered a salute. "Ready when you are, Colonel."

Barnes looked from one to the other and frowned. "Ready for what?"

"Slight change of plans here; actually for you, too, Lieutenant. Major, as you may have realized a portion of this mission has not yet been addressed." He swung the state-of-the-art sniper rifle down off his shoulder and let it rest across his left forearm. "The original plan was for McGhee and I to return to the compound where I would set off an alarm on purpose. We'd be waiting on that small rise to the south, and when Bensada showed himself, I'd have maybe one good opportunity to take a shot. McGhee was to be there to watch my six."

Barnes face grew red with anger. "That's what the second helicopter was for, you wanted us to go on ahead with the guys we rescued while you and McGhee did this."

McGhee was still absorbing what the Colonel had said and frowned. "Sir? Was?"

"Exactly, *was*. "

Both Barnes and McGhee looked at their Commander in confusion. O'Neill clarified. "*Was* the plan, not *is*. Toby is still back there. Dwight, you go with Barnes and the others on the first Helo. Get those men to safety. That's a direct order. Radio to the second chopper and tell them to abort."

Barnes nearly yelped a reply. "What? Leave you behind in hostile territory? Alone?"

"Hold on," O'Neill raised a hand to him. "It's just a delay. Tell Sykes I want him to advise the General there's been a slight complication. I'll need twenty-four hours instead of the two we'd planned. Have a Helo at the same extraction point tomorrow night. I'll be there."

"Sir, with all due respect-" Barnes shook is head. "There is no way in Hell-"

O'Neill spat at the man. "Major! What part of 'direct order' do you not understand?"

Barnes held his ground. "Sir, this is not our mission."

"No, it's not. Your mission was to retrieve hostages. This mission is mine." There was dead silence between the three men. Then Barnes eyes fell on the rifle O'Neill was carrying. "And just what *is* that mission Colonel? Are you going after Toby or Bensada?"

"Both."

O'Neill's sudden honesty surprised Barnes, and he lowered his eyes. "This Toby must be a hell of a guy." Even as he said it the Major had a feeling O'Neill would have done the same for any of the men.

"He is. Now go." O'Neill turned and trotted off without a look back.

<><><>

As he distanced himself from his team O'Neill thought of what he'd just done- stranded himself behind enemy lines with only what he carried in his pack and a few weapons. Far in the distance he noted the low pulsing sound of helicopter blades and sighed; at least his team was getting out. He had a small pang of guilt for the position he'd put Barnes into. His counterpart, Colonel Sykes, would be on that Helo and was sure to take a piece out of the Major's hide for bowing to O'Neill's new and somewhat reckless plan. He shook it off and kept moving, much more slowly now. It was possible the escape had been noticed by this time, and Iraqi soldiers could be anywhere searching for them.

He was nearly back to the compound when a sound in the brush behind him made O'Neill freeze. There were few nocturnal animals about and he was sure the rustling was made by something much larger than a mouse or rabbit. He waited, listening intently until another rustle occurred not ten meters behind him.

O'Neill dropped and spun at the same moment bringing up the MP-5 to shooting position. Only quick reflexes stopped his finger from depressing the trigger when he saw not Iraqi regulars but an American face in the dim light.

"Dammit Barnes! I said go!"

"You said to get those men to safety. I did that."

"That's a fine line you're treading Major."

"As are you." Another voice spoke out of the darkness, and Sykes stepped forward. "I suppose you call this following orders."

"As a matter of fact I do."

Sykes shook his head at the other Colonel. "Jack, I don't know the full extent of whatever your actual orders were, but I can make an educated guess. Did you really think you were going to be left to accomplish what has become a suicide mission?"

"I have a habit of getting out alive, thank you, and it is *my* mission, not yours."

"Yeah, well *my* mission was to get your sorry ass out of the zone. Did you have to go and make it so difficult?"

"You can go back anytime now."

"Not quite. The chopper's already been called off. We've arranged an additional pick up in twenty-four hours, same place, as per your instructions." His voice dripped sarcasm. "You've got that long. You do your thing, and we see if there's a snowballs chance to get Sellers out. If you aren't ready to go when time's up, I'll shoot you myself and carry your ass to the chopper. And I want you to know my knees have been killing me all day, hiking with you over my shoulder won't improve my mood."

O'Neill's glare turned to a smirk and then to a grin as he lowered his head and broke eye contact. "Damn, Sykes, if I didn't know better I'd say you had a wee bit o' stubborn Irishman in you."

Sykes was still glaring and clenching his fists; he was not yet ready to drop the argument. The sight of a Jeep heading in their direction with a searchlight sweeping the area caught the attention of all three men. Immediately their disagreement was forgotten.

"All right. All right." O'Neill's eyes scanned the area for soldiers on foot. "Twenty-four hours. Whatever happens we go. But for now we need to find a place to hide for awhile. We went near several abandoned buildings earlier, I'm sure we could find someplace to stay out of sight." The two officers nodded. They let O'Neill lead on circling away from the Jeep and then straight for the compound and shelter.

Their situation was much more dangerous than before. The Iraqis would be looking for the escaped prisoners but would also be aware that such a thing could not have been done without help. The building O'Neill chose was adequate. The cellar was cool and dry, and there was so much rickety lumber above them it was improbable anyone would dare check out the lower level. Barnes himself voiced a bit of concern, it seemed to him a slight breeze would cause the building to collapse on them.

O'Neill's strategy worked. A patrol did come by and got close enough O'Neill could smell the cigar smoke lingering in their clothing, but they just scanned the wreckage with flashlights and did not enter. After that Sykes produced a handful of energy bars and passed them out in lieu of dinner. They couldn't chance a fire to heat water so instead of coffee and MRE's the three made do with only water from their canteens and the packaged bars.

Hours before first light O'Neill decided to move out, they'd need to find someplace suitable to at least observe the compound and yet remain hidden. Just outside the fence one of the abandoned buildings still held all of its four stories; though there was no roof, it would provide an acceptable vantage point. It also was on the opposite side of the compound from where the team had entered the night before. Hopefully it was closer to where Toby was being held.

O'Neill set up a tripod in the corner of an opening that at one time must have been a beautiful picture window. Tiny shards of glass crunched underfoot as he kicked away the largest pieces to make an area where he could sit and lean his back against the wall. Sykes and Barnes made their own 'nests' of sorts moving a few planks and the odd chunk of plaster or stone to make enough room to get comfortable. They would be there a good while, possibly until it was time to leave.

Once daylight arrived it was evident most of the patrols were being recalled. Sykes mentioned they'd have to keep their ears and eyes alert for any airborne recon since it was most likely that would be the Iraqis next step.

O'Neill concurred and leaned a large plank against the wall over his head to at least partially obscure him if a chopper flew over. Their position proved to be more advantageous than they'd thought. Not too long after sunrise a man was dragged out and deposited in the center of a small courtyard flanked by a bunker on one side and a small but intact building on the other. O'Neill leaned into his rifle scope and confirmed his worst fears. The bound man was his friend Toby, bruised, battered and underweight but still recognizable.

O'Neill watched with interest as a man of some obvious importance emerged from the small building and surveyed the area. It was Bensada himself, and he appeared to be preparing to conduct his interrogation in the open this time. A show meant to entice any onlookers to give away their positions. O'Neill steeled himself for the barbaric scene to come.

His instincts proved right. The Iraqi leader seemed to be asking very few questions and making a great show of every blow he inflicted on the American. They were too far away to hear any dialog, but O'Neill was certain it would be all spoken in English and mostly for their benefit just in case they were nearby.

Instead of continuing to focus on what was happening to Toby, O'Neill switched to binoculars to better survey a broader area, noting the positions of the soldiers and what they seemed to be doing. Right now he was far from being in a position to rescue his friend; all he could do was observe.

The shoving and slapping turned into a hard gut-punch, and Sellers crumpled on his side in obvious pain. Instead of staying down he rolled up on one shoulder and forced himself back up, not an easy task given his hands were tied securely behind his back. O'Neill tossed his binoculars to Sykes and resumed watching the spectacle through his scope.

The Iraqi was becoming angrier and flailed his arms about as he taunted the American. Whatever was being said, Toby must have understood it; the anger was growing is his eyes as well. At one point he leaned forward, and O'Neill was easily able to make out his words by watching the movements of his mouth. 'Fuck you.'

O'Neill's soft chuckle was cut off suddenly when Bensada backed up a few steps and drew a handgun from the holster on his hip. He waved the object with abandon, and when it finally stilled it was pointing directly at Sellers head. The American only blinked in response; he did not cower or try to get away.

Without realizing it, O'Neill had positioned himself to shoot. One hand braced the weapon against his shoulder while the other held the grip with one finger lightly resting against the trigger. He depressed it ever so slightly, just enough to make his fingertip flatten a little against the metal. His breathing slowed and he blinked once, rewetting his eyes. In a moment he would have to make the decision to take the shot or not and allow an execution to take place right in front of him.

It was no contest, really.

The explosive sound of gunfire erupted from two locations simultaneously. One from beyond the compound, somewhere among the cluster of burned out buildings and the second from the courtyard.

Two men fell.

O'Neill held position and quickly verified his shot was true. Bensada was lying flat out on his back with a single bullet hole in his head. The rifle swung a few inches to the right and O'Neill looked for Toby. The American was also down, this time not moving. "Shit."

O'Neill's head lowered, and he closed his eyes, damning himself for taking that one-tenth second too long to make his choice. Toby had paid the price.

The compound was suddenly a rush of activity as soldiers came from all of the buildings at once. Some were dispatched to search the immediate area while the rest secured the compound or tended to the fallen leader. O'Neill checked the scope out one last time and saw an Iraqi kneeling beside his friend. The man waved his hand and called another soldier over as if he'd found something. Toby's body remained still but there was a glint of hope that perhaps the Iraqis shot had not quite found its mark.

Sykes put his hand on O'Neill's shoulder. "We have to go, now."

"Not yet, I just want to see-"

"Now." The second Colonel used the most commanding tone he could muster. "Even if he is, there's nothing we can do. Just hope they still believe he has enough value to let their doctors work on him."

O'Neill blew out a breath and nodded. Of course Sykes was right. He got to his feet and turned away from the window. "Back stairs, there. We'll head back to that cellar. Watch what tracks you leave; they won't have any trouble seeing them in the daylight. Hopefully they'll think we took off into the brush and have long since left the area."

The three Americans quickly exited to ground level and ran deeper into the mass of ruins only to find the place swarming with Iraqi regulars. There were no deep dark shadows to obscure them from view now, and though they were yet free, they were running out of places to go.

Barnes was on the six and suddenly let out a muffled cry. Fearing the worst both Colonels dropped and spun around with their weapons raised to fire. An Iraqi man dressed all in black had Barnes from behind, one arm around his neck and the other holding a long bladed knife to his abdomen. O'Neill and Sykes both froze, each determining their best chance to take a shot.

In a move that stunned all three Americans the unidentified man released his hostage and took a step backwards, extending his arms wide.

"I will not harm you!" He demonstrated by slowly crouching and laying the knife on the ground.

O'Neill straightened up but did not lower his weapon. "Didn't look that way a minute ago."

"Danger comes in many forms. I, too, must protect myself."

"From us?" Sykes frowned at him.

"Shoot first, question later? Is this not an American concept?"

O'Neill glanced at Sykes then to Barnes and back to the Iraqi. "You'll notice some of us aren't picky about timing, we're just as likely to shoot you before, during *and* after questioning you." He waved the muzzle of the gun at the man. "Let's start with name and what do you want?"

The man's breathing was noticeably more rapid. "I am Alianni Um'Sallabon and I *want* you to come with me."

"And why would we do that?" Sykes growled.

"Because unless I am mistaken, you want to live." He looked at each of the Americans individually then continued. "Bensada is a very bad man. You may think you have stopped him. You have not. Even now his soldiers close in on this position. You will not escape."

"Shit." It was O'Neill's turn to growl. If there was one thing he hated with a passion it was being backed into a corner, out of options. "And I suppose you know a way out of this."

"Indeed I do." Alianni gestured toward a side entrance. The sounds of vehicles could be heard getting closer to their location. "We must hurry."

O'Neill was first to lower his weapon. He shrugged. "Show us what you've got."

Immediately the Iraqi was through the door. "Come! Hurry!" He ran not out and away from the buildings but into a large one with a huge mural of Hussein on the one still intact wall. He disappeared into the rubble behind it, and the Americans had no choice but to follow him or take their chances with the soldiers soon to arrive.

Only a short way within, the Iraqi seemed to simply vanish. O'Neill nearly fell into a man-sized opening beneath him as Alianni grabbed his boot.

"Down. You must come down here. The tunnels will take us to safety."

O'Neill shook his head and adjusted the rifle he was still carrying on his back. There was no ladder to facilitate entry into the tunnel, only fallen timbers and rocks. Not one of them made it without a scrape and a splinter or two.

Alianni didn't waste any time; as soon as all four of them were together he started moving using only a dim flashlight to see. O'Neill and the others flicked on their own lights affixed to their weapons and stumbled on behind him, barely keeping up.

The tunnel seemed to go on forever, turning one way and then the other as it detoured to connect several buildings via the subterranean maze. O'Neill caught up to their new friend.

"Are you saying Bensada's men don't know about all these tunnels?"

"Of course they do."

O'Neill came to a dead stop. "And we are safe here because?"

Alianni turned and shot a look of irritation. "Because they believe them to be either collapsed or too unsafe to travel."

"Are they?"

The man turned back to the tunnel before him. "Safer here than on the surface."

O'Neill, Sykes and Barnes all looked at each other. "Shit." "Right." "Crap."

They hurried along trailing behind before they lost sight of Alianni's dim torch.

Many feet later and too many twists and turns to count, they noticed they were moving up an incline. After one last right angle turn Alianni stopped and shoved on the wall directly in front of him. Amazingly it gave.

Brilliant white sunlight poured into the black hole making all four men squint and flinch back as if assaulted. Alianni wasted no time, and stepped into the daylight. They emerged one at a time into another bombed out building, so similar to the first they wondered if they'd left at all.

"Ah, good. You see? No soldiers here. Come." He crawled into the driver's seat of what looked like a derelict Jeep and motioned for them to join him.

They settled themselves, O'Neill in front beside Alianni and the other men in the rear seats, all of them glad to have a moment just to sit down. It certainly didn't appear they were going anywhere anytime soon. Alianni pointed to a pile of dusty brown rags on the floor. "It would be wise to cover your faces."

Sykes passed out what turned out to be robes and they each covered up, dutifully, still wondering what for.

Alianni smiled a crooked grin and spoke with a voice full of laughter. "Hold on. This one, she bucks sometimes!" With that he turned the ignition and started the shaky engine. Without warning or explanation he shifted the vehicle into reverse and stomped the gas. It lurched backwards into the paper thin plaster wall of the building and went right through showering all of them with bits of debris.

"Dammit, Ali. What are you doing?"

He grinned again as he turned the wheel. "Going home. My wife and son, they will enjoy meeting you."

O'Neill was speechless. He shut his mouth and closed his eyes as the Jeep jerked forward making all of their heads wobble at the sudden unsteady movement. There was no point in arguing; they didn't even really know where they were at that point. Hopefully this hadn't been a terribly bad mistake.

<><><>

They were away from any structures in no time bumping on down the dirt road; the cleared area giving way quickly to scrubby trees and overgrown grasses. Unless someone was directly overhead it would have been hard to spot the Jeep or anything else traveling along the rural highway.

The road twisted as much as the tunnels did but soon they came upon a small encampment. Alianni stopped the Jeep by a large tent with brightly colored red and yellow woven cloths arranged as walls and jumped out. Before the first American could follow him; the Jeep was surrounded by twenty armed men who suddenly appeared from all parts of the camp and the surrounding grass. Alianni turned and waved his hand almost without concern. "S'okay. They are here to help us fight Bensada."

The men backed away just enough to give the Americans room to exit the vehicle but did not lower their weapons. Alianni only shrugged by way of explanation. "It has been difficult for a very long time, not just the war."

O'Neill carefully exited the Jeep, one hand on his MP 5 and the other resting on the hilt of his knife under the robe. He followed Alianni to the tent end entered as the man held back the heavy tapestry to admit his guests.

The inside was a typical nomadic abode. The ground was covered with several multicolored carpets, and there was a seating area in the center and in the corner a low table with implements for food preparation. Off against one wall were cots for sleeping. Alianni introduced his wife, Indirae, who carefully kept her face hidden and his young son, Maku, who did nothing but stare wide-eyed at the decidedly non-Arabic looking visitors.

They were given towels and water to wipe the dust off their faces and hands. Alianni then passed out cups and gave them each cold water to drink.

O'Neill eyed his cup and raised an eyebrow; he didn't expect these people to have access to refrigeration given the living accommodations. Alianni noted his unspoken question and answered. "No, we have no modern conveniences. This is from a well that has been controlled by my family for ten generations. The water is clear and always cold, a blessing from God." He made a quick gesture of thanks and took a long draft from his own cup to demonstrate the safety of the water.

The Americans nodded their thanks and drank. After taking a few sips O'Neill set his cup beside him on the floor.

"Alianni, correct?"

The Iraqi nodded.

"Believe me, your hospitality is appreciated, but most unexpected. Why are you doing this?"

The man looked as though it was a subject he did not want to discuss. "In recent years much evil has come to my country. I am one of the few who does not believe this includes the American forces." He picked up a piece of pottery and fiddled with it. "Saddam was as powerful as he was evil; it is sad even now how many are loyal to him. I have chosen not to take that path. Here we are far enough away from Baghdad and its politics that we were left alone to live as we chose. That was until Bensada came."

"My people have been aware of information gathering by the Americans and Turks recently, and I have been watching for something to happen. When my people reported what you'd done, I thought perhaps it was time for me to take action as well. What kind of man would I be to say one thing and do another? It is dangerous to disagree with those in power, but they will remain so unless some of us at least try."

O'Neill inclined his head. "So you helped us. But the 'they're here to help us fight' thing? You know we're not going to do that; we're not here to start another war. Bensada might be out of the picture, but eventually one of his Generals will take his place. Maybe things will be better for you, maybe not."

Alianni leaned back against a beam for support. "You are mistaken. Believe me when I say no one will take his place, for he is not dead."

"Are you telling me I shot the wrong man? I damn well shot someone who looked just like him, and unless he's a lot closer to his god than any of us are, he will only be going one place- into the ground." O'Neill pointed at the floor sharply making his point.

Alianni scrubbed a hand over his beard and thought for a moment. He folded his hands in his lap and gestured using only his thumbs. "Yes, the man you shot *was* Bensada. But you do not know of what I speak. This man, he cannot be killed. I have seen it myself not six months ago. There was a disagreement with the Turks, and someone tried to kill him with a grenade. I swear it landed in his lap and went off. How could anyone survive that? And yet he lives and bears no scars, does not limp."

"Some kind of body armor maybe. I *know* my shot was good."

"Perhaps it was." His tone became hushed and he leaned forward. "There are stories told about this man. He is said to command great magic. Great evil. I have heard of a mysterious box he has in his possession. It is covered with gold and can bring a man back from death itself."

Sykes next glance was at O'Neill, who had shifted over closer to Alianni and was asking him some very odd questions. His brow knit as he listened.

"Gold, huh? How big a box? Is there writing on it? Can anyone here read it? Has anyone here actually seen it? How long after the grenade was he seen alive and well?"

Shocked at first at the American's questions, Alianni grinned as he began to answer them in order. He didn't expect to be believed so easily.

"Yes, gold. Real gold, a sufficient amount to buy a man's soul. Big enough that a man can fit inside it. Yes, strange writing. It is said only Bensada himself and a few trusted aides can read it at all. Perhaps it is an incantation to make the box work. Um, after the grenade? One day, no less than that, only several hours."

"You're not believing this fairy-tale are you?"

O'Neill shut Sykes up with an icy glare and turned back to Alianni. "Ali, this is important. Where is the box now?"

He shrugged as if the question was too simple. "He keeps it in the compound, of course; he never goes far from it."

O'Neill's mouth was frozen in a thin tense line for several moments before he spoke. "You are expecting us to help you. We can do that. But right now it's important we get out of here. If I am to help you, I need my own people to do it. I must go back and contact them."

Sykes mouth gaped at what he'd just heard. He couldn't believe O'Neill had changed his position so suddenly and offered military support to the man.

Alianni licked his lips and nodded. "Your friends, they have magic like Bensada?"

"No." O'Neill shook his head. "It's not magic, Ali, none of it. It's technology."

Barnes was only half listening. "Oh, yeah, like you know all about some big gold box that-"

His eyes meet O'Neill's, and what he saw there made his voice fail. Every eye in the room lit on O'Neill in that instant. Alianni's wife dropped the earthen jar she was holding and apologized quickly as she cleaned up what had spilled. "You do." It was meant to be a question, but Barnes spoke it as a fact.

"You what?" Sykes demanded. "You not only believe this load of bunk, you're verifying it's true?"

O'Neill took a deep breath in and huffed it out before answering. He'd already said too much, just admitting this was not something new to him. "Jeff, look, if it was some fancy new weapon you wouldn't be questioning it would you? It's something I do back in Colorado; deal with technologies like you have no idea. Trust me on this, okay?"

He snorted loudly. "O'Neill, you sure don't come off as a geek. You're surprising the hell out of me."

"Just wait 'til you meet my team."

<><><>

O'Neill explained to Alianni that a pick up had already been arranged; they only needed transportation to the site. He hesitated to divulge the exact location at first but then decided if the Iraqi wanted them dead he'd already had ample opportunity to do it. Alianni knew the place and agreed to take them there after sundown. Until then the Americans were free to rest and refresh themselves.

Alianni was more than impressed with both O'Neill's attitude and seeming command of the situation and kindly offered the men tents in order to have a private place to relax, as if they were visiting sheiks. O'Neill chose to sleep over all else and only grabbed a few dates to eat then headed to his tent immediately. His clothing was in fair shape considering what they'd been through but still dusty, and with his trust in Alianni growing, he decided it was safe enough to not have to rest fully dressed with boots on. Sykes was being paranoid enough for both of them anyway.

Being midday, it was hot, so he shed his clothing down to his boxers and stretched out on a low cot. He hadn't intended to sleep, but in a few moments he drifted off.

He wasn't even aware he had been asleep until he woke. His sixth sense had kicked in, and what awakened him were the small hairs on the back of his neck coming to attention. Wide-awake but not moving, he maintained the depth and rhythm of his breathing the same as it had been when he slept. Not even an eyelid fluttered but inside his senses were running in high gear.

He listened.

A rustle of fabric. A swish of clothing. The scent of perhaps ginger or some other spice. Someone was definitely in the tent. Very light footfalls. Either the person was small or they were trying to approach covertly.

His suspicious mind chose the latter.

His Beretta was lying beside him, tucked under a corner of the blanket he was lying on; feeling secure or not, access to a weapon was not something he'd concede under any circumstances. It was too warm to be under even a thin layer so he had stretched out on top of the cot, uncovered.

Very slowly, knowing full well he was being watched, O'Neill slid his fingers around the grip of the handgun.

A heavier sound, as if a small bag or coat had been dropped on the floor then a thud and oddly the sound of water swishing. O'Neill almost opened his eyes but was knew if this person meant to harm him it would come by hand to hand; and *that* was something he could deal with.

More water dripping noises. Perhaps someone had just brought him fresh water. He might have believed that, had the person not moved so close that O'Neill could now hear soft breathing and sense nearby body heat. His hand tightened on the Beretta.

The next sensations were anything but expected.

The light touch of a cool wet cloth moving across his chest and the fragrance of something flowery with a hint of ginger. In a single motion his free hand grabbed the hand touching him, and he bolted to a sitting position. A squeal of surprise stopped him from taking further action, and his eyes opened to meet the wide-set almost black ones of a young woman of typical middle-eastern descent. His peripheral vision took in the rest of her appearance. She had thick black hair and dark olive-toned skin and was wearing only a thin robe.

He broke contact with her eyes and tried to look anywhere but down. Being male though, there was only so much he could do, so he looked. He knew she probably wouldn't understand it but he asked anyway, "What are you doing?"

She flinched in fear and grimaced at her wrist still held in a vise-like grip. "For you."

He released her wrist and scooted over on the cot until he was sitting with his feet on the ground. He glanced past the kneeling woman to the earthenware bowl and small stack of towels and then to the wet cloth still in her hand.

"You don't need to do this." He shook his head as he spoke, unsure of just how much English the woman understood.

She blinked and looked back at him questioning then lowered her eyes. She mustered up some additional measure of courage and dunked the cloth in the water and wrung it out. Still intent on her task, she began to rub it over his shoulder.

"Seriously, you don't-" One of her hands settled not so subtly on his groin.

"Shit!" He shot to his feet and took a step away, suddenly feeling the need to find something more to cover himself or at least get his pants back on. He made a move to pick up his BDU's where he'd left them folded at the foot of the cot and noticed his companion's posture had slumped a bit. Her head was down but he could see her pinched expression. When she sobbed, his shoulders slumped too. She pushed the basin away and began to rise. "Forgive. Another will be sent."

'Aw, crap' he thought to himself as he sat back down on the cot and reached for her arm, bringing her back to her knees. Really, he should be used to things like this with all his off world exploitations and exposure to differing cultures. Alianni was just being what he considered to be a good host by assuring relaxation for his guests. He wondered if Sykes and Barnes were having similar encounters.

With a touch of resignation he took the cloth from her hand and used it to thoroughly wipe his face and neck then handed it back to her. She smiled at his acceptance and rinsed it in the perfumed water and handed it back to him. Dutifully he accepted it and washed off more of his body. After several more back and forth exchanges he was decidedly feeling better despite the awkwardness of the situation.

She rinsed the cloth again but this time didn't hand it off, instead she rose up and crawled onto the cot behind him to wash his back. He permitted it this time, even letting her towel him off but found himself regretting it when from somewhere she produced a bottle of oil and began to massage his back and shoulders.

Her hands continued to move further around his body and she leaned into him causing her breasts to touch his back.

That was all the Colonel could stand; he had no intention of taking advantage of the *full* extent of Alianni's gift, despite the part of him that was definitely interested. He grasped her upper arm and pushed her away as he turned to face her. "Thank you." He shook his head as he spoke. "That's enough, please."

She frowned and knit her brow, but backed off. She stood and turned to him once more and finding him avoiding her gaze, quickly donned a heavier weight robe she'd brought and gathered up the water basin and towels then left the tent, turning at the doorway to catch his eye once more and give him a smile of gratitude before leaving.

O'Neill scrubbed his hands through his hair and lowered his head. "Shit." This little adventure was throwing him curve balls every time he so much as blinked. At least he'd managed to get through this last one with his dignity, not to mention the girl's, intact.

He dressed quickly, and emerged from the tent and made his way over to a large common area where the other Americans were seated talking with Alianni.

Alianni smiled at him. "You are refreshed?"

O'Neill nodded and gave him just a small smile. "So, guys, enjoy your gifts?"

Sykes and Barnes exchanged a look. "What gifts?"

"You know, the..." His voice trailed off as he realized the Iraqi had only given *him* the gift, and turned to his host. "Um, Ali, thank you, very generous of you."

Sykes frowned and raised his eyebrows at the other Colonel. Alianni explained. "It is customary to offer a gift of companionship to another leader of men." He bowed his head slightly.

O'Neill felt a flush rising to his cheeks as Barnes turned and questioned him. "Of the female variety?"

"Before you ask, no, I didn't." O'Neill snapped at the younger officer.

He realized he may have just insulted their host and cringed internally.

Sykes saw Alianni's eyebrows rise and stepped in. "In America it's customary for a man to have one wife and be with her only."

The Iraqi nodded, and turned to O'Neill. "Of course. In that case, I hope I have not offended you- or your wife."

O'Neill shook his head, "I'm not ma-" He paused. Why had he actually stopped? The girl was a true beauty and he was, after all a red-blooded American male who'd been celibate for far too long. Could it be there *was* someone else, a blonde someone, who'd been foremost in his mind even during his brief encounter with the Iraqi woman? He sighed and waved a hand at Alianni. "No harm done, you didn't know." It was a coward's way out he knew, but it was better than admitting to *pining* over someone he couldn't have.

His answer seemed to satisfy Alianni who nodded to the group then left to prepare for the night's excursion.

Barnes grinned at the Colonel. "So, what does one have to do to earn a *gift*?"

<><><>

Before they even arrived the sound of a helicopter could be heard off in the distance, and Alianni doused the Jeep's headlights in case the arriving chopper was not the one they expected. It was already close enough for contact, and Sykes spoke into his radio. He motioned to Barnes that it was their ride, and the Major signaled their precise location with his flashlight.

Immediately from all directions around them gunfire erupted.

Somehow the site had become known to the Iraqi soldiers, and they were lying in wait for the pickup. Though most of the fire seemed to be aimed at the helicopter some was at ground level, blanketing the area in an attempt to take down anyone who might be there. Bullets began to strike the Jeep making pinging sounds as they impacted the metal. O'Neill saw the shrubbery just to their left begin to shatter from the multiple hits and slapped the light out of Barnes' hand. His next move was to drop to the ground taking the other officer with him. Sykes and Alianni followed suit without hesitation.

They were as yet undiscovered and lay still in the tall grass as they were pelted with bits of bark and leaves from the destroyed trees. The Jeep's engine squeaked to a halt as a stray bullet took out some essential piece of its machinery.

O'Neill rolled up on one elbow to see what was happening with the chopper, now their only means of escape. What he saw was not good. Even in the darkness it was apparent the tail rotor had been hit; the pilot was having a rough time of it. It was all he could do to keep himself in the air, let alone complete the rescue.

The craft swung wildly in a counter clockwise motion with the tail dipping precariously downward; mere inches from the treetops by that time. More bullets hit the fuselage sending sparks flying in every direction. The gas tank must have taken a hit too, and it sprayed liquid fire to the ground igniting patches of dried grass everywhere. Sykes grunted as an ash blew into his face.

"Under here!" He pointed to the now silent Jeep. "Move or get cooked!"

Barnes followed crawling on his elbows and knees and then Alianni. O'Neill was last to the improvised shelter and rolled so he could see out from under it. He immediately turned his back to the scene beyond as the helicopter pilot lost his fight. The craft bucked, and the engine roared as it was forced into a too steep angle. One of the long rotor blades suddenly caught the edge of a large rocky outcropping. The rotor crumpled upon impact, and the helicopter pitched into the rock exploding in a gigantic ball of fire.

The Jeep provided moderate protection for the men under it, but the entire area surrounding them burned from splattered aviation fuel. O'Neill grasped Alianni's shoulder with one hand while reaching upward with the other and touching the tank situated just above his head.

"How much gas is in here?"

The Iraqis eyes widened. "More than enough! We must go!"

"Go? Where?" Barnes gestured to the burning field and what was certainly an enemy regiment beyond. "If you haven't noticed, there *is* nowhere to go."

Alianni shook his head and chewed the too long hairs of his moustache as he considered the options. O'Neill tightened his grip on the man's shoulder, "Pretty soon anywhere will be preferable to here. Even if we get caught, we have to go."

Suddenly Alianni perked up. "There is a way- if the soldiers are more intent on the helicopter and the fire. We may get there."

"Where?"

"You'll see. Come."

For the second time the man who would be considered an enemy collaborator led the group of Americans on a chase to safety; this time with all of them crawling on their bellies. He motioned to a small rocky formation where it seemed the rocks had once been upright like Roman columns and then collapsed upon themselves. There was a fair amount of rubble at the base, but there were also several places where a man could fit between the fallen stones.

They had to cross an area where the fire had already burned off the vegetation, leaving the ground scorched and smoking. The carbon residue clung to every bit of clothing or skin that contacted it covering them with black. By the time they made it to the rocks, all of the men had burns on their hands and knees. Alianni crawled into a hole and waved the others to follow.

Before he went in, O'Neill scanned the area to make sure they hadn't been spotted by any soldiers and was forced to stop when he heard a slight moaning sound from the other side of a small ridge of stone. Curious, and relatively sure the soldiers were busy elsewhere, he chanced to take a look, creeping slowly up the incline, careful to not dislodge too much of the loose shale.

Just on the other side, up against yet another half buried column, was the crumpled body of a man so covered with soot it could not be seen what uniform he wore. O'Neill moved to turn away but suddenly noted a glint of pure red light on the man's right hand. The exact place Yazu wore his prized possession, a large perfect ruby set in a ring.

He immediately knew the identity of the injured man and called back behind him in a hushed tone for help. Sykes crawled to the crest of the rise and frowned seeing O'Neill already at the man's side.

"What the Hell are you doing?"

"We can't leave him- it's Yazu."

"Can't be- the chopper went down."

"Well somehow he bailed out, it's him, trust me. Come on."

Sykes shook his head but complied. They were far from safety themselves; the last thing they needed was to be dragging around a dead man.

Foregoing safety, O'Neill and Sykes stood and carried Yazu to the hole where Alianni had gone. They made it less than halfway before being spotted. Both men crouched and ran now, dragging the unconscious man through whatever debris was on the ground. At the hole Sykes went in first pulling on Yazu to make room for O'Neill.

Once inside the hole they were both shocked; it opened into a passageway large enough for a man to stand easily. Alianni was at the far end beckoning. O'Neill handed off his portion of Yazu's weight to Barnes and told him to go before turning back to the opening. He quickly dug a chunk of C-4 out of his vest pocket and stuck it to the bare rock, pressing a detonator into its surface. He glanced outside in time to see several soldiers converge on the location.

"Move it! We're gonna have company in two seconds! Go!"

Alianni turned and disappeared down the passage followed closely by Sykes and Barnes, still dragging Yazu between them. O'Neill followed as far as he could and still see the exit. He crouched against the wall and prayed it would hold for his next move.

Two men entered, and their dim flashlights shone into the hollow illuminating O'Neill's face. As the light hit him he pressed the detonation trigger.

The cavern rocked in an approximation of a miniature earthquake showering O'Neill this time with stones and a cloud of dust. When he looked up the opening was no longer there, collapsed from above, and the only sign the soldiers had been there was a single flashlight beam cutting through the haze. There was no sign of the owner.

O'Neill brushed the dirt from corner of his mouth with the back of his hand and squinted to see if any more dared to follow. Satisfied the opening was permanently sealed, he turned to the passageway and crept on through it. He could only hope this was another underground maze complete with multiple exits. If not, he'd just buried them alive.

Thirty feet on down the tunnel he caught up with the others.

"Jeff, everybody okay?"

"All accounted for. You think you might give a little more warning the next time you do something like that?"

"Couldn't be helped, they were already coming in."

"Sure they were. How much more of that stuff have you got?"

O'Neill grinned and flipped open two vest pockets brimming with explosives and detonators. "Always be prepared."

'Good thing.' Sykes thought. This little episode had relieved them of nearly all their belongings. All three packs along with O'Neill's rifle were still on the now certainly destroyed Jeep. All they had left was what they carried on them, their vests, sidearms and MP-5's.

As soon as they were able, Alianni encouraged them to move. The tunnel eventually opened into a large cavern with no apparent exits. O'Neill stood in the center and eyed the Iraqi carefully. "So, which way to Kuwait?"

Alianni shook his head. "The only exit you already know; if it still exists."

"That's it? We're stuck in here until those soldiers decide they want a piece of us and dig us out, or worse figure we've dug our own grave and leave us here?" Barnes voice exposed the panic he was feeling.

"Stand down, Major." O'Neill shot him a stern glance then squinted around at the cave walls. "Well, with all the confusion outside they may not know we're here. With any luck they'll figure we're all dead and burned up. We should have a window of time before they come back and do a proper body search."

The other Colonel was sitting with his back against the wall. "Jack, if you didn't hear the man, he said you just blew up the only exit."

O'Neill took off his vest and knelt beside Yazu, checking him over for any obvious injuries. Seeing no bones out of place and no gushing of blood, he turned his attention to Alianni. "No other way out?"

"No."

"What about that?" O'Neill pointed to a section of the wall.

The others all looked and were amazed to see an area where the pitch black of the cave recess had been replaced by light gray. The early morning sky. Alianni walked over and stood directly beneath it. He extended a hand and could easily reach the bottom edge of the opening.

"It is very narrow but high enough I do not think the soldiers know it is here."

"Can we get out?"

"I still hear the men outside. It would not be safe yet."

"But *can* we?" Sykes echoed O'Neill's question.

Alianni rubbed a hand over the rough stone. "Not as it is, we would need to enlarge it, at least a little."

"And how do we do that?" Sykes was letting his pessimism show. "C-4 would bring the place down on our heads."

"So." Alianni shrugged. "We dig."

<><><>

A day and a half later they were once again 'guests' of Alianni at his camp. The digging was tedious but fruitful, and the twenty-plus mile hike to where Alianni knew someone would help was cut short by sheer luck.

They could not travel openly during the day, so they found an acceptable hideout and slept in shifts. Yazu had awakened for a short time but was too delirious to recognize anyone. They got as much water into him as they could while he was awake, stretching their own supplies to the max. Even before finding help and transportation, they were soon going to be forced to find water. Alianni chose to lead them straight to the nearest water source before moving on.

As it turned out, Alianni's 'help' was there waiting for them. One of his cousins was moving a herd of cattle and was letting them rest at the small watering hole. The troupe endured another bouncy ride, this time in a canvas-covered truck to the camp.

When they arrived Indirae took over tending to Yazu while the men toted buckets of water from the well. Some to drink but mostly to bathe; all of them were covered head to toe in soot and cave-dust. At Indirae's insistence, punctuated by holding her nose, all clothing was shed. She enlisted the local women to wash the garments while the men washed themselves. Each of them was given a simple robe to wear until their own clothing was available. The girls even swiped their boots for cleaning.

Clean but feeling most uncomfortable wrapped in only the thin robe and barefoot, O'Neill ducked his head into Alianni's tent to check on Yazu. He sat on the edge of the cot and took the cloth from the man's forehead, dipped it in water and wrung it out. He dabbed it lightly over Yazu's face to cool him. The Colonel felt completely responsible for what had happened. If he hadn't decided to stay, Yazu wouldn't have been recruited for another foray into Iraq, wouldn't have lost his helicopter and wouldn't be fighting for his life right now in some dusty tent with no doctors or nurses hovering over him.

When Alianni entered O'Neill stood and faced him. "My friend here, needs to be taken to a hospital, he needs some kind of medical attention and soon."

"We have done all we can for now. You also must still return to your people."

O'Neill nodded. "Yeah, I do. Any ideas?"

"Perhaps." He motioned for them to continue the conversation outside. "You don't happen to have a pilot among you, do you?"

"Depends, I've never flown a helicopter."

"Hmm." Alianni nodded. "It was not a helicopter I had in mind. The nearest airfield is at Bensada's compound, and now, with the helicopters out on patrol continually, there are only jets."

O'Neill's eyebrow arched. "And how does this help us?"

"We could...borrow one."

"Ah." O'Neill's head bobbed in disbelief. "You are certifiable. Anybody ever told you that? You want to not only go *back* to that stronghold, you want to *steal* a *plane*?"

"My wife's brother works with the ground crew. If you dressed as we do, it is possible."

"Oh, excuse me, you want *me* to steal a plane. What about Yazu and the rest of my team?"

"Your men can be taken across the border by truck, they can arrange transportation to Kuwait once they are out of the country. But Yazu, as you said, needs medical attention, could you not land here and pick him up?"

"What? It's a *jet* you can't land one on a dirt road like-" As he spoke O'Neill gestured wide with his hand and scanned the horizon with his eyes. He stopped dead midway through the sweep, staring at the wide flat expanse of a dry lake bed southeast of the camp. "How far across is that at its widest point?"

"The lake? It is more than a mile. Why?"

"Looks like you've got yourself a runway." He folded his arms across his chest and squinted his eyes. "Ali? Just how would you get me into that compound?"

<><><>

The next day just before the sky began to lighten, the ground crew was out doing their early morning rounds of the six planes Bensada kept there. No one noticed an additional man dressed as they were in brown coveralls, his head covered with a black and white checkered cloth to keep the sand at bay, just like everyone else.

Having checked the plane of choice over, O'Neill nodded silently to Alianni's brother in-law. He was ready. There was no way to bring a ladder with them onto the field covertly, so it was up to Hassan to give the American a boost up.

The chosen plane was a two-seat Czech L-39 Albatross. O'Neill had been second seat on one ages ago in training and was confident he could fly it, and fight if need be, despite all the instrumentation being in a language he couldn't understand.

Once aboard the plane, and with the canopy in place he gave Hassan a nod, and the Iraqi began to yell

and wave his arms about madly. O'Neill grinned as the man played his part for all it was worth. The idea was to make the others believe he'd commandeered the plane on his own, and Hassan was only another surprised member of the ground crew.

As several men approached the plane O'Neill lit up the engine. A few just made it to the plane when he began to taxi to the runway, but none were fast enough to replace the wheel blocks to prevent him moving. They were so excited no one asked why Hassan didn't do it. Another thing no one noticed was why Hassan had an extra pair of coveralls with him, the ones O'Neill had used to conceal the flight suit he was wearing.

At the end of the runway O'Neill didn't hesitate; he throttled up and rocketed the plane into the air. He barely made it to a thousand feet before needing to decelerate and land on the lake bed. The landing was bumpy to say the least, but the landing gear held. O'Neill taxied the plane to a small group of people standing near the edge of the flat ground.

As he braked to a full stop, he pulled the lever to open the canopy and lowered his head to remove his helmet. When he looked up he was staring into the muzzle of an Iraqi rifle. A quick glance to the group of people was all it took for O'Neill to realize Alianni and his friends were not in sight.

Two ladders had been hastily leaned against the plane, and a soldier was standing at the top of each one. As the second rifle came into his peripheral vision the first man leaned in and switched off the engine. O'Neill leaned back in the seat and took in a deep breath before unbuckling the harness. No point in arguing now, they probably already had Sykes, Barnes, Yazu and Alianni and all of his cohorts.

On a small ridge overlooking the lake bed Alianni slipped the binoculars to Sykes. The man looked through and cursed. "Dammit to hell, Jack. I hope you haven't used up your ninth life yet, you're gonna need it."

<><><>

The holding cell was merely an additional room built of the same light brown stone as the rest of the structure. There was one small window with a grate covering the opening, and the door was made of sturdy iron bars. It was empty save a small dented metal bowl, which O'Neill expected was to be used for food and water. He wondered how likely it was at one time or another it had been used as the 'facilities' in this place.

The Colonel sat with his back against the wall furthest from the door, facing it, with his knees drawn up and his elbows resting on them. His thoughts were anywhere but on himself and his current situation. He hadn't seen or heard anything that let him know the fate of his comrades and he dared hope they had all escaped. If they'd gotten away, maybe Alianni had them in a truck and was bouncing along some rutted highway on his way to Turkey right now. He hoped Yazu was still among the living.

Heavy footsteps alerted him to the arrival of two guards who then unlocked the door and swung it wide. One stepped inside and motioned toward the door with the muzzle of his rifle. His dialect was unintelligible, but O'Neill got the point and stood up, stretched his legs a bit and walked through the doorway. His casual movements belied that he was prepared to take action at the slightest opportunity. The man behind him couldn't resist the urge to prod the American and thrust the weapon's barrel into O'Neill's flank.

'Wrong move.' O'Neill's hands moved even more quickly than his thoughts. He grabbed the barrel and pulled it away from the guard then jabbed it back at him hard, connecting with the two lowest ribs and snapping them. The man let out a surprised 'oof' and fell back to the floor. Before the second guard could react O'Neill had taken hold of the heavy cell door and swung it forcefully. Solid iron struck human bone, and the guard went down unconscious, a tiny trickle of blood threading its way down from his nose.

O'Neill bent to pick up the weapon the guard had dropped and suddenly froze. From only several feet away was the unmistakable sound of a 9mm round being chambered. The next sound was the somewhat rhythmic clapping of a slow applause.

"Very good. I am not easily impressed."

O'Neill didn't move from his crouched position but raised his head slightly. There in the hallway was the man he recognized as Bensada and another guard, this one with a two-handed grip on a 9-mil pointed at the Colonel's head.

"Shit." O'Neill tried to hide his shock at seeing the previously dead man alive and well.

The Iraqis eyebrows twitched, and he grinned. "Indeed."

A few minutes later O'Neill was in a large room on the lower level and strapped to a chair with what was possibly his own duct tape. He pulled at the bindings and grimaced. They'd even bound his ankles to the legs of the chair.

"Don't bother trying to get free. I have more of this wonderful American invention." Bensada tossed the remainder of the roll aside. "I also enjoy the plastic ties your 'SWAT' teams use."

O'Neill rolled his eyes. A smart-alek Iraqi. And *why* was the guy speaking English so well? He barely had any accent at all.

Bensada took a few steps to the left and walked back slowly; he stopped directly in front of O'Neill. "I truly can't believe it, you know. You stole my plane! What the hell were you thinking?"

If it was to be games, O'Neill was up for it. "I thought I left my oven on."

The leader stared at him blankly.

"I just wanted to go turn it off. Wouldn't want the place to catch fire."

"I think you have more things than this to worry you. What is your name?"

"Luke, Luke Skywalker." At the look in Bensada's eyes O'Neill conceded. "Okay, Luke Perry."

O'Neill noted another inconsistency: the man was apparently versed enough in western pop culture to understand his answers were not valid.

The Iraqi moved to a long table against one wall. "I can see you do not take me seriously. That will change." He flicked a hand, and two guards came from somewhere at the rear of the room to stand on either side of O'Neill.

"What are you waiting for?" Bensada barked at the men. O'Neill watched him closely and could have sworn he saw a slight flash in the man's eyes. Before he could say anything more the guards were moving. One got behind him and pressed down on his shoulders, pushing him solidly into the chair as the other swung his fist and connected with O'Neill's jaw.

His head jerked at the impact, but he straightened it and glared back at the Iraqi. "You're going to have to do a lot better than that."

Bensada motioned to the guard and tossed him a metal rod from the table. The man held it like a baseball bat and swung. The club impacted O'Neill's lower chest and his breath came out in a harsh grunt. He'd tightened his abdominal muscles in an attempt to reduce the strength of the blow, but it wasn't enough and his head dropped to his chest as he strove to compose himself.

He didn't see the guard raise the weapon for another blow. This one fell across the back of his neck and shoulders. O'Neill yelped in pain as the bar crunched against his vertebrae. The guard behind him grabbed his shoulders and forced him to sit upright again.

Bensada raised his hand to temporarily stop the assault. "Name, rank."

O'Neill licked a drop of coppery fluid from the corner of his mouth; he'd bit his tongue when the last blow hit. "Bart Simpson, Astronaut."

The Iraqi was incensed. He stepped forward and took the bar from the guard and waved it menacingly in front of O'Neill's face. He asked again, slowly, with barely controlled rage in his voice. "Name and rank."

There hadn't been another flash, and O'Neill wondered if he really saw it or not. He took a chance and answered in the same slow deiberate manner as he'd been asked. "Cronos, System Lord."

Bensada stopped waving the rod and took a single step back. He narrowed his eyes at his prisoner.

"Oh, sorry, you're right. That would be 'dead' System Lord."

The bar was suddenly tossed away, and it clattered as it hit the floor and rolled. "Who *are* you?"

There was no more doubt in O'Neill's mind. "Just someone who knows at least one dirty little secret."

"Get him out of here!" Bensada spun and stalked to the door; he paused at the opening. "Not back to the cell, take him outside."

'Outside' turned out to be their version of solitary confinement. O'Neill was thrust into something that resembled a crate and sealed inside. No padlocks were used; the soldiers literally nailed the lid in place. The only ventilation was from where the slats did not meet up precisely and in a very short time O'Neill felt himself breathing more heavily as if the air were going stale.

He was sitting with his long legs drawn up and was hugging his knees. It was difficult to turn but he managed to get his face right up against where a sliver of light shone through and sucked fresh air into his mouth.

The day wore on, and the crate heated up to a stifling temperature from the relentless sunlight bearing down upon it. O'Neill wondered how long Bensada might leave him there. Lack of food wouldn't be a problem, since he didn't think he could stomach it anyway, but without water the day would be a very long one indeed.

<><><>

Sykes and Barnes were more than glad to see the collection of bunkers, hangars and other semi-permanent structures that made up Al Jaber Air Base. They didn't mind at all when General Marchman dressed them down in front of a whole hangar full of airmen for going off half-cocked on a fool's mission with O'Neill. They'd already given him the short-short version over a satellite-link phone from the Turkish base, and now the General had had a full day to work himself up into a full-blown tempest over it.

"Colonel and Major, I fully intend to have you attend Court martial for this; the papers are on my desk as we speak. O'Neill's lack of discipline and failure to follow orders is something I do not see as a positive model. As far as I'm concerned the man got what he deserved; he's a disgrace to the uniform, and so are you." He squared his shoulders. "You will be in my office and prepared for a full debrief in twenty minutes. If I am not completely satisfied, your next stop will be the stockade." He didn't pause even a moment and spun on his heel to stalk back to his Jeep.

Colonel Sykes stood at absolute attention in the Generals office three feet in front of his desk and waited. And waited.

Marchman had called him in and then told him he needed a minute to get a few things together. 'Most likely, the Court martial papers' Sykes thought to himself dryly. One minute turned into three and then ten. Twice the Colonel had opened his mouth to say something and been told in no uncertain terms that he would be informed when it was time to speak. It had turned into a contest of wills.

Finally after twenty-seven minutes, the General leaned back in his chair and looked his subordinate in the eye. "You still here? I guess you'd better report then."

Sykes nearly voiced the chuckle that was in his throat. Marchman might be the base Commander, but he had no Special Forces training. Standing at attention for half an hour was mere child's play. Try standing perfectly still in the dark as an enemy soldier comes within six feet of you and takes a piss.

It *did* however make the Colonel angry, if for nothing else than the delay. He'd specifically told Marchman over the phone that there was a security issue with some piece of technology that the Iraqis had in their possession, something O'Neill was familiar with and felt strongly enough about obtaining to offer military support. It was imperative they contact O'Neill's command back in Colorado and get them involved. O'Neill had even hinted there was a very specialized team needed to deal with this situation.

Despite the little bit of posturing between them when they first met, Sykes had developed a kinship with O'Neill. Both were Special Forces, and both had put some quite 'distasteful' missions under their belts. A certain unspoken level of trust existed between them, and he was inclined to go with his gut instinct and follow O'Neill's lead. With Marchman his gut was telling him something entirely different; that he was dealing with a pencil-pushing bureaucrat who was more interested in protocol than properly managing what may turn out to be critical intel.

Still, sometimes the best way through a problem is to meet it head-on.

Sykes gave Marchman a detailed account of everything he'd done and seen, starting with the moment his feet touched earth when he'd first exited the chopper, including in detail the conversation with Alianni and what he'd said about this strange 'box'. The General seemed to tense at the part where he told of how O'Neill had shot Bensada. When Sykes was done Marchman, pushed himself back from his desk a few inches.

"So you think he's dead, huh?" He opened a drawer and pulled out a photograph, sliding it over to Sykes. "How do you account for this? It was taken this morning."

Sykes frowned. It was a picture of Bensada, alive and well, or so it seemed. "I can't Sir. But if you remember what I said about the box-"

Marchman cut him off. "Colonel, I can't believe a reasonable man like yourself has fallen for this load of crap. There *is* no technology, cutting edge, or otherwise that can do what that crazy old man said it could. Why O'Neill was so interested in it I can't say. Apparently he's got an agenda of his own."

The Colonel's ire was coming up. "I don't believe that, Sir. If you want to, then so be it. Grant him one thing though; O'Neill's commander in Colorado deserves to know his man won't be coming home anytime soon."

The General leaned back in his chair. "All right, I'll make the call, but that's it, just a status report. I'm not gonna have Cheyenne Mountain dictating what missions are sanctioned by this Command. There will be no wild goose chase after some magical box and no further rescue attempts to that same compound. It's a shame you didn't get Sellers out, he was a good man."

"And O'Neill?"

"Like I said, I think he got what he deserved." He let out a chuckle. "You say he actually stole a plane and would have gotten away if he hadn't touched down on that lake bed? I'm surprised he didn't just go on and leave the rest of you to the wolves. Seems you ended up on your own anyway."

Sykes bristled. "He was trying to get Yazu to a hospital. Hell, if the Iraqis hadn't shown up, Barnes and I would have probably found a way to cram ourselves into that cockpit and we'd all have been back here by noon. O'Neill did what he had to do to get us all out safely, to see to it that no one was left behind."

"Need I remind you Sellers *was* left and *you* ended up in some produce truck hiding under melons."

The Colonel swallowed hard. "The fact things didn't turn out well does not mean anyone was at fault. We *did* get out, and it was O'Neill's actions and befriending Alianni that made that happen. We can still get to Sellers if-"

Marchman stood quickly and roared at his XO. "That's enough! The subject is now closed." He nodded to the door. "Send in Barnes on your way out. It's his turn next. Dismissed."

<><><>

Hammond set the phone down and immediately picked up the other on his desk, the one that connected directly with the Pentagon. He requested to speak with General Dorsey and was put on hold for much longer than was necessary. As the minutes ticked by he wondered if he'd ever get to speak to the man. Finally a bright young voice came across the line and informed him the General was in continuous meetings on a matter of national security and would be unavailable for the foreseeable future.

Hammonds face was red, and he swore he could feel steam coming out of his ears. He hung up the phone and poured a glass of water, forcing himself to drink it slowly and calm down.

Five minutes later he was back on the phone- this time making arrangements to fly to Washington that afternoon. His door was ajar, and Major Carter stopped at the entrance with her hand raised to knock. As she did she heard him conversing with someone on the phone.

"No, I don't care what *kind * of plane you get me on, just get one! Today, airman." His demeanor was gruff but softened immediately as he looked up and saw the Major. He waved her in and called to his secretary. "Julia? Would you pick up this line? Use your feminine wiles on this guy if you have to but *please * get me a flight out this afternoon, Okay?"

She giggled and started tapping buttons on her phone to take over the call.

Carter slid the rest of the way into the room. "Going on a trip, Sir?"

"Maybe." He answered in a near-defeated tone then seemed to shake it off. "What have you got there?" He smiled and gestured to the folders in her hand.

"The mission reports from P4C 227, Daniel's and mine."

The General accepted the files to survey them quickly before dismissing her. His eyes appeared to scan the opening page, but his thoughts were elsewhere. O'Neill had insisted Carter be allowed to command the team in his absence, and Hammond wondered if she might be aware that his little 'vacation' was anything but. He decided to test the waters.

"So, any problems with the team?"

She looked at him oddly. "Um, no. What problems might I have? I mean, it's Daniel and Teal'c." She shrugged. "They're like brothers to me, except they listen better."

Hammond didn't return her smile. "What about manpower? Any trouble with the watch divided three ways instead of four or maybe need another pair of hands to manage your equipment?"

Before he completed speaking the question she was already shaking her head. "No. We don't need a fourth. The Colonel will be back soon; we'll be fine until then."

The confidence and determination in her voice finally brought out his smile. "I'm sure you will." He glanced down at the folders and back up at her. Instead of dismissing her he, asked her to close the door and take a seat.

He steepled his hands on the desk. "Major, what I'm about to tell you is not just confidential, it's classified. I'm going to let you into the loop because for one, I think you are already marginally aware of the circumstances and two, having found myself not exactly kept up to speed on this, I'd like to open up some options."

He took a breath and continued. "You are aware that Colonel O'Neill is not just visiting a friend."

She nodded. "It's a mission of some kind, not SGC related."

"Correct. I don't want to be too specific, but I will confirm that and tell you he is currently out of the country and complications have arisen. I myself have only been given the barest details, and suddenly my Washington contact regarding this matter has become 'unavailable'. I can smell a cover-up a mile away, and Major, this stinks of it. They are saying Jack will be delayed 'indeterminately', but I believe something has happened to him. I intend to go to Washington and demand to be given full access to whatever information they have at this time." He paused and let his words set a moment. "I understand SG-1 is scheduled to go off world tomorrow afternoon. Nothing against your command abilities, but I wondered if you'd consider holding off on that mission for now. I'd like to keep SG-1 uncommitted for a little while, just in case..."

Carter nodded. "Not a problem, Sir. I'll inform my team. We'll be standing by." The General dismissed her, and she quickly left his office. As she exited, she closed the door behind her and leaned back against it with her eyes closed, thinking of those few minutes in the parking lot when she'd last spoken with her CO.

She knew it was a covert mission, but it hadn't really dawned on her it might be dangerous and more than that, somewhere outside the United States. O'Neill could, of course, handle himself in any environment, since he'd been on every continent on the planet, and elsewhere.

She took a deep breath and blew it out, suddenly aware of the silence around her. Julia was still on 'hold' on the phone and had resumed typing whilst awaiting a response. She was now stopped, fingers in mid-stroke, staring at the Major. She looked as if she'd just asked a question, but Carter was certain she hadn't heard a thing. Slightly embarrassed, she pushed off from the door and waved a hand to the secretary. "Ah, no, nothing. I'm fine. Thanks." She hoped her answer was at least close to what was expected.

As she moved through the corridors, she replayed her conversation with Hammond in her mind. Out of the country. Complications. Delayed. Cover-up. Her pace quickened to a near-run.

She turned a corner at breakneck speed and bumped solidly into Teal'c, and he grabbed for her upper arms to keep her from losing her balance. "Major Carter."

At first his expression was that of smug amusement at having to 'catch' his teammate, but as his eyes met hers, the mirth faded.

She looked up at him with her eyes wide and full of worry. The sudden stop made her voice catch, and she was unable to speak for a moment. Before she made the attempt, Teal'c was looking warily into her eyes as if perceiving something. He asked her the one question she couldn't answer. "What has happened to O'Neill?"

<><><>

Hammond arrived at the Pentagon and found Dorsey in his office. No meetings, no 'national security' urgent event in progress, just relaxing and reading reports. His aide tried to stop the visiting General from entering, but Hammond bulldozed his way right through her and into Dorsey's private office.

Their eyes met, and Dorsey waved off his aide. "It's all right, I was expecting General Hammond; sorry I didn't tell you."

Hammond waited for the door to shut before speaking. "This morning I received an interesting phone call from Kuwait."

"I know." Dorsey waved a hand in the air dismissively. "Marchman is an idiot. He shouldn't have called you directly. All communications regarding this mission were to have gone through me."

"And just when were you going to inform me?"

"When circumstances dictated the time was right." He shuffled some papers on his desk and leaned back. "Since you're here you might as well know."

He waited for Hammond to sit before continuing. "Water, coffee?" Hammond shook his head.

"All right then. I received a communiqué two days ago that O'Neill's mission had been compromised. The original mission you already know was to extract three American prisoners. An additional objective, which I did not previously share, was the assassination of a high-ranking Iraqi General."

Hammond grimaced. He knew enough of O'Neill's past to know he might be requested to do something like this again, but it saddened him to have it occur while the man was under his command. "Got it. Go on."

"The mission was botched. O'Neill has done well for us many times, and I must admit it is specifically his tendency to be a maverick and his ability to be, shall we say, 'creative' under extreme circumstances that makes him the commodity he is. This time it didn't pay off. Firstly he was supposed to rescue three Americans but only got two out, then instead of carrying out the second objective right away as planned, he chose to hold his position behind enemy lines and jeopardized two team members who stayed with him."

"He did have an opportunity but apparently missed the shot too, another foul up. Maybe our Colonel is finally getting too old for this. I'm not as impressed with him as I used to be."

Hammond blew off the insult. "Where are O'Neill and his team now?"

"The other two airmen are safe back at the base in Kuwait, but O'Neill managed to get himself caught. You know he actually tried to steal a plane to get his men home, would have made it if he hadn't gone back for them."

That almost brought a chuckle out of Hammond. Now that was the O'Neill he knew, not some half-cocked fool that routinely went around 'botching' missions. "So, I take it these two men corroborated the story to this point?"

"For the most part, but you know how tight team members get, they won't say anything that even hints they aren't backing O'Neill."

"So what is it they're saying you don't believe?"

Dorsey looked at him, surprised to be so transparent. He'd have to work on that. "Colonel Sykes and Major Barnes were there when O'Neill took his shot. They both say it was textbook perfect. The man was dead before he hit the ground. However-" He pulled a photograph out of a file and tossed it across the desk to Hammond. "They can't explain this. The photo was taken the next day, and as you can see he's very much alive."

Hammond studied the photograph and then looked back at Dorsey. "You're sure this is the man?" The other General nodded.

"What else?"

Dorsey folded his hands on the edge of the desk. "All right, but this is only because it supposedly involves your Command. Sykes said the Iraqis have some kind of technology, something that might even be able to bring a man back from a deadly injury in a very short time, no doctors, no hospital stay required. He said O'Neill knew what it was and was adamant that they get back quickly so he could contact you. Ever since he got back Sykes has been leaning on the CO out at Al Jaber to get you involved. You don't have any idea why he'd make a request like that do you?" He leaned across the desk and eyed Hammond carefully.

Hammond glared back, considering what Dorsey had just said. What was it O'Neill had stumbled across? Goa'uld technology in the Iraqi desert? "I just might." He said slowly. "You've given me something, now I'll return the favor. You know what we do out at the mountain is highly technical."

"Yes, yes, deep space radar telemetry. Geek city." Dorsey waved his hand dismissively. "Doesn't explain why you have so many SF and ex-SF's assigned there and how much ordnance you go through on a regular basis."

Hammond's expression grew stern. Dorsey had obviously been looking into places he shouldn't be. "Granted there are risks to what we do and it must be protected. I'd advise you to back off on your current lines of inquiry."

"Is that a threat?'

"No, no, just a friendly word of caution. Now as I was saying," Hammond relaxed, now in control of the conversation. " We have at our disposal technology that is far beyond anything you may consider 'cutting edge'. If in fact Colonel O'Neill has found evidence of similar technology in Iraq, it is imperative it be secured. You have no idea what you are dealing with here."

"You're not telling me you're buying Sykes story about some miraculous healing device?"

"That I can neither confirm nor deny."

Dorsey's mouth dropped open and gaped. He snapped it shut. "George, what's this about?"

"Funny, that was why I came here. To get some answers. How about we drop the dance we've been doing and get on with it? You've still got a man to be rescued, and so do I. Apparently there's also something relative to my Command that I need to get my hands on as well. As far as this Iraqi, I think we both have issues regarding him. Either we cooperate or none of that will happen."

Dorsey tapped his fingers on the tabletop as he decided. "Full disclosure?"

"From your side regarding this mission, yes, but from me, need to know only." He raised a hand before Dorsey could argue. "Believe me what I'll give you will keep you up at night."

The fingers drummed again then stopped abruptly. "All right, but I *am* a heavy sleeper." He pulled a folder out of his drawer and slid it to Hammond. "Sykes and Barnes reports in full, copies of everything O'Neill was given at the start of the mission and," He paused. "A transcript of a short interview with some collaborator who rendered our people assistance. He rants about this famous 'technology ' of yours and was quite taken with O'Neill, but I'm not persuaded he's anything but a crazy old man with questionable loyalties. He's the one who set up the plane theft that got your man captured."

Hammond nodded; it would take some time to go through this material. "I'll see all relevant data is sent to your office immediately." He stood up. "General, two things, you best consider believing what your subordinates tell you. The universe can be an astounding place. And second, your use of Colonel O'Neill has come to an end. Do I make myself clear?"

"You're of no higher rank than I, you can't make that decision." Dorsey stood to his feet, sneering.

"Fine, expect a communiqué from the Joint Chiefs within the hour. Air thin enough for you or would you prefer the White House?"

Dorsey's eyes narrowed. "You never know when someone with those specialized skills will be needed again. The Joint Chiefs and the President are well aware of this, and I have friends too, don't forget that. For now it will do. Just get me those files."

"Done." Hammond said over his shoulder as he left.

<><><>

SG-1 was aboard a transport bound for Kuwait by the end of the day. Their only stop was at Dulles where Hammond joined them. As they crossed the Atlantic he briefed them on everything he knew up to that point.

"So, your primary mission will be find and rescue Colonel O'Neill and Major Sellers. In addition you need to find what assuredly is a sarcophagus and either secure it or neutralize it and then find out if Bensada is just a very fortunate man who found the device and figured out how to use it or is in fact a Goa'uld."

Daniel had been only half listening and raised a finger in the air. "I'm unclear on one small point. You want to go over exactly how this Bensada got shot? From what those men reported, Jack wasn't in any immediate danger and no firefight was going on. So just how does a country's leader get himself killed in broad daylight?"

Hammond glared at him; he'd purposefully skimmed over that part. "I can't go into particulars, suffice it to say, Colonel O'Neill shot him."

"Without provocation?"

"They said he had a gun pointed at Major Sellers."

"O-kay" Daniel dragged out the word. "So there was a certain level of threat involved. Jack just decided to- what? Take a pot-shot at the guy? Took him out, just like that?"

"Doctor Jackson." Hammond rubbed a hand over his bald head.

"The guy could have just been trying to threaten Sellers into talking. I'm sorry but it seems to me in the past we've tried other things in situations like that, a diversion, maybe something explosive, anything." His eyebrows wagged as he spoke.

"Doctor."

"I mean you can't go around just killing high-ranking officials in other countries."

"Daniel." By this time Carter got it. She reached out and took hold of Daniel's forearm to get his attention. When he glanced at her, she shook her head, silently communicating the need for him to stop his current line of questioning. He ignored her. "Or maybe *he can*."

Hammond turned his back to the archaeologist. He had no answers for the man.

Daniel continued, unfazed. "So what was it, a contract? Is the Air Force now the new Mafia? Is that what Jack really does for a living? SG-1 is just his day job?"

Hammond took a deep breath and turned around. He spoke sadly. "He did, Doctor. And I'm sorry to say every one of his missions was sanctioned by the United States Government. There are things that none of us are glad to do, that must be done. O'Neill has always been someone who could make the hard decisions. You wonder why I am so lenient with him? Believe me, he's earned it."

Daniel continued to glare but held his tongue; he'd always wondered if Jack was as far removed from his past as he let on. Now he knew the truth. It wasn't his past; it was here and now.

The remainder of the trip was spent reviewing files and reading reports with very little verbal interaction between the members of SG-1. It was hard to accept this side of their friend and Commander, but none of them doubted it was true. They'd each have to come to terms with it in their own way.

Upon their arrival at Al Jaber, Hammond found the previously haughty Marchman to be quite subdued. Orders had already come through that essentially placed Hammond in charge of the base. The President had taken the situation to heart and met with the Joint Chiefs himself, requesting that the utmost cooperation be afforded to Hammond and his people. The thought of a Goa'uld being in power in any country on Earth was alarming. For it to be Iraq was unthinkable.

Hammond quickly made sure Marchman understood his priority was to oversee any missions dealing with Bensada and not to replace the current Command. Marchman's duties wouldn't change except for the need to keep Hammond apprised of the overall running of the base. The two men started out at odds from their phone conversation but quickly came to understand and appreciate each other. They decided to do their best not to step on each other's toes.

The next morning the original team was assembled and ready to be briefed on what they thought would solely be a rescue mission. They were more than surprised to be joined by the unusual group from Colorado.

Hammond gave them a short overview of the mission goals, carefully omitting any overt references to either sarcophagi or the Goa'uld. The subject of 'the box' did come up as a part of the mission, and Sykes pressed for more information.

"So this 'box' thing, what is it really?" He hadn't forgotten all the incredible things Alianni had said about it.

Daniel shrugged, "It's an archaeological treasure, an artifact."

Barnes leaned in. "Right. That's not what we've heard."

Before Daniel could explain further Hammond stepped in. "For the record no one in this room can tell you exactly how it works." He glanced at Carter for confirmation, and she nodded heartily. He chose his words to stay marginally within the truth. "You don't have to know all that to do what you have to do. As far as this mission is concerned, it's an artifact, nothing more."

Hammond turned the discussion back to Daniel. "Doctor Jackson, why don't you give us a description of the 'artifact' so we can determine how best to secure it?"

Several minutes and a lively discussion later Carter added her opinion to the pot. Sykes was obviously convinced they could make an actual go of capturing the device and desperately wanted to know more about it since discussion of its purpose had been shut down. She tried to get her point across and not overstep her rank.

"Sir, yes this- artifact is important but it's just too big to sneak out of the country. It would be like stealing a lame elephant! Do you know how much it weighs? Unless we commandeer a cargo plane or at least a helicopter to air lift it out, it's not going anywhere." She knew the Colonel was considering her options and turned to Hammond, "I know it would be a significant loss, but I recommend we destroy it."

Hammond nodded his agreement. "That's it then. We've heard pretty much everyone's opinion. Barring a massive outbreak of cooperation from the Iraqis, the box is going nowhere. You will neutralize it." He pointedly looked at Sykes and noted the frown on his face. "You have intel on the location?"

Sykes grudgingly stood and pointed to a map of Bensada's compound on the board behind him. "According to our friend, Alianni, it should be in this building. We should be able to get in and deal with it without too much difficulty, since we already have pretty good information about the guard's movements, but we'll have to coordinate the rescue part of the mission. Even with a pretty fair diversion we'll only have one shot at this."

Hammond spoke again. "There is one other thing to accomplish." All eyes stayed on him, those of SG-1 knowing what was coming next and the Al Jaber team wondering what he could possibly add to this already unconventional mission.

"We need Bensada."

<><><>

O'Neill woke to the shuddering feel of the crate as it was repeatedly struck by a hammer to loosen the slats. As one was freed, it fell away and allowed the bright sunlight to hit him full in the face. He raised a hand to shield his eyes and squinted up at the blurry figure before him. At that point he didn't care who it was that had come for him; he wanted nothing more than to get out of this tiny corner of hell he'd occupied for two days. His mouth was cracked and dry from dehydration, and he wasn't surprised at all not to have felt an urge to pee in well over 24 hours, there just wasn't anything in there.

His legs were completely numb, and the guards yelled at him for not moving, then grabbed at his upper arms and dragged him roughly up and out of the box. He was deposited face down in the dirt and choked as he inhaled the dust stirred up by his collapse.

They allowed him to cough several times before one of the soldiers poured a canteen of water over his head. He quickly cupped his hands to catch as much of the liquid as possible and sucked what he could into his mouth; licking his hands to get every last drop. They didn't give him a much time to recover, immediately dragging him back into the building where he'd been questioned earlier.

Bensada was there waiting, this time much more wary of his prisoner. O'Neill's wrists were chained this time, and he was pulled upright as the links were drawn over the heavy iron light fixture in the ceiling. The pulling didn't stop until he was stretched tall and could only bear weight on his feet by standing on his toes.

The Iraqi leader walked in a circle around O'Neill, assessing him. The prisoner was caked in mud from where the splashed water had wet his skin and clothing allowing the dirt to stick to him. He breathed harshly; lack of water and hot desert air had begun to scorch his lungs; the temperature in the crate had reached nearly 130 degrees by the previous afternoon and then plummeted through the night, a perfect scenario for a case of 'desert' pneumonia. The Colonel was alert though and returned the gaze of his captor as much as he was able from his position.

Bensada looked at the dark eyes staring back at him. "So, you are more resilient than you at first appeared. Perhaps you are no stranger to the desert." He walked a few more paces. "You already know my name. Is there harm in knowing the name of the one I am addressing?"

The Colonel's voice was rough. "O'Neill."

"Hmm. No arguments today? You surprise me." He walked over to the table and handled several of the items there finally choosing one. He adjusted the setting to the lowest power and held up the stun gun for O'Neill to see. "Ordered on the internet. 59.95 American dollars. Amazing."

He moved closer to the center of the room. "Now, I will ask, and you will answer. For every refusal I will turn this up one level. You understand I have no desire to kill you, not yet." He touched the probe to his own palm and watched the blue sparks dance. "Ah, this is exquisitely painful. You should try it."

"Thanks, I'll pass."

"As you wish." His voice turned serious. "Why are you here?"

"Vacation, looked like a nice spot-" O'Neill jerked and grimaced as the device touched his side making his muscles spasm painfully.

"That was one." Bensada adjusted the dial. "There are several more, care to try another?"

"No, not really." O'Neill's voice shook as he tried to compose himself. The strength of the jolt was much more than he'd expected by the way Bensada had held the device to his own hand.

"Answer me."

"Uh, what was the question?"

The Iraqi motioned to a guard who brandished a long knife and in two swift moves cut O'Neill's T-shirt from him, baring his torso. "Why. Are. You. Here?"

"Oh, that. Bad timing?"

Bensada shoved the weapon into the center of O'Neill's chest and held it there until his entire body was jerking and his legs gave up their support of his body. His shoulders protested the awkward positioning to bear his weight. He recovered just in time to see Bensada adjusting the weapon again.

"You should know this device has been altered. In its original configuration it did not kill, even at the highest setting. Now it does. Three of five." He walked slowly around O'Neill keeping a discrete distance.

"Let us try a simpler question. Your name is O'Neill. You are obviously American and a criminal."

O'Neill's eyebrows went up.

Bensada explained. "You are guilty of trespass, injuring my men and stealing my plane. You are also the one I believe who attempted to murder me."

"Succeeded."

The Iraqi spun around angrily. This American knew far too much. "Do I look dead to you?"

O'Neill eyed him from head to foot. "Not at the moment. Give me another chance, and I'll make sure it sticks."

The weapon rammed into his flank this time, the pain enough to make O'Neill yelp and his consciousness begin to fade. The guards kept him awake by dousing him with a bucket of water. He roused, sputtering and blinked hard to get the water out of his eyes.

"Four. When one is in a weakened condition even this level will kill." He squinted his eyes at O'Neill. "Perhaps you would like to see a demonstration." He waved an arm and the door opened. O'Neill clenched his jaw as Toby was dragged into the room and shoved against the far wall.

The two Americans eyes met and held each other's gaze. Bensada glanced from one to the other. "You have met before?"

"Don't know him." O'Neill knew it would hurt, but if Bensada even suspected a slight connection between the men Sellers life would be even more at risk than it had been up 'til now.

Sellers flinched ever so slightly. Despite it being years since he'd seen O'Neill and the shock of him actually being there, he recognized his former teammate immediately. Though O'Neill's eyes gave no hint of recognition whatsoever, Sellers knew it was there. He fell in step following O'Neill's lead and addressed him. His voice was raspy and forced.

"Hey, man, that's some shit you've got yourself into. Old Ben here never strung me up like that."

"Luck of the draw, kid. You just haven't pissed him off enough yet."

Bensada's eyes narrowed, and he stepped between the men breaking off the conversation. "No matter. It is as I have said 'a demonstration' only." He gestured to a guard who hauled Sellers to his feet. With no warning Bensada swung his hand holding the weapon and jammed it into Toby's shoulder. Bright blue sparks flew, and both Toby and the guard jerked in response. The Iraqi loosed his grip immediately but fell backwards and smacked his head hard against the wall then slid to the floor unconscious.

Sellers dropped where he was, twitching spasmodically as if having a seizure. After several seconds it stopped, and his bruised body went limp against the floor. O'Neill watched, horrified inside but outwardly, with only a small measure of interest.

He noted his friend was still breathing. At least there was that. "Ouch. I don't think he was ready for that."

"And will you be?"

O'Neill grimaced as he saw Bensada adjust the weapon to the final setting and begin to circle around behind him once again. He half expected the Iraqi to forego any more questions and simply kill him.

Bensada emerged on the other side, walking slowly and considering the value and strengths of his prisoner. He put the weapon in his pocket.

"O'Neill, correct?" He noted the Colonel's nod. "We need not continue in this manner. You know I *will* kill you without hesitation. And-" He stopped directly in front of O'Neill, "I think you know I can do it more than once. You should reconsider your future."

"Bite. My. American. Ass."

Bensada closed his eyes for a moment as rage overtook him. He whipped the stun gun out of his pocket and lunged at O'Neill. Being hung up and stretched out had had a positive effect as it turned out, the stiffness was nearly gone and with the return of blood flow O'Neill now had full use of his legs.

He swung one foot up and knocked the stun gun away then with the other came around and thunked Bensada soundly on the side of his head. The man reeled and dropped to his knees with a great moan. O'Neill's next move was to swing his lower body up until he could hold himself upside down by his knees and unhook the chain. That done he dropped to the floor, upright and ready to take out the only other person standing, the second guard.

He never actually saw the hand device or Bensada rising up and removing the black leather glove to use it, but the crushing slam of his body against the wall was unmistakable evidence. He slid to the floor with a grunt, and Bensada was there again, this time holding his palm open and directing the energy at O'Neill's face. The shaking started immediately, and it seemed every drop of blood was rushing into his head. The pressure grew and forced capillaries then veins and arteries to rupture. Blood made its way its way to the surface and the coppery fluid began to seep from O'Neill's nose and ears. Within seconds crimson droplets appeared at the corners of his eyes too.

Toby Sellers hadn't ever seen anything like it. Despite his condition and having just regained consciousness himself, he was awed by the powerful weapon in Bensada's hand. Something like what he thought a laser-based weapon might be if the Sci-fi nut cases had any say about it. Still here it was, a real weapon in front of him, killing his friend in a horrifying manner. Sellers roared a curse as he forced himself to his feet, picking up the discarded stun gun as he stood.

He dove toward the man but was far too late, Bensada had already turned and the yellow-orange light flashed in Sellers direction. At once he was thrown harder than he could have imagined against the rough stone, and as he slumped to the floor in agony, he passed out.

Bensada refrained from killing the second American and glanced back at the crumpled form of O'Neill, the blood still flowing and pooling in the dirt where his face lay. The American's bloodshot eyes now stared lifelessly off into space, his jaw hanging open in a grotesque look of surprise.

The room was eerily quiet after so much commotion. Bensada barked an order, and the remaining soldier hurried off to alert the guards outside they were needed.

The Iraqi kicked at the ground and knocked bits of dirt into O’Neill’s face, then leaned forward and spat on him. He turned to the men just entering the room. “Take him to the chest of gold. This one will not meet his God so easily. As for the other, back to his cell.”

<><><>

Dusk fell, and Sykes noted with admiration the way O'Neill's team, as he thought of them, blended in with his own. He was sure his men would have to at least slow down to make allowances for the newcomers but not only did they keep up, the really odd one, Teal'c, could have outpaced every one of them and never seemed to need a break.

At the edge of the compound the group split into three teams: Sykes, Daniel and Blackstone would go after O'Neill and Sellers in the prison while the two Majors, Barnes and Carter went to the 'artifact's' presumed location. They were to mine it with C-4 charges and then move on to get as close as they could to the Command center. McGhee and Teal'c had the job of creating a diversion to allow the other teams a chance to complete their tasks. Once inside the perimeter, they took off to the small airfield neighboring the compound. C-4 and aviation fuel would make quite a display.

Keeping to the shadows and crouching, Carter and Barnes made it quickly to the building housing the sarcophagus and slipped around to the side away from the airfield. When the diversion came, they expected most of the soldiers would head toward it. With any luck only one or two guards would be left to keep the back door secured. She radioed to Sykes quietly.

"We're set. Not too much going on here, looks like they've just changed guard rotations." She nodded to Barnes, and they observed four men sauntering off in the direction of what Sykes pointed out earlier as the barracks. They bumped into each other occasionally as they walked and had their shoulders slightly hunched as if exhausted from their duties.

Carter covered her earpiece with her hand to better hear Sykes reply, "Your teammate is pretty adept with C-4, he and McGhee are just about done setting their charges. Prison guards have changed as well, looks like they've put all their new recruits on night duty." All six of the prison guards he'd seen looked to be not much over twenty.

McGhee's voice came across the radio. "Sir, we're ready. You're gonna love this. Just say the word."

Sykes smiled at the man's enthusiasm. "Lieutenant, five count, mark."

Five heartbeats later all hell broke loose. There were two helicopters in addition to Bensada's jets, and one of them suddenly became airborne, upside down of course. The nearby drums of fuel exploded with a deafening series of booms, and a moment later the shockwave made the air feel thick as it rolled outward from the origin of the blast.

Barnes rose up from where he'd crouched with his hands over his ears, and smiled at Carter, "That's our cue." As one they stood and entered the building, encountering only a single, somewhat stunned guard whom they disabled before he even saw them coming. They climbed the steps to the upper floor and quickly immobilized another two Iraqis just as easily then checked the rooms. It took them only a few minutes to locate their goal.

Barnes stood at the door and gaped at the gigantic thing shimmering even in the dim light. Never in his life had he envisioned being in the same room with this much gold. It reminded him of pictures he'd seen of Fort Knox. His arms dropped to his sides limply as he lowered his weapon.

Carter nudged his shoulder playfully. "Are you gonna be all right?"

"Uh, huh."

At the flat response she giggled and shoved a detonator into his hand. "Here. Get started."

He turned to her almost absent-mindedly and held out a hand to the huge object. "We can't-"

Her eyes flared. "Oh, yes we can. Believe me, if it was just for the gold, we wouldn't even be here."

He stared at her. "You know what it is."

She was already kneeling beside it placing the first charge. "Yes." She stood and dusted her hands off. "And that's why we've got to do this."

He ran a hand over his mouth and looked at the C-4 then at the mass of intricately carved gold and slowly nodded. "Okay. You want to blow this thing to Kingdom Come? Let's do it." He moved to the side opposite where she stood and attached the charge as she'd demonstrated back at the base, glancing once out the small window at the fire-lit night sky. "Everything Alianni said about this thing is true isn't it?"

Sam kept her head down and ignored the question as she placed a charge.

He moved up a meter and prepared to set another. "One more thing, the second part of our assignment; we're supposed to get close to Bensada."

She nodded, still not looking up. "Very close."

"But we aren't to engage him or his men in any way. What's that about?"

Carter glanced up to find Barnes staring at her with his eyes narrowed. He continued. "It has something to do with you and finding out something about Bensada, doesn't it? What are you, a psychic?"

"No, I'm a scientist." Her eyes fell. Barnes was proving to be a lot more perceptive than she initially gave him credit for. How could she explain she needed to get close enough to be able to sense if the man was a Goa'uld, without explaining exactly what that was? She bit her lower lip and spoke tentatively. "But I can *feel* certain things. Please don't ask me to explain. It's real, and trust me, it's important."

His eyes returned to his task. After several moments of silence he spoke. "Someday I'd like to know what really goes on back at Cheyenne Mountain. I'd bet it's a hell of a lot more interesting than what I've been told. How does someone get recruited to that Command anyway?"

Sam smiled. "Invitation only. You'd have to impress a whole lot of people to get an assignment there."

Barnes was setting his last charge and frowning. "Starting with?"

"Someone who is already there, preferably of Command rank."

He stood to his feet. "You're O'Neill's Second, right? That puts you on the list."

She stood as well and arched an eyebrow in amusement. "It does."

He flushed at the look she gave him and was suddenly glad for the subdued lighting in the room. His statement had sounded a bit too much like a come-on, and her response didn't make it any better.

He was desperate to change the subject and glanced at his handiwork along the side of the box. "A person actually gets inside this thing. You think there's anyone in there now?"

Carter shook her head. "Not likely. I doubt Bensada would be benevolent enough to share it with anyone. Time to go."

<><><>

Sykes team waited a full minute after the shockwave to proceed. The prison building was very near the airfield, and as the force of the explosion hit, all the windows on that side blew out simultaneously. Even on the back of the building bits of mortar flew, and the windowpanes rattled loudly. The three men hunkered down and waited for it to pass then sprang into action. Four of the guards were already outside swinging their weapons about and looking for the next attack. The other two were taken out quickly. This was the part of the job Daniel liked least, but he was determined to be as much the soldier as Blacksmith was just to show Sykes he wasn't a weak link. They incapacitated both guards without a sound and without killing them.

Sykes nodded his approval and threw a ring of keys to Daniel. "Back there. Cells." He didn't wait for a reply but turned and moved quickly toward the front of the room to keep an eye out for returning guards.

Daniel fumbled with the large keys but got the outer door open and ran in. He immediately called for the Colonel; there was enough commotion and noise outside he knew no one would hear him. "Jack? It's Daniel. Where are you?"

Blacksmith stepped in behind him, and they began to survey the cells one by one. At the last cell he stopped and waved his hand toward Daniel. "Here, open it."

Daniel made his way there and quickly opened the door- letting Blacksmith dart inside. He checked for a pulse quickly on the unconscious man. "It's Sellers. He's alive."

"So, where's Jack?"

"All the other cells are empty. Wherever he is, he's not here. We've got to go."

Daniel nodded, and the two of them raised Sellers up and dragged him out of the cell.

Back in the main room Sykes checked on the other teams. "Barnes? You ready yet? We're gonna need that second explosion in two minutes."

"All set. Carter and I are leaving the building now, moving to our next objective, the main bunker and Bensada."

"As soon as you're clear blow it. We need all the mayhem we can create right now." He turned just in time to see Daniel and the Lieutenant carry out a single man.

"O'Neill?"

Daniel shook his head. "Not here."

"Shit. Come on, let's get outside and find a place to hole up for a few minutes. Can you wake him?"

"Maybe." Blacksmith offered. "He's bruised up and might have a head injury. I've got smelling salts in my pack."

Sykes nodded and gestured them on while he took up the six. Outside and hidden in the shadows behind a Jeep, the men paused and Blacksmith tried to rouse the unconscious Sellers.

Sykes radioed the other teams. "Teal'c, McGhee, rendezvous at the break out point. We've got a problem. O'Neill wasn't in the cellblock."

The deep bass voice of Teal'c came through the radio. "Colonel Sykes do you know where he might be?"

"Not a clue. Sellers is unconscious; we're trying to wake him now."

"Is it not true this 'Bensada' frequently interrogates his prisoners?"

"Sure, like every chance he gets."

"Then is it likely O'Neill would be wherever Bensada is?"

"Possible." Sykes chewed his lip.

Barnes voice came across the radio. "Sir, Major Carter agrees. We're just about in position. As soon as the artifact goes up, we'll be able to get a lot closer. We'll find him, Colonel."

Sykes thought a moment. "Okay. McGhee and Teal'c get over to the bunker and back up Carter and Barnes. We've got orders to have a one-on-one with the guy if possible anyway. Stay low; any minute now your 'artifact' is gonna be history. Sykes out."

He released the button and shifted his position to see how Sellers was doing. The man was groggy but awake, and Daniel was already questioning him.

"There was another American, Colonel Jack O'Neill. He was here. Did you see him?"

Sellers nodded, holding onto the right side of his face "Yeah, whew! Ow, my head! Yeah saw him. Actually saw Bensada beat the crap out of him."

'Typical' Daniel thought. "So where is he now?"

"Not sure. Just not here. Actually, don't take this wrong; I think Bensada killed him. You're gonna thing I'm crazy but I swear I'm not. He's got this 'thing', some big device, and it can 'fix' people. I woke up inside the damn thing myself. I know the Iraqi sonofabitch, and he's not through with O'Neill just yet, he's probably doing it right now."

As he spoke two things happened. Sykes mouth dropped open, and the ground shook as a series of explosions rocked the compound. The Colonel gasped. "Tell me you don't mean he was *inside* that thing!"

The Major nodded. Sykes lowered his head nearly to his chest. "Dammit. Screw the bastard. I'm not losing anyone else over him." He keyed his radio. "Teams. Listen up. Abort. Repeat, abort mission. Breakout point *now*, everyone."

A female voice came through the radio. "We can't go Sir. We haven't found Colonel O'Neill yet."

Sykes eyes locked with Daniel's as he spoke into the microphone. "Yes we have. According to Sellers he was inside that artifact we just eliminated. Move out."

Carter choked, and her hand dropped from the radio. "No. He couldn't-"

Barnes reached over and took her shoulder. "We had no way to know."

Her voice was so quiet he almost didn't hear. "I should have checked. I never thought- what we did- we killed him." Despite the racket going on around them as soldiers came and went trying to put out fires and secure the area, there was utter silence between the two Americans. Carter visibly paled and blinked back the sudden moisture in her eyes. She turned her face away from her companion and blew out her breath in a muffled curse. "Dammit."

Wiping her nose with the back of her hand, she forced her emotions down. "I'm going on. If that man is what I think he is, and I don't at least confirm it, the Colonel will have died for nothing."

Barnes gave her shoulder another squeeze and nodded. "I'm in too. I didn't know him as long" he paused and looked carefully into her eyes, "or as well as you, but the guy earned my respect the day I met him. Now that Bensada's 'cure-all' device is out of the way, I just might take over O'Neill's mission and plant one between his eyes. If he is whatever-it-is you're afraid of, just say the word, and he's a dead whatever-it-is."

<><><>

O'Neill's eyes flickered, and he slowly opened them to the familiar soft white glow surrounding him. His eyes moved from one side to the other and he groaned. Not again. Shit.

A low grating sound alerted him to the completion of the cycle as the two halves of the lid swung away to permit his release. Odd he thought as he extricated himself, the room was vacant except for the sarcophagus and him; no guards were to be seen. Although dim lamps were lit on the walls, a fair amount of light entered the small window, and O'Neill glanced outside to behold the camp in chaos.

He glanced back into the room and immediately spotted the C-4 and detonators spaced along the outside of the massive device. Interesting. He made a slight huffing sound as he wondered to himself.

Quickly before the lid shut, he removed one of the explosive packs and set it inside the chamber. He removed another smaller one and checked the reading. Set to detonate by remote, if no signal was received it would go off by timer in one hour. Definitely interesting. He altered the setting and deactivated the device then shoved it in his pocket.

Not to be left out of whatever fun was going down, he inched down a back staircase and outside. Just as he stepped out into the moonlight there was a tumultuous explosion from somewhere just over his head. The force of it threw him several feet, and he tumbled in the dirt. Shaken, but uninjured he quickly righted himself and ducked in a doorway.

He watched as people ran in all directions, some to escape the still falling debris and others toward the building to assist survivors of the blast. The entire top floor had had its windows blown out, and dark smoke poured from the openings. The Colonel blew out a breath; less than five minutes ago he was still in the accursed thing and would now be dead, permanently.

He knew what he had to do and where Bensada would be, in the large bunker directing his troops. Quickly, quietly and completely unobserved in the darkness and confusion, O'Neill set out to complete his mission. His only regret was that he was still shirtless and didn't have time to procure one from somewhere; the night air was chilly enough to raise the gooseflesh on his exposed skin, but he went on anyway, picking his way from shadow to shadow, stealthily as a great cat.

<><><>

Bensada paced back and forth stomping as he went. News of the destruction of his prized possession made him more irate than any had ever seen him. Only one soldier was in the room, and he stayed back as far away as he could in case Bensada's wrath came in his direction. They'd all witnessed the results of that.

O'Neill crouched in the hallway and slipped into the room at a moment when no eyes were turned toward him. Once inside he hid behind a curtain and listened to the tirade as Bensada vocalized.

"What have you done?" He screamed his words at the two kneeling prisoners. "Insolent Tau'ri garbage!"

O'Neill would have snickered at that had he not taken note of Bensada's newest guests. On the floor in front of him knelt Major Barnes and of all the people in the world he did not expect to see, his 2IC, Carter. She flinched as the Iraqi cursed her, but at the name 'Tau'ri' her eyebrows twitched. O'Neill nodded to himself, 'Good girl. You know what he is'.

His hand idly fingered the C-4 in his pocket. There had to be a way to take down this aberration yet not harm Carter and Barnes. His initial plan was to simply chuck the C-4 in the room and let the faster man win. Now that wasn't an option. He ran a finger over the face of the detonator where it was in his pocket. He knew it so well, he could almost set it without looking.

It occurred to him that the best action is usually a direct one, and they were running out of time. Once the explosions were dealt with and the injured rescued, the soldiers would be back at their posts and even more watchful than before. He quickly took out the charge and molded the putty so it was more rounded in form and set a two second countdown to start when he activated it then stuck it back in his pants. Beside him a large round ornamental knob was screwed into the wall to be used as a stay for the heavy curtain. He quickly unscrewed it and shoved it in his other pocket.

Indifferent to his lack of attire, he squared his shoulders and strode boldly into the room. "Hey, Ben. Got a minute?" He waved a hand at the soldier, already with his weapon trained on the intruder. "No, no, don't get up. I'm obviously not armed."

He turned to Bensada. "Got yourself some new prospects huh?" He walked around behind the prisoners to the other side, and when he turned he caught Carters eye and expression of shock. He merely smiled and gave her a quick wink.

The Iraqi spat in anger. "So, you had the honor of being the last to receive the gift of life, short though it may be. All of you will pay for this. Get on your knees, and die with them."

As he spoke he pointed gruffly to the floor, and O'Neill noted he was not wearing the dreaded hand device. On the inside the Colonel smiled, his adversary may be a Goa'uld but he still made mistakes.

"Ah, c'mon. What threat am I? I'm not even wearing my ball cap. You know how we Americans love our baseball." He produced the ball shaped knob from his pocket and tossed it lightly in the air, catching it without looking. He turned to walk away from Bensada, momentarily turning his back to the man and quickly mouthed the words 'get ready' to Carter.

Carter's eyebrows knit, and she glanced at Barnes. She had no idea what was about to happen, but knowing her CO it would be big. She lowered her head and whispered a warning to her companion.

"As a matter of fact it's my favorite game. You should try it sometime, hones the reflexes, you know."

Carter's eyes closed momentarily; only O'Neill would strike up a conversation about baseball with a Goa'uld. When she opened them again, her CO was behind them. She could tell from his shadow he was mimicking a pitcher tossing the ball and catching it again as he talked.

"You gotta be fast, anticipate the unexpected; you never know if what's comin' at you is gonna fly straight or not. Catch!"

With that O'Neill switched hands and pulled the explosive out of his pocket. He'd already activated it and now delivered his best C-4 laden fast ball pitch into Bensada's waiting hands. He dropped immediately; Carter and Barnes both took his lead and threw themselves away from the Iraqis position and flattened themselves to the floor.

Bensada easily caught the 'baseball', but when he turned his hand over he found himself with a handful of C-4. His eyes widened as the counter turned to zero. It was the last thing he ever saw.

The explosion was big enough to rock the entire room and blow out both windows. Inside parts of the ceiling gave way, and debris showered down from above covering the interior with bits of plaster and a creating a huge cloud of chalky dust. When the shockwave abated the only sound was the gentle falling of airborne particles as they continued to clear from the air.

Everything in the room was covered with a layer of gray-white dust including the people, and O'Neill raised his head and spit out some that had gotten in his mouth. He shook his head to knock it out of his hair then tightened the grip he had on Carter's wrist. "Carter? You okay?"

She moaned and raised her head then coughed as she inhaled a bit too much dust. "Yeah. Sure. Nice entrance, Sir."

He grinned at her dirt-smudged face. "What are you doing here?"

"Rescuing you." She coughed again and let him pull her up to a sitting position. "Can't you tell?"

Another cough struck, and she grunted as a pain assaulted her side. O'Neill quickly wrapped an arm around her to give her some support. "Sure you're okay?"

"Am now." She turned her head into his chest and leaned her forehead against him. "I thought-" She took a breath that was half sob. "Sir, I'm sorry. I didn't know you were in there, I thought we'd-"

He grasped her shoulders and pushed her away so that he could look into her eyes, and her hands automatically rose to grasp his upper arms. "Didn't happen, Sam. That's what matters. It didn't happen. It's okay." He moved one hand to her cheek and brushed a fleck of plaster away with his thumb.

Barnes sat up and coughed loudly then looked at the two people in front of him. One corner of his mouth curled up in a smirk. He'd had a feeling ever since he'd met them there was something more to the team from Cheyenne Mountain, and now he was sure if it. The two men, Daniel and Teal'c acted a lot more like brothers than just teammates or even friends, and here were O'Neill and Carter sharing a moment in a way that didn't look much like CO and 2IC. Seems there was something to O'Neill's refusal of that little *gift* Alianni had bestowed on him after all.

At the sight of the Major sitting up, O'Neill pulled Carter over to one shoulder, and extended a hand to him. "Rick, you old dog!"

"Sir. Nice to see you. Um, a surprise though."

"Actually for me, too." He loosened his grip on Carter and stood, then helped her up as well. He suddenly remembered something else. "Toby?"

Barnes grinned, his white teeth standing out against the dirt on his face. "Alive and well, Sykes has him."

O'Neill smiled back at him then turned to Carter, "Feel free to commence that rescue, Major. I am *so* not gonna miss this place."

<><><>

The guard was still conscious and armed but instead of securing the three prisoners he quickly moved to see what had become of his leader. Bensada lay face up, or what was left of it with one eye staring lifelessly at the ceiling. His arms and hands had been mangled to the point they were barely recognizable, and the whole front of his torso was a blackened bloody mess.

The guard stood silently for a moment then stepped toward O'Neill and dropped to one knee. He held out his rifle with both hands to the American. O'Neill accepted his surrender, and gun, with a silent nod.

The man stood and spoke in English. "Praise be to Allah. The demon is dead. We are, all of us, in your debt. Only a few of us knew the truth; I must tell them what has happened. Fear not for the results of the explosions, the injured will be cared for, and if any have died, they have gone on to their reward. You will not be held accountable." He pressed his fist to his heart and bowed his head then turned and quickly exited leaving the stunned, and now free, prisoners alone.

O'Neill turned the weapon over in his hands. "Well *that* was a surprise. Truth, hmm. Do you think he knew?"

O'Neill's question was obviously directed towards Carter. She stole a glance at Barnes before answering. "He called him a 'demon'. Maybe they thought he was possessed by something."

"Right." Barnes voice dripped sarcasm as he looked at the two other officers, fully aware they both knew just what kind of 'demon' Bensada really was.

Suddenly Carters radio crackled to life. "Teams! What was that third blast? Carter, Barnes, respond. Where are you? Are you okay?"

She slid the radio out of its pouch and handed it to O'Neill.

"Sykes, is that you? Can't find anything better to do on a Saturday night?"

There was silence for a moment. "O'Neill?"

The pause was broken by Daniel's excited voice. "Jack! You're not dead!"

He looked at Carter, momentarily confused, then keyed the radio. "Oh, that. Was, I guess, not is." He shrugged. "If I'm right, we shouldn't have much trouble getting out of here. We've got one well toasted bad-guy here. Anybody else want to blow this joint?"

"Waiting on you, flyboy. Barnes and Carter know where to meet." came the response from Sykes, his voice completely different than it had been just a moment ago, now full of laughter.

<><><>

The two groups met behind one of the large bunkers between the main camp and the airfield. Although O'Neill believed the guards words about Bensada's death being a blessing, he, Carter and Barnes still moved in the shadows, trying to stay out of sight. Who knew how long it would take for word to get around to everyone, and how many would still be loyal to the downed beast?

The sight of O'Neill, only half dressed, striding toward them through the smoke and haze from the still smoldering fires was like someone emerging from a dream. The only hints at reality were the two Majors behind him, in their full black attire, though now scuffed and covered with white plaster. Sykes stood and waved a hand at them.

As soon as they were within sight of the others O'Neill began to scan the faces, looking for one in particular. He was surprised to see the non-military members of his team but even as he greeted them with a broad smile, his feet did not stop until he was standing in front of Toby. Without hesitation he pulled the younger man into a bear hug. Sellers responded by grabbing hold and returning the hug so tightly his knuckles turned white; a sob escaped his lips.

"I should have known they'd pick you to come get me."

O'Neill hugged the man more tightly. "I thought I was too late."

"So did I. Funny how things turned out." Toby pushed back out of the hug and eyed O'Neill. "Tell me I'm not crazy. Both of us, we *were* dead, weren't we?"

O'Neill released the man. "It's a really long story, Toby. Let's talk about it later, okay? The debriefing you're gonna get will make our usual special ops ones feel like a kid's game."

Sellers frowned. He never did like long reports, and he had an idea of why he'd be undergoing something akin to an interrogation. "That weapon he used-"

O'Neill cut him off with only a look, then inclined his head toward his friend and spoke in a hushed tone. "Is seriously classified."

Sellers quickly shut his mouth and nodded. In a way he wasn't surprised that O'Neill seemed to already be aware of these strange things.

Daniel stepped up to the men brandishing a jacket, which he slipped over O'Neill's shoulders.

"Daniel!" O'Neill exclaimed as he turned and clapped him on the shoulder.

The archaeologist bowed his head slightly and smiled crookedly. It was obvious he was glad to see his friend, but O'Neill saw there was a hint of something else. He opened his mouth to ask but Daniel looked away and cut him off. "Come on. We've arranged a pick up but it's a ways out from the camp. You two up for a hike?"

"Or not." O'Neill was looking over Daniel's shoulder at the large covered truck that was heading in their direction. Before it even got close to them, several armed men appeared out of the shadows, weapons trained on the Americans.

They were forced to close ranks and stand close together as the truck pulled up and stopped in front of them.

The passenger side door opened, and a familiar face emerged. Alianni held his rifle in the air and waved it. "O'Neill! I am glad to be seeing you!" He jumped to the ground and strode up to the group. "You see; I knew you would be the one!"

O'Neill shook his head, "Not just *me*, all of us. You've got a chance for a new start now. No more Bensada, no more magic boxes."

Alianni caught O'Neill's arm in a warriors greeting instead of the standard hand clasp and gave it a tug. "Come." The Iraqi gestured to the truck. "Tomorrow we rebuild. Tonight we celebrate."

O'Neill glanced at the small troupe of Americans and back at the compound behind him. "And them?"

"Do not fear; the soldiers will not follow. Many of them are as glad to see Bensada go as I. Come." He walked to the rear of the truck and pulled back the flap, revealing only a few men and some assorted crates; there was plenty of room for everyone.

O'Neill smiled and accepted a hand up from Alianni's brother-in-law, Hassan. The others joined him, and soon the truck was bouncing along the road. Alianni got in back with the passengers and chatted continuously as they rode.

Daniel interrupted him. "Jack? This isn't the road back to our extraction point. We're going the wrong way."

Alianni and O'Neill exchanged glances before O'Neill responded to him. "No, but it's the *right* way to camp."

Epilogue

Somewhere enroute from Bensada's compound to Alianni's camp, Sykes radioed to the extraction team to abort and return to base. The pilot was concerned, but Sykes assured him they were all right. As a matter of fact they were great. O'Neill and Sellers were alive and well and back among friends, and Bensada was permanently out of the picture. Sadly so was the 'magical' box Sykes had so wanted to see.

Alianni told him he might yet get the chance to see at least a piece of it. He had what he called 'inside information' that the fledgling Iraqi government had been becoming increasingly unhappy with Bensada and his policies. It was possible, for a price, they could be convinced to part with anything left of the destroyed artifact, a dark reminder of too many men, women and children who'd suffered the wrath of its owner.

At camp the first thing Alianni did was arrange for a satellite link phone call to Al Jaber Air Base. O'Neill was shocked to find himself reporting in to Hammond and not Marchman. The General gave his 2IC the go-ahead to sit tight until he was able to contact the current Iraqi administration and arrange for a troop transport helicopter to pick them up. The days of covert ops were numbered in Iraq, and Hammond decided the legacy of his short term commanding Al Jaber would be to extend a hand of friendship, or at least tolerance.

Alianni was true to his promise of celebration, and though in deference to his religion, no alcohol was served, in every other way it was a festive event. Bonfires were lit to chase away the nighttime desert chill and provide illumination, and several of the men demonstrated their skills with sitars and other instruments. Food was plentiful too as the women set out plates of fresh and dried fruits, nuts, and goat cheese.

Throughout the celebration Daniel had been unusually quiet, and O'Neill decided it was time to confront him about it. He sat next to the younger man and plucked a chunk of feta cheese off his plate. "I was really surprised to see you here, and Teal'c." He popped the cheese into this mouth.

"Not like either of us are novices at this kind of stuff. We just don't normally do it on this planet."

O'Neill nodded. "Still, thanks are in order."

Daniel nodded and lowered his eyes. "Sure. Anytime."

O'Neill made to swipe a date, but Daniel quickly moved the plate beyond his reach. The Colonel smiled and leaned back, resting against the log behind them. He gazed out across the camp. "Anything you want to talk about?"

"No."

The answer was too quick, even for Daniel, so O'Neill pried a little further. "This place has a way of throwing curve balls at just about everyone at some point. There's nothing wrong with admitting it."

"There isn't anything to admit."

"There is."

"Isn't."

O'Neill grinned. He'd never admit it openly, but he just loved yanking Daniel's chain. "Is." Instead of a retort, there was silence. O'Neill slowly turned his head to meet Daniel's eyes.

"I never had you pegged as an assassin." The younger man took a breath and looked down. "I mean, I knew you had it in you, with all the Special Ops stuff and the 'suicide' thing from the first trip to Abydos. I just didn't know-" His voice faltered.

"I was still doing it."

"Yeah." Daniel looked up and winced.

It was O'Neill's turn to sigh. His mind immediately dredged up memories of that little assignment he'd accepted to expose Makepeace and the rift it had left in its wake. "You know it doesn't have anything to do with trust, right?"

Daniel set down his plate where O'Neill couldn't reach it. "I know, just don't like it. And don't give me any of that military garbage about it; I don't have to like it to deal with it. Sneaking around on missions is one thing, but you killed a man in cold blood, and at the time you didn't know he was a Goa'uld."

'Point taken.' O'Neill thought. Damn, it was getting harder to argue about it all the time. Apparently Daniel's morals were rubbing off on him. "You're right, I didn't know. What I *did* know was that he, as a normal human, was enough of a threat old Uncle Sam wanted him gone. And they didn't care about making it look like an accident either." He paused a moment, then went on. "Daniel, some things are hard, and sometimes there's a fine line between right and wrong; but things still need to be done. It's all part of the job."

"For someone who has the strength to make the tough choices."

The words sounded odd coming out of Daniel's mouth, and O'Neill glanced sideways at him. "Yeah." He wondered if someone had put that idea in Daniel's head, or he'd come up with it on his own. His friend would never understand all the nuances of the military, but apparently he was willing to let it go this time.

"So."

"So."

Daniel had to crack a smile. He picked up the plate and set it on the ground between them.

"Thanks." O'Neill spoke the word as he selected a slice of some greenish melon-like fruit, but both of them knew it was really meant for the forgiveness and acceptance Daniel had offered. The younger man nodded and picked out his own fruit to munch on. Both men turned their attention to the latest part of the festivities, a group of children trying to mimic western-style dancing to the very *non*-western style music being played.

A while later Daniel left to talk with one of the locals and O'Neill yawned and stretched out on a thick layer of blankets on the ground. He lay with his hands behind his head, and let his mind wander as he watched the fire. This was still Iraq; he had to remind himself, though his opinion of the place was beginning to change. There were so many good people here, Alianni and his people to name just a few.

It was good to see his teams, both the ones from Al Jaber and from Colorado getting along so well and enjoying themselves. And, he was glad to have put to rest so quickly the snag that had come up with Daniel. As he relaxed, Alianni came over and sat with him. The Iraqi was always ready with a story or some amusing anecdote, and they soon fell into a comfortable discussion of the budding camaraderie between the Iraqis and Americans, and what the future may hold. Eventually the conversation turned more personal.

Alianni bowed his head to the Colonel. "I wish to apologize again my friend for sending you the girl. It is customary to see to *all* the needs of my guests, but as I have met your Major Carter now I understand."

O'Neill knew he had to come clean with his host. "Look, Ali, I haven't been entirely truthful. It's not like that. We're not married; we're teammates."

Alianni smiled, "Mates, yes." He clasped O'Neill on the shoulder as he rose. "That is why she yet grieves."

The Iraqi moved on without saying another word, leaving O'Neill to wonder what he was talking about. Why would Carter be grieving? He looked around the camp and realized she was not in the gathering with everyone else. As a matter of fact he couldn't remember seeing her for most of the night. He quickly stood and left to track down his errant 2IC.

O'Neill found the blonde Major sitting alone on a rather sizeable rock off a short ways from the camp. She had one knee drawn up and her arms wrapped around herself as if cold. He walked up behind her making a little noise on purpose so as to not startle her, and slipped off the additional light jacket Alianni had given him. She shuddered slightly as he gently draped it over her shoulders. "Penny for them."

She didn't answer right away but eventually shrugged and spoke. "All the things that have happened here. The sarcophagus, the Goa'uld, you..."

He allowed there to be a pause before completing the sentence for her. "Dying."

"Yeah."

As he lowered himself to the rock, she shifted to make more room.

"We might as well consider it an occupational hazard for how often it happens to us."

She still didn't look at him. "One of these times it will be permanent."

He turned to her in mock surprise, "And here I thought we were all going to live forever."

The joke fell flat as she ignored him, the silent pause stretching out to several minutes. She glanced down and noticed his knee twitching a little, he'd kept still as long as he could and something had to give.

"You're really not very good at this are you?"

"Um, no."

He gave in to the need to do something and let his arm move around behind her. His hand rested lightly against her hip, and she leaned ever so slightly into him. After a few moments savoring his warmth she spoke. "I had an interesting conversation with a lovely young lady tonight. It seems she was presented to one of the American officers as a *gift*. She was very detailed about the encounter."

He froze.

"She explained that she tried *very* hard to please him and couldn't understand his refusal until she spoke to Alianni about it."

He stopped breathing. The moment seemed to last indefinitely.

"Wife, huh?"

His breath hissed out between clenched teeth. The sound of one being bitten in the ass. Of course, as soon as Alianni had seen them together he'd given O'Neill a knowing head nod, and O'Neill had smiled back, only cementing the idea in the Iraqi's mind. Apparently he should have 'fessed up' a lot sooner than he did.

"I can explain that." After a long pause she turned her face toward his and raised her eyebrows.

His mouth was open, but he snapped it shut as he looked into her eyes. "No I can't."

Carter did not smirk. That couldn't be a smirk, could it?

The *smirk*, he'd decided that's what it was, subsided, and he found himself staring into two moonlit blue pools in a somewhat wistful face. The change in expression tugged at his heart, and he spoke to her in almost a whisper.

"What?"

Her eyes lowered to stare at the small space between them where her fingers lightly brushed over a button on his jacket. "If you *ever* go off on another mission like this without backup-" Her head rose to where she could meet his gaze. She narrowed her eyes at him, noting that he had enough sense at least to *appear* to be chastised. "Or leave us out of the loop again-"

"Yes, Ma'am." He touched the brim of his cap in a mock salute.

She glared back at him as sternly as she could and faked a punch to his arm. The action didn't quite have its intended effect, and he grinned stupidly back at her. She lowered her head, barely holding back a giggle.

He spoke in a soft voice, now the serious one. "So, we're okay?"

She sighed and moved so that her head rested lightly on his shoulder. "Yeah. We're okay. We always are."

Jack nodded. He raised his head and listened to the sounds of the celebration still going on. A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. Some things change, and some remain the same. He was glad dawn would bring a new Iraq, at least for these kind people, and that he and his team would be returning home.

As always there were issues to face, and after dealing with two thirds of his team he wondered if there was something he needed to patch up with Teal’c as well. Still, issues or not, they had come for him. Once again proving that they were stronger together than apart.

He let his head drop to one side and touched his cheek to the soft golden locks on his shoulder, and the woman beside him responded by nuzzling just a bit closer. Two contented sighs added to the music of the night.

~fin