The Hell Series Part Three:
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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."
"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?"
"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?"
"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."
"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?"
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
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.
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?"
"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."
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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,
"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 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
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
"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
"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
"Down. You must come down here. The tunnels will take us to
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."
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."
They hurried along trailing behind before they lost sight of Alianni's
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
"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.
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
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
"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
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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."
"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
"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
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
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
"What about that?" O'Neill pointed to a section of the
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
"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
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
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
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
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,
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,
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
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
'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
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."
"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
Carter slid the rest of the way into the room. "Going on a
"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
"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
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
"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
"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.
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
"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
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
"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
"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.
"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
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
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
"Vacation, looked like a nice spot-" O'Neill jerked and
grimaced as the device touched his side making his muscles spasm
"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.
"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."
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
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
Bensada emerged on the other side, walking slowly and considering
the value and strengths of his prisoner. He put the weapon in his
"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
"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 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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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.
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
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
"Is it not true this 'Bensada' frequently interrogates his
"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
"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*
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
Barnes reached over and took her shoulder. "We had no way
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
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
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
"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?
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
"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
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
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
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
There was silence for a moment. "O'Neill?"
The pause was broken by Daniel's excited voice. "Jack! You're
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
"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
"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
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
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."
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
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?"
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
"There isn't anything to admit."
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
"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.
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
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
She didn't answer right away but eventually shrugged and spoke.
"All the things that have happened here. The sarcophagus, the
He allowed there to be a pause before completing the sentence for
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
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
"You're really not very good at this are you?"
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."
"She explained that she tried *very* hard to please him and
couldn't understand his refusal until she spoke to Alianni about
He stopped breathing. The moment seemed to last indefinitely.
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.
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
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
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
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.