Jackfic Fiction Archive Story

 

The Hell Series Part Three:

Hell Rewritten

by JodiMarie aka Shootem

 




Hell, Rewritten
Maj. S. Carter
E-journal
02.28.03

I guess Colonel O'Neill and I didn't get out of the country fast enough. All transfer orders have been suspended until things get settled down here so we're stuck. In a sick kind of way it's been a nice few weeks. I've been working with the guys down at the computer center. It's a real change from Naquadah research but I like it. My main duty station has been changed to Al-Jaber which is a lot further from the front lines and closer the field Hospital so I get to stop in and see the Colonel at least once a day. He's definitely feeling better, the nurses are avoiding him.

I really thought they'd have shipped him home, being injured, but I guess Dad did too good a job and he told me he'd be released to active duty tomorrow. Tonight if the nurses have anything to say about it. I don't think I'll be seeing much of him after that. He's still based out of Al-Salem. Maybe I'll sneak a pizza into his room tonight, can't get beer though.
Capt. Brad Tucker
Journal
03.01.03

I got the news yesterday Colonel O'Neill will be returning today. I can't believe the guy is gonna stay after all he went through. He could get a stateside assignment just for the asking, I'm sure. He's requested to keep the team together, Corbin, Lambert, Tolbert, Mitchell, and me. We're a good group, that weird mission proved it to us all. But I must say I've got a new respect for science fiction after that.
Col. J. O'Neill
Field Journal
03.01.03

I can't believe I'm back here again. They would've let me go back to Cheyenne if I griped hard enough but when I look around here at the young kids who are expected to fight a war, I can't bring myself to go. There won't be anything happening back home for a while anyway, George called and told me they've even suspended the diplomatic and scientific expeditions for now. The President wants all our attention focused where it should be- on matters here at home.

I was expecting the declaration of war even before I shipped over. Sometimes it really makes me angry we get so tangled up in politics. The human race needs to get a grip and look at the big picture.

Gen. Pike okayed my request to keep the team together thankfully. I know I can count on them but I'd like to see how they deal with the knowledge that's been entrusted to them. It's one thing to have reality hit you in the face and another to be able to move on.

We've got a short mission coming up already but I suspect Pike is holding out something a lot bigger. Maybe he's deciding if I'm recovered enough to handle it. He made me talk to some Mackenzie wanna-be who backed off the first time I glared at him, so much for therapy.
Maj. T. Corbin
03.02.03

Went on my second mission under Col. O'Neill. I can't say how much respect I have for a guy who can bounce back like that. Gen. P. called me in for an assessment of how I think O'Neill is doing. Nice to know the Gen. is listening. I told him the truth, the guy is an irreverent smart-ass, and I don't know how he's stayed in the USAF so long, and I'd be honored to serve with him any day of the week. If for no other reason than I know he'd make sure I got my butt back home. Pretty much he's just like he was before the first mission.
Maj. S. Carter
E-journal
03.04.03

Over the past week Col. O'Neill called me four times, just to talk. Today he wanted to make sure I was free for dinner- a la Mess Hall. Like I'd be doing anything else out here in the middle of nowhere. We ate and then just talked. He couldn't stay long, but we really had a nice chat. I think he misses being able to drop by my lab and harass me. I miss him too; wonder when I'll see him again.

Since part of my job is now gathering and interpreting Intel, I have been able to keep up on the Colonel's missions. His team is up for another run behind the border, verifying targets and collecting Intel.
Corey Tolbert
Letter home
03.06.03

Dearest Julia;

Honey, I miss you and the kids so much I can't possibly tell you. We just got word an hour ago they'd pick up mail to go out and one of the guys had some spare letter writing stuff so I though t I'd write a quick note. I gotta tell you about my new CO. The guy is the most unconventional commander I've ever heard of. We went on this really far out mission a few weeks ago (you know I can't tell you stuff about it) and he went MIA. We put together a search and rescue and got him back of course.

I figured he'd ship out after that mission, but not only did he stay, he requested the same team, including me. We've been on a couple short missions already and they guy is phenomenal. I've seen the man put together a mission when the Intel we've got is nothing but a pile of Post-It notes on his desk. He doesn't talk about it but I think he's been through all this stuff before, must have been in the Gulf War in '91.

Anyway I don't know when I'll get any mail from you or when I'll be able to write again, so keep safe and hug the kids for me. Hey, you ever thought about moving to Colorado?

Lotsa Love,
C.
Maj. S. Carter
E-journal
03.06.03

I got as nice surprise today, Col. O'Neill showed up at the computer center with Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, Chocolate Fudge Brownie, of course. How does he do that? And I've been bribing the guys at the commissary just to get blue Jell-O. He looked really tired and I have a feeling he was on a mission already. He didn't comment, but he did want to know why he's been getting Intel on Post-It notes when we have a state-of-the-art high tech computer center. I told him I'd look into secure e-mail and he made *that* face.

After I was through for the day he showed up with a Jeep and took me out to the end of the runway. We just sat there and looked at the stars for awhile. I could tell he's got a lot on his mind; he hardly said a word. When we said goodnight, he told me he was going on a mission tomorrow. I could tell by his voice it was going to be dangerous and in his own way I think he was saying goodbye just in case. I could have sworn he wanted to say something else, but he didn't. Maybe I should have.
Col. J. O'Neill
Field Journal
03.07.03

We're on our way to a drop point XXX, Baghdad. I know I should have gotten some sleep earlier but instead I went to Al-Jaber and spent some time with Carter. I didn't tell her what I'm doing but I'm sure she figured it out. She's smart you know. I really wanted to talk with her about, stuff, but I couldn't get my mind off the mission. Just as well, I need to stay focused for what's ahead.
Maj. T. Corbin
Journal
03.07.03

This will be my last entry for a while. The Colonel anticipates we'll be on maneuvers for at least two weeks, possibly more. My 'talents' as O'Neill refers to them will be put to good use. Wish we had some of that NaqXXX stuff right now, it would make this a lot easier. Scratch that, I wish we had General Carter's ship! It's turning out to be hard to go back to the *usual* way of doing things after that mission to get the Colonel out. It's like I've seen the future of warfare and the Air Force in particular. I just hope I live to see it happen.
Capt. B. Tucker
Journal
03.10.03

The mission is going as planned. Our contacts on the inside have proven themselves quite to O'Neill's satisfaction. We've got a few more days to gather specific Intel and send messages home before moving on. Mitch and I have been digging through stacks of old fashioned paper Intel on biologicals. It's up to us to protect the rest of the team. The Colonel is being amazingly supportive considering when I try to explain something to him, I'm sure he doesn't know what I'm talking about. I don't get the feeling he's patronizing me or humoring me, it's more like he just trusts me to handle it. You know he treated that Major Carter the same way. I guess I should consider myself becoming part of an elite group- 'people O'Neill trusts.' Believe me, there is no higher honor.
Col. J. O'Neill
Field Journal
03.14.03

We're moving on from our first point of contact today. Up 'till now our mission focus has been gathering Intel. From here on, we will be preparing to take a more active role. It will be dangerous to move during the daylight hours but it's a necessity. I suggested we dress in Birkas but the team did not seem to appreciate my idea. Was that Yak butter they stuffed down my pants? Who said Americans don't know anything about biological warfare? I hope we get to our next contact soon, and I hope they've got showers.
Maj. S. Carter
E-journal
03.15.03

I've been in Kuwait just over a month, and what a month it's been! The Colonel went on a mission a week ago. I really shouldn't be worried, he warned me it would be awhile, after all. He's got a good team and I'm sure they'll be okay. Who am I kidding? The only thing that would stop my worrying is if I'd gone along, or maybe Teal'c. That brings up another matter. I really should contact the SGC and let Hammond know what is happening. He knows why the Colonel and I haven't returned but I'm sure he'd appreciate hearing from me. Maybe if I let them know, I'll feel better, you know 'misery loves company.'
Teal'c
Chronicle
03.15.03

Received word from Major Carter today that O'Neill has embarked on another mission. If I understand her demeanor correctly, she is concerned for his welfare. I returned the communiqué with reassurances that O'Neill is a capable warrior and will indeed be victorious. Major Carter knows this but I have observed frequently humans must be reminded of that which is common knowledge.

In my meditations today I also noted concern for O'Neill within myself. This is surprising, and I will endeavor to 'remind' myself of that which I already know.
Col. J. O'Neill
Field Journal
03.17.03

We've arrived at our second contact, and for the record, yes, *I* wore the Birka. Thanks to the lard I was smeared with, no one came near enough to recognize who I was. They don't have showers here, or baths, or running water of any kind. They do have a well and buckets. I guess I'll just to have to make do. Tolbert is insisting on it.

Our present host will provide shelter for a few days while we finalize our plans. It's amazing how many people here are not loyal to Hussein. The people seem to be divided down sharp lines, some loyal and some not, the loyal ones far outnumbering those who might help us. But things are changing, more people cross over every day. The ones that are sympathetic are truly glad to see us and we've been treated quite well. I was thinking of how I might get a message back to Gen. P. Our host heard me mention it and showed me his computer with a satellite internet connection of all things! Gotta love technology. Maybe I should e-mail Carter? I found myself actually considering taking him up on it, despite the fact even with internet security it could put our host in danger, as Tuck not so quietly reminded me.

We heard about the 48-hour deadline President Bush has given Hussein, looks like things are right on schedule.
Maj. S. Carter
E-journal
03.19.03
President Bush declared war on Iraq today. I think Colonel O'Neill knew it was coming and intended to be behind enemy lines when it happened. It's been twelve days and finally a bit of Intel came across my desk that could be linked to O'Neill's team. Someone reported a small group of American-looking men at a town just west of Baghdad. A regiment of the Republican Guard was sent to intercept them, but no trace was found. Hussein made a public statement regarding American criminals in his cities and his intent to punish them. In the video clip an entire square filled with hundreds of people vowed to exterminate the Americans. I can only hope the Colonel and his team are safe.
Maj. S. Carter
E-journal
03.20.03

I'm becoming obsessed with Intel out of Baghdad. I've stayed late every night for a week going over every report I can lay my hands on. I feel like something will be missed unless I read the reports personally. Damn, I've got to learn to read Arabic.
Maj. S. Carter
E-journal
03.21.03

Today marks two weeks with no official contact from Colonel O'Neill, however a pint of Ben and Jerry's showed up on my desk, still frozen solid, packed in dry ice. The name? Would you believe it, 'Makin' Whoopie Pie.' No, really. Of course it's chocolate. Did the folks back in Vermont create this flavor just for him? It looks authentic, but I'm tempted to have the lab guy's look at the carton, after I'm done with it that is. I really want to know how he does this stuff. I feel like I've been the target of a special op. I have no reason to, but I feel a little better.
2nd Lieutenant M. O'Connor
Biological warfare Specialist
Notes
03.22.03 0115

We are prepped to go in at 0200. I have explained the risks to my CO, Colonel O'Neill, and his response has been a bit cavalier. I have come to expect this. Capt. Tucker says it's his way of letting me know he trusts my judgment. In reality its gonna take every one of us and a huge amount of luck to pull this off.
Maj. S. Carter
E-journal
03.22.03 0400

The war has been escalating as expected. Bombing runs are being made any time of the day, but more often at night. Tonight we were called in to receive high priority feeds from our AWACs flights. At precisely 0340 a large chemical plant west of Baghdad went up in a ball of fire. We reviewed the footage and are confident this was O'Neill's team at work, as we had no bombings scheduled in that area.
Col. J. O'Neill
Field Journal
03.22.03 0630

Our mission was successful. Scratch one XXX factory. Now comes the hard part. It's just before dawn and we are holed up in the basement of some burned out building. We didn't make the escape window in time. I hope our contact got away okay; he's a good man. We've got our packs with MRE's, water and ammunition, and lots of time on our hands. We can't risk moving until dark so I've ordered everyone to rest. We'll have two men on watch at a time, I don't want a dog to scratch in our vicinity and not know about it.

This would be a good time for Thor to need me for something. Of course the explanations would take longer than this mission, but what the hell.
Jahmed Abu Jabal
Message
03.23.03

Friends did not return. Suspect route unfavorable. Possible capture or elimination. Advise.
JAJ
Return home. S&R not viable option at this time. Casualties expected.
Al-Salem
That was it, the proverbial straw breaking the camel's back. The consummate professional Major Samantha Carter ripped the paper out of the printer so fast the ink smeared at the bottom and stalked into her CO's office. "Colonel!" She forced herself to come to attention. "Colonel O'Neill's team has been compromised and just what is the meaning of this?" She threw the paper on his desk. "No rescue? Who sent this message?"

Colonel Wilkes liked the young Major but bristled at her insinuation, "That is none of your business, Major. You do not determine the course of this conflict nor do you assign missions. It has been determined that some losses are acceptable."

She couldn't believe her ears. They were planning on leaving O'Neill behind enemy lines to fend for himself and his team. Her shoulders slumped visibly. Wilkes rose and walked around his desk. "Major, I'm sure a rescue mission is still being considered, in fact they've run a few in the last couple days. If it's possible they will go. Just not right now, there are too many bombing runs going on. If O'Neill can just lay low for a few days our forces will be within shouting range of Baghdad, they'll get him out."

She turned away hastily and straightened her shoulders. After composing herself she turned back to him. "Sir, There must be something we can do."

"Our job here is Intel. If you can figure out something within these confines that could help O'Neill, be my guest." He made a sweeping gesture with his hand as he spoke.

She smiled just a little for the first time in several days; in effect her CO had just given her permission to free-lance her abilities. Little did he know she intended to make full use of the opportunity.
She went to her office and closed the door, eyeing the mountain of paper that was her desk. She would have gladly converted it all to files on her laptop but it just took too much time, time that could be spent analyzing. She sat and stared at the blank computer screen. There had to be some way to use all this information to help O'Neill. The problem was if she could get information about the team's whereabouts, then most likely Saddam could too. What she needed was to intercept information before it got to Baghdad, get what she needed out of it and send on tainted reports to Saddam. At the same time she needed to get word to O'Neill and set up an extraction. That would mean possibly sending false orders to a Search and Rescue squadron.

She knew she could originate just about any kind of information she wanted to send out, even Sat. photos and orders, but it might be suspicious. She had to stay low. A better option would be to get to the reports first and rewrite the information already there. She was going to need an accomplice.

Just at that moment there was a knock at her door and her aide, Lieutenant Beck poked his head in. He was a young Californian, who here in the desert still thought it was worthwhile to work on his tan, but she had to admit the kid was a genius. Or he could be if he applied himself.

"Major?"

"Come on in, Lieutenant." She answered with a tired voice.

"I know you just came back from Wilkes office and I just wanted to tell you I'm sorry about your old CO. Sometimes I wonder if the Air Force cars about anybody. He really got a raw deal after all he went through."

She eyed him thoughtfully. He sounded like he knew a lot more than what he should have been able to pick up about the recent missions. "Ian, what do you know about Colonel O'Neill?"

He flushed obviously. "Only what's in the reports Ma'am."

She knew he was lying. "Close the door and have a seat, Lieutenant." Her eyes followed his movements to the chair beside her desk. "All right, spill it. What do you know?"

He fidgeted in his chair before answering, "I, uh, noticed the attention you have given to following his whereabouts and I just wanted to know why."

She leaned forward, "And."

Under her scrutiny his only option was to come clean. "I know he's been in Iraq before, as a prisoner of war and I know you served together at Cheyenne Mountain. The reason you were both transferred out here was some super highly classified operation. I don't know what it was but you were both hand-picked by the Joint Chiefs for the mission."

"Anything else?"

He looked her in the eye, "I know how he was rescued."

Her jaw wanted to drop but she held it in place, they had been so careful to hide her father's ship. She decided to bluff. "We used a Helicopter and mounted a rescue mission."

"No, Ma'am. Those explosions a couple weeks ago, they're being attributed to internal causes because no aircraft was ever found on Iraqi radar or by us. Not a peep from satellite or AWACs. There were sporadic reports of something on fire hitting the targets. They're actually saying they were meteors. Kind of convenient that a meteor just happens to hit a previously designated target, don't you think? There was something in that hangar out at Al-Salem but it wasn't any conventional aircraft. And it was not just good luck that no one saw it. It was some kind of stealth technology and both you and Colonel O'Neill are acquainted with it. I don't see why the General doesn't use it again to go back and get them out."

Carter looked down at her hands. That same idea had occurred to her as well, but things were different. They were at war now; it was no longer an option.

He picked up on her body language, "Maybe he can't. Maybe it's not here anymore."

"That will be all, Lieutenant, dismissed."

He rose from the chair and turned to leave, "You know he's not dead. He's just pinned down west of the target site waiting for an opportunity to get out."

Her head bobbed up, "How do you know that?" What had he seen that she missed?

He smiled and his youthful cockiness came out, "I can read between the lines. There's been an increase in activity in that area. There are no installations out that way and no other targets we might hit. I think Hussein is looking for something."

The honesty of the airman made her look more deeply at him. "We might be able to help the Colonel and his team." She paused to decide how much she could tell him. "It would have to be outside ordinary channels and involve manipulating data."

His hand moved away from the doorknob. "Ours or theirs?"

"Both."

His smile widened and he turned fully back toward her. "You know how I got into the Air Force?"

She shook her head. "I got in trouble hacking government sites. They offered me a deal. I could spend time in prison, or use my talents to the benefit of my country. My old man was Air Force, so here I am." He walked back and stood by the chair grasping the back of it with both hands and leaning forward. "I'm already in Saddam's network. I can intercept or send anything you want."

She couldn't stop the smile from spreading across her face. "Lieutenant, sit down, we've got work to do."

Several hours of brainstorming later, Carter and her new accomplice had come up with a plan. They needed to intercept reports of the Republican Guard and rewrite them so Saddam would believe the Americans had either died in the explosion or already escaped. Then they needed to get a message to O'Neill to hold his position if possible and keep him apprised of how close Coalition Forces were getting.
O'Neill and his team were definitely pinned down. They could hear troop movements all around them and it had to be sheer luck none of them made a sweep of the building. For fear of attracting attention, O'Neill had ordered no fire, which meant unfortunately, no hot water for coffee or to prepare the MRE's. They'd be drinking plain water and eating only energy bars for now. It was hard, but they all understood his prudence, the smell of coffee and food could easily give away their position.

He'd intended to move to a better location and hopefully somewhere in the direction of their contact but the whole first night the Iraqis troop movements kept them in their original hiding place. If they didn't move by the end of the second day water and rations were going to be an issue.

The light was finally fading and O'Neill got up and stretched his legs a bit, then took a seat beside his 2IC. Two days of inactivity was making them all stiff and irritable.

"Sir? Are we going?"

"Yeah, soon, give it another 30 minutes." His eyes scanned the room ascertaining the level of light. He dug out a crinkled and dirty piece of paper that served as their map and laid it out on the ground.

"I want you to take point with Tolbert, cut through here and make your way along this wall." The Major watched as his finger traced a line on the paper.

"That takes us back into Baghdad."

"It does." After a brief pause and noting the concern on Corbin's face he continued, "Our contact is back that way. I don't think we have much of a choice. Coalition forces should be on their way by now, but we can't risk heading south or west, the possibility of resistance is too high."

Corbin sighed, he knew the Colonel was right, at least they knew what to expect if they went back the way they'd come and there was a chance, however slight, they'd meet up with Americans.

Their conversation was cut short when an air raid siren was heard in the distance. Tolbert was standing just inside an open doorway facing east to Baghdad and a flash of light momentarily lit his face. The young man didn't even flinch as the bomb hit, the sights and sounds of war were already second nature to him. Captain Tucker rose and joined him watching the display.

Corbin shuffled with his back against the wall, "You know if we go out there, we'll be walking right into the line of Coalition fire."

"Yeah." O'Neill answered quietly with his eyes downcast. A few minutes later he rose to his feet, "Time to go."
Ian Beck had no problem hacking into the Iraqi database, and much to Carter's delight, was able to divert field reports in their direction. It was evident the American infiltrators had not been found and though efforts were still being made to locate them, the onslaught of war was taking it's toll. Iraqi forces in that area had been cut back and ordered to return to Baghdad to aid in the fighting there.

Beck loaded up a Republican Guard field report and began hacking away at it. He removed the current location of the unit and changed it to a position several miles to the southwest, to an area he knew was not far beyond where the Coalition Forces were making their march. The report was made to imply the Americans were spotted making a run to meet up with the advancing Coalition, but were yet some distance from their goal. He ended by requesting additional units be sent to close in on them before they could escape.

Carter looked over his shoulder cocked her head to one side, "Okay, you're drawing them away from the Colonel's most likely position but why are you giving them orders to move out?"

"No harm in spreading them a little thinner, is there?"

She smiled and shook her head, "You're a dangerous man, Lieutenant."
The sun was past setting and only a half moon lit the night sky. Corbin motioned for Tolbert to hold position while he leaned around a corner and took a quick look at their intended route. The way was reasonably well cleared of people having been bombed the night before, their walking would be hard though, there were pieces of equipment and abandoned vehicles everywhere in addition to the debris from fallen buildings.

O'Neill caught up with Tolbert and crouched beside him to wait for Corbin to return. They hadn't even gone two miles yet and had to change their course twice due to roving patrols or the route being blocked. The air raid sirens had almost become background noise to them; it was so constant now.

Despite the noise Lambert used the stop as an opportunity to try to contact Command. Their Satellite uplink phone had been damaged but he was convinced he could still get it to work.

The Major finally returned to report. He knelt and leaned up close to O'Neill to make his voice heard, "No patrols up ahead, Sir. The streets are in bad shape but I think if we circle to the north and cut through those abandoned buildings we can get through."

O'Neill nodded and motioned to the three men behind him to move up and follow the Major. He held back until they were all close to the building before moving ahead himself, constantly scanning the area with the nose of his MP-5 following his eye movements.

A nearby siren began to wail and to the south he could see anti-aircraft fire. The bombs hit less than a mile away with a fierce explosion and a shockwave rattling any windows that were still unbroken. His team was too far ahead to warn effectively so he just dove for cover and waited for the ground to stop rumbling. He figured they were dropping J-Dams, as long as they didn't get any closer than a block or two they'd be all right.

When he night quieted once again he made a quick dash to the doorway and inside. Luckily everyone was okay, a little dirtier from the dust and dirt that was stirred up from the shock but uninjured. Just as he reached them the sky was lit by another explosion, this one much closer.

"Shit!" O'Neill pointed to a doorway with steps leading downward, "In there. Now!"

Tucker was the closest and immediately headed down the steps using the light on his weapon to see into the darkness. He was followed by two of the Lieutenants and then the Major. They were almost out of time when O'Neill shoved Tolbert down the steps and followed. It was too late to be concerned about running into hostile forces right now, so they plowed into the cellar and hugged close to the walls for some protection from the falling debris.

The chamber was inhabited, but not by soldiers, there were four women and three small children huddled in the corners. A small lantern made their forms just visible through the dust. At the sudden entrance of unknown soldiers, they covered up and shrank back and hid their faces. Corbin, being the most fluent in Arabic, quietly told them they would not be harmed.

O'Neill wasn't in the room a minute when the bomb hit. It felt like the whole building was coming down around them, an earthquake wouldn't have been much worse.

Bits of plaster and glass were flying everywhere and when a beam crashed down the stairway a great cloud of debris came with it. One of the women was hit by something and fell to the ground unconscious. In two long strides O'Neill was at her side crouching, using his body as at least a partial shield against further harm until the debris stopped falling. He snatched up the child she was holding with one hand and with the other reached to touch her neck. "Lambert! Get that Med kit over here!"

The young soldier has a hard time getting his feet to work with the ground still shaking but managed to half crawl over to the woman and started to check her injuries.

As soon as the shaking stopped O'Neill started shouting orders. "Everyone Okay?" He didn't wait for verbal responses but eyed each of his men and continued, "Mitch, Tuck, check on the other women. Corbin, you and Tolbert see if there's another way out of here."

They did as they were asked and when Corbin returned to inform the Colonel of his findings, he had to stop in his tracks at what he saw. O'Neill hadn't moved, he was still on one knee, beside the unconscious woman, scanning the room and watching out for the group. He seemed totally oblivious to the comfort and support he was giving the child he still cradled in his arms. The boy was probably not yet two years of age and had a death grip on O'Neill's vest with one hand. His face was partially hidden but Corbin could see his eyes were closed and he was sucking on his thumb, completely content.

The sight was not missed by the three other women who were still seated and murmuring quietly to each other. One of them rose and approached. Instead of reaching out for the child, she knelt and assisted the Lieutenant to clean and dress the wounds of her friend, often sneaking a look at O'Neill and the child.

Corbin's reverie was broken by the Colonel's irate voice. "Tom! What the hell are you looking at? Is there a way out of here or not?"

He stumbled at first but was finally able to spit out, "No, Sir, just the stairway. It's not too bad though, I think we can get it cleared."

O'Neill nodded his consent and rose to his feet. He moved to the two women still at the far wall and crouched in front of them, speaking to them softly in broken Arabic. It took some doing but the boy relinquished his grip and was handed off to one of the women. The Colonel patted the boy's head and ruffled his hair before rising to rejoin the team.

In a short while they were able to open up the passageway enough to get through. O'Neill took a look around above and decided to move out. It was almost daylight now and a suitable hiding place would have to be found. If the cellar had been in a little better shape they could have just stayed there.

The injured woman was awake and able to move so O'Neill had each of the women helped by one of his men up to the main floor. He intended to take their leave at that point, but the eldest grasped his arm and pulled him aside. She spoke hurriedly and gestured with her hands in earnest.

Tuck tried to follow but barely understood a word. "What is it, Colonel?"

"It would seem we've made some friends. She wants us to follow her."

Corbin shook his head and said, "You're not really considering that are you? You know one of the latest strategies they've been using is to play nice and then shoot you in the back."

"I don't think so. This woman is saying her son was beaten for just asking to be relieved of duty when his son was ill. She hasn't seen him now in over six months." His eyebrows rose, "She says Hussein is a very bad man."

The Major flailed his arms in the air, "Well, we can't argue with that, now can we?"

"Major." O'Neill felt his ire coming up. "We don't have a lot of options here. We are out in the open and we are out of time. If we don't find somewhere to be a little less conspicuous we're going to be in serious trouble." He sighed at the downcast look Corbin was giving him and reached out to touch his shoulder. "I know, it's dangerous, but we have to take the chance. Let's go."

O'Neill waved his hand to the door and the women headed out single file. The eldest was last and as she left the building she instructed O'Neill to stay put. She crossed the street and sent the other women on ahead before motioning for the Americans to follow.

She weaved her way through several ruined buildings and finally out through a courtyard area and into a small shop. At the rear was a stairway down to a small musty cellar. It would suffice as their home for the day. After they settled themselves as best they could in the tight quarters, a young woman brought them a few hard-crusted loaves of bread and a jug of water.

The day was spent either sleeping or talking quietly. Only one of them at a time ventured to the surface to use the facilities or stretch a little, with one of the women constantly present as an escort. O'Neill agreed with the suggestion of the old woman and insisted they stay covered up with thick robes whenever out of the cellar, despite the heat.

In the late afternoon the older woman came to the top of the stairway and called to O'Neill. She led them out to the front of the building where a canvas-covered truck was waiting with the engine running. The women and children who they'd met the night before were already waiting in the cramped space. They were urged to get in and she lowered a cover over the back. The driver was only a boy and drove the vehicle far too fast for the road conditions, giving them a bumpy ride, but he did avoid all of the patrols and most of the debris. After what seemed like hours he pulled up to a narrow alley and the woman stepped out from the front seat. She motioned for them to come along. With a growing sense that he'd made the wrong decision, O'Neill followed with his team close behind.

Just before the end of the alley she turned into a low doorway. Even though the sun was full up, the room was dark and she moved a drape back just a little to let a ray of light into the room. Once they were all inside she led them through another doorway and up a flight of steps. The room they entered was large and open but bereft of any furniture except one chair, a desk and three cots. At the foot of one of them was a large empty basin and a stack of towels. The draperies were already open here and she drew a filmy gauze fabric across as a screen.

She already knew O'Neill could understand her and spoke directly to him. "You will stay here. Please rest. I will see you have water and bread."

O'Neill nodded his thanks as she left. "Well boys, this is our new hideout for the day. Mama says she'll see if she can round up some food and water for us." The smell of food cooking in the various homes nearby was already wafting on the air and they all realized just how hungry they were.

Everyone settled in as best they could, and O'Neill allowed Mitchell to light up some sterno. In a few minutes he had heated the last of the water from his canteen and made enough coffee for all to have some.

Tuck sat on the floor and went through his pack, trying to find something palatable to eat, and tossed a few MRE's aside with disgust. "What I wouldn't give for a ham sandwich right now!"

Almost on cue the elder woman's daughter appeared at the doorway with a covered tray. She lowered her eyes to not look at any of them and demurely set it on the table. O'Neill had been sitting in the chair and rose to help her. She showed obvious surprise when he thanked her in her native language, and shyly smiled at him.

A young boy now approached, lugging two large plastic containers of water. He stopped dead in the doorway when he saw the men. "Azir, come, bring the water." The young woman waved her hand to call him into the room.

He didn't move and Corbin took a turn with his language skills, "Azir, is it? Come here, I'll trade you." He picked up one of Tucks discarded MRE's and tore open the outer package. It was supposed to be a balanced meal; complete with dessert, and after a moment he produced something that at least approximated an oatmeal cookie and another that might have been a graham cracker. He waved them out to the boy, "For the water."

Waiting for a nod from his mother the boy took a deep breath and waddled over to Corbin, letting the jugs smack against his legs as he went. He set both jugs down with a plop and looked back at his mother who was now hiding a giggle with her hand. She turned to O'Neill and said, "He really isn't like this. He usually cannot shut his mouth!"

Corbin got the boy's attention back by waving the treats and then tossing them to him. He grabbed them in mid air and ran to his mother, clutching her skirt. The comical sight brought a round of chuckles from the group and an immediate release of tension.

O'Neill decided to see what gift the young woman had brought them and lifted the cover from the tray. The contents before him were nothing short of a feast. The tray was packed full with an assortment of roasted meat, goat cheese and hard crusted dark breads sprinkled with sesame seeds. There were several fruits too, small grapes, dates and some kind of citrus that was cousin to an orange. He tossed one of the seeded rolls at Tuck and grinned, "It's not ham but it'll make a hell of a sandwich."

Any suspicions the group may still have had was banished when Azir snatched a date off the tray and popped it into his mouth. The young woman made a face and playfully slapped his hand, "Come now, son. We must leave these men to rest." She turned back to O'Neill before starting down the steps. "If your men need to-" She cut her words short and blushed. "Call Azir if you need anything, he will show you where to go." O'Neill smiled and touched two fingers to his forehead in a salute which only made her blush more and she quickly escaped down the steps.

Alone again and as safe as they could be, O'Neill grabbed a couple dates and sat on one of the cots. He ate the fruit though he was definitely more tired than hungry and a lot more than he wanted to admit. The stress of the last few days was catching up with him. Despite their present safety he found himself wondering if they'd be able to make it out alive. Their best chance would be to sit tight and wait until Saddam was defeated, but wars like this had a nasty way of dragging on and on. If they left it would be a risk no matter which direction they went from here, the woman had brought them straight into Baghdad after all.
Carter was working furiously at her laptop and didn't notice when Ian stepped into the room. He managed to get all the way in unobserved. "So, you figured out how to get a message to O'Neill yet, given we still have no idea where they are?"

She nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound of his voice so close behind her and frowned at him, "Actually, no." She admitted. With the bombing of the Iraqi telecommunications center and most of the electricity being down throughout Baghdad and the surrounding areas the options had become quite limited. "We could broadcast a general message and encode it, but who knows if they'd receive it? If they had a Sat Phone they'd have already checked in. We have to assume their communications are down. It would be a complete stroke of luck to contact them." She leaned back in the chair; of all the things Major Samantha Carter did well, admitting defeat was not one of them. "Maybe we should just concentrate on finding them."

"Well, I've got something for you there. We've gotten a sporadic signal from somewhere southwest of Baghdad. Charlie upstairs says it's a ghost or an echo, but it's just off frequency for our Sat Phones. How much do you believe in coincidence?"

"Not at all." She closed her laptop and stood up, "Okay, lets go see Charlie and see if he can pinpoint his 'ghost' for us."
Charlie was a middle aged Captain with thick glasses and thin gray hair. He reminded Carter a little of General Hammond, he was a bit on the stout side and his uniform was just barely one size too small. It fit but with no room to spare. His love of flying was evident by the numerous photos and models of planes surrounding his cluttered desk, obviously Intel and surveillance wasn't his first choice of an Air Force career. Ian swore the man had a gift for it though.

After the introduction, Charlie removed a stack of papers from a stool next to his desk and motioned for the Major to sit, leaving Ian to scrounge a chair from an adjacent office. Charlie was far from convinced that his 'ghost' was in fact a lost Special Forces team, especially so deep in Iraqi territory but he humored them. It helped that Carter was such a 'pretty little thing' and despite their ranks and the impropriety of it, he told her so.

He brought up his logs of incoming transmissions and singled out the unknowns. Of that list he deleted several, griping all the while that his computer would log in garage door opener transmissions if he didn't filter them out. He didn't miss Carter's grin even though she tried to hide it. She wondered if he ever picked up one of their 'GDO' transmissions- probably not, but the thought was funny.

Eventually he narrowed the list down to a dozen viable options and tied in the GPS system. In a matter of minutes he had four possible locations identified. One was southeast of Baghdad, near Basra so he scratched that as coming from the advancing Coalition Forces, just off channel. Another was removed due to having only one transmission setting the location; the error curve was just too high. That left two. One was west-southwest of Baghdad and the other was much closer, almost within the city limits. He was about to write that one off too when Ian stopped him.

"What if they moved?"

Carter's ears perked up and Ian continued. "They could have moved. I mean if the first location wasn't secure, or if they decided to try to get back to their point of contact for evac. These frequencies are the same. Remember what you said about coincidence?"

She nodded but pointed to the screen. "Still, these coordinates are way too far in, if they went there, they would have gone right past the contact point."

Charlie frowned and scrutinized the screen. "The area between was bombed out pretty bad the past few days, I don't think anyone would go through there. If your group wanted to get to that site they'd have had to circle around, either north or south."

Ian's eyebrows rose, "Or maybe their contact was taken out. Is there any other reason they would have gone into Baghdad?"

Carter shook her head, she couldn't even think of one.

Charlie started working his magic on his computer again, this time with a program that would monitor the selected frequency and others nearby. He saved his work to a disk and ejected it. "This will monitor our friends. If they transmit again, it will zero in on their signal and respond automatically. If they can receive at all, we'll get them. We just need a little cooperation from the guys at Communications Central Command."
O'Neill had stretched out on the slightly too short cot and managed to get some sleep. The others were either sharing a cot or sprawled out on the floor on unrolled sleeping bags. Azir had returned and gotten over his shyness and now sat cross-legged on the floor facing Corbin. He'd taught the boy a simple card game and they were engrossed in it.

As the afternoon wore on the room became a little warm and O'Neill took a trip down to the main floor where Azir's mother and grandmother were busy preparing an evening meal. He was surprised to see no men around. In the front room several children playing and recognized the women they'd helped in the cellar the previous night.

The younger woman noticed him leaning against the wall at the base of the stairway and motioned for him to come forward and sit at the table. She poured a cup of water and set it before him. She was still surprised at how well he spoke Arabic and struck up a conversation with him.

He learned her name was Ramah, and all of the men from their little community had been either enlisted to fight in Saddam's army or imprisoned. A small group of the women decided it would be safer to band together, and they had converged on 'Mama's' home. She was the eldest and most respected among them and their unofficial leader.

O'Neill chuckled, "Oldest and wisest among us?" He earned a scowl from the elder woman for that barb even though it was essentially correct and held his hands up in mock surrender, "I swear, Mama, it's just an expression." She snorted and turned back to chopping vegetables, now with fervor.

He young woman who had been injured before was part of the group and entered the room. She was balancing a large basket of bread on one hip and her baby on the other. She didn't recognize O'Neill and eyed him warily but the child knew him immediately and started to squirm. Ramah just managed to catch the basket before it toppled to the floor. The woman held the child in both arms and was shocked to see him reaching out for the American. Ramah assured her it was okay and lifted the child into her arms and carried him over to O'Neill.

"This is Terrin. I believe you've met."

O'Neill had almost forgotten holding the child though it was less than a day ago. He grinned and settled the child in his lap. "Well, you're a lot more clean than the last time I saw you." It wasn't a moment later that Lieutenant O'Connor came tripping down the steps. "Colonel! Lambert got a contact! He made contact!"

O'Neill handed Terrin back to Ramah and bolted for the stairway, beating the younger man to the top easily by taking the steps two at a time.

Lambert had his gear laid out in one corner of the room with bits and pieces of electronic equipment scattered everywhere and the outer cover off the Sat phone. He was listening excitedly through his earpiece and jotting down notes. The Colonel crouched beside him and touched his shoulder to let him know he was near. The young man looked up and nodded, then quickly completed the note he was scribbling.

"Sir, it's a recorded message, but it's specifically for us." His voice was full of relief. "Apparently they've been looking for us all this time, Major Carter doesn't give up does she?"

O'Neill grinned. "No, she doesn't. What have you got?"

Lambert handed over the pad and pointed out what he'd written. "They've been using my attempts to get this thing to work to triangulate our position. They've got it narrowed down but really don't have a fix on us yet. They just know we're way too far into the city."

The Colonel nodded. Now that was an understatement.

"They've honed in on the frequency I've been using and we should be able to talk to a real person soon." His attention was pulled away by a transmission coming through and his hand subconsciously went to the earpiece, pressing it more firmly into place. His eyes fell as he listened intently, and then rose to meet the Colonel's. "Yes. Yes, I read you. He's here, hang on just a sec." He removed the headset and handed it to the Colonel.

"O'Neill."

"Colonel?" There was quite a bit of static but the voice was unmistakable and he grinned, it was Carter. "Great to hear your voice, Sir!"

"Ditto, Major. Good work. Both you and Lambert need to get medals if we get out of this. I don't suppose General Pike or any other Commanders are there?"

"No, we're here at Al-Jab. And the CO is being notified as we speak. My immediate CO is Colonel Wilkes, he should be here in a few minutes."

"Roger. I gather you have a pretty good idea where we are by now. How close are we to the line?"

She knew he had figured out his team was likely right in the line of fire of the advancing Coalition Forces and he was right. "Smack in the middle, Sir. Colonel Wilkes is here, go ahead."

There was a slight change in the level of static and O'Neill surmised they had him on a speaker. "Colonel Wilkes. How's it goin?"

"Despite having a borderline insubordinate Major on my hands, pretty good. They're getting your coordinates now but I think we both already know you're not exactly in an accessible location."

"Yeah, but we're secure for the moment- even had some real food. If we have to, we're prepped to move out tonight."

The General came in just in time to hear O'Neill's last statement. "Colonel, General Osborne here, don't start thinking about going anywhere just yet. The front has moved up more quickly than we'd thought it would. The best thing you can do is sit tight, as long as you're secure. It's gonna be a bit busy around here for the next several hours so don't expect another contact for a while."

"Yes, Sir. We'll be all right. We're among friends."

The General spoke to the others in the room, verifying they had the team's coordinates mapped. "Colonel, stay sharp. If there's any change be prepared to move fast. We'll touch base in four hours if the connection stays up. Good luck."

O'Neill acknowledged the orders and handed the headset back to Lambert. "It's all yours. Do whatever you have to and keep this thing working."

O'Neill returned to the lower floor and spoke with 'Mama' about the group staying a bit longer than was originally planned and found she was surprised he had even considered leaving. She was more than aware of the position he and his men were in so far behind enemy lines. She accepted it as something that couldn't be helped, a fact of the state of war.

The first siren went off only a few minutes later. Corbin was conversing with one of the older children and learned the adjacent building had a large cellar. The women were afraid to go there since they had been trapped underground once and didn't want to repeat the mistake. O'Neill convinced them it would be for the best and ordered the team to split up. Half would gather up their gear and the rest would assist the women and children to gather whatever they needed and get it to the protected location.

Lambert was sure the Sat phone wouldn't work underground and refused to leave. Tolbert considered forcing the issue but was given a respite when O'Neill showed up. He sent Azir back to his mother with Tolbert and took a seat on one of the cots, he wasn't about to let one of his men stay in a dangerous situation alone.

O'Neill's radio cracked to life. "Colonel?" It was Corbin's voice. "We're all settled in, Sir. Are you coming?"

"Negative, Major. Lambert and I are baby-sitting the equipment up here. Stay put."

A few hours later the sirens were still intermittently blaring. There had been a couple of bomb hits but nothing close by, which may or may not have been a good thing. If the bombing runs were suspended it may have been due to the proximity of Coalition Forces, but if that were the case, the possibility of confrontations on the ground would be high.

Another hour passed and the sounds of gunfire and mortar explosions could be heard over the alarms. Since they weren't going to the war, it evidently was coming to them.
Carter was worried but not so much that she'd neglect her duties and made herself useful scanning incoming data files. All the reports showed the fighting was escalating far beyond anything they'd seen to this point. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers had been dispatched from their positions north and east of Baghdad. The northern front was left all but open to the Kurds out of Turkey; apparently Saddam was more worried about the Americans and Brits. If Charlie had the location right, O'Neill and his team were in the thick of it.

Then one piece of information made her heart skip a beat. The Generals had decided ground losses would be unacceptable with the great increase in Iraqi troops present. They were going to pull back from the front and send in bombers then return and retake the area. It would take several hours to implement, and the bombing runs would continue well into the morning. She immediately went to the Communications Center with the intent of contacting O'Neill and giving him a heads up but Wilkes stepped in and stopped her.

"Sir? Colonel O'Neill really needs to know this. His entire team could be wiped out."

"I can't let you call him. Not right now. You know that. We're on blackout except for coded transmissions. This is a major change in our tactics and it is vital the plan succeeds. We've got his position, and the bombs won't be dropped there."

"Right." She snorted. "And what if they had to move? And if they are in the same location, how long will it take the Iraqis to figure out we're purposefully avoiding a particular area and investigate to find out why?"

He placed one hand on each of her shoulders, "I know, Major. But we can't do anything right now. Not even contact them. Why don't you go get some rest? In the morning we'll see. I'll talk to the General and suggest we move O'Neill's team up a notch on the Search and Rescue roster."

She had to agree a little rest might give her a fresh perspective and left for her quarters. When she arrived the duty officer handed her a message, Ian wanted her to call him as soon as she got in.

The only available phone was a community use one in the officer's lounge so she plopped down in a chair beside it and dialed the number. A panting 'hello' the other end made her take notice.

"Ian, what's wrong?"

"Major Carter, we got a transmission from O'Neill's communications man- it was pretty garbled but I'm sure he said they were going to move, their position was compromised."

She closed her eyes and took in the news. The one thing she most feared had happened and she already knew Wilkes' answer to it. She thanked him for the information and added, "It's okay. I already discussed the possibility with Colonel Wilkes. I've got some things to do right now, I'll be in touch." She hung up before he could protest.
Instead of lying down she decided to borrow a Jeep and drive just a short ways from the base to clear her head.

Forty-five minutes later she found herself at Al-Salem Airfield, where O'Neill's team was based, and less than forty miles from the Iraqi border. Not that it mattered much anymore; Coalition Forces had taken control of the area past the border for well over a hundred miles.

She sat at the side of the road, just inside the gate and wondered what she could do. A thought suddenly struck her like a bolt out of the blue. There was one person who had been a member of the original team who wasn't with O'Neill and out of reach right now. Captain Hastings, the helicopter pilot, O'Neill had hand picked the man for the original mission so his credentials were above scrutiny as far as she was concerned. If he weren't already on a mission he'd help in any way he could, or at least be a willing ear to her concerns.

She knew she'd find Hastings either hanging around the Mess Hall or sacked out in bed and opted for the 'awake' version first. Even though the base was not the size of Al Jaber, the Mess had it's own parking lot as did most of the larger buildings. Even though it was early evening the lot was nearly empty.

She pulled up close and turned off the ignition. The end of the runway was just visible from where she'd stopped and she sat still a minute to watch three large planes taking off in rapid succession. They weren't bombers, more likely support aircraft for the Coalition Forces that were camped far into Iraqi territory. She noted there were several helicopters sitting near their respective hangars, apparently not needed just yet until the ground assault was underway.

Her face and neck felt dusty from the ride out and she ran her fingers through her hair and wished for a ball cap. Not standard issue with dress blues but she'd come to like wearing one through all her exploits with SG-1. The front room of the Officers' Mess doubled as a recreation room complete with two large television sets, one at either end of the room. The place was much more crowded with people than she expected; it seemed every off duty person was there watching one of the news broadcasts currently tuned on the TV screens. She'd forgotten how privileged she was to get as much information on the war as she did. These soldiers didn't have that edge and the satellite broadcasts were often more up-to-date than what filtered on down to them through command.

A few airmen turned in her direction when she entered but they were more interested in the news footage; all except one, that is.

Hastings recognized her immediately and stood to his feet, waving her over. She joined him at a table with six other men, all pilots or mechanics she presumed. The ground crews and flight crews were often a very tight knit group, taking responsibility for their assigned aircraft.

He introduced her and then leaned back in his chair, "What are you doing out here, Major?"

"I have a problem and I thought you might be able to help me."

He gave her a half-cocked grin, "Me help you? Ma'am, if you don't mind me saying so, you are a person who has more answers than I will ever have questions. I doubt there's anything I could do to help you."

She smiled at his relaxed manner, she knew why O'Neill liked this man; he wasn't pretentious in any way. "Not me personally, but there might be something you can do for Colonel O'Neill."

At the mention of that name his demeanor changed in an instant from light amusement to deadly serious. "What's happened?"

He certainly wasn't one to beat around the bush. She made a quick scan of the room before answering, "I've got a Jeep outside, you want to go for a drive?"

He switched back to his lighter mood for a moment, "With you, Major? Anytime."

She flipped him the keys as they exited the building, "Find a quiet spot, Okay?"

Once in the passenger seat she pulled out her ever-present laptop and turned it on. In the five minutes it took to drive out to an empty hangar she'd brought up everything she wanted to show him, and when the vehicle came to a stop she turned it sideways on her lap so he could see the screen. The first image was a map of Iraq.

"What I am about to reveal to you is classified and I do not have any authorization whatsoever to divulge the information." She looked into his eyes and paused, waiting for his reaction.

Hastings nodded and said, "I understand." Carter took a breath and pointed to an uneven red line drawn west and south of Baghdad.

"Our forces advanced to here and met extreme resistance. The Iraqis didn't outnumber us but there were far more of them than we predicted. A new tactic has been set in motion to counter them. Our troops were pulled back and now a series of bombing runs are scheduled to go all night to clear the area for them to retake it in the morning."

"Sounds like a good plan, so what's wrong?"

She switched to the next view, which was a close up of one section. "O'Neill was here." She pointed to a spot on the map. "His team was pinned down, and he was ordered to stay put if possible. The bombers were given the coordinates and instructed to stay clear of that location but-" She blew out a deep breath, "The Colonel's location was secure and they would have been all right, but the last word we got was that something happened and they had to move. We don't know where he is and he doesn't even know the bombers are coming."

Hastings frowned, "Major, I really don't think I can do anything, I mean as far as getting a Helio or two into the air on short notice, that's no problem. The General has been pretty lenient with rescue missions; I guess we kinda blew his mind with that big one we pulled. It's just, where would we go? If we don't have coordinates we're stuck."

Her head dropped, but not in defeat. "I have an idea about that." Hastings was all ears.

"Everyone on the team is carrying a pocket radio. Standard issue. If we can get close enough we can contact him."

The pilot made a face, "You know they're limited to a mile or two."

"Yeah, we'd have to get pretty close, but I know where they started from and how much time has passed. I can estimate how far they'd get on foot traveling through debris and trying to stay out of sight. I think it's worth a shot." Her eyes belied the calm voice with which she spoke.

Hastings suddenly understood. "They won't let you go will they? They've got a war to carry on and they're willing to allow O'Neill and his team to become casualties." His head fell back against the seat. "Major, they 're not bad men, the Generals. But they have a really huge picture to deal with."

She was sure he was going to refuse to help.

"So." He paused and looked her straight in the eye. "That's why they give some decision-making power to officers lower down the ranks. Such as search and rescue to a protected area."

Her eyes narrowed as she tried to grasp his meaning.

He pointed to the spot on the map where the bombers were told to avoid. "It seems to me, that section of the front line has been designated 'protected', at least from friendly fire, if you know what I mean. If that's the target pick up zone, I have standing orders to go."

He was stretching his 'standing orders' to the limit and she knew it but didn't care one whit. She could have burst at that moment but settled for jumping up so quickly he had to grab her laptop to save it from flying onto the floor. "Can we go now? It has to be soon. I don't think they'll get far but if we delay, it will make them that much harder to find." The words tumbled out of her mouth. "And Captain, I'm going with you."

He shook his head and grinned. "Major, if you have half the tenacity of your Colonel, believe me, I would not presume to try to stop you."
Lambert was furious; the equipment he worked so hard to get working was trashed. Several hours after their initial contact with the Communications Center, a whole brigade of Republican Guard showed up in their vicinity. O'Neill made the decision to move out before they were found. The Lieutenant was able to just make one last contact before a grenade was lobbed in the window. His CO had spotted it long before he did and literally dragged the young man to the stairway, leaving all the equipment to be destroyed.

They hurried to meet the others and while the Iraqi soldiers were checking into the results of their handiwork, O'Neill's team was led away by the women. The cellar they were in was connected to two others by underground tunnels and once they were at the farthest point they had no choice but to go to the surface.

This time the entire group covered up with loose robes. Not quite Birkas, but definitely less conspicuous than their uniforms. Their packs were a bigger problem. They had to leave them behind with much of their equipment. O'Neill opted in favor of defense and ordered them to load up all the arms and munitions in any sack or carrying bag they could find. The women packed up the water containers and first aid supplies in addition to their own their own rolled up blankets and small packs of personal items.

The children were surprisingly silent; this was not the first time they'd had to flee and even the youngest ones seemed to instinctively be quiet.

The group traveled quickly, keeping to the shadows as much as possible, O'Neill allowed the old woman to lead, but stayed close by her side, frequently offering his hand to help her over rough areas. They intended to keep moving as long as they were able but after two hours the children were becoming restless and the women obviously tired. O'Neill figured they had gone barely four miles.

The old woman stopped for just a moment and sat on a low wall surrounding what looked like a market area. The Colonel took the opportunity to check all of his men and have a look at the women as well. They were all exhausted.

He returned and sat beside their leader, taking her hand. "Mama, my men were able to rest and can keep moving but the women cannot. Is there somewhere you can take them nearby? My men and I will go on, it will be safer for you if we're not together anyway. If we're found-"

She turned her hand over and clutched his tightly. "No, Colonel Jack, it would not be more safe, they will know what we have done. We have made a choice, all of us, I want my grandson to grow up and have children, if he must do it in a country not of his birth, then so be it. We must all stay together, I will show you where we can go."

He smiled at the name she'd used for him and wondered how she came up with it, he didn't recall giving her any name other than O'Neill. Her sincerity touched his heart and he nodded silently, agreeing to her wishes, and then helped her to her feet. She pointed down a wide street to the north, and led him around a corner to see the way more clearly. "There is a house of worship there, not far. It has a large underground space with several rooms. There is a tall tower as well, you may be able to use it as a vantage point."

"Mama, if I didn't know better I'd say you have some military training." She blushed and playfully slapped his hand.

Just then two Iraqi soldiers stepped out of the shadows and waved their guns at the group of women and robed men, shouting for them to submit. O'Neill heard the commotion and ran back to the corner of the building where he crouched and peered around it. "Dammit!" They'd been found after all.

He had no choice but to take them out. Even though gunfire would surely bring more soldiers it might buy them a little time. It was the best he could hope for. He could feel the old woman's eyes on his back; she too, knew what must be done.

Without a moment of hesitation he fired two shots in rapid succession, expertly hitting one man in the head and the other in the chest. Both fell to the ground, the first already dead. The women shocked their American 'protectors' by bashing in the head of the second man with a couple of large rocks they picked up.

O'Neill glanced at Mama, then turned and ran to his team giving orders in a hushed tone. "Hide the bodies and take whatever weapons they have. There's a church down the road this way, we'll have to make a stand there. Move, now."
Hastings got out of the Jeep and motioned for Major Carter to follow him into the hangar. Once there he went on in to the office and started making phone calls. Whoever he was talking to, Carter noticed he didn't hold back one bit, he told them exactly what they planned to do and what he needed. When he got off the phone he said to her, "You're lucky we haven't been called out lately, Search and Rescue One is geared up and standing by, takeoff in sixty minutes." He wagged a pen in her direction, "If you're coming along we need to find you some appropriate clothing."

She looked down and grimaced, she'd totally forgotten she was wearing a skirt uniform, standard for the Communications Center.

"One of the crews has a Latino navigator who's just a kid, he's not much bigger than you. I think we could steal a flight suit from them. C'mon, let's go."

Thirty minutes later Hastings and Carter arrived at a hangar in the middle of a long row. He parked the Jeep and motioned for her to get out. There were three helicopters on the tarmac and men were busily performing their pre-flight checks.

Carter grabbed the Captains arm, "There are three of them. I thought we were going alone."

"You're kidding me, right? Go into hostile territory alone?"

She looked back at him sheepishly. Obviously the go-it-alone-and-come-back-in-one-piece attitude around the SGC had gotten under her skin. She should have known better and felt naïve for thinking this would be a quick little low profile mission. Hastings pointed to the helicopter with a large red cross on the side. "This is a standard setup for search and rescue, the armament is minimal, but there's plenty of room and if anyone is injured we'll have everything we need."

"But these-" He swung his arm toward the other two aircraft, "are state of the art AH-64D Apache Attacks, just upgraded and fully fitted out. They've got sixteen Hellfire missiles each plus a 30 millimeter Chain Gun. We're not planning on getting into a conflict, but if the situation arises, you're gonna be glad these babies are backing us up. Come on, I'll introduce you to the pilots."

As they walked over she couldn't help but ask him what he had to do to make this happen. "Joe, you can't tell me you have enough authority to order all this."

"You're right. I had to run it past my CO, but it wasn't a problem. You'll never guess who he served with about twelve years ago." His eyes slid toward her to see her expression. "A certain brash young Major named O'Neill. He gets around doesn't he?"

Her jaw dropped. Maybe it wasn't such an odd thing that a number of high-ranking officers gave support to O'Neill so easily, he seemed to have friends everywhere.
O'Neill's team found their new accommodations acceptable and much more roomy than the last place. The women used a small back room as a sleeping area and put all the children to bed. O'Neill left Tuck and Lambert to stay while the rest of them scouted out the building. The old woman was right about the tower; it reached high above the rooftops of all the nearby buildings and made a great lookout.

After checking their radios, Tolbert and Mitchell were left to stay on sentry duty. O'Neill and Corbin continued the survey of the main floor but found nothing of interest except more blankets and several terra-cotta jugs of water. They carried what they could to the cellar and handed them over to the women.

While they settled in O'Neill took a few minutes to relax. It would likely be quite a while before they could rest again if the Iraqis came around.

He tried to focus on the present circumstances but kept drifting off to thoughts of the SGC. Oddly enough he missed the place. With all the strange things that went on there, it was still home to him. He missed the people, so different yet so much the same as here, good people, trying to accomplish a worthy and honorable goal.

His pensiveness must have showed because presently the old woman came over and eased herself down to a blanket beside him. Her knees creaked as she lowered herself, but when he raised a hand to protest, she stopped him. "The getting down is easy, Colonel. You can help me when I want to get up."

After settling herself against the wall as comfortably as she could she said, "Tell me about her."

O'Neill looked at her with a hint of surprise on his face, "Who?"

"Your wife."

"Oh, uh, not married. I mean, I was, but not anymore." Sara had been the furthest thing from his mind.

"Do you still love her?"

Despite the personal nature of the question he answered. "We're still friends, but we've both moved on. Why are you asking me this?"

She clasped her hand over his and leaned in closer, "It seemed you were thinking about someone. Am I wrong?"

The relative anonymity of the situation made him suddenly able to voice the truth. "No, Mama, you're not. There is someone I care for very much. I miss her."

"She is in America?"

"No, actually she's here. In Kuwait rather, she's in the Air Force, too."

The sounds of sirens and explosions cut their conversation short. O'Neill was at once back to his military alertness and rose to his feet. He reached a hand down to the old woman. "I think you should go back to the others."

She nodded in agreement and let him help her up. Before going she hugged him tightly and said, "Be careful, Colonel Jack. We are in your hands."
O'Neill thumbed his radio, "Tolbert, report!" He could barely hear any reply over the sirens wailing and cursed under his breath. He quickly dug out his earpiece and fitted it into place.

"T, negative copy, repeat."

"Sir, our bombers are in the air. Not close yet. They're hitting to the south and east of our position."

"Any sign of ground forces?"

"Negative, Sir."

"Stay put for now. If those bombs start coming this way, get out of there. Understood?"

Tolbert replied in the affirmative and the radio went silent. O'Neill headed to the back to get the rest of his team up and moving. This night was just getting started.
In an hour the three helicopters were in the air making good time into Iraqi airspace. Baghdad was about 250 miles from the base and their target area was just to the southwest. S&R One was sandwiched between the Attacks giving it the best cover. Amazingly they went nearly all the way without ground resistance.

When they were within a mile of the targeted coordinates Hastings gave Carter a sign. She nodded and pressed the 'talk' button on her handheld radio. "Colonel O'Neill. Come in. Colonel O'Neill. This is Carter. Come in."

When there was no response her heart sank. She knew they'd moved, but how far and in which direction? Hastings acknowledged the shake of her head and turned back to the pilot. After a short exchange, which included all three pilots he directed his attention back to her. "Major, it seems there are significant ground forces to the east and north of here. The consensus is that a rescue attempt there would not be successful. We'll be heading due west in a moment. I suggest you continue to attempt to make contact every half-mile or so."

She nodded, trying to look grateful that they weren't just going to turn back right now. From here on out, they'd be defying orders, she knew every one of the airmen would be acutely aware of that fact and wondered if Hastings' CO had factored in the possibility of them straying wide from the pick up zone. If he was anything like O'Neill's other friends, it wouldn't be a problem.

As they veered away from the 'safe zone' it became clear the survival of O'Neill's team would be nothing short of a miracle. As far as they could see were the ragged shells of buildings. Not a single block had escaped at least some damage and the clouds of smoke and dust in the air were constantly limiting their vision.

When Hastings turned and informed Carter they were coming up on the ten-mile mark she still had not made a contact. It didn't really surprise her though, she didn't think they'd have gone five miles, let alone ten and was glad they were turning back for another sweep, this time a mile north of the first run.

When they got back to the pick up zone she had to admit she was really worrying. What if their radios weren't functioning? Or worse, what if they'd gone somewhere else altogether?" she shook off her pessimism and tapped Hastings on the shoulder.

"We're going another mile further to the north, right?" He nodded. "Okay, only don't go the whole ten miles this time. There's no way they could have gotten that far. Turn around at five."

Hastings opened his mouth to say something but thought better of it and nodded again. He spoke into his headset and explained Carter's request to the pilot, who she could see nod in answer.

On their third leg of the grid she got a static-filled open channel when she called for O'Neill. Hastings had the pilot pull back on the throttle to give her a chance to try it again. She lost the signal completely and made a circular motion in the air with her finger to Hastings. He had the pilot turn back and swing out a little further north. It wasn't a problem for the S&R but was playing hell with the larger and somewhat less maneuverable Apaches and Carter made a mental note to thank the pilots for being so accommodating.

Hastings turned to ask if she had any luck yet and was greeted with a million dollars worth of smile. This time Carter heard a scratchy voice and cupped her hand over her earpiece as she listened.
"Carter? Is that you? Where are you?"

Her grin widened, "Look up, Sir."

"You're kidding, right?" O'Neill made a beeline for the nearest doorway and heard the helicopter blades just as he got there. "Sweet."

Hastings switched out his helicopter headset for an earphone to another handheld radio and thumbed the talk button, "O'Neill, where the Hell are you, man?"

"Hastings? They'll let anybody fly these days! You see a church with a steeple? Tolbert, you on frequency? Wave your light."

Carter scanned the area and pointed to a tall bulbous tower ahead of them. At the uppermost level two dark figures could be seen against the dimly lit night sky, both frantically waving lights. At the base of the building she could just make out another light waving from a darkened doorway. "Colonel! We've got you. Anyplace we can set down?"

"Keep going around the other side. We'll light the way." He yelled back to his team to break out whatever light they had and outline the rear courtyard. They were going home. As he ran to the back to prepare the women to move his radio sparked to life again in one ear while the sound of gunfire echoed in the other. He stopped in his tracks and covered the earpiece so he could hear his teammate. Tolbert's voice was fearful, "Sir! The Iraqis! They followed the choppers, they're here!" It was the one bit of news O'Neill hoped he wouldn't receive.

"Which direction?"

"From the south, Sir. Right behind the choppers."

The orders flew out of O'Neill's mouth. "Tolbert, Mitch! Get down here! Tuck! You got those lights up yet? Lambert! Get the women ready to move. Now! Corbin! C-4. Meet me at the east entrance. Move it! Carter, we've got women and children who need a lift out, take them first."

He barely heard her acknowledgement as he raced through the building. His brain was in full ops mode; by the time he met up with Corbin he had a plan.

"How much C-4 have we got?"

"Four large bricks, Sir. If you're looking for a big bang, can do."

O'Neill pointed to a side stairway going up then took two of the bricks and detonators from his 2IC. "We need to blow the tower. Timers on three minutes. Lay the charges on the south side, I don't want it falling into the courtyard."

"Can't those Apache's help us out any?"

"Too close for the missiles." He had another idea. "Carter? You on the ground yet?"

"Almost there Colonel, descending now." Her point was emphasized by a pulsing whooshing noise from behind the structure.

"Good. Can you get those A-tacks on either side of the tower? We'll need cover fire, but not too close. The tower comes down in three minutes. Copy?" As he spoke he waved to Corbin to go and start setting the charges.

"Roger, Sir. Relaying message."


The gunfire was now very close but most of it was directed at the helicopters that were returning it with their rapid-fire 30 millimeters. The positions O'Neill requested them to take turned out to be quite advantageous, they were able to fire at the forward ground advance as well as pivot to either side and hit flanking forces.

The decibel level all throughout the mosque was deafening as the sounds of a small war converged there. From the front and sides the Iraqis were shooting rifles and light anti-aircraft weapons while the Apaches hovered above. They created their own racket in the sounds of their engines and blades punctuated by the rattling firing pattern of the big guns all echoing off the sides of the buildings. From behind, the small courtyard amplified the sound of S&R One on the ground where Tuck and the Lieutenants were herding the women and children rapidly across an open stretch and into the waiting door.

Carter and Hastings were standing outside the helicopter on either side of the opening helping the refugees get in. As the last ones arrived Tuck ordered the airmen to load up as well, then stepped up himself.

Several large blasts rocked the stone structure and the tower fell forward. A plume of dust blew out of the windows and doors facing the courtyard as it came down. The Apache pilots, always ready to improvise took O'Neill's lead and were ready each with one Hellfire missile hot. As the tower blew they lit them off to targets just far enough away to amplify the diversion but not pose any threat to the rescue operation. Carter and Hastings stood open-mouthed at the unexpected display.

Carter's heart lurched in her chest as she realized O'Neill was nowhere to be seen, nor Major Corbin. She took a step away from the helicopter and felt Hastings grab her arm but wrestled it free and glared at him. "Don't." She warned him.

Hastings knew the drill, 'We don't leave anyone behind.' It had been brought home much too recently and with this same Colonel involved, as well. He shook his head in defeat and ordered Tuck and Mitch to hand over their submachine guns, then yelled at the pilot to take off.

He followed Carter away from the swirling dust and handed her a weapon. "Let's go find them."

They were barely into the building when bullets started raining down on them from two sides so they dove for the nearest cover and began to return fire. Some of the Iraqis had evidently escaped the tumbling walls and mortar.

O'Neill and Corbin peered out of a protected doorway at the front of the building's second floor. The battle between the Apaches and the ground was still in full swing. O'Neill spotted a duo of soldiers with missile launchers and shook his head. "Oh, no you don't. Not this time, pal." He pulled out a grenade and lobbed it with his best baseball pitch right at them. The explosion sent them both flying several feet. When no more appeared, he turned his attention elsewhere.

Explosions and gunfire seemed to be coming from everywhere as Corbin spotted a target of his own on the first floor below them. They were firing at someone else on the ground. He was sure the others had gotten off all right and waved to O'Neill.

The Colonel immediately sized up the situation; someone needed help and they were going to get it. He motioned to the best vantage points they could get to and waved Corbin on before going himself. In a few minutes they had flanked the Iraqis and began a barrage of their own.
With four Iraqis down and the others in retreat, the sound had diminished enough for them to hear another unwelcome sound. The Coalition bombers had arrived in the area and were making a run. A single J-Dam fell two blocks away and caused enough of a shockwave to make the still standing walls of the Mosque shake and large pieces of plaster fell away loose.

O'Neill rocked back his head and rolled his eyes. Never a break, it could never be easy. He called to Corbin to follow him down to the lower level. There was enough light to spot two Air Force uniforms slouched against one wall where more debris had fallen in the last shockwave. They each went to one thinking they'd find a team member but were in for a shock. Corbin reached his man first and gasped as he looked into the face of Captain Hastings. He recognized the man immediately and shouted to O'Neill.

The Colonel was busy with his own surprise. He knelt at Carters side and lightly touched her neck, checking for a pulse and feeling her neck before lifting her head and shoulders under his arm. His head was spinning a million miles an hour. What the hell was Carter doing here? Stupid question, coming for him of course, but how did she manage to get herself hurt?

He patted her cheek and called her name several times before getting a response.

"Sir? Colonel? You're all right."

"More than I can say for you right now, Major. Think you can stand?"

She nodded and let him slide his arm down her back to help her up. She swayed a little so he didn't yet release her and started picking bits of plaster out of her hair. "What the hell were you thinking, getting off that chopper?"

She flushed and pulled back regaining her balance and quickly dusted off her uniform. That done, she picked up her weapon and stood up straight. "Sir, we're here to rescue you."

All O'Neill could do was burst out in a laugh. "That I figured out, but I think now we all need a rescue. By the way the Apaches are a nice touch." The remark was punctuated by another explosion. He grabbed Carter's arm and hurried them both out from under the collapsing ceiling.

Outside was far too exposed and once Corbin and Hastings arrived the group made their way through a narrow alley and to the back of an adjacent building. As long as they stayed to the north side it seemed the Iraqis wouldn't spot them. They stopped in the deep shadows of an arched entryway.

O'Neill turned to Carter and Hastings and asked "I suppose you have a plan for getting us out of here?"

Carter for once was lost for words. No she had not planned, she assumed they'd signal a helicopter and get a lift out, but with all the noise their small radios were near useless. Hastings wasn't so reserved as the Major and produced a flare gun from his vest pocket. "Thought this might come in handy."

O'Neill nodded and turned to peer out of their hiding place. He surveyed for possible landing sites and decided there were none on this level. "Unless we can get to a roof I don't think a helicopter will be able to land for us. Any ideas?"

Corbin agreed. "There's a way up over there." He pointed to a stone stairway leading up the exterior of the next building. "It's not very high but the rooftops all seem to be level, might be our best shot."

They moved out toward the stairway up, keeping in the shadows as much as possible, they would soon draw enough attention to themselves when Hastings fired the flare.
The roof was a lot smaller than it looked from the ground but it was flat so it would have to do. From where they stood they could see S&R One hovering back from the firefight and how the two Apaches had pulled away from the Mosque to get a better angle on the ground forces. None of the helicopters were close to their position so O'Neill gave Hastings a go to signal. He could only hope someone was watching for them.

Hastings held the gun at arms length, pointed it straight up, and fired. The flare burst forth from the short barrel with a loud pop and immediately filled the sky with a blinding red-tinged trail of light.

In a split-second one of the Apaches swung around and moved toward their position. The second one adjusted its position to widen their coverage area.

Once in position overhead the helicopter began to descend but before it got very far it pulled back up. A man in the open side door of the helicopter waved his hands back and forth and shook his head, 'no'.

It was too risky for them to land here; they 'd have to go with their second option.

Several harnesses were dropped from above and after Hastings retrieved them, a single winch line was dropped. Each of them strapped on a harness and prepared to be lifted off.

O'Neill insisted Carter go first and under protest she complied. He assured her it wasn't some male gallantry thing, it was just that she'd been the most seriously hurt.

Hastings went next, also under protest but this time was overruled by rank. As the winch dropped for the third time O'Neill and Corbin were forced to drop to the ground to avoid debris from a grenade going off near the corner of the roof. The Iraqis had found them and the tension went up a notch for both men.

O'Neill clipped the line to Corbin's vest while they were still lying down and waved for the pick up to proceed. The winch retracted and the helicopter pulled up and away just slightly to distance themselves from the gunfire below, which was now directed solely at them.

Corbin made it safely aboard and the helicopter had to swing out and around to get in position for O'Neill. This time a mortar shell just missed them. The pilot swung the tail around forcibly to avoid it and the entire craft shuddered in response before stabilizing.

It came in close to drop the line but had to back off when bullets began to pelt the fuselage again. The pilot called to the other two for support.

S&R One had been holding back but now joined the foray with machine gun fire. It's only real weapon to speak of. This time the Apache moved in but not as low as before. The winch was dropped to its full length and hit the roof with a loud thud. O'Neill had been off to the side in the shadows and now dove for it, tossing two grenades over the side of the building as he went. He clipped the line to his vest and stuck his thumb up in the air.

He was jerked unmercifully up into mid air as the helicopter rose and started moving away from the site at full throttle before the winch even started to reel in. The explosion from the grenades gave only a momentary respite from the ground assault and another mortar lit the sky. Bullets continued to whiz by O'Neill and he ducked his head into his shoulders for minimal protection knowing full well he was a wide-open target.

The second Apache moved in a wide arc to the north and then turned back to the base of the buildings and fired off two Hellfire missiles. It then turned to the southeast and joined the other two helicopters already on their way home. Behind them the remaining walls of the Mosque exploded and it fell in upon itself, completely destroyed.
It was quite dark away from the battle but long before Carter could see O'Neill's face she knew something was wrong. He wasn't clutching onto the rescue line or even ducking his head against the wind. His body was completely limp, supported only by the single hook at the end of the line. She presumed he'd been knocked unconscious by the severe jerk up from the ground.

As he neared the opening Tuck and Tolbert leaned out to pull him in. They were already a mile from the Mosque when they managed to drag the unconscious man aboard.

Unfortunately they weren't on the rescue helicopter so medical supplies were only the bare necessity standard issue. One of the benches along the side of the helicopter was vacated and O'Neill laid out on it. Carter knelt beside him and started to loosen his clothing to look for any signs of wounding. She berated herself for not at least grabbing an additional med kit or getting Lambert to come along, he was their medic and the best suited to deal with this kind of thing after all. She should have realized at least one of them might be injured. Why did it always have to be him?

Tuck watched her struggling with the clasps on the vest and came over to help her. He saw it was not due to any lack of aptitude on her part but rather because the whole front of the vest was saturated with sticky blood. She pulled her hands back and gasped at it. In the darkness she'd assumed it was dirt or sweat or even mud, but not this.

She let Tuck finish the task and called to one of the airmen, "We need a med kit! Anything will do!"

A young man jumped up in response and opened an overhead compartment, pulling out a standard kit and a large pack of extra bandages. He didn't wait for the Major to take them but laid them out on the floor and started tearing open wrappers for her. With Tuck doing the harder task of getting the clothing out of the way, Carter was able to focus on the two gushing bullet holes in O'Neill's chest and hold pressure to them. She could barely feel his chest move under her hands and at one point had to pause to check for a pulse, fearful she might not find one.

It was there, though not strong, and far too rapid. She recognized the sign of shock setting in and cursed under her breath. Corbin leaned over her to get a better look and saw her reaction. "It's bad, isn't it?"

She nodded. "He's lost a lot of blood. Can you raise his legs up any? We're supposed to do that for shock." Her words felt hollow in her own ears. He complied and then found a blanket and tucked it in around O'Neill's body. He remembered from somewhere that a patient in shock should be kept warm, too.

Carter thanked him and rechecked the dressings. The blood had all but stopped flowing, at least on the outside, and his pulse slowed a little. They were doing what they could but his only real hope was the base and it's wealth of medical technology.

Once they crossed the Coalition Front line the three helicopters touched down at a makeshift base camp. O'Neill was rushed to the medical unit and stabilized for transport to Kuwait. Carter and the others tried to stay near but were promptly told they were interfering with his care and forced to keep their distance. All they could do was pace around at the tent entrance.

The body that was moved out of the ward and loaded up on the rescue helicopter was vastly different than the one they wheeled in. He was now surrounded by an assortment of medical devices and tubes including an oxygen mask, two IV's, portable heart and blood pressure monitors and the worst thing to see, a large-bore tube coming out of the right side of his chest. His lung had collapsed and had to be re-expanded so he could breathe. It was clamped off at the moment but was still gruesome to see.

The helicopter had been freshly refueled and checked while O'Neill was being seen and was now ready to fly again. He'd be taken directly to the hospital at Kuwait City where several ICU nurses were prepared to meet them at the helipad. Carter assumed at least one or two of them would be allowed to accompany O'Neill on the final leg of his journey but was stopped from doing so by the Base Commander.

The whole affair was up for scrutiny and O'Neill's team, Carter and Hastings were to report to Al-Jaber at once for debriefing. The women and children who accompanied them were now considered refugees and would be 'processed' as such. It meant food, water and decent living conditions, but not freedom. The only available transport was a large troop carrier class helicopter and everyone; Iraqi and American alike were loaded up for the trip to Kuwait.
O'Neill's flight was high priority and the speed of the aircraft was not curtailed in any way, but the troop transport carrying the others was much slower and would take nearly twice as long to cover the same distance. That is if they were going to the same destination, which they weren't. The refugees were being housed at Camp Doha, an army base east of Al-Jaber. That would be the first stop and then Carter and the others would be taken on to the airbase, presumably to be debriefed although she was sure she and Hastings were in for an earful from General Osborne at least.

She sat scrunched up in a corner of the cargo area and considered her actions. It really had been worth it in the end, and no American lives were lost. It was not always a dependable gauge of success but still made her feel better. Every one of those men had volunteered as well, Hastings made sure of that. They all knew what they were getting into and made the decision without pressure.

As she sat lost in thought Corbin made his way over to her and said. "How are you holding up, Major?"

"Well, considering I might be court-marshaled, not too bad."

"You don't really think it will come to that." He took a seat beside her.

"Maybe not, but the General is gonna be pretty mad, although I technically wasn't AWOL until I didn't show up at work this morning." He didn't respond and she realized he wasn't even paying attention. "Major, was there something you wanted to talk to me about?"

He jerked his head back to her, caught. "Um, Mama, the old woman who came with us. She wants to talk to you. She doesn't speak any English so I'll have to translate."

"What could she possibly want of me?"

He blushed. "She has this idea that you and Colonel O'Neill are involved."

"We're not. It's just not something that- what did he tell her?" Her eyes narrowed.

"I don't think much really, not about that, but they talked quite a bit over the past few days, she really likes the Colonel. You could humor her, make her feel better about having to go to the camp."

It wasn't until then Carter understood there was something more between these men and the Iraqi women they'd 'liberated.' She could tell Corbin was genuinely concerned about their welfare.

He leaned back against the wall and spoke again. "It was the boy, I think."

She looked at him; he'd completely lost her now.

He blushed again when he realized he'd spoken that thought out loud. "Sorry. Um, there was a kid, a little boy. We were trapped in a cellar while the building collapsed over us and the mother was hurt. The Colonel actually shielded her from the worst of the debris and picked up her kid and held him like he was his own and it was the most natural thing in the world. He still gave us orders and saw that the mom was tended to, but he held that kid." He rubbed his hand over his face, lost in the memory. "Kinda reminded me of something. I know it sounds stupid but those women saw it too, and in a split second they trusted him. They hid us and fed us for two days without question. I never woulda believed it."

"So? You were Americans. There are a lot of sympathizers out there."

"Uh, uh. It was more than that."

Carter grinned, "What? She thinks he's some kind of hero? Sure I'll talk to her."

Corbin slapped his hand to his forehead, "She didn't say that! And neither did I, just forget it. Come on."

She followed behind him suppressing a case of the giggles as they moved forward in the cabin to the old woman's location. Corbin spoke to the woman and motioned for Carter to sit across from her. So far the only part Carter understood was her name.

The old woman, Mama, took her hands and smiled. She began to speak in the throaty Arabic language Carter had heard so much of the past few weeks but was never able to comprehend.

Corbin listened for a minute then began to speak, never taking his eyes off the old woman's face. "She wants you to know how grateful she is that you brought the helicopters to save them. She knows the only one you really wanted to save was O'Neill, and the rest of us were a lesser concern."

Carter bristled. "That's not true! Sure, I've known the Colonel longer than any of you, but it was the whole team in trouble, not just him."

He glanced at her and rapidly translated it back into Arabic, eliciting a grin from the woman. She spoke again. "She says you should not be ashamed that he was your reason for coming. You should, ah, treasure, I think, what you have with him. The future is uncertain, we must all live for today."

"Sounds like an oldies recording."

Corbin looked at her, suddenly irate. "Major, this woman has lived through Saddam's entire regime, she just might have a point. Who knows how many loved ones she's lost. The fact she can even imagine a future is amazing."

Chastised, Carter swallowed and bit her lower lip.

The old woman didn't get the words but understood Corbin's tone and raised a hand to hush him. She offered a few harsh tones of her own then turned back to Carter and continued. Corbin translated again.

"She knows what happened to him and isn't surprised he was the only one to be seriously hurt. She thinks he makes a habit of putting others first and thinks its time someone did the same for him."

A short conversation passed between Corbin and the old woman then he turned back to Carter and shrugged. "She says you know what she means."

She had an awful feeling in the pit of her stomach. These last several weeks had distanced her from her intended career path and had been, in a way, refreshing. Instead of being to totally wrapped up in advanced technology and saving the world, she'd focused on a very small part of it, and her eyes were opened to the real 'big picture.' It wasn't about saving the world, it was about people, and making just one life better impacted the whole.

She scrubbed her hands through her hair. O'Neill already knew this, that's why he was so adamant to protect all of them. From Catherine Langford all the way through the many planets they'd traveled to, even when they didn't need it, and especially when they didn't want it, he was determined to make that small difference. Maybe that's why the arrogance of the Tollan's irritated him so much; with all their superiority he could see their individual lives were no better. Probably the only race he felt were truly living up to their potential were the Nox. Even the Ancient's had their issues.

She had to agree, the quiet strength of Lya and her people was unrivalled except-" Her thoughts were interrupted when the old woman grasped her hands again.

She didn't speak but only held on tightly. Carter responded by squeezing her hands in return and smiled. Point made. Her whole world had revolved around the SGC for many years now, and though she admitted it outwardly only once, the center point of it all was Jack O'Neill. Through all this time she'd managed to keep her distance. Perhaps it was time for a change.

After the interrogations, or briefings as the General called them, Carter was finally able to go see about the Colonel. He'd been in surgery most of the day anyway she learned from one of the General's aides. It was late that night when she arrived at the ICU.

Despite her own familiarity with the SGC infirmary, it was still a shock to see the room full of machinery with blinking lights and soft pulsating noises. It made him look so small. She sighed at the site of the ventilator. It wasn't surprising he'd have to be on one after all the trauma to his chest.

He was uncovered above the waist and the right side of his chest was plastered with bandages and tape, some to secure the chest tube and the rest no doubt covering a large surgical incision.

One of the nurses came in and fiddled with the IV tubing. She noticed Carter was sitting there quiet as a mouse. "You know, you can talk to him, he's already been awake several times."

Carter was surprised. "I thought he'd be kept sedated, on the ventilator and all."

"Oh, hon. Sorry, I thought you knew, we're not keeping him under, just relaxed enough to not fight the tube; and we're giving him some pain meds although he insists he doesn't need anything. The machine is only set to monitor. He's been breathing on his own since he got here, already griped about wanting the endotracheal tube out, but the Doctor says not until morning." She grinned and held up a clipboard. Scrawled on it in the Colonel's handwriting were the words 'tube out now' with the word 'now' underlined several times. "Was he ever in a bad car accident or something? He acts like all this is old hat to him."

Carter smiled and replied, "Yeah. Something like that."

The nurse completed her chores and left, pulling a curtain partway across the large glass opening giving them a little privacy. Carter got up and walked to the bedside.

"Colonel? Are you awake?" There was no response at first but she thought she saw a small twitch at the corner of his mouth.

She leaned in closer to look. "You *are* awake aren't you?"

His eyelids flicked once then opened with a bit of effort. She noted he really was used to the ICU routine. He didn't struggle against the tube or try to talk, just relaxed and breathed. His only movement was to extend one hand in her direction.

She clasped it tightly in both of hers and told him, "Jack, I'm so glad you're okay."

His eyebrows rose and he turned his head toward her to see her face. No way was he sedated enough to let that slide. He couldn't remember Carter *ever* calling him by his first name. Not without some alien influence anyway. Now he *did* want to talk. He pointed to the clipboard and motioned with his fingers for her to give it to him.

The first thing he wrote was totally expected. 'My team? The children?'

"Everyone is Okay, except you. We are all here and safe. The women and children are at the refugee center."

He nodded, though a shadow crossed his eyes at the mention of the refugee center. He understood it was a necessity though. Next he asked about the rescue. 'You rescue how?'

She cleared her throat and gave him a much-abbreviated version of her meeting with Hastings and the events that rapidly followed.

He thought about her answer for a few minutes then wrote, 'not authorized?'

She bit her lower lip. "Uh, no."

He looked into her eyes and then wrote a longer note this time, 'you always seem to be saving my butt. Sorry to put you in that position. Now and all the other times.'

She read it and shook her head, "No don't even think of it like that. We're a team, and if there's one thing I've learned from you it's that no one gets left behind. You'd do it for me in a heartbeat."

'Thanks SAM.' He wrote her name larger than the rest of the words. He wanted to see if she'd react.

When she read it she blushed. Yep, he'd noticed all right. She decided to push the envelope. "You're welcome, Jack."

Twice in one day! That had to be a record. It was enough to elicit a coughing fit and when it was over he looked exhausted. Carter squeezed his hand, "You really should get some sleep."

He nodded just slightly and let his eyes drift shut. Coming to terms with this *new* Carter would have to wait. She stayed just a little while until she was sure he was asleep then left. Her day had been every bit as tiring as his and her eyes were feeling heavy too.
At 0600 the Physician's Assistant came and removed the ET tube and by the time Carter arrived at 0830 O'Neill was verbally abusing the nurses. Of course they weren't about to let him have his way without a fight.

"Colonel! You can't do that! If you pull that tube out, you will answer to the Doctor yourself!"

"Fine! I will! I just want to sit up a while. I thought you people were always gung-ho about getting patients up and moving. So why not me?"

"Sir, *most* of our patients stay put until they're told they can get up and *most* of them weren't *shot* and then had major surgery less than twelve hours ago. Do you realize what they had to do to put you back together?"

"Spare me the gruesome details. I've got a pretty good idea."

Carter stood at the door and giggled. O'Neill was halfway between the bed and chair clad only in hospital issue pajama pants with the nurse behind him, pushing the IV pole and dragging a large plastic box; the sealed suction system attached, at least for the moment, to the chest tube. He settled himself in the chair and allowed the nurse to tuck a blanket around his shoulders. She turned to leave and caught Carter's eye, "Stubborn Irishman."

O'Neill heard it and snorted, "Power-monger."

Carter slipped into the room and sat in a chair beside the Colonel. "So, the nurses giving you everything you need?"

"Hmmph. Ice chips, infomercials and-" As he waved his arm the monitor suddenly made a high -pitched squeal then went back to it's quiet beeping. "And no peace and quiet whatsoever."

"I see you managed to get pajama bottoms as well."

Why not? There's nothing wrong with my bottom that any nurse needs to be concerned about and that flapping in the breeze stuff isn't my style."

Carter lost it, she laughed so hard she almost snorted. "Jack, you're a nurse's worst nightmare!"

He looked at her, suddenly deadly serious. "Carter, what are you doing?"

She swallowed her laughter long enough to say "Nothin'."

He had the oddest sensation one of those 'time-loop' thingies had happened again, only this time Carter was the one who knew what was going on. She looked way to smug to be innocent.

This time he spoke in full command mode. "Carter. Something is going on and you are going to tell me what it is. Right now."

Her Air Force persona kicked in and she snapped her head up at his tone. Somehow she managed to keep her mouth shut, but a moment later he leaned forward and raised his eyebrows at her. "Samantha?"

Okay, she was blushing now. She could feel her neck getting hot. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Oh, I think you do. You haven't called me 'Sir' yet."

"I just got here! And it's not like you're on active duty right now."

"Major, like I can't tell when you're dodging. You didn't yesterday either. So, why are you calling me Jack?"

She frowned. No getting past the direct approach. "Oh. Well. Um." Her knuckles suddenly became interesting. She glanced back up at him and saw he was still waiting for an answer. Crap. "I guess it's the war. I've had to re-evaluate how I think about some things. And. Maybe I need to change how I do some things."

"We've been through worse before. Why now?" His eyes were soft; she could see he wasn't pushing; he just really wanted to know. If he only knew how hard it was to deal with him when he was being so gentle toward her.

"If it bothers you I'll stop-"

He reached across and took her hand. "No. I don't mind. Just not used to it." He decided to give up the inquiry; it was obvious she either didn't want to say or hadn't really thought about it enough to be able to answer. He let go and leaned back in the chair, pulling the blanket a little closer around his shoulders. "So, you said everyone got out Okay? Now that I'm more awake tell me again how you procured those Apaches."

The rest of the morning they spent in quiet conversation. He didn't realize how much he'd missed her. It was great just to sit and talk. Since she hadn't been working on any technological marvels lately her conversation wasn't peppered with five and six-syllable words.

Over the next several days she came to visit often. With the war winding down she was on downtime quite a bit. The doctors wanted to transfer O'Neill to the Air Force Hospital in Germany, but he absolutely refused. He insisted he wasn't hurt that badly and the space should be saved for the POW's they'd be rescuing in the next few days.

As it turned out he was right. Before the week was over several Americans were brought out of Iraq, most of them in fairly bad shape. He remembered what it was like just several weeks before when he was rescued from imprisonment. If it wasn't for Jacob, he might have had to retire on a medical discharge. These folks didn't have a Tok'ra Fairy-Godfather watching out for them and would have to rely solely on human medicine to restore them.

The end of the week brought more good news for O'Neill. The doctors decided he was more than ready to have the chest tube removed and though it was yet another painful experience, he was thrilled to have his last yoke of medical bondage removed. He celebrated by going outside and getting some sun.

It was just after 1300 and he considered going back inside; it was getting a little warm and the bandages covering the right side of his chest were a little itchy. Before he moved to get up he was surprised to hear a child's laughter coming from the building behind him. He turned to see Carter with a wriggling bundle in her arms, followed by two Iraqi women and a young boy.

"Azir! Come here boy! What are you doing here?" Every eye in the vicinity turned to O'Neill as he broke into the Arabic dialect.

The youngster smiled a grin that threatened to touch his ears and ran to him. "Colonel Jack! I did not know we would be seeing you!" He noticed the stark white bandages peeking out from O'Neill's open shirt and touched it with his hand. "You are hurt. Are you going to die?"

Carter noted the worry exhibited by such a young child when he saw the large bandage on her CO, but didn't understand the words. O'Neill scooped him up into his lap and ruffled his hair. "No. No one's dying anymore. We're all safe."

The boy responded by suddenly becoming shy and leaning his head against O'Neill's chest. His hand stayed on the bandage, fingering it thoughtfully. O'Neill hugged him and addressed the other visitors.

"Mama, Ramah, you look well." He said as he reached one hand out to them. The women hurried over to him and touched him, it seemed all over, running their hands up his arms and shoulders and patting his head, as if verifying it was really him. Mama came to stand in front of him and cradled his cheeks in her hands. Carter gasped and could barely hold back a giggle when the old woman bent over to soundly kiss him on the mouth. It didn't faze O'Neill in the least; he was grinning so much it was almost painful.

The women sat in the other chairs at the table and began to converse rapidly in their native tongue, far too fast for O'Neill. He had to get them to slow down but eventually was able to speak back and forth with both of them. After a few minutes he waved to Carter to come closer and join them.

She handed off the child she was still holding to Ramah and said to O'Neill, "It's okay, I can't understand anything you're saying anyway."

"Come on, Carter. Mama insists. I'll translate as we go. Pull up another chair."

When she was seated he touched her arm for a moment, "I don't know how you pulled this off, but thanks, this is great!" He squeezed Azir a little tighter, making him protest but he settled right down when O'Neill handed him the glass of lemonade from the table.

The next hour was spent in a lively conversation as the women related their experiences at the refugee camp and their treatment, which they considered to be well above what was expected. Azir had been introduced to several elements of American culture including pizza, potato chips and fish sticks. Apparently O'Neill's team had taken a personal interest in the welfare of the group they'd brought back and at least one of them visited daily, usually bearing a gift, and more often than not, it was some kind of food.

Finally O'Neill was beginning to look tired, most likely from all the laughing he was doing, and his side was getting really sore. Mama noticed it before the others and told him it was time for them to leave. He protested the visit was too short, but she promised to return when Major Carter could make the arrangements again.

Before she stood to leave she scooted forward in her seat and told Azir to get down. She took O'Neill's hands in hers and spoke softly and very seriously to him. Carter didn't think anything of it until she noticed him glancing in her direction. Mama was talking about her; she just knew it.

He rose to walk out with them but was unable to hide the pain and a passing nurse scolded him and called for an orderly to take him back to his room in a wheelchair. After saying his goodbyes to the women and Azir, O'Neill spoke to Carter. "We'll talk, later. Thanks again for the surprise."
Things began to happen on the war front very quickly over the next several days and Carter was called back to work curtailing the time she could spend with O'Neill and the others. Less than a week later all eyes were glued to every available television set as Coalition forces entered Baghdad and set up a Command Post in the heart of the city. Cheers went up from Americans and liberated Iraqis alike as murals were defaced and a huge statue of Hussein was dragged off its pedestal. There would still be much to be done but the back of the beast had been broken for all to see.

Several prisons were opened to the Coalition soldiers and hundreds of political dissidents were set free in the days that followed. Lists of names began to come in to the refugee camp of men who had been released. The most badly injured were transported to Kuwait for treatment but most would have to wait to be reunited with their loved ones who had already left the country.

O'Neill was allowed to leave the hospital for short excursions provided he let them know exactly where he was going and not stay away for more than a few hours at a time. He was healing well but still showed some signs of infection and they'd put him back on a course of IV antibiotics. He was warned that missing one or two doses could set him back.

So after assuring the nurses he could not live without them and would never consider trying to, he met Major Corbin at the door for a drive out to the refugee camp.

As they drove up there was near pandemonium at the front gate. Apparently a new list was released and the names were being given out by an Army spokesman. It took a while to get through the crowd but finally O'Neill and Corbin made it to the bunker where their friends were assigned. Mama and several others were inside, quietly praying and hoping for a good report from the two women who went to the gathering.

When O'Neill entered Mama called his name and patted the cot beside her. When he sat she hugged him and quickly explained already two of the women had news of their husbands. Both were alive and only had minimal injuries. They were free to go to their homes and as soon as the city was secure and things settled down, the women would be escorted back home by American soldiers. Word had already been sent back to the men as to the whereabouts and safety of their wives and children.

Now Mama was praying to hear of her son. She really didn't expect to hear his name among the others; he'd been more vocal than some and she believed he'd been executed a long time ago. Still an old woman can hope, she told O'Neill.

Ramah and another woman entered the bunker and gave out the names they'd heard. As the list went on, occasionally a woman would stand and shout that she knew of the man, or was related in some way. Three of them were husbands and one was a nephew.

When the list was done and Mama's son was not mentioned O'Neill clasped her hand tightly and said, "There will be more names. Don't stop praying yet." While the celebrations began throughout the camp O'Neill stayed beside the old woman and allowed her to cry on his chest. There was nothing he could do to console her.

When he returned to the hospital he placed a call to Carter. He hadn't seen her in a few days but his intent wasn't to chat; he'd collected the names of several men who had not been heard from and wanted to see if she could do anything to help.

She was intrigued by his request and immediately set Ian to work on the problem. She promised to get back with him before the end of the day with at least an idea of what they would be able to do. Late that evening she showed up at the hospital and slipped into his room.

She found him dozing with the sound of an aria coming from a CD player beside the bed. She never pegged him as an opera fan but somehow it fit the O'Neill persona and made her smile. She recognized a familiar interlude and turned up the volume slightly.

"Love or hate?"

"What?" She spun around to find him awake and looking at her.

"There's no middle ground with opera. You either love it or hate it from the moment you first hear it. So, love or hate?"

"I'm not sure." She stumbled. "I never really listened."

"Okay. Listen now. There's a great part coming up in just a minute." He patted the bed beside him. "Come on, listen with me."

She cautiously approached the bedside and sat just on the very edge. He smiled at her discomfort but ignored it and leaned back with his hands behind his head. "Ah, here it comes." He closed his eyes to listen.

The room was filled with the most beautiful music she'd ever heard. A deep male voice rose and fell within the tones of the music as much a part of it as any instrument in the orchestra. She found herself caught up in the emotion of the melody closed her eyes to more fully experience it.

When it was over and she opened her eyes she had to blink back tears that had formed there. As she wiped under one eye she saw O'Neill staring at her and flushed. "Sorry."

He broke from the stare and smiled, "Don't be. That music has stirred the souls of kings and rulers for over a hundred years. I think a war was fought over it once."

She looked at him in shock. A cultured Colonel? Who knew? She'd have to chalk up another 'O'Neill's a lot smarter than he lets on' item to the things she knew about him.

"I believe you're in love."

The statement made her eyes widen more. "What?"

"Opera. You either love it or hate it. I think you're in love. Unless you've got something in your eye, that is."

She grinned and blushed. "Oh, yeah, it was great. Yeah, I loved it."

His head cocked at her odd reaction but he let it go. "So, any success today?"

Brought back to her reason for coming she got over her embarrassment. "Yes. Actually. We located a few of the men." She handed over a list of names with almost half of them checked off. The first name on the list was Mama's son, with a checkmark beside it.

He grinned, "We have got to get these men back together with their families as soon as possible."

"Usual channels are full up right now with all the changes over the past few weeks, I don't think you should get your hopes up for a quick way to do this."

He leaned back and read over the list several times. "There's got to be a way." After several minutes he set the paper down and asked, "What's Hastings doing lately?"
After two days they had a plan. Carter used her influence and Ian's skills to make contacts within Iraq and set up meeting times and locations, Hastings got approval for a humanitarian flight into Baghdad and O'Neill went to work on the nurses, Physician Assistants and Doctors to release him. He finally convinced them with a minimum of threats after agreeing to diligently take the oral antibiotics as prescribed and have a trained medic check the incision and listen to his lungs at least a couple of times a day.

Carter picked him up at the hospital front entrance in a Jeep and they set off immediately to the Helicopter hangars at Al-Salem. In the back of the Jeep she'd stowed two large gear bags, one for herself and one for O'Neill containing extra clothing, med kits and other items they might want. Hopefully they would not be staying long in Baghdad and not need the supplies but it was best to go in fully geared up.

Hastings was to enlist crewmen for the Helicopter and O'Neill was pleased to find Corbin and Tuck among them. He clasped the men's hands and greeted them warmly.

The flight out was made in midday and all the effects of the war were in full display under the bright sun. The further they went into Baghdad the more destruction was evident. Not only were there still fires burning and many obviously bombed buildings, but there were pockets of people milling about, some lost, perhaps homeless, but at least now free.

O'Neill felt an odd sensation flying over the city in broad daylight and being so exposed. Only a few weeks before and they'd have been shot down in a minute. He couldn't shake the dread and the memories but was determined to complete this self-appointed mission no matter what the personal cost.

When they reached the first contact point they were waved to the ground by a group of regular citizens who pointed to the large Red Cross and American flag on the side of the Helicopter and cheered. O'Neill and the others were greeted like heroes and as the non-Arabic speaking members of the team passed out packets of food, O'Neill and Corbin mingled with the people and asked questions. They soon located two of the men on the list and ushered them aboard.

Within the hour they were aloft again and on their way to the second contact. When they arrived the area was crowded with such a throng of people they thought it would be impossible to locate the one they'd come for. Fortunately their contact was waiting atop a building, waving an American flag. Hastings brought the Helicopter to just a few feet above the rooftop and they hauled him aboard.

The final leg of their journey took them past the ruins of one of Saddam's palaces and to one of the largest prisons in the country. Here they were to pick up three men, one of who was Mama's son, Muhamar.

As they circled the prison so Hastings could locate an acceptable site to set down, the dread returned to O'Neill with force. His stomach turned at the sight of the heavy black bars on the windows and the courtyards with row after row of black boxes. They seemed just barely large enough to contain a man and Carter leaned over and asked him if they were coffins.

He shuddered as an ice-cold chill ran down his spine. That word was almost appropriate. He'd spent part of that lost four months inside one of those boxes, all but forgotten by the guards. For all intention he was buried alive, completely cut off from any human contact and left to rot, he just wasn't underground. The Iraqis used the boxes as a form of torture and sometimes left prisoners in them until they died of hunger or thirst or neglect. O'Neill had been fortunate to not be one of them, his time was cut short when his name was added to a POW exchange list. Whatever angels there were had to work overtime on that one he was sure.

His hard breathing made his side begin to ache and his color paled. Corbin was seated directly across from him and watched his CO closely. Something was affecting the man, and he was all too sure what it was. He knew O'Neill had been imprisoned twice in Iraq, once recently when he'd undergone extreme torture and once a long time ago. He didn't know the details of that instance but it certainly was no more pleasant than the last time

Carter noticed Corbin's scrutiny and scooted a little closer to O'Neill. She didn't push him to answer her question but only set her hand on the bench between them so her hand was touching his thigh. He looked down at her hand and then up to her face without raising his head and nodded just slightly, giving her a silent thank you for the support she offered.

Hastings chose a spot and brought the helicopter down.

They needed for someone to go in and given that O'Neill and Corbin were the only ones fluent enough in Arabic, it would have to be one of them. Corbin insisted he go since O'Neill was injured but was out ranked. After a short discussion and much protesting by everyone else, O'Neill compromised. They'd both go.

The large courtyard led to a somewhat smaller one that served as a sort of vestibule. The first thing O'Neill noted was the long row of black boxes they'd seen from the air. He hesitantly walked along them and seeing that every padlock was either open or missing; he knew the boxes should be empty. His nose told him otherwise. At least some of the boxes were occupied, although what remained inside was far beyond any help at this point.

Corbin fell in step beside O'Neill and touched his shoulder. "Sir, we really should go. We can't help anyone here."

He was met with a rather glazed-eyed look from his CO, but then O'Neill nodded and turned to the large double doors at the far end of the enclosure. They weren't here for him to reminisce after all.

They crept along the hallway unsure why they hadn't seen any people as yet. Perhaps this part of the penal complex was still held by guards loyal to Saddam. If so they'd most likely be walking into a trap.

Neither man spoke as they moved along keeping to the shadows and hugging the walls. They came to another hall and passed an interrogation room. The door was ajar and O'Neill pressed his hand against it to widen the opening so he could peer inside. The sight of chains hanging from the ceiling jerked his mind away from the present and back to a time he'd been in a room just like this one.

Corbin double-timed it to his side when he saw O'Neill wasn't moving. "Shit." He cursed under his breath. For the first time since he'd known the man, he allowed himself to think of O'Neill as a washed-up and broken old soldier.

He was wrong. As he crept over to what he thought would be 'shake' O'Neill out of it, he found himself with a machine-gun barrel in his face. Flashbacks notwithstanding O'Neill's reflexes were in perfect working order.

"Corbin!" O'Neill whispered harshly. "What are you doing?" He lowered the weapon immediately.

"I thought you needed help." The Major admitted somewhat sheepishly.

O'Neill knew what it must have looked like and he had to admit he'd been acting overly nostalgic lately. He put his hand on the younger man's shoulder. "I know what you're thinking, and I don't blame you. But I'm not about to freak out on you here. It's just; there are a lot of memories. I'm Okay, Tom. Trust me."

Corbin nodded quickly and glanced at O'Neill's weapon. "Oh, yeah, Sir. Not a doubt in my mind."

O'Neill chuckled. "You really are a bad liar. You've gotta work on that. Come on."

The pair continued to the end of the section and heard voices ahead of them. From their hiding place they could see no guards, only a few small groups of men talking quietly. O'Neill decided it was time to find out whether they were friend or foe and stood and openly approached the nearest group.

Corbin held back preparing to give cover fire if needed. After a few moments of conversation O'Neill motioned for the Major to come forward. Indeed this part of the prison was no longer under the regimes control.

As they walked down the hallway they passed several more men and by the time they were at the end word had already spread that Americans were in the facility, There was a large room full of men and they began to cheer when O'Neill and Corbin entered. They were ushered forward through the crowd, all the while being patted on their shoulders and heads. It seemed the men all wanted to touch them. If either of them had been claustrophobic it would have been a horrid experience; there was barely room to move at all yet hands propelled them through the room. Any man who wanted to do them harm would have had ample opportunity.

Corbin tried to get some information but there were so many speaking at once he couldn't understand them. O'Neill was having more difficulty dealing with this than he wanted to admit; he cringed back into himself and avoided eye contact with anyone but Corbin.

Eventually the forward motion stopped and they found themselves face to face with two very elderly men who introduced themselves as the unofficial leaders of the group. O'Neill explained quickly why they'd come and was answered with a rousing applause from everyone in the room, then they all started to speak at once again.

Corbin was able to get bits and pieces of conversation from all around them. The wanted to know the names of the men the Americans sought and were more than willing to help track them down.

As it turned out one of the men was there in the room, so they only had two to locate.

One of the old men and several of the younger ones led the way out and down to a lower level of cells. Once again O'Neill felt the depressive atmosphere of the place closing in on him. It was not silent in the hallways as he remembered it though. Back then even quiet talking would have made a prisoner into a target for the guard's amusement. He recalled more than once earning a beating for nothing more than offering kind words to another inmate. Now the cell doors were all swung wide open and men were chatting quietly here in there in small groups.

It seemed less than ten percent of the prisoners were incarcerated for what would be considered a true crime; everyone else was a political dissident and treated more severely than thieves and murderers. Now they were all free, just a very few were still in cells but were permitted to speak and given the same food and water available to the others.

Even here as O'Neill walked by hands reached out to touch him and he recognized prayers of thanks being offered for the 'American Liberators.'

The entourage stopped near the middle of the row in front of a cell with three men having a discussion. The old man pointed to one of them who surprisingly showed no fear of being singled out from the others. After an explanation was given the young man broke into a grin and with much excitement gathered his meager belongings and joined them.

O'Neill took a moment to check in by radio as the man gathered his things.

"Colonel? Where are you?" Hastings called back.

"Not sure, Joe. One of the lower cellblocks. We've got two of our friends. You wouldn't believe how they're treating us!"

Carters voice came over the radio, "Yeah, we would. They're up here, too, There's gonna be a big party and we're apparently the guests of honor."

O'Neill silently swore at himself for leaving them without someone who could speak Arabic. "Sorry, Carter. I don't think they'll hurt you. Just don't let them get too close to the chopper. We'll check back in thirty, okay?"

"Yes, Sir. We'll be all right. Carter out."
Back on the main floor the old man led them out through another courtyard where the black boxes had been hacked to pieces and heaped in a great pile. They now served only as fodder for a raging bonfire. The section just beyond was where the old man told them they must go.

This time only the younger men moved forward. There were many guards still loyal to Saddam in this part of the structure and it may become dangerous. They were armed with weapons taken from guards and whatever other sticks or knives they'd been able to find. They seemed a bit too rag-tag for O'Neill and he tried to convince them to let he and Corbin go it alone. At least they were Special Forces; they'd have a much better chance even if outgunned and outnumbered.

With some indignation one of the young men answered O'Neill. "We may not be *American*, but we are well trained. All of us here served as soldiers for Saddam. We are trained to shoot well and obey orders. We know the location where your friend is sure to be. You lead, give us orders and we will fight for you."

It almost made O'Neill shed tears to be the object of such loyalty from these total strangers. He clasped the young man on the shoulder and nodded. Like an old man once told him back on Abydos, give hope to the lost and they will rise up in astounding ways.

The young man's name was Saadhi. He drew a crude map in the dirt and showed O'Neill where he believed the Republican guards were likely to be and the entrances to the wing beyond where Muhamar would be found.

The plan was set and O'Neill and Corbin led the way. The first thing they needed to do was quietly take out two sentries. With much protest the Iraqi soldiers relented and held back while O'Neill and Corbin put their training to use. Within a few minutes both lookouts were taken down and their equipment and weapons confiscated. The young men rejoiced when presented with the additional weapons and O'Neill had to remind them to be quiet.

They moved on to their primary goal, weaving their way through passageways and abandoned cellblocks to the far end where the next wing began. Here they could relax a bit before moving on. The man they sought would be here somewhere in the lower level of cells, most likely still incarcerated. Saadhi believed the guards intended to use the prisoners for human shields if the need arose when the Coalition forces showed up to subdue them.

Only two more guards were in the cell area and were taken out quietly by two of O'Neill's new team. They took the padlock keys and headed to the row of cells. The prisoners were watchful and aware of the incursion and were all standing at the bars trying to see who was coming. O'Neill and Saadhi started opening cells as Corbin and the others went ahead to encourage the ones further down the row to be quiet. Their turn would come soon. No one would be left behind.

Third from the end Corbin found Muhamar and was telling him of his mother when O'Neill arrived with the key. The man was about O'Neill's age but looked much older; he'd spent too much time out in the desert and too much time in prison. When O'Neill turned the key in the padlock he saw tears streaming down the man's face and passed the key on to Corbin to free the rest. He wanted the honor of releasing this man himself.

Muhamar stood still for a moment with the door to his cell open wide and stared at the American. He only came forth when O'Neill stretched out his hand and encouraged him. The Iraqi clutched that hand like it was a lifeline and allowed himself to be led out from behind the iron bars.

When the doors were all open fourteen men walked out without fear for the first time in months. They gathered together in the center of the hallway and crouched down, listening as the escape plan was outlined. They'd go back the way they came in, this time with O'Neill and Corbin at the rear. It was imperative for them to remain as silent as possible; it was only a matter of time before the sentries were discovered to be missing and once that happened the going would be much more dangerous. For now they still had the defense of being undetected.

They were well out of the cellblock and passing the sentries' location when shouts were heard from an elevated position above them. The sentries' bodies had been found. It was time to hasten their move.

Corbin went on ahead and joined the men at the front to lead the prisoners out. O'Neill stayed at the rear with Saadhi and crouched against a wall, preparing to give cover fire if needed as the others crawled single file along a low wall. The men moved forward slowly on their bellies, matching Corbin movement for movement. Once on the other side Corbin motioned for O'Neill to come ahead.

Before they could move machine-gun fire began to echo through the hallways, the bullets flying only inches over their heads. Pinned down for the moment, O'Neill signaled the others to stay low as he lobbed a grenade in the direction of the firing.

After the explosion more gunfire erupted; the guards may have been surprised but were not too injured to continue their assault. This time it was met with a tremendous response from the freed prisoners. Every one of them who had a weapon was firing it.

O'Neill and Corbin barely had to fire their own weapons at all there was such a barrage from around them. When it was over, O'Neill turned to Saadhi and said in English, "I take it you've never heard the term overkill?"

Saadhi grinned back at him. "Sure. Overkill. It's what they have done to us for many years."

O'Neill was stunned; he never considered some of these people might speak English. He'd been struggling with his broken Arabic to make himself understood to all of them. He wagged a finger at the young man. "You're good. That's really funny." He shook his head and rolled up to his knees to survey the scene.

He quietly moved on toward the area where they'd concentrated their fire and found several dead men, but there were not nearly enough bodies to have gotten them all. Before O'Neill could discuss this with Corbin, machine gun fire echoed out of the cellblock area. They all dropped and covered again.
O'Neill received a frantic call from Carter on his radio. "Colonel! This is Carter. We're hearing gunfire. Are you all right?"

Still ducking he thumbed the switch and spoke. "We're Okay. Just met a little resistance. Hold your position."

Carter wasn't placated that easily. "Sir. We've got a loaded 30 mm gun here. Hastings can take off and provide air cover."

O'Neill thought for a moment then replied, "All right Major. We're in the hallway between the main building and the south cellblock. Hostile fire is currently coming from the south wing. All you have to do is keep them busy so we can get out."

Hastings answered, "Roger, Sir. We've got your six."

In minutes the helicopter was hovering over the citadel and firing bursts of shells into the lower cellblock. O'Neill and Saadhi joined the others and quickly ran through a series of hallways to the courtyard where the bonfire was still burning. Once there they were home free.

With the fire in sight O'Neill called to Hastings to cease-fire and return to the pick up point. As he concluded the transmission he stopped and leaned against the wall heavily. He still wasn't up to par physically and the day's events were finally catching up with him big-time.

Muhamar was at the rear of the group and saw the American stop. When O'Neill did not move again, he went to see if something was wrong. "Friend O'Neill, we must go."

"I will, Mu. I just need a minute." The look of pain was in his eyes.

The Iraqi waited a moment then reached to touch O'Neill's side; he could see he was guarding it. O'Neill groaned and pushed the man's hand away, using his elbow and forearm to support his ribs; he was finding it harder and harder to breathe. Muhamar saw the distress and acted quickly. He pulled O'Neill's arm over his shoulder and wrapped his left arm around his waist so he could carry much of O'Neill's weight. "We go together."

The pain grew worse and O'Neill nodded, grateful for the assist. He managed only a weak smile at the man he'd come to save who was now saving him.

All the way to rendezvous with the helicopter the situation was as before with everyone wanting to touch the Americans and offering thanks. O'Neill and Muhamar were the last to arrive and when they did the air of celebration faltered. O'Neill looked pale as a ghost and though the pain had lessened, his breathing was increasingly labored.

He was hauled aboard and preparations were made for a hasty departure. Before they left one of the elder men requested an audience with O'Neill. He was brought on board the aircraft and to O'Neill's side where he presented the American with a gift. Something wrapped in a leather pouch that the others did not see. The old man bent low and spoke quietly only to O'Neill. When he left Carter came to check that her CO was strapped in and ready for lift off.

She was almost to him when she suddenly stopped herself and stayed back. He was lying on the bench with his eyes closed and clutching a small leather bag. Even in the dim light she could see obvious streams of tears flowing freely down from his eyes. She couldn't bring herself to interrupt and passed on a go-ahead to depart to Hastings. The entire trip back she tried to determine what had happened to him. All she could come up with was that he'd been forced to relive some terrible memories from his time as a POW and it was taking its toll on him. She could have cried herself if it would have given him some comfort.
Back at Al-Salem the helicopter touched down and the six rescued Iraqis were put on a truck for the trip to the refugee camp to meet their families. O'Neill's condition had not improved but he insisted on going along. Carter, Hastings and Corbin of course followed suit.

Word of their arrival reached the camp ahead of them and the gate was clogged with people. The truck moved on in and continued slowly through the throng of people not stopping until it came to the barracks O'Neill pointed out. The noise and commotion caused several women to emerge from the building and just as Mama appeared at the doorway Muhamar stepped down off the truck. Their eyes met immediately and the old woman began to scream with joy. Muhamar pushed his way through to her and swept her up in his arms weeping as loudly as she was.

Unseen by them O'Neill watched from the back of the truck. A small smile was on his lips as the pain and lack of breath finally overtook him and he collapsed unconscious to the floor.
O'Neill awoke to bright overhead lights and the sounds of rhythmically beeping machinery. He cursed to himself internally; he was in a hospital room again. How the hell did this happen? He moved his mouth and licked his lips and was pleased to find no damn tube stuck down his throat this time.

The light was too bright and he turned his head to the side and saw yellow. Yellow hair. Carter. He cleared his throat and croaked out the name. "Carter?"

The head lifted immediately and the bright blue eyes locked with his. "Sir. You're awake! How do you feel?"

"Oh, great. Peachy. What happened?" He grimaced as he took a breath and felt something jabbing in his side.

"Your lung collapsed again. They said it was too much exertion too soon. The doctors had to put the tube back in your chest to re-expand it."

"Right." He closed his eyes and thought for a few minutes, trying to remember what had happened. "Muhamar? He made it to his mother, right?"

"Yes, Sir. All of the men we brought back are reunited with their families. I've never seen such a celebration."

"Good. That's good." His eyes looked heavy and Carter moved across the room to dim the lights then returned to his side.

"You should rest." She laid her hand lightly on his and gave it a squeeze. "I'll be right here."

He nodded and closed his eyes then drifted off to sleep in the now dark room; lulled by the monitor softly beeping in time with his own heartbeat.
Several days later O'Neill was discharged from the hospital with strict instructions to refrain from any physical stress and orders transferring him back to Cheyenne Mountain. It seemed Iraq had finally had enough of one Jack O'Neill.

Major Carter met him at the door with a Jeep and an ice chest in the back seat. This was her last day in Kuwait as well. In the morning they'd be on the same flight back to the USA; but today they were still here and had a few loose ends to tie up before going. It was a wonderfully balmy morning with just enough of a breeze to keep the heat at bay.

She drove and he relaxed back in the seat not bothered at all by the bumpy ride. He was feeling more himself than he had in a long time. A very long time. His side was a little stiff but that was expected; he hardly noticed it.

At the end of the road Carter turned the Jeep into a wide gate and flashed her ID to the guard. He saluted and let them pass without even coming to a complete stop. The Jeep trundled on until they were in front of the familiar barracks and Azir came running out squealing. Before he knew it, O'Neill was being dragged out by both hands and pulled into the cool interior of the building. Carter fell in step behind the pair, now lugging the cooler by a strap over her shoulder. As they crossed in through the doorway she slid off her shades and set them up on her head. She looked around wistfully as she walked. Soon this building would be vacant. Families were being reunited all over Iraq and returned to their homes. The rebuilding of a nation had begun.

At the assigned quarters she stopped and set down her load as the Colonel greeted his friends. Mama, Muhamar, Ramah, little Terrin and his mother were all waiting for him. Several other women and a host of children came running up as well, all calling him by name, 'Colonel Jack.' Carter wondered how that got started anyway.

Once the greetings were made O'Neill opened the gift they'd brought. The chest was full of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream; packed in dry ice and still frozen solid. They all dug in and chatted and laughed. Carter still couldn't understand what was being said but it didn't matter. She held Terrin on her lap and fed him spoonfuls of 'Peanut Butter Me Up' and watched her CO grinning and laughing as he played with every one of the children; getting himself covered in ice cream in the process.

The only somber moment was just before they left when O'Neill moved off away from the group with Muhamar and his mother. He pulled a small bag out of his pocket and showed them the contents and spoke quietly with them, then put it away and hugged them both fiercely. The old woman bid him goodbye with sobs and a river of tears streaming down her face.

Back in the Jeep and headed back to the base to pack, O'Neill was quiet and pensive. Just as the gate was in sight he asked Carter to stop the vehicle. He looked straight ahead and spoke to her, "You want to know what it is." He said it as a statement, not a question.

She frowned. Had she been that obvious? If it was too personal, after all, she had no right to pry.

She could see his eyes were closed behind his shades. He reached down and slid the pouch out of his pocket and held it for a moment rubbing his thumb over the worn leather before unwrapping it, then held it out, uncovered, revealing a simple rusty, broken padlock.

She shook her head, at first she didn't understand, then she suddenly remembered seeing padlocks just like this in the prison. Every one of those black boxes had one. She shivered at the thought of what it must have symbolized to him.

He took one of her hands and held it against the cool metal. "You see it's broken. The man who gave this to me said they all were. Every single one. They'd never be used again."

She looked from where he was still holding her hand and then to his face and saw a single tear glint on his cheek. She understood. He wasn't being tortured by the horrible memories; he was being healed of them. Years of pain were being swept away all because he chose to walk back into the pit and face his demons. It must have taken every ounce of his courage to step off that helicopter at the prison with the stark reminders of his past everywhere he looked. When they touched down it was uncertain even if the prison was still held by Saddam's men.

She blinked back her own tears as he put the pouch away. She realized he had just shared something deeply personal with her. She'd never be able to look at him quite the same way again.

Before starting the engine she said quietly, "Thank you, Colonel... Jack." He glanced back at her with the beginnings of a lopsided grin, then leaned back against the seat and allowed the grin to spread to his whole face. He was glad the 'new Carter' had chosen to hang around. It would be interesting to see what else she might do. Funny, he never expected being in Iraq to change him again so profoundly, and here it had changed both of them.
Epilogue

The flight back would take many hours and Carter took the opportunity to reacquaint herself with current projects at the SGC. As she waited for the files to load up on her laptop she glanced at her traveling companion and smiled. O'Neill was still recuperating and decided the best use of his time would be to sleep, especially since a certain Major was intent on immersing herself in Naquadah equations once again and wasn't paying any attention to him. He was now snoring softly with his head turned in her direction. He was leaning slightly but not quite enough to touch her shoulder. If he did she wouldn't have minded.

After a while she tired of reading and switched to her journal and began to type.

Maj. S. Carter
E-Journal
4-20-03

These past several weeks have been amazing. I never thought I'd like this place. Iraq. Until now it was just a desert full of people who wanted only to see America destroyed. I knew Saddam lied to and subjugated the people but he always seemed to have their full support. I had no idea how many were just waiting for a chance to be rid of him.

Even though I never learned more than just a few words in Arabic, I feel I've made friends there. Ramah is a true Middle-Eastern beauty, she's just about my age and with that long black hair she'd turn every man's head if she were back in the USA. I've only gotten a glimpse of it; the women keep their heads covered whenever there's even a chance a man will come around. She has a seven year-old son named Azir who is a handful. I've only seen him be still once, when he saw Jack was hurt.
She paused with her fingers still on the keys and looked at the last few words. Unconsciously she moved the cursor back to the 'k' and let one finger just barely rest on the backspace key.

She was still staring at the screen when something moved her hand away from the keyboard. "Leave it. Who's gonna be reading your journal anyway?"

She turned to him and said, "Apparently *you* are."

"Yeah, but I don't count. I already know."

"Do you?"

He looked back at her and his eyebrows flicked as if a thought occurred to him. He leaned down and opened his briefcase and pulled out a worn and somewhat tattered book. As he opened it and flipped through the pages she could see the originally blank sheets were now crammed full of handwritten notes.

He found the passage he was looking for and handed it to her, pointing at where to begin to read.
Col. J. O'Neill
Field Journal

We are currently hiding out in the basement of some Mosque. We're not really pinned down, but it will take quite a bit of luck to avoid patrols if we need to relocate again. I really wish we'd been able to get a confirmation of our last message back from Command. Just knowing they are aware of our circumstances makes it feel like we have some backup even if they're hundreds of miles away. Right now I'm feeling pretty far from everywhere. It's hard to believe Cheyenne Mountain is just on the other side of the planet and not off in some other galaxy.

God, I never thought I'd miss the place like I do. Wonder how Hammond's making out; I assume the missions are still on hold. And there's Teal'c, the big guy would fit in just fine out here sans the tattoo. Ironically the one I miss most is the one person who's here in Iraq. I doubt Carter realizes what an anchor she's been for me. It's a shame, the way things have to be, but the connection hasn't changed, for me at least. I swear when this is all over, I'm gonna talk to her.
She closed the cover and looked at him with a soft smile. Maybe there was an *upside* to long flights after all.