Jackfic Fiction Archive Story

 

Shades of Command

by Karen (Kent)


Shades of Command

Answer to The Word A Month Challenge – Alone.

Please note:

I played with the timeline a smidge. When Maybourne first visited Jack, in the episode, he said Jack did something illegal ‘yesterday’. And, I’m sorry, but I don’t think they’d have responded that fast. In MHO they’d have sat back and watched a while. So I stretched that section. The rest is pretty much as it is in the episode.

**********

It was so un-nerving.

Jack might be used to being beamed aboard an Asgard ship thousands of miles above the Earth, so that looking down made you feel as dizzy as standing at the door of a C-130 about to make your first parachute jump, – and yes, I still remember that moment, long ago as it might well be, now – but I *wasn’t* used to it. And I was still feeling a little queasy after the ride. To say nothing about getting my first view of Earth from space.

How the hell Jack took this kind of thing in his stride was beyond me. The man acknowledged such bizarre events with the acceptance of someone who had apparently already read the design schematics. I, on the other hand, was fairly certain I was doing a good impersonation of a teenager who had opened his first Playboy and wasn’t quite sure if he believed what he saw, or not.

Jack could see I wasn’t on my best form. Dammit. And he grinned that rather smug you-may-be-the-superior-officer-here-but-I’m-way-ahead-of-you-on-this-one grin that at times made me want to bust him back to 2nd lieutenant, even if only for twenty four hours.

So, whilst I was still getting used to my new surroundings, and deciding whether I liked looking at a view that showed a planet housing six billion people as nothing more significant in size than a tennis ball, Jack wandered back and forth in that restless manner I found particularly irritating. If the man wished to advance to the rank of general he was going to have to learn to wait with a greater appearance of calm for events to unfold. Frankly, calm didn’t describe how I was feeling, but hopefully, I was starting to look more composed, even though inside I was making the Colonel's pacing look like a Sunday morning stroll.

Mind you . . . I couldn’t imagine Jack O’Neill as a general, and nor could I imagine any promotions’ board being broad minded enough to pass him. The man was born to command a field unit. Sitting behind a desk organising strategies, instead of implementing them, and waiting for active units to report in, instead of being where the action was himself, would be the last thing he’d want to do.

Sitting and waiting was not something Jack O’Neill did well.

Hence the pacing.

But if there was one thing *I* didn’t do well it was tolerating the Colonel’s intolerance.

I was about to order him to stand still when we were joined – without warning – by a grey alien. Thor, I supposed. They all looked rather the same to me. I glanced at the Colonel, and waited for him to take the lead. Which he did, with a big boyish grin on his face.

‘Thor! Buddy!’

‘O’Neill. We are pleased you could join us.’

‘Now, see, Thor little fella, that’s a worry. Right there. Every time you ask me to join you there’s something going on.’ O’Neill quirked his eyebrow, ‘Usually something I’m not gonna like.’

I shared his misgivings, particularly as I knew more about recent events than he did, and I had a nasty suspicious feeling growing in my gut.

All Jack really knew was that we had been asked to attend a conference aboard an Asgard ship. With one hour’s notice. As if I had nothing else planned for today, and the Colonel wasn’t in the middle of one of Doctor Fraiser’s check-ups. But they had stressed it was to be just the two of us, with no one else to know where we had gone. So I’d managed to leave Colonel Makepeace in charge, and Jack had finished his exam within ten minutes of the deadline, and here we were.

A new voice sent my suspicious nature into overdrive. ‘General Hammond.’

Ah, the Tollan. My fears would seem to be well founded.

‘O’Neill.’

And Lya, of the Nox.

High Counsellor Travell, of the Tollan, gestured to us to take seats at the table. Thor had already seated himself at the head, and the High Counsellor placed herself at the other end. The Nox representative took a lone seat on one side of the table, and the Colonel and I were left to sit side by side opposite her. O’Neill looked from one to the other of our hosts, and waited for someone to speak. He flexed and stretched his fingers, and then drummed them rhythmically on the polished table surface as if he was seeking to irritate one of them into breaking the silence. His eyes flitted back and forth between them all as if trying to assess which one would give in first.

Eventually, whether in response to Jack’s restlessness or not, Thor started to speak. ‘We have asked you here because all our races are concerned about certain events we believe to be connected to people from your planet.’

I knew they had worries. They’d already spoken about them, and I thought we’d addressed them. The people they wanted didn’t seem to be from Earth.

‘Thor . . . ,’ I began.

‘Before you say anything, General,’ Travell interrupted me, ‘we would be grateful if you heard what we have to say.’

I leaned back somewhat reluctantly. ‘Very well, Counsellor.’

‘As you know, we have become aware, General, of a number of very disturbing occurrences. On several planets under our jurisdiction people, who would seem to come from your world, have been instrumental in taking technology which does not belong to you.’

I could only say what had been said before. ‘High Counsellor, when you approached me last week I ordered a thorough investigation of all SGC records. I can assure you that these people did not come from Stargate Command.’

‘Then where?’ She asked, as she had last week.

And I gave her the same reply as before. ‘I don’t know. I just know that you are mistaken about your suspicions. You have to be.’

‘We are not mistaken.’

‘Hang on,’ Jack had lost patience. I was somewhat surprised he’d lasted so long. And wished I’d had chance to fill him in on what he’d missed whilst he was stuck on Edora. Finding a way to get him back had been such a relief, I’d decided that getting him up to speed with everything could wait a while. And, hell, I’d figured I’d dealt with this last week. Hadn’t expected it to up and bite me on the ass again. This meeting was going to be a steep learning curve. Not that Jack O’Neill couldn’t be a quick study, if he needed to be. Still, I forgave him the, ‘What the, excuse me, General, friggin’ hell is going on here?’

I interjected before Travell, or any of the other delegates, had chance to explain. ‘The Tollan came to see me last week, Colonel, with concerns they have about incidents Off World.’ I looked at him, and shrugged. ‘They seem to believe that members of the SGC are stealing their technology.’

‘That’s crap!’

There were times when I was grateful for O’Neill’s bluntness. I was bound by certain protocols and boundaries of decorum, in my position as the SGC’s commanding officer. Jack had no such borders, and probably wouldn’t have observed them, anyway, if he had. But here he expressed my own feelings very well. In fact, as straightforwardly as I very much wanted to.

Travell looked rather shocked. I’m not entirely sure they would use Jack’s exact phrasing on Tollana, but the Colonel’s views were clear from his tone. A precise translation wasn’t particularly necessary.

‘We regret that we must raise this matter with you, again,’ the High Counsellor said, looking anything but sorry. ‘But another incident has occurred.’

Jack tilted his head, and looked from Travell to me. All the time he was drumming his fingers repetitively on the table top, a sign to anyone who knew him that he was gaining a head of steam, and that some kind of explosion was approaching.

I gestured for the Counsellor to continue.

‘On a planet where we have been conducting some experiments into weapons’ technology, a small scientific base was ambushed, and three Tollan scientists were killed. However, one researcher survived. He was able to give us valuable information about the attackers.’

I looked at Jack. His hands had stilled, and he was concentrating on Travell with slitted dangerous eyes. He was still simmering at the slur being cast on the SGC. Waiting for the wrong thing to be said, and then he was going to give somebody a right royal example of somewhat less than sophisticated Earth culture.

There were good reasons why Jack didn’t get the diplomatic assignments. They included his mouth, which had a frequent and lamentable tendency to run away from the tenuous control of his brain, and his temper, hell, his maverick temperament full stop. To say nothing of his rather up-front, off-putting frankness. And . . . well, frankly, then, his almost total lack of any true diplomacy.

It sometimes amazed me that he’d made it as far up the ladder as colonel, and wasn’t, instead, the oldest 2nd lieutenant in Air Force history. Working out his time cleaning latrines with a toothbrush, to the vengeful delight of some long-suffering commanding officer.

For some reason, the Asgard had insisted that I bring Jack when they called this meeting. So, then, they’d just have to put up with him. And I would silently cheer every time he scored a point, on Earth’s behalf. Before I played peacemaker, in a bizarre version of good cop, bad cop. I almost wanted to smile at the thought. Except I was still suspicious about where this whole thing was going

Travell was watching me.

I dragged my mind back to the matter in hand. ‘Go on,’ I obliged. Because it was obvious she wanted me to say something, stringing out the build up to whatever she was going to reveal, like a magician about to produce a rehearsed finale. Or the executioner waiting to flick the switch on the condemned prisoner strapped in the chair.

‘He was able to tell us that the group were attacked by people from Earth. They wore uniforms, and were very organised. And they were ruthless when they did not get their own way.’

‘How do you *know* they were from Earth?’ Jack’s voice bubbled with his suppressed anger.

‘They told them.’

‘They *told* them?’ He was as incredulous as I was.

‘The leader made a point of saying that if we – the Tollan – would not share our discoveries with the people of Earth then your people would take what they could, when they could, using whatever means necessary.’

I didn’t know what to say. I felt as if someone had punched me in the gut. Hard.

‘That doesn’t prove anything!’ Jack obviously had no problems speaking.

I was, however, ahead of him, and so was the Counsellor.

‘They had no reason to lie, Colonel. They believed they were going to kill all those to whom they were speaking. There were to be no survivors. No witnesses. Fortunately for us, they were not as thorough as they had thought they were going to be.’

Shit. I thought.

‘Shit.’ Jack said. ‘Sir?’

I shook my head. I was as bemused as Jack now looked. I just hoped I was doing a better job of hiding it.

I asked, ‘This scientist? Where is he?’

‘He is here if you need to question him, General.’

‘I think that that might be necessary, but first,’ anything to get a pause to this witch hunt, and a chance to regroup, ‘I would like to speak to Colonel O’Neill alone. He hasn’t been privy to these events. He only returned from a lengthy Off World mission two days ago, and was in the process of recovering.’

Thankfully, they agreed, because I really needed time to catch my breath. My head was spinning, and Jack still looked as if he was working out the puzzle. Sometimes the cogs going round in his brain were as visible as if his head was transparent.

When we were alone he exploded with suppressed feelings, as if someone had released a pressure valve.

‘Sir? For crying out loud! What’s going on? Pinching stuff? That’s ridiculous!’

‘We had a delegation, from the Tollan, about a week ago. Complaining that there was the possibility that someone at the SGC was organising unauthorised missions. There had been some incidents on a couple of planets under Tollan control. Then the Asgard appeared because they’d heard the rumours, and said they found them very worrying.’

‘Possibilities? Rumours? Is that all?’ He was still heated.

‘They could offer no real proof, but they said that a piece of weaponry left behind after a skirmish suggested Earth as the place from which the thieves came.’ I shrugged. ‘I had Sergeant Davis check, and recheck, all the computer logs. Everything I could do to find any unauthorised activity, I did. To the best of my knowledge there has been no activity of this kind originating through the SGC Stargate.’

‘So, it’s not us, then.’

‘I don’t know, Colonel.’

I couldn’t explain it. But it seemed as if the evidence was mounting. The gun used in the attack last week. And now a witness with supposedly damning evidence against us. The Tollan, the Asgard, and the Nox were all valuable allies in our fight against the Goa’uld. We couldn’t afford to lose their trust and friendship.

‘If not us, then who?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know,’ I said again.

He came over to join me, and silently we looked down at our little tennis ball of a planet. I got the fanciful feeling I could hold it in the palm of my hand and just squeeze it into oblivion. It looked that small, and defenceless. Easy to obliterate completely. And, from here, I realised how fragile it was. That tiny world that was home to six billion people; 99.99999999 per cent of whom did not even suspect that something like the Stargate existed, except in the realms of television fantasy shows. Which meant that same vast majority had no idea their existence could be threatened by alien races who would like nothing better than to expand their own backyards a little.

Which made the responsibility on those of us who did know even greater. Even heavier. We made decisions for the welfare, and continued well-being, of six billion people. None of who suspected a thing. From the leaders of some of the most important countries worldwide, down to the most poverty stricken homeless beggars in the shanty towns of so many nations.

From where I stood I could see other planets beyond the Earth. The scope of vision from this ship was breathtakingly vast, as if someone had forgotten to invent an horizon. Edges were blurred into darkness and I was lost in the contemplation of trying to tell where space and sky merged. And failing. Somehow, it all seemed to go on infinitely.

And merely added to the impression of Earth’s vulnerability, and insignificance, in the overall scheme of things.

We stood for a while, contemplating. Because, on occasion, when he wanted to, Jack O’Neill could be silent. And could think deeply. And was capable of powers of reflection that were usually hidden behind an asinine front that camouflaged a whole lot more than most people ever realised. Looking for the real Jack O’Neill was as tricky as trying to spot a chameleon on a tree trunk.

Quietly, ‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it, sir?’

‘Yes, Jack. Yes, it is.’

We didn’t need to say any more. Everything accepted about duty, honour, and responsibility had been acknowledged between us. Looking back, it was as if we both knew instinctively what was going to happen. Knew the demands that would be made. Knew who was going to tread the hard road, and take the risks, the knocks, and the bitter consequences.

That’s why they’d asked for Jack to accompany me.

And he would kick up a storm of protest, and object loudly. As would I. But in the end, we’d be left with no choice. We’d resist with all the means at our disposal. Search all alternative avenues. But, in the end, the road was going to lead to a crevice between a rock and a hard place.

Part 2

It was worse than I’d feared.

Everything.

What the scientist said.

What they all wanted us to do.

What they wanted Jack to do.

And he exploded.

As I’d known he would.

Diplomacy shot all to hell.

And I didn’t blame him.

So now they’d left us alone again.

To consider our options.

Which was considerate of them, seeing as how I knew, and Jack knew, that we didn’t have any.

Jack slumped into his chair, and one leg nervously trembled so that only the ball of his foot rested on the floor. The heel was jumping up and down like he had St. Vitus’ Dance. I knew it was because he wanted to kick something. Very hard. Repeatedly. Probably until he broke his foot.

Except that would mean somebody else would have to do the dirty work.

His hands were splayed out across the table and he contemplated them with a grim concentration. The childish grin, with which he’d greeted Thor, was long gone. I suspected it would be a long time before he used it for real again.

I was standing against the window. The distance between us somehow symbolic of what he was being asked to do. Of what was to come. I wanted to cross the divide. Give some help and advice. But I couldn’t. There was nothing I could say. Nothing I could do that would be of any comfort.

I knew Jack’s service record as well as I knew my own. I remember reviewing it when I took over at the SGC, when I had to find out everything I could about the bizarre pre-retirement position I’d been handed. Then I read it again when I had to meet the man for real, because I’d needed to know as much as I could about the first Abydos mission, as it seemed we were under attack from there. And I scoured it once more before I asked him to take on the role of leader of SG-1.

I wasn’t sure, then, that I was doing the right thing. There seemed so many things that could have proved fatally explosive. Not the least of which were the suicidal tendencies, although I suspected if he was going to end his own life he would have done it in the year he spent alone after the end of that first mission.

He had admitted disobeying orders, or at least interpreting them creatively. Now, that might mean he would prove an asset, or not; officers who did nothing but blindly follow orders could be incredibly dangerous. Officers who thought for themselves, about others, and about the situation they found themselves in, and *not* about themselves and their career CV, were generally those I admired most. They tended to be more reliable, honest, and straightforward to deal with.

The problem was that officers like that often got fed to the lions by the military machine whenever a scapegoat was needed. I wondered why O’Neill hadn’t been.

He had enough reprimand markers in his file to paper my office walls.

He had enough commendation slips to cover the reprimands.

Twice over.

I liked what I read.

But I still sent Ferretti and Kawalsky along. With express orders that friendship and sympathy had nothing to do with it. If the Colonel looked like going wild on them they were to relieve him of his command, immediately.

If he ever suspected that he never said. And there was no need for them to do anything. He came through the trial run with flying colours, and I’d never had cause to doubt him, then or since.

He was as reliable, honest, and straightforward to deal with as I’d hoped he’d be. With military matters. Personal issues was another basket of rattlesnakes altogether.

I’d had cause to take him to task over his out of control express train of a mouth on more than one occasion. As it had tried repeatedly to wreck his career by running into political buffers, or other obstacles, that could be avoided by slowing down and taking more care. But Jack O’Neill, I learned, had as little patience for anything that didn’t cut to the chase straight away, and that wasn’t as up front and candid as he was, exactly as his file had suggested.

Whether that’s because he’d escaped after having spent so much time lost in the deceptive world of Special Forces I didn’t know.

But his next assignment was going to hark back to those murky times. And expect him to be anything but up front and honest.

He raised his eyes. They were blank. Empty. Like holes in space where life had ceased to exist.

And I hated what I might be forced to do.

What he was certainly going to be forced to do.

What, actually, he was probably going to force *himself* to do before I would be forced to do anything, because that’s just the way he was.

They had insisted we sort out the situation on our own, and that if we didn’t they’d sever all ties with Earth. They were adamant. Reluctant. But adamant.

The Colonel and I protested vehemently that those responsible for these outrages had to be rogue units. Completely unofficial. People over whom we had no control. Actually, after his first bubble of outrage burst over the proceedings, I said all that. O’Neill wisely sidelined himself, and left things to me.

It made no difference. *I* made no difference. They accepted our, *my*, arguments, but remained entrenched in their opinion that everything was a severe test of their faith in Earth’s security, trustworthiness, and capability to keep our own house in order.

They’d obviously joined forces beforehand, because their front was totally united, and well dug in. Nothing I said shifted them back one iota. I tried diplomacy. I tried bluntness. I tried Jack O’Neill style ‘For crying out loud,’ back to the wall anger. None of it made any difference.

We were going to have to do something.

And when I asked what? Did they have any suggestions? They said yes.’

Dammit.

Outflanked. I should have seen it coming. Instead I’d left my men in the firing line. Exposed. Alone.

Men? Man.

Because I saw them look at Jack, and I knew with a hateful finality that all those miserable suspicions I’d had when we arrived were horribly correct.

Thor’s eyes were sympathetic. At least, I swear, they blinked sympathetically. That slow, drawn out, hold the eyelids closed as if I’m in pain, blink he had, as opposed to the quick I’m assimilating your ideas, and dismissing them, blink. Travell’s gaze pinned Jack like a fly to the wall. Determined to have her way. Lya’s look shone with sad understanding.

And Jack was never slow on the uptake when the chips were down, the cards were being dealt, and he was getting a crappy hand.

‘No.’ Blunt and to the point.

I wasn’t going to stand for it either, but I’d realised we were pretty much playing a deck stacked before we sat down to play. We were a pair of deuces to their full house.

‘It is the duty of the people of Earth to prove they can be trusted,’ Thor reiterated, just in case we were dense, and hadn’t got the message yet. He looked at the Colonel. ‘I have seen into your mind, O’Neill. You are skilled at missions which are both dangerous, and which require you to work against members of your own race. Alone. You did this well, in the past.’

‘See, now there’s the thing,’ Jack spat. ‘*Did*. I *did* that. In the past. As in, I don’t *do* that any more. As in, over. Finished. No longer.’

‘Someone must seek out these traitors, these people who harm your planet’s cause.’ Thor insisted, and the others seemed content to let him do most of the talking.

‘Not me.’

‘If not you . . . then we have no one else to trust.’

‘Crap! There are plenty of other ex-Special Forces officers at the SGC. Who’ve had much more recent experience at that kinda thing than me, too.’

‘That is not possible, O’Neill.’ Thor blinked with his obsidian, complacent, I’ve got all day, action. ‘We are not going to allow any beyond a small committee to know of these events, and what must be done to rectify matters. I have witnessed your life, your values, your character. The Tollan, and the Nox are willing to accept my recommendation that we turn to you. And you alone.’ He looked at me. ‘General Hammond will, obviously, also know what is happening.’

So gracious of them, I thought.

Jack was more forthright. ‘Well, thanks for the vote of confidence, but the answer’s no.’

Thor seemed oblivious to the negative reply, and merely continued as if he had not been interrupted, ‘Above all other people on Earth, O’Neill, the Asgard know that they can trust you to do the honourable and the honest thing. You are the only one we trust. We cannot be entirely confident that that anyone else we choose would not be a traitor. Including,’ he paused, significantly, ‘the rest of your team.’

‘No fucking way!’

‘No!’ I chorused, omitting the less diplomatic cultural reference.

‘I am sorry, O’Neill. But this must be a mission restricted to the barest minimum number of people. We feel the fewer people who are aware of its existence the greater the chance of success.

‘I don’t care what you feel,’ his temper was showing clearly again. Bubbling up like lava held back by only a thin and fragile covering layer. ‘They’re my team. They are *not* traitors. Absolutely, utterly, and completely *not*. They are as reliable as you think I am. I’ll vouch for every one of them. If you think any of this has anything to do with any one of them you are so *fucking* far off beam.’

He blazed his eyes at them each in turn, as if daring them to disagree, before continuing, ‘And anything I do, they do. T-E-A-M. People I can rely on. People *I* trust. People who will back me up if I need it.’

‘This is a one person operation, O’Neill. Any undercover operation must necessarily be so. The Asgard have chosen you to complete this mission.’

‘Well, screw the Asgard, then!’ He pushed himself back from the table with a violent shove. Fighting against the inevitable as hard as he could.

‘The Tollan agree with the Asgard proposal,’ Travell said, decisively.

‘As do the Nox,’ Lya was quiet. Sympathetic. But determined.

The expected explosion could no longer be contained. ‘Well screw the Tollan, then.’ He stood up with a fierce anger bursting from every pore. ‘And screw the *Nox* as well. Fuck the lot of you. I’m not doing any fucking *dirty* undercover mission for you. I don’t do that any more.’

‘Colonel,’ I tried to stem the tide. As futilely as the English King who once believed he could turn back the incoming sea. All I got was a glare that should have frazzled me to a cinder on the spot, and a hot blast of refusal.

‘No. Totally, and absolutely not. What part of *no* do you folks *not* understand? No, no, and no. Not my job description. Not any more. And as for thinking Carter, Daniel and Teal’c are *traitors* . . . ’ He seemed to run out of words to properly express his anger, and instead stuffed his hands into his pockets, and turned his back on all of us, before stalking over to the window. Where he stood determinedly, shoulders rigid, gazing out towards Earth.

And I realised that this room had not been chosen at random. O’Neill’s responsibility, and my own, was there for us to see. In case we should need reminding. The Colonel stood looking down at our vulnerable home world.

And I could feel nothing but sympathy. For a soldier caught between despair and duty. A man ensnared by his own conscience and dire consequences to so many others. A human being faced by an impossible choice. Because, in the end, there was no choice. One Air Force Colonel’s wishes didn’t count for a hill o’ beans in this crazy universe. What was one ravaged conscience, one embittered life, one desolate, empty soul, measured against six billion, free to continue their existence, blissfully unaware that one man had bought them their lives at such personal anguish and sacrifice?

I knew the shame of undercover missions. You can't make a career in the military and not be aware of the stench from that stagnant pool. I hadn’t done any myself. But I’d had close friends who had. And there’s only so long you can do them. Because the line between friend and foe became such a tenuous one that holding on to yourself, and your loyalties and values, was like desperately trying to grasp a greasy pole suspended above a dark pit. And making life and death decisions concerning people you must come to know well, people you have, necessarily, to work beside, who will come to trust you, and whom you must, ultimately, betray, stains a man’s mind. Marks a man forever. Deep down where others cannot see. Where only his conscience, his soul, and his nightmares haunt him.

I knew Jack had completed several dangerous undercover missions. I also knew he’d left those kind of assignments behind in favour of more military style operations. If Thor had seen into Jack’s mind he had to have seen that, too.

And undercover missions required a certain state of mind. Needed the person to be well prepared for them. Not thrown in, blind, at a moment’s notice.

‘You surely don’t intend the Colonel to deal with this alone?’ I tried to do my bit. Provide an element of damage control. What they were asking seemed impractical anyway. To employ one person with so little information to go on. Little chance of any realistic back-up if things went wrong.

‘We cannot allow anyone else to be trusted.’ Thor was positive.

‘The Colonel’s team . . .’

‘I regret that the other members of SG-1 cannot be involved. The fewer people who know of this then the better our chances of success. The wrong word, spoken at the wrong time, in the wrong company, could jeopardise the entire operation.’

‘I trust all of SG-1, implicitly.’

‘That may be,’ Thor agreed, ‘however, to us they are not as well . . . ‘ he paused a moment as if searching for the right word, struggling for a while, before continuing, ‘examined as Colonel O’Neill.’

‘What am I? A freakin’ microscope study?’ The words were grated out, without any attempt to look round.

‘I am sorry, I could not think of another expression.’ Give him credit, Thor did sound apologetic. But that wasn’t really the point. One of my officers was being coerced into a course of action neither he, nor I, were happy with. And yet there seemed no possible way of avoiding it.

Thor looked at me and continued, ‘Forgive me, General, but one member of SG-1 is not a member of your military, and is not trained in such matters. Is, in fact, a civilian.’

‘However, Daniel Jackson is a very intelligent person, and very well able to assess any situation. He would also do nothing whatsoever to place Colonel O’Neill in any danger.’

‘On purpose.’

‘He’s one of the most, if not *the* most, intelligent person I’ve ever met. He simply would not do anything that would harm the Colonel.’

‘He is not trained to deal with what is involved here,’ Thor interrupted. ‘Doctor Jackson may have a great loyalty to Colonel O’Neill, but he is also a very open person, prone to long speeches. It is possible he would forget himself, however inadvertently, and reveal information it was best he did not reveal.’

‘Rubbish!’ I exploded. Although I had to concede that, in all honesty, they had a point. Daniel Jackson was not exactly the world’s greatest at keeping quiet, and his enthusiasm for talking was legendary around the SGC. But that was about artefacts. Not classified information.

Where a man’s life would rest on the knife edge of absolute secrecy I was as certain, as I could be, that Daniel Jackson was as trustworthy as Jack O’Neill was.

‘And Teal’c is a former First Prime.’

‘Teal’c is now a valued member of SG-1. I have no doubts, whatsoever, about his loyalty to the SGC, or to Earth.’

‘That is merely your observation.’

‘After three years of Teal’c proving his worth, and faithful allegiance, time and time again, I will not even *consider* the possibility that he could have betrayed our cause.’ I was getting heated, now, and I couldn’t afford to. One ticked off delegate was enough in a pair of ambassadors. ‘You are all way off beam in thinking for one *moment* that anyone in SG-1 could be working against Earth.’ Steady, George.

Thor just blinked. It annoyed me that he just sat there. Silent. Having all but accused half of SG-1 of being, at best, incompetent. After all they owed to them. I wished I could read something, *anything*, into his expression. Except that he had no expression. Could barely frown. The only time we got to work out if he was upset was when he spoke. His eyes were blank liquid pools. Expressionless. Unfathomable. I hated that. To negotiate you need to be able to read the other player. But Thor was like the best poker player I’d ever encountered.

‘And your objection to Major Carter?’ Hoping in vain that the sarcasm wasn't seeping through and, on the other hand, hoping it was coming through loud and clear, as I tried to get at least something from the situation. Some leeway.

But no.

‘Major Carter is as unused to undercover missions as Doctor Jackson,’ Thor responded.

‘She’s still military, for the love of God! She will *not* go blabbering about secrets she *knows* should be kept as just that. And while we’re at it, Doctor Jackson is very good at keeping secrets about travelling through a Stargate to alien planets from everyone he encounters outside the SGC programme. He’s not gone revealing *that* to anyone.’ I was definitely getting heated, and needed to calm down. I wasn’t doing Jack any good at all.

And he seemed content to leave everything to me, as he stood, ostensibly ignoring us. Back firmly and defiantly displayed. Every now and then he would kick the toe cap of a boot against the wall, but he refused to turn around and acknowledge us in any way. Despite the fact that he could obviously hear every word.

‘It is, however, true, is it not, that Doctor Jackson has cut himself off from most of his former associates?’

Dammit, where did they get that little nugget of information from? I was getting no change whatsoever from this, and that was as clear to them, as it was to me. As clear as it probably was to Jack, too.

Thor blinked.

Travell sat, as she had all along arms folded watching proceedings with no real emotion. I could respect the woman as a leader amongst her people. It didn’t stop me from deciding she bore some considerable resemblance to my imagined picture of Lady Macbeth. All that she lacked was the twisted persuading tongue to accompany it. She’d left all that to Thor.

But it was Lya of the Nox who spoke, unexpectedly. ‘We will leave you alone, General. It is only fair that you discuss this alone.’

Discuss what, exactly? We were out of bargaining chips. Everyone knew that. They were just waiting for the inevitable. For the mugs, who had been invited into the game, to fold and accept defeat. Graciously, or not.

After they’d left the silence stretched out between the Colonel and me. It filled the room with razor edged tension, until I felt I could reach out and cut my finger on it.

I can read Jack O’Neill pretty well. I’ve had a crash course over the last three years. I learned early on that helpful bold headlines tended to be his hands, and eyes. The hands tended to fly about in flamboyant animation when he was in good anecdotal humour. They also showed his low boredom threshold with their frequent, restlessly repetitive behaviour, and gave an insight into his childlike nature through their compulsion to touch, explore, turn over, hold up, or in any way come to grips with things left lying around by Doctor Jackson, or Major Carter. They could also be very still. A sign to beware of. Poised to strike, and lethal when they did so, was how I’d come to think of O’Neill’s motionless hands.

His eyes could display a whole range of emotions, from an impish twinkle, to the equivalent of the force of a nuclear explosion. I’d seen them hold pain, despair, enthusiasm, and sharp watchfulness. Every range of feeling. And, yet, he was also a master at closing the door. Shutting out everyone. His eyes could be as blank as Thor’s.

The silence held. Tensile. Brittle.

I could neither read his hands, plunged deep into his pockets, nor attempt to read his eyes, fixed forwards on the view of Earth through the window. But if I couldn’t read the headlines, then there was always the small print to help me. There was the straight spine, the stiff defensive shoulders, and the foot that was threatening to knock a hole in the wall through which he could solve his dilemma by escaping into the suffocating vacuum of space.

I was his commanding officer, and the last thing I felt like doing was ordering him to do anything right now. And attempting anything along those lines would probably mean an end to the strange, respectful, non-confiding friendship we’d come to enjoy. We rarely discussed our lives away from the SGC, although I’d made passing references to Tessa and Kayla, on occasion, and I knew that I’d like them to meet him. They’d love him. But the chance to move up that notch in our relationship hadn’t happened yet.

But on a day to day, working side by side level, we’d reached an understanding about how far he could push me, and how far I knew he’d go for me. Despite our lack of sit down and chew over the cud congeniality, or an absence of share a good bottle of bourbon bonhomie, I knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that Jack O’Neill would walk through fire for me. And I knew that I would trust him with my career, my pension, my life, my grandchildren’s lives, and the sacred memory of my wife, if I had to. Because down the years I’d served with all kinds. Those who cared, and those who didn’t give a damn. Those I’d trusted, and those I wouldn’t have turned my back on.

And Jack O’Neill beat then all.

Because underneath the child’s play camouflage, behind the idiosyncratic idiocy, was a consummately professional soldier, who was the absolute epitome of everything that I’d once, idealistically, hoped every serviceman I ever met would be. One who would consider all others, and what served them, before himself and his own career. And I had discovered, sadly, that those qualities were as rare, and as precious, as a true cut diamond.

And I hated that I might lose him in seeking out others who were not as pure spirited. If I got my hands on the bastards behind all this I was going to make certain they were locked away for a very, very long time. In the deepest, darkest cell available. If I had my way they’d never see daylight again. And God help *anyone* under my command who might be involved.

Christ, I hoped no one under my command was involved.

I quietly watched Jack. I let him take his time. Because he deserved that respect. That the decision, such as we were left any decision to make, should appear to be his. I gave him greater space by leaving my seat, and moving to the other side of the room. It wasn’t that I wanted to be divorced from him. It was that I felt he should feel I wasn’t pressurising him.

And, after a while, when I felt that the silence would wound me to the core, because the longer it lasted the harder I knew it was for Jack to accept the assignment, he finally gave the wall one last defiant kick, and swung round. He slouched across the room, and slumped into a chair. His eyes were soulless.

And I could do nothing but look at him, helplessly.

‘Best work this out, then,’ he said, in a quiet tone laced with bitter resignation. He knew the taste of defeat, as did I. But he had spared me the persuasion, or the finality of having to issue an order. And for that I was grateful beyond measure.

Part 3

SG-1 were standing in front of the ramp, waiting for the chevrons on the Stargate to engage, and I could do nothing but watch them. Knowing what I knew. And feeling like a deadly snake in the grass that had bitten the team whilst it slept, and now waited for the poison to take effect and for the victim to die an agonising death.

Jack had on his dress blues. A uniform I knew he hated. He’d never said he hated it, but he forever pulled at the cuffs, ran his finger around the rim of his shirt collar, and fastened and unfastened the jacket buttons. And I used to smile at him, and he’d grimace.

Today I’d not smiled at him. Because I might be the general in command of the most secret US military facility, which required a considerable amount of whitewashing over accounts, and other reports, but that was merely fabricating figures and producing marginally misleading paperwork.

Avoiding letting folks in on the secrets of the SGC face to face was also fine because, only very rarely, did I know the officers or politicians well enough to care about deceiving them. And, anyhow, it was just a case of a little misdirecting.

This? This was personal.

I had wilfully and maliciously misled people I cared for very much, and whom I considered close to me in a very special way. And I had had to look them in the eye and do it. Had had to ask Doctor Jackson to work out a speech with which to address the Tollan High Council, a speech that I knew wasn’t worth the paper it was written on, yet which went through several drafts. And each time he read it to me I had to suggest revisions with a supposed enthusiasm not matched by the emptiness in my heart.

The burdens of command had often been heavy. You made decisions that sent men into combat, and you knew that many of them might never come back. But there was an honesty and accepted understanding about face to face armed combat. There was something seen as dirty and reviled about sending men on undercover missions. About the missions themselves. They were so often forgotten or ignored, and yet their successes could be as valuable to any war effort as the publicly acknowledged missions.

How Jack had carried his act off this morning, at the pre-mission briefing, was beyond me. Had scared me. It was a Jack O’Neill I didn’t know. A man who smiled and laughed as if he hadn’t a care in the world, as we went through the final arrangements, and who was anything but what he appeared to be.

We all knew Jack hid things from folks, was an intensely private man. But this was different, because I knew I was watching a consummate actor put in an Oscar worthy performance in a role only an audience of two could fully appreciate. Depths and skills were revealed I had never truly recognised before, because, so far as I knew, he’d never used them on me. And for one moment his eyes met mine. And I saw that he read me perfectly. Saw exactly what I was thinking. And his slight, withdrawn smile was one I hoped never to see again.

He’d gone home for the weekend, once he’d annoyed Daniel enough for the harassed man to tell him, in no uncertain words, that he could complete his speech so much better, thank you, without Jack’s distracting company. So, he’d left. A rare thing, but not rare enough to have excited comment. And I could only suppose he’d spent the time preparing himself for what was to come, in whatever manner you can prepare yourself to appear to betray every principle you’ve upheld for the last three years. To alienate those that, during that time, you’ve come to call family. Those who respect you. A respect you’ve had to work hard to earn. Built on a *self* respect you’ve had to work hard to earn, too. Because you’ve had to put yourself back together, as well as rebuild yourself a family.

And now, all that you worked so hard to regain was going to be snatched away from you, through no fault of your own. And you had no way of knowing if you would ever get it back.

I watched the back of Jack’s head, as the seventh chevron engaged, and wondered what he was thinking, knowing that, by the time he stepped back through the ‘Gate to the SGC, everything would have changed. That, as far as the others would be concerned, he’d have blasted his career into smithereens. That this was the last time he would wear his dress uniform until this sorry mess was sorted out. And that if things went wrong it would be the last time - period.

I remembered the haunted hopeless look in his eyes as we’d worked our way through the plans for the assignment on the Asgard ship.

Until, finally, he had said, ‘Sir?’ It was so quietly spoken I’d almost missed it.

I raised my head, and didn’t reply, just looked at him, and waited. I had a feeling I knew what he wanted to say.

He took a deep steadying breath. ‘If . . . ‘ And couldn’t go on.

I gave him time, but he just looked at his hands, splayed wide and running over the surface of the table, as if he were trying to polish it with his bare skin.

So I said, ‘I’ll tell them.’

He looked up sharply. And narrowed his eyes before looking away, as if embarrassed.

‘If this all goes south, Jack, I’ll tell them what you did, and why.’

His glance flickered my way, and then away again. ‘It won’t matter, by then.’ His words were barely audible. ‘They won’t care.’

‘Won’t care?’ I was shocked. ‘They could never not care about you, Jack.’

He smiled a wintry smile, full of frost and ice. ‘Once Fraiser figures out it’s not a virus or an alien bug that’s making me act odd, you think they’ll leave things alone?’

‘They might ask questions, but . . . ‘

‘They won’t let things rest.’ His eyes held mine, and he shrugged. ‘I know them, sir. Or, at least, I hope I do.’ There was the glacial smile again. ‘Full of old fashioned loyalty.’ Something in the slightly snide way he said this made me realise I was starting to lose the Jack O’Neill I knew. That a colder, harder, more bitter version was already taking his place.

He was starting to take on the persona he would need to complete the mission. Wrapping away the O’Neill who had earned my faith and trust, and that of his team. I fervently hoped that, one day, I’d be able to take him out of storage and replace him in his rightful position at the SGC.

‘They’ll want to know more. Push things.’

He was right. There was more to SG-1 than just names and faces. They had an unusual relationship, that came from being the flagship of the SGC, and also from being such a diverse cultural, and temperamental mixture. But there was no denying the affection that ran between them. Much of it produced by Jack’s unique leadership style. And he was right. They wouldn’t just let him go easily. They’d, after all, just proved that by working for three months to get him back from Edora.

‘If there’s a traitor inside the SGC this has to look real. There can’t be any unguarded moments. Because . . .’ he stopped, gathered himself, carried on, ‘ . . . because . . . if this . . . doesn’t work,’ he studied his hands intently before he finished, ‘and they even *suspect*, even *begin* to think everything isn’t absolutely as it appears, they’ll always . . . wonder.’

Doesn’t work. The most innocuous euphemism for ‘being killed’ I’d ever heard.

‘Wonder?’

‘Was it their fault? Did they say something to the wrong person? Did they do something at the wrong time that gave the game away? Did they do anything that betrayed what I was doing? You know Daniel, sir. He’ll analyse things every which way ‘til Sunday in the belief he might have let me down. Carter’ll feel guilty if she ever gets command of SG-1, because she’s stepped into my shoes and feels she might have actually had a hand in killing me. And Teal’c? Teal’c’ll transfer his allegiance to you, if he thinks I washed out. But if he thinks I’m out there, somewhere, he’ll likely jump ship and start looking for me. When you need him at the SGC, sir. They’ll have to believe everything. Believe I believe exactly what I say I do. Believe I feel exactly the way I say I do. About taking stuff . . .’ he paused and for a long moment I thought he wouldn’t finish. But he did. ‘And them.’

He didn’t look at me. Not once. And he spoke without any inflection whatsoever. No sense of pride that his team would value him so much, and that, deep down he knew that. No sense of determination that they should be protected from feelings of guilt as much as possible. No sense that the future of the SGC was more important than he was. No sense of anything. It was simply a statement of fact. This was the way things were. And this was the way things had to be. It was the longest speech I could remember Jack making. He was, despite everything, a man of few words. Short sarcastic comments rolled off his tongue, orders were issued with clarity, points made with biting decisiveness. Speeches? No. He just wasn’t the speech-making kind.

‘One day, somewhere down the line, you can tell them. Maybe when this war’s over. But for now, they don’t need to know. Protects me, and them.’

Which meant they would have to think he was a heel.

They’d have to think he was not the man they’d spent three years alongside. He’d have to repaint his portrait. Replace everything. But in such a way that they’d believe they’d been deceived in their previous assessments. Jack was such a bold picture of black and white, it was hard to see how he could reproduce himself in such shades of grey that he could lose the character his team knew so well in a new and confusing canvas.

Yet it would have to be done.

He would have to distance himself.

Alienate them.

Isolate himself to such a degree that they would stop trying to dig beyond the surface of what was happening. So they would have to believe the Jack O’Neill they thought they’d known was gone for good. Indeed, had probably never existed at all. And the one that had taken his place was not worth bothering with.

‘Can you do it, Jack?’

‘Push them away?’ His eyes were shards of ice. ‘Oh, yes, sir.’ And I’d never seen such determined coldness in his eyes before. I shivered. It was cold place he’d taken himself off to. Arctic.

I could sense his withdrawal. And I knew it wasn’t just his team he would have to leave behind. We could tell no one of our charade, and therefore we were both going to have to act convincingly. Jack had already started. I could sense it. Hated it.

The memories of that scene on the Asgard ship were like a backwash of sewage in my head as I watched SG-1 walk up the ramp, and disappear through the blue curtain. And I stood watching until the event horizon switched off. And even then I couldn’t move. Just stood there looking. Thinking. Until Davis asked me if I was all right, and I clicked into gear. I was failing already. First real test, and I was gazing at the iris, now in place, like I’d never seen it before. Christ Almighty, get a grip. Call yourself a two star? Well damn well earn the pay. Or else Jack O’Neill could pay for your carelessness with his life.

So I went to my office and stayed there trying to fill in team evaluation forms, and read reports sent from on high urging us not to spend so much money, to cut back on our expenses. Like the odd thousand dollars here and there was going to make any significant dent in our overall budget. And like, right now, I cared a Texas jig what our budget was, or how far we’d overspent, or whether we were going to be the subject of another round of heated debate amongst the precious few who knew what we really did here, and who authorised the funding. Like hell I did. My mind was light years away. Literally.

So, frequently, I found myself staring blindly at a piece of paper, because all I was thinking about was what was happening on Tollana, and how long it would be before the unscheduled activation of the ‘Gate. I’d reckoned on about an hour.

So I sat and counted the minutes. Because usually all I could do was sit and wait, and have no idea whatsoever about what was going on on the other side of the ‘Gate. This was almost unique. Because I did know. Had pretty much helped to write the script with High Counsellor Travell and Jack, aboard the Asgard ship. Had helped to plan how Jack would storm out of the meeting, and help himself to a piece of Tollan technology, in apparent disgust and anger, on his way back to the ‘Gate.

So everyone else in the SGC went about their business, as if it was as ordinary a day as we ever had around here, and I sat alone knowing that things were about to be thrown to all hell and gone. And if Doc Fraiser were to suddenly ask to take my blood pressure and heart rate I suspected she’d relieve me of duty on the spot. I would never have been able to do what Jack was doing. Because I’m fairly sure that if she’d taken his blood pressure and heart rate as he stood with his team, ready to leave for Tollana, there’d have been no difference to his normal recorded readings.

And that was impressive and yet somehow disquietening. I remembered the thoughts of hidden depths I’d had on board the ship, and his earlier slight remote smile. Tried to marry those with the happy-go-lucky, up front, cynically honest character I’d come to know and respect since I’d first met him.

Couldn’t.

I hoped the President appreciated what Jack was doing for his country. The world. Hoped he’d recognise him adequately. Reward him suitably. Doubted it.

I stared at a paper about the spiralling cost of secure storage facilities for alien technologies acquired on our travels, and their safe transference to Area 51, and considered how ironic *that* was right now. And found myself overlaying the typeface with familiar images of my 2IC, and I wondered if he’d walked out on Travell yet.

For three months we’d been fairly sure we’d lost him. Carter had worked all the hours God sends to find a way to get through to Edora. Doctor Jackson had wandered around like a lost soul. And Teal’c remained like a pillar of silent support. And I’d come to realise what a team it was that Jack had built. Pulling together three individuals who were as disparate in their backgrounds and interests as I could imagine three folks being. Yet he *had* pulled them together.

He had channelled Jackson’s over-exuberance, protected his innocence as much as he could, and above all kept him alive out in the big bad universe where you needed someone like Jack O’Neill to watch your six. But it was more than that between the two of them.

It was the history of the first Stargate mission that they shared. Jackson had seen O’Neill’s nadir and knew a Jack O’Neill the rest of his team wasn’t truly privy to, despite the events of the crystal entity which took O’Neill’s form. They had a connection, a base, from which to build a friendship that was as bizarre as it was firm. It would take a great deal to knock down those walls and I dreaded what Jack might soon have to do.

Then there was Carter. Who’d assumed every male senior officer in the Air Force would never see her brains for her feminine curves. And who arrived with a chip on her shoulder. I hoped Jack, and I, dispelled that very quickly. Jack made it very plain he hated scientists but it wasn’t a personal thing. And he treated Carter as if she were any other soldier. That was the thing about Jack. It wasn’t a gender issue. It was a respect issue. How you earned his admiration, or respect, had nothing to do with what you looked like. It was all about actions speaking louder with Jack. And Carter was a smart cookie, she worked that out pretty damn quick. She might have come up against some chauvinistic pigs in her time, in fact I’d bet my next paycheque she had, but I’m damn certain she didn’t rank Jack O’Neill amongst them. Or me, I hoped.

And as for Teal’c I suspected he’d take a bullet for the Colonel any day of the week. Hell, every day of the week, if he had to. Like Carter’s femininity, Teal’c’s alien background had never been an issue with Jack. He saw a warrior. He saw someone he trusted implicitly from the start, and that was that. Actions, again, speaking louder.

And no matter how he aggravated them, harassed them, ordered them around, or played impudent childish jokes on them, they all trusted him, and respected him in a way that was extremely rare. Almost unique. I should know. I’d seen many officers at work with their teams over the years. Hell, I’d seen the other SG team leaders in action, and they were the best of the best. But they just didn’t have that secret ingredient the Colonel had. So secret that even I didn’t know what it was, entirely. But he was, in my opinion, the best of the best of the best.

And I was sickened by what we were being forced to do. What he was being forced to do.

The klaxon sounded and jerked me out of my reverie.

I glanced at the clock.

I’d been wrong.

By four minutes.

They been gone sixty four minutes.

Now the hard stuff started.

Please God, let me be up to my part.

***********

Part 4

He’d gone.

Escorted off the base by a brace of SFs.

And there’d been no doing it quietly.

Because, in a very short time the bush telegraph, that worked like flames on tinder dry grass in this place, meant that everyone knew that Colonel O’Neill had stepped way beyond any redeemable margins.

And because we hadn’t *wanted* to do it quietly. Everyone had to know, so that anyone who needed to know would know. What he’d done, and what he’d said. Where he, apparently, stood with regard to acquiring alien technology.

So, after his outburst in the Briefing Room, Fraiser gave him a medical, and proclaimed him apparently free of any alien influence. Much, I could tell, to her deep dismay.

And Travell turned up to add her two cents worth, firmly, and clearly, in the Gate Room for all the listening technicians and operators and SFs to hear.

And I made sure that anyone who hadn’t got the message, got it loud and clear by locking the Colonel up for a good seven hours after he accepted the offer of early retirement so that I could talk to Travell, Carter, Teal’c, and Fraiser.

To anyone on the outside I was searching desperately for a way out of the situation that would save O’Neill’s career, and allow me to rescind my retirement order. Allow me to keep an officer I obviously valued very much.

I asked Fraiser to complete more tests. And her face when she came back to me was as if someone close to her had died.

‘I’m sorry, sir. I’ve completed every test I can possibly think of. Everything comes back negative.’ She was almost hunched in the chair. Not a posture I was used to from this usually upright, forthright, sometime termagant.

‘So, Doctor? Your conclusion?’

She bit her lip. ‘My conclusion would have to be, sir, that the Colonel was acting from the motives that he said he was. Even though he would seem to be acting very out of character. He . . . ’

‘He what?’

‘He was not very pleasant when I took more blood. Almost sneered at me.’ She shook her head, bemused. ‘Called me your lackey.’

I could see the confused hurt in her eyes. Jack had obviously done his job well, because Fraiser was as sharp as they come, and not one it was easy to hoodwink.

‘Therefore you would have to uphold my decision?’

‘To retire him? Because the Colonel was completely in control of his own actions?’ she asked.

I nodded. I’d never seen her look so miserable. ‘I suppose so . . . yes, sir.’ She admitted, reluctantly. Then, ‘I just don’t believe it,’ she shook her head.

‘Doctor?’

‘He was going to pick a fight with Teal’c, in my infirmary, as you phoned down.’

‘A fight?’

‘Yes. Teal’c wouldn’t let him pass. Was standing in the doorway, just being Teal’c, all quiet, and . . . well, you know, sir.’ She looked at me with some kind of lost bewilderment in her eyes. ‘And he was going to make Teal’c let him leave. Or . . . at least try to.’ She shook her head. ‘That just wasn’t like the Colonel O’Neill I know.’

‘I’ll admit it seems as if the Colonel has been deceiving us about his point of view. Or has altered his perspective for some reason.’ I couldn’t agree with her. I had to push the idea that I believed O’Neill to be acting under his own steam until anyone could prove otherwise.

‘You really believe he did this freely, sir? That he wasn’t persuaded? Or influenced? Under the influence of something that I haven’t found yet?’

‘I believe he may well have been acting freely, Doctor. Colonel O’Neill often acts on impulse. Remember how he acted over the alien child, Merrin? He believed he was doing the right thing, then.’

‘Then you’re really going to retire him?’

‘In the absence of any findings on your part to disprove the theory that Colonel O’Neill was acting under an alien influence, I have no choice.’ I hated putting her on the spot. I knew she’d worked hard, put in overtime, to try and find a solution to all this. And I felt as guilty as hell because there was no solution to find.

‘I’ll keep looking, sir. I have some other avenues to explore. Could you just keep the Colonel confined? Let me complete more tests?’

‘I’m sorry, Doctor, but the Tollans are valuable allies. The President himself has insisted that I sort this out as quickly as possible. I had a hell of a job persuading him that the Colonel be allowed to take early retirement, rather than face a court martial.’

‘But I can carry on looking, sir? I have blood samples that I can continue to analyse . . . ‘

It occurred to me that if Janet Fraiser, who wasn’t even a member of Jack’s team, was this hard to convince what was it going to be like with those who actually *were* members of SG-1?

‘You do that, Doctor. And be sure to keep me up to date. I want to know the second you find anything.’

‘Yes, sir.’

And she left. Leaving behind a thick folder of reports on scans and blood work that had been completed in double quick time. Anything to try and prove that Jack O’Neill hadn’t done voluntarily what he’d freely admitted to doing.

And all the time the rumours were spreading.

Travell and I had a meeting with SG-1 in the Briefing Room where she took back the stolen device, and thanked me for the measures I had taken.

‘I am content that Colonel O’Neill acted alone,’ she said, looking in turn at the members of SG-1. ‘His reaction as he passed me outside your office, General, and the demeanours of the other members of his team, convince me that that is the case.’

‘Counsellor I can only apologise, again, for the conduct of Colonel O’Neill.’

‘I am pleased that he is to be punished. I can only feel upset that a man who was such an asset to your cause should be brought down in this way. I hope that you can understand our reluctance to share our technology with you, particularly in the light of this latest incident?’

‘Indeed. Although I hope that we can work to win back your trust Counsellor, so that you may be able to reconsider your position in the future.’ I paused. ‘In the meantime . . . ’

‘Yes, General?’

‘You can see that the device is sent back to Tollana, and then I’d be honoured if you and your aide would remain here as our guests. So that we can show you something of the way we work, and of our continuing good faith. Despite the actions of one man.’

She tilted her head to one side, as if to consider my offer, as if she hadn’t known all along that I was going to make it.

‘That is a very gracious offer, General. Thank you. I would be honoured to accept.’

Throughout our entire exchange SG-1 had sat silently. I wondered if they were thinking about their now former CO sitting in a Holding Cell three floors down from here, his career effectively finished and confined to the garbage truck?

Carter wore something of the pinched disbelieving look she’d had when Jack launched into his “find technologies with which to defend ourselves” tirade previously, on their return from the mission. She had quite obviously wanted to support her CO in some way, whilst disagreeing completely with what he’d done. It had been another illustration to me of how far Jack would have to go to alienate these people.

Now, however, she looked even more devastated, if that were possible. And I’d heard that she and the Colonel had had an altercation when he was on his way up to my office. I needed to have words with the Major as soon as I could.

Daniel Jackson was looking as stunned as I’d expected. He kept fiddling with a pen as if he didn’t quite know what to do with himself. I wished he’d stop it, because that sort of mannerism just reminded me too much of the Colonel.

Teal’c sat just being Teal’c. He generally tended to keep his thoughts to himself and I couldn’t read anything into his facial expression. His hands were resting on the table, fingers interlaced together. His eyes were focussed on them with quiet calm. There was that quality about Teal’c that reminded me of the great monoliths at Stonehenge. Keeping his own secrets. Divulging very little. Yet you knew he’d seen much.

‘Right,’ I said, ending this sad little gathering. ‘Doctor Jackson, I’d appreciate it if you could arrange for the Counsellor to return the device to Tollana, and then organise for her to be our guest here for the next week or so.’

He looked grateful for something to do, and Travell and her aide left in his wake.

‘Teal’c I’d like to speak to you at some stage about Colonel O’Neill’s conduct during his visit to the Infirmary. I need to compile as full a report about this incident for the President, as I can. And I’d like to get it done as soon as possible.’

He inclined his head in that stately manner he had. And then left.

Major Carter sat and waited to be dismissed.

‘Major . . . ‘ She raised haunted eyes to mine.

‘I don’t understand, sir.’

‘Understand?’

‘Why he did it.’

There was a desperate searching look in her eyes.

‘I suppose he had his reasons, Major. None of which can concern us now. SG-1 will have to move on. Get over this. I know it won’t be easy, but I need you to lead by example.’

She looked at me, as if I’d suggested she paint her face purple, dye her hair blue, and then walk around the SGC.

‘Sir! Colonel O’Neill . . . ‘

‘Major, I have to be blunt here. Until I am told differently, Colonel O’Neill acted in a way that was completely out of line with SGC policy, and did it totally of his own volition. He broke the rules, Major, and he’s lucky he’s not on his way to Leavenworth right now. Especially in the light of some of the Colonel's previous escapades, which I won't discuss. The powers that be have mighty long memories, Major, as well as short tolerance for indiscretions of this magnitude. I managed to persuade the President to let him retire quietly, as the best way out of all this for everybody. *Including* Colonel O’Neill.’

She looked unconvinced. Then said quietly, ‘He said I’d never known him. That since he met me, he’d been acting. That this . . . this . . . person was the real Colonel O’Neill.’ She shook her head. ‘I’d just not realised he could be that good an actor, sir.’

No, well, Major, I’d not realised he could be that good an actor, either. His simple withdrawn smile as he’d read that thought in my eyes before he left for Tollana came back into my mind. I guessed we were both learning.

‘He served in Special Forces, Major. For a long time. They teach a lot of skills that even those who learn them don’t really want to learn. Camouflage skills. And you have to be able to sustain them for long periods of time. I suppose that’s what he’s been doing.’ I offered a silent apology, to Jack, and to the Major. And felt sullied by my own words.

‘It’s just . . . he was so cold. Not like the Colonel O’Neill I thought I knew.’ She looked at me with those haunted eyes, and I could only hope that what Jack and I had been forced to do hadn’t broken SG-1 beyond repair. That when Jack returned, and I refused to think of any other outcome, he’d be able to salvage what he’d had before.

It would be hard, because trust once lost is not easy to regain. And somehow, I knew, they’d be constantly looking for the signs that he was acting, playing a role with them. They would probably be doing the same with me, too. For a long time to come.

Yee Gods, the whole thing was a mess. And indeed, it seemed Scott was right. It is ‘a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.’

‘All that time, he was just putting on a front.’ It was as if she couldn’t let the body go. Had to keep picking away at the carcass.

‘Well probably not entirely, Major. Just as regards his opinions about Earth’s defences and how we should protect ourselves against probable invasion. I’m certain his opinions of you, and Doctor Jackson, and Teal’c were untouched by that.’ I had to start saying that sort of thing. Build some bridges before everything fell into the sea, and Jack came back to stand on an island all by himself. But she still looked unconvinced.

‘Are we allowed to see him, sir?’

‘No, Major. In a few days maybe. But I’d rather SG-1 kept their distance from the Colonel at the moment. I don’t want anyone thinking that you’re in sympathy with him. Or, worse, in league with him.’

‘No, sir.’

‘And, Major?’

‘Yes, sir?’

‘So far your conduct has been exactly what I’d expect.’

‘Sir?’

‘You couldn’t have stopped him taking the device, could you?’

She paused, and I could see her replaying the scene. Going over it time and again. Finally, ‘No, sir. I don’t think I could. None of us knew what he was going to do. It took us all by surprise. Do you think he thought you’d support him, sir?’

‘I’ve no idea what he was thinking. If he thought he could push me into a corner, Major, then he’s certainly found out the hard way that that is not going to happen.’ I paused, ‘Maybe I let him get away with things for too long.’ She moved her head in a questioning gesture. ‘Merrin, for a start. He possibly began to believe I’d back him up over anything he did.’

‘I see, sir.’

I was digging a big pit for myself, too, here. And I was starting to see that I might be joining Jack on that desert island. Once you started with the fabrications it was not easy to see where to stop. And I had started to get a sneaking feeling that Jack was better at this sort of thing than I was.

‘I suggest you write up your report, Major, and then take yourself home.’

‘The Colonel?’

‘Unless Doctor Fraiser comes up with a last minute reprieve, which I know we’re all hoping for, then Colonel O’Neill will be escorted off the base once I’ve completed all the necessary paperwork.’

She left. A ghost of her normal self.

And I interviewed Doctor Jackson about the events on Tollana. Then Teal’c. And advised them both to stay away from Colonel O’Neill, at least for a few days, until some of the dust had settled. Then I wrote up everything. And filled out the retirement papers. And signed them.

I then delivered the papers in person, and he played the part to perfection. He was sitting on the bed just gazing at four blank, grey walls, when I arrived, but he shrugged himself upright, shoved his hands in his pockets and waited for me to hand him the papers. I paused, to emphasise my reluctance to the SFs standing at my shoulders, then held them out. He glanced through them, briefly, and gave a deliberately supercilious laugh, as he tucked them away in his jacket, and raised a mocking eyebrow. I knew the SFs were watching keenly. Knew we had to get this right. Held out my hand.

‘I’m sorry it should end like this, Colonel.’

He shrugged. ‘I’ll be proved right, General. In the long run you’ll wish you’d gone along with me.’

‘I don’t think so, Colonel. Our allies are very important to us. We do not just *take* what’s theirs and decide to make it ours.’

He shrugged again. ‘Well, I guess on that point, then, we’ll have to beg to differ, sir.’

And he took my hand.

‘Good luck, Jack.’ I waited a moment. ‘If you ever need a favour, don’t hesitate to ask.’

‘Thank you, sir.’

And then he was gone. Walking stiffly between the two SFs through the corridors of the SGC where anyone who had half a mind to could stand and watch. And many did. I’m told he kept his eyes firmly in the middle of the back of the SF in front of him, and looked neither left, nor right. He handed in his security pass, and his ID, and was then escorted to his truck.

In the course of less than twenty four hours things at the SGC had acquired a whole new perspective, and I could only hope that we’d done enough to convince anyone we had to that Jack’s charade was for real. Otherwise we’d wasted all our efforts, and I’d have to go to Doc Fraiser, and explain what had been going on, and tell her that her job was to report she’d discovered Colonel O’Neill had indeed been suffering from an alien infection after all.

Either that or he’d end up with a bullet in the back of his head as a warning to us for being so presumptuous as to believe we could get away with it; and our whole structure of cosmic alliances would be flattened like a house of cards in a tornado.

I wasn’t a praying man.

I prayed that night.

And for many nights after that.

*************

Part 5

Then nothing happened. A spectacularly big nothing. And yet I was on tenterhooks all the time. Waiting. As any Texas oilman waits whilst the bore sinks into the earth, hoping to strike oil, but not certain if the drill is placed correctly.

So I held my breath through each day, because every moment was one that could potentially see a flood of black gold, but all I could do was wait. And hope. And pray.

And if I found it teeth grindingly frustrating, and heart stretchingly tense, goodness knows how Jack found it. I at least had a command to run. Mission briefings, and debriefings, to attend. Reports to write, and reports to read. Corridors to walk down, and servicemen to speak with. Grand-daughters to watch over in the evenings. Even if they were more perceptive than my officers, or just too darn unintimidated by grandpa to be afraid to ask him why he didn’t seem himself. Little minxes.

Tessa’s wide eyes looked at me with concern, as she asked, ‘Why are you unhappy, grandpa?’ Kayla stood quietly, watching. Knowing that all wasn’t well, but happy to let her sister take the lead in the investigation.

They were playing some game with their dolls’ houses, which seemed to need a great deal of imagination in order to keep up with family infrastructures, and which dolls lived in which houses, and with whom. I’d given up trying to unravel it all some time earlier in the evening, although it all appeared to make perfect sense to their young minds, so who was an approaching retirement two star general to interfere? I just read my paper and watched when things got heated, such as when Mary Doll left Mark Doll in a decided huff, after a conversation about whether he would drive her to the shops in the Dollmobile. The upshot seemed to be that Mary Doll moved from Tessa’s house into Kayla’s house. But it was all a touch beyond me.

I had fond memories of a catapult, and a home made racing cart, and tree climbing. And there were days when I wished I’d had a son. Or a grandson.

And that tenuous train of thought led me on to Jack O’Neill, who hadn’t been far from my mind over the last two days in any case.

And I guess I was thinking about his son, and Jack’s loss, and how he’d coped, or something of that order, probably staring vacantly into space, when Tessa broke in with her question.

‘Someone I know is in trouble,’ I answered, carefully. Their mother and I had worked hard to divorce grandpa from his job.

‘Oh.’ She seemed to wait for me to continue, and when I didn’t she asked, ‘Is it bad trouble?’

‘Yes, honey, I’m afraid it is.’

‘Can you help them?’

‘No. I’m afraid I can’t.’

‘Oh.’ She paused to consider this. ‘Is that why you’re sad?’

‘I suppose so, yes, Tessa love, that’s why I’m sad.’

‘Do they have anyone else to help them?’

‘No . . . no, they don’t.’

‘Oh.’ She paused again. ‘So they’re all on their own?’

‘Yes. Yes, they are.’

‘That’s sad.’

She paused with the flickering attention span of any nine year old to consider the tragedy of my friend, and then went back to playing doll families with her sister. And I wished it was that easy. But I could at least be diverted. Jack was having to sit and wait. Alone. Divorced from any back up.

The Asgard had insisted on a tracking device. But one that would simply be able to trail Jack from planet to planet, and tell them where he was. Anything else was very tricky, as they were unsure who the traitors were, who they were in league with, and exactly what technology was involved. A minute by minute trace on Jack was deemed too risky. If it malfunctioned it was likely to reveal its presence, and therefore Jack’s duplicity.

And Jack had surprised me by not wanting something like that in place either.

‘Its a role, sir. I have to play it properly, or not at all.’ His dulled eyes had found mine across the Asgard table. ‘Either I believe it’s real, and play things accordingly, or I feel it doesn’t matter because the Asgard will pull me out at the first sign of trouble. Perhaps without finding out all we need to know. If I feel it doesn’t matter I can’t do what I have to do. Can’t be as convincing as I need to be. If it doesn’t work first time, with me, then the chances of a second shot are almost nil, sir. They’ll go underground. Be so suspicious in the future it’ll be like trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack.’

So, if anyone got in touch, he was pretty much on his own.

‘Grandpa?’

I looked up again in surprise. I was thinking too much here. The pair could have been doing anything whilst I wasn’t paying attention. Some babysitter I was tonight.

‘Yes, Tessa?’

‘Could we ask them over for a barbeque?’

‘Who?’

‘Your sad friend.’

Oh, bless the child.

‘That’s a lovely thought. But I’m afraid . . . not right now. They . . . wouldn’t come.’

‘Oh.’ I could see she was puzzled by the incomprehensible world of adults, which meant that, when you were sad, you didn’t accept offers to a barbeque with your friends. But she bit her lip in confusion, saw that grandpa really didn’t want to discuss it, and so eventually went back to her game.

When all this was over, I promised silently. When all this was over, I’d invite Jack over, and the rest of his team, to meet Tessa and Kayla. And my daughter.

When all this was over.

Hell, it was hardly started.

************

The week dragged on. And still nothing. I could feel the tension knotting at the back of my neck. Had to make a draining effort to maintain my normal routine, and behaviour. And all the time, no matter what I was doing, I wondered whether today would be the day that, somehow, Jack got word to us. A week was a short time. We were prepared for a much longer wait. Whoever was behind this had to get to hear about Jack’s outbursts, his criminal behaviour, and his forced retirement. They would have to make checks. Probably plant bugs. Observe. Scrutinise. Ensure that he was for real. That they weren’t making a mistake.

And Jack was having to persuade them by doing nothing that could appear suspicious. I wondered how he’d been occupying himself. Sitting at home, waiting, was not customary Jack O’Neill behaviour. This had to be driving him nuts.

Something disturbing did happen though, a few days after Jack left. Doctor Jackson came to see me, and stood in my doorway, and shuffled his feet and looked uncomfortable.

‘Doctor? Is there something I can help you with?’ Thinking that I knew pretty well what he was going to say

‘May I go and visit Jack?’ If he hadn’t said that I’d have eaten my dress uniform.

I looked at him, and he carried on in a flurry, ‘Sam feels . . . uncomfortable about going. Because of the military thing, I think, and reminding Jack. And because you said about her not getting too close. And Jack being in . . . disgrace. And Teal’c . . . obviously . . . ummm . . . can’t go wandering about Colorado Springs . . . so . . . we . . . ‘ he tailed off, and just stood there.

‘This is a request from all of SG-1?’

He looked over his shoulder, as if he half expected the others to be standing there supporting him. ‘Ummm . . . yes.’

They weren’t giving up easily. Jack had been right. Talk about Daniel into the lion’s den.

‘And you drew the short straw?’

‘Yeah, kinda.’ So, not giving up, but not entirely happy about visiting, either. ‘We just . . . want to know he’s okay. Doctor Fraiser says that she couldn’t find anything to show why he acted like he did. But that doesn’t mean he’s not . . . sick.’ Daniel shrugged. ‘One visit. Just to check. And see how things are.’

Well, Jack had known it was going to happen. So I hoped he was prepared.

‘Of course. Just let me know how it turns out? The President is still keeping a close eye on the situation here. I need to report anything I can about what’s been going on.’

He nodded and left. He left the base an hour later.

And didn’t come back for hours. Way beyond the time limit for a trip into Colorado Springs to visit an old friend. Carter and Teal’c were concerned to the point that Carter came to me and asked if I could contact the Colonel to see if Daniel had made it that far. They’d tried Jackson’s cell phone, but it appeared to be turned off.

Reluctantly, I agreed.

‘Jack?’ The first word we’d spoken since he left the base.

‘Sir?’ His tone was terse. I supposed I couldn’t expect anything less.

‘There’s some concern here on the base for Doctor Jackson. He left some while ago to pay you a visit. And he hasn’t gotten back yet.’

‘Well he’s not here. He left hours ago.’ Short and to the point.

‘Did he say where he might be going?’

‘Nope.’

Talk about getting blood out of a stone. I could only suppose that the meeting had gone about as well as I’d supposed it probably would.

‘How did he seem when he left you, then?’

‘General, why don’t you come straight out and ask me? Did Daniel and I have words? Yes we did. Was Daniel a happy bunny when he left here? No he wasn’t. Is that his fault? Yes, it is. He should know better than to come around asking touchy feely questions he knows I’m not going to answer.’

Right.

‘He was trying to see if he could help, Jack. He and the others were concerned about you.’

‘Well I suspect I’ve cured him of that. Anything else, sir?’

‘No, I don’t think so.’

‘Okay, then.’

I paused. Despite the fact that this was all an act, something being played out for the benefit of an audience that might not actually exist, I needed to say something, anything, to let him know, to let him know . . . Hell I didn’t really know what. But somehow leaving everything in such a negative frame of mind just didn’t sit right with me.

‘Jack?’ I tried.

‘Yes?’

‘If there’s anything I can do . . . ‘

His tone softened, and for a fraction of a moment the Jack O’Neill I used to know glimmered through the Jack O’Neill he’d had to become, ‘I’ll let you know. Goodbye, sir.’

Then the connection was broken and I was left looking at a handset and feeling as bereft as a cattle baron whose prize steer had been up and rustled in the night, with no sign of those responsible.

*********

Doctor Jackson sloped back in late into the evening. Tired. Withdrawn. Simmering with anger. Curt. Uncommunicative. And generally wearing a sign around his neck that said ‘Don’t Talk To Me About It.’

So we didn’t. At least I didn't. Until the next day, when I had to prise the whole shattering conversation out of him. Down to the last poisonous sentence.

And felt sick.

I remembered my conversation with Colonel O’Neill aboard the Asgard ship. My curious and slightly naïve, ‘Can you do it, Jack?’ And his cold response, ‘Push them away? Oh, yes, sir.’ And I remembered shivering at the look in his eyes and the distance he had started to put between us even then. I looked at Daniel Jackson, and wondered if Jack had sat and considered how much damage he was doing.

And I realised that of course he had. And had had to do it that way.

‘I guess I never really knew him. Not really. Guess he just tolerated me.’ The words were flat. Daniel’s eyes were flat. His body language was flat. It was as if someone had taken his bubble of life and deflated it. Someone? Jack O’Neill. The man who was supposedly Doctor Jackson’s best friend. ‘All that time,’ he continued. ‘And I never suspected.’

There had always been something of the little boy lost about Doctor Jackson. Something that meant I, at times, had a paternal reaction to him, wanting to protect his childlike innocence from the cruelty to be found in life, in the outside world, and throughout the universe.

And there were times he played the spoilt child, and I wanted to send him to bed without any supper. And I knew Jack felt the same way. Only more so.

Today, I couldn't look at the hurt emanating from him and not feel guilty for my part in all this farce. Albeit second hand guilt. What I wanted to tell him was to have faith in his friend, to be patient, to remember who he was dealing with, and everything they had been through together. To not to let the events of a few days ride rough shod over the past three years, and the patient fashioning of a friendship between two people, with such different outlooks it was sometimes a marvel to me that they appeared to like each other’s company as much as they did.

I wanted to remind him he was an archaeologist and that he needed to dig beneath the surface to find the truth, carefully clean off the dirt, to find the true treasure of friendship he sought.

That's what I wanted to tell him, but I couldn't.

I sat there pushing a file around on my desk, praying for inspiration.

'Doctor Jackson, I'm sorry.' At least that much was sincere. 'All I can say is to keep busy. Focus on the job we've got to do here. You are needed here, son. You're an important part of this programme. Colonel O'Neill is gone, now, and it falls to the rest of us to carry on.' Which was all true, as far as it went. So why did I feel I’d sunk so low I would need a mighty long ladder to climb out of the cesspit?

His expression didn't change. He’d been studying at the Jack O'Neill school of deadpan. ‘It doesn’t matter, really, General. I misjudged him. That’s all. I thought Jack was a better man than the one he proved himself to be on Tollana, that’s all.’

He is, Daniel. He is.

‘I thought he had morals, and scruples, and wasn’t just a military . . . ‘ he paused as if he suddenly realised who he was talking to. Then decided what the heck, and carried on anyway, ‘ . . . a military machine.’

Ouch.

‘I thought I’d made a difference to him. He taught *me*. Insisted *I* learn. *His* stuff. *His* lessons. How to fire a gun. Endless survival techniques. All that hard ass military training stuff. And I thought I’d taught him something in return. About the values behind what *I* did. Something about appreciating other cultures, and making friends with other races.’

He shook his head miserably, almost as if I wasn’t there. ‘I thought I’d made him realise a little about what this project was all about for me. About how privileged I felt to be learning about all the people we met, and the places we visited. Not so as he’d go and sit down and read a textbook or anything, but just enough for him to value what I did, and what I found important.’ He blinked as if suddenly realising he wasn’t alone. ‘I thought friends did that, you know? Helped each other. Accepted each other.’

He kicked the leg of my desk in an action that was so reminiscent of Jack kicking the wall under the window on the Asgard ship that I wanted to order him to stop. ‘He helped me grow inside, General. I’m more confident in myself because of all the things Jack taught me. And I thought I’d helped him grow, too.’

There was a long pause. ‘Seems I was wrong. And I couldn’t see . . . I couldn’t see that all he was, underneath everything, was a sneak thief. A dirty grasping thief. A bully boy thief.’

‘Bully boy?’

‘Yeah.’ He was getting angry now, and his tone rose. ‘If we can’t have what we want then we should just take it. Steal it. Make it ours by whatever means necessary. That’s not what I thought I’d taught him. I thought we had reached some sort of agreement. Sure we argued, bickered, all that sort of thing. But . . .this,’ he fairly spat, ‘*this* is on the same footing as any bully boy dictator. Saddam friggin’ Hussein. Any Goa’uld system lord. That’s not right! That’s not what I thought he was like.’

I was fighting to stay in control. Because I agreed with what he was saying. Understood his point of view perfectly. But I didn’t need to say anything. I just needed to be a cliff face to take the incoming tide of shattering emotions that was Jackson’s anger, and sense of loss and bewilderment.

‘I tried to teach him a better way, General. Tried to make him see that negotiating was always better than aggression. But on Tollana he didn’t even give me chance to get started properly. He just upped and decided . . . *he* just upped and decided . . . that we were done. Finished. End of story. I didn’t even get to say my piece properly. Jack butted in, took charge, and that was that. It was over, and we were out of there. He threw everything about our friendship, everything I thought we’d worked on, right back in my face.’

‘I don’t condone what the Colonel did.’

‘Good.’ He blasted. ‘Because, no disrespect, General, but if I thought, for one moment you did, I’d leave the SGC right now. For me it’s not about taking. It’s about sharing. It’s about reaching a compromise. Talking. Learning. Reaching out to those we see as our allies. Not just riding all over them because we think we’re better than they are. Or more important than them. Because we’re not.’ He paused, as if he’d simply run out of energy. ‘I thought . . .’

I waited. ‘You thought?’ I prompted.

There was a long silence. The raging tidal wave had eased, and in the listless calm after the storm he said, ‘I thought he was a better man than that. I thought he thought *I* was a better man than that.’

The fractured pieces of a friendship were there on my carpet.

He drew in a ragged breath, and his shoulders slumped. ‘Thank you for listening, General,’ he said. ‘But, if you’ll excuse me now, I’ve got work to do?’

‘Sure, son.’ There just didn’t seem much else to say. ‘Come back, if I can help in any way.’

He nodded, and left.

And I sat, and felt like the lowest meanest creature alive.

**************

I’d had to make the decision to put Colonel Makepeace in charge of SG-1. I hoped to goodness it wasn’t going to be the wrong decision. He was a rather abrasive man, it was true, but he was also the next most senior officer on the base, after myself. And so unofficially, at present, he was my 2IC. But he did everything so rigidly. Knocked and waited. Saluted. Talked with even more of a slow southern drawl than I did.

And was a Marine.

Jack and I were both Air Force, and somehow that gave us a connection. Just odd times when the Marines screwed up, he and I had shared a grin. Inter-service rivalry. Which, really, had no part in a command like the SGC, and which, honestly, you could scrub at forever, and not erase.(

And I missed Jack around the place. And I knew I wasn’t alone.

The buoyant and bubbling geniality to everyone who did their job well, no matter their rank, was gone. And folks missed it. I could see, as I did my rounds. There was still an air of shock, although it had faded into sad acceptance. And I wasn’t able to talk to people about it, not on the level that I wanted to. I had to rely on my 2IC to fill me in. Because anyone below the rank of major was not going to open up their heart to the CO of the command.

I needed a disguise to do my King Henry impersonation. King Henry V. One of my favourite Shakespeare plays. On the night before the decisive Battle of Agincourt against the French, he moved amongst his troops in disguise to judge their mood, and talk to them. And I had felt Henry’s separateness myself. But never as harshly as at present.

And I couldn’t disguise myself in the SGC. My troops knew me far too well. And, in truth, I was a fairly hard figure to disguise anyway, I had to admit. Henry’s archers had never met their king, only seen him from afar. And it was dark, as he moved from each flickering deceiving firelight to the next.

I needed a good 2IC to bridge the gap between myself and my troops.

‘Colonel, how do you read the atmosphere in the base?’

‘It’s getting back to normal, General.’

‘And how do people feel about Colonel O’Neill’s actions? And his retirement?’’

He paused as if to weigh his words, which gave me cause for concern. ‘I suppose they miss him. He was a unique character.’ He shrugged slightly, as he emphasised the word character. ’I haven’t really asked, sir.’

The man had led his group of Marines as SG-3 since the early days of the SGC, but I still found a distance between us. He was incredibly competent, brave, organised . . . and dour as hell. His men respected the very boots he wore. But they were Marines. And somehow, whether it was an Air Force verses Marines thing, I really couldn’t work it out, but I had tried to find common ground on several occasions without success. And it hadn’t seemed to bother him half as much as it bothered me. His unit appeared to like that way of operating, too. Almost as if they thought they were a notch above everyone else because they were Marines.

And, in the end, everyone on the command, myself included, had come to accept that that was the way it was, and that a leopard couldn’t change its spots. So, whereas the other services mixed in together, the Marines kept their distance.

Which was fine whilst Jack was around as my 2IC, doing his level best to intentionally annoy the pants off everyone to lighten their day. But Makepeace? I couldn’t see it myself.

‘Perhaps you could do some enquiring for me, Colonel?’ I tried hard to keep from sounding annoyed. He was the second most senior officer, now. And it wasn’t just about sitting in my chair when I wasn’t here, and signing a few reports, or taking briefings. It was about the whole command. Everyone from the lowest stores’ clerk upwards. Jack had understood that. Which was why he had often been found wandering the base and exchanging banter with all kinds of folks. And it had never harmed his authority. In many ways it had enhanced it, because people knew him, liked him, and respected him. And because they knew the reverse was true.

And it made my life easier. Because if a cog was out of alignment in the command, Jack made sure I knew about it if it was important. And I suspected he’d fixed a great many more he hadn’t told me about.

My life was going to be a hell of a lot harder without Jack around as my 2IC. With Makepeace instead. I hoped to highest Heaven that this miserable charade was going to be over quickly.

‘Now, Colonel, about SG-1.’

He sat straighter, because he’d have to have been an idiot not to know what I was going to say.

‘Sir?’

‘With Colonel O’Neill gone, I need to assign a new leader.’

His face was impassive – dour – but he lifted his chin slightly in a movement that suggested pride in a victory over a fallen foe, whilst trying to be magnanimous about it.

Crap.

Why was my most senior officer now a strait-laced Marine, with dour tattooed across his forehead, and no sense of humour that I’d been able to find?

‘Yes, sir.’

‘You are the most senior officer aside from myself in this command, and SG-1 is the flagship unit. So I feel,’ reluctantly and with great regret, I added silently, ‘that you should take over as the leader of SG-1.’

‘Thank you, sir. It would be a honour.’

‘They’re a strongly knit group, Colonel. And I know they’re feeling the effects of events on the Tollan home world very deeply.’

‘Sir.’

I wondered if that was his favourite word.

‘I know that you know them reasonably well, but I’ll give you some acclimatisation time. Not too long though. I think that they’d all benefit from getting out of the SGC, and back into the field. A few days, Colonel? Should that be enough?’

‘Yes, sir.’

If you communicate on that level with SG-1 they’ll all *resign* in the next few days.

‘Well, then, let’s go and introduce the troops to their new leader then, shall we, Colonel?’

‘Sir.’

Not a glimmer of a smile. Not a flicker.

Ah, crap.

Please God this thing is over quickly, because otherwise I don’t think there’ll be an SG-1 for Jack to come back to.

And if there is I suspect I’m not going to be flavour of the month for a while.

Makepeace stood up, and I followed him down the corridor.

Smile you jarhead.

SMILE.

************

Part 6

Things with SG-1 were going about as well as I had thought they might. Damn it. So I decided that a little friendly advice might help. I had to try and do something to sort out the empty smile Carter was wearing around the place, and the withdrawn sulkiness of Doctor Jackson. Teal’c rarely showed any emotion, anyway, but his posture and position in a room spoke volumes. He stood as far away from Makepeace as was politely possible. Rarely looked at him. Never spoke to him.

It was while I was talking to Makepeace that O’Neill made an unexpected appearance. Which annoyed the hell out of me. I know he told the SF on the gate that he wanted to surprise me, but the man’s supposed to be persona non grata around here, and he flashes a boyish grin at someone, and they just let him do as he wishes. Heads would fall. I swore.

But the moment I saw him, my stomach rolled over and I felt sick. There was only one reason he’d come back here. He needed to leave Earth. Which meant he’d been contacted. Which meant that the game was on in earnest. It wasn’t just sitting around thinking through possible scenarios anymore. It wasn’t imagining potential developments and their consequences. This was step up to the plate time.

And we had to play this right. *Jack* had to play this right. If he did he’d take home the World Series. If he didn’t he’d wash out with no real hope of salvation.

We’d agreed that if he had to leave, he’d try and persuade his contact that he had to leave through the Stargate, because he could say that that way no one was going to come looking for him in the future. No one was going to query his whereabouts. There would be no suspicions, no awkward questions asked. His new employers would be able to assume that, if he disappeared, no one was going to be any the wiser, because we would all believe he was enjoying his retirement on Edora.

Whereas, in reality, it was a way to let us know he had been contacted.

I looked into his eyes. Tried to read how he felt about things. But there was nothing. It was as if he’d locked himself away. I guess Makepeace couldn’t tell. Not that he’d look. I’d fast come to the conclusion that without his trusty Marines to command the man was a fish out of water. And a cold fish at that. But I knew my Jack O’Neill. I read him well enough now. Even when he’d whitewashed the text. That told me enough. He’d stepped over the line, and was walking down the road the Asgard had insisted he walk alone. And he hated it. Felt contaminated by it.

But would carry on because he had to. As did I.

So I played out my part. With anger, pain, and despair warring inside me. Knowing what he was going to face. Not knowing if he would come back again.

With Makepeace there we performed as required. But every word I said left the bitter taste of hopeless misery in my mouth.

And after they’d both gone I could do nothing but sit, and hope to God that everything would come out all right.

Please God.

**********

The only family Jack had had for the last three years came to see him leave.

At first there was only myself standing at his shoulder. He’d decided that if things got this far there wasn’t any need to make a spectacle of things, and I could understand his feelings on that. He was never the public occasion type, and goodbyes were not his thing either. Nor were open displays of emotion.

‘I’ll just want to slip away quietly,’ he’d said.

But I guess a former officer of the SGC can’t sign in and be escorted down to the Gate Room without somebody giving the game away. That famous old SGC bush telegraph again. Particularly when the news concerned an officer as popular as Jack O’Neill was around here. No matter whether he’d been effectively thrown out of the Air Force in disgrace, or not.

And a ‘Gate activation always demanded interest.

Bush telegraph rumour mongering can be a huge problem. Today I was glad of it. Glad it did its job so well. Because he might have wanted to slip out like a thief into the night, and avoid meeting those he’d come to care about, and who had come to care about him, but that wasn’t how I’d have wished it. So, I told no one, in accordance with his desires, but hoped fervently that others would spread the word. And they did.

We kept everything between the two of us public. Jack was escorted to the ‘Gate Room, and I joined him there.

‘Jack.’

‘Sir. Thank you for doing this for me.’

‘It’s the very least I could do.’

We stood awkwardly for a moment, because there were many things that I wanted to say, but couldn’t. And I guess the same was true on his side. Or maybe he’d had time to control his emotions better. Had had more practice with controlling his emotions better in situations like these. I’d thought I could do this, but now that it came to it, I was struggling to get through the moment. Conscious that this could easily be the last time I would ever see him. Conscious that for those watching us from the Control Room it was *supposed* to be the last time I’d ever see him. But that they assumed he was going somewhere pleasant, to live out his retirement in some sort of comfort. Not, as I knew, to stick his head in a noose, and wait to see if someone pulled it tight.

‘Take care of yourself,’ I paused.

The last time I might ever see him. Alive.

‘Good luck, son.’

Just for a moment his façade cracked, and I saw a turmoil of emotions boiling in his eyes. Then it was gone. And I was left wondering if it had ever been there at all.

‘Thank you, sir.’

And he turned as I gave the signal to dial up. Which was when the safety door opened and the others hurried in. The chevrons were starting to grind, so there wasn‘t much time. Which was fine.

Just, ‘Good luck, sir,’ from Doctor Fraiser, and then from Major Carter, and, ‘I wish you well, O’Neill. It has been an honour to fight the Goa’uld at your side,’ from Teal’c. And I was pleased that the strained notes on which they’d parted earlier in the week appeared to be forgotten in the moments of this last farewell. And saw hope for the future of SG-1.

Jack nodded, slightly. ‘Thank you.’

Then we all stood and waited for the ‘Gate to engage.

And I watched him walk up the ramp alone, knowing what I knew, and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do as a commanding officer. And I knew that I could never have gone into the intelligence corps. I was too emotional a man for that. You required a cold heart, and frozen feelings at times like these, and I just didn’t have them.

He was almost gone when I needed to do one last thing. For me. For him. For respect. For honour. For all those things that no one else in the room but Jack and I could appreciate.

Because it might be the last time.

‘Colonel.’

And it was right and just that I should address him by his rank. He paused, but didn’t turn as I saluted. He didn’t have to. He knew, and I knew. And that was all that mattered.

And then he was gone.

To God knows where, eventually.

And the Stargate closed behind him.

Without saying anything the others left. And quietly I followed them. And as I did I saw Doctor Jackson standing at the Control Room window. Still gazing at the Stargate. Which was something, I supposed. After Jack’s grenade attack on their friendship I’d not have been surprised if he’d turned up waving a ‘Thank God You’re Leaving’ banner. He was still there when I walked through the Control Room on my way to my office. Looking like a schoolboy whose favourite teacher had just quit. Lost. Bewildered. Upset. Confused.

But I couldn’t offer any comfort.

So I didn’t try.

Instead I went and sat in my office and brooded over the fact that everything was now out of my hands. And that all I could do was wait, in safety and security.

Alone.

And out there, somewhere, Jack was playing a deadly game.

Alone.

*********

I’d been waking up at night.

Tonight was no exception, only worse.

I knew my teams might be blasted apart by Goa’uld forces whenever they went through the Gate. But that was very different to what Jack was being asked to do, and anyway “teams”, by their very definition, had several members out there watching each other’s sixes. Jack was out there flying solo.

Dying with your face to the enemy, proudly spitting fire at him, was a fate all soldiers accepted as a possibility every time they went into combat. That those who *sent* them into combat accepted might be a tragic, but necessary, evil.

But I couldn’t help thinking about Jack. With his cover blown. Caught unawares by a vengefully quiet knife slipped up under his ribs. Or imprisoned, and tortured, by those he’d betrayed. Then forced to kneel whilst a gun was placed to the back of his head. And fired.

And we might get his body back, thanks to the Asgard tracking device. But that would be no consolation whatsoever.

The device only worked so far as showing us where Jack was. Beyond that we would get no information. It could take weeks for him to gain the true acceptance of those he would end up working for. It could take days. No one knew. He might be kept in the same place for a long period, or moved around. Being in the same place for a time didn’t mean anything. And the device couldn’t tell if he was in pain. Or dying. I wasn’t sure about dead.

I made myself a cup of coffee, and sat down to surf through the all night news channels. It had been a difficult decision to leave the base tonight, but I needed to continue the routine I’d established over the years. Nothing could seem different. Suspicious.

So tonight, I’d babysat Kayla and Tessa again whilst their parents took their customary weekly meal out. Then I’d headed home, only to wake up in the middle of the night.

And it wasn’t just Jack. There was the horrid concern that somewhere in my command was a traitor, a mole. Someone who was playing against us. And I’d not spotted him.

And I could only wonder about how long the mole had been operating. I’d found myself watching faces, studying personnel files, reading mission reports, scrutinising everything. Looking for an elusive clue that would scream ‘cover-up’ at me. Anything that would point an accusatory finger, and wipe the smear from my command. Anything that would allow me to discover who it might be.

Because it surely wasn’t possible for the thefts to be unconnected with *somebody* at the SGC. In some way. Someone was silently rubbing my nose in it. And if I could work out who, then maybe I could help Jack to finish his mission more quickly. How, I wasn’t sure.

But all the watching, studying, reading, and scrutinising had proved futile. So far I hadn’t turned up a thumb tack out of place.

So I sat and tried to watch the world news. And tried not think about a traitor under my command. And what damage he or she might be doing right now, at this very moment. And tried not to think about Jack O’Neill, probably the finest officer I’d ever served with. And what might be happening to him right now, at this very moment.

Tried to concentrate on the bombings, and threats of war, and all the other depressing stories that seemed to dominate the headlines these days.

And in the end I went back to bed, and lay awake until morning.

**************

Everything happened so suddenly.

Like a drill bit striking oil, and the liquid spouting forth from the earth in a black fountain, one moment there was nothing to be seen, then there was a flood to cope with.

I was attempting to read a briefing report, and trying hard not to wonder what was happening to Jack, when, without any warning, Thor appeared in my office.

To say my heart seized up is an understatement.

‘General Hammond, forgive the intrusion, but I am able to tell you that O’Neill’s mission has been successful.’

Thank God. I said a silent thankful prayer.

He blinked at me, and continued, ‘We have been able to trace him to a planet where the rebels have their base, and we are arranging to reclaim the stolen goods right at this moment.’

Which was fine, but I was ready to throttle the news I really wanted to hear out of his thin grey throat.

‘Colonel O’Neill?’ I demanded.

‘Colonel O’Neill is well. He has performed his work admirably. I suspect that he will activate the Stargate very shortly in order to bring the traitors here for punishment.’ Thor still held me up momentarily. ‘Is High Counsellor Travell still here?’

I nodded. The woman had been an almost constant presence since she’d come to reclaim the spoils of Jack’s retirement inducing stunt, either holed up in the quarters Doctor Jackson had assigned to her and her aide, or else watching the day to day running of the SGC.

She had, frankly, made me feel uncomfortable. She moved with an unnerving silence around the place, suddenly appearing in the Control Room or other areas, without so much as a by your leave. And I knew the command was decidedly unsettled by her presence, and that folks had started to look over their shoulders to check she hadn’t suddenly materialised behind them, as if magically emerging out of the walls. I’d revised my previous opinion and decided that she was a sinister cross between Lady Macbeth, a prim schoolmarm, and the unpleasant housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, in Rebecca. This less than flattering view had somehow kept me sane when dealing with the woman, because I tended to find her both imperious and somewhat condescending.

I looked at Thor and wished he’d been the one to play Guest Of The SGC, instead. ‘Yes, the Counsellor is still here,’ I admitted.

‘Then she will make sure that events on Earth are resolved to our satisfaction,’ he said. ‘I will rejoin my ship in order to begin retrieving what rightfully belongs to us and to the Tollan.’

And then he was gone. As suddenly as he’d arrived.

And I had to get everything sorted as quickly as possible.

I had the SFs standing by ready to react to anything unexpected, and then went into the Control Room and issued orders there.

‘Be ready for an activation.’

Davis turned to me in surprise. ‘Sir?’

‘There’ll be no GDO code, but open the iris anyway.’

‘Yes, sir.’ I could see the frown on his forehead.

But when the activation came, he did as he’d been asked. And I guess you could have knocked down the technicians with a feather when they saw Jack come through. They all turned to look at me, to see what I made of it, and I took some perverse pleasure in looking ice cool about things. It was good to be one step ahead of the game for a change, instead of having to react almost blindly to one of the sudden surprises the Stargate sprung at us with uncommon regularity.

I took the microphone. ‘Colonel O’Neill?’

‘There’ll be some folks coming through, General. They need to be apprehended.’

I nodded at the senior SF and he and his men went to work.

And arrested all the men and women who followed the Colonel through the ‘Gate, as I made my way down from the Control Room.

They were all dressed in a grey nondescript uniform. And looked rag tag military to me. The sort with a chip on their shoulder about not getting the assignment they felt they deserved. The sort who snidely questioned the need to follow orders. The sort who could be relied upon to be unreliable. The sort, in fact, that I’d expect to find involved in a mission like this. And they were definitely the sort to sing very loudly about who had employed them, and why. Which was always the drawback when employing dregs like the selection that stumbled down the ramp, giving Jack viciously angry glares as they were apprehended and escorted to one side by the guards.

Of course, these unusual happenings started to acquire an audience, and I saw SG-1, who’d been due to have a debriefing with me, gathered together in the wings.

But I didn’t have time to reflect on that, because suddenly Jack made himself the centre of attention by arresting Colonel Makepeace. And to say I felt sick would be the second understatement I’d made in just a few minutes. Because there was only one reason he’d do that. And it meant that the mole had been lying buried under my nose the entire time. And I truly hadn’t seen him. Had, in fact, given him command of my premier unit, to say nothing of the whole damn SGC when this whole mess started and Jack and I were on Thor’s ship.

I felt betrayed. Felt a complete lack of comprehension. Why? What on Earth had possessed him?

I listened, almost as though lost in a fog, as he proceeded to speak out against our allies, presenting a strangely similar outburst to the one Jack had fabricated in the Briefing Room in front of SG-1 seemingly aeons ago. But this version, I knew, was the real thing.

‘They refuse to give us the things we need to defend ourselves against the Goa’uld.’

And I could find only disdain for his point of view. And contempt for his actions.

To the point where I wanted him and his colleagues gone. ‘Get them out of here.’ I tried to ignore him as he was marched away. But something in his derisory expression disturbed and unsettled me.

I looked at Travell, and, as Jack stood at my side, I tried to explain the events of the previous two weeks to SG-1, trying to present them in their best light. But something told me I wasn’t going down a storm. So, after Travell had thanked Jack, I thought it pertinent to leave them all alone together, and guided Travell away. I’d have Carter, Jackson and Teal’c together later, when Jack was away being de-briefed, but for now it seemed better to let them talk things through alone.

Which, as it appears, was not one of my better command decisions.

Because, later, Jack slouched into my office. He was having to be de-briefed off base by various organisations. But I was worried by his carefully blank eyes, and the manner in which he gazed away over my shoulder.

He shrugged when I asked how things had gone with his team.

‘Yeah, fine.’

‘Colonel?’

‘They’re pissed, sir. What did you expect?’

‘I’d hoped . . .’

‘Yeah, well so did I,’ he cut me off. ‘But who cares what I hoped?’

And I knew how much things had stretched him, because he wouldn’t usually reveal so much, voluntarily. Such a simple phrase, and not very revealing in itself, but taken in the context of everything I knew about O’Neill it fairly shouted, ‘I’m sick of this crap. I’m sick of this dirty job. And I just want things back the way they were before. But apparently I’m alone in this.’

I looked at him hopelessly, searching for words, but hadn’t found any when he saluted sharply, and was gone.

***********

Part 7

I gathered the command together, in the Gate Room, in front of the Stargate, and addressed them all, trying to emphasise the positive and gloss over the negative.

‘It is with regret that I have to tell you of the deplorable actions of one officer serving under this command.’ I surveyed them all. Every team, except SG-6 and SG-11, who were both off world. The Marines stood ram-rod straight. Eyes focussed forwards. One member down.

‘Some of you will know that Colonel Makepeace has been arrested on charges of high treason against the United States and her allies. It has come to light that he was working against the interests of the SGC, and for a rogue organisation. Many of the members of that rogue operation are now also under arrest.’

I avoided looking at SG-1. ‘Events involving Colonel O’Neill recently were deliberately engineered to allow him to work undercover, and be able to infiltrate the group. I need to make it clear to you all that Colonel O’Neill has the thanks of the President of the United States for what he did, he also has my total confidence, and *my* thanks. At no time did he steal anything from the Tollan people. They were as aware of the operation as I was. As were the Asgard, and the Nox. These people are our valuable allies. We need them. Without the brave actions of Colonel O’Neill we would have lost them.’

I could sense the atmosphere lightening in the room. O’Neill was a popular officer. The shock at his actions had been far-reaching, and now I could feel the relief that he was vindicated spread like a warm comforting breeze ruffling hair on a bright summer’s day.

‘The Colonel will be absent for a few days, as he has to undergo a de-briefing in Washington, but after that I hope that everything can get back to normal.’ I paused, and wondered how far I was getting with SG-1. Everyone else would welcome Jack back with open arms. In fact I was fairly sure that he was in for an uncomfortable few days when Washington finally let him go. He was not a demonstrative man. Nor was he one for candid displays of feelings on the part of others towards him, no matter how heartfelt. Yet I was certain that he was going to have to endure a fair amount of that. Which was no bad thing. We all need to be reminded, sometimes, of how much we are appreciated and valued. And I knew that that was as true of Jack O’Neill as it was of anyone else. Because, despite all the impossible things I, and the Air Force, expected of him, despite the continually enormous demands we made of him, he was only human.

A fragile, flesh and bone human being, with feelings, who was as breakable as the rest of us.

And, sometimes, I needed to pause and reflect on that too. He achieved the seemingly unachievable. Surmounted the seemingly insurmountable. Retrieved seemingly irretrievable situations. So often. That sometimes I think we were all prone to missing the person behind the accomplishments. I hoped the President would see the person. Take the time to thank him in person.

Although, in all this, it wasn’t the President I was most concerned about.

I ordered a briefing with SG-1, and tried to ignore the sour atmosphere as I took my seat.

Carter was trying to look anywhere but at me, and seemed to have decided that her hands were a safely neutral alternative. Daniel Jackson was fidgeting with suppressed emotion. Teal’c as I would expect was seated calmly, waiting to be invited to give his opinion. His eyes were quietly assessing his team mates. And me. And he inclined his head as I looked at him. I had a suspicion that the key to this whole sorry mess might lie with Teal’c.

I seated myself, and decided that there was no point walking around the deep end wondering if I could swim. Jumping straight in and hoping I floated was pretty much the best option. In truth I was hoping that Teal’c might be the one to throw me a lifejacket. I was darn sure I couldn’t rely on Jackson. He’d be much more likely to stand there with folded arms and watch me drown. Major Carter, I hoped, would do the right thing; if I could order her to before I sank. But I wanted more from her. I wanted her to help because *she* wanted to. Not because it was an order.

‘Colonel O’Neill will be gone for a few days. I wanted to be sure that when he comes home, he can pick up the reins of his old command without trouble.’

The silence was deafening.

And I was reminded of the agonising quiet on the Asgard ship as I’d waited for Jack to decide what he was going to do.

‘I know that you have been hurt by recent events. But I need you to understand them, perhaps more clearly than you do at present. And understand that others were in charge, and not Colonel O’Neill.’

Teal’c raised an eyebrow. Carter flinched.

‘Right.’ Jackson sneered. ‘I don’t think so, General. And, besides, whoever *they* are, *they* didn’t sit and tell me our friendship was worth nothing. *They* didn’t hide what was actually going on. That,’ he spat, ‘was Colonel High And Mighty O’Neill.’

I exploded. ‘That is enough!’ Jackson looked taken aback. And made to interrupt, when Teal’c offered the lifejacket.

‘I believe it would be best to listen to what GeneralHammond has to say.’

‘Thank you, Teal’c.’ I paused, and weighed my words carefully. ‘Colonel O’Neill had no choice about accepting the assignment to work undercover. It was one put to him personally by the Asgard, and the Tollan, and the Nox. By Thor himself. The delegation would not allow anyone else to be involved. It was a decision we could not overturn, although both he and I tried. Very hard. So I’m as responsible for you not being able to be told as the Colonel. I was at the meeting, too. I made exactly the same decisions as the Colonel. Do *not* pile all this at his door. Believe me a vast amount of it belongs to me. Remember, I’m his commanding officer. What I say goes.’

Now, Jack had spared me the need to order him. But that wasn’t the point. If I’d had to I would have. And he would have obeyed. I was a culpable, if not more so, as he was, and he would *not* carry the load for this alone.

Carter shifted slightly in her seat, but didn’t raise her head.

‘Please go on, GeneralHammond,’ Teal’c said quietly.

‘The Asgard trusted Jack because they’d looked into his head. They were not willing to trust anyone else, except myself.’

‘Lucky you.’ I swear the little boy lost image was a long way away from my thoughts right then. More like spoilt brat.

‘No, Doctor Jackson. I wouldn’t say lucky me.’ I considered my next words carefully, but decided that sometimes you simply have to open the sick room window to let in a cleansing breeze. ‘I’m glad I was there, because Colonel O’Neill needed to have someone at his side. And he *deserved* to have someone at his side. But it meant I had to stand by and watch a man I respect and admire go through hell, as he was forced to agree to do something he desperately didn’t want to do. I was made to watch a proud and private man brought almost to his knees by the knowledge of what he might have to sacrifice.’

Which was far further perhaps than Jack would have wished me to go to try and make them see what had happened. Yet, they deserved to know, and he deserved to have them know.

‘Forced?’ Jackson’s tone was still unwilling, but I sensed a changing undertone.

‘Yes. Forced. Because six billion other people on this planet need an Asgard alliance. Need support from the Nox. Need help from the Tollan. Whether they know about it or not. And despite his pleas not to be involved, despite his entreaties to be able to tell you all about it, in the end Jack O’Neill balanced his own life, and his own career, and his own friendships against the needs of all those other six billion people.’ I calmed slightly. ‘He tried hard to get Thor to let him tell you about what was going on, but he refused. The others refused. Travell, and Lya. *They* refused. Jack pushed as hard as he could to be able to tell you. So did I. We were not allowed to. And, like Jack, I knew that the fate of the planet was more important than the wishes of two United States Air Force officers. You know Jack. You know, in the end, he would accept that.’

Carter clenched her hands together as if they were paining her.

‘That is indeed O’Neill’s nature. He would always think of others before himself. You have seen this for yourself on many occasions, DanielJackson.’

‘Whose side are you on, Teal’c?’ He was still smouldering, but I could sense the fire was slowly going out.

‘I believe, in this instance, I am on the side of ColonelO’Neill and GeneralHammond.’

Jackson shook his head.

But Teal’c would not be shifted. ‘I am sorry that I cannot support your views, DanielJackson. But I believe if I had been faced with such a decision as that faced by O’Neill I would have chosen the very path he chose.’ He paused and looked closely at Jackson. ‘Have you ever had cause to doubt the friendship of ColonelO’Neill before this?’

Reluctantly, ‘No.’

‘You know that when he thought you had died he was ready to leave the SGC. That he displayed much grief and emotion that normally he suppresses. On many occasions he has protected you.’ Teal’c paused. ‘You have never doubted his friendship until now. I understand that he hurt you grievously. That was indeed his intention.’

Carter drew her arms around herself, as if to hold in her emotions.

‘If, DanielJackson, we accept that O’Neill was acting, is it not our duty to think about how much it must have hurt him to say and do the things that he did?’

‘Why?’ The tone was quieter.

Carter’s eyes were flitting between the two other members of her team, and I settled into a back seat. Teal’c had decided to do my job for me. And I was content to let him.

‘Because in the past O’Neill has stood by us and proved himself a valued and loyal friend.’ Teal’c looked long and hard at his team mate. ‘I believe it would not hurt for you to remember certain events caused by your addiction to the sarcophagus, DanielJackson, and how O’Neill supported you in that regard. In my own case I know that he had only one event upon which to base his belief in me. But without him I am not certain that my fate here would have been so productive or so comfortable. I am aware that I owe O’Neill a considerable debt.’

Teal’c’s eyes swept his audience, and he continued in one of the longest speech I’d heard him make, ‘I was forced to perform many actions in the service of Apophis. Many actions that pained me, but I continued to undertake them, because it was necessary at the time, despite my growing doubts. I see no difference between my own actions then and those of O’Neill in this instance.’

‘Damned distasteful things.’ Carter’s voice was little more than a breath of hesitant wind.

‘What?’ Jackson demanded.

‘It’s something the Colonel said, when Teal’c was under sentence of death during the Cor-ai.’ She hugged herself tighter.

‘And?’ Jackson prompted.

‘He was pleading for help for Teal’c,’ her eyes flickered to me, ‘help that we couldn’t give. He was talking about things he’d had to do in his career.’ She paused as if the memory pained her. ‘He said he’d had to do ‘some damned distasteful things’. He sounded . . .’ she faltered lost in reflection, ‘ . . . he sounded angry. Sick of things. As if he hated those things.’ Her eyes were sheened by a film of moisture. ‘This . . . was just another one . . . wasn’t it, sir?’

I could do nothing but nod, and say, quietly, ‘Yes, Major. It was.’

The resulting silence was smothered with emotion.

After a while Carter continued on a steadier breeze, ‘He didn’t mean any of it. And he’ll probably feel worse than we do.’

Jackson sat quietly, now, and simply listened.

‘He had to work out what to say. He had to sit there and *say* it. Watch you walk out. Knowing that he’d hurt you. That he might never get the chance to put that right. That you might never forgive him.’ Her voice didn’t rise, but it was stronger now. ‘You know the Colonel. He’ll be eaten up by this. He has a guilt complex the size of the Grand Canyon. Everything is always his fault. His responsibility. Well, he doesn’t deserve to face this alone.’

I could see she was getting through. Jackson was watching, waiting, deliberating.

Carter went on, appearing to have taken the reins from Teal’c, and he, speech made, seemed content to let her. ‘We’re a team, Daniel. Because the Colonel made us a team. Made us feel valued, made us feel part of a whole. Look at us . . . ‘ she gestured. ‘That can’t have been easy. I had a chip on my shoulder about being accepted and getting a fair crack of the whip, Teal’c is . . . well, Teal’c . . . no offence.’

Teal’c inclined his head gracefully, ‘None taken, MajorCarter.’

‘And you, Daniel. Your viewpoints are so diametrically opposed to his, and yet he mostly accepts that. Often with more good grace than you do.’

Jackson frowned, and looked around the table. I had to say, the Major had surprised me. Astonished me. I was working towards astounded. Somehow, I’d not expected that from her. I wanted to cheer, but couldn’t. Two star generals don’t cheer. Nor do they smirk in triumph. They do, however, smile wisely, and agree gently with what has been said.

It was a rare sight to have the inner workings of a team exposed, as if under a microscope lens. Each detail analysed carefully for what it was and how it fitted into place in relation to all the others.

‘He was so convincing.’ Jackson shook his head in sad but growing acceptance.

‘ColonelO’Neill was attempting to distance himself from everyone so that he could continue his charade.’

‘He could have been less cutting.’

‘Did you go to visit him again, DanielJackson?’

‘Nooooo . . . ‘

‘Then O’Neill’s purpose was achieved. If you believed him, then others monitoring his behaviour would also believe him.’

I interrupted again, ‘His other reason for doing all that was to . . . ‘

‘Protect us.’ Carter’s voice quietly certain.

‘Major?’

‘If we’d worked it out, and it all went wrong . . . ‘ she left the sentence hanging.

‘We would indeed have wondered if it was our fault in any way.’ Teal’c nodded.

‘We’d have wondered If we’d said anything. Done anything that had given him away. If we were to blame for his death,’ Carter said miserably.

‘Therefore from that perspective it was better that we did not know. Were pushed so far away we did not even consider an alternative viewpoint.’ Teal’c agreed.

‘And, if what had happened to him was uncertain, we’d have wanted to spend time looking for him. Not concentrating on our work here,’ Carter continued. ‘We’d have wanted to search for him, and rescue him.’ She looked at me, ‘After all, I just spent three months doing exactly that. And then Teal’c took on an incredibly tricky recovery job.’

‘Indeed.’ Teal’c said.

‘He knew we’d do the same thing, if there was the remotest possibility he was still out there. He wanted to make us believe he’d gone for good. That he wasn’t worth our time or our effort. Because . . . ’

‘Because he felt the SGC was more important than he was,’ I finished for them. ‘He wanted your efforts to be concentrated here, not out there looking for him.’

The silence stretched painfully.

‘Would you have ever told us?’ Daniel asked quietly now.

I’d waited for them to turn on me, to be angry because I’d deceived them, too. But they seemed to have lost all their energy, as if events had now left them too weary to pursue things as vigorously as I’d feared they might. Maybe that would come later.

‘I’d have told you, yes. Eventually. When I felt that the time was right.’ I looked at each of them in turn. ‘I promised him I would.’

There was something ineffably sad about that statement, somehow. Something that encapsulated everything about the desperate deception we’d had to employ. Everything about the weighty responsibility that had fallen to Jack and myself. Everything about the uncertain dangers Jack had faced. And the possibly fatal consequences.

They looked around at each other, and took in the enormity of what had been revealed.

Quietly. Each in their own time and way.

And the silence settled more comfortably around us.

And eventually, because there seemed nothing more for them to say, by tacit agreement Teal’c and Carter got up to leave, but Daniel Jackson remained seated until they were gone.

I waited. Whatever it was it would come out if I gave him time.

‘I should have worked it out, you know?’ His voice was strained and sad.

‘There was no reason for you to do that, son.’

He shook his head, as if something pained him. And he then slowly began to let me in.

‘I remember being in foster care.’

I waited. Whatever he wanted to say needed time. I had time. As much time as he needed.

‘I wanted . . . ‘ he stopped.

I watched his hands as they clung hard together, and was reminded of Jack. Expressive hands that spoke more than their owners were probably aware.

‘I wanted them to accept me.’ He saw my gently enquiring frown. ‘Mr and Mrs Grainger.’ He bit his lip. ‘I knew they were kind people. But . . . ‘ he blinked and I knew he saw something long gone, and he raised his haunted eyes to mine. ‘They were the fourth couple. The others . . . didn’t . . . like me, really.’ He drew a ragged breath. And I was reminded that Jack wasn’t the only member of SG-1 with shattered feelings. That what he had done to Daniel Jackson had obviously brought old memories and events back to the surface, when they were best left buried.

I waited.

‘I was afraid. I knew they were kind. But I . . . didn’t want to be a . . . disappointment to them. Didn’t want them to be a disappointment to me. So I pushed them away.’

He fidgeted. Then, ‘I said things I didn’t mean. And, all the time I hoped they’d see I didn’t mean them. I hoped they’d realise how scared I was.’

He looked away into the corners of the room. ‘But they didn’t.’ A grey smile stretched across his face. ‘And in the end I had to leave. And I’d never felt so . . . lost . . . or alone.’ And he looked at me with eyes that made me want to weep. ‘I guess it was like that for Jack.’

I could only silently agree.

‘But,’ he paused. The look in his eyes was akin to Jack’s agonised expression on the Asgard ship, and I was struck by the fact that, despite many things, these two men were not as different as they might appear. ‘But, it was like that for me, too. When he said we’d not understood each other. It was like Mr and Mrs Grainger. All over again. I felt . . . like . . . I’d . . . failed. Again.’

Sometimes other people’s lives can be so cruel and make you appreciate things in your own so strongly that you don’t know what to say. Because the frames of reference are so far apart you can only stand on the borders and look hopelessly across the no-man’s-land between. My parents had stayed together for over fifty years. So far I’d not had to deal with the death of either one of them. Let alone both. I’d never thought about what it meant to be living in foster care.

He raised ravaged eyes. ‘And yet, now, I feel I should have known.’

‘Jack knew what he was doing, son. He did it deliberately, and he knew you well enough to know exactly what to say.’

‘Yes, yes, he did. But . . . still . . . ’

‘He’ll understand, Daniel. You were meant to react as you did. And so long as you make him understand that you don’t blame him I think we can all get past this. Show him that you accept the choices he made. He needs that. He’s not as invulnerable as he’d like us to believe.’ I looked at him hard. ‘As you weren’t.’

‘No. I know that. And you’re right. He’s so able to hide things.’ For a moment a frown creased his forehead.

‘How will you know he’s not acting?’ I asked with perception.

Jackson looked as if I’d shot him. ‘How did you know that’s what I was thinking?’

I smiled briefly. ‘Because I wondered the same thing, myself.’

I watched the cogs going round as he said, ‘He acted up to you. In the Briefing Room after we got back. And in your office, in front of Teal’c.’

I nodded.

Jackson watched me thoughtfully. ‘Did he surprise you?’

‘Yes, son, he did.’

‘But?’ He asked. ‘There’s a but, isn’t there?’ I could see that he was desperate for me to make this all right.

‘I think so.’ I held his eyes. ‘The Asgard trusted Jack. Because they’d been inside his head. He wasn’t able to hide anything from them. And Thor was adamant, that what they’d seen they believed. Well, what I’ve seen of Jack O’Neill I believe. And rather than me getting inside *his* head, he got inside mine. I lay awake at nights worrying about him, all the time he was waiting to be contacted, and all the time he was gone. I thought about the man I knew. And I decided that whether he’d ever lied to me or not didn’t matter. I realised he was capable of lying to me, and I’d never know. But in all the time I’d know him he’d rarely done anything I’d not back him up on. And if he did something he knew I’d not agree with he held up his hands and admitted it, and wasn’t afraid to face the consequences.

‘He didn’t want to do this because he valued what he had. Didn’t want to lose it. And I valued him. And didn’t want to lose him. No matter what. He’s quite simply the finest officer I’ve ever served with.’

I saw Jackson’s eyes widen at my admission.

‘Of course, he’s also the most damned annoying.’

Jackson smiled slightly, ‘I can imagine.’

We sat awhile absorbed in our own thoughts.

After a time he shifted to his feet. ‘Thank you, General.’

‘You’re welcome, son.’

I watched him make his way to the door, and hoped it had all been enough. I was surprised when he paused and turned. Saw the smile. ‘You know? The scene in the Briefing Room? You were a pretty good actor yourself, General.’

***************

I figured neutral territory was needed. And a neutral audience.

So when the bell rang I took a long breath.

Jack looked tired. Past tired. Drained to the core. I knew some de-briefings, where everything had to be unpicked with meticulous care, could do that to you. He’d been gone five days and I knew he’d not have had a moment to himself in that time. That teams of people representing who knew what “interested” parties would have crawled inside his head one by one, and made themselves at home, until they felt it was no use untangling anything else because they’d got as much as they needed. At which time they’d pass things on to another team. And all the time the teams would be pressurising for more information. Analysing every move that had been made. Questioning. Probing. Dissecting.

He’d sounded bone weary when he’d called yesterday evening to say he’d made it home. And I’d suggested he come around to meet Kayla and Tessa.

‘I don’t know, sir.’

‘Jack, they’re dying to meet you.’

He sounded surprised, ‘They are?’

‘Surely. I had to tell them about this friend I had who was in trouble, when I was looking particularly glum last week. They wanted to have you over for a barbeque.’

There was silence on the other end.

‘I said you couldn’t make it at the time, but I’d invite you when things got better.’

‘They’ll ask too many questions.’

‘Initially, maybe. But I believe that you will be much more engaged in playing a complicated game involving families.’

‘Families?’

‘Ummm. There are two. Mark Doll’s family, and Todd Doll’s family.’

I think there was a splutter on the other end.

‘I, of course, am merely a two star general, and can’t follow the story line at all. I think it needs the unique qualities of a colonel I know.’

He was still trying to say something constructive.

‘My continued good relationship with my grand-daughters balances on your accepting this invitation, Jack. I would implore you, except that I would never do that with you. And I could, as your CO, order you. But I won’t do that either. I will, however, appeal to your better nature.’

‘Fine,’ he was still having trouble, but eventually managed, ‘What time?’

‘Any time after four.’

‘I’ll be there, sir.’

‘Good. See you then.’

And if I singularly failed to mention that there would be other visitors then that simply meant that I’d learned something more about subterfuge recently, to the point where he hadn’t realised I was holding anything back. Or perhaps he simply hadn’t wanted to ask.

Kayla and Tessa took him to their hearts straight away. As I’d known they would.

‘You have to come and play families,’ Tessa said as she pulled him away from the house towards the garden.

I smiled after him as he looked appealingly back over his shoulder. And spread my arms wide. They would be the best therapy he could have. I knew my grand-daughters well. And I knew Jack O’Neill. The best therapy, anyway, until the rest of my plan fell into place.

The others turned up an hour later.

I opened the door, and half smiled, ‘Pleased you could all make it.’

The three members of SG-1 had been spending some quality down time together both on and off base, at my insistence. I’d spent the previous few days building bridges with Doctor Fraiser. I thought I’d succeeded in spanning the divide, but decided that I’d only really know when I reported for my next physical, which, alarmingly, was due in the next two weeks. I hoped to God she’d accepted my apologies.

I guided them through to the garden. Jack had his back to us, and was absorbed in the game with Tessa and Kayla. The three of them had had no problem finding common ground. And I’d sat on the deck and watched them in a quietly satisfied way. Jack had experienced no difficulties, that I could see, adapting to whatever mysteries their game held. And I suspected lifelong friendships had been established in something under sixty minutes. I often forgot that he had had a son of his own. He could be so naturally child-like himself, that I forgot about the real child he’d lost. Watching him with Kayla and Tessa I could only wonder at the vagaries of fate that had deprived a good man of the true north in his life.

The visitors stood and watched for a long moment.

‘Kids and animals,’ Doctor Jackson murmured quietly.

Teal’c raised a questioning eyebrow.

Carter looked at the scene in front of her and explained, ‘They say you can’t deceive kids and animals.’

Fraiser nodded with understanding, and reminded us all, ‘Cassie thinks the world of him.’

It was a time before Tessa realised she and her companions had an audience. They’d obviously not heard the others arrive. She nudged her new friend, and said something. Jack turned sharply, and looked towards the house. He saw the group assembled next to me and dragged himself to his feet with a strained reluctance. Tessa stood, too, and slipped her hand into his.

‘Jack?’ I heard Tessa say. Her sister merely sat and watched.

‘They’re . . . people I know.’

‘The people that made you sad?’

‘Not . . . exactly.’

‘They don’t look very friendly.’ Tessa’s rather blunt manner was a constant source of embarrassment to her grandpa.

‘They might not be.’

Tessa squared her shoulders. ‘I’ll protect you,’ she said in a stage whisper. ‘I’ll make grandpa send them away.’

And that wonderful moment broke the ice, because we could all do nothing but smile, even fleetingly, at the young girl who was willing to support her new, yet far more grown up, friend.

Jack and Tessa moved slowly across the divide between us, and stood together. And, despite her brave words, she eyed Teal’c with considerable misgivings.

‘Tessa, these are Doctor Jackson, Major Carter, Doctor Fraiser, and Teal’c.’ Jack’s voice was in neutral. His eyes hooded. And he stood with the shifting unease of a horse ready to bolt; as if Tessa’s hand was all that kept him tethered there.

She seemed to sense his disquiet and moved closer against him.

‘Pleased to meet you, Tessa,’ Carter said. ‘We’re friends of Jack’s.’

The horse skittered nervously at those words, and eyes seemed to flicker from side to side as if searching out an escape route.

‘We came round to check he was okay,’ Jackson said. ‘We haven’t been able to see him lately.’ He smiled at her encouragingly. ‘And we were worried about him.’

Feet shifted uncertainly.

‘We needed to speak to him,’ Fraiser added. ‘To make sure he knew nothing was wrong.’

I saw tense shoulders relax a fraction.

‘And we hoped we would be able to convey our concerns and continuing support,’ Teal’c finished gravely.

A breath that had seemed to be held in apprehension was slowly released. Tessa just looked confused by Teal’c’s language.

‘I invited them around, Tessa love, so that Jack could see that everything was fine.’

And so, neatly corralled, the horse settled and calmed somewhat, and the eyes lost their shadowed defensiveness as, briefly, visible emotion blazed, and then, in typical Jack O’Neill fashion, was carefully masked once more. But I suspected that it had been noted by the others at my side.

For a time no one seemed to know what to say, and it was obvious that everyone was thinking back over recent events. But then, it seemed, by common consent, they were designated as over and done with. And a collective unspoken agreement was reached that it was time to move on.

So there was much relieved smiling when Tessa pulled at Jack’s hand, and said, ‘If everything’s okay, then, Jack, can they come and play families with us?’

‘I guess,’ he said. ‘If that’s okay with you, and Kayla.’

‘Oh, Kayla won’t mind,’ Tessa said sweepingly.

Which is how I came to supervise my premier team, my Chief Medical Officer, and my grand-daughters sitting together on my back lawn, around a large dolls’ house, inventing the most absurd scenarios to act out with the doll families. Teal’c soon decided everything was a touch beyond him, and came to sit with me, much, I felt, to the girls’ secret relief. But the others stayed the course, until it was the girls’ bedtime.

And then they all left together, as a group. And they hadn’t made a great flag waving jamboree of anything, yet I knew that a quiet celebratory drink, on my part, would be in order once I knew the girls were settled.

I even felt I could worry less about my upcoming physical.

*****************

There was little left of the sorry mess to wipe clean.

However, Jack slid back in hoping to cause hardly a ripple in the SGC pond. Much in the manner in which he’d tried to leave through the Stargate to complete his mission. But I guess he soon got the idea that folks had missed him. I walked around with him, getting him to show his face, so that the command could see he was back, and with me along I hoped that no one would interrupt us. They didn’t dare. Not to speak to, anyway. However, there were some exemplary salutes exchanged. Not something that happened often, down here. We tended to run a somewhat lax ship in that regard, Jack and I. But today many people showed their feelings, and their respect, in their manner and their actions, even if they didn’t say anything.

The Commissary was the worst, and the best, moment. We walked in, and I guess word had gone ahead, because Ferretti was waiting.

‘Ten-hut!’

And the whole place stood as one, and snap saluted.

I don’t think until that moment I’d ever seen Jack O’Neill caught out for a word to say. But he was then. Totally.

‘At ease soldiers,’ I said, rescuing him.

And they all smiled and resumed their eating and drinking. Although furtive glances were being cast our way.

Normally I don’t eat in the Commissary, tending to take my meals alone in my office, but today, in the suspicion that something like this might occur, and that it was best to get it over and done with, I’d accompanied Jack down there. We settled into a corner,

‘They’re not going to do that again are they?’ He asked.

I smiled. ‘I doubt it Colonel. I think most of them have got it all out of their systems now.’

He shook his head in relief. ‘Thank God!’

‘You need to appreciate, Jack, people hereabouts were sad you weren’t around any more, and they just wanted to make you understand that. They’re just saying Welcome Back. And you deserve their best wishes.’ I smiled. ‘Take note, Colonel. Folks like you, and are pleased you’re back.’

He swirled his Jell-o, and studied the mess he’d made with deep concentration.

‘By the way, Jack,’ he looked up fractionally, ‘just so you can get all the embarrassing moments over in one go,’ his eyes skitted around the Commissary as if he was afraid a celebratory stripper girl might emerge from behind a counter somewhere, ‘I just want to say thank you.’

‘Sir?’ He frowned.

‘Thank you. For taking the decision out of my hands. For not making me order you.’

‘Ahhhhh,’ he breathed.

‘And . . .’

He looked like he wanted to disappear into the bottom of his Jell-o bowl.

‘Thank you for coming back. Forget what everyone else wants . . . I damn well need my 2IC to be a pain in the ass Air Force colonel.’

I watched the boyish smile spread across his face. A true smile. And I remembered watching him smile on board the Asgard ship. And thinking it would be a long time before he smiled like that, for real, again. I was ready to get the flags out. Because that smile showed the storm had truly been weathered. And that the Jack O’Neill I knew so very well was back.

‘Ahhhhh,’ he drawled. ‘Makepeace?’

I weighed my words carefully. ‘Was a . . . Marine.’

The smile beamed.

*************

I stood looking out across the Gate Room. At the Stargate. Such an awesome piece of machinery. I still didn’t fully appreciate how it worked. Which was fine. I didn’t need to know. I just needed to accept that it did work, and be prepared to command those who would travel through it.

Yet, still, it filled me with wonder. That from this one room under Cheyenne Mountain, in the United States, mankind was visiting all sorts of planets. Planets. Not places. Meeting all kinds of people. Living on those planets. Doing amazing things that science fiction writers explored and predicted we’d be doing in fifty or a hundred years time. Not now. Not today. And it still amazed me that I was in command of it all. That the Chiefs of Staff hadn’t decided that I wasn’t the man for the job and replaced me, as soon as all this started jumping off at a tangent to the original assignment.

Yet, incredibly, no one had suggested that I retire. No one had suggested I step aside for a younger man. Perhaps they felt they needed someone older, and supposedly wiser. Perhaps it suited to have someone at the end of their career with no secret promotional agenda to consider. Just someone who would do the job competently, and not think about what this might be a step on towards. Let’s face it, this was the last rodeo ride I’d have in my career. And maybe that’s why they let me stay. Because if this had ended up being my Alamo I’d have retired and gone home, anyway. And if it still went belly up I was the ideal scapegoat. Old, and able to be easily retired.

Yet, so far, I’d kept things going. Drawn folks into line. Made this command run efficiently, with the exception of an annual budget overspend that was covered by all sorts of wheeler dealing behind the scenes.

But I was honest enough to admit that I hadn’t done that alone. There were many people who had helped make the command what it was. Helped make the command run as well as it did.

And the biggest debt any CO owed, in any command that ran as well as I knew the SGC did, was always to his 2IC.

I owed my 2IC.

A remarkable man who made sure I didn’t face all the strange burdens of this unique command entirely alone.

A man now back in place at my side where he belonged.

Thank God.

Finis.