Jackfic Archive Story

 

Shadows of Fear

by Flatkatsi

Disclaimer: Stargate SG-1 and its characters are the property of Showtime/Viacom, MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, and Gekko Productions. I have written this story for entertainment purposes only and no money whatsoever has exchanged hands. No copyright infringement is intended. The original characters, situations, and story are the property of the author(s).




"Drop!"

Colonel O'Neill didn't utter a word but he didn't need to, the hand signal was sudden and imperative. His three teammates reacted immediately, dropping and finding cover, their weapons up and ready.

The forest was silent. There was almost no movement at all, nothing except the rise and fall of soft breaths from the four members of SG-1, eyes scanning their surroundings.

Several minutes passed before the colonel rose slowly to his feet, turning as he did so to take in as much of the forest as possible. Teal'c followed him up a few seconds later, Major Carter and Daniel Jackson following after several beats.

Jack responded to Teal'c's unspoken query, still on alert, his voice soft.

"I saw something move." He gestured to their left, to where a particularly thick patch of undergrowth obscured their view after just a short distance.

There was no need for further instructions. Each team member fell into the role they had established after so many missions together. Teal'c moved ahead, checking for any signs, Jack watching his back. Daniel and Sam flanked them, watchful for the presence of danger. It was only after Teal'c had given the all clear that they relaxed somewhat.

Daniel was the first to break the silence. "What did you think you saw, Jack?"

O'Neill gave a quick shake of his head and replied, his annoyance obvious. "I didn't think I saw anything. I did see a figure watching us from these trees."

"A native, sir?"

"I have no idea, Carter. I just caught enough of a glimpse to register its presence."

"The being has left no trace of its passage through the undergrowth." Teal'c was still examining the ground. Jack was pleased to hear no trace of doubt in the Jaffa's voice.

"Okay, I don't need to tell you to keep alert." Jack flipped the cover from his wristwatch, taking a quick look at the dial before returning his attention to his surroundings. "We have another couple of hours before dark. Let's get out of these trees and find ourselves a better position to set up camp."

**********

By the time SG-1 reached the open grasslands that stretched as far as the distant gate Jack was as edgy as hell. He couldn't count the number of times he'd turned, feeling sure someone or something was trailing them. Usually Teal'c was in tune with Jack's instincts, but for once he didn't share his anxiety and Jack began to doubt his own senses, wondering if he was over-tired, causing his imagination to play tricks on him.

Now sitting at the campfire, sipping a coffee and trying to relax, Jack felt the hairs rising on the back of his neck. He turned away from the light, blinking several times to allow his eyes time to adjust to the change, and peered out into the night, searching for anything that could account for his concerns. Teal'c's dark figure stood watch at the camp's perimeter, but there was no other sign of life outside their little circle of fire flame.

Jack turned back to find Daniel and Carter's gaze on him. He looked down, not meeting their eyes, and tipping the remains of his coffee onto the ground, stood.

"Going to bed already, Jack?"

"Yeah." Rubbing a hand over his face, he grimaced at the gritty feeling as his fingers pressed lightly into his eyes. "We should make the gate by midday, right, Carter?"

"Yes, sir, easily."

"Good." He glanced off into the darkness again, his eyes drawn once more to something on the edge of his vision.

"That means I'll be able to work on the artifacts SG-7 brought back from their last mission, `Daniel said, drawing Jack's attention back to his companions. "I've been trying to get to them for weeks. You remember, don't you, Jack ... they're the ones you were picking through in my office."

Jack nodded, recalling the strange collection of seemingly random objects on Daniel's desk before their mission briefing.

"Some of them appear to have a variation of Cyrillic inscriptions, yet others are clearly Melanesian in form. It's fascinating really, how two such diverse ..."

"Yes, good - I'm happy for you." The Colonel's abrupt tone cut Daniel's words off in mid-flight. "Now I have to get up to relieve Teal'c in a few hours so, as I said before, I'm going to bed."

He headed for his tent without waiting for a reply, well aware of the curious looks he was getting from his teammates. He hadn't meant to snap but the last thing he wanted to do right now was sit around discussing Daniel's work. He was tired and a headache was beginning to nudge its way into his consciousness - a headache that would only get worse if he stayed to listen to the archaeologist's involved explanations of his current pet project.

***********

Jack slept well despite his concerns, and was awake and alert when the time came to relieve Teal'c. He crept out of his tent, careful not to disturb his sleeping teammates, and poured himself a coffee from the pot sitting on the hot embers of the fire. Swallowing half of it down in one swift gulp, he tossed the remainder to one side and headed off to where Teal'c stood guard. The two warriors had no need for speech, merely exchanging silent nods as they swapped places. If there had been anything of note worth mentioning Teal'c would have done so. The colonel started his watch by walking the perimeter of the camp, carefully surveying the surrounding area. That task done, he found a comfortable position against a slight mound of dirt and settled down. As the slow minutes passed his mind wandered over the possible dangers he and his team could face on an unknown planet - anything from Goa'uld and Jaffa to wild animals. Sometimes even the local flora leapt up and bit them in the ass. Nothing could be taken for granted. They'd learnt that the hard way, losing friends and colleagues in the process.

He shook himself out of his reverie, mentally berating himself for allowing his attention to slip, if only for a minute. A minute was all it took.

He stood and began another circuit of the camp.

**********

"Anything to add, Colonel?"

"No, sir, we've covered everything. All in all it was an uneventful mission."

General Hammond glanced down at the notes he had taken. "You didn't see any signs of life apart from the glimpse you caught in the forest?"

Colonel O'Neill shook his head. "No, none, and given the lack of evidence of other life forms apart from insects and birds I have no explanation for that." He winced at having to say it, but continued regardless. "I guess I just imagined it."

"Imagined it?" Hammond frowned, and narrowed his eyes as if peering more closely at his subordinate. "You aren't generally given to an over active imagination, Colonel."

"It's the only explanation I have, sir. I'm sure Teal'c would have found signs if there had been anything watching us." Jack caught Teal'c eye, acknowledging the slight inclination of the Jaffa's head with a quick smile. His faith in Teal'c's ability was absolute.

"Very well." The general closed the report in front of him and pushing his chair back, stood, the others around the table following him up. "You aren't scheduled for another mission until Wednesday, so I suggest you take the time to clear up any overdue reports you may have. Dismissed"

Although Hammond wasn't looking directly at him, Jack knew exactly who the words were aimed at, and by the look on the faces of the rest of SG-1 they did as well. He sighed, just having time for a muttered "Thank you, sir." before the general's office door shut.

**********

Jack rubbed his hands wearily over his eyes and picked up the next in a seemingly unending stack of forms and handwritten notes. Finding it to be a half completed recommendation he had begun six days ago he blinked and tried to remember exactly why he had been so keen on returning to PX4-711, or as he preferred to think of it, Planet Odious Smell. Something about Carter and astronomical observations flittered across his mind, but he lost his train of thought and sighed in frustration.

He really needed to take a break, get something to eat, and come back with a fresh mind. It was coming up to lunchtime anyway and breakfast seemed a very long time ago. He might even be good and forgo his usual high carb meal in favor of a nutritious salad. Or maybe not.

Putting the form back on top of the pile, he logged off the computer and pushed his chair back, wondering if Daniel would be willing to leave investigating his artifacts for long enough to eat. He would swing by his office and cajole his teammate into joining him.

Jack was already halfway to his feet when he realized he was not alone.

Standing in the corner of the office, to one side of the door was a still figure, his face in shadow.

The few brief seconds Jack had to react in were just long enough for him to begin reaching for the phone, then his hand stopped frozen in mid-grasp as the man in the corner stepped forward. He was in SGC BDUs and at first glance could be taken for any of the many personnel who manned the base, but Jack knew this wasn't just some Airman, part of the cleaning crew who had snuck in unnoticed. He knew this wasn't one of the SG team members he had scheduled to meet for staff evaluations. He knew this man had no right to be here, in his office, as if he belonged.

He was dead.

He had been dead since the beginning of the program, since that day Jack revisited in nightmares.

"Hello, Charlie."

And Charlie Kawalsky raised the half head that remained to him, and stared Jack straight in the eyes, the blood which poured down over his uniform as fresh as the day so long ago when he had ordered Teal'c to hold him down and allowed the event horizon to sever his life from him.

***********

The full impact of what he was seeing suddenly hit the colonel and all his bravado left him. His heart pounding, he pushed his chair backwards, the sheer horror of the sight in front of him causing all rational thought to momentarily flee from his brain. He could do nothing more than stagger up as the figure came towards him, its hand outstretched, a Goa'uld snake writhing in the ghostly fist, hissing and screeching.

"God!"

Jack wasn't sure if the word was a prayer or exclamation, but uttering it broke him out of his stunned state. He stopped moving and stood his ground, straightening and quickly looking around the room for any other threat, before once again facing his friend.

"Charlie?" Intellectually the colonel knew there was no way this could really be Kawalsky, but he couldn't help speaking the name anyway.

Kawalsky paused only two feet from him and now he was out in the light Jack could see every familiar line of his face, even the slightly quirky smile Charlie had been so ready to give. It was all there for Jack to recognize, right down to the tiny scar on his top lip that you had to know where to look to see.

It was Kawalsky - and yet it couldn't be.

Kawalsky had never smelt of foulness and rot, had never dripped gore on the carpet of Jack's office, and had never, never once in all the years Jack had known him, had his smile morph into such a malevolent leer of anticipation that Jack could do nothing more in the face of it than hope and pray that what he saw wasn't real and that he had gone mad.

It wasn't real.

He was over-tired.

It wasn't there.

Wrenching his eyes away for a second, he grabbed at the paper knife on his desk, holding it up, only to find he was once again alone. His gaze searched the room, feverously hunting but almost hoping he would find no evidence of his visitor. When he was sure the room was empty of anyone but himself he groped his way to the spot where Kawalsky had stood and crouched, checking the carpet for any sign of moisture, his brain finally kicking into gear.

The whole experience had lasted only a minute or two at the most. He was sure the apparition hadn't been an actual physical presence, but he couldn't rule out some sort of holographic projection.

But why? What point would there be in that, and why Kawalsky?

None of this made sense.

He leaned against the desk, his eyes still searching the carpet for any evidence that would stop the rapidly growing conviction that the whole thing was a hallucination.

Although Kawalsky's death had been horrifically brutal he felt no guilt at having given the order. Charlie had been dead already, killed by the damned snake that had invaded his body and taken over his mind. What little that had possibly been left of his friend at the last had undoubtedly applauded Jack's actions. There was no way the man Jack had fought side by side with would have blamed him for what he had to do.

And that was even if Jack believed in ghosts.

Which he didn't.

He shook his head, ran a hand over his face to wipe away the thin sheen of sweat, and pushed away from the desk.

***********

"Anyway, I wanted to check with you before I suggested it to the general ..."

Major Carter stopped in mid-sentence as the colonel approached them. She stepped to one side of the corridor in anticipation of his stopping to talk, but instead he continued on towards the elevator without speaking.

"Jack?" Daniel looked as if he was going to follow their teammate, but she put out a hand to stop him, the one glimpse she caught of the colonel's face showing it to be unnaturally pale, almost sickly. Her CO was never pleasant company when he was ill, and past experience had proven it was better to give him space.

"He didn't look good." Daniel's words confirmed her own opinion and she nodded her head in agreement.

"He's probably heading for the locker room. How about we give him a few minutes and then go see if we can help."

"Did he say anything to you about not feeling well?"

"No. Nothing." Sam began walking, thinking back over the last few days. "Maybe he was already coming down with something before we left on the last mission."

They paused at the elevator, Daniel reaching out to press the button. "Are you suggesting ...?"

Sam quickly shook her head. "No. Of course not." She didn't know what she was suggesting - that it could explain his actions on PX4-612? "I'm wrong. I'm sure he would have said something before we left if that were the case."

"Yeah - if he knew he was sick. What if he didn't?"

The doors opened and they stepped in and stood in silence as the car descended to Level 25, briefly greeting a technician who got on at Level 20 and off again at 22. It wasn't until they were at the locker room door that Sam spoke again.

"You should go in first."

"Okay." Daniel didn't wait, pushing open the door and entering. He was back out almost immediately. "He isn't in there."

"Where then? The infirmary?"

"I doubt it. I can't see Jack going there by choice. How about the cafeteria or his quarters?"

Sam hesitated. "Maybe we should just leave it. If the colonel wanted to talk to us he would have stopped back when he passed us." She thought about it for a moment. "You could give him a call tonight, see how he is."

Daniel gave a snort of amusement. "And expect him to tell me? Okay, what about we see if he's in the cafeteria and if he isn't we just leave it. We're probably just overreacting. If he's got one of his headaches he wouldn't want to talk to us anyway."

"And we can have some lunch, then it wouldn't be too obvious we've been looking for him."

Having come to an agreement, they turned back to the elevators.

**********

General Hammond looked up from the report he was reading as a firm knock sounded on his half open door. Smiling when he saw his 2IC standing there, he waved him in.

"Come on in, Colonel. What can I do for you?"

"Mind if I close the door, sir?"

He shook his head. "No, not at all. Is there a problem? Take a seat."

O'Neill turned from the now shut door and walked the few steps to the visitor's chair, falling into it with less than his usual grace. He paused a moment to run a hand over his face before speaking and Hammond was shocked by his worried expression.

When he did speak, his voice was tentative. "Yes, sir, there's a problem."

"Go on."

"I'm requesting leave, two weeks if possible."

"Two weeks?" George was surprised. The last time Jack had asked for leave was over a year ago, unless you counted the many times he had been home recovering from injury. "I don't think that will be possible. There's several important missions planned, plus a meeting with the funding committee, as you're aware." He saw the frown on the other man's face deepen and continued. "Is there a reason you need to take leave right away? Can it wait at least until after the mission on Wednesday to P5X-398?"

O'Neill slumped forward in the chair, his shoulders hunched and his eyes fixed on his tightly clasped hands. "I don't think I'm in any fit state to be leading the team right now, sir."

Hammond never thought he had heard less likely words come out of Jack O'Neill's mouth. One thing Jack was supremely confident in was his ability to lead.

"Why, son? If you aren't well you should be in the infirmary talking to Doctor Fraiser, not here with me."

"I'm just tired, sir. Nothing a few days off won't cure."

Watching Jack's hands unclasp and begin twisting and winding, his fingers moving in intricate patterns, the general thought not so much about what O'Neill was saying as what he wasn't. He waited a few minutes hoping for more explanation, but seeing he wasn't going to get any decided to take the bull by the horns.

"Cut the crap, Colonel." His words weren't loud, but they held a note of authority that had his 2IC stiffening in his seat. "What's going on? And don't try to spin me any cock and bull story about being tired - it just won't wash."

"You're not going to believe it, sir." O'Neill met his gaze briefly before once again fixing his attention on his hands and launching into an explanation.

Several minutes later he stared in stunned disbelief at the colonel. "You should have sounded the intruder alert. What were you thinking? We could have an alien loose on the base."

O'Neill looked sick, as if the thought had just now occurred to him, which Hammond found hard to swallow - he knew O'Neill would have considered the possibility even if he had obviously dismissed it. "I was thinking I was losing it, General. Still am."

George let his sympathy show, just briefly, as he stood and came around the desk to grip Jack lightly on the shoulder. "I doubt it, Jack." Then his voice hardened. "So let's get this show on the road. I'll order the base searched completely for a possible intruder. You get yourself to the infirmary and have Janet give you a full check up."

"I'd rather help with the search, sir."

Hammond smiled grimly. "I'm sure you would, Colonel." He was reaching for the phone when O'Neill spoke again, coming to his feet.

"What are you going to tell them, sir?"

"That you spotted an intruder in your quarters. No specifics."

He received the smallest of smiles and a nod of thanks for his tact. "There is a possibility it was a projection of some sort."

Glad to see O'Neill appeared to be thinking a little more clearly, George nodded. "I'll speak to Major Carter and see if there is some test which can be done to check that. Now, get to the infirmary."

Already giving orders into the phone, he looked up as the colonel opened the door, worriedly watching the man walk across the Briefing Room as he spoke. Jack hadn't looked well. George hadn't missed the evidence of sweat on his face despite O'Neill having made an attempt to remove it, and his skin had been pale, without its usual healthy tan.

He could only hope they did find some sign of an intruder. Troubling though it would be, it was a lot less disturbing than the other possibility - that Jack had imagined the whole episode.

**********

"The tests are all negative, Colonel." Janet Fraiser glanced down at the papers in her hand. "The results are almost identical to those from your last pre-mission medical. Apart from being a little underweight for your height you're as healthy as the proverbial horse, which, given your diet, has always surprised me."

She smiled and waited for a joking response, or failing that at least a smile in return, but got neither. Instead Colonel O'Neill merely gave her a long look before nodding.

"You told me you've had several headaches recently. Did you have one earlier today? When you were in your office?"

"No, Doc. I'm tired, but nothing more. So there's nothing physical which would explain me seeing things that aren't there?"

"Not that I can see from these results, sir, but that doesn't mean there isn't something we've missed. I've only had time to run the most basic of tests." She hesitated, giving him an appraising look as she did so. She hadn't missed the stress lines that seemed to have appeared overnight. Whatever the colonel had seen in his office had clearly thrown him a lot more than he was admitting. As far as Janet could tell from the rather sketchy description he gave her, it had been a shadowy figure that had vanished within a minute or two. The base was now being checked, as was evidenced by the security team who had done a swift, but thorough, search of the infirmary and surrounding isolation wards and offices.

As she told the colonel, there was nothing physical she could see to explain it. Which still left several possibilities - that there really was an alien intruder on the base, that someone who had legitimate reason to be on the base had slipped into the colonel's office without him seeing them there and had left in a similar fashion, that she had missed something physical, or that the reason was psychological.

Given the choices, Janet devoutly hoped the extremely unlikely second scenario was the case.

**********

Jack hurried down the corridor, heading for Hammond's office.

The Doc had given him a clean bill of health, which under normal circumstances would have pleased him, but not today. He almost wished he hadn't reported what he had seen to Hammond, and instead had just signed out and gone home early and gotten himself a good night's sleep, but he knew where his duty lay. No matter how much he wanted to deny it, he knew he had seen something - Charlie Kawalsky's ghost or more likely an alien projection - standing in front of him in his office, and he couldn't risk a foothold situation to protect himself. As it was he had skirted the line by not sounding the alarm immediately and trying to shrug it off when he first spoke to the general. Even as he had asked for the time off Jack had known he was doing the wrong thing, and it hadn't taken more than a couple of sentences for Hammond to point that out. The result was a base whose work had basically ground to a halt while every nook and cranny was checked for hiding aliens.

It also meant some sideways and occasionally annoyed looks from the personnel he passed in the corridors as word spread as to the reason for the search. He was only grateful for the general's tact in handling the situation. Jack had checked in with Hammond as soon as the Doc finished with him, and had been told that so far, with only a few areas left to search, there was no sign of anything or anyone out of place.

Entering the Briefing Room, O'Neill was surprised at the number of people there already. His team was seated around the table, with Hammond in his usual place at the head. Major Wallace, the head of base security, was to Teal'c's right, and Doctors Lee and Chen sat opposite him on Carter's side of the table.

Daniel raised an eyebrow and opened his mouth as if to speak, but clearly thought better of it and just gave a brief smile.

"Sir." Jack greeted the general as he made his way to his chair.

Hammond waited until he was seated before addressing the people around the table. "Now that Colonel O'Neill has joined us, let's begin. Major Wallace, your report please."

"Yes, sir." The major spoke in a pleasantly modulated voice, the result, Jack knew, of several years of participating in amateur theatre. "Every level of the base has been thoroughly searched, including the sublevel storage rooms, with no sign found of any unauthorized intruder. A team has gone over Colonel O'Neill's office and although the results are inconclusive because of the number of personnel who have been in the room within the last week, there doesn't seem to be any trace of the person the colonel said he saw. All personnel, both military and civilian, have been accounted for."

"What about the security tapes?"

Jack started at Hammond's question, shocked that he hadn't even thought to check them - yet more evidence that he wasn't thinking clearly.

"I have them here, General." Wallace gestured to the screen behind Daniel's chair. "If I may?"

"Go ahead, Major."

Everyone moved into a position from which they could see the screen as it came to life, showing Jack sitting at his desk, typing.

Jack sat forward, knowing what was coming next.

He watched himself turn off the computer and begin to stand before reaching for the phone, then freezing for a second. Then he spoke. But who he spoke to ... Jack's pulse began to quicken as Daniel articulated what they all could see.

"There's no one there, Jack."

The figure on the screen pushed back in his chair and lurched up. Jack felt every eye in the room turn to him, but he couldn't look at anything except the expression of absolute horror on his own face, there for everyone to see.

"It could be that whoever or whatever was in your office is unable to be seen by the surveillance camera, sir."

O'Neill tore his gaze from the screen and gave Carter a grateful look. "Is there any way we can test for that sort of thing, Major?"

"To a certain extent, sir - we can check for unusual radiation readings, see if there are signs of any sort of emissions or traces of any kind. Doctors Lee and Chen have already made a preliminary scan."

"The results of that search were negative, General." Doctor Lee gave Jack a brief glance before his gaze settling on Hammond. "But we do have other equipment that requires a bit more time to set up and run." He exchanged anticipatory looks with Chen, and O'Neill was sure he spotted a brief smile cross the scientist's lips. "Some of it is still in the developmental stage ..."

Hammond cut him off with a curt nod, turning to Carter. "See to it, Major."

"Yes, sir."

With that, Hammond rose. "As it seems there is no immediately threat to the base I'm ordering a stand down from alert. Doctors, Major, please complete your tests as soon as possible." He reached down and picked up the pad and pen he had been making notes on during the meeting. "Thank you everyone. Dismissed. Colonel, my office please."

Jack joined the others in standing and waited until they left the room, Daniel giving him a look which combined curiosity with an obvious demand to have a long talk - something Jack would make every effort to avoid.

"Come in and shut the door, Colonel." Hammond was already seated behind his desk, reading something on the screen of his laptop when Jack entered the room. "I've been looking over Doctor Fraiser's further report. She has already expanded on her preliminary one and can find no physical evidence of illness, alien or otherwise." He looked up briefly and Jack nodded. "She does, however, say that you show obvious signs of tiredness and stress."

"I didn't feel stressed until Kawalsky appeared in my office dripping brains all over my floor, sir." At the look on Hammond's face, Jack bit back a further sarcastic reply, and offered an apology. "Sorry, sir."

"Maybe it would be best if you did take a few days off, Jack - just until the investigation is complete. Doctor Fraiser would like to see you tomorrow for some follow-up tests, so don't go too far."

"So fishing is out?"

"I'm afraid it is, son."

Jack nodded wearily at Hammond's answer. "I only hope this whole thing is the result of too much staring at reports."

He didn't say anything more, but both men knew what he was thinking - that if this was a hallucination brought on by stress, it would mean appointments with MacKenzie at best and at worst the end of his career.

**********

Daniel and Teal'c were waiting for him as soon as he stepped out of the elevator, and Jack couldn't help the grimace that briefly crossed his face.

"What's going on, Jack?"

He continued to walk as he spoke, heading for the locker room. "I'm going home, Daniel."

"You know that isn't what I meant. What did you see in your office? It was more than just some shadowy figure. Don't forget, we all saw the look on your face on the tape."

"It was a figure." Jack pushed the locker room door open angrily.

"Charlie."

Teal'c's unemotional voice pulled Jack up short. He turned, hearing Daniel's exclamation of shock as he did so, and stared at the Jaffa.

"What?"

"Is that not what you said, O'Neill? 'Hello, Charlie'."

"Oh God, Jack, was it Charlie you saw?" Daniel came up close, crowding him and Jack felt his hand grip his upper arm. "I can't imagine ... damn it, Jack, why didn't you come to us?"

Jack turned his head, seeing the genuine concern in his friend's face and hurried to reassure him, at the same time as his heart lurched in his chest.

"It wasn't my Charlie. It was ..." He paused, knowing he didn't have a choice except to admit what he had seen. "It was Charlie Kawalsky."

"You saw Major Kawalsky?" Daniel couldn't seem to wrap his head around the notion and Jack wondered why it had been easier to accept his seeing his dead son.

He opened his locker and began to change, not answering. There really wasn't much more to be said.

"You've seen Janet?"

"Yes, I've seen Janet. There's nothing wrong with me."

"There will be a logical explanation, O'Neill, of this I am sure."

Jack nodded as he pulled off his shirt, not looking up, but grateful none the less for his teammate's words.

"I could come home with you, Jack - make sure you're okay."

"No thanks. I appreciate the offer, but Janet told me to get some sleep." Jack knew Daniel was just itching to ask him more about what had happened, even if his motivation for the offer was mainly to help. But all Jack wanted at this stage was to have a beer or two and an early night, certainly not a heart-to-heart conversation.

It took some convincing, but he finally left his teammates and headed for the surface, anxious to get out of the mountain.

**********

Jack almost made it home - almost.

He had turned into his quiet suburban street and was approaching his driveway. With most of his attention on the mechanics of driving, he glanced to his right to check his mirror.

His truck ended up wedged against his mailbox as Jack scrambled for his handgun, all his attention fixed on the Jaffa sitting next to him, his throat a gaping wound.

**********

O'Neill held his Berretta steady, pointed directly at the warrior beside him. He didn't fire, because even as he knew the threat was very real, he was also aware of the fact that no way could the Jaffa be there. The slash across his neck was deep and mortal, the blood gushing from it far too much for him to just sit, staring at him with those eyes that made his soul shiver.

He was unwilling to even blink, not prepared to take his eyes off the man even for a second. Not this time.

Nor did he speak. This wasn't someone he knew. This was an enemy and they had nothing to say to each other.

On the edge of his awareness Jack could hear a dog barking and the sound of traffic, but dull and muffled. It was as if he was in a bubble, with just the Jaffa for company, the outside world behind a thin barrier which would take little to break.

And if it broke - what would happen? Would he still be here, outside his own house? Or would he wake to find himself locked in some torture chamber, a victim of a nameless Goa'uld's mind games?

The tap on the glass of his passenger side window was loud and insistent.

"Colonel, are you hurt?"

The voice was one he recognized - Mr. Thompson from a few doors down the street, a man he barely spoke to except to exchange pleasantries with when passing.

"Colonel?" And the door began to open, the one the Jaffa had his arm against, the one streaked and smeared with red.

Jack lowered his weapon, quickly slipping it under his leg, because as the door opened Thompson's upper body dissolved the Jaffa, fading him away to nothing.

It wouldn't do to point a gun at his neighbor. Thompson might think Jack was losing it.

He laughed, knowing it came out as slightly hysterical, and shook his head.

"I've fine. Foot slipped on the accelerator."

"Are you sure, because you look a bit pale?"

"Quite sure." O'Neill managed to raise his lips in something resembling a smile. "I'd better sort this out. Thanks again." He made an obvious move towards the steering wheel and Thompson stepped back hastily as the still running engine revved slightly. Jack gave him a nod and reversed, the mailbox tilting to one side when the fender released it.

Driving down the side of the house, Jack parked, turned off the engine, and rested his head momentarily against the steering wheel, before, after a quick look in the mirror to ensure his helpful neighbor wasn't in sight, pulling his gun out to slide it under his jacket.

It didn't take him long to get inside, despite the slight trembling that made getting his key into the keyhole an adventure in itself.

He paused beside the phone, even reaching for it before pulling back his hand. If he reported this he'd be ordered back in, and would be knocking on MacKenzie's door before he'd wiped the dirt from his shoes.

His head was thumping, whether it was from tiredness, the stress of the day, or what had just happened, he didn't know - probably all of the above - and it didn't help that he'd hit his head slightly when he crashed the car. Nothing serious, just enough for him to be aware of the spot and to find himself unconsciously lifting his hand to rub it - yep, he decided, best to do what the doc told him and get some rest.

Checking the clock, he frowned when he read the time. It seemed so much later. Maybe a shower, something to eat, a bit of television, then it might be late enough to justify an early night.

The mundane actions of getting undressed and running the shower helped to settle his unease just a little, and by the time he was under the warm stream of water he was beginning to relax. He lifted his head and let the water flow over him, feeling the tension dissipating and the headache begin to recede.

The whole Jaffa in the car thing was as ridiculous as seeing Kawalsky in his office. Seriously, could he have been more stupid, running to Hammond after what was surely a daydream brought on by fatigue?

Squeezing shampoo into the palm of his hand, he paused, listening.

Had that been a noise?

No.

The shampoo was pleasantly cool on his head and he didn't rub it in as vigorously as normal, instead massaging it lightly and taking his time before shutting his eyes and standing directly under the shower's strong flow.

That little shiver that had saved his life so many times ran softly up his spine and he stilled, every sense quivering.

There was someone near.

He could hear the thin rustle of dry skin on cloth, smell the scent of putrefaction strong in his nostrils.

Right beside him.

Jack leapt from the shower, eyes wide and searching even as the sting of soap blurred them.

There was nothing in the bathroom but a thin, wispy mist as the steam from the hot water dispersed.

Nothing.

He left the shower running, retreating backwards out the door without even grabbing a towel to cover himself. The cold air made him shiver as he defensively half crouched in the hall.

There had been nothing there. Nothing.

He straightened, one hand on the wall. A rub of his eyes and a curse and he turned, going back into the room, leaving a wet palm print on the cream paintwork.

There was nothing there.

With another, fouler curse he climbed back into the shower and rinsed off, swiping at his eyes in an effort to clear them.

And all the while, his spine tingled.

**********

When he finally walked into the living room, his hair sticking up and still dripping at the back, Jack headed straight for the cabinet with the whiskey and poured a large glass. Carrying it in one hand he lifted the phone with the other and dialed Daniel's number.

After a minute of dial tone, the answer machine kicked in and Daniel's voice, speaking matter-of-factly about leaving a message, echoed down the line. O'Neill held the receiver closer to his ear, his fingers slipping as the clammy feeling of sweat grew.

The beep had sounded several seconds before, and he knew he had to say something, but wasn't sure what. 'Hi Daniel, just needed to hear a friendly voice'? Anyway, why the hell had he even called - there was no way his friend would be home yet. It was way too early. But then, he'd known that. That's why he had called Daniel now - so he really didn't have to talk to him.

He blurted out the first thing that came to his mind. "Hey, Daniel ... guess you aren't there then... Okay, catch you later... Well, see you tomorrow I guess."

He hung up in disgust - at himself for being such an idiot. What would Daniel think when he got that message?

He looked at the glass in his hand. In fact, he had been an idiot all round. It was sleep he needed, not alcohol.

Tipping the whiskey down the sink and rinsing the glass, he left it on the draining board and headed for bed.

**********

O'Neill groaned, wondering if the headache was ever going to go away and let him sleep. After lying in bed for a couple of hours, tossing and turning as the thumping got progressively worse, he thought perhaps he should reevaluate his decision not to have a drink. At this stage it couldn't hurt.

He slowly sat, the sheet slipping from his shoulders to come to rest at his waist, clinging to his sweaty body as if trying to hold him there. His eyes flickered around the room, scanning every inch of the bedroom as the sense of unease began to build again.

Whispers in the corners.

His head wiped around.

Nothing.

Christ! This had to end.

The bathroom cabinet held what he needed, a packet of discarded painkillers, not finished after his last injury offworld. He downed two in one swallow and finished the water he had poured, his throat suddenly drier than a bucket of sand.

He fell back into bed, uncaring that the damp sheets were already cold and sticky. The drugs hit almost immediately and he fuzzily realized that taking them on an empty stomach probably wasn't one of the smartest things he'd done.

Eyes closing, Jack finally succumbed to the tug of sleep.

**********

Dreams of dying slowly in a cave in Antarctica had the colonel trying to bury himself further under the covers. Damn, but it was cold!

He shivered, rubbing his arms with his hands, and opened his heavy eyes to look at the clock.

Only just after midnight.

A soft breath ghosted across his back, turning the skin it touched to ice.

He rolled and eyes met eyes, a mere inch from his face - eyes he would know anywhere.

He couldn't help it.

He screamed as he flung himself back off the bed, twisting and falling to the floor, and huddled there, watching as Hathor rose, her rime covered body alabaster in the moonlight.

The room filled with frost as she walked towards him.

**********

Daniel was tired - more than tired - exhausted. And it wasn't the good kind of exhaustion with the knowledge you have achieved something with all the energy and brain power you've expended. No, it was the frustrating tiredness of failure.

There had been nothing found to explain Jack's sighting of a figure in his office. Not that Daniel had been able to help - he'd spent most of the time in his own office trying to concentrate on work and failing miserably. When he'd given up and left, Sam and her bevy of scientists were still fussing with equipment, but passing a determined and annoyed looking Janet in the corridor, he was pretty sure they too had been ordered to get some rest.

Over the course of the afternoon the base had returned to normal, with everyone going about their duties.

Except Jack, of course. Janet had sent Jack home, where hopefully he was now tucked up in bed, getting some much needed sleep - something Daniel hoped to emulate.

Flinging his keys onto the coffee table, Daniel switched on the lights and grimaced at the mess he saw in front of him. There hadn't been a time in the last six weeks that he'd been home for two days straight and his apartment showed the clear evidence of his neglect. Papers littered every surface.

Damn - he'd missed trash day again!

He had already begun to unzip his jacket when he realized the light on the answer phone was flashing. He switched it on.

"Hey, Daniel" Jack's voice sounded loud in the quiet of the night, its overly cheerful tone ringing loud alarm bells with Daniel. There was a pause as if the other man didn't know what to say next, "... guess you aren't there then... Okay, catch you later... Well, see you tomorrow I guess."

Daniel stared at the phone as he heard the click of the receiver being put down. It wasn't like Jack to make calls for no reason. And why would he have called so early, knowing Daniel would still be at the SGC?

He finished taking off his jacket and sat down, his mind still trying to find a reason for Jack's actions - besides the obvious one, of course. The idea that the hardened military man was nervous about being alone was ludicrous. Jack had seemed worried, but perfectly calm when he explained what had happened in his office - even a little embarrassed, which, given what Daniel had heard of the rumors flying around the base, was understandable.

The clock read 0025, far too late to be calling anyone. Whatever Jack had wanted, he'd find out in the morning.

Using his right foot, he pushed his left shoe off then hooked his sock-clad toes into the other one and soon had it off as well. He wiggled his toes, sighing with pleasure at the freedom he felt at such a simple action. He'd been on his feet most of the day, even after getting back from PX4-612.

A huge yawn almost split his face in two.

It was about time he copied Jack and got some sleep.

**********

Clouds drifted across the moon, plunging O'Neill's bedroom into darkness.

He couldn't see her, God, he couldn't see her!

Bare feet murmured across the carpet, making just enough noise to be heard by ears straining for anything - any indication she was near.

His hand groped out, pulling the bedside lamp's cord, and dragging it towards him until the switch was felt beneath his fumbling fingers and he clicked it on.

This time, just when he hoped it would, nothing had changed. Hathor hadn't disappeared like Kawalsky or the Jaffa, instead she stood, her red hair almost flaming in the lamp light, looking down at him, small clouds of icy breath puffing out from her mouth and drifting across the short space that separated them.

He couldn't let it touch him!

Pushing his legs under him, Jack scrambled up and fled, all courage gone.

He made it to the living room and turned, panting, watching the hall for any sign he had been followed, but as the stillness stretched from seconds into minutes his pounding heart began to quiet.

The house was completely silent.

It had been a dream, more than likely brought on by the painkillers he'd taken. They had been a complete overkill, certainly not what he should have used to clear something as simple as a headache. He'd talk to Janet in the morning and see what she suggested.

Damn it, this had been a day filled with stupid decisions and over the top reactions. Whatever had spooked him back on the planet had a lot to answer for - if there had been anything there at all - he was beginning to strongly doubt there had been.

After another glance at the hallway, he padded into the kitchen, turning on the faucet. Out the window the bushes in his garden moved slowly as the breeze that had been blowing all day grew. Moonlight picked out shapes in patches and shadows twisted and changed, turning the familiar scene into something odd and half bewildering. He stood, watching, trying to make some sense of what he saw, waiting until the pieces fell back into place and became, once again, what he knew - garden furniture he sat at, bushes and scrubs he'd pruned, and trees that shaded him.

O'Neill shook his head, shifting his hands on the kitchen bench, but still staring out the window, the water gurgling unnoticed down the drain.

Maybe it was time he admitted he couldn't keep up any more, shouldn't be on active duty. A desk job was beginning to look more appealing by the minute.

*********

Daniel had already pulled the covers down on his bed when he rethought his decision not to call Jack. It was only just after midnight, and Jack had always been a night owl. He was probably sitting up watching television right now in defiance of the doctor's orders.

And he had sounded rather strange on the phone. Not his normal self at all.

Daniel frowned, his eyes going to the receiver next to the bed.

After all, what could Jack do if Daniel did wake him? Yell at him? That was nothing new. Jack's yelling was a bit like water off a duck's back to Daniel these days.

He sat on the edge of the bed and picked up the phone, calling the familiar number.

When the ringing continued for what seemed like several minutes he began to rethink his decision, picturing the phone waking Jack from a sound, and obviously badly needed, sleep. He had almost given up, the receiver already nearly back on its base, when he caught the sound of Jack's voice on the line and snatched it up to his ear again, hurrying to speak.

"Hi, Jack. I hope I didn't wake you. I just got in and heard your message ..."

Pausing, he waited for his friend to say something. When Jack did, it was a somewhat distracted mumble - something dismissive about forgetting it, and Daniel decided to take the bull by the horns and damn the consequences.

"Would you like me to come over?"

He waited, finally getting an answer.

"Ah... If you want ..."

Every warning signal Daniel had ever heard was being rung by the quiet, unsure voice, so unlike Jack's, the hesitation, the obviously implied plea for help...

"I'll be there in ..."

There was a crash and a deep, overwhelmingly harrowing cry echoed in his ears, fading down to whimpered words.

"Oh ... God, no ..."

Daniel dropped the phone and ran.

**********

The slap of his feet on the cold tiles of his hall brought Daniel to a screaming halt and he did an abrupt right turn into the lounge room. His shoes were still where he had left them. He slid them on, grabbed his jacket off the back of the chair, snatched his keys from the hall table, and was out the door within minutes of having spoken to Jack.

It was halfway to Jack's house that the thought hit him - should he have called someone at the SGC? Janet? Hammond? What about their teammates? Whatever had caused Jack to call out like that was probably something Daniel didn't want to just walk in on alone.

That's if there was anything there.

If he called out the troops, only to find Jack had been caught in the middle of a nightmare ... he wasn't sure who it would be worse for, Jack or him.

He'd call Sam. She'd know what to do.

Daniel groped in his jacket pocket for his cell, slowing down slightly as he steered one-handed around a bend.

It wasn't there. An image of the phone sitting on the chest of draws in his bedroom flashed through his mind and he uttered a very Jack-like "Crap!" The decision as to whether to call someone had been taken out of his hands by a simple act of forgetfulness.

Jack's house was blazing with light when Daniel pulled up outside it - surely a good sign. He couldn't see alien attackers, or even human ones for that matter, taking the time to switch every light on. The only sign of anything out of the ordinary was the extreme tilt on the mailbox at the end of the path.

The only sign of anything unusual - except the lights of course. That wasn't usual. Daniel frowned and paused his hurried steps to the front door to look more carefully around.

Jack's truck was parked in its customary spot. The street was quiet, and there was no one else in sight. Just a normal suburban night.

Pulling the key Jack had given him from his pocket, Daniel quickly inserted it and pushed the door open a little, listening. When he didn't hear anything he opened it a bit more and carefully looked through, crouching slightly. One part of his mind was sifting through all the lessons Jack had given him in what to do when entering a potentially hostile situation, but another part was shouting at him to hurry up and find Jack.

In the end it was the shouting part that won.

Daniel stepped fully into the house.

"Jack!" He hurried towards the lounge room. "Jack, where are you?"

Despite the lack of reply, it didn't take long to find him.

The telephone table was lying on its side, the photo frame and small pottery bowl that usually were on its surface, broken on the floor beside it. The telephone receiver itself was beeping quietly from the carpet.

And Jack was sitting, his head bowed, in his favourite chair, his bare feet up on the coffee table and bent at the knees.

"Jack?" Daniel automatically lowered his voice to almost a whisper when his friend didn't look up, and approached him slowly, registering all the tiny details which separately meant nothing, but put together were worrying, to put it mildly.

Daniel moved nearer to take up a position perched on the low table, facing Jack. When the other man still didn't react, he leaned forward, putting out a hand.

Jack flinched violently, his right shoulder twitching upwards in a jerky motion. Finally he looked up, looking confused.

"Daniel? When did you get here?"

"Just a few minutes ago. What's going on? What happened?"

"When?" Jack's gaze skittered away even as he spoke.

"When you were talking to me. You called out."

"You must have misheard. I bumped the phone." Pointing, Jack indicated the receiver.

Daniel stood and righted the telephone table, putting the phone back onto it. He glanced briefly at the large pieces of broken pottery and the glistening shards of glass, but decided now wasn't the time to deal with them.

Turning back to Jack, he found him striking a match to light the cigarette he had already placed between his thin, bloodless, lips.

"What are you doing?"

With a grunt of irritation, Jack stopped, shaking the match to put it out and taking the cigarette from his mouth. "You know I smoke."

"Smoked, Jack, smoked. You gave up years ago. So what are you doing?"

Instead of answering Jack pulled a book of matches from his pocket and struck another one, holding it up to the cigarette again. Daniel watched as he inhaled deeply, drawing the smoke in.

Then he coughed, small coughs to begin with, but soon ones that shook his whole body. He took the cigarette from his mouth again, throwing it to join the spent match on the tabletop.

Jack sat back as the coughs lessened, taking his feet off the coffee table. He took a few breaths and finally spoke. "Shit! I can't even enjoy a smoke anymore." He didn't sound angry. Daniel almost wished he did - it would have been far better than the defeated voice he heard.

Spotting a cigarette packet poking from the couch cushions, Daniel leaned forward and pulled it out, turning it over in his hands and looking at it curiously. Its once glossy surface was faded, the writing barely legible. The cardboard was warped as if it had been wet and it was covered in a thin layer of gray fuzz. He popped the top open and stared in consternation at the mould mottled cigarettes inside.

With an exclamation of disgust, Daniel dropped the packet, wiping his hands down the legs of his jeans to rid them of the black residue now covering his fingertips.

"No wonder you had that reaction when you tried to smoke one of these! How old are they? Where the hell did you find them?"

Jack still didn't look at him, hiding behind his arm now, putting it across his face in a posture Daniel recognized as one he took up when trying to avoid interacting with anyone. He was a little surprised that Jack answered his question.

"They were out on the deck. I stashed them there in case I changed my mind about quitting."

"When? How long have they been out there?" Daniel prodded the packet, feeling it squelch moistly.

This time Jack didn't speak, but Daniel thought he knew the answer anyway. The packet had probably been outside on his friend's deck for years. He'd be lucky to not get some exotic disease from the moldy cigarettes.

He took a closer look at the other man, seeing the lines of fatigue making his face look haggard. Jack seemed to have aged years in the short hours since this morning.

He stood, needing to do something, anything, rather than just sitting there. Maybe he could get Jack to talk, to tell him what had caused him to shout out, to sound so desperate, but he had to approach the subject carefully.

"Come on." He put his hand out, ignoring the jerk Jack gave as he gripped his arm, giving it a small tug. "Janet said you needed sleep and I don't think you've been following her orders."

Jack pulled back, yanking his arm out of Daniel's grasp. For the first time he met Daniel's eyes, his own red-rimmed ones flashing dangerously. Daniel would have been pleased to hear the note of old familiar Jack in his voice, if it wasn't for what he said.

"I don't want to go to bed." He raised his hand to rub the bridge of his nose.

"Have you got a headache?"

Jack gave a weary nod. "Oh yeah."

"Then you really need to get to bed." Daniel decided to be decisive. He took a step, intending to try once again to make the other man stand. His shoe crunched on something and he looked down, remembering the broken glass.

"I'll just get the worst of this up, okay?" Daniel headed for the kitchen, intending to get the hand-held vacuum Jack kept in one of the cupboards, but stopped, spying the half empty whiskey bottle and the glass on the bench.

He turned back, suddenly furious, everything finally falling into place.

"Is that it, Jack? Is that what this is all about? You had a few drinks, fell asleep on the couch and had a nightmare?" He stalked towards the other man, gesturing angrily. "I rush over here, thinking you're in some sort of trouble and you can't even remember asking me to come? Do you realize how close I came to sounding the alarm and asking for the SF's to meet me here? That would have been great, wouldn't it?" He stopped, glaring down at his friend. "Is that it, Jack? Tell me?"

"No!"

Daniel stepped back, startled by the intensity that rang out in the single shouted word. Jack lurched up and Daniel winced at the sound of glass cracking under bare feet.

"Is that what you think? Damn it - I was going to have one drink when I got home, but I changed my mind." Jack pushed past him. "Do you really think so little of me?" He turned and Daniel flinched at the livid fury in Jack's voice. "When was the last time you saw me drunk, Daniel? Think about it."

As his mind searched through the past years to find the answer to Jack's question, Daniel realized his friend was right. In all those team nights at bars and restaurants, at all the bbq's Jack had held, he couldn't remember a single occasion when Jack had been anything more than slightly tipsy - not for a very long time.

Jack had continued to storm off as Daniel thought, and now he hurried after him, stopping him at the door to the hall by pulling once again on his arm.

"Jack." He rushed to speak as the other man ignored him. "Jack, stop! I'm sorry. You're right. I was completely out of line. I don't know what made me think that." He frowned as Jack didn't acknowledge him, continuing down the hall. With a hop, Daniel managed to get in front of him, stopping him dead in his tracks. "Jack, please!"

There was a long pause, then it was as if Jack was a balloon that suddenly deflated. He sagged, all the fight going out of him, and for a moment Daniel thought he would fall and reached out. He didn't, straightening slightly at the last second, but Daniel still pulled him in, holding him steady. He momentarily felt his friend's weight resting against him, before Jack stepped back.

"It's okay. I can understand why you thought ..." He hesitated. "I haven't been exactly... I saw ... It was ..." Daniel held his breath, waiting, but sighed in disappointment as Jack stopped and just shook his head, clearly deciding not to continue.

They stood there, at an impasse, as Daniel wondered what to respond. He hadn't exactly helped matters, in fact he felt like he'd done the opposite, upsetting his friend unnecessarily. His looked down, not knowing what to do next.

"You've cut your feet." He nodded at the red dotting the carpet behind them.

Jack looked and for a second it was the old Jack that turned back, one eyebrow raised, a slightly abashed look on his face. "Yeah, well I suppose if I'm stupid enough to walk barefoot across broken glass ..."

Daniel felt relief at having something relatively normal to discuss. "Better clean them before you go to bed."

"Okay." Jack nodded.

"Do you need a hand?"

"No, I'm good." Jack lifted one foot to inspect it, balancing on the other as he did so. "They aren't deep - just scratches."

"Okay, I'll clean up the glass while you're doing that."

"You're staying?"

"Of course."

He waited, not sure of the other man's reaction, but relaxed when he nodded stiffly and turned to head for the bathroom.

**********

By the time Daniel had cleared the carpet of the many tiny pieces of glass and pottery which littered it, Jack had finished cleaning and bandaging the cuts. He leaned against the doorway, watching as Daniel disposed of the debris. Despite his relaxed pose he seemed a little uncomfortable and Daniel could see he still had the headache he'd obviously had earlier, his hand alternately rubbing the bridge of his nose and the back of his neck. He'd changed into sweat pants and a T-shirt, ready for bed.

Daniel tried again. "Come on, Jack. It's about time you followed doctor's orders." He began leading his friend towards the bedroom.

Nodding, Jack followed. "Did they find anything? At the base? Anything to explain ...?"

Daniel shook his head reluctantly, waiting as Jack straightened up, picking the lamp off the floor and putting it back on the bedside table. "No, not that I know of, but the equipment ..." He stopped and smiled. "I have to admit I didn't have a clue what Sam and her scientists were doing, but whatever it was, I'm sure there will be an answer ..."

Jack held out a hand. "Ack, don't. Nothing's certain."

"Well, we've seen some pretty strange things. I'm sure there is a logical explanation."

For some reason Jack was avoiding meeting his eyes again. He slid under the covers and turned to his side.

Daniel started to leave. "Goodnight. I'll lock up when I go."

"Stay."

The word was so quietly spoken that Daniel wasn't sure he'd heard it correctly. "What?"

"Please... Stay."

This time there was no mistaking the plea. Daniel nodded. "Okay." He put a hand out to switch off the light.

"Leave it on."

"Ah, okay ... is the bed made up in the spare room?"

He waited, but it was long seconds before Jack answered. "Daniel, stay... Here ... Please."

Jack sounded - scared.

"No problem." Pulling a chair over to just under the window, Daniel grabbed a spare blanket off the end of Jack's bed and settled in for a long, uncomfortable night - what was left of it anyway.

The moon shone wanly through the curtains, its light disappearing as it mixed with the artificial glow of electricity. Daniel sat, watching as his friend drifting into a restless sleep, his hand rubbing at the back of his neck in a gesture that was vaguely familiar.

It wasn't until dawn was coloring the clouds outside that Daniel sat up with a jerk, the memory of a Goa'uld snake entering Jack's neck, while he stood, helpless to do anything but watch, suddenly as vivid as that moment long years and many missions ago.

***********

Jack had waited, knowing Daniel was awake, but gradually the other man's breathing changed as he succumbed to the pull of sleep. Then keeping one eye on Daniel's sleeping form, Jack sat and swung his legs around until his feet met the floor before making his quiet way out of the bedroom. Softly shutting the door behind him, he headed for the guest bathroom.

As much as he needed to have Daniel there, he also felt the desperate desire for privacy - to regroup and re-evaluate his actions on the previous night in the cold light of day. Flipping the toilet lid down, he sat hunched over, both hands clasped on the back of his neck, his fingers massaging and tugging at the tense, aching muscles in his back and upper spine. He moved his head and shoulders up and down as he pressed into his neck, fingering the hard ridge of scar tissue running from his hairline to just between his shoulder blades. Shuddering with revulsion, he remembered the feeling of the Goa'uld's first massive bite, then the ripping as it tore its way through the skin and deep into the fragile tissue below. After the initial scream involuntarily rose in his throat, agonizing spasms had him clenching his teeth and trying to just survive. Forget fighting, he hadn't been able to think that far ahead, just taking one desperate breath at a time.

And last night...

God, last night.

It had happened again. She had held the hissing snake, pushing it towards him, and he dropped the phone and had been back there, back in Hathor's fake SGC, pleading, begging.

"Oh ... God, no ..."

His fingers dug cruelly into the scar, pain shooting up in all too familiar waves as he probed, searched and scratched.

Slipping from the toilet, he fell to the tiled floor and started to shake, tremors wracking his body as shock finally set in.

**********

Jack didn't hear the knock on the door, didn't even realize Daniel had entered the bathroom until he was kneeling beside him, one hand holding his shoulder while the other pressed a wadded towel to his bleeding neck. When he eventually uncurled and shakily sat, Daniel moved away, standing and waiting silently near the now open door.

"Jack?"

He looked up, startled out of his profound embarrassment by the look on his friend's face. After a couple of swallows he managed to croak out a dry "What?"

It didn't seem to help, if anything his reply appeared to make Daniel even more worried as he held tightly on to the bloody towel, his hands flexing as if he were wringing it.

The tickle of moisture running down his neck and into his collar brought Jack's hand around to investigate and, after he wiped it across his skin he brought it back and stared at the bright blood now smeared on his fingertips with something akin to astonishment.

"Daniel?" He held them out to the other man. "I think I must have cut myself. Can you have a look?"

Daniel gave a short, sharp shake of his head. "We'd better let Janet handle it. Get dressed. I'll drive."

"Okay."

Jack got to his feet, his legs numb from the cold floor. He couldn't help staggering slightly, but managed to catch himself on the basin before he fell. Holding himself upright, with one hand clutching the hand basin's white porcelain, he turned on the faucet and held his other hand under it, watching the blood run down the drain hole.

Through all this he wondered at Daniel's stillness.

Jack knew the cut on his neck was still bleeding. He reached to open the cabinet above the basin.

His eyes meet others, staring back at him from the mirror. Eyes filled with condemnation and contempt. Young eyes grown old with pain.

He had been so promising, so ready for anything.

So very, very young.

But Lieutenant Elliot had died and now had joined the ranks of his tormentors.

He was here and the air seemed to crackle with energy as if its fabric was trying to rip.

And through it all, Jack could see Daniel in the mirror, standing there oblivious.

***********

Jack was staring into the mirror as Daniel waited, watching carefully. He was ready, for what he wasn't sure, to run, to fight - he didn't know.

The signs were all there, even down to the bleeding gash in Jack's neck, but... He studied his friend, seeing the dull eyes in a face lined with fatigue.

There hadn't been a time when Jack had been alone offworld except once, and even then it had only been during his watch that last night on the planet. And he'd been checked, just as they all had, when he came back. The MRI had shown nothing.

No, it wasn't possible - unless... He dismissed the fleeting notion that Jack had been infested by a Goa'uld while here on Earth. Whatever was happening to Jack had started before he left the base and he knew for a fact that Janet would have spotted the obvious entry point in Jack's neck if it had been present before he came home.

Daniel felt a weight lift from his shoulders as he came to the conclusion his nightmarish fears Jack had been taken as a host were groundless. Something else was happening here, but just what Daniel had no idea.

He really needed to get Jack to talk to him. There hadn't really been time the previous night, not with Jack acting so out of character. He had seemed so fragile that pushing him even slightly might have sent him over the edge.

Not that it looked like he was in any better a state now.

It was that same sense of standing on the edge of a precipice and waiting for Jack to leap that catapulted Daniel into action, making him hurry forward to stand beside his friend, to put his hands over Jack's, and to prise them off the basin's edge. He held them tight, feeling their icy coldness, and stood beside the other man staring into the mirror, trying to see what was holding him enthralled.

All he saw were their reflections, with the bathroom beyond.

"You can't see them, can you."

"See who, Jack?"

Jack's eyes met Daniel's in the mirror, and Daniel felt his heart miss a beat at the horror in his friend's voice.

"Them."

**********

Daniel couldn't see them, couldn't smell the charnel reek, couldn't feel them closing in.

Behind Elliot, Henry Boyd screamed at him in slow-motion silence, his mouth gaping, while Ivanov's melting face ever flowed and reformed.

And there were others - Simmons, even Apophis - each of them staring back at Jack wherever he looked, wherever he turned.

"Who? Jack - see who?"

Jack closed his eyes against the reflected faces, and shook his head, but he wasn't allowed to hide. Daniel had him by the hands and was turning him away. He kept his eyes shut, knowing if he opened them he would truly be in their midst.

"Answer me, Jack. Who do you see? Is it Major Kawalsky? Are you seeing him again?"

And Jack couldn't help laughing. If only it were that easy. If only it was his friend Charlie standing here with them, even with the accusation Jack had seen in his stare. Charlie he could deal with.

But there were others...

"If it is, we should call Sam, get her to bring her equipment and set it up here. She might be able to get some readings - find some answers."

He carefully opened his eyes, and his breath caught in his throat, for now there were more - crowded into the small space, cheek to jowl, enemies with colleagues, friends with strangers, and as Daniel pulled him from the room Jack brushed against them, his skin shivering, each one turning as he passed. He couldn't hear their footsteps as they followed, but he knew they did so by the prickling of his scalp and the feeling of dread in his soul.

They reached the lounge room and walked into shadows and darkness beyond which Jack could glimpse others, all with their eyes grim upon him, each waiting, watching and seeing inside him, and as light flared at Daniel's touch of the switch, they remained, not retreating.

Daniel sat and Jack followed, his eyes darting around. He could see his friend following his movements, looking to see what he saw, but he knew that for Daniel there was just empty space and the commonplace stillness of the early morning hours just after dawn.

No matter how much he hoped it was a dream, Jack knew that it was not. What had caused it, he didn't know. What it meant, he had no idea. What he had to do to stop it, he couldn't even hazard a guess. But he knew he couldn't last much longer, with every step, every breath, watched by judgmental eyes that ate away at him.

He searched the room, looking for the one face he dreaded most to see with contempt shining from its gaze. His eyes paused as they hit upon new faces, sometimes replacing old ones, sometimes crowding in beside the rest, but it was with relief that he couldn't find the one he looked for. Relief and sadness, for although he feared, he also burned with the need to gaze once more on the person he missed most.

His son.

And when at last he was sure Charlie wasn't there, he turned to Daniel and blocked out everything but what he needed to explain.

It was with a certain sense of irony and a twisted half smile that felt ghastly even to him, that he spoke the words in a whisper, fraught with the need to be believed.

"I see dead people."

**********

"Any change?" General Hammond stopped only a fraction of an inch from the large viewing window, his nose almost touching the glass, looking down as he spoke.

Doctor Fraiser shook her head, but didn't turn, instead continuing to stare down at the room below, a frown of concentration on her face. "No, if anything his condition seems to have deteriorated."

The general's gaze was fixed wholly on the man pacing around the isolation room. "He looks fine, considering."

"You'd think so, but watch carefully."

There was silence from the two officers for a few minutes then Janet spoke sharply. "There! See that?"

"No."

"Watch again. There - you see now?"

Hammond nodded slowly. "He flinched and stepped to one side."

"Yes, as if he was about to walk into something." She emphasized her next words. "Or someone. And there - see that?"

Below them, Colonel O'Neill, with a look of profound horror, was now backing slowly, as if away from something - something that wasn't there. He stopped after only a few steps, raising his head, and the observers found themselves staring directly into his eyes. It was almost as if a switch was turned off as the colonel's face froze into an emotionless mask before he looked away once more and walked across to climb up onto the hospital bed in the center of the room, pulled the blanket up to his shoulders and turned his back on them.

"I don't think he's happy we're observing him."

Hammond bit back the urge to use one of O'Neill's favourite phrases - Ya think! - instead just muttering a grunt of agreement.

Janet sighed and made a few notes on the chart in her hand, checking her watch. "I hope he gets some sleep this time, if not I'll have to sedate him, despite his wishes. It's been thirty-six hours and in that time he's had less than three hours unbroken sleep."

"And we're no closer to finding an answer."

"The results of the scientists' tests, sir?"

"Are in." The general moved away from the window, taking a seat at the small table set against the wall. "There's no evidence of any cause for the hallucinations the colonel is experiencing." He rested his elbow on the hard surface and looked wearily up at the doctor. "I'm afraid the only conclusion we can come to at this point in time is that these events are a result of ..." He stopped, unable to say the final damning words.

"He's lost it."

Hammond fought hard to conceal his surprise at the doctor's less than professional diagnosis, but seeing the despair in her face, instead of reprimanding Fraiser he just gave a weary nod. "I'll have to call in Doctor MacKenzie."

"The colonel won't like that."

As understatements went, Hammond thought that would top the list. "I don't have a choice. His behavior is becoming increasingly erratic and the Pentagon wants answers."

If he was honest with himself, George Hammond knew the Pentagon didn't so much want answers as an excuse to put O'Neill somewhere very private from which he'd probably never return. Whether it was post-traumatic stress, an alien disease or caused by prolonged exposure to Gate use, the results were the same - a man teetering on the brink of complete meltdown. They weren't prepared to let the leader of the SGC's premier team and 2IC of the base retire on medical grounds if he was a danger to security.

A flurry of movement from the hospital bed brought Hammond to his feet once more and both he and Doctor Fraiser hurried to the window.

Jack had rolled off the bed and was now across the room, pressed into a corner as if he was trying to make himself as small as possible. Even from this distance the general could see the trembling that wracked his body. Within a few moments it was clear he was having trouble holding himself upright and it was without surprise that he watched O'Neill slide down the wall to sit, his knees bent and his head bowed.

"Sir - I need ..."

He nodded. "Do what you have to, Doctor. When should I arrange Doctor MacKenzie's visit?"

"You'd better make it ten hours, sir."

"Very well."

General Hammond waited, watching as Doctor Fraiser and her nurses finally managed to coax Colonel O'Neill back up onto the bed and administer an injection he took to be a sedative. The protests were vehement and bitter, and at one point O'Neill looked up at him.

"General, please - don't ..."

Leaning into the microphone, he gave the order. "Colonel O'Neill, let the doctor do her job."

The look of betrayal on Jack's face was almost too much for the general to bear.

**********

The sound of MacKenzie's voice was the first intimation Jack had that there was someone tangible in the room with him, someone he could touch, a living breathing person somehow crammed into a space left vacant by the myriad of ghosts who even haunted his drugged dreams.

Searching to find a face he could respond to, he surveyed the torn, broken and bloody remnants of lives brutally cut short. It was only when the doctor spoke again that Jack spotted him, standing between Akmar and Captain Foster of SG-8, his white-coated shoulder touching the oozing open sores on the captain's chest.

Jack had avoided looking in Akmar's direction since the first appearance of his Iraqi guard just before the Doc had knocked him out. Akmar looked like he'd been blown up, limbs hanging by threads and one eye dripping down his cheek as if peering at the floor.

The odd thing was that Jack didn't remember Akmar dying. In fact he had a very vivid and unpleasant memory of the huge man beating the crap out of him one more time before he was released - the final beating that was almost one too many. Still, he was here, and Jack did have gaps in his memory of that time so...

"Colonel O'Neill. Can you hear me?"

He glared at the psychiatrist. "Of course I can, Doctor, but the question is - do you have anything to say worth listening to?" He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and sat, just stopping himself from putting a hand to his head as the far too familiar headache that always accompanied waking up from a drug induced sleep began pounding behind his eyes.

He knew Janet had thought she was doing the right thing, but she couldn't have known the apparitions walked through his nightmares now, ever present - that there was nowhere he could escape them anymore. She couldn't have known, any more than the general could, because Jack hadn't told them. He hadn't told them how much worse it had gotten since Daniel had brought him back to the SGC four days ago, although given that they were watching his every move they had probably guessed. It was like he was living in a psychotic nightmare peopled by the past, in which the real and the present made very brief and hardly noticed appearances.

His team had visited, but he found it hard to pretend to be normal as the dead crowded around, clutching and touching them, stroking putrid fingers down their living cheeks as if trying to suck life from them. On Carter's last visit, Jack had cracked, leaping up to stop Jonas Hanson from wrapping his arms around her. Carter had jumped up and out of the way, her eyes showing her panic, and she hadn't been back.

Jack hadn't tried to explain. How could he?

"Tell me what you're seeing."

No matter how much he disliked this man, Jack knew he had to try. Being uncooperative wouldn't help matters in the slightest, so he bit down on his natural inclination to refuse to answer. Perhaps the doctor had the solution; perhaps he could explain what was happening. He fixed his eyes determinedly on the psychiatrist, blocking out his surroundings.

"Ghosts. The dead. But I'm sure they've told you that."

"They?"

Irritated despite his best intentions, he glared at the man. "They - Doc Fraiser, the General. Do you think I'm seeing conspiracies now? I'm not that far gone." He barely refrained from muttering `idiot'. "I know you've been given all the facts, MacKenzie - such as they are - so cut the bullshit and give me your theory. You must have one."

Jack began to see some humor in the situation when the doctor pulled a chair up level with his bed, carelessly dragging it through assorted apparitions. Except the mere fact he was finding it funny was cause enough to be worried about the tenuous grip with which he still held on to reality.

MacKenzie shook his head as if disappointed. "Come now, Colonel - you can't really expect me to make a diagnosis without talking to you first and hearing your side of the story."

"What's to hear? I'm seeing things that no one else can."

"Ghosts?"

"Yeah, whatever - maybe. Hell, it isn't like I believe in the things."

"But you're seeing something? If not ghosts, then what?"

Anger rose, but Jack swallowed it back. MacKenzie was just asking the same questions everyone else had when he finally described what he was seeing. And it wasn't like he had any explanation.

"You tell me, Doctor." He smiled bitterly, his lips twisted in a thin, crooked line. "Isn't that why you're here?"

Instead of answering, MacKenzie shifted in his chair, looking around. "Tell me what you see now, Colonel. Describe it to me."

"Well, there's a couple of Jaffa with staff weapon wounds standing about six inches from me. They're a bit hard to see around. And the whole of SG-18 is hanging about by the door. If they were alive I don't think they'd be at all well. Let's see, who else? Well, Major Mansfield has staked a claim to that bit of space next to the shelf, and Rothman ..."

Jack stopped, his words faltering for a second before he continued, keeping his eyes firmly on MacKenzie's face. He didn't need to look to know who was in the room with him. He didn't want to look.

"The System Lords don't seem to like each other. Ra and Marduk have obviously had a falling out and are on opposite sides of the room. I haven't seen Apophis for a while but I know he's around here somewhere, and Hathor is fiddling with her hair about - there." He pointed and was amused to see the doctor instinctively glance in that direction. "There's assorted, very obviously dead people scattered around, some I don't even recognize, and Captain Foster is dripping pus all over you. You remember him? SG-8. I sent them out on a mission about eighteen months ago, while General Hammond was on leave. Nasty business. Some sort of allergy to a substance in the soil."

The doctor moved his chair a little to the left.

"Wrong direction, MacKenzie. You're practically sitting in his lap now." Jack watched as the bland expression changed to show a little concern. "But I wouldn't suggest you move the other way." He couldn't help looking at Akmar, feeling the Iraqi's cold eyes on him, and flinched when the prison guard licked his lips and gave him a slow, leering wink.

"I see a common thread here, Colonel. I'm sure you're already aware of it."

Jack's heart froze as another figure walked slowly towards him. With a supreme effort of will he answered the doctor.

"Do tell?"

"You are, in some way, responsible for the deaths of all the people you have mentioned. Major Kawalsky - the first hallucination - you gave the order that resulted in his death. The same with Captain Foster, even though there was no way you could have known you were sending him to his death. Rothman and the others were all people you felt some responsibility for. The System Lords and Jaffa were enemies who have been killed in the war you are fighting." He paused and raised his voice. "We must consider that these hallucinations are the manifestations of the guilt you have accumulated over the many years of service in the Air Force."

The others moved aside, clearing a corridor down which he came. He had almost reached them now, his steps long but languid. He moved with the familiar grace Jack knew so well, his mouth twisted up in that sadistic little smile that turned Jack's blood to ice.

MacKenzie was droning on - some utter crap about remorse and facing past deeds, but all Jack could do was sit, locked in place.

"Colonel O'Neill, you must try and concentrate and listen to me if I'm to help you." The man's firm hand on his arm broke the spell and Jack was able to reply.

"Ghosts. Guilt. Stress. People I've killed. Got it." He licked his lips, finding them amazingly dry. "Then I'd like you to explain something to me, seeing you've got all the answers."

"What is that, Colonel?"

Pointing, Jack rose, nausea warring with the urge to flee.

"What's Ba'al doing here?"

**********

Lyle MacKenzie caught movement out the corner of his eyes up in the observation room, and saw Janet Fraiser's hand reaching out to touch the glass as she leaned forward. He didn't let himself be distracted, concentrating his attention on the man in front of him - his patient.

Colonel Jack O'Neill was standing by the edge of the bed, his hand out and pointing. His eyes were fixed on a spot just in front of him, slightly to the right and forward of where MacKenzie stood; a spot completely empty of anyone, just as the rest of the room was.

"Ba'al?" Even as he spoke MacKenzie was re-evaluating the tentative conclusions he'd come to so far about the case.

"Sort of throws your theories out the window, eh Doctor?" O'Neill wasn't looking at him, but his voice fairly dripped with sarcasm. "I don't have a lot of repressed guilt over how I treated Ba'al, especially considering that as far as I know he isn't dead." He spun, the sudden movement taking MacKenzie by surprise. "Excuse me."

The doctor barely had time to turn himself before the colonel was at the door, thumping on it violently.

"Open!"

"Colonel!" Reaching out, he grabbed the man's shoulder. "You must ..." And found himself crushed to the ground, O'Neill's weight heavy on his back.

Alarms blared as he fought to get back the breath that had been knocked out of him. As soon as the colonel moved he pushed up onto his hands and half sat, gasping as he watched two burly SF's wrestling with the struggling officer.

"Are you all right, sir?" Doctor Fraiser had entered the room and was bending to help him up, but he ignored the proffered hand and stood, moving past her while giving a quick nod. He stood directly in front of O'Neill, seeing the man's eyes skittishly shift to and fro as if searching for something.

"Colonel - look at me." Putting every ounce of authority he could muster into his voice, he barked the words. "Look at me. Nowhere else, only at me."

There was a moment when he thought it wouldn't work, but, after a few seconds, O'Neill's gaze slowly turned towards him. He swallowed and straightened in the guards' hands, making a quick and unsuccessful attempt to shake them off.

"Doctor?" Fraiser held out a syringe, keeping it out of sight of O'Neill.

MacKenzie shook his head.

"Sorry." The single word was spoken simply and without inflection and MacKenzie acknowledged it by ordering the SF's to release the now quiet man. O'Neill stayed still as they left the room, his eyes remaining fixed on Lyle's face.

"I should apologies to you, Colonel. I shouldn't have grabbed you like that."

"I thought ..."

MacKenzie interrupted. "Ba'al?"

"Yeah."

"Doctor Fraiser, I'm transferring Colonel O'Neill from this ward to his quarters. Could you have them readied immediately." He spoke quickly, not shifting his gaze from O'Neill's. "While you're doing that, I'd like a private word with the colonel."

"Sir, I'd have to get the general's permission to move Colonel O'Neill, and I'm not sure ..."

"Then get it. Tell him that I either treat him in his quarters or the psych ward of the Academy Hospital, whichever he prefers."

O'Neill's eyes left his, moving to Fraiser's incredulous face as she left the room, but Lyle pulled them back with a gruff command.

"Colonel, focus on me and on me alone." He waited for a moment, then asked, "Do you trust me?"

This could go either way. He waited anxiously for the all important answer. When it came, it was spoken with O'Neill's customary confidence - hell, he'd prefer to call it arrogance if he didn't acknowledge he suffered from the same failing.

"Yes. I trust you. I don't like you, but I trust you."

MacKenzie didn't allow his relief at the answer to show. "Good. I want you to concentrate on me at all times. When we leave here I need you to listen to my voice and ignore anything else - no matter what it is."

"If you're trying to hypnotize me, Doc, it ain't going to work. It's been tried."

He nodded. "I know, but I have a question - can you tell if Ba'al is in the room with us if you concentrate on me? Is what you're experiencing purely visual, or are there other senses involved?" O'Neill's eyes began to shift and he quickly spoke again. "No - focus on me. Don't look for him."

There was a long pause, then the colonel nodded, his reluctance clear. "I can feel them."

"What can you feel?"

"Hands. Fingers. Breath." He stopped and shut his eyes for a second, a shudder running through him. "Tongues." His dark eyes fixed on Lyle's again. "All the time. Even when I sleep."

MacKenzie caught his own answering shudder in time to suppress it, but inside he felt a tiny portion of the horror this man must be suffering. "Can you tell one from another, or are they just general touches - not specific to individuals such as Major Kawalsky?"

Again there was a slight hesitation before O'Neill answered, and Lyle knew he was concealing something. "No, they're just feelings. I can't tell who's doing what if that's what you mean."

"All right ..." There was a short knock on the door, then it opened.

Janet Fraiser was accompanied by Doctor Jackson and the Jaffa, Teal'c. "General Hammond has given permission to have the colonel transferred, Doctor, but under my protests. We still don't know what we're dealing with here. The General has also ordered Teal'c remain in the room with you and that there are guards placed on the colonel's door."

MacKenzie nodded in agreement. He knew he'd have to speak with General Hammond soon, but in the meantime the general's orders merely reflected his own wishes. Without spelling it out, he needed a discrete suicide watch to be kept on O'Neill, and Teal'c's presence would fit the bill exactly. O'Neill's tendency towards depression was well documented. MacKenzie had viewed the surveillance footage of the robot doubles in the infirmary a few years back and flinched when it showed O'Neill's robot slashing his arm without hesitation. It hadn't been the tentative horizontal cut of a worried man, but the swift and sure vertical cut of someone who knew what they were doing, and perhaps had done it before. Robot O'Neill had all the feelings and memories of the original and MacKenzie couldn't help wondering if he'd had experience in slashing his own wrists. His actions had sent alarm bells ringing in the psychiatrist's mind and caused him to look more closely at the colonel's records.

A suicide watch was definitely warranted.

**********

The absurdity of the situation almost had Jack laughing, but it was just a fleeting moment, soon subdued in the horror of what he was experiencing. Feeling just a little more relaxed now he was in his own quarters and away from the public humiliation of the isolation room, he strove to concentrate on what Doctor MacKenzie was saying.

It was surprisingly easy to block most things out as the psychiatrist kept him occupied. Even the journey through the corridors had been accomplished without incident. MacKenzie had ordered the hallways cleared, something Jack was grateful for. The doctor said it was to reduce the chance of distractions, but Jack was just pleased the number of people who saw him first hand had been reduced. It was bad enough that Daniel and Teal'c knew how far he'd sunk. He'd been sickeningly thankful MacKenzie had only allowed Teal'c to stay, ordering Daniel and Janet away.

God, he felt wrecked - as if he was perched on sharp rocks waiting for a slight breeze to push him off into the ocean.

A cold hand clutched his, but he refused to look down and it soon moved off, tracing its long fingers up his arm, its nails scraping the skin of his wrists. It slowly worked its way up until it reached his neck and ran down the line of scar tissue at its back.

Hathor.

There was one he knew.

Another was Ba'al. Even without looking Jack recognized his touch - he had felt it often enough back in the Goa'uld's palace.

And another.

Akmar.

He jumped as a line of dampness formed across his cheek, echoing a ghostly tongue.

"Colonel. On me!"

His eyes snapped back to meet the doctor's.

MacKenzie was the lifeline to which he now clung. The doctor's sheer perseverance was worthy of a medal.

Jack had never particularly liked the man, but he did acknowledge his professionalism. They had worked closely together over the last six years, Jack's position of second in command and MacKenzie's as staff psychiatrist necessitating weekly meetings, and he had found himself admiring the doctor's genuine desire to do his best for the men and women of the SGC. Jack might not like him much - couldn't see them going out for a drink after work and they certainly weren't on first name basis - but he didn't truly dislike him either. And he did trust him.

"I'll tell you something which I may regret if proven wrong." MacKenzie leaned forward and spoke softly, but Jack knew it wasn't in an effort to keep Teal'c from hearing. The Jaffa sat unobtrusively on the other side of the small room, watching their every move.

"Go on."

"I don't think you're suffering from a psychological disorder."

A weight seemed to lift at the doctor's words, but dropped down again crushingly as Jack processed what he had said and began to question.

"Why? It's the obvious explanation." He acted as his own devil's advocate.

"Your recent experience with Ba'al had a profound effect on you." Jack couldn't help giving a disbelieving snort at the blatantly obvious words, but MacKenzie ignored him. "I know you have never told me everything you went through in his hands, and I doubt you ever will, but I do know you have coped surprisingly well after going through something no one could be expected to survive - certainly not unchanged. Having said that, one thing I am sure of is that you have no guilt whatsoever over what happened. Therefore, despite what I said before, these hallucinations are not the result of any repressed feelings. I doubt you have any repressed feelings about Ba'al." He smiled. "Am I right?"

"Repressed? Hell no. I want to carve Ba'al slowly into little pieces and feed him to himself - nothing repressed about that."

"Exactly. So I think we can say the appearance of Ba'al has opened a whole new line of investigation. Would you agree?"

Jack nodded, but added, "Then where does that leave us? I'm the only one seeing these things and they all relate to me in some way. They've checked for outside causes ..." He threw his hands up, standing to turn. "But you know all this ..."

And came face to face with all his nightmares.

The one moment of forgetfulness was all it took.

They reached for him, their ruined faces gloating, their dead eyes vacant yet piercing through him. He felt them sucking him from within, the pain a physical wrenching.

"Colonel!"

"O'Neill!"

His breath froze within his chest, the ice creeping through his arteries to reach his brain, to reach his heart.

And he could do nothing to stop it.

Falling down the slow miles it took to reach the floor, he curled in on himself and was gone.

**********

Doctor MacKenzie saw the moment he had lost O'Neill, but could do nothing. By the time he leaped up and moved to him, the colonel was already down.

He beat Teal'c to the fallen man by the fraction of a second, kneeling beside him to turn him, his hands on the hunched shoulders.

A touch was all that was needed.

He felt their hands, saw the gore dripping from their mangled bodies, smelt the foulness that filled the air around them, and saw things so unspeakable he could do nothing more than scream.

***********

"No, don't touch him!"

MacKenzie was pleased to see his shout made the doctor pause and look up at him from her position beside O'Neill.

"I have to treat him. Let my staff take you to the isolation ward."

"No, you don't understand." Doctor MacKenzie gripped the edge of the gurney harder as he strove to avoid the hands that were insistent on pushing him back down. "I'm fine. It isn't me you should be worried about, it's ..." He indicted to where Colonel O'Neill lay on the floor.

"On the contrary, sir, you appear to be suffering from the same illness that has infected the colonel. We need to isolate you as quickly as possible and run some more tests. We can't risk this spreading."

Lyle stood straighter, ignoring the throbbing behind his eyes, and fixed Doctor Fraiser with a stare. "Listen to me, Doctor. I only experienced brief flashes of something when I touched O'Neill. As soon as I let go of him they stopped and haven't returned." He paused, knowing he needed to keep his temper, but finding it difficult. "The best thing you can do for your patient ..." He paused again, gesturing to O'Neill as her eyes lit up. "your real patient ... is get Major Carter in here."

"And if it spreads to her?"

"For god's sake, woman! It hasn't spread to me, and it isn't likely to spread to Carter. Get her in here."

Fraiser shook her head. "No, sir, not without more evidence this is not contagious than your word. I allowed the colonel to be transferred to his quarters against my better judgment, and look what happened. I will not do so again."

Lyle practically spat his reply. "You don't have a choice. I'm making it an order, Major."

"Yes she does, Colonel. She is the CMO of this base and has my full support."

MacKenzie turned at the sound of the general's voice.

He knew he shouldn't say what he was about to, but he was so frustrated that he just couldn't help it.

"Well, this is just great. According to Doctor Fraiser here, we can't allow the one person who can help to enter the room containing two highly contagious men, but the commander of the SGC can be compromised without concern."

"Colonel MacKenzie!" If Hammond's red face wasn't warning enough that he had overstepped the bounds, his outraged tone was. "Consider yourself on report."

"Fine! Put me on report, it won't be the first time, but just listen to me." He leaned back against the gurney, raising his hands to rub at his face. "When I touched Colonel O'Neill I saw what he sees. I can't explain it, but just for those few seconds I could see the most horrifying visions all around me." He swallowed and concentrated on explaining as rationally as possible, embarrassed at having so badly lost so control when the hallucinations first engulfed him. "They weren't images concocted by my own mind, I know that. There were people I've never seen before, as well as some I recognized." He looked from the doctor to the general. "Don't you see? They had to be from O'Neill's mind, not mine, and if that's the case, these certainly aren't some psychotic hallucinations brought on by PTS. If they were, it wouldn't be possible for me to see them as well."

Hammond nodded. "I understand that, Doctor, but surely the risk of spreading an alien disease is now stronger than ever?" He folded his arms across his chest, and MacKenzie could see the anger simmering just below the surface. He knew he'd have to approach this a little more tactfully if he wanted Hammond to listen, but he couldn't help feeling time was running out.

"I don't think so, sir. Many people have touched Colonel O'Neill before my incident without being affected. Plus, as I have already said, I'm certainly not seeing anything anymore."

"So why now? Why you?"

"I can only speculate, but I think whatever is causing this is getting more of a grip on the colonel's mind and it's beginning to spill over into anyone who comes in physical contact with him. But that's what I want to have Major Carter test. If this is becoming stronger, it may show up on her instruments. We could find the cause. At least we can try."

"That's definitely a valid suggestion, Doctor, but in the meantime - what?" Fraiser gestured at the Colonel O'Neill. "We just let the colonel lie there? I haven't even examined him." Turning to Hammond, she pleaded, "He could be dying. I have to examine him, General."

Lyle took a closer look at his fellow colonel. Fraiser was correct; he couldn't be just left there, but he had no idea what to suggest.

"If I assist, can you examine O'Neill without touching him, Doctor Fraiser?"

They had all forgotten the Jaffa standing quietly watching.

"But if Doctor MacKenzie is right, you will experience the colonel's hallucinations, Teal'c," General Hammond pointed out.

Taking a step or two forward, Teal'c inclined his head in acceptance. "I have seen many terrible things in my years as a Jaffa, General Hammond. A few more will be of little concern." Without waiting for permission, he bent and picked up O'Neill, a grunt the only evidence of the effort it cost. He turned to the gurney and carefully placed his burden on it, before beginning to unbutton his teammate's shirt.

"Do you see anything?"

Not pausing in his task, Teal'c nodded in answer to MacKenzie's query. "It is most unpleasant. However, I shall concentrate on the task at hand as you showed O'Neill. In that way I should be able to assist the doctor." Just for a second, his hands shook, before they regained their customary steadiness. "Although I suggest you make haste, Doctor Fraiser."

"Of course." Fraiser hurried to the bed, but was halted by Teal'c's large hand in her arm.

"Do not under any circumstances touch O'Neill. I do not think you can so easily withstand the images I see when I do so."

Fraiser nodded, and Lyle moved closer, better able to see what was happening. O'Neill did not look good, his skin clammy with sweat and his breathing getting shallower by the second. His eyes were closed, but they could be easily seen moving, rapidly shifting under his lids in frantic motion.

"Doctor." Teal'c stopped Fraiser from placing her stethoscope against the colonel's now exposed skin. "I will check first." He took it from her hands and positioned it on O'Neill, looking around as he did so, before nodding and handing it back. "It is safe. There appears to be a direct relationship between the closeness of the contact and its extent."

"Thanks." Fraiser bent over her patient, listening intently. "His heartbeat is rapid and thready. Can you lift his right eyelid for me, Teal'c?" The Jaffa did so and she shone her penlight into it. "Damn! His pupil is dilated, but... Damn it, I can't tell anything like this. I need to examine him properly!"

"Is he in any immediate danger, Doctor?"

She turned to the general. "It's hard to say, sir. I'd like to get an MRI and that's just for starters, but ..." She paused and gave Lyle a quick glance. "I would prefer to transfer him to the infirmary as soon as possible. I can't see that should be a problem, if Teal'c is willing to continue helping."

The Jaffa nodded and stepped aside to allow Fraiser's staff to push the gurney out of the room.

MacKenzie was pleased to hear General Hammond's order as they disappeared down the corridor towards the elevators.

"Get Major Carter to the infirmary as quickly as possible."

He was finally able to collapse into a nearby chair, memories of the visions still running riot through his mind. If what he had seen for such a brief period was what O'Neill had been experiencing all this time - God help him!

***********

Lying there, Jack could almost think he was in Hell, if it weren't for two things; one - that he'd already been there and knew what it sounded like, and two - that no way would Janet Fraiser and Sam Carter be there with him.

They seemed to be moving equipment around, if the loud thumps and bangs were anything to go by.

A hand stroked his left forearm and he jerked, expecting long sharp nails or cold skin, but instead it tightened its grip, the warmth from it seeping into a tiny part of his freezing flesh.

"Colonel, can you open your eyes for me?"

Having them open was no worse than leaving them shut, so he did as she requested. Janet's face loomed down at him, and at first he thought it was all over, then the same phantoms that stalked his nightmares crowded round, their wide eyes staring and hungry mouths open as if waiting to feast.

"That's good, sir."

He was glad Janet thought something was good, because the pain in his chest hadn't gone and the band around his head was tightening by the minute.

"Hurts." For once he wasn't too proud to say it, and it worked because Janet turned away and the warm rush of drugs infusing his system replaced the pain.

The hand was still gripping his arm and, with some surprise, he twisted his neck to find Teal'c close beside him, his large brown hand contrasting strongly with the far too white flesh of his own limb. But there was something wrong with his friend, because he could feel the shivers the hand was making.

"T?"

He didn't have the energy to say more.

"Who is the man wearing the fur coat and hat, O'Neill? He is not familiar to me."

Jack's gaze shifted to his right. "It's Siskovski. Met up with him briefly in Poland." Then the impact of what he had just heard hit and he pulled at his arm, trying to wrench it from the Jaffa's clasp, but Teal'c was too strong, his grip remaining firm. Somewhere behind him the beeps of a heart monitor burst into an agitated crescendo while pain flared in his chest again. He managed to gasp out a few words, seeing the maggots crawling over the lips of an unknown enemy behind Teal'c shoulder, one of far too many he couldn't name.

"You can see them?"

"Indeed. As did Doctor MacKenzie when he touched you. It is most ..." There was a pause as if Teal'c was searching for a suitable word. "Distressing."

Thoughts rumbled through Jack's mind and he strived to pull meaning from the chaotic carousel of ideas half forming before swiftly retreating, but one clear thought he managed to pluck from the maelstrom and hold. Teal'c was seeing what he saw.

He tugged viciously, wrenching his arm from Teal'c's grasp.

No one should have to live with what he saw. No one should have to see just how many specters walked though his mind.

***********

"I hear he's finally cracked. Went completely crazy and attacked MacKenzie."

"Not surprising, considering his background. Those Special Ops guys are all ..."

Half turning, Daniel tried to spot the speakers, but a sudden silence fell over the whole cafeteria and no one met his eyes. Several people shifted uncomfortably in their seats, looking down to avoid his gaze. He gave the room a general glare before turning back to look for his friend.

A motion caught his eye over in the corner as Teal'c rose a little in his seat to attract his attention. Daniel made his way to where his teammate sat surrounded by plates heaped with food.

"Hungry?"

The Jaffa paused as he was about to take a bite from a large piece of pie and raised an eyebrow.

"No more than usual. Why do you ask, Daniel Jackson?"

"No reason." Daniel pushed a dish loaded with beef stew and potato to one side and sat, fury growing inside him. "Did you hear what they were saying? Where do they get off talking about Jack like that?"

"I do not feel anyone is showing disrespect for O'Neill."

In the face of Teal'c's calmness, Daniel's anger rose, his voice rising with it, all the worry and uncertainty of the past few days finally coming to a head. "That's not what it sounded like to me! When I think of what he's done for them and never asked for anything in return ... ungrateful ..."

He could feel the tension rise as the room became deadly still.

The scraping of chairs was loud in the silence and Daniel stopped speaking as two men approached their table.

Colonel Dixon pulled out one of the spare chairs and sat, but Colonel Reynolds remained standing, his hands in his pockets in a posture that reminded Daniel eerily of Jack.

Dixon turned to Teal'c first. "How's Jack?"

Teal'c replied with just two words. "Not good."

Dave nodded. "So we heard." Daniel watched as he exchanged a quick look with Reynolds before speaking again. "Look, Daniel, we couldn't help hearing what you said. You have to know there are all sorts of rumors flying around the base. Some of them are pretty out there." He gestured as Daniel frowned and tried to speak. "Wait. Don't get all defensive - it's not like that."

Reynolds stepped in, taking up the conversation. "Everyone on this base respects the hell out of Jack O'Neill. They're worried about him. Sure, we know the official line - that Jack's ill, probably with something he caught offworld, but we know there's more to it than that. There's talk he's seeing things, that he's gone completely wacko."

"Shrink MacKenzie does not consider O'Neill to be wacko."

Dixon and Reynolds stared at Teal'c and it was clear the others were as taken aback by his bald and strangely phrased statement as Daniel.

"Well, that's good to hear," Colonel Reynolds commented dryly, as he pulled out a chair and finally sat, before glancing at his watch. "I've got a briefing with General Hammond later, and he'll probably bring me up to speed with what's going on, but in the meantime Dave and I thought we'd do a bit of damage control - nip the speculation in the bud, so to speak."

"I've known Jack for years, since well before the SGC, and one thing I'm sure of is that he hasn't cracked under the stress."

"Is that what they're saying?" Daniel couldn't help sounding defensive at Dixon's words. "Of course he hasn't. He wouldn't."

Looking down at his hands, Dave muttered a few quick words that Daniel had to strain to hear even in the completely quiet room. "Not now, at least."

Teal'c broke the now rather uncomfortable silence. "O'Neill is not suffering from a mental illness. I have seen the same visions he is seeing, as has Shrink MacKenzie." Daniel noticed he was speaking rather louder than normal and that he had the whole room's avid attention. "Major Carter is setting up her equipment in O'Neill's room in the hope of discovering the source of the phenomenon." Teal'c took another bite of the pie, slowly chewing the mouthful before continuing. "Doctor Fraiser ordered me to take nourishment before returning to assist."

"You've seen these things too?" Reynolds asked, looking concerned.

"Indeed, but only when in direct contact with O'Neill. Doctor Fraiser thinks there is no risk to the base."

Daniel lowered his voice, well aware of the interest their conversation held for the other personnel in the room. "How is Jack?"

"He did indeed attack Doctor MacKenzie and now O'Neill refuses to allow me, or anyone else, near him." This time Teal'c spoke equally softly so that only the others at their table could hear. "He becomes extremely agitated if it is attempted. Doctor Fraiser is very concerned as he now appears to be experiencing great physical distress. She also thinks the hallucinations are increasing but O'Neill is no longer describing what he sees."

Daniel's left hand drummed a tattoo on the table top, his right plucked aimlessly at a thread hanging from his shirt. "When are you going back?"

"Shortly. No set time was given."

"I'll go now and see if Janet will let me in to see him." He looked about, really seeing the faces of the people around him for the first time, seeing their concern for Jack, and pushing back his chair to rise, he gave Dixon and Reynolds a nod of understanding. "I'll tell you as soon as I hear anything." He stopped a few steps from the table and turned back, addressing the colonels, but including the rest of the room. "I'll let Jack know you were asking after him. I'm sure he'll appreciate it."

As he left, a lone, unidentified, voice followed him out.

"Thanks, Doctor J."

***********

"Don't come near me. I'm warning you, don't."

He barely remembered grabbing the scalpel from a tray, but it was here now, in his hand, and he brandished it wildly, keeping it moving as he looked from one person to another. It was far too difficult to tell who was real and who was one of the demons from his delusions, and he couldn't be sure who he needed to fend off - maybe all of them. But he knew the people he really needed to keep away were the real ones, the ones made of flesh and blood.

"Please, sir, you have to let us help you."

Focusing his attention on Carter's voice, Jack found her sandwiched between John Michaels and the fanatical canon who accused Teal'c of being a demon. The canon was screaming vile words, spit running from his mouth, his eyes wild and crazy, and although Sam was clearly oblivious to the canon's curses, Jack had to listen hard to hear what she was saying through the ranting.

Maybe that was it, maybe he was possessed.

They were all clamoring for attention now, their voices getting louder and more insistent. Curses, screams, prayers, all mingled together.

His nightmares had found their voice.

"Colonel."

And there was Carter, suddenly right beside him, and he lashed out, one part of him wanting to hold back, the other needing them to understand he meant what he said - no one could touch him. No one.

The scalpel grabbed and caught, fouling in thick cloth then cutting through it, and she uttered one sharp shout of pain. Jack watched as the red ran from Carter's arm, mingling with the blood of his tormentors. Hot met cold, living met dead and ran together in his mind.

And it ended.

**********

It all happened so fast. Janet sent Teal'c to get something to eat, a command her teammate obeyed begrudgingly, while Sam began the task of setting up her equipment once again, hoping that this time it would find something.

She had been engrossed in what she was doing, so the sudden shouting took her completely by surprise.

Looking up, she found the colonel off his bed, leads hanging and tubes dangling, dripping liquid on to the infirmary floor. Janet's machines were shrieking urgently for attention, the awful continuous screech of a patient flat-lining ringing through the room. Mixed in with the mechanical noise was the colonel's voice - shouting, screaming really - telling everyone to stay away from him.

Sam moved as calmly as she could around the beds and between the watching medical staff to Janet's side.

"What happened?"

Not taking her eyes off her patient, Janet replied in a low voice, "His ECG was showing signs of tachycardia. I need to administer medication to slow his heart rate, but I didn't get within three feet of him."

As she finished speaking, Janet edged closer and Colonel O'Neill immediately reacted, lunging for a tray of instruments. Both women took a step back at the sight of the scalpel in the hand of the pale and profusely sweating man.

"Don't come near me. I'm warning you, don't."

Even though he was in obvious distress, the colonel held the weapon firmly, and Sam had no doubt his instincts had taken over, leaving them with an extremely dangerous situation.

"Please, sir, you have to let us help you." As she spoke she saw his head tilt slightly to one side as if he was listening.

Putting out a hand, Sam stopped Janet as she began to move forward, grabbing her arm. "No, don't. It's too dangerous. Let me try."

For a second she thought the doctor would argue, but she felt the tension in the arm lessen and Janet gave a quick nod of agreement. "Okay, but be careful, I don't think he knows where he is."

Sam disagreed, but she didn't take the time to comment. As she stepped forward cautiously, she saw Colonel O'Neill's head turn in her direction and his eyes narrow as if he was trying to see better. Then they focused and stared directly at her, looking like two small pieces of flint - hard and unyielding. Yes, she was sure he knew exactly what he was doing. She paused, deciding to try to reason with him first.

"You're sick, sir. Janet needs to give you something to help."

The eyes stayed fixed on her face, and she held herself ready, watching for any sign that he might attack.

She tried again, this time making her tone as normal as possible, as if they were having a discussion in her lab. "Come on, sir, you know you have to put the knife down."

It was then that she took her chance. The colonel's eyes shifted, and she saw them lose their focus. It was only for a split second, but she used it, reaching his side. "It's okay, sir. Give me the scalpel, Colonel..."

She had no idea anyone could move that fast, at least not a normal human. Pain surged through her arm and she staggered back, her left hand clutched over the wound in a vain attempt to stem the blood that dripped rapidly on to the floor.

Everything seemed to slow down. She heard Janet's voice coming closer. She knew people were moving, reacting, but all she saw was Colonel O'Neill's face. His eyes were fixed on the floor as if the slowly growing stain of red was the most important thing in the world. For long, long, seconds they stood there, each oblivious to the commotion around them, then his eyes rolled up in his head, leaving the ghastly sight of nothing but white, and he collapsed.

*********

Daniel entered the infirmary at the tail end of the excitement, and instead of calm efficiency found chaos. Sam was being led protesting to a bed, her sleeve stained with blood, while Janet was bending over a figure lying in a heap on the floor. It took a minute for Daniel to recognize that it was Jack.

"Stop!" There was a shove on his shoulder and he lurched aside as Teal'c pushed past.

The Jaffa reached Janet's side and crouched, lifting Jack in one swift movement and returning him to his bed before she could argue.

"I have to touch him. I can't do my job otherwise." Daniel could almost see a small foot stamping on the ground, almost - but the situation was too serious for such levity.

"Tell me what I need to do, Doctor." Teal'c's reply was firm and unyielding and Janet nodded reluctantly.

"Reattach these, where I point." She held out the heart monitor leads.

"Is he all right?"

Daniel turned to find Sam coming up beside him, a bandage wrapped around her right arm. "Are you okay? What happened?"

She nodded. "I'm fine, it's nothing."

"What happened?" he repeated.

"The colonel." She indicated their teammate with a nod of her head.

"Shit." Daniel really couldn't think of anything more adequate to say as he watched Teal'c work.

"Yeah." Sam's tone was as dispirited as his had been.

The beep of the monitor interrupted them and Teal'c stood back while they all peered at it intently. Daniel really had no idea what he was looking at, but... The sound from the machine was rapid - far more rapid than Daniel had ever heard before. It seemed to be racing toward something, speeding along...

"Fuck! VT!"

At her uncharacteristic profanity, Daniel wrenched his eyes from the display to Janet. She pushed Teal'c aside, uncaring of his protest and pulled the defibrillator up, her nurses rushing in to assist. She held the two paddles aloft for a moment and Daniel finally understood what was happening.

"Clear."

Jack's body jerked, the monitor continued its panicked screams, and the room filled with visions of carnage.

**********

The specters that plagued O'Neill pressed closer, causing Teal'c to shift slightly despite knowing they were little more than insubstantial shadows of reality. For the brief time he had been joined with O'Neill in seeing the phantoms, Teal'c had reminded himself of this fact, just as he was sure O'Neill had done, and as each new gruesome vision came to join the others his respect for his commander grew. It was increasingly difficult to ignore them and act as if they had no power over him, to hide his growing fears from those around him, particularly Doctor Fraiser. If the doctor saw him falter just once, he was sure she would demand he desist and try to take the burden of O'Neill's care herself. He could not let that happen.

So, he stiffened his resolve, once again concentrating his attention on what was real rather than what was not.

The thump as the electrical charge hit O'Neill's chest was almost drowned out by the voices of the very phantoms he was striving to ignore, shouts and whispers holding deep malice filling the air.

"Dios mo!" The scream cut through all other sounds, causing Teal'c to turn. Nurse Mendez was backing away, her hand making a crossing motion, and her eyes widened in obvious terror. Seeking the problem, he looked at those around him and saw the same horror reflected in their faces. Even Major Carter seemed transfixed as she stared into the twisted, insane face of her ex-fiance, Captain Hanson.

Teal'c gasped as he understood - the illusions had become visible to all, even those not in contact with O'Neill. They crowded in, pushing to find a position near O'Neill's bed and the medical staff retreated under their onslaught leaving only Doctor Fraiser and one nurse huddled over their patient. Teal'c saw the doctor's gaze flitter about and her eyes close momentarily, before opening them again, her expression determined and again shouting the command, "Clear!" as she placed the paddles once again on O'Neill's chest. This time his body rose higher from the surface of the bed, his spine arching before he flopped bonelessly down.

There was an air of expectation in the room, heightened by the expressions borne by those who should not be there. Teal'c felt his own heart race at the smiles, the looks of evil glee, and the low whispers from mouths far too close to the sick man's ear. Every moment they grew more solid, becoming less and less like ghosts and more like flesh and blood, their pale faces reddening as if warm, life-giving fluid was being infused into their veins, and every moment O'Neill grew less and less like the mortal man he was and more a shadow of himself.

The machine beside his bed emitted its agitated beeps, high and insistent, and the doctor's commands to her remaining nurse grew more and more incisive. She was losing the battle for O'Neill's life, a battle she fought with the beings crowding in on her.

"They're killing him!" Daniel Jackson's voice came, shouting over the rest, and Teal'c swung around.

"What can we do to stop them? How?" Even as he spoke he recognized the note of panic in his questions. He strode to his teammates. "We must act."

"Look! There's an energy signature." Major Carter was pointing at one of the many pieces of equipment she had set up around the room, her back turned to the malevolent presence hovering over her shoulder. "It's spiking." She grabbed a smaller instrument and held it out, facing it toward the cluster around the bed. "But it isn't just around the colonel." She spun, holding the instrument in front of her as she did so. "There's a trail leading...," she pointed, "that way."

"I need some help here!" Doctor Fraiser's call had all three of them looking back at O'Neill. "I'm losing him!"

Her nurses hurried to her side, clearly racing to do their duty despite their fears, but Teal'c pulled his attention back to the major. "If we disrupt the energy stream, will it stop them?"

With a purse of her lips, Major Carter shrugged. "I have no idea, but it's all we have. We need to track it back to the source."

"We can't leave."

"We can't do anything to help here, Daniel. This may be the colonel's only hope. If we can find the cause ..."

There was no time for this. Teal'c took both his teammates by the arm, dragging them in the direction Major Carter had indicated.

**********

Daniel was torn between staying with Jack and obeying Teal'c, but his hesitation was brief. He flung a last look at where his friend was lying so still and pale, and followed the others. Once out of the infirmary his resolve hardened. Sam was right - this was the best route to go down - the only one really. They were of no use in the infirmary, except as spectators, and there were more than enough of those already.

With a start, he realized only a few minutes had past since Jack's collapse. So much seemed to have happened, the terror of the moment when Jack's hallucinations came to life around him still fresh in his mind. Blindly he followed Sam and Teal'c down the corridor, still grappling with the images of violence, the stink of death and the sounds of cruel laughter.

He pulled up with a start. They had reached a wall and Sam was thrusting the reader out in every direction her eyes frantic until she pointed it up. "Damn! We'll have to check each level." They ran together to the stairs, pounding up them to the next landing, and wrenched open the door.

"No!" At Sam's shout they began the next flight of stairs, taking them two at a time. The check of Level 19 took only a few seconds, but Daniel's heart began to sink, knowing Jack was out of time already.

"Here. This way."

Giving a quick thanks that the trail was found again so soon, Daniel followed his teammates down the corridor toward a familiar door.

His brief cry of "Oh, crap!" was uttered as he ran his access card down the reader and opened the door to his own office. The clutter of documents and artifacts gave him pause, but Sam immediately began her search, the instrument emitting increasingly loud beeps.

"There!" Sam started pulling things from a storage shelf, allowing them to fall to the floor, but Daniel didn't give a thought to the damage as he watched. It only took a few seconds for her to find what she was looking for. Holding up an object the size of a man's palm, she held it out in triumph. "This is the source of the energy." She turned it over in her hand, peering at it. "But I can't see any controls."

Daniel and Teal'c both moved closer. "SG-7 brought that back from offworld weeks ago. I couldn't figure out what it was." Daniel stared at the object, knowing there were no markings on its dull blue surface. "Now what?"

"Destroy it."

Daniel didn't hesitate, as soon as Teal'c's suggestion was uttered he grabbed the object from Sam's hand and threw it to the floor, stamping on it, but to no avail. "How?"

"How about something really obvious? We immerse it in water?" Sam turned to the sink at the side of the room as she spoke. "Bring it over here."

The sink seemed to take forever to fill, but they soon had the device covered with water.

Sam shook her head, looking at her reader. "No - no change and we don't have time to see if leaving it there will help. Every second counts - we have to get rid of it somehow, as fast as we can."

Daniel saw the desperation on her face and knew she was thinking as he was, not that she wanted to study the alien object as she normally would, but that she had to stop it as soon as possible and would go to any means to do so.

Any means...

"The gate! We throw it through the gate!"

He pulled the device from the water and ran.

**********

They were losing him. Each breath Jack O'Neill took was one she didn't expect, each racing beep of the monitor a small victory. His heart was working itself to death, racing so fast the blood wasn't able to pump properly. She had used the defibrillator three times now and she very much doubted there would be any result if she had to use it a fourth time.

The stress was too much for the colonel's body to cope with.

"He will die."

The mocking voice at her shoulder had been hissing its vile words the whole time she worked over the colonel and Janet didn't need to look to know it was Apophis - or at least some sort of alien imitation of the System Lord. There was no way these could be real ghosts - no way - that was just not possible.

She spun on her heels and stared the Goa'uld in the face, ignoring the gore covered features - she had seen way too much damage to the human body over the last few years for it to faze her. "Why? Why are you doing this?" she shouted, right into the Goa'uld's face.

Unexpectedly, he replied. "He must die so that we might live. We have fed, now we are strong. Just a little more, that is all we need."

"You've been feeding off the colonel somehow?"

All around her heads nodded and mouths drew up in smiles that held no trace of humanity.

"In dying he will give us birth." Hathor's silken tones seemed almost like a cat's purr.

"You're killing him ..." The doctor paused for a second, her thoughts racing. "You're feeding off him, but ... somehow his dying will make you stronger?"

"Just a little more. One last feast." The grossly fat dark-faced man licked his ruined lips. "I will enjoy that feast - his fear, his terror."

"But why the colonel? Why only him?" If she could get more information, she might find something to fight them with. At this point she couldn't think of anything else to do.

"We could only reach this one. The rest we cannot touch."

"The rest? You mean the other people here? Colonel O'Neill is the only person you can feed off?"

A long mournful beep cut through her words as the creatures around the bed straightened, their faces filled with glee.

"It is time!"

They poured from every corner of the room, masses upon masses, all converging on the colonel, lapping at him, pulling at him - feasting.

**********

It was like grappling with fog, but Fraiser kept trying, tugging and pulling and wrestling with creatures that flowed away and reformed, constantly returning to their meal. She couldn't reach the colonel, couldn't get to him no matter how hard she tried, for each step she took toward him was blocked by ghostly hands that gripped and restrained her. Where she could do nothing, they could do far too much - holding her back while the constant screech of the monitor made a mockery of her efforts, showing her that she had failed her patient, failed her friend.

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

He was almost gone, only stubborn pride and tenacity keeping some part of him holding on with grim determination as the awful wrenching pain assailed him. They pawed at him, those demons he had lived with for so many days, but he couldn't flinch, held immobile by them. He fought them even when Ba'al smiled straight into his eyes and whispered, "You've lost. You'll never be free of me now." But each whisper added to the rest until the pile grew to mountainous height, and when Akmar leaned in and drew his tongue down his chest, draining him, the pile gave way.

**********

"Where?" Sam looked up from the dialing computer and shouted down at them. "The planet we found it on?"

Daniel didn't hesitate. This was something he had already thought of as he ran with Teal'c into the Gate Room. "No. PX7-561," he called to her, and saw her immediately turn back to the keyboard. Sure enough, the gate began to spin, chevrons locking into place with loud thumps.

"Chevron Seven, locked."

The sudden plume of liquid rushing from the now open wormhole completely failed to capture Daniel's attention. For once he didn't feel the rush of excitement that had become so familiar over the past seven years, instead he glared at the vortex waiting for it to settle so he could complete his task.

The liquid fell inward, leaving the iridescent blue of the phenomenon shimmering in readiness and Daniel drew back his arm and threw the alien device as hard as he could.

**********

Between one blink of an eye and the next they had disappeared. The sudden removal of the pressure holding her back had Janet stumbling to right herself as she crashed into the side of O'Neill's bed, her hip connecting with the metal with a jarring force, hard enough to bruise.

She didn't hesitate, not allowing herself time to look around and make sure the beings were truly gone, but leaping forward immediately, her elation at being able to treat her patient tempered by the knowledge that his laboring heart had finally given in.

Other hands joined hers as her staff entered the fray and soon they were once again acting like the well-oiled team they were.

**********

Sam glanced down at the reader on the desk beside her and saw the distinctive energy signature was weaker, but still there.

"Shut it down!"

Daniel's yell was redundant. As soon as she saw the line still dancing across her equipment's small screen she slammed her hand on the pad, shutting the gate off.

"Major?" General Hammond's puzzled voice interrupted her train of thought, snapping her from her almost panicked focus.

"We think we may have found a cause, General. There was an artifact in Daniel's office that seemed to be the source of the problem." She nodded with satisfaction at the now empty screen. "Daniel threw it through the gate and as soon as the wormhole shut down its emissions stopped."

Feet clattered on the stairs and before her teammates had even reached the Control Room level Teal'c was shouting out a question, his usually unemotional voice strained. "Did it work? ...O'Neill?"

"I don't know." Sam was about to pick up the phone, but the general beat her to it.

"Hammond here. What is the situation there? What's Colonel O'Neill's condition?"

His face went from animated to still in a few seconds as he listened to the reply. He put down the receiver and Sam held her breath, waiting.

"The aliens have gone, but the colonel arrested just before they left. Doctor Fraiser is working on him now."

"With your permission, sir ...?"

Hammond nodded. "I'm coming with you."

**********

Janet reached for the paddles with a sense of fatalism, knowing there was little chance of success now the colonel had flatlined. She gave the order and waited a second for her nurses to step back.

O'Neill convulsed, his limbs twitching as his body rose from the bed and slammed back down so hard the instruments on the tray beside it shook. His mouth opened wide and he gasped in a long, shuddering breath.

"Hell!" The doctor stared from the unused paddles to her patient and then up at the ECG.

It shows normal sinus rhythm - just for a moment - then it changed, slowing.

An IV line had already been inserted and she pushed a dose of adrenaline into it and looked back at the monitor, barely aware of several other people joining her staff clustered around the bed.

"Janet?"

Fraiser waited for a few more moments before giving Daniel a quick nod. "He's stable." She didn't say the 'for now' that was on the tip of her tongue.

"Major Carter, Doctor Jackson, I want to know exactly what happened and whether the situation is now under control. Teal'c can keep you apprised of the colonel's condition."

"General ..."

"No arguments, Doctor Jackson. The priority now is to ensure the safety of this base."

Janet allowed herself a small sense of satisfaction as Colonel O'Neill's heart rate further stabilized. She took the time to give her friends a reassuring smile. "Teal'c can stay," she gestured to a chair nearby, but not too close to be in the way, "but I need to run some tests before I know anything definite."

"But he's okay?"

"I can't say anything for sure, Daniel." Much though she wanted to tell him everything was fine, she couldn't - not yet.

**********

He woke gradually, far too familiar with the sensation of foreign objects inserted in various parts of his body to be startled.

But there sure seemed to be a lot of them this time.

At least one tube was missing - the one down his throat that always made him feel like he was choking.

Just the thought of it made his throat contract and he coughed, the motion setting his chest on fire.

"Here, Colonel ..."

There was the touch of a straw against his lips and he opened them eagerly, but for some reason he couldn't summon the energy to suck.

"Try this, sir. Some ice."

He managed to hold the tiny shards in his mouth and felt some of the tickling in his throat ease as the cool water from the melting ice slid down without too much effort on his part.

"Can you open your eyes for me, Colonel?" The nurse's voice had been replaced by Janet's.

He tried, but failed, falling instead into a dreamless sleep.

**********

"Why PX7-561?"

Major Carter shifted in her chair, her expression distracted. "Ah, it's an ice planet, General. Daniel thought the extreme temperatures might have some effect on the device, maybe stopping it if sending it through the gate didn't."

"What is your opinion, Major?"

"I don't know. I didn't have any time to really examine it, sir, although immersing it in water had no effect. The sub-zero temperatures on PX7-561 might prevent it from doing whatever it was it did."

"Which was? What exactly was that thing? Were those creatures projections or real?"

The major looked down at her notes, but Hammond knew she wasn't really reading them. Like the rest of her team, her thoughts were mainly concentrated on what was happening in the infirmary. He waited a moment, then gave a short cough, bringing the major's attention back to the topic at hand.

"Sorry, sir." She gave a slightly embarrassed smile and sat straighter. When she spoke again her voice was firm. "Doctor Lee and Doctor Chen have assisted me in a full survey of the base. There is no trace remaining of the as yet unidentified emissions given off by the device. From what Janet could tell me it appears the creatures were somehow feeding off Colonel O'Neill's energy, growing stronger and more corporeal as they did so. When we traced the energy readings to the device and threw it through the gate the emissions lessened, but didn't stop completely until the gate shut down." She paused. "At that same moment Colonel O'Neill's heart restarted on its own."

"Why was the colonel the only one initially able to see these things?"

"There's a lot we don't know, sir. Daniel remembers Colonel O'Neill picking the device up in his office soon after SG-7 brought it back from PX6-305, but he wasn't the first to touch it. As far as I could see in the short time I had to examine it, there were no discernable controls on its exterior, and I've examined Daniel's notes and photographs of it and can't see anything other than a smooth unmarked surface. The being Janet spoke to did say the colonel was the only person they were able to feed off, but I can't, as yet, offer any suggestions as to why." She shook her head in dismay. "I'm sorry I can't tell you more, General, but other than the few facts I've given you, we really don't know how or why this happened."

"Doctor Jackson has requested he be allowed to visit PX6-305 to see if there are any further artifacts in the ruins that might shed some light on this. I'm very reluctant to allow him to do so. What is your assessment, Major?"

George watched as the woman in front of him hesitated. When she answered it was with obvious reluctance. "I agree with you, sir. We have no idea why Colonel O'Neill was targeted in this way and until we do we can't risk exposing anyone else. I've scanned the other artifacts from that planet in Daniel's office, and on the archeology storage level and so far they seem to be safe, but I would recommend they be disposed of as soon as possible to minimize the risk."

"Very well. See to it. Major."

George tapped his pen against the desk as Major Carter exited his office Wouldn't Doctor Jackson just love it if he found out where that suggestion had come from!

**********

Daniel raced across the Briefing Room, fuming. Even now a hazmat suited team was packing the artifacts from PX6-305 into hazardous waste containers and instead of going to the planet to investigate more fully, he was being told it was too dangerous to even look at what he already had.

This was a knee-jerk reaction, typical of the military mindset he had to deal with every day.

He raised his hand and knocked firmly on the general's office door.

"Come."

General Hammond was seated at his desk, in the process of putting down the telephone.

"Please sit, Doctor Jackson." He didn't give Daniel a chance to speak as he continued. "I suspect I know why you're here - the disposal of the artifacts found by SG-7. Am I correct?"

"Yes, General. You have to rescind the order, without them I've got no way of finding out what happened to Jack." Daniel saw Hammond about to interrupt and hurried on. "I can understand your refusal to allow me to go to the planet, even if I don't agree with it, but this is just too much. It leaves me with nothing to work with! I've handled those objects numerous times with no ill effect."

He had every intention of continuing his argument, but the general held up a hand and his innate respect for the man caused him to stop.

"SG-7 provided your department with video of any writing found on the remaining walls of the ruins." He looked down at the report on his desk and turned the page. "Plus they did rubbings of as much as they could access. There also is mention here of a recording device similar to ones we have found on other worlds and the information on it has been transcribed and is awaiting translation."

Daniel nodded. "Yes, and I'm working on them, but there could be one vital clue in the objects you're sending through the gate to PX7-561, the one piece of evidence we need ..."

"To do what?" Hammond fixed him with a glare and he felt like a little boy in the principal's office. "I will not risk any more of my people. Colonel O'Neill is lucky to be alive, we might not be so fortunate next time. My orders stand." He pulled a file from his in tray. "Was there anything else, Doctor?"

Daniel bit his tongue, knowing there was no point in arguing once Hammond had made up his mind. He thought about what the general had just said and some of his anger dissipated as he began to see it from Hammond's point of view - the most important consideration for him was the safety of the base, and ultimately, the planet. "No, thank you for seeing me, General."

"You're welcome, son." For the first time in the conversation Hammond smiled at him. "I do understand, and I am sorry."

**********

Apparently he had been dead to the world for over a week, or as close to it as possible if he discounted the times he had woken and gone straight back to sleep. Not that he remembered them.

What he did remember, he really wished he didn't.

The ache in his chest had slowly eased, a result, Janet told him, of being brought back from the brink of death far too many times. She hadn't looked too happy about it when she told him, but the whole episode was a total blank for Jack, after his little hissy fit in the infirmary, that was.

That he did remember, every time Carter visited, which was infrequently because she was so busy. She still moved her arm a little awkwardly, but told him it was fine and not to worry. Yeah - right! And the worst thing about that episode was that, despite every effort he made, everyone had been given the dubious pleasure of witnessing his damned nightmares come to life.

"Colonel, how are you feeling?"

O'Neill sighed, resigned to the fact MacKenzie would be visiting him for as long as he was in the infirmary, and more than likely for a lot longer after he left it.

"I'm peachy, Doctor. Hunky dory, excellent, swell, just dandy, spiffy even."

"Spiffy?"

Pointing towards the television on a stand by the bed, Jack gave a lackluster smile. "Been watching too many reruns of old British shows."

"I take it you're bored. Now why does that not surprise me?" MacKenzie pulled the visitor's chair over closer and sat, his briefcase on his lap. "Now, Colonel ..." He opened the briefcase and took out a notepad and pen. "In our last session you expressed your concern that others might be dismayed by the visions and judge you because of that."

"I did?" Jack leaned forward, trying to peer at the words written on the paper but only catching a glimpse of some illegible squiggles. He thought back to the last time he'd talked to MacKenzie, remembering his rather furious assertion that 'they shouldn't have had to see all that death.' "Okay, maybe I did, although I didn't put it exactly in those words."

"You didn't need to - that's my job."

Jack snorted. "So I guess I don't need to talk to you anymore? I'll go back to sleep and you listen to my snores and write down their deep hidden meanings?"

"Not going to happen, O'Neill. You have to put as much effort into this as I do."

"Or what?"

"Or I won't sign you off for active duty." The psychiatrist couldn't conceal his smirk at Jack's annoyed growl. "Back to the topic."

"Must we?"

Ignoring him, MacKenzie fixed Jack with a stare. "Why are you so concerned about your team and the infirmary staff seeing the alien visions? They're not naive rookies, they're all professionals. Your teammates have seen such horrors many times over the years and the infirmary staff are used to injury and death."

"These were deaths I caused. There's a difference." The sheer numbers had almost overwhelmed him, and he couldn't even begin to imagine how it must have seemed to anyone watching - mangled body, after mangled body.

"Were they?" The doctor's voice was firm and Jack looked up from his hands, puzzled. "I thought we had clearly established they weren't all people whose deaths you'd in some way caused?. Remember Ba'al? Were there others? Think about it."

Of course he remembered Ba'al.

"Akmar."

"Who?"

Jack shook his head. "It doesn't matter. But he wasn't dead when ..." His words trailed off.

"When?"

His hand sliced through the air, cutting off the doctor's question. "The point is that there was at least one other person that wasn't dead when I saw them last. And if there was one, there could have been more."

"Exactly." MacKenzie sat back with an air of satisfaction. "What do you think the visions had in common?"

"I don't know."

"Doctor Jackson thinks they were feeding off your emotions."

"You've talked about this with Daniel?" Jack couldn't help the startled tone he knew was in his voice - he would never have expected Daniel to discuss anything with the psychiatrist, not with their history.

The other man nodded. "I had a long discussion with both Major Carter and Doctor Jackson in an effort to better understand the events." He hurried on as Jack frowned. "Only the research they had done was discussed, nothing you have talked to me about." Jack settled back down, and MacKenzie continued, "If Doctor Jackson is correct, identifying that emotion will go a long way to you putting these events behind you." He looked down at his notes again. "Doctor Jackson mentioned that when you experienced the first vision he thought it was of your dead son."

"It wasn't."

The doctor didn't seem concerned by the curtness. "Did you see your son at any time during these events?" He moved a little further forward in the chair. "I understand this is painful for you, Colonel, but I do need to ask these questions."

Wrenching words from deep within him, Jack managed to answer, his attention fixed on his intertwined hands. "No I didn't see Charlie. I wish I had."

"Even though you feel responsible for his death?"

Moisture prickled at the corner of Jack's eyes, but he blinked it back and kept his head down. "Even though I am responsible for his death. I could never be afraid to see Charlie - ever."

"Afraid?" A hand held his arm in a soft grip. "Jack, were you afraid of the others?"

He nodded. "Some of them - of what they thought of me. I know Charlie would never blame me. The others, my enemies - I think I was more afraid of what they stood for than worried about blame. There were so many ..."

"And Ba'al, and the other, Akmar wasn't it? Were you afraid of them?"

"Fuck yes!" Fury blazed for a moment as he spat out the words. "Wouldn't you be?" But he knew MacKenzie couldn't understand. He didn't know about Akmar and he could barely conceive of what Jack had experienced at the hands of Ba'al.

Fear - it was his fear they had fed off. And it had almost killed him.

MacKenzie's calm voice broke into his franticly racing thoughts. "I think we've made a good start, Colonel." Jack blinked a couple of times and looked up to meet the man's eyes. "Now we can look forward to far more in depth sessions to address the deep- seated emotion. Excellent!"

Oh crap!

Jack shut his eyes, hoping desperately, for the first time in weeks, to fall asleep.

**********

Epilogue

"There's a call for you on line two, General. Doctor Jackson."

Jack grimaced. He had an appointment with the French ambassador in fifteen minutes and he hadn't managed to have anything to eat since eight in the morning.

Still, it wasn't often Daniel called him at the Pentagon. "Put him through."

He waited for the buzz to show the call was waiting before picking up the receiver. "Hi there, Daniel, what can I do you for?"

"We've found out what it was. It was an experiment the Ancients were doing that went wrong and they abandoned it but that explains everything. It's really lucky one of Janet's nurses went with the Atlantis expedition otherwise probably no one would have connected ..."

"Whoa! Breathe! I have no idea what you're talking about."

"But ..."

"You're talking to someone who's been doing nothing but negotiate treaties for the last week. I'm not use to hearing anything but boring and extremely tedious diplobabble. Slow down and start again."

There was a pause and Jack could just imagine the expression on his friend's face as he glared into the phone.

"You remember back a few years, when you had those nightmares that came to life?"

Jack stopped smiling. "Oh, yeah!"

"They've discovered some records in Atlantis relating to that artifact."

A memory of a shiny blue stone flashed through Jack's mind. "Go on."

"The Ancients were studying ascension and in the process were experimenting with other dimensions ..."

"Like that machine that made everyone see those big psychedelic bugs?"

"Yes, maybe, I wasn't around for that. But anyway, these weren't from an Earth dimension - they were an offworld one. There aren't many details, just that the creatures from another dimension scanned the scientists' minds and latched on to their emotions in an effort to take physical form. The Ancients abandoned the experiment after some of the scientists were driven mad."

"And they just left their mess lying around for someone else to stumble across? Typical."

"No, Jack, not just anyone, only someone with Ancient genes. That's why you were the one that activated the device and why only you could see them at first. And it wasn't meant to be left on, just activated for brief periods of time. It wasn't turned off after you activated it and these other dimensional beings had the chance to latch on to your memories."

Jack sat back and stretched his legs out in front of him. "Well, nice though it is to find out what it was all about, does this knowledge have any practical use? I mean, can we use the same technology to produce anything we think of out of thin air? Like that Weird Science TV show babe?" He looked over at the pile of reports on his desk. "Or a supermodel with the ability to read fast and do bullet summaries?"

There was a loud sigh and an audible swallow on the other end of the line. "No Jack, there is no practical use for the information."

A light tap sounded on the door and Jack's secretary popped her head around it. "Sorry to interrupt, General, the Secretary of Defence is on line four."

He nodded and gave her a wave to show he'd heard. "Sorry Daniel, got to run. Say hi to everyone for me. Oh, and thanks for clearing up the mystery. Make sure Doctor MacKenzie gets a copy of the report. I'm sure, deep down, he's always thought I was crazy." He listened to his friend's goodbyes, then pressed another button. "Mr Secretary, great to hear from you so soon. Have you had a chance to look over my proposal ..."

**********

The End


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