Jackfic Fiction Archive Story

 

The Sword And The Sickle

by Gallagater and Charli Booker


`Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself.' . . . .Lois McMaster Bujold

* * * * *

My gramps once had a cat that meowed all the time. Loud. You ignored it, it meowed. You petted it, it meowed more. Full, hungry . . . cold, warm . . . inside, outside - meow, meow . . . meow, meow . . . meow, meow. I kid you not. Even in its sleep, albeit at a softer, less annoying volume. Was it in pain? The vet said no. Was it crazy? My dad said yes. Gramps said the cat just had a lot on its mind. But, whatever its reason, the thing lived for 17 years and it didn't shut up until the day it died. Maybe that's why it died . . . it had finally gotten everything off its furry little chest.

Anyway, that's me. I'm that damned cat, and I didn't even realize it until today. I mean, I've always known I lean towards diarrhea of the mouth, but today was a real eye opener. It dawned on me as I sat there in the briefing room, rambling on about hockey stats and the origin of the term `dog days' - which, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with dogs.

"It actually goes back to the Romans and the fact that Sirius, or the Dog Star as it's commonly known, added its heat to that of the sun. The Roman word for those days was `caniculares.'"

I looked up to find Daniel's mouth hanging open, and Carter staring at me with her big blue eyes all bugged out. I glanced at Teal'c. He was frowning and had his eyes squeezed tightly closed. He looked like he was straining for a bit of the old kel-no-reem, either that or he was passing a stone.

We were waiting for Hammond to put in an appearance. Rather, they were waiting on him. I was more or less just hoping that a large hole had opened up in the floor behind the General's desk. Unfortunately, the odds were leaning in favor of my team's wish being granted rather than mine. So, I looked back down at the table, picked up my pen and beat an intricate tempo against the over-waxed, over-priced conference table. I was feeling pretty proud of my latent percussive talents until I heard the distinctive snap of a pencil. When I glanced up, Carter was glaring at me like I'd kicked her dog and was holding two pieces of what had been an otherwise perfect Sparco #2, medium soft.

"Funny thing - there's no lead in `pencil lead.'" I actually made the quote marks with my fingers . . . a move Carter hates, but one she's begun to mimic without realizing it.

She cocked her head Teal'c-like, but said nothing. Okay, so she was obviously unimpressed.

"Carter, did you know there are a possible 2,598,960 five-card hands in a deck of playing cards?"

"Uh, Jack . . .," Daniel hitched himself up in his chair.

"Well, then here's something I'll bet you didn't know: Attila the Hun died of a nosebleed on his wedding night. Can you believe that?"

"Jack . . ."

"And Thomas Jefferson died of dysentery." I resumed tapping.

"Are you okay?"

I looked up at Daniel, a polite half-smile plastered on my face. Was I okay? What, was the guy an idiot? Of course, I was okay. And that's when it hit me: the whole cat analogy thing.

My smile faded. I was no different than gramps' psychotic feline running off at the mouth . . . never saying anything; never shutting up. I suppose, like Fluffy, I'll finally shut up when I die. God, I hope so anyway. Unfortunately, if history serves, I seriously doubt my demise will be brought about by getting a load off my fuzzy chest, and I doubt they'll find my dead body contentedly curled up on grandma's favorite afghan with my toes tucked around my nuts.

I spied movement in Hammond's office and dropped my pen, my hands automatically squeezing into tight fists.

I could tell Daniel was worried by his tone of voice. "Jack, what's the . . ."

"People, I apologize for the delay."

Ah, simultaneously saved and condemned by two shiny little stars . . . which just goes to show that assholes really do come in all shapes and sizes.

Okay. So that wasn't entirely fair, but ever since Hammond had approached me two days earlier, I hadn't exactly felt like skipping through the rose garden with the guy. Part of the problem is that it came out of left field - honest to God, I never saw it coming. The other part of the problem is that I don't appreciate my friends being dragged through the mud - especially when I'm the jackass Uncle Sam harnesses up to the damn rope.

* * * * *

PX2666, despite its somewhat suspect designation, had been a cakewalk. A soggy cakewalk granted, but a simple trip nonetheless - particularly in light of SG1's tendency to accept only missions that were headed due south.

When we bounced onto the ramp in the gate room, we were facing the usual contingency of SF's. Over the years I've developed a bit of a thick skin but still, it's a little freaky to pop into existence to find your own men pointing cocked and loaded weapons at your scrawny little chest. I'll tell you one thing, it sure makes personnel evaluations interesting. On Monday, you don't want to tell Lieutenant Sikes that if he doesn't take his work more seriously he's going back on tour duty at the front door, and then on Tuesday have him pointing a P90 at the middle of your forehead.

So, unless I've got a butt-load of Jaffa or a wormhole full of huge, honkin' bugs hot on my tail, I try to enter with a pleasant smile and a flourish. Which I did.

"Lucy, I'm home," I sang out in my best Ricky Ricardo voice. I heard Carter snort in amusement. Everyone else pretty much ignored me but, hey, the SF's lowered their guns so it got the job done. Dripping alien rain onto the cement floor, I unloaded about 25 pounds of P90, 9mm's, knives, ammo, brass knuckles - okay, so I'm a little too thorough - and my Zat, then smiled down at Hammond, who had decided it was finally safe to approach us.

"Colonel, I take it things went well."

"Sir, you'll be happy to know that on the way back from the shower room, Carter found a bucketful of special dirt that made her extremely happy." I removed my rain poncho and shook it a little harder than necessary. Hammond stepped back, frowning at the droplets already drying on the front of his shirt.

"General, from all indications there are trace deposits of naquadah on 666."

"Carter," I frowned over at her.

"Oh, sorry, Colonel. On Planet Armageddon." She smiled down at Hammond like she'd just discovered the lost City of Atlantis, which maybe she had.

"Very good, Major." Hammond nodded a bit dourly, then looked over at the others. "SG1 get checked out and hit the showers. We'll debrief in one hour."

"Yes, sir." I headed for the door along with my team.

"Jack."

I momentarily froze, then swung around to face him. Jack? Jack?

"Could I see you in my office?" Hammond studied me closely. "Now, please, Colonel."

Oh, this could not be good.

It wasn't.

* * * * *

I waited until the General sat down behind his desk and motioned me to the hot seat. I lowered myself onto the chair rather stiffly, a fact which for once had absolutely nothing to do with my aching back and gimpy knee.

Hammond studied some papers laying on his desk, then opened his drawer and fiddled with something I couldn't see. A few moments later, empty-handed, he shut the drawer, straightened the papers and cleared his throat. Finally, he looked at me for what felt like the first time in months.

"Jack, we have a problem."

No shit, Sherlock. "Uh, sir, if there's going to be a pink slip included with my measly little paycheck, just tell me now. I can take it."

Crap. Not even a hint of a smile. Okay. Unfortunately, I can do serious just as well as I can do comic relief.

"What's wrong, General?" My mind was flipping through all the possibilities - budget cuts, foothold, a team stranded off-world or, worse, killed. Maybe the General was sick. He did look a bit pale. Oh, God. Something had happened to Kayla. Or Tessa. That was it. The poor guy was-

"I understand you're friends with a Major Sebastian Martin."

"Huh?" It wasn't my best comeback, but it was the best I could do given the circumstances. "Bastar-I mean, Marty? Yeah. Why, what's happened?"

Hammond raised what should have been a calming hand. "Major Martin is fine, Jack. But he may be in a bit of trouble."

"Trouble?" I still felt like my system was firing on about half of my available synapses - and yes, I do know the meaning of the word. Last I'd heard, Bastard Martin was heavily involved in some kind of technologies research. I'd harassed him to no end about trading in his flak jacket for a lab coat. "He's working out of Wright-Patterson," I offered, as if no trouble could possibly derive from a scientist based in Ohio.

"No. No, he's not."

"He was."

Hammond nodded. "He transferred three years ago."

"Three. . .," I cringed. I considered Bastard one of my oldest friends. We'd gone through combat training together; then he'd signed up for Special Forces training with me, but had opted out four weeks into the program. I hadn't held it against him. Hell, a lot of guys, especially the smart ones, dropped out when they saw what the training involved. I would have, too, if I weren't so bull-headed. Still, it was hard to believe that I hadn't been in touch with the guy for over three . . . well, over four years, and that had been by email. What did that say about me as a friend? I glanced down at my crooked, twiddling thumbs. "I . . . I didn't know that."

"He's Area 51, Jack." He said it hesitantly, like it was a label, and I suppose in a way it was.

I glared across the desk at Hammond in total disbelief. "NID?" my voice cracked slightly.

"Not officially."

I huffed softly and looked over Hammond's shoulder at the porcelain eagle that I knew had been a gift from his deceased wife. That bird looked so real; the only things that gave it away as being fake were its size and the fact that it hadn't moved so much as a single feather in all the years it had sat there. No real bird could hold that outstretched position after all this time, not even one that was good at pretending. I looked back at Hammond.

"He's not."

"Jack . . ."

"Sir. I know him. Marty would never stoop to working for them."

For the first time today, the General smiled. Kindly. I have to tell you, it pissed me off. "That's what we want you to find out."

My heart sank. My old, tired, dented, hardened heart sank right down onto the top of my stomach leaving me slightly nauseated. "Sir, please." I had left all that behind me. Hadn't I?

"There's a leak at 51."

Now I was the one who wouldn't look at him. I stared down at my own lap, then glanced at my knee which had inexplicably begun to throb - perhaps a delayed reaction to all the rain and muck we'd just slogged through.

"According to an anonymous source . . ."

I laughed softly.

"According to an anonymous source, researchers at 51 have been studying some new alien technology that came into their hands a little over three months ago."

"What'd they steal this time?"

He didn't even try to defend them. What was the point? "That was unclear."

"Of course it was," I squinted over at him with my best `watch where you're treading' smile. No way Bastard was a thief.

"Apparently, whatever it was, they've . . . misplaced it."

Oh, this was just getting better and better. I rubbed my knee with one hand, then ran the same hand through my hair before settling back in my seat.

"All we've been told is that this . . . technology is considered a serious threat to national security, it's missing, and somehow your Major Martin is involved."

My Major Martin? I actually smiled at that one. "So what do we want me to do about it?"

"You've been ordered to contact Martin. Find out what he knows, what his involvement is, and if possible, retrieve the object in question."

I sat quietly waiting for the punch line. I didn't have to wait long.

"Without the knowledge of the NID or the powers that be at 51."

* * * * *

Four and a half hours later, I was circling high above the Nevada landscape preparing to land at Nellis AFB. I had opted to be chauffeured on this one. I didn't have to. I could have piloted myself, but my mind was reeling with memories and with questions and with . . . disappointment. As second nature as it might be, flying was not something I felt comfortable doing unless I could give it my full attention, and that wasn't going to happen . . . not this time.

I stared down at the little aluminum case sitting on the floor near my feet. Carter had been pissed, to say the least. Can't say as I blamed her. I stared back out the window feeling a bit PO'ed myself. But, as someone once said, `orders is orders.'

Thirty-five minutes later, I stood waiting in a glossy white hallway inside an innocuous looking, metal building. I saw him coming from 60 feet away. I would have recognized him immediately, even if I hadn't been expecting him. A 5-foot, 10-inch powerhouse that still walked slightly too far forward over short, wide feet. Despite the circumstances, I felt a genuine smile building.

"Jonathon Jackass O'Neill." Marty's round face lit up. "My God. I can't believe it."

"Bastard," I grabbed the hand he held out and pulled him into a classic O'Neill bear hug. He returned it with enthusiasm, and laughing softly, we pounded each other on the back. "How're you doing?"

He took a step back and looked me up and down, still smiling. "Look at you." He rubbed a hand along the lapel of my crisp blue suit, then flicked a fingertip against the lens of my sunglasses. "Who'd've thunk it, huh? A smart-ass like you making colonel." He shook his head in disbelief.

Hating myself, hiding behind the dark lenses, I studied his face, looking for anything that might be different about him, anything that might press any panic buttons. Thankfully, there was nothing. He was the same old, ugly Bastard I'd known for over 20 years. Just greyer and a few pounds heavier. I tapped him on the gut.

"Congratulations. When's that thing due?"

He patted his stomach with both hands, smiling. "I, uh, I don't get out much nowadays. Stuck in here, mostly. Besides, marriage'll do that."

I suddenly noticed the ring. "You're kidding. You finally found someone who'd take you? What'd it cost you?"

His laughter made all the years between us slip away, and his eyes lit up. Hammond was wrong. Hammond and his `anonymous source' - they were both full of shit.

"Her name's Barb. She's great, Jack. You'd love her. She's . . . hey, you gotta head back right away? I'd love for you to meet her."

"Actually," I shifted my weight, "no. I'm catching a flight back tomorrow. I was hoping you could point me to a good hotel."

"Hotel? You kidding? Barb would kill me. You'll stay with us. We'll throw something on the grill."

"Well, I don't know. Maybe I sh-"

"Bullshit. It's settled." He shook his head again, then for the first time he seemed to look a bit lost. "So what brings you here, Jack?"

"Um," I glanced over at the guard who was standing behind the front desk, and who'd been pretending not to see or hear the two senior officers standing less than three feet in front of him. I smiled back at Bastard, then nodded at the aluminum carrying case. "Delivery man."

"Must be some important delivery."

"It is."

I slipped off the glasses, finally allowing him access to my eyes. His mouth turned up in the faintest of smiles as he studied my face.

"Why don't we talk in my lab?"

* * * * *

My stomach cramping under the strain of an over-sized tbone steak and baked potato, I thought about how easy it had been handing off Carter's mineral sample to my old friend. I felt bad that Carter had had to give up her little ball of dirt, but all in all, it was worth the cost of admission to Area 51 and to Marty.

My jacket tossed aside, I sank back onto the sofa cushions and took another sip of my cold beer. Marty had just spent the last half hour regaling me with how he and Barb had met. They'd been married a little over a year and it was written all over their faces. I felt a pang that wasn't indigestion as I recalled that feeling of new love. I hoped, someday, to be lucky enough to feel it again.

"So, Jack," Barb smiled pleasantly, "Sebastian says that you and he spent a lot of time together in the 80's."

"Ah, the good old days. Hey, Marty?" I lifted my beer in a parody of a toast. I'd dropped the `Bastard' after receiving a worried look from the bride.

"Is that what they were?" He was sitting in a chair across from me, with Barb squeezed in beside him. He rested a hand on her bare calf and gently rubbed her tanned skin.

I watched that hand with interest. Unlike mine, it was pale and soft and free of scars. I looked back up at his face, at the smooth, wrinkle-free skin. In comparison, I was dark and rough. Burnt brown by alien winds and suns, my face had been lined by worry, stress, unimaginable pain and not a small helping of guilt. I shook myself out of my fugue and found Marty staring back at me, frowning slightly as if he were reading the train of my thoughts. He lightly patted Barb's leg and in answer to his unspoken request, she slipped away into the other room.

We sat there for a few minutes, not speaking. I gulped down the remainder of my beer and set the empty bottle on the table next to the sofa.

"She's nice. I'm happy for you."

"Thanks." Marty blinked and refusing to look at me, he began peeling the label off his beer bottle. "I think I've disappointed you, what with my . . . career change and all."

I didn't respond. I didn't need to.

"I've always admired you, Jack. Ever since the first time I met you. I was just a geek from a small town in the Midwest. A little too smart, a lot afraid, and not . . . well, not Air Force material, to be perfectly honest. I knew that. Hell, the only thing I had in common with anybody was that most of us had only signed up to piss off our folks." He chuckled softly, and finally glanced at me. "It worked, by the way."

I smiled and nodded my head, but said nothing.

"Do you remember the first thing you ever said to me?"

"No." Hell, I couldn't remember the first thing I'd said to him today.

"I do."

I'd never thought about it before, but now I was wracking my brain to come up with what I could have said that had made such a lasting impression.

"You said, `you coming with us.'"

I raised my eyebrows and stared over at him. "That's it?"

"Yeah. That's it. `You coming with us.'" He smiled. "Doesn't sound like much, huh? But you just assumed I was part of the group and for somebody like me that was . . .," he shook his head, apparently at a loss for words.

"Listen, Martin . . ."

"Don't call me that, Jack. It doesn't suit you."

I laughed and glanced towards the doorway through which Barb had disappeared.

"She's just never heard it. Nobody else calls me that. In fact, you're the only one to ever call me `bastard' that didn't mean it."

"Hey," I pointed a long finger at him, "I mean it. Okay? Just so you know."

"Sure, sure." He waved me away. "You've always been good at this. You were cut out for what you do."

Killing? I flinched and picked at a loose thread on the arm of the sofa.

"I just want to make a difference, Jack. Like you. You've always made a difference, no matter what you did. You did it right. You did it good."

"You're wrong."

"No. No, I'm not." He pointed at the blue jacket tossed on the back of the sofa. Row upon row of ribbons and medals gleamed in the dim light.

I thought of all the lives that had been changed because of my career. It wasn't something I cared to dwell on, but enemies, targets . . . even they have families and friends. I started to pick up my beer bottle, remembered it was empty, and went back to toying with the thread. "Making a difference isn't necessarily a good thing."

"In the face of that," he pointed again towards my jacket, "can you honestly deny that you haven't excelled at your job?"

"That's not what I said."

Marty smiled and I was suddenly reminded of Daniel. "No. No, it wasn't."

He reached over and picked up the remote control, flipping on a large television in the corner of the room. Sound obscenely filled the room and he cursed as he fumbled for the mute button. We were plunged into silence. He flipped through a few channels before stopping on an old rerun of Star Trek. I watched, curious, as Captain Kirk was shot with some sort of laser gun. The actor's face screwed up, reddened, and his entire body convulsed before he dramatically collapsed onto the floor. I fidgeted, knowing that scene would flash before my eyes the next time I was shot with a Zat.

"I'm sorry if I've disappointed you, I really am. But there's nothing wrong with what I'm doing."

I tore my eyes away from a recovering Kirk and looked at my old friend. "Are you sure?"

He squirmed in his chair.

I watched him closely, knowing I would recognize the truth when I saw it on his face. "You've lost something, Marty."

He paled slightly. It was the only sign, but it was enough, and I felt something deep inside me tear and begin to ache. I knew from experience that it was only a matter of time before that soft, hurting piece of me hardened into a shield around the part of me that used to care.

"You'd better be talking about my integrity, Jack."

"You tell me. Am I?" I stared him down.

If I'd harbored any doubts, his response settled them. "Who sent you?"

Stunned that this man I thought I'd known was involved in this, I shook my head and chuckled without humor. Giving him one last look, I got up and left the room. I passed through the kitchen on my way outside, coming face to face with Barb.

"Jack? Everything okay? Can I get you anything?"

Did she know? I studied her face, but saw no guile there. "No. I just . . . I need some fresh air. Thanks." I headed for the back door and the solitude of the patio.

"I'm glad you came, Jack. I've heard so many things about you, it's nice to put a face to the name." She smiled as she absently wiped at the pristine counter top with a sponge.

I stared at her and, honest to God, couldn't come up with a single thing to say in response. I didn't even know this woman, but I felt bad for her. I wanted her to know the Bastard that I'd known for so many years. He was the guy you called when you found out you were getting shipped to the Middle East, and you were excited and scared shitless at the same time. Without being asked, he arranged to have your lawn mowed when you were a POW and your wife could barely keep your kid fed, let alone take care of a yard. Together, he and Frank had taken me out and gotten me drunk when Sara had called to tell me we were expecting Charlie. And after Charlie had died, when Frank had been relegated to the ranks of non-existence, it was Marty who'd risked the same treatment at my unforgiving hands by trying to force me to live again.

I smiled at Barb whose head was bent in concentration on her task, and quietly slipped outside into the dark. I stood out there on the edge of their neat little patio and looked up at the stars. I was still standing there over an hour later when Martin joined me. A radio blared somewhere in the distance; it was the only noise between us for a long while.

"Your cactus is dying."

"Jack . . ."

"They need more water than most people think. You can't just plant them and ignore them." I waited a beat, maybe two, before continuing. "It's not right."

He glanced at me, then looked away as if surprised.

I'd had time to think, to compose myself and to shelve my anger. "I'm going to ask you two questions, Martin, and I want you to think very carefully before you answer them." I turned to face him. Almost reluctantly, he pulled his eyes up to meet mine and nodded, giving me permission to continue. "Did you know what you were getting into when you came here?"

He was already shaking his head before I was finished. "No, Jack. Someone approached me a few months before I made the actual transfer. I was told that the research here was in line with what I was doing . . . defense technology. But things here were years ahead. Tremendous steps were being made; more money was available with fewer restrictions."

"And that raised no red flags for you." I couldn't keep the snideness from my voice.

"Yeah, Jack, it did. But I was willing to overlook a few things to get what I wanted. Something I'm sure you've never done."

I felt my anger returning. "I've spent my life doing the shit work for people like you, Martin. People that hide behind their office doors and their lab coats." I was being unfair, but I didn't give a damn and I couldn't stop myself. "I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of, things I never would have thought I was capable of doing, and I've hurt a lot of people. But I always did them for the right reasons."

"And I didn't?" He stared at me, his left eye twitching slightly. "We're after the same things, Jack."

"Don't . . .," I raised my hand along with my voice, then stopped myself. I wasn't sure whether I'd actually meant to hit him, but for Martin's sake . . . for Barb's, I shoved my hands deep into my pockets. "A lot of good people have given their lives in the course of making allies, then your organization sneaks in behind our backs and steals from the very people we're counting on to help us. Tell you what, I'll arrange to have a list of the dead sent to you so you can call them by name when you meet them in your nightmares."

"I don't have nightmares, Jack. That's your area. Next question."

I swallowed down a knot of anger and the hard shield inside me grew. Even as I watched, Bastard's face dissolved and was replaced with the face of this stranger I didn't know.

"I have a job to do. You don't want to be standing in the way when I do it."

He smiled and squinted up at me, almost as if he expected us to remain friends. "That wasn't a question, Jack."

"Yes. It was." I smiled back at him, coldly. "Are you going to stand in my way, Martin? Or are you going to help me?"

We looked at each other for what felt like a long time. Finally, he snorted softly and looked out across his small backyard before turning back towards the house.

"I'm going to bed, Jack. I suggest you do the same."

* * * * *

Breakfast was unpleasant. Barb knew something had happened between us, and spent the entire meal juggling her loving husband on one hand and a guest she barely knew on the other. I was polite, but inside I was angry and disappointed and so many other things that I couldn't name them all. I'd spent the night pacing the guest room and trying not to think. One minute I was practicing my apology to Hammond; the next I was rehearsing a screaming tirade about the unfairness of involving me in this in the first place. No sleep last night, and the night before that we'd been on our little mission to Planet Armageddon. My off-world sleep was never sound. Actually, I couldn't remember the last full night's rest I'd had. The result was that I was tired and cranky, and being stiffly polite was the best I could manage.

The car ride with Martin was a relief. I didn't have to pretend any longer. I slumped against the passenger door and allowed the silence between us to fester. I stared out the window at the passing houses and kids on bikes and life in the American southwest. I'd reached a `zone' so to speak; distanced myself so much that we were a mile past the turnoff before I realized that Martin wasn't taking me to Nellis. I held my slumped position, but glanced over at him.

His face was unreadable. Nearly six miles later, he pulled off the highway and onto a small unpaved road. Curious, I sat up in my seat and studied the landscape. When we reached a tiny, diseased grove of trees, Martin circled them, stopped the car, and shut off the engine. We sat there in the silence, the interior of the car already growing warm under an early morning sun.

"You're not looking for a piece of alien technology."

"What?"

He ran a hand over the dash, wiping away a layer of dust. "You've probably been told that an object is missing. Odds are you've been instructed to find out what I know and to return the property to its rightful owner."

I didn't reply.

"There are three of them."

"How will I know what to look for?"

He smiled. "You won't." He looked out the windshield, studying the sky as if for rain. "On one of their last trips through the gate, our people managed to find something . . . interesting. We were looking at stealth technology. If we'd mastered it . . ."

"But you didn't."

"No. To be honest, I'm not sure we ever would have. In any event, it doesn't matter. They escaped."

Oh my God. "They escaped?" My heart was suddenly racing. What had our people done this time? "Martin?"

He suddenly looked frightened, as if the very admission allowed his fear to surface. "They were aliens, Jack. Real, live, honest-to-God aliens."

"Shit. Martin, what have you done?" I scrubbed a hand across my tired eyes.

"They were, I don't know, what you'd call shape-shifters, I guess. They'd been in containment for over a month before we were even told of their existence. Four researchers in my department. We were given access; instructed to perform whatever . . . experiments were necessary in order to recreate their ability to change themselves."

I leaned my head back against the seat and closed my eyes, feeling as if my world, quite literally, was careening out of control. "What happened?"

"Like I said, they just . . . escaped. We're not sure to where. They could be anywhere."

"When you say shape-shifters . . ."

"I've seen them change into different things. Birds, dogs, people. They're excellent mimickers. But always animate objects."

"When?"

"They disappeared nine days ago."

"Nine days?" The damned things had been on the loose for nine days and we were just now finding it out.

"We . . . we weren't exactly sure at first. Then, when we realized what had happened, we spent days searching the base. I mean, they could have assumed the shape of any one of us. They could have been hiding in plain sight and we wouldn't have known it."

"Did you ever see the `real' aliens?"

"They were beautiful really. Very tall, very thin. Their skin, if you want to call it that, was very . . . I don't know, elastic." Martin chuckled softly, as if in disbelief. "Aliens made of velvety soft, blue elastic. And they had the most expressive eyes. They were . . . kind-looking. At first anyway."

"Before the experiments," I guessed.

He nodded. "Yeah."

"Martin," I swallowed and joined him in staring past the windshield at the bleak landscape, "did you make a phone call?" Please say yes. Please tell me that you had a change of heart, that you were the leak.

He didn't respond, which in itself was an answer to my question. I sighed and closed my eyes, wondering how I could possibly fix this.

"I'm sorry, Jack."

I looked over at him. This scared man was so different from the cocky one who'd faced off against me on the terrace last night; if it hadn't already been too late, this man could almost be my old friend. "Why are you telling me this now?"

He hesitated. "Barb is pregnant."

"Good for her."

"But not for me?"

I didn't answer.

"I don't want to be another Frank Cromwell, Jack. I deserve better."

"Yeah? Well, newsflash you bastard, so did he."

* * * * *

"And Thomas Jefferson died of dysentery."

I knew my teammates were concerned, they were confused, and they were totally in the dark about where I'd been for the last two days. Actually, after spending an entire day lurking around the facilities at Area 51 under the pretense of waiting for the test results on Carter's dirt ball, I was more than a little concerned, confused and in the dark myself.

"Are you okay?" Just like in the field, Daniel was the group spokesman. "Jack, what's the . . ."

"People, I apologize for the delay."

Hammond slid into the chair at the head of the table and I forced my hands to unclench. I picked up my pen and opened the folder in front of me, staring at the blank, lined pad of paper inside. Even if I'd had anything substantive to offer, none of it could be put down in writing anyway. Why? Well, officially, there was no problem. No alien research project. No missing alien artefact. No missing aliens. No screwed up researchers playing God. No damned freakin' problem!

I sniffed and poured myself a glass of water, wishing I had a handful of aspirin to go with it.

"Major, would you care to present your report?"

"Uh, sir," Carter's hands were resting on her closed file, "permission to ask a question first?"

I felt the tiniest bit of satisfaction as I watched Hammond fidget in his chair. We both knew what was coming. The General's eyes flicked my way without actually reaching me. "Certainly."

"Was there a reason that I was not allowed to perform the tests on the soil sample from PX2666?"

Lacing my fingers together in church steeple fashion, I planted my elbows on the smooth table and rested my chin on my hands. I focused tired, bleary eyes on the wall behind Daniel's head. This should prove interesting.

"I'm sorry, Major Carter, that is on a need-to-know basis."

"Oh." I was aware of Carter glancing down at the folder in front of her as she realized her name was not on the `need-to-know' list. "In that case, General, may I ask if the sample is to be tested?"

Hammond looked at me and waved a finger towards Carter. With all the decorum of a bored high school teenager, I reached down and with a soft sigh pulled a two-page document from the pocket of my own folder, sliding it across the slick tabletop towards my second in command.

Frowning at me, she caught it, then looked down at the tiny columns of numbers and abbreviations. Her frown deepened and she glanced back up at me. "Sir, who performed these tests?"

I cleared my throat and took a slow sip of water, studiously ignoring the searching glances being passed between my three teammates.

"Major Carter," Hammond's southern drawl thickened, a sure indication that he was measuring what he said very carefully, "Colonel O(Neill personally delivered the soil sample to the researchers at Nellis. Is there any reason to think the results are not accurate?"

"Area 51?" Daniel blurted.

"No, sir, but I don't . . . ." Carter reconsidered what she was going to say. "No, sir."

"Very good. Now, if there are no other questions, Major . . . your report?"

"Yes, sir."

* * * * *

"Hey, Doc."

"Colonel?" Fraiser was obviously shocked to see me, but who could blame her? An unscheduled, non-emergency visit to the infirmary wasn't high on my `list of things I definitely want to do today.' She glanced around as if looking for something. Belatedly, I realized she was trying to figure out just who I was there to see.

"So . . . how's things?"

She swung back around to face me, looking puzzled - a look I seemed to be receiving quite often, particularly today. "Um," Doc forced a smile, "'things' are fine. Sir, is there something I can do for you?"

"Can't a guy just drop in to say hi?"

"Yes. Yes, a guy could do that."

I casually leaned against the doorframe and picked up a shiny metal object laying on a nearby tray. "How's Cassie doing?" One-handed, I flipped the object and caught it.

"She's . . . she's fine." Fraiser reached over and very gently, but firmly, removed the object from my hand. "That's, uh, that's a very expensive piece of equipment, sir."

"Oh. Sorry."

"Colonel, it's been a few days since you've been in, maybe I should give you a quick exam. Since you're here, that is."

I stood up straight and looked at her. "Why?"

"Well, for one thing, I understand you just got back from a trip somewhere and it's just a precaution. I'm sure I'm being overly paranoid, but it'll just take a few minutes." She smiled and pointed towards the nearest bed. "Please, sir."

I nodded, hesitantly. "Well . . . okay. If it'll make you feel better."

Ten minutes later, I was sitting on one of the narrow infirmary beds and Doc was standing with her back to me scribbling something in my chart. A curtain was drawn around us, giving us a flimsy semblance of privacy. I'd thought she was writing down my blood pressure, but she seemed to be taking a long time doing it.

"Anything wrong?"

"Hmm?" She tilted her head in my direction, but kept writing.

"I said, is anything wrong?"

She finished writing, dotted a couple of i's, crossed a couple of t's, and turned to face me. "Oh, no. Just making some notes."

D'uh. "So, can I go?"

"Yes. Everything checks out."

I started to hop down, inexplicably feeling a bit let down.

"Except . . ."

I froze. "Except?"

"Your blood pressure is a tad high. Nothing serious, but a bit high for you. And . . . have you been getting enough sleep, Colonel? You appear to be a little rundown."

Rundown? How about: freaked out; pissed off; mad as a hatter; disappointed; exhausted; angry as hell; sickened. All of the above. "Well, I have been on the go quite a bit, I guess." I shrugged. "Tiny little headache."

She was trying not to look smug. "How tiny?"

I held up my finger and thumb, leaving a gap of, oh, an eighth of an inch or so. "Maybe a . . .," I widened the gap as far as my gnarly fingers would stretch and smiled over at her, "six out of ten."

She frowned, recognizing the significance of a six on her Fraiser scale of pain. "More than likely due to stress and lack of sleep. If you don't mind bunking down in one of the VIP suites for a few hours, I could give you something that would help."

I thought about it, mentally probed the pounding that had been going on non-stop inside my skull for the last 36 hours or so, then nodded. "Yeah. Okay."

She patted my arm. "I'll be right back."

I sat there while she went off somewhere preparing to dope me to the gills and tried to figure out why I do this. It's so obviously an act - albeit one in which Fraiser is a willing participant - that even I don't believe me. Why the hell couldn't I just stroll in like everyone else and demand something for a stupid, stinkin' headache? It should be so simple. But, no, I had to turn it into a 30-minute sitcom with me and Doc in the lead roles - the Jack and Janet show. All we needed was Chrissy and a nosy landlord.

Trying to wrap my mind around the psychology of what I do, without really wanting to know the reason, just made my head ache more. Finally, I stood up and strolled over to the table by the bed, fiddling with the cover on the thin metal chart she'd left laying there.

Chart?

I glanced around at the doorway. As second in command at the SGC, I was privy to information that would make a lot of grown men go running for their mommies. I also knew things about people under my command that sometimes made it difficult to look them in the eye when you were exchanging `good mornings.' Funny thing, though: I never got to peek at my own medical chart. Well, I guess I could if I asked, but I'd never really thought about asking.

Feeling like a teenager who's about to get caught smoking his first, stolen cigarette, I lifted the cover on the chart with my index finger and leaned over, peering inside. Some kind of pre-printed form. Glancing back at the doorway, I opened it further and studied the sheet. Name of patient; height; weight - geez, I could stand to drop a couple; age - hmm, could drop a couple there, too.

I flipped to the second sheet. Another form. A few numbers were scribbled in Doc's tiny, surprisingly neat handwriting, followed by the word `headache.' It was underlined twice. Son-of-a-bitch. I smiled. She hadn't taken any notes after my confession, meaning . . . she'd memorized the script. I started to close the chart before I got caught, then noticed there was a third sheet. I leafed to it.

What the hell?

"Colonel?"

I let the chart snap shut and whirled to face her.

Smiling, Fraiser held up a syringe. "This will help you get some sleep and should take care of that headache. Sir?" She frowned. "Something wrong?"

"No. No." I reached for my belt, knowing she preferred the butt shot. "You know, you're the only doctor I know who doesn't believe in injecting anything above the waist."

"Oh, I have my reasons, Colonel."

I smirked as I dropped my pants. "Yeah, I'll just bet you do. Admit it, Doc," I grimaced as she jabbed the needle home, "underneath that mask of professionalism, you're an ass-man."

She chuckled softly. "Well, you found out me out, sir."

Yes. Yes, I had. But it still didn't explain the neat little rows of smiley faces that she'd drawn in the back of my chart.

* * * * *

I'll give her this, Doc may lean a bit towards the peeping Tom end of the pervert spectrum, but she's almost always mostly right when it comes to doctoring. I stripped down to my boxers, crawled between the sheets of one of the beds in a VIP suite, closed my eyes, and for the next 14 hours remained totally unaware that I'd left on every light in the room.

I awoke with a snort and a start, laying on my stomach with my six shoved up in the air and my knees and back aching like a son-of-a-bitch. Groaning, I rolled onto my side and lifted my head, squinting around the overly-bright room to make sure I was alone. I was. Thank God.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not averse to a little female companionship now and then, but in the last few years, most of the females I'd awakened to were either wearing BDU's and packing P90's or they were exhaling purple gas. And you don't want to tangle with either one, believe me.

Groaning softly, I completed the roll onto my back and blinked up at the pitted, grey ceiling. God. I scrubbed a hand over my face, wiping the sleep from my eyes. I don't know what the hell Doc shot me up with, but I wouldn't mind taking a few along on my next trip to the cabin. I blinked and tried to clear the cobwebs from my head.

Yeah, she was mostly right. The headache had slackened but was still lingering, sort of like a hangover without all the fun of getting there. I needed a pee, a toothbrush, a shower, and a shave . . . in that order. Then breakfast.

That decision made, I continued to lay there feeling old and tired in a way that had nothing to do with being drugged or having a headache or sleeping wrong. It didn't even have anything to do with age. It was mostly about finding out someone you thought you knew was someone you didn't want to know, doing something you didn't want to think about.

"Shit."

That being said, I forced myself up and into the bathroom. It was 0400 and my day had only just begun.

* * * * *

Daniel was educating us, not about the building of the Egyptian pyramids, but about the reasoning behind them in the first place. That is, from the point of view of those who weren`t in the know as far as the Goa'ulds and their nifty little relocation project. I was standing off to one side of my team trying to look like I was actually doing something - like standing watch, when in fact I was just wishing that Carter would get a move on so I could get back to my office and that sweet little bottle of extra-strength Tylenol that I'd stashed in my middle drawer.

It was just after midday, and Hammond had graciously granted Carter's request to return to Planet Hell-Fire and Brimstone to dig up another little bucket of dirt to replace the one the nasty Colonel had stolen. I squinted up at the glaring sun. At least it had stopped raining. I pulled off my cap, ran a hand through my sweaty hair, and tugged my cap back on. So I fidget . . . sue me.

"Carter?"

"Give me another 30 minutes, Colonel. Since we're here, I'd like to get some more samples from the outlying area."

Hiding my true thoughts behind my dark glasses, I grimaced and gave her a reluctant nod before wandering just far enough away that I couldn't make out what Daniel was saying. He was beginning to annoy me. They all were. So for all our sakes, I distanced myself from them before I blew something that wasn't meant to be blown.

I gazed out over a nearly barren landscape. Well, I was always complaining about the galaxy being overgrown with pine trees; apparently, someone upstairs had gotten tired of my whining and granted my wish. There wasn't an evergreen in sight. In fact, the only plant life to be seen was a pathetic cluster of scrawny bushes thrusting defiantly through a heaving pile of drying mud.

The sick looking plants reminded me of a certain diseased grove of trees in the middle of the Nevada desert. I slapped at what looked like a gnat that was buzzing around my face and wondered if Martin was in any kind of danger. Not that I should care.

"O'Neill."

I looked over at Teal'c. He'd snuck up on me so many times in the past five hours that I wasn't even surprised by his sudden presence. He stood next to me, silently gazing out over the mainly dead planet.

I knew he was their point man. My team was trying to feel me out and was using Teal'c to do it. I know a lot of things about my team. For one thing, I can tell you for a fact that Carter and Daniel are aware they can grate on my nerves. Ergo: Teal'c repeatedly sneaking up on me. Now, I'm not sure whether they actually take a vote, but I know Teal'c's frequently nominated to `check on the Colonel.' He's obviously been typecast in the role of Jack's big brother. Maybe it has something to do with him being older than everyone else on Earth. Maybe it's just because he doesn't mind the job. Whatever his reasons or his motives, he's typically able to nudge his way closer to me than anyone else I know.

I glanced over at him, studying his stern features and recognized a hesitancy that I don't often find there. "Everything okay, Teal'c?"

He didn't move; might not have heard my question. "No. I believe it is not."

I took my time cleaning my glasses, then swigged down a sip of lukewarm water. "Anything I can do?"

"I believe it is you who are in need of assistance."

I huffed softly. The guy was getting good. I'd walked right into that one. I glanced over at him, a little irritated that I'd allowed myself to be set up. He cocked an eyebrow and slowly turned his head to look at me. Sara and I had once had a dog that used to give me that exact same look. It had been as annoying then as it was now.

"We can't go there, T," I quietly informed him.

He'd opened his mouth to speak, but closed it at my words. Finally, he graced me with that regal head bob of his. "As you wish. However, I remain available if you have need of me."

Well, I knew what he meant, even though I was glad none of the Marines had heard his offer. "Yeah," I gave him a quick, tight smile, "I know. Thanks."

He made no move to leave, so I did.

* * * * *

Four hours later I popped out on the Earth side of the wormhole with all the pizzaz of a non-carbonated soft drink - no flourish, no winning smile. I ignored the rifle barrels aimed at my chest and concentrated instead on the balding Texan waiting at the base of the ramp. If he knew what was good for him, the next words out of his mouth wouldn't be, `Colonel, we have a problem.'

"Colonel, I take it the mission was a success?"

Thank God. I really hadn't wanted to shoot him.

"Yes, sir. Carter played in the dirt and Daniel . . . well, sir, Daniel talked. A lot."

Hammond smiled and shook his head. "Very good, Colonel. SG1, I think the de-brief on this one can wait. After you get medical clearance, consider yourselves on 48-hour stand-down. Go home; get some rest."

"Yes, sir." Handing off my weapons to the nearest guard, I watched the General leave. He and I were getting too good at lying.

After passing all of Fraiser's tests and hitting the shower room, I headed towards my office. SG1 might be on stand-down, and Hammond and I might pretend that things were peachy, but I was still second in command of the base with a laundry list of other duties that needed to be done. Not to mention the fact that I had `alien technology' to locate, and not a clue where to begin searching.

Between our little visits to Armageddon and the mess with Martin, I'd been gone the last six days, which meant my in-box and e-mails had been piling up. Besides, I had some things to check out, and my office computer was a hell of a lot more secure than the one at home. So for several hours, I hid behind my closed door, quietly weeding through requisition forms and reports, dealing with emails, and surfing a few connections on the net. But my mind wasn't on my work. I kept stewing about Martin and the stupid assholes at the NID who thought we could steal anything we came across. Find an alien, take it home, poke it, prod it, torture it into revealing something we can use, then let it die. Or escape. Shit. As I stood up to head to the mess hall, my cell phone rang.

No caller i.d. I glanced at my watch as I answered it. It was just after midnight.

"This had better be good."

"Now is that any way to greet an old pal?"

I sat down in my chair, smiling despite the creepy feeling sneaking across my neck and shoulders. "Maybourne."

There was a soft laugh that was becoming way too familiar. "Long time no see, Jack."

"What the hell do you want?"

"That hurts. That really hurts."

I didn't respond. Harry couldn't keep his mouth shut if his life depended on it. All I had to do was wait.

"Come on, Jack, you never come out and play with me any more."

"There's a reason for that, Harry."

"And what's that? Too busy being Hammond's errand boy?"

"No. It's because you're an ass."

"And you're a prick. So what's the problem?"

I shivered at the images that conjured up, and Harry laughed even louder as if he'd guessed my reaction, which he probably had.

"What do you want, Maybourne?"

"My, my, aren't we the little bitch tonight?"

"What can I say? It's late. I'm tired."

"What's the matter, working `lost and found' wear you out?"

I couldn't say it surprised me. I'd pretty much known where this conversation was headed the minute I'd heard his slimy voice. "I don't know what the hell you're trying to get at, but get at it quickly or I'm hanging up."

"Ever the diplomat, hey Jack? I call up, trying to do you a favor, and this is the thanks I get?"

"Good-night," I said it softly, nicely, and pulled the phone away from my ear, but we both knew I wouldn't do it. I couldn't afford to. Harry might be a sleaze, but he was a sleaze with connections.

"Okay, Jack, here's the scoop: you're looking for something."

"I'm looking for love in all the wrong places. Tell me something I don't know."

He chuckled. "All right. You're looking to meet someone new. Someone who's not from around these parts. Maybe you want to wine them and dine them a little. Find out a little bit about them. You know . . . who they are, their likes and dislikes. Stuff like that."

"Go on."

"You know what your problem is, Jack? You just don't get out enough. How can you expect to meet new people when you sit in that damn mountain all the time babysitting Jackson and Carter?"

"I'm hanging up now, Maybourne."

"Take it easy. I'm trying to help you out here. Think of me as your personal dating service. You're about to receive a little present. Check it out. Who knows, maybe you'll see something that will appeal to you."

"And what do you want in return?"

"Moi? Why, what do you think I am, Jack?"

"We've already covered that."

"Oh, right. Well then, I guess we've got nothing else to say to each other."

"Harry?"

"Yes, Jack?"

I smiled. "You're still an ass."

"I love you, too."

The line went dead. I sat there with the phone in my hand and debated continuing on to the mess hall but for some reason, I'd suddenly lost my appetite. It never failed to amaze and terrify me that people like Harry Maybourne not only existed, but that they knew so much about things that were not officially happening. Hell, my own team was still in the dark as to why I'd gone to Nellis, and until our little talk this morning, the General had been clueless as to the details of the `technology' that had gone missing.

Someone knocked on my office door.

"Come."

"Colonel O'Neill, sir, this package just came for you."

"Thank you, Airman."

As I studied the box, it dawned on me that in a warped sort of way, Maybourne was one of the most honorable men I knew. And, although you'd never get me to admit it out loud or in writing, he had grown on me over the years. There were times, moments - albeit very brief moments - that I kind of, maybe, sort of, almost liked him. I shivered at the thought.

On that grim note, I opened the box, slightly scared of what little surprise Harry had in store for me. The box contained three DVD's. Taking them with me, I wandered to the lounge and pulled rank on the half dozen airman who were gathered around the television watching a tape of the latest game.

"Sorry, gentlemen, but I'm gonna have to ask you to step out for a little while."

There were a couple of soft groans but they filed out, probably wondering if their CO needed some privacy to watch a little porn. Well, rank does have its privileges. I locked the door behind them, popped in one of the DVD's, and settled back on the stained sofa, fiddling with the remote control.

When the recording came on, I was momentarily at a loss as to what I was seeing. When I figured it out, I was glad I hadn't eaten. The scene playing out before my eyes made me want to puke.

* * * * *

We had gathered at Daniel's. It was a little cramped, all of us squeezed into Daniel's small living room, but to be honest I was glad that they'd chosen to come here instead of to my place. I'd been up for nearly 36 hours; thanks to missing chameleons and gut-wrenching home movies, I hadn't been back to bed since my 14-hour, Fraiser-induced coma. I wasn't exactly in the mood to entertain, especially a group of people that tended to linger long after most guests would have said their good-byes.

I watched and half-listened as Daniel and Teal'c stood near the small stove debating whether chicken juices should or should not run clear when fully cooked. Cassie had been in the middle of mixing up a batch of brownies, but had stopped and was now trying to pick something out of the batter. I wasn't sure what she was digging for, but she was wearing a frown of concentration and was meticulously pinching at the top of the batter with two fingers. Whatever was down there bothered her. It also kept escaping her grasp. Finally, I saw her glance at Fraiser, who was dishing up a bowl of steaming vegetables. Giving the batter a quick, final stir with her spoon, Cassie poured the contaminated mess into the pan. Well, that settled that. Until I witnessed Little Miss Innocent eating one of her own creation, no dessert for Uncle Jack.

"Sir?"

"Hey, Carter." I smiled as she slipped onto the stool next to mine in order to watch the crowded chaos of the kitchen from relative safety.

"So, care to share?"

"Excuse me?" I frowned over at her smiling face, but she merely nodded towards the clueless chefs.

"What shouldn't I eat?"

"Oh." I laughed softly and took a swig of beer. Grimacing, I glanced at the label before answering. "Well, not that I'm saying you're fat, but I'd lay off desserts. At least for today. The entree - well, that remains to be seen. I'd stick with the vegetables. And I know for a fact the baked beans and mashed potatoes are safe. I bought them myself on the way over."

"Ditto for the salad. I thought the General was coming."

I couldn't help it. I sighed and scrubbed a hand over my face.

"Sir, is everything all right? I mean, I know you probably can't tell me, but if you . . . well, you know," she shrugged pitifully.

"Everything's fine, Carter. Don't worry about it."

I knew she didn't believe me, but unlike Daniel, Carter sometimes had an inkling when to lay off . . . at least when it came to her commanding officers. She turned back to the kitchen. "Hey, Cass, what's in the brownies?"

"Huh?" Cassie's head shot up, her eyes wide. "No there isn't."

"What?" Carter laughed softly.

"What?" Cassie shoved the pan into the oven.

"No chocolate chips, no nuts, no coconut?"

"Oh," Cassie laughed in relief, "yeah, there's nuts."

I grabbed my beer and headed for the balcony. Yeah, I was definitely skipping dessert.

Leaning on the railing, I looked out over the city towards the mountains. Like a spectator at a tennis match, I watched the traffic below me. People coming and going. All headed somewhere. Living out their lives, oblivious to what was playing out in the skies above them and even on the Earth around them. Blissfully ignorant. Blessed.

I took another sip of the beer. Shit. Daniel! I fought back the urge to hurl the vile-tasting bottle of brew over the ledge and instead set it down next to me. Daniel refused to buy anything but micro-brew. In his own warped way, he thought he was bucking the system. He wouldn't shop at WalMart, but he was addicted to Starbuck's; he drove a car because it got good mileage, then he never went anywhere. The guy was a walking oxymoron.

I laughed softly. Look who was talking. Me. Mr. Hard-Ass Military Colonel. I was just as bad. Worse maybe. If you looked on my bedside table right now, here's what you'd find: a designer lamp; a book entitled `Chippewa Chief in World War II: The Survival Story of Oliver Rasmussen in Japan'; a photograph of a family that no longer existed; the latest issue of Mad Magazine; a thesaurus; and a bottle of NoDoz.

Inside the drawer: a flashlight, a half-empty box of condoms; a photograph of a family that no longer existed; and a scrap of paper containing these words: `You're not to be so blind with patriotism that you can't face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.' The words of Malcolm X in my scrawling handwriting.

That's something most people don't know about me, not even my team: I read and I jot things down. A lot. It springs from a fierce desire to never forget things that might be important.

"Jack?" I flinched at the sound of Daniel's voice. "Dinner's ready."

"Yeah. Coming."

I took one last look out over the city. They weren't out there. I wasn't sure where they were, but I was pretty sure where they weren't.

When I went inside, my friends had already gathered around the table - Daniel at one end, the other end left vacant for me. I stood for a moment and looked at each of them.

Daniel smiled. "What?"

"Well, I don't want to tell you what to do in your own home, but . . . I really think you should say the blessing."

With the exception of Teal'c, there was a chorus of `whats' and several surprised looks.

"Uh, Jack," Daniel glanced worriedly at Carter and then at me, "not that I'm complaining, but why this sudden interest in religion?"

I smiled over at Cassie, who blushed. "Oh, just trust me on this one."

* * * * *

"I don't understand why you don't just get a new one."

I awoke to find Doc watching me.

"Sam, why would I buy a new television? I'm never home."

Fraiser smiled, then looked over at Daniel and Carter, who were sitting on the floor in front of Daniel's decrepit television. Carter was fiddling with the buttons along the bottom of the set. Using his palm, Daniel slapped the side of the appliance twice, hard. It flickered and the picture cleared.

"Ah! Ah!" Daniel held up his hands. "Don't move. Don't anybody move."

I blinked. I couldn't have moved if I'd wanted to. Daniel's idea of decorating ran more along the lines of chintzy mausoleum as opposed to Martha Stewart. I was currently sitting in a bean bag chair that had definitely seen better days. Well, sitting wasn't exactly the word for what I was doing. Basically, I was hermetically sealed in the damned thing; the yellow plastic surface had bonded with the layer of sweat that had formed on my arms and neck. In blob-like fashion, the `chair' had oozed around me and was now pinning my arms to my sides and pushing my head awkwardly forward. My long legs were splayed out in front of me with the toes of my shoes pointing in opposite directions. I tried to move. The chair squeaked but refused to relinquish its hold. The television flickered.

"Dammit!"

"Sam, you shouldn't curse. It's evidence of a shallow mind."

Carter glared over her shoulder at Cassie, who was sitting in the only decent chair in the house, playing with a Gameboy. "Thank you, Cassandra. I had absolutely no idea." Carter glared over at me, why . . . I have no idea, then went back to fiddling with the television, which I'm sure was pissing her off way more than Cassie ever could.

Grimacing, I peeled one arm loose from the chair, sacrificing a layer of skin in the process, and looked at my watch. I'd been asleep for nearly an hour. That and Daniel's choice of beer explained the garbage-disposal taste in my mouth. I swallowed a burp that hinted of brownies and something slightly spicy, something not meant to be eaten. I stared at the top of Cassie's bent head. She'd guilted me into eating one of her `special' treats. I had a feeling if I knew what was good for me, I'd stick close to the latrine for the next 24 hours.

"Uh, somebody wanna . . .," I held up a hand in a plea for help.

Teal'c stepped up from somewhere behind me and offered me a helping hand. I don't know who groaned louder, me or what passed for a chair.

"Geez." I stood there, bent at the waist, seriously wondering if they were out to get me - I mean, in all likelihood I'd been poisoned and I think Daniel's furniture had snapped my spine. So, who was next? I suspected it'd be Carter, especially considering the look she'd just given me.

I had a vague feeling that I was stuck in the middle of a board game gone terribly wrong. I was Colonel Mustard, surrounded by a vengeful team consisting of Ms. Scarlet, Mrs. White, Professor Plum, Mrs. Peacock, and Mr. Green. Obviously, they'd forgotten that the good Colonel wasn't the one who was supposed to be murdered.

"What's the matter, Uncle Jack?"

I smiled over at the prepubescent Black Widow. "Oh, nothing. Just," I slowly straightened, "just stretching."

I ambled slowly towards the kitchen to get a fresh drink. I found a can of diet soda in the back of Daniel's refrigerator; despite being slightly past its expiration date, it had to beat Barfo Beer. As I popped open the can, I spied the plate full of brownies. Taking a sip of the soda, I leaned over and sniffed Cassie's creation. Yeah . . . I don't think brownies are meant to smell tangy.

"Colonel?"

I jumped and turned to face Fraiser, my stiff back twinging at the sudden move. I put a steadying hand on my spine and forced a smile. "Hey."

"Are you all right?"

"Yep."

She grinned. "You sure?"

"Shouldn't I be?"

"It's just . . .," she glanced over her shoulder towards the living room, and moved closer, "I recognize the signs, sir."

"Signs?" Of what? Food poisoning?

"Headache. Lack of sleep."

"Oh." That.

"So, I brought you something." She held up a small bottle.

"Oh, yeah? What is it? A pinch of arsenic?"

She laughed softly. "Excuse me?" I shook my head and reached for the bottle. "They're sleeping pills, Colonel. I'd recommend you take them. You're beginning to look like . . . well, like crap, sir."

"Like crap?"

She smiled an apology. These friends of mine sure know how to make a guy feel good.

"Uh . . . thank you."

We wandered back into the living room and I stood in the corner near the patio door, watching Carter and Daniel. They were two of the smartest people I knew. Between them, they managed to keep the Stargate functioning; but they couldn't conquer a 12-year old television set. I smiled, slipped Fraiser's magic pills into my pocket, and drank my slightly flat soda.

"Okay. Well, obviously, that's as good as it's going to get."

"But, Sam," Cassie had exchanged her haughty tone for a whiny one, "it's got lines running across it."

"Well, it can't be helped. At least, not until your Uncle Daniel cracks open the old checkbook and buys a real television. If he had a new one, it wouldn't do that." Carter smirked up at me, but I was staring at the screen, fixated on the `lines' that were bothering Cassie.

They reminded me of something - something important. Staring, without seeing, I took another sip of my soda and nodded my head in response to something Daniel was saying.

". . . right, Jack?"

"Yeah," I waved a hand towards Daniel, still staring, "whatever."

"Huh? You will?"

I shook myself and finally looked around. They were all gaping at me, with the exception of Teal'c who had sat down in the beanbag chair and was now trying to get out of it. "What?"

"Um," Carter grinned, "you just agreed to buy Daniel a plasma television."

I did? I glanced at Daniel, then back at the old set where a soccer field shimmered and flickered up the screen. "I have to go."

"Go?" Daniel stood up. "I was just kidding."

"No." It had finally dawned on me why the screen looked vaguely familiar. "I . . . I have to get back to the base. Teal'c, you need a ride?"

"Yes. However, Daniel Jackson's chair will not relinquish its hold on me."

* * * * *

Hammond arrived at his office at 0630 the next morning. I was sitting at the conference room table, staring out towards the inactive Stargate, waiting for him.

"My God, Jack, you look like hell. Did you get any sleep last night?"

I looked up at him through reddened eyes, my reactions slowed by lack of sleep. "No, sir."

"I want you off duty, Colonel. As of right now, consider . . . ."

"General, we need to talk."

I said it quietly, but it shut him up mid-sentence. He closed his mouth, exhaled softly and went into his office. I followed him, shutting the door behind me. As I sat down, he made his way to the coffee maker and began brewing a pot of the USAF's finest. I shut my eyes and listened to the comforting sounds of someone going about their daily routine. When I looked up, I found he had sat down behind his desk and was quietly watching me, the smell of coffee building between us.

"I know where they are."

He said nothing for a moment. "Go on."

So I told him. I told him how I'd been contacted by Maybourne, who had sent me recordings of the aliens being interrogated and later experimented on. I didn't tell him that I'd vomited twice while watching the latter sequences and that I'd personally vowed to pistol whip the living shit out of a certain ex-buddy of mine the next time I laid eyes on him.

"So, your friend was telling you the truth?"

I cringed at his choice of words. "Like I told you before, Major Martin wasn't what you'd call forthcoming, but no sir, he didn't lie about the technology in question. I . . . I saw evidence of it on the recordings."

"So how do you know where they are?"

"They didn't respond to questioning. Not even under . . . duress. They never made a sound. Maybe they can't talk, I don't know. But I know this: I've been in their shoes, so to speak. I know under similar circumstances what my own objectives were."

"Maintain honor, escape, and return home."

"Yes, sir."

Hammond rose to pour us both a cup of coffee. Thanking him, I took a sip of the scalding liquid then set the cup on a corner of his desk before continuing.

"So the question becomes, where's home and how do they get there from here? The first question I'm not sure we can answer, but the second . . ."

Hammond stared into his own cup. "Through the Stargate."

I nodded. "I pulled our tapes of the Embarkation Room beginning with the day the aliens disappeared. But how do you find an enemy who can assume the appearance of any one of us?"

"The wrong number of people went through the gate."

I shook my head. "It didn't happen. I checked all trips out against the assigned duty rosters. Everything matched."

"But . . ."

"But Daniel's television set is ancient, sir. The picture has all these little lines running across it." I had to smile at the General's obvious confusion. "Never mind. Suffice to say, at first, it didn't even occur to me. But later, when I saw Daniel's crappy reception, it made me wonder. I mean, the NID has all this state-of-the-art technology, so why was the quality of their recordings so poor? Last night, I re-watched them. The recordings weren't all bad. Only when the aliens weren't . . . well, looking like themselves. When they assumed a different shape, it was like the reception went all wonky. So," I rubbed my eyes then took another sip of my coffee, "I re-watched our tapes."

He sighed heavily. "Where are they, Jack?"

"P4T992."

He had to think a moment, as had I. "That's where we relocated the people from the domed city where you and your team were held."

I smiled, remembering Thera, Carlin and Tor. And Jonah. "Yes, sir."

"SG9 is still there. They left two days ago and aren't due back for four more." I knew that; I'd already checked. He leaned back in his chair with a deep sigh.

"There's something else." When he didn't respond, I continued. "That means three of the men who left weren't ours. So . . ."

"Where are ours?" he finished.

* * * * *

I leaned back on the infirmary bed, staring up at the ceiling. I could hear Fraiser mumbling something to Carter two beds away. I sniffed softly, blinked against the harsh overhead lights and turned onto my side, staring at the print on the curtain pulled around my bed. The pattern resembled tiny blue teardrops, which seemed highly inappropriate if you asked me. Drawing my legs up, I crossed my arms in front of me and didn't even flinch when someone dropped something metal on the concrete floor just outside my little corner of the infirmary. It made a harsh, ringing sound, which was followed by a soft curse.

I blinked sleepily, for once patiently awaiting my turn to be examined before going through the gate. I was in no hurry. Not after my little chat with Hammond. SG1 had been briefed - we were headed for P4T992, ostensibly to check up on SG9. Which was true. SG9 was three hours late for a radio check-in. During that time an incoming wormhole from P4T992 had been established twice, but no radio transmissions had been received. If my suspicions were correct - and it was looking more and more likely that they were - then SG9 had not received our messages either. In any event, something was wrong and Hammond was sending SG1 to find out what that something was.

My nose itched. I scrunched it up, sniffed again and rolled my shoulders, snuggling down onto the hard bed, looking for the comfortable spot that should be there somewhere. I knew my team suspected the General wasn't being entirely forthright. It was unlike Hammond to send in the troops this early without further intel. Not that it mattered whether they believed him. The man said jump . . . yada, yada. But, for that matter, I don't think SG1 minded. Our last two missions had consisted of the cakewalks to Armageddon. My teammates were bored and looking forward to meeting up with our old colleagues from the underground sweatshop. Personally, I was tired and dreaded the trip like an Iraqi prison camp root canal.

I shifted my legs and allowed my left arm to drop onto the thin sheet that covered the bed. We had been sent to the infirmary for the standard pre-mission exam. Our gear was already being gathered. As soon as we cleared medical and Hammond gave the final go-ahead, we'd be off to check up on SG9. Officially, assuming everything was okay, Hammond had given our team leave to stay a few days in order to reacquaint ourselves with our old friends. Unofficially, he was giving us a reason to not hurry back - not that either the General or I needed to give reasons.

I coughed softly and closed my eyes, shutting out the sight of the teardrops.

"Colonel?" The voice was soft and definitely female.

I grunted.

"Sir, I'm sorry to wake you."

Wake me? My eyes shot open and I rolled onto my back with a soft gasp.

"It's okay, Colonel."

I looked over at Fraiser, who was standing a safe distance from the side of the bed. "Doc?"

She smiled and stepped closer. I glanced back up; the overhead lights had been dimmed. "You fell asleep. I . . . I didn't want to wake you, but it's time to go."

I frowned and looked back at her. "Go?" I had to think for a minute, running a hand over my gritty eyes. "What time is it?"

She avoided the question. "Your team is headed for the gate room now, sir. The General has given orders for SG1 to head out."

Groaning, I sat up. "How long have I been here?"

"Not long enough." At my frown, she acquiesced. "You've been asleep for a little over two hours, Colonel."

I swung my legs over the side of the bed, feeling drugged and slightly wobbly. She was right. It wasn't long enough. Feeling a tug on the inside of my elbow, I glanced down to find a small band-aid covering a wad of cotton. I looked up at her. "I certainly hope my virtue has not been compromised by the resident ass-man."

She laughed softly. "I have to say, I wish your exams always went that smoothly. Maybe you could make a habit of sleeping through all of them."

"Maybe I will."

I hopped off the bed and walked, albeit a tad drunkenly, out of the infirmary and down to the gate room. My team had already gathered and were donning their packs and weapons. I hefted my pack and in place of the usual P90, strapped on my own personal M25. The weight was eerily familiar, despite the fact that it was over four pounds heavier than the submachine gun we typically carried.

As the chevrons began turning on the Stargate, I wandered over to join my team.

"Hey, Jack, nice nap?" I made a face at Daniel, who laughed softly then looked at my rifle. "New gun?"

Carter's head jerked up and she studied my weapon, frowning as if trying to identify it.

I smiled tightly. "Well, well, Dr. Jackson, I'm surprised you noticed. Very good." I slipped on my sunglasses. "We'll make a soldier out of you yet."

"God, I hope not," Daniel grumbled.

We watched as the MALP disappeared through the wormhole. Five minutes later, even Teal'c was beginning to squirm with impatience. I looked back up at the window of the control room where the General was leaning over the technician's shoulder. They were both intent on the computer screen in front of them.

"Problem, General?"

Hammond said something to the technician before leaning into the mike, his face unreadable. "We're still unable to send and receive transmissions via the MALP."

"Do you want me to take another look at it, sir?" Carter was already getting ready to hand off her P90, when I stopped her with a touch on her arm and a shake of the head.

I had the unnerving feeling that we weren't going to need Carter's assistance with this particular problem. She gave me a hurt look. It wasn't often that we turned down an offer of help from the resident physicist and if you ask me, she was a bit sensitive about it when we did.

"That won't be necessary, Major." Hammond stared at me, conveying his meaning beyond the words. "SG-1, you have a go. Proceed with caution."

"Yes, sir."

"Sir. . .," Carter shut her gaping mouth, silencing what had promised to be a protest.

"General," Daniel threw a wide-eyed glance at me, before looking up at our CO, "is that wise?"

You know, I can't explain it. It's kind of like that family thing. You know, the one where I can bad mouth my sister but you'd sure as hell better watch what you say about her. Anyway, mad as I was at the General, it totally pissed me off that my team was questioning his command. "Daniel."

He swung around to me. "Jack, don't you think. . ."

"Not now." I double-checked my weapon, refusing to look at him. I didn't need to see his face or hear his words to know what he was thinking. He was wondering why the hell Hammond would send us in blind. It seemed ludicrous. Hell, it was ludicrous. It was also unavoidable. Hammond and I both knew there was no way Carter could `fix' the transmission problem. Only I held the remedy to this one; unfortunately, there was nothing I could do about it from this side of the gate.

Besides, I really didn't think we were in any immediate danger. If the aliens were still on P4T992 - and considering the transmission problems my guess was that they were - then it was much more likely that they were concerned with maintaining their ruse than they were with shooting whoever came through the gate. However, just in case, I was taking no chances.

"Teal'c, you're with me. Carter, Daniel, give us a twenty-count, then follow us in."

"Colonel?"

I sighed loudly. "Yes, Major?"

I didn't miss the fact that she glanced up towards Hammond, obviously looking for support. When none came, she gave a sigh of her own. "Nothing, sir."

I snapped a quick salute at Hammond, made sure Teal'c was with me, and stormed through the gate.

* * * * *

SG9 and a group of slightly familiar faces awaited us. Major Golden, who had replaced the late Major Benton, and his five team members stood at the front of a group of a dozen or so `natives.' I didn't know Golden well, but the man looked worried.

"Colonel O'Neill, welcome to P4T992. I'm glad to see you, sir."

I studied each of the faces staring back at me, searching for anything out of the ordinary or . . . alien. But, they all looked human so far as I could tell. "You missed your curfew, Major. Care to explain?"

"Yes, sir. We've been trying to contact the SGC for nearly six hours, Colonel, but there's a problem with our equipment. The DHD is working and we're able to establish a wormhole, but we can't communicate via the MALP or our handhelds. I was just getting ready to send one of my men through when you arrived."

Behind me, I heard the sounds of Carter and Daniel arriving and the subsequent snap of the wormhole disengaging.

Golden nodded towards Carter before continuing. "As I was saying, sir, we were unable to make contact. Lt. Hughes has been working on the MALP to see if he could ID the problem."

"Did you receive any transmissions at all?" Carter had already wandered over to the small four-wheeled vehicle and was examining it, while Daniel was approaching some of our former colleagues from the domed city.

"No. Nothing."

"Carter, give Hughes a hand. See if you can figure out the problem. Major Golden, you're with me." Keeping my hand on my M25, I led Golden away from the small cluster of recently constructed buildings that made up the new community. I stopped approximately 50 feet away from the group gathered around the gate and the DHD. I leaned back against a large boulder, making sure to keep Golden and the others in full view.

"So, Major, status report."

"Well, sir, we've spent the last two days as planned. Lieutenants Carlson and Pierce have been working with the local . . . well, I guess you'd call her a doctor, sir. At least, the closest thing they have to one. Anyway, we've been working to get their medical facility set up. And Sergeants Fields and Lewis, and Lieutenant Hughes have been working on setting up a power source. They're going to train some of the inhabitants on how to maintain it - if they ever get it functioning."

"Trouble with that as well, I take it."

"Yes, sir. A bit. As I said, I was just getting ready to send someone back to the base when the Stargate activated."

"Thank God it did, Major."

"Sir?"

"Your GDO?"

"Oh my God." Golden's face blanched at the implication.

Hiding behind my dark glasses, I turned my head towards our people gathered around the MALP, while surreptitiously watching Golden, looking for . . . I wasn't sure what. Something. "So, you've had no other problems with the mission?"

Still pale, he frowned slightly. "Just the equipment problems, sir."

I nodded and smiled tightly, still watching the activity around the gate. "Everyone's been acting . . . normal?"

"You mean the inhabitants here, sir?" When I didn't respond, he tensed. "My men? Colonel, I'd like to know what's . . ."

"Just answer the question, Major."

I heard a soft intake of breath as he swallowed whatever he'd been planning on saying. "My men have performed their mission admirably, sir. If there's reason to think otherwise, I have a right to know."

I turned to look at him, studied the righteous indignation on his face. "Calm down, Golden. No one's accusing anyone of anything. I'm just . . . I'm trying to cover all the bases here. You've been incommunicado for two days. For all I know, you and your men have been snaked."

He seemed surprised by the suggestion and by my candor. "I can assure you, none of us are Goa'ulds."

"Glad to hear it. Nevertheless, General West was concerned. Asked us to check up on you; give you a hand here." Okay, so it wasn't my best material, but it had dawned on me during my hours of studying the recordings of the aliens' interrogation that while they might be able to mimic our outward appearance, that didn't necessarily mean they knew what we knew.

"General West, sir?" Golden shook his head. "I'm sorry, Colonel, but who the hell is General West?"

Okay, it didn't totally rule out Golden as one of the galaxy's most talented impersonators, but it certainly helped. I stood up, smiling. "Sorry. I meant Hammond. Anyway, it seems the General has decided that we should stick around for a while, make sure these people get all the help we can give them. So, what do you say you show me around?"

* * * * *

There's something humbling about knowing that your enemy is walking around posing as one of your friends. It's humbling, tiring, and more than a little infuriating. If I hadn't felt so bad about what my people had put these aliens through, maybe I could have drummed up a little hate for them. Officially, these aliens were my enemies; unofficially, I had nothing against them but my orders. The most damning thing I could manage was indifference - to their plight and to the mission at hand - and being danced between pity and guilt was exhausting me.

"O'Neill."

Even though he'd startled me, I didn't flinch. I was too tired to waste the effort. I continued to hold the viewing scope to my eye and watched the activity in the village below. I heard Teal'c settle himself on the ground next to me. I scanned to the left and spied Fields and Lewis coming out of the small building which housed a gas-powered generator that they'd installed.

Lowering the scope and rubbing one hand over my gritty eyes, I picked up Daniel's video camera and focused it on the two men. As usual, a quick peek through the viewfinder revealed a grainy, slightly out of focus view of them crossing the small compound and entering another building. As they disappeared, I swung the camera across the expanse of the small village. Everything was grainy and out of focus. I sighed heavily and lowered the camera.

When I looked over at the man beside me, he was watching me closely. "What?"

He continued to study my face and I finally turned away, uncomfortable under his scrutiny.

"Why do you not sleep, O'Neill?"

"I'm fine."

There was a slight hesitation in his voice when he continued. "You are not."

I tucked the video camera into my pack before glancing over at him. He was still staring.

"We have been here two days. I am aware of the number of hours you have slept since our arrival."

"Is that right?" I knew he was just concerned but it didn't matter, he was still pissing me off. It was none of his business.

"Approximately four and one-half."

"It was a rhetorical question, Teal'c," I snapped.

"I am aware."

I zipped the camera inside the middle pocket of the pack and opened another flap, digging for something . . . I wasn't sure what.

"I have angered you."

"No." But he had. We both knew it. "Look. . . ." I fumbled with the pack, then shoved it aside. Great. Now my head was pounding worse than ever. "I . . . I appreciate the concern. Really. It's just, there's nothing to worry about. It's . . . I can't talk about it."

He tilted his head and cocked an eyebrow. I watched as something resembling comprehension appeared to dawn on him. "Is there nothing I can do to assist you?"

God, if only there was. But even if my orders allowed me to reveal anything to Teal'c, my friendship with him prevented me from asking him to do this for me. I had never asked anyone under my command to do something I wouldn't do myself. I wasn't about to start now. "Yes, there is. Watch for anything unusual. Anything at all. If you even think you sense something wrong, tell me."

He nodded without hesitation. "I will do so."

"And keep an eye on Carter and Daniel. Make sure neither one of them is ever alone with any of the others. Particularly with any members of SG9."

At that, Teal'c frowned.

I rubbed a hand across my forehead, trying to press away the migraine that had been slowly building since I'd crawled out of bed in the wee hours of the night. I thought of my orders and my stomach heaved slightly in response. Swallowing bile, I forced myself to look him in the eyes.

"Things aren't always what they seem to be, T. Just . . . please remember that."

He bowed his head somewhat formally. "You have my word."

My ears ringing from the pain swelling through my skull, I forced a tight smile. Then, gathering up my pack and my M25, I made my way back to the village.

* * * * *

After a quick lunch, I gathered up a small butt pack, my M25 and Daniel's camera. Leaving Carter in charge, but knowing Teal'c would keep a surreptitious eye on my team, I headed out of the village.

I was almost certain that the presence of the aliens in stealth mode - for lack of a better term - was responsible not only for the malfunctioning of the MALP, but also the video camera and the handheld radios. Over the past day and a half, I'd come to the realization that with a little planning, I could use this against them. I seriously doubted that the aliens were going to reveal themselves in the presence of witnesses. Therefore, my one chance at identifying them was going to be through the effects they were having on our equipment. Unfortunately, their mere presence in the general vicinity seemed to be disrupting all transmissions throughout the village. In order to separate the aliens from the humans, I needed to know the range of the aliens' effects. So, armed with Daniel's video camera and my radio, I walked.

And I walked.

The camera held loosely in one hand, I stumbled across the rocky landscape, one eye on the horizon and the other on the small view screen of the camera. It was hot and the sun sent shimmering heat waves bouncing up off the dry soil. I pulled my cap lower over my sunglasses, glanced down at the wavy patterns on the small screen and back out at the similar but less pronounced heat distortions on a much grander scale. I attempted, without success, to radio Carter.

And I walked.

Approximately two klicks from the village, about halfway down the face of a short but steep bluff, I was watching the view screen and stumbled over a rock no bigger than my fist. My concern for the camera overriding all my instincts, I went down hard. The wind was knocked out of my lungs at the initial impact, and I continued to tumble and slide approximately 15 feet before rolling to a stop in a shower of gravel and dust.

Huddled protectively over the camera, I lay curled up in a fetal position, panting and cursing my own stupidity. Out here in the middle of a strange planet, no radio, no way home . . . getting injured was definitely not in my best interests. I'm not sure how long I lay there, but it was long enough to check the camera with shaking hands. It seemed to be working . . . in any event, the distorted picture was no worse than it had been before my abrupt descent. I set it aside and tried to calmly assess my condition.

Fortunately, there didn't seem to be any major damage, mainly scrapes and bruises. Both elbows were scraped raw, but the worst was a gash on my right arm - a deep, gravel-filled trough that ran from my elbow all the way down to my wrist. It was bleeding heavily. Despite the fact that my pants weren't bloodied or torn, my right leg burned and throbbed from my knee to my ankle.

I pulled out my canteen, took a quick swig and proceeded to flush out the wound on my arm. Here's a quick bit of trivia: seems yelling and cursing at the top of your lungs really doesn't lessen the pain factor. In fact, it accomplished nothing more than making me thirsty and rooting out an odd-looking creature that resembled a skinny chipmunk with an extra set of legs. The little guy didn't even glance my way; he just beat a hasty retreat under a couple of large rocks.

Breathless, I leaned back against the bluff and cursed again, more quietly, as the pain settled into a dull ache. The good news is, in all the hoopla, I had almost forgotten about my headache. Almost.

I lay there a few minutes longer, then pulled off my butt pack and dug for the small emergency medical kit. I swallowed two of the four painkillers, then opened all of the gauze pads and pressed them along my bleeding arm. They were soon saturated. I shoved the bloody things back in my pack and settled for resting my arm against my shirt, trying to staunch the flow of the blood. I waited another five minutes then located my cap, which had somehow managed to lodge itself under my left leg, and forced myself to my feet.

Holy shit!

Groaning, I hopped heavily onto my left leg and braced myself against the nearest boulder.

Okay, I was so screwed.

Tentatively, I lowered half my weight onto my right leg and clenched my teeth against the resulting agony that shot from my ankle straight up through my knee.

Yep. Screwed.

My hands shaking, I retrieved the camera. Slowly, sweating bullets, I let go of the boulder and took a hesitant step forward.

Oh, God.

Shuffled forward onto the gimpy leg.

Shit! Shit!

Another step.

Not to sound maudlin, but I had no choice. If I turned back now, the aliens would remain incognito. So I couldn't turn back and, what the hell, I'd been in a lot worse messes than this one. Grunting, telling myself it wasn't that bad, I continued my trek away from the village.

For the next hour, I cursed and lied to myself. I hobbled and stumbled and hopped across the alien version of terra firma, and swore that this was no worse than the time Teal'c had stepped on my foot when I was trying to teach him the two-step - and don't even ask.

I took lots of rest breaks leaning on my left leg, checking the image through the camera lens and swigging tiny sips of water, before resuming my agonized journey and cursing and lying all over again. But, to be honest, as good as I am at the art of deception, even I was beginning to doubt me. This hurt way worse than Teal'c's dance moves.

Finally, nearing klick four, I glanced down at the camera and saw the sharp, clear image of the horizon shining back at me. I gasped in relief and held the camera aloft, swinging it slowly left to right and back again. The image remained crystal clear. I stumbled on for another 30 minutes; I had to make sure it wasn't a fluke of some sort, a weird atmospheric . . . thingy. The pain and the image remained sharp and fresh.

Groaning, I swallowed the remainder of the painkillers. I thought about radioing Carter, but I knew I couldn't disguise the ragged tone of my voice. Then, after I'd already chickened out and turned to head for home, it dawned on me that her radio wouldn't have worked anyway. Thirty-seven minutes later, the image in the view screen blinked and flickered, then turned fuzzy. Just under four klicks . . . the range of the aliens' influence. That's how far I'd have to separate them to be sure.

It had been dark for nearly two hours by the time I stumbled into our little hut on the edge of the village.

"Colonel O'Neill?" Major Golden shot out of his chair and hurried across the room towards me.

"Hey, kids." I lurched over to the table that was quickly emptying of my underlings as they all rushed to help me. I'd walked over five klicks in this condition, half of that in the dark, and they were trying to help me across the room? I shrugged off half a dozen hands and sank down onto a rickety, straight-backed chair. "Okay. Okay. Back off. I'm fine."

"Excuse me, sir," Carter had knelt down beside me, "but you're not fine." She tugged on the blood-encrusted front of my shirt as if proving her point.

"Oh, that's just from this." I held up my arm for display. The horrific looking gash had long since stopped bleeding. "But, to be perfectly honest, I could use water and some aspirin."

"Carlson, Pierce." Golden waved at the two medics on his team. They stepped forward, edging past Carter and Daniel in order to kneel on either side of me. I suppressed a shudder as one of them - I wasn't sure which was which - pressed cold fingers to my neck, searching for a pulse . . . I hoped.

"Let me have a look, sir." The Tall One smiled politely and gently grasped my arm, rotating it slightly towards the light.

I stayed busy trying to watch them both at the same time. I mean, one or both of them could be some weird alien thingy and they had their hands on me, examining me. Finally, I couldn't suppress a small, anxious tremor.

"Colonel, what's wrong?" Short One looked concerned and reached up to feel my forehead.

I jerked away from his touch, forcing a tight but polite smile on my face. "I'm fine."

Tall One chuckled. "You keep saying that, sir."

"Me thinks he doth protest too much," was muttered from somewhere behind me.

"Shut up, Daniel." I tried to extricate my arm from Tall One and ended up cursing as pain shot up my leg.

"Sir?"

I clenched my jaw, breathing through my nose.

"Colonel?" Tall One repeated.

"Uh," I was sweating and would have picked a good puke over Mary Steenburgen at the moment. "I think maybe someone should take a look at my leg." Preferably someone who's not first cousin to a chameleon.

"Uh-oh." That was Carter. She knows me. We all know me. If I actually mention that something might be hurt, you should probably just skip the exam and rush me straight into surgery.

"My right leg. I think it might be . . .," I frowned up at Tall One then over at Shorty. Dammit. Everyone was staring at me. "Just check it out."

Thankfully, when I'd been adopted by Uncle Sam nearly 30 years previous, I'd lost any modesty I might have possessed because within minutes I'd been stripped down to my tshirt and boxers, and was laying on a narrow bunk being stared at by nine wide-eyed junior officers. Unfortunately, I don't think it was awe over my scrawny, aging, scarred physique that had them gaping at me.

"Colonel," Taller was kneeling down beside the bed and was trying to examine my leg without actually touching it - something for which I was extremely grateful, "you really shouldn't have walked on this, sir. At all. Let alone . . . how far did you say?"

D'uh. I bit my lower lip and stared up at the ceiling. Odd how seeing your own bruised and swollen appendage makes it hurt worse. I felt slightly nauseated and had suddenly developed a raging thirst. "Who cares? Just . . . fix it." Please. "Carter."

She shoved her way through the crowd around the bed. "Sir?"

"Get me a drink, will you?"

"Yes, sir."

I groaned, loudly, and struggled to sit up as Taller placed cold hands on my battered shin bone. "God."

"Sorry, Colonel." Actually, he did look a little sorry, but he kept pressing his fingers along my leg despite my protests.

I dropped back onto the bed and threw my left arm over my face, as my right one was currently being poked and prodded by Shorty. I gritted my teeth and tried not to sweat too much as wave after wave of pain swept up my leg through my groin and past my stomach, all the way into my chest. I must have grunted or snorted or something because Taller apologized again.

"Here, sir."

I knew without looking that Carter was holding out the drink I'd requested, but suddenly I didn't think I could hold the glass the water came in, let alone actually swallow its contents. So, I ignored her.

"Colonel?"

I grunted again.

"Colonel O'Neill?" It was Taller, sounding a lot like Daniel when he realizes he's touched something he shouldn't have. "Um. . . ."

I swallowed another round of bile. "Out with it, Airman." Was it just me or was it hot in here?

"Well, I'm not exactly sure how you managed to walk all that way because your leg is definitely broken, sir."

Holy crap. Again?

"Colonel O'Neill?"

My arm still covering my eyes, sweat running down the sides of my neck, I swallowed and flinched as Shorty continued to work on my arm. "Guess that would explain the shooting pains I'm experiencing then, huh?" Yeah, it really was hot in here.

"I need to set your leg, sir."

"Of course, you do." I was going to vomit. I was sure of it. Where was Carter with that damn water? Oh, right.

"I'm going to give you some morphine, Colonel."

"Carter," I lifted my hand, peered up at her amidst a sea of concerned faces, "water."

As Tall Guy injected me with the happy drugs, Shorty finished up his work on my arm and then helped Carter sit me up so I could take a tentative sip of cool water. Panting slightly, I let it settle, then took another drink before collapsing back onto the bed.

"Okay, people, I don't think they need an audience for this." Golden slapped his hands together and everyone scattered, all except for the two medics and Carter and Daniel. I swallowed and wiped sweat from my face with a hand that was beginning to feel slightly wooden and heavy.

"How are you doing, sir?" Tall Guy leaned over me, his face weaving in and out of focus.

"'Kay."

"Are you starting to feel the painkillers?"

"Um," I licked my lips, my mouth dry again, "yeah. Think so." Tall Guy smiled. "So, who are you, really?"

His smiled broadened and swam into focus, then back out. "Lieutenant Richard Carlson, sir."

Oh. Not quite what I meant, but . . . okay. He moved out of my line of sight.

"Teal'c?" He leaned over me, big and looming and alien and familiar. "Don't forget."

"I will not."

"Colonel . . ."

I thought of Antarctica and a desert in the Middle East, and flinched.

"I'm sorry, sir, this is going to hurt."

Shit. I hate it when people state the obvious. That's my job.

I felt hands on my thigh, more hands on my ankle, and then a grating in my lower leg accompanied by gut-wrenching, agonizing pain.

* * * * *

I woke up groaning, the sun shining directly in my eyes. Oh, crap. Hangover of hangovers. I rolled over onto my side. Correction: I tried to roll over onto my side but was stopped by a rush of agony that flared somewhere low in my right leg.

"Oh, God." Groaning, I dropped onto my back, gasping.

"Jack?"

"Daniel?" I squinted over towards the table where he sat reading a book.

He laid down his book, walked over and sat down on the edge of the cot. "How're you feeling?"

I cleared my throat and ran a hand over my face. "Oh, like I broke my leg and had it set by an amateur."

"I don't know. Carlson and Pierce seemed like they knew what they were doing."

"I guess so." I raised my head. We were alone. "Where's Carter? Teal'c?"

"Sam's helping Lewis with the MALP and Teal'c tagged along. I offered to help, but Teal'c wanted to go with Sam. In fact, he was rather adamant."

"Yeah?" Well, good for Teal'c. With Daniel's help I propped myself up to a sitting position, my leg seriously throbbing.

"I should go get Lieutenant Carlson. He wanted to know when you woke up."

"Wait. What time is it?"

"8:30 in the morning."

"I slept all night?" God, what the hell did they give me anyway?

"Yeah. You were snoring. Kinda loud actually."

I couldn't believe I'd slept so soundly, drugs or no drugs. Shit. Anything could have happened.

"Jack? You all right?"

"Yeah. Is everything okay?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean," I tried to sit up straighter and grimaced at the pain. "I mean, did anything happen while I was in la-la land?"

"Well, a lot of stuff happened. They put a splint on your leg, doctored up your arm, then we all turned in for the night, woke up, had breakfast, Gol-"

"Daniel!"

"What?"

"Did anything of significance happen?"

"Oh." He seemed to think about it a moment, then shook his head. "No." He looked at me. "Why? What's going on, Jack? You've been edgy for days."

"Nothing."

He studied me for a moment, then got up and wandered across to the table again. "Would that be the kind of nothing that sends you to Area 51, or is it the kind of nothing that almost gets us killed?"

"Just drop it, Daniel. It doesn't concern you."

"Ah." He turned, smiling. "Then that would make it the nothing that almost gets you killed. I see." He nodded sagely.

"You're turning into a real smart-ass, Doctor Jackson."

"Yeah? Well, I studied under a master."

I motioned to him. "Come here. Help me up."

"Uh . . . no." He leaned against the table and crossed his arms, looking entirely too smug. "Carlson said you need to stay off your leg and keep it elevated."

"Daniel."

"Forget it."

"Shit." Sighing loudly, I tossed the blanket off my legs and slowly, agonizingly, swung my good leg off the bed. It took both hands and all my strength to ease the splinted leg over near the edge of the bed. By the time I was finished, I was sweating and trembling.

"Don't even think about it, Jack."

Feeling sick, knowing I was being a stubborn asshole, I groaned and eased my busted leg over the side of the bed. When my heel touched the floor, I thought I was going to pass out.

"You ignorant jerk!" He rushed across the room as I began struggling to my feet. Biting back a string of curses that probably would have impressed my resident linguist, I grabbed onto Daniel and pulled myself upright. "Where do you think you're going?"

Well, I'd been headed for the great outdoors, but considering the amount of pain radiating up my leg and the fact that I was hanging onto him in order to keep my balance, maybe I'd settle for a rest stop first. "Table," I grunted, as we worked our way across the room. Gasping, I settled onto a chair. "Thanks."

"Don't thank me. Please." He sat down across from me. "Have you always been this bull-headed?"

"Moi?" Getting my breathing under control, I smiled over at him. "It's one of my more endearing qualities."

"That's a sad commentary if I ever heard one."

I had to laugh. He was absolutely right. "Do we have any aspirin?"

"Sure." He got up and wandered across the room, where he rummaged through a couple of SG9's packs.

"Daniel," I bit my lip.

"Hmm?" He kept digging, didn't look at me.

"I need to . . . talk."

Daniel froze, then his head turned and he nailed me with a scared look. Well, that got his attention. Jack O'Neill wanted to talk? If I'd shot up a flare it would have been more subtle.

"To Teal'c," I belatedly added.

Daniel frowned, then shook a couple of tablets into his hand, picked up a canteen, and walked back over to the table, pretending his feelings weren't hurt. "Okay. I'll . . . go get him."

I swallowed down the aspirin, refusing to meet his worried gaze.

"Is there something else, Jack?"

I shook my head. I wanted to tell him, I really did. And I wanted to ask for his forgiveness in advance, but I couldn't do that either. Instead, I forced a smile. "No. Just . . . send in Golden and Teal'c, then stick with Carter."

* * * * *

Sitting at the table waiting for the men to show up and for the throbbing in my leg to die down, I realized something: Since the first moment that I'd tried and failed to put weight on my injured leg I'd known I was going to need help, and I'd never for a moment doubted that it would be Teal'c to whom I would turn. It was simple really. For one thing, Teal'c already knew that something was up with SG9. And, on a more personal level, I had less to lose by dragging Teal'c down with me, versus Carter or Daniel. Selfish, but true.

Without speaking, Teal'c and I shared a lot more with each other than anyone would have thought possible of either one of us. I knew things about Teal'c that he would have been ashamed to admit to anyone else, especially to someone like Daniel, or Carter either for that matter. Ditto for me. Teal'c and I were battle-scarred in more than just our bodies; we were men who had seen and participated in far too many horrific things. Despite Junior, Teal'c and I were more alike than we were different, and there was no judgment between us.

But this was a covert op. It was meant to be handled by me and me alone. But that was no longer a possibility. Now I was improvising, and although I didn't doubt for a minute that Teal'c would do anything I asked of him, I still intended to involve him as little as possible. I would do the dirty work; the lion's share of the guilt would fall to me. It was not only my obligation as his commanding officer, it was the least I could do for the man I considered my friend. Besides, I would never ask anyone to do what Uncle Sam was asking - no, demanding, of me. I might be a selfish jerk, but I'm not a total ass.

Silently cursing the clumsiness that was forcing me to involve one of my team, I propped my throbbing leg up on the nearest chair and waited. If I could pull this off with Carter and Daniel never finding out, I would thank my lucky stars. Their questions, their large-eyed stares, were sometimes almost more than I could bear. Countless times during the years that we'd served together I'd found myself running for an elevator or hiding away in my office or dashing off to my cabin just to escape their scrutiny and the gut-wrenching feeling of inadequacy that their lack of understanding brought out in me. I knew neither one of them was exactly innocent, nor were they kids; still, I had an inexplicable drive to protect them - a sometimes fierce need to keep them from going down the same road that I'd traveled.

The door opened and Golden entered, followed closely by Teal'c.

"Colonel O'Neill, sir, are you all right?"

I nodded and motioned the men towards the table. Golden sat down across from me and Teal'c moved to stand at the end of the table. "I'm fine."

Teal'c glanced pointedly at my splinted leg, then cocked an eyebrow and stared at me.

"Yeah, well, so to speak," I granted. "Major, how long have you been here?"

"Four days, sir."

"And your men have been working on the equipment problems since . . ."

"Since almost immediately after our arrival."

I grunted softly and shifted my weight, trying to keep the grimace of pain to a minimum. "When's the last time you had to find your way home in the dark, Major?"

"Sir?" Golden frowned, obviously trying to guess where I was headed with my line of questioning.

"Have you or your men scouted the surrounding area?"

"No, sir. It wasn't in the mission protocol, Colonel."

"No. It wasn't." I gave him a tight smile and glanced at Teal'c, who was expressionless - as usual. "Neither were myriad equipment failures, I take it."

"No, sir."

"Well then," I straightened in my chair as best I could under the circumstances, "I think it's time you and your men had a bit of fun."

"Fun?"

"You say that like it's a bad thing, Golden."

"No, sir. I just . . .," but he was at a loss for words.

"Are you up for a little competition?"

"Competition?"

The poor sap was beginning to annoy me. "You're repeating me, Major. Please stop it."

"Yes-"

I held up my hand, cutting off his words. "I'm sending SG9 out on a little training exercise." He opened his mouth, closed it, then glanced up at Teal'c and back over at me. "You have a problem with that, Major?"

He merely shook his head.

"Good. You'll head out at daybreak tomorrow. Proceed on a southwesterly bearing for six klicks. Got that? Not four, not eight and a half - six."

"Yes, sir."

"You'll send each man back alone. I don't care in what order. But you'll monitor them to make sure they stagger their return at 90 minute intervals. Again . . . no more, no less."

"You said it was a competition."

"Yeah. I want to see how well SG9 handles finding their way home with no functioning equipment. No fancy gadgets, no radios, no compasses." I smirked. "The one who makes it back to the village in the least amount of time wins a door prize, courtesy of me."

"Permission to speak freely, Colonel?"

I nodded and played with the strap of the canteen laying on the table in front of me, praying that the aspirin would kick in soon.

"Am I correct in assuming that there's a point to this `training exercise,' sir?"

I chuckled, glancing over at Teal'c. "Well, of course you are, Major." I smiled back at the man who might be my enemy. "The point is, it will amuse me. Let's just say I tend to get grumpy when I'm not amused. Right, Teal'c buddy?"

Matching stares with Golden, I was aware of Teal'c nodding his head. "Indeed. He can be most . . . unpleasant."

"Then we head out at dawn tomorrow, sir. If that's all . . ."

I nodded a dismissal and watched him walk to the door and open it. "Oh, and Major . . ." He stopped but didn't turn around. "If I find out you didn't follow my instructions to the letter, the next day your team goes out 20 klicks with full packs and at a trot. Got that?"

"Yes, sir."

* * * * *

Gramps had the meowing cat. Sara had the staring dog. Don't get me wrong . . . I love dogs. I've said it before and I'll say it again: dogs are my favorite people. But Sara's dog was just . . . well, weird. Maybe even a tiny bit evil. Sara had had that dog for over two years by the time I came along. I was no fool, not even then. In the early days of our relationship, I'd had no doubt that had it come to down to me or Elvis, the bags that would have been sent packing would not have contained a metal bowl, a rug with all the backing chewed off named `Rita,' and a squeak-toy shaped like an ice cream cone.

Elvis was a mixed breed mutt. Sara said the people at the pound had assured her that the puppy she was adopting wouldn't get over 15-20 pounds, tops. Elvis was a hulking mass of brindle fur that weighed 110 pounds if he weighed an ounce. And unlike the rest of us, he was all muscle. He had gnarly ears, a stubby tail, and the strangest eyes I'd ever seen on any creature living or dead. Not only were they a tad out of alignment - the left one being a good half inch higher than the right - they were also different colors. The left was a deep brown covered with a thin film of grey. The right was so light blue it was white in the sunlight. In the dark, it was blood red.

Elvis and Sara were in love with each other. Sara thought the damned moon rose and set on her precious, overgrown pooch, and in his mangled dog eyes, Sara could do no wrong. But me? Well, that was a different story. I think I fascinated them both . . . for different reasons. I can't explain Sara's fascination, but I sometimes wonder if Elvis didn't see past the silly, smart-assed exterior into the dark, secret heart of Jack O'Neill. I guess that would explain his compulsion to watch me . . . a lot. Especially when Sara wasn't looking.

The first time I spent the night at Sara's apartment, I woke up at 3:00 a.m. with a familiar, tingly warning signal creeping up the back of my neck - the one I always get when trouble's afoot. Momentarily disoriented by my strange surroundings, I'd sat up with a grunt to find Elvis sitting three feet from my side of the bed staring at me with one red eye. If he blinked, I never saw it.

`Hey, boy,' I'd finally whispered, a tad desperately. He gave no sign of hearing me, other than to move back a few inches. I watched him watch me, then glanced over at the sleeping woman in the bed beside me. When I looked back, Elvis was a full foot closer to the side of the bed. After that, I'd been too terrified to look away. I'd spent the night leaning up against the headboard, dozing off then jerking myself awake. Finally, the sun came up and Sara rolled over, stretching and yawning. The same dog who'd lurked in the dark by my bedside was in her face in an instant, tongue lolling, drool dripping, and tail wagging. When Sara leaned over to give me a hug, I swear Elvis glared at me from behind her back.

Over time, for Sara's sake, Elvis and I reached an understanding: If I never made love to Sara with him in the room, if I never tried to boss him, and if I always slept in my Jingle Balls boxer shorts, he wouldn't eat my face off in my sleep and he'd keep the staring to a minimum. It was an uneasy truce - for both of us.

But as they say, all good things must come to an end, and over the course of the next few years, Elvis turned mean. Maybe I was a bad influence, or maybe he had a brain tumor or something, but when we found out Sara was pregnant with Charlie, Elvis had to go. We gave him to the father of one of the officers at the base - an older man with a lot of free time on his hands and three acres of land on which Elvis would be free to roam. As the guy had driven away with the former light of Sara's life staring at us out the back window of the SUV, Elvis had cocked his ugly head and barked. In the three years we'd all been living together, it was the only time I'd ever heard him speak.

Four days after arriving at his new home, Elvis disappeared. He was never seen or heard from again.

The weird thing was, I'd missed that damned dog. I'd missed him a lot, even more than Sara had, whose mind was on the baby growing inside her. I think I missed him because Elvis had forced me to be honest with myself. There was no scamming an animal that could look into your eyes and read your filthy soul. Fifteen years later, even though I knew it was impossible, there were times when I would get a sudden chill and sense that Elvis was staring at me.

Times like now. Leaning my shoulder against the small boulder, I double-checked the positioning of the bipod on which my rifle barrel was mounted, then glanced over at Teal'c. He was silently watching me. The eyes were different, but I had a fleeting notion that Elvis had been reincarnated into a Jaffa who shall remain nameless.

I squinted through the scope of the M25 and corrected the positioning of the bipod so that I had a clearer view through the rocks. According to its specs, the rifle was effective up to 983 yards. I wouldn't need that much. From our vantage point, Teal'c and I could see across the narrow expanse of land that lead funnel-like into the heart of the village nearly half a mile away. My targets would have to pass directly in front of me and would be in sight for no less than 75 yards before they would disappear behind a rolling hill. Even if they approached the town via the far side of the valley, they would still be well within the rifle's range. Making a slight adjustment to the scope, I removed the magazine, reloaded it, then looked back over at Teal'c.

SG1 had seen off SG9 just after daybreak. Then, after wolfing down a quick breakfast in the company of some former co-workers from the underground power plant, I'd left orders with Daniel and Carter to continue working on the equipment. I'd told them nothing more than that Teal'c and I would be out of touch for most of the day, and had asked Carter to see to it that the returning members of SG9 helped out with setting up the new equipment. Then, I had directed Teal'c to this spot that I had scouted out two days previous. The trip up here had taken another hour. Stumbling, leaning heavily on Teal'c and a homemade crutch, I had arrived hurting and in a foul mood.

That had been well over an hour ago. Since that time, Teal'c had watched in Elvis-like silence as I'd assembled my equipment and set up my rifle. I'm not even sure if Carter had recognized the M25 for what it was: a semi-automatic, magazine fed sniper rifle developed jointly by the Army Special Forces and the Navy Seals. There were newer weapons on the market, but this particular rifle had proven itself time and time again during the course of more missions than I cared to remember. But Teal'c didn't have to know the weapon's specifications in order to guess its intended use. Yet, he patiently awaited my orders. No questions asked. At times, I felt Teal'c's level of trust in me like a dead weight on my shoulders.

Brushing a smudge of dust from the smooth, fiberglass stock, I turned to face him. I knew without a doubt that he would never ask me what we were doing here, but I owed him something. "Teal'c, I'm going to be blunt with you. I'm under orders to eliminate certain members of SG9. I'm not at liberty to disclose the reasoning behind the orders and hell if I even understand it myself, but I have a job to do."

He nodded almost imperceptibly.

I patted my gimpy, swollen limb. "Obviously, I'm going to need a little help. Teal'c, I won't involve Carter or Daniel in this mess. I'm sorry, buddy, but that leaves you."

"I understand."

I grimaced and looked down over the valley. Unfortunately, I knew he did. Still, it took all of my remaining energy to meet his gaze. "I'll remove three targets. After each one is down, I need you for retrieval and clean-up before the next man arrives. You'll need to cover any signs of the hit and then hide the remains in the rocks directly below us. Will that be a problem?"

Teal'c rose up on his knees and studied the floor of the valley and the layout of the steep, rocky slope below. Lowering himself back down, he shook his head. "It will not."

I chewed my lip and studied him. He'd left Apophis for this. "Teal'c, I won't order you to do this. If you don't want to get involved, I won't blame you. In fact, off the record, I suggest you walk away right now. Head back to the village, chat it up with some of your old buddies, give Carter a hand with the MALP. I'll figure out a way to handle this on my own."

He seemed surprised by my offer, but appeared to consider it before answering, "I will assist you, O'Neill."

"Why?" I whispered. I really wanted to know. Why did he place such implicit trust in me? He had since the moment of our meeting. I had never understood it, and wasn't sure I ever would. What did he see in me, what did anyone see in me, that could possibly garner such faith?

"You require assistance."

"Yes, but . . .," I scrubbed a hand over my face. I was tired. Tired and hurting and so thoroughly fed up with myself and with my `employer' that I'd be better off dropping the whole subject. Even if Teal'c could explain, I probably wouldn't buy into it. Not on a good day. Let alone this one.

"Something troubles you."

I sighed and checked my watch. Golden was under orders to begin sending his men back beginning at 0900 hours. That meant that the first member of SG9 should be within minutes of reaching our location. My leg throbbing with each beat of my pulse, I inched myself into position and looked through the scope, scanning the valley for movement.

"You do not wish to do this," he prodded.

I merely glanced at him, then went back to watching the landscape laid out before me.

"Do you believe this mission necessary, O'Neill?"

"Someone believes it's necessary."

"But you do not."

I bit my lip, grimaced and shifted my weight, looking for comfort that I wasn't going to find. "No. I don't." Finally, I looked at him. "I'm not sure what I believe any more, Teal'c. All I know is, right now, I don't much like myself and I don't understand how you can."

* * * * *

The moment the curtain went up on this next stage of my life, all of the butterflies disappeared from my stomach. My leg no longer throbbed, my head no longer ached, and I was unaware of the sweat beading up on my forehead. No Teal'c; no Carter and Daniel; no Bastard in Nevada who'd dragged me into this mess; no SG9. I existed in a vacuum. A hollow world inhabited solely by me and by my `target.' A distant part of me knew that later I'd be bothered by this too easy return to a dark side of my past, but at the moment, I was nothing more than an eye and a trigger finger.

Unlike standard rifles, the M25 was designed with a double action trigger. Basically, that meant that the trigger both cocked and fired the weapon. It also meant that the pull on the trigger was long and heavy. It helped to prevent premature firing; there would be no inadvertent slip of the finger to merely wound or to warn away the target.

Sighting down the scope, I saw in minute detail the face of Lieutenant Richard Carlson, the tall medic who'd set my leg. His cohort, Lieutenant Pierce, had passed through this same field of vision a little over an hour before - his short, squat legs carrying him in a jarring half-trot across the valley floor. Unaware of my presence, Pierce had completed his journey unharmed. Now, glancing down at Daniel's video camera, I grimaced and blocked out the memory of the nice, polite medic who'd treated me with nothing but kindness and a gentle touch. Despite the circumstances and my best intentions, I had liked him.

I pressed my cheek against the cool, indifferent rifle stock and sighted my target. As he double-timed it towards the village, he wiped sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. Would an alien do that? I had a brief moment of self-doubt, then flexed my hand and curled my finger around the trigger, the barrel of the rifle slowly pivoting on the bipod to follow Carlson's progress.

I allowed the vacuum to surround me, silencing all sounds except the steady beating of my own pulse and shutting out all sights except that of an alien in a lanky, human disguise. I fixed the cross-hairs of the scope on Carlson's nose, then eased the barrel up almost imperceptibly to a spot approximately three-quarters of a centimeter above the center of his eyebrows. Taking a deep, steadying breath, I held it, then slowly squeezed the trigger.

My target's head snapped back and his body followed, slumping to the ground as the noise of the shot reverberated over the rocky slope. He was dead before he hit the dirt. I nodded at Teal'c who quickly picked his way down the slope onto the valley floor. I waited as he made his way to the body, watching as he pulled his weapon and checked for a pulse. He tugged on Carlson's lifeless arms until the body was sitting upright, head slumped onto the motionless chest. When Teal'c scuffed the dirt, covering the dark spot that I knew was blood, and hefted the dead weight across his shoulders, I pulled myself away from the rifle and sank down against the boulder.

I stared at the ground, seeing nothing. It wasn't Carlson. The real Carlson was somewhere back on Earth, probably already dead when his identity had been assumed by the unnamed doppelganger I'd just assassinated. It took a moment for me to figure out why that didn't make me feel better. It was because human or alien, I'd just murdered a living being that had done nothing wrong aside from being kidnaped and killing one of the enemy in an attempt to escape.

I looked down at hands that were trembling. Some things never changed. It had been the same way in the past when I'd done this type of work on a consistent basis. Calm and collected until the act was over; shaking and fragile for days afterwards. Unfortunately, this act wasn't over. One down, two more to go. I took a deep breath and leaned my head back, closing my eyes.

During my time in covert ops, I hadn't made a single kill where I'd known the real reason behind the assignment. The men in my unit had operated in the dark in more ways than one. Of course I had sometimes had my suspicions and I had always wondered. As I'd center my sights on a target, I'd speculate as to what he or she had done to deserve such an end. After the fact, I assuaged myself with the presumption that the hit had been well deserved. That the target had more than likely taken innocent lives, and that Uncle Sam was far too just to allow such a person to continue unchecked.

I'd always felt that we should have been kept informed, and had questioned why we weren't. Now I knew. The killing was made harder in the knowing. Not knowing, I could always assume the worst and my horrendous deed would pale in the shadow of the justice I had meted out. Now, because I came armed with knowledge, I was robbed of any freedom from guilt.

I was not a naive man. I had not been for many years, if ever. I knew real life was rarely fair. The honest fact was, when faced with a shitload of guilt, it was simply easier to pretend targets deserved their own fate. The problem was, these targets didn't. And I knew it. This time, pretending wasn't an option. But I had a job to do, and there was nothing for it but to clench my trembling hands into hardened fists and stare into space, ridding my mind of any thought.

By the time Teal'c returned, I had collected myself. My hands steady for the duration of the next act, I passed the time by quietly telling Teal'c about Elvis, trying to make us both laugh. Trying to help us forget.

* * * * *

Sergeant Fields, or what passed for him, had been next. Except for the fact that he entered the valley at a different angle, forcing me to use a side to side head shot just to the rear of the temple and slightly above the ear, the kill and clean-up were the same. Lieutenant Hughes came next. As soon as I had watched the crisp image of one of SG9's three resident techno-geeks pass across the camera lens, I had sighed and sank back down to await the next man. There were only two remaining team members - Sergeant Lewis and Major Golden.

My hands once again trembling in the aftermath of an adrenaline surge, I looked over at Teal'c. He was sitting behind a boulder much like my own, stoically fiddling with the clasp of the holster strapped to his right thigh. I don't think I've ever seen Teal'c `fiddle' with anything. The enormity of what I was witnessing stunned me. Obviously, he was as bothered by this as I was. Perhaps more so. Blushing, embarrassed for myself and for those in power who were forcing a good man like Teal'c into doing this, I leaned my head back and shoved my shaking hands under my thighs.

I cleared my throat. I was so bad at this stuff. "So, you okay there, buddy?"

There was a slight hesitation before he replied, "I am not."

Okay. That was so not what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear my line - "I'm fine." How do you respond to brutal honesty? I didn't know what to say. I grimaced and wondered where was a shrink when you really needed one. In the end, I did what I was good at.

"Teal'c, did I ever tell you about my Gramps' cat?"

* * * * *

It was Sergeant Lewis. I centered the cross-hairs over the red eyebrows. Under the light of an afternoon sun and the power of the scope, I saw a cluster of four large freckles on the young man's forehead. Blinking away a drop of sweat, I slowly squeezed. I felt and heard the weapon cock; I continued to squeeze and reached the inevitable moment when I was committed to the shot.

"Guys, what's going on?"

I flinched at the sudden, unexpected sound of Daniel's voice. The shot missed its mark by mere centimeters. Oh God. Daniel was standing ten feet behind Teal'c. Both of us concentrating on the target below, we hadn't heard him approach. My heart hammered wildly in my chest.

"Daniel, get out of here."

"Jack?" He was frowning, looking past me at the rifle.

I looked back through the scope. Oh shit. My target was down, but alive. Lewis was struggling to his knees. Although no doubt unaware of what had happened, the man was fumbling for his sidearm. The shot had blown across the bridge of his nose and through the socket and brow of his left eye. Blood and gore dripped in wet, vibrant-colored chunks off the side of his face. I saw his mouth open and thought I heard his agonized scream.

"O'Neill." Teal'c's voice was a soft plea in my ear, asking me without words to end it.

"Jack, what are you doing?"

My hands trembling, my breath coming in rapid, shallow gasps, and my leg savagely throbbing, I pressed my face to the rifle butt and tried to focus on the flailing, dying, tortured creature below.

"Oh God. Jack, don't. Please." I tried to block out the sound of Daniel's pathetic begging. I could hear him stumbling towards me.

"Get out of here!"

"Please, Jack. Please." His voice was oddly strangled.

In the distance, mortally wounded, Lewis fought against his own dying.

"Teal'c, get him out of here."

I heard the sounds of a struggle as I forced myself to focus on the task in front of me. Lewis had managed to get to his feet, then dropped to one knee. As if sensing my presence, he turned his mangled face to the hillside where death awaited him. Cringing against the curses and pleas Daniel flung at my back, I watched as Lewis' hands dropped to his sides in a gesture of surrender. My chest aching, I squeezed the trigger.

* * * * *

Daniel was left reeling. In a parody of the man down below, he dropped to his knees at the moment of the fatal shot. I couldn't look at either man. My body suddenly aching and weighing heavily on me, I lurched and stumbled down the slope in Teal'c's wake. As he trotted across the floor of the valley to retrieve the body, I sank down in the rocks where the other two bodies lay.

I hid from the living amongst the dead and stared at my hands. I watched them shake. Stunned, I studied the tremors that began in my fingertips and like a virus inched their way up my arms. Suddenly freezing, I wrapped my arms around myself, shivering against a deathly cold that had absolutely nothing to do with the world around me.

By the time Teal'c returned with Lewis' body, I had carefully examined the other two. Studied from the right angle, they looked peaceful. They certainly appeared human. There was nothing obviously alien about them except for the small entry and the gaping exit wounds on each skull. I was disappointed. I had been hoping for something tangible to confirm what I knew to be true. Now, my nightmares would be haunted by the sleeping faces of men too young to die. My men.

Teal'c dropped Lewis' body at my feet. As a lifeless hand flopped onto the toe of my left boot, I marveled at the unaccustomed rage emanating from the quiet, unprotesting Jaffa. Avoiding Teal'c's cold stare, I glanced down at my feet and my stomach roiled at the sight of Lewis' ravaged face. The only thing to identify him were the dogtags looped around his freckled neck and a small, unbloodied tuft of red hair that had fallen onto his left shoulder.

Grunting under the pain of my broken leg, my hands still trembling, I rolled his body against the other two and pulled my Zat. Firing three times, I watched as the evidence of my crimes vanished. Finally, I looked at Teal'c. Technically, very few things remained that could be counted against me.

"Go check on Daniel."

My leg rapidly swelling, it took a while to climb back up to the top of the hill and by the time I did, both men were gone. So . . . there was something to be said for suffering from a fractured leg. Actually, there were two things: the agony of the trip back to the village also helped me to focus on something other than what I'd just done. What Daniel had witnessed. Or what he thought he'd witnessed.

As the swelling in my leg increased so, too, did the pain, and as the pain grew, a certain numbness settled over me. Recognizing a correlation, I found myself stepping more firmly onto the broken limb. I knew Doc Fraiser would see that I paid - big time - but right now, I welcomed punishment, in any form. It seemed only fitting and well deserved. Besides, maybe hurting would make me feel better. Not physically, but better about myself. Although, I seriously doubted it.

I've done some truly shameful things throughout my career, and suffered through some horrendous crap. If I'd have been a smarter man, I would have given up the fight a long time ago. But JonathonJ. O'Neill, dumb, stubborn asshole, just kept going. This time, even I knew it was going to be a rough one to wade through. I was hip-deep in thick shit and dragging a hell of a lot of bodies behind me through the muck. Besides, you just know things are bad when I start wondering what advice McKenzie would give.

When I limped into the village, the first sight that greeted me was Daniel, Teal'c and Carter huddled into a small, defensive cluster. Feeling a fresh surge of agony, I groaned and stumbled towards them.

"Start packing it up, kids. As soon as Major Golden gets back, we're heading out."

White-faced, visibly shaking, Daniel turned on me. "What the hell just happened back there, Jack?" I didn't answer, shocked by the unaccustomed tears which filled his eyes. He blinked back the wetness and straightened his spine, lowering his voice. "You murdered that man."

What could I say? "Carter," I forced my eyes away from Daniel and onto my second in command, "I assume the equipment is working."

A bit pale herself, Carter nodded. "Yes, sir. Although I'm not exactly sure why, everything seems to be working fine. I think we should-"

"Lieutenants Pierce and Hughes?" I cut her off, not in the mood for any of her techno-babble.

"They're at the new clinic set-"

"Where are the others?" Daniel's voice was flat.

"What?" Honestly, I was trying so hard not to think about anything that I didn't follow his question.

"The others? You said Major Golden was coming back. What about the other two men?" I met his gaze and so I witnessed the moment truth dawned on him. His shoulders slumped and a mix of emotions flashed across his face - disappointment, rage, confusion, hatred, disgust. Nothing I didn't recognize. "God. God, Jack. What did you do?"

"Sir?" The things I'd seen on Daniel's face, I heard in Carter's voice.

Still staring at Daniel, I addressed myself to her. "Major, radio Pierce and Hughes. Tell them to get ready to head back. We'll send in another team to finish up here."

"Yes, sir."

"You shot them, too, didn't you?" When I didn't respond, he turned to Teal'c. "Didn't he?" Like me, Teal'c merely stared back at him.

"Daniel, go pack up your equi-"

"Crap. What the hell." Carter had pulled her handheld radio free and was turning the knobs.

"Carter?"

She shrugged, frowning. "I don't know, sir. They were working fine. Now they're not."

I pressed the transmit button on my radio. Dead.

"I think I'm going to be sick." Daniel did look a bit green around the gills, but I was busy concentrating on the radio. He was watching me closely, frowning, then his eyes drifted somewhere beyond me. "Oh God."

Following his gaze, I swung around, gasping at the pain as my injured leg twisted awkwardly beneath me. Major Golden was stalking across the open ground towards us.

"Where are they?" he demanded.

I glanced at my watch. "You're early."

"Where are they?" He stopped mere inches from me, his voice and his eyes cold and full of hate.

"Who?"

"My men. Carlson and . . . and Fields."

As I stared at him, realization settled on me like a dark, heavy cloud. "You didn't ask about Hughes and Pierce." Remorse gripped my insides in an iron fist, squeezing the life from me. "Or Lewis," I whispered.

Before I could recover, he launched himself at me.

The moment he slammed into me, something in my splinted leg gave and a fierce, burning pain shot up my thigh and down my ankle. I hit the ground hard, all the air driven from my lungs under the force of the impact. My hands were caught between us and stunned by what I'd just learned, I neglected to defend myself. The unearthly shade of Major Golden wrapped cold hands around my throat, strangling me.

As I fumbled half-heartedly against my attacker, the hands tightened around my neck and any remaining air in my lungs slowly dissipated. I opened my mouth, gasping ineffectually for a breath of air, and marveled at the gunmetal grey that was suddenly folding itself across the bright sky. My limbs feeling oddly leaden, I began to drift.

The sight of Teal'c looming behind Golden galvanized me. As if awakening from a dream, a nightmare, I weakly struggled to free myself. Teal'c grabbed onto the alien's shoulders as I twisted, trying to disentangle my arms. Fueled by his quest for revenge, my would-be murderer refused to relinquish his grip on my neck, his strength as inhuman as he was. I heard Teal'c roar in outrage and my vision darkened as I began my descent into unconsciousness.

A numbing blackness closed around me and my hearing swelled, then settled into a complete and hollow silence. Marooned, I was aware only of the hands circling my throat and the feel of something cool and smooth beneath my fingertips. With my last thought, I squeezed.

* * * * *

Teal'c was rolling the dead body off of me. I gasped . . . a strained, painful sound. Warm air scorched its way down my throat, choking me.

"Sir," Carter was kneeling next to me, "lie still."

For once, I did as I was told, shutting my eyes and taking a moment just to savor the fact that I could breathe. Unfortunately, I couldn't quite remember what had happened and vaguely wondered why I felt wet and sticky. I opened my eyes and lifted my hands. I was covered with blood. Raising my head to look down at myself, I was rewarded with a deep, stabbing pain in my neck. Groaning, I dropped my head back down.

"Wha-" Fire seared my throat and I grabbed my neck, gasping.

"Colonel?" Gently but firmly Carter pulled away my bloody hands. "Here, let me take a look." She began to unbutton the top of my shirt.

Still sucking down fire, wanting to ask what had happened but afraid to speak, I studied the blood on my hands.

Teal'c knelt down opposite Carter. "Major Golden is dead, O'Neill."

Carter hissed softly as she examined my throat. I felt her cool fingers brush against my exposed skin as she eyed me closely. "Are you doing okay? Getting enough air?"

Squinting against the extra pain it caused, I nodded. Major Golden was dead? Steeling myself, I managed a whispered, "How?"

Frowning, Teal'c hesitated only slightly. "You shot him, mortally wounding him. I disposed of the remains as you did . . . with my Zat'nik'tel."

I'd killed him, then. Just as I had killed the others like him. And Lewis. Oh God, Lewis. The alien who'd been Major Golden had returned too early, throwing off the readings and making me think that Lewis was one of them. I shut my eyes, gasping softly. What had I done?

"Colonel, we need to get you back to the SGC."

The botched kill . . . my own man.

"Sir?" Carter sounded scared. When I opened my eyes, she was staring at me, wide-eyed. "We need to go back. You're injured."

I nodded. I was. But I was also beyond injured and was approaching that place where even my ravaged throat and broken leg meant nothing. I felt myself growing numb under the weight of an unforgivable sin. As if from a distance, I was aware of them watching me and talking to each other. Drenched in another's blood, I lay gasping for breath and allowed them to take the lead.

Drained. I was drained of the energy or the will to do more than sustain myself. There was only one thing . . .

"Daniel?" I rasped.

Carter looked past where I lay. Teal'c's glance followed hers, then he quickly looked back down at me, his gaze hardening slightly.

"Daniel Jackson is unharmed."

It was a lie and we both knew it. Daniel Jackson was very harmed. We all were.

* * * * *

"Come on, Colonel, open your eyes."

The IV cocktail rushing through my veins made it easier to ignore her.

"I know you're awake."

I lay without moving.

"Please, sir," her voice moved closer and changed to a whisper, "don't do this to me."

I sighed softly, painfully, and opened my eyes. Fraiser smiled down at me and I looked away, staring up at the cold, grey ceiling.

"How do you feel?"

Swallowing tightly, I whispered back at her, "I need to go home." My throat was sore, even worse than the time I'd had strep, and I sounded like I'd never given up smoking. I was amazed how someone's hands wrapped around the outside of my neck could make the inside of my throat hurt. Doc said it was because of swelling and bruising, both internal and external.

"Sir, we've been over this."

Yeah. But I was still here, in the infirmary. "I need-"

She cut me off. "No way."

I glanced at her then back at the ceiling.

"Colonel, I'm not keeping you here to be mean. You know that. I've told you why it's necessary." When I didn't respond, she sighed heavily. "It's only been a day and a half. You have swelling in your throat which, despite your arguments to the contrary, could still prove life-threatening. And, you presented with a displaced fracture of your right tibia. We've set and immobilized it, but until the swelling goes down, we can't even cast it. Now, once again, do you honestly think I can release you?"

I squeezed my eyes and my fists closed before looking back at her. "Please, I can't stay here."

Doc leaned over the bed, dropping a hand onto my shoulder, "I don't know what happened out there, sir." She paused, then seemed to realize that no answer would be forthcoming. "I'm sorry. I have you on the highest dose of anti-inflammatories that I can safely give you and we're applying ice to and elevating your leg, but other than that we just have to wait. I'll get you out of here as quickly as I can. You have my word."

When I didn't respond, she turned away to check the IV pump and the monitors by the bed. "Major Carter is asking to see you."

"No," I whispered.

There was a brief moment of silence before she turned back to face me. "I can't order you to see her."

Finally, I looked her in the eyes. "You're right. You can't."

She studied my face. "Whatever did happen out there, sir, you weren't the only one affected by it." She watched me closely, but if she wanted a reaction, she was going to have to pump a lot more drugs into my system in order to get it. "SG9 came back minus four men; Dr. Jackson is holed up in his lab, not speaking to anyone; Teal'c suddenly requires an inordinate amount of kel-no-reem; and Sam-," she stopped and looked down at her hands which were toying with the stethoscope draped around her neck. "I think she could use someone to talk to, Colonel. She's looking for some answers."

I grunted at the irony of Carter looking to me for answers to anything, much less this. Doc looked up at the sound.

"She could use a friend right now."

I stared at the diminutive doctor. "So go be her friend. I'm her CO."

Fraiser smiled tightly and shook her head. "Fine. Have it your way."

* * * * *

I sank down onto the chair and waited. My leg hurt, my throat ached, and I wanted nothing more than to go home and lock the door behind me. But before I could do that, I had to do this. Not because I wanted or needed to, but because Hammond had made it an order. I propped my crutches against the next chair, thankful that I had at least managed to make my escape under my own power and not by being pushed around in a wheelchair by a pimple-faced cadet.

It had been four days - four days of absolute hell - since our return from the mission to P4T992. Four days since I'd assassinated three aliens and murdered one of my own. Confined to a narrow bed under the constant scrutiny of Janet Fraiser and her minions, I needed time alone. I needed privacy. I needed to be able to shut my door and lock out the world. I needed to go to ground.

The General's door opened and he stepped into the briefing room, carrying a folder and a cup of coffee. "Colonel." He nodded at me and waved me down as I started to rise to my feet out of habit. "Sit down, son. Would you like some coffee?"

I shook my head. "No, sir," I rasped. I didn't want anything that might postpone my departure. Besides, my sore throat made swallowing difficult.

Hammond sat down at the head of the table and tapped a finger against the folder. "Dr. Fraiser says the prognosis for your leg is excellent, and that your throat should be as good as new in a matter of a few weeks." He glanced over at my neck which was still swollen and sported a dark, angry ring of bruises, as well as a red rash-like appearance that Doc said was the result of tiny, busted capillaries just beneath the surface of my skin. The General grimaced slightly, then met my eyes. "So how are you doing?"

Hadn't he just told me how I was doing? I forced a smile. "I'm fine."

He cleared his throat and took a sip of his coffee, then looked at me again. I fidgeted under his gaze and he gave me an easy smile, his eyes crinkling up at the corners.

"So how are you doing, Jack?" he repeated, as if I hadn't heard him the first time. As if I hadn't already answered the question. Which I hadn't. Not really.

I shifted in my seat, trying to get comfortable. It wasn't possible. I gave up and met his gaze. "I'm fine, General," I insisted.

He stared at me a moment longer, then looked down at the folder. He flipped it open and began to read a document that I recognized as my mission report. I'd written it yesterday on the laptop from my bed in the infirmary, drugged to the gills and pissy as hell. I watched his eyes move down the report at a leisurely pace and I mentally followed his progress. It basically said, `I went, I did what I was fucking ordered to do, I fucked up, I came home.' That was the clean, in-a-nutshell version. Short and sweet - my middle name.

Hammond flipped to page two, finished reading, then flipped back to page one. Leaning back in his chair, he looked at me. "I hope you found that cathartic, Colonel."

I hadn't. Not in the slightest.

"Now, you want to tell me what really happened?"

"It's all there, sir."

He stood up, walked across the room, picked up a glass and a carafe from the small side table, and returned. Sitting down, he poured a glass of water and set it in front of me.

"Is it true that Dr. Jackson witnessed the . . .," he glanced down at my report as if searching for something, "the third target being hit?"

I clasped my hands in front of me on the table, trying to still the shaking that had plagued them even during my drugged stint in the infirmary.

"Colonel?"

I took a small sip of the cool water, swallowing painfully. "Yes, sir."

"And what did you tell him? About why you did what you did."

I stared at the glass in front of me. "Nothing. I didn't tell him anything."

"You didn't tell him that you were following orders to eliminate key targets?"

I ran a finger down the side of the smooth glass.

"Did you tell him that certain members of SG9 were, in fact, members of an alien race and that you were under orders to eliminate them?"

I snorted softly and shook my head.

"I asked you a question."

"What do you think?"

"That's not an answer, Colonel."

I slapped my open hand on the table, the sound loud in the otherwise quiet room. "I didn't tell-," I started to yell, but my injured throat failed me, cutting off my words. Groaning, I rested a hand against my bruised neck and looked at him. He'd obviously talked to Teal'c, so why the hell was he grilling me about something he already knew? "Daniel saw me shoot Lewis." My voice was raw and lacked force. "He suspects I shot the others. But your secret's safe. I told him nothing."

Hammond studied me. "So, he thinks you murdered a member - members of the SGC? Our own men?"

Still clutching my throat, I swallowed and shrugged.

He suddenly changed directions. "Teal'c is angry."

"No shit, Sherlock," I mumbled breathlessly.

"Excuse me?" When I shook my head, he continued. "Colonel, I'm curious. Why do you think Teal'c is angry?"

I looked at him. Hammond was a lot of things, but I knew he wasn't stupid. "Why do you think?"

"Answer the question."

I sighed and thought about my response. "Teal'c left everything in order to help his people escape slavery, in order to escape having to mindlessly follow cruel and senseless orders. He left that for this. He exchanged one demented god for another." Exhausted by my speech, I glared at him. "I wouldn't exactly call it a good career move. I don't think Teal'c would either."

"Do you really believe that? Do you really think that Teal'c sees you as nothing more than . . . Uncle Sam's first prime?"

I chuckled dryly at the apt analogy.

"Teal'c is angry. He's angry at the circumstances and the people that forced you into this situation. He's angry that he couldn't do more to help you carry out your orders. He's angry that you felt you had to deal with this on your own." Hammond shook his head, smiling. "He's angry for you, Jack, not at you."

I didn't answer. I was too busy trying to assimilate the fact that my friend might still be my friend.

"We found the bodies of the real Major Golden, Lieutenant Carlson and Sergeant Fields. Their necks were broken and their bodies were hidden in a storage room."

I'd assumed they were dead but I was still sorry to hear it.

"Jack, I realize you didn't agree with your orders and I understand that by following them you were placed in a difficult situation, but these aliens killed our own men. You did nothing wrong by eliminating them."

I stared at him. Was he serious? "We kidnaped them. We tortured them, General. They were just trying to get home. I'm sorry that Golden and Carlson and Fields died. I am. But I think, under the circumstances, the aliens' actions were justified." He looked down at my neck, then back up at me. "I killed his men, sir. I don't blame him. In fact, if it had been me . . . I would opened fire on the lot of us."

Hammond sighed and shifted in his chair.

"This isn't new to me, sir. I'll deal with it. I just need some time, that's all. And I need to get the hell out of here." Hint, hint.

He stared over at me, then back down at my report, reading between the lines. "And Sergeant Lewis?"

"Lewis is different. He was a mistake. He was never a part of my orders and . . . he was one of my own." I sipped my water, my throat raw and hurting. "I fucked up." Hammond opened his mouth to speak and I held up a hand to stop him. "Please, sir, don't say that accidents happen or that collateral damage is to be expected."

He nodded, then without a word he slid my report across the table towards me. "Go home, Jack. Take the time you need. Then write the official version - the one in which four members of SG9 were the unfortunate victims of an explosion resulting from an equipment malfunction. The same explosion in which you yourself were injured."

So, we were writing them off . . . SG9, the aliens. It was as if they had never existed.

"Yes, sir." Ignoring the report, leaving it for him to deal with, I retrieved my crutches and hobbled from the room.

* * * * *

With the exception of a house call from Fraiser and numerous telephone messages from my team - which I'd managed to ignore and then delete accidentally on purpose - I'd had three days of uninterrupted solitude. Alone, I reached an uneasy truce on the subject of the aliens. After all, as I'd told Hammond, fallout from a mission wasn't new to me. I'd dealt with it before and I knew that until I retired, I'd deal with it again. That didn't mean I had to like it and that didn't mean I wasn't bothered by it.

I had trouble sleeping. Nightmares, old and new, plagued me. I would crawl into bed, doze off and awaken a few hours later with a painful shout. Sweating, my throat aching, I would limp on my crutches into the kitchen and swallow down a couple of the pretty little pills Doc had left sitting on my kitchen counter. Then I would search through the refrigerator for something to eat. Unfortunately, between the difficulty swallowing, the nightmares and the pain medication, my appetite had taken a serious nosedive.

The first day I'd lived on water. After that, my meals consisted of a glass of milk mixed with two tablespoons of honey. I remembered that it had been a particular favorite of Nana O'Neill's. Personally, I didn't find it much to write home about, but it went down smooth and it was relatively painless. After `eating,' I'd hobble into the den and flip channels on the television until I dozed off on the sofa. An hour or so later, I'd jerk myself awake and the cycle would repeat itself.

Today, I'd ventured out onto the deck. My cast was propped up on a nearby bench and I was dozing in my favorite chair. It was my least favorite dream - the one where Golden's dead, bleeding weight was pressed down full-length upon me, and when I tried to roll him off, he morphed into Lewis. Lewis - who looked at me with half a face and pleaded for me to take it back or failing that, to end it. The nightmare was just beginning in earnest when the doorbell rang. I flinched, wiped a trail of drool from the side of my mouth and settled back down in the chair.

The buzzer went off again, a little longer this time. Screw `em.

Seconds later, I heard them coming around the side of the house. I didn't have to open my eyes to recognize them. They approached quietly and I knew they were trying to decide whether to stay or to go. Two guesses which way I'd vote, and the first guess doesn't count.

"Go away," I mumbled.

"Sir, we came by to see how you were doing."

I opened my eyes. God. Daniel was with them and he looked as bad as I did. Teal'c nodded at me. He looked more like his old self than he had the last time I'd seen him. I glanced at Carter and she smiled tightly.

"How are you doing, Colonel? Do you need anything?"

"Shouldn't you be at work?"

I saw them glance at each other.

"Well, we sort of are."

Meaning, they'd been ordered here. "Hammond or Fraiser?"

"Actually . . . both," she answered softly. "They're worried about you." She glanced at Daniel. "We all are."

Yeah. Right. "You asked. I'm fine. Mission complete. You can go now." They stood there looking at me, all except for Daniel who was staring at his feet. "Do I need to make that an order?"

"Janet asked me to check that you're eating and taking your pills." When I stared at her without answering, she moved up onto the deck and went inside the house. A few moments later, Teal'c followed in her footsteps.

That left the two of us. Daniel looked as uncomfortable as I felt. After a few minutes of tense silence, he sat down on the steps of the deck and stared out across my lawn. I studied his profile, wondering what nasty dreams I'd bequeathed him.

"I'm sorry, Jack."

I flinched, stung by his apology. "Wha-," my throat seized and it had nothing to do with my injury. I swallowed and tried to recover my equilibrium. "God, Daniel, why are you apologizing?"

"For judging you." He looked at me for the first time. "Worse . . . for doubting you."

"Daniel, don't-"

"Let me finish." He looked back out at the yard, formulating his thoughts. "We've done some awful things, Jack, the four of us. I've done some awful things. Things I would never have thought myself capable of doing. A long time ago, I stopped counting how many people we'd killed. But we've always done it for the right reasons. And when we're in combat, in the middle of a fight, I guess I don't think about it. I'm sorry to say it's become almost automatic to me."

I fidgeted at his words. His lecture eerily reminded me of the one I'd given Martin the previous week as I'd stared out into his backyard.

"The other day, I saw you do something horrendous. Something worse than gunning down dozens of Jaffa or blowing up a mothership or-," he stopped. Without realizing it, his fingers were ironing a perfect crease in his pants. "I watched you kill a man in cold blood, Jack. I saw you take aim and fire straight into the head of a man with whom I'd shared breakfast. Just a few hours before you pulled the trigger, he'd been telling me about how he was anxious to get home because his son was going to be a tree in a first grade musical production."

Something heavy shifted inside me and I gasped softly. "Please-"

"No." He glanced at me. "Jack, wait. See, all I saw was a murder. A cold, heartless act. And I couldn't believe it was you that I was watching do it. You. The man I thought was my friend. The man I thought I knew. I . . . it was incomprehensible. I couldn't grasp it. I was hurt and I was angry and I was . . . sickened by what I saw."

I wanted to get up, to escape him, but I was frozen, paralyzed.

He leaned towards me. "I spoke with Hammond, Jack. He told me what happened."

"He told you?"

"He told me that things with SG9 were not what they seemed. He said that you were acting under direct orders and that I hadn't seen what I thought I'd seen."

Daniel was doing all of the talking, but I was panting softly, sweating. He studied me and I had to look away from his scrutiny.

"But it was what Teal'c said that finally got through to me."

"Teal'c?"

"Yeah. He told me not to trust what I'd seen, but what I knew." Daniel smiled. "I thought a lot about what he said. And he was right. I know you, Jack. You're a good man and I-"

"Daniel-"

He held up his hand, cutting off my protest. "You are. Despite what you think. And I realized something else: All this time you've been sheltering us. Not just me, but Sam and Teal'c. Everybody."

"I don't shelter you."

"Yes, you do. You do our dirty work for us. All of us," he swept his arm out, taking in the neighborhood. "It's relatively easy to kill when you're defending yourself, when you're in the middle of a war and fighting for your life. But it's a hell of a lot messier when it's one on one. Men like you allow us to keep our hands clean, Jack." He stared at my eyes which I knew were bloodshot from lack of sleep. "You dream our nightmares for us."

"Don't. It's not like that. I'm not who you think I am."

"Who do I think you are?"

"You think I'm some damned hero or something. And I'm not."

He smiled as if I'd said something humorous. "I'm not going to argue with you, Jack. But, I apologize for what I said back there. How I acted. And . . . thank you, for all of us."

"God, Daniel, please don't thank me for this." His kindness hurt worse than his anger; it was more cutting than his judgment. For the first time in a long time, I thought I felt the sting of tears threatening and I blinked them back, letting anger replace them. "Don't pat me on the back for killing."

"Why not? Much as we'd like to think it's not necessary, sometimes it is. And someone has to do it. I couldn't. I don't think even Sam could. So you do it for us. Because of you, we can sleep at night. We can snuggle down under the covers and pretend there are no monsters lurking in the dark. You don't think that deserves some credit?"

I didn't answer him. I merely sat there, simultaneously hurting and numb.

Daniel turned away from me. "I'm reading this book called `Calculating God.' There's a line in it that struck me: `Honor doesn't have to be defended.'"1 He glanced at me briefly. "Last week when I first read that, I thought it was very insightful. Now, I disagree. People like me can write books about the futility of defending honor because people like you are out there defending it for us."

I wanted to shout at him that I hadn't defended honor. I'd simply killed an innocent man. I'd murdered a little boy's father and destroyed a family. And what about the three aliens? Did they have families? Children? Were they good men? Maybe they were scientists, too, like Daniel and Carter. I didn't know. I never would. And I'd done it to `defend the honor' of men who didn't know the meaning of the word.

"Daniel, I screwed up."

"What do you mean?"

I started to answer him, then stopped myself. Why did I want to tell him this? For his sake or for my own? Was he my confessor? By telling him the horrific truth, would I feel cleaner? Suddenly, I realized that telling Daniel the truth would only make him feel worse when he'd finally found some peace.

"Nothing."

"O'Neill, you have inadequate supplies."

Carter and Teal'c stepped out onto the deck.

"Sir, what have you been eating anyway? The only edibles - and I use that term loosely - that I found were a little bit of milk, a box of macaroni and cheese, a tub of honey that looks like it's well past its prime, and a jar of olives with a layer of what could be chicken fat floating on top."

"I have olives?"

"Ew!" Carter wrinkled her nose and glanced over at Daniel. "So, are we ready to go?"

"Yeah. Yeah, we're ready."

"Sir, there are some things we need to do back at the base but Teal'c and I thought that later on, we'd make a run to the store for some groceries, which you're obviously in dire need of. That is, unless you really want Janet to know you're eating oatmeal and salsa."

"Okay, now I know I don't have salsa."

She shook her head, giggling. "That is just so . . . gross, sir."

Feeling exhausted by their short visit, I forced a smile. "Yeah. That'd be nice, Carter. Thanks."

I waited for a few minutes after I was sure they'd left, then pulled myself up on my crutches and hobbled inside, sliding the door shut behind me.

"I thought they'd never leave."

Startled, I looked over at him. He was sprawled on my sofa with his feet propped up on my coffee table and was sucking down one of my last three beers.

"What the hell are you doing here?"

"Jack, you really need to work on your people skills."

"Maybourne, get out of my house. In fact, how did you get in my house in the first place?"

"Your front door was unlocked."

"No," grimacing, I slumped down into the armchair across from the sofa, "it wasn't."

"Oh." He took another sip, glanced at the door, then smiled over at me. "Really? Well, it is now."

"Stealing from our allies, breaking and entering. Is there anything you won't do?"

"You might be surprised where I'd draw the line."

I stared at him. Believe it or not, I knew he meant it. Maybourne's code of ethics, while slightly off-center, was rigid and stringently applied. "I don't know, Harry, maybe not."

He smiled slightly, then sobered. "I heard what went down out there, Jack. I'm sorry. That was rotten luck."

Here are some questions for the shrink: Why does sympathy hurt like hell? And why when I'm cornered, do I regress a few gene-pools? "Shit happens."

Maybourne cocked his head at me. "Yeah, shit does happen. It also rolls downhill."

"What are you doing here, `cause I don't think it's for my cheap beer?"

He shrugged, looking around my living room. "I guess I just wanted to check in on you, Jack, before I . . . disappear back into the woodwork."

"Why, Harry, you're a freakin' sentimentalist. Who'd have guessed?"

"Well, what can I say? I'm a caring kind of guy."

"Okay. So . . .," I waved a hands towards him, "are we done here?"

Maybourne chuckled and stood up. Walking over to my chair, he drained the last of the beer and handed me the bottle. "A guy like you, I suppose you recycle."

I stared at the amber-colored glass. "A guy like me."

He walked over to the back door and stopped. "You know, while Doctor Jackson does tend to run off at the mouth, he was right about one thing, Jack."

"Yeah?" I stared up at him as he slid open the door to the deck. "What's that?"

He seemed to consider something. "You are a good man."

Maybourne slipped out the door, closing it behind him. I heard his steps cross the deck and then there was silence.

"You're still an ass, Harry," I mumbled.

* * * * *

I stared down at the blinking cursor on the computer, thinking about what I wanted to say and trying to come up with adequate words to say it. I hated these things. Always had. Always would. But, I don't guess I know anyone who likes them.

I took a drink of lukewarm coffee and stretched my spine, giving myself a mental shake. Okay, Jack, come on. You can do this. No. You have to do this. Groaning loudly, I settled my index fingers back over the keyboard and resumed the hunt and peck technique that had seen me through hundreds of mission reports.

`Dear Mrs. Lewis: You don't know me, but I was one of your husband's commanding officers. I was with Steve on his last, fatal mission. I wanted you to know that his last thoughts were of you and your son. And I wanted you to know . . .'

I stopped and stared at the cursor, thinking of my team, of Golden, Carlson and Fields, of Hammond. I even thought of Maybourne and a bastard named Martin. But mostly, I thought of a singing, six year-old tree. I flexed my fingers and sighed.

`. . . I wanted you to know that he was a good man and I was proud to have him under my command. Steve will not be forgotten by those who served alongside him. In deepest sympathy. . . .Colonel Jonathon J. O'Neill'

___________

1Robert J. Sawyer (1960 - ), `Calculating God,' 2000.