Necessary Sacrifices

.

 

 

 

Title: Necessary Sacrifices

 

Author: Partly

Email: Partlyk@yahoo.com

 

Status: Complete

 

Category: Action/Drama

Pairings: None

 

Spoilers: All episodes through season 4, just to be safe.  I mention quite a few episodes in passing.

Season: Four (later)

 

Rating: 13+

Content Warnings: Language, but nothing more than the show has.  Some physical injuries.

 

Summary: Jack blacks out the base while in the middle of what appears to be practical joke... but is it, really?

 

Disclaimer: Stargate SG-1 and its characters are the property of Stargate (II) Productions, Showtime/Viacom, MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, and Gekko Productions. This story is for entertainment purposes only, and no money exchanged hands. No copyright infringement is intended. The original characters, situations, and story are the property of the author. This story may not be posted elsewhere without the consent of the author.

     In other words:  Not mine.  Just this is just for fun.

 

Archive: Jackfic

 

Author's Notes:

 

2004 Jackfic-a-thon entry.  Yes, the title is correct.  This is a Jackfic-a-thon entry for last year.  So for all of you who feel bad because you didn't make this year's deadline, here I am to make you feel positively prompt.

 

The ** before and after sentence indicate italics since the list doesn't do italics.

 

Walter's last name in the fic is Harriman.  I know it wasn't officially that until the 8th season, but I went with it because that's how I know him know and it feels weird to call him anything else.

 

I must thank my wonderful beta-reader Jolene.  This fic wouldn't be half what it is without her, and any errors you fined are mine that I put in without her knowing or over her objections.  All hail Jolene.

 

 

*~*~*

 

 

"Siler!  What the hell is taking so long?"  Jack O'Neill stood at the base of the ramp that led up to the Stargate and drummed his fingers against the UAV.

 

"Just another minute, sir."  Siler's voice, amplified by the mike, rang around the room.

 

Jack could hear his window-of-opportunity slamming shut.  SG-5 had a scheduled contact in three hours and General Hammond would arrive an hour after that.  Daniel and Carter had started their third day of a seventy-two-hour leave and neither one of the scientists seemed able to stay away from work for more than forty-eight hours.  Jack doubted they'd return at three in the morning, but it still made him nervous.  Carter always had some experiment or other to check on in her lab and she showed up at the oddest times.  Teal'c was the one member of his team Jack thought would understand, but he still played it safe and sent the Jaffa on a week's mission with SG-12.  Daniel would never forgive Teal'c for knowing what Jack was up to and there would be enough fallout from this without driving a wedge between the members of his team.

 

The UAV beeped and he looked at Siler for the go, but the tech was still enthralled with the computer screen in front of him.  If they didn't get it running in fifteen minutes, he would have to scrub this part of the plan.  Without the UAV reconnaissance. . .

 

"Come on, Siler!"  He let his panic color his voice.

 

"Yes, sir," Siler said.  "It's all set." 

 

"It's about damn time."  Jack stepped away from the UAV.  "I want the gate room empty, people.  Everyone out."

 

The soldiers in the gate room snapped to attention and filed out.  Jack secured both doors and headed up the stairs.  He glared at the techs that loitered in the control room as he crossed to Siler's computer.  "I'll take it from here, Sergeant Siler.  Is this the only station recording the info from the MALP and UAV?"

 

"Yes, sir.  We limited the feed to that console, per your orders."  Siler inputted a few more instructions and turned to face Jack.  "It is against operations protocol, sir."

 

"I know it is, Siler," Jack replied.  "That's why I had to make it an order."

 

"Sir?"

 

"Never mind.  Just tell me you followed my instructions."

 

There was the briefest of hesitations before Siler answered, "Yes, sir, to the letter."

 

"Good."

 

Sergeant Walter Harriman looked up from the dialing computer.  "The address, sir?"

 

"I'll be dialing in myself, Walter.  Right now, I want this room evacuated.  Fall back to secondary positions."

 

"Sir?"  Walter exchanged a panicked look with the others in the control room.  "Secondary positions?"

 

"Yes, Sergeant," Jack stressed the airman's rank.  "I want everyone to fall back to their secondary positions.  Is that clear?"

 

"Yes, sir."

 

The room cleared.  Siler and Walter had a whispered exchange, but Jack ignored it and focused on the computer in front of him.  When Jack looked up, only Walter stood in the room.  Jack returned his attention to the computer and poked at a few keys.  Walter didn't leave.  Jack rubbed his neck.  Why are the little ones always so stubborn?  He pulled himself up to his full height and fixed Walter with his most commanding stare.  The Airman stood straighter and paled.  But he didn't leave.

 

Jack debated throwing the sergeant out, but decided he would try a less physical tack, first.  "Sergeant, do we have a problem here?  Don't you understand the order I just gave you?"

 

"No, sir," Walter replied.  "With all due respect, sir, I don't understand your orders at all."

 

"Damn it, Sergeant."  Jack put every bit of frustration he felt into the words.

 

Walter cringed, but stood his ground. 

 

Jack swore under his breath.  The man had spent too much time around Carter and Daniel.  He glanced at his watch.  There wasn't time for arguments or explanations.  Still, Walter deserved more than the hard-ass colonel routine.  Sergeant Siler reappeared in the hallway, just outside the door, and tried hard not to look like he listened in.  They all deserved better. 

 

"Oh for cryin' out loud," Jack muttered.  "Walter, I gave you your orders, right?"

 

"Yes, sir."

 

"Is there anything in those orders that you are incapable of doing?"

 

"No, sir."

 

"Was there anything in those orders that could be construed as illegal?"

 

"No, sir."

 

"Are there any grounds for you to refuse to follow those orders?"

 

Walter's jaw twitched but he didn't answer.

 

Jack pressed his point.  "When you all," at this Jack's eyes flicked back to include Siler, "are asked what happened here you can say that you had no choice but to follow the legal orders of your CO, no matter how odd they seemed.  Right?"

 

"Right, sir."

 

"So, we understand each other, then?"

 

"Yes," Walter said.  "I still want to stay."

 

"Sergeant!"

 

"I'm with Walter on this, too, sir," Siler added.

 

Jack wanted to scream.  "Are you two nuts?  Didn't you hear me?"

 

"Yes, sir, and we understand what you are doing--"

 

"No!"  Jack cut them off.  "Listen to me: I am ordering you to fall back to secondary positions.  Are you going to follow orders?"

 

Walter and Siler exchanged looks. 

 

The hum of the computers filled the silence, then Walter spoke, "Under protest, sir."

 

"I don't care if you hold your breath until you turn blue, as long as you follow my orders."

 

"Yes, sir, falling back to secondary positions." 

 

"Good."  Jack paused for a fraction of a second and then spoke again, just before the sergeant left.  "Walter?"

 

"Sir?"

 

"Just follow my orders, and you won't have any problems."

 

"Yes, sir."

 

Walter stepped out of the room and Jack closed the door with a disgusted grimace.  I'm losing my touch.  He'd worked on black ops and 'need-to-know' missions most of his career.  Artifice was a necessary tool, one that he was skilled at using.  That's why he was good.  He'd never had a problem with doing what he had to -- until now.  Now, he hated every false order and regretted the deceit, no matter how necessary.

 

It was obvious what the problem was, too.  In the past, he'd just been a colonel doing what needed to be done.  People followed his orders because he had a bird on his shoulders and they didn't.  It was just a job.  When did it get to be so damn personal?  Being a member of a successful SG team carried with it an authority that even rank couldn't match, he knew that.  It's just that he'd thought everyone understood that it was Sam and Daniel who made SG-1 the success it was.  All he brought to the team was good timing, blind courage and dumb luck.  Everyone should know that.  Hell, he pointed it out to them often enough.  He wasn't anything special and he didn't want to be treated as such. 

 

Ever since his undercover assignment to expose Maybourne's NID operation, though, he found that the SGC regarded him with an eager deference that bordered on veneration.  As soon as he'd walked back through the gate and had slapped the cuffs on Makepeace, he'd felt the change.  He hadn't given much thought as to what its consequences would be while he'd been on the assignment.  Orders were orders and the mission was too important for him to second-guess operations protocol.  There would be fallout, he'd accepted that; a loss of trust that even the axiom of 'I was following orders' couldn't repair.  There was even the possibility that he'd have to be reassigned in some manner, perhaps even outside of the mountain.  They were consequences he was willing to accept.  In his wildest dreams, though, he wouldn't have thought that he'd be received back as some sort of selfless conquering hero.

 

At least Daniel had had enough common sense to be ticked at him.  Not that it got the archeologist very far when the rest of the base had jumped to Jack's defense when Daniel had foolishly voiced that displeasure aloud.  After a few weeks of sulking and pointed comments, however, even Daniel had seemed to forgive him.  To be honest, Jack wasn't sure how Carter and Teal'c felt about the whole thing, but they both accepted him back in command without a word.

 

Now, more than a year later, Jack could still see that the base wasn't over that particular brand of adoration.  As much as he didn't want it, it hurt like hell to burn all that faith up like this. 

 

Jack sighed and crossed to a main computer terminal.  He stood between the screen and the security camera and punched in a string of command codes that overrode the standard video surveillance subroutine.  After the cameras adjusted to his commands, he blocked any attempt to realign them with his own security code.

 

"Alone at last," Jack murmured as he sat down at the dialing computer.  He hoped Siler wouldn't try to override the commands of the base's second-in-command and, if he did, that he wouldn't be good enough to bypass Jack's codes in the forty minutes that he'd allotted for the operation.

 

Jack punched in the address and the computer blinked its acceptance at him.  His hand hovered over the palm reader.  Once he did this, there was no going back, no time for second thoughts, no other choice.  Story of my life.  He dropped his hand to the scanner.

 

The gate groaned to life, each chevron locking into place.  The billowing pocket of water settled to a shimmering blue circle while Jack checked the readings.  Everything looked good.  Jack drove the overloaded MALP through and steered it off to the side and well out of the path of the UAV that would follow.  He studied the data and video feed as it came in.  The atmosphere was breathable, the climate was temperate and the DHD was destroyed. 

 

There wouldn't be return trip.

 

Jack shook away from that thought and moved to the seat behind the UAV controls.  A thrill of excitement ran through him despite the tension he felt.  God, he loved these things.  The plane took off with a quiet roar, and a second later it soared over the landscape of a planet on the other side of the universe.  Jack banked the UAV in a tight circle around the gate, and then widened the arc that spiraled out in a precise pattern.  He kept a close eye on the information that came in, pleased to see that Siler's adaptations to the data recorders worked.  A light on the monitor showed the recorder on the MALP received all the information.  He would have years to analyze it, once he was on the planet.  Right now, all he needed was reassurance that the planet was still uninhabited.

 

A gust of wind hit the UAV and Jack fought to keep it from spiraling into a dive.  A moment later, he had it back under control, but it responded sluggishly.  Damn it, I knew Siler made it too heavy.  The extra weight would cut down on flight time.  As if in answer to his thought, the screen started to blink a 'low fuel' warning at him.  Jack pulled the plane into a steep climb, kept circling and tried to get high enough for the instruments to record the landscape further away from the gate.  He managed to nurse five more minutes of flight time out of it before the UAV gave up and plummeted to the ground.  The instruments blinked out and Jack reached over and flipped off the power to both the UAV and the MALP.  With nothing to keep the gate open, the wormhole snapped shut.  Jack pocketed the disks that had recorded the MALP and UAV information.

 

Silence reigned for a moment and he glanced at the clock.  03:31.  Twenty-two minutes since he commandeered the control room.  Eight minutes ahead of schedule.  Now for the tricky part.  A minute later, after he'd punched in a new address, the gate sprang back to life.  Then he pulled out a folded piece of paper from his pocket and flattened it out on the desktop.  A long list of complicated computer instructions covered the paper and he almost wished that Carter were here to help him.  As it was, he could just imagine what she would say when she found out that he, Colonel 'I-don't-know-Jack-about-computers' O'Neill, had hacked into the base's network. 

 

It would be wrong to claim credit, though.  The program had been at the end of a long and boring technical report that Carter had written.  He didn't pretend to understand how the program really worked and it would be easy to type in a wrong command.  In all likelihood, he might program the base to blow up.  The upside to that being, I will blow up with it.

 

Ten minutes later Jack inputted the last line on the list and hit enter.  The cursor blinked at him for a second and then the entire system flickered out, along with the lights in the control and gate rooms.  The gate stayed active.

 

"Sweet," Jack murmured. 

 

The emergency lighting kicked in and the gate gave an odd groan.  For a second Jack feared he had screwed it up.  Then the computer bank hummed and the lights came on.  The system rebooted and the dialing computer came back first.  A second later, the security cameras hummed and readjusted to their usual position, Jack's overrides lost in the reboot.

 

Jack hit the abort button on the control panel and killed the wormhole.  He was pleased to see that the dialing computer recorded that the gate had been open while the power was out.  A second later, someone pounded at the door and Siler's voice carried through as he demanded to be let in.

 

"Hold on," Jack complained.  "I'm coming."  He started for the door, then stopped and crossed back to the console.  He grabbed the sheet of computer code and stuffed it in his pocket.  Don't get careless now, Jack.  This is only the beginning.

 

Jack unlocked the door and Siler and Walter burst in.  Walter headed over to check on the gate status, while Siler crossed to the computer that had been recording the MALP and UAV data.  He frowned at the lack of information on the screen.  When he opened the drive and found the disk missing, he turned to Jack.

 

"What happened, Colonel?"

 

"I don't know," Jack lied.  He put on his best poker face and started to feed them the cover story he had created.  Jack O'Neill would go out doing what he was best at.

 

*~*~*

 

"Damn it, Jack."  Major General George Hammond stared across his desk at his subordinate.  "I can't look the other way on this one."

 

"I understand that, sir," Jack replied.  "I won't ask you to."

 

Jack stood at attention, as he had since he entered the room.  It got on Hammond's nerves.  "Sit down, Jack."

 

Jack hesitated and then sat.  It wasn't his usual, loose, sprawled-in-the-chair posture, however.  He sat as he had stood, straight, creased at the seams, proper military, un-Jack-like.  As was, Hammond reflected, the behavior that brought him here.

 

"I'm asking you for an explanation, Jack.  That's all I'm asking.  What the hell did you think you were doing?"

 

"As I told you before, General," Jack began, "with the downtime and everyone off-base, I thought I'd do a little personal recon of P45-393.  We're scheduled to do a week's research there and I saw some lakes that looked like they may hold some possibility of native aquatic wildlife.  I ordered Siler to make some modifications to--"

 

Hammond waved his hand and cut him off.  "Do you expect me to believe that you violated seventeen separate operational protocols and lost two very valuable -- and very expensive -- pieces of equipment because you wanted to find out how the fishing would be?"  He put every ounce of indignation he felt into his voice.

 

Jack stared at a spot over Hammond's shoulder.  "Doesn't that sound like something I would do?"

 

Hammond started to say no, but couldn't.  Jack's irreverent, smart-ass attitude was well known throughout the service.  This would be one more black mark in a file that seemed as full of reprimands as accolades.  It just didn't make any sense.  Hammond knew that file better than anyone.  Hell, he'd put half the reprimands and accolades in there.  This felt different.

 

"Do you understand the untenable situation this puts me in?  Puts the entire SGC in?"

 

"That was never my intention, sir"

 

"No?  Then, tell me, Colonel, what were your intentions?"

 

"I wanted to check out the fishing--"

 

"Fishing!  Don't give me that line of bull.  Tell me what you were doing!"

 

Jack remained silent, eyes forward.

 

A flash of anger burned through Hammond.  Of all the insufferable, pig-headed fools.  "When this gets out, there are people who will want your head, Colonel."  His voice rose to a shout and he stood so quickly that his chair shot backward and hit the credenza behind him.  "And I don't see any reason to keep them from getting it."

 

Jack, who had snapped to standing attention when the general stood, didn't respond.  Hammond regarded him for a moment and let his anger build.  "There were five teams off-world, Colonel.  They couldn't use the gate for thirty minutes.  Are you telling me that you risked the lives of twenty SGC personnel on a fishing expedition?"

 

A muscle twitched in Jack's jaw, a small show of emotion that Hammond counted as something of a victory.  He pressed his advantage.  "Tell me, Jack.  Tell me what was worth the lives of those twenty people -- twenty of your friends."

 

Jack stood, silent.

 

"Are you looking for a forced retirement?  Do you want a court-martial?  You're leaving me very little choice here."

 

"You have to do what you have to do, sir."  O'Neill's voice was flat.

 

"What I have to do is fight everyday to justify expenditures and missions that protect this planet.  Do you know what Kinsey is going to do with this when he finds out?  How do you expect me to justify this?"

 

"You don't have to justify it, General, sir.  I was in command at the time.  The blame for this entire incident falls on me.  Even Kinsey won't be able to find a way to link this to anyone else."

 

Hammond caught the note of confidence in Jack's voice and understood.  The sudden passes that O'Neill had arranged for Dr. Jackson and Major Carter, Teal'c's inclusion to SG-14's mission, the explicit and well-documented orders that Jack had issued to the SGC personnel -- they placed the blame on Jack's shoulders.  When people called for heads, there was only one that could be taken: Jack O'Neill's.

 

A cold thread of resignation replaced the anger that had flowed through Hammond's blood a moment before.  He pulled his chair back to his desk and sat heavily.  He'd seen this side of his second-in-command when he'd gone after Maybourne's off-world operation.  Jack had planned every step necessary to complete his undercover work: from the set-up with the Tollan, to the alienation of his team, to the exact arguments that he would use in his final confrontation with Hammond.  Everything was carefully detailed, from what he would need to accomplish before he would call in the Asgard to just how far he would go to prove his loyalty to the band of thieves.  He'd done it all with a ruthless efficiency that Hammond had both admired and feared.

 

Jack still stood before him.  Hammond doubted he'd moved at all and he felt that Jack would stay frozen there until the interview was over if Hammond let him.  Well, that was just fine with him.  If the man expected him to accept this insanity without explanation, he could damn well do it at attention.  Hammond stared at the reports in front of him until the words blurred.  This was so much bigger than some typical Jack O'Neill stunt, he realized.  The Jack O'Neill he knew would never endanger people on a personal whim.  While Hammond believed that Jack would risk his own reputation, career, or life on some incomprehensible O'Neill-ism, he didn't believe that Jack would ask others to follow him down that path, much less order them to do so. 

 

No.  Hammond knew there was something else going on here.  Just as he knew the man standing so rigidly in front of him wouldn't give him any other explanation.  He looked back at Jack and wondered how far the colonel would go to do whatever it was he had to do.  After only a moment's thought, he decided he didn't want to know. 

 

The silence ate on Hammond's nerves.  "What do you need me to do, Jack?"

 

"Sir?"

 

 "What do you need me to do?"

 

Jack's eyes narrowed and met Hammond's for the first time since he walked into the general's office.  "You just have to do your job, General."

 

The answer was, Hammond noticed, frustratingly neutral  "I can't just sweep it under the rug," he said.

 

"No, sir," Jack's answer was quick.  "Doing that would give Kinsey and his sycophants a reason to come after you and the SGC."  

 

Hammond nodded.  "Right."  He shuffled the papers on his desk.  Stared at the top one again and hoped that the silence would force O'Neill to say something.  The clock in his office ticked off the seconds.  Hammond re-read the reports in front of him and looked for some clue as to what was going on.  There wasn't one. 

 

Jack didn't move and Hammond gave up.  He'd just have to go along with Jack on this, for now.  "All right, Colonel.  If you're sure this is how you want to play this."  Although he left it open, as a question, he didn't expect an answer.  He didn't get one.

 

"You have a week's leave, effective immediately.  During that time, I will conduct a thorough investigation into this incident.  I will also have Sergeant Siler and Major Carter conduct a complete gate diagnostic to assess any damage this little stunt of yours may have caused."  He paused and gave Jack a hard stare.  "I should have you report to the infirmary for a complete physical, but I'm thinking that wouldn't get you to talk, either, would it?"

 

When Jack didn't answer, Hammond continued.  "I want you back here seven days from now, 08:00 hours, for a disciplinary hearing at which time I will determine if this warrants official court-martial or administrative sanctions.  Is that understood, Airman?"

 

"Yes, sir."

 

"Fine," Hammond growled the word out and slammed the folder shut on the papers.  "Dismissed."  He didn't look up.  Damned if I'm gonna watch him leave.

 

"Yes, sir." 

 

He heard Jack spin on his heels and listened to the footsteps as they crossed the office.  Hammond tried to focus on something else, but he couldn't.  The steps paused and there was another turn.

 

"General?" 

 

Hammond looked up.  Jack stood in the doorway.  The colonel shifted from one foot to the other and ran a hand through his hair.  Hammond waited.

 

"I just wanted you to know, sir, that. . ." Jack trailed off.  Then he snapped a smart salute and held it until Hammond returned it.  "Thank you, sir."

 

Hammond watched as Jack left and swore under his breath.  If that wasn't a goodbye then he wasn't from Texas.

 

He reached for the phone and hit 'two' on the speed dial.  If he was about to lose Jack O'Neill, he sure the hell was going to find out why.

 

*~*~*

 

Jack paced around Carter's lab, flipping his truck keys in his hand.  He knew he should leave before Hammond followed through on his threat to have Doc Fraiser do a complete medical on him.  While he'd managed to bluff his way through his meeting with the general; Jack knew he'd never be able to do that with Janet.  Once she ran her damn tests, he'd be locked up in the infirmary and he'd never get out.  Oh, yeah, the sooner he left, the better.

 

Only, he couldn't. 

 

After he'd left Hammond's office, he'd checked in with the front gate and found out that Carter had just arrived.  She was back twenty-four hours early from her three-day leave.  Hammond would want to talk to her as soon as possible and Jack wanted to talk with her before that.  He needed to talk to her before she found out about his stunt in the gate room; before she had questions, questions he wouldn't answer.  This was going to be hard enough as it was.  He didn't want lie to her about this, too.  The clock ticked the time away, and he tried to calm his nerves.

 

Her lab was always her first stop.  The message light that blinked on her phone was Hammond.  At least, Jack hoped it was.  If Hammond had sent someone to get her or if she'd run into an airman who was anxious to spread the news of his actions. . .

 

"Colonel?"  Carter's voice interrupted his thoughts.  "Waiting for me?"  She crossed to her workbench and tossed her coat over the back of her chair.

 

Jack watched her as she walked in.  He pocketed his keys and leaned against her workbench.  "Well, you know, just wanted to talk to you before I went off-duty."

 

"Fine," Carter smiled at him.  "How 'bout we do it over breakfast.  I'm starving."

 

Yes.  "Um, I can't.  I wanted to tell you that, ah, I'm gonna be gone for, ah, a while."  He picked up a screwdriver from the work-surface and twirled it in his hands.

 

"But we're scheduled for a mission in two days.  P45-393.  Survey and recon."

 

"Yeah, we, ah, you still are."  He tried not to think about the mission, Carter had been so excited about it.  It would be a shame if this meant she wouldn't get to go.  "It's just that I'm not.  Going, that is.  On the mission."  He spun the screwdriver and watched it flash in front of his eyes.

 

"I don't understand."

 

"I know."  Jack dropped the screwdriver back onto the workbench.  "Let's just say that the general felt I needed some downtime, downtime away from the SGC."

 

"Away from the SGC?"

 

"Yes.  So, I have a week's. . . leave, effective, well, effective now."

 

"Effective now?"

 

Jack smiled at her.  "Is there an echo in here?"  It wasn't often he had Carter repeating things.

 

"I'm sorry, sir.  It's just that I don't quite follow you."

 

"Don't worry about it, Carter."  Jack waved his hand at her.  "I don't have much time here and I just wanted to talk to you before I left."

 

She glanced around the room and her eyes came to rest on the blinking light on the phone.  She looked from it, to him, and then to it again.  He almost thought it would be too much for her, but, in the end, she turned back to him.  "What is it you wanted to talk about?"

 

"Well, I just wanted to tell you that I was sorry."  He crossed to the desk and forced her to turn away from the phone and the door.  The desk lamp was crooked and he straightened it.

 

"Sorry for what?"

 

For leaving like this.  "You know, for not going on this mission."  He tilted the lamp so that it was closer to the computer.  Carter never had the thing set right.

 

"You didn't want to go on this mission," Carter pointed out.  "Is this your way of getting out it?"

 

"What?  And miss out on a week's worth of science-fair fun with you and Daniel?"

 

"Exactly.  You did say this was just another boring science expedition."

 

"You know I didn't mean it, Carter."  Jack shrugged.  "Besides, have we ever managed to have a boring science expedition?  It doesn't matter where we go; something ends up trying to kill us."  He flipped the light on, then off, and then on again.  It reflected off the monitor. 

 

"Is that all you wanted to talk to me about?"

 

Absolutely not.  "Yeah.  Well, that and," he paused while he turned the light back the way it had been, "I wanted to thank you."

 

"Thank--" Carter stopped herself.  "What are you thanking me for?"

 

"Well, you know."  He flipped the light on, then off again.  It didn't reflect in the monitor.  Note to me: always trust that Carter knows what she's doing. 

 

"No, sir."

 

Jack looked back at her.  "What?"  This conversation wasn’t going at all the way he had planned. 

 

"No, sir, I don't know what you're thanking me for."

 

"Oh."  He flipped the light off one final time.  A hundred different answers popped to mind.  And he couldn't bring himself to say any of them.  Come on, Jack, you gotta say something.  "For shootin' pool."

 

Carter looked at him as if he'd grown a third eye.  "I beg your pardon, sir?"

 

"It's not often you get a second-in-command who is willing to play her superior officer at pool."  He picked up a wayward pencil from her desk and rolled it between his fingers.  "Most of them wouldn't want to risk the, ah, reprisals that may come if they manage to best the man who's in charge."

 

"You're thanking me for beating you at pool?"

 

"Not if you put it that way," Jack said.  He shrugged and worked his way around to something he wanted to say.  "I always know where I stand with you, Carter.  That's all.  That's a rare thing and I appreciate it."

 

Jack flipped the pencil through the air, aiming for Carter's pencil holder.  It missed by an inch.  He picked up a pen and repeated the process.  It landed in the holder and rattled the other pens in it.  Score.

 

Carter continued to watch him but he couldn't bring himself to meet her eyes.  Maybe this was a mistake.  They had an understanding; an understanding about the things they couldn't talk about.  And if they hadn't talked about them before, he couldn’t very well talk about them now, could he?  It wouldn't be fair to her.

 

Carter broke the silence.  "What's going on, Colonel?"

 

"Nothing, Carter."  Jack ran his hand through his hair and gave up.  "I just wanted. . ."  Wanted what?  "I just wanted to say goodbye."

 

"Goodbye?"

 

Jack nodded.  Goodbye was exactly what he wanted to say.  "Yeah.  I couldn't leave without saying goodbye, now could I?"

 

"I guess not.  I just don't--"  The sharp ring of her phone cut her off.  Carter frowned, but made no move to answer it.  She looked back at Jack.  "What's going on?" she repeated

 

The phone rang again.  "I think that's for you," Jack said.

 

"Colonel?"

 

Jack walked past her and headed to the door.  "That's Hammond.  Better answer it." 

 

"Sir?"

 

Jack turned and smiled at her.  "Thanks, Sam, for everything."

 

He left as the phone rang again.

 

*~*~*

 

"Slow down there, Sam," Daniel tried to keep the phone balanced on his shoulder while he put some of his books away.  "I don't understand.  What happened to Jack?"

 

Daniel listened to Sam in growing disbelief, books forgotten in his hands.  "You're kidding, right?  Jack blacked out how many levels?"  Daniel set down the books and devoted his full attention to the phone.  "He lost a MALP and a UAV?"

 

The more Sam talked the less sense she made.  Daniel crossed to his kitchen table and gave his full attention to his distraught friend on the other end of the line.  He didn't have any answers for her.  When Jack had arranged the three-day leaves for Sam and him, it had surprised Daniel.  Then Jack had ordered that they had to leave the base, and Daniel had assumed it was just Jack's usual way of nagging them to relax away from work.  But now. . .

 

Daniel took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.  Now it looked as if Jack had wanted SG-1 out of the mountain so he could look for fish.

 

"Sam. . .  Sam. . ."  He tried again.  "Sam!"  The voice on the other end of the line finally stopped.  "What did General Hammond have to say about this?"

 

"Nothing."  The irritation in Sam's voice rang down the line.  "The general's as much in the dark about this as we are."

 

"Are you sure?"  Daniel knew the question was impolitic but he didn't care.

 

"Why would the general lie?"

 

"How about orders?  All that 'need to know' garbage the military is so fond of.  It wouldn't be the first time, would it?  This could be some more black ops type of thing."

 

"I don't think so.  General Hammond is more than upset about what happened, he's worried, too.  He says he doesn't believe that the colonel would do this just to check out the fishing no matter what he says.  Still, it's the talk of the base, and most of the people are buying the colonel's story that he did it on a whim.  That's what he said and they believe him."

 

"Well, now, that's the problem, isn't it?  Jack's believable even when he's lying through his teeth.  Why do you think I play chess with him rather than poker?"  Daniel rubbed his temples in an effort to ease his new headache.  "Well, what do you think?  Did he do it just to check out the fishing?"

 

"That doesn't sound like the colonel, does it?"

 

"Well, I don't know, Sam.  This is Jack we're talking about, who knows what he's thinking at any one time."

 

A hard knock at the door made it impossible to hear what Sam answered.  "Just a minute, Sam.  Someone's here."

 

Before he crossed to the door, the knock sounded again and Daniel knew who it was.  "Jack's here," he told Sam.  A quick look through the peephole showed a fishbowl view of Jack.

 

"What's he doing there?" Sam asked.

 

"I'll call you back when I find out."  He hung up on Sam's response and tossed the phone onto the countertop.  Jack was just about to knock again when Daniel opened the door.

 

"Jack.  I'm not AWOL yet, am I?"  He hoped he sounded more casual to Jack than he did to himself.

 

"Not for another eighteen hours, Danny boy."  Jack bounced on the balls of his feet and looked into the apartment behind Daniel.  "Can I come in or are you busy?"

 

"I'm just organizing some research materials."  Daniel stepped aside and let Jack in.  "What brings you around?"

 

"Didn't Sam tell you?"  Jack nodded to the phone on the counter.  "Your door isn't even close to soundproof."

 

"Ah," Daniel closed the door and fought to find something to say.  He couldn't come up with a good lie, so he settled on the truth.  "She said General Hammond is pissed that you lost a MALP and UAV on a fishing reconnaissance.  You're on a week's suspension or something?"  Daniel wasn't sure what the military term for it was.

 

"Or something," Jack agreed.  "I thought I'd stop by and see you before you went back to the base."

 

"Nice of you."  Daniel crossed back to the kitchen table and picked up the books he'd set down earlier.  "Sam was concerned that there's something more going on."

 

"Well, that's a scientist for you.  They always question the obvious."  Jack reached over and grabbed some books.  "Let me help you with these."  He followed Daniel to the bookcase.

 

"Thanks," Daniel started to shelve the books and hoped the silence would drive Jack to talk.

 

"I kind of expected you would be questioning me, too."

 

"Would it help if I did?"

 

Jack smiled.  "No."  He handed Daniel two books and watched him put them away.  "But that's never stopped you before."

 

"Hmm," Daniel murmured.  Silence could work with Jack.  Daniel reached for the last book, but Jack didn't hand it to him. 

 

Instead, Jack turned the book over in his hand, and then he flipped it open and paged through it.  "This book looks familiar."

 

Daniel glanced at it.  "It should.  You've read it."

 

"I read it?"  Jack stared at the book.  "What makes you think that I'd read anything like this?"

 

"Because I was there when you read it, Jack."  Daniel grabbed another stack of books piled on the floor.  "With a little help from the Atonieks."

 

"What?"

 

"The armbands that Anise gave us."

 

"Oh, those."  Jack continued to stare at the book. 

 

Daniel kept putting books away and waited for Jack to come round to a point.  Jack usually came around to a point.  The trouble was, most of the time, Jack's points only made sense to him.

 

A siren drifted in through Daniel's window.

 

"You would think I'd learn."

 

Daniel paused for a moment and hoped that Jack would give an explanation.  When he didn't, Daniel prompted, "What?"

 

"Most people learn things as they go along," Jack said, as if that explained everything.

 

"Right."  Daniel still had no idea what they talked about, so he straightened the books on the shelves.  After a minute of Jack staring at the book, Daniel reached over, took the book and shelved it.  When Jack still didn't comment, he tried another prompt.  "Well, Jack, some things just can't be learned with one quick look over--"

 

Jack didn't let him finish.  "Never trust a snake, Danny.  How many times have I said that?

 

"A lot?" Daniel ventured.  As usual, Jack's conversation didn't follow any recognizable pattern.  Talking to Jack was like deciphering a foreign language.

 

"Yes."  Jack reached past Daniel, pulled the book off the self again and flipped through it.  "Failing agricultural infrastructure, right?"

 

"What?"  His headache grew worse.

 

"Hobbes' reason for the collapse of the civilization was failing agricultural infrastructure."  Jack waved the book.

 

Daniel resisted the urge to grab the book from Jack's hand again.  "Um, right."

 

"See, that I remember."  Jack shook his head and shoved the book back into the bookshelf.  "Not that that piece of knowledge will do anyone any good."

 

"Jack, Hobbes' work is the cornerstone--" he stopped himself with an effort.  "Was there a reason you stopped by?"  Besides driving me mad, that is.

 

"Yeah, right."  Jack shoved his hands in his pockets.  "Well, with me gone, you'll be going on the missions alone.  Or maybe with a new CO."

 

"Gone?"  Daniel frowned.  That sounded more permanent than Sam had let on.  "What missions?  Why would we need a new CO?"

 

"You know, the mission to P45-whatever.  I will be gone and General Hammond might assign another CO."

 

"Oh, right."  They did have an off-world mission in two days.  With Jack gone for a week, it was possible that they'd get a temporary CO.  It was believable.  Jack's believable even when he's lying through his teeth.  Daniel's head throbbed.

 

Jack continued.  "I just wanted to tell you to keep your head down.  You know, pay attention to the things that go on around you.  I won't be there to watch your back."

 

"Come on, Jack," Daniel protested.  "We've been on missions before without you and did just fine."

 

"I know.  It's just that you have a tendency to forget that some people like to shoot first and ask questions later.  You stick your neck out to save people you don't know.  People who don't even want to be saved."

 

Daniel had a half-formed retort, but he didn't say it.  There was something odd in Jack's voice; an undercurrent that nagged at the back of his mind.  Before he could figure out what it was, Jack had started for the door. 

 

"Well, I've kept you long enough.  Sam will want a report."

 

"Wait," Daniel didn't want him to go.  When Jack paused with his hand on the doorknob, Daniel floundered for something to say.  "I'll, ah, I'll be more careful."

 

"Good.  The SGC is better off with you around."  Jack opened the door, but didn't leave.  He stood in the open doorway, an unreadable expression on his face.

 

Daniel waited a full minute before asking, "Is there something else, Jack?"

 

"Yeah."  Jack smiled.  "See you around, Dr. Jackson."  He stepped back and closed the door before his words faded away.

 

Daniel grabbed for the door and fought with the lock that had somehow been switch on.  By the time he'd opened it, Jack was gone.  He stared at the empty hall for a moment, then spun and grabbed the phone.  The finality in Jack's words ate away at him.  As he waited for Sam to answer the phone, he tried to ignore the cold fear that churned his stomach.

 

*~*~*

 

Loons called to each other through the deepening night.  Jack leaned back in his chair and watched as the shadows crept across the still, dark pond.  It was an hour before full dark and he intended to enjoy every quiet, solitary moment of it.  The temperature fell with the sun and the clear sky foretold that a heavy frost would leave its mark on the slumbering autumn landscape.  Jack loved nights like this.  Nights where peace could seep into a man's soul and silence the demons that lurked there.

 

His team didn't understand.  Daniel thought it was odd that he could love the quiet, solitary life as much as he loved the action of battle.  Jack never pointed out that he loved the quiet more.  Daniel, with his insatiable desire to understand everything in the universe, just couldn't appreciate the value of stillness.  Carter appreciated it even less.  To Carter, doing nothing was a punishment, not a blessing.  She thought him remiss to choose to rest on R&R, even if she would never say so.  Jack didn't mind.  Her compulsion to do something every second of every day baffled him, too. 

 

He'd been disappointed that Teal'c hadn't liked fishing.  He thought that the Jaffa, warrior that he was, would understand about the need to find peace and balance.  Besides, any man who could spend hours meditating in candlelight would have to enjoy the restiveness of fishing.  That wasn't a good comparison, though.  Kelno'reem wasn't so much about meditating as it was about healing.  It had a specific purpose and easily identified goal.  Fishing had neither.  Fishing was just about being and its benefits were more elusive.  In his heart, Teal'c was as restless as the other two members of SG-1.

 

The wind stirred and the loons cried again.  Jack smiled.  Loons sounded more alien than most of the animals they heard on other planets.  He'd miss the call of the loons.  And the cabin; he'd miss that, too.  It held so many memories.  Charlie had loved it here.  Every spring they'd catch tadpoles in the cattails that grew along the shores.  Sara would pretend to be mad as they'd come into the cabin, covered with mud, to present her a kettle full of 'future frogs', but she'd always end up laughing with them.  Too late for regrets.  He stood and stretched stiff muscles.  The new moon followed the sun and darkness swallowed the hazy shades of the trees on the far bank.  Once the cover of night was complete, he would leave.

 

It took twenty minutes until he couldn't see where the grassy bank ended and the water began.  It was time.  He walked back up the path, past his cabin and to the pile of supplies that he had stacked at the edge of the clearing.  A small communicator sat on top of them and he picked it up and flipped it on.  The little green indicator light blinked three times and then glowed steadily until it became an alien signal that burned in the calm of his sanctuary. 

 

It was fitting that he was leaving from here.  This had been his retirement plan, his dream, really.  A quiet, tranquil place to get away from it all where he had planned to live out his life, fishing in peace.  The cabin would be left behind but he would still have the dream.  He'd just have to make a few changes.  That was a hard-learned lesson: If you couldn't change your dreams, you ended up dying with them.

 

The light on the communicator gave five quick flashes, three slow ones and then five more fast ones.  There was a moment's darkness and then the pattern repeated.  Jack sighed and picked up the communicator to return the signal.  Fifteen minutes.  It amazed him that a quarter of an hour could be both an eternity and a blink of an eye.  Life was measured that way.

 

It had been five years since he'd lost Charlie.  The same five years since he'd first set foot through the Stargate.  It didn't seem right when he looked at them side by side.  While it felt like he'd spent a lifetime traveling through the gate to visit other worlds, it had been a heartbeat ago that he'd lost his son.  He'd taken that first mission with every intention of dying and instead found a reason to keep living.  A year later, when he went through the gate a second time, he'd discovered a life to live.

 

Daniel had never quite gotten over his first impression of him, Jack knew.  Daniel, no matter how much he denied it, never trusted that Jack knew what he was doing.  He still looked for that undercurrent of self-destructiveness that Jack had when they first went through the gate.  Jack didn't take it personally.  Daniel's nature didn't allow him to trust in that kind of change.  Daniel was an idealist trapped in a pessimist's body.  It created a philosophical conflict that allowed him to think the best of strangers and expect the worst of friends.  Jack was just the opposite; he was an optimistic cynic.  Daniel might never have been able to trust in him fully, but he'd been willing to wait and see.

 

Carter didn't have that problem.  She may not agree with his commands but she trusted in him.  He would never tell her, but he was glad she hadn't been assigned to the Abydos mission.  She knew about it, knew more about it than anyone except Ferretti and Daniel, but he was sure she didn't understand how it had been.  She would've gone through the gate with a scientist's enthusiasm and approached the mission with a sense of wonder and awe.  He would have crushed her.  It was good they'd met only after he could appreciate her enthusiasm and curiosity.

 

Of them all, Teal'c came the closest to truly understanding him.  There was never any need to explain or justify anything to Teal'c.  As a Jaffa, he knew about the necessity of sacrifice.  Of them all, Teal'c would understand why he had to do this.  It gave him some measure of peace, to know that there would be someone left behind who would understand.  Some who could appreciate how much it cost him to do this.  To leave his friends, his family.

 

The cabin loomed in the darkness and he fought down the urge to take one last walk through the building.  Instead, he did a slow pivot, memorizing every detail of the scene before him.  In the papers he'd left, there were instructions for the cabin and acreage to be given to the local school as a preserve.  His team would never use it; with the school, it would be alive.  Hell, they may even stock some fish in the stupid pond.  It would be good to have kids run around here to laugh, catch tadpoles and watch them grow into frogs.

 

To shake off the nostalgia that settled over him, he dropped to a knee next to the bags and dug out his equipment.  He pulled out his gun belt, buckled it on and tightened the pistol straps around his leg.  The black battle dress uniform he wore hadn't seemed out of place in the growing dusk, but the weight of the gun transformed them into working clothes.  His focus transformed with it.  As he slipped into the rest of his kit, he also slipped into the demeanor of the professional soldier he was.  By the time he strapped his P-90 to his vest and pulled on his black stocking cap, he was ready to leave.  He no longer belonged in the peace of the woods.

 

The communicator flashed again.  A quick flick of his hand killed the lights and he slipped it into his pocket, but the peaceful feeling of the clearing didn't return.  Jack stepped closer to his equipment and waited.  A low roar filled the small clearing and a Tel'tak decloaked above him.  Transporter rings descended around him and, just before he disappeared, Jack whispered goodbye.

 

*~*~*

 

"It doesn't make any sense!"  Sam slammed the folder shut and pushed it into the middle of the conference table, as if distance would help her make sense of it.  She looked at Daniel and Teal'c who sat across the table from her.  "The gate diagnostics came up perfect.  I've checked all the logs and everything matches with Colonel O'Neill's report."  She had spent the last eighteen hours doing a complete gate overhaul and came up empty.  Frustration didn't begin to cover how she felt.

 

"You expected something different?" Daniel asked.

 

"I don't know.  I hoped that I would find something that would explain what happened.  There's no reason for the blackout.  The logs just register a power-surge right before everything went down.  We couldn't come up with a reason for the surge and everything was back on-line within ninety-seconds."  She looked at Daniel.  "What did security have?"

 

"Nothing.  Jack overrode the security camera's usual protocol so they couldn't record what he was doing at the computers.  He admitted that in his report to the general.  He said he didn't want Siler and Walter 'looking over his shoulder'.  Siler tried to hack in and readjust the cameras, but I guess it takes a lot of work to hack Jack's password.  The black-out reset everything but by then it was too late."

 

"Could not a malfunction of the Stargate disrupt the power?" Teal'c asked

 

"Yes, but that's not what happened here.  Everything points to an internal cause.  The Stargate had the only uninterrupted power in twenty levels."

 

"Yeah.  I heard that General Hammond gave Jack quite a dressing down for leaving the base open to attack.  Any damage to the gate?"

 

"No.  The gate checks out fine.  We managed to recall Teal'c and SG-14 with no problem and we've established a viable connection between here and P45-393.  We couldn't reestablish contact with the UAV or the MALP and there is no sign of either.  Colonel O'Neill said he lost contact with them while he was surveying the area.  We're working under the thought that they are just out of sight.  General Hammond authorized a recon to look for it in a couple of hours.  Maybe the MALP recorded something that will help."

 

"So until then, are we going to believe that Jack did all this for fish?"

 

"I cannot."

 

Sam and Daniel both looked over at Teal'c.  "I don't want to believe it either, Teal'c, but do you have another explanation?"

 

Teal'c didn't respond and they sat in silence for a couple of minutes.  Sam's mind drifted back to her conversation with the colonel just before he left.  She should have known right away that something was wrong, but it was so hard to tell.  On the surface, the conversation seemed normal enough, but in the end, it felt like he'd been saying goodbye forever, not just for a week.  Daniel had told her he'd thought the same thing.  She looked over at Teal'c.  "Teal'c, did the colonel leave any messages for you?  Any notes or explanations?"

 

"He did not."

 

"See, now that doesn't make sense.  Why would he talk to me, then go all the way over to Daniel's and talk to him, but not leave a message for you.  If he were saying goodbye, why wouldn't he say goodbye to you?"

 

"It is possible that he did."

 

Daniel leaned forward.  "What?"

 

"Prior to the mission, O'Neill invited me to participate in a boxing match.  He often engages me in simulated combat in order to discuss his thoughts.  I was instructed to 'keep an eye on' the two of you and to make sure that you always had someone to 'watch your sixes' when you become involved in your scientific pursuits," Teal'c said.  "He then said that he would miss our bouts and that he did, indeed, consider me as a brother to him."

 

"Jack said that?"  Daniel's disbelief was obvious.

 

Teal'c inclined his head.  "It is a sentiment I shared with him while trapped in the X-301."

 

"When you thought that you were going to die?"  Sam didn't need to see Teal'c nod to know the answer.

 

"And you didn't ask him what was going on?"

 

"I could not, Daniel Jackson.  O'Neill is a clever strategist and did not allow me the opportunity to discern his motives."

 

"He's good at running away, that's true," Daniel muttered.  "He's a hit and run expert."

 

Teal'c inclined his head again, but Sam couldn't tell if he agreed with Daniel or not.  A thought struck her.  "If the colonel said goodbye to Teal'c four days ago, that means he planned this."

 

"Jack planned on blacking out the SGC?"

 

"Maybe not the black-out.  But it had to be something that he thought would get him reassigned or up for a court-martial."

 

"Something besides looking for fish?"

 

"Colonel O'Neill would never risk his career over fish."  Sam stopped and rephrased the statement.  "He would never risk other people's lives over fish."

 

"I concur with Major Carter."

 

"Can't we just access the readings from the MALP and UAV to find out what he was up to? 

 

"No.  Colonel O'Neill had all the information fed directly to one data recorder and he took the disk with him."  Sam made a mental note to make sure that could never happen again.  "Diagnostics only show that the gate was open when the computer system went down."

 

"So, what could have he been doing on P45-393 that would overload our systems and crash the computer?"

 

"That's the problem: Nothing.  According to the logs, the gate was only open a couple of minutes before the crash.  That's barely enough time to send the MALP and UAV through."

 

"Could the logs be faked?"

 

"Well, I could do it.  Siler might be able to come up with a work-around.  There are a couple of the other techs who are quite good, but none of them could make the backup records match."

 

"And do they match?"

 

Sam nodded.  "Perfectly."

 

"Could someone control the computers remotely?"

 

"No.  Something of this scope would have to be done in the control room.  We have too many fail-safes in place for someone to hack in."

 

"Well, there wasn't anyone else in the control room with him," Daniel said.  "I looked into the possibility that someone could have used a personal cloaking device or that a Reetou had gotten on the base.  The techs have checked everything they can think of and everything says that Jack was alone in that room.  If the computer was hacked, Jack is the only one who could have done it."  Daniel frowned.  "Unless Jack's not Jack."

 

"No," Sam said.  "It was definitely Colonel O'Neill."

 

"It would not be the first time O'Neill has been duplicated."

 

"Teal'c has a point.  How can we be sure?"

 

"I, ah, I asked Janet to check," she confessed.  "We all had complete physicals after our last mission and there was nothing wrong with the colonel.  We haven't been off world since.  There have been no breaches of base security, no sign of alien attack or infiltration to lead us to think that he had been 'replaced'."  She didn't regret her actions, but she wasn't exactly proud of them.  "Just to be sure, Janet took some skin samples off the lamp Colonel O'Neill was playing with in my lab and compared it to his DNA on file.  It matched."

 

Daniel stared at her.  "You checked his DNA?"

 

"Janet was mad that General Hammond had let Jack leave without a physical."  Sam shrugged.  "It was the only way to be sure."

 

"It's too bad the general didn't confine him to base, " Daniel said.

 

"I agree.  But he had all the paperwork done.  He admitted what happened and had an explanation for everything.  By the time we realized that none of it made any sense, he was gone."

 

"As I said, O'Neill is a clever strategist."

 

Daniel scoffed but didn't argue the point.  "Okay.  So, if we're sure Jack is Jack, what does that leave us with?"

 

"Nothing," Sam said.  "It leaves us with absolutely nothing."

 

*~*~*

 

"This is so not good," Jack muttered to himself. 

 

He crouched in the underbrush and studied the five Jaffa who guarded the Stargate.  So much for the easy part.  No one was supposed to be guarding the gate.  For that matter, no one was supposed to be anywhere on the planet at all.  Typical lousy intel work.  He shifted his attention to the clearing off to the left where three large Jaffa-style tents stood.  From the equipment and supplies, it looked as if the Jaffa had been here for some time and planned to stay a while longer.  The gate had to be disabled and he had to do it without letting anyone know that he was doing it.  At the very least, he'd have to do it without being caught and killed.

 

Jack rolled onto his back and slid down the slight incline into the dry riverbed that circled the clearing.  The stone-strewn gully provided perfect cover as he worked his way a mile upstream to his stash of equipment.  The Tok'ra had thought it foolish to drop him and his equipment down so far from the gate.  If he had gone with their plan, he would have ended up in the middle of the Jaffa encampment.  It was a miracle the Tok'ra were still around; they knew squat about black ops.  They may be great at infiltrating the Goa'uld as double agents, but real action always involved a Tok'ra death.  Well, dying wasn't on his agenda, thank you very much. 

 

Once safe in the small cave where he'd cached his equipment, he did a quick survey.  He couldn't use the claymores or C-4.  That would bring the Jaffa in the area down on him.  What he needed was a distraction, preferably one that wouldn't alert them he was here.  Of course, just because he couldn't blow things up, didn't mean he couldn't burn them down.  As part of this mission, the Tok'ra had given him several containers of incendiary powder.  Once lit by flame or explosive, it would burn hot enough to melt metal and burn for hours.  With the amount of bad intel the Tok'ra had given him already on this mission, Jack was happy for the chance to try it out.

 

He put one of the canisters of 'Tok'ra napalm' in his satchel and dropped a flare into his vest pocket.  After he double-checked the load in his P-90 and his pistol, he dug out a zat and secured it to his belt.  Then he circled around the entrance to make sure there were no signs that pointed to the cave, and slowly worked his way around to the clearing.  Fifteen minutes later, he crouched directly behind the Jaffa campsite. 

 

None of the Jaffa were visible, but he could hear movement inside the tents when he crept close to the shelters.  The incendiary powder looked like a trail of sugar and a smell like stale peppermint wafted from it as he poured it along the edge of the tent.  He ran to the next shelters and duplicated the move.  Then he retraced his steps to the cover of the wood, lit the flare and tossed it onto the white trail of powder he had just laid.  It erupted to life with a quiet roar.  Blue flames consumed the tents in seconds and sent their occupants running out in confusion and terror.  Jack ducked into the underbrush and worked his way back to the gate.  Smoke from the tents began to fill the air over the clearing and shouts from the Jaffa who fought the fires carried over to him.

 

The Jaffa that guarded the gate watched as the smoke rose and listened to the cries of their comrades.  Jack could hear them argue, unsure of their duty.  Another shout, this one a definite call for help, decided it for them.  Two of the guards ran off and two more followed after, leaving only one, lone guard at the gate.  He, too, seemed concerned with the flames, but he stood to his post.  So it goes, the good soldier dies first.

 

Jack crept to the edge of the clearing and waited until the guard's attention was once again drawn to the smoke and flames, then he sprinted out into the open and zatted the guard.  The Jaffa fell like a stone.  Jack zatted him twice more, in hopes that a missing Jaffa would raise fewer questions than a dead one.

 

Ignoring the empty space where the dead Jaffa had lain not more than a second ago, Jack ran to the DHD and pulled open the control panel.  He stared at the complex circuitry inside and fought to remember which doohickey did what.  I am so over my head, here.  After a moment's hesitation, he reached in, grasped a small greenish crystal and jerked it free from the machine.  The DHD emitted a short moan, blinked twice, and then lost all power.  Jack smiled to himself, pocketed the crystal and closed the control panel.  Score one for the lucky inept.  A blast from the burning tents rang through the air and Jack hoped he'd been lucky enough to destroy their armory. 

 

It was the slightest whisper of movement that saved him, the tiniest suggestion of cloth rubbing on cloth and the faintest taste of ozone in the air.  Jack spun and dove off to the side as the searing blast of a Jaffa staff weapon burned past his side.  He rolled to the right, pulled his zat, and returned fire, a strategy that would have worked if there had been only one attacker.  As it was, the two zat shots struck the lead Jaffa, but left the second one standing. 

 

Jack continued his roll and ignored the burning pain in his side.  The Jaffa shot again.  The energy weapon blasted a hole into the ground where Jack had been a moment before and sharp fragments of rock bit into his face and arms.  A second shot split the air next to his head.  The wave of hot air from the passing bolt of energy singed his hat and left the smell of burnt hair hanging in the air.  Jack spun out of his roll and turned his momentum toward his attacker.  The Jaffa didn't keep up with Jack's sudden change.  Jack dove under the staff weapon and drove his shoulder into the stomach of the Jaffa. 

 

The Jaffa fell with a grunt.  Jack slammed into the hard ground on top of him.  The staff weapon clattered to the side and sent its final blast into the DHD.  Jack's zat popped from his hand and landed out of reach.  The Jaffa twisted and belted Jack across the face.  Jack's world spun and his head rang.  Something wet and warm dripped over his eyes and clouded his vision.  Jack struggled to draw the knife sheathed at his side.  The Jaffa grabbed for Jack's throat and squeezed.  Jack fought to unsnap the leather band that held the knife in place.  The world faded away and his blood roared in his ears. 

 

The knife came free from its scabbard.

 

Jack pulled the knife across the Jaffa's throat and rolled free of the dying man's grasp.  Gagging for breath, he stumbled over to the zat.  Six shots later, the only signs of battle were the burn marks on the DHD.  Jack picked up the staff weapon that still lay on the ground and tossed it into the tall grass next to the DHD.  The camp still burned white-hot and another explosion pushed more flame and smoke into the air.  He didn't know how long his fight had lasted.  No more than a few seconds.  No one arrived to investigate the sounds of the staff weapon blasts.  The sounds and confusion of the fire must have masked the fight.  After one last look around, he melted into the concealing brush in the woods.

 

It only took fifteen minutes to arrive safely back in his bolthole.  He sat on a low ledge of rock and took a personal inventory.  The first blast had left an angry burn along his side that hurt like hell, but the flack vest he wore had absorbed most of the damage.  The scorching on his face and neck wasn't severe and hurt less than did the bruises that the Jaffa's death grip had left.  What bothered him most were the cuts and punctures caused by the debris the staff blast had thrown up.  He wiped the dried blood off his face and covered the lacerations with some antibiotic cream.

 

Not a bad outcome, really.  Three Jaffa were dead and his wounds were superficial.  He pulled the green crystal out of his pocket and set it protectively on his stack of armament.  Without the crystal, the DHD wouldn't work but if all went well, he would be able to repair it and get off this rock.  The sounds of the Jaffa who fought the fire drifted in to the cave as he gathered the surveillance equipment he needed.  It seemed the Tok'ra were right about the powder.  The intel may have stunk but at least the equipment worked.  With any luck, the fire would burn long enough to keep the Jaffa distracted while he reconned the area. 

 

He might live long enough to finish the job after all.

 

*~*~*

 

The talk in the corridors of the SGC was all about Colonel O'Neill.  Daniel could hear snatches of conversation as he hurried along to the conference room that SG-1 had commandeered.  The speculation ranged from the mundane to the outrageous and Daniel fought the urge to eavesdrop on the rumors.  Even after they had worked on the problem for twenty-four hours, the team didn't have any better idea what had happened than those who gossiped in the halls did.

 

Sam looked up from a report when Daniel entered.  "What did the general say?"

 

"Nothing.  Everyone he's talked to says that they have no operations going on that involve Jack."  Daniel sat down, grateful to be able to rest.  "He's afraid to push any harder because Kinsey already suspects that something is up.  I think we're running out of time here.  If we can't come up with something soon, Hammond is going to have to go with Jack's explanation in order to keep Kinsey from going after the SGC."

 

"I haven't had any more luck than the general," Sam confessed.  "Teal'c reported back from P45-393.  There's no sign of the MALP.  They're doing a wider search in case something has walked off with it, but I wouldn't hold my breath.  It's almost as if the colonel didn't send the MALP there at all."

 

"Then what did he do with it?"

 

"I don't know.  I can't figure out how he could have done any of this."  She rubbed her hands across her face.  "We need to talk to him."

 

"Yeah, well, we can't."

 

"Why not?"

 

"We can't find him."  He continued before Sam could interrupt.  "Hammond sent a couple of Special Forces personnel over to his house this morning.  The SFs reported that it was locked up tight and his truck was in the garage.  The neighbors said he packed a bunch of stuff into a cab yesterday afternoon and left.  The SFs are tracking it down now."

 

"Just. . . great."

 

Daniel thought that summed it up perfectly.  By far the biggest mystery in the universe was Jack O'Neill.  It was hard enough to understand him in normal circumstances; they didn't stand a chance when he started being underhanded.  Daniel thought back over the conversation he'd had with Jack in his apartment and brought up the only possibility they hadn't covered yet.  "I think we should contact the Tok'ra."

 

"What?  Why?"

 

"Something Jack said to me at my house.  Anise was here a week ago.  She wanted to talk to Janet about the aftereffects of the armbands."

 

Sam nodded.  "Yes.  But she didn't talk to me."

 

"Me, either, but she could have talked to Jack."

 

"It's possible."  Sam considered it for a moment.  "So, this has something to do with the armbands?"

 

"I don't know, but I think we should check it out."

 

Sam nodded.  "I'll see if I can get a hold of my dad.  Meanwhile. . ." she pushed a report across the table at him, "see if you can find anything in this report."

 

They sat in silence for a couple of minutes until there was a knock at the door and Walter came in.

 

"Major.  Dr. Jackson."  He crossed to the table and handed Daniel some papers.  "The general asked me to deliver this to you."

 

"Thank you, Walter."  Daniel glanced at it.  It was a report from the SFs sent to track down Jack.  That was quick.  He wondered what kind of pressure Hammond put on them to get results that fast.

 

"Sergeant," Sam's voice interrupted Daniel's perusal of the file and stopped Walter at the door.

 

"The MALP that Colonel O'Neill sent through, what was on it?"

 

"Ma'am?"

 

"According to the reports, the MALP was heavily loaded.  What did Colonel O'Neill send through?"

 

"I don't know, Major.  When he brought it into the gate room it was already packed."

 

"He loaded it himself?" Daniel asked.

 

Walter shrugged.  "I could look into it for you."  His eagerness to help wasn't lost on Daniel.  The entire base seemed ready to jump to Jack's aid.

 

"Do that, Sergeant," Sam ordered.  "In fact, I want you to look into what requisitions the colonel made in the past week.  I want to know everything down to a paper clip."

 

Daniel looked over at Sam.  "You think he sent supplies?"

 

She sighed and shook her head.  "Assume nothing," she said.

 

In that case. . .  "Then maybe we shouldn't stick to requisitions.  We need to run a complete check for missing supplies," Daniel said.  "Anything that Colonel O'Neill might've had access to and might need for a mission."

 

"That will take forever, Daniel," Sam said.  "We'd almost have to do a complete inventory."

 

"All right," he conceded.  "How 'bout if we just focus on the big stuff: survival gear, first aid supplies, the usual off world equipment?"

 

"That's still a huge job."

 

"I can get some volunteers to help," Walter said.  "We could have it done in a couple of hours."

 

"Fine, Sergeant," Sam said.  "I'll let the general know what you're working on."

 

Walter saluted and left. 

 

Daniel grinned over at Sam.  "Volunteering to do inventory, that's a new one."

 

"They're as worried as we are."  Sam looked back at the report before her.  "I don't think the colonel knows the type of loyalty he inspires in people."

 

"I doubt it."  Jack's refusal to acknowledge feelings didn't end with his own.  Daniel turned his attention back to the report Walter had brought in.  He skimmed through it, stopped on the second page, and went back to read it again.  Just when I thought it couldn't get worse.  He put it down with a sigh and rubbed his eyes.

 

Sam looked up.  "What is it?"

 

"Jack's movements since leaving home.  The cab took him to the airfield where he hopped a transport up to Minneapolis.  It looks like he's headed to his cabin.  Hammond has sent someone round to collect him and bring him back here."

 

"That's good news, then."

 

"Not really.  You know that stuff he packed into the cab?"  He waited for Sam's nod.  "He wouldn't let anyone handle it, but the crew on the transport thought it was armament."

 

"Weapons?"

 

"That's what they said."

 

"Why would he take weapons to his cabin?"

 

Daniel shrugged.

 

"Did they say what kind?"

 

"No, but it does say that it was several bags of armament.  It's the only reason the crewman remembered it."  He reached over to the phone and dialed an extension.

 

It was picked up on the second ring.  "This is Sergeant Harriman."

 

"Yes, Walter.  Dr. Jackson.  Could you please add an inventory of the armory to your to-do list?"

 

"The armory?"  Daniel could hear Walter's puzzlement.  "If you think it's necessary."

 

"I'm afraid I do."  Daniel hung up and looked back at Sam.  "Walter will let us know if any weapons are missing."

 

Sam's concerned look mirrored his own.  "Oh, Daniel, what is he up to?"

 

"I don't know, but it can't be good."

 

*~*~*

 

I just hate this.  Jack lay in the tall grass and tried to find some good in his situation.

 

There wasn't any.

 

In the valley that lay before him, three Goa'uld pyramids glinted in the last rays of the setting sun.  Dozens of Jaffa stood watch over people who cowered in the middle of fenced enclosures.  Five tents were clustered together and Jaffa gathered around the open doorways.  Large lights mounted on the top of tall poles that grew brighter with the gathering darkness.  Movement along the edge of the woods told of the patrols that guarded the perimeter.  This was not the secret, half-deserted base he'd been told to expect.

 

Jack's side ached with a sharp throb that he couldn't quite ignore and the blood from the cuts on his face and arms seeped into the bandages that he'd slapped on.  He toyed with the idea of taking some meds to dull the pain, but he was afraid that it would dull everything else as well.  He needed to have all his wits about him.

 

Jack backed off from the cliff edge and made his way to his cave of equipment.  Sneaking in and blowing up an unguarded secret lab was one thing; infiltrating three guarded Goa'uld pyramids with the same intent was an altogether different animal.  He was damn lucky he'd been paranoid when he packed for this mission or he wouldn't have had enough supplies.  The Tok'ra had enhanced most of his explosives with a liberal application of naquadah and they had assured him that when combined with the incendiary powder, it would only take three or four of the new, improved C-4 to destroy the base.  It wasn't that Jack didn't believe them -- yeah, right -- it was just that he always preferred being safe to being sorry.  Thirty bricks of the 'super C-4', carefully marked with a large red x, sat off to one side.  Even if the explosives weren't as powerful as the Tok'ra predicted Jack hoped that ten bricks would bring down a pyramid.

 

It would be full dark in less than an hour, until then, he'd lay some charges to provide distraction or retreat support.  Jack pulled out a satchel and filled it with claymores.  He didn't have enough timers for them, so he opted to set them with a tripwire.  He didn't like the idea of setting booby traps that anyone could walk into, but if it worked out as planned, there wouldn't be anyone walking around to set them off.  If it didn't work out as planned, well, any little annoyance he could be to the Goa'uld was good, even if it happened after he was dead.

 

As he set the claymores around the perimeter, he kept an eye on the Jaffa and their captives.  The prisoners were dressed in different styles of clothing and huddled together in small groups.  They were from different planets, Jack realized.  The Jaffa at the gate weren't on guard duty; they were the welcoming committee.  If the planet had been uninhabited, they would've had to bring in people from other places.  A quick count gave him at least sixty prisoners in three different enclosures.  He was relieved to see that there were no children in the clusters of frightened people.  It was going to be hard enough to do what he had to without having to face the death of children. 

 

Satisfied with the deployment of the claymores, Jack returned to his makeshift base of operations and sorted through his remaining equipment.  The sniper rifle and most of the extra clips for the P-90 could stay behind.  He strapped the extra 9-mm to his leg in an ankle holster, hooked the zat to his belt and hung a pair of night-vision goggles around his neck.  The spare zat, a med-kit, some extra ammunition and the Tok'ra powder went in a satchel that he slung over his shoulder.  The bag rested heavily on his hip and he had to readjust it so it didn't cover his pistol.  Finally, he transferred all of the 'super' C-4 to a backpack.  It was a heavy load and his side protested when he slung it onto his back, but there was no getting around it.  If his intel was correct -- and that was a big if -- he had seven hours of darkness.  If he didn't get this done before dawn, he wouldn't get this done at all.

 

He circled behind the pyramids.  Two Jaffa patrols passed within twenty feet of him, but they didn't even glance his way.  The Jaffa in the camp didn't pay any more attention to their surroundings then did the ones on patrol.  Singed and soot covered Jaffa occasionally came from the path that led to the gate and reinforcements reluctantly headed back to the still burning fire, but there had been no increase in wariness or patrols.  With all the things that had gone wrong with this mission, it was about time a break swung his way. 

 

Jack scoped out the pyramids once more.  With his field glasses, he could see that only the center pyramid was used.  The other two showed clear signs of abandonment, with unfinished upper levels covered in dirt and debris.  He would start with those.

 

The fading light of the sun barely illuminated the doorway of the first pyramid and Jack had to use his night-vision goggles to work his way around though the deserted corridors.  The inside of the pyramid was as incomplete as the outside and several inches of powdery dust covered everything.  No matter how slowly he moved, the thick dust billowed up with each step and hung in the stale air.  Nothing had walked these halls in years.  Jack had never been easily spooked but the absolute deadness of the pyramid weighed on his mind.  The dank air tasted foul and the dust settled on him.  It crept under his bandages and caked the bloodstains on his clothes.  He followed the main corridor until he came to a three-way branch.  Each tunnel looked as dim and haunted as the others.

 

Jack chose a corner, pulled a small handheld device out of his vest pocket and frowned at it as he turned it over in his hands.  I should have paid more attention to the 'How to use the alien technology' part of the mission briefing.  He flipped it back to the front and tapped at it.  The device came on with an electronic whine and the top half lit up to display a small screen with a directional readout.  Not so alien, after all.  His flack jacket pinched against his injured side and the bruises he'd earned in this fight with the Jaffa were beginning to ache.  He panned the handheld device in front of him, watching for any change in the read out.  There was a small flicker of light when he pointed it to the rightmost tunnel.  He pushed his claustrophobic fears aside and followed the directional down into the darkness.

 

The signal on the device grew brighter as he traveled further into the gloom.  The green tint of his night-vision goggles added to the ominous feeling that filled the halls.  An eternity later, he reached a heavy door that rated the highest signal on the device.  The door groaned when Jack pushed on it and the hairs on the back of his neck prickled.  He eased it open, watching for any traps or alarms.  Jack didn't find any, and he surveyed the room.  Tables and workbenches crowded the small space and shelves lined the walls.  Ambient lighting began to glow when the door swung open and Jack slid the goggles to his forehead.  Shadows of glyphs covered every surface of the room within, and Jack squinted at the barely illuminated writing that lay beneath the thick coat of dust that permeated the building.  Daniel would love it here, he knew.  He could almost hear Daniel expound on the wonderful enigmatic qualities of the writings.  What a geek.  Jack fought back a pang of regret for keeping everyone out of the loop on this.  It was necessary.  Even if they understood why they couldn't have come along, they'd still feel guilty.  Now they would just be angry.  One thing Jack knew was that anger was easier to live with than guilt.

 

A slight vibration in the handheld device jerked Jack's attention back to it.  The display pointed to the far wall, where vials and boxes sat and gleamed in the new light.  As Jack approached the containers, the handheld's vibration grew stronger and it emitted a high-pitched alarm.  Jack stabbed at it with his fingers and it silenced with an angry whine.  He dropped it into his vest pocket and waited for signs that something had heard the alarm.  The stillness of the pyramid settled on him like a blanket.  He swung the pack of C-4 off his back and pulled out ten bricks of the explosive.  After he placed the bricks around the room, he connected the detonators.  With one last double-check, Jack pulled out a can of the incendiary power and spread it around the room.  He took care not to walk in it.  The last thing he needed was to bring the fire out with him like a Wile E. Coyote cartoon.

 

Jack stood outside the room, detonation timer in hand.  The charges could be triggered manually, but he needed a backup timer.  The problem was deciding how long he should set them for.  It had taken him just over an hour to find the room and place the charges.  The second deserted pyramid shouldn't take much longer than that but the occupied one could be a problem.  He needed enough time to complete the job, but not so long that the Jaffa would discover his sabotage.  Deciding that dawn was his deadline for this job anyhow, he set the timers for five hours.  The sun would rise on a dead world.

 

It took twenty minutes to wind his way out of the pyramid.  The deep, velvet black of the night sky was set with stars arranged in strange constellations but it was a welcome sight after the suffocating closeness of the long forgotten passages.  He drew in deep breaths of the fresh air and tried to rid his lungs of the pyramid's grit.  The night air chilled him and the sweat that trailed down his neck and back left cold paths on his skin.  The bandages on his face and neck had worked loose and he pulled them off with an irritated jerk.  The cuts itched with caked-on dust but they didn't bleed anymore and the staff weapon burn in his side had ebbed to a tolerable level.  After one more moment's recuperation, he worked his way around to the other deserted pyramid on the far side.

 

The tall lights illuminated the area in front of the pyramids, but the Jaffa seemed disinterested in watching either the prisoners or the surrounding darkness.  Instead, they sat around a fire in the center of the corrals and talked among themselves.  The fire by the gate still burned.  Bright, hungry flames licked the sky just over the tops of the trees, but the Jaffa seemed content to ignore it.  If only all Jaffa would be that apathetic.  Jack studied the possible avenues of rescue and escape.  If this were a rescue mission, it would be easy to sneak down into the camp, find a way to release the prisoners and-- 

 

He forced his thoughts and eyes away from the encampment and faded into the dark woods.  This wasn't a rescue mission and there would be no escape for any of them.

 

Jack flipped on the night-vision, crept around the occupied pyramid to the one on the far side and scrutinized it.  Unlike the first one that had looked abandoned, this pyramid looked battle damaged.  Dark stains ran up the sides, looking like eerie green smoke through the goggles, and the top of the building was shattered and broken.  Debris littered the approach to the entrance.  Jack picked his way over the jagged edges of stone.  He kept a close eye out for wildlife or booby traps but he made it into the pyramid without seeing either. 

 

The evidence of fire was stronger inside, along with the scattered remains from explosive blasts.  Jack slipped off the goggles and risked a light in order to study the damage.  Staff weapon blasts marred the wall and a large part of the ceiling had collapsed and filled the corridor with of stone shards.  His light glinted off a piece of metal and Jack eased several stones aside to reveal an old, dented staff weapon and the skeleton hand that had once held it.

 

This pyramid didn't just feel like a crypt, it was one.  Jack flipped off his light and sat back on his heels while he waited for his eyes to adjust to the returned darkness.  Whatever happed here happened a long time ago and may have nothing at all to do with why he was here now.  Yeah, right.  Jack stood, turned his back on the stone covered body and pulled the goggles on again.  The battle damage and combatant remains did nothing to ease the oppressive dank emptiness.  Jack made a mental list of the damage he ran into and tried to fill his mind with recreated battles rather than images of dusty ghosts.

 

The catacomb atmosphere grew as he followed the blinking directional of the alien device into the lower levels of the building.  He had to crawl through several caved-in corridors and once had to backtrack several turns to work around a blocked passageway.  The same fine dust covered everything in this pyramid.  It worked its way into his clothing, clouded the lenses of his goggles and made each breath taste of grit and death.  The further down he went the more skeletal remains he found.  They lay along the halls, grinning sentinels that surveyed his intrusion into their grave.  A paranoid feeling that he was being watched grew at the back of his mind, and he focused his attention on the signal and the floor directly in font of him. 

 

Once again, he lost track of time.  The surreal surroundings and blinking device blended to create a tunnel vision.  He wasn't ready when the device split the silence with its sudden piercing alarm.  A stone door loomed ahead of him.  Unlike the door in the first pyramid, though, this one was several inches ajar, held open by the bones of a long dead Jaffa.  Jack pushed against it but it didn't move.  He pocketed the device, shrugged out of his equipment, and leaned into the door with his shoulder. 

 

It moved with a loud, screeching groan.  There was a muffled rumble somewhere above, dust showered to the ground.  With a low, vibrating roar, the ceiling collapsed.  Jack's ears filled with the splintering of stone and everything went dark.

 

*~*~*

 

"I just wish I knew what he thought he was doing," Daniel said.

 

Sam didn't have an answer, so she ignored him, as she had the first five times he's said it.  Instead, she drummed her fingers on the conference room table and waited for General Hammond to get off the phone and join them.  Daniel had given up sitting and paced around the room.  Teal'c watched them both, elbows on the table, fingers steepled in front of him.  Sam despised his calmness. 

 

They had learned nothing new in the past three hours.  The last time she had checked on Walter's progress with the inventory, he'd told her that he'd finish a lot faster if he didn't have to answer the phone every ten minutes.  She'd read the reports so many times that she could quote them from memory.  Colonel O'Neill had a future in fiction writing if his account was false.  It was the most believable and well-supported report in the large stack of papers she'd been reading.  Of course, the fact that he'd had his paperwork completed and handed in two hours after the incident and three hours before the general had demanded it should have been a tip-off that something was wrong.  Colonel O'Neill never completed his paperwork before it was due.

 

Sam was about to join Daniel in his trek around the table when the general hung up the phone and walked into the conference room.

 

"Have a seat, Dr. Jackson, before I have to have new flooring installed."

 

Daniel had the good graces to look sheepish and took the seat next to Sam.

 

"That was Captain Jameson of the Minnesota Air National Guard."  General Hammond took the seat at the end of the table.  "There is no sign of Colonel O'Neill.  The last anyone saw of our good colonel was the neighbor who gave him a ride from the nearest town to his cabin.  She says that she left Jack standing next to the lake with a pile of supplies.  She thought he was going to be there for a while and was surprised to learn that he was missing.  No one else the captain spoke to even knew the colonel was in the state."

 

"We have no idea where he is now?"

 

"None," General Hammond replied.  "But it's a small community, Captain Jameson is certain that someone saw something that will help.  He has two men in the area and the local police are on the lookout." 

 

"Excuse me, sir."  Walter stood at the top of the stairs.  He held several reports and waited for Hammond to nod him into the room.  "We've finished the inventory.  I have copies of the report here."

 

"Well done, Sergeant," General Hammond said.  "What did you find?"

 

Walter paled as he handed out the reports.  "Well, sir, there appears to be a large number of supplies that are, ah, unaccounted for."  He flipped open the report that Teal'c hadn’t taken.  Looking at it seemed to give him focus.  "From the equipment that he requisitioned and the items that are missing, I'd say he has enough camping and survival gear for a long term stay somewhere, sir.  We're missing tents, cooking gear, solar heaters, and basic survival tools.  A telescope, binoculars and infrared night-vision glasses are also gone.  In addition, we are short some basics from the infirmary.  Dr. Fraiser says that they are short six field emergency kits that are there for backups, as well as a medical supply box for a field surgical unit.  The report will list all of the basic and medical supplies that we believe Colonel O'Neill could have taken."

 

"What?  Jack's going camping?"  Daniel's incredulity wasn't lost on Sam.

 

"There's more than camping gear," Walter answered.  "Lieutenant Harding, a biophysicists from the lab, heard what we were doing and told me that she saw Colonel O'Neill take one of the laptops from the lab last Wednesday.  When she inquired, he made some comment about not being able to play solitaire with cards anymore.  She said she knew Colonel O'Neill was always a little different, but that she felt she had to mention it now.  I asked her to look into what else was gone and her list of missing supplies is included.  The most notable item is a naquadah generator."

 

"One of my generators?"  Sam flipped through the report and scanned the list.  Some of the missing items were so obscure that she doubted the colonel had taken them, but the missing generator was one of the new models.  The report also listed that there was a power converter missing.  "If he's planning on using it for electrical power, it would last for decades.  Unless. . ."  A terrible thought struck her.  What if he's not using it as an energy supply?  She looked back at Walter.  "What about the armory?"

 

Walter paused for a moment and visibly gathered his nerve before he continued.  "We confirmed that we are missing items from the armory."

 

"What items?"  Hammond paged through the report.

 

"They're listed on the last page, sir."  Walter hesitated and then said in a rush, "A P-90 with two thousand rounds; an M-16 with five hundred rounds; two zats; two 9-mm's with a thousand rounds each; two regular issue knives; twenty Claymores and fifty bricks of C-4 with accompanying detonators and timers."

 

Sam's quiet "Wow" was drowned out by General Hammond.

 

"How the hell did he do that?"

 

"The best we can figure, Colonel O'Neill altered Wednesday night's duty roster so that Airman Michaels was to be relieved at midnight, but didn't pass that change along to her relief, Airmen Jenkins.  When Colonel O'Neill passed by at 00:15 hours and learned that Michaels should have been relieved already, he offered to stand duty for her and look into the matter.  When Jenkins showed up at 02:00 hours, he relieved Colonel O'Neill, who explained that there had been a mix up in the duty roster and that there wasn't any real problem.  Both airmen say they thought it was odd, but that they felt Colonel O'Neill was just being a 'stand-up officer'."

 

"That leaves two hours in which Colonel O'Neill could have taken anything he wanted from the armory," the general said.

 

"Yes, sir."  Walter set the report on the table. 

 

"Could he have put this all on the MALP?" Daniel asked.

 

Sam thought about it for a moment.  "Possibly.  Especially if he took the weapons to Minnesota with him instead of sending them through the gate."

 

"How the hell did he get that much weaponry off my base without our security stopping him?"

 

Walter cleared his throat.  "If I may, sir?  I checked into the SFs standing entry duty.  The colonel didn't remove anything from the base on Thursday, but Friday he removed a large number of boxes.  Colonel O'Neill stated that they were full of recyclables he intended to donate to the local schools for their recycling drive."

 

"Are not all items leaving the base inspected?"  Teal'c asked.

 

"Yes, and the boxes they checked did contain recyclables, but they admit that they didn't check all the boxes.  It was Colonel O'Neill, after all."

 

The general said something under his breath that Sam couldn't hear, but she could make a good guess at what it was.

 

"Thank you, Sergeant," said the general aloud.  "You have done excellent work."

 

Walter nodded, saluted and left.

 

"He couldn't have smuggled the generator out that way," Sam said.

 

"Why not?"

 

General Hammond answered.  "Because the sensors we have installed at the entrances will detect the naquadah.  It was a security protocol that we installed at Colonel O'Neill's suggestion.  If he did take the generator, he must have shipped it through the gate."

 

After a moment of silence, Daniel spoke.  "I suppose it would be too much to hope that he sent the weapons through on the MALP and took the camping equipment to Minnesota."

 

"Why would he send the weapons through to P45-393?" Sam asked.

 

"What would he be doing with weapons in Minnesota?"

 

Blaring klaxons spared her from having to answer.  Walter's voice rang over the speakers, "Unauthorized incoming wormhole."

 

The four of them rose as one and headed for the stairs.  A moment later, they stood behind the dialing computer and watched as a signal passed through the gate.  Sam couldn't shake the feeling that it would be Jack's SG-1 signal.

 

"It's the Tok'ra," Walter announced.

 

"Open the iris," Hammond turned and nodded at Sam.

 

Sam let out the breath she didn't realize that she'd held.  She nodded at the general and headed down the stairs, Teal'c and Daniel right behind her.

 

They walked into the gate room just as Jacob Carter walked down the ramp.  "Sam," he said, smiling.  "It's good to see you."  The wormhole snapped shut and General Hammond's order to stand-down rang through the room. 

 

"Dad," Sam gave him a hug in greeting.  "I'm glad you could come so soon."

 

"I expected to hear from you earlier," Jacob said.  "With the short time-line we're working on, I thought that you'd have started on this already."

 

Sam pulled away.  "What?"

 

Jacob looked from her to Daniel and Teal'c.  "Isn't Jack here?  I thought he'd have some questions for me.  Or is he already gone?  Have you heard anything?"

 

"What are you talking about, Dad?"

 

Jacob frowned at them, and then looked up at the control room.  "George, what's going on here?"

 

"That's the question I have for you, Jacob," Hammond's voice echoed through the PA system.  "Come on up and we'll get to the bottom of this."

 

Jacob nodded and looked back at his daughter and her team.  "Jack's not here?"

 

"No."  Sam led the way up to the briefing room. 

 

"Maybe it's best if he's not here," Jacob said.  "He'd hate this mission."

 

For the first time, Sam hoped that this was all just an elaborate prank that the colonel was pulling.  The alternative looked much worse.

 

*~*~*

 

It took Jack awhile to realize he wasn't dead.  He blinked awake through the pain and the dust and peered into the darkness that surrounded him.  A heavy weight pressed on his legs but otherwise he was unhurt.  He fought to pull himself into a sitting position and tried to wrench his legs free but he couldn't move them.  When he reached out into the darkness, his hands met cold stone where his legs should have been.  Panicked, he rolled to the side.  A sharp stab of pain shot up his leg, stole his breath and caused white lights to dance in front of him.  Jack closed his eyes and let the wave of nausea and fear fade away. 

 

After a moment, he opened them again.  The pain was less and the air seemed to be clearing of grit, but the darkness blinded him.  He waved his hand in front of his face and while he could feel the air move, the hand was invisible.  With a frustrated sigh, he patted the floor around him and hoped his goggles hadn't been buried.  It was too dangerous to shift the debris until he could see what damage it would cause, both to the building and to his legs.

 

His hand hit the goggles and a quick tug released them from the rubble.  He slid them onto his head and they scraped over a new gash on his forehead.  The pain of it clouded his vision and the world spun.  Once able to breathe again, he dropped the goggles in place and flipped the on-switch.  There was an electronic buzz and the world flickered green and fuzzy.  The view in the goggles steadied and the room swam into focus in front of him.

 

A small portion of the ceiling had fallen when he'd pushed on the door.  Dust drifted through the air and the skeleton that had been trapped in the doorway grinned at him.  The walls around him groaned and shuddered but they held.  The falling stones had pushed him back as it knocked him down and the fallen debris had landed on his legs rather than his head.  It was a miracle he wasn't dead.  Some miracle: trapped in a Goa'uld pyramid on a God-forsaken planet. 

 

The pile of stone fragments on his legs was heavy and his left one ached from the pressure, but it bothered him more that he couldn't feel his right leg at all.  He pushed himself up to a sitting position to get a better look at the problem.  The pile of debris that spread out before him was two feet high and made up of small fragments of stone from the ceiling.  The real problem was the one large slab of ceiling that lay on top of the debris that covered his legs.  It could either pin him there forever or slide off and crush him.

 

Clouds of dust rose up to choke him when he cleared some of the smaller pieces away but he couldn't get enough leverage to move the heavy slab.  He waited for the dust to settle and studied the pile again.  His digging had only caused the stone to slip more his way.  This wasn't working, so he changed tactics.  His left leg was partially uncovered, so he dug at the dirt on that side.  As soon as he had freed his thigh and knee, he eased his left foot out from under the pile of rubble.  The large block teetered, slid imperceptibly toward him and then steadied.  He flexed his leg, happy for the twinges of pain he felt, just as long as he could move it.  If only the next leg was freed as easily.

 

Jack took a deep breath, leaned back and placed his foot against the stone.  After two more deep breaths and the count of three, he gritted his teeth and shoved.  The stone block grated against the debris it rested on, resistant to the pressure.  He braced himself against the doorjamb and pushed again.  The slab held for a moment, then slid back and sideways to ram into the door.  The plumes of dust that filled the air choked him.  The heavy stone door groaned and rained another shower of filth down on him but the ceiling held.  Jack waited for the suffocating cloud to settle again.  It only took minutes for a grainy blanket of dirt to cover him.

 

The crushing weight was off his leg but the numbness remained.  After a moment's pause to gather his courage, he shifted his weight, and wrenched his leg out from under the pile of rubble.  His knee twisted.  A blinding pulse of agony lanced up his leg and white points of light danced in front of his eyes.

 

"Oh, God!"  He slammed his fist into the ground and fought to ride out the wave of pain and nausea.  Still got feeling, then.  That's good.  The pain usually ebbed after a couple of seconds, but this time it continued to burn, sharp and agonizing.  It was almost impossible to focus but he managed to blink through the pain. 

 

One heavy stone, still buried in the shale, trapped his foot and forced his knee to bend and twist at an unnatural angle; when he ran his hand down his leg and over his knee, he felt the telltale bump of a dislocated kneecap.  He exhaled sharply through his nose, bent forward and pushed the stone off his foot.  The weight eased but the pain remained.  The kneecap had to be snapped back into place.  Ideally, someone else should pull the leg straight after giving him something for the immense pain that the action would cause.  Having neither help nor meds, he settled for biting down on the strap of the goggles before he straightened the leg.  The kneecap slid back into place with a grinding snap.  The pain peaked, the world spun.  His muffled scream echoed around the room.

 

He lay back, breathing heavily.  There hadn't been the burning rip nor the distinctive pop that accompanied a torn ligament.  The pain had morphed into a penetrating tiredness that infected his entire body but that was far preferable to the brain numbing agony of a few seconds ago.  He moved his foot, braced himself and flexed his knee.  It was weak and sore and a slight grinding noise echoed through his bones when it moved.  But move it did. 

 

Relief gave him new strength.  He managed to pull himself up, balanced on his left leg and flexed his right knee again.  Encouraged, he put some weight on it.  It held.  Movement and use didn't cause any additional pain and he could stand on it when it was locked straight, although it threatened to buckle when he bent it.  There was none of the usual searing pain from the abuse of torn muscles and he allowed himself the thought that there was no major damage.  He could feel the knee stiffen, though, and he knew that even without a tear, the swelling and weakness from the dislocation would still cause him problems.  An elasticized support bandage was stuffed into the bottom of the first aid kit in his satchel and he used it to bind his knee.  The pressure from the wrap eased the pain and he could trust it with his full weight, even when bent.  He didn't think he'd climb many stairs or run anywhere in the near future, though.

 

He leaned against the doorframe and took a moment's rest to look over the room.  The goggles flickered and the static that snowed in front of his eyes obscured the details of what he saw.  Cracks laced the ceiling and entire sections had fallen into piles of debris scattered across the floor.  Tables and workbenches were half-buried in the rubble and he could see the naked bones of those who had died there.

 

It was a tomb; the first of many this planet would have.  Jack dug the pack with the C-4 out of the dust and picked his way through the rubble.  Like the room in the other pyramid, there were shelves along the walls, but these were damaged and broken.  Shattered remnants of jars and containers littered the floor, layered between the strata of debris.  Most of the damage was years old and shrouded with dust, but the collapse of the ceiling had dislodged several shelves and the new damage stood out against years of collected residue.  Jack didn't know if the sudden chemical taste to the air was his imagination but the more he thought about it the more he could taste it.  The walls closed in on him.

 

"Get a grip, Jack."  He set ten charges of the red-marked C-4 around the room, then hobbled back to the doorway and traded his pack for his satchel.  While use strengthened his knee, it still hurt like hell and shook with fatigue.  The thick layer of dust hid debris and he had to kick the dirt away to find sure footing.  The air was soon filled with a choking cloud of grit that spun like dust devils around him.  After he inserted the detonators, he spread the contents of another can of the powdery napalm over everything.  This place needed to burn. 

 

The claustrophobia from the room didn't ease when he limped back out into the hall.  He fought the feeling and, after one last look around the room, he synchronized the timers with the ones in the first pyramid.  More than ninety minutes had passed.  If he could make it out of the pyramid in thirty minutes, he'd have two hours before everything blew.  One hundred-twenty short minutes to avoid the Jaffa patrols, infiltrate the occupied, guarded pyramid, place the bombs and get safely away.  Piece of cake.  The timer almost disappeared into the dust when he set it down; it's blinking numbers ominous in the inky blackness.  The empty eye sockets of the skeleton followed him as he moved and ghosts skittered at the back of his mind.  It took all his concentration to ignore the fear as he retraced his steps out of the pyramid.

 

The fresh night air was even more welcome this time and the open darkness finally dispelled the paranoia that ate at him.  Jack hobbled to the side and placed his back against the solid stone wall.  He slipped off the night-vision goggles and wiped the sweat away from his face.  A large red orb of a moon had appeared while he'd been inside.  It bathed the surrounding area in a surreal light that washed everything in blood.  A violent shudder racked his body and he fought to keep his balance.  It was so much colder out here than it had been in the suffocating closeness of the building.  He refused to believe that his shivering came from anything other than the cool forest air.  More sweat dripped into his eyes and he wiped it away, then stopped and peered at it.  It wasn't sweat; it was blood.

 

He stared at it, a deep crimson in the red-lit moonlight. 

 

Another powerful tremor shook his body and he sank to the ground as he rode out a wave of nausea.  His head felt filled with rocks and his warm blood dripped down his cheek.  A quick check revealed a large gash above his right eye and a goose egg-sized bump behind his ear.  If he had a concussion, he was in big trouble.  The stone felt cold against his face and it helped him focus. 

 

The zat and some clips for the P-90 had been lost in the ceiling collapse.  The night-vision goggles were damaged and his equipment, like himself, was coated in the talc-like dust.  It would be a miracle if anything would work.  Pain filled his head and he retched bloody grit onto the ground.  He just needed to rest a couple of minutes and give himself a chance to acclimate to the cold.  Shivers crawled over his skin and across his scalp.  Just a minute's rest and he'd be as good as new.  His eyes closed and the tremors in his arms and legs lessened, his ragged breathing loud in the silence.

 

*~*~*

 

"Dad, we're in the dark here," Sam said as she sat down at the conference table.  "Why did you think we contacted you?"

 

"Because of the mission, of course," Jacob said.  "The one that Anise was to propose."

 

"What mission?" Hammond asked the question before Sam could.

 

"Anise didn't talk to any of you?"  Jacob Carter stared at the people assembled across the table from him.

 

"No," Sam said.  "Anise didn't say ten words to me while she was here."  She looked at her teammates.

 

"I didn't see her at all," Daniel confirmed.  "Teal'c?"

 

"Anise did not engage me in conversation during her stay," Teal'c answered.  "Neither did Freya."

 

Jacob looked over at the general.  "George?"

 

"She said she just needed to talk to Dr. Fraiser.  You better fill us in, Jacob."

 

"About three weeks ago, word reached the Tok'ra council that a planet that had once belonged to Nirrti had fallen under the control of Cronus.  On this planet, Cronus discovered one of Nirrti's labs that had been abandoned and unused for centuries.  It looked as if Nirrti had given up her research there, but Cronus sent one of his people to investigate it.  He discovered that Nirrti had been working on a powerful contagion."

 

"Like the one she used on Cassandra's planet?"  Sam didn't even try to keep the hatred from her voice.

 

Jacob's head bowed and Selmak spoke.  "Not exactly.  That virus, while powerful, wasn't airborne, had limited reproduction capabilities and was non-persistent.  This new virus is several times more powerful, is airborne, reproduces itself rapidly and is persistent.  From what we learned, a single infected subject could annihilate an entire planet in less then twenty-four hours and the virus itself could possibly survive on that planet for several decades.  It would continue to infect anyone exposed to it."  Selmak waited for them to assimilate that information before she continued.  "The only positive aspect is that the virus kills quickly.  Those exposed die within minutes."

 

Daniel stared at Jacob, aghast.  "That's a positive?"

 

"Yes," Sam answered quietly.  "It means that it would be restricted to one planet.  It would insure that no infected subject could escape and carry the virus to new places."  She kept her voice calm and focused on the scientific aspect of the conversation.  "What information do we have on the contagion?"

 

"The microorganism remains dormant until combined with the activating enzyme.  Prior to that exposure, it is vulnerable to extreme temperatures.  Burning is the most effective manner of destroying it at this point."

 

"Then we firebomb the base," General Hammond suggested.

 

"No," Jacob took over the conversation.  "We need to be sure that all samples of the virus are destroyed.  None of the weapons we have available are powerful enough to insure that."

 

"What about a thermonuclear weapon?"

 

Daniel leaned forward.  "What, 'nuke it from orbit'?"  Is that the military's response to--"

 

"We considered that," Jacob interrupted.  "There is concern that the penetrating nuclear radiation may have an unknown effect on the virus.  The radioactivity and heat might combine to mutate the contagion.  The planet also has very strong electromagnetic fields in its upper atmosphere.  Our sensors can't penetrate it clearly enough to give us the readings we need to pinpoint the base or check for success."

 

"What does that leave us?" Sam asked.  "Is there any possibility of a counteragent or a vaccine?"

 

Jacob shook his head.  "We've not discovered a counteragent.  There, is however, a vaccine, of sorts.

 

"Of sorts?"  Daniel repeated.  "What do you mean 'of sorts'?"

 

Selmak again took over the conversation.  "While the virus is only fatal to humans, the vaccine has an unfortunate reaction to naquadah.  None of the Tok'ra test subjects survived."

 

"Then I won't be able to have the vaccine," Sam pointed out.

 

"No.  With the naquadah in your blood, it would kill you."

 

"I, also, would be unable to receive the vaccine," Teal'c said.

 

Selmak nodded.  "It is fatal to all Jaffa."

 

"But we could distribute it on Earth," Daniel said.  "We could start by vaccinating the personnel of the SGC."

 

Sam nodded.  "Once we have a team inoculated, we can infiltrate the base and destroy the contagion."  She may not be able to take the vaccine, but she could help make and distribute it.

 

"That was the plan that Anise was to propose," Selmak said.  "Jacob and I convinced the Tok'ra council that the SGC would accept the mission but that we needed to be completely forthcoming with you."

 

"Forthcoming about what?" Hammond demanded.

 

"The vaccine is very difficult to make," Selmak said.  "The exact effect of the drug on each person is determined by the individual's physiology; therefore, the vaccine needs to be tailored to each person that it is given to.  The development of each individual vaccine takes days."

 

"So, no mass produced vaccine to distribute to the population," Daniel said.

 

Selmak nodded.  "There is also a problem of persistence."

 

"Persistence in the environment?"

 

"No, individual persistence.  Those who are vaccinated are protected from the effects of the virus but it doesn't eliminate the virus from their system."

 

"They would become carriers."  It took Sam a moment to understand the full meaning of Selmak's statement.  Her heart fell.  "They would be the modern equivalent of Typhoid Mary.  Immune from the effects but infecting everyone else they met.

 

"Yes," Jacob returned to the conversation.

 

"But only if they were exposed, right?" Daniel asked.  "If they destroyed the virus without coming in contact with it, then it wouldn't be a problem.  There would be no reason. . ." He faded off when he saw Jacob shake his head.

 

"Even with the best possible scenario, some of the contagion would be released.  Our operative made it clear they stored activated contagion on the planet in order to test it on living subjects.  When we destroy the production labs, some of the activated contagion will escape."

 

"That will kill everyone on the planet," Daniel looked across at Sam, appalled. 

 

Sam shared his feelings but knew they didn't have the luxury of being scrupulous.

 

"From our information the planet has no intelligent, indigenous life forms," Jacob said.  "There hasn't been for hundreds of years."

 

"You don't know that for sure.  It's got to be a big planet."

 

Jacob shook his head.  "There is no other way, Daniel.  This planet was dead as soon as Nirrti placed her experimental lab there."

 

"Jacob Carter is correct," Teal'c added.  "We must not let Cronus utilize this weapon.  It is a necessary sacrifice."

 

"A necessary sacrifice?"  Daniel's voice rose.  "Is that what genocide is called these days?"

 

"What about our team?"  Sam ignored Daniel.  "What would happen to them?"

 

"They should be immune to the effects of the contagion," Selmak answered.  "However, as I said, they will be infected."

 

"They will never be able to leave the planet," Sam finished.  She felt sick.

 

"No."

 

"What?"  Daniel rubbed his hand across his face.  "First they release a virus that kills every other living person on the planet and then they'll be trapped there?"

 

"It is an unfortunate circumstance," Selmak said.

 

Sam pressed her hands against the cool wood of the conference table, the room close and hot around her.  This was a suicide mission.  No, this is worse.  Whoever did this would have to live, live on a world that they had killed.

 

*~*~*

 

Jack woke with a violent shudder, his stomach heaved and the blinding pain in his head spiked.  He rolled to the side and vomited.  Weak and disoriented, he pulled himself to his feet and fought to clear his head.  How long had he been out?  Panic made his pulse race.  The cover on his watch refused to obey his trembling fingers, so he ripped it off with his teeth.  Forty minutes -- he'd been out for forty minutes.  His head spun and the world danced in front of him.

 

"Damn it."

 

He leaned back against the wall, pulled a flask off of his belt and poured the water over his head.  The C-4 would detonate in less than ninety minutes.  If he couldn't get into the active lab and blow that before then, he'd never get close enough to destroy it.  He took a pull of water, rinsed the sour taste out of his mouth and spat it on the ground.  The red moon had crawled further across the sky and the clouds that lurked in front of it cast bloody shadows.

 

As he rubbed his knee in an effort to work some strength back into it, he considered his options.  Unlike the first two, this pyramid had a Jaffa guard at the entrance and personnel inside.  His original plan had been to scale the back of the building, creep into the unused portions and sneak down into the lower levels without being seen.  There he would plant the C-4 and get the hell out.  That is so not going to work anymore.  He couldn't creep or sneak; he'd be lucky if he could limp and lurk.

 

A fine thread of desperation traced through him.  There was no backup, if this mission went south there would be no second chance.  The light from the Jaffa encampment drew his attention.  If he allowed himself to be caught, they would take all his equipment.  Even if he did manage to keep the C-4 and powdered napalm, there was no guarantee they would take him anywhere near the lab.  He needed a distraction; something to keep the Jaffa occupied and out of his way long enough to get into the pyramid, gimpy leg and all.  He needed something for the guards to chase besides him.  He needed a jailbreak.

 

Not wanting to advertise his presence with the sound of gunfire, he searched the bottom of his satchel for the spare zat he'd packed away.  It snagged on the first aid kit when he pulled it out and the medical bag fell to the ground.  Jack picked it up and turned it over twice in his hands.  The pain in his knee was tolerable but the ache in his head pulsed with each heartbeat and made it hard to concentrate.  He dug out a package of ibuprofen and swallowed the pills dry before sticking the kit back.  Zat in hand, he took one tentative step on his leg.  It held.

 

The scattered rocks made it hard to walk as he worked his way toward the Jaffa and their prisoners.  He could disable the lights at the power source with the zat, and a couple of well-placed pieces of detonation cord would knock some of the pen walls down.  With any luck the prisoners would escape, the Jaffa would pursue and he would have time to get into the pyramid without being seen.  He wouldn't have to run, climb or jump anywhere. 

 

A small generator that sat on the other side of the compound, directly opposite the occupied pyramid, powered the lights.  It rested several feet from the largest of the light poles, unfenced and unguarded.  Jack worked his way down to the clearing, heavily favoring his injured knee.  He crouched along the tree line, just a yard away from the door to the pyramid.  A momentary thought of being able to sneak in through the front was dashed when two Jaffa appeared for a moment then returned inside.  It would be better, anyhow, to have the people out of the cages when the bombs went.  They wouldn't survive long anywhere on the planet but at least they would die free.

 

He studied the layout again and mentally mapped out his best route to the generator.  With one last wistful look at the pyramid's opening, he swung both of his bags off his back.  Speed and stealth were essential and he was in short supply of both; he didn't need to be weighed down by unnecessary equipment.  He pulled a roll of primacord out of his satchel, cut it into two-foot lengths and slung the bundle of cords around his neck.  After he moved some ignition caps to his vest pocket, he returned the unnecessary equipment and hid his bags in the shadows.

 

The Jaffa still sat around the fire.  Some looked to be asleep.  Jack hated to think what T would say about that.  These were not top-of-the-line Jaffa.  Lucky for me or I'd be dead.  Jack steeled himself and then moved to the light pole.  His limping run wasn't fast, but at least it was quiet.  He leaned his shoulder against the pole and tried to hide behind its narrow protection.  The clearing remained silent and he chanced a look.  None of the Jaffa had noticed his run.  Several pairs of eyes from the stockade watched him, though, and he held his finger to his lips.  He prayed that they understood it meant they needed to be quiet.  His eyes met theirs before they broke contact.  Once sure they wouldn't give him away, he focused on the generator.  It didn't look like it would explode if he zatted it.  More than that, it didn't look big enough to cause a lot of damage if it did explode.  Unless it's some of the nasty alien stuff that Carter is always messing with.  Which, of course, it was.

 

Jack chewed his lip and considered his alternatives.  There were none.  He aimed at the generator.  The zat's familiar sound echoed in the stillness and blue electricity danced around the generator.  The lights dimmed but didn't go out.  The Jaffa stirred and looked up at the lights.  Jack swore and zatted the generator again.  Without waiting to see the result, he turned and hurried into the shadows that hung around the fences.  The lights flickered; then the compound was plunged into darkness.  Jack ignored the shouts and cries and wrapped a length of primacord around the links between the fence sections.  He stuck a detonator in each one, backed off a couple of feet and zatted it.  The power surge triggered the detonator and the cord erupted in blinding fire, which seared through the metal connections and fell to the ground in pools of liquid flame.  Before Jack could move, the prisoners acted.  They rushed the side where Jack had burned the barrier free, shoved it open and fled into the dark woods.  The Jaffa, confused by the blackout and drawn by the burning primacord, chased after them.

 

Jack faded away from the chaos and worked his way over to another one of the confinement pens.  Five Jaffa still guarded the remaining prisoners and two more leaned over the malfunctioning generator.  Jack detonated another set of primacord on this pen and the captives again swarmed through the opening it made.  By this time, the prisoners in the last pen had gathered enough courage to try an escape without Jack's aid.  The Jaffa, unable to contain the escapees, fired wildly into the running mass of people but were overrun in seconds.

 

Jack left the fighting behind him and crept toward the middle pyramid, secure in the knowledge that the pandemonium he started would continue.  Four Jaffa ran out of the door in front of him.  Jack flattened himself against the wall and willed himself to blend into the darkness.  The sound of snapping electricity came from behind him, followed by an ear-shattering boom.  A quick glance over his shoulder as he headed into the pyramid, showed a large, smoking hole and several dead Jaffa where the generator had stood.  The last of the prisoners disappeared into the woods.  The clearing was eerily empty. 

 

Somewhere in the darkness an explosion echoed, followed almost immediately by another one.  Claymores.  Jack didn't know if they'd been set off by the escaping prisoners or by the guards.  Don't think about it.  It didn't matter.  Either one gave him the distraction he needed.

 

Two more explosions rent the night as Jack worked his way back around to his bags.  He moved the last the bricks of C-4 to the satchel and tossed the backpack aside.  With one last double-check of his equipment, he melted into the darkness of the pyramid.  The room was large, dim and still.  Jack waited for his eyes to adjust and his breathing to slow.  The torches that lit the entrance cast foreboding shadows along the floors and walls.  Jack hugged the edges as he made his way down the main hallway.  The red dust that layered the other pyramids clung to this one as well.  He left a clear trail but he hoped that the shadows that hid him would mask them as well.

 

The upper floor's torch-lit corridors gave way to well-lit hallways.  It was increasingly difficult to remain hidden.  The lower level's bare walls and clean corridors may have made it easier for him to move, but it also made it easier for him to be found.  He moved as fast as he could and followed the same path he had traveled in the other buildings.  The smooth floors made the trip faster and he covered good ground despite his injured knee.

 

Several levels down, he pulled out the handheld device and switched it on.  The signal was strong and steady, and he followed it to the left.  He came to a group of rooms that looked well used.  The largest of them held a ring transport device, the next two were living quarters and the final one looked to be a supply room.  All were unoccupied.  The device led him past the cluster of rooms.  At the entrance to the hall on the other side, he paused to rub his knee and listen for any movement. 

 

If the light on the handheld was any indication, the room he needed was just ahead and that's where he'd most likely run into resistance.  He dropped the device into his vest pocket and gripped the zat tightly in his hand.  His P-90 would be better, but gunfire would draw far too much attention.  He edged up to the doorway and peered around the corner.  The hall was short and ended at a closed door with a Jaffa guard in front of it.  Jack took a deep breath, slid around the corner and zatted the guard, who fell without a sound.  After waiting a second to be sure there were no reinforcements, Jack zatted the Jaffa twice more and then pulled out the handheld.  The bright signal pointed to a solid stone door.  He returned it to his vest and pushed the door open, zat at the ready.

 

The piercing squeal of the device cut through the air.  Jack swore.  It stuck in his pocket when he pulled at it and its scream filled the room as Jack stabbed at the buttons.  As the alarm died, he was hit from behind.  Colored lights danced in front of his eyes and he crashed into a table.  The device and his zat clattered to the middle of the floor.  His attacker wrapped a thick arm around his neck and held him as he hit Jack two more times in the side.  The edge of the flack vest cut into the staff weapon burn and Jack choked for breath.

 

Jack gave with the onslaught and dropped to the floor.  Pain shot through his knee when he hit the ground, but his attacker was pulled off-balance and stumbled.  Jack rolled forward and freed himself from the assault.  Another roll took him to the other side of the room, but he misjudged the distance and collided painfully with the wall.  It took a minute for his head to clear.  The Jaffa who attacked him rolled to the middle of the room and reached for the fallen zat.  Jack pulled his pistol from his holster and fired three times.  The Jaffa slumped to the floor and blood pooled around the body.  Jack struggled to his feet, gun at the ready, but no one else came through the door.

 

Jack holstered his pistol and pulled out the last of the C-4, which he placed around the room.  When he was done, there was just thirty minutes left on the timers.  Barely enough time to get clear of the blasts.  He took a moment to zat the body on the floor three times.  The Jaffa disappeared, a pool of blood on the floor the only sign of his death.  It only took a minute to spread the last of the incendiary powder around the room, and then he hobbled out and closed the door behind him.

 

The hallway was clear and he headed back out at a limping run.  He made it all the way to the first room before he heard movement.  The shadows hid him as he dodged to the side and pressed back against the wall.  A woman in a long black coat, trailed by two Jaffa, strode through the pyramid.  They headed toward the lab.  As they passed his hiding spot Jack gripped the zat and held his breath.  They didn't look his way.  Jack watched them pass; and then turned to sneak out the door. 

 

Two Jaffa materialized from the darkness outside and blocked his escape.

 

Jack reacted first.  His zat shots split the air between them.  As they dove to the side, Jack shot again.  They disappeared into the shadows and he made a desperate attempt to run through the door while it was still clear.  Shouts rang from behind him and the crackling sound of zat fire sang over his head.  Jack dodged out the door and cut to the right.  He hugged the wall and headed for the dark cover of the forest.  On his third step, his foot twisted in a hole and his knee gave.  He rolled with the fall and tried to stand, but his knee buckled.  Before he could recover, rough hands grabbed him, pulled him to his feet and ripped the zat from him.  A Jaffa loomed in front of him; his staff weapon hummed as it powered up.  Jack braced for the shot.

 

*~*~*

 

The SGC conference room was silent.  Daniel waited for someone to protest Selmak's plan.  He wanted the general to demand an alternative.  He willed Sam to come up with something brilliant.  They couldn't just sit here and talk about condemning SGC personnel -- and an entire world -- to a certain death.  They had to have a better plan.

 

Instead, Jacob spoke.  "We're running out of time here, George."

 

"You can't order men to go on a suicide mission," Daniel protested. 

 

"No," Hammond said.  "They will need to be volunteers.  How many men do you think you will need?"

 

"The fewer, the better," Jacob replied.  "The base is small with only a few of Cronus' people, so it should take a small strike force."  Jacob stopped and rubbed his hands across his face.  "But it will take too long.  Once the volunteers are chosen, we will have to develop the individual vaccines and transport them to the planet.  Anise was supposed to have handled all of this by now."

 

"What if she did?"

 

They all looked at Sam.  A familiar gnawing fear ate at Daniel's stomach.

 

"Jack."  As he said it, he knew it was true.  "Jack would be the logical person to choose for such a mission.  He's done this kind of thing before."

 

"Anise has all his medical and physiological records from when we had the armbands."  Sam moved forward to lean on the table.  "She would have all the data she needed."

 

Jacob looked around the table.  "And Jack's not here?"

 

"No," General Hammond said.  "We don't know where he is.  I knew he was up to something.  Damn it!"  He slammed his fist on the table.  "Walter!" he bellowed.

 

The sergeant materialized at the door.  "Sir?"

 

"Get Captain Jameson on the phone.  I want to know where Colonel O'Neill is and I want to know it now!"

 

"Yes, sir."  Walter snapped a salute and left.

 

"Even if Anise talked to Jack, why wouldn't he tell us about it?" Daniel asked

 

"If O'Neill thought that it would require only one man to complete the mission," Teal'c said, "he would accept the risk himself."

 

"We all know that Jack would jump at any chance to put himself in danger," Daniel said, not even trying to keep the bitterness from his voice.

 

"I have never known O'Neill to risk his life when it was not necessary, Daniel Jackson."

 

"Well, you haven't known him as long as I have."

 

Teal'c raised an eyebrow at him but Daniel continued before the point could be argued.  "Even if this is all true, it doesn't explain where he is now."

 

"Is someone going to fill me in on what's happening here?" Jacob demanded.

 

"I will, Dad."

 

As Sam gave a summary of the past days, Daniel walked over to look down at the Stargate.  It was so like Jack to go running off on a suicide mission without a word to anyone.  Stupid SOB probably thinks that he's sparing us all a lot of worry and pain.  He'd spent the last four years working with Jack O'Neill and he was no closer to understanding the man then he had been the first time he'd met him.  That wasn't true: he understood him less than he did when he first met him. 

 

As Sam's recitation of the weaponry Jack stole drifted into the back of his mind, he found himself thinking about why Jack would have taken that all with him rather than ship it through the gate.  And how did he expect to get through the gate, now?  None of this made any sense.  Why ship stuff off planet and then walk away from the only way off that planet?

 

"General Hammond?"  Walter's voice interrupted Daniel's thoughts and Sam's explanation of Jack's disappearance.  "Captain Jameson is on line three."

 

Daniel watched General Hammond walk into his office and pick up the phone before he crossed back to the table and sat down next to Sam again.  Jacob looked across at him.

 

"Sam says you suggested contacting me but you say you had no idea that Anise had talked to Jack."

 

"No," Daniel said.  "It was just something he said.  That he should've learned never to trust a snake."

 

Jacob winced.  "I knew it was a mistake to send Anise, but she is the expert on this.  She's not the most diplomatic of beings, I will grant you, but she's passionate.  And Freya tempers her.  The council thought she'd have the best chance to convince the SGC to help on this."

 

"Look, we still have no proof that she talked to Jack at all," Sam said.  "I mean, even if she did, Jack's behavior doesn't make any logical sense.  He'd still have to come to the SGC in order to gate to the planet."

 

"Actually, we want to restrict gate travel to the planet as much as possible, so the team would have gated to a nearby planet and then would take a tel'tak the rest of the way.  The team would ring down with their equipment, while the tel'tak waited in orbit for confirmation the mission was completed."

 

"I thought you couldn't penetrate the atmospheric interference?"

 

"We designed a special base communicator; once on the planet it will provide a boost to the signal and we should be able to send transmissions between it and the ship.  We can use the device to monitor the effects of the virus on the planet and communicate with the surviving members of the strike force.  And, since it would be possible for a vaccinated person to carry the virus to other places, we would have to keep a tel'tak in orbit and ensure that no one ever left the planet."

 

The finality in Jacob's words wasn't lost on Daniel.  'No one' meant the SGC team as well as a pawn of the Goa'uld.

 

"Damn it, Captain," General Hammond's voice rang through the conference room, loud in the sudden silence.  "You need to find him.  A man can't just disappear into thin air."

 

It hit Daniel at that moment.  "Damn him."  He leapt to his feet and his chair skittered across the floor behind him.  He ignored the looks the others at the table gave him, sprinted into General Hammond's office and skidded to a stop in front of the desk.  "Ask him if there was any unusual air traffic in the area lately."  General Hammond gaped at him, but Daniel pressed his point.  "Ask if there were any UFO sightings."

 

The general's eyes narrowed in sudden comprehension and he turned his attention back to the phone.  "Captain, I also want you to check into any suspicious or unusual air traffic."

 

Once sure Hammond understood what he wanted, Daniel walked back out to the three astonished people who sat in the other room.

 

"What was that about?" Sam demanded.

 

"We think that Anise talked to Jack and that he's planning to head off on this suicide mission without letting any of us know.  Right?"  He didn't wait for them to answer.  "How was he going to do that?  How could he get off planet without anyone, including General Hammond, knowing?  What would we have done if Jack just dialed up a planet and walked through?  Or if he disappeared on a mission?"

 

"We would endeavor to locate him and return him to the SGC," Teal'c said.

 

"Right."

 

"And we would send out search party's and rescue teams," Sam continued.

 

"We might even shut down operations here at SGC until we knew what had happened, right?"

 

"Such a precaution would be essential until we were aware of what had transpired."  Teal'c said.

 

"And that would disrupt important operations.  Put teams on hold.  Perhaps even endanger them."  Daniel paced around the table.

 

"Jack wouldn't want to do that," Sam protested.

 

"No."  Daniel stopped by the window overlooking the gate room.  "So how does he get off world without disrupting SGC operations or letting us know that he's going off world?"

 

"He had the Tok'ra do it," Sam said.  "They picked him up in a tel'tak."

 

"Right."  Daniel turned and looked back at his friends.  "He's already off world."

 

Jacob shook his head.  "If Anise had planned this, she would have informed me.  I helped organize the mission."

 

"Not if Jack didn't want any of us to know," Daniel said.

 

General Hammond stalked into the room.  "According to Captain Jameson there were several reports of UFOs around Jack's cabin early last evening but that radar didn't pick up anything unusual.  The sightings were dismissed."

 

"I knew it," Daniel said.  "If he was picked up at eight or so last night, that means he's been gone for," he glanced at his watch, "about eighteen hours.  How long would it take to get to the planet?"

 

"If they take a tel'tak, it would take years," Jacob said.  "I'm betting that they just flew to a nearby world with a gate.  If they kept ship travel to a minimum," he paused, "I'd say ten hours.  At the most."

 

"It's too late to stop him, then," Sam voiced Daniel's thoughts.

 

"Yes."  Jacob said.  "I'm sorry."

 

"We still need to verify this," General Hammond said.  "Captain Jameson is working in Minnesota.  Jacob, if you could contact Anise and find out what she knows?"

 

"I'll get right on it, George," Jacob said.

 

General Hammond sighed and addressed the three remaining members of SG-1.  "Until we know anything else, I want you to keep working on it from our end.  We're not going to give up here, people, until we know what happened.  For all we know, Jack could be on his way home right now."

 

Teal'c nodded and Sam gave a curt, "Yes, sir."

 

Daniel turned back to look at the gate.  He already knew what happened.  Jack was on that planet and he would never come home again.

 

*~*~*

 

The staff weapon's opening sparked and raw energy arced around it.  Jack smelled burnt ozone and felt the tightening grip of the hands that held him.

 

"Do not kill him."  A cold female voice spoke from the dark opening of the pyramid.  "Cronus will want to know what he knows."

 

The Jaffa lowered his weapon.  The hands that held Jack spun him around, pulled off his pack and stripped him of his weapons and gear.  The woman in the long black coat stood before him, a slight smile on her face.

 

"You are the Tau'ri, O'Neill."  The voice wasn't a Goa'uld but it could have been for all the arrogance that colored it. 

 

"They got the new pictures up at the Goa'uld post office, huh?"  Jack struggled to stand on his own.  He frantically tried to determine how much longer it would be before the autotimers went off.  "And who might you be?"

 

"I am Juniel, faithful servant to Lord Cronus.  My lord will be pleased that we have you."

 

"Yeah, well, anything to make old Crony happy."  Jack kept the tone light.  He needed an out.  Twenty minutes.  Can't be more than twenty minutes.

 

"Where is the rest of your team?" she asked.  "Are they near?"

 

"Oh, I'm sure they're somewhere." 

 

"Call for them."

 

"So not gonna happen."

 

She smiled and nodded at the Jaffa that stood on the right.  Jack braced himself for a blow but the Jaffa kicked him in the knee instead.

 

Pain engulfed him and white lights danced in front of his eyes.  "Oh, God."  He gasped for breath and tried to focus.  "Son of a. . ."  Bile rose in his throat and he sagged against the Jaffa that held him.

 

"I do not have patience with such impudence," Juniel said.  "I will give you one more chance.  Call for them."

 

"Go to hell," Jack forced the words out through gritted teeth.

 

She nodded again and the Jaffa next to Jack tensed to kick him again.  Jack bent his leg and went with the blow.  He dropped to the ground and let his good knee absorb the impact.  The Jaffa dragged him back to his feet and punched him twice in the side.  Jack felt something give and he bit back a cry of pain.  Maybe the knee would have been better.  A sharp stitch in his side doubled him over when he tried to straighten up.  The Jaffa released him and Jack fell flat on the ground.  The pain in his side grew to eclipse the familiar ache of his injured knee.  As the fire burned under his ribs, an iron-tightness stretched across his chest.  He lay in the cool dirt and fought for breath.

 

"Call for them," Juniel ordered again.

 

Jack struggled to his knees.  It helped to hold an arm tight over his sore ribs as he sucked in each shallow breath.  "No."  He wasn't sure he spoke loud enough for her to hear.

 

"You Tau'ri are such a foolish race," Juniel said.  "You see your god.  He walks before you, yet you deny him.  You should be honored to have the opportunity to serve him."

 

Jack let out a short bark of laughter and grimaced at the pain that stabbed into his chest when he did so.  "Crony's just an old snake head.  Nothing but an overdressed, egomaniacal, scum--"

 

Jack hadn't seen either of the Jaffa holding a pain stick, but suddenly he was awash in agony.  Pain exploded within him; it filled his every breath, his every cell, his every thought.  Trapped between heartbeats and drowning in anguish, he screamed for release and felt the raw power sear through his throat and burn at his eyes.  The pain was a living thing that clawed at him and devoured everything he ever was.  It lanced through his mind, trailing torture and despair.  It ate at his skin and ripped through his bones, a flood of white-hot torment that seared away every memory of safety and peace.

 

It ended as abruptly as it had begun and his heart beat once more.  Somewhere, a great distance away, a voice spoke.  "--sucking, glory hound with delusions of grandeur."  Jack felt himself talk but couldn't remember what he'd said.

 

Juniel gave an order in Goa'uld and Jack endured another blast from the pain stick.  He rode out the torture.  When it ended, he collapsed to the ground, panted for breath and struggled to recall what he was doing there.

 

"You will do as I want, Tau'ri," Juniel said, "or you will die in pain."

 

Jack bit back a snide comment and forced himself to concentrate on recovery rather than antagonizing the enemy.  The sweat that dripped off his face made little indentations in the dusty ground and his entire body shook with tiny tremors, an all too familiar aftereffect from the pain stick.  His breath was raspy and ragged in the still night.  Juniel was willing to let him recover some of his strength.  Jack used the time to assess his situation.

 

The blood-red moon shed more than enough light to see how much trouble he was in.  His pile of gear -- his weapons -- sat in a heap well out of his reach.  Two Jaffa stood at his side and awaited Juniel's orders.  He had no idea how close the other Jaffa were or how many more of Cronus' 'faithful servants' were still around.  The safety wood's edge was a good hundred yards away, while the middle pyramid stood less than twenty feet from him.  If the bombs went off now, he'd be caught in the blast radius.  God, how much time was left?  His watch was still on his wrist.  He rolled to one side and groaned with the movement.  The moan, designed to cover the sound as he pulled the Velcro cover off his watch, was only half an act.  The digital display blinked three digits at him a split second before the heavy boot of the nearest Jaffa stamped on his wrist.

 

The cushion of dust on the ground spared him any broken bones, but it hurt like hell.  The Jaffa ripped the watch off of Jack's wrist, then walked over to Juniel and handed it to her.  Jack curled up into a protective ball and braced for another dose of pain stick that, fortunately, never came.

 

Juniel examined the watch, turning it over in her hand.  "Did you think you could communicate with them without us knowing, Tau'ri fool?" she demanded.  "Tell me how this works."  She walked several feet closer to Jack and dangled the watch in front of him.  "Call them and I will spare you."

 

The display read 8:48 before it blinked down to 8:47, then 8:46.  Almost nine minutes.  He could still make it to the gate if he could get away from here.  If he couldn't get away. . .  nine minutes was an eternity when faced with torture from a pain stick.  The Jaffa that had handed Juniel the watch returned to stand next to him.  As weak as he was, Jack had no chance of fighting them off, but he wasn't going to give in, either.  "Spare me?  How 'bout you bite me instead."

 

Jack doubted she'd ever heard the phrase before, but she must have understood his meaning anyhow.

 

"You will not defy me," she said.  "Get him off the ground."

 

The Jaffa dragged Jack to his knees, and their hands bit into his arms.  The pain of their grip was a tolerable trade off for the ability to stay upright, and he sagged back against their hold willing to get rest anywhere he could.  He shifted his weight to ease the ache in his injured knee.  Something hard and sharp dug into his leg.  It took him a moment to remember that he still had a pistol strapped to his ankle, hidden by his pant leg.  A sudden, desperate plan gave him hope.  For it to work, though, he'd have to have the Jaffa release him and move away; he needed a clear shot at the three of them.  There was only one sure way he could think of to get them to do that.

 

Juniel took several steps closer to Jack, the watch still held in front of her.  The digital readout was 8:04.  "I have heard of you, O'Neill of the Tau'ri."  The display clicked to eight minutes.  "I have heard many things that I know cannot be true."  7:57.  "The tales of your arrogance, however, were obviously not overstated."  7:49.  She offered him the watch once more.  "Call for them, O'Neill of the Tau'ri.  Even you cannot believe that you can withstand this."  7:39.  She moved closer and crouched down before him, close enough to reach out and touch his face.  "You may be strong, O'Neill of the Tau'ri.  You are not that strong."  7:23.  She ran her hand along his jaw.  "No one is that strong."  7:19.

 

Jack smiled at her.  "We'll see."  7:16.  This was taking too long.  What is she waiting for, an engraved invitation?  "I've been tortured by Ra, Apophis and Hathor.  What makes you think you can succeed where your so-called-gods have failed?"

 

Juniel's smile faded.  "You are a fool."  Her caress turned into a fierce pinch.

 

"So everyone keeps telling me," Jack said.  6:58.  At this rate she was going to talk him to death.  "But yet, here I am and they're dead."

 

Juniel hissed under her breath and jerked her hand from his face.  She stood and shouted orders to the Jaffa.  Jack didn't understand what she said, but the Jaffa released him.  As he sagged to the ground, the Jaffa with the pain stick stepped back and the one on his right moved forward to stand next to Juniel.  Jack fought to ignore the panic that rose in his throat at the thought of being hit with the pain stick again.  He focused on drawing the pistol that was attached to his leg.  Draw the gun and shoot the ba--

 

He dropped once more into the bottomless chasm of pain as the Jaffa jabbed the stick into his side, but he clung to the image of holding the 9-mm in his hand, the grip solid in his fist and the trigger cool against the heat of his finger.  The agony roared around him and he fought for focus, ignoring his screams that echoed in his ears.  Draw the gun.  Draw the gun.  Draw. . .

 

The nightmarish, burning pain ceased and Jack folded to the ground, his breath erratic.  A deep moan escaped his lips as he rolled to his side.  On its own volition, his hand moved to the pistol.  He fumbled to pull up his pant leg and his weak fingers wrapped around the butt of the gun.  There was a wonderful, distinctive sound as the holster released the pistol.  His brain fought to remember what he had wanted to do but the familiar weight of the gun triggered the muscles to act before his mind could focus.  He pushed himself onto his back and fired two shots into the Jaffa who held the pain stick.  Both the Jaffa and weapon fell to the ground.  Jack ignored them, rolled to his knees, and took aim at the Jaffa at Juniel's side.  Jack's shot knocked the Jaffa off balance and made the blast from his staff weapon explode into the ground between them.  Jack shot the Jaffa twice more before he moved the pistol to cover Juniel. 

 

Juniel stared at Jack in open disdain.  "You will not kill me, Tau'ri.  My god will save me." 

 

Jack's head buzzed and every breath caused a searing pain to burn in his lungs.  "No one saved them."  He nodded at the dead Jaffa and immediately regretted the action when the world swam in front of him.

 

"They are but Jaffa, I am a loyal servant of Cronus.  I will be his next Lo'taur when I bring him your body."

 

"Yeah?  That's so not gonna happen."  He gathered his strength and pushed himself awkwardly to his feet.  The movement caused his head to spin and dark spots to flash before his eyes.  The pain in his side and the tightness across his chest bit at him again, and the blood roared in his ears.  He blinked drunkenly at Juniel.  His eyes couldn't focus.  She moved, and he fired too late.  The bullets split the air where she had been a second before.  They hit the pyramid and ricocheted off into the darkness.  Jack followed Juniel's movement with his gun.  A loud electronic beeping cut into his foggy brain.  On the third beep, he recognized it as the alarm on his watch -- the timer for the bombs.  He snapped off two quick shots at Juniel and she crumpled to the ground just shy of the pyramid door.

 

There was a distant explosion and the ground shook as the C-4 in the first pyramid detonated.  Jack turned and stumbled toward the center of the compound as a second explosion rocked his surroundings.  Jack scanned the area and spotted several slabs of stone that lay off to the side.  A third roar of C-4 echoed through the clearing as Jack limped over to the improvised shelter.  He crawled under the stones and prayed they would provide him with enough protection from the explosions.  As he pressed himself into the small hollow under the blocks, he tried to estimate how many seconds had passed.  Those first explosions were two bricks of the 'super C-4', set to weaken the support structures of the pyramids and light the incendiary powder.  Once the fire reached a high enough temperature the rest of the explosives would go.  He had estimated that he should be a good half-mile from ground zero in order to be well and truly safe.  Two hundred yards away, the first pyramid growled deep within and then erupted into a cyclone of flying dust and debris.  The shock wave from the explosion ripped by Jack, just as he heard the second pyramid disintegrate into a ball of flying fragments.  The stones above Jack shuddered and shifted.  The last thing he remembered was thinking that at least no one would have to bury him when the C-4 in the final pyramid detonated and he was plunged into blackness.

 

*~*~*

 

Sam stood outside Jack's front door and chewed her lip.  She shouldn't be here.  The general had ordered her to get out of the base, go home and get a couple of hours' rest.  She had left the base intending to do just that.  When she got in the car, all roads led to Jack's house.

 

She knew the colonel wasn't here but she still reached out and rang the bell.  It echoed through the house.  There was no answering movement from inside.  A moment later, she pushed it again and held it in for a full minute.  The house remained quiet.

 

Without thinking about it, she dug into her pocket to pull out her set of spare keys and fumbled through them until she separated out Jack's.  They all had keys to each other's places and Hammond had copies in his office as well; their job being what it was, it was necessary.  The last time she'd used it was a year ago, when Jack had been trapped on Edora.  That time, though, all of SG-1 had been here.  She shouldn't be here by herself.

 

She put the key in the door and went in.

 

The house was clean and quiet.  No overturned furniture, no signs of violence or foul play.  It ironic that she was disappointed that everything looked normal.  The thought stopped her and she looked around again.  It didn't look normal; it didn't look normal at all.  There were no scattered belongings or magazines lying on the tables or garbage in the trashcans.  Everything was picked up and packed away, down to the knickknacks and pictures that usually sat throughout the house.  It took five quick steps to cross to the kitchen.  It was immaculately clean, no dirty dishes, no food sitting out.  She pulled open the refrigerator door.  It was empty.  Not just the normal 'nothing but beer and ketchup' empty either.  It was bare and smelled of bleach.  Her heart in her throat, she pulled open the freezer.  It was the same.  "Damn him."  She slammed the door shut as hard as she could.  "Damn him."

 

"Sam?"

 

Daniel's voice startled her and she turned to see that he stood in the door, Teal'c right behind him.  It took her a moment to find her voice.  "Daniel.  Teal'c.  What are you doing here?"

 

"Same thing you are, apparently.  We had hoped to find something to tell us that we're wrong about what Jack's doing."

 

"Well, we're not."  Sam almost spat the words out.  "Just look around."

 

Daniel spun in a circle and surveyed the house.  "It does look like he cleaned up in here, doesn't it?"

 

"Cleaned out," Sam insisted.  "Cleaned out.  Look around.  Does this look like Jack is coming back?"

 

"No."  He walked around the kitchen and randomly opened and closed cupboard doors.  "His office looks the same.  That's why Teal'c and I came."  Daniel glanced around the room, sighed and rubbed his neck

 

"God.  I didn't even think to check his office."  Her voice broke for a moment.  Then she motioned helplessly around her.  "He's gone."

 

"I am afraid that Major Carter is correct," Teal'c said.  "It is apparent that O'Neill does not plan to return."

 

They stood together in the quiet of Jack's house.  It should feel different; it should feel like Jack was gone.  There should've been an emptiness about the place; a bareness that showed the loss that they felt.  There should have been some sign of the sacrifice being made.  But there wasn't.  No sign.  No notes.  Nothing.

 

Sam let out a deep sigh.  "Ahh. . . Daniel.  Why did he do this?"

 

Daniel didn't answer.  She didn't expect him to.  She didn't need him to.

 

Jack wasn't that big of a mystery, not when it came down to doing his job, not when it came down to putting other people's lives first.  For Jack it was a matter of honor, of doing the right thing.  If it was a choice of his life or the life of others, there was no question which he would choose to sacrifice.  It was what made Jack O'Neill the man he was.  It was what made the fact that he wasn't coming back so easy to understand and so hard to accept.

 

"So what are we going to do now?"  Daniel asked the question.

 

"I do not believe that there is anything we can do, Daniel Jackson," Teal'c said.  "We must wait for the Tok'ra to contact us."

 

"Dad wasn't even sure he could contact Anise or if she'd tell him anything when he did," Sam pointed out.  "And if Jack's already on the planet. . ."  Sam trailed off, not wanting to voice aloud what that meant.

 

The ring of the phone cut through the silence that filled the pause and Sam and Daniel jumped.  They turned as one and stared at the phone as it rang again.

 

"Should we answer that?"

 

Sam crossed to the phone but didn't pick it up.  "I don't know." 

 

The fourth ring was cut off as the answering machine kicked in.  "This is Jack O'Neill.  You know the drill."  A beep followed and a female voice drifted into the room.  "Jack?  Jack, are you there?"  There was a slight pause and a deep sigh.  "This is Sara.  Give me a call as soon as you can, Jack.  I need to talk to you about. . ."  There was another pause.

 

Daniel looked over at Sam.  "Sara?  Jack's ex-wife?"

 

Sam nodded.  They had met Sara once, a couple of years ago, when an alien life form had impersonated Jack.  Sam remembered Sara as confused and scared, but also strong in the face of what had been an insane situation.  Jack hadn't spoken of her since that time, but then Jack didn't talk about a lot of things.

 

"Listen, Jack, you can't just drop this stuff on me and not tell me about it.  Not anymore."

 

Sam could almost feel the frustration and anxiety of the woman on the other end of the line.  It was obvious that Jack was having the same effect on everyone.

 

There was another deep sigh.  "Damn it, Jack!"

 

The resigned desperation in Sara's voice matched what Sam felt and she picked up the phone before she realized that she had decided to.  "Sara?  I'm sorry.  This is Major Samantha Carter, I work with Colonel O'Neill."

 

"Major Carter?"  Sara's voice continued to echo through the room as the answering machine recorded the conversation

 

"Yes.  We met a couple years ago."  Daniel walked over and stood next to Sam.  She knew he wondered what she planned to do.  She didn't have an answer for him.

 

"I remember.  You were a captain then, I think." 

 

Sam smiled.  "Yes, I was."

 

Sara cleared her throat.  "Did something happen to Jack?"  Sam identified with her fearful anticipation.

 

"We're not sure what the colonel is doing," Sam admitted.  "We're here at his house trying to see if there is any indication as to what he's planned."

 

"He's not on a mission?"

 

"Like I said, we're not sure what he's doing."  Sam kept as close to the truth as possible.  "Is there anything you can tell us?"

 

Sara gave a short, humorless laugh.  "I never knew what Jack was doing, even when we were married.  He stopped by earlier this week and dropped off a box for me with my dad but he left before I got home."

 

"I don't want to pry, Sara, but could you tell me what was in the box?"

 

"Some of Charlie's stuff that Jack had, some things that were ours when we were married.  And, ah, a letter."

 

Sam debated for a minute then asked the question.  "What did he say in the letter?"

 

"I haven't opened it.  I, ah, didn't want to, in case. . ."  There was a deep, shuddering sigh .  "You know, I thought I was beyond this, but I don't suppose I ever will be."

 

Sam looked at Daniel and his look mirrored her helplessness.  Sam took a deep breath and asked what she didn't want to.  "Like I said, I don't want to pry, Sara, but there could be something important in there.  Do you think you could read it?  I don't want to know what it says, just let me know if it tells anything about what he's doing."

 

There was a long pause.  "Okay.  Give me a minute."

 

Teal'c, who had listened to the conversation from across the room, walked over and stood next to Daniel.  They heard Sara's footsteps, and then there was a pause, followed by the distinctive sound of ripping paper.  Sam drummed her fingers against her leg as she waited; she tried not to think about the fact that Jack had actually left Sara a letter.

 

It was a full minute later before Sara's voice came back across the line.  "Major Carter?"  Her voice was thick and she cleared her throat twice before she continued.  "He doesn't say anything about what he's doing, but I know Jack.  I know, from this letter, he doesn't think he's coming back."

 

Daniel swore and shook his head at Sam.

 

"I know you can't tell me details," Sara said, "but I'd like. . ."  Her sentence ended with another deep, shuddering breath.

 

"I honestly don't know anything, Sara," Sam said.  "But I promise you, I'll let you know as soon as we do."

 

"Thank you, Major."

 

Sam held the phone until a dial tone filled the air.  The answering machine clicked off when she hung up.  After a second's hesitation, she pushed the delete button.  It beeped and reset the message count to zero.

 

Daniel cleared his throat and Sam took a deep breath before she met his eyes.  "General Hammond said he'd call me on my cell when Dad contacted us again," she said.  "I had planned to go home, but I think I'm just going to wait here until he calls."  It didn't feel right to leave.

 

"I'll stay with you," Daniel offered.

 

"As will I," Teal'c said.

 

Sam nodded.  "Good.  I don't want to be alone."

 

They walked into the living room together and Sam sat down on the sofa.  "I wish he would have left out his National Geographic's," she said.  "I didn't finish reading the article on the folklore of Ireland."

 

"It was a very informative article, Major Carter," Teal'c said.  He had crossed to the window and looked out at Jack's backyard.  "It detailed many of the legends and tales of the land, of which O'Neill seemed to know a great deal."

 

Sam smiled at Teal'c.  "Yeah, leave it to the colonel to know about that."

 

Daniel sat down in the armchair and flipped through the stations.  He settled on a History Channel documentary.  Sam stretched out on the sofa and tried to relax.  The documentary droned on in the background and she found it strangely comforting to lie there.  She could almost believe that Jack was safe.  He would walk into the room any minute and complain about Daniel's choice of shows.  The channel abruptly switched and Sam looked at the television in surprise.  "You didn't like the show?"

 

"No," Daniel said.  "I just noticed that Jack didn't set it up to tape The Simpsons."  He looked across at Sam.  "I figure I better tape it for him.  He can watch it when he gets back."

 

Sam leaned back and closed her eyes against the emotions that threatened to spill over.  "Good idea, Daniel.  We'll all watch it together, once we get him home."

 

*~*~*

 

Jack hadn't expected to wake at all, but if he did, he thought darkness and the suffocating weight of stones would greet him.  Instead, sunlight shot down at him and a hot wind scraped sand across his face.  The blinding light burned his eyes and he blinked blearily into it.  He sat up despite the queasiness the movement induced.  Double images swam before him, and he tried not to think what damage these repeated concussions could cause.  The world slowed to a halt, and he made out the scattered rubble of the destroyed pyramids.  Smoke and fire still issued from the ruins.  He had no idea how he'd climbed free of the pile of debris that had collapsed on him.  His chest felt as if it were still crushed under the rocks, his head pounded with pain and climbing to his knees caused him to vomit blood-tinged bile onto the dusty ground.

 

Jack struggled through the pain and nausea and forced his shaking legs to stand.  The sun, like the moon, bathed the world with an unsettling red shade.  The only sounds were the muted roar of flames and the gusting of the hot wind that swirled the dust around him.  It looks like hell.  My hell.

 

The world spun.  Jack vomited again, lost his balance and fell.  The bones in his right knee ground together when he landed on it and white flashes of pain danced in front of him.  Please don't let me die here.  With his eyes closed, he fought for focus.  He couldn't die, not yet, not here.

 

The nausea passed and he again climbed to his feet.  The drumbeat in his skull made it impossible to think, and his rasping breath was loud in the silence.  His legs shook as he stumbled through the ruins scattered around him.  Light-headed from pain and unable to catch his breath, he made ten steps before he fell.  He landed on something soft and smooth.  It took him a moment to realize that he'd fallen on the supplies that Juniel had taken from him.  He blinked at the pile and tried to understand how everything he needed had gotten stacked together.  It took two tries to grab his watch from the top. 

 

Something was definitely wrong, but Jack couldn't fight through the noise and static in his brain to figure out what it was.  He dropped the watch in his pocket and sat next to his supplies. The med kit was at the bottom of the satchel and he pulled it free from the other supplies.  Trembling fingers made it hard to work the clasps, but he managed to open the kit and pulled out an unbroken syringe of morphine.  When he rolled it in his hand, the liquid inside swirled like the dust around him.  The painkillers he'd taken earlier could still be in his system.  He had a concussion and he reacted unpredictably to morphine even under the best of circumstances.  Pain washed over him in waves and the world slipped around him.

 

He didn't bother to swab his skin.  The pain of the needle barely registered but the cold numbness of the morphine hit him like a physical blow.  One moment he was sitting with the syringe in his hand, and then he was flat on his back as the world spun around him.  He rolled to his side, retched, and relished that the movement caused him no pain.  The vertigo subsided and he climbed to his feet. 

 

He still couldn't get a decent breath of air and he could feel a grinding in his left side that signified cracked -- if not broken -- ribs.  His right leg shook from weakness and he could still feel the kneecap catch as he bent it.  A steady trickle of liquid etched a path though the dust on his face and he didn't bother to check to see if it was sweat or blood.  It didn't matter.

 

Slowly, careful not to injure himself further, he gathered his equipment into his satchel and swung it gingerly onto his shoulder.  Feeling no pain was as much a danger as it was a blessing.  It would be easy to damage something beyond repair and use.  He started across the clearing.  His right knee only held if it was locked straight and movement made the world tilt dangerously.  As he walked, a persistent, deep drone echoed through his head that made it hard to hear the sound around him.  The world dimmed at the edges, an ominous greyness that encroached upon his sight.

 

Dust billowed with each step.  It settled on his clothes, caked his skin and stole what little breath he had.  It no longer hurt to cough, but lack of oxygen made him dizzy and he fell three times before he made the tree line.  He dropped onto an old fallen tree and leaned back to listen to his own ragged breath.

 

A sudden and undeniable feeling of being watched jolted him upright, and he peered around the woods.  The wind stirred the leaves and dislodged crimson dust from the tops of the trees, but Jack knew that he was the only living thing left on the planet.  The skeleton in the pyramid danced in front of his eyes in a sudden flash of memory and the haunted feeling he'd had earlier stole back over him.  The wind gusted again and red-dust colored shadows lurked at the corners of Jack's vision.  A new, irrational panic swam in the back of Jack's mind.  He closed he eyes and waited for the feeling to subside.  Great.  Now I'm seeing things.  I'm never helping the Tok'ra again.  The forest continued to sway in front of him after he opened his eyes, and the paranoia didn't subside.  God, I hate morphine.  He pushed the feelings to the side and focused all his energy on returning to the Stargate.

 

The clearing around the Stargate hung heavy with the smoke from the burnt tents and it now mixed with the red dust from the destroyed pyramids.  The dark shapes of dead Jaffa lay scattered around the remains of the tents but he ignored them, as he ignored the movements of the shadows that continued to linger in his peripheral vision.  He made his way back to the small dry riverbed and the cave where he'd hidden his equipment.  The crystal he'd taken from the DHD lay where he'd left it and there was no sign that anyone had disturbed it. 

 

He sat amid his supplies and futilely tried to pull in one decent lungful of air.  He despaired at the thought of moving the equipment to the gate.  The gully had seemed shallow and too near the Jaffa when he had arrived but now he couldn't make the trip without pausing to rest at least twice.  Even without the heavy ordinance and C-4 that he had used in the assault on the pyramids, it would take him four of those trips to carry it all to the gate.  The impulse to leave the equipment behind appealed to him for a moment, but he knew he'd feel naked without his armament.  Besides, he'd worked so hard to get it and bring it halfway across the known universe, it seemed a shame to leave it now. 

 

It took him six trips, not four, and he could feel the morphine wearing off by the time he dropped the last of his equipment at the base of the gate.  He pulled the crystal from his pocket, limped over to the DHD and hoped he remembered how to put it back in.  The black scar of a staff blast across the front of the DHD froze him in place.  Damn.  DHDs were far from indestructible.  If the DHD didn't work, he'd be trapped here -- trapped in this hell.  He shook himself free of the thought and carefully examined the inside of the device.  There was no visible damage and when he replaced the crystal in the DHD, it hummed to life.

 

Jack would have sighed with relief if he could've taken a deep enough breath.  He settled for punching in the gate address, pleased to see each coordinate lock into place.  The final chevron glowed in acceptance, but Jack paused before he pushed the middle button.  This wasn't part of the official plan.  The DHD was supposed to have been destroyed the moment he arrived on the planet, thereby insuring that no one -- not even he -- would be able to leave.  Jack had other plans.  Nirrti had used this planet as her killing fields and he didn't intend to spend the rest of his life on it.

 

Besides, he knew his team.  They would never leave well enough alone.  Once they had deciphered what he'd done, they would demand the gate address and send a probe through.  When that happened, he'd end up having to tell them to stay the hell away.  There would be the inevitable final good-byes and farewell recriminations.  He'd done that once already, back on Argos when the nanites aged him, and he wasn't going to go through that again.  Outside of burying the gate, an option the Tok'ra had refused to consider, there was only one option: leave the planet.

 

It had taken him five nights of hidden research to find the perfect alternative.  PT9-780 was a small, uninhabited planet that the SGC had discovered early in the program.  It had been fully explored and used as a base of operations for training missions.  Carter and her merry band of scientists used it to test all the gizmos and gadgets that they stuck on the MALPs and UAVs.  It had been a perfect geek playground until one of their little experiments had fried the DHD.  They'd managed to retrieve the personnel still on the planet by doing a manual dial, but they'd been unable to fix the DHD.  With no reason to keep the planet on the dialing rotation, it became a footnote in the SGC files until Jack's search for the perfect bolthole.

 

The MALP and UAV he'd sent to the planet had revealed no changes since the previous visits.  There was no sign of gate travel and no indication of other visitors.  There was no reason to believe that the planet had suddenly developed a population that he would kill the moment he stepped through the gate.

 

There was no guarantee that it hadn't, either.

 

Jack rubbed angrily at the itchy dust that covered his face.  When he pulled his hands away, he stared at the deep-red stains that covered them.  He'd already sentenced one planet full of people to death, could he accept the possibility of doing that again?

 

"Out, out, damn spot," Jack muttered.  He rubbed his hands clean against his pants and then pressed the inner button of the DHD.  The gate sprang to life.  After he tossed his equipment through the gate, he waited for it to disconnect.  Then he limped back to the DHD, pulled the top open and laid it out so the inner workings could be seen.  The crystal removed with a simple twist, and he put it in his pocket for safekeeping.  He knelt in front of the scorch marks on the DHD before he pulled out the Tok'ra communications device.  The damaged, dismantled DHD was clearly in the shot.

 

At a touch of the activation button, the device blinked to life and, a second later, the hologram of a Tok'ra appeared before him.

 

"Colonel O'Neill.  What is the status of the mission?"

 

"The mission is completed."  It was difficult to talk and Jack wished he'd taken another shot of morphine.  "And I'm fine.  Thanks for asking."

 

The Tok'ra -- Vertin?  Verla?  Vertas -- ignored both Jack's obvious injuries and his sarcasm. 

 

"Did you destroy all the contagion?  Did anyone access the gate or send any messages?"

 

"I planted the explosives as instructed.  Although you might want to tell your operative that I found three pyramids down here, a boatload of Jaffa and more than fifty prisoners that were being used to test the virus."

 

The image of Vertas nodded at him.  "Yes.  We received that information just after you ringed down.  It was too late to pass it along to you."

 

"Right," Jack said.  "And the check's in the mail."

 

Vertas looked puzzled but didn't ask what Jack meant.  "I was instructed to ask if there was anything that I can do for you before I report back to Anise."

 

"Two things.  First, this is a message to the folks back at the SGC."  Jack flashed a small blue crystal at the screen.  "I'm sending it to you now.  It's for the SGC -- eyes only.  Understand?"  He waited for Vertas to nod before he continued.  "Tell Anise to give it to my team when she talks to them."

 

"Anise is not planning on briefing your team, Colonel O'Neill."

 

Jack smiled at that.  "No, I don't suppose she is.  Just see that she gets it.  When they demand to see our communications, she should give this to them."  He slipped the crystal into the communications device and it blinked to show that it transmitted his message.

 

"Very well.  I will see that it reaches Anise.  What is the second thing I can do for you?"

 

"Let everyone know that this is the last contact I will have.  I'll destroy this communications device as soon as we're through here.  I will not respond to any attempts at contact."

 

"That was not the plan, Colonel.  This device has atmospheric monitors on it.  We will require that you. . ."

 

"Ain't gonna happen," Jack cut him off.  The image of Vertas swam in front of him and he couldn't breathe.  He blinked to clear his vision, but it didn't help.  "I did my bit.  Now you're gonna let me be.  That's the new plan."

 

"There is valuable data. . ."

 

Jack ignored Vertas, picked up the staff weapon that lay near him, used it to pull himself to his feet and blasted the communicator.  The device smoked under the impact and the hologram blinked out.  Jack shot the device several more times and stopped only when the communicator was a melted blob. 

 

"That felt good," Jack said.  He used the staff weapon as a crutch and waited until the shaking in his arms passed.  The creeping sensation of being watched pushed at him again but the weight of the weapon in his hand eased his panic.  He squinted around the clearing.  There's nothing to see, Jack.  Everything's dead.  Despite knowing that, he still stood for another minute and peered into the darkening surroundings.  Nothing. 

 

Fighting to ignore the paranoia, he turned back to the DHD.  The crystal slid easily back into place, and he quickly dialed out to PT9-780.  Once the gate opened, he removed the center of the DHD and laid it to the side, careful not to pull the wires apart.  The gate wavered but stayed open.  He pulled a small block of C-4 from his vest, set the timer for ten seconds, dropped it into the middle of the DHD and headed for the gate.

 

It wasn't much time, but he couldn't shake the feeling that if he'd leave it any longer something would follow him through.  He did a countdown in his head and cursed that his injuries slowed him down, the DHD was too far away from the gate and the platform had too many steps.  The C-4 detonated the moment he fell through the event horizon, and the wormhole shuddered around him.

 

He was spit out into cool darkness, and he tumbled into his equipment that lay scattered around the gate.  The wormhole snapped closed behind him.  Pain roared in his head as he rolled over onto his back and blinked up into the star-filled sky of his new home.

 

*~*~*

 

Daniel watched Jacob and Anise emerge from the Stargate and exchange greetings with General Hammond.  Daniel, along with the other members of SG-1, had wanted to be in the gate room to meet them, but the general had confined them to the briefing room.  It was an effort, Daniel knew, to keep their ugly mood from infecting the entire base.  They had spent the night and most of the morning at Jack's house, then raced back to the SGC as soon as the general had told them Anise was on her way.  That was more than three hours ago.  As each minute had passed with no indication of the Tok'ra's arrival, the team had become more and more irritable until they couldn't even talk to each other.

 

Daniel gave a last disgruntled look at the gate as it closed and, once sure that General Hammond, Jacob and Anise were on their way up, began his now-familiar path around the room.  Teal'c spared him one raised eyebrow and then went back to contemplating his fingers that were once again steepled in front of him.  Daniel envied Teal'c's outward calm but he could tell from the Jaffa's tightly clamped jaw that he, too, felt the pressure.  Sam had given up waiting after the first fifteen minutes and commandeered the only computer in the room to continue her investigation into what, exactly, Jack had been doing when he had blacked out the SGC.  Daniel thought that it was an exercise in futility but after several churlish exchanges, he'd stopped pointing that out to her.  Unable to sit, he'd taken up pacing again.  To occupy his mind, he counted the number of laps he'd completed since they'd returned to the SGC.

 

He'd just finished lap number one hundred thirty-four when General Hammond appeared at the top of the stairs; Jacob and Anise followed.  The general nodded for them to have a seat around the table, and they did so in silence.  General Hammond and Jacob also sat at the table while Anise walked to the front of the room.  From the way that she glanced at them, Daniel suspected she was aware of the unwelcome reception that she had walked into.

 

"You are aware of situation with Nirrti's lab and the contagion that we discovered there."  When the statement was met with silence, Anise continued.  "As you suspect, we approached Colonel O'Neill to help the Tok'ra eliminate this threat to all of us."

 

"Colonel O'Neill is under my command," General Hammond said.  "You have no authority to ask any of my people to do anything without first speaking to me."

 

"We. . ." Anise shot a look at Jacob before she continued, "I felt that the fewer people that were involved in the decision, the better our chances for success.

 

"There is also the fact that this is a Tok'ra issue.  We discovered and investigated this problem.  Our operatives risked and lost their lives in order to gather the information.  We came up with the vaccine and the plan to destroy the contagion."

 

"This is about credit?" Daniel asked, exasperated.  "It must really bug you that you need a lowly Tau'ri to actually carry out your plan."

 

"We lost several Tok'ra before it was discovered we were unable to tolerate the vaccine.  Many were willing to sacrifice themselves to stop this.  The loss of even one Tok'ra lessens us in a way that you cannot comprehend."

 

"Whereas Jack is expendable?"  Daniel didn't try to rein in his anger.  "It doesn't matter if he dies?"

 

"Enough."  Jacob cut off any reply the angry Anise might have had.  "This is not helping anyone -- especially Jack."

 

Daniel took a couple deep breaths and realized he was standing.  He sat down shakily and muttered an apology to Jacob.

 

Anise started to say something, but Jacob's raised hand stopped her.  He nodded his head and when he spoke it was Selmak who addressed them.  "It wasn't about credit, Dr. Jackson.  It was about secrecy.  When the subject was discussed by the Tok'ra High Council, some were concerned that, if we fully involved the Tau'ri, you would demand complete access to the information that we have.  There was the possibility that you would want to study the contagion yourself."

 

"Yes," Sam said.  "If this virus is half as deadly as you purport it to be, we should investigate it and devise a more effective vaccine."

 

"I told the High Council you would feel that way," Anise said.

 

"Would it not be in everyone's best interest to develop such a vaccine?" Teal'c asked.

 

When Anise didn't answer, Jacob did.  "The vaccine is a deadly poison to a symbiote when injected into a host's body.  Some of the council was concerned that that information could be used against us if it fell into the wrong hands."

 

"There are those that still feel that way," Anise said.  "The compromise was to limit full disclosure only to those who need to be informed."

 

Daniel scoffed.

 

Anise looked across at him.  "Colonel O'Neill understood the necessity."

 

"He would wouldn't he?"  Jack O'Neill never told anyone, anything.  "The man thrives on secrets and black ops.  You had to know that Jack's reasons for not telling anyone were entirely different than yours."

 

"Motives are immaterial as long as the goals are the same.  In this case: secrecy."

 

"If it worries you so much, why tell us now?" Sam asked.

 

"The general has made it clear that not being forthcoming about this mission will adversely affect the Tok'ra-Tau'ri relationship." 

 

"You're damn right it will," Hammond said.  "Our relationship is based on trust and if you cannot trust us, there will be no relationship."

 

"Do you trust us with all your weaknesses, General?"

 

"Can we focus on what happened to Jack, please?"  Daniel cut in.  "You came here and offered Jack the opportunity to play the hero, which he jumped at.  Let's just skip to the 'where he is now' part."

 

"Vertas, the Tok'ra in orbit around the planet, has just contacted me.  He reported that Colonel O'Neill spoke with him a short time ago and stated that the mission was completed successfully.  The pyramids and the contagion were destroyed."

 

"And the colonel?" Sam asked.  "How was he?"

 

"Vertas did not detail Colonel O'Neill's condition; he merely reported the success of the mission."

 

"You have a recording of the communication between Colonel O'Neill and your operative?" General Hammond asked.

 

"Yes."

 

"We will need to see it."

 

Anise's eyes narrowed at the demand.  "I assure you that I have told you all the pertinent information."

 

"I'm sure you have.  We will still need to see the communication."

 

Anise reached into the bag hung at her side and pulled out a small oval device that she set on the conference table.  "When Colonel O'Neill spoke to Vertas he instructed that this message be shown to you when you asked to see his transmission from the planet."

 

"A message from Jack?" Daniel asked.  "Just when were you going to tell us about it?"

 

"When you asked to see his communication from the planet, as the colonel requested."  Anise pushed a button on the device and a hologram of Jack appeared over it.

 

"Yeah.  I hope I've got this thing turned on right."  Jack's voice echoed through the room, disproportionately loud when compared to the small image it resonated from.  "Anyhow, by now I'm sure you've figured everything out.  I just wanted to let you know that I'm doing this by my own choice.  Anise said that we have very little time to deal with this and I am the logical choice for this type of mission."  The holographic Jack shook his head.  "Yeah, I know.  I can't believe I'm saying it either, but she's right.  This is a one way trip and the fewer people going on it the better." 

 

The holographic figure held up his hand as if he could hear the protests that Daniel and Sam had started to voice.  "Just be quiet, you two.  It would have shaken out like this anyhow.  Neither Sam nor Teal'c could've been part of the operation and, face it, Daniel, you're not SF.  I can handle this myself.  There was no need to lose anyone unnecessarily on this mission.  Besides, I probably would've been stuck with a bunch of marines who don't like to fish."  He shuddered.  "Can you imagine that?"

 

The familiar figure of Jack, dressed in black and fully armed, glanced around and peered at something behind him before he looked back at the recorder.  "Ok, we're almost there.  I just wanted to let you know that I'm fine and doing this with a sound mind and all.  As sound as it ever was, I suppose."  He gave a patented O'Neill self-effacing grin.  "General, a full account of my contact with Anise, my preparations and my reasons for accepting the mission is in a report that should be in base mail.  I put in a resignation letter, just in case that will make things easier for you.  I'm sorry for the problems I caused.  I meant no disrespect to you, sir.

 

"I also wanted to tell my team one more thing. . ." 

 

Jack faded off and leaned conspiratorially forward, and Daniel found himself doing the same thing.

 

"Listening, kids?"  Jack asked.  "Good.  Now, stay the hell away from here!" 

 

Jack's commanding voice snapped Daniel back in his chair.  It had a similar effect on the other members of the SG-1, and General Hammond frowned at the holograph as Jack went on.

 

"Don't send me any care packages, don't send a MALP through, don't drop mailbags from orbiting ships, because I'm not gonna answer.  Got that?  The last thing I need is you hovering around me, ruining my peace and quiet."  Jack stopped and ran his hand through his hair.  "That about covers it."  He looked around, then snapped to attention and saluted.  "It's been an honor and a privilege to serve with all of you."  He reached forward and the image faded before them.

 

The room was silent for a moment as they tried to come to terms with what Jack had said.  Daniel couldn't believe Jack's last message was one that ordered them all to stay away.  After four years of working together, Jack had chosen to end their friendship with the Tok'ra equivalent of a message on an answering machine.  It felt so. . . unfinished, so unfair.  And so typically Jack.  Daniel rubbed the back of his neck and glanced over at his teammates.  He could see that the message had affected them in the same way.

 

General Hammond found his voice first.  "You have the communication between Colonel O'Neill and the orbiting Tok'ra ship?"

 

"We have a record of that communication, yes," Anise said.

 

"I want to see that, now."

 

"Colonel O'Neill requested that this be the only message we show you."  Anise gestured to the device in the middle of the table.

 

"I'm requesting to see the other message.  Will that be a problem?"

 

"No," Anise said.  "I was just trying to honor Colonel O'Neill's wishes on the matter."

 

Daniel gave a small snort.  "Anise wanting to honor Jack's orders," he spoke quietly to Sam but didn't care that his voice carried to the others around the table.  "That's a new one."

 

Anise's eyes snapped to him for a moment, but the general spoke before she could. 

 

"Please show us the communication."

 

Anise stared at him a moment before she nodded.  "As you wish."  She placed another communicator on the table and pushed the button.

 

The holographic Jack that appeared above the table this time hardly resembled the man they had watched moments before.  This Jack crouched close to the recorder, an image of a dismantled and scarred DHD stood behind him.  His face was battered and bruised, with several deep, inflamed gashes clearly visible.  Dark stains covered large portions of his uniform and bloody wounds could be seen beneath several rips.  Daniel could see the telltale scorch marks from a staff weapon blast low on Jack's left side.  If Jack's favoring of his right knee wouldn't have given away that injury, the bandage wrapped tightly around it would have.  Sam gave a small gasp at the sight of Jack, and the general swore under his breath.

 

Daniel didn't pay attention to the conversation Jack had with the Tok'ra, instead he focused on the way Jack moved and spoke.  He seemed perpetually out of breath and took small, shallow gasps of air between words.  His eyes were bright and feverish, and a trickle of blood ran down the side of his face.  Daniel watched as a drop of it fell from Jack's chin; a perfect holographic teardrop of blood that disappeared from the camera's view before it hit the ground.  He watched a second drop form when the words Jack said cut through his fixation.

 

"Ain't gonna happen," Jack's voice was sharp, but he swayed as he spoke.  "I did my bit.  Now you're gonna let me be.  That's the new plan."

 

"There is valuable data--" 

 

Daniel could clearly hear the annoyance in Vertas' voice as it rang through the room but before the Tok'ra had finished his sentence Jack had pulled himself to his feet.  It wasn't until Jack pointed it at them that Daniel realized that he held a staff weapon.  Light danced around the opening, there was a brilliant blast of light and the hologram disintegrated.

 

It took Daniel a moment to pull his eyes away from the spot where Jack had been.  From the silence around the table, he wasn't the only one so affected.

 

"General, with all due respect--"

 

General Hammond held up his hand to silence Sam and looked over at Anise.  "We will need the gate address for this world."

 

"Absolutely not."

 

"I'm afraid I must insist," Hammond said, his voice calm and authoritative.

 

Anise stared at Hammond.  Daniel thought that her attempt to look formidable would work better if she didn't wear such ridiculously sex-kittenish clothes.  Hammond didn't blink and Anise broke eye contact first.

 

"Sending any form of device to this planet is an unacceptable risk, General Hammond," Anise said.  "A risk that even Colonel O'Neill has wisely ordered against."

 

"Even if Colonel O'Neill had acted under the authority of the US Air Force, I am his commanding officer and he cannot order me to do anything." 

 

Daniel flicked his pen in his fingers as he waited for Anise to answer.  He wondered how far the general would go to get the address, wondered how much Anise would lose to keep it a secret.

 

After a moment of silence, General Hammond rose from his seat.  "You will not be allowed to leave the base until you have supplied us with the address."

 

Daniel smiled grimly.  Go General!  Hammond was good at playing hardball.

 

Anise glared first at the general and then at Jacob.  "This reckless behavior is exactly why we should not have told the SGC about this."

 

"You lost that option," Hammond said, "when you chose Colonel O'Neill to do the mission."

 

"At the very least, we will need the address in order to lock it out of our dialing program," Sam said.  "It wouldn't do to have us accidentally going to this planet."

 

An idea struck Daniel.  "Besides we can help you."

 

Anise narrowed her eyes at him.  "In what manner?"

 

"Jack destroyed your communicator and your way to monitor the planet.  You give us the gate address and we send a MALP through with any scientific equipment you need. 

 

"We can place another monitor on the planet without your help."

 

"No.  You can't."  Sam cut in.  "You can't ring anything down because you risk bringing the virus back up with the ring transfer."

 

"That right," Daniel agreed.  "The gate is the only safe way to get more equipment there, but you can't use it because Jack will watch for it and he will just blast anything you send through."  For once Daniel was pleased with Jack's trigger-happy reputation.  "Jack says he doesn't want to talk to us, but I doubt he'll destroy a MALP before he hears what we have to say."

 

"I could have a MALP ready to go in thirty minutes," Sam said.  She glanced over at Hammond.  "What do you think, sir?"

 

"It sounds like a workable compromise.  Anise?"

 

When Anise didn't say anything, Selmak spoke.  "It will allow you to continue you research into the toxin, Anise.  We accepted the possibility we would have to share this information with the Tau'ri."

 

"Very well," Anise said.  "I will have to return to my lab to retrieve the equipment I need."

 

"That sounds fair," General Hammond agreed.  "However, we will require the address before you leave."

 

Daniel thought Anise would refuse, but she nodded.  "On the condition that you do not send anything to the planet until I return."

 

"Fine," General Hammond said.  "Just don't take too long.  I want to speak to Colonel O'Neill as soon as possible."  The general nodded to the two SFs that Daniel hadn't noticed standing at the top of the stairs.  "These gentlemen will escort you to the operations room where you can give Sergeant Harriman the address.  Once he has that, he will dial you out of here."

 

Anise looked as if she had swallowed something distasteful, but she didn't say anything as she followed the SFs down the stairs.

 

"With you're permission, General, I will prep the MALP," Sam said.  She barely waited for his approval before she headed downstairs.

 

Jacob looked over at Hammond.  "You play a dangerous game, George."

 

"I didn't start this, Jacob.  You have no right to use my personnel without SGC approval."  Hammond stood and crossed to his office.

 

Daniel turned to Jacob.  "You think the general is handling this wrong?"

 

"I think this whole situation was handled wrong."  Jacob sighed.  "Sometimes I think the biggest problem we face isn't the Goa'uld but our own stubborn pride."

 

"Maybe," Daniel agreed.  He reached across the table and pressed the button on the second communicator.  Jack's battered form flickered to life above the table once more.  "Then again," Daniel said, "that stubbornness may be the only thing that saves us."

 

*~*~*

 

Jack watched the stars drift across the night sky.  There was a gradual lightening of the darkness and the stars winked out.  Every muscle in his body ached.  It took all his energy to breathe and then all he could manage were small mouths full of air that left tiny puffs of mist in the cold of predawn.  He just wanted to lie there and wait for the sun, but a lonely fear ate at the back of his mind.  Right now, this world was a deathtrap for anyone who came through the gate.

 

After two tries, he managed to sit up and pain stole what little breath he had.  When he tried to stand, the agony spiked.  He collapsed, retching.  His head swam, and black dots appeared in front of his eyes.  By the time he could focus again, the world was lighter and the sun had appeared over the distant mountains.  With a breathless curse, he scanned the jumble of equipment that surrounded him for the med kit.  He crawled over to it, pulled out another syringe of morphine and injected it.  The drug hit and he closed his eyes against the rapid spin of the world.  He laid back and waited for the drug to take full effect.

 

A heavy tiredness crept over him and a strange buzz filled his head.  Sleep.  He just needed a little sleep.  What harm would there be in a short nap?  Despite the rising sun, the surrounding world darkened and encouraged him to rest.  Jack savored the peaceful feeling that drifted up his arms and legs, a comforting lullaby of numbness.  The darkness deepened and Jack didn't want to fight any more.

 

Breathe, Colonel!

 

The sound of Doctor Fraiser's voice jerked him awake, and he gasped for breath.  His eyes refused to open; his head throbbed.  Was he in the infirmary?  The bed was cold and hard.  He must have broken a rib.  His chest was bound too tightly.  What was he was supposed to do?  Thoughts were elusive and the memory didn't come.  He was so tired.  The darkness called to him.

 

You need to breathe!

 

His body followed the order, but it felt as if he breathed through a pillow.  He lifted a leaden arm and attempted to push it away.  His hand fell on his uncovered face.  His heart pounded and his head swam.  What was wrong?  Why couldn't he get any air?  Panic stabbed through him.

 

Breathe!

 

None of it made any sense, but he did as she commanded.

 

Again.

 

He focused on breathing.  In.  Two, three.  Out.  Two, three.  In.  Two, three.  Out.  The oppressive darkness lessened and awareness slid into his consciousness.  Janet wasn't here.  This wasn't even Earth.

 

It's the morphine, Colonel.  Janet's voice faded in and out, a mere memory.  She had told him something once, something about morphine and breathing.  He forced his eyes open and continued to count his breaths.  In.  Out.  In.  Out.  When he stopped thinking about it, the air didn't come.

 

The sun was high in the sky before his breaths would come without conscious effort and even then, he couldn't take a deep breath.  His side spit fire when he moved and the ache of his other injuries had returned.  Unable to climb to his feet, he rolled to the steps that led down from the gate and slid off the edge of the platform, somewhat surprised when his legs held.  By the time he hobbled across the long grass to the MALP, his head swam from lack of oxygen.  The air felt damp and a heavy, sweet fragrance drifted from clumps of deep violet flowers that dotted the field.  The thick scent tickled his nose and he tasted it with each breath.  When he reached the MALP, he leaned against it and stared at his hands through cloudy eyes.  There was a blue tinge to his nails and small, weak tremors shook them.

 

Collapsed lung.  It was the only explanation.  He tried to remember when it could have happened but there had been so many blows, so many injuries.  If he'd broken the ribs and they'd punctured the lung, he'd fill with blood and that would be about it.  Even if the medical equipment necessary was on the MALP, he couldn't set up a chest tube.  The fact that he wasn't coughing up blood gave him hope that wasn't the case.  He just might be able to fix this on his own.

 

The large medical box was clearly marked with a large red cross and he flipped it open to stare at the alien looking instruments in it.  Now what?  Draw the air off with a syringe, he guessed.  Then seal that hole and pray that the lung inflated.  He hunted through the box and settled on a large syringe with a thick, evil-looking needle attached.  It looked like something the doc would use.  Another search through the box netted him a bottle of liquid bandage.  It wasn't what the doc would use but it would seal the hole.  He stared at the box and wondered if had missed some high-tech miracle tool.

 

Unable to think of an alternative, Jack pulled out some disinfectant wipes, closed the medical case and sank onto the soft grass.  The clasps on the flak vest refused to release and he had to cut it off with his field knife.  He saw that the side of the vest had been melted by the near miss of the Jaffa blast.  There were numerous gouges in the protective material, which included a deep indentation over the left shoulder but he didn't remember getting hit.  His shirt was even more difficult to remove.  It was caked with dust and blood; when he pulled at it, it reopened the wounds that it had dried to.  Raw cuts covered his chest and arms and deep, mottled bruises colored his skin.  He didn't want to think how much it would hurt when the morphine wore off.

 

The sun felt good against his skin and he stretched out away from the shadows of the MALP.  His stiff muscles screamed in protest when he rolled onto his good side.  He ripped open a wipe and swabbed clean a patch of skin over his ribs.  The effort required made him pant and his head rang again, but he focused on his task.  The filthy wipe tossed aside, he pulled the syringe out of its sealed bag.  The needle gleamed and he bit back the bile that rose in his throat.

 

It was easy to find the space between two ribs, and he placed the tip of the needle against his skin.  It was an awkward position to be in and his abused body refused to bend the way he needed.  He counted to three, and then counted to three again.  Finally, he jammed the needle into his side.

 

"Oh, God."  He didn't think he could hurt any more, but he was wrong.  The bite of the needle caused his side muscles to cramp and he almost jerked the syringe free in the spasm.  The needle scraped against a rib, and a strange, grating sensation traveled through his bones.  The panic subsided and he opened his eyes.

 

A thin trickle of fresh red blood cut through the crusted dirt on his chest but he ignored it.  How far in should the needle should go?  If he hit the lung it would bleed -- or bleed more, as the case may be.  Gritting his teeth, he drew the needle out until he could feel the tip of it bump against the rib.  His arms ached from the position he forced them into, and his side muscles continued to twitch. 

 

He gripped the needle tightly with his left hand and tugged the stopper up with his right.  It slid easily up the barrel of the syringe, drawing nothing but air.  When he had pulled it to the top, Jack paused.  Now what?  Why am I always unconscious when the doc does this?  The tightness around his chest eased but it was still impossible to take a deep breath.  After a second's hesitation, he pulled the stopper up just a little more, just to be sure to draw out as much air as possible.  Instead, he yanked it completely out of the syringe.  Panicked, he jerked the needle out of his side.  He fumbled with the liquid bandage bottle and managed to spread some of it over the area where he had inserted the needle.

 

His side muscles cramped again, and he struggled to straighten his side to stretch the stitch away.  When he inhaled sharply against the pain, he took his first good breath in hours.  Relief at being able to breathe pushed all discomfort from his mind.  He took another, even better, breath and laughed.  The laugh changed to a cough, but it was good to cough.  The last time this had happened to him, Janet had made him lay on his side for hours and threatened that if he didn’t keep coughing, she'd put in a chest tube. 

 

He lay in the sweet-smelling grass and coughed into the stillness, elated that each breath came easier than the last.  The blueness of his skin diminished and the cobwebs in his mind drifted away.  The suns soothed his tired muscles as he breathed.  He wondered what Janet would say about his field medicine technique and didn't know if he should be glad he'd never find out.

 

*~*~*

 

"Chevron Seven, locked."  Sergeant Harriman's voice rang through the control room.  The gate sprang to life and then settled down into its familiar blue. 

 

General Hammond frowned down at the people crowded around the MALP in the embarkation room.  None of them looked up when the gate opened.  "Is there a problem, Airmen?" he asked.

 

Samantha Carter and Doctor Janet Fraiser, the two closest to the MALP looked up.  "No, sir," Sam answered.  "We just wanted to double-check that the equipment Dr. Fraiser added won't interfere with the camera."

 

"We had to make some minor adjustments, sir."  Janet waved her hand at the equipment.  "If the computers can read the signals off the MALP, we're set."

 

Hammond looked over at the Lt. Graham Simmons, who monitored the equipment.  "Yes, sir.  Signal is five by and we are recording."

 

"We're all set, Doctor."

 

"And the Tok'ra's equipment?" Sam asked.

 

Anise, who stood at the back of the control room, studied a small handheld computer before she nodded.  "It appears to be working."

 

"Very well."  Hammond announced over the mike.  "Let's do this."

 

Sam and Janet left the gate room and ran up into the control room.  Janet stood behind Simmons, to watch the information as it came in from her equipment.  Sam stopped next to Daniel and Teal'c; and Jacob left Anise's side to stand by them.  Hammond nodded at them and then spoke over the mike.  "We have a go."

 

In tense silence, they watched the MALP crawl up the ramp and push through the event horizon.  Hammond's eyes already watched the video feed for the picture the MALP would send.  The first image was of the DHD, or rather, pieces of the DHD that lay scattered around the clearing.

 

"That's weird," Daniel said.  "It didn't look like that in Jack's communication with Vertas."

 

"No, it didn't," Sam agreed.  "Are we broadcasting to the colonel?"

 

Walter nodded.  "Yes, Ma'am.  No response yet."

 

"If Jack doesn't want to be found, he may just ignore us."

 

Walter shook his head.  "I'm not receiving any signs of Earth technology on the sweep.  It will pick up any readings for two miles, even passive use readings."

 

"Get a visual of the complete area," Hammond ordered.  It was possible Jack had moved further than that away but Hammond didn't think so.  Jack may not want contact with them, but the gate was a danger and he wouldn't be far from it.  "He may have left some indication of what happened."

 

Walter moved the camera in a slow sweep.  It was full daylight and the signs of Jack's activities were visible.  The air had a reddish tinge to it and a fine crimson dust covered everything.  Even the leaves on the trees looked bloody.

 

Hammond saw it a second before the others did: a slight movement in the brush off to the side.  "Stop.  Go back."  The picture edged back.  "There."  He peered at the screen and fully expected Jack to come out of the woods to demand that they remove the MALP at once.

 

Instead, a young woman dressed in tattered clothes peeked out from between the leaves.  She was gone so quick that Hammond almost thought he'd imagined it.

 

"Did you see that?" Daniel asked.

 

"Indeed," Teal'c said.  "It appeared to be a woman."

 

Daniel looked over at Anise.  "I thought you said this virus would kill all the people on the planet."

 

Anise ignored him as she studied the information on the handheld device that was connected to her monitoring equipment. 

 

Jacob spoke.  "It would, unless they'd received the vaccine.  There were reports of experimentation going on."

 

Hammond frowned.  "If there are refugees, Jack may not be alone on the planet, after all."  If people needed help, Jack would be close by.

 

"I don't know, George.  It's possible."

 

"That still doesn't explain why he doesn't answer us," Sam said.  "Or why we can't pick up any of his power use."

 

"General?"  Walter's voice drew Hammond's attention back to the technician.  Walter pointed at the screen.  The camera had stopped.  It showed a group of people gathered to one side.  They regarded the MALP suspiciously and pointed staff weapons at it.  Several of the armed men stood guard over two captured Jaffa who lay bound in front of them.

 

"That can't be right," Sam said.  "You said that the vaccine would kill the Jaffa."

 

"It does," Jacob moved closer to the display.  "It would kill the symbiote almost immediately.  Those Jaffa should be long dead, either from the vaccine or the virus."  He looked over at the other Tok'ra.  "Anise?"

 

"This can't be right."  Anise tapped at her screen a couple of times before she looked up.

 

"Someone needs to explain what's happening here," Daniel demanded

 

"There is no indication of the active contagion in any of the readings."

 

"That's great!" Sam said.  "That means that Jack was able to destroy it without releasing any into the air."

 

"No," Anise said.  "There is no sign of the active contagion, there are, however, indications of the its basic components as well as its inert form."

 

"What does that mean?" Daniel asked the question before Hammond could. 

 

"It appears that the contagion had been released but that it was rendered inert or broken down into harmless components."

 

"She's right," Janet confirmed.  "None of my readings find any of the active virus, either."

 

"How is that possible?" Hammond asked.

 

"I am not sure."  Anise scrolled through the information before her.  "I will have to do further study."

 

"There are several possibilities, sir."  Janet spoke from her position behind Simmons, her eyes on the data.  "From what I see here, it appears that there was something in the air that bonded with the contagion, and rendered it harmless or broke it down in to its basic, non-toxic elements."

 

"That is not possible," Anise said.  "Such a process would take a great deal of time, perhaps years."

 

"Possible or not, it's the only hypothesis I have that explains these readings."  Janet looked up from the computer screen.  "I will need to do tests on the planet to verify it."

 

"You cannot send people to that planet."  Anise crossed to Hammond.  "It is an unacceptable risk.  The Tok'ra council will never approve of such an act.  We can gather all the information we need through this device."

 

"General, the only way we will be able to find out what happened is to go to the planet."  Janet ignored Anise and moved to stand before Hammond.  "Our readings indicate there is no danger from the toxin.  The people on the planet verify those readings.  Just to be safe, I have Hazmat suits and gear standing by.  We can be through the gate and talking to those people in ten minutes."

 

"What about the DHD?" Hammond asked.

 

"We can take along a naquadah generator and do a manual dial to get home."

 

"It may be the only way to find out what happened to Jack," Daniel added.

 

Hammond glanced at Anise.  "You say that you can get everything you need to understand what happened through that device, will you fully disclose that information to us?"

 

"We will share the results, yes."

 

"With all due respect, General, that's not good enough."  Sam moved to stand next to Janet.  "For us to be able to understand this contagion we need to have full access to all the data."

 

"You could not possibly understand what we have here," Anise said.  "We would need to interpret it for you."

 

"He we go again," Janet said.  "It sounds just like the story you gave us with the armbands."

 

"Enough."  Hammond interrupted before the argument could escalate.  Hammond looked at the monitor.  The people on the planet began to approach the MALP, a mixture of fear and curiosity showed on their faces.  They brandished staff weapons, zats and crude clubs and looked more than willing to use them.  Signs of recent battles stained their clothes and some were injured and sick.  None looked welcoming.  Even without the threat of contamination, it was a dangerous situation.  How much would he risk to find out what happened to one disobedient and wayward colonel?  Stupid question.  There was more at stake here than just Colonel O'Neill, though.  They needed to find out more about the threat posed by this virus, and Anise's answer left only one course of action open. 

 

"Doctor Fraiser, Major Carter.  You have fifteen minutes to get your teams suited up.  Walter, shut it down.  We will dial it again when they are ready to go."

 

Dr. Fraiser and the three members of SG-1 headed down the steps before he'd finished.  After Walter disengaged the gate, Hammond turned to face the Tok'ra.

 

Anise's eyes flashed in anger.  "This is a mistake, General Hammond."

 

"Perhaps it is," Hammond agreed.  "But it is my mistake to make.  If you would like to accompany SG-1 on this mission, I'm sure that we can accommodate you."

 

Anise glared at him before she shook her head.  "That will not be necessary."  She looked at her handheld and then back at Hammond.  "Since this has now become a joint venture, would it be possible for me to have a room to analyze the information I have received so far?  I will, of course, share all the pertinent conclusions that I discover with your staff.  Provided, of course, that you will also share your data."

 

"Of course."  Hammond marveled at how quickly the Tok'ra could go from indignant and demanding to diplomatic and demanding.  The inherent imbalance in the information exchange hadn't escaped his attention, but he didn't press the point.  "I will inform Dr. Fraiser that she should contact you as soon as possible.  Meanwhile, you can use the conference room up the stairs.  My staff can provide you with anything you require."

 

Anise nodded and left Hammond and Jacob to stand in the mostly empty control room. 

 

"I'm sorry about this, George," Jacob said.  "Despite initial resistance, the council did decide that full disclosure was the best course"

 

"It's not your fault, Jacob," Hammond sighed.  "If Jack would be a normal officer, he would have come to me with this as soon as Anise approached him."

 

Jacob gave a snort of laughter.  "We all know if Jack were normal none of us would be here right now."

 

There was a long pause, and the usual hum of the control room filled the silence. 

 

"We will get him back, George."

 

"Damn right we will."  Hammond just wished he felt as confident as he sounded.

 

*~*~*

 

Jack didn't know how long he watched the sun move across the sky as he relished the ability to breathe.  It had been long enough for the morphine to wear off.  Pain sloshed in his head when he moved and exhaustion blurred the edges of his vision.  If he concentrated, he could push it all to the back of his mind and enjoy the soothing warmth of the sun on his bare skin.  He couldn't stay like this, though, no matter how enticing the thought was.  The dirt and grime that covered his body itched and his cuts prickled as if spiders crawled across them.  His wounds needed to be tended to and camp had to be set up.  The gate still needed to be buried.

 

He rolled to his knees, breathed through the pain and managed to stand.  The world slipped around him and his head spun.  The deep breaths he took stabbed pain through his chest but filled his lungs.  The disconnected feeling didn't dissipate.  Jack chose to ignore it.

 

The MALP stood only two yards away but Jack had to rest after he hobbled over to it.  First order of business was to patch himself up or he'd not be around long enough to bury the gate.  He dug through the supplies and found soap, towels and a fresh change of clothes.  A case of bottled water was tied to the back of the MALP.  Jack pulled one out and drank half of it in one long pull.  The liquid soothed his hot throat but cramped his stomach.  He leaned against the MALP and waited for the nausea to pass before he slowly drank the rest of the water.  Standing had eased some of the fogginess and he could feel his strength return.  It felt good to be able to breathe again.

 

Jack tucked the supplies under his arm and limped over to the medical supply box to grab several boxes of bandages, disinfectant wipes, Polysporin powder and a brace for his knee.  There was a small, fast moving river just to the west of the gate.  It had been free of contaminates when the SGC had studied it and Jack was sure that if he stayed out of the stagnant pools, the water would pose little danger.

 

He heard the river before he saw it.  The tall willow-like trees that lined its banks made it difficult to walk, but Jack followed an animal trail down to the edge of the stream.  It was cool in the shade of the trees and Jack wished he'd brought a jacket from off the MALP.  He slid down the grassy incline and sat on the small bank.  It was even colder by the river, and he shivered in the misty air. 

 

The tight knots of bootlaces almost defeated his cramping fingers but he worked them free and tugged his feet out of his boots.  Out of their leather prison, they throbbed with every heartbeat.  Once he peeled off his socks, he plunged his feet into the stream.  The freezing cold stole his breath and cramped his legs but the water felt good against the rawness of his feet.  He laid back and waited for his body to adjust to the cold.

 

Once he was sure he could stand, he pushed himself onto his protesting feet.  He unstrapped his pistol and laid it on the shore, then stripped off the remainder of his clothes.  Without the bandage, his knee shook, but he could keep standing if he placed most of his weight on his good leg.  Except for the few that had been reopened when he pulled off his clothes, the cuts and abrasions that covered his body had scabbed over.  They didn't look good, though.  Most of them were inflamed and some leaked thick green pus.  He dreaded the pain that would come when he cleaned them, but he couldn't leave the infections untreated.

 

He grabbed a cloth, antibacterial soap and began at the top.  The water swirled sanguine around his feet as he worked and he watched as the bloodstained water was swept around a small bend in the river.  The SG reports had stated that there weren't any predators in this area and he hoped they were right.  None of his wounds were very large but they were all infected.  The dirt-laden scabs soaked off and he rinsed out as much of the pus as he could.  It worried him that every cut showed signs of infection; even the smallest nick had pus forming in it.  He cleaned each one, biting back the pain that came when the soap crawled into the wounds.  By the time he had finished, the cuts were raw and bleeding.

 

He scrambled back up the bank and wrapped a warm, soft towel around his battered form.  Cleaning the wounds had removed most of the pus and the cold water had reduced the redness and swelling.  After he dusted each of the wounds with a liberal dose of the Polysporin powder, he covered it with a sterile bandage.  It took three boxes to cover them all.  His skin felt hot to the touch, but his teeth chattered.  Unable to come up with a good explanation for it, he wrote it off as nerves. 

 

It was difficult to put the brace on his leg without aggravating the cuts on it but he managed, grateful to be able to stand without the threat of his knee buckling.  He pulled on the clothes he had brought with him, but he didn't feel dressed until he strapped his pistol back on.  For the first time in days, he felt clean.  The warm socks felt good on his swollen feet even after he pried them back into his boots.  Then he picked up his wet, filthy clothes and hobbled out of the willows' shade into the sunlit clearing.

 

Once back at the MALP, he unloaded the supplies and set up camp.  Everything seemed to take forever, like he was working underwater, in slow motion.  He started to set up the large tent he'd packed, then changed his mind and dug out the little one.  It would provide enough shelter for the night and that's all he needed.  Tomorrow, once he felt better, he'd set up camp proper.  He was grateful that the tent almost set itself and he tossed a sleeping roll inside.  Finally, he set up the naquadah generator and attached the electric camp light he'd brought.  In the future, he would attach it to a pole, as the Jaffa had done back on Nirrti's planet.  It would provide enough light to illuminate the entire clearing, until he ran out of light bulbs.

 

With the MALP almost bare, he climbed onto it and used the onboard controls to move it to the gate.  For the next hour, he moved the weapons scattered around the gate back to his campsite.  He wouldn't have been able to do it if he hadn't had the MALP.  The sun was warm and sweat trickled down his face and back, but when the breeze blew, he shivered.  The lightheadedness grew steadily worse, along with a heightened sense of touch that Jack always associated with fever. 

 

Finished hauling the supplies, Jack took a moment to rest and downed several antibiotics and painkillers from the med kit.  He leaned back against the MALP and let his head fall onto the cold metal of the machine.  His ribs burned fire, his knee throbbed with each heartbeat and, if he concentrated, he could feel each and every one of the cuts that he'd bandaged.  His sweat soaked clothes stuck to his skin and he could see stains where blood and pus had soaked through.  He pulled himself over to his food supplies and forced himself to drink another bottle of water.  Although it hadn't been refrigerated, it burned a cold trail down his throat and chilled his stomach. 

 

Jack tossed the half-empty bottle aside, pulled himself onto the MALP again and guided it back to the gate.  Once he'd disabled it, he could rest.  Too much time had passed already.  He didn't have the strength needed to actually bury the gate, but he didn't need to.  All he needed was to make sure that a wormhole couldn't form.  And Sam had already come up with a fast and easy way to do that.  He thought he should have left her a note to thank her for her genius work.  She wouldn't appreciate that he had used it to strand himself on this world after he left them all behind.

 

Got that right, sir.

 

Jack knew that the voice was all in his head but he looked around and half expected to see his second-in-command standing next to him.  She would have that look of acceptance and disappointment that she wore when she didn't understand his motives.  He rubbed a rough hand across his face, surprised at how hot and dry his skin was.  A half of water wasn't enough, he should've drank the entire bottle.

 

He maneuvered the MALP behind the gate and stopped at his best guess of where the center of the ring would fall, once he knocked over.  Then he untied the last bundle from the MALP and pushed it onto the green grass.  The bundle was made up of two different chemicals that, when combined, created a fast growing foam that would expand to the size of the Stargate and harden into a cement-like barrier in just under fifteen minutes.  Jack really didn't understand it but if Sam was right, it would prevent the gate from establishing an event horizon.  And really, how often was Sam wrong?

 

I was wrong about you.  Sam's voice echoed in his head again.

 

Jack frowned.  What did she mean by that?  Wait.  What did he mean by that?  It was just his mind playing tricks on him, after all.  Jack rubbed at a growing headache.

 

With the MALP close to the gate platform, he grabbed a small pack of explosives and climbed onto it.  If he set the charges right, the gate would topple over and land flat on the ground behind the dais.  Then he'd just have to activate Sam's Instant Wormhole Blocker, and everything would be fine.

 

You have an odd definition of 'fine' -- it was Daniel's voice this time -- stranded alone in a deserted world, hallucinating that your friends are talking to you.

 

Jack blinked against a sudden wave of dizziness.  His knees buckled and he fell to the platform.  Too lightheaded to stand, he half-crawled, half-rolled over to the gate. 

 

You do not appear to be well, O'Neill.  Perhaps you should rest.

 

"Perhaps you guys should leave me alone," Jack muttered aloud.  "This is why I didn't tell you what I was doing.  If you can think of a better solution let me know."

 

The voices didn't answer and Jack placed small squares of C-4 around the bottom of the gate.

 

*~*~*

 

"If he's not on the planet, where the hell is he?"  General Hammond's voice echoed down the stairs from the conference room.

 

Daniel ignored the stares of the technicians in the control room and jogged up the steps.  He understood the general's frustration.  They had returned from the planet with the good news that the virus had been rendered benign.  None of the people on the planet had tested positive for any traces of the contagion, nor was it present anywhere in the environment.  Although Anise still hadn't agreed, Janet was sure that, over time, the planet had developed a counter-agent to the virus, one that provided a natural immunity.  When Jack had destroyed the pyramids and released the virus, it had been neutralized.  Nirrti's virus was no longer a concern.

 

However, they'd also returned without Jack.  The people on the planet told them the story of the mysterious man who saved them and destroyed the houses of the 'evil gods'.  They'd painted Jack as something of a supernatural being himself, able to withstand torture that would kill a normal human and to control fire and reign down destruction.  Daniel would have been amused by it all, if Jack had been around to be uncomfortable by the deification.  The people told how he used all his strength to destroy the pyramids and then had fallen beneath the rubble, unable to save himself.  A few of the more brave souls had uncovered him, gathered all his belongings and piled them to the side.  Then, afraid of the power this amazing being exhibited, they'd hid and watched his resurrection from safety.

 

The story they wove of Jack's struggle to haul his equipment to the gate, his use of the gods' chaapa'ai, and of his magical communication with a spirit from another world, both fascinated and frightened.  Jack's battered image from the communicator haunted Daniel's thoughts, as did the knowledge of everything that Jack had endured.  Jack's disappearance through the gate a moment before he'd destroyed the DHD was painted as another selfless act to keep the evil gods from stealing them away again.  It was clear that the only reason the rescue team hadn't been attacked when they came through the gate was they were dressed like Jack.

 

Anise's voice echoed around the conference room as he entered.  "It appears he used the Stargate to leave the world after his communication with Vertas."

 

"But it doesn't make sense," Daniel took the seat between Sam and Teal'c.  "Jack thinks he is a carrier.  He believes that he will infect any world that he goes to.  There's no way he would do that."

 

"I, too, am puzzled by his actions," Teal'c said.  "However, that is how it appears."

 

"I don't care how it appears," Daniel insisted.  "Jack would never go to another planet knowing that he'd kill everyone living there."

 

"Wait."  Sam stood up; excitement flushed her face.  "What if he knew no one would die?"

 

"You have an idea, Major?" General Hammond asked.

 

"An uninhabited planet.  If he gated to an uninhabited planet, no one would die.  He wouldn't have to spend the rest of his life trapped on a planet full of the dead and there would be no chance that we would ignore his request to leave him alone.  I'm such a fool.  This explains all of it."

 

"This explains all of what?"  Daniel couldn't keep up with Sam's train of thought.

 

"Why the colonel sent a MALP and UAV through the gate.  Why he blacked out the base."

 

With all the developments, Daniel had almost forgotten about what had started this all in the first place.  "You think he's on P45-780?"

 

"No. I believe that Colonel O'Neill found an uninhabited planet to gate to after the mission was done.  He sent the MALP full of supplies to that planet and then he blacked out the SGC to cover his tracks."

 

"Do you now believe that O'Neill intended to cause the power loss?" Teal'c asked.

 

"I do." 

 

Daniel's protest was cut off by a small wave of Sam's hands.  Her eyes glinted with a life that Daniel hadn't seen in them since Jack had left.  If she thought she had it figured out, he would listen to her.  He leaned back and waited for her to continue.

 

"In fact, I don't think it was a malfunction at all.  We know Colonel O'Neill altered the surveillance feeds so we couldn't see where he dialed.  I think he opened a gate to the planet he is now on and that's where he sent the MALP and UAV.  In fact, that would explain why he used a UAV at all."

 

"It does?"

 

"Reconnaissance."  Jacob answered Daniel's question.  "Jack would have wanted to make sure that the planet was still uninhabited.  He'd need an aerial survey to get the best look."

 

Sam nodded.  "The UAV he used was a prototype, with a longer range and higher flight ability.  He also added some extra monitoring equipment to it.  It didn't make any sense when I first looked at it, but it's the perfect tool for locating long-range life signs.  If I had wanted to know if the planet was uninhabited, that's the UAV I would've used."

 

She turned to General Hammond.  "The reason we didn't find the equipment on P45-393 is because he sent them to an entirely different gate address."

 

"How is that possible?  According to your own reports, the gate only dialed P45-393 and it had an open connection to that world when the power failed.

 

"Once Colonel O'Neill closed the gate to where ever," she waved her hand in the air, "he dialed P45-393 and inputted a computer program that would erase all record of the previous wormhole.  Then he instituted a large area blackout that would force a hard reboot of the system, effectively masking everything he did."

 

From the silence that met Sam's explanation, Daniel knew they all thought the same thing.  "Oh, come on, Sam.  We all know Jack couldn't write a computer program to do all that."

 

"He didn't have to," she answered.  "I did."

 

"Would you care to explain that, Major?" General Hammond ordered.

 

"After the Touchstone incident, Colonel O'Neill asked me to investigate if it would be possible to illicitly use our Stargate.  My research showed it would be impossible to secretly open a wormhole with our gate.  However, in the report I submitted, I outlined the possibility of using our Stargate and then eliminating the gate coordinates from all the computers: primary and backups.  I included the programs needed to do so."

 

"You believe that Colonel O'Neill used those programs to hide his activities?"

 

Sam nodded.  "When the surveillance cameras came back on after the blackout, you can see the colonel pick up a piece of paper from the console.  The picture isn't clear enough for me to be sure, but I'll bet it was my program."

 

Daniel groaned.  "But that puts us right back were we started from.  We still have no way to track where he went."

 

"We might."

 

Sam's smile gave Daniel hope.  "You have an idea."

 

"Yes."  Sam crossed to the computer on the side of the room.  "We implemented a new diagnostic program last month.  It compares how long it takes to dial each address.  That's all it records, the address and the speed.  It's not part of the normal gate computer system and the programs I submitted to Colonel O'Neill didn't include it.  I didn't think it was important before because we thought we knew where the Colonel had dialed."

 

"Then all we have to do is find the one address on the list that we haven't dialed and that will be the address of the planet Jack is on?"

 

"Right."  She gestured to the computer.  "With your permission, General.  I can access the information from here."

 

"Very well."

 

Daniel rubbed his arms, as if trying to warm himself up.  "Once we have the address, we just have to drag him back here."

 

"And the sooner the better," Janet Fraiser's voice came from the top of the stairs.  "Sorry to interrupt, General, but I have some information you need to see."  She crossed the room and handed the general a small packet of papers.  "Several of the refugees from Nirrti's planet are in critical condition in the infirmary and they all exhibit identical symptoms."

 

General Hammond asked the question they all had.  "Is it the virus?"

 

"No, sir.  But I believe it is related to the planet.  All of them have wounds that have become septic.  The infection has spread throughout their bodies at an alarming rate.  They told me that several members of their group had died on planet from the same symptoms days after they received what should have only been minor injuries.  I checked on the wounded from the planet, all of their wounds display indications of the infection.

 

"I've started them on treatment.  A cocktail of antibiotics slows the advance of the infection but we need to isolate the bacteria that are the cause in order to develop an effective treatment.  What I'm doing right now is just a stopgap.  If we don't find a way to fight this specific bacteria. . .  They have a day, two tops."

 

"What is the danger to the base, Doctor?"

 

"Minimal.  I've initiated decon protocols on everything brought back from the planet as well as the personnel."  She glanced apologetically at SG-1.  "You will have to report for a complete scrub down immediately.  All base personnel that sustained an injury in the last three days are required to report to the infirmary so we can monitor any possible cross contamination.  It's all just a precaution, though.  I don't believe there is a danger unless you incurred the wound on the planet."

 

The picture of Jack, battered and bleeding, flashed before Daniel's eyes and churned his stomach.  "What about Jack?"

 

Janet's eyes were full of sympathetic concern.  "I don't know.  He was exposed.  It's fast moving and becomes life threatening within days.  We need to find him.  Soon."

 

"I've got it."  Sam's triumphant cry cut through the sudden stillness.  She grinned over at them.  "PT9-780."

 

It took Daniel a moment to remember that she'd been trying to figure out where Jack had gone.  "Are you sure?"

 

"It’s the only unauthorized gate address," she said.  "He has to be there.  I've sent it to the dialing computer."  She snapped to attention in front of General Hammond.  "With your permission, sir?"

 

"I'll hold off on dialing until you three complete the Doctor's decon protocols.  Be quick."

 

Daniel bit back a protest and trailed after Sam and Teal'c as they followed Janet down the stairs.  Sam was sure they had the right place but Daniel feared that it wasn't going to be that easy.  Nothing with Jack ever was.

 

*~*~*

 

Jack placed the last small charge of C-4 and gently inserted the detonator.  It wouldn't take much explosive to knock the gate over, the trick was to make the gate fall backward and land right where it needed to.  He put the remainder of the C-4 block into his pocket.  He might need it later.

 

You always think that explosives are the answer to everything, don't you?

 

Jack blinked against the sweat that dropped off his forehead.  Daniel's blurry form wavered in front of him.  He blinked again and Daniel was gone.  It had taken him far longer than he would have liked to set up the detonations.  His team had become increasingly bothersome.

 

We're bothersome?  You're the one always running off to play hero.  Sam flitted around the edges of his vision.  When's the last time any of us disobeyed orders?

 

Jack's laugh turned into a cough.  "Dan'l," he choked out.  "Never. . . never follows orders."

 

Not being military, I don't have to obey orders, you know.  You should be happy that I follow as many as I do.

 

Daniel and Sam floated in front of him to merge into an indistinguishable blob. 

 

"Stop that."  Jack closed his eyes at the sight and leaned back against the base of the gate.  He just needed to gather his energy before he pulled back a bit and blew the gate.  A little rest, a short break from the annoying apparitions of his friends.

 

*~*~*

 

General Hammond took up his usual position behind Walter as the sergeant began the dialing process.  Sam, Daniel, and Teal'c, fresh from a decon scrub, followed Janet down to the gate room.  SG-3 and two medics waited at the bottom of the ramp, just behind the MALP the general insisted on sending in first.  Sam knew it was the smart thing to do, but she still rankled at the idea that they couldn't just run through and save the colonel.  Janet hadn't said so, but Sam knew that Jack's multiple injuries would speed the spread of the infection.

 

The gate spun to the first symbol and snapped into place.

 

"Chevron one engaged," Walter said.

 

Sam drummed her fingers as the gate spun again.

 

*~*~*

 

The cool stone felt good against his fevered face, as did the breeze that swept over him.  The thought that he had to do something nagged at the back of his mind but he was too tired to try and remember what it was.  If only the gate would be quiet, he could get some rest.  Once he slept, he'd remember everything.

 

I do not believe you should sleep this close to the Stargate, O'Neill, Teal'c said.

 

Jack forced his eyes open.  Teal'c was not to be seen, but the gate lit up above him.

 

*~*~*

 

Sam double-checked the ammunition for her P-90.  She didn't expect trouble on the deserted planet, but years of training and experience made the action habitual.  She glanced over at Daniel who bounced on the balls of his feet.  The gate slid to a stop.

 

"Chevron two engaged."

 

*~*~*

 

As Jack stared at the Stargate, it warped in front of him and he blinked through the effect.  Was the gate really opening? 

 

Come on, sir.  Can't you tell what's reality and what's not?

 

Sam sat next to him and wore a neon orange uniform.  "Obviously not."  He knew there was a reason he shouldn't want the gate to open, but he couldn't think what it was.

 

*~*~*

 

Janet reached over and touched Sam's arm.  "It'll be okay.  The colonel is tough, tough and stubborn.  He'll be fine once we get him back here."

 

Sam smiled at her friend.  "I know, it's just. . ."  It just felt like she spent so much of her time waiting.  She wasn't even sure what she was waiting for.  She just knew she was afraid that by the time she figured out what she wanted, it would be too late to get it.

 

"Chevron three engaged."

 

*~*~*

 

Jack rolled to his knees and noticed that he held a detonator in his hand, but he couldn't remember what it was for.

 

You're going to blow yourself up, remember? Daniel said.  Blow yourself up, and take Ra with you.

 

Jack glanced at a skinnier, longer-haired Daniel.  He wore different glasses and he held a candy bar in one hand.  Jack looked back at the detonator.  It sounded like something he would do.

 

Daniel told me once that you had a death wish.  Sam stood next to him.  This time she had on the dress she had been forced to wear when they had dealt with the Shavadai.  Do you really want to die?

 

"No."  Jack's thoughts scattered before him, like leaves on the wind.  "No.  I'm not going to die.  I've had the vaccine."  As he said it, the fog around his memory cleared.  If he let the gate open, the virus he carried would kill everyone who came through.  The detonator was for that.

 

The gate announced the arrival of another chevron.  Jack stood.  He had to blow the gate.

 

*~*~*

 

"I wonder what Jack will say when we show up," Daniel asked.

 

"Since he still thinks he's infected by an incurable virus," Janet answered, "I'm thinking it's a good thing we're sending the MALP through first."

 

"I didn't think about that," Daniel admitted.  "He might not be too happy to see us."

 

Sam hadn't thought about it, either.  It was typical.  The harder she had to work to rescue Jack, the less he wanted to be rescued.

 

"Chevron four engaged."

 

*~*~*

 

Jack stumbled down the steps.  His team waited for him on the ground.

 

You sure you want to do this, Jack?  You bury the gate and there's no way off of here.

 

"I knew it was one-way when I bought the ticket," Jack said. 

 

Why would the Tok'ra require you to purchase passage to participate in this mission?

 

"It's a--"  The sound of another chevron cut him off.  He ducked down to use the platform for shelter and punched the detonator.

 

*~*~*

 

The gate shuddered and ground to a halt.  A half a breath later, it started up again and inched toward its next destination.

 

"Sergeant?"  Sam looked up at Walter.

 

"I'm not sure, Ma'am.  It wasn't anything on our end.  There were anomalous readings from the destination."  He stared at his console.  "All readings have leveled off and all systems are within acceptable parameters.  There's no explanation for the anomaly.

 

Sam looked back at the gate, unwilling to do what she knew she should.  "Hold the procedure, Walter.  I'll check it out."  The gate paused.  "I'll be right back."  She dashed out the door and up the stairs to the control room.

 

*~*~*

 

As the sharp echoes of the explosion died away, Jack stood and looked at the platform.  Empty space stood where the gate had been.

 

"Still got it," he said.

 

It's easy to blow things up, sir.  Even Marines can do it.

 

Jack's snappy comeback was cut off by the sound of the gate as it powered up again.  He swore under his breath and limped around to the back of the platform.  The gate had fallen where he had needed it to, but the dial-in was still in progress and the chevrons were still locked in place.

 

"Fine."  Jack pulled out his pistol and pointed it at the package in the middle of the gate.  When he shot through it, the chemicals would mix and the gate would be blocked for good.

 

That won't work, sir.

 

He ignored the image of Sam as she stood next to him.  She didn't say anything more, and he wavered.  "Why not?"

 

Sam morphed into a less helpful Daniel.  You can't blow it up, what makes you think you can shoot it?

 

*~*~*

 

Sam did a quick scan of the gate diagnostics.  She couldn't find an explanation for the gate's behavior.

 

"Major?" General Hammond prompted.

 

"I don't know, sir," Sam was forced to admit.  "It had to be something on the other end."

 

"What?"

 

"I don't know, sir."  She studied the monitor for a moment more, and then turned to Walter.  "Let it dial the next coordinate only, then pause the dial again."  She turned her attention to the gate below as Walter followed her orders.  The gate made one complete circle and spun to a stop.  The chevron marked it as the correct one and the gate paused.

 

"Chevron five engaged," Walter dutifully reported.

 

*~*~*

 

Jack glared at the phantom of Daniel.  "Why won't it work?" he demanded.

 

Daniel melted into Teal'c, who stared at him impassively.

 

It came to him.  "It would take too long to harden."  The connection would establish before it was blocked.  The forming wormhole would disintegrate everything in its path.

 

The fifth chevron lit up. 

 

*~*~*

 

Sam continued to study the data from the gate.  There was nothing wrong with any of it, but she couldn't account for the power surge.  The data scrolled over her screen but she couldn't concentrate on it.  It would be best to find out what was wrong before the dial continued, but she didn't want to.  She wanted to save Jack.

 

"Wait a minute," she said.  "Let me check Jack's dial-in to the planet and see if he ran into the same problem." 

 

The seconds ticked by as she pulled up the gate-recording program she'd used to find Jack.  She scanned the data and ignored the panic that pushed at her.

 

*~*~*

 

The solution came to Jack all at once and, as all his most desperate plans did, it sprang into his head fully formed, like Athena from Zeus.  He holstered his pistol and scrambled across to the gate.  His injured body screamed in protest when he climbed onto it and rolled into the center of the ring.

 

This is not an advantageous position to be in, O'Neill.

 

Jack pulled himself to his feet and hurried to the bundle of gate-blocker.  There were only two chevrons to go before it -- and he -- were disintegrated in the forming wormhole.

 

*~*~*

 

Sam looked up from the computer screen in front of her.  The gate had dialed the planet without problems last time.  The entire control room waited for her to make a decision.  "There is nothing to explain the gate's behavior, sir.  Readings look good on this end.  I say we continue the dial."

 

*~*~*

 

Jack grabbed the heavy bundle and dragged it toward the edge of the gate.

 

I thought you were over this death wish stuff, Jack.  Daniel wavered directly in font of him.  Jack stumbled through the apparition.  Exhaustion and the roar of pain in his head almost drowned out the hallucination.

 

*~*~*

 

General Hammond nodded.  "Continue, Sergeant."

 

Walter put his hand on the screen and the gate groaned to life.  Sam watched as the sixth symbol spun into place.  She willed it to move faster.

 

"Chevron six engaged."

 

*~*~*

 

Jack panted with exertion.  The ropes that bound the heavy package cut into his fingers. 

 

You're in no shape to do this, sir.

 

Jack ignored the comment and concentrated on breathing and moving.  He had three steps to safety.

 

The sixth chevron lit up.

 

*~*~*

 

Sam scrolled through the data as the gate continued its dial.  Everything looked good and the gate turned smoothly, headed to the final symbol.

 

She looked up at the general.  "I'll schedule a full diagnostic once we get the colonel back."

 

*~*~*

 

Jack took two steps and struggled to hoist the package over the edge of the fallen gate.  His arms gave out and it dropped onto the ring.  A wave of dizziness swept over him and he retched.

 

*~*~*

 

The symbol for the Tau'ri slid to a stop by the final chevron.

 

*~*~*

 

Jack fell to his knees and leaned against the gate as the fog in his head threatened to overwhelm him.  The unlit chevron under his hands was warm.  As he blinked at it, it started to hum.

 

*~*~*

 

Sam held her breath as the final symbol snapped into place.

 

"Chevron seven locked."

 

*~*~*

 

Jack's hands slipped on the slick stone as he pushed himself to his feet.  The hum built and the gate warmed under his touch.  He leaned into the bundle and it crashed to the ground.  A dull glow appeared in the center of the chevron.  Jack pivoted to follow.  His foot caught.  The brace twisted, broke.  The hum became a buzz.  His knee buckled and the sharp edge of the gate scraped along his leg.  Jack's hoarse scream merged with the sound of the final chevron locking into place.

 

*~*~*

 

Separated by half a universe, the gates on Earth and PT9-780 exploded to life; each gate spewed a geyser of lethal plasma into the air that disintegrated everything in its path.

 

*~*~*

 

The raised markings on the gate dug into Jack's shoulders as he rolled across it.  The erupting gate drove a pocket of air before it that flung Jack's legs out of the way of the plasma surge.  He continued his roll, and dropped off the gate and onto the unforgiving hardness of the ground.  The drop may have only been a couple of feet, but the impact knocked the air out of him.  For a terrified eternity, he thought he'd collapsed the lung again.  Then he exhaled from his empty lungs and sucked in a full breath.

 

*~*~*

 

Sam smiled for the first time since she'd arrived in the control room.  "Good work, Walter," she told the technician.  She grabbed the microphone and spoke to the people who waited in the gate room. 

 

"Just let me double-check the numbers and we'll send the MALP."  She didn't wait for them to respond.  Jack was so close now.

 

*~*~*

 

The world pulsated around Jack as he struggled to sit.  The pain in his knee stole his breath.  He tugged the broken brace off and tossed it to the side.  Then he straightened the leg and tried to push the agony away.

 

Well, so far this plan is going swimmingly.  Sam sat on the gate and trailed her hand in the event horizon. 

 

I agree.  Daniel did the backstroke on the surface of the wormhole.  Although, you really haven't done anything yet.

 

Jack groaned and pulled himself to his feet.  He leaned heavily against the gate platform, and ignored his ghosts.

 

You are mistaken, Daniel Jackson.  With the Stargate in its current position, O'Neill has prevented travel to this planet.

 

Despite the pain, it appeared that he hadn't damaged his knee any further.  He limped a couple of steps away from the active gate.  The leg trembled but worked.  It felt even stronger as he walked back.

 

He's still going to kill anyone who comes through.  Daniel swam to the edge and rested his arms and head on the gate next to Sam.  They'll fall back into it and be disintegrated.

 

"I'm going to fix that."  Jack muttered.  "Just wait."  He pulled the partially used block of C-4 out of his pocket, steadied his shaking hands as much as possible and attached a remote detonator.

 

Do you know what the odds are of you successfully destabilizing the wormhole, sir?

 

"No."  Jack attempted to blink away his dizziness as he squinted at his handiwork.  He couldn't focus through the double vision.  "But I bet I could make a killing off them."

 

*~*~*

 

"It looks good, General," Sam said.  "The wormhole is established and the readings are currently normal.  With your permission, we can send the MALP."

 

"You have a go, Major."

 

She looked down at the gate room and was surprised to see the large number of people that were gathered around the blast doors.  It was as if the entire base had listened in.  They probably had.  By now, everyone knew what happened and most had helped in some way.  She wondered if the colonel deserved that amount of loyalty.  Of course he does.  That's the problem.

 

The MALP drove up the ramp and headed through the gate.

 

*~*~*

 

Five feet from the fallen gate, Jack hoisted the primed C-4 in his hand and tried to judge the weight.

 

You can't let it fall into the event horizon, Jack.  Don't wait too long before you hit the button.

 

But if you blow it too high, sir, it won't have any effect on the wormhole at all.  You know what they say about men your age and premature explosions.

 

"For cryin' out loud," Jack said.  "Why don't you quit yappin' and help me."

 

As we are an invention of your mind, O'Neill, we cannot assist you in any substantial manner.

 

"Right.  I knew that."  Jack measured the distance with his eyes again, and took two stumbling steps backward.  He peered at the insubstantial figures of his friends; all three stood on the gleaming blue wormhole.  "In that case, why don't you just go away?"

 

He tossed the C-4 in a high, slow arc.  It flew through the air, crested above the gate and then fell, straight down on the phantoms of his friends.  When it was even with Daniel's head, he pushed the detonator.

 

*~*~*

 

The MALP reached the top of the ramp and headed into the wormhole. 

 

"Target is on route," Walter said. 

 

The wormhole shuddered and Sam's computer spewed information across the screen. 

 

"Whoa," Walter said.  "I've lost transmission.  No, wait.  I've got it back now.  Target has arrived."  He checked the readings.  "Hold on."

 

"What's happening, Major?"

 

Sam fought to keep up with the information she got from the gate.  "There was another power surge, a big one.  It appeared we'd lost integrity for a moment, but everything's back now."

 

Daniel appeared at her side.  "Sam, is there a problem?"

 

Before Sam could assure him that everything was fine, Walter interrupted.

 

"Yes, there is.  A big problem."

 

*~*~*

 

The concussion from the blast knocked Jack off his feet.  When he managed to climb back up, the wormhole was closed.

 

"Yes!"

 

Nicely done, sir.

 

Don't encourage him, Sam.  He'll just want to throw bombs at all our problems.

 

Jack made it a point to ignore them.

 

*~*~*

 

Sam turned to Walter.  "Did we lose the MALP?"

 

"No, Ma'am, but it's not on PX3-780."

 

"What?"  Sam turned to the computer that displayed the information from the MALP.  It only took a second to confirm Walter's statement.  "This can't be right."

 

"Is it gone?" Daniel asked.

 

"No.  It's materialized on a planet somewhere," Sam said.  "Just not PX3-780.  This planet has a toxic level of methane in the atmosphere."

 

"I have a visual," Walter announced. 

 

A dense, misty jungle appeared on the monitor.  The DHD sat off to the right, barely visible through the vegetation that covered it. 

 

"I need an explanation here, people."

 

"I'm not sure, sir," Sam looked back at the data that covered her computer screen.  "I think the wormhole jumped."

 

"You mean like what happened with you and Jack in Antarctica?"

 

"Yes, and like we did when we couldn't disconnect with the black hole on P3W-451."

 

"I thought that there needed to be some kind of explosion for that to happen," The general stared at the gate, as if willing it to provide an answer.  "Our gate is fine."

 

"Yes, sir.  It had to have happened on the other end.  Perhaps, a lightning strike or a bomb of some sort."  She couldn't think of a reasonable explanation.

 

"Jack did it."

 

Everyone looked at Daniel. 

 

"It's like Janet said: he still thinks he's infected with this killer virus.  He wouldn't want anyone to come through the gate because they would just die when they walked onto the planet."

 

General Hammond sighed.  "Suggestions?"

 

Sam chewed her lip for a moment.  "I think we should try dialing PT9-780 again.  Even if he attempts to destabilize the new wormhole, it may be possible to send him a message first.  Something small."

 

"A message in a bottle," Daniel offered.

 

Sam nodded.  "Just so that he knows it's okay for us to come through."

 

"Very well, mark where the MALP went, just in case we ever get back there.  Get this message ready and dial the gate again."

 

*~*~*

 

Jack stumbled back to the now-still gate.  Relief and adrenaline gave him the energy to stay upright.  He climbed back into the Stargate and dragged the bundle of Instant Wormhole Blocker back into the center.  Without the knee brace, it took all his concentration not to fall.  He turned slowly and walked back to the edge of the gate.

 

It's not as exciting if the gate isn't dialing, Daniel observed.

 

Jack was too tired to ignore the hallucination.  "You should try it in my body."  He rolled over the fallen gate.

 

You really don't look well, sir.  Carter wavered in front of him, translucent.

 

"You don't look so hot yourself."  He steadied himself against the ring, drew his pistol and fired one shot into the package.  It exploded into a foaming dirty-yellow mass that expanded across the inner circle of the gate.  The grass burned where it touched and a cloud of foul-smelling smoke billowed into the air.  The stench made his eyes water and he backed away before he gagged on it. 

 

"Did you know how bad this stuff smelled, Carter?"

 

There was no answer and when Jack looked around there was no sign of his team.  "Aw, guys.  Don't leave now.  It's not like you can smell it."  Jack's plea fell on an empty clearing.

 

*~*~*

 

It took Daniel fifteen minutes to fashion a perfect 'bottle' for the message.  He'd modified an empty air-rocket canister to make it fit on to a spear gun that he had picked up on an off-world mission.  The note was easier to craft: You're not contagious.  The Tok'ra got it wrong.  Let us through, you idiot.  He didn't bother to sign it.

 

He stuffed the note into the canister and screwed it to the end of the modified spear loaded into the gun.  Then he handed it to the SFs who had volunteered to shoot it through the gate.  Pleased with his part in the mission, he headed back up to the control room and stood next to Janet.  Sam sat in front of them.

 

"What if he blows it again?" Janet asked.

 

General Hammond gave a small growl.  "We'll keep dialing once every five minutes.  He can't blow them all."

 

Daniel wasn't too sure about that, but he didn't say anything as the gate began to dial.

 

"Actually, sir," Sam began, "I don't know how he managed to do it even once.  Both times this happened before, the jump was caused by a massive power surge to the gate initiating the wormhole.  I don't see how the jump could have been caused on the receiving end.  Perhaps the lack of DHD made the wormhole more susceptible to disruption."

 

Daniel listened with half an ear and watched the chevrons click into place.  Walter announced each one with his usual patience until the final symbol slid into position.  The gate tried, but it didn't lock into place.

 

"Chevron seven does not lock," Walter said.  "Chevron seven does not lock."

 

Daniel wanted to scream.  "What's wrong now?"

 

*~*~*

 

Jack sat on the ground and leaned against the MALP.  A cloud drifted over the sun and he shivered with a sudden chill.  He drank more water and choked down a tasteless nutrition bar, but what he really needed was rest.  The persistent buzzing had returned.  It clouded his thoughts and shrouded his vision.  His skin was hot and dry to the touch but he shook from cold.  Thick, green pus again drained from one of the larger gashes on his arm.  From the way his clothes stuck on some of the other wounds, he knew that they festered, too.

 

Do you think it's the virus?  Daniel peered at the wound, fascinated. 

 

Jack was too tired to answer.  Anyhow, he didn't know.  Anise had started to detail the exact effects of the toxin, but Jack had stopped her.  He didn't want to know then.  He still didn't want to know.

 

Half the fun of being a scientist is in knowing the details, Colonel.

 

Jack's retort was cut off by the sound of the Stargate powering up.

 

Do you not wish to see if the gate is blocked, O'Neill?

 

"No."  He didn't think he could.  As with most things, he'd just have to trust that Sam's genius would save him.  There was no kawoosh of an opening gate.  The foam worked.  He smiled.  "Way to go, Sam."

 

Thank you, sir.

 

He rested for a couple of minutes and enjoyed the thought that, even this far from home, his team still helped him. 

 

I would rather not help you, you know.  Not to do this.

 

"Yeah, I know.  It was necessary.  Sorry."

 

The images of his team faded away.  Lead seemed to flow through his veins and he flashed alternately hot and cold.  The gate was buried but there was a good chance he wouldn't live long enough to appreciate that fact.  He dragged his tent closer to the MALP and used the machine as an anchor.  Then he piled several boxes of food and water within reach, stripped off his weapons and laid them inside the tent, along with a couple boxes of ammunition.  By the time he added four blankets, a change of clothes and the rest of the necessary survival gear, the tent was crowded.

 

Exhaustion settled like lead in his hands and feet and his good leg ached more than the injured one.  Satisfied with the supplies in the tent, he pulled over the naquadah powered light and the large medical box.  It was still daylight, but he switched the light on.  He might not have the strength later. 

 

The pus from the wound on his arm soaked through his sleeve, cold and sticky in the late afternoon air.  Despite the shivering it caused, he peeled off his clothes.  All of the wounds were again red and raw and most of them oozed the greenish pus.  He didn't have energy or the equipment to clean them properly again, so he wiped them as clean as he could with an antibiotic wipe then dusted them once more with the Polysporin powder.  Instead of bandaging them individually, he settled on wrapping gauze around his arms and legs.  He may have looked like a reject from a mummy movie when he finished, but it would be easier to change once the wounds soaked through.  It took too much energy to pretend that they wouldn't.

 

When he finished, he decided not to dress and pulled a warm wool blanket over his shoulders instead.  It would be hard enough to clean his injuries in the tent without clothes to worry about.  Then he sat next to the medical kit and searched through it.  He had no idea if there was anything in it that he would know how to use, but he'd be damned if he'd go without a fight.

 

*~*~*

 

Thirty minutes after they first failed to establish a connection to PT9-780, they were no closer to finding out what was wrong.  Daniel began to feel that this latest setback was one that he'd not be able to handle.  It was obvious that he wasn't the only one that felt that way.  Sam had become increasingly taciturn as each subsequent dial-out failed.  Teal'c had taken to glowering at the people who had gathered to keep on eye on the proceedings until they had drifted away as self-preservation overcame their curiosity.  General Hammond retreated to his office with strict orders to be updated the minute they discovered anything.

 

"Major?"  Walter's voice pulled both Sam and Daniel's attention to him.  "It's time."

 

Sam nodded at him.  "Go ahead and dial."

 

Daniel and Teal'c crossed to stand behind Sam, who looked up at them.  "If this doesn't work. . ."

 

Daniel knew what she meant.  If Jack had opened the gate on his end in an effort to block an incoming hole, it would have automatically closed by now.  They'd dialed PT9-780 every five minutes in the hope that they would be able to dial-in when it shut down.

 

The last chevron circled around to its final position.

 

It didn't lock.  Daniel swore.

 

"Chevron seven did not lock."  Walter looked over at SG-1.  "I'm sorry."

 

"It's not your fault, Walter."

 

"I just don't understand it."  Sam again turned to her computer screen.  "We should have been able to get in.  I can't make any sense of the readings I get off of gate diagnostics, either.  It's almost as if he's buried the gate."

 

"I do not believe that O'Neill would be capable of such physical exertion at this time."

 

"Not to mention it would take longer than he had," Daniel added.  "Unless you're saying that Jack has an instant gate burying kit."

 

Sam paled.  "Oh, my God."  She dug through the piles of paper that sat next to her and flipped through the report she pulled out.  Four pages from the back she stopped and scanned the page.  "He does."

 

"What?"

 

"He took a bale of the gate blocking foam that I've been working on."  She flipped the report around for him to see and she pointed to the line on the list of missing supplies.

 

The pit of Daniel's stomach fell away.  "I didn't think that had been tested."

 

"It hasn't, but I think we can say it works."  Sam flung the report back on the pile.  "The reason we can't get through is because the gate can't establish a wormhole."  Sam looked at him, his hopelessness mirrored on her face. 

 

"But if he's buried the gate. . ."

 

Teal'c finished when Daniel was unwilling to go on.  "We will be unable to rescue O'Neill,"

 

*~*~*

 

Jack sat outside his tent, blanket wrapped around his shaking form and the med kit spread open before him.  He'd checked out his symptoms in the 'Basic Field Medicine Guide' in the kit.  Most of them matched the descriptions for severe bacterial infections.  Hallucinations weren't listed, but they were a possible effect of extreme temperature.  The ibuprofen that he'd been popping should be helping with that.  Pain and fever he understood; infections were beyond him.  For the past hour he'd sorted through the drugs included the medical box.  They all had basic use instructions on the labels and were cross-referenced in a dauntingly thick manual. 

 

He'd tried to read the documentation for the different antibiotics on hand but the small print waved in front of his eyes and it was written in indecipherable medical jargon.  From what he could tell, each antibiotic seemed to have it's own niche and he wasn't confident that Earth antibiotics would work on an off world virus, anyway.  The one thing he did get from the book was that antibiotics didn't work instantly.  He needed to use them over a period of days in order to kill off the infection.  Never thought I'd miss the Doc this much.  He finally settled on a couple of bottles of liquid antibiotics listed as 'broad-spectrum'.  A guess was better than nothing, just not by much.

 

There were several boxes of hypodermics in the medical supplies.  Jack pulled out two-dozen syringes and filled each one with the maximum recommended dose of the drugs.  Re-capping the needles, he laid them in the small, insulated bag he'd found in the medical box.  Finished, he returned the medicine to its storage container and set the filled hypodermics in the corner of the tent.  He pulled his wristwatch from his pocket and fumbled with the buttons to set the alarm for six hours. 

 

Once the timer blinked its countdown at him, he tied the watch to the inside of the tent next to the medicine.  He pulled the cover off one of the syringes and injected the first dose into his arm.  The medicine burned as it slid into him.  His plan was simple: Take the max dosage now, wait the minimum amount of time, then max out again.  He'd repeat that until he was well or until he couldn't do it any more. 

 

The clearing was quiet and empty in the fading light.  He hadn't seen his team in a while and he wondered if that meant he was better.  Somehow he didn't think so.  The sun crept behind the trees and his body shook in the cool dusk air.  Jack pulled out the bottle of ibuprofen and downed four of them before he set the medicine next to the filled syringes.  He climbed into the tent and buried himself beneath the blankets.  His teeth chattered and his vision dimmed.  It wasn't the first time this mission that he thought he might not make it.  The difference was, it would be all right if he didn't.  He'd destroyed the virus, he'd made it here and he'd insured that no one else would ever be exposed.  If he did die, that wasn't too bad of an epitaph.

 

*~*~*

 

General Hammond studied SG-1 as they sat huddled at one corner of the conference table.  After they'd given him their reports, they had lapsed into complete silence, an unheard of occurrence.  Hammond watched his premiere team and knew they had pushed the limits of their endurance.  Experience had taught him that the forced inaction and emotional strain that came from being unable to save a friend was the fastest way to destroy good people.  The fact that Jack worked against them to block their every move only made the strain worse.  Dr. Fraiser was also seated at the table, Hammond wanted her there to keep on eye on SG-1 as much as to give a debrief.

 

Hammond turned his attention to the reports and ignored the sounds of the gate dialing out.  Jacob and Anise were contacting the Tok'ra about the findings from the planet.  He would be glad when they left the base.  He'd always liked Jacob but if he never saw Anise again it would be too soon.  There was an appeal to Jack's 'never trust a snake' attitude.  Then again, is seemed even Jack didn't always follow that rule. 

 

With an effort, he turned back to the matter at hand.  "So, we have no way of gating to this planet?"  It wasn't necessary to ask the question.  The reports they'd given him were clear on that matter.  He wanted to know their reactions to those reports, to judge their energy levels and to see if they wanted to give up.

 

"No, sir," Sam replied.  "The gate is essentially buried, the only way to use it would be to go there and remove the foam."

 

"And we could do that?"

 

"I designed it to be removable.  The foam isn't an adhesive; it doesn't stick to anything.  It expands to fit the area and then hardens into a solid barrier that prevents a wormhole from forming.  Remove the foam and the gate works again."

 

Hammond nodded.  "What are our options at this point?"

 

"Time is our biggest problem right now, General," Dr. Fraiser answered.  "Nirrti's planet had developed a virulent bacterial form.  Any cut exposed to the planet's atmosphere is infected and it can lead to overwhelming septic shock in as little as forty-eight hours.  Without treatment, it has a mortality rate of one-hundred percent."

 

"How much time does that give Colonel O'Neill?"

 

"It's hard to say, sir.  I estimate there is a forty-eight to sixty hour period before an untreated infection would progress beyond my capability to fight.  The colonel has been gone for almost two days, but if we assume he wasn't injured until he initiated the attack on the laboratory, it will give him some more time.  The number of injuries he's sustained concerns me because there is some indication that a larger number of wounds will make for a faster progression in the infection.  From the abrasions apparent on his holographic message, I'd cut that estimate by a quarter."

 

Hammond did a quick calculation.  "So he has under a day."

 

"It's all guesswork at this point but once the sepsis gets a foothold, there's nothing I can do to treat it."

 

"But you can treat it before then?"

 

"Yes."  Janet appeared happy to give some good news.  "The bacterial agent responsible for the infection isn't too far removed from several strains found here on Earth.  We've developed a modified antibiotic that is effective."

 

Hammond took a deep breath.  "That brings me back to my original question, without the gate, how do we get to the colonel?"

 

"I believe that I can help you out there, George."  Jacob appeared at the top of the steps.

 

Sam stood.  "Dad, I thought you'd left."

 

"I'm not leaving until Jack's back."  He gave her a small hug.  "I've just talked to the Tok'ra council.  This planet Jack's on, PT. . ."

 

"PT9-780" Sam supplied.  "You said the Tok'ra don't have any bases in that sector."

 

"We don't.  But we do have a scout ship in the area to check out a report of Goa'uld activity."

 

"How close are they?"

 

"They're about two days away, but they could cut it by half if they push it."

 

"I could give them the information I have on the infection," Janet said.  "It would help if they began treatment immediately."

 

"I can do you one better," Jacob said.  "One of the planets they investigated has a working Stargate.  Selmak convinced them that you should gate through, ring up to the ship, and travel with them.  I left the gate address with the sergeant."

 

"With your permission, General?" Sam asked.

 

"Granted."

 

The team exploded into action.  Daniel, Teal'c and Sam headed for the steps before Hammond answered.  Janet gathered the reports in front of her.  She looked up at the general. 

 

"I would like to accompany them, General."

 

"I wouldn't have it any other way, Doctor." 

 

"Yes, sir."  She vanished down the steps.

 

Hammond looked over at Jacob.

 

"Thank you.  Thank Selmak, too."

 

Jacob shrugged.  "It's the least we can do.  I just hope that it's not too late."

 

"Jack's good at beating the odds," Hammond said.  "I'm not giving up on him yet."

 

*~*~*

 

Jack stood, surrounded by thick, wet fog.  It clung to his skin and pushed at him, a suffocating cloud, chill and close.  He fought to see something beyond the grey mist.  Random spots of light and dark melted into nothingness, only to reappear moments later.  Jack waved at the fog, and it swirled around his hand, smoke caught in an updraft.  He shouldn't be out in this.  It couldn't be good for him, not as sick as he was.

 

Sick.  The thought stopped him.  He was sick, wasn't he?

 

There was a flicker of light off to one side.  It pulled at his attention but lingered just out of view.  It grew brighter when he took a step toward it, so he took another.  The light continued to grow and the fog thinned.  He walked faster.

 

Do you have a destination in mind, O'Neill?

 

Jack turned, his team stood behind him.  They were indistinct figures as the fog swirled thick around them.  Jack stepped back into it to see them clearly.  "I was just going to the light."

 

Kind of clichéd, don't you think, Jack?  Especially for you.

 

"You're making even less sense then usual, Daniel."

 

I'm not Daniel, and I'm making perfect sense.

 

"Right."  A thought lingered on the edge of Jack's mind, but he couldn't pin it down.

 

Don't you remember, Colonel?  Sam asked.

 

Jack tried to focus on her, but she fuzzed around the edges and when he blinked, the fog swirled through her.  Images of Jaffa and explosions drifted through his memory.  "I was on a mission.  There was a virus."  The light behind him dimmed.  "You're not real."

 

That is correct, O'Neill.

 

Memory returned in a flood, and the light behind him blinked out but the fog persisted.  Jack looked around again.  The mist quivered.

 

"Where am I then?"

 

I don't know.  Daniel shrugged.  There was another pulse in the fog.  It's kind of weird, though. 

 

"Ya think?"  One more ripple moved through the air.  It vibrated through the figures of his team, too.  "There's something I need to do."

 

Another wave moved through the fog, a quiet electronic tone chased it.  The mist began to melt away and his team went with it.  Jack took a step toward them.  He didn't want to be alone.  A second later another beep washed them away with the fog.

 

Jack opened his eyes and looked at the ceiling of his tent.  The blanket wrapped around him was wet with sweat and the alarm on his watch sounded.  The cold air bit at him when he sat up, the sweat that covered him chilled instantly, and his teeth began to chatter.  His head felt as thick as the fog he'd just stood in and he couldn't shake the feeling that this was still a dream.  He grabbed the watch and pushed a button to silence the alarm.  It automatically reset for another six hours. 

 

His hands shook as he reached for the syringe.  He counted the used ones that sat off to the side.  Had he done this three times already?  The hypodermic wavered in his trembling fingers, but he took a deep breath and injected the medicine.  The cold pain of the antibiotics slipped into him, and he dropped the empty syringe on the pile.  The gauze on his arm was colored with seepage and when he ran his hand over his face he could feel the angry inflammation of the cuts that he'd left uncovered. 

 

He reached for a bottle of water to ease the dryness in his mouth, but it was hard to get it past his swollen tongue.  The lukewarm liquid that dripped onto his chest chilled him.  With a growl of frustration, he capped the bottle and tossed it aside.  He snatched up another hypodermic full of antibiotics.  One dose wasn't working.

 

The second shot hurt more than the first and he retched before he pulled the needle out; he seized a bag and dry-heaved into it, the bile burned his throat.  His side spit agony at him and his world dissolved into pain and desperation.  He dropped the bag just outside the front of the tent and crawled back under his sweat-soaked blankets.  As he fell into unconsciousness, it occurred to him that he didn't know why he fought so hard.

 

*~*~*

 

Sam sat in the back of the Tel'tak and drummed her fingers on her leg as she stared at the papers in front of her.  They'd been traveling for almost twenty hours, most of which they'd spent resting; exhaustion and boredom made an unbeatable sleeping elixir.  Now she tried to catch up on some research, but she couldn't focus on the words.  All of her attention was on the door that led to the cockpit.  Daniel would return any moment with a report on how much longer it would be before they got to Jack.  She shifted position to drum her fingers on the seat.

 

"Stop that or I will sedate you."  Janet reached out and stilled the incessant movement of Sam's fingers.

 

Sam looked over at her friend who sat amid a pile of supplies on the floor.  "Sorry."  She dropped the papers and ran her fingers through her hair.  "I'm no good at waiting, Janet."

 

"None of us are.  Except for maybe Teal'c."  She nodded toward the Jaffa who sat in the middle of the room with his eyes closed in meditation.  "I'd tell you to get some sleep, but that's not the problem is it?"  She offered Sam a thermos.  "How 'bout some coffee?"

 

Sam took it with a smile of thanks and poured herself a cup.  She was exhausted in a way that even her recent eight hours of sleep hadn't helped.  It had been easy, in the beginning, to focus on the puzzles: find out what happened to the colonel, figure out the gate address, research the virus and find a way to get him back.  Now just one puzzle remained, the biggest one of all: Jack O'Neill himself.  Most of the time she thought she knew him, as her commanding officer, as a fellow soldier, as a friend.  Then, suddenly, he would be this unfathomable creature who didn't follow any of the known laws of man or soldier.  She'd realize that she didn't understand him at all.  With his farewell message to the team, he'd become his most enigmatic.

 

"Want to talk about it?"

 

"What if this is a mistake?"  Sam asked the question before she decided that she was going to.

 

"You don't think you have the right planet?"

 

"No, not the planet, the rescue."  She'd watched the colonel's message enough times to have it memorized.  The last thing I need is you hovering around me, ruining my peace and quiet.  At first, she'd just accepted it as his usual sarcastic bravado, but the more she'd listened to it, the more sincere it sounded.  "What if he doesn't want to come back?  What if this mission was his way of retiring, of getting away from everything?  Getting away from us?"

 

"I'm sure that's not what he's doing, Sam."

 

"But how can we be sure?"  Sam took three even breaths before she spoke again.  "I feel like I'm coming apart, Janet.  Last year, I spent over three months working day and night to rescue him from P5C-768 and when I get there, what do I find?  He's happy living the pioneer life.  He was good at it, too.  He'd managed to leave this life and start a new one."  It felt good to say it out loud.  "Now he does this.  Are we so easy to leave behind?  Do we mean so little to him?"

 

"You are mistaken, Major Carter."  Teal'c's low voice made them jump.  Sam assumed he'd been deep in Kelno'reem.  "O'Neill has demonstrated many times that he places the lives and safety of his team above his own."

 

"This is different.  This isn't about battles or missions, this is about walking away from everyone."  Sam didn't understand it.  "He doesn't seem to have any problem with the thought he'll never see any of us again."

 

"You have mistaken ability for desire."  Teal'c stood and stretched his tall frame.  "That O'Neill is able to make the necessary sacrifices despite his natural reluctance to do so is what makes him a great warrior."

 

"Yeah.  Well, it sure the hell makes him a lousy friend."

 

"Perhaps."  Teal'c crossed to Sam and sat next to her.  "There is much about O'Neill that makes him a difficult friend.  However, I do not doubt that he is our friend."

 

"Teal'c is right," Janet said.  "We know the colonel cares for all of us.  He cares for some of us even more than he thinks he should."

 

Sam nodded in mute acknowledgement of what Janet alluded to.  Both Janet and Teal'c had been in the room when Anise's Zatarc detector made it necessary for Jack and her to admit that they both cared for each other -- cared more than they should.  That's why he had stayed with her when she'd been trapped in Apophis' ship.  It had been proof enough that he'd never leave her behind. 

 

Now, he had.  "How can he just leave us and start over?"

 

"It would not be the first time that O'Neill would have had to start over after the loss of someone he cared about," Teal'c said.  "I do not wish to contemplate how Rya'c's death would affect me."

 

Sam sighed.  It was hard to reconcile the man she knew as Colonel O'Neill with the man that Daniel had met before going through the Stargate for the first time.  Jack never spoke of his family or his life before they had met.  It was easy to think that he'd always been the way he was now.  Sam ran her hand through her hair.  Someday, I'm going to fall for a simple man.  She looked up at her friends and tried to smile.

 

"Are you going to be okay?"

 

"Yes."  Sam realized it was true.  "It's just. . ." She shrugged, not knowing what she wanted to say.

 

"I agree, completely," Janet said.  "We'll both throw darts at his picture once we get him back to base."

 

Sam smiled and this time it was genuine.  "It's a deal. 

 

"Well, you're going to have to wait a little longer for that to happen."  Daniel walked into the room.  "We're not going to be there for a while."

 

Sam got to her feet.  "How much longer?"

 

"Another six hours."  Daniel's disgust was obvious.  "Minimum."

 

The bad news settled on them like a weight.  Sam looked at Janet.  "It's already been twenty hours, are we going to be too late?"

 

"I don't know, Sam.  I just don't know."

 

*~*~*

 

Jack stood in the fog again.  Pea-soup thick, it clung tight to him.  Was this what dying was?  He waved his arms in front of him and watched the mists churn.  The fog clouded his vision and stuffed in his ears.  A monotonous apathy settled on him.  This could get boring, fast.  He peered into the fog and tried to see the figures of his team.  Shapes of light and darkness abounded, but none of them solidified into people.

 

Tired of standing, Jack started to walk.  Every once in a while, he'd stop to listen for the sound of the alarm and to search for his friends.  After a long while, the fog started to thin and the murkiness lifted.  There was light ahead.  He headed toward it.  Perhaps Daniel would return with another comment on clichés.  The light intensified but Daniel didn't show. 

 

Jack slowed as the fog settled.  It curled around his feet as he walked and became soft wisps of cloud.  Ahead he could see a gentle light, peaceful as the rising sun, melt away the mist.  It reminded him of early morning fishing, breakfast with Sara and Charlie, and long summer afternoons.  He looked back the way he'd come and the fog rose like storm clouds behind him.  Shadow and light swirled in it and it churned as if stirred by a wind.  Low thunder rumbled within.  It felt like Minnesota tornado weather but it called to him in a way that the still peacefulness in front of him did not.

 

Have you decided?

 

The voice, naggingly familiar, pulled his attention away from the mist.  A shadowy shape stood off to his left.  He blinked and the shape appeared closer.  It was a child, a young boy.  The memory of the voice came back like the slash of a knife.

 

"Charlie?"

 

The figure didn't move, but he stood closer now.  It was Charlie.  He was dressed in jeans, his favorite baseball jersey and had a mitt on his hand.  Jack wanted to run to him and throw his arms around him.  Never let him go. 

 

He forced his legs to stand and found his voice.  "You're not real."

 

Maybe not, the Charlie vision said.  It's hard to be sure.

 

Jack studied the apparition to find a flaw in its appearance.  Charlie was perfect, happy, alive.  The dream Charlie was always better than the specter of his son that haunted his nightmares.  "Why are you here?"

 

I wanted to see you.  Have you decided?

 

"What am I supposed to decide?"

 

Which way to go, of course.

 

Jack looked from the warm light to the dark mist.  "It doesn't seem like it should be that hard of a choice."  He didn't move. 

 

It's a very hard choice.  Charlie tossed a baseball in the air and caught it.  The familiar action tore at Jack's heart.  That's why it's usually not a choice at all.

 

It worried Jack that that made sense.  "I could stay here."

 

Why would you want to?  It's boring here.

 

"You're here."

 

I can't stay.

 

The roar of the mist grew closer and pulled at Jack's attention.  "What if I don't want to choose?"

 

You have to choose, Dad.  That's the way it is, this time.

 

"What if I choose wrong?"

 

You won't.

 

"How can you be sure?"

 

You're my dad.

 

"But you're not real."

 

The Charlie ghost just smiled. 

 

Jack studied him again and waited for the inevitable pain that came whenever he remembered his son.  Instead, there was only peace.  Even if this wasn't real, it was good.

 

It's easier to choose when you know what you want, Charlie offered.

 

Jack considered that for a moment.  He wanted to run to Charlie, to watch him play ball and to make everything right.  He wanted to choose the way that meant he would never lose Charlie again.

 

He wanted to choose the light.

 

"I'm tired," was all he said.

 

I know.

 

The chaos of the mist pulled at Jack's mind.  He fought to ignore it as he waved at the light.  "It's quiet there."

 

It's beautiful, too.

 

"I could rest."

 

Yes.

 

It would be good to rest.  Jack looked back.  The storm clouds solidified; it's thunder rolled and the shades roiled within it.  Lightning pierced the darkness like a harsh searchlight.  The mist swelled toward Jack and a wind blew past.  It smelled of grass and ozone and the SGC.  The memory of SG-1's voices washed over him. 

 

His life called to him from the fog.  He took a step toward it and the serene light behind him faded.

 

So, you've chosen.  

 

"Yeah."  Jack again faced Charlie, now bathed in his own soft light.  The fog rose around their legs and drifted through the distance that separated them.  "Are you going to be okay?  Here, by yourself, I mean?"

 

I don't belong here.

 

Jack knew that.  Charlie belonged in the light, the light that Jack walked away from.

 

"Will you be able to get back?"  The thought of Charlie lost in this limbo terrified him.

 

Yes.  Charlie smiled from the peaceful side of the rising mist.  Don't worry about me, Dad.  I'm fine. 

 

Jack blinked against the brilliance that enfolded the figure of his son, and then he turned and walked away.  At the edge of the fog bank, he stopped and touched it the way Sam had touched the event horizon the first time she'd seen it.  The fog rippled out and made waves in the mist.  "Sweet."  He looked back.  Charlie still watched him, a bemused expression on his face.  Jack hesitated, frozen by a sudden fear.  "What if you're real?"

 

You'll see me again.

 

"Right."  Jack took a deep breath, turned away from his son and stepped into the fog.

 

"Janet, he's coming around."  A voice shouted in his head.

 

Bright lights and pain buffeted him.  He tried to take a breath and fought to pull free from unseen bonds.  There was a sharp pain in his arm and a cool numbness spread through him.  Hungry for the noise and chaos of life after the murky fog, he clung to consciousness.  He reveled in the sensory overload.  And opened his eyes.  A face swam into view above him, blue eyes and blonde hair.

 

"Welcome back, sir.  Just relax we've got you."

 

He felt Sam's cool hand brush his face and panic rose in his throat.  "No," he choked, "Get away."

 

"Anise was wrong, Jack."  Daniel's voice cut through his fear.  "You're not contagious.  Anise was wrong."

 

Carter's head nodded in front of him as Daniel's words sunk in.  Not contagious.  Jack wanted to laugh -- all his work, all his planning, all for nothing.  Unconsciousness tugged at him and he gave into it.  It serves me right.  Never trust a snake.  He slid into darkness when a sudden thought forced him to open his eyes.

 

"Real?"  As he rasped the word out, he freed his hand and reached up to touch Sam's face.

 

"Yes, Jack, we're real," Sam said.  "We'll all be fine.  Daniel's here and Teal'c has opened the gate.  We're taking you home."

 

Her voice faded in and out and her face was marble cold against his fevered fingers.  "Sick.  Virus?"

 

"It's not the virus.  You're not contagious, but you are sick.  Janet will take care of you.  Just relax."

 

Jack dropped his hand and let unconsciousness claim him.  He didn't understand it, but he would believe.  He was safe.  His team was here.  They'd come for him.

 

They always did.

 

*~*~*

 

General Hammond let the quiet of the infirmary wash over him.  It was almost five in the morning and the room was quiet for the first time since they'd brought Jack back through the gate.  Dr. Fraiser had explained everything she'd had to do to stabilize the wounded man and Hammond again appreciated Janet's ability to make med-speak comprehensible to the average officer.  It'd been a very near thing with Jack this time and she'd credited his reckless application of field medicine for saving his life.  As it was, it would take several days before they knew if there was any lasting damage from the infections and several more after that to make sure the medication hadn't caused any harm. 

 

Jack tossed in the bed next to him and Hammond reached over and smoothed the blankets.  He still had to decide on how to handle this whole mess.  There were about a hundred different reports to fill out, requisitions to justify and personnel expenses to account for.  The search for Jack had stretched far outside normal SGC authority.  Some of Kinsey's bloodhounds had already been sniffing around and if the Senator couldn't bring down the SGC over this, he'd gladly settle for Jack. 

 

Then there was the problem of Jack, himself.  No matter how successful the mission had been, the colonel's habit of breaking regs needed to be addressed.  What annoyed Hammond the most was that he knew Jack would accept whatever punishment he ordered without a word of protest or thought of argument.  Jack was so secure in his belief that what he did was just and necessary that he would accept any sacrifice demanded of him.  The very thing that made Jack an irreplaceable member of the SGC also made him the most infuriating.  It was almost enough to drive a general into retirement.

 

A movement at the door caught his attention and he smiled to see the rest of SG-1 walk into the infirmary.  They pulled up short when they saw him. 

 

"I believe I ordered the three of you to get some rest?"  That had been a little over an hour ago.

 

"Yes, sir."  Sam stood in place and looked as if she'd like to bolt.

 

Daniel shrugged and continued to walk to Jack's bedside.  "Janet said that the sedative would wear off about now."

 

Sam waited until Teal'c followed Daniel, then she, too, walked over to Jack.  "We wanted to be here when he woke up, sir."

 

"I wouldn't have expected anything else."  Hammond gestured to the three seats that waited on the other side of Jack's bed.  "He's been showing signs of coming around."

 

"He still looks like hell, doesn't he?"

 

Hammond nodded.  The bruises that covered Jack stood in stark contrast to his pale skin and white bandages.  An IV was attached to his arm and an oxygen tube sat under his nose.  His injured knee and cracked ribs were wrapped.  Worst, were the infected wounds.  Even the smallest nick was raw and inflamed.  Janet had closed some of them, but most needed to be drained regularly.  The smell of the infection had almost disappeared, for which Hammond was deeply grateful.  When they had first brought Jack through the gate, he had barely held it together.

 

"Did Janet say how much longer she was going to keep him on oxygen?"  Daniel asked.

 

"No.  But she did say it was just a precaution.  She believes that he had a collapsed lung.  The x-rays showed a small pocket of air in his left chest.  When she removed it, she noticed a small puncture wound.  She thinks it was caused when he removed the air from his chest cavity."

 

"The colonel did that by himself?"

 

Hammond shrugged.  There was very little that Jack did that could surprise him anymore.  "She can't be completely sure, but it's a good guess."

 

"It hurt like hell, too."  Jack's voice, little more than a whisper, drew their attention to him.

 

"Sir."

 

"Jack."

 

"O'Neill."

 

Jack blinked at his team. 

 

"I had a dream," Jack rasped out.  "And you were there, and you were there, and you were there."  He waved weakly at each of his teammates, but stopped when he saw Hammond.  "You weren't.  Sorry, sir.  Maybe next time."

 

"There better not be a next time, Colonel."

 

"Ah, right."  Jack closed his eyes only to open them a second later.  He searched for Hammond again.

 

"How. . . no virus?"

 

"That's a long story, Jack, and one that can wait until later.  You need to rest now.  You're going to need all your strength to face the disciplinary fallout from this little escapade."

 

"I resigned, sir."

 

Hammond scoffed.  "You're not getting off the hook that easy, son."

 

"Whatever you say, sir."  Jack managed a small smile.  "I was really looking forward to doing some fishing."  He faded off.

 

"Don't keep him up too long, people."  He stood and smiled at them to soften the order.  "I have paperwork waiting in my office."

 

Hammond walked to the exit, then stopped and turned to look at Jack.  The colonel's eyes were open again and SG-1 leaned in to hear what he said.  Hammond shook his head at the man's stubborn tenacity.  Jack O'Neill was obstinate and independent.  He'd never admit to defeat and he'd never accept failure.  He was cynical, sarcastic and infuriating.  He was the type of airman that kept some of the upper brass from sleeping for fear that his integrity would ruin all their careers.

 

General Hammond wouldn't have it any other way.

 

*~*~*

 

Jack tugged on his pants and enjoyed the feel of human clothes after a week of hospital gowns.  His cuts were healing, his ribs only ached occasionally and his knee hadn't needed surgery.  Janet had announced that his last blood work showed that the infection had been eliminated and she'd removed the intravenous antibiotics that she'd pumped into him ever since she'd first appeared at his side.  The past few meals he'd even been fed what passed for real food, and Jack had taken that as his cue to leave. 

 

He'd asked Teal'c to bring his clothes down the last time the Jaffa visited.  Teal'c complied with the request and concealed the contraband in a bag of magazines.  Jack waited for the end of the day shift and sat through General Hammond's nightly 'chew-out-Jack-just-before-going-home' lecture.  His fears that this mission would make him an outcast at the SGC had been as unfounded as his belief that his team couldn't find him.  His exploits were the talk of the base, and most everyone admired the deft way he'd executed his plan.  General Hammond, in an effort to demonstrate that he, at least, didn't appreciate being outmaneuvered, had lined up enough training, paperwork and disciplinary tedium to keep Jack busy for months.  Jack was glad to submit to the punishment if it meant the general would tear up his resignation letter.

 

Shirt in hand, he checked to make sure that no one was around.  Then he picked up his shoes and soft-footed it across the infirmary.  He wasn't sure how his team felt about everything, but they'd visited him regularly during his recovery.  It felt good when they were around, though, and that was always a good sign.  The door of the infirmary was two steps away when he heard the sound of heels behind him.  He froze.  The shoes clicked to a stop.

 

"Colonel O'Neill."

 

Jack dropped his hand from the door and turned to face Janet.  He gave her his best nonchalant look as he slipped his shirt on.  "Yes?"  He hoped that he buttoned it up right, but he didn't want to check for fear that the sign of weakness would give her a reason to make him stay.  Not that she needed one.

 

"Colonel, I don't believe that I've released you from the infirmary, yet."

 

Jack finished with the last button.  "I'm releasing myself, Doc."

 

"You're not qualified to make that decision, sir, even if you did do a passable job of patching yourself up in the field." 

 

Janet had spent a great deal of time outlining every single mistake he had made in his medical attempts.  In her estimation, he should have been dead twice over and she had wanted to sign him up for an entire regiment of advanced medic training, so that he could do it right 'next time'.  When he'd protested that there would never be a 'next time', she'd actually laughed.  That evening, the general had added the program to his list of penance that Jack would have to complete.

 

"It's been a week, Doc," he said, fixing her with his most authoritative glare.  It only had a ten-percent chance of working he knew, but he'd be damned if he'd stay cooped up in this torture chamber any longer.  "Everything's great, you said so yourself this afternoon."

 

"In order for everything to stay great, you need to continue to rest."

 

"I can do that at home better than here."

 

"You are in no shape to be driving home, Colonel."

 

"How 'bout if I drive him home?"  Daniel appeared from behind the infirmary doors. 

 

Janet eyed him.  "It's kind of late for you to be here, Daniel."

 

"I got caught up in some research and time got away from me.  I thought I'd check in on Jack before I headed home."  Daniel was all innocence.  "If he can be released, I can drive him home.  I'll even make sure that he takes his pills and stays away from alcohol."

 

Janet stood, hands on her hips, and studied them.  "He'll need someone to check on him in the morning and he'll have to be back here tomorrow afternoon for me to run the blood work again."

 

Yes!  Jack refrained from pumping his fist in the air.

 

Janet's eyes narrowed as she looked at him.  "If you don't take your pills, Colonel, I'll strap you to that bed and poke you with the largest needles I can find.  Do we understand each other?"

 

"Yes, Ma'am," Jack snapped a salute at her and hoped that she couldn't see how much it hurt to do so.

 

She shook her head and muttered something insubordinate under her breath.  "I'll get your medication and sign you out.  You will need to put on your shoes and wear a coat.  It's cold out there tonight."

 

As she walked away, Jack sat and put on his shoes.  His knee didn't hurt at all when he bent it.  "Thanks, Daniel."

 

The archeologist shrugged.  "I'm amazed you lasted this long."

 

Janet returned with a bottle of pills.  "Follow the instructions, sir, or--"

 

"I know, I know," Jack interrupted.  "Be a good boy or you'll get to be the Marquis de Sade."  He smiled at her to let her know he'd do his best and she smiled back at him.

 

"Good night, sir.  Daniel."  She headed back to her office as Jack and Daniel pushed through the infirmary doors.  Sam and Teal'c waited in the hall.

 

"Carter!  T!"  Jack grinned so hard that it caused the scabs on his face to hurt.  "Working late, too?"

 

"Actually, sir."  Carter looked around, "Teal'c mentioned that you requested your clothes, and we thought that you might need some help to get out."  She handed him his leather jacket.

 

"Excellent."  Jack shrugged into his coat and walked with his team down the hall.  "Thanks for the rescue.  Again."

 

"Anytime, sir."

 

"Indeed."

 

They stopped at the elevator and Jack leaned into the up button.

 

"We also have this for you."  Sam handed him a book-sized gift.

 

"What's this?"

 

"You will need to open it to discover that, O'Neill."

 

Jack hoisted it suspiciously and glared at Daniel.  "It's not a book about failing agriculture, is it?  I don't need another paperweight."

 

"Just open the gift, sir."

 

Jack ripped open the paper to reveal a box with the words "Fredrikson's Woodworking" on it.  The elevator dinged and the doors opened.  The team piled in as Jack pulled the cover off.  A dark mahogany plaque sat nestled in tissue paper, and a snapshot of Sam, Daniel and Teal'c smiled up at him from beneath layers of clear varnish.  Underneath were carved the words: Your team.  Don't leave home without them.

 

It took Jack a moment to find his voice only to discover he didn't know what to say.  The elevator stopped at the ground floor and the doors opened.  They were halfway to the guard post when Jack stopped.  The others turned back to him, concern plain on their faces. 

 

"I didn't want to, I mean, I didn't see any reason to. . ."  The words jumbled in his head but he needed them to understand.  "It's not that I don't. . ."  He needed them to know that they were important to him.  He needed them to understand how much it cost him to leave them behind.  "I just couldn't see any other way."

 

"We know, sir.

 

"We should warn you, though," Daniel said, "the next time you run off without telling us and we have to track you down on the other side of known space, we're going to kick your butt no matter how sick you are."

 

Jack grinned at them.  "Deal."

 

"Now, is there anything else?"

 

Jack shook his head.  "Nope."  He replaced the cover on the box.  "I just wish I would have taped The Simpsons.  It was the Halloween special."

 

"We got that covered, sir."

 

"You do?  You taped The Simpsons for me?"

 

"Indeed.  Daniel Jackson believed that you would wish to view it upon your return."

 

"By now it's got that one and the latest episode, too," Daniel said. 

 

Jack was touched.  After everything he'd done, they'd still taped The Simpsons for him.  "This calls for a celebration.  We can order pizza and make a night of it.  We'll have to pick up something to drink."

 

"No beer, Jack."

 

Jack frowned.  "Fine, no beer.  However, my cupboards are bare and the poor dog will need a bone."

 

"You do not possess a domesticated canine, O'Neill."

 

"It's a nursery rhyme, T."

 

"Poems, for young children," Daniel added, "told to entertain or teach a lesson.  Interestingly, they are usually based around gruesome or traumatic events."

 

Jack was content to let Daniel explain the purpose and history of nursery rhymes as they continued past the guard.  He'd thought that he'd have to leave everything he loved behind, to start over with only memories of lost happiness.  He'd done it before; he could do it again.

 

The cold November air swirled into the SGC as they walked out.  Jack took a deep breath of the fresh mountain air.  Daniel had just recited Three Blind Mice and Teal'c found an inordinate amount of humor in the rhyme.  He had Daniel repeat the song three times and laughed harder each time.  Jack shot a puzzled look over at Sam who shrugged.  Jaffa humor was as big a mystery as Jaffa revenge.  The big man's laughter was low and infectious.  By the time he recited the rhyme back to them, his deep voice adding an ironic seriousness to the words, they all were in tears.  They laughed until they had no air, and then they grinned at each other not at all sure what they'd been laughing about.

 

Jack took one more gulp of air and he hiccupped.  Sam giggled and another bout of laughter followed.  It felt good to laugh.  It felt impossibly good to be here with his team, laughing.  The warmth of camaraderie wrapped around him and the gift was a pleasant weight in his hand.  Jack knew how lucky he was to have these friends.  How lucky he was to be here with his team, his family.  Never leave home without them. 

 

He didn't plan to.

 

 

 

*~*~*

 

Plot Bunny:

Time frame: None specified
Pairings : None
Jack pulls a stunt in which Hammond is forced to publicly punish him, but in the end Jack is vindicated.
Restrictions: No Asgard involvement
Notes: Whumping is a welcome bonus. Other aliens (apart from the Asgard) are welcome or it can be totally Earth-bound.