Disparities – Part I

Episode 10

Written by SGC Gategirl and Charli Booker

Authors: SGC Gategirl and Charli Booker
Status: Complete
Rating: 15+
Category: Angst, action/adventure, drama
Summary: When the Tok'ra and Jaffa approach the SGC with separate requests for peace treaties with the Tau'ri, there is more to these formal inquiries than meet the eye.
Spoilers: Everything up to the end of S8, plus the first half of VS9.
Warnings: None
Authors' Notes:

SGC Gategirl: Much thanks must go to Charli for putting up with me and my freaky travel schedule and my on-again-off-again muse. Also, thanks to the entire VS9 team for your continued encouragement during a rocky few months. Hugs to you all.

Charli Booker: I was honored when Dee asked me to co-conspire…I mean, co-author an episode with her. Many thanks go to her and to Team VS9 for their inspiration and support. It's been a blast and, fortunately, only Jack emerged somewhat scathed.

Archive: Jackfic. Otherwise, do not archive without the author's express permission.
Disclaimer: The characters mentioned in this story are the property of Sci Fi and Gekko Film Corp. The Stargate, SG-I, the Goa'uld and all other characters who have appeared in the series STARGATE SG-1 together with the names, titles, and back story are the sole copyright property of MGM-UA Worldwide Television, Gekko Film Corp, Glassner/Wright Double Secret Productions, and Stargate SG-I Prod. Ltd. Partnership. This fanfic is not intended as an infringement upon those rights and solely meant for entertainment. All other characters, the story idea, and the story itself are the sole property of the authors.
 

Disparities — Part One
By SGC Gategirl and Charli Booker


"Let it be an alliance of two large, formidable natures, mutually beheld, mutually feared, before yet they recognize the deep identity which beneath these disparities unites them."
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Friendship,” Essays, First Series

*~*~*

"Unscheduled off-world activation!"

Closing his eyes, General Jack O'Neill slowly counted to ten before launching himself from his desk. If the past few days were any indication of what might be happening in the gateroom, then he was sure it was going to be a pip.

O’Neill’s boots clanked down the metal stairs into the control room, and Master Sergeant Walter Harriman glanced up from the computer display, his fingers pressing the earpiece closer to his head.

"What have you got, Walter?"

The other man shook his head, his eyes sliding back to the screen in front of him. "Nothing yet, sir. No one's due back until tomorrow."

O'Neill surveyed the gateroom, the iris closed tightly, the blue of the active wormhole shining brightly against the rear, grey concrete wall. Everything looked normal, but that changed so often nowadays that it was hard to say what was normal anymore.

Eyeing the soldiers entering the embarkation room, Jack felt the same itch growing he got every time the gate activated. There was something about that puddle, about the Stargate. He wanted to step through into the unknown. It was those times, out there, when he felt the most alive. It was hard to imagine there were people who didn't want to step through that gate and into the unknown, and frankly, he thought those people were the crazy ones.

Some, though, might disagree with his assessment—and they wouldn't be the first.

Moving around the control room, he began to talk to no one in particular, the words coming out of his mouth helping to keep his mind on the situation at hand instead of on wishes and daydreams. "Who's out there? We have Major Pierce and SG-15 out on recon. Reynolds and SG-3 are doing that meet and greet, and so help me if they come back smelling like anything but roses."

Harriman nodded absently, obviously concentrating on the white noise in his ear as O'Neill continued to talk, his feet and mouth refusing to remain still.

"The geologists from SG-19 are communing with the underlying strata of the planet—which is what they do best. SG-1 is due back late tomorrow night after they get the opportunity to stretch their legs and scramble over piles of rocks and ruins. Ferretti is—"

"Sir, we're receiving an IDC," Harriman said, catching O'Neill's eyes. "It's SG-3."

"Open the iris, Sergeant," he said, already on the move down the stairs, his feet carrying him to the ramp in the gateroom. Harriman's next words, however, stopped him, turning him around as he retraced his steps to the microphone on the console.

"I'm getting a radio transmission, sir. It's Colonel Reynolds."

Leaning forward, O'Neill clicked on the transmit button, activating communication between the SGC and its remote team. "Reynolds? What's going on?"

The Colonel's reply came in loud and clear over the speakers in the control room, as did the chirping and chattering of some kind of animal in the background. It didn't sound very threatening. "We were doing a recon of the planet as ordered, sir, when we ran into something a little unexpected."

O'Neill raised an eyebrow. "Reynolds, you know I don't enjoy surprises."

"It's the Tok'ra, sir. They're interested in meeting with you."

~*~*~

"And they didn't call us directly…why is that again?" O'Neill asked, whirling around to face the Colonel who stood on the other side of the briefing room table, his field gear still in place—even down to the P90 hanging from the clip on the front of his vest. Reynolds held it securely, the muzzle pointed to the floor. The rest of SG-3 was still on the planet. This was one conversation O'Neill didn't want to have over the open channel—just in case. You never knew who was listening these days.

"They're not very forthcoming with that piece of information, sir," Reynolds replied, his eyes focused intently on O'Neill's.

"And, how the hell did they know we were going to have a team on Tellemma?"

"We don't know, sir."

"We don't know a lot these days."

"Seems that way, doesn't it?" Reynolds replied, offering a half-smile, which diffused some of O'Neill's frustration. The other man continued a beat later. "From what we can piece together, the Tellemmanians apparently know Hac'lor, or at least that's what Jyotika said when we asked him directly. For some reason, he wouldn't talk about the Tok'ra at all. But when we backed him into a corner about it, he finally came clean. It seems as if the Tok'ra have visited Tellemma several times over the years and are well known to the people. So I wouldn't be surprised if someone mentioned something to Hac'lor in the course of a normal conversation about our visit and our plans to return. It's not like we told them not to tell anyone, and we're not exactly unknown out there."

"True," O'Neill said, rubbing a hand across his face. Days of diplomats and now a call from the Tok'ra. He needed a vacation. Waving Reynolds to a seat, he took one as well, folding himself into the chair at the head of the table. "So, what exactly did Hac'lor want?"

Reynolds shrugged, rearranging the placement of his P90 before crossing his arms over his chest as he made himself comfortable. "I'm convinced the Tok'ra are vague just to piss us off, but from what I could divine from the little information Hac'lor provided, they're worried about our close relationship with the Jaffa Nation."

"Well, that's nothing new. We're been trying to cultivate that relationship with the Jaffa for the past several months—not that they're any easier to deal with than the Tok'ra, mind you."

"True," Reynolds nodded. "And, they're also apparently satisfied with the arrangement we helped to broker between them and the Jaffa."

"You mean getting Malek on Dakara?"

"Yeah."

"Well, something Malek discovered must have made the Tok'ra Council happy," O'Neill said, leaning back in his chair, his eyes fixed on the SGC logo on the far wall. How long had that been there? Since the very beginning? Who designed it? Shaking the random thoughts from his mind, he continued, "The last time I talked to Thoran, he'd rather kill himself than admit the Tau'ri were good at anything."

"Something changed their minds."

"So it seems." O'Neill paused, several scenarios running through his mind. He didn't like any of them. "Reynolds, head back to P8X-629 and see what else you can get out of Hac'lor. I want more information before I make a decision either way. Or, better yet, have him tell Thoran to call me directly. I've never liked going through middlemen. If he has something to say, he can talk to me face-to-face…or radio-signal-to-radio-signal."

"Will do, sir," Reynolds replied, rising to his feet as he adjusted his P90 and pulled his flak vest back into place. "And if he gives us the right answers?"

O'Neill sighed lightly, thinking about the long-distance call to Washington he knew he was going to have to make before long. "Then, we might be having guests for dinner. I better let Dad know."

~*~*~

Colonel Gary Reynolds stepped through the wormhole, squinting his eyes a little as the glare from the overhead suns made themselves known. Captain Chad Peterson was waiting beside the DHD, his weapon at the ready—just in case.

"Peterson, all quiet?"

"Yes, sir. Major Ellis and Captain Bosco are holding down the fort back at the village. I think they were getting ready for a dinner feast or something in our honor." The other man shrugged, rolling his eyes a little. "They're nice enough people, but the food so far…"

Reynolds nodded as a chuckle escaped his lips. He swung his arm around Peterson's shoulders as they began walking to the village. "I know it's not up to your usual standards, but then, not every team travels with its own gourmet cook." Patting the other man's arm, he smiled and stepped to the side.

Throwing the Colonel an annoyed look, Peterson replied, "Very funny."

After sharing a moment of levity, Reynolds pulled his attention to the mission at hand. "Has Hac'lor been able to tell us anything else about why Thoran wants to meet or why Thoran didn't contact the SGC directly?"

"Nothing really," Peterson said, shaking his head. "It's downright peculiar if you ask me, sir. He says they want to meet, but he refuses to say why. Oh, he's made passing remarks about the Tau'ri—all positive—and expressed his thanks about what we did with the whole Dakara situation, but that doesn't mean anything. Honestly, I think they're worried."

"Worried?" Reynolds asked, letting Peterson step in front of him when the dirt path narrowed as it weaved its way through the forest underbrush.

"It's what they're not saying that makes me think that, especially after what happened when they stormed Dakara."

"You mean the disappearing Tok'ra?"

"Exactly," Peterson nodded, glancing over his shoulder at Reynolds. "I overheard him talking to Bosco, asking questions about it."

"I don't blame him for being curious. Hell, we're not exactly sure what happened either, but we know it had something to do with the General and that Ancient weapon. And no one has been very forthcoming about what happened in that little chamber. Not even Doctor Jackson. All of the reports were classified immediately after they were handed in to the General. Even I didn't get the chance to see them before they slapped the red seal and the Top Secret stamp on them."

"Do you think the Tok'ra know something we don't?"

"Maybe, maybe not," Reynolds said, shrugging. "But I'm going to find out everything I can."

~*~*~

It was the overnight hours Jack O'Neill liked best. More often than not, it was quiet, as if the universe knew they were trying to get a little shut-eye.

He knew he'd been spending too much time on base as of late, but after the whole diplomatic meet and greet the other week, things had been piling up on his desk.

And then, there were all the teams that had missions.

And, they had to break in another Russian team. The Russians went through too many young men and women for his liking. They were too reckless, in his opinion, but they seemed to have an endless supply of fresh-faced kids ready to be sent out even before the other bodies had grown cold. But, that was part of the deal. The Russians get a team—even if they replace it every ninety days. Maybe they should get a one-year warranty or something. A one-month warranty might be closer to the truth. Anything would be an improvement.

Turning from the briefing room window overlooking the gateroom, O'Neill headed for the hallway and his on-base quarters. His bed was calling his name—and had been for quite some time now.

"Unscheduled off-world activation."

"Damn," he said, pausing one step into the corridor. Pivoting on the ball of his foot, he changed his course and headed down the stairs to the control room instead—bed would have to wait.

He spotted Sergeant Alberts at the control console. Was Walter actually off-duty? It seemed like the man was always at the SGC. Apparently, it was Alberts' turn on night shift this week. Shrugging to himself, Jack made a mental note to read a little more closely some of the duty rosters that crossed his desk—and then he promptly forgot about it.

"What've we got, Alberts?"

"It's Bra'tac's IDC, sir."

"Bra'tac?" Jack echoed, surprise in his voice and his eyebrows doing a funny little dance before settling down, the line between them deepening. Anytime the Jaffa came calling it was never good—at least not lately. "Let him in."

Alberts complied with the order as O'Neill headed down the stairs to the gateroom, brushing past the battle-ready security forces and reaching the bottom of the ramp as a figure stepped through the shimmering event horizon.

"Master Bra'tac," O'Neill said, a smile on his face and his hands held out toward the Jaffa striding down the ramp.

"O'Neill," he replied as the gate closed down with a snap-hiss. The Jaffa grasped the younger man's hand in his and pulled him in for a hug, slapping his back several times before ending the embrace. Stepping back, Bra'tac offered a small smile. His eyes, however, were anything but joyous. "We must talk."

Jack gestured to the door, letting the Jaffa lead the way to the briefing room. "So, let's talk. How are things on Dakara?"

"While I desire more of Teal'c's attention and support on the Jaffa Council, I understand his decision to serve by your side. Teal'c sees great things for all of our peoples. I just wish others had such far-sightedness." Bra'tac shook his head as they stepped into the elevator to take them up to the briefing room level. "We have begun settling some of our more petty quarrels with each other."

"That's good to hear. Then, what do we need to talk about? Do you need more supplies?"

"No. The supplies are sufficient at this time and we are thankful to the Tau'ri for their assistance." Bra'tac pursed his lips as the elevator doors slid open before them and they walked into the briefing room, settling into the half-lit room without putting on the overhead lights.

"Then, what is it?"

"We have heard of your plans to sign a treaty with Ba'al."

Uh oh, Jack thought, thankful for the darkness. "Really? Interesting rumor."

"Then, you deny this?"

"No," O'Neill began, trying to decide the best way to explain their plans. "I'm not denying the rumor. Let's just say we're leaving our options open at this point in time."

Annoyance and something else passed over the Jaffa's face, but were gone quicker than O'Neill could identify the latter. A slow nod accompanied Bra'tac's next words. "Then, it is true as Da'ar said it was."

"Da'ar said?"

"Yes. Word came to the Jaffa Council several days ago, but I did not believe that O'Neill of the Tau'ri would do such a thing. I therefore endeavored to ascertain the truth of this news for myself."

"Bra'tac—"

"You do not have to explain your policies to me, O'Neill. I have become familiar with them. You can, however, provide some additional assistance to the Jaffa."

"If it's within my power, I'll do the best I can."

"With the current state of affairs, the Jaffa Council has recognized that we must change the way we view ourselves and others. And along those thoughts, the Jaffa Nation wishes to draw up a treaty with the Tau'ri. We wish to formalize our ties to you as allies."

~*~*~

Glancing around the silent compound, a figure silently padded across the square, its head looking from side-to-side as it passed through the open space. With the clouds covering most of the nighttime sky, the light from the moon overhead was negligible, but they were obviously not taking any chances.

Once on the other side, the figure stayed in the shadows, its long robe dragging on the stones underfoot. Approaching a large, dark, wooden door, the figure glanced around before knocking, the sound barely loud enough to be heard inside. A few seconds later the door creaked open, a sliver of light cutting through the darkness. The robed figure slid inside, closing the door quietly behind him.

"Did anyone see you?"

"I do not believe so. The town is quiet."

"And the gate?"

"No one was present when I stepped through. I do not believe my visit was noticed."

"Then let us keep it that way. What have you learned?"

"The Tau'ri on the planet are asking many questions. As of yet, O'Neill has not decided upon a meeting."

"Thoran can be very persuasive, as can his mouthpiece, Hac'lor. In time, the Tau'ri will agree to meet with the delegation from the Tok'ra."

"I agree, Telkara. It is only a matter of time."

"Any other word from Malek?" the other man asked, settling back into his chair and carefully watching the figure standing before him.

"Nothing," he replied.

"No one has come forward with information? Surely someone must have seen something. People do not simply vanish into thin air."

"Perhaps it was a Jaffa trick," he replied, his tone showing clearly he did not believe that to be the case.

"No, Kos're, I do not believe that to be true," Telkara said, shaking his head. "There is more than meets the eye with this Tau'ri—O'Neill. No, there is much more going on which they are not revealing to us." He paused, various thoughts obviously running through his head. His next words were thoughtful. "Are you prepared?"

"Yes. Thoran has already selected the delegation which will travel to the Tau'ri home world. He is confident O'Neill will agree to meet with him."

"As am I. But, you realize what that means?"

"Yes and we are prepared for every possible outcome. We shall be the victorious ones this time. That I promise."

~*~*~

"Sir?"

The voice barely penetrated the fog.

"General?"

Jack didn't move. Maybe if he didn't answer, the polite voice would just go away, fade into the nothingness from which it had sprung. He had nearly convinced himself his plan was working, had nearly coaxed Miss Steenburgen out of hiding and back to the linen-covered table, complete with candles and two perfectly cooked, juicy steaks, when a loud rapping joined the voice.

"General O'Neill, sir?"

Jack sighed and burrowed face-first into his pillow. As he'd known it would, the door opened. He couldn't see it, but he knew there was a narrow bar of bright light stretching across the concrete floor, widening as it climbed up the side of the bed to fall directly across the spot where he lay. Lord knew he'd been struck in the face with the damn thing enough times, particularly since his last promotion. He really should see about having the bed moved.

"Sir," the Airman whispered.

Groaning, Jack wondered why the hell the guy was whispering now—after he'd yelled and practically beaten down the door. "What?" he barked, his voice muffled by the pillow.

"General, it's 0700 hours, Washington, D.C. time." When there was no response, Jack heard a soft clearing of the throat. "Sir? You asked to be awakened, sir."

"Fine. I'm awake. Now, please go away."

"Yes, sir."

He waited until he heard the soft click of the closing door before rolling onto his side. His eyes still closed, he lay there and weighed the urgency of getting up after three hours of precious sleep against the benefits of retirement. Retired, he could sleep as late as he wanted. And, if he did happen to wake up early, he could stay in bed and dine with Miss Steenburgen as late as he chose.

"Sir?"

At the sound of the voice coming from mere inches away, Jack sat up, suddenly wide-eyed. "What the—"

When he squinted up at the young Airman, at least the kid had the decency to look abashed. "Sorry, General, but when you ordered me to wake you, you said I shouldn't leave until you were actually sitting up."

Just what he needed—someone who took him literally. Still recovering from the rude awakening, Jack covered his eyes with one hand. "And did I order you to turn on the lights and scare the crap out of me, too?"

"No, sir." The Airman reached over and switched off the overhead light, but otherwise made no move to leave.

Jack sighed and swung his legs over the side of the narrow bed. "Okay, I'm up. You can go."

"Yes, sir."

He winced as the door opened, admitting the piercing slice of light from the hallway that illuminated his BDUs draped haphazardly over the chair next to the bed. "And, Airman?"

The man stopped and looked back. "Sir?"

"Good job."

"Thank you, sir."

~*~*~

Gregor Weisz emptied three packets of sugar into a steaming cup of tea, squeezed in a generous measure of honey, and finally, poured in a large helping of heavy cream. It was a vice, he knew, but one of the few which remained to him, and until his mistress or his wife insisted, he had no intention of giving it up.

"I trust your assignment is clear?"

His back to the room, Gregor closed his eyes as he meticulously stirred the sweet brew. The mere sound of Fernand Favre's heavily accented voice had long ago begun to grate on his nerves. Unfortunately, under the circumstances, he had no alternative but to endure the man's perpetually skeptical tone.

Delicately tapping the spoon against the rim of the thin, bone china cup, Gregor placed the implement on a napkin and picking up saucer and cup, he resumed his place at the head of the large conference table.

There was a mute crackle before a self-assured, feminine voice wafted out from the speakerphone situated in the center of the table. "Crystal. I do have one question, however." There was a pause long enough for Gregor to sip his tea and jot down a quick note to call his wife and tell her he'd be late. "Any preference as to how it's handled?"

His pen still poised above the pad of paper, Gregor glanced around the room. Not surprisingly, out of the half-dozen representatives present, only Favre met his gaze. Torn between wishing he had a face to go with the voice on the phone and being glad he didn't, Gregor quickly added a note to send flowers to his mistress, along with an invitation to dinner at their favorite restaurant. Clearing his throat, he smiled politely at the phone. "Considering your . . . expertise in matters such as this, I believe we shall leave that nasty little detail up to you."

There was a rigorous round of head nodding as Gregor's colleagues deferred to his decision.

"Very well." Disappointment seemed to shade the disembodied voice. "Then, all that remains is for you to make the initial installment. Upon receipt, I will assume the terms meet with your approval, and the contract will commence immediately. The final installment is due within ten days of the first payment. Remember, once the contract has been initiated, there can and will be no cancellation. Deadline for completion on this end is ninety days after the final installment; however, as I have stated previously, the exact timing is to be at my own discretion."

"Of course," Favre mumbled disdainfully.

"And, as agreed, there will be no further contact between us after today. Is that understood?"

"Perfectly," Gregor agreed.

"Then, I will await your opening gambit. Gentlemen," the voice politely concluded, "it's been a pleasure."

Immediately, the line went dead. Gregor reached over and shut off the speaker. The silence in the room was heavy and, in some corners, guilt-ridden. Smiling, eager to wrap up this distasteful piece of business and move on, Gregor sipped his tea and smiled at his associates. "Well, then, that's that."

~*~*~

"Why now, Jack?"

Tucking the phone between his jaw and his shoulder, Jack leaned back in his office chair and propped his feet on his desk, ignoring the ominous creaking and popping. "It's a preemptive strike, sir."

He could picture Hammond mulling over the statement, blue eyes squinting slightly beneath a high, furrowed forehead. "How do you figure?"

Crap. He should know better than to dress in the dark—one of his boots was untied. Frowning at the potentially lethal shoelace, Jack fought back a yawn. "Bra'tac and his boys are trying to beat the Tok'ra to the punch."

"Yes, well, the question is, why's Earth suddenly such a valuable commodity."

Wiping at a stain on the leg of his trousers, Jack smirked. "I could hazard a few guesses."

"Such as?"

"For one thing, the Tok'ra seem to think we're getting a little too friendly with their good buddies, the free Jaffa."

"And?" Hammond prodded.

"And, on the flip side, Bra'tac mentioned a rumor that's circulating involving Ba'al and the Tau'ri going to bed together."

Hammond snorted softly through the phone. "That would explain why they're both sneakin' out the back of the barn to talk to you. What's the Jaffa Nation bringing to the table, aside from their undying allegiance?"

The obvious sarcasm rounding out the question made Jack miss his former commanding officer all the more. He smiled and sank deeper into the soft, leather chair, closing tired eyes. "I'd say that's about as far as their bankroll extends right now."

"In exchange for . . ."

Opening his eyes, Jack stared at the row of framed photographs on the opposite wall. "Tretonin."

There was a momentary pause before Hammond filled the early morning silence. "I don't understand. I thought we were already keeping them amply supplied."

"That's just it, General. They don't want to be supplied with it. They want the means to supply themselves."

"The ole 'teach a man to fish' theory."

"Something like that, yes, sir." Pulling open his desk drawer, Jack retrieved the small bottle of ibuprofen he kept stashed there and thumbed off the lid. "Can't say as I blame them. We say we support them in their bid for independence from the Goa'uld, yet at the same time, we keep them subservient. They've merely gone from being dependent on the snakes to being dependent on us to keep them supplied with Tretonin. Of course, I wouldn't presume to think that was Washington's intention all along." When there was no response, Jack smiled and toyed with the small mound of capsules spread on his desktop. "Yes, well . . ."

"You know how it is, Jack."

"Unfortunately, I do."

"And the Tok'ra?" Hammond asked, clearly in a bid to change the subject. "What do they want?"

"That remains to be seen. I'm waiting to hear from Thoran."

"Any ideas?"

"They sound worried to me, General."

"About Baal."

Despite the fact Hammond couldn't see him, Jack shrugged. "Possibly. But, I have a hunch it's more than likely something to do with Dakara and a huge honkin' doohickey they have no hope of operating on their own."

"Hmm. You may be right." Hammond sighed loudly. "Well, in any event, it sounds like I'd better get on the horn."

Jack chuckled. "Yes, sir."

"Good-bye, Jack. Let me know when you have something more."

"Yes, sir, I will."

At the sound of dead air, Jack hung up the phone, then leaned over and tied his shoe. Palming the painkillers, he stood up. There was a mug of coffee and a danish in the cafeteria with his name on them.

~*~*~

"Are you certain?"

She turned toward the speaker and the disembodied voice of her boss. "Yes. While there is some hesitation on the part of the SGC, this is the type of opportunity they can't refuse."

"What's the timeframe?"

"Within a week. If things proceed as I believe they will, talks will probably move to Washington."

"Hayes?"

"Among others, yes."

"Good. Keep me apprised. I want to know everything."

With a click, the connection died and she quickly closed her end before securing the device in the bottom drawer of her desk. She had some more work to do before the day was done.

~*~*~

"So, Reynolds," O'Neill said, standing in the gateroom as SG-3 thundered down the metal ramp, "what's the news?"

The Colonel shrugged slightly, handing off his P90 to the waiting Airman. "Nothing new, really. Thoran, it seems, is eager to formalize their ties to the Tau'ri, at least according to Hac'lor."

"He sees the error of his ways and all that good stuff?" O'Neill asked, gesturing for Reynolds and the rest of SG-3 to follow him to the briefing room.

"Something like that. They've been very complimentary about what we've done for them over the past several months, especially in light of the fact they've not been very…appreciative about our help," Reynolds replied as they walked down the hall to the elevator.

"They're a little too appreciative now, sir," Peterson said from the rear of the group. "I don't trust them, sir."

"Well," O'Neill said, swinging partially around to glance at the other man while his feet continued to carry him forward, "I haven't trusted them for years and that's not about to change, but this is a whole side of the Tok'ra I've never seen before."

"I agree with Peterson, sir. They're too eager. Could something or someone be nipping at their heels?" Reynolds asked, sliding his key card through the reader next to the elevator door, summoning the car.

"That might be the case, but who or what might it be? There's really not a whole lot out there." O'Neill frowned, his gaze locking with the Colonel's.

"That we know about," added Reynolds as the elevator doors sighed open. They moved into the empty car without a word, Captain Peterson taking charge of the control panel.

"True," he conceded, nodding his head slightly. "But whatever's out there that can scare the Tok'ra into our lap, we need to know about—and quickly."

"We might have a little more information about that, too," Peterson replied.

"What do you mean?" O'Neill asked as the doors slid open. They crossed to the briefing room, moving to take their seats.

"Hac'lor has been very friendly with the locals, and in the past has talked about some of the planets and places he's visited. While he's not giving away any great state secrets or anything, he did talk specifically about a few places," Major Ellis replied, settling down in the chair to O'Neill's right.

"Did he give them any information we can follow up on?"

Ellis nodded. "Maybe. It may take a little digging and a little help from one of the linguists, but we might have a few planets we can check out."

"He was vague, General. At least, I thought so. Although, Ellis thinks he might have something," Reynolds said. "And, I'd hate to send someone on a wild goose chase."

Jack didn't hesitate. "While it may be worthless in the long run, I think it's about time we start checking up on where our friends the Tok'ra have been and what they've been doing. Ellis, find whomever you need and let's see what you can come up with. It's worth a shot. If it's on one of those planets, or the inhabitants can lead us somewhere else, we might have a better idea of what's got the Tok'ra running." O'Neill leaned forward in his chair, his elbows on the table. "Anything else?"

"The Tellemmanians were very hospitable and are looking forward to furthering relations with us," Reynolds replied. "While Bosco or Peterson won't recommend visiting for the food, the people were friendly and welcoming. It might also be a good idea to get the geologists to check it out as well."

"Very well. Give me your reports first thing in the morning. If you can find me a planet and a working gate address, you'll head back out. Right now, you'd better get to the infirmary for your post-mission checks before Doctor Brightman sends out the dogs. Dismissed."

~*~*~

"But, General—" O'Neill said, leaning back and spinning in his chair a little, the joints creaking threateningly. They'd had to give him back his old chair—something about the new one being sent to the wrong place. He'd argued with the Airman that had come to claim the apparently illegally delivered furniture, but the other man had had his paperwork in hand, signed in triplicate no less. So here he was, minus his new chair—again.

"You called to ask my professional opinion, correct?" Hammond replied, his tone a little testy. Maybe it was because O'Neill had interrupted his dinner…and the General had several guests. Timing was everything.

"I did. I just don't think—" O'Neill said, only to be left with his mouth hanging open when the General spoke over him.

"Jack, I know you're a little leery about the diplomatic aspect of the job, but you've done a good job in the past. Put the right people in place and things will work out just fine."

"I don't think it's a good idea to hold these talks at the SGC, General. Especially with both the Tok'ra and the Jaffa jostling to be the first to get their foot in the door."

"So, have them at the same time. Different rooms, different negotiating teams. Maybe it'll make them think twice before trying to pull something over on us. Maybe it'll put them on edge. The SGC is your turf, Jack. Use it to your advantage. Think of this as a battle and you'll be fine."

"But, sir—"

"And, we're sending you some help, so don't worry. She's coming straight from the Pentagon and has an extensive background in negotiations with hostile groups. Her name is Amy Chao and she'll be arriving tomorrow night. Make her feel at home, Jack. Both Agent Johnson and I know her personally."

Closing his eyes, O'Neill fought back the urge to sigh into the receiver. "Understood, General."

"Now, I have guests who require my attention far more than you do. Have a good night, Jack, and lighten up. You've made the Joint Chiefs happy."

"You know I strive for that distinction."

"Jack…"

"Good night, General. Enjoy your evening."

Dropping the receiver onto the base of the phone, O'Neill rubbed his hands over his face. Joy. He'd just finished playing diplomat for the humans and now he was going to host an intergalactic diplomatic party. He could almost picture the fistfights they'd have over the appetizers.

This was going to be fun.

Not.

~*~*~

"What do you mean, you're not sure?" Major Warren Ellis fixed his eyes on the man standing across from him.

Squinting at the handwritten notes in his hands, Nyan glanced up, annoyance on his face. "I mean, I'm not sure if I can help you. Doctor Jackson—"

"Is not coming back to the SGC until tonight sometime. I need an answer now."

"One of the other archeologists or a linguist might be able to help you more." Nyan glanced at the notes again before continuing. "Yes, you need a linguist."

"Captain Hagman sent me to you."

"Well, there's a good reason for that. He's still lying low after that whole incident when he was assigned to SG-1. I don't think he wants to come out of his office," Nyan replied, trying to hand the papers back.

Ellis refused to take them. "That was two years ago already."

"And?"

He sighed, trying not to strangle the Bedrosian. "Look, I really need your help and it can't wait until Doctor Jackson gets back. Can you at least look at it? That's all I'm asking."

"Fine." Nyan pulled the pages back and settled onto the stool beside the workbench. "What exactly am I looking for?"

"These descriptions might be descriptions for planets or even coordinates to some places the Tok'ra have been recently. I need to see if we can figure out what the Tellemmanians meant."

"Oh, that's all? Are you sure I didn't need to take a mind-reading class, too?" Nyan rolled his eyes and picked up a pencil, sliding the yellow legal pad closer.

Ellis made a face but stayed quiet. At least the man was trying to help him.

"Okay, in the first…passage…they're referring to something close, probably within the same solar system or galaxy. They can see the object in question every few years."

"That's what I thought, so we just have to figure out possible gate addresses in the area. What else can you make out?"

Nyan glanced up briefly, but went back to the pages, his forehead scrunching up a little as he concentrated. "I might need some references for some of these. Whoever gave you this information had proper names for some of these worlds. They might just be in the local language, so if we can figure out what they mean, we might have another more common name for the same planet."

"How long?"

This time Nyan glanced up. "I don't know. I do have other projects I have to finish before Doctor Jackson returns."

"We need this now."

"That's what everyone says."

"And?"

Nyan sighed. "Give me an hour or two so I can find the reference books I need, but I don't think this will take too long once I have the right materials to translate—"

"Thanks! I'll be back in two hours. I really, really appreciate it." As Ellis walked out the door, he could have sworn he heard Nyan say something, but didn't turn back when the sound wasn't repeated. He knew Nyan could get the job done. They'd have something for the General in a few hours.

~*~*~

General O'Neill walked into the control room, spotting Walter at the far end, running checks on the equipment.

"Walter?"

The other man turned, an electronic pad in one hand and a stylus in the other. "You need something, sir?"

"Yes. I need to get two messages sent out, one to Bra'tac and one to Thoran."

"Messages?" He looked for a flat, clear surface to leave the pad on.

O'Neill sighed lightly. "Official invitations to the SGC to commence negotiations for treaties for their respective groups. We're apparently hosting the intergalactic diplomatic dinner dance party this year."

"Do you have what you want me to tell them written out, sir?" O'Neill held out his hand, the sheets of paper held tightly between his fingers. "Thank you, sir. I'll send it right out. We have the coordinates for Dakara, and I'll send it to the last known Tok'ra base."

"Thanks, Walter, You're very…efficient."

"That's what you pay me to be, sir," he replied, taking his seat at the main console. "This will only take a few minutes."

"Great," Jack replied without enthusiasm. "Let me know what they say."

"I will, sir," Walter said absently as he read over the message. "General, sir? This is happening this week?"

"Yes, Walter, this week it is."

"It wasn't on your schedule."

"I know. Let's just call it an extreme makeover of my current calendar. Carry on, Walter. Carry on."

~*~*~

Jack glanced over the top of his laptop, gesturing for his aide to come in. "Done already?"

"It took me a little longer than I thought, sir," Walter replied, handing Jack a typed sheet of paper. "Bra'tac was originally unavailable, but I left a message and he dialed in ten minutes later agreeing to meet. He said he's bringing several Jaffa as part of his delegation."

O'Neill nodded. "As expected. Did he say how many?"

"No. He said he'd let you know first thing in the morning. He needed to bring it up with the Jaffa Council."

"Understood. And the Tok'ra?"

"They were a little more difficult to get hold of. They're not at the same base they were at a few months ago."

"Still moving around a lot, aren't they?"

"Yes, sir," Walter said, nodding. "I finally got hold of Hac'lor on Tellemma, and he was able to pass along the message. Thoran replied as well, through Hac'lor, and said he would be delighted to attend. He also will be bringing a delegation."

"Delighted," O'Neill chuckled, rolling his eyes toward the ceiling. "How many?"

"No more than ten."

"Ten? Good God. We're going to have to clear levels twenty-five and twenty-six."

"Already begun, sir. We're not going to touch the senior officer quarters unless you tell us to."

Jack nodded. "Leave them alone unless we really need them. We're going to need two separate rooms on level seventeen for negotiations. And a larger room for social functions as well."

"We've started on those already, too," Walter said as the overhead speakers came to life.

"Off-world activation."

"And that should be SG-1, sir," Walter said with a smile. "You wanted to be notified when they returned."

"That I did," he replied, returning the smile as he rose to his feet, closing his laptop at the same time. He followed his aide down the stairs and into the control room, arriving just as the first figures stepped through the event horizon. With his smile growing wider, he made his way into the gateroom, meeting SG-1 as they stepped down off the ramp.

"Welcome home, SG-1. Successful mission?"

Colonel Carter smiled, glancing over her shoulder as Daniel Jackson pushed past Teal'c. "Jack, it was amazing. That was one of the cities of the Ancients, and a lot of it was still intact—once you got past the rubble. We're going to need a full team to go back there and catalog—"

"Enough, Daniel. I get the picture. Save it for your debrief. I'm glad you had a great time off-world," he said, catching the eyes of each team member. "Report to the infirmary and get your post-mission checks completed, then report to my office. You're going to help me play diplomat for the next few days."

"Diplomat?"

"Sir, what happened?" Carter asked.

"Both the Jaffa and the Tok'ra will be here in two days time to start the process of negotiating formal treaties with us as allies."

"Is that wise?" Teal'c asked, his eyebrow on the rise.

O'Neill shrugged. "Wise or not, it's what Washington wants and we get to play host. So, get changed, showered, and checked, and meet me in an hour. We have a lot of work to do."

~*~*~

"I understand your reluctance." Having been briefed by Jack on the events of the last few days and the upcoming negotiations, Daniel was slouched in a chair at the briefing room table, studying the strip of adhesive that secured a small wad of gauze in the crook of his elbow. He'd always hated needles. He'd hoped that over time his aversion to them would diminish, particularly considering he was jabbed with hypodermics multiple times before and after every trip through the gate. But, so far, it hadn't happened.

The only thing that could possibly be worse than getting poked on a nearly daily basis would be having the job of studying all those blood samples. He envisioned an assembly line of tiny, red vials circulating through the SGC corridors before reaching their destination in the labs, and he pitied the poor technicians who had to deal with them. He was pretty sure he'd never met any of the techs; he would have remembered it if he had—they'd be the people stooped over like hunchbacks and sporting perpetual rings around their eyes from sitting with their faces pressed against microscopes 24/7.

Actually, the way he figured it, the teams were getting off easy. After all, someone could decide that the team members' blood should be checked off-world, too. Who knew what changes occurred in the human body while on a planet located who knew where in the galaxy? Daniel had wondered about it before, but he'd never in a million years broach the topic with one of the doctors or to Sam. He might be curious, but he certainly wasn't stupid.

Digging at the itchy tape on his arm, he realized if he ever got pulled over by the cops, they'd take one look at the tracks on his arms and assume he was an addict. And, considering the thrill he got every time he stepped through the Stargate and that he was more than willing to suffer the dreaded needles in order to gate travel, maybe they'd be right—maybe he was addicted. Smiling to himself, he glanced up to find Jack frowning at him. Teal'c was absently staring across the table at the window that overlooked the gateroom, but Sam was looking at him, too, as if waiting for something. "What?"

Jack leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, his shoulders twitching once as if he were brushing off an unseen touch, or as if someone had walked over his grave. Daniel suddenly realized Jack looked older than he had mere months ago. Weeks maybe. He'd known Jack for a long time, and the only sign of age he'd ever noticed in his friend had been the premature grey hair. Now, with dark circles and a network of fines lines outlining the brown eyes, Daniel realized the grey was no longer premature. In fact, it seemed fitting. And he thought maybe being a brigadier general was a costly thing.

Forcing a smile, Daniel reiterated the comment he'd almost forgotten he'd made. "I understand your reluctance."

"Do ya now?" Jack muttered, purposely allowing his Minnesota roots to flavor the comment.

"Your love for the Tok'ra, and Thoran in particular, is pretty common knowledge, Jack."

Sam glared at him, coughed softly, and then smiled at Jack before making an obvious attempt to divert the focus of the conversation. "And what about the Jaffa, sir?"

As Jack rolled his head, loosening his neck muscles, Daniel suddenly remembered when they'd first encountered Thoran. It had been during his ascension, while Jack was dying. Thoran had been the Tok'ra representative who'd approached Hammond and the others about allowing Jack to be blended with Kanan. And later, when his friend was being held and tortured by Ba'al, it had been Thoran who'd not only tried to convince Hammond there was nothing to be done, but that it was Jack's own fault—not Kanan's—that Jack was in Ba'al's hands. Feeling a rush of guilt at his role in prolonging his friend's captivity, Daniel watched as Jack scratched his head and smiled at Teal'c.

"What do you think, Teal'c?"

Almost reluctantly, the Jaffa turned his attention back to Jack and the matters at hand. He studied his commanding officer a moment before responding with a calm, "Did Master Bra'tac not give you the reason behind my brothers' request for a meeting?"

As Daniel watched, he saw something indefinable tighten Jack's features. Before he could name what it was, Jack straightened in his chair and looked down at the folder in front of him. "As a matter of fact, he did, T. I just thought maybe you could fill me in on the real reason."

"You do not believe Bra'tac."

As Jack and Teal'c squared off, Daniel found his gaze shifting between the two opponents.

"I don't think it's so much we don't believe Bra'tac," Sam conciliated, "it's just...perhaps you're aware of other reasons why the Jaffa Nation would suddenly want to engage in treaty negotiations."

His face as unreadable as Jack's, Teal'c glanced at Sam then back to Jack. "Your estimation of the situation is as accurate as my own." His lips curled in a meager semblance of a smile. "I believe that is the Tau'ri expression, is it not?"

Jack watched his old friend warily for a moment, before murmuring, "Your guess is as good as mine."

~*~*~

She pulled on the oversized t-shirt that had been her sleeping gown ever since she'd bought it at a small, beachfront shop on Galveston Island five years before. Barely glancing at herself in the mirror, she ran one hand through her hair then picked up the latest Dan Brown novel and crawled into bed. Settling herself against the pillows, she opened the book and leafed to where she'd left off the night before. She'd always been a sucker for mysteries—for intrigue. Even as a child she'd dreamt of a career doing dangerous, important, mysterious work, but who would have thought she'd grow up to do the things she did? She shuddered and pretended to read, despite the fact her mind was elsewhere. She couldn't stop thinking about tomorrow and the day after that. Her mind raced and she felt nauseous. Partly, she attributed the feeling to nerves, but mostly it was excitement—a rush of pure adrenaline. She hoped she could settle down enough to sleep, and turning back to her book, she wondered where O'Neill was and what he was doing.

~*~*~

Jack cautiously toyed with the limp lettuce on his plate. Scowling, he pushed it to one side with his fork and eyed with trepidation the congealed, brown mass which, camouflaged as meatloaf, had been skulking beneath the safety of the tired greenery. He glanced across his desk at Reynolds, who sat smirking and looking as if he'd just slept late then eaten a three-course meal. "So, what do you think?"

Leaning forward, Reynolds eyed Jack's lunch closely, then grimaced. "I'd decline if I were you."

Jack rolled his eyes and set the plastic fork aside. "I was talking about Ellis's theory."

"Oh." Reynolds settled back in his chair. "In that case…he may be onto something, but it remains to be seen. So far, he and Nyan haven't come up with anything definitive."

"Well, I'm not sure what good it'll do us in the short run, but I guess we can always hope that—"

"General? Excuse me, sir."

Jack shoved his plate aside and looked at his watch. 1450 hours, and a long time since breakfast. "What is it, Sergeant?"

Standing in the open doorway of the General's office, Harriman glanced down at the clipboard in his hand. "We have rooms prepared for both the Jaffa and the Tok'ra contingents."

"Nothing too comfy, I hope." When Reynolds snickered, Jack shrugged. "I don't want them staying any longer than possible."

"Unfortunately," Reynolds grinned, "this'll probably seem like the Ritz Carlton compared to the digs they're accustomed to."

Jack frowned. "Make a note, Walter: We're only serving those tasty cheese tortellini MREs. You know, the ones that come with the little crackers and the jalapeño cheese dip on the side." Walter and Reynolds chuckled softly, and Jack leaned back in his chair. "Worse comes to worst, we can always make them bunk together."

"Girl, boy, girl?" Reynolds smirked.

"I was thinking more along the lines of Jaffa, Tok'ra, Jaffa."

Harriman cleared his throat. "Um, yes, sir, I'll make a note. In the meantime, we're putting the Tok'ra on twenty-five and the Jaffa on twenty-six. We've prepared two conference rooms on seventeen, and I've also set up a smaller room nearby. I thought you might need a place to…take a break."

"Good thinking, Sergeant."

"Thank you, sir. I thought perhaps we could use the briefing room for any joint functions."

Jack nodded. "Seeing as we probably won't get any real work done while they're here, that should work."

"Yes, sir. I also took the liberty of preparing a couple of the senior officer quarters." When Jack looked at him, Harriman smiled. "I assumed both you and Miss Chao would be staying on base until the negotiations are complete."

"That's probably a safe assumption," Jack sighed. "You might want to prepare a few more. I'm going to want Doctor Jackson and Reynolds here, as well." Rubbing a hand over his forehead, Jack pulled his plate back in front of him as his empty stomach overrode any qualms he had about eating wilted salad and bad meatloaf. "Thanks, Walter. Sounds like you've got things under control."

"You're welcome, General." Walter turned to leave, then stopped. "Oh, I almost forgot. We received a call from Peterson. Miss Chao is on her way."

~*~*~

"This is taking too long," Major Ellis said, pacing in front of the workbench on which Nyan had spread out all his research materials. There were books piled on top of books, various journals turned facedown, other volumes boasted dog-eared pages and torn strips of scrap paper marking specific passages. Sticky notes were stuck to other tomes, words scribbled on each small pastel square, their meaning known only to the author.

"Would you rather it be done quickly or correctly?" Nyan paused in his work, his finger hovering over the words of one paragraph and looked up, his eyes following the other man. "Your choice."

Sighing, Ellis stopped, his hands on his hips and his bloodshot eyes meeting the other man's. "You know the answer. I'm just…frustrated."

"I've noticed."

"Do you have any idea when you might have this all figured out?"

"Soon."

"You told me that four hours ago, and two hours before that, and two hours before that. We're running out of time."

"I didn't think this was a timed test," Nyan said, tapping the end of his pen against the pad. "If you want it accurate, it can't be rushed. It will be done when I'm finished and not a moment sooner. You know, you could still ask Doctor Jackson."

"He's hip-deep with diplomatic stuff right now," Ellis said, shaking his head. "And besides, you've put a lot of time into it already, and I know it'll be right when you're done."

Nyan nodded, a light smile on his face. "I appreciate your honesty and your faith in my translation."

"If Doctor Jackson trusts you—"

"If I trust who?"

Ellis turned, his gaze resting on the figure standing in the shadow of the doorway. "Doctor Jackson," he said, watching as the other man stepped into the room, his eyebrows drawn together in confusion. "I didn't expect to see you down here. I thought you were helping the General."

"I was—am," he replied, his hand absently going up to pinch the bridge of his nose. "I needed to check on something, and wanted to see if Nyan had a chance to finish a project I'd left for him."

"Sorry, Doctor. I may have sidetracked him a little," Ellis replied.

Jackson nodded, stepping closer. "So I heard. Have you come up with anything?"

Nyan sighed lightly, dropping the pen on the pad before him. "Yes and no. Some were easy, but I'm having some trouble with a few of the translations."

"Trouble? That's not like you," Jackson commented, pausing at the edge of the table, his eyes scanning its surface. "What are you having problems with?"

"This part here," Nyan replied, turning the pad to face the archeologist. "I can get a word here or there, but nothing's making sense."

"Hmmm," Jackson said, his finger tracing the words outlined on the page, "I see what you mean. This though," he said, stopping at a passage, "this looks familiar."

"I know, but I can't figure it out."

Jackson's eyes narrowed. "Try the reference for the Ancients. I think it's in there."

"But it's not Ancient," Nyan protested.

"No, it's not, but something about that passage…"

"Okay. I'll pull out those books and see what I can find," Nyan replied, nodding.

"Good. When I'm done helping the General with his little project, I'll come back and give it a once-over. From the looks of things, though, you don't need any help. You should get Major Ellis to try and match the worlds you have translated though—might get him out of your hair."

"Good idea, Doctor Jackson," Nyan said, a smile on his face as he glanced at Ellis.

"Fine. I get the hint," Ellis replied, throwing up his hands in surrender. "I know when I'm not wanted."

"It's not that you're not wanted," Jackson said, "it's just that Nyan would probably work faster without you pacing in front of him and asking him, every few minutes, if he's done. Just an observation."

"And why do you think I'm doing that?"

"Because you're all starting to act just like Jack and that's what he would do to me. Trust me, a watched linguist does not translate."

~*~*~

As directed, Amy Chao displayed her identification tag then signed her name on the sheet of paper. Apparently, approximately twenty people had signed in since the noon hour, the most immediate one being someone named Martha Bixley. Amy had a bare moment to compare Martha's ornate signature to her own tight, precise one before the young Airman who'd accompanied her from Peterson Air Force Base was clearing his throat to gain her attention.

"This way, ma'am."

She watched him swipe an access card into the scanner connected to the elevator. When the doors opened, he once again retrieved her luggage—an obscenely expensive Bojola rolling duffle that had been a bribe from her last lover. The silly man had paid over six hundred dollars for it in an ill-fated attempt to get her to move with him to Paris.

As the Airman reached for the battered briefcase which she'd picked up at a thrift shop during grad school, Amy quickly nabbed it. It contained her essentials, the tools of her trade—several thin file folders containing what little she knew about the major players in the upcoming negotiations, a half-dozen Twix candy bars, and her Treo—all things too important to entrust to anyone else's care. The elevator doors slid open and the Airman waved her in with a polite, "Ma'am."

Stepping into the elevator which would plunge her deeper into the mountain, Amy smiled. 'Ma'am' and 'Miss Chao' were only two of the reasons she liked dealing with the military. Aside from the rigors of enforced civility and a blatant display of respect—however ill-earned it might be—she loved working with disciplined men and women who understood things like chain of command and following orders without question. As the Airman turned his back to her and punched a button on the control panel, she decided that was another perk—men in uniform.

When the doors opened moments later, a short, white-haired man greeted them with a pleasant smile. "Miss Chao?"

"Yes."

"Ma'am, I'm Sergeant Walter Harriman, the General's aide." After quietly instructing the Airman where to store Miss Chao's luggage, the Sergeant turned back to her. "If you'll follow me, ma'am, I'm sure you'd like to meet with General O'Neill right away."

"Yes, thank you." Quietly taking in their strange surroundings, Amy clutched her briefcase and followed the man through the maze of corridors. She nearly bumped into him when he stopped before a nondescript door at the end of a long hall. Rapping on the door, the Sergeant waited for the soft 'yeah' before opening it and motioning her inside.

"General O'Neill," Harriman nodded toward her, "this is Amy Chao. She was sent by Washington to help with the treaty negotiations, sir."

O'Neill, who sat hunched over his desk, scribbling something on a pad of paper, mumbled, "I know why she's here, Walter. I'm not an idiot."

"No, sir. Of course not." The Sergeant smiled at her and backed out of the room, closing the door and leaving her with a man who seemed not to realize he had company.

She waited a moment before walking over and setting her briefcase on the floor by an empty chair. The General's desk was strewn with papers and files. A black telephone cord coiled snake-like over the edge of a blue folder, and a small laptop computer leaned against the base of a hinged, brass desk lamp. A plate containing remnants of dark, limp lettuce and some sort of congealing sauce was perched precariously on the edge of the desk. Biting her lip to quell her disgust, Amy used a single fingertip to delicately push the plate away from the edge and safely onto a weathered Day-Timer.

Frowning, she squinted at the preoccupied man, but from this angle, all she could see was grey hair and scrawling penmanship. She opened her mouth to say something when without looking up, the General held up a long finger to silence her, dotted an 'i' with his other hand, and straightened slightly, seeming to study what he'd written before finally glancing up at her.

Amy was pleased to see a flash of something that might have been surprise cross his face. People were almost always shocked by her appearance—namely her height—and apparently Jack O'Neill was no exception. When he'd schooled his features into an unreadable mask, the General pushed back his chair and stood. He couldn't have been more than a few inches taller than she was.

She stuck out her hand. "Amy Chao. I'm very pleased to meet you, General."

"Likewise." Her hand was briefly engulfed in his larger one as his handsome face broke into a crooked grin.

"I understand we have a mutual friend, General." At his puzzled look, she added, "Kerry Johnson."

"Ah. Yes. Well—"

Biting back a smile, Amy slipped into one of the chairs facing his desk. "Don't worry, sir. She revealed nothing…significant, I swear."

Looking slightly ill at ease, O'Neill settled into a well-worn, leather chair which creaked ominously under his lanky frame. "Well," he forced a stiff grin, "that's a load off."

Amy laughed softly. Yes, this assignment was going to be much more interesting than she'd thought.

~*~*~

"Sir," Walter Harriman said, poking his head around the doorframe to Jack O'Neill's office. The General glanced up and met his eyes. Miss Chao was still in his visitor's chair.

"Yes, Walter?" O'Neill replied, his voice the only indication of how this entire diplomatic nightmare was wearing him down.

"The Tok'ra and the Jaffa are scheduled to arrive within about five hours, and you still have meetings with both Doctor Jackson and Major Ellis. Should I show Miss Chao to her room and allow her to get settled in?"

O'Neill nodded once, his eyes slowly drifting to the woman across the desk from him. "Yes, that's a good idea." He stood, waiting patiently as Miss Chao took to her feet as well. Reaching out to shake her hand, he continued. "I'll expect to see you in the gateroom when the parties arrive, so I'd suggest you use this time to get yourself prepared. You can ask Walter or one of the SFs if you need directions back to the gateroom."

Chao nodded briskly, but Walter saw a brief flicker of annoyance cross her face before it quickly vanished, replaced by the professional mask she'd had when she'd arrived.

"It was a pleasure to meet you in person, General, since I'd heard so much about you prior to my arrival. I'll be in the gateroom as you requested." She turned, grabbing the handle to her bag as she walked to the door, her heels clicking against the concrete. In the doorway she paused, looking over her shoulder. "And, General, I think you're going to be very pleased with the work I do and the experience I bring to the table. I know what's on the line, and I plan to do everything I can to make sure all our goals are realized. Good afternoon, General. I'll see you in a few hours."

She turned once again, her dark eyes settling on Walter as he felt himself being sized up once again.

"Are you ready, ma'am?"

"As ready as I'm going to be."

"Please follow me," Walter said and Chao gave him a small smile and a nod, following closely behind as they walked to the elevator. He could hear the soft sounds of the General's voice floating down the hallway as the door closed. He didn't sound happy. But then, with the Tok'ra and the Jaffa coming, who was?

~*~*~

"No, that can't be right!"

Daniel heard the exclamation echoing from down the corridor and it sounded distinctly like Sam Carter. But, why would she be here, in Nyan's office of all places?

Speeding up his pace, Daniel rounded the corner into the small room, stopping short just inside the door. Major Ellis, Nyan, and Sam were huddled over the worktable in the center of the office, papers hanging over the edge, a laptop perched carefully on top of one of Daniel's reference books. So that's where that book got off to, he thought absently, before shaking off the random musing.

"I've double checked my translations and that's what it says," Nyan protested, leafing through several sheets of paper before finding the one he wanted. "See. This phrase is in Ancient, just like Doctor Jackson thought, and once I got that, the translation came easily. 'To the beginning.'"

"But how did you get this planet from that?" Sam asked, her eyes narrowing as she studied the screen in front of her.

"Well, we couldn't use the English translation to find the planet, of course, but the original sounds of the Ancient word gave us a gate address. It was simple once I knew what to look for." Nyan shrugged, almost apologetically, as if the translation should have been harder somehow.

"So this planet is 'to the beginning'?" Ellis asked, his perplexed tone signaling his own confusion in the matter.

"Yes. What exactly is there, I have no idea, but with a name like that it sounds pretty promising, don't you think?"

Daniel cleared his throat and three pairs of eyes quickly rose to meet his own. "Hi, guys," he said with a smile, "having fun?"

Sam was the first to speak. "Not really. Have you seen this?"

Daniel shrugged, moving close enough to lean on the table. "I looked at it briefly yesterday, and it seemed relatively straightforward."

"But, this doesn't make any sense."

"What do you mean? Are you talking about the translation?" Daniel reached forward and pulled the pad closer, turning it around so he could read what was written on it. After a moment, he nodded in agreement. "Nyan's translation is correct. This has to do with the beginning of something. Could it be the beginning of the Ancients? Of the great plague? Of life, the universe, and everything?" Daniel shrugged. "I'm not sure, but it might be worth it to check out—just in case."

"In case of what?" Ellis asked, his tone stiff, his mind probably already heading to the worst case scenarios—just like Jack.

Daniel shrugged again, dropping the pad on the worktable. "I don't know, but I sure want to find out."

~*~*~

"So, what you're telling me is that the Tok'ra have been to these planets in the past year or so, maybe longer," Jack said as the page in his hand wilted slightly, bending over his fingers and brushing the sleeve of his jacket. Over its now-drooping top, he looked across his desk and toward the visitors lining his office.

"Yes, sir. These are the planets the Tellemmanians recall the Tok'ra speaking about. The timeframe is a little fuzzy," said Major Ellis, standing behind the two filled guest chairs. Both Daniel and Nyan had remained silent, already judging Jack's mood. They probably figured it was safer that way.

"Fuzzy?"

"They tell time a little differently than we do, sir."

"Ellis," Jack growled, trying not to tug at the collar of his dress shirt.

"About a year, sir. Maybe a month or so more."

Jack's eyes dropped back to the paper. "So, these planets are recent destinations. Do we know why the Tok'ra were there and if they stayed?"

"No, sir."

"But, you have a theory?"

"Yes and no," Ellis replied, cringing a little.

O'Neill's eyebrows rose, his eyes widening at the other man. "Which is it, Major?"

Daniel leaned forward in his chair, apparently deciding to take some of the heat of Jack's gaze. "We're interested in what the Tok'ra have been up to since they're not very forthcoming with information. But the one planet…I think it's at the bottom…it seems very promising. The name of the planet was in Ancient."

"Ancient," Jack repeated, leaning back in his chair and letting the sheet of paper fall to rest on his ink-spotted desk blotter. "So, why do the Tok'ra care? It's not like they can do anything with any of their old stuff."

"That's just it. They want to figure out why they can't. They're trying to learn everything about the weapon on Dakara. What if there's something else here? What if there's another weapon? What if there's something else?"

"Like what?"

"Well, sir," Nyan said, speaking up for the first time since he'd entered the room, "the translation roughly means 'to the beginning.' Now, to what beginning it's referring, we don't know. But, what if it's the beginning of the Ancients as a race?"

"I thought the Ancients developed on Earth."

"We don't know that for sure, Jack," Daniel said. "It's all supposition. But, what if this place could give us some clues as to how the Ancients developed and how they created all this technology? Would you want it in the hands of the Tok'ra?"

O'Neill held his gaze for several moments. The possibilities this opened up.… Nodding slowly, Jack spoke. "The last thing I want is for Ancient technology—working Ancient technology—to fall into the Tok'ra's lap. They may be annoying, but sooner or later, they'll figure it out. Those snakes wrapped around their brain stems give them the added benefit of genetic memory. Someone might know that one piece of information they need to unlock everything." He glanced up, linking his gaze with Ellis. "Major, I want you to take SG-3 out. Since Colonel Reynolds has to stay on base, why don't you pull Wells from 13?"

After Ellis's nod acknowledging the order, Jack continued. "Once the Tok'ra and Jaffa arrive and get settled in, you'll be cleared to go. Get your medical checks done and your team together. Daniel, I want a full copy of this report on my desk by the end of the night."

Daniel nodded as he rose to his feet. "It's almost done. I'll have Nyan complete the rest and then give it a final pass after the party tonight."

Standing, Jack looked around, meeting everyone's eyes. "And, let's keep this little mission to ourselves. There's no reason the Tok'ra need to know anything about this. Understood?"

Nods all around accompanied the chorus of 'yes, sirs.'

"Now," Jack said, tugging on the jacket of his dress blues as the off-world activation alarm began blaring, "I think we have a delegation of Jaffa to meet. Daniel, you're with me."

~*~*~

Amy Chao straightened the jacket of her charcoal gray pinstriped suit as she walked into the gateroom on level twenty-eight, her high-heels clicking against the concrete floor. The documents and maps the General's aide provided had been perfect, and she'd had no problem finding her way.

The sheer number of armed guards stationed at nearly every corner on the gateroom level, however, were not expected. What did the General think was going to happen—a massive invasion of the base? Sometimes, she didn't understand the military mind.

Standing off to the side of the gateroom, out of the general flow of traffic, Amy observed the airmen efficiently going about their duties—some of which she still hadn't figured out.

The spinning of the Stargate's inner ring, accompanied by the howl of the base's alarms, signaled the arrival of the first diplomatic party—the Jaffa Nation led by Master Bra'tac. She'd read a number of reports about this particular Jaffa, and was eager to meet him in person.

Seconds after the sirens began, the airmen's attention fixed firmly on the still-closed iris and both Teal'c and Lieutenant Colonel Carter entered from the other side of the gateroom. While Colonel Carter was in her dress blues, Teal'c had decided to remain in his BDUs. Amy had half expected him to appear wearing his robes.

The sound of metal on metal turned her attention back to the gate as the iris smoothly opened and the troops in the gateroom came to full attention, their fingers hovering near the triggers of their weapons—just in case. A few beats later, General O'Neill strode in, the medals on his chest catching the light for a second, the glare reflecting into her eyes. Doctor Jackson was on his heels, his hands moving nearly as quickly as his mouth. O'Neill's eyes slid over her, acknowledging her presence in the gateroom, but he passed without a comment. A quick word from O'Neill and Jackson stopped talking as they reached the foot of the gateroom ramp. Jackson took up his position just behind the General's right shoulder. Teal'c and Carter moved to flank him on his left side. Colonel Reynolds, dressed in his BDUs, walked in a moment later, stepping up beside Carter.

Chao moved forward, standing just behind the Doctor who turned, offering her a brief smile before turning back to the open wormhole as the first of several figures appeared at the top of the ramp.

The General stepped forward and offered his hand, which was grasped readily by an older Jaffa. "Tek ma'tek, Master Bra'tac."

"Tek ma'tek, O'Neill," Bra'tac replied with a smile, his initial surprise quickly hidden. Apparently, he hadn't been expecting O'Neill's greeting.

"Thank you again for allowing this opportunity for our two groups to meet over a table of peace. We are looking forward to a long and beneficial alliance with the Tau'ri," Bra'tac replied as his entourage formed behind him, the wormhole snapping shut as the last Jaffa walked through.

"You're more than welcome. Now, if you would please follow Teal'c, he'll take you to the chambers where our meetings will begin. I'll be arriving shortly," O'Neill said, gesturing toward the gateroom door.

"As you wish, O'Neill," Bra'tac replied. Offering a small bow of his head, his eyes roamed the line of people before him and stopped briefly on Chao. It was only a second, the barest of moments, but his gaze was heavy. That was one dangerous man.

As soon as the Jaffa delegation left, the General checked his watch and glanced up toward the control room. "The next group should be here in about a minute—if they decide to be prompt," he commented.

"Bra'tac looked good," Carter said, stepping closer to the General, filling in the space where Teal'c had stood.

O'Neill nodded. "He never changes. How old is he now? I've lost track."

"I'm not sure, but I'd be happy if I looked half that good when I reach his age," Jackson commented, humor shading his voice.

"Don't you mean if you reach his age?" O'Neill asked, chuckling. "At the rate you're going, I'm not sure you'll make it to next year."

"It's not my fault I keep dying."

"Oh?" O'Neill asked, turning to the other man, amusement on his face. "How does that work, exactly?"

The activation of the Stargate saved Jackson from replying. The overhead speakers came to life a moment later.

"It's the Tok'ra, sir."

"Tell them to come ahead, Walter," O'Neill ordered, straightening his jacket once again. He continued speaking a beat later, his voice barely reaching Chao's ears. "And here comes round two."

"And, they're on time," Jackson commented, eliciting an annoyed glance from the other man.

The event horizon of the wormhole shifted and a pair of large men stepped through, their hands hovering near the weapons at their hips. A beat later, a single figure followed and they headed down the ramp toward the welcoming party. In quick succession, seven more figures stepped through as well, the gate closing even before the lead members of the Tok'ra delegation reached the end of the ramp.

"Thoran," O'Neill said as he stepped forward, "welcome to the SGC."

"General O'Neill," Thoran replied, stepping past the two larger Tok'ra guards. He offered the General a bow, which the other man returned. "Thank you again for hosting these very important talks on the Tau'ri home world."

"It's our pleasure," he replied, but Chao could see the tense muscles in the General's jaw belying his words. "If you'd be so kind as to follow Colonel Carter, she'll take you to the rooms where we'll be meeting for the duration of our talks."

"That would be acceptable," Thoran replied, offering another bow. He paused as Carter walked in front of the General and out the door opposite the one Teal'c had used.

"Miss Chao, why don't you accompany the Tok'ra? I'll be along in a few minutes."

The General's use of her name, turned her attention to him immediately. "Of course, sir," she replied. She had some questions for him about the Tok'ra, but she guessed they would have to wait. Following the departing delegation, she heard the General's next words.

"Daniel, Gary, wait a minute."

Amy hesitated as she reached the blast doors.

"Will they be ready?" O'Neill quietly asked the two men.

"Ellis said they would be," Reynolds replied, his voice as quiet as the General's.

"I didn't give them nearly enough time."

"They'd gotten their med checks done before our meeting," Doctor Jackson said. "We'd figured what your response would be."

"I'm getting predictable, aren't I?"

"Only sometimes."

"Miss Chao?" The General's harsh tone surprised her. "Did you lose your way?"

"No, sir," she replied, cursing herself. Jackson, Reynolds, and O'Neill were focused entirely on her as she turned back to face them.

While the good Doctor appeared only slightly amused, O'Neill's stern gaze matched his tone. "Then I suggest you get to the conference rooms. Colonel Carter will be expecting you, and the Tok'ra don't take kindly to being kept waiting."

"I’m sorry, sir. I thought you'd asked me to wait a moment. I'll be on my way."

Turning on her heels, she headed down the corridor. As the blast doors closed behind her, she swore she heard the sound of several booted feet entering the gateroom. There were no scheduled off-world missions according to the logs she'd seen. But, the siren signaling an outgoing wormhole made it obvious something was happening, something not in the official records—something involving Doctor Jackson, Colonel Reynolds, Major Ellis, and the General.

Interesting.

~*~*~

"Jack?"

The quiet sound of his name being called penetrated the noise the Jaffa were making as they discussed some of the proposals he'd put on the table during the last two hours. It was only a start, the barest beginnings of a treaty, but they were already having issues. Daniel at the door only proved the accuracy of his initial thought: this was a bad idea.

O'Neill rose from the table quietly, catching Bra'tac's eye. The Jaffa nodded, spotting Daniel as well, his gesture giving Jack permission to leave the table. It's not that the Jaffa would realize he was gone in any case. Having half the High Council of the Jaffa Nation present for these talks was interesting to say the least. But, how they got anything done on Dakara was unfathomable. They never agreed on anything. According to Teal'c, it had taken them nearly an hour to decide where they were all going to sit in the room.

Moving into the hallway and closing the door behind him, Jack raised his eyebrow toward the other man. He spoke, but kept his voice down. "What's wrong?"

"Why do you immediately think something's wrong?" Daniel replied, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Well, besides the 'something-is-wrong' look you have plastered across your face, I know you wouldn't interrupt unless it was important."

Daniel's mouth twitched, threatening to break into a small smile, but he quickly sobered. "The Tok'ra are giving Miss Chao a difficult time."

"And you expect me to run to her rescue?"

"Well," Daniel began, obviously searching for the right words, "it might be a good idea. Sam's in there, and it was going well until they asked for a short recess. They retired into the adjoining room where we have all the refreshments laid out, but apparently one or two of the Tok'ra decided to take a short walk."

"Let me guess."

Daniel nodded. "They seem to have run into one of the Jaffa in the bathroom—the ones who're here strictly for security."

"Well, it was bound to happen. Besides, the last time I checked, we're allowed to have more than one group at the SGC at the same time," Jack said, leaning against the wall and rubbing a hand across his face.

"They're not happy with the arrangements."

"Tough."

"Jack…"

"Daniel, they're going to have to get used to the fact they're not the most important people in the universe. They knew we were going to be drawing up treaties with the other groups at the same time. I even mentioned the possibility of a bigger peace treaty between all of these groups, and no one objected."

"You probably didn't give them a choice in the matter."

"No, of course not, but that's beside the point."

"Jack…"

"Look, I'll go talk to the Tok'ra. The Jaffa are arguing anyway about some of the finer points of the treaty, and they got a little sidetracked when I mentioned the request from the Pentagon about having a more permanent Tau'ri presence on Dakara."

"Ouch."

O'Neill shrugged. "It's going about as well as I thought. They'll argue a bit more, then Bra'tac will reluctantly agree and they'll move on. You drew up the basics of these treaties, you should be able to herd them on to the next point while I go calm down the Tok'ra. If you really need help, grab Teal'c. He should be wandering around somewhere."

"Yeah, I saw him before," Daniel replied, gesturing in the general direction of the break room set aside for the Jaffa delegation.

"Good. I should get going," O'Neill said, straightening. The other man headed across the corridor and quietly opened the door to the conference room, the sound of the continuing Jaffa debate rolled into the hallway. Shaking his head, Jack moved down the hall, deciding to take the stairs to the level below. As soon as he stepped onto the lower level, he could hear the raised voices from the Tok'ra conference room.

Damn. Why did Daniel have to be right?

Pausing outside the door, he listened to what was going on inside, trying to make heads or tails of the noise thundering within. He could make out a few of the voices—Carter and Thoran most notably—but they weren't the only ones in the fray from the sound of it.

Pushing the door open the rest of the way, O'Neill stood in the entrance, his arms crossed over his chest as he watched the verbal fencing match before him. Both Chao and Carter were standing on one side of the table while Thoran and another member of the Tok'ra delegation—Hac'lor if he remembered correctly from the advance paperwork they'd sent along—stood on the other, their hands waving wildly, anger etched into their faces.

Ah, the sight of annoyed Tok'ra. He never got tired of it.

Clearing his throat, he stepped into the room and tucked his hands into his pants pockets. No one seemed to notice his entrance and he couldn't blame them. Everyone was so engrossed in the argument, the world could end and they'd never know—but then, at least the argument would be over.

O'Neill decided it was time to wade in. With as much strength as he could muster, he spoke, forever grateful his voice didn't crack. "That's enough!"

Silence fell over the room instantly as twelve pairs of eyes tracked to meet his own.

"Thank you. Now," he said, moving to the table and settling down in one of the chairs, "I understand you had a question about the arrangements."

As he focused on Thoran, who was visibly trying to calm himself, Jack was aware of Carter throwing him a thankful look. The Tok'ra finally took his seat once again, his right hand tapping against the tabletop. Hac'lor, however, remained standing just to Thoran's left.

"I find these…arrangements…and this treaty insulting."

"Insulting?" Jack replied, shooting Carter an amused glance before turning his attention back to the Tok'ra. "How so?"

"You sit here before us," Thoran said, his hands beginning to move again, gesturing toward Jack, "while on the floor above, you are consorting with the enemy."

"Consorting with the enemy?" He smirked. "Don't you think that's a little harsh?"

"General—"

He heard Chao's warning tone, but ignored it. "And by the way, I checked, and it seems we don't have to get approval from you before inviting anyone we choose to our facility."

"We came here in good faith to formalize our relationship with the Tau'ri once again, and instead we discover you are working against us—"

"Working against you? We're trying to bring both of you together in some kind of peaceful arrangement, but it looks like I may have been too optimistic. I thought the Tok'ra were prepared to talk peace and alliances. I guess I was wrong." Jack shook his head as he rose to his feet. "If you feel this strongly—"

"And we do," Thoran insisted, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms over his chest.

"Well, then, I guess it might be for the best to call these talks off until we can find a more convenient time to discuss this. Colonel Carter, why don't you show our guests back to the gateroom. Please send them to whichever address they desire. I, on the other hand, have an alliance to draw up with the Jaffa. If you'll excuse me."

Thoran called out to him just before he crossed the threshold into the hallway. "General O'Neill, perhaps I spoke out of turn."

"Perhaps indeed," O'Neill muttered under his breath as he turned, plastering an interested expression on his face. "Excuse me?" he replied instead.

Thoran was rising to his feet, his hands clasped serenely before him in direct conflict with the contrasting emotions flickering across his face and the light sheen of sweat on his temples. "I believe we may have made a bigger...issue out of this than we should have. Would you be so kind as to sit again so we can discuss the treaty Colonel Carter and Miss Chao presented?"

"If you insist," O'Neill said, closing the door as he walked into the room and settled into the chair beside Chao. Immediately, Carter picked up where she'd left off before the argument erupted, but Jack's mind wandered. He'd called Thoran's bluff and it had worked. Which meant that, apparently, the Tok'ra were serious about wanting an alliance, and that concerned him. What were they worried about? What could send them running to make friends with the Tau'ri? What were the real reasons behind this whole alliance nonsense? Since when did the Tok'ra need help from anyone else? And, what did they really want?

The unanswered questions worried him more than he cared to admit.

~*~*~

"Where were you?" he asked, his voice harsh, as she settled into her chair. "You missed our early check-in."

"Working," she replied quietly, her tone defensive. "I couldn't get away."

"The talks?"

She nodded, and knowing her boss couldn't see her, elaborated. "They're going a lot better than we originally anticipated."

"It's because of him, isn't it?"

"I believe so."

"I knew he'd be trouble. The only reason this is going so well is because of his personality and force of character. That, and neither the Tok'ra nor the Jaffa know for sure just what he's capable of doing." Her boss paused for a moment, the hissing of the open line loud. "How long until things are wrapped up?"

"It's hard to say. We didn't expect either party to be so agreeable this early on. Things might be completed before the week's out."

"That's not what I wanted to hear."

"I know. Suggestions?"

"You know what I want."

"Yes, I do."

"Get it done."

"I will."

The transmission closed down and she sighed. She had work to do.

~*~*~

Jack O'Neill took another spin around the room, a glass of sparkling water in his hand, watching the Jaffa, Tok'ra, and humans dance around each other. It was surprising to see them all in the same room and talking.

Especially since they were yelling about each other only an hour before.

Taking a sip of his water, Jack paused near one of the buffet tables, snagging one of the remaining small bacon and cheese quiches. He never seemed to be able to get full on appetizers. Even though they had planned on having enough food to feed everyone here several times over, there wasn't much left. Those Jaffa could sure pack it away.

Looking around the room, he caught a glimpse of Carter talking to Bra'tac, a plateful of vegetables and dip in her hand, and what looked like a glass of white wine on the small table beside her. Smiles and laughter erupted every few moments. He just hoped Bra'tac wasn't providing details to some of their more colorful off-world missions together. A man needed some secrets.

Chao was in deep conversation with Thoran on the other side of the room, their hands gesturing as they spoke. It looked as if Thoran had grabbed a mug of coffee while Chao was nursing what looked like water with lemon. For some reason, he had expected her to be holding a martini, shaken not stirred, with olives on the side.

Teal'c had both Tok'ra and Jaffa on his elbows and they were chatting quite amicably—at least, it appeared amicable from across the room.

Daniel was floating around, stopping occasionally to speak with one person or another. The archeologist spotted Jack watching him and raised an eyebrow toward him. Jack returned the gesture with a smile, holding up the meager hors d'oeuvre in his fingers. Daniel quickly finished his conversation with a member of the Tok'ra delegation and made his way over to Jack.

"Aren't you supposed to be mingling?"

"I am." He popped the quiche in his mouth, chewing silently. He wished it were warmer.

"Mingling did not include the food, last time I checked," Daniel said grabbing a few cubes of the white mystery cheese.

"As long as everyone's still talking, I could start a conversation with the plants in here and I don't think anyone would care." Jack took a moment to look over the room again. Some of the Tok'ra and Jaffa had already retired for the night, leaving only those immersed in deep conversations. The food was nearly depleted and some of the Airmen were scurrying around cleaning up the empty plates and glasses. Jack guessed the room would be empty within about fifteen minutes.

He checked his watch as Chao said goodnight to Thoran, the Tok'ra offering a small bow as the woman departed. What had she said to him to have him acting like a gentleman? Thoran didn't even do that to Carter.

"General?" she said, as she drew closer to him.

"Miss Chao, I wanted to thank you for your help today. We're off to a very good start."

"You're welcome, General, and I agree. Things are going very well," she offered a tired smile. "But, since the meetings tomorrow are supposed to begin rather early, I should call it a night. I still have some papers to go over before I retire."

"Understood. The party's winding down in any case, so you won't be missing much. I'll see you in the morning," O'Neill said. Chao nodded once and turned, heading out the door.

"And on that note," Daniel said, wiping his fingers on one of the cocktail napkins, "I should get going, as well. If you still want that report, I need to finish it. Nyan said he left it on my desk."

"That's fine and, yes, I do need that report," Jack said, nodding and watching as several other Jaffa walked out as well. "I don't think this thing has much more life left in it. I'm planning on swinging by my office, then I'm heading right to bed. I'm glad I don't have to drive home tonight, that's for sure. It's been a long day."

"I know," Daniel replied, a knowing smile on his face, "and it's not going to end for a while yet."

"For you perhaps," Jack said, setting his now empty glass on the table. "For me, it should only be about an hour until my head hits the pillow."

"Yes, well, you need all the beauty sleep you can muster."

"Daniel…"

"Yes, Jack?"

"The report?"

"Yes, Jack. Right on it," Daniel said, already moving to the door. He offered Carter a wave before ducking into the hallway. Shaking his head and chuckling to himself, Jack made his way over to the Colonel.

"Sorry to interrupt," he began as the conversation between Carter and Bra'tac quieted at his approach.

"That's fine, General," Carter said, smiling. "Bra'tac and I were just talking."

"I saw. I'm going to head up to my office to get a few things finalized for tomorrow. Can you close up shop here?"

"Not a problem," Carter replied, her eyes looking over the room. "There's only a few left, and I'm sure they'll be heading to their rooms soon. Otherwise, the staff will be sweeping them up in a few minutes."

Jack frowned as a member of the cleaning crew removed the cup from Thoran's hand. "Yeah, they are a little over-enthusiastic, aren't they?"

"I did not imagine such a dangerous sect of Tau'ri existed until this night, O'Neill. Why did you not speak of these on an earlier occasion?" Bra'tac asked, a glint of humor in his eyes.

"Very funny, old man," Jack replied, offering a tired smile. "I'll see you both in the morning. Sleep well."

"I shall endeavor to, O'Neill," Bra'tac said.

"Have a good night, sir," Carter replied as he began to walk away. Jack stopped a few times, expressing his thanks to the guests still in the room. It took a little longer than he wished, but they needed every bit of good graces if this big alliance between the three races was going to work.

The halls leading to the elevator were quiet. This level didn't see a lot of traffic normally, but at close to midnight, there was no real reason for anyone to be here unless they were involved with the talks. The doors parted before him, revealing an empty car. He slumped against the wall as it dropped a few levels, depositing him a short distance from his office.

Peering into the briefing room, he spotted Walter Harriman still working at his desk. "Go home, Walter," he said, stepping into the room.

"I thought you were at the cocktail party, sir. It doesn't end—"

"It was just about over. Carter'll clear everyone out. I needed to check a few things before heading to bed," he said, aiming toward his office door. He stopped just short of his destination, turning to face his aide. "Oh, Walter, were you able to get all of the secondary documents printed and assembled for tomorrow afternoon's sessions?"

"I believe so."

"Did they include the latest edition of Daniel's write-ups? I know he changed them several times. The latest ones should have an 1100 timestamp on the bottom."

"I'll make sure they're the right ones now, sir," Walter said, rising to his feet.

"You don't have to do it now. I just wanted to make sure before I forgot."

"It's not a problem. I have to grab a few other things from the print office anyway. I'll let you know as soon as I get back."

"No rush," Jack said, standing in the doorway of his office. "I'll probably only be here a few minutes. The morning is soon enough."

"Yes, sir. Have a good night, General," Walter said, already heading down the hallway to the elevator.

Jack shook his head as he stepped into his office, closing the door behind him. The light from his desk lamp gave him more than enough illumination to make his way to his chair. Moving past his desk, he shoved the chair back, twirling it so he could drop into it. He paused, a folder on the corner of his desk catching his eye. He reached for it, his mind vaguely noticing that the door to the hallway was also closed. Had it been closed when he'd walked past it into the briefing room a few moments before? He didn't think so.

Shrugging off the thought, he picked up the folder and opened it. A single sheet of paper was inside. Shaking his head, he chuckled. Walter's review. A sticky-note was attached to the top of the page reminding Jack about their meeting later in the week once these talks were concluded. He deserved a hefty raise, and Jack was going to give him one. Walter was the only one who could keep him organized. Sometimes, the man's mind-reading ability was a bit freaky, however.

Dropping the folder onto his desk, Jack was surprised to see someone standing two feet from him.

"What—"

"You, General Jonathan J. O'Neill, have been sentenced to die by my hand. I am your judge, your jury, and your executioner." The figure raised its hand, a small device attached to the palm.

"What's the meaning—"

The red light streaming from the device stopped any further thought as fire raced through his head, screaming through his veins as his entire body was enveloped in one mass of pain.

"May whatever gods you hold dear welcome you into their bosom, for your time in this universe has come to an end."

And with a rush of sound and pain, the world blinked out.

~*~*~

"Evening, Walter," Daniel said, walking into the briefing room, his finalized report in his hands. Nyan had done a great job on the translations and the report. It had taken him less than an hour to read through it, fixing a few small things here and there. As soon as he dropped it in Jack's office, he could get to bed.

"Morning is more like it, Doctor Jackson," he replied, glancing up. "It's nearly 0100."

"I know," Daniel said, shrugging as walked toward the other man. "I find it hard to think of this as morning since I haven't been to bed yet."

"I understand, Doctor. Are you looking for the General?"

"Yeah. I wanted to drop this off for him," Daniel said, holding up the folder.

"Well, you missed him. He was here and gone about an hour ago. I was just finishing this last form before I head to bed myself. Did you want to leave that with me? I'm going to put this on his desk before I leave for the night."

"No, that's all right. I might as well drop it and go. Have a good night, Walter," he said, already moving toward Jack's office door. He tried the handle and it opened easily, swinging open to reveal the dark interior. He took a few steps into the room, the light from the briefing room illuminating a path to Jack's desk. On the corner stood the empty inbox, beckoning his finalized report.

Daniel moved quietly, his thoughts already on his bed. Knowing Jack, he'd stopped here, shuffled through the papers in his inbox, and then headed right for his quarters—a smart idea. Dropping the file in Jack's inbox, Daniel sighed and stretched. It had been a very long day and he was ready for bed—especially since things were just going to start all over again in the morning.

Something at the edge of his vision caught his attention and he turned.

A hand.

A pale hand covered in red and illuminated by the remnants of the light from the briefing room.

Daniel moved even before his mind finished the thought, dashing around the side of the desk and flinging himself down on his knees beside the unmoving figure of his friend.

There was blood. Lots of it.

It had pooled beneath Jack's head, the tracks of its passage dark against the white and waxy skin. It had poured out from his ears and eyes and nose and mouth. How could there be any left inside?

His hands slid to a familiar place, his fingers frantically searching for any sign of life in the cool body before him.

Searching.

And searching.

Daniel's panicked voice cried out, his desperate calls pleading for assistance. "Help! Walter! We need a medic in here now!"

A flurry of footfalls against concrete was followed by the brilliance of the overhead lights and a rough, indrawn breath as the scene was laid bare.

Walter's rushed words only echoed Daniel's cry for help. "We need a medical team in the General's office now. It's an emergency."

More numbers were pressed on Jack's phone and Walter spoke again. "Alberts, find Colonel Reynolds now and get him here. Also, lock down the mountain. We've had an incident."

"No," Walter continued, after obviously listening to the man on the other end of the phone. "It's the General." Walter's voice dropped, weariness in his words. "Thank you."

A few seconds later, the general alarm sounded and Sergeant Albert's voice echoed through the corridors of the SGC.

"This is not a drill. Colonel Reynolds to the briefing room. I repeat, this is not a drill."

And there was blood on Daniel's hands.

~*~*~

To be continued


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