Truce or Dare

Episode 8

Written by Hoodat Whatzit

Authors: Hoodat Whatzit
Status: Complete
Rating: 15+
Category: Drama
Summary: Jack has to deal with two of his worst enemies in the same week-Ba'al and the bureaucrats in Washington.
Spoilers: Everything up to the end of S8 is fair game, VS9 episodes 1-7
Warnings: None
Authors' Notes:

Apologies to all who have waited for this. Real life sucks-especially when it involves computers and Mr. Murphy's Law. Special thanks to all of the folks at VS9. Your patience and understanding are greatly appreciated.

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.
 

Truce or Dare
By Hoodat Whatzit


"For every action there is an equal and opposite government program."

—Bob Wells

"The mystery of government is not how Washington works but how to make it stop."

—P. J. O'Rourke

 ~*~*~

General Jack O'Neill tucked the phone to his ear with his shoulder while he reached for one of the file folders strewn across his desk.

"Yes, sir," he said. "I received your notes and the reports will be ready." He flipped open the file and scanned the page. "Yes, even the figures on paper goods," O'Neill replied. He tossed the file back onto his desk and grabbed the phone again. Switching ears, he shook his head and continued. "General, does the question of how much toilet paper we need to buy in the next six months really warrant a trip to Washington?"

Jack paused, smiling as he listened to Hammond's response. His predecessor had an acerbic wit when he chose to let it show. Since filling the man's seat, Jack had come to know sides of Hammond that he'd always suspected lurked within the genial Texan. The change in their relationship was one of the unforeseen perks of accepting command of the SGC.

"No, sir," Jack said. "You did not warn me and under the circumstances a Goa'uld occupied world with a few hundred Jaffa on my tail would seem to be the lesser of two evils."

Jack dipped a finger in his coffee and frowned. It was barely warm.

"What... now?" Coffee forgotten; he sat up. "Yes, sir, I realize they've been asking for more access but I really don't think this is the best time-"

He fell silent as Hammond launched into a litany of explanations and rationales. The US couldn't put off its allies for much longer. The fact that Jack had known it was coming and even agreed-to some extent-that it was necessary didn't mean he was looking forward to being the man in the seat when it happened.

"Yes, sir. I'll keep an open mind and I hope they do the same."

Although Hammond tried to be encouraging, Jack could feel his good mood slipping away.

"Have you reviewed the proposal I sent to you yet," he asked.

He nodded. "Yes, it's sketchy but I'll need some sort of commitment to the idea from Washington before I approach the Tok'ra and Jaffa. I really don't want to bring them aboard only to have the rug yanked out from under our feet."

The alarm of an incoming wormhole cut off any reply Hammond might have made.

"Unscheduled off-world activation!" Alberts didn't quite have the air of control that Walter demonstrated whenever he manned the control room. No matter how many times it happened, the man always sounded a bit terrified.

"Yes, sir," Jack said into the phone even as he rose to his feet. "You heard correctly."

"General O'Neill to the gateroom. General O'Neill, please report to the gateroom immediately!"

Something was definitely up, Jack realized. Alberts actually sounded panicky. Jack's mind raced as he ran through the list of off-world teams and personnel.

Walter rushed in.

"What's happened?" Jack demanded.

"Sir, it's Ba'al. He's demanding to speak with you immediately."

"Demanding?"

"Yes, sir."

Hammond's voice on the telephone pulled Jack's attention away from his aide.

"General, I have to go. It seems Ba'al is calling long distance."

Walter shifted impatiently in the doorway.

"Yes, sir. I'll let you know as soon as I find out."

Jack hung up the phone and leaned against his desk.

"Sir?" Walter prompted.

"Tell them I'm on my way," Jack ordered without moving.

"Yes, sir."

"And Walter..."

"Sir?"

"Turn off that alarm."

"Yes, sir." Walter backed out and quickly headed for the stairs.

Whatever Ba'al wanted it wouldn't be good for Earth. Still, Jack was damned if he'd give the bastard the satisfaction of two-stepping to his tune.

He could wait.

 ~*~*~

Ba'al's holographic image flickered in front of the iris. He shifted his stance and his robes swirled around his legs. His gaze raked over the half a dozen armed men-rifles raised-who were stationed at the base of the ramp. Frowning, he folded his arms and stared up at the control room.

"I grow impatient! Where is O'Neill?"

Alberts' eyes widened and he looked over his shoulder at Walter. The master sergeant sighed and stepped forward. He bent over the mike and keyed the control.

"General O'Neill will be with you shortly," he replied. "If you'd prefer not to wait I can take a message."

The words were out of his mouth before he quite realized what was happening. Working for the General seemed to have a few side effects.

Ba'al was not amused.

"Do all Tau'ri lack a sense of self-preservation or is it simply the influence of the one who commands you?" Ba'al demanded.

"Does that mean you'll wait for the General?" Walter asked, keeping his expression neutral.

Ba'al's eyes flashed briefly and Walter was almost certain he heard the Goa'uld mutter a curse under his breath.

 ~*~*~

Jack's steps echoed as he descended the metal staircase. As he exited the stairwell, Alberts and Harriman turned in unison. He could see the relief on the young sergeant's face but Walter's expression was somewhat harder to define. He almost seemed amused.

Jack stepped up to the observation window and stared down at Ba'al.

"Your lack of respect is intolerable," Ba'al announced.

"What's the matter?" Jack asked. "Are you using up all your long distance minutes?"

"Your arrogance is astounding!"

"I'm sorry," Jack replied. "I was going for impudence. Besides, the Goa'uld have long since cornered the arrogance market."

"You try my patience, O'Neill!"

"And you try mine," Jack answered. "Cut the crap and tell me what you want. I'm a very busy man. So many Goa'uld... so little time."

"Your confidence will be your undoing," Ba'al announced. "Should you refuse to consider my offer, O'Neill, I hope you will remember and consider well that your actions were the cause of what will come-and that you could have prevented all that will have transpired."

"Well, here we go," Jack said. "What sort of doom and gloom will you rain down on us pitiful Tau'ri this time? And please..." Jack continued, "could you keep it brief?" Jack glanced at his watch. "'Cause I have a meeting in a half hour."

"Very well. I shall 'keep it brief' as you say."

"Great," Jack drawled. "Tick tock."

"I propose that we enter into a truce. The Tau'ri will cease all hostilities toward my remaining forces and remove themselves from my territories. In addition, you will convince the Tok'ra and those Jaffa that have strayed from their true purpose to do the same."

Jack glanced at Walter and Alberts and shrugged.

"Now why would we possibly do that?" he asked.

"If you do not, I will devote all of my resources to the task of hunting down and eliminating any and all Tau'ri who dare to set foot through your stargate. Those planets that you have visited and the races with which you have formed alliances will also suffer. Rest assured," Ba'al continued, "that any fortunate enough to be spared will curse your name, O'Neill."

Jack clenched his jaw as the words registered.

"Strong words from a pretender god hiding behind stolen hologram technology."

Ba'al smiled. "Are you so eager for us to meet face-to-face again, O'Neill? Do you not remember how we first met? I do not think the results would be so pleasant a second time."

"I don't know," Jack replied. "Killing you sounds pretty pleasant to me."

"Enough! You would be wise to consider this proposal, O'Neill."

Jack was silent for a long moment.

"Right. Okay. Let's pretend-just for a moment-that such a thing is even remotely possible. What makes you think we'd be able to convince the Tok'ra or the Jaffa to go along with us?"

"You Tau'ri seem to be remarkably adept at convincing others to join your foolish causes. I am certain that you will succeed if you are sufficiently motivated."

"Not so foolish after all if we've managed to very nearly end any Goa'uld dominance in our little part of the universe."

"As you say," Ba'al conceded, "very nearly end. You are a short-lived species. Given time, we will resume our rightful places and you will be nothing more than a long forgotten memory or perhaps a tale told by frightened slaves to serve as a warning for those who would dare oppose their masters."

"I think I've heard enough. This discussion is over," Jack said. "Security detail, exit the gateroom immediately," he ordered.

One of the SFs looked over his shoulder toward the control room.

"Sir?"

"You have your orders, Major. Exit immediately."

"Sir. Yes, sir!" The major's head snapped around. "Move out!"

The security detail backed out of the room keeping their weapons aimed toward the gate.

"Alberts, close the blast doors."

"Yes, sir."

The steel doors on both sides of the room slammed closed.

"All of them," Jack ordered.

"Yes, General." The sergeant tapped a button and the heavy shield slid down over the observation window.

Jack stepped back and Walters and Alberts turned to stare at him.

"What?" he demanded. "Do you know of a better way to hang up on a hologram?"

 ~*~*~

"Come on, Jack. You're being a mother hen."

"Maybe so, Griff," Jack said, leaning into the microphone "Ba'al's probably yanking our chain but I don't want anybody taking any chances. Keep your eyes open and your head down."

"Understood, sir."

"SITREPS every twelve hours."

"No worries, General. We'll call home regularly."

"You can tell me 'I told ya' so' when this all turns out to be a big nothing. Until then I'd rather be safe than sorry."

"Sure thing, sir."

"SGC out," Jack said. "Cut it, Walter."

The gate shut down and Jack sat back. Griff had a point. Maybe he was overreacting. Still, he'd rather endure the good-natured ribbing from his team leaders about how sitting in the big chair was making him soft than to do nothing and have it all go FUBAR.

"Who's next, Walter?"

"Dr. Lee and the scientific research team on 748, sir."

Jack nodded. "Dial it up."

Jack stood and stretched while he waited for the gate to activate. This had turned out to be a helluva long day.

He needed more coffee.

He needed to eat.

He needed to get a certain Goa'uld in the cross hairs of a sniper rifle for just one tiny second.

Once they checked in with Lee, he decided, it was time to take a short break.

The final chevron locked into place and the wormhole formed.

He made a mental note to remind Hammond that the electric bill might be higher than usual this month and keyed the microphone as Walter sent the signal that would activate the MALP.

"SGC to Dr. Lee. Please respond," Jack ordered. The MALP camera image showed Lee's work area-a long metallic table covered with several laptops and a hodgepodge of science equipment. "SGC to Dr. Lee. Please respond," Jack repeated.

Jack checked his watch and frowned.

"It is daytime there...isn't it, Walter?"

Walter panned the camera revealing bright sunlight through an open door.

"Yes, sir. Maybe they've just stepped away for something."

"Then they should be responding via radio."

Jack hated the sick feeling he was already getting. There was absolutely no reason to assume the worst. Lee and his people had been at the site for nearly three weeks and the worst problem they had encountered was a run-in with some sort of nasty spider that had left one of the scientists with a severe itch in a very uncomfortable spot.

"Dr. Lee, this is General O'Neill. I need an update on your status immediately."

There was no response.

"Pan around the room, would ya', Walter?"

Jack studied the images carefully. Nothing seemed to be out of place-as far as he could tell amidst the normal chaos in which most scientists seemed to thrive. He was relieved to see no signs of a struggle at least. Lee and his team were typical of geeks with gadgets and spent every waking moment obsessing over their toys.

Every waking moment.

"Walter, see if you can maneuver the MALP through the door. Let's take a look around their camp."

 ~*~*~

The gateroom was strangely quiet as SG-1, SG-3, and SG-13 readied themselves for the search and rescue. At least Jack hoped it was a rescue and not a recovery or even worse...a fruitless search. Not knowing was its own sort of hell.

Jack walked among them as they checked and rechecked their gear.

He wanted to go with them.

Teal'c pulled the strap of his leg holster tighter and met his gaze.

"We will find them, O'Neill."

Jack nodded-leaving the darker possibilities that were crowding into his thoughts unspoken. Instead, he turned and looked up at the control room.

"Dial it up, Walter."

"Yes, sir. Initiating dialing sequence now."

"Jack, you know how Bill gets," Daniel said. "They probably found something."

"I really hope so," Jack replied although not even scientists would be so dense as to totally walk away from the camp, the MALP, and their radios.

He should have sent an SG team to geek-sit.

Jack tried to ignore the little voice in his head that was telling him if he had sent a team with them that he'd now be missing four more people.

The final chevron locked and the wormhole whooshed into existence.

The teams were ready and they knew what to do.

"Rescue teams, you have a go."

Jack stood and watched until the last of them were through the gate and the final ripple had stilled.

The gate deactivated and the wormhole vanished.

Nothing to do now but wait.

Sometimes he absolutely hated his job.

 ~*~*~

"Sir, we have an incoming wormhole," Walter announced. "It's Colonel Carter's IDC."

"Open the iris," Jack ordered. He was already at the microphone by the time the iris rotated open. "Carter? Report."

"We've got them, General. They're alive and there are no major injuries."

Jack could hear Lee protesting in the background.

"Dr. Lee has a broken arm and they're a bit banged up but they'll live," she amended.

"What the hell happened?" Jack demanded.

"It was Ba'al's Jaffa," Carter replied. "They hit them hard and fast but without lethal force. They roughed them up a bit and made a lot of threats but in the end they simply marched them about an hour from the gate and held them there. Sir, they had an al-kesh. The Jaffa who were holding them were ringed up at about the same time we came through the gate."

"Get back through the gate now!" Jack ordered.

"We're already on the way," Carter confirmed.

"O'Neill, it is Teal'c."

"Yes?"

"I do not believe Ba'al intends to attack us."

"Why?"

"If such was his intent, he would most likely have done so soon after we arrived. Nor would he have left Dr. Lee and his team unguarded."

"Sir," Carter interjected. "He wanted us to find them. "Dr. Lee has a message for you...from Ba'al."

 ~*~*~

 

"Yes, that's what he said exactly," Lee said, wincing as the nurse shifted his arm to wrap the casting material around the break. "The Jaffa was very specific. He made me repeat it several times."

Ba'al really was a smug son-of-a-snake. 'As a gesture of good-will, these lives have been spared. Such generosity will not occur again.'

The scientists were banged up-Lee's arm had been broken when he hadn't moved quite fast enough to suit their captors and the rest had other various bruises and injuries-but nothing seriously life threatening although one or two of them now knew what it was like to take a zat blast.

"I thought we were dead for sure," Simmons said, "or worse. "One minute they were shouting and pushing us around and the next thing I knew they just left us there."

"Ba'al was trying to make a point," Daniel interjected.

"Well, I got it!" Simmons yelled. "I didn't sign up for this." He jabbed a finger toward Lee. "You said the military would keep us safe...that everything would be checked ten ways from Sunday! Maybe I don't want to risk my life trying to backwards engineer some piece of alien hardware that could turn out be nothing more than a... a...glorified paperweight."

"Oh come on... you have a better chance of that ridiculous car you drive being squashed by some maniac in an SUV," Lee snapped back.

"Tell that to the big Jaffa with the pain stick who wanted to get up close and personal. As usual, Bill, I think you better check your calculations. And the Volkswagen bug is a classic.

Privately, Jack agreed. Life in the SGC was a bit riskier than average but while many people did think the bug was a classic his own tastes had always run...bigger.

"Don't sit there and pretend you didn't jump at the chance when it was offered. If you want to go back to the university you crawled out of and spend the next twenty years arguing about grade point averages with know-it-all grad students then you go right ahead."

"Gentlemen," Jack interrupted. "Why don't we table this discussion for now, okay?"

"With all due respect, General, I'd like to know if he's leaving," Lee answered "So I can start hunting his replacement," he added, raising his voice again.

The alarm shrieked and Jack was almost relieved to hear Walter's voice over the intercom.

"Unscheduled off-world activation!"

Jack was out the door before Walter had finished speaking and halfway down the corridor before he realized Daniel had made his escape as well.

The announcement he had anticipated rang out over the loudspeaker. "General O'Neill to the gateroom!"

"Everyone else has checked in already, right?" Daniel asked as he quickstepped to catch up.

"Yes," Jack replied. "This is Ba'al."

"How do you know?"

Wondering if the question was serious, Jack glanced sideways at Daniel. Apparently his expression matched his thoughts because Daniel looked confused for a moment and then a rather sheepish expression of understanding appeared.

"Oh yeah... right."

Jack spared him the retort that was on the tip of his tongue and kept walking.

When they reached the control room, his hunch was confirmed. Ba'al was waiting.

The Goa'uld, wasting no time, immediately asked, "Did you get my message, O'Neill?"

"We got it," Jack replied.

"And have you had time to consider its meaning?"

"I think the meaning is pretty clear," Jack said.

"Very well," Ba'al said. "I am glad we have reached an understanding. You will-"

"Do nothing," Jack interrupted. "I don't respond very well to threats."

"I assure you it is more than a threat," Ba'al replied. "Perhaps my message was not as clear as it could have been? Do you require a more...explicit demonstration of my resolve?"

"You can't honestly believe that bullying a few scientists will get you a deal," Jack said. "The only thing you've accomplished with this little stunt is to put us on alert. You'll find it's not so easy to deal with fully-armed SG teams."

"Perhaps," Ba'al agreed. "I doubt, however, that you have the resources to protect every one of your allies. Really, O'Neill, you should not be foolish. A truce will benefit us both-as has been proven on past occasions."

"You must be desperate," Jack said. "What's the matter? Are you losing too many Jaffa to Dakara? It's got to be a real bitch when the whole 'I am your God!' gig starts to fall apart."

"I simply desire to exist without such petty distractions. What has occurred between us is in the past. I wish to put it behind us. It is you who refuse to accept that it is time to move forward."

"You took my people. I don't think that much has changed between us."

"I returned them to you unharmed."

"Mostly."

"Alive. A gesture of good will."

"I have a few gestures I'd like to give you but I don't think they would translate well."

"I am certain your meaning would be clear enough," Ba'al replied, smiling slightly. "This dance between us grows tedious. I do not wish to waste any further time."

"Good. You'll be leaving now?"

"My offer still stands. You have made your own feelings quite clear yet somehow I believe that your superiors may not agree. I will grant you five Tau'ri days to present my proposal to your leaders. During that time you have my assurance that the Tau'ri and your allies will remain unharmed-provided there is no hostile action against my own territories and troops."

Ba'al's hologram image flickered and vanished. Seconds later, the wormhole vanished and the gate de-activated.

 ~*~*~

 

Jack turned as SG-1 entered the gateroom-fully kitted out and ready for gate travel.

"Sir," Carter said. "I thought you would be gone already."

"My flight leaves in one hour," Jack answered. "There's a car waiting topside."

"When did you last sleep?" Daniel asked.

Jack had to think about it.

Just over thirty hours. He didn't bother answering Daniel.

"Teal'c, I know the Council isn't going to want to hear what you have to say. I wouldn't put it past Ba'al to have managed to feed them false information. Make sure they understand we are not demanding anything but if they can back off until I calm the folks in DC down we'll deal with Ba'al together."

"I will do my best, O'Neill."

"Jack, what happens if they want to accept the terms?"

"Not gonna happen, Daniel."

"Are you sure?"

"We're not making a deal with a terrorist," Jack said firmly. "Even if he is an alien with a god complex."

The gate began to rotate as the dialing sequence began.

Daniel didn't look convinced but he let the issue drop. Carter and Teal'c looked less than optimistic as well but wisely remained silent. Jack wondered how many on the base had heard some of his louder conversations with first Hammond and then the President.

"You know how they are," Jack said. "Every decision has to be weighed and calculated and discussed in committee. We're talking about some of the same people who think the question of who provides snacks for the vending machine is a matter of national security."

"Now that you mention it, sir," Carter said, grinning. "The chips I got the other day were stale."

"I'll be sure to mention it to the Joint Chiefs," Jack told her.

"You might want to shave first, sir," Carter observed.

Jack rubbed a hand across a stubbly jaw. Sleep wasn't the only thing he'd overlooked during the past day and a half.

"If a spit shine and polish is what it takes to get them to listen to reason then I'll do my best," Jack said. "But I'm hoping to sway them with something a bit more substantial. Teal'c, I want you to ask Bra'tac for the latest intel they have on Ba'al's holdings. I want to know what he's got and where it's located. Get back as soon as you can and call me. Walter and Colonel Reynolds will know how to reach me."

Teal'c nodded.

The last chevron locked into place and the wormhole activated.

"SG-1, you have a go."

"Yes, sir," Carter acknowledged, then turned and followed Teal'c and Daniel up the ramp.

"Stay safe," Jack added and watched them pass through the event horizon one by one.

 ~*~*~

Consciousness returned-the plane was banking slowly. Jack kept his eyes closed although he could feel the nose starting to drop and hear the subtle change in engine noise that told him they were starting to descend.

He heard footsteps headed his way.

"I'm awake," he said. "We're landing." It wasn't a question.

"Yes, General. We'll be on the ground in twenty minutes."

Jack opened his eyes. "Thank you."

As the co-pilot headed back to the cockpit, Jack reached up and flicked on the overhead light. He slid the window shade up and peered out the window. The all-too recognizable lights of DC were just coming into view.

They were landing at Andrews. He supposed he should be enjoying the VIP treatment. The military was normally pretty efficient about moving personnel where they needed to be at a moment's notice but the executive jet waiting for him on the tarmac had been something of a surprise.

Although he'd managed to catch a little sleep during the flight, all he really wanted was to fall into a bunk and forget about the week ahead for a few hours. Why anyone in authority was even considering Ba'al's offer was beyond his comprehension. Hammond was sympathetic but his hands were tied. The President wanted hard information. Was Ba'al a credible threat or had he hit a stroke of luck by finding the science team and simply tried to capitalize on it?

Jack's gut said Ba'al was simply cashing in on a lucky break. Was the snake still a threat to off-world teams and Earth's allies? Of course he was but if the talking heads in Washington were dim enough to believe the threat level was somehow increased because of Ba'al's posturing then they really had spent way too much time under the fluorescent lights.

Besides, one Goa'uld gunning for them was a lot better odds than a whole universe full of them. And compared to Anubis, Ba'al was a walk in the park.

No, there was no reason for the SGC to be running scared of that smug bastard because he managed to grab a few scientists.

Jack had learned his lesson. Long-term non-military missions would be escorted at all times by an SG team-no matter how safe the mission might seem...or how loudly the SG teams yelled. He and Hammond had already been pushing to add a few new teams but had been answered with delay after delay on the approval process.

With the US allies clamoring for spots at the SGC maybe he could negotiate the creation of a few more regular teams as part of the package? Anything he could do to balance the fiasco that was sure to become would be a good thing.

The plane touched down gently and quickly taxied to its final stop. The pilot and co-pilot came out of the cockpit and opened the hatch. The ground crew was already securing the steps.

Jack picked up his briefcase and made his way to the door.

The two men came to attention and saluted.

Jack returned the gesture. "At ease, gentlemen. Thanks for the lift."

"Our pleasure, General. Sir, your bags are being off-loaded now."

Jack nodded and headed down the stairs.

A major was waiting for him at the bottom. The man saluted. Jack lifted his own hand and mentally sighed.

That was one thing about visiting Washington, he reflected. He'd salute and be saluted more this week than during an entire year at Cheyenne.

"General, your aide is waiting with a car."

"My what?"

"Sir, you've been assigned an aide for the duration of your stay. He'll serve as your driver and assist you in any way you see fit."

"He has clearance?"

The look on the major's face gave him his answer. Of course he didn't have clearance. That would have made sense.

"Clearance, sir?"

Jack dug in his pocket and pulled out an id card. He held it up so the major could see it and watched the man's eyes widen.

The major began flipping through the file he was carrying.

"Uh, I... I wasn't informed-"

"Major..." Jack leaned closer to read the man's nametag, "Major Hansen. You don't have clearance either, do you?"

"Sir, no sir!" Hansen replied, his face flushing visibly under the glare of the tarmac lights. "I'm very sorry, General. There's been some sort of mix-up..."

"It's not your fault, Major. I expect you've been kept pretty busy with all the brass that's been headed your way."

Hansen's relief was immediately apparent.

"Yes, sir. I'm very sorry, General. If the lieutenant can drive you tonight, I'll see about re-assigning him tomorrow and try to find you someone with the appropriate clearance rating."

"Don't bother, Major. Anybody with clearance is either back in Colorado or they outrank me. Your lieutenant will be just fine-as long as he can find his way to the temporary officer's quarters."

Hansen's relieved expression vanished.

"What?" Jack demanded. "What is it now?"

"Sir, the officer's quarters are full. We've made arrangements at a hotel not far from the Pentagon. I'm sorry, sir, but we have a lot of visitors."

"Fine... fine," Jack said quickly. "Just get me there."

"Sir?"

"There's more?" Jack asked.

"Yes, General. The President wishes to see you."

"Tonight?"

"Yes, sir."

"It's nearly 2300," Jack said.

"Yes, sir. I know. We received orders to take you directly to the White House when you landed."

"Damn! The three phone calls earlier weren't enough?" Hayes was mistaken if he thought a late night summons to the Oval Office was enough to make him change his recommendation about how best to deal with Ba'al.

The major was staring at him, Jack realized.

Well, to give the man credit it probably wasn't every day he was faced with generals in plain green fatigues who had a day's head start on a beard and were hanging out on the tarmac at Andrews cursing at their Commander-in-chief because they were being asked to the White House in the middle of the night.

"Where's the car?" Jack asked.

"Follow me, sir."

Major Hansen led him on a short walk to the waiting car-a nice-sized and unsurprisingly non-descript dark blue government sedan.

As they approached, Jack saw a man with his back to them placing his bags-one mid-sized duffel and the garment bag with his uniforms-in the trunk.

"Lieutenant Lewis!" Hansen called.

The lieutenant turned and immediately came to attention.

"At ease, Lieutenant," Jack ordered. "I'm General Jack O'Neill and it looks like I'll be your passenger for the next few days."

"Yes, sir. My pleasure, sir. Lieutenant John Lewis, sir."

"Relax, Lieutenant. Too many sirs give me a headache and I've got enough problems at the moment."

"Yes, s...yes, General."

"Lieutenant," Hansen said. "There's been a change in plans. You are to take the General directly to the White House."

"I'm sorry, sir. Did you say the White House?"

"He did," Jack confirmed. "I bet it's the last place you thought you'd be visiting tonight."

"Yes, sir," Lewis agreed.

"Let's get this over with," Jack said. "I'd like to get some sleep tonight."

"Yes, General." The lieutenant closed the trunk and stepped to the right rear door of the car. He opened it up and stood waiting.

"General O'Neill?" Hansen said, quietly.

"Yes, Major?"

"Sir, if you need to arrange for someone to take Lewis' place as your aide-someone from your command perhaps?"

"It's really not necessary," Jack assured him. He liked Walter too much to subject him to Washington and really all he needed was someone to keep him straight on when and where the meetings where being held. Lewis wouldn't need to know what was being discussed; he'd just need to know what room number was up next.

"Yes, General. Thank you for your understanding."

"Not a problem, Major."

Jack got into the car. This was something he couldn't quite get used to no matter how many trips he made to Washington.

Lewis closed the door.

Jack often tried to tell himself it wasn't all that different from taking a cab but he was never quite convinced. It was hard to shake the feeling that earning another star made everyone around him think he was incapable of doing anything on his own.

Still, he had to admit it was nice sometimes to let someone else worry about navigating the DC traffic. Of course, at this time of the night it wasn't likely to be a problem.

The driver's door opened and Lewis slid into the driver's seat. Jack saw him glance into the rearview mirror.

"I guess I don't really look like the usual White House visitor," Jack said.

"No, sir-I mean... I wouldn't know. I wasn't-"

"It's okay, Lieutenant. I've had a long few days. If I'd realized Hayes was going to hijack my transport upon arrival I'd have taken the time out for a shave."

Lewis leaned across the seat and popped upon the glove box. He pulled out at battery operated razor and held it out to Jack.

"I never know how long I might have to wait on a passenger," Lewis explained. "I've put in some long hours."

Jack took the razor from him and grinned. "I actually prefer a blade," he said.

"Me too, General, but I've learned to make do in a pinch." Lewis started the engine and began to back out of the parking space.

"Thanks," Jack said, rubbing his jaw. "On second thought, maybe he'll be impressed with the fact that I've been too busy to think about a bit of shadow?"

"With all due respect, sir, it's more than a shadow and the he you are talking about is the President of the United States."

"Yeah, I guess you have a point," Jack admitted. "But he'll just have to live without a tie."

Jack thumbed the power button on the razor and shook his head.

Close as a blade?

Not hardly.

 ~*~*~

John Lewis watched as the security detail passed his window again.

"Laura, I swear!" he said into his cell phone. "I am sitting right outside the White House."

Another guard passed the car and for a moment he wondered if talking on a cell phone in a White House driveway might be one of those things that would get the Secret Service just a tad bit upset.

"He's a general," John explained. "And no, I don't think you would have heard of this guy."

He shook his head.

"Call it a hunch. He's not the type they prop up behind a podium for CNN."

He laughed at her response.

"Me too. Look, don't expect me tonight. He's been in there for nearly an hour. It's late already and we both have to get an early start tomorrow. I still have to get the General to his hotel. I'll just go to my apartment and I'll see you tomorrow."

There was a flurry of activity near the doorway O'Neill had entered.

"I do so have edible food at my place," John protested. He grinned. It was true-he knew for certain there was a jar of olives in the fridge. "Look, I have to hang up. He's coming back. Love ya'."

He switched off the phone and slipped it into his pocket as he watched General O'Neill make his way to the car. As he approached, John opened up his door and got out. He walked around the back of the car and pulled the General's door open.

"Thanks," O'Neill said. He got in and leaned his head back against the seat, closing his eyes.

John closed the door and quickly made his way back around to the driver's side and got in the car. He glanced over his shoulder as he started the engine. O'Neill looked as if he might already be asleep.

"You know where to go?" O'Neill asked, eyes still closed.

"Yes, sir," John replied. "I have all the information."

"Great. You'll forgive me if I'm not much of a conversationalist?"

"Of course, General. Something tells me you've had a long day. I think you've earned a break."

"Ah, you see...the past two days haven't actually been all that unusual. Tomorrow now...tomorrow is when the real hell starts."

"Sir, I have your schedule. You'll be at the Pentagon all day."

"Exactly," O'Neill said.

 ~*~*~

"Sir, I think this is it," Lieutenant Lewis said, slowing to stop in front of a door that looked exactly like the last few dozen or so they had passed already. He swiped a card in the reader, opened the door, and stepped back.

Desk.

Chair.

Computer.

Phone.

Fax machine.

No window.

"Great," Jack drawled. "There's no place like home."

"Look on the bright side, General."

"There's a bright side?"

"You won't actually be spending that much time here. Your first meeting is in twenty minutes."

Jack turned and stared at the lieutenant.

"There's a bright side?" he repeated.

Lewis laughed.

"Sure, laugh it up. Just remember, Lieutenant. You'll be the one in here all day."

The young man's smile vanished and Jack grinned at him.

 ~*~*~

"General O'Neill, have you considered shifting the bulk of the scientific research to

Area 51?"

"We transfer work out of the SGC on a case-by-case basis," Jack replied.

"I understand that but a review of projects currently underway indicates at least...five that have yielded no useful results despite on-going research by SGC personnel over a period of several months." The man speaking flipped through a spiral bound report. "In fact, several items have shown zero results for over a year." He looked up at Jack expectantly.

"We thought that just perhaps it might be wise to make sure they aren't going to blow up if someone pushes the wrong button. I don't know about you but I'd rather have the dangerous stuff contained in the mountain or conveniently close to the stargate in case we need to chuck it back through at a moments notice."

Sitting next to Jack, General Hammond cleared his throat.

"Chairman, I think what General O'Neill is trying to say is that much of the scientific research generated by the SGC is best handled at the facility. The personnel at Stargate Command are uniquely qualified and are better equipped to handle any dangers that might arise."

"I think we can agree that many of the personnel at the SGC are uniquely qualified. Don't you think, Generals, that this gives us all the more reason to be certain we are utilizing such resources in the best way possible?"

"And just exactly how would you suggest we utilize our resources?" Jack asked, ignoring the warning look from Hammond.

The pencil pusher actually looked pleased to have been asked.

"Well, let's start with Lieutenant Colonel Carter..."

"Yes, let's do," Jack replied with an edge to his voice that would have had the folks back at the mountain ducking for cover. The bureaucrat with an obsession for balance sheets simply carried on.

"The colonel seems to be wasted on a front line team," the man said.

"How exactly?"

"Well, she is risking her life," he said, as if it was the most logical thing in the world.

"Every man and woman who steps through the stargate risks his or her life."

"And as you and General Hammond have pointed out, her talents are unique. Imagine the setbacks to the progress of the research projects if she were to be lost."

"I prefer to imagine how many times our lovely little planet would have been toast without her."

"Well of course. That is precisely my point, General."

"It is?" Jack asked. Trying to follow the desk jockey's idea of logic was making the headache he'd had all morning worse.

"Colonel Carter has been invaluable to the program but now that the Goa'uld have been eliminated as a serious threat-"

"The threat level may have been reduced but I can assure you the Goa'uld are still a danger," Jack interrupted. "Perhaps the next time our planet is threatened with total destruction from some snakehead's latest doomsday weapon and thanks to budget cuts people like Carter aren't there to save your a-"

"Chairman, excuse me for interrupting," Hammond said quickly. "We still have a lot of items to go through and we're only about ten minutes away from our scheduled lunch. Why don't we pick this up later?"

 ~*~*~

"You just have to have the patience to play the game," Hammond explained.

"That's the problem," Jack snapped back. "This is not a game, sir. People's lives are at stake-the entire planet."

"Jack, don't you think I understand that? Of all the people in that room you and I are the ones who best understand it. I know how frustrating this process can be-particularly when you have more important issues to deal with back at the SGC."

"Ba'al is slightly more than an issue," Jack replied, his tone slightly less heated. "What is Hayes playing at by making us jump through these hoops?"

"Be realistic, Jack. Ba'al gave us time and Hayes knows it. This week has been planned for months. Do you really want to thumb your nose at the system and end up trying to operate the SGC with the budget they'd approve without your input?"

"You'd think they'd have figured out just how important the program is after all these years."

"They have to be reminded-preferably without calling them names."

"I call 'em as I see 'em," Jack replied.

"I'm very much aware of that," Hammond said, shaking his head. "Look, I realize why, given our experiences with Kinsey, you have issues with this whole process but most of the people here are just doing their jobs."

"And you think I'm being unrealistic?" Jack asked.

"Jack..."

"Oh come on, sir. Admit it. This..." Jack said spreading his hands in a gesture that either indicated the Pentagon or the whole damned city-he wasn't entirely sure, "this is why you gave it up."

Hammond chuckled. "Are you kidding? What do you think I spend most of my time doing now anyway? It's not all missions on the Prometheus you know."

"How'd I ever get into this?" Jack asked.

"You stepped up when you were needed," Hammond replied, the levity gone from his voice. "You can't accept the alternatives."

 ~*~*~

"Sir, I can bring the car around," Lewis offered. "The parking spot isn't really that close."

"Nah," Jack replied, slipping into his jacket. "After sitting on my ass all day, it'll be good to stretch the legs a bit."

"Very well, General."

"Besides, I'm not sure I can find my way out of this maze and you have an obligation to never leave a man behind." Jack set his cap on his head and grabbed his briefcase. "Get me out of here before they decide to have another meeting."

"Somehow I think you've found your own way out of tougher places than the Pentagon, sir."

Jack didn't answer as Lewis pulled open the door and they stepped into the hallway. The kid was right-Jack could have found his way easily-but complaining made him feel better and Lewis would feel useful by showing him the way out.

"This is a different kind of tough, Lieutenant," Jack finally replied as they walked down the corridor. "The enemy is harder to spot."

"And instead of RPGs and roadside bombs they drown you in red tape?"

Something in the young man's voice caught Jack's attention and he turned his head to look at Lewis. The lieutenant's easy-going smile had vanished and while he kept his eyes focused on the path ahead of them it was obvious to Jack that Lewis was a million miles away.

"Something like that," Jack agreed.

His words brought Lewis back. Jack could almost see the lieutenant shake the moment off as he realized Jack was watching him.

"So how many signatures does it take to get a light bulb changed?" Lewis asked, the smile back in place.

"If you ask me," Jack said, "one general's too many." He was the last person to go prying into personal business. Whatever it was, Lewis could keep it to himself.

"Don't let them wear you down, General."

"Too late, Lieutenant," Jack replied. The last few days really were catching up to him. He was tired...and in more ways than one.

"You'll feel better after a solid night's sleep," Lewis told him.

"Only if I wake up tomorrow and discover this is all a dream," Jack replied.

 ~*~*~

Jack picked at a rather generous chunk of sugar glaze on the half-eaten donut sitting on the paper napkin in front of him.

Apparently the hot and fresh sign had not been lit up in this particular baked good's recent past.

Abandoning the glazed-make that petrified-excuse for a breakfast he reached for his coffee cup and took a sip.

Strike two.

The promise made by the presence of actual ceramic cups instead of Styrofoam was shattered by the barely lukewarm swill they were trying to pass off as coffee.

He realized the man sitting to his left-a colonel from NORAD whose name Jack had already forgotten-had whispered something to him.

"Pardon?" Jack said quietly, glancing up as a screen at the front of the room slid down and the lights dimmed.

"I said that this new UV light system might be just what we need to keep our people sharp. When you work ten stories underground you need all the help you can get to keep the biorhythms going but hey, I'm preaching to the choir with you deep space guys, right?"

Jack nodded and turned his attention to the slideshow-controlled lighting that simulated natural daylight by gradually brightening and dimming on a set schedule.

Wonderful. What could possibly top this?

Jack slid his agenda for the meeting out from under a yellow legal pad covered with a few random doodles.

Ergonomic chairs.

Jack sighed and made a mental note to ask the presenter if they squeaked during the Q&A.

 ~*~*~

"More BBQ sauce, General?"

"I'm good," Jack answered, picking up another rib. "These are great, Lieutenant."

"I thought you might like something besides a stale sandwich and a bag of chips from a vending machine. The Pig might not be exactly four-star but they know how to slow-cook a rack of ribs."

"You'll have to tell me what other gems you've discovered in this town, Lieutenant. With the right intel any place is survivable."

"I can't give away all my-"

The phone rang, interrupting the conversation. Jack scrubbed the sauce off his fingers and picked up the phone.

"O'Neill."

It was a switchboard operator advising him of an incoming secured call from Cheyenne from a Major Murray.

Jack grinned. Teal'c was never going to get rid of that moniker.

As they routed the call through, Jack glanced up at Lewis. The lieutenant was already on his feet.

"Sorry," Jack said.

"Not a problem, General. I'll just take this to the cafeteria," Lewis said, picking up his Styrofoam box. "Enjoy your lunch, sir."

"Thanks. You too," Jack returned, watching as Lewis left the small office and closed the door behind him. Teal'c would have to call during lunch. Why couldn't he have interrupted the meeting from this morning?

The ribs really were too good to waste Jack decided. He punched the speaker button on the phone and cradled the receiver. Hands free, he returned his attention to his lunch.

There was a click and the operator finally confirmed the transfer.

"O'Neill?"

"Yeah, T. I'm here."

"We have returned from Dakara."

"Yeah, I kinda figured that part out. What's the news?"

"O'Neill, have you placed me on speakerphone?"

"Yeah."

"Is that necessary?"

"What?" Jack asked. "Yeah, I'm having lunch and it's kinda hard to eat ribs one-handed. There's nobody here but us, Teal'c. Stop being such a baby."

"It is disconcerting, O'Neill."

"I'm eating these ribs, T. Mmmmm... ribs!"

"I have informed Bra'tac and the other members of the Council of the situation with Ba'al," Teal'c said, evidently giving up the speakerphone fight.

"How much did you tell them?" Jack asked.

"We thought it wise, however, to limit the information we shared with the Council. They have been told that Ba'al is seeking to end their influence on his remaining Jaffa. We did not advise them of the specific threat to the SGC. We felt it best not to give new life to the argument that the Tau'ri believe they are in a position to control the actions of the Free Jaffa."

"I've had no reports of any problems with Ba'al's forces. Anything from Dakara?"

"Bra'tac says there has been no unusual activity yet many of the council feel this is a sign of Ba'al's weakness and their time to strike."

"I'm not entirely sure I disagree with them," Jack said.

There was a long pause. Jack could picture Teal'c on the other end, one eyebrow lifting, as he considered the remark.

"Have you secured approval for such a venture?" Teal'c asked finally.

Jack had to smile. Trust Teal'c to take an off-hand remark so seriously.

"Sadly, no," Jack responded. "But you can tell Walter we're gonna be getting some nifty new chairs in a few months."

"There has been no decision," Teal'c said. It wasn't a question but Jack thought he detected more than a hint of disbelief in his friend's tone.

"Lots of decisions-just not the ones we need."

"As ever... the clearest view is from the field of battle," Teal'c said.

"Try explaining that to the bean counters," Jack replied. "So, what do we have on Ba'al?"

 ~*~*~

"For crying out loud! Ba'al is still a threat... as are the other remaining Goa'uld. We turn our back on them now and we regret it down the road."

"General O'Neill, you would be well advised to adjust your tone of voice."

"And you would be well advised to remember that lives are at stake!" Jack countered. He swept his gaze around the table-eyeing the assembled brass. He was relieved to see sympathetic understanding on some of the faces.

"The SGC has handled more serious threats in its time, General."

"Which means we have some experience with such things and yet I get the feeling that this review panel is actually considering Ba'al's offer."

"This panel is here to consider many things, General. As we have stated, with the threat of the Goa'uld... reduced... we now have an obligation to consider the long-term goals of the program."

"By that I take it you mean becoming little more than support for the Atlantis team in the Pegasus galaxy?"

"General O'Neill, I would think you of all people would understand the importance of the Atlantis mission."

"Oh, I do understand," Jack replied. "I understand that if we screw up badly enough in our own galaxy we can always run to Pegasus and play dodge the Wraith... at least those of us lucky enough to be on the right lists."

"We're looking for a balance here," Hammond said. "Of course the Atlantis mission is critical and requires the support of the SGC but we can't ignore the dangers in our backyard. General O'Neill is correct. The Goa'uld have proven very resilient and they have an advantage we don't have-time."

"Exactly," Jack interrupted. "Ba'al is an immediate concern-one that many of you seem content to ignore-but in the long run it's the Goa'uld we've never heard of that we also have to worry about. You can bet that there's a whole slew of them who have been cooling their heels for a few centuries just waiting for the right opportunity."

"You seem to be saying Earth will never be safe. What exactly will it take to end the threat of the Goa'uld once and for all?"

"Eliminate them," Jack replied. "Destroy every single one of them. Until then, don't try to reason with them. Don't try to make deals or treaties. Don't forget for one moment exactly what they are and always...always keep our guard up."

There was silence.

"The mission of the SGC is not going to end anytime soon," Hammond added. "It can't. It's too important. It's too big."

"Based on General O'Neill's comments, I would think it impossible."

"Not impossible," Jack said. "Difficult... yes and slashing budgets and reducing us to a glorified supply depot isn't going to make it any easier."

"So we just continue on indefinitely with things as they stand?"

"General O'Neill has a proposal," Hammond interjected, "which I hope this committee will take the time to review carefully. I think you will find it interesting. It will mean some rather big changes for the program. Chairman, if you'll allow it... perhaps we can allow him to give us a brief overview?"

"Very well. Proceed, General O'Neill."

Jack picked up his briefcase and placed it on the table. "I'm afraid I don't have a fancy powerpoint or slide show presentation," he warned as he flipped the briefcase open and pulled out a handful of security file folders. "I do have a few pages that explain the idea and I'd like to simply walk you through it."

The panel members passed the folders around and Jack waited until they were ready before continuing.

"It's really very simple... on the surface," he began. "What it boils down to is that we should no longer be doing the job by ourselves.

 ~*~*~

"Actually, Jack, I thought it went rather well."

"We still don't have a decision," Jack said. "On anything!"

"You must admit it is hard to imagine how joint operations with our allies could be possible given the current state of the alliance," Hammond prodded.

"And if we pull this off we could solve most of the problems with the alliance."

"Or simply put it out of its misery."

"It makes more sense than a treaty with Ba'al!"

Hammond chuckled.

"Can I remind you of that when you are trying to put together teams of humans, Jaffa, and Tok'ra? And there's the Asgard to consider as well."

"Well, they wanted to know about long-term goals. Didn't they?"

"They were intrigued. Give them some time... you knew they wouldn't make a decision today."

"I think they're just afraid to let any part of the SGC out from under their thumbs. An off-world base under the joint command of all four groups is a little harder to control."

"We have allies right here on Earth that could be considered a priority," Hammond reminded him.

"And if we get approval for an alliance base they can start out by getting to know our allies better. We can train them alongside the new recruits as well as the Jaffa and Tok'ra who are willing to give this a shot."

"It's a big step, Jack."

"Yes, sir. It is. It's also one we'll never be able to take if we do something stupid on with regard to this Ba'al thing."

"I think you've made your position rather clear," Hammond said.

"I try," Jack agreed, grinning. "They're the ones that wanted me here."

"You know, some people manage to enjoy a visit to DC now and then."

"I'm not one of them, sir. But now that you mention it, I just found out about a great BBQ place-at least if their ribs are anything to judge by. What would you say to a pitcher or two and a couple of slabs? My treat!"

Hammond sighed. "Sounds good but I can't. I have another meeting," he said. "And I can't miss it," he added, cutting Jack off before he could voice the thought.

"Your loss," Jack told him.

It looked like it was going to be another night of room service and ESPN.

 ~*~*~

Lewis stood as the General entered the office.

"Good afternoon, General."

"Is it, Lieutenant?"

"Well, sir, unless you have another meeting I don't know about...you're done for the day."

"I'd like to see them try to drag my ass to another meeting today. That is unless they're planning to get their heads out of their asses and actually get something useful accomplished."

Lewis watched as the general sat down. In the past few days, he'd come to realize that O'Neill had little patience for the workings of the government...at least insofar as it concerned whatever it was he was actually doing. Deep space radar telemetry didn't seem like the sort of command that would result in such high stress levels.

Today, however, the general seemed unusually agitated.

"Any changes to tomorrow's schedule?" O'Neill asked.

"No, sir. They haven't informed me of any but all of your meetings are classified and-"

"Since you don't have security clearance some middleman may have decided you didn't need to know," O'Neill finished for him.

"Sorry, General."

"Not your fault, Lieutenant. Let's just hope they realize that room numbers and times aren't under the top secret umbrella. Anything else I need to handle before I order you to get me the hell outta here?"

"No, sir."

O'Neill leaned back in his chair and loosened his tie.

"Well, then," he said. "What are we waiting on?"

"Nothing I can think of, General."

"Sweet," O'Neill drawled.

"Straight to the hotel again, sir?"

"Unless you have something better in mind, Lieutenant," the general said, standing up.

"Actually, sir, I just might. If you don't mind my saying so, sir, you look like you could use a drink."

"No kidding," O'Neill said. "But I don't think I have the energy to face what your generation calls a bar."

"I think you'll appreciate the place I have in mind, sir. You can grab a bite to eat there as well."

"What? Wings and cheesesticks?"

Lewis laughed. "The menu is a little more substantial than that, sir. Trust me; it's a diamond in the rough, General."

O'Neill stared at him, obviously considering the possibility.

"I was right about the ribs, wasn't I?" Lewis asked.

"Do they have ESPN?"

 ~*~*~

Jack sipped at his beer and sighed. Hammond was definitely missing out.

He had to give Lewis credit. The kid had been right.

This was his kind of place.

Despite it's name, The Ritz wasn't much to look at.

A dozen or so battered and scratched wooden tables with the tell-tale ghost rings of beer mugs past, a hodgepodge of mismatched chairs, a bar with the obligatory mirror behind it along one wall, a few pool tables, a juke box that was blessedly silent, and a couple of tv's mounted on the walls tuned to ESPN and CNN-with the so-called news channel displaying closed-captioning.

When had CNN become so obsessed with celebrities anyway?

The hum of low conversation, the clack of pool cues and balls from one of the tables, and the soft buzz of the sports commentators discussing the latest games were the only noise.

Jack turned to look over his shoulder. Lewis was still talking on his cell phone in the alcove that led to the restrooms. As Jack watched, he ended the call and slipped the phone into his pocket. Jack turned around as Lewis began to walk back towards their table.

"I'm not keeping you from anything-or rather, anyone... am I, Lieutenant?" Jack asked as the young man sat down.

"No, sir."

"Really, Lieutenant?

"Honest, sir."

Jack raised an eyebrow at him and Lewis grinned.

"She's going to the opening of a friend's art show," the lieutenant admitted.

"So am I your excuse for not being there?" Jack asked.

Lewis laughed. "No, sir. I wasn't planning to go anyway. She decided not to make me seeing as how her parents are coming into town tomorrow and we are taking them out to dinner."

"Sounds serious," Jack observed.

"Yes, General. We're engaged actually." He sipped at his soda and shrugged. "We've been dating for a few years; I practically live at her place now anyway. Laura's almost finished with her graduate degree; it just seemed like the right time for both of us."

"Sounds like you have it all figured out," Jack told him.

"I don't know about that but we'll just have to figure it out as we go I suppose."

"What does she do?" Jack asked.

"She's getting a graduate degree in fine art. She's already working for the Smithsonian-the National Gallery."

The waitress interrupted by bringing their food. Jack smiled as she sat the plastic wax paper lined basket in front of him. Turkey club and chips. Lewis had ordered a cheeseburger.

"Can I get you anything else?" the waitress asked.

"I'm good," Jack told her.

"I'll just bet you are, flyboy." She pulled a handful of napkins from her apron pocket and tossed them on the table. "Enjoy your meal and you just give me a shout if there's anything you need."

Jack couldn't help but watch her as she weaved through the tables on her way back to the bar. When he turned around again he was met with a huge grin and a wink from Lewis.

"It's the uniform, kid."

"Sure it is, General. If you say so."

"Oh come on, don't tell me it's not part of why you joined," Jack teased.

"No," Lewis said. "It never once crossed my mind, sir."

"Didn't they teach you not to lie to a superior officer, son?"

At that, Lewis laughed.

"Well, maybe it crossed my mind once or twice," he admitted. "Besides, it worked for my dad. Mom always says he did cut a fine figure in his hey day."

"Ah, so the military is a family tradition?"

Jack was surprised to see a look of pain flit across the lieutenant's face. There was an awkward moment of silence before Lewis nodded.

"Something like that," he said. "Dad was career Air Force-made Captain. He always said he had no regrets."

"But?"

Lewis glanced up from his burger.

"My older brother was killed in Iraq eighteen months ago."

"I'm sorry," Jack said.

"He was army," Lewis continued. "Had to go his own way, you know? Dad was Air Force so of course he had to choose a different branch. A roadside bomb flipped the humvee he was in-killed Chris and two other guys. I was on a tour of duty over there myself when it happened."

"They offered you stateside duty?"

"Yeah, but I finished my tour first. When it was up, they asked me again and I came home. Mom, you know? And Laura, of course. They didn't actually give me the speech about carrying on the family line but they didn't have to really. Chris was married but they hadn't started a family yet. It sounds awful but in a way, I'm glad...I can't imagine anything worse than not getting a chance to know your dad."

Jack didn't need to imagine worse.

"You did the right thing, Lieutenant. You did your duty and you didn't have anything else to prove. Your family needs you."

 ~*~*~

"Chairman, I understand your concerns but frankly we simply don't have the time for any further delays. When I spoke with the President, he assured me that this panel would reach a decision by today. My people expect me back in Colorado tomorrow."

"General O'Neill, you do realize that you are accountable to this panel?"

"Yes, Chairman. I am painfully aware of that fact."

"General, your impertinence is not appreciated."

Jack sighed. He should have let Hammond take the lead. Jack cleared his throat. "Chairman, with respect, it's frustration. I have a job to do. My people have a job to do. We can't operate with our hands tied behind our backs. You have the reports. You have our recommendations. At this point we can't provide you with any further intelligence and we cannot waste any more time trying to get additional confirmation of what we have now. We have to trust our allies."

"General, your recommendations require a rather significant expansion of the program at a time when many of us believed we were finally in a position to reduce spending."

"Chairman, this is exactly the time when we should be investing in the program's future. President Hayes has made it clear that we have reached a point where we must allow our Earth allies access to the SGC. I can tell you, sir, that breaking apart some our existing SG teams to bring aboard our allies is a mistake. But if we expand the number of SG teams-"

"You have requested the formation of additional teams for some time now and we have denied those requests."

"Yes, sir. But I'm telling you that our Earth allies will find that their transition into the program will be much smoother if we have them working with people who won't automatically resent their presence. I believe that these multi-national teams would get us one step closer to true cooperation with our off-world allies as well."

"And what do we tell our allied governments when those teams are captured or killed by Ba'al? General, your opinion of the Goa'uld is well-known. Rest assured that I find the necessity of negotiation with such creatures as detestable as you. However, some prudence is warranted."

"We can't trust him," Jack said. "All of our intelligence points to the fact that he got lucky. He stumbled across Dr. Lee and his team and he's trying to exploit it for his own advantage."

"But you've said yourself that he is a threat."

"Yes, and I stand by that assessment, Chairman. What I have not said is that the threat is sufficient to force us into accepting a truce that will never be more than a sham. A truce will be the final nail in the coffin of the alliance. The Jaffa and Tok'ra will never trust us and the Asgard will finally be convinced that we, as a race, are too stupid to bother with further."

"Chairman," Hammond said. "With all due respect, I propose that the panel members make their individual recommendations now. General O'Neill is correct-it is time for a final decision."

"Very well, General. If the members are prepared?" There were nods from several of those assembled and nobody spoke up to disagree. "Alright, let's open this up for a final discussion."

 ~*~*~

"It's a start, Jack." Hammond reminded him. "At least you get to tell Ba'al what to do with his treaty."

"There is that," Jack agreed.

"You got approval for additional teams," Hammond continued.

"In exchange for playing tour guide."

"At least it's happening on your terms. Well, mostly... and they didn't pull the plug on the possibility of an off-world alliance base. It will take time but if you can convince the Jaffa and the Tok'ra to go along, you just might have a chance."

"I'll admit it came out better than I expected," Jack said. "Hopefully, they've had their fill of meddling for awhile and we can go back to doing our jobs. I don't know how you cope with this town, sir."

"I live vicariously through you," Hammond joked.

"I've told you before that you can have your office back any time."

"No, it's all yours, Jack. Whether you'll admit it or not, the job suits you."

"I don't know about that sometimes. I have a tendency to piss off too many people."

"And for every one that you annoy by getting in their face there are two others who come to respect your straightforwardness and determination to cut through the bullshit, Jack. A lot of people in this town trust your judgment. The SGC needs someone who won't allow themselves to be railroaded by committees and petty politics."

"Why do I feel like I've been tied down on the tracks?"

"When do you leave?"

"First thing in the morning," Jack replied. "Lewis is making the arrangements."

"Will you go straight to the mountain?"

Jack nodded. "You wanna be there when we give Ba'al the good news?"

Hammond grinned.

"As amusing as that would be, I'm afraid it's impossible. Just because you get to escape, it doesn't mean the rest of us are done here. Give Ba'al my regards."

"I will, sir. I will."

 ~*~*~

Jack dropped his shaving kit in his duffel bag. Taking one last look around the room, he closed the bag.

There was a knock at the door.

Lewis.

Jack glanced at the bedside clock. Right on time of course.

Jack went to the door and pulled it open.

"Morning, General."

"Good morning, Lieutenant."

Lewis held up a paper bag and cup of coffee.

"I guessed you'd be in a hurry to get to Andrews and you wouldn't want to stop for breakfast, sir."

"Is that donuts, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, sir."

"Are you bucking for a promotion kid?"

"You know how it is, sir. Anything to get ahead."

"Be careful, Lieutenant, or you'll make general someday."

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

"Just don't let it sneak up on you, Lieutenant."

"I'll keep it in mind, General." Lewis looked around the room. "All packed, sir?"

"Yeah, let me grab the bag and we'll go."

"I'll get that for you, sir."

Lewis handed Jack his coffee and donuts.

"You don't have to, Lieutenant," Jack protested, as Lewis edged past him and shouldered the duffel.

"My pleasure, sir. Really." He picked up the briefcase as well. "Ready, sir?"

"You have no idea, Lieutenant."

Lewis laughed.

"Washington just isn't your type of place is it, sir?"

"No. It'll be good to get back home."

"Deep space radar telemetry is that interesting is it, General?"

Lewis gave him a crooked smile and Jack grinned in return.

"It has its moments, Lieutenant. Maybe a day will come when I can tell you about a few of them."

"I'd like that, sir. I hope your stay in our fair city wasn't too painful. It has its moments too."

"Yes, I suppose it does," Jack admitted. "You can bet that I'll be seeing you again, Lieutenant. Anybody that can supply me with decent BBQ, a cold beer now and then, and fresh donuts is someone I can find a use for when I come to town. That's assuming, of course, that you feel like putting up with me again."

"It would be my honor, General," Lewis told him. "Sir, permission to speak freely?"

"Of course, Lieutenant."

"Sir, I don't know what you really do but I have a feeling that I should be glad you're doing it. I've dealt with a lot of brass and you're one of the few that didn't turn out to be a card-carrying asshole-pardon the language, sir."

"Lieutenant-"

"Let me continue, sir. Most of the time, I'm invisible-if I'm lucky. You treated me with respect, sir. I just wanted to say thank you."

"I appreciate that, Lieutenant."

"Well, then. Ready to go, sir?"

"I've been ready, Lieutenant."

 ~*~*~

Lewis watched as O'Neill lifted a hand and waved from the steps of the plane.

It was strange to feel a bit of regret as he watched the general board. For most assignments, all he felt was relief when the visiting brass finally showed their backside.

He'd been tempted-really tempted-to drop more than a hint to O'Neill that he wouldn't mind knowing just what was so fascinating about deep space radar telemetry.

The door closed and the ground crew moved the steps away from the jet. The plane began to slowly taxi away.

Did he really want to know what O'Neill was doing?

He had to admit he was curious but there were other things to consider.

Laura.

The life they were planning on making for themselves here in Washington.

His parents.

No. When it came right down to it...he didn't need to know.

For him, Washington wasn't such a bad place.

 ~*~*~

SG-1 was waiting for him when he got off the elevator.

"Welcome back, sir," Carter said.

"Hey, Jack."

"Greetings, O'Neill."

"Hey, kids. What's up?"

"We just thought you'd appreciate a few friendly faces," Daniel explained. "You're always in such a rotten mood when you come back from DC"

"Ya think?"

"Are you not pleased with the outcome of your visit to your capital, O'Neill?"

"Well, Teal'c, we get to tell Ba'al to go screw himself," Jack said. "But there's going to be a few changes around here. What do you think it would take for the Tok'ra and Jaffa to agree to sit down together for a meeting?"

"Some rope to tie them all down with?" Carter suggested.

"Sounds like a plan," Jack agreed.

"General!"

Jack glanced down the corridor and spotted Walter heading their way.

"Looks like your moment of calm before the storm is over already, sir," Carter said.

"Great."

"General, Colonel Reynolds is waiting to brief you," Walter said, as he approached.

"Hi, Walter. Glad to see you too."

"Sorry, sir. Welcome back."

"What do you have?" Jack asked, nodding at the handful of files Walter was carrying.

"Several items requiring your immediate attention."

"Immediate, huh? Can I at least have a cup of coffee first?"

"We'll leave you to it, Jack," Daniel said.

"Sir, I'm sorry. I'll have someone bring coffee to your office but you really need to review and sign these before you get caught up in your briefing with Colonel Reynolds."

"Can't anyone get anything done around here without me?" Jack demanded. "Next time, Walter, I'm sending you in my place," he threatened. "Didn't Reynolds do anything besides keep my chair warm?" Jack groused.

"Come on, Jack. Admit it. It's nice to know you're needed around here."

"Oh yeah, it's just peachy."

"General?"

"Yes, Walter, I'm coming," Jack said.

"We'll see you later, sir," Carter told him.

"Right. I'll be the one that's been chained to my desk by a certain master sergeant."

 ~*~*~

Jack entered the gateroom, his hands stuffed in his pockets.

"Right on time, I see," he said, as he came to a stop in front of Ba'al's holographic image.

"As promised," Ba'al replied. "I have come for your answer."

"In a word-no."

"You are prepared to accept the consequences of this decision?"

"We are."

"You are a foolish race," Ba'al said.

"Not as foolish as you hoped," Jack replied.

"You put your lives at risk!"

"That is nothing new for us," Jack said. "Admit it. You are in no position to carry out your threats. You got lucky once; you gambled and you lost."

"It is you who risks everything," Ba'al warned.

"We'll see," Jack said. "We'll take our chances."

"Very well, O'Neill. We shall meet again."

Ba'al gestured with one hand and his image vanished. A moment later, the wormhole deactivated.

"I hope we do," Jack said, his voice quiet in the empty room.

 

*~*~* The End *~*~*


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