Disclaimer: Not mine. This is just for fun.
Author's Notes: I must thank my wonderful beta-reader, Jolene. This fic wouldn't be half what it is without her, and any errors you find are mine that I put in without her knowing or over her objections. All hail, Jolene.
"Siler! What the hell is taking so long?" Jack O'Neill stood at the base of the ramp that led up to the Stargate and drummed his fingers against the UAV setting on the launch ramp next to him.
"Just another minute, sir." Siler's voice, amplified by the mike, rang around the room.
Jack could hear his window-of-opportunity slamming shut. SG-5 had a scheduled contact in three hours and General Hammond would arrive an hour after that. Daniel and Carter had started their third day of a seventy-two-hour leave and neither one of the scientists seemed able to stay away from work for more than forty-eight hours. Jack doubted they'd return at three in the morning, but it still made him nervous. Carter always had some experiment or other to check on in her lab and she showed up at the oddest times. Teal'c was the one member of his team Jack thought would understand, but he still played it safe and sent the Jaffa on a week's mission with SG-12. Daniel would never forgive Teal'c for knowing what Jack had planned and there would be enough fallout from this without driving a wedge between the members of his team.
The UAV beeped and Jack looked at Siler for the go, but the tech was still enthralled with the computer screen in front of him. If they didn't get it running in fifteen minutes, he would have to scrub this part of the plan. Without the UAV reconnaissance . . .
"Come on, Siler!" He let his panic color his voice.
"Yes, sir," Siler said. "It's all set."
"It's about damn time." Jack stepped away from the UAV. "I want the gate room empty, people. Everyone out."
The soldiers in the gate room snapped to attention and filed out. Jack secured both doors and headed up the stairs. He glared at the techs that loitered in the control room as he crossed to Siler's computer. "I'll take it from here, Sergeant Siler. Is this the only station recording the info from the MALP and UAV?"
"Yes, sir. We limited the feed to that console, per your orders." Siler inputted a few more instructions and turned to face Jack. "It is against operations protocol, sir."
"I know it is, Siler," Jack replied. "That's why I had to make it an order."
"Never mind. Just tell me you followed my instructions."
There was the briefest of hesitations before Siler answered, "Yes, sir, to the letter."
Sergeant Walter Harriman looked up from the dialing computer. "The address, sir?"
"I'll be dialing in myself, Walter. Right now, I want this room evacuated. Fall back to secondary positions."
"Sir?" Walter exchanged a panicked look with the others in the control room. "Secondary positions?"
"Yes, Sergeant," Jack stressed the airman's rank. "I want everyone to fall back to their secondary positions. Is that understood?"
The room cleared. Siler and Walter had a whispered exchange, but Jack ignored it and focused on the computer in front of him. When Jack looked up, only Walter stood in the room. Jack returned his attention to the computer and poked at a few keys. Walter didn't leave. Jack rubbed his neck. Why are the little ones always so stubborn? He pulled himself up to his full height and fixed Walter with his most commanding stare. The Airman stood straighter and paled. But he didn't leave.
Jack debated throwing the sergeant out, but decided he would try a less physical tack first. "Sergeant, do we have a problem here? Don't you understand the order I just gave you?"
"No, sir," Walter replied. "With all due respect, sir, I don't understand your orders at all."
"Damn it, Sergeant." Jack put every bit of frustration he felt into the words.
Walter cringed, but stood his ground.
Jack swore under his breath. The man had spent too much time around Carter and Daniel. He glanced at his watch. There wasn't time for arguments or explanations. Still, Walter deserved more than the hard-ass colonel routine. Sergeant Siler reappeared in the hallway, just outside the door, and tried hard not to look like he listened in. They all deserved better.
"Oh for cryin' out loud," Jack muttered. "Walter, I gave you your orders, right?"
"Is there anything in those orders that you are incapable of doing?"
"Was there anything in those orders that could be construed as illegal?"
"Are there any grounds for you to refuse to follow those orders?"
Walter's jaw twitched but he didn't answer.
Jack pressed his point. "When you," at this Jack's eyes flicked back to include Siler, "are asked what happened here you can say that you had no choice but to follow the legal orders of your CO, no matter how odd they seemed. Right?"
"So, we understand each other, then?"
"Yes," Walter said. "I still want to stay."
"I'm with Walter on this, too, sir," Siler added.
Jack wanted to scream. "Are you two nuts? Didn't you hear me?"
"Yes, sir, and we understand what you are doing—"
"No!" Jack cut them off. "Listen to me: I am ordering you to fall back to secondary positions. Are you going to follow orders?"
Walter and Siler exchanged looks.
The hum of the computers filled the silence, and then Walter spoke, "Under protest, sir."
"I don't care if you hold your breath until you turn blue, as long as you follow my orders."
"Yes, sir, falling back to secondary positions."
"Good." Jack paused for a fraction of a second and then spoke again, just before the sergeant left. "Walter?"
"Just follow my orders, and you won't have any problems."
Walter stepped out of the room and Jack closed the door with a disgusted grimace. I'm losing my touch. He'd worked on black ops and 'need-to-know' missions most of his career. Artifice was a necessary tool, one that he was skilled at using. That's why he was good. He'd never had a problem with doing what he had to — until now. Now, he hated every false order and regretted the deceit, no matter how necessary.
It was obvious what the problem was, too. In the past, he'd just been a colonel doing what needed to be done. People followed his orders because he had a bird on his shoulders and they didn't. It was just a job. When did it get to be so damn personal? Being a member of a successful SG team carried with it an authority that even rank couldn't match, he knew that. It's just that he'd thought everyone understood that it was Sam and Daniel who made SG-1 the success it was. All he brought to the team was good timing, blind courage and dumb luck. Everyone should know that. Hell, he pointed it out to them often enough. He wasn't anything special and he didn't want to be treated as if he was.
Ever since his undercover assignment to expose Maybourne's NID operation, though, he found that the SGC regarded him with an eager deference that bordered on veneration. As soon as he'd walked back through the gate and had slapped the cuffs on Makepeace, he'd felt the change. While he'd been on the assignment, he hadn't given much thought as to what its consequences would be. Orders were orders and the mission was too important for him to second-guess operations protocol. He'd accepted that there would be fallout; a loss of trust that even the axiom of 'I was following orders' couldn't repair. There was even the possibility that he'd have to be reassigned in some manner, perhaps even outside of the mountain. They were consequences he was willing to accept. In his wildest dreams, though, he wouldn't have thought that they'd welcome him back as some sort of selfless conquering hero.
At least Daniel had had enough common sense to be ticked at him. Not that it got the archeologist very far when the rest of the base had jumped to Jack's defense when Daniel had foolishly voiced that displeasure aloud. After a few weeks of sulking and pointed comments, however, even Daniel had seemed to forgive him. To be honest, Jack wasn't sure how Carter and Teal'c felt about the whole thing, but they both accepted him back in command without a word.
Now, more than a year later, Jack could still see that the base wasn't over that particular brand of adoration. As much as he didn't want it, it hurt like hell to burn all that faith up like this.
Jack sighed and crossed to a main computer terminal. He stood between the screen and the security camera and punched in a string of command codes that overrode the standard video surveillance subroutine. After the cameras adjusted to his commands, he blocked any attempt to realign them with his own security code.
"Alone at last," Jack murmured as he sat down at the dialing computer. He hoped Siler wouldn't try to override the commands of the base's second-in-command and, if he did, that he wouldn't be good enough to bypass Jack's codes in the forty minutes that he'd allotted for the operation.
Jack punched in the address and the computer blinked its acceptance at him. His hand hovered over the palm reader. Once he did this, there was no going back, no time for second thoughts, no other choice. Story of my life. He dropped his hand to the scanner.
The gate groaned to life, each chevron locking into place. The billowing pocket of water settled to a shimmering blue circle while Jack checked the readings. Everything looked good. Jack drove the overloaded MALP through and steered it off to the side and well out of the path of the UAV that would follow. He studied the data and video feed as it came in. The atmosphere was breathable, the climate was temperate and the DHD was destroyed.
There wouldn't be return trip.
Jack shook away from that thought and moved to the seat behind the UAV controls. A thrill of excitement ran through him despite the tension he felt. God, he loved these things. The plane took off with a quiet roar, and a second later, it soared over the landscape of a planet on the other side of the universe. Jack banked the UAV in a tight circle around the gate, and then widened the arc that spiraled out in a precise pattern. He kept a close eye on the information that came in, pleased to see that Siler's adaptations to the data recorders worked. A light on the monitor showed the recorder on the MALP received all the information. He would have years to analyze it, once he was on the planet. Right now, all he needed was reassurance that the planet was still uninhabited.
Ten minutes into the flight, a gust of wind hit the UAV and Jack fought to keep it from spiraling into a dive. A moment later, he had it back under control, but it responded sluggishly. Damn it, I knew Siler made it too heavy. The extra weight would cut down on flight time. As if in answer to his thought, the screen started to blink a 'low fuel' warning at him. Jack pulled the plane into a steep climb, kept circling and tried to get high enough for the instruments to record the landscape further away from the gate. He managed to nurse five more minutes of flight time out of it before the UAV gave up and plummeted to the ground. The instruments blinked out and Jack reached over and flipped off the power to both the UAV and the MALP. With nothing to keep the gate open, the wormhole snapped shut. Jack pocketed the disks that had recorded the MALP and UAV information.
Silence reigned for a moment and he glanced at the clock. 03:31. Twenty-two minutes since he commandeered the control room. Eight minutes ahead of schedule. Now for the tricky part. A minute later, after he'd punched in a new address, the gate sprang back to life. Jack ignored the open wormhole, though, and instead pulled out a folded piece of paper from his pocket and flattened it out on the desktop. A long list of complicated computer instructions covered the paper and he almost wished that Carter were here to help him. He could imagine what she would say when she found out that he, Colonel 'I-don't-know-Jack-about-computers' O'Neill, had hacked into the base's network.
It would be wrong to claim credit, though. The program had been at the end of a long and boring technical report that Carter had written. He didn't pretend to understand how the program really worked and, with all the strange symbols and precise requirements of computer code, it would be easy to type in a wrong command. In all likelihood, he might program the base to blow up. The upside to that being, I will blow up with it.
Ten minutes later Jack inputted the last line on the list and hit enter. The cursor blinked at him for a second and then the entire system flickered out, along with the lights in the control and gate rooms. The gate stayed active.
"Sweet," Jack murmured.
The emergency lighting kicked in and the gate gave an odd groan. For a second Jack feared he had screwed it up. Then the computer bank hummed and the lights came on. The system rebooted and the dialing computer came back online first. A second later, the security cameras hummed and readjusted to their usual position, Jack's overrides lost in the reboot.
Jack hit the abort button on the control panel and killed the wormhole. He was pleased to see that the dialing computer had falsely recorded that the gate had been open to the second address during the power outage. A second later, someone pounded at the door and Siler's voice carried through as he demanded to be let in.
"Hold on," Jack complained. "I'm coming." He started for the door, then stopped and crossed back to the console. He grabbed the sheet of computer code and stuffed it in his pocket. Don't get careless now, Jack. This is only the beginning.
Jack unlocked the door and Siler and Walter burst in. Walter headed over to check on the gate status, while Siler crossed to the computer that had been recording the MALP and UAV data. He frowned at the lack of information on the screen. When he opened the drive and found the disk missing, he turned to Jack.
"What happened, Colonel?"
"I don't know," Jack lied. He put on his best poker face and started to feed them the cover story he had created. Jack O'Neill would go out doing what he was best at.
"Damn it, Jack." Major General George Hammond stared across his desk at his subordinate. "I can't look the other way on this one."
"I understand that, sir," Jack replied. "I won't ask you to."
Jack stood at attention, as he had since he entered the room. It got on Hammond's nerves. "Sit down, Jack."
Jack hesitated and then sat. It wasn't his usual, loose, sprawled-in-the-chair posture, however. He sat as he had stood, straight, creased at the seams, proper military, un-Jack-like. As was, Hammond reflected, the behavior that brought him here.
"I'm asking you for an explanation, Jack. That's all I'm asking. What the hell did you think you were doing?"
"As I told you before, General," Jack began, "with the downtime and everyone off-base, I thought I'd do a little personal recon of P45-393. We're scheduled to do a week's research there and I saw some lakes that looked like they may hold some possibility of native aquatic wildlife. I ordered Siler to make some modifications to—"
Hammond waved his hand and cut him off. "Do you expect me to believe that you violated seventeen separate operational protocols and lost two very valuable — and very expensive — pieces of equipment because you wanted to find out how the fishing would be?" He put every ounce of indignation he felt into his voice.
Jack stared at a spot over Hammond's shoulder. "Doesn't that sound like something I would do?"
Hammond started to say no, but couldn't. Jack's irreverent, smart-ass attitude was well known throughout the service. This would be one more black mark in a file that seemed as full of reprimands as accolades. It just didn't make any sense. Hammond knew that file better than anyone. Hell, he'd put half the reprimands and accolades in there. This felt different.
"Do you understand the untenable situation this puts me in? Puts the entire SGC in?"
"That was never my intention, sir"
"No? Then, tell me, Colonel, what were your intentions?"
"I wanted to check out the fishing—"
"Fishing! Don't give me that line of bull. Tell me what you were doing!"
Jack remained silent, eyes forward.
A flash of anger burned through Hammond. Of all the insufferable, pig-headed fools. "When this gets out, there are people who will want your head, Colonel." His voice rose to a shout and he stood so quickly that his chair shot backward and hit the credenza behind him. "And I don't see any reason to keep them from getting it."
Jack, who had snapped to standing attention when the general stood, didn't respond. Hammond regarded him for a moment and let his anger build. "There were five teams off-world, Colonel. They couldn't use the gate for thirty minutes. Are you telling me that you risked the lives of twenty SGC personnel on a fishing expedition?"
A muscle twitched in Jack's jaw, a small show of emotion that Hammond counted as something of a victory. He pressed his advantage. "Tell me, Jack. Tell me what was worth the lives of those twenty people — twenty of your friends."
Jack stood, silent.
"Are you looking for a forced retirement? Do you want a court-martial? You're leaving me very little choice here."
"You have to do what you have to do, sir." O'Neill's voice was flat.
"What I have to do is fight everyday to justify expenditures and missions that protect this planet. Do you know what Kinsey is going to do with this when he finds out? How do you expect me to justify this?"
"You don't have to justify it, General, sir. I was in command at the time. The blame for this entire incident falls on me. Even Kinsey won't be able to find a way to link this to anyone else."
Hammond caught the note of confidence in Jack's voice and understood. The sudden passes that O'Neill had arranged for Dr. Jackson and Major Carter, Teal'c's inclusion to SG-14's mission, the explicit and well-documented orders that Jack had issued to the SGC personnel — they placed the blame on Jack's shoulders. When people called for heads, there was only one that could be taken: Jack O'Neill's.
A cold thread of resignation replaced the anger that had flowed through Hammond's blood a moment before. He pulled his chair back to his desk and sat heavily. He'd seen this side of his second-in-command when he'd gone after Maybourne's off-world operation. Jack had planned every step necessary to complete his undercover work: from the set-up with the Tollan, to the alienation of his team, to the exact arguments that he would use in his final confrontation with Hammond. Everything was carefully detailed, from what he would need to accomplish before he would call in the Asgard to just how far he would go to prove his loyalty to the band of thieves. He'd done it all with a ruthless efficiency that Hammond had both admired and feared.
Jack still stood before him. Hammond doubted he'd moved at all and he felt that Jack would stay frozen there until the interview was over if Hammond let him. Well, that was just fine with him. If the man expected him to accept this insanity without explanation, he could damn well do it at attention. Hammond stared at the reports in front of him until the words blurred. This was so much bigger than some typical Jack O'Neill stunt, he realized. The Jack O'Neill he knew would never endanger people on a personal whim. While Hammond believed that Jack would risk his own reputation, career, or life on some incomprehensible O'Neill-ism, he didn't believe that Jack would ask others to follow him down that path, much less order them to do so.
No. Hammond knew there was something else going on here. Just as he knew the man standing so rigidly in front of him wouldn't give him any other explanation. He looked back at Jack and wondered how far the colonel would go to do whatever it was he had to do. After only a moment's thought, he decided he didn't want to know.
The silence ate on Hammond's nerves. "What do you need me to do, Jack?"
"What do you need me to do?"
Jack's eyes narrowed and met Hammond's for the first time since he walked into the general's office. "You just have to do your job, General."
The answer was, Hammond noticed, frustratingly neutral. "I can't just sweep it under the rug," he said.
"No, sir," Jack's answer was quick. "Doing that would give Kinsey and his sycophants a reason to come after you and the SGC."
Hammond nodded. "Right." He shuffled the papers on his desk. Stared at the top one again and hoped that the silence would force O'Neill to say something. The clock in his office ticked off the seconds. Hammond re-read the reports in front of him and looked for some clue as to what was going on. There wasn't one.
Jack didn't move and Hammond gave up. He'd just have to go along with Jack on this, for now. "All right, Colonel. If you're sure this is how you want to play this." Although he left it open, as a question, he didn't expect an answer. He didn't get one.
"You have a week's leave, effective immediately. During that time, I will conduct a thorough investigation into this incident. I will also have Sergeant Siler and Major Carter conduct a complete gate diagnostic to assess any damage this little stunt of yours may have caused." He paused and gave Jack a hard stare. "I should have you report to the infirmary for a complete physical, but I'm thinking that wouldn't get you to talk, either, would it?"
When Jack didn't answer, Hammond continued. "I want you back here seven days from now, 08:00 hours, for a disciplinary hearing at which time I will determine if this warrants official court-martial or administrative sanctions. Is that understood, Airman?"
"Fine," Hammond growled the word out and slammed the folder shut on the papers. "Dismissed." He didn't look up. Damned if I'm gonna watch him leave.
He heard Jack spin on his heels and listened to the footsteps as they crossed the office. Hammond tried to focus on something else, but he couldn't. The steps paused and there was another turn.
Hammond looked up. Jack stood in the doorway. The colonel shifted from one foot to the other and ran a hand through his hair. Hammond waited.
"I just wanted you to know, sir, that . . ." Jack trailed off. Then he snapped a smart salute and held it until Hammond returned it. "Thank you, sir."
Hammond watched as Jack left and swore under his breath. If that wasn't a goodbye then he wasn't from Texas.
He reached for the phone and hit 'two' on the speed dial. If he was about to lose Jack O'Neill, he sure the hell was going to find out why.
Jack paced around Carter's lab, flipping his truck keys in his hand. He knew he should leave before Hammond followed through on his threat to have Doc Fraiser do a complete medical on him. While he'd managed to bluff his way through his meeting with the general, Jack knew he'd never be able to do that with Janet. Once she ran her damn tests, he'd be locked up in the infirmary and he'd never get out. Oh, yeah, the sooner he left, the better.
Only, he couldn't.
After he'd left Hammond's office, he'd checked in with the front gate and found out that Carter had just arrived. She was back twenty-four hours early from her three-day leave. Hammond would want to talk to her as soon as possible and Jack wanted to talk with her before that. He needed to talk to her before she found out about his stunt in the gate room; before she had questions, questions he wouldn't answer. This was going to be hard enough as it was. He didn't want lie to her about this, too. The clock ticked the time away, and he tried to calm his nerves.
Her lab was always her first stop. The message light that blinked on her phone was Hammond. At least, Jack hoped it was. If Hammond had sent someone to get her or if she'd run into an airman who was anxious to spread the news of his actions . . .
"Colonel?" Carter's voice interrupted his thoughts. "Waiting for me?" She crossed to her workbench and tossed her coat over the back of her chair.
Jack watched her as she walked in. He pocketed his keys and leaned against her workbench. "Well, you know, just wanted to talk to you before I went off-duty."
"Fine," Carter smiled at him. "How 'bout we do it over breakfast. I'm starving."
Yes. "Um, I can't. I wanted to tell you that, ah, I'm gonna be gone for, ah, a while." He picked up a screwdriver from the work-surface and twirled it in his hands.
"But we're scheduled for a mission in two days. P45-393. Survey and recon."
"Yeah, we, ah, you still are." He tried not to think about the mission, Carter had been so excited about it. It would be a shame if this meant she wouldn't get to go. "It's just that I'm not. Going, that is. On the mission." He spun the screwdriver and watched it flash in front of his eyes.
"I don't understand."
"I know." Jack dropped the screwdriver back onto the workbench. "Let's just say that the general felt I needed some downtime – downtime away from the SGC."
"Away from the SGC?"
"Yes. So, I have a week's . . . leave, effective, well, effective now."
Jack smiled at her. "Is there an echo in here?" It wasn't often he had Carter repeating things.
"I'm sorry, sir. It's just that I don't quite follow you."
"Don't worry about it, Carter." Jack waved his hand at her. "I don't have much time here and I just wanted to talk to you before I left."
She glanced around the room and her eyes came to rest on the blinking light on the phone. She looked from it, to him, and then to it again. He almost thought it would be too much for her, but, in the end, she turned back to him. "What is it you wanted to talk about?"
"Well, I just wanted to tell you that I was sorry." He crossed to the desk and forced her to turn away from the phone and the door. The desk lamp was crooked and he straightened it.
"Sorry for what?"
For leaving like this. "You know, for not going on this mission." He tilted the lamp so that it was closer to the computer. Carter never had the thing set right.
"You didn't want to go on this mission," Carter pointed out. "Is this your way of getting out it?"
"What? And miss out on a week's worth of science-fair fun with you and Daniel?"
"Exactly. You did say this was just another boring science expedition."
"You know I didn't mean it, Carter." Jack shrugged. "Besides, have we ever managed to have a boring science expedition? It doesn't matter where we go; something ends up trying to kill us." He flipped the light on, then off, and then on again. It reflected off the monitor.
"Is that all you wanted to talk to me about?"
Absolutely not. "Yeah. Well, that and," he paused while he turned the light back the way it had been, "I wanted to thank you."
"Thank—" Carter stopped herself. "What are you thanking me for?"
"Well, you know." He flipped the light on, then off again. It didn't reflect in the monitor. Note to me: always trust that Carter knows what she's doing.
Jack looked back at her. "What?" This conversation wasn't going at all the way he had planned.
"No, sir, I don't know what you're thanking me for."
"Oh." He flipped the light off one final time. A hundred different answers popped to mind. And he couldn't bring himself to say any of them. Come on, Jack, you gotta say something. "For shootin' pool."
Carter looked at him as if he'd grown a third eye. "I beg your pardon, sir?"
"It's not often you get a second-in-command who is willing to play her superior officer at pool." He picked up a wayward pencil from her desk and rolled it between his fingers. "Most of them wouldn't want to risk the, ah, reprisals that may come if they manage to best the man who's in charge."
"You're thanking me for beating you at pool?"
"Not if you put it that way," Jack said. He shrugged and worked his way around to something he wanted to say. "I always know where I stand with you, Carter. That's all. That's a rare thing and I appreciate it."
Jack flipped the pencil through the air, aiming for Carter's pencil holder. It missed by an inch. He picked up a pen and repeated the process. It landed in the holder and rattled the other pens in it. Score.
Carter continued to watch him but he couldn't bring himself to meet her eyes. Maybe this was a mistake. They had an understanding; an understanding about the things they couldn't talk about. And if they hadn't talked about them before, he couldn't very well talk about them now, could he? It wouldn't be fair to her.
Carter broke the silence. "What's going on, Colonel?"
"Nothing, Carter." Jack ran his hand through his hair and gave up. "I just wanted . . ." Wanted what? "I just wanted to say goodbye."
Jack nodded. Goodbye was exactly what he wanted to say. "Yeah. I couldn't leave without saying goodbye, now could I?"
"I guess not. I just don't—" The sharp ring of her phone cut her off. Carter frowned, but made no move to answer it. She looked back at Jack. "What's going on?" she repeated
The phone rang again. "I think that's for you," Jack said.
Jack walked past her and headed to the door. "That's Hammond. Better answer it."
Jack turned and smiled at her. "Thanks, Sam, for everything."
He left as the phone rang again.
"Slow down there, Sam," Daniel tried to keep the phone balanced on his shoulder while he put some of his books away. "I don't understand. What happened to Jack?"
Daniel listened to Sam in growing disbelief, books forgotten in his hands. "You're kidding, right? Jack blacked out how many levels?" Daniel set down the books and devoted his full attention to the phone. "He lost a MALP and a UAV?"
The more Sam talked the less sense she made. Daniel crossed to his kitchen table and gave his full attention to his distraught friend on the other end of the line. He didn't have any answers for her. When Jack had arranged the three-day leaves for Sam and him, it had surprised Daniel. Upon Jack's order that they had to actually leave the base, and Daniel had assumed it was just Jack's usual way of nagging them to relax away from work. But now . . .
Daniel took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes as Sam continued to detail Jack's misdeeds. Now it looked as if Jack had wanted SG-1 out of the mountain so he could look for fish.
"Sam . . . Sam . . ." He tried again. "Sam!" The voice on the other end of the line finally quieted. "What did General Hammond have to say about this?"
"Nothing." The irritation in Sam's voice rang down the line. "The general's as much in the dark about this as we are."
"Are you sure?" Daniel knew the question was impolitic but he didn't care.
"Why would the general lie?"
"How about orders? All that 'need to know' garbage the military is so fond of. It wouldn't be the first time, would it? This could be some more black ops type of thing. He could just be covering for Jack."
"If it is, I don't think the general knows about it. He's more than upset about what happened, he's worried, too. He says he doesn't believe that the colonel would do this just to check out the fishing no matter what he says. Still, it's the talk of the base, and most of the people are buying the colonel's story that he did it on a whim. That's what he said and they believe him."
"Well, now, that's the problem, isn't it? Jack's believable even when he's lying through his teeth. Why do you think I play chess with him rather than poker?" Daniel rubbed his temples in an effort to ease his new headache. "Well, what do you think? Did he do it just to check out the fishing?"
"That doesn't sound like the colonel, does it?"
"Well, I don't know, Sam. This is Jack we're talking about, who knows what he's thinking at any one time."
A hard knock at the door made it impossible to hear what Sam answered. "Just a minute, Sam. Someone's here."
Before he crossed to the door, the knock sounded again and Daniel knew who it was. "Jack's here," he told Sam. A quick look through the peephole showed a fishbowl view of Jack.
"What's he doing there?" Sam asked.
"I'll call you back when I find out." He hung up on Sam's response and tossed the phone onto the countertop. Daniel opened the door and Jack stood there, hand raised to knock again.
"Jack. I'm not AWOL yet, am I?" He hoped he sounded more casual to Jack than he did to himself.
"Not for another eighteen hours, Danny boy." Jack bounced on the balls of his feet and looked into the apartment behind Daniel. "Can I come in or are you busy?"
"I'm just organizing some research materials." Daniel stepped aside and let Jack in. "What brings you around?"
"Didn't Sam tell you?" Jack nodded to the phone on the counter. "Your door isn't even close to soundproof."
"Ah," Daniel closed the door and fought to find something to say. He couldn't come up with a good lie, so he settled on the truth. "She said General Hammond is pissed that you lost a MALP and UAV on a fishing reconnaissance. You're on a week's suspension or something?" Daniel wasn't sure what the military term for it was.
"Or something," Jack agreed. "I thought I'd stop by and see you before you went back to the base."
"Nice of you." Daniel crossed back to the kitchen table and picked up the books he'd set down earlier. "Sam was concerned that there's something more going on."
"Well, that's a scientist for you. They always question the obvious." Jack reached over and grabbed some books. "Let me help you with these." He followed Daniel to the bookcase.
"Thanks," Daniel started to shelve the books and hoped the silence would drive Jack to talk.
"I kind of expected you would be questioning me, too."
"Would it help if I did?"
Jack smiled. "No." He handed Daniel two books and watched him put them away. "But that's never stopped you before."
"Hmm," Daniel murmured. Silence could work with Jack. Daniel reached for the last book, but Jack didn't hand it to him.
Instead, Jack turned the book over in his hand, and then he flipped it open and paged through it. "This book looks familiar."
Daniel glanced at it. "It should. You've read it."
"I read it?" Jack stared at the book. "What makes you think that I'd read anything like this?"
"Because I was there when you read it, Jack." Daniel grabbed another stack of books piled on the floor. "With a little help from the Atonieks."
"The armbands that Anise gave us."
"Oh, those." Jack continued to stare at the book.
Daniel kept putting books away and waited for Jack to come round to a point. Jack usually came around to a point. The trouble was, most of the time, Jack's points only made sense to him.
A siren drifted in through Daniel's window.
"You would think I'd learn."
Daniel paused for a moment and hoped that Jack would give an explanation. When he didn't, Daniel prompted, "What?"
"Most people learn things as they go along," Jack said, as if that explained everything.
"Right." Daniel still had no idea what they talked about, so he straightened the books on the shelves. After a minute of Jack staring at the book, Daniel reached over, took the book and shelved it. When Jack still didn't comment, he tried another prompt. "Well, Jack, some things just can't be learned with one quick look over—"
Jack didn't let him finish. "Never trust a snake, Danny. How many times have I said that?
"A lot?" Daniel ventured. As usual, Jack's conversation didn't follow any recognizable pattern. Talking to Jack was like deciphering a foreign language.
"Yes." Jack reached past Daniel, pulled the book off the self again and flipped through it. "Failing agricultural infrastructure, right?"
"What?" Daniel's headache grew worse.
"Hobbes' reason for the collapse of the civilization was failing agricultural infrastructure." Jack waved the book.
Daniel resisted the urge to grab the book from Jack's hand again. "Um, right."
"See, that I remember." Jack shook his head and shoved the book back into the bookshelf. "Not that that piece of knowledge will do anyone any good."
"Jack, Hobbes' work is the cornerstone—" he stopped himself with an effort. "Was there a reason you stopped by?" Besides driving me mad, that is.
"Yeah, right." Jack shoved his hands in his pockets. "Well, with me gone, you'll be going on the missions alone. Or maybe with a new CO."
"Gone?" Daniel frowned. That sounded more permanent than Sam had let on. "What missions? Why would we need a new CO?"
"You know, the mission to P45-whatever. I will be gone and General Hammond might assign another CO."
"Oh, right." They did have an off-world mission in two days. With Jack gone for a week, it was possible that they'd get a temporary CO. It was believable. Jack's believable even when he's lying through his teeth. Daniel's head throbbed.
Jack continued. "I just wanted to tell you to keep your head down. You know, pay attention to the things that go on around you. I won't be there to watch your back."
"Come on, Jack," Daniel protested. "We've been on missions before without you and did just fine."
"I know. It's just that you have a tendency to forget that some people like to shoot first and ask questions later. You stick your neck out to save people you don't know. People who don't even know they want to be saved."
Daniel had a half-formed retort, but he didn't say it. There was something odd in Jack's voice; an undercurrent that nagged at the back of his mind. Before he could figure out what it was, Jack had started for the door.
"Well, I've kept you long enough. Sam will want a report."
"Wait," Daniel didn't want him to go. When Jack paused with his hand on the doorknob, Daniel floundered for something to say. "I'll, ah, I'll be more careful."
"Good. The SGC is better off with you around." Jack opened the door, but didn't leave. He stood in the open doorway, an unreadable expression on his face.
Daniel waited a full minute before asking, "Is there something else, Jack?"
"Yeah." Jack smiled. "See you around, Dr. Jackson." He stepped back and closed the door before his words faded away.
Daniel grabbed for the door and fought with the lock that had somehow been flipped on. By the time he'd opened it, Jack was gone. Daniel stared at the empty hall for a moment, then spun and grabbed the phone. The finality in Jack's words ate away at him. As he waited for Sam to answer the phone, he tried to ignore the cold fear that churned his stomach.
Loons called to each other through the deepening night. Jack leaned back in his chair and watched as the shadows crept across the still, dark pond. It was an hour before full dark and he intended to enjoy every quiet, solitary moment of it. The temperature fell with the sun and the clear sky foretold that a heavy frost would leave its mark on the slumbering autumn landscape. Jack loved nights like this. Nights where peace could seep into a man's soul and silence the demons that lurked there.
His team didn't understand. Daniel thought it was odd that he could love the quiet, solitary life as much as he loved the action of battle. Jack never pointed out that he loved the quiet more. Daniel, with his insatiable desire to understand everything in the universe, just couldn't appreciate the value of stillness. Carter appreciated it even less. To Carter, doing nothing was a punishment, not a blessing. She thought him remiss to choose to rest on R&R, even if she would never say so. Jack didn't mind. Her compulsion to do something every second of every day baffled him, too.
He'd been disappointed that Teal'c hadn't liked fishing. He thought that the Jaffa, warrior that he was, would understand about the need to find peace and balance. Besides, any man who could spend hours meditating in candlelight would have to enjoy the restiveness of fishing. That wasn't a good comparison, though. Kelno'reem wasn't so much about meditating as it was about healing. It had a specific purpose and easily identified goal. Fishing had neither. Fishing was just about being and its benefits were more elusive. In his heart, Teal'c was as restless as the other two members of SG-1.
The wind stirred and the loons cried again. Jack smiled. Loons sounded more alien than most of the animals they heard on other planets. He'd miss the call of the loons. And the cabin; he'd miss that, too. It held so many memories. Charlie had loved it here. Every spring they'd catch tadpoles in the cattails that grew along the shores. Sara would pretend to be mad as they'd come into the cabin, covered with mud, to present her a kettle full of 'future frogs', but she'd always end up laughing with them. Too late for regrets. He stood and stretched stiff muscles. The new moon followed the sun and darkness swallowed the hazy shades of the trees on the far bank. Once the cover of night was complete, he would leave.
It took twenty minutes until he couldn't see where the grassy bank ended and the water began. It was time. He walked back up the path, past his cabin and to the pile of supplies that he had stacked at the edge of the clearing. A small communicator sat on top of them and he picked it up and flipped it on. The little green indicator light blinked three times and then glowed steadily until it became an alien signal that burned in the calm of his sanctuary.
It was fitting that he was leaving from here. This had been his retirement plan, his dream, really. A quiet, tranquil place to get away from it all where he had planned to live out his life, fishing in peace. The cabin would be left behind but he would still have the dream. He'd just have to make a few changes. That was a hard-learned lesson: If you couldn't change your dreams, you ended up dying with them.
The light on the communicator gave five quick flashes, three slow ones and then five more fast ones. There was a moment's darkness and then the pattern repeated. Jack sighed and picked up the communicator to return the signal. Fifteen minutes. It amazed him that a quarter of an hour could be both an eternity and a blink of an eye. Life was measured that way.
It had been five years since he'd lost Charlie. The same five years since he'd first set foot through the Stargate. It didn't seem right when he looked at them side by side. While it felt like he'd spent a lifetime traveling through the gate to visit other worlds, it had been a heartbeat ago that he'd lost his son. He'd taken that first mission with every intention of dying and instead found a reason to keep living. A year later, when he went through the gate a second time, he'd discovered a life to live.
Daniel had never quite gotten over his first impression of him, Jack knew. Daniel, no matter how much he denied it, never trusted that Jack knew what he was doing. He still looked for that undercurrent of self-destructiveness that Jack had when they first went through the gate. Jack didn't take it personally. Daniel's nature didn't allow him to trust in that kind of change. Daniel was an idealist trapped in a pessimist's body. It created a philosophical conflict that allowed him to think the best of strangers and expect the worst of friends. Jack was just the opposite; he was an optimistic cynic. Daniel might never have been able to trust in him fully, but Jack had been willing to wait and see.
Carter didn't have that problem. She may not agree with his commands but she trusted in him. He would never tell her, but he was glad she hadn't been assigned to that first Abydos mission. She knew about it, knew more about it than anyone except Ferretti and Daniel, but he was sure she didn't understand how it had been. She would've gone through the gate with a scientist's enthusiasm and approached the mission with a sense of wonder and awe. He would have crushed her. It was good they'd met only after he could appreciate her excitement and curiosity.
Of them all, Teal'c came the closest to truly understanding him. There was never any need to explain or justify anything to Teal'c. As a Jaffa, he knew about the necessity of sacrifice. Of them all, Teal'c would understand why he had to do this. It gave him some measure of peace, to know that there would be someone left behind who would understand. Some who could appreciate how much it cost him to do this. To leave his friends, his family.
The cabin loomed in the darkness and he fought down the urge to take one last walk through the building. Instead, he did a slow pivot, memorizing every detail of the scene before him. In the papers he'd left, there were instructions for the cabin and acreage to be given to the local school as a preserve. His team would never use it; with the school, it would be alive. Hell, they may even stock some fish in the stupid pond. It would be good to have kids run around here to laugh, catch tadpoles and watch them grow into frogs.
To shake off the nostalgia that settled over him, he dropped to a knee next to the bags and dug out his equipment. He pulled out his gun belt, buckled it on and tightened the pistol straps around his leg. The black battle-dress uniform he wore hadn't seemed out of place in the growing dusk, but the weight of the gun transformed it into working clothes. His focus transformed with it. As he slipped into the rest of his kit, he also slipped into the demeanor of the professional soldier he was. By the time he strapped his P-90 to his vest and pulled on his black stocking cap, he was ready to leave. He no longer belonged in the peace of the woods.
The communicator flashed again. A quick flick of his hand killed the lights and he slipped it into his pocket, but the peaceful feeling of the clearing didn't return. Jack stepped closer to his equipment and waited. A low roar filled the small clearing and a Tel'tak decloaked above him. Transporter rings descended around him and, just before he disappeared, Jack whispered goodbye.