The Furies by Abby Eddey
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Category: Jack/Sam, Jack/Other Female
Genres: Action/Adventure, Angst, Drama, Hurt/Comfort, Romance
Rated: Adult
Warnings: Adult Themes, Non-Consensual Sex Acts
Series: None
Summary: The tragedy that started on P3X-666 (Heroes II) isn't over. Twelve weeks before, SG-1 narrowly escaped a surprisingly strong force of Jaffa. Now, this unknown enemy is back and on Earth's doorstep. Deep space telemetry indicates ships far out in space, but these ships are unlike anything encountered before. They fire on the planet without entering Earth's orbit. SGC can't fight back.

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Author's Chapter Notes:
A Tip o' the Hat to Dante
The Furies



Chapter 1

Explosions thundered through Cheyenne Mountain. The Stargate shuddered and sparked as the third chevron locked. Colonel Sam Carter's grip tightened on her P-90 and she glanced at the big man beside her.

Teal'c continued to stare ahead at the spinning stone circle, but he replied to the unasked question, "There is time enough, Colonel Carter."

The next two chevrons locked as a staccato series of ever-stronger blasts hammered the SGC. The explosions were far too close now.

The weapons-fire originated from an unidentified fleet that remained out of reach in deep space. They'd appeared almost a full day ago. Without warning the strange ships had advanced on the solar system, halted far beyond Earth's orbit -- well out of reach of Earth-based weapons -- and opened fire.

For twenty hours dawn raced to meet a nightmare of death and destruction. In the first hour Washington DC and every major population center along the eastern seaboard were obliterated in a fiery arc that cut from the southernmost tip of Chile to the Bay of Fundy.

Iceland and Greenland issued frantic distress calls three hours after the Pentagon went dark. At six hours after first strike destruction reached Cardiff and population centers of the British Isles and then advanced across Western Europe, the Baltic, the Middle East, and on across the full breadth of the former Soviet Union, and on into China and the Far East. Deep beneath Cheyenne Mountain, the SGC tracked the reports from U.S. Navy vessels deployed around the globe.

Weapons-fire had remained unanswered until at last the enemy blasts tore into Cheyenne Mountain. Now they reverberated through two hundred thousand tons of rock over Sam Carter's head. It seemed to Sam as if the enemy was probing for a weakness; as if they knew the SGC was Earth's last hope for a counter-attack.

ΩΩΩ

The Mountain shuddered seeming to growl and moan. Sam shuddered, too. She knew they'd find a weakness sooner or later. There was no one to stop them. The only person with the slightest chance to fight back had failed.

And now she was running away.

A rapid crescendo of explosions rammed into the mountain above. Carter's boots slithered sideways as the `Gate room bucked and the concrete floor lifted and buckled. The Mountain's mass was in motion. Thousands of tons of rock shifted. So did the load overhead applying incalculable forces where force was never meant to bear.

The Mountain was coming down. Sam knew it. She braced herself, hoping against hope, as another chevron locked.

"Two to go," she muttered.

The massive ring slid to a stop. The sixth chevron locked and with excruciating indifference the ring slowly reversed direction, beginning its final circuit.

Sam stood just inside the `Gate room. Behind her people huddled in the corridor as close to the doorway as possible, gleaning scant protection from falling debris.

Sam eyed the heavy steel doors.

The load-bearing walls were deforming now. Sam watched foot-thick I-beams bending like warm taffy not four-inches from her chin as the support structure overhead gave way. She tore her gaze away from the slow horror of it and whispered a heartfelt prayer of thanks that the General had the foresight to open the fire doors while they could still be opened. Otherwise, they'd be trapped within the Mountain whether the Stargate opened or not.

`But the damned `Gate had damned-well better open soon,' Sam thought, a fervent end to her improvised prayer. `The SGC can't hold up ....'

A massive pressure pulse slammed down. Air was punched out of her lungs. Carter gasped and staggered. A blast rocked the `Gate room. It threw her to her knees. She scrambled upright gagging in the dust filled air.

Teal'c crouched at her side.

Acrid smoke from electrical cables mingled with the dust. It signaled the still-functioning sliver of Carter's mind that the vast flow of electrical power to the Stargate had been breached. It was free now to arc and burn.

"We're out of time," she rasped, a tinge of real terror coloring her tone.

Teal'c's hand closed on her upper arm. His grip tightened and he replied, "Wait."

Then, in a heartbeat a series of rapidly building explosions rumbled through the bowels of the Mountain. Sam covered her head. The ceiling ruptured. The blast windows shattered. A wave of glass, grit, and stones rained down. In another heartbeat far-larger chunks followed.

Teal'c pulled Carter's helmeted head against his side. Someone behind them screamed. Before Sam could turn to help Teal'c's grip tightened.

"Move," Teal'c hissed and he propelled her forward.

Carter staggered upright and roared, "Follow me! Stay low!" as the stone ring spun toward its final alignment.

The last remnants of the SGC forces -- civilians, medical staff, and troops -- followed her into the `Gate room. Teal'c loosed his grip, but the press of bodies carried Carter forward toward the impending wormhole and the relative safety of the Alpha site, if that escape route ever materialized.

Carter didn't stop the advance until the foot of the ramp. Then she raised a hand signaling a halt and dropped her hand, palm down. As she crouched she sensed the bodies behind her following her lead. A split second later an explosive WHOOSH from the Gate spewed swirling blue plasma over her head.

Carter turned away from the brilliance. She lifted her eyes to the control room window. The General was still there, looking over them. Framed in shards of thick safety glass, he looked down at her. Their eyes caught. His gaze held hers. He seemed about to smile, Carter thought, but then his right hand moved for the autodestruct button. He wouldn't wait for Wildfire to run its course.

Carter felt Teal'c moving. His grip tightened around her arm as he dragged her back onto her feet.

"C'mon! Move!" she barked.

As a pool of liquid blue finally materialized, she charged through the event horizon, obeying Brigadier General Jack O'Neill's last command.

ΩΩΩ

Carter stepped into a glistening world. She stumbled half-blinded down slick stone steps and into a quagmire of mud at the base of the Alpha site Stargate. Others spilled out of the `Gate behind her.

Then `Gate snapped shut. Darkness fell like a blanket.

Carter looked up, but there was no moon, no stars. She staggered forward through thick mud, pawing at the shoulder of her web gear for her flashlight.

"Colonel Carter," Teal'c called, grabbing her shoulder and pulling around her to face him, "Are you injured?" he demanded as he peered into her face.

"No," she lied as her hand closed on the butt of her light, "No, Teal'c. I'm fine."

She pulled out the flashlight and fumbled for the switch. Her hands shook too hard to activate it.

Teal'c released his grip on her shoulder and gently took the flashlight.

"I see," he said softly.

He flicked the switch and handed the light back, then brushed his fingertips lightly across her matted forehead. They came away red.

Carter squinted at the blood and wondered, `Where's my helmet?' She didn't recall losing it, but everything seemed strange and out of synch.

"I'm fine, really," she protested again, but her voice broke on the penultimate word, giving her away. Teal'c gazed down at her, a tincture of sorrow on his normally stoic face.

Carter stared back. Then, without warning, a sob caught in her throat. Her shoulders shook. She bit back a wave of despair. Still, Teal'c pulled her close and folded her against his chest. For a moment, she struggled to maintain, but then let it go, pressing against Teal'c's reassuring solidity. When the outburst had subsided, she pulled back.

"Thanks, Teal'c," she said. "I'm ..."

"Fine," he completed the ridiculous lie. Carter smiled.

"Yeah," she snorted with a slightly hysterical chuckle as she wiped her eyes on her sleeve, "or not."

She straightened and wiped her eyes again and then looked around, assessing the situation. Fine or not, Carter knew she had to pull up her socks and focus. As 2IC, she'd been ordered to get Earth's foremost experts in physics, medicine, military theory and two-dozen other crucial skills to safety. With them came the remnants of Star Gate Command.

Now, as Alpha Site commander, she had to address survival -- her own, theirs and, ultimately, humanity's, at least that small corner of humanity that yesterday had called Earth home.

Watching her people, Carter saw that the Alpha site was in a state of organized chaos. Everyone seemed to know what they were about, but she had to make sure. There was no more room for error.

`Step one,' she told herself firmly, `base security.'

Carter turned to Teal'c as a mist of rain started to fall. She glanced at the 'Gate and was reassured to see the iris was closed.

"I want a cover stone on this `Gate. Top priority," she said. "See to it personally, Teal'c. Have Syler help. This enemy is sophisticated, far more powerful than the Goa'uld. We can't afford to offer them another shot at us. I don't expect them to attempt a landing, but even so I want every trooper able to bear arms fully equipped and reinforcing the perimeter. In four hours, if there is no sign of trouble, relieve half, the others stay in place for two more hours. Maintain that rotation for the duration or until further orders. Delegate it to someone you trust," she ordered. She paused, rubbed her bloody fingers together, feeling the sticky blood trying to congeal, "and send the wounded to the medical tents. I'm heading there myself."

Teal'c nodded and turned, clapping his hand on the shoulder of a gnarled Marine Sergeant. "Direct all able-bodied troops to assemble on the parade ground. Send wounded to the medical tents, there." He motioned toward three large canvas tents beyond the parade ground. The Sergeant did not speak, but moved immediately into the troops, tapping shoulders and growling orders. The troops divided before him; moving either toward medical care or a long, wet night of standing watch. Then Teal'c caught sight of Syler and moved to intercept.

Satisfied for the moment, Carter wiped rainwater and blood out of her eyes and scanned the area for the officer in charge. She caught a glimpse of a shock of bright red hair heading her way. A moment later, Major Smits stood before her and snapped a salute. Carter returned it.

"Colonel!" the compact, heavily-muscled Major barked; she was clearly hyper-charged with adrenalin by the sudden arrival of SGC evacuees.

"Smits," Carter replied calmly, "take a deep breath. That's an order."

Smits did so. Carter saw her shoulders relax as she exhaled. The deep crease between her tightly knit eyebrows eased a bit.

"Better?" Carter asked.

Smits nodded.

"We are at Code Orange," Carter stated. "Beyond standard procedure, I want every sensor fully operational and manned 24-7, until further notice. Kick up the gain on the deep space array. Shunt power from on-planet monitoring systems if necessary. Keep your people fresh and fully focused. Work out shifts. No one is to be on duty for more than 6 hours. Tomorrow tap SGC staff to supplement your staff."

"Yes, Colonel," Smits replied.

Carter bit her lip, but then continued, aware she was damned close to confessing to her subordinate, but unable to stop, "On Earth they hung back, Smits, out of our reach. If they use the same strategy ... "

Carter's throat had gone dry. She coughed and tried to continue, "I don't know what's happening back at the SGC, Smits. If ..."

She stopped, stared at her boots for a moment to collect her thoughts before she continued quietly.

"If they know we're here, they'll try to either come through the `Gate or hit us from space ... maybe both. In a couple of hours, we'll have a cover stone to reinforce the iris on the `Gate. If they attack by ship I want early warning, as early as possible, so we can bug out. You're going to give it to me."

Smits' brows knotted again and she replied, "Right, Colonel."

Carter nodded, "Dismissed."

As Smits turned away, Carter noticed a miserable crowd of civilians huddled together, murmuring and gesturing. They looked desperate and difficult.

"Smits!" Carter called. The Major turned back to face her CO, her eyebrows raised.

Carter gestured toward the crowd with her chin, "Keep `em busy. Have `em ... solve something." Carter turned and walked away, leaving the Major to sort out how best to challenge a team of nearly frantic geniuses.

Carter headed for the medical tents. It was time to explain the new reality to the SGC's medical staff. As she expected, resident Alpha site medics had initiated triage without awaiting her orders. Those doctors and nurses who'd come through from SGC had already blended seamlessly into the routine. Veterans all, this was clearly 'no one's first rodeo', as General Hammond used to say.

That was all good, very, very good. Carter was grateful for one less thing to worry about. Still, she needed to establish the new reality. Life at the SGC had some of these folks in the habit of doing first class medicine, damn the cost. Supplies of serum, bandages, and antibiotics were finite. Though Alpha site was well supplied for the moment, there was no telling how long the supplies would have to last. Someday they'd run out. Carter needed to postpone that day. Like it or not, these folks were going to postpone that day as long as possible.

`Time for a change,' Carter mused as she closed on the swarm of bustling medics.

Carter moved into the organized chaos. She snagged the first white coat she encountered, and older, gray-haired woman with a haggard face the bars of a major.

"When something less will do, make do," she ordered.

"Yes, Colonel," the Major replied before turning away with a murmured, "Excuse me."

Then Sam moved on to the next and the next. Some got it without being told; others bitched and forced her to spell it out for them. For these Carter made it simple.

"When something less will do, make do!"

Carter assessed the condition of her force as she moved through the medical tents, noting the lacerations, broken bones or concussions, as she spoke to the doctors and nurses. Most of the patients suffered from basic blunt trauma injury. Ugly and painful, but likely to heal. A few of the worst, those who'd had internal injuries, concussions, severe burn victims, and one electrocution, wouldn't make it. Sixteen were already dead.

Carter sighed at the thought of funerals, reliving Doctor Janet Frazier's funeral barely twelve weeks ago.

'God, how I wish you were here,' she wished, missing her friend's support and counsel. She wiped the back of her hand across her eyes to clear the tangle of hair, wet with rain and blood, from her eyes, wondering where she'd send letters notifying the mothers and fathers, wives and husbands and kids of their loss ... and when ... and if anyone still lived on Earth to care.

Carter slumped at the depressing thought and wiped her eyes again. One of the medics noticed her. She felt him lock his sights on her bloody face. She moved away, attempting to put a clot of people between them, but too late. Before she could fade away he cut her off. The guy was tall and too damned sure of himself. She turned away, ignoring his calls. He closed in, grasped her upper arm, and all but dragged her to an empty cot.

"Sit," he said.

"I don't have time..." Carter protested.

"Take time," he interrupted, glanced at her uniform and added, "Colonel."

Carter felt a flash of anger, but his exhausted glare held her in place. Rather than waste their limited energy, she clamped her mouth shut and tried not to watch as he prepared to stitch her up. She swallowed hard at the sight of a long curved needle as he held it high to insert a dangling length of suture thread.

The medic grinned faintly, recognizing another battle-hardened veteran who hated the sight of needles. He threaded the suture through the needle's eye and placed the needle on a small metal tray that held an array of sterile instruments. He opened a drawer, selected a hypodermic, and filled it with a cocktail of antibiotics and painkillers, taking care not to flash the syringe around where his edgy Colonel could see it. Then, with his tools at hand, he turned, selected a sterile swab, drenched it with isopropyl alcohol, and gently cleansed the wicked gash.

Aside from an initial hiss as the alcohol burned in her open flesh, the Colonel sat perfectly still. He worked carefully, aware of the tension radiating off his patient. Still, it took several minutes to remove the dried clots of blood and wipe away the grit annealed to the gash. Finally, satisfied that no debris remained among the ragged ends of torn flesh, he traded the swab, now red with blood, for a penlight. He turned back to face the Colonel, bent low and switched the penlight on, shining it into first one red-rimmed pupil and then the other. The sea-blue irises opened and closed immediately and responded equally, a normal response. He stood, switched off the penlight, and gave a satisfied grunt.

"You were lucky, Colonel," he muttered as he raised the hypo and jabbed it into Carter's upper arm through her field jacket. He waited a moment. When he saw her begin to sag, he moved behind her so she couldn't see the needle. She never moved as he stitched and, several painless moments later, the gash was neatly closed. He applied a dab of antibiotic cream, strapped a short strip of gauze over the three-inch wound and stepped back.

"You know every ounce of antibiotics, every scrap of gauze, every needle, and every scalpel is irreplaceable," she bitched, tentatively touching her head.

"So are you, Colonel," the medic replied bending to wipe the sticky slick of blood from the side of her face. He gazed into her eyes and grinned. Then, he straightened, turned away without another word, snagged another patient, and set to work.

Carter stood and watched him. She was tired and woozy from the shot. Still, after a long moment, she moved on through the crowded tents, comforting the wounded with a word or two, lecturing the medical staff on conserving their precious medical supplies. Her enthusiasm was muted, however. The medic who'd treated her was right. Medicine's only value is to help people. Her people needed help tonight. If their need exceeded supply, the irreplaceable supplies would be exhausted. Tomorrow she'd have to figure out how to cope. It was just that simple.

Still, she continued through the tents until everyone got the word. `When something less will do, make do.'

Carter emerged from the last medical tent into the dark, wet night. She hunched deeper into her field jacket, turned away from the medical tents, and walked back across the parade ground to what, until tonight, had been Smits' command tent.

Now it was hers.

She slipped into the mildew-scented dark, collapsed into a chair, propped her heavy, mud-ladened boots on an upended ammo crate, and closed her eyes. She let her head fall into her hands. She could feel the edge of the throbbing gash under her left thumb. Bits of debris were trapped in the dry blood on her forehead and scalp.

She rubbed her filthy hair, disgusted. Grit caught under her nails. Unbidden, the taste of choking dust and the smell of electrical fire flooded in. Suddenly, walls were buckling around her; the `Gate room ceiling was crashing down, and Jack was there. Standing calm and still, waiting, as her world fell apart.

ΩΩΩ

When the fire grid first struck the eastern coasts of the Americas, the SGC's top priority was to find a way to strike back. Carter, leading a team of physicists and military scientists, searched for a way to counter-attack. For twenty-one hours straight she'd searched and failed.

The Pentagon's first priority had been to evacuate the political leadership. Sometime during the night, the Pentagon implemented their plans. General O'Neill complied with the Pentagon's orders, of course. The rumor mill informed Sam and her team that SGC was already evacuating every world dignitary who reached Cheyenne Mountain. To no one's surprise who'd served with him, the General interpreted the evacuation plan to include every trooper who made it to the security gates topside, as well as their civilian dependants, neighbors, and whoever-the-hell-else got the word somehow that Cheyenne Mountain offered a way out and managed to reach the Mountain. It was keeping things damned busy in the Gate room.

O'Neill charged Teal'c with organizing the missions and sending them through, along with supplies and diplomatic papers. His long work with the Free Jaffa movement had prepared him well for the task. Teal'c organized a careful mix of military, scientific expertise, and family. O'Neill had him disperse the missions throughout the `Gate system. Teal'c sent groups to as many friendly worlds as possible. He had plenty from which to choose, thanks to the benevolent works of the SGC through the years.

As the end approached, Carter allowed her team ten frantic minutes on the phones to notify loved ones. She called Cassie, but no one picked up. She checked her voice mail next and received a rushed message from the teen telling her that Jack had already made the call and was sending his personal chopper to collect her.

Twenty-one hours after the first attacks, the fire-grid reached Cheyenne Mountain. As the first strikes buffeted the Mountain, Carter knew she'd failed. Almost before the initial tremors passed, Sergeant Walters ordered her to the `Gate room. She grabbed her pack and P-90, already waiting in a corner of the lab, ordered the scientists to stop work, fry the computers, and grab what they needed for evacuation. Then she sprinted for the `Gate room.

Jack intercepted her in the hall.

"Carter," he said, placing his hands on her shoulders and smiling down into her eyes. "You're gonna get the rest of our scientists out of here. Take the remaining troops; take all the medics, all the weapons and medical supplies you can move, and use the M.A.L.P.s to move them. You're taking command of SGC on Alpha site. Go."

She nodded and replied, "Yes sir." She turned away out of habit, but hesitated and turned back to face him, asking, "What about you, General?"

Jack squinted at her in an odd way then, as if she were a dim, but particularly adorable child.

"Come back," he said softly, the smile gone and his eyes serious. They both knew it meant goodbye.

She didn't see him again until the `Gate room was disintegrating around her. At the last instant, as the last chevron snapped into place, she'd turned back to him. Their eyes locked. She searched for a sign that she should wait ... or stay. He might have smiled. She thought he'd smiled, but then his hand reached out for the autodestruct.


ΩΩΩ

The flashback faded. Carter was in the dark, sweaty and panting as if she'd just run a four-minute mile. With a shaky sigh she promised herself she would not fail him again.

She wiped her hand across her damp face and pushed the memories away. She'd grieve later. Right now she'd focus on sorting things out. She sighed and decided her next move was to link up the off-world SGC teams. Teams were scattered over two-dozen worlds. Half the SGC teams had been on off world missions. If Wildfire worked, as it certainly must have, those teams were cut off from Earth, awaiting orders, needing resupply, and maybe under attack.

Before she moved them, however, she would need to verify the security of their established rendezvous points, or set up new ones within the `Gate system. She'd need bug out protocols, as well. She also needed to ensure that each mission camp had sufficient supplies, firepower and technical expertise. To survive in the short-term, those camps would have to deal with wounded and repel hostiles. In the long-term, a few would need the capacity for on-going research and weapons development. Without superior weapons, they could never go home. And that, Carter swore, was unacceptable.

Carter dropped her heavy boots to the floor, stretched her back and reached for a pencil and message pad. She scribbled three lines on the pad. Then, she turned to a youngster who she'd sensed was hovering in the shadows.

"Send a message, Private," she ordered, thrusting the pad in his general direction.

"Yes, Colonel," the kid stammered, stepping out of the deep shadow. "Send it ... where?"

Carter rubbed her face and sighed. "Sit," she said. "I'll give you a list." Then she started rapidly scribbling `Gate addresses from memory, starting with P3X-666, where Daniel had been researching the source of technology they'd dubbed `Super-Goa'uld', chaperoned by SG-7 and -15.

The kid was snoring softly when she looked up from the completed list. It filled three pages of the pad. Carter gently kicked his boot.

"Hey," she said.

The Private never opened his eyes, but muttered, "Yeah, I'm up, Mom."

Carter smirked and kicked him harder. "On your feet, Private!" she barked.

The kid was standing at attention instantly. Carter never saw him unbend.

`Ah, youth,' she thought enviously as she thrust the message pad at him.

"Double check that with Teal'c," she snapped. "Take it to Smits for transmission. Top priority."

As the kid exited the tent, she called after him, "Then hit the sack!"

His young voice drifted back from the gloom, "Yes, Mom."

Carter frowned but then giggled. No morale problem there.

Dawn broke before Carter paused for food or rest. She finished planning resupply and establishing fallback positions, glanced up and realized that the inside of her tent had lightened from midnight black to faint gray. She'd worked all night. Her stomach rumbled and she stood, stretched, stepped out into a cool, wet night threatening to give way to morning.

Carter crossed the mucky compound, following her nose to the mess tent on the far side of the medical tents. She vectored in on the coffee she'd smelled, helped herself to a cup, and slumped at an empty table within easy reach of the coffee. No one was stirring, aside from the night cook and the line of guards she could just make out patrolling the wooded field edges.

She stared into the gloom and took a long slug of coffee. It was hot and strong. It wouldn't last forever so she finished the cup greedily and went back for a refill. As she sat and savored the second cup, the first of two local suns peeked over the horizon, spilling hot, red light into the damp gray world.

Carter glanced at her watch.

`Not yet dawn in Colorado,' she figured. Then her gaze drifted to the medical tents and the pile of body bags discretely covered with tarps. The early morning rays colored them red and orange.

'What will dawn bring in Colorado,' she wondered, turning away from the medical tents and, instead, squinting directly into the insufferably gory sunrise, 'and will he see it?'

Carter sipped her coffee and watched the light of the rising sun gnaw at the thick, wet night, creating fringes of mauve and purple bruising. Red and gold light washed over the horizon and splashed across the hilltops. Massive clouds of orange and gold reared up, promising coming storms.

`It's going to be another tough day,' Sam thought.

ΩΩΩ

As the first day broke over Colonel Sam Carter's command, alien eyes as bloodshot as the morning sky observed. The mind behind the eyes was well pleased. It tasted Carter's emotions as she slumped staring at the horizon. It savored a tantalizing blend of sorrow, guilt, fear, and rage. Sensations it relished, drinking in a bitter flavor that came to it as something between the hot taste of torn flesh and the tang of burnt sulfur.

'Their leader is overextended ... angry ... at the edge,' it observed wryly, 'her exhaustion is clear.'

The alien watched Carter drain her cup, stand, and cross the compound, the many facets of her pain radiated like light through a prism.

'Regret ... misery ... bereavement, ' the alien tallied her sensations, ` righteous anger ... vengeance ...wounded pride ... fury '

`Yes. Useful,' the alien purred, 'excellent.'

The feelings the alien sensed from Carter shimmered and sparked through the camp: the human minds hummed with dark feelings, all potent ... all useful.

'Retribution ...,' the mind purred, 'their hearts thirst for it: very potent; very dangerous; very valuable.'

The sky lightened as the second sun rose. The alien's eyes faded with the retreating night.



Chapter 2

A vast quantity of water occupied a man-made cavern in the bowels of Cheyenne Mountain. With the SGC's internal purification system operating, the underground lake represents a virtually inexhaustible water supply capable of meeting the needs of the Mountain and of continuing to meet those needs for at least five years.

The lake is a closely held secret within a top-secret facility. It was excavated far below the levels housing operations and personnel. Only five technicians know of its existence, men tasked with maintaining its purity and mechanical systems. These five answer to a single authority, the one man ultimately responsible for everything within the Mountain, the head of the SGC. General George Hammond had known about the lake, of course; so had General West. Neither man had ever actually visited the lake, its dark waters lapping a metal pier at the end of a narrow metal ladder that stretched twenty levels beneath the SGC.

General Jack O'Neill had been briefed on the lake's existence when Doctor Elizabeth Weir transferred command of the SGC. Unlike Hammond and West, however, O'Neill had climbed down the two-hundred-foot ladder to take a look. Weir had accompanied him. She'd retreated with a shudder from the dank, dark place. O'Neill, however, had found it suited him. Something about the damp, vast, emptiness delimited only by living rock reminded him of nights in northern Minnesota after the leaves fall. Something about it smelled like home.

Ever since, he'd visited the lake often. To the consternation of airmen responsible for keeping the General on schedule, he'd disappear without anyone seeing him depart. It might not happen for a couple of weeks, but then it could occur several times in a day. The SGC clerks could detect no pattern. Jack could have told them, if he'd cared to, that the visits coincided with unwelcome visitors, impending paperwork and the simple need to sit and think without being pestered. It was a bonus that the mystery kept his legendary Special-Ops reputation alive.

The lake, he'd learned from the technicians, had a small wooden rowboat. Circa 1949, the neat little craft dated back to the first days of highly classified military projects at Cheyenne Mountain. Jack commandeered the antique and notified the technicians that they'd need to requisition a new boat. They did so, funding it through a $2,500 request for miscellaneous supplies including but not limited to middle weight gear lubricant, pump gaskets, and cylinders which Jack authorized, processed and filed without the assistance of his overly curious airman, Walter, who served as administrative staff.

As far has he could tell, the lake had absolutely no fish, but O'Neill committed himself to an exhaustive evaluation of the whole fish question. He expected it would require months or even years of study. It would certainly carry him through to retirement.

As Carter guzzled coffee and wondered about Earth's fate, O'Neill drifted in an old rowboat deep in the bowels of Cheyenne Mountain. He rocked gently on an endless expanse of dark water, as explosions slammed into the surface three miles over his head. He could picture the enemy blasts tearing the rock layers asunder. Jack didn't doubt they'd keep blasting until the place was a pile of rubble.

Jack had done all he could above. The elevators, of course, were out of service. He'd detonated the charges personally as soon as the last evacuees were off the surface. Ten weeks ago, he'd sealed the shafts that Teal'c had nicknamed `Jeffries Tubes'. Hammond had given his people way too much understanding and leeway, General O'Neill decided privately. While he'd been the beneficiary, it had been welcomed. Now, as 'The Man,' he had to admit there'd been far too many unauthorized trips up and down that ladder to the shack to ignore the SGC's unofficial back door. So, Jack's second official act, right after promoting Carter to Colonel, was to weld the doors to those shafts firmly and permanently shut.

Jack had sent the last of his people off to the Alpha site, under Carter's able command. Teal'c would help ensure the safety and welfare of their annoying, but indispensable, gaggle of geniuses. Daniel had given his solemn word to ensure Carter looked after herself, now that Jack no longer could order his 2IC to get a life. Jack was relieved she hadn't argued about going. It had only taken a small white lie to make her see reason. As soon as she'd gone, Jack had reset the autodestruct for thirty seconds. Then he sprinted to his office and flung himself through the trap door hidden there. He descended the ladder in record time and was about twelve stories down when Wildfire blew.

The detonation had belched fire, rubble and heat down the shaft. It nearly knocked him off the ladder. He hung on somehow. The tremors passed and he scrambled the rest of the way to the metal catwalk at the water's edge. The wooden rowboat bumped softly against the walkway. His fishing tackle was there in the bottom of the boat where he'd left it. He untied the little boat and set out on what he figured to be his last fishing trip.

Jack was grateful for this place. He'd once believed his life was finished when his son Charlie died by his negligence. He'd courted death then. He'd planned to die, but fate cheated him. Jack survived despite himself and, in time, was pulled back into life. The SGC became home. His troops were friends. His team had been family.

A stark realist, O'Neill had always figured he'd die on a mission - in the early years he thought it would come behind the Iron Curtain or in a deep jungle on the other end of the world. Later, after joining the SGC, he expected it would be just a bit farther than that, on some mission off world fighting Jaffa or at the hands of their sadistic masters.

Jack had reconciled himself to that fact. It was a jolt to realize that, with his combat days essentially over, the odds were high that he'd die on Earth, probably within the walls of Cheyenne Mountain. So, the discovery of his own private lake, a quiet place where he could just sit and think and fish, was a bitter-sweet joy. Unless the military booted him out of the SGC, a remote possibility on most days, this lake was as close as he expected get to dying in his own bed in the cabin his Granddad built.

There was nothing more he could do to stop what was coming, so he fished and waited. He didn't intend to survive. He only planned to die where the enemy, whoever-the-hell-they-were, would never find him, just in case they had a sarcophagus. He'd endured enough resurrections to last a lifetime and he figured that, when two hundred thousand tons of rock came down on his head, there'd be nothing left to revive. In fact, he was counting on it.

Now and then, Jack lifted the tip of his favorite spin-casting rod and sent his bass plug in a long, lovely arc through the impenetrable blackness. He couldn't see it, but he knew it was right by of the feel of the cast and the way the plug struck with such a satisfying `plunk.'

Jack smiled slightly as more explosions penetrated his retreat. They'd been painfully loud in the SGC toward the end. Here, the distant sound reminded him of the `pop-pop-pop --- BOOM' of fireworks outside of Ely, Minnesota.

His Granddad had shunned humanity for the most part, but the old man had an annual ritual for Fourth of July. It included a visit to Zup's, the Ely general store, for beef jerky and fruit flavored ice-pops, a crisp new bandana, and a gaudy assortment of bass plugs. A twilight stroll followed the spending spree. They'd head up Main Street, cut behind the Lutheran Church, and pick up a vanishing carriage path that passed by a 200-foot slagheap created by World War II's appetite for ores from the Iron Range of Minnesota.

It was almost dark by the time they'd settle on the very top of that towering pile of iron slag, one of the only high points in St. Louis County. Jack would examine his new bass plugs in the fading light and tease the last of the flavor out of his wooden Popsicle stick. The old man would smoke a pipe.

When night was deep enough, the show began. Old man and boy would sit in companionable appreciation while the local fire company volunteers knocked themselves out setting off multi-colored explosions. Then, after the last night-shattering crescendo burst overhead and faded, leaving only the smell of burnt gunpowder, Jack would slide down the slag and lead the way back into town. As they traversed the dark northern Minnesota woods at night, if the mood struck him, the old man would point out Nature's fireworks -- florescent lichens, lightening bugs and flickering glowworms -- to his grandson's infinite delight.

Jack smiled, slowly reeled in his lure and waited for the end. Between the cold and the damp and the dark, it was almost possible to believe he was back there fishing, drifting through a moonless night. He could almost smell the old man's pipe tobacco. He could almost hear the loons cry.

He wasn't ready to die. He didn't welcome it now. There were still things he yearned for, but vindictive fate had cheated him once again. When it came, the final rumble began so low and deep that Jack didn't recognize, at first, what was happening. He looked up into inky blackness. The rumble grew over his head to an excruciating roar and, Jack realized, rocks were falling. The lake water boiled as they pelted down. The Mountain was crumbling. The `pop-pop-BOOM' had become incessant booming, coupled with the scream of sheering rock.

Jack reeled in his line, stowed his pole, and crouched in the bottom of the rowboat gripping the gunwales. Man-sized projectiles peppered the water on all sides. The surface heaved, rocking the boat violently. A massive chunk of debris glanced off the rowboat dragging a tangle of electrical cables across the boat, nearly swamping it, as they whipped past and then disappeared beneath the water's surface.

"So, the whole SGC is going to end up down here with me," he muttered, still staring up as if he expected to see the chunk of rock or concrete that finally took him out.

Gradually the explosions faded. Slowly, the rumbling of the mountain subsided. The waves dissipated.

Jack looked up and listened. Silence. He was about to ease himself back onto the rowboat's narrow bench, to give his knees a break, when a new sound began. He cocked his head, listening to a weird, strangulated gurgle. It was all around him, a slurping, sucking sound that grew louder by the moment.

Jack's eyes widened as he guessed the source of the sound. He lifted his pole and cast a long cast straight ahead. Almost immediately the fishing line moved to his left and then behind him. The boat was turning rapidly to the right, spinning round and round, like a beach leaf sucked down a storm drain.

Jack dropped his pole, grabbed the sides of the rowboat and bellowed, "Holy buckets!" as the nose of the boat slid into a swirling black vortex.

Someone, it seemed, had pulled the plug.



Chapter 3

Pete Shanahan gunned his hog down the alleys of Colorado Springs. The highways were jammed. When fire started raining down on the Mountain at dusk, everyone suddenly had somewhere else to be.

Shanahan swerved as a man leapt in front of him, waving his arms. "Stop," the man cried as he lunged for the handlebars.

Pete swore as the motorcycle fishtailed, knocking the man down. Pete gunned the throttle and barely kept the rubber on the road. The man scrambled up and lunged again. Pete goosed it.

`It's getting very weird,' Pete decided as he sped across the intersection and into the next alley.

The attacks from above had ripped the social fabric one thread at a time. At first folks stayed home from work, huddled in front of the television sets and watched the fire-grid lay waste to the east and west coasts. Later, when electricity died, they gathered in the streets in worried knots. Now, those that weren't trapped in traffic had returned to their homes, bolted the doors, locked the windows and sat in the dark, terrified.

Outside those who enjoyed the rush of a world without rules owned the streets. That had Pete on edge. It also had him packing his police weapon and running his motorcycle as fast as he dared with his headlight off.

Though Shanahan hadn't lived long in Colorado Springs, he knew the city well enough for his purposes. He'd scouted back alleys and all other paths to the Mountain. He'd made it his habit to know how to reach Sam Carter, if the need arose. He hadn't seen her in almost six months. Still, he knew her usual commute and her schedule. He told himself it was the result of too many years as a cop. He knew it was self-deception, but Shanahan didn't stop. Even before he discovered what Sam Carter did, he was already falling in love with her. After seeing her in action he was obsessed.

Late yesterday, as the fire-grid reached the Midwest, Shanahan knew she'd be on duty. Tonight, with the Mountain on fire, he figured, `what better time to get back together?' Besides, there was nowhere else he'd rather be than with her, nowhere he'd rather die than beside her, whether Sam wanted him or not.

Shanahan reached the bridge, cut under it, and gunned the motorcycle along the rubble-strewn river's edge. The bridge, of course, was impassible. When the explosions began to the north, people had immediately shoved everything they could into the family minivan and rushed to clog the roads, bridges, and interstate highways. They were parking lots now. Everyone should have just stayed home. It was almost as if no one in Colorado had ever seen a disaster movie. Didn't they know there was nowhere to run?

After three or four miles Shanahan's destination was visible ahead. A slender cable arced across the river, backlit by fires raging on Cheyenne Mountain. With the bridges impassible, the old cable was his best hope for getting across a river swollen with autumn rainwater.

Shanahan turned the heavy bike to face the slope straight on. It was too dark to see a path ahead, but he'd done plenty of motocross and enduro racing in his youth.

`Half the game,' he reminded himself, `is speed.'

He cracked the throttle, kicked her into gear and the bike jumped forward. In an instant he'd crossed the rubble beach, spewing a wave of stones behind him. In another, leaves were slapping his face. He crouched low over the handlebars and gave it full throttle. The motorcycle tore up the steep wooded slope, its rear wheel weaving as it clambered for traction.

Shanahan had just begun to hope when a thick low-hanging limb swept him off the bike. He fell hard and rolled half a dozen feet down the cliff side before a tree trunk stopped his roll. The motorcycle toppled end over end, never stopping until it hit the river bottom and then bursting into flames. Shanahan groaned and lay very still, listening to the distant boom of the fire-grid tearing into Cheyenne Mountain five miles to the north. Then he rolled gingerly onto his side and felt his bruised chest.

`Nothing broken,' he thought, `probably.'

He stood. Both legs seemed functional. He stretched his arms and felt something wrong in his back.

`It'll work itself out,' he thought as he staggered forward.

Shanahan headed for the brilliance above him, where the fires illuminated the hilltop. Slowly he worked his way up, using bushes and trees as handholds on the slick slope. At the top, he groped in the heavy brush for a while longer. Finally, he located the concrete block where the cable tied into the mountainside. By then birds were twittering weakly. Shanahan figured it was still about an hour until dawn.

The old cable car that had once transported people, supplies and coal across the river was long gone, of course. So, Shanahan pulled on a pair of thick leather gloves and walked under the drooping cable as far as he dared. Then he jumped up, grabbed the thick rusted wire and began to move forward hand over hand. The odd feeling in his back grew worse, but he ignored it. The only thing he cared about in this life was somewhere up ahead.

There was no going back.

ΩΩΩ

Shanahan was tired. His back hurt. Still, he hung on, suspended in the middle of the cable, like an ornament from a Christmas tree. He didn't want to go out like this. Falling into the river below was not the worst of it. He'd hoped to see Sam again before everything went totally to hell.

Shanahan's fingers were numb. He'd hung here for a while, stuck ever since he realized that it is not really possible to climb up a wire cable hand over hand, at least not with a wrenched back. His weight had turned the gently arcing cable into a sharp v-shape. The closer he got to the center, the sharper the angle had become until, finally, he realized that he simply could not continue. Unfortunately, he couldn't go back either. So he hung on, wondering why it had not occurred to him that climbing across a cable over a raging river at night might be hazardous.

Shanahan's eyes were closed. It was easier that way. He was less tempted to look at the jumble of rocks and racing water below his feet -- far, far below his feet.

Birds had been singing full throat for a while, telling him it was dawn. The birds suddenly stopped. Pete frowned. All was strangely silent. Then he heard a distant sound, like a giant freight train, roaring, ripping, rushing toward him. The sound grew alarmingly. Pete opened his eyes as a wall of water, a freaking tsunami, charged down the river-gorge, uprooting entire trees and plunging directly at him.

"Aaaarrrggghhhh," he bellowed as the wall of water hit.

ΩΩΩ

Pete opened his eyes and wondered how he was still alive. He couldn't move his legs. It felt like he'd been jammed into a car trunk. He blinked. The darkness lightened a half shade. He smelled pine air freshener.

Pete passed out again, but sometime later opened his eyes again. It was lighter now. An impenetrable tangle of boughs engulfed him. He realized that was the source of the overwhelming scent of pine.

It was cold. He knew it was cold because he could see his breath. He didn't feel it. That, Pete knew, was a very bad sign. He was going to die of exposure if he didn't get free, start a fire, and get warm and dry.

It was hard to move, but Pete forced himself to try. He closed the fingers of his right hand, somewhere out of sight among the frosty green needles that filled his field of vision. It hurt, but his hand responded. So, next he began the unattainable task of moving his right arm.

A lifetime later, Pete squirmed out of the snarl of tree limbs and other junk. He stumbled onto the rubble beach that flanked the river and looked upstream. The gorge had been transformed. Steep slopes reared up from the water scrubbed clear of vegetation, but not of wreckage. Houses. Vehicles. Garbage: every shred of modern life jumbled together in an ugly snarl that reached as far upstream as Pete could see.

"Shit," Pete said as his knees buckled. He crouched for a moment in shock, trying to wrap his mind around the devastation. He stood slowly and turned downstream. He knew then that he wouldn't make it.

No one would.

The world below him was ablaze. Columns of heavy black smoke rose like thick pillars to support a dense black ceiling over what, yesterday, had been the Boulder/Denver metro area. Here and there explosions punctuated the smoke: gold and red blossoms that appeared whenever a gas station cooked off; showers of blue sparks as transformers blew.

Pete coughed. The air was thick with a strong acidic stench. He wiped his tearing eyes and squinted, searching the devastation for signs of life. The roads, still clogged with vehicles, showed no activity aside from sporadic explosions as yet another gas tank exploded. It was too far to see individual bodies. The stillness told him at a gut level that he was searching a dead zone.

Something inside Pete Shanahan snapped. He'd seen too much. His head was reeling as he turned and started to stumble up into the mountains. He acted on impulse. Instinct dictated that he move. He couldn't return to the devastation below. So he climbed.

The day passed in a haze of dread as Pete stumbled upstream. His back hurt. He didn't stop. Instead, he put one foot in front of the other. As he traveled, the effort warmed him. In time, body heat dried the inner layers of his clothing, but Pete didn't note the change. It wasn't until cold and dark pressed in again that Pete wondered dimly how he'd survive the coming night. His breath came in white plumes. His teeth chattered. He needed rest. Surrounded as he was by wet rocks and trees, he kept moving.

Pete had passed beyond the worst of the damage. Debris now consisted of tangles of trees and jumbles of naked rock scoured loose by the rush of water. The quality of the air had changed, as well. The acrid stench had faded, leaving cold clean air and, behind the icy purity, a faint tang of fire. Exhausted and bewildered, Pete didn't notice even as the scent grew stronger.

Finally Pete paused to rest against a boulder and that was when he realized that he smelled wood smoke. Pete followed the smoke and soon detected a faint crackle of a fire. Pete paused, wondering who'd lit a fire, but his sixth sense stirred a split second too late. Before he could withdraw, he was flat on his face. A cruel weight bore into his back. He couldn't breathe. He felt himself slipping into darker shades of blackness. Panic overwhelmed him. Just as suddenly, the weight lifted and Pete was on his back, blinking up at a million stars.

A silhouette blocked the stars. Pete lay there, dumbly waiting for the man standing over him to make up his damned mind on how to murder him. Finally, his attacker spoke.

"Shanahan," the shadow rasped. "Pete Shanahan?"

Before Pete could reply, there was a shuffling as his attacker stumbled back. Then he fell with a grunt. Stars filled the entire sky.

Pete laid trembling and staring up into the night sky. After a while, his panic reaction subsided. He rolled to his side. A full moon shone in the east. By its uncertain light, he saw the form of his attacker in a heap, dead or passed out. Pete didn't care which; he rose to his hands and knees and crawled painfully away, heading for the fire that smoldered beyond. He reached the embers, grabbed the first wood that came to hand, and piled it onto the bed of coals. He was rewarded with a thick plume of smoke from the wet wood.

"C'mon." Pete intoned as he stirred the coals. "C'mon." More smoke roiled up, but he could hear the tantalizing snap of pine needles igniting.

"C'mon," he prayed, leaning forward to blow into the pile.

After a lifetime, the snapping became a crackle. The fire began to feed. Pete's eyes watered as he fed more fuel into the smoking pile, this time choosing the driest twigs he could find. After an exhausting period of careful tending, Pete saw the smoldering coals burst into full flame.

The fire began to devour even the wettest branches. Pete was shivering uncontrollably with anticipation and exhaustion. He fed the flames all they'd consume. Then he crouched before the crackling blaze and basked in waves of warmth and light, until he fell asleep.

Pete opened his eyes and smiled. The fire still danced before him. His backside was cold, so he turned it to the heat. In the dim half-light, he saw the form of the other man a few yards away. Pete's instincts twitched. It was tempting to lie dozing in the warmth. He didn't know, however, how long the bastard who'd attacked him might remain unconscious.

"Maybe he's dead," Pete mumbled, but it was wishful thinking. He had to be sure. Then he could sleep without fear.

For the first time since he'd crawled out of the debris, Pete remembered his police pistol. He felt for it in his belt. It was gone. Determined to protect himself, Pete rose on one hand and cast about for a weapon. A rock caught his eye. He grasped it in his right hand. The weight was good. It fit well in his grip. It would do. He crawled to his feet, leaning heavily against the boulder. Then he crept toward the other man.

It was dark beyond the circle of firelight. Staring into the flames had ruined Pete's night vision. He knew he was closing in on his opponent. He could hear his rasping breath.

'Sounds like the guy's already half dead,' he thought as he angled around the sound. It continued unchanged telling Pete the other guy was still out cold.

"Not gonna to make it," Pete told himself as he closed on the target.

The full moon had slipped behind the treetops. Its light glinted weakly on silver hair as Pete crouched for the attack.

`Big bastard,' he realized taking in the long legs and broad shoulders.

In three steps he was beside the man. He raised the rock high and brought it down sharply.

The rock never connected.

Too fast to register, an iron grip caught Shanahan's forearm. The man rolled at the same time, pulling Pete forward into an awkward position. Shanahan yelped in pain and surprise. A split second later one of those long legs moved. The knee connected with Pete's groin. Pete grunted and rolled, breathless with pain, as his would-be victim scrambled away.

"Shhhhiiiit," Pete managed to groan, folding himself into a jackknife. He felt hot tears on his cheeks as the waves of pain gradually receded.

"Shit," he repeated softly, shoving his hands between his thighs. Then he opened his eyes to scan the shadows for the man who was out there somewhere.

A ragged cough dragged his eyes toward the fire. The guy was leaning against the boulder. After a long fit of hacking the other man growled, "C'mon. Get up, Shanahan."

"Who the f..." Pete managed to reply before the rasping voice cut in.

"O'Neill," he snarled. "Sam's gone. Safe. We aren't. If you're coming, Shanahan, you gotta move."

Pete didn't move, not for a long time. Finally he lifted his face to O'Neill and rasped desperately, "What's the use, if she's gone?"

Another wicked coughing spell wracked O'Neill. Pete watched him lean heavily against the boulder and wondered what was keeping the old man on his feet. Finally he spat, straightened, and said softly, "You're supposed to be a detective. Detect."

The hair on Pete's neck prickled.

"She's coming back," Pete muttered as the unthinkable reality struck. "She's safe," he shouted, "but she's coming back? You ordered it, you selfish, hard-ass, son-of-a-bitch!"

O'Neill turned without another word, kicked the smoldering remains of the fire, killing it, and lurched into the darkness. Pete scrambled to his feet and followed. He had no choice if he wanted to ever see Sam again.

The duo stumbled grimly up the dark mountain slopes. As dawn broke Pete watched O'Neill's backside and waited for him to wear out. The old man climbed steadily up and up. His rasping breath told of the cost, but to Pete's surprise, the man never slipped, never slowed, and never stopped. He just kept moving steadily on.

Finally, midmorning, Pete called out, "Hey. We've got to stop and rest."

O'Neill did not stop. He just kept going. Exasperated, Pete jogged to catch up and wondered how in hell O'Neill's ass managed to convey such utter scorn.

ΩΩΩ

As the sun hit its zenith and began its descent, Jack could hear the younger man bitching, slipping and skittering behind him. Jack tuned him out and continued to search for a handhold in the nearly vertical rock face. It didn't matter that they were exhausted. It didn't matter that his ribs creaked with every movement. further shredding whatever had ripped inside as he'd been flushed out of the Mountain.

`Distance matters,' Jack thought, working his fingers into a small crevice and pulling himself up, `putting as much distance as possible between us and the enemy. Distance is everything. Enough distance might get us through.'

Jack felt the enemy drawing in around them, like an evil breath on the back of his neck, `If we slip through I just might be able to do ... something ...'

As Jack gained better ground where he could walk, rather than climb, Shanahan's bellows interrupted his thoughts.

"You screwed up, O'Neill," the cop yelled. "You were supposed to keep the planet safe. Who'd you piss off? Huh? Did ya see what they did? You call this safe? You useless son-of-a-bitch! You blew it. Now the rest of us are going to pay. Sam's going to pay!"

Jack let Shanahan rant and squinted into the sun. They'd head for the Dakotas, he figured. He knew the area around the Mountain pretty well. He'd seen enough satellite imagery to know that heavily forested mountains stretched for another two hundred miles or more to the northeast. Those forests would provide good cover. Beyond the forests stretched a vast, sparsely inhabited prairie. The northern prairie, Jack knew, ran through the upper Midwest and on up into Canada and beyond. Far to the north, the sea of grass eventually became tundra or, on to the extreme northeast, boreal forests. But that didn't matter. Jack knew he'd never make it that far on foot.

The prairies were far enough because under them resides an enormous shield of basalt. Sprinkled across that shield are hundreds of Extremely Low Frequency (E.L.F.) radio shacks. Those shacks linked into a worldwide military communication system.

Jack wiped a hand across his face. It was hot and he was thirsty. `Finding one of those shacks intact,' he thought, `is the objective.'

He began to climb again. As he climbed, Jack calculated the odds that one of those hundreds of shacks was still intact. `If we find one,' he figured, picking his way across a treacherous stretch of loose scree, `we might contact a Navy submarine.'

He sidestepped some bigger chunks of rubble, `or maybe the Russians who spy on the Navy submarines.'

He grabbed the base of a scrubby tree and hauled himself up the rock face, jamming his boot toes into a narrow crevice for leverage. He reached the lip and scrambled over, then hauled himself upright, grasping his ribs, `or maybe,' he thought, `the Chinese who eavesdrop on the Russians. Maybe. If I can send a message, maybe I can organize some form of viable resistance, or provide backup when she comes .... Just maybe...'

Shanahan fell on his ass at the base of the rock face and cursed a blue streak. Jack frowned and grimaced as rational thoughts dissolved, leaving just the pain of breathing and of putting one foot in front of the other, and a growing irritation with Shanahan. After another half mile of steep climbing, Jack's mind drifted back to the plan.

`So that's it,' he decided, `head north; find a shack; get a message out. After that, I don't know. I'll figure it out later, if later starts to look like an option.'



Chapter 4

"The pod emitted a signal," Sam asked, "after we crushed it?"

Daniel nodded vigorously, but kept shoveling food into his mouth. He looked up, still nodding, chewed vigorously and mumbled, "Yeah, looks like it, Sam."

"Before or after we brought it to the SGC?" Sam asked.

Daniel shoveled in another forkful of `chicken surprise,' waggled his eyebrows, and swallowed.

"Don't know, Sam," he replied, still chewing vigorously, "thought maybe you could figure that part out."

"But you're sure ..." Sam said slowly, "even though we crushed it, it still functioned?"

"Afraid so," Daniel replied, helping himself to seconds from the pot suspended over the cooking fire. "I found a diagram. From what I can recall from the power core we brought back to the SGC, the pod was set in a configuration that would send a message if it malfunctioned. We dropped rocks on it, Sam. We crushed it. So, I'm thinking that probably qualified as a malfunction. I'm not positive, but it's reasonable to guess that a message probably went out to whoever created the pods when we opened the `Gate," Daniel summarized solemnly.

"There's more to it," Sam prompted noting his frown.

Daniel nodded, chewing thoughtfully, "I think it somehow read the Gate address and transmitted it."

"That would explain the reinforcements and the overwhelming aerial support that arrived on P3X-666 just after we reinforced SG-13," Sam continued. She glanced at Daniel's dark expression, reading his thoughts about that terrible day. "We met overwhelming firepower. We couldn't even begin to fight back. Now, twelve weeks later, Earth is hit by weapons so powerful we can't mount a defense," Sam concluded, dropping her head into her hands. "So, you think the pod we brought back is the connection?"

Daniel nodded and his chewing slowed.

"I didn't find a way to stop them, Daniel," Sam confessed, "whoever-the-hell-they-are."

"Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone," Daniel replied softly.

"What?" Sam replied.

"Not what," Daniel replied, "who. Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone," he repeated, "the Furies."

Daniel looked at Sam expectantly. Getting no response he continued eating. Sam waited while Daniel cleaned his plate of the last scraps of dinner. He'd been stranded on P3X-666 for the better part of a week, six days longer than their supply of rations. Daniel had been treated to survival food, courtesy of SG-7 and -15. After dining on bugs, bark, and berries, `chicken surprise' tasted fine, although it was actually macaroni and cheese. Finally, Daniel leaned back with a satisfied sigh.

Sam asked, "How do you know?"

"Their names?" Daniel asked, but continued. "I found an inscription in the ruins. It's weird."

"What do you mean, `weird'?" Sam asked.

Daniel frowned. "The Furies aren't really what you'd expect of Goa'uld," he explained.

"The attack vessels, the Jaffa, all of that was very Goa'uld-like," Sam pointed out.

"Yeah, I know," Daniel said. "What I don't understand is this: Why would three powerful Goa'uld adopt the Furies as persona? The Furies are avengers. Alecto, the unceasing, generates grief. She feeds on war and quarrels, prolongs and intensifies them. Legend tells that she sets brothers of one mind at one another's throats, and torments a home with hatred."

"Sweet," Carter replied.

"Isn't it?" Daniel grinned, and then he continued. "Tisiphone, the avenging, wears a bloodstained robe and guards the entrance to Tartarus, the place of punishment."

"Hell?" Carter asked and Daniel nodded.

"Been there ... Done that ... Got the t-shirt," she muttered as she stared into the campfire, but Daniel continued his impromptu lecture.

"Megaera, the grudging, drives the wicked insane," he stated. "Basically, the Furies punished crimes outside the reach of human justice."

"Handy," Carter grunted.

"Isn't it?" Daniel agreed. "It's said that they pursued and punished those guilty of bloodshed, defilement or impiety." Daniel hesitated and glanced at Sam before he concluded, "It doesn't really fit the Goa'uld style."

"No," Sam agreed, "it doesn't."

They sat for a moment staring into the flames before she smirked and continued, "Avengers, huh? They'd have their hands full with the Goa'uld."

Daniel nodded and replied softly, "and that is precisely what bothers me."



Chapter 5

Jack ignored Shanahan's taunts.

Alecto glowered and bent low to murmur in Shanahan's ear.

`It's his fault,' she hissed, `all his fault.'

"It's your fault, O'Neill," Shanahan shouted.

Alecto quivered with delight as her prey responded. Still the other did not react.

`How tedious,' she thought, `the old one won't fight ... yet.'

ΩΩΩ

Jack kept humping his tired ass up the rocky slope. He heard Shanahan and the jibes were wearing thin, but there was no use debating him, as much as he wished he could. The cop was right. Jack had sworn to keep Earth safe. He'd failed. Miserably. Sam was paying for his failure and Shanahan, too. Every person on Earth, and many folks beyond, would pay.

So, rather than argue or explain, O'Neill ignored the bitching and focused all his energy on moving.

Alecto hissed her frustration and redoubled her efforts to influence the younger man who, stumbling along five strides behind, couldn't seem to ignore his older companion, to Alecto's unbounded glee.

'This one,' she thought, wafting about Shanahan, 'has potential.'

ΩΩΩ

Not only was O'Neill's butt the only thing Pete could watch as they worked their way up one switch-back after another, something about the stubborn old man bugged him, really bugged him. It was strange because Pete could recall liking O'Neill. Once. Sure, he'd always felt a twinge of jealousy when Sam spoke of her commanding officer, but O'Neill had treated Sam with such cool professionalism and had been friendly enough to make Pete feel accepted into the tight-knit group of SGC professionals.

Now a craving seized Pete, a longing to prove to the old man exactly who was the better man. Maybe it was his oh-so-superior attitude. Maybe it was the no-nonsense set of his non-regulation cap. Maybe it was his ragged breathing or his unvarying pace up the mountainside.

Pete was panting as they climbed and sweating profusely. O'Neill, he guessed by the heavy sounds up ahead, was in far worse shape. That, at least, gave Pete satisfaction. At the start he'd told himself he'd walk this old man into the ground.

It hadn't worked out that way.

With the sun high overhead, Pete was soaked in sweat, thirsty and shaking with fatigue. His calves ached. His thighs burned. Still the old bastard kept pushing up the mountain at an insane rate. Try as he might, Shanahan could not close the gap. O'Neill kept ahead of him and, to Pete's chagrin, the distance increased whenever his attention wandered.

Up ahead Jack O'Neill was oblivious to the footrace. He was doing math. `Just over a thousand miles to Fargo,' he figured. `From there, another 280 miles to Ely. We'll never make that,' he realized. `Even if I could cover 60 miles a day, that's three weeks. Without food and medical care, that's just not possible. The most I've ever covered on foot is fifteen hundred miles. Took me over a month, but I had provisions, I wasn't injured, and it was twenty years ago.'

Jack felt the world tilt and had just time to realize that he'd passed his limit. As blackness closed in, a whisper barely more substantial than a thought hissed.

`Now, you'll die, O'Neill. Sam will be alone ... no one will help her! You've failed again!'

Jack fought to stay upright, but lost the fight.

ΩΩΩ

Pete smiled as he saw Jack stop. He kicked in the after-burners and was about to stride past when O'Neill tipped sideways and backwards. Pete reached out to grab him, tried to step aside at the same time and ended up broad-sided as O'Neill passed out literally on his feet. The pair tumbled down the scree-covered slope and ended up a hundred yards down the slope, caught by a snarl of brush.

Pete was grousing loudly when he realized O'Neill was too still. He squirmed out from under the old man, scrambled to his feet and felt a nasty surge of joy as he gazed down on the motionless form.

Alecto hovered near, inspiring him. `He's not so tough,' she hissed. `You are the better man.'

`I am the better man,' echoed in Pete Shanahan's mind, followed by a hot rush of superiority.

"You're not so damned tough," he muttered as he looked down at O'Neill.

The old man was sprawled face down with his left boot tangled in brush. His lanky frame stretched awkwardly down the steep slope. His right arm was flung past his head. The left was turned backward at a strange angle. The hand was trapped under his body. The bush that stopped their fall had caught and shredded his left pants leg, revealing a bruised calf and a bony, thickly scarred knee. Blood oozed from the side of the knee and had already saturated the thigh region of the thick green BDU pants.

After a moment, the feeling of supremacy dimmed. O'Neill still hadn't moved. He hadn't made a sound. Suddenly, Pete saw the obnoxious old man with Sam's eyes. His heart constricted.

The first time Sam had opened up about her superior officer was when Pete had been admitted to Cheyenne Mountain's infirmary with a bullet hole in his side. She'd appeared, grinning her infectious grin, settled her oh-so-lovely thigh on the side of his mattress, took his hand in hers, and told him everything about her work inside the Mountain.

Everything.

Even things she didn't seem to know herself.

Pete rubbed his grubby hand across his eyes, smearing the tears before they fell. Sam's eyes had shone with excitement as she'd told of exploration and discovery. As he listened in awe, he'd feared that he might lose her as she spoke of her mind-boggling life, battling aliens among the stars.

Then, as she described her work life, and what it might mean to their relationship, she talked about Colonel Jack O'Neill, her CO. The man she described sounded, to Pete, like something between a tyrant, a military mastermind, and Bart Simpson personified. Sam had made light of her feelings for O'Neill, calling him `stiff-necked,' 'irreverent', and a 'royal pain in the butt,' but from the first her eyes told another story. The veteran detective saw the truth. This woman he loved would follow another man, this old man, through the gates of hell ... and gladly.

Pete knew at that moment that, even though she'd slept with him, even if she married him one day, he could never really claim Sam Carter, no matter how much he loved her. Sam Carter had already given herself to another man. The man sprawled at Pete's feet.

`This man ...' a refrain ran through his mind. `This old man ... .'

The thought raised his hackles. Pete crouched, gnawed the second joint of his right index finder, and thought bitterly, `Man, if she could see you now ....'

Alecto whispered, 'She is not here. You are free! Leave him!'

Pete had the sudden urge to go. He stood and turned, but then stopped, remembering other times, nights when Sam had been late for a date, only to show up hours or days later, exhausted, distracted, and despite her plausible cover story, with dread lurking in her eyes. Pete knew without a word of confirmation that it was O'Neill ... missing ... or hurt ... or in trouble.

Again.

Sam, a by-the-book professional soldier, never acknowledged it, not with words, but Pete came to know her moods. He came to know that haunted look and he hated it.

'This man ...This old man ... This broken old man ...' the voice taunted.

Pete gnawed his knuckle. He'd itched to put O'Neill in his place, but now he realized that he could not let Sam down. He stared at the motionless form at his feet, but no longer saw O'Neill. He saw Sam. He saw her out there ... somewhere ... worrying. He saw that look. Losing this old man would hurt her, Pete knew. He couldn't just stand by and let it happen. She might forgive him, but she'd never forget the loss of this arrogant, insufferable, broken, old man. If she couldn't forget, Pete knew, neither could he. Dead or alive, O'Neill would always be there in that damned look.

Alecto raged, `Leave him!'

Pete knelt on the rubble and reached out a hand.

`Walk away! Go!' she demanded furiously.

But, Pete Shanahan's mind was suddenly closed to her insinuations. Alecto raged and fumed, but the younger man didn't react. He didn't seem to hear. Instead, she felt him respond to something beyond her power, something that meant everything to Pete Shanahan.

With an irritated screech Alecto turned away.

"Fine! Fool! Try to save him, if you will, arrogant mortal!" she cried. "In the end we shall claim his eternal soul ... and yours, as well, and commit you both to everlasting Hellfire!"



Chapter 6

"What say you sister?" Tisiphone hissed, her bloodshot eyes narrowing to ruby shards.

"The mortals suffer," Alecto replied, rubbing her emaciated hands around and around in satisfaction. "Even now the old one is dying, Sister. He is in great pain and his companion can do nothing for him."

Tisiphone's ruby eyes burned in sunken sockets as she fixed Alecto with a glare, "Was there no trace ... of him?"

Alecto shook her head and dropped her fiery eyes to her hands, "I found only natives, Sister. As I told you, I feel a connection, but the old one resists. I sense great potential in the younger, however. He is called Shanahan and, though not yet totally mine to command, he is open to my suggestions. We can use him. Shanahan led me to the old one, the responsible one, the one called O'Neill. O'Neill is far less ... accommodating."

"And this unbending one, this O'Neill, it is he who aligns his world with him-who-we-seek?" Megaera interrupted.

"It is probable," Alecto replied, "almost definite, Sister. I have no proof, not yet. Even so, his perfidy is clear. He failed to save his home world. His soul cries out the truth of it! His actions drew us here, as surely they must have drawn our primal foe. For this alone, his soul requires damnation. For this failure alone, he shall suffer hell's fires. He shall stand at the gates of Hell, Sister, very soon."

"Indeed," Tisiphone noted, stroking her bony hands across the folds of her bloodstained robe, "but should we claim him? O'Neill is bait, remember that Alecto. Perhaps a light touch is better. Can you sustain him, even while you persecute his wicked spirit?"

Tisiphone laughed and threw back her head. The snakes that adorned her head twisted and hissed.

"Imagine the beauty of it," she murmured, "the symmetry!"

"What shall I do, Sister," Alecto murmured leaning forward eagerly.

"Give O'Neill hope," Tisiphone replied, "Then crush it bit by bit to dust, until it chokes his soul. Let him linger. Let him test his mortal fortitude against our holy, timeless trials. Force him to turn, friendless, to his greatest foes for assistance. Let him survive the final, full spoliation of his wretched world. Then, after enduring the unendurable, when he has lost all he loves, when he has humbled himself to those he despises, he shall come to us, as a lover comes, exposed and alone in his need. He may seek solace and beg for eternal rest in the tender arms of death. Then, Sisters, he shall find death and damnation more terrible than a mortal mind can conceive."

Alecto bowed her head, chortled, and replied, "Torment and turmoil already grind at him. I shall deny him easy death. I shall sustain him, until the last full measure of penance is paid. Then shall he know our tender mercies!"

"So be it," Tisiphone concluded, then turned to her second sister, "And you, Megaera? What of your dealings?"

Megaera intoned, "I have found O'Neill's consorts. `Carter,' she is called, an alchemist of great potency and repute. Her guardians are a great warrior, known as Teal'c, and a wise man, a master of many tongues, called `Jackson.'

"How do you know them?" Tisiphone asked, her eyes gleaming.

"This O'Neill, he is much in their minds. More importantly, they possess the technology," Megaera replied. "The fools hold in their hands untold power, yet their limited understanding denies them command of the awesome weapon. Their position is desperate ... untenable. They lack weapons, basic medicine, and food. Their army is fading away. Soon it will be a starving rabble."

Tisiphone shook her head slowly. Alecto watched as her sister responded softly, as if thinking aloud.

"I ... shall deny them all," Megaera hissed, "but the barest means of survival. Their daily fare shall be bitter regret... Their dreams shall be nightmares. If you agree, Sisters, we can condemn them to a lifetime of suffering for their intemperate dalliance. They shall live with the constant pain of past sins and look forward in sorrow to a bleak future without hope ... or love ... or peace."

"As is our divine right," the other two sisters intoned.

"And you, sister?" inquired Megaera and Alecto together. "Have you not found him who we seek? Have you not found the vile one? Have you not found Nantes?"

"Curse him," Tisiphone hissed softly, "Nantes is near. He is within our grasp. We shall find him, either on Earth or in the system beyond. Patience Sisters. Through the accursed O'Neill, or his unholy minions, we shall unearth our ancient foe and when we do, I shall lay waste to him and all who serve him. Now -- to our virtuous toil."

"And our sanctified duty."

ΩΩΩ

Pete peered at O'Neill. The old man was out cold.

Pete reached out and touched the left side of his throat, hoping for a pulse. The pulse was there, a slight flutter under his fingers, but Pete's gut knotted in alarm. The old man was burning up.

As gently as possible, which was none-too-gently given their position on what felt like a fifty degree slope, Pete dragged O'Neill out of the brush, flipped him onto his back, and realized why O'Neill had been breathing so hard.

A blossom of bright blood spread across his chest and side. Before Pete could react, it had begun to pool beside the injured man, and the pool formed a red rivulet that tricked downhill across the face of the rocks.

"Aw, crap," Pete hissed, leaning back on his heels and running his hand through his hair. "This is bad!"

Pete had seen enough gunshot wounds to recognize arterial bleeding. The brilliance and volume of blood told him O'Neill didn't have long. The man had walked for the better part of three days with a deep chest wound, maybe from broken ribs, maybe from a foreign body. Whatever the cause of the original injury, the fall had driven the ragged end of something deep enough to puncture something vital, either an artery or, more likely, a lung.

"You stubborn old bastard," Pete cussed as he scrambled up, grabbed Jack under his arms and dragged his head uphill in an attempt to keep the blood inside that seemed intent on flowing outside.

"Now what do I do?" Pete asked as he stripped off his leather jacket and shinnied out of his grimy t-shirt. He knelt beside Jack pressed the sweat-damp cotton against the center of the red blossom. The t-shirt was blood-soaked within a minute. In two, fresh rivulets of red oozed between his fingers.

"Shit!" Pete hissed, "Man ... Don't just die. I'm in the middle of the freaking mountains. I don't even know where you were heading, for Christ sakes. General, Sam's gonna ..."

Pete froze. O'Neill had opened one dark eye and was glaring at him.

"What about Carter?" he demanded.

"She's comin' back," Pete answered earnestly, "and she's gonna be pissed as hell if you die!"

O'Neill growled, "Better get busy. I've seen her pissed," then he passed out.

Pete laughed a short bark, reached behind for his jacket and pulled away the t-shirt. The blood still flowed, but it seemed stickier and possibly slower. He fought back hope and tossed the short leather motorcycle jacket over his patient. Then he grabbed the wool pullover that was tangled in the brush and shoved it under the jacket, packing it against the wound.

Pete grabbed the blood-soaked undershirt next and tried to tear it. The filthy cotton stretched but it wouldn't rip. Pete closed his eyes and, using his teeth, tore the bloody, sweat-soaked fabric into three wide strips.

"Hang on," he muttered as he removed the makeshift covering he'd just arranged, "Let's see if this helps."

Pete tried to pull Jack's uniform shirt up, but it was tightly cinched into his pants by a belt that had already been tightened by several notches. Pete uncinched the belt, pulled the shirt open, and lifted the bloody green undershirt.

"Christ," he murmured at the sight. A twelve inch gash angled from the man's hip to the base of his ribcage. Something had sliced his right side from haunch to the ribs, ending at a deep puncture wound under the first rib. The gash was shallow at the hip, but grew deeper until it ended as a hole the size of a penny. The skin at the hole was raised and angry. The flesh around it was so purple that it was nearly black. With every heartbeat, bright red blood pulsed from the hole. It hurt to look at it.

Pete bit his lower lip, squinted, and, wincing, began to probe the puncture with his grimy index finger. O'Neill didn't react, so he slipped his finger into the hole up to the second joint and explored until he found something jagged. He pressed it. A rib lifted under the mottled skin. O'Neill groaned.

"Broken," Pete muttered, pulling his hand away. Then, he wiped the still warm blood on his pants and sighed heavily. Then, with another sigh he grabbed his sweater and began to pluck wool fibers from the sleeve. As he worked he glanced at O'Neill every few seconds. The man didn't stir and, after a few minutes, Pete had a small handful of fibers.

"Ready?" he asked the unconscious man. Then he shoved the wad into the hole. O'Neill's eyelids fluttered and he groaned again. When he didn't regain consciousness, Pete continued working.

Using the slope to his advantage, he pulled O'Neill upright and bound the strips of t-shirt around his back and chest, holding the wool wadding in place. Then he eased the unconscious man back onto the scree, tucked his sweater and jacket around him, and sat back, completely drained.

Time passed and the sun crawled down into the treetops. O'Neill showed no signs of dying. He didn't wake up, either. As the sunlight filtered between the highest peaks, Pete realized he had better prepare for the night. It had grown much colder. He was shivering and his hands and feet were numb. He stood, stamped his feet and thrashed his arms, pounding his hands against his sides. Then he scoured the area for fuel. Aside from the bush, there was nothing immediately at hand bigger than a twig. He tore the bush out of the rock. Then, reluctantly, he searched farther afield.

Unwilling to move O'Neill, Pete piled the wood on the steep slope. He had no idea how to start a fire without matches. He prayed O'Neill would wake up and tell him. The old man didn't move. So, as the sun disappeared, Pete gave up on the fire idea and set out across the slope to look for water.

It was dark when Pete finally groped his way back to O'Neill. He'd managed only because, once again, he smelled smoke. Figuring O'Neill had recovered, Shanahan closed in on the campfire with his first sense of relief since the whole crazy thing began. He'd found a stream, washed his face and hands, soaked his battered feet, quenched his thirst, and gathered a large armful of dead limbs. Things were looking up.

The relief vanished when he was close enough to see his companion in the dancing light of the tiny campfire. O'Neill was awake, but he looked worse, not better. He was stretched out on the ground with his arms wrapped around his chest. He had Pete's sweater and jacket pulled tight around him and still he was visibly trembling.

"Don't do that again," he wheezed before Pete could speak.

"Worried about me?" Shanahan shot back, instantly feeling like a heel for fighting with a sick old man.

"If you hadn't come back," the old man wheezed, "I'd be dead by morning. As it is, I figure I've got a one-in-fifty shot. If I go, Sam's still comin' back. She won't have squat to help her, unless I make it happen. So, if you care about her, like you seem to, you won't do that again."

Pete glowered at the old man and then nodded. "Right General," he replied. "I need Sam, Sam needs you, so I need you. I'll keep you alive, don't worry."

Pete stared into the flames for a few minutes and asked, "How'd you start that fire?"

O'Neill looked up and grinned, "Zippo lighter ... Stopped smoking ... Still carry."

Shanahan nodded and murmured, "I gave it up."

O'Neill pulled a worn silver metal case out of his pants pocket and tossed it to Shanahan.

"Take it `til I'm back on my feet. I might want to take a little ... nap," he muttered as his chin dropped and he blacked out.

Shanahan snapped the Zippo top open and shut, gazed into the flickering flames and continued his thankless vigil. He huddled over the miserable fire, trying to keep warm, as he watched O'Neill for signs of distress.

As the moon rose, the old man appeared to begin to dream. They weren't pleasant dreams Pete realized, as the old man groaned and mumbled. As the night wore on, Pete marveled that the man was still alive.

Morning dawned and still he hung on.

`It's a miracle,' Shanahan thought, never guessing it was, in fact, a curse.



Chapter 7

Teal'c stood and watched the others. Everyone was busy: marines, airmen, maintenance personnel and a sprinkling of lucky civilians who'd managed to make it to the `Gate by way of General O'Neill's impromptu amnesty program. All were digging at the moment. Colonel Carter had ordered trenches, revetments and a series of interlocking barricades to drive any attackers through a wicked series of interlocking fields of fire. As Teal'c stood and watched the digging he concluded that this should have been done long ago, as soon as the Alpha site had been established. He suspected, however, that although it made excellent strategic sense Colonel Carter's true motive was to keep these people busy, too busy to think too much.

Other workers, those with critical technical skills, were also working hard, but at less physical tasks. Daniel Jackson was to the far right of Teal'c's field of view, waving his arms wildly, indicating to the Jaffa that the Doctor was in full-lecture-mode. A motley gaggle of military and civilian scientists sat literally at Jackson's feet, taking in his words like water in the desert. Teal'c allowed a slight smile to lift the corner of his mouth, ever so slightly.

`Despite death, disaster, and chaos,' he decided, `some things do not change.'

He observed his friend for a moment, until Daniel collapsed suddenly to the ground and placed his hands on his head in an obvious display of frustration. His voice carried across the compound, "no, no, NO! That is all wrong. Let's start AGAIN!"

Teal'c's smile faded before it formed as Daniel Jackson pitched what appeared by Jaffa standards to be a `hissy-fit.'

Teal'c shifted his gaze away from the scientists as several jumped to their feet and began gesticulating. `Some things never change,' he mused. The Jaffa guessed the gist of the conversation without listening, so he tuned out the angry garble of voices that floated his way. His roving eyes caught a flash of blonde hair. Colonel Carter had emerged from one of the hospital tents. Teal'c noted the slope of her shoulders and the fact that her chin was almost on her chest. Only the tousled top of her head was visible.

`A bad sign,' he knew. `Another airman has died.'

Carter crossed the compound. Before she was half-way, she'd warded off five assaults from people needing decisions, intervention, guidance or support. Each contact left her shoulders more stooped and her chin tilted lower until, as she fled across the space, she appeared to be stampeding forward, like a tow-headed bull, charging for an escape.

Teal'c decided to follow, angling his vector to intercept the Colonel beyond the compound, but before she reached her tent, her most likely objective. Teal'c's assessment was accurate. He caught her attention just as she emerged from between a set of tightly clustered tents.

"Colonel Carter," he acknowledged her politely, without a hint of desire to talk.

"Hey Teal'c," she replied with a weary smile as he fell into step beside her.

Teal'c held his peace, letting her choose to speak or not. A moment passed and then another. Her pace slowed and Teal'c anticipated that she was about to speak. When she did, however, the subject surprised him.

"Is he gone, Teal'c?" she asked without preamble.

Teal'c knew better than to ask to whom she referred. He hesitated, but as they continued walking, replied.

"I do not know, Colonel Carter."

"Daniel keeps insisting that he is," Carter snorted, "He seems to think he's ascended and is looking over us."

"You disagree?" Teal'c asked. It was rare for the pair to disagree.

"Another airman, Snipes, just died Teal'c. Snipes was a good guy, a family guy, good at his job, brave ... He died of appendicitis. Snipes should be alive. If we had anything like the resources we should have, Snipes would be alive," Carter growled. "He wouldn't just ... watch. It wasn't how he worked and we both know it. Daniel should know it."

Teal'c inclined his head, choosing not to speak, allowing his friend to continue. He sensed she needed it.

"Besides," she blurted after half a dozen more strides, "I'd ... know. If he were gone, I'd know. I'd be sure of it. It just doesn't feel right." She shot a defensive glance at Teal'c as if she expected him to debate her point.

"Indeed," he replied.

"And that means," She continued, "he's back there. On Earth."

Something in her tone warned Teal'c this was the crux of the problem. He stopped and looked at her carefully, noting the tight wrinkles where her eyebrows almost met in an intense frown.

"He's back there, Teal'c," she said again, more urgently this time, "Alone. Waiting. If he's able, he's planning a rear-guard action."

"I do not understand, Colonel Carter," Teal'c replied, sensing deeper meaning, but mystified as to what it might be.

"General O'Neill ordered me to take charge of the SGC, Teal'c," she replied. "And then he told me to come back," she concluded, her eyes flashing. "I'm damn well going to do it. Now! Before we lose more of our people to ... appendicitis, or accidents, or worse."

Teal'c prided himself on his stoicism, but at that moment, he felt it crack and he didn't care.

"Colonel Carter," he exclaimed, "an attack on Earth anytime soon is unwise. Attempting it now would be madness. Our first objective must be to ensure the safety of those entrusted to your command. Organize, recoup our strength, consolidate our lines of defense and contact our allies. Then, when all is ready, we shall bring the fight to the enemy. Anything else is ... suicide."

Carter's eyes turned to icy blue shards and her spine straightened. The exhaustion lifted and her chin came up as she snapped, "Get this, Teal'c. We are a military force, not a band of refugees hoping for a handout from those more fortunate. There are plenty of human beings in the Universe, enough to ensure that the human race will continue. Unless we take back our homeworld, and damned soon, there is no hope that we will continue. I swore allegiance to the United States of America, the Constitution and the People. I swore to protect my country and our planet from all aggressors, foreign and domestic. I intend to fulfill that promise and, Teal'c, I hold those under my command to that same standard. If you don't intend to support me in this, you are free to go back to Chulak."

With that, she spun on her heel and ducked into her tent. Teal'c saw no point in following. He had his orders from SGC's new leader. A shiver ran down his spine. It was suicide to obey, and yet she was right. For the people of the Tauri, there was no other way - it was either fight ... and soon ... or fade away.



Chapter 8

Ice was a constant reminder that summer was gone and autumn was fading fast. As he leaned into the straps of the travois, Pete Shanahan reminded himself that the altitude was a factor, of course, and the latitude. Still, the ice was a clear sign. They were almost out of time.

"At least it makes this damned thing easier to move," he grunted as he dragged the deadweight forward, up the slope, keeping a keen eye out for smooth passageways across the rock-studded slopes.

"Huh?" the deadweight behind him grunted.

"Nothing," Pete snapped, "sleep."

There was no further reply, so Pete continued dragging the contraption up the slippery trail, wondering if the General might have finally learned to take an order. The man had to rest. Even strapped down, as he was, the constant bumps and shaking had to be agony. The General's only relief came through sleep. Sleep came only after exhaustion, brought on by the old fart's pride which made him bite back his pain. Aside from the occasional low curse, O'Neill held his tongue and endured, until sooner or later he passed out. Even so, Pete knew it had to be killing him.

Strangely, Pete found himself resenting even the stoic silence. Intellectually, he admired the tough old bastard. Any ordinary man would have cracked up long ago. Not O'Neill. Yet, with every step Pete felt his hatred grow. O'Neill's prodigious grit ground at his raw ego, rubbing and chafing, until it felt like a personal insult. It was as if he just had to prove, beyond any doubt, he was the better man. That feeling kept Pete pulling long and hard at the travois, at first to vent his aggravation and later to prove to O'Neill and himself that he could reach and pass the General's macho mark.

Yet, even as he sweated and strained to make the point, Pete did all in his power to let his patient sleep. Every day for the past three weeks, O'Neill grew worse. At first Pete didn't believed it was possible for a human being to be so damaged and still hang on.

O'Neill made him believe.

Pete hated him for it.

And, watching their struggle, Alecto smiled.

ΩΩΩ

Daniel chewed slowly, trying to make the mouthful of `tuna surprise' last. It was the final helping from the last canister of K-rations. From now on they'd live off the land. In Daniel's experience that was less than satisfactory.

Daniel looked at his comrade across the flickering campfire. The Jaffa chewed his ration deliberately. Teal'c's dark skin glimmered like liquid amber in the dancing light. Then, seeming to feel Daniel's silent question, he spoke.

"Colonel Carter is determined to mount a counter attack," he said.

Daniel nodded, "Yeah, I know. What do you think, Teal'c?"

"It is suicide," Teal'c replied. "The enemy will be well fortified. We have little weaponry, no heavy guns, and no ships except for a few unarmed transports. The attack will fail."

Daniel sighed, ran his spoon around the inside of his ration tin, and said, "She believes Jack is back there, waiting for us."

"O'Neill may be," Teal'c replied softly.

"I hope not," Daniel countered. Teal'c raised his eyes in question, so he continued, "because whoever they are, I think we encountered them on P3X-666. They showed no mercy there. They just cut through us."

Teal'c chewed thoughtfully, swallowed, and replied, "Indeed. They are most formidable opponents."

Daniel ran his spoon around the bottom of the tin and found nothing more to eat. He set down the tin and helped himself to another cup of ersatz coffee.

"If Jack's alive, Wildfire failed. He was sealed in the Mountain. The only way he's still alive is if they've captured him. He was the only one left. They'll concentrate every resource they have on him. They'll show no mercy, Teal'c. From what I saw last time we met up with these guys, their devices make regular Goa'uld seem like amateurs. They are far advanced technologically and they're aggressive in battle, very aggressive. That combination spells `ruthless.' So, I hope he's not waiting. If he's alive, if they have him, god help him."

Daniel took a long sip of the bitter brew in his cup. It was vile-tasting, but it was hot and had plenty of caffeine.

"He's better off dead. Isn't he, Teal'c?"

Teal'c stared into the fire, his face a mask. Finally, he spoke.

"We cannot know, Daniel Jackson. If O'Neill lives, he will resist our enemy. If he lives, it is our duty to find him, if we can, and free him. That, however, is not first in Colonel Carter's mind, I believe. "

"No?" Daniel asked, surprised.

"No," Teal'c continued. "Colonel Carter knows it is only a matter of time before her force is spent, Daniel Jackson. In a choice between death by hunger and disease ... or death in battle, she chooses battle."

Daniel took another sip of coffee as Teal'c continued, "Hers is the only true choice for a warrior."

ΩΩΩ

Morning came and Carter called her first war council. Daniel followed Teal'c into the darkness of the command tent. His eyes adjusted to the gloom and he saw Carter standing beside a wide, low table. A wooden box filled with sand covered three-quarters of the table top. Curious, Daniel squeezed closer and noted that the box has gradation marked on its inner walls. Someone had made the sand perfectly smooth, like it had been leveled with a straight-edge. About a dozen metal balls of different sizes were scattered across the sand. Round depressions and angular grooves in the sand seemed to indicate that balls had been placed and then removed.

Daniel decided the box was a rudimentary tactical display. Before he could get a sense of the tactic being considered, or the possible location of the theoretical battle, Carter began.

"Good morning," she said.

Those assembled, responded, "Morning, Colonel."

"People," Carter spoke quietly as she stepped in front of the table, "I want this understood, C ... F ... B. I am done running. I am taking you home. We are not retreating. We are not pulling back. We are not running away. Starting today -- we are taking back our home from this enemy. I am bringing this battle to Earth. We start here ... We start today."

A surprised murmur ran through the assembled officers and civilian team leaders. A thrill tickled Daniel's spine. Despite her calm tone, Daniel recognized fury in his friend. Sam was prepared to kill, calmly and with forethought. She would order her people, including him, to kill and to do whatever else was necessary. She would send every person under her command to their deaths if that's what it took to kick those bastards off of Earth.

Carter paused only for a moment, leaned against the table, then spoke, bringing the low murmur to an abrupt halt.

"I've been advised that a head-on attack is suicide," she said, glancing at Teal'c and Daniel. "Perhaps, but running, waiting, failing to act is slow death. We are warriors, people. As of now, I want every moment of every day of every one of you and all the people you command focused on one mission: Take back our home."

She paused. No one breathed. The silence held, until Carter nodded once and snapped, "Questions?"

Daniel spoke, "What do we do first?"

Carter's smile beamed, "We get intel. Doctor Jackson, organize your linguists and coordinate with Smits' radio-tracking team. Review our deep space radio transmissions from the attack. Review the transmissions for anything that might be a language. You are going to tell us who they are. We need to know where they came from, so we can hit them where it hurts."

She shifted her eyes to Teal'c and continued, "We get help. Teal'c, survey our allies. Find out what they know. Gather information on similar attacks. Find out everything you can about them. And, Teal'c? While you are at it, find out who we can count on for arms, supplies, ships, and troops."

She stood straight and continued in almost a shout, "We get moving! Dismissed!"

Daniel followed the assembled officers into the mid-morning sunlight. They had their marching orders. They all knew the mission. He squinted into the sun as he walked with Teal'c across the assembly area.

"What do you think?" he asked.

"I think," Teal'c replied, "you are going home, Daniel Jackson."

Daniel grinned and smirked, "I think you're right!" Then he slapped his friend on the back and jogged for the electronics tent. They were going home, or they'd die trying.

ΩΩΩ

Left alone in her command tent, Colonel Sam Carter stood with her hands on her hips, staring down at the metal balls arranged in the sandbox. She moved one back, removed another, and replaced a third with six others.

She traced her finger in the sand, spelling out the name, `Jack.'

He'd said, `Come back.'

He meant good-bye.

He'd never ordered her to return.

Still, he'd said the words and she could take it anyway she chose.

He was alive. He was out there doing all he could to create a viable resistance.

He'd back her up when she made her move.

She just knew it ... but as a Colonel in the United State Air Force, she couldn't act on blind faith alone.

Sam traced her index finger across the letters of his name again, then deliberately smoothed the sand, erasing the letters, and turned her considerable training, experience, and native intelligence on constructing a backup plan of her own ... just in case.



Chapter 9

Pete slipped and fell hard. The travois came to a lurching halt. Pete groaned, stood, dusted his bruised palms against his thighs and turned to check on his passenger. The old man didn't move. Morning sun made the ice crystals shimmer in his thick silver-shot beard. The shimmer was dense around his nostrils, telling Pete that O'Neill was still breathing.

He put his hand against his back and stretched, groaning again softly. Then he gathered up the makeshift harness, looped it over his shoulder and leaned forward. The travois began to skitter across the frozen, stone-studded ground. Pete moved forward steadily, carefully scanning the area ahead for an unobstructed path, doing all he could to let the dying man behind him get some rest.

Pete continued until mid-day. Then he stopped on an area with only a slight slope and built a small fire. When the fire was crackling, Pete unlashed the canteen from the travois and took a long, thirsty pull of cold water. As he lowered the canteen, his stomach rumbled. He was hungry. He glanced at his patient. O'Neill didn't seem to know they'd stopped or, if he knew, he didn't care. His eyelids flickered, but didn't open. He was quiet, except for the slight whistling sigh each time he exhaled.

Pete looped the canteen strap through a belt loop and considered which way to go to find food and water. He'd eaten the last of the roasted marmot strips at midday yesterday. The country had changed and he hadn't noticed any marmot signs all morning. It was cold and growing windier as they gained altitude. Pete wished the old man would open his eyes and tell him what to do.

An evil whisper crept into Shanahan's thoughts. `Why doesn't he wake up. You can't do this alone. Why won't he help?' it said.

Pete frowned. His mouth twisted into an angry grimace and he rubbed his aching shoulder, suddenly furious with the motionless man on the litter.

"At least you could wake up," he muttered, the hiss entwining with his words, "and tell me where to go."

From the first, Shanahan had recognized that he wouldn't survive without the O'Neill's advice. Too sick to get anywhere under his own power, the old man needed Pete, as well. He'd said as much their first night together. So a grudging truce had developed as they'd combined Pete's strong back with O'Neill's field acumen to face an endless array of mundane needs, any one of which would have posed an overwhelming barrier to Pete's survival alone.

Water, for example: Pete had tried at first to carry water by drenching his sweater in the mountain streams. It only succeeded in drenching Pete and in making O'Neill laugh `til he nearly choked.

Standing there, staring at the sleeping man, Pete remembered and his hate burned hotter.

"Screw you," he murmured and he turned up the slope and started to walk away. But then his anger cooled and his steps slowed as he remembered the rest of it.

After he'd regained his composure, O'Neill had wiped his eyes, groaned and fell back breathing gingerly. Moments passed as O'Neill's excruciating bout of mirth subsided. Pete had huddled beside the fire, trying to dry the front of his pants, pissed at himself and even more pissed at the sarcastic old man.

Finally, O'Neill had spoken.

"Take the jacket," he'd growled.

"You need it," Pete had responded. "I'm not that cold."

"Take it," Jack repeated, "and rip out the bottom seam."

Frowning, Pete had obeyed. He'd crouched beside the fire, turned the leather jacket and, using his teeth and then the edge of a small sharp stone shard, he'd sliced through the heavy-duty threads and then pulled and ripped until the entire hem was opened.

Pete had glanced at the General, who'd slipped into sleep. He'd been tempted to ask what to do, but the thick elastic strap inside the hem suggested an obvious next step. Pete pulled the elastic free, chose a sturdy, y-shaped stick, and fashioned a slingshot.

While O'Neill dosed, he slipped away and began to hunt marmots, gigantic ground squirrels as big as small dogs that inhabited the scree-strewn slopes. Fortunately, Pete's practiced eye helped him master the art and, within a few hours, he'd killed four of the fat furry creatures.

Pete was again beside the fire when O'Neill awoke, roused by the scent of roasting meat. Pete had grinned proudly as the General murmured, "Good job." He'd held the stick out, offering a smoking morsel.

The old man had declined, saying simply, "Eat."

So, Pete ate. After four days without food, he'd devoured two of the creatures immediately, barely waiting for the raw meat to roast over the open fire. After the second, he woke O'Neill and forced him to share the meat of the third. The General accepted a portion and chewed it slowly, thoughtfully, while Pete inhaled the remainder.

When the feast was over, the General asked, "Is that all of them?"

Pete shook his head, still chewing the last mouthful, and jabbed a finger at a fourth marmot. "One more, a big one," he mumbled through the mouthful of half-chewed meat.

Pete had skinned the last marmot under the watchful eye of the General, by making a tiny slit in the throat of the animal and working the skin away from the flesh and bones until the insides could be removed without damaging the integument. Then, he skewered the meat and let it hang over the flames.

While the strips of flesh roasted, Pete had continued working until the entire pelt was inverted. Next, at O'Neill's direction, Pete rubbed wood ash into the greasy underside and then carefully scraped it away; repeating the process until every trace of fat was eliminated, leaving only a hairy sack of flexible parchment-like skin.

Then, again under the General's direction, Pete had turned the marmot-sack into a rudimentary canteen. After the better part of two days, Pete had the tools to provide them with the basics of food and water.

Transportation had been the next difficulty. O'Neill wouldn't be walking anytime soon. As much as Pete resented him, he couldn't leave the sick old man to die. Even if he could, he knew he'd never survive on his own. So, he killed another half-dozen marmots. While the General skinned and roasted the rodents, Pete found three long poles of dried wood. Using strips of raw marmot hides, he lashed the poles into a long, narrow triangle. By the next day the rawhide dried and shrunk, forming tight ligatures around the joints of the platform, just as O'Neill had predicted. Pete's leather jacket was sacrificed to create the harness and a blend of rawhide and willow wands was formed into a crude but sturdy platform, reinforced with the lining of the jacket and wool from Pete's sweater.

Staring back at the sleeping man, Pete wanted to leave. He wanted to find his own way out, save Sam, and do it without Jack O'Neill's help. He couldn't and he knew it.

Reluctantly, he returned to the travois, looped the harness over his shoulders and began to pull.

ΩΩΩ

Hours passed and it grew dark. It was snowing heavily. Pete stumbled and fell. Instead of getting up, he simply lay there in the dark, cursing O'Neill for not helping. He huddled beside the travois, pulled his knees to his chest, drew his sweater tightly around his wind chapped hands, and slept.

The next morning, he woke, staggered to his feet, slipped the harness in place and continued, doing his best to ignore the rumbling of his stomach and the pain in his muscles. Wind cut through his ragged sweater, but Pete just lowered his chin and kept at it. Sweat soaked his chest and thighs, but he shivered constantly. The marmot hair that he'd stuffed into his boots and inside his sweater helped but, without food to fuel his metabolism, his muscles seemed incapable of generating heat.

More and more often, Pete had to stop to catch his breath. He wouldn't sit. It was too easy to fall asleep. Instead, he'd turn his back to the biting wind and gaze back down the mountain slope, surveying the area he'd covered. Then, before he turned back into the wind, he would glance at O'Neill. At first the old man would say something. These days he didn't. The realization that O'Neill was dying and soon he'd be alone in this wilderness scared Pete Shanahan more than he cared to admit.

The snow and the increasing altitude had made it harder each day to find the fat, lazy marmots that they'd relied on as food. Now, after their first full month of travel, Pete rarely noticed signs of wildlife. Even if it was there, he was too tired to think clearly. He merely stumbled on, head down, occasionally sampling twigs from the brushes they passed. Most were far too tough to eat, although Pete gnawed the bark anyway. Those that were in the least bit tender invariably tasted like sink cleanser. Those he spit out and avoided.

Even more worrying than hunger and exhaustion, Pete had noticed a murmuring in his head. At first he'd thought it was birds, or small animals of some sort hiding among the rocks. He searched but never found them. There were no animals, he realized, but pretended it was the wind.

It wasn't wind.

It was a voice.

As days passed and O'Neill became less and less responsive, the voice grew strong. Now she goaded him constantly, telling him to leave the helpless old man to the elements, telling him to go on alone.

Pete could hear her hiss, `You hate him. You want him to die.'

Pete was finding it hard to disagree.

Now, when he turned and looked back at the old man he wondered when the son-of-a-bitch would give up and die, so he could go on alone. That, or maybe O'Neill would have the good grace to open his eyes, just once more, and offer some idea of what the hell Pete should do to stay alive.

O'Neill didn't open his eyes. As the hours and days ran together, his frustration and hunger were sharpened by the feeling that he was not going to save this man for Sam. He was just making him die more slowly.

Even when they'd had food, the old man rarely had accepted more than a mouthful. Pete suspected he was diverting the fuel to the draft animal. He flushed angrily at the thought, resenting the possibility that he owed gratitude to Jack O'Neill for anything.

With snow hiding the ground and his strength ebbing fast, Pete feared that he was close to starving, too. He had to find food or die, but he hesitated. He bent and fussed with a loose binding. He tied it back into a tight knot, then straightened, cast a look at O'Neill and rubbed his hand through his beard. He lifted his eyes and searched the area for tracks or other signs of small animals. There was nothing but pristine snow. He untied the canteen and drank, retied it, and stood fretting for another long moment.

"Just wake up and tell me what to do," he whined under his breath.

Still O'Neill didn't stir. He just continued to suck in air in that abnormal, shallow way that told Pete how much it must hurt.

Unwilling to leave without the old man's counsel, Pete squatted and built a small fire. Every few seconds he shot a hopeful glance at O'Neill. No change occurred.

The fire caught and began feeding on the damp twigs he dropped into it. He warmed his hands and glanced again at O'Neill. Nothing.

Finally, Pete's stomach growled and he straightened, snatched the slingshot and canteen from their places on the travois, and muttered aloud, "Sleep if you want, you old fart. Maybe you can live on air, but I gotta eat. Sun's going to be down in a couple hours."

He turned away, angry and afraid. He either had to find and kill something and then make it back before sunset, or go hungry until morning. With snow already covering the ground, he doubted he'd find anything to kill.

Pete's stomach rumbled again, painfully. He started to walk, felt loose rock under his boot soles, stopped and scooped up a handful of pebbles. Then he cut across the slope, angling toward a stand of trees that might flank the edge of a mountain stream. As he walked he kept turning to gaze back every few paces. After about forty yards, Pete cast one more hopeful gaze over his shoulder. O'Neill hadn't stirred. So, he turned and stalked resolutely toward the trees.

ΩΩΩ

Jack knew Shanahan was gone. He'd sensed the other man's confusion, felt his indecision, and thought irritably, `When will that sorry son-of-a-bitch just grow up?' He was too tired to talk to the wretched man. Besides, talking hadn't taught Pete how to survive. It just made him more dependant.

`Shanahan has to learn sometime,' Jack rationalized, 'or kill us both trying.' So, Jack had remained `asleep' until hunger had driven Shanahan away. After what seemed like an eternity, the small sounds had died away. Ernest blue eyes no longer raked at him, impatient for guidance on what to do next.

`As if I have any ... freaking ... clue,' Jack thought miserably, as he drifted in and out of consciousness.

ΩΩΩ

Jack opened his eyes. The sun was at the peaks. He couldn't see much else, not without moving and moving was not quite within his grasp. Not ... quite ... grasp-able.

A flock of small birds passed over. Then, high above, a raptor cut lazy spirals, caught an updraft, rose to a pinpoint, and vanished.

Jack gazed at the spot where the bird had faded into the navy blue of early evening; a front moved in from the west; the fire died down. A blustery surface wind rose up and it grew colder.

The sunset washed bloody red fingers across the darkening sky behind the mountain peaks.

Alien eyes observed in the fading light.

Jack began to shiver. A jolt of fire shot through his upper body.

"Oh, crud," he growled, "this ... sucks," as he became suddenly, fully aware of where he was and what was happening.

Alecto smiled, lifted her bony hands to her lips, and blew a long, hard blast and bone-deep cold engulfed the mountainside.

Jack wrapped his arms around his chest, tucking his icy hands deep into his armpits, and growled, "This ... really ... sucks," as jolts of pain echoed and re-echoed. Desperate for distraction, he turned his thoughts to Shanahan ... 'where the hell is he?' he wondered.

Alecto felt his mind ... opening. "He's ready," she murmured as she swooped lower, dipping into his half-formed thoughts to provide the answer.

Unbidden, Sam slipped into Jack's mind, and he was turning over and over ... again and again ... what she could possibly have seen in the guy.

`The cop's single-minded,' Jack forced himself to consider, working hard to keep Sam out of the equation, `Gotta give him credit. For the past month he's dragged almost two hundred pounds straight up this damned mountain. Takes guts.'

In the back of his mind he heard an evil hiss, 'Is that what she desires from him?'

Jack hung tough, avoiding the breath of doubt, 'And, he's not stupid. Far from it.'

`He's a fool,' a voice snapped back and Jack grimaced. The image of Pete sopping wet slipped into his mind's eye.

`Not brilliant,' he thought ruefully, `but really not stupid. Hell, he's inexperienced. He's probably never hunted anything ... except drug pushers, I suppose. He's never lived off the land. Still, he made an effective slingshot, learned to use it, and built a serviceable travois.'

`He'll kill you both,' the voice hissed.

`Still,' Jack admitted, `he's such a ... schmuck.' Jack shuddered. 'The silly bastard seems to think I have all the damned answers,' Jack grumbled, `like I'm just not sharing. Why would I do that?'

"Damned fool," Jack muttered aloud.

Alecto smiled and bent nearer, breathing malevolence like wafts of poisonous gas.

`So what,' Jack wondered, as a rush of frustration washed over him, `did stumbling, bumbling Pete Shanahan ever do to do to impress a woman like Sam?'

Alecto provided the answer, not in words, but in a rush of torrid images.

Jack snorted at the thought, then gasped as a bolt of pain tore at his chest. He inhaled sharply and then choked, fighting back his body's reaction, but losing the fight.

In his mind's eye, he saw Sam in Shanahan's arms. She pulled him close and smiled up in a hungry way. She took his hand, dropped her gaze from his eyes to his mouth, and lifted his hand to her breast.

"Crap," Jack wheezed, "get a fucking grip, O'Neill! Do not go there."

It was too late. Shanahan was at her blouse buttons. Even worse, she was helping.

"Ah, god Sam," he groaned, "no."

Alecto felt her prey turn against her control and cursed his willpower.

Jack forced the images away and filled his mind with his last true memory of Sam Carter. The last of the troops were bugging out. He looked down at her. The Gate erupted and Sam turned. Their eyes caught and he knew she'd do her duty come hell or high water. In that moment, Jack O'Neill had been so damned proud that, as the world crumbled around them, he wanted to smile. He nearly smiled and then she was gone.

Jack woke with a jolt.

"She's coming back," he muttered. "I gotta get through this ... somehow. Just one more time. Let me be here for her ... Just this last time. Please."

Though Jack had faced the most bizarre and dangerous enemies that mankind had faced in three thousand years, he'd never seen the likes of the unidentified aliens that had appeared out of nowhere and laid waste to the Earth. Next to them, Apophis with his `bow before your god' routine had been a rank amateur. Baal's acid treatment, though hideously intimate and painful as hell - especially when you did it a few dozen times -- was small potatoes compared to these guys. Anubis, though spooky with all his other-worldly, half-transcended being shtick, was a rookie. For flat-out, knock-you-on-your-ass, take-your-lunch-and-your-milk-money, barebones aggression, Jack had never seen their equal.

'So help me, Sam,' he thought, 'I never meant it as an order.' He knew she'd obey and die. 'Unless I can organize a force behind their lines, before you come back, you'll face these bastards alone.'

He moaned softly at the thought and wondered, `How long have I got, Sam?'

`You'll delay until you can try to involve some of our former allies,' he figured. `You'll strike out. Any races advanced enough to help will plead a policy of noninterference. Any willing to help will lack the technology to be of use. You can just bet on it. Only after you face that fact, Sam, will you pull your SG Teams together, arm the civilians and try go it alone.'

`Assuming a 20 percent attrition rate, standard for injuries, illness and accident in combat,' Jack calculated, `you'll have a force of just over three hundred. One third will be SFs; another third Marines; and the rest airmen. There'll be a few dozen more, if you arm civilian scientists and the medical staff. Toss in adult civilians of fighting age who evacuated and you might field a force of a thousand, almost two-third untrained combatants.' He groaned at the thought and lay still, not thinking, just listening to the moan of the wind.

When he opened his eyes again, the clouds had blotted out the sunset. He watched them pile up to the west and considered the other side of the equation -- the enemy. They struck thirty days ago, maybe thirty-one. He'd been unconscious on the mountain for a while.

By now they'd be well prepared for a counter-attack.

`By the time you complete a thorough analysis of the situation and organize a textbook counter assault, the bastards will have fixed everything up to order. They'll be in strong defensive positions. So, when you finally face facts, accept that you and I are on our own in this fight, and mount an offensive, you'll face an impossible situation. Toss in the fact that these guys have the most advanced technology we've ever seen. Toss in the fact that you can expect no ground support, no reinforcements, and no eyes on the ground,' Jack calculated and decided he didn't like the obvious result.

"Sam, it is gonna be a bloodbath," he muttered.

Alecto's eyes blazed. The man resisted her taunts. It was maddening, but she pressed harder, using his fears, magnifying them and bending his memories and emotions to her purpose.

Waves of destruction and pain filled his mind. Jack gasped and swallowed hard, instantly regretting it. Black spots danced before his eyes. His pulse pounded like a two-stroke diesel engine. He took a shallow breath, cleared his mind, and exhaled slowly, forcing the fear back and calming himself.

"Gotta think," he muttered, "Can't pass out. I'll freeze. Sam can't face these bastards alone."

Icy wind sighed and moaned across the bare mountainside. Jack shuddered, closed his eyes and murmured, "God, help me ... help her."

Alecto dipped into his mind, heard his plea, and knew, 'She gives him strength. It is time,' she decided, 'to turn her to my purpose.'

As her eyes blazed, the clouds cleared in the west. An angry sunset burned with tongues of ruby fire. A storm was coming.

ΩΩΩ

Pete shivered in his tattered sweater as he backtracked toward camp with two small marmots and a squirrel-like animal he couldn't identify by name. The sun had slipped behind the peaks, abandoning the evening sky to gaudy splotches of rose, purple and mauve.

Pete glanced over his shoulder at the sunset and thought, `Bad sign. There's going to be one helluva storm tonight or tomorrow.'

The plunging temperature worried him. Coupled with rising winds and the brilliant sunset, the sudden, bitter cold warned Pete to find camp as soon as possible and try to prepare for a rough night.

Pete slung his meager kill across his back and picked up the pace as he reached the edge of scree littering the slope. Jogging, he hoped, would warm him and might help him make better time.

He'd hunted too long and wandered farther than usual. For the first time in four weeks of living off the land, he'd actually had to hunt for game. He hadn't found signs of the fat rodents for the past two days and realized he'd probably climbed beyond the region where the creatures were plentiful. Wiry rodents had replaced the fat, sedentary marmots. The new rodents were scarcer and far more wary. They were also smaller targets. Pete had only managed to hit one today.

Now he was retracing his steps in deep twilight. Though he'd noted landmarks on his way out, things looked different in the gloom. Dark would be complete in less than an hour. When it came, his odds of finding the camp would slip from slim to none.

Pete fought back panic and the dread of facing O'Neill's smartass remarks, if he ever found O'Neill. He picked up the pace and forced himself to concentrate on scrambling across the next swath of scree, sliding on patches of the loose rock scattered between areas of low brush and stunted trees. The sky behind him turned from deep red to maroon and then to black. Stars shone dimly through scudding clouds. A fingernail of moon rose, shedding little light. Then snow began to fall, further obscuring the stars and the moon.

In the snowstorm, Pete never saw the men on his trail.

ΩΩΩ

Toward midnight snow changed to sleet. Jack woke with a start, coughed before he could stop himself, and fought the unconsciousness that threatened. As the pain passed, he realized that ice was pelting his exposed skin. He'd lost feeling in his feet and face. He jammed his fists under his arms, turned onto his side, drew his knees to his chest, and waited.

The wind grew stronger and soon snow was piling up against the travois.

"Damn-it, Shannahan," Jack cursed, "you useless son-of-a-bitch. You're lost on this damned mountain, aren't you? You sorry bastard, you couldn't find your rump with both hands."

"Sam, what the hell did you see in that fool," he groaned, giving in to frustration. Then with a bitter sigh he shoved his numb hands into his fatigue pockets and rummaged, searching for his lighter. After a painful and unproductive search, he remembered.

'Crap! I gave my Zippo to Shanahan... and Shanahan is gone," he growled.

Jack steeled himself for what he had to do. Then with a grunt, he rolled and half fell off the travois. He hit the frozen ground, yelped in pain, and then slowly dragged himself to his knees. Standing seemed far too ambitious, so he didn't even try. Instead he crawled, painfully and slowly, wincing as unseen shards of rock dug into his knees and gasping with the effort.

"Shit," he groaned as he collapsed at the base of a bush. He rested a moment then reached down for his right boot, worked his unfeeling fingers into the bootlace and, through great concentration, untied the knotted ends of the lace. He slipped the lace ends through the boot eyelets, and finally he had the lace loose enough to pull free. He pulled it out of the remaining eyelets and wadded it into a tight bundle and shoved it into his trouser pocket. His hands were too numb to feel it, so he pressed the pocket against his thigh, feeling the small lump against his crotch to make sure it hadn't fallen into the snow.

Satisfied at last that the bootlace was safely stowed, Jack dragged himself under the branches of the bush and up against its roots. He reached his right hand up into the brush, watched his fingers grasp a straight, slender branch about the diameter of his little finger. Then he pulled down, stripping the branch from the bush. Then, he jabbed the thicker end of the green branch against his instep, fished the bootlace out of his pocket, and bent the flexible wood into an arc. He fumbled with the lace, but using his teeth and unwilling fingers, he finally managed to tie each end of the bootlace to either end of the arched branch, forming a simple bow.

Exhausted, Jack fell back into the snow and closed his eyes. Flakes fell softly on his face and arms. He felt them melt, joining with the sticky slick of sweat on his neck and face to form rivulets down his temples and to pool at the base of his throat. The snow wasn't cold. It felt like feathers, bits of down from the comforter his Grandpa had let him use in the cabin.

Jack's eyes snapped open.

"Crap," Jack coughed as he rolled back onto his knees. "Don't sleep," he growled, "Damn! You know better!" He reached up into the brush, closed his reluctant fingers around a thick limb and jerked down hard, snapping the dead limb, and sending shockwaves of pain through his chest and back.

"Shhhiiiit!" he croaked. "Oh, shit that hurts!"

As the pain faded, Jack groped in the snow for the bow, found it and shoved the dry limb through the arc, turned the bootlace, looping it around the limb, and then peered into the snow-filled night. He made out a dim form of a downed tree amid the flakes. Cradling the bow and limb, he dragged himself across the icy ground to a stump. It took all his willpower to reach it and he collapsed against the craggy surface. He smelled rot and felt soft flakes of bark and wood crumble against his cheek. It smelled dry, but maybe a bit too rotten. Jack knew, rotten or not, it would have to do, he was too weak to crawl off looking for anything better. He rested a moment, catching his breath and gathering his courage. This was going to hurt. This was his last shot at surviving. He felt his heartbeat slow as he rested in the shelter of the stump.

His eyelids started to fall.

"Damn-it," he choked, jerking his head up and blinking.

"Stay awake. Enough screwing around, get to it, O'Neill!"

He grasped the limb, lifted it overhead, and drove the butt viciously into a narrow crevice at the base of the stump. The force of the blow reverberated through his chest. Adrenalin gushed into his system. Hissing with pain, he grabbed the bow, settled his left shoulder into the side of the stump and steadied the other end of the limb with his left hand. Then, with his right hand, he gathered loose duff and pine needles into a pile at the base of the limb. When it was in place, he began sawing, moving the makeshift bow back and forth as fast as his freezing muscles could move. As he sawed, he blew gently into the duff and needles at the base of the rapidly spinning limb.

He was trying to start a fire by friction.

As he sawed furiously, the wind drove the heat away from the tinder. Still he continued. Sleet encased the wood. It caught in his hair and beard; it fell on his shoulders and back.

Soon Jack was numb, thoroughly exhausted, and coated with ice. His arms and fingers were cramping. He was shivering so hard that he could no longer hold the stick in place. The sleet turned to wet, heavy snow. The spinning limb slipped out of the crevice and the bootlace snapped.

Jack slumped over, pulled his knees to his chest, and let his eyelids close. He murmured, "I'm so sorry, Sam."

ΩΩΩ

Jack's eyes snapped open. He stared into darkness overhead. A low ceiling of log beams came into focus. He was in a cabin. Dry ... Warm ... Alive. He took a breath. His ribs didn't creak. He tried to rise, but a thick layer of blankets held him in place.

Jack turned his head slightly, trying to discover if he'd been rescued or captured. A fire crackled softly somewhere out of his field of view. The wind sighed outside and there was the pattering of sleet against the logs overhead.

Jack listened to the wind and sleet until his eyes closed. He slept again.

A blast of icy air woke him. A door had opened. Footsteps warned him someone was coming. Then, there was Pete Shanahan staring down at him, grinning inanely.

A voice hissed in Jack's ear, 'He saved you,' it taunted.

"Hey," Pete said. "Feeling better?"

'He saved you,' the voice cackled.

Rage boiled up as Jack gazed up at the grinning ass and heard derisive laughter.

"What the hell do you have to smile about, Shanahan?" Jack snapped. "I thought you were dead! I thought I was dead! I figured you'd finally managed to kill yourself, let me freeze to death, and as a freaking result, let Sam Carter, the woman you're supposed to love, face who-or-what-ever-the-hell she's facing out there on her own!"

Pete stared, thunderstruck.

Alecto hovered nearby feeding Jack's anger and relishing the results.

"I just gotta say," Jack raged. "I do not grasp what Sam Carter ever saw in an incompetent son-of-a-bitch like you!"

Shanahan's face went white. His mouth clamped shut and his jaws flexed spasmodically.

Jack paused for a moment, mortified at his outburst, but he couldn't bring himself to back off. He continued to glare at the stunned man. When Pete didn't move, he finally growled, "Get the hell out of my sight." Then he turned his back, closed his eyes and pretended to sleep, hoping Shanahan would slink off.

Pete stared at Jack's back, then sneered, "It's not any of your business, General O'Neill, what Samantha Carter sees in me. If it means anything to you, Sam told me it's being a woman. Maybe she's a hell of a soldier for you, General. With me it's not like that! With me, she's a hell of a woman. You might save the world on a weekly schedule, but get this, O'Neill! I get to make her my world! Personally, you selfish old fuck, I'm pretty sure I got the better deal."

Then, Pete spun and slammed out of the cabin, leaving Jack to contemplate a truth he'd never wanted to face.

ΩΩΩ

Sometime later, Jack woke suddenly. His hackles rose involuntarily. Eyes were on him. He didn't move. Someone had entered the room and, if his sixth sense was still functioning, was sitting in the corner watching him sleep.

`Not Shanahan,' he decided when there was no rustling, drumming of fingers or any of the dozens of other nervous ticks he'd grown to know and loath. `Pete Shanahan couldn't sit perfectly still if his life depended on it.'

Jack's taut nerves tightened another notch as he wondered, if not Shanahan, who was waiting for him to wake up. A minute passed and then another. Finally, irritated, Jack lost patience and growled, "What?"

"You're awake," a male voice replied, "Good."

Jack opened his eyes and turned to see a very fit, middle-age man step out of the shadows.

`When did it get dark?' he wondered, while he assessed this new variable.

"Where am I?" Jack rasped, trying for a commanding-but-polite tone and missing. `I sound half dead,' he realized.

"And who are you?" he continued with more energy, which only made him sound pissed off.

The man stopped at the side of the bed, where Jack noted he didn't need to move to see him.

"I'm a doctor," the stranger answered. "My name's Martin and I think it's fair to say I saved your life General O'Neill. You were suffering from exposure and had a foreign body embedded in your chest, just under your diaphragm. You are still suffering from pleurisy, an infection resulting from the wound. Antibiotics and painkillers are being administered."

Jack flinched, wondering how the stranger knew him, then recalled Shanahan.

"Pete told you my name?" he asked to be sure.

The man nodded.

"You know what happened ... out there?" Jack asked. "You have television ... radio?"

The man nodded again and replied. "We had television and radio. For a little more than a month we've had no contact with the outside world. Mr. Shanahan told me about the attacks he survived. You are the first we've encountered. We did set up roving patrols. We expected some people outside of Cody might have made it into the mountains. We didn't expect an Air Force General and a police detective ..."

The man raised his hand to his forehead. Jack had the impression he was weary and had one helluva headache.

"And as to where you are ... This is a Boy Scout Jamboree camp, a sort of retreat, outside of Cody, Wyoming. For the past day or two you've been traveling through the Washakie Wilderness area. You very nearly made it out of these mountains. Mr. Shanahan and you managed to travel just over five hundred miles."

The man paused, giving Jack time to absorb the information. After a moment, he continued, "Where, may I ask, were you and Mr. Shanahan planning to ... go?"

Jack paused, uneasy, and let his eyelids fall, before he spoke, "I'm tired, Doctor Martin. I appreciate what you did for us ... for me, Doc. If you don't mind, I think I'm gonna go back to sleep."

Martin shifted uneasily, cleared his throat, and answered, "Certainly. Certainly, General. You need to rest and, when you feel ready, we'll get you off this intravenous and onto something solid. We can talk more, later."

The man paused, shifted again, and then turned as if to leave.

Satisfied that he'd given up his gentle attempt at interrogation for the moment, Jack took a shot.

"Hey, Doc?" he mumbled sleepily, "Who'd you say owns this place? The Boy Scouts?"

"It's a corporate retreat," the doctor replied as he crossed the room. "The property belongs to a consortium of about fifty corporations with shared financial interests," the doctor sounded as if he was reading from a corporate prospectus. He paused and turned in the doorway, "They let the Scouts use it, and really only hold occasional meeting here themselves. I suppose there are tax benefits for sharing it with a nonprofit organization. I'm not really sure. I am on staff here, but I am the physician, not involved with keeping the books. We have Scouts on-site pretty much all the time. That keeps me fairly busy. And then, there are the occasional ...visitors like yourself and Mr. Shanahan."

He stepped through the door and his voice grew muffled as he concluded, "Now, do go to sleep, General. You need to rest."

After he heard the door close, Jack opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling.

`Washakie Wilderness ... Boy Scouts ... corporate interests,' he pondered, feeling a cold knot form in his guts. He'd seen something, somewhere in a report he'd skimmed. Daniel had written it. Jack had glanced through it. It was full of graphs and charts and footnotes, dense with technical terms, like all of Daniel's reports. It was a long time ago, at least three or four years.

Jack rubbed his forehead, wincing at the pain in his chest from raising his arm, but he didn't stop. He focused, ignoring the pain.

`Something about the Washakie Wilderness,' he thought, `something about ... some slimy son-of-a-bitch who using kids, specifically Boy Scouts, as cover.'

Jack lay awake, staring at the hand hewn logs overhead, and trying to sort though the details. Birds sang before his eyes finally closed and, then, he dozed lightly, fully expecting another shoe to fall.



Chapter 10

Teal'c stepped back through the `Gate and turned to watch the troops replace the cover stone. A hand on his back brought him round to find Colonel Carter looking up at him expectantly.

She read his face and a pinched tension entered her eyes.

"They turned us down," she said.

Teal'c inclined his head and agreed, "Indeed. Colonel Carter, the Tolan High Council sends greetings but asked me to remind you of its longstanding policy of noninterference in the affairs of less advanced societies."

"Damn," Carter said, spinning away from Teal'c and heading for her command tent. Teal'c followed silently, expecting her to ask for details once the disappointment passed.

Carter settled at her desk inside the tent and, when Teal'c had taken a seat, she said, "After all we did to put them back on their sanctimonious feet! Ungrateful ... jerks."

She sighed, let her head fall forward into her hands, then rubbed her hair briskly, and straightened.

"Tell me the rest."

"I spoke with the other advanced races as well," Teal'c replied. "None will aid us."

"What about the Free Jaffa Alliance?" Carter prompted, leaning forward.

"I am sorry, Colonel Carter," Teal'c replied. "It was debated. I had hopes for success. In the end, however, they too found assisting us in the effort to free Earth ... inopportune."

Carter's face grew tight and she nodded. "I expected as much before I sent you," she said softly, "and so did you, I think. Thanks for trying, Teal'c."

The Jaffa inclined his head and waited.

"So, it's just us," she continued. "I have one thousand twenty-five people, enough small arms and no ships, heavy armaments, or other weapons. How in hell am I going to do this?"

Teal'c smiled and rumbled, "I thought you would never ask, Colonel Carter. I have a plan and ... we do have ships."

Carter blinked in surprise and leaned forward.

"Tell me," she said.

"After visiting the assigned worlds," Teal'c explained, "and receiving only disappointment, I sought out former ... associates."

Carter nodded.

"Before we met, Colonel Carter, I was the First Prime of Apophis. My duties were very broad. I commanded troops, as you know, but I was also expected to make other arrangements. Should the need arise for my Master's escape, I was to have the means at hand at a moment's notice."

"Ships?" Carter whispered.

"Ships," Teal'c confirmed. "I hid treasure at a number of sites far behind Apophis' consolidated defensive lines, as they stood at the time I was First Prime. The treasure was to be used to purchase escape ships, should it become necessary."

"And weapons?" Carter prompted, clasping her hands and resting her chin on her fists.

"Weapons, as well," Teal'c replied, nodding, his eyes glowing. "I established a network of contacts who, for a price, could supply ships, weapons, even troops if I chose. Before returning here, I took the liberty of locating some of the treasure troves of Apophis. It was only possible to reach three of them. Others are unreachable at this time. I did acquire enough for our purposes. I reacquainted myself with former contacts. I have assurances of both ships and weapons. By Jaffa standards, it is not much, but I believe it is more than enough to arm every person in this camp ... and more."

Carter frowned, "More?"

Teal'c smiled and continued.

"The advanced societies have refused us. There are others we have befriended, Colonel Carter, many, many others. Most of these friends have ancient traditions of supporting formidable warrior classes. These people lacked only weapons equal to their foe or they would have freed themselves, without our intercession. But we did in fact help them. As a result, they live and die free. Since they have been freed from the tyranny of the Goa'uld, most of these Peoples have led happy, peaceful lives. They have raised their children and their children's children in the traditions of their elders. There are, as a result, growing armies of untried warriors: Young men and women who possess the skills of warriors, but lack experience."

Teal'c paused and Carter prompted, "How many, Teal'c? Exactly?"

"Twelve worlds pledge their sons and daughters to you, and to freeing the Tauri Home World. Twenty-eight thousand warriors are coming to our aid. You need only arm them ... and command."

ΩΩΩ

Daniel hunched over a folding camp table, and ran his finger across his notes, checking and double-checking his analysis.

"I've missed something," he muttered.

"What?" Felger asked, rising up off the cot where he'd been sleeping. "What'd you say?"

"I've missed something," Daniel repeated, continuing to scan his notations. "I just know it's ... here ... somewhere."

"You've been saying that for four weeks, Doctor Jackson," Felger sighed, dropping back onto the cot. "And I was having the most wonderful dream."

"Don't want to hear it!" Daniel snapped, fearing Felger might share too much information about his embarrassing infatuation with Sam. "Trying to think."

Coombs, who'd been trying to sleep on the other cot agreed, "I concur, wholeheartedly."

Felger took the hint and closed his eyes, hoping to pick up the threads of what had been a delicious dream. He'd just slipped back into a light dream state when a roar jerked him away from Samantha Carter's welcoming arms.

"Look!" Daniel roared again. "I've got it, Felger. Wake up for-god-sake! Felger! I've got it."

"Got what?" Felger asked, swinging his legs over the edge of the cot and scrambling back to consciousness.

"I know what this does," Daniel exclaimed, waving a sketch of the Super-Goa'uld device around. "I know what it is!"

"Great," Felger muttered, wondering why Jackson couldn't just let him sleep for five or ten ... years.

Coombs muttered, "Doctor Jackson, I think we already knew what it is. It's a weapon so powerful that it kicked our ass on P3X-666."

"Not like I'd forget that, Coombs," Daniel snapped. Then flopped back into his chair and grinned at Felger expectantly.

"I know what it does," he repeated invitingly.

Felger stared back for a moment, then yawned, stretched, and asked, "So, what does it do?"

Daniel grinned and said gleefully, "It learns Felger... and then it adapts, Coombs!"

"So, what does this mean?" Felger asked, finally awake and interested.

"It means," Daniel replied wickedly, "that I can control it. It means that we can use it when we counter-attack. It also means that, with a little more work, we can probably build more of these ... weapons."

Daniel leapt to his feet and declared, "And it means," and then he charged through the flap in the tent, calling back, "I gotta tell Sam."

Felger's head jerked up in surprise. Then he too jumped to his feet and scrambled after Jackson.

"I'm coming, too, Doctor Jackson. We gotta tell ... Sam."

Coombs watched them go, rolled over and muttered, "Felger, you are such a twerp."

ΩΩΩ

Jack hissed as he hobbled across the cabin, heading for the head. Shanahan had an arm around his waist and a shoulder under his armpit. He took it slow and Jack felt like bitching that in another minute he wouldn't need to go to the head anymore, but he bit his tongue.

Shanahan had steered clear since their conversation about Sam. Finally, desperate for intel, Jack swallowed his pride and asked Doctor Martin to send Shanahan. A few minutes ago the former cop's shaggy blond head poked through the doorway. The man had a haunted look in his eyes, like he expected Jack to tear into him again.

An evil breath tickled Jack's mind, 'Look at him,' it hissed, 'he looks ready to piss himself.'

Jack stared at the hesitant blue eyes and felt his gore rise. 'Why should Sam want this man?' he raged, but then stopped. 'It's simple,' he realized, 'She's a woman and he loves her.'

Jack stifled his vitriol and forced himself to grin sheepishly.

"Gotta hit the head," he'd said. "You up for a little stroll?"

Shanahan had relaxed a bit and offered his arm. Jack had nearly passed out as he dragged himself upright, but after a moment his head had cleared and he'd managed to stand and pull his tattered uniform around himself.

Now he was trying to reach the cabin door without forcing Shanahan to actually carry him. He'd forced himself to be polite, but he didn't want to overdo the gratitude, not unless he was forced. They had to get outside before Jack could pump Shanahan for information. If his suspicions were correct, his room was bugged. Maybe the head would be as well. That just left the path from the cabin to the outhouse. Somewhere along the way, he had to learn all he could from Pete about their situation. If his fears were confirmed, he'd warn Pete to avoid sharing more than he already had told them.

'He's probably spilled everything,' the voice sneered and Jack felt his temper flare. If Pete had spilled it all, he'd have no chance. They might as well be dead, for all the good they could do for Sam. At the thought of his 2IC, Jack forced his anger back and focused on the mission.

Pete paused to open the front door and Jack leaned against the door frame and gasped, "I never thanked you, Shanahan."

The voice shrieked, 'He's a fool! He nearly got you both killed!'

Pete did a fair imitation of a gold fish, his mouth forming a comical "Oh." He didn't say anything but, to Jack's chagrin, he actually blushed.

"You could have left me," Jack continued. "Maybe you should have left me. I don't honestly remember much of the trip, but the doctor tells me we are more than five hundred miles from Cheyenne Mountain. I know you must have dragged me every step, Pete. That's one helluva thing to do."

Jack waited while Pete's ears burned red. Then the cop gulped and said, "There's no need to thank me, General O'Neill. Truth is, I didn't do it for you. I did it for Sam. She needs your help ... and she cares about you. A ... ah ... a lot. I didn't really have a choice."

Jack nodded and, as he grabbed Pete's arm for support, felt they'd just struck an unspoken truce to drop the painful topic. He grasped Pete's arm, growled, "Call me Jack," and stepped out into a brilliantly white, snow covered world.

ΩΩΩ

Alecto screeched, 'Failure!' she cried as she pulled back from O'Neill's mind as if she'd been scalded. She fed upon anger, pride, and deceit. Her plan had been to leverage the jealousy between these men to further undermine them while feeding her own influence. Ultimately, she'd expected to lead the enemies to open conflict. It hadn't worked. Though she still tasted the bitterness of jealousy in the old one, and the hot tang of wounded pride in the younger, still the men eluded her influence. This last honest exchange had fully drained the last of her powers, leaving her no alternative but to find her sisters to report her defeat.

ΩΩΩ

Pete held him up as they maneuvered down the steps into the snow. As he struggled down the path, Jack could feel every one of Pete Shanahan's fingered pressing into his side. It was like fire.

"Pete," he finally gasped, "move your grip down a bit."

Shanahan realized what he'd done and looked crestfallen. Jack grinned and continued, "Not too far down. And, just for the record, I'll be going in the head alone, don't worry. We aren't going to be a couple or anything."

Pete blushed again and didn't reply, but the hurt puppy dog look was gone.

Jack waited until they were as far from the cabin and the outhouse as possible before he gasped, "Stop. Just for a minute. I need to ... take a minute here."

He leaned against a pine trunk and put his hand to his head, managing to cover his mouth, just in case someone was watching.

"Pete," he muttered, "don't answer. Just listen. I think I know these guys. I think they know me. If I'm right, they aren't Boy Scouts. Nod if you understand."

Pete nodded.

Jack bent forward hugging his ribs and continued, "Tell them nothing more than they already know. Get some gear together. Get food. Try for the antibiotics and painkillers if you get a chance. If these guys are who I think they are, we'll be leaving. Be ready tonight."

Then he stood and let Pete hold him upright as they started down the path again. Pete didn't speak, but his face made it clear that he wanted to say something. So Jack continued, "How many of them have you seen? What did they ask you? Have you seen weapons? Look down when you answer."

Pete stared at his shoes and said, "I've seen ten or eleven guys. There are weapons. Hunting rifles. They asked about you. Me. Where we came from. Where we were heading."

Jack nodded.

Pete continued, "I didn't know where we were going. I couldn't explain about Sam. So I didn't mention that we are looking for radio shacks. I told him that my girlfriend works with you at a military installation at Cheyenne Mountain. I told him I bumped into you after the attack and we are looking for her."

Without taking a breath, Pete continued stubbornly, "You'll die if we leave here. I will help you, but Jack you won't survive. You were nearly dead when I got ... I got lost. When they found you, I think you were dead. It's a miracle that you're still alive. I think we are about out of miracles. You shouldn't rush this."

They were at the outhouse. Jack stopped, grabbed the door for support, then he turned and hissed, "She's coming back, Pete. I can't go slow - she's coming back. Get this, CFB. This isn't an escape, Pete. It's a rescue. Rescues don't wait."

Then Jack turned and disappeared into the little building.

Jack did his business and let Pete help him back to the cabin. The younger man helped him out of his boots and tucked him in. Jack fell asleep immediately, exhausted by the walk to the head.

Fresh clothing was on the chair when Jack awoke. He took note, but took his time getting up. He needed all the rest he could get if he was going to travel.

As afternoon sun found the windows, Jack finally eased himself out of the bed and onto his feet. He picked up the clean flannel shirt and soft, insulated trousers. He scratched his thick, greasy beard and hesitated. He was filthy and he stunk. An hour from now these fresh clothes would stink, too.

Jack scratched thoughtfully for a moment and then realized it couldn't be helped. He wasn't about to ask Pete Shanahan, his new best buddy, for a sponge bath and there was no sign of accommodations for bathing an invalid.

Jack stripped off his filthy rags and carefully eased himself into the clean clothing.

Jack shoved his feet into a pair of worn boots that were not his own. He decided to forego tying the laces. He was exhausted from the effort of dressing. He sunk onto a chair at the table and waited for the waves of pain in his chest to abate. He agreed with Shanahan. Moving on was not going to be good for his health.

It didn't matter. Sam was coming back and he and Shanahan had to be ready with some sort of planetary uprising, or at least a viable diversion. He couldn't do that on his backside.

As he sat half asleep, sun lanced through the cabin. He must have dozed, but then a knock on the door woke him.

"Come," Jack snapped and the door opened.

Doctor Martin stepped in, followed by another man. They joined him at the table without speaking.

When everyone was settled, Jack asked, "What's up, Doc?"

Martin cleared his throat uncomfortably and replied, "Your companion was caught stealing supplies. He's refused to explain. We thought you might want to tell us why he would steal from us. We saved you both."

Jack glanced from the doctor to the other man. He was too fit. He didn't look particularly intelligent.

`Neither of these guys,' he decided, `are management material.'

Jack rubbed his forehead. He suddenly felt very tired. He shook his head slowly and said, "No. I don't want to explain. Not to you at least. But I'll tell you what, Doctor Martin, why don't you guys take me to your leader?"

ΩΩΩ

Teal'c and Syler oversaw the dismantling of the Gate. It was transported via ring transporters to a large cargo ship. In addition to the Gate, Syler made sure the ship had a number of other provisions, including a naquida generator and all of the raw naquida they had been able to amass in the past weeks.

Daniel was busy serving as translator. With twenty-eight thousand new troops from fifteen worlds, there was no end of demand for his linguistic expertise. A week before, he'd completed a glossary of common terms for use by all military personnel. The glossary was a fusion of English and the multitude of other languages into a common, military lingo. He'd suggested it to avoid miscommunication and Teal'c had seconded his idea. Carter has given her endorsement. So, for the past week everyone at the Alpha site had been practicing the new terms for military maneuvers, weapons, standard orders, and numbers and directions. Daniel had been elected final arbiter of disputes over all things grammatical in this new language.

Carter sat back and just let things happen. She'd given her orders, laid her plans, directed her very able staff to train the new troops, and evaluated the progress. Teal'c had been correct in his assessment. Though untested, the kids from other worlds were well trained warriors. All they lacked was a war. Soon they'd have it.

Syler and Walter had organized and implemented the logistics and supplies. Teal'c and Carter had drafted the plan of attack, complete with contingency plans and backup plans for the contingencies. Now, as she watched Teal'c and Syler dismantling the Gate, she had nothing left to do, but wait, wonder, and ... worry.

By 0600 hours the next morning, the troops were assembled. As sunrise spilled over the horizon, Carter mounted the platform that once supported the now absent Star Gate. Thousands of eager young faces gazed up at her, shining with life, and health, and anticipation of the coming conflict. The sunrise spilled across them, painting them with fresh blood.

"Ten days ago," she began, "your elders sent you to us. I welcomed you then as allies and friends. Since then we have become comrades in arms. Today, my friends ... my allies ... my comrades, I welcome you as members of the Tauri Invasion force. Today, I welcome you as the warriors who will take back the planet Earth, free my home world, and save my people!"

She paused. An animal roar sounded in the throats of the assembled youngsters.

Carter stood and waited as they cried out in a full-blooded crescendo of pride and the joy of untested youth. She let them have the moment. She stood and smiled down on their bright faces, so full of pride and hope that it wrenched her heart.

Soon they'd learn the truth that every warrior knows - war is hell.

After many minutes she lifted her hands. The sound died out.

"You know me," she declared and the roar rose up again. This time she raised her hands again, asking for silence. As it fell, she continued, "You know me. You know my people. We came as friends to your worlds. We came to help you free yourselves and your worlds. Today, we go to my world, to set my people free. For my people, for my world, I say, thank you and good luck!"

The roar erupted and Carter joined in. All around her white teeth flashed; wide eyes burned with excitement; lips parted in smiles and calls; hands waved raising newly issued weapons overhead.

"Now, troops!" she cried over the roar. "Move out!"

Noncoms bellowed and the troops snapped to obey.

Teal'c and Daniel crossed the embarkation area as Carter watched the troops move forward. Long columns of youngsters followed SG personnel, who directed them into the transport rings, where they stepped forward in groups of five and disappeared in a flash of light, whisked into the ships that hung overhead in geosynchronous orbits.

"It's really happening," Daniel said, his eyes growing wide as the lines of troops snaked across toward the horizon."

"Indeed," Teal'c replied.

Carter just watched, but tears burned her eyes and wet her cheeks.

"You be there to watch my back, General. Be there ... for me," she muttered, so low that no one heard her over the slice-snap of dozens of active ring devices.

ΩΩΩ

Jack shuffled into an office that dripped with leather and mahogany. The place smelled of beeswax furniture polish and smoke. He was distinctly aware that he hadn't bathed in well over a month. An elderly man stood beside a large fireplace, staring into the dancing tongues of flame. He didn't seem to notice any change in odor.

The man wore tweed like he was born to it. Tall and aristocratic, he seemed slender, even in his bulky wool jacket and field trousers. His thinning white hair was swept back, elegantly long, and neatly trimmed. He wore thick, tortoise-shell glasses. He removed them and fiddled with a bow.

"General," he greeted Jack, "I am glad to see you on your feet after only ten days. Dr. Martin tells me that it is remarkable. Frankly Sir, I fear he expected to lose you. I am delighted you've recovered."

He waved Jack to an armchair. Jack felt his host's eyes on him as he hobbled across the room and lowered himself gingerly into the chair. After a moment, the other man observed, "Ah, but I see now that I am wrong. You are not recovered. You are stubborn."

Jack grunted and let that be his answer. He studied the other man and waited for his host to make his first move, and perhaps tip his hand.

The other man didn't speak. He squinted at his glasses. The silence stretched out. Jack let his head fall back against the chair as he waited. Finally the man turned, donned his glasses, and began again, as if seeing Jack for the first time.

"I am Doctor Roberto Zenithal, General. I am your host. You asked to see me?"

Jack lifted his head from the chair back.

"Your doctor and bodyguard seemed interested in getting some answers from me," Jack countered wearily. "I thought I'd avoid any confusion by giving you the answers in person."

Dr. Zenithal stepped away from the fireplace. He crossed the expanse of polished wood floor and stopped at the armchair facing Jack. Rather than sit, he draped one leg over the broad leather arm of the chair and rested his forearm across its broad back. His stylish pose reminded Jack of a magazine ad for high-priced whisky.

"Where were you going, if I may ask?" Zenithal said civilly.

"I am going north," Jack replied pointedly. "I'm not exactly sure where, yet. I'm heading north to make contact with the military. That's the plan."

"No, Sir," Zenithal shook his head.

"So," Jack growled, "am I a prisoner?"

Zenithal sighed and removed his glasses. He rubbed his eyes and continued, "You are my guest, General. However ... You are also barely able to walk. Your friend will have to carry you after the first day of travel. You will die within a week, probably less, if I let you go. Sir, I simply can't allow it."

Jack sensed a different message under the gentle words. He waited, fixing his host with his best poker face. Zenithal stared back, but after a moment dropped his eyes.

"Why would you make such a futile effort," he asked.

"Maybe it's not ... futile," Jack replied. "If I may ask, what's it to you?"

"Our world has been overrun," Zenithal replied, settling his glasses back on his face. "My assets and those of my associates are in the hands of the enemy. We'd hoped you might ... assist us."

"Me?" Jack shot back. "I'm on death's door. What could I possibly do to help you?"

Zenithal shifted uneasily, removed his glasses and twirled them, then replaced them, stood and moved back to the fireplace. Jack waited.

"We have radios," Zenithal said softly.

"I know," Jack replied.

"We have other ... resources," Zenithal continued, glancing up to see if the information had the intended effect.

Jack nodded and said, "I guessed as much."

"We know your very special qualifications, General. Let me put my cards on the table. There is no other man on Earth with your particular talents. Just tell me what you require," Zenithal continued, "in order to reverse the situation on Earth?"

"I require communications gear, air transportation, weapons, and a few men I can count on in a fight," Jack replied.

"Easily done," Zenithal said.

"I also need more of those pain pills, food for a couple of weeks, and antibiotics. In fact, I'll just take your doctor. Don't worry I will send him back when I'm done with him.

"Alright," Zenithal replied.

"I need autonomy. Complete autonomy and I need total operational security," Jack continued.

"That is difficult," Zenithal answered.

Jack waited and after a moment the other man continued, "but ... it can be done."

"And ," Jack concluded, "I need a bath."

"The full resources of the consortium will be at your disposal," Zenithal said, "including my suite of rooms which has an able attendant and a bath."

"Right," Jack said. "We go tomorrow. Just out of curiosity, this consortium of business interests ... it's not the Boy Scouts. Right?"

"Though we, too, aspire to be 'always prepared,' that is correct, General. We are not the Boy Scouts," Zenithal smiled and then winked, "I'm fairly certain you already know of us, General O'Neill."

"Just ... spill it," Jack said without a smile.

Zeninthal removed his glasses, twirled them, and smiled, before he gave a little bow and replied.

"We are called ... the Trust."



Chapter 11

"Earth, ahead," Heraclites stated as the ship slowed and left interdimensional space. "Indication of the Erinyes everywhere, my Lord. The planet surface is scarred from recent blasts. Few buildings stand. Its people are dead or dying most terribly. There is no sign of viable urban civilization."

"Of course, Heraclites, the vile bitches detected the same signal that drew me here," Nantes spat as he paced the bridge behind his First Prime. "They shall pay very soon. On this same soil I shall destroy them as revenge in the name of our beloved. Those three Harpies shall pay for destroying her in their pious rectitude."

Heraclites shifted nervously and tried to focus on his controls. His Master was in a dangerous mood. Memories of his lost Queen unsettled him. Anyone nearby was in mortal danger at such times.

"Soon," Nantes continued, pacing as he spoke, "when I've sent Tisiphone, Alecto, and Megaera to gnash their teeth in Hades' depths, I shall send this ill-fated star spiraling off into deep space and leave this miserable world to expire in dark and cold."

Nantes clapped his hands together and smiled, "But ... that is a pleasant diversion for a future day. For now," he turned to face the transparent forward wall of the bridge and commanded, "Open fire."

Heraclites replied, "Yes, my Lord. Target?"

"The target matters not." Nantes replied jovially. "Fire on the planet. Slice it like a ripe melon, if you like. Let's make it impressive, so as to announce my arrival with proper ... celebration."

Heraclites dropped his eyes to his control board, depressed a button, and passed his palm slowly across an image of the planet below. The flagship moaned softly for a moment, then growled. The intensity of the sound built until the ship howled. The forward cones on the ship, as well as every other in the fleet, he knew, should be glowing umber. The pitch rose, telling him the color had shifted to brilliant orange. Then the deck shuddered slightly and the accumulated power was suddenly, explosively released in a bolt of superheated plasma.

Heraclites lifted his gaze from his consol to the actual planet, below. Plasma streams erupted from the glowing orange nose cones of every ship in sight. As it arced out, the plasma shifted color from painfully brilliant white to golden and orange. By the time the plasma struck the surface of the blue green planet it had cooled to the color and temperature of molten iron.

'Still, it's hot enough to raise Hell's Fires,' Heraclites thought as he watched mountains rear up, raw and red, where the plasma tore into soil, rock, or buildings. Fires blossomed, like fields of red and orange poppies, where the beams touched forest or prairie. Plumes of roiling white steam jetted forth from the broad blue oceans and smaller greenish-gray lakes. In a matter of moments the jet stream had entrained debris and water vapor. Multihued ribbons twined through the planet's stratosphere, obstructing the surface view. Heraclites shifted his attention to nearby ships. Their force fields glimmered now and then when bits of ejecta struck on their super-velocity trek spaceward.

Without being told, Heraclites altered the sensors to cut through the chaos. The visible spectrum was blocked. So, he shifted sensitivity into the lower bands. Ultra-long wavelengths, far below the infrared range, were of such long, low wave lengths that their energy should continue to penetrate the fog despite the destruction.

Nantes settled into his command chair on a raised dais in the center of the bridge and observed. The First Prime heard him murmur.

"Come for me, you sanctimonious whores. I tire of the chase. Let this, our first battlefield, be our last."

ΩΩΩ

Jack was at the controls of a chopper packed with weapons and Trust mercenaries heading northeast toward Cody, Wyoming. He was low, hugging the terrain to limit the odds of detection, and contemplating how goddamned good it felt to be clean-shaven and smelling like a human being, instead of some kind of a mountain goat.

Suddenly three tall pines on an outcrop ahead exploded. A streak of fire whined past his windscreen. As he jammed the controls into an abrupt climb, another streaked past. Suddenly fire rained down on all sides. The pine-covered slopes ahead and beside them were ablaze.

"Crud," Jack growled as he yanked the controls full back, and stomped on the pedals sending the heavy helicopter scrambling straight up, away from the impacts.

"Check our six," he barked and Pete swiveled his head and bawled out, "More hits behind us, and on both sides. Shit! It's everywhere, Jack!"

Jack gritted his teeth against the G-forces as he forced the fully loaded Jolly Green into a steep climb, trying to gain altitude before its rotors encountered the thermal waves that the explosion of fires would create. The copter was too slow. Superheated air buffeted the ailerons, cutting the responsiveness of the machine, eroding lift, and threatening to send them tumbling back to Earth.

"In the tail, Pete" he barked.

Shanahan obeyed at once. He jerked the release on his seatbelt, turned, and clambered over the seatback. Jack grabbed his ankle and gave him an inelegant boost that sent him headfirst into the laps of four oversized goons in full combat gear.

Jack felt the nose come up as the weight shifted. For a moment, he hoped the bird might survive. Then something cut through the rotors, shearing them off. Jack felt the controls seize and heard the terrifying sound of metal on metal as the blades tangled and tore apart. Then he saw the ground spiraling toward them.

Jack hooked his forearms around the controls and dragged back, hoping to bring the nose up, but in the next moment his head was rammed forward and smashed into the windscreen as Pete's ass whacked him in the back of his head. A half second later the copter's tail broke up. Mercenaries screamed as centrifugal force flung them through the hole. Then the body of the copter reached the trees and disintegrated.

ΩΩΩ

Tisiphone screamed, raised her arms, and waived her bony hands over her head, "At last! Sisters, he comes! Leave the chattels and help me dispense with the Master! Nantes is come! He attacks! To my side! Return Sisters, our holy quest is ended! The prey is in our snare!"

ΩΩΩ

Carter stood on the bridge of her flagship, an old Ha'tak vessel, leading her fleet of two hundred second-hand ships toward Earth. She expected to arrive within ten hours. She surveyed the activity on the bridge. Everything was five by five, so she stood, caught Teal'c's eye, and left command of the bridge to her 2IC. Teal'c followed her into the corridor. She didn't stop, but lead him into the bowels of the ship. Carter stopped outside of a cargo bay. Teal'c turned one of the inlaid symbols, activating the door, and waited while she stepped through the door.

"Colonel," Syler said as she entered the bay. Syler stood beside crates that held the Alpha site star gate. He'd opened the first crate and arranged the tools they'd need beside the open crate.

"Syler," Carter replied, "Let's get started."

Teal'c crossed cargo bay, selected a small crate from the shelf, knelt, and untwisted the wire closures that secured the wooden top. He pulled back the top and gently lifted a ZPM.

"Right," Carter said, "we've got about ten hours, guys. Let's get it done."

ΩΩΩ

Jack opened his eyelids and saw only frantic blue eyes. Pete Shanahan was in his face, nose-to-nose, and bellowing for him to wake up. Before that fact fully registered, the former cop leapt up, dragged O'Neill to his feet, jammed a shoulder in his right underarm, lifted, and started running, all the while bawling for him to 'move his fucking ass!'

Jack hissed and clutched his chest. Whatever had begun to mend had been dramatically rearranged. Pete clearly didn't give a crap.

Jack didn't get why they were running, or where, but Pete got one message through his confusion. He could either move on his own or be dragged by the crazed man who had an iron grip on his belt and forearm. Jack did his best to keep his legs pumping and, together, the pair scrambled away from the burning wreck.

The explosion hit before Jack heard it. A wall of hyper-compressed air flung them down, followed by a roar and the stench of burning flesh and diesel. Apparently, Pete wasn't fazed. He just yanked O'Neill back onto his feet, shoved a shoulder into his side, dragged his arm over his shoulders, grasped his wrist and his belt at the small of his back, and charged up the mountain face, barely ahead of all-consuming flames.

Jack felt the fire on the back of his neck and did his best to keep moving as burning trees crashed down behind and beside them. A pine shattered and its flaming top toppled across their path, cutting them off. Pete never paused. Screaming at the top of his lungs, he threw them both over the blazing trunk, surviving through momentum and sheer cussedness.

The race ended when they reached the outcropping they'd overflown just before the crash. Pete carried Jack the last few yards. When they stopped, Jack started to sink to his knees, but, without warning, Pete shoved him over the precipice.

Jack hit the water, surfaced and, a moment later, Pete plunged in beside him. He grabbed Jack's jacket and dragged him into waist-deep water. Jack looked up and saw fire belch over the cliff where he'd knelt a moment before. Wordlessly the two men crouched in the water and watched in silence, as the inferno fed all around them, furiously consuming everything combustible, even sucking the oxygen from the air.

ΩΩΩ

"Ready?" Carter asked as she stepped through the door into the cargo bay.

"We are," Teal'c replied. Syler was sprawled across the floor tightening something.

"Oh?" Carter asked, eying Syler's prostrate form.

"Just, ugh .. tightening a coupling," Syler grunted. A moment later he slid out from under the mechanism, scrambled to his feet, and grinned nervously.

Carter glanced between the two men, noted the pensiveness they shared, and said, "Is this going to work?"

Teal'c raised an eyebrow and Syler blurted, "You're the rocket scientist, Colonel. You tell us."

Carter sighed, rubbed her neck, and snapped, "Look at it this way, Sergeant. If it doesn't work, we'll be the first to know ... and the last to worry about it."

ΩΩΩ

Nantes' fleet swooped low over Colorado.

"No resistance offered, my Lord," Heraclites noted.

The Goa'uld pounded his left fist into his cupped right hand and felt a glow of satisfaction, followed in an instant by irritation.

"They are afraid to show themselves," he said. "After all this time they prefer to draw this out. Well, we shall simply have to dig them out. How... shall we force them to show themselves?"

Heraclites did not answer. It was not wise to reply to rhetorical questions so he waited, wondering what the next move might be.

"How!" Nantes barked and Heraclites jumped and turned.

"My .. my Lord!" he stammered, "I ... I suggest we make use of their own violent passions."

"Passions!" Nantes roared, "More like obsession! The bitches pant after Justice ... Order ... Vengeance for patricide? For fratricide! Unfortunately, First Prime, I have no Father to slay. No Brothers! So ... how do you suggest I so offend their sense of righteousness that they are driven to confront me and their ultimate doom?"

"They are known for their defense of the way of things ... proper order is their obsession," Heraclites replied.

"And so I must turn that order on it's head!" Nantes cried triumphantly. "Find the nearest population center! Open fire upon the populace. Set fire to their homes and fields. Kill the livestock. If necessary we shall segregate and slay all first born. Better yet, we shall force parents to slay their young! That should bring those odious witches out into the open!"

Heraclites adjusted the sensors and scanned the region for cities that had not yet been destroyed. At the edge of the mountains ahead he noted a compact city where a vast prairie land opened to the north and east.

"Target ahead, my Lord," he stated and then set weapons on the small city of Cody, Wyoming.

ΩΩΩ

Jack staggered out of the river and collapsed on the stone covered bank. Smoke obscured his view, but the sounds of fire and the intense heat had lessened overnight. Through the pall of smoke, he detected a slight lightening of the sky.

"Crud," he snarled as his knee gave way. "I tore something ... else."

Pete flopped down beside him and muttered, "What else is new? Isn't it about time you gave up and just retired, General?"

Jack glanced at the younger man, saw his self-conscious smile, and grinned.

"You saved my ass yesterday," Jack said. "Not for the first time. Thanks, Shanahan." Then he stuck out his hand and Pete gripped it with icy fingers.

"Pete. The name's Pete, General. Only mom calls me Shanahan ... when she's ticked."

Jack snorted and said, "Then it's 'Jack' to you. Now get me the hell out of here."

"To where?" Pete grunted as he dragged Jack to his feet.

"The chopper. Find it and call for help, maybe ... if the radio survived," Jack grunted as he stood and tried to put weight on his left leg.

Pete shoved a shoulder under his left arm and said, "Right."

They hobbled up the smoldering riverbank.

It took them almost four hours to backtrack the path they'd raced eight hours earlier. The fire made it tough going. Three times they had to circle burning mountains of debris. Their progress slowed as Jack's bad knee grew worse. At first, it had been numbed by hours in the icy mountain stream. As the circulation returned and numbness passed, he felt the full extent of damage. Jack bit his lip and, after the first hour, leaned heavily on Pete. After three hours, he was forced to let the younger man practically carry him while he focused on staying upright.

Finally, they found the chopper remains, a buckled, smoking shell without a tail or rotor blades.

"Now what?" Pete asked as he stared at the charred hulk.

Jack leaned against a chunk of battered metal, wiped his eyes, and said, "Find the radio."

Pete stood for a moment staring at the heap, then moved gingerly into the pile of still-hot metal. Jack watched him ease inside, then heard his progress, punctuated by grunts and muffled curses, as he dug through the twisted metal. Jack let his eyes close as he waited and said a little prayer. He opened them when Pete clambered out of the ruins holding a clump of melted plastic and copper wiring over his head. It was the radio.

Jack's hope crumbled. He slid down onto the ground and let his head fall forward into his hands.

"Packs?" he rasped between his fingers.

"Naw, no packs," Pete replied. "Nothing inside, but cinders."

"Handsets?" Jack tried again.

"Mercs had the handsets," Pete said.

"And they ... burned?" Jack asked, raising his face.

"All except the three that fell ... out," Pete replied, and suddenly his eyebrows lifted. "Three ... fell out... when the tail was hit." Shanahan started running.

Jack watched him go. Then he slumped in the rubble to wait. A series of explosions brought Jack's head up with a jerk.

"Pete!" he shouted, trying to stand. "Shanahan," he roared out over a crescendo of incoming fire. The forest around him lit up like a furnace just as a second bombardment struck, flinging him back against the charred remains of the chopper.

Superheated air rolled him over and over. Jack smelled clothes and hair burning. He clamped his arms over his head and squirmed into the wreck, hugging the ground. When the wave of fire receded, he scrambled to his feet, half-fell into the nose of the copter, and crouched there to ride out the attack.

It was dark when the explosions stopped. Jack opened his eyes, shocked by sudden silence. He couldn't see. He rubbed his eyes and then groped his way through the wreck and fell out of the hole in the tail. He found himself on his back, staring up into the night sky. A million pinpoints of light seemed to gaze back at him.

Jack didn't move. He just stared into the star-spangled night. Then he saw two of the stars growing. He blinked and realized that a whine had entered the night.

Jack rolled to his knees and, grasping his right side, stumbled onto his feet. The whine grew. Jack saw lights slice through the shattered forest. Searchlights danced across the fallen trees and blasted stumps. Jack hunched against the side of the wreck, uncertain whether he was about to be rescued or captured.

A moment later a voice called out, "O'Neill! Jack O'Neill!"

Jack stood and lurched forward toward the shifting searchlights. One caught him, slid past, but then returned and locked onto him. He stood up, leaned back, and waited, blinded in the pool of brilliant light.

A moment later the searchlights shifted position and Jack knew the craft was on the ground. He blinked, rubbed his eyes, and half-saw the form of a Goa'uld craft in the glade just beyond the chopper. He staggered forward, his right hand raised to shield his watering eyes from the glare. The door on the craft opened, briefly obscuring the blinding lights as it swung. A moment later a form appeared and a thickly accented voice said, "Hello Colonel O'Neill."

"Actually, I am a General now," Jack replied.

"I see. General O'Neill may I be of service?" the voice replied politely.

"I could use a ride," Jack gasped, "and a doctor."

Strong arms grasped his arms. Jack sagged and they lifted him. He felt them haul him into the craft and then he passed out.

ΩΩΩ

A Russian-accented voice was speaking when Jack regained consciousness.

"General O'Neill?" it said.

Jack turned toward the voice and tried to open his eyes.

"Can you hear me?" the voice asked.

Jack opened his mouth and spoke but what he heard didn't resemble English ... or Russian.

Someone pressed a straw to his lips and he drank, choked, and then finally tried again.

"Where?" he managed.

"You are in Tiksi, Siberia, my friend," the voice replied. "Rest. When you are ready, we will speak."

Jack forced his eyes open. Everything was a blur. He blinked and slowly the water glass and the face beyond focused.

"Zhukov," he gasped. "What the ...?"

"All in time," the Colonel replied kindly, patting Jack's arm.

Jack moved quickly, grabbing the wrist and dragging the other man close.

"Now," he growled. "There is no time. So don't screw with me, Zhukov. Just be a good little Ruskie and tell me how come you're not dead, how you got your hands on a Goa'uld glider, and what in hell you were doing flying that thing in Wyoming!"

Zhukov pulled his arm from Jack's grip, settled in his seat with a sigh, and said, "Have it your way, General."

The Russian lifted his hand and counted off on his three middle fingers, "First, General O'Neill, I am alive no thanks to you," he said, "nor to my government, either for that matter."

Jack opened his eye, intrigued, "Then who?"

"There is a consortium of ..." Zhukov began, but Jack's groan stopped him.

"The Trust!" Jack exclaimed. "They pulled you out of that pile of rubble on ... on ... I forget the damned Gate address ... "

"So do I," Zhukov replied.

"They pulled you out?" Jack repeated, rising from the bed to glare at the Russian.

"Yes," Zhukov replied, "They did."

"What about ... Marmaduk?" Jack demanded.

"Marduk did not survive," Zhukov answered, "neither, strictly speaking, did I, however ..."

"The sarcophagus," Jack filled in.

"Yes, as you say, the sarcophagus," Zhukov confirmed. "They retrieved my body and the machine, repaired it, and tested it ... on me. It worked."

"Gotta give it to the private sector," Jack snarled.

"And if you don't 'give it to them'," Zhukov snarled back, "the capitalist running dogs will most certainly do all in their power to take it from you anyway."

The two men gazed at each other and then both laughed. The moment was cut short when Jack was gripped by a coughing fit so violent that Zhukov jumped to his feet and shouted for a doctor.

A white-coated woman appeared, pushed the Russian Colonel aside, and pressed Jack back onto the thin mattress. Then she injected him with something, and everything went fuzzy.

As he was slipping under the Doctor turned away and Zhukov stepped to the bedside. Jack pulled the man close and hissed, "Get this straight. She's coming back, Zhukov! She's coming ... Soon! You be ready!"

ΩΩΩ

Carter stalked across the bridge and rubbed her left hand through her hair. The bridge crew studiously ignored her agitation, keeping their eyes riveted to their computer screens, even while she paced behind them like a caged beast of prey.

Jameson, the 2IC, sat in the command chair and avoided watching her, just barely. Carter felt his eyes not on her as she strode between him and the crew. She knew she was bugging him, specifically because of his respectful silence and the bridge crew's meticulous attention to their screens.

'So, this is what they mean by 'it's lonely at the top',' she thought as she glanced at the clock on the wall over the front panel. It showed less than two hours to Earth orbit. She drummed her fingers on the side of her leg, soundlessly. She turned and glanced sideways at Jameson, who continued to stare straight ahead.

Carter shifted her gaze back to the forward screen and squinted, toying with the ludicrous notion that she could almost see the solar system ahead. That, of course, was impossible, and she knew it. Traveling at speeds far beyond light speed, there was no way to see a specific star system with the naked eye.

The bridge door slid open and Carter turned her head and saw Daniel appear.

"Is that the solar system?" he asked as he stepped out of the corridor, and crossed the bridge to stand beside her.

"Don't be ridiculous," Carter snapped. "We are moving far too fast to pick out individual star systems, especially with a naked eye. You do know that, Daniel, don't you?"

"Oh sure, I know that," Daniel replied in a tone that suggested that he knew it ... now.

He glanced at the clock and said, "Less than two hours to go."

"Yep," Carter replied, feeling like grabbing him by the scruff of the neck and flinging him off the bridge.

Instead, she asked, "You all set?"

"All set," Daniel confirmed, nodding. "All ... set. All ... good."

"Good," Carter replied.

"Good," Daniel repeated.

Silence fell, accentuated by the noiseless bridge crew studiously focusing on their duties.

Carter glanced over her shoulder at her 2IC, but Major Jameson didn't look their way. He studied something clipped to a metal-backed notepad, making occasional notations. Carter guessed it was his standard double check of the automated navigation. Such care, and his deep-seated distrust of automated systems, had been pivotal in her choice of Jameson as her second in command.

Carter tapped her leg, pursed her lips in a soundless whistle, and lifted her eyes to watch the microseconds on the digital clock fly by.

Daniel clasped his hands behind his back, rocked back and forth on his feet, and murmured, "Good."

Carter nodded.

The bridge door slid open again and Teal'c entered. He wore his battle robes and swept majestically across the bridge to join his friends.

"Is that the solar system, ahead, Colonel Carter?" he asked

Carter turned, wondering if he was joking with her, but as she opened her mouth Daniel interrupted, "Less than two hours to Earth," he announced, nodding toward the clock.

"All is prepared," Teal'c replied.

"Good," Carter replied, shooting Daniel a look.

Daniel nodded, ignored Carter's look, and agreed, "Good."

Teal'c looked from Carter to Daniel and replied, "Yes ... very good."

Then, after a perplexed glance at Carter and then Daniel, he turned on his heel and left the bridge. A moment later, Daniel stopped rocking on his feet and followed.

Carter watched them go, watched the microseconds changing, then muttered, "Stuff this," and left the bridge to her 2IC.

As the door slid shut behind her, the bridge crew relaxed.

Jamison breathed a sigh of relief and thought, 'Good.'

A moment passed and, even though they all knew better, every one of the five-person bridge crew, including Jameson, glanced at the forward screen ... eager for their first glimpse of home.

ΩΩΩ

Tisiphone ran her emaciated hands through her snake-adorned hair and screamed, "Vengeance! Righteous retribution! Sisters, come to me! Join me in war! He is here, at last! Nantes attacks!"

Megaera and Alecto flew to her side. The realm of the Furies heaved and shuddered. Energies that Carter might have tried to describe using string theory congealed forming wave after wave of screaming sirens. The Furies, at last, were unleashed.

ΩΩΩ

Heraclites gasped as his screen showed a massive energy pulse.

"My Lord!" he cried out too late, slamming his hand down on the control to activate shields and simultaneously pressing the left pedal to turn the ship into the pulse.

Before Nantes could react to the half-finished warning, the pulse slammed into the modified Ha'tak vessel, spinning it like a top.

"My Lord!" Heraclites cried out again, shouting over the scream of the ship's alarms, "unknown energy stream. Demonstrating both particle and wave activity, indicating it as a powerful light source. Origin unknown, but it appears to have ..."

The ship rocked violently as a second massive crest of energy broke over them.

"...appears to be forming on the planet's surface!" Heraclites concluded, blinking as his monitors showed the source that a moment before had not existed, outside of Cody, Wyoming.

"It worked! Target the source," Nantes barked, "and open fire."

Heraclites entered the proper vectors, even as his Master spoke, anticipating the order. By the time Nantes completed his command, his First Prime had locked and opened fire.

ΩΩΩ

Pete dove for cover as the ground heaved mounds of soil and rock into the air. He threw his arms over his head and tumbled as the earth beneath his feet lifted suddenly with a fast moving ripple that toppled trees and buildings into a wild jumble.

He fell on his back and, to his terror, saw the sky overhead coming apart, like a vast zipper was being pulled, revealing utter blackness that grew as the split widened. On the sides of the massive rent, hot white clouds roiled and tumbled, like a scene of holy payback from the Old Testament.

Then, from the blackness he saw it. A ship, a dozen ships, careened through the hole in the sky and swept low over the surface, trailing fire as they tore through Earth's atmosphere. Pete scrambled to his knees and then to his feet, and jumped into the air, his fist raised, screaming.

"Yeah!" he cried out, punching the air, "You go get 'em! Tear 'em up!"

He watched the fleet stream over his position, screaming at the top of his lungs, then fell breathlessly to the ground as the last of the ships disappeared over the horizon.

The ships had been Goa'uld, but on their sides he'd seen it: a brilliant white five-pointed star on a bed of blue and beside it the flag of the United States of America.

They were Air Force.

Sam Carter had returned.

ΩΩΩ

Kinsey bent low over O'Neill and smiled. He'd seen Jack O'Neill down before, but never this far down. It did him good. O'Neill looked like hell. He'd been cleaned and his hands and face had been bandaged. Still he looked like a survivor from a cheap disaster movie. The right side of his head had been shaved to let the medical staff stitch a nasty laceration that ran from his right eyebrow to well behind his right ear. The rest of his hair had been burned away in the firestorm he'd survived with only second degree burns on his hands, forearms and face. Kinsey noticed that his left knee was immobilized by a stiff blue plastic cast and that his chest had been wrapped.

Though he hadn't been personally responsible in the circumstances, Kinsey thanked God that he'd lived to see the day that Jack O'Neill needed a helping hand.

"Wake him," Kinsey snapped to the duty nurse.

She hesitated.

"Wake him!" Kinsey snarled softly. It had the effect of a shout, without attracting the attention of any of the doctors who might interfere. "Then, get out. No one is to disturb us. Is that understood? This is a matter of national security."

The nurse didn't reply but cowered slightly and then prepared a hypodermic and injected a few milliliters of amber liquid into the IV drip feeding into O'Neill's left arm. Then she turned away and fled the room, closing the door behind her.

Kinsey watched her go, then rested against the nightstand, his arms crossed on his chest, and waited. A minute passed, then another.

O'Neill's eyelids fluttered. He moaned softly.

"Feel better?" Kinsey asked, wanting O'Neill to realize he was there.

"Not really," O'Neill slurred, "what d'ya care? Come to gloat?"

"Actually, yes," Kinsey replied, savoring the word. "I must say, I've been looking forward to this little talk ... for a long, long time."

"Where's Zhukov?" Jack rasped, trying to rise from the bed.

"Zhukov works for me, Jack!" Kinsey snapped. "Zhukov is not your way out of this. I am."

"I saw you jettisoned into space," Jack replied. "I saw you die."

"You saw my 'other' die," Kinsey replied.

"You've got to be kidding," Jack hissed. "You're a duplicate?"

Kinsey snorted, "Hell, for all that big-stupid-jock act you did, I really thought you were smarter than that, Jack! Guess I was wrong. Okay. I'll spell it out real simple. The other Kinsey, the one you saw taken by the Goa'uld, was my duplicate. He was a clone. I, however, am the original."

Jack groaned. "Zhukov told me he works with the Trust. Correct me if I'm wrong, Kinsey, but I thought you'd lost your seat on the Board. So, what'd you do to get back in their good graces?"

"Not exactly accurate, Jack. For simplicity, let's just call it a hostile takeover, shall we?" Kinsey smirked.

"So, now what?" Jack wheezed, his eyes closing.

"Now," Kinsey grinned, leaning close enough to see O'Neill's wince as he spoke, "you ... can ... ask ... me ... for help."

Jack opened his eyes and said quietly, without hesitation, "Sam Carter is coming back to retake this planet. If you care about Earth, about the United States of America, like you claim, you'll organize a diversion. Keep them off her until she can get ..."

Something in Kinsey's face must have tipped Jack off. He stopped mid-sentence and glared at the former Senator.

Kinsey smiled at Jack and murmured, "Ask me."

Jack closed his eyes and whispered, "I need your ... help."

Kinsey leaned close and whispered, "Say it like you mean it."

Jack swallowed hard, opened his eyes, and matched Kinsey's superior gaze with a hateful glare. For a moment -- then the fire in his eyes just went out.

Kinsey's heart leapt, finally he'd humbled General Jack O'Neill.

"Say it," Kinsey repeated almost gently.

Jack replied, "Please."

ΩΩΩ

Carter gripped the arms of her command chair and leaned forward, watching the planet's surface speed past in a blur. Smoke and fire obscured the view, but she saw enough to know a battle was waging. What she didn't know was a battle between who.

"Report," she demanded.

"Energy readings indicate two massive forces," an airman replied. "One comprised of ... entirely of high-energy particles. Nothing indicates physical form. The other is a fleet of several hundred Goa'uld-style vessels."

"Positions?" Carter asked.

"Planet-wide, Colonel," the airman replied. "No response to our forces."

"Yet," Carter snapped. "Keep sharp."

Carter gripped the armrests hard and tried to understand what was happening. She'd expected a fight. She'd geared all her strategies for planetary opposition. Now, it was highly disconcerting to appear and have ... nothing happen. No resistance; no challenge. No nothing.

"Why?" she murmured.

"Colonel?" her 2IC, Major Jameson replied.

"Why!" she barked as she stood and stepped onto the deck below. "Who are these people and what are they doing?"

"It's ... it's unclear," Jameson responded.

"Well, dah," Carter growled. "I need the answer. Command confab in five. You have the ship."

"Aye, Colonel," Jameson replied, stepping up and settling into the command chair.

Carter rubbed her hand through her hair and said, "Keep an eye on things."

Then she left the bridge and headed for engineering. On the way she stopped, on a whim at Daniel's quarters. She rapped twice on his door and stepped inside.

She was surprised to see Felger and Coombs huddled with Daniel over his laptop.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

The three men started and turned.

"Sam!" Daniel exclaimed.

"What are you doing?" she repeated, glancing at the shocked faces.

"We've been ... researching ... ah," Felger said.

Coombs interrupted, standing and approaching, "We noticed the energy patterns of one of the forces have certain ... similarities to something Daniel had us working on since we bugged out of the Mountain."

"Let me tell it," Felger whined.

"Then tell it," Coombs barked impatiently.

Sam rolled her eyes and her temper flared.

"Daniel?" she barked, turning away from the bickering duo. "Explain."

Coombs and Felger deflated visibly and Carter ignored their crestfallen faces, focusing on her friend.

"There was a pattern, Sam," Daniel began. "We first recorded it on P3X-666. It was in the background of the tape I shot ... of Janet. It was run through standard analysis, along with everything else from that mission. I encountered it again when I was testing pieces of the super-Goa'uld weaponry we scavenged. I had Felger and Coombs continue the physical analysis while I ran down some other leads. We are picking it up now. And ... here's the interesting part ... it seems to align perfectly with this."

Daniel stepped aside and pointed at the computer screen. Sam stepped closer, confused. The screen showed an archeological text.

"What is this?" Carter asked, intrigued. "One of your ... leads?"

"This," Daniel pointed to marks that appeared to be cuneiform, "is a numerical symbol. This," he scrolled down the page, "is another ... and here's another."

Carter was no longer seeing the numbers, her mind raced ahead. By the time Daniel came to the point, she'd deduced what he was about to say.

"These values correspond with the pattern detected here and on 666," he continued, "and the text of this document references ..."

Carter interrupted, "it references the Furies, doesn't it."

Daniel nodded, smiling, and Felger gasped. Coombs jabbed him in the ribs and hissed, "Shhh ... listen you schmuck!"

Carter ignored them and leaned into Daniel's computer screen.

"Tell me everything," she ordered.

"The text is very old. It documents a terrible calamity. Cities, whole populations were wiped from the face of the Earth," Daniel replied.

"Like ... when this all started," Carter prompted.

Daniel nodded and continued, "They seek evil, it says, they punish the wicked and return the natural order to its pre-ordained path."

Sam felt hope glimmer, "How, Daniel, do we help them?"

"Sam," Daniel replied, "It was the Furies who attacked in the first place. We ... don't help them. We just have to stay out of their way."

He stood and grasped her shoulders, "I'm sorry Sam, but that signal I told you the super-Goa'uld weapon sent when we had it at the SGC?"

Sam felt her knees go weak, "Don't say it," she said softly.

"The Furies must have detected it. It's the signature of their archetypical enemy. The cuneiform writing tells of their never-ending struggle. We emitted the signal of Nantes, evil incarnate according to the text. I think we triggered the original attack, Sam. I think the Furies are coming for us now."

Sam stared at Daniel. The look on his face told her the worst was yet to come.

"These numbers," Daniel said as he traced his finger down the ancient symbols, "are logarithmic. Felger and Coombs have been working on the calculations."

Carter turned to Felger. He stared back at her vacantly until Coombs jabbed him, then he jumped and blurted.

"The numbers appear to provide the equation that reconciles quantum physics to Newtonian physics. They incorporate time as a dimension of Einstein's theories. They provide a mathematical meta-theory of ... everything."

"And," Coombs piped up, "they provide theorems for the production of inestimable levels of power by transcending the current thinking of time/space, turning string theory into ..."

Carter didn't hear the rest. She'd already spun on her heel and was running for the bridge. She could hear Daniel pounding behind her, but she only cared about taking her ships and people out of reach of what she'd realized was power more vast than anything she'd every imagined. Not the Goa'uld, not the Asguard, not Anubis. None of them had controlled a fraction of the raw power that these Furies had at their fingertips. If Coombs was right and they'd weaponized it, and the planet provided plenty of proof that they had, she had lead her troops into a fight they could never hope to survive, much less win.



Chapter 12

Jack stared at the white tile ceiling overhead through his right eye. The other was out of commission. Sterile bindings covered it, as well as what felt like a thick layer of burn ointment. He felt the sting of tears in the corner of his open eye. They trickled down the side of his face. It burned. He closed his eye, willing himself to get a grip.

Kinsey watched and chortled.

"Nothing clever to say, Jack?" he asked. "No snappy repartee? You disappoint me. Legend has it that you are never at a loss for a lame joke or an insult."

Jack fixed his gaze on the tiles, trying to bring them into focus and failing.

"What do you want from me, Kinsey?" he sighed.

"As a matter of fact, not a damned thing," Kinsey replied. "For once, you have nothing I need. Now that you've crawled, begged for my help, and I've had the pleasure of turning you down, I can't think of anything else I require. Your getting emotional, an added bonus, I admit. It's so very new-age man to let yourself cry, especially in front of an enemy. So, I'd say that is that, Jack. I'm a happy man. I'm grateful for your role in my happiness, and I'm finished with you. Good bye."

He stood and Jack realized he was about to leave. With him would go his last chance to help Carter.

"How'd you do it?" he whispered, playing on Kinsey's megalomania. "I didn't imagine you were that ... smart."

"Look who's talking," Kinsey snarled. "I'm twice the man you imagined. It was not a simple matter to make contact with my associate. It was crucial, however."

"Your associate," Jack repeated. "Your associate who ... who helped you create a clone?"

Kinsey smirked, "And so much more."

"Loki!" Jack spoke as realization hit. "Loki, that little gray son-of-a-bitch!"

Kinsey shifted irritably. Clearly he hadn't expected a resurgence of the old Jack O'Neill quite so suddenly. He straightened and started to walk away and Jack realized his error.

"Impressive," he murmured. "I never saw it coming."

Kinsey smiled and resettled his ass against the nightstand. "You weren't supposed to Jack."

"But ..." Jack continued, "why'd he help you?"

"Curiosity killed the cat," Kinsey purred, "and it goes double for Asguard. Loki had been banished from the Science Council, thanks to the fuss you made over his little experiments with Junior Jack. It hit him hard, Jack. He's a genius, even by Asguard standards. You destroyed his life and then expected him to just accept it? You don't really understand much about geniuses, do you?"

"Guess it takes one to know one," Jack murmured weakly, feeding Kinsey's ego. "Loki created my clone," Kinsey replied, "The clone provided me with access to my new associates and was good enough to pay the price."

Kinsey smirked and chortled softly.

"So," Jack urged him on, "you aren't back inside the Trust?"

"Jack!" Kinsey replied, "Get with the program, of course not! Hostile takeover, Jack! The Trust is now a wholly owned subsidiary of something much bigger, something I control."

"You expanded," Jack murmured, burning to learn how Kinsey had turned the tables on the most powerful private interests on Earth.

"I expanded," Kinsey agreed, nodding and smirking. "Loki and I ... acquired technology and used Asguard scientific expertise in ways the Asguard Council never imagined."

"You mean like ... following me to P3X-666, getting your hands on super-Goa'uld weapons, and using what you learned from those weapons to create a fleet capable of standing off beyond Earth's weapon range," Jack growled, "and pummeling the world you called home, including the United State of America that you claimed to love, to dust?"

Kinsey turned purple. Jack smiled. He hadn't expected to score such a direct hit, but Kinsey's reaction told him that he'd got it all right, on one.

"Yes," Kinsey hissed. "That's right. The Trust resisted my plans. Hell, they tried to have me killed! They subjected my clone to implantation. That was what they'd planned for me. When I found that I needed certain resources in their control , I had no compunction about acquiring them. They'd have done the same to me."

"So, you turned on your own world," Jack said as his eye fluttered shut. "What a shock."

Jack knew then that Kinsey had lost it. He was nuts, gonzo, completely out to lunch, in compus mentum, loco en cabeza, out of his freakin' head. He didn't have a prayer of winning him over.

Jack let his eye close and said, "I'm beat, Kinsey. I'm goin' to sleep."

Jack waited, listening to the agitated breathing of his opponent. After a bit, the former Senator huffed, stood, and stalked out of the room, leaving Jack alone and wondering.

"Now what do I do?"

ΩΩΩ

"Reverse engines," Carter barked as she stepped onto the bridge, "Pull back all ships, immediately!"

Jameson scrambled out of her way as she took command and settled into her seat, glanced at the tactical display and then looked up at the planet and space beyond, visible through the forward force field.

"Situation?" she demanded.

"Enemy ships closing," Jameson replied, "ten degrees off starboard, Colonel Carter. We're in a defensive posture."

"Thank you, Major," Carter replied, "but we are no longer in a defensive anything. We are pulling back, now."

"What about ... Home?" Jameson replied softly.

"It'll be there when we get back," Carter replied. "Give the order to withdraw immediately, Major."

Jameson turned and barked, "You heard the Colonel. Signal the fleet to pull back, half-speed."

"Full reverse, pull out at best possible speed," Carter interrupted.

"Full, best possible speed," Jameson parroted.

"Aye," the COB responded and fingers flew to make it so.

Carter bit her lip as the planet below shrunk rapidly away until it was just a small blue marble in a sea of blackness.

She'd promised to come back. She'd done it, but now, once again, she was running.

ΩΩΩ

Nantes glowered at the strange fleet. It had just changed direction, apparently retreating from the planet.

"Watch those ships," he ordered, "Eliminate them, if and when they present a problem."

"Yes, my Lord," Heraclites replied, noting the wisdom of the order. At the moment, they had their hands full; Far too full to divert any resources to deal with a new threat, at least unless it became a real threat. In the meantime, however, he preferred to maintain complete focus on the enemy at their throat, the Furies.

Nantes' fleet was fully engaged, buffeted and battered by energy pulses streaming from the molten heart of the planet below. It was as if Hell's fires were reaching up into deep space, to slap at the ships, like a cat toying with a mouse. Heraclites kept his analogy to himself, however So far, his Master had studiously ignored the simple fact that the Furies would, in due course, pulverize the entire fleet, unless they pulled back soon.

"More power to the weapons," Nantes barked.

Heraclites replied, "Yes, my Lord," but his hand trembled as he redirected a minute portion of energy from the shields to the offensive systems. He was sure that the shields were the one thing keeping them alive.

"More!" Nantes roared, slamming his fist into the back of Heraclites' chair. "Now!"

The First Prime lurched from the blow and ground his teeth, but obeyed, cutting the shield power by half and shunting the additional energy into the weapons systems.

"Fire!" Nantes ordered, punching Heraclites' chair again with his fist. "Make them pay, damn-it!"

Heraclites crushed the weapons controls under his palm and all batteries opened fire. Lasers tore deep furrows into the surface of the battered continent below. Other ships followed suit, slicing into the Earth and plowing wide red wounds into the surface.

Heraclites blinked at the painful brilliance of the impacts. Nantes roared with pleasure and pounded the back of his First Primes' chair.

ΩΩΩ

Pete huddled against the steep wall of a blast crater. Mud and debris rained down, threatening to bury him alive. Every now and then, he shifted to free himself of the debris. Mostly, he just hugged the ground, with his eyes clamped shut, and prayed for the screaming to stop.

ΩΩΩ

Heraclites wondered briefly if the additional power had performed as hoped, if by some miracle it had reached the source of the Furies' power in the bowels of the planet's core. In another instant he knew the truth and stopped thinking about anything but the need to be elsewhere ... or die.

"My Lord!" he exclaimed as a pulse of hot white light struck the ship's shield, sparking briefly before bursting through with a flash and a roar.

Nantes staggered back, crying out, "NO!"

Heraclites felt his chair tip, saw the buttons under his fingers liquefy, lifted his hands and saw the flesh melting off the bones. He tried to stand, but the lower portions of his body were already cooked meat. The muscles of his thighs would never again respond to his own prudent thoughts or his Master's reckless commands.

Heraclites lifted his arms and fell. His last conscious vision, as he struck the molten floor of the bridge, was his Master's face. Nantes was screaming, his eyes white-rimmed with fear. Flecks of spittle clung to his wide-spread lips as he gazed into oblivion's maw and saw there the face of his enemies and the retribution awaiting him in their accursed realm. Then Heraclites, a committed Jaffa his entire life, released his soul to the journey to Kheb.

ΩΩΩ

"Victory is our own!" Tisiphone cooed, rubbing her bony palms together with glee. "Nantes is ours, Sisters! His forces are destroyed. Justice has been served!"

Alecto raised her arms overhead and cried, "Praise be! We are victorious at long last."

ΩΩΩ

Carter jumped up and stood behind the navigator, gripping the back of his seat and staring.

"Report!" she barked as the white hot tongue of flame slapped the last of the Goa'uld fleet out of existence and then evaporated, leaving her blinking at empty space.

Space had been alight with streams of plasma fire. Then, as if someone had flicked a switch, the brilliance was gone.

Several dozen broken pieces of ship still orbited the planet; others were losing momentum and slowly spiraling to the surface as the battle concluded.

"They're gone," the airman on sensors blurted, "All of them!"

"The Goa'uld?" Carter asked, trying to confirm what she'd just witnessed.

"The Goa'uld are gone, Colonel," the airman responded, "and the rest. There is no, repeat no energy reading on the sensor. Shifting sensitivity to higher range and it's ... clear. Shifting to low-end. Sensing residual low-end radiation readings on the planet. Forest fires, from the look of it, and some magmatic activity where they fired into active volcanic regions, but ... otherwise clear."

"Clear?" Carter repeated, and then she stepped back and slumped into her chair.

"Yes, Colonel," the airman replied, then he laughed, "they're just ... gone."

Carter rubbed her head, mystified, then straightened and said, "Message to the fleet: Tell them we're going to do a fly-by and take a closer look. They are to stay here and keep a sharp look-out. I don't trust this."

"Set a course for Earth," she continued, "Looks like we're going home after all."

ΩΩΩ

Megaera joined her hands with those of her sisters and smiled a toothless grin, "The evil one is ours, at last! Our primal energies have already carried his wicked soul to the depths of Tartarus. Now, Sisters, tell me: What shall be the fate of those who served him?"

"Ah!" Tisiphone replied, "A timely point, Sisters. What of them?"

Alecto gave her snake-hair a coquettish shake. The snakes twisted and flicked their tongues. "Justice delayed is justice denied," she stated.

Tisiphone nodded, "Bring O'Neill, Alecto, his reckoning is long past due."

She turned to Megaera and proclaimed, "Find Carter and her minions! Bring them to stand for their insolent crimes before our holy bar of righteousness. To our duty!"

"Our sacred toil awaits!" Megaera cried, as she became vaporous.

"To our hunt!" Alecto echoed as she faded into ether and flew to obey.

"Swiftly," Tisiphone screeched as they rose on the wind, "Justice thirsts; Vengeance demands blood!"

ΩΩΩ

Pete blinked when the explosions stopped. He pulled his head away from the raw dirt he'd pressed into and blinked. He looked up at the sky. It was no longer black. It was a very normal shade of blue. Smoke still wafted past his crater, but the overwhelming roar of the barrage had stopped.

Pete crouched against the steep crater slope and then stood and slowly climbed to the edge. He peered over the lip of the hole and saw a devastated world, but no sign of the enemy: Just fire and raw soil; Burning buildings and wrecked cars; Buckled roads; But no sign of aliens of any sort. He crawled over the edge and onto the flat, sage-pocked surface of the desert floor. In the distance behind him, he could just make out the mountains. Ahead, he saw Cody burning.

He stood, tentatively, expecting all hell to break loose again. But it didn't. He took a step, his knees wobbling and his head spinning from the residual effects of the incessant pounding he'd survived. He wiped his mud-encrusted hand across his face, leaving a slick of mud behind. Nothing happened. So he took another step and another. Within a minute, he was headed across the scrubby desert toward the only sign of civilization, the battered city that lay within sight up ahead.

He was too far from the crater to run when the ships re-appeared. So Pete Shanahan stood and watched as a single Goa'uld vessel swooped to the desert floor like bird of prey. The speed of it caused winds that formed dust devils swirling across the hot, baked landscape. He watched, open mouthed as it settled barely a hundred feet ahead of him. The sheer size of it made his knees shake. The roar as it settled made the soil tremble beneath his feet.

"Guess this is it," he muttered as he gaped at the alien ship. He'd heard about such things from Sam, but hadn't ever really believed in them until this moment.

He shielded his eyes against the blast of sand and grit as the base settled to Earth. Then, with no where to run, he walked slowly forward to meet whoever was inside.

Pete had covered half the distance when there was a sudden flash and the slicing sound of a ring-device. Then, Sam was standing before him with Teal'c and Daniel at her side.

The rings retracted and she stepped forward, staring at him.

Pete couldn't think of anything to say. She looked great. Clean and undamaged and ... clean.

"Pete?" she said as she crossed the space to stand before him. "Can you hear me?"

He nodded and felt his eyes sting, "I ... I missed you," he blurted out.

"I missed you, too," Sam replied. "What are you doing here?"

"I was looking for radios," Pete said woodenly, "Jack told me to try to find the mercenaries that fell out of the chopper when the attack started ..."

Sam had his shoulders and was shaking him, so he stopped talking.

"Jack!" she was shouting, "Jack sent you?"

"Yeah!" Pete answered, his heart falling into his shoes as he looked into her eyes, there was that look, again.

"Where is Jack?" Sam demanded. "Can you take us to him, Pete? It's important!"

"Sure," Pete replied, "I left him back there." He pointed toward the mountains behind him, "Before the latest barrage. He's hurt. He sent me to find the radios to call ..."

Sam wasn't listening, he realized. She'd turned and was leading him back toward the massive golden vessel.

"Take him to the Infirmary," she ordered to the first person they encountered. "Have the medics check him out. Get him something to eat. Let him clean up. Give him a change of clothes. Then bring him to my office."

She turned to him and said, "You'll be okay now. Go with them and get patched up, Pete. Then we'll talk."

Then she was gone.

Pete watched her go and knew that all she cared about was finding Jack O'Neill. He'd made a mistake, a terrible, terrible mistake in ever hoping to make a life with this amazing woman.

She belonged with O'Neill, to or nobody.

He'd never had a prayer.

ΩΩΩ

Carter sat at her desk, nervously waiting for Pete to arrive. She fiddled with a loose curl that had escaped from behind her ear.

'He's still alive,' she thought, fighting back hope even while she rejoiced, 'He saved Pete and I'm going to find him.'

She started when the door opened and an airman announced Pete. She smiled as her former lover stepped through the door and settled in the chair, eyeing her guardedly.

"I'm so glad you made it, Pete," she said, meaning it. She reached out and offered her hand. He paused before taking it.

"I'm sorry to rush you," she continued, "I know you've been through hell, but you said you left Jack nearby. I need you to help us find him."

"Sure, Sam," Pete replied. "I left him near the chopper. It's a wreck. It's near a stream in the mountains to the southwest of Cody."

Carter squeezed his hand and Pete continued unsteadily, "I walked, so it can't be too far. I was gone about ten minutes when the first attack started. I ran, trying to get out of the forest. It was on fire. I guess I ran about five miles, maybe a couple more. Is that what you need to know?"

Sam smiled and nodded, "That's great, Pete."

Then she released his hand, leaned back in her chair, and jabbed a button on her phone and said, "Set up a search grid. Scan the forested area southwest of the city. There's a wrecked chopper down there, if we find it we'll be close."

A metallic voice replied, "Yes, Colonel."

Pete watched in silence. When Sam was done, he started to stand, but she reached out and grasped his hand again.

"Was it bad?" she asked and Pete nodded, settling back in the chair.

"Yeah," he said. "I don't know how we made it this far."

"Is General O'Neill mobile?" she asked, "It's important to know if he might have moved."

"Barely," Pete replied. "I practically carried him the last few miles. He was on the ground the last time I saw him. He tore up his knee when I threw him over a cliff last night."

Sam frowned.

"There was a fire. He was out of it; cracked his head in the chopper crash. I had no choice," Pete explained. "He's been ... bad ... for way over three months ... more like four, now."

The look on Sam's face made him want to stop, but Pete kept going. He had to get this out now or he'd never be able to tell her.

"I tried to kill him that first night, Sam," he said slowly, "before I knew who he was. He recognized me. Saved my life."

"We climbed all night and into the next day. He was driven, like a madman. No rest, no food, no water. He was injured. I didn't know how bad, until the middle of the second day. He just collapsed."

Pete rubbed his face and let out a shaky breath, "I've never been so ... scared, Sam. He was dying. We were alone and I was ... Anyway, I did what I could. It wasn't much. I didn't have ... I don't know how ... Somehow, he hung on."

Pete rubbed his face and pinched the bridge of his nose, the continued firmly.

"No. That's not true. I do know. It was you, Sam."

Pete raised his eyes from his clenched fists and met her gaze. Sam didn't look away.

"It was you, for both of us," he continued. "He hung on with no medical care. God, I dragged that old man over five hundred miles of mountain, Sam. He was the only one who could help you, if you came back. He knew you'd come back. He hung onto that. So did I. It's what kept me going."

Pete stopped talking, wiped his eyes, and then continued.

"We found a doctor at a Boy Scout camp outside of Cody. Jack was real bad. He was out of his head for most of ten days; didn't stop him. As soon as he could stand, he cut a deal with the Trust. It was their camp. He got us weapons, a chopper, and a squad of mercs. We were heading for an ELF radio shack to contact the Russians or maybe the Chinese and organize a resistance. He wouldn't stop, Sam. I tried, I swear to God I tried to talk him out of it, but he just said, 'rescues don't wait'."

Sam bit her lip and nodded, not wanting to interrupt.

"We were hit by a missile, I guess. My head was jammed under some merc's armpit when it started. I heard Jack shout. Then something took the tail off the chopper. My boots were still caught on the front seat. The mercs all around me just flew out the hole in the tail. Jack and I rode it down."

"I broke a rib when we hit. Jack cracked his head on the windshield. He was out cold. I dragged him out of the wreck, got him on his feet and moving before it blew. The fuel or maybe the barrage caught the woods on fire. We ran. I stayed ahead of it. Somehow I got him to high ground over a river. There wasn't time. The fire was everywhere. It burst over us, so I shoved him off the cliff and then jumped in, too. We spent the night there. When the fire burned out, we headed back to the wreck to try and salvage a radio. The chopper was a write-off. Jack couldn't move. He was completely wiped out. So, I went on ahead to see if maybe one of the mercs we lost still had a working handset. Then, all hell broke loose and ...."

Pete bolted to his feet, his eyes wild and he screamed, "Jesus, Sam! I left him out there! I gotta go back! We gotta go back! He's ... he's..."

"Pete, take it easy," Sam said as she stood and walked around the desk.

Pete's stricken face was ashen and his eyes were wild. She carefully wrapped her arms around him and pulled the frantic man close. She'd half expected this. She'd noted signs of post-traumatic stress as soon as Pete had tried to speak. Now the dam had burst and emotions he'd denied over the past months had resurfaced in an overwhelming jumble.

"Shh," she murmured in his ear, stroking the tense shoulders and pulling his unyielding head down to press against her neck. Slowly he eased into her embrace. "You did what you could," she continued, "I know that. Jack knows, too. Shh. We'll find him, I promise, Pete. Don't worry. Jack will be just fine. He's tough, very tough. Believe me. I know."

Pete pulled away, suddenly, with a wild look in his eyes and said, "You don't understand, Sam. You don't get it. I wanted to leave him! I wanted to and ... I did."

ΩΩΩ

Daniel stepped into the Infirmary and settled in a chair at the bedside of the sleeping man. Pete stirred, but didn't waken. Daniel opened a book and waited. Until the sedative wore off, there was nothing else to do.

Eventually, Pete opened his eyes, turned his head, and focused on Daniel.

"Hey," Daniel said. "You feel like talking?"

"Sure," Pete replied. "'Bout what?"

"You told Sam that you and Jack both were trying to save her," Daniel said. "You were pretty upset when you thought you'd left him behind."

"I did leave him," Pete interrupted.

"And it bothers you," Daniel interjected.

"Yeah," Pete admitted dropping his eyes. "It does."

"So, when did the voices start, Pete," Daniel asked.

The other man paled and his pupils dilated.

"Voices?" Pete lied.

"They're called the Furies," Daniel said softly. "They 'turn brothers of a like mind against one another.' Sam tells me you built a travois and dragged Jack almost five hundred miles through some of the roughest mountain terrain in North America. Then, you just decided to leave him?"

Pete looked thoughtful.

"Doesn't make much sense does it?" Daniel asked.

"Not much," Pete admitted.

"So, when did the voices start, Pete?" Daniel asked again.

"About the end of the second week," Pete admitted, "it got real bad. I ... I kept hoping he'd give up and die. It was such ... hell ... I was putting him through it. He wasn't going to make it, I thought, so why suffer?"

"But he did make it," Daniel pointed you, "because of you. Thank you. Jack O'Neill's my best friend. You did something for Jack that I don't think I could have done, Pete."

"So, you don't think I'm a ... a psycho?" Pete asked.

"No," Daniel replied. "I think you fought off some of the most persistent demon-gods that the Earth's ever known. The Furies punish the wicked. That's what they're about: Vengeance. They seem to have fixated on us and, since you were hearing voices, there's a good chance they were picking on you and Jack, in particular."

"Great," Pete sighed, "demon-gods after me, just what I need."

"Can you tell me about it?" Daniel asked. "It's important."

"What isn't around you people?" Pete griped, but continued, "Sure. What the hell. I first heard them when he fell. God, it was awful. He was lying there, bleeding, and all I could think was 'serves you right!'"

Daniel nodded, forcing down his emotions.

"I was thinking, 'leave him, just go' but ... I couldn't. Sam loves that old son-of-a-bitch. Doesn't she? Well, I love her. I couldn't hurt her. I just ... couldn't. So, I helped him. I didn't do much. What could I do? He hung on and I got him out of there, eventually. The ... ah ... voices got worse later. I was hungry. Really hungry. It was so damned cold and I was tired. I've never been so tired in my life. I remember thinking, 'just die, you stubborn old fart.'"

Pete scrubbed his hand over his face. It was flushed with emotion and his blue eyes were shiny. It was time to give the guy some privacy.

"But he didn't," Daniel said as he stood. "Thanks to you, he didn't."

"Don't worry about it, Pete," Daniel said, reaching out and squeezing his shoulder. "If I've learned anything working at the SGC, it's that there are some really weird things in the world. We don't know the half of it. You just encountered one of them. From where I stand you did a damned fine job of fighting back and for a really fine reason. Get some rest, why don't you. I'll let you know when we find Jack."

Pete closed his eyes and Daniel stepped into the hall, closed the door, rubbed his head, and murmured, "If we find him ... before they do."



Chapter 13

Jack felt a breath on his neck. He slowly opened his right eye and scanned the room. Morning light filtered through the slats of the window shutters, coloring the floor and walls with red stripes. He saw he was alone.

"Hello?" he said, wondering if someone was on his blind side.

No one answered, but he felt the breath again; this time, against the left side of his face.

"Shit!" he muttered, "I don't need this kindergarten crap, Kinsey!"

The silence answered him. He closed his eye and tried to banish the feeling of being watched ... and taunted. It was unsettling

Jack nearly jumped out of bed when a voice hissed in his ear.

"The time is near," it whispered. "For your penance."

"Sweet," Jack snarled, "I don't know who the hell you are, but if you can get me out of here, do it. I won't put up a fight."

The voice hissed, "You have no choice. You will come, sinner, to your final test."

"So, let's get going," Jack called out to the empty room; feeling like he'd finally, completely lost his mind. "Spelling, Algebra, grammar, Ancient history for a hundred ... Bring it on, just get me the hell out of here."

A moment passed and another. There was nothing. It stretched into more nothing, until he wondered if perhaps he'd dreamed the evil voice. Then, the door to his private room opened and the duty nurse entered. She was pretty and dark-haired with a trim figure. The morning sun painted her crisp white uniform red and pink as she crossed the space between the door and his bed.

"Hey," Jack smiled, glad for the presence of another human being.

Jack hoped to win a smile, but she didn't even reply. She just stopped at his side, pulled back the covers, silently unhooked his plasma tube, and unceremoniously removed his catheter.

"What's up?" Jack asked innocently, trying not to squirm as she groped him. He tried again in Russian. No response.

The nurse turned away, dropped the rack on the side of his bed, grabbed the cast on his left knee and swung his legs over the edge of the bed.

"Hey," he barked as his knee protested, "Let's not rush things!"

But she moved across the room without appearing to hear him and returned with a wheelchair, which she placed beside him, locked the brakes, and half lifted him into it.

"Pants?" Jack suggested as he felt the cold vinyl under his backside, "and socks ... or shoes?"

The nurse didn't speak, but stood for a moment and, to Jack's surprise, smiled. Then she lifted her eyes to his and, to his alarm he saw they were red, brilliant ruby red, and shining like a pair of taillights.

Then she leaned forward and hissed softly in a voice he recognized, "It will be hot where you are going, sinner. Very ... Hot."

"So, we're goin' commando, then," he muttered.

Jack felt a sharp prick in the side of his neck, tried to stand, but fell back into the chair as the room spun and darkened.

ΩΩΩ

"Anything?" Daniel asked as he stepped into Sam's office.

She was sitting behind her desk with her head in her hands. She raised her head and growled, "Nada."

Daniel dropped into the chair across from her desk. She scowled at him and continued.

"Search teams have combed the forest for five miles in every direction around that chopper," Sam said, raking her fingers back through her hair. "No sign of him. No body, but nothing else, either."

"It's still dark, Sam," Daniel stated, "in the morning ..."

"In the morning!" she barked as she lunged forward, her eyes wide. "In the morning could be too late, Daniel! You know what Pete said!"

Daniel shifted in his seat, wondering whether Sam was referring to Jack's deteriorating medical condition or the fact that the Furies had been hunting him and might already have him. Since he knew next to nothing about medicine, Daniel focused on his area of expertise.

"You might be worrying needlessly. They punish the wicked, Sam," he said. "Would you call Jack O'Neill a wicked man?"

Sam ran her hand back through her hair again, sunk back into her chair, and sighed.

"No, Daniel, of course not," she replied, "at least ... not the man we know."

"I don't quite follow you," Daniel said as ugly foreboding tickled the nape of his neck.

"General O'Neill is one of the finest men I know," she continued, "but ... Anyway, you're the one who explained the Furies' brand of justice to me. Let's face it, I'm no expert. What I think is irrelevant."

Daniel leaned forward and said, "I don't understand, Sam. You're going to have to spell this out for me."

She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them and said, "What do they do, exactly?"

Daniel stood, scratched his head, and then leaned against Sam's desk and said, "Umm. They are the guardians of Hell's Fire."

Sam looked up at him expectantly and, when he didn't speak, said, "And that means ... what?"

"Well," Daniel said, standing to pace the small office, "There are nine levels of Hell, at least according to Dante, who was really just cataloguing a number of early versions of the same basic ideas."

Sam sighed and Daniel decided he'd better get to the point.

"If the Furies have him, the best Jack can hope for is Purgatory. It's a place of repentance, where 'the dew of repentance washes off the stain of sin and girds the spirit with humility.' It's said that, through contrition, confession, and satisfaction by works of righteousness, a soul must make its way up the mountain. As the sins are cleansed from the soul, the penitent is illuminated by the Sun of Divine Grace, and joins other souls, smiling and happy, upon the summit of this mountain. Eventually, those in Purgatory can raise themselves up to know the joys of Paradise as they ascend to the ethereal realm of Heaven."

"And that's as good as it gets?" Sam suggested.

"Yeah," Daniel confirmed, "And it can be a whole, helluvalot worse. Limbo is the next level. If Jack is there, and any of the myths are accurate, he will be ushered across the river Acheron to 'the brink of grief's abysmal valley.' It's a place of sorrow without torment. There's supposed to be a seven-walled castle, and within those walls rolling fresh meadows illuminated by the light of reason. This is where the ghosts of virtuous pagans dwell. The great philosophers and authors, unbaptised children, and others unfit to enter the kingdom of heaven exist in Limbo. There is no punishment there. Only an atmosphere of peace and sorrow."

"Seven-walled castle, huh?" Sam mused. "Maybe, if we can just ... find it."

"This is allegory, Sam," Daniel reminded her, "You can't take it literally. Anyway, from there things get steadily less comfortable. Level 2 is 'the realm where the lustful spend eternity.' Sinners are battered endlessly by the unforgiving blasts of unquenchable desire."

Sam shifted uneasily and Daniel saw a rosy blush coloring her cheeks. He shifted to the next level.

"Then there is the third circle. It's a realm of eternal rain, maledict, cold, and heavy. Gluttons are punished there, forced to exist in the filthy mixture of shadows and of putrid water as punishment. Cerebus, a three-headed dog dwells in this level. He growls and tears at the damned with his teeth and claws."

"Like in the Harry Potter flick," Sam murmured, rubbing the back of her neck and grimacing.

"Only way less ... cute," Daniel said. "Just before the river Styx is the Fourth Level. Here, the prodigal and the avaricious suffer their punishment, as they roll weights back and forth against one another. Sinners at this level share eternal damnation with others who either committed the sin of waste by living greedily and insatiably, or who stockpiled their fortunes, hoarding everything and sharing nothing. Plutus, the wolf-demon of wealth, dwells there."

"Just keeps getting worse," Sam muttered, pinching the bridge of her nose.

Daniel paused, wondering whether she should hear more, but after a long moment she glanced at him and said, "There are nine levels, right?"

"Yeah," Daniel said and he continued more quickly, skipping details. "At Level 5, the wicked encounter the river Styx. This is where the wrathful and the gloomy are punished. The former are forever lashing out at each other in anger, furious and naked, tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth. The latter are gurgling in the black mud, slothful and sullen, withdrawn from the world. Their lamentations bubble to the surface as they try to repeat a doleful hymn, though with unbroken words they cannot say it. Those who lived a cruel, vindictive and hateful life, meet their fate in the Styx."

Sam cradled her head in her hands and just grunted.

Daniel forged on, his own head beginning to ache, "At the next level, called The City of Dis, the condemned dwell in Satan's wretched city. There's said to be a wide plain surrounded by iron walls. Fields stretch away in all directions, 'full of distress and torment terrible.' Burning tombs litter the landscape. Inside them, heretics burn eternally for failing to believe in God and the afterlife. This circle of Hell is the realm of the three infernal Furies, stained with blood, with limbs of women and hair of serpents."

"So at the other levels, they're just tourists?" Sam sniped.

"Guess so," Daniel agreed. "Do you want to hear the rest?"

Sam lifted her face and shrugged, "Sorry. It's just ... unnerving to think it might be real, even as allegory, and that the General might be there. Give me the rest of it, Daniel. Please."

"Okay. Level 7 is guarded by the Minotaur and encircled by the river Phlegethon. It runs with boiling blood. The violent, the assassins, tyrants, and war-mongers are condemned to lament their 'pitiless mischiefs in the river, while centaurs armed with bows and arrows shoot those who try to escape their punishment.' The stench there is overpowering."

Daniel paused.

Sam raised her eyes.

"Spill it, Daniel."

"Um, it's just mythology, Sam," Daniel stammered, unable to meet her gaze.

"Mythology about three blood-thirsty witches that Pete Shanahan believes have been hunting him for nearly four months," Sam growled. "And you believe him. I see it in your face, Daniel. C'mon. Let's hear the rest."

"Okay," Daniel said softly, staring at his clenched fists, "The seventh level is also home to the 'wood of the suicides.' These are stunted trees with twisting branches and poisoned fruit. At the time of final judgment, their bodies will hang from their branches. In those branches the Harpies, foul birdlike creatures with human faces, make their nests. Beyond the wood is scorching sand where those who committed violence against God and nature are showered with flakes of fire that rains down against their naked bodies. Blasphemers and sodomites writhe in pain, their tongues 'loosed to lamentation' and out of their eyes gushes forth their woe. Usurers, who followed neither nature nor art, also share company in the Seventh Level."

Sam didn't move a muscle. Daniel raced grimly on. "At Level 8, called the Malebolge, is a deep pit. It's said that 'many and varied sinners suffer eternally in a multi-leveled ampitheatre-shaped pit of despair built wholly of stone and of an iron color.' It's said that newcomers to the Malebolge will want to cover their ears because of the agonizing lamentations of the sinners. Everyone is afflicted with scabs like leprosy, and lay sick on the ground, furiously scratching their skin off with their nails. Those guilty of fraudulence and malice, seducers and pimps, are whipped by horned demons. Hypocrites struggle to walk in lead-lined cloaks. Barraters are dunked in boiling pitch by demons known as the Malebranche. The simonists are wedged into stone holes and their feet are licked by flames as they kick and writhe desperately. The magicians, diviners, fortune tellers, and panderers are all punished there, as are thieves. Some wallow in human excrement. Serpents," Daniel caught Sam's eyes and raised his eyebrows suggestively, "writhe and wrap around men, sometimes fusing into each other. Bodies are torn apart."

"Serpents, huh? Sam shuddered, "The General will just love that."

Daniel nodded.

"What about the ninth?" she prompted.

"Level 9 is called Cocytus. It's cold there. It's the deepest level of hell. Satan himself resides in Cocytus, flapping his wings eternally, producing chilling cold winds that freeze thick ice everywhere. Satan shows his three true faces, black, red, and yellow, all gushing bloody foam from their mouths and their eyes forever weeping, as they gnaw on the three great traitors, Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. This place is as far as you can get from light and warmth. Traitors against God, country, family, and benefactors are locked deep in ice, eyes and mouths frozen shut for all time as they lament their sins in this glacial pit of despair."

"Frozen," Sam whispered. A shadow crossed her face, betraying thoughts both dark and fearful.

"The Furies punish the wicked, Sam," Daniel prompted. "Jack's a good man; the best!"

Her face only darkened as Sam rocked back in her chair and fixed him with worried blue eyes.

"General Jack O'Neill has served in the military since Vietnam," she began. "He was Special Forces for most of that service, Daniel. How many black-ops missions d'you think he ran in the two and a half decades before you and I met him? I know you're a civilian, but you must understand what that sort of service can ... require. Think about the sins Dante listed: Violence? Hatred? Assassination? Murder! War, thievery, fraud ... Suicide. Your guess is as good as mine as to what the General must have done in the service of his country. It's deeply classified. Even I can't see his service records. Not that I'd ... want to know the details ... not unless the General needed to tell someone ... and asked ... me ... to listen."

Daniel shuddered slightly as she wound down to an awkward silence. He didn't reply. His mind raced. Jack was ruthless. Daniel usually denied that side of his friend's nature. But, he'd sensed it the first moment he laid eyes on the steely-eyed, cold-hearted, military son-of-a-bitch who'd stepped into the Gate room with his impenetrable professional attitude and a chip on his shoulder the size of Cheyenne Mountain. Daniel had faced the consequences of it on Abydos when Jack had been fully prepared to die himself, if that was what it took to stop Ra, and had given every sign he'd take the entire population of Abydos along with him. They'd only been spared Jack's hell bent self-destruction by inordinate good luck.

Since then, Jack had buried that side of himself, shutting it away from the people he cared about. Daniel played along, ignoring the dangerous side of his friend. Now and then, despite both their efforts, it blasted forth in a brief, hair-raising glance, or an abrupt brutal act.

Jack had shot down Rees without hesitation or apparent regret. Daniel had watched, horrified, and had hated him at that moment.

When Daniel had been held for ransom in South America, Jack materialized out of the jungle like an avenging angel to wipeout the entire gang of power-crazed outlaws, saving Daniel from violent death. Daniel had been giddy with relief and gratitude, but for one chilling moment, as Jack had turned to pull Daniel to his feet, that other Jack burned in those dark, dangerous eyes: The man who could kill without hesitation and drive on without regret.

It was those brief moments when Daniel faced the killer behind the light-hearted, devil-may-care persona that Jack O'Neill showed to the civilized world. Despite his juvenile fixation on the Simpsons, despite his unadulterated love of kids and dogs and his Team, despite his courage, self-sacrifice, loyalty, and countless other superior qualities, the friend Daniel loved best in the world was also a stone-cold killer: assassination and execution were well within Jack's character. That fact bothered and bewildered him, but Daniel Jackson was honest enough to admit the truth of it. It might never again surface, but Daniel knew that as long as his friend Jack O'Neill breathed, the killer was there ... carefully restrained ... hidden, perhaps ... but ready.

Daniel started out of his dark thoughts as Sam rubbed her eyes and continued, "And, what about since we've known him? He still blames himself for Charlie's death, Daniel. He always will. He's lost other people. Good people. He was responsible for those people, Daniel. He ordered them on missions and they didn't come back. What about Janet? Do you think he's forgotten? He'll never forget ... or forgive himself. How d'ya expect all that will stack up under the Furies' 'fire and brimstone' version of Justice, Daniel?"

Daniel shifted, uneasily. Jack was better, since Abydos. The deep vein of pain was buried now. The periods of dark withdrawal were rarities. Even so, Daniel knew that sometimes Jack headed to his Minnesota cabin to brood; often in late spring, around the time of his son's tragic death.

Daniel also knew his friend still spent sleepless nights. He'd seen him off world, after a grueling day of hiking, dog-tired, but sleepless. He'd offer to take Daniel's watch and sit alone pretending to star-gaze. Sometimes Teal'c would join him and the two warriors would speak in voices too low to catch the words that continued until the archeologist drifted off to sleep. When Daniel pushed for explanations, Jack always claimed not to need as much sleep. But it was a lie. Daniel knew his friend was plagued by nightmares -- violent, dreadful dreams that weren't dreams after all, but memories ... and guilt.

The truth of it hit Daniel like a fist. Jack had committed unspeakable acts. Those acts haunted him. He'd made mistakes and people had died. He hadn't forgotten and he'd never forgive himself. Faced with the Furies' demands for retribution for the many failures of Jack O'Neill's life, his friend wouldn't even bother to defend himself.

"Oh, Sam," Daniel murmured. "We've gotta find him."

ΩΩΩ

Tisiphone rushed the wheeled chair through the maze of corridors. It was heavy, but she didn't feel the weight. The time of reckoning was come! As the master had paid, so would the minions ... and many times over!

Sweat trickled down her spine, gathering in the small of her back as she raced through the facility with their unconscious captive. Her sisters flanked her, both in human form, both occupying young, strong female bodies. Alecto had taken a statuesque blonde with broad shoulders and narrow hips. Megaera was a slender redhead with a pug nose and freckles. The body she'd taken was smaller, but Tisiphone had chosen her because she'd been in charge. She reveled in its youth and strength. She hadn't taken physical form for an eternity. She couldn't risk it while Nantes lived.

As goddesses, the Sisters could have struck O'Neill down without ever becoming. Still, the transformation to human form was crucial in order to properly purify O'Neill and his consorts by trial prior to their final damnation in the depths of Tartarus. Only so much could be done by haunting of the human mind.

For true torment, the physical form was required. Such torment had not been possible for Nantes and his forces. Unfortunately they had died in battle. Upon death, they had plunged directly into Hell's fires. Though there would be eternity to rend punishment from their immortal souls, still it was not the full measure of justice that Tisiphone desired.

After waiting for an eternity to exact revenge, Tisiphone had detailed plans to mortify the wicked flesh of her foe. The Dark Master had sidestepped that fate. Fortunately, his minions, including O'Neill, lived.

When the day nurses came on duty, she had claimed a body and taken mortal form eagerly. Then Tisiphone ordered her mortal subordinates into positions where Alecto and Megaera could take control of their bodies. Together, they'd dispatched the other medical staff.

Tisiphone had forgotten the sensation of mortality. One moment she was an immortal being, the next she was governed by gravity and limited in her ability to penetrate the mind of her captive. She was no longer a creature of fire and air. Still she embraced the change. The physical form offered such possibilities for real, physical contact with her subjects. The sensations of touch, smell, and sound washed over her.

'This is right,' she knew as she smoothed her petite newly gained hands across the front of her stiff white uniform skirt. With sinners like O'Neill and his consorts, Tisiphone would not forego the potential for skin-to-skin contact. She leaned close and caught the long-forgotten scent of a human male.

'Soon,' she hissed in their subject's mind. 'Soon, you suffer, sinner. Oh, how you shall pray for death! It will come,' she promised, 'but not quickly and not easily.' She traced her fingernails along the man's unprotected neck and felt him shudder.

'You will desire my gentle touch,' she warned, 'after you've learned the true depths of retribution owed by your Master. He is destroyed, sinner, even now he pays his debt in Tartarus. But, you! Ah, you live and offer what he denied us. Your mortal form shall pay for every sin committed in Nantes' name, as well as your own dark secrets.'

The corridor curved up ahead and she angled the path of the wheelchair to avoid the oncoming wall. Megaera fell in step behind her.

"Take the lead," Tisiphone ordered. Alecto moved ahead of her, just in case the humans attempted an ambush.

Alecto passed beyond the curve and was out of sight. Hearing no signs of violence, Tisiphone followed with Megaera on her heels.

Suddenly, Alecto raced back, staggering, shouting.

"Stop, sisters! Stop!"

Automatic weapons' fire chattered, sending ricochets and chips of tile flying overhead. Tisiphone threw her weight against the forward momentum of the wheel chair. She dragged it to a halt as Alecto scrambled to her. They crouched behind the chair, shielded by their unconscious passenger. Megaera joined them a moment later.

An arm appeared around the bend in the hallway and a voice roared in Russian, "Leave him! Withdraw and I will spare you!"

"Arrogant mortal," Tisiphone snarled. "He will spare us?"

Alecto shifted uncomfortably, "We are not immortal at this moment, Sister."

Megaera placed her hand on Tisiphone's shoulder and whispered, "We can reclaim him, Sister."

"Unacceptable!" Tisiphone cried as she stood and charged forward. Red fury blinded her to the danger. She flung herself past the wheelchair and screamed down the hallway into the astonished Russian troops.

Before they could respond, she was upon them. She grasped the first opponent by the throat, lifting and slamming him against the wall. Her fingers closed around his windpipe, tore into the flesh, and then jerked away, tearing out his throat. She pulled the automatic weapon from his dying grasp and turned it on his astonished comrades.

"Vengeance!" she cried as she sprayed bullets into the scrambling men. "You dare deny me? Mortal I may be, but Goddess I remain!"

Her sisters were beside her then, arming themselves with the weapons from the dead and dying Russians. They opened fire cutting down the remaining men before they could escape.

Tisiphone stopped firing as the last man fell. The gunshot echoes died and silence followed. She wiped a blood-drenched hand across her face, then turned and grabbed the handles of the wheelchair.

"Come," she snapped as she maneuvered the wheels around the bodies sprawled across the corridor. "It is time."

ΩΩΩ

Zhukov ground his teeth as he punched the rewind button. The tape changed direction, and he watched the speeding images rewind as his men died in reverse.

Kinsey snarled and bent over his shoulder. "Three nurses!" he sneered. "Three young women, unarmed women at that, took out your so-called Special Forces, Zhukov."

Zhukov swallowed the bile that surged into the back of his throat. "Enough," he snapped. "I have eyes to see for myself. What I do not have is an understanding of ... how these women survived the attack. Nor to I understand their mission; nor their interest in O'Neill."

"Well," Kinsey interrupted, "I'd suggest you find out!"

"I intend to," Zhukov replied.

Kinsey hesitated, watching him closely. When Zhukov said nothing more, the American muttered, "I'd think you would," and stalked out of the room.

As he watched him go, Zhukov continued softly, "and when I am certain that you are involved in this attack, then you shall die, I swear it."



Chapter 14

Jack felt unbearable heat. He opened his right eye and squinted into flames. He closed it against the searing heat. The flames were too close. He smelled burning sulfur as they singed his hair.

Jack squirmed against solid rock at his back. It radiated heat only marginally less intense than the fire before him.

Then he rasped through blistering lips, "What the hell is this?"

A voice cackled, Arrogant mortal!

Jack opened his functional right eye and squinted toward the voice. Beyond the tongues of dancing flame stood the dark-haired nurse who'd abducted him. Except she'd transformed. Her modest white uniform was gone, replaced by a flowing cape of blood-stained rags. Beneath the cape she wore a red, metal-studded girdle that left little to the imagination. Above its tight grip, Jack glimpsed the woman's flat abdomen and thin ribcage. Each rib stood out starkly in the flaring firelight, as if the bones had been outlined in white and black. Her dark brown tresses fell loose over her shoulders, covering her breasts where the tattered cape fell away.

Arrogant mortal! she cried again, stepping through the flames, which licked at the tatters of her ragged cloak. Ignoring the flames, she raised her arms high over her head. Her long brown hair swung into the flames and caught fire, transforming as it burned into thousands of long, thin, ribbons of writhing snakes.

"I am Tisiphone! Through me lies the way into the suffering city; Through me lies the way to eternal pain; Through me runs the road of the Lost. Justice urged on my high artificer! My maker was divine authority! Highest wisdom! Primal love! Before me nothing, but eternal things were made ... And I endure eternally!"

Jack winced as Tisiphone bent close. The snakes weaved and hissed before his good eye.

"This," she hissed, "is the First Ring. Face the first truth of your iniquitous life and tremble, sinner. Abandon every hope, ye who enter here!"

Uncertain what she meant, Jack hesitated. It was the wrong move. A fiery hand struck from behind, tearing the bandage from his head.

"Confess!" an unseen attacker screeched.

"I don't understand!" Jack shouted back, writhing against his restraints. "What do you expect from me?"

"This is the place where we, the Furies, spread wide all lies, faithlessness, treachery and exact punishment for human failings!" Tisiphone hissed. "Speak your sin!"

"Screw you!" Jack roared.

The one behind struck him again slamming his head back against the boulder.

"Testify or pay for your insolence!" she cried, wrenching his head around to face her.

Jack saw a blue-eyed blonde that he recognized from his first night in Tiksi. But, like the other nurse, she'd changed her wardrobe. Wide straps of shimmering black leather crossed her chest and groin. The straps narrowed as they wound up her arms and down across her thighs to end as tight, knee-high boots and long-sleeved gloves. Her long blond hair seemed to levitate in the waves of heat, forming flowing vortices of liquid gold.

She leaned close and a strand traced over his chest. Jack screamed. Involuntarily, he jerked his head back, striking it against the boulder. His vision swam from the blow and the path of the single strand burned like molten metal, leaving a thin, steaming welt of red across his chest and right shoulder.

"I am Alecto!" the blond hissed as her molten hair danced around Jack's face, "My fury burns! I rule here and shall use you as I see fit. Testify or burn!"

"Where is this?" he asked again, trying for a reasonable tone. "What do you expect me to say?"

Alecto struck him again, driving Jack's head against the boulder a third time. Then through the roaring in his ears another voice replied. It was soft and chanted in a low, sultry rhythm.

"Within this realm of solid rock, nine sacred rings there be, and each runs down and farther down, the trail of iniquity."

Jack opened his eye. A pug-nosed redhead stood before him stark naked and drenched in fresh blood. Rivulets ran down her chest and flowed from her fingers as she gestured. Blood spattered as she moved and pooled around her feet, steaming and bubbling where it hit the hot rocks.

"I am Megaera, proctoress," she chanted.

"Answer true to me and suffer less."

"Fail and burn as the nine realms we pass."

"From fiery first to icy blast."

Then, Megaera began clapping her hands softly in a syncopated rhythm in time to her words, "The first is Limbo," she chanted, dipping low and then stretching high.

"Whither shall you go" She spun around and continued, "To the realm of the atheist and unbaptised pagan?"

She bent low and hissed into Jack's face, "One act of faith frees you from that sorrowful legion!"

"Testify!" Alecto demanded leaning into Jack's field of vision, her dangerous hair tumbling around him.

"Declare!" Tisiphone screamed. Her blood stained rags whirled as she spun to jab a finger in Jack's face.

"I ..." he stuttered, still unsure what these harpies expected, "I'm no pagan, if that's what you mean. I've been baptized. Hell, for a couple of years I was an alter boy. I haven't been back since ..."

The words caught in his throat.

"Aaaarggh!" Tisiphone screamed and swirled, lifting dust devils from the cinders under her bare feet.

Alecto's face contorted with rage and she flounced away behind her sister.

Megaera nodded, smiled, and reached out a hand to stroke Jack's cheek, murmuring, "You have passed the first test, O'Neill. Come."

Jack's restraints loosed and he took a half-step, but his wrenched knee buckled. He fell.

Megaera grabbed his underarm and half dragged him down slope, across glowing embers and shards of broken flint. The coals bit into his palms and burned his bare knees as she drew him through yellow clouds of sulfurous smoke and jets of white steam. The acrid air tore at his nose and throat.

Jack choked and hacked.

At a bend in the path, Jack grasped a rock ledge in the wall and pulled himself upright. Through the foul mists, he could see a large wheel of heavy rough-hewn beams strapped with wide metal bands. The metal glowed and the wood smoked. Jack pulled away and stumbled backwards a step.

Alecto cut off his retreat, however, striking him a sharp blow in the back of his left knee. He fell and, before he could move, the witches slipped leather straps around his wrists and ankles. They quickly fed the straps through slots in the huge wheel. He'd barely regained his feet before the straps tightened. The three witches pulled on the straps dragging him slowly, inexorably toward the massive wheel.

"The second circle tests unwholesome desire," Megaera grunted as she dragged on a strap, "loss and fulfillment; passion and fire."

Jack didn't much like the sound of that and he wasn't about to let them tie him to the huge, smoldering wheel, at least not without a fight. He dug in his heels and threw his weight against the restraints, but the straps held. The witches were a lot stronger than they should have been, he realized as they dragged him forward.

Heat radiated off the massive metal wheel. Suddenly, Jack's wrenched left knee failed and he fell. He clamped his arms to his chest, using his full weight to resist, but the Furies persisted and soon his right arm was pulled away from his side. Tisiphone heaved on the leather thong, swiftly jerking it high over his head, and dragging him upright.

Jack kept fighting, leaning away from the heat, as his arm hairs crisped. Tisiphone gave the strap a final, sharp jerk and hot metal bit into his wrist as she secured his right arm to the wheel. Jack heard sizzling as he passed out.

ΩΩΩ

"Report," Sam barked as she stepped into the converted Physics Lab of her fleet's Flag ship.

Felger stared up at her like an adoring Labrador retriever. The tip of his pink tongue visible between his front teeth only heightened the impression. Carter had the sense that, if he had a tail it would be wagging energetically. Coombs saw it, too, snorted and jabbed his colleague in the ribs.

"Felger," he hissed. "The Colonel is waiting for an answer... Speak!"

At that moment Daniel rounded the corner and said, "Hey Sam. We are making some real progress. Dr. Felger has determined directionality on the signal."

Sam turned to smile at Daniel. "That's great!" she said. She saw Felger deflate in her peripheral view. Coombs leaned over and hissed something in his ear.

Sam tore her attention away from the pair and focused on Daniel.

"Dr. Coombs led the computer programmers," he continued, "in the development a program to review all incoming transmissions from the planet at the time of the attack and during our approach to Earth orbit. Once they've analyzed the data, if there's something useful, we'll try it on all records in the ship's database and anything we recorded on the Alpha site. These crystals can hold a tremendous amount of data and the Goa'uld have a habit of keeping whatever they get their hands on. All we have ..."

Sam nodded and raised her hand, silencing Daniel. She didn't need every detail and he knew that, but sometimes he got carried away when describing his research and forgot.

"That's great, guys," she said, giving Felger a smile on high-beam. The Doctor of Physics literally trembled with delight. Sam reminded herself not to reward him with a smile again. It was too ... ischy.

"As soon as you've got preliminary indications of direction on Earth's surface," she continued, "alert me. When do you think I can expect it?"

"A couple of ... ah ... a ... hours," Felger managed to say.

"Good job," Sam said, then she turned on her heel and left, thinking, 'Note to self. Have Daniel brief me in my office next time ... alone.'


Four hours thirty-three minutes later there was a knock at her hatch and Sam looked up from preliminary assessments of the damage to Cheyenne Mountain, Area 51 and 52, Washington DC, and the major military bases on US soil and abroad.

"Come," she said.

Daniel's head appeared and then the rest of him followed. He was hollow-eyed and hadn't found time to shave. Rusty whiskers burnished his cheeks and chin.

He settled into a chair in front of her desk.

"We've got a direction," he stated without preamble. "Readings indicate a location in Siberia. We accounted for the spin of the planet on our approach. As a result, we have a lock from several angles. This gives us the ability to triangulate."

"So, you've got more than a direction, then," Sam prompted.

"We do." Daniel grinned, "We have a location."

Daniel spread a map on Sam's cluttered desk. She stood and leaned over it. A series of lines intersected in an area of Siberia.

"Tiksi," she read from the map, "a port town on the Laptev Sea."

"There's something else," Daniel said, tossing an electrograph printout across the map.

"The signal?" Sam asked.

"The signal," Daniel verified. "Now look at this." He tossed another printout beside the first.

Sam scanned the two printouts. "I don't see any difference," she finally said.

"There is none," Daniel replied.

"Should there be?" Sam prompted, eager to order troops into Tiksi and losing patience.

"You might expect some difference," Daniel said, "considering the first printout is from the Super-Goa'uld technology, whereas the second ..."

"Spill it," Sam snapped.

"Is from the crystal skull we encountered six years ago," Daniel concluded, "on P7X-377."

Sam sat down, stunned.

"That's ... unexpected," she said. "The same signature?"

"You've just verified it," Daniel replied, sitting as well. "I've been checking and double-checking, Sam. There's no mistake. And, before you ask, the same signature is evident on recordings made on P3X-666, including the tape I made ... of Janet."

Daniel dropped his head into his hands and continued, "We haven't heard from Nick in a ... a long time. SGC's last contact with him was ... brief. He said the Giants needed him to remain there and that he preferred that we leave him in seclusion. He said he'd contact us when he was ready to discuss his work."

"Don't call us, we'll call you," Sam paraphrased.

"Yeah," Daniel said. "Nick gave us the brush-off."

"Maybe it's time for you to reconnect with your granddad, Daniel," Sam said.

Daniel stood and frowned. Then he turned away and headed for the hatch muttering, "That's what I thought you'd say."

He turned with his hand on the door and said, "I ... I already tried. The uplink we'd established through the 'Gate's down."

Sam nodded and tapped a thick report on her desk, "That's not surprising. The entire Mountain was flattened. Everything ... including the 'Gate ... is buried under 200 thousand tons of rock."

"Lucky we brought a backup," Daniel said as he opened the door and started through, but paused half-way through the hatch.

"Get Syler on it," Sam ordered, "I'm going to get teams briefed and ready to take Tiksi."

"You're invading Russia?" Daniel said.

Sam's eyebrows lifted and she said, "We received signal originating from Siberia, didn't we? Well, in my expert opinion, I believe that it's a distress beacon. We're not invading anyone, Daniel."

"It's a mission of mercy."

ΩΩΩ

The thongs were tight when fresh pain brought Jack back to consciousness screaming, "Motherfuckers! Why are you doing this? What the fuck do you want from me?"

The witches laughed at his impotent fury. They'd pulled the thongs so tight that his arms stretched out and his shoulder joints threatened to separate. Straps at his ankles spread his legs wide. He was helpless and completely at their mercy.

Megaera peered deep into Jack's gaze and spoke.

"Of every malice that earns hate in Heaven, injustice is the end," she explained gently. "And each such end by force or fraud brings harm to other men."

"Fraud is man's peculiar vice; God finds it more offensive - the fraudulent are lowest and their penalty most intensive."

Jack glowered as she searched his face for understanding. Then, without warning, she reached up, grasped the neckline of his flimsy hospital gown and jerked. The cloth ripped from the neckline to the hem and the pieces fluttered down to the steaming rocks at his feet and caught fire.

Jack cursed. "Fuckers!"

He tried to jerk free of his restraints, as Megaera smiled sadly, turned and moved away from his side, chanting in a soft voice full of malevolence:

"The second tests unwholesome lust. Heart and body unlock to us."

"Welcome or not, you take us in. Endure or delight, in shame or sin."

"Desires unspoken gain tongue and voice, the test is how you make the choice."

A sharp surge of fear dragged Jack back to reality. 'Unspoken desires? Were they were talking about Sam ... and him?'

"No!" he roared. "She's innocent! You've got me! Well, fine! Do ... whatever! But, I commanded her! So you bloody bitches just leave her the fuck alone!"

"Innocent? Hardly!" Tisiphone spat. "The Mistress of Alchemy pants for you like a bitch in heat! Such a waste, she's as potent a mind as this backward planet has known for ten thousand years. Nostradamus is the only human in history that approached her insights, but he was a mere man. She, a woman, could be potent beyond measure. She could buy and sell men like you, General, change the course of Kingdoms, control the destiny of Worlds. Instead, she is a helpmate ... to you! Her talents are in your service, working miracles to do your bidding! She has conquered time and spaced, crossed galaxies, battled Gods and evils beyond the ken of lesser beings. All to save you! Even now she plots the liberation of this wretched world merely to reach you."

Jack lifted his head and Tisiphone continued, smiling, "Don't fret; your warrior-queen shall prevail. When all is in readiness, she shall find you, flanked by her minions: that Wizard of Words, Doctor Jackson, and the Titan Teal'c. Then, when we have them, they shall face the ultimate test and prove what we will soon reveal from your own guilty heart."

"Screw you!" Jack roared. "She's done nothing to ..."

Someone struck him from his blind side. Fiery tongues of pain tore through his consciousness, like solar flares clawing at inky space, swelling and surging. Jack hung on. Someone gripped his jaw. He was aware, but powerless to resist as she clamped her mouth over his. He shrunk back, but he was tied to the wheel. There was nowhere to go. She shoved her tongue down his throat.

Jack wrenched his head away, gasping. Alecto dragged his face back and locked her mouth over his again. He bit her, drawing blood. She leapt back, wiped her hand across her bloody lip, and punched him again in the side of the head. Jack's vision swam as he watched her unbuckle a thick length of leather at her waist. She gripped his face again, digging leather-clad fingers into the sides of his mouth and wrenching it open. Jack twisted and bit, but she forced the thick leather strap between his teeth. Other hands tied it around the base of his head, gagging him.

Jack glared at Alecto. She smirked at him, wiped her hand across her bloody mouth again. Then she leaned forward and pressed her bloody lips to his. Her long, wet tongue slid past the gag and into his throat.

Jack retched as she explored his mouth. Her leather-clad fingers moved down his naked chest, over his stomach. He tensed as they continued down and clamped around the base of his cock. To his mortification, he was aroused.

Burning with fury and shame, Jack squirmed and rocked against his restraints, trying to wrench free from Alecto's searching lips. The straps held and she continued to explore his mouth with her tongue, muffling his cries of fury. Then breath tickled the head of his cock. Hot yearning surged in his groin. He gasped. He tried to avoid the mouth, but Alecto still gripped him at the base of his shaft and directed it toward the eager mouth. Jack felt lips brush against him. Other hands grasped his ass, pressing his pelvis forward. The lips touched him, warm and insistent, tightened, closed over the head of his cock and sucked.

Jack moaned softly and, despite himself, bucked as the eager mouth slid down his shaft. He moaned again, deep in his throat, and shuddered with lust. He struggled to stand, pulling away from the hungry mouth.

Alecto pulled back and smirked.

"So, you choose to fight! Why? We are most skilled seductresses. Does it heighten your delight to resist us, General?" Alecto mocked. She tightened her grip on his cock and pumped, raising her hand to meet her sister's exploring lips. Jack's vision swam at the sensations she wrung from him. Urgent need coursed through him. He clamped his eyes shut, slammed his head back against the wheel and gnawed the leather strap between his teeth.

Alecto laugh lightly then she leaned into him and ran her free hand down his neck to his left breast. Her fingers brushed his nipple, then pinched. Fire shot from his chest to the base of his swollen shaft. He trembled under her fingertips. She shifted and traced her lips and tongue down his neck and collarbone to suck his right breast, teasing and biting the painfully hard nub.

Jack choked and burned with shame. He had to fight, but his treasonous body responded. They were playing him like an instrument. Worse, he wanted it, more of it, a lot more. Wanting it terrified and disgusted him. At a place Jack had always denied, such utter vulnerability was deeply erotic. As a warrior, it was alien to him. He despised it, but it was there, dragging him toward the fiery pit.

Although he fought his growing need, Jack's hips rocked forward eager for the tight lips that slid down the full length of his cock. He matched the rhythm: demanding, anticipating, urging greater contact, more speed. The mouth complied; he clamped his ass muscles and arched his abs, pressing the head of his penis against the throat. Sensation pulsed along his entire hungry length.

Then, suddenly, the motion stopped.

Jack quivered with unmet desire.

The mouth lifted.

A tongue tip flicked, barely tracing the vein at the front of his shaft.

He moaned.

It lapped at the underside of his foreskin and he groaned.

Alecto leaned forward again. Jack opened his eyes.

A dark head was at his crotch. It was Tisiphone's tongue on him. He felt it move up the front of his cock, licking the entire underside from base up to his throbbing head. Then Tisiphone's lips closed over him again.

Alecto's fist pressed down at the base of his cock, stretching his shaft up in a thick curve. Tisiphone opened her throat and took him in, in a single, swift motion she devoured him.

Alecto shifted her grip at the base and matched her sister's cadence, and even as her throat enclosed his shaft, Jack felt fire and abject gratitude as the sisters debauched him.

Fingers were on his ass. Jack gasped as they spread his crack. Filthy yearning surged from his anus to his glans.

"No," Jack whimpered in an inarticulate sob.

The fingers threatened contact, but passed on to caress the isthmus of skin beneath his pulsing balls.

Jack's sac tightened against the hot, wet fingers that cradled him. The fingers lifted and fed his balls forward to Tisiphone's hungry lips.

Jack groaned as his balls pressed between the forceful buck and thrust of his cock and the soft insistent lips.

Overwhelmed by the cascade of sensation, Jack reared hard against teeth. The Fury at his crotch bore down, hurting him. He was on fire, as Megaera's wet fingers withdrew from Tisiphone's mouth. His balls moved free with the sucking, sliding lips.

Jack cried out and writhed.

Alecto's fingers, still locked at the base of his straining shaft, blocked the pulsing cum pounding for release.

Then, without warning, the heavy gears snarled. The leather thongs tightened cruelly. Jack's limbs splayed until he screamed.

Electric thrills shot from his toes to his sac. His balls tightened and lifted, pulsing within the greedy mouth. Saliva slick fingers ran up, stroking the skin between his sweating thighs. Hands shifted, opening the crease of his cheeks, stretching him wide. Jack's shame surged as his body yearned for more. Thumbs slipped down his ass, teasing his virginal rim.

Jack roared and fought as hot, soft breath tickled his anus. He hated himself as he hung on every slight pressure, eager for the coming violation.

The thumbs shifted, moving down to his rim. He tightened his ass and screamed. He tried to jerk away, before she could take him. He arched forward, thrusting his cock hard into Tisiphone's mouth. The eager bitch sucked fiercely, grasping his pelvic bones and pulling him forward, sucking his balls and cock deep into her throat.

He jerked back from her wet eagerness. The reflex opened his ass to Megaera. She spread him. Jack tensed, too late. Fingers pushed past his clenched rim. His last defense fell as she finger fucked him.

Jack barked out his wordless rage.

Rage transmuted to frenzied craving. Jack's cock thundered to each shock of pain to his violated ass. He gnawed on the leather gag and strained against his bonds caught in a wave of raw desire. Pleasure pounded hard upon pain. Every recess of his body lusted for it, resistance crumbled. Craving crashed through him, dragged him into the depths, and all the while Alecto's cruel hand on his shaft prevented release.

Jack wrenched away from the mouth on his face, gasping, trying to surface from the swirling ecstasy and revulsion. The blonde Fury at his throat grabbed his jaw and shoved his head back, baring his throat.

"Fight, but we know it only feeds your filthy desires," Alecto panted. "Witness!" she tightened her grip on his engorged shaft. "You want this. This proves the enormity of your desire. How you have punished yourself for your failures; you pretend to live by a warrior's code. You piously deny yourself for duty, for honor! Hah! Lies, O'Neill! You are not above this. You are afraid! Those sleepless nights, as you anguished over the dead, were lies. This is what shatters your dreams ... wanton desires for utter, total, release! In the darkest places of your soul, you ache for it, like a great, heaving beast. This is your test and yours alone. This is what you chose."

She leaned forward and bit the flesh under his jaw.

Jack choked back a sob of pain and frustration.

"This is your choice. And ... your ... test!" she hissed, then her mouth closed and sucked hard at his exposed throat. She pressed her hand against his unresisting hips, rocking them back, in synchrony with Megaera's thrusts into his willing depths. Tisiphone was feeding on his cock and balls, even while Alecto's mouth moved up his face and murmured the truth in time with her sisters' thrusts.

"You yearn for it!"

"You burn for it!"

"You have waited a lifetime to surrender! How long have you denied your ingrained need? Choose at last! Give yourself to us; surrender to yourself."

Alecto moved her hand down, grasped his ass and snarled, "Choose or be tested ... by ... force." Alecto shoved his hips forward, forcing him deeper into Tisiphone's mouth. Then she pushed him back against Megaera's fingers. Alecto grasped his cheeks to spread them wide. Megaera's leaned forward and flicked at him with her tongue, tasting, pressing. Her breath was hot on him, tickling the hairs. As Jack felt the hot wetness on his rim, the fingers withdrew. Then her insistent tongue flicked at his ring, testing, urging him to open.

Hot despair raged as Jack's will gave out. His body responded. He felt himself opening, yearning, pleading for more. The tongue entered him. Lips pressed against his ass, as she tongue-fucked him. Waves of pleasure erupted, crashing into his balls, further engorging his straining penis.

Then the tongue withdrew. Tisiphone's mouth slid back and was gone. Jack trembled and moaned his relief and frustration, hanging from his wrists, completely crushed. It was over. He tried to stand, but couldn't. The thongs held him upright, but his head fell forward. A sob shuddered deep in his chest.

Alecto hissed in his ear.

"You want us to finish this?" she murmured. "Admit it. The truth."

Jack lifted his chin, fixed his good eye on the blue eyes boring into him, and tried to speak.

"The truth," she repeated, reaching up to the buckle at the base of his skull.

He felt the gag slip away. He swallowed and licked his swollen lips.

"Screw yourself," he rasped.

The fist moved, angling his penis against the tongue tip. Jack tensed in anticipation, waiting for the next move. Breath brushed his ravenous flesh. He ached for more, but Alecto didn't move. Tisiphone paused. Jack's super-stimulate senses sizzled, anticipating the next assault.

Then, the wheel turned.

ΩΩΩ

Jack opened his eyes. Rain was falling. He turned his head, rubbed water from his eyes and tried to stand. Megaera was beside him.

"This is the third level," she murmured, "Come." Then she grasped his hand and pulled him forward into a landscape of mists and shadows.

Jack stumbled behind her, shivering in the rain. Unspeakable debris oozed under his bare feet, emitting odors Jack recognized from too many battlefields: the smell of pain, fear, and human blood.

"Where is this?" he rasped as he peered into the swirling mists. The only answer came from far away screaming.

"Where is this place?" he repeated more forcefully, "and where are we going?"

"This is the realm of Cerebus," Megaera replied. "This is where gluttons endure the punishment befitting their sins."

The screaming was suddenly closer, louder. Jack froze, terror rose and he pulled back, jerking his hand from her grasp. The mists parted and for a horrible instant, he saw souls in torment. A filth-covered face turned toward him, its eyes wide with soul-numbing agony.

"Noooo," the shade wailed, as it writhed in the dark waters putrid with bits of torn flesh and bones, swollen organs, and loops of intestine. "Noooo!!" it wailed again, raising its fat fingers to its mouth. Long, thick strands of intestine looped over the damned-soul's hands. It stood and Jack saw that its vast belly was open, spilling obscene tendrils out into the vile waters.

Jack pulled back, horrified.

"Wait," Megaera cried, clinging to him. "This is not your place," she said, "Do not run. Cerebus will know. Whether or not you belong here, he will hunt and destroy you, even as he has destroyed that despicable being."

"Not my place?" Jack gasped, fighting the terror back, "Not my place!"

"No. Come," the Fury replied, grasping his hand and pulling him into the mist.

Jack followed, shuddering at the cries from unseen souls lost in the mist. 'This is the third ring,' he realized. 'Oh, God, this isn't even close to the worst of it,' he thought, 'and it's not for me. I'm going somewhere ... worse.'

ΩΩΩ

Sam strode into what passed for a Physics Lab on her flagship. The Ha'tak vessel was in a near Earth orbit, poised to swoop down on Tiksi. She was impatient to move in, but until Syler gave her the 'go' - indicating the Alpha site Gate would be fully functional when she needed it - she was reluctant to start the assault.

She'd planned to 'shoot and scoot,' figuring to send in several squads of SFs simultaneously, grab up as many big shots as possible, and withdraw to the safety of the Ha'tak. But first, she had to ensure that the powerful aliens that Nick, Daniel's half-crazy Grandfather, had referred to as 'Giants' wouldn't react violently to her incursion ... she had to verify whether they were somehow involved in all that had happened, or not. With the SGC flattened, she needed the Gate ready to re-assemble on Earth before the attack. But she'd hoped to have all of that done at least 90 minutes ago and, instead, Sergeant Syler was still working on it.

Syler looked up from the floor of the lab where he was sprawled alongside a river of cables running from the base of a partially-assembled Gate to a laptop and portable naquida generator.

"Colonel," Syler said, rubbing his hand through his hair, "it'll be ... ah" he grunted "a ... few more ... hours."

Sam glanced from the well meaning enlisted man, who was clearly doing his very best, to the pieces of Gate scattered around the Lab. She itched to do it herself, but it was Syler's job. Hers was leading, not implementing. It had been ever since that last terrifying moment, when General O'Neill stood alone at his post, when she took over his command.

"Keep at it," she said with what she hoped was a confident grin, "quick as you can, Sergeant."

"Yes Ma'am," Syler replied and squirmed back under the Gate.

'This is taking too long,' Sam thought as she turned and walked back out of the Lab and down the corridor to her office. 'Screw it,' she decided as she continued past her office door and on toward the bridge, 'There's always Plan B.'

Sam crossed the bridge and Jameson stood, relinquishing the command to her without waiting for her to make it an order. She sat, passed her hand over a crystal display in the arm of the chair, and committed her entire force to her second option.

"This is Colonel Carter," she said and heard her own voice reverberating through the ship, "I have strong evidence that the forces that attacked Earth were active in this vicinity. We are over Siberia and are about to occupy Tiksi. The fleet is positioned to follow us in with reinforcements in fifteen minutes. All Special Forces prepare for offensive combat persisting."

ΩΩΩ

The swamp of the third level stretched on and on. The water crept up his chest. Jack gagged and wretched, but he pressed forward, following the diminutive Fury. Once, as the stinking swamp water lapped at his chin, he heard the sound of dogs growling and snarling nearby, fighting over something. Jack didn't want to look, but something drove him to peer into the fog. There was the shadow of a dog and then a second.

Suddenly, the two dogs leapt forward at a human form. The human fell and Jack recoiled at the sounds of crunching and snapping as they tore it to bits. There was a shriek of pain and terror that made Jack want to run. He froze and stared. The fog had cleared. There was only one dog, Jack realized with a jolt, but it had more than the usual number of heads.

Cerebus.

Jack shuddered and turned away. He moved faster. The going was slow. His damaged left knee made it tough. Then, Megaera was climbing. He saw the water was receding, revealing her bare back and waist, as she moved ahead of him, drawing him to his final punishment. The stinking waters finally slipped down her voluptuous rump and thighs. Then they were on firm ground.

The rain continued to fall, washing the fetid remnants from his skin and hair. Jack wanted to laugh with relief, but he didn't - what waited ahead would be worse.

ΩΩΩ

Sam turned to Jameson and said, "Take command of the ship, Major."

"Yes, Colonel," he replied, as he stepped up to the command chair and Sam stepped down, "and good luck."

Sam jogged through the corridors to the ring room. She rounded the corner and the doors slid open. Ten squads of SFs were waiting for her to give the word.

All eyes turned as Sam entered. She caught the eye of Major Smits, who was her second for the mission.

"Ready?" Sam asked.

Smits nodded and barked, "Yes Colonel!"

Sam repressed a grin as her men tensed. They were more than ready to lead SGC in.

"Go," she said.

Someone tossed her a helmet and she clapped it onto her head, grabbed a weapon and stepped onto the nearest ring pad. There was the flash and slice as the ring device activated.

ΩΩΩ

A forlorn cry reverberated in the gloom.

'Wolf,' Jack thought. He stopped, but Megaera pulled him onward.

"There is no escape," she said, "Plutus calls. The Fourth level is ahead."

Jack's back stiffened. He dreaded knowing, but forced himself to ask, "Who ... or what ...is Plutus?"

"Your people have forgotten too much since we abandoned Earth to Nantes," Megaera hissed. "No wonder you sinned against us with your Dark Master."

"My ... my what?" Jack replied. It was impossible to think of General George Hammond as a 'dark master.' "I don't follow you."

"Nantes," Megaera replied, "the one you serve."

The howling grew louder. Jack's neck hair prickled in response to the eerie sound. The gloom was deep, but as they crested the slope he saw a pale oily sheen in the distance.

"Water?" he asked.

"Tis the River Styx," Megaera replied. "the border of the Fourth Level. Twix here and the Styx, Plutus hunts."

"Is this for me?" Jack asked, dreading the answer. "Do I belong here?"

"You had no fortune, General O'Neill," Megaera said. "You did not hoard your wealth. You were, in fact, generous in life, I believe."

Jack nodded, unable to speak through the lump in his throat.

"You saved children, offered them your friendship, found them homes, love, and offered them hope?" she continued.

"I ... I did that," Jack answered.

"This is not your place," Megaera continued. "This is punishment for those who lived greedy lives, never sharing, hoarding their wealth, amassing fortunes for no reason other than the unnatural desire for unneeded wealth. That was not your way, but to go below we must pass through. Even so, beware Plutus. He makes no distinctions, although being devoured by him would be a mercy compared to what lies beyond his realm."

Jack closed the distance to the petite Fury, glancing behind him as the creature in the darkness howled again. Its cry carried all the sorrows of the world. Jack's heart ached. Rather than focus on it, he asked, "Tell me more about my 'dark master."

As they clambered down the slope toward the Styx, Megaera replied. "Nantes is the embodiment of Evil, as well you know, O'Neill. He is our ancient foe. Our virtuous toil is to destroy him and all who serve him. Nantes is no more. He has been felled at last as he came to your aid. Now, with your Dark Master eliminated, you shall pay for the unnatural service you gave him."

"What did he ever do to you?" Jack prompted, mystified but fighting back a glimmer of hope that he might have discovered a motive for all that had happened.

"Do," Megaera snapped as she spun on Jack, "you dare to jest in the face of Hell's retribution?"

"Why not," Jack said, "what's the worst that can happen? You've already promised that I'm condemned to burn here, somewhere worse than we've seen. I might as well know why."

Megaera frowned, her pug nose wrinkled in thought and her eyes hard, "Do not play the fool. You led them! They served you, O'Neill, and they had technology with his wicked mark!"

Jack didn't want to consider it, but he knew that 'they' had to include Sam and probably Daniel, too.

"What technology are we talking about?" he asked, avoiding all mention of Sam. The last thing he wanted was to set these vengeance-hungry harpies on her trail.

"Your Alchemist, Samantha Carter, thinks of it as Super-Goa'uld," Megaera growled as she turned back toward the river. "Enough talk, come."

Jack followed without speaking but, as he scrambled after her, implications whirled in his mind. 'Some bad dude, probably a Goa'uld, thoroughly pissed these ladies off. Carter and Daniel must have found something belonging to that dude. They'd have brought it to the base. Crud. That's why all this happened! That's why they attacked! They think we're his ... troops.'

Jack knew exactly when it happened. He'd never forget that hellacious day. Right before Janet Frasier died in battle, SG-13 had encountered overwhelmingly potent weapons. Sam and Danny brought a sample of the new technology back to the SGC.'

Jack had been too busy for the longer version of techno-babble, but he got the highlights. Sam had reported that it was more advanced than any other Goa'uld technology they'd encountered to date. Sam had determined that it was Goa'uld based, but better. It had been crossed with other technology, rendering a powerful hybrid. She'd dubbed it 'Super-Goa'uld.'

That had been the day, one of the longest and most difficult of his life - he'd been hit and nearly killed in that same battle that claimed Janet Frasier's life. He was barely back on his feet, and was still reeling from Janet's loss, thinking things couldn't possibly get worse, when they did ...

Things went straight to hell, and within two short weeks the SGC and Earth were in ruins ... and this was the reason - an ancient pissing match.

Baleful screams brought Jack back to his immediate predicament. Ahead on the greasy black waters of the Styx, he could see lost souls locked in violent battles. Snarls of humans gripped each other straining for the upper hand in vicious hand-to-hand combat. They tore at one-another with crude weapons or bare hands.

"What is this?" Jack demanded, staring at the scene before them.

"The Wrathful fight each other on the surface for eternity," Megaera replied, "and the sullen or slothful struggle gurgling beneath the water's surface, too impotent to do battle, yet too bitter to forgive and free themselves."

She grabbed Jack's wrist and pulled him toward the water's edge.

"Phlegyas awaits with his skiff. We dare not tarry, O'Neill. Even now, Plutus hunts you. Come quickly, unless you prefer to be forever dismembered here. T'would be kinder than the Fate that lies ahead."

Jack glanced over his shoulder. He heard heavy panting and the soft squelch of feet crossing swampy ground. The wolf was, indeed, tracking him. Golden eyes flashed in the dark mists. There! Teeth shone in the dark and a putrid stench wafted from that direction.

Jack shivered and turned away. He felt the demon's eyes locked on his back as he followed Megaera. He considered suggesting that she step up the pace a bit, but Megaera was still doing her 'Rough-Guide to Hell' routine.

"The River surrounds the city of Dis," she explained, "wherein lies the path to the lower parts of Hell. Within the city walls are punished active sins. Did you note O'Neill that the higher rings dealt with sins of omission - failure to share, failure to work, failure to forgive, or to be baptized? Henceforth, shall ye witness the worst punishments, punishments for sins of commission. Ahead we shall observe the worst of sinners."

They reached the skiff. Phlegyas, a gaunt shade with hollow eyes and bony hands, motioned them aboard. Jack clambered into the skiff, behind Megaera.

Phlegyas poled them into the current. The boat bobbed and slowly swirled on the dark, oily current. As they spun, desperate hands clawed and fists thumped against the boat sides. Jack pulled back, appalled.

"Pay no heed. They haven't the strength of will to harm us, or to save themselves," Megaera noted dismissively. "It's the Wrathful we must avoid."

Jack eyed twisting pairs of matched warriors battling on the river surface, guessing they were the Wrathful to which Megaera referred.

'Did I know these men?' Jack wondered as he scanned the clenched bodies, rippling with sweat and blood, straining against one another, neither seeming to gain an inch.

Certainly he'd known plenty like them - Men so angry and warped by violence and bloodlust that they'd lost all balance and humanity.

How had he escaped this fate? Jack knew the truth. He hadn't.

After losing Charlie, Jack had been as savage as any soul on the River's surface and as bitter as any impotent bastard drowning under it. He'd have been one of them, Jack knew, but for Daniel. The four-eyed geek that Jack had at first dismissed as just another bothersome scientist needing babysitting had instead saved his ass. Jack had openly credited Daniel with saving his life that day, but now he saw that it went deeper than that - way deeper. But for Daniel's intervention, he'd have blown the nuke, killed himself and every person on Abydos. His penance would have been eternity here, locked in eternal battle, probably with that son-of-a-bitch Ra at his throat.

Jack tore his eyes away from a pair of men who'd started to look way too familiar and forced his gaze to the city ahead.

Megaera pointed in the direction of Dis and said, "Note: Fallen angels guard the city walls."

Tall, muscular 'angels' paced the walls. They were burnished onyx that shone rust in the reflected firelight from below the wall. Fifteen foot wings of black, shiny feathers adorned each muscular back. Their faces were hard; their noses hooked and their eyes pitiless. Each had a bow and a quiver of arrows at their waist. They looked like a tough unit.

Jack suppressed a nervous tremor. He wouldn't want to face off with one of these guys. He counted no less than fifty on the expanse of wall facing the river. Still, he eagerly anticipated reaching that dark refuge, just to leave the River, and the dark fate he'd once courted, behind.

The nose of the skiff touched the shore. Megaera climbed out and Jack followed. Immediately the skiff pulled back into the current, leaving them there with nowhere to go but forward.

"Who are you?" an angel called in a voice that sounded like metal slicing against solid rock.

"You know me!" Megaera shouted, "I am Megaera of the Furies. We guard the Gate of Tartarus! I guide a soul to the pit."

"Pass," the angel boomed. With a deep rumble a section of wall moved, opening the passage to the next level of Hell.

Megaera didn't hesitate. Jack watched her advance, her bare rump swinging with each step as she climbed the stone steps up to the City gates. He wondered at his total lack of interest. Maybe he'd been cured of such desires by his experiences at the second circle. Maybe he just wasn't interested in screwing a vengeful witch with supernatural powers leading him down the path to his final reckoning. Maybe he was getting old or maybe he was getting ... dead.

As Jack followed Megaera through the gates she announced, "This is the Sixth Circle. Here Heretics burn evermore, entombed in flames!"

The heavy gate swung shut with a grinding of stone on steel and a resounding clang. Jack fought against despair. If he deserved to burn, then so be it. He'd wondered often enough when he'd finally pay for his sins of commission, as well as omission. Well, his negligent failure to protect Charlie was a sin of omission, so he guessed he'd done worse in his life, though he couldn't think what it might have been. In his mind, Charlie's death alone demanded that he burn. Whatever waited ahead, he figured he deserved it.

Megaera rounded a corner of the gateway. Jack followed. A vast expanse spread before them. Rather than being a city with houses and people, Dis was like a vast airport remote parking lot ... without shuttle busses. Endless rows of glowing caskets stood in regular rows, endless rows, row after row of them. Terrible screams and implorations emanated from inside the caskets. The sound rose up in waves and crashed against the stones of the walled city: echoing and reechoing.

The impact was awesome. Jack trembled and shuddered, struck with fear as any mortal would be, but beneath the fear he was reminded of his endless series of deaths and resurrections at the hand of Ba'al. Jack straightened and stared hard at the tombs. They were ... familiar.

"Who are ... were these ... these ... people?" he stammered.

"Heretics!" Megaera hissed proudly, "Worshipers of false gods."

Jack took an unsteady step toward the closest tomb. A human writhed in the fires. He moved into the heat-choked city, checking first one tomb and then another and another. Finally, he paused beside one and stared into the dancing flames. The body in the casket was a Jaffa and, from its abdomen reared a squirming, twisting immature Goa'uld.

"Good god," Jack murmured, "False Gods! Teal'c was ... right. All along he was absolutely right. It's not just a metaphor. It's ... it's real!"

Jack turned to the Fury and exclaimed, "Men like this one had no choice. Not really! They were my enemy, but the poor bastards deserve ... forgiveness! They had no other choice!"

"They could have chosen martyrdom," Megaera replied. "They could have fought and died before accepting a perversion, just as your friend Teal'c chose, as his teacher Bra'tac chose. Their choice was to fight and risk life rather than live a lie. These, however, failed their greatest test. Having failed they shall burn throughout Eternity."

Then she turned and ordered, "Come, O'Neill. Forget your former foes. You opposed such as these and are not of this place."

Jack trudged on, his head spinning with the idea that he'd personally sent hundreds, no thousands, of souls to this place, maybe more. Human hosts and Goa'uld. The Goa'uld punishments were just, but their unwilling hosts, taken as children, bred for the role of incubator to false gods? He didn't buy it.

Jack stumbled on and on past the glowing, burning tombs, trying not to hear the sobbing and screams of agony. Then, entwined with the cries of the damned, he heard a new sound: The sound of battle.

Megaera had led him straight across the City of Dis and ahead the thick stone wall of the City parted, forming a narrow passage. It was too dark to see what lay ahead. The path to Hell, it seemed, continued through there.

"What's this?" Jack asked, gazing into the black hole.

Megaera replied, "This is the mouth of the Seventh Circle, O'Neill. Here shall you face Asterius, the Minotaur who guards the maze. Within these halls, violence reigns. Beware! Lest you fall here, rather than pass on to your final judgment!"

Jack followed close on her heels as she entered the outer ring. She moved quickly along a narrow ledge that ran beside a swift flowing river of boiling blood, the River Phlegethon.

Jack followed. To his right, the river ran crowded thick with damned souls, chin deep in the river. Men and women struggled to stay afloat in the stream of black blood that boiled and bubbled, filling the passage with a rank stench of the slaughterhouse. The souls moaned and cried out in agony. Jack felt the hairs on his neck prickle at their eerie wails.

Before Jack could ask, Megaera explained, "These sinned by committing violence against people and property. They are immersed in Phlegethon, this river of boiling blood, to simmer in their own poisonous juices as punishment."

Jack looked at the repulsive scene and shuddered.

Megaera laughed, "You are a violent man, O'Neill. Do you belong here?" she laughed again. The sound echoed off the walls of the maze.

"You tell me," Jack hurled back, sure that he'd earned a place in this Hell and afraid that she was about to confirm that fact and then leave him. Alone, he'd never retrace his steps and ahead, he knew, were evermore fearsome ordeals.

Before Megaera could respond, however, a shrill scream sounded and a creature with the head and shoulders of a man and the body of a huge black horse rounded the corner ahead. The Centaur reared and, as it landed, its massive front hoofs struck the flint floor of the maze, sending out showers of sparks.

At the sight, Jack knew this was it. He was about to face damnation for his many failings: as Charlie's father, Sara's husband, as a leader who'd lost too many good men and women under his command, and as a thoroughly flawed human being. His warrior's heart hardened and fear turned to hot fury.

'If is it,' he thought, 'I'll go down fighting,' and he lunged forward, naked and unarmed, to challenge the massive Centaur. "Yes! I've killed," he roared, "I'm a fucking assassin. I've shot men in cold blood. I killed my son and destroyed my family. I've ordered my people to kill and to die. So, take me, if you're here for me! C'mon!"

"I am Cheiron," the half-man declared. Fire and smoke shot from his nostrils making his thick red beard smoke and burn. He drew a heavy sword. Blood dripped from its tip. His restless hooves tapped a tattoo on the flinty floor of the labyrinth.

"I don't give a rat's ass who-in-hell you are!" Jack roared, readying himself for the attack. "If this is my place, then come and get me!"

"I command here! I say who shall stay and who shall pass on. I know you, Jack O'Neill! You speak the truth: you are a killer, you have caused the deaths of other men, you have killed in war and to prevent war. Your violent acts were not mindless, nor unjustified. You are, in your heart, a warrior, as I am. You are also a peace-maker and compassionate. You led a life of duty and honor and, yes, violence. Your path does not end here Jack O'Neill."

Cheiron sheathed his sword, reared and then galloped past Jack and Megaera, shouting "Pass on, Brother!" He leapt the river and disappeared behind a cloud of steam.

Still half-crazed Jack took a step to follow him. His foot touched the boiling blood, but before he could leap, Megaera grabbed his wrist and dragged him on. After a few steps, Jack regained his composure. Rather than relief, all he could feel was that far worse was coming.

The maze opened into a dark plain of gnarled thorny bushes and trees. Megaera stopped beside one of the trees. A corpse hung from it, swaying gently from an upper branch. Its swollen tongue protruded from the distorted face. Its lifeless eyes bulged.

Megaera ignored the corpse. She reached out and broke one of the branches. There was a terrible sob and the tree waved its gnarled branches and cried out, "I am condemned by my own hand! God help me! Why did I murder myself?"

Megaera turned to Jack and stared at him for a long moment, "This is the ring of suicides. It is the Middle ring of the Seventh Circle. Suicides are condemned to punishment here as twisted bushes and trees, from which their own corpses hang. These souls cannot to cry out, unless a branch is torn from them. They are never at rest, unable even to cry out their shame! Their sin is such that, among all of the legions of the damned, they shall not be resurrected after the final judgment. Instead they wait in these twisted forms, with their own corpses hanging from the limbs."

Jack gazed up into the tree. The bloated body swung gently, revolving slowly from the thick cord that vanished under the slack skin of the rotting folds of the neck. Bile rose in his throat.

"This was me," he confessed, "I ... I didn't ... After Charlie died, I was so ... pissed. I should have told someone. I could have told Sara. I was too ashamed. I ... hated myself. I couldn't forgive ... or forget. There were nights when ..."

Jack reached up to touch the distorted foot of the corpse.

Megaera waited for him to speak, but when he didn't, she said, "For a time, it was almost certain to be your fate. You came close, O'Neill!"

Before Jack could reply, there was crashing in the thorny underbrush. Something once human raced past chased by ferocious hellhounds. He turned to Megaera who explained, "The profligate wasters are the other residents of this ring. As you see, theirs is an unpleasant fate. Now come."

She strode through the depressing shrublands and Jack followed. In time, the brush thinned and a desert of flaming sand spread before them. Fiery flakes rained from the sky. Lost souls reclined on the burning sand. Megaera pointed to one and stated, "This is the third ring of the Seventh Circle. This is the place of punishment for those who are violent against God. The blasphemers end their journey here, O'Neill."

Megaera glared at him and declared, "Servant of Nantes! Blasphemer! Vile servant of the Dark Master! This is your place!"

"No!" Jack barked back, gasping in the sulfurous fumes. "I do not know anyone named Nantes. I've never heard of the guy! I have no Dark Master!"

"Who do you serve?" Megaera snapped back.

"I am a General in the United States Air Force and I serve my Commander in Chief, President Hayes, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I have sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America! My chain of command includes ..."

Jack stopped. He didn't want anyone else dragged into this.

"Just never you mind whom it includes," he back-peddled, "but it does not include a Dark Master named Nantes! As far as I know Nantes is a city in France and I have never even been there! Never!"

"Do not trifle with Truth," Megaera growled. Her eyes shone with dark fire and fresh blood streamed from her mouth, ears and eyes. It ran in rivulets down her face and chest and dripped from her fingertips.

"This is the truth," Jack snapped, resisting an overwhelming urge to lie down. Once down, he knew he'd never get back up. "You and your sisters attacked an innocent planet. Nice job by the way. I thought immortal gods were supposed to ... I don't know ... fact check! Did it occur to you that we might be on your side?"

"What do you mean?" Megaera hissed, her eyes returning to normal.

Jack noted the change. The surge of fresh blood had slowed, as well.

"I know him," Jack said, pointing to a miserable wretch lying prostrate on the burning sands. "I know him," he repeated, "because I'm the guy that put him here! That's Ra, who masqueraded as the Sun God. I'm the guy that blew him straight to ... here!"

Jack jogged into the desert until he found another face he recognized, "And this is Chronos. Teal'c put him down here. He was another blasphemer, am I wrong?"

"And there is Nerties," Jack jabbed a finger at her, "and Hathor ... and Seth - Carter nailed him by the way!"

"The Truth, Sinner!" Megaera shrieked.

"Yeah, the truth," Jack replied. "I'm telling you the goddamned truth. You have made one huge, honking mistake! And, given all your high-minded ideals about Justice and Retribution, I'd say you and your clan are not going to be settling this one in small claims court!"

Jack whirled and glared across the burning sands, then continued, "Listen Sister, I am from Minnesota and I am dying here. I'm done with this personal tour of Hell's Half Acre. I am getting my northern ass out of this heat."

Then he turned and limped away across the burning sands heading toward what looked to be a chilly northern forest far in the distance, murmuring, "not to mention the humidity!"

ΩΩΩ

Jack smiled when cool air brushed his cheeks. It was a blessing to be out of the heat and flames and stench of sulfur and brimstone. His skin prickled in tight goose bumps as the cold breezes tickled his bare flesh. But, cold though it was, it was a relief.

Behind him, Megaera called and screeched, demanding 'The Truth!'

Jack staggered on, muttering, "You can damned-well wait, Sister, until I am good and ready. I only get one shot at this. I'm not going to debate the future of the freakin' planet with my parts roasting in you and your sisters' Everbake Oven."

Finally, he came to a cliff and was forced to stop. Megaera rushed up and declaimed, "Ahead of you are the final circles of Hell. How fitting!" She laughed, "For here is the place of punishment for sins of conscious fraud and treachery! Whether or not your planet is innocent, we know your life, Jack O'Neill. I know the deceit, the cunning, the lies and betrayals. I know the thousand dark sins of your life. You may hide your black, murderous heart from mortals, but not from me! Not from my sisters!"

Jack looked over the edge and then spit. The ball of saliva spiraled into the cold depths below until it was gone. He was tired. His ribs ached and his breath came in ragged wheezing. He groaned and lowered himself onto the ledge.

"We know the depths of your sins, villain," Megaera ranted. "And knowing, we shall throw you into the depths below! You shall fall until the flesh freezes on your bones. Your corrupted body shall shatter when you finally reach the circle of Malebolge."

"Why don't you zip it?" Jack replied, "And park it. I've about had my fill of your over-the-top ranting. You know the mark of a truly great conversationalist? It's knowing when to speak and when to listen."

Megaera blinked. Jack patted the icy ground beside him and grinned.

"C'mon," he urged. "Sit. Talk. Listen."

ΩΩΩ

"He's dead," Zhukov said. "I am truly sorry, Colonel Carter, to tell you that General O'Neill has been taken from us."

Sam felt her knees wobble at the words. She leaned against a wall and said, "Did you see him die?"

"I pulled the trigger," said Zhukov. "I swore that if he was involved in the abduction, I would kill him and I shot that son-of-a-whore myself."

Sam blinked and rubbed her eyes.

"I must be tired," she said, "who is dead?"

"Your former Vice President Kinsey, of course," Zhukov replied. "I was working for his corporation ... briefly ... but I found it distasteful."

"And what do you know about General O'Neill?" Sam prompted him.

"I am ashamed to admit that I was involved in bringing him to this place," Zhukov said. "Kinsey lied to me. Of course, I expected no less, but O'Neill was suddenly taken from us. Many of my men were killed."

"Do you know where he was taken?" Sam asked, fighting to steady her voice.

"No," Zhukov said.

"Do you know why?" Sam persisted.

"That," Zhukov said, suddenly standing and walking away, "I can tell you. Follow me, if you please, Colonel."

Zhukov strode quickly down the dimly lit halls of the Tiksi military base and Sam, supposedly his captor, trotted behind him, feeling ridiculous, but not caring if it got her another lead on Jack O'Neill's possible whereabouts.

"Kinsey was a liar," Zhukov said as he turned into a nondescript office and settled at the battered green metal desk, "But he was a western liar. My apologies, but westerners cannot compete with those of us who live in the eastern bloc for intrigue. Kinsey failed to appreciate that fact and paid with his life."

Zhukov opened a locked drawer, flipped through files until he stopped and pulled a thin file folder from the drawer and tossed it across the desk.

"Read," Zhukov said.

Sam sat and scanned the document. To her surprise, she could read it. It was a word-for-word transcript of three telephone calls made by former Vice-President Kinsey.

"He knew about the Super-Goa'uld technology," Sam murmured.

"He knew far more than that," Zhukov snorted. "Keep reading."

"My God!" Sam exclaimed, "He knew about the attack!"

"Yes," Zhukov snarled, "months before, while there was still time to stop it. And if you notice the next page, he was responsible for sending your people to investigate the ruins on P3X-666. He managed to move that destination from a low-priority list into the top-priority planets for surveying. Did you never wonder why the SGC was sending your people to a planet with little or no naquida, no human inhabitants, and no strategic potential?"

"Because we were ... set up!" Sam whispered.

"Indeed," Zhukov growled darkly, "by your bible-beating Kinsey, but I have dealt with him."

Sam shook her head in disbelief, but then said, "I don't see how this helps me understand why General O'Neill was kidnapped."

Zhukov's eyes widened slightly in surprise.

"Do you not?" he asked. "Then may I suggest a reason?"

"Please," Sam said, feeling a shiver of dread.

Zhukov stroked his chin. Then he leaned forward and spat with barely contained ferocity.

"Revenge."

ΩΩΩ

"You lie!" Megaera hissed, crossing her arms over her ample breasts.

Jack sighed and looked into the pit below his dangling feet. He'd never been so tired. He was ready, at last, to face his final punishment. It was right and just. It was time to end this.

"I'll make a deal with you," he said. "You won't believe that we've fought against the forces of evil, blasphemy, and deceit. Okay. I get that. Your intel says that we are in Nantes' camp. When I was in the intelligence business, there was a way to verify questionable information by testing the informant. Now, I'm just a man. You and your sisters are immortal. You've gotta have a system to confirm or test what I'm telling you. I mean ... get with the Twenty-first Century for Pete's sake."

"Continue," Megaera said.

'So, you don't have a way to check me out,' Jack thought.

"Crud," he murmured, but then continued more forcefully. "You say that the Eighth Circle of Hell punishes the fraudulent?"

"Yes," Megaera sighed. "Those guilty of deliberate, knowing evil are thrown down into Malebolge. It means 'evil pockets' and is so named because it is subdivided into ten cul de sacs by ten ditches, each spanned by a bridge."

"So ..." Jack tried to interrupt. His ass was getting cold and he didn't need to know more, but Megaera shot him an evil glare and continued with the tour-guide-to-hell routine.

"On the first bridge, panderers and seducers walk in separate lines in opposite directions, whipped by demons. On the second, Flatterers are steeped in human excrement."

"Sweet," Jack murmured.

"Those who committed simony are placed head-first in holes in the rock, with flames burning on the soles of their feet, on the third pocket. On the fourth, Sorcerers and false prophets have their heads twisted around on their bodies backward, so they can only see what is behind them."

"Works for me," Jack muttered, shifting his butt to keep it from becoming permafrost.

"The fifth bridge leads to Bolgia Five."

"No kidding," Jack yawned. "Look, I don't mean to rush you, but the point I was trying to make is this. I can't make you believe me. So, why not test me. That half-horse fella back a ways told me to keep moving. He wouldn't let me stay in his little fun house by the river of boiling blood. So, if I get it, I should be able to pass through these ten bridges of Bologna pretty much the same way, unless I'm lying to you. Then I'll just get what's coming to me."

Megaera pouted and frowned.

"Am I right?" Jack pressed.

"You are," Megaera hissed, still ticked that he'd interrupted her.

"Okay then," Jack said, looking into the yawning pit that disappeared into swirling mists ...

... and then he jumped.

ΩΩΩ

Sam crawled out from under the Gate and stood, brushing snow and dirt off of her rump.

"There," she said, feeling a rush of satisfaction.

Syler watched from a short distance, waiting for her to tell him what to do next, and looking rather hang-dog at having to have the officer in charge complete his assignment.

"Daniel," Sam called, "get ready."

Daniel waved and turned to lean over a laptop beside a cluster of gear that Syler had assembled on a metal lab table.

The wind picked up and Sam rubbed her hands together and pulled on her heavy mittens. A front was blowing in from the west. It would be dark in four hours and could be a white out much sooner if the storm didn't swing north, as projected.

"C'mon," Sam called to Syler, "Dial up P7X-377 ."

Syler leaned over a second set of gear. The naquida generator hummed and the 'Gate began to move, grinding slowly at first, but then more rapidly, as Syler entered one symbol after another.

Sam stamped her feet in the snow and crossed her arms across her chest. It was damned cold.

Zhukov walked up from behind and stood upwind, shielding her from the cutting ice crystals entrained in the strengthening blow.

"You are going there yourself?" he stated. "It may be dangerous, Colonel. You should send subordinates first."

"We don't work that way," Sam said.

"No," Zhukov said. "Admirable, but of course, very foolish."

"Just be ready with that skull you dug up," Sam replied.

"It was brought by Kinsey," Zhukov replied. "We did not find it."

"Whatever," Sam said as the 'Gate engaged, sending a swirl of aqua blue plasma shooting into the light misting of sleet. "Gotta go," she said, and started forward. Daniel and a squad of Marines followed her through the 'Gate.

"Take care, Colonel Carter," Teal'c called as she mounted the ramp.

"Go with god," Zhukov said, as he watched them go, "comrades."

ΩΩΩ

Megaera screeched and threw herself off the cliff, as she fell she transformed. Her human flesh peeled away and she became a creature of the depths once more. She flew swiftly, flapping leather wings against the cold ether of the Pit. O'Neill tumbled far ahead, turning over and over as his body plummeted to destruction. If she'd known his intent, she'd have warned him that none survives the plummet into the Pit unaided. If she didn't reach him first, he would die and suffer the penalty of all who commit suicide. Both their plans - his to save his friends and hers to discern the truth - would be foiled.

Megaera folded her great wings and flapped them again, pushing hard against the cold, thick atmosphere. O'Neill was in sight, growing closer, and she was almost beside him. Another flap brought her to his side and a third pushed her beyond. She reached out and grasped his wrist. His body slowed, and she spread her great wings against the speed and weight. She slowed as the Malebolge came into sight. The Ten bridges were there. The tortured souls cried and writhed.

Megaera swung O'Neill into her arms and extended her wings, cupping them to slow to a gradual descent. She landed lightly at the center of the Malebolge. Ten bridges arched in every direction. Megaera folded her wings and lowered O'Neill to the ground, gently. Then she transformed, returning to her female human form.

Jack looked up at her and opened his mouth.

"What?" he managed. A moment ago the creature had been a huge honking monster that reminded him of the sketches of Pterodactyl he'd seen in Cassie's "Little Golden Book of Dinosaurs." Now, in the blink of an eye, the diminutive redhead was back.

"What happened?" he asked.

"You jumped," she said. "And would have paid the penance of the suicides had I not caught you. Foolish man."

Jack stood and dusted off his bare behind.

"Which way?" he asked. "Do I do this in order? Or is it random?"

"It is Fate," Megaera said. "Choose and find Justice."

Jack turned, taking in the fantastic and terrible scenes playing out around him. True to Megaera's travel log, several of the bridges were crowded with the damned, undergoing bizarre punishments. Some were not familiar, however.

Jack took a step forward and said, "Son-of-a-bitch!"

"That is the Fifth Bridge!" Megaera cried, "There corrupt politicians are immersed in a lake of boiling pitch. Malacoda, Evil Tail, rules there, directing the Malebranche, devils known for their evil claws."

"I can live with that," Jack said, as he ran forward roaring, "Son-of-a-bitch! Kinsey, you FUCK!"

ΩΩΩ

Sam stepped out of the 'Gate and into the Hall of the Giants. It was as she remembered it - vast, awe-inspiring, humbling.

Daniel and the Marines stepped through behind her.

"He should be here," Daniel said.

"He acknowledged the signal," Sam replied, knowing that he had.

"Yeah," Daniel confirmed, "but I don't see him."

Sam walked forward. The last time they'd been here, she'd nearly died. But for General O'Neill's decisiveness, they'd have all died and Daniel would have been trapped forever in limbo.

She remembered waking in the Infirmary. Janet had shined a penlight in her eyes and ordered her to rest. Sam had pestered her about the rest of the team and learned that Daniel was missing and the Colonel was very sick, but Janet had told her not to worry about that.

'Don't worry!' Sam had thought at the time, too sick to speak. She'd remembered getting dizzy and the Colonel catching her and slinging her over his shoulder. 'He'd saved me, maybe at the cost of his life,' she'd thought, 'but I shouldn't worry.'

Sam paced the area in front of the Gate, thinking, 'Not this time. I'm getting you out, Sir.'

"Nick's not coming," she said to no one in particular. "It's up to us. C'mon."

She headed into the cavernous realm of the Giants. The narrow stone bridge was before her and far off, barely visible from where she stood, was the pale pink, glowing crystal skull.

Sam didn't pause, she moved onto the bridge, but said over her shoulder.

"Daniel, come with me. The rest of you cover our backsides."

"Yes Colonel," the Marine Sergeant replied.

Sam fixed her gaze on the skull and moved across the narrow bridge without hesitation, expecting the Giants to show themselves at any moment. She reached the other side, without anything supernatural appearing.

Daniel joined her.

"What now?" she murmured.

"Last time, I looked into the eyes of the skull," Daniel reminded her. "Don't interfere."

"Right," she said, as he stepped forward and mounted the platform where the ominous skull waited.

Daniel leaned forward, placing his hands on either side of the skull. Sam held her breath, expecting reality to shift and swirl, like the last time. Nothing happened.

After a moment, Daniel stood and turned.

"It's not happening," he said.

Sam's heart fell. She'd counted on this leading her to ... something. Instead, it was another dead end.

"Crud," she said.

ΩΩΩ

"Motherfucker!" Jack barked as he closed on Kinsey. He reached out and grabbed the man by his shoulder and spun him around.

Kinsey turned and looked at Jack with dead eyes. He didn't speak, but turned back and continued stumbling forward.

"You LOOK at me!" Jack roared. "You DID this! Didn't you, you sanctimonious son-of-a-bitch? ANSWER ME!!

Kinsey turned again and murmured, "I didn't know ... I couldn't ... know ..."

Jack grabbed him and shook him, screaming, "Stop it! Stop lying to me! Tell me what you did!"

Kinsey stared at Jack and blinked, almost seeming to waken.

Then he screamed, "Noooo! God! No! Don't let them take me!" Suddenly he clung to Jack.

Shocked and revolted, Jack pushed him away.

"Get off me," he barked, pushing Kinsey back. "Just tell me what you did!"

"I found the skull ... in Russia, Jack. I did ... nothing," Kinsey said. "NOTHING!"

Jack slapped him, hard. Kinsey stared and raised his hand to his head.

Jack noticed blood running down the edge of the man's mouth and realized that it was trickling from a small hole - 22 caliber - in Kinsey's right temple.

"Suicide?" Jack demanded, remembering the trees.

"Murder," Kinsey answered. "Zhukov gave me no choice, Jack. He discovered my ... connection to those ... I was not involved! I simply had an association with the alien forces that attacked Earth!"

"Your fault!" Jack barked.

"No," Kinsey lied again, "I was trying to save the planet, to save us all from the Goa'uld, Jack! They were coming and you'd done nothing to prepare. Well, I knew it was time to act! I found an ally, a powerful benefactor, who fears God and promised to save us! It was my turn to save the world, O'Neill! My turn!!"

Jack dropped his hands and let Kinsey turn away. On the other end of the bridge evil demons snarled and snapped, their thick, curved claws clicking on the broken flint that made up the island.

Kinsey stumbled forward with the rest of the miserable damned. Jack saw him reach the end of the bridge. A clawed demon grabbed him. It's thick claws bit into Kinsey's back, but the man didn't seem to care. The demon dragged him away from the crowd.

Fascinated, Jack watched them approach a small pool of bubbling black tar. Steam rose from the roiling surface of the pool. The demon pushed Kinsey forward. The man seemed to suddenly realize what was happening. He turned back and screamed.

"O'Neill!" he cried, "I didn't know what would happen! I did nothing wrong. I was saving the Earth ... like you did! Like you! As God is my Witness! I don't belong here! Arrgghh!"

Kinsey roared and fought as the demon shoved him to the very edge of the pool. He fell, but clung to the demon's long scaly legs. The demon barked and two more joined him, pulled Kinsey off and threw him into the boiling tar.

Kinsey's shrill screams lost all sense of humanity. He was transformed from a man to another lost soul, shrieking wordlessly into the uncaring world of the damned.

Jack shuddered and turned back against the flow of other lost souls across the bridge. He shouldered his way against the press of bodies. It was slow going and he wasn't getting anywhere fast.

Then three thick curved claws sunk into his shoulder, biting into his flesh. Jack screamed and turned, striking out and saw his opponent was the same Malebranche that had carried Kinsey off to his fate.

"You got the wrong guy," Jack said. "I'm not a politician!"

The demon stared at him, not seeming to understand, but then the fiend's reptilian lips pulled back in a snarl ... or a grin and it laughed.

Jack's looked into the demon's laughing eyes and said, "Oh, crap!"

ΩΩΩ

Daniel sat at the base of the pedestal that held the crystal skull and watched Sam pace. He'd listened to her recap how the skull should function, offered a couple of ideas of why it might be nonfunctional, and then he gave up and let her have some time to think.

Now, after fifteen minutes, she was pacing and mumbling Physics under her breath. The Marines far across the chasm were watching her, too. Daniel shifted and leaned against the stone base, waiting.

'The last time, when I looked into the eyes of the skull,' he thought, 'it began almost instantly ...'

"Last time, I looked into the skull!" Daniel declared, jumping up.

Sam spun and grinned at him.

"You looked into the eyes of the skull!" she repeated. "I didn't!"

Sam ran to the pedestal and leaned close, staring into the vacant eyes.

Daniel felt a shimmer of electricity across his skin. The skull began to glow and tendrils of mist swirled around them.

Sam leaned closer. Her hair lifted as the electricity grew.

Daniel turned away and looked around the cavern.

Then the rumbling began, far, far below them.

"The Giants," he said. "Sam! They're coming!"

ΩΩΩ

Jack twisted and tore away from Malebranche. The damned continued forward and he squirmed into the crowd, trying to put as many of them between him and the demon as he could. He was too slow.

Claws raked his back.

"Shit!" Jack yelped.

He ducked and squirmed between the legs of the crowd. Then, he threw himself against the side of the bridge and tried to clamber over the rail. The demon claws snapped in his ear and he ducked again.

Then, as the crowd flowed around him, Jack stood and jumped onto the railing. Jack balanced for a moment, looking for a signal from Megaera whether to jump or take his chances in the crowd.

She stood perfectly still, just watching with her arms folded. She was the very essence of the uninvolved observer.

'No help there,' Jack thought. Then Malebranche made another reach for him and Jack jumped. He fell into the bottom of the ditch and sunk into the wet, heavy muck up to his thighs.

The demon roared and slashed the hapless damned who stood in his way.

Jack scrambled up and limped down the ditch, passing under the bridge and moving on as fast as he could go in the clinging morass.

The demon screeched its frustration. Jack cast a glance over his shoulder and stopped, staring as a far larger beast, with a noticeably thicker, pointed tail, mounted the bridge.

The newcomer turned and roared, raising Jack's hackles with its fierce scream.

Jack turned away and hurried away, but he felt the malevolent gaze on his back as he clambered through the sucking accumulation from all the unspeakable circles above.

The ditch was deep and bounded by steep walls of loose muck. Jack knew the walls were far too soft to climb. He saw no alternative to continuing to scrambled along the center of the ditch in hopes of finding a firm place to exit at one of the other bridges.

The ooze was impossibly thick and, if the demons chose to chase him, he'd never outpace them. His wrecked left knee complained with every step, as the thick, viscous mud sucked at his legs. He fell once into the disgusting filth of the ditch, but regained his feet and lurched on.

Another bridge appeared around a bend in the ditch. A huge centaur stood guard at one end of the stone bridge. The creature reared and snorted, blowing smoke and flames from its nostrils. The unfortunate sinners on the bridge were fighting off something horrifying. They danced and ran, frantic to avoid whatever was so terrifying on the bridge.

From a distance, Jack thought, it was funny. Everyone was prancing and jumping like they were at some sort of bizarre dance. He didn't laugh, or even smile. He knew there'd be something hideous to explain it that would wipe the smile from his face. As he got closer, that was confirmed.

"Snakes," he muttered, "Aw, crap."

The people on the bridge were being pursued and bitten by snakes. Those that were bitten fell to their knees, writhing. Some fell still. A few turned to ashes and vanished in a sudden poof. Others twisted and seemed to transform. As they changed, the others shrank back, ran away and tried to hide from them.

Jack stopped and stared, transfixed, as he watched these new creatures become snakes themselves and chase the others, in turn.

"Shit!" Jack hissed, tempted to turn and try the other direction.

The snakes writhed on the bridge. He'd have to pass directly underneath to proceed. He didn't want to pass under that bridge. He really, really didn't.

Jack paused, uncertain what to do. Then, from the bridge, there was a half-human cry.

One of the snake-people leaned over the railing, pointing at him and roaring.

Jack felt his hackles rise. He glanced to the left. The bank was still too steep. He turned right and threw himself up the soft, disgusting incline.

The other snakes had joined in. Jack cast a quick glance over his shoulder and fifty or more of them hung from the bridge, hurling half-formed words at him. Jack was pretty sure they wanted him to join them on the bridge.

His feet sunk into the muck as he tried to climb. He sunk past his knees as he struggled to free himself. The muck slid slowly back toward the channel of the ditch, carrying him along.

Jack jerked his left leg free and lunged back up the bank, fighting against the soft ooze, seeking purchase where there was nothing firm.

Another roar sounded, drowning out the screams from the snake-people. The sound came from behind him. Malacoda had decided to deal with him.

Jack thrashed harder, throwing his entire body up the bank. His right foot struck something deep in the soft mud. He pushed against it. It held. He pulled his left foot free, wrenching his leg out and flinging it up the incline. Then he lunged and reached as high as he could. His fingers grasped something hard and firm at the lip of the ditch. He pulled.

Malacoda roared again, closer this time.

Jack closed his eyes and pulled with all his strength. His body moved in the sucking mud. He pulled harder, thinking, 'God, please.'

There was another roar. Malacoda was right behind him. Jack felt the stinking breath of the roar. He heard claws slice the air, just as the mud released.

Jack pulled hard again and his feet were from free of the gripping muck. Jack scrambled up the bank and was almost at the top when claws sliced again. Malacoda caught Jack's left foot in an iron grip. The claws closed, crushing bone and muscle. Jack screamed and kicked as the monster pulled him back into the stinking ooze of the ditch of Malebolge.

Chapter 15

Sam was on her knees and didn't know when she'd fallen. Daniel crouched beside her, gripping her shoulder.

"Wait," he hissed, "Wait, Sam."

She lowered her P-90 slowly.

The Giants whirled around her, their massive chests reared up from the depths far, far below. Their chant sounded in her ears.

'Oo ya waaling waaling wey tayil,' it went, reverberating the stone, the air, their bones. The chant thrummed and grew. 'Oo ya waaling waaling wey tayil.'

"Nicholas Ballard!" Sam called over the chanting. "We've come to speak to Nicholas Ballard!"

The chant continued. 'Oo ya waaling waaling wey tayil.'

"Please!" Sam cried. "Please help us! We don't know where else to turn! One of us is ... lost! Nicholas Ballard can help us find him!"

Suddenly silence fell. The chanting echoed and died. The mists cleared and Daniel jumped to his feet.

Sam looked up and saw Ballard, walking across the stone bridge toward them.

"Daniel!" he called, "Daniel, my grandson!"

"Nick!" Daniel stammered.

"To you, I am Grandfather!" Ballard said sternly, then he smiled and hugged Daniel, clapping him on the back enthusiastically.

Daniel smiled and blushed, clearly uncertain how to react to this new, enthusiastic version of his once withdrawn Grandfather, who formerly insisted on being called 'Nick.'

"We need your help, Grandfather," Daniel said.

"Anything within my power," Ballard replied beaming at Daniel and then at Sam.

Sam stood and smiled back.

"It's hard to explain," she said, "but we've traced an energy signature to some alien technology and to ... well, to here."

"Yes?" Ballard said, cocking his head in a move so Daniel-like, that it took Sam's breath away.

"My General, Jack O'Neill is missing. We believe the energy signature might lead us to him," she continued. "We ... I would appreciate it if you can tell me what you think."

Ballard settled on the stone steps at the base of the pedestal and said, "If it will help, I will gladly share what I've learned here. These are tremendously ancient beings," he launched into lecture mode. "They have existed since before humanity and I believe they will exist long after our demise. They are, from our perspective at least, immortal."

Sam settled in for the full course in Giant-ology. Ballard covered what he considered the main points and then stopped.

"Now, I have explained what I know, at a very cursory level of course," he said, "perhaps you can share what you know, so that we can ... collaborate."

Sam nodded and pulled out the energy graphs. She laid them on the stone between them and said, "Earth was attacked four months ago. We recorded one of these graphs during that attack. We have since discovered the same pattern in several other recordings, some predating the attack and others after it."

"I see," Ballard said, "and what is this graph?"

"That is the graph we made when we first met your friends here," Daniel interjected.

Ballard picked up the graph and studied it for a moment. Then he turned it over and traced his fingertip along the peaks, muttering softly.

"That's ... that is upside down," Sam said, not wanting to embarrass the old man.

"Do you think so?" Ballard asked as he continued to squint at the graph. Then he stood, coughed once and began to chant.

"Oo ya waaling waaling wey tayil!"

Immediately, the apparitions replied, 'Oo ya waaling waaling wey tayil.'

"Oo ya waaling waaling wey tayil!" Ballard repeated, pointing to the peaks as Daniel leaned over his shoulder, trying to follow.

'Oo ya waaling waaling wey tayil,' came the reply.

Daniel's frown disappeared and he joined Ballard in the chant, "Oo ya waaling waaling wey tayil!"

The Giants replied.

Sam stood there watching, feeling incredibly stupid, because she didn't grasp why they were chanting, or what it had to do with her mission.

'Oo ya waaling waaling wey tayil.' Echoed around her.

Finally, Sam waved her hands and then shouted, "Enough! Someone needs to explain this to me, please."

"I am sorry," Ballard replied. "Daniel and I got carried away, but you must understand that this is a significant advancement in Mayan archeology."

"Just tell me how this helps," Sam said.

"The graph," Ballard said, "is not only an energy signature, Colonel Carter."

Daniel nodded and eagerly jumped in, "Sam, it's an audiograph, as well!"

"And it says, 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend?'" Sam asked.

Daniel and Ballard beamed and nodded, "That's right!"

"And what good is that?" Sam snapped, suddenly losing patience with these two scientists.

Daniel's smiled dimmed and he turned to Ballard.

"Nick, she's right," he said. "Jack's been taken by someone or ... something that is associated with this pattern. Do you know anything that might help us make the linkage?"

"Me?" Ballard said, shaking his head, "no. I know nothing about this other than what I've told you."

'That's it, then,' Sam thought. 'I can't think of another thing to try.'

She turned and picked up her rifle and pack.

"Thank you, Dr. Ballard," she said. "C'mon Daniel."

Daniel watched, open mouthed as she mounted the platform and turned toward the skull.

Ballard jumped up and placed his hand over the skull's eyes.

"No," he cried, "No, not yet. Don't give up. Let me finish, young woman. I know nothing more about the graph, it's true. But that does not mean I cannot help you, because there is something else I do know, something you did not request, but that I shall provide even so."

"You see, I can speak to Giants!"

ΩΩΩ

Malacoda dragged Jack down the ditch, toward the fifth bridge. Jack struggled in the iron grip of the massive demon. The creature climbed the ditch in two steps and crossed onto the bridge, dragging Jack behind like a filthy rag.

Evil Claw approached, bowing and whining, but Malacoda snapped and roared, sending the smaller fiend scurrying away.

Jack was over the bridge then, and tumbling along the flinty ground. The smell of boiling tar was strong now. After all he'd been through, it really ticked him off that he was going to end up sharing the fate of that dirt-bag Kinsey.

ΩΩΩ

Daniel stood beside Nick, his Grandfather, and watched as the old man called out into the chasm.

"Etay waaling m¨˘ax oolay!" Nick called.

"Tell us of those who attacked Earth," Daniel translated for Sam's benefit.

"Waaling oolay Nantes," the Giants boomed back.

"The enemy of Earth is called Nantes," Daniel translated.

"Kaxan tayil O'Neill!" Nick called out.

"We look for our friend O'Neill!" Daniel translated.

"Luubul chi' ya," the answer came.

Daniel hesitated.

Sam jabbed him in the ribs and hissed, "What?"

"He's fallen into the mouth of pain," Daniel whispered rapidly as Nick continued, "Seeb t¨˘asik in laak waye'!"

Sam jabbed him again and Daniel said, "It's urgent that you bring our friend here."

"Dzuuy bel," the Giants boomed again, "Dzuuy bel!"

"The way is hard," Daniel translated.

"T¨˘asik O'Neill waye' behla," Nick cried, "T¨˘asik O'Neill behla!"

"Bring O'Neill here today," Daniel said.

"Behla!" the Giants echoed, "Behla in laak, Ballard! Behla!"

Nick beamed as the Giants vanished. Then he clapped his hands and sat on the stone steps at the base of the pedestal.

"They are going to bring him," he said. "Today. They promised they'll bring him today. All we have to do now is to wait."

ΩΩΩ

Jack screamed as Malacoda dropped him into the tar pit. He fell, but at that instant a gigantic hand reached out of the ground and caught him in mid-air.

'Oo ya waaling waaling wey tayil,' boomed a great voice.

Malacoda crouched and cowered. All the fiends cringed and whimpered. Jack opened his eyes and had a birds-eye view of the Eighth Circle of Hell. The legions of the damned had stopped to stare up. The lashing, torture, and screaming had stopped.

Even Megaera had fallen to her knees. She crouched with her hands over her eyes, stricken with ... what?

'Fear,' Jack realized as his massive savior turned toward her.

'Oo ya waaling waaling wey tayil,' boomed the voice again, as it deposited Jack at her side.

'Oo ya waaling waaling wey tayil,' Megaera cried out as she raised her face to the Giant.

The Giant turned to vapor and Hell's hosts cried out in wonder and pain. Every lost soul had hoped for salvation.

"You," Megaera hissed to Jack, "Have very powerful friends. I, who was your Judge, am now your guide and protector. Though they are powerful, the Giants do not rule here. You must pass through the Ninth and final Circle. That is where the Giant's rule. Come."

She stood and pulled Jack to his feet, but he winced and fell.

"One of your pets," Jack gasped as she examined his crushed foot, "it's broken."

"It is crushed," she said. "Still you must walk. It's not easy. The path is hard, but there will be an end in light and life, O'Neill. The Giants of Cocytus have promised."

ΩΩΩ

"The ninth circle is ringed by classical and Biblical Giants," Nick Ballard explained. "Dante wrote that these giants stood either on, or on a ledge above, the ninth circle of Hell. They are visible from the waist up at the ninth circle of the Malebolge."

Nick glanced at Sam. Daniel knew that look. He was wondering if Sam understood the implications of Dante's description.

Sam understood.

"Just as your Giants are only visible from the waist up," she said. "Applying simple logic, then, this is the ninth circle."

"Very good," Nick laughed, clapping Daniel on the thigh. "Really very good, Colonel. There is one small point, however. It is my expert opinion that the Giants do stand on the ledge above the ninth circle. Somewhere far below us, in the impenetrable mists, is the final circle of Hell. Somewhere far below us, they will meet your friend and, when they do, they will deliver him to us."

ΩΩΩ

Jack staggered painfully after Megaera past the Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth bridges and beyond. The going was slow. His wrenched knee creaked with every step. His swollen foot dragged as he hobbled, staying upright through nothing but simple cussedness. With salvation a few more steps away, he'd be damned if he'd quit now.

Finally, Jack saw Megaera pause. He staggered up to her and looked into another pit.

"So, it's all downhill from here," he quipped.

He teetered for a moment, looking into the mist shrouded depths of what had to be the Ninth and final circle.

"They're waiting?" he asked.

"Yes," Megaera said.

"What about you and your sisters?" Jack demanded, "You don't just get to walk away from all the death and chaos you caused."

"No," Megaera replied, "We too must face Justice. There will be ... restitution ... and penance. Now go."

She pressed her hand to his shoulder as Jack leaned forward.

Then she pushed.

ΩΩΩ

Sam woke to the sound of Giants chanting, deep in the chasm below. She sat up, rubbing her eyes. A glow colored the swirling mists, telling her the Giants were coming up from far, far beneath.

Daniel sat upright a moment later.

"Get the First Aid kit ready," Sam said. "And pull out a blanket. Pete said he was in bad shape. That was more than three days ago. We might need to move out pretty quick."

Daniel obeyed, working in the growing blue-gray light that filled the cavern.

"It is the Giant Aliens," Nick stated as he, too, awoke.

"Yes," Sam replied, peering into the mists that rose, "It is ... and General O'Neill, if they kept their promise."

Sam glanced across the cavern. The Marines were on their feet, already.

Satisfied, Sam turned back to the preparations. She had water, food, pain-killers, splints, and bandages. She'd seen Jack O'Neill come back too many times from near death, that she guessed she wouldn't be totally prepared.

'We just need to get him stabilized and then evacuate to Tiksi,' she thought for the millionth time.

The light grew brighter. It bathed the cavern walls just below her. The Giant Aliens' chant was louder.

Sam could hear the words. They'd changed.

"Behla in laak! Behla!"

"Behla in laak! Behla!"


"What are they saying?" Sam asked Nicholas Ballard.

"Today, my friend," Nick translated. "This was their promise to me. The Giant Aliens are bringing your friend, Colonel Carter, just as they promised."

The massive heads appeared from the mist, bald and smiling. Huge chests and muscled arms took form around them until ten Giants surrounded the platform.

"Where is he?" Sam asked. "I don't see him."

"Neither do I," Daniel agreed. "Nick, do you want to ask them where ..."

The request was never completed because giant hands reached out through the swirling mist cradling a human form, and gently deposited a very battered and all together bare Jack O'Neill on the stone walkway.

Sam stared and said, "Oh, god."

She took a step forward, but hesitated and glanced toward the Marines.

Daniel touched her elbow and said, "Jack might be more comfortable, if I handle it alone. You know how modest he can be."

Sam nodded, blushed and turned away, saying, "Right. Thanks."

Daniel quickly knelt beside him, fighting back rage and tears.

Jack was gaunt. Always lanky, his ribs now showed through his dirty, damaged skin. At the base of Jack's ribs, a festering gash trailed down to his right hip. The wound had been treated and partially healed, but the stitches had pulled out and thick odorous infection discolored the broken skin.

"God, Jack," he murmured as he grabbed a blanket, "what'd they do to you?"

Daniel checked Jack's vitals. The pulse was too rapid and he was burning up. Then Daniel settled the blanket across the lower half of his patient as a nod to propriety for the sake of the Marines' sense of modesty and started a rapid check for life-threatening injuries so, when they moved Jack they could do so without doing any more damage.

Daniel worked as quickly as he dared, fighting the urge to gag at the odor of putrescent material that oozed from the inflamed wound. He failed, spit, and then continued.

'Probably pulled the stitches in the helicopter crash,' Daniel figured, as he palpated Jack's neck and shoulders.

Next, Daniel ran his hands down Jack's arms to the wrists and noted, with a shudder, ugly welts on both wrists. Jack had been restrained ... and he'd fought the restraints.

Daniel palpated the chest. He felt at least one broken rib and moved down to the fold in the blanket. He lifted the edge of the blanket and ran a hand cautiously over Jack's hips and down his right thigh. Bruises on the points of Jack's pelvis caught Daniel's eye.

"What the ..." he wondered aloud. He moved the blanket lower and saw a pattern of bruising on Jack's thighs and ...

"Oh, no," he murmured, as he saw a series of deep purple marks across his friend's lower abdomen and realized what he was seeing.

"What?" Sam demanded from her position several feet away.

"Later," Daniel barked a shade too loud.

Daniel bit back a curse.

'The bitches raped him!' he thought. 'Why?' he wondered, fighting back another upsurge of rage.

"What?" Sam demanded again.

"Nothing." Daniel lied, but he raised his eyes to hers and she paled. She understood it was bad.

"Later," Sam said and Daniel nodded.

"Later," he agreed and dropped the blanket over Jack's abused body and palpated his right calf and ankle. The bones felt straight, although, like every inch of his friend, the skin was scraped, burned, bleeding and filthy.

Daniel scrambled to the other side, lifted the blanket, and gritted his teeth as he saw Jack's obscenely swollen left knee. He didn't touch the knee. He ran his hand down the battered shin as far as the ankle. Jack's left foot was discolored and deformed. Daniel didn't touch it.

Daniel found no other broken bones, but the left eye was purple and swollen shut. That, and a deep gash in Jack's scalp indicated a possible concussion.

He pulled the blanket around Jack's back, noticed three deep gouges like the claw-marks from a huge beast across his friend's upper back, and then lowered Jack onto the blanket, leaving him completely wrapped.

"I think we should move out, Sam. He needs a real Doctor," Daniel said.

"Right," Sam said. Then she turned and signaled to the Marines. "Bring a litter," she called without standing.

Daniel saw she'd taken Jack's hand.

"How bad," she hissed.

"I don't think it's as bad as it looks," Daniel said, "but we won't know until he's in an Infirmary."

Then Daniel stood and turned to his Grandfather.

"Thank you, Nick," he said, offering his hand.

"It's Grandpa," Nick said, pulling Daniel into a bear hug. "I am so proud of you Daniel. You do what you were born for, my son. Thanks to you I, too, do the work I was born for. I should thank you ... and your friends for making that possible."

"Grandpa," Daniel said. "Please give your friends our thanks."

"I will," Nick said. "Now go. Take care of your friend."



ΩΩΩ



"How is he?" Zhukov asked the American Colonel as he stopped before her.

She turned and fixed him with an uncomprehending stare.

"How is O'Neill?" Zhukov tried again, taking a seat at her side. "Have our doctors informed you, Colonel?"

She nodded. The morning sun on her face hid none of her exhaustion. The woman, still far too young for a Colonel, was beyond exhausted and looked older than her years. Zhukov saw that, after over four months of battles, losses, anxiety, and sorrow, this extraordinary woman was half dead herself.

"What did they tell you, comrade?" he asked gently, cupping her small, tight fist in his hands.

She shook her head. Tears glistened in her red-rimmed eyes.

Zhukov squeezed her fist and continued, "Never mind, Colonel Carter. Our physicians are native Russians and, as such, notoriously incompetent. The Jews were killed or escaped a generation ago. These advanced through Party patronage and have no idea whether your General O'Neill will live. If they tell you he will not, it is I believe a very positive sign."

He glanced up from their hands, hoping for a smile. Instead the tears over-spilled her thick lashes and tumbled down her pale cheeks.

"Come," he improvised. He could not just let a warrior of her caliber sit weeping in the hallway. He pulled her to her feet and led her through the nearest door. The next was guarded.

"Make way," he barked as the tall young guard stepped up to challenge them.

"Sir!" the inexperienced boy responded, stepping aside.

Zhukov pushed through, still gripping the small hand of the American. A white-coated technician leapt to her feet and scurried forward, hissing something about national security.

"I command here," he snapped and she, too, yielded the field of battle.

Zhukov pushed the next door as the cowed technician pressed a mask into his hand. He glanced at her alarmed eyes and donned the mask. The American had hers in place as well. Then he stepped into the ICU with a shudder.

Like every other combat soldier, hospitals revolted Zhukov. The intensity of his reaction increased exponentially according to the degree of medical mystery and resulting loss of control for the patient. This inner sanctum of Tiksi's most sophisticated medical facility, a realm of the witch doctors to his mind, was among the worst of the many such missions he had braved in his twenty-five year career as soldier and officer. A multitude of blinking, beeping equipment flanked O'Neill's motionless form, tucked tight into the metal bed. Odors of sterilants and unchecked disease penetrated his mask.

Wanting only to retreat, instead Zhukov tightened his grip on the American woman's small hand and pulled her along, as a means of forcing himself to approach the bed of the hero he had helped to betray.

Zhukov heard a soft sob. He turned to the American. Her mask was in place, covering her face, but her expressive blue eyes conveyed the fullness of her distress.

Zhukov turned back and gazed down at O'Neill for a moment, memorizing the pain etched there. His would not be an easy death, a fact Zhukov fully intended to bear in mind every night for the rest of his penitent life. Then the Russian stepped away from the deathbed, turned and gave the woman a gentle shove.

"Be with him now, Colonel," he said gently. He turned from the couple and strode from the room. He paused with his hand on the door handle, however, and fixed the technician with a commanding glare.

"She stays," he growled, "to the end, and after if she should choose. You answer only to me on this matter."

The wide-eyed subordinate nodded and mumbled, "Yes, Comrade Colonel."

Then Zhukov fled.

ΩΩΩ

Sam took Jack's hand and held it. His pale face swam before her tear-filled eyes.

"No," she said, "stay with me." She leaned close to his battered face and repeated, "Stay, Sir."

The technician coughed behind her. Sam turned and saw that a metal chair was there. She pulled it close to the bed and sat, without releasing Jack's hand.

"Please," she whispered.


ΩΩΩ

Sam jerked awake. She'd slumped over his shoulder and had slept with the sound of his breath in her dreams.

She sat up and glanced at the machines. Although they were in Cyrillic, she could decipher the indicators sufficiently to know that Jack's vital signs were not improved.

Sam lifted his hand and pressed it to her face.

"We won," she said. "Sir, I came back. We retook the planet without a fight. There was no resistance. You had my back, General. You must have done ... something ... You kept them off me."

"Oh, god, Sir! Please open your eyes. Please talk to me."

"Please, please don't give up. Not now. Not, when we need you, Sir!"

"I can't ..."

"I don't want to ... "

"Don't leave when I need you, Jack," she sobbed.

Sam stopped as his fingers tightened in her hand.

"Sir?" she whispered. "General?"

Sam leaned forward, gazing into his pale face, frantically searching for a sign.

"Can you hear me?" she demanded, "Jack?"

The dark lashes of his right eye flickered and then opened.

Sam gasped and pulled back, as he fixed her with an alien gaze.

"And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off!" he rasped, dragging the bandage from his battered left eye as he spoke.

"Jack?" she quailed, but the red glare glowed stronger as the words continued in a voice that was not Jack O'Neill's.

"Ye shall beat your swords into plowshares!" The voice commanded. "And your spears into pruning hooks!"

With that, Jack threw back the covers, swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood, ignoring the cast on his left leg and the crash of the plasma rack that still fed into his left arm.

He stepped forward, forcing Sam down onto her knees. He stood, glaring at her sternly and declared, "For Nation shall not lift sword against Nation!" He gave her wrist a sharp twist and she nodded, "And neither shall Ye learn war any more!"

Then, the fire just died. Jack swayed and blinked. He looked down at Sam through his own brown eyes, and started to help her to her feet.

"Carter ..." he gasped, "Wh ... what?"

His brown-eyed gaze grew confused. Then his eyes rolled back in his head, he staggered, and then crashed to the floor.

Sam caught him as he fell and screamed, as loud as she could, "Daniel!!!"



ΩΩΩ



“Micah 4,” Daniel said, as he stood and began to pace the dimly lit space that passed for a briefing room.

“It’s a book of the Bible,” he continued, “It begins, ‘But in the latter days, it will happen that the mountain of Yahweh's temple will be established on the top of the mountains, and it will be exalted above the hills; and peoples will stream to it.’”

“My gosh,” Sam murmured, “like Cheyenne Mountain when they attacked.”

Daniel nodded, “I wasn’t there, so the parallel never occurred to me, until now.”

“Is there more?” Sam asked, glancing at Teal’c who sat with fingers steepled and an unreadable expression on his face.

“Many Nations will go and say,” Daniel continued, "Come, and let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh, and to the house of the God of Jacob … he will teach us his ways. We will walk in his paths.”

“Jacob,” Sam repeated.

Daniel nodded and continued the quotation, “For out of Zion will go forth the law, and the word of Yahweh from Jerusalem, and he will judge between many peoples, and will decide concerning strong nations afar off.”

Daniel glanced at Teal’c who’d served as ambassador to the many worlds over the difficult months since the Furies devastated Earth. Sam looked at Teal’c and a shadow of a smile lit her tear-stained face.

“They will beat their swords into plowshares,” Daniel said, emphasizing the words that Sam had blurted when he found her holding Jack on the floor of ICU, “and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against Nation, neither will they learn war any more.”

“That’s it!” Sam exclaimed, “That’s exactly what he said, Daniel.”

Daniel nodded and leaned against the dented green desk in the corner of the conference room, “But they will sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and no one will make them afraid: For the mouth of Yahweh of Armies has spoken.”

Daniel looked from Sam to Teal’c to Zhukov who sat transfixed in the back of the room. They were all listening closely as he skipped ahead to the conclusion, “‘In that day,’ says Yahweh, ‘I will assemble that which is lame. I will gather that which is driven away, and that which I have afflicted; and I will make that which was lame a remnant, and that which was cast far off a strong Nation, and Yahweh will reign over them on Mount Zion from then on, even forever.’"

“Jack,” Sam whispered. “He’s going to make it.”

Daniel grinned and nodded, “I think so, Sam.”

Teal’c smiled and murmured, “And the Tauri shall become a strong Nation.”

Zhukov leaned forward and grasped Sam’s shoulder and declared enthusiastically, “I told you, Colonel Carter! I told you that our Doctors are total shits!”

ΩΩΩ

“Your eyes glowed,” Daniel said, leaning back in the folding metal chair until it tipped against the chipped green plaster wall at his back, “Red.”

“Did not,” Jack replied.

“Did too,” Daniel insisted. “Right before you ordered Sam to ‘beat our swords into pruning hooks.’”

“Not ...”

“Too ...”

“Not ...” Jack repeated, “It was swords into plowshares and … spears into pruning hooks.”

“Well, that then,” Daniel said.

Jack closed his eyes. “I’m tired,” he said. “Think I’ll nap out for a while.”

Daniel let the infantile debate drop. He’d been trying to distract Jack and knew from long experience that such mindless games often did the trick, but not today.

“I’ll go,” Daniel said, trying to tip the chair back onto its four legs and failing.

“Stay,” Jack murmured.

Daniel stopped struggling to tip the chair forward. He let his head rest against the wall and watched his best friend. The slight whistle of his shallow breathing slowed as Jack drifted into a fitful sleep.

Daniel sent up his thanks for Jack’s miraculous rescue. It had come in the nick of time. Not that Jack had escaped untouched – Far from it.

Jack had been cleaned and the wounds on his chest and back had been wrapped, his head, wrists and left hand had been bandaged, and his left knee and foot had been stabilized. Salve had been smeared over the burns that puckered the skin on the left side of his face and continued down the side of his neck and shoulder to the bindings around his upper chest. The greasy sheen of it reappeared where his left forearm emerged from the blankets.

Though his injuries had been treated, Jack was still fighting for survival. Pleurisy had set in during the three weeks that Jack had hung on with no medical treatment. During his time in Tartarus it had devolved into pleural effusion, or so the physicians hypothesized.

The condition, they'd explained, was essentially an inflammation of a double-layered membrane surrounding the lungs. When healthy, the membrane allows the lungs to fill and expand with no friction against the interior wall of the ribcage. Inflammation of this membrane, however, had developed, making breathing - or any movement - excruciating.

The Russian doctors had explained Jack's condition in minute detail, but Daniel didn’t need an explanation. All he needed to know was on Jack’s pain-etched face: even as he slept, even though loaded with painkillers. It hurt Daniel to even look at him.

Daniel’s eyes drifted from Jack’s battered face to the primitive plaster cast under the blankets. The cast angled up and out, to dangle from a primitive metal rod and wheel system bolted into the ceiling beams. Jack’s toes showed at the end, purple and swollen. His left knee and foot had undergone reconstructive surgery twelve hours earlier. The surgeons planned more reconstruction in a few days, Daniel had been informed, if Jack was a bit stronger. For now the old-fashioned plaster cast stretched from Jack’s toes to his crotch.

Daniel watched his friend sleep and pondered how a few days could possibly make any real difference. Jack was too pale, aside from the burns and ugly purple and yellow-green bruising. He was also cruelly thin, after months of living off the land with Pete Shannahan as sole-provider.

‘At least his hair’s growing back.’ Daniel thought. ‘By next week it’ll be the hard-ass crew-cut he wore when we met.’

Members of SGC had dropped in to pay their respects throughout the day. Daniel observed as every military man and woman hid their alarm and anger at the condition of their CO. Nine out of ten fell back on a timeworn joke about Jack’s long history of driving all members of the health profession nuts – from top surgeons and Chief Medical Officers to the poor bastard in charge of bed pans. The good-natured humor helped lighten the otherwise awkward visits, as friends and subordinates paid their respects.

Jack growled, grinned and played along with the joke, as every visitor urged him to be patient. Still, when the medical staff did their thing, he was uncharacteristically tolerant as they prodded, poked, and fussed over him. He was compliant. He was polite. He was patient.

It was a bad sign.

Sitting and watching and waiting, Daniel tried to be patient, too. He told himself Jack would rally in a couple of days. He tried to believe that Jack would be the terror of the hospital ward in no time. He reminded himself that Jack had been sick or injured more times than Daniel could count. He’d always bounced back somehow. Daniel reminded himself of those facts and told himself to be patient and to believe.

But he just couldn’t. Daniel was too scared to believe and too pissed to be patient. He’d never been so scared for Jack, not even on Abydos, and he'd never been angrier. Based on a trail of circumstantial evidence, evidence for which Daniel felt horribly responsible, the Furies had tracked down and targeted Jack for their particularly merciless brand of justice.

‘Only,’ Daniel mused as he watched over Jack, ‘there was nothing just about it.’

The three vengeance-demons had laid waste Earth, then hounded Jack to death’s door, and dragged him through all the torments of Hell. Relieved as Daniel was to have snatched Jack from those dark, painfilled depths, he was also afraid that Jack's soul might never find a way back from that brutal place.

Daniel remained lost in his dark thoughts until Jack groaned and then sobbed deep in his chest. Daniel clambered off the folding chair, but before he reached his side, Jack had lurched upright. He clutched the bedrails in a white-knuckled grip and let out a full-throated scream.

“Jack!” Daniel shouted, crouching at his side and shaking his friend hard. “Jack! You’re okay. You made it. You’re safe!”

The scream stopped abruptly. Mortified awareness flooded into Jack’s wild brown eyes.

“Oh, shit!” he wheezed, slumping back into the pillows, hugging his chest. “Jesus, Danny,” he gasped. “I’m sorry … sorry. I was … It was ...”

Daniel grabbed Jack’s right forearm and said firmly, “Shh. I know. I get it, Jack. Just relax. Relax.”

Tears flooded into his friend’s eyes. Jack cursed softly and wiped them away, his right hand visibly trembling.

“Those bitches,” Daniel murmured as Jack’s muscles twitched under his hands. “Shh,” Daniel repeated softly. “Easy.”

Then he dragged the folding chair upright and sat at Jack's side gripping his forearm, making small comforting sounds ‘til the demons faded.



Chapter 16

Sam ascended the elegant modern staircase to the auditorium on the top floor of the United Nations Building. The building elevators weren’t working, at the moment, due to the erratic supply of electrical power to the City. Climbing beside her, Colonel Zhukov sounded slightly winded from the stairs as he picked up the thread of conversation they’d begun on the Ha’tak ride into NYC.

“Power, food, shelter, and a predictable social order,” he repeated a phrase he’d used as Sam was slipping her Ha’tak into a rubble-strewn area in the midst of a forest of standing skyscrapers near the UN.

“These are the keys to civilization,” Zhukov continued, “These are the means to maintaining any form of civilized life, no matter what your personal political predisposition. You control these things, at this critical moment in history, Colonel Carter. I stand with you to support you, under the SG-negotiated agreement that our military establishments negotiated five years ago. We are, therefore, in an excellent bargaining position, I believe.”

“Right,” Sam replied. She forced herself to focus on Zhukov’s point. Negotiations would begin in five minutes, just one floor above, in the 5th floor auditorium. There, Earth’s surviving world leaders, or their interim replacements, and representatives from the Tollans, Nox, and Asguard, the powerful interstellar alliance of ‘Aligned Worlds’, had already come together to await her arrival.

The world was waiting for her, Samantha Carter, Jacob’s little girl, to facilitate a unified planetary negotiating stance, the first step toward establishing a relationship between Earth and the three great civilizations of the Aligned Worlds. When the UN had convened yesterday, she’d been tapped to advise the world body on all things related to inter-stellar relations.

Initially, Daniel had been requested. Key UN insiders knew Doctor Daniel Jackson, both by reputation and through his past work on highly secret and sensitive international treaties involving the work of the SGC. Though the work was known only to voting members of the Security Council and hand-picked senior staff, Doctor Jackson was a man of repute in certain very powerful circles.

Daniel had refused the ‘request’ … absolutely. He stated in no uncertain terms that he would not budge from Tiksi, as long as Jack needed him. Sam couldn’t blame him. She felt the same way herself.

Unfortunately, Zhukov had expressed a ‘preference’ for Carter who, as both a warrior and the commander of the Multi-World Invasion Force (MWIF), to his mind was the perfect representative for the United States and for Earth.

That unprecedented and unexpected vote of confidence from the Russians was something Sam just couldn’t ignore. Besides, she owed Colonel Zhukov. He’d found her banished to the hallway by the Russian physicians. Without hesitation, he’d rescued her.

Thanks to Zhukov, Sam had been at the General’s bedside for most of that first terrible day following his rescue. Thanks to Zhukov, she’d also been the sole witness to what Daniel had dubbed ‘The Plowshare Prophesy.’ When the General had dragged himself out of his hospital bed and demanded an end to war, she’d been there to catch him when he collapsed. Thanks to Zhukov, Kinsey was dead and his connection to the devastation of Earth was under investigation.

All thanks to Zhukov.

So, as much as she wanted to stay at Jack’s side, Sam saw no option but to serve.

Reluctantly, she had her staff make arrangements for a dress uniform. An Air Force Captain serving with the JAG at the NYC Port Authority was contacted and ordered to provide a set of dress blues. Less than thirty minutes ago, Sam had piloted her Ha’tak to NYC and landed it in an empty surface parking lot, to the astonishment of the young military attorney, who’d barely maintained her professional poise. She had managed a sharp salute, however, when Sam emerged from the massive golden ship. Then she followed Sam back into the alien vessel, and handed over her best dress uniform, stockings, and a pair of perfectly polished regulation pumps. Sam had accepted them with a nod, acutely aware of her shaggy hair, dirty boots and bloody, battle-worn BDUs, the same that she’d worn for the past half year. She returned the young woman’s salute and dismissed her.

Now, with her hair combed and carefully restrained and wearing a stranger’s clothing, Sam crossed the unlit marble-floored hallway with Zhukov at her side and started up the final set of stairs. Despite her commitment to do her duty, despite her best efforts to focus on the coming challenge, and her grasp of the significance of the work she was about to begin, Sam needed to consciously remind herself that she couldn’t turn, run back down the stairs, and fly her Ha’tak straight back to Tiksi and Jack’s side.

‘I’d be there in less than fifteen minutes,’ she thought, ‘if I could sprint the two-blocks to the ship in these damned pumps.’

Sam’s long military training dictated that she not turn away from her duty. She continued to climb the stairs, listening carefully to her Russian colleague.

“Lives of your people and of my people depend on you making these people grasp the need for order,” Zhukov repeated. “It is basic human nature to resist outside rule, my American friend,” he said as he stopped with his hand on the door handle to the auditorium entrance, “particularly for cowpokes such as you, Colonel Carter.”

Zhukov smiled, laid a hand on Sam’s shoulder and squeezed, as he concluded earnestly, “There is a time to be a warrior; there is a time for statesmanship. The trick is to know when you are at war and when you are not. But, today my friend, you will do battle in this supposed 'temple to peace.' Do not believe these men desire peace. They know only a lust for power!"

Zhukov stopped walking as they reached the door to the auditorium. He pulled Sam to a halt and fixed her with a hard look, judging whether she understood.

She nodded and he continued.

"You must appear a model statesman, Colonel, even as you are a ruthless warrior. Humans are naturally inclined to pursue self-interest. These are liars and politicians. They will dress up that inclination as national policy, as tradition, and as a grasp of realpolitik that you, a mere Air Force Colonel, lack. If you allow them, they will play upon your inexperience in this realm of international politics, I fear. They are practiced at it, my dear Colonel. So, you must move first and crush them, even while you appear to assist them. Allow them to see that they are, in fact, being ‘helped’ to follow their own conscience. Allow them to take credit for their magnanimity and foresight. You are Macarthur as he entered Japan. The world will bow down to you, if you succeed. If you fail, I assure you, a great many innocent people will die.”

Sam stared into Zhukov’s hard, cold eyes. He smiled the smile of a hungry shark. She nodded, forced her concern over Jack away, and stepped through the door to lead the first emergency session of the Tauri World Council.



Chapter 17

“Thank you,” Jack murmured, stroking Daniel’s hair.

“Huh?” Daniel mumbled as he sat up. He’d fallen asleep at Jack’s side and awoke slumped over onto the edge of the bed.

Daniel opened his eyes and looked into Jack's eyes. Jack's fingers rested on the nape of his neck, still buried in his hair.

‘And ... Jack is stroking my hair … That’s … a first,’ Daniel thought, but he smiled as he straightened, hiding his surge of self-consciousness, and yawned.

“You’re welcome,” he said with a grin, “but Sam saved you, Jack. I just … helped.”

“No,” Jack said, “You saved me first, Danny. I never saw that until …”

Jack paused and shuddered involuntarily with a haunted look in his eyes.

Daniel recognized that look. Concerned, he leaned forward and grasped Jack’s right forearm.

“You don’t have to go there,” he said forcefully.

“No,” Jack replied in a hushed tone, “I do, Daniel. I really think I do.”

Daniel nodded and swallowed a lump that rose from his chest and threatened to block his throat.

“Okay,” he managed to say.

Jack laid his bandaged left hand over Daniel’s hand and squeezed.

“When I was …” he began, then paused and tried again. “When they had me, Daniel, it was … educational. I blamed myself for Charlie …”

Jack’s voice broke and he looked away, but continued in a husky whisper, “… all these years ... I figured that if there’s a Hell, I’d pay.”

“I know,” Daniel said.

“There is a Hell, Daniel. There are depths of Hell,” Jack continued. “I failed Charlie ...”

He stopped and wiped a hand across his eyes. It was painful to watch and Daniel wished Jack would just stop, but he didn't.

“But … I’d have done worse … but for you, Danny. I came so ... close … so close.”

Daniel wanted to look away from his friend’s searching eyes, but he held his gaze. Whatever Jack was leading up to, Daniel knew it was important. It was out of character for Jack and it had to be costing him … Big-time.

“When th… The Furies had me,” he went on, “I saw myself, all my failures, through their eyes. It wasn’t pretty, Daniel. I saw things I expected. I also saw, over and over, how blind I’ve been … and wrong. People who I thought I’d … protected … had really saved my ass. I saw that and, for the first time, I saw you … Doctor Jackson.”

Daniel blushed at Jack’s use of his title. He never called him that – always Daniel, or Danny, or maybe even Space Monkey – but not Doctor Jackson, not once, not ever, not ‘til now.

“I’ve underestimated you from the moment we met,” Jack confessed. “I took one look at you and I saw the glasses, and the mop of hair in your face, and that whole allergy thing. I saw just another pain-in-the-butt geek that I’d have to risk my ass to look after. I made up my mind about you in a split-second, Daniel. For years, that image of you blinded me to the man that you really are. I see that and I'm sorry – Deeply sorry.”

Daniel’s eyes swam. He wanted to interrupt, but Jack raised a thin hand and kept speaking.

“You are brave,” he whispered, “and tough and way smarter than anyone else I know … except for Carter. You are a good man, ethical and caring. I see that, Daniel. I saw it and I knew that I deserved whatever happened to me in Hell. Not because of Charlie – That was a mistake – but … because I’ve short-changed you. You’re my friend; My best friend. I’ve underestimated you. I haven’t given you the respect you deserve. God knows I’ve undervalued your wisdom. I never really appreciated the depths of your support … and I should have, Daniel. I … I should have. Forgive me, please.”

Daniel was weeping and he didn’t care. Jack’s words broke his heart. Didn’t he know that none of that mattered? Didn’t he understand that, as much as he might seem to bully and browbeat him, Daniel trusted the depth of their friendship and treasured his bond with Jack?

“Jesus, Jack,” Daniel choked out as he wiped the hot tears from his face.

Jack wrapped his long fingers around the nape of Daniel’s neck and squeezed.

“I planned to die on Abydos. I was ready and willing ... after losing Charlie. It seemed like the perfect chance to end it ... honorably. I would have blown that nuke, killed all those people, and … and you stopped me, Daniel. You saved me. I knew you saved my ass that day on Abydos, but I never really grasped that you saved my … soul. I never thanked you for that ... So, thank you … Doctor Jackson.”

Daniel wiped his palm across his eyes again and then wiped his nose on his sleeve and smiled back into Jack’s warm brown eyes.

“My honor, General O’Neill,” he replied.

Daniel paused for a long moment, searching his friend’s face. Jack had sunk back into his pillows, drained. He was biting his lower lip, but his eyes were closed and he seemed to be dozing again.

Daniel gripped his forearm and whispered softly, “My honor.”

Chapter 18

Sam mounted the stage at the front of the auditorium and stopped before the podium. Two dozen dignitaries were scattered through the front rows of the vast auditorium, behind them were endless rows of maroon plush velvet seats. The lights had been dimmed in the back, focusing light and Sam’s attention on the first few rows. She stood before Earth’s national leaders, or their picked representatives. Behind her, seated at a long table complete with a starched linen table cloth, water pitchers and fine crystal goblets, were the representatives of the Aligned Worlds – the Tollan Council representative and her assistant, Thor from the Asguard and his second Freer, and three small elfin creatures that Sam recognized as Nox, although they were not among those she’d encountered and she didn’t know their names.

Sam poured herself a glass of cold water, marveling at the tinkle of real ice against the crystal. She hadn’t seen ice cubes in … months. Even in Russia, despite the cold outside, water was served without the benefit of ice cubes.

‘Probably,’ Sam figured, ‘because Russian ice would be brown.’

She’d gagged on her first mouthful of water from the supply at Tiksi. It stank of chlorine and other chemicals. In time she’d been able to choke it down, but she didn’t think ice cubes would make the nasty stuff more appetizing. Tiksi drinking water was from a nearby river, a river that meandered aimlessly across a nearly flat landscape dotted with peat-ladened wetlands and, as it neared the village, past a paper mill, lumber mill, and glass factory. It also passed farm yards and numerous outflows from private cesspools.

‘I wish I could get Jack out of that hole,’ she thought, wondering what facilities NYC might offer. She might be spending weeks on this assignment. ‘If I can move him here, I can spend evenings with him at least.’

Zhukov dragged Sam’s attention back to her responsibilities as he approached the podium.

“This is it, Colonel Carter,” he began ominously. “Watch the Chinese representative. I am certain he will try to foment distrust of the Aligned Worlds. He will want to splinter our effort to create a unified position. By doing so, he can push for a minority position, which he can wield to block our bargaining with the Aligned Worlds. If that happens, we lose all power. He can undermine our position at anytime he chooses. It’s likely he’ll rely on our former association with the alien societies to imply that we will have an unfair advantage due to our prior working relationship.”

“Right,” Sam stated.

ΩΩΩ

Teal’c stepped into O’Neill’s room. He glanced from Daniel, who was seated on a metal folding chair in the corner, reading a thick leather-bound book by the pale light that penetrated the frost-covered window, to O’Neill, who seemed asleep.

Daniel looked up from his book, closed it, and eased himself off the metal chair quietly. He grinned and gave Teal’c’s shoulder a squeeze as they switched places.

Teal’c took his post silently, ignoring the inadequate metal chair, and instead spreading a rough wool blanket from the closet on the floor where he could observe O’Neill. Then he removed a half-dozen candles from the folds of his robes and arranged them on the windowsill, dresser, and floor of the gloomy room. Teal’c struck a match and lit the first candle, then used it to light the others, before settling on the blanket.

Teal’c closed his eyes and relaxed. The uneven whistle of O’Neill’s difficult breathing gradually faded from his consciousness and melded with the flickering of the candles. The Jaffa entered the realm of light and shadow where he could seek to resolve the anxiety he felt at O’Neill’s condition and ask the gods of warriors for a gift of grace and freedom from pain for his friend, or if not, at least a welcome to the realm of Keb.

Teal’c roused from kel norim and noted a change in the room. O’Neill was awake.

“Hey, Teal’c,” O’Neill whispered as Teal’c opened his eyes.

“How are you, my friend?” Teal’c asked without preamble.

“Hurts,” O’Neill admitted.

“Indeed,” Teal’c replied as he stood and began to fold the blanket.

“Can you leave the candles burning?” O’Neill asked softly. “It’s … nice.”

“As you wish, O’Neill,” Teal’c replied as he moved from the blanket to the metal folding chair. “I will allow them to burn until you sleep.”

“I don’t sleep, T,” O’Neill stated.

“You were sleeping when I arrived," Teal’c replied.

“No,” O’Neill sighed, “I wasn’t. I don’t want to worry Daniel.”

“You must rest, O'Neill,” Teal’c replied.

“I know that,” O’Neill interrupted. “But … I can’t.”

“I do not understand, O’Neill,” Teal’c said softly as he leaned closer. O’Neill’s eyes were wild and he was breathing too rapidly.

“Nightmares,” O’Neill sighed, letting his eyes close, “Terrible visions, about what they did, T … No, that's not true ...”

Then he stopped and didn’t continue for so long that Teal’c wondered if O’Neill had actually drifted off again, but then he continued.

“… Teal’c, creepy as this is gonna sound, I’m pretty sure they’re not really dreams and it's not about what happened to me ... before. These are … real,” he hissed. “And it's all happening ... now."

"I think," he ground out, "If I sleep … I think it lets them come back for ... for me.”

ΩΩΩ

"We estimate that we are losing between twenty and fifty thousand a day, Colonel Carter,” Zhukov stated.

Sam stood straight and unmoving at a podium before the assembled leaders of Earth's major powers, and the representatives of the Aligned Worlds. She tightened her grip on the sides of the podium, but otherwise showed no reaction to Zhukov's blunt assessment of the condition of refugees and the homeless worldwide. The truth of it hit her like a kick in her guts, but still she maintained a calm, controlled bearing. The Tolan, Nox, and Asguard representatives were watching her, gauging her reactions, evaluating her potential as a world leader. The leaders of Earth were watching, trying to decide whether or not they could trust her.

The words of Micah 4 rang in her ears.

‘Many Nations will go and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh, and to the house of the God of Jacob'... he will teach us his ways. We will walk in his paths.'

It wasn't something she'd sought. Sam Carter had set her sights on one goal. Motivated by her need to prove her worth to her distant father, Jacob Carter, and encouraged by her natural aptitude for science and math, Sam had excelled. At eleven, while other girls experimented with glitter nail polish and fruit scented lip gloss, she'd experimented with electricity and magnetism. By the time she entered College, at fifteen, she was already fast-tracked into Physics and had her sights locked on a career in the Air Force as a means to compete to someday join the Space Program.

' ... to the house of the God of Jacob ...'

Sam had never considered the possibility of life after achieving her dream. She'd reached space by a very different pathway and, since joining the SGC, she'd been so deeply involved in protecting Earth that she’d never found time to ‘get a life,’ much less to wonder if her future might hold something more. She'd certainly never expected this.

… he will teach us his ways. We will walk in his paths.

Yet, here it was - through death, destruction, and bad luck, nearly every world leader had died when the Furies had destroyed the capitol cities. President Hayes had died heroically in Washington DC at his desk in the Oval Office. The Vice-President had been on Air Force One, standard defensive posture at time of crisis, but the plane had been downed. By the time that happened, the chaos was so bad that there'd been no one to even attempt a rescue.

Carter had sent people in to assess the situation. Early reports from the crash-site indicated no survivors and the Black Box had not yet been found. The 83-year old Speaker of the House, next in line of succession according to the US Constitution, was incapacitated with a heart attack, followed by a stroke, as a result of the stress of the attacks. The other cabinet officials who would serve were either missing or known dead.

The military had also been decapitated. The Joint Chiefs, apparently including General George Hammond, had fought and died defending Earth. Sam hadn't had time yet to review the reports, but she knew the gist of them. The old men who had run things were all either KIA or MIA.

Zhukov was facing a similarly bleak situation, as were other industrialized nations of Western Europe, China, and South America. Australia had been largely spared and, ironically, the developing world had fared much better as had the so-called Third World nations. As a result, the United Nations had been thrust into the role of actually serving as a bona fide world government organization, rather than a token gesture.

The representative from China pressed his microphone and a small yellow light shone. The other leaders turned to watch as he spoke.

"We lose one hundred thousand people every week, most of them in China," he barked, "but that does not mean that we should we relinquish control over our national security! Rather, in light of the recent disaster, it means we must pull back from interstellar involvement immediately! This attack was a direct result of Western tinkering with issues far beyond your grasp!”

Sam stood silently for a moment, gathering her thoughts.

...to the house of Jacob...

"It is a tragedy,” Sam said, leaning forward slightly to speak into the microphone, "but it was not the result of our program. It was the result of an ancient battle between entities recorded in our history as 'The Furies' and Nantes, an enemy that we know little about. It is true that we discovered technology that had been developed by Nantes, but …”

“The attack was caused by your decision to transport that technology to Earth through the Stargate!" the Chinese representative interrupted, this time in English.

Sam hesitated, cleared her throat, and reached for her water glass. It was half full, but she took time to fill it from an ice-filled pitcher on the podium. Then she drank and carefully placed her glass within reach, all the while considering how to answer the charges.

... to the God of Jacob ...'

"That is true,” she said. A murmur rose in the auditorium.

"And yet you ask us to trust you again?" the Chinese representative blurted.

"Not trust,” Sam replied, "but to join us in order to form a single, unified governing body in order to get assistance we need for the people of China, North America, Western Europe, and the rest of the planet. We need help from our friends. They are here, offering to help, but first we need to show that we are of one mind in this matter. Are we?"

Silence hung in the room. Sam held her breath and waited, watching the sweat bead on the side of her water glass and trickle to the blotter.

Someone stood. An elderly man, with a stoop, wearing an incredibly expensive and understated gray suit.

"I, for one,” he said without preamble or the aid of the simultaneous translation, "see no reason to mistrust or second-guess. My friend from the Chinese government is worried for his people. I am worried for my people and for our world. But ... This Colonel of the United States Air Force is not the source of our problem. This is a brave and honorable person, I think," he continued, "My sources inform me that she has personally saved this planet from destruction on several occasions! It has long been the way of China to turn away from the rest of the world. But once things were different. During the Ming dynasty a great fleet circumnavigated the world, did it not, my friends? Zheng, the great explorer, charted the path for the rest of us. Was his bravery a mistake? Surely it led indirectly to 'discovery' of North America and mass migrations from Europe and China into lands once occupied by Native Americans. Was that a mistake? Was that a cause for regret? It depends, like all things, on your perspective. For the Native Americans, sure it was. For those of us from Europe ... no. The foundations laid by Zheng led to the creation of the United States of America, a refuge for Jews in a dangerous world, and a friend in the establishment of Israel. The bravery of the Chinese, in due course, saved the people of Israel! For us it was a blessing."

The old man stood for a moment, gauging the reaction of the Chinese representative. After a long moment the representative sagged ever so slightly and the old man continued triumphantly, "Had we never dug up the Stargate, Earth still would have been attacked. Once by the Replicators, who surely would have discovered our existence when they overran the Asguard Home Word, and the second time by Anubis, who as an Ascended Being, knew of our existence. If not for the courage of Colonel Carter and her Command, I believe, we would all be dead, prisoners of the Goa'uld, or food for Replicator bugs. Therefore, Israel calls for adoption of a unified world stance and for opening of relations with Colonel Carter's friends from the Aligned Worlds."

Then the Prime Minister of Israel took his seat. Sam smiled and murmured, "Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister.”

A moment passed and a dark-skinned young woman rose and stated, "India supports the proposal and wishes to extend our greeting to our friends from the stars."

A pale young man rose and stated in clipped English, "Iceland concurs."

Another representative, a cherubic old man wearing a headcovering and hornrimmed glasses stood next, "East Timor wishes to thank Colonel Carter for her heroic efforts. We lack the intelligence network of our colleague from Israel, and so we have not understood the battles this brave young woman had fought on our behalf. May God smile upon your House, Colonel. We are in favor of the proposal."

A beefy older woman with beet-red hair rose slightly and stated, "New Zealand votes 'aye.'"

And so it went, as Sam stood with her knees knocking while she did everything to appear poised before the first world council of the Tauri.



ΩΩΩ

"That went well," Zhukov said as he followed Sam from the Security Council chambers.

The sun was setting over the City and its rays washed the rubble with rosey light. The evening air was sweet. The wind off the water had blown away the acrid smell of burnt rubber that seemed to linger everywhere. They had concluded the second difficult day of negotiations with an agreement and a unanimous vote of support for that agreement.

"I'm just glad it's over and I can get out of here," Sam replied. "Are you coming back to Tiksi with me?"

"No," Zhukov said, "I have promised many presents from New York City. I must find ... something.

Sam slowed and surveyed the wreckage. "You might find some shops in Chinatown," she suggested. "Manhattan was ... is flattened. I hear that Chinatown only received slight damage."

"Come with me," Zhukov suggested. "When will you again have the chance to find such luxuries as a handmade back-scratcher, or a cat statue with a clock in its stomach? I understand that the eyes even roll to indicate the seconds."

Sam studied Zhukov's somber face, "You've got to be kidding," she finally said.

He chortled and nodded, "I am, but please do come with me as my guide to your city of New York."

Sam sighed. She'd been itching to leave since before she arrived. Shopping was a waste of time. All she needed to do, in her mind, was to get back to Jack.

Zhukov smiled slightly as he watched and finally said, "He is under the best of care. Reports I have received is that today he was in surgery. He should be asleep now and he will not be awake until tomorrow evening at the earliest. If you travel now you will only sit beside a sleeping man when you arrive. If you travel tomorrow, you may present him with a gift when he awakens. I know this man, he will not suffer boredom easily. Bring him something to make his time in our small security facility more bearable."

Sam hesitated. Zhukov was making sense.

"I understand that the Chinese Americans have embraced Homer Simpson and his young son Bart most enthusiastically," Zhukov mentioned in an offhanded manner.

Sam laughed, despite herself, and said, "Your intelligence is most impressive, Colonel Zhukov. You've got yourself a guide."

As they picked their way around tumbled buildings and crushed cars along rubble-strewn East 42nd street, Sam considered Zhukov's view of the two days of meetings.

'It did go well,' she decided.

The First Council had opened discussions with the three great allied worlds - Tollana, the Nox, and the Asguard. Thor had been particularly helpful at bridging the gap between wanting help and demonstrating that Earth deserved help. Sam had been grateful for his assistance.

Several times through the course of the second afternoon's four-hour negotiation, China had seemed likely to break ranks and scuttle the entire deal. Tollana had been firm in its insistence that the entire planet be of one-mind. Feeling itself in an excellent bargaining position, China had feigned reluctance, edging greater and greater concessions from its aggressive neighbor, Russia, and its long-time antagonist, the United States.

Thor had allowed the jostling to go only so far. Finally, as Sam sipped yet another glass of water in order to think before she reacted to China's posturing, Thor intervened.

"May I suggest," he'd said, "that the representative of China consider the implications of nonintervention by the three Aligned worlds?"

The Chinese representative tensed slightly and Thor continued, "As you are no-doubt aware, the Asguard have had a working relationship with the United States military and civilian leadership for almost seven of your years."

Sam watched the Chinese representative reach for a glass of water with an air of studied indifference.

"Through the Americans," Thor continued, "our world has also found common ground with Colonel Zhukov's leadership."

The Chinese representative drained his water glass and reached for the pitcher to pour another.

"While the Asguard prefer to work through the mechanism outlined here today, in a spirit of cooperation with our colleagues from Tollana and Nox,” Thor continued, with a slight nod to the alien representatives flanking him, “it should be clearly understood that we will, in any case provide ships, supplies, and emergency assistance to those who have stood beside us in our recent battles against the Replicators. We owe a debt to Colonel Carter and her comrades that can never be fully repaid."

The Chinese representative drained his water glass again and, without making eye contact with Thor, stood and excused himself, heading for the men's room. Zhukov caught Sam's eye and smiled just a shade before he, too, excused himself, ostensibly to answer the call of nature, but actually to eavesdrop on the telephone call that was almost certainly being made to China.

When they returned to the negotiating table, the tenor of the meeting had changed. China cooperated eagerly and the discussion shifted from a debate about whether Earth needed or wanted a unified government to how to implement the new world order and how to survive until the Aligned worlds could provide emergency aid.

"I thought your idea to use the Multi-World Invasion Force was brilliant," Zhukov declared as they turned left onto 2nd Avenue. "Risky, but brilliant."

"It seemed obvious," Sam replied, "especially in light of the prophecy."

"You are uncomfortable with that idea," Zhukov asked.

"Yeah," Sam admitted, "a bit; particularly since I'm the only one who heard it, aside from the General."

"And he 'was not himself'," Zhukov said.

Sam notice that he'd been practicing idiomatic phrases lately. She suspected that Teal'c had been tutoring him in the fine points of American slang.

Sam let it drop and they walked most of the two miles along 2nd Avenue in silence. She'd toyed with deploying the MWIF as urban peacekeepers, but moving through the heart of New York City and seeing for herself that folks were busily getting back on their feet, rather than creating more chaos, she was reassured that sending the kids into rural areas was the better plan. She'd proposed the idea immediately after China had shifted to a cooperative stance. It was late winter in the Northern Hemisphere and there was little time for debate. Sam knew she'd have to jump-start food and fiber production somehow. The Aligned Worlds would certainly help, but she'd tried to eat Asguard food and knew that home-grown was the better way. Besides, her gut told her a centralized approach wouldn't cut it. In a nation of individualists, it could lead to a splintering among regions or states that the US might not survive.

"We needed a decentralized system," she said aloud.

Zhukov nodded and said, "As you explained, Colonel, most persuasively."

"I've got more than two hundred ships with internal power supplies and I've got 28 thousand young people looking for something to do," she continued.

"And planting crops, repairing the infrastructure for water, sewage, and transportation is precisely the work for them," Zhukov confirmed. "Impressive. You are a natural administrator, Colonel."

Sam blushed and said, "I stole the idea from an American president."

"Franklin Delano Roosevelt," Zhukov stated, "I know. But have you heard the old Russian saying: 'While the Intelligencia create, the Institute Administrator steals'?"

"I never realized that was Russian," Sam laughed, "I think that read it once in a Fortune Cookie once."

"Also an invention of Russia," Zhukov said, without smiling. "Much of China's accomplishments were stolen from the Rodina."

Sam turned onto Bowery Street and pointed to the gaudy red-lacquered gate marking the entrance to NYC Chinatown. saying. "Then you'll feel right at home here, Colonel Zhukov."



Chapter 19

Daniel paced the short hallway, turned and retraced his steps, only to turn and return again.

Teal’c sat perfectly still. Only his eyes moved as he watched Daniel with no apparent irritation.

But then he spoke.

“Sit.”

Daniel stopped and gazed at Teal’c, shocked.

“What?” he stammered.

“Sit.” Teal’c repeated evenly. “Your world is short of every supply, Daniel Jackson. This primitive refuge is one of the few working hospitals on your planet and even this place has little excess capacity. If he were here, I believe that O'Neill would say that you are 'wearing out the floor tiles.' Sit and trust that all will be well, as I do.”

Daniel sighed and slumped into a hard plastic chair beside Teal’c.

“I knew it was too soon,” he hissed, as he crossed his arms over his chest. “He wasn’t strong enough.”

“The doctors did not agree,” Teal’c replied evenly.

“And now they are in there with a crash cart! God, Teal'c! They lost him on the table!"

"The doctors have revived him," Teal'c replied quietly.

"These doctors are dangerous!” Daniel shot back hotly. “As soon as we can, we are getting Jack out of this hole.”

Teal’c sat silently for a long moment and then replied.

“I concur. We should inform Colonel Carter that O'Neill requires the intervention of the Asguard.”

ΩΩΩ

Jack screamed and shrank back from the fierce blast of cold that battered his unprotected flesh.

“There will be retribution!” screeched Tisiphone, her bloody rags swirling about her gaunt frame as she spun on Jack where he crouched, pressing his back against the hard, cold rock of the Ninth circle of Hell.

“This is not real,” he roared as the vengeance-demon leaned down, her red eyes glowing with wicked fire.

“Real!” she shrieked, shaking her head and laughing. “It is real enough, Jack O’Neill! It is real enough for an eternity of penance!”

Jack staggered up leaning against the cold rock at his back. It sure as Hell felt real.

“What am I doing here?” he demanded.

“Audacious fool!” Tisiphone snarled into his face. “You have the unmitigated gall to ask? I brought you here. I claimed you and transported you. I, Tisiphone, dragged you here, to the very center of Hell's deepest pit, O’Neill, to be our … “

She hesitated and her eyes dimmed. Jack caught the sudden sense that the malevolent bitch was … scared. Real scared.

“Witness!” She spat the word and then whirled aside jabbing her bony finger toward the icy mists swirling about them.

“Look, Jack O'Neill!” she screeched, “Witness! And … Remember the fate of the Furies!”

ΩΩΩ

"What do you mean, 'trouble'!" Sam barked into her cell phone.

A tiny voice replied, too faint for Zhukov to make out the words, but the blond Colonel at his side tensed and turned toward him. Her blue eyes were wide with alarm.

"Right!" she snapped and clicked the phone closed. "I'm out of here," she declared, starting down the crowded sidewalk.

Zhukov followed, sidestepping the jumble of packing crates, bowls, black cloth slippers, and fresh fish that spilled from the cramped oriental shops. Normally, he would have been inticed to enter, to examine and consider the wonder of a country that not only welcomed such foreign immigrants, but also embraced their cultures and incorporated it into the strange melage of American life.

But his ride was leaving and Zhukov did not intend to be seperated from Sam Carter, not if he could help it.

"What has happened?" he called as he jogged after the woman.

"Word came through from Tiksi," she called back, "The General's in trouble. I gotta go."

Zhukov marveled as she picked up the pace. He was only four years older than this woman and she had been underfed, overworked, and for the past five days surviving on little or no sleep. Still, she managed to outpace him with ease.

Zhukov caught a glimpse of yellow on the street and recognized a NYC cab. He'd seen them in the movies. Taking a shot, he waved his hand in the air and whistled. The cab pulled over and a dark complected driver called out.

"Where to?" he demanded in a Brooklyn accent so thick that it belied his middle eastern features.

Zhukov jumped into the back seat of the cab and commanded, "Follow that blond."



ΩΩΩ

Jack peered into the swirling snow. Tisiphone's shrieks continued, but as the swirling mists parted, he forgot her. There, ahead in the ice, he saw faces. Thousands and thousands of human faces, frozen into masks of horror and despair.

"Holy ... fish sticks," Jack muttered as he hobbled forward.

"My fate, O'Neill," Tisiphone howled at him, "This is my fate, and the fate of my sisters!"

"Why?" Jack asked. "I thought you were part of ... management, here."

"Traitors end here," Tisiphone sobbed, "Our mission was to serve Justice! Yes, we were merciless, but merciless to the guilty! In our fervor to bring Nantes to Justice, we erred and we betrayed those we serve! We loosed vengence on Humanity! We turned hellfire against innocents and against ..."

Tisiphone paused and looked like she wanted to choke, but she ground out the last words, "friends of Justice ... We turned our fury against you, Jack O'Neill, and your comrades. This is our penance for that mistake ..."

Jack staggered closer, following Tisiphone's gaze. There, locked in the wall of ice, he recognized Alecto and beside her, Megeara. Both faces were twisted into frozen masks of fear and pain.

Jack took a step backward, horrified and terribly, terribly tired.

"See and remember!" Tisiphone screeched and then, as Jack watched, she walked forward, caressed her sisters' faces once, and staggered. Her screams filled the air, echoing against the walls of ice.

Jack took another step back but, as he watched, Tisiphone turned to cry one last time.

"Remember!" she called, and then her lips froze, contorted in fury and sorrow.

ΩΩΩ

Jack opened his eyes. He was cold, so damned cold.

Brilliant blue eyes gazed down, a smile lighting them.

"Jack!"

A second set of blue eyes appeared and Jack smiled up into the paler blue eyes of his favorite Spacemonkey.

"Hey," he gurgled before he realized that a tube blocked his throat. It hurt and he gagged, which hurt more as the reflex tensed his ribcage.

"Shit!" he wheezed, but it came out as another unintelligible gurgle.

"Relax," Danny murmured, stroking the side of Jack's face. "Just let the machine do the work."

Jack had heard that before and realized that he was on a heart-lung machine. The steady beep-swoosh of the machine at his side was familiar. He hadn't heard it since ... Vietnam. Clearly, the Russian medicine at Tiksi was not up to SGC standards.

Jack knew the drill, however, and forced himself not to fight as the ancient equipment forced air into his lungs. He'd made it back, he realized, but it had been so ... real. Real, and real scary.

"Try to sleep," Danny said, squeezing Jack's forearm.

Jack blinked, hoping Daniel knew that meant 'okay'. Another warm set of fingers closed on his other hand and squeezed.

Jack turned his head slightly and saw Carter. Warmth flooded through him and the icy breath of Hell retreated a notch. He'd made it. He was alive and with Sam. Jack winked at her and she smiled and blushed.

"Sleep," Carter said, "You're okay now, General. You're safe. We're here with you. Just sleep."

Jack closed his eyes, felt her fingers tighten around his right hand, heard her murmur again, 'Just sleep', and thought wearily, 'Not fucking likely.'

ΩΩΩ

Jack opened his eyes and turned his head to gaze into the luminous brown eyes of a fellow warrior. The tube was gone and the room was silent. Still his chest and throat hurt like hell.

"Teal'c," he croaked.

"O'Neill," Teal'c replied, holding a straw so Jack could drink. "How are you?"

"Scared," Jack admitted after he took a small sip from the straw. It burned as it went down his throat, but he took another swig and continued, "Scared shitless."

"As was I, my friend," Teal'c said, "as was Daniel Jackson and Colonel Carter."

"Sorry," Jack wheezed. "Sorry."

"There is no need," Teal'c replied. "It was not of your doing, my friend."

"Maybe it was," Jack said, "Maybe ..."

"Did they come, O'Neill?" Teal'c asked.

"Yeah," Jack said. "Don't mention it to Daniel or Carter, please."

"You must sleep," Teal'c replied.

"I know," Jack said, "I know. And ... it may be alright."

Teal'c did not reply, so Jack continued.

"I was freaked out before when they first 'visited' me. But, now I think this may be about ... closure," he gasped, "Tisiphone needed me to be a ... witness ... to remember. They've been condemned to the deepest, coldest corner of Hell. I think ...someone ... needed me to see that, Teal'c."

Jack paused, gathering his strength. Then said, "Just before I jumped into the Ninth Circle, Megeara promised me that there'd be 'penance and compensation.' Maybe I've just seen the penance. If so, the next time they come for me, Teal'c, it might be ... a good thing."

"Or, perhaps you have just been compensated, O'Neill, by being allowed to see those who did you harm pay for their malfeasance. If so, the next time you may face the 'penance' yourself, when they choose to exact revenge," Teal'c suggested.

"Yeah, I thought of that, too," Jack said, stifling a yawn, "and that's what's keeping me up nights."



Chapter 20

Teal'c opened his eyes and realized that O'Neill was asleep. The Jaffa rose silently and crossed to stand over his friend's bed. O'Neill groaned softly and Teal'c considered waking him, but ...

'How long can this continue,' Teal'c wondered, 'it must end, O'Neill.'

So, rather than wake his friend, he stood and watched and waited.

ΩΩΩ

Jack stood knee deep in lush green grass. It spread around him and rustled like a sea of green in the gusting breeze. Overhead,gray clouds scudded across the deep blue sky, threatening rain.

Jack took a step, feeling uncertain. This felt like the other 'visions' but there was no pain, no fear, only an all-pervasive sense of profound regret.

Jack limped through the grass, taking his time, wondering but not eager for the coming face-off. He was certain that it was coming and the only question was whether he would survive or spend the rest of eternity trapped here, paying for his flawed life.

Ahead, Jack saw others. He didn't feel the need to approach them. Strangely, he felt only overwhelming sorrow and a certain pensiveness. He was tempted to just walk on, to avoid the other souls committed to this sad, beautiful place.

Instead, he steeled his will against the desire for solitude and approached one of the shades. It was a woman, draped in a soft green-gray robe. She turned, smiled sadly, and held out a hand.

Jack took her hand and she murmured, "Come."

"Where are we going?" he asked.

"To the mountain," she replied gently, "and the path we each walk ... alone."

The sorrowful guide led him through that vast landscape to a wall that delimited the edge of the sorrowful valley.

“I must leave you here,” she said, “for your path lies beyond Purgatory and mine ends here. Pass through, cross the river Archeron, and go to the mountain beyond. You will find salvation there, Jack O’Neill.”

She turned and walked away through the green flowing fields. A light rain had started. Jack stood by an iron-studded door in the shadow of the massive wall delimiting Purgatory and watched her go. Then he turned, grasped a rusted ring in the center of the heavy door and pulled. As he put his entire weight against it, the door slowly moved and then swung open on complaining hinges. Beyond, a river ran swift and wide, separating him from a mountain that reared up on the far side, dominating the landscape.

Jack was incredibly tired. He hurt. He leaned against the wall and wanted nothing more than to sink down and rest. Instead, he limped through the archway and the heavy door clanged shut behind him. He walked to the river’s edge, every step an act of sheer will. He paused again at its bank and saw that, though it was wide, it wasn’t deep. He limped into the water and waded across, wincing as the swift-flowing current pulled at his damaged left knee. He locked his gaze on the mountain and, in time made the other shore. He waded out of the waters, lurched across a gradually sloping plain of sand and rubble and finally stopped at the foot of the mountain.

Jack tilted back his head and gazed up at the beauty of it. Gold and silver light washed its rugged slopes. Its peak was lost in the shimmer of roiling clouds. As Jack stood, gazing into the light, others moved up the slopes. A few passed by him, on their way from the river and started upward without hesitation. He watched them climb, their faces lit with rapture. He watched and felt the urge to follow, to know peace at last.

He was so tired ... so bone-freaking-tired.

He'd fought and struggled so long. Too goddamned long.

He hurt from his hair right down to his soul. He sensed peacefulness ahead, and joy, and something else, something wonderful. Something he yearned for and had never before realized he wanted so much. He could let go … maybe he should let go.

Maybe.

Still, Jack hesitated. Those climbing were moving together, but each was separate. No one interacted or acknowledged another. He watched and after watching several climb out of sight in the brilliant light he knew that at this final period of life everyone traveled alone … Joyous, enraptured, at peace perhaps, but alone.

Alone.

Jack squinted into the light and smiled.

“Thank you,” he murmured. Then, he turned away and sighed, "but … not yet."



ΩΩΩ

Jack opened his eyes. Shiny black eyes the shape of almond were fixed on his face and cold steel was under his backside.

"Thor," Jack croaked, "Buddy!"

"O'Neill," Thor replied, "are you in pain?"

Jack blinked and replied, "Actually ... no. What'd you do, big guy?"

"Colonel Carter notified us of your injuries," Thor replied. "It seemed as if you were recovering, but after they removed you from their primitive life support systems, you suffered heart-failure. I brought you aboard the DanielJackson at her request. You have been in stasis while I assessed your condition and could completed my … work. You were very badly injured, O'Neill. I was surprised that you had survived."

Jack lay on the lab table, noting the feel of bare steel against his backside and was pleasantly surprised. He really did feel a lot better. In fact, for the first time in nearly a year, he felt ... good. Really good.

"You didn't clone me," Jack asked, suddenly fearful because he knew Thor was right. He should not have survived the past year.

"I cannot clone you, O’Neill," Thor reminded him, "After Loki’s mischief, you will recall that I installed a block on your genetic code to prevent such tampering."

"Right," Jack said, "that slipped my mind. So, what did you do?"

"I have been repairing your injuries for almost two of your Earth months, O'Neill. Do you wish a complete overview of the procedure?" Thor asked.

"Umm, no," Jack admitted, as he sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the lab bench, "Not really. But, thank you for putting me back together.”

He swung his legs and considered the long red slice in his left knee and the mottling on his left foot. He shuddered, remembering, and continued, “If you’re done now, I could use some pants."

Thor nodded his head politely and handed Jack a pair of fatigues and a shirt, saying, “I anticipated your request.”

“Your comrade Teal’c notified me of your … visions,” Thor continued. "While you were unconscious,” he asked, showing curiosity uncharacteristic in an Asguard, “what ... happened, O’Neill?"

"I went to the mountain," Jack replied, standing and pulling his right leg through the pants. Then he leaned against the bench and inserted his left leg, and continued as he pulled up the fatigues. "I saw the Elephant, Thor. I guess I got my priorities straightened out." He grabbed the shirt, shook it and stuck his arms in the sleeves. He was doing up the buttons when he turned to his little gray friend and grinned.

"Where's Sam?" he asked.

"Sam?" Thor repeated.

"Carter," Jack said, "Her name is Sam Carter, Sam. It's short for Samantha."

"Colonel Carter is working on the planet," Thor replied. "She is establishing a planetary program of youth workers from the Multi-World Invasion Force. It is part of the agreement she negotiated on behalf of your planet with the Aligned Worlds. Daniel Jackson has established a research facility to adapt the Super-Goa'uld technology to peaceful production, rather than war, O'Neill. We sense great hope for your people."

"How's she doing?" Jack asked, changing the subject back to Carter.

"Colonel Carter is a most able leader, O'Neill," Thor replied. "You are indeed fortunate that she cares for you."

Jack felt the hot blush flood his face and he stammered, "How do you know that, Thor? Did she ... say something?"

"She said nothing, O'Neill," Thor replied, "however, every evening, she returns to this ship and to your side. Actions, as her comrade Colonel Zhukov has said, speak louder than words."

ΩΩΩ

In a brilliant flash of light, Jack disappeared from the bridge of Thor's ship and found himself in the center of a dusty square in a small middle eastern village. The sun was setting. No one was on the streets, but somewhere behind him a dog yipped. The world was colored rose by the setting sun.

Jack turned and stretched. He felt fine. He hadn't been able to move properly, much less walk without pain, in so long that he felt slightly giddy.

Jack scanned his surroundings, noted several tracks of heavy-duty tires in the thick dust of the road, and grinned.

“Gotcha,” he murmured as he strolled down the dusty street following the tracks.

Jack turned a slight bend in the road. Ahead, he saw a cluster of security guards and a group of fully outfitted HumVees. He knew that he’d find Sam in that heavily fortified building. So, he crossed the street and presented himself to the fierce young SF who challenged him. It took a minute, but the kid must have either guessed he was a General or heard something from someone, because he didn't stop Jack. Instead, he keyed the radio on his vest and reported Jack’s arrival.

Before Jack reached the door, Sam emerged from the building. She pushed the door open and walked into the dust street.

Jack grinned and lifted his hand in greeting, but Sam just stood, hand in her hair, gazing at him.

"General O'Neill," she said with perfect propriety, but Jack quivered at her husky tone. As he closed the distance, he saw her eyes shimmering with unshed tears.

"Thor let me out," he said, feeling suddenly bashful before the wave of emotions that raced across her beautiful face.

Jack dug the toe of his boot in the dust and murmured, "I had to find you. I've got something important to tell you. It can't wait, Colonel."

He glanced at the four young SFs standing three feet away. "Can we walk?"

Sam nodded and headed down the street. Jack fell into step with her and they walked together with the sun to their backs, casting long black shadows on the rose-tinted dirt.

"Carter, Thor tells me you saved my life,” he began softly, catching her hand as they walked and entwining her fingers with his own. Her fingers tightened around his hand and he murmured, “Thanks.”

“I saw things that you wouldn’t believe,” he continued, pulling her to a stop and looking down into her blue eyes. “Things … I can’t explain. They scared the hell out of me, Carter. I saw how … stupid … I’ve been.”

Jack paused, thinking, ‘This shouldn’t be so hard. Just spill it.’

“Daniel told me,” she said softly. “You had him pretty off balance, Sir. He was worried, thought you were saying your last farewells.”

Jack blushed. Leave it to Daniel to read the worst into his attempt at male bonding … and to be right.

“That’s the last shot I take at being a modern male,” Jack growled, hoping for a giggle and getting one.

“I didn’t know if I’d make it, Carter,” he whispered, pulling her closer and gripping her shoulders.

He looked into her steady blue gaze and she didn’t look away. This was it.

“I don’t remember all of it. Hell, I don’t want to remember most of this past year, but ... Long as I live, I’ll never forget this. There is a Hell, Carter. There’s … something wonderful, too. Something … someplace beautiful, and peaceful, and … good. But ... there's a catch.”

“When we go,we go alone. Alone. I was so goddamned tired and I hurt and ahead of me there was this feeling of pure … peace. I wanted to rest and … I asked myself if it was time to let go. Just let go. But ... I couldn't, Carter. I couldn’t.”

Jack’s voice cracked and Sam’s eyes filled with tears. He couldn’t bear the sadness there. So he pulled her close, burying his face in her neck, breathing her in and searching for a way to say the next part without scaring her. He whispered into her hair.

“I'm here for a reason. There is still one thing I have got to do in this life, just one. It's more important than anything. I know that now," he whispered. "I have got to love you. I've got to show you just how goddamned much every minute of every single day for as long as we've got ... "

She was crying and Jack felt the sobs against his chest. He continued quickly, trying to stem her tears, “Life and love .. they are precious. They are a precious gift, Carter, and they're on loan.”

Jack stepped back and looked into her tear-streaked face. She bit her lip and looked up into his eyes. A tear spilled down her lashes.

Jack grasped her shoulders, gave her a little shake, and continued, "I came back for you, Carter ... to make you my life ... to be your life, if you'll have me."

Carter pulled him close. Her small, strong body pressed against him as he waited for her answer. She didn't answer.

Finally, scared that he’d waited too long, Jack pushed her back and looked into her face.

"Jesus, Carter will you say something?" he growled, with his heart in his throat.

ΩΩΩ

Sam's knees were weak and her heart pounded against her ribs like a wild thing. His grip tightened on her shoulders, still she couldn't believe he was standing here, gazing into her eyes with his achingly beautiful eyes, saying he loved her. Her General, her Colonel O'Neill, that gorgeous, smart-assed, unattainable son-of-bitch that had driven her crazy for nearly ten years with his sharp wit and dark, dangerous looks.

Jack.

Sam had said her good-byes to this man almost two months earlier, sitting with him alone through the night on Thor's ship. Thor had explained that Jack's injuries were too extensive. The damage and resulting infection couldn't be reversed. While Thor could maintain his life more or less indefinately, he could not reverse the damage. If new body parts could be generated, that would be a different situation, but they couldn't. Jack O'Neill could not be cloned.

Sam had wept as she sat holding his hand. She'd wept for the brave man who never seemed to find true happiness. She'd wept for what might have been. She wept for the family that would never be anything but a sweet, sad dream.

And then, she said good-by.

Thor had allowed both Daniel and Teal'c time to be with Jack.

Daniel had sobbed openly. His grief was so profound that Sam was afraid Daniel might not be strong enough to go on. Still, he had. She'd asked him to try. She reminded him of the importance of Plowshare. She had called it Jack O'Neill's last gift to the world he'd protected with his life.

Teal'c had been the one who saved him. He had stated simply that 'O'Neill will not die.' He had asked Thor to wait and to sustain his friend. When Thor confirmed that Jack was not in pain, Sam and Daniel agreed. They would wait ... at least a little longer.

Sam had continued her work on Earth. There was so much to do to bring the resources of the off-world alliance to bear on her battered home world. She organized local, state and regional citizen groups. There were elections to replace fallen leaders. There was emergency aid to initiate and maintain. Some areas were so devastated that off-world camps were established to house and feed the refugees while their homes were rebuilt.

But at night, Sam came home to Jack. She sat and held his hand. She talked to him and touched his cool skin. She watched him breathing, felt his pulse, and searched for any glimmer of consciousness. But his eyelashes never fluttered. His lips never moved.

Now, here he stood. Alive. Healthy ... and waiting for her answer.



Sam smiled and moved her hands down Jack's back to the curve in the small of his back. His loose shirttails moved under her hands as she sought access to the waistband of his oversized fatigue pants.

Wordlessly, she slipped her fingers inside. His skin shivered under her touch and he moaned softly, "So ... that would be 'yes'?"

Sam held her silence, prolonging the moment she'd wanted, hoped for, dreamed of for so ... long.

Jack moaned again, a throaty sound deep in his chest as she slipped her hands inside his fatigues to cup his bare butt.

"Jesus," he whispered, pulling her closer, "where can we go?"

Sam pressed against him, relishing the thick bulge she felt rise against her belly.

She didn't speak a word, but breathed into his ear. He trembled and growled, "Take me ... somewhere ... please."

Sam turned and led him down the empty street. Daniel had a small place in an isolated area beyond the village. He'd chosen it because he'd discovered pot shards near the broken down ruin of a mud building. Since moving there, Daniel had ignored the place. He'd been too busy working endless hours on Plowshare. Teal'c, however, had invested several days on repairing the roof, arranging for water and electricity, and cleaning out the vermin from the abandoned hovel.

Sam knew Daniel and Teal'c would not return for hours, perhaps not at all. She pulled Jack's hand as she strode through the fringe of the village. The roof of the little mud-stucco building was in sight.

Jack followed and even trotted as she picked up the pace. Sam felt elated, excited, giddy as she pulled him through the wide empty streets in the growing dusk. Her goal was within sight.

Sam increased her pace and Jack ran beside her, effortlessly, grinning like a kid as he caught sight of the isolated building.

"Sam," he said, "You're a genius!"

Sam felt a burn in her belly as she reached the door. She turned to speak, but Jack didn't give her the chance. He pressed his body against hers, pushing her against the rough wooden door.

"God," he growled into her hair, as he nuzzled her, "I've wanted this since ... forever."

The heat in her belly erupted as Jack's nuzzles grew rough. He bit her neck and Sam's knees went weak. He ran his hands down her back to support her butt and then lifted her hard against him. He was aroused and a supernova of yearning erupted where he pressed against her, and spread in a hot wave of energy through her groin.

Sam reached behind her, searching for the door handle. She tried to speak, to tell him they should go inside. There was a bed, or a mat ... inside. But Jack's mouth moved up her jaw and then he kissed her.

Thought ... language ... everything melted and Sam could only feel his demanding mouth, his lips and tongue exploring ... imploring ... seeking more.

Sam pressed against him and was rewarded. Jack pinned her against the door with his body. His mouth and his hands and his hard, hot cock filled her mind. Then, he wrapped his arms around her and lifted her. Instinctively, Sam wrapped her legs around his waist, bringing her hot, hungry cunt against him.

Jack shifted his arm, holding her there like she was weightless. His other hand moved to the door knob. He twisted it and Sam felt him shake the door.

"Shit," he cursed visciously, without removing his lips from her mouth.

Sam had just time to try to form a thought, just time to realize that Teal'c must have installed a lock, when Jack shifted his weight, turned and kicked the door down.

She hung on as he swung them through the shattered doorway and into the dark gloom. All Sam could think was 'now!'

Jack turned, with Sam still wrapped around him. He kissed her again. This time it was a long deep kiss, it lingered, it was sweet and ... chaste.

Then he pulled away slightly and murmured, "Easy. Take it easy."

Sam felt him move his hands up her back, letting her slip down. She dropped her feet to the ground and he shifted his arms to cradle her and lift her.

"I've wanted this ..." he gasped in a husky whisper, "God, how long? Sam, I want this to be ... right."

Sam opened her eyes as he leaned forward and she saw he was placing her on a low bed in the corner of the shadowy room.

"This is right," she murmured, surprised by the hunger in her voice, "Jack, I don't think I can go slow. I want you so much ..."

His mouth silenced her. His taste and touch erased whatever else she thought she'd say. He knelt beside the bed and pressed her into the matress. His weight on her was maddening. Sam wanted more. She wanted skin and sweat and sex.

"Now," she groaned, "Now, Jack."

His hands moved expertly from her face into her BDUs. Sam shifted slightly, thinking to help, but his weight had her pinned to the bed. It didn't matter because his mouth followed his hands down to her throat ... and shoulder ... and, as his fingers opened her uniform shirt, her breasts.

Jack cupped her breast in his hand and lifted it gently. His lips caressed her tracing the edge of her bra.

Sam arched her back, pressing against his mouth.

His fingers moved, slipping the fabric away, freeing her.

Sam murmured and then gasped as he tasted her. His mouth brushed her nipple, teasing and fire shot from her breast to her toes.

She barked a wordless response. His mouth moved, silencing her, and he murmured, "Shhh. Sam, be very quiet for me."

The request only heightened her excitement. She forced herself to lie still, to be quiet, while he moved his lips back to her breast. He kissed her, gently teasing her nipple. It was painfully hard and Sam moaned, softly this time.

"That's right," Jack encouraged her. "Be gentle, be ... quiet ... patient."

Sam groaned a small protest and felt him smile against her skin. His mouth opened and he pulled her breast into his mouth, suckling, pulling, feeding her eager frenzy with every hungry pull of his mouth.

Then, to Sam's delight, his hand moved behind her shoulder and he unclasped her bra. It came free and he removed it. Her breasts were open, bare, and under his hands.

Jack ran his hand up to her other breast, squeezing it, even while he fed on her. Sam's toes curled. She arched her back and he murmured, "Shhh. Not a sound."

She held back the gasp the rose in her throat, forcing it back and the intensity built. He pinched her nipple. She shivered and squirmed deliciously. He lifted his head, pulling her breast up. She opened her eyes and saw him suckling at her. It was too much, too good.

"Ahhh," she whimpered.

Jack smiled, dark and sexy.

"You like that?" he asked, only it wasn't a question. "You want that."

Sam whimpered again, deep in her throat, and his dark eyes grew smoky with lust.

"Show me," he said, "Help me."

Sam pulled her hand from where he'd pinned it against the bed. She didn't speak, but held his hot, black eyes with her own gaze as she moved her fingers up her bare belly to her breast. She pinched it and watched his face flush.

Jack ran his hand to her other breast and pinched her nipple roughly. Then he paused, watching her.

Sam moved her hand to cup her breast. She lifted it, offering it. He smiled and leaned into her, accepting her offer. His mouth pulled at her and Sam shuddered, grinding her flesh against his teeth and lips.

Jack pressed her back into the bed, rose up and said, "You want more?"

Sam whispered, "Yes."

He ran his hands down across her belly, leaning forward to kiss her bare flesh as he moved down to her belt.

Jack loosened her belt and pulled it free, then he unbuttoned her fly and pulled the zipper down, slowly, every movement pregnant with intent.

"You know what I am going to do to you," he murmured into her skin. It was a rhetorical question. Sam was beyond words ... She knew.

"I'm going to eat you, Samantha Carter," he growled, slipping his fingers under the band of her panties. "I am going to eat you until you come for me, until you are deaf and blind to anything but my mouth and ... my hands ... and your own sweet, sweet body."

Sam arched against his hands, eager, inviting him, pleading for him to taste her ... or touch her.

Jack pulled back and stood.

Sam watched, fighting irrational disappointment. She wanted him to eat her ... he'd promised.

But her disappointment vanished as he stripped off his shirt and pants. He was wearing nothing underneath. He was bare and erect and gorgeous from the top of his silver head to the tip of his thick pink shaft.

Jack stood gazing at her until Sam whimpered and reached out to brush the silver hairs at the base of his shaft.

"Please," she whispered.

He grinned and sat on the side of the narrow bed. The flesh of his thigh touched her own bare hip and sent fireworks down Sam's body. She turned toward him, trying to wrap her bare skin around him. He ran his hand across her hip and buttocks as she turned and he leaned down and kissed the point of her hip.

Sam felt a sob in her chest. She shuddered and pressed closer as he continued kissing her down her hip and waist to her buttocks. She turned against him and felt the hard heat of his cock pressing against her. She lifted her knee, opening to him.

Jack hooked his arm through her knee and lifted her, pressing her onto her back. Sam felt him controlling her, moving her body where he wanted her, she let him. She loved it and wanted only to let him explore and taste and touch.

Jack leaned forward, tracing his fingers along the inside of her thigh. She trembled and forced her head back against the mattress, angling her hips to lift herself for him ... eager.

"You are ... delicious," he murmured as he leaned forward.

Sam felt his breath as he leaned down. She felt the heat of it and the tickle of it among her hairs. She lifted higher to meet him.

Jack buried his mouth in her pink, sweet flesh.

Sam gasped and moaned as her world exploded.

Jack opened his mouth, taking her lips between his own, pulling and sucking at her, feeling her shudder with delight as he closed his mouth on her hot, tender flesh.

Sam gasped and sobbed.

Jack pulled back slightly and then buried his face in her mound again, pressing into her, eagerly feeding on her. She rose hard against him. He felt a shudder begin deep inside her and he pressed her knees wider, lifting his chin and running his tongue roughly across her folds.

Sam arched her back and then ground her head and shoulders hard against the bed, lifting her hips as waves of pleasure surged through her.

"Jack," she cried out. "Jack!"

Jack smiled and ran his hand up her tight thigh muscles, bringing his fingers up and burying them into her heaving mound. She responded with an explosion of sounds and reared against him, moving under his hands and mouth. He forced her back down against the bed, knowing it would only heighten her excitement. She pressed back against him, hard. She was strong and so damned hot, Jack could barely contain himself.

He ran his tongue up her steaming slit to the top and lapped at her hard, engorged nub, where it was buried among her golden curls.

Sam twisted and gasped, her breath coming now in ragged bursts.

Jack slowed his movements, letting her use him as she would. She rocked against his mouth and hands as she came for him. She groaned in a throaty sexy animal sound. It almost made him lose control. The sound of it, coupled with her taste and scent and the touch of her wet, hot skin sliding against his face, made him want to fuck her ... now ... hard and fast.

But Jack waited while Sam rocked and he was satisfied to pleasure her. He loved her. He loved her sound and taste and scent and he loved the way she was completely, totally out of control and he loved being the reason, the man who'd brought her to this place.

Sam slowed, Jack knew she was hanging now between ecstasy and agony. He moved very gently against her prolonging the pleasure. She sobbed and he kissed her lightly. She was shaking under his touch, completely open and raw with emotion.

Jack stilled against her and just let her relax as she came down. She slowed. Her muscles relaxed. He felt her shaking and he lifted and turned to her and gathered her in his arms.

"Oh, Sam," he murmured against her tear-streaked face, "don't cry. Shh. Don't be sad," he whispered. "I'm here. I love you. It's finally right."

Jack lifted her like a child and cradled her in his arms, rocking her while she continued to weep against his chest.

Then, she lifted her face and she smiled. She kissed him full on the mouth, pressing herself against him and Jack felt his cock stiffen against her bare bottom. Her mouth pressed into a deeper more penetrating kiss. She opened her mouth and her tongue traced across his teeth.

Jack responded eagerly, opening his mouth to her, letting her lead him where she wanted.

Sam pulled back and then straddled him, bringing her face to his, pressing her small, strong hands against the sides of his face as she kissed him deep and then pressed him back onto the bed.

She grinned and murmured, "Shhh." as she leaned over him, kissing his neck and chest and pausing to tease his left nipple.

Jack groaned as she ran her hands down his haunches. He wanted this. He wanted her.

'You yearn for it,' and evil memory hissed.

Jack opened his eyes, suddenly uncomfortable.

Sam stopped, her face pink and deliciously lustfilled, she said, "What's wrong, Jack?"

Jack fought back the demon and said, "I've never let myself go here before ... Sam."

"I don't understand," Sam said. "You were married ... you had a son."

"I don't mean sex," Jack sighed. "I mean ... complete ... surrender."

"Surrender?" Sam had dismounted his chest and knelt beside him. "Is that what this is?"

Jack looked up into her blue eyes. In another moment, if he said the wrong thing, he would hurt her. He might lose her. The words of Alecto echoed in his mind as he gazed up into the beautiful face of the woman he loved.

"It's what I ... need it to be, Sam," he whispered, afraid she wouldn't understand, but more afraid to lie to her. "I never let myself ... go ... completely. I never gave myself completely to anyone, Sam. Not in bed. Not like ... I need to with you."

Jack searched her face and, as she smiled, he knew she understood something he didn't fully understand himself. He was letting go ... dropping his defenses ... lowering his shields and turning over his heart, body, and soul to her ... And it was his first time.

"I will be gentle," Sam said. "I won't hurt you Jack and I won't let you hurt yourself ... because from now on you belong to me."

Sam leaned forward and stroked his face as she stretched out her strong soft body against his side. Jack felt tears under her fingertips as she stroked his neck and ran her small hand down her chest. He trembled under her touch.

"Oh God, Sam," he murmured, "I don't think I can go slow ..."

She slid her leg over his, trapping his cock against the velvet skin of her upper thigh.

"You belong to me," she murmured, "I won't let you ... suffer ... but wait ... wait."

Jack closed his eyes as she mounted him. Her tight damp curles tumbled around his throbbing cock. He wanted to be inside her ... now. But she was doing things with her lips and fingers that he couldn't ignore.

Sam ran her hands slowly down his chest, letting her nails trace pleasurably painful trails in his skin. Jack's skin tightened where she touched him. He rocked his head against the pillow and ground his teeth in pleasure and unmet desire.

Sam grasped his hips and scooted lower, trapping his knees between her thighs. She pressed her hands against his pelvis and leaned forward. Her breath was hot on his shaft.

Jack groaned and his shaft lifted reaching for her lips. She flicked the tip, licking precum from him.

Brilliant flashes of light exploded behind his tightly closed eyes at the single light touch.

"God," he growled, "you're killing me."

"No," she murmured, sending hot breath across his skin, "No, I am saving you." Then she moved and Jack felt her tongue run the entire length of him, from base to tip. And at the top, she slipped her mouth over him and slowly, lovingly sucked him into her mouth.

"Jesus-H-Christ!" Jack barked, bucking under her.

Sam moved her head up and down, drawing out the sensation as he voiced his wordless pleasure.

Jack felt the world tip and he was coming, hard and strong, into her mouth, but Sam felt the change and clamped her hand around the base of his pulsing cock.

"Not yet," she ordered, licking every precious drop of his fluid from his shaft and head. "Not yet, Jack."

Jack waited, hanging on her every move, letting her control him, letting her choose when and how to pleasure him. It was exquisite torture. It was total surrender. It was true, no-holds-barred lovemaking ... It was his first ... ever.

Sam suckled at him, tasting, drawing sensations from him that he'd only dreamed. Jack knew without a doubt that this was the compensation of the Furies. As cruel as they'd been, as wrong and as harsh, they'd also been right. Jack had spent years too afraid of losing another loved one to risk loving Sam. He'd spent nights alone, dreaming of her, wanting her, damning himself as he beat off and told himself to get over her. They'd known it and had shown him the truth of it. He'd been a coward, too scared to lose her to risk claiming this remarkable woman ... this woman who had his cock in her mouth and was expertly bringing him to a level of pleasure ... and vulnerability ... like he'd never before known ... or dared.

Jack sobbed as she moved her hand up his shaft, releasing him, allowing him to move now with the slip and suck of her mouth.

"God, Sam," he gasped, "Take me ... please ... let me ..."

Sam's body slid forward.

Jack tensed with desire as he realized, 'Oh God, she's going to let me ... inside.'

She slipped up to his hips and hovered there for one agonizing, tantalizing moment.

Jack whimpered, praying she'd continue.

Then she slid down on him. He felt his head touch her tight curls, penetrate her hot folds, and plunge into her tight, pulsing channel. He was free and he lifted, driving himself into her depths, taking her, giving himself, sending his body to the place where his soul already lived.

Sam growled and thrust back against him.

Jack's ass tightened and he rolled, flipping her under him, even as he thrust deep again.

Sam wrapped her legs across his ass and pulled him hard against her. He thrust again, deep, filling her, needing her, worshiping her, as he gave himself to her completely ... as he finally let go.

The reaction was immediate and overwhelming. Jack felt fire from his balls to his toes and then it caught his mind, filling it with a light and a sense of goodness ... and love ... and absolute ... pure ... perfection.

ΩΩΩ

Jack lifted the tip of his fishing pole and sent a long, graceful arc of line into the Minnesota night. Waves lapped gently at the sides of the rowboat and the pale light from a thin crescent moon colored Sam’s profile silver against the blue-black waters.

She was smiling self-consciously as she struggled to reel in her fishing line.

“You okay?” he murmured softly, not wanting to disturb the intense quiet that enfolded them.

“Better than that,” she whispered turning to grin.

Far off to the right, a lunker of a bass rose with a wet ‘smack.’ Jack grinned back at Sam, certain their peaceful excursion wouldn’t be marred by actually hooking any of the hungry fish. It sounded like they were feeding on the surface and he’d outfitted both poles with rubber worms and sinkers.

During almost two months while he got back on his feet, Sam had worked her butt off to create an interstellar version of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps. Now the 28 thousand kids she’d amassed as an Invasion force, and never used, were engaged in peaceful work, helping Earth recover from hell’s wrath by building houses, clearing wreckage from cities, and rebuilding water systems and roads. True to the prediction of what Daniel had nicknamed 'the Plowshare prophecy,' powerful ‘Nations from afar’ had caught wind of the change among the Tauri. The Nox, the Tolan, and the Asguard had joined in the cause, recognizing this as a historic opportunity to turn Earth away from its warlike past toward a future of peace and all that might accompany it.

Daniel and Teal’c had stayed behind in the Middle East, busily implementing the Plowshare program, a planetary redevelopment effort centered on the Super-Goa’uld weapon from P3X-666. Daniel and ‘the other guys’ had discovered that the weapon could learn. After the message to ‘turn their swords into plowshares’, Daniel had realized that the Super Goa’uld weapon could learn peaceful activities as easily as it mastered the Art of war.

It had been an intense couple of months, following hard on a half a year of terror, near death, and pain. Jack had struggled to come to grips with the lingering effects of the Furies' abuse. He'd had what he could only call 'visions' as well, in which the three vengeful goddesses had paid the price in Cocytus at the hands of Nick Ballard's Giant Aliens. Jack kept the visions to himself, however, to avoid still more time locked in a hospital psych ward. Besides, he figured, Sam had saved the planet ... Again. This time she'd get the reward she deserved - a healthy share of the world’s new-found peace. Jack considered it his mission in life to deliver.

“I love you, Sam,” he said, bringing her luminous eyes to catch and hold his earnest gaze.

Sam quirked her lips and hesitated a moment, but Jack didn’t fret. He knew how she felt. He’d known for years that they belonged together. More important, he now trusted that knowledge.

After opening his eyes to hear her beg him not to leave her … after the hell he’d been through … after seeing what his doubts had nearly cost him … and realizing what they could cost Sam, the courageous woman he loved to distraction, Jack had finally found a way to say the words.

“I’ve loved you since the first,” he continued softly.

The quirk became a grin.

“Say it,” she prompted him.

“Mrs. O’Neill.” Jack murmured obediently.

Their boat rocked gently in the dark. The scent of wet leaves and naked bedrock drifted across the waves.

Far off, somewhere down the lake, a loon cried.

FIN
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