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The Nexus

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January 4, 2005

Peterson AFB, Colorado Springs

Of course, Daniel met him at the airfield.

Jack had only said he’d see his friend Tuesday afternoon. He hadn’t given a flight number or time of arrival from D.C.  Either Daniel had charmed someone to get the details, or he’d been waiting at Peterson all day. Odds were higher for the latter; either way, there he was, ready to take his old friend home on this bitterly cold winter day.

Daniel hugged him as soon as he could get close enough.

“You okay, Jack?” he asked, his voice low enough that only the other man could hear him as they stood on the busy tarmac.

“Is my face still red?” Jack felt the lightness of the rank insignia on his uniform. That was foolish; there was so little difference that no one could actually sense the weight of it, but he’d been a General, for cryin’ out loud, and now he’d been busted down to Major for allowing Carter to deal with RepliCarter one-on-one.

He’d known in his gut that it was a bad decision when he’d let her go to the meeting. They’d managed to pull their asses out of the fire on that one, but the breach of security had been massive. She had basically handed over to the enemy the only weapon they had to defend themselves against the little buggers. Now the only thing keeping them away from Earth was the higher technology buffet that was the new Asgard homeworld. Carter’s actions would most likely result in the extinction of their greatest ally in the universe.

It wasn’t the first time Carter had let that kind of information slip, either. She’d practically handed Linea the keys to the SGC base and allowed the Destroyer of Worlds to escape. She had a habit of buckling under pressure, especially if she saw her CO in danger. On more than one occasion she’d broken cover during a firefight, putting herself and other teammates at risk when her job was to stay at her post and do her job regardless of her feelings.

The Joint Chiefs had relieved them both of command only hours after Prometheus had left with General Hammond and Daniel. Jack had been remanded to base quarters in D.C., and Carter had been taken straight to a jail cell. The MPs who had made the trip with them from Colorado Springs hadn’t let them even speak to each other, and upon arrival, no one would tell him anything, only that they were there for court martial proceedings.

The next day, testimony began. He’d had to look her in the eye while he recounted his warnings to her, even her refusal to obey a direct order to destroy the RepliCarter and return to the SGC. She had been emotionally compromised, and knew it. So had he.

Then others had come to testify. When Daniel and Hammond had returned on Prometheus, they’d each had a turn, and then been sent home immediately without a chance to speak to Jack or Carter.

George had been grieving. Daniel was shocked and worried. Teal’c… as always, quietly accepting that Carter would not be coming back.

The Jaffa had been with Sam during that cock-up. He’d watched her compromise herself and their security over and over again. He’d warned her repeatedly but she’d blown him off, listening with her heart and not her head.

Jack believed she might still pull a brilliant idea to stop the Replicators out of her ass, but she couldn’t do that from where they’d sent her. She’d never work on another classified project as long as she lived.

Carter was doing a life sentence for treason in California, so she could be near her family.

That had been the only mercy the Joint Chiefs had allowed her, as payment for her past service to her world.

The judgment still stung, but Jack understood it. He’d been too close to see how reckless Carter had become, how emotional her judgments were, until it was too late. Even after the incident, he’d told her that it wasn’t her fault, though he’d known better.

So had she.

Daniel didn’t say anything else as Jack collected his luggage from the cart beside the cargo plane. He’d been too busy trying to avoid looking at the redhead behind him, a stocking cap scrunched down to her auburn eyebrows. She’d done a decent job of keeping out of Jack’s direct line of sight, but he’d noticed her right away.

“Isn’t she a little young for you?” Jack asked his friend quietly as he pulled out the towing handle on his hardsider suitcase.

“This way,” Daniel gestured, leading his friend toward the parking lot where he’d left his car. “And it’s not what you think. I’ll explain later.”

The girl kept to Daniel’s left shoulder, head on a swivel. When he got into the driver’s seat, she eased into the back seat in perfect synch. Jack rode shotgun, keeping an eye on her peripherally. She looked like any other young woman in her late teens/early twenties, but there was a sense of alertness about her that indicated far more going on under the surface.

She was watching him as closely as he was watching her.

All the way home Jack didn’t say a word, but rather than dropping him off, Daniel followed him inside like he belonged there.

The young woman remained on the doorstep outside, executing a smart pivot to keep watch on the street.

While Jack was unpacking, Daniel was in the kitchen making himself some coffee and getting his friend a beer.

When O’Neill didn’t appear in the living room after the appropriate interval, Daniel went searching for him.

“I’m not here to talk about it,” Daniel assured him when he found Jack in his office. “I know you don’t want to. We’re all still hurting about the verdict.”

Jack rolled his eyes up to the other man. “It was my fault, Daniel. My decision. It should’ve been me who went to prison.”

Daniel shook his head. “You had some idea what she might do, but you were very clear about not sharing the intel with RepliCarter. Disobeying a direct order was her decision, not yours. She knew the risks, Jack. She’s just too trusting.”

But O’Neill had known exactly what she’d do, and he’d let her go because both of them had been hoping to get more information out of the machine. They’d hoped too hard that the android had been telling the truth, and that hope had bitten them both on the ass. The fall had been hard for him, but Carter would be paying for the rest of her life for the misjudgment. It wasn’t fair.

Daniel sighed, a sound of impatience and frustration. “Look, Jack, I didn’t come here to talk about that. I came to invite you to be on my team.”

“What?” Jack wasn’t sure if that phrasing meant… “You mean, back on SG-1?”

The slightest smile played around Daniel’s mouth as he shook his head. “No, I’ve been in negotiations with General Hammond at Homeworld Security the whole time you were gone. See, I had this idea for a new kind of team. We don’t do any of the initial exploring or first contact stuff. There are plenty of SG teams for that. Our team, SG-Zed, is strictly for diplomatic relations and long-term archaeological and anthropological explorations.”

His grin widened. “And it’s under my command.”

The younger man was positively beaming.

Jack felt a knot forming in the pit of his stomach, the knell of doom ringing in his ears. “Ah, Jeez! You’re gonna get killed out there, Daniel!”

But Jackson’s excitement was building. “We’ve already been out on several missions, Jack. It’s not like we’re all academics, either. There are three – and with you, four – military personnel at all times in the unit. Our makeup is actually kind of fluid, depending on the mission. Right now there are four scientists including myself on the team, and best of all, not all of us are human! Hammond and I thought—“

“Daniel.”

“— such a team would be a perfect training unit for both soldiers and scientists from Earth and among our allies, and it’s been successful beyond our—“

“Daniel.”

“—wildest dreams!  I came specifically to ask you—“

“DANIEL!!!”

Jackson’s mouth drew up in a bow. His eyes widened. “Jack?”

“If you’re going out there, so am I,” he ground out. “I’m not gonna let anything happen to you. Not ever.”

Daniel sighed, wilting a little with relief. “Good! Thank you. I was terrified you were going to retire, and I really, really need you on this team.”

He gave that nervous ‘I’m in deep shit’ smile that spoke volumes to Jack.

“What did you do, Daniel?”

Jackson stood up, scratching his cheek with one finger. He started pacing, coffee cup in hand.

O’Neill stood up, too. He knew in advance that, when Daniel answered, it would come out in a single, breathless sentence spoken too fast to understand, and that he’d sling the cup off to one side when he used his hands in that supplication gesture, not even remembering that he was still holding the mug. Coffee would be spilled.

Jack caught the mug on cue.

“Again. Slower. I can’t listen as fast as you talk, and you don’t come with subtitles.” He piloted Daniel back into the kitchen and put the cup down on the counter.

“I… um… saved a queen on another planet, and she… uh… gave me one of her… bodyguards.” He studied the floor, his cheeks going pink with embarrassment. “Actually, they gave me to her.”

“Oh, Daniel.” Jack shook his head. “The redhead?”

“She won’t leave me alone for a minute! It’s kinda driving me a little nuts.”

This is why you need a keeper, Daniel.” He waved toward the front door. “Bring her in.”

After another heavy sigh, Daniel meandered over to the door. He hesitated, hand on the knob. “She’s way older than she looks. Couple hundred years, in fact. Older than Teal’c.”

“Daniel.” The warning tone in Jack’s voice said, ‘Just get on with it.’

Jackson opened the door, stuck his head out and gestured. Then he pulled the door open fully to admit his ‘keeper.’

She was tiny, quite human looking until she took off the knitted slouch hat that revealed the long, pointed tips of her ears. Copper hair framed a gorgeous, freckle-less face with delicate features and big blue-green eyes. Her face was so round and fresh looking that she couldn’t possibly be more than twenty.

“Daniel,” observed Jack evenly, “she’s an elf.”

“Um, Tuatha de Dannan, to be precise,” Jackson corrected. “Major Jack O’Neill, this is Tzatzil.” He gave a frustrated little half-smile boring into his left cheek and cleared his throat. “My bodyguard for life.”

Turning to the redhead, he finished up the introduction. “Tzatzil, this is Jack.”

Jack shot Daniel a look that said, ‘I’ll never be able to remember her name, much less pronounce it.’

Daniel nodded. “Everyone on the team has a one-syllable nickname, for emergencies. Hers is Zazz.”

O’Neill held out a hand and gave her a courtly bow that he reserved for little girls. “Pleased to meet you, Zazz. I’m Jack O’Neill.”

The girl’s emotionless mask broke into a beaming smile accentuated with prominent, sharp-looking canines. She giggled. “I have heard so much about you, Major O’Neill! Your journeys through the Ring are legendary, and you are such a good friend to my Daniel! You and I will become best friends, also!”

“Tzatzil,” Daniel called, “the kitchen is that way. I’m sure you must be thirsty. Jack keeps some bottled water in the fridge.”

“Okay!”

When she was out of their space, Jack turned back to his friend with arched eyebrows. “Two hundred, you say? It sounded like every sentence she said had exclamation points. She must be exhausting.”

Daniel nodded. “When she’s in ‘guard’ mode, she’s totally different, but when we’re in a safe place…” He flapped a hand toward the kitchen. Then he mouthed the word, ‘help’ and shrugged.

Jack nodded. “Just needs some training, is all. How long…?”

“Couple weeks.”

“You didn’t accidentally marry her, right?”

“Oh, God, no!” The thought brought obvious horror to the young man’s face. He recoiled.

“But still, a gift you can’t return.”

Daniel sighed and nodded, his frustration obvious.

Jack just patted his shoulder. “Then I guess you’ll be on the couch when you stay over.”

“Nope.” The pop on the end of that word clearly illustrated Daniel’s tense emotional state. “She sleeps on a cot next to my bed and God help anyone who tries to stop her!”

Daniel leaned closer, drawing his hands up in a distressed, praying position, again mouthing , ‘Help!’

“I got this,” Jack assured him with a pat on the shoulder. “You go on back to the base. I’ll be on my way a little later, after I’ve had a word.”

Carefully, Daniel headed for the door on tiptoe. He turned the knob slowly, opened the door without a sound and slipped outside, drawing it closed after him… but there was the tiniest noise as the latch clicked back into place.

Zazz was after Daniel in an instant, bolting past Jack to fulfill her mission.

He grabbed her wrist. “Hold on there! You and I need to—”

She easily slipped out of his grip, whirled around and followed Daniel out the door in the blink of an eye.

Jack swore, grabbed up his keys, and went after them.

***

SGC Base, Cheyenne Mountain

Daniel led the way into a large, open room on Sublevel 12-A. “This was the conference room we used when the System Lords had the summit with the Asgard. Colonel Standing, the new leader of SG-Zed, has a different way of doing things. We’re all in one big office now, kind of like a police squad room, so we can share as we discover things, brainstorm and discuss while we’re working.”

“Well, then,” Jack quipped, “I’ll never get anything done.”

His frown spoke volumes as he pulled open the door and held it for Jack, his eyes on the redhead bringing up the rear.

Tzazil took up her post outside the door, her expression shuttered except for the burning glare.

Jack paused and studied her. She had kicked his ass in the gym just now, but he’d given her a good run for the money. “Did I make my point, Zazz?”

Her eyes narrowed, little green daggers flying at him. She nodded once, brusquely, and aimed her gaze at the opposite wall. “He will be as safe in your company as he would be in mine,” she agreed stonily.

Jack patted her shoulder. “Good girl.”

“But if you fail him and survive,” she added with a ragged, angry edge to her voice, “I will kill you.” She swallowed hard. “And then myself.”

Daniel closed the door after him, and pounded his friend’s shoulder in gratitude. “Thank you! I can’t tell you what a relief this is!”

“Intense, isn’t she?” Jack nodded toward the door, indicating the elfin bodyguard. “Maybe now she’ll give you some space when you’re with me.”

He nodded and shook himself out a little, obviously more relaxed. “Let me introduce you to the rest of the team.”

There were ten desks in neat rows in the big room. The walls were lined with bookshelves where Daniel’s library was now housed. There were cubbies for small artifacts and a few extra computer terminals at raised desks where workers could stand to do their jobs.

“This’ll be your desk, Jack.” Daniel patted one on the front row.

All of Jack’s personal photos and mementos had already been moved there from his old office. He clenched his teeth and said nothing. Like Daniel, Jack didn’t like it when people touched his stuff.

“That’s mine, in the back of the room.” Daniel pointed.

“I’d have known it anywhere,” Jack assured his friend. “I’ve seen the back of that photo of you on the camel often enough to know it by heart.”

Jack glanced at the other uniformed officer at the front desk next to his. “Why Marines? Is the Air Force out of favor now?”

The unspoken closure on that question was, because of me.

Daniel shrugged. “The Joint Chiefs decided that, since these are ground missions with little to no air support, they should be in the hands of troops more experienced with that. Marines and Army are being phased in as teams need replacements.” Daniel’s mouth flattened into a thin, pale white line for a moment. “Not my decision, okay? You know I don’t care about that sort of thing. Besides, our team is different. You’ll see when you read the mission summaries.”

“Ah-ha.” Jack was certain there was a lot being left unsaid at the moment. He sensed a whole closet full of falling footwear in the very near future.

“Guys,” Daniel called.

In perfect unison, the two men at the second desks, who had been in close, private conversation, looked their way.

“These are the twins, Song and Story Wintersmith.”

They were identical except for the length of their hair, somewhat Native American-looking, despite their very English surnames, and with baby faces that announced how very young they were.

“Doctor Song Wintersmith,” announced the nearer one with a crisp British accent, leaning over the desk to offer his hand in greeting. “I serve as team medic, but was selected for my Ph.D. in Biology, as well as a specialization in xenobiology. I’m a qualified RN in the UK and the US. Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Major O’Neill.”

“Lieutenant Story Wintersmith,” said the other in a perfect Southern accent. “Mom is British and Dad is a Marine. My brother and me split up—“

I,” corrected the first twin with a disapproving glare. “My brother and I.”

Two shot One a dirty look and kept talking. “—when our parents divorced. That’s why he sounds so prissy.”

“Honestly!” One huffed, returning to his computer screen. “You lot barely speak English.” He shook his head, his ponytail swinging across his back.

“Welcome aboard SG-Zero, Major O’Neill,” the second twin said warmly. “Least you know it won’t be boring.”

He grinned widely. “Our call signs are Thing One and Thing Two,” he pointed at himself. “Just One and Two for short.”

“As if I could tell you apart without the hair,” Jack agreed.

“Function and accent, if we’re facing you,” Two advised with a smile and wink over his shoulder. “He’s the bookworm. I’m the jarhead. You need something killed, call for Two.”

Jack chuckled. “Got it.”

The civilian commander moved to the next desk. A pert blonde woman was typing on her keyboard like mad, headphones over her ears. She hadn’t even noticed their approach until Daniel tapped her shoulder.

In a flash, she glanced up, pulled off the headphones, stood up and held out her hand with a smile. “Doctor Pacifica Jones,” she announced enthusiastically. “Pax for short. Ph.Ds. in Engineering and Computer Science, specializing in alien machines. Pleased t’meetcha!”

Jack cocked his head, brows scrunched in uncertainty. “Is that a Minnesota accent I detect, Doctor?”

She beamed. “Best place on Earth!”

“I think we’ll get along just fine,” Jack agreed with a little grin. “Do you fish?”

“Only with my own hand-tied flies. When we have time, I’ve got pictures!”

Jack laughed, wondering if Daniel had hand-picked this team just for his buddy. “Yeah, we’ll have lots to talk about. Pleased to meet you, Pax.”

The next one Jack had spied from the door at one of the standing desks, and Jack’s curiosity was high.

It looked like one of those Anubis statues come to life and crossed with a Lon Chaney werewolf. The black jackal head was sleek and beautiful, with pointed erect ears and a long, elegant muzzle. Its arms looked rightly human, except for the talons on the fingertips and the short black fur over everything. Body shape was also humanesque, but the legs and tail were more canine in design.

The clothes it wore were a strange cross between Egyptian and goth punk, and the creature sported a lot of earrings, necklaces and bracelets. On its head was a little golden metal cap with fine tendrils swirling around its skull converging over a small speaker-looking device at its throat.

As he got closer, he took note of not two but four small breasts pressing against the tunic it – or rather, she – wore, cinched at the waist with some sort of shiny brocade corset.

 “Very pleased to meet the famous O’Neill.” A mechanical voice issued from the speaker at the creature’s throat. “I am called Xiphia Onamudi Wawakan.”

She bowed to him, dropping halfway into a kneel before straightening up to tower over him. She had to be over seven feet tall, more with the ears.

“We call her Wow for short,” Daniel explained. “You know, Wawakan… Wow-akan. She’s a scientist of the Aua from P3X… Um, I’m sure you remember that desert planet where we thought we’d lost SG-13 last year?”

“Indeed,” intoned Jack, doing his best Teal’c impression. Glancing at the desks, he noted that all of them were filled except for the one he’d be using. “And speaking of, where’s Teal’c? Isn’t he on your team?”

A trace of sadness washed over Daniel’s face. “No, he’s working with the Jaffa for a bit, and when he comes back, he’ll still be on SG-1.” He paused. “The invitation’s already been extended, Jack. If Teal’c wants to join Zed, he’s more than welcome, but we’re not a fighting force. I think he’ll want to be where the action is, rather than where the academics are studying.”

“Okay. I’ll leave it alone.” Jack pondered that for a moment. In the stillness of his heart, he thought he should at least ask the big guy when he got back to Earth. It’d be great to have what was left of the band back together, even with the extras.

He stepped forward to the desk next to Daniel’s, held his hand out to the woman in base blues, and smiled with genuine pleasure. “I’d have known you anywhere, Colonel Standing. Sorry I missed welcoming you aboard.”

Daniel was taken aback. “Oh, you two know each other? Fantastic!” He beamed.

Colonel Standing stood up. She was thinner than when Jack had last seen her. The crescent-shaped wound around her left eye was now a pale scar against her tanned skin. Her shiny black hair was pulled back at her nape into a tight bun, perfectly regulation. Dark eyes sparkled with pleasure, and when she smiled, she lit up the room.

Very different from how she’d looked the first time they’d met.

“I look forward to serving under you, ma’am,” he said with a note of clear warmth and pride.

“Good to see you, as always, O’Neill.” She sobered. “I was very sorry to hear about the demotion.”

He nodded, his humor also vanishing. “Better to acknowledge the elephant in the room right off the bat. Still the same ol’ Moon.”

He straightened and slipped his hands into his pockets. “I just want to say that I don’t have any problem with you as my CO, Colonel, even if you are a Marine.”

“Good, because you’re my Two-I-C, Major,” she replied, all business. “We need your experience in the field, regardless of how safe Doctor Jackson thinks these missions are.”

Jack shot Daniel a look that asked a thousand questions about the recent missions.

“Field reports are on your computer, Jack,” Daniel told him. “I’ve even done one-page summaries to get you up to speed. No big words.”

“Thank you, Daniel.”

He sat down at his desk, logged into his computer, and started boning up on the mission reports he’d missed during the court martial.

***

January 25, 2005

Three Weeks Later

Daniel put the phone down on his desk. “Team, we have a mission. Conference room in ten.”

Everyone rose and hustled into the nearest elevator, packing in tight with their briefing folders and coffee cups.

“Waring must run a tight ship,” Jack mused to no one in particular as he punched the button for the desired floor.

No one wasted a second getting to their destination, but Daniel stopped at the sideboard to refill his cup, folder tucked under his arm.

Jack took his customary place at the end of the table and studied the man who would now be the base commander. He’d already reviewed the man’s service record to get a feel for him.

General March Waring had had a distinguished career in the Marines, including some Black Ops work. The man had seen plenty of action in the field and would no doubt be competent in that chair or President Hayes wouldn’t have assigned it to him. Aside from his record and the way SG-0 hustled to the meeting, Jack had no idea what to expect from him.

Waring was already seated, watching as they filed in and sat down over the tops of his Ben Franklin reading glasses. His dark eyes were quick and missed nothing. Haircut was typical Jarhead, but receding on the sides of his dome. Facial hair was in a neat moustache, just hitting military standards. His complexion, the color of coffee with just a hint of cream, was marred by a long, crooked scar across his right cheek.

 He stared at Jack for a long moment, then shifted his gaze quickly to Daniel and down at his folder as he opened it.

“Just as a matter of protocol, Major O’Neill,” he intoned with a voice as rich and deep as Teal’c’s, “the chair at the opposite end of the table is reserved for Doctor Jackson, since he’s my civilian equivalent on this base. No offense intended. I respect the adjustment you’re having to make here.”

Jack flushed a little and got up quickly. “My apologies, sir. Force of habit.”

He moved to trade places with Daniel, who mouthed ‘sorry’ as they switched seats.

Daniel was blushing, too.

Waring gave everyone a moment to settle, and picked up a remote control. He activated the unit, called up the file on his laptop and moved the slideshow to the screen. He stood up and marched toward it, remote control in hand as he cued up the slideshow. “SG-Eleven has recently been to this planet that the natives call…”He glanced at Daniel to provide the pronunciation.“Domhan An Lucht Siúil,” Jackson filled in with hardly a missed beat. Jack sat up straight, translating it immediately. “… which is Irish for Gambler’s World!” He pounded one fist lightly on the table, thrilled to finally be in the loop on one of their exchanges.All eyes went to him.“Sorry. It’s an Irish thing.” He slid down a little in his chair. “I just got a little excited. Sorry.”

The General hesitated, waiting to be sure the Major had finished his outburst before moving on with the briefing.

Daniel’s eyes were twinkling with a question that clearly showed he hadn’t known Jack spoke the language, but Jackson was obviously pleased and proud of his friend. Waring continued with his narrative, pushing the button to call up another picture. “You’ll find the planetary designation on your mission paperwork. The natives, here, are called hóstach, or hosts.”

He scrolled through the pictures, which showed a fantastic civilization peopled with aliens from many of the places they’d visited, and a lot they still hadn’t discovered yet. “I’m sure you can see why we’re interested in this place, Doctor Jackson.”

Daniel was up and out of his chair, standing at Waring’s elbow after the third slide, eyes and mouth wide open in abject awe. His chair spun around from the force as he’d launched out of it.

The elf grabbed the back of the chair and held it still.

Jack kept his quip to himself. He didn’t know the General well enough to unload those yet, so he buttoned his lip and listened. After losing two levels of rank, he couldn’t afford to be himself just yet and had already interrupted once. Another error at the wrong time might land him out of the military entirely.

“Looks like a Star Wars bar in Vegas,” observed Colonel Standing.

“The whole city is like that,” Waring verified, nodding. “The rest of the world is untouched wilderness. The entire population lives in this one large city in perpetual night. There’s no agriculture or industry aside from gaming, gambling, hospitality and entertainment, and as far as we can tell, they serve every civilization that uses the Stargate network…”

He turned around and peered at the entire group over his glasses. “… including the Goa’uld and every other race we have encountered in our travels…” Then he leveled his gaze on Daniel, waiting for him to make eye contact. “…with the notable exceptions of the Ancients, the Nox and the Furlings.”

“You mean, the Asgard gamble there?” Jack was incredulous. He grinned a little. “Those cheeky little bast—” He coughed to try to cover his faux pas.

Waring chuckled. “My thought, exactly, Major.”

O’Neill exhaled slowly, thrilled he hadn’t stepped in deep shit just then. The General had a sense of humor, but Jack still needed to be careful how he used it until he knew how far he could take it with the new boss.

Waring paused and turned back to the slides. “You should all know I’m not averse to a little light swearing at this table. I’ve been in the military a long time, and no one in this room minds the occasional colorful slip. Save your manners for guests.”

A flood of relief whooshed through Jack.

This was a man he could work with, Jack thought. Hammond had chosen his replacement well. “Thank you, sir.”

“So, aside from the obvious cultural interest,” Daniel mused, eyes glued to the screen, “is there something in particular that SG-Eleven noted in their mission report? Because what I’m thinking about regarding research could take years.”

Agreed,” came Wow’s mechanical voice through her translator. “I could see a need for a permanent team on this Gambler’s World. Embassies, perhaps, from all our various worlds.”

Daniel nodded in agreement, still mesmerized by the photos.

“As a matter of fact, there is.” Waring returned to his seat. “SG-Eleven discovered there’s a contest every fifty or so of our years on Gambler’s World for ‘The Prize.’ No one knows what it is before it’s awarded, but there have been demonstrations of past prizes that you may recognize.”

He took the remote and stopped the slide show, switching instead to another still shot of four items. One was a Goa’uld ribbon device. Another was the tare root from Hadante – which now powered the SGC’s entire facility -- and the third was the Gamekeeper’s Virtual Reality pods. The fourth looked like nanites, which had been touted as the fastest way to learn any skill or subject, no doubt similar to the Orbans’ learning shortcut.

“Apparently, the Hosts don’t reveal what The Prize is before the contest,” Waring went on. “Everyone just knows it’ll be worth the effort due to the previous prizes.”

Daniel returned to his seat, head bowed in thought.

Colonel Standing didn’t look up from the notes she was making. “We know the Goa’uld steal technology. Maybe they won a few contests, or maybe they stole the ribbon devices from other winners. Either way, we should definitely participate, General Waring.”

“Agreed,” said the General firmly. “Whether it’s weaponry, a power source or any other tech, I’m sure it’ll be helpful in keeping our world safe. And if we win, it’ll keep the Prize out of the hands of the Goa’uld, which is just as important. I’m sure they’ll be competing, too.”

Dr. Jones twirled her pen and cocked her head. “Do we know what the contest is? We might be able to stack the deck. I’m pretty sure our Nerd Task Force could be pretty strong in the gaming area.” She frowned slightly. “I play a little chess, but have never been really fond of games. Is there a possibility I could bow out of this mission?”

Daniel glanced at Waring, then nodded. “You have other projects that need your attention, so I’ll agree to that.”

Xiphia also requested to sit this one out. “If we are not going to be examining native flora, then I see no need for my presence.

“You sure you don’t want to go just to see it? Vegas is quite a tourist draw on Earth, and this place promises to be… interesting.” Daniel jotted down a note on his tablet.

“I am certain,” the Aua confirmed.

“Ace video gamers, here,” volunteered one of the twins, and the other also raised his hand.

Still scanning through SG-11’s mission report, Daniel began to speak. “I see all kinds of contests here, not just games. There’s archery, fencing, marksmanship… We’ll have to tap all kinds of competitors. I need a lot more information before we pick a team for this mission, General Waring.”

“The Big Game is in about two months, as near as SG-Eleven could tell,” Waring returned, shutting off the display. “They’ve gathered as much intel as they can about the rules and games as they could in the week they had to complete the mission. You all have one day to tidy up your affairs, get all your bills paid in advance and make any personal phone calls you need before you ship out tomorrow. Any further questions, refer to SG-Eleven. I’m making the team available to you today for interviews.”

Daniel was still staring at the table. “Wow,” he said softly.

“Yes, Deej?” Xiphia responded.

That shook him out of his reverie. “Oh, sorry, I wasn’t calling you. Just thinking about all we have to do to get ready. Kind of boggles the mind. That kind of ‘wow.’”

“Anything else, Doctor Jackson?” Waring closed his briefing folder and powered off the screen and laptop.

“I’m going to ask for another few days of prep time,” the commander replied. “There are a couple of people I’d like to add to my team, and one of them is in California. I’ll need to get his clearances in order and then fly out to ask him to join the team. The other will be a military assignment that I’ll leave to Colonel Standing.”

Tzatzil’s eyes narrowed. She touched the back of Daniel’s chair and gave it a little shake to remind him she was there… and that she was not allowed out of the city.

Daniel’s gaze flew to Jack’s face. His mouth drew up in a bow and there was clear desperation in his eyes.

Jack glanced up at the little elf and gave her a reassuring nod, pointing at himself. It was a promise to her that O’Neill would accompany his friend.

Waring studied Daniel over the tops of his glasses. “And he’s important to this mission because…?”

Daniel grinned. “I saw Doctor Charlie Eppes at a TED Talk a few years ago. He’s a world-class mathematician who has done tremendous work on game theory. I can’t imagine a more advantageous player to take to Vegas.”

“How long do you think you’ll need, Doctor Jackson?” asked Waring, typing in notes on his electronic tablet.

“Depends on how fast your people can get his security clearances. I’ll need two days, there and back again, and I can guarantee, once he lays eyes on the Stargate, he’ll want to go.”

He huffed a soft chuckle. “This is going to be fun!”

“I hope so. You deserve a little of that.” Waring’s expression was kind for a moment, and then the military bearing returned. “You have a go, SG-Zero. Doctor Jackson, we’ll be flying you out on a military transport the moment the clearance comes through. It won’t be a comfortable trip, but it’ll be fast. Dismissed.”

Jack kept in stride with Daniel as they headed for the elevator. “I like him, Daniel! I didn’t think it was possible to like a Marine!”

Beaming, Daniel nodded. “He’s a good guy. He’s got our backs, and seems to have clout in all the right places.” He leaned in closer and whispered, “Waring is one of those guys you wouldn’t want for an enemy.”

They high-fived each other, and got ready to go to work.

***

January 26, 2005

Los Angeles, CA

Dr. Charlie Eppes stared at the chalkboard, willing it to reveal the answer he needed. P versus NP was usually an off-hours project, but he’d had a moment of intuition and wanted to see where it took him.

He heard the knock on the open door frame, but ignored it.

“Doctor Eppes? We spoke on the phone yesterday,” called a voice behind him.

With an impatient, frustrated sigh, Charlie watched the phrase he’d imagined vanish and turned around, irritated at the interruption. “Yes?”

Coming into the room were two men, a stern-looking fellow in an Air Force uniform, and a guy in a suit offering a friendly smile.

“Doctor Daniel Jackson,” said the suit, “and this is… Major Jack O’Neill. We’d like a moment of your time to discuss your participation in a project.”

“Sorry, don’t have the time,” Charlie shot back. Between his classes, his own personal research and the demands of assisting the NSA, he was stretched pretty thin.

“I’m just asking for you to hear me out,” Dr. Jackson insisted. He smiled, big dimples flashing. “Ever been to Vegas?”

Charlie laughed. “Only to watch the shows. The casinos know who I am, and none of them will let me play.” He shrugged. “I can’t even go into the gaming areas.”

Daniel chuckled. “Well, Doctor Eppes, how would you like to study game theory in an alternate Vegas where no one knows who you are?”

With a grin and a shake of his head, Charlie answered, “I’m not interested in anything shady. Thanks, but—“

Leaning forward, Jackson lowered his voice so only Charlie could hear him. “What if I told you the experience would be approved and funded by the US government, and you’d be protected by the military? You could play any game you wanted. Your only risk would be losing the game or the bet, and even then, not a dime would come out of your own pocket.”

“Then I’d say that sounds too good to be true.”

“And with most of that kind of offer, you’d be right. This one, however, is not a scam.” Jackson pursed his lips, obviously looking for another tactic. He glanced at his companion, eyebrows lifted in question.

“Just be careful,” the Major responded, a warning tone in his voice.

Daniel sighed. “You have the knowledge as well as the security clearance, which was a pleasant surprise to discover you’ve already been doing classified research,” he continued thoughtfully. “We need your skills, but you’re not going to truly understand this offer until you see for yourself. Unfortunately, I can’t give you any further details outside the facility, so we’ve made arrangements with the dean to have your schedule cleared for two days.”

Charlie’s mouth dropped open in shocked surprise.

Before he could protest, the officer stood up and put an airplane ticket voucher on his desk. “We’ve already made the arrangements, Doctor Eppes. Come and take a look. If you aren’t blown away by what you see, you go home and your life goes right back to… this.” He nodded at the chalkboard.

“But if you’re interested, you’ll need a contingency plan,” Daniel added, blue eyes twinkling behind his glasses. “This project will take a couple of months to complete.”

“But my classes—“

“Will be handled,” the Major returned. “We have people lined up, and the dean won’t mind, I promise. You’re gonna be so gobsmacked I don’t think you’ll even remember you have classes to teach.”

Charlie sat down, instantly curious, but getting that warning vibe as well. “It sounds… clandestine. Dangerous.”

O’Neill nodded. “Crossing the street can be dangerous, if you’re not paying attention.”

“Of course, but—”

“There’s also an element of secrecy that will require signing of a confidentiality agreement,” he cut in. “You won’t be able to talk about what you see and experience to anyone.” Jackson smiled softly and shook his head. “But I can also promise you that, once you’ve had a look at what we’re doing…”

He glanced around the classroom.

“… none of this will matter to you anymore.”

Jackson nodded at the white board with the still-forming equation.

“Not even that.”

Charlie felt insulted. He huffed a short, derisive laugh and shook his head, but before he could voice his umbrage, the officer spoke again.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you came to work for us. Once you see what we’re doing, you’ll understand we’re opening up completely new frontiers for new math theories, as well as proving a lot of things you and a lot of other people thought were just theories. Base eight math, for starters.”

Dr. Jackson beamed and nodded. “Now you’re curious as hell.”

And damn it, Charlie was.

The two men rose and headed for the door.

“See you soon, Doctor Eppes,” Jackson called over his shoulder.

Charlie picked up the voucher and saw the flight was scheduled for a red-eye the next morning, from LAX to Colorado Springs.

NORAD, he thought. Not at all what they’d described.

How could they possibly connect gambling in Vegas with national defense?

After he got off the phone with the dean, he realized he really didn’t have a choice in the matter. He called his dad and teaching assistant to let them know he’d be out of town for a few days, and then went home to pack for the flight.

****

January 27, 2005

The Next Day

Charlie felt the anxiety ramping up as he rode the Jeep into the entrance tunnel for the Cheyenne Mountain facility, with Major O’Neill at the wheel in base greens. They parked way back in the long passageway, and then headed for a huge elevator tower all the way at the rear of the channel.

It was like going into a tomb, every noise echoing. The outside world became a bright dot in the darkness, too far away for his comfort.

“It’s not as bad as it feels,” Daniel promised, standing by his side as they waited for the elevator doors to open. “You get used to it after a while.”

They stepped inside and Jackson pushed the button for the basement level.

Charlie closed his eyes, his stomach lurching as the car started to descend. “I’ve been trying to pair up game theory with national defense, and I’m really not interested in war games, if that’s what this is all about.”

“This facility does house NORAD,” O’Neill admitted, “but that’s not where we’re going.” He pulled a folded paper from his pocket, along with a pen, and nudged Charlie’s shoulder to get him to take them. “Confidentiality agreement. What you see in this facility cannot be shared with anyone, or even written about in your most private journal, upon pain of imprisonment. Feel free to read before you sign.”

Charlie did. His guts clenched. This was starting to feel like a spectacularly bad idea.

Daniel patted Charlie on the shoulder, prompting the other man to meet his eyes.

There was so much honesty and kindness there. “It’s worth all of this, I promise. You’ll understand the need for secrecy very shortly.”

“So you’ll need to sign that,” added the Major, “or face the back wall and we go right back up to the surface, because we’re here.”

“This is the future of the human race, Doctor Eppes,” Daniel encouraged. “Bigger than anything you can imagine.”

Letting out a tense, frustrated breath, Charlie signed the paper against the drably painted steel wall, just as the doors opened.

They stepped into a carpeted entry with beautifully paneled walls. Following the curved wall around the elevator shaft, they escorted him to a marble desk where a uniformed sentry sat. Charlie signed the book as directed, and then glanced up at the photographs displayed on the wall as he accepted his visitor’s badge.

Dr. Jackson’s portrait was at the top, the largest photograph there, and beneath it were sculpted letters that read, ‘In Memoriam.’ Seven smaller photos of him were in a row underneath the big one, with photos of a lot of others surrounding those. Charlie spied O’Neill in a few as well.

“This way,” Jackson prompted, gesturing to another elevator on the far side of the desk.

He was blushing.

“Still can’t get used to it?” O’Neill asked his companion.

Daniel shook his head.

Charlie pointed at the words. “Isn’t that supposed to be used as a memorial when people die?”

The Major nodded, dropping back to give his friend a little space. “That’s the memorial wall for our unit, the SGC.”

“But Doctor Jackson’s up there,” Charlie pointed out. “Seven times. Must be some kind of a hero.”

“That he is,” the soldier agreed. “Just don’t talk to him about it. He’s very modest, y’see.”

O’Neill stuck out his hand. “I’ve seen some of your lectures, and I get why Daniel’s so hot to have you on this mission. Call me Jack.”

“Mission?”

“Yeah, for now it’s supposed to be just a one-time thing for you, but we’ll see how it all shakes out.”

They boarded the second elevator, and as they began to descend, Daniel told a story that began in the 1920’s on the Giza Plateau.

By the time he finished, Charlie’s anxiety had all but vanished, and when he saw the Stargate for himself, the watery surface shimmering around a group of four people in uniforms as they exited it, he announced softly, “I’m in.”

“Good,” Jackson replied, nodding. “Now we just need one more soldier to watch your six, and we’ll be ready to move out. I’ll get you briefed and you can make your phone calls from our team office. Right this way, Doctor Eppes.”

***

Daniel barely glimpsed the movement of a uniformed person moving past the open door of SG-Zed’s office as he showed the video clips and slides of the mission planet to an awestruck Charlie Eppes.

Tzatzil stood nearby, watching the visitor with narrowed eyes, as if the mathematician might suddenly pounce on her charge.

The rest of the team was prepping so Charlie had yet to meet them, and Daniel still hadn’t told the scholar about the reason the SGC was so interested in winning the contests on that alien world.

Charlie laughed, his fingers carding through his curly, dark mane. “This is wild! I’ve got so many questions, Daniel.”

“And unfortunately we don’t have time enough to answer them all just yet. There’ll be down time where we can tell you more, but we really need you to concentrate on the gaming and betting schemes for the duration of the trip. I’m expecting delivery of an electronic tablet that’ll be assigned strictly to you, so you’ll be able to do any calculations you need in the field.”

Just at that moment, the man in uniform who had passed by the door backed up and stood still, staring into the room.

“Doctor Jackson?” he called.

Daniel was shocked when he recognized a man from his distant past.

“Jarod?” He stood up, beaming, and hurried over to welcome his old friend with a backslapping hug. “It’s been ages!”

Stepping back, he took in the full view of the tall, dark-haired man in uniform, complete with military insignia. “So it’s Major Carter now, huh? I never expected you to go the way of the soldier.”

Jarod shrugged and idly scratched at the tiny mole beside his left eye. “I could say the same for you, Daniel. You can imagine my surprise when I walked in my first day of assignment – which was yesterday, by the way – and I see you’ve been killed seven times in the line of duty. Wow!”

“What?” Charlie was stunned. “Killed?”

Daniel blushed to his roots, his face on fire. “I really wish they’d take that down. My pictures, anyway.”

He turned to Charlie. “I’m sure Jack will fill you in later, but I’d really rather not discuss my record for cheating death. Okay?”

“No. Am I gonna get killed out there?”

“You could get killed by a bus when you leave here,” Major Carter returned casually. “If you die on a mission for the SGC, it’s for the best reason of all.” He eyed his old friend. “Survival of the planet.”

Daniel sighed and returned to his chair behind the desk.

Tzatzil ambled closer to him, right at his elbow.

“You’re not likely to die on this mission,” Daniel explained, his frustration rising. “All those things happened to me when I was on a first contact team. I don’t do that anymore. Our team only goes in when we’ve established diplomatic contact with resident aliens, or there’s a high value anthropological opportunity that needs long term study.”

He pulled up the scene that Charlie had found so fascinating moments earlier, and directed the man’s attention back to it.

“The hóstach… the natives apparently take precautions to ensure their guests’ safety,” Daniel explained. “No weapons are allowed. Hostilities are nipped in the bud. From what our first contact team has seen, no violence is tolerated except on the fields of play, and then only what’s allowed by rules of the games. They depend on the food products their players bring to pay their way in. If the patrons aren’t safe to play, the hosts don’t eat.”

Charlie’s complexion was pale as he stared at the floor. “Seven times,” he whispered. When he met Daniel’s eyes again, there was horror in them touched with awe.

“Don’t do that!” Daniel demanded, his temper simmering. “I’m not a hero! Don’t look at me like that.”

He got up and took a few steps toward the door.

Tzatzil fell in behind him.

He glared at her.

There was silent argument and quiet pride in her face.

“You either,” he growled.

“How about some coffee?” asked Jarod. “We can all go to the commissary. I’m buying.”

Daniel was grateful for the change in topics, and the four of them adjourned to the elevator.

Charlie was obviously lost in space, contemplating the idea of death and resurrection.

Tzatzil kept watch, glancing between the two newcomers.

Jarod ignored them, concentrating his attention on his old friend. “I’d been following your public career, but you seemed to have dropped out of sight a few years ago. I tried to keep in touch, but the emails bounced back.”

“Yeah, I’d kind of lost everything when my professional credibility tanked. I was actually homeless for about five minutes. Then all this happened.” He glanced around the elevator, remembering. “How about you? What have you been doing since the Yucatan?”

“Oh, you know… Bringing down nefarious corporations, bringing justice to the needy…” He laughed softly, and Daniel did, too.

“Seriously, though… The company I used to work for went belly up,” Carter continued. “I spent some time looking for my birth parents—“

“Did you find them?”

Jarod nodded. “I did, and they’ve been helpful in healing old wounds. It’s been rough, but we’re a family now and I’m in a much better head space.”

“That’s good. I’m happy for you, Jarod. Family is everything.”

The lift doors whooshed open and they marched down the corridor, the smell of coffee and cooking food scenting the air.

“So how’d you end up here, and in a uniform?” Daniel gestured Charlie and Jarod into the line in front of him.

“I was looking for something to do.” Carter shrugged. “With my background in archaeology, this seemed like a natural fit.”

“Which team are you on?”

“Just finished the field training yesterday, so I’m waiting for assignment.” Jarod shrugged. He gestured the redhead in front of him, but she stayed at Daniel’s elbow.

“Oh! I’m so sorry, I forgot to introduce everyone,” Daniel blurted, and called off each name in no particular order as he filled his coffee cup and grabbed a bottled water for Tzatzil.

Jack’s voice filtered through the crowd, and Daniel turned to see the rest of SG-Zed with him at one of the big tables.

“Well, let’s go meet the rest of my team,” he suggested, “and Jarod, I think I may have a temporary assignment for you. I just need to clear it with my Colonel.”

He watched Charlie’s jaw drop when he saw Xiphia, and smiled as he began to tell Dr. Eppes about the Aua scientist and her desert tribe.

***

January 28, 2005

The Next Day

Daniel edged by shrink-wrapped pallets filled with wooden crates and cardboard boxes lining the corridor to the ‘gate room. The blast door stood open, and he noted that the team was all present and waiting, except for Jack and the two newbies.

He checked his chronometer, relieved to see there were still a few minutes to spare, and let his gaze rove over his team.

Since they weren’t stepping into unknown territory and were more along the lines of diplomats, a different uniform had been designed for them: black long-sleeved shirts in a silk/cotton blend with a dressy shine over black slacks fitted with a few extra pockets down the sides. Over that were stylish jackets that doubled as gear vests so they could carry items like tablets and communication devices wherever they went on Gambler’s World. Rather than backpacks, they each carried messenger bags and a small suitcase with extra clothes for their long stay.

As with every uniform, the SG-Zero logo was present as a shoulder patch, embroidered or silkscreened to proclaim who they were and from whence they had originated.

“What’s all this?” O’Neill asked when he arrived, jerking a thumb at the packages. “I thought we were going to Vegas today. Don’t we need some kind of money? Gold or naquadah bricks or something?”

Without looking up from his last-minute notes, Daniel signaled Colonel Standing with his free hand and replied to his friend, “That is our currency, Jack. These people don’t farm, but they do eat. Guests pay with food tallied up as credits, so we got the best of what Earth can offer. At least, what we could get on short notice.”

A breathless Charlie Eppes hurried in, with Major Jarod Carter right behind him.

The ‘gate began to spin up, and the two men lined up with the others.

Tzatzil stayed at Daniel’s elbow with her game face on, teeth all but clenched, eyes narrowed and scanning for threats.

Daniel stepped out of line and repositioned himself beside the newbies, turning so he could see their faces as the kawoosh blossomed outward and settled into placid ripples.

“I never get tired of seeing that,” he murmured to no one in particular.

“I can see why,” Charlie murmured, awestruck as he stared at the event horizon.

Jarod’s eyes met Daniel’s. “I don’t think he was talking about the Stargate.”

A smile crinkled around the commander’s eyes. “Not entirely, no.” Then he nodded toward the event horizon. “After you, buddy.”

“Please tell me there are no MREs in there,” Jack asked in a nonchalant wheedle, eliciting a chuckle from Daniel.

Colonel Standing shook her head and grinned. “No MREs, Major.”

“Is there beer?”

Daniel nudged his friend’s shoulder as they strode up the ramp toward the event horizon. “There’s beer and cake, plus cases of wine, fresh fruits and vegetables, a selection of meats, poultry, fish, eggs…”

Tzatzil nudged just in front of Daniel, stepping through the event horizon first.

Jackson continued to list items all the way to the watery surface, and kept going when they reached the other side, only stopping to take in the room when they reached their destination.

The arrival center was a huge adobe-looking dome with a DHD off to one side. The adobe was plain white with a dark polished stone floor. Three tracks of color inlaid in the marble pointed through three ornate doorways: red went straight ahead, green to the left and blue to the right.

“Per SG-Eleven,” Daniel intoned, checking his notes, “the colors signify trade items go through the green door, where they will be assessed for value. Observers to the blue and players to the red. Someone should be with us shortly to—“

A holograph appeared, greeting them in English.

“There’s our guide, right on cue.” Daniel touched the Colonel on the sleeve. “There were variants of English already entered. SG-Eleven spent quite a bit of time here before they could leave the arrival center, updating the language dictionary.”

Moon nodded. “So are we here as visitors or players this time? I don’t want to get into any competitions before we know the lay of the land, the rules and penalties.” She eyed both him and Jack. “I’ve read too many of your mission reports where the barn door got shut well after the horse had run off. That’s not happening on my watch. Got it?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Jack answered crisply.

“I say we go the visitor’s route, at least for a couple hours.” Her voice was low and husky, with a note of suspicion. “That all right with you, Deej?”

“Yep.” He stepped forward and asked for visitors’ passes for each of the team. In short order, they were on their way down the blue trail.

… In giant hamster balls.

“It’s really more of a force field,” Jarod surmised as they strolled out of the visitor’s center. “It keeps us from interacting with anyone, except for verbal exchanges. Gotta keep folks honest, I suppose.”

Jack poked at the thin bubble-looking membrane all around him, and his finger bounced off it. “Suppose I have to pee,” he mused. “Reckon they’d let me out?”

“I dunno, Jack,” Daniel shot back with a half-suppressed grin. “You might be sloshing around in it. I’d just hold it, if I were you.”

Their balls rolled out of the tunnel into night made day by artificial lights.

It was Vegas on steroids, like something out of a futuristic science fiction movie. Giant holographs danced down wide streets choked with so many kinds of aliens that every human eye widened and mouth hung open. Walls and plants glowed with phosphorescent color. Advertisements flashed in a variety of languages, changing every few seconds to something new.

Glassed-in gaming towers sat next to hotels and restaurants. Huge open-air arenas were placed every few blocks and they could hear the roars, bellows and whistles of the multi-species crowds. On the streets they jostled among various humanoid races, a sprinkling of Unas and Asgard, a large number of Jaffa, and even a pair of Oannes looking quite out of place on land.

The longer they walked, the more non-humanoid races they encountered.

“Welcome to the Star Wars canteen,” Jack murmured. “There’s a guy with a barn owl’s head… something with six legs that’s about, oh, ten feet tall…  some cat people… Ant Man, but this one’s a real ant.” He shook his head. “Daniel, did we take the blue pill, or the red pill?”

“Just walking the yellow brick road, Jack.” Daniel sighed. “Maybe it’s time we went into one of these places to check out the games, see if we can figure out how they’re played…”

“Y’mean, like chess?” asked Song. He pointed at a screen near a door clearly showing a match in progress.

Daniel eyed his team and raised his right hand. “How many of us play?”

All of the humans responded.

Tzatzil looked a little lost. “You will teach me, my Daniel?”

“Of course. I’ll explain the moves and some strategy basics when we get inside.”

He led the way into the chess club.

The bubble flexed through the doorway, and he found himself in a large room filled with gaming tables. The boards were large and mounted on tables surrounded by crowds of aliens and humanoids. As on Earth, there were only two players per game, but only a handful of games were ones he recognized as traditional.

Some of the boards had animated holographic pieces that did battle for the square. Others were multi-level, and still more had whole armies of pieces spread out over miniature terrain marked with a glowing grid pattern. One by one, Daniel assigned his teammates to observe the interactions of all the involved parties – including the bookies taking bets on the sidelines – and meet back on the street in an hour.

He made his own notes and listened to the reports when they regrouped.

“These aren’t just board games,” Jack reported. “They’re strategy games. Looks like some of ‘em would make pretty damn good training tools back home. Maybe that’s something we could ask our hosts later on.”

Daniel jotted that idea down.

“Looked to me like they’ll bet on pretty much anything,” Charlie said on a chuckle. “There were guys betting on guys betting, not just on the games themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone bet on whether we’d be back to play.”

Everybody had a grin about that. “Right. Let’s see what other games they offer.”

He spoke into a small device on a lanyard he wore around his neck. “Show us a catalog of the types of games offered in the city.”

On a nearby wall, a projection appeared with four categories of contests: games of chance, skill, strategy, and puzzles.

After an hour of searching through each category for something they recognized or thought they could learn quickly, they decided to put that on hold and find accommodations.

Hóstach,” Daniel called to the device, “please show us accommodations for the eight visitors from Earth. We would like to stay in the same facility, please.”

The projection on the wall switched to a variety of room interiors. Some were set up as big bunk rooms, others in singles or doubles with various sized beds. All of them looked clean and comfortable.

After a brief discussion, Daniel made the selection and a hover car settled down on the paved street beside them to fly them to their hotel.

Once again, their bubbles molded around them to fit the space.

Above the street, they finally got a look at the size of the city. It stretched out as far as the eye could see in every direction. Buildings of every shape and size sat wall to wall with their neighbors, separated only by streets and architectural design.

“Wow,” Charlie breathed, turning to look all around them as they flew. “I gotta tell you, I’m having trouble forming a coherent thought, here.”

“It’ll pass,” Daniel assured him. “You get used to it. There’ll be odd moments where you’ll remember you’re on another planet, but we’re here to work. Let’s stay focused on that.”

Charlie nodded.

“So let’s see if they’ve tallied up our goods yet,” Daniel suggested, and called the host again.

“You have four hundred thousand credits,” the device announced. “The tally is incomplete at this time. You will be notified when it is complete.”

“Not bad,” Moon observed, “considering the price tag on Earth was only a quarter of that.”

Jack’s eyebrows shot up. “We spent a hundred thousand dollars on cake?”

“On food,” she corrected, “which these people obviously need. I think we got a good stake, so let’s make it count, y’all.”

“You all saw how the gaming and betting fees were being paid, right?”Daniel asked, still making notes on his tablet.

“That little thingy people were wearing on their wrists, kind of like a little computer,” answered Song. He held up his arm, then looked a bit flustered. “Those that had wrists, I mean. Some of ‘em were just… kind of… stuck on… somewhere.”

“Anybody see if there are measures in place to prevent theft or cheating?” asked Daniel, finally raising his head to make eye contact with his team. “SG-Eleven didn’t mention that.”

Moon shook her head, her brows drawing together a bit. “That’s puzzling. I didn’t see anybody cheating, and I looked. My mom used to be a dealer at the Choctaw Casino and she knew every trick in the book. Taught me everything I know about playing dirty.” She chuckled. “Well, maybe not everything. Mama never got in any fistfights.”

Story beamed with pride as he eyed his teammates. “And that’s how the Colonel got her call sign. You get in a fight with her, and she’ll be Last Standing.”

“My grandpa called me ‘Dirty Girl, ‘cause that’s how I fight.” She grinned and winked at her Lieutenant.

“I can vouch for that,” Daniel mumbled under his breath.

Tzatzil looked proud. “You are no slump, my Daniel.”

Slouch,” he corrected, “and thank you. I’ve had good teachers over the years.”

He cleared his throat and announced, “Let’s get settled in our rooms and we’ll start making lists of competitions where we think we might have a chance of winning. Find out everything you can about game classifications, ranking competitions, rules and regs, governance—“

“We got it, Daniel,” Jack interjected. “Check out the competition, and keep out of trouble.”

“Right. We’ll pair up one academic with one soldier and start researching. Roommates for the stay are your choice, but same pairings.” Daniel’s eyes went straight to Jack’s. “With me?”

Jack nodded. The look in his eyes was a definite ‘thank you.’

Daniel knew his friend had been through a lot in the last few months, and this was one thing he could do to help Jack find his equilibrium.

The car parked itself on the street outside what looked much like an Italian villa with whitewashed walls and curved tile roof. A pair of phosphorescent potted plants flanked the arched entry. Just inside the foyer, a holographic video replayed the action of taking off one’s footwear, so they all followed suit.

Daniel presented himself at the front desk with a friendly smile. “Hello. We’re looking for accommodations for eight. Do you have that available, and if so how much per night? We’d like to stay to compete for the Prize.”

The host regarded him with four eyes and nodded. “Show credits, please?”

Its voice had a mechanical tinge to it, and emanated from beneath its pointed, bony chin. Though the creature was vaguely hominid in shape, its body was covered in some sort of exoskeletal armor with a sharply pointed skull, flanges extending from its hips, elbows and calves, along with a ridge of short, exposed spines down its back. The hands had only three very long fingers, with an opposable thumb on each side of the hand. Its chest looked a bit oversized for its narrow waist, but it moved with passable grace.

“Price of the rooms first,” Daniel insisted, his smile vanishing.

A bit of haggling ensued, and when an amount was agreed upon, Daniel checked on the current tally.

Since the alien host had no real face to express emotions, they couldn’t tell how that number went over, but it registered them and called up a diagram of their rooms.

“Please follow the seirbhíseach to your floor,” the hóstach intoned, gesturing to a two-foot tall creature that trotted out from behind the desk.

“Awwww, look! It’s kind of a cross between a fox and Yoda,” Jack observed, instantly taken with the little aliens.

“Reminds me of Stitch from the Disney movies, except green instead of blue,” agreed Moon. “Cute.”

Charlie grinned from ear to ear, shaking his head. “I am gobsmacked. Aliens, everywhere!”

Daniel eyed his friend Carter, who had been quiet since their arrival, studying everything and everyone they saw, his expression unreadable. “You doing okay, Jarod?”

The man flashed a quick smile at him. “Just taking it all in.”

On the top floor, they followed the seirbhíseach, or servant, to a short corridor with two doors on either side and one more at the end of the hallway.

Colonel Standing pointed at the last door. “That one’s yours, Deej. I’ll be next door with…”

Tzatzil’s hand shot up. “Me! Me! I must be close to Daniel!”

Moon nodded.

Daniel sighed and trudged toward his room with Jack on his six.

The door opened and Daniel turned to see the room arrangements.

The twins dutifully bunked in together.

Jack noticed the force-field bubbles disappeared on the threshold. “Sweet! I can pee in comfort now. There is a bathroom, right?”

He opened a door, sighing with relief as he stepped inside the room with the standard layout of sink, shower and toilet.

Daniel sat down on the bed, giving it a test bounce for comfort, and smiled. He’d missed this while Jack was being a General. It was good to be in the field with him again.

He flopped back against the covers and closed his eyes for a minute.

“Um, Daniel?”

“Yes?” He sat up, took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes.

Jack stood over him. “There’s only one bed in this room.”

“It’s big enough for both of us,” Daniel assured him with a shrug. “We slept in the same tent off world for years. I don’t see a difference.”

“Well, I do. I’m gonna go downstairs and ask for a cot or something.”

Daniel shook his head. He finished unpacking and studied his notes until the guest device pinged him with a final total. He chuckled, pleased with the number. They could do a lot with over half a million credits.

Jack returned with a grumpy look, obviously unsuccessful at getting his alternate sleeping arrangements.

“Hungry?” asked Daniel, hoping to distract the man. “There’s a restaurant next door where we can eat. As long as we don’t attempt to place any bets, the bubbles stay gone in the hospitality areas.”

“Yeah, sure. Can we drink in the field?”

“To socialize, yes, but not to excess. Maybe we can find a bar that serves some of that good Irish whisky we brought.”

Daniel tucked his tablet into an inside pocket of his blazer and headed for the door, patting his friend on the shoulder on his way out of their room.

***

“What is that smell?” Jack pinched his nose as he stepped out of the hotel, glancing about for the source, his nose wrinkling up in disgust. It was somewhere between good barbecue and rotting fish, depending on which way the wind was blowing.

“Diner next door,” Jarod answered with a nod in that direction.

“It’s cold out,” Moon observed, hugging herself and rubbing her arms. “I guess that bubble did a lot more than prevent us from playing.”

“We can eat now?” asked Tzatzil enthusiastically. “I like to eat!” The elf was practically dancing, eyes twinkling.

Jack liked seeing her like that. She was adorable when she let her guard down, like a kid at Christmas, excited about everything.

 “You certainly can put it away.” Daniel chuckled. “You could beat Teal’c in an eating contest. I’d bet money on that.”

“Do you wish to place a wager?” asked the device around Daniel’s neck. It glowed red instead of its normal blue, at attention for the next step. “You are currently on a visitor’s pass. If you wish to play, you must return to the arrival center—“

“No, thank you, hóstach. That was a figure of speech.” Turning to address his companions, he announced to them, “Looks like we’ll need to be careful how we phrase things.”

Daniel gestured the party into the eatery next door. “Let’s sample the local fare. They should have Earth foods on the menu, at least for the first few days we’re here, so feel free to stick with what you know or be adventurous.”

“I hope they have some of that steak I saw come through with us,” Jack murmured.

There appeared to be no wait staff in the diner.

Instead, the menu was done in 3D images on the wall by the door that changed every three seconds or so.

“How do we know if we can actually eat any of that stuff safely?” asked Charlie, staring at a picture of what looked to be an armored anteater of some kind. “It could be poisonous to humans.”

“Good question.” Daniel lifted the hóstach device and asked.

“All food and drink products are pre-screened through a DNA scan,” the device answered. “You cannot order what is unsafe for you to eat. Guest health and safety is our primary concern.”

Daniel put his hand through an image to select it.

The item turned red and vanished from the menu.

“Wonder if it does that with taste, too?” Moon mused.

“Mmmm, probably not,” Daniel mused. “It’s too subjective a thing. We’ll just have to hope we’re lucky on the first go, or be prepared to reorder.”

After seeing how other patrons received their meals, they made their choices and put two tables together so they could talk while eating.

Magically, the tables melded together into a single long unit when they sat down.

Jack got his steak – from Earth – along with a salad and baked potato, complete with a tumbler of whisky, neat. Daniel, Jarod and Charlie were adventurous and got the anteater. Moon went vegetarian, opting to try some of the strange but appealing-looking items from other worlds. Song and Story chose Asian-looking dishes with rice, vegetables and some strips of cooked fish.

Tzatzil took up nearly a quarter of the table with her choices, dish after dish of fish, meats, fowl, unclassifiable other proteins, vegetables and fruits piled high before her.

Most everyone had a taste of everyone else’s food, with the exception of Jack, who stuck to his steak.

“So how are we doin’ this, Daniel? What’s our game plan?” O’Neill was halfway through his T-bone before he spoke.

“Right.” Daniel washed down his bite of anteater with a sip of red wine. “First few days we spend choosing our games. I’m leaving all the betting to Charlie.”

He glanced at Dr. Eppes over the tops of his glasses. “Feel free to bet on or against us, whichever has better odds. When we’re ready to play, we’ll split up into pairs, one academic with one soldier, who will provide personal security for the player.”

Jack sat back in his chair, nonplussed. “Don’t we get to play, too?”

First I want you to give me the all clear, which I expect will take a few days,” Daniel explained. “we’ll take turns, sure, but someone always has to be on watch.” He held up his index finger in warning and eyed each one in turn. “No one will go anywhere on this planet alone.  Always move in groups of at least two until we’re sure of our safety. Are we clear?”

Heads nodded all around the table.

Jack felt a flush of pride. Daniel was shaping up to be a good commander. He was pleased that the geek had been paying attention after all.

“Also, Jarod and Charlie, since this is your first time out, you’ll need to stick with another experienced teammate until you’ve got your wheels under you. Your choice.”

The two men glanced at each other, then back at him.

“Before you answer,” Jack cut in, “remember that Daniel has died more than any other member of any team in the history of the SGC.” Lifting his tumbler casually, he barely hid his smile against the rim of the glass.

God, how he loved teasing that man!

Daniel’s eyes rolled toward his friend. “This is not a first contact team, Jack. Chances of dying in the field are greatly reduced for us on SG-Zed.”

With a little fixed smile of irritation, Daniel turned back to the team. “Anyone have preferences, or shall I assign pairs?”

“You died a couple times yourself, there, didn’t you, O’Neill?” Moon’s drawl was casual as she toyed with a strange leaf on her plate that curled up every time she touched it.

“Oh, so that’s how it is, is it Colonel?” Jack shot back with a tone of fake irritation. This was getting interesting.

Standing was showing signs of as sharp a sense of humor as his own. She gave him a quick salute with her glass of water, backed by an arched eyebrow and half grin that clearly stated, ‘Game on!

Jack looked forward to the banter and nodded back at her.

There was some discussion, but eventually the team selected their own pairs.

Colonel Standing would accompany Charlie to a betting house and also investigate the games of chance.

Jack would accompany the twins to a virtual reality gaming facility, focusing on puzzles and role-playing games, followed by skill events. Definitely not his thing, but whatevs. It would be an opportunity to get to know his teammates, and he wanted a good rapport with all of them.

Daniel, unfortunately, was stuck with Tzatzil, but because Jarod had no field experience, he asked the Major to join them in exploring the strategy games and athletic contests.

That would’ve been more up Jack’s alley, but there was time yet to sort out who would be doing what. The big contest was still weeks away and they had yet to figure out how to enter it other than there was some tenuous connection to participation in other games.

And they had yet to figure out who was running the place, how security was handled, or what measures (if any) were in place to prevent cheating.

That handy-dandy little thingamabob each one of them was wearing hadn’t gone into too much detail yet on that issue.

Daniel checked his chronometer. “Well, then, we have a few hours until dinnertime. Let’s all get started on our assignments and we’ll meet back here at… say… six o’clock?”

“It’s currently thirteen hundred hours,” Standing clarified. “See y’all back in five hours. Everybody stay sharp and remember we’re working here, not on vacation. What happens in Vegas ends up in a mission report.”

Jack grinned.

Oh, he was going to get along just fine with this gal.

“C’mon, boys,” Jack called, patting the twin with the man-bun on the shoulder. “Let’s see what’s out there. Tell me all about yourself. We’ll see the sights, have a few laughs…”

***

Later That Night

“There’s a bar down the street, if anyone’s up for a drink,” Daniel suggested. “At least, I think it’s a bar.”

“Well, we know they have good whisky, since we brought it with us, so I’m in.” Jack raised his hand.

In short order, they had regrouped at a building with a pair of distinctive antlers mounted above the door. The moving images on the wall showed a variety of libations pouring into containers, and when they arrived inside, they were collectively relieved to see their guess had been correct.

It was a big place, the walls covered with dark wood paneling and pleasant, low lighting. The air had a slightly woodsy scent to it, and the marble floors were clean enough to look up a woman’s dress. There were places to stand at the bar as well as tables and booths where they could sit, and Jack hoped they’d be on their asses in a New York minute. He’d been standing all day and his legs were aching.

Moon seemed to have the same idea and made a beeline to a comfy-looking booth in the back. It was open on both ends so they could make a quick exit, if needed, and Jack lowered himself gratefully onto the nearest padded bench with a groan.

Daniel headed to the bar to place their order.

Zazz was hot on his heels.

“So how was your day, O’Neill?” asked Standing, taking the seat on the far end of the facing bench.

“Can’t say I understood much of what I saw,” he replied, watching the elf get a load of their bartender and nearly fall on her backside.

Tzatzill’s wide-eyed, open-mouthed expression clearly showed she was shocked at what she saw.

Which drew Jack’s gaze to the creature, who leaned in close to Daniel with a smile on his face and merriment in his dark eyes.

A wispy van Dyck framed the guy’s wide, toothy grin. A mop of curly dark hair framed his handsome human face. He was about Daniel’s height but stick thin, his body language quite animated and happy. What made him stand out, however, were the full rack of deer antlers protruding from just behind his ears and curving around the back of his skull.

“Saw some interesting folks,” Jack continued without batting an eyelash or moving his gaze off the bartender. “Some Tok’ra we know, a couple of people I met on Argos, about half a dozen Asgard. Some bald blue people, a few monochromatic ones… Six Tollans in shiny silver suits. I thought they were all dead.”
“Looks like they had a Plan B.” Moon glanced around the bar. “Maybe that’s why they showed up here. I wouldn’t think they’d bother to come begging for The Prize unless they were in dire need. You know?”

O’Neill nodded toward fellow at the bar. “Anybody know what that is?”

“Just a guy with antlers,” Story replied with a shrug. “Is he wearing those or are they really growing out of his head? I can’t tell with all that curly hair.”

“Well, he’s hot, horns and all,” added Moon with a wistful twinkle in her eye. “That smile could kill.”

Jack cocked an eyebrow at her, surprised at her obviously sexual interest. “Let’s ask Zazz. I’ll bet she knows something.”

The elf followed Daniel back to the table with wide, stunned eyes.

As she approached, though, her composure returned and her lips pressed closed in a thin, pale line.

That didn’t look like a happy face to Jack.

“See somebody you know?” asked Jack as soon as the redhead sat down.

“I do not know him,” Tzatzil breathed, a touch of awe in her voice. “Did you see the antlers? They are real!”

But Jack was certain the elf was lying.

Daniel set the tray on the table and put the whisky in front of Jack, naming the other drinks as he set them down randomly. For Tzatzil, who didn’t imbibe alcoholic spirits, he had ordered a special tea from her homeworld, and directed everyone to watch while she poured.

The little pitcher and cup were made of glass rather than the usual ceramic, metal or clay so often seen on other worlds. The tea was yellowish but clear, no tea bag or dregs visible through the pot; a perfectly ordinary looking brew. An ice cube was already in the cup, carved or molded into the shape of an intricate flower.

Tzatzil smiled as she started to pour.

“This is the good part,” Daniel announced, staring at the tea service. “Watch the cup. Don’t look away for a second. Don’t even blink.”

Now everyone’s curiosity was up, and Jack focused hard on the yellow liquid as it flowed over the ice… and began to change color, into a beautiful rosy pink hue.

“It’s like magic, right?” Daniel sat back against the padded seat, just beaming. “I drank a lot of tea on her world, just so I could watch that.”

“Crazy cool,” Charlie agreed in obvious delight. “I’m doing the math in my head that accounts for the chemical reaction.”

“You’re off duty at the moment,” Jack reminded him. “Just enjoy the show. Don’t think too hard about it.”

Eppes’ dark eyes twinkled. “But you don’t understand, Major. For me, math is joy. I don’t do it because it’s my job. I love math because it’s is everything.”

“Whatever dials your ‘gate.” Jack lifted his tumbler and had a sip of whisky, hoping the geek wouldn’t go on endlessly about numbers. O’Neill could do a good bit of that himself – astronomy was his hobby, and that was a math-heavy subject – but he didn’t think of it as fun.

“Did you ever see the Matrix movies?” Charlie asked. “All those lines of code that trickled down the screen… that’s kind of how I see the world, not in code, but in equations.”

“Um,” Daniel interrupted, “Jack isn’t particularly fond of any kind of scientific process. I can see his eyes glazing over.” He flashed a tight, apologetic smile and added, “But I’d love to know more about that. Sounds fascinating.”

Colonel Standing toyed with her glass, eyes on the blue liquid as she chose that moment to bring up a point of business. “I’m sure you are all aware of the memo that came out last week on the repeal of DA/DT.”

Jack sighed and sat back, slumping a little against the back cushion. He knew what was coming and didn’t want to hear about it. He curled his lip in a sneer of disgust and studied the crowd, one ear on the conversation, dreading his turn.

“I’m not trying to get personal, you understand,” she continued. “This issue has the potential to cause friction and I just want to get ahead of that. I need to know how you all feel about having LGBTQ teammates, since the policy is now fully inclusive. Or rather, encouraging. You know what we’re all up against out here. We’ll eventually need to expand the program, and will need people with the right skills regardless of their orientation or gender. I need to know if I can count on you to be openly accepting, or if I’ll need to be watching you like a hawk.”

Tzatzil’s eyes remained on the crowd as she sipped her tea, head on a swivel, threat assessing. “Females are my preference. Males are for breeding.”

Jack’s eyebrows climbed up his forehead. “That’s. Kinda. Hot.” He imagined the pretty little elf with another gal, which did pleasant things in the pit of his belly. When he was alone in the shower later, he’d be exploring the fantasy more fully.

Thing One raised his hand and smiled. “Gay.”

Jack was startled. He’d been watching the kid’s six the whole day and would never have guessed.

Thing Two took a deep breath and sighed it out. “Straight, but okay with this initiative. I’ve been fending off Song’s boyfriends since we were old enough to date, so I learned to deal.”

Again Jack was surprised. “But you’re identical twins!”

“Jock,” said Story, raising his hand.

“Bookworm,” said Song, as if the exchange had been rehearsed. “Not alike in everything, Major O’Neill.”

Jarod relaxed against his seat. “Not a problem for me.”

“How about you, Commander?” asked Colonel Standing. “I know you were married once, but that’s not always an indicator.”

“Straight,” Daniel replied with a shrug, “but accepting. We’ve found so many cultures with more generous ideas of orientation and gender that the President and Joint Chiefs decided we should get with the program. Many ancient cultures were also more aligned with acceptance of alternate orientations and gender identities than more modern society. I think this is long overdue. Here, here.”

He raised his glass in salute, and everyone joined him in the toast except for a sullen Jack O’Neill.

Colonel Standing took notice. “Is this going to be a problem, Major?”

“No, ma’am,” he ground out. “I was raised to think it was wrong for men to have sex with other men, but I’m not gonna treat anyone any differently, as long as they don’t hit on me.”

“Everyone on our team has taken note, but if someone else makes an unknowing error at some point in the future, Major,” Standing replied with a distinct note of warning in her voice, “you will politely decline and move on from there. There will be no punches thrown, no raised voices or any other aggressive or discriminatory behavior. Are we clear?”

He met her eyes across the table and saw the intensity there. Something in her face made his righteous indignation quail. Then he remembered the difference in their rank. He was no longer a Colonel, but she was, and had been for longer than him. “As crystal, ma’am. There won’t be a problem.”

“Oh, c’mon, Major,” teased Song playfully, “d’you mean to tell me that, if you were stranded on a desert island with another man for the rest of your life, you’d never even try it? What if it was Deej?”

Thing Two nodded and raised his glass. “I’d tap that.” Then he glanced at Daniel. “No offense, Commander.”

“None taken, Story.” Daniel’s eyes were also on his glass. He looked pensive.

Never,” Jack shot back. “I’ve got a good right hand. That’s all I need.”

“Then you are a fool,” Tzatzil observed quietly, scanning the patrons, ever on duty. “I would also…’ tap that’, even though he is not female and my people cannot breed with humans. He is attractive, kind, courageous, intelligent. He has all the qualities of a perfect companion. If I had no other option, I would--”

Enough with the lectures,” Daniel cut in sternly. “All of you, please leave Jack alone about this. He’ll adjust in his own way.”

A wave of relief flooded through Jack. Daniel understood him, and he was grateful for the intercession. Once again, it was Daniel to the rescue.

Jackson lifted his head and eyed the Colonel. “How about you, Moon? How do you feel about it?”

A muscle twitched in her jaw. Something in her eyes was burning as she lifted her gaze to meet O’Neill’s. “Doesn’t make any difference to me, one way or another.” She nodded, imperceptibly, but as a clear signal. Then she got up and left the table, striding over to the bar for a refill.

“What put her knickers in a twist?” asked Song, obviously more than a little surprised.

Jack remembered. His guts twisted up inside him. “I was on the team that rescued her from the Taliban in Afghanistan about ten years ago. They had her for weeks, trying to get information out of her. All she gave ‘em was her name, rank and serial number, by the book.”

He touched his left cheek, drawing a letter C with his fingertip. “That scar around her eye? They did that to her because her name was Moon. That’s a sacred symbol to Islam, you know.”

Heads went down. Eyes turned glassy as they began to imagine the unimaginable. Daniel’s face, however, was filled with warning as he met Jack’s eyes. He shook his head, his mouth a grim line.

O’Neill continued. “They were so insulted by how strong she was that they surgically removed everything that made her a woman.”

All eyes raised to meet his. There was horror in every face. Even Tzatzil was looking at him now.

“None of this is to be repeated outside this table,” Daniel ordered quietly. “And none of you will treat Colonel Standing any differently, now that you know. Is that understood? Not a word to her or anyone else, and Jack, you and I will discuss this later, in private.”

“Yes, sir.” He watched Moon at the bar, leaning on her elbows, taking her time. “I told you all because I didn’t want anyone to ask her about her response later. I think she gave me an opening, Daniel, if I read her right. She doesn’t talk about it. Not sure she can. I certainly couldn’t, if I were her.”

He pondered his whisky, trying to get those horrible memories out of his head. “Somebody talk about something fun, like fishing. I desperately need to think about something else.”

Glancing at the woman at the bar, he waited for her to meet his eyes and nodded. She returned the signal, question asked and answered, her dark eyes haunted. There was gratitude in them, too.

The topic of conversation abruptly changed, and by the time Colonel Standing returned to the table with the second round of drinks, there was laughter all around.

***

It was late when they all retired to their rooms. Jack hit the showers while Daniel worked on his notes, and then switched places. When Daniel went to pick up his tablet again, Jack patted his arm and nodded at the bed.

“You need to stay sharp, boss man. That includes sufficient shut-eye.” It felt weird referring to Daniel as his boss. That would take some adjustment.

But Daniel didn’t go directly there. He stood by the window, curtains open, looking out at the eternal night in full ponder mode. When he spoke, his voice was full of sadness. “About that conversation earlier at the bar… I don’t think men like us are supposed to be married and have families, Jack. We’re all about the job, saving the world, helping where we can on other worlds.”

He glanced down at a clay pot on the window sill and fiddled with the soft silvery leaves of an alien plant.

“We eat, sleep and drink this job. I don’t think there’s anything else for us.” He turned, his blue eyes luminous and a little frightened as the ever-present neon lit his face from the side. “I don’t want to be alone for the rest of my life, and I don’t think you do, either.”

Jack spread his hands wide. “That’s what the team is for,” he returned confidently. “We got each other.” He paused and let his hands drop to his sides. “Especially you and me, Daniel. Not even death do us part, apparently.”

Daniel raised his eyebrows in silent question.

“When I was in Ba’al’s prison,” Jack prompted. “You were ascended and came to try to help me. I swear to God, Daniel, if it hadn’t been for you, I’d have lost my fucking marbles.”

The other man examined the flower bud getting ready to bloom, his mouth working like he was about to say something. Dimples flashed. His brows twitched together.

“I know, you don’t remember any of that. ‘S’okay. I do.” Jack went to his friend and gave his shoulder a fond squeeze.

“I was just…” He sighed, frustration written on his features. “Sometimes… you know… a guy has needs.” Daniel shrugged. “And yeah, I take care of that myself, too. It’s just… that’s not always enough.”

Jack stepped back, his eyebrows shooting up into his hair. “Are you goin’ gay on me, Daniel?”

“No, of course not. I just.” He shrugged. “That ‘desert island’ idea stuck in my head. We kinda do live on that island with no way back to a normal life. I’m just saying that… If you ever want to try...”

Jack thought about that. He’d need to think about it a lot more.

Daniel took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Ever hear of the Sacred Band, Jack?”

O’Neill sighed. “No, but I suppose you’re gonna tell me.”

“They were an ancient Greek military unit composed of male couples. In their entire history, they were never defeated until they faced Alexander the Great’s massive army and were annihilated by sheer numbers.”

“And that’s relevant how?” Jack stepped out of his dress shoes, unnerved by the fact that he wasn’t in BDUs and boots. He bent down to pick them up and went over to his bed, putting them in easy reach, then sat down to remove his socks.

“The theory behind the creation of that unit was that a man would never run from the battlefield if the person he loved most in the world was fighting right beside him. I think the same bonding applies in any team. I mean, look at you and me.”

Jack’s head came up. He glared at a startled Daniel Jackson.

“Well, I didn’t mean bonding in a romantic way,” he explained. “I just… You and I have been through a lot together. You’re probably closer to me than anyone else on Earth. I’d die for you, Jack, and I know you’d do the same for me. I trust you, and what you think of me matters. That’s what I mean.”

O’Neill shrugged out of his jacket and hung it up in their shared closet. “Thank you, Daniel,” he said quietly. “That’s the nicest thing I think anyone’s ever said to me.”

Daniel rubbed his face wearily. “I dunno. Maybe I’m just tired.”

Jack ambled toward the bed and started turning down the covers. “You have options, Daniel. There are ladies all over the base. Hell, every planet we go to, there are women trying to undress you! I think you seriously underestimate the power of those dimples. Take ‘em out for a test spin when we get back.”

On bare feet, Daniel padded over to Jack and stood close, waiting for eye contact. “I think you overestimate my ability to have meaningless sex, Jack. It’s not easy to let people close to me. You get that.”

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, if we were stuck on a desert island, I’d do you. Happy now?” Jack made sure the sincerity showed through, and none of the sarcasm.

His friend was obviously confused and lonely. He needed human contact, some warmth and comfort. Neither of them had had that in a long, long time.

Jack embraced him, holding him close as he whispered, “Spacemonkey,” in Daniel’s ear with a smile.

Daniel huffed a whispery chuckle and pulled back a little.

Their eyes met.

Smiles melted away.

Jack’s heart beat faster.

Daniel canted his head to the left and moved closer, eyes heavy lidded, pupils dilated.

Jack couldn’t move, heat uncoiling in his belly.

And then the tension broke as Daniel whirled away. “Nope, can’t do it,” he announced, irony in his tone. “Still straight.”

“Same here.” Jack was as sure of that as his name, but he was also aware of his body’s reaction to having Daniel in his arms, about to kiss him.

He climbed into the bed and lay on his back, staring at the ceiling while Daniel settled in on his side, facing away from him.

If Daniel had kissed him, Jack realized, he would have let it happen. He’d been about a breath away from getting a hard-on. In fact, he was having to work at not getting one as he lay there next to Daniel.

Was he straight, if he felt that way? Or was it just Daniel and his own personal needs double-teaming him? Jack wasn’t sure.

Soldiers in the field sometimes helped each other out like that, but it didn’t mean they were gay. It just felt better to let someone else drive once in a while. It had been a long time since either of them had had sex, so…

“Let me know if you wanna kick the tires sometime, Daniel. I’m here for you, just like you’ve always been there for me.”

Daniel rolled onto his back.

Jack listened, ready for further discussion or for Daniel’s breathing to tell him that the man was asleep.

Then Daniel turned again, nestled his cheek against Jack’s shoulder and put his arm around his old friend’s waist.

For a long time, Jack lay awake as Daniel slept against him.

This, he realized, was also something they both needed. It felt good to be touched and held, and Daniel had had far too little of that in his life.

Maybe at some point they would experiment. It would probably be awkward for a couple of straight guys to touch each other naked. Might not even be able to get that far, if Daniel’s aborted kiss were any indicator.

But this felt good and right, this closeness.

Jack laid his arm over Daniel’s, closed his eyes, and slept.

***

January 29, 2005

The Next Night

“Jack.”

“Daniel?”

Squinting, Daniel could just make out three of the little seirbhíseach scuttling across the roof of the restaurant across from their hotel room. They dropped out of sight into the alley behind the building.

“This is the third time I’ve seen those aliens scouring the trash bins,” Daniel reported. “I think they’re homeless. And hungry.”

O’Neill already knew what was coming, and started putting his pants back on.

“Think I’ll take my leftovers down there,” Daniel added, finally tearing himself away from the view.

“We don’t know what they eat,” Jack reminded him. “Hell, they’re green, like plants. Maybe they do photosynthesis instead.”

Daniel shot him a questioning look.

“I know big words.” Jack pretended hurt, which had great comedic effect.

Sometimes that cosmic giddiness could be annoying, but Daniel loved their banter.

“We’ll have to be quiet so Tzatzil doesn’t hear us leave,” he whispered.

“You’re with me,” Jack reminded him. “She knows you’ll be safe.”

Daniel all but wilted with gratitude.

“How come you don’t like the kid? She seems nice.” He hesitated. “It makes her sad that you’re always trying to ditch her. She’s just trying to do her job, you know.”

“I know, Jack. It’s just.” He flailed a little. “She’s always watching me. It’s unnerving.”

Jack was first in the hallway, checking for potential threats, always the soldier, even without a weapon in his hands.

Daniel locked up their room and followed his friend into the alley.

Two of the creatures were standing beside a trash bin while the third tossed scraps out to its companions. One of them scampered away when the two humans appeared, but the other stayed to wait for the one in the bin.

“It’s okay,” Daniel assured them, speaking quietly. He knelt slowly and held out the paper napkin stuffed with flatbread toward them. “This is for you, if you can eat it. It’s okay.”

When they made no move closer, he set the napkin down on the pavement and stepped back.

“We won’t hurt you,” he promised.

The bin diver scrambled to the edge of the container and dropped to the ground, landing with a squeak.

With big, suspicious eyes, the sentinel inched forward while the other two watched. When it was close enough, it snatched as much bread as it could carry and darted back to join its friends. After offloading the booty, the sentinel approached again warily and picked up the final piece.

It stood regarding them, holding the bread close.

“Poor things,” Daniel cooed. “Are you homeless?”

There was no reaction.

“An bhfuil tú gan dídean?” asked Jack, repeating the question in Irish Gaelic.Daniel whipped his head around, shocked and awestruck. “Your accent’s beautiful, Jack! I didn’t know you were fluent. Should’ve guessed. O’Neill.”“Not every Irishman speaks the mother tongue,” Jack said in English, but with a distinctive lilt. “The County Tyrone O’Neills, however, require it. Me grandda insisted.”“Well, then, I expect to have a lot of conversations in Irish when we get back home,” Daniel declared with a note of authority, “because I’m just passable at the pronunciations, and I’d enjoy the hell out of listening to you talk to me with that glorious accent for the rest of my days.”Glancing back at their new friends, Daniel lowered into a squat again and repeated Jack’s question.The brave one shook its head.“It’s all right,” Daniel promised, gesturing them to come closer. “Tell them we won’t hurt them, Jack.”“Um, aren’t you the linguist, here, Doctor Jackson?”

“Not today. Not when you can do it so much better than me.” He flashed a smile up at his friend and waited.

Jack repeated the question.

Daniel murmured a few of the words to feel the pronunciation in his own mouth, practicing until the alien took a step closer. He smiled, thrilled to see the fear waning in their eyes.

The creature nodded sadly.

“If that’s not enough, we can get you more food,” Daniel offered, and Jack duly repeated.

Their eyes shifted between the two men. They smiled like happy dogs, showing off sharp white teeth. Then they clustered together, chattering all at once, their conversation punctuated with occasional jumping up and down and a little happy dancing.

“Hope you know what you’re getting yourself into,” Jack warned. “They might eat like Zazz.”

Daniel shot him an exasperated look, hoping like hell his friend wasn’t right. He did have a tendency to rush in where angels feared to tread. “What are they saying?”

“They’re talking so fast I need subtitles,” the other man admitted. “I get a word here and there, but not enough to make sense.”

The smallest one trotted up to Daniel and raised its arms, like a small child asking to be picked up. Charmed, he did, and as it snuggled up under his chin, he lost a piece of his heart to it.

Turning toward his teammate, he asked, “What are their names?”

“Niamh!” called the young one in Daniel’s arms, patting his chin to get him to look at it.

Aed was the father, the one who had been in the trash bin, and Clodagh was the brave mother who had come to him for the bread. Niamh was their daughter, and Daniel was enchanted by the little family.

“Let’s go inside the restaurant,” he suggested, his heart melted into a gooey blob. “I’ll buy you all a good meal.”

“Daniel.” Jack’s tone of warning was clear. “We don’t know anything about these critters. You can’t take them home with you.”

Clodagh and Aed held hands and gazed at O’Neill expectantly, waiting for the translation.

Jack sighed. “What the hell. No good deed ever goes unpunished, right?”

An hour later, Jack stood with hands on hips, frowning as Daniel made a little bed for the family on the floor near the window of their room.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Daniel said quietly. “We’ll sort everything out tomorrow. Let’s get some sleep.”

“Not with aliens in our room,” Jack shot back with a sharp tone of warning. “I’ll stand first watch. Wake you in four.”

Daniel apologized with his eyes.Jack shook his head, instantly forgiving him. He knew how Daniel was, that he led with his heart, and Daniel was grateful that, somewhere along the way, Jack had accepted that.

From his vantage point on the pillow, Daniel noted that Aed sat beside his family, eyes open, also keeping watch over his loved ones.

A smile crept across Jack’s face as he studied the little green fur ball. “Tá sé seo ar láimh, cara,” Jack told the creature.

Daniel closed his eyes, translating in his head, not verbatim, but how Jack would’ve put it in English.

“We got this, buddy.”

***

February 5, 2005

One Week Later

“I hope they don’t have fleas,” Jack said to no one in particular as he hoisted Aed onto his shoulder.

The seirbhíseach male scanned the buildings, finally locating the one they wanted.

For the first event, Daniel decided the whole team should be present just so they understood how to register and participate. Afterward, the scholars would head out with their designated bodyguards to try their hands at other events, and then meet up again at midnight to compare notes.

Following their guide’s direction, Team Earth made their way to a long building where the contestants would warm up.

Moon went with Charlie to the betting area and Jack headed for the spectators’ area, expecting Daniel to accompany the rest of them to watch the elf shoot some arrows. When he saw his commander following the redhead, though, he tapped Major Carter on the shoulder and nodded toward the pair heading into the competitors’ area.

“Where’s Daniel going? I thought he was supposed to be with us.” Jack was trying not to be stressed, but past history made him nervous for Daniel to go off on his own.

Jarod grinned. “He hasn’t kept up with it, but he’s a pretty good archer. A scout for the Olympics tried to get him to compete in college, but you know Daniel. He didn’t want to take time out from—“

“—his studies,” they finished together.

Jack shook his head, casting one final concerned glance at his retreating commander’s head.

At least he was with the elf. She’d look after him in there.

A small hand ruffled Jack’s hair to get his attention, and he followed the seirbhíseach’s finger, pointing toward their party making their way through an arched doorway.

The Majors jogged to catch up and find seats in the open air arena.

Aed sat on Jack’s lap, answering questions and providing a highly personalized guided tour.

There were already archers on the field.

“I thought Daniel said it didn’t start for another hour?” asked Song, glancing over his shoulder at Jack.

“No, he said they had an hour to practice before they competed,” Jarod corrected from O’Neill’s other side.

Jack conferred with Aed. “They compete in small groups, and the winners advance to compete with other winners in another heat. I think this is the third set, if our furry friend here has it right, and there’ll be eight more. Zazz… and I guess Daniel… will be in the last bracket.”

The archers were at their marks and nocked an arrow.

Suddenly, the tiny figures on the grassy field at the center of the stadium became towering giants, every face easy to see.

“Holy shit!” Jack gasped. “We need this for hockey!”

Jarod leaned forward, elbows on knees. “That is some serious tech. Totally seamless. If there’s holographic machinery, I can’t see it.”

“But you can damn sure see everything else,” Song observed with a smile, pointing at a human-looking male dressed like William Tell. “That one’s commando. He’s dressing to the right.”

Carter chuckled. “Rein it in, Doctor Wintersmith. Just enjoy the view.” He patted the shoulder of the man sitting in front of him.

Jack eyed the Major. “So you know Daniel from college?” He’d wondered about how familiar Daniel had been with the man.

“Long after. From what I know about his history now, it was a few months before he met Catherine Langford. We were working a dig together in Mexico. His career was tanking, and it was his last job in the field.” Jarod studied the creature in Jack’s lap with a wistful little smile. “I should’ve been more supportive. Turns out his wild theories weren’t so wild at all.”

“Daniel forgives everyone who thought he was a crackpot,” Jack stated proudly. “If they knew how right he was, they’d be begging to work for him.”

Jarod spread his hands and grinned. “And here I am! By way of Uncle Sam, of course, but I’m thrilled Daniel picked me for this mission. Blown away.”

“SGC is a great way to readjust your focus,” Jack agreed. “Helps you understand what’s really important in the Big Picture.”

The event began, and the crowd fell silent as the first archer drew and fired. The score went up immediately over his giant virtual head, glowy numbers floating in the air. The audience cheered or booed, depending on whether they supported him or wanted him to lose.

Other archers took their turns, but Jack was busy studying the crowd, watching to see if anyone was looking at them too intently, whether there were weapons being secreted, anything suspicious going on around them.

He spotted a Goa’uld in a box seat near the arena’s rim, all fancied up in jaguar fur, sporting black and yellow stripes across his face. The guy looked Native American – particularly handsome, as all hosts must be – tall, and with plenty of lean muscle. He was surrounded by about twenty Jaffa, but no one was paying attention to them at all. In this place, they were ordinary spectators.

“Wouldja lookit that?” Jack whispered with a grin, nodding at the Goa’ulds. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen those clowns on a level playing field with everyone else.”

“Who are they?”

“A Goa’uld trying to look important, surrounded by his Jaffa sycophants. Aztec, if I remember what Daniel said right. No way I can pronounce his name.” Jack absently rubbed Aed’s green fur.

It had a calming effect, just like petting a dog at home.

Jarod squinted past the giant hologram. “Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror. His followers were big on human sacrifice.”

Jack had a thought and asked Aed if there was any way to know if that snake or his servants were registered to compete in any events.

The seirbhíseach lifted Jack’s new host device and told him how to make the request.

As luck would have it, one of them was going to be in the same contest with the Tau’ri.

“This oughtta be fun,” he mused, patting the creature on its leg in gratitude.

“There’s Daniel!” called Lieutenant Wintersmith, pointing at the entry door of the arena.

Right behind him, the elf came out with her game face on, and Jack relaxed into his seat to watch.

They were positioned side by side, their lanes marked with white lines on the grass like a football field.

Zazz took the typical archer’s stance, feet braced shoulder width apart, angled toward the target.

Daniel, however, sank to his knees and placed his equipment beside him on the ground, neatly laying out the three arrows in a row. He bowed to the target, his forehead touching the grass between precisely formed hands.

“What the hell is he doing?” Jack asked no one in particular.

“Looks like he’s going Japanese style with the target practice,” Jarod informed him.

“I know he likes to do things in the ‘traditional’ way, but this isn’t a cultural exhibition,” Jack carped. “It’s a contest, for cryin’ out loud!”

“He knows what he’s doing, Major O’Neill. Trust him.”

Jack kept further irritation to himself and just watched.

Zazz pulled off her three shots in rapid succession, making a neat cluster dead center on the target.

She got a perfect score.

Daniel, however, put on a show. Each movement was slow and precise, like a ballet. He took the bow and nocked the first arrow, studied the target for two full minutes with the tools relaxed against his thighs, and then, as he drew back the string and aimed, he turned his head away from the target and closed his eyes.

An instant later, he let fly.

The arrow hit just on the border between the center and the next ring.

The audience went wild.

Jack stood up, barely remembering the little guy in his lap. He lifted Aed back to his shoulders, piggyback style, his heart pounding with wild pride and amazement.

“How did he do that?” Jack asked, hoping no one would answer.

Jack remained on his feet for the second arrow, which hit fully inside the center circle this time, and when the third landed even closer to the tiny center dot, Jack was cheering at the top of his lungs.

When the first flush of excitement passed, Jack glanced at the scores hovering above Daniel’s bowed head.

“How’d he beat Zazz?”

“Complexity of the shot, I guess,” Jarod answered with a shrug. “Tzatzil seems pretty happy about losing to him, though.”

Jarod nudged Jack’s shoulder. “Wait till you see him with a sword in his hands!”

Jack glared back at the younger officer. “I’ve seen him fight with a knife, so I get he’s good. I just have a problem with the whole ‘what if he gets killed’ idea. We’re gonna need to talk about safeguards and such.”

Daniel bowed to the target again, then rose slowly from the ground and waited for the signal to gather his arrows before returning to the athlete’s doorway. Zazz was circling around him, chattering and dancing, obviously over the moon.

“You know,” observed Jack, leaning toward the Major, “I think she’s got a thing for him, orientation notwithstanding.”

“I think you might be right,” Jarod agreed.

They resumed their seats as the arena emptied. The brackets showed the winners’ standings, and both Daniel and Zazz had advanced to the next level.

Jack turned back to his study of the crowd while the targets were taken down and the next event was set up.

Three stags appeared out of nowhere, and Jack wasn’t sure if they were real or holographic.

Then three challengers returned to the field to hunt the animals all at once. Arrows were flying everywhere. The archers crossed lines of fire, apparently heedless of the danger to themselves.

Aed sensed Jack’s rising panic, and explained that the archers were actually on separate fields and that both the weapons and targets were not real but part of a virtual gaming system. None of the contestants would be injured. It just made for a more exciting display with the contestants appearing to be sharing the same space.

When Daniel and Zazz came up in the rotation, however, Daniel refused to hunt the deer. There was some discussion with the four-eyed hóstach running the event, but it eventually got underway. As Daniel and Zazz lined up with a Jaffa, the stags changed to predators that looked like sabre-toothed tigers with bony armor plates and sharp spikes down their backs.

“Oh, Daniel,” Jack sighed. “You and your Bambi complex.”

When it started, it looked so real Jack got utterly lost in the narrative. He found himself shouting instructions to Daniel, even though he knew the other man couldn’t possibly hear him. His heart pounded as one of the beasts leapt at Daniel, who rolled away with the grace of a gymnast and came up to his feet shooting. The big cat rolled to a stop, an arrow protruding from its eye socket.

Zazz had seen the leap, however, and screamed, losing sight of her own objective.

The third competitor, a Jaffa from the Aztec crew, shifted his aim from the predator on the far side of the arena to Daniel.

The view went into slow motion, centering on the three competitors.

Daniel stood still, hands at his sides, studying his kill.

The elf leaped into the path of the arrow, but she had jumped too soon and the shaft slid through strands of her copper hair streaming out behind her.

“Noooooooo!” Jack shouted.

The arrow was headed straight for Daniel’s heart.

And appeared to hit the target dead on.

He staggered backward, staring down at the wooden shaft sticking out of him in horrified surprise.

But he didn’t fall.

“Daniel!” Jack’s hands clasped his head, his heart breaking. He was so far away. He had no weapons. There was nothing he could do but watch his friend die.

Still, Daniel didn’t fall.

The audience roared their disapproval. A warning tone sounded, and the giant images of the players turned red for an instant. The big cats froze in place in the background.

Jack sat down heavily in his seat, stunned.

Then a bubble formed around the Jaffa.

The public address system noted that the player had been disqualified for cheating, and would be barred forever from the planet. The bubble turned red, and then it and the Jaffa vanished along with the view of the playing field. Instead, the arrival center appeared, and everyone saw the Jaffa being pushed through the Stargate into the event horizon by a small army of the hóstach.

When the cheering began to die down, the gaming arena reappeared.

Tzatzil’s hands were running over Daniel’s chest and back, searching for the wound, but the arrow had vanished. There was no blood and no hole in his clothes. Both of them seemed astonished.

“Oh, thank God!” Jack whispered, unable to take his eyes off the scene.

Then the animals came to life again, but Zazz had dropped her bow.

“Pick it up, pickitup!” Jack called to her, but one of the beasts pounced just as she reached for it.

Daniel dropped into a squat at the creature’s side and then sprang upward, putting his shoulder into the cat’s ribs, knocking it off balance just enough for the elf to roll to safety. She grabbed her bow on the way and came up firing, putting two in the creature’s open mouth as it prepared to lunge again. While it thrashed in totally believable death throes, Zazz took down the other tiger with her last arrow at the same moment Daniel put one in its heart.

Jack wanted to just collapse in his chair until he could breathe and think properly, but instinct drove him onto his feet and back to the competitors’ door where he’d last seen his teammates. He needed to see Daniel, to make sure he was alive and unharmed, even though he’d just seen the proof with his own eyes.

“Carter, stay with the team,” he ordered. “You have Aed.”

A pair of hóstach wouldn’t let him in the competitors’ shed no matter how much he argued with them, but after a few minutes, he saw Daniel coming toward the doorway, beaming.

“I’m okay, Jack,” he promised, rubbing the spot on his chest where he’d been shot. “The arrow wasn’t real. It just stung a little so I’d react like I’d been hit.”

“You’re sure?”

The elf behind Daniel was white as a sheet. “He is well, O’Neill. I have checked him many times.” Her voice was quavering, and she was still visibly upset.

Daniel was still beaming. “This is fascinating! How’d it look from the stands?”

Jack wanted to sit down. Instead, he bent over, leaning against his thighs, and took a few deep breaths. “Larger than life. That definitely had hockey beat for excitement.”

“Wow.” Daniel’s smile softened to awe. “That’s high praise from you, Jack.”

“Are you done yet? Because I think I hear my therapist calling.”

“Who, Doctor Guiness?”

Jack stood up and rolled his eyes.

“No, the rest of the archers have to finish the second match, and then there are… I think… five more rounds to go?” He glanced over his shoulder at Zazz, who nodded. “This’ll probably take several more hours. Maybe by dinnertime?”

“Excuse me while I just step over here and have a stroke!”

“Why don’t you go find Moon and Doctor Eppes and see how we’re doing with the betting? That’ll give you a chance to calm down a little. Or go see Song and let him check you out. You look like you’re having a panic attack.”

“Well, you looked like we were gonna have to put your name on that memorial wall again, Daniel. Of course I’m upset!”

“I’m fine, Jack. I promise. Not so much as a scratch or dent.”

“Come out here, then. Just for a minute.” Jack wanted to hug him, to lay hands on him. That would make Daniel’s being okay a fact.

Jackson shook his head. “Can’t. I’d be forfeiting if I cross that line.” He pointed at the red line over the threshold. “Take one of the other academics to a different event. Give yourself a break. I’ll come find you when we’re done here, okay?”

O’Neill was already feeling better, now that he’d talked to Daniel and seen with his own eyes that the man was unharmed. He nodded, curious as hell to watch the next event, but not sure he could handle it. Jack gave his friend a long look.

“At least, we know now how the hóstach handle cheating now. Immediate, public and permanent exclusion ensure that few will even try to break the rules. That’s good news, isn’t it?” Daniel looked hopeful.

He was always so very full of hope. Jack loved that about him, too.

“Don’t die today, Daniel.”

“I’ll do my best.”

Jack shifted his gaze to the elf. “Don’t you let him die, Zazz,” he ordered softly. “Remember, you’re supposed to be protecting him, not the other way around.”

She lifted her delicate chin. This time, her voice was strong. “I will not fail again, O’Neill.”

He could see in her eyes how wrecked she was over what had happened in the simulation, but he treated her like he would have any new recruit. When they messed up, they had to own it, had to improve. If they didn’t, people might die, and he didn’t want Daniel to be the one paying that price.

He’d been too permissive with Sam Carter, and would not let the same thing happen again here, even though the elf wasn’t under his direct command.

They understood each other.

He headed back to the stands, gathered up Aed, Major Carter and Thing One, and the foursome left to investigate another, hopefully more sedate gaming establishment.

***

Later That Evening

“You’re late, Daniel,” Jack carped as the commander slid into his chair at their usual dinner table.

But the other man was all in one piece, apparently undamaged, and that was reason enough to celebrate. Jack’s curiosity, however, had to be satisfied. “How’d you do today?”

Aed stood up from his place on the seat beside Jack and snagged a roll from the table.

Daniel cleared his throat and turned his plate of rice, fish and vegetables just so. His eyebrows arched. His mouth drew up into a bow. He picked up Niamh from the seat beside him and sat her in his lap, whispering an invitation to her to help him eat his meal, obviously avoiding answering.

“He won!” Charlie cheered, pumping a fist into the air. “And we cleaned up today with the betting!”

Daniel cleared his throat again, glancing at the other academics. “How did your play go today?”

Song patted the cube-shaped trophy in front of him. “I did okay with the role-playing game. Third place. Learned a lot, too, so I should do better next time.”

“Well done, everyone!” Daniel was obviously proud of all of them. “Tomorrow we’ll go out in two teams. Our soldiers will take the first turns. When one of the soldiers is competing, the other will be on watch over the academics. Then in the evening after dinner, we’ll switch off and the academics will play.”

“How about if we call you guys the A Team?” suggested Moon. “We’ll be the B Team. It is y’all’s show, after all, Deej.”

She handed a big piece of bright pink fruit to Clodagh, who was sitting on her lap.

The little family was now part of their regular dinner crew, and still sharing a room with Jack and Daniel.

Daniel’s soft smile was filled with admiration. “Okay. And because I want everyone to get to know each other well, I’ll be assigning different teams each day. Tomorrow’s team one will be Song and Last. Jarod, you’re with Charlie and Story. Jack, you’ll be with me…” He sighed. “… and Zazz.”

The elf beamed. “You were amazing today, my Daniel! Now you have not only saved our queen, but me as well! I will be honored to watch over you for the rest of my life!”

Tzatzil recounted the play-by-play of Daniel’s archery match – complete with sound effects – with all the excitement of a ten-year-old. When she launched into the final three rounds, Jack’s food got cold as he sat, unmoving, on the edge of his seat. He stared at her, occasionally glancing at a blushing Daniel, both wishing he’d been there to see the show and glad he’d been elsewhere.

Daniel’s face was filled with such guilt when he finally met Jack’s eyes, begging for forgiveness.

“Doctor Wintersmith,” O’Neill said quietly. He reached his arm toward the man seated to his left without looking away from their commander. “Please take my pulse. I think I may be having a heart attack.”

Song dropped his fork, pulled back Jack’s sleeve a little and placed his fingers on the inside of his wrist as he checked his watch.

“Jack.” Daniel was obviously embarrassed, but worried, too. Questioning. Are you really okay?

“Daniel.” He pointed to his head. “You see all this gray hair? You did that.”

“Pulse is strong and steady,” Song reported, reaching for his fork again. He glanced between the two men. “Probably just -- Oh! That was a joke.”

 “O’Neill,” Moon called, her tone firm, her face set, eyeing him from Daniel’s right. “Get off your high horse and stop browbeating him. He’s doing his job. You do yours.”

After a moment of awkward silence, Daniel asked for other verbal reports from the team. Each told their stories – some more artfully than others – and while they took their turns, he made notes for his daily report to General Waring.

The little seirbhíseach in his lap peered at his tablet with great interest.

Jack watched all of them, keeping his thoughts and opinions to himself. He studied his team, the other diners, the wait staff, the design of the building and the technology, tucking details away for later review. On the face of it, this place might be a lot of fun, but he knew there was something else going on here, something they didn’t yet understand.

It was too perfect, too safe, too cool.

Which meant that the most powerful players were behind the scenes, studying their guests, learning their secrets, their tells, their strategies, how their minds worked, collecting data on their produce with every new shipment of food.

Jack’s spidey-sense was tingling all over, and until he put all the pieces together, he was not at all certain that whatever Prize this place was offering would be worth the price of playing the game.

***

As they entered the Stag Bar, Daniel recognized the Gamekeeper from P7J-989 sitting by himself at a corner table.

Their eyes met briefly and the man turned away, putting his back to the door.

Daniel took a seat at the bar to place their drinks order and have a moment to himself. He still didn’t fully understand how to enter in the big prize competition; only certain that it had something to do with the number of other contests won. If only there were someone he could ask…

“Why the long face, cara?”

He glanced up to meet the twinkling hazel eyes of the man with the antlers, looking right at him as he set the last drink on the tray.

Then Daniel remembered that people tended to chat up bartenders. They were great sources of local information.

“My friends and I want to enter the contest for the big Prize,” he admitted, “but we can’t figure out how.”

“Ah. That.” The bartender poured another drink, carefully layering eight different liquids into a perfect rainbow, topped with a thin strip of foamy cream. “I can tell you all you need to know.” He set the drink on the tray with the others Daniel had ordered.

“Great! Thank you. What’s your name?”

“Call me Conall. I’ll meet you at your table.” He hefted the tray onto one hand and lifted it high above his head as he came out from behind the bar.

“Let me carry the drinks,” Daniel suggested, eyeing the antlers curving around the back of the man’s head. They made a neat cage for his skull. Each one had been inscribed with Celtic knotwork and unfamiliar runes. He’d love to study the patterns, but now wasn’t the right time to ask permission.

“Not on your life, pal! Takes a fine hand to make that Rainbow Hammer and one little jiggle to destroy it. Now, off wi’ ya!” Conall waved him away.

“I’m Daniel, by the way. Daniel Jackson.” He couldn’t help himself. “Um, I was noticing the runes on your antlers and was wondering if you know what the inscriptions say?”

The bartender froze in mid-step. His head turned slowly to meet his companion’s gaze with wide eyes. “You saw the runes?”

“Yes! I’m a bit of a language buff, and I’ve never seen that writing before. I’d like to study it, maybe later, when we have time. If that’s all right with you.” He smiled hopefully. “I’m not trying to be rude. Just interested.”

A slow, wistful smile spread over the man’s face. “No offense taken, cara. If there’s time, I’d be pleased for you to have a closer look. I don’t know what it says meself. Wasn’t my hand that carved it, after all.”

He nodded toward the table. “Come. Let’s join your friends now.”

Conall sat down on the only open seat and placed the drinks in the middle of the table, just as Daniel had done. He tucked his long legs up tailor-style on the bench and then raised the multicolored drink in toast. “Slainte!”

Glasses clinked. Everyone had a sip of something – except for the bartender, who downed his amazing-looking glass in a single long swallow. Conall set his glass down with a satisfied thud and a happy sigh, a strip of white foam still showing on his upper lip.

People scooted over to allow Daniel a place to sit while he performed the introductions.

Jack glanced at the empty bar back. Customers were starting to line up. “Um… Should we go over there, so you can work while we talk?”

Conall didn’t even glance at the bar, just flapped a negligent hand in that direction. “Nah. They can wait or go somewhere else.” He reached over and patted Daniel’s arm across from him. “Daniel says you want to try for the Prize.”

“Where do we register? And how? What are the qualifications for entry?”

“So many questions! Aren’t you here to have fun? That’s why everyone comes to Domhan An Lucht Siúil.” He leaned across the table, and the torc around his neck glinted in the warm amber light from lanterns on the support posts flanking the booth.

Daniel saw Jack staring out of the corner of his eye. He started to try to stop him, but it was too late.

“Are those real?” Jack was already reaching across the table.

The barkeep inclined his head toward him. “Wanna feel me up?”

Jack grasped one of the tines and gave it a little shake.

Conall’s head moved with it. He flashed a grin and waggled his eyebrows at Jack. “Nice rack, eh?”

Daniel rubbed his face, at once relieved that the being hadn’t taken offense and embarrassed that Jack had even asked to touch them. “So, how do we get in?”

“Well, actually, you’re already competing.”

That was a surprise.

“If you’re here near the time of the big contest, you’re automatically entered as soon as you start playing. If you’re here to sell something, provide a service or just watch, naturally, you’re not.”

“So how do we stay in the contest? Is it based on total wins, total credits…”

“You just play,” announced Conall with a wide grin. “The final contest is by invitation only, so if you’re not contacted by a hóstach the night before, you didn’t make it.”

Daniel felt a sense of panic start to rise. “There has to be a more concrete determining factor. We have to be able to set a goal so we know how to reach it. Winning this is important to our whole species, Conall. We’re fighting for our lives here!”

“Against?”

“The Goa’uld,” Jack replied darkly. “They aren’t here in your bar right now, but I’m sure you’ve seen ‘em. Loud clothes, weird voices, glowing eyes…”

“They take our people as hosts against our will,” explained Daniel. “They make slaves of us, or destroy those they can’t conquer.”

Conall glanced pointedly at the furry seirbhíseach at the table. “There are slaves here. Will you fight for them as well?”

Every human eye at the table widened in surprise.

“Slaves?” Jack ruffled Aed’s fur absently. “That word translates as servant in Irish.”

“I take it you haven’t purchased these three seirbhíseach? You can’t take ‘em home wi’ ya, then. You’ll have to buy them from their current owner first.”

“Then we will,” Daniel shot back, certain in his heart that was the right decision.

“Daniel!” Colonel Standing’s voice held a note of warning.

“How much, and how do we find their owner? Can they live free here after we’re gone, or will we need to take them with us to keep them safe?”

“Safe from what?” asked Conall. “They’re well treated, by law. They have food, shelter, work. They’re in no danger.”

“Then what about these guys?” Daniel demanded, struggling to rein in his temper. “They were homeless and starving until we took them in.”

Conall shrugged. “It’s not likely they’re lost. Their hóstach owner probably died and left no heirs. Eventually another hóstach would’ve taken them in, as you have.”

Niamh climbed up on the table, yawned and curled up into a little ball. In an instant, she was asleep.

“I mean, they’re useful for small tasks like cleaning and carrying. The hóstach keep them because they’re so adorable.”

“Oh, like pets,” Moon suggested, scratching Clodagh’s ear. “That’s a whole different relationship than slavery.”

Only Daniel wasn’t buying it. These creatures had language. That made them sentient.

Jack leaned close to Daniel’s ear. “We can’t save everybody, Daniel. Don’tcha think we should make some inquiries first?”

He shot his friend a hard look. “No one should have to live as a slave.”

“We’ll deal with it diplomatically. Maybe we just don’t have the same interpretation of the word. We can look into it tomorrow with the authorities.” Jack’s expression was sympathetic, caring, but the underlying look of warning was also patently clear.

We don’t have to like it. We have a job to do. Focus on that.

“What is the final contest like?” asked Moon, obviously changing the subject to cool everyone down. “Is it a single event? Do we participate as individuals or a team?”

Conall studied his empty glass for a moment before he answered. “I mustn’t give too much away, cara. All of you may participate, or only one, if that’s your choice, but there will be elements of every game you play in the event, so choose wisely. Play games you feel certain you can win, and win as often as you can.”

“Is there a credit amount that we need to hit?” Song looked thoughtful, his gaze a million miles away.

“Not really.” Conall shook his head. “You just have to be in the top percentage of winners who stay to play the game.” He raised his eyebrows with a guileless half-smile. “Not as many people want to participate as you might imagine. In the few days before the game, most of the players return to the arrival center and come back as visitors, just to watch. You’ll see bubbles everywhere.”

“Oh.” Charlie caught Daniel’s eye and held up his hóstach device. “How many teams played in the last five Prize matches?”

The device rattled off the statistics.

“That’s fewer than ten teams per contest,” he announced. “Our odds are looking good! All we have to do is win more often than we lose, and not drop out before Game Day.”

He addressed the device again. “What is the average entrance fee per team for the Prize match?”

“Approximately one million credits per person.”

Conall slashed a hand through the air. “That’s not the way it works,” he told the group. “If you’re chosen, you put up all your remaining funds as the entry fee. If you lose, you go home with lighter pockets. If you win, you get the Prize and nothing else.”

“Which is one way the Gamers make their money,” Charlie explained. “The biggest winners leave empty-handed.”

“Well, not quite,” Conall chuckled. “There’s a reason The Prize is so coveted, you know. After you’ve competed, you’ll understand.”

“Is there any way to get a peek at the Prize before the game?” Moon watched the antlered man from beneath her brows. “I’m not sure we want to waste our people’s time and resources unless we know it’s worth what we’re going to pay for it.”

“Yeah, like those virtual reality machines that guy in the corner put up a few years ago,” Jack mused, idly stroking Aed’s head. He nodded toward the Gamekeeper. “Been there. Done that. Wore out the T-shirt. If we won something like that, we’d want our money back along with an apology from the hóstach, ‘cause we’ve already got a few in our basement.”

“Where are you staying? I’ll see what I can find out.” Conall unfolded his long legs and stood up. “Might take a few days, mind. I’ll bring a bottle of the good stuff.”

Daniel gave him the address of their hotel.

Conall leaned over and ruffled Aed’s fur. “You tell ‘em who owns you, now, so they can buy your little family and you can be done with hiding. I think you can trust this lot, little fella.”

As the man’s body bent right in front of him, Daniel got a good look at the belt around his tunic. It had what appeared to be ram’s heads at either end, but in the right light, the horns could be flared fins and the head made of the closed four-flapped mouth of a symbiote. The body also had faint scaly markings that could easily be mistaken for snake skin, and small ridges that could be folded fins.

Daniel held his breath until the antlered man had returned to the bar, letting it out in a whoosh as he turned to the team.

“Did you see his belt?” he asked them, wide-eyed. “Did it look like a symbiote to you?”

“With two heads? Yeah, I noticed that, too.” Jack sipped his whisky. “Anybody ever hear of a two-headed Goa’uld?”

“I’m of two minds about that,” Song quipped, then flashed an embarrassed grin when no one laughed at his joke. “Sorry, guys. I couldn’t help it.”

“Does that mean he’s a Goa’uld?” Moon stared at the bartender, her eyes narrowing in distrust.

“I think it’s definitely possible. We should all be very wary around him.” Daniel searched through his memory for a two-headed god, but this fellow didn’t look like the Roman Janus. Too Celtic.

“Do we think he might’ve been lying about the information he gave us?” asked Jarod, still studying the antlered man. Then his gaze moved to the green-furred creature in Jack’s lap. “Or maybe we’re asking questions of the wrong people.”

Daniel followed his gaze. “Yes, Aed. Your family has been awfully quiet. What can you tell us about this Conall guy? Did he tell the truth about the contest?”

Jack listened and duly translated for the little guy. “He says Conall is a good guy. He feeds the strays, shelters those he can. They call him the ‘lord of the wild,’ whatever that means.”

Jarod chuckled. “Daniel.” When his commander met his eyes, he glanced at the bartender. “I know who he is now. That’s Cernunnos, also associated with Conall Cernach, a mythological Celtic hero.”

Eyes wide, Daniel snapped his fingers, excited now by the discovery. “Of course! Cernunnos was an early god of the Celts, lord of the animals and wild things. He’s rarely mentioned in mythology because he keeps to himself. He’s also called the Horned God among modern Wiccans.”

Jack frowned. “You mean witches?”

“No, if I meant ‘witches’, I’d have said ‘witches’.”

“What’s he a god of?” asked Moon. “Aside from the aforementioned.” She finished draining her glass and sucked on an ice cube.

“He’s not your typical Goa’uld, for sure. For one thing, he’s a protector of life, a guardian of wealth, secret treasures and mysteries. Horns are associated with fertility or aggressive protection, but Cernunnos is also a guardian of the underworld.” Daniel couldn’t take his eyes off the being now.

“The Tok’ra have never mentioned him, have they?” Story stood up and started stacking empty glasses back onto the tray. “I’d have remembered a name like that. Reminds me of Cair Bannog.”

“High five on the Monty Python reference,” Jack called, and lifted a hand toward the other man, who gave his palm a resounding slap.

Jarod twirled his glass, giving it the long stare. “You might call this place an underworld, if you compare it to Vegas on Earth. There are a lot of things going on behind the scenes. The whole place is full of mysteries to solve – every one of the games is a puzzle, of sorts. The object is winning; therefore, obtaining wealth. Maybe this is his Goa’uld kingdom. The people here just don’t know they’re in his service.”

Moon set her glass on Song’s tray. “So, are you saying this Conall guy is the boss of the whole world?”

“There’s a good chance of that,” Daniel agreed, nodding, “but we can’t be sure just yet. We’ll need to do some digging first. Jarod…” He eyed the Major. “… that’ll be your puzzle to solve.”

“On my own?”

Daniel nodded. “I trust you to be careful. I know you’re smart, and I remember how much you love a good puzzle.”

“Thank you, Doctor Jackson.”

“Tomorrow, the rest of us will go for the strategy games—“

“Uh, Daniel?” Jack raised his hand, like a kid in a schoolroom.

The role-reversal was getting to be kind of fun. “Yes, Jack?”

O’Neill leaned in close and whispered into his ear, “We’re being watched, here. Maybe we oughtta save the strategy games till last. Not give away our good moves, you know?”

Daniel straightened. “Jack made a good point.  We’re going to lay low on the strategy games to start. Story, you’re with Charlie tomorrow doing the betting. Anyone have preferences for other gaming?”

After brief discussion, Daniel agreed to accompany Jack for a round of golf. Both would then participate in marksmanship contests with Tzatzil. Moon would do a few rounds of martial arts and then switch out with Story so he could do the same with Tzatzil, while Jack accompanied Daniel to a fencing contest. The twins would meet up to do some of the role-playing virtual games, and then the team would regroup over dinner.

“And you…” Daniel glanced at Aed. “…need to tell us where to find your owners so we can negotiate for your freedom. I’m assigning Jarod to also handle the purchase first thing tomorrow. Once that’s done, we’ll figure out how to make you free forever, and see if we can’t do the same for the rest of your people.”

The furry seirbhíseach’s ears drooped. He glanced across the table at his mate and child. With big, frightened eyes, he answered Daniel’s question through Jack, and then began to relate the tale of the plight of his people, and how they had come to be the slaves of the hóstach on Gambler’s World.

***

February 6, 2005

The Next Morning

The Hall of Records was a small, cramped storefront, wholly unwelcoming and in obvious need of repairs. The level of neglect in the building clearly illustrated how unimportant the service was to the natives.  The hóstach Jarod had dealt with had been brusque and business-like.

When he’d finished his inquiry, he stepped over to the front door and activated the Aua communication device built into the collar of his shirt.

“Daniel?”

“Did you find out about the purchase process?”

“And negotiated a price,” Jarod answered, studying the hóstach behind the counter.

There were no other customers in the lobby, so the creature had returned to electronic gaming on a wall mounted screen, ignoring him completely.

“How much?”

Jarod winced. “Thirty thousand each. That’s the absolute rock-bottom price. Do I have your authority to make the purchase?”

Daniel sighed through the earpiece. “Do it. We’ll make it up somehow.”

“Will do. As soon as I finish the paperwork here, I’ll get started on the other half of my project for today. Maybe an hour or two? They have quite the bureaucracy.”

“Roger, that. Daniel out.”

Jarod smiled, folded the ownership papers and slid them into his jacket pocket. Since the servants had no owner and therefore belonged to the State, the “purchase” had simply been a matter of signing the papers to claim them. It hadn’t actually cost them a single point.

Now, however, Jarod had time and funds to run the other errand he’d planned for himself prior to starting the investigation of Cernunnos.

Through the hóstach device he wore, he summoned a car that took him to the virtual reality gaming section, then walked the rest of the way to the Gamekeeper’s humble little shop.

The man recognized him as he came in, and scurried behind one of the units on display.

“It’s okay,” Jarod promised. “You don’t have to be afraid of me. I’m here to do some business.”

“You were with Jackson and O’Neill from SG-One,” the Gamekeeper called, doing his best to hide. His tall hat, however, was plainly in view. “They do not like me.”

“Well, you have to admit, your device gave them a pretty rough ride.” Jarod peered into the nearest machine, examining the hardware he could see and extrapolating function, backward engineering in his head. “But I’m not here to talk about them. I may be interested in buying one of these devices, if it will meet my needs.”

The Gamekeeper peered around the base of the fan-shaped network dish affixed to the top of the framework. “You would… buy… my… machines?”

“I’m interested,” Jarod repeated. “Did you design them? Or maybe know something about their internal workings? After all, you maintained them for a very long time on your home world, according to Doctor Jackson.”

Almost his whole head came into view now, sweat beading on the man’s brow. “Yes, my design. Why?”

Jarod moved around behind the device, searching for the panel where the computer hardware might be located. “SG-One reported that two of their party were screened out of the experience. They could look, but not participate. One was Jaffa and the other was a former symbiote host. They later adapted it to accept the Jaffa, but I wonder… Could it be adapted for other brainwave patterns?”

“Yes.” The alien eased a little more into view, still half hidden behind his machine. “I can adapt it however you wish.”

“Are there built-in life support systems as well?”

“Of course. These machines maintained my people for many years during the Long Sleep.”

“And might they be adapted to support other life forms?”

Jarod saw the interest developing in the Gamekeeper’s eyes. Tease by tease, the man was responding to the lure. He was almost all the way out from behind his shield.

“Certainly.”

“You seem to have a lot of these machines here,” Jarod observed. “I’m guessing your people gave them up once they found their world restored?”

Two steps backward, the Gamekeeper retreated, fear etched in his lined face. “I. I was told to destroy them all. It was only after much pleading that I was allowed to take them from my home world, to save the technology.” He gazed fondly on the black metal frame, his fingers stroking the padded couch where the gamer would lie. “These are my greatest work,” he murmured. “These beautiful devices saved my people.”
“You should’ve been hailed as a hero,” Jarod assured him.

At last, the alien’s dark eyes met his directly. He smiled and hurried over to his customer with gratitude in his wide smile. “You understand! Oh, my friend, how may I help you?”

Jarod popped open the access panel and took a good look under the hood. “Well, if you can make the adaptations I want, I’ll buy everything you got.” He grinned. “And if that’s not enough, I’ll contract with you to make more.”

The Gamekeeper was ecstatic, wriggling with joy. “My friend, it will be my pleasure!” Then his joy vanished. “But who will care for my machines? They will need a home, a keeper to maintain—“

“I was hoping I’d be able to include your services in the bargain,” Jarod assured him, “because if we succeed, a whole lot of people will finally understand and appreciate your sacrifice. You’ll be celebrated all over the galaxy as a hero.”

“Truly? You do not jest?” There was abject hope in the man’s eyes, some admiration, maybe a little infatuation.

“I guarantee it… provided you can make the adjustments I need.”

Hurrying to the front door, the Gamekeeper closed and locked it. “Right this way,” he invited, head high and shoulders back with pride. “We will discuss your design parameters, a research site and requirements for the park. How many will you require, do you think?”

Jarod followed him to a tiny desk in the rear of the shop. “Well, how many do you have now?”

Not quite two hours later, Jarod left the shop with lighter pockets and Step One of a plan.

He had also made a new friend on another world.

With a second success for the day, he started on the next part of his quest: to find the true power behind Gambler’s World, and whether or not their guess about Conall’s secret identity was correct.

He was having fun doing this, and wished he’d been able to join up with the SGC sooner. He’d enjoyed getting reacquainted with Daniel, but there was so much to do now. His accidental discovery of Machello’s inventions in the Area 51 warehouse a year ago had set him on that path, diverting him completely from the crusade he’d been pursuing at the time.

Now, he wasn’t just saving a person here and there. He was going to save whole worlds.

***

Later That Day

“Where are we going, again?” asked Jack. He was practically skipping after finishing eighteen holes of golf. Out of thirty-two players, his team had come in fourth, but Jack had had a great time.

“Marksmanship,” Daniel reminded him. “You, me and Tzatzil, but I want to check on Moon first.” He pressed his fingertips against the collar device to call his teammate.

This was a great piece of tech they’d obtained from Xiphia’s people. It covered a much greater distance than their standard issue radios, and was more dependable in cities like this one. The hardware was out of sight beneath their collars, tiny receivers worn in their ears like hearing aids.

“Report, Colonel Standing?”

“Got a few bruises,” she admitted through the earpiece. “The hosts have a way of making this virtual stuff feel pretty real.”

“But you’re not injured?” Now Daniel was worried.

“Had worse training newbies,” she answered on a chuckle. “I’m fine, Deej. Story’s up next. Got an ETA on Zazz?”

“She’s going first on the marksmanship, so she should be there about the time Story’s finishing, since these rounds are shorter. You sure I don’t need to send Song to check you out?”

“Positive. Go shoot stuff, and send Zazz when she’s done. That is, provided you can pry her off your hip.” There was a definite smile in her voice.

He chuckled back. “It’s a good thing she trusts Jack to keep me safe.”

“Any word on the Furbys?”

Daniel winced. “Yeah. Pretty pricey, but then, it’s hard to put a price tag on freedom, right?”

The Colonel was quiet for a moment. “What’s the damage?”

He scratched his cheek, meeting Jack’s eyes. Daniel still hadn’t told him the fee yet, and O’Neill was definitely listening in on their conversation. “Ninety thousand.”

Her response was loud and full of swearing.

Jack’s eyes were blazing.

Daniel jerked the earpiece out, waiting till some of the volume died down before putting it back in place. “Look, I’m sorry, but it had to be done! I’ll go back to Waring and see if he can send more goods to make up the difference.”

“Damn it, Daniel! We’ve got six million to earn in five weeks!. Charlie’s doing some amazing things with the betting, but I don’t think we’re gonna hit that mark now. Not even close. We needed that ninety thousand.”

O’Neill’s head nodded in agreement.

“We still don’t even know if we’re staying in the contest yet,” he growled back, his stomach clenching, dreading she might be right.

She sighed in his ear. “We’ll do the best we can. Moon, out.”

Daniel studied the furry child tucked into the corner of his arm, fast asleep. “We did the right thing,” he murmured to Jack. “I know it.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Jack returned. “Maybe we have to struggle a little. No one said this was gonna be easy.” He flexed his right hand. “But right now, we have a contest to win. Get your game face on, and let’s go do that. ‘Kay?”

They watched Tzatzil finish her practice round, and then get into the booth to shoot. When she was done, Daniel handed off Niamh to her and then took his turn. After Jack was done, they’d managed two winning spots with a nice payoff and then headed to the fencing arena.

“Fencing, huh?” asked Jack as they entered the building. “Guess I shoulda known, with all those swords on the walls of your apartment.”

Daniel said nothing. He checked their credit total, and was pleased to see their latest win -- in addition to Charlie’s betting -- had helped them to recover almost a quarter of their loss.

“Remember to warm up first,” Jack called as Daniel checked in as a competitor.

“I got this, Jack,” he said over his shoulder.

But O’Neill saw through his friend’s disquiet and came as close as he could to Daniel moving through the line. He brushed Daniel’s sleeve with his fingertips. “Forget about the points right now,” Jack advised. “Concentrate on this contest and nothing else, okay? We’ll manage.”

Daniel smiled at him. “Be here now.” He nodded, and this time, he meant it. “I got this. I’m good.”

***

Later That Evening

“You shoulda seen him!” Jack crowed. “Lopped that blue guy’s head clean off!”

“I did not,” Daniel challenged, horrified at the way his friend described the final fencing match.

“Sure looked like it from where I was sitting!” Jack lifted his glass with a wide grin. “Kudos to the Man in Black.”

Daniel glanced down at his shirt and pants, his initial panic assuaged by the reminder that he was, indeed, dressed all in black. All of them were. The others had to be curious about that non sequitur reference to his ninja days in Colorado Springs, but no one raised an eyebrow.

“And we have three more wins on the books,” Moon agreed. “Charlie, what’s our total?”

“We had a good day. Earned back almost half of what we spent on our little buddies. I’ve done some calculations on the number of contests we’ll need to compete in, as well as anticipated returns from betting, and – I’m sorry, Daniel – I don’t think we can hit our mark unless we have some unexpected big wins. Even then… if we don’t make the numbers, I’ve devised a Plan B. I just need to have a chat with the game authorities to make sure it’ll work.”

“And Plan B is…?” Jack’s brows lifted in further question.

“Well, I won’t be participating in the Big Game, but I’m earning credits betting. If I withdraw before the game, I’m assuming all of my credits will go to the team. What if that’s true of all the players on Team Earth?”

Daniel pondered that. “If it does and we only end up with credits enough for two players and all the others go home, we’ll have enough to qualify, right?”

“I think so.” Charlie nodded. “Right now, we have enough for four players out of seven, not counting me. But then you have to decide who to send home, and how do you choose? Based on total number of wins? Type of games to be played? We don’t know enough about the contest yet.”

“Conall said he’ll be by our rooms later tonight,” Daniel reported to the team.

He glanced at the bartender and lifted his glass in salute when he caught Conall’s eye.

“Speaking of,” Jarod piped up, “I’ve done some investigating on our horny friend there.”

Jack’s brows lifted. “Here, here!”

Moon chuckled.

Tzatzil blushed.

“There’s no real government here, as we suspected, but no one deviates from the rules. It’s a perfectly ordered society.”

“There’s no such thing,” Daniel countered. “Not among intelligent species, anyway. Bees and ants, maybe…”

“Nevertheless,” Jarod continued, “there are indications of direction that all lead back here, to this pub.”

“Which means Conall is the boss, as we suspected.”

Direction,” the Major corrected, “not control. Big difference. Huge.”

“So the hóstach police themselves and their patrons with no one at the top. Interesting.” Moon swirled the contents of her glass around with the ice cubes thoughtfully. She lifted the guide device around her neck and spoke into it. “Provide crime statistics for the last solar year.”

The record displayed above the table, including video recordings of those crimes in progress and the apprehension of each of the four perpetrators only minutes afterward.

“You realize this could all be manufactured,” Jack offered, staring into the bottom of his glass, ever the skeptic. “Just another piece of PR to make the guests feel comfy.”

Daniel shrugged, eyeing the statistics. “Even the Goa’uld seem to be behaving themselves here.”

Tzatzil poked her finger through one of the holograms. “It does not say what the penalty was. Do they have prisons? Are the criminals killed or just exiled?”

Moon asked.

“The offenders were rehabilitated and returned to their home worlds,” the hóstach device replied.

“What does ‘rehabilitation’ entail?” she inquired further. “Show rehabilitation methods.”

“Images are not available.”

No matter how they inquired, the device didn’t enlighten them further.

“I don’t know about you guys,” Jarod said slowly, “but I’d be real careful about committing a crime in this place. Punishment is as much a mystery as getting into the Big Game.”

Moon’s dark eyes glittered as she regarded her teammates. “So we watch our step. Play the games honestly. Stay out of trouble when we’re not competing.” She eyed her commander. “And don’t spend any points on anything else unless it’s food and lodging. Right, Doctor Jackson?”

He glanced at the little Furbys at the table, blissfully unaware of their own plight. It was so unfair, but Moon had painfully reminded him why they were there. When the contest was over, he’d see to it that a permanent diplomatic team was stationed here to work on the liberation of the helpless aliens.

For now, though, he had to play the game by the rules.

“Right,” he agreed.

He’d have to deal with the disquiet in his soul himself.

***

Later That Night

A knock sounded at the door of their hotel room.

Before Jack got the door open, Tzatzil was in the hallway behind their visitor.

She looked uncertain, like there was some internal struggle going on inside her.

Jack stepped aside and let Conall in with Zazz right on his six. A moment later, Moon exited their room and went down the hall, knocking on doors to bring the others along for the meeting.

Conall seemed surprise and bemused. “If I’d known we were having a party, I’d have brought more glasses!”

He held up a dusty bottle of brown liquor in one hand and three glasses in the other. “I’m harmless, really. Look at me!” He turned this way and that, showing off his slender figure.

Daniel cleared his throat. “And we’ve learned the hard way over the last eight years or so that things aren’t always what they seem. Would you like to have a seat?” He gestured to a small table and several chairs they’d set up in the back of the room near the windows.

Conall crossed his legs and levered down into a tailor’s seat on the floor, the coins in the purse at his side clinking together noisily. “I’ll be fine here,” he promised, and set the bottle and glasses on the green moss-like rug beneath him. “Gather round, everyone. There’s plenty here.”

He began to pour, handing the tumblers out to those seated closest.

Daniel remained standing, hands in the pockets of his black trousers, with Tzatzil at his side. The elf had placed herself between Daniel and the visitor, not in the way to block his view, but in place to stop an attack.

Jack met her gaze, shook his head and nodded to one side.

She obeyed the silent command and took another step back, but he could see she was still uneasy.

“So we’ve been doing a little digging,” Daniel confessed, “and it appears that you may be in charge of this whole city, Conall.”

The antlered man laughed. “I can see how it might look that way,” he admitted. “I did create it, but I’m not running it. I have a profound dislike for bureaucrats and no wish to be one of ‘em.”

“So when you said you’d find out more about the rules…” Moon leaned forward, elbows on knees, to regard him with an accusingly arched eyebrow.

“Just a little game I like to play,” he confessed, screwing up his face in playfully overt humor as he bent toward her. “You lot are quick and persistent. That bodes well toward earning a spot in the Finals.”

He sat straight and poured a third glass. “Anyone else? It’s not medicated, I swear. Too good a drop to taint with drugs.” Then he had a sip. His reaction was quite comical, complete with rolling, wide eyes and a harsh exhalation. “Wooooooo, that burns so good!”

Jack fetched a few more glasses from their own mini-bar and handed them over. “Tell us about how we get into the final. That’s the most important thing we need to know.”

“Not quite,” Moon corrected, “but we’ll start there.”

“As I said before, win as many contests as you can. Play the games you’re best at. The more skilled players you can bring into the final match, the greater your chance of winning.”

“Because?” Jack took the glass he offered and had a sniff. The smell alone nearly knocked his socks off, stinging his nose. It was a whisky with notes of fragrant smoky woods and flowers, sweet fruits and rain-washed air. His mouth watered, but he held off tasting it.

“Each of the contests will test your teams’ abilities as a whole, but individual expertise also matters. For instance, you have two excellent archers…” He grinned and winked at Daniel. “Well done, you, for not shooting the deer. I find that contest a bit disturbing, if we’re bein’ truthful with one another. I’m sure you can glean why.” He thumped one of his tines.

A musical note sounded, as if a throaty, mellow bell had been struck.

“The contests are divided up into four categories,” Conall explained, “just as they are at all the gaming houses. Games of chance – and by the way, these are not rigged for the house to win, because that would defeat the purpose of the test – those play to your ability with higher mathematics, pattern recognition, and sometimes strictly to luck. Seven, the hard way!” He mimed rolling a pair of dice.

Charlie beamed as several of his teammates looked his way.

Jack thought Eppes had been a good choice on Daniel’s part. The kid was affable and easy-going, and the way he talked about math was actually interesting. Plus, he’d scored big on the betting so far.

“Then there are the games of skill, like the archery I mentioned earlier.” Conall poured himself another finger of the whisky. “You can choose to play a lot of different skill games or concentrate on a few. Just bear in mind that you may be required to use a variety of skills in the finals, so the more you have, obviously…”

“The better equipped we’ll be to meet all the in-game challenges,” Charlie finished for the alien.

Conall nodded. “And then there are the puzzle games, of course, which will be highly featured in the finals, as well as the strategy part of it, since you’ll be playing against other teams. I can’t give you any more detail than that...” His expression lost all humor. “… because it would be cheating.”

“I’ve got a question.” Charlie held up a hand. When the alien looked his way, he asked, “Do the number of points affect the number of players?”

“Aye, see?” He raised his glass in Charlie’s direction. “You must be the math guy. And aye. A million per is the smallest starting number. Of course, if you’ve got more than that, it’s all taken for the entry fee.”

“And the Prize?” Moon pinned him with her steady gaze. “We have to know it’s worth our time and trouble. No vague hints this time.”

Conall shook his head, which sounded faintly like bells ringing. “On that, I’m afraid I cannot answer specifically, but I will tell you this: My people are aware of your struggle. The Prize will be one of great power that will be helpful in your quest for survival.”

His head bowed, contemplating the amber liquid in his glass. “When I was a boy, just on the cusp of manhood, I went in search of a dragon that was said to live in a cave far away from my home. Legend said it guarded a vast treasure, and whoever killed it would have power and riches beyond imagining.” His gaze turned faraway inward as he lifted it to Daniel’s knees.

“Which is where you got the funding for this… place,” Daniel assumed aloud.

Conall nodded, still lost in his past. “It took some time to find the dragon’s lair. I dreamed of how I would fight this creature I’d never seen and knew nothing about. I imagined how I’d use my vast wealth. But when I got there…”

He lifted anguished eyes to Daniel’s face, searching for understanding. “He wasn’t at all what I’d thought. He was lonely, very old, very wise. My people had trapped him in the cave because they feared him.”

“You befriended him instead of killing him.” A soft smile lit Daniel’s eyes. “You set him free, and he gave you his treasure willingly. You are Cernunnos.”

The alien nodded. “We are Cernunnos. We are Conall Cernach, and yes, this is the place we built together.”

Jack pointed to his belt. “So… not a Goa’uld?”

Conall/Cernunnos beamed and shook his head. “No, cara Jack. Far older, far different in nature. Another manner of being entirely, else I would not have given myself to him. I will be no one’s slave. But who wouldn’t want to share their soul with a dragon?”

“And yet you allow slavery on your world,” Daniel sniped. “How is that different?”

The alien’s hooded eyes sparkled with secrets. “Play the game, cara Daniel. You’ll have all your answers before you leave our world. That I promise you.”

Conall poured the last glass and offered it to Daniel. “Slainte,” he said softly.

Jack had tried to find any shred of evil in the guy, but there were no alarm bells, no shades or hints of darkness. As hard as he’d tried to be wary, he found himself liking this guy. The walls he’d spent years building to keep others out simply refused to come up around the alien.

He trusted his gut, and bent down a little to clink his glass against Conall’s. “Slainte,” he echoed. “To your health.”

***

March 6, 2005

One Month Later

The arrival center was incredibly busy, just a few days before the big game. Players were leaving en masse, only to return moments later and go back into the city enclosed in visitors’ bubbles. The Stargate was so booked Daniel had had to make a reservation for the time it would take him to contact the SGC to make his daily report plus a new request, hat in hand.

He’d been dreading this moment for days now, but it was obvious that the team was falling short of their goal. A new board had been put up outside the strategy gaming clubs showing the top ten teams, and SG-Zero wasn’t on the list. Daniel had checked.

They were eleventh.

They needed some big wins. Unfortunately, Charlie had advised that they not gamble away anything they didn’t have to in order to avoid any potential losses. That had prompted him to come begging for more funds.

He could feel Tzatzil at his left elbow where she always was and wished yet again that she’d just back up a little. This was a conversation he really wanted to have in private. The Tuathan woman wasn’t judgmental – he was grateful for that – but a man had his pride, and Daniel’s was dented enough.

The PA system called his name, and he stepped up to the DHD while a hóstach dialed Earth for him. He held up his tablet, activated the built-in radio-frequency software and waited for the event horizon to settle. He thanked the alien and stepped closer to the Stargate, hoping for a little privacy as he turned on the earpiece to receive the audio broadcast.

Tzatzil was right behind him, close enough to feel her body heat.

“Daniel Jackson, calling the SGC. May I speak with General Waring, please?”

The man’s face appeared on the tablet screen, glasses pushed way down on his nose. “Report, Doctor Jackson. We weren’t expecting to hear from you until tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir… um…” He felt his cheeks heating up. “They’ve just posted the top scoring teams, and we aren’t on the list. I was wondering if we might…” He grimaced, hating to even ask. “… get a little more… funding?” He pleaded with his eyes. “We’re just off the mark, eleventh out of ten.”

Waring sighed. He stared hard into the camera with a face impossible to read. Then a muscle twitched in his jaw.

Daniel read that, all right.

The man was clenching his teeth.

The General took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, slipped them back on with a heavy, long sigh. “I’m sorry, Doctor, but we’ve tapped all the resources available for your stake in this project. Best I can say is, good luck and keep trying. Do you have anything else to report?”

Defeat sitting heavily on his shoulders, Daniel cued up his most recent field analysis documents and sent them through the connection.

“No, sir. Sending updates to you now. Daniel, out.”

The wormhole vanished, along with his hope.

He turned and led the way out of the arrival center, back through the players’ exit, to a waiting hover car outside.

“How’d it go?” came Jack’s voice in his ear on the way back to the hotel.

“He said no, but wished us luck. Daniel, out.”

Daniel could feel Tzatzil’s sympathetic, sorrowful gaze on him and looked the other way, out the window where he could watch the illuminated city roll by beneath them.

“Please don’t,” he snapped. “Just stop, Zazz. Please.”

The stress lightened by degrees when he felt her turn away.

***

March 7, 2005

The Day Before Game Day

Daniel picked at his breakfast.

“Chin up, big guy,” Moon prodded cheerfully. “I just saw the standings, and we’re in the top ten! That’s good news.”

“Right,” he growled. “Now if only we knew how many teams would actually be chosen to play…”

“We have enough points for three players,” added Charlie. “Maybe four, if we get a good win today.”

“Think I might take the day off.” Daniel felt absolutely glum. “Maybe just stay in bed.”

“Or you could come watch me play,” Jack suggested. “I’ve been dyin’ to hit a few more holes.”

He rolled his eyes at O’Neill. “Jack, you suck at golf! We can’t afford to lose any more points, not even the entry fee for a little mindless fun.”

The umbrage on Jack’s face was clear. “There’s no need to be hurtful, Daniel.”

Eyes downcast, Daniel mumbled an apology.

O’Neill bumped shoulders. “Just teasin’. Lighten up, willya?”

The guide device around Daniel’s neck activated. “A visitor is at the arrival center for Daniel Jackson.”

Every eye widened. A moment later, they were all on the street hailing a car… which only seated four at max.

“Look, Jack and I will go check it out,” he advised them. “You all finish eating and start your schedule for the day. I’ll catch up with you later.”

Tzatzil’s eyes were sad, marked with considerable disappointment, but she followed orders and returned inside the diner.

Daniel crossed his fingers and closed his eyes, hoping Waring had come through for them.

Sure enough, their CO was standing beside the intake tunnel where the food goods went. On a small cart next to him were wooden crates filled with eggs, meats and vegetables. It didn’t look like much, and Daniel’s heart sank.

The General stood at parade rest, hands behind his back. He gave the tiniest little smile when he saw them. He didn’t wave; just waited for them to join him.

“The hosts tell me the players have to be present when the goods are taken in, so the points can be properly attributed,” Waring announced. “I’d wanted this to be a surprise.”

He glanced at the cart. “Base personnel have agreed to go without breakfast for a week to get SG-Zero a bigger stake.”

Daniel’s heart ached with joy and pride. “Thank you, sir. Everything helps. We’ve made the top ten, but still don’t know if it’s good enough.”

“Well, in that case...” Waring handed over a round tin and a slightly dusty bottle.

“Oh, the good stuff!” Jack crowed. “Thank you, sir! I know that set you back a pretty penny.”

For a moment, Daniel didn’t breathe. His eyes widened as he read the labels.

Redbreast 21 Single Pot Still Whisky and a generous container of White Pearl Caviar.

“Not your retirement bottle!” Daniel blurted, handing the precious goods back. “I’m sorry, sir. We can’t! What if we lose?”

Waring measured him with a firm look, the tiniest smile at the corner of his mouth. “I’ll be staying for the main event, Doctor Jackson, to make sure this team provides equal value to our investment. An old friend in Home World Security is babysitting the SGC until I get back.” He gestured to the cart, his message clear.

“I’ll pay you back, I promise!” Daniel swore, even more nervous now than he’d been at breakfast.

“And I’ll hold you to that,” Waring returned dryly. He nodded at the cart. “How much do you think that’ll get us?”

Daniel chuckled and rubbed at his cheek with an index finger. “I have no idea. The exchange rate is pretty good. Our first stake was about half a mil.”

Waring’s brows lifted in genuine surprise. “Well, then! Can’t wait to see what they think of my whisky and caviar.”

“Let’s see if we can find you a hotel room, sir,” Jack offered. “If nothing else is available, you can bunk in with Daniel and me. One of us will be sleepin’ with the Furbys, though.”

“Furbys?”

Daniel went to check in the goods while Jack explained, and when that was done, the trio grabbed a taxi back to the hotel, the man in the visitor’s bubble squeezed companionably between them.

***

Charlie sat quietly at the lunch table, part of his brain listening to the excited chatter of the team’s most recent wins.

They’d moved up to ninth place on their own merit, but then one of the top ten teams withdrew, which bumped them up to eighth. Point-wise, they had enough for four players, but Daniel had been waffling on who to choose. Jarod was a strong contender, but Tzatzil had pointedly insisted on coming in order to fulfill her duty to her queen.

They had gained a good ten thousand points with the SGC’s latest food contributions, which meant they could enter several more contests to try to pad their winnings.

But as Charlie studied each of the people seated around the table – aside from the newcomer in the bubble – he realized they were all exhausted.

“I have an idea,” he said quietly.

To be honest, every single one of them intimidated the hell out of him. They were warriors. He was most certainly not. What he could do for them was limited, but he understood the urgency of getting more points.

Daniel alone heard him, and held up a hand to quiet the others.

“There’s a game of chance,” he began. “I guess it’s kind of like roulette. I’ve been watching people play it and I think…” He huffed a little laugh and shrugged. “I could explain the math to you, but I’m pretty sure your eyes would glaze over. Suffice to say, I think one good bet on this game could get us another player. If I win, maybe two.”

All eyes turned to him now.

“And if I can do that, you can all rest up today, so you’ll be fresh for tomorrow.”

“Then let’s go see this game,” Daniel agreed.

***

There were spaces for seven players around a glass column at the center of the room. Each player station featured four touch-screen computer monitors and a keyboard. Inside the column was an apparently nonsensical arrangement of pipes ending in cone-shaped collars. Some of the pipes had strings stretched between them and a small set of drums at the bottom. Another arrangement had what appeared to be brass bars arranged in a spiral. There were drums, hi-hats, xylophone keys, wooden sticks mounted on a track, and long wind chimes hanging above the center.

“Have you played this before?” asked Daniel, obviously incredulous as he studied the mystifying arrangement.

“No, but it’s fascinating!” Charlie had been entranced from the first moment he’d seen the device working. “The way you play is to input the mathematical formulas that provide a precise trajectory and momentum for each of the balls—“

“What balls?” Jack scanned the room for said balls.

“They come out of the pipes,” Charlie advised, pointing to the cones. “It’s a lot of programming.”

“And then what happens?” Jack stepped closer, taking a gander at the keyboard. “Hey! The keys changed to English just now. Cool!”

“The balls come out and, if they’ve been programmed correctly, they strike the various planes and make music.”

“And if you don’t program it correctly?”

A player stepped back from the keyboard, cackling triumphantly. He raised his hands in victory, and the machine came to life. Ten balls flew out of the pipe throats, bouncing on some of the wires, then onto the small drum heads below, and finally into catchment cones.

One missed its target and went rolling on the floor, which had a cascade effect, throwing off the rhythm of all the other balls after it.

Jack and Daniel covered their ears at the resulting cacophony.

“That,” Charlie answered.

“It looks hard,” Jack called above the noise.

Doctor Eppes nodded toward the unit with a confident smile. “I eat stuff like this for breakfast every day. Do I have permission to play?”

Daniel glanced over his shoulder at the next player stepping up to a programming station. “How long do you think it’ll take?”

“Five, six hours. I’ve got most of it plotted out in my head. Just need to get the data entered. It’s a lot of data.”

“How much will you need for the fee?” Daniel held up his wrist device, preparing to transfer the points.

“A hundred to play the game,” Charlie answered hesitantly, “but then I want you to place a bet with the rest of the stake on me to win.” He pointed to the corner booth where bets were taken.

Daniel’s eyebrows climbed up his forehead in obvious shock. “All of it?”

He nodded, aware of how much was riding on him. “Yes, sir, Doctor Jackson. I’ll call you before I set it to play so the team can come and watch. Meanwhile, enjoy your afternoon off.”

Charlie circled the cylinder, looking for an open station with just the right angle. He paid the entry fee with the points Daniel had moved to his game unit, and found the starting point.

The rest of the world melted away as his fingers danced over the keyboard, designing every ball to be struck just so, until the symphony in his head was complete.

***

The Night Before Game Day

“What time is it?” asked Story. He lay on his back on the floor, his crossed legs propped against the wall.

“Not time yet,” his twin shot back. “Stop asking. Either they’ll come or they won’t. Maybe we should all just go back to our rooms. At least get some sleep.”

“Like that’s gonna happen.” Moon stood up from her chair and stretched. “I had a good nap today, and thank you, Charlie, for that and an amazing performance with that… whatever the hell it was.” She gave him an admiring little half bow. “Cheers once again to the Pinball Wizard! Anyone else want another drink?”

Charlie chuckled as she poured herself a shot and waved it around the room, but there were no takers.

Daniel paced in the only open space on the floor. Jack and Charlie were both laid out on the bed. Tzatzil was posted by the door. Song sat in a chair next to his brother, with Moon on the other side of the table. Jarod stood leaning against the wall next to the window, keeping watch on the street.

They had done well on their last day, just eking into seventh place. There had been a celebration at the bar followed by a nice dinner, and then they had all gathered in the commander’s room to await the summons while Daniel’s innards tied into knots.

Their math wizard had won big at the roulette game. Watching the program play out was a thing of beauty – a music box like no other. Charlie had cobbled together bits of Mozart, Beethoven, Queen and Guns ‘n’ Roses into a jaw-dropping piece without a single missed note. There had been balls all over the floor of the container when it was over, rather than bouncing into the scoops for a perfect return, but Charlie’s was the highest score of the day by far. He had earned them a fifth player… provided, of course, that their team was chosen to play at all.

The stress was getting to him. Daniel’s head ached, and his stomach felt like there was a hole burning through it.

He stepped into the bathroom to splash some cool water on his face, maybe somehow avoid throwing up.

“It’s just a game,” he whispered, forcing himself to calm down.

The water felt good. He washed his hands and face, toweled off and straightened up. Maybe the team should go to their rooms and at least try for a good night’s sleep.

He took a deep breath, grasped the bathroom door handle and opened it up just as a knock sounded on the suite door.

His heart almost launched through his chest.

Tzatzil opened the door, barring the way with her body.

All the rest of the team were now on their feet, all eyes on the visitor.

A hóstach stood on the other side. It was dressed in a regal-looking ceremonial robe and carried a small black box in its long-fingered hands. “Your team leader, please?” it requested.

“Here!” Daniel stepped up behind Tzatzil and gently nudged her out of the way when she didn’t seem willing to step aside on her own. “I’m Daniel Jackson.”

“Congratulations,” the hóstach intoned. “Your team has been selected to compete in tomorrow’s game. Transport will arrive for you in ten of your hours.”

Cheers broke out behind him. Someone slapped his shoulder, but he felt Tzatzil deflect the blow. For once he was glad to have her at his back, because he could hear the raucous physical celebration going on behind him and was glad not to be getting smacked around for a change.

A load lifted off his shoulders.

“Thank you. Um. What do we do next?”

The host opened the box to reveal a host device like the one he was wearing, only apparently made of gold rather than black plastic.

“Please exchange.”

He unfastened the one on the lanyard and traded for the gold one, looking back at the being expectantly.

“You have five players,” announced the host. “Please choose. The rest will be escorted to your home world and may return to watch. Please send them downstairs after you have chosen.”

The being bowed, made a smart about-face and marched back down the hallway.

He closed the door, his brain swimming in endorphins. For a moment, he just leaned against it, the solid surface reassuring him that he would stay on his feet. Then reality sank in.

He’d have to send someone home.

Charlie was beaming, sticking his hand out, leaning in close. “Thank you for this once in a lifetime opportunity, Daniel. This was the most fun I’ve ever had! I only wish I could tell someone about it.”

“You can,” Daniel reminded him, “if you move to Colorado Springs. We could use you in the program.” He thought of Sam, and the huge technological hole she’d left behind her.

“I need to think about that,” Charlie replied, sobering. “I’ll go pack. Good luck.” And then he was out the door, leaving two more to send home.

This was a decision he dreaded. Every one of them was dying to be in the game, wearing their ‘pick me’ faces. They had all done well in their chosen events, but there had also been a lot of games they had avoided, on Jack’s recommendation. By now, he knew each player’s skills and strengths and who he could count on to pull his ass out of the fire.

“Moon,” he called, meeting her eyes with a smile. “We haven’t known each other long, but from the get-go you’ve impressed the hell out of me.”

She looked a little flummoxed. “Well, are you picking me or sending me home?”

“You’re on the team, sorry. I guess I didn’t make that very clear.”

She squealed and clapped a little, and then coughed as she recovered her military bearing and tried to look disinterested. “Thanks, Deej.”

Big brown puppy-dog eyes were begging for the commander to call his name.

Daniel smiled. “Jack, of course, for your wealth of experience and massive entertainment value. People will be watching, and you do put on quite a show.”

O’Neill flashed a superior little grin and glanced around to take note of his teammates’ recognition.

“Jarod, for your intelligence and flexibility.”

The twins were looking a little desperate. There was only one spot left.

Tzatzil stood to one side with her eyes downcast, color in her cheeks, ready to be passed over since Jack was on the team.

Daniel considered for a moment. The Wintersmith boys were great at gaming, after a rough start getting used to the systems. Story was a decent fighter, had done well in the mixed martial arts events. Song was good at chess and had acquitted himself well at the strategy games he’d played, but there was a big reason why the twins had played those games and Jack had not.

He was their ace in the hole, their combat strategist. The other gamers had seen how the twins played and could guess their battle plans. Jack would be something new for them, so the twins had been out from the beginning. Daniel would explain it to them later, after they all returned home.

What had been on his mind lately was the memory of the competition on Tzatzil’s home world that had won the Tuathan woman her place at his side. The elf had done far more than shoot a few arrows. She had fought hard against nine other warriors in games much like the ones they’d been playing here, but without the luxury of virtual reality. The bodyguard he took so often for granted was one of his most valuable and least utilized players.

“And Tzatzil,” he called. With a look of regret, he glanced at the twins. “Sorry, boys.”

She glanced up at him in shock and then leaped up on him, her arms and legs wrapped around him, squealing in his ear.

The twin’s dejection was clear, but they seemed to take it well and marched out of the room to pack their things.

Daniel peeled the elf off him, and moments later, enjoyed the blissful peace of a quiet, nearly empty room.

Jack moseyed over to the table, poured two shots of whisky and brought one over to his roomie.

“To us,” he said quietly.

“To the team,” Daniel amended.

Jack frowned. “That’s what I said.”

Daniel frowned back. He started to argue, but that scene had been played over in real life so many times he knew how it would turn out. He simply shrugged, clinked his glass and downed the stiff drink with a silent wish for a really, really big win.

***

March 8, 2005

Game Day

The teams arrived in their own private cars, setting down near the largest arena Daniel had ever seen.  The architecture soared. It gleamed, white and pristine, as if it had been built overnight just for that purpose.

“Whoa,” Moon sighed. “This place is amazing!”

“Right this way,” intoned a hóstach, gesturing them toward a private entrance for the players.

There were only five of them on the team from Earth: Jack, Moon, Tzatzil, Jarod and Daniel himself as the team leader. The rest were in the audience with General Waring to act as official observers.

The hóstach led them into the heart of the building, within sight of the playing field at the center of the arena, which looked like an ordinary flat grass plain.

The waiting area was a high-ceilinged dome-roofed hall, seven circles laid into the floor with mosaics. The hosts directed each team to a different circle.

This was the first time they’d seen who won the invitations to the Big Game, and how many competitors they would be facing.

The Tok’ra, dressed in their usual tan leathers, had five players. Anise/Freya seemed to have toned down her usual sex kitten garb, opting for something more traditionally Tok’ra.  Some of them Daniel knew by name. Jack filled in a few others. On the whole, Daniel felt they had a good chance against them.

Narim smiled and waved at them from the Tollan team of six. There were four men and two women, all wearing their usual shiny, futuristic suits in a slate blue tone. Each was wearing an armband with a small device that Daniel hoped wasn’t some sort of advanced tech that would give them an unfair advantage in the game.

Among the five Ronin Jaffa, they had seen only Rak’nor before. He gave them a nod of acknowledgment, followed by a confident smile as he patted the burly shoulder of a giant beside him.

“Anybody know the rest of Rak’nor’s team?” asked Daniel.

“Don’t ask me to pronounce those names,” Jack shot back. “Too many consonants and apostrophes.”

Moon scanned the line. “The big guy next to him is Ma’kar. He and the GQ model next to him, Kol’na, were set to be slaughtered several years ago at a secret meeting with Teal’c, but they’re slippery devils and both managed to get away. That tells us they’re gonna be stiff competitors. The other two are Kel’nak and Hak’ahn, recent deserters from the ranks of Bastet and totally unknown quantities.”

Daniel turned to Jarod. “Do you have any intel on our gray friends, there?” He glanced at the group, smiled at them, and looked back at his friend.

“They’re a race called the Nebari,” Major Carter replied. “Males have black hair, females have white hair, so they’re usually easy to tell apart.”

“There’s one with silver hair,” Daniel observed, his gaze lingering longer than he’d meant on the willowy, androgynous-looking one.

“I wondered about that, too. Anyway, the apparent leader of the group is a female called Chiana. She’s the one looking at you like you’re dinner.” Jarod cleared his throat and scuffed the toe of his boot on the floor.

Jack chuckled. “It’s always you, Daniel.”

Cough – “Kynthia.” – Cough.

“I stand corrected.”

“The blue people,” Jarod put his back to that group as he continued, “are Delvians.”

An old man in a turban seemed to be their leader. A tall bald male stayed at his side, probably his second in command, and there were two females with them, one bald and one with bright red hair. They dressed in flowing robes and had a regal, almost spiritual air about them.

“Tuzak is the old guy. He doesn’t look very spry. Maybe that’ll give us an advantage.” Jarod made eye contact and gave Daniel a nod, his report concluded.

The largest team by far were the Goa’ulds, boasting eight players. It appeared that Tezcatlipoca would be their team captain, the ranks filled out with his Jaffa. The others in his retinue would be observing from the stands.

Daniel’s attention was drawn back to the hóstach as it began speaking.

“Now you will choose your colors,” it advised. Waving a hand in the air to its right, a color chart appeared.

A glance at the other teams indicated they were already busy with that task.

“Pick blue,” Jack whispered from behind Daniel. “It’s my favorite.”

Daniel didn’t give it much thought, and selected a fine royal blue with the tap of a finger.

“Excellent,” cooed the host. “Now for the rules of the game. You will be transported to the gaming area and provided new uniforms in your chosen color to mark you as teams. You will not directly inhabit the same space at the same time; however, game play may allow the teams to spill over into the same area.”

“If we do, will we be required to fight each other?” Daniel was already worried. The Goa’uld outnumbered their team almost two to one, and if the Tollans were using their technology, they might be unstoppable.

“That will be an option, if you choose it during play.” The host canted its head slightly, then continued. “You will have from sunrise to sunset to complete the game…”

Daniel felt the sinking feeling in his gut as he listened, hoping they wouldn’t be eliminated early.

“The environment will simulate injuries sustained during play, but your bodies will not incur actual damage… unless, of course, you harm yourself. Keep in mind that virtual injuries will be counted against your final score. Any player death during the game will result in the immediate removal of the person from active play. They will be returned here to the gaming center, and will watch the remainder of the game from the stands. Understood?”

“Yes.”

“Along the way, you will be able to acquire new tools and charms to help with play. There will be games of chance, skill, strategy, and puzzles to solve. A host device will be attached to your uniforms so you will be able to ask for clarification of rules or explanations, but be advised, each time you ask for assistance, points will be deducted from your total.”

“How many?”

“One hundred points, or one percent of your total. Your choice.” The hóstach bowed again. “When you complete one puzzle, look for a portal such as this…” A Gothic arched stone doorway magically appeared beside the host for a moment, then faded away. “…to advance to the next gamescape.”

“Do we get weapons?” asked Jack.

Daniel sighed.

“Once you enter the game.” Another bow. “Now, are you ready to begin?”

The hóstach gestured again, and this time an alien slot machine appeared. It had a lever and a view screen, very similar in appearance to a Vegas one-armed bandit. “Pull the lever when you are ready to play. This determines your place in the departure queue.”

Daniel glanced at his team over his shoulder. “Are we ready?”

Jack flexed a grin and bounced on his toes a little. “I woke up today, and that’s good enough for me. Ready when you are, Cap’n.”

“That’s commander to you,” Daniel shot back. He was really enjoying the rank thing.

“Ready,” Moon answered with a brisk nod.

Tzatzil laid a hand possessively on his shoulder.

Jarod nodded twice.

“Here we go.” Daniel pulled the lever, and stared at the view screen until the numbers stopped spinning.

“We got a two!” he cheered.

“And again for your starting gamescape,” the hóstach prompted.

The Tok’ra team disappeared from their circle.

“Hurry up!” Jack prodded. “They’re already leaving!”

Daniel pulled the lever again, and instead of a number, they saw the icon for a tree.

***

Gamescape: Forest

Instantly, they found themselves dressed in new blue uniforms, standing on a grassy knoll in the middle of a dense forest. The sky was still dark, but lightening with the rising sun. Strapped to Daniel’s arm was the device that kept track of their credits, still holding steady at five million.

“Thank you, Doctor Eppes,” he whispered.

There was another machine waiting for them, but as Daniel took a step toward it, he felt his foot drag and glanced downward.

“Oh, honey, what are you doing here?” He bent to pick up little Niamh, now clinging to him in fright, and lifted her into his arms. “You’re not supposed to be with us today.”

A hóstach appeared. “This is a violation! You have more players than the agreed-upon number.”

“This child is here by accident. We need to send her back. Is that allowed?”

“It is. One moment please.”

Daniel thought about the size of the arena, and had no idea how Niamh would find her parents. They probably didn’t even know where she’d gone.

“Wait!”

He glanced at his teammates. “Someone’s got to go with her. She’ll be lost on the other side.”

“You are her favorite, Daniel,” Jack mused. “You seem to have that effect on alien females, regardless of species. They’ll follow you anywhere.”

“But I can’t go! I’m the team captain.”

Jack’s eyebrows lifted. “Oh, so now you’re a captain.”

“If no one volunteers, I’ll have to assign someone. There’s no way I’m sending a baby back alone.”

Jarod raised his hand, head hanging. “I’ll do it.”

“Okay. Good. Okay. Thank you.” Daniel was starting to feel the pressure. He knew Jarod was one of their best players, but there was no way Tzatzil would leave him, despite a direct order. Every player on the team was just as valuable as the others in their own way, and volunteering was better than having to make a choice.

“First,” said the hóstach, “you must receive your weapons and charms.” It gestured to the slot machine.

Daniel handed the baby to Jarod and pulled the lever. A wide sash appeared on his uniform. Tucked in at the waist was a wakizashi, a short sword favored by Japanese samurai. Hanging at his side was a scabbard with a long, elegant katana.

“Cool! I got swords.”

Jarod took his turn next and received a wizard’s staff. “Wow. I’m gonna hate having to give that up.”

Moon got a spear and Tzatzil her favorite bow. Jack was thoroughly unhappy with his selection: a spiked ball on a short pole.

“Where’s the trigger on this thing?” he asked, giving it a little shake, gazing down the shaft with one eye.

“It’s a mace, Jack,” Daniel explained. “You hit things with it.”

“I guess no advanced weaponry, then, huh? I suppose it puts us all on a more level playing field.”

“We don’t know that yet. Without seeing the other teams, we don’t know what they got. The choices might have something to do with our ranking or any other number of factors—“

“What the hell is that?” Moon pointed above Daniel’s head.

He looked up, and saw only lightening sky.

She laughed. “Okay, it moves with your head, always directly above the top of your skull. What’s mine say?”

Floating above each of their heads – just like in some video games he’d played with Jack – was a translucent glowing word. “Yours says ‘Strength’.” He read them off for everyone. “Jarod is ‘Change,’ Zazz is ‘Shield’ and Jack, yours is ‘Intuition.’ What’s mine?”

’Heal’,” Jack answered, and chuckled. “Looks like you’re a real doctor now, Doctor Jackson. At least, in the game.”

“Let’s get busy here,” Moon barked. “Gotta send that baby back.”

“Yeah. Yeah.” Daniel glanced at the ground beneath their feet. “Everybody but Jarod and Niamh clear the arrival point.”

Jarod moved up to the top of the knoll. When the team was clear, Daniel announced to the hóstach that they were ready to transport the child back to the arena with one of their players.

“There will be a point penalty,” the hóstach declared. “The player will not be allowed to return to the game. His equipment will be forfeit.”

“Understood.” Daniel held up the point calculator and watched as a million points were deducted immediately after Jarod disappeared. He sighed. “Oh, well. On with the game.”

“So which way do we go, fearless leader?” Jack was already scanning the forest surrounding them.

“I dunno, Jack. You’re the one with the intuition. You tell me.” Daniel shook his head. “As if we haven’t seen enough of trees over the years…”

“Then let’s go this way.”

***

“We’ve been walking for hours,” Daniel moaned. “If only we had some idea where we were going or what we were supposed to do here.” He checked his chronometer. “Two and a half hours, to be precise, and I think we’ve gone through every bramble and patch of underbrush from here to the arrival point. I mean, there wasn’t a trail to speak of, sure, but you could’ve picked an easier path, Jack.”

“I believe we are going in a circle, yes?” Tzatzil stepped closer to a tree with a large burl near its base. “I remember this tree. It is shaped like a female heavy with child. See here is the outline of a little bottom, and here, a crooked leg with a tiny foot—“

“What have you got, Major?” asked Colonel Standing, bringing up the rear. She had also apparently noticed they had covered the same ground.

Jack was studying the ground as he walked, and Daniel realized his head had been down like that for most of the last hour. His left arm jerked up into the hand signal for ‘stop.’

Everyone froze, heads up, eyes scanning the perimeter, weapons held ready.

“Taispeáin díbh féin,” Jack called ahead of him.

“Show yourselves,” Daniel repeated to the others.

Daniel didn’t see anything but green leaves and bark at first.

Then something moved.

The whole landscape seemed to have come alive. Seirbhíseach were everywhere, hiding in the bushes, sitting on tree limbs, clinging to trunks. Some scurried out of sight completely; a handful came to stand on the leaf-strewn ground among them.

Jack dropped to one knee and scooped one of the servants up into his arms. “Aed, you wanna explain why you’re out here?”

Clodagh came to Daniel and tugged on his trouser leg, offering a smile full of pointy teeth. “Forgive?”

He squatted down. “You speak our language?”

She nodded, holding up a small black hand with a short gap between thumb and index finger. “Little bit.”

“What do you want me to forgive?”

Her ears drooped and her eyes got big. “Lies.” She gestured around her. “For show.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“I do,” Jack announced, carrying Aed a little closer to the group. “Seems our little pals here have been putting one over on us. Every team gets a stowaway. How we deal with ‘em is part of the contest. Check our points, Captain.”

Daniel did. “They’re up! Not enough to cover losing Jarod, but at least we’re headed in the right direction.”

“Commander, I recommend we take a break and have a little chat with these good folks,” Moon suggested.

“Clodagh, is there a more comfortable place where we can talk?” Daniel held out his arms for the little female, and she came right into them.

He turned to regard his old friend. “Jack, how’d you know? Was it that intuition thing? Do you know how to work it?”

“US Air Force training, no and no,” Jack replied. “Aed says the others here live in the trees, but there’s a clearing with a stream not far that way. Shall we, commander? Or is it captain? I get confused.”

Daniel grinned down at Clodagh. “He’s not as dense as he pretends. Don’t let him fool you.”

The seirbhíseach leaned against his chest and stretched her arms out as far as she could reach, an attempt at a hug. “Thank you for Niamh.”

“I’m glad she’s safe.” Daniel’s heart warmed for these charming creatures, and then saddened when he thought of their people’s plight. “Will your family be safe here?”

She leaned back and studied his face, obviously not understanding.

“Yeah. Let’s all go have a powwow. I’m sensing we have a lot to talk about.”

Tzatzil grasped his arm and pulled him to a stop. She was staring above his head.

He looked up, then blushed when he remembered he’d never be able to see what was written in the air above him.

“You have a new word,” she said softly.

“What’s it say?”

’Summon’,” Moon answered. “Who ya gonna call?”

“Ghost Busters!” Jack answered with a merry grin, humming a bar of the theme song.

Daniel recognized the cultural reference, though he’d never seen the movie. “I doubt that’s what it means. We’re not gonna see any ghosts in this game.” A little shiver of panic shimmied up his spine. “Are we? I mean, it’s a virtual world. I suppose anything’s possible, right?”

Under his breath and into the servant’s fur, he whispered, “Please, don’t let there be ghosts, vampires or anything undead or supernatural. Or spiders.”

***

“So, Aed says the doohickeys above our heads are based on our innate tendencies in real life.” He looked quite pleased with himself. “These little guys have been watching us – like I said in the bar – and told the big bosses.”

“Spies,” Daniel summed up. “So are they being honest now, or is this part of a subterfuge?”

“Part of the game, I imagine,” Moon interjected. She sat on a flat rock, boots and socks nearby, her feet dunked in the cool water.

Aed chattered on, and Jack provided the translation.

“There are seven terrains in the game: Forest, where we are now, Mountain, Desert, Arctic – I hope we aren’t there long, considering how we’re dressed—“

“Jack.”

“Oh. Right. …Jungle, Savannah and Village. Every team takes a turn in each place.”

Daniel felt a headache coming on and rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses. “Then please tell these guys to avoid the Goa’uld at all costs when they come here. Don’t interact with them in any way.”

“What are we supposed to accomplish in the forest?” Moon withdrew her feet from the stream and kicked them back and forth in the air, presumably to dry them. “We can see Daniel’s new item, but I’d like to know what we did to earn it. Might help with the next games.”

“This was about making friends and influence people,” Jack reported. “Since we’d already developed a rapport with these little guys, it was an easy win.” He lifted a troubled gaze at his commander. “Which makes me worry about when the Goa’uld get here. These kids still have their role to play with each team.”

Daniel pondered. “Maybe the rules of the game still apply,” he suggested. “It might look like they get hurt or killed, but they won’t really be affected. Is that right? Ask Aed.”

His stomach churned as they waited for an answer. He could tell by the seirbhíseach’s body language that Aed was either lying or telling only a partial truth. The little alien’s head was down, shoulders curved in protectively.

“They’re not allowed to say,” Daniel assumed.

“Look, if our extras,” Moon pointed at the icon above her head, “are based on our natures or whatever, you can damn well bet whatever the Goa’ulds get will be destructive, powerful and very possibly deadly. Is there any way these little guys can protect themselves? Can they at least see these things?”

Jack eyed the Furby. His crestfallen expression gave the answer. “No, they can’t. Our opponents won’t be able to see them, either. We can only see the ones on our team.”

Aed crawled out of Jack’s lap and stood a few paces away. He bowed formally to each of them, and then presented himself to Daniel. He opened his arms and flexed his fingers, which might mean that he wanted to be picked up, or have his mate delivered to him.

Daniel set Clodagh down and straightened up while they clung to each other a moment.

“He says thank you to all of us for saving his daughter,” Jack translated when Aed spoke again. “His people will remember our kindness in setting them free, and he promises someone will come to speak to us on their behalf before we go home.”

Like a flock of birds wheeling through the air on an unseen signal, all the aliens turned and started marching off beside the stream.

“I guess we go with them.” Jack fell into step behind Aed, with the rest of the team in his wake.

Before long, they came to a bend in the creek bed, neatly curved around a stone arch just like the one the host had shown them before the start of the game. All around it, the scenery was the same, but under the arch, a golden grassland shimmered in the breeze. As they approached the doorway, dark triangular wolfish heads popped up out of the grass in the distance.

Aed tugged on Jack’s trouser leg and spoke to him.

“He says we can pass on any level one time.”

“But is there something we need on the other side?” Daniel watched some of those heads disappear, others pop up elsewhere. Maybe those creatures were a people who could be reasoned with; maybe they were hungry animals. “If we pass, does that count against us? What if all the other teams go through the game and don’t take a single pass?”

“What if you get killed there?” asked Tzatzil from his elbow. “Too many questions. You must decide, my Daniel, and we will do whatever you ask.”

Daniel glanced up at her charm, Shield. She had thrown herself in front of an oncoming arrow to save his life. She regularly stepped between him and anything she perceived as trouble. It was only natural that this charm had been chosen for her.

He remembered what Jack had told the team about Moon in the bar as he turned to regard the charm above her head, Strength. The things she had been through in Afghanistan would have broken a lesser person. That she was even with the SGC was testament to the strength of her character.

And then there was Jack, and all the things they’d been through together in the last eight years.

“Well,” he said on a sigh, “we’re here to gamble. Let’s see what’s on the other side. Jack, you’re on point. Polish up that intuition, wouldja?”

***

Gamescape: Savannah

Jack stepped through the portal to a world reminiscent of the African savannah. It was hot, but there was a little breeze. The scent of fertile earth mixed with hay and something akin to wet dog wafted on the air currents. Animal cries, yips and howls sounded in the distance.

“Weapons ready!” Moon ordered. “These things are circling.”

“Hello,” Daniel called. “Do you speak—“

One of them took off, coming right at him with blinding speed, leaping on its overdeveloped hind legs like a kangaroo. He thwacked it hard with the side of one of his blades, knocking it aside. It tumbled, but recovered its feet quickly and lunged again.

Tzatzil stepped in front of him and cried, “Shield!”

She brought her left arm upward, and a hematite-finished black shield appeared instantly on her forearm. Radiating out from the edges of her shield, the air around her and over Daniel darkened as if they were wearing sunglasses.

A yelp of pain drew Daniel’s attention behind him.

One of the things had Jack by the ankle and was worrying at it.

Moon attacked it with her spear, driving it away, but they were fully surrounded now, and there were too many to fight off.

He grasped a handful of the back of Zazz’s tunic. “Keep that up! We’re going to Jack. He’s hurt.”

As quickly as he could manage, he guided Tzatzil toward a prone O’Neill, still swinging his mace as best he could from the ground.

The Shield encompassed the three of them, and after a moment, Moon slipped in under the dark dome as well.

The wolf-kangaroos circled them, snapping and snarling.

“There’s got to be hundreds of those things,” Moon panted. “What do we do now, Daniel?”

“Go back to the Forest. We’ll regroup—“

“How? The portal disappeared as soon as we went through it.”

“Shit!”

“Daniel? A little help here?” Jack was curled up on his side, struggling to sit and get a look at his ankle.

“Oh, that looks bad.” He squatted down to examine the injury and could see bone and flapping ligaments torn loose in deep gashes. “That looks so real!”

Feels fucking real, too!” O’Neill snapped. “Use that Heal thingy and fix it, wouldja?”

“I don’t know how it works.”

“Figure it out!” Jack was rolling on the ground in obvious agony.

“Okay, okay.” He glanced up at Tzatzil. “Hey, Zazz, how’d you make the Shield?”

“Say the word and believe it true.” She was sweating. Her face was pulled into a grimace of strain.

He’d ask questions later. Cradling Jack’s ankle on his lap, he pulled the bloody flaps of flesh together, closed his eyes, and commanded, “Heal!”

He could feel energy flowing through his hands.

Jack gasped, and Daniel opened his eyes.

His hands were glowing golden, and he could see in his mind’s eye as the tissues began to knit together.

“Oh, thank God!” Jack gusted. “Ohhhhhh. That’s better. Thank you, Daniel.”

One of the animals charged them, but bounced off the darkened sky shielding them.

Then the whole pack attacked in mindless frenzy while the team huddled inside their barrier.

Daniel kept his concentration focused on healing until he was certain the repair was complete. When he stood up, he felt a little light-headed.

Jack caught his arm and steadied him. “That takes a lot out of you, which answered a question I had for Tzatzil. We need to get out of here fast so she can drop that shield or she’s gonna pass out.”

“Any ideas how we do that?” Moon gripped her spear with both hands.

Daniel glanced between her and Jack. “Trade weapons,” he ordered them. “Tzatzil, I’m going to take your bow. Let’s see if I can shoot through the shield. If so, then we need to pick a direction and get moving. Jack, which way?”

O’Neill turned in a circle, studying the horizon as he handed over the mace and took the spear. “Looks like there’s a signpost that way. Maybe it can tell us where the next portal is.”

“Okay, Zazz, Jack will tow you along. You keep us covered till we get there, or if we get a break, I’ll tell you. All right?”

“Yes, my Daniel.” Her voice quavered with the strain.

Jack switched places with him, gathering up a handful of Zazz’z blue shirt.

Daniel took her bow, nocked an arrow and moved around to where he could see the signpost. He aimed at the closest creature, hoping the projectile wouldn’t bounce back inside the dome, and let the arrow fly.

It slipped easily through the force field and pinned the beast to the ground.

The others scattered, scrambling away to a safer distance.

“Right! Now we move.”

They took a step, then another, making their way slowly across the plain. As they passed over one of the spent arrows, Daniel retrieved it from the carcass and slipped it back into the quiver for later use.

“If the shield fails before we get there,” Moon ordered, “I’ll clear us a path with the mace. You’re right, Daniel, this will pair better with my charm.”

“But I don’t know how to use a frickin’ spear!” snapped Jack.

“Think bayonette,” Moon returned with a wry grin.

“Oh.” Jack’s mood changed instantly. Confidence seeped in, and the stress etched into his face became grim determination.

“Tzatzil, you can use my swords, right?” Daniel was concentrating on the signpost, but his mind was awhirl with strategies.

“Yes, my Daniel. I do not think I can hold this much longer.”

“Almost there, Zazz,” he promised. “Just a little longer.”

She cried out and crumbled, dropping to one knee.

Suddenly the animals were everywhere.

Daniel worked the bow, clearing a path for the others to follow.

Moon passed him, laying about her with the mace. As she swung, she shouted to activate her Strength charm and creature bodies went flying through the air.

Tzatzil’s hands were on him now, searching for the swords, pulling them free. She gave the ululating cry of her people in battle that made his hair stand on end and went to work.

Jack stabbed and slashed at the nearest creatures until finally, the beasts backed away, giving them a wide, wary berth.

“We don’t want to hurt you,” Daniel shouted at them. “We’re just passing through and will leave as soon as we can. Let us get to that signpost and figure out where we are. Please.”

None of the creatures came closer, but they growled and threatened with their eyes and flashing, pointy teeth.

Cautiously, he stepped toward the signpost. His teammates gathered around him, facing outward as he read the board.

“It’s a maze map,” he told them. “It shows all the staging areas, where the portals are… I think we need to take this with us.”

He reached up to the top corners and pulled the map down.

Another one appeared in its place an instant later.

“Okay, so that’s apparently what we’re here for. The portal should be right behind the signpost, so let’s all carefully slip around behind it…”

He folded up the paper and tucked it inside his sash.

The pack darted away, disappearing into the tall grass.

Everyone heaved a sigh of relief, but no one put their weapons away.

For a moment, the only sound was the breeze and the whisper of the swaying grass.

“I need to gather up the arrows,” Daniel observed. “Just give me a min—“

“I will do it, my Daniel,” Tzatzil demanded. “I have the Shield. You will wait for me at the portal.”

“We’ll watch you from right here, sweetie,” Moon corrected.

It didn’t take her long to find and retrieve the rest of the arrows. Then they circled around behind the signpost and looked through the portal at a small village.

“Oh, God.” Daniel’s heart broke. “Tezcatlipoca has already been there.”

“Bet I know what you’re supposed to do there.” Jack patted his shoulder. “I know you’re tired. Think you can get to ‘em all?”

“I dunno, Jack. I’ll damned sure try.”

***

Gamescape: Village

The houses were of simple timber, cob and thatch construction, doorposts and lintels decorated with Celtic knotwork. The tools were reminiscent of early nineteenth century Earth. All around them stretched a neat patchwork quilt of farmland.

The scent of smoke and blood was strong as they stepped through the portal. Some of the buildings had been burned to the ground. Others were missing roofs or had huge holes knocked into the walls. Belongings were strewn out into the cobblestone street. Livestock were slaughtered in their pens.

Worst of all, though, was the makeshift hospital scene on the village green. Bodies were laid out, covered with sheets. Right beside them, stretchers were lined up with the injured. Only a handful of people were working with the wounded; the rest of the villagers were searching through the rubble for more victims of the Goa’uld attack.

“I’ll start here,” Daniel advised the team. “Tzatzil, you’re with me. Jack, Moon, try to find out what happened and see if there are any clues to what we’re supposed to find here.”

He pulled the map out of his pocket and handed it over to Jack.

Who passed it on to his superior officer with a look of embarrassment.

Daniel let it lie. He should’ve known better, but was so used to Jack being in command, he’d forgotten Moon outranked him now. Apologizing would just make it worse, so he made a mental note to do it in private later.

Glancing at his chronometer, he saw that it was already mid-morning. “It’s oh-nine-thirty, guys, and we’ve got four more regions to hit after this one. First two were about two hours each, so I’m estimating we can only spend about two hours tops here.”

“On our way.” Moon hefted the mace over her right shoulder and took off toward the nearest people on the street.

***

The patter of soft, cool rain on his face woke Daniel. He felt exhausted, every bone in his body aching. It was as if he could feel all the wounds he’d healed throbbing, searing all over him.

“There y’are!” Jack crowed, patting his cheek. “Thought we’d lost ya for a bit there.”

He sat up slowly, Jack’s hand at his back helping him pull upward.

“Best get inside, now, Daniel. C’mon. These nice folks have some lunch out for us, right over there.” He nodded at a gazebo-like structure just off the green.

Daniel moaned as he got to his feet, hobbling toward the structure with Jack on one side and Tzatzil on the other, half carrying him along.

It took every ounce of his strength to sit himself down on the bench at the table. He felt a little better after a hearty meal, but his hands still hurt from all the healing he’d done. He flexed his fingers and almost expected to hear the bones crunching.

“I guess that took a lot out of you, huh.” Jack’s eyes were concerned across the table from him. “We helped patch up those with less serious injuries while you were out. Cleaned up a little. The folks were grateful.”

“They gave us a key!” Tzatzil cheered from his right side. “I keep it for you!” She held up an old fashioned skeleton key on a leather thong tied around her neck.

Daniel eyed it, but couldn’t muster any excitement at the moment. “That’s good. I suppose we can go now. Not sure I can walk very far.”

A short man with salt-and-pepper hair and a prim mouth sidled up to their table, refilling their tankards with wine as he glanced around them.

When he’d confirmed none of the other villagers were watching, he leaned down to whisper, “I have a gift for you.” He reached into his tunic and hurriedly dropped a piece of paper on the table, then moved around the table to fill another cup. “It is a solution to all the puzzles. It will help you win.”

He flashed a quick smile, his beady eyes darting about again. “It is my thanks for the help you have given my village.”

Daniel stared at the paper.

Moon reached out toward it.

“Don’t!” Jack growled, catching her wrist in her grip. “My spidey-sense is tingling. I don’t think we’re supposed to see that.”

If he’d been able to move, Daniel thought, he’d have done the same thing. “Maybe it’s a test. I agree with Jack. If we’re gonna win this thing, let’s do it honorably.”

“And if we lose?” Moon shot back.

“We do it honorably,” Daniel repeated. “Sorry, Moon. I know winning this contest might mean the difference between stopping the Goa’uld threat and being conquered, but I don’t think we can take the chance on a way to cheat the system.”

The Colonel withdrew her arm. She stared at the paper, glanced at Daniel and then up at the villager with an insincere smile. “Thanks, but no thanks.”

He canted his head in acceptance of their refusal, and as he poured the last cup, snatched up the paper and tucked it back into his tunic before he left them.

“How’re we doin’ on points?” Jack drained his wine cup and pushed back from the table. He wobbled a little. “Whoa! For virtual wine, that stuff sure has a kick.”

“Maybe you should sit down a little longer, O’Neill.” Colonel Standing chuckled and pushed her cup back without finishing. “Daniel, points?”

With great effort, he turned his wrist to check and caught sight of the time instead. “Shit! It’s been over three hours! Why didn’t you guys wake me up?”

He got to his feet, aching and sore, and stretched a little.

“We did try,” Moon assured him. “You were kind of unconscious for an hour or so.” She rose with easy grace and came to stand at his side. “The portal’s not far. Think you can make it, or should we call a taxi?”

“A taxi would be great. I feel better, but a good night’s sleep would be—“

“Move along there, little dogie.” Jack shooed him toward the door.

Tzatzil slipped under his right arm and helped him hobble out into the pouring rain.

A small wagon was waiting for them outside. They climbed aboard and rode the five minutes it took to get to the portal. Waving goodbye to the driver, they looked through the downpour to the hot, dry dunes on the other side.

“At least we’ll dry out fast,” Daniel called above the drumming rain.

***

Gamescape: Desert

“Whoa! Reset. Nice.”

Daniel felt immediately better on the other side of the portal, not only because it wasn’t storming there, but also because he seemed to be immediately recovered from the drain of healing so many at the village.

“Let’s have a look at that map,” Moon suggested, scanning the horizon, “because all I can see from here is sand.”

“Oh! Points!” Daniel glanced at their total and was pleasantly surprised. “Looks like we made up what we spent on Aed’s family, plus a little bit. Wonder what the other teams’ totals are?”

A chart appeared in the air in front of the portal.

The team stared at it.

“Well, nuts!” Jack kicked the sand. “We’re dead last.”

Moon glanced up at the sun for direction, then down at the map with a heavy sigh. “There’s no scale or anything to tell us how far we have to go, but whatever is waiting for us is that way.”

She sighed and checked the water in her canteen. “We’re burnin’ daylight, kids. A thousand steps and rest, just like the Romans did it.”

The team moved off in the direction of the icon on the map, but Daniel was beginning to doubt they’d win. They were too far behind in points, and he’d wasted an hour passed out in the village.

He looked up at the sky and said softy, “Sorry, General Waring. We’re doing the best we can out here.”

And then he jogged off after the others in search of the next challenge with a heavy heart.

***

They were hard to see at first, since their outfits – not their usual attire, but still tan – blended in with the sand so well.

All seven of the Tok’ra were injured near a cluster of rocks jutting out of the sand like the humped back of a stegosaurus. Some were sitting up and apparently conscious, others lay still on the sand where they had fallen. Daniel couldn’t tell what happened to them, but they all appeared to be bleeding, some with limbs unnaturally bent.

There were large divots in the sand near where some of them lay.

Suddenly, Jack’s arm thrust out in front of Daniel, barring his way. “Hold up!” he ordered.

Everyone froze.

Jack cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Mines?”

Daniel’s heart sank.

“Help us!” Freya called. “Yes, there is a minefield between us.”

“Oh, my God.” Daniel’s hands went to his head.

It’s just a game, he reminded himself. They’re not really hurt. If they die in the game, they’ll just be returned to the arena.

But the Tok’ra are our allies, he argued. Their point total is much higher than ours, and if they win, we win.

“Screw it,” he growled, lifted his hands wide and called out to the sky, “I Summon the Tollans!”

Instantly, the aliens – now dressed in grass green uniforms – appeared on the sand beside them, all quite startled.

“How did we get here?” asked Narim. “We were just in the vill--” He cut himself off. “Please, tell us nothing of what you learned. We know you were there before us.”

Daniel pointed to the other players near the rocks. “They need help, and there’s a minefield between us. Can you disarm the mines?”

Narim seemed astonished. “Why would we do that? We are competing against them and you. Their misfortune gives us further advantage.”

“Because it’s the right thing to do!” Daniel snarled, enraged at their complacent, inhuman attitude. “We earned the power to Summon, and I have summoned you to help, so help, God damn it! This is part of our turn and we’re helping the Tok’ra. You have to or you can’t go back to the village.”

He had no idea if that were true or not, but now was as good a time as any to bluff.

The Tollan team leader cocked his head. “How did you know I have the Disarm charm? Can you see other players in your game?”

“No. I just took a chance.” Daniel glanced at the people near the rocks, getting a little desperate at the delay. “Please, help us help them. Just because it’s the right thing to do.”

Narim studied them for a moment, and then nodded. He stretched out his hand and commanded, “Disarm!”

Audible clicks sounded, somewhat muffled beneath the sand.

Without waiting for word, Jack jogged directly over to the Tok’ra with Colonel Standing at his side.

“Thank you,” Daniel said softly. Then he grinned. “Check your point total.” He winked and turned to join the others.

He heard Narim’s surprised chuckle behind him.

The next time he looked, the Tollans were gone.

***

Gamescape: Jungle

“What—“

“—the Hell?”

Daniel glanced up from his chronometer to find Jack and Moon staring up into the trees. They were surrounded by steaming jungle thick with vines and tall trees. The place stank of rotting vegetation and fertile earth. The heat of it was oppressive, making his clothes stick to his skin. The air was so heavy it was hard to breathe.

At first he didn’t see anything due to the humidity clouding his glasses, so he gave them a quick wipe on his sleeve and took another look.

“Oh. Flying monkeys. That’s a first. Well, unless you include Frank Baum.”

Jack hoisted his water canteen at them. “We are armed! Where’s the Wicked Witch of the West? We demand to see her!”

“O’Neill, are you still drunk?” Colonel Standing patted his shoulder, then glanced with a moue of distaste at her saturated palm.

He didn’t take his eyes off the creatures swinging about in the treetops. “I believe that went away as soon as we stepped through the portal, much to my eternal disappointment. I may, however, be under the influence of some inhaled hallucinogenic because I’m seeing flying monkeys, ma’am. Welcome back to the Sixties!”

She snorted a little laugh. “Fun, though, wasn’t it?” Her humor vanished as she glanced at Daniel. “Oh, shit! General Waring’s seeing this, isn’t he?” She buried her face in her palms. “Oh, God, I forgot there’s an audience.”

And then addressing the monkeys and the trees, she called loudly, “It was a joke, I swear!”

“Calm down, everybody,” Daniel insisted, watching the creatures cavorting, apparently oblivious to the guests in the jungle. “Let’s try and figure out what we’re supposed to be doing here, shall we?”

Tzatzil moved up behind him, close enough he could feel her body heat. “What are they doing, my Daniel?” She pointed at a pair of the flying beasts.

Each of them had a small rock and a feather. They would scurry up the trunk of a tree, climb out on a big branch, and then simultaneously drop their stones and watch them drop straight to the ground. Then the pair held out their feathers, their eyes following the weaving, irregular patterns as the feathers swooped and swirled lightly in the air, tracing elegant patterns until each came to rest on the ground below.

“Light as a feather, heavy as a stone,” Tzatzil murmured.

Daniel thought of Sha’re. He was sure there had been a funerary ceremony for her, but that was lost somewhere in his pre-ascension memories; memories of another life.

“Jack, did you go to my wife’s funeral?” he asked his friend.

The monkeys flew down and retrieved their items, leaped up into the air and took wing to return to the branch.

“Yes, Daniel. You were there. Don’t you remember?” Jack’s voice was kind, patient.

“Was there a feather somewhere in the ceremony?”

O’Neill stopped watching the monkeys and shifted his gaze to his commander. “Yes.” He hesitated. “You have that look, Daniel. Do you think that’s what this little circus act is about?”

He nodded. “Maybe some of your intuition rubbed off on me, but I think it might be about… purging our emotional baggage. Shame I can’t remember most of mine.”

“You remember enough.”

Daniel met Jack’s eyes then, recalling that same line he’d said to O’Neill in the locker room after a mission not long ago. He thought maybe Jack was trying to tell him to accept that small mercy, not to go digging in the pain of his past. There was a distinct glimmer of warning in his dark eyes.

The commander took a deep breath, searching through his recent memories, and found one readily available. He knew whatever he said would be broadcast to the audience of Gambler’s World – remembering Moon’s little slip about the Sixties – so he thought about doing it internally instead… not exactly rewriting the past to give himself a better outcome, but accepting his responsibility for how things had turned out.

He closed his eyes and called up the image of his wife’s beautiful face. He breathed her name. “Sha’re.”

His wife had died because he’d come through the Stargate. It wasn’t his fault, not directly. If he’d kept the ‘gate buried, if he’d been satisfied with the simple life the Abydonians offered, his wife might still be alive. But he’d been driven to share the information on the cartouche room with someone, and that need had been the start of her long, slow, painful death at the hands of Ammonet.

The monkeys climbed laboriously up the trunk this time, claimed their perches, and held out the stones.

Thud.

Two stones. Two monkeys.

It wasn’t enough to say those things inside his own head. For the burden to be lifted, he had to say it out loud.

“Jack.”

“I know what happened, Daniel. I was there, too.”

Tears misted his eyes. “Not for all of it. Either you let me tell you in private, or I say it out loud for everyone to hear.”

“Maybe you got it wrong.”

Oh, he hoped he had.

“You’ve got the intuition. What’s it say?”

O’Neill shifted nervously on his feet. His mouth opened a little, softly closed. He looked scared.

“No one else has to hear,” Daniel promised, and hoped he was right about that. “Just me. I already know yours, Jack, but I think we need to say the words, to lay down the load we’ve been carrying… or share it with someone who can help us carry it. I choose you to hear my confession.”

The pained look on Jack’s face told him he was right. Reluctance was written in his sagging posture, the leaden steps he took, the way he dragged his toes. When he stopped, his head was down. He sighed.

“I really don’t.”

“I know. Me, either.”

Jack sighed.

Daniel hugged him loosely, whispering in his friend’s ear until he’d poured his heart out and soaked Jack’s shirt even further with his tears.

Without breaking the embrace, Jack said one word into Daniel’s ear.

“Charlie.”

His arms tightened around Daniel. “I should never have had that gun outside a safe. I knew better! Daniel, I’d just jumped all over him about a fucking water gun! He wasn’t old enough to understand. I killed my son. Jeez! I killed Charlie.”

Jack buried his face in Daniel’s shoulder.

There were no words to ease that pain, Daniel knew. There was no forgiveness to be had for his son’s death, only the burden of guilt he would bear for the rest of his life. Daniel curled his fingers around his friend’s nape, the other rubbing the middle of his back, and wished there was something—

Heal,” he commanded in a soft whisper.

He could feel the heat in his hands, flowing from his body into his friend’s. There was no hurry to step apart. When it happened, it was easy, natural.

Jack was smiling a little. His cheeks were wet, but then, everything was wet here. They were in a fucking jungle, for crying out loud.

Daniel chuckled at hearing his own mental voice sounding suspiciously like Jack O’Neill.

“Feel better?” he asked hopefully.

“Yeah, actually. I do. Thanks.” He turned away, scanning the perimeter, threat-assessing as usual.

Moon threw her arms around his neck and nearly knocked him down as she whispered her ex-husband’s name in his ear.

Then it was Tzatzil’s turn, and Daniel felt saddened and humbled to know that she had given up the love of her life to watch over him for her queen.

“I don’t deserve that,” he whispered.

She backed away, holding his face in her hands, smiling through her tears. “Oh, my Daniel! Of all those I have ever met, you do indeed.”

“Is that elf channeling Teal’c?” Jack quipped. “And are we done yet? I gotta pee.”

Daniel couldn’t stop the grin. “There are bushes everywhere, Jack. Pick one.”

“Be right back, ladies.” He pivoted and hid behind the nearest tree for a few minutes. “No peeking!”

“Not caring!” Moon teased back.

The mood lightened considerably, and in no time, they were standing in front of the next portal gazing out into a landscape in faint pastel colors dominated by pale blue and white.

“And we’re soaking wet,” Daniel observed, laying on the sarcasm freely. “We’ll freeze even faster. Yay.”

***

Gamescape: Arctic

Jack glanced at the thick bluish fur coat covering his arms. As soon as they’d stepped through the game portal, they’d been fully geared up for the weather: coats with hoods, gloves, extra-thick socks, waterproof boots, a muffler to wrap around their faces… and sunglasses!

He looked up at the sky, cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Thank you!”

“Mighty nice of our hosts, don’tcha think?” He asked his companions, tugging at his coat sleeve. “Givin’ us these fancy new duds?”

“Nice that we won’t freeze to death in three minutes flat,” Moon groused, “because where’s the entertainment value in that?”

She unfolded the map and turned in a slow circle, comparing it to the terrain. “O’Neill, how’s that famous intuition of yours workin’? I’ll be damned if I can figure out what we’re supposed to find here. There’s nothing marked on the map.”

“I got nothin’,” Jack answered, also scanning the terrain. He shrugged and let his hands fall to his sides.

“Perhaps we are waiting for something to happen?” asked Tzatzil, looking as always, at Daniel.

He was gonna have to talk to her about that.

Then he took a look at their commander, who was standing still as a stone, his mouth pulled in a grimace. His hands were tucked beneath his arms, sans gloves, in that self-hugging thing he did when he was upset. His color was off, too, kind of ashen.

Using that Heal thing must be taking a toll on him, regardless of the reset feature of each gamescape.

He sauntered closer to Daniel, feeling the cold starting to seep into his feet and hands, freezing the muscles of his face and making it harder to smile.

“You okay there, Daniel?”

The other man nodded and said nothing.

“How’s our point total?”

Daniel glanced at the device on his wrist, rolled his eyes and drew his mouth up in a disappointed bow. “Maybe we don’t understand how to play the game. Or maybe it’s me. I’m making all the wrong decisions, and we keep losing points. I’m sorry.” He curled his upper lip in a sneer that looked more like pain than disgust.

“Not from where I’m standing.” Jack patted him on the shoulder. “I think you’re doing it the right way. Have a little faith in yourself. I do.”

The tension eased a little. “Thanks, Jack. So what’s next?”

“Search me.” He turned in a circle and pointed in each of the cardinal directions. “Snow. Snow. Snow. More snow. I got nothin’.”

Daniel glanced above his friend’s head. “How about using your Intuition?”

Jack shrugged. “I thought I was.”

“No.” Daniel shook his head. “I don’t think I’ve seen you use it at all yet. You’re supposed to call for it out loud to make it work.”

Jack’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Really? I thought—” He grinned, feeling a bit superior at the moment. He bounced up on his toes happily. “It’s really just an enhancement, then.”

Daniel pulled his sunglasses down a bit and glared impatiently over the top of the frames. “Any time, now, Jack.”

“Right.” Jack held his hands up and shouted to the sky, “Intuition!”

An instant later, a glowing yellow path appeared in the snow, leading away toward the sun sinking nearer the horizon.

“Anybody else see that?” He checked his teammates, but only he could see the way ahead. “Then let’s follow the yellow snow road to the Emerald City.” After a pause, he added, “Just don’t eat the snow, okay?”

Daniel got the joke and chuckled. He tucked his hands back under his arms and winced.

Jack took notice, but said nothing. He knew the younger man would tolerate anything to help them win. It wasn’t his place to interfere with Daniel’s command, either. He was the team captain; all the decisions were his. There were only two regions to complete before the end of the game, anyway.

Glancing at the position of the sun, he saw they only had a few hours left before the contest was over.

When Jack’s yellow trail vanished, he stopped, looking around for an entrance to something else, but there was only snow in every direction, as far as the eye could see. The wind picked up, cutting through the cloth around his face. “Well, here we aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!”

The ground fell out from under them all. They slid through an icy tunnel, twisting and turning, gaining momentum until he shot out the open mouth into a pale blue cave of ice. He landed on a soft pile of snow, quickly rolling out of the way as the next person flew into view. He grabbed Daniel and hauled him off, barely missing Zazz. Moon smashed into the elf just as she sat up, knocking her out cold.

The Colonel rolled off the other gal with a mighty groan, and sat up with great difficulty. “Is she okay?”

“Are you okay?” Jack shot back.

“Maybe a broken rib,” Moon reported. “Hard to breathe. Daniel, you check Zazz out first. I’ll wait.”

Jack had a look at Moon while Daniel ran glowy hands over the elf, then scanned the rest of the cave.

Huddled in a corner were some shadowy gray shapes curled up tight.

“We are not alone, boys and girls,” he stated with a trace of merriment he didn’t feel.

His stomach clenched as he stepped cautiously toward them. He recognized the Nebari team from the starting area, but they were hardly dressed for this climate. They were still in the lightweight charcoal-colored uniforms they’d had at the beginning of the game, and they weren’t moving.

Jack bent closer and saw frost forming on their gray faces around their mouths and noses.

The female with a thick shock of snow-white hair opened large black eyes, shivering as she gazed up at him.

“Help,” she whispered.

“Daniel! Need some help over here!”

He felt for pulses, not even sure they had those.

Moments later, Daniel was healing the Nebari, thawing them out. When he finished, there were dark circles under his eyes, and he was unnaturally pale. He left the gloves off, pressing his hands to the cold floor to cool them off as they sat around in a circle, Nebari tucked beneath the coats of SG-Zed and sharing body heat.

Yep, Jack assured himself as the white-haired one squeezed close to him. That one was female.

“My name is Chiana,” she said haltingly, her teeth chattering a little. “Thank you for saving us.”

“You’re very welcome. I’m Daniel, this is Jack, Tzatzil and Moon.”

The others introduced themselves. Nerri was Chiana’s brother. Hubero, with the silvery hair, and Atoll, another dark-haired male, were quite obviously grateful, but highly suspicious of their competitors.

“How did you get here?” Daniel seemed to find a little relief in the cold, and put his arms around Hubero, rubbing her arms briskly to help warm her up. “I thought only one team could be on a level at one time.”

“We were in the desert,” Nerri answered, scooting closer to Tzatzil. “There was a trap, and we were transported here. There was no opening until the tunnel appeared and brought you.”

“What was the trap? We didn’t find a trap in the desert.” Moon jerked away from Atoll and slapped his hand as it skirted a little too close to intimate bits. “Stop that unless you want your fingers broken!”

The alien looked properly chastised and sat very still.

“No, we found land mines,” Daniel corrected. “Where was the trap?”

“Inside the rock formation,” answered Chiana.

Daniel seemed to wilt a little. “Oh. We never got that far.” He offered a sad smile to his teammates. “Sorry, guys. I seem to have missed the point of that one completely.”

Jack felt bad for him.

“I do not think so,” countered Tzatzil with a shake of her head. “If we did not complete our task, why would we have found the next portal?”

Chiana let go of Jack and stood up, her arms tucked close around her to conserve body heat. “Look, we’ve been stuck in here for hours. We didn’t solve the Desert puzzle and still have to complete the Jungle one. I don’t suppose you guys found a key to the shortcut, did you?”

Tzatzil fished around in her tunic and brought up the skeleton key the villagers had given the team. “Is this it?”

“Yes! Dag-yo!” she cheered. “We’ll give you the solution for this puzzle if you’ll give us the shortcut key. Or your coats. Coats would be great.”

“Dag-yo?” Daniel repeated quizzically.

“Guessing from context, something like, ‘cool,’” Moon advised. Her eyes slid sideways to her coat mate and narrowed in clear threat. “I have super strength pal. You try that again and I’ll snap you in half.”

Atoll mumbled a soft apology and pulled his hands close to his own body.

“Where is the puzzle for this location?” asked Tzatzil.

Chiana pointed to the wall behind the redhead. “You gotta squint to see the symbols. They’re carved into the ice.”

“We’ve already solved it,” Nerri assured them. “As my sister said, we will trade you the answer—“

“Give them the key,” Daniel told Tzatzil.

She took it off and handed it to Nerri, who sat up to put it around his own neck. The elf stood up and went over to study the characters.

“Hurry back,” Nerri called, shivering.

“Daniel,” Zazz called over her shoulder. “Can you see this?” She pointed.

The symbols were simple: a box containing several circles with an arrow pointing to an empty box.

“It means—“ Chiana began.

“Aht! Aht!” Jack held up a hand. “He likes to figure these out for himself, thank you. It’s what he does.”

Daniel got up to eyeball the carvings. He ran his fingers along the edges of the incisions into the ice, obviously thinking. He glanced at the huddled group, then back at the carvings.

Zazz leaned close to whisper to him. He nodded.

Both of them took off their coats and gave them to the Nebari.

Above the elf’s copper hair, another symbol appeared.

“You just got ‘Show’, Zazz,” Jack told her. “Whatever that means. Anybody got a ‘Tell’?”

He liked that joke, even though nobody laughed. His humor was rather eclectic, and he enjoyed being obtuse.

She looked up, and of course, the symbol moved, too, staying in line with the top of her head so she could never see it.

He couldn’t help cracking up. That just never got old.

“Jack, Moon. You, too. Give up your coats.” Daniel nodded toward the Nebari.

O’Neill didn’t like that idea. It was fucking cold in that cave and a long way back to the portal. Without their gear, they’d all be popsicles in minutes.

“Um, no?”

“Jack.” Now he was gazing over the tops of his glasses, as he might with a petulant child. “We’re close enough to the end that it really doesn’t matter anymore. We’ll never catch up to the winners—“

“Who are?” Jack demanded.

“Point totals,” Daniel called into the gold host device, and the current scores displayed in the air with glowing certainty.

The Goa’uld team was far in the lead, most of the others jumbled tightly in the middle, and SG-0 steadily losing points at rock bottom.

“We might as well help the Nebari what little we can.” Daniel was starting to shiver. “It’s the right thing to do. Maybe they’ll be amenable to helping us with whatever the prize is after the game’s over.”

With a sinking feeling, Jack knew his commander was right. “Under protest,” he said as he stood up. “And I think we shoulda kept that key. If we’d figured out how to use it, we might’ve been able to win.”

Chiana slipped on Jack’s coat, hugged it tightly around her, and beamed. “Absolutely!”

She dashed over to where Tzatzil had hit the wall and sent snow flying. Brushing off the powdery flakes, she revealed a small silver square with a hole in it… which neatly fit the skeleton key her brother gave her. The Nebari gathered together and as Chiana turned the key, a portal opened in the wall to the Jungle.

“Wait! Wait!” Daniel put out a hand to stop them.

All Nebari eyes turned to him.

“Do any of you have ‘Heal’?”

“No, why?” Chiana’s head cocked, side to side, her shoulders swaying a little in a way that reminded Jack of a snake about to strike. She gave Daniel a dirty little smile and a wink of clear invitation.

“Never mind,” O’Neill called to them, and forced a smile. “Good luck.”

The portal vanished behind them, and along with it, the lock and key.

“Okay, now what?” Jack snapped, glad to be rid of the pretty zombies. They creeped him out, and he was relieved they could get back to the game… if, indeed, there was any game left to play. “There’s no way we can make it back to the portal without our gear, Daniel. Are we supposed to just freeze to death here? Is that how we go out?”

Daniel smiled softly, but he seemed to be looking past Jack rather than at him. “No. We advance to the last game field. Turn around.”

The entire back wall of the cave had vanished, and in its place was a narrow pathway leading around the bend and out of sight at the base of a cliff. Stretching off in the distance was a majestic mountain, its peak dusted with snow. In the valley surrounding it, dense evergreens grew, and high in the mountain’s side, a tunnel had been carved. Scattered around that opening lay a picturesque little village filled with stone thatched-roof houses, a few small patches of garden, a large corral, and just above the village on a massive boulder perched a square timber watchtower.

“Ready, Jack?”

“Why the hell not? Game’s almost over. I’m gonna have a bath, eat till I puke, drink till I puke, pass out in my bed with the Furbys, and then go home and retire.”

Daniel’s eyebrows lifted in silent question.

“Because the Goa’uld are winning,” Jack declared dispiritedly. “Here, out there, everywhere. Their armies are bigger, their weapons are better… I’m just not sure we can win, Daniel, not ever. This fucking game showed me that.”

He could see the pain in Daniel’s eyes and knew his friend felt it, too.

“Blaze of glory?” asked Moon, glancing between the two men.

“Here we go,” Daniel announced, and strode through the open portal.

***

Gamescape: Mountain

The trail led to the village they’d seen from the ice cave.

It was warmer there, but still chilly. Wind cut through their uniforms and made them shiver. The scent of pines, firs and wood smoke filled the air. As they neared the outskirts, they heard a rhythmic clang of metal on metal and the sound of raised voices.

A blacksmith’s shop was one of the first they passed. Peering inside as they marched past, Jack saw all manner of armor and weaponry. Some of them, like a handful of automatic weapons, were obviously picked up somewhere and not made by the local smith. He made a mental note to see if they might be able to trade for some of that gear.

Right now, however, he wanted to get in out of the cold.

Snow was starting to fall, just a few flakes sizzling onto the bare ground. He glanced up at the overcast sky and knew more was on the way. Their breath made clouds in the air, and his hands ached inside his gloves.

A young woman with a spear jogged past them toward the center of the village.

Instinctively, they followed her.

A small crowd of people had gathered in the town square. Some wooden crates had been stacked together to create a makeshift platform. On top of it stood a middle aged woman, her arm in a sling, some of her hair singed away and a burn mark just above her left ear.

“The watch signal has sounded,” she cried, her words colored with a lilting Irish accent. “The troll army is on the move and will be here within the hour. Take the young to the tunnel and arm yourselves!”

“Here we go.” Jack looked to his commander for orders. He was thoroughly pissed off, spoiling for a good fight to work out his frustrations at yet another loss in this unending war.

Daniel raised his hand. “Excuse me! Can we help?”

The young woman with the spear whirled to face them, her face filled with rage. “And how would you help us?” she demanded. “Six times today the trolls have come! The first ones disarmed the trolls and sent them away—“

“That would be the Tollans,” Daniel guessed.

“The grey people drove the trolls away, but not for long. The blue ones…” She shook her head, a grim smile spreading. “They met with the troll king and negotiated more time, but after they were gone, the trolls came again.”

“Another group fought with us briefly,” the wounded elder added, “but they, too, left after the first skirmish. The ones who came after, though…” She bowed her head and wept.

The warrior woman took up the tale again. “Another group came. They met with the troll king, and when they left… his eyes glowed and his voice was like thunder.”

“The desert warriors drove them off and healed a few of our worst wounded,” said the leader. “But I fear the rest of us will die today.”

A young boy with a mop of dark, curly hair stepped up onto the box with her and hugged her. He was obviously terrified. She put her arm around his shoulders and held him close.

“Then we will die with you,” Daniel assured her.

Moon met Jack’s eyes with a look of silent determination. She nodded, and he felt it, too. This was their last challenge, and they could go home. “Let’s make it look good.”

Tzatzil’s eyes were wide with concern as she moved closer to Daniel, almost touching his elbow.

Jack grasped her shoulder, gave her a little squeeze. “Remember, this is just a game. Your job here is not to protect Daniel, not today. Follow your orders, no matter what. Understood?”

She nodded and unslung her bow. “Understood, O’Neill.”

Daniel turned to face her. “You’re going to go with the children to the tunnel. Guard them with your life. Throw up your Shield and keep them safe. Okay?”

“Yes, my Daniel.” There were tears in her eyes as she nodded. Then she handed him her bow and arrows.

He hugged her briefly and whispered his gratitude in her ear.

She jogged off with the other adults herding the children toward the rear of the village.

The little boy they’d seen with the leader took her hand and went with her, glancing over his shoulder at his mother as she ordered the villagers to their defensive posts.

“Moon, you’ll be at the front lines, where your Strength will be most important.”

The Colonel nodded and turned back the way they’d come.

“I’ll provide cover with the arrows,” he told Jack, “and when I’m out of those, I’ll use the swords.”

“What about me?”

Daniel huffed a raspy little laugh. “Use your Intuition, Jack. I have faith you’ll know where to be and when to be there.”

“Speaking of, there’s a blacksmith’s shop down the way. Pretty sure we could use some kind of armor, and there’s a few other pieces I had my eye on. Might do us some good.”

“Then let’s gear up.”

The trio turned and jogged to the armory.

While they ran, an idea began to form in Jack’s mind. He thought about the scores, how the Goa’uld had the highest point total and theirs was lowest. He remembered what happened in the jungle, where the challenge was to lighten their load, and wondered if maybe… just maybe…

There was no point in curiosity now. Their course was set, their objectives clear. They had to protect this village against the onslaught of an army.

The clang of the smith’s hammer on the anvil drew them right to the door.

A large man rippling with muscles eyed them with anger in his eyes. “What do you want?”

“To help your people,” Daniel answered immediately.

“What sort of currency do you folks use?” asked Jack. He grabbed Daniel’s arm and held it up. “Do you take points?”

The smith’s brows twitched together. “Arrow points? I make my own.”

“Daniel, show him how many points we have.”

“Jack, he doesn’t even know what they are,” Daniel argued in a whisper. “They may not know they’re in a game.”

“Just show him!” O’Neill rasped in a whispered shout.

As instructed, Daniel requested their point total on the gaming device armband.

Both of them were astonished to see a sack of gold coins appear in his hand.

“Uh… will this do?” Daniel asked. “I don’t even have a clue how much is in there.”

The villager didn’t seem to care. His eyes lit up as he hurried over to snatch the bag. “Help yourselves to whatever you want,” he told them, started packing a small satchel full of clothes, food and personal items, and then hurried out the door.

“Okaaaay.” Daniel eyed Jack. “Let’s outfit the whole team.”

Not all the bits and pieces fit. The chain mail was heavy. The armor plating was even heavier. Daniel explained some stuff about knights and armor in medieval days, but Jack wasn’t listening.  By the time they were outfitted, he had snagged every piece of automated weaponry and ammo, and Colonel Standing was headed for the door, armed to the teeth, the mace tucked in at her back for when she ran out of bullets.

And then the trolls arrived.

The ground shook beneath them.

The army was massive, scouring through the trees in the valley below, filling up the narrow path, pouring over the top of the cliff.

They were huge and ugly and tough-looking, like their skin was as thick as an elephant’s hide.

And true to the villagers’ tale, their leader’s eyes glowed with Goa’uld rage.

As soon as they were in range, Daniel’s arrows began to fall.

Jack saw the first few go right through the eyes of the leaders, who fell where they stood.

That brought a pause in the onslaught, and he heard the villagers rallying cry go up behind him.

But the pause was brief, and when the troll king ordered them forward, they leapt over the bodies of their fallen and came on with a battle cry of their own that shook rocks down from the cliff.

“Intuition,” Jack whispered, and the path lit up before him.

“Strength!” shouted Moon, hefting her mace. “Remember the Alamo!” She whooped and laid into the first one, sent him flying and circled around to the next, spinning like a top, untouchable.

For the fraction of an instant, Jack felt a surge of hope.

But then he saw the path ahead of him disappear.

He clenched his teeth, aimed his weapon and pulled the trigger, giving ground as the unstoppable army swarmed toward them.

***

Daniel couldn’t remember how long he’d been fighting. His face and body were slick with blood. The swords felt glued to his hands.

There was so much screaming and shouting he couldn’t tell if anyone were giving battle commands. The trolls had poured in so fast that he’d had to leave the archer’s perch and make his way deeper into the village. Now the mountain was coming up at his back and he could barely lift his arms. He was exhausted, terrified, hopeless.

They were all going to die here.

“Daniel!”

The call was faint, but he recognized his name on that familiar voice and turned.

There was only time for a glance before he had to step back into the fray, but he’d seen Tzatzil at the mouth of the tunnel, her image darkened behind the shade of her Shield.

If he could get there… if she could let him in, just for a few minutes, he could rest. Then he’d go back out again.

A massive club came down near his head and he managed to stumble out of the way. His legs burned. His shoulders ached. He couldn’t get a deep enough breath. Somewhere along the way he’d lost his glasses.

The armor was too heavy to let him run, so he unbuckled the shoulder pads and heaved them off over his head.

“This way!” called Jack from behind him.

He followed the voice instinctively, the long sword clenched between his teeth, the other tucked in at his waist as he struggled with the clasps.

Sheltering behind the corner of a stone hut, Daniel bent to unstrap the metal shin guards and left them behind as he sprinted toward his friend, barely visible inside the doorway of a building.

Running was easier now. He was lighter.

“Here!” called Jack, louder now.

Daniel leaped inside, crashing against the far wall, crumbling into an exhausted heap.

O’Neill shut the door behind him, dropping a bar into place to secure it. “I have an idea,” he panted. “Greek history. Sparta. The Hot Gates.”

“What?”

This was a hell of a time for Jack to become a history buff.

“’Member what you told me about that bunch of gay soldiers?” Jack helped his friend sit up. “We’re not givin’ up yet, Daniel! I’m not dying in front of you.”

“’Kay. But Sparta?”

“The Persians were coming,” Jack explained between breaths. “The Greeks wouldn’t give the Spartans an army to fight them, so they stood their ground at the Hot Gates and died defending their whole country.”

Daniel wilted. “Oh, Jack! We’ve already lost. We’ve done everything we can here. We’re gonna die.”

But the look in his friend’s dark eyes was intense, filled with hope such as Daniel had never seen.

“Yeah, but when word spread about their sacrifice, all of Greece answered the call and sent the Persians home with their tails tucked. C’mon, Daniel!” He pointed above Daniel’s head. “Call the fucking cavalry!”

It was hard to concentrate, he was so tired. The solution was right there, but not quite close enough for Daniel to grasp. Maybe it was Jack’s Intuition kicking in, but that was something only he could see.

“Come on! Get up! Gotta get you to the tunnel.” Jack hauled him to his feet and slipped under his arm, guiding him to the door. He peered out, waiting for the way to clear, and then stepped out onto the cobblestone street.

“Run, Daniel! Get to Zazz, and I’ll watch your back.” And then Jack was fighting again, poking at a huge troll with his spear.

He wasn’t even carrying the guns anymore, no doubt because the ammo was all spent.

So Daniel ran.

Something caught him on the left shoulder, spinning him around.

Twenty feet away, the troll king stood on the street over the body of Jack O’Neill, his eyes glowing with satisfaction and menace.

“Lay down your arms!” the creature called.

Show.” Tzatzil’s voice was rough with grief, but the command she gave was strong.

As far as Daniel could see, nothing happened at all.

***

Gamescape: Arctic

Narim peered at the symbols carved into the icy wall. “It is better to give than to receive,” he read easily.

“Give to whom?” asked Tugash, his second in command. “There is no one else here.”

“To each other, perhaps?” Narim puzzled over that.

But then the wall to his right disappeared. They could all hear the sounds of battle, the clash of metal on metal, the screams of the wounded, the roar of the mighty trolls conquering the people in the village. They had already seen all that up close and when they’d gone, the people had been safe.

“Who is there?” asked Makell, their healer. “Can you see which team is playing?”

The view moved from the village outskirts to the prone form of the dark-haired woman who had been with Jackson and O’Neill.

“SG-Zero, I believe they are now called,” answered Tugash stiffly.

Then they saw O’Neill beneath the foot of the troll king, and Jackson standing guard at the entrance of the tunnel where all the children were gathered behind the redheaded woman on their team.

“Oh, dear,” said Narim.

He turned back to the wall and stared at the glyphs.

***

Gamescape: Savannah

Tezcatlipoca surveyed the bodies of the savage beasts they had just exterminated. He’d had his men search for any dens nearby and ordered the young killed as well, just to ensure they’d snuffed out every life on the plains.

The air shimmered before him, revealing the view of the Tau’ri team facing their imminent defeat.

“Fools,” he spat.

And then he smiled.

This was the last challenge of the game, and he was going to win.

***

Gamescape: Forest

Tas’eem peered out from behind a tree, spying on the seirbhíseach as the aliens watched others of their team. No one had moved for some time.

“Well?” asked Freya. “What is the point of this challenge? They watch us; we watch them. There must be something more here that we are missing.”

Thellas frowned and crossed his arms. “Perhaps we should speak with them.”

Sina squinted at the creatures almost perfectly camouflaged among the trees. “I do not understand their importance in this game.”

Jalen shrugged. “It is the last challenge. What does it matter? The sun has almost set. We passed on the Village challenge. We cannot afford to pass on this one as well.”

Tas’eem sighed. “Very well. I will—“

But then the Mountain village scene hovered in the air between two trees, and they recognized the team in the fight.

“This is not how we played that portion of the game,” Freya reminded them. “The Tau’ri are going to die.”

Tas’eem nodded. “They are going to lose.”

Sina eyed their leader. “Must we watch?”

***

Gamescape: Jungle

“Oh, shit!” Chiana tore her gaze away from the stupid little creatures dropping the rocks and feathers, staring at the image of the Mountain battle with wide eyes.

Hubero ducked behind the trunk of a large tree. “It that not the people who helped us in the ice cave?”

“We had better weapons,” Nerri reminded them.

Atoll saw the woman whose coat he’d shared lying still on the ground, eyes slowly blinking. “The one called Moon appears to be nearly dead.”

“Yeah, that cranky old guy, too,” Chiana observed. “There’s just two of them fighting now.”

She couldn’t help feeling sad for them. A check of their point total showed the other team had nothing left. “I guess that’s it for them.” She shrugged. “That hot guy with the swords, though… Gotta say, feels like I’ve seen him somewhere before...”

***

Gamescape: Desert

The pleasure of the desert sun was intense. Tuzak struggled to remember why he was there, to think of what he was supposed to be doing.

“Hasko,” he called. “Bitaal. Tahleen. Awaken! We must resist the bliss of the photogasm. On your feet.”

He leaned against the rocky edifice, bowing his head. “There must be a way inside this formation,” he panted, struggling to gather his wits. “Something written. We are running out of time!”

The younger Delvians staggered to their feet, all dazed by the light pouring into their bodies.

And then the window appeared to the battle on the Mountain.

“We fought no battle,” Tahleen observed, putting a hand to her spinning head. “Was there a different way?”

“Perhaps they did not have the Telepathy charm, as you do,” Bitaal suggested.

“Is the humans’ challenge different from ours, or have we played the game incorrectly?” asked Hasko.

They watched in horror as the troll king struck down a much smaller man wielding a spear.

The one with the swords roared silently with grief.

Waves of despair passed through the window and gripped the Delvians at their core.

Tears appeared in Tuzak’s eyes.

As one, they closed their eyes and began to pray to their goddess.

***

Gamescape: Village

Rak’nor led the way down the cobbled street, eyeing the sun as the last sliver of it hovered above the horizon. This was their last challenge, and he had no idea what they were to do here. Signs of recent battle were obvious, but the villagers were dealing with the damage already. There appeared to be nothing for the Jaffa to do here.

“Kel’nak,” he called, “use your skills to Track where the other teams have been. We will follow their paths and see where they converge.” He turned to meet the eyes of Kol’na, and nodded for him to go with the tracker.

“Ma’kar, Hak’ahn, observe the villagers. Look for clues to this challenge. I will wait here for your reports. Hurry! We have little time.”

But then a window opened to another gamescape, and the Jaffa watched the dark-haired Tau’ri woman fighting the army of trolls, giving her companions time to retreat. They saw the other three herding the villagers before them, the red-haired female standing guard at the tunnel, so many small faces behind her.

“She has the Shield,” Kol’na breathed, “as do I.”

Rak’nor’s eyes misted. “It will not hold.”

“They are brave, these Tau’ri,” observed Ma’kar, his voice hushed with admiration. “It is no wonder Teal’c supports them.”

Hak’ahn fingered his staff weapon. “Why are their weapons so primitive?”

“And why are there so many more of the trolls than when we faced them?”

They watched in silence as the humans struggled and fell, one by one, until the last warrior stood facing the troll king.

They saw the creature’s eyes glow.

Rak’nor remembered what Teal’c had shown him in the hold of the ship, suffering under torture that had broken lesser men. He had heard the stories of Teal’c’s defection, how he had helped the Tau’ri kill so many false gods. Teal’c was his mentor, and it was only by luck of the draw that Rak’nor was here in his place.

“If we cannot help them,” he said to his companions, “then we will do the honor of watching their sacrifice.”

Kel’nak touched his captain’s shoulder. “But we must finish the game!” he insisted. “It is almost sundown.”

“We will honor these brave warriors,” Rak’nor corrected. “Be silent, and watch.”

***

Gamescape: Mountain

“Daniel!” Tzatzil cried. “I cannot hold the Shield! I have failed you again.”

He heard her weeping, felt the field protecting the children fall.

“It’s okay,” he promised her. “I’m proud of you.”

The troll king laughed. “Such weaklings! I will eat you all.” A glob of drool spilled over his lower lip and hung in a long chandelier from his chin. “After I feast on the tender young ones.”

“Not while I live!” Daniel cried, lowering his blades to his sides.

He seethed with hatred and grief, hopelessness and defeat turning his heart to chilly coals.

Jack’s brown eye opened. His hand moved. One finger pointed above Daniel’s head.

He remembered what Jack had told him about the Hot Gates.

And then he took a step toward the troll, raised his right hand and called out, “I Summon all who will come to help save these people!”

***

The Arena

General Waring stood up from his seat in the arena, his heart about to pound his ribs apart as he watched the giant figures of the players fighting for their lives.

“Yes!” he cried, jumping up and down. “Take me! Take me!”

All around him, the audience was roaring, cheers deafening. Humans and aliens alike stood side by side, rooting for the Tau’ri team. Hands, tentacles and other limbs waved in the air.

Waring had never witnessed such heroism, such courage in the face of certain defeat.

He’d never been more proud to be human.

“Take me!” he repeated, fist pumping in the air. “I’ll fight with them!”

Someone to his left – one of the Delvian dignitaries, he thought – vanished.

Waring’s eyes widened.

The entire Delvian team appeared beside Daniel, including the bald woman who had been sitting next to Waring in the stands.

And then the Tollan team appeared, the Nebari, the Tok’ra and the Ronin Jaffa.

One of the Goa’uld Jaffa joined in the fray, and then another.

“Take me!” Waring cried, punching the air. “Take me!”

He watched in awe as more of the audience vanished from the stands, popping up in various places on the battlefield, every single one bare-handed, taking up whatever weapon they found on the field or leaping headlong at the trolls with nothing but their courage in hand.

The General shook his head as the tide quickly turned, the trolls retreating from the sheer numbers of supporters for the Tau’ri team.

But the troll king stood his ground, one huge foot pinning Jack down at the shoulder, raising his huge mace for a swing at Daniel’s head.

“Take me,” Waring whispered.

In the next moment, he pushed Daniel on the shoulder, knocking him out of the way of the killing blow.

Waring’s glasses fell off his face, but he didn’t care. Grabbing the long katana out of Daniel’s nerveless fingers, the old soldier dropped into a half squat and thrust upward with all his might, sliding the point of the blade into a weak spot in the giant’s armor. A twist turned the blade into the troll’s innards, and a downward slice and pull very nearly cut the thing in half.

He dodged as the creature fell, turning to watch in horror as it toppled onto Daniel…

…who faded into a ghostly outline, and then disappeared into a bright flash of light.

“Oh, no,” Waring breathed, remembering the video footage he’d seen of the scientist ascending in the infirmary isolation room.

And then he found himself back in the stands.

He looked back into the arena and shouted with joy as he saw the trolls in full retreat. His arms spread wide. He shouted to no one in particular, “It is a good day!”

“Sir?” Dr. Charlie Eppes patted his arm. “Are you okay?”

Waring just stared at the village surrounded by picturesque scenery, watching as the people began to pick up after the battle. Each one of them became transparent, and then disappeared completely. The buildings, too, began to unravel. Tools, weapons, bodies, everything vanished, leaving only the pristine wilderness, untouched by war or blood.

This was the most intoxicating entertainment March Waring had ever seen.

“How the hell am I going to write up a mission report on that?”

Charlie grinned at him, snuggling little Niamh under his chin. “I know what you mean. Listen, is that job offer Daniel told me about still open?”

The General met the young man’s eyes with an enchanted smile. “Just so you know, Doctor Eppes, I’ve just decided joining the SGC was the best move I ever made in my career. Hands down.”

“Jack and Daniel said I’d want to be a part of it. They were right.” He studied the enormous amphitheater, the crowd of aliens and humans still in their seats, awaiting the final scores and announcement of the winners. “This...” He nodded. “…really is the most important work I could ever do.”

“Amen.”

***

The Beach

A long table was set with huge platters of food. Candles in hurricane lanterns provided illumination in the gloaming while a pleasant, salt-scented breeze blew in off the gentle waves. Wine goblets and place settings of gold awaited diners. Nearby, a small army of hóstach directed the teams into chairs.

Daniel glanced around for his teammates and found them scattered along the beach with all the other players. He dutifully stomped through the sand toward the table, hating that Tezcatlipoca had taken the chair at the head of the table. SG-Zed was all the way at the other end near the empty chair at the foot.

That grated on him. It was obvious that the teams had been seated in ranking order as they had finished the contest.

Jack started filling his plate and eating, obviously ravenous with hunger. Moon was hesitant at first, but hardly anyone else was waiting, so she joined in, too. Taztzil, seated at his left, looked to him for what to do.

Daniel just sat there, head down, staring at his empty plate and feeling the heat of tears needing to be shed. He refused to cry, refused to feel sorry for himself. His heart was breaking for the crushing loss, but he believed they had played true to themselves, and not just as some game strategy.

A line of hóstach waited on a gazebo tucked up under swaying giant fern trees further from the shore. The hosts each held what appeared to be wine bottles and stood in neat, military precise rows, still as stones, as if waiting for a summons to move.

From behind them, a man in green robes appeared. He was tall and stick-thin, boasting a thick mop of curly dark hair, antlers sprouting just above his ears and curving around the back of his head. He was a handsome young man, broad grin framed with a spiky van Dyk moustache, beard and soul patch.

“Greetings, players!” called Conall the bartender. “Congratulations on an excellent Game!” He spread his hands wide. “A toast to the winners!”

The hóstach marched to the table and began to fill every goblet. Once done, the hóstach took up a post behind each chair, ready to keep those glasses filled.

Conall sauntered to the chair at the foot of the table and plunked down into it. He lounged a little sideways and hung his left leg over the chair arm, the picture of nonchalance. Then he reached for his cup and held it high.

“To the winners!”

Everyone drank. Jack emptied his cup with a satisfied, “Ahhhhh!” and held it out for more. Daniel kept his upper lip pressed firmly to the inside rim of the cup and only pretended to swallow a tiny sip.

There was no way he could drink to the Goa’uld winning, not without throwing up immediately afterward.

He set his cup down.

“I demand my prize!” thundered Tezcatlipoca, standing up and pounding the table with his fist. “I am a god! I should not have to sup with mere mortals.”

Conall chuckled and made patting motions in the air. “Sit, my friend. Sit. The night has only begun, and my friends and I…” He gestured toward the hóstach. “… wish to enjoy the pleasure of your company. It is polite to respect our hospitality.”

He inclined his head toward the Goa’uld at the far end of the table. “And I am no mere mortal.” Conall’s eyes flashed, not white, but a brilliant green.

Daniel’s chin hit the floor. “What are you?” he whispered.

Frowning, Tezcatlipoca resumed his seat. He looked uncertain.

Conall didn’t answer.

Tzatzil giggled, but Daniel was so fascinated he couldn’t turn his head in her direction to see why she was so entertained by all this.

“My prize?” the Goa’uld insisted, but his voice was more deferential now.

The antlered man swung out of his chair and stood up. “Ah, yes. I suppose we must. But then I will insist that you and your team stay for the festivities.” Conall signaled the hóstach waiting in the gazebo.

Two of them went to the head of the table, each bearing a golden tray with a domed lid. They stood on either side of Tezcatlipoca’s chair.

“You’re actually getting two prizes,” Conall announced gaily. “You’ve received the highest score ever in our Games, so you’ve earned something extra. One is what you’ve always wanted: a device that will give you ultimate power.” He nodded at one of the hosts, who retreated to the gazebo to fetch the first prize.

Daniel felt sick. He turned away, hanging his head over the chair arm and sucking in a few deep breaths.

He heard a few half-smothered laughs.

Glancing at Jack he saw his friend hide his grin behind his goblet, but his eyes shifted to the other end of the table.

Look, Daniel, was the silent command.

He did. It took every ounce of self discipline he had to keep a straight face as he saw a familiar Tollan device being shown around the table. It was silver, sort of diamond-shaped, with a milky oval cabochon in the center, just like the one Skaara had worn on Tollana during the trial to determine who should have control over the host body.

Daniel glanced at Narim, whose pale eyes were glinting with humor and a bit of smug self-satisfaction over the rim of his goblet.

The hóstach placed the device against Tezcatlipoca’s chest and turned it on.

An instant later, the jewel turned red and then shifted to bright blue.

“Of course,” Conall mused, “the ultimate power I mentioned… that is for your host.”

The man stood up so fast his chair fell backward. His eyes were wide in amazement. He chattered in a strange tongue that Daniel guessed was the language of the ancient Aztecs.

Tezcatlipoca’s Jaffa stood up, a little panic stricken. They all eyed each other, unsure what was happening. Their movements were slow and spastic.

Daniel tried to understand what was being said, but that tongue was beyond him. No one had heard or spoken that language for thousands of years. It would have taken him some time learn to decipher it.

Body language and facial expression, however, conveyed much. The man was grateful to be free. His liberation was magic to him, a miracle.

Conall laughed. “Aye, Nacaxoc. You are welcome.” He gestured the man back into his chair. “That is a temporary gift. We’ll have an implant ready for you before you leave, to ensure no one will be able to wrest that power from you. Now, for the actual prize your team has won.”

Upon Nacaxoc’s order, the Jaffa resumed their seats, their suspicions melting away.

This was getting interesting. Daniel shot Jack a glance across the table to check his friend’s reaction.

O’Neill had his chin propped on his hand. His eyes were a little glassy. He looked tired, maybe a little out of it. He didn’t seem at all disturbed at their loss.

“Jack, is your Intuition on?” he whispered, leaning closer.

“’S’always on,” Jack slurred.

Daniel glanced at his cup, then up at their host with a frisson of alarm shivering up his spine.

“Your prize is the Wisdom of Foresight,” Conall intoned.

The second hóstach lifted the lid on its tray to reveal another smaller oval shaped jewel – this one flat and black, like a piece of polished obsidian. The host pressed the jewel against Tezcatlipoca’s forehead and watched in horrified fascination as it seemed to embed itself into his flesh and become part of him.

“There’s a bit of time manipulation in that little thingy, there,” Conall announced. “You can’t see far into the future, just enough to know the consequences of decisions you make. Like throwing a stone into the water, eh?”

Nacaxoc spoke again, looking long at each person seated around him at the table. He leaned back in his chair, dumbstruck for a moment, and then he began to laugh. He lifted his cup and drained it, held it out to the host, thanked them, and drained it again.

His Jaffa still seemed a bit confused.

When he spoke again, it was in the language of the Goa’uld.

“With this Prize, I can see the future of all Jaffa,” Nacaxoc announced to his team in a human voice. “I have seen a new way for our people. Learn the faces of all of those at this table. Remember them well.”

Nacaxoc stood and bowed to Conall. “I do not wish to be rude, but I have pressing business elsewhere. I thank you and will be forever in your debt.”

“First I’ll address your Jaffa, if I may, Nacaxoc.”

The host nodded, obviously curious.

Conall told them in the language of the Goa’uld that they would obey their god only when the jewel he wore was blue. They were to ignore him when it was red. He assured them that this was always how they had behaved with Tezcatlipoca.

Daniel saw that the Nebari and the Delvians didn’t seem to understand the language at all, and smiled softly. Pieces were now beginning to add up in an unexpected direction.

Jack and Moon were toasting together, apparently oblivious to the speech.

“Right, then. Off you go.” Conall waved his hand, and the Goa’uld party disappeared.

One by one, the other teams also requested and were given their leave, all but SG-Zed.

Jack was pretty drunk and would likely be spending the night on the beach unless someone brought a stretcher to move him.

Moon wasn’t far behind and had gotten up to dance with a hóstach.

Tzatzil rose in concert with Daniel.

He bent over to whisper in Conall’s ear, careful to avoid getting too close to an antler tine.

“Mind if we have a private chat?”

Conall grinned. “No one’s going to remember much of this tomorrow, anyway, but aye. Let’s walk along the beach.”

Tzatzil fell into step behind them.

The antlered man turned and spoke to her in her own tongue.

She bowed to him and returned to the table and the rest of the team.

“How’d you do that?” Daniel demanded, thoroughly impressed. “She won’t leave me in anyone’s hands but Jack’s, and that’s only because he watched my back for years before she came along.”

Conall beamed. His eyebrows danced with innuendo. He trudged forward in the sand, hands clasped behind his back, obviously not going to answer.

“She knows you,” Daniel guessed.

The alien held a finger over his lips. “Shhh. Don’t tell anyone. What did you want to talk about?”

“Just curious.” Daniel smiled a little. “You said your people – Cernunnos’ race, anyway, -- weren’t Goa’uld. Who are they? What do they look like? How do you… join together? I have a lot of questions.”

“They’re called the Mo’o.” Conall leaned close. He was playful in his gestures, as if he might be about to scamper off. Then he reached up and thumped one of the tines, eliciting the sound of a bell. “Not everyone sees these. I keep a close eye on those who do.”

“Because?”

“Bear with me, here.” Cernunnos/Conall eyed him. “How do you think the contest was scored, Daniel?”

“I’m not really sure now. When we got here, I thought it was the highest point total, but after seeing the prizes…” He shrugged. “I’m obviously missing something.”

“What was the theme of each of the contests?” Conall scratched a butt cheek idly, then clasped his hands again.

Daniel pondered. “We did Forest first—“

“Start at the beginning,” the being corrected.

“Oh! We had Niamh with us, and had to send her back. We lost a player.” Daniel sighed. “He would’ve been a good one, too.”

“You pared down,” Conall rephrased, “which earned you a boon with the people you’ve treated so well during your stay here.”

“Did all the teams get a stowaway?”

Conall nodded. “And all handled them differently.”

Daniel grabbed the sleeve of the alien’s robes and stepped in front of him. “Please tell me none of the seirbhíseach were hurt for real!”

Conall snorted and gave him a goofy look. “Of course not! D’ya think I’d let any of those adorable little furballs come to harm?”

“Well, you let them be enslaved,” Daniel scowled.

“Do I, now?” Conall’s eyes glittered with secrets and sly humor. “Or perhaps that was just another part of the game. Please continue.”

“Oh.” Daniel was gobsmacked, certain now that nothing in this place had been as straightforward as it had seemed.

The antlered man continued on the stroll and Daniel hurried to fall in on his other side.

“On the Savannah,” Daniel remembered, “we used Shield to get to the map.”

“And in doing so, how did you treat the creatures you met there?”

Daniel hung his head. “We killed them.”

All of them? The Goa’uld exterminated every single one, including the pups. They made great sport of it, at Tezcatlipoca’s behest.”

That was a little horrifying. “Uh, no. We only killed those that attacked us. Using the Shield kept us safe until we drove the pack off.” He glanced over at Tzatzil, seated at the table, head down on her crossed arms. She looked as exhausted as he felt.

“You spared lives where you could,” Conall summed up. “And in the Village?”

Daniel shrugged. “We helped people the Goa’uld had hurt. They gave us a key.”

“And what did you do with the key?”

“Gave it to the Nebari so they could get out of the ice cave. They were freezing.”

“A similar service that you also performed in the desert.” Conall was watching the sand roll underneath his booted feet. “The jungle… that was both the easiest and the hardest. The Goa’uld, Nebari and Tollans all passed on that level. The others… when they didn’t understand the symbolism, they found other items that would allow them to leave the challenge. Pity. It was the most important one.”

He stopped and faced Daniel. “Yours was the only team that got that one right.”

“And Mountain?

Conall laughed. There was wonder in his eyes. “That one. Aye.” He turned and led the way back to the table.

“That place was designed after my home village,” the antlered man confessed with a touch of pride. “What I remember of it, anyway. All the contests we’ve ever designed include what my people faced. In real life, they were destroyed. Me mum sent me through the tunnel and into hiding on the other side, but I saw what happened to my people. When I was watching your team, I—“

His voice caught. He wiped away a tear. “I can’t say I’ve ever been so moved, cara. That one was special, and your Prize will be as well.”

Daniel’s head came up, confusion pulling his brows together. “But the Prize has already been awarded. It was a pretty spectacular one, too, if I might add. No one’s ever going to be able to sneak up on Tezcatlipoca again.”

“Remember the Jungle, Daniel,” Conall said softly, pulling out his chair again. “What was the point of the feather and stone?”

“To lay down our burdens. To heal old wounds.” As they arrived back at the table, Daniel glanced at Jack, passed out in his chair. “Thank you for that, by the way.”

“To lighten your load, yes. To pare down.” Conall waved a hand and the point totals appeared in the air over the platters of food and the lanterns. “So which of the teams had the lightest load to carry?”

The light bulb went on over Daniel’s head as he stared at the numbers.

He grinned. And then he started to laugh. With bright, joyful eyes, he met Conall’s steady gaze. “We won? We won?”

The being nodded. “You left nothing on the field of play. You gave everything you had to those in need. You sacrificed even when it was dangerous for you to do so, and watched as every good deed you did further reduced your points… yet, you stayed the course and chose to lose in grand style in a game people will remember forever.” He smiled just a touch then, a twinkle in his eyes. “Except they won’t. Tomorrow, people will tell exciting stories about what they experienced, but the details will be muddled. There’ll be gaps no one can fill. No one will be able to recall exactly how the game was played, but the feelings will be with them forever.”

A little panic started to bubble up inside Daniel. He glanced at the cups and at his friends. “You spiked the wine?”

“Aye, but it’s a bit more involved than that,” Conall assured him. “You see, it’s important that no one ever remember exactly how the game is played. That keeps people from cheating, and from having repeat winners. Every game is different, for sure, but now you have the key. Can’t have you coming back next time with that, can I?” He winked. “That would be cheating.”

“Sorry, but in fifty years, I’ll be way too old to play.” Daniel huffed a little laugh and shook his head.

“Aye, but if you remembered, you could tell someone.” Conall snagged his goblet and held it out for a hóstach to refill. “You’ll remember the important things, Daniel. Do evil and add weight to the soul. Do good and lose your burdens. It’s in your nature. That’s why we gave you the charm to Heal. Which, by the way, you already knew how to do. We simply refreshed your memory a bit.”

Daniel shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Yeah, I was wondering about that. I’m not that kind of doctor.”

“No, but you’re a peacemaker. Bringing true peace… that takes a healer, someone who can see where the wounds are and treat your enemy with kindness to help them grow and become better. You can’t force peace on others, you know. If they aren’t ready to accept it, their inner conflict will simmer and boil underneath the surface until it spills over into the world. You have to put out the fire below that causes the problem in the first place, see things through until their proper end.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

Conall leaned close and whispered, “People tell bartenders everything! Och, the stories I’ve heard about you and your Tau’ri friends. I’ve been a fan for many years. We’ve just been waiting for you to randomly dial us to play this game with you.”

Daniel couldn’t quite believe that and told him so.

“Ah, but you can’t see the Big Picture, yet, cara. The Tau’ri are a very small part of an epic drama that has been playing for thousands of years. I’ve heard the stories – how you unlocked the Stargate and lost your wife, the people you’ve helped – especially those who could do nothing at all for you in return. The Tau’ri are finally becoming major players in the bigger game, and it’s time you learned there are others out here hoping you win. The game’s not always about how much you have. Sometimes it’s about how much you’re willing to give. That can be a really hard lesson for some to learn.”

“It wasn’t trolls,” Jack slurred. His eyes were barely open, but they were staring at Conall.

“What?” asked Daniel.

“Not trolls,” Jack repeated, shaking his head just a little. He gripped the chair arms as if he might fall out of his seat. “Goa’uld.”

All traces of Conall’s good humor vanished. “Aye, O’Neill. It was the Goa’uld who came to my village and killed my people. There were only a few of the children who survived, lost in the wilderness for many years. When I became an adult…” He stroked his right antler, no doubt to indicate that as a sign of maturity, “I went to Cernunnos’ cave looking for a way to destroy them… to find a fortune I could use to hire an army, build some kind of weapon, do something that would enable me get revenge for my people.”

“And found an ally instead,” Daniel guessed.

The being’s eyes flashed green again, but Conall’s voice didn’t change. “Turns out, my people weren’t suitable as hosts, which is why the Goa’uld killed them. What I learned came too late to help my people, but we have been working in the shadows for a long time now to change the game.”

“So is it the host or the symbiote we’re talking to now?” Daniel was intrigued.

“Both. We’re one mind, one soul, always in agreement. There’s no need for the switching device the Tollans gave us as part of their entry fee.” He sipped his wine. “And by the way, don’t be concerned about Nacaxoc. You’ll find he’s switched sides as well.”

With great effort, Jack sat up in his chair. He swayed a little. “Hhhh—“ He blinked and shook his head, obviously trying to clear it. “How’d the elf know you?”

Tzatzil lifted her head, resting her chin on her stacked fists. Pale green eyes rolled up to the antlered man’s face. “The last of this one’s people took refuge on my world many centuries ago. They helped us survive a terrible disease and… after a time… became part of us.” She sat up and stroked her left ear.

Conall did the same, reaching into his mass of dark curls to show the long, pointed tips.

“But our males no longer have the antlers,” she added with a trace of sadness. “It is good to see you with my own eyes, Ancestor.”

“Perhaps I’ll come and visit again. It’s been too long. How fare the forests, cara?”

She beamed. “They are thick and beautiful! We are very careful with our world, as you have taught us.”

“Right, then!” Conall stood up and clapped the table. “Now for the real Prize. I think you’ll all need to be sober for this.”

He snapped his fingers.

Jack blinked, shivered, sat up straight, obviously irritated. “What the hell just happened? I had a good buzz on!”

Daniel chuckled. “We’ll get back to that, I promise. It seems we’ve won the Prize after all.”

“What?” Jack’s whole face screwed up in disbelief. “But we lost! In a big way. The biggest!”

Moon fell into her chair with a laugh. “What’d I miss, guys? Y’all partyin’ without me?”

Jack gazed down his nose at her. “I would never!”

Daniel cleared his throat, nodding at their host to direct their attention there.

“Congratulations to the true winners!” Conall stated grandly. “The prize you each have earned are…” He drummed his fingers on the table for dramatic emphasis. “… exactly the same as the charms in the game, except you’ll carry them with you out into the worlds as your own!”

Blink.

Blink.

Blink.

Blink.

“What?” they all said in unison.

Conall met each incredulous gaze. “You’re all incredibly dense, aren’t ya.” He sighed. “Your bodies and brains have been reprogrammed in-game. The losers’ charms were turned off as soon as they arrived here. Yours, however, are still active.”

Daniel was horrified as he stared at his hands. “I don’t want it! Can we refuse?” He turned wild eyes at his teammates, hoping they would share his sense of panic.

Jack looked pensive. He shrugged. “Well, mine’s kinda something I already had, Daniel. Not that I’d ever admit that to anybody else. Ever.” He glanced at Moon and Tzatzil. “And neither should any of you.”

The ladies nodded.

Moon grinned. “Felt kinda good, being Superwoman.” She punched Jack lightly on the shoulder, barely enough to make him jiggle in his seat. “Could come in handy in the field, that’s for sure.” Then she eyed their host. “It doesn’t kick in unless I call for it, right?”

Conall nodded.

“You should read our reports on those upgrades Anise gave us to test out,” Jack suggested. “There’s probably a penalty for use, just like there was with those armband thingies. We got stupid when we used them.”

“Yeah, I kinda got that from the battle with the trolls,” Moon agreed. “Passed clean out at the worst possible moment.”

“I believe I have learned my limits as well,” said Tzatzil. “I think the use of the second one may have killed me in the game. I was already spent from using the Shield.”

Daniel stared at his hands. Even now that the players had been reset, his fingers still ached. His gifts, he suspected, would be the costliest of all to use.

In his mind’s eye, he could see the sick and dying queuing up to Cheyenne Mountain, coming in a never-ending stream to be cured.

His heart sank.

“I don’t want it,” he said again, fighting the tears welling up in his eyes.

“Might be really useful in the field, Daniel,” Jack prompted. He reached across the table, his fingers barely touching Daniel’s.

“We’re not first contact any more, Jack,” Daniel reminded his friend. “No one’s shooting at us now. We’re making friends and influencing people.” A tear fell anyway. “If I keep this, it won’t just be the people of Earth lining up to be healed at my hands. It’ll be every dying person on every world we visit. I know what it cost me to use in the game. If I keep doing it all the time… it’ll kill me.”

“Not if no one knows you have it,” Conall said softly, warm sympathy in his hazel eyes. “That’s part of the deal here, champions. No one will know you have these gifts but you, not even each other. Even if someone sees you using your Prize, they’ll forget about it afterward. Think of it as… signal jamming.” He smiled, but there was sadness in it. “That’s part of our security measures. Can’t have people knowing the losers of the game walked away with the grand prize, so it comes with its own built-in protection.”

Jack stared at him. “You can do that?”

“Can. Have. And can do so much more.” Conall winked. “You’ve already met several prize winners in your travels, and will no doubt find more out there. You see, I can’t make any big moves without attracting unwanted attention, so I make small, powerful moves here and there in a game the Goa’uld don’t even realize they’re playing.”

“And you don’t have a problem letting us primitive types play with your toys?” asked Moon, a little puzzled but obviously pleased. “All the other advanced races keep shutting us out.”

Conall peered at her with twinkling eyes. “This is why you’ve been tested, cara. Not all of your people can be trusted with such power, so only you can carry these. Wield them well, and they will serve you well. Be selfish, and the powers will wane.”

“How would you know, if we were on a planet light years away?” Jack sat back in his chair, considering.

“Because every leaf on every tree, every insect, bird and beast, every person who ever lived is all connected,” Conall explained patiently. “The universe shifts with every heart that stops beating, and I feel it.” His eyes misted and closed. “I feel it.”

Jack’s eyebrows crept up his forehead. “So… are you saying… you’re… God?”

The being laughed, loud and hard. “No, and I’ve no desire to be called one, thank you!” He lifted his cup. “So. To the true winners!”

Moon and Tzatzil hoisted their cups.

Jack eyed Daniel, who was still staring at his hands.

“Don’t forget Summon,” O’Neill reminded his friend. “That worked pretty good for us in the end.”

“And will again,” Conall promised. “And may I say what an awesome queen sacrifice you made in that play!” He patted O’Neill on the shoulder.

“’Scuse me?” Jack turned to the antlered one in surprise. “Queen sacrifice?”

“In terms of your wonderful game of chess,” Conall explained. “You lost your rook at the beginning, the moment you left the castle on your journey.” He pointed at Moon. “Bishop, with the Strength of her faith.” Then at Tzatzil. “Knight with her Shield.” At Jack. “Queen, the most powerful piece on the board, and, of course…” He gestured to Daniel with a nod of acknowledgment.

“King, who wins or loses the game,” Daniel finished.

“Ah.” Jack’s eyebrows lifted. “That kind of queen. I’m down with that.”

The ladies chuckled.

“Well, Daniel?” Conall and the others waited, goblets held high.

Daniel touched the base of his goblet, still filled with wine. He turned it in tiny increments, thinking, considering all the options. Finally, he picked it up and raised it with slow grace. “To checkmate.”

And then he drank the golden, bubbly liquid, remarking to himself that it was the best thing he’d ever tasted.

When he’d drained the glass, his brain swimming with endorphins and other intoxicants, he thought he saw the chest plates of all the hóstach begin to open. Seated inside were the diminutive seirbhíseach, stepping out of some kind of harness and leaping down onto the table to dance and eat and snuggle in their laps.

Tzatzil bent toward him and whispered in his ear. “Look at Conall.”

He did.

Then she added, “Show.”

The air behind Conall began to shimmer and Daniel saw – or hallucinated, he wasn’t quite sure – the long, sinuous shape of a dragon swimming through the air, its head extending right through the man’s skull. It was impossible, Daniel knew, for two separate masses to occupy the same space at the same time, so the creature had to be something on a different plane, something sciencey that he didn’t understand and was enjoying looking at far too much to care about at the moment.

He felt good, warm and happy for the first time in… well, ever.

***

Later That Night

The party moved from the beach to the pub with a wave of Conall’s hand.

Major Jarod Carter was waiting for them there, sitting at their usual booth with Aed’s family, a round of drinks already on the table.

They celebrated the game, regardless of who had won, retelling tales – none of which matched each other’s version – and toasting each other.

Drinks were on the house, and everyone took full advantage of that generosity.

Jack had a buzz to reignite, and there was still plenty of evening left.

For once, Daniel decided to let the regulations slide. These people had earned a party.

He looked across the table at their fifth player, who was much more subdued than the others. He’d missed out on all the fun, but had played a vital part in the game nonetheless.

“Jarod, let me buy you a drink,” Daniel suggested, nodding toward the bar.

He got up, and Tzatzil did, too.

“I’m just gonna be right over there,” he assured his bodyguard. “You’ll be able to see me just fine from here.”

Reluctantly, she sat back down. There was obvious hurt in her eyes.

“I’ll be just fine, I promise.”

“You always say that!” she chided gently. “Daniel, you do not always see danger you are not looking for. That does not mean it is not there.”

He struggled to be patient with her. “You’re right, but I won’t be far away, and I’m not helpless. Plus, Major Carter will be right there with me.” He clapped Jarod on the shoulder.

She nodded, but it was obvious that the agreement was made under protest.

The two men ambled toward the bar. Daniel heaved a sigh of relief as he took a seat on a stool, his back to the team… and Tzatzil.

“She’s still staring at me, isn’t she.” It wasn’t really a question. Daniel could feel her eyes boring into him. He sighed. “I wish alien races would stop giving me people as gifts! Not that I didn’t learn to love my wife, but…” He shrugged.

“I read the mission report where you saved her queen,” Jarod commented, glancing back at the redhead. “Your version was notably light on details. Colonel Standing’s, however…” He clucked his tongue and shook his head. “Very impressive fighting skills for an academic, Doctor Jackson. I was on the edge of my seat. Couldn’t put it down.”

“I prefer not to talk about it,” Daniel returned sourly. “I did what anyone would’ve done.”

“Maybe so, but you saved a life,” Jarod observed. “Not a lot of people have the opportunity to do that, and you’ve had an astounding number of saves in your years with the SGC, Daniel. I’ve read all of SG-1’s mission reports, and your current teams’ as well. You should be proud of what you’ve done. From the looks of it, you’re pretty embarrassed.”

Daniel nodded. “It is embarrassing. I don’t like being in the spotlight. I never know what to say.” Then his brow wrinkled as he thought about the sheer scale of the aforementioned task. “Wait, you’ve read all the mission reports? You’ve only been here a couple of months, and most of that time has been taken up with field training. That’s hundreds of documents, Jarod! When did you have the time?”

Carter shrugged, a winsome grin tweaking his mouth, dark eyes dancing. “I read fast and don’t sleep much.” Jarod held out his glass to the antlered bartender for a refill of the intriguing liquid that looked much like day-glow antifreeze. “But back to my original point: you have nothing to be embarrassed about, Daniel. You’re a hero. Why not accept that as part of who you are? You see a wrong being committed, and you want to make it right. You want to help people, to stop bad things from happening. That’s admirable, if you ask me, and it’s who you’ve always been. Definitely the same guy I knew in the Yucatan.”

He smiled fully and lifted his glass in tribute. “Though I must say, you’re quite the skilled warrior now, too.”

“I’ve had a lot of practice over the last eight years,” Daniel admitted shyly.

“And, I hear, a little help from some gargoyle ghosts, though I’m still not sure how all that worked.”

Daniel blushed, remembering how he’d accidentally been inhabited by the spirits of several Guardians who protected a city filled with another offshoot of human population about a year earlier. He’d spent a few weeks roaming the streets of Colorado Springs as a ninja, preventing crimes before they happened.

“There’s a lot about it I don’t understand myself. They could sense in great detail what was about to happen and led me to the location so I could stop it. When they left me, I lost that ability to sense crime in progress, but the martial skills… Song says it’s muscle memory that won’t go away.”

Jarod chuckled. “Then, here’s to the Man in Black. May he learn to be at peace with himself.”

Daniel raised his glass in salute. There was wisdom in his observation, and Daniel decided he’d work on that. He hadn’t been comfortable in his own skin since he’d returned from ascension, and it was high time to get started on that.

“So you’ve given me the Cliffs Notes version of your last ten years or so,” Daniel returned. “How about telling me what you’ve really been doing?”

The other man’s eyes shifted to the bartender, who had his back to them and was replacing empty bottles with full ones behind the bar. Then Jarod glanced around at the other patrons, and then finally back at Daniel. His expression was wary, a little frightened.

“Everything you know about me is a lie,” Jarod said simply. “I was a gifted child raised in a facility where I was forced to participate in research that… Let’s just say there were often military components that resulted in loss of life.”

For a moment, Daniel’s mental processes stopped. “What? They experimented on you? As a child?”

“I was a classified project, hidden away in a place called The Centre. There were others like me. My brother Kyle, my sister, Emily. We were special.”

“And your parents allowed this?” He was horrified.

Jarod shook his head. “I was kidnapped as an adolescent. I spent about thirty years in the Center before I escaped and went looking for them.”

“Thirty years.” Daniel pondered that, struggling to remain calm. He tried to imagine the tortured life this man described, and failed. Maybe he was mad… but then, they’d all been thoroughly checked and vetted before being allowed to go through the ‘gate. If this guy was telling the truth…

“You said you found your family?” Daniel needed time to think.

“Yes, after searching for several years. After I was taken, my parents went on the run to protect Kyle and Emily, but they found Kyle and took him, too. My family was still running, looking for me when I found them. We hid together for a little while, until I had a plan to bring The Centre down. It was hard to do, given how well protected it was by the government.” He smiled darkly. “But when you apply pressure in just the right places, loyalties will shift. I’ve been free for a few years, but it wasn’t until I stumbled upon Area 51 and the SGC that I finally found my true calling.”

Jarod studied his drink, swirling the colorful liquid around in a circle. “Right now you’re thinking about the security risks, whether or not I’m crazy, whether I’m a threat. As commander, you should turn me in immediately. By the book, it’s exactly what you should do.”

“But?”

The Major sighed. “I’m probably one of the smartest people you’ll ever know. I understand what we’re up against out here, and I can provide you with options and opportunities you’d never get anywhere else, Daniel. I understand your character well enough to know you’ll bend the rules a little if it’s the right thing to do. The right thing for Earth. I’m offering you this now.”

Daniel’s heart went out to his friend. He patted the man’s forearm. “Thank you for sharing with me. I know it had to be a difficult decision.”

“I wanted to tell you this now, because I’m not going back to Earth with the team.” He grinned. “In fact, you won’t even remember I came here until sometime after you get back.”

That moment of sympathy vanished. He felt a frisson of alarm.

“When you get home, you’ll do some digging and realize there is no Major Jarod Carter.”

Pieces clicked. “You mean, you’re not really a Major in the Marines?” Daniel felt an uncomfortable rush of anxiety in his belly.

“My name’s not even Carter. I just picked that one because of the guy who discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb.”

“Oh, dear.” Daniel pondered the liquid in his glass, imagining the repercussions of this conversation.

He eyed his friend. “What are you going to do?”

“First,” the other man said, “I want you to know what I can do.” Jarod rattled off a list of classified military research projects he’d performed for The Centre. Then he added a list of professions he’d worked after his escape including surgeon, lawyer, anatomy professor, even a Special Forces soldier.

When they’d worked together on the Mexican dig, he’d been a skilled, knowledgeable archaeologist with incredible insight.

Daniel would’ve been able to tell if the man hadn’t known his business. Jarod had been quiet, observant, keeping to himself at first. Daniel always made special effort to connect with the disconnected, the people others avoided or thought were weird, and Jarod had definitely been that. There had been something almost child-like about him, so much about relationships and social interactions – even pop culture – that Jarod hadn’t understood… and now Daniel knew why.

This man’s genius had made him a pawn. He’d spent the majority of his life a prisoner, a slave, and a large part of that had been at the military’s behest.

 “Adaptation, blending in, solving puzzles… That’s what I do, Daniel. And I can do more out here than if I go back to Earth with you. They’ll put me in jail.” He shook his head, defiance gleaming in his eyes. “I grew up there. I’m gonna stay free and fight my way, where I can do the most good.”

He put a hand on Daniel’s forearm and gazed earnestly into his eyes. “I have a plan to free every race from Goa’uld rule and resolve the threat of the Replicators, Daniel. It’s already in motion. All I need is time and the freedom to see it through. If you’ll wait to report me until you go back to the base, everything will be all right.”

They owed this man the latitude to apply his considerable gifts to saving humanity, but Daniel had a responsibility as team commander.

“I wish I could wait,” Daniel returned with genuine sorrow, “but I can’t. I’m sorry. I realize now that I don’t know you at all, Jarod, but I like to think I’m a pretty good judge of character. If it were up to me, I’d give you my blessing and tell you to get out there and do good things for us, but that’s not how it works in the real world. Sorry, my friend.”

Jarod’s smile was filled with resignation. “All right, then. Had to ask. One more drink, for old times’ sake.”

***

March 9, 2005

The Next Morning

Daniel awakened to the sound of retching in the bathroom.

“You okay in there, Jack?” he called. The sound of his own voice made his head feel like it was about to explode.

“Oh…” Jack sounded a bit winded. “Peachy.”

A moment later, the other man scuffed slowly to the bedside. “That was some party last night,” he observed, and carefully slipped back under the covers.

“I can’t remember it.” Daniel frowned into his pillow, struggling to recall anything. “Wait. There was dancing. I think you kissed Moon.”

“I did not! I mean… she is hot and all, but… she’s my CO, for cryin’ out loud! And she’s a Marine! Ewww!”

“There was a kiss, though.” Daniel rubbed his forehead, trying to think through all the cobwebs. “Maybe it was Moon and Sazz – Sos… I can’t say her name. My tongue feels like it’s got fur on it.” He coughed a little. “I hope I didn’t lick one of the Furlings.”

“D’you mean Furbys?” Jack sighed.

Daniel rubbed his face. “Can we just stay in bed today? We’ll go home late this afternoon.”

“Nope. Having lunch with Waring before we head back to the base.”

“Waring’s here? When did he—“

There was a distinct smile in Jack’s voice. “Came to watch the game yesterday morning. Bought us drinks last night at the Stag Pub. Boy, you must’ve drunk away half the day!”

Daniel forced himself to roll over as slowly as possible so he could regard the man on the pillow next to his. “Was I at the pub?”

Jack chuckled. “Dancing on the tabletop, Daniel. You put on quite a show when you let your hair down. The ladies loved it. Check your shorts. Might even have some cash in there this morning.”

Eyes squeezed tightly shut, Daniel whispered repeatedly, “Please tell me I didn’t take my clothes off! Please tell me I didn’t take my clothes off…”

“It’s not going in the mission report, I promise. “We all agreed last night. Provided anyone else even remembers last night.”

Daniel sat up, head pounding, stomach roiling, every muscle in his body aching. His hands were so stiff and sore he could hardly close his fingers to pick up his glasses.

Today was going to be hard.

“Look,” Jack said softly, “I’m gonna stay in bed a little longer. We got a couple hours yet and my head still needs to shrink a couple sizes before I can walk upright. Okay?” He cracked one brown eye open to look at his friend.

Peering into the waistband of his underwear, there was indeed a stash of various kinds of paper currency, of which only a small percentage was Earthly. “Ohgodohgodohgod I’m never gonna live this down,” Daniel moaned, cradling his head in his hands.

“Wake me in an hour.” Jack chuckled. Moments later, his breathing announced he was fast asleep.

It took a few tries for Daniel to haul himself out of the bed. Everything hurt, even his hair and teeth. He put one aching hand to his pounding head and whispered, “Worst. Hangover. Ever.”

He padded into the bathroom for a pee, struggling to remember the after-party at the pub. All he could recall clearly was the first part of the players’ gathering on the beach, and his crushing disappointment after the team’s abysmal failure. Everything else was a blur. He had no memory of returning to the arena, much less of hitting their favorite neighborhood bar.

Daniel washed his hands, brushed his teeth, drank some water and began to feel better.

For a while, he just looked out the window, watching the gambler’s paradise call for players, entice with games and whispered promises of fortune and pleasure. It was a seductive place, but not one he thought he’d ever want to see again. Getting over what had happened here was going to take him some time.

Because of him, the Goa’uld had a new weapon. The foresight device would make Tezcatlipoca nearly impossible to defeat. Daniel could envision its use to help the Aztec god rise to power among his own kind as well.

If only the Tau’ri had won, he mused sadly.

That device would’ve made a great piece of tech to help defend the Earth.

But then, he asked himself, who would’ve worn it? He certainly wouldn’t have – aliens had done quite enough to his brain over the past eight years – and he couldn’t imagine Jack or Moon taking it, either. And Tzatzil was invested in him, not in the salvation of human kind at large.

Maybe it was best that they hadn’t won the game, after all.

He’d been quite hard on the Tuathan woman, he realized. She hadn’t been a gift to him to do with as he chose. She had been assigned to protect him. She wasn’t his property or his employee. She was his teammate, and he needed to start treating her like one.

When they got back to Earth and his brain started to function again, he’d have a talk with her about duties and responsibilities. She needed something to do other than stare at him. Teal’c had been through a similar period of adjustment when he’d first come to Earth. There were a lot of jobs she could do on the base, and if he worked at it hard enough, there might even be a way she could see and enjoy Earth off base, just as Teal’c had done.

He glanced back at Jack, so peaceful in his sleep. The other man had seemed to take a shine to Tzatzil. Maybe he’d be willing to help Daniel help the alien assimilate into their world.

“Of course he will,” Daniel chided himself in a whisper. Tzatzil was a warrior. She and Jack understood each other.

He sighed, wishing yet again that they’d won the contest.

It would’ve made everything so much easier.

***

Their baggage was checked and waiting at the hotel office. Daniel stepped out into the street with his head down, just glancing up at Waring long enough to make eye contact and offer a brief, plastic smile of greeting. If he’d brought any sunglasses with him, he’d have been wearing them even though no sun shone. The pounding in his head was incessant.

He glanced at Jack, who seemed to be showing no signs of a hangover, aside from a little paleness in his complexion.

General Waring was waiting outside, staring around him at the colorful, animated signs. “It was a valiant effort, Doctor,” he intoned, giving Daniel a pat on the shoulder. “And one hell of a game! Wish we’d had it on video.”

“Yeah, too bad they don’t allow recording devices,” Daniel returned, secretly pleased the disaster wasn’t on film for posterity. “Guess they think of that as cheating.”

The team queued up in the line, with Daniel at the rear. “I’m just. Gonna. Go…” He pointed to their usual table, took note of Jack’s nod, and left the line with Tzatzil watching him.

She started to come with him, but Jack gently turned her back toward the ordering system.

Daniel scowled at the floor all the way to their regular tables, which he pushed together into their usual formation. He had a seat, wondering if he’d packed everything for the trip home.

And there was still the matter of what to do with Aed’s little family. There was no way they could take them back to Earth, unless it was just to send them off to another world somewhere else. Plus, there was the issue of slavery here. That would need to be addressed with some regular diplomatic discussions.

He put his head down on his forearms.

So much to do. The weight of it was crushing him.

“May I sit?”

Daniel glanced up at Narim, then at the line where his teammates were still waiting on their food.

“Uh. Sure.”

The Tollan sat down across from him with a smile. “During our visit here, we managed to obtain the location of a new home world for what remains of my people.”

“Our door was always open, Narim. All you had to do was ask. We didn’t even know any of you had survived the Goa’uld attack.”

“Thanks to the Nox receiving our distress signal, yes. They revived as many as they could. Only a few hundred of us remain.” Narim gave him a paternal look. “But Daniel, you must know your people would have demanded our technology in return, if we had asked to live among you.”

“Not if they didn’t know you were there.” He was so tired of their superiority. “Maybe Earth societies are backward in a lot of ways, but if your people had been willing to lay that technical superiority aside and live more simply, you might have been pleasantly surprised at what my world could offer.”

Shock skittered across the man’s face. “You would have done such a thing? Defied your own government?”

Daniel sighed and shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time we tossed out the rule book.”

He wished he had a cup of coffee right then, but didn’t think his stomach could handle it. He offered a polite smile. “Anyway, I’m glad you have a home now. Before you leave, let us give you a new IDC so you can contact us if you need help in your new place.”

“Thank you, Daniel. That’s very generous.”

Little Niamh climbed up into his lap with a banana.

Daniel dutifully showed her how to peel it to get to the fragrant white goodness inside.

She spat the fruit out on the table and took a bite of the peel instead.

He raised his eyes to Narim and saw the look of pleasure on the Tollan’s face as he studied the interaction.

Then the light bulb went on over his head. “Hey, maybe your people could take Aed and his family with you! We kind of freed them from slavery, but they’d never be able to leave the base if we took them home with us. That would just be trading one kind of captivity for another.”

He handed the seirbhíseach child over the table to the other man.

Narim was instantly enchanted. “I believe that might be arranged.” He cuddled the soft creature close, stroking her fur. “Thank you, Narim. It’s been great seeing you again.”

The Tollan’s eyes twinkled with a multitude of secrets. “Perhaps there are a few things my people might learn from yours, after all, Daniel Jackson. You are a kind, generous people at heart.”

Narim rose and nodded at Jack, who had appeared with his tray. “Colonel O’Neill.”

“It’s Major now,” Jack ground out, an edge of anger in his voice that showed nowhere else.

“Ah. Yes. My apologies. Please give my fond regards to… Samantha Carter, when you see her again.” Narim went to the chow line and squatted down to speak with Aed and Clodagh, standing beside Moon at the end of the queue.

Daniel got a whiff of Jack’s food and hastily beat a retreat to the far end of the table. “Oh, God, Jack, what is that?”

“Boudin and Virgin Mary. Best hangover cure ever!” O’Neill announced.

“You should try it,” the General agreed, sliding an identical tray next to Jack’s. “I had it sent over last night just for this special occasion.”

“Get any closer, and I’ll barf!” Daniel promised, waving his CO away.

He watched as Narim pointed at him, and the two Furby parents both turned to meet his eyes.

He smiled and nodded, assuring them that the Tollan spoke on his behalf.

And then Aed took Narim’s free hand and his mate’s with the other, and they all left the diner together.

“Good,” Daniel whispered to no one in particular. “Good.”

***

Jack brought up the rear as their party waited for transport back to the arrival center. Waring, Moon, Charlie and the twins had already taken the first anti-gravity car, and would meet them there.

Daniel busied himself in a souvenir shop, where the street could easily be seen through the front window.

Tzatzil was at his elbow, as always, far too close for comfort.

Jack had to say something before Daniel exploded. O’Neill could see the man fidgeting, the internal struggle clear on his face. Plus, he was obviously still suffering from the hangover, which made his patience even thinner.

Jack knew him well enough to predict what would be happening next.

“Zazz, a word?” He gestured a few feet away to the open doorway, just far enough away that Daniel couldn’t hear them if they kept their voices down.

She looked a little panic stricken at the distance.

“Just take a minute, I swear.”

Reluctantly, she moved away, then turned where she could see Daniel.

Jack put his back to the shop interior. “Look, I know you mean well,” he began softly. “You’ve got a job to do. But if you don’t cut Daniel some slack, he’s gonna slip the leash and you won’t be able to find him.”

That pearl of wisdom brought her pale blue-green eyes right to his. “I do not know what you mean, O’Neill.”

“You can’t stare at him all the time,” Jack explained patiently. “Give him space. Americans feel threatened if people stand too close.” He put his hands on her shoulders, moved her back and then stepped away. “This is comfortable for us. More is better, if you can do that.”

She was obviously stunned by the idea. “My people find comfort in closeness. It is how we survive difficult times.”

Jack nodded, thinking about times when that kind of intimacy was appropriate. “Yes… well… we do, too, but it’s not an ‘all the time’ thing. Closeness is something you have to wait for a person to allow, and as far as I’ve seen, he hasn’t done that with you yet.”

Her eyes were sad. “You can teach me this?”

“Absolutely. We’ll all work on it together,” he promised. “And if you respect his personal space, he’ll be a lot nicer, too. Not just to you.” He sighed. “He can do cranky, let me tell ya.”

Tzatzil nodded. “I have seen this.” She looked past his shoulder at the spot where Daniel had been.

And then she was pushing past Jack, real terror in her wide eyes.

O’Neill turned with her.

Daniel was gone.

***

They pushed past the hóstach and out the back door just in time to see a small delivery cart making a vertical take-off from the alley behind the store.

A clearly unconscious Daniel Jackson lay sprawled across the back of the cart. In the front seat, one of the Ronin Jaffa glanced over his shoulder as he piloted the craft above the building. In an instant, he was out of sight.

Tzatzil screamed.

Jack dashed back inside and grasped the hóstach by its bony exoskeletal arm. “Our friend’s just been kidnapped! Call the cops!”

The hóstachs four-eyed head canted. “The authorities have already been notified. Your friend will be returned to you shortly.” It gestured toward the front door. “Please wait for him outside.”

Tzatzil stumbled back inside the shop, obviously in shock.

O’Neill grabbed her and gave her a little shake. “Attention, soldier!” he shouted at her. “They’re bringing him back. We’ve got to make sure they hold this guy for the authorities. Come on!”

Out in the street, they watched the craft return to the main street and settle down gently. The device powered down on its own.

The pilot recognized his defeat and sat quietly, hands up in the air.

Tzatzil ran to Daniel. “He is breathing!” She beamed with relief. “It seems he is only unconscious.”

Jack grabbed the Jaffa by the shoulder pad of his uniform and hauled him out of the cart. “Did you drug him?” he demanded.

“It will wear off in a few hours,” the alien confessed, nodding. “No harm was done to him, I swear! He is only sleeping.”

Kel’nak’s eyes pleaded for mercy. “There is a bounty on that one,” he said softly. “I had hoped to use the money to help my family escape…” He bowed his head, weeping softly.

Jack didn’t let go of the man, but felt his heart softening. He could understand a motivation like that. “Where were you taking him?”

“To the House of Rati,” the Jaffa answered. “The alignment of the chappa’ai is just inside my robe.” With trembling fingers, he pointed to a spot on his chest.

Jack fished around inside, not trusting that the man was unarmed. He found a scrap of dirty brown cloth with a six-glyph Stargate address embroidered in black.

“Tell me about this bounty. How much? Who wants him?”

Another vehicle hovered above them, then moved further down the street to land. A handful of hóstach disembarked and came toward them.

“It was first offered by Hathor,” the Jaffa confessed, “for any Daniel Jackson that may be found. Now it is paid by Rati.” His gaze shifted to the oncoming aliens, and he began to shake. “My family will die if I do not return with him. They are prisoners. I beg you! Have mercy!”

Kel’nak dropped to one knee, weeping.

Jack eyed what he suspected were the hóstach police. He had no idea what these people might do to criminals. Cheaters at the game were simply booted off the planet, but aggression against other players might rate a much more severe penalty.

Maybe if the guy got away, he’d still find a way to save his family. He certainly couldn’t do it from a jail cell. Jack tucked the scrap of cloth into his jacket pocket and patted the Jaffa on the shoulder, then forced a grin at the hostach cops. “It was all just a misunderstanding,” he told them. “This guy was just giving our friend a lift to the arrival center. No harm done.”

One of the aliens stepped forward, obviously the one in charge. “A kidnapping was reported by one of our citizens. The assailant drugged your companion and took him out the rear door.”

“Nah, Daniel’s still just feeling the effects of the party last night.” Jack smiled as he lied. He had a lot of practice with lying; was good at it. The Blarney Stone ran in his veins. “He’s just under the weather, couldn’t even eat breakfast. We’ll take him home, let our doc poke him a little. He likes that. Has a favorite bed in the infirmary. Just let that Jaffa guy go, okay?” He studied Kel’nak, obviously wracked with guilt and grief. “He’s just havin’ a bad day, is all.”

“You are certain?” asked the host.

“Yep. Can you guys check on that car that was supposed to be here a while ago? I think we’re gonna need it to get Daniel home. Maybe a stretcher.” He smiled.

Minutes later, they poured Daniel into a car and watched the alien Vegas flash and glow beneath them as they headed home at last.

Tzatzil was quiet as the city rolled beneath them. “What did the Jaffa mean, O’Neill?”

“Hmmm?” He pretended ignorance, delaying while he scrambled for some kind of answer to give her, but he thought he already knew. If he were right, then another mission for a first contact team would be scheduled as soon as he could get it organized.

“He said there was a reward for ‘any’ Daniel Jackson. Is there more than one?” Tzatzil cradled the unconscious man’s head against his shoulder. She looked worried.

“One thing I’ve learned on my travels,” he told her quietly, looking out at the stars, “is that, out here… anything is possible.”

***

The Stag Pub

Jarod sipped his ice water thoughtfully. In his peripheral vision, he watched the antlered bartender serve a customer and send her on her way. “You’re sure my team won’t remember me?”

Conall wiped down the bar with a spotless white towel, moving closer so he could speak quietly. “Someone will eventually ask, when they return home without you. There’ll be an investigation, and they’ll realize their memories have been tampered with. They’ll send someone back here to inquire…” He picked up a small red notebook on the bar and placed it among the liquor bottles against the back wall. “Then the next bartender will be instructed to give them your notebook with all the clues you left behind for them.”

Next bartender?” Jarod sat up straight, meeting the ancient being’s hazel eyes. “Not you?”

“Nah.” Conall grinned like the rogue he was. “I’ve had enough of people for a while. This place runs itself, you know? I just come by occasionally for the big events, like this one.”

He threw the towel over his shoulder and propped his hands on the shiny, clean bar. “I’ll be long gone, back to the forest where I can breathe again.”

“I thought you liked people.”

Conall nodded. “I do, but in small doses. Too much of ‘em makes me frantic. I prefer my woodland friends. Less noise in their skulls, y’know.” He tapped his temple with one finger.

He picked up one of the seirbhíseach, who had come around behind the bar and tugged on the hem of his robe for attention. “Niamh, you scamp, where are your parents?”

The little one pointed toward the door, drawing both men’s attention there.

Narim stood there with his Tollan friends, waving goodbye.

Aed and Clodagh were making their way across the bar toward their daughter.

“Thank you, cara Tollans,” Conall called to them. “Safe travels. Be welcome here any time.”

“And cara means…?” Jarod took another sip of his water.

“Friend.” Conall poured two fingers of the Redbreast 21 Single Pot Still Whisky into three glasses. He pushed one of them in front of Jarod, signaled for Aed to take the second to another patron and kept the third for himself.

Jarod watched the little servant hurry over to the table where the Gamekeeper sat with a handful of Jaffa in gaudy Aztec-inspired clothing.

The man in the big hat smiled as he received the drink and lifted it in salute to the two at the bar.

“That was a nice thing you did,” Conall observed to Jarod privately. “You befriended a lonely, broken man. You gave him hope. More importantly, you gave him purpose.” He took a sip of the whisky and closed his eyes as it burned its way down his throat. He coughed and grinned. “Watching flowers bloom, cara. It’s my very favorite thing.”

He clinked his glass with Jarod’s and then downed it all in one smooth swallow. “That’s a good drop. Think I’ll take it with me.” He picked up the bottle and gestured Aed and Clodagh to his side.

Tezcatlipoca marched into the bar with the remainder of his Jaffa. He was smiling, the jewel on his chest shining bright blue.

Jarod slid off his stool. “There’s my ride,” he told the antlered man. Then he swallowed the whisky and stepped away to join the Goa’uld party.

Conall shook a finger at them. “Don’t you ring up inside my bar! You’ll take the roof clean off! Outside wi’ the lot o’ ye!”

Jarod paused at the doorway to look back and wave.

“I’ll be watching your moves, friend Rook,” the antlered man called, a soft smile lighting his face. “I have the feeling they will be mighty.”

A hóstach had already appeared to take an order at the bar.

Conall and the little seirbhíseach family gathered together and, in a shower of beautiful faerie sparks, disappeared.

***

On to the Next Story: The Lion’s Den

Chapter Text

March 9, 2005

Stargate Command

As soon as he’d heard from the infirmary staff that Daniel was okay, Jack made his way to General Waring’s office and waited for the base commander to return.

Their trip to Gambler’s World had been eventful, for sure. It had been exciting and fun, but they’d come back empty-handed, losing a potentially valuable piece of technology to the Goa’uld. It remained to be seen how all that turned out. What had brought Jack here was the intel he’d received just after Daniel had been kidnapped by a rogue Jaffa on that planet.

He didn’t have to wait long before the General breezed into his office from the control room downstairs.

“Shouldn’t you be preparing for debrief, Major?” Waring eyed him above his glasses as he eased gracefully into the chair behind the desk.

“Yes, sir, but this can’t wait.” He pulled the scrap of cloth with the ‘gate address he’d taken from the kidnapper and laid it on the desk. “It seems there’s a bounty out on – and I quote – ‘any Daniel Jackson that can be found’. They’re to be taken to this place, and I think we should go there ASAP, sir.”

Waring studied the embroidered black glyphs and then glanced up at his visitor. “I’m aware of the androids from Harlan’s planet, but it’s my understanding that those were destroyed some years ago. Are you telling me there might be more?”

“As we’ve learned over the last eight years or so, pretty much anything’s possible, and if there’s a bounty out on Daniel, maybe he shouldn’t be going off world until we know more about where the kidnapper was planning on taking him, who wants him and why.”

“Agreed.” Waring handed back the cloth. “Have this address checked out. See if it’s in our databases, whether we’ve been there before, and if not, prepare to have a MALP sent out.”

Jack took the address and shoved it back into his pants pocket. “On my way, sir.” He executed a smart one-eighty and headed directly to the control room.

***

Daniel opened his eyes to the ceiling and the familiar brown spot above the infirmary bed where he usually landed.

He didn’t remember coming back to Earth. He’d been browsing souvenirs on Gambler’s World, last thing he could recall.

He sat up slowly, feeling a little groggy.

“How’d I get here?” he demanded.

A nurse pushed on his shoulder, directing him back against the pillow. “Stay right there, Doctor Jackson,” she ordered with a pleasant smile. “You’ve been drugged with an unknown compound. The doctor wants you to stay in bed until we’re sure you’re clear.”

“What?” He turned, looking for his elfin shadow, and found Tzatzil standing at attention on the other side of the bed.

Her eyes filled with tears. Her chin quivered. “I have failed you, my Daniel. I will send a message to my queen and ask for a replacement.”

He really didn’t want to start over with a new Tuathan bodyguard. This one had been hard enough to get used to having around, and he was just starting to adjust to her. “Um… no,” he whined. “You’re fine. What the hell happened?”

“I was distracted, and you were kidnapped!” Tzatzil broke down, weeping as she sank into a chair beside the bed, head down in grief and shame. “I am so sorry, my Daniel! I do not deserve—”

“Well, obviously you got me back,” he countered irritably, sitting up again. He patted her shoulder. “Look, everything turned out fine, so stop beating yourself up, okay? I don’t want another bodyguard.”

Truthfully, he didn’t want any bodyguards, but her queen had insisted as a debt of honor in repayment for his saving her life, and so Daniel was stuck with her.

That got her attention. She lifted her chin, caught between guilt and relieved surprise as she met his gaze. “Truly? You will let me try again?”

“Of course. Now, tell me exactly what happened.”

The redhead recounted how Major O’Neill had taken her aside to have a chat with her, asking her to give Daniel more personal space. While they’d been talking, a Jaffa had drugged him and taken him out the back door of the souvenir shop. The authorities had been alerted and Daniel had been returned to them in a matter of moments, unconscious but unharmed, and then brought home through the Stargate.

Daniel was pleased that Jack had gone to bat for him, but Tzatzil needed to understand that she’d done nothing wrong. “See, that was Jack’s fault. He distracted you.”

The nurse cleared her throat in polite warning and Daniel got the message, flopping back against the pillow.

“Seroiusly, though, Zazz, you’ve got to understand things are going to happen out there,” he continued, “and sometimes here on the base or out in my world. You can’t protect me from absolutely everything. There will be times you fail. I mean, look at how many times I’ve failed in my missions, especially this last one.”

The team had gone to Gambler’s World to compete for a prize that might help them in their fight against the Goa’uld. Daniel had led the team to a spectacular loss that had left him depressed and doubting himself, but he’d been through that a lot over the years. Earth was still struggling to find weapons, allies or technology that would help keep them safe, and he would be doing his part as long as he drew breath.

“Just because you fail doesn’t mean you stop trying,” he advised her, with as much kindness as he could muster. “’Fall down seven times, get up eight,’ as Confucius said.”

She wiped her tears on her sleeve. “Then I am… forgiven?”

“Of course. Talk to Jack. Figure out what went wrong, and don’t let it happen again. That’s all there is to it.” He smiled, truly wanting her to feel better.

She nodded and resumed her place at his bedside just as Jack sauntered in, holding a parfait glass full of green Jell-O in one hand and a spoon in the other, looking for all the world like a king holding his orb and scepter.

“Hey, you’re awake!” he called cheerfully.

“Hi, Jack. Is that for me?” He didn’t particularly want lime gelatin just then and curled his lip in anticipation of being brow-beaten or force fed.

O’Neill sat down on the nearest chair and started eating the sweet treat in answer. “So. You’re grounded.”

Daniel sat up again, a flash of shocked anger quickening his pulse. “What? Why?”

Tzatzil patted his shoulder after the nurse shot them another warning glare.

Dutifully, the patient reclined with a frustrated sigh.

“Because apparently there’s a bounty out on you. We’re pursuing a lead, but until we get that sorted out, you aren’t going anywhere off world.”

“We’ve known about that since our little adventure with Aris Boch,” Daniel shot back, irritated by this unexpected turn of events. “The System Lords have had a bounty on all of SG-One for years. That hasn’t stopped us from getting the job done out there.”

This one is a little different,” Jack explained, “and until we have more information, you stay put. On Earth, not in the infirmary, I mean.” He leaned closer and whispered, “But if you stay, I get free Jell-O, so work that for me, wouldja?”

Tzatzil giggled.

Daniel sighed. “Oh, for cryin’ out loud!”

Jack pretended to be startled at hearing his pet expression come out of his friend’s mouth. “So when are they lettin’ you out?” He took a huge bite of the colored gelatin cubes.

A jiggly piece fell onto the floor.

He stepped on it to cover it up and checked over his shoulder to make sure the nurse hadn’t seen.

“Not soon enough. What happened to the guy who kidnapped me?”

“I convinced the locals to let him go so his bosses wouldn’t murder his family. He’s cooling his heels in a cell downstairs.”

“So we don’t know anything else?”

“Not yet.” Jack got up and started to walk away. “I’ll check back on you later.”

The rest of the team arrived moments later, each giving him get well wishes he didn’t need and pointedly avoiding talking about the recent loss of the big game. Colonel Standing promised to bring him some work he could do in bed, but before she returned, the doctor on duty discharged him.

With Tzatzil in tow, he headed straight for the debriefing meeting already in progress in the conference room.

“Glad you could join us, Doctor,” Waring intoned, watching as he sat down.

Tzatzil took her place behind his chair, standing at parade rest.

“Uh, Zazz.” Jack pointed at an empty chair beside him, on the other side of the table from Daniel.

Reluctantly, the Tuathan woman took the hint and sat beside him.

Dr. Jones watched her walk around the end of the table and glanced at Daniel. “Is Jarod going to be joining us? I didn’t see him come back from the planet with you.”

“Who?”

Pacifica seemed startled. “Major Carter,” she answered slowly, pointing at Charlie with the tip of her pen. “He went to watch over Doctor Eppes.”

Surprised looks flashed all around the table.

Daniel felt the tug of a memory, instantly associating the name with the face of a scientist he’d worked with before he’d met Catherine Langford. “You mean… Doctor Jarod Carter?”

Pax seemed distinctly puzzled. “Yeah. He… he went with you guys on the mission. You don’t remember?”

“It is true,” Xiphia’s mechanized voice agreed. The Aua scientist sat at Daniel’s left hand, her dark head nodding. “He was added to the team the day before you left.”

General Waring cocked his head as he studied the two. “I don’t remember a Major Carter, Doctor Jones. Are you certain…?”

The blonde got up and commandeered Daniel’s laptop, pulling up the team roster. She put the ID photo on the wall display for all of them to see. “This is the guy who went through with you to Gambler’s World.”

After a moment of stunned silence, she pulled up the video of the team leaving through the Stargate, followed immediately by their return six weeks later, minus the mysterious missing man.

Waring’s gaze slid between O’Neill and Jackson. “Didn’t SG-One have something like this happen previously? Something about a mystery teammate?”

“Yes, sir,” Daniel responded immediately. “An alien called a Reol inserted himself into our memories. We thought when we arrived on Earth that we had a fifth man on the team. No one at the base remembered him, and there was no military record of him. This situation seems like the opposite.”

“Maybe the NID inserted someone on the team,” Colonel Standing suggested.

“No, that’s not possible,” Daniel countered, utterly aghast at the prospect that he might have inadvertently brought a spy onto the team he trusted. “I know this guy! I worked with him in the field before I ever learned about the Stargate. He’s not the kind of person who would work for bad guys.”

The General’s eyes narrowed as he studied the face of the man in the HR record. “Doctor Jones, I want you to investigate into this man and find out who he is and how he got through our clearance process. I’ll also send an SG team to Gambler’s World to search for him and bring him back. Wait here.”

He ducked into his office next door and picked up the phone.

Daniel scoured his memory, trying to recall the man being with them at any time during their stay, but there were only hints, shadows, nothing concrete. “I can’t remember him being there at all. Anyone else?”

“Well, this is disturbing,” Jack quipped. “Wonder what else happened that we can’t remember?”

They started comparing notes.

By the time the General returned, red flags were coming up everywhere. None of their accounts of any event matched completely. By the time they’d explained everything to Waring, he hurried back to his desk phone to countermand the search and rescue mission to Gambler’s World.

Instead, he had the address locked out of the dialing system as a potential security risk.

Anyone with the power to tamper with their memories to that extend did not appear to have friendly intentions.

The investigation to track Jarod Carter on Earth would continue on high priority, but wherever he was out there, no one was going after him.

At least, not until they were better prepared.

***

March 16, 2005

One Week Later

 “I still don’t understand why I can’t go,” Daniel carped, hands shoved into the pockets of his base blues.

“We’ve been over this, Daniel,” Jack returned, checking his position nearest the ramp at Colonel Reynolds’ left. “There’s a bounty on your head.”

The rest of SG-3 was staggered into a rough line, awaiting the settling of the event horizon.

“Has been for years,” Daniel agreed with a shrug. “Nothing’s changed, as far as I can see.”

“Just sit tight. I’m sure Waring will keep you in the loop.” He eyed the redhead lingering near the blast door and gave her a nod.

Tzatzil answered with a soft smile and a thumbs-up. She was improving at giving Daniel space… as long as he didn’t leave the base.

Gah, she was so cute! He didn’t understand how that perky kid could be older than Teal’c. Her people certainly aged well.

“Go do some research, or something,’” Jack suggested.

“SG-Three, you have a go,” Waring called from the control booth.

Jack turned toward the event horizon and followed his temporary boss to the other side.

The MALP stood near a smoothly paved road leading off into the distance. Grassy hills stretched out around them, with picturesque mountains ringing them in. About a mile down the road, a steep hill rose, the path turning to switchbacks leading up to a white castle that made Jack think of the Taj Mahal. Four slim towers surrounded a thick round column with an onion-shaped dome on top. Each was capped with gold points that glittered brightly in the late afternoon sunshine.

A silvery plate on the road not far ahead caused a little concern.

No one wanted to step on it, in case it had explosives attached.

Instead, they rolled a stone onto it from a safe distance.

As they’d imagined, it was a pressure plate, but designed as a greeting rather than a deterrent.

“Greetings,” a female voice called, first in Goa’uld, and then a variety of other languages.

A holograph appeared over the plate in the shape of a scantily clad, exotic looking Indian woman.

“Greetings,” Colonel Reynolds returned. “Who are you?”

“I serve the Blessed Goddess, Rati,” the holograph answered, folding her hands as if to pray, and bowing over them. “We are here to provide you whatever pleasures you desire. What gift do you make to the goddess?”

Reynolds glanced around. “Well… I don’t know. D’you take MasterCard?”

“We do not recognize this gift.”

“Okay. What form of payment do you take?”

“Can we just look around?” Jack suggested, shrugging at his CO. “Maybe come back later to… gift your goddess?”

“Certainly.” The holograph bowed again. “Do you prefer male or female?” Images of a variety of half-dressed, attractive, fit young women and men appeared in succession.

They seemed to be getting a little off track there, and Jack wanted to make sure everyone remembered the mission. “Have you got a Daniel Jackson?”

Reynolds frowned at him.

“It’s why we’re here,” Jack whispered.

The holograph changed.

Instead of the woman, two male images appeared, both with the face of Daniel Jackson.

One was muscle-bound, with the physique of a body builder. He was completely naked, and ducked his head like he was afraid. The image rotated slowly, showing a full view of him in all his masculine glory.

The other wore diaphanous pants that shimmered as he moved, showing off his thinner physique in provocative poses, giving come-hither glances beneath his heavy brows.

“Oh, my, Gah…” Jack whispered. This was bad. Very bad. “How much?”

“For which one?” the female voice queried dispassionately.

“Can we just talk to them?” He eyed Reynolds, unsure what to do. “Where are they?”

“In the temple of Rati, just there.” The female holograph appeared again and pointed at the castle. “You must bring a gift before you may enter.” She bowed again, very politely.

Albert Reynolds was obviously horrified and furious. He nodded toward the castle, catching the eyes of every man on the team.

“Move out,” he ordered.

They jogged all the way to the base of the hill.

As they neared it, they saw the far slope fall away to a cliff edge overlooking a lake far below. The switchback was the only direct access to the place, aside from parachuting in or climbing up the cliff at the rear. It would be an easy place to defend, difficult to attack.

Jack hoped the folks had the welcome mat out.

By the time they reached the front gates, the sun was just touching the horizon.

An elderly woman opened up to them, greeting them with polite deference and a deep bow.

“Welcome, gentlemen. The House of Rati grants all pleasures and comforts. This way, please.”

She led them through a lush garden in a narrow strip just inside the walls. Fountains splashed noisily. Bright flowers bloomed and perfumed the air.

A middle-aged man in a turban and brightly colored silk tunic and pants tended the plants, barely glancing up as they walked past.

From there, they proceeded to a spacious salon with couches, pillows and overstuffed chairs everywhere. Lush fabrics in bold colors curtained off doorways and halls. Distant gasps and moans left no doubt what sort of establishment this was. Serving girls offered plates of tasty-looking food and poured goblets of wine for them.

Jack waved them away.

Not many patrons were present. Less than half a dozen men glanced their way, all dressed in Asian and Indian attire, obviously more interested in the girls than the newcomers. One of customers took the hand of a teenage boy wearing nothing but a pair of sheer harem pants and led him through a doorway.

“All tastes,” Reynolds repeated, catching Jack’s eye. “Looks like they mean it.”

An over-painted middle-aged lady came up to them with a smile and a slight bow. “Welcome, gentlemen. I am Durga, chief priestess to the blessed goddess Rati. What pleasure may we fulfill for you today?”

Reynolds didn’t smile back. “We want to talk to two of your men. They look just alike.”

Her face lit up in recognition, dollar signs in her eyes. “Ah, yes, they are very popular! What offering will you make to the goddess?”

“Right now, we just want to see them. Can you call them out here?”

Jack wanted to punch the woman in the face. He kept his head on a swivel, watching another patron pick a girl half his age and take her to the back. This place made him ill.

Durga’s face took on a shuttered look. “One is engaged at the moment and cannot be disturbed. I must ask again, what gift do you bring the goddess? If you cannot provide an offering—“

“We just want to talk to ‘em, for cryin’ out loud!” Jack cut in, struggling to keep his temper. “How much does that cost?”

“As I have said,” the madam repeated, her tone going a little frosty, “Danny is with a client. If you want Daneer, I must be certain you intend to make a worthwhile offering for his time. He is one of our best, in very high demand.”

Reynolds stepped closer, inches from the woman’s face. “I’m sorry to disturb you, ma’am, but we are here to take these men home. They belong to us, and I’d appreciate if you’d be so kind as to tell me how they came to you and where you send them from here.”

Her mouth fell open.

A curtain parted behind her, and one of the Daniels stumbled into the room. He was crying, one hand behind him, covering his buttocks. “It hurts, Durga! My bottom hurts.”

“Oh, God.” Jack’s heart wrenched.

That had been a little boy’s voice, not a man’s.

This muscle-bound guy obviously had the mind of a child.

An overweight Jaffa with the mark of Nirrti on his forehead followed him out, chin up, a look of relaxed satisfaction on his ugly face.

Something in Jack snapped.

He thumbed off the safety of his P-90 and aimed.

He heard the satisfying sound of the other men on his team making the same motion an instant later.

Every muzzle in the room was aimed at that Jaffa.

Danny stared around him, wide-eyed and panicking.

All hell broke loose. Women started screaming and running in all directions. Armed Jaffa streamed into the room from side doors. Bullets and flashes of plasma started flying.

Jack grabbed Danny and towed him to the nearest cover, pulling him into a room. He pushed the man down behind him, snarled at him to hide and keep quiet. Peering out a crack in the door, he picked off every Jaffa in range and listened as the sound of battle gradually faded.

He didn’t know who had won until he saw Penhall coming down the corridor, herding half-naked prostitutes in front of him.

Still, Jack kept quiet until he heard Reynolds call the all-clear.

Only then did he turn to the terrified young man curled up in the corner, holding a pillow over his head as he sobbed in terror.

“Danny?” Jack called softly, taking a seat on the bed next to an arched window opening. “It’s okay. It’s all over now. You can come out now.”

One blue eye peered out cautiously from behind the pillow.

“Listen. It’s quiet now.” He cupped a hand to his ear. “You’re safe. Okay?”

Danny’s breath hitched. “Promise?”

Jack nodded, his heart aching. “I promise. You’ll be safe now. We’re gonna take you home. To Earth.”

The pillow crumpled. “Earth? I remember Earth. We can go there? I wanna go to Earth!” He sniffled and smiled a little. “No more Durga?”

Jack’s eyes misted as he shook his head. “No more Durga. No more of…” He glanced around the room, shot a look of disgust at the bed where he sat. “…this. Not ever.”

Danny leaped up, hugged him and jumped up and down in excitement. “Good! No more fucking! Let’s go to Earth!”

He took Jack’s hand and led him, almost running, to the foyer.

“Whoa, whoa whoa! Hold up there, buddy.” Jack pulled him to a stop. “We got a few things to do here, first.”

“But you promised!” Danny wailed.

Jack was very aware that he was holding hands with Danny in front of SG-3, every patron and worker in the building. He didn’t care. He was holding the hand of a child, and they all knew it.

Bodies of dead and wounded Jaffa were everywhere. His own team had sustained a few casualties, but none of the wounds looked terribly serious. That brought Jack a little relief.

Across the room among the staff and customers, the other Daniel stood on his knees, hands clasped behind his head. A trickle of blood ran from his shoulder down his bare chest. Around his neck he wore a black, stretchy collar with a multi-colored jewel over the throat.

Bosco and Peterson were busy fastening zip ties around the wrists and ankles of the prisoners.

Reynolds gave Jack a quick glance.

O’Neill kept his eyes on his boss for instructions. “Danny, let’s see if we can find you some better clothes. Okay? Do you have pants?”

“Yes. This way.” He didn’t let go, just towed his new friend back down the hall to his room. “We’re still going to Earth? You promise?”

“You get dressed and we’ll go talk to Colonel Reynolds. We can go to Earth when he says.”

“’Kay.”

“Do you know where you came from, Danny? How you got here?”

The man picked up a pair of silk pants off the floor and stepped into them. They weren’t see-through, but still left very little to the imagination. “Hathor made me. She made a lot of us.” He turned around, obviously worried. “Daneer, he said he came through the mirror. I’m scared to look in the mirror now. What if more come through and take me with them?”

So the other Daniel had come through a quantum mirror.

“Is Daneer a bad guy? Is that why he has on a collar?”

“I don’t know.” Danny shrugged and looked at his bare toes. “He’s nice to me. Nicer than the girls. Nicer than Darga.”

“You ready now? Anything else you want to take with you?”

Danny fetched his pillow and blanket, clutching them tightly as he followed Jack out the door.

“Have you seen other men like you here?”

The young man nodded.

“How many?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Jack’s heart went out to him. “We can wait with more questions. I just wanna get you home. You’re safe now.”

He patted Danny on the shoulder and waited with him while Reynolds sorted everyone out, did his investigation, and then took the team and their two Daniels back to Earth.

***

Daniel and Tzatzil were waiting in the control room, watching from above as the team came down the ramp.

Jack met the other man’s eyes and saw the look on his face when he took note of the duplicates being hustled off to the infirmary. He guessed Waring had informed their Daniel about the mission details from the lack of surprise on Daniel’s face, but Jack couldn’t imagine what the other man was feeling, seeing two more of him in the room.

After stowing his gear and ordnance, Jack trudged up the stairs with the rest of SG-3 to the conference room to report to their CO.

Daniel was there with Doctor Warner, who would provide updates on the visitors’ health.

When General Waring called the debrief to order, Dr. Warner went first.

He bowed his gray head over his notes and took a deep breath. “Our first subject, whom we are calling Danny…” He glanced up under his brows at Doctor Jackson. “…is in perfect physical health; however, there are clear signs of…” He swallowed hard, staring at his papers. “…repeated, long-term sexual abuse. Given that Danny has the mental capacity of an eight-year-old child, this is bound to have serious psychological repercussions. I’m recommending counseling begin immediately.”

The doctor’s hands shook.

“Take your time, Doctor,” Waring cautioned warmly.

“I’ve also taken the liberty of sending for some stuffed animals, games and toys from base supply,” Warner added. “He needs to feel welcomed and safe. At some point, he’ll need to be moved to a facility where he can receive full time care, but I’d like to keep him here until he’s had some time to adjust.”

Jack touched the man’s sleeve and whispered his personal thanks.

Daniel scowled at his tablet and made notes.

“The second subject, Daneer,” Warner continued, “is in fair health, but has a severe addiction to a narcotic provided to him by the… um… house he worked for. He has provided a sample for testing, and we’ll do our utmost to make him comfortable during the withdrawal period. Of special note with this one is the device he wears around his neck.”

Warner met Waring’s eyes. “Daneer says he is from an alternate universe, having been kidnapped from his world and brought to this one through a quantum mirror. The Jaffa who kidnapped him provided him with the collar, which prevents entropic cascade failure. That in itself is a piece of technology that warrants a great deal of study.”

“But you can’t take it off him, or he’ll die,” Daniel cut in, “so how are you going to study it?”

“He’s told us there are others, kept at the outpost with the quantum mirror. We just have to find them.”

The General made a note. “All right. Colonel Reynolds, please interview this Daneer fellow and get as much information as you can, and we’ll go from there.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Warner interrupted, “but that’s not going to happen for at least several days. Daneer is already showing signs of withdrawal, and it’s not going to be pretty. I’ve ordered him on twenty-four hour care, under guard in one of our isolation rooms.”

Waring sighed. “Very well, then, as soon as he’s able, I want to know everything he knows. Anything else?”

“Yes, sir.” Warner pulled two DNA scans from the folder and laid them on the table. “Daneer’s DNA is an exact match for… our Daniel Jackson; however, Danny’s is very slightly different. It’s close enough to verify that he is… well…” He glanced at Daniel. “He’s a clone. Very slightly altered, just enough to add two inches in height and significant development of musculature, but at the apparent cost of intelligence.”

Jack and Daniel eyed each other.

“Nirrti,” they said in unison.

“But she’s dead, isn’t she?” asked Colonel Reynolds. “SG-One killed her.”

“Maybe someone got hold of her research,” Daniel suggested. “Or maybe Danny was made before Nirrti died. I don’t suppose he knows how long he’s been there?”

The doctor shook his head. “That’s all I have, General Waring.”

Reynolds took up his portion of the report. “We encountered some resistance at the house. The madam, a woman called Durga, said the, um, workers are always brought to her through the Stargate by Jaffa. At first, they were Hathor’s, then Nirrti’s, and more recently, two Goa’uld called Rati and Maahes. We sent the workers to a refugee camp and left the madam to deal with the clean-up.” He sighed. “Any repeat visits will likely be met with hostilities at the ‘gate, depending on how important that whorehouse was to the Goa’uld. It might be abandoned entirely, but since it’s a designated drop-off point for… um…” He glanced at Daniel. “They might decide it’s worth keeping and post a Jaffa unit there. Maybe we should beat ‘em to the punch.”

 “In the meantime, sir,” Daniel suggested, “somewhere out there is a lab that might still be churning out more of these clones, as well as a planet with an outpost to guard a quantum mirror. Maybe we could put the word out to our allies to be on the lookout for information that might lead us to them.”

The General considered, spinning his pen around a knuckle on his thumb. “We have a lot of irons in the fire at the moment, Doctor Jackson. First priority is always technology or alliances that will assist us in fighting the Goa’uld, but I understand this also goes way beyond any… personal… concerns you might have regarding this issue. It’s obvious that there’s a plan behind the clones that has caught the attention of several of the Goa’uld. If it’s important enough for them to continue research and development, it’s important to us, too. I’ll put the word out and will keep you all apprised.”

***

Jack grabbed his gym bag, glad to see the end of this day. Everybody else had already left their shared office space except for Daniel and his ever present shadow, Tzatzil, who was busy practicing the ballet she’d been watching on her computer for the last hour. She pliéd and twirled among the book stacks, apparently in a world of her own.

Instead of leaving, he sauntered over to Daniel’s desk. “Sleepover? It’s pizza night at Chez O’Neill, and you could use a break.” He glanced over his shoulder meaningfully at the elf. “Or should we make it a slumber party?”

Daniel followed his eyes and stood up. “Let me just grab my stuff. You can break the news to her.”

“Coward,” Jack teased on a smile.

Zazz was disappointed, of course, but she gave up custody gracefully, allowing the two men to leave in peace.

He listened to Daniel prattle on about research all the way home, tuning the monologue out while he contemplated the disquiet in his own head. He couldn’t make sense of any of it, and Daniel had always been good counsel. Maybe tonight they’d sort through it all together.

By the time the pies had been delivered, Jack was on his third beer. Daniel had a good red wine that he was just finishing, so Jack poured him another as they tackled the deep dish cheesy goodness. They ate in companionable silence, and only when the other man sat back with a satisfied sigh and drained his glass did Jack feel the time had come to talk.

The buzz he had would help.

“A lot’s happened to us over the last eight, nine years,” he observed, keeping his tone conversational.

“Yes, it has,” Daniel agreed. “And if you’re heading into a conversation about the other Daniels, please don’t.” The stony expression was warning enough.

“I’m not.”

“Good.”

“You’re welcome.”

Jack swirled the dregs of his beer inside the bottle, thinking about getting another one. “I’ve been thinking about what you said on Gambler’s World.”

“You mean, that bit about us having no sex lives?”

“There was a little more to that speech, Daniel. But yeah, that one.”

A tiny smile played around the corners of the younger man’s mouth. “You going gay on me, Jack?”

“Nope, still straight.” His eyebrows lifted a little in surprise. “I’m not attracted to you… or any other man, for that matter. My fantasies have boobs and curves and snatches, just like they always have.”

“Then… what?”

“Y’know, Carter had a thing for me.”

Everybody knew that.” Daniel nodded. He refilled his glass and went to fetch another beer for his host. “I couldn’t figure out why one of you didn’t make a move. She could’ve transferred to another team or gone strictly research. You could’ve retired. There were any number of options you could’ve tried.”

“She was waiting for me to give the go-ahead,” Jack clarified, “but I never did. It’s not because I wasn’t interested. She’s definitely hot. I just.”

He shrugged. This was getting into uncomfortable territory, but things needed to be said. This confession had been festering for years, and it needed to be lanced so the wound could heal.

“There wasn’t room for anyone else.”

Daniel was bent over the coffee table, the base of the beer bottle just settled on the surface. His eyes snapped up to meet his friend’s. There was a note of surprise in the blue depths.

“You mean Sarah?” He sat down slowly.

“No. I mean you.” He studied the bottle in his hands. “Somewhere along the way, the mission changed. The first time I went through the ‘gate, you were a rock in my boot, an unnecessary accessory. You were there to get everyone else back home.”

Daniel got that far-away look as he remembered Abydos and all the people whose lives had been so drastically changed by the strangers who had come through the Stargate.

“I’d been sleepwalking since…” He couldn’t say his son’s name, but knew Daniel heard it anyway. “You woke me up, Daniel. Made me see that I still had a purpose. All these years I told myself the mission was to find tech or weapons to stop the bad guys, but that’s not it at all.”

He got up and wandered over to the fireplace, keeping his eyes on the photos there: Charlie, Sarah, Kawalski, the original SG-1.

“My mission has been to watch your six, to keep you safe while you make friends and influence people.”

The weight of the quiet in the room changed, as if a silent explosion had gone off in the other man, a blast wave of illumination radiating out to fill the room.

“I’ve fought you for years, trying to steer you into looking for the big honkin’ space guns. When I started paying attention, though, I noticed how often your hare-brained decisions were the right ones. I learned to trust your judgment. Learned a thing or two about myself along the way.”

“Jack.” There was a note of panic in Daniel’s voice, as if to try to put a finger in the dike and stop the flood of words.

“Let me finish. I’m only gonna say this once.”

O’Neill fixed his eyes on the team photo, taking note that everyone was smiling but Daniel. Even Teal’c had a tiny little grin. He concentrated on Daniel’s blue eyes, squinting in the bright sunshine behind his glasses.

“We finish each other’s sentences, like an old married couple. We have entire conversations without a single word. No one has ever known me that well, Daniel. Not the men I served with for years. Not my wife. Not Carter. Teal’c got me a little, but not like you do. See, I don’t talk to people; don’t have conversations just to while the time away, but when I have got something to say, I find myself always looking for you to be my sounding board. Whenever anything important happens to me, the one person I always have to share it with…”

“Jack.”

It was said softly this time, with understanding pouring out in his direction.

“What you said on Gambler’s World… You were right, as usual. We don’t date; don’t even look at women because there’s no point. Neither one of us does casual. We have to be in it for the long haul. Only there’s no point to try to form a relationship when there’s no room for anyone else to get a foothold.” He shrugged. “We’re taken, both of us. Done.”

Finally, Jack turned to make eye contact and saw the truth echoing in the other man’s eyes.

“So how does this work with a couple of straight guys?” Daniel wasn’t smiling.

“I was kinda hoping you’d apply your mighty brain to that idea and let me know.”

For a moment, neither spoke.

Daniel bent to pick up the pizza boxes. Jack gathered up the empty beer bottles and followed him into the kitchen. They stood side by side, pouring out the dregs into the sink and putting the leftover slices into a single box.

And then Daniel turned and grasped Jack’s face, cornmeal and pizza grease on his fingertips, and kissed him.

Jack let him, too stunned to kiss him back.

It was quick and awkward. When Daniel turned away, his face was flaming.

“That wasn’t bad,” Jack observed, feeling the rush of warmth and surprise shaking his brains loose.

When the shock had worn off, it felt kind of nice.

Weird as hell, but nice.

“I could do it again,” he added, turning away to put the bottles into the recycle bin.

“Maybe later,” Daniel said as he stuck the leftover box into the fridge. “This is going to take some getting used to.”

“TV?”

Daniel sighed. “Think I’m just gonna turn in. G’night, Jack.”

As the quiet descended, O’Neill stepped out onto the patio, listening to the crickets while his head swirled with pleasant intoxication.

What a thing, he mused, for an old straight guy to have fallen in love with another man. He was sure that’s what this was. It went way beyond the bounds of friendship, all the way to the core of him. Washington had been the turning point, when he’d realized that it hadn’t been the SGC he’d been yearning for during the court martial, hadn’t been the team. He’d found himself wondering what Daniel would think of this or that, hearing conversations with the other man in his head. Hell, he’d even had arguments with his Inner Daniel in D.C., and those debates had influenced his everything he’d said during testimony.

Daniel Jackson was his conscience, his heart, his reason for getting up in the morning.

He couldn’t imagine life without him.

Maybe they’d never be able to work out the sex part. Jack would be okay with that, but at some point, he’d found himself wanting to try.

He put on his pajamas, brushed his teeth, checked to make sure his alarm was set and turned down the bed, but as he stood there with covers in hand, he remembered the promise he’d made before he left the base. Once the sheets and blankets were properly tucked back in, he padded barefoot to the guest room, where Daniel lay sprawled on his back in the middle of the queen-sized bed.

There wasn’t space for another man Jack’s size.

He sighed, pulled the covers back and squeezed in, nudging his guest over.

“What the hell?” Daniel was instantly awake. “Jack, what are you—”

“I promised the elf,” O’Neill said on a sigh. “You’re on conditional release for the night, so don’t gripe about it.”

Dutifully, Daniel scooted over to the far side of the bed, pounded his head onto the pillow and loosed a powerfully frustrated sigh.

When they’d settled, Jack noted how relaxed he felt with Daniel’s body heat radiating onto him in the chilly room. He had missed this since they’d come home from Gambler’s World.

He closed his eyes and went to sleep with a smile on his face.

***

March 23, 2005

One Week Later

SGC Infirmary

“You look better,” Jack observed. He pulled up a stool next to the bed and sat down.

Daneer’s complexion was still a bit gray and there were dark circles under his eyes, but he wasn’t screaming now. He lay quietly beneath the sheet and blankets, arms strapped down beside him. “Feel better,” he croaked. “Water?”

“Sure.” Jack picked up the cup and angled the straw between the other man’s lips. He held it in place until it was released, and set the cup back down. “Up to a little conversation?”

Daneer nodded. He smiled a little. “It was good to see you and the boys coming for me at the house. I’d like to thank the rest of ‘em sometime.”

“I’ll see to it.” Jack felt a rush of warmth as he studied the other man, imagining how he’d feel in the same situation. “How long were you there?”

“Almost six years.” He flexed a plastic smile. “You get used to it. The drugs helped. Most of the time I was so high I didn’t care what was happening.”

Jack had been through something similar enough that he could sympathize. He patted the other man’s shoulder. “No more, buddy. You’re safe now.”

The young man was pensive. “What’s gonna happen to me now? I mean, you’ve already got a Daniel Jackson. You don’t need me, and I have no idea how to get back to… where I came from, or if that’s even possible now. The Goa’uld took me from the SGC on my Earth and brought me here. We were conquered, at that point.”

“Which Goa’uld?”

“Apophis.”

Jack nodded. “Yeah. He came here, too, but we stopped him.” He crossed his arms, reminding himself that this wasn’t the Daniel he knew. “So… you were brought through the quantum mirror and…?”

“It was actually Hathor’s Jaffa who came for me on the base. Apophis’ Jaffa didn’t seem too interested in how they got there or in keeping me, so they just… Anyway, they seemed to know about the entropic cascade failure already. My guess is that they’d pulled other people through and had researched the phenomenon long enough to come up with this oh, so fashionable, collar thingy.” He tipped his chin up to show off the device.

Jack watched the colors in the dark jewel shift and dance. It was pretty, feminine in design, but then, it was Hathor’s tech and she fancied the gaudy. It worked to keep the man from coming apart, and that was the important thing.

“I saw others there,” Daneer continued. “The outpost around the mirror looked like some kind of way station. Jaffa were there for security, obviously, and as soon as they saw one of us on the other side—“

“One of who?”

Daneer’s eyes rolled, a clear message for Jack to stop acting so dense, but he explained anyway. “A Daniel Jackson. I watched them bring another one through just after me. He was unconscious.”

“What happened to him?”

“They kept us long enough for us to feel the first entropic cascade failure, so we’d know what would happen if we took the collars off. We were questioned about our worlds.” Daneer stared at the ceiling, his eyes glassy as he remembered. “Then they sent us to the House of Rati. The other Daniel…” He winced. “…wasn’t as compliant as I was. He caused trouble, kept trying to escape, so they sent him to the Fox Hunt. I never saw him again.”

“Fox Hunt?” A mental picture of red-coated Englishmen in round black hats on horseback popped into Jack’s head.

“Entertainment for Rati’s consort, Maahes,” Daneer explained. “It was said that if a Fox survived, he would be free.” He examined the steel structure of the bed rails to his left. “Durga also said that no Fox ever survived the Hunt.”

He sighed. “I’m tired now. Think you could see when they’re gonna release the restraints, Jack? I’m not goin’ anywhere, and I’m not gonna hurt anyone. This is the closest I’m ever gonna get to being home. Be nice to scratch my ass when I’ve got an itch, is all.”

“I’ll talk to Doc Warner about it.” Jack got up, trying to stop the visions of Daniel Jacksons running for their lives through fields and forests, with a glowy-eyed Goa’uld in hot pursuit.

“Jack?”

O’Neill made eye contact again. “Yeah?” He couldn’t call him by name without thinking about Skaara. Daneer was how the boy had pronounced Daniel’s name.

“Where’s Doctor Fraiser? I kept expecting to see her, but she hasn’t visited me once.”

Jack remembered that awful clusterfuck of a mission to rescue SG-13 where the petite doctor had been killed by enemy fire.

“We lost our Fraiser about a year ago.”

“Oh. I’m very sorry.”

“So are we.” Jack patted the man on the shoulder and left the isolation room.

Daniel was waiting for him just outside.

“Déjà vu,” Jack observed gaily. “You gonna go talk to yourself? Maybe pat yourself on the back for kicking the dope? Or are you still finding it hard to look yourself in the eye?”

Jackson’s frown was mighty. “Oh, ha ha,” he shot back, the fake laugh dripping with sarcasm. “Bet you’ve been making a list of those clichés, haven’t you.”

“Give yourself a hand,” Jack teased, golf-clapping as he flashed a smile. “I gotta tell you, Daniel, this is not gonna get old.”

Daniel fell into step with him as they headed out of the infirmary. “So what did he tell you?”

“He worked at the whorehouse for Rati, which we already knew.” Jack saw his friend wince at the mention of the establishment’s purpose. “And he also said the rejects were sent to be hunted by her consort… Maahes? Not sure I got that right.”

“Maahes, yes. Egyptian lion-headed god of war, son of Ra and Bast,” Daniel informed him. “Rati is an Indian goddess of pleasure… I’m guessing a daughter of Hathor, given Goa’uld influence on the mythology.” He frowned and turned to his companion. “He hunts them?”

Jack pictured that again in his head, a terrified man running for his life with a horde of Jaffa chasing him. It wouldn’t be much of a contest; that was for sure. Somewhere out there was a killing field, and one of them might even now be trying to survive.

“We’ve got to find ‘em,” Jack murmured.

“And then what?” Daniel’s eyes were haunted. “Just how many other Daniels are we talking about here? We have to provide full time adult day care for a guy who looks just like me. Now we’ve got Daneer recovering enough to be released, and where’s he gonna go? How do we explain all this? And does that make me morally and financially responsible? There are a shit ton of unanswered questions, here, and we’re talking about bringing more of them back to Earth.”

“Maybe you should go talk to him,” Jack suggested. He could sense the anguish this was causing in his friend, but had no idea how to help him. “He might already have a plan.” He shrugged. “He’s been here for six years already. Pretty sure he’s thought about what he’d do if he ever got out of there.”

That brought Daniel up short.

For a moment, they just studied each other.

Then Daniel turned around and retraced his steps to visit his double, leaving Jack to saunter on a path to the elevator and eventually up to Waring’s office.

“I been thinkin’, sir,” Jack said as he plopped into the visitor’s chair across the desk. “The first year we started goin’ through the ‘gate, we encountered this guy, Harlan.”

Waring nodded. “I’m familiar with the mission report. Android copies were made of your team, and though they promised to bury their Stargate, you encountered them in the field several years later. I believe they were all destroyed.”

“The Daniel one blew up in a spaceship, but the Carter and my double were sent back to Harlan. He wasn’t supposed to be able to make any more Daniels without having an actual body to copy, but…”

He felt an uncomfortable niggling at his consciousness, unease that gnawed at his guts. “I can’t help thinking that we should check in on Harlan. Maybe he fixed the ones we sent back, and if the Carter has been repaired, she might’ve been able to adapt the machinery to make another Daniel to complete the set. Bottom line is, we haven’t contacted him in… oh, about three years or so, and we should have. Permission to go with a team to visit PX3-989.”

The General contemplated the papers on his desktop, pondering the request. “You know, Major, I’m seeing a lot of missed opportunities in the items brought back and contacts made over the years. I have a plan for developing some of these resources, and this seems like a good first step. Harlan’s androids are worth researching, and we have numerous planetary spaces where his machinery might be transferred so it can be studied. We can ensure what remains of his civilization is preserved elsewhere, if he’s amenable to such a move.”

“Sir?” Jack was a little startled by the idea.

Waring smiled at him. “You’ll find I’m one of those people who likes to think outside the box, Major. We’ve missed some singular opportunities for the advancement of our species, and I intend to spend some time and resources taking a second look at what we’ve already done, as well as continuing explorations of new worlds. This program won’t always be a secret, and we should be prepared for the day we do go public.”

He turned his computer monitor toward his visitor. “This is a prime example.”

On the screen was the ugly gray plant thingy that Linnea had brought back with them from Hadante.

“You don’t see any difference from the ‘gate room,” Waring stated, “but these curious plants are now powering the Stargate with cold fusion. That gives us an instant savings of billions of dollars a year, just in power requirements alone. In short order, we’ll be providing cold fusion power to the city of Colorado Springs, and get paid to be here. I plan to make the Stargate a profit center, not a cost to the American people.”

Jack was gobsmacked by the idea. “I guess it took someone smarter than the rest of us to figure that out.”

“I’m also sending SG-Nine to dialogue with the Quetzalcoatl—“
“Sir?”

“The crystal skull aliens. Doctor Jackson’s grandfather studied them on their world until he passed away several years ago.”

“Ah, yes. Ghost giants and nintendos.”

That got a chuckle. “Their phase shifting device could be very useful for first contact teams, spy missions… It’s worth pursuing relations with them. Meanwhile, I’ll provide you with a couple of possible sites for Harlan’s relocation.”

“I think I got one,” Jack suggested. “There was a planet with these big ugly-ass bugs. They rewrite the DNA of living creatures to make more of themselves. Harlan and his androids are machines the bugs won’t even notice, and there’s a ready-made city for him to move into, so…”

Waring nodded. “Good thinking. I’ll look into it. I’ll assign SG-Three to accompany you to nine-eight-nine.”

“Thank you, sir.”

***

March 24, 2005

The Next Day

P3X-989 Altair

The air was scented with stale smoke, in addition to the smell of metal and oil. All around them, the industrial interior of the Altairan station was pockmarked with blast marks and scorched black. The disco ball sensor hanging above the Stargate was dark and silent.

Someone had been here a while back, and a battle had taken place.

Jack had a very bad feeling about this.

He called out for Harlan, but there was no answer.

Colonel Reynolds ordered him to take point, since he was familiar with the layout of the station.

“This way,” he called softly, heading for the bay where the android factory had been.

The room was empty. There was little damage in there. The wire-covered glass cage where the androids were constructed seemed to have been removed with great care.

In the conversion bay, the coffin-shaped scanning platforms where Jack and the team had awakened were also missing. The whole room seemed to have been wiped clean of technology.

“Looks like this was a bust,” Reynolds observed. “No signs of life anywhere.”

Hanson’s voice came through the radio. “Sir, got something for you to see on level four. Better hurry.”

Jack beat Reynolds out the door, jogging across the metal mesh floors and taking the stairs three at a time.

The lieutenant’s expression was grave as he nodded toward a corner bathed in pink light near the main power source.

On the floor lay the bodies of Teal’c 3.0 and O’Neill 2.0, obviously repaired since the last time Jack had seen them, but no longer in working order. The lower half of O’Neill was several feet away, obviously blown in half by staff weapon fire. Teal’c 3.0 had half his face missing.

Sitting huddled behind a boiler, Harlan sat in silence, occasional blinking the only indicator that he was still working.

“I’ve been talking to him, but he hasn’t said a word,” Hanson murmured as Jack eased past him.

“Maybe you just didn’t say the right thing,” Jack returned. He was more than a little unsettled by the sight of the dead robots, but there were more important concerns at the moment.

He edged around the boiler so he could get a better view of the rotund old robot, and settled slowly into a squat.

“Comtrya,” Jack called, reaching out to touch the scorched sleeve.

Harlan’s pale eyes rolled up to his, and the anguish in the being’s face was palpable. He started to cry.

“Hey, Harlan, it’s me, Jack O’Neill.” Jack couldn’t think of anything else to say.

It was obvious that the doubles had died protecting the old guy, and with the construction machinery gone, Jack wasn’t sure the robots could be repaired.

“Who did this?”

Harlan wiped his face on his burnt sleeve, leaving a smear of charcoal on his cheeks. “The Scarlet Lord,” he replied between sobs. “He took my Samantha. He took everything!”

“D’you know why?”

“He wanted more Daniels. I told him we could not make more, not without an original in the scanner.”

Jack reached for Harlan, helped him to his feet.

The old man leaned in and hugged him, weeping inconsolably on his shoulder.

As uncomfortable as the closeness made him, Jack let the harmless old robot stay there for a minute.

“When did this happen?”

“One thousand five hundred forty-three days ago.” Harlan sniffled.

Jack was aghast. “Why didn’t you call us?”

Grief and resignation haunted the old robot’s voice. “There was nothing you could have done.”

“Look, we’re gonna take you back to Earth. Do you need to pack anything? A spare battery or something?”

Harlan shook his gray head. “No. Samantha made us all permanent power supplies. I will be fine.” He sniffled. “Thank you for your concern, Colonel O’Neill.”

Jack grimaced at the reminder of his lowered rank. “It’s Major now. Just… just call me Jack.”

Nodding, Harlan went where he was told. He gave the bodies of his friends a long look and started sobbing again.

“We’ll… we’ll take care of them,” Jack promised, and nodded at Hanson to bring the remains. “You come with me, and we’ll talk back on Earth.”

“Comtrya,” Harlan sniffled mournfully, wringing his hands.

***

March 26, 2005

SGC Base

Daniel nibbled a cuticle as he studied the computer screen. His research into Rati and Maahes was complete, but he still had nothing concrete to report. They knew Hathor was behind the clone and the alternate universe kidnapping, and Maahes was responsible for the theft of the android factory, but they had no idea where to find the mirror, the cloning lab or the new location of Harlan’s machinery, not even a clue where to look.

Jack and Moon distracted him for a moment as they came into the office, both glowing with sweat and obviously fresh from a workout in the gym.

He frowned as he saw Daneer part ways with them in the corridor.

Their eyes met for a fraction of an instant before the doppelganger turned away and continued down the hall.

He really ought to have a word with the man. It wasn’t Daneer’s fault that he was at the SGC. Where he’d been and what he’d had to do to stay alive were also not his choice, and Daniel owed it to the man to try to include him, give him a purpose now that he was there and recovering.

After all, he’d had his own experiences with addiction. The best way to stay clean was to do good work, keep busy, and have the support of friends. The SGC could use another mind like his, and they were easy enough to tell apart with that stabilization collar.

He glanced at the standing desk to his left and saw Tzatzil turn to meet his eyes.

It was going to take him some time to get used to her new look. On Pax’s advice, the elf was trying new fashions that would allow her to blend in outside the base. She had gone through a Lolita phase, passed through Bohemia in a day (though Daniel thought it suited her best), and today was sporting jet black hair, heavy dark eye makeup and blood red lipstick topping off a black Goth bustier, tulle skirt and satin leggings.

“What happened to base attire?” he asked her.

“This is the style most suited to body modification, such as elf ears,” she assured him, dimples flaring all around her mouth. She stroked one of her points in emphasis. “You do not like it?”

His mouth drew up as he considered how best to phrase his answer. “Um… it’s fine for off base, if you like it, but you kind of… stand out down here. Why don’t you put on your blues and you can wear that home tonight?”

She pouted prettily, but did as she was told.

Pax had her back to him, ears covered in Skullcandy headphones, oblivious to the world as her fingers moved at light speed over her keyboard. She was hip deep in researching the enigmatic Jarod Carter, though no official report was ready yet. It had been almost three weeks she’d been digging, first through all of this training records at the SGC, and now into his stint at Area 51.

Daniel got up to shelve a couple of books that he’d been using for research, and as he finished, still chewing on the problem, he wandered over to the Aua scientist’s workstation.

Xiphia was keying information into a silvery rectangular device that he recognized as a piece of technology that she had brought with her from her world several months earlier. He knew it contained a database of Stargate addresses that her people had been exploring, and because they had earned the status of trusted allies through the trade of technology and personnel, she had been adding addresses from the Goa’uld and Ancients databases.

Daniel had been curious to see what she was going to do with it, especially since she was stationed on Earth for the majority of the next year.

“How’s it going?” he asked her, peering over her shoulder.

“I have constructed a map,” Xiphia’s mechanical voice intoned, “which illustrates the known planets in the Stargate system, color coded to show which planets belong to each known System Lord and their underlings. Hopefully, this will provide us with potential places where we might search for the cloning lab and the quantum mirror.”

“How so?” Daniel was intrigued by the idea. The 3D holographic map was a veritable rainbow of color, but it was easy to see where the major System Lords dominated. This would be a useful tool to use in directing future expeditions, even if it didn’t help with their current quest.

“The map is variable according to known Goa’uld history,” the alien explained. “We begin with Ra, as Supreme System Lord.”

The majority of the space turned purple, with only a smattering of isolated planets that had never fallen under Goa’uld rule.

“After his demise, Apophis held major sway, but Cronus, Heru’ur, Sokar, Olokun, Ba’al and Nirrti divided up the spoils, here.”

The purple shifted into a rainbow of color, again with a few outliers where the Goa’uld either abandoned worlds or had yet to appear.

“Hathor took her own piece, mostly from Nirrti.”

Some of the orange section turned vibrant red.

“And then we have the newer additions of Morrigan, Anubis and Bastet, while Apophis, Cronus, Sokar and others are killed off.”

The image changed again, this time with large sections losing their colored effect and reverting to black space.

“This is going to be an incredible asset to future missions, Xiphia,” Daniel told his teammate enthusiastically, “but I still don’t see how—“

“Rati is the child of Nirrti and Ra,” the Aua scientist cut in, “and Maahes is the child of Ra and Hathor.” She touched a section of the holographic image, which illuminated in red a single section of space where Nirrti’s, Hathor’s and Ra’s domains overlapped. “I believe the places we seek will be here.”

The light bulb went on over Daniel’s head.

There it was, plain as day.

A thrill of excitement rose up inside him and he hugged her.

“Brilliant!” he cheered. “Let’s go show this to General Waring.”

Xiphia’s lips pulled back to reveal her sharp white teeth. Her purple tongue lolled over a happy grin. Her shoulders swayed a little, and he knew her tail would be happily wagging behind her.

He hurried over to the phone on his desk to make the call.

***

March 27, 2005

The Next Day

Daniel mounted the last step of the circular staircase into the briefing room with coffee in one hand and his briefing tablet in the other. He heard the clang of other footsteps on the metal stairs, looking to see if General Waring was in his chair at the head of the table or still in his office. He took his place at the foot of the table and gestured his twin into the last open chair on his left just as the General hung up the phone in his office and stepped into the room.

“I’ve asked Daneer to join us for this briefing, with your permission, sir,” Daniel announced.

Waring studied the alternate Daniel, obviously considering that request as he took his seat. “How are you feeling, Daneer?” His tone was solicitous, kind.

“Good, sir.” Daneer offered a tense smile. “It’s a little weird, not seeing General Hammond in that chair.” He met the eyes of the others seated with them. “And seeing these guys as SG-Zero. It really points up the fact that this is a whole other universe.”

Daniel glanced at the shoulder patch Colonel Michael Coburn sported, seated next to Jack, who had on the SG-Zero insignia. Major Griff, Captains Pierce and Hagman filled out the new flagship team.

He agreed, it was a little strange, but these guys had earned their place at the top.

“As does seeing two Daniel Jacksons at this table.”

“Daneer,” the twin corrected instantly. He shot an apologetic glance at the original.

Waring nodded. “I understand Team Zed has made a breakthrough. Let’s get down to business.”

Xiphia bent over the holographic projector, turning it on and sliding the device to the center of the red and black table. She showed the timeline of territory progression to the team, stepping aside when the small cluster of planets of interest had been highlighted.

Then Daniel stood up and began to detail what they knew of P3X-540, called Tarvis by the Tok’ra.

“This is a jungle planet, closely resembling the Amazon in South America. It’s known for its particularly hazardous life forms, including a species of carnivorous tree.”

He let that sink in for a moment before he continued.

“Unfortunately, I have no details at the moment on what these trees look like, but it’s only one of a plethora of deadly species on this world. There are poisonous insects and snakes, numerous species of large predatory animals and a race of sentient yet primitive felines called the Sekhmet. This place is known to be a favorite hunting ground for Bastet. She releases prisoners there and hunts them, or leaves them to try to survive and propagate their species in a new environment on their own. This may also be the killing fields Daneer mentioned, and I think we have enough information to warrant—

“Offworld ‘gate activation!” the loudspeaker called, followed immediately by the rumbling tremors of the Stargate spinning up.

Waring was already headed downstairs to the control room when Captain Harriman identified the visitors as the Tok’ra.

A moment later, Anise/Freya stepped through the shimmering, watery surface of the event horizon, and in short order, she was mounting the steps to the briefing room.

The moment she saw Daneer, she froze.

Daniel performed the introduction.

“What brings the Tok’ra to Stargate Command?” asked the General as he ushered her into a chair at his left.

Daneer remained standing, giving up his seat at the table politely.

“I see you have already located him,” Freya said softly, her eyes on the man with the collar.

The twin seemed startled. “I don’t know why you’d be looking for me. I’ve been here for the last week or so, and at the House of Rati for several years before that.”

Her eyebrows raised in surprise, quickly shuttled away behind her usual vacant expression.

“Maybe you should start from the beginning,” General Waring suggested.

She retrieved a small holographic projector from inside her tan tunic and set it on the table. “A few days ago, a stronghold of Kali was raided by this man.” She played a recording, apparently of a security video in a research facility.

Several people were in the laboratory, the doorway guarded by a pair of large Jaffa. Suddenly, a shadow appeared, flinging the doors open, moving much too fast to see. People flew through the air and landed hard against walls. Laboratory equipment shattered. The doors of a refrigeration unit careened off their hinges, and the samples inside were smashed to bits.

Then the shadow stopped in the middle of the room, coalescing into the shape of Daniel Jackson.

Anise halted the footage. “You will note that this person wears the armor of a Kull warrior, with two notable exceptions: the collar around his neck, which seems to be the same as the one worn by your new friend, Daneer…” Her eyes went to the doppelganger’s neckwear.

“And the Atoneek armband on his right arm,” Daniel finished for her, frowning at the multicolored device in the image. “He must be another alternate universe… me.”

The Tok’ra’s head canted as she studied him. “Which has us wondering now exactly how many of you there are.” She let the video continue.

The figure addressed the camera directly. “Let it be known to all the Goa’uld… Burn Hathor’s Womb, or I will burn you!”

He blurred into action again, and flames sprang up everywhere.

She brought up another image, this time at an armory. A message scrawled like magic on the wall, and for the merest instant, the shadow solidified, his angry face clear. It was the same man… or possibly yet another duplicate.

“This appeared a few weeks ago at one of Ba’al’s encampments. As you can see in this brief glimpse, the collar and armband are both present.”

The writing – in Goa’uld – declared, Where are the killing fields?

“And finally…” The Tok’ra queued up the image of a ha’tak ship docked on a pyramid, surrounded by forest. “The Jaffa guarding Amaterasu’s warship reported a man in black armor, wearing a jeweled collar and colored gauntlet. Those who laid down their weapons were spared. All he demanded was to know the location of Maahes.”

“Then we’re on the right track,” Daniel announced, excitement inching up inside him. “Anise, Freya, what do you know about a planet called Tarvis?”

Surprise and a flash of horror skittered across her face. “You do not want to go there,” the symbiote declared. “Bastet has collected the most dangerous creatures from many worlds on Tarvis. It is a garden of savagery and death, currently overseen by her subordinate, Maahes.”

“What can you tell us about Rati and Maahes?” General Waring asked. “They seem to have stayed out of Goa’uld politics until recently.”

“They are minor players who keep to the few worlds in their thrall,” Anise replied. “Rati owes fealty to Kali at the moment, Maahes to Bastet. It is rumored that Rati and Maahes are lovers.”

“So, you’re probably wondering where all these Daniels are coming from,” Jack piped up, “and so are we. That’s why we were asking about this Jarvis place—“

“Tarvis,” Daniel corrected under his breath.

“Tarvis,” Jack repeated. “We’ve got three of ‘em so far, and you just showed us there’s a fourth out there somewhere. And by the way, how long has that guy been wearing the armband? ‘Cause ours fell off after just a few days. Sounds like he’s been out there stirrin’ up trouble for a couple of months.”

Anise nodded and smiled at him. “Precisely what piqued my interest, General O’Neill. Neither the Tok’ra nor the Atoneek have been able to make them work for such a long period. We would like to know how this… person… has accomplished doing so.”

“It’s Major now,” Jack corrected with a sigh.

Her brows twitched together. “Is that not a lower rank—“

“Yes, and can we get back to the issue here, please?” Jack frowned back at her. “We’ve got clones, alternate universe guys and very possibly androids all over the galaxy wearing this guy’s face, and we need to do something about it!”

Daniel reached out and brushed his fingers against Jack’s sleeve to draw his attention and hopefully cool some of his irritation with a distraction.

He got a hot glare for his efforts.

Waring appeared to be simmering behind his Ben Franklin lenses. “Thank you for your succinct and yet colorful summation, Major O’Neill.” He cleared his throat and addressed the Tok’ra. “Do you have any idea what the reference to ‘Hathor’s Womb’ might be, or the location of a quantum mirror?”

Anise contemplated the table for a moment, obviously deep in thought. “Hathor maintained a research facility on Neone before she was killed.” She glanced and nodded at Jack and Daniel. “SG-One was captured and taken there briefly. One of our operatives was aboard the ha’tak taking them to a military facility when Hathor was killed. I do not know what became of the laboratory on Neone.”

Daniel met Jack’s alarmed gaze. “She had us for weeks,” he reminded his friend, his stomach churning as he remembered Hathor’s mind experiments, where she had attempted to brainwash them into thinking they’d been frozen for seventy years.

Jack’s horror mirrored his own. “She could’ve taken all kinds of biological samples while we were on ice.” He buried his face in his hands. “And she had a real thing for Daniel.”

The Tok’ra leaned forward. “She made clones?”

“Apparently there’s a bounty out on ‘any’ Daniel Jackson,” Waring added, nodding toward Daneer.

The twin touched the device on his neck. “And they’ve found a way to stabilize any of us that come through quantum mirrors where there’s a living counterpart already here. The question is, since Hathor’s been dead for years – at least, in this universe – who’s keeping the bounty going, and what are they doing with us?”

Colonel Coburn tossed his pen down on the table and cursed softly. “This is making my head spin. Here’s another question: Why Daniel? What makes him more important than… well, anyone else?”

Daneer shrugged. “We opened the Stargate.”

“On Earth,” Daniel corrected. “The Tau’ri are relatively minor players, in the grand scheme of things. So, yeah… why me? Us.” He nodded toward his twin.

Anise’s eyes shifted between the two men. “Why, indeed. And why of such interest to Rati and Maahes, who are such insignificant underlings? Hmmm.”

Xiphia, who had been quiet for some time, returned to the holograph machine, now dormant on the middle of the table. “What is the address for Neone?” Her left hand hovered above the interface, one long claw poised to enter the information.

“It is near Tarvis, in a neighboring system.”

The Aua called up her star map, showing the last version.

In the midst of the patch of red space, Anise identified both Tarvis and Neone.

General Waring pondered the map, spinning his pen on the knuckle of his thumb and catching it repeatedly. “It appears we have two missions.”

“With your permission,” Anise said hesitantly, “I would like to accompany the team to Neone, but I must first report this information to the Tok’ra council. We will attempt to integrate operatives into the courts of Rati and Maahes to inquire further about the bounty.”

“I think that can be arranged,” the General returned. “You’ll provide us with intel on Neone?”

Daniel started to raise his hand, then put it back down again. “Sir, I’d like to—“

“No,” General Waring cut in, his dark eyes hard with refusal. “I want to make absolutely sure of your whereabouts at every moment, Doctor Jackson. Until we understand why you’re such an important target, you will not leave the base.”

“I’d like to go,” Daneer said hopefully. “I have the same skill set as Daniel. Maybe I could be useful with interpretation.”

All eyes turned to him.

Daniel’s stomach tightened. He clenched his teeth to keep his mouth shut. Maybe this would be a good thing, letting his double be useful. It would help to take his mind off the cravings, for sure. He nodded and scribbled a note on his paper, trusting that the General had seen his gesture of approval.

“I would also like to go,” Xiphia intoned. “My people are hunters by nature, and my senses are much sharper than those of humans. I would be an asset in locating any other Daniel Jacksons.”

“All right,” Waring agreed. “You two will accompany SG-One to Tarvis. We’ll delay the mission to Neone until Anise returns. SG-One, you have a go.”

Jack leaned forward. “Sir, may I—“

Waring sighed. “Yes, Major. You may go with SG-One on this mission.”

Daniel closed his briefing folder without finishing the note, his mind turning over the potential reasons why two minor Goa’uld would be so determined to find him and any copies they could locate. Not only that, but why they might be interested in making more of him with Hathor’s cloning lab.

It just didn’t make sense, and he was starting to feel like his travel ban might never be lifted.

***

March 28, 2005

The Next Day

P3X-540 Tarvis

The atmosphere was oppressive. Heat and humidity made them break out in a sweat immediately, and within a few minutes, their clothes were sticking to their bodies.

All but Xiphia, who panted like a hot dog.

“Secure the perimeter,” Colonel Coburn commanded, scanning the dense jungle all around the stone platform on which the Stargate sat.

Jack noted vines of all kinds creeping across the flagstones, moss carpeting the edges and tufts of short grass spiking up in crevices. In time, the vegetation would cover this place unless someone maintained it. There were slightly worn places curving around to the right, and a faint trail of trampled undergrowth leading that way.

He checked his compass.

“Looks like someone went west not long ago,” he reported.

Xiphia stepped off the platform, sniffing the air. “There are Daniel Jacksons here, as well as Jaffa.”

“Heads on a swivel,” Coburn ordered. “Griff, send up a drone and see if you can get us the lay of the land.”

Daneer glanced at a small spiral notebook he’d brought with him. “According to the intel the Tok’ra provided, the man-eating tree should have leaves kind of like a philodendron—“

“And what does that look like?” Jack snapped. “For the non-botanists, here.”

“Kind of heart-shaped leaves,” Daneer clarified, “big ones. Their surface is covered with some kind of natural super glue. If you touch the leaf anywhere, it’ll wrap around you and begin… um… digesting.”

“Gross!” Jack studied the landscape for heart-shaped leaves. This place was getting creepier by the second. His internal alarms were all going off.

“The tree bark is apparently edible and quite tasty, which is what draws prey close enough for the leaves to make contact.”

Jack edged up beside Wow. “We’re being watched,” he murmured to the alien.

“By many eyes,” she returned. “No Jaffa are nearby. Their scent is faint, days old.”

The jackal cocked her head, studying him with a slight doggy smile. “You are an excellent hunter, O’Neill… for a human. Your instincts are sharp, if not your nose.”

“I’ll trust your nose over my eyes and instincts any day, Wow,” he returned respectfully.

She inclined her head, her tail wagging a little, and then moved off to patrol the perimeter.

Jack liked this creature. One day, he thought he’d like to visit her homeworld and meet more of her kind. He constantly had to resist the impulse to scratch her behind the ears or ruffle her fur.

Daneer leaned against the MALP, studying the notebook and comparing the information to what he could see from the platform.

“You okay carrying that flamethrower?” Jack asked him, sidling up beside the Daniel look-alike. “I mean, you did just get out of the hospital a few days ago.”

The twin met his curious gaze with a small, tense smile. “I’m fine. Still not sure why you insisted on bringing it, but I trust you.”

“Call it… intuition,” O’Neill returned with a grin.

A shiver of… something… ran up Jack’s spine. It was as if he could suddenly see through the trees, over the hillocks and down the ravines to the east. He imagined an encampment with hide tipis peopled with cats… big ones that walked upright like humans.

Daneer stared at him, his mouth drawn up in a bow. “What was that?”

Jack looked into the other man’s startled eyes. “What was what?” He glanced around them, pretending to search for something noteworthy, but he knew too well what the other man had seen.

That. You looked like you were… I don’t know, gone for a second. The lights were on, but no one was home.”

“That’s how I look all the time, Daniel—eer. Daneer.” Jack felt discombobulated, like he had suddenly been somewhere else and was having to reorient to being there with that guy who looked like Daniel but wasn’t. His universe was getting really mixed up and he didn’t like it at all.

The drone returned and settled onto the platform. Captain Pierce picked it up and packed it into the carrying case on the MALP while Griff downloaded the data.

“There’s a village about five klicks east of here,” the Major reported to his CO.

Jack nodded. Right on the money with what he’d seen in his imagination.

Coburn nodded. “Okay, Griff, Pierce, Hagman, you secure the ‘gate. Wow, you take point. Daneer, in the middle. Everybody else, move out.”

What should have taken an hour’s walk on flat land promised to take four times that. There was no path to the east, and the vegetation was so thick there was barely space to squeeze between trees. Vines and roots were everywhere, making footing tricky, and Jack could not help the feeling that they were being followed.

When they came upon the carnivorous tree, they recognized it immediately. A deer-like animal had a huge leaf wrapped around its hindquarters, lifting them a few inches off the ground. The creature was obviously exhausted from its struggles, front legs wobbling as it scrabbled at the roots, trying to get away. The whites of its eyes revealed its terror.

Daneer stepped up to it. He was careful to avoid any of the other low-hanging leaves. His voice was soft and soothing as he eased closer. He gave its neck a gentle stroke, which seemed to calm the creature somewhat. With slow, sure movements, he pulled his pistol and pressed the muzzle against its head, right behind its big, terrified eye.

The sharp sound of the report made birds and small creatures scatter.

Carefully, Daneer lowered the body, letting it dangle from its leafy prison.

“Better a quick, merciful death than a long, slow, painful one,” he muttered as he stepped back into his place in line.

Jack had seen the man’s face, the torment in Daneer’s eyes, and imagined the horror of his life at Rati’s House over the last six years. If Jack had been in his shoes, he’d have taken a header off the rear balcony and been dashed to pieces on the rocks below rather than be raped by Goa’ulds and Jaffa on a daily basis.

No wonder Daneer had turned to drugs to survive.

Jack’s heart ached for him.

A few of the leaves draped into their path, and Daneer cleared the way with fiendish glee as he turned the flamethrower on them. He started to put the nozzle away, but then turned back to the leaf eating the deer and blasted it until the stem charred and broke under the weight of the carcass.

“Sorry,” he said, with a tone that clearly stated he wasn’t sorry at all. “I just had to do that.”

No one said anything, but the team’s mood had instantly changed from wary to something dark and grim.

They continued to slog through the undergrowth.

It was well past noon when they reached the clearing where the village stood. Coburn ordered surveillance and sent Wow up a tree to get a bird’s eye view. The rest took up positions in bushes or behind trees to watch the Sekhmeti cat people and try to determine what sort of folk they were.

Jack studied the adults, who were about Teal’c’s size, though not all were as muscular. Some were striped, others spotted, still others in solid colors like tan, black, blue-gray and white. Of particular note were the human-like hand, arm and shoulder arrangements, though their heads looked like house cats, leopards, tigers and lions. The lions were by far the biggest, and seemed to be the ones in charge.

Only a handful of adults were present, though. Most of the thirty or so Sekmeti seemed to be children of all ages.

A cluster of adolescents were playing near the edge of the village. They pounced on each other, wrestled and lightly boxed, dancing away and finally, dashing off toward the trees.

They were coming right at Jack’s position.

He hunkered down, making himself as small as possible, hoping they wouldn’t see him as they pelted past.

The tall, skinny mountain lion teenager whirled around and dropped into a squat, preparing to leap at his gray tabby playmate.

He looked right into Jack’s eyes, and froze.

The tabby tackled him with a tiny roar of triumph.

And then the gray’s head turned, wide-eyed, as he, too, realized they were being watched by aliens.

“It’s okay,” Jack assured them quietly. “I’m not gonna hurt you.”

The tabby scanned the nearby trees and quickly spotted Coburn and Daneer.

Carefully, he got off his pal, who slowly got to his feet.

And then the pair dashed back into the village, calling, “Danell! Danell!”

Colonel Coburn swore.

Daneer stepped out from his bush and marched after them.

Jack sighed and followed, his inner monologue full of details about how alike this guy was to the real Daniel Jackson.

He expected the Colonel and Wow to come with them; instead, the other two hung back in the trees, ostensibly to lay down cover fire if a hasty retreat was needed.

All heads were turning toward them now. Children ran to the adults, clustering around them, hiding behind them, pointing at the visitors. One of them herded the young ones into a nearby tent. Another slipped inside a big dome-shaped hide hut, exiting a moment later.

Right behind the lioness, a long-haired Daniel Jackson came toward them.

“Oh, for cryin’ out loud,” Jack carped.

The Daniel waved, breaking out in a smile when he recognized Jack.

The two kittens clustered around him, pointing at Daneer and chattering at the one they had called Danell. He spoke their strange language back to them and shooed them away.

“Am I glad to see you!” Danell called joyfully, reaching out to hug Jack.

O’Neill backed away. “What kind are you?”

All the light went out of Danell’s face. He glanced at Daneer. “I’m an android. Been here for about a month now. There are two others on the planet. I’ve been trying to help them escape.” He gestured toward the Sekhmeti adults now gathering around them. “These nice people have taken me in.”

Jack turned toward the trees and gestured the all-clear to Coburn and Wow, who emerged a moment later into the clearing.

“Wow,” Danell murmured when he caught sight of the Aua scientist.

“That’s what we call her,” Jack replied. “She’s got one of those names I can’t say.”
“Xiphia Onamundi Wawakan,” Daneer supplied helpfully.

“Oh! I get it.” Danell grinned. He said something to the Sekhmeti. “Just telling them I’ll do the introductions when everyone gets here.”

“Cat people, huh?” Jack studied the kids, now coming out of the tents to get a load of the jackal lady approaching. “Think they’ll be okay with a dog in their town?”

“They’re called Aua,” Daneer corrected softly.

“The Sekhmet are a peaceful people,” Danell insisted with a note of pride, gesturing for the team to step inside the big round tent.

He made a pot of tea that smelled like flowers while everyone took their seats around the fire.

“I know it’s hot in here, but this is a social requirement for making friends. You’ll all have to drink a sip. I promise it’s not drugged or poisonous.”

“Intoxicating?” asked Jack, almost hopefully. “Hallucinogenic?”

Danell smiled. “No, just tea.”

He served the lioness first, offering the cup with a little bow. “This is Mama, which is her name, not her title. She’s in charge when the hunting parties are out, like they are now.”

For the tiger, he gave a very deep, formal-looking bow. “This is Amurr, a village elder. He’s the oldest and wisest of the tribe.”

The android turned his face away as he handed a cup to the leopard. “And this is Ro’arr, sort of a magistrate. Don’t look him directly in the eyes, because it’s considered a challenge.”

Danell made the next offering to Jack with a wide smile. “Colonel Jack O’Neill.”

“Major,” he corrected sourly.

“When did that happen?” Danell was obviously shocked.

“Later,” Jack snapped, irritated. “We’re on the clock, here.”

He really wished it said “Major” on the uniform somewhere.

“Riiiiiiight.”

The other introductions were made without a hitch, and everybody had a sip of the tea.

Jack decided he liked his, and swallowed it all down.

Wow took an experimental lap and set her cup down on the ground.

“What can you tell us about this place?” Coburn inquired, trying another small sip of the fragrant brew. Danell seemed to be in his element, parts of his lecture spoken too fast to understand, as per Daniel Jackson. “The Sekhmet are indigenous to this planet, which is ruled by Bastet. These people don’t worship her, however. They recognize her as an alien conqueror, and would appreciate any help we could offer to overthrow her rule.”

“Allies,” the Colonel summed up agreeably. “That’s always good.”

“As you can imagine, since Bastet’s personal symbol is a cat, these people are important to her. She does have her converts and they have high ranking in her Royal Guard. I’m not certain yet if they make suitable hosts. The Sekhmeti don’t understand the concept.”

He said something to the cat people. Brows scrunched up and there were quizzical looks all around. Jack thought their faces were as mobile and expressive as Disney cartoons.

“Do they know anything about Rati or Maahes?”

From their expressions, it was obvious that they did.

“Maahes hunts here,” Danell explained. “He’s here right now, in fact.” There was a distinct look of alarm in his eyes. “I escaped from his camp about a month ago and found my way here. Two more were brought to his hunting lodge a few days ago. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to get them out of there, but there was no one available to help. Most of the adults are away hunting.”

“That’s why we’re here,” Daneer told him.

Relief washed over the android’s face. “Thank you. I can show you the layout of the camp. There are about six Jaffa guards plus Maahes himself. If you’ve got a spare weapon, you can put me down for two of ‘em.”

The Colonel considered, and then handed over his pistol and a spare clip.

“How far?”

“A couple miles further east. Should take us about three hours.”

Colonel Coburn’s eyes shifted between the two Daniels. “Well, then, let’s make this the Fab Four, shall we? The more, the merrier.”

Jack kept his eye roll to himself and watched as Danell drew out a plan of the hunting lodge and grounds.

***

It was a little past sixteen hundred hours when they arrived. The sun was most of the way through its journey, with about five hours of daylight left.

Their first objective was to scout posting of guards, second to find where the Daniels were being held.

The main structure was a grey stone building nestled between two enormous boulders. Fine fluted columns with lotus-shaped capitals held up a wooden roof topped with slate shingles. A massive lion’s head sculpted in marble made the centerpiece of the arched roof.

The lodge was flanked by two log cabins. One appeared to be quarters for the Jaffa, the other a supply room and kitchen, indicated by the smoke coming from the chimney. A central courtyard was paved with large square flagstones showing recent signs of scorching, no doubt to burn away any invading vegetation.

Two Jaffa remained posted on either side of the lodge’s ornately carved wooden door. Two more were in the cabin, which left two more unaccounted for, probably guarding the Daniels.

Colonel Coburn maintained line of sight to the front door, well into the trees. Wow and Danell took the left flank while Jack and Daneer took up the right. After taking a peek at the back door, they settled in to wait and watch.

An hour later, they still didn’t have a clue.

Then Maahes presented himself on the front porch.

Jack was a little taken aback by the sight of him.

The creature wasn’t human at all, like pretty much all other Goa’uld hosts. He was a Sekhmet – a fully upright, bipedal male lion with articulated human-shaped fingers and thumbs tipped with long black claws. He dressed in scarlet robes in the Roman style, with gauntlets, greaves and chest plate armor in gold sculpted with a rampaging lion.

“That’s impressive,” Daneer whispered from Jack’s left.

O’Neill settled his rifle on a tree root, aimed at the lion king. He peered through the scope for a closer look.

A kill shot readily presented itself. He could put a bullet through the Goa’uld’s head, but orders were to disable and capture. With the way the Sekhmet’s hind legs curved, he wasn’t sure where the knees were, but if he aimed for that backward curve – heels, maybe – he felt sure he could take the beast down and hit both heels with one shot.

He pressed the call button on his radio to contact his CO. “I have a shot,” he murmured.

“We want him alive,” Coburn reminded him through the earpiece. “Take the shot.”

Maahes moved just as he squeezed the trigger.

Jack rolled to the right, instantly looking for a new vantage point.

The bullet tore through one of his heels, making him stagger, but the report of the shot set the Jaffa in motion. One of them fired in Jack’s direction, hitting the spot where he’d been a moment before.

Danell and Wow broke cover and ran toward the compound, each of them firing their weapons at the nearest Jaffa. The android put a bullet through the eye of one Jaffa, dropping him instantly. The Aua used her P-90 to drive two others into cover, while Maahes hobbled backward into the lodge.

Daneer started toward them, but Jack grabbed his sleeve and pulled him back down.

“We’ll keep the Jaffa pinned down from here,” he ordered gruffly.

The Daniel twin didn’t argue. He hunkered down where he could get a good shot and did as he was told.

True to his word, Danell took out another Jaffa, and then a third as Wow broke cover and ran – on four legs – full speed toward the open door of the lodge.

That move changed everything. There were still two Jaffa unaccounted for, possibly guarding the prisoners, and they might well be inside that building. With Wow in there alone, she’d be in a vulnerable position.

“Go!” Jack shouted, and led the way at a dead run toward the nearest outbuilding. He pressed up against the corner of the bunkhouse, glanced around the corner and saw Danell rushing toward the lodge from the kitchen hut.

Coburn picked off another Jaffa, the last outside the lodge, and then all of them converged on the building.

Jack and Daneer circled around back, looking for another entrance. There was no door, but two large barred windows gave a clear view of the interior.

Two shirtless Daniels were bound and gagged, on their knees in the rear of the main room. Two Jaffa stood over them, zats pointed at their heads. In front of them, Maahes held onto the back of an overstuffed chair, his weight on his good leg, and framed in the doorway was the Aua jackal, poised and ready to spring.

All eyes inside the lodge were on Wow, but she could see the windows behind the bodyguards and their master clearly.

Jack stood up and took aim at the Jaffa in line with his window while Daneer did the same.

He gave a hand signal to the Aua, aimed for a head shot, and fired.

Daneer did the same, and both Jaffa dropped.

Wow went after Maahes.

 Jack had never seen a more vicious hand-to-hand battle in his life.

It was over in less than three minutes.

By the time Jack made it to the door, there were scraps of skin and fur scattered everywhere. The smell of blood was strong in the air, along with the acrid stink of fear. Maahes was on his knees, covered in scratches and bite marks, including a deep rake across the face.

Wow sat on the edge of the armchair, liberally splattered with blood and hair. She held onto a fistful of Maahes’ mane to keep him in place.

“Good job,” Jack told her softly. He felt irrationally proud of her. “You okay?”

“No serious injuries,” she replied with a doggy grin.

Daneer sat down beside her and started pulling out the medical items in his gear vest.

“You know what to do with all that?” asked Coburn from the doorway.

“A little,” the AU twin replied. “I had medic training in my SG-One. We all did.” He glanced at Jack, and then started working on Wow’s deepest wounds.

Coburn zip-tied Maahes’ hands behind his back, then relieved him of his ring transport device, ribbon device and personal shield.

“What will you do with me?” demanded the Goa’uld as he stepped away.

“Right now, we just want information.”

Jack ambled to the back of the room, pulled out his knife and cut the bindings on the two new Daniels.

One of them was wearing the collar device that identified him as an alternate universe transplant. The other was anyone’s guess.

They thanked him and stood up, massaging hands and feet to restore blood flow.

Coburn pulled up a footstool and sat facing the lion. “Why are you collecting copies of this man?” He nodded at Daneer.

Maahes’ gaze slid away. “By command of Hathor,” he answered with a sneer.

The Colonel gave him a kick on the thigh. “Hathor’s been dead for six years. Try again.”

“He pleases my mate, Rati.” Maahes looked sullen now. He glared at Coburn with leashed rage in his amber eyes.

“So you’re not enough for her, huh?” Coburn’s voice was laced with insult.

The Goa’uld bared his teeth and offered a low growl of threat.

Coburn kicked him hard in the head.

The beast’s reaction was instantaneous, on his feet in an instant and lunging at the man’s throat.

Just as quickly, Wow was off the bed, bowling the lion over, her sharp claws digging into his thick neck to hold him in place on his back.

“You will answer,” Wow instructed in her mechanical voice, a threatening growl issuing from her throat, “or I will rip the serpent from your brain and watch you drown in your own blood.” Her ears were flat against her head, her eyes glassy with bloodlust, sharp teeth bared in potent promise.

Jack’s respect for her inched up quite a few notches. He certainly wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of a threat like that. Somewhere in the dim recesses of his memory, he recalled that lions and jackals were natural enemies, and that lions were frequently driven off from their kills by the wily canines.

When they got home, he’d see if he could find her some bones from the commissary to chew on as a treat.

“Because he is a living Ancient,” Maahes growled. “Anubis fears him, and no other. If the god of the dead conquers all, this one will be our means to overthrow him.”

“What?” one of the new Daniels asked, obviously alarmed by the idea. “We’re looking for the Ancients! How could I be one?”

Jack eyed him. This was the one without the collar, either a clone or a robot. “We’ll get to that later. What’s the last thing you remember?”

The Daniel frowned, concentrating. “We’d just come back from the Sixties, had some down time, and went on another mission. Then I woke up in a lab. They did some tests on me, put me on a ship and sent me here.”

“Probably a clone, then,” Coburn assumed.

“Sorry, but I’m not buying that,” Daneer declared with a shake of his head. “They’ve been collecting us since long before Daniel ascended here. How could they have known that would happen?”

“Maybe, in other universes, the same events happened in a different order,” the new AU Daniel suggested. He was staring at the floor. When he glanced up at Jack, the look he gave spoke volumes of secrets and pain. “I descended nine years ago.”

Jack felt the mental whiplash, but didn’t let it show. He concentrated on present duty only. The geeks at the SGC would be the ones to figure out all the timeline bullshit he could never understand.

Coburn nodded toward the door, eyes on his 2IC. “Let’s get this cat back to base for further questioning. Maybe he knows where the rest of them are.”

Jack patted the clone on the back. “Ready to go back to Earth?”

“I’d like to put some clothes on, if you don’t mind.” He rummaged around in Maahes’ things and found a few more red tunics and a couple of belts that he shared with the other AU Daniel. They pulled boots from the Jaffa until they found some that fit, and gathered up their weaponry as well.

When they were dressed, the team and their prisoner marched out of the lodge and toward the trees toward the Stargate.

“Shouldn’t we do something with the bodies?” asked Danell, nodding back over his shoulder. “If we leave them, they’ll be eaten.”

Colonel Coburn sighed, considering the request. Then he handed the man a zat. “Three shots disintegrates,” he advised. “I guess that is the humane thing to do. We’ll wait here.”

Jack heard the weapons go off, counting the zings for the two Jaffa inside the lodge. He watched as the AU Daniel duplicate searched the compound and disposed of each dead man.

Three, four, five, six.

And then they plunged into the trees, heading toward the village as the sun slid toward the horizon.

“We won’t make it back to the ‘gate before sunset,” Coburn noted as he struggled to find the path in the dimming light. “Danell, can we spend the night in the village?”

“Yes, we’ll be welcomed there.”

“With one of their own as a prisoner?”

Jack glanced at the android, whose expression was grim. “This will be the perfect opportunity for them to see who the Goa’uld are and what they do. I think Maahes will make my point for me.”

“Right, then. Double-time to the village. It’s getting dark fast, and I don’t want to run into any of those man-eating trees on the way there.”

***

March 28, 2005

The Next Morning

At first light, the team and their prisoner hit the trail for the Stargate with Wow on point, Daneer and his flamethrower right behind her and the other Daniels sandwiched between him and the lion man. Jack was on Maahes’ six, with Coburn bringing up the rear.

Halfway there, Wow brought the party to a halt, her pointed black ears swiveling in every direction.

“We are being hunted,” she declared. “It is a large predator.”

Everyone instantly turned their attention outward, scanning through the trees for the hunter.

Maahes took that moment of inattention to dash off the path and into the thick jungle.

In an instant, he was gone.

“Shit!” Coburn glanced at the still-moving leaves. “Everybody after him! We can’t let him get away.”

Wow sprang after him on all fours, traveling low and leaping easily through underbrush and fallen trees.

Jack moved more slowly, looking for broken twigs, blood smears on leaves, footprints to show which way the Goa’uld had gone. The two new Daniels flanked him, their attention on any movement in the trees, zats raised to fend off any attack. Behind him, the android backed carefully in his path, watching his six with a staff weapon.

They searched for hours.

Every now and then, Jack could hear something moving behind him. His spidey-sense was on full alert, the hair on the back of his neck standing at attention, aware he was being hunted while he was searching for Maahes. It was eerie. The sensation made him less aware of his surroundings, and before he realized it, he’d brushed up against a big leaf.

Something stung his neck. Instinct propelled him away from the sensation, but it was too late. The sticky surface of a man-eater leaf had a hold on the left sleeve of his jacket, and it was wrapping around his back.

He hollered, struggling to get away from it, break contact, but the leaf continued to envelop him.

“Hold still!” a Daniel called.

Jack felt the heat of a staff blast just above his head, singeing his hair, and he fell to the ground on his belly when the stem snapped in two.

“Hang on!” the Daniel behind him called.

“Jack!” the other Daniels gasped in unison, both dropping to their knees on either side of him.

They reached for the edges of the leaf.

“Don’t touch it!” Danell called, thrusting out an arm to bar their way. “Get back! The tree is coming for you!”

Turning his head, O’Neill saw with horror that the tree was lowering more leaves toward the men on the ground. In moments, they would all be wrapped up in the glue. His heart pounded. He panicked, struggling harder. Where the edge of the leaf was touching his neck, it started to burn.

“It’s eating me! Help!” he cried.

The other two Daniels scrambled away just in time to avoid being grabbed.

Daneer rushed up and started to burn the low-hanging leaves.

“Jesus, Jack! What do we do?” Coburn knelt by his head now.

“Leave this to me,” Danell ordered. “The tree’s not interested in me. You all keep a safe distance and let me pull it off him. If I can.”

The android tugged at the stem, pulling with all his might, but the glue was stuck firmly. 

“Take your jacket and vest off!” he ordered.

Jack did. He could feel the digestive juices seeping through his clothing and hurried out of everything, including his pants. A piece of skin on his neck ripped off when Danell tore the leaf away from him, but he was free. That was all that mattered.

He stood in his T-shirt, boxers and boots, considering whether he should lose anything else, staring at his uniform on the ground with the leaf clinging to it.

Daneer handed him his jacket.

The skin on his back was still burning, so he doffed the T-shirt, too.

Someone poured water on his back from their canteen, washing off the sap that had soaked through his clothes. His buttocks had fared better, so he decided to keep his boxers on as he slipped into the borrowed jacket.

“I’m scrubbing the search,” Coburn declared. “Maybe this place will get him instead.”

“Um.” The new Daniel pointed upward, into the middle of the tree. “I think it already did.”

All eyes followed his finger.

The figure was hard to see, almost completely wrapped in three leaves. The top of Maahes’ head was visible near the stems, and his tail thrashed below the end points. He bobbed and twisted like a butterfly chrysalis in a breeze. His eyes glowed, not in anger, but in abject terror.

“The flamethrower won’t reach that far,” Daneer murmured.

“Maybe we should just leave him,” the other AU Daniel suggested, bitterness lacing his voice. “He brought us here to be his prey. Let him see what it feels like.”

Jack bent down and unclipped his P-90 from his jacket on the ground, careful not to touch the leaf. “Nobody deserves that,” he growled. “Being slowly digested by a plant.”

He took careful aim through the scope and put a bullet into the lion’s head.

The body stopped moving, tail dangling listlessly.

No one spoke all the way to the Stargate.

As soon as they appeared at the perimeter, Captain Hagman started dialing the ‘gate.

Jack patted Wow on the shoulder, intending to compliment her on her work for the team.

She was looking behind them, her ears pricked up, nose working as she sniffed the air.

Then she turned and fired her P-90 into the trees.

“Run!” she called, but the machine modulation kept her voice at normal levels.

Jack relayed the message on a shout and took off a few steps forward, then turned to let her get ahead of him while he covered her.

A creature came out of the trees, running toward them. It must’ve been fifteen feet tall, all teeth and scales like a T. Rex, but with long arms tipped in sharp-clawed fingers. It gathered itself and leapt, falling just short of the ‘gate platform, coming down snapping for the nearest piece of meat.

Wow crouched low, ready to defend him as he brought up the rear.

O’Neill grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and hauled her with him through the event horizon.

The creature’s head came through after them.

Coburn called to close the iris, and the giant head came crashing down on the ramp, splattering blood and brain matter everywhere.

Heart pounding, glad to be alive, Jack just stared at it for a moment. He could feel blood and sweat running down his chest and back. The burn on his backside still stung. He should probably be heading for the infirmary right away.

Then he realized how he was dressed… or rather, undressed.

General Waring stared down at him from the control room. “I can’t wait to read this mission report,” he announced with a note of dry humor. “Debriefing in one hour.”

“Thank you, sir,” Jack returned.

He realized he was still holding Wow by the scruff and massaged the nape of her neck in apology.

She was grinning at him. “Not too shabby, O’Neill,” she teased.

He tugged his borrowed jacket down as far as it would go and headed for the embarkation room door.

All the way to the infirmary, he felt not a whit of shame. Not many men could boast they’d nearly been eaten by a tree. He was going to enjoy telling that tale, one day.

***

March 29, 2005

The Next Day

The ready room had been too small for both teams and the newcomers to assemble, so General Waring had commandeered the commissary for their combined debriefing. They had arranged several of the dining tables in a circle large enough to accommodate twenty people: SG-3, SG-1, the five Daniels, Anise/Freya, the extras from SG-0 and Waring himself. All the kitchen and serving staff had been dismissed until the meeting was over to ensure the proceedings would be confidential.

Jack was the last to arrive, dressed in blue scrubs and fresh bandages. He declined to sit down, since his back, buttocks and the backs of his legs were still tender from the tree sap.

SG-1 gave their report first.

“I’m thinking we should send some Agent Orange through to that planet on a drone crop duster, sir,” Jack quipped as he finished his portion of the tale.

“I doubt that would be good for the Sekhmeti,” Danell returned, obviously displeased. “They saved my life and were good friends to all of us.”

Jack glared at him down his nose. That was a joke, he declared with his eyes.

Danell’s eyebrows scrunched downward. His mouth did that little sideways flex that said, I know, but still. Wrong thing to say.

O’Neill thought it odd and a little uncomfortable that he could have those wordless conversations with someone he hardly knew. The robot was still Daniel, somehow.

Every one of them had identical expressions as they studied him. It was like being surrounded by the same reflection in mirrors.

“Okay, just stop, all of you!” Jack flapped a hand in the air, like he was swatting a fly. “Look in a different direction before I lose my marbles.”

Waring laughed out loud. So did a few others.

The Daniels scowled in unison.

“It’s not funny,” they all said at once, with matching inflection and tone.

The General’s smile never dimmed. He nodded, struggling to keep his composure. “Sorry, Doctors Jackson, but I can see how Major O’Neill might wig out a little. Five of you is rather… intense.”

“Can we get back to the briefing?” Daneer suggested, making a note on his pad. “After Jack was nearly eaten, we were forced to kill Maahes as an act of mercy, and then we high-tailed it back to the ‘gate with Major O’Neill in his skivvies, and…” He directed his gaze and the narrative to the mission CO.

Colonel Coburn finished up as decorum was restored.

“For the sake of brevity,” General Waring intoned, “I’m going to call the two newest Daniels Four…” he pointed at the clone, then to the second AU Daniel, “and Five until we have something better to distinguish you than numbers. I’d like to hear a recap from each of you on your experiences prior to your rescue.”

Four repeated what he’d told the team in the lodge, but in more detail.

Daniel spoke up. “Those events place him as sourced from my DNA when Hathor kidnapped SG-One and put us in cryosleep, late June of ninety-nine, approximately six years ago. That should be the only time I’m aware of that samples and memory scans might’ve been taken.”

The clone coughed, looking a little glassy-eyed with shock. He took a sip of water. “Sorry, it’s just a little hard to wrap my head around being a few weeks old, when I have a whole lifetime of memories.”

“It’ll take time,” Daniel murmured.

Then it was Five’s turn. “It became clear to me once we started talking that there might be a difference in the sequence of events those of us from other universes might have experienced, so I’m going to hit the highlights here for comparison.”

He stood up, tugging at the collar around his neck to situate it better. “I graduated college with three degrees, after which I solved the glyph puzzle posted in the New York Times and earned my spot on the Stargate Program.”

Jack whirled to face him. “That’s new. A puzzle in the Times, you say? Was the program public?”

Everyone showed similar surprise, except Anise, who didn’t show much emotion ever.

“Not at that time, no,” Five continued. “Anyway, first mission to the Place of Our Legacy, where Jack—”

He glanced at the man next to him. “… our Jack – got an Ancients database downloaded into his head—”

“Abydos was our first destination,” Daniel countered, making a note.

“Then I got nailed to the ‘gate room wall by an alien time capsule—”

Jack raised his hand. “That was me.”

“We met Teal’c.” Five frowned, glancing about the room. “Do you have a Teal’c? I haven’t seen one here.”

“Big guy,” Jack shot back. “STP logo on his head. Yeah, he’s our friend. He’s off doing Jaffa stuff right now.”

“Good. Good.” Five nodded. “We met the Asgard, met Ma’chello, kicked some Gou’ald ass, went to Netu, destroyed the Replicators—”

“How?” General Waring interrupted.

Five looked pensive for a moment. “We had a kiron disruptor. Sent a mass wave throughout the Stargate network.”

Jack shoved his hands into his pockets and kicked the leg on Daniel’s chair, mad at himself all over again for letting Carter go talk to her Replicator double.

Waring sighed. “Please continue.”

“Anyway, during our first three years of ‘gate travel, we discovered a lot about the Ancients. I helped develop some of their technology, but I could see where my people were headed. I… um… had a lethal dose of radiation…” He put his head down and swallowed hard.

“Kelowna,” Daniel filled in, pushing back in his chair.

Five sighed and nodded. “… and ascended to a higher plane of being. That apparently didn’t work out for me…” He glanced at Daniel. “…and I came back. That was about nine years ago, in my timeline.” He gripped the back of his chair with both hands until his knuckles turned white. “In my universe, the Goa’uld were already defeated and scattered, most of them trying to hide out on backwater worlds without technology. There were other enemies that we were facing at the time I was taken. They’re called the Ori.”

Jack tried to wrap his head around that. “How old were you when you solved that puzzle?”

“Twenty. Just graduated college. It was the SGC’s last ditch effort to try to solve the coverstone riddle.”

The General’s gaze was intense. “Son, can you help us with the same technology your people used to fight the Goa’uld?”

Five met his eyes. His mouth worked, lips pressing together and relaxing as if he were struggling to speak and keep quiet at the same time. His eyes misted. His voice quavered when he finally spoke. “I could, sir, but I won’t. I know what happened to my people after the war with the Goa’uld was over. I don’t want to see that happen here. I’m sorry. If you have to put me in prison, I’ll understand, but if I may…” A tear rolled down his cheek. “I’d like to help find another way. Winning isn’t about the weapons. I know that for a fact.”

O’Neill felt the anguish radiating off him in waves.

“I’ll take that into consideration. Perhaps you and I can talk about this later in private.” Waring watched him sit down.

Five’s shoulders slumped. He buried his face in his hands.

Jack gave his shoulder a little squeeze as he met his friend’s eyes across the table.

Isn’t that what I’ve been telling you all along? The look on Daniel’s face was clear.

O’Neill nodded contritely. I’m learning to listen, he answered back in his head.

Daniel’s expression softened, mollified as he dropped his gaze to his notes again.

“We’ll table that for the moment,” Waring announced. “Colonel Reynolds, your report on the Neone expedition.”

“P6X-098,” Albert recited. “We found the research facility built into the side of a mountain overlooking the Stargate. It was well guarded, but we overcame the security and rounded up all the researchers. One was a Goa’uld, the rest transplanted scientists from half a dozen cultures. After interviewing them, we discovered the, um.” He cleared his throat and dropped his gaze to his notepad.

After a minute, when he didn’t continue, Anise took up the narrative. “We located the growth chambers and remaining DNA samples. There were four clones in development. I requested to be allowed to examine them and the technology, but—”

Reynolds cut in, obvious anger in his tone. “I ordered the incomplete clones and all of Doctor Jackson’s DNA samples destroyed immediately.”

Jack saw the look pass between the Colonel and Daniel. There was gratitude in the younger man’s eyes and soft smile.

Anise seemed decidedly put out. “He also ordered all of the equipment, the computer records and data crystals destroyed. The lab was gutted, General. There was a great deal of important information that the Tok’ra and perhaps even the Asgard—”

Waring’s dark eyes gleamed with warning. He glanced pointedly at the five Daniels before meeting the Tok’ra’s eyes again. “I’m sure you weren’t thinking about the human cost when you asked for that site to be preserved. My people were.”

She dropped her gaze and her protest.

Go, General, Jack cheered in his head.

“The scientists provided us with the ‘gate addresses where they sent finished clones,” Reynolds continued. “One of them was Rati’s planet.”

“And the other?”

A muscle flexed in the Colonel’s jaw. “They call it the Lion’s Den. It’s a heavily guarded fortress where Maahes has his troops trained. They said lions roam freely in the temple and are serenaded while they eat.”

The unasked question hung in the air while Jack’s stomach turned.

“Eat… what?” Waring finally dared.

Reynolds cleared his throat again. He coughed. “They didn’t say, but I can hazard a guess.”

All of the Daniels got up and left the room. One of them was running, heading for the bathroom.

Jack followed, giving them a few minutes to pull together before he went inside.

They were taking turns at the sink, rinsing their mouths, washing their faces with damp paper towels. One was still in a stall, heaving over the toilet.

“We’ll be back in a minute,” one of them told him, nodding toward the door.

Jack felt a little pale himself as he returned to the commissary to rejoin the debriefing.

“…didn’t want to say this in front of them, but…” Reynolds glanced toward the door and lowered his voice. “… one of the clones in the database was female. It appeared to be… It looked like…” He shook his head.

Anise finished for him again. “The clone clearly resembled Doctor Jackson. I assume the DNA had been altered to change the gender.”

For a moment, Jack’s brain wouldn’t work.

“General, I believe the laboratory’s purpose was not only to create multiple clones of Doctor Jackson, but also variations on a theme. You have already seen the first one, whom you call Danny, with greater muscular development and added height. Freya and I believe there may be others as well. Hathor’s original purpose of creating herself a new Pharaoh has obviously been bastardized by Rati and Maahes. Until we locate this Lion’s Den, we will have no way to determine the full extent of what they have been attempting to create.”

“Do you have any theories, given what you know already?”

She leaned back in her chair with an arched I-told-you-so eyebrow. “Perhaps, if I had been given an opportunity to examine the reasearch…”

Four of the Daniels returned and resumed their seats at the circle of tables.

None of them were the real one.

Jack fidgeted in his chair, wanting to go find his friend, but protocol made him stay and listen.

“What’s done is done,” Reynolds stated, an angry edge to his voice. When he spoke again, his bearing had returned. “The scientists also gave us the address for another facility. They weren’t sure what kind of research was being conducted there. They said it was new, and they’d been sending finished clones there for a month or so.”

“Then that will be our next priority mission destination,” Waring stated, making a note. “I’ll have a MALP sent through as soon as this briefing is done.”

“I’ll go.” Danell raised his hand. “I don’t need to rest.”

Jack shifted, dog tired, but eager to get to the bottom of this mystery. “Me, too.”

The General eyed him. “Both teams will have the required post-mission down time.” He heaved a heavy sigh as his gaze rolled over to Danell. “You’re an android?”

“And have no need of sleep, food or water,” Danell agreed. “I can be mission-ready at any time, sir.”

“I’m going to wait for Doctor Jackson’s approval before I send you, Four or Five into the field,” Waring intoned. “You’re ready when he and our medical team agree you’re ready, but thank you for your offer.”

He turned to Anise. “Can the Tok’ra provide us with any intelligence on the Lion’s Den?”

She canted her head. “I will ask.”

He sighed again, fidgeting with his pen. “Anise, Freya, I understand this mission has been a vast disappointment to you, but I’m sure we’ll find a way to make it up to you somehow.”

For a moment, she was silent, considering. “If I am included in further developments with this inquiry, that may be possible.” She glanced at each of the four Daniels at the table in turn. “We find it intriguing that two Goa’uld of such low status would already be planning the demise of the reigning System Lord, using one human being as their army. There is a wicked genius to the plan. We want to know more.”

“Then perhaps you’ll want to go with SG-Three and SG-Fifteen to this second laboratory,” Waring offered. “We’ll have survey data from the MALP in twenty-four hours, and the teams will be heading out as soon as possible after that.” He glanced around the circle of tables. “Does anyone have anything else?”

When no one spoke, the debrief adjourned.

Jack made his way to the team office to write up his mission report at one of the standing desks in the team office.

***

Jack went with Daneer to get the new Daniels settled into quarters and base jumpsuits. He also assigned an SF to each of the newcomers, following protocols for visitors. When that was done, he walked with Daneer to his quarters.

The décor was sparse, standard-issue military everything. There were no personal items except for a journal and pen on the bedside table. That made him a little sad.

“You wanted to talk about something?” Daneer asked politely, hands stuffed into the pockets of his jumpsuit. He sat down on the cot.

“Yeah. I. Just.” Jack sat down on the bed and got right up again when his tenderized bottom complained.

He strolled around the room, looking for some kind of distraction while he organized his thoughts. “Um. When you were at Rati’s house…” He flipped open the cover of the journal, then realized it was private and closed it again.

He thought about what he’d heard while the Daniels were out of the room, and it bothered him. He couldn’t let it go. Had to ask.

“Were there ever any.” Jack cleared his throat. He could see the image in his head far too clearly. “Ah. Female Daniels?”

Daneer took a deep breath, bowing his head as he let it out. He nodded. It took him a moment to speak the words. “Yes. They didn’t.” He coughed. “They didn’t do well, living in those conditions.”

When he lifted his head, he had that faraway look, his tiny smile full of incredible agony. “When they couldn’t take it anymore…” He lifted his right hand and thrust it gently forward, gliding in the air like a bird. “… they flew.”

Jack remembered the layout of the house set atop its cliff above the lake. In his mind’s eye, he could see the graceful dive of a woman in silken clothing leaping off the balcony to her death on the rocks below. His stomach cramped.

“How many?” He leaned against the wall on his left hand, stubbing the toe of his boot against the floor.

“Three.” After a beat, Daneer asked, “You okay?”

“No,” Jack returned immediately. “Don’t think I will be for a while.”

He just stood there for a moment. “I can’t sit down right now, so I’m just gonna go lie down on my face in my base quarters, but… sometime later… you wanna come over for some pizza and beer? Do you good to get outta this place.”

“Maybe not the beer,” Daneer replied with a smile in his voice. “Recovering addicts shouldn’t… Pizza would be nice. Thank you.”

“’Kay.” Jack hurried out of the room without a backward glance, shutting himself up in his drab metal quarters. He paced for a while, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands. “What are you doing?” he demanded of himself.

That had felt very much like he’d just asked the man on a date.

***

Daniel – now designated “Five” -- knew his way around the SGC. With SFs on his tail, he headed for the showers and then into one of the ugly blue jumpsuits that would be his entire wardrobe until those in charge figured out what to do with him. There was already a resident Daniel Jackson here, along with a few spares. He had no idea what they were going to do with another one, but for the moment, he didn’t care.

He padded barefoot back to his new room and sat down on the unmade cot next to a stack of bed linens and blankets he’d put down later.

For the moment, all Five wanted was a quiet space to pull himself together.

Three days ago, he’d been on his Earth, getting ready to celebrate his wedding anniversary. He had the indoor vertical kitchen garden ready to install, and had been working through the night to finish a translation so he could go home and get started on building the gift. Just a few more hours, and he’d have been at home. He’d have been able to die with the one he loved.

Instead, when the attack on Cheyenne Mountain began, the SFs had come for him and hustled him through the Stargate with the other important academics and key base personnel, the designated survivor group for Alpha Colony.

On the far side of the wormhole, they had listened via radio transmission to the sounds of the shields failing. Chief Walter Harriman had started a play-by-play report for them as long as the ‘gate had been open. Fire rained down from the sky, not just on the mountain, but all over the neighboring city, the military bases… Everything was burning.

When the transmission ended, Colonel Eastman had taken command, sorting out where everyone would go, ordering them out of the horrified chaos still in their minds. Later in the day, the Colonel had provided updates received from Prometheus in orbit around Earth during the attack. Colorado Springs had been leveled, including the complete destruction of the Stargate.

Japan had been turned to charcoal, along with South Korea and the Philippines. Moscow and D.C. were under attack, and Prometheus was doing her best to knock out the Chinese weapons installations responsible for the devastation, but newly built Chinese warships were advancing, and the sheer numbers didn’t look good.

Russia and America were responding. So were the Middle East, Africa, South and Middle America. The whole world was at war with weapons powerful enough to leave nothing but ashes in their wake.

All through the night the survivors listened for news until finally, mercifully, the reports stopped and there was only silence.

A few people slept from sheer exhaustion, but Daniel hadn’t been one of them. He’d lain on his bedroll on the soil of an alien world, looking up at unfamiliar stars while he tried to wrap his head around the fact that Earth was likely gone. Tomorrow he would have to put his grief aside and do whatever needed to be done to help the rest of these people survive.

There weren’t supplies enough for the number of people now in their midst, so the next day Eastman had sent out hunting and gathering parties to build up their food stores from native flora and fauna.

That was when Five had found the ruins hidden in the trees and a quantum mirror all but swallowed up by creeping vegetation. He’d only brushed the leaves aside to confirm what it was, when a swarm of Jaffa had pulled him through to the other side.

He knew what the mirror was and tried to memorize the setting on the control device so he could find his way back, but then the Jaffa kept scanning until he saw another Daniel Jackson peering at him from the other side.

Then the painful tremors had started. They had put the collar on him to keep him stabilized, and probed his memory for the events of his timeline.

He couldn’t let the Goa’uld have what he knew about his world, and concentrated solely on his pain to hold their scanner at bay.

His strategy had worked, and he’d found himself on Tarvis hours later, bound for the hunt and certain death.

A half day later, he was back at the SGC.

His stomach rumbled, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten in a day or two, but he didn’t want to go to the commissary. He didn’t want to be around people. He lay down on his side on the bed and curled up, remembering the kitchen garden he’d almost made, the anniversary that would never be celebrated.

Today would have been three years.

He would never again see his parents, who had been teaching in Japan and talking about retiring in another year. He would never see his in-laws in Kyoto and share their warm hospitality. He would never kiss his husband or see him smile.

His world was over.

All that was left was grief.

He closed his eyes and wept, keeping his voice low so no one outside could hear his heart shattering.

***

March 30, 2005

The Next Day

Daniel had done his best to hide all over the base, but with his constant escort – now with two SFs in addition to the ever-present Tzatzil – there had been zero opportunity for solitude. He was cracking under the pressure, and knew it. Even retreating to his house had been useless, with the guards posted outside the exits and Tzatzil hovering over him indoors.

His insides were knotted up all the time. His stomach hurt. His head ached. He couldn’t look at himself in the mirror without wanting to throw up, and stopped shaving.

All he could think about was the duplicates.

At first, he had gone to visit Danny every day. The SGC had placed him in a special adult daycare at Peterson AFB and initially he had done well, but there had been several violent outbursts and now the facility was considering expelling him. If that happened, there was no place for him to go other than under guard at the base for the rest of his life.

Daneer, too, was troubled. Daniel had thought giving him work would help him with his addiction, but he could see the signs – fidgeting, nervousness, piques of temper, restlessness – and knew Daneer was struggling. He improved a little after counseling sessions, but the effects never seemed to last long.

And now there were three more of him. The clone called Four, seemed to be like looking in a mirror with a few years peeled back from his face. The android, Danell, was so calm and reserved it was almost spooky. But the one who disturbed him the most was the alternate universe entity called Five. Looking into his eyes fractured Daniel’s self-image; him, but not; his history so significantly rewritten that Daniel had to wonder which of them was real.

He felt the weight of nearly a decade of failure, the responsibility for a whole galaxy resting on his shoulders when he was in the same room with Five, and it was killing him.

He presented himself at the infirmary.

A few tests later, Dr. Warner found an ulcer.

Minutes later, Jack was coming through the door to his private room in the infirmary, a cup of green Jell-O in hand.

Daniel sighed, wishing only to be left alone. He’d been enjoying the quiet solitude with everyone else outside the door. This was Jack, however, so he put on his most polite tone of voice and a tiny smile.

“Is that for you or for me?”

“Doc says you’re NPR for today.” He gave a quizzical look. “Isn’t that liberal radio?”

“NPO,” Daniel corrected on cue. “Nada per oral, or something like that. Enjoy.”

A full, clownish grin appeared on Jack’s face. “Thank you. I will. How ya feelin’?”

“Well, given that my stomach’s been eating itself, kinda sympathetic to your recent encounter with the tree. How’s your ass?”

Jack pulled up a stool and sat carefully on it. “Better. I can sit now. Still partly tenderized, thanks for askin’. The back, though… still kinda burney. Sleepin’ on my face these days.”

“Oh, sorry to hear that. What brings you here, Jack?”

“You were sick.” He ate a scoop of wobbly green gelatin. “And SG-Three and Fifteen are back. They’re brining Harlan’s equipment in now from that Goa’uld installation. All of it was intact.”

“Mmmm.” Daniel turned his head slightly away. He didn’t want to hear about more clones or androids. “That’s nice.”

“It gets better,” Jack promised, leaning closer. “They found the Carter-bot, too. Wanna see her?”

Daniel almost sat up, but the pain in his belly made him relax against the pillow quickly. “Yes, of course! But no more Daniels, please. And I don’t want to hear if any more were found, either. Okay?”

“I’ll send her in.” He whirled off the stool and sashayed to the door.

A moment later, he returned with Samantha Carter.

Daniel didn’t care that she wasn’t the real one. He missed her. It had broken his heart when she’d been sentenced to prison a few months ago.

She was beaming when she came through the door.

He let her come down to him, scooping her arms under him for a powerful hug.

“It’s so good to see you!” Daniel clasped her face in his hands as she pulled away, amazed at how warm and organic her skin felt, as if she were truly alive.

Her radiance dimmed. “Col—Major O’Neill told me about what happened to original Sam. I’m sorry.”

He angled for a change of subject. “Have you seen Harlan yet? He’ll be ecstatic!”

She beamed again. “Yes, and so was I. We’re looking forward to exploring our new home. Maybe do a little pest control while we’re at it.”

“At least you won’t have to be constantly repairing something to stay alive,” Daniel offered, remembering the sorry state of the failing station that had been Harlan’s home for the last eleven thousand years.

“Yeah, we’ll have a whole world to explore! I can’t wait!”

She would be leaving again soon, and he was already missing her. “You’ll come back and visit, right? I’ll want to hear all about your discoveries.”

“Sure thing. You get well now, okay?”

“Working on it,” he promised. “Doc says bed rest for a couple of days, lots of antibiotics, then a course of probiotics and I should be good as new.”

Sam slipped off the bed and stood up, already preparing to leave. She glanced at Jack, then back at him. “Just so you know… I mean, I know I wasn’t supposed to say anything, but… I’m going to need a lot of help on our new home, so… all the androids will be coming with Harlan and me. Okay?”

Daniel exhaled in a noisy whoosh. “That’s a load off my mind, Sam. Thank you.” He felt a little better already.

Then he imagined getting to walk down that futuristic white causeway into the alien city they’d never actually reached because of the giant DNA-rewriting bugs, and felt a tiny pang of jealousy. The androids were going to dig deep into an alien civilization recent enough to have left everything behind, intact. It would be an archaeologist’s paradise, but no organic creature could risk entry.

“Have fun. Keep in touch.”

She kissed him on the forehead and waved good-bye as she headed for the door.

When she was gone, Daniel mentioned to Jack, “We should go visit our Sam. Road trip, maybe.”

“Or we could… fly. Hop there, hop back. They’d hardly notice we were gone.”

“I was thinking… time off. Have some fun. See the world’s biggest ball of string or something along the way.”

Jack’s eyebrows shot up. “Really? Sounds like a plan. Just as soon as your travel ban is lifted.”

The balloon burst. “Oh, thanks, Jack,” Daniel said sourly.

“Get some rest,” Jack returned with a note of warmth. “Get well. We need you out there.”

“No, you don’t. There are plenty of Daniel Jacksons to go around. Pretty soon, everybody can have one!” Daniel rolled onto his side and put his back to his friend, his stomach cramping, eyes squeezed shut in despair.

O’Neill sat down on the bed beside him and put a hand on his shoulder, giving him a fond squeeze. His voice was a gentle, low rumble. “No matter how many others we find out there, Daniel, none of them are you. They can’t ever be what you are to me.”

He stroked Daniel’s hair, his hand lingering on neck and cheek.

“What you are to all of us at the SGC. You’re ours.”

Daniel rolled back so he could see Jack’s face.

“You’re mine,” O’Neill whispered, so much unspoken in his dark eyes.

But Daniel could see all that. His heart soared. He smiled, and for the first time in days, the burden lifted.

He covered Jack’s hand with his own. “Just a couple of straight guys,” he murmured, hearing the acknowledgment of his feelings for this man in his voice, tinged with a little awe. “I don’t know how this happened, but it damned sure has.”

“Hazards of ‘gate travel, I guess.” Jack slowly withdrew his hand, started to lean down, but thought better of it. “Gonna take a while for us to figure this out, I think.”

“We’ll get there.”

The door opened and Teal’c swept in, dressed in his black dress robes.

“Greetings, O’Neill, DanielJackson,” he intoned. “I have news.”

The big guy started to hug Jack, who quickly slipped out of his grip in a neat twirl.

“He was nearly eaten by a plant,” Daniel murmured behind his hand in explanation.

Teal’c’s eyebrows shot up in surprise as he studied his old commander. “Indeed?”

“Tales of man-eating trees later,” Jack promised. “News first. What’s shakin’? How goes the Jaffa Underground?”

The Jaffa inclined his head with a look of pride. “We make great strides daily; however, my purpose in coming here today is to inform the Tau’ri that a friend has paid me a visit.” He bowed toward Daniel in the bed. “And to see old friends. You are not well, DanielJackson?”

“It’s an ulcer,” Jack explained. “Got a hole in his gut.”

“That sounds painful.”

“It is,” Daniel agreed. “Who’s the other old friend?”

A slow smile crept across Teal’c’s face as he bowed again. “DanielJackson.”

Alarm shot through Daniel. “When?”

“Only hours ago.” Teal’c turned to Jack. “He was dressed in the armor of the Kull warriors of Anubis, but on his right arm, he wore an Atoneek armband.”

Jack held up a hand. “Don’t tell me! He was very fast.”

Teal’c nodded. “Too fast for the eye to follow, except when he stood still to speak with me.”

Daniel rolled over again, closing his eyes.

“Maybe we should take this out in the hall,” Jack suggested.

“No. Go ahead,” Daniel carped resignedly.

“I knew at once that he was not… the same DanielJackson,” the Jaffa explained. “He informed me that he is a clone, altered in a lab to be able to tolerate the Atoneek virus. In fact, he cannot live without the armband.”

“And there you have it,” Daniel announced angrily, flipping onto his back so he could glare at his friends. “The other shoe has dropped. They’re developing an army of biologically enhanced super soldiers, to be fitted with the armbands.”

Jack stared at him for a moment, wheels turning quickly behind his eyes. “Well, we destroyed the cloning lab, all the samples and data, so they can’t make any more that way.”

Daniel clenched his teeth, his stomach tying into knots. “Unless there’s another lab somewhere that we don’t know about yet. Maybe at that Lion’s Den we’ve been hearing about lately. Maahes was certainly guarding something important there.”

“The Tok’ra are looking into that for us,” Jack explained to Teal’c. “It’s some heavily guarded fortress on a planet called…” He raised his eyebrows at Daniel to fill in the blank.

“Taremu.”

Teal’c inclined his head, obviously grateful for the information. “The other DanielJackson has given me the location of a remote outpost known as the Black Mirror. It was once an important site for Hathor, now under the control of a minor Goa’uld known as Maahes, a lieutenant for Bastet.”

“Now a dead lieutenant,” Jack corrected.

“Indeed.” Teal’c reached into his robe and produced a black mesh collar fitted with what appeared to be an obsidian cabochon fitted into a hematite base. “He provided me with this and informed me that many more can be found there.”

Jack took the device and tucked it into his jacket pocket. “I’ll get this to General Waring. He’ll want that address before you go.” He patted Teal’c on the shoulder and gave him a fond squeeze. “Good to see you again, buddy. We miss you out there.”

“One day,” Teal’c promised, “when there is peace, I will take you fishing on Chulak… where there are fish to catch.”

That little bit of humor and the grace of good friends gave Daniel a little emotional boost.

They were making progress, after all. Teams had taken out the lab and the killing fields, and were in the process of moving the android factory where no one but the androids themselves could access it, ever again. Soon enough, the quantum mirror would be buried. There would be no more clones or androids created, no Daniels kidnapped from their timelines. There would be no more of him coming.

The androids had a place to go now where they would be safe and fulfilled, after a fashion, with a new world to explore.

But what about the AU Daniels? Would they want a shot at finding their own universes, or possibly others where they didn’t exist, or would they want to stay here? And if they did, what would they do?

And what about the clones? Danny would need care for the rest of his life, someone to watch over him, keep him safe, and keep others safe from him. There was no telling what other alterations had been made to other clones, or even how many of them might have already been completed.

Hathor and Maahes had been working on this project for the better part of a decade, even before the rise of Anubis.

What were they really doing with the Daniels?

He had questions, and no one else was going to provide him with the answers. This was a puzzle he was going to have to solve on his own.

“Jack, could you arrange to have the rest of the Daniels on the base come here for a visit?”

“Feel like talking to yourself? Maybe, give yourself a pep talk?”

How O’Neill could say those lines with a straight face was something Daniel would never understand. “You kinda love this, don’t you.”

“Sometimes you have to look yourself in the eye and just get on with things.”

Teal’c raised an eyebrow.

“Just don’t play with yourself. You’ll go blind.”

Jack took a step toward the door with Teal’c in his wake.

“You know I could do this all day, right?” Jack held the door open for his Jaffa buddy.

Daniel couldn’t help cracking a smile. “Yes, I know. It never gets old for you.”

The quiet following their exit was welcome, and gave him space to think.

He closed his eyes and started to examine all the pieces of the puzzle, looking for clues to the ‘why’ that was at the heart of everything.

***

Tzatzil wheeled him into the team office, an IV bag hanging on a pole above his left ear. He hadn’t officially been discharged yet, so he had to stay in the chair until someone wheeled him back to his room. He thanked the redhead, who was dressed today in black leather and a bright pink T-shirt with a band logo emblazoned on the front.

“Call me when you’re ready, dawlin’,” she told him with a full-on Cockney accent. “I’ll be right outside the door. Ta ta.”

She sauntered off full of punk attitude.

He couldn’t help smiling at how she had jumped into the idea of transforming to blend in on Earth. Maybe one day soon he’d be allowed to leave the base again, and he could watch her in action on the street. That would be entertaining as hell.

Xiphia locked up her workstation, gave him a respectful nod and left the room when Daneer strolled in, hands stuffed into the pockets of his base blues.

Moon flashed him a smile, tapped Pax on the shoulder and nodded her out of the office as well. The twins had already left for the day, and Jack was… well, Jack might be anywhere he could avoid a chair.

A moment later Four and Five came in together, their SFs taking up posts in the corridor outside while the meeting was in progress.

“Thank you all for coming,” Daniel intoned. He nodded at a white board. “Looks like that one’s empty. One of you wanna grab a marker? I’m not supposed to get up.”

The other clone did as asked. “What’s this all about, Daniel?”

“I thought we could put our heads together and try to figure out what’s going on here, maybe make some decisions about our future.” He fixed a hopeful smile on his face and met their eyes one by one.

They all nodded.

“Right. First up.” He sighed. “Before we get into anything else, I wanted to talk about Danny. I assume you newbies have heard about him?”

The grim looks on their faces were a clear enough answer.

“He needs constant care in a facility where he can also get help with his emotional issues. Unfortunately, that can’t be had loca—“

“I have an idea,” Daneer interjected. He spoke to his boots, scuffing the sole of one of them against the floor.

All eyes were on him.

He stayed quiet for a long moment, his brow furrowed, lips tightly closed.

“I’ve looked after him for a while, long before we came here. I.” Daneer coughed. “I care about what happens to him, so don’t think for a second that I’m suggesting this for any reason other than to be sure he’s safe and cared for by someone who will learn to love him like I do.”

Daniel sensed falling footwear. There was too much emphasis on the ‘why’ rather than just coming out and saying what he had on his mind. “And your solution is…?”

“Give him to the Tok’ra to be a host. Not to be treated as an empty shell, mind you! I want them to agree to let him out to play and avoid putting him in any dangerous situations. He can work behind the lines.”

There were gasps of indrawn breaths, but no one refused immediately. Daniel felt the word ‘no!’ echo inside him, but it didn’t come out his mouth. He gathered in that initial refusal and listened.

“I know what you’re all thinking, because I’m thinking it, too.” Daneer’s voice was gentle and sad. “He and I talked about it off and on. I know he’s not capable of fully understanding what it means to be a host, but he did get that it would mean he’d never be alone. He hates that. It scares him, and maybe this is the right way to go.”

“It feels like washing our hands of him,” said Four. “That he’s too much trouble to care for, and this is an easy out for us.”

Daniel read the emotions playing over the other clone’s face.

He knew that one would be thinking, ‘What if it had been me? A tweak here or there in the DNA, and I’d be just like him.’

It was easy, too frighteningly easy, for Daniel to put himself into each of their shoes.

“I’m not suggesting this to lighten the burden on our consciences,” Daneer continued after a moment. “And I’m not willing to let him go through this alone.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “If the rest of you agree, I’ll go with him. I’ll also volunteer to be a host, and add the caveat that we always be stationed together so I can continue to look after him and make sure the Tok’ra keep their word. Provided they agree to the bargain at all.”

Daniel was shocked and a little horrified. “Why would you do that?”

“What, be a Tok’ra?” Daneer’s little chuckle was full of veiled agony. “You’ve been addicted to the sarcophagus and that psychedelic light machine, Daniel. Maybe the third time’s the charm, I don’t know.” He glanced at the other two. “What I do know is that it’s getting harder to make it through each day, keep putting one foot in front of the other. I feel like I’m running in place in slow motion all the time. Kicking that drug…” He shook his head and wrapped his arms around himself. “I may be over the worst part, but if I’m going to stay clean, I need help, and I’m thinking… maybe the Tok’ra can do that for me.”

A new, fresh hell opened up inside Daniel. He remembered the cravings, the anguish of withdrawal. It still nagged at him occasionally and when it got to be too much, he attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings in the Springs. Most of the time, he managed to counter that with work, but there were times…

He nodded. “Okay. I agree. And I’ll trust you to keep your word, too. Danny is important to me.”

“Agreed,” said Four.

Five just nodded, arms crossed over his chest.

“Thank you.” Daneer seemed to relax a little. He ducked his head and gave a shy glance to each of them. “You know, it feels weird making this decision with all of you. Feels like… family. I never had one of those before. It’s nice.”

Daniel glanced at his lap, staunching the sensation of impending tears.

“I guess that makes us brothers,” Four observed with a note of pride. “I’ll go, too.”

 “I think the Tok’ra are gonna need name tags,” Five teased. “In case you think I just volunteered, count me out. I’m just sayin’… And since our face is so well known among the Goa’uld, well, there might not be a lot of spy missions in store for the three of you.”

“Maybe they have a good plastic surgeon?” Daneer suggested playfully.

Clearing his throat noisily, Daniel lifted his head and waved a hand at the chalkboard. “So, let’s draw out a timeline and see if maybe we can figure out the Goa’uld master plan that’s brought us all together, shall we?”

***

April 30, 2005

One Month Later

Jack studied Tzatzil’s steampunk outfit and wondered what all the gears were for. The trio trudged down the corridor into the elevator that would take them down to the 28th floor for their briefing. He stared at the elf’s pointy ears sticking out from under a brown leather driving cap with a microscope lens attached to the brim.

“Hey, I talked to Danny today,” Daniel announced with a smile, turning to glance over his shoulder at the taller man. “I think we made the right decision. He’s having a lot of fun with She’mar—“

“His snake?”

“Yes, that’s the name of his symbiote. Danny likes having someone to talk to all the time. She’mar seems… kind of maternal about him. The Tok’ra seem to have made a good choice.”

The idea of putting a snake in the guy still rankled Jack, but he was pleased to hear the news.

“Danny, Daneer and Charlie are visiting with General Waring,” Daniel went on. “You remember Charlie, don’t you? The little Reetou boy? He’s a teenager now! God, they grow so fast.”

“Time flies, for sure.” Jack remembered the ten-year-old that had come through the Stargate to warn them of an impending attack by the crab-like Reetou. One of them had hastily created the child as the vehicle for her message, but his systems had been so seriously damaged that he’d been dying by the time he’d delivered it. His only hope of survival had been to become a Tok’ra host. “I would like to see the kid.”

“That’s good, ‘cause he’s in the briefing.” Daniel’s little smile was teasing, almost flirty.

A mental image of Daniel kissing him in his kitchen surfaced, followed by a sudden flash of heat in his groin.

“Um… if I could get you an overnight pass, you up for Chinese at mine?”

Daniel rounded on him with big, serious eyes. “If you could get me an overnight pass, you might get lucky. God, what I wouldn’t give to get out of this place!”

He whirled about in sync with the parting of the doors and marched swiftly away down the corridor toward the stairwell with the elf at his elbow.

“Well, then,” Jack said to no one in particular.

He gave a crisp tug to the hem of his jacket with visions of sugarplums cavorting through his head, and followed them into the briefing room.

Instead of a pudgy adolescent with ashen skin and dark circles under his eyes, Charlie was tall, thin and well on the way to becoming a manly presence. Jack hugged him and spent a moment catching up as they took their seats around the briefing table. The Daniel twins were already there, dressed in tan Tok’ra leathers, along with the real Daniel and his elf, General Waring and SG-13. A moment later, SG-1 crowded in as well, most of them lining up along the walls.

“Apologies for the crowded space,” Waring announced to get the meeting started. “I couldn’t get the commissary on such short notice.”

He stood up, giving their visitors a nod. “The Tok’ra have managed to gather intelligence about Taremu at great personal risk, and we thank them for their efforts. I’ll give the floor to…” He checked his notes. “Akkam, and the Daniel Jackson host formerly known as Four.”

The clone smiled.

That surprised Jack. Tok’ra hosts were usually dry and humorless, barely a flicker of expression on their faces.

“Thank you, General, but we just go by Akkam, now,” he said in normal voice, pointing to a stick-on nametag he’d applied to his tunic. “It’s easier.”

He launched into a show-and-tell about the fortress, its defenses, layout and troop strength, complete with visual aids.

When he returned to his seat, Daneer stood up. He also had a nametag with his symbiote’s name, Tenzin, but it was the man who spoke and not the Tok’ra.

“We’ll make two ha’tak vessels available for a planned attack,” he assured the Tau’ri. “While we haven’t yet discovered the whereabouts of… the, um, the Daniels… on this world, we do know they’re there somewhere. All we have to do is find them.”

“I’m a pilot now!” Danny announced loudly, wriggling in his chair with obvious excitement. “I fly spaceships!”

Jack felt a rush of warmth, hearing the man speak. It did his heart good to know that the simple-minded clone hadn’t been imprisoned by the creature living within him.

Akkam reached over and patted Danny’s forearm. “Shhh,” he breathed with a tiny smile and touched a finger to his lips. “You have to wait your turn, Danny.”

Daniel lifted his pen in the air. “Um… sorry, I know this has nothing to do with the topic, but I have to know… Why aren’t the symbiotes talking?”

“We thought it might be a little… disturbing… for you,” Tenzin explained.

Understanding and gratitude flooded Daniel’s face. “Thank you,” he murmured. “Um. Thank you.”

Jack could feel his friend’s relief all the way to his bones. He thought these three had gotten lucky with their snakes. They were being respectful. That was good.

He glanced around and saw the same reaction mixed with good humor on the faces of the other soldiers around him.

“So what’s your plan of attack?” asked the General.

Tenzin described it, starting with landing ground troops some distance from the fortress. Tok’ra operatives imbedded in the staff would open the gates for them once the bombing began. The ha’taks would coordinate air support and take out the defensive weapon installations on the walls.

“And who is supplying the ground troops?” Waring finished writing a note and glanced up at the Tok’ra over his glasses.

“Teal’c,” Tenzin answered, beaming. “You’re welcome to join in, if you’d like. We have room for glider pilots as well.”

Jack grabbed Daniel’s wrist with a firm grip. He already knew what the other man was going to say, and tried desperately to stop it.

Daniel ignored him. “Sir, please let me go! I’ll stay aboard one of the ha’taks, away from the fighting. I just want to be there. Please!”

Waring nailed Daniel with a hard, unreadable look. “I’ll take your request into consideration, Doctor Jackson. However, since this mission is centered around you…” His gaze went from the face of one Daniel to another. “… I am inclined to keep one of you here, and since you’re the original…”

Defeat made Daniel drop his gaze to his tablet, mouth pressed into a thin, white, angry line.

Waring dropped his eyes to his tablet and made another note. “Tenzin, I’ll be sending SG teams thirteen and fifteen to assist.”

This time, Jack didn’t volunteer. He’d wait to see if Daniel went or not, and stay with him whichever way the General’s decision went. This was the climax of the mission that had been their focus over the last few months, and the emotional impact for Daniel was high. He would need a friend at his side when the shit hit the fan, and Jack’s spidey-sense was telling him it was more important to be with Daniel than on that planet.

“When will you need us?” asked Waring.

“We still have a few pieces to move into place,” Akkam replied. “About… three days?” He glanced at Tenzin.

“Four days,” the other Daniel corrected. “Maybe longer, if any unexpected problems pop up.”

Waring nodded. “We’ll be ready.”

The details of the plan were nailed down in a long discussion, but Jack was only half listening. His attention was on Daniel, who was strung as tightly as a piano wire, jaws clenched, scribbling like mad on his tablet.

This was not going to be an easy few days, Jack knew.

He bent over his own tablet and started drawing a Chinese take-out container and a pair of chopsticks in the margin.

***

As soon as Jack opened his front door, Tzatzil breezed by him dressed in a green silk Chinese brocade cheongsam slit up to her hip. Her hair was done up in a stylish French twist decorated with enameled chopsticks, a silk flower and lots of sparkly, dangly thingies that caught the light whenever she moved her head.

“Perfect outfit for tonight’s menu,” he observed.

She said something in Mandarin as she turned right, heading for the den. “I may play your video games?” she asked, turning to walk backward a few steps so she could see his face.

He couldn’t resist those dimples when she smiled.

“Sure, just don’t overwrite mine. I ordered you some hot and sour soup, kung pao chicken, egg rolls and crab wonton.”

“Thank you, O’Neill!” The elf whirled around and disappeared.

He knew they wouldn’t see her for the rest of the night.

Daniel had already come in, so Jack greeted the SF commander with a salute and a handshake.

“We’ll be posted outside for the night,” Captain Ewing told him.

“Knock if you need anything,” Jack responded. “Bathroom’s down the hall to the left. We ordered Chinese, if any of you boys are hungry.”

The Captain smiled. “Thank you, sir, but we’re good. Have a nice evening.”

The three men behind him circled around the house and took up their positions, one at each corner, to guard the perimeter until morning.

Jack shut and locked the door. “I got your favorites,” he said, finally turning to see Daniel standing behind him.

For a moment, Jack was speechless.

Daniel had just had a haircut, first one in a few months, and it was short.

“I’m never going to the base barber, ever again!” the young man declared, blue eyes blazing. “He practically gave me sidewalls! Mind if I use your shower? I’ve got hair all in my collar and it’s itchy.”

“Knock yourself out. I’ll set out the plates and stuff. Food should be here by the time you get done.”

Jack couldn’t help smiling at the sight.

The guy finally looked like he belonged at the base.

He took a bottle of water from the fridge and took it to Tzatzil in the den, already deep into God of War, and returned to the kitchen to gather the dishes, glasses and utensils they’d need, setting them on the counter. He wiped down the table, set out the soy sauce and opened a beer for himself. For Daniel, he poured a glass of plum wine and set the bottle onto the table.

Checking the pantry to see if there was anything else he needed to put out, he spied a half-burned candle tucked into a corner. He considered whether or not to put it out and light it, finally deciding against. That might be a little too obvious, too romantic.

This wasn’t a date, not when they had a third wheel.

Though Daniel had said Jack might get lucky if he could arrange a pass…

He hadn’t realized how long he’d been standing there, staring at that candle until Daniel padded in barefoot behind him. He was wearing his pajama pants and an undershirt, a towel draped around his neck to catch the water runoff from his barely-there hair.

“Is the food here, yet? I’m starved!” he said as he bent to pick up his wineglass.

Ever the gourmet, he swirled the dark liquid and had a sniff before he tasted it. “Good choice, Jack. This is nice.” He gestured around the room. “All of this. It’s so good to be out of the mountain for a change.”

“It’s coming,” O’Neill promised.

He bent closer to the younger man’s nape.

Daniel whirled around, instantly on guard. “What are you doing?”

“You have a smudge,” Jack replied. “Turn around.”

Jack bent Daniel’s head down so he could see the dark spot more clearly under the overhead light. The short, wet hairs had clumped together, showing a lot more of his scalp than usual, and he’d spotted a shadow on the back of Daniel’s head, just at the base of his skull. He peered at it, pushing the hair this way and that with his thumb to get a good look at the pattern.

It was a tattoo.

Daniel Jackson didn’t have any tattoos. It would’ve been noted in his medical records. Someone would’ve said something about it.

He studied the shape, certain he’d seen it somewhere before. It was a Goa’uld character, he was pretty sure about that, but had no idea what it meant.

“What is it?” The young man sounded a little alarmed.

Jack didn’t want him to be upset, so he rubbed it a little harder and stepped away. “Must’ve been a clump of hair,” he lied smoothly.

Daniel rubbed at the back of his hand and glanced at his palm, checking it himself. Then he took the towel and gave his head an extra brisk rub before heading back into the bathroom.

A knock at the door announced the arrival of dinner.

“Cash is on the table,” Jack called, heading for his office and leaving Daniel to pay the delivery guy. He drew the character on a small note and put it on the bedside table, planning to take it to work tomorrow and get one of the other geeks to translate it. Then he hustled Zazz off to the table and sat down to have a nice meal with friends.

After dinner, she retreated to the den to finish her game, and the two men spent some time on the patio. It was nice out, and Daniel just walked around the yard, breathing and looking up at the stars for a while. Jack watched him, glad he was safe and alive.

He forgot about the note until bedtime. The elf had already laid claim to the spare bedroom, so Daniel would be bunking in with him for the night. He’d gone into his bathroom to brush his teeth when he heard his roomie’s voice filter in through the open doorway.

“Jack, why do you have the number two written in Goa’uld on your nightstand?”

He froze, toothbrush in mid-stroke. Intuition kicked in. He argued with the idea, denied it, hated it, couldn’t push it away.

Forcing his hand in motion, he mouthed something unintelligible to illustrate that he couldn’t talk just then, and hastily scrambled to think of a plausible answer for when he was finished brushing.

He took his time, extending the experience until he hoped his friend had forgotten the question. He rinsed and spat, then closed the door and sat on the toilet for a while.

By the time he exited, the overhead lights were off, only the lamp on the nightstand still glowing.

Daniel was under the covers, his back to Jack’s pillow. “You okay?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder at his bedmate.

“Sometimes,” Jack answered slowly as he got into bed. “It was nice tonight, having a little normalcy.”

The other man turned to face him, some of the sheets tucking up around him as he rolled.

“Hey, don’t steal my covers!” A distraction was in order, both for himself and for his friend. Humor usually did the trick.

Daniel’s expression was filled with concern. “You’re worried about something.”

Jack eyed him. “Aren’t you? I don’t know what we’re gonna find in that Lion’s Den. Hopefully nothing, but it could be…” He sighed, his heart aching. “I know it’s been hardest on you with all these doubles underfoot, but… sometimes I have trouble with seeing ‘em, talking to ‘em.” He swallowed hard and studied the illuminated circle on the ceiling from the lamp. “Sometimes the lines between the Daniels start to blur.”

Jack remembered bringing Daneer to his home a little while ago. There had been no innuendo or awkwardness, just an ordinary social evening, but by the time the evening was over, Jack had felt like he’d been hanging out with this Daniel. He’d had to keep reminding himself that the guy was practically a stranger.

The other man’s voice was velvet soft, deeply resonant. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No. God, no!”

“You’re right. This has been hard.” Daniel sighed, rolling onto his back. “Looking into my own eyes, knowing what those men have been through… I still can’t figure out why. Why me? What makes me so special that they’d want to duplicate me seven times?”

“They’re obviously looking for something.” Jack levered up onto his elbow, searching his friend’s face. “You are special, Daniel. It took me a while, but I finally learned that. I’m here for you.”

“Oh, come on!” The denial was heavy in Daniel’s voice, the look on his face. “There’s got to be more to it than that.”

There was, Jack understood, but he would never be able to put it into words, not face to face.

“Turn on your lamp,” he ordered as he sat up. “Put your glasses on.”

He reached into the nightstand drawer and pulled out the handmade journal he’d been working on for the last three years. He’d bought it off-world as a gift for Daniel, but before he could give it to him, his friend had ascended. The night of his… transfiguration… Jack had started to put down his own thoughts in the book, beginning with admitting to himself how Daniel had changed him, and how he had so deeply failed the man he cared about so much.

Jack handed the journal over, silencing Daniel’s protests that it was too personal, and bade him read it.

“There are things I should have said and couldn’t,” Jack confessed, flopping back against his pillow. He clasped his hands beneath his head and closed his eyes, listening. “There are things I should’ve done and didn’t. I think you deserve to know.”

He waited.

Daniel’s breathing changed as he read. His exhalations were shaky. The paper whispered beneath his fingers as he turned the pages. Finally, the book slapped softly closed.

Jack opened his eyes to take it, slipped it back into the drawer and lay down again.

There were tears on Daniel’s cheeks as he settled against his pillow.

His breath hitched as he put his glasses back on the other nightstand and flicked off the lamp, plunging the room into darkness.

Rising up on his elbow again, Jack gazed into his friend’s face, waiting for his eyes to adjust so he could get his bearings.

And then he leaned down and softly kissed Daniel’s mouth, one hand clasping his cheek.

He’d meant it to just be a kiss, but Daniel’s arm wrapped around his neck, pulling him closer. His other hand slipped into Jack’s boxers. Shock vanished in the heat of a sudden flare of unexpected passion, and moments later Jack was coming in Daniel’s hand, his face buried in the pillow and Daniel’s neck as he struggled to keep from crying out.

“Good?” Daniel panted as he pulled away to look at him.

Jack’s answer was a kiss that he poured himself into as he groped for his lover’s hard-on.

It was awkward and messy and so right it was scary. A sense of triumph filled him when he brought Daniel off, his back bowed against the bed, gasping and clutching the sheets.

His shoulder ached, but he didn’t want to lie down again, not yet. He wanted to see that face etched in moonlight and shadows. He wanted a smile.

“You’re a hell of a kisser, Daniel Jackson,” he whispered.

He huffed a hoarse little laugh. “Not bad for a couple of straight guys, huh?”

A sense of wonder crept up and filled Jack as he studied that amazing face. He shouldn’t feel this way about a man, but he’d never been closer to anyone in his whole life. “You know this doesn’t make any sense, don’t you?”

“Not a bit. But I think it works, in a weird way.”

“The weirdest.” Jack nodded. “Wanna wash up or cuddle in the afterglow?”

“Wash, thank you.”

“Now, see? That’s a guy. I get that.” He got up, left his boxers in the bathroom hamper, cleaned himself up and brought Daniel a warm washcloth of his own.

When they were settled again, Daniel turned to face the wall and for a moment, Jack just lay staring up at the ceiling, thinking about what they’d done.

He’d just had sex with another man, something so alien to his nature he’d never have been able to imagine doing it.

But it wasn’t just another man. He’d done it with Daniel. That made all the difference in the world.

And it hadn’t been just sex.

They had made love.

***

May 14, 2005

Two Weeks Later

Daniel paced the office, angry that he’d been left behind, anxious to know what was happening out there.

Jack sat at his desk, pecking away on his computer keyboard. “They haven’t even gotten to the planet yet,” he reminded his lover. He swiveled around in his chair to make eye contact. “Don’t make me break out my charm and charisma, Daniel. Settle down. Nothing’s happening yet.”

Tzatzil parked her bottom on the corner of Daniel’s desk and bent to pat the seat of his chair. “Yeah, dude. Chill out. Get some work done.” Her outfit of the day was grunge-themed, complete with holes in her brand new oversized Kurt Cobain T-shirt and acid washed jeans. Her accent was West Coast easy.

Daniel scowled at her. “I’m already visualizing you with duct tape over your mouth,” he warned. Gesticulating at all the empty desks in the room, he snarled, “They let everybody go but us three.”

“And Jackson Five,” O’Neill corrected, staring at his computer monitor.

“Yeah, and why did he choose to stay, I wonder?”

“Maybe he’s seen the outcome already.”

That deflated Daniel’s angry bubble. “Did he tell you?”

Jack’s head shook. “No. He’s being very closed-mouth about his universe. I was just using my Intuition.”

He snapped to attention in his seat and remained stone-still for a moment, staring straight ahead with a completely vacant look, like he was suddenly somewhere else.

The sudden change in his posture made his chair rock a little.

“Jack?”

The older man relaxed, sighing as he gave his head a quick shake. “Not another reality check,” he murmured. “I hate those.”

“Are you okay? What was that?” Daniel came around to the front of the desk as the other man stood up.

O’Neill’s face was a blank mask. “Goin’ to the commissary. Want anything?”

“I’d like some fruit,” the elf requested with musical politeness and a lot of dimples. She stood with hands clasped behind her back, bouncing up on her toes.

The room always seemed to light up when she was happy like that.

“I’ll just bet you shit sunshine, don’tcha, elf?” Jack teased with a half grin. “One fruit plate, piled high, comin’ up.” He turned to Daniel. “You?”

“No, thank you.” He sighed, letting go of the tension as much as he could manage. “I’ll… I’ll start working on that translation for SG-Ten.”

He returned to his desk and fell heavily into his chair, glumly committing himself to doing his job while he waited for news.

***

Jack made a beeline for Daniel’s old office. Though most of the contents had been moved to the new team digs, a desk and computer were still there. Since Five’s retrieval, he had been working in that private space, writing up mission reports for comparison to the ones Daniel had submitted over the years.

O’Neill nodded to the two SFs stationed outside the door and walked between them, barely stopping to knock and announce his presence.

Five had a desk lamp on, the overheads turned off, and an open bottle of headache meds within reach as his fingers flew over the keyboard.

“Hey,” Jack called, his tone light and friendly. “How ya doin’?” He glanced at the medicine bottle. “Headache?”

“Mmmm.” Five nodded, barely making eye contact before returning his gaze to the monitor. “Migraine.”

“I guess all the Daniels have those, huh? Must go with the big brain.”

Five stopped typing and leaned back in his chair. He flexed a small, weary smile. “I guess you want to talk?”

Jack nodded. He took a seat on the corner of the desk. “D’you miss your people?”

“Teal’c, sure.” He sighed. “My Jack became a Tok’ra years ago.”

“Kanaan?”

“Selmak.”

That made Jack’s head spin a little. “Really? Not Jacob Carter?”

“Who?” Daniel frowned.

“Sam’s dad. Air Force General. Had cancer.”

“Oh. No. We needed an alliance and you’d just blown out both of your knees, so you… Jack… volunteered. He was very instrumental, over the years. Pretty happy with the partnership, as I understand it.”

“That’s different. And Sam?”

Five winced. “She’s a Goa’uld.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.” He got up and strolled in a small circle around the desk, head down, waiting for that pain to lessen before he trusted his voice not to shake. “Which one?”

The other man cleared his throat. The answer was a moment in coming. “Hathor.”

“Oh, God!” That shook Jack to the core. He pictured the woman he knew with glowing eyes and that unearthly voice wreaking havoc all over the galaxy. Sam as a host would have made a powerful enemy. Maybe the most powerful of all.

It took him a moment staring at his boots before he could shake the imagery and get back to the reason he’d sought this man out.

“I have a strange question to ask you.” He cleared his throat, trying to recover his normal tone as he struggled to push last night’s discovery out of his head. “Do you… have a tattoo?”

“No, I.” Five froze. There was a look of realization in his eyes that countered that response immediately. “Actually, I think I do, but I’m not sure. Would you look for me?”

Jack’s pulse quickened. “Back of your head?”

Alarm flashed on Five’s face. “How’d you know?”

Jack went over to the door, closed it and flipped on the lights. “When you came through the mirror, they cut your hair and gave you the tattoo, right?”

“How could you possibly—“

“Bend over and let me have a look,” Jack ordered. He grabbed a pen and tablet, putting them in reach as he finger-combed Five’s long hair to one side. There was still a small patch of barely grown out fuzz hidden by the almost shoulder-length strands, but he managed to see enough of the characters that he could draw them out.

“Done,” Jack told the man, patting him on the shoulder.

Five pulled a black plastic comb from his back pants pocket and tamed his hair back into place as he studied the drawing.

“What’s it say?”

The AU man took a long drink from his bottled water. He picked up the pen and drew another character beside the one Jack had done. “Do you think, maybe, it was this?”

“Yeah, that looks about right. What does it mean?”

Five met his eyes. “It says ‘Prophet’ and the number eighteen.”

“And that means… squat.” Jack shrugged, unable to attach any meaning at all to the inscription. In his gut, however, he knew it was important, maybe the key to everything that had happened in this mad scheme to multiply Daniel Jackson in this universe. “Any ideas?”

“Maybe,” Five replied, his expression grim. “Let me think about it.”

“Do it hard and fast,” Jack told him. “Our people should be getting started right about now, and if you can think of anything to help them, you tell us. Okay?”

Five nodded. “I will. I promise.” His eyes gleamed with conviction. “They’re my people, too, now.”

Jack considered the implication behind that statement. “You can’t go back?”

The doppelganger’s gaze dropped to the desktop. He touched a key on the computer, bringing the screen back to life. “There’s nothing left to go back to, even if we could find the right setting on the quantum mirror. My people destroyed each other, Jack. They made a smoking cinder of Earth. I was sent through to the Alpha site just before Cheyenne Mountain was destroyed by the Chinese. That’s where the Goa’uld kidnapped me.”

“Ah, Jeez.” Jack rubbed at the back of his neck, picturing current political tensions worldwide amplified with the sharing of weapons and technology brought back from other planets.

Then it hit him.

His head came up. He faced Five.

Prophets,” he repeated. “You know possible futures, because you’ve lived them. Imagine if you could gather enough of your alternate universe selves and compare notes. You’d have strategic information you could use to change your own future!”

“And I was the eighteenth one they brought through the mirror,” Five murmured, horrified. “Oh, God, Jack, that’s exactly what they’re doing with us! When I first came through, they used a device on me where they could see my memories, like watching a movie. I kept the important stuff hidden, but if they’d prodded me long enough, they’d have seen everything.”

“What about the others? The clones and androids?”

Five shook his head. “We… the Daniels… had a talk about that not long ago. We have some theories, but until we know for certain...” He shrugged.

Jack nodded, feeling the cold grip of apprehension in his gut.

“None of this happened in my universe,” Five admitted. “I… It’s really hard for me. I can’t imagine how bad it is for Daniel. Maybe we shouldn’t tell him about this discussion.”

The image of that tattooed number two on the back of Daniel’s head resurface with nauseating clarity.

“I have the feeling it’s all going to be coming out soon anyway. But yeah. Let’s keep this between the two of us for now.”

O’Neill flipped off the lights, opened the door and marched out to pay a visit to the commissary before returning to the team office to wait for word on the mission.

***

May 16, 2005

Taremu  

Daneer crouched behind a tree, gazing upslope at the thick stone battlements of the fortress. Someone had designed the place well, placing the building atop a natural rise with steeply slanted sides. The only direct access was a narrow track along a spine of rock leading into the surrounding forest.

The teams had spent the night scaling the slopes, and now they hunkered behind any bush or boulder that would give them cover in the coming daylight.

Any minute now, one of their Tok’ra operatives inside the walls would be maneuvering toward the massive portcullis entrance, ready to open the door for them.

He watched the sun come up in the north, feeling that familiar sense of recognition that he was not on Earth, no matter how similar the trees appeared.

I will be glad of daylight to warm us, Tenzin observed in the back of his mind.

“Providing we don’t get killed today,” Daneer whispered to his symbiote.

He tried to remember the layout of the interior. An open courtyard would be just inside the walls. A Stargate and DHD were right in the middle of that space, flanked by barracks where Rati’s Jaffa were housed. Behind the Stargate was the temple of Maahes where tamed lions roamed at will. On either side of that were the royal quarters on the west side and the storehouse and kitchens on the east. Behind those buildings were the humble quarters where the servants lived and worked.

His team, under Colonel Coburn, was assigned to capture Rati herself.

SG-Three and part of SG-Zero would be first through the portcullis.

Teal’c’s Free Jaffa would be providing a distraction with preliminary bombing of the facility from the ha’tak and a unit of death gliders.

All they needed was the signal to go in.

The sun rose just above the distant mountains.

As soon as there was light enough to see, fire rained down from the heavens, knocking holes in the thick outer walls. The whine of the gliders came a moment afterward, along with return fire from the ground flying up toward the fighters.

Daneer’s grip tightened on his staff weapon. Sweat trickled down his forehead. He glanced at Colonel Coburn, crouched nearby behind a massive boulder.

The Colonel shook his head as he made eye contact.

The fighting seemed to go on forever.

Daneer checked his wrist, forgetting that he no longer wore a watch.

Nineteen minutes, Tenzin counted for him. It will be soon.

The sound of the huge gears engaging to open the portcullis was hard to hear above the noise, but Daneer could see the huge gate starting to move upward. He signaled Coburn, who nodded acknowledgment. Adrenaline surged through his veins.

Twenty-three minutes, the symbiote reminded him.

Coburn reached for his radio.

Daneer tensed his muscles, ready to spring.

“Go! Go! Go!”

Maahes’ Jaffa were starting to pour out the open gate, shooting at them now.

Daneer peered around his meager cover and aimed for their heads.

Then he was scrambling up the slope to the doorway, running inside, shooting any Jaffa he saw on the ground.

He heard the Stargate spin up and headed for the nearest cover. The DHD was closest, and even though it was open on three sides, the other ground teams were coming in behind him to protect his flank. The Jaffa scattered into and behind buildings, clearing the courtyard. A lion ran past him, and was cut down in mid-pounce by a hail of bullets.

The event horizon settled, and Daneer aimed his weapon there.

Something came through, a black shadow moving so fast he could hardly see it.

Then it paused, solidified into a human shape dressed in black armor, a colorful armband attached to his right arm, and the face that looked back at him was his own.

***

Stargate Command

Earth

A knock sounded on the office door. It creaked open a moment later and Five poked his head in through the crack. “Mind if I join you?”

Daniel paused in his pacing long enough to identify their visitor, and then returned to wearing a rut into the concrete floor.

Tzatzil waved him in enthusiastically.

Jack eyed him suspiciously, but nodded. He returned to juggling paper balls. “No word yet,” he stated flatly.

“I was just going a little crazy by myself,” Five admitted shyly. “I’ve decided on a new name. Got the paperwork started on it today.”

“And the winner is…?” Jack put the paper balls down on his desktop.

“Jackson for the first name, because I answer to it so automatically. The last name, however, will be Snow.” He smiled. “I was thinking about changing it anyway on my world, maybe hyphenating or something. It was my husband’s family name.”

“Husband?” Jack and Daniel repeated in sync.

Five nodded. “Emerson and I met in college. He was studying nutrition and chemistry to become a molecular gastronome. When I joined the program here, he came with me opened up a sushi restaurant. We’d been married for three years.”

“Married,” Daniel said again. He glanced at Jack with wide eyes.

“To a man?” Jack could barely grasp that notion. Maybe Daniel wasn’t as straight as he thought. Maybe neither of them were.

Five’s expression was hesitant, wary. “Is that a problem?”

“No, no problem,” Daniel assured him. “Just a little surprised. I’m straight.”

The AU twin gave a knowing little smile as he took a seat at the desk nearest the door, farthest away from Daniel. “I thought I was, too.” He shrugged. “Sometimes orientation doesn’t matter.”

He pulled a deck of cards out of his jumpsuit and laid them on Song’s relatively clean desktop.

“Um… I have a question.” Five’s brows creased. “I’ve been helping out on some of the desk work. Will I eventually be getting a job here, or can I look somewhere else? ‘Cause I’ve been here for about six weeks now, and I’d like to get paid… maybe buy some clothes and, you know, stuff.” He fixed Daniel with a steady, questioning gaze. “I’d like to actually start having a life.”

Daniel was transfixed with a deer-in-the-headlights expression.

“I mean, I know the SGC operates on a fixed budget, but—“

“Actually, we haven’t been a cost center for a couple of months now.” Daniel’s brain obviously kicked into gear. “With the cold fusion energy we provide to the city, we’re making money hand over fist now. I’m sure something can be arranged. Apologies for not seeing to that sooner.”

“Cool, thanks.” Jackson Snow offered a polite smile. “I brought a deck of cards I borrowed from Siler, if anybody wants to play a game while we wait.”

There were no takers.

“Okay, then. Solitaire.”

Tzatzil joined him to learn poker. Then Jack, and finally, Daniel.

Halfway through the game of five-card stud, Daniel started pacing again.

The redhead’s eyes followed him, back and forth, back and forth. She was obviously worried about him, and stood up.

He glanced at her.

“My Daniel,” she called to him, her natural accent back in place, “you must be calm. I do not wish you to become ill again.”

He glared for a moment and said nothing.

“I’m afraid neither of us is going to be calm until after this thing is over,” Snow told her quietly. “If we could just know what’s going on out there…” He shook his head and folded, getting up from his own seat to pace near the door.

She pressed her lips together, glancing between the two anxious men.

“Two of a kind,” Jack declared, and laid his cards down face-up on the desk.

Both of the Daniels stopped in mid-stride and frowned at him.

Jack looked a bit nonplussed and pointed at his cards. “Look. Aces! That wasn’t a smart-ass line!”

Tzatzil sighed, her frustration with all of them obvious. “Daniel, Snow, come and sit.”

She moved to the front of the room.

The twins just stared at her quizzically.

“Sit! Or I will sit you!” she demanded, pointing to an empty chair.

They did as instructed, all eyes on her now.

Then she put her back to them, spread her arms and said, “Show.”

The far wall seemed to disappear.

It was as if they were looking into the fortress walls from above the front gate, watching the action take place in total silence.

“H-how are you doing this?” Daniel murmured in awe.

“It is a gift from Cernunnos,” she answered tightly. “You will not remember this later, my Daniel. I show you now only to ease your mind. Now, be quiet and let me work.”

Snow got up and went to the door. He locked it and stood at Tzatzil’s side.

And then he spoke with the voice of an orator. “Hear.”

The sound of explosions shook the room. Gliders whined. Staff weapons zinged. People screamed. Lions roared.

He met the redhead’s startled gaze. “I visited Gambler’s World in my reality, too.”

Jack eyed the two of them at the front of the room, and then turned to glance at Daniel, wondering what gift his friend had received.

Daniel had eyes only for the movie playing out in front of them.

O’Neill studied the action, his insides clenched as he hoped their people would win.

***

Taremu  

Akkam kept his staff weapon aimed at the Goa’uld as she half-reclined on her gilded couch.

She was dressed in a silken gown with a plunging neckline that gave a generous view of her body, all the way to the pillow clutched in her lap. Platinum blonde hair spilled over her shoulders to her waist. Eyes like amber flicked from his face to the other two just like his. Her features were vaguely Asian, possibly other races in the mix as well. She was certainly exotic looking, and drop-dead gorgeous. It was obvious why she’d chosen this particular host.

The woman practically oozed sex.

She was also uncharacteristically silent for a Goa’uld.

Teal’c swept into the temple with a contingent of Free Jaffa. He presented himself to Colonel Coburn to make his report. “We have swept the grounds and encountered no further resistance. All combatants have laid down their arms and are being taken to Chulak through the Stargate. The servants have been gathered into their quarters and are under guard.”

“Thank you, Teal’c.” The Colonel gave him a warm smile and a firm handshake. “Nice working with you again.”

“Indeed.” He bowed, inclined his head toward the Daniels, and left with the prisoners.

Coburn called the all-clear through his radio and ordered a search of the grounds.

He pulled up a chair near Rati’s couch and heaved a weary sigh as he sat down. “Tell me about your little project here.” He nodded toward the triplets. “We’re all just dying to know why you wanted so many of one man.”

She bent one leg in an even more provocative pose and smiled. “He pleases me. Why else?”

“Right.” He took a drink from his canteen. “So where are the rest of them?”

Her expression was ridiculously confident. “Of whom?” She leaned forward, offering an eye-popping view of her plentiful breasts.

He chuckled. “That’s not gonna work on me. Just spare yourself some trouble and tell me where the clones are. We know they’re here somewhere, and we’re not leaving until we find them.”

Rati arched an eyebrow. “Females are not your preference?” She tossed the pillow to the floor. “I can fulfill any desire.”

The thin gold fabric clearly revealed an obviously male package at her crotch.

“Holy…!” Coburn’s eyebrows skyrocketed. He sat back in the chair, staring open-mouthed.

Akkam was shocked.

Rati stood up slowly. “I thirst,” she intoned with a sly glance, “and I hunger.” She strolled with the allure of a Victoria’s secret model to a small table, where a pitcher and goblet sat next to a plate of fruit. Bending over, she made an obvious show of offering her backside to the man in charge.

“Sorry,” Coburn said on a chuckle, “I’m a happily married man and you are so not my type. You are shit out of luck, honey! Now have a seat and let’s get down to business.”

An hour later, she was still flirting with everyone and they hadn’t gotten anything out of her.

Major Griff returned from his search of the grounds, a little breathless and sweating despite the cool air. “We didn’t find anyone else here,” the Major reported, “but we did find something that may be of use with the Goa’uld.” He dropped a small button-shaped silver device into his commander’s hand.

A moment later, Pierce and Hagman carried in another device and set it on the table.

“We found it in the storeroom,” Griff reported.

Akkam knew exactly what the device was.

Rati did, too. Her confidence vanished. In fact, she looked a bit alarmed now.

“It’s a Goa’uld memory retrieval unit,” Hagman told Coburn. “SG-One were scanned with one of these when Hathor had them imprisoned on her ship.”

Coburn studied the little device in his hand, then glanced at the triplets. “Any of you Tok’ra know how to use this?”

That revelation, too, was a shock to the Goa’uld. Now she was positively livid.

Akkam handed his weapon over to the nearest soldier. “It will be my pleasure,” the symbiote replied.

The look Rati gave him was filled with malice and leashed fury.

He affixed the button to her temple, activated the screen and synchronized the transmitting signal with the receiver.

“All you have to do is ask the questions, Colonel,” Tenzin advised. “She won’t be able to help remembering, and we’ll see the answers here.” He hesitated. “May I handle the interrogation?”

“By all means. You know what you’re doing here, right?”

Akkam smiled. “Getting answers is my specialty.”

Tenzin and Shemar laughed darkly.

***

Stargate Command

Earth

Daniel bent over the trash can, breathing heavily, struggling to keep his composure and his lunch.

“That’s enough,” he moaned. “Please stop.”

Tzatzil closed the window and collapsed into the nearest chair, sweating and trembling, utterly exhausted.

Jack handed her a bottle of water.

Snow left the room, his steps slow and weary.

One of the SFs poked his head in the door. “Everybody okay in here? Sounded like there was a war going on.”

“Watching a video,” Jack answered, a playful note injected into his voice, no doubt for the benefit of the outside observer. “We’re fine.”

The airman nodded and jogged down the hallway after his partner and Snow.

“So now we know,” Jack said after he’d closed the door again. “An android army they haven’t yet learned how to control, designer clones for potential hosts and prophets to give them inside information on possible futures. The Goa’uld have lost their fucking minds.”

“But we still don’t know where the others are.” Daniel sat up slowly, eyes closed, hands shaking. “They could be anywhere on that planet. We might never find them.”

“We will,” Jack promised. “We won’t stop looking.”

Tzatzil put her head down on the desk. A moment later, she was sleeping.

Jack hit a key on his computer, staring for a long moment at the report he’d been typing.

Daniel got up to pace, thinking about the mission. Details slid away as he tried to recall them. The memory blurred, and he tried to remember what he’d been doing a moment before.

A photograph of an inscribed column was on his desk with a magnifying glass and partial notes on a tablet.

He sat down and searched for the last characters he’d translated, wondering how the mission was going on Taremu.

***

Taremu

She’mar scanned the temple, looking for some secret catch or panel, but every inch of the fortress had been searched several times.

There was no hidden space, no nearby facility holding the other Daniels they had come to find.

Colonel Coburn had turned Rati over to the Tok’ra, who would free her host from the symbiote, and they would never know what had happened to the ones they had come to rescue.

Danny was crying.

I am sorry, She’mar told his host. We tried. We will come back and look again.

“No, you won’t!” Danny sobbed aloud. “We have to find them now! They’re waiting for us! They’re here, I know it!”

Daneer reached out to touch his shoulder. “Danny, we have to go. Rati’s host needs her freedom.”

Danny shook him off and stalked away. He ran through the temple, stopping only when he reached the back steps. The twilight air was cold and clear, and after a few deep breaths, he saw an old woman coming toward him.

He wanted to scream at her, to shake her until she told them where the Daniels were, but She’mar took hold of his hands and kept them still at his side.

We must not hurt her, the symbiote told him. She looks worried. Let us help her. All right?

“Okay.” Danny wiped his wet cheeks with his palms, straightened up and greeted the elder politely.

“I am Etta, chief of the keepers of the Nexus.” She bowed deeply. “It is long past time for the sacrifice. May we begin?”

“Sacrifice?” She’mar turned and pointed into the temple. “Rati is not a goddess. You have no need to sacrifice to her.”

The old lady shook her head. Her smile was kind. “The sacrifice is not for her. It is for the Nexus. They bind us all together in the underworld.” She gestured toward the storehouse. “Come this way. I will show you.”

She’mar fell into step with her, taking note that the other servants were following in their wake. He stood in the doorway and watched as they formed a neat line, each one picking up a crate of fresh fruits and vegetables and carrying them to a semicircular alcove set into the rear wall. They stacked the crates about head high, then lined up again to fetch another batch.

Etta held out a hand to tell them to wait and then pressed the oval-shaped cabochon on her necklace.

Danny gave a whoop of joy as he saw a ring transport device lower from the ceiling to surround the goods, which disappeared in a flash of light.

He raced from the storehouse, shouting for Daneer, Akkam and Colonel Coburn at the top of his lungs.

***

“Permission to go,” Sr. Airman Wells barked, stepping into the transport circle.

Colonel Coburn eyed him. “I guess I’m not gonna get you off there, am I?”

“Sir, no, sir!” Wells’ face was set, his mouth grim, eyes determined.

The three Daniels stepped in with him.

Colonel Moon Standing protested because there wasn’t room for her.

“What if it only goes one way?” Balinsky asked, glancing between the four volunteers and the mission CO.

“We’ll figure it out,” Coburn returned, giving the team a nod.

Wells pressed the button on Etta’s brooch, and held his breath.

***

Daneer stepped around the stack of crates into an underground palace.

He could tell by the feel of the place that it was ancient, carved out of the rock belowground by hand millennia ago. The floor was polished to a glassy sheen, the walls carved into an Egyptian style fresco featuring the mighty Maahes in tales of battle and the hunt. The main room was circular, with a small waterfall just behind the crates, and torch-lit tunnels radiating outward like spokes from a wheel hub.

His entrance brought heads up as men began to arrive from the tunnels.

One fellow, crate in hand, set down his burden and came to him with hand extended and a look of sorrow on his face. “Welcome, brother. We’re sorry you found your way to us here. Come on. I’ll give you a tour.”

“No,” Daneer told him, his chest feeling a little tight as he noted that every face he saw was identical to his own. “We’re here to free you.”

She’mar and Akkam appeared behind him.

The greeter’s expression waxed paternal. He shook his head. “We do try periodically to escape, but they always send us right back down. Grab a crate and let’s go—“

Senior Airman Wells shouldered his way through, hand on the radio. “Wells to Coburn. Do you read?”

There was no reply.

All eyes were on him.

The man with the crate lost his grip and dropped it, shocked to see someone other than a duplicate.

“The Jaffa troops here are all gone,” Wells announced. “The SGC and the Tok’ra are here to get you guys out of here.”

A cheer went up as they all began to realize they were being rescued. Men started jumping up and down, hugging each other, and then racing away down the tunnels, out of sight.

The cheering continued. More Daniels began to appear in the main room, take a look at the newcomers, and then dash away again.

Daneer nodded toward one, catching the Airman’s eye before he left. “I’m gonna help spread the word. You see if you can get back up top.”

Wells had tears in his eyes. His lower lip quivered as he nodded assent, and then turned away to test the ring transport system’s retrieval setting.

Danny got caught up in the excitement and started celebrating with the men, disappearing down one of the tunnels, hopping and skipping in unbridled joy.

Akkam went another direction, leaving Daneer alone with his thoughts.

Daniels were reappearing in the main room, stacking books and artifacts in neat piles.

Packing, he realized with a wry grin. Of course. They wouldn’t want to leave valuable books or artifacts behind.

He wandered down the furthest corridor, peering into spacious bedrooms where Daniels paused long enough to give him a nod and a smile before continuing to collect the things that mattered to them. Rooms had been cut into each side of the tunnel. Some were empty but had obviously had occupants at one time. Daneer wondered how many had died with no medical care, and decided he didn’t want to know.

The corridor ended in a suite of large rooms, this one with a carved wooden door featuring a fairly realistic portrait of the lion-headed Maahes at full size.

He knocked, turned the knob and pushed the door open.

A woman stood with her back to the door, piling a stack of folded clothes into the top of a reed basket crammed with books.

“Just a minute,” she called gaily without turning around. “Almost ready.”

He knew that voice, soft and feminine, and the memory of it shook him to the core. He knew her face without seeing it: the strong jaw line, full lower lip, clear blue eyes and brows always in need of tweezing. Pain lanced through his heart as an image of her standing on the balcony seared its way through his consciousness.

She had smiled at him before she leapt, an expression filled with relief and gratitude.

“Danielle?” he whispered.

They had all been called Danielle.

The woman whipped around, beaming.

This one didn’t recognize him. Maybe she had been sent directly here and never had to serve in the whorehouse. He hoped that was so.

Behind her, sitting on the bed beside the basket, was a small child about three or four years old.

“Yes?” She gathered the girl into her arms and stood up, balancing the little one on her left hip. “You must be one of our rescuers. This is Joy, my daughter.” She sobered, measuring him with her gaze. “Jack’s daughter.”

“Oh, thank God!” Relief flooded through him. He could see in her eyes that she’d been spared service to Rati. This one was still whole in mind and spirit.

He came to her and caught her up in a firm, but gentle embrace, kissing the child on her dark head. “I’m so glad to see you!”

He stepped away, tears streaming down his face as he reached for the basket handles. “Let me carry that. Is there anything else you need from here?”

The woman grabbed a homemade stuffed camel off the pillow, tucked it into Joy’s arms, and led the way out of the room without a backward glance. “Let’s go home, Joy. I can’t wait to show you a real camel… on Earth!”

He escorted her to the main room and waited with her until she stepped onto the ring transporter. “I’ll see you up top,” he promised.

She beamed and waved back, then kissed her daughter on the cheek, disappearing in a flash of light.

Daneer wiped his eyes on his sleeve.

There were so many Daniels crowding into the room now, queuing up into neat lines with their crates of books and artifacts. No one was in a hurry. They were all talking among themselves, some offering him words of gratitude and bright smiles.

With each trip up, SGC personnel came down to help with the manual labor and provide assistance where needed.

Daneer went down another tunnel. He found a garden growing beneath an artificial sun lamp, well tended and bearing a variety of vegetables and herbs. There was a large bathing area with waterfalls and naturally heated tubs of constantly circulating spring water. In another chamber was a massive library, now about half cleared of books. A well-stocked kitchen had already been abandoned – spotlessly clean, of course – all of the food products packed up and ready for transport to the surface. Daniel Jackson was not one to waste what might be shared with or given to others.

He kept going, traveling into the depths of every tunnel until he reached the last one.

Before he got very far, he noticed a smell, sickly sweet, that made his nose wrinkle up. He knew what it was. This was where the ill were cared for, and he braced himself as he looked into the first room.

Two Daniels had brought a makeshift stretcher and were carefully placing another one onto it. He looked pale and sweaty, barely conscious, little more than skin and bones.

Daneer’s hands started to shake. His guts cramped. His heart burned in his chest.

Your brothers are safe now, Tenzin assured him. They will have medical help soon. You have helped to free them.

“Not soon enough,” Daneer murmured. “My God. This is monstrous.”

He forced himself to keep going all the way to the end of the tunnel, looking in on the sick and injured, verifying for himself that they were being taken to the surface. Later, he would watch them all go through the Stargate to the base until he was certain every last one of them was gone from this terrible place.

He remembered Hadante, another underground prison where he and SG-1 had been trapped briefly during their early travels. There had been constant danger there, fear of being attacked by other prisoners, and it had been little more than a bare cave with no creature comforts like bathrooms and beds. Their food had been a tasteless gruel dished out by the alpha prisoner, and less aggressive prisoners risked starvation. There had been no medical help, but Linnea had been a wizard with chemicals and herbs, and she had treated illnesses and injuries as needed.

This place was beautiful and clean. Nutritious food was provided for the inmates to cook. They had bathrooms and beds and clothing to keep them warm. The library kept their minds stimulated, but everywhere they looked, they saw only themselves. Only one mind filled all these mostly identical bodies.

Daneer thought this must be the real definition of Hell.

In the last room at the end of the last corridor, he found a bearded man shrouded in shadow, his left side to the door. He sat with legs crossed tailor fashion, hands resting palm up on his knees, head bent over a candle. His eyes were closed in deep meditation.

Daneer came in softly and took a seat across from him, waiting until the meditation was over and the other man opened his eyes.

“You’re free,” Daneer told him gently.

“That’s good,” the other man intoned, calmly pleased, no trace of surprise. “Thank you.” He reached to his right and picked up a wooden cane.  Leaning onto his right knee, he put his left foot on the ground and pushed to a standing position.

Daneer saw then that he didn’t have a right foot. Instead, there was a wooden peg.

“What’s the date?” the Daniel asked, hopping toward the door.

“May sixteenth, two thousand five.”

The man glanced up at the ceiling for a moment. “Six years.” His gaze flicked to the collar around Daneer’s neck. “I see you came from another timeline. How long have you been here?”

“Six years.”
That startled the other man. “Really? Where did Hathor keep you? Are there other prisons like this?”

“Not like this, no. At least, we hope not.” Daneer didn’t want to tell this man his sad story. Not now. “You must’ve been one of the first clones, then. How many are here? All of us, I mean. Clones, androids, other universes.”

“One hundred thirty-six total in this facility. Living ones, anyway. We’ve lost twenty-one over the years.” The Daniel limped down the hallway, looking into the empty rooms as he went. “And I’m not a copy. I’m the original.”

Daneer couldn’t move, heart leaping up into his throat. He watched the other man stump toward the main hall, a long braid hanging down his back, swinging with every step. He couldn’t wrap his mind around that idea.

The original was on Earth.

Wasn’t he?

***

Stargate Command

Earth

As soon as the klaxon went off to announce an incoming wormhole, the phone rang in the team office. Daniel rushed to pick it up, listened to the summons. When he hung up, he leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes for a moment, trying to prepare himself for what he was about to see.

The mission had been successful, Waring had said. The prisoners were coming home. Medical personnel were standing by to receive the sick and injured.

“Daniel?” Jack was coming toward him.

It took three tries before he could say the number of rescued prisoners out loud.

“You don’t have to be there,” O’Neill murmured, grasping his shoulder. “You don’t have to see them at all.”

He stepped away from the wall and eyed his friend, his heart and guts churning together. “I’m the one person who has to be there, Jack. In the ‘gate room, waiting for them. Welcoming them home.”

Then he pulled Jack into a hard embrace.

He could feel himself shaking apart.

Jack was his anchor. His strength would keep him sane.

The other man held him, tucking his face into his neck.

When he stepped away, he met Tzatzil’s worried eyes.

“I’ll be okay,” he told her. “Maybe you should stay here. Jack will be with me.”

A tear trickled down beside her nose. “I will wait in the control room with Snow.”

She dashed out the door.

Daniel took a deep breath, clasped his lover’s hand for a moment, and as he exhaled, let go and followed her out into the corridor.

Medical personnel with gurneys lined the hallway to the ‘gate room. Uniformed SFs were scattered among them, weapons lowered but ready, just in case. The iris was opening when he strode into the room, taking up a position at the end of the ramp.

Major Griff was first through the event horizon. He greeted Daniel and Jack with a grim nod, then stood a little in front of them and faced the ‘gate to act as traffic coordinator.

Another handful of SGC personnel came after him, stepping off to one side, clearing the way for the first of the Daniels to step through.

He was short and stocky and had black hair. When he came down the ramp, he laughed, arms extended upward. “I’m home!” he shouted. He came forward to Daniel with hand extended, bringing him in for a backslapping hug before peeling off to the left to join his waiting escorts.

There were blondes, redheads and brunettes of every shade, clean-shaven and bearded, tall and short, waif-thin and massively built. Bodies varied, but the face was always exactly the same. They smiled and cheered and shook Daniel’s hand as they passed by.

After the first few, it wasn’t as hard as he’d imagined. Seeing their joy was infectious, and he felt a sense of excitement rising. Somewhere along the way, he lost count.

Then the woman and child came through, and Daniel’s heart dropped into his boots.

She looked like him, but with feminine softness in her features and build.

And the little girl, her brown eyes alert, suspicious, wondering… He knew instantly who her father was.

Danielle kissed Daniel’s cheek, beaming as she moved to his right.

“Jack, this is Joy,” she told him with a note of pride.

O’Neill was obviously gobsmacked.

Daniel nudged him. “Go with them,” he murmured, nodding toward the blast door.

You sure? Jack’s eyes asked.

Daniel nodded and smiled. “Go.”

He was alone when the infirm began coming through. His eyes filled as he watched each of them placed on a bed and wheeled away, making sure he touched each one and welcomed them home.

Tzatzil threaded through the crowd and stood at his side.

He was grateful to have her there, and eased a little closer. She rubbed his back in small, slow circles, reassuring him with her presence.

The rest of the SG teams and their Tok’ra partners began to appear on the ramp.

“Just a few more,” Dr. Balinsky reported as he clomped wearily down the metal grating.

Another pair came through with a stretcher, hurrying down the ramp and out the door.

Daniel heard the medical team kick into emergency procedures.

A doctor climbed onto the gurney and started chest compressions while the nurses wheeled the bed out of sight.

He wanted to follow them, but not until the last of the travelers was through.

Daneer and Colonel Coburn arrived, a double with a cane hobbling between them.

Coburn gave the signal and the wormhole disengaged behind them.

Daniel held out his hand, tears gathering in his eyes as he studied the derelict shell of a man standing before him.

The fellow eyed him, looking him up and down. There was a trace of anger in his eyes, but after a moment he accepted the proffered hand and shook it firmly. “Daniel Jackson,” he declared.

Daniel smiled. “Welcome home.” He reached out to hug the man, but he shied away.

“Thank you,” he responded formally, and climbed aboard a waiting gurney.

Tzatzil moved into view. “I believe you should sit down now.”

“Yes. Yes. I need to…” Daniel’s knees turned to jelly, and he fell into a heap on the floor, half sitting on one hip. He buried his face in his hands and wept.

***

“All right, Daniel,” Dr. Warner declared, “your vitals are okay, blood pressure’s a little high, but I’m sure that’s just stress. I’m going to discharge you, but I want you to stay on the base for the night. If you feel light headed or off in any way, you come straight back here. Okay?”

Daniel nodded absently, his attention on the other beds in the infirmary. Every one of them was filled, along with those in the isolation rooms, and every face in every bed was identical. He had a headache and a heartache as he studied each of the doubles.

They were all smiling. Wounds had been tended and a few were still in surgery, but every conscious man’s eyes were filled with wonder and joy.

They were home.

He got up from the bed and strolled slowly down the row at the foot of the beds, glancing at the charts where numbers were present instead of names.

A hundred thirty-six, he reminded himself. If he added in the other doubles he’d already met, that made a total of a hundred forty-two.

Most were androids, thankfully, that had reduced the amount of food necessary to keep the community alive. He’d be issuing the invitation for them to join Harlan and the others on their new world shortly. If they declined, they’d be consulted on what sort of future they might want to build for themselves. From the initial reports they’d received from the Carter android, the new planet was filled with items any Daniel Jackson would be thrilled to explore.

Nineteen had been taken from other universes. They’d be offered the opportunity to go through the quantum mirror before it was reburied, or build new lives at a place of their choosing.

There were twenty five clones, and almost half of them had health issues or injuries that would take them considerable time to heal, if they recovered at all.

Daniel wandered into the observation booth of Isolation Room #3, looking down on one of the men he’d been most concerned abou, while his elfin companion waited outside the door.

Two others were already there, watching and waiting.

One was dressed in Kull armor with an Atoneek armband on his right forearm.

“You must be the ninja I’ve heard so much about lately,” he said on a smile.

“Glad you got my messages.”

“Clone?” he asked.

“Specially adapted for use with this,” he answered with a nod, showing off the colorful gauntlet. He leaned closer and whispered, “But it doesn’t work anymore. I use it as a prop, in case I’m caught on camera.”

Daniel didn’t understand. “Then how do you move so fast?”

The clone beamed. “If you haven’t been to a place called Domhan An Lucht Siúil, you should go there A.S.A.P.”

“Gambler’s World? Yeah, we visited a few months ago.” He shoved his hands into his pants pockets, curling them into fists for a moment.

“Well, if you won, then you know.”

“Know what?”

The ninja winked and said, “Speed.” He disappeared in a blur, papers flying up in his wake, the door creaking on its hinges as it struggled to auto-close.

Tzatzil dashed in aghast. “What was that?”

“Our interplanetary ninja,” he answered, stunned by the display.

Daniel turned, wide-eyed, to the other man in the room as the elf took up her usual post at his elbow.

The double sat in a wheelchair now, the peg leg removed and fresh bandages covering his knee. Hospital scrubs had replaced his brown robes, the right pant leg folded back to reveal the swollen, swathed stump. His beard had been neatly trimmed but not shaven off. His braid draped over his shoulder, tied off with a covered elastic band rather than the leather strip that had been there earlier.

“You look like you feel better,” Daniel offered cheerfully.

“Refreshed, yes.” The other man’s tone was chilly, still formal. “Thank you for asking.”

Not inclined to conversation, Daniel assumed.

“How’s our friend down there?”

“That’s Seven,” the bearded one corrected. “His kidneys are failing. They’ve made him as comfortable as they can. Shouldn’t be long now.” He aimed his eyes at the glass.

The message was clear. This guy didn’t want to talk to him. He didn’t seem too happy to be there, either.

Daniel left him alone.

It took some doing to talk his way into the Iso Room, but he had pull on the base and promised he’d only be a minute.

Tzatzil had to be convinced to wait outside.

He stood beside the bed, studying the pale, barely conscious man on the bed.

“Hi,” he said softly.

The clone’s eyes opened just a crack. He smiled faintly. “Home?”

“Yes. You’re in the SGC Infirmary.” He glanced up at the man in the booth above them, trusting that Cernunnos’ promise would hold true, and no one would remember what he’d done. Then he bent over the clone and whispered, “I’m going to make you better.”

He placed one hand on the patient’s chest, the other on his belly. He closed his eyes and spoke the word in barely more than a whisper. “Heal.”

When he finished, his hands felt like they were on fire, like the bones would crumble to ash if he closed his fingers.

The man in the bed had tears in his eyes, one rolling across his temple.

“Thank you,” he whispered, eyes filling with tears. “Thank you, brother.”

“Get some rest. I’ll come see you again later.”

Daniel strolled out into the corridor, still grimacing from having to turn the door handle.

The bearded Daniel was already there, hands on the wheels of his chair. He didn’t speak, just stared at him for a long moment. Finally, he turned away rolling himself down the corridor with two SFs on his six.

That one was going to be difficult, Daniel knew. There was something different about him, a quietly burning resentment that none of the others seemed to feel. All the rest had been overjoyed to be at the one place that – even though none of them had ever been to Earth before – felt like home. In their borrowed memories, this was where they belonged.

Daniel went in search of Jack and slung his arm over Tzatzil’s shoulders, pulling her close for a moment.

“I’m glad you’re here, little shadow,” he whispered, and kissed her hair.

“That makes me very happy, my Daniel,” she returned. “Perhaps now you will begin to see why my queen sent me with you.”

“No. I still don’t get that.”

“You are a learned man with vast knowledge of the history that has created your civilization and its many satellite cultures, yes?” she asked.

“Well, yes. I suppose. Mostly I just know where to look stuff up.” He shrugged.

“This knowledge is why the Goa’uld brought others of you from alternate timelines,” she stated. “The others knew where histories diverged. Where events happened in a different order, they still happened. That would give someone a strategic advantage, if they had a true prophet, yes? You proved this when you traveled through the quantum mirror both ways.”

“I suppose.” He narrowed his eyes at her. “You seem to have a lot of answers now.”

“Jackson Snow has told us this is so,” she reminded him. “His kind are called the Prophets.”

“And the androids are a perfect army,” he remembered from spying on Rati’s interrogation. “They don’t need to rest, eat or have bathroom breaks. The only problem with that theory is that they won’t fight for a Goa’uld.”

“I think the answer to that will be for the Prophets to tell us.”

“I hope they can. The alternate universe guys have been playing everything close to the vest.” Daniel’s hands had started to hurt a little less. He eased them carefully back into his pockets as he strolled beside her.

They stepped into the elevator, headed for the VIP quarters where their guests would be quartered for the night.

“You have a theory about the clones?”

She flashed a confident smile and nodded. “For a time, Anubis was the most powerful of the Goa’uld. He had some of the secrets of the Ancients, but not all of them. Who better to defeat him than another Ancient?”

He remembered little of his time as an ascended being, but had the distinct impression that recovering those memories would not have been possible.

“And if not one Ancient,” Tzatzil added with a sly, knowing look, “then perhaps a whole army of bright souls?”

She stroked his shoulder as he pondered that idea.

He studied her face, full of calm certainty.

“How could you possibly know all this? None of these people have been debriefed yet.”

“My people,” she answered softly, her green eyes twinkling with genuine affection and quiet pride, “are the children of Cernunnos. Some things we know.”

A flash of memory, the image of a smiling man with antlers brought a sensation of warmth and serenity.

By the time he stepped out of the elevator, he felt the disquiet within him ease a little.

***

Jack had just slipped between the sheets when the knock sounded on his door. With a sigh, he rolled out of bed and padded to the foyer, opening the front door to Daniel and his ever-present elf shadow.

“I know it’s late,” Daniel apologized. “I’m sorry. I’ll only be a minute.”

He turned to Tzatzil. “Give us some privacy?”

She headed into the den and fired up the video game without further prompting.

Jack led the way down the steps into his sunken living room. “You okay?” he asked, plopping onto the sofa.

“I’m.” Daniel started pacing. “I’m struggling. I’m devastated. Awestruck. Horrified. Hopeful. Jack, I’m a mess. Completely overwhelmed.”

“So, you’re fine,” O’Neill deadpanned. He glanced up at his lover’s anguished face and patted the sofa cushion next to him. “Have a seat.”

The other man rounded on him, eyes glassy with panic and pain. “This isn’t about me, Jack. I just came to say… I know how important they are to you, and I won’t get in the way of that. We’ll just be friends, you and me.”

There were tears in his eyes. He blinked to try to clear them, and looked at the ceiling. Then he put his back to the sofa, wandering over to the patio windows.

“And just who are we talkin’ about here?” Jack asked, pretty sure he thought he knew.

“Danielle and the baby. Your daughter. I know you need to be with them, and I understand.” He spoke over his shoulder, avoiding eye contact.

“I’m tired, Daniel. Come and sit down.” He patted the sofa again.

With obvious reluctance, the other man did as he’d been asked, plunking down dispiritedly.

 “I looked for you on the base and couldn’t find you,” Daniel told him. “It was a while before I found your note. I know...” He sighed. “I know you need some time to think, but I wanted you to know this is a no-brainer. Family always comes first.”

“Don’t be a martyr.”

“I’m not. This is serious. That little girl needs her father in her life.” He turned away and wiped at a tear under his glasses.

“Daniel, look at me.”

Jack waited for full-on eye contact.

“Her name is Joy,” he said softly. “And I’m not her father. That was another guy from an alternate universe. He and Danielle were stuck in that prison together for a year or so. He died trying to get her out.”

He put his arm around Daniel’s shoulders, wrapping his fingers around the man’s nape. “She knows I’m not him, so there’s no need to think I’m gonna leave you for her. That’s not happening.”

He sighed and pulled his lover into his arms. “Of course I wanna watch the kid grow up. We’ll work that out.”

“But Danielle is a woman, Jack,” Daniel argued softly. “She can give you a family.”

“Who said I want that?” O’Neill returned, his breath stirring the man’s hair. “I had the opportunity once already and screwed that up royally.”

“Jack.” There was gentle reproach in Daniel’s tone.

“I’m full stride in middle age. Raising kids is for young folks. I’m happy to be good ol’ Uncle Jack, who spoils her rotten and sends her back home to her mom. I think she’s okay with that, too.”

Daniel sat up and looked deeply into his eyes.

“At any rate, Danielle’s only been alive for a handful of years herself,” Jack continued, moving his hand to his lover’s cheek. “She’s got the memories of a lifetime that wasn’t hers, and since the day she was made she’s been making new ones of a life that isn’t this one.” He patted that stubbly cheek. “And this one is the one I want to share. Not one of the others has that.”

“Jack.”

This time, the tone and the look said, Thank you. I love you. We’ll work it out.

“You stayin’ over?”

“I can’t. General Waring’s gonna be pissed enough that I sneaked off the base.” He leaned in for a kiss, and then headed for the door.

“Zazz, your ride is leaving,” Jack called into the den.

He followed her back to the front door and locked it behind her, then trudged wearily back to try again for a good night’s sleep.

***

May 17, 2005

The Next Day

Jack escorted the bearded man to the interview room, a pair of SFs in their wake.

This was his final debrief of the day. Other interviews were being conducted by assigned officers in every empty room on the base. All the chairs and tables had been borrowed from the commissary to get this done.

The androids had been first and easiest, most of them having been made in the last three years. As far as they could tell, none of them had been tampered with or experimented upon; just constructed and sent to the Lion’s Den. There were a few exceptions, of course, sent to serve as entertainment for Maahes’ hunts.

They were saving the alternate universe guys for last, to be debriefed by a team of senior officers.

This guy was first on the list of the clones.

The man wheeled up to the table and waited while Jack futzed with the camera. Each interview was to be recorded, and a standard list of questions had been prepared. By now, Jack knew them by heart.

“Before you turn that on,” Beard said quietly, “I wanted to have a word off the record.”

“Yah, okay. Sure. Youbetcha.” Jack took a seat in the chair on the other side of the table. “What’s on your mind?”

“If you check the back of every double’s head, you’ll find a small tattoo, hidden in their hair.”

A shiver of apprehension ran up Jack’s spine. “Okay. So?”

The man looked troubled. “I’m the only one who doesn’t have one.”

A lump formed in O’Neill’s stomach, cold and hard. “And?”

“Because I’m Daniel Jackson. Your Daniel. The first. The original.”

“You all have the same memories. Why should I believe you? Maybe you came from one of those other universes.”

“I don’t have a collar, Jack.”

“Okay, so you don’t have a tattoo. Maybe you are the real Daniel Jackson. If you are…”

“What difference does it make?” Beard finished for him. He nodded. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that myself for the last day. When I got here, I thought, ‘hey, I’ll just prove who I am and they’ll let me have my life back.’ But I’m starting to realize now… that’s not gonna happen. You’ve actually known this guy twice as long as you’ve known me. Not including the year in Abydos, of course.”

Jack dropped his gaze to the table, taking note of the scratches and dents in the lacquered wood surface, his mind turning that idea over and over.

“And?”

“I’ve been watching him, this Daniel.” Beard’s fingers curled into loose fists. “He’s a good man, isn’t he?”

“Yes. The best. Went all glowy a while ago. Ascended to a higher plane… right after saving a whole planet. By himself.”

“You trust him.”

“With my life.”

Jack risked meeting Beard’s eyes, and he knew instantly that the man saw straight into his core.

“Oh, that’s a surprise. You also trust him with your heart.”

“That’s kind of personal.” Jack was a little nonplussed that he’d become so transparent. He was going to have to work on his obfustication tactics.

Beard smiled, his eyes crinkling up at the corners. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.” He nodded.

Then the humor faded. “I would like to have some part of my life back,” he continued softly. “If it makes things too complicated, I’ll find somewhere else, but I’d prefer to be here. There are, however, conditions.”

“Such as?”

Here it comes, Jack thought. His Daniel would never do emotional blackmail.

“He can never know he’s a clone. Make him keep his hair longer to keep that tattoo from showing.”

Jack sat back in his chair, stunned by that declaration.

“You can never tell anyone else, either. This stays between you and me.”

A rush of warmth flooded Jack’s heart.

“Anything else… Daniel?”

The man covered O’Neill’s hand with his, gave it a little squeeze.

“Thank you, Jack. That’s enough.”

He sat back in his chair and heaved a heavy, relieved sigh. “Okay, you can turn the camera on.”

Jack stood up, looking for the button on the camera.

“Oh, wait, wait!” Daniel blurted. “I need a cover story.”

“Huh?”

“We were on that world where Hathor’s Jaffa ambushed us. I was hit by a staff blast in the leg. When I woke up in the cryochamber on the ship, they’d amputated what was left of my leg. I’m pretty sure that was the source material for making all the clones. I need my story to mesh with everyone else’s, if I’m going to pretend I’m a clone.”

“Do the others know that?”

Daniel shook his head. “No. I didn’t tell anyone, but they call me First sometimes because I was the first one in the prison. Everyone else came after. I guess Hathor’s people decided to use a clone to replace me in the field so they’d have the original DNA source handy, in case they ran out.”

He bowed his head, rubbing his forehead with his fingers. “Jeez. So many of us, Jack! What a mess I’ve made of things.”

“Not you, Daniel. Hathor, Rati, Maahes… who knows how many other Goa’uld megalomaniacs bought into this wack-o plan, but you were just an innocent bystander. Don’t blame yourself for any of it, okay?”

“I’ll work on it.”

“About that other thing… Just tell the camera you woke up in a lab and they sent you to the Hadante Ritz by ship or Stargate. That’s pretty much what all the others are sayin’.”

Jack frowned at the camera and pushed a button.

Nothing happened.

“So. You gonna keep that beard?”

The next button he tried made the red light come on.

***

May 23, 2005

One Week Later

Delta Site

Daniel took a deep breath of fresh air and let it out on a satisfactory sigh. “It’s good to be outside,” he observed. “Even better that that damned travel ban has been lifted. So ready to get out and start doing things again!”

He kept his pace slow so the guy at his side could keep up with him comfortably.

The man with the cane had normal color again and had put on a little much-needed weight. His recovery would be slow, but with good medical care, sunshine and the promise of a new, productive life, Daniel had every confidence that the man who looked so much like him would finally heal.

He’d even been fitted with a temporary prosthetic leg, rather than that makeshift wooden peg.

“Nice to see the sky.” The other man lifted his face upward, coming to a stop and just watching the clouds.

“Jack said you’ve asked for a spot on the academic team at the SGC.” He studied the twin’s profile, struggling to find a way to connect with this one. “I look forward to working with you.”

He made a noncommittal sound and started walking again, keeping his eyes ahead, above, below, looking everywhere except at the man by his side.

Daniel sighed. “I heard one of the androids is going to be a permanent diplomatic fixture on the new Gadmeer homeworld. Since he doesn’t…well, breathe… he’ll be a perfect interface. Their terraforming is done and they’ve made a lot of progress rebuilding their culture over the last four years.”

The other man nodded and said nothing.

“Most of the others are going to Harlan’s new planet, which they’ve named…” He grinned. “…wait for it… Comtrya!” He clapped the hand sign that always went with Harlan’s joyous greeting.

Finally, the other man smiled behind his beard.

“They’re sending their Sam through soon to make a report on their discoveries. You and I will both be included in the meeting.”

“Good.”

Daniel sighed, at war with himself as to whether he should keep trying to cross the chasm between them, or just accept that this guy would never be comfortable in his presence.

He took note of the other clones, all dressed in BDUs, making themselves useful at the camp.

Quonset huts were still going up around the graceful ruins of an Ancient outpost. A small lumber mill was set up to provide timber and planks for support structures for additional buildings. The ruins would serve as temporary headquarters until a more permanent office building could be put up, with a small team of academics maintaining the integrity of the interior walls and studying the inscriptions during the construction phase.

There were plenty of jobs here, both to make this place habitable and explore potential natural food sources, and to do research. Daniel thought he could be happy here, for a while at least, and it should work for the others as well.

Being here would be good for them. They needed time outdoors, using their hands and minds, being useful and cementing the idea into their minds that they were free.

As the others in the infirmary healed, they would also be relocated here to recover and resume fruitful lives.

In time, they would choose different paths into their own individual futures.

“One of the… um, transplants… is going to be permanently stationed on Gambler’s World, along with a couple of the androids. That’ll keep ‘em busy for a while.” Daniel cleared his throat. “Teal’c’s Jaffa and the Tok’ra are spreading the word that, if any more of us are found out there, to take them to the Stag Pub for a reward. Hopefully that way, we’ll be able to ensure they go to a safe place.”

“And the other… transplants?”

“Only a few decided to go to the mirror planet and try to find their universes. The rest like it here.” Daniel noted a couple of them, mesh collars showing above their uniforms.

“They could tell us a lot, I’m sure, but I don’t want to force them and they haven’t been very forthcoming with details. Maybe in time they’ll be willing to share information on some of the important events yet to come.”

“And meanwhile, the rest of those stabilization devices go to Area Fifty-one for research. Which means… storage.” The other man scratched at his beard and shook his head with a sigh. “So many lost opportunities along the way, leads never followed up. Maybe with more of us available, we might be able to pursue a lot of that.”

“Like?” Daniel was interested. The man was talking now, and his tone of voice no longer had that angry edge to it.

“The planet with the crystal skull where we left Nick. That nifty phase-shifting device could be useful to the Tok’ra for spying. It’s a better long-range communication device than a vo’cume. When Nick passed away, we should’ve sent a team back there. ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ We can use all the allies we can get out here.”

“General Waring’s already working on that, but I like the way you think.”

“I’ve been making a list of past discoveries that deserve further study. That alone could keep all of us busy for years to come, and we’ve barely scratched the surface on seeing what’s out there. I may not be up to going out in the field again, but the work to be done is just… staggering!”

The bearded man’s building excitement was infectious.

They tossed around a few more ideas before Daniel finally stopped him, breathless with possibility. “We need to have this discussion when I can make notes, but I think… Well. Wow!”

“Agreed. We have a lot to do yet.”

For a moment, they just studied each other, cogs whirling behind both their eyes.

Daniel sobered, bringing himself back to the reason he’d asked this man to take a walk with him.

“Look, I know you and I have a lot of things to work out between us.” He took a breath and let it out, careful not to break that eye contact. “I wanted to let you know that I intend to change my name, and I wanted to work out with you our relationship with Jack.”

The other man was obviously startled. “What did he tell you?”

Now Daniel was surprised. “Nothing. What did he tell you?”

Astonishment changed to suspicion. The other man’s eyes narrowed.

“I know who you are,” Daniel admitted. He glanced down at the other man’s prosthesis. “I remember getting shot with a staff blast just below the knee when Hathor’s Jaffa captured the team. And I remember waking up in that cryochamber with a whole leg. It took me a little while to put the pieces back together. A little longer to… accept it was true, but I know what I am. You’re the only one who deserves to be called Daniel Jackson. So I’m changing my name to North.”

He remembered the entry in Jack’s journal the night he’d ascended. Jack had called Daniel his moral center, the heart and conscience of SG-1. No one else would understand his choice for a name, but it made sense to him, and would to Jack as well.

The bearded man’s brows scrunched. “North Jackson? Sounds… weird.”

“Daniel North. No Jackson at all. That’s your name.” He smiled, full of hope that this gesture might help to bridge that chasm between them.

“Thank you, North.” The real Daniel Jackson limped toward the nearest building, obviously ready for a rest.

The clone shrugged. “Gonna go by North, just Daniel for paperwork.”

“And Jack?”

“He’s your best friend, right? You guys will need time together to rebuild your relationship. I want you to have that, but I’m also officially staking my claim—“

“No need, brother,” Daniel chuckled, clapping his twin on the shoulder. “Maybe they tweaked your orientation a little. You and I don’t share that attraction. Frankly, it surprised the hell out of me that Jack does.”

North laughed and shook his head. “It doesn’t make sense to us, either. I still find myself admiring a curvy waist, cleavage, a nice pair of long legs…” He sighed, quelling the images of some of the nurses he’d ogled on the base recently. “Yeah. It’s just Jack, not men in general. We… get each other. I dunno how to explain it.”

Anam cara,” Daniel offered.

Friend of my soul,” North translated, nodding. “Yeah. Soul mates.”

After another thoughtful pause, Daniel turned to him with a quizzical look. “So… who gets the house? I like that house.”

“Well, fuck! I hadn’t thought of that.” North sighed as he considered, and then made a quick decision. “Okay, your name is on the title, so it’s yours. Maybe Jack will let me move in with him. Or I suppose I could rent a place. Tzatzil would need a room of her own, though…”

“Yeah, what’s the story with her? How’d she come to be glued to your hip?”

Daniel opened the door to the barracks and told his twin the story of saving the Tuatha de Dannan queen, grateful for the bridge he felt building between the man who had started the journey through the Stargate, whose life, memories and intellect he had shared for the six years he’d been alive.

Today was a good day, and there promised to be a lot more of those in their future.

FIN

On to the Next Story: Red Notebooks

Chapter Text

May 24, 2005

The Next Day

Ready Room, SGC

Daniel Jackson took his place at the briefing table, the clone North on his left, alternate universe transplant Jackson Snow on his right. The rest of SG-0 took up the other chairs, with General March Waring at the head of the table.

It felt strange to be back here, after so many years in a Goa’uld prison.

The General called the meeting to attention. “As most of you know, SG-Zero conducted a mission several months ago to Gambler’s World. When the team left, there were eight members. When they returned, there were only seven, and none of those who went to Gambler’s World returned to Earth with a single memory of Major Jarod Carter.”

Daniel frowned at North. “You mean, Doctor Jarod Carter? My friend from the dig in the Yucatan?”

The clone nodded.

“That’s interesting,” Daniel murmured, puzzling over the idea, sorting through flashes of events and conversations that had occurred during the excavation. “Memory tampering?”

Waring nodded. “Even those of us in the audience were affected. We have no clear recollections of the game itself or what happened afterward, aside from blowing off some steam at a local pub. I clearly remember my emotions as I watched the game and there are flashes, bits and pieces of the events, but not enough to recall how the game was played. Even the presentation of the prize itself is… fuzzy.”

“What happens in Vegas…” Jack quipped, shrugging.

North blushed and hung his head.

“Doctor Jones has been investigating this enigmatic Jarod Carter,” Waring continued. “She’s been keeping me up to date as the inquiries were made, and is now ready with a full report for the team. Maybe hearing the details will jog some memories.”

Pacifica stood, cued up the slide show on her laptop and moved the images to the large monitor on the wall. “First off, I want to say that no one should feel bad about not realizing this guy’s credentials weren’t genuine. No one who has looked at them has been able to tell they were fakes, not until we went line by line through the computer code in the various security databases that show exactly when the insertions were made. Carter certainly knows his programming.”

She pulled up the military identification record and scrolled through the list of credentials. “I backtracked through where he’s been. Before he appeared here at the base for field training – and the orders that sent him here were faked, by the way – he was at Area Fifty-One for two years. He had access to and was instrumental in research on a number of Ma’chello’s inventions. Pieces that had stumped our scientists, this guy figured out how to work.”

Daniel felt the slightest flush of pride in his friend’s accomplishments, but quickly shuttled that away. He obviously didn’t really know the man. His successes might not be a good thing.

“Before that,” Pacifica continued, “he was at the Pentagon, serving as an aide for one of the joint chiefs, but under a different name.” She shook her head. “Doctor Eppes and Agent Barrett in the NID ran a facial recognition program through various identification databases and found over a hundred different records with the same face.”

She put up the list of official state ID cards from across the nation, scrolling all the way through to the bottom. “Most of these records were removed not long after they were created, but Charlie developed an algorithm that would search for and recreate deleted records stored on national servers, and here they are.”

“Holy… buckets!” Daniel whispered.

North and Snow chimed in simultaneously.

“Who is this guy?” Colonel Moon Standing demanded. “Some kind of criminal? A spook, maybe?”

“That’s actually an interesting story.” Pacifica put up the photograph of a featureless tan building with tall central towers. “This is what has taken me so long to crack, but I finally found someone who could tell me the story.”

She showed a picture of a thin, balding man who looked rather frightened. “This is Mister Broots. He worked for an organization called The Centre years ago. They were active mostly during the period between the first mission to Abydos and the creation of the SGC, continuing until early two thousand one. They operated kind of like The Trust, outside the government but often utilized by it to fulfill certain contracts. They had at their disposal some of the brightest minds in the world, and this Jarod guy was one of them.”

“Research and development?” asked Dr. Song Wintersmith. “Do we know what projects he worked on?”

Pax’s expression turned grim. “The geniuses they had at their disposal were kidnapped as children, raised by psychologists and shrinks to produce answers. Our friend Jarod spent three decades as a slave in that place before he escaped.”

A few people swore in disbelief and horror.

Daniel was shocked, but the news explained a lot. When they’d worked together on the dig, Jarod’s technical knowledge had been amazing, but his understanding of people and relationships had been quite child-like and innocent. Now he understood why.

“He spent a few years on the run from The Centre, but finally found a way to shut it down and free the other inhabitants. “ She turned to Song. “Mister Broots did provide a partial list of projects Jarod worked on… as well as how old he was when he did the work…”

Her eyes misted. She shook her head. It took her a moment to continue. “Let’s just say that he’s done things under tremendous duress that Broots said Jarod regretted once he understood the full measure of what he’d helped to do. There were incidences of significant loss of life, and he wasn’t allowed to turn any project down. That can do bad things to a person’s psyche.”

Daniel frowned at her. “That doesn’t make him a bad person,” he argued. “Jarod’s heart was always in the right place. He was always very keen on helping the downtrodden.”

North agreed, nodding. “Maybe someone kidnapped him from Gamblers’ World, just like they did me. Bottom line is, we don’t know why he didn’t come back with us. Let’s not lay blame on him until we can prove definitively that he chose not to come back, and also, who made us forget he was ever with us, and what motivated them to do that.”

Daniel glanced at the alternate universe twin, who was mysteriously silent on the matter.

Pax sighed. “Agent Barrett is still following up on the potential impact to national security; however, I’ve been concentrating on the effect of projects directly relating to Stargate Command.”

A photo of four alien machines appeared on the screen.

“These are some of the research projects at Area Fifty-one that Jarod worked on. All of them were Ma’chello’s inventions.” She eyed Daniel. “Some of them Doctor Jackson is already familiar with, like the body switcher and the de-Gou’alding bug.”

“The body switcher, yes,” Daniel corrected. He turned to North with questioning eyebrows.

I got the bug and ended up in a padded room for a while,” he admitted with a scowl. “It had adverse effects on people not hosting a symbiote.”

Jack mouthed, Sorry.

“Gonna say I’m glad I missed that.” Daniel nodded at Pax to continue.

“We now have a personal cloaking device, probably similar the one Nirrti and her assassin used.”

She changed the picture to a small round disc about three feet wide and a handful of small balls with caltrop-like spikes. “Here we have an anti-gravity device on which a person can stand and actually fly through the air… and these babies are like flash grenades. When they go off, they do no physical damage to the environment, but any living thing will be completely stunned for up to three minutes.”

Turning back to her audience, she declared, “These things had been sitting in storage until Jarod dug them out. After five years, no one here could make them work, but he did, and completed the reverse engineering. We’re now putting them into production, and should have working prototypes in about six months for testing at the Delta Site.”

Waring pondered that, staring at his tablet, pen spinning around his thumb. “I can see utilizing a combination of those devices in field exploration. A first contact team could fly great distances on the discs while invisible to the naked eye, and if they get into trouble, use the flash grenades to get out of it. This is good news.”

“I think he’s on our side,” North observed, staring at the table. “I think he’s out there trying to help us.”

Dr. Jones nodded in agreement. “Sir, I also checked on every electronic file Jarod accessed while he was here on base and at Area Fifty-One. He was very interested in the Argosian and Orbanian nanites. Both had two very different purposes, but were similar in form.” She hesitated. “He also accessed the data on the kiron disruptor Colonel O’Neill constructed with Thor, both before and after the Replicators tampered with it. There’s a pattern here.”

“What do you think he’s up to, Doctor?”

She shook her head. “I have no idea, but maybe it’s worth a visit to the Orbans to see if he’s been there recently. If I were him, I’d have wanted specifics and a sample of those things.”

Waring nodded. “I’ll assign SG-Zero to that, and if Jarod hasn’t been there yet, ask that they hold him for us if he does come for a visit.” He stared at the screen. “I must say, this man’s story is disturbing, to say the least. I believe he deserves the benefit of the doubt until we can verify his motives and the end result of whatever he’s doing out there. Let’s find him, people.”

Daniel stayed at the table making notes while the others filed out of the room.

This was a mission he was going to have to read up on, because he hadn’t a clue how the Orbans had used nanites, or what they might have in common with the ones Pelops had used to prematurely age the inhabitants of Argos – and Jack O’Neill – or what either of those might have to do with Replicators.

He had a lot of mission reports to catch up on, and would be doing more reading than research for the next little while.

When he returned to his office, however, a package had been delivered in the daily mail. This one had been X-rayed and opened for security purposes. He never minded that, especially since this one was highly suspicious. Inside the loose wrappings was a silver Halliburton suitcase, and contained within that was a small machine with a built-in TV screen, plus a set of small round silver discs, half the size of a regular CD.

He put one of the discs into the reader and saw a black and white movie begin to play. A man with a Belgian accent started the camera and introduced the subject, a little boy named Jarod, who had built a scale replica of the Empire State Building out of Legos in an astonishing few hours. As Daniel watched and listened, he began to understand the depth of the depravity and inhumanity of the people who had held his friend captive, and wondered how the man had come out of that experience with his soul intact.

Then again… maybe he hadn’t.

***

May 25, 2005

The Next Day

North stood on the ramp with Colonel Standing on one side and Jack at the other, Tzatzil and the twins at his back, Dr. Jones and Xiphia at the rear. It felt like ages since the team had gone out together, and he was eager to get started. As soon as the event horizon had settled and General Waring gave the order, they trudged up the ramp in their diplomat gear – sidearms strapped to hips and discreetly hidden under their stylish black jackets – and out on the other side on another world.

The Orbans had moved their Stargate out of the ancient temple and into a new, secure facility. Armed guards watched for their arrival behind transparent shields that protected them. The room was dome-shaped, with an observation deck a level above the ‘gate.

North noted the presence of a manual iris control housed in a transparent box with a palm-scanner lock on a pedestal beside the base.

They had, indeed, learned a lot from the Tau’ri of Earth.

Kalen stood in the greeting area.

At his side was Narim of the Tollan.

North provided the introductions to his new team, as well as explanations for the two missing members of SG-1 as well as the changes in Jack’s rank and North’s name.

“I didn’t realize you two knew each other,” North noted, giving himself an internal head-slap as he regarded their Tollan friend. “I’d never have thought about Orban as a new home for your people. How’s it working out?”

Narim smiled. “Very well for all of us.” He glanced at Kalen, who gave a polite bow, with the Orban gestures of welcome: hands up, palm out, and then fingertips touching the forehead as he bowed.

“We are all adjusting splendidly,” the blonde man intoned. He seemed more sedate than the last time North – or rather, Daniel – had seen him, but more animated than the first few times they’d met. Marron’s imprint on Orban society was everywhere.

Jack asked about the girl.

“She is a noted artist now,” Kalen announced with pride. He gestured downward, directing their eyes to the mural on the floor.

It was a field of flowers with a stick figure of a blonde woman in the lower right corner.

“I have that picture framed in my office,” Jack observed with a soft, memory-lit smile. “Could I visit with her?”

Kalen nodded. “You remember the way to the Urron Care Facility?”

Jack took a step away, then glanced at his commander for permission.

“Of course, Jack. Give her my love.” North gazed at his sweetheart fondly and sent the twins with him.

Kalen and Narim led the way to a meeting room that looked much like the SGC’s ready room, except with beautiful décor including plants and flowers.

“So how did your two peoples meet?” asked Moon as she took her seat at North’s right.

Tzatzil stood at parade rest behind his chair.

Xiphia and Pacifica surrounded him, with Kalen at the far end of the table and Narim to his right.

“We have a mutual friend,” Kalen answered with a smile. “He met Narim on the place you called Gambler’s World and suggested our people talk. When we did, we were quite surprised to find we have common roots.”

North’s eyebrows went up. “Really? I’d love to hear about that.”

Moon elbowed him, reminding him they had come for another purpose.

“But I’ve actually come to ask if you might’ve seen or heard from this man.” He pulled a copy of Jarod’s ID photo out of his jacket pocket and handed it to Tzatzil to deliver. “His name is Jarod…” Then he realized he had no idea what the man’s last name actually was.

Narim’s face shifted with recognition. “Yes, I met this man on Gambler’s World. He was a part of your team, was he not?”

“When we returned to Earth, we had no memory of him,” North explained. “You can imagine why this might cause us some concern.”

“I do, indeed.” Narim handed the photo to Kalen. “That was none of our doing, I can promise you.”

“What has this Jarod fellow done, that you wish to find him?” asked Kalen.

“We aren’t sure. We don’t know if he did this to us, or if someone’s taken him and wiped our memories…” North shrugged. “We have a lot of unanswered questions. If you can help us find him, that would be a good start. Have any of you seen him since the contest?” He looked pointedly at Narim.

Instantly, the Tollan’s eyes hooded, tucking the truth away.

Moon leaned forward. “Is he here now?”

Obviously, she’d seen that subtle attempt at concealment, too.

Kalen gave his Tollan partner a measured gaze, and then answered. “You must understand, Jarod has done the Orbans and the Tollans a great service by reconnecting us after our long separation. You see, both of our people once were, as you suggested, Doctor North, from Earth. We were taken from there and transplanted on two different worlds by a race of alien giants called Omeyocan, as a means to save us from the Goa’uld.”

That rang a bell. Those were the people who created the crystal skulls, whom his grandfather had gone to study and among whom Nick Ballard had died. “’The enemy of my enemy’—“ he quoted.

“—is my friend’,” Narim finished for him, smiling and nodding. “Exactly. Not only have the Tollans found safe haven with the Orbans, but we have also found our kin.”

The two men exchanged soft smiles of acknowledgment.

North considered the newest pieces of the puzzle before him. This was an example of yet another missed opportunity for the expansion of human knowledge and wished he’d pressed harder for a team to go to P7X-377 to continue where Nick’s studies had left off. He’d rectify that as soon as he returned to Earth.

“So have you seen Jarod or not?” Colonel Standing demanded, a note of irritation in her tone.

Kalen hesitated with a sidelong glance at Narim, who finally nodded. “Yes, he came here a few weeks ago to obtain samples of the learning nanites we use and to provide us with data on those used by the Goa’uld Pelops on Argos. He had some… interesting ideas for them.”

North studied the unspoken communication between the two men.

“Which you don’t plan to share with us,” he guessed.

Narim met his gaze frankly. “If what he proposes is possible, everyone will benefit. We are currently assisting him with his research.”

“So he’s here?” Moon was flabbergasted.

“No, not at this time.”

“Let’s try this again,” Dr. Jones suggested. “To the best of your knowledge, was Jarod kidnapped on Gambler’s World?”

Narim shook his head. “No, he was not. He left of his own free will.”

Pax nodded. “Okay, thank you. Who tampered with the team’s memories so they wouldn’t remember him? Was it Jarod, or someone else?”

“Not Jarod.”

“Who, then?”

“I am not at liberty to say.”

Kalen stood up. “I am sorry we cannot assist you further with this inquiry. Would you like to extend your visit to see how we have developed over the last five years, Doctor North?”

Moon eyed her commander, wordlessly asking if they should stay or go.

Curiosity won out. North was always ready to learn and these people had obviously been developing at an accelerated rate, no doubt due to Tollan influence. He was dying to see how this world and these people had changed. They had hours yet before the scheduled time to report back to the base.

“Let’s go on the grand tour,” he agreed with a tight smile.

***

May 26, 2005

The Next Day

“There’s been an accident” is a phrase no one wants to hear in the wee hours of morning, especially not when followed by, “You need to get to the ‘gate room as fast as you can.”

Daniel hurried into clothes, grabbed his cane and limped at full speed to the nearest elevator. He hadn’t bothered combing his hair and did the best he could with his fingers.

Colonel Reynolds was on night duty and greeted him in the control room, his expression grim.

“What happened?” Daniel asked, rubbing sleep from his eyes, glasses hanging on the collar of his black T-shirt.

“We got a radio transmission from Delta,” Albert answered. “Sorry to wake you, but I thought you’d want to know right away.”

He pushed a button on the control computer and spoke into the microphone. “Go ahead, Delta. Doctor Jackson is here.”

Daniel saw a face he recognized on the monitor above his head, but couldn’t put a name to the soldier’s face at first.

Not until he spoke. “Doctor Jackson, I’m sorry to report there was an accident here a few hours ago. One of your clones…”

Daniel’s heart sank.

“I believe he was Number Fifteen, Louis.”

The blind one, he remembered. Delta Command had been concerned about having a handicapped person on such a wild world, but Louis had insisted he be allowed to stay with his brothers. He was supposed to have had a safe, indoor job, nothing that would put him at risk.

Colonel Eastman’s face reflected his anguish. “A huge tree fell over on one of the buildings during the night. Took the power out completely. We were searching for the injured in the dark. Louis could get around better than the rest of us.”

He bowed his head and huffed a small sob, recovered what he could of his bearing and lifted his head with pride gleaming in his eyes. “He found every missing man and woman, Doctor Jackson, but just as he was pulling the last one out, the roof gave way and…”

Eastman struggled, blinking back tears.

Daniel knew already what the officer was going to say.

A look of wonder softened the Colonel’s grief as drops streaked unheeded down his cheeks. “It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw. He became… light.”

Okay, that was a bit of a surprise.

The soldier wiped his face on the sleeve of his BDUs and sniffed. “Louis was stuck under the framework and the tree for several hours before he…”

“…Ascended,” Daniel finished for him.

Eastman nodded. “There’s no body to bury, sir. I just.” He sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know how to proceed. Should there be a memorial?”

“I think that would be appropriate, Colonel,” Daniel returned, grief roughening his voice. “I’ll pass the word here and we’ll send our people through later on today. Need any help with the cleanup?”

“As many hands as you can spare,” Eastman answered. “Medical personnel, too.” He cleared his throat and stood very straight. “You have my personal and sincere condolences, Doctor. Sorry to wake you for such bad news.”

“Thank you, Colonel. We’ll see you soon.” He stepped back from the console.

Reynolds ended the transmission and held out his hand to Daniel. “I’m very sorry for your loss. Anything you need, you let me know and I’ll see it done.”

Daniel nodded and shook his hand.

He padded barefoot to Jackson Snow’s base quarters to spread the news.

They’d call North together in a little while.

***

May 26, 2005

Delta Base

“It always feels weird going through the Stargate in a suit,” Daniel observed, straightening his tie. He glanced at the tree-lined terrain that looked so much like the Pacific Northwest, and shot a glance at the gray sky above. It didn’t look like rain, thankfully; just a bit overcast.

North, too, was dressed up. Since he’d divided his wardrobe with Daniel, he’d needed a new one anyway. “I’ve done it quite a few times,” he admitted, straightening his glasses, “but you’re right. I always feel kind of naked without a sidearm and all the gear.”

Jackson Snow remained silent, hanging back a little. His employment paperwork and new IDs hadn’t come through yet, so he was making do with the freebies he’d been given. He wore his base jumpsuit because he had nothing else.

Daniel made a mental note to take the man shopping, feeling guilty that he hadn’t done it already.

The newcomer had been at the SGC for two months now and was still living like a refugee. Snow kept to himself when he wasn’t working, and didn’t talk much except to give reports or ask pertinent questions during meetings. They knew a little about the man’s other universe, but not much.

“You okay, Snow?” he asked as he leaned on his cane, waiting for the double to reach him. “And don’t say ‘I’m fine.’”

That got a flash of a little smile. “Still sorting through the grief I was already carrying. Not sure if I should be happy for Louis that he’s whole on another plane, or wrecked that another one of us is… gone.”

North waited for them to catch up to him and eased a little in front of them to block their way. He was grimacing, obviously uncomfortable. “Um… guys.”

Nodding at Tzatzil, he silently requested a little space for private conversation.

She moved away far enough that she couldn’t hear them and waited for them to join her as other mourners from the base streamed past them and continued on to the small burial ground on the far side of the camp.

When they were alone, North spoke softly. “I had a dream before the call came through this morning. Maybe a vision, because I think I was already awake.”

From the acknowledging look on Snow’s face, Daniel guessed the other man had, too. There had been only the tiniest flicker of surprise in the AU man’s eyes when Daniel had given him the news, as if he’d already known someone had died.

“It was like watching myself from a distance,” North went on uneasily. “I was in this Fifties diner, and the waitress—“

“—was Oma Desala,” Snow finished. “I saw it, too.”

Daniel felt a little unnerved. “How come I didn’t see it?”

The other two glanced at each other.

North shrugged. “Maybe because you haven’t ascended. I don’t know. But I don’t think Anubis is going to be a problem anymore.”

“Because?” Daniel crossed his arms.

Snow answered. “Because Oma was the one who helped him ascend. The Daniel we lost yesterday… he convinced her to take responsibility for that.”

Shock followed by elation blossomed inside Daniel. “That’s… wow!”

“There are still some strong Goa’ulds out there,” Snow reminded him, “but the majority have been deposed and are on the run. Their time is limited, and with zero population growth, that’s going to make the Jaffa’s need for Tretonin even more massive in a very short period of time. But if there are no more Goa’uld to make the Tretonin from…” His expression was grim.

“Then the Jaffa will die off, too,” Daniel finished for him. “And fast. Just a few years, maybe.”

“I don’t suppose the people in your universe found a solution for that?” asked North hopefully.

Snow shook his head.

With his mood even darker now, Daniel fell in with his doubles and headed for the memorial service with Tzatzil in tow, watching all their backs on this alien world.

***

The Stargate spun up and flushed sideways as every SF stationed around the perimeter took ready positions to defend the site.

A single Jaffa stepped through, no armor or weapons in sight. He was easily Teal’c’s size, if not bigger, obviously of Native American descent. The man wore simple black robes embellished with tiny iridescent feathers and a wide black leather belt clasped with an ornate buckle. His handsome face was lined with age, a gleaming golden emblem embedded into his forehead. Long salt and pepper hair hung down to his waist, decorated with a small bonnet of brightly colored feathers and intricately woven beads. Gold bracelets ringed his wrists and ankles, a heavy jeweled necklace discreetly tucked into his robes.

All he carried with him was a small, slender book covered in red cloth.

The mourners had been preparing to return to Earth following the memorial service, and had taken cover behind a trinium-reinforced stone wall built to shield the DHD.

The Jaffa bowed deeply. “I bring the Tau’ri greetings from Nacaxoc and Jarod Carter. Who will receive my message?”

North glanced at Daniel and Jackson Snow.

This was a new lead on the mysterious man.

“We need to talk to this guy,” North whispered to the base CO.

Colonel Eastman peered over the top of the wall at the newcomer. “Will you submit to a search?”

The man held his arms out at his side. “I will.”

One of the soldiers handed off his P-90 to the man next to him and went to frisk the newcomer. “He’s clean,” he reported, and resumed his post.

Eastman stepped out from behind the shield and introduced himself. “What’s your name, sir?”

“I am Santana, former First Prime of Tezcatlipoca.” He bowed again.

Moving as one, North, Daniel and Mizuyaki hurried out from behind the protective wall to greet him.

North felt Tzatzil grasp for his jacket sleeve but slipped out of her clutches, hurrying forward with a welcoming smile.

He remembered this man from Gambler’s World. Though they hadn’t actually spoken, North recalled seeing this fellow at a banquet table, his face filled with shocked surprise as his god received the necklace that had set his host free. That was one of the memories he had trouble holding onto, but he knew it was important. This was a First Prime, the most important position for a Jaffa in a Goa’uld’s court, but he had clearly declared himself a follower of Nacaxoc, not Tezcatlipoca, just now.

North was intrigued. “Hi, I’m D—“ He caught himself just in time to stop saying his old name. “I’m North. Welcome to the Delta Site. How did you find us here?”

Tzatzil tucked up close to his left side. He could feel the might of her frown as she glared at him, and did his best to ignore her presence.

Santana held out the little book. “Jarod Carter dialed this place for me, hoping you would not yet have an iris on this chappa’ai. He sends you fond greetings.”

North took a moment to flip through the book, which was filled with notations and drawings in Jarod’s hand. “What is this? And why didn’t Jarod come himself?”

“Because your people would put him in prison,” the Jaffa answered with a wry smile, “and that would do my people no good. It is in all our best interests that he continue to do his work, friend North. Please do not look for him. He will contact you when all is in readiness.”

“Readiness for what?” North demanded, eaten up with curiosity as he scanned notes on Orban nanite programming and construction. “What’s he working on that’s so important?” He leaned in close, where only the other man could hear him. “And how can I help?”

A smile spread slowly across the elder’s face. “You are wise to trust your friend, North. Be patient and you will soon understand.”

He bowed deeply. “May I now return to Nacaxoc?”

“Wait, is that where Jarod is?”

Santana laughed and shook his head, feathers flashing in a ray of sunshine breaking through the clouds. “No, he is not with us. Perhaps you should consult the Asgard. They are the ones who sent this message to us to deliver here to you.”

North stared at the writing, willing the information to make sense in his head. Finally, he closed the book with a sigh. “Let me introduce you to Colonel Eastman. He may have some questions for you before you go home. You have my word that you’ll be treated well.”

The elder canted his head slightly in acquiescence and followed North and his bodyguard to the wall.

***

May 27, 2005

The Next Day

Daniel hung up the phone and sat silently for a moment, staring at the tablet where he’d written down the attorney’s phone number.

He felt a little gray and light-headed, his heart aching.

Two phone calls later, he sat waiting for his twins and thinking.

“Thank you for coming,” he intoned formally as the two men took their seats. His eyes prickled with unshed tears. “I just got a call from woman named Sabrina Gosling… She’s Catherine Langford’s niece. Catherine and Ernest Littlefield both passed away last night.”

A soft cry of anguished surprise slipped out of North, who dropped his gaze and turned slightly away. “I just had dinner with them two weeks ago. They were fine! What happened?”

“Looks like natural causes at this point. No indication of foul play.”

Snow’s expression hadn’t changed. “I didn’t know her, really, except through Ernest.”

“You rescued him in your timeline?” Daniel asked. He would never forget the meeting place of the Four Races and that amazing translation device. He’d have given anything to be able to stay and study it. If only the building hadn’t crumbled into the sea…

Snow nodded. “He and I spent a couple of years there, studying the translator. It’s where I became fluent in the languages of the Four Races.”

North squinted at him. “Wait, can you speak Furling?”

The man in the collar nodded.

“That’s a discussion for another time,” Daniel interjected. “What you both need to know is that I – or rather, we – have inherited both of their estates, so we’ll have quite a lot to sort out over the next few days. They didn’t have children and both considered ‘Daniel Jackson’ like a son to them.” He fixed a sad smile on the doubles. “Looks like you both have somewhere to live now.”

North got up and shoved his hands into his trouser pockets. “I’d like to speak at the funeral. When will it be?”

“Gotta wait for the Coroner’s report first.”

“Then I’d like to speak with the niece about funeral arrangements. Maybe I can help with that.” North coughed. A tear rolled down his cheek and was quickly wiped away. “I’m glad they went together. Neither one would have lasted long without the other, I’m afraid.”

Daniel tore off the page with the niece’s phone number and name and handed it over. “I wish we could all go to the funeral, but –”

“—too many unanswerable questions,” Snow finished for him. “Maybe we can each go separately to visit them?”

“I’d like that,” Daniel agreed.

North took a step toward the door and turned instead to Tzatzil, putting his arms around her. His deep sigh and sagging shoulders clearly expressed his grief.

Snow slipped quietly out of the room.

Daniel bowed his head, remembering the woman who had brought him into the Stargate program. She’d been like a doting grandmother to him. The only thing that had gotten him over his loss of The Meeting Place had been reuniting Catherine and Ernest and basking in the glow of their love for each other.

He would miss them, but they were only distant memories to Daniel, while to North they had been family.

Daniel got up and went to the other man.

A touch on the shoulder brought North’s head up, and then Daniel embraced him, whispering words of solace into his ear.

Tzatzil’s eyes were brimming over.

“Go get Jack,” Daniel murmured to her.

She did.

***

May 30, 2005

Three Days Later

It had been raining all during the funeral, but that had been its own kind of blessing. Catherine’s family hadn’t stayed long, quickly dispersing afterward. They’d been nice enough and though he didn’t really know any of them, Catherine had talked about Daniel Jackson often enough that they knew how she’d felt about him. No one contested the inheritance, especially after he’d allowed each of them to take whatever mementos they’d wanted from her estate.

Now as he walked through the big empty house with Jack at his side and Tzatzil following at a discreet distance, he allowed himself to feel the depth of the connection he’d made with her and the love of her life, Ernest Littlefield.

They were everywhere in this place, in the antiques and artifacts on display, the photos and paintings on the walls, shadows of them hovering in the rooms.

“What am I gonna do with all of this?” North asked aloud, more to himself than the others.

“Bet a lot of museums will be glad to see some of it.” Jack frowned at the wallpaper in the dining room. “Though you might wanna redecorate.”

“Or maybe just sell the place and buy something that suits me better.” He pulled the golden locket inscribed with the Eye of Ra out of his pants pocket and rubbed over the engraving with his thumb. “I need time to go through her collection of antiquities first, though. No telling what we might find in there. Maybe something important.”

They wandered into the master bedroom where the old couple had passed away.

North reached out to take Jack’s hand as they stood looking down at the bare mattress.

“If I stayed here, would you consider moving in with me? There’s room for all of us. Tzatzil could have her own wing.”

“I dunno.” Jack sized up the room with a sweeping glance. “It’s big. Even if you still had all your stuff from before you went all glowy in here, there’d still be a lot of empty house left over.”

“Yeah, you’re right. It’s too much.” He stared at the mattress. “But it was Catherine’s. I can’t just sell it. I need to do something with it. Something meaningful.”

He wandered through the mansion he’d visited so many times, remembering the dinners he’d shared there with Catherine and Earnest, the many celebrations of birthdays and holidays. She’d been like the grandmother he barely remembered, one of his dearest friends and certainly his staunchest supporter.

He leaned over the balcony outside the master bedroom, gazing down at the beautiful courtyard leading into a huge, neatly manicured lawn surrounded by a low stone wall and wrought iron fence. There was an elegant gazing pool in the shape of the letter Omega just below. The overflow went into a small pool filled with koi and water lilies.

“Cassie would love—“

He cut himself off and whirled around as an idea leaped fully formed into his mind.

There were six bedrooms upstairs in this wing, plus a library and office. Downstairs there was a big kitchen and huge dining room, a home theater, two living areas, another office, maid’s quarters…

Jack noticed his change in demeanor. “What just happened?”

“I know what to do with this place,” North blurted, filled with excitement and purpose. “Think of all the kids who’ve been orphaned as a result of what we do! I can think of eight kids off the top of my head. Kids like Cassie Fraiser.”

The idea caught in Jack’s imagination instantly. “An orphanage for SGC kids.” He nodded. “There’ll be a lot of red tape. Lots of hoops to jump through, but if General Waring can’t convince the local authorities to approve the zoning, I’ll bet the President can!”

“The bedrooms can each hold two bunks,” North rambled. “That’s four kids to a room, plus two for full time caregivers. Some of the extra rooms downstairs can even be converted. Jack, we can do this!”

“Not right away, but we know people who can help get the ball rolling.”

“And keep it rolling when we’re off world.”

“I’m sure everyone on the base will want to help with the reno. I’ll get Siler to oversee that. I can already picture him with his wrench in the basement.”

North’s heart was pounding with excitement. “The Langford/Littlefield Home. How’s that sound?”

Jack pulled his keys out of his pants pocket. “Let’s go ask Cassie what she thinks of the idea. Maybe give her a tour. Get her two cents on the planning.”

“I’ll race you to the truck.” North ran to him for a quick, passionate kiss, and then darted past him for the stairs.

***

Daniel opened the crate and stood looking down at the glowing Zero Point Module carefully packed inside it.

He checked the shipping label, made a few calls and then headed to General Waring’s office to make a report.

“You’ve no idea who carved that tablet?” the General asked, frowning at the photograph of a hieroglyphic message that had been found with the ZPM.

“No, sir, but the syntax was eerily easy to read.” Daniel leaned on his cane. “One thing I’ve learned in the last decade or so is that pretty much anything is possible, and rather than dwell too much on the provenance, we should get the ZPM to Antarctica to make sure the planet is safe.”

“Agreed. I’ll have Doctor Lee collect it from your office.” Waring handed the photo back. “You might want to have a seat, Doctor Jackson.”

Daniel’s eyebrows lifted in question as he parked himself in the guest chair.

“The Daedalus is completed now, going through her first testing runs.”

“That’s the redesigned Prometheus, right?”

“With considerable modifications.” Waring nodded. “Prometheus had alien technology sort of tacked on as an afterthought. Daedalus was designed to integrate it.” He leaned over the desk. “And when she’s ready to go, she’ll be headed for the Pegasus Galaxy. I’d like to put you or one of your duplicates on board. The three of you will decide together which one of you goes.”

Daniel gazed at his right leg, the artificial foot visible beneath his trouser leg. “Well, unless a miracle happens, it won’t be me.” He patted his knee and smiled, despair like a cold stone in his belly. “You’ll need someone fit for field duty in that role, but thank you for the opportunity, sir. I’ll let Snow know today, and North as soon as he’s back from bereavement leave.”

Waring smiled at him over the tops of his glasses. “In this place, you never know what’s possible from one minute to the next. Don’t be too sure you’re not qualified, Doctor.”

Daniel thought about that as he rose. “I’ll keep that in mind, sir.”

As he made his way down the circular staircase, he considered what an opportunity like that might mean. If he went on the Pegasus mission, he’d be the only Daniel Jackson again. That by itself was a reason to fight for the position.

He checked his chronometer when he got to the elevator. The day shift was almost over and Snow was up for night duty. They usually crossed paths just long enough to provide the other an update on latest developments, translations needing to be done, briefings on the roster and such. The double would be awake by now, either just hitting the commissary or getting dressed in the locker room.

Daniel looked several places, finally locating Snow in his quarters.

When the door opened, the room took Daniel’s breath away.

The ugly metal walls had been wallpapered with a sandy-hued grasscloth and the studded metal beams covered in honey-colored wood. The concrete floor was stained a moss green, with painted textures that made it look like tufts of the real thing. A few bamboo and lacquered wood tables provided Asian-inspired work surfaces, including a small desk. The bed had been covered with a kimono fabric spread in a dark teal splashed with pale gold, black and white. A few scrolls hung on the walls to finish the Zen decor.

“Wow!” he breathed as he came inside at his host’s bidding. “This looks amazing! If I didn’t know I was hundreds of feet underground, I’d think I just stepped into Japan.”

“Thank you.” Snow beamed as he dropped the paintbrush in his hand into a jar of water. “I’m not late to work, am I? I get a little carried away sometimes when I paint.”

Tucked into a far corner of the room, an easel stood in the steady glow of a paper lantern hanging from the ceiling. A half-finished canvas was propped on the shelf. Some of the pencil lines were still visible through the paint blocking in the background colors.

Daniel had no trouble recognizing the two faces, even though there were no details yet. A man with steely grey hair and dark-rimmed glasses stood beside a petite woman with mouse-brown hair shot liberally shot with white, delicate gold-rimmed glasses perched on her slender nose. Both of their faces had the sagging shapes of the aged.

“Is that…” Daniel’s throat closed. He couldn’t finish the question aloud.

“Claire and Melburn Jackson,” Snow finished, nodding. “Someone told me you lost your parents when you were a boy. I thought you might like to see them as I remember them just before they left for Kyoto.” He cleared his throat. “I really didn’t mean for you to see this until it was finished, Daniel. In fact, I was going to leave it in your office so you could discover it when you were alone. I can imagine it’s an emotional moment.”

Daniel had to clear his throat a few times before he could make his voice work again. “No, this is better. I can see them coming and prepare to look them in the eye gradually.” He met his twin’s eye. “Mind if I sit down?”

“Please.” The other man gestured him onto the neatly made bed.

“You’re not late for work,” Daniel answered after a moment. “I came to talk to you about an offer. The Daedalus should be flight-ready soon, and General Waring has requested that there be one of us on board. I’m obviously not a candidate for a field position, so I wanted you and North to decide between yourselves.”

“Oh.” Snow took his brush into the tiny cubbyhole of a bathroom and began to clean up carefully washing his brushes in the sink, and then cleaning the sink until it sparkled. “Um… North might go if he can take Jack with him, but I’m staying here. Too much to do yet.”

“That sounds ominous.” Daniel felt a slightly creepy sensation make gooseflesh pop up on the back of his neck.

“Maybe you should extend the invitation to the Daniels off-world, including the androids.”

“Is that a suggestion or a warning?”

Snow stepped out of the bathroom and stored his damp brushes with a few others in a sake pitcher on the nightstand. His expression was grim, his eyes intent. “You should definitely include some of the androids. The Ori are in the Pegasus Galaxy, and the crew of the Daedalus will need them.”

Daniel stood up, his stomach turning over. “I’ll pass the word to Waring. Do you have any idea how many will be needed?”

“As long as we have at least half of them here, we should be okay.”

Daniel studied the other man, searching his expression and posture for more clues to what he was thinking but not sharing. “Did your people win their battle with the Ori?”

“The battle was still in progress when I was taken,” Snow admitted, dropping his gaze to his bare feet. “I don’t know that it mattered after that.” He sighed and finger-combed his long hair back from his face. “That’s not true. It mattered to all the other humans left to fend for themselves when the Tau’ri disappeared.”

He turned his back and wiped a tear surreptitiously as he pretended to search for his slippers and robe.

“Who are the Ori, Jackson?” Daniel took a step toward the door, speaking over his shoulder. “You’ve avoided talking about them, and I have a feeling they’re someone I should know.”

Snow tied the robe around him and scuffed toward the open door. He closed it briefly and looked Daniel in the eye. “North would know them, but not you. I’m glad you’ve been spared the introduction so far.”

So many cryptic hints finally formed into an idea.

“The Ancients?”

Jackson winced. “Yes and no. There was a great schism between two factions of their race, both political and philosophical. One group came here and became the Ancients. The other group stayed in Pegasus and became the Ori.”

Just as a million questions began to surface in Daniel’s brain, Snow opened the door, his gaze going flinty. “That’s all I can say for now. Please trust me on this. I’ll speak when the time is right for us to move.”

“But—“

“Sorry, Daniel.” Snow shook his head. “Please, no more questions just now. I have to get ready for work.”

Simmering with curiosity, Daniel limped down the hallway as fast as his prosthetic and cane would carry him, mind awhirl with the ramifications of an enemy as powerful as the Ancients.

***

June 10, 2005

Ten Days Later

Daniel hobbled up the stairs as fast as he felt safe, still wary of his balance.

He was the last to arrive, as always, and his weary left knee gave out as he lowered himself into the chair, dropping him a little harder into his seat than he’d intended. Rather than look up at the pitying expressions around the table, he opened his briefing tablet and jotted down the date and a list of everyone in attendance.

He’d noticed Samantha Carter when he’d first walked in, but knew this one couldn’t be the real one. She was in a federal prison near San Francisco, serving a life sentence for treason. This had to be the android from BP6-3Q1, newly dubbed Comtrya.

Daniel made eye contact, and she gave him a smile and a little wave.

She was dressed in a shimmery blue-gray suit with black accent panels. Small pockets on the upper sleeves bulged with promise. A long black cord draped into a breast pocket, pinned to her collar at the other end.

He wanted to be happy to see her, but this was such a different world now. Connecting with anyone from his past had been difficult, because there seemed to be so many other Daniels in the way. North had bonded with everyone. This was his world now, and Daniel was an outsider in it. No one knew quite how to respond to him, and subsequently tended to avoid him.

Even now, two other men with his face sat at the table.

It was right to include all of them, of course.

The problem was Daniel’s own, and dealing with all of this was his struggle.

All he wanted was to be left alone and do his work.

Meetings like this, however, were how he stayed in the loop. They were necessary evils he had to endure.

He flexed a polite smile at the android and added her name to the list of attendees.

“Thank you all for coming,” Samantha began, addressing the group. She handed out a slender glass tablet to each of them. “Sorry if I didn’t bring enough of these. Some of you may have to share.”

North placed his device between him and Jack.

“We have a lot of news,” she began, beaming. “First off, we don’t have a solution to the bugs inhabiting our new planet yet, which we have named ‘jackers’ because they hijack the DNA of other beings in order to reproduce. They seem to be consuming every living creature on the planet, which, while they don’t bother us, still presents a problem for visitors and the planetary ecosystem.”

She activated the glass tablet in front of her, and pulled up a video of the Stargate on Comtrya, now enclosed inside a dome-shaped structure.

“We’ve built an arrival center around the ‘gate,” she reported, “with several levels of entry to ensure that any bugs trying to get to the ‘gate would be trapped and destroyed almost immediately. This now ensures safe passage for any visitor, as long as they’re approved for entry. We’ve developed our own IDC devices and codes, which we’ve shared with General Waring.”

The man regarded her above his glasses. “Thank you, Samantha. We’ll work out the details of removing the lock-out on Comtrya in my office later. Please continue.”

“The native civilization on BP6-3Q1 was highly advanced. They were divided, like Earth, into numerous nations with a variety of political conflicts. Apparently, the ones who discovered the Stargate – called Nerians, according to their records – were on the verge of war with another nation called the Mauritani, who developed the jackers as a bioweapon that got out of control and wiped out everyone within fifty years.”

Daniel watched the slide show of photographs showing the city, maps of the planet, video clips of obviously non-human people under siege by the bugs that had almost rewritten Teal’c’s DNA to produce a mass of new bugs. The images were sickening.

“We estimate the native population had only been gone about a decade when SG-One first arrived on the planet. It didn’t take a lot of work for us to develop research centers and a base for our explorations. After that, what we’ve found…” She giggled a little. “You’re not going to believe some of this stuff!”

She reached into her breast pocket and pulled out a lens about the size of her palm, attached to the cord pinned to her collar.

“With this device, you can look right through a person,” she announced. “It was in one of their hospitals and no doubt used for internal exams. We aren’t sure exactly how it works, but there’s zero radiation output, so it’s way safer than an X-ray or MRI.” She glanced at the General. “Sir, these would not only be useful for SGC medical staff, they could also be used to look for symbiotes in the field.”

Waring’s eyebrows shot up. “May I?” he asked, holding out a hand toward her.

She reached into one of her sleeve pockets and passed one down to him, encased in a cloth pouch. “We have a lot of these, so just let me know how many you want for research.”

“I’ll send this down to Doctor Warner and get back to you.” The General put the lens down on the table beside him and made a note.

North had figured out how to use the tablet and was already moving ahead of the presentation.

Sam eyed Snow. “We’ve also been studying the entropic cascade stabilization device that you loaned us from Area Fifty-One and we’ve been able to miniaturize them effectively, which would allow the device to be implanted under the skin, out of sight, where it can’t easily be removed. If that’s an option any of our transplanted Daniels might be interested in, just let us know. We can send them to you immediately and then manufacture as many as you need.”

Snow sat back in his chair, obviously stunned. His fingers went automatically to his throat, touching the oval jewel that prevented him from coming apart in that universe. When he smiled, it was slow and softly delighted. “Yes, I would like that very much. Thank you, Sam. That’s ingenious!”

“Additionally, we’ve also been experimenting with our own body construction and have made some stunning advancements.”

Daniel glanced at his tablet and took note of the variety of looks the android Daniels now sported. He let the tablet fall onto the table and glanced away, aware of the disgust on his face but unable to hide it.

“It’s way more than just cosmetics for us,” Sam continued. “We believe we’ll now be able to create biologically unique replacement limbs for human beings as well. With enough research and partnership with the Tau’ri, we might one day soon add internal organs to that list. Think of the lives we could save!”

“Biologically identical?” Waring asked with a note of skepticism.

“We have the capability of three-dimensionally printing working body parts with Nerian technology. There would be zero potential for rejection, because the body would recognize the tissues as part of the original design. We would like to partner with—“

“Done!” Waring agreed enthusiastically, “and as soon as possible. I have a niece on the waiting list for a kidney, and no doubt her parents would jump at the chance to test this technology. Would she need to travel to Comtrya?”

“No, sir. Only the new arrival center is fully secure, so the rest of our planet is still unsafe for organic beings. We can bring the equipment here.” She grinned. “It’s actually quite compact.”

Daniel glanced down at his knee.

If he had two good legs, he could go on the Daedalus voyage.

He’d be the only Daniel Jackson in the Pegasus Galaxy.

“I could use a new leg,” he volunteered, slowly lifting his gaze to meet hers.

She practically bounced in her seat. “I was hoping you’d say that!”

Turning his attention to the General, Daniel cleared his throat. “Sir, if this works, do you think the Daedalus might wait for me?”

Waring’s smile was warm and generous. “I’ll ask. If anyone deserves to go to Pegasus, it’s you.”

“Thank you.” Daniel glanced between his CO and the android. “Thank you both.”

“We’ve also found a ZPM on the planet, along with a lot of research that we hope will allow us to build them. We know they’re desperately needed here.”

That was a massive, welcome surprise.

“If you could do that,” Waring returned a little breathlessly, “I… I can’t even think what we might do for you in exchange, but whatever you need…” He shook his head. “Name it.”

For a moment, the mood at the table was blissful. Expectations and hopes were high, and it seemed Comtrya had been the perfect choice for a new home for the androids.

Then Sam stood up, hands clasped in front of her. She was obviously anxious. “Yeah, about that… There’s one more thing that’s both an offer and a request. We… that is, the people of Comtrya...”

Her gaze dropped to the table.

“You all know that our projected lifespan as androids is millennia. You also know we have zero population growth and there aren’t that many of us now.” Her fingers dropped onto the tablet surface and started a video showing the vastness of the beautiful white city the androids now called home. “You also know that there are basically only three of us – Harlan, myself and Daniel – populating this world. We would like to extend a formal invitation to anyone who would like to join us as new inorganic citizens of Comtrya.”

She lifted her eyes then, eyes full of fear, hope and longing, to each of the people sitting at the table.

“Becoming an android would be the perfect way to preserve the knowledge of great scientists, doctors, artists and engineers. It would give them an almost unlimited amount of time to research, create and study everything in the universe. I mean, think about it! What might a Stephen Hawking do if he had the mobility we so often take for granted, plus thousands of years to do his research? It would also give us, the Comtryans, additional variety in thoughts, ideas, faces and personalities, the possibility of making new friendships and increasing our utility to the humans who… rather inadvertently… created us. While we can’t allow long-term visitors on Comtrya at this time, we’d love to have new minds among us, and we hope that this request will be deeply considered by the SGC, the Joint Chiefs and the President. Anyone who wished to contribute their intellect to our society would need only come to the arrival center, allow the process to be completed, and then go home. They’d never even have to see their double, unless they chose to do so. It’s our sincere hope that this offer will be considered seriously, and that at least a few will come to join us.”

She sat down, her eyes on the video still playing on her tablet.

Jack finally spoke up. “Please tell me you wouldn’t copy anybody like Kinsey? Or Samuels. Or Maybourne, or—“

Sam grinned and nodded. “There are a few we would decline, of course. Maybe there should be an application process on this end? I don’t know. This idea is kind of new to all of us, but it would be the perfect way to repay us.”

“I’ll make a list.” O’Neill started writing names on a sheet of paper.

Waring chuckled. “I’ll make sure your request goes all the way to the top, Samantha. We do want to make the most of our partnership with the Comtryans. Maybe I’ll take you up on that offer myself.”

That idea raised a few eyebrows at the table.

“Been there, done that,” Jack observed.

“Oh, by the way, sir,” Samantha announced, meeting Jack’s eyes, “I’m working on getting your model fixed and running again. Teal’c, too. Might be a little while yet, but things are looking good.” She gave him a wide smile and a thumbs-up.

Daniel wondered if he should tell her that Jack was involved with North.

He decided against it, and turned his attention back to the video.

***

July 8, 2005

One Month Later

SGC Control Room

North watched Daniel Jackson walk on his new leg into the embarkation room, his gait back to normal following the attachment of the android replacement limb. The surgical process had been painful, as had the physical therapy afterward, but now that both pieces had healed together, the new leg was indistinguishable from the real thing.

He’d cut his hair back to the original style and shaved his beard, looking much like he had the day he’d left on that terrible mission where Hathor had captured him.

Best of all, though, Daniel Jackson was smiling. His eyes were dancing. He’d found joy again, and with his field-ready status coinciding with the departure of the expedition to Atlantis via the Stargate, he had his purpose back.

As one of the foremost experts on the Ancients, he was leading the team to the Pegasus Galaxy with not one but two new ZPMs among their gear.

North leaned close to Jack’s ear. “That’s the best birthday present of all,” he murmured. “Seeing him happy.”

“Oh, I dunno. I plan to blow your mind a bit later.” Jack’s casual tone and innocent look foreshadowed something neither casual nor innocent in their near future.

“Um… about that…” Daniel had meant to broach this subject earlier, but hadn’t been able to find an opening. Now Jack was frowning at him, reading the unspoken signal that Something Was Up. “So, I’ve been thinking about the fact that I’m actually a clone—“

“What?” Jack blurted and stepped back, eyes wild with dismay. “Who told you that?”

He smiled at his lover and put out a hand to calm him down a little. “I figured it out myself, and it’s okay. Keep your voice down.”

A few people were already looking their way, momentarily distracted by O’Neill’s outburst.

Jack grasped him by the elbow and towed him to a more private location down the hall from the control room. “You’re not!” he insisted. “You’re the real—“

North shook his head, offering what comfort he could in a soft smile. “It’s okay, really. I’ve made my peace with it, and with him. I may not have been the one who originally opened the ‘gate, but I’ve made my own mark over the past six years. Don’t worry, Jack. I’m good.”

O’Neill swore. He was obviously upset. “I promised him you’d never know. I’m sorry.”

“Jack, he’s getting his life back. He was born to lead this expedition, and he needs that more than either one of us can ever understand. This is his moment, and we need to be respectful of that. All I wanted to tell you is that I want to change my birth date to one more appropriate for when I was actually… um… made.”

“Oh, fer cryin’…” Jack shook his head. “Okay, when?”

“I was thinking… June fourth? How does that sound? I figured it would be sometime between—“

“Okay, fine, but we’re celebrating your birthday tonight anyway because I already have something planned.” Jack was obviously in a pique and stormed off.

North sighed and followed, making his way to the expedition crew to say his goodbyes.

When he reached Daniel, the other man gestured toward the gangway. “Walk with me?”

He fell into step beside the man.

“I had a long talk with General Waring last night,” Daniel admitted. “The paperwork is already being handled, signatures are dried and all the legalities completed, so protesting at this point would be moot. Just accept gracefully and let’s move on, shall we?”

That was unsettling. “Accept what?” North demanded suspiciously.

“Snow is getting my little gray house,” Daniel declared. “He’s kind of over the moon about that, so do what you can to help him get settled there. He deserves his own place.”

The idea made North a little misty. “Thank you. That’s very generous… But I sense there’s something more?”

Daniel smiled, a slow burn of private joy. “This mission may take years. We don’t know what we’re going to find once we get there. As with everything, there’s no guarantee I’ll be coming back at all. Given that, I’ll be the only one of me where I’m going until the Daedalus arrives, so there should be a Daniel Jackson here, too. I want you to have my name and serve the SGC in my stead while I’m gone.”

North gawped, blown away by the idea.

“But—“

“No buts! It’s already done.” Daniel shook his head, his mouth firmly closed, finger wagging.

North didn’t want to go back to his old name.

“What if… we give the name back to Snow instead?” North suggested, hoping the original would agree.

A flash of disappointment moved across Daniel’s face. “Mind telling me why?”

“I’ve only had the name for a few years. Snow has had it for a lifetime. He went by a number for a few months, Daniel! He’ll never get his old life back. Let’s give him back as much of it as we can, huh? Please?”

A dawning realization on the face exactly like his own showed North when he’d won his argument.

Daniel patted him on the shoulder and smiled. “You’re right. I’ll see General Waring in a minute and have him make the necessary changes.”

He reached out a hand.

“I think you just might be a better man than me, North. They made you right.”

North shook the proffered hand, relief and endless gratitude flooding into him, along with an eerie echo of a conversation with the android Reese in this very room. “I don’t know about that,” he returned with shy pride. “Um, if we find a way to communicate, would it be okay if we wrote to each other? I’d really like to get your take on what’s happening where you go, and to keep you apprised of what’s happening here. The not-classified stuff, anyway.”

“I’d like that.” Daniel let go of his clone’s hand and strode confidently up the stairs to Waring’s office.

North found Jack and followed the rest of the well-wishers into the control room to make way for the new Atlantis crew to gather.

Moments later, Daniel reappeared in the embarkation room and gave a rousing speech, reminding the team that this was likely a one-way trip, and offering a last chance to back out.

There were no takers.

Then Daniel Jackson led his team through the Stargate to the city of the Ancients, and to his destiny.

A load seemed to lift off North’s shoulders and heart. “This will be good for him,” he murmured to his partner.

“I’m sad to see him go,” Jack admitted. “But yeah, he needs to be… by himself for a while.”

He turned around, scanning the room crowded with computer equipment.

“Where’s the elf?”

North chuckled. “Last I saw her, she was with Danielle and Joy outside the ‘gate room.”

They meandered down into the corridor, shaking hands, patting backs, offering words of farewell and good luck as the expeditioners streamed past them.

Coming back the other way, the two women were walking hand in hand, looking at each other as if no one else existed.

Jack stared at the ladies, nudging his partner. “Are you thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’?”

A massive grin spread across North’s face. “Yeah, they’re doin’ it.”

Stepping in front of Jack, North barred the way, hands in trouser pockets, as the rest of the crowd streamed past them. When the others were out of earshot, he asked, “So does this prove I’m straight? Even when a clone’s gender is changed, our orientation is still the same? Daniel Jackson likes women.”

Jack shrugged. “Or, it proves the opposite. You’re wired for same sex attractions, regardless of whether you have an innie or outie. I mean, look at Snow, for cryin’ out loud! He was married to a guy. He’s you, too.”

North pouted. “Aw, come on, Jack! I’m still trying to figure out whether I’m gay, straight, bi or…” He pouted. “This is just confusing for me. Isn’t it for you, too?”

“You think too much,” O’Neill shot back in a dry rasp. “It is what it is. I like sleepin’ with you. I like kissin’ you. I like watchin’ you come, and I don’t want this… whatever this is between us… to ever end. I’ll do for you what I’d never think about doin’ for any other guy, and be happy I’m the lucky man doin’ it. So stop thinkin’ and let’s go fuck.”

North flinched like he’d been dashed with ice water.

Jack nodded toward the elevator and started walking.

The idea excited North, set him to vibrating with curiosity and anticipation of carnal delight. Heat coiled in his belly. “What, exactly, did you have in mind, Jack?”

O’Neill was the picture of nonchalance as he stepped into the lift and pushed the ‘up’ button. “Well, we’ve been playin’ at being gay for a while now. I was thinkin’… maybe… a birthday blow job? Never had a dick in my mouth before, but I s’ppose there’s a first time for everything. I might hate it, so don’t count on a repeat performance, but since we’re celebrating here…”

He shot a darkly warning glance at his partner. “And that whole ‘changing your birthday’ crap? I’m not waiting eleven months to do this. I’m sucking your dick tonight. No arguments!” He shook his index finger in the air for emphasis.

North beamed and saluted. “Yes, sir!”

***

For a long time afterward, they just lay sprawled across the bed. Jack’s head was hanging off one side. North had his ear pressed to Jack’s sweaty belly, his feet on the pillow, a smile on his face that felt permanent. Blankets and sheets were on the floor and their clothes were strewn somewhere between the front door and the bathroom.

“I am so gay!” North crowed softly.

“Just for me,” Jack corrected. “I don’t want you to be gay for anyone else.”

“Deal.”

“Now get off me. My neck is breaking.”

With great effort, both men rearranged themselves on the bed. North dutifully picked up the covers and put them back in place.

“We blew up the bed,” Jack observed with a little grin. “Who needs C-Four? Just let me have sex with North. We’ll get the job done.”

“Well, not in the field or with an audience,” North returned with a little smile, “but yeah, mind blown.”

“Dick, too.” Jack smacked his lips. “Wasn’t so bad. You taste like smoked oysters and coffee.”

“Kinda surprised you swallowed.”

“You did, too. Did you like suckin’ me off? What’d I taste like?”

North rolled over and propped up on an elbow. For a moment he just studied his lover’s face in the moonlight, all silver edges and black shadows. “Here’s what you taste like,” he whispered, and leaned down for a deep, slow kiss that fanned the coals of his libido.

“Mmmmm…” Jack hummed into his mouth.

North chuckled.

“Steak and beer,” the older man observed, followed by a satisfactory “aaaahhh!”

“More like fish and evergreen trees.”

North got up and padded into the bathroom.

“Whatcha doin?” Jack called after a few moments.

“Looking for some lotion.”

“Because your dick is chapped?”

North rolled his eyes.

“Don’t you roll your eyes at me, young man!” O’Neill called from the bedroom.

It was always a little creepy when Jack read him like that, but those moments of connection were why this worked so well between them.

Lube, Jack.”

“Oh. Well, then, come back to bed. I also got some Assssstroglide and condoms for your birthday. A lot of condoms. They’re in the nightstand.”

An image of the two of them in flagrante delicto seared through North’s imagination. He gripped the edge of the bathroom counter, trying to catch his breath. The idea was powerful, sensual, exciting beyond words.

When he could manage to let go, he trudged back into the bedroom, holding onto his stiff cock to keep it from bouncing around with each step.

“Well, then. Ready for round two?”

Jack eyed the moonlit outline of North’s erection. “You should have that registered as a lethal weapon,” he suggested. “I’ve already died and gone to heaven once tonight.”

“So I guess you’re gay, too, huh?”

“Only for you, big guy.” He scooted over on the bed and threw back the covers.

***

July 12, 2005

Four Days Later

North came into the General’s office, tablet and pen ready as he took a seat in the guest chair.

“You wanted to see me, sir?”

“Yes, there are some papers for you to sign regarding a trust for Doctor Jackson’s personal property during his absence, and a few other things to discuss regarding our current state of affairs.” Waring gazed over the tops of his glasses thoughtfully. “Snow has accepted the assumption of Doctor Jackson’s name and identity, which feels a bit odd to me, since you’ve been here at this SGC for the longest. I wanted to be certain this is what you wanted.”

North nodded. “It was my idea, in fact. He was Daniel Jackson in his universe for his whole life. I thought it appropriate he should have that here, too.”

“But you are Daniel Jackson. The original.” Waring’s brows twitched together in obvious confusion.

“I have my reasons for wanting it this way,” North assured him. “You have papers for me to sign?”

Waring handed over a folder stamped “Personal and Confidential.”

While he read the documents, Waring continued.

“We’ve had a lot of reports from the field about the movements of the Goa’uld. Bastet and Olokun were both killed by their own Jaffa in an uprising. Lord Yu and Amaterasu have combined forces. The Morrigan now serves under Ba’al, who appears to be making his move for Supreme System Lord. While many of the Jaffa are rebelling, Ba’al maintains his power through the Kull warriors.”

“And Anubis is nowhere to be found.” North shot a knowing glance and a smug grin at his boss. He bowed his head and signed his first page.

General Waring cocked his head. “You know something about that, Doctor North?”

A sensation of righteousness and justice suffused North with warmth. “We won’t be hearing from Anubis again, just trust me on that. The other System Lords will fight it out among themselves, and as long as they don’t start breeding again, I think we’ve got a good chance of winning now.”

For a moment, the General was skeptical, but then a tiny smile glimmered in his eyes. “I haven’t been sitting in this chair very long,” he intoned with a soft tone of gentle humor, “but I’ve learned to trust you, Doctor North. Every soldier in this building has faith in you, and with good reason. You and Major O’Neill have saved our civilization and numerous other worlds with mind-boggling frequency… which brings me to the next point in our meeting.”

Waring cleared his throat.

North signed another page, sparing a glance up at the man behind the desk.

“The President is receiving a lot of pressure to provide civilian oversight to this facility, not in direct command, but as a means to ensure the focus of the program remains true to purpose. He’s set up an international committee to review our activities.”

North sighed and rolled his eyes, preparing himself for the announcement of yet more unsuitable fingers in the pie. He crossed his fingers under the folder and hoped the new boss of the IOC wouldn’t be Woolsey.

“President Hayes has requested that you fill that position.”

Shock stopped him in mid-breath. He froze, unable to think, only aware of the sudden sense of terror holding his body in stasis.

“You’re the perfect candidate,” Waring continued. “You’re multi-lingual and wouldn’t need a translator to speak directly to the other committee members. You have mission experience and know better than anyone—“

“No!” North blurted, horrified by the idea of leaving the field at such a crucial moment.

“The position would mostly be headquarted in Washington, with occasional visits here,” the General went on. “You’d be able to meet with the other committee members by videoconference the majority of the time. In-person meetings would, of course, be on demand dictated by current situations, with quarterly updates held in London, Paris, Moscow and Beijing.”

North shook his head, now clutching the folder and pen like life preservers. “No! No, sir. I’m sorry, but I can’t—“

An idea appeared in his head, clinging tenaciously despite his refusal to sweep it away.

“That looks like an about face to me,” Waring commented, eyeing his visitor.

North closed the folder and leaned forward, staring intently as the plan unfolded in his brain. “Maybe they don’t need to know which Daniel Jackson is heading up that committee. There are quite a few to choose from, sir.”

The General chuckled. “You see? I’d never have gone there. The President asked for you and despite seeing three of you on a daily basis for the last few months, you were the only one in my mind to ask... I suppose it could work. Only a few of us in this facility would have to know. And the President, of course.”

“Let me interview the clones and transplants on Delta, and I’ll bring you the best candidate. We can come back together in the wee hours of morning here. All he’d need is ID and a plane ticket to Washington, and he’ll be out of here before anyone knows he’s not me.”

Waring leaned back in his chair, his dark eyes sparkling as he studied his visitor. “You are, indeed, a wily son of a bitch, Doctor North. Might I interest you in a game of chess?”

North opened the folder again, failing to hide his smile of pride. “Reigning base champion,” he warned as modestly as he could manage.

“Well, then, I look forward to kicking your ass.”

“Likewise.” North finished the last paper and handed the folder back over the desk.

“How’s it going with the orphanage?”

“I’m glad you asked about that.” The General pulled another folder from his desktop and handed it over.

“There was some local resistance at first, but that was resolved fairly quickly. The zoning should be approved shortly. Sergeant Siler has finagled the building permits we need and has organized construction crews for the reno. There’s a sign-up sheet in the mess hall.”

“I’ll put my name on it as soon as we’re done here.”

Waring gave an approving nod. “Have you given any thought to staff? Because I think we might have volunteers from the base on a rotating schedule.”

“I have been thinking about that, actually. Had a chat with Danielle Jackson just this morning. She heard about the project and asked to be included. Since she needs to be here for Joy, I think she’d be perfect as the new director. She’s also made arrangements to take in Janet Fraiser’s daughter, Cassandra, who will be the first displaced child in residence.”

The General chuckled. “I’m constantly learning how tight the people on this base are. It’s really just a big family, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir. We are.” North smiled. “Maybe you could come to dinner one night. I can kick your ass at chess and give you back that bottle of single pot whisky I owe you.”

Waring’s eyes crinkled with humor. “And the caviar. Don’t forget that.”

“Saturday? Eight-ish?”

“Plus one?”

“Sure thing.”

“Are you staying at the Langford house at the moment?”

“Mostly at Jack’s.”

North’s eyes widened as he realized he might have just slipped up and revealed their deeply personal relationship. He tried for a quick save. “The house is just too big, and Jack has a spare room. I can’t leave the base without Tzatzil or Jack, so… when I’m not in base quarters, I’m at Jack’s.”

The General just nodded and jotted down the date, time and address North provided without batting an eyelash.

“Just a few more things,” Waring said, holding up his left hand to halt North as he rose from his chair. He finished his note and glanced up. “I wanted to thank you for recommending Doctor Charlie Eppes to the program. He’s just created a cloaked ship search program that has proven very useful in testing. We should be adding it to all our ships shortly. I’m sure it’s going to save a lot of lives and very expensive hardware down the road.”

North beamed. “Thank you, sir.”

Waring’s gaze dropped to his paper as he made another note. “How goes the research into that red notebook the mysterious Jarod left behind at Delta?” When he made eye contact again, his mood had altered.

That was a dark, hard look.

Clearing his throat, suddenly taken aback by the swift change in demeanor, North felt a little nervous answering. “Um… Charlie has that and is working on it. Most of what’s written in there is programming language, which isn’t my forte. Doctor Eppes says it seems to be an amalgam of the Argosian and Orban nanite coding, but there are also pieces of it that seem to be part of the structure of the kiron disruptor Jack built to fight the Replicators.”

Once again, his stomach clenched as he recalled how badly Sam had fucked up by exposing RepliCarter to the only weapon they had to fight the voracious little buggers.

Waring’s expression softened. He cocked his head. “What do you suppose Jarod is up to with that?”

“I don’t have a clue,” North returned, shaking his head, “but I think it’s going to be big. Maybe a new way to fight the Replicators.”

“I hope to God you’re right.” For a moment, the General looked pensive, twirling his pen as he gathered his thoughts. Then he bowed his head and started writing again. “Dismissed, Doctor North. See you Saturday night.”

***

July 15, 2005

Three Days Later

Delta Base

North shook Daniel Mourning’s hand, pleased with the choice he’d made to be the ‘Daniel Jackson’ heading up the International Oversight Committee.

Mourning was one of the alternate universe transplants, one whose personal history had been the most similar to the original Daniel. He’d leapt at the chance to return to Earth in a functional capacity, even though he wouldn’t be on the front lines. Being in the driver’s seat of that committee would allow him a chance to make a significant impact of his own.

“We have a few hours before we go back through the ‘gate,” North told his double. “We want as few people as possible to know there are more than one of us, so to the rest of the world, you’ll be the one and only. Snow and I will minimize our presence in Colorado Springs to help make that ID watertight.”

Mourning’s brow wrinkled. “I am gonna get paid for this, right?”

North laughed. “Big bucks, as I understand it. Makes me a little jealous, actually.” He took a deep breath of the evergreen-scented air and thought of Jack. “D’you need to pack anything?”

“I’ll get right on that.” Mourning started off, then did an about-face. “Are there going to be more opportunities like this for the rest of us? I mean, not on Earth, obviously, but…” He shrugged. “Research to do? Alien dig sites? Off-world travel?”

“I’m working on it,” North assured him. He’d been discussing that very topic with General Waring lately, but the SGC was only recently producing profit and they had to wait for more money to come in before sending long-term expeditionary teams to other planets. “Maybe you can help with that when you get to your new post. Find us the money to do more long term off-world research projects.”

The double beamed. “I’ll put that at the top of my ‘to do’ list. Thank you, North. We’re going to make this program into what it should’ve been from the beginning. There’s so much out there to learn, and I can’t wait to see what else you find.”

“I’ll meet you in the mess hall. Gotta have some coffee.” North watched the other man disappear into the Quonset hut where most of the Daniels were quartered.

“What do you think of the new Daniel Jackson, Tzatzil?” He glanced at his bodyguard over his shoulder, keeping pace beside him, as always.

“He can never be you,” she observed sagely. “You are unique.”

“Thank you?” He wasn’t quite sure if that were a compliment, but he’d treat it like one.

All forty-some of the organic Daniels had seemed to take up their new roles here on Delta without quibbling, but North could easily imagine how bored he’d be if all there was to do all day was build, keep watch and farm. This settlement was absolutely necessary and they needed as many hands as possible to develop it, but it wasn’t a place any of them wanted to be for long.

He marched through the mud and sprinkling rain toward the timber and aluminum siding shed that served as kitchen and mess hall for the burgeoning camp. Tzatzil pranced lightly along, as if she were unaffected by the sucking slop at their feet. Her grace and agility never seemed to amaze him.

“How are things with Danielle and Joy?” he asked as they stepped into the shed.

A dazzling array of dimples was answer enough.

Before he could fill his cup, he felt the ground shaking and heard the whine of the Stargate starting to spin up.

Like most everyone else, he and Tzatzil ran to see who was dialing in.

A Daniel stepped through the event horizon. He wore a simple long-sleeved black shirt with a double white stripe design across the chest, black pants and boots marking him as an android. This one was towheaded and beefy, though, and wore an ornate belt around his waist. He waited at the base of the ‘gate platform, hands up in the air as he made a slow circle to show he was unarmed.

“Identify yourself,” one of the SFs on guard ordered.

“Doc Holliday from Gambler’s World,” came the reply. “I’d like to meet with the other Daniels, if I may. Stargate Command advised us that North is also here.”

North stepped forward, giving a little wave. “Here! I’m right here.”

Tzatzil stepped just in front of him, blocking him from getting any closer with her slender shoulder.

He thought about the android’s name, and how apropos it was: Doc Holliday from Gambler’s World.

Then again, since he’d chosen his own name, it only seemed right that the android had picked a famous gambler.

Once the formalities were out of the way, North and the elf accompanied Holliday to the Quonset hut as word circulated for the others to meet there.

“So what’s it like, living in that mad world?” North asked while they waited.

Tzatzil had decided to trust the android a little bit and stood just far enough away that they could speak discreetly.

Holliday grinned. “It’s a circus, for sure, but we’re learning a lot about other races out there. We’ve made initial contact with a few and have invitations standing for visits. Thought we’d leave the off-world handshaking to the SGC.”

He pulled a slender tube from his belt, popped off the lid and pulled out a thin sheet of translucent plastic. “Access, voice print, Daniel Jackson,” he said, and the plastic became a computer screen. He opened an icon with a touch and the screen changed to show a map of the galaxy with colored dots marking about twenty planets. “You can compare these locations with the SGC’s database for the planetary designations. There’s a lot of other material in here, too. Some pretty interesting research on those alien cultures.”

The android closed that file and opened another one. “This one is just for you. Our transplant, Daniel Prophet, asked that I give it to you, for your eyes only.”

“P-r-o-f-i-t or the other one?”

There was a gleam in the android’s eyes that hinted of secrets. “The kind who sees and knows things.”

North wondered about the particular emphasis on that word. He looked at the sheet and skimmed through a list of words and hand-drawn runes. “What is this?”

“Apparently, your favorite bartender has antlers, though I couldn’t see them. This is the inscription Prophet translated, both for you and for Conall.”

“Is there some context for the inscription?” asked North, frowning over the list. “I mean, these are great words, but what does it say? Did Prophet figure that out?”

“He said to tell you this is the Treasure of Cernunnos. Wouldn’t say anything else about it.”

North met the other man’s eyes as a sense of wonder surfaced inside him. “You couldn’t see the antlers?”

Holliday shrugged. “Wild Dan Hickock, our other Daniel counterpart on Gambler’s World, couldn’t see them, either. Maybe because we’re androids. I don’t know, but I think it may be significant.”

North read over the words slowly this time, savoring each one.

Curiosity. Imagination. Patience. Humility. Mercy. Life. Wisdom. Love. Happiness.

He’d have to think on the meaning behind all that.

“Clever bit with the names you two picked,” he mentioned to the android. “You guys have all been pretty creative in your new identities.”

“Might as well have fun with it.” Holliday gave him a playful wink. He closed the file as other Daniels started filtering into the barracks door.

When they had all arrived, Holliday stood up in the center of the long room. “Greetings, brothers. May I have all of you from alternate universes come forward?”

With widened eyes, they glanced at each other. Hesitantly, they gathered around the visiting android. Every one of them looked nervous.

“Lucky Number Thirteen sends his greetings,” Holliday intoned. “He says to tell you that time is short. The door is opening, and we will all soon stand in the fire’s glow. If we are to survive, North needs to find all of the Dreamers and send them to their watchtowers as soon as possible. The rest of us have other tasks.”

North crossed his arms over his chest. “Can you be a little more cryptic?”

Holliday’s glance asked for patience. “The Dreamers are old, older than the Ancients. You won’t be able to see them with your eyes, so you’ll have to find them with your hearts.” He chuckled. “Those of you who actually have hearts.”

“Who are the Dreamers?” asked one of the transplants. “Why are they important?”

“You’ve already found one…” Holliday made eye contact with North and then glanced at the little tablet device in his hand. “…but there are eight more waiting to be awakened. You have to locate them, with or without the assistance of the SGC, and those of you who have come from other universes will know best where to look. I will ask you now, all of you except North, to come with me and play your part in the biggest game of all.”

North was thunderstruck, both that Holliday would come here to steal all the Daniels away, and that he’d be purposefully left out!

“What the almighty hell?” he seethed.

Holliday grimaced. “Sorry, but you’re needed elsewhere. Every wheel has a hub, and you’re ours.”

All eyes were on North now.

He fumed a little. “What’s going on here? You can’t all just leave!”

“Just gonna borrow the transplants for a little while,” Holliday assured him. He glanced at the tablet again. “Everything you need to know is in there, North. You have your own part to play in the grand scheme of things, as do the other clones. I suggest we all get busy.”

Mourning raised his hand. “Um, I just got a job on Earth. Should I go with you or be the head of the oversight committee in charge of the Stargate program?”

Holliday chuckled. “That sounds pretty important. I think we can do without you for the moment.”

“Waitwaitwaitwait!” North put his hands up, feeling like he’d lost control of everything in the last few moments. “Who are the Dreamers? What’s this all about?”

One of the transplants leveled him with an intense gaze. “This is about saving our collective asses, North. It’s about doing what we were always meant to do, and I, for one, will be damned glad to get back to it.”

The meeting was pretty much over at that point, despite North’s protests.

The alternate universe Daniels started gathering up their personal belongings – which didn’t amount to much – and followed Holliday to the Stargate.

There was a bit of discussion with Colonel Eastman, but no one was going to stop the men from leaving of their own free will.

Holliday dialed up Gambler’s World, and moments later, there were sixteen fewer Daniel Jacksons on Delta.

***

SGC Base

Earth

Snow heard someone come in the door to his office, but he didn’t look up immediately. When he’d finished making his note, he glanced at the pretty, dark-haired woman in the dominatrix outfit sauntering toward him like a black cat on the prowl.

“I like the new look,” she purred.

Two SFs behind her posted themselves at the door, which they left open.

“Um, I’m not—“

“Has it been that long, my Daniel? Seems like only a few months. Your hair grows quite fast.”

“I’m not—“

“Have a look at this,” the woman cut in, laying a flat band of inscribed gold links in front of him. “Exquisite workmanship, don’t you think?”

Curiosity interrupted his protest. He picked up the band and held it under the desk lamp, automatically reaching for the magnifying glass. “I don’t recognize—“

She clapped something around his wrist as he grasped the magnifier. Then inexplicably, she snatched the band out of his hand and wrapped it around her own wrist.

Instantly, he knew she was up to no good. Ire surged up in him.

“What did you do?”

At that moment, North and another Daniel marched into the office, but as soon as North caught sight of the woman, he executed a pivot and went to lean against one of the bookcases with his head back and eyes closed, obviously gathering himself. When he turned toward them again, veins stood out of his flushed complexion at neck and forehead, and he appeared as if he might detonate.

“Who is this mad woman?” Snow demanded, “and what the hell has she done to me?” He held up his wrist to show off the newly applied bracelet.

When North tore himself away from the stacks, he looked like a bull about to charge, chin tucked, glaring intently at the woman through lowered brows.

“Vala!” he roared, “why are you here and what the hell have you done to him?”

The woman, however, had become positively giddy when the other two Daniels appeared in the room. She was hugging herself, squealing, jumping up and down and wriggling in abject delight. “Oh, what an embarrassment of riches! My wildest dream has come true!” Then her face went desperately serious. She demanded as she grasped North’s shoulders, “How many more of you are there? I have to know before my brain explodes from sheer bliss!”

North threw off her touch in high irritation with a twist of the uncharacteristically comedic. “Why are you here, and not in a prison cell for stealing the Prometheus?” He straightened his jacket and glasses, putting a little space between him and the woman.

She grinned again, all coy flirtatiousness now. “I have something you’ll want to see,” she sang. “Well, actually, your very attractive General Waring has sent it to Doctor Lee to examine, and I was quite miffed about that because he should’ve given it to you…” She glanced at the three men, identical but for hair style. “…although—“

North turned on his heel and stormed out of the room.

She beamed at Snow and gave him a wink. “That’s my Daniel,” she explained, nodding at the doorway, and then went to follow him.

Vala found her way barred by a diminutive redhead with pointy ears.

“You are incorrect,” the elf growled, eyes narrowed in threat. “That one is mine, by order of my queen!”

Snow sat back in his chair, a half smile digging into his left cheek as he watched the sparks fly between the two women.

Things were getting interesting at Stargate Command.

***

Fifteen minutes later the three Daniels, two women and General Waring all sat at the briefing table in the ready room.

North had finished his debrief about the incident at Delta, and the General was stone-faced as he glared over the tops of his little glasses.

“And you have no idea what any of this means?” Waring asked, a chilly edge to his voice.

“No, sir.” North shook his head, obviously angry. He pulled the thin, rolled up computer tablet out of his jacket pocket and laid it on the table. “I haven’t had time to study this, but Holliday said my answers would be in here. I have no idea who these ‘Dreamers’ are or where to find them, but they’re obviously important.”

Snow sat with head bowed and eyes closed, pinching the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses as he recalled how events had unfolded in his universe. Hathor, in the body of Sam Carter, and Jack, under the influence of Selmak posing as a Goa’uld underling, had found the Ancients’ communication device and used it to unwittingly open the door to the Milky Way Galaxy and laid out the welcome mat for the Ori.

That hadn’t happened here, but the android’s cryptic message had been clear enough to him.

The door is opening, and we will all soon stand in the fire’s glow.

Someone was about to do the same thing in this universe.

“The Ori are coming,” he announced softly. “That’s what Holliday meant. Somehow, they’ll discover us soon, and then they’ll be sending their Priors through to begin conversion or destroy us, planet by planet.”

He kept his gaze on his notes, unable to force himself to make eye contact with any of the others.

“Who are the Ori?” Vala demanded.

Snow swallowed hard. “Beings so powerful it’s hard not to see them as gods. Beings so arrogant they believe they deserve the worship of all.” He sighed, his heart aching. “Beings so jealous they will kill any and all who resist them. If you’re not terrified…” He met North’s concerned eyes at last. “… you should be. The Goa’uld threat is nothing compared to what they can do.”

Waring laid down his pen and folded his hands together. “What do you suggest we do, Snow?”

He pondered that question, turning over the memories of events in his world, comparing to the history of this one and the new directives from the android Holliday. He wanted to go to Gambler’s World to help with the quest for the Dreamers, but couldn’t leave Earth. He was needed here. He had to be in place to take the steps necessary to safeguard the planet and avoid what he knew would be fatal mistakes.

Studying North and the newcomer, Daniel Mourning, he made his decision. “For now, we continue searching for anything we can use to continue to fight the Goa’uld and the Replicators. As Holliday said, time is short. We’ll leave the search for the Dreamers to North for now, as advised.”

“Does that mean you’ll have a look at my tablet now?” Vala asked flirtatiously, snuggling closer to his left shoulder. “The one that leads to the incredible Ancient buried treasure?”

North frowned and made the “gimme” hand motion.

An SF standing guard near the stairwell came forward and put a silver case on the table top.

North opened the case, moved a piece of parchment aside and lifted out a fragment of stone tablet incised with Ancient glyphs.

He and Mourning pored over it for a few moments.

Snow started making notes.

“Whoever sold you this played you,” North told Vala. “It’s complete gibberish.”

“It’s in code,” Snow returned in synch with the brunette. And then, word for word, “I know the cipher.”

Vala whirled around in her chair, mouth open in shocked surprise, and then kissed him full on the lips.

“Okay, that didn’t happen in my world,” Snow gasped when she came up for air.

Waring started twirling his pen, obviously impatient with the shenanigans. “And what does it say, Snow?”

“There’s a secret chamber underneath a hill in England where an Ancients’ treasure house is stored.”

Daniel Mourning eyed Vala. “Yes, there’s a treasure, but they won’t let you have any of it.”

She pouted mightily.

Turning to North and Mourning, Snow added, “There are also important artifacts from the Ancients, but I can’t guarantee they’ll be the same ones my team found. Bottom line is…” He faced the General. “We should go.”

Waring sighed. “Then I suppose I have arrangements to make with the Prime Minister.”

“Um… one more thing.” Daniel Mourning held up an index finger, which he then pointed at the bracelets Vala and Snow wore. “If those two get more than a hundred feet apart, they’ll faint. If they stay apart, they’ll both die.”

“What?” Snow and Vala blurted in sync.

She looked genuinely horrified as she stared at the jewelry. “The man I stole these from didn’t say that would happen to both of us! I thought it would only happen to Daniel. These are the goddess Nut’s marriage bracelets, designed to keep her husband of the moment close.”

North nodded his head and grinned savagely, pointing at the brunette. “See? You can’t trust her.” His voice was filled with animosity.

“Shut up, Daniel,” she groused.

“I’m not Daniel Jackson,” he shot back. “You’ve actually never met him. Thank God.”

Puzzlement drew her dark brows together. “Then who are you? Whose arse did I kick on Prometheus?”

Mourning cleared his throat. “Those bracelets aren’t for marriage,” he intoned. “Whoever sold you that line of crap was pulling one over on you. The kor mak were designed by the Goa’uld for prisoner transport. If a guard was foolish enough to let his prisoner escape, they’d both pay with their lives.”

“Ah, shit.” Snow stared at the golden cuff. “I guess I’m grounded, then.”

“Not necessarily.” Waring eyed Snow sternly. “Since you’ve already been there in your world, you’ll know what to do, so I’ll be sending you… and Ms. Mal Doran, unfortunately… along with North, Tzatzil Colonel Standing and Major O’Neill to retrieve any Ancients’ artifacts. Any other treasures will rightfully belong to the British Crown.”

“Well, nuts.” Vala pouted, staring at the bracelet on her own wrist. Wheels were obviously turning, which was never a good thing for anyone else.

Snow watched her with interest. He needed to have a chat with North about the woman. The mission report regarding her hijacking of Prometheus had been fun reading, but her recklessness put a whole new spin on what the other man had been through with her.

There had been no Vala Mal Doran in his universe.

Things had suddenly become very interesting, and that wasn’t always a good thing.

***

July 18, 2005

Three Days Later

SGC

Snow couldn’t lift the Ancients’ communication device alone. He’d fretted over what to do with it for days now. Just the sight of it in Merlin’s storehouse had almost given him a heart attack. Then when he’d seen Dr. Lee open the storage box with the stones, panic had set in.

Jack could activate them just by touching them.

Dr. Lee had figured out how to initialize them.

If he didn’t act quickly, the fools would try to use that machine and the Ori would be breathing down their necks in days!

So he took Vala into his office and asked her to help him steal it.

She brightened. “What’s it worth?”

“If we don’t get rid of it, hell and damnation for every living soul in this galaxy.”

Her interest deflated. “Well, where’s the fun in that?”

“My point exactly. If you want to keep having fun, you’ll help me get rid of that thing before anybody uses it.” Snow started to pace. “And they will. Human curiosity is a powerful thing.”

Tell me about it.” She glanced at the bracelet around her wrist, then gave him a sidelong glance. “How would you feel about life as a pirate?”

“What?”

“A thief, then!” She beamed. “You seem to be quite good at finding treasure and I have loads of leads for more—“

“Stay focused, here.”

“I am focused. What’s in it for me?”

“I don’t know. I’ll figure it out. Will you help me or not?”

He felt his temper rising. She was so easily distracted, concerned about nothing but her own welfare. He was starting to understand North’s reaction to her every time he stepped in the same room.

She smiled with a look that spoke of treachery, danger and delirious fun. “Well, of course, I will, my Daniel.”

“It’s Jackson Snow.”

Her look was indulgent and sweet as she leaned in for a peck on his cheek. “You’ll always be Daniel Jackson to me,” she cooed. “So how are we doing this?”

“Doing what?” He was having a lot of trouble concentrating. She gave him mental whiplash, and when she was close… He decided it must be an effect from the kor mak bracelet.

“Stealing.” She looked positively saucy, tantalizing, and certain to get him into trouble.

“Oh, that. Um.” His brow wrinkled. “I’ve never stolen anything in my life. In fact, I’ve spent my life trying to protect ancient artifacts from looters and grave-robbers. I was hoping you could…”

Her laughter was positively filthy. She patted his chest and leaned close. “Leave it to me, darling. I’ll tell you when to meet me in the ‘gate room. You make sure everyone in the control room cooperates or is off on a coffee break.”

Hips swaying in her black leather garb, she sashayed over to his desk and drew the glyphs for a ‘gate address on a piece of paper. “This is the address we take it to, and once we’re there, we’ll destroy it together. Deal?”

Snow frowned as she crowded into his personal space. He knew he shouldn’t do this. Internal alarms were blaring. “How do I know I can trust you?”

Mischief sparkled in her deep blue eyes. “You can’t. You shouldn’t. But what choice do you have?”

He hung his head with a sigh, accepting whatever Fate served up for him as the price to be paid.

“Okay, then. What do you want me to do?”

“Well, for a start…” She put her arms around his neck and kissed him.

***

July 19, 2005

The Next Day

P4X-347

Jackson Snow exited the event horizon on a beach.

A storm was gathering offshore and within a few hours, it would be pouring down rain. He could smell it, that ionic freshness in the air seasoned with the peppery scent of the sea.

“I know this place,” he observed, gazing down the winding shoreline.

Then he realized where he was. His pulse quickened. He couldn’t remember how far away the effects of the Goa’uld pleasure palace’s addictive light show would reach.

“We have to get out of here,” he ordered, “and fast!”

“Calm down,” she returned placidly. “The radiation device has been deactivated. The Tau’ri are using this place now as a way station for refugees. They only keep a handful of people here full time, and they’re all at the palace now, watching us through the cameras.” She nodded at the tall metal pole not far away on which the device was mounted, well out of reach.

“We’ll be away from here before they reach us,” Vala promised silkily. “Get our package ready, if you don’t mind, while I dial up Rimpau.”

Snow opened the crate they’d brought through the ‘gate and rolled it onto its side to dump the device out onto the sand while the brunette pressed the keys on the DHD.

Tied to the finial on the top was a small cloth bag containing the stones used to operate it.

“Ready?” he asked her, hefting the device as best he could by himself. “As soon as you press that big red button, I need your hands on this thing.” Every part of his body hurt while he struggled to keep a grip on the big, heavy object.

“I can’t wait to have my hands on your thing,” she teased, pressing another key.

As soon as the kawoosh flushed sideways, they slung the heavy device upward into the spray, vaporizing it instantly.

Snow let his hands hang in the air, throbbing with pain, unable to flex his fingers at all for the moment. His back ached, his thighs burned and his knees threatened to give. He leaned over to stretch for a second and let his body recover from that Herculean effort.

Panting with exertion, Vala pulled a canteen from a pocket in her stylish leather coat. “That sort of work makes one thirsty. Drink?”

She offered the bottle to him first.

He glanced suspiciously and shook his head, still leaning over, hands braced on his knees.

“Suit yourself.” She took a long drink and replaced the cap.

Only then did he accept her offer.

While he was quenching his thirst, she reached into her cleavage and retrieved a couple of bluish-white berries. With a sly grin, she offered one to him.

Noting where she’d stored them, he declined.

Vala arched an eyebrow. “You don’t know what you’re missing,” she said in a sing-song tone. “They’re the most coveted delicacy in the entire galaxy.”

He made a face, thinking about sweaty boobs. “I’ll pass, thanks. You feel free to enjoy them.”

Just as he was starting to catch his breath, he stood up. He felt a little dizzy and bent over again. Instead of making it better, the motion only made his head spin more wildly.

Then the realization hit.

“You drugged me!” he slurred, stumbling as he tried to stay upright.

“I did!” she admitted, full of glee as she slipped underneath his arm. “Now, let’s get to work. It’s time for you to pay your debt to me, and I have just the thing.”

She popped one of the berries into his open, panting mouth.

He meant to spit it out, but it tasted good, so incredibly delicious it made him chew and swallow it immediately.

As she walked him into the event horizon, he realized he had no idea what planet she’d dialed, where she was taking him or what she intended to do with him when they got there.

Somewhere between entering and exiting the wormhole, he passed out.*

***

“Finally got Joy to bed,” Jack murmured wearily as he climbed under the covers. “She wore me out! As much as I like the kid, it’ll be nice to give her back to her mom.”

North made a satisfactory noise from the other pillow. “I hope Danielle and Tzatzil have a nice time in Denver. They’re back tomorrow morning, right?”

“Bright ‘n’ early.”

The two men fell silent while Jack imagined the two women doing naughty things together.

“Toldja the elf likes you,” he stated a moment later.

North chuckled. “I’m not exactly her type.”

“You’re not exactly mine, either, but we’re making it work.” He glanced at the bedside table and noticed the shadowy shape of the Astroglide bottle. Next to it were the barely visible square shapes of a stack of condom packages. “I see you’re a bit ambitious tonight. How many--”

The other man shut him up with a kiss that made his toes curl.

Hours later, Jack had just drifted off to sleep, sated and sore, when his cell phone rang on the nightstand.

A moment later, North’s went off on the other side of the bed. He vaulted out from under the covers and dashed into the closet so he could answer the phone without Jack’s voice in the background.

Good thinking, Jack told him privately in his head as he pushed the answer button.

“O’Neill,” he intoned, rubbing his eyes and thinking briefly about the advantages of retirement.

The voice on the other end was Chief Harriman’s, reporting the theft of the Ancients’ communication device in concert with the sudden disappearance of Jackson Snow and Vala Mal Doran.

He could hear North’s raised, high-pitched response to the same message coming through the closet door.

Jack had to think quickly. “Um, listen, Walter. Is it absolutely necessary I come in tonight? I’m babysitting Danielle’s kid and just got her to sleep, so…”

He checked the clock.

Two a.m.

Zazz would kick his ass if he let North drive to the base alone.

He sighed. “Okay, but I’ll need a bed made up in the VIP quarters to put the baby in when we get there.”

North stepped out of the closet, looking rather sheepish.

“Didja feel at home in there?” Jack quipped.

The other man turned around and glanced at the closet door. Then he frowned back at his lover. “Oh, ha ha,” he said humorlessly. “Pot… kettle…”

“Vala,” O’Neill returned, throwing back the covers. He reached for a pair of sweatpants on the floor and stepped into them. “I’ll get the baby up when we’re dressed. You good to drive us all there?”

North turned on a lamp and shoved his glasses onto his face. “I’ll go make coffee. Then I’ll be good to go.”

Jack glanced down at his partner’s crotch. “Pants?”

“Right.” The younger man made an about face on his way to the bedroom door, and went in search of where he’d left his trousers. “Are we sure Vala didn’t kidnap the other Daniel?”

“Yeah, it’s Snow, all right. Daniel Mourning’s on his way to D.C., ‘member?”

“I hope nobody told her about the rest of us.” North rubbed his face after donning a T-shirt. “My God, can you imagine Vala with a hundred forty-something of us? She’d have a stroke.”

He stopped moving. His brows twitched together as he reconsidered that idea. “Maybe I should give her the ‘gate addresses to where the rest of us are. The woman has got to stop kidnapping me!”

Jack was busy looking at the graphic design on North’s T-shirt. It featured the face of a nice looking middle-aged man with frameless glasses and great hair juxtaposed beside a logo that read, “Digging in the Dirt.” Below that, in smaller letters, was the name Michael Shanks.

“What is that?” Jack nodded at the design.

North glanced down to see what he was wearing. “Oh, it’s my favorite TV show. A world-famous archaeologist from Stanford U travels the world to ancient digs and compares the facts to pop-culture legen—“

“Okay.” Jack put his head down, indicating he was done with the topic.

North was apparently too sleepy to continue and let the subject hang.

They dressed in silence, and each went about their duties to prepare for a trip back to the base to discuss the ramifications of Vala Mal Doran’s theft of both artifact and archaeologist.

***

July 29, 2005

Ten Days Later

North sat at his desk, staring at the white board. Across the top he’d written, Who are the Dreamers? Underneath he had notes picked out of the flexible tablet device Doc Holliday had given him on Delta.

’Everything you need to find the Dreamers is in there’,” he repeated aloud, looking at the device again.

Only there wasn’t. He’d found pictures of icons and a list of names of ancient gods, most of whom were incredibly obscure. They were from a variety of cultures as well known as the Greco-Romans and as distant as China.

Every other eye in the room was also focused on that board, all except Jack’s.

Major O’Neill was pretending to type up a report on his laptop.

“Does anybody have anything?” he asked, unable to keep the irritation out of his tone.

“I think we all get Pandora and Atlas,” Col. Standing answered, her boots propped up on her desktop as she studied the board. “We know the stories, anyway, but what they have to do with… the…” She sat up, soles on the floor, leaning forward intently.

“What?” North could see by her body language that she had an idea.

“The Match Game,” she declared. “I think these symbols are somehow connected to these gods. Help me out, here, Daniel.”

North didn’t bother correcting the name. She was working the problem, and he didn’t want to interrupt the flow.

She got up and removed the pictures from the board, laying each sheet of the paper on her desk except for one. The hourglass she placed under the name of Atlas, tacked up on the whiteboard with a small magnet. Sorting back through the other images, she took the maze design and put it under Pandora.

“Just bear with me a sec.” She held up an index finger, leaning into a slight crouch as she shifted her weight in excitement. “Think about Pandora. Her biggest fault was unbearable curiosity, right? Look at the maze. What do you do in a maze?”

“Look for the way out,” North answered automatically.

“Ding ding ding ding ding!” She touched the tip of her nose with a fingertip. “And why do you go into a maze in the first place?”

“Because you want to know if you can find the way out,” Dr. Jones answered, smiling. “Curiosity! Of course. The symbols represent each of these gods.”

“And here’s where you come in, boss,” Moon continued. “You tell us who these gods were, what they were about, and we’ll match up the symbols.”

“Why the hourglass for Atlas?” asked Lt. Wintersmith.

“Because he held up the earth for all—“

“Time!” North chimed in with her, nodding. “I think you may have something, Moon. Let’s get to it.”

They sorted out the pictures, and North began his breakdown on each of the gods.

“Aidos, little known Greek goddess of shame—“

“That’s an interesting choice,” Jack observed, head still bent over his keyboard.

North shot him a look and continued. “…also of modesty, humility, respect and honor. She was said to be the last god to leave Earth at the end of the Golden Age.”

Something inside him broke open as he said the words. He held his breath, trying to maintain a slippery hold on that quicksilver idea. His eyes closed, and he could see a fragment of what they were looking for, but the whole concept was still tantalizingly just out of reach.

Moon leaned over her desk and picked up a page with a drape of white cloth. “Bridal veil,” she explained.

All eyes fixed on her in various shades of surprise.

“Modesty,” she explained. “It’s what the veil symbolizes. White dress for purity. Flowers for fertility. Ask any Western woman.”

Pax nodded.

North tacked it up under her name and moved on to the next one.

“Eleos,” he intoned, “Greek goddess of mercy and compassion. There is some conjecture as to whether this personification was male or female.”

“The parasol,” Song Wintersmith suggested. “If you look at just the pictures, some of them bear a resemblance to Buddhist and Hindu icons. The vase for Life. The endless knot for Love, and so on.”

“That’s it! That’s it!” North crowed. As fast as he could, he started placing the pictures on the board, explaining as he went. “Roman goddess Feronia, keeper of wild places and the first fruits of harvest, patroness of the vast bounty of Life. Offerings were made on her altar in vases.”

He paused long enough to make eye contact with Song. “Mabon, Celtic god of wisdom. The Buddhists use the right-curving white conch for that so the shell goes there. Belun, Slavic god of peace, happiness and good luck – he goes with the two golden fish that symbolize the same thing. And last but not least, Tu’er Shen and the endless knot. Love.”

“I never heard of Tu’er Shen,” Story mused.

“That’s because he was only worshipped in one temple in all of ancient China, the Hall of Martial Brilliance.” North was on fire now, the story spilling out unbridled. “He was also called the Rabbit God, and his purview was over love—“

Reason took hold and stopped his tongue.

The abrupt end of his sentence made Jack turn around and look at him with raised eyebrows.

North took a deep breath and returned his gaze to his rapt audience. He finished the sentence with all the dignity he possessed, standing straight and tall. “Love between men.”

Moon’s eyes widened. “Dude! Are you telling me there’s a gay god?”

Song stood up and high-fived her. He let out a highly uncharacteristic celebratory whoop, completely shattering his British reserve.

North cleared his throat. “Actually, there are a lot of gay and bisexual gods in world mythology. Apollo, Dionysus, Hercules, Poseidon, Zeus… It’s a long list. But this is the only one whose purview was over gay men.”

Jack had turned around and was staring at him now.

With a shameless grin, North continued his lecture. “Cúchulainn, the Irish folk hero, was said to be gay…”

O’Neill’s mouth dropped open with a little gasp. “Get out! Really?”

“Mmm-hmm.” North nodded, starting to enjoy this. “He loved his foster brother.”

“And then there’s Yu the great…”

“Which explains why his First Prime is so hot to keep the old guy around,” Jack quipped. “Guess he’s more than just a ‘god’ to ol’ Oshu.”

“I’d say that young man is probably in love with Yu.” North’s gaze into Jack’s eyes didn’t waver.

“Man, you could cut the tension in here with a knife,” Moon observed under her breath, her gaze shifting between the two men. “You guys need the room?”

Jack turned around to face his desk and resumed typing.

North cleared his throat again and addressed the team. “Great work, guys! We have part of the puzzle connected. We know who we’re looking for. Now we just need to know where to find them.”

“But there’s one more picture.” Pacifica picked up the last sheet of paper on Moon’s desk and held it up. “It’s a circle on fire. I think.”

“The flaming pearl,” North corrected. “It’s a powerful item in Chinese mythology that grants wishes, and I think I know where this goes.” He picked up the blue marker and wrote ‘Cernunnos’ on the last available space, tacking the image underneath.

“The guy with the antlers?” asked Moon.

“The wishes are the Prizes.” Song bowed his head, obviously thinking. “So he’s behind all this?”

“Yes.” North agreed, his head bobbing enthusiastically. “I think we’re looking for his people.”

“And they are?” Jack gave him a sidelong gaze as he laid the pen back down.

“Amazing,” the commander replied, filled with a growing sense of wonder, “and I think they’re on our side.”

***

July 30, 2005

The Next Day

The pre-dawn morning was silent save for crickets chirping. There were no traffic sounds or jets flying over as North strolled barefoot into Jack’s back yard. It was hours before time to report for work, but he couldn’t sleep; not after what he’d just remembered.

He’d been on a sandy beach walking toward a long banquet table where his team was fully in their cups. At his side, the man with the antlers strolled.

As long as North didn’t blink and kept his head at a certain angle, he could see the other presence, a being shaped like a floating, undulating dragon sharing Conall’s headspace.

When Conall looked at him, the dragon’s glowing green eyes did, too.

He’d asked about Cernunnos’ people.

“They’re called the Mo’o.”

North gazed up at the stars, arms crossed as he pondered. He wasn’t familiar with that term but it sounded vaguely Hawaiian, what with all the vowels. He’d look that up when he got to the office.

What disturbed him even more, though, was his memory of the Prize Conall/Cernunnos had awarded him.

“… we gave you the charm to Heal. Which, by the way, you already knew how to do. We simply refreshed your memory a bit.”

North looked down at his hands. The Ancients had known how to heal by touch. He’d had that secret while he’d been ascended, but not after he came back to mortal form… at least, not where he could remember how to do it.

Now, however, the knowledge was right there, anytime he wanted to access it.

He closed his eyes, searching inward.

There was so much beyond that invisible wall. All he had to do was reach out and touch…

His eyes popped open.

He ran to the bedroom, put sweats on over his pajamas, shoved his feet into slippers and grabbed keys and wallet. In seconds his tires were screeching out of the driveway, squealing as he gunned his new SUV down the street, headed for the base. Heart pounding, he realized he’d left Jack at the house, but he wasn’t going back for his bodyguard.

He raced to his office, scrabbled for a tablet and pencil, and started to draw.

By the time he’d labeled the last component and his pulse started to return to normal, he stared at the page with a sense of dread creeping over him.

Tzatzil appeared in the office doorway. Her face was a thundercloud, ready to unleash a tirade on him for leaving without his required escort, but then her expression shifted. “You are afraid,” she observed accurately. “What has disturbed you so, my Daniel?”

He studied the plans again, weighing, considering.

Then he rolled up the pages, secured them with a rubber band and shoved them into a desk drawer.

“Please don’t tell anyone about this,” he begged her. “I need to talk to Snow before…”

“Snow has been kidnapped by Vala Mal Doran,” she reminded him gently.

“Yeah.” He nodded, starting to sweat in the cool underground room. “Yeah, I know. But I need to talk to him before anybody knows about…” He shrugged, struggling for a word that would say without saying what had happened to him for the last few hours, but nothing came. “…this morning. Please?”

She nodded, but her concern didn’t lessen. “Anything for you.”

He heaved a sigh of relief. “Right, then. I need to shower and get dressed before everyone else starts coming in.”

As he stood up, he met her worried gaze. “I’m sorry for leaving Jack at the house. It felt like… an emergency.” He pulled out his phone and sent an apologetic text, along with assurances that he was at the base and perfectly fine.

She took a deep breath and let it out shakily. With a tiny smile, she asked, “Better now?”

He grinned. “Yeah. Better. Thank you.”

All the way to the locker room, she was at his side. When he left, showered and dressed, for the commissary, Tzatzil kept pace with him, silently on watch as they walked. And when he slid into his desk to start his research on the Mo’o, she went to work behind him at one of the standing desks along the wall.

Pacifica Jones was the first through the door, dancing to the tunes on her iPod nano. She plopped into her chair, spun around in it a few times while the song finished up, and finally pulled the earbuds away to greet them both.

“Um, Pax, I need you to do some tech research for me today,” North told her without looking up from his keyboard.

“Sure, boss. Whatcha need?”

“SG-One went on a mission while I was ascended to…” He glanced at his notes. “P9X-391. They recovered a piece of Ancient technology that allowed people to see creatures in other dimensions. I need to know all the details on that tech, including where it is now.”

“Probably in a box at Area Fifty-one,” she shot back. “That’s where the stuff they don’t know what to do with goes to die.” She snorted in obvious disgust.

“And the other device is the TER -- Transphase Eradication Rod,” North added. “That device is standard equipment on MALPs now, used to screen planets for the presence of the Reetou, but we don’t really use the TERs in the field, and I’m thinking maybe we need to, at least for a little while.”

“Because?”

He glanced at the open book on his desk and held it up for her to see. “Because I think they – or some form of an amalgamated device between the two – might be useful for helping us find the Mo’o.”

Jack had strolled in on the last part of that sentence. “Mo’ what? Mo’ money? Mo’ big honkin’ space guns?”

North spelled the word. “They are Hawaiian deities of great power, said to guard the richest of treasures. Some are beautiful and benevolent, able to shape-shift into human form. Others are dangerous, but all are incredibly powerful and ancient.”

O’Neill stopped next to the desk and studied the illustration for a moment. “Looks like a gecko. I had one of those little critters do pushups on my chest while I was sunning on the beach at Waikiki. Very cute. Very tiny.”

“Not the same creatures,” North advised, shaking his head. “I think these are Cernunnos’ people.”

“Because?” Jack lowered himself gently into his chair at the desk on the front row.

North hesitated. “Because Conall told me who they were.” He swallowed hard. “And last night, I remembered what Cernunnos looked like. He was invisible most of the time, but if I looked just right—“

“And that’s why you want these gadgets back on the table.” Pacifica beamed. “Got it! Let me read the original mission reports and I’ll have ‘em sent to my lab on Level Twenty-one.”

“What gadgets?” Jack asked, eyebrows rising.

North reiterated the list.

“Um. No!” O’Neill shot back with a clear note of disbelief and mild panic. “The TER, yeah, sure, youbetcha, snookums, but not that other thing! It almost caused a nationwide panic, and we’re taking no chances that might happen again. Pandora’s box stays packed.”

“Oh!” North nearly jumped out of his seat with excitement. “That’s it! Curiosity! We have to go back to that planet right now!”

Jack barred his way before he got past the end of the aisle between the desks. “No, sorry, North, but there’s nothing on that planet anymore. Nothing but sand, anyway.”

“Jack.” He tucked his chin, preparing to storm through the other man’s objections.

“Daniel.” O’Neill put his hands on his hips. His face declared, Absolutely not.

“Um.” Tzatzil was facing them at her desk. “Are we now calling this one Daniel again, since he is the only one here?”

That brought them both up short.

“As long as there’s no paperwork involved, I guess so.” North shrugged. “I answer to both anyway.”

Jack kept looking at the elf. Staring at her, in fact. He mumbled something about intuition.

“Jack?” North could see the wheels turning.

For an instant, no one was home behind those whiskey brown eyes.

“I think we should go to Zazz’s world again,” O’Neill announced slowly. “Not just because I’m dead curious about how you saved their queen…” He rolled his eyes over to North. “…which is totally unclear in your mission report, by the way…”

“Why the Tuathan home world?” North insisted.

“I remembered a little something from Gambler’s World myself, just now. Seems our pointy-eared friend is related to our favorite bartender, since he used to live on her planet. Maybe there’s an artifact or something for you to find there.”

North turned to eyeball his bodyguard and knew instantly from her apologetic, embarrassed stance that Jack was right.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” North asked, a little hurt that she’d kept this knowledge from him.

Her shoulders came up around her ears, eyes asking for forgiveness. “It is not my journey,” she answered softly. “I am to protect you while you walk this road. That is all, my dear friend.”

North didn’t quite know how to feel about that declaration. “People’s lives are at stake here, Tzatzil! Whole worlds are in danger of enslavement or destruction, and if we can help them—“ He stepped toward her in entreaty.

The elf’s head came up, all suggestion of apology vanished under a fiery gaze of righteous defiance. “It is not. My. Journey,” she insisted with a sharp edge to her voice that would not be challenged. “If you do not work for the answers, you will not value them.”

Jack touched his sleeve. “That’s probably as far as you wanna push that, North. Let’s go talk to General Waring.”

North let it go.

An hour later, a visit had been scheduled for the Tuathan home world for the next day. North gave out team assignments for the remainder of the shift, and then found a small conference room with a phone he could use in private. It took him a while to get through to Daniel Mourning in Washington, but after a lengthy chat and quite a bit of guidance from another transplanted Daniel, he hung up the phone and went back to his office to retrieve the plans for the personal shield generator he’d drawn up that morning, the secret he’d somehow managed to retrieve from his ascended memories.

The SGC could’ve used this device years ago to protect their people in the field.

Both men felt there had to be a reason why the idea had come to him now.

“The Ori are coming,” the alternate universe Daniel reminded him. “We need to be prepared.”

“I still don’t even know what they are,” North had prompted. “Nobody will tell me. I think I kind of need to know, don’t you? All of you have put me in the middle of everything, but no one wants to share where this ship is sailing to.”

“When it’s time,” Daniel Jackson had answered. With an ominous tone, he’d added, “Be glad you don’t know yet, brother. You won’t get a good night’s sleep after you do.”

He held the plans in his hand, turning the rolled paper in a circle as he rode in the elevator to General Waring’s office for the second time that day.

***

North rubbed his face, exhausted and struggling desperately to stay awake. His lack of sleep the previous night was catching up to him, and he was ready for this day to be over so he could go home and hit the sack. There was still a great deal to do, however, and as Pacifica poked her head into the doorway, beaming, he hoped she had something to tell him that would help keep his eyes open.

Coffee just wasn’t doing the trick.

“You’ve got to come see this!” she squealed, and then dashed out into the hallway again.

He rose from his desk and stretched.

Pax popped back into the room again. “C’mon! Everybody! Now!”

“Keep your panties on, Jones,” Jack called back, hitting a few more keys on his keyboard without looking up. He kept typing until he finished the sentence and then saved the document.

The whole team got up and followed Pax to her lab on 21.

The lights were out, except for a few lamps. On the table, fresh out of a crate, sat a long cylindrical object with a set of lighted crystals projecting out of one end. The main body glowed with amber light, and the columnar end caps of some kind of rust colored metal bore inscriptions in a script North recognized as a variation of Ancient writing.

Jack hesitated in the doorway, obviously recognizing it from a previous encounter. “Please tell me that thing’s not on!”

“Oh, it’s fine,” Pacifica assured him. “I’ve thoroughly read Samantha Carter’s notes. As long as we reverse the setting to deactivate the device when we’re done, it’s perfectly harmless.”

“Which is why the Ancients left it locked in a basement on an abandoned world,” O’Neill shot back, obviously irritated.

Dr. Jones handed North a TER. “Remember this?” she asked gaily.

“The Reetou gun?” asked Jack.

North kept to himself that it had been the original Daniel Jackson who had helped to fight the Reetou invasion on Earth. He remembered using the weapon to see the crab-like beings, and that was enough. He held up the double-barreled weapon, but wasn’t sure where to point it.

“Finger off the trigger, big guy,” Jack reminded him in a calming voice.

Pacifica rearranged the crystal array. “Here we go,” she called, plugging it in again. “Now, everybody touch this thing.”

“I’ll pass, thanks.” Jack crossed his arms and stood guard by the door. “I’m over the Sixties.”

North rolled his eyes and put a hand on the glowing orange barrel, feeling the excitement rising within him. “C’mon, Jack. Play along.”

“Just a touch.” Pax moved their hands off the device when everyone held on. “Takes a little while, so get comfy.”

It didn’t take long at all for the effects of the device to be revealed.

The other-dimensional creatures appeared suddenly, flying or crawling into view.

North prayed there would be no spiders.

“Okay, now for the big reveal!” Pacifica called. “North, aim that TER above the device and tell me what you see.” She laughed.

“You’ve already done it, I assume?” He lifted the double-barreled gun and squeezed the button that revealed out-of-phase beings.

And stumbled backward, almost dropping the TER in shock.

“Holy buckets!” he gasped.

“I didn’t see,” Moon snapped. “Do it again!”

Jack reached out and touched the amber column.

North pushed the button again, and this time, held the TER in place so everyone could see.

Hovering above the device – in fact, partially inserted into it – was a dragon.

“Hello,” called North. “Can you speak?”

Writing appeared in the air, but the creature made no sound.

“What’s it say?” Pax crowded in close enough to see.

’I am Pandora,’” he read aloud. “We—we’re very pleased to meet you.” It occurred to him with a bit of horror that this creature had been trapped in a box for several years at Area 51, possibly millennia on the abandoned world on which the device had been found. “I’m unbelievably sorry you’ve been stuck here for so long.”

It seemed to smile, the corners of its large, sharply toothed mouth turning upward. Its eyes glowed bright blue.

“You’re a Mo’o, like Cernunnos?” he inquired.

Pandora thrashed around a bit, obviously struggling to get out of the device. After a moment, it went back to calm floating. More script appeared.

’My beloved,’” he read aloud, and his heart broke. He glanced at Moon, then at Jack. “We have to take her to Gambler’s World! We have to reunite them. She and Cernunnos are mates. Maybe he can figure out how to set her free. I don’t think she can get out of this thing.”

The air in front of him filled with excited writing that appeared and disappeared as if the creature were shouting.

“Can you hear us if we turn this thing off?”

The creature nodded.

“Pax, shut it down.”

“Can’t,” she shot back. “I have to reverse the effects first or everyone we touch will be seeing monsters again.”

With lightning speed, she removed the crystals and changed their order.

The moment the energy disconnected, the image vanished.

“If you use one device or the other,” Dr. Jones explained, “you can’t see her. The magic didn’t happen till I used them together. Way to go, North.” She plugged the unit back into the base, and the device lit up again.

“Now, everybody touch it.”

They did.

“Pandora,” North called to the now-invisible creature, “we’re taking you to Cernunnos. Just bear with us.” He laid the TER on a desk and helped lift the heavy device back into its crate. “Moon, call General Waring and tell him we need the lock-out lifted from Gambler’s World right now.”

“Done.” Colonel Standing raced to the phone on the wall.

North and the twins hefted the crate and headed for the elevator. Heart pounding, he gazed into the empty space above them. He didn’t know this creature at all. Legend said the Mo’o could be nasty-tempered and deadly. Setting this one free might have disastrous consequences, but he knew Cernunnos and this was his mate.

Nothing in this world or any other would stop him from acting in the name of love.

***

August 1, 2005

The Next Day

BP6-3Q1 Comtrya

Jarod stepped out of the wormhole into a clean, bright room. There were four doors set in the walls beneath the dome, each bearing a different symbol. Beside the DHD was a computer terminal with a large screen at about eye level.

Two steps closer, the monitor lit up.

“Welcome to Comtrya,” said the familiar face. Daniel Jackson grinned. “Oh, hey, Jarod! Long time, no see. What brings you here?”

The man held up a large case with his left hand which contained the samples he’d need for testing and a small red notebook in his right where he’d laboriously written what he’d developed of the new coding so far.

“Hey, Daniel. I need your help, but I understand it’s not exactly safe for humans outside. Is there a way you can bring me into the city safely?”

“Well, the easiest way is to make a clone and send him in.” Daniel grinned. “We do need more company here, after all.”

“There’s also the matter of my volunteers,” Jarod responded, nodding toward the Stargate.

Right on cue, half a dozen Jaffa came through the still-open wormhole behind him.

“It’s kind of important that we have real biological test subjects for this. Can you get them to a research facility in the city and keep them safe from the jacker bugs?”

Daniel leaned over slightly out of picture for a moment. When he came back into view, his face was drawn with concern. “You know the SGC is looking for you, right? I need a reason not to turn you in, buddy.”

Jarod had considered every angle of this very issue before coming to the planet. “Point me to the duplication scanner and I’ll come tell you all about it. I just need to know these people will be safe here, or else I’ll have to send them back and do my testing elsewhere.”

“You sure?” asked Daniel.

“Will I like being an android?”

“The android won’t really be aware of any differences except that he’ll feel… better… and he won’t get old or sick. There’ll be lots of time for research. We can catch up. It’ll be nice having an old friend around.” Daniel looked hopeful.

“But the man will know he’s been copied,” Jarod returned, though his decision had already been made before he stepped through the Stargate.

“Yeah, but you won’t be looking him in the eye every day.”

In the background two men stopped to chat.

Both were wearing Daniel Jackson’s face.

“Just tell me where to go and what to do before I lose my nerve.” He glanced at the Jaffa and instructed them to stay in that room until someone came for them, or risk a horrible, slow death.

Following the instructions, Jarod went through the proper door and found a column with eight coffin-shaped tables around it. He lay down on one of them, and the machinery came to life. When it was finished with its painless process, it shut down again.

Daniel’s face appeared in another monitor on the wall. “That’s it, then. Your android is already on the way. When we’ve had a chat with him, we’ll decide whether to open the door back to the Stargate room and let you go, or hold you here for retrieval by the SGC.”

Jarod got up and stood before the screen, reaching into his left sleeve for the device attached to his wrist. “That won’t be necessary, Daniel. I really wish I had the chance to explain everything myself, but you should understand the whole story shortly. Just know that I trust you’ll take care of our VIP guests. They’re more important than you can know.”

He touched the button on the transport device and in the next moment, found himself on board the bridge of the Daniel Jackson, surrounded by little gray beings with very large heads and inquisitive dark eyes.

“Thanks for the lift, Thor,” he told the Captain, who was seated not far away.

A proximity alert sounded and on the main view screen, an image of the planet below with a starlit background appeared. In the distance, a subspace window opened and another spaceship appeared.

It was a Goa’uld ha’tak.

“That should be Nacaxoc,” Jarod observed, “so please don’t shoot him down. He’s bringing some cargo that will be needed to complete my research.”

The Asgard hailed the other ship and upon confirmation of Jarod’s explanation, Thor set his ship’s course for the new Asgard homeworld.

“We are very interested in your plan, Jarod,” the alien observed from his captain’s chair. “Though the Goa’uld are not as potent a threat at this time, they have experienced such lulls before and came back stronger each time. You seem to have created a solution that will prevent a resurgence of their power, as well as tie up some other important loose ends.”

Jarod smiled. “It feels pretty good to be on this end of things for a change. We still have to make a lot of things work, though. Right now, it’s mostly conceptual. Are the Tok’ra on board?”

“There are concerns, but your plan is being presented to the High Council. We should hear from them before your testing is completed.”

“I love it when a plan comes together!”

Thor held up his right hand.

After a beat, he asked, “Do you not wish to high five in celebration? O’Neill taught me this gesture.”

Jarod gave the gray being a very gentle pat on the palm with his own, afraid he might hurt the little guy if he did it full strength.

“So do we know where the Replicators are?”

“They are on the way to our new home world and will arrive within a few months. We must work quickly if we are to stop them from destroying my people.” Thor was quiet for a moment. “If your plan fails, Jarod, you must be aware that our cities have been prepared for demolition. We would rather die than be consumed by those horrid little… things.”

That thought was sobering. “Well, then, this plan will have to work. Is the new ship I requested under construction?”

“I am not certain it will be finished in time.” Thor turned his big dark eyes up to the human standing over him. “If it is not…”

“It’ll still be the first thing they eat,” Jarod assured him. “And that’s the whole point of building it.”

Thor nodded. “I hope you are correct.”

So did Jarod, because millions of lives and two entire races were depending on him.

***

August 1, 2005

The Next Day

Danaani, Tuatha de Danaan Homeworld

SG-Zero stepped out of the wormhole into a cave. It was dark inside with no obvious way out, just a lightless chamber full of stalactites and stalagmites. The sound of water dripping nearby echoed around them. The air smelled like earth, the scent of the tomb.

“How welcoming,” Jack observed.

“All is not as it seems,” Colonel Standing returned with a sly smile. “Wait for it…”

“Hi, guys!” North called to no one in particular. “Miss me?”

The cave vanished and along with it, the attendant dankness and gloom.

They stood in a patch of sunlit woodlands. The scent of evergreens filled the air. Birds chirped gaily.

“Elfin magic, no doubt,” said Jack, impressed as hell but damned if he’d show it. “Do they bake cookies, too?”

North grinned and walked into the trees.

“Oh, Keebler elves!” Lt. Wintersmith blurted, smacking his forehead with his palm. “I get it now. That takes me back!”

“Marines,” O’Neill grumbled to himself, shaking his head.

Elves began to appear from behind trees, all running toward North. They mobbed him with hugs and squeals of delight, which he tolerated with good humor, sweeping him along a barely-there trail.

Tzatzil followed him along with a bemused smile, giving him far more space than she usually did.

Jack hurried to catch up to her and had to push himself to keep abreast.

“Are all of you so…” He leaned in close. “…damned pretty?”

Even the elf men he’d seen were Legolas-hot.

In a straight-guy way, of course.

Zazz dimpled up at him. “You think we are pleasing to look upon, O’Neill?”

She was positively flirty as she teased him.

“Look, if I didn’t know you and Danielle were a thing, I’d think you were hitting on me. Stop, before you embarrass yourself, kiddo.”

Her laughter was like little bells. She punched his shoulder playfully. “You are very sweet, O’Neill, and transparent as glass.” Then she kissed his cheek and danced ahead, breaking up the crowd around North to give him a breather.

He dropped back to keep pace with Colonel Standing. “They kinda like our boy, don’t they,” he observed.

“Well, you know, saving a queen kinda does that for folks around here.” Moon shrugged with apparent nonchalance.

“Yeah, exactly how did he do that again? He’s very vague on the details.”

“Thought you read my mission report.” She glanced at the ground, breaking eye contact. Her expression suddenly shuttered closed.

Jack stopped in his tracks as realization left him gobsmacked. “You weren’t there, were you? You don’t know!”

Moon blushed. “I may have…” She stammered a little, waved a hand and looked everywhere but at him.

He pointed at her in fiendish glee. “Aha! You don’t know! None of you actually saw what he did!”

“Well—“ Standing swore softly. “Look, we took down witness statements and—“ She flailed a little more. “Jack, the curiosity has been driving me bat-shit, but he won’t fucking tell! I had to put something in my report. Christ on a cracker!” She stomped off, muttering more curses.

His curiosity piqued. Something was definitely up. There was a cover-up afoot, and he meant to get to the bottom of it.

There was a palace straight out of Rivendell, a banquet for the newly arrived guests, and then near nightfall, drinks with Queen Vanlanthriel.

She had green hair down to her ankles.

Jack was mesmerized.

“Don’t stare,” Moon cautioned him. “It’s rude. And pick your chin up off the floor. Need a napkin?”

“But.” He swallowed hard. “She looks like Poison Ivy stepped right out of the pages of a Batman comic book! The really.” Cough. “Really hot one. Wowza!”

I am so straight! he congratulated himself internally. I would tap that in a New York minute.

As if he’d heard that, North turned his head and gave Jack a dastardly smug look.

“Oh, you bastard!” Jack whispered. “You did!”

Conversation continued while Jack fumed silently, refusing to look at either of them.

Later in the evening, they were shown to their quarters. Moments after shutting his door, Jack started wearing a rut in the thick carpet covering the polished stone floor. He was jealous; he admitted that freely. Everyone at the table had probably seen it.

A knock sounded at the door.

He ignored it, hands shoved into the pockets of his black trousers, in no mood for company or business.

“It’s me,” North called through the door.

Jack clenched his teeth, struggling to decide whether he wanted to see his lover at that moment or not.

With a sigh, he stomped over to the door and opened it a crack.

North pushed his way inside, closed the door with a flick of his hand and threw his arms around Jack’s neck.

The kiss North gave him singed the rug.

When he pulled away, North declared, “I’m straight! Did you see that? She still turns me on!”

Jack pushed him away. “Hello! Who wouldn’t be turned on by that? The boobs alone, for cryin’ out loud!” He ran a hand through his hair and started pacing again. “You fucked her, didn’tcha.”

“No! God, no. If I had, I’d be dead, Jack! These people don’t take that kind of thing lightly.”

That stopped his mental self-torture. “Really? ‘Cause I thought… that look…”

“Really? Oh. Oh, no, that was just self-congratulatory—Never mind. I would never, Jack. We’ve already talked about this. No one else gets in.” He touched his chest with his fingertips. “That door is closed to everyone but you.”

In that moment, balance was restored to the universe of O’Neill. “Well, then. C’mere.”

***

August 2, 2005

The Next Day

Danaani, Tuatha de Danaan Homeworld

The forest was ancient, silent and green. Gigantic trees drooped heavy limbs toward the ground. A velvet skin of moss covered every trunk and stone. Even the sunlight had a green cast to it as it filtered through the canopy to the roots.

“So what are we looking for, North?” asked Dr. Wintersmith, squatting down to peer at a tiny bed of star-like white flowers near the base of a tree.

“Well, I think Tzatzil would be the better one to answer that question,” the commander answered. He paused to take off his glasses and wipe away the condensation on the lenses for the third time. Then he thought better of wearing them at all and put them in the breast pocket of his jacket. He glanced at the redhead.

She had opted for native dress on her homeworld: a form-fitting green tunic over brown tights and boots. A quiver of arrows was strapped to her back, a bow lightly held in her left hand.

“Straight out of The Lord of the Rings,” North murmured to Jack. “I wonder if Tolkein were ever here at some point?”

Jack’s eyebrows popped upward. “Are there hobbits? Should we be on the lookout for Ringwraiths?”

“Very good! You read a book.”

“Saw the movies,” Jack corrected in his usual deadpan. “Hey, Zazz, are we there yet?”

She glanced at him, then took a long look at North. “Soon, O’Neill. Please wait here.”

The elf bounced up on her toes and then took off, leaping with the grace and speed of a deer through the trees.

There was no way any of them could have kept up with her.

Jack found a rock that didn’t look too damp and had a seat. “So did you get anything from Queen Galadriel last night on their common past with the barkeep?”

“Vanlanthriel,” North corrected automatically.

The rest of SG-0 followed suit, having a rest after several hours of hiking.

North leaned against a tree and pulled on his canteen. “Yes, actually, a lot. They have a well documented history, and the Mo’o were apparently here three thousand years ago, on the run from the Goa’uld. Or, rather, Conall’s people came with a few of the Mo’o. The Tuathans gave them refuge and their societies merged. The Mo’o – Cernunnos’ people – were revered as great teachers, but they left after two thousand years. All but one.”

“And that is?” Moon capped her canteen. Her gaze traveled over the landscape, up the trees, far and near, threat assessing.

“Feronia, Keeper of the Sacred Vase. She tends the gardens and heals the sick.” North took a small electronic tablet from an inner pocket of his jacket and pulled up the photo of the amphora-like vase that had been among the symbols Doc Holliday had given him, showing it around.

“Looks kind of like a uterus,” Song observed on a chuckle.

North frowned at it, looking for the resemblance, and found it. “Hmm. Wonder if that’s significant?”

Without a sound, Tzatzil returned.

All eyes turned to her.

“My Daniel, if you will please come with me?” She gestured into the trees.

Everyone started to rise.

She held up a hand. “Only Daniel. North,” she corrected. “Please. Feronia is shy.”

“Keep ‘im safe,” Jack cautioned her as North followed in her footsteps.

They’d been walking for about half an hour when she crossed a stream, leaping lightly over the stones.

North fell into the water while trying to copy her path. He swore and slogged to the other shore.

“Take off your boots here and let them dry,” she instructed him.

“Are we there?” He glanced around.

They were alone, not another soul for miles.

“Where’s Feronia?”

A light mist rose up off the water, drifting slowly upward.

Tzatzil smiled softly. “Please, sit. She will show herself soon.”

He assumed the shy Mo’o was watching them and found a fallen tree to be his seat.

“Boots,” the elf prompted him, pointing at his feet.

With a sigh, he took them off, and then his socks. He wrung the water out and wiggled his toes. It felt good to be out of his footwear after all that walking.

A little groan of pleasure slipped out.

He studied the landscape, hoping to get a glimpse of the elusive creature somewhere in the trees.

Tzatzil took off her boots and waded into the stream. She stood very still for a long time, head down, breathing slowly. The mist settled lower, just to the top of her head.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw it.

As soon as he looked directly at it, the shape disappeared.

North turned his head again, letting his eyes relax, and there it was, shimmering like a glittery ghost above and behind Tzatzil. The creature’s head went right through hers. A dark green light flashed across Tzatzil’s closed eyes.

North laughed and shook his head. “All this time, you’ve been watching me,” he assumed. “Is this why Tzatzil was chosen?”

The voice that answered didn’t come from the elf. It was like the sound of a breeze rustling leaves, very faint and hard to hear. “I have not joined with another for many lifetimes. We see who you are. It was important that we keep you safe.”

That was a surprise. “So you really are guarding me? Why?”

“This is your journey, Daniel Jackson,” Feronia whispered, echoing what Tzatzil had told him days earlier. “We are the Dreamers, and you are the sun. When you rise, we will follow you.”

“Okay.” He had no idea what that meant. “I’m supposed to wake all of you up? Is that it?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

Feronia laughed, the sound of falling water. “How do you know when night has ended? Do you not see the light and know it is time to go to work?”

“Well, okay, I get that, but...” He flailed a little. This was beginning to sound cosmic, and he didn’t think he was up to that kind of massive responsibility. “Why me?”

He’d been asking that question for months now, and needed an answer.

“You have been light,” Feronia answered. “You are light, still. We see you, and know who you are.”

“Because I was ascended?” He was starting to panic a little. “I don’t remember any of tha—“

But as soon as the words left his mouth, he realized he’d only been fooling himself. He’d recovered a piece of what he knew already. The rest of it was buried deep, but still there. He could feel the power and knowledge at his core, just out of reach, right where it was safe.

He studied his hands and knew what he could do with them.

“I’m not ready to be that person,” he murmured, remembering the lesson Sha’re’s son had taught him. “I’ve seen what I’d become if I had enough knowledge—“

“Have you?” Feronia prodded gently, humor in her voice. “You have seen through the eyes of one tainted with darkness and experienced how its power corrupts the weak, yes. But do you not understand that the power of light can also enhance the virtuous? Are you weak, Daniel Jackson?”

He looked up, and the image vanished. In his mind’s eye, he could still see the being’s graceful shape undulating in the air, dancing, always dancing. “Yes, I am weak,” he admitted freely. “I’m impatient. I let my feelings get in the way of reason. I don’t follow the rules. I’m… arrogant.”

He felt tears prickling his eyes as he confessed his flaws, but knew he needed to finish. “I’m awkward around people, so I bury myself in books. People think I’m weird, and they’re right.”

“You see parts of yourself clearly,” Feronia observed, “but you do not look at the parts you should celebrate. You must do this, if you are to fully Become.”

He stood up. “Become what?”

“The Nexus where the dark and the light meet. You see your darkness. Now you must find your light. We are here to watch the rising of the sun on a new day. You began the journey when you opened the Door to Heaven and walked into the stars.”

“Oh, crap, did I mistranslate that?” He panicked a little more, recalling the glyphs on the chalkboard Catherine Langford had shown him his first day under Cheyenne Mountain. He started to pace.

Stepping on wet leaves and sharp sticks brought him to a stop again.

Feronia chuckled. “You are funny.”

“Thanks, I.” He rubbed his hands over his face, struggling to figure out what he was supposed to do. The hum of a mental flatline made him lower his gaze.

In his peripheral vision, he could see the Mo’o again. He sighed in resignation. “Okay, so what do I do now?”

“You may tell the others you have spoken with me, but not where I am,” Feronia instructed. “I will travel with you to find my people. I will observe. Tzatzil will keep you safe. We will continue on your journey.”

He studied the redhead, standing unmoving in the water up to her ankles. “Does she know you’re there?”

“The contest to be your guardian,” Feronia explained, “was also a contest to become the Vase to carry me out into the worlds. It is a duty she has chosen, and we do care greatly for each other. This one is a fine and worthy vessel.”

“I’d like to hear that from her, please.”

Tzatzil’s voice was very soft. Only her mouth moved. “It is difficult for me to allow my beloved friend to manifest, my Daniel. Know that this is something I wanted. I would have given my life to carry her.”

He pondered what he’d learned, sat down to put his soggy footwear and then stood up.

“So… can you tell me exactly how I saved their queen? Because I don’t have a clue.” He flailed a little.

Feronia laughed. Tzatzil broke her stance and giggled madly, dancing around in the water.

“Oh, my Daniel, you are such a delight!”

He contemplated the conversation while Zazz put her boots back on, and they headed back to where they’d left the team.

“Well?” asked Jack.

“Three down, six to go,” North answered.

“Details!”

“Wait, did you see the dragon or not?” Moon demanded. “Did you wake it up?” She glanced around the terrain. “Is it here? Did it tell you something?”

“Yes.”

Jack tapped him on the shoulder. “That was four questions, buddy.”

With a sigh, North told them a carefully edited version of the event that he’d put together on the hike to rejoin them.

“So… because you were ascended, you’re their alarm clock?” Jack summed up.

“Something like that. I’m not real clear on the connection just yet, but Feronia has joined the party now and that’s what we came here to do.”

O’Neill cocked an eyebrow at him. “You didn’t wake up the one in the bug zapper, didja?”

North shook his head. “No, Pandora was accidentally stuck in there by the Ancients. I’m just glad Cernunnos found a way to free her. She probably needs a nap.”

Tzatzil giggled. “You are so funny, my Daniel.”

He eyed her, hearing the echo of Feronia’s chuckle in the leaves.

“What was that?” Jack stopped rock-still, head up, eyes scanning their perimeter.

“Wind,” North replied.

“There’s no wind, unless you farted,” O’Neill shot back. He repeated his question, his gaze hard.

North shrugged and kept walking.

“The dragon’s still here, isn’t it?”

“Hell if I know.” North felt bad about lying to Jack, but he’d been told not to share by a creature that might be able to devour him on the spot. Or broil him alive. Or be the means to other painful, horrible ends. “Do you see it?”

“Doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

“Regardless, we have to find the next one, and I don’t have a clue where to look. You?” He glanced behind him as Jack’s long legs quickly covered the distance between them.

O’Neill mumbled something, eyes on the ground as he walked. For a moment, O’Neill looked blank, as if he were somewhere far away. Then focus returned.

“Maybe,” he answered. “We’ll see.”

***

August 5, 2005

Three Days Later

P4X-347

“Feels like forever since we’ve been in BDUs,” North remarked, glancing down at the many-pocketed gear vest as he marched along the beach.

“Yeah, well, this isn’t exactly a danger-free zone,” Colonel Standing returned. “Especially not since our horny bartender friend put out that million point bounty on any captured Goa’uld.”

“As long as they aren’t on Domhan An Lucht Siúil,” North qualified. “That’s still neutral ground for everybody.”

“But why send ‘em here? Why not send ‘em directly to Comtrya, like Samdroid asked?” Jack stumbled a little in the sand.

North reached out to steady him and saw the thick strand of seaweed that had tripped his lover. “Because the Tok’ra are supposed to meet them here to do the extraction first.” He saw a couple of people in tan leather coming toward them from the new refugee facility. He waved; they waved back and then returned the way they’d come.

He frowned at his partner as he thought about the interesting word O’Neill had used. “Samdroid?”

Jack took note of his question and explained. “Sam. Android. Samdroid. Or Dandroid. There are a lot of those on Comtrya.” He clapped Harlan’s familiar little hand sign.

“I dunno.” North shrugged. “This is their plan. They’re supposed to give us the details here.”

He felt his insides starting to clench as the Goa’uld pleasure palace came into view over the grassy dunes. “I just kinda wish the meeting place were anywhere but here.”

Jack patted his shoulder. “The light show is turned off, North. Creeps me out, too, but it’s okay now. Perfectly harmless.”

But North felt the pull of addiction grabbing blunt claws into his guts. Even now, years later, self-doubt raised its ugly head and danced to the tune of the siren song. Images of the machine’s dazzling light show haunted his memory.

Jack lowered his voice and stepped closer. “It’s just echoes in your head,” he assured his partner. “Stay focused on the task. Don’t look at the machine and if it gets too much for you, just let me know. We’ll go outside for a walk.”

North nodded. “Thanks.” That made him feel a tad easier.

The pleasure palace had been converted into bunk rooms for the most part, with a security center off the main foyer. Outbuildings had been set up to house food stores, clothing, medical supplies and a guardhouse. The room with the light machine had been cordoned off and placed under constant guard; no one was allowed in there to prevent accidental – or intentional – activation of the addictive radiation emitter.

“Like what you’ve done with the place,” Jack announced to the SFs who greeted them at the door.

“No refugees in residence at the moment, sir,” one reported. “You guys have the place pretty much to yourselves. The Tok’ra and their… guest… are in the infirmary, all the way in the back.” He nodded toward the depths of the palace.

“Thanks, Lieutenant.” Colonel Standing edged past them. “I’ll meet you guys in there.” She left to check in with the site commander.

“Who’s the guest?” asked North.

The Lieutenant grinned with dark delight. “The Morrigan. One down, just a handful to go.”

They headed toward the rear of the posh marble building.

North kept the Light Machine out of his direct line of sight. He could still feel it drawing him, calling to look, to bask in its presence. The emptiness he’d once felt during withdrawal still sucked at his insides like a tiny black hole. A heavy sense of futility welled up, and it took every ounce of his strength and determination to keep it at bay as he walked past the elegant, beautiful, deadly device.

A glimmer of light in the corner of his eye made his head turn.

He stared at the machine.

It was dark and still.

Off, he reminded himself. It’s harmless when it’s off.

The moment he turned away, he saw the flash again and hurried to catch up with the others as gooseflesh rose on his nape and forearms.

Selmak and Sina awaited them in the infirmary.

Strapped to an exam table was a statuesque brunette dressed in a Goth sex-kitten outfit whom North recognized from the Goa’uld Summit, where he’d pretended to be Lord Yu’s personal servant.

The woman’s eyes glowed white as she struggled to break free.

“Hello, again,” North greeted her musically. “How’s Ba’al?”

“He will destroy you all!” the woman rasped. “Set me free, I order you!”

“Now, now,” Jacob Carter chided gently, placing a hand on her forehead. “Just relax. We’re going to give you a nice little ride on the happy train so you can relax.”

Sina, a Tok’ra woman, dribbled a little liquid onto a soft white cloth and placed it over the Morrigan’s mouth and nose.

After a few moments, the Goa’uld calmed, her head lolling on the thin pillow, eyes rolling under half-closed lids.

“You guys are gonna extract the snake right now?” North wasn’t sure he wanted to see that.

“We’re waiting for the Comtryans to bring something, but as soon as they get here—“

“You can get started,” the Samantha android announced as she entered the room. She placed a case on an equipment table near the wall.

There was an awkward moment between Jacob Carter and the android.

North thought it must be quite painful for Jacob to see his daughter’s double, knowing the original was languishing in prison on Earth, and equally difficult for the Comtryan Samantha to see the man she knew as her father and be unable to greet him like a relative.

Colonel Standing joined them just then, instantly taking in the tension in the room. “You two need a minute alone?”

“We have work to do,” Selmak intoned. “Perhaps later…”

Samantha smiled. “Yes. I’d like that.”

“You must set up the containment tank,” Selmak told her, “so that we may place the symbiote within the moment it is removed.”

The android nodded and began opening the case.

North busied himself looking over her shoulder rather than at the extraction operation. “What’s all this?”

“Part one of Jarod’s project,” she beamed. “It’s our solution to what to do with the Goa’uld. They’ll be encased in these units and kept in a bug-free storage facility on Comtrya, in perpetuity.”

He studied the device. A fishbowl sat in the embrace of an upholstered cushion with a variety of electronic leads attached to the glass. The housing beneath and behind the cushion looked eerily familiar.

“Is that one of the Gamekeeper’s virtual reality devices?”

“Yep! The symbiote goes in the tank and is attached to the input devices. We hook up nutrient solutions to keep it alive—“

“Why? Why not just kill it?”

Samantha seemed a little startled. “I should think you’d understand that way better than me, Daniel.”

“North,” he corrected. “I’m North. And no, I think the universe would be a much better place if these things were completely wiped off the face—“

“Because all life is sacred,” Sina answered over her shoulder.

He felt a little embarrassed, but the sentiment still held. He hated those things. The old memory of murdering a tank full of baby symbiotes still brought a trace of smug satisfaction.

“Then what’s the point?” he demanded.

“I think I get it.” Jack sidled up to them. “If the snakes are in there, they can still play god in the virtual world, but no one gets hurt for real.”

Samantha nodded, smiling. “Exactly. And if they go through enough loops that end as badly for them as this one has, maybe – just maybe – they’ll actually evolve and learn there’s more to life than pretending to be something you’re not.”

“That’s kind of… genius,” Jack noted with obvious approval. “Only one drawback. How do we get all of ‘em? ‘Cause if there’s even one left out there…”

North bolted from the room. His chest hurt. His head ached. He felt like he couldn’t get a good breath.

Then he started running down the beach, back to the Stargate.

Tzatzil was hot on his heels, easily keeping pace with him.

Jack was further back, calling his name, demanding that he stop and explain.

By the time he reached the DHD, he was fighting tears.

It couldn’t be that easy, he argued with himself. The game had been fantasy, and exercise in virtual reality, nothing more.

Tzatzil said nothing, just watching him as she caught her breath.

He read the obvious concern in her face, but there was more, a gleam of anticipation in her eyes measured with a little doubt.

“What the hell, Daniel?” Jack shouted as he jogged to a stop. “You lit outta there like your hair was on fire!”

Destiny was calling, and North had to obey. He couldn’t fight this.

He understood now.

Cernunnos had unlocked something inside him, some part or pieces of his ascended memories.

North could see the galaxy in all its vastness in his mind’s eye, and he knew where the Goa’uld were, every single one of them, like mosquito bites on his skin.

“Jack,” he called over his shoulder, “go get the SFs. Get all of them and bring them here armed to the teeth.”

“What? Why?” O’Neill turned to Tzatil. “You know what’s going on here, elf?”

The woman gave Jack a little push on the shoulder to get him turned around. “Do as he says, cara O’Neill. It is time.”

“Time for what?” Jack insisted. “Will someone please get me a ticket on the clue bus?”

North fixed the ‘gate address of the world on which he stood in his mind, then raised his arms and face to the sky.

“I Summon the Goa’uld to this world!” he announced with an orator’s ringing tone. “Come now! And come alone.”

“Go, O’Neill,” Tzatzil prodded.

“You watch his six.”

“Always.” The Tuathan woman aimed her P-90 at the Stargate.

A chevron lit up.

Jack took a couple of steps backward, looking for cover as he reached for his radio to give the order.

The ‘gate spun up, and a moment after the event horizon settled, Lord Yu and his First Prime, Oshu, stepped out of the watery surface.

The old man seemed lost as he scanned the people waiting for them on the empty beach. “Why are we here, Oshu?” He glanced at his young companion.

“It was your wish, my lord,” Oshu replied, inclining his head in a respectful bow. “I will find a place where you can relax.” He took his master’s hand and put an arm around his waist, gently guiding the elder down the steps.

They didn’t make it very far before Yu collapsed.

North maintained his post, turning his attention back to the event horizon as it vanished.

He listened as Jack went over to help and before long the plodding feet of the arriving SFs sounded behind him.

The ‘gate started to spin up again.

Camulus stomped toward him. “You,” he sneered. “If I had known you would be waiting here, I would have destroyed you.”

He eyed the armored man, both curious and afraid of the answer to the question he was about to ask. “Then why did you come?”

The alien was taken aback, obviously confused. “I. I do not know. I was… compelled.”

Soldiers took him away, and the wormhole vanished.

A moment later, the ‘gate began to whine once more.

North closed his eyes and bowed his head.

He could feel them pulling at him inside, like threads hooked into his skin and organs, stretching until they started to tear and rip and burn.

He wept with agony, keeping watch on that internal landscape as they followed the irresistible imperative to come to the place where he stood.

All through the day and into the night they came. He stood and waited to greet them until his body began to fail and he fell to his knees. Someone brought him water, for which he was grateful, but he couldn’t eat, not yet.

A new wormhole opened and the radio at his shoulder came alive.

“SG-Zero, this is General Waring at the SGC. Please respond.” There was a note of alarm in the man’s voice.

Pressing the button was difficult, but he managed. “Daniel Jackson responding. What’s up, sir?” He let go and gasped as he struggled to hold onto the command a little longer. There weren’t many left. It wouldn’t be long now.

“Doctor Jackson, we have five Ba’als under guard in this facility, demanding access to the Stargate. They’re a bit frantic. I was wondering if what your team is doing on P4X-347 might have something to do with that?”

“Yes, sir. Send them through. We have security waiting.” He took a deep breath and pushed the button again. “This is all going to be over soon, sir. The Goa’uld are no longer a threat, as of today.”

Five minutes later, Ba’al and his clones marched in their elegant badness into the waiting arms of the Security Forces.

They spoke to North, but he could barely hear them.

The ‘gate closed and opened one more time, and when the event horizon disappeared, North fell over, unconscious.

***

Every part of him ached. He heard the familiar beep of medical machinery and smelled the easily recognizable scent of disinfectant. Without opening his eyes, he assumed he was back on Earth, stowed away in his usual bed in the infirmary.

“I’m not supposed to be here,” he murmured. His tongue stuck to the inside of his mouth. “I have to go back…”

Someone nearby gave a soft, joyful little cry. Feminine. Probably Tzatzil.

“You aren’t going anywhere, sir,” Dr. Wintersmith countered, patting his shoulder.

North opened his eyes, startled to see the ornate architecture of the pleasure palace rather than the metal walls of the SGC.

And there was the elf, standing against the wall by the doorway, struggling to rein in her joy.

“Now that you’re awake and stable, we’ll talk about sending you back to the SGC,” the team medic continued. “I’ve already sent back blood samples, but we’ll need to do some scans and further testing to determine—“

“I know what happened to me,” North cut in. “I just need some rest and I’ll be fine. Maybe some aspirin.”

The Englishman leaned closer. “And what, pray tell, did happen to you, Doctor North?”

“I used up a lot of energy really fast.”

“Almost killed you, from what I could see,” Song returned, checking the drip on his IV. “You barely had a pulse. Your body chemistry is still erratic. It’s as if you’d been starved for months. We haven’t been able to weigh you, of course, but I’d lay odds that you’ve lost at least a stone since breakfast this morning.” He peered under the sheets and pulled up North’s shirt. “I can see your ribs, and not in a fit, healthy way. That’s not normal.”

North jerked his shirt back down. “Look, there’s nothing wrong with me now. I’ll be fine.”

“Hungry?”

“Famished.”

“Food’s on the way. Meanwhile, you stay put in this bed and I’ll let Colonel Standing know you’re back with us.” Song left the room on his mission.

North checked his watch.

Eleven-thirty p.m., Earth time.

“It’s late,” he told Tzatzil. “You should get some rest.”

“I will be fine,” she promised, her face glowing with relief.

Jack hurried in, food tray in hand. Alarm still showed in his eyes. “Hey. Welcome back.”

The scent of roast beef and cherry pie filled the room, and before the tray was settled on his lap, North was tearing into the food, stuffing it into his mouth with his fingers. He barely chewed anything, swallowing great mouthfuls down whole. When the plate was clean, he thought seriously about licking it as he flopped back against the pillow. “Now I need a wet wipe.”

He glanced around for one and received a dry napkin instead.

“I don’t suppose you actually tasted any of that?” Jack dragged a fingertip through the gravy and sucked it off. The gesture was meaningful and held just a trace of spiteful warning.

“Oh!” North groaned. “Don’t do that!”

Jack repeated the motion, but now the look in his eyes was one of sheer, pointed, tantalizing torture. “You’re not gonna do that to me again, are you.” That had been a command, not a question.

All he could think about now was Jack sucking him like he’d done to his finger.

North struggled against a stab of heat in his groin that made him squirm. “Sadist!”

“You’re not gonna do that—“
“It depends.” North was in no mood to be tortured. He’d had enough of that for one day. “Are there any more Goa’uld out there?”

“Hell if I know.” Jack’s gaze was smoky with both warning and worry. “Look, you scared me shitless back there! I thought you’d just fainted, but when Song said—“

Real fear glinted in those warm brown depths. “We thought you were gonna die, North. What the fuck happened?”

North glanced at Tzatzil. She nodded.

“I was calling the Goa’uld,” he murmured. “As long as I called, they came. I had to keep it up, and there’s a cost for using that power.”

Jack looked a little horrified. “Like a duck call? D’you have another secret Ancient machine up your sleeve or somethin’?”

“I’m tired, Jack.” He was, but that was also a conversation he didn’t want to delve into at the moment. “Just don’t let them send me back to Earth if I fall asleep. There’s something else I have to do here.”

“No, ya don’t. They’re gonna chuck you in the hospital and you’re gonna get well.”

Tzatzil spoke up, stepping closer to the bed. “I will see to it that you remain until your mission is fulfilled,” she promised him. “But you must not leave this bed.”

“Well, how am I gonna get there?”

“Where?” Jack demanded hotly.

The elf began to release the brakes on the wheeled legs of the hospital bed.

“Stop that,” Jack ordered her.

“We will not go far,” she assured him with a smile. “You may come, if you like.”

Jack grabbed the end of the bed as she started wheeling it toward the door. “Back off, Zazz! You do not want to piss me off. He stays right fucking here!”

“I need to be where I can see the machine,” North explained. “That’s all. If it weren’t important, I’d stay right here. And I promise, I won’t get up. Okay? Please? Just trust me on this.”

O’Neill hesitated, his gaze flicking between the elf and the man.

“Why?”

North sighed. “Because there’s another Mo’o here, and I want to talk to it.”

Jack shook his head, started to protest, stopped.

Trust me,” North repeated with heavy emphasis. “It’s why we came here. It’s my destiny, Jack. Please.”

Sighing heavily, Jack capitulated and helped drive the bed toward the big room in the center of the facility.

“What the hell?” Colonel Standing called as she saw them appear.

“You’ll please put my patient back in his room,” Dr. Wintersmith agreed as he caught sight of them.

Jack set the brakes on the bed. “Don’t get your knickers in a twist,” he cautioned them. “He wanted a better view. The doodad makes pretty lights.”

“I know what it does, Major,” Standing growled in clear warning. “And no one’s touching that damned thing. Are we clear?”

“Youbetcha. Just parking right here. Okay?”

Jack could be convincing when he wanted, North observed with a private smile.

“Thanks, Jack,” he murmured. And then he closed his eyes and slept.

Sometime later, he awoke in the darkened room. Through the foyer he could see the security station’s lights on low as the night shift maintained the post. Not far away, Tzatzil paced on silent feet, keeping watch over him. Everyone else seemed to have gone to bed.

She caught his eye, gave him a nod and a smile, and turned her back to him.

He looked upward at the ornate ceiling above the flower-like pillar of the light machine.

Something glimmered slightly, like dappled sunlight through a heavily leafed tree.

“Hello,” he whispered. “Are you awake?”

There was no answer, no shift in brightness to indicate he’d been heard.

He sat up. His head pounded, and he felt dizzy. It took a moment for the weakness to pass.

As silently as possible, he eased off the bed.

Tzatzil still had her back turned. Either she hadn’t heard him or she was giving him permission to move about.

He crept toward the pillar and knelt down beside the control panel. The cover slipped off easily enough, but it was too dark to see the circuitry inside. One part of the device controlled the light effect that had so hypnotized them when they’d first found it; the other powered the deadly, pleasurable radiation array. It had been years since he and Sam had prowled around the guts of the machine and he didn’t remember where to put his fingers and find the light switch by feel. He couldn’t risk accidentally hitting the wrong one, or he’d be stuck there for weeks.

He returned to the bed in defeat and closed his eyes, willing up the memory of the internal settings.

The left switch, he recalled. In his imagination, his finger touched the control and pushed it.

The lights came on.

Even through closed eyelids, he could see the dazzling colors.

He lifted his head and glanced at Tzatzil.

She was facing him now, shocked and amazed by the stunning display.

“It just came on,” he swore. “All by itself!”

No one else came running. The security staff had their backs to the area, but there were regular patrols through the building, so he’d need to be quick.

He looked past the top of the pedestal, watching the light peripherally.

The being roused, unfolding like the petals of a rose. Pale pink eyes opened and regarded him with tender joy.

“Hello,” he whispered, and knew from the stirring within him that the Mo’o had heard him. “You are so beautiful! I’ve never seen anything so—“ His breath caught. Tears seeped out the corners of his eyes, streaking across his temples. His soul expanded like the shock wave of a silent bomb, filling him up until he felt as if there were no beginning or end to his being. He hovered on the brink of ascending for the sheer joy of beholding her.

“Stay, my Daniel,” Tzatzil whispered, her fingers gentle on his shoulder as she sidled up to the head of the bed. “This is Eleos.”

Forgiveness. Compassion. Mercy.

The words echoed in his mind like a voice in a cave.

Those were the gifts of Eleos.

If he could not find those things in his heart, he would never fulfill his destiny. He would be closed off from it by his own selfishness. His wounds would never heal.

He thought about his grandfather who had abandoned him after his parents’ death. His anger had festered for years, made him turn away from people and inward with books for his only companionship. Years later, Nick Ballard had been the only person capable of helping him reconnect with his world, and that shared bond had forged the path toward forgiveness, which had opened the way to healing.

He felt the depth of that now, the truth of its importance in his life.

If he were to become the Nexus, he would have to let go of the fierce hold on the darkness in his heart.

“What do I do?” he whispered.

He stood in front of an altar, a weapon in his hands. A glass tank filled with tiny young Goa’uld swam about. Hate swelled in his heart, and he lifted the muzzle of the P-90 into view.

The memory stopped, frozen in that moment of decision.

A chain of events began to unfold. In that moment, all of the Goa’uld vanished from existence. Hosts glanced around in amazement, free at last.

His heart soared!

But then the men and women with tattooed foreheads started to fall. They grew sick and began to die. Their infant and adolescent children were left to fend for themselves, but as they reached maturity, they, too, died in agony for want of one of those other creatures in their pouches.

The Goa’uld could never be destroyed without taking the entire Jaffa race with them.

“But they’re horrible!” North insisted. “They take pleasure in the pain of others.”

Another memory surfaced from the childhood he hadn’t actually lived. Daniel Jackson had been ten, still reeling from the loss of his family. He’d been quiet, angry, hurt beyond words. A boy at school tormented him, but clever Daniel had plotted a sweet, delicate revenge. The boy had ended up in Juvie with a criminal record and Daniel had been quite pleased with the outcome.

For a little while, anyway.

Until the guilt set in.

Daniel, too, had taken pleasure in the pain of others. Everyone did, at some point. It was part of the growth process. He had learned it was wrong and done his best to set things right with the other boy.

He stared at the ceiling as he thought about what Comtrya Samantha had said about the virtual reality units that would soon house all of the Goa’uld symbiotes.

In there, they might evolve to become a race worth integrating back into the universe. They’d have a chance to change and grow, as well as allow others outside the virtual realm time to search for a cure for the Jaffa. If all of the Goa’uld were dead, though…

“Okay,” he said softly. “I get it now. I’ll work on that.”

Tzatzil smiled down at him. “Well done, my Daniel.”

He studied her pretty face, cast in moving shadows and multi-colored light.

“Can you see in my head?” He felt a little odd. Light-headed.

That made him chuckle a bit. Light-headed. In a room full of light.

“No, I cannot read your thoughts, if that is what you mean. Perhaps you should turn off that machine and get some sleep. You have had quite enough for one day.”

“’Kay.”

He found the light switch in his memory and imagined his fingers flicking it off.

The next thing he knew, it was morning.

***

August 8, 2005

Two Days Later

Stargate Command

“You sure you’re up for this?” Jack asked, leaning over the wheelchair where North sat.

“Doctor Warner has given me permission to go to Lord Yu’s funeral, as long as I say in this contraption.” North wasn’t happy about the arrangement. He felt fine. Maybe a little weak, but nearly normal.

“And the elf and I will see that you do,” O’Neill affirmed.

“It’s a state funeral, Jack. What could go wrong?”

“Aht! Aht! Let’s not tempt fate, shall we?” He moved around to the back and grasped the handles, looking dapper in his black SG-0 suit.

The event horizon settled into placid ripples and the representatives from Earth went up the ramp, exiting on P3X-042 in the midst of a city square paved with white stone.

In the distance, a cliff top was clad in more of the rock. Crowning the fortress, a Chinese style castle surveyed the entire city, ringed in on all sides by tall, snowcapped mountains.

A small contingent of richly clad women met them with official greetings from Oshu. They were shown to posh rooms, offered tea and snacks, and paid their respects to the Jade Emperor. The service was long and featured an hours-long recitation of Yu’s accomplishments by a number of people.

The one who didn’t speak sat silently beside the open casket, dressed head to toe in white, the Chinese color of mourning.

North watched Oshu, who kept his eyes downcast, fingertips touching the handle of the ornately decorated coffin.

The First Prime was obviously taking his master’s death quite hard.

When the ceremonies were concluded, Oshu rose and gazed at Yu’s face for the last time. He reached out to touch the elder’s cheek, and then leaned in to place a chaste, tender kiss on his lips. As he said his final goodbye, tears streaked down his face.

“Well, I guess that answers that question,” Jack murmured in North’s ear.

Oshu held his head high and led the dignitaries out into the city square where a large cargo ship awaited. Yu’s body was carried out at the end of the procession and placed before the cargo bay door, surrounded by Jaffa dressed in white-enameled armor. While his adoring public filed past, Oshu took the Tau’ri visitors and Teal’c aside.

He bowed deeply to them. “Your people have always paid my master great respect, and for that I thank you.”

North was moved by the man’s grief. “We’re very sorry for your people’s loss. He brought great culture and learning to many worlds.” He took the First Prime’s hands in his and gave them a squeeze. “O’Neill and I also feel your great personal loss, Oshu. I’m sincerely sorry.”

Yu would likely have died soon anyway, but answering North’s call had probably killed the old man.

North felt the full weight of that responsibility, especially in light of this man’s love.

Fresh tears spilled, and Oshu bent to take North into his arms for a hug.

Teal’c also gave him a sincere embrace, followed by the Jaffa warrior’s clasp of respect.

Not to be outdone, Jack gathered the man into a backslapping snuggle and whispered something into Oshu’s ear.

When he pulled away, Oshu reached into the deep sleeve of his mourning robe and pulled out a small package that he thrust into Jack’s hand.

“Please,” he said softly, “take this to the temple of Tu’er Shen and place it on the altar stone. I would have—“ He bowed his head, losing his grip on his reserve for a moment. “It was my intention to place it there myself, but I find...” He glanced over his shoulder at the coffin, then spoke as best he could through his wild grief. “I cannot leave my master. I will go with him to his palace in the underworld and there I will stay, to be by his side forever.”

North met his lover’s eyes, understanding what that request meant.

Oshu was going to bury himself alive with the man he loved more than life.

Jack pulled the man into another hug. “It’s gonna be okay, Oshu. Let’s all go together to the temple. You’ll be all right. You just gotta give yourself some time. I know how much it hurts to lose someone you love, someone who’s a part of you. I lost my son.” He took a deep breath, let it out. “I lost Daniel for a little while. Yu would want you to have a long, happy life—“

Oshu shook his head. “Your people and mine have vastly different views on the afterlife, O’Neill. I thank you for your concern, but it is my choice – my duty, my honor – to be with my master, to serve at his side forever. My heart can be nowhere else.”

He bowed to them, left fist covered with right palm in the gesture of eternal harmony, and then ordered the white-clad guards to escort the Tau’ri guests to the temple of Tu’er Shen while he boarded the cargo ship with Lord Yu and lifted off.

North watched the ship lift into the air as he rolled through the beautiful, clean city in his wheelchair, his heart heavy as lead. He wondered what that kind of love must feel like, and met Jack’s eyes knowing he was thinking the same thing. That would be a conversation for later, in private.

No one said a word all the way there.

The temple was small, tucked away in a crevice between boulders at the base of a mountain. The path was set with jumbled stones that made it impossible for the wheelchair to enter, so North sat outside while Jack and Teal’c went into the opening.

Women were not allowed inside, so Tzatzil stayed with him while he studied the carvings into the stones around the opening.

Asian languages weren’t his forte, but he could read some of the characters. None of the inscriptions made sense as text until he realized the glyphs were names; specifically, male names carved into a cross or X-shape. The names of lovers, he guessed.

If he’d had the tools and the time, he’d have made his own carving.

When the two men emerged, Jack still had the little bag in his hand.

“Think you can make it inside on foot?” O’Neill asked, his dark eyes full of secrets. “If not, I’ll carry you.”

“With your knees?” North shook his head. “Not on your life. I can walk—“

Tzatzil’s hand came down on his shoulder, keeping him seated in the wheelchair. He couldn’t see her face without some gymnastics, but could picture the thunderous expression in his mind. She’d be having none of that.

“I’ll have my arm around him the whole time, I swear,” Jack promised faithfully.

“You lie, O’Neill,” she reminded him, a brittle edge to her voice. “The doctor said he must stay in the chair. He must rest.”

“Five minutes on my feet won’t hurt me,” North shot back, frustrated and a little irritated by her over-protectiveness. “And if Jack says I need to be in there, then he’s usually right. You know he wouldn’t ask if there were another option.”

She struggled a moment, and then released the pressure of her grip, patting him to let him know she had agreed.

North stood up, grateful to be allowed to do what he wanted. He was a bit light-headed for a moment, but easily found his balance and lifted his arm for Jack to support him. They had to duck as they entered the low doorway and the effort was more tiring than North had anticipated, but he managed to get all the way through the irregularly arched pathway without smacking his head on the boulders or losing his footing.

Where the boulders ended, a cave began. The space opened up into an irregular notch into the base of the mountain. The dry, earth-scented room was lit with torches. Carved into the walls as high as could be reached were the cross-shaped pairs of men’s names. They were everywhere.

At the center was a statue of two men kissing: one older, the other still smooth with the blush of youth. North noted the younger figure’s robes were incised with patterns of stylized rabbits leaping through clouds.

The story of Tu’er Shen was a tragic one. An official – the older man -- had had young Hu Tianbo killed for watching the older man bathe. A month after Hu’s death, his ghost had come to visit the official and explained that the act had not been motivated by mere lust but by pure love, and for that reason the gods had decreed his death unjust. They had made him a celestial being entrusted to watch over gay men and changed him into a rabbit.

There was so much persecution, so much hate, suspicion and fear surrounding same sex love on so many worlds; even on this one, North guessed, given how well hidden away this temple was. He touched the Rabbit God’s robes, feeling the designs with his fingertips, noting how some places were worn smooth by other reverent touches throughout many centuries.

He felt the weight of that sorrow in his own heart, still not fully understanding his own feelings for the man at his side.

“I tried fitting the stones into the holders by myself,” Jack advised, reaching into the bag Oshu had given him, “but nothing happened.”

Each of the figures held a circular object made of precious metal, and at the center of the metal ring was an empty space, one in the shape of a flaming sun, the other in a crescent moon.

Jack held out the two stones in his palm. The sun-shaped one appeared to be made of amber. The crescent moon looked like Lalique glass, a milky bluish white that reminded North of a flawless opal.

Jack went on with his explanation while North studied the objects and the statues. “Then I let Teal’c do one while I did the other, and nothing happened. I think…” He nodded at the figures. “I think there’s supposed to be a kiss first, and as much as I love the big guy, no way in hell I’m kissing him.”

“Oh! Well, of course. Let’s try it.”

He reached for the moon, but Jack moved his hand away. “You take the sun,” he corrected. “If it doesn’t work, then we try it the other way.”

North met his lover’s certain gaze. “Because?”

O’Neill’s smile was soft and sweet. “Just trust me on that.”

He took the carved amber, wrapped his arms around his lover and kissed him, aware of the reverence of this place and the precious depth of that moment.

Then he placed the sun in the older man’s circle at the same moment Jack put his in the Rabbit God’s grip.

The torches all went out, snuffed by a sudden gust of wind.

The sun and moon glowed with unearthly radiance, and in the nimbus of that illumination, North looked upward.

Something seemed to be floating peacefully above the statues, its long body covered with short fur that glistened in the light. Long ears lay tucked flat against its sinuous neck. In some ways, it did resemble a rabbit bizarrely crossed with a Chinese dragon. Its eyes were closed, thin whiskers appearing to waft and curl in a breeze the humans couldn’t feel.

 “There he is,” North whispered to his lover, smiling. “D’you see him?”

“Yeah.”

North moved a step away, but Jack didn’t let go of him. He kept hold of his arm, no doubt to help steady him, but also to move him if he needed protection. Not that there would be anything Jack could do if a being like that intended them harm but…

“Are you awake?” he asked the creature respectfully.

There was no answer.

North turned to Jack. “Now what? We can see him. The stones are in the right order. How do we wake him up?”

“How do you know that’s a ‘he’?”

“Because Tu’er Shen is a male god in all the mythology—“

A movement above them cut North off in mid-lecture.

The creature’s eyes opened, one a fiery amber, the other a milky blue. As soon as it saw them, it dove toward North at full speed, rushing down through his body and upward into Jack’s, linking them together for an instant.

Neither of them moved.

The dragon hovered above them, its body shaking in silent laughter. Then it danced in the air, circling around them, swirling in loops and whorls, occasionally dipping into their bodies until they came into each other’s arms and kissed again.

Everything else fell away. When North came up for air, he could see in Jack’s eyes that all their reservations about their relationship were gone. Joy shone in those brown depths, and when Jack kissed him again, all he could think about was getting home again so he could get this man into bed.

If their friends hadn’t been just outside, North would have left the brakes off and broken a rule, but there were things to be done here. He’d come to this place for a reason, and the mission hadn’t been his own.

He watched the dragon playing for a moment longer before calling it by name again, assuming that was what had awakened the being.

It stilled immediately, hovering close enough to touch.

“We came here today to honor the wish of a friend who has lost the love of his life,” North intoned. “He goes now to be buried alive with his master, Lord Yu Shang Huang Ti. Is there anything you can do to help Oshu in his hour of grief?”

For a moment Tu’er Shen stared at him.

Then he coiled up and sprang straight through the ceiling, disappearing into the rock as if it had been open sky.

“Well?” asked Jack a moment later.

North stared at the rock ceiling. “I got nothin’.”

Jack reached into the inner pocket of his suit. “I got a Sharpie,” he announced, holding the permanent marker up in the air. “I noticed a lot of graffiti in here and thought we might add our own to it. Kind of a ‘Kilroy was here’ for posterity. I doubt anyone will ever notice.”

With a chuckle, North nodded at the wall nearest the exit. “Just your name. And print it, so it’s readable.”

He watched as O’Neill carefully wrote his name in an open space, and then used the ‘N’ of the first name to spell his own surname, lettering his first name in reverse order above it to make a ‘T’ shape.

“Do you know what all the graffiti is?” he asked his mate as they started back out the passageway.

“Chinese? Goa’uld-ese?”

North turned around for a quick peck on the lips. “We just did what everyone else did who’s been in there has done for centuries. All those inscriptions are the interwoven names of couples, Jack.”

“Kind of like the bridges where lovers write their names on a lock?”

“Exactly like that.”

“I guess it’s official, then.”

“Looks like.”

“I’m all right with that.”

North paused. He was tired and would’ve loved to have somewhere to sit down for a while. Instead, he turned around and stood up as straight as the ceiling would allow. “So are we going to talk about what happened in there?”

“Is there a reason to? I mean, we had a dragon flying through us. Isn’t that enough for a mission report?” There was such calm acceptance in Jack’s eyes, colored with a trace of merriment.

Maybe there wasn’t a need to put into words what each of them had felt. Maybe that was the point. For a moment in time they were melded together, each indistinguishable from the other by way of Tu’er Shen.

He stood up straighter as that idea blossomed full force in his consciousness. His head tucked to one side as he reached out to the other man. “Um, Jack?”

“Can we go outside? It’s a little cramped in here and you look like you’re about to pass out.”

“Jack, I think we just got married!”

“What?” O’Neill bumped his head as he straightened too fast. He seemed a bit alarmed. He almost shouted, then corrected to a whisper. “WHAT. The fuck do you mean? When? Where? I think I’d have remembered--”

“Kynthia. Cake.” North’s glance and nod back toward the temple answered Jack’s questions. “I think when the dragon went through us and we put our names on that wall…” This was most disconcerting. “Maybe not. I don’t know why I said that. Never mind.”

He turned around and hurried toward the entrance trying not to hear Jack’s mumbled expletives.

“You both look upset,” Tzatzil observed. “What happened in the temple of the Rabbit God?”

“Nothing!” they said in unison.

North collapsed into the chair, grateful when the elf wheeled him back down the path.

Jack marched behind them, only his occasional sighs evidence that he was even still there.

By the time they made it back to the city, North had calmed somewhat. He could think rationally again.

He called to Teal’c and Tzatzil. “Did either of you see a dragon come out of the mountain while Jack and I were in there?”

If anyone had, they pleaded innocence.

North decided not to press the issue, instead contemplating what had happened in the temple.

He and Jack had been quite literally joined in a temple, sealed the union with a kiss and then put their names in the graffiti registry on the walls, like countless other couples had done.

That felt like a wedding ceremony to him, but he wouldn’t mention it again. Maybe he’d buy himself a signet ring and wear it on his left hand to symbolize just for himself that he was taken. Or maybe not. He hadn’t worn a wedding ring for Sha’re, after all. That wasn’t Abydonian custom. If he did start wearing a ring, people might ask questions he’d feel honor-bound to answer, and that would make Jack uncomfortable, possibly even angry.

So no ring after all.

He felt a little sad about that.

The procession wended its way back to the city, taking their time as they observed the people mourning the passing of their leader, the only one among the Goa’uld who had refused to call himself a god. Instead, he was a venerable master, a physician, inventor, bringer of culture, and to the people of the Tau’ri, he had also been an ally. North speculated what sort of personality the creature might’ve had prior to the corrupting influence of the sarcophagus. The evidence around him indicated that the Goa’uld Yu had been kind, generous, a just ruler.

He was certainly loved and revered by his people.

They returned to the square where the Stargate sat, preparing to go home again, but a surprise awaited them. The gilded funerary cargo ship was landing on the pavement near the DHD.

As soon as it shut down, people began to gather, talking excitedly.

The loading bay door lowered and Oshu walked out, greeted by the cheers of his people.

He spoke to them and they quieted, listening.

North was too far away to hear what was being said, but the optics said plenty.

Oshu was still in mourning, but he would be there to lead his people in their master’s absence.

The Tau’ri group made their way to the ‘gate with their escorts and waited for their hosts to dial up Earth.

All attention was focused on the First Prime, however, so they had to wait. When he finished speaking, Oshu came toward them, head down, hands hidden inside the sleeves of his white robes. As he reached them, he bowed deeply. Tear tracks could still be seen on his cheeks.

“You can imagine my surprise when the Rabbit God came to me while I was laying my master to rest,” he said softly. “Tu’er Shen said you sent him. It is a wondrous thing, to be able to command a god.”

North shook his head. “It wasn’t a command, Oshu. It was a request to help a friend in need.”

“Which moved a god.” The First Prime bowed deeply. “And who am I to refuse the one I have prayed to since I became a man?”

He straightened and lifted his head, finally meeting North’s worried gaze.

For an instant, Oshu’s eyes flashed, one orange, one pale blue.

With a gasp, North realized this man and the Mo’o were now bonded.

He hesitated, searching for the right words. “Was this the only way to save Oshu?”

The First Prime didn’t smile, but there was a flicker of relief in his face, muscles softening and relaxing. “I am not possessed, if that is what you fear you see, Doctor Jackson. Tu’er Shen offered to share my loss and my love. He has offered me his friendship and wisdom. The choice was mine, and I made it willingly. I do not wish to be alone; not now, not ever again. Who would not wish to share their soul with a being whose existence is pure love?”

North took his hand. “You’ll be all right?”

The other man nodded. “When the period of mourning is over, I will lead my people in the way I believe my master would have wished.” He hesitated, swallowing hard. “And when the time comes, we will join the Happy Gods to ensure the safety of all.”

Jack’s eyebrows went up. “The ‘Happy Gods’? So does that mean your new buddy is… Happy Bunny**?”

North elbowed his thigh. He didn’t understand the reference, but now was hardly the time to be making jokes, especially at the expense of a man in deep sorrow.

O’Neill told the First Prime to forget what he’d just asked. He offered his condolences, shook the man’s hand and stepped back to allow Teal’c to say his piece.

Tzatzil offered a simple nod in recognition of his loss without letting go of the wheelchair.

Without further ado, the visitors departed through the ‘gate and home.

***

August 15, 2005

One Week Later

Stargate Command

“Ready to go?” asked Jack, bouncing on his toes in the infirmary doorway.

North had all his work supplies packed in a box, ready to go. “Have you had my Jell-O yet?”

“Yep. Ate it on the way in.” His eyes swept him up and down. “You gonna wear that?”

Glancing at his scrubs, he agreed a change of clothes would be good. He’d gotten so used to wearing the scrubs he’d forgotten about them. “Meet you in the locker room.”

Leaving the box in Jack’s care, he signed out and prepared to resume normal life.

By the time he was showered and changed, Jack was waiting for him but the box was nowhere in sight.

“Where is my work?” he demanded.

Jack’s grin was full of secrets. “On your desk, for when you go back to work tomorrow. Tonight we’re doing something else.”

North wasn’t sure if he should be alarmed or excited. One never knew with Jack O’Neill. “Doc said to take it easy for a few more days. At least, till they break my spirit in physical therapy.”

“You can take it easy… or hard.” O’Neill hitched up his pants suggestively. “Your choice.”

“I’m in!”

“Well, not yet.”

Jack drove North to his house and followed him inside.

As soon as the door closed, clothes started coming off.

They didn’t quite make it to the bedroom.

***

North padded into the bathroom naked, wondering where Jack had gone. He held the clothes he’d picked up off the floor in front of him and dropped them in the bathroom hamper after having used some items for clean-up. Now dressed in pajamas, he went in search of his host, following his nose to where Jack was grilling steaks on the back patio.

“This is nice,” he observed. “I’d like mine a little less charred this time, if that’s okay.”

“If you want it perfect, you gotta go back inside.”

“Why? I’ll just sit in a chair and watch.”

“Because you’re distracting. I look at you and forget about the steak I’m cooking because I’m thinkin’ about the steak I could be eating. So shoo.”

“Or…” North wandered over to the grill, offering a freshly opened beer. “… I could cook the steaks and you could watch me. Indulge in all the fantasies you want without burning the meat to a crisp.” He grinned shamelessly.

Jack took the beer and handed over the grilling fork.

“You feelin’ okay?”

“Good. Ready to get back to work.” He checked to see how far along the steaks were. One was nearly medium rare, just about where Jack liked his.

“Doc Warner wouldn’t tell me much. Something about damned hippo regulations.”

“HIPPA,” North corrected automatically. “I’m still a little underweight and he’s going to be monitoring my heart for a few weeks, which is perfectly normal for someone who experiences rapid weight loss, so don’t be worried. I’m okay.”

But it was obvious that Jack was concerned. “They ever find out why this happened? What caused it?”

He sidled closer. “Babe, I was there. I saw you wasting away right in front of me, and I couldn’t stop it. Hell, I didn’t –“

“There was nothing you or anyone else could’ve done,” North bit back, unable to keep looking into those tortured brown eyes. “It was a price to be paid, and I’d do it all over again. Might have to again, at some point in the future, if any of the current Jaffa symbiotes mature and take another host.” He took the first steak off the grill and put it on a plate for Jack.

Jack eyed him. “So you know what caused you to get sick?”

“I do. And if I explain it to you, you’ll forget about it. I don’t want to have this conversation again.”

O’Neill was silent and still for a long time. “This have something to do with Bambi?”

“If you mean Conall, then yes.” North checked the second steak, still a little bloody for his taste.

“Okay,” Jack replied evenly. “I’ll leave it alone. Nothing either one of us can do about it.”

They discussed his upcoming physical therapy – running and free weights, mostly – under medical supervision to restore muscle tone. North complained about it, but he’d come very near dying and would need to be vigilant about staying in top shape from now on.

As they sat down to dinner, the topic turned to the capture and internment of every Goa’uld who had ever played god now safely ensconced in the specially adapted virtual reality machines in a secure facility on Comtrya.

“I can’t think of a better place for ‘em,” North observed proudly. “I think we owe the Gamekeeper an apology. He had the key to ending the Goa’uld threat all along, and we couldn’t see it.”

“Your friend Jarod did, and that’s what matters.” Jack refilled North’s glass with red wine. “Have you heard the latest?”

“Probably not.” North sipped the wine, which paired beautifully with the bite of steak he’d just swallowed. “Regale me. I’ve been doing translations and research for the last week and I’m bored stiff. General Waring wouldn’t let anyone give me real news so I’d stay calm.”

Jack flashed him a look. He considered a moment. “Some of the Dandroids are on the Goa’uld home world, putting in a catchment system. They’re going after all the wild ones, too. Gonna put every one of those things in the VR system, partly to keep ‘em from breeding, but mostly to keep ‘em contained.

North was alarmed. “Wait, P3X-888? Chaka’s home world? Did the Unas okay that?”

“Hell if I know.” Jack shrugged. “What’s the problem?”

“Jack, hunting the Goa’uld is part of their culture! For the young ones, it’s a rite of passage. We can’t just take that from them without their permission. We have to go there, talk to Chaka. I have to make absolutely sure—“

“Don’t you think the Dandroids would’ve already thought of that?” Jack reached across the table and put a hand on his. “We’ll ask tomorrow, when you’re back in the office. For now, we get a good night’s sleep, celebrate you being alive. Okay?”

A few hours wouldn’t make much difference, North knew. Jack was right; he’d talk with Waring about it in the morning.

For tonight, he wanted to enjoy his honeymoon with the man he loved.

***

August 17, 2005

Two Days Later

P3X-888               

Five years had passed since Daniel Jackson had entered that cave for the first time at the end of a leash.

This time, he was in an antigravity chair provided by the Comtryans that would allow him to be mobile without straining his weakened body.  North had protested, but Doctor Warner had refused to let him go off world at all until this suggestion had been made as an alternative. He could walk for ten minutes every two hours over relatively even terrain; after that, he was condemned to the chair.

It was either that or wait a few weeks until he got his full strength back, so he’d accepted the deal.

North came to the Unas homeworld armed with an extensive vocabulary of their language and a heart full of shame that his people had so thoughtlessly trampled on the traditions of an alien culture. The other Daniels should have known better but the androids were all busy scanning every body of water on the planet for signs of wild Goa’uld symbiotes, setting up to catch every one they found.

The process would likely take years to complete, but they’d made a good start on it already.

Now North had come to ask the Unas’ forgiveness and determine whether they might actually want the harvest to continue.

Chaka met him in the deeper regions of the tribal cave. His chin and horns were larger now, almost at full size for an adult male. He was taller, too, right at eye level with North.

Most surprising of all, however, was the young female who stood beside him, obviously pregnant. Observing a few brief interactions between them, North guessed they were a mated pair. Chaka’s manner with her was intimate and affectionate. He was proud to show her off to his friend, Dan-el.

North emptied his pockets of the protein bars he’d brought as gifts for the tribe and engaged in a bit of small talk before he covered the topic of the removal of the symbiotes.

That discussion was tense and took a bit of time to settle. He’d made Jack and Tzatzil keep farther back behind him so as not to annoy the tribe, but there were moments when it felt like they were about to come up, guns blazing, to defend him from the angry Unas mob that had gathered behind Chaka and his mate. Where language failed him, pantomime succeeded and eventually the Unas learned that only the symbiotes would be taken from their lakes and nothing else. They would continue to be able to fish and hunt in every way they were accustomed, and the androids would keep out of their way as much as possible.

North hunted with them in celebration of the treaty. There was a feast with drumming and dancing (though the Unas were stiff and ploddy, and he showed them a lot of cool new moves), and it was very late at night when he and Chaka sat alone near one of the Goa’uld-free lakes that he mentioned the other thing that had brought him to the Unas homeworld.

Carefully pulling a folded paper from his vest pocket, he showed the remaining four symbols to Chaka. There was an hourglass, two golden fish, a conch shell and a veil. “Have you seen these symbols before?”

The young Unas seemed bewildered by the pictures.

North drew the hourglass in the dirt and said, “Atlas.”

He tried again, sculpting an hourglass shape from the wet sand closer to the lakeshore into a bas-relief image.

One by one, North tried to create a 3D visual to illustrate the 2D photos, but none of them got a reaction until he pulled the handkerchief from his back pocket and draped it over his head to simulate a veil.

Chaka got excited. He pointed and nodded at North, then snatched the white cloth off his friend’s head and put it on his own.

Then the young Unas chieftain dropped into a squat and began the rhythmic growl he’d chanted when the two had first met.

“Shaka’aa?” North queried. He still didn’t understand the true meaning of that word in their language.

Chaka grunted and pounded the ground with his palms. He stood up and whirled around, pointing at the two moons setting over the water. Then he draped the handkerchief over his head again, standing very still, arms down at his side.

Realization dawned, followed by a little thrill. “You know this symbol! Can you show me?”

The Unas indicated they’d have to wait until sunrise, since the location was too far to walk in the dark.

North informed his team and they set up camp in the front section of the cave.

At first light, Chaka led the way into the mountains to the west. After a few hours they stopped for a meal of leftover fish and at midday they reached a cliff soaring high overhead. Following its base, they made their way to a waterfall where Chaka dropped into a squat and began chanting.

This time, however, he had North’s handkerchief draped over his bowed head as he faced the water.

North got out of the chair and mimicked his friend’s pose. This time, he participated in the chant, repeating the grunting sounds until he got the pronunciation and inflection just right. They moved in concert, their voices one.

He felt something happening, a kind of euphoria enveloping him. There was sorrow in it as well, regret that his people had acted so rashly without regard for the primitive beings who lived here. Yet at the core of him, he sensed an unbreakable strength of will that reminded him he was doing the right thing.

“Honor,” he whispered.

Chaka’s head turned. He stilled, peering at his human friend beneath the hem of the handkerchief. And then he smiled.

Onn… norrr,” Chaka purred. He gestured toward the waterfall and dropped to his knees, bowing until his forehead almost touched the ground. The hankie fell onto the black rocks between his hands.

The light bulb went on above North’s head.

He studied the waterfall, noting how it resembled a bridal veil.

“Honor,” he repeated.

Schaka’aaaaa,” Chaka rumbled, as if repeating the word in his language.

Light refracting through the water vapor at the base of the fall made a rainbow in the air.

Then the mist began to move, floating toward them as if the base of the fall had completely disengaged from the rocks.

If he squinted just right, he could see a figure inside the mist: tall and slender, almost feminine, like a gecko standing upright, its head covered by an impenetrable white veil.

“Aidos,” North whispered.

Chaka repeated the word.

The man sat back on his heels, eyes on the rainbow cloud. “I’ve come to awaken the Dreamers,” he announced. “Your brother, Cernunnos, calls for you to be ready to protect your people.”

Aidos bowed. Then from beneath the misty veil, her eyes flashed red. A moment later, she vanished.

North’s heart was pounding.

He was such a tiny, insignificant speck in the universe, a tiny player on an impossibly large stage. How the hell had he come to be at the center of so many important events? And what more was in store for him before all this was over?

The Mo’o weren’t gods; Cernunnos himself had been quick to dispel that label. Perhaps they were like policemen or soldiers, put in place to counterbalance the rise of evil. Regardless of their impending role, North felt something that seemed mysteriously like faith firming up his resolve to fight the coming battles with everything he had in him, because it was the right thing to do.

He moved from a position of strength to help the Unas and countless other races because that was what he’d been born to do.

North stood up.

A moment later, Chaka did, too. There was a look of awe in the Una’s cat-like eyes. He bowed his head and started to crouch at the human’s feet.

“No, don’t do that!” North commanded. “Ka!”

Startled, Chaka straightened and met his friend’s gaze with a trace of alarm; as if he feared he had displeased a powerful being.

North put his hands on the Unas’ shoulders as he tried to explain that they were equals, friends, only he didn’t know their word for that concept.

So he gestured at the waterfall, then at his friend, and then put his hand to his own chest.

Schaka’aaaa,” he intoned, this time with perfect pronunciation.

The message was clear, and Chaka nodded.

We are men of honor. We respect each other.

And then they headed back home together with SG-0 in their wake.

Mission accomplished.

***

September 3, 2005

Two Weeks Later

SGC Gym

North set the barbells into the cradle, glancing at the nurse with the clipboard standing next to him. “Am I done?” he panted. “Please tell me I’m done.”

She marked down the number of sets and cheerfully signed off his PT for the day.

He thanked her and sat up slowly on the bench, toweling the sweat off his face. In a minute, he’d grab a shower and get back to work. Maybe in a couple of minutes.

While he caught his breath, he watched Teal’c murder some squats not far away. It was nice to have his old teammate back for a visit, even if it were only temporary. The big guy had come to Earth to report on the latest developments with the new Jaffa government, and he was concerned about the direction his people were taking.

But as Teal’c dropped to one knee, a barbell slung across his shoulders, North was reminded of an ancient legend.

As soon as Teal’c finished his set, North asked if he’d ever heard of Atlas.

“I have not,” his friend replied.

“Maybe you know him by a different name,” North suggested. “In Greek mythology, he was a Titan who was condemned to hold up the Earth after his people lost the war with Zeus and the other gods. The Titans were the first children of the mother goddess, Gaia, who predated the gods.”

“On Chulak,” Teal’c intoned, “we have a similar story.”

North waited for his friend to continue. After a lengthy pause, he prodded for more.

Teal’c nodded. “In the time before the gods, great beings walked among the stars. They were called the Firstborn, and lived in peace with all others. When the Goa’uld came to conquer the Jaffa, the Firstborn fought for them. One of them loved Chulak so much that he held it together when the gods sought to destroy it. It is said he sleeps now until such time as he is needed again.”

That sounded right in line with the Greek legend. “Is there a temple or written record? I’d like to look into that.”

“When the Goa’uld conquered my people, all such stories were considered blasphemy and were forbidden to repeat on pain of death,” the Jaffa answered. “But in time, the false gods forgot about the Firstborn. We remembered, and the tales were told to our children late at night when the Goa’uld slept.”

Score another one for mythology, North mentioned to himself.

“There is one place where they are remembered, DanielJackson.” He bowed. “I would be pleased to take you there, so the legends of the Jaffa may be added to those you hold so dear.”

“I’d be honored.” He didn’t bother correcting the name Teal’c had called him. Several people had tried to explain to the Jaffa that he’d changed his name. Teal’c had seen many of the duplicates himself, but this one had been the Daniel he’d known longer than any other, so the name stuck. “By the way, what was the Firstborn called?”

The big man leveled him with a look full of pride. He squared his shoulders. “He is called… Teal’c.”

North chuckled. “No, really. What’s his name?”

The giant didn’t blink. His gaze turned frosty. “Teal’c.”

“Oh! You were named after him?”

“Indeed.” Teal’c gave him a little bow and a smug smile.

North apologized for his misunderstanding, embarrassed that he’d thought that reply was a joke.

After a shower and lunch, they chatted a little more about the Firstborns in the team office. North showed his friend the research they’d done on the Happy Gods, which ones they’d found and which they had left to waken. Teal’c related more tales of the Firstborn and pieces began to click into place. By the end of the day, North had met with Waring and a mission was scheduled for Chulak.

SG-0 would escort Teal’c home and he would lead them to the Hourglass by cargo ship, since the location was on the other side of the planet from the Stargate.

By late afternoon, they were on board the ship and speeding through Chulak’s upper atmosphere.

North curled up with a journal, propped against a wall, while the rest of the team chatted about unimportant stuff. He looked over their list, ruminating on their most recent successes.

Chaka had been a surprise. North recalled how the young Unas had chanted by the lake infested with symbiotes when the alien had captured him years earlier. What he hadn’t understood at the time that Chaka had been calling the Mo’o Daniel knew as Aidos, making an offering to her in the hope of gaining her favor.

North remembered Conall’s prompt that they had already found some of the dragons in their travels.

If they found Atlas at this next site, that would only leave two more of the Dreamers to find.

He pondered what the next steps might be after that, jotting down ideas in the journal until they arrived at their destination a few hours later.

“Looks like Iguazu Falls,” North observed, peering into the bridge view screen. “That’s the largest waterfall system on Earth.”

“Never heard of it,” Jack returned. “Got fish in there, T?”

“Many,” the big man replied.

The landscape looked like neat, semicircular chunks had been bitten out, allowing the massive river to appear as if it were flowing down steps. Water vapor hung in the air, filling the valley where all the falls terminated and making visibility sketchy, but Teal’c seemed to know where he was going and set the ship down on a small island just far enough away to offer a great tourist’s view.

Moon ordered Story and Pax to stay with the ship. She and Xiphia would guard the perimeter.

The moment they stepped out, everyone got soaking wet from the perpetual mist.

He led the team toward a huge fall of boulders covered by a mat of thick trailing moss. It took a bit of doing to get hold of the edges of the living carpet, but when Teal’c got a good grip on it, he lifted the greenery aside like a curtain, allowing everyone to see a narrow passageway and roughly chiseled steps leading downward into the dark heart of the island.

“It is slippery,” Teal’c cautioned as he held the mat out of the way. “Be careful of your footing.”

Jack took point, his flashlight checking every crevice in his path.

“Where does this go?” North asked, using the damp rocks on either side to help him keep his feet.

“Down,” Teal’c answered without inflection.

One could never tell for sure when the Jaffa was joking, so North just followed the path.

They didn’t have far to walk. The steps emptied out in a cave that he imagined was somewhere under the falls, possibly at the base of one of the cliffs the river passed over. The sound of the falls was like a constant roll of thunder, but in the cave, it was still and quiet.

Every surface was wet. Stalactites and stalagmites were forming in some places, but only one set was complete. That one had a glassy sheen set with what appeared to be quartz crystals around the upper and lower bases.

“The Hourglass?” he asked, pointing at the formation as he looked to Teal’c for confirmation.

“Indeed.”

Beyond the Hourglass was a small, clear pool, and on the other side of that, another rock formation caught North’s eye.

“If you look at it just right,” he observed to his Jaffa friend, “it looks like a person sitting astride a rock, holding up the ceiling.” He smiled. “Atlas shouldering the world. I think this is the place.”

“It is,” Teal’c confirmed with a slight bow, “but you will not find the one whom you seek in this place.”

North felt an uncomfortable little shock of surprise. “Then why did you bring us here?”

Teal’c turned to Jack. “May I have a moment alone with DanielJackson?”

“Sure, T. I’ll be right outside.” Jack gave him the room without a backward glance.

When they were alone, North felt the oppressiveness of the tiny space enhanced by the way his clothes stuck to his skin and the sweat collected and sealed him into a wet cocoon.

The Jaffa reached out and put a large hand on North’s shoulder, giving him a fond squeeze. “When I finished my duty to free my people, I returned to Chulak to watch our freedom grow. Many seek to return to the old ways because they fear the new, so I came here to contemplate and try to understand.”

“Did you awaken the dragon, Teal’c?” Intuition niggled at the back of North’s mind.

His friend smiled, teeth white against his dark skin. “Much more than that.”

The Jaffa’s eyes flashed purple.

“Oh, shit, you are the dragon!” It took a moment for the shock to wear off. “I have so many questions I don’t even know where to start!”

He stepped backward to get a better look at his friend and almost slipped.

Teal’c caught him, steadied him. “Know that this union was my choice. I spent many days here meditating before I began to hear the Firstborn’s voice. At first I thought I had gone mad, but then he showed himself to me. When we began to converse I saw his wisdom, his great patience, and his love for my people.”

North held onto his friend, concerned regardless of those assurances. “You’re all right? You swear?”

“I am well,” Teal’c promised, his smile softening. “I no longer require the use of Tretonin, my friend. I am whole, for the first time in my life.” He bowed again. “Thanks to the Firstborn.”

“Then why not tell the others? Why send Jack away and just tell me?”

“O’Neill would see me differently,” the Jaffa explained. “He would no longer trust me.”

“And you think I won’t?” North wasn’t sure how he was supposed to feel. “I don’t really know anything about how this kind of hosting works, so how can I—“

“Because you know me,” Teal’c insisted. He cocked his head a little, studying the man before him. “Have you sensed anything different about me until this moment?”

“No, but—“

“Have I acted in any way that gives you cause for suspicion or mistrust?”

“No, but—“

“You accepted the mission to find and waken the Mo’o because you believe they will be helpful to our cause to save others. Have you had reason to question that promise?”

Suspicion slipped. “No, but all I have is the word of strangers. I don’t really know if this is the right thing to do.”

“And only in hindsight will you ever truly know. What you have is your belief that you are doing the best you can, and your faith that you will find a way to save others from evil.” Teal’c sighed. “You carry the weight of many worlds upon your shoulders, DanielJackson. It is too much for one person to bear alone.”

North bowed his head, humbled by his friend’s eloquent argument. “So what do you suggest I do?”

“Trust me.”

The man who gazed into his eyes was the same man who had literally been to hell and back with him, had fought by his side and saved his ass more times than he could count. Teal’c was in there. North couldn’t see or hear anyone different, even though he knew there was someone else in his consciousness.

“Show me Atlas,” North demanded. “The other Teal’c. I have to know who he is before I can do that.”

“Sure, I can do that.” Teal’c’s whole demeanor changed instantly. He grinned with a merry glint in his eyes. His body relaxed and became more animated. He gripped his chin with one hand in a thinking posture, eyes rolled up to the dark ceiling. “Let’s see, what can I tell you about me? I like watching flowers bloom, the smell of spring in rain-fresh air—“

“Wow!” North was a little dumbstruck by the obvious difference. There was no way Teal’c could’ve pulled off that convincing a character shift. “I. Uh.” He shook his head. “Kinda speechless here.”

The lightness faded and stoic Teal’c reappeared, calm and centered… but with a hint of humor in his mouth and eyes.

North grinned and shook his head. “That’s someone Jack could watch The Simpsons with. Hell, that might be Jack.”

“O’Neill is not known for his patience,” Teal’c countered gently, touching his temple with one finger. “This one is.”

He nodded toward the entrance and followed in North’s wake. “Know this, DanielJackson. Since I have been joined with the Firstborn, I understand a great deal more now. It is not time to share this yet, but when the moment comes, I will be at your side. Soon, we will all be free.”

North glanced at the man in the glow of approaching daylight. “Are you happy with this… bonding?”

Teal’c smiled, but it wasn’t the usual half-suppressed grin. There was softness in it. Joy. Peace.

“Indeed.”

***

September 10, 2005

One Week Later

Aboard the Daniel Jackson over Earth

Jarod made his way to the bridge, his stomach churning. This was D-Day, and he’d either succeed or die. The fate of billions was riding on him.

Only a handful of the Asgard were away from their stations in the corridor as he passed. Though he towered over them, he still felt small in their company. He’d barely brushed the breadth of what they knew, but it was vast and mighty. He admired them, and felt privileged that they had found his ideas worth exploring. The Tollans, their cousins the Orbans and the android Comtryans had all assisted, handling different pieces of the research and construction.

For months he’d been working with them all to develop the delivery system for the string of code at the heart of the weapon they’d be deploying today. Testing had been promising, but they’d run out of time. The Replicators would be arriving at the new Asgard homeworld in less than a day and it was time to put the plan in motion.

All they needed was one more component.

Or two, strictly speaking.

He greeted Thor in the captain’s chair and took up a post just behind him.

“We are in place,” the little gray being advised him.

“Let’s beam them up.”

Thor nodded once. “Very well.” The being slid a small, glowing puck over the controls on the right arm of his command chair.

A moment later, two people appeared on the bridge. Daniel Jackson stood next to Jack O’Neill, who had his hand rather possessively on Daniel’s right butt cheek.

Which he jerked back as he caught sight of his new surroundings. He whirled about face, looking for his kidnapper. His face was beet red.

“Thor! What the hell! Give a guy a little warning next time, wouldja?” Jack carped, his brows thunderous, dark eyes snapping.

Jarod grinned.

“I am sorry, O’Neill, but you had no communication device on your person.”

The soldier reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone. “As advanced as you people are, you don’t know how to use a phone? Jeez!”

“Calm down, Jack,” North countered gently. “You know it’s important or they wouldn’t have done this.”

Then Jack noticed the human standing behind the Asgard captain.

Jarod kept his place, arms crossed over his chest.

In his peripheral vision, he saw Thor set the ship to the pre-programmed course for Orilla.

O’Neill stepped toward him. “You know we have to take you into custody, right?” He reached out a hand toward him, palm up, inviting.

“Not today,” Jarod returned, shaking his head. “We have a mission to complete. Each of us has a part to play. Take one away and it won’t work. Sorry, Major, but I’m gonna have to be AWOL a little longer.”

“Jarod is correct, O’Neill,” agreed Thor. “The fate of this galaxy hangs in the balance.”

The Major continued to glower, but his trust in the Asgard brought him into acquiescence. He nodded, standing down.

“So what do you need from us?” he asked as he adopted a casual pose, hands stuffed into his pockets.

“North, please come with me.” Jarod pivoted on his heel and headed into the depths of the ship.

The sound of other footsteps behind him made Jarod turn.

Jack’s eyes were flinty. “Where he goes, I go,” he growled in warning.

“We’ll be arriving at our destination in a few hours,” Jarod announced, leading the way into the cargo bay to describe their payload and the details of their plan.  “The Tollans and Orbans have built the ship we’ll be using as bait. It’s like nothing the Replicators have seen before, so we’re pretty sure they’ll go after it, but the thing is, we need to make sure they all connect physically to the source. Once they do, I’ll be inside the heart of the ship, observing. If all goes according to plan, I’ll transport out with a sample before the ship is fully consumed.”

“Sample of what?”

Jarod beamed. “The answer.”

“What’s the question?” asked Jack.

Glancing between the two men, Jarod returned with quiet pride, “How do we save everyone?”

Surprise flashed in their faces.

O’Neill looked a little lost.

North got it. “Defeating the Replicators.”

“There’s a little more to it than that, but yes.” Jarod nodded.

“How?” North frowned. “We know you’ve taken samples of the Orban learning nanites. Is that part of it?”

Jarod nodded. “I also copied the code from the kiron disruptor O’Neill created using the Ancients’ knowledge--”

“That doesn’t work anymore,” Jack interjected. “They created a defense.”

“Pelops also used nanites for another purpose,” Jarod reminded them. “Those protected the Argosians from disease and artificially aged them. SG-One figured out how to deactivate them, but they were still in the Argosians. I got samples of those, too.”

“Forgive me, Jarod, but I’m not seeing the Big Picture, here,” North cut in. “I don’t see how any of those things are related.”

Jarod nodded. He gestured toward two space suits in racks in the cargo bay. Their purpose was obvious, but their design much less bulky and more futuristic than those from Earth.

“Every race that has encountered the Replicators has tried to destroy them,” he explained. “Their survival programming is as strong as the instinct in a living being. In their own way, they are alive. They live to consume, to covert matter into reproduction of their species. So do we.”

“I think we’re a little more cautious about that,” Jack argued. “They don’t really care about total destruction of their environment.”

“The same could be said about human beings,” Jarod returned quietly. “But I’m not here to argue ecology.”

He opened a crate. Inside it was an object that resembled a high-tech water gun tipped with a needle-like projection.

Jack peered at it. “Is this the in-flight entertainment?”

“This is for the second step, if the first is successful.”

“And the first step is…?” North eyed the space suits and the gun before meeting Jarod’s eyes again.

“At our destination is a cutting edge ship, designed by the Nox—“

That raised eyebrows.

“—and built by the Tollans and Orbans. It’s the first of its kind, sure to attract the attention and appetite of the Replicators. It’s been traveling to the new Asgard homeworld for the last few days, and is now in orbit above the planet. Every piece of the ship except the shielded nucleus has been imbued with a specific piece of code that will be transmitted through the subspace connection to all Replicators. Once that’s done and the mass of the ship has been incorporated into as many of them as possible, I’ll be able to activate it.”

“And then what happens?” Jack’s fingers stroked over the clear, apparently empty central chamber of the gun.

“I’ll breach the nucleus and take a sample of the new Replicators.”

All eyes were on him now, lit with expectation and hope.

“The question should never have been how to destroy the Replicators,” Jarod explained, “but how to reprogram them to be useful rather than destructive. We’ve already seen two successful examples of how tiny machines can be adapted for use in biological environments, and we have two cultures in dire need of biological solutions to stave off extinction…”

“The Asgard and the Jaffa!” North laughed. “Genius! Why the hell didn’t anyone else think of this sooner?”

Jarod nodded. “So now you see why we’re here. If this works, we’ll be saving three races in one fell swoop.”

“And if it doesn’t work?” Jack crossed his arms, the picture of skepticism.

“Then…” Jarod’s stomach clenched. “…it gets way worse for everyone.”

He pictured the devastation as the formless nanites switched from devouring technology to biological matter – every plant, animal, bird, fish and sentient being – in their path, leaving the buildings and machines intact.

North seemed to shrink inward a little. “Shouldn’t we wait until we know for sure it’s going to work?”

Jarod took a deep breath, let it out slowly. He eyed the floor, recalling what Thor had told him with tremendous grief. “The Replicators are heading for Orilla, Daniel. They’ll be there a little while after we arrive. The Asgard have known it for a while now, and have prepared for it. If this plan isn’t successful, they’re going to blow themselves up, and the Replicators with them. This is their last stand.”

A small, delicate woman with a haystack for hair appeared in the doorway. “And the Nox have joined them,” she declared. “We will live or die with our friends.”

“Lya!” North greeted her with open arms.

She came into them with a smile, embracing him and offering O’Neill a polite curtsey.

“Come, let us enjoy a meal together.” She gestured out of the cargo hold and led the way to a spacious room where she had put out platters of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as some delicious looking pastries. A steaming pot of tea sat on a tray filled with cups.

Lya was a gracious hostess. She urged North to eat his fill and kept his cup from being empty.

He wondered about that, and in particular, why he and Jack were there.

Jarod, Lya and Thor laid out the plan in detail, answering every question until they arrived at their destination.

The moment they exited hyperspace, they could see the experimental spacecraft in orbit above the planetary curve of the new Asgard homeworld.

The new ship looked weird, a great milky white thing that changed shape as they watched. It was a generally round shape covered in spikes that shifted into knobs and tentacles reaching randomly out into nearby space. At its heart was a brightly lit perfect sphere.

“It looks organic,” North observed through the monitor as he finished suiting up. “Kind of like a white blood cell.”

“Very good, North,” Jarod complimented him. “That’s the basis of the design.”

They made their way to the cargo bay, where Jarod directed North to put on one of the Tollan-designed space suits under Jack’s watchful eye.

“So what happens now?” He settled the helmet onto Jarod’s suit and checked to make sure all the seals engaged.

Jarod did the same for him. “Now we transport over to the Eir.”

North’s head came up. “Norse goddess of healing.” He turned to O’Neill. “The name ‘Eir’ means ‘help’ or ‘mercy.’ I guess we need some of both.” Eyeing Jarod again, he smiled. “Good choice for a name.”

“I don’t like this,” Jack growled from beside the gun case. “You should’ve had three suits. North needs me to watch his six.” He was obviously worried and nervous.

“We need you here to man the ring transporter controls,” Jarod corrected. “That was the only part of the Eir that we made with old tech, specifically so it would be left for last. If that doesn’t work, we’ll need someone to pilot that rusty old ha’tak and come get us the old fashioned way.”

He nodded toward the pyramid-shaped cargo ship parked in the bay.

O’Neill nodded. Then he walked around each of the men and did a final inspection of their gear personally.

“Good to go?” asked Jarod.

The Major nodded once, brusquely, worry etched into his face.

Jarod took up the sample gun and led the way into the ring transporter.

North followed him.

“Ready?” he asked.

He gave a nod, and the next moment the rings came up around them.

There was no gravity control inside the nucleus of the Eir, so they floated inside it, bumping against the sides of the glassy sphere.

Jarod kept the sharp muzzle of the gun pointed downward, braced against his right leg.

“Can’t see a thing from in here,” North observed. “How will we know if they took the bait?”

“Because you’re going to call them to us,” Jarod replied. His pulse was pounding. He was scared to death. He’d seen the video footage of what the Replicators did to human beings and knew this mission might well be the last thing he ever did. If they were retrieved too late, he’d be a dead man.

North gave him a long look. “How did you know?”

“Cernunnos let me remember the Gifts temporarily. Once this mission is done – providing I survive – I’ll be going back to Gambler’s World for an adjustment to wipe all that out.”

He put his glove on the hard transparent wall of their compartment, hoping he’d done enough simulations on this event to have predicted correctly.

“Summon the Replicators, my friend. Let’s get this show on the road.”

North closed his eyes. He took a few deep breaths, stretched his arms wide and invoked his Gift.

Thor’s voice came over the radio inside their helmets. “Long-range scanners indicate the Replicator ship has changed course. It is heading for the Eir.”

Jarod glanced at his friend, knowing the toll North would be paying for this act.

He waited, listening as Thor gave them a play-by-play.

The ship arrived, slowed, made contact with the flexible exterior of the Eir. Jarod pictured the ship’s reaction: the Eir would give, and as the Replicators pushed forward into the mass, it would envelop the bow of the alien craft just like a blood cell engulfing bacteria.

He could see the darkness of the metal ship pushing toward them, coming close to the nucleus that housed them and their transporter.

Jarod touched his friend’s arm, catching North’s attention.

“You can stop calling them now,” he said with a smile. “Your part’s done.”

Then he signaled Thor to retrieve North via the Asgard transporter beam and watched with satisfaction as a startled North vanished in a flash of bright light.

“Hey!” he heard the other man’s voice in his helmet speaker, no doubt from the bridge of the Asgard ship. “I’m supposed to be helping you!”

“And you did.” Jarod watched the bow of the Replicator ship squish against the inner cushioning layer of the sphere. “You’ve stopped Summoning, right? I need the Replicators’ attention focused here.”

“Yes, of course, but—“ The signal broke up into static punctuated with unintelligible syllables.

Jarod shut out the noise, watching as the spider-like creatures broke off the structure and began swimming through the viscous shell of the Eir, eating their way toward him. One of them tapped a long, pointed leg on the sphere that housed him. Then another and another. A proboscis ejected from the frontal aperture and sent a jet of acid against the protective shield of the nucleus.

He closed his eyes and called up the gift of Cernunnos that he’d never had the opportunity to use. In his mind, he saw the elegant line of code that the Replicators had already begun to ingest and spread to each other.

All he had to do was turn it on.

Change,” he whispered with every ounce of authority he possessed.

He believed all the way to his core that this would work.

The hiss of escaping air as the nucleus breached didn’t distract him.

“Change!” he ordered again, eyes opening wide as he imagined the virus taking effect.

The tapping stopped. The Replicators froze. Then they turned away from the attack and began to eat, and as they devoured the gooey body of the Eir, they began to dissolve into it until they became part of it. The milky casing began to peel away from the nucleus until it surrounded the Replicator ship completely.

The transformation happened much faster than Jarod had anticipated.

O’Neill’s voice came through the speaker clearly now. “You ready for pickup, son?”

“Not yet.” Jarod checked his oxygen levels. “I’m good here for another couple hours and still don’t have my sample yet. I’m gonna get closer.”

“Be careful!” North added. “They don’t seem to be moving, but doesn’t look like they’ve finished being digested yet, either.”

“Copy that.”

He glanced to his left at the Daniel Jackson, a mere speck in the vastness of space. To the right and below was the blue and green jewel of Orilla. Straight ahead, the Replicator ship seemed to be dissolving before his eyes.

The attitude jet controls for the nucleus were inside his suit rather than in the shell. He gave the bubble a short burst to get it moving forward and watched as the glassy hull approached the writhing mass that was once the Replicator ship. He pushed the needle-like nozzle of the specimen-gathering apparatus through one of the many holes created by Replicator acid and waited for contact.

When the nucleus touched the milky mass again, it seemed to stick like a bug on flypaper.

He’d expected it to roll a little, but it wasn’t moving.

With a push on the interior wall, he changed position to reach the surface where the milky fluid was now starting to seep in through a hole. With his feet against what was now the ceiling, he shoved the nozzle into the mass and pulled the trigger to activate the vacuum mechanism. The chamber started filling.

“I’m collecting now,” he reported. “Should have sample in one minute.”

But the milky fluid was now flowing around the sides of the bubble, actively encasing it.

And then it began pouring into every hull breech, slithering across the interior walls, creeping into the nucleus with him.

The sample collection unit was only a quarter full.

His heart pounded. Sweat beaded up on his skin. He was running out of time.

If the stuff came into contact with his suit, he wouldn’t be able to get back on board the ha’tak or the Daniel Jackson without risking contaminating everyone else.

A tendril formed on the wall near his head, building up until it made a knob, and then a small tentacle.

The modified Replicators were coming for him.

“They’ve breached the nucleus!” he called, panicking. “I have to blow it now. Major O’Neill, I’m gonna need that taxi!”

He activated the escape mechanism and the nucleus came apart in eight neat slivers, taking the goo with it.

“Using thrusters to get some distance,” he called into the mic. “Don’t get too close to this stuff.”

As the jets on his suit pushed him away from the white mass, he checked his boots and gloves everywhere he could see to make sure he hadn’t accidentally picked up any of the material.

The ha’tak had been waiting and settled over him like a blanket, the opening cargo bay door the most welcome sight of his life.

When it closed and gravity was restored, he laughed with relief.

And then North’s hands were helping him with the clasps to get the helmet off, pulling off his gloves, hugging him and slapping him on the back.

Freedom was on the horizon, and it was sweet.

***

September 17, 2005

One Week Later

Stargate Command

One moment, Jack was standing on the deck of the Daniel Jackson, and the next he was in the Ready Room outside General Waring’s office with North at his back.

Jarod had not been beamed down with them.

Waring had just been coming out the door of his office and swore profusely upon seeing the two men materialize.

“Where the hell have you two been?” he demanded, bending over to pick up the empty coffee cup he’d dropped. He glared at them each in turn with a steely demand.

“Saving the galaxy again, sir,” Jack shot back.

Waring steepled his fingers together thoughtfully, a muscle twitching in his jaw. “The Asgard contacted us after they ‘borrowed’ you.” He made air quotes around that word. “All they told us was that you two were needed for a mission of utmost importance, and that you’d be returned when it was completed. Then the next day, they said there’d been a complication and you’d be delayed. We haven’t heard from them since, so I suppose the mission is over?”

“Yes, sir.” North cleared his throat, tried to look casual. “The Replicators have been neutralized. They won’t be a threat to anyone again. In fact… I suppose we can call them an ally now.”

The General’s surprise was palpable. “The single greatest threat to all life in the galaxy is now an ally? How’d that happen?”

“Our friend Jarod,” North answered with a trace of pride.

“Maybe we might consider reducing his sentence, given his contribution to the welfare of the galaxy,” Jack suggested.

North cleared his throat. “The idea was Jarod’s, but it took the Asgard, the Orbans, the Tollans and the Nox to pull it off. They’ve converted the Replicators into nanite form designed to function as an immune system for the Jaffa. They’re starting trials now.”

Waring sat back in his chair, obviously gobsmacked.

“If it works, all those currently using Tretonin will be switched over to the nanites. Then, as symbiotes mature, they’ll be sent to Comtrya and the Jaffa will receive the cure. Everybody wins.”

“Holy shit.” Waring couldn’t seem to keep his mouth closed. “They did it!”

“Yes, sir. Jarod has managed to neutralize the Goa’uld threat and the Replicator threat, and provide a permanent cure for the Jaffa. I think he deserves amnesty—“

“Now, hold on there!” Jack’s head whipped around to his mate. “I clearly said ‘reduced sentence’--”

“—in the event he ever decides to return to Earth,” North continued. “At the moment, he’s still on loan to the Asgard—“

“Seeking asylum, you mean,” Jack snapped.

North sighed. “Let’s finish the briefing. Okay?”

Once they’d answered all of Waring’s questions, he sent them to the infirmary for a full workup by the medical staff, including every piece of information they had on the nanites.

Hours later, Jack left the base to return home alone.

North had planned to be by himself for the night, but after a few hours of pacing and aimless distractions, Jack made a phone call and waited for North to arrive with Tzatzil.

When they came in the front door, she went straight for the video game in the den, making herself at home.

This was getting to be a habit, but Jack didn’t like sleeping alone anymore. He needed the assurance of knowing that North was okay, and the only way to be sure was to have eyes on him. Or a hand. Or lips.

And Jack was learning to be just fine with that.

***

October 18, 2005

One Month Later

Stargate Command

“Did you hear?” North jogged up beside Jack as he marched down the corridor toward their office. “Snow and Vala are back!”

“Good morning,” Jack sniped. “Let the stress begin!”

“And apparently…” North glanced before and behind them to make sure they were out of earshot of any casual listeners. “… they’re lovers now!”

Jack stopped dead in his tracks and frowned at his partner. “What? I thought he was gay! Wasn’t he married to a guy in his universe?”

“I doubt Vala would care, but they seem to be making it work. Maybe it’s some effect those kor mak bracelets had on them – which, by the way, seems to have permanently bonded them, even though they took them off while they were away.”

“Kinda seems unfair to him, since she’s going to jail.”

“For what?”

“Kidnapping. Again.”

North crossed his arms over his chest. “Apparently he went with her of his own free will. They had to get rid of an artifact that apparently would’ve brought the Ori to this universe.”

“That fancy pot thingy from Merlin’s storehouse?” Jack considered a moment. “Well, then, theft of SGC property.”

“Snow seems to have made a good case with General Waring. All her previous misbehavior was apparently for a good cause. She was trying to raise funds to save her people from the Aschen.”

“As long as Waring doesn’t put her on a team. She can’t be trust—” Jack glanced at the disapproving expression on his lover’s face. “Oh, hell!”

He stomped off down the corridor and got into the nearest elevator, headed for Waring’s office to plea that those two not be placed on a team with him, ever. He wouldn’t have minded Snow, but Vala Mal Doran was an agent of disaster and he wanted to make sure she was as far across the universe from him and his Daniel Jackson as possible.

***

October 20, 2005

Two Days Later

Stargate Command

North checked the items in his gear vest by rote, his mind elsewhere.

Not far away, Jack sat on a locker room bench lacing up his boots.

The mood in the room was grim.

“It’s not a demotion,” Jack reminded him. “It’s a temporary transfer. We haven’t been out with Team Zero in months, anyway.”

“I know.” North didn’t want to hear it. Waring’s transfer of the guts of SG-0 back to SG-1 felt like he’d lost the ground he gained when the academic team had been established. The flagship team were all recovering from injuries received on their last mission, and considering the urgency of the new directive to awaken the Dreamers, Jack and Daniel’s experience moved them in as temps.

He understood the logic of it, the more pressing need to find the last of the Mo’o and prepare for the Ori incursion.

It was even more important now to find allies who could help them, and Cernunnos had promised that.

Only two of the Dreamers were left, and Daniel had only one fragment of an idea where those Mo’o might be found.

For Belun, Mo’o of happiness, he didn’t have a clue.

And if Mabon wasn’t on Cimmeria, where the original Daniel Jackson had passed the Asgard test of wisdom, then he might be anywhere in the vastness of the galaxy.

So they were retracing their steps to see if they might find the Mo’o of Wisdom somewhere near the Asgard testing site.

North put the vest on and secured it. “I’m sure Hagman will do fine commanding SG-Zero. I just feel like I’ve taken a step backward. It was my idea, my team. I earned it.”

“And when we’re done with the first contact stuff, you’ll get your team back,” Jack assured him. “No one can do this but you, and it’s not fair for the rest of the team to be stuck on the base while you go on other missions with SG-One. Simple as that.”

North sighed, checking all the clips, zippers and buttons on his BDUs and gear one last time. “That’s not exactly true. Snow could pull it off. But still I don’t have to like it.”

“I didn’t like getting busted down to Major, either.” O’Neill stood up and reached for his backpack. “But I’d rather be here earning my way back to a promotion than sitting at my cabin drawing a tiny retirement check and fishing an empty lake.”

North reached into Jack’s locker and snagged his black ball cap. He settled it on his head and studied his reflection in the mirror. “Think I’ll have to get one of these,” he mused just as Jack stole it back.

“Personally, I prefer Danny Scarfhead,” Jack quipped. “Although the Boonie hat also has its charm.”

They met Moon and Tzatzil at the armory, picked up their weapons and headed for the embarkation room to begin their mission.

Minutes later, they stepped out onto the wintry landscape of Cimmeria.

By now they knew the way to Gairwyn’s holding and started down the path to the west of the Stargate.

Yellowing fields of grain had been cut to stubble, but in each section a single sheaf had been left.

“Looks like Winternights,” North observed. “It’s a harvest festival, with elements of… um… Hallowe’en.”

Moon glanced over her shoulder at him. “No shit? Do we get to trick or treat?” She gestured down at her BDUs. “We are in costume.”

He grinned back at her. “No, not like that. They’ll slaughter the livestock too weak to last the winter, start preserving the harvests and prepare a great feast that’ll be shared with the spirits of the dead and the Asgard. Then afterward, the Wild Hunt begins.”

“So… no trick or treating?” Jack seemed genuinely disappointed.

“Not exactly. The Wild Hunt is when the humans turn all the roads and fields over to the ghosts and trolls as the division between the world of the living and the world of the dead grows thin. Everybody stays in the villages, hunkers down for the bad weather and listens to the storytellers share great tales of the past. They use the downtime for repairing equipment, honing crafts, things like that.”

“And drinking?” O’Neill was hopeful now.

Lots of drinking,” North promised. “And if we stay the night, there’ll likely be a party you won’t remember for the rest of your life.”

“I wish,” griped Moon. “Still on duty here, kids.”

Jack shrugged. “Oh, I dunno. The Goa’uld are gone. The Replicators are gone. Maybe it is time for a party. Just one night, before the next cosmic disaster hits.”

“You can be designated driver, then,” O’Neill suggested. “C’mon, Colonel! One night?”

North explained the concept of ‘designated driver’ to Tzatzil, who then volunteered to watch over them all.

Col. Standing eyed her elfin teammate, obviously considering the proposal. “Let me think about it a little bit.” She studied the terrain, the sky above them as the sun touched the horizon, and the outskirts of the village as they approached it.

People were wearing bright clothing, setting up tables outside their doors with handiwork, home-canned goods and handmade finery that would be bartered or sold at the festival. Homes were decorated with intricately woven straw, colorful leaves and seasonal flowers. There was no fear of thievery because a portion of those goods were meant to be offerings for the dead.

Everywhere North looked, the Cimmerians were smiling and happy.

Their joy was contagious, and he felt his mood lighten.

A teenager in Gairwyn’s household met SG-1 at the door and carried word of their arrival to her.

Shortly afterward, a young woman showed them to the great hall and brought them refreshments, announcing that it would be some time before the mistress of the house would be able to see them, as she was quite busy preparing for the festival.

By the time she came to greet them, the sun had set. She asked about Carter and was told that she no longer traveled through the Stargate, avoiding as much as possible the subject of their friend’s disgrace, and then they broached the reason for their visit.

North showed her the picture of the conch, which Gairwyn recognized immediately.

Her blue eyes brightened. “Yes, I have seen this. Thor changed the course of a river to bring water to the village for our fields…”

North recalled the long, rust-colored beams spanning the rushing water that he, Sam and Kendra had traversed on the way to the cave where they’d rescued Teal’c and Jack years earlier. That had been part of an irrigation system far beyond the primitive Cimmerians’ ability to engineer, yet more proof of Asgard influence on their society.

“…and where the river divides, there is a waterfall into a great lake. It is this lake that feeds our river, and in the center of it stands a large shell, like this one.”

“Can someone take us there?”

Gairwyn’s smile faltered. She seemed a bit worried. “Not now. It is Winternights! You must wait for spring to travel that far. Now is time for us to reflect on what we have achieved, and what remains to be done in the new year.”

North shook his head. “I’m not sure we have that long, Gairwyn. I’m on a mission to awaken the Dreamers, and Mabon may be waiting in that lake.”

“Mabon.” She pondered that name a moment, her brow furrowing. “That is who you seek? You are certain?”

He nodded.

She took a deep breath, exhaled resignedly and bowed her head for a moment. When she lifted it, she was smiling, but there was a deep sadness in her eyes. “Very well, then. It is three days’ journey from here. I will take you there myself. For tonight, we share our harvest with you as our guests.”

Gairwyn rose and went to speak privately with one of the older men.

He glanced at the visitors, then hurried away.

When their hostess returned, she informed them that she was having provisions prepared for their journey in the morning.

The rest of the evening they enjoyed the festivities, and at first light the team left their temporary beds in the great hall for a quick breakfast of hot tea, toasted bread, scrambled eggs and slivers of hard cheese. Gairwyn outfitted them with thick coats, hats and gloves. Extra provisions were tucked into their backpacks, and by full sunup they were ready to go.

The lady of the house escorted the team outside, where a huge man with steely gray hair and beard awaited them. At his back was another pack, and in his left hand he carried a tall wooden staff topped with a carved circle, at the center of which a dark blue crystal lay suspended in a web of something that looked like fishing twine, strong and immovable.

“This is the Gothi,” Gairwyn told them.

“Priest?” asked North, recalling the title from Norse history.

“Aye.” The Cimmerian woman looked surprised as well as a bit pleased. “He will help protect us as we travel through the Wild Hunt.”

“Looks like he can hold his own in a fight,” Moon observed, looking the enormous man up and down with a measuring gaze. “Might even give Teal’c a run for his money.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Jack shot back with mild umbrage.

North shot him a fixed, warning smile. “Let’s not antagonize the giant, shall we, Jack?” he suggested under his breath, then nudged his lover to break the long, challenging gaze between the two men.

He offered his hand to the big man. “Hi. I’m…” It struck him that Gairwyn wouldn’t know him by his new name and explaining might take a while. “…Daniel Jackson. I haven’t seen you here before. Are you from another village?”

The Gothi fell in step with him as the team followed Gairwyn down the wide track that served as a road out of the holding. “I am the liege lord of this woman and her people.”

That was a surprise. “Wow. I’m not sure I understand why you’re coming with us, then. I thought you were a priest or something?”

“Indeed I am, and an interpreter of the will of the gods,” Gothi rumbled, pale gray eyes on the path, “I came to Gairwyn’s Wintersnight fest to behold the Winter Sun.” He turned his head and regarded North intently as he addressed the Cimmerian woman. “It is pale and wan.”

“As it ought to be,” Gairwyn agreed, jogging up beside them with a smile for North. “It keeps us alive during the dark times.”

North sensed the subtext between them, but couldn’t read it. He had a sneaking suspicion that they might be talking about him. If that were the case, he didn’t want to know about it.

They didn’t elaborate, so he changed the subject of the conversation to more anthropological topics, asking Gothi about his holdings and the Cimmerian system of government.

For three days, they hiked upward into the mountains. They passed the irrigation system spanning the river and used the metal beams like a bridge to cross the rushing water. Keeping the river to their left, they followed its course as it wound upward into the high country.

Each day, the hike became more difficult. The terrain required some climbing in addition to the exhausting trek through the pathless, rocky mountainside. Here and there they spotted animals they hadn’t seen on previous visits – beefy deer with a wild tangle of antlers all but surrounding their heads, furry birds that looked more like giant bats with leathery wings and sounded like hawks, lynxes the size of St. Bernards with a row of porcupine-like quills bristling along their spines. Most disturbing of all, however, were the footprints they found in the soft soil near the river on the third day.

Both Gothi and Gairwyn became unsettled when Tzatzil pointed out the print, which was much bigger than her own.

“It is Fenrir,” the priest declared, glancing about warily. “The giant wolves are another reason we keep within our village walls after Wintersnight.”

“How big?” asked Jack.

“As long as you are tall,” the chieftan answered. “Able to pick up a full-grown man and carry him away in its jaws. They come down from the mountains in winter, looking for food. We are now in their hunting grounds.”

Gairwyn looked grim. “No one sleeps until we return to the village.” She drew her sword and held it in front of her as they resumed their hike up the mountain.

It was twilight on the third day when they reached the lake. A fine mist had settled over everything, but North could just make out the pale gleam of a shell-shaped structure in the middle of the water. He wanted to try to contact Mabon, but Gothi set them all to work making fortifications around the campsite at the edge of the water first.

They dug trenches and set sharpened stakes pointing outward into the ground. After gathering a huge amount of wood to stoke the fire through the night, they set three campfires, one at the center of the perimeter wall and one at each end. Lastly, they set a rough picket fence just past the water’s edge to protect them on all sides.

He didn’t ask if all that prep were really necessary. The Cimmerians lived in this environment. He trusted them to know what they were doing. It was always better to be overcautious and alive than underprepared and dead.

And after seeing that footprint, he wanted to make sure they survived the night.

Moon and Tzatzil took first watch while the rest of them set out their provisions for the evening meal.

The Cimmerians hadn’t been impressed with the MREs, so there were still plenty of those for the return trip. Tonight they enjoyed some hard bread and cheese, a piece of fruit each, some kind of smoked meat, and a cup of freshly brewed tea. Gairwyn made the meal and handed out the portions, carrying a share to the ladies on guard as well.

Lastly, Gothi produced a small wrapped cake from his pack and allowed each person to select their own portion. The last piece he broke into thirds, gave one to North and took the other two to Moon and Tzatzil. When he returned to the campfire, he shoved his piece into his mouth and chewed it delightedly.

It was tasty, full of nuts and berries, but lighter than Christmas fruitcake. There was a hint of alcohol in it, something like spiced rum. North wished he had another piece of it and picked the crumbs off the cloth until he couldn’t see a speck of it left by the warm glow of the firelight.

The others started talking, but North kept his eyes on the flames, wondering if he should try to call Mabon, but he couldn’t motivate himself to move. He felt peaceful and warm, as if everything was as it should be. It occurred to him that he should be concerned about the possibility of predators watching them from the shadows, but it didn’t bother him until the bright yellow-orange campfire changed color.

The whole landscape followed.

Everything was reversed. The bright fire was black and electric blue. The darkened landscape was ghostly pale, shining with a wan light that hurt his eyes.

He put up a hand to shield himself from the brightness and felt himself falling backward.

Someone came to help him, but he couldn’t see who it was. The person was a dark shadow, like black smoke wafting through the air. Hands helped him, arranged him comfortably on the ground. Their voices were like a breeze through pine needles, mournful and faint.

He realized then that he must have been drugged.

Then he saw another figure bending over him. He thought it was Tzatzil, because her insubstantial bipedal shape was married with another one that was perfectly clear and highly detailed.

The Mo’o was the most beautiful creature he’d ever seen.

“Feronia?” North couldn’t tell if he’d actually spoken the word or imagined it in his intoxicated state.

“Do not be afraid,” the dragon replied, her voice like trickling water. “If you are to waken Mabon, you must be worthy. The Cimmerians know this, and have prepared you to be tested.”

North sat up. He felt weightless and free. Turning a little, he could see his body still on the ground, eyes closed, breathing shallow.

“I think I should be panicking,” he observed, staring at his spirit hands as if he’d never seen them before, “but I feel oddly calm.”

He got to his feet and stepped away from the cluster of souls, closer to the water’s edge.

Tzatzil/Feronia came with him.

Looking back, he asked, “Am I going to die? I mean, could whatever they gave me kill me?”

The Mo’o’s dark green gaze was direct and unflinching. “It is possible, but we will do our best to keep you alive. You are important.”

“Why?” North crossed his arms. “See, everybody’s been telling me that since I rolled off the assembly line, and I don’t get it. Why me? Why not the original Daniel Jackson? Why not any of the others?”

Feronia canted her massive head. “The answer is not mine to give, but one you must learn for yourself.”

The creature bolted back toward the camp, propelled by the shadow of the elf.

He turned to see the others scatter for cover as a pack of fenrir attacked the camp.

Tzatzil dropped to one knee beside his body, threw one leg over his belly to form a protective arch, and started shooting with her P-90.

The sounds were mere whispers of what they should’ve been. The action seemed to be in slow motion. He thought he should be helping, but he didn’t know how.

“Daniel.”

North turned at the sound of that incredibly familiar voice.

“Sha’re?”

His wife was right there, smiling in welcome, dressed in white robes. A single feather was braided into her hair. He recognized it from her funeral service, the feather that had judged the weight of her soul and earned her a place in Heaven.

“You’re dead,” he observed stupidly.

She nodded, her expression sobering a bit. “Yes, I am. And you are in the land of shadows. I am here to be your guide.”

“To where?”

She held out her hand, beaming at him.

He took it and strolled with her across the gleaming surface of the day-bright lake.

It felt a little weird to be walking on water, but he didn’t question the hallucination.

Sha’re was doing it, too, and after all, he was whacked out on drugs.

There was a building in the middle of the lake shaped like a conch shell. They went into an airy room with a high ceiling and colored glass windows.  Sha’re seated him at a round table, poured him a cup of water and took a seat at his side.

“I have missed you, husband,” she admitted softly, adoration in her dark eyes.

North bowed his head. “You never really met me, Sha’re. Your Daniel is in the Pegasus Galaxy. I was made in a Goa’uld lab a few months before you died.”

She didn’t seem at all surprised by that announcement. “You are still my Daniel,” she insisted patiently.

He cleared his throat and pretended to gaze into his cup. “Actually… I’m with Jack.”

Sha’re shrugged. “Do you not still feel the love you had for me?”

“Of course!” He took her hands in his. “I will always love you, Sha’re. You were my wife.”

Her soft smile widened and warmed. “Then you are my Daniel. Each one of you who feels that love belongs to me a little, as I do to each of you.”

That hit him a little wrong. “Are you saying it doesn’t matter which of us is with you?”

She dropped her gaze to the table and made little circles with a fingertip. “Do you recall the twins, Shem’zai and Shamaz, in our city on Abydos, my love? They were so alike no one could tell them apart.”

North nodded. In his transplanted memories, he recalled the two young men who were always getting into mischief, using each other as an alibi or trading places with each other. The guys loved fooling people into thinking one was the other.

“Except their wives,” Sha’re reminded him, as if reading his thoughts. “They were different men at heart.” She patted her chest. “You and my Daniel are not. Does this offend you, my love?”

“I think it would bother your Daniel a lot if you were with me. He’s had a pretty rough time of it for years.”

She nodded. “The experiences you had, that he did not have, shaped you into a different person than he has become. He is finding his way back to himself now, and you have helped him with that. Can you imagine what his life might have been like if he had remained in that prison?”

North swallowed hard. He could, indeed. He took a long swallow of water to relax the lump in his throat.

“What if he’d been killed when Hathor took him?”

“Then I wouldn’t be here.” He frowned at her. “How do you know all of this?”

Sha’re laughed. “Because I am not real, silly! I am only in your mind.”

“Oh. Right. The tests. So what are we doing here?”

“Waiting for the others.”

“Who?”

“Me, for one.” A young man strode in and offered his hand in a firm shake. He was tall and slender, with black hair almost down to his shoulders and sapphire-blue eyes. There was something familiar about the shape of his face, his small, lobeless ears and heavy eyebrows, but North couldn’t place where he might’ve met the guy. “I’m Evander.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m North, but I guess you already know that, since this is my hallucination and you’re not real.”

The young man chuckled. “Well, not yet.”

North raised his eyebrows in silent question.

“My mother will be Vala, after you heal her. At the moment, she can’t have children.”

“And your father?”

“You call him Snow, but he will soon be called by his original name again.”

Stunned, North sat back in his chair as he contemplated that idea. He could see the resemblance now, even his posture and the way he walked reflecting his heritage from Daniel Jackson’s genes. In a way, this would be his son, too.

Sha’re’s wise observation at the start of their conversation was beginning to dawn on him.

“I see.”

He got up and paced slowly around the room, his fingers brushing the strangely soft, organic texture of the curved walls spiraling up into a point above his head.

As he walked, he pondered who Daniel Jackson was, what he offered to the universe, why he might be special, but he just couldn’t see it. North wasn’t important or different from anyone else in any substantial way. He’d had hard times and good ones; had suffered personal defeats and private successes beyond his wildest dreams. He’d died and been revived an extraordinary number of times including being ascended for a while, but others had done that, too. Orlin had been an Ancient, ascended for who knew how many thousands of years, but he’d returned to mortal form twice. Jack, Sam and Teal’c had given their lives on more than one occasion, as the memorial wall at the SGC clearly showed.

So why had Daniel Jackson been special enough to reproduce as clones and androids, and retrieved from other universes?

“Sorry, I still don’t see why I’m the one.” He shook his head and turned back to his hosts.

 Only there were now three people at the table.

Conall/Cernunnos lifted his famous rainbow-colored drink in toast with a wide grin. “Slanté!” the antlered man cheered, and quaffed a substantial amount of the cocktail. “Perhaps you need to see what we’re up against.”

Evander and Sha’re vanished as Conall stood.

The walls of the room changed to a marble castle with towering ceilings and huge columns. Rich tapestries warmed the walls. Thick carpets underfoot softened their footsteps as they passed through the magnificent building into a room North couldn’t quite describe.

The walls and floor seemed to suddenly stop on the far side of a wrought iron gate perched on the edge of an abyss.

On the other side was a fire that seemed to go on forever.

Standing before the gate were two men. One was dressed in magnificent robes with a tall collar that swept up and around the back of his head. His hair and skin were unnaturally pale, and his eyes… They looked blind, dead, clouded over completely.

North felt a shiver of horror.

The other man he recognized as Gera’k, the senior member of the Jaffa High Council.

They were in deep philosophical discussion, and it was clear that Gera’k was buying the rhetoric.

He watched as the priest called forth the flames and sent them into the old Jaffa, and that was when North understood exactly who the Ori were: powerful ascended beings who demanded the worship of “lesser” beings. They were feeding on their followers, with no intention of adding to their numbers.

And Gera’k was leading them back to the Milky Way Galaxy.

He’d heard the directive the priest had given Gera’k, to convert his people or destroy the unbelievers.

Then the old Jaffa had been sent home.

North eyed Cernunnos as fear rose inside him in icy coils. “What do I do? What can I do? The Ori are ascended beings! They’re more powerful than any of us can imagine. The Goa’uld were angry children compared to them.”

He felt hopeless. This war would be over before it began.

Conall put a hand on North’s shoulder and gave him a squeeze. “Tell me the names of my people and what you’ve learned about yourself from them.”

North frowned. That had been careful phrasing; not what he knew about the various Mo’o, but what he’d found in himself when he’d awakened them.

He pondered that, and began with the obvious. “Cernunnos, who reminded me that imagination can help resolve any problem, and that a peacemaker is also a healer.” He put his hands into his imaginary coat pockets.

A flaming pearl appeared above the table, the symbol of the Mo’o of Gambler’s World.

“Pandora,” he continued, “who reminded me that curiosity will take me to places I never imagined I’d go, to revel in the thrill of exploring.”

The table turned into a maze of neatly clipped hedges, and the Mo’o slithered in through the doorway. Her eyes glowed electric blue, her sinuous body refracting light in peacock shades of aqua, emerald, ultramarine and lime. She took her place at Conall’s side.

“Eleos, who helped me find mercy and forgiveness for those who had hurt me so badly.”

A parasol floated down from the ceiling, and the Mo’o beneath it bowed to him. She was so heart-stoppingly beautiful, like a living, breathing flower. Pink light bathed the room as her eyes flashed.

“Tu’er Shen...” North smiled and studied his antlered companion. “Did Jack and I get married in his temple? I gotta know.”

Conall’s eyebrows twitched above a grin full of secrets. “Ask him yourself, mate.”

“Tu’er Shen, who showed me the beauty of love in all its many incarnations.”

When the rabbit dragon appeared with his new companion Oshu, North repeated his question and got his answer in a nod and smile.

“Thought so.”

North took a breath and continued.

“Atlas… or rather, Teal’c, who reminded me to be patient and determined.”

His old friend appeared beside a giant hourglass filled with glittering stars rather than sand.

“From Aidos I learned that I’m an honorable man who puts others first and tries to do the right thing.” He bowed his head, cheeks flushing hot. He wasn’t accustomed to complimenting himself. It should have felt wrong, yet it was somehow necessary and liberating to admit it out loud.

The figure appeared, most of her form obscured by a white veil that danced around her like mist on a waterfall.

“And Feronia. All life is precious, including my own, and I should take better care of myself if I’m going to help others.”

Tzatzil stepped into the room with her Mo’o attached. She looked worried.

North had lost track of time. He couldn’t see the camp and had forgotten about the battle taking place over his unconscious body until he saw her.

“How’s it going out there?” he asked her.

“It would be best for you to hurry, my Daniel.” She bowed and darted back through the doorway. Her vase symbol remained with the others.

He studied the dragons still present. “How can we defeat the Ori? What do you want me to do? I need to understand that before I can be of help to anyone.”

“You already know the answers, DanielJackson,” Teal’c intoned. He hefted the hourglass over his shoulder, bowed to his friend, and vanished.

“Can you guys stop with the riddles and enigmas?” North flailed a little, frustrated and helpless. “If I knew I wouldn’t still be asking the question!”

“What do you have that the Ori do not?” Pandora cocked her amazingly beautiful head at him. “You have just spoken the words.”

“I—“ The truth dawned in a flash of intuition. “Oh.” He looked around at the Mo’o and thought about what they represented: love, patience, curiosity, imagination, compassion, humility, life… and yet to be awakened, wisdom and happiness.

He did have all those things, but he wasn’t the only one. They were human characteristics, attributes that the Ori rejected or twisted for their own use.

Which made them weapons.

North smiled. His anxiety fell away. “There’s a lot to be done,” he announced. “We’ll start in this galaxy, but we’ll have to finish in Pegasus. Are you guys able to travel that far?”

The dragons bowed in unison. “Where you go, we go,” Tu’er Shen announced. “We follow the Winter Sun as it rises.”

He fell back a step. “You mean, you’re with me all the time?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Conall answered with a shrug. “We move on many planes at once, through many universes at once. You’re the Nexus that ties everything together. A focal point, of sorts.”

“Oh. No pressure, then.”

“See, when you repeat the same energy signature over and over in the same place, it’s easy to follow. Order in the chaos.”

“So if it had been… say, Jack O’Neill that Hathor had the hots for, he’d be the one—“

“God help us!” Conall threw up his hands, hastily grabbed his drink and down the rest of it in one swallow. “We’d all be doomed.”

North laughed. “Yeah, I’ll tell him you said that. Meanwhile…”

He looked around for a place to orate and decided there was as good as anywhere else.

“I Summon Mabon! Awaken, Mo’o of Wisdom!”

The building began to shrink around them, then through them, until North stood alone on the surface of the water beside a small white conch hovering in the air. All the others had disappeared with the room. The shell rose above his head and in the flickering firelight he could just make out the dark shape of a massive Mo’o rearing up out of the lake beside him, the conch firmly attached to its mighty head. Its eyes flashed indigo, barely visible against the night sky.

“Pleased to meet you, Mabon,” North intoned, reaching out to touch the creature’s belly. He felt nothing. “But I think I need to go help my friends.”

He turned and ran across the water, through the palisades and into the camp, shouting at the giant wolves and waving his arms, forgetting that he was having an out-of-body experience.

Oddly enough, the beasts reacted and backed away.

So he went after them again, chasing them until they stopped attacking and ran off into the woods.

He jogged back through the barriers, right into one of the firepits and over to his inert body.

“What the hell?” Moon looked about her, bewildered. “They just ran off!”

Gothi panted, scanning the camp without letting go of his sword or battle axe. “The spirits are with us.” He grinned and nodded. “I can feel the presence of a powerful protector.”

North blushed, and remembered he was hallucinating.

“Yeah, whatever,” Jack carped. He sat down hard on the dirt and checked his weapons. “Out of bullets. Whatever the reason they left, it was just in the nick of time.”

“You’re welcome,” North murmured.

He trudged over to his body, where Tzatzil still knelt to shelter him.

“So how do I get back in there?” he asked no one in particular.

“Lie down and rest,” Gothi ordered. “I will keep watch.”

North wasn’t sure if the big guy was talking to him or the others, but he took a shot and reclined over his body, trying to mirror the exact pose.

When he opened his eyes, he felt horrible and threw up immediately.

Instantly, Jack was at his side. “Are you okay? We thought we’d lost you.”

“Hell, we thought we’d lost all of us a minute ago,” Moon quipped. “How d’you feel?”

“Must’ve been something I ate,” North moaned.

Gairwyn and Gothi exchanged a glance.

“I have some tea that will make you feel much better,” the Cimmerian woman announced sweetly. “Give me but a moment.”

“That’d be nice.” North struggled to sit up. He wedged himself between Jack and Tzatzil to stay upright while he drank the bitter brew. The heat of the tea took off the night’s chill and it did, indeed, help him feel much better.

He decided to forgive the Cimmerians for drugging him, as long as he recovered.

They had a lot to do, and he couldn’t waste time being sick.

***

October 25, 2005

Five Days Later

Stargate Command

Jack was pacing, worrying at his neck.

It was early yet, only the two of them in the office.

“What’s wrong?” North didn’t look up from his computer monitor, just kept an eye on his lover peripherally. “And don’t say ‘nothing.’ I know you too well for that.”

O’Neill strolled over to the board with the Mo’o mission objectives on it. Only one picture remained: two golden fish swimming into each other’s tail. That was for Belun, whose purview was happiness.

“I think I know where this is.”

That got North’s attention. He stood up and wandered over to his partner, hands thrust into his pockets. “And?” he inquired.

“Maybe you should go without me.”

“Because?”

Those warm brown eyes were hesitant, filled with guilt. “It’s Argos.” He sighed. “There’s a mosaic in the bottom of the fountain in the square. Two goldfish. I was there quite a lot longer than the rest of SG-One. Got real familiar with the place.”

North felt his partner’s reluctance to go back to the world where he’d unintentionally married a beautiful young woman and become an old man in only a few days’ time. “Last I heard, Kynthia had a husband and a couple of kids. I don’t think she’d mind seeing you again.”

Jack kicked an imaginary pebble, obviously embarrassed. “You wouldn’t be angry?”

“You mean, jealous?” North grinned a little, touched that the other man had considered his feelings in the matter. “No, Jack. I was an accidental husband, too, remember? And besides, I trust you. If you want to come, I think you should. I’m sure she’d like to see you again.”

With a nod, the matter was settled.

“I should’ve guessed Argos,” North continued, studying the fish icon. “Those were the happiest people we’ve ever met. Even with the cruelty Pelops dealt them, they made the best of everything.”

He patted Jack’s shoulder. “Let’s go talk to Waring about the mission.”

An hour later, they were seated across from the General’s desk, giving him the details and getting the scheduling done.

“I have good news,” Waring advised them, turning his computer monitor where his visitors could see it. “The personal shield devices have been completed and are in limited production for the SGC. We should see the first ones in a week or so, along with a small number of anti-gravity transport devices that we’re calling grav disks. Those are being incorporated into some sleds fitted with small propulsion jets that’ll allow our teams to cover a lot of ground on other worlds. Those should start arriving by Thanksgiving, and all SG teams will begin training as soon as they’re available.”

Jack perked up. “So no more hiking? My knees thank you.”

Waring flashed a delighted grin. “I want to test one of those out myself. They’re straight out of Star Wars. Move over, Luke Skywalker!”

North was pleased about the development, but it was a drop in the bucket against what they needed. Production would be slow because of the secrecy required, and eventually the technology for one or both items might get out into the world. When that happened, it would open up a whole other can of worms.

Still, it couldn’t be helped. He’d made the best decision he could at the time. Let the chips fall where they may.

“Any news about Gera’k?”

The General’s smile vanished. “He’s preaching a new religion called Origen on Dakara. The High Council has asked him to step down.”

“Does Jackson Snow know?”

Waring shook his head. “Just got the word myself.”

“I’ll go tell him. Things are starting to move pretty fast.” North stood up and waited to be dismissed.

“One more thing.” Waring cast a glance at the doors in his office, both firmly closed. He leaned forward conspiratorially. “Can we trust Vala? She makes me very nervous. Very.”

“About as far as we can throw her,” Jack shot back. “The woman has a knack for bringing trouble wherever she goes.”

“Big on the entertainment value, though,” North added lightly.

The General was not amused.

“As long as she’s with Snow, I think we’ll be all right. She seems to have mellowed a lot over the last few days. And from what he told us about why she was stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down… Hell, I’d probably have done the same thing, in her shoes.”

North blushed a little, remembering the previous afternoon. He’d spoken with her alone and told her about the vision he’d had on Cimmeria. When he’d seen the tears in her eyes, he’d asked her if she wanted him to fix her.

Shortly afterward, both Vala and Snow had disappeared into her base quarters and neither one had been seen since.

Waring sighed. “All right, then. I’m trusting you on this, North.” He shook his head. “Actually, I trust you on a lot of things.”

“As you should,” Jack chimed in, “because he usually knows what he’s talking about. And he’s usually right about the big stuff.”

“Thank you, Jack.”

He headed straight for Vala’s quarters. After much pounding and shouting through the steel door, it finally opened to a heavily tousled Jackson Snow, dressed in nothing but a towel.

“Can it wait?” he panted.

“You’d know that better than the rest of us,” North replied, struggling not to smile. “Time to talk about Gera’k and the Ori. He’s a Prior now.”

Alarm flared in the blue eyes exactly like his own.

Snow swore and shut the door in his face.

North shoved his hands into his pants pockets and leaned against the wall, pondering what lay ahead.

Moments later, he was invited into the couple’s room and the three sat down to talk.

***

October 26, 2005

The Next Day

Argos

North peered down into the fountain, studying the mosaic with the two goldfish. “Yep, looks about right,” he said as he straightened. “This’ll be Belun, last of the Mo’o.”

“Can you see him? It?” Jack unconsciously fondled the P-90 strapped to his chest as he took a step back and examined the upper part of the fountain’s structure.

“No. Why don’t you try that TER thingy?”

“These people might panic if they realized they had a dragon hanging out in their plaza for a bazillion years that they didn’t know about.”

North smirked. “God of happiness,” he reminded his partner, “in the happiest place in the galaxy. Maybe they won’t mind.”

Col. Standing nodded in agreement. “Go ahead, Major. These people know we’re friendly. They trust us. Let’s see if the last dragon is here before we waste any more time.”

North smiled. “No time spent among friends is wasted,” he intoned gently.

Moon grinned. “Point taken, but you know what I mean. Let’s be sure we’re in the right place.”

Jack reached into North’s pack to retrieve the TER device that Pax had mounted onto a smaller, less threatening base. He aimed it into the water and activated it, then followed the fountain’s central stone pillar upward. The device revealed an extra shape, something that shimmered metallic gold, orange and silver wrapped around the pillar and floating in the air above the fountain.

“Okay, North. You’re up.” As soon as she finished speaking, Moon put her back to the men and faced the crowd of Argosians who had also seen the previously invisible creature. She assured them the creature was harmless and worked crowd control with Tzatzil at her side, positioned between the natives and North.

No one seemed alarmed, just curious.

North faced the fountain and called Belun’s name, but the dragon slumbered on.

“Now what?” he asked his partner.

Jack kept a wary eye on the population, offering a smile and nod to people he recognized. “How the hell should I know?”

“You seem to have a knack for gut instinct.” North shrugged.

He saw O’Neill bow his head and speak a single word that he couldn’t quite understand.

Then the other man lifted his head and fixed North with a twinkling gaze and lopsided smile. “What makes you happy?” Jack prompted.

North thought about that, and the answer was right in front of him.

He smiled back.

Without hesitation, Jack leaned in a kissed him, right in front of God and everybody, including his CO.

Who had her back to them and didn’t see anything.

But everyone else did.

The crowd broke out in cheers and clapping.

By the time Col. Standing did glance over her shoulder, Jack was gazing up at the dancing goldfish dragon with shining yellow eyes, now lazily wheeling through the sky over their heads.

The cheering intensified. People hugged each other and jumped up and down. They went wild with joy.

North felt it, too. His heart pounded with excitement and for the first time since he could remember, he had hope that everything was going to turn out all right. They had stopped the Goa’uld tyranny, healed the Jaffa and found a constructive function for the Replicators. Now they were facing an even greater threat, but as he had come to realize on Cimmeria, they had all the weapons they needed at their disposal, personified by the Mo’o… the Happy Gods.

Maybe all they’d needed after all was to believe in themselves.

“Jack?”

Both men turned at the sound of a woman’s voice nearby.

Kynthia stood there, a baby in her arms and a toddler standing beside her, holding her hand.

O’Neill started a little, obviously a bit freaked out by the kids with her.

North knew he was already doing the math in his head and figuring out neither of these children could be his.

But still.

Jack had married her. Slept with her.

A flicker of jealousy clutched at North’s heart. He set it free, because he knew to his core that Jack belonged to him.

Besides, she had probably seen the two men kissing a moment ago.

The look of longing was still there in Kynthia’s eyes. She still cared for him.

North felt sad for her.

O’Neill put a hand on her shoulder and leaned closer, so he could be heard above the crowd. “Let’s find a quiet place to talk.”

Then he glanced at North and pointed at one of the buildings off the square.

“It’s okay,” North assured him. “I’ll wait here.”

They weren’t gone very long. As soon as they left the hall, Kynthia and the kids went off in another direction. Whatever they’d said to each other, it was in some part a final goodbye.

Jack strolled up and parked his butt on the edge of the fountain bowl as the crowd began to disperse. Without a word, he reached into his gear vest and pulled out a small spiral bound notebook with a red cover and handed it over to North.

“Jarod left this for you with Kynthia a few days ago.”

“Mmm.” North took it, leafed through a few pages and handed it back. “Lucky me.”

“So you’ve awakened all the Dreamers. Now what?” Jack opened the little red notebook, scanning the neat scrawl and hand-drawn illustrations.

“Now,” answered North, “we begin.”

FIN

On to the Next Story: The Winter Sun

Chapter Text

October 26, 2005

Gambler’s World

Daniel Prophet sat alone in Conall’s private garden, gathering his thoughts. He gazed up at the ever-present night sky, unable to see the stars for the dazzling light show of the city surrounding him, heart aching. He missed his friends and his world, but he would never go back there.

He couldn’t, because it was all gone.

Tucking his hands into the full sleeves of his Abydonian-style robe, he shivered at the memories flooding his mind.

The Ori had come and destroyed the Earth in his universe. He’d seen it happen and been helpless to stop it. He’d been on the cloaked Odyssey at that moment and after the destruction of the planet, the crew had sought safe haven with Jaffa allies, but they’d been overrun by Ba’al’s soldiers. Shortly after that, he’d been taken through a quantum mirror to this universe.

Now, a similar story was playing out here.

He’d heard the reports. Gera’k had been made a Prior and attempted to spread the word of Origen to the High Council, who had wisely seen the propaganda as a power grab by false gods and sacked him from his position on their newly forming governmental body.

Gera’k, however, had not been swayed from his purpose. He’d gone out among the Jaffa nation and begun to preach the power and infallibility of the Ori. He was gaining converts, and where the population refused to embrace his new gods, they began to die. Dakara had been destroyed, and the Jaffa were desperately trying to rebuild in the shadow of fear.

The equation always worked out the same way in every reality. When the Ori came, they conquered or annihilated the unbelievers. The Ancients always waited too late to act – if they acted at all – and were consumed by the flames along with any resistance to the will of the Ori.

But this time, in this universe, there were over a hundred Daniel Jacksons. All but three of those taken from other realities were here on Domhan An Lucht Siúil, and Prophet had sifted through every detail of their accounts, searching for commonalities and intelligence that would help the people of this timeline have a chance of repelling the Ori invasion.

All they needed now was a plan.

“You ready?”

The sound of his own voice interrupted his reverie. He glanced at Daniel Major, one of the other transplanted Jacksons, and nodded.

As he followed the other man, he noted the buzz cut, the squared shoulders and confident stride, all evidence of his double’s military background. Even his outfit had the formal look of some kind of uniform.

This Daniel had become a soldier after receiving his linguistics degree, and he was good at it. Like Jack O’Neill, he kept his head on a swivel, threat-assessing every waking moment.

He was the one who had determined it was time to pay a visit to the SGC and start the ball rolling on their end.

They made their way to the Stargate and contacted Earth. It took a while before they were granted permission, but Prophet was a patient man and Major had unbreakable bearing. He stood at parade rest like a statue until word came, and then led the way through the watery event horizon.

It felt a little weird to be at the SGC in his current wardrobe, but the full beard and headdress helped differentiate him from the other Daniels. He’d gotten used to the robes again. This time, he’d fully invested in Abydonian style, let his hair grow and kept it tucked up under a turban.

After the requisite medical checks, they were escorted to the Ready Room for a meeting with General Waring and SG-1.

Daniel North, Earth’s resident clone, and Jackson Snow, the SGC’s transplant, were both present. That made four of them at the table. Each one had a vastly different hairstyle that made them easy to tell apart, but it was obviously disturbing to everyone to see so many of them in the same place at once.

Tension in the room was thick.

“What brings you here today, gentlemen?” the General inquired politely.

“Timing, sir,” Major answered succinctly.

After a pregnant pause that made it clear Major wasn’t going to elaborate, Prophet took up the exposition. “Um, sir, I’ve compared the accounts of all the alternate universe Daniels and have a list of planets that need to be visited as quickly as possible to prevent incursion by Ori Priors. My recommendation is to bury their Stargates, but getting the permission from the natives is going to take some negotiation—“

“I recommend just posting a few guards and shooting the Priors on sight as they arrive,” Major cut in.

That raised a few eyebrows.

Waring eyed the soldier sternly. “We can’t go around murdering people without provocation, Doctor Jack—“

“Major,” he corrected instantly. “Daniel Major. That was my rank in my universe. Since I’m not serving in the military here, I thought it would be appropriate to use as my name.”

The General gave a quick nod of agreement. “While I can understand the threat the Ori pose, we cannot kill the Priors before they act. That would make us the bad guys.”

“Better to be bad and alive,” Major ground out.

Prophet sighed and nudged his double to shut the hell up. “We’ve compiled a list of addresses that the Ori used at various points in other universes to build Supergates—“

“Which are?” Jack interjected.

“Oh, that’s right, you don’t know yet.”

Snow did. He bowed his head to hide his tightly pressed lips and the glaring fear in his eyes.

“Stargates created by collapsing whole planets in order to provide power to a wormhole generator so huge a spaceship can fly through it,” Prophet explained tentatively. “That’s how they get their warships from Pegasus to here, and once the ships come through, we have no weapons powerful enough to destroy them.” He eyed the General. “We have to prevent those Supergates from being built at all costs.”

He pushed a hand-drawn list of ‘gate addresses across the table to the man at the head.

Waring studied the list, his expression darkening. “How long do we have?”

Snow sighed and lifted his head. “Not long. The reason Vala and I destroyed the Ancients’ communication device we found in England was to try to avoid letting the Ori know we’re here.

Gera’k must have found another one. Making him a Prior has established a foothold. The next step is sending more Priors, and eventually, building a Supergate.”

“We have to stop them,” Major reiterated with steel in his voice.

“But how we do that is the question,” Prophet added.

Jack opened his briefing folder and pulled out a small red notebook. “This has a few ideas from our friend Jarod. Some of it’s technical stuff, like this… EM emitter…” He flipped open to a page with schematics and notes and slid it across the table to Prophet. “…and then there are a few cryptic notes.”

“Like?” asked North at his elbow.

“What is fanfic?” Jack turned to study his teammate with a frown.

North shrugged. “I got nothin’.”

Colonel Standing laughed. “Fan fiction!” she explained. “Fans of TV shows, books and movies write stories about their favorite characters.” She cocked her head, obviously puzzled. “But how could that possibly help us fight the Ori?”

Snow peered at the notebook. He chuckled as he shook his head. “Propaganda,” he explained with a grin. “Remember in previous wars how the Air Force dropped leaflets in enemy and occupied countries to counter disinformation, offer rewards for information and provide humanitarian assistance? We can do the same thing. Tell the people enslaved by the Ori the truth of what’s happening to them and how they can help us free them. Offer them something more attractive than what they’re currently enduring and an incentive to cooperate with us by showing them what we’ve been through already. Basically, psychological warfare.”

“But with Wormhole Xtreme? Really?” Jack was obviously incredulous. “Because that was what Jarod suggested.”

North pursed his lips and lowered his brows as he considered that. “Well, the TV series was loosely based – and I emphasize the word loosely here – on missions of SG-One. If you fictionalized some of the more meaningful missions with some really good writing—“

“Like O’Neill’s reports,” Moon cut in. She leaned toward him across the table. “Those were riveting, by the way, Major.”

Nodding in agreement, North continued. “—and used the character names from the TV series, and mix in some deep, meaningful psychological content—“

“And humor.” Jack held up a finger. “Makes for a good read.”

“—and circulate them to the people whose minds we’re trying to change,” North soldiered on, “then maybe we can start a rebel movement.”

Colonel Standing chuckled and shook her head.

“You had something else?” Waring sat with his arms crossed, obviously not buying any of this.

“Oh, it’s nothing, sir. Never mind.” She busied herself writing a note in her briefing folder, but she was blushing as she did.

The General whipped off his glasses and flung them onto the table in front of him. “Oh, no, Colonel. Please go ahead. We’ve all apparently taken complete leave of our senses here. Let’s have it.”

Her face went beet red. Her deer-in-the-headlights stare connected with her CO’s and her mouth started to move. “Well… I mean… uh… for. Plausible deniability. Yes. Right. If we… uh… printed those booklets and. If we printed a lot of them, I mean. Things leak, and. Book rights, yes! We should get book rights from the show producers. Print the books. Could make more money for the Stargate program, sir.” Blink. “Just rambling here now. Sorry, sir.”

A long, weary sigh escaped the General. “You do realize that the people in Pegasus Galaxy will probably not speak or read English, don’t you, Colonel?”

“I didn’t think of that, sir.”

Prophet cleared his throat to break the tension and bring everyone’s attention back to him. He reached into the bag he’d brought with him and pulled out a small leather-bound book, which he placed on the table in front of him. “This is the Book of Origen,” he announced, “obtained from one of the planets Gera’k recently visited. As you can see, it’s written in Ancient, so any propaganda materials we produce would need to be in the same language and dialect. We could use it as a guideline for what the audience is used to, and after having read it myself a number of times, it wouldn’t take a Pulitzer Prize winner to do a hell of a lot better.”

He turned to the General. “Sir, as ludicrous as this idea sounds, there’s actually some merit to it. The SGC has spent the ten years fighting a similar sort of tyranny against false gods. We’ve encountered and helped the downtrodden, and in the end found a way to defeat our enemy and release their stranglehold on hundreds of worlds. In a way, those tales can become parables that expound a different set of virtues which may well resonate with the people currently enslaved by the Ori.”

Waring’s jaw flexed as he clenched his teeth repeatedly, no doubt trying to keep from having them all shot by the nearby SFs. “Please, don’t quote to me how the pen is mightier than the sword.”He slowly retrieved his glasses and slipped them back on.

“It’ isn’t,” North returned quickly. “They’re of equal weight and value in the hands of one wise enough to know when to lay down one and pick up the other. We need to employ both writer and soldier in the campaign.”

That warning glare in the General’s dark eye lit with the spark of curiosity.

“I think it would be prudent to allow some of the SGC mission reports to be edited into a similar parable format as the Book of Origen to at least try the propaganda angle,” Prophet went on. “If you don’t think it works, you can veto it, but if it could be a viable weapon, we should definitely try it. Then it can be translated into Ancient and sent through to Atlantis for distribution to Ori-controlled worlds.”

“Unfortunately, most of the people the teams have encountered in the Pegasus Galaxy are medieval, with no access to technology,” Waring observed. “They’d need to receive paper books. We’d have to send a printing press and book binding operation to Atlantis for such a propaganda machine.”

“It’s a worthy idea,” Snow echoed. “The Ori want to come here to force more people to worship them. How better to fight them by taking away the worship of those already under their thumbs? It would move the focus back to territory they’re already holding, and possibly delay sending troops and ships here.”

That got an arched eyebrow from Waring. He dropped his gaze to his tablet and began to write. “Taking that under advisement. Major O’Neill, you’ll start with developing the manuscript. If you can convince me with it, then maybe you can convince the people of Pegasus. In the meantime, tell me more about this EM device.”

“According to Jarod’s notes, it should neutralize a Prior’s powers,” Jack summed up. “What say we build one and try it out on ol’ Gera’k?”

“And if it works,” North added, “we mass produce them and get them to the target worlds on Prophet’s list. Maybe even send a bunch to Pegasus along with the propaganda booklets. Maybe we can show the people there that what the Priors are wielding isn’t magic and has limits.”

He threw down his pen and sat back in his chair with a wide smile. “What the hell? Why don’t we just take this fight to the Ori right now? The Dreamers are awake and ready to help us. All we need are ships to get us there. Why don’t we call on our allies and see who’s willing to go?”

Prophet felt something grab at his insides like a giant fist giving him a squeeze. His pulse pounded. He could feel his eyes dilating as adrenaline surged through his system. The path ahead became crystal clear as he stared at the clone.

“He’s right,” he murmured. He wriggled in his chair a little, turned to the head of the table and repeated himself with conviction. “General Waring, this is the only path none of us ever tried in our worlds! We’ve got the Mo’o, the Asgard and the Jaffa on our sides. What do we have to lose if we try this? Because I can tell you what we have to lose if we don’t.”

As one, the three Daniel transplants declared, “Everything.

Gaze moving from face to identical face, the General’s expression showed when he finally grasped the potential power of this insane plan. He nodded. “You have a go. I’ll do my best to sell it to the Joint Chiefs and see what funding we can scrape together for the supplies and ordnance we’ll need. Colonel Standing, you coordinate contacting our allies to let them know we have lost our minds and see if they want to join us in the padded room.”

North winced at that reference.

Waring’s eyes rolled up to his face. “No offense, North.”

“None taken, sir.”

The General continued. “O’Neill, I’ll expect the best piece of writing you’ve ever done. Make that degree in English Lit count for something.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ll send a message to Atlantis to let them know what’s coming,” Waring finished, “and may God have mercy on us all.” He lifted his pen hand to cross himself, then went back to making notes. “Dismissed.”

***

Same Day

Atlantis

Daniel stood in the control room, watching the Stargate wormhole stabilize. Glancing at the technician on duty, he gave permission to open the iris to travelers from Earth.

A moment later, Colonel Moon Standing, Major Jack O’Neill, Tzatzil of the Tuatha de Dannan, two Daniel doubles and a slender, pretty woman with long dark hair stepped through the event horizon.

North introduced him to Vala Mal Doran, who was obviously delighted to discover yet another of the Daniels.

Jackson Snow frowned and disconnected their overly long handshake as he growled her name in warning.

“We’ve come to look through the Ancients’ database for clues to the location of a couple of planets,” North explained. “And—“

“A tour!” Vala added with clear excitement. “I’ll bet this place is just full of—“

“No souvenirs for you,” Snow interrupted, grasping one of her hands in his and clenching it firmly. He flexed a tight smile at Daniel before fixing her with a hard gaze. “We’re good guys. Remember?”

“Of course we are!” There were stars in her eyes. The woman was completely bedazzled, like a kid in a candy store.

She was adorable, and Daniel had a hard time finding any umbrage in his heart for her.

He led the way to the conference room for a briefing.

“We’ve explored most of the city,” he explained as they took their seats. “From the plans on the computer system we know the layout, but the new technology offers daily surprises.”

The comm. link activated in his ear, announcing the beginning of the Odyssey’s transports. He acknowledged and returned to his guests with an apology. “Sorry. I can never get through a single meeting without interruption.”

“Think nothing of it,” Jack assured him magnanimously. “You’re a busy man.”

Col. Standing rolled her eyes at O’Neill. Her tone was filled with irritation. “Thank you, Jack.” She turned her attention to Daniel. “We’re here because of a few finds we made in England. Y’know that whole Merlin and Arthur thing, knights of the Round Table and all?”

Daniel grinned. “I do.” His skin began to prickle with interest. Arthurian lore had been among his favorite bedtime stories as a child. He’d cut his teeth on Geoffrey of Monmouth.

“Well, Merlin… or Myrddin Emrys, as he was known by Arthur and the gang… was apparently an Ancient.” North seemed a bit proud to make that announcement. “And the Holy Grail seems to be a real thing that may be a weapon against the Ancients… and presumably, the Ori, who are a different faction of the same people who built this city.”

“No shit?” It took every ounce of Daniel’s will not to wriggle in his seat with excitement. He leaned forward on his elbows over the table.

“Totally serious,” North returned, but his smile never dimmed. “The Ancients just want to be left alone to do their own thing and not get involved in anyone else’s drama. The Ori, on the other hand, want to be worshipped because they’re great and powerful beings. They’re actually feeding off their worshippers like leeches, sucking them dry.”

Daniel sat back in his chair. “Okay, that explains a lot.”

“I’ll bet money that you won’t find any technologically advanced societies in this galaxy,” Col. Standing chimed in. “Funny how ignorance and the worship of false gods seem to go hand in hand.”

“Yeah, we only made a few forays out there before things started getting dicey,” Daniel explained. “The villagers near the Stargates started anticipating our arrivals and posting welcoming committees, only they weren’t very welcoming. Shortly afterward, there were a lot of unauthorized activations of our ‘gate, so we pulled resources from the field and concentrated on efforts here in the city until the SGC provided further direction.” He flexed a polite smile at Col. Standing. “Which, I suppose, is what you’re here to do.”

“Exactly,” she admitted with a nod. “My team will be visiting some of the planets in the Pegasus Stargate system, doing some recon. We’ll be cloaked and shielded, so no one will see us. That’s a little gift from Merlin and the treasure he left for us at Avalon.” He lifted his wrist and pressed a button on a wide leather cuff beneath his sleeve.

Then he disappeared.

Daniel had seen so many gasp-worthy things over the last decade that he barely felt the fraction of surprise.

“Cool, huh?” Jack grinned with obvious pride.

The commander of Atlantis was very interested, ideas for practical applications for the device already forming at light speed. “You got any more of those?” He made a note to keep them away from Rodney McKay.

Standing nodded. “Crates full on the Odyssey, which should beaming down shortly. I know you’ve still got a lot of city to explore—“

“Only about ten percent left.”

“—but it’s time we got out there in this sandbox and started looking around. We need intel on the Ori, and we figured this would be the best place to find it.”

“Hell, yeah!” Daniel agreed. Part of him wanted to go with them, but there was so much still to do here.

He studied the chair where North was probably still sitting. He eyed Snow and thought about the androids who had arrived a week ago on the Daedalus, and realized he would be with them, after a fashion.

As much as he’d tried to deny that any of the other duplicates or transplants was like him except in appearance, he got it now.

Every single one of them was Daniel Jackson.

He had the unique opportunity to be in many places at once, to do more than any single human being in all of time and he’d been avoiding it, feeling sorry for himself and all the years he’d lost in that Goa’uld prison. Only he hadn’t lost anything; not really. He’d been out there saving the galaxy with Jack, Sam and Teal’c the whole time. North was equal parts brother and son. They’d shared the same mind up to the moment North had opened his eyes in Hathor’s lab and started making his own memories.

And if Daniel had been more attentive and less sullen, he might’ve felt something of it as it happened, because they were all connected.

It was time Daniel started exploring that. Sometime in the future, they might need it.

“What do you need from me?” he asked as he picked up his pen and started to write.

North reappeared in his chair. “Access to whatever information you have on the Ancients, for starters.”

Daniel nodded. “There’s a library here, apparently intended to educate children in the workings of the city. There’s a holographic interface that’ll answer questions for you, but you can also do manual searches from any database terminal in the city.” He grinned and shook his head. “They’ve been interested in prolonging life in many ways, including research into ascension. There was even a scientist who was looking into combining their DNA with an insect called the Iratus Bug, which can go dormant for incredible periods when food sources are limited, but that line of inquiry was quashed pretty fast.” He chuckled. “Can you imagine how stupid it would be to cross an Ancient with a bug?”

“Yeah, that sounds completely insane.” Jack frowned. “…although, to be fair, we’ve created some pretty stupid bioweapons ourselves.”

Daniel missed his old friend, their banter, the deep connection they had shared. “Yeah, people will do crazy things in the name of preserving the species. I guess it’s a good thing they figured out how to ascend instead.”

He eyed Snow, remembering that transplanted Daniel and the clone North had both gone that route already. “I’ll leave that line of inquiry to you. Doctor Zelenka will give you a tour and help you get started with your research.”

The team provided him with as many details as they could provide on the battle plan, and how Atlantis was about to become a Forward Operating Base for the military from Earth. All the extra quarters would soon be filled with soldiers. There would be a need for manufacturing and storage facilities for the EM devices, which would also need to be installed in key locations in the city itself. Space would need to be made for a printing and bindery setup in order to carry out their propaganda campaign, provided the Joint Chiefs bought into that idea.

Daniel felt a sense of unease growing in the pit of his stomach. This war would put the city of Atlantis, his prize, at great risk. It was the greatest storehouse of Ancient knowledge in the known universe, and he didn’t want to lose it. Instinct told him to refuse, to rebel and do everything in his power to protect this amazing place; however, it was not in his power to do so. He was at the head of that expedition by the permission of the US government, and would be required to follow orders or be replaced by someone who would.

Which put him in the awkward, delicate place of finding a way to help the war effort and protect the city, both at the same time.

That was the sort of challenge that lit a fire in his belly.

Even now, he could feel the warm glow begin to spread.

***

Snow stared at the image of the glowing woman on the holograph deck as an idea occurred to him. His argument with Vala had provoked an impossible response from the image, an answer it couldn’t have been able to parse; and yet, the image of the two planets was right there, floating above them. They had the ‘gate addresses and knew exactly where they would be going in the search for the Sangraal.

“Is there an archival visual record of the Lantan citizens who fled to Earth?” he asked.

The star map vanished and the glowing woman returned. “There is.” Her gaze was straight ahead.

He asked to see them, with unexpected results.

But there was one face he didn’t see, and should have.

“The first human to set foot within the city after it was abandoned was Doctor Daniel Jackson, leader of the current Atlantis expedition.”

Snow smiled a little, feeling the exhilaration of that ‘gotcha’ moment. “You chose your words very carefully when you said, ‘the first human to set foot in the city.’ What about ‘ascended being’?”

The holograph’s unfocused look sharpened, shortened, meeting his eyes exactly.

He smiled a little in self-congratulation, and nodded.

Ganos Lal’s expression carried the faintest trace of righteous indignation. “You have your answer, Daniel Jackson. I suggest you act on it.”

Then she disappeared in a web of glowing tendrils.

He crossed his arms over his chest and stepped down from the podium. “I know you’re still here, so you might as well show yourself. The jig is up. I know who you are and why you’re here.”

“Daniel, what the hell? Who are you talking to?” Vala seemed a bit alarmed. “We have what we came here for. Let’s—“

“That’s what she wants us to think,” Snow explained. “Run the recording back to the part where she looked right at me. Holograms can’t do that.”

Vala did. She frowned, trying to understand. Couldn’t. “Um… who are you?”

The image stared straight ahead. “Please rephrase the question.”

“On whom is this avatar’s image based?”

“Ganos Lal, a Lantean teacher.”

“And we know you as Morgan le Fay,” Snow corrected tightly, “Merlin’s greatest rival. I recognized you from the descriptions in the archive on Vagonbrei. And since we now know from the logs you just showed me that Merlin was among the Lanteans who left this city for Earth, that also means you were among them. You ascended and came back here to help Daniel Jackson figure out how to work the technology in this place. Somewhere along the way, you realized Merlin was right and started helping him.”

He was certain of it, all the way to his core. This was no hologram. It was a real person, one of the Ascended, who had found a way to cheat the Ancients’ laws.

The figure bowed its head and sighed in obvious acquiescence.

“So why are you helping us now?” Jackson felt a shiver of suspicion. “Are you helping, or is this a subterfuge? I mean, you and Merlin were rivals. You were trying to stop him. Why would you help us now?”

Galos Lal blinked at him, apparently struggling with how to answer. “Because Merlin understood the threat the Ori posed to all life in the universe. At first, I did not. I was sent to watch him, and if necessary, prevent him from achieving his goal.”

“Wait, I thought the Ascended were prevented from interfering?” Vala cut in. “Was Merlin ascended or mortal at the time?”

The glowing woman hesitated.

“Aha!” Vala pointed at her in gleeful triumph. “He was mortal! They sent you to break their own laws!”

With a sigh, the woman in white explained. “He retained all his ascended knowledge and many powers. That, too, broke our laws.”

“So you’re saying he cheated?” Vala didn’t look convinced.

Lal inclined her head.

“Then why not just come right out and help us? Why pretend to be a hologram?” Snow was fully worked up now. He already knew the answers. Before she could respond, he blew up. “I understand you’re walking a fine line here, Morgan. I really do, because I’ve been one of you. Maybe not in this universe—“

“We are in all of them,” the spirit corrected. “You have been among us more than any other human.”

That derailed his train of thought for a moment.

He stared at her passionless demeanor, but there was something in her eyes that looked distinctly like fear.

Many of you are among us now.”

He caught his breath, tried to pick up the thread of his thoughts. “Then you should listen to us, Morgan. Because the Ancients will either give in to the Ori and be consumed by their greed and selfishness, or you need to help those of us who are fighting them. You can’t stand still any longer. You’ll be swept away by the tide that’s coming. Tell the Others that. And if they don’t listen…”

All the ire and frustration went out of him all at once. Their fate was in their hands, not his. He’d tried to warn them repeatedly, and they’d turned a deaf ear.

“You’re all involved, whether you like it or not, and when the battle to come is over, you’ll all be answering to the winners. Be punished for your cowardice or rewarded for your courage. The middle ground will be gone.”

“If you do not find what you are looking for,” Morgan countered, “the information I have provided will be moot.” Her aloofness had returned with her unfocused stare.

Snow shook his head. He thought about Tzatzil and her invisible passenger, now in the conference room with North and the original Daniel Jackson. “You can see who is here with us, Morgan. All of you can. You probably know better than I do what the Mo’o are capable of.” He let the image of Feronia fill his mind, glimmering in the mist on Tzatzil’s home world. “We aren’t asking for weapons. All we’re asking you to do is show yourselves to the followers of the Ori and tell the truth about who they are.”

“If we interfere,” Morgan cautioned, “then we are no better than the Ori.”

“So you equate telling the truth with telling lies,” Snow returned acidly. “Because that’s what all this boils down to, Morgan. Allowing the Ori to enslave others with deceit is the same as condoning it! We’ve been through this argument already with the Goa’uld enslaving humans in my galaxy. This time, here, it’s your people, the Alterans. Maybe the Ori have a different philosophy than you do, but at this point, that’s just semantics. This is about the Ascended taking unfair advantage of the ignorant and powerless through deceit and fear. The Ori have broken the rules; they have interfered with the lower realms in the worst possible way, and it’s up to your people to help correct that problem! You may not be able to stop the Ori by yourselves, but you can help us make a difference… or accept the consequences of the decision you make here today.”

Morgan gave him an imploring look after a worried glance over her shoulder. “I have already gone too far.”

He nodded, compassion warring with anger in his heart. “I know you’re afraid. That’s what keeps everyone in line! But I’m telling you, Morgan…” He searched the apparently empty room, aware that the Others were watching and listening to this dialogue. “I’m telling all of you – this is your last chance to make things right, to stop something you know is wrong. If you do nothing, you side with the Ori. Be ready. Judgment Day is coming.”

For a moment, Morgan studied him. She lifted her hand to reach out, and then vanished as the Others pulled her back into their realm.

“What happened?” Vala demanded, obviously alarmed.

“Just what she knew would happen. They stopped her. We won’t see her again.” Snow sighed.

Vala shrank back a little. “Will she be punished?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Her blue eyes roamed the room with dread. “I think I understand why you came back now. I wouldn’t have liked their company, either.”

He started toward the door, reaching out for her hand.

Then the star map appeared again; only this time, there was only one planet highlighted.

He took note of the address and smiled.

“Thank you,” he said to them as relief flooded his heart. “It’s the right thing to do. We’ll see you out there.”

***

November 15, 2005

Colorado Springs

Before the alarm went off, North was showered, dressed and topped up with morning caffeine. He cooked a full breakfast for Jack, more to have something to do than because either of them wanted a big meal. They ate fast and lightly, piling into Jack’s truck for the trip.

By full sunup, they were at Catherine’s house.

The keys shook in North’s hand as he opened the door for the final walk-through.

Right in line with the door was a painting of Catherine and Earnest in their younger days, beautifully rendered by Jackson Snow. The entry was welcoming and bright, with a large day room on one side and a beautifully appointed office on the other.

“They did a great job,” Jack mused, taking in the kid-friendly yet stylish décor.

“I’m just glad it’s finally finished,” North agreed. “Five months! Can I tell you how much I hate bureaucracy?”

They strolled upstairs to the bedrooms, where bunks had been installed for the new residents.

For the moment, it would be two kids to a room with a total of ten on the current roster.

North strolled to the window and gazed down on the fountain with his hands thrust into his trouser pockets. He got a little misty, thinking about what Daniel had been through after the loss of his parents, how unkind the foster system had been to him. After the sacrifices these kids’ parents had made, looking after their orphaned kids was the least the SGC could do.

The donation of this house and setting up a trust for the kids had kicked it off, but once the process had begun, it had grown like wildfire.

Everyone who had served in Cheyenne Mountain had gotten involved. There had been donations to fund the project far beyond North’s wildest dreams. Every person with an applicable skill had donated their time to the renovation, decoration, shopping, hauling, installing… Not a cent had been paid to any outside contractor. Even the supplies had been donated.

“The kids are gonna love it,” Jack murmured from his elbow. “The people who care for them here will really care. You can count on that.”

North nodded, struggling not to let his emotions get the best of him.

That hadn’t been his childhood, after all. He hadn’t actually had one. That didn’t make the memories feel any less real.

“C’mon,” Jack prompted, tugging on his sleeve. “Got somethin’ to show you.”

He led the way downstairs, through the amazingly redesigned professional chef’s kitchen already filled with gift baskets of fruit and glass canisters of cookies and pastries, through the courtyard and into the back forty.

Someone had designed and built two playgrounds on either end of the green space, one for small children, another for adolescents. There were benches for the adults to sit on to supervise the kids at play, some inventive water fountains and a misting system to keep the area cool in the summer. Best of all, though, was the rocket-shaped jungle gym with four slides coming out the bottom like wavy jet flames.

North nodded, smiled, turned away to wipe a tear surreptitiously.

“I know, right?” Jack’s voice was soft, filled with gentle pride. “When do you give the keys to Danielle?”

His voice shook as he replied. “Any minute now. We wanted Cassie to be the first one to see it. The other kids will be arriving about noon.”

Jack clapped him on the shoulder, gave him a little rub.

“Ten kids,” North whispered. He choked up again, couldn’t finish what he’d meant to say, but Jack got it.

“Let’s hope we don’t get any more.”

They headed back inside together.

“Christmas is coming. I guess we have to make some magic for two orphanages this year.” Jack left his hand on North’s shoulder as they walked. “You got the list updated?”

“Might need a little help with that. I’ve been swamped with translating the propaganda stories.”

“Bet Walter would be a good resource. It’s not like he has a life. Never seen him not sitting in the control booth. I think he might live there.”

“Knowing Walter, he’ll hand over the list before I ask for it.”

“I think we should call him Radar,” Jack agreed. “Remember, on M.A.S.H.?”

North gave him a look that spoke volumes. “I don’t even know what that mea—“

“It was a TV show. About the Korean War. A medical Army surgical hospital unit. Hawkeye, Trapper John—“

“Ah, another pop culture reference that you already know is totally lost on me.” North eyeballed his lover with a perfect deadpan, not showing a gleam of his already lightened mood. Jack was good at that, and North was grateful for it.

“We should watch. It was a good show. You’d like it.”

“I’ve seen quite enough war for a lifetime, thanks. And besides, I have fanfic to translate into Ancient. I’ll pass.”

“How’m I doing with the writing?” Jack slipped his hands into his trouser pockets and made eye contact.

North couldn’t help letting a little grin slip. “Way better than I thought you’d be. I think you might have a future in fiction, Jack O’Neill.”

He thought about how sappy that sounded and felt the need to puncture his partner’s swelling head. “Although I’m enhancing the philosophical aspect quite a bit. Making the stories more parable…y.”

As expected, that got Jack’s attention, focused into a horrified frown.

“Well, let me see the edits before you translate,” he snapped. “We don’t want folks to fall asleep while they’re read—“

The front door opened and Cassie stepped inside, eyes wide with delight as she took in the big, beautiful space that would now be her new digs with a big new family.

Their disagreement was put aside and forgotten, as all of them had been at one point or another, while they showed the teenager around the Langford Littlefield Home.

***

November 16, 2006

Atlantis

“The first time it happened,” Daniel admitted to the android, “it was just a jumble of images. Think about being in the middle of a crowd with everyone talking all at once. All you can hear is noise. There’s no way to pick out an individual voice.”

Danell strolled around the commander’s quarters, studying the various artifacts on display. “Well, I can, but I understand what you mean.”

“Right. I forget your brain is computerized.” Daniel nodded and finished lacing up his boot. “Anyway, it’s taken some time but I’ve learned to filter the imagery, sort out which individual I’m connecting with, and even though I can’t maintain the link for longer than a blink, I can’t help but think it’s important.”

“Being able to see through the eyes of your cloned and alternate universe counterparts could be a valuable tool, yes.” Danell picked up a small, colorful glass pyramid emitting light and a pleasant, faint chiming sound. “If we were spying on our friends and allies.”

Daniel glanced at the android. “The reason I asked you here at this hour,” he returned, unable to soften the irritated tone in his voice, “is to tell you that I have a plan to utilize that ability against the Ori, but it’s going to take some practice to develop. When the time comes, I’m going to need you to step into my shoes here. I picked you because you look most like me, except for the hair, so I’m going to grow mine out to match yours. I want you to observe me and—“

“Don’t worry. I’ll be able to pull it off.” Danell chuckled. “Tell me what you have in mind.”

“Not at the moment.” Daniel shook his head as he stood up and straightened his uniform jacket as he composed himself. “First we have to determine if this is going to work. I need you to carry a message to all of the other organic Daniels to try the same experiment. More specifically, to determine if they can see through my eyes.”

Danell cocked his head. “And if they can?”

Daniel grinned. “Step two.”

***

January 20, 2006

Two Months Later

Atlantis

Jack strolled around the anti-gravity sled parked in the hangar bay, itching to get back on the thing. He’d been among the first pilots to train on the things as they started rolling off the assembly line and it had been the most unabashed fun he’d experienced in a very long time. The ride was effortless, exhilarating, and he adored the damned thing.

Fingers stroking along the clean, futuristic lines, he exhaled a soft sigh of sheer love.

“You ready, Jack?” North called from somewhere behind him.

He made a non-committal pleasure noise, deep in his throat.

“Should I be jealous?” North appeared at his elbow and gave his partner a little nudge. There was a teasing tone in his voice, but also a note of genuine concern.

“I am leaning dangerously close to a torrid affair, yes,” O’Neill admitted with an air of playfulness.

North steered him away from the sexy machine by the shoulder. “Time to finish suiting up. You’ll be on this thing and on our first mission before you know it.”

“You gonna ride with me or fly your own?” Jack remembered the feeling of the wind pushing against him as the tiny but powerful engines pushed the sleek vehicle through the air while effortlessly hovering above the ground.

“I’ll go with you so you don’t fly off and leave me, like you always did during the training sessions.”

“If you didn’t fly it like a grandma—“

“Well, forgive me if I’m not as comfortable with these things as you are!” North’s volume was rising along with his obvious irritation levels. “I’d rather be careful than wrapped around a tree!”

Jack grinned at him, pleased to have gotten a rise out of the guy. That, too, was part of the fun of this relationship. They were fencing partners, always offering a jab and parry to keep things entertaining.

“I’m glad you’re careful, because I do prefer you in one piece.”

North met his eyes with a look that was clearly a kiss. He lifted his wrist and poised a finger over the dimensional shifting device, which they’d named a DSD for short, silently asking if Jack wanted to go invisible with him to make that silent communication a physical fact.

With the slightest shake of the head, Jack declined.

There was still too much risk of discovery and they’d agreed to keep their relationship on hold until they returned to Earth.

Minutes later, Jack had finished gearing up and met the rest of the team in the ready room just outside the hangar bay for final instructions.

He could see that the sleds were loaded with the first shipment of books, which Daniel had entitled, “The Book of Truth.”

They’d argued about that, too. Jack had insisted it was a work of fiction; North had countered with the fact that the events were all true and only the names had been fictionalized to protect the team. Some things had admittedly been embroidered a bit to help convey the messages, but those had been the only changes because it wouldn’t be good to get caught in a lie and they’d no doubt be discussing the stories with any native who showed an interest.

There had been a few moments while North had been reading the stories that had Jack watched for his reactions. He’d laughed out loud a few times, chuckled here and there, but best of all were the tears. And the sex after the tears.

Jack thought about that as he waited for Col. Standing to begin her speech.

If there had been any doubt in North’s mind how Jack felt about him before he’d read the stories, he knew now.

There had been tremendous catharsis for both of them in the creation of the book, especially the chapter where “Dr. Levant” had ascended, and the one where “Col. Danning” had been visited by his spiritual figure while suffering in a prison camp.

They’d both agreed those two stories would have the most impact because they countered so drastically the garbage the Ori had been feeding their followers.

“All right, everybody listen up,” Moon called to her team. “We’ll be arriving cloaked and will remain so until we’ve scouted the village for a place to deliver the books in each home. Once that’s been determined, we’ll drop back into phase, make our delivery and immediately re-cloak. Once we’ve completed delivery, we’ll keep watch to see what happens. Under no circumstances will we interact with the villagers on this trip. Are we clear?”

Tzatzil and Major John Sheppard responded with a resounding military bark. The half-dozen Dandroids followed up with a mixed response of mutters and nods.

Jack stared at North, who was busy checking his gear vest for something and apparently hadn’t heard the command. O’Neill nodded silently toward the Colonel after catching his partner’s eye and frowned at him to answer.

North mouthed, What?

Jack decided to shrug it off, but it bothered him that North hadn’t verbally agreed to do what he’d been told.

Moments later, they boarded their sleds and piloted them slowly and carefully toward the ‘gate room, cloaking just before passing through the rippling event horizon.

The village wasn’t far by sled, only a few minutes travel from the Stargate, but for safety’s sake they parked their vehicles about a klick away, filled their backpacks with books and hiked the rest of the way on foot.

At the outskirts they gathered to confer. The main road was a fairly straight shot down the middle of town, with a low stone structure at the center. A crowd was gathered there, which meant it was likely time for prostration, some kind of prayer service.

All eyes were focused on the structure.

On Col. Standing’s signal, they all headed into the nearest buildings in teams of two, leaving Moon in the street watching their backs and coordinating the deliveries with hand signals to her team. Once inside, when they were sure no villagers were present, they placed the books in conspicuous places and headed on to the next destination.

Jack rather enjoyed being invisible.

He and North were in a big house near where the crowd had gathered, keeping watch at the kitchen window while North dug into his partner’s backpack. A pie sat on the windowsill to cool in the old-fashioned way, and Jack couldn’t help the occasional glance at it. There was no telling what kind of pie it was since this wasn’t Earth and the fruits and veggies on the open shelves of the pantry were unrecognizable, but it smelled good. He picked a piece of the crust from the edge and popped it into his mouth.

“Don’t eat the pie,” North called from the other room.

“Wasn’t!” Jack lied.

Then he cocked his head, thinking about that for a sec. Once these people found the books, they’d know someone had been in their houses. So why did they not need a bigger clue?

He strolled into the living area with a half-eaten slice of warm fruity pie in his hand.

“Jaaaack!”

“Bet you looked in their underwear drawer,” he shot back unashamedly.

North rolled his eyes and sighed heavily as he held up one of their mission-report scriptures. “This is the last book. One more house and we’re done.”

Not taking any chances that the pie might not make it into the other plane with him, Jack shoved the rest of it into his mouth and pushed the DSD button on his wrist with his clean pinkie. He licked his fingers as they marched through the closed front door.

“Y’know, this walking through walls thing is kinda cool,” he observed, making a right to head for another residence. “I could get used to being invisible.”

“Don’t even think about it,” North warned.

The sound of raised voices caught their attention. A woman was struggling with two men who had grabbed her by the arms and dragged her to the stone structure, shaped vaguely like an elongated Ankh. There was an accusation of heresy followed by stringent denial that went a bit hysterical, but the official didn’t bother listening. There was no trial, no investigation. They skipped right to the punishment phase and chained her up on a small bench in the center of the squashed oval.

Despite her pleading for mercy, no one helped her.

The crowd stepped back, clearing a space around the stone trough.

“Oh, no,” North murmured. “Jack, this isn’t good.”

“Daniel…” Jack grabbed for his partner’s arm, but only caught air.

The other man ran into the open space, heading for the far end where the official had taken hold of a flaming torch and was about to touch it to a thin stream of liquid being poured into the trough around the poor woman.

Jack tracked the maze around the edges of the design and saw where it led.

He could smell the acrid scent of the liquid and knew what it was: some kind of flammable fuel.

They were going to burn her alive while the whole village watched.

“Daniel!” he shouted.

But it was too late.

North had pushed the button on his DSD and materialized just as he yanked the torch out of the man’s hand.

To the villagers, it must have looked like North had just appeared out of thin air.

Col. Standing’s voice came through the tiny speaker tucked into Jack’s left ear. “What the fuck, O’Neill?”

“Don’t hurt her!” North demanded.

A few people knelt, fear etched into their faces.

“Hallowed are the Ori,” someone said. A few others repeated the phrase.

“I’m not one of them!” he snapped harshly. “I’m not a god, and neither are they.”

There were horrified gasps. Whispers rippled through the crowd.

“You better get him under control ASAP, O’Neill!” The Colonel’s voice was harsh with anger.

Jack’s guts clenched. He glanced behind him in time to see her running toward him at the edges of the gathering. There was murder in her dark eyes as she came to a stop beside him, panting to catch her breath.

“These people are gonna burn that woman alive,” he whispered, aware of the desperation in his tone. “North’s trying to stop it.”

“We are not here on a rescue mission!” she reminded him.

“Doesn’t look like we have a choice now.” Jack thumbed the safety off his weapon and assessed the best targets, moving into a position where he could best defend his partner.

Col. Standing moved with him like a shadow.

“I’ll maintain cover for North. You call the team.”

For a fraction of a second, both of them realized she was the senior officer. Then she nodded and dashed off to round up the others. He’d apologize to her later for overstepping his bounds.

Intuition,” he whispered, calling up the Mo’o gift he’d received on Gambler’s World.

Then Jack put the safety back on and unfastened the clips from his backpack, dropping it to the ground while North argued philosophy with the village elders.

He reached inside his pack for the little UFO-looking anti-Prior device he’d brought with him – just because he’d had a gut feeling they might need it – activated its defense shield and turned it on with a wireless remote. He ran to the nearest place where it would be in range and yet out of sight when he brought it into the other dimension. When he was sure no one was looking, he turned off the DSD, stuck the EM generator into a potted plant and shifted off-plane again just in time to see an Ori Prior come striding into the village square.

Like all the other Priors they’d encountered, he looked like a dead man walking, eyes glazed over with cataracts, ritualistic scars etched into his unnaturally pale, cadaverous skin. Even his hair had gone white. In one hand he held a long staff topped with a pale blue crystal that emitted a wan light.

Jack watched that glow as the Prior arrived in range of the EM device, saw it weaken.

No one else noticed.

“Hallowed are the Ori,” the Prior intoned.

The crowd repeated it and bowed, all but North, who faced him with a look of leashed rage.

“Not in my book,” he ground out.

The villagers shouted angrily, waving their fists in the air. In one moment, they had become a lynch mob.

Jack’s finger hovered over the DSD button under his jacket sleeve. The moment anyone made a move for North, he’d uncloak and open fire.

Tzatzil appeared beside Jack, still out of phase. She was pale and obviously worried for North, but she maintained her bearing and whispered that she would be going upstairs to get a better view of the crowd. Then she smiled and touched his shoulder briefly before padding silently away.

The Prior raised his hands over the assembly and calmed them down so they could hear him speak.

“These people believe because they have seen the power of the Ori,” the priest intoned, his clouded gaze roving from face to face in his audience. “They have plenty to eat, good health, long lives. And at the end of ends, they will join the Ori on the Planes of Enlightenment. All one needs do is walk the path.”

“Yeah, well, their kind of enlightenment isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.” North hesitated. “I know a man who ascended to a higher plane on which beings like the Ori lived. He didn’t like it very much, and returned to mortal form to help his people fight false gods. His people’s tales are told in the Book of Truth.”

Another gasp rippled through the crowd. Villagers glanced at each other, wide-eyed in wonder and shock.

The Prior took note. His smirk changed to grim disapproval. “The Ori have power beyond our understanding—“

“No, they don’t.” North reached into a vest pocket and pulled out his mini-Mag flashlight. “I know scientists who can explain how the Ori powers work. I don’t understand it because they’re way smarter than me. The point is, my people use medicine and technology to do things similar to what the Ori do. It’s not magic. It’s science.” He held up the torch, aimed the lens at the crowd and demonstrated how to turn it on. When the light activated, he tossed it to the nearest bystander.

The reaction was just what North had anticipated.

The man who caught it began to turn it over in his hands, studying it in surprised delight. He handed it over to another person, then another. Each one turned it off and on experimentally.

“That’s a machine called a flashlight. It’s powered by a battery and creates light to help me find my way in the darkness. It even shines under water.” North eyed the Prior as someone dunked the torch into a nearby horse trough to test his statement. “Science is another path to truth, but the Ori don’t want these people to know about it. That’s why you keep them ignorant. So they won’t ask questions. So they won’t doubt the Ori’s power.”

“The power and greatness of the Ori cannot be denied! Those who reject the path to enlightenment must be destroyed.” Beads of sweat popped out on the Prior’s blanched forehead.

“Kinda harsh, don’t you think?” North crossed his arms over his chest and cocked his head. “I mean, the Ori deserve respect for what they’ve accomplished, but that doesn’t give them the right to murder people who don’t bow down before them. Among my people, that’s reason enough to fight. We’ve taken on beings who called themselves gods before… and won.”

“What is a god?” The Prior asked, surveying the crowd. “What power is great enough to make you bow down in humble reverence?”

North shrugged, a wicked little half smile on his face. “Oh, it takes a lot for me. Given your argument, I have power enough to be a god over these people. But I have humility enough to know I’m not, and am honest enough to admit it to them.”

He thumbed the safety off his P-90 and aimed it at the horse trough. Squeezing off a short burst, he riddled the container with holes, splintering the wood and spilling a flood of water onto the cobblestone pavement.

People screamed and pushed backward to widen the space around him.

Jack glanced around, looking for the rest of the team.

He saw them in doorways further down the street, each one standing near cover with a good view of the assembly, ready to open fire on the Colonel’s signal. Moon was peering out of a second story window from a house across the street, weapon poised and ready. She met his eyes and signaled him to wait for her command.

He nodded once in agreement.

North smiled, nodding toward the destroyed trough before meeting the Prior’s eyes. “See what I mean? That’s technology. Really powerful technology. Does that make me a god? I have the power to kill everyone in this village because they don’t think the way I do, but I won’t do it because it’s wrong. I know it. They know it. Somewhere in your tiny, dark heart, you know it, too. Knowledge is power, but how you use that power determines whether you’re good or evil. ”

A look of leashed rage flashed over the Prior’s face. “Those seeking eternal salvation follow the word of the Ori. Those who do not will die as mortals. Your day of reckoning approaches. Your destiny awaits.”

The Prior raised his staff, held it out and lowered the head until it almost touched the liquid pouring into the stone altar as he intoned, “And the people shall deliver the wicked unto your divine judgment, where their sins shall be weighed in balance with all that is just and true.”

Nothing happened.

The Prior frowned at his staff, lifted it for a quick inspection, then lowered it again with an intense look of concentration.

Still, nothing happened.

“Not what you were hoping to see?” North grinned at the priest. “You have no power over these people. Not anymore.”

He turned back to the crowd. “The Ori are powerful beings. That is true, but they aren’t all powerful. There is a way to neutralize them, to protect yourselves against them. We’ve proven that here today.”

Jack glanced up at the Colonel. She was as steady as a rock, her eyes sweeping the crowd, threat-assessing. From her perch, she could see everyone in her team.

He waited, returning his attention to his partner, trusting Daniel to do the right thing. This was the kind of situation where he knew best, and Jack trusted him implicitly. He wasn’t happy about it. Still made him anxious, but Daniel was doing the right thing.

North continued his address. “My people can help you defend yourselves against the Priors. We’ve come to set you free, to show you that you have a choice to believe whatever you want. You don’t have to choose enlightenment.”

The Prior’s chin tipped upward haughtily as he resumed his stiff pose of superiority. “Your arrival here has been foreseen.”

“You make that sound magical, but it’s really not. We know the Ori have been watching us. They invaded our worlds and brought sickness and death. We just wanted to be left alone. Thing is, we aren’t the kind of people who just bend to the will of the powerful. We’re fighting back.”

North eyed the crowd. “A war is coming and soon all of you will be involved, whether you want to be or not. For that my people are sorry, but you have to understand that the Ori will destroy all those who don’t believe. We don’t want to die, which means we have to bring the fight to them. So if you want to save yourselves, join us and fight for your freedom!”

“You are all children of the Ori,” the Prior insisted to North, “but you have been raised by evil. The true nature of the universe has been kept from you by powers that would have you stray from the Path of Origen. It is time to open your eyes! Let Origen show you the way.”

“If we were children of the Ori,” North shot back, “why didn’t they know we even existed until someone from my galaxy made contact with someone over here? Hmmm?”

The Prior didn’t have an immediate comeback for that. “You have been shielded by evil—“

“Beings who let us choose our own path,” North snarked. “We call that freedom, not evil.”

“From the smallest seed of doubt, springs forth a mighty tree of poisonous evil.” The Prior’s expression hardened into a visible threat. “The Ori know what is in your hearts. They see all. They know all, and the wicked will be punished!”

From his perch, Jack could see the Prior had lost the debate. Doubt crept into every face that surrounded the two men.

“Score one for the geek,” Moon muttered through the earwig.

“There are some in this assembly who haven’t ever believed and the Ori don’t have a clue who they are. They go through the motions out of fear of being found out...” North searched among the faces of those at the edges of the gathering. “But you don’t have to be afraid any more. My people will help you. We’re helping you now. This Prior has no power because we’ve stopped him from hurting you.”

He nodded at the woman chained in the middle of the altar.

“Somebody unlock those chains.”

No one moved.

North squeezed off another few rounds at the ruined trough.

An official with the keys hurried to do his bidding.

“See how well fear motivates?” North glanced around at the terrified audience. “I just told you all I wouldn’t hurt you but because I have this powerful weapon, you think I’ll use it against you.”

“Seize him!” The Prior commanded, pointing at North. “His blasphemy against the Ori cannot be tolerated!”

A few people moved toward North, but they didn’t look entirely convinced they ought to be doing so.

North lifted the muzzle of the P-90 slightly, aiming near the feet of the nearest person. “I will defend myself if I have to, though.”

He glanced at the man in the robes. “Why don’t you try me?”

The priest turned his head, glancing at the cobblestones near the altar.

“Yeah, I thought not. What is it that the Ori need so badly from these people?” North demanded, his tone filled with genuine curiosity.

The Prior sneered at him from beneath lowered lashes. “The Ori need nothing from us.”

That’s a lie. If the Ori didn’t need something, they wouldn’t bother forcing this religion on these good people.”

“The Ori are benevolent beings who only wish to share the path to enlightenment, as instructed in the Book of Origen.” His lifeless delivery of the tired rhetoric made it obvious that he was done with trying to convert this subject. “They wish to help others ascend and join them.”

North’s gaze snapped in sudden intensity. He leaned forward.

Jack recognized that look, like a hungry fox flushing a rabbit out of its hole. “Do you know of anyone who’s actually done it? The ascended have the power to make themselves visible, if they choose.” He turned to the audience, his chin thrust forward in obstinate challenge. “Has anyone here ever seen a friend, a relative, anyone who ascended by following the path of Origen? When a person ascends, witnesses will tell you they can see the light rising up. The body disappears, leaving the clothing behind. How many of you have ever witnessed an ascension? Because my people have seen it. We know what ascension looks like.”

No one raised their hand.

“Or is there always a body left behind for the family to bury? That’s evidence of the lie right there! The Ori don’t ascend their followers. They don’t want to share.”

Realization began to dawn on the villagers’ faces.

“Shit,” Jack wheezed. “This is gonna get ugly.”

The Prior turned to leave.

Someone grabbed him by the arm.

A roar went up, everyone shouting all at once.

Jack kept his eye on North as the villagers swarmed over the pale man in the robes.

When North activated his DSD, Jack heaved a sigh of relief and shifted his attention to the crowd manhandling the Prior into the shackles at the center of the stone trough.

The woman who had been previously chained up there returned with a torch. The villagers made way for her and cheered as she touched the flame to the liquid filling the maze and pooling around the priest’s sandals.

Tzatzil left her sniper’s post and dashed past Jack, running straight for the man she was charged with protecting.

North abruptly appeared again, shouting protests and scrambling for any object he could use to try to smother the flames, but it was useless.

If he hadn’t shot up the trough…

The Prior died a fiery, painful death while North stood helplessly watching, an invisible Tzatzil at his side.

Moon observed from the window above.

Jack could see her mouth going, probably cursing a blue streak.

It was a good thing North was on another plane and couldn’t hear it.

When the flames died down and the cheers had begun to taper off, North mounted the dais at the head of the altar and called for everyone’s attention.

“I know this man lied to you,” he announced hoarsely, obviously distraught. “He deserved punishment, but not death. Not this way. One day soon when the Ori are defeated, maybe he might’ve had a change of heart. He can’t do that now.” His voice hitched. “Please remember, all life is precious. Everyone deserves a second chance. Even people like him.”

The woman with the torch dropped it on the cobblestones and bowed her head. “What should we do now, stranger?”

North scrubbed his face on his sleeve. “Be kind to each other,” he announced, pulling the last book out of his gear vest and holding it up for all to see. “Read the Book of Truth. Decide for yourself what you want to believe, and follow your hearts. I have it on good authority that choosing your own path is also part of the journey to enlightenment.”

She touched his sleeve. “By what name should we call you? Who are your people, that we might know them?”

“I’m.” North hesitated. “Daniel Jackson. You’ll read about my people in the Book of Truth. We’ll be back soon to figure out how we can help each other.”

Jack hurried to North’s side.

As soon as he switched to the other plane, Jack grabbed him by the collar and was about to lay into him when Tzatzil beat him to the punch.

***

February 24, 2006

One Month Later

Stargate Command, Earth

For the briefest of moments, North thought he saw Daniel Jackson’s quarters in Atlantis.

He’d been meditating in his base quarters, all thoughts pushed away save for concentration on his breathing.

And then… the image of pale blue walls, a small bed, a bookshelf with a pyramid-shaped light, as clearly seen as if he were there in the room.

Maybe it had just been a vivid memory.

Or maybe it was real.

He’d received the instruction from Daniel Jackson via the android Danell to try to connect with him. After weeks of trying, this was the closest he’d come, but he wasn’t sure he even believed such a thing was possible. It could be a trick of the imagination.

He closed his eyes and tried again.

This time, he saw the page of a journal. A passage was being written by a hand he recognized as his own.

“Rodney says there are as many as eleven different dimensions connected to our own. What if the Ori live in one of them, and the Ancients in another? And if that’s the case, how did they get there? Did the Ori travel the same path as the Ancients, or did they find a way to cheat?”

North opened his eyes. He scrambled to his feet and found the nearest writing tool to copy down the lines verbatim. Heart pounding, he hurried to his laptop and prepared a message for transport to Atlantis with the quoted lines, putting it into the queue for the next microburst transmission.

He would send it to Daniel and wait to see if the Original had actually written those lines, and if so, when he’d done it.

If the Daniels could connect like this… well, he wasn’t at all sure what it meant, but was certain it would be important.

In the meantime, he didn’t want to get his hopes up. It was probably just imagination at work.

Probably.

For now, he would concentrate on the mission at hand: to amass a fleet of spaceships to fly to the Pegasus Galaxy and make war on the armies of the Ori.

***

February 25, 2006

The Next Day

Gambler’s World

North watched Moon and Tzatzil, dressed in their SG-0 diplomatic outfits, striding toward the visitors’ entrance to the night-bound half of Domhan An Lucht Siúil.

For an instant, the two women had become ghostly figures overlaid with the view from the balcony of Original Daniel’s apartment overlooking the glistening ocean of the world where Atlantis now rested on the surface of the water.

Just for a moment.

“You okay, there?” asked Jack from his elbow. “That looked like weighty thoughts.”

North snapped all his attention back to where he was.  “Yeah. I’m fine.”

“You always say that, even when you’re not. Tell me what’s going on with you.”

“I don’t know yet.” He shook his head.

Jack touched his sleeve. “Need to see the doc?” There was obvious worry in his eyes.

Warm, gooey affection spread through him like butter melting into toast. He grinned. “Nah, I’m good, Jack. Fit and healthy. I promise.”

They processed through as visitors, exiting on the other side inside the bubble-shaped shields that prevented them from interacting with any of the gaming activity.

Doc Holliday met them and escorted them to the Stag Bar, where Conall greeted them with a wave and smile. He led them into the back, through a storage area full of bottles of booze from many worlds, and finally into a small garden area where a table and chairs had been set up for them.

Artificial sunlight shone down on the plants from a glowing orb hovering above the space.

It was like stepping outside in the early morning, slightly cool, scented with blooming flowers.

One of the hóstach appeared with a tray of drinks – all their favorites, including the many-layered Rainbow Hammer that was Conall’s preference – and set them down.

The mechanized shell returned inside the bar a moment later.

“How goes the gathering of the armada?” the bartender began.

Moon licked the foam off her upper lip. “The Jaffa nation has offered what they can spare, but they have their hands pretty busy with their new government and fighting off the Ori incursion on our own turf.” She flashed a half smile at Jack. “Funnily enough, The Book of Truth has been very helpful in reminding would-be Origen converts about the danger in bowing to false gods.”

Jack sat up a little straighter, shoulders squaring, chin high. He looked insufferably pleased with himself. “That would be my mighty pen at work, there, campers.”

“The, uh, the Comtryans are working on a ship,” North added. “The Tok’ra have offered all of their ships, though they don’t have many. The Asgard have promised two of their battle cruisers, though they won’t be ready for another few weeks.”

“And, of course, the next one of ours off the assembly line,” Moon finished up with a heavy sigh, “though I don’t see the numbers of what we’ve got promised being sufficient to fight a war with another whole galaxy of planets. Word from Atlantis is the Ori are in full production of starships, conscripting armies for training… Billions of soldiers. Thousands of vessels. They’ll have numbers on their side.”

Jack sipped his beer, apparently unperturbed. “That just means we need a better strategy. Which I’ve been thinking about. I have a few ideas. One of our spies managed to steal a set of plans for their ships, so we have an idea how they work, just not what the power source is. But I’ve got an idea about that, too.”

“I’m listening.” Conall cocked his head as Jack explained, the bartender’s smile widening as his head began to bob. There was a twinkle in his hazel eyes that spoke of secrets.

North wondered what that meant, especially when Jack’s expression seemed to reflect it.

“It’s a good plan,” Conall agreed. “And I hope you’ll be pleased to know we’ll be contributing our own ship to your armada. We’ve been building it for about a hundred years. Just finished it a few moons ago, right on time.”

“How could you have known when it was time?” Moon sat back in her chair, arms lightly crossed over her flat belly. She regarded him with only the barest trace of suspicion.

Conall gave her a sideways glance with a rakish smile. “D’you go out most nights and look up at the stars before you go to bed?”

The Colonel nodded. “Yeah, sure.”

“Well, one night you go out and the stars aren’t there. The sky is gray and ashen. It’s cooler than it ought to be for that time of year and there’s a freshness in the air. Your skin has a tingle to it, like faint electricity. You know it’s going to rain. Maybe not for a few hours, but your whole body tells you it’s coming. We feel it, cara Moon, my brothers and sisters and I.” He raised his half-empty glass in salute. “I’m offering to assist with provisioning the armada before leaving on the journey to Pegasus, even though it might bankrupt me. We’re in a good location to serve as a jumping off point, so if you choose to accept my offer, send word to yo