There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills. — Lord Buddha
9 August, 0930 hours
General Hammond replaced the receiver in its cradle. Colonel O’Neill sounded all right, if a bit tired. Doctor Fraiser had likely made the right decision in sending him home to finish recuperating in his own house, rather than keeping him in the base infirmary. But it was only proper for him to be in attendance at the memorial service honoring SG-10. Frankly, Hammond wanted O’Neill back on base sooner rather than later in any event. He wanted to make sure that if there were any lingering issues related to O’Neill’s brief reunion with and subsequent loss of Frank Cromwell, his former teammate and onetime friend, they were dealt with as swiftly as possible. Hammond had been well aware of the history between the two colonels. He’d been mildly surprised a few months back to find Cromwell listed as CO of one of the Special Operations teams the Pentagon had assigned as a secondary line of defense to safeguard Earth against potential threats that could materialize from within the SGC. He remembered thinking at the time that it was ironic for Cromwell to be stationed in such close proximity to his former friend, especially given the nature of that particular duty assignment. Surely he had been made aware of O’Neill’s presence at the SGC once he was briefed. Hammond found he could imagine all too well Cromwell’s reaction to that knowledge.
He had first met the man three years previously, in Chicago’s O’ Hare International Airport, when both of them had been stranded for several hours while a blizzard pounded the midwest, grounding flights and upending Hammond’s plans to visit his eldest daughter and her family in Colorado Springs. Hammond had briefly been at Bolling AFB in Washington, DC to coordinate information between USAF HQ and the Pentagon regarding some sensitive projects, an endeavor that left him wanting a breather before he returned to his normal duties. For some reason, he’d found, dealing with the Pentagon tended to do that to a man. Taking some long-overdue leave, he’d booked a flight to Colorado, but what was supposed to have been a ninety-minute layover at O’ Hare had turned into eight hours of frustrated waiting. Fortunately, about four hours into the delay, he’d found himself in the company of one Lieutenant Colonel Frank Cromwell, USAF Special Operations, who was just as stranded, frustrated and bored as the the general. Cromwell was bound for temporary duty at Nellis, where he was to offer his expertise in a training exercise. As two military men in an overwhelmingly civilian crowd, the two naturally fell into conversation despite Cromwell’s rather guarded demeanor. Over a steak dinner in one of the airport restaurants, the two men had shared stories. Eventually, the conversation touched upon the time each had spent in-theater during the Gulf War.
“So, how long were you over there before you got back stateside?” Hammond asked.
“Too long… ah hell, make that not long enough.” The younger man glanced down at his plate momentarily as he spoke, before meeting his eyes again.
Hammond cocked his head. “That’s probably the first time I’ve heard anyone give that answer.”
A shadow passed over the colonel’s features. “Let’s just say my team’s last mission over there was a real Charlie Foxtrot. Sir.”
The general knew that haunted look all too well. He’d seen it in the mirror enough times after a certain fateful sortie in Vietnam. “You lost someone.” It was both a statement and a question.
“Yeah. You could say that.”
Hammond said nothing, just waited quietly to see if the other man felt like talking about it. They both knew the score, that you didn’t always get to bring everyone back alive. Sometimes it helped to talk with someone else who’d been there. Sometimes it didn’t do a damn bit of good, either.
The colonel must have felt some need to fill the silence. “My best buddy. We’d served together for twelve years. I saw him go down right before I took two in the shoulder.”
“Damned hard thing to have happen, Colonel. I went through it, too. My best friend was shot down over ’Nam. I saw him bail out, saw his ’chute open. Knew he was alive, and radioed his position. But I never saw him again. His name never turned up on the POW lists, and they never found his body.”
Cromwell shook his head slowly, staring at his plate. “I’m sorry to hear that, sir,” he said sincerely.
“On the other hand, you were fortunate enough to survive, and at least some of your team must have made it. Were they at least able to recover his — ” Hammond didn’t get to finish the question, as Cromwell interrupted him with a snort, meeting his eyes again, his own glittering with something fierce and hot. Instinctively, Hammond realized that whatever the emotion was, it was directed entirely inward.
“Oh, it gets worse, sir. We lost our CO in the first moment of engagement. Jack was 2IC, so that left him in charge. I was the next man down the chain… When Jack went down, I was sure he was dead. Would’ve sworn to it. And we were pinned down — well, almost — we had one shot at extraction and it was now or never. We were out of options. So I gave the order. I gave the friggin’ order: get up, get out, leave the dead behind.” He coughed, took a sip from his water glass. “Jesus.”
“It doesn’t really sound like you had any choice, Colonel. Like you said, you were out of options. You had to get your team out. You had a duty to the living.” Hammond wondered if he were missing something here. This man had to know there was nothing he could have done differently that would have helped. He watched as Cromwell shook his head in irritation.
“The hell of it is, I did let one of them down. They sent me back stateside to recover. And Jack, my best friend, who was like a brother to me, spent the next four months being tortured in a friggin’ Iraqi prison. Because I’d left him behind.” Another snort. “I didn’t even find out for two whole months that he was alive. It was that long before I saw his name on the POW list. Here I’d come home, had to tell his wife and his kid that he was gone and that I hadn’t even been able to get his body back, and then I found myself having to explain why the man they loved, that we all loved, was in some stinking cell on the other side of the world.”
Damn. The pieces fell into place; that glittering heat he’d seen in the younger man’s eyes suddenly made sense. Had this man gotten no counseling, no treatment for the emotional injuries he’d suffered in addition to his physical wounds? And what about his friend, this Jack? How had he fared?
Across the table, Cromwell visibly gathered himself, stuffing the rage and the pain back into a mental box and clamping down the lid. “And before you ask,” the colonel continued in a much more subdued voice, “I did try to get him out. Once I knew what had happened, I had a rescue mission all mapped out. It got turned down.” He gave a bitter chuckle. “Of course, now the Air Force wants me to help cross-train combat search and rescue specialists. How’s that for irony?”
“Oh, I’ll agree it’s ironic. That’s something the service seems to do very well at times.” It was true, Hammond knew. He hadn’t been in the Air Force for three decades without noticing the military’s penchant for putting people in situations that would make any sane man scratch his head and wonder. Of course, over the years he’d also seen that sometimes doing so turned out to be exactly the right thing, because it put the right person in the right place at the right time, even if on first glance that might seem counterintuitive.
“I guess though, seeing as I couldn’t get Jack out, I can sure as hell do something so that some other guy doesn’t get stuck.” Cromwell lined up his knife and fork side by side on his empty plate as he spoke. “You know, I went to see him once in the hospital, right after he got back. Tried to apologize, though God knows there was no reason for that to make any difference. But I had to try anyway.” He wadded his napkin into a tight ball and tossed it onto the plate. It struck the silverware, bumping the two utensils askew and coming to rest between them. “I was right, too: it didn’t make a damn bit of difference. He didn’t want to talk to me, wanted nothing to do with me. I left my best friend in Iraq, and the guy who came back in his place can’t stand me. And you know what? I can’t say I blame him.”
“I’m sorry.” Hammond remembered thinking the words sounded hollow, even as he’d spoken them. He’d simply had no idea what else to say. He’d felt bad for both men that night, the one he’d met and the one he hadn’t.
Six months later, he’d accepted command of the Top Secret Area 52 complex deep within Cheyenne Mountain, figuring it would be an easy final assignment prior to retiring from the Air Force. Aside from a bit of deja-vu at being in the same facility where he’d served nearly thirty years before, he’d expected an uneventful time of it. His work was simply to oversee closing down Project Giza and mothballing the dusty piece of alien technology housed deep in the facility’s bowels. Although there was that occasional twinge of memory involving a note he’d received the first time he’d been assigned there, in his own handwriting despite his having no memory of writing it…
Then came the day a bunch of thugs in serpent-headed armor arrived through that dusty piece of alien technology and blew his plans for retirement all to hell.
When he first read through O’Neill’s personnel file, prior to calling him in for questioning regarding his report on the Abydos mission, Hammond noted that the colonel had spent four months in Iraq as a POW. He wouldn’t have given it much thought, except that the report included a brief explanation of how the man had come to be captured. While on covert maneuvers, O’Neill’s unit had been ambushed. He had been wounded in the ensuing firefight and presumed dead, resulting in the extraction of his team without him. Two sentences in a personnel file that brought back a conversation in an airport restaurant with a man who’d lost a longstanding friendship to a mission gone horribly, tragically wrong. What was the name of the man they’d discussed? Jack something. Odds were good this was the same guy. A chill crept up the general’s spine. He didn’t like coincidences.
He didn’t get a chance to address the question until the dust had settled from the second Abydos mission and its aftermath. When Hammond was putting together the primary SG teams, he knew that it made sense to get to know his personnel, beyond just what was in their files and what he’d seen so far of their performance. Under his command, they were to be on the front line of Earth’s interaction with extraterrestrial beings, and he needed to know exactly what sort of people he had working for him. He set aside time to speak with every member of each of the nine teams, one on one. His interview with O’Neill covered every other piece of ground before touching on the circumstances of O’Neill’s capture and imprisonment by the Iraqis.
“Colonel O’Neill, according to your personnel file, you went on a covert mission into enemy territory during the Gulf, and were captured.”
“Yeah. Does it also say there that our CO had been killed, I was wounded at the time and that the next guy down the chain abandoned me?”
“Colonel, I understand that in the heat of battle, you were presumed dead. With the mission a failure, it would have fallen to him to get the rest of the team to safety if at all possible.” Hammond paused. “I do understand, however, that knowing this doesn’t change what you went through.”
O’Neill gripped the arms of his chair, knuckles slowly turning white with the effort to remain calm. “No, sir, it doesn’t. I watched him — watched them — get on that helicopter and fly away. Shortly after that, the Iraqis came and carted me off to prison. I lost four months of my life there, never knowing from one day to the next whether I would live or die, whether I would see my wife and son again. Let’s just say that I find it a bit difficult to be understanding.”
“You were friends.” Hammond didn’t need to elaborate.
O’Neill fixed him with an icy stare. “The operative word there is ‘were’, General. We were friends, or at least I’d always thought so. But friends don’t leave friends behind in the field. I don’t leave people behind, sir. Never have, never will. Are we done talking about this?”
“Colonel, I have no desire to reopen old wounds. I’m just trying to get a feel for the people in this command.”
“Well, sir, I think you know where I stand on things like this. My record speaks for itself. I don’t need to remind you — ”
The general held up a hand to forestall the litany he knew was coming. “I am well aware of your record, Colonel. I just want you to bear in mind that at some point, you may well find yourself in a position where getting everyone out with you is not an option. If and when that situation occurs — and I hope as much as you do that it does not — but in such a situation, I need to know that you will do the prudent thing. Do I make myself clear?”
There was no telling what thoughts went on behind that fathomless brown gaze, but the brittle tone of the response spoke volumes. “Crystal, sir.”