I turn the key in the ignition, staring out at the deserted parking lot as the wipers come on, beating a lonely rhythm along with the rain pounding against the windshield.
I have no fucking clue what I’m gonna do with two weeks leave. Hell, I don’t even know where I’m going right now, besides out of this parking lot and off this base. I’ve been assigned quarters at Cheyenne, up with the NORAD people, a couple long elevator rides away from the Stargate Command, but I’m not at all sure I want to take a chance on running into Jack tonight.
Besides. I don’t think I could sleep right now. Way too much shit I don’t want to think about, back in Colorado Springs again. Back where I used to have a wife, and a best friend, and something you might call a life.
I used to have an apartment in the city, a couple years ago, but I was never in the country long enough to stay there much so I let it go. A year after I left her, I sent Lisa a letter telling her to keep the house, and I doubt I’d be welcome there now if she hasn’t sold it and moved back to North Carolina already. The time she kicked me out I used to stay at Jack’s place, but that’s obviously not gonna work now.
Stuart’s car pulls past me, on the way to the entrance to the base, and through the windows I see him throw me a salute. I wonder where he’s going. Probably off to spend his leave with his family, like the rest of the team. I know about as much about the personal lives of my men as they know about mine, but I know they all have a reason they look forward to going home. They all have a home to go to. I don’t wave back, watching as the taillights disappear.
Time to get the hell out of here, wherever I’m going. I take a long drag on the cigarette, flick the headlights on, spinning the wheel sharply and pulling out of the parking lot. Somewhere behind my eyes I can feel a headache starting, a dull throb that’s gonna get worse pretty quick, I know. It’s raining harder now.
The guard at the gate salutes as I drive past, and I return it absently. I wonder where Jack is right now. Hell, I wonder if he’s even on the planet. There’s a weird thought. Here I thought all the action was in places like Kosovo, and Jack’s been visiting a different planet every week the past three years.
Not like we’re gonna get to do any kind of space travel Star Trek shit. We’re not the heroic space explorers. We’re just the insurance, the guys they hope they won’t ever have to send in. 121 won’t be seeing any action again, not unless the situation really goes to hell. And if it does, we’ll be the first in, and the least likely to come out again.
They can’t afford to tell more than a few teams what this Project Blue Book is all about, so they make sure the teams who do know are the best of the best of the best of the best of the… you get the idea. And basically our job is to buy time for the big shots upstairs to get their shit together, get the rest of the planet mobilized and ready to face any invasion that comes through the Stargate. If all else fails, to shoot our way in far enough to access the main computer system, and activate the base’s back-up auto destruct.
West gave it to us straight. The kind of scenario we’re here to anticipate — our chances of surviving it are slim to none. He said it was strictly voluntary. We could be back on a plane to Kosovo tonight, no questions asked.
“Any man willing to take this assignment, please stand and — ”
I stood up before he even finished speaking. It was never a question for me.
My best friend’s inside that mountain. And I’ve already let him down once.
Will. Not. Happen. Again.
But as far as I know, I’m the only one on this team who knows anybody inside the base. And the only one with no family on the outside. It’s not like I have anything to lose — but it’s different for the rest of the guys.
Still they all stood up together, as soon as they saw I was gonna take it. They looked totally calm, no expression at all. Which meant they were scared absolutely shitless, but they weren’t about to let anyone see that. You can’t buy a team like this. And I sure as hell don’t deserve that kind of loyalty.
“The first, last, and only line of defense against the worst scum of the universe,” Stuart quipped as we filed out of the room, in an attempt to lighten the mood.
There were a few half-hearted “Hoo-ahs” in response. “Least we get two weeks’ leave out of this,” someone was saying.
“Yeah, and then we get to teach a bunch of cadets how to survive, evade and resist.” Douglas wasn’t happy, being out of the action. “All the excitement, I don’t think my heart can take it.”
“Hey, home sweet home for you, huh flyboy?” Stuart was the only Academy grad on the team, and the rest of them were always giving him a hard time about it.
“The best and the brightest, right Captain?” Sergeant Reiker added, and there were a few snickers. “Colonel’s gonna eat ’em alive.”
That got them all laughing. Not loud enough for the general to hear, but the idea of the old man turned loose to terrorize a class of cadets was obviously something to look forward to.
“Yeah, Captain, you ever see anybody like Colonel Cromwell when you was at that fancy Academy?”
Stuart was shaking his head, grinning in spite of himself, when I heard West call me.
“Colonel.” I turned, as the rest of the team continued down the hall. “A word?”
He was standing in the doorway. I walked slowly back into the briefing room, closed the door behind me. “Sir?”
“I wanted to speak with you privately.”
“Yes, sir.” I didn’t know what this was about, but the memory of my last “private conversation” with the man was still too damn close even after eight years.
He sat down again, gesturing me to take a seat. I stayed standing, parade rest, watching him without saying anything.
“Colonel, how well did you know Colonel O’Neill?”
I blinked. Not the question I was expecting. “I don’t understand, sir.” I never talked to anyone about Jack, how we knew each other or why we didn’t talk anymore, and I’d be damned if I’d say anything to West.
“It’s a simple question, Colonel.”
If he remembered how I reacted when he wouldn’t let me go in after Jack — and I knew he did — he knew damn well Jack was a good friend. Asshole. “We served together for twelve years, sir.”
“I know that, Colonel, it’s in your file.” He was nodding slowly. “I’m guessing you two were pretty close.”
Can’t imagine what gave you that idea. “Yes, sir.”
He didn’t say anything for a while, just watched me with that infuriating, knowing look. Like he expected me to say something else. Like hell.
“When was the last time you spoke to him?”
I wondered briefly how “None of your goddamn business, sir” would go over. Probably not too well. “January ‘91, sir.”
That tone of voice would’ve told anyone who’d ever served under me he’d crossed a line in a major way, and he’d be real smart to find something to hide behind, fast. West either didn’t notice or didn’t care. Just gave me the look again, tapping a pen against the table.
“Can I ask what this has to do with our assignment, sir?” I asked finally.
“Everything.” He put the pen down and folded his hands together, looking thoughtful. “Colonel, I realize this is all very personal and not exactly pleasant.” Not — exactly — pleasant? That’s one way to put it. “And I normally don’t inquire into the private lives of my officers, unless there’s a damn good reason.”
Like when you decided Jack’s son dying made him a good choice for a suicide mission, when this whole crazy Stargate thing got started? I thought, remembering the mission reports he’d given us when this briefing started, and how West’s own report detailed his reasons for choosing Jack for the first mission. You cold-blooded, callous son of a bitch.
“The nature of the enemy we’re fighting leaves me no choice,” he went on, and if he noticed my reaction he didn’t say anything. “We’re dealing with a species that can take on human form — assume the identity of a human ‘host’, as they call it. You could end up fighting our own people in there, in the event of an actual Goa’uld invasion.”
“I thought you said their eyes glow.” There’s always some way to tell who the aliens are, in the movies. Their eyes glow, their voices are funny, they grow scales… nifty little hints that tell the hero, this thing is not human.
“Sometimes, yes, but you can’t count on that.” His voice was sharp. “There’s no way to tell for sure, short of a full MRI, and when you’re under fire there’s no time for fancy stuff like that.”
“You want someone who can tell if Jack’s… not himself?” I tried to picture my friend with glowing eyes and a snake in his head, and had to repress a shiver. Not an image I needed. Never happen. Not Jack.
“I need someone on our strike force who has a chance of knowing if our chain of command has been compromised,” he said. “There aren’t any trained operators outside that mountain who know General Hammond well enough, and there’s no one alive in Special Ops who’s served with Colonel O’Neill longer than you have. If he’s under any kind of… alien mental control… ”
“I’ll know, sir.”
“Good.” He picked up a stack of reports, laid them carefully inside his briefcase and shut it with a snap.
“Is that all, sir?”
Pushing his chair back, he came to stand in front of me. “No,” he said. “There’s one more thing.” I waited, patient, refusing to ask. He gave me a searching look. “If you do have reason to believe Colonel O’Neill has been compromised, you may have to use deadly force.” He folded his arms. “We don’t have a way to kill a Goa’uld without killing the host as well. It’s been tried.”
I should’ve known this was coming. “I’m aware of that, sir,” I said flatly.
“I know this is hard for you.” God, I really, really hate this man. “I need to know you’ll be able to do what you have to do, before it’s too late. If there’s the smallest possibility anyone’s a host, you can’t afford to hesitate.”
“The only thing that’s hard for me right now,” I said, enunciating carefully, “is convincing myself not to knock you on your ass. Sir.” He blinked, but he didn’t react otherwise. Then again, he’s heard worse from me. “I served with Jack O’Neill for twelve years. And whether or not he’s still speaking to me, I know him better than anyone on Earth — or any other planet.” I took a step forward, leaning close so our faces were inches apart. “I made a promise, that I’d shoot him myself before I let him get taken alive by anyone or anything.” I ground out the last words. “I failed that promise once. I don’t intend to fail it again.”
He didn’t say a word, just stared at me. Calm, no emotion at all. I spun around and walked out of the room without being dismissed.