Chapter 22

Jack stared blankly at the spot that Carter had occupied a second before, his mind and body numbed again. When his thaw began, he was unable to stop himself from mumbling, “Please please please let her be with Frazer!”

It was a comment that startled Daniel anew. “Jack! How can you say that? I hope to God that she isn't with Fraiser!”

Jack instantly scowled. “Frazer, not Fraiser!”

“What?” Daniel asked, seemingly as slow on the uptake as usual.

“Frazer!” Jack expostulated, trying to encourage the linguist to read his mind.

Daniel just sent him an aggravated look. “That was an Asgard beam or I'm not an archaeologist. Is Thor here? And who is this Frazer?”

“Shhhh!” Jack quickly hissed a whisper, so quiet now that Daniel had to lean in close just to hear him. “No one's supposed to know about... my buddy... being..!” And he pointed at the floor, indicating without a word that he meant 'here,' as in at Cimmeria. He gave a furtive glance into the empty corridor outside the human's cell. If any of Ba'al's Jaffa were lurking around to spy on the Tau'ri... Sometimes, Jack wanted to kill Daniel just to shut him up.

Jack peered intently at the SGC personnel now crowding around him and Daniel. Everyone was listening to his every word and watching his gestures now that no one had to deal with a bleeding patient. Jack sighed once, half in gratitude, and half in aggravation. He understood that he was now going to have to explain the entire situation to them, or he would have a riot on his hands.

So quiet that he was almost silent, Jack spent the next several minutes enlightening his former coworkers on the Asgard take on this cloning situation, on Loki, and on The Protected Planets Treaty. He skipped over the information about the presence and location of Bra'tac's cloaked ship - if anyone (like Ba'al) somehow discovered that information from him, or anyone else, this mission was well and truly SOL. He wouldn't forgive himself for that. However, relating most of the story helped to focus his concentration, and above all, aided him in not spending every last bit of his energy worrying about his memories, an injured Carter, what she would think of them and him when she woke up, or where she had been whisked away to in the first place. For all he knew, Ba'al could very well have Asgard tech at his disposal, and was even now working Carter over in his torture chamber since she hadn't so conveniently died after her previous stint with him. His imagination worked overtime on the horrors she could be dealing with, but firmly reminded himself how that beam had certainly seemed to be of Asgard origin, and as he knew that Thor was conveniently orbiting Cimmeria even now in a cloaked ship, he had to believe that Carter was in his or Frazer's capable hands, though he didn't know why or how Thor knew that Carter needed his medical expertise, or why he knew to transport her at that precise moment.

Jack ended his enlightening speech with the dire words, “I'm ordering all of you... well, I can't order you anymore, since I'm retired... I'm begging you not to say a word about the... you know, or about Carter and... them.”

“Mum's the word, General,” Jan Brody interrupted, speaking for all her coworkers when she made the promise. “And I'm turning control of this mission back over to you now that the medical emergency has passed.”

Jack did a double take. “Didn't you just hear me say that I'm retired? As the base 2IC, Reynolds should be...”

“You're the senior officer,” Reynolds swiftly said. “Plus you're the better strategist of the two of us - that makes you team leader.” He glanced at his fellow SGC officers. “Agreed?”

As one, they all nodded, or gave other signs of agreement.

Jack was again a bit taken aback at how fast that consensus had been reached - the last he recalled, he had acted less than mature when he'd left these people to face the Goa'uld alone and gone on walkabout for nine months. But he didn't have time to comment on the mysterious amount of trust these people still had in him, or on his status as elected leader - Teal'c spoke first.

“We have succeeded in unlocking the door, O'Neill.”

He and Captain Schumann had indeed managed to use the small mirror that had been part of the female airmen's hidden contraband to finagle the wires taken from Major Brody's hair into unlocking the door. It had been a relatively easy thing to do once one could see what needed to be done.

“Okay,” Jack whispered, slowly pushing the door open just to make sure it acted as Teal'c had promised. The door obligingly swung an inch into the corridor outside.

The door's unlocked state didn't send thrills coursing through Jack, though. He was too ambivalent to be very excited - on one hand, he was still worried enough about Carter to want to stay right where he was and make it simpler for her to locate him. Rule number one of the perpetually lost - hug a tree, or in this case, a cell bar, making it easier for the search party to find you rather than wandering around in circles. On the other hand, this sudden freedom meant just that - freedom. He still had a mission to complete despite Carter's recent disappearance. The fact that a continuing mission would also be a good way to keep his focus away from useless worrying about Carter was just a convenient side effect. Or so he hastily told himself.

Jack pulled the door almost closed again, then regarded the expectant faces of the available people under his command, all clearly waiting for his orders, just as he had ordered them before. For a single minute, Jack quailed at the looks of patient confidence on those faces; he instantly wanted to protest their strange faith in him. He may have commanded them at one time, but it had been months since he had so much as issued an order about what kind of light-bulbs to use in the SGC. Now he was expected to just slip back into the roll of base commander without any fuss?

But in the next second, the mantle of command had settled once again on his shoulders in a familiar and welcome shroud. With just as much ease, Jack immediately knew what they were all going to do. Tensing his muscles, he told them in a low voice, “Here's the plan.”

* * *

Like all Jack's plans, it was deceptively simple.

First, a few of the SGC personnel would find and raid the armory. The humans would need weapons if they had any chance of successfully completing this mission, and Jack reasoned that a facility like this cloning castle had to have some kind of a centralized place where Ba'al's Jaffa kept a stash of weapons, just in case things got dicey. He also expected that particular place to be carefully guarded, but not look like it was guarded at all so as not to draw undue attention. If the humans planned to waltz in there and take whatever they needed without possibly facing heavy resistance, he was deluding himself about how easy this was going to be. Ba'al was no fool. He would carefully guard his weapons cache, or Jack wasn't an Air Force General... former General.

But as the Tau'ri needed whatever weapons they could get their hands on, and any weapons that were available were sure to be guarded within an inch of their lives, Jack made the best tactical decision he could at this point: he sent in the Marines.

He wanted to go himself, but refused to give in to his desires on this one. At a basic level, he understood that it had been a long time since he'd been in the field, and though he was loathe to admit it, he had allowed himself to get just a bit soft during his time as base commander, not to mention the months he'd spent 'on the run.' Strategically, he knew that he would only slow his Marines down, though sitting out and letting his younger SGC comrades procure enough weapons for them all was nothing less than nailbiting.

But Jack only allowed himself the satisfaction of metaphorical nailbiting. The officer part of him would never let him appear as anything but the unruffled General to his subordinates. His team, he knew, could paint a different picture (especially Carter, and especially now, but he wouldn't think about that) Fortunately, Daniel and Teal'c weren't talking, and Carter was...

Jack refused to let himself dwell on Carter now. Dwelling led to fretting, which led to pointless worry, and he didn't have time for squandering his attention on personnel concerns. So he lent his tone a businesslike quality as he asked the three Marines available to him to do whatever they had to do, but to bring back enough weapons for all of them. They opened the door a minute amount, and the three slipped out the tiny slice of freedom, leaving Jack behind to start his theoretical chewing.

Jack's thoughts instantly traveled with the three, recalling armaments, possible places for spy implements, and any other safe guards for Ba'al's Jaffa that he could think of on the spur of the moment. Then he purposefully brought his thoughts to a screeching halt. One thing he couldn't afford at this point was useless second guessing, and he set about to distract himself.

But before he had the chance to distract himself at all, he was waylaid by a tense Daniel. “Jack, I want to talk to you!” the archaeologist demanded.

It was a state of affairs that had Jack sighing in resignation - Daniel always wanted to talk. “What is it this time?” he patiently asked.

“Did I hear you right a few minutes ago?” he rushed to inquire.

When he didn't elaborate, Jack waved him on. “About..?”

Daniel grimaced at the prompt. “When you were talking to Sam a few minutes ago.”

He'd said a lot of things to Carter. “About..?”

Daniel's grimace deepened at this second prompt. “Is it true that Shanahan's here?”

Oh, that. Jack sighed. “Yes. He accidentally...” He'd almost mentioned Thor again - crap! “He convinced me to take him on this mission with us - for all the good it's doing. And all of it was definitely against my better judgment!”

Daniel balked. “Jack! What were you thinking, inviting him on something like this?”

“Something highly classified, you mean? It wasn't my choice,” Jack again emphasized. “Simply put, Shanahan poked his nose in where it doesn't belong... again.”

Daniel looked around, then pointedly asked, “So, where is he?”

Again came the resigned sigh. “If I knew that, Daniel, don't you think I would have told you by now?”

“So you have no idea?”

“Wish I did. With my luck, he's a Jaffa ornament hanging on the wall like Han Solo in the Carbo stuff.”

“Carbornite,” Daniel instantly informed him. “Which is invented Hollywood crap, and you know it.”

“I do know it - but I bet you never knew that Carter was carrying around half of Colorado in her hair.”

Daniel winced. “Her hair is too short to... I bet she had stuff under her...”

So not going there! “Did you know that she was doing that?” Jack interrupted in order to distract him.

Daniel considered, “Well, I...”

“Don't change the subject!”

Daniel look at him assessingly, then gave a resigned sigh and announced, “You knew.” His second sigh was even heavier. “Why am I always the last to find out everything?”

Jack clapped his friend on his shoulder, just thankful he had waylaid the archaeologist from talking more about Carter's... nope, not thinking about it! “You must have missed the memo. That's alright - you were probably dead at the time.”

* * *

It took the three Marines several trips to the armory before all the Tau'ri were armed with zats. So he wouldn't go nuts waiting for them to return each time, Jack made some preparations of his own to keep his mind occupied and off the Marines, off Carter, off Ba'al, off the possible success or failure of this mission... If he could turn his brain completely off for awhile, he would. As it was, the questions that he was determined not to ask continued to circle uselessly in his mind, like a whirlpool of doom. How did Carter stand so much cranial activity all the time? His sanity teetered as it was!

So to focus himself on something else for the time being, he crossed to the unfortunate airman who had died at the hands of Ba'al's evil First Prime.

Furtively untying the laces on the man's boots, he took a moment to glance once at the serene face of the dead man. He was young - so young that Jack automatically flinched. He didn't even know this one's name. He must have transferred to the SGC while Jack was away.

“Anybody know this guy's name?” he asked as he untied.

“Airman First Class Andy Wallace,” someone replied.

Jack didn't see who had spoken, but sighed sadly instead. “Hope he's in a better place right now.” He considered what he was doing. “And hope he doesn't mind if I borrow his boots for awhile - seeing as he won't be needing them.”

It was Reynolds who responded, “He would be honored, Sir. I met him once in the Commissary when he first started at the SGC - he revered you.”

“I'm sorry to hear that,” Jack sourly quipped. “I bet my stunt of vanishing for months at a time kind of tarnished his reverent image.”

Reynolds soured as well. “Hardly. He figured you had good reason.”

Jack recalled the reason without any prompting. “He was right,” was all he said, but had to swallow hard in order to say it. To cover his emotions on the subject, he peered at the boot size the second he had removed the footwear. “Teal'c, what size feet do you have?”

“Size 15,” Teal'c rumbled.

Which surprised Jack. “Really? That big? Mine are only twelves. And since these are thirteens...” Better to be too big than too small. He ceremoniously spoke to Airman First Class Andy Wallace, “My feet forever thank you,” and slipped on the boots, glad to have something on his feet again besides just the black slippers that Thor had given him.

When he was done, he gestured to Teal'c. “Come here, T.”

“There are no extra boots that will...”

“T.” Just saying that much was enough. Teal'c offered his foot without further protest. “Give me his socks,” Jack next ordered. While the socks were being procured, Jack considered one of the female airmen. “You got more of those bootlaces on you?” Two laces sailed through the air at him. “Thanks.” He plucked them out of the air, then laid them on the ground. “You guys... er, gals got any extra underwear pieces on you?”

Puzzled, Major Brody handed over what she had. Jack laid them vertically atop on of the horizontal bootlaces, four thick, then did the same with the other bootlace. At last he laid the socks over top all of it. “Teal'c, put it there, pal.”

Teal'c put one foot on top of each pile, and Jack crisscrossed the laces over the top of his feet, crossed them again under the foot, crossed again on top, then under, then managed to capture just enough of the material around the Jaffa's ankle to give it a final crisscross before tying the laces off. “There. That should be better on your feet than the ground, at least until we get back to the SGC.”

Teal'c studied his new footwear. “It is functional... and efficient. Thank you, O'Neill.”

“No problem.” Jack stepped back, unaware that some of the personnel were now staring at him in undiluted awe at the way he was so quickly able to use what he had at hand. Such undiluted hero worship made him distinctly uncomfortable. He was simply ecstatic that he'd managed to distract himself for so long that the Marines were back for the last time, many zat guns in their clutches.

Jack would have preferred the use of some of the Staff Weapons that the Jaffa were always bedeviling the humans with, but he refused to let himself be picky now. Beggars can't be choosers he told himself as five minutes later he was sneaking through the Cimmerian corridors with his SGC colleagues. It was almost like being back in the field again... except for the tiny fact that he had a team of twenty six this time instead of only three (twenty-six 'hinderers' if they turned out to be like Daniel), and he was distinctly aware that he was leading a team that was Carterless. But Jack steadfastly refused to think about his lack of Carter right now. He had Teal'c and Daniel with him... that had to count for something. And even an absent Shanahan didn't automatically make the mission go so far South as to throw it into the basement... it may put it on the stairs heading down... but just letting Shanahan come along on this mission had to count in his favor in some greater Karmic way... or else it meant that he was getting soft in the head. In which case, he wryly thought that it was probably a good thing that he had stepped down as leader of the SGC when he had.

Sooner than he expected, the group reached the cloning center of the facility. They hadn't had any trouble, and had only had to hide from a patrol of Jaffa once. Plus, the cloning room wasn't being guarded, and appeared to be empty of all resistance. This emptiness was either the response of a System Lord and his Jaffa who were both so arrogant as to be sloppy, or this was one heck of a big trap.

Chapter 23

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