Shell Game

by Rebecca Ratliff


DATE: August 2003

ARCHIVE: If I haven't submitted to your archive, please ask.  (I'll say yes, I just like to know where it is.)

RATING:  R for language and violence

CATEGORY: A/U Action/adventure, angst, S/J UST.  Crossover

SPOILERS:  This story mentions the events shown in the West Wing episode 421 - Life on Mars, although no West Wing characters appear.

SEASON/SEQUEL INFO: Season 7, after Space Race.  Series sequence: Abyss Novelization, Sirikat, Fields of Gold, A Nice Quiet Week in the Country, Brothers in Arms, Shadows on the Moon, Parada, Light Duty, Snowbound, Planet of the Damned, Nothing Gold, Second Chances, Shell Game.

SUMMARY:  An accident lands Jonathan in the clutches of the NID.

AUTHOR'S NOTES:  Thanks to Mamabeast for the beta.

DISCLAIMER: All Stargate SG-1 characters are the property of Stargate SG-1 Productions (II) Inc., MGM Worldwide Television Productions Inc., Double Secret Productions, Gekko Film Corp and Showtime Networks Inc. No infringement of those rights is intended. This story is for entertainment purposes only and no money exchanged hands. No copyright infringement is intended.  Anybody that you don't recognize is probably mine, so if you borrow them please send me an email to let me know where they are and have them home by midnight.  :)

FEEDBACK:  Much appreciated.

Jack O'Neill cursed under his breath as he wrestled with the flimsy-looking metal wall of the wading pool.  This had looked like a whole lot better idea back at Wal-Mart, with the big plastic alligator thing floating around in the already assembled floor model.  Actually assembling the damned thing was like trying to arm-wrestle an octopus.

He finally managed to get the ends of the pool wall stuck together.

A shriek of childish glee and insane puppy yipping should have warned him to check the sitch--it just went to show, you let your guard down for just one minute....

Something going full speed ahead collided with the back of Jack's knee.  The pool wall flew apart and flattened out in the grass, taking a piece of his thumb along with it, as he sprawled in the sand that was supposed to cushion the pool liner, with one small kid and one even smaller hyperactive cocker spaniel pup crawling all over him.

"Oh, for cryin' out loud--CARTER!"

Sam snapped a couple of pictures before she jumped the deck railing and helped him corral Jamie and Brownie.

"See what you can do with this thing while I find a Band-Aid."

"Yes, sir."  She shook her head and set about assembling the pool. By the time he got back with a bandaged thumb and a couple of cold beers, Sam had the pool assembled and filling with water.  She put the final touches on the filter pump and stood up to accept the bottle he offered.

Jack watched his son rolling around with the dog, playing tug-of-war over an old sock and getting grass stains on his cut-offs.  They could have been any suburban family hanging out in the back yard on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

That thought gave him an almost physical ache.  They weren't a family, not yet, not as long as Uncle Sam stood between them.  Carter would be getting on her motorcycle and leaving sometime this evening, and that was the way it had to be for a while yet.

Still he could enjoy the time they did have, a preview of things soon to come.  It wouldn't be long now.  As soon as Carter's promotion came through, as soon as he could be sure he was leaving SG-1 in her hands, he was going to step down.  He and George Hammond already had it planned.

He wasn't leaving the SGC, he'd still be heavily involved with mission planning and training the new kids.  Once he rehabbed from the knee replacements that Janet had been telling him he needed for months now, he knew he'd still be needed to head up the occasional off-world mission.

Hammond hadn't said a thing, but he had worded everything very carefully so that O'Neill and Carter would both be team leaders, not in the same chain of command.  It was past time for the two of them to stop putting their lives on hold.  Now that Jamie was here, he was even more convinced that he was doing the right thing.

He thought about Sirikat, and hoped she was somewhere safe.  SG-2 had brought back a letter a week ago.  She'd said that she was busy all the time but doing well.  That she missed him.  That she was being careful, and hoped he was doing the same.  She shared a few funny anecdotes that could have taken place anywhere from Camp Swampy on up.

O'Neill had written plenty of those letters in his time, and easily read between the lines to the mud, the bugs, the lack of privacy, the lousy food, and everything else that went along with camp life.  He'd seen enough encampments off-world to know that some things were just universal.

He looked up as he heard bicycles on the gravel driveway.  Jonathan and his crew were right on time--suppertime, that was!  Carter was thinking along the same lines.  "I'll go make up some more burgers and get them started."

Looking at him now, only a few scars gave away the harrowing episode Jonathan had gone through at the hands of a teacher who had turned out to be a serial killer.  Jonathan had dealt with it professionally and permanently in the course of his escape.

The firestorm of controversy over how such a person had ever been hired as a teacher in the first place had, thankfully, drawn the attention of the press downtown, away from Jonathan and his friends.

It was getting easier all the time to think of Jonathan as his younger brother rather than as a copy of himself.  They shared memories, and the same forces had shaped both of them, but their lives were going in different directions.  They no longer necessarily had the same opinions about everything.  That gave them something to talk about.

Jack knew that the last thing he would want to talk about...Jonathan would want to talk about...was Forrester and the whole nine yards, so he didn't ask.  Still, he was glad to see Jonathan putting it behind him.

Another car in the drive turned out to be General Hammond with his granddaughters Tessa and Kayla.  He had brought chips, beer and soda pop.  They sat on the front porch idly talking shop and watching the kids kick a soccer ball around the driveway.

A yard full of kids could wolf down an astronomical number of cheeseburgers and still have plenty of room for pie and ice cream.

Nobody knew exactly how Hammond had become Jamie's "Gampa," but he always ended up in Hammond's lap somehow.  The general didn't seem to mind at all.

Lydia was letting Kayla pedal her bike up and down the driveway.

Tessa kicked the soccer ball to Nancy, who just missed it.  The ball sailed out into the street and Tessa went after it.

Everything happened at once.  An awful squeal of brakes.  Alvin screaming, "Tessa, no!"  Jonathan lunging into the street, throwing Tessa back onto the sidewalk to safety.  The horrible sound of steel impacting flesh.  Jonathan flying through the air and hitting his head on a cement block.  The driver bringing the car to a halt crosswise in the street and jumping out of the car to stand there screaming in horror.  Hammond throwing Nancy his cell and ordering her to call 911 as he and Jack cleared the porch more like a couple of agile young airmen than the senior citizens that they claimed to be.

Jack saw that the general had things well in hand with Tessa, and ran to Jonathan.

Tessa had skinned knees and elbows from landing on the sidewalk. Hammond said, "She's fine!  Jack, is he--?"

"He's breathing."

Nancy gave the 911 operator the street address.

Lydia took a long look at Jonathan, and thought that the little kids shouldn't be seeing this.  She took all three of them inside and patched up Tessa's scrapes and bruises.

There was a hell of a lot of blood, from Jonathan's head injury and a long gash along his ribs, apparently where the car had hit him. Any head injury bled a lot.  Carter appeared out of nowhere with towels to use as compresses to get the bleeding under control.

Then the paramedics and the cops got there.  Hammond said, "I'll take Jamie and the girls to Mrs. Murphy's, then I'll meet you at the hospital."

Sam said to Jack, "Go ahead and ride with him, sir.  I'll call Janet to meet us there and lock up before I follow you to the hospital."

Jack and Hammond stood around the waiting room.  Because he was likely to be easy to find at the mountain instead of off-world in an emergency, Hammond was listed as Jonathan's next of kin.  Sam, Granny Garrett, and the three teenagers sat on the waiting room's uncomfortable chairs.

Daniel and Teal'c got in.  They had been in Denver and Daniel had only just found out about the accident when he checked his voice mail.

Janet came out, still in green scrubs.  "He's going to be fine.  A mild concussion, lots of bruising both externally and internally, lots of stitches, but no broken bones and no serious internal injuries.  He's going to be pretty uncomfortable for several days, but all in all his guardian angel must have been looking out for him."

Hammond said, "Thank God!  When I saw him thrown clear out of the street and across the sidewalk, I thought sure he'd broken every bone in his body."

Lydia started to cry from sheer relief and Nancy held her.

"He woke up in the ER asking about Tessa.  She is all right, isn't she, sir?"  Fraiser asked.

"She's fine.  She was skinned up where she landed on the sidewalk, and scared half to death.  I'm sure Jonathan saved her life."

"One of you can sit with him in the ER until they move him up into a room.  Then you'll all be able to look in on him for a few minutes."

Hammond said, "I won't stay long, Jack, but I'd like to thank him."

Jack replied, "Of course, sir.  I could use a cup of coffee.  Would you like some?"

"Yes, thanks."

Hammond found Jonathan lying in the bed at the end of the row.  "How are they treating you, son?"

"Pretty well, sir."

"Jonathan, I don't know how to thank you."

"Just tell me Tessa's all right.  Doc thought she was, but she couldn't be sure."

Hammond said, "She's just fine, son, she got out of it with skinned knees and elbows."

"Then I guess we were both pretty lucky.  If I hadn't landed on my head, I might've hurt myself."

Hammond laughed.  "Dr. Fraiser says they're going to be moving you up to a room pretty soon."

"Yes, sir, the ER doc said they'll let me out of here day after tomorrow."

"You have a lot of people out there waiting to look in, so I'll make it short.  I'll stop by after work."

"You don't need to do that, sir."

"I know I don't," Hammond smiled.

Nancy was in for a while after the general left, then they moved him up to his room.  A nurse came in with a pain shot, and as soon as that kicked in, they all left so he could sleep.

Hospitals never really get quiet.  There are nurses always walking around, and a few patients always have family there 24/7.  They tiptoe around and talk in whispers, which draws more attention than the staff just going about their business.  You have to wonder who just died, or is about to.

Jonathan tried to wake up when a couple of nurses came in the room about 0200.  But one of them emptied a syringe into his IV bag.  When they transferred him onto a gurney, some part of his mind insisted this was all wrong.  He was having such a good trip, though, that he really didn't care where they were taking him.

Granny came by the hospital early the next morning with Jonathan's Game Boy and a book he'd been reading.  As a nurse herself, she had no trouble staying out of the way as she popped into his room for a moment to say hello and drop things off.

He was bandaged much more extensively than he had been when they had left him.  Granny knew all the complications that could follow a head injury and each was more terrifying than the one before.  "Jonathan?"

He was sleeping soundly.  She picked up his chart.  Everything looked normal.  There was nothing to indicate what had happened. Then she did a double take and lassoed the nearest RN.  "Where's the boy who's supposed to be in this room?"

"The boy with the concussion?  He's right there, ma'am, in bed one."

Granny turned the boy's ID band up.  "This young man is named David Lewis.  I want to know where you've moved Jonathan O'Neill."

The nurse checked at the nurses' station, then asked the other nurses.  Then she called hospital security to report a missing child.

Granny called General Hammond.

By the time Hammond and O'Neill arrived at County General, the hospital was locked down, and hospital security and CSPD were conducting a room by room search.

When Hammond identified himself to the hospital administrator, they were ushered directly to his office.

"If this boy is a security risk, we should have been informed!  Is he the type of kid who'd switch beds with this other boy and slip out as a prank?"

"Not likely,"  Jack said.  "He wasn't going anywhere with the headache he had, not without a good reason.  In any case, he's an emancipated minor.  If he wanted to leave, all he had to do was check out and call a cab."

"Who might have taken him?  You said he's an emancipated minor.  Was he caught in the middle of a nasty custody dispute or anything like that?"  O'Neill wondered if the administrator was just thinking it through, or trying to shift the blame somewhere else.

Hammond immediately took charge. "No.  We'll need to question everyone who was on the floor last night, right away."

"I'll arrange it," the administrator replied.

Jonathan felt like someone was playing bongo drums inside his head. He opened his eyes.

It was dark and there were pipes over his head.  This wasn't County General, not unless he'd been moved into the boiler room!

He was in restraints, but they were designed for a grown man.  He wouldn't have any trouble getting out.

Hearing someone in the hall, he put off his escape plans for the moment.  NID?  Were they even still a factor after the Committee had been taken into custody?

The guy who came in with a tray had to be the ugliest damn nurse Jonathan had ever seen in his life.

"Hey!  I want to complain about this room.  The view sucks.  And where's my breakfast, anyhow?"

"Shut up if ya know what's good for ya."

That was probably good advice, but Jonathan wasn't much for taking advice.  "What do you people want, anyhow?  If it's ransom you're shit outta luck.  I'm just a poor orphan."

"Well, first, we need a blood donation."

"Hey, you get anywhere near me with that needle, and sooner or later I'm gonna kick your ass!"

"Yeah, right."  He wrapped an elastic band around Jonathan's arm and swabbed it, then jabbed a needle into a vein.  He cursed, digging around trying to get a steady flow of blood to fill the tube. Without warning Jonathan flashed back on one of Jack's memories of Iraq.  It didn't last long, but by the time he shook it off, the orderly or whatever he was had finished drawing blood.

Jonathan considered coming out of the restraints right then and following up on his promise to kick the man's ass, but that would be stupid.  One yell for help, and they'd make sure he was tied up securely the next time.  He contented himself with an imaginative mental description of the orderly's family tree and waited for him to leave.

He examined the room more carefully.  It was lit by a single bare bulb dangling from the ceiling.  The walls were cinder block, covered in spots with fading, peeling gray paint.  There was a workbench along one wall, complete with a sink and a Bunsen burner, and cabinets above and below.  From the lack of windows, the chill, damp air, and the musty smell, he guessed he was below ground level.

It was the kind of place where you could scream until your voice gave out, and nobody was likely to hear.  Bad description.  A little too close to Alien or something.  And if this was an NID lab, God only knew what might escape from a test Steveston, they'd been cloning Goa'ulds...Christ, what if they still were? What if they wanted him for a host?

Knock it off, O'Neill, this ain't gettin' you outta here!

Jonathan had no idea what time it was or how long he'd been here. Certainly he had been missed by now.  He doubted that anyone knew where he had been taken.  Anyhow, he wasn't going to bet the rent on it.

One thing the room didn't seem to have was any kind of video surveillance.  The hall outside might be a different story but one thing at a time.

He had a hospital gown and nothing else.  Time to see what was in those cabinets.  He sure didn't want to go off exploring the place bare ass naked.

God, he was so gonna beat the crap out of these people!

He dislocated his thumb to get his left hand loose.  He unbuckled his right wrist and quickly freed his ankles, then took a deep breath and popped his thumb back in place before he had a chance to think about it too much.

The room swam when he stood up.  Between the head injury, the pain throbbing in his hand, and whatever they'd given him, he wasn't exactly firing on all cylinders here.  Delivering that ass-kicking sounded better and better all the time.

A search of the cabinets netted him a set of green scrubs and a lab coat.  He cut off the pants legs and coat sleeves.  The pants had a drawstring, so they'd be baggy but at least they wouldn't fall off. He stuffed the pockets with lots of gauze and tape in case he had to change his own dressings, the scissors, a few scalpels and some hemostats.  Some long thin instruments--he didn't know what they were and he wasn't about to hang around here long enough to find out--looked like they might work as lock picks.

The door opened into a dark, narrow hallway.  He turned right and looked for a stairway out of there.

He heard footsteps coming down a cross corridor and ducked into a doorway.  The door was unlocked.  He had no more eased it closed, when the footsteps passed by.  He hoped his escape would go undiscovered for at least a while yet.

It was pitch dark.  Someone moaned, and the sound stood his hair on end.  It didn't even sound human, and whoever had made it was no more than three feet away.  He felt around on the wall for a light switch, and when he found it, he really wished he hadn't.

O'Neill said, "Hey, right there, stop the tape."

A couple of men in suits were wheeling a gurney covered with a dark green velvet drape into the parking garage.

"Can we get a better look at those guys' faces?"

The hospital security chief, a big bearded guy named MacLean, leaned over the console.  "OK, I been here twenty years and this's the first time I ever saw them two mortuary guys.  Kelly, didn't nobody die last night, did they?"

"No, sir."

"Turn that back on there.  Let's see what they're drivin'."

Kelly started the tape again.  The two men to an unmarked hearse. As they watched, the "corpse's" arm flopped down and pulled the drape off.  It was definitely Jonathan.

The kidnappers loaded the gurney into the hearse and drove off.  

O'Neill asked, "Can I get a copy of this tape before you give it to the police?"

Kelly ejected a CD.  "Step ahead of you, pal.  Let your computer graphics people play around with those images and they'll tell you what those two had for breakfast."

MacLean said, "They grabbed that kid right out from under my nose. Anything I can do--"

O'Neill nodded.  It hadn't been MacLean's fault that the hospital administration hadn't been willing to spring for the increased security that could have prevented this, but he might well be the scapegoat for it.  

The thing was, these were people who could get past any security on a place that was open to the public.  Most people weren't willing to live their daily lives under the kind of restrictions that were necessary for that level of security.  Jonathan certainly wasn't.

Seeing nothing more that he could do here, O'Neill took the CD back to base and turned it over to Carter and the photo analysis team who usually interpreted MALP and UAV data.

Hammond didn't look like he'd slept at all, but this was a real lead.  "They couldn't have known about the accident ahead of time, Jack.  They must have been watching Jonathan all along and just taken advantage of the opportunity."

"That means there can't have been a lot of advance planning.  Let's see what comes up when we trace the hearse."

"We have another damn security leak," Hammond said.  "Aside from General Vidrine and the President, no one outside this base was supposed to know anything about Jonathan's true background.  Somehow I don't think the Asgard ratted us out!"

"No, sir.  But it's possible that the leak could have come from within General Vidrine's office or the White House."

Hammond nodded.  "I wonder if we're dealing with the NID or someone new."

"I almost hope it is the NID, General.  They've been hit pretty hard, what with Steveston, the time they made that grab for me, and then the Committee.  Their resources have to be seriously compromised."

"Agreed, but right now hope is all we can do.  I'll be in my office. Notify me when you find out where they got that hearse."

"Yes, sir."

For a minute, Jonathan couldn't quite believe what he was seeing. There were four metal-framed beds in the room, each containing a little girl around Kayla and Tessa's age, eight or nine.  They were identical.  He was almost certain that they were clones.  Their heads had been shaved, and they had grown back about a quarter of an inch of brown hair.  Big dark eyes in pale faces looked back at him.  It could've been a picture out of fuckin' Auschwitz, right here in the USA.

Jonathan had been royally pissed at his own predicament, but he wasn't averse to a game of cat and mouse--especially when the other guy had it all wrong about who was the cat and who was the mouse.

He forgot all about that and went straight to an ice cold fury that he ruthlessly squelched.  He had a job to do--getting these kids out of here safely.  One of them was terribly ill, he knew that before he put his hand on her forehead.

They were scared to death of him.  No wonder, anybody in a lab coat was probably the devil incarnate as far as they were concerned.

They'd been color coded with a spot tattooed on their wrists, red, yellow, blue, and green.  God, could they go any further out of their way to emphasize the death camp parallels?

He quickly unfastened the kids' restraints.  There was no way in hell he was leaving them here, but he couldn't find a way out of here carrying the sick one.

Covert ops training told him that the thing to do was neutralize the opposition so that they could no longer pose a threat to the girls. Common sense told him he needed these Mengele-wannabees, some of them anyhow, alive to get out of them what they done to make the little girl so sick.  After that, please God let them try something.

Either way, it was time to go on the offensive and shut the place down.  He was going hunting.

"OK, listen up, kids.  I'm gonna get us out of here, but if all of us start running the halls, they're gonna catch us.  Do you guys have names?"

Red said, "I'm A.  She's B, that's C, and she's D," she said, indicating Yellow, Blue, and Green respectively.  B was the sick one.

Jonathan went ballistic and reined in another surge of murderous fury with an act of will.  Saving the kids took precedence over doing something slow and painful to the sons of bitches who had victimized them.  "My name's Jonathan, and I promise you, they'll hurt you again over my dead body.  But I have to find us a way out of here.  Do you know a good place to hide?"

C said, "There are lots of places.  They don't use all the rooms."

Of course, they had to let the girls up to exercise and use the facilities frequently, or they wouldn't be able to walk and they'd be covered with pressure sores.

Like he'd been when the Marines had pulled him out of that box in the Iraqi prison yard--

No, damn it, he didn't have time for this right now!

"Do you know where there are stairs going up, or an elevator?"

They just looked confused.

"How did you get in here?"

The girls just looked at him.

"You know.  Outside.  Grass, trees, mountains, sky.  Cars going by. That kinda stuff."

They looked at each other and seemed to have some kind of silent conversation, then they looked back at him.  "We don't know what that means," A told him.

Jonathan said, "Man, are you gonna have some fun.  It's OK.  I'll find it on my own.  First let's find a place to hide you guys."

They had only thin little white nightgowns, not enough to keep B warm.  He wrapped her in the sheets off all the beds.  Lifting her hurt like hell, pulling individually at every one of the stitches down his side.  He was going to be useless in a fight.  He had to avoid the bastards until he got his hands on a real weapon, and let somebody know what was going on down here.  Then somebody was going to have hell to pay.  He checked that the coast was clear.

The girls led him into an unused area.  Jack picked a lock and found a ward of fifties-looking metal beds covered with sheets.  He wondered where in the hell they were.  Some bad stuff had gone down during the cold war, and Jonathan thought that a lot of it might have happened right here.

He lifted one of the drapes and looked underneath to make sure nothing was living under there.  "Hide under the bed here and snuggle up to keep B nice and warm, and don't make a sound, no matter what you hear outside.  I'm going to lock the door when I leave so they won't know you're in here.  I'll come back and get you when it's safe for you to come out."

Four little faces looked back up at him.  He'd be seeing them for the rest of his life.

He turned the light off and shut the door behind him.

Carter put the phone down.  "The hearse traced back to a rental place in Denver.  It was supposedly rented by a film crew shooting an insurance commercial.  The clerk's description matches the men on the security tape.  I'm running the credit card they used now."

Daniel said, "Jack, we have photos of the kidnappers, and the vehicle they were last seen driving.  Should we contact the civilian authorities about an Amber alert?"

"Do it."

Jonathan's escape had been noted.  Rather than have the girls discovered in the search for him, he deliberately left a couple of doors open.  It didn't take long for the search to narrow right where he wanted it.

He counted six guys and none of them seemed to be the one giving the orders.  It got real interesting for a while, dodging his pursuers and looking for a way out of here.  He hid in a laundry chute once, and gave fervent thanks that he hadn't yet reached Jack's size or he never could have fit.  While two of the boys in white let out their frustration by calling his mother a lot of things that would have lit up her Viking temper, he braced against the sides of the chute.

"Are you sure he hasn't already got outside?"

"Naw, the door was still bolted shut from the inside and Akers is guarding it now.  He couldn't even have got out of this section, much less off this floor.  We just have to clear it room by room, and most of them are still locked from the outside.  Where's he gonna go?"

Jonathan was wondering that himself.  This chute went somewhere. Noting that, if it was a dead end, he'd have to chimney-climb back to the top, he inched himself down.

A long, uncomfortable trip down the chute came out somewhere pitch dark.  There were puddles of ice cold water on the cracked concrete floor--leaky pipes.  An encounter with a huge old washer confirmed his educated guess that he was in a long unused laundry room.

Eventually he came to the door and got out into an equally dark hallway.  He tried not to think about stepping on a hungry sewer rat in his bare feet.  But there were definitely rats down here, he could hear them.

The next few doors were locked, but then he came to a stairwell and started up, moving as silently as he could.  It went up three more floors and all the doors except for the unused bottom floor were bolted from the other side.  But he heard noise through the door at the top of the stairs.  It sounded like a hospital.  An everyday hospital whose patients had no idea what was happening two floors down.

Had he ever left County General?  He was sure he remembered an ambulance...or...something.  Maybe that was when he first got hit. Between the lump on his head, and all the drugs, what he did remember was disjointed and unfocused.

He had been refusing to acknowledge his headache.  But now that he was thinking about it, the pain made his eyes water.  He sat on the steps to rest a little while and closed his eyes.

He almost pounded on the door and yelled for help.  But what if the staff was in on it?  He couldn't trust anyone he didn't know.

Then he noticed something else.  A ladder bolted to the wall led to a trap door.  Maybe there was another way down from the roof.  He couldn't take the little girls out this way but maybe he could get help.

He started the long climb, hanging on for dear life.  What in God's name would happen to those kids if he fell and broke his neck?

He slid the bolt and pushed.  The trap door didn't want to move and he was afraid at first that it had been nailed down or something. But then it gave a little.  It just hadn't been opened in a long time.  He fought with it for several long minutes, while he clung to the ladder and his bruises screamed in protest.  With one final push he got it open and crawled out on the tar roof.

For a while he lay there.  His instinct to gasp for breath was at war with the unbelievable pain in his side.  He just looked up at the brilliant blue sky and rested while he got himself under control.

"Thank you, Officer!  That's the best news I've had all day!" Carter put the phone down.  "Colonel, somebody saw the Amber alert and spotted the hearse.  They ditched it on an abandoned farm about forty miles south of Denver, but the witness happened to be hunting there.  They left in a black SUV."

Jack looked at the Colorado road map that Carter had put up on a corkboard and watched her flag the farm's location with a push pin.  

"That's out in the middle of nowhere," she observed.  "I wonder if they just ditched the hearse there randomly or if they're familiar enough with the area to know the farm was abandoned."

Jack stared at the map.  "What time did the hunter see them abandon it?"

"About 1430h."

Jack nodded.  "The Amber alert went out a little after 1300h. Considering the time it took them to decide to get rid of it, I doubt they were on the road more than an hour.  The roads are a mess out in there.  That gives us about a forty mile radius."

Sam said, "There's still too damn many hiding places."

"A lot less than there were a minute ago.  Get me some tac maps of that whole area."

Half an hour later, a motorcade of unmarked SUVs carried SG-1, SG-2 and SG-3 north.  Hammond had been on the phone with somebody and O'Neill wasn't privy to what exactly had been said.  But the General's orders to his three crack teams had been short and to the point--bail Jonathan out and come down on whoever had taken him like the wrath of God.

It was sheer good fortune that all three teams were between missions today.  Jack chose to take that as a good omen.

Jonathan peered over the edge of the roof.  He didn't know where he was, but it was a two story brick building, definitely a hospital of some kind, and there were people in and out in a light but steady stream of traffic.

He found an access ladder down the side of the building and scrambled down, making for a loading dock.  Some people came outside for a smoke.  They probably would have helped, but Jonathan decided not to risk contact with anyone until after he had the chance to let Hammond know what was happening here.  He hid under a parked car until they went back inside, then followed.

He was in a service area near the kitchen.  Some people saw him at a distance, but they were too busy to notice that he wasn't just a nurse.  Walking normally, he entered the first unused cubbyhole he came to.  It turned out to be the head of housekeeping's little office.  She was out and she had left her cell phone lying around. He dialed.


"God, am I glad to hear your voice, sir!"

"Jonathan!  Help's on the way, son.  Are you all right?  Where the hell are you?"

"Some kind of a hospital, sir.  But I'm not the main objective of a rescue."  He explained about the basement and the kids.  "I've got them looking for me and I'm going to keep them that way.  Tell Jack to get the little girls out before he worries about me.  I'll keep, but that one kid's really sick."

"Jonathan, we will get all of you out.  Are there any other prisoners?"

"I haven't seen any, but it's a big place down there, sir."

"Keep your head down, son."

Jonathan replaced the phone and dived under the desk as the doorknob turned.  The housekeeper opened and closed filing drawers, scribbled on a clipboard, scooped up her phone, and got her purse out of a desk drawer, but Jonathan escaped discovery when she didn't sit down.

That had been close.

Hammond asked, "Did you get a location?"

Siler reported, "He was calling from a cell phone, sir, we can't narrow it down to an exact location."

"Then can you get me a list of the hospitals in the approximate location?"

"Yes, sir, right away!"  Siler started typing, and presently replied, "There are three, sir."

"Damn shell game.  Which ones?"

"Pike Memorial, St. Elizabeth, and Mountainview Veteran's."

Hammond knew exactly which shell he was picking first.  It would have been much easier to build a facility like Jonathan had described under a veteran's hospital than a civilian one.

Jonathan had to get back downstairs before somebody found those kids.  He spotted a tool box under the desk and helped himself to a heavy wrench and a flashlight.

There was another fire stairs a few doors down.  There were boxes stored there on the way to the basement, a serious breach of regulations but an indication that the staff of the VA hospital didn't know the basement was in use.  He carefully picked his way around the boxes.  The basement door was chained shut from this side, and there was more junk on the stairs to the sub-basement where the old laundry was.

Jonathan got out his improvised lock picks and made quick work of the padlock.

He opened the door very slowly and looked through a tiny crack. There didn't seem to be anything in the area, so he opened the door the rest of the way and got out onto the right level anyway.

A few yards down the corridor he came to a metal security gate. Unlocking that took a little more doing.  He had to work his wrists through the bars and pick the lock by feel.  He locked it behind him.

Jonathan had completely lost his sense of direction.  With that whack on the head, it was no wonder--but he didn't know where he was in relation to the little girls' hiding place.  He wanted to draw attention away from them, but he was afraid he'd lead these goons straight to them.

He rounded a corner and came face to face with the orderly who'd drawn his blood earlier.  Jonathan recovered first and swung the wrench with all his strength behind it.  The orderly dropped like a rock.

Jonathan opened the nearest room and dragged the orderly inside, then switched on the lights.

The room was full of dog cages.  They were obviously experimental animals, and what Jonathan saw sickened him.  He searched his prisoner and found a gun in a shoulder holster.  He grabbed that, and bound and gagged the man with his own socks and some dog leashes.

The pistol was a Colt M1911 with a full magazine and one in the chamber.  Eight rounds total, not much in a firefight.  If beggars could be choosers he would have preferred the 9mm Beretta that he was used to, but the US military had used this weapon for years and he...Jack...was very familiar with it.  The important thing was that now he was on a much more even playing field with these guys.

He could see that most of the dogs were going to have to be put down for humane reasons, as well as being vicious animals.  He got snapped at several times as he put them out in the hall.  At least they could run around loose for a while, and if they got hold of a few of these guys, that would be some kind of justice.

The last one, a Heinz 57 that was at least part German Shepherd from the shape of her muzzle and the intelligence in her eyes, followed him at heel and growled off one of the other dogs that was waiting for Jonathan to come out.  "What's goin' on, girl, ya think you're Lassie or somethin'?"

She whined and licked his hand.

"OK, Lassie it is.  This must be my day for collecting strays."

The next door he came to was the girls' prison cell.  Now he knew where he was.

He went back to the girls' hideout and locked himself in with them. B was out and that scared him badly, but she seemed to be resting comfortably, curled up in a ball between two of her sisters sucking her thumb.

The girls flipped over Lassie.

"Shh!  For cryin' out loud, do you want them to find us?"  

"What is it?  It's cute!"

"It's a dog," he whispered.  "You've never seen a dog before?"

Three little heads shook in unison.

Jonathan hunkered down to wait for the cavalry to come over the hill.  To pass the time, he started making a list of things to do to those apes as soon as he got the chance.  It was a long list.

The lock rattled and the door opened.  Jonathan drew his gun and waited.  The girls huddled together and scrunched back as far as they could against the wall.

The guy, another orderly, stuck his head under the bed and Jonathan pressed the Colt against his forehead right between the eyes.  "One yelp out of you and I won't have to worry about anyone hearing a shot."

It didn't take the goon any time at all to figure out his only chance of getting out of this alive was to do exactly as he was told. Jonathan relieved the guy of an old .38 revolver, and trussed him securely.

They must have cleared the area that they'd locked off.  Now they were expanding the search to the rest of the basement.

Ten more minutes passed before somebody else checked in there.  It was two men, and one of them had a shotgun.  Jonathan stood, the other side of a Mexican standoff.

Somewhere a battering ram took down a door and a few shots sounded.

"Those will be my friends.  Put your weapons down and walk out of here."

"We're as good as dead anyhow."

Jonathan knew none of them would miss at that range.

He hadn't counted on Lassie.  She hurled herself at Shotgun, biting his arm and bearing him over backwards.  The shotgun blasted down a rain of paint and plaster from the ceiling.  Jonathan heard the girls' terrified screams as he dropped and fired at the other one.  A bullet went right over Jonathan's head, but it was the last one that guy would ever fire.

His partner got Lassie off him with a vicious kick, but before he finished bringing the shotgun to bear on Jonathan, someone in the hallway shot him dead.

Jonathan put his arm around Lassie, leaning on her as much as making sure she was unharmed.  Four little girls tumbled out from under the bed to hide behind him and the dog.

They were scared of Jack.  Lassie picked up on their fear and growled, her hackles rising under Jonathan's hand.  He got hold of her and said, "Take it easy, girls.  He's my brother."

Jack put his gun away and held up his open hands.  "I won't hurt you.  Someone wanna tell me what's goin' on down here?"

Jonathan buried his face in Lassie's fur to hide the pain and exhaustion that took over for a minute.  He waved a hand in the general direction of his prisoner.  "Get that piece of--garbage--to explain it to you.  We need a medic, Jack, I don't know what they did to her but B is really sick."

Jack picked her up and put her on one of the beds.  "You got a pretty high fever there, kiddo."  He spoke into his radio, and soon the room filled with people.

Teal'c took in the scene and told Jonathan, "Well done.  Well done indeed."

The next couple of hours were a blur.  SG-3 stayed to secure everything.  Jonathan and the girls were taken back to the relative safety of the mountain.

Jack had taken possession of the guns.  Jonathan didn't ever need to get stuck answering questions about a couple of hot guns that might be associated with God only knew how many unsolved murders.  While Jonathan was getting dressed in the infirmary, he traded them for a Beretta, and explained, "It's gonna disappear down the same deep hole off-world someplace as these two.  Brother, huh?"

"Your call."

"Sounds good to me."  Jack quirked a grin.  "Just don't start running out of money before you run out of month, and hit me up for loans."

Fraiser said, "Get back in that bed, Jonathan."

Quietly, he replied, "Give it a rest, Janet, this is not the time. I'm going to check on the girls, then when they're settled I'll come back and you can play with your needles if that's really what you wanna do."

Janet started to say something back, but then she realized she had no standing to order Jonathan around and that this was a real bad day to try.  "All right, they're in ISO 2.  You can bunk down in there with them if you think you can help calm them down."

Granny stifled a laugh.  Janet glared at her, which only brought the laugh to the surface.  "I think you finally met your match, Doc."

Fraiser shook her head, a slow grin spreading across her face in spite of herself.  "You're probably right. God help us all when he turns eighteen and gets his commission back."

A few days later, Hammond stood at the observation window with his hands clasped thoughtfully behind his back.  B--now known as Bonnie--was recovering very well from what had turned out to be pneumonia. Alison and Carolyn were watching cartoons with Lassie lying at their feet, while Jonathan was introducing Debra to crayons and coloring books.  He looked up as Jack entered.

"They look a lot better.  What's going to happen to them now?" O'Neill asked.

"Major Griff and his wife are going to adopt them.  Teri Griff is a special needs teacher, and it will give us an excuse to put whatever security is necessary on them.  They're happy as clams under the mountain, but you just take them topside for two minutes--!"

"Carolyn stuck to me like glue all the way back to Colorado Springs and screamed her head off every time I uncovered her eyes.  I finally put a jacket over her head.  What's going to happen to those guys we rounded up?"

"I've been assured no one's going to shoot them, but they'll literally never see the light of day again, either.  That sounded like an eye for an eye to me."

O'Neill nodded.  "Yes, sir, for that.  Not for everything that bastard of a so-called doctor, Gardner, who was running the place did to them."

"I don't know if there ever will be any real justice where he's concerned.  But he won't do it again while I'm alive--and he's older than I am."

"Understood, sir."

"What about Jonathan, is he really OK?"

"Yes, sir, I believe so.  If escape had been his only objective, he could have gotten out of there easily."

"There's going to be a new SOP for dependents' medical care.  Small kids come straight here. Everyone else goes to Academy, not County, and I'm putting Sgt. Kellemeyer in charge of their security while they're inpatients."

O'Neill replied, "Yes, sir.  I've been thinking we could ask Jonathan to help out with dependents' security.  He needs to do a certain amount of volunteer work for school, and I don't know that there's anyone else I'd trust with Jamie when SG-1 is off-world."

Hammond nodded.  "Fine with me."

Jonathan picked up Lassie from Granny and went up to his apartment.

The Air Force's best K-9 vet had given the dog a thorough exam and hadn't been able to find any evidence that she'd been experimented on.  She had obviously been trained as a guard dog and to sniff out explosives, and she responded to commands in German.  She had once been someone's very expensive dog.  Jonathan figured there was a story in how she had gotten from there to here, but the dog wasn't telling.

He called the gang to let them know he was home, explaining that he'd been under wraps in a different hospital to keep from being kidnapped again.  He put the Beretta in a lock box inside his nightstand and straightened up a little before they came over.

As he put down the phone from ordering pizza, he realized how much he'd missed them over the last few days.  It was good to be home.

O'Neill was surprised to find Teal'c and Daniel helping out at Gloria Murphy's when he stopped to pick up Jamie after work.  "I thought you guys had the day off."

"We do, Jack, and we decided to spend it here."

Teal'c said, "Indeed."

Gloria Murphy said, "All day-care is here now, not just overnight. I've got a whole roster of folks helping out, around the clock.  Lots of Marines and SFs, if you get my drift."

Jack nodded.  Jamie did his baby chimp imitation, arms around Jack's neck and legs around his waist.  It was lucky he was used to carrying around fifty pounds of gear, or the kid would have got heavy.  "I'd better get him home."

Jack was surprised to see Hammond's car in his driveway.  He hadn't said anything when they left the mountain.  He was sitting on the deck out back, staring up at the mountain with an absolutely emotionless look on his face.


Hammond grinned and held out his arms for the boy, but the smile had left his eyes when he looked up at Jack.

O'Neill said, "I take it we'll be wanting to discuss this over a drink, sir."

"Better make it a couple of doubles, son."

"Let me put a video on for Jamie."

When they had Jamie happily settled in front of the television, the two men sat at the kitchen table.

Hammond sampled his whiskey.  "Whoa, you broke out the good stuff."

"It sounded like that kind of news to me, George."

"Oh, it is.  It surely is that.  Vice President Hoynes is going to resign."

Jack's head shot up.  "He's gonna--what?  Why?"

"He got caught fishin' off the company pier, and his girlfriend was leaking information she got from him to the media."

"Stupid son of a--"  Jamie giggled at something on the video and O'Neill bit off the end of the epithet.  "And this affects me, personally, how, sir?"

Hammond said, "President Bartlet requests that you delay moving to a desk job.  He needs everyone he trusts to hang tough right now."

"Yes, sir."

"I'm sorry, Jack."

"Sir, there is nothing for you to apologize for.  We all knew any plans we might have had were contingent on a lotta things.  Have you informed anyone else?"

"No, I thought I'd leave it to you to your own way. I've done enough damage for one day."

"We will come through this.  Things may not work out as neatly or as soon as we might have hoped but they will work out," Jack said.

Hammond raised his glass.  "Back where I come from we say, what's meant to be will always find a way.  Here's to what's meant to be."

"I'll drink to that, General."

The nightly routine of getting Jamie's bath, getting him dressed for bed, reading a couple of picture books with him, and putting him to bed kept Jack too busy to think about Hammond's news.  Then the house got quiet, and all he could do was lie there and think about how he was going to tell Sam.  It was like riding the merry-go-round and grabbing for the brass ring, only people kept moving the ring just out of reach.  How long could he expect her to wait?

He had his happily ever after with Sirikat and now, miraculously, Jamie.  Sam went home to an empty house with nothing more than an open-ended promise.  How long would that be enough?  How long should that be enough?  The midnight silence had no answers.

The sun hadn't yet burned off the morning mist when Carter parked her car the next morning.  She was surprised when Jack caught up with her before she went inside.  Normally, he was only at the mountain before colors if they had an 0600 gate time.


"Walk with me, Carter, we need to talk."

They took one of the trails around the mountain, and ended up sitting on a picnic table where people came to smoke.  No one else was here this early, but the stale smell of cigarette smoke lingered.

"Sir, has something happened?"

"Something's about to.  A honkin' huge scandal is about to break in Washington.  The president has requested that I don't put in for reassignment just yet."

"But, sir, even putting aside our reasons for this, your right knee is almost bone on bone now.  This isn't elective any more."

"I'm gonna have to take Janet up on that referral to that arthritis doc.  Maybe he can do something to buy me some time.  The president's requests outweigh Fraiser's orders."

She nodded.  "I'll wait."

"Maybe you shouldn't.  Maybe we're intended to be friends in this life and nothing more.  I much in my life now, with the kids.  I don't want you to waste your life waiting alone for something that we might never be allowed to have."

Carter's sapphire eyes flashed lightning.  "Colonel John J. O'Neill, sir!  I have not wasted one second of my life waiting for you. I've had plenty of opportunities, but none of them ever amounted to more than friendship, because as much as I loved them as friends, not one of them ever measured up to you.  If I die today, I have no regrets about the life we've chosen.  None."

It took him a minute to answer around a lump in his throat the size of Cheyenne Mountain.  "I'm just sayin', if things don't turn out the way we expect, don't get it in your head that I'd be a jealous asshole like Jonas Hanson.  Just nobody better ever hurt you, or I'll kill him."

It was Sam's turn to blink away tears.  "I guess all we can do is keep driving and see where the road takes us.  But I'll tell you one thing, sir.  I'm not about to settle for some goddamn consolation prize."

O'Neill's self-pitying mood evaporated in spite of his inclination to sulk.  "Not sayin' you should, Carter."

"Have you told Teal'c and Daniel yet?"

"No.  I figured if we could get through this we could tell them this morning."

Carter said, "Yes, sir."

They walked back to the entrance, side by side, close but not touching.  They wondered how long that would be a metaphor for their lives.


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