Part II: All Go Down Together

By Flora

Sometimes, in combat, you have two seconds to make a call. Sometimes you make the wrong call. And then you have to live with that, for the rest of your life.

All Go Down Together

We met as soul mates
On Parris Island
We left as inmates
From an asylum
And we were sharp
As sharp as knives
And we were so gung ho
To lay down our lives
We came in spastic
Like tameless horses
We left in plastic
As numbered corpses
And we learned fast
To travel light
Our arms were heavy
But our bellies were tight
We had no home front
We had no soft soap
They sent us Playboy
They gave us Bob Hope
We dug in deep
And shot on sight
And prayed to Jesus Christ
With all of our might
We had no cameras
To shoot the landscape
We passed the hash pipe
And played our Doors tapes
And it was dark
So dark at night
And we held on to each other
Like brother to brother
We promised our mothers we’d write
And we would all go down together
We said we’d all go down together
Yes we would all go down together.

— Billy Joel, “Goodnight Saigon”



Dear Charlie,

If you’re reading this, I’m dead. So it feels kind of weird writing this. I have no idea when you’ll read it, if you’ll ever read it. Right now you’re barely a month old, and already I miss you so much it hurts. But the Air Force doesn’t allow a guy much time with his family.

There’s a part of me that still can’t believe you’re real. I have a son. I’m a father now. And I’m excited and a little scared. I don’t know if I have what it takes. It’s an awesome responsibility, being a parent, and even more so when you’re away in other countries as often as I am. I don’t know if I’ll get to hear you say your first words, or see you start to walk. I don’t know if I’ll see your school plays or your baseball games. No matter how desperately I want to. I don’t know how many of your special moments the Air Force will let me share with you and your mom.

I’m not the best at saying some things out loud, so I need to say them here. Make sure I cover all the bases, somehow, because there are things you need to understand.




I looked up from polishing my boots — a sad joke considering exactly how long they’d stay polished during a hard week of training — when Jack came into the hangar with an unusually serious look on his face. “I need a favor,” he asked.

“Whatcha need?”

He dropped his hat and a couple papers on the floor next to me, sitting on a crate and leaning back against the wall. He didn’t say anything for a minute, just watched me as I banged one boot against the floor, trying to knock some of the dirt off.

“You’re wasting your time.”

I laughed, picking up the greasy rag and smearing more black polish on it. “No shit, Jack.” Giving up on getting the dirt off, I swiped the rag against the side of the boot, in the hopes I could at least cover it up. “Something tells me you didn’t come here to offer me your expert advice on cleaning my uniform.”

He folded his arms, staring across the hangar at nothing. Silence followed — not something I was used to, after seven years hanging around Jack O’Neill. Backed by the sound somewhere outside of somebody’s radio turned way up, the music drowned out briefly as a plane roared off the runway. The hangar was still and stifling, like it always was in summer in Florida — no air conditioning for us. We were Special Forces, we were supposed to be used to roughing it. The air smelled like sweat and boot polish and airplane fuel.

Living quarters at MacDill Air Force Base for the 58th Special Tactics team could be described as the “bare necessities”. There were several Spec Ops teams here now, all stationed here for training exercises in the absence of anything more interesting for us to do overseas. We were sore, exhausted, and bored as hell, on our first day off after a week of maneuvers.

Normally under these conditions, Jack would’ve been coming up with all sorts of crazy ideas to play practical jokes on our superiors, and getting me in trouble along with him. There is nothing more dangerous than Jack O’Neill with too much time on his hands. I’d learned that, the hard way, too many times over the last seven years, since I’d first met him in Special Ops training.

All this week, he’d been serious, thoughtful, withdrawn. Hardly strange, considering he’d been called away to Florida three days later after his first kid was born. Who wouldn’t be depressed? It wasn’t like this was some kind of threat to national security we were dealing with — you’d think a guy could take some time off training exercises to be with his wife and his newborn son. But the Air Force didn’t see it that way.

He hadn’t said anything to me about it. He didn’t have to. I knew him well enough now to know what he was thinking, and he knew I knew. By this time words weren’t necessary.

He held out the papers. “Read it.”

I picked up the first page, blinked as I scanned the first lines. “What is this?” I shook my head. “This has to be… bad luck, or something.”

“Frank, this is important.”

Sitting up on the edge of the bed, he was giving me that intense look, the one I hadn’t seen since the waiting room at the hospital in Colorado Springs, the night Charlie was born. Okay, he’s serious about this. The whole thing still made me nervous. All soldiers are superstitious to a certain extent, and I didn’t like it. Not one bit. It seemed like he was asking for something to happen.

But he was my friend, the best friend I’d ever had. If he said it was important…

“If it’s that important, I shouldn’t be touching it with this shit all over my hands.” I dropped the paper, looking at my hands covered with black grease, and my fingerprints already smudging the page. Too late. Wiping my hands on the dirty rag, I looked at him. “You all right?”

He didn’t answer me directly, but when did Jack ever give anyone a straight answer to that particular question? You’d think I’d have learned. “It’s for him, in case… ” He trailed off, and we exchanged a long look. “I don’t know how much I’m gonna be able to see him,” he said seriously. “Even if nothing happens, I’m not gonna retire anytime soon, and I’m gonna miss a lot.”

“Yeah.” What else could I say?

“I don’t know if he’ll understand why.” Looking down at his hands, he sounded sad, almost lost. “Hell, sometimes I don’t think Sara really understands. But there’s stuff he needs to know.”

“And you’ll tell him,” I said stubbornly. “Jesus, Jack, will you quit talking like this? You’re scaring me.”

“I want you to give it to him, if anything happens to me.”

I still have that letter.

It’s tucked in a cigar box, at the bottom of the duffel that holds everything I had time to grab, when orders came through to Skopje in Macedonia three days ago, transferring my team back to the States.

It’s raining when I leave the building at Peterson, the report from General West and my new orders sealed in a locked briefcase. For right now, to take two weeks leave. After that, to report to the Air Force Academy to take charge of SERE training. Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape. What to do, and what not to do, if you’re captured in combat. What the enemy will do if they capture you. Nasty things — like solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, electric shocks. And, of course, all the painful shit somebody with a sadistic imagination can inflict using his hands and feet, the old-fashioned way.

All that lovely shit I still have nightmares about, eight years after I let my best friend get taken alive by those…

There aren’t any words strong enough, so I won’t try.

Oh, and by the way, we were also supposed to defend the planet in case aliens appeared under Cheyenne Mountain. I didn’t know whether to laugh, or politely suggest the good general see a shrink.

Being a trained Special Forces operative — not to mention what my team calls something of a hardass (on a good day, and when they think I can’t hear them) — with over twenty years of service in the military, I of course did neither. But it was close.

I got my first command with the end of the Gulf War, and most of the guys on the team have been with me ever since then. We’ve made ourselves quite a reputation by now, as the boys you do not want to mess with. As the team that will get the job done, come hell or high water. Failure is not an option, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. Hooyah, baby. We are Special Tactics 121, hear us roar.

My 21C, Captain Stuart, says we should have a team motto, “Fuck with us and die.” To which my usual response is that if the guys have enough time on their hands to think up silly things like team mottoes, they’ve got time for some extra PT.

Usually shuts ’em up pretty quick.

Morale in 121 is pretty spectacular, too. Considering their CO is what Jack O’Neill would’ve called a burned-out loose cannon with no sense of humor, a borderline suicidal streak, and delusions of being a drill sergeant — back when he still gave a shit. The guys just call me “the old man” with a mixture of admiration and terror, and a very carefully hidden affection that I don’t deserve.

It’s been almost eight years now, and with some of the shit we’ve seen, it’d be impossible not to feel pretty damn close to your teammates. We’ve become one of the most tightly knit teams in Special Ops, and there isn’t anyone closer to me anymore than these guys. I trust them as far as I trust anyone to watch my six in a firefight.

But off duty I’m always the one who stays apart, who never talks about anything not related to our missions. Making up rumors about what the colonel does on downtime has always been a favorite pastime for the team, but the truth is none of them really know anything about my personal life — and they all know me well enough by now not to ask.

Not that there’s any personal life to ask about. Used to be I spent all my downtime out with Jack, trying to keep him from getting us both in trouble (and failing). Or calling my wife. But Lisa’s gone now, long gone, tired of waiting for me to come home from someplace overseas she’d never know the name of, tired of not knowing what to do, or how to deal with the nightmares I couldn’t tell her about. And wouldn’t even if I could.

She tried. God knows. For more years than I deserved. But after what happened in ‘91 she couldn’t hold on anymore.

My best friend was dead. Killed, I believed, during a covert mission inside Iraqi territory. Hadn’t even been able to give him a decent burial, ’cause we’d had to light out at top speed. Our CO was two seconds dead, and all decisions came down to me. Suddenly. Savagely. And I gave the order to leave his body behind.

Or so I thought.

Until, back Stateside, trying hard to make Lisa happy and recover from wounds both mental and physical, I was called into General Ryan’s office and given a report. A list of POWs. With a name on that list that left me in a whirl of sick horror and disbelief. And I packed that night, hardly an explanation or even a goodbye, caught the next plane back to Saudi just as the war was ending. Desperate to do something — anything — to help him.

First, I love you more than you’ll ever know, and every single day I’m not home I miss you and your mom so much. I wish I could be there for you all the time, but I made a choice when I joined the military, and there are a lot of good guys on my team who are counting on me. As John (my former commanding officer) would say, it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. Which is a cliché, but… it fits. I don’t know how much you’ll ever be able to know about what I do, but every day I get up in the morning, and every mission I go on, I hope I do my job so that you’d be proud of your dad if you knew.

If Colonel Evers wasn’t happy with my boots, I decided, he could damn well buy me a new pair. I shoved the can of polish aside, folding Jack’s letter and stuffing it in my pocket.

“Come on.” I swatted his arm, and he looked up, startled, from contemplating the concrete floor. “Let’s get out of here.”

He didn’t say anything, just followed me out of the hangar toward the motor pool. Heat poured off the black parking lot in waves, as we got in one of the base’s nondescript black cars. It was almost 1600, and the sun beating down reminded me of the time we were stationed in Key West, seven years ago.

We spent four weeks there, out of a year of Special Ops training, for the Navy’s combat diver course. We were both twenty-four, still getting to know each other. I was still getting used to his wacky sense of humor (and his unfailing ability to get us both in trouble), and he was still getting used to the fact that I actually took all this shit seriously. It became something of a tradition for us, on our rare days off, to watch the sun rise on the beach. Eventually it turned into a contest, who could wake up the earliest and get down to the beach first, and the loser got to buy the drinks that night at the officers’ club.

Jack never wanted to hear that days off in the middle of Spec Ops training were for catching up on sleep, not getting up at 0500 to watch a sunrise. He always said there was only one reason he put up with training in Florida during the summer, and that was the beaches. I’m teaching you how to enjoy life, Cromwell, he’d say. Someday you’ll thank me.

The guard at the gate saluted as we passed, and I rolled the windows all the way down as we left the base. Billboards and palm trees lined the highway, stretching flat and black away west. We were hours away from the nearest beach, but we had the rest of the day off and I’d be damned if I was gonna spend it sitting in a hangar with no air conditioning. Particularly when my best friend so clearly needed a change of scenery.

Jack squinted at the dash, playing with the radio, eventually finding a station he liked and turning it up loud enough so we could hear it over the wind through the open windows. Then he pulled his hat down over his eyes, leaning back and letting one arm hang out the window. I didn’t say anything. He knew me well enough by now that I didn’t have to.

We’d been on the road only an hour when it started raining. It doesn’t rain often in Florida, but when it does… The first fat drops hit the windshield when we were about halfway there. Five minutes later I could hardly see the road ahead, and the sky had turned a sickly greenish-gray.

We rolled up the windows and turned up the air, slowing down as red taillights winked to life in front of us. I glanced at Jack. “Okay, so maybe this wasn’t such a great idea,” I said wryly, flipping on the turn signal to get off the highway and turn around. He just stared at the water lashing furiously against the windshield. When he looked at me, though, there was a gleam in his eyes I hadn’t seen since we got down here.

“Come on, Frank, didn’t you ever go to the beach in the rain when you were a kid?”

The guy’s been moping around for the past week, doesn’t even crack a smile when we finally get the hell off the base and head for the beach. It starts raining buckets and now he’s happy?

I will never understand this man.

“I grew up in Tennessee, Jack,” I reminded him, flicking off the turn signal. Hell with it. We’d come this far, why turn around? “I never went to the beach ’till you and me were in Key West.”

Now he’s gonna say I was deprived as a child, I thought. There was a time when that exaggerated look of shock, and the way he was shaking his head, would’ve annoyed the hell out of me.

That was a long time ago. I was relieved now, just to see Jack being Jack again, instead of walking around like he was a hundred miles away.

“Jesus, Frank,” he said. “Were you deprived as a kid, or what?” It’s scary how well I know this guy. “I grew up in Chicago, and I went a couple times every summer.”

“In the rain?”

“Rain or shine.” He grinned. “You know, I still can’t believe you sometimes.”

I laughed. “Feeling’s mutual, Jack.”

The beaches were all deserted when we got there. It was still raining, and the sky was getting darker. There was a gate across the entrance to the first public beach we came to, but seven years in Special Ops had given me a certain disregard for rules. The car lurched as we drove up on the grass around the gate, pulling into the parking lot and coming to a stop right at the edge where the blacktop ended and the sand began.

I turned off the engine, watching as the wipers stopped beating and the view through the windshield turned to wavering silver. Jack didn’t get out, so I didn’t either, leaning back and searching for the lever to make the seat recline.

The raindrops made a hollow rattling sound against the roof of the car. I pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and held the rest out to Jack. He took one, held it to mine until the end glowed, then sat back and pulled his hat down over his face again. He didn’t say anything for a long time.

“You know what I miss most about being home?”

His voice was quiet, reflective. I looked sharply at him, taking a long drag on the cigarette, knowing I couldn’t hide the worried look from him if I tried. “What?”

Thunder rumbled overhead, and through the water streaming down the windshield I could see the ocean, the line between the sky and the gray-blue waves blurring in the storm. “I miss driving my own car.”

Jack was always coming out with stuff like that, totally out of nowhere. I just raised my eyebrows at him. “You could’ve said something, I would’ve let you drive.”

He shook his head, taking off his hat and throwing it on the dash. “Not one of these Air Force cars,” he said, tapping his cigarette against the ashtray and sighing at the center console. “It’s like… going for a seven-mile run in somebody else’s boots. Mine are all nice and broken in, but if I tried to wear yours… ”

“I’d make you clean the damn things,” I finished for him. “You’ve had that truck since before I met you. This thing — ” I smacked the dash “ — runs a hell of a lot smoother than yours.”

“But it’s so damn boring!” I couldn’t help laughing. “My truck’s got personality, at least.”

“Personality? Is that what that weird noise is when the engine starts?”

He just gave me a dirty look. “Someday when I’m home for a while, I’m gonna get a new car.”

I blew smoke in his direction. “Oh really?”

“Yup.” Lightning flashed, a crackling cord of fire cutting the sky in half, illuminating half his face starkly and throwing the rest into shadow. “And I’m gonna paint it myself. ‘60’s psychedelic or something. Neon pink and orange.”

Both eyebrows up. “Neon pink and orange?” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, for about the hundredth time. Life with Jack O’Neill is never boring. Wonder what Sara will think of that?

He was nodding enthusiastically. “Maybe I’ll put ‘US Air Force’ on the hood, in blue glitter or something.”

“Blue glitter.” Sure, Jack, whatever you say. Nod and smile, Cromwell… just nod and smile.

He threw back his head and laughed, the first time I’d heard him laugh in a week. “For cryin’ out loud, Frank, you should see the look on your face.” I was picturing Jack in dress blues with those new sunglasses he just got, driving through the base in a neon pink and orange car, blasting old ‘60’s music with the windows down. They say Special Ops attracts all the crazies&hellp; “I want a car people will recognize. I want people to see it coming and be like ‘look, that’s Jack O’Neill!’”

I snorted. “The way you drive, people already see you coming and run for cover.”

“No need to get insulting,” he protested.

“Who, me?”

He seemed to turn serious then, looking away from me and watching as the glowing ash fell from the end of his cigarette. The thunder sounded closer this time, fading just as the lightning flashed again. He’d gone into his closed-down mode again, his face showing nothing, but I knew he was thinking about his family.

“Did you read it?”

No need to ask what he was talking about. I pulled the letter out of my pocket, unfolded it and smoothed it against the steering wheel. “Yeah.”

Second, I love my job, and I love the guys I work with, and if I die in the line of duty I want you to know I died doing what I love. I knew the risks when I signed up, and if I was killed serving my country I want you to know that was a sacrifice I was willing to make. I know I’ll wish I could have had so much more time with you and your mom, but I hope you’ll understand.

The rental car beeps softly at me as I unlock the doors, getting in and throwing the briefcase on the front seat along with my duffel. Slamming the door shut, I reach for a cigarette, light it, sit for a minute in the dark parking lot listening to the rain pounding on the hood. God. What a day. What a fucking day.

When I got off the plane at the airport at 0300 this morning, I don’t know what I expected. But it sure as hell wasn’t this.

I hadn’t seen General West since ‘91. And I hadn’t missed the bastard.

He’d been in charge of Special Operations in the Gulf. I spent most of the war at home, after I took a round in the arm on that last mission. It was supposed to be a simple incursion, go in, grab the Iraqi general, and be ready for extraction in four hours. Twenty-four hours later, our CO was dead, and two seconds after an Iraqi bullet put me in command of the team, Jack was hit and I was faced with the choice that will haunt me as long as I live — go back for my best friend who might well be dead already, or order the rest of the team out before we were overrun.

Sometimes, in combat, you have two seconds to make a call.

Sometimes you make the wrong call.

And then you have to live with that, for the rest of your life.

They all said if I’d waited a second longer, they would’ve hit the chopper and we would’ve all been trapped, the whole team dead or captured. Those twenty-four hours got me a Purple Heart and a letter of commendation, and landed Jack in an Iraqi prison for four months. I didn’t meet West until I went back to the Gulf, just as the war was ending. The way I saw it, I had two options — bring my friend back, or get myself shot as soon as possible, preferably somewhere fatal.

I didn’t sleep at all, the week after I found out, planning it all, how to get in, how to get out, back-up plans and alternate extraction sites, every contingency covered. It took me two days of harassing his aides before West would even discuss the possibility, and when I finally got to talk to him he cut me off after two minutes and told me it wasn’t gonna happen. There was nobody else to ask, no alternatives to consider, no second chances. It was his call, his people. There would be no rescue mission.

I lost it. The hell with rank and regulations, who gives a flying fuck if he’s my commanding officer, two aides had to forcibly ‘escort’ me out of his office, screaming curses at him halfway down the hallway. What the fuck do you mean, ‘acceptable risk’, what the hell kind of officer areyou, that’s one of our people in there, you just gonna let him rot in some goddamn shithole of a prison? The hell happened to ‘nobody gets left behind’?!

I hadn’t seen him since then, transferred back to Florida to take command of my own team only a few weeks later. If he recognized me, he didn’t let on.

“Gentlemen, have a seat.” He returned our salutes, waving us to sit at the table. “I know you’re all probably wondering why you’re here.”

An aide handed me a folder, stamped TOP SECRET in red ink, then left the briefing room and locked the door. I pulled out a chair next to Stuart and sat down. “What’s this about, General?”

He gave me a look I couldn’t interpret. “Not much for small talk, are you, Colonel?”

Jack would have some kind of wiseass answer to that, I thought. I gave him a blank look of my own and said, “No, sir.”

He looked around the table, at each man in turn. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen any of my team in dress blues. They all looked uncomfortably formal, all except for Stuart, who was an Academy grad. Third generation, and the only man I’ve ever met who can do the spit-and-polish stuff and the crawling-through-the-mud stuff with equal enthusiasm. The rest of them looked like they’d rather be marching past enemy lines at night, in the rain, uphill both ways.

I didn’t blame them.

“Space travel,” West said simply, resting both hands on the podium. I waited for more, and when he didn’t say anything else Stuart and I exchanged a look.

“Space travel,” I echoed. The rest of the guys looked as confused as I felt. All fun and exciting and a hell of a lot more interesting than chasing cadets through the woods with fake rifles, but it didn’t make sense.

“General, we’re a Special Ops team,” I said patiently. “We’re not… there isn’t one of us with any kind of science background, and none of us even have pilot training except for Captain Stuart. We’re hardly qualified for a shuttle mission.”

West smiled tightly. “You’ve been called here because you are uniquely qualified for this project,” he said cryptically.

I raised both eyebrows at him. “I don’t understand, sir. Unless you want us to rig the damn shuttle to explode, I really don’t see how we’re gonna help you.” One of the guys, probably Sergeant Warfield, snickered at that. “We’re combat control and pararescue, sir. We shoot people. We rescue people — when we’re allowed to.” My voice was sharp on the last words, but if he noticed I couldn’t tell. “We blow shit up. We don’t fly spaceships.”

“No, Colonel, you won’t be flying any spaceships,” he said. He reached for the slide projector, flicked it on.

The image that appeared on the wall looked like a big circle, some kind of metal, with carvings around it that meant nothing to me. “What exactly is our mission, sir?” I asked. “There aren’t any people for us to shoot in outer space.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Colonel.”

I’ve been stunned speechless only three times in my life.

The first was when I graduated the first part of Special Ops training, the ten-week indoctrination course at Lackland, without Jack getting us both kicked out on our asses with his misguided attempts at humor. The second was when I asked Lisa to marry me, and she actually said yes. The last was when I got that list of POWs eight years ago, and saw Jack’s name.

This afternoon, West just made number four.

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.

Third and most important, I need you to know that no matter what you do, no matter what you decide to do with your life, I will always be proud of you. You are my son, the best part of me, and whatever you do I know you will make me proud. I don’t want you to think you have to join the military or choose any particular life because you think it’s what I want. You have to choose your own life, and I know you’ll do well no matter what road you take.

“What do you think?”

It had stopped raining, finally, and we were sitting on the hood of the car, looking out at the ocean and watching the seagulls. The sky over the gulf coast was reddish now, amber bleeding into purple at the horizon, as the sun went down.

I glanced at Jack, but he wasn’t looking at me. “I think you should tell him all that yourself.” He turned sharply. “And I think you will tell him. Maybe not in so many words, but he’ll know.” I leaned back on my arms, the metal of the hood still warm under my hands. “And I think you’re making me nervous, talking about dying all the time.”

His eyebrows went up, and for a second I thought he was angry. But he just smiled, a smile that didn’t reach his eyes, and touched my shoulder briefly.

“You worry too much,” I said softly. “Seriously. I’ve known you and Sara, what — six years?”

“Seven,” he corrected absently.

“Okay, seven.” I fixed him with a look, mock stern. “Long enough to know you two will make great parents. Trust me. Charlie’s damn lucky to have you for a dad.”

He looked away again, staring at nothing. “Everything’s different now.”

He said it slowly, almost like he was talking to himself. He didn’t say anything else, didn’t even look at me, but he didn’t have to. There’s an old saying, I don’t remember where I heard it. True friendship is when you can sit with someone else for an hour and not say a word, and walk away feeling like it was the best conversation you ever had. That was me and Jack. Neither of us were ever very good at all the touchy-feely, talk-about-your-feelings stuff. Drove our wives crazy that way. But between the two of us that never mattered. Somewhere in the past seven years, we’d learned to say the most important things without words.

Under fire we hardly needed hand signals anymore — all he had to do was look at me and I knew which way he was gonna go, what he was gonna do next. It went deeper than that, though. We’d been through seven kinds of hell and back together, starting with the crucible that was Spec Ops training. Places like Afghanistan, Iran, East Germany, missions no one back home would ever read about. We’d shared the same missions, the same wounds… the same nightmares. So that on a night like this, even though Lisa and I had no children, I could imagine what was going through his head now, as clearly as if the thoughts were my own.

Everything’s different now.

I’d said the same thing, on our first mission behind enemy lines. Afghanistan, 1980, holed up in a cave waiting for extraction, barely conscious with two bullets in my chest and blood leaking into my lungs. I was so damn scared then, scared I was gonna die, but even more scared I’d die without talking to Lisa again.

It wasn’t long after we got married, and the night I left we were fighting, I don’t remember what about.

She didn’t want me to leave, though, and when I did go she cried, but she wouldn’t tell me goodbye. We’d married young, way too young, I thought sometimes. We loved each other desperately, and we drove each other crazy.

But marrying her changed everything. Nothing terrified me so much as knowing I might die without making up with her. Suddenly it wasn’t all about me anymore. No matter where I was, a part of me would always be far away, with Lisa, half a world from wherever I was stationed.

So I knew something of what Jack was feeling, and he knew I knew. I lit another cigarette, tilting my head back, breathing in the salt smell of the sea. The wind was picking up, cool air against my face, ruffling through my hair. The soft shush of the waves beat a soothing rhythm against the sand, as we sat in silence, watching the sun go down.

Don’t think about it, I thought. Don’t think about dying, or what’ll happen to your family then. It’ll just make you depressed. Hell, you’re making me depressed. I don’t want to think about you dying, either. You’ve said it yourself, about a hundred times — what would I do without you?

Think about the look on Charlie’s face when you come home and surprise him. Think about playing Santa at Christmas, birthday parties, teaching him how to hit a baseball, how to play hockey, how to fish. Think about all the fun you two will have, all the trouble I know you’ll get into, and how you’ll love every minute of it. Think about watching him grow up, getting his first car, his first girlfriend. Don’t think about anybody dying.

The sun was slipping below the waves, red light fading to gray behind us, glinting on the water. Jack was unwrapping a chocolate cookie slowly, breaking it into pieces and tossing them at the gulls hopping around us.

I folded the letter carefully, holding it out to him. He looked at me, but he didn’t move to take it.

“Jack… ” I trailed off, seeing the look on his face. “Listen, I’m probably the last person who should have this.” He started to say something, but I stopped him with a hand on his arm. “We’re on the same team. We get the same missions. We go in together, and we get out together, or not at all. If anything happens to you, there’s a fair chance I won’t make it out either.” There weren’t many things in my life I could be absolutely sure of, but this was one of them. Always had been, ever since that first mission, a long night in a cave, and a promise that could never be broken. “Nobody gets left behind, remember?”

“Right.” Half his face seemed to smile, and he looked like he wanted to say something more, but he couldn’t find the words. “I still want you to keep it, though.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.” His eyes were dark, serious. “There’s no one I trust more.”

I blinked, surprised, but I didn’t say anything. It’s not like it wasn’t something I knew, something I’d known for years. What surprised me was that he’d say it out loud. Jack usually didn’t talk about stuff like that.

I nodded slowly, then put the letter in my pocket. “I’ll do it.”

“Thanks.” He stood up, dusting cookie crumbs off his hands and shaking his head at the gulls hopping around our feet.

I’m giving this letter to Frank, and he’ll make sure it gets to you if anything ever happens to me. You probably know him by now, but in case you don’t he’s my best friend, and if anything happens to me he’ll take care of you and your mom. He’s a good man, and the best friend I’ve ever had.

It’s after 2200 when I stop at the Dunkin’ Donuts, in search of strong black coffee and thinking that what I really need is alcohol, something to knock me out cold for a couple hours, otherwise I’ll never get to sleep.

Reaching into my duffel for cash, my fingers brush against the lid of a cigar box, and I hesitate. Don’t, I tell myself silently. Don’t go there.

Nothing in there I need to see right now. Jack’s letter. My wedding ring. And some pictures… me and Jack the night we graduated Spec Ops training, me and Lisa the day we got married. Jack holding Charlie just after he was born. Memories of my life that was, all those things it hurts too much to think about, but that I can’t let go. A failed marriage, a broken friendship, and a dead child.

I stuff some bills in my pocket and get out of the car, slamming the door. The woman at the counter looks a little surprised to see a full-bird colonel in dress blues at this time of night, but she doesn’t say anything and I make my escape back to the car with a tall styrofoam cup.

Charlie was four years old, the last time I saw him. It was just after Christmas 1990, the night Jack and I shipped out together for the Gulf. Jack picked him up and hugged him hard, and promised he’d be home soon. Sara wasn’t crying, not yet, being strong for Charlie, but I saw her eyes soften as she watched them. And then she looked at me, just for a second, the look she always gave me before we left. The one that said, “Look after him, ’cause sometimes he’s too damn stubborn to look after himself.”

Charlie hugged me, too — and then he looked up at me, his face serious, too serious for a kid who loved to laugh as much as he did. He said, “Bring my daddy home, Uncle Frank. Please.”

I never did give him the letter.

Not that I ever imagined, in the two months before General Ryan told me, that I’d left my best friend alive and wounded in enemy hands. I swear, by whatever’s still sacred in my life, I thought he was dead.

Doesn’t change anything.

I took a round in the arm on that mission, nothing serious, but they sent me back Stateside, and somewhere in the shuffle my luggage — and that letter — got lost. I didn’t think of it at first. It had been four years since Jack had given to me, and I was distracted, trying hard to deal with my own grief, and patch up my relationship with my wife. By the time I found the letter I knew he was alive.

I take a long gulp of hot coffee, pulling out of the parking lot, feeling the tires skid a little on the wet pavement. I’ve left the busy part of the city behind, and now I’m heading north blindly, no real idea where I’m going, just… away from here.

It’s dark, heavy clouds covering the moon, and the rain lashing down in sheets. The road is long and winding, nothing on either side now but trees. In the glare of my headlights I can see fog rising up from the ground.

I was at the Air Force Academy hospital when Charlie died. I’d been shipped back home injured a week before, and I was well enough and awake enough to be driving everyone around me crazy — my usual response to hospitals. One of the nurses brought me a newspaper, with Charlie’s picture on the front page. Boy, 10, dead in firearm accident.

I hear thunder muttering somewhere far away. A little ways up this same road is the church where they had the funeral, and the cemetery where Charlie was buried. The same church where Jack and Sara got married, twelve years before. The car slips on wet leaves, sliding into the other lane before I can wrench the steering wheel back in line. Focus, dammit.

I sent flowers to the funeral. Yellow roses, the color of farewell. When the lady at the store asked me what the occasion was, I just gave her a blank look for a couple seconds. I was still pretty out of it at that point, but it seemed like a hard question. A hard answer, at least. A funeral, I told her. Thinking, for a kid who accidentally shot himself with his father’s gun. The son of my best friend, who I haven’t spoken to in five years, but that’s another long, ugly story you don’t want to hear. I asked her to have them delivered, told her I wasn’t gonna be able to make it to the service because I was shipping out the day before.

I didn’t ship out until the day after, but I didn’t think it would help Jack to see me. She asked me if I wanted to write anything on the card, and gave me a weird look when I said no. Long, ugly story. Jack would know who they were from.

Sara found me at the airport the next day. It was just a few minutes before my plane started boarding, but she hugged me with tears in her eyes and said she wished I could have come, but it was probably better I didn’t. And she told me Jack was gone, left that morning, and from the look in his eyes she knew he wasn’t going to come back.

West, you sorry son of a bitch.

The road curves sharply to the right, and water sprays up from under my right tires. I can’t see the line down the middle of the road anymore, just the headlights reflected off the wet surface. Somewhere above the trees lightning flickers, catching the curtains of rain drifting back and forth in front of me.

I blink, squinting in the darkness, turning the wheel around another curve. He did come back, though. I knew he wasn’t dead. Sara would’ve told me. But I hadn’t known until tonight what that mission was, what kind of blaze of glory West wanted him to go out in —

I can feel it when the tires leave the surface of the road, skimming the layer of water as the car spins out of control, and the last thing I see is a wide tree trunk seeming to rise from nowhere out of the fog.

I must have blacked out, ’cause the next thing I know someone’s shining a bright light in my face, and I can see red strobe lights reflected in my windshield — the part of it that’s not in pieces on the dash.


I’m shivering, and it takes me a second to register the rain pouring in through the jagged hole in the glass. Shit. And the damn car didn’t even belong to me. Wonder how much the Air Force is gonna charge me…

“Sir, can you hear me?”

And would somebody get that damn light out of my face… ?

“Don’t move your head.” I start to turn, and there are warm hands on my face. “Anybody got a blanket here? He’s gonna get soaked.” I’m staring at something, white silk, and I’m thinking, parachute? But of course not, it’s the airbag, never seen one of those in action before. Funny… the number of times I’ve been shot, in twenty years in Special Ops, and I’ve never once been in a car wreck. Not that I haven’t come close, God knows, with the way Jack drives…

“Is he awake?”

“Can you get the door open?”

Dark spots appear on the white fabric, spreading outward. Blood? There’s a sharp pain like someone pounding against the back of my skull, and voices, drifting fuzzily in and out of hearing range. Everything’s blurry, not sure if it’s the fog, or something wrong with my eyes. All right, damage control, how bad is it?

Someone’s opening the door, an arm reaching across, releasing the seatbelt. Okay, safe to assume I hit my head pretty hard against something. Not sure what, not sure I want to know. Looking up, my neck feels like somebody tried to twist it off. That hurt.

“Come on, where’s the stretcher?”

Possible concussion… which would explain why the trees out there insist on cloning copies of themselves… I try to look over at whoever’s talking, but my head won’t turn that way, and it’s a couple seconds before I realize someone’s still got their hands on my neck, and a voice is telling me don’t move your head, possible neck injury, and where the hell’s the damn stretcher?

I’ve had worse, I decide. Enough. “I’m awake, dammit,” I growl. “And for God’s sake, kill the light, will ya?”

I’ve always been the patient from hell, even on the best of days. Ask Douglas. He’s my pararescueman, and the one who usually has to deal with me when I get myself shot up or otherwise mangled.

Someone finally lowers the flashlight, and I can see the face in front of me, a woman’s face, blue eyes and short blond hair.

“I’m a paramedic.” Her voice is calm, steady, like she’s trying not to scare me. “Your car ran off the road, and you were out for a little while.” No, really? “We’re going to get you to the hospital as soon as we can. Right now I need you to answer some questions for me, okay?”

“I don’t need a hospital, ma’am,” I snap. Okay, so minor head injuries don’t do much for my already sparkling personality. “I’m fine.”

She’s leaning over me, blocking half the doorway, but I duck around her and stand up, grabbing onto the roof of the car.

“Sir — !”

O… kay… wait for the world to stop spinning slowly round… and round… and round…

My legs are kinda shaky, but I can stand on my own, that’s what’s important. Although from the way she’s holding onto my arm, it’s obvious she thinks this is a dumb idea.

Two more paramedics are carrying a stretcher out of the back of an ambulance, and she waves urgently at them. “Sir, you could have injuries you don’t know about,” she says, sounding exasperated. “You hit that tree going pretty fast.” For the first time I notice the front of the car, or what’s left of it, the metal of the hood crumpled like tinfoil. “You can’t just walk away from something like that, not without getting checked out.”

Oh no? Watch me. I have a very low tolerance for hospitals, lying in small rooms with lots of people fussing over me and trying to take care of me. Just ask my team.

If I don’t turn my head too quickly, I can stand without holding onto the car. For now, anyway. She’s tugging on my arm, trying to get me to lie down on the stretcher. There are two cops standing by the ambulance; one of them comes to take my other arm.

“Just take it easy, okay? Looks like you banged your head pretty hard. You want to let somebody look at that.”

I’ve banged it worse. For cryin’ out loud, people, I jump out of airplanes for a living. I don’t need a freakin’ hospital. Although… crap… yeah, it hurts like hell, but right now what I need is to find someplace to hide away for the next two weeks and lick my wounds in private — the physical ones, and the ones they can’t see.

“I’ll be fine, trust me.” The cop looks at me, and I see him notice the uniform and the eagles on my shoulders for the first time. “You need me to sign something? If I die it’s not your fault, that kind of thing?”

“Sir, it won’t take long,” the first medic says. “You should really — ”

“Okay, you’ve done your job,” I cut her off. I know she’s trying to help, but I really just want to get away from here. “Where do I sign?”

I’m starting to feel a little out of my depth here. I guess too many years in the military does that to a guy — I’m used to people jumping up and saluting and then leaving me the hell alone when I use that tone. The paramedics just look at each other helplessly, wondering what to do. Then they look at the cops, like they think they’ll have the answer. I’m resisting the urge to snap “I gave you an order, airman!” My mind’s starting to wander. Damn.

They finally give me the release form to sign, saying if I die from my own stupidity nobody’s gonna sue.

Yeah, right. Like there’s anyone who cares enough to sue the ambulance company if I die. I hand her the clipboard, and turn around slowly, carefully, reach into the car for my duffel and the briefcase with West’s reports. Standing up again, I close my eyes and rest one hand on the car, waiting for the dizziness to pass, and I can feel their concerned stares.

“You need a ride anywhere?” one of the cops asks, and I shake my head slowly. He looks at me funny, and I realize it does look kinda stupid, refusing a ride on a road in the rain at night. But I have no idea where I’m going yet, and O’Malley’s isn’t that far up this road. By the time I get there, maybe I’ll figure it out. I can call a cab from there.

Red and blue strobe lights wink out, and I watch as the ambulance and the two police cars pull away. I sling the duffel over my shoulder, pressing a hand to my forehead for a few seconds, feeling blood sticky under my fingers. All right, Cromwell, time to get the hell out of here.

The amber lights of the tow truck fade behind me as I start walking. It’s still raining hard, but my blue jacket is already soaked through, so it doesn’t make much difference. There aren’t many buildings along this part of the road, only the occasional orange streetlight, and the soft shush of rain hitting the pavement.

When you’re driving on this road, it feels like O’Malley’s isn’t that far. Try to walk it, at night in the rain, and it seems a lot farther. I’ve gone about fifty yards when it occurs to me I might have just done something really stupid.

I put a hand out against a tree to steady myself, seeing bright spots dancing slowly in front of my eyes. Or is that just the rain catching the glow of the streetlight? My head feels like someone’s beating on it with a hammer. Hard. I look down at the ground, close my eyes, just breathe slowly for a little while. I can do this. It can’t be that much farther.

The pain doesn’t go away, but the dizziness passes, and I start walking again, slowly, imagining what my team would say if they were here. Stuart and Douglas would be pissed as hell. They wouldn’t say so, of course. They’re both too military to call their CO a fucking idiot to his face. But I know them well enough by now, they wouldn’t have to tell me.

I’m shivering, moving half in a daze. I know if I stop, if I let myself rest, I won’t be able to start walking again. Something — maybe it’s training, maybe just sheer stubbornness for its own sake — keeps me moving, one foot in front of the other, shoving the pain away, I’ll deal with it later. I have no idea how far I’ve come, can’t see much, just rain and more rain and wisps of fog rising from the road. The wind’s picking up, driving the rain into my face.

Lights are getting brighter up ahead, and I realize with a hollow feeling it’s the church. Doesn’t look like there’s anyone there, but the lights out front are always on. Wonder what time it is. Probably almost midnight.

It would be really nice to sit down for a few minutes. There are steps in front of the door, and even an overhang to keep the rain off. Without thinking I walk up to the door, lean on the railing. I was right. No one’s here.

I close my eyes, swaying a little. I can see it now, the last time I stood on these steps. Jack was standing next to me, in full dress blues with his scarlet beret perched at a rakish angle, looking like he was getting ready to jump without a parachute. It was an unbreakable rule — the groom was not allowed to see the bride until the ceremony, and that wouldn’t be for another couple hours. I’d never seen him so nervous. I was best man, and aside from giving a speech and proposing toasts and all that, part of my duties included making sure the groom’s pre-wedding jitters, or whatever you wanted to call it, didn’t make him go nuts and jump out a window. With Jack, it was a near thing.

I open my eyes, staring away from the church at the silent cemetery. I know if I sit down now, I won’t get up. I should keep going. It’s not far, now.

But I don’t. Instead I go down the steps again, walking across the grass, down the hill into the cemetery. I’ve only been here once before, but I remember where it is. The headstone is newer than most, but nothing fancy. A chill runs through me when I touch it, that has nothing to do with the rain.

Charles Jonathan O’Neill. Beloved son. 1986-1996.

I sink to my knees, running my fingers over the carved letters, bowing my head and clasping my hands together hard. Thunder rumbles, far away this time, but I don’t move, feeling the rain pounding against my back, soaking my hair, running in cold streams down my neck. Everything’s different now.

God, Charlie. Water runs like tears down my face, but my eyes are dry. I wish I could cry. There was a time when I would have broken down sobbing, unashamed, at something like this. I never had any kids, and once upon a time Charlie was the closest thing I ever had to a son of my own. Iraq changed all that, changed everything. Jack and I both came home from Desert Storm changed, hiding behind those safe walls of military bravado, the myth that says soldiers never cry. There were months, after the war was over, when half the time I walked around like a man already dead — but I never cried.

Jack doesn’t know it, but I saw him in the hospital, just after he came home. He was heavily sedated at the time, hadn’t been conscious since he flew back from Saudi, and from what I know of what those sick bastards did, it’s a damn good thing. I came in with Sara, and somehow she convinced the nurses to let me in, even though I wasn’t family.

They’d covered him with blankets, and half his face was bandaged, so I couldn’t see the worst of it. But what I saw was enough. What I could see of his face was covered with bruises, mottled yellow and purple, newer ones on top of the old. He’d lost weight, and he looked so fragile lying there, plastic tubes sprouting out of him like some kind of obscene vines, so different from how I remembered him. His face was still, waxy, and it scared me. The Jack I remembered was one of the strongest men I knew, and now… I’d seen him hurt pretty bad, after that chute disaster over the Iran-Iraq border, years before, but even that wasn’t like this.

I think the nurses thought I’d disturb him, but they shouldn’t have worried. He was far under, and if there was a God with any mercy at all he wasn’t even dreaming. It was more the other way around.

It’s not like I didn’t know what to expect. I knew what they did to their prisoners. But it’s one thing to read about it, hear stories… and something else entirely to see the scars on your best friend’s face, and know you were responsible. It was… a shock, a damn terrible shock, and something of that must have showed in my eyes, ’cause the next thing I knew Sara was pulling me out of the room, telling me to sit down, and was I all right? I didn’t answer her, what the hell kind of stupid question was that, anyway? I just covered my face with my hands like that would make it all go away, and I didn’t say a word to anyone for the next ten minutes or so, then I got up and walked out.

Lisa told me, after I found out he was alive, that he’d understand.

She was wrong.

He never did forgive me for leaving him behind. Not that I expected him to. Sara always said he’d come around eventually, but I know him too well, better than she does, in some ways. He doesn’t forgive easily, and he doesn’t forget. And even if by some miracle he ever does, I know I’ll never forgive myself.

There’s no one I trust more.

On impulse I reach into the duffel, searching. It’s sealed in an envelope, wrinkled and smudged and half crumpled from being carried everywhere I went for more than ten years.

It was a sacred trust, one of many. And my track record with such things pretty much sucks.

He’s a good man, and the best friend I’ve ever had.

There are still nights when I wake up shouting his name, thinking I’m back there again, watching him go down, my too-vivid imagination filling in all the horrible details I never saw.

Thinking about it now, though, I know that’s not the worst part. My worst failure wasn’t anything that happened to him in that prison, as impossible as that thought would have seemed to me in ‘91. I never would have imagined, back then, that whatever power runs this screwed-up universe wasn’t through dumping shit on Jack O’Neill.

A little more than five years later, Charlie found Jack’s gun when no one else was around, and shot himself with it. He was ten years old. It was an accident, a terrible, tragic accident, but if Jack’s an unforgiving bastard to everyone else, I know that’s nothing compared to how he blames himself.

And I wasn’t there.

I called myself his best friend for twelve years, and when his son died I wasn’t there.

I tried, God knows I tried. But in the end, before he left for Abydos, he wasn’t even talking to Sara. She told me to stay away, and I did. Maybe, if Iraq hadn’t happened, I could’ve got through to him where she couldn’t. I never would’ve let Jack go on a suicide mission. At the very least I would’ve stormed into West’s office and shouted and threatened and pleaded and done whatever I had to do, to get him to send me to Abydos, too.

I don’t know what changed his mind. I don’t know why he decided not to blow that warhead, but if he had it would have been my fault, as surely as if I’d flipped the switch myself.

I hope you never have to read this, but if you do I need you to remember that I love you, always. You made my life better in so many ways. Do one thing for me, and tell your mom I love her, too, and I’m so sorry. I am so proud of you, and I hope however I die, you’ll be proud of me.

Love always, Dad

I turn the envelope over in my hands. I don’t need to open it. I’ve memorized every word over the years, first so quietly eloquent, now dripping with a savage irony that chokes me so I can hardly breathe.

‘Bring my daddy home.’

“I’m sorry, Charlie.” I force the words out, barely hearing my own voice through the rain. “God, I’m sorry.”

He can’t hear me. He’s gone, now. And even if he could… I know that for some things there can be no absolution.

I lay the envelope on the ground in front of the headstone, finding a rock to set on top of it so it won’t blow away. It belongs here, if it belongs anywhere. I sure as hell don’t have any right to keep it anymore.

My eyes are stinging, but no tears come as I stand up, one hand holding onto the cold stone for support. It’s a few seconds before I can stand up straight, but as soon as I’m confident my legs will work I give the letter a last look and turn away.

It’s a long walk still, long and cold and wet, but O’Malley’s is up the road somewhere.

And somewhere across town, hidden under Cheyenne Mountain, there’s a secret the people of Colorado Springs know nothing about — a war nobody will ever hear about unless we lose. If half the shit in West’s report is true, we’ve escaped Armageddon by the skin of our teeth more than once in the past three years.

And Jack’s down there on the front line.

Maybe my word isn’t worth a damn anymore, but staring at those church lights in the rain I make a promise, to myself, and to Charlie… Next time all hell breaks loose, I will be here. And whatever snakes, monsters, or little green men come through that ring of metal — they won’t get Jack O’Neill. Not while there’s air in my lungs or an ounce of blood in my body.

Because I have nothing left to lose except my life, and that doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. But maybe, if it helps Jack… maybe my death will mean something.

Somehow that thought brings a measure of peace, more than I’ve felt in years. Along with what I know is the only real hope I have left.

Part III: What Love Remains