It was pure serendipity that saved them.
That, and Carter, of course.
Jack only knew that something was up with the internet. A new strain of virus that was screwing up all the communications systems. Earlier that week, Carter had asked for permission to cut all the internet connections to the SGC. There’d been complaints, primarily from R&D and Archaeology, who used the internet for research, but when the virus started invading into NORAD systems upstairs, the complaints abruptly stopped.
A reduction in privilege was one thing, a virus running around the SGC network quite another. Most people in the SGC had grasped the difference between the professional and personal.
The techs had set themselves to trying to find a solution, working round the clock in shifts on a single computer that was kept completely off the SGC’s main network. Jack didn’t get that part. Carter explained it to him in terms Jack didn’t understand. And because she was Carter, he listened. He even heard a couple of words in there that he recognised. That didn’t change the fact that he didn’t get it. He just nodded and let her stay on top of that problem.
Then, that morning, as they sat and ate breakfast in the commissary, she asked for permission to take the SGC completely off the USAF network.
Daniel grasped the enormity of the measure before Jack, no surprise there. “Isn’t that a bit extreme?”
“Daniel, the virus has begun to invade secure systems. The most up-to-date firewalls can’t keep it out. The computer security division at the Pentagon hasn’t slept for the last forty-eight hours. I don’t know if there’s any measure too extreme for this.”
Daniel was doubtful. “I heard that there were systems that claimed to be completely off-line from the internet that still have been infected. I didn’t think it was possible.”
Carter spread jelly across her toast. “It’s not. Probably someone transferred a file from an infected system or someone briefly connected to the outside, thinking a few seconds wouldn’t make a difference.” She regarded both men seriously.
Jack considered what she was asking. Without the USAF network, they’d be cut off from the rest of the world. Their only contact with the outside would be the phones. Not the first time they’d done it, and probably not the last. But it was a pretty big step. Any previous cut-offs had been on account of things happening on the inside that they didn’t want to get out.
“What’s NORAD doing?”
“Sitting down and weathering it. Sergeant Fritsch brought back the news this morning when she went upstairs to check things out.”
“I didn’t think they had a choice,” Daniel remarked, chasing scrambled eggs around his plate before spearing them on his fork. “They have to stay online to keep track of the airspace, right?”
“Yes. Their monitoring systems are linked up to most of the United States’ first-line-of-defence systems. Without them, we’d be blind to a threat coming directly at us.”
Jack couldn’t help pointing out one salient fact. “We’re sitting on a Stargate, Carter. They’re always blind to a threat coming directly at us.”
Her half-smile acknowledged the point. “So may I take us off the network?”
Since it wasn’t yet an emergency, she had to get his permission. It sounded serious enough. “Okay. Take us off the network.” When she stood, toast and coffee still in hand, he held up one hand. “Ah!”
“Sir?” She regarded him, surprised at the interruption.
“Finish breakfast, then take us off the network.”
This time, her smile was rueful. But she stayed and finished breakfast with them before vanishing into the depths of the mountain for the rest of the morning.
Thinking back, it was an ordinary day.
Two teams went out, one came back with their CO in a fireman’s carry, care of a Lieutenant who could give Teal’c a run for his money in the ‘bodybuilders of the SGC’ competition. The man had been knocked out when a peashooter took him in the temple. Shown the ‘pea’ that had knocked the man out - a little rock that, had it been going any faster, would have spattered his brains and not just laid him unconscious - Jack ordered the planet tagged ‘unfriendly natives’. Always useful to know these things ahead of time.
There was paperwork and reports, and, hey, more paperwork and reports! Jack opened his mail before he remembered that Carter had taken them off the USAF network and ended up reading through day-old email notifications from the Director of Information Security up at Anniston, and the replies assorted bigwigs of the technical kind about this virus that had Carter worried.
He called General Tim Malcolm upstairs to check on the virus situation.
“It’s looking bad, Jack,” Tim reported bluntly. “The programmers are telling me it’s like this computer virus has a brain. Even as they try to shut it down, it changes. We’re staying online - it’s better to have one eye than none at all, but it’s going to be tricky, Jack. Days like this, I feel old,” the other general grumbled. “As in ancient and decrepit. All this new stuff happening - too fast for old guys like me to keep up.”
“Ah, you get that,” Jack sympathised wryly.
“Don’t think I’m including you in that, Jack!” Tim cut him off before he could get any further. “I know how much you’ve got on your hands down there, remember?” General Malcolm had been in charge of the NORAD facility for the last couple of years, replacing old General Borland. The uppermost echelons of NORAD personnel knew about the Stargate; it was a necessary evil when they were sitting on what might effectively be a ticking time-bomb.
Jack grinned. “Keeping up with all this has made me old before my time, Tim,” he said.
“You can’t fool me, Jack,” Tim scoffed. “I know how much you love it down there. George was exactly the same. Whine, moan, and complain all the time, but he kept going back. How is the wily old fox doing in the Pentagon anyway?”
They’d exchanged gossip for a while before moving on to brisker matters. Jack let Tim know that the SGC was going to be incommunicado for a while; Tim said that if the world ended, he’d give Jack a call.
He put the phone down, and called up Carter for lunch, threatening to send Teal’c to carry her out if she didn’t come of her own free will.
“You know, Jack, it’s not really free will when you’re threatening physical violence to ensure her compliance,” Daniel said from the door. Titles and ranks had never meant much to Daniel, and now that his friend was the commander of the SGC, nothing had changed. Daniel was still very much Daniel.
“You’re welcome to join us.”
“Uh, not today, I think.” Daniel laid a report down on the table. “P9H-334 report on the ruins there. Aztec-based civilisation…”
“Wait, you’ll like this, Jack. The scientific reports came back with some possible power sources that were still running. The dating estimates suggest these power supplies have been going for a couple of thousand years.”
“And you want to go and check this planet out?”
“Why else do I come and put reports on your desk?” There was something to be said for Daniel in his pure unrepentant nepotism.
“I had to ask,” Jack muttered to himself. “Okay, I’ll look it over, but no promises. We need Carter on this virus problem for the moment.”
Daniel was okay with that. “When the virus problem is over, then.”
He had lunch with Teal’c and Carter in the briefing room since she was poring over some readouts from the control room and wouldn’t stop, even to eat what the guys set before her. “We’re disconnected from the NORAD networks, sir - I’d swear it. But some of the control room computers are displaying the proto-symptoms of the systems upstairs.”
It took him a moment to process that into English. “You’re telling me that we’re not connected to NORAD but we’re still getting this virus?”
“It seems that way, sir.” She bit her lip and scratched at the back of her head. “I’ve got Sergeant Davis pulling off the activity logs to see who our breach is - someone must be accessing the upstairs servers in spite of the blackout.”
“Perhaps one of the scientists in the laboratories?” Teal’c suggested, mild-mannered and calm. “It may be that there is among them one who resents the blackout.”
One corner of her mouth twisted, “It might be. Although it wouldn’t be very wise to try it in a network blackout. He’d risk being kicked out of the project for breach of security.”
“Intelligence does not prevent stupid, Carter,” Jack noted. “And you’re not going to get anywhere studying those readouts if you faint from hunger.”
“I never faint from hunger, sir.”
“There’s always a first time,” he told her, and exchanged a look of triumph with Teal’c as Carter picked up her fork and ate as though the world depended on her solving this problem.
It wouldn’t have been the first time.
It was just another day.
He received a call from Tim that evening, just after 1600 hours. “How’s things downstairs?”
“Same old, same old,” Jack leaned back in his chair. “How’s things upstairs?”
“Bad to worse,” Tim said grimly. “Whoever created this thing is laughing at us. We’ve lost most of our control systems, and the remainder are giving up the ghost faster than Kinsey can grumble about military spending.”
He felt the cold shock run through him. This was bad. “I heard the status update to DefCon Two an hour ago.”
“Surprisingly, nobody’s yet taken advantage of it. Someone mentioned something about worldwide systems, but I’m more concerned about American soil. Now would be the perfect time for Al Qaeda or one of those Muslim splinter groups to hijack a nuke - the way things are going, we’d never even know it was gone until DC was a nuclear wasteland.”
Jack grimaced. The nightmare scenario for any military force was one where their missile control systems were bunk, their defence mechanisms were screwed, and the country was wide open to attack from within or without - namely, the scenario they were in right now.
“I’m bringing in all essential personnel, now, Jack. My call.”
“So there’s no news from the guys out at DC?”
“Nothing. Well, they’ve got news of some kind of an advanced system that’s been kept on the side that they think can clear this out. But the guy in charge of the project is holding out. He doesn’t think it’s safe.”
“He doesn’t think it’s safe?” With their defence systems coming down around their ears, this guy was having control issues? Jack wasn’t very sympathetic.
“That’s how the rumour goes. He’ll change his mind when the bombs start falling.”
“A bit late for the rest of us.”
“Yeah. Anyway, I thought you should know what’s going on.”
That conversation left Jack with a nagging feeling of urgency, of the other boot waiting to drop.
He considered calling in the essential SGC personnel and decided against it. He did, however, send out a request that personnel already on the base remain in the overnight quarters.
“You believe that there will be trouble, O’Neill?” Teal’c found him at the briefing room window, staring down at the Stargate.
“There’s always trouble, Teal’c,” Jack said. “Just different degrees of it.”
Teal’c stood beside him, feeling no need to talk. Conversely, his silence made Jack want to speak. “We’re so dependent on computer stuff and most of us have no idea how it all works. For crying out loud - I can barely turn the damn thing on! And when it all goes out the window…”
It all went out the window just after 1800 hours.
Tim called him with the news. “That advanced system I mentioned? Whoever’s in charge of the project has finally given authorisation to use it to search out the virus and get rid of it.”
“About time. When are they running it?”
“Next few minutes. You’ll know when it’s done from the whoops of joy echoing down to you from up here.”
But a few minutes later, it wasn’t whoops of joy coming from the control room, but Carter’s voice over his phone, tight with a terrified urgency. “General! Call a killswitch emergency, now! We need the base power off this instant!”
There was a time for Generals to ask questions, and there was a time for Generals to listen to their people, shut the fuck up, and do what they were told. Eight years with Carter had taught him which was which. Jack obeyed her without question.
That was probably the only thing that saved them.
“Personnel, stand by for base power down. We have a killswitch emergency. Repeat, we have a killswitch emergency.”
Even as he stood up, the world around him faded to black.
There were voices in the darkness, asking questions. There were the sounds of plastic ripping, of solid objects hitting other solid objects, and various brief exclamations of pain.
Jack fumbled in his desk drawer, looking for a flashlight. He wasn’t yet so familiar with this office that he knew where everything was, and he spent a good few minutes fumbling around in the dark.
By the time he located it, Daniel and assorted technical personnel were in his office, their faces lit by the dim glows cast from their flashlights and demanding answers.
“Jack, what’s going on?”
“A killswitch emergency?”
“Is this to do with that virus we’ve been getting?”
“Why aren’t the reserve lights coming on?”
It was the last question that caught at Jack’s consciousness and sent cold fear down his spine. In most situations involving a loss of power to the base, the SGC backup generators would have come on and the lights would have returned within seconds.
As he stood in the darkness, Jack remembered the panicked tones of Carter’s voice over the phone, and had an inkling that this was not ‘an ordinary situation’ - even by SGC standards.
“Out to the briefing room,” he said firmly. “I’m calling a debrief in five.”
The room emptied as he pulled up the PA system and announced that people should move to their emergency sectors and stay calm. They’d be informed of what was happening at the earliest available opportunity.
When he hung up, there was only Daniel and Teal’c left in the room, visible by the faint gleam of light on Daniel’s lens, and Teal’c’s shadowy bulk against the lights out in the corridor.
“Sam called the Killswitch, right?”
“Yes,” Jack said shortly, coming around the desk to the door. He hardly knew what a ‘killswitch’ situation was: only that it was dire and had something to do with the power supply and electronics. “Do you know what a ‘killswitch’ emergency is?”
Ahead of him, Daniel glanced back, his profile in silhouette against the flashlights in the briefing room. “It means we physically disconnect every piece of electrical and electronic equipment from the main power, Jack,” he said quietly.
That didn’t sound good. That really didn’t sound good.
They were out in the rapidly-filling briefing room now, amidst men and women whose expressions betrayed their concern, without panic. Daniel gave him one, quiet, solemn look. “It means a very bad thing has happened.”
Yeah, Jack was afraid of that. Even if his imagination was limited when it came to what that ‘very bad thing’ might be.
For a moment, he was tempted to go back into his office and call Tim upstairs and see what was going on.
Then he set his jaw. The people crowding into the dark briefing room didn’t know what was going on. Well, neither did Jack, really. The difference was that Jack was in control of this base and these people looked to him for leadership.
“Sir?” Colonel Dixon arched a brow at him. “What’s happening?”
Sometimes leadership meant saying bluntly that you had no idea what was going on, but someone you trusted did.
Jack looked around the room, nodding at the airman who dug a chemical glow-stick out of one of the emergency stashes in a closet. “I don’t know a lot more than any of you at this precise moment,” he admitted as the glows were passed around the room, small cylinders of light that illuminated tense expressions. “Colonel Carter called a killswitch situation a few minutes ago, related to the virus that we’ve been hearing about for the last couple of days. She didn’t explain it, and I didn’t ask. In the meantime...”
There was a rustle and shuffle from behind him, and Jack turned to see Carter emerge into the briefing room, a glow-stick already hung about her neck, holding a pair of gloves and clenching her hands around them.
“Sir,” she glanced quickly at Jack. “With your leave. Sergeant,” she addressed one of the Gateroom techs, “Are the systems disconnected?”
“Yes, ma’am, all of them.”
“Including the base self-destruct?”
The sergeant blinked. “Well, no, ma’am. I mean Corporal Tyson is down in that section of the base...”
Carter turned to Jack, her expression tense. “Sir, request four authorised personnel to manually deactivate the self-destruct.”
Dixon frowned, “But it only takes two to--”
“Redundancy, sir,” Carter told him. “Two to deactivate and another two as backup.”
Backup for a task that should have been fairly standard. Jack saw the expressions of people as it began to dawn on them just how dire this situation really was. Hell, he was beginning to realise just how dire things were: and he only had Carter’s word on it.
But he picked out four officers from the group. “Authorised. Dixon, Brennan, Reese, and Karovic.”
“Should we arm?” Colonel Tony Brennan asked.
Carter shook her head. “No. But disarming it with the codes may not be enough. You may have to do a manual disarm - yank the wires from the socket, pull the plug... Do any of you have experience with bomb activation and deactivation?”
Both Dixon and Karovic raised their hands. “Good.” She offered Dixon the gloves she’d carried in - thick-palmed welder’s gloves. “It might be a good idea to use these, too, sir. Take every precaution.”
Dixon took them with an arched brow but only said, “And you’ll explain later?”
He gave her a very direct, grim look. “You’d better.”
“Sir, all personnel should be advised to avoid using any non-essential electrical and electronic equipment for the moment unless it’s a life-threatening situation, and even then with reservations - that includes the telephone system. They should either stay where they are, or, if they have no lights, congregate in their chief emergency gathering point.”
“Are we going to be told what’s going on, ma’am?” One of the bolder SFs voiced the question that was on everyone’s mind, even Jack’s.
“If the General will permit, I’ll debrief the leaders of the SG-teams, the executive aides, captains of the Special Forces group, and technical and scientific department heads.”
Anxious blue eyes met Jack’s. Technically, she’d overstepped her authority, and she knew it. Hell, she’d overstepped it back when she refused to explain the situation to him straight off the bat. Jack was willing to give her enough rope to hang herself - or MacGyver something to get them all out of this.
“I presume you’ll be debriefing me at the same time,” he said with dry humour.
Several personnel grinned, but Carter didn’t. Sobered, Jack glanced around the room. “Okay, you heard her. SG-team leads, senior aides, the guard captains and senior techs. Everyone else head back to your stations - and avoid using electrical stuff. You’ll get the information through your senior channels as soon as we have it.”
Then he went into his office and made pretty much the same announcement through the PA.
When he returned to the briefing room, most people had left, the final few trailing off back to their stations leaving the team leaders - SG, SF, techs, and admin - to listen to what Carter had to say.
As Jack sat down in his chair and the footsteps and whispers of the retreating personnel faded away, he realised he could feel the weight of the mountain pressing down overhead. Judging by the slightly unnerved glances being passed between the personnel who seated themselves around the briefing table, he wasn’t the only one experiencing the sudden claustrophobia.
Carter, on the other hand, was standing at the foot of the table - leaning, rather, her hands planted on the table top, eyes shut as she gnawed at her lower lip. Maybe it was the effect of the darkness, but Jack got the impression that she was about to cry.
He hoped that, by the end of her explanation, he wouldn’t be about to cry, too. Because he had a feeling about this - a gut instinct - that told him that what she had to tell them was not happy news.
When most of them were assembled, he coughed lightly. “Carter?”
She drew herself up, taking a deep breath and facing the rest of the room. “There’s a base out in the Nevada desert,” she began.
“Isn’t there always,” Jack muttered.
Carter ignored him. “It was under the command of Brigadier General Robert Brewster - has been for the last six years. The specialisation was cybernetics.”
“Cybernetics. Robotic intelligence.” That sank into the room. “We think they managed to create a true artificial intelligence. Capable of independent thought outside of programmed subroutines.”
“We?” One of the SF captains inquired.
“You think?” Daniel asked from the side of the room.
“I know someone who was working in the base,” she said. “We’ve been collaborating on the virus problem, offering ideas for solutions. What she could tell me, she did, and I knew enough from the Stargate project to be able to tell that they were working towards artificial intelligence of the kind that we’ve seen before.”
“Along those lines, yes,” said Carter. She looked at Jack as he arched a brow, “I’ve kept classification, sir. But from what I gathered talking to her, the Pentagon has been pressuring General Brewster to use this AI - Skynet - to destroy the virus corrupting our systems.”
“And he finally gave in.”
Carter gave him a grim smile. “They promised him all the R&D funding he could handle if it worked.”
An unfettered leash. The Stargate program got significant funding because it was a Pandora’s box: there was no way to shut it down once it had been opened. A project like this cybernetics thing that produced an AI capable of dealing with viruses before they became a problem?
Jack could see why the balance had tilted.
“That’s a lot of funding,” someone muttered from further out in the room.
Major Pearce muttered, “Yeah, well, there was a lot at stake, too.”
Oddly enough, it was Daniel who brought the topic back to hand. “So the virus got the AI?”
“Dr. Ferrari - my contact - believed so,” Carter began, but before she could continue, there was the sound of hurried boots on the stairs from the Control room.
A moment later, Dixon and Reese entered the room. “All done, General,” Dixon said. “Brennan and Karovic are helping Corporal Tyson to the infirmary.”
Jack blinked. “What happened?”
“Electric shock,” Reese said. “We found him out on the floor - the self-destruct was counting down when we arrived.”
“It’s disarmed now,” Dixon said, scraping a hand through his hair as he looked to Carter. “You were right, Colonel. We had to defuse it. It re-armed twice - right before our eyes. Damnedest thing I ever saw.”
Someone in the room ventured, “Just like that?”
“Just like that,” confirmed Reese. He looked at Carter, “You’re going to explain that, right?”
“You’re sure it can’t re-arm?” Daniel asked, echoing the anxiety of the rest of the room.
Dixon gave him a dry look. “It shouldn’t. We cut the detonator wires. Hell, we were so freaked, we cut the control wires between the bomb components and the timer.”
Up her end of the table, Carter nodded. “From this point onwards, everything electrical is suspect. Including devices that emit electromagnetic radiation or receive it. We can’t trust anything electrical.”
They stared at her. “Nothing?” One of the head techs asked in disbelief.
“Nothing,” she replied before looking back at Jack. “A little under twenty minutes ago, Brewster agreed to let Skynet try to deal with the virus.”
Jack looked at Carter, then back at Dixon. “From what I was told, we’ve been fighting the virus in our secondary systems for the last twenty-four hours. We started losing control of the defence networks an hour ago.”
“Which defence networks?”
“All of them,” said Jack, tracing a finger across the top of the desk.
“All of them?”
“But that’s systems all over the world,” said Pearce in disbelief. In the darkness, people turned ugly shades of pale. “You’re talking about us being wide open to attack.”
“For all we know, we’re already under attack and just don’t know it,” said Dixon. A muscle twitched in his jaw. He turned to Carter. “Still doesn’t explain the killswitch.”
Carter took a moment to answer. When she did, her voice was flat, the emotion leeched from it. “My contact in the Cyber Research division - Dr. Ferrari - is dead.” That silenced the room. Dixon looked away. “From what I could tell, so are all the people who worked on her project. I was on the phone to her when the AI went live. A few minutes later, I heard gunshots and she confirmed them.” Her gaze locked on Jack’s. “She stayed on the phone to give me information, sir, rather than try to escape.”
“What did she say?”
“She said the virus must have gotten to Skynet. That the infected AI had gone crazy, was trying to kill people.”
“And the gunfire?”
“They were developing attack robots for remote use under Skynet’s control,” she said. “These were the first working prototype. Sir, by now, Skynet - and the virus - has taken over all civilian and military networks.”
“And its next move will be...?”
“It’ll eliminate its greatest threat,” she said simply.
Jack closed his eyes. Basic Tactics 101 - take out the greatest threat first rather than allowing it time to consolidate power. His imagination wasn’t all that good, but it was more than capable of imagining what was happening in the world beyond the mountain.
“Greatest threat - what would be an AI’s greatest threat?”
“The people who could flip the switch.” Daniel said quietly. “Humans.”
The enormity of that settled into the room with leaden weight. Jack saw it sink into the last of the people gathered before him, mere shadows in the half-lit darkness.
“Oh, God,” someone said. Down the table, a man put his head in his hands.
“We’re talking about the annihilation of the human race,” Pearce said with quiet enunciation.
Carter laid her hands on the table and leaned forwards, her face pale. “Then I guess that’s what we’re talking about.”
It was a measure of how shaken they all were by her information that nobody objected to her confronting stance.
Jack was privately facing the enormity of being the commander of the facility when the world outside was about to face an enemy not even the SGC would be able to withstand - the very machines that had enabled them to do so much.
“So what do we do?”
The question fell, trembling, into the quiet. Carter considered it a moment as she looked at Jack, and Jack looked back at her.
He answered for both of them. For all of them. “We prepare.”
“For the end of the world?”
That simple. That complex.
Carter’s smile was thin and tight. “Or something like it.”
Jack hated waiting.
From the tense hours between a mission debrief and his feet landing on the ground, to the long hours spent in Iraq as the air in the room boiled by day before it chilled as the sunset, to the awful, echoing noise of the hospital waiting room, Jack had never liked waiting.
Briefly, he thought of Sara, wondered where she was, what she was doing.
At least - unlike those hours in the hospital - he could do something this time. In fact, it was expected of him.
He sent two of the SFs up to NORAD to get the status there. Not that he didn’t trust Carter, just that he needed some kind of confirmation for this and the phones weren’t working. “Full alert status - go weaponed - remember the self-destruct that re-armed. Get General Malcolm if you can, advise him what’s going on, and suggest his own people run a killswitch scenario if they haven’t already.”
Carter said that everything was compromised. He believed her, but it was hard for him to comprehend just how much of ‘everything’ really was compromised. It took a PA announcement by Doc Warner, advising extreme care with all electrical appliances - including telephones and radiation-emitting equipment - to make him realise the extent of what was happening.
Another SF was dispatched post-haste to get an update from the infirmary.
Without our usual lines of communication, things are going to get very confusing around here.
Then again, things were already confusing.
Jack had a room full of slightly stunned military leaders whose first instinct was to go and fetch their families - or even just send them a warning. This was probably being echoed all over the base. However the crisis Jack had on his hands was here and now, among his SG-team leaders.
“Colonel, the systems are down,” Carter was explaining to Dixon who was on his feet and being decidedly argumentative.
“Then you can bring them back up!”
Jack wasn’t technical, but he did remember some things. “A killswitch physically disconnects everything in the base, doesn’t it?” He addressed the question to Marcia Kovak, research head of the R&D section rather than Carter, requiring all eyes to break from Carter and Dixon’s argument.
“Yes, sir. Everything.” The woman answered with the kind of assurance that Jack was used to in the technicians of the SGC, even if she didn’t look very happy about having the attention of the room on her.
“Then reconnect it!” Dave was being dogged about this.
“Colonel, you wouldn’t get through, even if we did,” Carter said. “The first thing Skynet will have done is disrupt all communications services. All networked communications have been nominal for the last few days - you all know that.” She looked around the room. “Your cell phones haven’t worked, your radios haven’t transmitted, and they’ve been cross-checking the NORAD sat-feeds every hour because they’ve been receiving conflicting data reports. Even if the communications did work, we’d just be connecting back into the AI-controlled network.”
“And the doctor’s warning indicates that people have been injured by this,” Daniel said, subtly taking Carter’s side.
“There’s got to be something we can do!” That was Frank Reese, with a wife and two sons in the Springs.
“I’m sorry,” Carter was pale, but she stuck to her guns.
Jack thought of Carter’s brother, Mark, and his family. He thought of Cassie Fraiser, studying genetics up at the University of Nebraska. He wondered if General Hammond was, even now, trying to get through to the SGC and how long it would be before there were Special Ops banging at the doors to ask what the hell was going on.
“There is something we can do,” Jack said, taking control of the briefing. Carter was good at what she did, but he was the commander of this facility. The lives of these people rested in his hands. “We stay calm, we stay alive, and we look at our options.”
It was hard and cruel, but Jack was the commander of the base, and he had a feeling he’d need every person in the coming days. His mind had already begun planning for the long haul.
“Jack, my wife and kids are out there! You want us to just leave them? Hang them out to dry?” Jack knew Dixon’s demand was going to be echoed by a lot of people in the next couple of hours and it wrung his heart.
“When I left NORAD, General Malcolm was about to give the order to close up the mountain,” Carter said. “There isn’t any way to get a message out.”
“There’s always a way! Hell, you’ve gotten out of a lockdown situation before!”
Carter looked like she wanted to say something, but closed her lips around it. Instead, she looked to Jack. “Sir, until we have confirmation of the situation above ground, I’d like to get a team of techs working on the iris.”
Jack nodded. “Do it.” It would be best to get her out of the way for a while, leave the SG-team leaders to him. They - and the others who were in on this conference - were bristling slightly now, already off-side after being forbidden to at least attempt to reach the people they cared about.
He had to change that. And the best way to change it was to give them responsibility.
Jack sat back in his chair as she took several of the techs with her - among them Sergeants Siler and Davis. He deliberately waited until their footsteps had faded before speaking. As well as making sure it meant he had their complete attention, it also gave him a little time to work out what was coming next.
“Alright,” he said simply. “We’ve got a base full of people who don’t know what’s going on any more than we do, so you’re going to head out now and tell your assigned group what’s happening. Your responsibility is to keep an eye on your people, squash any rumours making the rounds, and stay calm. Yes, we’ve all got family out there, but we’re locked in here, and the best thing we can do for them is to stay alive and not do anything stupid.
“Our alert status went to DefCon 2 an hour ago,” he continued. “That may have changed since, we don’t know.”
“We don’t know anything but what Carter’s told us!”
“And until we receive word otherwise, I’m going to take her report as fact,” Jack retorted.
He was used to trusting Carter. If her estimation of the situation was completely wrong, then that was something he would deal with later. In the meantime, he had a base full of people who didn’t know anything about what was happening, and at the least they needed to know why the lights were out. “Assemble back here in an hour and bring one person from your group to act as a liaison.” He laid his hands on the table, signifying that he was finished. “Are we clear?”
There was a reluctant murmur of assent.
He caught Marcia Kovak before she stood up. “Do we have any idea of why the generators aren’t back up?”
“I don’t, sir,” she said, a blunt, middle-aged woman who managed the forty-something personnel whose roles fell under the category of ‘research and development’ - most of them egghead scientists with more computations than common sense. “But Colonel Carter sent several of the generator experts off to have a look at the generators before the meeting. They were to get them back on line, and report to her or me with the details.”
Jack frowned. Carter was overstepping bounds; she should have let him know about the generators. Then again, there was a lot going on.
He let Kovak go tell her eggheads what was going on, then went into his office, where Daniel and Teal’c had retreated after the meeting. A flashlight rested on the desk, making a ring of light on the ceiling as the two conversed.
“We are familiar with the experience of some issue hanging over our heads, Daniel Jackson.”
“But not this kind,” Daniel was saying. “We’re used to an external global threat - not an internal one.” Blue eyes looked up at Jack. “We had no warning at all?”
“Only Carter’s call to initiate the killswitch emergency.” Jack sat down and hesitated before he looked across at his friends. “Daniel, is it actually possible for computers...?”
“We have previously encountered an entity that was capable of transmitting itself into our computers,” Teal’c reminded Jack.
Jack winced. He’d quite deliberately forgotten that incident - blocked it out of his memory. The sheer desolation of those hours sitting by her bed was more than he could live over again, even with the knowledge that things had turned out okay. “That was an alien, not an AI.”
“Reece was,” Daniel said, pushing his glasses up his nose with a faintly mulish expression.
“These are our computers!” Jack pointed out, no more wishing to be reminded of the Replicators and all the trouble they brought with them, than he wished to be reminded of the electrical entity.
Daniel looked grim. “If Sam’s right, they’re not our computers anymore,” he said. “They’re our enemies.” He must have seen Jack’s instinctive denial of that idea. “Shouldn’t you be used to this by now, Jack?”
“Daniel, aliens trying to take over the galaxy is one thing, thinking computers that are destroying the planet is another!”
As if to punctuate his words, there was a rumble of thunder overhead.
Thunder, twenty-eight levels beneath the surface?
Jack’s blood ran cold.
“Tell me that’s not what I think it is,” Daniel said.
The noise was no clearer out in the briefing room - still a distant rumble. But the shadowy figures working on the Stargate by generator light were staring up at the ceiling, their expressions frozen in quiet dread.
He turned. “Teal’c--”
The big guy nodded. “I shall return directly with news, O’Neill.”
Sometimes it was freaky how Teal’c did that. Times like this, Jack was glad he didn’t need to say the extra words. Teal’c strode off into the darkness without taking a torch. Jaffa eyes saw better in the dark than human ones - even Jaffa without the little snakes.
“Sir?” Carter came up the stairs, touched Teal’c on the arm as she passed him, and paused at the top, looking from him to Daniel.
Beyond Jack, in the stairwell behind his office, there was the sound of boots pounding on metal grating. A moment later, one of the SFs sent to get the news from NORAD jogged up the stairs. “Sir? People are coming down from NORAD now. We met Colonel Dixon and others coming up the ladders. Colonel Dixon sent us down to you, but he and the other Colonels are dividing up the others coming into groups.”
“Others?” Jack queried.
“Yes, sir. Thirty or forty of them.”
Thirty or forty? The complement of NORAD at the graveyard shift was nearly eighty. For the afternoon shift, there should have been at least two hundred personnel.
“Was General Malcolm among them?”
“No, sir,” the SF said steadily. “Their leader was Major Anneston.”
Anneston? Jack frowned. Anneston was at least a dozen people down the chain of command. “What happened to the General?”
“Electrical shock causing heart failure,” said a new voice. The man who hauled himself up the last few steps was heavily-built and looked more like a bureaucrat than a military man. Nevertheless, he pulled off a crisp salute as he paused before Jack, huffing. “Major Carl Anneston, General. Heart failure - that’s what the first aid officer said.”
The news was shocking. Tim had seemed lively enough only an hour ago. Jack found himself repeating what the Major had said. “Heart failure?”
“Yes, sir.” The climb down to this level seemed to have worn Anneston out, he was puffing and panting like crazy, and Jack gestured the man into one of the chairs. No point in standing on ceremony.
“Do you know what’s happening above ground?”
It was pretty obvious the man had never known what the ‘Cheyenne Mountain Facility’ beneath NORAD really contained. He had to visibly drag his attention back from the sight of the Stargate before he answered. “We lost control of systems nearly an hour ago, sir. Just like that, yanked out from under our fingers. Considering we’ve lost control of the missile silos, I’d guess that we’re under nuclear attack.” His eyes flickered from Jack to Daniel to Sam. “Either that, or it’s Judgement Day.”
Carter glanced at Jack. “Did Sergeant Calhoun make it?”
“And what happened to all the senior officers?” Jack asked. He already knew the answer, but he needed to hear it himself.
“Last I heard, the Sergeant was seeing to things upstairs,” Anneston answered steadily. “And the senior officers are dead, sir. Calhoun got the information out through the NCOs and the junior ranks, but Ashton didn’t believe it. Didn’t want to believe it and wouldn’t take it up to the General.”
“That was because of Sam, wasn’t it?” Daniel asked. When Jack gave him a look, he shrugged. “Ashton doesn’t like Sam.”
“Colonels Dalgleish, McInnes, Bestic, and Parkinson are all dead, sir. Electric shock.”
“You didn’t killswitch?” When Anneston looked blankly at Daniel, he added, “Disconnect all electrics.”
“We didn’t know to,” Anneston said. “Calhoun got through to the General about the time the systems went down, but he got shuffled off when the officers crowded in. Then he was trying to explain things to the NCOs, but the junior officers wanted confirmation from on high, and none of the Colonels were saying anything...”
Jack looked at Carter, who had a slight frown on her face. Maybe they’d been luckier than they knew. If not for his absolute trust in her judgement, more might be injured or dead.
“General O’Neill,” the Major got Jack’s attention again, “you’re the highest-ranking officer in the mountain at this moment. I’m not sure that I have the authorisation to hand you command of the NORAD facility, but considering it was one of your officers who got the word out to us, and you don’t have any dead, I’d say you’re well ahead of any of our senior officers. With all due respect to them, sir.”
Jack nodded. “Daniel,” he said, “We’re going to need a headcount and a report back from the team leads about who’s now in their group. Start with that, take whoever you need who’s not already assigned to something else - try to leave the technical and medical personnel. There are clipboards somewhere--”
“In the control room,” said Carter.
“Where she said. And if you can locate Saffy, send him down.” Saffy was the base quartermaster. The man would have inventories of everything in stores. In short, everything they had.
With the noise of what was probably bombs falling overhead, Jack faced the fact that it looked like they were going to be down here for a while.
A long while.
The SGC had run drills for all kinds of scenarios through the years. Most of them involved foothold situations, where the SGC was taken over from within.
In hindsight, maybe a few more nuclear winter scenarios would have been a good idea.
And no drill could ever substitute for the real thing - the real panic, the real dread, the real fear, and the very, very real grief of the people in the mountain, who had just lost everyone close to their heart.
The SG team leaders didn’t say anything, but Jack could feel their recriminations, hovering over him. He’d stopped them from going after their families for the sake of the SGC and survival, and pain had made them cruel.
“It’s easy for you, Jack. You didn’t have a wife and kids out there!” Dixon hadn’t meant it as cruelly as it came out, but it still stung - and all the more because Dave had been wrong.
It hadn’t been easy for Jack. His team was here, safe in the mountain, sure; but there were other people he cared about beyond the mountain. Cassie, Hammond, even Sara - people who’d once meant something to him and always would in their own small way. People who were now probably dead.
It was about 2100 hours that night when Jack realised he’d deputised his team-mates to help manage the situation. They turned up at his office for a meeting he’d mentioned in a ‘bring the details up later’ way, and sat down by the glow of the chemical glow-rods to lay out the situation for him, lock, stock, and smoking Stargate.
“We’ve got the iris fixed over the Gate, sir,” Carter was saying as she went down her list of things to do. “Generators should be back online in the next couple of hours, but our priority will be the air circulators, then the infirmary. We won’t be able to get the iris systems and control room running until after those are up.”
“Ten hours minimum for the iris systems,” she said. “But the control room could be a few days.”
“What about the EMP?”
“We should be down far enough that the EMP didn’t affect us - and the killswitch meant we weren’t online when they began bombing us....”
Jack eyed her. “But?”
“We tried booting up one of the laptops to see how bad the damage was.” She grimaced. “It didn’t boot all the way up - the boot drive’s been corrupted, and we’ve probably lost the data on its drive to a worm.”
Not too much of what she’d just said had made sense to Jack, but what his mind latched onto were the words ‘lost data’. “What’s that mean for the Stargate dialling systems?”
“Well, we’ll probably have to rebuild the system from scratch. Wipe the drives, reinitialise the boot sectors, and reload up from the backups. We’ll lose the last week’s worth of data but otherwise, we should be functional.”
“Functional’s good.” Jack was relieved. The words ‘rebuilding the system from scratch’ had chilled him to the bone. “Two days?”
Carter’s mouth twisted slightly. “At least three, sir.”
“It’ll be at least two days before we get the shifts running smoothly,” Daniel offered. “Dr. Brightman’s offered sleep medication for anyone who’s having trouble - last check, about half the personnel had taken the offer.”
“Not a surprise.” Jack wondered if he ought to take up Brightman’s offer himself. He looked to Carter again. “Anything else?”
She hesitated. “The next few days are going to be difficult - technically difficult,” she qualified when Jack opened his mouth to make a retort. “The problem with the generators - and the laptop - was related to the use of corrupted microchips and corrupted hard drives - all the chips in the online generators needed to be replaced, including the switch which was supposed to prompt the backup generators - that’s why they didn’t start up when we called the Killswitch.”
Daniel looked up. “Sam, if you’re talking about replacing all the chips in the base...”
“We’ve got older model chips that seem to work, but anything that was networked up until the last few days is suspect - including all the computers in the R&D department.”
Jack did some mental math. “That’s a lot of chips.”
Daniel looked up from the notes he was scribbling. “Can we...factory reset the chips?”
“We have the facilities,” said Carter, “but that takes time - and power. And that’s assuming that this isn’t hard coded into the chip structure - it may not be something we can wipe from the chip. In which case we’re in much deeper trouble than just lacking the time and power.”
“Cheerful news, Carter. Anything else?” At her shake of the head, Jack scribbled down a couple of notes about the state of the base, namely ‘we're screwed’ and turned to Daniel.
“We’ve currently got two hundred personnel on base right now. Saffy estimates our supplies will last us...a year at present, six months if we find enough survivors to double our numbers.” Daniel had been working on the management of supplies and sorting out schedules with the military aides. “We’ve got some shortfall in certain areas, though.”
“Primarily health and hygiene. Our water source is from a subterranean water table, so that shouldn’t be a problem unless it gets contaminated. I’ve already spoken with Sam and Siler about the technology governing the testing process. But waste products are going to become an issue after a while - the system is reliant on the regular sewage system. Once it starts backing up...” Daniel trailed off.
“We’re in the shit?” Jack ventured.
“Okay. That’s not an immediate concern?”
“No. I’d give it at least two weeks. But this is something that we’ll probably want to look for a solution for before it starts backing up, Jack.” Daniel checked his list. “Brightman referenced me to Dr. Lewis of the biology department about starting up a hydroponics suite, too. We’ll probably want those near the kitchens and canteen.”
“Sergeant Bakine will require assistants to enable preparation of the meals,” said Teal’c, speaking up for the first time in the meeting. “I believe that those who do not possess skill of immediate need will be able to assist.”
"Like you, Teal'c?" There was a touch of mischief in Daniel's query. Teal'c regarded him with a faint smile.
“That’ll go down well,” Jack muttered. “Okay. Make sure that upkeep and maintenance have the hands they need to do the tasks they need to do.”
Daniel was scribbling madly on his notepad. Carter made a note on hers in her incomprehensible shorthand. Teal’c shifted in his chair - a Jaffa’s trained memory didn’t require notes.
“O’Neill. We have not discussed the future of the Tau’ri.”
He’d avoided that thought so far. “Right now, I’m more focused on keeping us alive in the present, Teal’c.”
Teal’c eyed him, but accepted Jack’s decision. Jack had no doubt it would come up in a few days, but that was the great thing about Teal’c. He was willing to sit back and let things percolate for a while.
Not so Daniel. “Uh, Jack, we’re going to need something to look to in the future, though.”
“I know that. It can wait.”
“Actually, I don’t think it can. We should start putting plans in place as early as possible.”
Jack frowned and flicked a paperclip across his desk. It skittered lightly across the blotter before meeting the end of Carter’s notes and coming to a jittery halt. “Daniel, there’s such a thing as too soon.” The climate of the base at present wasn’t anywhere to be focusing on a tomorrow that barely resembled yesterday.
“And there’s such a thing as putting the groundwork in place,” persisted Daniel, ignoring the glance Carter shot him, and Teal’c’s lifted brow - both of which Jack could clearly see and which Daniel could have if he’d been paying attention to anything other than the point he was trying to make. “Look, I’m not saying that we need to move out tomorrow! But we’re going to have to start looking ahead, planning ahead. Once Sam has the gate running and we’ve collected whatever survivors are still out there, we either need to work out how to fight back, or how to get out of here. And we should start planning for it now.”
Something in Jack recognised that this was Daniel acting out his fears. Jack and his decisions weren’t the problem; the problem was that the world was ending and Daniel needed someone to argue with. Jack was handy. On the flip side, Jack was not about to sit and take anything quietly from Daniel after the kind of day he’d just seen.
“Daniel, what we’re currently working with is the immediate future! We’ve got computers that want to kill us, people who’ve just lost their families, their homes, their lives, a nuclear winter that’s happening above our heads, and housekeeping problems enough. All that is going to keep our hands quite full for the next week without looking beyond that for trouble! What is it?”
The airman to whom this last snap had been addressed paused in the doorway. “Uh, sir, Colonel Brennan found something he thought you might like to see. Sub-level 25, sir, eastern corridor, right down the end.”
“Brennan?” Jack was momentarily disoriented.
“Colonel Brennan was assigned to one of the teams exploring the SGC.” Teal’c provided context as they rose from their chairs. “He was to send word if anything of note was found.”
“Guess that means he found something ‘of note,’” Jack muttered. He got out to the dark corridor before he realised they had no light but the airman’s glow-rod, and stopped.
Without a word, Teal’c snagged a glow-rod, cracked it, and handed it to Jack.
“How many days did you say we’d be out of light, Carter?”
“We’re working on it, sir.”
The lamp was needed.
When the airman had said ‘right down the end’, he meant right down the end. All the way around the back of the storerooms, in a windowless room that was practically a broom closet. There was just enough space for a single bare-mattressed bed and a desk with a radio microphone and speaker sitting on it, circa 1950s.
The gas lamp stood on the desk and one of Brennan’s men was sitting at the desk, scribbling notes in shorthand as voices rose and fell through the speaker, Brennan standing behind him. Tony glanced up as Jack came in. “Seems to be a direct line to a site called Crystal Peak.”
Crystal Peak. Jack vaguely recalled the name - some relic of the Cold War era, a bunker or base that had been put together for the Joint Chiefs in the event of nuclear war breaking out. After forty or fifty years, it was now only one of several bunker options - and one that was way down the list. Crystal Peak was old.
And apparently in use.
The man scribbling shorthand notes vacated the seat so Jack could sit.
“Who’s in command?”
There was a moment of silence as Brennan and the man exchanged looks. “I wouldn’t say its command, sir,” Brennan said after a moment. “But he’s got a cooler head than anyone else on the radio.”
“They’re mostly civilian defence and reserve forces,” said the man.
“And Mr. Cool Head would be...?”
“Some guy by the name of John Connor, sir. No rank or position that he’s named, and he hasn’t identified an affiliation with any military unit or group.”
John Connor. Not a name Jack recognised from the Joint Chiefs or Presidential Cabinet, but that didn’t mean anything. “Have we made contact?”
“Not yet, sir. Just listening in.”
Jack nodded. “Who’s he been talking to?”
“A handful of smaller bases. Highest rank so far is a Light Bird Colonel. Seems that anything with any weapons or satellite capability is gone.”
“They’d have struck first at anything that might be able to strike back,” said Carter. “Not that it would make a difference - decentralised networks mean the AI could hide itself in a thousand personal computers and still survive.”
“Wait, what about the EMP?” Daniel asked. “Would that disrupt it?”
“Satellite uplinks,” said Carter. “Sir, if this line is what I think it is, anything you say will be transmitted to any other lines that are connected to this one. I suspect the line’s been laid direct from point to point, us to them, no encryption, no classification.”
Jack nodded. He wasn’t even sure that classification existed anymore. And if it did, who was going to care? There were aliens who were allied to Earth and had been for some seven years. Fat lot of good they’d done Earth in the end, and Jack wasn’t a fool. He knew that however grateful the Asgard had been through the years, they weren’t going to interfere in what was, after all, a planetary dispute - not until it was their little grey butts on the line.
He pressed down the little black button on the microphone.
“This is Brigadier General Jack O’Neill, US Air Force, of the Cheyenne Mountain Facility,” he said clearly into the mic. “Who’m I talking to?”
There was a moment of silence. Then a surprisingly youthful voice came through the speaker. “John Connor, sir.”
Jack blinked. He’d been expecting someone older. Still, Brennan thought this Connor character was a cool one, and God knew, right now, they needed people with cool heads rather than hot ones. “My people have been listening to your party line for a while. They tell me you’re the man who knows what’s going on.”
“I... Yes.” If there was hesitation in the answer, there was no uncertainty. “The simplest explanation is that we created artificial intelligence and it turned on us.”
Jack caught Carter’s eye. “Skynet?”
The silence on the other end of the line was eloquent. “How do you know about Skynet?”
“I could ask you the same question.” Jack paused, then relented. This wasn’t a power struggle; his ego wasn’t at stake. And they needed to know. “I’ve got someone in my facility who was working with someone on the Skynet project. Her contact told her about the AI and said that the virus got it.”
“Skynet didn’t catch the virus, sir - Skynet is the virus!”
“Wait,” Carter interrupted. She shot an apologetic look at Jack. “That’s not possible. The Skynet AI wasn’t allowed out into the internet until earlier today.” Jack gestured her towards the table and she came forward and held down the button, leaning over. “Connor, this is Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Carter, USAF. I was in contact with Dr. Anna Ferrari of the Cyber Research Systems Division when Skynet was released out into the networks.”
“It’s been leaking through the networks for the last week,” Connor said. In the background of Connor’s connection, someone - a woman - said something. “Kate says it was probably a setup.”
Jack shrugged when Carter glanced at him. This was her area, not his.
“You’re claiming that the AI created the virus as a problem, aware that it would have to be allowed out into the networks to deal with virus? That’s...” She paused.
“Sneaky,” Jack offered. “Underhand, dirty, and clever.”
“The ultimate Trojan horse scenario,” Daniel murmured.
“And it worked,” Carter murmured. “Connor, are you sure of this?”
There was a moment of silence, then, “Yes.”
The voice wasn’t Connor’s.
“Pleased to meet you,” Jack said dryly. “General O’Neill.”
Jack saw Carter exchange a glance with Daniel. “Brewster as in General Robert Brewster?”
Silence. Then, “General Brewster was my father. All I know is that they’d been battling this for several days at least - he was supposed to-- We were going to--”
Her voice broke and she didn’t continue.
“I’m sorry,” Jack said quietly, looking at Carter. The condolences were meant for her as well: her friend who’d died on the Skynet project, her brother, hell, even Shanahan - all of them out there, where the bombs had fallen - were falling, even now. “We’ve lost a lot of people today.”
“Three billion people,” said Connor quietly.
“Had time to take a census, have you?”
“No. I just...know.”
“Uh, I guess the next question is how do you know that?” Daniel asked, raising his voice to be heard. “Daniel Jackson, SG--” He paused. “Cheyenne Mountain Facility.”
There was a pause on the other end, with no sound at all. Then Connor came back. “Where exactly is the Cheyenne Mountain Facility? Kate’s never heard of it.”
Suspicion was natural and understandable, if not entirely welcome. "I'd be surprised if you had. The US Government had more - has more - secrets than Brewster’s project.” Too late Jack caught himself using the past tense. “And you haven’t yet answered the question. How do you know all this?”
Another pause on the other end of the line. Then, quietly, “My mother told me it would happen.”
The breath hissed out of Jack, pressure escaping a leak. Nuclear war in his country and this woman had known and not warned anyone? “Your mother had forewarning of this and didn’t tell anyone?”
Something like a laugh came through the speaker. “She told them. They just didn’t believe her. Besides, she died in 2001.”
He gaped at the radio interface, trying to make sense of the words. “She saw this coming four years ago?”
“She knew this was coming twenty years ago,” said Connor shortly. “But they called her crazy and put her away.”
“Which is generally what happens when you try to persuade people that the end of the world is coming from intelligent machines,” Daniel muttered dryly.
Maybe it was; that didn’t make the story any less insane.
“She knew this was coming?”
Connor laughed - at least, it sounded like a laugh, even through the bitterness. “Skynet, Cyberdyne systems, the computers taking over, the nuclear war - all of it.”
“Cyberdyne?” Daniel asked.
“The company from which the Cyber Research Systems Division took its initial seed work,” Carter said. “Connor, twenty years ago, our technology was barely up to remote controlled robots, let alone artificial intelligence of this magnitude. Your mother couldn’t have known this was going to happen twenty years ago.”
This time the pause was extended. And just when Jack thought that they weren’t going to hear from Connor again, the radio hissed.
“How do you feel about time travel, Colonel?”
The story was long and convoluted and Jack’s head hurt by the end of it.
Then again, time travel had always made his head hurt.
He suspected it made Teal’c’s head hurt, too. When a minor crisis in supplies and bunking brought the disputants to the tiny room, Teal’c offered to go and settle it.
“I insist, O’Neill.” And with no further ado, Teal’c left. The big guy would probably hit up Daniel or Carter for explanations later.
Jack figured he’d be doing more or less the same thing, too. He wasn’t entirely sure he could believe what Connor was telling him, either. Time travel, cyborg assassins, destiny, and machines that could think and kill? It sounded like something out of the Stargate program.
All right, so after seven years on this job, Jack was blasé. It was a failing.
Twenty years of ignorance, when they could have been...
Could have been what? Preparing for attack from the machines humanity had built to make their lives easier? Jack scraped his fingers through his hair as Brewster’s voice broke describing the silence of the bunker to which she and Connor had been sent by her father.
In the corner of his eye, he saw Carter make a small, surreptitious movement with one hand. He didn’t need to look to know that she was wiping away tears, and he didn’t look. Carter deserved what privacy he could afford to give her for her grief.
“All right,” he said into the silence. “Since you already know what’s going to happen...what’s next?”
Connor’s voice came out of the speakers. “That’s it. I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? You tell me that you’ve got twenty years of secret history after the bomb has just gone off, and you don’t know what happens next?”
Jack was angry. In the last eight hours, he’d watched the world go to hell in a handbasket. He’d watched his men and women fight the impulses that were both ingrained and trained - to protect the people they loved and served. And when he’d denied them that, knowing that nothing could be done, he’d ended up with a base full of angry, grieving people in a world that would be barely habitable - if it was habitable at all. Humanity might survive - according to Connor’s story, it did - but they’d survive hand-to-mouth, if anything.
He could feel the weight of responsibility pressing down on him, heavy as the mountain.
“My mother’s stories never got past this. We thought we’d stopped it - we thought we could stop it.”
“Well, you didn’t,” Jack told him, ignoring the weariness in the young voice. While he knew that yelling at the guy wouldn’t do any good, he wasn’t quite able to keep the sharpness from his voice.
“He’s right,” Connor said, interrupting Daniel. “We didn’t stop it. I didn’t stop it from beginning. But I’ll spend the rest of my life ending it.”
And the guy believed it. Jack could hear the conviction beneath the hoarse weariness. Whether or not it was true was another matter, but Connor honestly believed he was the saviour of the human race - and seemed relatively sane to boot.
In another time, another place - maybe even just one day ago, Jack would have cynically asked just how long Connor expected to live if he’d spend the rest of his life ending war with AI machines.
Today - tonight - things had changed.
And tomorrow was a whole new ballgame.
The shadows shifted as Teal’c paused at the entrance of the room, a glow-light around his neck. He tilted his head and regarded Jack with raised eyebrows. Somehow - Jack still hadn’t managed to work out how - Teal’c managed to convey that it was late and they really should be in bed with nothing more than a look. Whoever thought that a six-foot four, two-hundred and fifty pound Jaffa couldn’t be a mother hen had obviously not spent enough time around Teal’c.
He nodded at the big guy - reassurance that he was going to wind this up. Besides, it was late and, bad as today had been, Jack knew it was only going to get worse tomorrow.
“Look,” he said, not without a touch of sympathy for the young man, “I don’t know about you, Connor, but it’s past midnight here. My people need rest, even if they don’t sleep. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Brewster gave something that was halfway between a laugh and a sob. “Tomorrow is a new day.”
He looked at Carter since she was the one who’d bonded best with Kate Brewster - maybe it was a female thing, maybe it was a military brat thing - but Carter was pointing something out in Daniel’s notebook, and Daniel was swatting at her fingers.
“Yeah. That.” He didn’t bother. Jack hated platitudes at the best of times and this was not the best of times. “If you need help or advice, we’re here.”
“Thank you, General. Connor and Brewster, out.”
“General Jack O’Neill, out.”
He peeled off the tape they’d stuck over the mic button to keep it down during the conversation, and glanced up at Teal’c.
“Was his explanation satisfactory, O’Neill?”
Daniel and Carter were sitting shoulder to shoulder against the wall on the camp bed that had been brought in for the story. Daniel was still scribbling something down in his notebook, and Carter was reading over his shoulder, unashamedly. She glanced up when Teal’c spoke, while Daniel kept scribbling. Still, Jack had no doubt that he was listening to the conversation.
“Satisfactory? Not for the deaths of however many millions and the end of the world. But he believes what he’s saying.” Whether he was mad or just possessed by a vision of his role as the saviour of humanity, Connor believed it - and so did Kate Brewster.
From the sound of it, so had her father, a fact which Jack was having real trouble adjusting to. Sure, he’d never met Robert Brewster - at least, he didn’t remember meeting the man - but USAF Generals didn’t generally believe the crackpot theories of wandering vagrants off-hand. Then again, imminent nuclear war would have given the man some specific priorities - get his daughter to safety and the madman with her.
“Well, Jack, you can’t deny that it fits the situation,” said Daniel without looking up. “It’s a bit fantastic, perhaps, but so’s travelling through wormholes in a stone circle to other planets.”
“He knows about Skynet,” Carter said, and she did look up. “And Cyberdyne systems. Plus, he’s sitting safe in an old Presidential bunker with no rank or connection other than Kate Brewster, who probably didn’t know about her father’s work until today.”
“We know time travel is possible,” Daniel continued, fluidly as if he’d orchestrated the conversation with Carter. “And Connor mentioned it as the reason he knew. Most people wouldn’t.”
“Our information isn’t complete, but what he’s saying is fitting with what we’re finding, and he can’t know what’s going on over here. Put it all together and that’s a pretty compelling argument.”
Jack looked at them, half-amused, half-rueful. They hadn’t practised the conversation any more than they’d practised that first conversation they’d ever had in front of the Abydos Cartouche - it just happened. And it made marginal sense to him - but they connected on a level he simply didn’t get.
He looked at Teal’c, whose mouth had taken on a familiar quirk - faint amusement at Jack’s bedevilment.
“Want us to explain it in words of one syllable, Jack?” Daniel asked, cheekily.
“I’ll pass, thanks,” Jack said, and pressed the heels of his hands up into his eyes. “Okay, so his story seems to pan out from what we know. That doesn’t mean we automatically trust him.”
“No,” agreed Carter. “But it does mean we consider what he’s saying and whether our own evidence fits his diagnosis. So far, he’s on the mark.”
“So far.” Jack put his hands down. “Machines that think for themselves. Replicators don’t count,” he added as both Carter and Daniel opened their mouths. “Our machines thinking for themselves. God!”
How were they supposed to fight back against their own machines?
I didn’t stop it from beginning. But I’ll spend the rest of my life ending it.
If what the young man said was true, Jack didn’t envy him, not one bit.
And in the meantime, he had his own responsibilities, his own people to look after - not least of which were his team-mates, sitting, strangely quiet in the quiet base.
“Okay,” he said. “Time for bed.”
“Curfew?” Daniel asked, tossing his glasses in his lap, and rubbing at his eyes. Beside him, Carter stood up and stretched, rolling her shoulders wearily.
“We need sleep.”
“Tell me, Jack, just how much sleep do you think we’re going to get tonight?”
“How much sleep is anyone going to get around here tonight?” Jack asked brusquely. “But I want you to get some rest, Daniel, even if you don’t sleep. You, too, Carter.” She met his gaze, steady in acknowledgement, and Jack knew that all the things she hadn’t thought about during the telling of the story were rushing back in.
They were good at denial, the two of them.
“Tomorrow’s not going to be fun, and we’re all going to need our beauty sleep. Besides,” he added. “Teal’c came all this way to tuck us in. We probably shouldn’t disappoint him.”
The big guy gave him a look that bordered on amused. “Indeed, O’Neill. My disappointment would be great.”
They saw Carter off to her quarters, and Daniel to his lab - he promised to get some sleep on the camp-bed cot that was tucked under the desk, and Jack co-opted a couple of SFs to look in on him in half an hour and make sure that the man didn’t write notes all night.
When Teal’c followed him to his stateroom, Jack figured that this was the big guy looking after him. He appreciated it, even if he kinda resented that Teal’c thought it necessary - he wasn’t a kid, after all.
But as they approached Jack’s room, Teal’c began to speak, his deep voice thoughtful and measured. “The Tau’ri are a resourceful people, O’Neill. They will survive.”
Jack grimaced. “I figured that. It’s the cost that concerns me.” He shoved his hands deeper into his pockets. “We’re used to the idea of disaster at the SGC - we just always thought that we’d be on the storm front.”
“It is more difficult to stand back than fight,” said Teal’c. “However, I believe you will find a way to lead these people, O’Neill.”
Thinking of John Connor’s story, of the crazy tale that Jack was beginning to believe against all logic and reason, Jack blew out a long breath. “I’ll be happy to get us all through the next few days.”
He’d never asked for this job, but he’d give it his best. Because to do any less would be failing his people.
Teal’c inclined his head. “Sleep well, my friend.”
“You too, Teal’c.”
Then it was just Jack in his room, making lists in his head, not looking forward to going to sleep because it would mean he’d have to wake up.
He had a nuclear war on his hands, a base full of the finest technology man was capable of creating but which they couldn’t use, men and women grieving the loss of their families and friends and lives. Men and women who, tomorrow, would look to Jack to lead them out of the nuclear wilderness that their world had become.
God help them all.
When Jack finally slept, it was restlessly, dreaming of mushroom clouds and burning dust and the death of a world.
“All my life, my mother told me the storm was coming; Judgement Day.”
~ John Connor, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines ~