George relished most aspects of his retirement. Coming home to West Texas satisfied him down to his bones. He'd bought back the ranch that once belonged to his Hammond grandparents. It felt good to live in a place so connected to his past and his family. He loved his grand-daughters with an uncritical love that couldn't exist between parent and child and the girls loved him back. He missed his wife, but he did not feel alone. He did not miss waking each morning to the back-breaking weight of being responsible for the lives of the men and women under his command and eventually the fate of the planet.
He remembered every soldier he'd lost, but he'd served long and with honor. It was time to pass the burden to younger, stronger shoulders, and he had done so.
No regrets, but he missed the people who had become more than subordinates. He would admit to missing the adrenaline that came with danger and the rush of relief when it was faced down, and, God knows, he missed knowing about those dangers.
Every time he spent a day with his grand-daughters – and he was grateful beyond words that they and their parents came back to Texas with him – he couldn't help but wonder how close threats most people on the planet had no – clue existed were looming. He still had most of his clearances, but Hank Landry was a territorial jackass, who did his best to make sure George didn't know much of what went on under the Mountain any longer.
Jack O'Neill had become a friend and not just a soldier George respected. They'd shared a glass of whiskey on the worst nights, when they'd lost people Earth could not afford to lose, and toasted them. Feretti, Kawalsky, McKay in his irascible brilliance, Jake Carter, Samantha and all the Atlantis Expedition when the months stretched to years with no contact, and Daniel, Janet Frasier and the Novak girl, when he'd lost Prometheus and the last chance to reach Pegasus.
He knew Jack would warn him if things ever went too far south. If Jack could. George knew how fast things could go from situation normal to all fucked up. These days, he found out about things after they'd happened.
He considered whether to make his dinner now or take a glass of whiskey out to the deep porch that wrapped around the old house and watch the sunset first. After years buried deep beneath Cheyenne Mountain, the flat empty stretch of the landscape made him feel like he could breathe, so though many wouldn't have considered the view much, he took it in regularly. It helped him relax as much as the whiskey did.
The knock on his door mad George jolt. There had been no telltale rumble of a car rolling up the long gravel road from the nearest highway. If he'd been down south near the border, he might have worried about coyotes and cartel smugglers, but his stretch of Texas was too far from the Rio Grande to ever reach on foot. The lackof any audible vehicle dinged his internal alarms.
His heart beat a little faster as he walked to the door, detouring to his desk to retrieve a handgun – Jack had offered to smuggle out a zat for him, but George had demurred. Too much danger of it falling into the wrong hands. The hardwood floors creaked under his feet. There was one way he knew about that most people didn't for someone to show up in the middle of nowhere without a sound.
He straightened his shoulders and put on a calm face before opening his front door. Panicking wouldn't do any good for anyone.
Jack O'Neill's hair was even more salt than pepper than even the last time George had seen him. Little surprise. George had chosen him to take over the military side of the SGC because he knew Jack would take it seriously. Like the presidency, the SGC was a twenty-four-hour job that aged a man fast.
Another familiar form, lurked behind Jack. George's eyes weren't as good as they'd been even two years ago. The glare from the setting sun kept him from recognizing the man, until he shifted and squinted and the light glinted off wire-frame glasses.
"Jack," George said and held out his hand to shake and then, warmly, because his worries weren't gone, but a feeling of relief still bloomed in his chest. "Dr. Jackson."
"General," Jack said. He shook hands firmly then stepped aside. "I thought you'd appreciate some good news. Danny's back!"
"Dr. Jackson," George repeated, his voice choked. He wondered what this meant for Frasier and Novak. Where they alive too? He stepped back and gestured both men to come inside. "It's damn good to see you, son."
"General Hammond," Jackson replied with one of his tight smiles. He scuffed the dust off his boots. Jackson raised his eyebrows in silent question to whether he should remove his boots. George smiled at him and gestured to his own worn cowboy boots. Without his wife to fuss over it, he didn't care to much about the floors beyond keeping them clean. "Sorry to just show up."
"I've seldom had a better surprise."
"Yeah, this isn't an 'all is lost, flee' visit," Jack said as he strolled in. He had his hands in the pockets of his BDUs. Jackson had on a mixture of boots, a black t-shirt, leather and homespun that George could guess he'd picked up on some other planet.
Jackson looked good though: healthy and at ease. Not like he'd endured any of the hells George had known he might face after the piracy. He didn't carry quite as much muscle as he had while he'd been running around hell and gone with SG-1, but he was fit. It was terribly good to see him, safe and alive.
"Thor beamed us both right down," Jack said. He stopped in the living room, taking in the fieldstone fireplace, the Charlie Russell prints on the walls, and the comfortable furniture as if he'd never seen it before. "It's good to be back."
"Back from where?" George asked.
"Oh," Jack waved a dégagé hand, "Pegasus."
"Atlantis," Jackson clarified.
George felt his eyebrows lift higher than normal. The Prometheus had been bound for Pegasus when it was taken, but they had no clue where it had disappeared. How had Jackson made it to Atlantis after all?
"I feel like this is going to be a long story," George said. "Take a seat. Dr. Jackson, would you like a beer or something else?"
"Oh, a real beer sounds good."
"Me too," Jack added with a near pout. He dropped down onto the leather couch George's daughter-in-law had picked out and then rubbed one of his knees. "Danny's finally come around to appreciating a good beer."
Jackson sat down at the other end of the couch. "They have beer in Pegasus. It's just not very good. Ruus wine, though, I should have brought some bottles."
George fetched beer for all of them and sat down in his recliner.
Jack took a long swallow and said, "Sit back, George, because this is a hell of story. When Thor got the Jacob Carter to Pegasus, we found Atlantis right in the middle of fighting off some real baddies called the Wraith. Looked like they weren't going to win, but the captain of the Prometheus – "
"The Revenge now, Jack," Daniel corrected him primly.
Jack snorted loudly. "Whatever. Mal Doran is slick. She tricked that Wraith Hive into following her right into the Death Moon's kill zone. Atlantis had already taken out one hive, which just left one. After they suicide nuked it – "
"And you let everyone think Jehan was dead."
"I like to play my hands close to my chest." Jack had that look George recognized; he'd screwed the pooch somehow and wanted to skip as much of that part as possible. Jackson had always been good at calling Jack on his mistakes. George might as well sit back and enjoy the show.
"You were going to use him as a hostage to get the Revenge back and while Meredith already hated your guts, you nearly made an enemy out of everyone else on Atlantis."
Ah. There it was. George sighed and decided he was grateful Jack's faux pas were no longer his problem. He turned to Jackson. "Doctor, maybe you could tell me what happened? Briefly."
Jack opened his mouth and then closed it. Jackson took over smoothly, providing a quick precis of what had happened from the time the Prometheus was lost up to the arrival of the Jacob Carter as a coalition of Pegasus natives, pirates and the Atlantis expedition survivors led by Samantha Carter defended themselves against an attack by the Wraith – a species that had driven the Ancients to flee Pegasus and abandon Atlantis.
George sighed to himself. Of course, they'd found a new enemy. That was just what Earth needed.
Jackson twisted his bottle between his hands before nodding. "Janet and Lindsay are both okay. Janet stayed on Atlantis, Lindsay's on the Revenge."
Revenge. No longer the Prometheus. George had winced when he realized the ship had been taken by just two pirates. At least they hadn't treated the people they kept badly; Jackson sounded nearly fond of them.
"The little Napoleon gets to rule over an entire city, a defense satellite, a warship and anyone else she can get her hands on," Jack added. "My ass still hurts from the needle she got me with for Kurzen – "
" – Fever."
"They stole the ship to rescue their regular engineer from the Oranians," Jackson said.
"Honestly, you'd think the Oranians would have been happy to get rid of him," Jack remarked.
"You know, that attitude is why he nearly broke your jaw."
There was a lot more to this story than Jackson's summary had included, George could tell. He'd have to just relax and piece it together from what slipped out while they sniped at each other. "Really, Jack?" George teased. "Are you getting old?" Jack seemed to have got off on the wrong foot with the people in Pegasus to judge by his sour expression. "Can't duck a punch?"
"Hey, I wasn't expecting it from him!" Jack protested. He rubbed his hand over his jaw and looked a little shame-faced. "I sorta deserved it."
"I'm not the only person who isn't dead after all," Jackson explained. "Rodney McKay is alive and well and third in command of the Revenge."
George tensed at the implications. The Tok'ra had lied. "The Tok'ra told us he was dead when they admitted he was a host." He'd never been satisfied with the Tok'ra explanations, but there had been nothing to do when McKay was already dead. Another failure on George's part.
"Actually, they told us Jolinar was dead," Jack said. "They never mentioned McKay either way. We assumed." He'd never liked the Tok'ra. George had considered them a necessary evil and reserved his judgement. Earth needed allies and intelligence – the Tok'ra had provided both at little cost to the Stargate Program. Maybe they'd all been too willing to write off their doubts about the Tok'ra under exigencies of war.
George wasn't one to curse often, but this rated it. "God damn it to hell."
Jack nodded. "Pretty much where he told me and the rest of the SGC to go after he punched me."
Cheery as Jack had been playing it, the rest of the story turned grim. The Wraith would be a major threat to Earth and the entire Milky Way if they ever reached it. They'd defeated the Ancients. Sumner had chosen death over betraying Earth's coordinates to them. Expedition scientists had been coerced into building nuclear weapons for another group. George had seldom disliked a group as much as he disliked what he heard of the Genii. Dr. Jackson, the calmest and most sympathetic and understanding of men, obviously felt the same. He described the Genii as thugs, "Authoritarian and fascistic. Oh, and obsessive and paranoid."
"Yeah, they're the bad guys," Jack added. "Good thing no one likes them anymore."
"We didn’t like them before. No one likes them now." Jackson smiled nastily. "It was Vala's idea to spread the word the Genii were behind the bomb on Dagan and that was what woke the Wraith."
George suppressed a smile, but worried. He wasn't surprised that Dr. Jackson had taken the chance to reach Atlantis. But he clearly identified with the people now holding it, including the pirate crew. There would be questions from the IOA over his loyalties.
"Jehan's ATA gene lit up Atlantis the minute we came through the gate," Jackson said. He glanced at Jack. "It's stronger than Jack's expression."
"And Jehan is…?" George prompted, because Jack looked constipated at the name.
"Vala's second in command. He helped her take the Prometheus." Jackson leveled a mocking look toward Jack. "The one Jack tried to hold hostage."
"Really, Jack?" George gibed. Jack rarely got off on the wrong foot, but it sounded like he'd done it spectacularly this time. George had no sympathy for the pirates, but he'd shaken hands with worse. Jack knew better than to provoke potential allies.
"Yeah," Jackson said quietly. "Jehan may as well be an Ancient as far as Atlantis is concerned. He's Mer's partner. Mer – Rodney. Without them, Kolya would have killed everyone." He swallowed. "I watched Kolya's man peel the skin off Mer's arm to get him to give up who had the ATA, but he wouldn't. And without Jehan, we'd all be dead. Letting us think he was dead made Jack really unpopular."
Imagining the Rodney McKay George had known enduring torture was difficult, but he had to have changed. He'd been left for dead and survived on his own. It was the SGC's loss.
Dusk settled its purple cloak over the Texas plains. George switched on small lamp and let its glow light the room, but left the corners in shadow.
Jackson went on with his narrative . They'd established themselves in Atlantis, restored a defense satellite, and braced themselves for a Wraith attack. The pirates had stayed to help defend the city.
Jack waggled his eyebrows at Jackson; George wondered if he thought that was a subtle signal. Jackson sighed and glanced at his empty beer bottle, clearly searching for some excuse to leave so Jack could talk to George privately. "Sir, if you don't mind?" he asked.
"You only rent beer, Danny," Jack told him. He'd barely touched his own bottle.
Jackson sighed as if in exasperation, a silent 'why are you such a child' writ on his face.
"Down the hall, second door on the left," George told him.
Jack waited until Jackson had gone and the quiet sound of the washroom door closing sounded. "There's something else, sir," he told George seriously.
"Something Dr. Jackson doesn't know?"
Jack spat it out fast. "Jehan abd-Ba'al is from Earth. I don't know if Danny knows or not. Jehan made it damned clear he wants nothing to do with the Tau'ri or Earth."
"The pirate second in command, the one with the ATA gene," George asked to be sure he was clear, "is from Earth. How? There are no unaccounted for personnel."
"Apophis' Jaffa took two of our people when he showed up, remember? Before the program."
George remembered. Not many in the SGC would, not the way the men they lost to Ra were remembered or the gate team casualties, but George had been in command of the Mountain. He'd written the condolence letters.
"Sgt. Kettering and Major Sheppard."
"Sheppard," Jack confirmed. It felt like a leaden weight taking up a place behind George's heart, next to the guilt over Rodney McKay. It took up the place the news that Dr. Jackson, Janet and Ms. Novak along with most of the Expedition were alive had vacated. He winced as Jack spat out the rest. "Apophis gave him to Ba'al as a gift. A couple years ago, Vala stole him from Ba'al – him and a ship. She likes to brag about both."
"Dr. Jackson made it sound as if Dr. McKay is very close to him."
"Yeah, they're… close." Jack looked uncomfortable. "Real close."
Ah. That… that really didn't matter. George had never cared about that sort of thing. In face of enslavement by the Goa'uld, after what the man had gone through, how could anyone? He squeezed his eyes shut, faced his own guilt, and opened them to meet Jack's gaze. "We never looked for him," he stated. Just like McKay, except McKay had known what he was facing going through the stargate. Dear God. Did their ignorance excuse them? Him? "I suppose he's bitter."
"He never told Ba'al where he came from," Jack explained. "Never told him anything. He's a closed-mouth bastard. Didn't have any chance to escape because he knew fuck all about the stargate when they took him. He had no idea how to get back, didn't even know Earth had survived until they hooked up with McKay."
"Did you bring him back with you?"
"I'd have started a war if I tried. Sam's not giving up Atlantis to anyone without a fight. Novak's gone completely native.. Frasier stayed, like Danny said. I brought back bodies and reports and fifteen people, mostly scientists. The rest of them – the only way they're coming back to Earth is as prisoners."
"I don't envy you explaining this to the IOA," George said.
"Yeah, that's going to be a blast." Jack sighed. "I could use your advice, sir. On the IOA. And on Sheppard. I don't have absolute proof Jehan abd-Ba'al is Major Sheppard. Should I just leave it? What good would it be to tell his family, well, what the hell would we tell them?"
Sheppard had a father and brother, but they hadn't been listed as his legal next of kin or heirs. George remembered dealing with the paperwork.
Jack was mumbling sardonically: "It's all classified, folks. He's alive. He wants nothing to do with you. No, we can't tell you where he is or how to contact him."
George understood Jack's dilemma. "I can't tell you what to do, Jack." Even if he was willing, he sorely doubted the IOA would agree with his opinions.
"But, sir, that's why I came here first," Jack protested. "What would you do?"
"Could knowing who he is help the SGC at some point?"
"I don't know."
"Did he want you to tell his family?"
"Nope. Made it clear as glass he wanted nothing to do with anyone from Earth, in fact. Tried to shoot Teal'c too."
George turned it around. "Could you knowing and no one else help the SGC at some point?" Revealing Major Sheppard was alive would make the SGC look bad, but holding onto the knowledge might, eventually, be an ace up Jack's sleeve. That was what Jack wanted to do or he'd never have come to George about it. It was no more or less a problem than Novak's defection or the Expedition members refusing to return. Some days George was very glad to be retired. Even good news generated paperwork, but there was no more paperwork and meetings for him.
Jack narrowed his eyes and began nodding. "Thank you for your advice, sir," he said as Daniel came back into the living room.
Jack rose to his feet from the couch. "Think it's time to go, Danny Boy."
"General, it was very good to see you again," Jackson said.
"I feel the same, Doctor."
He walked them to the door and watched as they went down the porch steps. They were engulfed in a white column of light an instant later and then gone. George lingered in the doorway a few minutes longer. The smell of sage and dust was stronger after dark and the sun had set while his visitors were inside. The stars were diamonds spilled across the arc of the night sky, so bright he could see by their light. They'd been out of reach once, in George's living memory. Now they were just a step through the stargate.
Looking up, he still felt awed by their implacable presence, fierce as the sun no matter how far away they seemed.
He straightened his posture, though there was no one to see him slump, and gave a small nod to himself. He returned the pistol he'd kept on him throughout their visit to his desk. When he poured himself that whiskey he'd meant to sip while watching the sunset, he raised it and toasted everyone from Jack and Dr. Jackson's story, even the pirates.