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The Nexus

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January 4, 2005

Peterson AFB, Colorado Springs

Of course, Daniel met him at the airfield.

Jack had only said he’d see his friend Tuesday afternoon. He hadn’t given a flight number or time of arrival from D.C.  Either Daniel had charmed someone to get the details, or he’d been waiting at Peterson all day. Odds were higher for the latter; either way, there he was, ready to take his old friend home on this bitterly cold winter day.

Daniel hugged him as soon as he could get close enough.

“You okay, Jack?” he asked, his voice low enough that only the other man could hear him as they stood on the busy tarmac.

“Is my face still red?” Jack felt the lightness of the rank insignia on his uniform. That was foolish; there was so little difference that no one could actually sense the weight of it, but he’d been a General, for cryin’ out loud, and now he’d been busted down to Major for allowing Carter to deal with RepliCarter one-on-one.

He’d known in his gut that it was a bad decision when he’d let her go to the meeting. They’d managed to pull their asses out of the fire on that one, but the breach of security had been massive. She had basically handed over to the enemy the only weapon they had to defend themselves against the little buggers. Now the only thing keeping them away from Earth was the higher technology buffet that was the new Asgard homeworld. Carter’s actions would most likely result in the extinction of their greatest ally in the universe.

It wasn’t the first time Carter had let that kind of information slip, either. She’d practically handed Linea the keys to the SGC base and allowed the Destroyer of Worlds to escape. She had a habit of buckling under pressure, especially if she saw her CO in danger. On more than one occasion she’d broken cover during a firefight, putting herself and other teammates at risk when her job was to stay at her post and do her job regardless of her feelings.

The Joint Chiefs had relieved them both of command only hours after Prometheus had left with General Hammond and Daniel. Jack had been remanded to base quarters in D.C., and Carter had been taken straight to a jail cell. The MPs who had made the trip with them from Colorado Springs hadn’t let them even speak to each other, and upon arrival, no one would tell him anything, only that they were there for court martial proceedings.

The next day, testimony began. He’d had to look her in the eye while he recounted his warnings to her, even her refusal to obey a direct order to destroy the RepliCarter and return to the SGC. She had been emotionally compromised, and knew it. So had he.

Then others had come to testify. When Daniel and Hammond had returned on Prometheus, they’d each had a turn, and then been sent home immediately without a chance to speak to Jack or Carter.

George had been grieving. Daniel was shocked and worried. Teal’c… as always, quietly accepting that Carter would not be coming back.

The Jaffa had been with Sam during that cock-up. He’d watched her compromise herself and their security over and over again. He’d warned her repeatedly but she’d blown him off, listening with her heart and not her head.

Jack believed she might still pull a brilliant idea to stop the Replicators out of her ass, but she couldn’t do that from where they’d sent her. She’d never work on another classified project as long as she lived.

Carter was doing a life sentence for treason in California, so she could be near her family.

That had been the only mercy the Joint Chiefs had allowed her, as payment for her past service to her world.

The judgment still stung, but Jack understood it. He’d been too close to see how reckless Carter had become, how emotional her judgments were, until it was too late. Even after the incident, he’d told her that it wasn’t her fault, though he’d known better.

So had she.

Daniel didn’t say anything else as Jack collected his luggage from the cart beside the cargo plane. He’d been too busy trying to avoid looking at the redhead behind him, a stocking cap scrunched down to her auburn eyebrows. She’d done a decent job of keeping out of Jack’s direct line of sight, but he’d noticed her right away.

“Isn’t she a little young for you?” Jack asked his friend quietly as he pulled out the towing handle on his hardsider suitcase.

“This way,” Daniel gestured, leading his friend toward the parking lot where he’d left his car. “And it’s not what you think. I’ll explain later.”

The girl kept to Daniel’s left shoulder, head on a swivel. When he got into the driver’s seat, she eased into the back seat in perfect synch. Jack rode shotgun, keeping an eye on her peripherally. She looked like any other young woman in her late teens/early twenties, but there was a sense of alertness about her that indicated far more going on under the surface.

She was watching him as closely as he was watching her.

All the way home Jack didn’t say a word, but rather than dropping him off, Daniel followed him inside like he belonged there.

The young woman remained on the doorstep outside, executing a smart pivot to keep watch on the street.

While Jack was unpacking, Daniel was in the kitchen making himself some coffee and getting his friend a beer.

When O’Neill didn’t appear in the living room after the appropriate interval, Daniel went searching for him.

“I’m not here to talk about it,” Daniel assured him when he found Jack in his office. “I know you don’t want to. We’re all still hurting about the verdict.”

Jack rolled his eyes up to the other man. “It was my fault, Daniel. My decision. It should’ve been me who went to prison.”

Daniel shook his head. “You had some idea what she might do, but you were very clear about not sharing the intel with RepliCarter. Disobeying a direct order was her decision, not yours. She knew the risks, Jack. She’s just too trusting.”

But O’Neill had known exactly what she’d do, and he’d let her go because both of them had been hoping to get more information out of the machine. They’d hoped too hard that the android had been telling the truth, and that hope had bitten them both on the ass. The fall had been hard for him, but Carter would be paying for the rest of her life for the misjudgment. It wasn’t fair.

Daniel sighed, a sound of impatience and frustration. “Look, Jack, I didn’t come here to talk about that. I came to invite you to be on my team.”

“What?” Jack wasn’t sure if that phrasing meant… “You mean, back on SG-1?”

The slightest smile played around Daniel’s mouth as he shook his head. “No, I’ve been in negotiations with General Hammond at Homeworld Security the whole time you were gone. See, I had this idea for a new kind of team. We don’t do any of the initial exploring or first contact stuff. There are plenty of SG teams for that. Our team, SG-Zed, is strictly for diplomatic relations and long-term archaeological and anthropological explorations.”

His grin widened. “And it’s under my command.”

The younger man was positively beaming.

Jack felt a knot forming in the pit of his stomach, the knell of doom ringing in his ears. “Ah, Jeez! You’re gonna get killed out there, Daniel!”

But Jackson’s excitement was building. “We’ve already been out on several missions, Jack. It’s not like we’re all academics, either. There are three – and with you, four – military personnel at all times in the unit. Our makeup is actually kind of fluid, depending on the mission. Right now there are four scientists including myself on the team, and best of all, not all of us are human! Hammond and I thought—“

“Daniel.”

“— such a team would be a perfect training unit for both soldiers and scientists from Earth and among our allies, and it’s been successful beyond our—“

“Daniel.”

“—wildest dreams!  I came specifically to ask you—“

“DANIEL!!!”

Jackson’s mouth drew up in a bow. His eyes widened. “Jack?”

“If you’re going out there, so am I,” he ground out. “I’m not gonna let anything happen to you. Not ever.”

Daniel sighed, wilting a little with relief. “Good! Thank you. I was terrified you were going to retire, and I really, really need you on this team.”

He gave that nervous ‘I’m in deep shit’ smile that spoke volumes to Jack.

“What did you do, Daniel?”

Jackson stood up, scratching his cheek with one finger. He started pacing, coffee cup in hand.

O’Neill stood up, too. He knew in advance that, when Daniel answered, it would come out in a single, breathless sentence spoken too fast to understand, and that he’d sling the cup off to one side when he used his hands in that supplication gesture, not even remembering that he was still holding the mug. Coffee would be spilled.

Jack caught the mug on cue.

“Again. Slower. I can’t listen as fast as you talk, and you don’t come with subtitles.” He piloted Daniel back into the kitchen and put the cup down on the counter.

“I… um… saved a queen on another planet, and she… uh… gave me one of her… bodyguards.” He studied the floor, his cheeks going pink with embarrassment. “Actually, they gave me to her.”

“Oh, Daniel.” Jack shook his head. “The redhead?”

“She won’t leave me alone for a minute! It’s kinda driving me a little nuts.”

This is why you need a keeper, Daniel.” He waved toward the front door. “Bring her in.”

After another heavy sigh, Daniel meandered over to the door. He hesitated, hand on the knob. “She’s way older than she looks. Couple hundred years, in fact. Older than Teal’c.”

“Daniel.” The warning tone in Jack’s voice said, ‘Just get on with it.’

Jackson opened the door, stuck his head out and gestured. Then he pulled the door open fully to admit his ‘keeper.’

She was tiny, quite human looking until she took off the knitted slouch hat that revealed the long, pointed tips of her ears. Copper hair framed a gorgeous, freckle-less face with delicate features and big blue-green eyes. Her face was so round and fresh looking that she couldn’t possibly be more than twenty.

“Daniel,” observed Jack evenly, “she’s an elf.”

“Um, Tuatha de Dannan, to be precise,” Jackson corrected. “Major Jack O’Neill, this is Tzatzil.” He gave a frustrated little half-smile boring into his left cheek and cleared his throat. “My bodyguard for life.”

Turning to the redhead, he finished up the introduction. “Tzatzil, this is Jack.”

Jack shot Daniel a look that said, ‘I’ll never be able to remember her name, much less pronounce it.’

Daniel nodded. “Everyone on the team has a one-syllable nickname, for emergencies. Hers is Zazz.”

O’Neill held out a hand and gave her a courtly bow that he reserved for little girls. “Pleased to meet you, Zazz. I’m Jack O’Neill.”

The girl’s emotionless mask broke into a beaming smile accentuated with prominent, sharp-looking canines. She giggled. “I have heard so much about you, Major O’Neill! Your journeys through the Ring are legendary, and you are such a good friend to my Daniel! You and I will become best friends, also!”

“Tzatzil,” Daniel called, “the kitchen is that way. I’m sure you must be thirsty. Jack keeps some bottled water in the fridge.”

“Okay!”

When she was out of their space, Jack turned back to his friend with arched eyebrows. “Two hundred, you say? It sounded like every sentence she said had exclamation points. She must be exhausting.”

Daniel nodded. “When she’s in ‘guard’ mode, she’s totally different, but when we’re in a safe place…” He flapped a hand toward the kitchen. Then he mouthed the word, ‘help’ and shrugged.

Jack nodded. “Just needs some training, is all. How long…?”

“Couple weeks.”

“You didn’t accidentally marry her, right?”

“Oh, God, no!” The thought brought obvious horror to the young man’s face. He recoiled.

“But still, a gift you can’t return.”

Daniel sighed and nodded, his frustration obvious.

Jack just patted his shoulder. “Then I guess you’ll be on the couch when you stay over.”

“Nope.” The pop on the end of that word clearly illustrated Daniel’s tense emotional state. “She sleeps on a cot next to my bed and God help anyone who tries to stop her!”

Daniel leaned closer, drawing his hands up in a distressed, praying position, again mouthing , ‘Help!’

“I got this,” Jack assured him with a pat on the shoulder. “You go on back to the base. I’ll be on my way a little later, after I’ve had a word.”

Carefully, Daniel headed for the door on tiptoe. He turned the knob slowly, opened the door without a sound and slipped outside, drawing it closed after him… but there was the tiniest noise as the latch clicked back into place.

Zazz was after Daniel in an instant, bolting past Jack to fulfill her mission.

He grabbed her wrist. “Hold on there! You and I need to—”

She easily slipped out of his grip, whirled around and followed Daniel out the door in the blink of an eye.

Jack swore, grabbed up his keys, and went after them.

***

SGC Base, Cheyenne Mountain

Daniel led the way into a large, open room on Sublevel 12-A. “This was the conference room we used when the System Lords had the summit with the Asgard. Colonel Standing, the new leader of SG-Zed, has a different way of doing things. We’re all in one big office now, kind of like a police squad room, so we can share as we discover things, brainstorm and discuss while we’re working.”

“Well, then,” Jack quipped, “I’ll never get anything done.”

His frown spoke volumes as he pulled open the door and held it for Jack, his eyes on the redhead bringing up the rear.

Tzazil took up her post outside the door, her expression shuttered except for the burning glare.

Jack paused and studied her. She had kicked his ass in the gym just now, but he’d given her a good run for the money. “Did I make my point, Zazz?”

Her eyes narrowed, little green daggers flying at him. She nodded once, brusquely, and aimed her gaze at the opposite wall. “He will be as safe in your company as he would be in mine,” she agreed stonily.

Jack patted her shoulder. “Good girl.”

“But if you fail him and survive,” she added with a ragged, angry edge to her voice, “I will kill you.” She swallowed hard. “And then myself.”

Daniel closed the door after him, and pounded his friend’s shoulder in gratitude. “Thank you! I can’t tell you what a relief this is!”

“Intense, isn’t she?” Jack nodded toward the door, indicating the elfin bodyguard. “Maybe now she’ll give you some space when you’re with me.”

He nodded and shook himself out a little, obviously more relaxed. “Let me introduce you to the rest of the team.”

There were ten desks in neat rows in the big room. The walls were lined with bookshelves where Daniel’s library was now housed. There were cubbies for small artifacts and a few extra computer terminals at raised desks where workers could stand to do their jobs.

“This’ll be your desk, Jack.” Daniel patted one on the front row.

All of Jack’s personal photos and mementos had already been moved there from his old office. He clenched his teeth and said nothing. Like Daniel, Jack didn’t like it when people touched his stuff.

“That’s mine, in the back of the room.” Daniel pointed.

“I’d have known it anywhere,” Jack assured his friend. “I’ve seen the back of that photo of you on the camel often enough to know it by heart.”

Jack glanced at the other uniformed officer at the front desk next to his. “Why Marines? Is the Air Force out of favor now?”

The unspoken closure on that question was, because of me.

Daniel shrugged. “The Joint Chiefs decided that, since these are ground missions with little to no air support, they should be in the hands of troops more experienced with that. Marines and Army are being phased in as teams need replacements.” Daniel’s mouth flattened into a thin, pale white line for a moment. “Not my decision, okay? You know I don’t care about that sort of thing. Besides, our team is different. You’ll see when you read the mission summaries.”

“Ah-ha.” Jack was certain there was a lot being left unsaid at the moment. He sensed a whole closet full of falling footwear in the very near future.

“Guys,” Daniel called.

In perfect unison, the two men at the second desks, who had been in close, private conversation, looked their way.

“These are the twins, Song and Story Wintersmith.”

They were identical except for the length of their hair, somewhat Native American-looking, despite their very English surnames, and with baby faces that announced how very young they were.

“Doctor Song Wintersmith,” announced the nearer one with a crisp British accent, leaning over the desk to offer his hand in greeting. “I serve as team medic, but was selected for my Ph.D. in Biology, as well as a specialization in xenobiology. I’m a qualified RN in the UK and the US. Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Major O’Neill.”

“Lieutenant Story Wintersmith,” said the other in a perfect Southern accent. “Mom is British and Dad is a Marine. My brother and me split up—“

I,” corrected the first twin with a disapproving glare. “My brother and I.”

Two shot One a dirty look and kept talking. “—when our parents divorced. That’s why he sounds so prissy.”

“Honestly!” One huffed, returning to his computer screen. “You lot barely speak English.” He shook his head, his ponytail swinging across his back.

“Welcome aboard SG-Zero, Major O’Neill,” the second twin said warmly. “Least you know it won’t be boring.”

He grinned widely. “Our call signs are Thing One and Thing Two,” he pointed at himself. “Just One and Two for short.”

“As if I could tell you apart without the hair,” Jack agreed.

“Function and accent, if we’re facing you,” Two advised with a smile and wink over his shoulder. “He’s the bookworm. I’m the jarhead. You need something killed, call for Two.”

Jack chuckled. “Got it.”

The civilian commander moved to the next desk. A pert blonde woman was typing on her keyboard like mad, headphones over her ears. She hadn’t even noticed their approach until Daniel tapped her shoulder.

In a flash, she glanced up, pulled off the headphones, stood up and held out her hand with a smile. “Doctor Pacifica Jones,” she announced enthusiastically. “Pax for short. Ph.Ds. in Engineering and Computer Science, specializing in alien machines. Pleased t’meetcha!”

Jack cocked his head, brows scrunched in uncertainty. “Is that a Minnesota accent I detect, Doctor?”

She beamed. “Best place on Earth!”

“I think we’ll get along just fine,” Jack agreed with a little grin. “Do you fish?”

“Only with my own hand-tied flies. When we have time, I’ve got pictures!”

Jack laughed, wondering if Daniel had hand-picked this team just for his buddy. “Yeah, we’ll have lots to talk about. Pleased to meet you, Pax.”

The next one Jack had spied from the door at one of the standing desks, and Jack’s curiosity was high.

It looked like one of those Anubis statues come to life and crossed with a Lon Chaney werewolf. The black jackal head was sleek and beautiful, with pointed erect ears and a long, elegant muzzle. Its arms looked rightly human, except for the talons on the fingertips and the short black fur over everything. Body shape was also humanesque, but the legs and tail were more canine in design.

The clothes it wore were a strange cross between Egyptian and goth punk, and the creature sported a lot of earrings, necklaces and bracelets. On its head was a little golden metal cap with fine tendrils swirling around its skull converging over a small speaker-looking device at its throat.

As he got closer, he took note of not two but four small breasts pressing against the tunic it – or rather, she – wore, cinched at the waist with some sort of shiny brocade corset.

 “Very pleased to meet the famous O’Neill.” A mechanical voice issued from the speaker at the creature’s throat. “I am called Xiphia Onamudi Wawakan.”

She bowed to him, dropping halfway into a kneel before straightening up to tower over him. She had to be over seven feet tall, more with the ears.

“We call her Wow for short,” Daniel explained. “You know, Wawakan… Wow-akan. She’s a scientist of the Aua from P3X… Um, I’m sure you remember that desert planet where we thought we’d lost SG-13 last year?”

“Indeed,” intoned Jack, doing his best Teal’c impression. Glancing at the desks, he noted that all of them were filled except for the one he’d be using. “And speaking of, where’s Teal’c? Isn’t he on your team?”

A trace of sadness washed over Daniel’s face. “No, he’s working with the Jaffa for a bit, and when he comes back, he’ll still be on SG-1.” He paused. “The invitation’s already been extended, Jack. If Teal’c wants to join Zed, he’s more than welcome, but we’re not a fighting force. I think he’ll want to be where the action is, rather than where the academics are studying.”

“Okay. I’ll leave it alone.” Jack pondered that for a moment. In the stillness of his heart, he thought he should at least ask the big guy when he got back to Earth. It’d be great to have what was left of the band back together, even with the extras.

He stepped forward to the desk next to Daniel’s, held his hand out to the woman in base blues, and smiled with genuine pleasure. “I’d have known you anywhere, Colonel Standing. Sorry I missed welcoming you aboard.”

Daniel was taken aback. “Oh, you two know each other? Fantastic!” He beamed.

Colonel Standing stood up. She was thinner than when Jack had last seen her. The crescent-shaped wound around her left eye was now a pale scar against her tanned skin. Her shiny black hair was pulled back at her nape into a tight bun, perfectly regulation. Dark eyes sparkled with pleasure, and when she smiled, she lit up the room.

Very different from how she’d looked the first time they’d met.

“I look forward to serving under you, ma’am,” he said with a note of clear warmth and pride.

“Good to see you, as always, O’Neill.” She sobered. “I was very sorry to hear about the demotion.”

He nodded, his humor also vanishing. “Better to acknowledge the elephant in the room right off the bat. Still the same ol’ Moon.”

He straightened and slipped his hands into his pockets. “I just want to say that I don’t have any problem with you as my CO, Colonel, even if you are a Marine.”

“Good, because you’re my Two-I-C, Major,” she replied, all business. “We need your experience in the field, regardless of how safe Doctor Jackson thinks these missions are.”

Jack shot Daniel a look that asked a thousand questions about the recent missions.

“Field reports are on your computer, Jack,” Daniel told him. “I’ve even done one-page summaries to get you up to speed. No big words.”

“Thank you, Daniel.”

He sat down at his desk, logged into his computer, and started boning up on the mission reports he’d missed during the court martial.

***

January 25, 2005

Three Weeks Later

Daniel put the phone down on his desk. “Team, we have a mission. Conference room in ten.”

Everyone rose and hustled into the nearest elevator, packing in tight with their briefing folders and coffee cups.

“Waring must run a tight ship,” Jack mused to no one in particular as he punched the button for the desired floor.

No one wasted a second getting to their destination, but Daniel stopped at the sideboard to refill his cup, folder tucked under his arm.

Jack took his customary place at the end of the table and studied the man who would now be the base commander. He’d already reviewed the man’s service record to get a feel for him.

General March Waring had had a distinguished career in the Marines, including some Black Ops work. The man had seen plenty of action in the field and would no doubt be competent in that chair or President Hayes wouldn’t have assigned it to him. Aside from his record and the way SG-0 hustled to the meeting, Jack had no idea what to expect from him.

Waring was already seated, watching as they filed in and sat down over the tops of his Ben Franklin reading glasses. His dark eyes were quick and missed nothing. Haircut was typical Jarhead, but receding on the sides of his dome. Facial hair was in a neat moustache, just hitting military standards. His complexion, the color of coffee with just a hint of cream, was marred by a long, crooked scar across his right cheek.

 He stared at Jack for a long moment, then shifted his gaze quickly to Daniel and down at his folder as he opened it.

“Just as a matter of protocol, Major O’Neill,” he intoned with a voice as rich and deep as Teal’c’s, “the chair at the opposite end of the table is reserved for Doctor Jackson, since he’s my civilian equivalent on this base. No offense intended. I respect the adjustment you’re having to make here.”

Jack flushed a little and got up quickly. “My apologies, sir. Force of habit.”

He moved to trade places with Daniel, who mouthed ‘sorry’ as they switched seats.

Daniel was blushing, too.

Waring gave everyone a moment to settle, and picked up a remote control. He activated the unit, called up the file on his laptop and moved the slideshow to the screen. He stood up and marched toward it, remote control in hand as he cued up the slideshow. “SG-Eleven has recently been to this planet that the natives call…”He glanced at Daniel to provide the pronunciation.“Domhan An Lucht Siúil,” Jackson filled in with hardly a missed beat. Jack sat up straight, translating it immediately. “… which is Irish for Gambler’s World!” He pounded one fist lightly on the table, thrilled to finally be in the loop on one of their exchanges.All eyes went to him.“Sorry. It’s an Irish thing.” He slid down a little in his chair. “I just got a little excited. Sorry.”

The General hesitated, waiting to be sure the Major had finished his outburst before moving on with the briefing.

Daniel’s eyes were twinkling with a question that clearly showed he hadn’t known Jack spoke the language, but Jackson was obviously pleased and proud of his friend. Waring continued with his narrative, pushing the button to call up another picture. “You’ll find the planetary designation on your mission paperwork. The natives, here, are called hóstach, or hosts.”

He scrolled through the pictures, which showed a fantastic civilization peopled with aliens from many of the places they’d visited, and a lot they still hadn’t discovered yet. “I’m sure you can see why we’re interested in this place, Doctor Jackson.”

Daniel was up and out of his chair, standing at Waring’s elbow after the third slide, eyes and mouth wide open in abject awe. His chair spun around from the force as he’d launched out of it.

The elf grabbed the back of the chair and held it still.

Jack kept his quip to himself. He didn’t know the General well enough to unload those yet, so he buttoned his lip and listened. After losing two levels of rank, he couldn’t afford to be himself just yet and had already interrupted once. Another error at the wrong time might land him out of the military entirely.

“Looks like a Star Wars bar in Vegas,” observed Colonel Standing.

“The whole city is like that,” Waring verified, nodding. “The rest of the world is untouched wilderness. The entire population lives in this one large city in perpetual night. There’s no agriculture or industry aside from gaming, gambling, hospitality and entertainment, and as far as we can tell, they serve every civilization that uses the Stargate network…”

He turned around and peered at the entire group over his glasses. “… including the Goa’uld and every other race we have encountered in our travels…” Then he leveled his gaze on Daniel, waiting for him to make eye contact. “…with the notable exceptions of the Ancients, the Nox and the Furlings.”

“You mean, the Asgard gamble there?” Jack was incredulous. He grinned a little. “Those cheeky little bast—” He coughed to try to cover his faux pas.

Waring chuckled. “My thought, exactly, Major.”

O’Neill exhaled slowly, thrilled he hadn’t stepped in deep shit just then. The General had a sense of humor, but Jack still needed to be careful how he used it until he knew how far he could take it with the new boss.

Waring paused and turned back to the slides. “You should all know I’m not averse to a little light swearing at this table. I’ve been in the military a long time, and no one in this room minds the occasional colorful slip. Save your manners for guests.”

A flood of relief whooshed through Jack.

This was a man he could work with, Jack thought. Hammond had chosen his replacement well. “Thank you, sir.”

“So, aside from the obvious cultural interest,” Daniel mused, eyes glued to the screen, “is there something in particular that SG-Eleven noted in their mission report? Because what I’m thinking about regarding research could take years.”

Agreed,” came Wow’s mechanical voice through her translator. “I could see a need for a permanent team on this Gambler’s World. Embassies, perhaps, from all our various worlds.”

Daniel nodded in agreement, still mesmerized by the photos.

“As a matter of fact, there is.” Waring returned to his seat. “SG-Eleven discovered there’s a contest every fifty or so of our years on Gambler’s World for ‘The Prize.’ No one knows what it is before it’s awarded, but there have been demonstrations of past prizes that you may recognize.”

He took the remote and stopped the slide show, switching instead to another still shot of four items. One was a Goa’uld ribbon device. Another was the tare root from Hadante – which now powered the SGC’s entire facility -- and the third was the Gamekeeper’s Virtual Reality pods. The fourth looked like nanites, which had been touted as the fastest way to learn any skill or subject, no doubt similar to the Orbans’ learning shortcut.

“Apparently, the Hosts don’t reveal what The Prize is before the contest,” Waring went on. “Everyone just knows it’ll be worth the effort due to the previous prizes.”

Daniel returned to his seat, head bowed in thought.

Colonel Standing didn’t look up from the notes she was making. “We know the Goa’uld steal technology. Maybe they won a few contests, or maybe they stole the ribbon devices from other winners. Either way, we should definitely participate, General Waring.”

“Agreed,” said the General firmly. “Whether it’s weaponry, a power source or any other tech, I’m sure it’ll be helpful in keeping our world safe. And if we win, it’ll keep the Prize out of the hands of the Goa’uld, which is just as important. I’m sure they’ll be competing, too.”

Dr. Jones twirled her pen and cocked her head. “Do we know what the contest is? We might be able to stack the deck. I’m pretty sure our Nerd Task Force could be pretty strong in the gaming area.” She frowned slightly. “I play a little chess, but have never been really fond of games. Is there a possibility I could bow out of this mission?”

Daniel glanced at Waring, then nodded. “You have other projects that need your attention, so I’ll agree to that.”

Xiphia also requested to sit this one out. “If we are not going to be examining native flora, then I see no need for my presence.

“You sure you don’t want to go just to see it? Vegas is quite a tourist draw on Earth, and this place promises to be… interesting.” Daniel jotted down a note on his tablet.

“I am certain,” the Aua confirmed.

“Ace video gamers, here,” volunteered one of the twins, and the other also raised his hand.

Still scanning through SG-11’s mission report, Daniel began to speak. “I see all kinds of contests here, not just games. There’s archery, fencing, marksmanship… We’ll have to tap all kinds of competitors. I need a lot more information before we pick a team for this mission, General Waring.”

“The Big Game is in about two months, as near as SG-Eleven could tell,” Waring returned, shutting off the display. “They’ve gathered as much intel as they can about the rules and games as they could in the week they had to complete the mission. You all have one day to tidy up your affairs, get all your bills paid in advance and make any personal phone calls you need before you ship out tomorrow. Any further questions, refer to SG-Eleven. I’m making the team available to you today for interviews.”

Daniel was still staring at the table. “Wow,” he said softly.

“Yes, Deej?” Xiphia responded.

That shook him out of his reverie. “Oh, sorry, I wasn’t calling you. Just thinking about all we have to do to get ready. Kind of boggles the mind. That kind of ‘wow.’”

“Anything else, Doctor Jackson?” Waring closed his briefing folder and powered off the screen and laptop.

“I’m going to ask for another few days of prep time,” the commander replied. “There are a couple of people I’d like to add to my team, and one of them is in California. I’ll need to get his clearances in order and then fly out to ask him to join the team. The other will be a military assignment that I’ll leave to Colonel Standing.”

Tzatzil’s eyes narrowed. She touched the back of Daniel’s chair and gave it a little shake to remind him she was there… and that she was not allowed out of the city.

Daniel’s gaze flew to Jack’s face. His mouth drew up in a bow and there was clear desperation in his eyes.

Jack glanced up at the little elf and gave her a reassuring nod, pointing at himself. It was a promise to her that O’Neill would accompany his friend.

Waring studied Daniel over the tops of his glasses. “And he’s important to this mission because…?”

Daniel grinned. “I saw Doctor Charlie Eppes at a TED Talk a few years ago. He’s a world-class mathematician who has done tremendous work on game theory. I can’t imagine a more advantageous player to take to Vegas.”

“How long do you think you’ll need, Doctor Jackson?” asked Waring, typing in notes on his electronic tablet.

“Depends on how fast your people can get his security clearances. I’ll need two days, there and back again, and I can guarantee, once he lays eyes on the Stargate, he’ll want to go.”

He huffed a soft chuckle. “This is going to be fun!”

“I hope so. You deserve a little of that.” Waring’s expression was kind for a moment, and then the military bearing returned. “You have a go, SG-Zero. Doctor Jackson, we’ll be flying you out on a military transport the moment the clearance comes through. It won’t be a comfortable trip, but it’ll be fast. Dismissed.”

Jack kept in stride with Daniel as they headed for the elevator. “I like him, Daniel! I didn’t think it was possible to like a Marine!”

Beaming, Daniel nodded. “He’s a good guy. He’s got our backs, and seems to have clout in all the right places.” He leaned in closer and whispered, “Waring is one of those guys you wouldn’t want for an enemy.”

They high-fived each other, and got ready to go to work.

***

January 26, 2005

Los Angeles, CA

Dr. Charlie Eppes stared at the chalkboard, willing it to reveal the answer he needed. P versus NP was usually an off-hours project, but he’d had a moment of intuition and wanted to see where it took him.

He heard the knock on the open door frame, but ignored it.

“Doctor Eppes? We spoke on the phone yesterday,” called a voice behind him.

With an impatient, frustrated sigh, Charlie watched the phrase he’d imagined vanish and turned around, irritated at the interruption. “Yes?”

Coming into the room were two men, a stern-looking fellow in an Air Force uniform, and a guy in a suit offering a friendly smile.

“Doctor Daniel Jackson,” said the suit, “and this is… Major Jack O’Neill. We’d like a moment of your time to discuss your participation in a project.”

“Sorry, don’t have the time,” Charlie shot back. Between his classes, his own personal research and the demands of assisting the NSA, he was stretched pretty thin.

“I’m just asking for you to hear me out,” Dr. Jackson insisted. He smiled, big dimples flashing. “Ever been to Vegas?”

Charlie laughed. “Only to watch the shows. The casinos know who I am, and none of them will let me play.” He shrugged. “I can’t even go into the gaming areas.”

Daniel chuckled. “Well, Doctor Eppes, how would you like to study game theory in an alternate Vegas where no one knows who you are?”

With a grin and a shake of his head, Charlie answered, “I’m not interested in anything shady. Thanks, but—“

Leaning forward, Jackson lowered his voice so only Charlie could hear him. “What if I told you the experience would be approved and funded by the US government, and you’d be protected by the military? You could play any game you wanted. Your only risk would be losing the game or the bet, and even then, not a dime would come out of your own pocket.”

“Then I’d say that sounds too good to be true.”

“And with most of that kind of offer, you’d be right. This one, however, is not a scam.” Jackson pursed his lips, obviously looking for another tactic. He glanced at his companion, eyebrows lifted in question.

“Just be careful,” the Major responded, a warning tone in his voice.

Daniel sighed. “You have the knowledge as well as the security clearance, which was a pleasant surprise to discover you’ve already been doing classified research,” he continued thoughtfully. “We need your skills, but you’re not going to truly understand this offer until you see for yourself. Unfortunately, I can’t give you any further details outside the facility, so we’ve made arrangements with the dean to have your schedule cleared for two days.”

Charlie’s mouth dropped open in shocked surprise.

Before he could protest, the officer stood up and put an airplane ticket voucher on his desk. “We’ve already made the arrangements, Doctor Eppes. Come and take a look. If you aren’t blown away by what you see, you go home and your life goes right back to… this.” He nodded at the chalkboard.

“But if you’re interested, you’ll need a contingency plan,” Daniel added, blue eyes twinkling behind his glasses. “This project will take a couple of months to complete.”

“But my classes—“

“Will be handled,” the Major returned. “We have people lined up, and the dean won’t mind, I promise. You’re gonna be so gobsmacked I don’t think you’ll even remember you have classes to teach.”

Charlie sat down, instantly curious, but getting that warning vibe as well. “It sounds… clandestine. Dangerous.”

O’Neill nodded. “Crossing the street can be dangerous, if you’re not paying attention.”

“Of course, but—”

“There’s also an element of secrecy that will require signing of a confidentiality agreement,” he cut in. “You won’t be able to talk about what you see and experience to anyone.” Jackson smiled softly and shook his head. “But I can also promise you that, once you’ve had a look at what we’re doing…”

He glanced around the classroom.

“… none of this will matter to you anymore.”

Jackson nodded at the white board with the still-forming equation.

“Not even that.”

Charlie felt insulted. He huffed a short, derisive laugh and shook his head, but before he could voice his umbrage, the officer spoke again.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you came to work for us. Once you see what we’re doing, you’ll understand we’re opening up completely new frontiers for new math theories, as well as proving a lot of things you and a lot of other people thought were just theories. Base eight math, for starters.”

Dr. Jackson beamed and nodded. “Now you’re curious as hell.”

And damn it, Charlie was.

The two men rose and headed for the door.

“See you soon, Doctor Eppes,” Jackson called over his shoulder.

Charlie picked up the voucher and saw the flight was scheduled for a red-eye the next morning, from LAX to Colorado Springs.

NORAD, he thought. Not at all what they’d described.

How could they possibly connect gambling in Vegas with national defense?

After he got off the phone with the dean, he realized he really didn’t have a choice in the matter. He called his dad and teaching assistant to let them know he’d be out of town for a few days, and then went home to pack for the flight.

****

January 27, 2005

The Next Day

Charlie felt the anxiety ramping up as he rode the Jeep into the entrance tunnel for the Cheyenne Mountain facility, with Major O’Neill at the wheel in base greens. They parked way back in the long passageway, and then headed for a huge elevator tower all the way at the rear of the channel.

It was like going into a tomb, every noise echoing. The outside world became a bright dot in the darkness, too far away for his comfort.

“It’s not as bad as it feels,” Daniel promised, standing by his side as they waited for the elevator doors to open. “You get used to it after a while.”

They stepped inside and Jackson pushed the button for the basement level.

Charlie closed his eyes, his stomach lurching as the car started to descend. “I’ve been trying to pair up game theory with national defense, and I’m really not interested in war games, if that’s what this is all about.”

“This facility does house NORAD,” O’Neill admitted, “but that’s not where we’re going.” He pulled a folded paper from his pocket, along with a pen, and nudged Charlie’s shoulder to get him to take them. “Confidentiality agreement. What you see in this facility cannot be shared with anyone, or even written about in your most private journal, upon pain of imprisonment. Feel free to read before you sign.”

Charlie did. His guts clenched. This was starting to feel like a spectacularly bad idea.

Daniel patted Charlie on the shoulder, prompting the other man to meet his eyes.

There was so much honesty and kindness there. “It’s worth all of this, I promise. You’ll understand the need for secrecy very shortly.”

“So you’ll need to sign that,” added the Major, “or face the back wall and we go right back up to the surface, because we’re here.”

“This is the future of the human race, Doctor Eppes,” Daniel encouraged. “Bigger than anything you can imagine.”

Letting out a tense, frustrated breath, Charlie signed the paper against the drably painted steel wall, just as the doors opened.

They stepped into a carpeted entry with beautifully paneled walls. Following the curved wall around the elevator shaft, they escorted him to a marble desk where a uniformed sentry sat. Charlie signed the book as directed, and then glanced up at the photographs displayed on the wall as he accepted his visitor’s badge.

Dr. Jackson’s portrait was at the top, the largest photograph there, and beneath it were sculpted letters that read, ‘In Memoriam.’ Seven smaller photos of him were in a row underneath the big one, with photos of a lot of others surrounding those. Charlie spied O’Neill in a few as well.

“This way,” Jackson prompted, gesturing to another elevator on the far side of the desk.

He was blushing.

“Still can’t get used to it?” O’Neill asked his companion.

Daniel shook his head.

Charlie pointed at the words. “Isn’t that supposed to be used as a memorial when people die?”

The Major nodded, dropping back to give his friend a little space. “That’s the memorial wall for our unit, the SGC.”

“But Doctor Jackson’s up there,” Charlie pointed out. “Seven times. Must be some kind of a hero.”

“That he is,” the soldier agreed. “Just don’t talk to him about it. He’s very modest, y’see.”

O’Neill stuck out his hand. “I’ve seen some of your lectures, and I get why Daniel’s so hot to have you on this mission. Call me Jack.”

“Mission?”

“Yeah, for now it’s supposed to be just a one-time thing for you, but we’ll see how it all shakes out.”

They boarded the second elevator, and as they began to descend, Daniel told a story that began in the 1920’s on the Giza Plateau.

By the time he finished, Charlie’s anxiety had all but vanished, and when he saw the Stargate for himself, the watery surface shimmering around a group of four people in uniforms as they exited it, he announced softly, “I’m in.”

“Good,” Jackson replied, nodding. “Now we just need one more soldier to watch your six, and we’ll be ready to move out. I’ll get you briefed and you can make your phone calls from our team office. Right this way, Doctor Eppes.”

***

Daniel barely glimpsed the movement of a uniformed person moving past the open door of SG-Zed’s office as he showed the video clips and slides of the mission planet to an awestruck Charlie Eppes.

Tzatzil stood nearby, watching the visitor with narrowed eyes, as if the mathematician might suddenly pounce on her charge.

The rest of the team was prepping so Charlie had yet to meet them, and Daniel still hadn’t told the scholar about the reason the SGC was so interested in winning the contests on that alien world.

Charlie laughed, his fingers carding through his curly, dark mane. “This is wild! I’ve got so many questions, Daniel.”

“And unfortunately we don’t have time enough to answer them all just yet. There’ll be down time where we can tell you more, but we really need you to concentrate on the gaming and betting schemes for the duration of the trip. I’m expecting delivery of an electronic tablet that’ll be assigned strictly to you, so you’ll be able to do any calculations you need in the field.”

Just at that moment, the man in uniform who had passed by the door backed up and stood still, staring into the room.

“Doctor Jackson?” he called.

Daniel was shocked when he recognized a man from his distant past.

“Jarod?” He stood up, beaming, and hurried over to welcome his old friend with a backslapping hug. “It’s been ages!”

Stepping back, he took in the full view of the tall, dark-haired man in uniform, complete with military insignia. “So it’s Major Carter now, huh? I never expected you to go the way of the soldier.”

Jarod shrugged and idly scratched at the tiny mole beside his left eye. “I could say the same for you, Daniel. You can imagine my surprise when I walked in my first day of assignment – which was yesterday, by the way – and I see you’ve been killed seven times in the line of duty. Wow!”

“What?” Charlie was stunned. “Killed?”

Daniel blushed to his roots, his face on fire. “I really wish they’d take that down. My pictures, anyway.”

He turned to Charlie. “I’m sure Jack will fill you in later, but I’d really rather not discuss my record for cheating death. Okay?”

“No. Am I gonna get killed out there?”

“You could get killed by a bus when you leave here,” Major Carter returned casually. “If you die on a mission for the SGC, it’s for the best reason of all.” He eyed his old friend. “Survival of the planet.”

Daniel sighed and returned to his chair behind the desk.

Tzatzil ambled closer to him, right at his elbow.

“You’re not likely to die on this mission,” Daniel explained, his frustration rising. “All those things happened to me when I was on a first contact team. I don’t do that anymore. Our team only goes in when we’ve established diplomatic contact with resident aliens, or there’s a high value anthropological opportunity that needs long term study.”

He pulled up the scene that Charlie had found so fascinating moments earlier, and directed the man’s attention back to it.

“The hóstach… the natives apparently take precautions to ensure their guests’ safety,” Daniel explained. “No weapons are allowed. Hostilities are nipped in the bud. From what our first contact team has seen, no violence is tolerated except on the fields of play, and then only what’s allowed by rules of the games. They depend on the food products their players bring to pay their way in. If the patrons aren’t safe to play, the hosts don’t eat.”

Charlie’s complexion was pale as he stared at the floor. “Seven times,” he whispered. When he met Daniel’s eyes again, there was horror in them touched with awe.

“Don’t do that!” Daniel demanded, his temper simmering. “I’m not a hero! Don’t look at me like that.”

He got up and took a few steps toward the door.

Tzatzil fell in behind him.

He glared at her.

There was silent argument and quiet pride in her face.

“You either,” he growled.

“How about some coffee?” asked Jarod. “We can all go to the commissary. I’m buying.”

Daniel was grateful for the change in topics, and the four of them adjourned to the elevator.

Charlie was obviously lost in space, contemplating the idea of death and resurrection.

Tzatzil kept watch, glancing between the two newcomers.

Jarod ignored them, concentrating his attention on his old friend. “I’d been following your public career, but you seemed to have dropped out of sight a few years ago. I tried to keep in touch, but the emails bounced back.”

“Yeah, I’d kind of lost everything when my professional credibility tanked. I was actually homeless for about five minutes. Then all this happened.” He glanced around the elevator, remembering. “How about you? What have you been doing since the Yucatan?”

“Oh, you know… Bringing down nefarious corporations, bringing justice to the needy…” He laughed softly, and Daniel did, too.

“Seriously, though… The company I used to work for went belly up,” Carter continued. “I spent some time looking for my birth parents—“

“Did you find them?”

Jarod nodded. “I did, and they’ve been helpful in healing old wounds. It’s been rough, but we’re a family now and I’m in a much better head space.”

“That’s good. I’m happy for you, Jarod. Family is everything.”

The lift doors whooshed open and they marched down the corridor, the smell of coffee and cooking food scenting the air.

“So how’d you end up here, and in a uniform?” Daniel gestured Charlie and Jarod into the line in front of him.

“I was looking for something to do.” Carter shrugged. “With my background in archaeology, this seemed like a natural fit.”

“Which team are you on?”

“Just finished the field training yesterday, so I’m waiting for assignment.” Jarod shrugged. He gestured the redhead in front of him, but she stayed at Daniel’s elbow.

“Oh! I’m so sorry, I forgot to introduce everyone,” Daniel blurted, and called off each name in no particular order as he filled his coffee cup and grabbed a bottled water for Tzatzil.

Jack’s voice filtered through the crowd, and Daniel turned to see the rest of SG-Zed with him at one of the big tables.

“Well, let’s go meet the rest of my team,” he suggested, “and Jarod, I think I may have a temporary assignment for you. I just need to clear it with my Colonel.”

He watched Charlie’s jaw drop when he saw Xiphia, and smiled as he began to tell Dr. Eppes about the Aua scientist and her desert tribe.

***

January 28, 2005

The Next Day

Daniel edged by shrink-wrapped pallets filled with wooden crates and cardboard boxes lining the corridor to the ‘gate room. The blast door stood open, and he noted that the team was all present and waiting, except for Jack and the two newbies.

He checked his chronometer, relieved to see there were still a few minutes to spare, and let his gaze rove over his team.

Since they weren’t stepping into unknown territory and were more along the lines of diplomats, a different uniform had been designed for them: black long-sleeved shirts in a silk/cotton blend with a dressy shine over black slacks fitted with a few extra pockets down the sides. Over that were stylish jackets that doubled as gear vests so they could carry items like tablets and communication devices wherever they went on Gambler’s World. Rather than backpacks, they each carried messenger bags and a small suitcase with extra clothes for their long stay.

As with every uniform, the SG-Zero logo was present as a shoulder patch, embroidered or silkscreened to proclaim who they were and from whence they had originated.

“What’s all this?” O’Neill asked when he arrived, jerking a thumb at the packages. “I thought we were going to Vegas today. Don’t we need some kind of money? Gold or naquadah bricks or something?”

Without looking up from his last-minute notes, Daniel signaled Colonel Standing with his free hand and replied to his friend, “That is our currency, Jack. These people don’t farm, but they do eat. Guests pay with food tallied up as credits, so we got the best of what Earth can offer. At least, what we could get on short notice.”

A breathless Charlie Eppes hurried in, with Major Jarod Carter right behind him.

The ‘gate began to spin up, and the two men lined up with the others.

Tzatzil stayed at Daniel’s elbow with her game face on, teeth all but clenched, eyes narrowed and scanning for threats.

Daniel stepped out of line and repositioned himself beside the newbies, turning so he could see their faces as the kawoosh blossomed outward and settled into placid ripples.

“I never get tired of seeing that,” he murmured to no one in particular.

“I can see why,” Charlie murmured, awestruck as he stared at the event horizon.

Jarod’s eyes met Daniel’s. “I don’t think he was talking about the Stargate.”

A smile crinkled around the commander’s eyes. “Not entirely, no.” Then he nodded toward the event horizon. “After you, buddy.”

“Please tell me there are no MREs in there,” Jack asked in a nonchalant wheedle, eliciting a chuckle from Daniel.

Colonel Standing shook her head and grinned. “No MREs, Major.”

“Is there beer?”

Daniel nudged his friend’s shoulder as they strode up the ramp toward the event horizon. “There’s beer and cake, plus cases of wine, fresh fruits and vegetables, a selection of meats, poultry, fish, eggs…”

Tzatzil nudged just in front of Daniel, stepping through the event horizon first.

Jackson continued to list items all the way to the watery surface, and kept going when they reached the other side, only stopping to take in the room when they reached their destination.

The arrival center was a huge adobe-looking dome with a DHD off to one side. The adobe was plain white with a dark polished stone floor. Three tracks of color inlaid in the marble pointed through three ornate doorways: red went straight ahead, green to the left and blue to the right.

“Per SG-Eleven,” Daniel intoned, checking his notes, “the colors signify trade items go through the green door, where they will be assessed for value. Observers to the blue and players to the red. Someone should be with us shortly to—“

A holograph appeared, greeting them in English.

“There’s our guide, right on cue.” Daniel touched the Colonel on the sleeve. “There were variants of English already entered. SG-Eleven spent quite a bit of time here before they could leave the arrival center, updating the language dictionary.”

Moon nodded. “So are we here as visitors or players this time? I don’t want to get into any competitions before we know the lay of the land, the rules and penalties.” She eyed both him and Jack. “I’ve read too many of your mission reports where the barn door got shut well after the horse had run off. That’s not happening on my watch. Got it?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Jack answered crisply.

“I say we go the visitor’s route, at least for a couple hours.” Her voice was low and husky, with a note of suspicion. “That all right with you, Deej?”

“Yep.” He stepped forward and asked for visitors’ passes for each of the team. In short order, they were on their way down the blue trail.

… In giant hamster balls.

“It’s really more of a force field,” Jarod surmised as they strolled out of the visitor’s center. “It keeps us from interacting with anyone, except for verbal exchanges. Gotta keep folks honest, I suppose.”

Jack poked at the thin bubble-looking membrane all around him, and his finger bounced off it. “Suppose I have to pee,” he mused. “Reckon they’d let me out?”

“I dunno, Jack,” Daniel shot back with a half-suppressed grin. “You might be sloshing around in it. I’d just hold it, if I were you.”

Their balls rolled out of the tunnel into night made day by artificial lights.

It was Vegas on steroids, like something out of a futuristic science fiction movie. Giant holographs danced down wide streets choked with so many kinds of aliens that every human eye widened and mouth hung open. Walls and plants glowed with phosphorescent color. Advertisements flashed in a variety of languages, changing every few seconds to something new.

Glassed-in gaming towers sat next to hotels and restaurants. Huge open-air arenas were placed every few blocks and they could hear the roars, bellows and whistles of the multi-species crowds. On the streets they jostled among various humanoid races, a sprinkling of Unas and Asgard, a large number of Jaffa, and even a pair of Oannes looking quite out of place on land.

The longer they walked, the more non-humanoid races they encountered.

“Welcome to the Star Wars canteen,” Jack murmured. “There’s a guy with a barn owl’s head… something with six legs that’s about, oh, ten feet tall…  some cat people… Ant Man, but this one’s a real ant.” He shook his head. “Daniel, did we take the blue pill, or the red pill?”

“Just walking the yellow brick road, Jack.” Daniel sighed. “Maybe it’s time we went into one of these places to check out the games, see if we can figure out how they’re played…”

“Y’mean, like chess?” asked Song. He pointed at a screen near a door clearly showing a match in progress.

Daniel eyed his team and raised his right hand. “How many of us play?”

All of the humans responded.

Tzatzil looked a little lost. “You will teach me, my Daniel?”

“Of course. I’ll explain the moves and some strategy basics when we get inside.”

He led the way into the chess club.

The bubble flexed through the doorway, and he found himself in a large room filled with gaming tables. The boards were large and mounted on tables surrounded by crowds of aliens and humanoids. As on Earth, there were only two players per game, but only a handful of games were ones he recognized as traditional.

Some of the boards had animated holographic pieces that did battle for the square. Others were multi-level, and still more had whole armies of pieces spread out over miniature terrain marked with a glowing grid pattern. One by one, Daniel assigned his teammates to observe the interactions of all the involved parties – including the bookies taking bets on the sidelines – and meet back on the street in an hour.

He made his own notes and listened to the reports when they regrouped.

“These aren’t just board games,” Jack reported. “They’re strategy games. Looks like some of ‘em would make pretty damn good training tools back home. Maybe that’s something we could ask our hosts later on.”

Daniel jotted that idea down.

“Looked to me like they’ll bet on pretty much anything,” Charlie said on a chuckle. “There were guys betting on guys betting, not just on the games themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone bet on whether we’d be back to play.”

Everybody had a grin about that. “Right. Let’s see what other games they offer.”

He spoke into a small device on a lanyard he wore around his neck. “Show us a catalog of the types of games offered in the city.”

On a nearby wall, a projection appeared with four categories of contests: games of chance, skill, strategy, and puzzles.

After an hour of searching through each category for something they recognized or thought they could learn quickly, they decided to put that on hold and find accommodations.

Hóstach,” Daniel called to the device, “please show us accommodations for the eight visitors from Earth. We would like to stay in the same facility, please.”

The projection on the wall switched to a variety of room interiors. Some were set up as big bunk rooms, others in singles or doubles with various sized beds. All of them looked clean and comfortable.

After a brief discussion, Daniel made the selection and a hover car settled down on the paved street beside them to fly them to their hotel.

Once again, their bubbles molded around them to fit the space.

Above the street, they finally got a look at the size of the city. It stretched out as far as the eye could see in every direction. Buildings of every shape and size sat wall to wall with their neighbors, separated only by streets and architectural design.

“Wow,” Charlie breathed, turning to look all around them as they flew. “I gotta tell you, I’m having trouble forming a coherent thought, here.”

“It’ll pass,” Daniel assured him. “You get used to it. There’ll be odd moments where you’ll remember you’re on another planet, but we’re here to work. Let’s stay focused on that.”

Charlie nodded.

“So let’s see if they’ve tallied up our goods yet,” Daniel suggested, and called the host again.

“You have four hundred thousand credits,” the device announced. “The tally is incomplete at this time. You will be notified when it is complete.”

“Not bad,” Moon observed, “considering the price tag on Earth was only a quarter of that.”

Jack’s eyebrows shot up. “We spent a hundred thousand dollars on cake?”

“On food,” she corrected, “which these people obviously need. I think we got a good stake, so let’s make it count, y’all.”

“You all saw how the gaming and betting fees were being paid, right?”Daniel asked, still making notes on his tablet.

“That little thingy people were wearing on their wrists, kind of like a little computer,” answered Song. He held up his arm, then looked a bit flustered. “Those that had wrists, I mean. Some of ‘em were just… kind of… stuck on… somewhere.”

“Anybody see if there are measures in place to prevent theft or cheating?” asked Daniel, finally raising his head to make eye contact with his team. “SG-Eleven didn’t mention that.”

Moon shook her head, her brows drawing together a bit. “That’s puzzling. I didn’t see anybody cheating, and I looked. My mom used to be a dealer at the Choctaw Casino and she knew every trick in the book. Taught me everything I know about playing dirty.” She chuckled. “Well, maybe not everything. Mama never got in any fistfights.”

Story beamed with pride as he eyed his teammates. “And that’s how the Colonel got her call sign. You get in a fight with her, and she’ll be Last Standing.”

“My grandpa called me ‘Dirty Girl, ‘cause that’s how I fight.” She grinned and winked at her Lieutenant.

“I can vouch for that,” Daniel mumbled under his breath.

Tzatzil looked proud. “You are no slump, my Daniel.”

Slouch,” he corrected, “and thank you. I’ve had good teachers over the years.”

He cleared his throat and announced, “Let’s get settled in our rooms and we’ll start making lists of competitions where we think we might have a chance of winning. Find out everything you can about game classifications, ranking competitions, rules and regs, governance—“

“We got it, Daniel,” Jack interjected. “Check out the competition, and keep out of trouble.”

“Right. We’ll pair up one academic with one soldier and start researching. Roommates for the stay are your choice, but same pairings.” Daniel’s eyes went straight to Jack’s. “With me?”

Jack nodded. The look in his eyes was a definite ‘thank you.’

Daniel knew his friend had been through a lot in the last few months, and this was one thing he could do to help Jack find his equilibrium.

The car parked itself on the street outside what looked much like an Italian villa with whitewashed walls and curved tile roof. A pair of phosphorescent potted plants flanked the arched entry. Just inside the foyer, a holographic video replayed the action of taking off one’s footwear, so they all followed suit.

Daniel presented himself at the front desk with a friendly smile. “Hello. We’re looking for accommodations for eight. Do you have that available, and if so how much per night? We’d like to stay to compete for the Prize.”

The host regarded him with four eyes and nodded. “Show credits, please?”

Its voice had a mechanical tinge to it, and emanated from beneath its pointed, bony chin. Though the creature was vaguely hominid in shape, its body was covered in some sort of exoskeletal armor with a sharply pointed skull, flanges extending from its hips, elbows and calves, along with a ridge of short, exposed spines down its back. The hands had only three very long fingers, with an opposable thumb on each side of the hand. Its chest looked a bit oversized for its narrow waist, but it moved with passable grace.

“Price of the rooms first,” Daniel insisted, his smile vanishing.

A bit of haggling ensued, and when an amount was agreed upon, Daniel checked on the current tally.

Since the alien host had no real face to express emotions, they couldn’t tell how that number went over, but it registered them and called up a diagram of their rooms.

“Please follow the seirbhíseach to your floor,” the hóstach intoned, gesturing to a two-foot tall creature that trotted out from behind the desk.

“Awwww, look! It’s kind of a cross between a fox and Yoda,” Jack observed, instantly taken with the little aliens.

“Reminds me of Stitch from the Disney movies, except green instead of blue,” agreed Moon. “Cute.”

Charlie grinned from ear to ear, shaking his head. “I am gobsmacked. Aliens, everywhere!”

Daniel eyed his friend Carter, who had been quiet since their arrival, studying everything and everyone they saw, his expression unreadable. “You doing okay, Jarod?”

The man flashed a quick smile at him. “Just taking it all in.”

On the top floor, they followed the seirbhíseach, or servant, to a short corridor with two doors on either side and one more at the end of the hallway.

Colonel Standing pointed at the last door. “That one’s yours, Deej. I’ll be next door with…”

Tzatzil’s hand shot up. “Me! Me! I must be close to Daniel!”

Moon nodded.

Daniel sighed and trudged toward his room with Jack on his six.

The door opened and Daniel turned to see the room arrangements.

The twins dutifully bunked in together.

Jack noticed the force-field bubbles disappeared on the threshold. “Sweet! I can pee in comfort now. There is a bathroom, right?”

He opened a door, sighing with relief as he stepped inside the room with the standard layout of sink, shower and toilet.

Daniel sat down on the bed, giving it a test bounce for comfort, and smiled. He’d missed this while Jack was being a General. It was good to be in the field with him again.

He flopped back against the covers and closed his eyes for a minute.

“Um, Daniel?”

“Yes?” He sat up, took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes.

Jack stood over him. “There’s only one bed in this room.”

“It’s big enough for both of us,” Daniel assured him with a shrug. “We slept in the same tent off world for years. I don’t see a difference.”

“Well, I do. I’m gonna go downstairs and ask for a cot or something.”

Daniel shook his head. He finished unpacking and studied his notes until the guest device pinged him with a final total. He chuckled, pleased with the number. They could do a lot with over half a million credits.

Jack returned with a grumpy look, obviously unsuccessful at getting his alternate sleeping arrangements.

“Hungry?” asked Daniel, hoping to distract the man. “There’s a restaurant next door where we can eat. As long as we don’t attempt to place any bets, the bubbles stay gone in the hospitality areas.”

“Yeah, sure. Can we drink in the field?”

“To socialize, yes, but not to excess. Maybe we can find a bar that serves some of that good Irish whisky we brought.”

Daniel tucked his tablet into an inside pocket of his blazer and headed for the door, patting his friend on the shoulder on his way out of their room.

***

“What is that smell?” Jack pinched his nose as he stepped out of the hotel, glancing about for the source, his nose wrinkling up in disgust. It was somewhere between good barbecue and rotting fish, depending on which way the wind was blowing.

“Diner next door,” Jarod answered with a nod in that direction.

“It’s cold out,” Moon observed, hugging herself and rubbing her arms. “I guess that bubble did a lot more than prevent us from playing.”

“We can eat now?” asked Tzatzil enthusiastically. “I like to eat!” The elf was practically dancing, eyes twinkling.

Jack liked seeing her like that. She was adorable when she let her guard down, like a kid at Christmas, excited about everything.

 “You certainly can put it away.” Daniel chuckled. “You could beat Teal’c in an eating contest. I’d bet money on that.”

“Do you wish to place a wager?” asked the device around Daniel’s neck. It glowed red instead of its normal blue, at attention for the next step. “You are currently on a visitor’s pass. If you wish to play, you must return to the arrival center—“

“No, thank you, hóstach. That was a figure of speech.” Turning to address his companions, he announced to them, “Looks like we’ll need to be careful how we phrase things.”

Daniel gestured the party into the eatery next door. “Let’s sample the local fare. They should have Earth foods on the menu, at least for the first few days we’re here, so feel free to stick with what you know or be adventurous.”

“I hope they have some of that steak I saw come through with us,” Jack murmured.

There appeared to be no wait staff in the diner.

Instead, the menu was done in 3D images on the wall by the door that changed every three seconds or so.

“How do we know if we can actually eat any of that stuff safely?” asked Charlie, staring at a picture of what looked to be an armored anteater of some kind. “It could be poisonous to humans.”

“Good question.” Daniel lifted the hóstach device and asked.

“All food and drink products are pre-screened through a DNA scan,” the device answered. “You cannot order what is unsafe for you to eat. Guest health and safety is our primary concern.”

Daniel put his hand through an image to select it.

The item turned red and vanished from the menu.

“Wonder if it does that with taste, too?” Moon mused.

“Mmmm, probably not,” Daniel mused. “It’s too subjective a thing. We’ll just have to hope we’re lucky on the first go, or be prepared to reorder.”

After seeing how other patrons received their meals, they made their choices and put two tables together so they could talk while eating.

Magically, the tables melded together into a single long unit when they sat down.

Jack got his steak – from Earth – along with a salad and baked potato, complete with a tumbler of whisky, neat. Daniel, Jarod and Charlie were adventurous and got the anteater. Moon went vegetarian, opting to try some of the strange but appealing-looking items from other worlds. Song and Story chose Asian-looking dishes with rice, vegetables and some strips of cooked fish.

Tzatzil took up nearly a quarter of the table with her choices, dish after dish of fish, meats, fowl, unclassifiable other proteins, vegetables and fruits piled high before her.

Most everyone had a taste of everyone else’s food, with the exception of Jack, who stuck to his steak.

“So how are we doin’ this, Daniel? What’s our game plan?” O’Neill was halfway through his T-bone before he spoke.

“Right.” Daniel washed down his bite of anteater with a sip of red wine. “First few days we spend choosing our games. I’m leaving all the betting to Charlie.”

He glanced at Dr. Eppes over the tops of his glasses. “Feel free to bet on or against us, whichever has better odds. When we’re ready to play, we’ll split up into pairs, one academic with one soldier, who will provide personal security for the player.”

Jack sat back in his chair, nonplussed. “Don’t we get to play, too?”

First I want you to give me the all clear, which I expect will take a few days,” Daniel explained. “we’ll take turns, sure, but someone always has to be on watch.” He held up his index finger in warning and eyed each one in turn. “No one will go anywhere on this planet alone.  Always move in groups of at least two until we’re sure of our safety. Are we clear?”

Heads nodded all around the table.

Jack felt a flush of pride. Daniel was shaping up to be a good commander. He was pleased that the geek had been paying attention after all.

“Also, Jarod and Charlie, since this is your first time out, you’ll need to stick with another experienced teammate until you’ve got your wheels under you. Your choice.”

The two men glanced at each other, then back at him.

“Before you answer,” Jack cut in, “remember that Daniel has died more than any other member of any team in the history of the SGC.” Lifting his tumbler casually, he barely hid his smile against the rim of the glass.

God, how he loved teasing that man!

Daniel’s eyes rolled toward his friend. “This is not a first contact team, Jack. Chances of dying in the field are greatly reduced for us on SG-Zed.”

With a little fixed smile of irritation, Daniel turned back to the team. “Anyone have preferences, or shall I assign pairs?”

“You died a couple times yourself, there, didn’t you, O’Neill?” Moon’s drawl was casual as she toyed with a strange leaf on her plate that curled up every time she touched it.

“Oh, so that’s how it is, is it Colonel?” Jack shot back with a tone of fake irritation. This was getting interesting.

Standing was showing signs of as sharp a sense of humor as his own. She gave him a quick salute with her glass of water, backed by an arched eyebrow and half grin that clearly stated, ‘Game on!

Jack looked forward to the banter and nodded back at her.

There was some discussion, but eventually the team selected their own pairs.

Colonel Standing would accompany Charlie to a betting house and also investigate the games of chance.

Jack would accompany the twins to a virtual reality gaming facility, focusing on puzzles and role-playing games, followed by skill events. Definitely not his thing, but whatevs. It would be an opportunity to get to know his teammates, and he wanted a good rapport with all of them.

Daniel, unfortunately, was stuck with Tzatzil, but because Jarod had no field experience, he asked the Major to join them in exploring the strategy games and athletic contests.

That would’ve been more up Jack’s alley, but there was time yet to sort out who would be doing what. The big contest was still weeks away and they had yet to figure out how to enter it other than there was some tenuous connection to participation in other games.

And they had yet to figure out who was running the place, how security was handled, or what measures (if any) were in place to prevent cheating.

That handy-dandy little thingamabob each one of them was wearing hadn’t gone into too much detail yet on that issue.

Daniel checked his chronometer. “Well, then, we have a few hours until dinnertime. Let’s all get started on our assignments and we’ll meet back here at… say… six o’clock?”

“It’s currently thirteen hundred hours,” Standing clarified. “See y’all back in five hours. Everybody stay sharp and remember we’re working here, not on vacation. What happens in Vegas ends up in a mission report.”

Jack grinned.

Oh, he was going to get along just fine with this gal.

“C’mon, boys,” Jack called, patting the twin with the man-bun on the shoulder. “Let’s see what’s out there. Tell me all about yourself. We’ll see the sights, have a few laughs…”

***

Later That Night

“There’s a bar down the street, if anyone’s up for a drink,” Daniel suggested. “At least, I think it’s a bar.”

“Well, we know they have good whisky, since we brought it with us, so I’m in.” Jack raised his hand.

In short order, they had regrouped at a building with a pair of distinctive antlers mounted above the door. The moving images on the wall showed a variety of libations pouring into containers, and when they arrived inside, they were collectively relieved to see their guess had been correct.

It was a big place, the walls covered with dark wood paneling and pleasant, low lighting. The air had a slightly woodsy scent to it, and the marble floors were clean enough to look up a woman’s dress. There were places to stand at the bar as well as tables and booths where they could sit, and Jack hoped they’d be on their asses in a New York minute. He’d been standing all day and his legs were aching.

Moon seemed to have the same idea and made a beeline to a comfy-looking booth in the back. It was open on both ends so they could make a quick exit, if needed, and Jack lowered himself gratefully onto the nearest padded bench with a groan.

Daniel headed to the bar to place their order.

Zazz was hot on his heels.

“So how was your day, O’Neill?” asked Standing, taking the seat on the far end of the facing bench.

“Can’t say I understood much of what I saw,” he replied, watching the elf get a load of their bartender and nearly fall on her backside.

Tzatzill’s wide-eyed, open-mouthed expression clearly showed she was shocked at what she saw.

Which drew Jack’s gaze to the creature, who leaned in close to Daniel with a smile on his face and merriment in his dark eyes.

A wispy van Dyck framed the guy’s wide, toothy grin. A mop of curly dark hair framed his handsome human face. He was about Daniel’s height but stick thin, his body language quite animated and happy. What made him stand out, however, were the full rack of deer antlers protruding from just behind his ears and curving around the back of his skull.

“Saw some interesting folks,” Jack continued without batting an eyelash or moving his gaze off the bartender. “Some Tok’ra we know, a couple of people I met on Argos, about half a dozen Asgard. Some bald blue people, a few monochromatic ones… Six Tollans in shiny silver suits. I thought they were all dead.”
“Looks like they had a Plan B.” Moon glanced around the bar. “Maybe that’s why they showed up here. I wouldn’t think they’d bother to come begging for The Prize unless they were in dire need. You know?”

O’Neill nodded toward fellow at the bar. “Anybody know what that is?”

“Just a guy with antlers,” Story replied with a shrug. “Is he wearing those or are they really growing out of his head? I can’t tell with all that curly hair.”

“Well, he’s hot, horns and all,” added Moon with a wistful twinkle in her eye. “That smile could kill.”

Jack cocked an eyebrow at her, surprised at her obviously sexual interest. “Let’s ask Zazz. I’ll bet she knows something.”

The elf followed Daniel back to the table with wide, stunned eyes.

As she approached, though, her composure returned and her lips pressed closed in a thin, pale line.

That didn’t look like a happy face to Jack.

“See somebody you know?” asked Jack as soon as the redhead sat down.

“I do not know him,” Tzatzil breathed, a touch of awe in her voice. “Did you see the antlers? They are real!”

But Jack was certain the elf was lying.

Daniel set the tray on the table and put the whisky in front of Jack, naming the other drinks as he set them down randomly. For Tzatzil, who didn’t imbibe alcoholic spirits, he had ordered a special tea from her homeworld, and directed everyone to watch while she poured.

The little pitcher and cup were made of glass rather than the usual ceramic, metal or clay so often seen on other worlds. The tea was yellowish but clear, no tea bag or dregs visible through the pot; a perfectly ordinary looking brew. An ice cube was already in the cup, carved or molded into the shape of an intricate flower.

Tzatzil smiled as she started to pour.

“This is the good part,” Daniel announced, staring at the tea service. “Watch the cup. Don’t look away for a second. Don’t even blink.”

Now everyone’s curiosity was up, and Jack focused hard on the yellow liquid as it flowed over the ice… and began to change color, into a beautiful rosy pink hue.

“It’s like magic, right?” Daniel sat back against the padded seat, just beaming. “I drank a lot of tea on her world, just so I could watch that.”

“Crazy cool,” Charlie agreed in obvious delight. “I’m doing the math in my head that accounts for the chemical reaction.”

“You’re off duty at the moment,” Jack reminded him. “Just enjoy the show. Don’t think too hard about it.”

Eppes’ dark eyes twinkled. “But you don’t understand, Major. For me, math is joy. I don’t do it because it’s my job. I love math because it’s is everything.”

“Whatever dials your ‘gate.” Jack lifted his tumbler and had a sip of whisky, hoping the geek wouldn’t go on endlessly about numbers. O’Neill could do a good bit of that himself – astronomy was his hobby, and that was a math-heavy subject – but he didn’t think of it as fun.

“Did you ever see the Matrix movies?” Charlie asked. “All those lines of code that trickled down the screen… that’s kind of how I see the world, not in code, but in equations.”

“Um,” Daniel interrupted, “Jack isn’t particularly fond of any kind of scientific process. I can see his eyes glazing over.” He flashed a tight, apologetic smile and added, “But I’d love to know more about that. Sounds fascinating.”

Colonel Standing toyed with her glass, eyes on the blue liquid as she chose that moment to bring up a point of business. “I’m sure you are all aware of the memo that came out last week on the repeal of DA/DT.”

Jack sighed and sat back, slumping a little against the back cushion. He knew what was coming and didn’t want to hear about it. He curled his lip in a sneer of disgust and studied the crowd, one ear on the conversation, dreading his turn.

“I’m not trying to get personal, you understand,” she continued. “This issue has the potential to cause friction and I just want to get ahead of that. I need to know how you all feel about having LGBTQ teammates, since the policy is now fully inclusive. Or rather, encouraging. You know what we’re all up against out here. We’ll eventually need to expand the program, and will need people with the right skills regardless of their orientation or gender. I need to know if I can count on you to be openly accepting, or if I’ll need to be watching you like a hawk.”

Tzatzil’s eyes remained on the crowd as she sipped her tea, head on a swivel, threat assessing. “Females are my preference. Males are for breeding.”

Jack’s eyebrows climbed up his forehead. “That’s. Kinda. Hot.” He imagined the pretty little elf with another gal, which did pleasant things in the pit of his belly. When he was alone in the shower later, he’d be exploring the fantasy more fully.

Thing One raised his hand and smiled. “Gay.”

Jack was startled. He’d been watching the kid’s six the whole day and would never have guessed.

Thing Two took a deep breath and sighed it out. “Straight, but okay with this initiative. I’ve been fending off Song’s boyfriends since we were old enough to date, so I learned to deal.”

Again Jack was surprised. “But you’re identical twins!”

“Jock,” said Story, raising his hand.

“Bookworm,” said Song, as if the exchange had been rehearsed. “Not alike in everything, Major O’Neill.”

Jarod relaxed against his seat. “Not a problem for me.”

“How about you, Commander?” asked Colonel Standing. “I know you were married once, but that’s not always an indicator.”

“Straight,” Daniel replied with a shrug, “but accepting. We’ve found so many cultures with more generous ideas of orientation and gender that the President and Joint Chiefs decided we should get with the program. Many ancient cultures were also more aligned with acceptance of alternate orientations and gender identities than more modern society. I think this is long overdue. Here, here.”

He raised his glass in salute, and everyone joined him in the toast except for a sullen Jack O’Neill.

Colonel Standing took notice. “Is this going to be a problem, Major?”

“No, ma’am,” he ground out. “I was raised to think it was wrong for men to have sex with other men, but I’m not gonna treat anyone any differently, as long as they don’t hit on me.”

“Everyone on our team has taken note, but if someone else makes an unknowing error at some point in the future, Major,” Standing replied with a distinct note of warning in her voice, “you will politely decline and move on from there. There will be no punches thrown, no raised voices or any other aggressive or discriminatory behavior. Are we clear?”

He met her eyes across the table and saw the intensity there. Something in her face made his righteous indignation quail. Then he remembered the difference in their rank. He was no longer a Colonel, but she was, and had been for longer than him. “As crystal, ma’am. There won’t be a problem.”

“Oh, c’mon, Major,” teased Song playfully, “d’you mean to tell me that, if you were stranded on a desert island with another man for the rest of your life, you’d never even try it? What if it was Deej?”

Thing Two nodded and raised his glass. “I’d tap that.” Then he glanced at Daniel. “No offense, Commander.”

“None taken, Story.” Daniel’s eyes were also on his glass. He looked pensive.

Never,” Jack shot back. “I’ve got a good right hand. That’s all I need.”

“Then you are a fool,” Tzatzil observed quietly, scanning the patrons, ever on duty. “I would also…’ tap that’, even though he is not female and my people cannot breed with humans. He is attractive, kind, courageous, intelligent. He has all the qualities of a perfect companion. If I had no other option, I would--”

Enough with the lectures,” Daniel cut in sternly. “All of you, please leave Jack alone about this. He’ll adjust in his own way.”

A wave of relief flooded through Jack. Daniel understood him, and he was grateful for the intercession. Once again, it was Daniel to the rescue.

Jackson lifted his head and eyed the Colonel. “How about you, Moon? How do you feel about it?”

A muscle twitched in her jaw. Something in her eyes was burning as she lifted her gaze to meet O’Neill’s. “Doesn’t make any difference to me, one way or another.” She nodded, imperceptibly, but as a clear signal. Then she got up and left the table, striding over to the bar for a refill.

“What put her knickers in a twist?” asked Song, obviously more than a little surprised.

Jack remembered. His guts twisted up inside him. “I was on the team that rescued her from the Taliban in Afghanistan about ten years ago. They had her for weeks, trying to get information out of her. All she gave ‘em was her name, rank and serial number, by the book.”

He touched his left cheek, drawing a letter C with his fingertip. “That scar around her eye? They did that to her because her name was Moon. That’s a sacred symbol to Islam, you know.”

Heads went down. Eyes turned glassy as they began to imagine the unimaginable. Daniel’s face, however, was filled with warning as he met Jack’s eyes. He shook his head, his mouth a grim line.

O’Neill continued. “They were so insulted by how strong she was that they surgically removed everything that made her a woman.”

All eyes raised to meet his. There was horror in every face. Even Tzatzil was looking at him now.

“None of this is to be repeated outside this table,” Daniel ordered quietly. “And none of you will treat Colonel Standing any differently, now that you know. Is that understood? Not a word to her or anyone else, and Jack, you and I will discuss this later, in private.”

“Yes, sir.” He watched Moon at the bar, leaning on her elbows, taking her time. “I told you all because I didn’t want anyone to ask her about her response later. I think she gave me an opening, Daniel, if I read her right. She doesn’t talk about it. Not sure she can. I certainly couldn’t, if I were her.”

He pondered his whisky, trying to get those horrible memories out of his head. “Somebody talk about something fun, like fishing. I desperately need to think about something else.”

Glancing at the woman at the bar, he waited for her to meet his eyes and nodded. She returned the signal, question asked and answered, her dark eyes haunted. There was gratitude in them, too.

The topic of conversation abruptly changed, and by the time Colonel Standing returned to the table with the second round of drinks, there was laughter all around.

***

It was late when they all retired to their rooms. Jack hit the showers while Daniel worked on his notes, and then switched places. When Daniel went to pick up his tablet again, Jack patted his arm and nodded at the bed.

“You need to stay sharp, boss man. That includes sufficient shut-eye.” It felt weird referring to Daniel as his boss. That would take some adjustment.

But Daniel didn’t go directly there. He stood by the window, curtains open, looking out at the eternal night in full ponder mode. When he spoke, his voice was full of sadness. “About that conversation earlier at the bar… I don’t think men like us are supposed to be married and have families, Jack. We’re all about the job, saving the world, helping where we can on other worlds.”

He glanced down at a clay pot on the window sill and fiddled with the soft silvery leaves of an alien plant.

“We eat, sleep and drink this job. I don’t think there’s anything else for us.” He turned, his blue eyes luminous and a little frightened as the ever-present neon lit his face from the side. “I don’t want to be alone for the rest of my life, and I don’t think you do, either.”

Jack spread his hands wide. “That’s what the team is for,” he returned confidently. “We got each other.” He paused and let his hands drop to his sides. “Especially you and me, Daniel. Not even death do us part, apparently.”

Daniel raised his eyebrows in silent question.

“When I was in Ba’al’s prison,” Jack prompted. “You were ascended and came to try to help me. I swear to God, Daniel, if it hadn’t been for you, I’d have lost my fucking marbles.”

The other man examined the flower bud getting ready to bloom, his mouth working like he was about to say something. Dimples flashed. His brows twitched together.

“I know, you don’t remember any of that. ‘S’okay. I do.” Jack went to his friend and gave his shoulder a fond squeeze.

“I was just…” He sighed, frustration written on his features. “Sometimes… you know… a guy has needs.” Daniel shrugged. “And yeah, I take care of that myself, too. It’s just… that’s not always enough.”

Jack stepped back, his eyebrows shooting up into his hair. “Are you goin’ gay on me, Daniel?”

“No, of course not. I just.” He shrugged. “That ‘desert island’ idea stuck in my head. We kinda do live on that island with no way back to a normal life. I’m just saying that… If you ever want to try...”

Jack thought about that. He’d need to think about it a lot more.

Daniel took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Ever hear of the Sacred Band, Jack?”

O’Neill sighed. “No, but I suppose you’re gonna tell me.”

“They were an ancient Greek military unit composed of male couples. In their entire history, they were never defeated until they faced Alexander the Great’s massive army and were annihilated by sheer numbers.”

“And that’s relevant how?” Jack stepped out of his dress shoes, unnerved by the fact that he wasn’t in BDUs and boots. He bent down to pick them up and went over to his bed, putting them in easy reach, then sat down to remove his socks.

“The theory behind the creation of that unit was that a man would never run from the battlefield if the person he loved most in the world was fighting right beside him. I think the same bonding applies in any team. I mean, look at you and me.”

Jack’s head came up. He glared at a startled Daniel Jackson.

“Well, I didn’t mean bonding in a romantic way,” he explained. “I just… You and I have been through a lot together. You’re probably closer to me than anyone else on Earth. I’d die for you, Jack, and I know you’d do the same for me. I trust you, and what you think of me matters. That’s what I mean.”

O’Neill shrugged out of his jacket and hung it up in their shared closet. “Thank you, Daniel,” he said quietly. “That’s the nicest thing I think anyone’s ever said to me.”

Daniel rubbed his face wearily. “I dunno. Maybe I’m just tired.”

Jack ambled toward the bed and started turning down the covers. “You have options, Daniel. There are ladies all over the base. Hell, every planet we go to, there are women trying to undress you! I think you seriously underestimate the power of those dimples. Take ‘em out for a test spin when we get back.”

On bare feet, Daniel padded over to Jack and stood close, waiting for eye contact. “I think you overestimate my ability to have meaningless sex, Jack. It’s not easy to let people close to me. You get that.”

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, if we were stuck on a desert island, I’d do you. Happy now?” Jack made sure the sincerity showed through, and none of the sarcasm.

His friend was obviously confused and lonely. He needed human contact, some warmth and comfort. Neither of them had had that in a long, long time.

Jack embraced him, holding him close as he whispered, “Spacemonkey,” in Daniel’s ear with a smile.

Daniel huffed a whispery chuckle and pulled back a little.

Their eyes met.

Smiles melted away.

Jack’s heart beat faster.

Daniel canted his head to the left and moved closer, eyes heavy lidded, pupils dilated.

Jack couldn’t move, heat uncoiling in his belly.

And then the tension broke as Daniel whirled away. “Nope, can’t do it,” he announced, irony in his tone. “Still straight.”

“Same here.” Jack was as sure of that as his name, but he was also aware of his body’s reaction to having Daniel in his arms, about to kiss him.

He climbed into the bed and lay on his back, staring at the ceiling while Daniel settled in on his side, facing away from him.

If Daniel had kissed him, Jack realized, he would have let it happen. He’d been about a breath away from getting a hard-on. In fact, he was having to work at not getting one as he lay there next to Daniel.

Was he straight, if he felt that way? Or was it just Daniel and his own personal needs double-teaming him? Jack wasn’t sure.

Soldiers in the field sometimes helped each other out like that, but it didn’t mean they were gay. It just felt better to let someone else drive once in a while. It had been a long time since either of them had had sex, so…

“Let me know if you wanna kick the tires sometime, Daniel. I’m here for you, just like you’ve always been there for me.”

Daniel rolled onto his back.

Jack listened, ready for further discussion or for Daniel’s breathing to tell him that the man was asleep.

Then Daniel turned again, nestled his cheek against Jack’s shoulder and put his arm around his old friend’s waist.

For a long time, Jack lay awake as Daniel slept against him.

This, he realized, was also something they both needed. It felt good to be touched and held, and Daniel had had far too little of that in his life.

Maybe at some point they would experiment. It would probably be awkward for a couple of straight guys to touch each other naked. Might not even be able to get that far, if Daniel’s aborted kiss were any indicator.

But this felt good and right, this closeness.

Jack laid his arm over Daniel’s, closed his eyes, and slept.

***

January 29, 2005

The Next Night

“Jack.”

“Daniel?”

Squinting, Daniel could just make out three of the little seirbhíseach scuttling across the roof of the restaurant across from their hotel room. They dropped out of sight into the alley behind the building.

“This is the third time I’ve seen those aliens scouring the trash bins,” Daniel reported. “I think they’re homeless. And hungry.”

O’Neill already knew what was coming, and started putting his pants back on.

“Think I’ll take my leftovers down there,” Daniel added, finally tearing himself away from the view.

“We don’t know what they eat,” Jack reminded him. “Hell, they’re green, like plants. Maybe they do photosynthesis instead.”

Daniel shot him a questioning look.

“I know big words.” Jack pretended hurt, which had great comedic effect.

Sometimes that cosmic giddiness could be annoying, but Daniel loved their banter.

“We’ll have to be quiet so Tzatzil doesn’t hear us leave,” he whispered.

“You’re with me,” Jack reminded him. “She knows you’ll be safe.”

Daniel all but wilted with gratitude.

“How come you don’t like the kid? She seems nice.” He hesitated. “It makes her sad that you’re always trying to ditch her. She’s just trying to do her job, you know.”

“I know, Jack. It’s just.” He flailed a little. “She’s always watching me. It’s unnerving.”

Jack was first in the hallway, checking for potential threats, always the soldier, even without a weapon in his hands.

Daniel locked up their room and followed his friend into the alley.

Two of the creatures were standing beside a trash bin while the third tossed scraps out to its companions. One of them scampered away when the two humans appeared, but the other stayed to wait for the one in the bin.

“It’s okay,” Daniel assured them, speaking quietly. He knelt slowly and held out the paper napkin stuffed with flatbread toward them. “This is for you, if you can eat it. It’s okay.”

When they made no move closer, he set the napkin down on the pavement and stepped back.

“We won’t hurt you,” he promised.

The bin diver scrambled to the edge of the container and dropped to the ground, landing with a squeak.

With big, suspicious eyes, the sentinel inched forward while the other two watched. When it was close enough, it snatched as much bread as it could carry and darted back to join its friends. After offloading the booty, the sentinel approached again warily and picked up the final piece.

It stood regarding them, holding the bread close.

“Poor things,” Daniel cooed. “Are you homeless?”

There was no reaction.

“An bhfuil tú gan dídean?” asked Jack, repeating the question in Irish Gaelic.Daniel whipped his head around, shocked and awestruck. “Your accent’s beautiful, Jack! I didn’t know you were fluent. Should’ve guessed. O’Neill.”“Not every Irishman speaks the mother tongue,” Jack said in English, but with a distinctive lilt. “The County Tyrone O’Neills, however, require it. Me grandda insisted.”“Well, then, I expect to have a lot of conversations in Irish when we get back home,” Daniel declared with a note of authority, “because I’m just passable at the pronunciations, and I’d enjoy the hell out of listening to you talk to me with that glorious accent for the rest of my days.”Glancing back at their new friends, Daniel lowered into a squat again and repeated Jack’s question.The brave one shook its head.“It’s all right,” Daniel promised, gesturing them to come closer. “Tell them we won’t hurt them, Jack.”“Um, aren’t you the linguist, here, Doctor Jackson?”

“Not today. Not when you can do it so much better than me.” He flashed a smile up at his friend and waited.

Jack repeated the question.

Daniel murmured a few of the words to feel the pronunciation in his own mouth, practicing until the alien took a step closer. He smiled, thrilled to see the fear waning in their eyes.

The creature nodded sadly.

“If that’s not enough, we can get you more food,” Daniel offered, and Jack duly repeated.

Their eyes shifted between the two men. They smiled like happy dogs, showing off sharp white teeth. Then they clustered together, chattering all at once, their conversation punctuated with occasional jumping up and down and a little happy dancing.

“Hope you know what you’re getting yourself into,” Jack warned. “They might eat like Zazz.”

Daniel shot him an exasperated look, hoping like hell his friend wasn’t right. He did have a tendency to rush in where angels feared to tread. “What are they saying?”

“They’re talking so fast I need subtitles,” the other man admitted. “I get a word here and there, but not enough to make sense.”

The smallest one trotted up to Daniel and raised its arms, like a small child asking to be picked up. Charmed, he did, and as it snuggled up under his chin, he lost a piece of his heart to it.

Turning toward his teammate, he asked, “What are their names?”

“Niamh!” called the young one in Daniel’s arms, patting his chin to get him to look at it.

Aed was the father, the one who had been in the trash bin, and Clodagh was the brave mother who had come to him for the bread. Niamh was their daughter, and Daniel was enchanted by the little family.

“Let’s go inside the restaurant,” he suggested, his heart melted into a gooey blob. “I’ll buy you all a good meal.”

“Daniel.” Jack’s tone of warning was clear. “We don’t know anything about these critters. You can’t take them home with you.”

Clodagh and Aed held hands and gazed at O’Neill expectantly, waiting for the translation.

Jack sighed. “What the hell. No good deed ever goes unpunished, right?”

An hour later, Jack stood with hands on hips, frowning as Daniel made a little bed for the family on the floor near the window of their room.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Daniel said quietly. “We’ll sort everything out tomorrow. Let’s get some sleep.”

“Not with aliens in our room,” Jack shot back with a sharp tone of warning. “I’ll stand first watch. Wake you in four.”

Daniel apologized with his eyes.Jack shook his head, instantly forgiving him. He knew how Daniel was, that he led with his heart, and Daniel was grateful that, somewhere along the way, Jack had accepted that.

From his vantage point on the pillow, Daniel noted that Aed sat beside his family, eyes open, also keeping watch over his loved ones.

A smile crept across Jack’s face as he studied the little green fur ball. “Tá sé seo ar láimh, cara,” Jack told the creature.

Daniel closed his eyes, translating in his head, not verbatim, but how Jack would’ve put it in English.

“We got this, buddy.”

***

February 5, 2005

One Week Later

“I hope they don’t have fleas,” Jack said to no one in particular as he hoisted Aed onto his shoulder.

The seirbhíseach male scanned the buildings, finally locating the one they wanted.

For the first event, Daniel decided the whole team should be present just so they understood how to register and participate. Afterward, the scholars would head out with their designated bodyguards to try their hands at other events, and then meet up again at midnight to compare notes.

Following their guide’s direction, Team Earth made their way to a long building where the contestants would warm up.

Moon went with Charlie to the betting area and Jack headed for the spectators’ area, expecting Daniel to accompany the rest of them to watch the elf shoot some arrows. When he saw his commander following the redhead, though, he tapped Major Carter on the shoulder and nodded toward the pair heading into the competitors’ area.

“Where’s Daniel going? I thought he was supposed to be with us.” Jack was trying not to be stressed, but past history made him nervous for Daniel to go off on his own.

Jarod grinned. “He hasn’t kept up with it, but he’s a pretty good archer. A scout for the Olympics tried to get him to compete in college, but you know Daniel. He didn’t want to take time out from—“

“—his studies,” they finished together.

Jack shook his head, casting one final concerned glance at his retreating commander’s head.

At least he was with the elf. She’d look after him in there.

A small hand ruffled Jack’s hair to get his attention, and he followed the seirbhíseach’s finger, pointing toward their party making their way through an arched doorway.

The Majors jogged to catch up and find seats in the open air arena.

Aed sat on Jack’s lap, answering questions and providing a highly personalized guided tour.

There were already archers on the field.

“I thought Daniel said it didn’t start for another hour?” asked Song, glancing over his shoulder at Jack.

“No, he said they had an hour to practice before they competed,” Jarod corrected from O’Neill’s other side.

Jack conferred with Aed. “They compete in small groups, and the winners advance to compete with other winners in another heat. I think this is the third set, if our furry friend here has it right, and there’ll be eight more. Zazz… and I guess Daniel… will be in the last bracket.”

The archers were at their marks and nocked an arrow.

Suddenly, the tiny figures on the grassy field at the center of the stadium became towering giants, every face easy to see.

“Holy shit!” Jack gasped. “We need this for hockey!”

Jarod leaned forward, elbows on knees. “That is some serious tech. Totally seamless. If there’s holographic machinery, I can’t see it.”

“But you can damn sure see everything else,” Song observed with a smile, pointing at a human-looking male dressed like William Tell. “That one’s commando. He’s dressing to the right.”

Carter chuckled. “Rein it in, Doctor Wintersmith. Just enjoy the view.” He patted the shoulder of the man sitting in front of him.

Jack eyed the Major. “So you know Daniel from college?” He’d wondered about how familiar Daniel had been with the man.

“Long after. From what I know about his history now, it was a few months before he met Catherine Langford. We were working a dig together in Mexico. His career was tanking, and it was his last job in the field.” Jarod studied the creature in Jack’s lap with a wistful little smile. “I should’ve been more supportive. Turns out his wild theories weren’t so wild at all.”

“Daniel forgives everyone who thought he was a crackpot,” Jack stated proudly. “If they knew how right he was, they’d be begging to work for him.”

Jarod spread his hands and grinned. “And here I am! By way of Uncle Sam, of course, but I’m thrilled Daniel picked me for this mission. Blown away.”

“SGC is a great way to readjust your focus,” Jack agreed. “Helps you understand what’s really important in the Big Picture.”

The event began, and the crowd fell silent as the first archer drew and fired. The score went up immediately over his giant virtual head, glowy numbers floating in the air. The audience cheered or booed, depending on whether they supported him or wanted him to lose.

Other archers took their turns, but Jack was busy studying the crowd, watching to see if anyone was looking at them too intently, whether there were weapons being secreted, anything suspicious going on around them.

He spotted a Goa’uld in a box seat near the arena’s rim, all fancied up in jaguar fur, sporting black and yellow stripes across his face. The guy looked Native American – particularly handsome, as all hosts must be – tall, and with plenty of lean muscle. He was surrounded by about twenty Jaffa, but no one was paying attention to them at all. In this place, they were ordinary spectators.

“Wouldja lookit that?” Jack whispered with a grin, nodding at the Goa’ulds. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen those clowns on a level playing field with everyone else.”

“Who are they?”

“A Goa’uld trying to look important, surrounded by his Jaffa sycophants. Aztec, if I remember what Daniel said right. No way I can pronounce his name.” Jack absently rubbed Aed’s green fur.

It had a calming effect, just like petting a dog at home.

Jarod squinted past the giant hologram. “Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror. His followers were big on human sacrifice.”

Jack had a thought and asked Aed if there was any way to know if that snake or his servants were registered to compete in any events.

The seirbhíseach lifted Jack’s new host device and told him how to make the request.

As luck would have it, one of them was going to be in the same contest with the Tau’ri.

“This oughtta be fun,” he mused, patting the creature on its leg in gratitude.

“There’s Daniel!” called Lieutenant Wintersmith, pointing at the entry door of the arena.

Right behind him, the elf came out with her game face on, and Jack relaxed into his seat to watch.

They were positioned side by side, their lanes marked with white lines on the grass like a football field.

Zazz took the typical archer’s stance, feet braced shoulder width apart, angled toward the target.

Daniel, however, sank to his knees and placed his equipment beside him on the ground, neatly laying out the three arrows in a row. He bowed to the target, his forehead touching the grass between precisely formed hands.

“What the hell is he doing?” Jack asked no one in particular.

“Looks like he’s going Japanese style with the target practice,” Jarod informed him.

“I know he likes to do things in the ‘traditional’ way, but this isn’t a cultural exhibition,” Jack carped. “It’s a contest, for cryin’ out loud!”

“He knows what he’s doing, Major O’Neill. Trust him.”

Jack kept further irritation to himself and just watched.

Zazz pulled off her three shots in rapid succession, making a neat cluster dead center on the target.

She got a perfect score.

Daniel, however, put on a show. Each movement was slow and precise, like a ballet. He took the bow and nocked the first arrow, studied the target for two full minutes with the tools relaxed against his thighs, and then, as he drew back the string and aimed, he turned his head away from the target and closed his eyes.

An instant later, he let fly.

The arrow hit just on the border between the center and the next ring.

The audience went wild.

Jack stood up, barely remembering the little guy in his lap. He lifted Aed back to his shoulders, piggyback style, his heart pounding with wild pride and amazement.

“How did he do that?” Jack asked, hoping no one would answer.

Jack remained on his feet for the second arrow, which hit fully inside the center circle this time, and when the third landed even closer to the tiny center dot, Jack was cheering at the top of his lungs.

When the first flush of excitement passed, Jack glanced at the scores hovering above Daniel’s bowed head.

“How’d he beat Zazz?”

“Complexity of the shot, I guess,” Jarod answered with a shrug. “Tzatzil seems pretty happy about losing to him, though.”

Jarod nudged Jack’s shoulder. “Wait till you see him with a sword in his hands!”

Jack glared back at the younger officer. “I’ve seen him fight with a knife, so I get he’s good. I just have a problem with the whole ‘what if he gets killed’ idea. We’re gonna need to talk about safeguards and such.”

Daniel bowed to the target again, then rose slowly from the ground and waited for the signal to gather his arrows before returning to the athlete’s doorway. Zazz was circling around him, chattering and dancing, obviously over the moon.

“You know,” observed Jack, leaning toward the Major, “I think she’s got a thing for him, orientation notwithstanding.”

“I think you might be right,” Jarod agreed.

They resumed their seats as the arena emptied. The brackets showed the winners’ standings, and both Daniel and Zazz had advanced to the next level.

Jack turned back to his study of the crowd while the targets were taken down and the next event was set up.

Three stags appeared out of nowhere, and Jack wasn’t sure if they were real or holographic.

Then three challengers returned to the field to hunt the animals all at once. Arrows were flying everywhere. The archers crossed lines of fire, apparently heedless of the danger to themselves.

Aed sensed Jack’s rising panic, and explained that the archers were actually on separate fields and that both the weapons and targets were not real but part of a virtual gaming system. None of the contestants would be injured. It just made for a more exciting display with the contestants appearing to be sharing the same space.

When Daniel and Zazz came up in the rotation, however, Daniel refused to hunt the deer. There was some discussion with the four-eyed hóstach running the event, but it eventually got underway. As Daniel and Zazz lined up with a Jaffa, the stags changed to predators that looked like sabre-toothed tigers with bony armor plates and sharp spikes down their backs.

“Oh, Daniel,” Jack sighed. “You and your Bambi complex.”

When it started, it looked so real Jack got utterly lost in the narrative. He found himself shouting instructions to Daniel, even though he knew the other man couldn’t possibly hear him. His heart pounded as one of the beasts leapt at Daniel, who rolled away with the grace of a gymnast and came up to his feet shooting. The big cat rolled to a stop, an arrow protruding from its eye socket.

Zazz had seen the leap, however, and screamed, losing sight of her own objective.

The third competitor, a Jaffa from the Aztec crew, shifted his aim from the predator on the far side of the arena to Daniel.

The view went into slow motion, centering on the three competitors.

Daniel stood still, hands at his sides, studying his kill.

The elf leaped into the path of the arrow, but she had jumped too soon and the shaft slid through strands of her copper hair streaming out behind her.

“Noooooooo!” Jack shouted.

The arrow was headed straight for Daniel’s heart.

And appeared to hit the target dead on.

He staggered backward, staring down at the wooden shaft sticking out of him in horrified surprise.

But he didn’t fall.

“Daniel!” Jack’s hands clasped his head, his heart breaking. He was so far away. He had no weapons. There was nothing he could do but watch his friend die.

Still, Daniel didn’t fall.

The audience roared their disapproval. A warning tone sounded, and the giant images of the players turned red for an instant. The big cats froze in place in the background.

Jack sat down heavily in his seat, stunned.

Then a bubble formed around the Jaffa.

The public address system noted that the player had been disqualified for cheating, and would be barred forever from the planet. The bubble turned red, and then it and the Jaffa vanished along with the view of the playing field. Instead, the arrival center appeared, and everyone saw the Jaffa being pushed through the Stargate into the event horizon by a small army of the hóstach.

When the cheering began to die down, the gaming arena reappeared.

Tzatzil’s hands were running over Daniel’s chest and back, searching for the wound, but the arrow had vanished. There was no blood and no hole in his clothes. Both of them seemed astonished.

“Oh, thank God!” Jack whispered, unable to take his eyes off the scene.

Then the animals came to life again, but Zazz had dropped her bow.

“Pick it up, pickitup!” Jack called to her, but one of the beasts pounced just as she reached for it.

Daniel dropped into a squat at the creature’s side and then sprang upward, putting his shoulder into the cat’s ribs, knocking it off balance just enough for the elf to roll to safety. She grabbed her bow on the way and came up firing, putting two in the creature’s open mouth as it prepared to lunge again. While it thrashed in totally believable death throes, Zazz took down the other tiger with her last arrow at the same moment Daniel put one in its heart.

Jack wanted to just collapse in his chair until he could breathe and think properly, but instinct drove him onto his feet and back to the competitors’ door where he’d last seen his teammates. He needed to see Daniel, to make sure he was alive and unharmed, even though he’d just seen the proof with his own eyes.

“Carter, stay with the team,” he ordered. “You have Aed.”

A pair of hóstach wouldn’t let him in the competitors’ shed no matter how much he argued with them, but after a few minutes, he saw Daniel coming toward the doorway, beaming.

“I’m okay, Jack,” he promised, rubbing the spot on his chest where he’d been shot. “The arrow wasn’t real. It just stung a little so I’d react like I’d been hit.”

“You’re sure?”

The elf behind Daniel was white as a sheet. “He is well, O’Neill. I have checked him many times.” Her voice was quavering, and she was still visibly upset.

Daniel was still beaming. “This is fascinating! How’d it look from the stands?”

Jack wanted to sit down. Instead, he bent over, leaning against his thighs, and took a few deep breaths. “Larger than life. That definitely had hockey beat for excitement.”

“Wow.” Daniel’s smile softened to awe. “That’s high praise from you, Jack.”

“Are you done yet? Because I think I hear my therapist calling.”

“Who, Doctor Guiness?”

Jack stood up and rolled his eyes.

“No, the rest of the archers have to finish the second match, and then there are… I think… five more rounds to go?” He glanced over his shoulder at Zazz, who nodded. “This’ll probably take several more hours. Maybe by dinnertime?”

“Excuse me while I just step over here and have a stroke!”

“Why don’t you go find Moon and Doctor Eppes and see how we’re doing with the betting? That’ll give you a chance to calm down a little. Or go see Song and let him check you out. You look like you’re having a panic attack.”

“Well, you looked like we were gonna have to put your name on that memorial wall again, Daniel. Of course I’m upset!”

“I’m fine, Jack. I promise. Not so much as a scratch or dent.”

“Come out here, then. Just for a minute.” Jack wanted to hug him, to lay hands on him. That would make Daniel’s being okay a fact.

Jackson shook his head. “Can’t. I’d be forfeiting if I cross that line.” He pointed at the red line over the threshold. “Take one of the other academics to a different event. Give yourself a break. I’ll come find you when we’re done here, okay?”

O’Neill was already feeling better, now that he’d talked to Daniel and seen with his own eyes that the man was unharmed. He nodded, curious as hell to watch the next event, but not sure he could handle it. Jack gave his friend a long look.

“At least, we know now how the hóstach handle cheating now. Immediate, public and permanent exclusion ensure that few will even try to break the rules. That’s good news, isn’t it?” Daniel looked hopeful.

He was always so very full of hope. Jack loved that about him, too.

“Don’t die today, Daniel.”

“I’ll do my best.”

Jack shifted his gaze to the elf. “Don’t you let him die, Zazz,” he ordered softly. “Remember, you’re supposed to be protecting him, not the other way around.”

She lifted her delicate chin. This time, her voice was strong. “I will not fail again, O’Neill.”

He could see in her eyes how wrecked she was over what had happened in the simulation, but he treated her like he would have any new recruit. When they messed up, they had to own it, had to improve. If they didn’t, people might die, and he didn’t want Daniel to be the one paying that price.

He’d been too permissive with Sam Carter, and would not let the same thing happen again here, even though the elf wasn’t under his direct command.

They understood each other.

He headed back to the stands, gathered up Aed, Major Carter and Thing One, and the foursome left to investigate another, hopefully more sedate gaming establishment.

***

Later That Evening

“You’re late, Daniel,” Jack carped as the commander slid into his chair at their usual dinner table.

But the other man was all in one piece, apparently undamaged, and that was reason enough to celebrate. Jack’s curiosity, however, had to be satisfied. “How’d you do today?”

Aed stood up from his place on the seat beside Jack and snagged a roll from the table.

Daniel cleared his throat and turned his plate of rice, fish and vegetables just so. His eyebrows arched. His mouth drew up into a bow. He picked up Niamh from the seat beside him and sat her in his lap, whispering an invitation to her to help him eat his meal, obviously avoiding answering.

“He won!” Charlie cheered, pumping a fist into the air. “And we cleaned up today with the betting!”

Daniel cleared his throat again, glancing at the other academics. “How did your play go today?”

Song patted the cube-shaped trophy in front of him. “I did okay with the role-playing game. Third place. Learned a lot, too, so I should do better next time.”

“Well done, everyone!” Daniel was obviously proud of all of them. “Tomorrow we’ll go out in two teams. Our soldiers will take the first turns. When one of the soldiers is competing, the other will be on watch over the academics. Then in the evening after dinner, we’ll switch off and the academics will play.”

“How about if we call you guys the A Team?” suggested Moon. “We’ll be the B Team. It is y’all’s show, after all, Deej.”

She handed a big piece of bright pink fruit to Clodagh, who was sitting on her lap.

The little family was now part of their regular dinner crew, and still sharing a room with Jack and Daniel.

Daniel’s soft smile was filled with admiration. “Okay. And because I want everyone to get to know each other well, I’ll be assigning different teams each day. Tomorrow’s team one will be Song and Last. Jarod, you’re with Charlie and Story. Jack, you’ll be with me…” He sighed. “… and Zazz.”

The elf beamed. “You were amazing today, my Daniel! Now you have not only saved our queen, but me as well! I will be honored to watch over you for the rest of my life!”

Tzatzil recounted the play-by-play of Daniel’s archery match – complete with sound effects – with all the excitement of a ten-year-old. When she launched into the final three rounds, Jack’s food got cold as he sat, unmoving, on the edge of his seat. He stared at her, occasionally glancing at a blushing Daniel, both wishing he’d been there to see the show and glad he’d been elsewhere.

Daniel’s face was filled with such guilt when he finally met Jack’s eyes, begging for forgiveness.

“Doctor Wintersmith,” O’Neill said quietly. He reached his arm toward the man seated to his left without looking away from their commander. “Please take my pulse. I think I may be having a heart attack.”

Song dropped his fork, pulled back Jack’s sleeve a little and placed his fingers on the inside of his wrist as he checked his watch.

“Jack.” Daniel was obviously embarrassed, but worried, too. Questioning. Are you really okay?

“Daniel.” He pointed to his head. “You see all this gray hair? You did that.”

“Pulse is strong and steady,” Song reported, reaching for his fork again. He glanced between the two men. “Probably just -- Oh! That was a joke.”

 “O’Neill,” Moon called, her tone firm, her face set, eyeing him from Daniel’s right. “Get off your high horse and stop browbeating him. He’s doing his job. You do yours.”

After a moment of awkward silence, Daniel asked for other verbal reports from the team. Each told their stories – some more artfully than others – and while they took their turns, he made notes for his daily report to General Waring.

The little seirbhíseach in his lap peered at his tablet with great interest.

Jack watched all of them, keeping his thoughts and opinions to himself. He studied his team, the other diners, the wait staff, the design of the building and the technology, tucking details away for later review. On the face of it, this place might be a lot of fun, but he knew there was something else going on here, something they didn’t yet understand.

It was too perfect, too safe, too cool.

Which meant that the most powerful players were behind the scenes, studying their guests, learning their secrets, their tells, their strategies, how their minds worked, collecting data on their produce with every new shipment of food.

Jack’s spidey-sense was tingling all over, and until he put all the pieces together, he was not at all certain that whatever Prize this place was offering would be worth the price of playing the game.

***

As they entered the Stag Bar, Daniel recognized the Gamekeeper from P7J-989 sitting by himself at a corner table.

Their eyes met briefly and the man turned away, putting his back to the door.

Daniel took a seat at the bar to place their drinks order and have a moment to himself. He still didn’t fully understand how to enter in the big prize competition; only certain that it had something to do with the number of other contests won. If only there were someone he could ask…

“Why the long face, cara?”

He glanced up to meet the twinkling hazel eyes of the man with the antlers, looking right at him as he set the last drink on the tray.

Then Daniel remembered that people tended to chat up bartenders. They were great sources of local information.

“My friends and I want to enter the contest for the big Prize,” he admitted, “but we can’t figure out how.”

“Ah. That.” The bartender poured another drink, carefully layering eight different liquids into a perfect rainbow, topped with a thin strip of foamy cream. “I can tell you all you need to know.” He set the drink on the tray with the others Daniel had ordered.

“Great! Thank you. What’s your name?”

“Call me Conall. I’ll meet you at your table.” He hefted the tray onto one hand and lifted it high above his head as he came out from behind the bar.

“Let me carry the drinks,” Daniel suggested, eyeing the antlers curving around the back of the man’s head. They made a neat cage for his skull. Each one had been inscribed with Celtic knotwork and unfamiliar runes. He’d love to study the patterns, but now wasn’t the right time to ask permission.

“Not on your life, pal! Takes a fine hand to make that Rainbow Hammer and one little jiggle to destroy it. Now, off wi’ ya!” Conall waved him away.

“I’m Daniel, by the way. Daniel Jackson.” He couldn’t help himself. “Um, I was noticing the runes on your antlers and was wondering if you know what the inscriptions say?”

The bartender froze in mid-step. His head turned slowly to meet his companion’s gaze with wide eyes. “You saw the runes?”

“Yes! I’m a bit of a language buff, and I’ve never seen that writing before. I’d like to study it, maybe later, when we have time. If that’s all right with you.” He smiled hopefully. “I’m not trying to be rude. Just interested.”

A slow, wistful smile spread over the man’s face. “No offense taken, cara. If there’s time, I’d be pleased for you to have a closer look. I don’t know what it says meself. Wasn’t my hand that carved it, after all.”

He nodded toward the table. “Come. Let’s join your friends now.”

Conall sat down on the only open seat and placed the drinks in the middle of the table, just as Daniel had done. He tucked his long legs up tailor-style on the bench and then raised the multicolored drink in toast. “Slainte!”

Glasses clinked. Everyone had a sip of something – except for the bartender, who downed his amazing-looking glass in a single long swallow. Conall set his glass down with a satisfied thud and a happy sigh, a strip of white foam still showing on his upper lip.

People scooted over to allow Daniel a place to sit while he performed the introductions.

Jack glanced at the empty bar back. Customers were starting to line up. “Um… Should we go over there, so you can work while we talk?”

Conall didn’t even glance at the bar, just flapped a negligent hand in that direction. “Nah. They can wait or go somewhere else.” He reached over and patted Daniel’s arm across from him. “Daniel says you want to try for the Prize.”

“Where do we register? And how? What are the qualifications for entry?”

“So many questions! Aren’t you here to have fun? That’s why everyone comes to Domhan An Lucht Siúil.” He leaned across the table, and the torc around his neck glinted in the warm amber light from lanterns on the support posts flanking the booth.

Daniel saw Jack staring out of the corner of his eye. He started to try to stop him, but it was too late.

“Are those real?” Jack was already reaching across the table.

The barkeep inclined his head toward him. “Wanna feel me up?”

Jack grasped one of the tines and gave it a little shake.

Conall’s head moved with it. He flashed a grin and waggled his eyebrows at Jack. “Nice rack, eh?”

Daniel rubbed his face, at once relieved that the being hadn’t taken offense and embarrassed that Jack had even asked to touch them. “So, how do we get in?”

“Well, actually, you’re already competing.”

That was a surprise.

“If you’re here near the time of the big contest, you’re automatically entered as soon as you start playing. If you’re here to sell something, provide a service or just watch, naturally, you’re not.”

“So how do we stay in the contest? Is it based on total wins, total credits…”

“You just play,” announced Conall with a wide grin. “The final contest is by invitation only, so if you’re not contacted by a hóstach the night before, you didn’t make it.”

Daniel felt a sense of panic start to rise. “There has to be a more concrete determining factor. We have to be able to set a goal so we know how to reach it. Winning this is important to our whole species, Conall. We’re fighting for our lives here!”

“Against?”

“The Goa’uld,” Jack replied darkly. “They aren’t here in your bar right now, but I’m sure you’ve seen ‘em. Loud clothes, weird voices, glowing eyes…”

“They take our people as hosts against our will,” explained Daniel. “They make slaves of us, or destroy those they can’t conquer.”

Conall glanced pointedly at the furry seirbhíseach at the table. “There are slaves here. Will you fight for them as well?”

Every human eye at the table widened in surprise.

“Slaves?” Jack ruffled Aed’s fur absently. “That word translates as servant in Irish.”

“I take it you haven’t purchased these three seirbhíseach? You can’t take ‘em home wi’ ya, then. You’ll have to buy them from their current owner first.”

“Then we will,” Daniel shot back, certain in his heart that was the right decision.

“Daniel!” Colonel Standing’s voice held a note of warning.

“How much, and how do we find their owner? Can they live free here after we’re gone, or will we need to take them with us to keep them safe?”

“Safe from what?” asked Conall. “They’re well treated, by law. They have food, shelter, work. They’re in no danger.”

“Then what about these guys?” Daniel demanded, struggling to rein in his temper. “They were homeless and starving until we took them in.”

Conall shrugged. “It’s not likely they’re lost. Their hóstach owner probably died and left no heirs. Eventually another hóstach would’ve taken them in, as you have.”

Niamh climbed up on the table, yawned and curled up into a little ball. In an instant, she was asleep.

“I mean, they’re useful for small tasks like cleaning and carrying. The hóstach keep them because they’re so adorable.”

“Oh, like pets,” Moon suggested, scratching Clodagh’s ear. “That’s a whole different relationship than slavery.”

Only Daniel wasn’t buying it. These creatures had language. That made them sentient.

Jack leaned close to Daniel’s ear. “We can’t save everybody, Daniel. Don’tcha think we should make some inquiries first?”

He shot his friend a hard look. “No one should have to live as a slave.”

“We’ll deal with it diplomatically. Maybe we just don’t have the same interpretation of the word. We can look into it tomorrow with the authorities.” Jack’s expression was sympathetic, caring, but the underlying look of warning was also patently clear.

We don’t have to like it. We have a job to do. Focus on that.

“What is the final contest like?” asked Moon, obviously changing the subject to cool everyone down. “Is it a single event? Do we participate as individuals or a team?”

Conall studied his empty glass for a moment before he answered. “I mustn’t give too much away, cara. All of you may participate, or only one, if that’s your choice, but there will be elements of every game you play in the event, so choose wisely. Play games you feel certain you can win, and win as often as you can.”

“Is there a credit amount that we need to hit?” Song looked thoughtful, his gaze a million miles away.

“Not really.” Conall shook his head. “You just have to be in the top percentage of winners who stay to play the game.” He raised his eyebrows with a guileless half-smile. “Not as many people want to participate as you might imagine. In the few days before the game, most of the players return to the arrival center and come back as visitors, just to watch. You’ll see bubbles everywhere.”

“Oh.” Charlie caught Daniel’s eye and held up his hóstach device. “How many teams played in the last five Prize matches?”

The device rattled off the statistics.

“That’s fewer than ten teams per contest,” he announced. “Our odds are looking good! All we have to do is win more often than we lose, and not drop out before Game Day.”

He addressed the device again. “What is the average entrance fee per team for the Prize match?”

“Approximately one million credits per person.”

Conall slashed a hand through the air. “That’s not the way it works,” he told the group. “If you’re chosen, you put up all your remaining funds as the entry fee. If you lose, you go home with lighter pockets. If you win, you get the Prize and nothing else.”

“Which is one way the Gamers make their money,” Charlie explained. “The biggest winners leave empty-handed.”

“Well, not quite,” Conall chuckled. “There’s a reason The Prize is so coveted, you know. After you’ve competed, you’ll understand.”

“Is there any way to get a peek at the Prize before the game?” Moon watched the antlered man from beneath her brows. “I’m not sure we want to waste our people’s time and resources unless we know it’s worth what we’re going to pay for it.”

“Yeah, like those virtual reality machines that guy in the corner put up a few years ago,” Jack mused, idly stroking Aed’s head. He nodded toward the Gamekeeper. “Been there. Done that. Wore out the T-shirt. If we won something like that, we’d want our money back along with an apology from the hóstach, ‘cause we’ve already got a few in our basement.”

“Where are you staying? I’ll see what I can find out.” Conall unfolded his long legs and stood up. “Might take a few days, mind. I’ll bring a bottle of the good stuff.”

Daniel gave him the address of their hotel.

Conall leaned over and ruffled Aed’s fur. “You tell ‘em who owns you, now, so they can buy your little family and you can be done with hiding. I think you can trust this lot, little fella.”

As the man’s body bent right in front of him, Daniel got a good look at the belt around his tunic. It had what appeared to be ram’s heads at either end, but in the right light, the horns could be flared fins and the head made of the closed four-flapped mouth of a symbiote. The body also had faint scaly markings that could easily be mistaken for snake skin, and small ridges that could be folded fins.

Daniel held his breath until the antlered man had returned to the bar, letting it out in a whoosh as he turned to the team.

“Did you see his belt?” he asked them, wide-eyed. “Did it look like a symbiote to you?”

“With two heads? Yeah, I noticed that, too.” Jack sipped his whisky. “Anybody ever hear of a two-headed Goa’uld?”

“I’m of two minds about that,” Song quipped, then flashed an embarrassed grin when no one laughed at his joke. “Sorry, guys. I couldn’t help it.”

“Does that mean he’s a Goa’uld?” Moon stared at the bartender, her eyes narrowing in distrust.

“I think it’s definitely possible. We should all be very wary around him.” Daniel searched through his memory for a two-headed god, but this fellow didn’t look like the Roman Janus. Too Celtic.

“Do we think he might’ve been lying about the information he gave us?” asked Jarod, still studying the antlered man. Then his gaze moved to the green-furred creature in Jack’s lap. “Or maybe we’re asking questions of the wrong people.”

Daniel followed his gaze. “Yes, Aed. Your family has been awfully quiet. What can you tell us about this Conall guy? Did he tell the truth about the contest?”

Jack listened and duly translated for the little guy. “He says Conall is a good guy. He feeds the strays, shelters those he can. They call him the ‘lord of the wild,’ whatever that means.”

Jarod chuckled. “Daniel.” When his commander met his eyes, he glanced at the bartender. “I know who he is now. That’s Cernunnos, also associated with Conall Cernach, a mythological Celtic hero.”

Eyes wide, Daniel snapped his fingers, excited now by the discovery. “Of course! Cernunnos was an early god of the Celts, lord of the animals and wild things. He’s rarely mentioned in mythology because he keeps to himself. He’s also called the Horned God among modern Wiccans.”

Jack frowned. “You mean witches?”

“No, if I meant ‘witches’, I’d have said ‘witches’.”

“What’s he a god of?” asked Moon. “Aside from the aforementioned.” She finished draining her glass and sucked on an ice cube.

“He’s not your typical Goa’uld, for sure. For one thing, he’s a protector of life, a guardian of wealth, secret treasures and mysteries. Horns are associated with fertility or aggressive protection, but Cernunnos is also a guardian of the underworld.” Daniel couldn’t take his eyes off the being now.

“The Tok’ra have never mentioned him, have they?” Story stood up and started stacking empty glasses back onto the tray. “I’d have remembered a name like that. Reminds me of Cair Bannog.”

“High five on the Monty Python reference,” Jack called, and lifted a hand toward the other man, who gave his palm a resounding slap.

Jarod twirled his glass, giving it the long stare. “You might call this place an underworld, if you compare it to Vegas on Earth. There are a lot of things going on behind the scenes. The whole place is full of mysteries to solve – every one of the games is a puzzle, of sorts. The object is winning; therefore, obtaining wealth. Maybe this is his Goa’uld kingdom. The people here just don’t know they’re in his service.”

Moon set her glass on Song’s tray. “So, are you saying this Conall guy is the boss of the whole world?”

“There’s a good chance of that,” Daniel agreed, nodding, “but we can’t be sure just yet. We’ll need to do some digging first. Jarod…” He eyed the Major. “… that’ll be your puzzle to solve.”

“On my own?”

Daniel nodded. “I trust you to be careful. I know you’re smart, and I remember how much you love a good puzzle.”

“Thank you, Doctor Jackson.”

“Tomorrow, the rest of us will go for the strategy games—“

“Uh, Daniel?” Jack raised his hand, like a kid in a schoolroom.

The role-reversal was getting to be kind of fun. “Yes, Jack?”

O’Neill leaned in close and whispered into his ear, “We’re being watched, here. Maybe we oughtta save the strategy games till last. Not give away our good moves, you know?”

Daniel straightened. “Jack made a good point.  We’re going to lay low on the strategy games to start. Story, you’re with Charlie tomorrow doing the betting. Anyone have preferences for other gaming?”

After brief discussion, Daniel agreed to accompany Jack for a round of golf. Both would then participate in marksmanship contests with Tzatzil. Moon would do a few rounds of martial arts and then switch out with Story so he could do the same with Tzatzil, while Jack accompanied Daniel to a fencing contest. The twins would meet up to do some of the role-playing virtual games, and then the team would regroup over dinner.

“And you…” Daniel glanced at Aed. “…need to tell us where to find your owners so we can negotiate for your freedom. I’m assigning Jarod to also handle the purchase first thing tomorrow. Once that’s done, we’ll figure out how to make you free forever, and see if we can’t do the same for the rest of your people.”

The furry seirbhíseach’s ears drooped. He glanced across the table at his mate and child. With big, frightened eyes, he answered Daniel’s question through Jack, and then began to relate the tale of the plight of his people, and how they had come to be the slaves of the hóstach on Gambler’s World.

***

February 6, 2005

The Next Morning

The Hall of Records was a small, cramped storefront, wholly unwelcoming and in obvious need of repairs. The level of neglect in the building clearly illustrated how unimportant the service was to the natives.  The hóstach Jarod had dealt with had been brusque and business-like.

When he’d finished his inquiry, he stepped over to the front door and activated the Aua communication device built into the collar of his shirt.

“Daniel?”

“Did you find out about the purchase process?”

“And negotiated a price,” Jarod answered, studying the hóstach behind the counter.

There were no other customers in the lobby, so the creature had returned to electronic gaming on a wall mounted screen, ignoring him completely.

“How much?”

Jarod winced. “Thirty thousand each. That’s the absolute rock-bottom price. Do I have your authority to make the purchase?”

Daniel sighed through the earpiece. “Do it. We’ll make it up somehow.”

“Will do. As soon as I finish the paperwork here, I’ll get started on the other half of my project for today. Maybe an hour or two? They have quite the bureaucracy.”

“Roger, that. Daniel out.”

Jarod smiled, folded the ownership papers and slid them into his jacket pocket. Since the servants had no owner and therefore belonged to the State, the “purchase” had simply been a matter of signing the papers to claim them. It hadn’t actually cost them a single point.

Now, however, Jarod had time and funds to run the other errand he’d planned for himself prior to starting the investigation of Cernunnos.

Through the hóstach device he wore, he summoned a car that took him to the virtual reality gaming section, then walked the rest of the way to the Gamekeeper’s humble little shop.

The man recognized him as he came in, and scurried behind one of the units on display.

“It’s okay,” Jarod promised. “You don’t have to be afraid of me. I’m here to do some business.”

“You were with Jackson and O’Neill from SG-One,” the Gamekeeper called, doing his best to hide. His tall hat, however, was plainly in view. “They do not like me.”

“Well, you have to admit, your device gave them a pretty rough ride.” Jarod peered into the nearest machine, examining the hardware he could see and extrapolating function, backward engineering in his head. “But I’m not here to talk about them. I may be interested in buying one of these devices, if it will meet my needs.”

The Gamekeeper peered around the base of the fan-shaped network dish affixed to the top of the framework. “You would… buy… my… machines?”

“I’m interested,” Jarod repeated. “Did you design them? Or maybe know something about their internal workings? After all, you maintained them for a very long time on your home world, according to Doctor Jackson.”

Almost his whole head came into view now, sweat beading on the man’s brow. “Yes, my design. Why?”

Jarod moved around behind the device, searching for the panel where the computer hardware might be located. “SG-One reported that two of their party were screened out of the experience. They could look, but not participate. One was Jaffa and the other was a former symbiote host. They later adapted it to accept the Jaffa, but I wonder… Could it be adapted for other brainwave patterns?”

“Yes.” The alien eased a little more into view, still half hidden behind his machine. “I can adapt it however you wish.”

“Are there built-in life support systems as well?”

“Of course. These machines maintained my people for many years during the Long Sleep.”

“And might they be adapted to support other life forms?”

Jarod saw the interest developing in the Gamekeeper’s eyes. Tease by tease, the man was responding to the lure. He was almost all the way out from behind his shield.

“Certainly.”

“You seem to have a lot of these machines here,” Jarod observed. “I’m guessing your people gave them up once they found their world restored?”

Two steps backward, the Gamekeeper retreated, fear etched in his lined face. “I. I was told to destroy them all. It was only after much pleading that I was allowed to take them from my home world, to save the technology.” He gazed fondly on the black metal frame, his fingers stroking the padded couch where the gamer would lie. “These are my greatest work,” he murmured. “These beautiful devices saved my people.”
“You should’ve been hailed as a hero,” Jarod assured him.

At last, the alien’s dark eyes met his directly. He smiled and hurried over to his customer with gratitude in his wide smile. “You understand! Oh, my friend, how may I help you?”

Jarod popped open the access panel and took a good look under the hood. “Well, if you can make the adaptations I want, I’ll buy everything you got.” He grinned. “And if that’s not enough, I’ll contract with you to make more.”

The Gamekeeper was ecstatic, wriggling with joy. “My friend, it will be my pleasure!” Then his joy vanished. “But who will care for my machines? They will need a home, a keeper to maintain—“

“I was hoping I’d be able to include your services in the bargain,” Jarod assured him, “because if we succeed, a whole lot of people will finally understand and appreciate your sacrifice. You’ll be celebrated all over the galaxy as a hero.”

“Truly? You do not jest?” There was abject hope in the man’s eyes, some admiration, maybe a little infatuation.

“I guarantee it… provided you can make the adjustments I need.”

Hurrying to the front door, the Gamekeeper closed and locked it. “Right this way,” he invited, head high and shoulders back with pride. “We will discuss your design parameters, a research site and requirements for the park. How many will you require, do you think?”

Jarod followed him to a tiny desk in the rear of the shop. “Well, how many do you have now?”

Not quite two hours later, Jarod left the shop with lighter pockets and Step One of a plan.

He had also made a new friend on another world.

With a second success for the day, he started on the next part of his quest: to find the true power behind Gambler’s World, and whether or not their guess about Conall’s secret identity was correct.

He was having fun doing this, and wished he’d been able to join up with the SGC sooner. He’d enjoyed getting reacquainted with Daniel, but there was so much to do now. His accidental discovery of Machello’s inventions in the Area 51 warehouse a year ago had set him on that path, diverting him completely from the crusade he’d been pursuing at the time.

Now, he wasn’t just saving a person here and there. He was going to save whole worlds.

***

Later That Day

“Where are we going, again?” asked Jack. He was practically skipping after finishing eighteen holes of golf. Out of thirty-two players, his team had come in fourth, but Jack had had a great time.

“Marksmanship,” Daniel reminded him. “You, me and Tzatzil, but I want to check on Moon first.” He pressed his fingertips against the collar device to call his teammate.

This was a great piece of tech they’d obtained from Xiphia’s people. It covered a much greater distance than their standard issue radios, and was more dependable in cities like this one. The hardware was out of sight beneath their collars, tiny receivers worn in their ears like hearing aids.

“Report, Colonel Standing?”

“Got a few bruises,” she admitted through the earpiece. “The hosts have a way of making this virtual stuff feel pretty real.”

“But you’re not injured?” Now Daniel was worried.

“Had worse training newbies,” she answered on a chuckle. “I’m fine, Deej. Story’s up next. Got an ETA on Zazz?”

“She’s going first on the marksmanship, so she should be there about the time Story’s finishing, since these rounds are shorter. You sure I don’t need to send Song to check you out?”

“Positive. Go shoot stuff, and send Zazz when she’s done. That is, provided you can pry her off your hip.” There was a definite smile in her voice.

He chuckled back. “It’s a good thing she trusts Jack to keep me safe.”

“Any word on the Furbys?”

Daniel winced. “Yeah. Pretty pricey, but then, it’s hard to put a price tag on freedom, right?”

The Colonel was quiet for a moment. “What’s the damage?”

He scratched his cheek, meeting Jack’s eyes. Daniel still hadn’t told him the fee yet, and O’Neill was definitely listening in on their conversation. “Ninety thousand.”

Her response was loud and full of swearing.

Jack’s eyes were blazing.

Daniel jerked the earpiece out, waiting till some of the volume died down before putting it back in place. “Look, I’m sorry, but it had to be done! I’ll go back to Waring and see if he can send more goods to make up the difference.”

“Damn it, Daniel! We’ve got six million to earn in five weeks!. Charlie’s doing some amazing things with the betting, but I don’t think we’re gonna hit that mark now. Not even close. We needed that ninety thousand.”

O’Neill’s head nodded in agreement.

“We still don’t even know if we’re staying in the contest yet,” he growled back, his stomach clenching, dreading she might be right.

She sighed in his ear. “We’ll do the best we can. Moon, out.”

Daniel studied the furry child tucked into the corner of his arm, fast asleep. “We did the right thing,” he murmured to Jack. “I know it.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Jack returned. “Maybe we have to struggle a little. No one said this was gonna be easy.” He flexed his right hand. “But right now, we have a contest to win. Get your game face on, and let’s go do that. ‘Kay?”

They watched Tzatzil finish her practice round, and then get into the booth to shoot. When she was done, Daniel handed off Niamh to her and then took his turn. After Jack was done, they’d managed two winning spots with a nice payoff and then headed to the fencing arena.

“Fencing, huh?” asked Jack as they entered the building. “Guess I shoulda known, with all those swords on the walls of your apartment.”

Daniel said nothing. He checked their credit total, and was pleased to see their latest win -- in addition to Charlie’s betting -- had helped them to recover almost a quarter of their loss.

“Remember to warm up first,” Jack called as Daniel checked in as a competitor.

“I got this, Jack,” he said over his shoulder.

But O’Neill saw through his friend’s disquiet and came as close as he could to Daniel moving through the line. He brushed Daniel’s sleeve with his fingertips. “Forget about the points right now,” Jack advised. “Concentrate on this contest and nothing else, okay? We’ll manage.”

Daniel smiled at him. “Be here now.” He nodded, and this time, he meant it. “I got this. I’m good.”

***

Later That Evening

“You shoulda seen him!” Jack crowed. “Lopped that blue guy’s head clean off!”

“I did not,” Daniel challenged, horrified at the way his friend described the final fencing match.

“Sure looked like it from where I was sitting!” Jack lifted his glass with a wide grin. “Kudos to the Man in Black.”

Daniel glanced down at his shirt and pants, his initial panic assuaged by the reminder that he was, indeed, dressed all in black. All of them were. The others had to be curious about that non sequitur reference to his ninja days in Colorado Springs, but no one raised an eyebrow.

“And we have three more wins on the books,” Moon agreed. “Charlie, what’s our total?”

“We had a good day. Earned back almost half of what we spent on our little buddies. I’ve done some calculations on the number of contests we’ll need to compete in, as well as anticipated returns from betting, and – I’m sorry, Daniel – I don’t think we can hit our mark unless we have some unexpected big wins. Even then… if we don’t make the numbers, I’ve devised a Plan B. I just need to have a chat with the game authorities to make sure it’ll work.”

“And Plan B is…?” Jack’s brows lifted in further question.

“Well, I won’t be participating in the Big Game, but I’m earning credits betting. If I withdraw before the game, I’m assuming all of my credits will go to the team. What if that’s true of all the players on Team Earth?”

Daniel pondered that. “If it does and we only end up with credits enough for two players and all the others go home, we’ll have enough to qualify, right?”

“I think so.” Charlie nodded. “Right now, we have enough for four players out of seven, not counting me. But then you have to decide who to send home, and how do you choose? Based on total number of wins? Type of games to be played? We don’t know enough about the contest yet.”

“Conall said he’ll be by our rooms later tonight,” Daniel reported to the team.

He glanced at the bartender and lifted his glass in salute when he caught Conall’s eye.

“Speaking of,” Jarod piped up, “I’ve done some investigating on our horny friend there.”

Jack’s brows lifted. “Here, here!”

Moon chuckled.

Tzatzil blushed.

“There’s no real government here, as we suspected, but no one deviates from the rules. It’s a perfectly ordered society.”

“There’s no such thing,” Daniel countered. “Not among intelligent species, anyway. Bees and ants, maybe…”

“Nevertheless,” Jarod continued, “there are indications of direction that all lead back here, to this pub.”

“Which means Conall is the boss, as we suspected.”

Direction,” the Major corrected, “not control. Big difference. Huge.”

“So the hóstach police themselves and their patrons with no one at the top. Interesting.” Moon swirled the contents of her glass around with the ice cubes thoughtfully. She lifted the guide device around her neck and spoke into it. “Provide crime statistics for the last solar year.”

The record displayed above the table, including video recordings of those crimes in progress and the apprehension of each of the four perpetrators only minutes afterward.

“You realize this could all be manufactured,” Jack offered, staring into the bottom of his glass, ever the skeptic. “Just another piece of PR to make the guests feel comfy.”

Daniel shrugged, eyeing the statistics. “Even the Goa’uld seem to be behaving themselves here.”

Tzatzil poked her finger through one of the holograms. “It does not say what the penalty was. Do they have prisons? Are the criminals killed or just exiled?”

Moon asked.

“The offenders were rehabilitated and returned to their home worlds,” the hóstach device replied.

“What does ‘rehabilitation’ entail?” she inquired further. “Show rehabilitation methods.”

“Images are not available.”

No matter how they inquired, the device didn’t enlighten them further.

“I don’t know about you guys,” Jarod said slowly, “but I’d be real careful about committing a crime in this place. Punishment is as much a mystery as getting into the Big Game.”

Moon’s dark eyes glittered as she regarded her teammates. “So we watch our step. Play the games honestly. Stay out of trouble when we’re not competing.” She eyed her commander. “And don’t spend any points on anything else unless it’s food and lodging. Right, Doctor Jackson?”

He glanced at the little Furbys at the table, blissfully unaware of their own plight. It was so unfair, but Moon had painfully reminded him why they were there. When the contest was over, he’d see to it that a permanent diplomatic team was stationed here to work on the liberation of the helpless aliens.

For now, though, he had to play the game by the rules.

“Right,” he agreed.

He’d have to deal with the disquiet in his soul himself.

***

Later That Night

A knock sounded at the door of their hotel room.

Before Jack got the door open, Tzatzil was in the hallway behind their visitor.

She looked uncertain, like there was some internal struggle going on inside her.

Jack stepped aside and let Conall in with Zazz right on his six. A moment later, Moon exited their room and went down the hall, knocking on doors to bring the others along for the meeting.

Conall seemed surprise and bemused. “If I’d known we were having a party, I’d have brought more glasses!”

He held up a dusty bottle of brown liquor in one hand and three glasses in the other. “I’m harmless, really. Look at me!” He turned this way and that, showing off his slender figure.

Daniel cleared his throat. “And we’ve learned the hard way over the last eight years or so that things aren’t always what they seem. Would you like to have a seat?” He gestured to a small table and several chairs they’d set up in the back of the room near the windows.

Conall crossed his legs and levered down into a tailor’s seat on the floor, the coins in the purse at his side clinking together noisily. “I’ll be fine here,” he promised, and set the bottle and glasses on the green moss-like rug beneath him. “Gather round, everyone. There’s plenty here.”

He began to pour, handing the tumblers out to those seated closest.

Daniel remained standing, hands in the pockets of his black trousers, with Tzatzil at his side. The elf had placed herself between Daniel and the visitor, not in the way to block his view, but in place to stop an attack.

Jack met her gaze, shook his head and nodded to one side.

She obeyed the silent command and took another step back, but he could see she was still uneasy.

“So we’ve been doing a little digging,” Daniel confessed, “and it appears that you may be in charge of this whole city, Conall.”

The antlered man laughed. “I can see how it might look that way,” he admitted. “I did create it, but I’m not running it. I have a profound dislike for bureaucrats and no wish to be one of ‘em.”

“So when you said you’d find out more about the rules…” Moon leaned forward, elbows on knees, to regard him with an accusingly arched eyebrow.

“Just a little game I like to play,” he confessed, screwing up his face in playfully overt humor as he bent toward her. “You lot are quick and persistent. That bodes well toward earning a spot in the Finals.”

He sat straight and poured a third glass. “Anyone else? It’s not medicated, I swear. Too good a drop to taint with drugs.” Then he had a sip. His reaction was quite comical, complete with rolling, wide eyes and a harsh exhalation. “Wooooooo, that burns so good!”

Jack fetched a few more glasses from their own mini-bar and handed them over. “Tell us about how we get into the final. That’s the most important thing we need to know.”

“Not quite,” Moon corrected, “but we’ll start there.”

“As I said before, win as many contests as you can. Play the games you’re best at. The more skilled players you can bring into the final match, the greater your chance of winning.”

“Because?” Jack took the glass he offered and had a sniff. The smell alone nearly knocked his socks off, stinging his nose. It was a whisky with notes of fragrant smoky woods and flowers, sweet fruits and rain-washed air. His mouth watered, but he held off tasting it.

“Each of the contests will test your teams’ abilities as a whole, but individual expertise also matters. For instance, you have two excellent archers…” He grinned and winked at Daniel. “Well done, you, for not shooting the deer. I find that contest a bit disturbing, if we’re bein’ truthful with one another. I’m sure you can glean why.” He thumped one of his tines.

A musical note sounded, as if a throaty, mellow bell had been struck.

“The contests are divided up into four categories,” Conall explained, “just as they are at all the gaming houses. Games of chance – and by the way, these are not rigged for the house to win, because that would defeat the purpose of the test – those play to your ability with higher mathematics, pattern recognition, and sometimes strictly to luck. Seven, the hard way!” He mimed rolling a pair of dice.

Charlie beamed as several of his teammates looked his way.

Jack thought Eppes had been a good choice on Daniel’s part. The kid was affable and easy-going, and the way he talked about math was actually interesting. Plus, he’d scored big on the betting so far.

“Then there are the games of skill, like the archery I mentioned earlier.” Conall poured himself another finger of the whisky. “You can choose to play a lot of different skill games or concentrate on a few. Just bear in mind that you may be required to use a variety of skills in the finals, so the more you have, obviously…”

“The better equipped we’ll be to meet all the in-game challenges,” Charlie finished for the alien.

Conall nodded. “And then there are the puzzle games, of course, which will be highly featured in the finals, as well as the strategy part of it, since you’ll be playing against other teams. I can’t give you any more detail than that...” His expression lost all humor. “… because it would be cheating.”

“I’ve got a question.” Charlie held up a hand. When the alien looked his way, he asked, “Do the number of points affect the number of players?”

“Aye, see?” He raised his glass in Charlie’s direction. “You must be the math guy. And aye. A million per is the smallest starting number. Of course, if you’ve got more than that, it’s all taken for the entry fee.”

“And the Prize?” Moon pinned him with her steady gaze. “We have to know it’s worth our time and trouble. No vague hints this time.”

Conall shook his head, which sounded faintly like bells ringing. “On that, I’m afraid I cannot answer specifically, but I will tell you this: My people are aware of your struggle. The Prize will be one of great power that will be helpful in your quest for survival.”

His head bowed, contemplating the amber liquid in his glass. “When I was a boy, just on the cusp of manhood, I went in search of a dragon that was said to live in a cave far away from my home. Legend said it guarded a vast treasure, and whoever killed it would have power and riches beyond imagining.” His gaze turned faraway inward as he lifted it to Daniel’s knees.

“Which is where you got the funding for this… place,” Daniel assumed aloud.

Conall nodded, still lost in his past. “It took some time to find the dragon’s lair. I dreamed of how I would fight this creature I’d never seen and knew nothing about. I imagined how I’d use my vast wealth. But when I got there…”

He lifted anguished eyes to Daniel’s face, searching for understanding. “He wasn’t at all what I’d thought. He was lonely, very old, very wise. My people had trapped him in the cave because they feared him.”

“You befriended him instead of killing him.” A soft smile lit Daniel’s eyes. “You set him free, and he gave you his treasure willingly. You are Cernunnos.”

The alien nodded. “We are Cernunnos. We are Conall Cernach, and yes, this is the place we built together.”

Jack pointed to his belt. “So… not a Goa’uld?”

Conall/Cernunnos beamed and shook his head. “No, cara Jack. Far older, far different in nature. Another manner of being entirely, else I would not have given myself to him. I will be no one’s slave. But who wouldn’t want to share their soul with a dragon?”

“And yet you allow slavery on your world,” Daniel sniped. “How is that different?”

The alien’s hooded eyes sparkled with secrets. “Play the game, cara Daniel. You’ll have all your answers before you leave our world. That I promise you.”

Conall poured the last glass and offered it to Daniel. “Slainte,” he said softly.

Jack had tried to find any shred of evil in the guy, but there were no alarm bells, no shades or hints of darkness. As hard as he’d tried to be wary, he found himself liking this guy. The walls he’d spent years building to keep others out simply refused to come up around the alien.

He trusted his gut, and bent down a little to clink his glass against Conall’s. “Slainte,” he echoed. “To your health.”

***

March 6, 2005

One Month Later

The arrival center was incredibly busy, just a few days before the big game. Players were leaving en masse, only to return moments later and go back into the city enclosed in visitors’ bubbles. The Stargate was so booked Daniel had had to make a reservation for the time it would take him to contact the SGC to make his daily report plus a new request, hat in hand.

He’d been dreading this moment for days now, but it was obvious that the team was falling short of their goal. A new board had been put up outside the strategy gaming clubs showing the top ten teams, and SG-Zero wasn’t on the list. Daniel had checked.

They were eleventh.

They needed some big wins. Unfortunately, Charlie had advised that they not gamble away anything they didn’t have to in order to avoid any potential losses. That had prompted him to come begging for more funds.

He could feel Tzatzil at his left elbow where she always was and wished yet again that she’d just back up a little. This was a conversation he really wanted to have in private. The Tuathan woman wasn’t judgmental – he was grateful for that – but a man had his pride, and Daniel’s was dented enough.

The PA system called his name, and he stepped up to the DHD while a hóstach dialed Earth for him. He held up his tablet, activated the built-in radio-frequency software and waited for the event horizon to settle. He thanked the alien and stepped closer to the Stargate, hoping for a little privacy as he turned on the earpiece to receive the audio broadcast.

Tzatzil was right behind him, close enough to feel her body heat.

“Daniel Jackson, calling the SGC. May I speak with General Waring, please?”

The man’s face appeared on the tablet screen, glasses pushed way down on his nose. “Report, Doctor Jackson. We weren’t expecting to hear from you until tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir… um…” He felt his cheeks heating up. “They’ve just posted the top scoring teams, and we aren’t on the list. I was wondering if we might…” He grimaced, hating to even ask. “… get a little more… funding?” He pleaded with his eyes. “We’re just off the mark, eleventh out of ten.”

Waring sighed. He stared hard into the camera with a face impossible to read. Then a muscle twitched in his jaw.

Daniel read that, all right.

The man was clenching his teeth.

The General took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, slipped them back on with a heavy, long sigh. “I’m sorry, Doctor, but we’ve tapped all the resources available for your stake in this project. Best I can say is, good luck and keep trying. Do you have anything else to report?”

Defeat sitting heavily on his shoulders, Daniel cued up his most recent field analysis documents and sent them through the connection.

“No, sir. Sending updates to you now. Daniel, out.”

The wormhole vanished, along with his hope.

He turned and led the way out of the arrival center, back through the players’ exit, to a waiting hover car outside.

“How’d it go?” came Jack’s voice in his ear on the way back to the hotel.

“He said no, but wished us luck. Daniel, out.”

Daniel could feel Tzatzil’s sympathetic, sorrowful gaze on him and looked the other way, out the window where he could watch the illuminated city roll by beneath them.

“Please don’t,” he snapped. “Just stop, Zazz. Please.”

The stress lightened by degrees when he felt her turn away.

***

March 7, 2005

The Day Before Game Day

Daniel picked at his breakfast.

“Chin up, big guy,” Moon prodded cheerfully. “I just saw the standings, and we’re in the top ten! That’s good news.”

“Right,” he growled. “Now if only we knew how many teams would actually be chosen to play…”

“We have enough points for three players,” added Charlie. “Maybe four, if we get a good win today.”

“Think I might take the day off.” Daniel felt absolutely glum. “Maybe just stay in bed.”

“Or you could come watch me play,” Jack suggested. “I’ve been dyin’ to hit a few more holes.”

He rolled his eyes at O’Neill. “Jack, you suck at golf! We can’t afford to lose any more points, not even the entry fee for a little mindless fun.”

The umbrage on Jack’s face was clear. “There’s no need to be hurtful, Daniel.”

Eyes downcast, Daniel mumbled an apology.

O’Neill bumped shoulders. “Just teasin’. Lighten up, willya?”

The guide device around Daniel’s neck activated. “A visitor is at the arrival center for Daniel Jackson.”

Every eye widened. A moment later, they were all on the street hailing a car… which only seated four at max.

“Look, Jack and I will go check it out,” he advised them. “You all finish eating and start your schedule for the day. I’ll catch up with you later.”

Tzatzil’s eyes were sad, marked with considerable disappointment, but she followed orders and returned inside the diner.

Daniel crossed his fingers and closed his eyes, hoping Waring had come through for them.

Sure enough, their CO was standing beside the intake tunnel where the food goods went. On a small cart next to him were wooden crates filled with eggs, meats and vegetables. It didn’t look like much, and Daniel’s heart sank.

The General stood at parade rest, hands behind his back. He gave the tiniest little smile when he saw them. He didn’t wave; just waited for them to join him.

“The hosts tell me the players have to be present when the goods are taken in, so the points can be properly attributed,” Waring announced. “I’d wanted this to be a surprise.”

He glanced at the cart. “Base personnel have agreed to go without breakfast for a week to get SG-Zero a bigger stake.”

Daniel’s heart ached with joy and pride. “Thank you, sir. Everything helps. We’ve made the top ten, but still don’t know if it’s good enough.”

“Well, in that case...” Waring handed over a round tin and a slightly dusty bottle.

“Oh, the good stuff!” Jack crowed. “Thank you, sir! I know that set you back a pretty penny.”

For a moment, Daniel didn’t breathe. His eyes widened as he read the labels.

Redbreast 21 Single Pot Still Whisky and a generous container of White Pearl Caviar.

“Not your retirement bottle!” Daniel blurted, handing the precious goods back. “I’m sorry, sir. We can’t! What if we lose?”

Waring measured him with a firm look, the tiniest smile at the corner of his mouth. “I’ll be staying for the main event, Doctor Jackson, to make sure this team provides equal value to our investment. An old friend in Home World Security is babysitting the SGC until I get back.” He gestured to the cart, his message clear.

“I’ll pay you back, I promise!” Daniel swore, even more nervous now than he’d been at breakfast.

“And I’ll hold you to that,” Waring returned dryly. He nodded at the cart. “How much do you think that’ll get us?”

Daniel chuckled and rubbed at his cheek with an index finger. “I have no idea. The exchange rate is pretty good. Our first stake was about half a mil.”

Waring’s brows lifted in genuine surprise. “Well, then! Can’t wait to see what they think of my whisky and caviar.”

“Let’s see if we can find you a hotel room, sir,” Jack offered. “If nothing else is available, you can bunk in with Daniel and me. One of us will be sleepin’ with the Furbys, though.”

“Furbys?”

Daniel went to check in the goods while Jack explained, and when that was done, the trio grabbed a taxi back to the hotel, the man in the visitor’s bubble squeezed companionably between them.

***

Charlie sat quietly at the lunch table, part of his brain listening to the excited chatter of the team’s most recent wins.

They’d moved up to ninth place on their own merit, but then one of the top ten teams withdrew, which bumped them up to eighth. Point-wise, they had enough for four players, but Daniel had been waffling on who to choose. Jarod was a strong contender, but Tzatzil had pointedly insisted on coming in order to fulfill her duty to her queen.

They had gained a good ten thousand points with the SGC’s latest food contributions, which meant they could enter several more contests to try to pad their winnings.

But as Charlie studied each of the people seated around the table – aside from the newcomer in the bubble – he realized they were all exhausted.

“I have an idea,” he said quietly.

To be honest, every single one of them intimidated the hell out of him. They were warriors. He was most certainly not. What he could do for them was limited, but he understood the urgency of getting more points.

Daniel alone heard him, and held up a hand to quiet the others.

“There’s a game of chance,” he began. “I guess it’s kind of like roulette. I’ve been watching people play it and I think…” He huffed a little laugh and shrugged. “I could explain the math to you, but I’m pretty sure your eyes would glaze over. Suffice to say, I think one good bet on this game could get us another player. If I win, maybe two.”

All eyes turned to him now.

“And if I can do that, you can all rest up today, so you’ll be fresh for tomorrow.”

“Then let’s go see this game,” Daniel agreed.

***

There were spaces for seven players around a glass column at the center of the room. Each player station featured four touch-screen computer monitors and a keyboard. Inside the column was an apparently nonsensical arrangement of pipes ending in cone-shaped collars. Some of the pipes had strings stretched between them and a small set of drums at the bottom. Another arrangement had what appeared to be brass bars arranged in a spiral. There were drums, hi-hats, xylophone keys, wooden sticks mounted on a track, and long wind chimes hanging above the center.

“Have you played this before?” asked Daniel, obviously incredulous as he studied the mystifying arrangement.

“No, but it’s fascinating!” Charlie had been entranced from the first moment he’d seen the device working. “The way you play is to input the mathematical formulas that provide a precise trajectory and momentum for each of the balls—“

“What balls?” Jack scanned the room for said balls.

“They come out of the pipes,” Charlie advised, pointing to the cones. “It’s a lot of programming.”

“And then what happens?” Jack stepped closer, taking a gander at the keyboard. “Hey! The keys changed to English just now. Cool!”

“The balls come out and, if they’ve been programmed correctly, they strike the various planes and make music.”

“And if you don’t program it correctly?”

A player stepped back from the keyboard, cackling triumphantly. He raised his hands in victory, and the machine came to life. Ten balls flew out of the pipe throats, bouncing on some of the wires, then onto the small drum heads below, and finally into catchment cones.

One missed its target and went rolling on the floor, which had a cascade effect, throwing off the rhythm of all the other balls after it.

Jack and Daniel covered their ears at the resulting cacophony.

“That,” Charlie answered.

“It looks hard,” Jack called above the noise.

Doctor Eppes nodded toward the unit with a confident smile. “I eat stuff like this for breakfast every day. Do I have permission to play?”

Daniel glanced over his shoulder at the next player stepping up to a programming station. “How long do you think it’ll take?”

“Five, six hours. I’ve got most of it plotted out in my head. Just need to get the data entered. It’s a lot of data.”

“How much will you need for the fee?” Daniel held up his wrist device, preparing to transfer the points.

“A hundred to play the game,” Charlie answered hesitantly, “but then I want you to place a bet with the rest of the stake on me to win.” He pointed to the corner booth where bets were taken.

Daniel’s eyebrows climbed up his forehead in obvious shock. “All of it?”

He nodded, aware of how much was riding on him. “Yes, sir, Doctor Jackson. I’ll call you before I set it to play so the team can come and watch. Meanwhile, enjoy your afternoon off.”

Charlie circled the cylinder, looking for an open station with just the right angle. He paid the entry fee with the points Daniel had moved to his game unit, and found the starting point.

The rest of the world melted away as his fingers danced over the keyboard, designing every ball to be struck just so, until the symphony in his head was complete.

***

The Night Before Game Day

“What time is it?” asked Story. He lay on his back on the floor, his crossed legs propped against the wall.

“Not time yet,” his twin shot back. “Stop asking. Either they’ll come or they won’t. Maybe we should all just go back to our rooms. At least get some sleep.”

“Like that’s gonna happen.” Moon stood up from her chair and stretched. “I had a good nap today, and thank you, Charlie, for that and an amazing performance with that… whatever the hell it was.” She gave him an admiring little half bow. “Cheers once again to the Pinball Wizard! Anyone else want another drink?”

Charlie chuckled as she poured herself a shot and waved it around the room, but there were no takers.

Daniel paced in the only open space on the floor. Jack and Charlie were both laid out on the bed. Tzatzil was posted by the door. Song sat in a chair next to his brother, with Moon on the other side of the table. Jarod stood leaning against the wall next to the window, keeping watch on the street.

They had done well on their last day, just eking into seventh place. There had been a celebration at the bar followed by a nice dinner, and then they had all gathered in the commander’s room to await the summons while Daniel’s innards tied into knots.

Their math wizard had won big at the roulette game. Watching the program play out was a thing of beauty – a music box like no other. Charlie had cobbled together bits of Mozart, Beethoven, Queen and Guns ‘n’ Roses into a jaw-dropping piece without a single missed note. There had been balls all over the floor of the container when it was over, rather than bouncing into the scoops for a perfect return, but Charlie’s was the highest score of the day by far. He had earned them a fifth player… provided, of course, that their team was chosen to play at all.

The stress was getting to him. Daniel’s head ached, and his stomach felt like there was a hole burning through it.

He stepped into the bathroom to splash some cool water on his face, maybe somehow avoid throwing up.

“It’s just a game,” he whispered, forcing himself to calm down.

The water felt good. He washed his hands and face, toweled off and straightened up. Maybe the team should go to their rooms and at least try for a good night’s sleep.

He took a deep breath, grasped the bathroom door handle and opened it up just as a knock sounded on the suite door.

His heart almost launched through his chest.

Tzatzil opened the door, barring the way with her body.

All the rest of the team were now on their feet, all eyes on the visitor.

A hóstach stood on the other side. It was dressed in a regal-looking ceremonial robe and carried a small black box in its long-fingered hands. “Your team leader, please?” it requested.

“Here!” Daniel stepped up behind Tzatzil and gently nudged her out of the way when she didn’t seem willing to step aside on her own. “I’m Daniel Jackson.”

“Congratulations,” the hóstach intoned. “Your team has been selected to compete in tomorrow’s game. Transport will arrive for you in ten of your hours.”

Cheers broke out behind him. Someone slapped his shoulder, but he felt Tzatzil deflect the blow. For once he was glad to have her at his back, because he could hear the raucous physical celebration going on behind him and was glad not to be getting smacked around for a change.

A load lifted off his shoulders.

“Thank you. Um. What do we do next?”

The host opened the box to reveal a host device like the one he was wearing, only apparently made of gold rather than black plastic.

“Please exchange.”

He unfastened the one on the lanyard and traded for the gold one, looking back at the being expectantly.

“You have five players,” announced the host. “Please choose. The rest will be escorted to your home world and may return to watch. Please send them downstairs after you have chosen.”

The being bowed, made a smart about-face and marched back down the hallway.

He closed the door, his brain swimming in endorphins. For a moment, he just leaned against it, the solid surface reassuring him that he would stay on his feet. Then reality sank in.

He’d have to send someone home.

Charlie was beaming, sticking his hand out, leaning in close. “Thank you for this once in a lifetime opportunity, Daniel. This was the most fun I’ve ever had! I only wish I could tell someone about it.”

“You can,” Daniel reminded him, “if you move to Colorado Springs. We could use you in the program.” He thought of Sam, and the huge technological hole she’d left behind her.

“I need to think about that,” Charlie replied, sobering. “I’ll go pack. Good luck.” And then he was out the door, leaving two more to send home.

This was a decision he dreaded. Every one of them was dying to be in the game, wearing their ‘pick me’ faces. They had all done well in their chosen events, but there had also been a lot of games they had avoided, on Jack’s recommendation. By now, he knew each player’s skills and strengths and who he could count on to pull his ass out of the fire.

“Moon,” he called, meeting her eyes with a smile. “We haven’t known each other long, but from the get-go you’ve impressed the hell out of me.”

She looked a little flummoxed. “Well, are you picking me or sending me home?”

“You’re on the team, sorry. I guess I didn’t make that very clear.”

She squealed and clapped a little, and then coughed as she recovered her military bearing and tried to look disinterested. “Thanks, Deej.”

Big brown puppy-dog eyes were begging for the commander to call his name.

Daniel smiled. “Jack, of course, for your wealth of experience and massive entertainment value. People will be watching, and you do put on quite a show.”

O’Neill flashed a superior little grin and glanced around to take note of his teammates’ recognition.

“Jarod, for your intelligence and flexibility.”

The twins were looking a little desperate. There was only one spot left.

Tzatzil stood to one side with her eyes downcast, color in her cheeks, ready to be passed over since Jack was on the team.

Daniel considered for a moment. The Wintersmith boys were great at gaming, after a rough start getting used to the systems. Story was a decent fighter, had done well in the mixed martial arts events. Song was good at chess and had acquitted himself well at the strategy games he’d played, but there was a big reason why the twins had played those games and Jack had not.

He was their ace in the hole, their combat strategist. The other gamers had seen how the twins played and could guess their battle plans. Jack would be something new for them, so the twins had been out from the beginning. Daniel would explain it to them later, after they all returned home.

What had been on his mind lately was the memory of the competition on Tzatzil’s home world that had won the Tuathan woman her place at his side. The elf had done far more than shoot a few arrows. She had fought hard against nine other warriors in games much like the ones they’d been playing here, but without the luxury of virtual reality. The bodyguard he took so often for granted was one of his most valuable and least utilized players.

“And Tzatzil,” he called. With a look of regret, he glanced at the twins. “Sorry, boys.”

She glanced up at him in shock and then leaped up on him, her arms and legs wrapped around him, squealing in his ear.

The twin’s dejection was clear, but they seemed to take it well and marched out of the room to pack their things.

Daniel peeled the elf off him, and moments later, enjoyed the blissful peace of a quiet, nearly empty room.

Jack moseyed over to the table, poured two shots of whisky and brought one over to his roomie.

“To us,” he said quietly.

“To the team,” Daniel amended.

Jack frowned. “That’s what I said.”

Daniel frowned back. He started to argue, but that scene had been played over in real life so many times he knew how it would turn out. He simply shrugged, clinked his glass and downed the stiff drink with a silent wish for a really, really big win.

***

March 8, 2005

Game Day

The teams arrived in their own private cars, setting down near the largest arena Daniel had ever seen.  The architecture soared. It gleamed, white and pristine, as if it had been built overnight just for that purpose.

“Whoa,” Moon sighed. “This place is amazing!”

“Right this way,” intoned a hóstach, gesturing them toward a private entrance for the players.

There were only five of them on the team from Earth: Jack, Moon, Tzatzil, Jarod and Daniel himself as the team leader. The rest were in the audience with General Waring to act as official observers.

The hóstach led them into the heart of the building, within sight of the playing field at the center of the arena, which looked like an ordinary flat grass plain.

The waiting area was a high-ceilinged dome-roofed hall, seven circles laid into the floor with mosaics. The hosts directed each team to a different circle.

This was the first time they’d seen who won the invitations to the Big Game, and how many competitors they would be facing.

The Tok’ra, dressed in their usual tan leathers, had five players. Anise/Freya seemed to have toned down her usual sex kitten garb, opting for something more traditionally Tok’ra.  Some of them Daniel knew by name. Jack filled in a few others. On the whole, Daniel felt they had a good chance against them.

Narim smiled and waved at them from the Tollan team of six. There were four men and two women, all wearing their usual shiny, futuristic suits in a slate blue tone. Each was wearing an armband with a small device that Daniel hoped wasn’t some sort of advanced tech that would give them an unfair advantage in the game.

Among the five Ronin Jaffa, they had seen only Rak’nor before. He gave them a nod of acknowledgment, followed by a confident smile as he patted the burly shoulder of a giant beside him.

“Anybody know the rest of Rak’nor’s team?” asked Daniel.

“Don’t ask me to pronounce those names,” Jack shot back. “Too many consonants and apostrophes.”

Moon scanned the line. “The big guy next to him is Ma’kar. He and the GQ model next to him, Kol’na, were set to be slaughtered several years ago at a secret meeting with Teal’c, but they’re slippery devils and both managed to get away. That tells us they’re gonna be stiff competitors. The other two are Kel’nak and Hak’ahn, recent deserters from the ranks of Bastet and totally unknown quantities.”

Daniel turned to Jarod. “Do you have any intel on our gray friends, there?” He glanced at the group, smiled at them, and looked back at his friend.

“They’re a race called the Nebari,” Major Carter replied. “Males have black hair, females have white hair, so they’re usually easy to tell apart.”

“There’s one with silver hair,” Daniel observed, his gaze lingering longer than he’d meant on the willowy, androgynous-looking one.

“I wondered about that, too. Anyway, the apparent leader of the group is a female called Chiana. She’s the one looking at you like you’re dinner.” Jarod cleared his throat and scuffed the toe of his boot on the floor.

Jack chuckled. “It’s always you, Daniel.”

Cough – “Kynthia.” – Cough.

“I stand corrected.”

“The blue people,” Jarod put his back to that group as he continued, “are Delvians.”

An old man in a turban seemed to be their leader. A tall bald male stayed at his side, probably his second in command, and there were two females with them, one bald and one with bright red hair. They dressed in flowing robes and had a regal, almost spiritual air about them.

“Tuzak is the old guy. He doesn’t look very spry. Maybe that’ll give us an advantage.” Jarod made eye contact and gave Daniel a nod, his report concluded.

The largest team by far were the Goa’ulds, boasting eight players. It appeared that Tezcatlipoca would be their team captain, the ranks filled out with his Jaffa. The others in his retinue would be observing from the stands.

Daniel’s attention was drawn back to the hóstach as it began speaking.

“Now you will choose your colors,” it advised. Waving a hand in the air to its right, a color chart appeared.

A glance at the other teams indicated they were already busy with that task.

“Pick blue,” Jack whispered from behind Daniel. “It’s my favorite.”

Daniel didn’t give it much thought, and selected a fine royal blue with the tap of a finger.

“Excellent,” cooed the host. “Now for the rules of the game. You will be transported to the gaming area and provided new uniforms in your chosen color to mark you as teams. You will not directly inhabit the same space at the same time; however, game play may allow the teams to spill over into the same area.”

“If we do, will we be required to fight each other?” Daniel was already worried. The Goa’uld outnumbered their team almost two to one, and if the Tollans were using their technology, they might be unstoppable.

“That will be an option, if you choose it during play.” The host canted its head slightly, then continued. “You will have from sunrise to sunset to complete the game…”

Daniel felt the sinking feeling in his gut as he listened, hoping they wouldn’t be eliminated early.

“The environment will simulate injuries sustained during play, but your bodies will not incur actual damage… unless, of course, you harm yourself. Keep in mind that virtual injuries will be counted against your final score. Any player death during the game will result in the immediate removal of the person from active play. They will be returned here to the gaming center, and will watch the remainder of the game from the stands. Understood?”

“Yes.”

“Along the way, you will be able to acquire new tools and charms to help with play. There will be games of chance, skill, strategy, and puzzles to solve. A host device will be attached to your uniforms so you will be able to ask for clarification of rules or explanations, but be advised, each time you ask for assistance, points will be deducted from your total.”

“How many?”

“One hundred points, or one percent of your total. Your choice.” The hóstach bowed again. “When you complete one puzzle, look for a portal such as this…” A Gothic arched stone doorway magically appeared beside the host for a moment, then faded away. “…to advance to the next gamescape.”

“Do we get weapons?” asked Jack.

Daniel sighed.

“Once you enter the game.” Another bow. “Now, are you ready to begin?”

The hóstach gestured again, and this time an alien slot machine appeared. It had a lever and a view screen, very similar in appearance to a Vegas one-armed bandit. “Pull the lever when you are ready to play. This determines your place in the departure queue.”

Daniel glanced at his team over his shoulder. “Are we ready?”

Jack flexed a grin and bounced on his toes a little. “I woke up today, and that’s good enough for me. Ready when you are, Cap’n.”

“That’s commander to you,” Daniel shot back. He was really enjoying the rank thing.

“Ready,” Moon answered with a brisk nod.

Tzatzil laid a hand possessively on his shoulder.

Jarod nodded twice.

“Here we go.” Daniel pulled the lever, and stared at the view screen until the numbers stopped spinning.

“We got a two!” he cheered.

“And again for your starting gamescape,” the hóstach prompted.

The Tok’ra team disappeared from their circle.

“Hurry up!” Jack prodded. “They’re already leaving!”

Daniel pulled the lever again, and instead of a number, they saw the icon for a tree.

***

Gamescape: Forest

Instantly, they found themselves dressed in new blue uniforms, standing on a grassy knoll in the middle of a dense forest. The sky was still dark, but lightening with the rising sun. Strapped to Daniel’s arm was the device that kept track of their credits, still holding steady at five million.

“Thank you, Doctor Eppes,” he whispered.

There was another machine waiting for them, but as Daniel took a step toward it, he felt his foot drag and glanced downward.

“Oh, honey, what are you doing here?” He bent to pick up little Niamh, now clinging to him in fright, and lifted her into his arms. “You’re not supposed to be with us today.”

A hóstach appeared. “This is a violation! You have more players than the agreed-upon number.”

“This child is here by accident. We need to send her back. Is that allowed?”

“It is. One moment please.”

Daniel thought about the size of the arena, and had no idea how Niamh would find her parents. They probably didn’t even know where she’d gone.

“Wait!”

He glanced at his teammates. “Someone’s got to go with her. She’ll be lost on the other side.”

“You are her favorite, Daniel,” Jack mused. “You seem to have that effect on alien females, regardless of species. They’ll follow you anywhere.”

“But I can’t go! I’m the team captain.”

Jack’s eyebrows lifted. “Oh, so now you’re a captain.”

“If no one volunteers, I’ll have to assign someone. There’s no way I’m sending a baby back alone.”

Jarod raised his hand, head hanging. “I’ll do it.”

“Okay. Good. Okay. Thank you.” Daniel was starting to feel the pressure. He knew Jarod was one of their best players, but there was no way Tzatzil would leave him, despite a direct order. Every player on the team was just as valuable as the others in their own way, and volunteering was better than having to make a choice.

“First,” said the hóstach, “you must receive your weapons and charms.” It gestured to the slot machine.

Daniel handed the baby to Jarod and pulled the lever. A wide sash appeared on his uniform. Tucked in at the waist was a wakizashi, a short sword favored by Japanese samurai. Hanging at his side was a scabbard with a long, elegant katana.

“Cool! I got swords.”

Jarod took his turn next and received a wizard’s staff. “Wow. I’m gonna hate having to give that up.”

Moon got a spear and Tzatzil her favorite bow. Jack was thoroughly unhappy with his selection: a spiked ball on a short pole.

“Where’s the trigger on this thing?” he asked, giving it a little shake, gazing down the shaft with one eye.

“It’s a mace, Jack,” Daniel explained. “You hit things with it.”

“I guess no advanced weaponry, then, huh? I suppose it puts us all on a more level playing field.”

“We don’t know that yet. Without seeing the other teams, we don’t know what they got. The choices might have something to do with our ranking or any other number of factors—“

“What the hell is that?” Moon pointed above Daniel’s head.

He looked up, and saw only lightening sky.

She laughed. “Okay, it moves with your head, always directly above the top of your skull. What’s mine say?”

Floating above each of their heads – just like in some video games he’d played with Jack – was a translucent glowing word. “Yours says ‘Strength’.” He read them off for everyone. “Jarod is ‘Change,’ Zazz is ‘Shield’ and Jack, yours is ‘Intuition.’ What’s mine?”

’Heal’,” Jack answered, and chuckled. “Looks like you’re a real doctor now, Doctor Jackson. At least, in the game.”

“Let’s get busy here,” Moon barked. “Gotta send that baby back.”

“Yeah. Yeah.” Daniel glanced at the ground beneath their feet. “Everybody but Jarod and Niamh clear the arrival point.”

Jarod moved up to the top of the knoll. When the team was clear, Daniel announced to the hóstach that they were ready to transport the child back to the arena with one of their players.

“There will be a point penalty,” the hóstach declared. “The player will not be allowed to return to the game. His equipment will be forfeit.”

“Understood.” Daniel held up the point calculator and watched as a million points were deducted immediately after Jarod disappeared. He sighed. “Oh, well. On with the game.”

“So which way do we go, fearless leader?” Jack was already scanning the forest surrounding them.

“I dunno, Jack. You’re the one with the intuition. You tell me.” Daniel shook his head. “As if we haven’t seen enough of trees over the years…”

“Then let’s go this way.”

***

“We’ve been walking for hours,” Daniel moaned. “If only we had some idea where we were going or what we were supposed to do here.” He checked his chronometer. “Two and a half hours, to be precise, and I think we’ve gone through every bramble and patch of underbrush from here to the arrival point. I mean, there wasn’t a trail to speak of, sure, but you could’ve picked an easier path, Jack.”

“I believe we are going in a circle, yes?” Tzatzil stepped closer to a tree with a large burl near its base. “I remember this tree. It is shaped like a female heavy with child. See here is the outline of a little bottom, and here, a crooked leg with a tiny foot—“

“What have you got, Major?” asked Colonel Standing, bringing up the rear. She had also apparently noticed they had covered the same ground.

Jack was studying the ground as he walked, and Daniel realized his head had been down like that for most of the last hour. His left arm jerked up into the hand signal for ‘stop.’

Everyone froze, heads up, eyes scanning the perimeter, weapons held ready.

“Taispeáin díbh féin,” Jack called ahead of him.

“Show yourselves,” Daniel repeated to the others.

Daniel didn’t see anything but green leaves and bark at first.

Then something moved.

The whole landscape seemed to have come alive. Seirbhíseach were everywhere, hiding in the bushes, sitting on tree limbs, clinging to trunks. Some scurried out of sight completely; a handful came to stand on the leaf-strewn ground among them.

Jack dropped to one knee and scooped one of the servants up into his arms. “Aed, you wanna explain why you’re out here?”

Clodagh came to Daniel and tugged on his trouser leg, offering a smile full of pointy teeth. “Forgive?”

He squatted down. “You speak our language?”

She nodded, holding up a small black hand with a short gap between thumb and index finger. “Little bit.”

“What do you want me to forgive?”

Her ears drooped and her eyes got big. “Lies.” She gestured around her. “For show.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“I do,” Jack announced, carrying Aed a little closer to the group. “Seems our little pals here have been putting one over on us. Every team gets a stowaway. How we deal with ‘em is part of the contest. Check our points, Captain.”

Daniel did. “They’re up! Not enough to cover losing Jarod, but at least we’re headed in the right direction.”

“Commander, I recommend we take a break and have a little chat with these good folks,” Moon suggested.

“Clodagh, is there a more comfortable place where we can talk?” Daniel held out his arms for the little female, and she came right into them.

He turned to regard his old friend. “Jack, how’d you know? Was it that intuition thing? Do you know how to work it?”

“US Air Force training, no and no,” Jack replied. “Aed says the others here live in the trees, but there’s a clearing with a stream not far that way. Shall we, commander? Or is it captain? I get confused.”

Daniel grinned down at Clodagh. “He’s not as dense as he pretends. Don’t let him fool you.”

The seirbhíseach leaned against his chest and stretched her arms out as far as she could reach, an attempt at a hug. “Thank you for Niamh.”

“I’m glad she’s safe.” Daniel’s heart warmed for these charming creatures, and then saddened when he thought of their people’s plight. “Will your family be safe here?”

She leaned back and studied his face, obviously not understanding.

“Yeah. Let’s all go have a powwow. I’m sensing we have a lot to talk about.”

Tzatzil grasped his arm and pulled him to a stop. She was staring above his head.

He looked up, then blushed when he remembered he’d never be able to see what was written in the air above him.

“You have a new word,” she said softly.

“What’s it say?”

’Summon’,” Moon answered. “Who ya gonna call?”

“Ghost Busters!” Jack answered with a merry grin, humming a bar of the theme song.

Daniel recognized the cultural reference, though he’d never seen the movie. “I doubt that’s what it means. We’re not gonna see any ghosts in this game.” A little shiver of panic shimmied up his spine. “Are we? I mean, it’s a virtual world. I suppose anything’s possible, right?”

Under his breath and into the servant’s fur, he whispered, “Please, don’t let there be ghosts, vampires or anything undead or supernatural. Or spiders.”

***

“So, Aed says the doohickeys above our heads are based on our innate tendencies in real life.” He looked quite pleased with himself. “These little guys have been watching us – like I said in the bar – and told the big bosses.”

“Spies,” Daniel summed up. “So are they being honest now, or is this part of a subterfuge?”

“Part of the game, I imagine,” Moon interjected. She sat on a flat rock, boots and socks nearby, her feet dunked in the cool water.

Aed chattered on, and Jack provided the translation.

“There are seven terrains in the game: Forest, where we are now, Mountain, Desert, Arctic – I hope we aren’t there long, considering how we’re dressed—“

“Jack.”

“Oh. Right. …Jungle, Savannah and Village. Every team takes a turn in each place.”

Daniel felt a headache coming on and rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses. “Then please tell these guys to avoid the Goa’uld at all costs when they come here. Don’t interact with them in any way.”

“What are we supposed to accomplish in the forest?” Moon withdrew her feet from the stream and kicked them back and forth in the air, presumably to dry them. “We can see Daniel’s new item, but I’d like to know what we did to earn it. Might help with the next games.”

“This was about making friends and influence people,” Jack reported. “Since we’d already developed a rapport with these little guys, it was an easy win.” He lifted a troubled gaze at his commander. “Which makes me worry about when the Goa’uld get here. These kids still have their role to play with each team.”

Daniel pondered. “Maybe the rules of the game still apply,” he suggested. “It might look like they get hurt or killed, but they won’t really be affected. Is that right? Ask Aed.”

His stomach churned as they waited for an answer. He could tell by the seirbhíseach’s body language that Aed was either lying or telling only a partial truth. The little alien’s head was down, shoulders curved in protectively.

“They’re not allowed to say,” Daniel assumed.

“Look, if our extras,” Moon pointed at the icon above her head, “are based on our natures or whatever, you can damn well bet whatever the Goa’ulds get will be destructive, powerful and very possibly deadly. Is there any way these little guys can protect themselves? Can they at least see these things?”

Jack eyed the Furby. His crestfallen expression gave the answer. “No, they can’t. Our opponents won’t be able to see them, either. We can only see the ones on our team.”

Aed crawled out of Jack’s lap and stood a few paces away. He bowed formally to each of them, and then presented himself to Daniel. He opened his arms and flexed his fingers, which might mean that he wanted to be picked up, or have his mate delivered to him.

Daniel set Clodagh down and straightened up while they clung to each other a moment.

“He says thank you to all of us for saving his daughter,” Jack translated when Aed spoke again. “His people will remember our kindness in setting them free, and he promises someone will come to speak to us on their behalf before we go home.”

Like a flock of birds wheeling through the air on an unseen signal, all the aliens turned and started marching off beside the stream.

“I guess we go with them.” Jack fell into step behind Aed, with the rest of the team in his wake.

Before long, they came to a bend in the creek bed, neatly curved around a stone arch just like the one the host had shown them before the start of the game. All around it, the scenery was the same, but under the arch, a golden grassland shimmered in the breeze. As they approached the doorway, dark triangular wolfish heads popped up out of the grass in the distance.

Aed tugged on Jack’s trouser leg and spoke to him.

“He says we can pass on any level one time.”

“But is there something we need on the other side?” Daniel watched some of those heads disappear, others pop up elsewhere. Maybe those creatures were a people who could be reasoned with; maybe they were hungry animals. “If we pass, does that count against us? What if all the other teams go through the game and don’t take a single pass?”

“What if you get killed there?” asked Tzatzil from his elbow. “Too many questions. You must decide, my Daniel, and we will do whatever you ask.”

Daniel glanced up at her charm, Shield. She had thrown herself in front of an oncoming arrow to save his life. She regularly stepped between him and anything she perceived as trouble. It was only natural that this charm had been chosen for her.

He remembered what Jack had told the team about Moon in the bar as he turned to regard the charm above her head, Strength. The things she had been through in Afghanistan would have broken a lesser person. That she was even with the SGC was testament to the strength of her character.

And then there was Jack, and all the things they’d been through together in the last eight years.

“Well,” he said on a sigh, “we’re here to gamble. Let’s see what’s on the other side. Jack, you’re on point. Polish up that intuition, wouldja?”

***

Gamescape: Savannah

Jack stepped through the portal to a world reminiscent of the African savannah. It was hot, but there was a little breeze. The scent of fertile earth mixed with hay and something akin to wet dog wafted on the air currents. Animal cries, yips and howls sounded in the distance.

“Weapons ready!” Moon ordered. “These things are circling.”

“Hello,” Daniel called. “Do you speak—“

One of them took off, coming right at him with blinding speed, leaping on its overdeveloped hind legs like a kangaroo. He thwacked it hard with the side of one of his blades, knocking it aside. It tumbled, but recovered its feet quickly and lunged again.

Tzatzil stepped in front of him and cried, “Shield!”

She brought her left arm upward, and a hematite-finished black shield appeared instantly on her forearm. Radiating out from the edges of her shield, the air around her and over Daniel darkened as if they were wearing sunglasses.

A yelp of pain drew Daniel’s attention behind him.

One of the things had Jack by the ankle and was worrying at it.

Moon attacked it with her spear, driving it away, but they were fully surrounded now, and there were too many to fight off.

He grasped a handful of the back of Zazz’s tunic. “Keep that up! We’re going to Jack. He’s hurt.”

As quickly as he could manage, he guided Tzatzil toward a prone O’Neill, still swinging his mace as best he could from the ground.

The Shield encompassed the three of them, and after a moment, Moon slipped in under the dark dome as well.

The wolf-kangaroos circled them, snapping and snarling.

“There’s got to be hundreds of those things,” Moon panted. “What do we do now, Daniel?”

“Go back to the Forest. We’ll regroup—“

“How? The portal disappeared as soon as we went through it.”

“Shit!”

“Daniel? A little help here?” Jack was curled up on his side, struggling to sit and get a look at his ankle.

“Oh, that looks bad.” He squatted down to examine the injury and could see bone and flapping ligaments torn loose in deep gashes. “That looks so real!”

Feels fucking real, too!” O’Neill snapped. “Use that Heal thingy and fix it, wouldja?”

“I don’t know how it works.”

“Figure it out!” Jack was rolling on the ground in obvious agony.

“Okay, okay.” He glanced up at Tzatzil. “Hey, Zazz, how’d you make the Shield?”

“Say the word and believe it true.” She was sweating. Her face was pulled into a grimace of strain.

He’d ask questions later. Cradling Jack’s ankle on his lap, he pulled the bloody flaps of flesh together, closed his eyes, and commanded, “Heal!”

He could feel energy flowing through his hands.

Jack gasped, and Daniel opened his eyes.

His hands were glowing golden, and he could see in his mind’s eye as the tissues began to knit together.

“Oh, thank God!” Jack gusted. “Ohhhhhh. That’s better. Thank you, Daniel.”

One of the animals charged them, but bounced off the darkened sky shielding them.

Then the whole pack attacked in mindless frenzy while the team huddled inside their barrier.

Daniel kept his concentration focused on healing until he was certain the repair was complete. When he stood up, he felt a little light-headed.

Jack caught his arm and steadied him. “That takes a lot out of you, which answered a question I had for Tzatzil. We need to get out of here fast so she can drop that shield or she’s gonna pass out.”

“Any ideas how we do that?” Moon gripped her spear with both hands.

Daniel glanced between her and Jack. “Trade weapons,” he ordered them. “Tzatzil, I’m going to take your bow. Let’s see if I can shoot through the shield. If so, then we need to pick a direction and get moving. Jack, which way?”

O’Neill turned in a circle, studying the horizon as he handed over the mace and took the spear. “Looks like there’s a signpost that way. Maybe it can tell us where the next portal is.”

“Okay, Zazz, Jack will tow you along. You keep us covered till we get there, or if we get a break, I’ll tell you. All right?”

“Yes, my Daniel.” Her voice quavered with the strain.

Jack switched places with him, gathering up a handful of Zazz’z blue shirt.

Daniel took her bow, nocked an arrow and moved around to where he could see the signpost. He aimed at the closest creature, hoping the projectile wouldn’t bounce back inside the dome, and let the arrow fly.

It slipped easily through the force field and pinned the beast to the ground.

The others scattered, scrambling away to a safer distance.

“Right! Now we move.”

They took a step, then another, making their way slowly across the plain. As they passed over one of the spent arrows, Daniel retrieved it from the carcass and slipped it back into the quiver for later use.

“If the shield fails before we get there,” Moon ordered, “I’ll clear us a path with the mace. You’re right, Daniel, this will pair better with my charm.”

“But I don’t know how to use a frickin’ spear!” snapped Jack.

“Think bayonette,” Moon returned with a wry grin.

“Oh.” Jack’s mood changed instantly. Confidence seeped in, and the stress etched into his face became grim determination.

“Tzatzil, you can use my swords, right?” Daniel was concentrating on the signpost, but his mind was awhirl with strategies.

“Yes, my Daniel. I do not think I can hold this much longer.”

“Almost there, Zazz,” he promised. “Just a little longer.”

She cried out and crumbled, dropping to one knee.

Suddenly the animals were everywhere.

Daniel worked the bow, clearing a path for the others to follow.

Moon passed him, laying about her with the mace. As she swung, she shouted to activate her Strength charm and creature bodies went flying through the air.

Tzatzil’s hands were on him now, searching for the swords, pulling them free. She gave the ululating cry of her people in battle that made his hair stand on end and went to work.

Jack stabbed and slashed at the nearest creatures until finally, the beasts backed away, giving them a wide, wary berth.

“We don’t want to hurt you,” Daniel shouted at them. “We’re just passing through and will leave as soon as we can. Let us get to that signpost and figure out where we are. Please.”

None of the creatures came closer, but they growled and threatened with their eyes and flashing, pointy teeth.

Cautiously, he stepped toward the signpost. His teammates gathered around him, facing outward as he read the board.

“It’s a maze map,” he told them. “It shows all the staging areas, where the portals are… I think we need to take this with us.”

He reached up to the top corners and pulled the map down.

Another one appeared in its place an instant later.

“Okay, so that’s apparently what we’re here for. The portal should be right behind the signpost, so let’s all carefully slip around behind it…”

He folded up the paper and tucked it inside his sash.

The pack darted away, disappearing into the tall grass.

Everyone heaved a sigh of relief, but no one put their weapons away.

For a moment, the only sound was the breeze and the whisper of the swaying grass.

“I need to gather up the arrows,” Daniel observed. “Just give me a min—“

“I will do it, my Daniel,” Tzatzil demanded. “I have the Shield. You will wait for me at the portal.”

“We’ll watch you from right here, sweetie,” Moon corrected.

It didn’t take her long to find and retrieve the rest of the arrows. Then they circled around behind the signpost and looked through the portal at a small village.

“Oh, God.” Daniel’s heart broke. “Tezcatlipoca has already been there.”

“Bet I know what you’re supposed to do there.” Jack patted his shoulder. “I know you’re tired. Think you can get to ‘em all?”

“I dunno, Jack. I’ll damned sure try.”

***

Gamescape: Village

The houses were of simple timber, cob and thatch construction, doorposts and lintels decorated with Celtic knotwork. The tools were reminiscent of early nineteenth century Earth. All around them stretched a neat patchwork quilt of farmland.

The scent of smoke and blood was strong as they stepped through the portal. Some of the buildings had been burned to the ground. Others were missing roofs or had huge holes knocked into the walls. Belongings were strewn out into the cobblestone street. Livestock were slaughtered in their pens.

Worst of all, though, was the makeshift hospital scene on the village green. Bodies were laid out, covered with sheets. Right beside them, stretchers were lined up with the injured. Only a handful of people were working with the wounded; the rest of the villagers were searching through the rubble for more victims of the Goa’uld attack.

“I’ll start here,” Daniel advised the team. “Tzatzil, you’re with me. Jack, Moon, try to find out what happened and see if there are any clues to what we’re supposed to find here.”

He pulled the map out of his pocket and handed it over to Jack.

Who passed it on to his superior officer with a look of embarrassment.

Daniel let it lie. He should’ve known better, but was so used to Jack being in command, he’d forgotten Moon outranked him now. Apologizing would just make it worse, so he made a mental note to do it in private later.

Glancing at his chronometer, he saw that it was already mid-morning. “It’s oh-nine-thirty, guys, and we’ve got four more regions to hit after this one. First two were about two hours each, so I’m estimating we can only spend about two hours tops here.”

“On our way.” Moon hefted the mace over her right shoulder and took off toward the nearest people on the street.

***

The patter of soft, cool rain on his face woke Daniel. He felt exhausted, every bone in his body aching. It was as if he could feel all the wounds he’d healed throbbing, searing all over him.

“There y’are!” Jack crowed, patting his cheek. “Thought we’d lost ya for a bit there.”

He sat up slowly, Jack’s hand at his back helping him pull upward.

“Best get inside, now, Daniel. C’mon. These nice folks have some lunch out for us, right over there.” He nodded at a gazebo-like structure just off the green.

Daniel moaned as he got to his feet, hobbling toward the structure with Jack on one side and Tzatzil on the other, half carrying him along.

It took every ounce of his strength to sit himself down on the bench at the table. He felt a little better after a hearty meal, but his hands still hurt from all the healing he’d done. He flexed his fingers and almost expected to hear the bones crunching.

“I guess that took a lot out of you, huh.” Jack’s eyes were concerned across the table from him. “We helped patch up those with less serious injuries while you were out. Cleaned up a little. The folks were grateful.”

“They gave us a key!” Tzatzil cheered from his right side. “I keep it for you!” She held up an old fashioned skeleton key on a leather thong tied around her neck.

Daniel eyed it, but couldn’t muster any excitement at the moment. “That’s good. I suppose we can go now. Not sure I can walk very far.”

A short man with salt-and-pepper hair and a prim mouth sidled up to their table, refilling their tankards with wine as he glanced around them.

When he’d confirmed none of the other villagers were watching, he leaned down to whisper, “I have a gift for you.” He reached into his tunic and hurriedly dropped a piece of paper on the table, then moved around the table to fill another cup. “It is a solution to all the puzzles. It will help you win.”

He flashed a quick smile, his beady eyes darting about again. “It is my thanks for the help you have given my village.”

Daniel stared at the paper.

Moon reached out toward it.

“Don’t!” Jack growled, catching her wrist in her grip. “My spidey-sense is tingling. I don’t think we’re supposed to see that.”

If he’d been able to move, Daniel thought, he’d have done the same thing. “Maybe it’s a test. I agree with Jack. If we’re gonna win this thing, let’s do it honorably.”

“And if we lose?” Moon shot back.

“We do it honorably,” Daniel repeated. “Sorry, Moon. I know winning this contest might mean the difference between stopping the Goa’uld threat and being conquered, but I don’t think we can take the chance on a way to cheat the system.”

The Colonel withdrew her arm. She stared at the paper, glanced at Daniel and then up at the villager with an insincere smile. “Thanks, but no thanks.”

He canted his head in acceptance of their refusal, and as he poured the last cup, snatched up the paper and tucked it back into his tunic before he left them.

“How’re we doin’ on points?” Jack drained his wine cup and pushed back from the table. He wobbled a little. “Whoa! For virtual wine, that stuff sure has a kick.”

“Maybe you should sit down a little longer, O’Neill.” Colonel Standing chuckled and pushed her cup back without finishing. “Daniel, points?”

With great effort, he turned his wrist to check and caught sight of the time instead. “Shit! It’s been over three hours! Why didn’t you guys wake me up?”

He got to his feet, aching and sore, and stretched a little.

“We did try,” Moon assured him. “You were kind of unconscious for an hour or so.” She rose with easy grace and came to stand at his side. “The portal’s not far. Think you can make it, or should we call a taxi?”

“A taxi would be great. I feel better, but a good night’s sleep would be—“

“Move along there, little dogie.” Jack shooed him toward the door.

Tzatzil slipped under his right arm and helped him hobble out into the pouring rain.

A small wagon was waiting for them outside. They climbed aboard and rode the five minutes it took to get to the portal. Waving goodbye to the driver, they looked through the downpour to the hot, dry dunes on the other side.

“At least we’ll dry out fast,” Daniel called above the drumming rain.

***

Gamescape: Desert

“Whoa! Reset. Nice.”

Daniel felt immediately better on the other side of the portal, not only because it wasn’t storming there, but also because he seemed to be immediately recovered from the drain of healing so many at the village.

“Let’s have a look at that map,” Moon suggested, scanning the horizon, “because all I can see from here is sand.”

“Oh! Points!” Daniel glanced at their total and was pleasantly surprised. “Looks like we made up what we spent on Aed’s family, plus a little bit. Wonder what the other teams’ totals are?”

A chart appeared in the air in front of the portal.

The team stared at it.

“Well, nuts!” Jack kicked the sand. “We’re dead last.”

Moon glanced up at the sun for direction, then down at the map with a heavy sigh. “There’s no scale or anything to tell us how far we have to go, but whatever is waiting for us is that way.”

She sighed and checked the water in her canteen. “We’re burnin’ daylight, kids. A thousand steps and rest, just like the Romans did it.”

The team moved off in the direction of the icon on the map, but Daniel was beginning to doubt they’d win. They were too far behind in points, and he’d wasted an hour passed out in the village.

He looked up at the sky and said softy, “Sorry, General Waring. We’re doing the best we can out here.”

And then he jogged off after the others in search of the next challenge with a heavy heart.

***

They were hard to see at first, since their outfits – not their usual attire, but still tan – blended in with the sand so well.

All seven of the Tok’ra were injured near a cluster of rocks jutting out of the sand like the humped back of a stegosaurus. Some were sitting up and apparently conscious, others lay still on the sand where they had fallen. Daniel couldn’t tell what happened to them, but they all appeared to be bleeding, some with limbs unnaturally bent.

There were large divots in the sand near where some of them lay.

Suddenly, Jack’s arm thrust out in front of Daniel, barring his way. “Hold up!” he ordered.

Everyone froze.

Jack cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Mines?”

Daniel’s heart sank.

“Help us!” Freya called. “Yes, there is a minefield between us.”

“Oh, my God.” Daniel’s hands went to his head.

It’s just a game, he reminded himself. They’re not really hurt. If they die in the game, they’ll just be returned to the arena.

But the Tok’ra are our allies, he argued. Their point total is much higher than ours, and if they win, we win.

“Screw it,” he growled, lifted his hands wide and called out to the sky, “I Summon the Tollans!”

Instantly, the aliens – now dressed in grass green uniforms – appeared on the sand beside them, all quite startled.

“How did we get here?” asked Narim. “We were just in the vill--” He cut himself off. “Please, tell us nothing of what you learned. We know you were there before us.”

Daniel pointed to the other players near the rocks. “They need help, and there’s a minefield between us. Can you disarm the mines?”

Narim seemed astonished. “Why would we do that? We are competing against them and you. Their misfortune gives us further advantage.”

“Because it’s the right thing to do!” Daniel snarled, enraged at their complacent, inhuman attitude. “We earned the power to Summon, and I have summoned you to help, so help, God damn it! This is part of our turn and we’re helping the Tok’ra. You have to or you can’t go back to the village.”

He had no idea if that were true or not, but now was as good a time as any to bluff.

The Tollan team leader cocked his head. “How did you know I have the Disarm charm? Can you see other players in your game?”

“No. I just took a chance.” Daniel glanced at the people near the rocks, getting a little desperate at the delay. “Please, help us help them. Just because it’s the right thing to do.”

Narim studied them for a moment, and then nodded. He stretched out his hand and commanded, “Disarm!”

Audible clicks sounded, somewhat muffled beneath the sand.

Without waiting for word, Jack jogged directly over to the Tok’ra with Colonel Standing at his side.

“Thank you,” Daniel said softly. Then he grinned. “Check your point total.” He winked and turned to join the others.

He heard Narim’s surprised chuckle behind him.

The next time he looked, the Tollans were gone.

***

Gamescape: Jungle

“What—“

“—the Hell?”

Daniel glanced up from his chronometer to find Jack and Moon staring up into the trees. They were surrounded by steaming jungle thick with vines and tall trees. The place stank of rotting vegetation and fertile earth. The heat of it was oppressive, making his clothes stick to his skin. The air was so heavy it was hard to breathe.

At first he didn’t see anything due to the humidity clouding his glasses, so he gave them a quick wipe on his sleeve and took another look.

“Oh. Flying monkeys. That’s a first. Well, unless you include Frank Baum.”

Jack hoisted his water canteen at them. “We are armed! Where’s the Wicked Witch of the West? We demand to see her!”

“O’Neill, are you still drunk?” Colonel Standing patted his shoulder, then glanced with a moue of distaste at her saturated palm.

He didn’t take his eyes off the creatures swinging about in the treetops. “I believe that went away as soon as we stepped through the portal, much to my eternal disappointment. I may, however, be under the influence of some inhaled hallucinogenic because I’m seeing flying monkeys, ma’am. Welcome back to the Sixties!”

She snorted a little laugh. “Fun, though, wasn’t it?” Her humor vanished as she glanced at Daniel. “Oh, shit! General Waring’s seeing this, isn’t he?” She buried her face in her palms. “Oh, God, I forgot there’s an audience.”

And then addressing the monkeys and the trees, she called loudly, “It was a joke, I swear!”

“Calm down, everybody,” Daniel insisted, watching the creatures cavorting, apparently oblivious to the guests in the jungle. “Let’s try and figure out what we’re supposed to be doing here, shall we?”

Tzatzil moved up behind him, close enough he could feel her body heat. “What are they doing, my Daniel?” She pointed at a pair of the flying beasts.

Each of them had a small rock and a feather. They would scurry up the trunk of a tree, climb out on a big branch, and then simultaneously drop their stones and watch them drop straight to the ground. Then the pair held out their feathers, their eyes following the weaving, irregular patterns as the feathers swooped and swirled lightly in the air, tracing elegant patterns until each came to rest on the ground below.

“Light as a feather, heavy as a stone,” Tzatzil murmured.

Daniel thought of Sha’re. He was sure there had been a funerary ceremony for her, but that was lost somewhere in his pre-ascension memories; memories of another life.

“Jack, did you go to my wife’s funeral?” he asked his friend.

The monkeys flew down and retrieved their items, leaped up into the air and took wing to return to the branch.

“Yes, Daniel. You were there. Don’t you remember?” Jack’s voice was kind, patient.

“Was there a feather somewhere in the ceremony?”

O’Neill stopped watching the monkeys and shifted his gaze to his commander. “Yes.” He hesitated. “You have that look, Daniel. Do you think that’s what this little circus act is about?”

He nodded. “Maybe some of your intuition rubbed off on me, but I think it might be about… purging our emotional baggage. Shame I can’t remember most of mine.”

“You remember enough.”

Daniel met Jack’s eyes then, recalling that same line he’d said to O’Neill in the locker room after a mission not long ago. He thought maybe Jack was trying to tell him to accept that small mercy, not to go digging in the pain of his past. There was a distinct glimmer of warning in his dark eyes.

The commander took a deep breath, searching through his recent memories, and found one readily available. He knew whatever he said would be broadcast to the audience of Gambler’s World – remembering Moon’s little slip about the Sixties – so he thought about doing it internally instead… not exactly rewriting the past to give himself a better outcome, but accepting his responsibility for how things had turned out.

He closed his eyes and called up the image of his wife’s beautiful face. He breathed her name. “Sha’re.”

His wife had died because he’d come through the Stargate. It wasn’t his fault, not directly. If he’d kept the ‘gate buried, if he’d been satisfied with the simple life the Abydonians offered, his wife might still be alive. But he’d been driven to share the information on the cartouche room with someone, and that need had been the start of her long, slow, painful death at the hands of Ammonet.

The monkeys climbed laboriously up the trunk this time, claimed their perches, and held out the stones.

Thud.

Two stones. Two monkeys.

It wasn’t enough to say those things inside his own head. For the burden to be lifted, he had to say it out loud.

“Jack.”

“I know what happened, Daniel. I was there, too.”

Tears misted his eyes. “Not for all of it. Either you let me tell you in private, or I say it out loud for everyone to hear.”

“Maybe you got it wrong.”

Oh, he hoped he had.

“You’ve got the intuition. What’s it say?”

O’Neill shifted nervously on his feet. His mouth opened a little, softly closed. He looked scared.

“No one else has to hear,” Daniel promised, and hoped he was right about that. “Just me. I already know yours, Jack, but I think we need to say the words, to lay down the load we’ve been carrying… or share it with someone who can help us carry it. I choose you to hear my confession.”

The pained look on Jack’s face told him he was right. Reluctance was written in his sagging posture, the leaden steps he took, the way he dragged his toes. When he stopped, his head was down. He sighed.

“I really don’t.”

“I know. Me, either.”

Jack sighed.

Daniel hugged him loosely, whispering in his friend’s ear until he’d poured his heart out and soaked Jack’s shirt even further with his tears.

Without breaking the embrace, Jack said one word into Daniel’s ear.

“Charlie.”

His arms tightened around Daniel. “I should never have had that gun outside a safe. I knew better! Daniel, I’d just jumped all over him about a fucking water gun! He wasn’t old enough to understand. I killed my son. Jeez! I killed Charlie.”

Jack buried his face in Daniel’s shoulder.

There were no words to ease that pain, Daniel knew. There was no forgiveness to be had for his son’s death, only the burden of guilt he would bear for the rest of his life. Daniel curled his fingers around his friend’s nape, the other rubbing the middle of his back, and wished there was something—

Heal,” he commanded in a soft whisper.

He could feel the heat in his hands, flowing from his body into his friend’s. There was no hurry to step apart. When it happened, it was easy, natural.

Jack was smiling a little. His cheeks were wet, but then, everything was wet here. They were in a fucking jungle, for crying out loud.

Daniel chuckled at hearing his own mental voice sounding suspiciously like Jack O’Neill.

“Feel better?” he asked hopefully.

“Yeah, actually. I do. Thanks.” He turned away, scanning the perimeter, threat-assessing as usual.

Moon threw her arms around his neck and nearly knocked him down as she whispered her ex-husband’s name in his ear.

Then it was Tzatzil’s turn, and Daniel felt saddened and humbled to know that she had given up the love of her life to watch over him for her queen.

“I don’t deserve that,” he whispered.

She backed away, holding his face in her hands, smiling through her tears. “Oh, my Daniel! Of all those I have ever met, you do indeed.”

“Is that elf channeling Teal’c?” Jack quipped. “And are we done yet? I gotta pee.”

Daniel couldn’t stop the grin. “There are bushes everywhere, Jack. Pick one.”

“Be right back, ladies.” He pivoted and hid behind the nearest tree for a few minutes. “No peeking!”

“Not caring!” Moon teased back.

The mood lightened considerably, and in no time, they were standing in front of the next portal gazing out into a landscape in faint pastel colors dominated by pale blue and white.

“And we’re soaking wet,” Daniel observed, laying on the sarcasm freely. “We’ll freeze even faster. Yay.”

***

Gamescape: Arctic

Jack glanced at the thick bluish fur coat covering his arms. As soon as they’d stepped through the game portal, they’d been fully geared up for the weather: coats with hoods, gloves, extra-thick socks, waterproof boots, a muffler to wrap around their faces… and sunglasses!

He looked up at the sky, cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Thank you!”

“Mighty nice of our hosts, don’tcha think?” He asked his companions, tugging at his coat sleeve. “Givin’ us these fancy new duds?”

“Nice that we won’t freeze to death in three minutes flat,” Moon groused, “because where’s the entertainment value in that?”

She unfolded the map and turned in a slow circle, comparing it to the terrain. “O’Neill, how’s that famous intuition of yours workin’? I’ll be damned if I can figure out what we’re supposed to find here. There’s nothing marked on the map.”

“I got nothin’,” Jack answered, also scanning the terrain. He shrugged and let his hands fall to his sides.

“Perhaps we are waiting for something to happen?” asked Tzatzil, looking as always, at Daniel.

He was gonna have to talk to her about that.

Then he took a look at their commander, who was standing still as a stone, his mouth pulled in a grimace. His hands were tucked beneath his arms, sans gloves, in that self-hugging thing he did when he was upset. His color was off, too, kind of ashen.

Using that Heal thing must be taking a toll on him, regardless of the reset feature of each gamescape.

He sauntered closer to Daniel, feeling the cold starting to seep into his feet and hands, freezing the muscles of his face and making it harder to smile.

“You okay there, Daniel?”

The other man nodded and said nothing.

“How’s our point total?”

Daniel glanced at the device on his wrist, rolled his eyes and drew his mouth up in a disappointed bow. “Maybe we don’t understand how to play the game. Or maybe it’s me. I’m making all the wrong decisions, and we keep losing points. I’m sorry.” He curled his upper lip in a sneer that looked more like pain than disgust.

“Not from where I’m standing.” Jack patted him on the shoulder. “I think you’re doing it the right way. Have a little faith in yourself. I do.”

The tension eased a little. “Thanks, Jack. So what’s next?”

“Search me.” He turned in a circle and pointed in each of the cardinal directions. “Snow. Snow. Snow. More snow. I got nothin’.”

Daniel glanced above his friend’s head. “How about using your Intuition?”

Jack shrugged. “I thought I was.”

“No.” Daniel shook his head. “I don’t think I’ve seen you use it at all yet. You’re supposed to call for it out loud to make it work.”

Jack’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Really? I thought—” He grinned, feeling a bit superior at the moment. He bounced up on his toes happily. “It’s really just an enhancement, then.”

Daniel pulled his sunglasses down a bit and glared impatiently over the top of the frames. “Any time, now, Jack.”

“Right.” Jack held his hands up and shouted to the sky, “Intuition!”

An instant later, a glowing yellow path appeared in the snow, leading away toward the sun sinking nearer the horizon.

“Anybody else see that?” He checked his teammates, but only he could see the way ahead. “Then let’s follow the yellow snow road to the Emerald City.” After a pause, he added, “Just don’t eat the snow, okay?”

Daniel got the joke and chuckled. He tucked his hands back under his arms and winced.

Jack took notice, but said nothing. He knew the younger man would tolerate anything to help them win. It wasn’t his place to interfere with Daniel’s command, either. He was the team captain; all the decisions were his. There were only two regions to complete before the end of the game, anyway.

Glancing at the position of the sun, he saw they only had a few hours left before the contest was over.

When Jack’s yellow trail vanished, he stopped, looking around for an entrance to something else, but there was only snow in every direction, as far as the eye could see. The wind picked up, cutting through the cloth around his face. “Well, here we aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!”

The ground fell out from under them all. They slid through an icy tunnel, twisting and turning, gaining momentum until he shot out the open mouth into a pale blue cave of ice. He landed on a soft pile of snow, quickly rolling out of the way as the next person flew into view. He grabbed Daniel and hauled him off, barely missing Zazz. Moon smashed into the elf just as she sat up, knocking her out cold.

The Colonel rolled off the other gal with a mighty groan, and sat up with great difficulty. “Is she okay?”

“Are you okay?” Jack shot back.

“Maybe a broken rib,” Moon reported. “Hard to breathe. Daniel, you check Zazz out first. I’ll wait.”

Jack had a look at Moon while Daniel ran glowy hands over the elf, then scanned the rest of the cave.

Huddled in a corner were some shadowy gray shapes curled up tight.

“We are not alone, boys and girls,” he stated with a trace of merriment he didn’t feel.

His stomach clenched as he stepped cautiously toward them. He recognized the Nebari team from the starting area, but they were hardly dressed for this climate. They were still in the lightweight charcoal-colored uniforms they’d had at the beginning of the game, and they weren’t moving.

Jack bent closer and saw frost forming on their gray faces around their mouths and noses.

The female with a thick shock of snow-white hair opened large black eyes, shivering as she gazed up at him.

“Help,” she whispered.

“Daniel! Need some help over here!”

He felt for pulses, not even sure they had those.

Moments later, Daniel was healing the Nebari, thawing them out. When he finished, there were dark circles under his eyes, and he was unnaturally pale. He left the gloves off, pressing his hands to the cold floor to cool them off as they sat around in a circle, Nebari tucked beneath the coats of SG-Zed and sharing body heat.

Yep, Jack assured himself as the white-haired one squeezed close to him. That one was female.

“My name is Chiana,” she said haltingly, her teeth chattering a little. “Thank you for saving us.”

“You’re very welcome. I’m Daniel, this is Jack, Tzatzil and Moon.”

The others introduced themselves. Nerri was Chiana’s brother. Hubero, with the silvery hair, and Atoll, another dark-haired male, were quite obviously grateful, but highly suspicious of their competitors.

“How did you get here?” Daniel seemed to find a little relief in the cold, and put his arms around Hubero, rubbing her arms briskly to help warm her up. “I thought only one team could be on a level at one time.”

“We were in the desert,” Nerri answered, scooting closer to Tzatzil. “There was a trap, and we were transported here. There was no opening until the tunnel appeared and brought you.”

“What was the trap? We didn’t find a trap in the desert.” Moon jerked away from Atoll and slapped his hand as it skirted a little too close to intimate bits. “Stop that unless you want your fingers broken!”

The alien looked properly chastised and sat very still.

“No, we found land mines,” Daniel corrected. “Where was the trap?”

“Inside the rock formation,” answered Chiana.

Daniel seemed to wilt a little. “Oh. We never got that far.” He offered a sad smile to his teammates. “Sorry, guys. I seem to have missed the point of that one completely.”

Jack felt bad for him.

“I do not think so,” countered Tzatzil with a shake of her head. “If we did not complete our task, why would we have found the next portal?”

Chiana let go of Jack and stood up, her arms tucked close around her to conserve body heat. “Look, we’ve been stuck in here for hours. We didn’t solve the Desert puzzle and still have to complete the Jungle one. I don’t suppose you guys found a key to the shortcut, did you?”

Tzatzil fished around in her tunic and brought up the skeleton key the villagers had given the team. “Is this it?”

“Yes! Dag-yo!” she cheered. “We’ll give you the solution for this puzzle if you’ll give us the shortcut key. Or your coats. Coats would be great.”

“Dag-yo?” Daniel repeated quizzically.

“Guessing from context, something like, ‘cool,’” Moon advised. Her eyes slid sideways to her coat mate and narrowed in clear threat. “I have super strength pal. You try that again and I’ll snap you in half.”

Atoll mumbled a soft apology and pulled his hands close to his own body.

“Where is the puzzle for this location?” asked Tzatzil.

Chiana pointed to the wall behind the redhead. “You gotta squint to see the symbols. They’re carved into the ice.”

“We’ve already solved it,” Nerri assured them. “As my sister said, we will trade you the answer—“

“Give them the key,” Daniel told Tzatzil.

She took it off and handed it to Nerri, who sat up to put it around his own neck. The elf stood up and went over to study the characters.

“Hurry back,” Nerri called, shivering.

“Daniel,” Zazz called over her shoulder. “Can you see this?” She pointed.

The symbols were simple: a box containing several circles with an arrow pointing to an empty box.

“It means—“ Chiana began.

“Aht! Aht!” Jack held up a hand. “He likes to figure these out for himself, thank you. It’s what he does.”

Daniel got up to eyeball the carvings. He ran his fingers along the edges of the incisions into the ice, obviously thinking. He glanced at the huddled group, then back at the carvings.

Zazz leaned close to whisper to him. He nodded.

Both of them took off their coats and gave them to the Nebari.

Above the elf’s copper hair, another symbol appeared.

“You just got ‘Show’, Zazz,” Jack told her. “Whatever that means. Anybody got a ‘Tell’?”

He liked that joke, even though nobody laughed. His humor was rather eclectic, and he enjoyed being obtuse.

She looked up, and of course, the symbol moved, too, staying in line with the top of her head so she could never see it.

He couldn’t help cracking up. That just never got old.

“Jack, Moon. You, too. Give up your coats.” Daniel nodded toward the Nebari.

O’Neill didn’t like that idea. It was fucking cold in that cave and a long way back to the portal. Without their gear, they’d all be popsicles in minutes.

“Um, no?”

“Jack.” Now he was gazing over the tops of his glasses, as he might with a petulant child. “We’re close enough to the end that it really doesn’t matter anymore. We’ll never catch up to the winners—“

“Who are?” Jack demanded.

“Point totals,” Daniel called into the gold host device, and the current scores displayed in the air with glowing certainty.

The Goa’uld team was far in the lead, most of the others jumbled tightly in the middle, and SG-0 steadily losing points at rock bottom.

“We might as well help the Nebari what little we can.” Daniel was starting to shiver. “It’s the right thing to do. Maybe they’ll be amenable to helping us with whatever the prize is after the game’s over.”

With a sinking feeling, Jack knew his commander was right. “Under protest,” he said as he stood up. “And I think we shoulda kept that key. If we’d figured out how to use it, we might’ve been able to win.”

Chiana slipped on Jack’s coat, hugged it tightly around her, and beamed. “Absolutely!”

She dashed over to where Tzatzil had hit the wall and sent snow flying. Brushing off the powdery flakes, she revealed a small silver square with a hole in it… which neatly fit the skeleton key her brother gave her. The Nebari gathered together and as Chiana turned the key, a portal opened in the wall to the Jungle.

“Wait! Wait!” Daniel put out a hand to stop them.

All Nebari eyes turned to him.

“Do any of you have ‘Heal’?”

“No, why?” Chiana’s head cocked, side to side, her shoulders swaying a little in a way that reminded Jack of a snake about to strike. She gave Daniel a dirty little smile and a wink of clear invitation.

“Never mind,” O’Neill called to them, and forced a smile. “Good luck.”

The portal vanished behind them, and along with it, the lock and key.

“Okay, now what?” Jack snapped, glad to be rid of the pretty zombies. They creeped him out, and he was relieved they could get back to the game… if, indeed, there was any game left to play. “There’s no way we can make it back to the portal without our gear, Daniel. Are we supposed to just freeze to death here? Is that how we go out?”

Daniel smiled softly, but he seemed to be looking past Jack rather than at him. “No. We advance to the last game field. Turn around.”

The entire back wall of the cave had vanished, and in its place was a narrow pathway leading around the bend and out of sight at the base of a cliff. Stretching off in the distance was a majestic mountain, its peak dusted with snow. In the valley surrounding it, dense evergreens grew, and high in the mountain’s side, a tunnel had been carved. Scattered around that opening lay a picturesque little village filled with stone thatched-roof houses, a few small patches of garden, a large corral, and just above the village on a massive boulder perched a square timber watchtower.

“Ready, Jack?”

“Why the hell not? Game’s almost over. I’m gonna have a bath, eat till I puke, drink till I puke, pass out in my bed with the Furbys, and then go home and retire.”

Daniel’s eyebrows lifted in silent question.

“Because the Goa’uld are winning,” Jack declared dispiritedly. “Here, out there, everywhere. Their armies are bigger, their weapons are better… I’m just not sure we can win, Daniel, not ever. This fucking game showed me that.”

He could see the pain in Daniel’s eyes and knew his friend felt it, too.

“Blaze of glory?” asked Moon, glancing between the two men.

“Here we go,” Daniel announced, and strode through the open portal.

***

Gamescape: Mountain

The trail led to the village they’d seen from the ice cave.

It was warmer there, but still chilly. Wind cut through their uniforms and made them shiver. The scent of pines, firs and wood smoke filled the air. As they neared the outskirts, they heard a rhythmic clang of metal on metal and the sound of raised voices.

A blacksmith’s shop was one of the first they passed. Peering inside as they marched past, Jack saw all manner of armor and weaponry. Some of them, like a handful of automatic weapons, were obviously picked up somewhere and not made by the local smith. He made a mental note to see if they might be able to trade for some of that gear.

Right now, however, he wanted to get in out of the cold.

Snow was starting to fall, just a few flakes sizzling onto the bare ground. He glanced up at the overcast sky and knew more was on the way. Their breath made clouds in the air, and his hands ached inside his gloves.

A young woman with a spear jogged past them toward the center of the village.

Instinctively, they followed her.

A small crowd of people had gathered in the town square. Some wooden crates had been stacked together to create a makeshift platform. On top of it stood a middle aged woman, her arm in a sling, some of her hair singed away and a burn mark just above her left ear.

“The watch signal has sounded,” she cried, her words colored with a lilting Irish accent. “The troll army is on the move and will be here within the hour. Take the young to the tunnel and arm yourselves!”

“Here we go.” Jack looked to his commander for orders. He was thoroughly pissed off, spoiling for a good fight to work out his frustrations at yet another loss in this unending war.

Daniel raised his hand. “Excuse me! Can we help?”

The young woman with the spear whirled to face them, her face filled with rage. “And how would you help us?” she demanded. “Six times today the trolls have come! The first ones disarmed the trolls and sent them away—“

“That would be the Tollans,” Daniel guessed.

“The grey people drove the trolls away, but not for long. The blue ones…” She shook her head, a grim smile spreading. “They met with the troll king and negotiated more time, but after they were gone, the trolls came again.”

“Another group fought with us briefly,” the wounded elder added, “but they, too, left after the first skirmish. The ones who came after, though…” She bowed her head and wept.

The warrior woman took up the tale again. “Another group came. They met with the troll king, and when they left… his eyes glowed and his voice was like thunder.”

“The desert warriors drove them off and healed a few of our worst wounded,” said the leader. “But I fear the rest of us will die today.”

A young boy with a mop of dark, curly hair stepped up onto the box with her and hugged her. He was obviously terrified. She put her arm around his shoulders and held him close.

“Then we will die with you,” Daniel assured her.

Moon met Jack’s eyes with a look of silent determination. She nodded, and he felt it, too. This was their last challenge, and they could go home. “Let’s make it look good.”

Tzatzil’s eyes were wide with concern as she moved closer to Daniel, almost touching his elbow.

Jack grasped her shoulder, gave her a little squeeze. “Remember, this is just a game. Your job here is not to protect Daniel, not today. Follow your orders, no matter what. Understood?”

She nodded and unslung her bow. “Understood, O’Neill.”

Daniel turned to face her. “You’re going to go with the children to the tunnel. Guard them with your life. Throw up your Shield and keep them safe. Okay?”

“Yes, my Daniel.” There were tears in her eyes as she nodded. Then she handed him her bow and arrows.

He hugged her briefly and whispered his gratitude in her ear.

She jogged off with the other adults herding the children toward the rear of the village.

The little boy they’d seen with the leader took her hand and went with her, glancing over his shoulder at his mother as she ordered the villagers to their defensive posts.

“Moon, you’ll be at the front lines, where your Strength will be most important.”

The Colonel nodded and turned back the way they’d come.

“I’ll provide cover with the arrows,” he told Jack, “and when I’m out of those, I’ll use the swords.”

“What about me?”

Daniel huffed a raspy little laugh. “Use your Intuition, Jack. I have faith you’ll know where to be and when to be there.”

“Speaking of, there’s a blacksmith’s shop down the way. Pretty sure we could use some kind of armor, and there’s a few other pieces I had my eye on. Might do us some good.”

“Then let’s gear up.”

The trio turned and jogged to the armory.

While they ran, an idea began to form in Jack’s mind. He thought about the scores, how the Goa’uld had the highest point total and theirs was lowest. He remembered what happened in the jungle, where the challenge was to lighten their load, and wondered if maybe… just maybe…

There was no point in curiosity now. Their course was set, their objectives clear. They had to protect this village against the onslaught of an army.

The clang of the smith’s hammer on the anvil drew them right to the door.

A large man rippling with muscles eyed them with anger in his eyes. “What do you want?”

“To help your people,” Daniel answered immediately.

“What sort of currency do you folks use?” asked Jack. He grabbed Daniel’s arm and held it up. “Do you take points?”

The smith’s brows twitched together. “Arrow points? I make my own.”

“Daniel, show him how many points we have.”

“Jack, he doesn’t even know what they are,” Daniel argued in a whisper. “They may not know they’re in a game.”

“Just show him!” O’Neill rasped in a whispered shout.

As instructed, Daniel requested their point total on the gaming device armband.

Both of them were astonished to see a sack of gold coins appear in his hand.

“Uh… will this do?” Daniel asked. “I don’t even have a clue how much is in there.”

The villager didn’t seem to care. His eyes lit up as he hurried over to snatch the bag. “Help yourselves to whatever you want,” he told them, started packing a small satchel full of clothes, food and personal items, and then hurried out the door.

“Okaaaay.” Daniel eyed Jack. “Let’s outfit the whole team.”

Not all the bits and pieces fit. The chain mail was heavy. The armor plating was even heavier. Daniel explained some stuff about knights and armor in medieval days, but Jack wasn’t listening.  By the time they were outfitted, he had snagged every piece of automated weaponry and ammo, and Colonel Standing was headed for the door, armed to the teeth, the mace tucked in at her back for when she ran out of bullets.

And then the trolls arrived.

The ground shook beneath them.

The army was massive, scouring through the trees in the valley below, filling up the narrow path, pouring over the top of the cliff.

They were huge and ugly and tough-looking, like their skin was as thick as an elephant’s hide.

And true to the villagers’ tale, their leader’s eyes glowed with Goa’uld rage.

As soon as they were in range, Daniel’s arrows began to fall.

Jack saw the first few go right through the eyes of the leaders, who fell where they stood.

That brought a pause in the onslaught, and he heard the villagers rallying cry go up behind him.

But the pause was brief, and when the troll king ordered them forward, they leapt over the bodies of their fallen and came on with a battle cry of their own that shook rocks down from the cliff.

“Intuition,” Jack whispered, and the path lit up before him.

“Strength!” shouted Moon, hefting her mace. “Remember the Alamo!” She whooped and laid into the first one, sent him flying and circled around to the next, spinning like a top, untouchable.

For the fraction of an instant, Jack felt a surge of hope.

But then he saw the path ahead of him disappear.

He clenched his teeth, aimed his weapon and pulled the trigger, giving ground as the unstoppable army swarmed toward them.

***

Daniel couldn’t remember how long he’d been fighting. His face and body were slick with blood. The swords felt glued to his hands.

There was so much screaming and shouting he couldn’t tell if anyone were giving battle commands. The trolls had poured in so fast that he’d had to leave the archer’s perch and make his way deeper into the village. Now the mountain was coming up at his back and he could barely lift his arms. He was exhausted, terrified, hopeless.

They were all going to die here.

“Daniel!”

The call was faint, but he recognized his name on that familiar voice and turned.

There was only time for a glance before he had to step back into the fray, but he’d seen Tzatzil at the mouth of the tunnel, her image darkened behind the shade of her Shield.

If he could get there… if she could let him in, just for a few minutes, he could rest. Then he’d go back out again.

A massive club came down near his head and he managed to stumble out of the way. His legs burned. His shoulders ached. He couldn’t get a deep enough breath. Somewhere along the way he’d lost his glasses.

The armor was too heavy to let him run, so he unbuckled the shoulder pads and heaved them off over his head.

“This way!” called Jack from behind him.

He followed the voice instinctively, the long sword clenched between his teeth, the other tucked in at his waist as he struggled with the clasps.

Sheltering behind the corner of a stone hut, Daniel bent to unstrap the metal shin guards and left them behind as he sprinted toward his friend, barely visible inside the doorway of a building.

Running was easier now. He was lighter.

“Here!” called Jack, louder now.

Daniel leaped inside, crashing against the far wall, crumbling into an exhausted heap.

O’Neill shut the door behind him, dropping a bar into place to secure it. “I have an idea,” he panted. “Greek history. Sparta. The Hot Gates.”

“What?”

This was a hell of a time for Jack to become a history buff.

“’Member what you told me about that bunch of gay soldiers?” Jack helped his friend sit up. “We’re not givin’ up yet, Daniel! I’m not dying in front of you.”

“’Kay. But Sparta?”

“The Persians were coming,” Jack explained between breaths. “The Greeks wouldn’t give the Spartans an army to fight them, so they stood their ground at the Hot Gates and died defending their whole country.”

Daniel wilted. “Oh, Jack! We’ve already lost. We’ve done everything we can here. We’re gonna die.”

But the look in his friend’s dark eyes was intense, filled with hope such as Daniel had never seen.

“Yeah, but when word spread about their sacrifice, all of Greece answered the call and sent the Persians home with their tails tucked. C’mon, Daniel!” He pointed above Daniel’s head. “Call the fucking cavalry!”

It was hard to concentrate, he was so tired. The solution was right there, but not quite close enough for Daniel to grasp. Maybe it was Jack’s Intuition kicking in, but that was something only he could see.

“Come on! Get up! Gotta get you to the tunnel.” Jack hauled him to his feet and slipped under his arm, guiding him to the door. He peered out, waiting for the way to clear, and then stepped out onto the cobblestone street.

“Run, Daniel! Get to Zazz, and I’ll watch your back.” And then Jack was fighting again, poking at a huge troll with his spear.

He wasn’t even carrying the guns anymore, no doubt because the ammo was all spent.

So Daniel ran.

Something caught him on the left shoulder, spinning him around.

Twenty feet away, the troll king stood on the street over the body of Jack O’Neill, his eyes glowing with satisfaction and menace.

“Lay down your arms!” the creature called.

Show.” Tzatzil’s voice was rough with grief, but the command she gave was strong.

As far as Daniel could see, nothing happened at all.

***

Gamescape: Arctic

Narim peered at the symbols carved into the icy wall. “It is better to give than to receive,” he read easily.

“Give to whom?” asked Tugash, his second in command. “There is no one else here.”

“To each other, perhaps?” Narim puzzled over that.

But then the wall to his right disappeared. They could all hear the sounds of battle, the clash of metal on metal, the screams of the wounded, the roar of the mighty trolls conquering the people in the village. They had already seen all that up close and when they’d gone, the people had been safe.

“Who is there?” asked Makell, their healer. “Can you see which team is playing?”

The view moved from the village outskirts to the prone form of the dark-haired woman who had been with Jackson and O’Neill.

“SG-Zero, I believe they are now called,” answered Tugash stiffly.

Then they saw O’Neill beneath the foot of the troll king, and Jackson standing guard at the entrance of the tunnel where all the children were gathered behind the redheaded woman on their team.

“Oh, dear,” said Narim.

He turned back to the wall and stared at the glyphs.

***

Gamescape: Savannah

Tezcatlipoca surveyed the bodies of the savage beasts they had just exterminated. He’d had his men search for any dens nearby and ordered the young killed as well, just to ensure they’d snuffed out every life on the plains.

The air shimmered before him, revealing the view of the Tau’ri team facing their imminent defeat.

“Fools,” he spat.

And then he smiled.

This was the last challenge of the game, and he was going to win.

***

Gamescape: Forest

Tas’eem peered out from behind a tree, spying on the seirbhíseach as the aliens watched others of their team. No one had moved for some time.

“Well?” asked Freya. “What is the point of this challenge? They watch us; we watch them. There must be something more here that we are missing.”

Thellas frowned and crossed his arms. “Perhaps we should speak with them.”

Sina squinted at the creatures almost perfectly camouflaged among the trees. “I do not understand their importance in this game.”

Jalen shrugged. “It is the last challenge. What does it matter? The sun has almost set. We passed on the Village challenge. We cannot afford to pass on this one as well.”

Tas’eem sighed. “Very well. I will—“

But then the Mountain village scene hovered in the air between two trees, and they recognized the team in the fight.

“This is not how we played that portion of the game,” Freya reminded them. “The Tau’ri are going to die.”

Tas’eem nodded. “They are going to lose.”

Sina eyed their leader. “Must we watch?”

***

Gamescape: Jungle

“Oh, shit!” Chiana tore her gaze away from the stupid little creatures dropping the rocks and feathers, staring at the image of the Mountain battle with wide eyes.

Hubero ducked behind the trunk of a large tree. “It that not the people who helped us in the ice cave?”

“We had better weapons,” Nerri reminded them.

Atoll saw the woman whose coat he’d shared lying still on the ground, eyes slowly blinking. “The one called Moon appears to be nearly dead.”

“Yeah, that cranky old guy, too,” Chiana observed. “There’s just two of them fighting now.”

She couldn’t help feeling sad for them. A check of their point total showed the other team had nothing left. “I guess that’s it for them.” She shrugged. “That hot guy with the swords, though… Gotta say, feels like I’ve seen him somewhere before...”

***

Gamescape: Desert

The pleasure of the desert sun was intense. Tuzak struggled to remember why he was there, to think of what he was supposed to be doing.

“Hasko,” he called. “Bitaal. Tahleen. Awaken! We must resist the bliss of the photogasm. On your feet.”

He leaned against the rocky edifice, bowing his head. “There must be a way inside this formation,” he panted, struggling to gather his wits. “Something written. We are running out of time!”

The younger Delvians staggered to their feet, all dazed by the light pouring into their bodies.

And then the window appeared to the battle on the Mountain.

“We fought no battle,” Tahleen observed, putting a hand to her spinning head. “Was there a different way?”

“Perhaps they did not have the Telepathy charm, as you do,” Bitaal suggested.

“Is the humans’ challenge different from ours, or have we played the game incorrectly?” asked Hasko.

They watched in horror as the troll king struck down a much smaller man wielding a spear.

The one with the swords roared silently with grief.

Waves of despair passed through the window and gripped the Delvians at their core.

Tears appeared in Tuzak’s eyes.

As one, they closed their eyes and began to pray to their goddess.

***

Gamescape: Village

Rak’nor led the way down the cobbled street, eyeing the sun as the last sliver of it hovered above the horizon. This was their last challenge, and he had no idea what they were to do here. Signs of recent battle were obvious, but the villagers were dealing with the damage already. There appeared to be nothing for the Jaffa to do here.

“Kel’nak,” he called, “use your skills to Track where the other teams have been. We will follow their paths and see where they converge.” He turned to meet the eyes of Kol’na, and nodded for him to go with the tracker.

“Ma’kar, Hak’ahn, observe the villagers. Look for clues to this challenge. I will wait here for your reports. Hurry! We have little time.”

But then a window opened to another gamescape, and the Jaffa watched the dark-haired Tau’ri woman fighting the army of trolls, giving her companions time to retreat. They saw the other three herding the villagers before them, the red-haired female standing guard at the tunnel, so many small faces behind her.

“She has the Shield,” Kol’na breathed, “as do I.”

Rak’nor’s eyes misted. “It will not hold.”

“They are brave, these Tau’ri,” observed Ma’kar, his voice hushed with admiration. “It is no wonder Teal’c supports them.”

Hak’ahn fingered his staff weapon. “Why are their weapons so primitive?”

“And why are there so many more of the trolls than when we faced them?”

They watched in silence as the humans struggled and fell, one by one, until the last warrior stood facing the troll king.

They saw the creature’s eyes glow.

Rak’nor remembered what Teal’c had shown him in the hold of the ship, suffering under torture that had broken lesser men. He had heard the stories of Teal’c’s defection, how he had helped the Tau’ri kill so many false gods. Teal’c was his mentor, and it was only by luck of the draw that Rak’nor was here in his place.

“If we cannot help them,” he said to his companions, “then we will do the honor of watching their sacrifice.”

Kel’nak touched his captain’s shoulder. “But we must finish the game!” he insisted. “It is almost sundown.”

“We will honor these brave warriors,” Rak’nor corrected. “Be silent, and watch.”

***

Gamescape: Mountain

“Daniel!” Tzatzil cried. “I cannot hold the Shield! I have failed you again.”

He heard her weeping, felt the field protecting the children fall.

“It’s okay,” he promised her. “I’m proud of you.”

The troll king laughed. “Such weaklings! I will eat you all.” A glob of drool spilled over his lower lip and hung in a long chandelier from his chin. “After I feast on the tender young ones.”

“Not while I live!” Daniel cried, lowering his blades to his sides.

He seethed with hatred and grief, hopelessness and defeat turning his heart to chilly coals.

Jack’s brown eye opened. His hand moved. One finger pointed above Daniel’s head.

He remembered what Jack had told him about the Hot Gates.

And then he took a step toward the troll, raised his right hand and called out, “I Summon all who will come to help save these people!”

***

The Arena

General Waring stood up from his seat in the arena, his heart about to pound his ribs apart as he watched the giant figures of the players fighting for their lives.

“Yes!” he cried, jumping up and down. “Take me! Take me!”

All around him, the audience was roaring, cheers deafening. Humans and aliens alike stood side by side, rooting for the Tau’ri team. Hands, tentacles and other limbs waved in the air.

Waring had never witnessed such heroism, such courage in the face of certain defeat.

He’d never been more proud to be human.

“Take me!” he repeated, fist pumping in the air. “I’ll fight with them!”

Someone to his left – one of the Delvian dignitaries, he thought – vanished.

Waring’s eyes widened.

The entire Delvian team appeared beside Daniel, including the bald woman who had been sitting next to Waring in the stands.

And then the Tollan team appeared, the Nebari, the Tok’ra and the Ronin Jaffa.

One of the Goa’uld Jaffa joined in the fray, and then another.

“Take me!” Waring cried, punching the air. “Take me!”

He watched in awe as more of the audience vanished from the stands, popping up in various places on the battlefield, every single one bare-handed, taking up whatever weapon they found on the field or leaping headlong at the trolls with nothing but their courage in hand.

The General shook his head as the tide quickly turned, the trolls retreating from the sheer numbers of supporters for the Tau’ri team.

But the troll king stood his ground, one huge foot pinning Jack down at the shoulder, raising his huge mace for a swing at Daniel’s head.

“Take me,” Waring whispered.

In the next moment, he pushed Daniel on the shoulder, knocking him out of the way of the killing blow.

Waring’s glasses fell off his face, but he didn’t care. Grabbing the long katana out of Daniel’s nerveless fingers, the old soldier dropped into a half squat and thrust upward with all his might, sliding the point of the blade into a weak spot in the giant’s armor. A twist turned the blade into the troll’s innards, and a downward slice and pull very nearly cut the thing in half.

He dodged as the creature fell, turning to watch in horror as it toppled onto Daniel…

…who faded into a ghostly outline, and then disappeared into a bright flash of light.

“Oh, no,” Waring breathed, remembering the video footage he’d seen of the scientist ascending in the infirmary isolation room.

And then he found himself back in the stands.

He looked back into the arena and shouted with joy as he saw the trolls in full retreat. His arms spread wide. He shouted to no one in particular, “It is a good day!”

“Sir?” Dr. Charlie Eppes patted his arm. “Are you okay?”

Waring just stared at the village surrounded by picturesque scenery, watching as the people began to pick up after the battle. Each one of them became transparent, and then disappeared completely. The buildings, too, began to unravel. Tools, weapons, bodies, everything vanished, leaving only the pristine wilderness, untouched by war or blood.

This was the most intoxicating entertainment March Waring had ever seen.

“How the hell am I going to write up a mission report on that?”

Charlie grinned at him, snuggling little Niamh under his chin. “I know what you mean. Listen, is that job offer Daniel told me about still open?”

The General met the young man’s eyes with an enchanted smile. “Just so you know, Doctor Eppes, I’ve just decided joining the SGC was the best move I ever made in my career. Hands down.”

“Jack and Daniel said I’d want to be a part of it. They were right.” He studied the enormous amphitheater, the crowd of aliens and humans still in their seats, awaiting the final scores and announcement of the winners. “This...” He nodded. “…really is the most important work I could ever do.”

“Amen.”

***

The Beach

A long table was set with huge platters of food. Candles in hurricane lanterns provided illumination in the gloaming while a pleasant, salt-scented breeze blew in off the gentle waves. Wine goblets and place settings of gold awaited diners. Nearby, a small army of hóstach directed the teams into chairs.

Daniel glanced around for his teammates and found them scattered along the beach with all the other players. He dutifully stomped through the sand toward the table, hating that Tezcatlipoca had taken the chair at the head of the table. SG-Zed was all the way at the other end near the empty chair at the foot.

That grated on him. It was obvious that the teams had been seated in ranking order as they had finished the contest.

Jack started filling his plate and eating, obviously ravenous with hunger. Moon was hesitant at first, but hardly anyone else was waiting, so she joined in, too. Taztzil, seated at his left, looked to him for what to do.

Daniel just sat there, head down, staring at his empty plate and feeling the heat of tears needing to be shed. He refused to cry, refused to feel sorry for himself. His heart was breaking for the crushing loss, but he believed they had played true to themselves, and not just as some game strategy.

A line of hóstach waited on a gazebo tucked up under swaying giant fern trees further from the shore. The hosts each held what appeared to be wine bottles and stood in neat, military precise rows, still as stones, as if waiting for a summons to move.

From behind them, a man in green robes appeared. He was tall and stick-thin, boasting a thick mop of curly dark hair, antlers sprouting just above his ears and curving around the back of his head. He was a handsome young man, broad grin framed with a spiky van Dyk moustache, beard and soul patch.

“Greetings, players!” called Conall the bartender. “Congratulations on an excellent Game!” He spread his hands wide. “A toast to the winners!”

The hóstach marched to the table and began to fill every goblet. Once done, the hóstach took up a post behind each chair, ready to keep those glasses filled.

Conall sauntered to the chair at the foot of the table and plunked down into it. He lounged a little sideways and hung his left leg over the chair arm, the picture of nonchalance. Then he reached for his cup and held it high.

“To the winners!”

Everyone drank. Jack emptied his cup with a satisfied, “Ahhhhh!” and held it out for more. Daniel kept his upper lip pressed firmly to the inside rim of the cup and only pretended to swallow a tiny sip.

There was no way he could drink to the Goa’uld winning, not without throwing up immediately afterward.

He set his cup down.

“I demand my prize!” thundered Tezcatlipoca, standing up and pounding the table with his fist. “I am a god! I should not have to sup with mere mortals.”

Conall chuckled and made patting motions in the air. “Sit, my friend. Sit. The night has only begun, and my friends and I…” He gestured toward the hóstach. “… wish to enjoy the pleasure of your company. It is polite to respect our hospitality.”

He inclined his head toward the Goa’uld at the far end of the table. “And I am no mere mortal.” Conall’s eyes flashed, not white, but a brilliant green.

Daniel’s chin hit the floor. “What are you?” he whispered.

Frowning, Tezcatlipoca resumed his seat. He looked uncertain.

Conall didn’t answer.

Tzatzil giggled, but Daniel was so fascinated he couldn’t turn his head in her direction to see why she was so entertained by all this.

“My prize?” the Goa’uld insisted, but his voice was more deferential now.

The antlered man swung out of his chair and stood up. “Ah, yes. I suppose we must. But then I will insist that you and your team stay for the festivities.” Conall signaled the hóstach waiting in the gazebo.

Two of them went to the head of the table, each bearing a golden tray with a domed lid. They stood on either side of Tezcatlipoca’s chair.

“You’re actually getting two prizes,” Conall announced gaily. “You’ve received the highest score ever in our Games, so you’ve earned something extra. One is what you’ve always wanted: a device that will give you ultimate power.” He nodded at one of the hosts, who retreated to the gazebo to fetch the first prize.

Daniel felt sick. He turned away, hanging his head over the chair arm and sucking in a few deep breaths.

He heard a few half-smothered laughs.

Glancing at Jack he saw his friend hide his grin behind his goblet, but his eyes shifted to the other end of the table.

Look, Daniel, was the silent command.

He did. It took every ounce of self discipline he had to keep a straight face as he saw a familiar Tollan device being shown around the table. It was silver, sort of diamond-shaped, with a milky oval cabochon in the center, just like the one Skaara had worn on Tollana during the trial to determine who should have control over the host body.

Daniel glanced at Narim, whose pale eyes were glinting with humor and a bit of smug self-satisfaction over the rim of his goblet.

The hóstach placed the device against Tezcatlipoca’s chest and turned it on.

An instant later, the jewel turned red and then shifted to bright blue.

“Of course,” Conall mused, “the ultimate power I mentioned… that is for your host.”

The man stood up so fast his chair fell backward. His eyes were wide in amazement. He chattered in a strange tongue that Daniel guessed was the language of the ancient Aztecs.

Tezcatlipoca’s Jaffa stood up, a little panic stricken. They all eyed each other, unsure what was happening. Their movements were slow and spastic.

Daniel tried to understand what was being said, but that tongue was beyond him. No one had heard or spoken that language for thousands of years. It would have taken him some time learn to decipher it.

Body language and facial expression, however, conveyed much. The man was grateful to be free. His liberation was magic to him, a miracle.

Conall laughed. “Aye, Nacaxoc. You are welcome.” He gestured the man back into his chair. “That is a temporary gift. We’ll have an implant ready for you before you leave, to ensure no one will be able to wrest that power from you. Now, for the actual prize your team has won.”

Upon Nacaxoc’s order, the Jaffa resumed their seats, their suspicions melting away.

This was getting interesting. Daniel shot Jack a glance across the table to check his friend’s reaction.

O’Neill had his chin propped on his hand. His eyes were a little glassy. He looked tired, maybe a little out of it. He didn’t seem at all disturbed at their loss.

“Jack, is your Intuition on?” he whispered, leaning closer.

“’S’always on,” Jack slurred.

Daniel glanced at his cup, then up at their host with a frisson of alarm shivering up his spine.

“Your prize is the Wisdom of Foresight,” Conall intoned.

The second hóstach lifted the lid on its tray to reveal another smaller oval shaped jewel – this one flat and black, like a piece of polished obsidian. The host pressed the jewel against Tezcatlipoca’s forehead and watched in horrified fascination as it seemed to embed itself into his flesh and become part of him.

“There’s a bit of time manipulation in that little thingy, there,” Conall announced. “You can’t see far into the future, just enough to know the consequences of decisions you make. Like throwing a stone into the water, eh?”

Nacaxoc spoke again, looking long at each person seated around him at the table. He leaned back in his chair, dumbstruck for a moment, and then he began to laugh. He lifted his cup and drained it, held it out to the host, thanked them, and drained it again.

His Jaffa still seemed a bit confused.

When he spoke again, it was in the language of the Goa’uld.

“With this Prize, I can see the future of all Jaffa,” Nacaxoc announced to his team in a human voice. “I have seen a new way for our people. Learn the faces of all of those at this table. Remember them well.”

Nacaxoc stood and bowed to Conall. “I do not wish to be rude, but I have pressing business elsewhere. I thank you and will be forever in your debt.”

“First I’ll address your Jaffa, if I may, Nacaxoc.”

The host nodded, obviously curious.

Conall told them in the language of the Goa’uld that they would obey their god only when the jewel he wore was blue. They were to ignore him when it was red. He assured them that this was always how they had behaved with Tezcatlipoca.

Daniel saw that the Nebari and the Delvians didn’t seem to understand the language at all, and smiled softly. Pieces were now beginning to add up in an unexpected direction.

Jack and Moon were toasting together, apparently oblivious to the speech.

“Right, then. Off you go.” Conall waved his hand, and the Goa’uld party disappeared.

One by one, the other teams also requested and were given their leave, all but SG-Zed.

Jack was pretty drunk and would likely be spending the night on the beach unless someone brought a stretcher to move him.

Moon wasn’t far behind and had gotten up to dance with a hóstach.

Tzatzil rose in concert with Daniel.

He bent over to whisper in Conall’s ear, careful to avoid getting too close to an antler tine.

“Mind if we have a private chat?”

Conall grinned. “No one’s going to remember much of this tomorrow, anyway, but aye. Let’s walk along the beach.”

Tzatzil fell into step behind them.

The antlered man turned and spoke to her in her own tongue.

She bowed to him and returned to the table and the rest of the team.

“How’d you do that?” Daniel demanded, thoroughly impressed. “She won’t leave me in anyone’s hands but Jack’s, and that’s only because he watched my back for years before she came along.”

Conall beamed. His eyebrows danced with innuendo. He trudged forward in the sand, hands clasped behind his back, obviously not going to answer.

“She knows you,” Daniel guessed.

The alien held a finger over his lips. “Shhh. Don’t tell anyone. What did you want to talk about?”

“Just curious.” Daniel smiled a little. “You said your people – Cernunnos’ race, anyway, -- weren’t Goa’uld. Who are they? What do they look like? How do you… join together? I have a lot of questions.”

“They’re called the Mo’o.” Conall leaned close. He was playful in his gestures, as if he might be about to scamper off. Then he reached up and thumped one of the tines, eliciting the sound of a bell. “Not everyone sees these. I keep a close eye on those who do.”

“Because?”

“Bear with me, here.” Cernunnos/Conall eyed him. “How do you think the contest was scored, Daniel?”

“I’m not really sure now. When we got here, I thought it was the highest point total, but after seeing the prizes…” He shrugged. “I’m obviously missing something.”

“What was the theme of each of the contests?” Conall scratched a butt cheek idly, then clasped his hands again.

Daniel pondered. “We did Forest first—“

“Start at the beginning,” the being corrected.

“Oh! We had Niamh with us, and had to send her back. We lost a player.” Daniel sighed. “He would’ve been a good one, too.”

“You pared down,” Conall rephrased, “which earned you a boon with the people you’ve treated so well during your stay here.”

“Did all the teams get a stowaway?”

Conall nodded. “And all handled them differently.”

Daniel grabbed the sleeve of the alien’s robes and stepped in front of him. “Please tell me none of the seirbhíseach were hurt for real!”

Conall snorted and gave him a goofy look. “Of course not! D’ya think I’d let any of those adorable little furballs come to harm?”

“Well, you let them be enslaved,” Daniel scowled.

“Do I, now?” Conall’s eyes glittered with secrets and sly humor. “Or perhaps that was just another part of the game. Please continue.”

“Oh.” Daniel was gobsmacked, certain now that nothing in this place had been as straightforward as it had seemed.

The antlered man continued on the stroll and Daniel hurried to fall in on his other side.

“On the Savannah,” Daniel remembered, “we used Shield to get to the map.”

“And in doing so, how did you treat the creatures you met there?”

Daniel hung his head. “We killed them.”

All of them? The Goa’uld exterminated every single one, including the pups. They made great sport of it, at Tezcatlipoca’s behest.”

That was a little horrifying. “Uh, no. We only killed those that attacked us. Using the Shield kept us safe until we drove the pack off.” He glanced over at Tzatzil, seated at the table, head down on her crossed arms. She looked as exhausted as he felt.

“You spared lives where you could,” Conall summed up. “And in the Village?”

Daniel shrugged. “We helped people the Goa’uld had hurt. They gave us a key.”

“And what did you do with the key?”

“Gave it to the Nebari so they could get out of the ice cave. They were freezing.”

“A similar service that you also performed in the desert.” Conall was watching the sand roll underneath his booted feet. “The jungle… that was both the easiest and the hardest. The Goa’uld, Nebari and Tollans all passed on that level. The others… when they didn’t understand the symbolism, they found other items that would allow them to leave the challenge. Pity. It was the most important one.”

He stopped and faced Daniel. “Yours was the only team that got that one right.”

“And Mountain?

Conall laughed. There was wonder in his eyes. “That one. Aye.” He turned and led the way back to the table.

“That place was designed after my home village,” the antlered man confessed with a touch of pride. “What I remember of it, anyway. All the contests we’ve ever designed include what my people faced. In real life, they were destroyed. Me mum sent me through the tunnel and into hiding on the other side, but I saw what happened to my people. When I was watching your team, I—“

His voice caught. He wiped away a tear. “I can’t say I’ve ever been so moved, cara. That one was special, and your Prize will be as well.”

Daniel’s head came up, confusion pulling his brows together. “But the Prize has already been awarded. It was a pretty spectacular one, too, if I might add. No one’s ever going to be able to sneak up on Tezcatlipoca again.”

“Remember the Jungle, Daniel,” Conall said softly, pulling out his chair again. “What was the point of the feather and stone?”

“To lay down our burdens. To heal old wounds.” As they arrived back at the table, Daniel glanced at Jack, passed out in his chair. “Thank you for that, by the way.”

“To lighten your load, yes. To pare down.” Conall waved a hand and the point totals appeared in the air over the platters of food and the lanterns. “So which of the teams had the lightest load to carry?”

The light bulb went on over Daniel’s head as he stared at the numbers.

He grinned. And then he started to laugh. With bright, joyful eyes, he met Conall’s steady gaze. “We won? We won?”

The being nodded. “You left nothing on the field of play. You gave everything you had to those in need. You sacrificed even when it was dangerous for you to do so, and watched as every good deed you did further reduced your points… yet, you stayed the course and chose to lose in grand style in a game people will remember forever.” He smiled just a touch then, a twinkle in his eyes. “Except they won’t. Tomorrow, people will tell exciting stories about what they experienced, but the details will be muddled. There’ll be gaps no one can fill. No one will be able to recall exactly how the game was played, but the feelings will be with them forever.”

A little panic started to bubble up inside Daniel. He glanced at the cups and at his friends. “You spiked the wine?”

“Aye, but it’s a bit more involved than that,” Conall assured him. “You see, it’s important that no one ever remember exactly how the game is played. That keeps people from cheating, and from having repeat winners. Every game is different, for sure, but now you have the key. Can’t have you coming back next time with that, can I?” He winked. “That would be cheating.”

“Sorry, but in fifty years, I’ll be way too old to play.” Daniel huffed a little laugh and shook his head.

“Aye, but if you remembered, you could tell someone.” Conall snagged his goblet and held it out for a hóstach to refill. “You’ll remember the important things, Daniel. Do evil and add weight to the soul. Do good and lose your burdens. It’s in your nature. That’s why we gave you the charm to Heal. Which, by the way, you already knew how to do. We simply refreshed your memory a bit.”

Daniel shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Yeah, I was wondering about that. I’m not that kind of doctor.”

“No, but you’re a peacemaker. Bringing true peace… that takes a healer, someone who can see where the wounds are and treat your enemy with kindness to help them grow and become better. You can’t force peace on others, you know. If they aren’t ready to accept it, their inner conflict will simmer and boil underneath the surface until it spills over into the world. You have to put out the fire below that causes the problem in the first place, see things through until their proper end.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

Conall leaned close and whispered, “People tell bartenders everything! Och, the stories I’ve heard about you and your Tau’ri friends. I’ve been a fan for many years. We’ve just been waiting for you to randomly dial us to play this game with you.”

Daniel couldn’t quite believe that and told him so.

“Ah, but you can’t see the Big Picture, yet, cara. The Tau’ri are a very small part of an epic drama that has been playing for thousands of years. I’ve heard the stories – how you unlocked the Stargate and lost your wife, the people you’ve helped – especially those who could do nothing at all for you in return. The Tau’ri are finally becoming major players in the bigger game, and it’s time you learned there are others out here hoping you win. The game’s not always about how much you have. Sometimes it’s about how much you’re willing to give. That can be a really hard lesson for some to learn.”

“It wasn’t trolls,” Jack slurred. His eyes were barely open, but they were staring at Conall.

“What?” asked Daniel.

“Not trolls,” Jack repeated, shaking his head just a little. He gripped the chair arms as if he might fall out of his seat. “Goa’uld.”

All traces of Conall’s good humor vanished. “Aye, O’Neill. It was the Goa’uld who came to my village and killed my people. There were only a few of the children who survived, lost in the wilderness for many years. When I became an adult…” He stroked his right antler, no doubt to indicate that as a sign of maturity, “I went to Cernunnos’ cave looking for a way to destroy them… to find a fortune I could use to hire an army, build some kind of weapon, do something that would enable me get revenge for my people.”

“And found an ally instead,” Daniel guessed.

The being’s eyes flashed green again, but Conall’s voice didn’t change. “Turns out, my people weren’t suitable as hosts, which is why the Goa’uld killed them. What I learned came too late to help my people, but we have been working in the shadows for a long time now to change the game.”

“So is it the host or the symbiote we’re talking to now?” Daniel was intrigued.

“Both. We’re one mind, one soul, always in agreement. There’s no need for the switching device the Tollans gave us as part of their entry fee.” He sipped his wine. “And by the way, don’t be concerned about Nacaxoc. You’ll find he’s switched sides as well.”

With great effort, Jack sat up in his chair. He swayed a little. “Hhhh—“ He blinked and shook his head, obviously trying to clear it. “How’d the elf know you?”

Tzatzil lifted her head, resting her chin on her stacked fists. Pale green eyes rolled up to the antlered man’s face. “The last of this one’s people took refuge on my world many centuries ago. They helped us survive a terrible disease and… after a time… became part of us.” She sat up and stroked her left ear.

Conall did the same, reaching into his mass of dark curls to show the long, pointed tips.

“But our males no longer have the antlers,” she added with a trace of sadness. “It is good to see you with my own eyes, Ancestor.”

“Perhaps I’ll come and visit again. It’s been too long. How fare the forests, cara?”

She beamed. “They are thick and beautiful! We are very careful with our world, as you have taught us.”

“Right, then!” Conall stood up and clapped the table. “Now for the real Prize. I think you’ll all need to be sober for this.”

He snapped his fingers.

Jack blinked, shivered, sat up straight, obviously irritated. “What the hell just happened? I had a good buzz on!”

Daniel chuckled. “We’ll get back to that, I promise. It seems we’ve won the Prize after all.”

“What?” Jack’s whole face screwed up in disbelief. “But we lost! In a big way. The biggest!”

Moon fell into her chair with a laugh. “What’d I miss, guys? Y’all partyin’ without me?”

Jack gazed down his nose at her. “I would never!”

Daniel cleared his throat, nodding at their host to direct their attention there.

“Congratulations to the true winners!” Conall stated grandly. “The prize you each have earned are…” He drummed his fingers on the table for dramatic emphasis. “… exactly the same as the charms in the game, except you’ll carry them with you out into the worlds as your own!”

Blink.

Blink.

Blink.

Blink.

“What?” they all said in unison.

Conall met each incredulous gaze. “You’re all incredibly dense, aren’t ya.” He sighed. “Your bodies and brains have been reprogrammed in-game. The losers’ charms were turned off as soon as they arrived here. Yours, however, are still active.”

Daniel was horrified as he stared at his hands. “I don’t want it! Can we refuse?” He turned wild eyes at his teammates, hoping they would share his sense of panic.

Jack looked pensive. He shrugged. “Well, mine’s kinda something I already had, Daniel. Not that I’d ever admit that to anybody else. Ever.” He glanced at Moon and Tzatzil. “And neither should any of you.”

The ladies nodded.

Moon grinned. “Felt kinda good, being Superwoman.” She punched Jack lightly on the shoulder, barely enough to make him jiggle in his seat. “Could come in handy in the field, that’s for sure.” Then she eyed their host. “It doesn’t kick in unless I call for it, right?”

Conall nodded.

“You should read our reports on those upgrades Anise gave us to test out,” Jack suggested. “There’s probably a penalty for use, just like there was with those armband thingies. We got stupid when we used them.”

“Yeah, I kinda got that from the battle with the trolls,” Moon agreed. “Passed clean out at the worst possible moment.”

“I believe I have learned my limits as well,” said Tzatzil. “I think the use of the second one may have killed me in the game. I was already spent from using the Shield.”

Daniel stared at his hands. Even now that the players had been reset, his fingers still ached. His gifts, he suspected, would be the costliest of all to use.

In his mind’s eye, he could see the sick and dying queuing up to Cheyenne Mountain, coming in a never-ending stream to be cured.

His heart sank.

“I don’t want it,” he said again, fighting the tears welling up in his eyes.

“Might be really useful in the field, Daniel,” Jack prompted. He reached across the table, his fingers barely touching Daniel’s.

“We’re not first contact any more, Jack,” Daniel reminded his friend. “No one’s shooting at us now. We’re making friends and influencing people.” A tear fell anyway. “If I keep this, it won’t just be the people of Earth lining up to be healed at my hands. It’ll be every dying person on every world we visit. I know what it cost me to use in the game. If I keep doing it all the time… it’ll kill me.”

“Not if no one knows you have it,” Conall said softly, warm sympathy in his hazel eyes. “That’s part of the deal here, champions. No one will know you have these gifts but you, not even each other. Even if someone sees you using your Prize, they’ll forget about it afterward. Think of it as… signal jamming.” He smiled, but there was sadness in it. “That’s part of our security measures. Can’t have people knowing the losers of the game walked away with the grand prize, so it comes with its own built-in protection.”

Jack stared at him. “You can do that?”

“Can. Have. And can do so much more.” Conall winked. “You’ve already met several prize winners in your travels, and will no doubt find more out there. You see, I can’t make any big moves without attracting unwanted attention, so I make small, powerful moves here and there in a game the Goa’uld don’t even realize they’re playing.”

“And you don’t have a problem letting us primitive types play with your toys?” asked Moon, a little puzzled but obviously pleased. “All the other advanced races keep shutting us out.”

Conall peered at her with twinkling eyes. “This is why you’ve been tested, cara. Not all of your people can be trusted with such power, so only you can carry these. Wield them well, and they will serve you well. Be selfish, and the powers will wane.”

“How would you know, if we were on a planet light years away?” Jack sat back in his chair, considering.

“Because every leaf on every tree, every insect, bird and beast, every person who ever lived is all connected,” Conall explained patiently. “The universe shifts with every heart that stops beating, and I feel it.” His eyes misted and closed. “I feel it.”

Jack’s eyebrows crept up his forehead. “So… are you saying… you’re… God?”

The being laughed, loud and hard. “No, and I’ve no desire to be called one, thank you!” He lifted his cup. “So. To the true winners!”

Moon and Tzatzil hoisted their cups.

Jack eyed Daniel, who was still staring at his hands.

“Don’t forget Summon,” O’Neill reminded his friend. “That worked pretty good for us in the end.”

“And will again,” Conall promised. “And may I say what an awesome queen sacrifice you made in that play!” He patted O’Neill on the shoulder.

“’Scuse me?” Jack turned to the antlered one in surprise. “Queen sacrifice?”

“In terms of your wonderful game of chess,” Conall explained. “You lost your rook at the beginning, the moment you left the castle on your journey.” He pointed at Moon. “Bishop, with the Strength of her faith.” Then at Tzatzil. “Knight with her Shield.” At Jack. “Queen, the most powerful piece on the board, and, of course…” He gestured to Daniel with a nod of acknowledgment.

“King, who wins or loses the game,” Daniel finished.

“Ah.” Jack’s eyebrows lifted. “That kind of queen. I’m down with that.”

The ladies chuckled.

“Well, Daniel?” Conall and the others waited, goblets held high.

Daniel touched the base of his goblet, still filled with wine. He turned it in tiny increments, thinking, considering all the options. Finally, he picked it up and raised it with slow grace. “To checkmate.”

And then he drank the golden, bubbly liquid, remarking to himself that it was the best thing he’d ever tasted.

When he’d drained the glass, his brain swimming with endorphins and other intoxicants, he thought he saw the chest plates of all the hóstach begin to open. Seated inside were the diminutive seirbhíseach, stepping out of some kind of harness and leaping down onto the table to dance and eat and snuggle in their laps.

Tzatzil bent toward him and whispered in his ear. “Look at Conall.”

He did.

Then she added, “Show.”

The air behind Conall began to shimmer and Daniel saw – or hallucinated, he wasn’t quite sure – the long, sinuous shape of a dragon swimming through the air, its head extending right through the man’s skull. It was impossible, Daniel knew, for two separate masses to occupy the same space at the same time, so the creature had to be something on a different plane, something sciencey that he didn’t understand and was enjoying looking at far too much to care about at the moment.

He felt good, warm and happy for the first time in… well, ever.

***

Later That Night

The party moved from the beach to the pub with a wave of Conall’s hand.

Major Jarod Carter was waiting for them there, sitting at their usual booth with Aed’s family, a round of drinks already on the table.

They celebrated the game, regardless of who had won, retelling tales – none of which matched each other’s version – and toasting each other.

Drinks were on the house, and everyone took full advantage of that generosity.

Jack had a buzz to reignite, and there was still plenty of evening left.

For once, Daniel decided to let the regulations slide. These people had earned a party.

He looked across the table at their fifth player, who was much more subdued than the others. He’d missed out on all the fun, but had played a vital part in the game nonetheless.

“Jarod, let me buy you a drink,” Daniel suggested, nodding toward the bar.

He got up, and Tzatzil did, too.

“I’m just gonna be right over there,” he assured his bodyguard. “You’ll be able to see me just fine from here.”

Reluctantly, she sat back down. There was obvious hurt in her eyes.

“I’ll be just fine, I promise.”

“You always say that!” she chided gently. “Daniel, you do not always see danger you are not looking for. That does not mean it is not there.”

He struggled to be patient with her. “You’re right, but I won’t be far away, and I’m not helpless. Plus, Major Carter will be right there with me.” He clapped Jarod on the shoulder.

She nodded, but it was obvious that the agreement was made under protest.

The two men ambled toward the bar. Daniel heaved a sigh of relief as he took a seat on a stool, his back to the team… and Tzatzil.

“She’s still staring at me, isn’t she.” It wasn’t really a question. Daniel could feel her eyes boring into him. He sighed. “I wish alien races would stop giving me people as gifts! Not that I didn’t learn to love my wife, but…” He shrugged.

“I read the mission report where you saved her queen,” Jarod commented, glancing back at the redhead. “Your version was notably light on details. Colonel Standing’s, however…” He clucked his tongue and shook his head. “Very impressive fighting skills for an academic, Doctor Jackson. I was on the edge of my seat. Couldn’t put it down.”

“I prefer not to talk about it,” Daniel returned sourly. “I did what anyone would’ve done.”

“Maybe so, but you saved a life,” Jarod observed. “Not a lot of people have the opportunity to do that, and you’ve had an astounding number of saves in your years with the SGC, Daniel. I’ve read all of SG-1’s mission reports, and your current teams’ as well. You should be proud of what you’ve done. From the looks of it, you’re pretty embarrassed.”

Daniel nodded. “It is embarrassing. I don’t like being in the spotlight. I never know what to say.” Then his brow wrinkled as he thought about the sheer scale of the aforementioned task. “Wait, you’ve read all the mission reports? You’ve only been here a couple of months, and most of that time has been taken up with field training. That’s hundreds of documents, Jarod! When did you have the time?”

Carter shrugged, a winsome grin tweaking his mouth, dark eyes dancing. “I read fast and don’t sleep much.” Jarod held out his glass to the antlered bartender for a refill of the intriguing liquid that looked much like day-glow antifreeze. “But back to my original point: you have nothing to be embarrassed about, Daniel. You’re a hero. Why not accept that as part of who you are? You see a wrong being committed, and you want to make it right. You want to help people, to stop bad things from happening. That’s admirable, if you ask me, and it’s who you’ve always been. Definitely the same guy I knew in the Yucatan.”

He smiled fully and lifted his glass in tribute. “Though I must say, you’re quite the skilled warrior now, too.”

“I’ve had a lot of practice over the last eight years,” Daniel admitted shyly.

“And, I hear, a little help from some gargoyle ghosts, though I’m still not sure how all that worked.”

Daniel blushed, remembering how he’d accidentally been inhabited by the spirits of several Guardians who protected a city filled with another offshoot of human population about a year earlier. He’d spent a few weeks roaming the streets of Colorado Springs as a ninja, preventing crimes before they happened.

“There’s a lot about it I don’t understand myself. They could sense in great detail what was about to happen and led me to the location so I could stop it. When they left me, I lost that ability to sense crime in progress, but the martial skills… Song says it’s muscle memory that won’t go away.”

Jarod chuckled. “Then, here’s to the Man in Black. May he learn to be at peace with himself.”

Daniel raised his glass in salute. There was wisdom in his observation, and Daniel decided he’d work on that. He hadn’t been comfortable in his own skin since he’d returned from ascension, and it was high time to get started on that.

“So you’ve given me the Cliffs Notes version of your last ten years or so,” Daniel returned. “How about telling me what you’ve really been doing?”

The other man’s eyes shifted to the bartender, who had his back to them and was replacing empty bottles with full ones behind the bar. Then Jarod glanced around at the other patrons, and then finally back at Daniel. His expression was wary, a little frightened.

“Everything you know about me is a lie,” Jarod said simply. “I was a gifted child raised in a facility where I was forced to participate in research that… Let’s just say there were often military components that resulted in loss of life.”

For a moment, Daniel’s mental processes stopped. “What? They experimented on you? As a child?”

“I was a classified project, hidden away in a place called The Centre. There were others like me. My brother Kyle, my sister, Emily. We were special.”

“And your parents allowed this?” He was horrified.

Jarod shook his head. “I was kidnapped as an adolescent. I spent about thirty years in the Center before I escaped and went looking for them.”

“Thirty years.” Daniel pondered that, struggling to remain calm. He tried to imagine the tortured life this man described, and failed. Maybe he was mad… but then, they’d all been thoroughly checked and vetted before being allowed to go through the ‘gate. If this guy was telling the truth…

“You said you found your family?” Daniel needed time to think.

“Yes, after searching for several years. After I was taken, my parents went on the run to protect Kyle and Emily, but they found Kyle and took him, too. My family was still running, looking for me when I found them. We hid together for a little while, until I had a plan to bring The Centre down. It was hard to do, given how well protected it was by the government.” He smiled darkly. “But when you apply pressure in just the right places, loyalties will shift. I’ve been free for a few years, but it wasn’t until I stumbled upon Area 51 and the SGC that I finally found my true calling.”

Jarod studied his drink, swirling the colorful liquid around in a circle. “Right now you’re thinking about the security risks, whether or not I’m crazy, whether I’m a threat. As commander, you should turn me in immediately. By the book, it’s exactly what you should do.”

“But?”

The Major sighed. “I’m probably one of the smartest people you’ll ever know. I understand what we’re up against out here, and I can provide you with options and opportunities you’d never get anywhere else, Daniel. I understand your character well enough to know you’ll bend the rules a little if it’s the right thing to do. The right thing for Earth. I’m offering you this now.”

Daniel’s heart went out to his friend. He patted the man’s forearm. “Thank you for sharing with me. I know it had to be a difficult decision.”

“I wanted to tell you this now, because I’m not going back to Earth with the team.” He grinned. “In fact, you won’t even remember I came here until sometime after you get back.”

That moment of sympathy vanished. He felt a frisson of alarm.

“When you get home, you’ll do some digging and realize there is no Major Jarod Carter.”

Pieces clicked. “You mean, you’re not really a Major in the Marines?” Daniel felt an uncomfortable rush of anxiety in his belly.

“My name’s not even Carter. I just picked that one because of the guy who discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb.”

“Oh, dear.” Daniel pondered the liquid in his glass, imagining the repercussions of this conversation.

He eyed his friend. “What are you going to do?”

“First,” the other man said, “I want you to know what I can do.” Jarod rattled off a list of classified military research projects he’d performed for The Centre. Then he added a list of professions he’d worked after his escape including surgeon, lawyer, anatomy professor, even a Special Forces soldier.

When they’d worked together on the Mexican dig, he’d been a skilled, knowledgeable archaeologist with incredible insight.

Daniel would’ve been able to tell if the man hadn’t known his business. Jarod had been quiet, observant, keeping to himself at first. Daniel always made special effort to connect with the disconnected, the people others avoided or thought were weird, and Jarod had definitely been that. There had been something almost child-like about him, so much about relationships and social interactions – even pop culture – that Jarod hadn’t understood… and now Daniel knew why.

This man’s genius had made him a pawn. He’d spent the majority of his life a prisoner, a slave, and a large part of that had been at the military’s behest.

 “Adaptation, blending in, solving puzzles… That’s what I do, Daniel. And I can do more out here than if I go back to Earth with you. They’ll put me in jail.” He shook his head, defiance gleaming in his eyes. “I grew up there. I’m gonna stay free and fight my way, where I can do the most good.”

He put a hand on Daniel’s forearm and gazed earnestly into his eyes. “I have a plan to free every race from Goa’uld rule and resolve the threat of the Replicators, Daniel. It’s already in motion. All I need is time and the freedom to see it through. If you’ll wait to report me until you go back to the base, everything will be all right.”

They owed this man the latitude to apply his considerable gifts to saving humanity, but Daniel had a responsibility as team commander.

“I wish I could wait,” Daniel returned with genuine sorrow, “but I can’t. I’m sorry. I realize now that I don’t know you at all, Jarod, but I like to think I’m a pretty good judge of character. If it were up to me, I’d give you my blessing and tell you to get out there and do good things for us, but that’s not how it works in the real world. Sorry, my friend.”

Jarod’s smile was filled with resignation. “All right, then. Had to ask. One more drink, for old times’ sake.”

***

March 9, 2005

The Next Morning

Daniel awakened to the sound of retching in the bathroom.

“You okay in there, Jack?” he called. The sound of his own voice made his head feel like it was about to explode.

“Oh…” Jack sounded a bit winded. “Peachy.”

A moment later, the other man scuffed slowly to the bedside. “That was some party last night,” he observed, and carefully slipped back under the covers.

“I can’t remember it.” Daniel frowned into his pillow, struggling to recall anything. “Wait. There was dancing. I think you kissed Moon.”

“I did not! I mean… she is hot and all, but… she’s my CO, for cryin’ out loud! And she’s a Marine! Ewww!”

“There was a kiss, though.” Daniel rubbed his forehead, trying to think through all the cobwebs. “Maybe it was Moon and Sazz – Sos… I can’t say her name. My tongue feels like it’s got fur on it.” He coughed a little. “I hope I didn’t lick one of the Furlings.”

“D’you mean Furbys?” Jack sighed.

Daniel rubbed his face. “Can we just stay in bed today? We’ll go home late this afternoon.”

“Nope. Having lunch with Waring before we head back to the base.”

“Waring’s here? When did he—“

There was a distinct smile in Jack’s voice. “Came to watch the game yesterday morning. Bought us drinks last night at the Stag Pub. Boy, you must’ve drunk away half the day!”

Daniel forced himself to roll over as slowly as possible so he could regard the man on the pillow next to his. “Was I at the pub?”

Jack chuckled. “Dancing on the tabletop, Daniel. You put on quite a show when you let your hair down. The ladies loved it. Check your shorts. Might even have some cash in there this morning.”

Eyes squeezed tightly shut, Daniel whispered repeatedly, “Please tell me I didn’t take my clothes off! Please tell me I didn’t take my clothes off…”

“It’s not going in the mission report, I promise. “We all agreed last night. Provided anyone else even remembers last night.”

Daniel sat up, head pounding, stomach roiling, every muscle in his body aching. His hands were so stiff and sore he could hardly close his fingers to pick up his glasses.

Today was going to be hard.

“Look,” Jack said softly, “I’m gonna stay in bed a little longer. We got a couple hours yet and my head still needs to shrink a couple sizes before I can walk upright. Okay?” He cracked one brown eye open to look at his friend.

Peering into the waistband of his underwear, there was indeed a stash of various kinds of paper currency, of which only a small percentage was Earthly. “Ohgodohgodohgod I’m never gonna live this down,” Daniel moaned, cradling his head in his hands.

“Wake me in an hour.” Jack chuckled. Moments later, his breathing announced he was fast asleep.

It took a few tries for Daniel to haul himself out of the bed. Everything hurt, even his hair and teeth. He put one aching hand to his pounding head and whispered, “Worst. Hangover. Ever.”

He padded into the bathroom for a pee, struggling to remember the after-party at the pub. All he could recall clearly was the first part of the players’ gathering on the beach, and his crushing disappointment after the team’s abysmal failure. Everything else was a blur. He had no memory of returning to the arena, much less of hitting their favorite neighborhood bar.

Daniel washed his hands, brushed his teeth, drank some water and began to feel better.

For a while, he just looked out the window, watching the gambler’s paradise call for players, entice with games and whispered promises of fortune and pleasure. It was a seductive place, but not one he thought he’d ever want to see again. Getting over what had happened here was going to take him some time.

Because of him, the Goa’uld had a new weapon. The foresight device would make Tezcatlipoca nearly impossible to defeat. Daniel could envision its use to help the Aztec god rise to power among his own kind as well.

If only the Tau’ri had won, he mused sadly.

That device would’ve made a great piece of tech to help defend the Earth.

But then, he asked himself, who would’ve worn it? He certainly wouldn’t have – aliens had done quite enough to his brain over the past eight years – and he couldn’t imagine Jack or Moon taking it, either. And Tzatzil was invested in him, not in the salvation of human kind at large.

Maybe it was best that they hadn’t won the game, after all.

He’d been quite hard on the Tuathan woman, he realized. She hadn’t been a gift to him to do with as he chose. She had been assigned to protect him. She wasn’t his property or his employee. She was his teammate, and he needed to start treating her like one.

When they got back to Earth and his brain started to function again, he’d have a talk with her about duties and responsibilities. She needed something to do other than stare at him. Teal’c had been through a similar period of adjustment when he’d first come to Earth. There were a lot of jobs she could do on the base, and if he worked at it hard enough, there might even be a way she could see and enjoy Earth off base, just as Teal’c had done.

He glanced back at Jack, so peaceful in his sleep. The other man had seemed to take a shine to Tzatzil. Maybe he’d be willing to help Daniel help the alien assimilate into their world.

“Of course he will,” Daniel chided himself in a whisper. Tzatzil was a warrior. She and Jack understood each other.

He sighed, wishing yet again that they’d won the contest.

It would’ve made everything so much easier.

***

Their baggage was checked and waiting at the hotel office. Daniel stepped out into the street with his head down, just glancing up at Waring long enough to make eye contact and offer a brief, plastic smile of greeting. If he’d brought any sunglasses with him, he’d have been wearing them even though no sun shone. The pounding in his head was incessant.

He glanced at Jack, who seemed to be showing no signs of a hangover, aside from a little paleness in his complexion.

General Waring was waiting outside, staring around him at the colorful, animated signs. “It was a valiant effort, Doctor,” he intoned, giving Daniel a pat on the shoulder. “And one hell of a game! Wish we’d had it on video.”

“Yeah, too bad they don’t allow recording devices,” Daniel returned, secretly pleased the disaster wasn’t on film for posterity. “Guess they think of that as cheating.”

The team queued up in the line, with Daniel at the rear. “I’m just. Gonna. Go…” He pointed to their usual table, took note of Jack’s nod, and left the line with Tzatzil watching him.

She started to come with him, but Jack gently turned her back toward the ordering system.

Daniel scowled at the floor all the way to their regular tables, which he pushed together into their usual formation. He had a seat, wondering if he’d packed everything for the trip home.

And there was still the matter of what to do with Aed’s little family. There was no way they could take them back to Earth, unless it was just to send them off to another world somewhere else. Plus, there was the issue of slavery here. That would need to be addressed with some regular diplomatic discussions.

He put his head down on his forearms.

So much to do. The weight of it was crushing him.

“May I sit?”

Daniel glanced up at Narim, then at the line where his teammates were still waiting on their food.

“Uh. Sure.”

The Tollan sat down across from him with a smile. “During our visit here, we managed to obtain the location of a new home world for what remains of my people.”

“Our door was always open, Narim. All you had to do was ask. We didn’t even know any of you had survived the Goa’uld attack.”

“Thanks to the Nox receiving our distress signal, yes. They revived as many as they could. Only a few hundred of us remain.” Narim gave him a paternal look. “But Daniel, you must know your people would have demanded our technology in return, if we had asked to live among you.”

“Not if they didn’t know you were there.” He was so tired of their superiority. “Maybe Earth societies are backward in a lot of ways, but if your people had been willing to lay that technical superiority aside and live more simply, you might have been pleasantly surprised at what my world could offer.”

Shock skittered across the man’s face. “You would have done such a thing? Defied your own government?”

Daniel sighed and shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time we tossed out the rule book.”

He wished he had a cup of coffee right then, but didn’t think his stomach could handle it. He offered a polite smile. “Anyway, I’m glad you have a home now. Before you leave, let us give you a new IDC so you can contact us if you need help in your new place.”

“Thank you, Daniel. That’s very generous.”

Little Niamh climbed up into his lap with a banana.

Daniel dutifully showed her how to peel it to get to the fragrant white goodness inside.

She spat the fruit out on the table and took a bite of the peel instead.

He raised his eyes to Narim and saw the look of pleasure on the Tollan’s face as he studied the interaction.

Then the light bulb went on over his head. “Hey, maybe your people could take Aed and his family with you! We kind of freed them from slavery, but they’d never be able to leave the base if we took them home with us. That would just be trading one kind of captivity for another.”

He handed the seirbhíseach child over the table to the other man.

Narim was instantly enchanted. “I believe that might be arranged.” He cuddled the soft creature close, stroking her fur. “Thank you, Narim. It’s been great seeing you again.”

The Tollan’s eyes twinkled with a multitude of secrets. “Perhaps there are a few things my people might learn from yours, after all, Daniel Jackson. You are a kind, generous people at heart.”

Narim rose and nodded at Jack, who had appeared with his tray. “Colonel O’Neill.”

“It’s Major now,” Jack ground out, an edge of anger in his voice that showed nowhere else.

“Ah. Yes. My apologies. Please give my fond regards to… Samantha Carter, when you see her again.” Narim went to the chow line and squatted down to speak with Aed and Clodagh, standing beside Moon at the end of the queue.

Daniel got a whiff of Jack’s food and hastily beat a retreat to the far end of the table. “Oh, God, Jack, what is that?”

“Boudin and Virgin Mary. Best hangover cure ever!” O’Neill announced.

“You should try it,” the General agreed, sliding an identical tray next to Jack’s. “I had it sent over last night just for this special occasion.”

“Get any closer, and I’ll barf!” Daniel promised, waving his CO away.

He watched as Narim pointed at him, and the two Furby parents both turned to meet his eyes.

He smiled and nodded, assuring them that the Tollan spoke on his behalf.

And then Aed took Narim’s free hand and his mate’s with the other, and they all left the diner together.

“Good,” Daniel whispered to no one in particular. “Good.”

***

Jack brought up the rear as their party waited for transport back to the arrival center. Waring, Moon, Charlie and the twins had already taken the first anti-gravity car, and would meet them there.

Daniel busied himself in a souvenir shop, where the street could easily be seen through the front window.

Tzatzil was at his elbow, as always, far too close for comfort.

Jack had to say something before Daniel exploded. O’Neill could see the man fidgeting, the internal struggle clear on his face. Plus, he was obviously still suffering from the hangover, which made his patience even thinner.

Jack knew him well enough to predict what would be happening next.

“Zazz, a word?” He gestured a few feet away to the open doorway, just far enough away that Daniel couldn’t hear them if they kept their voices down.

She looked a little panic stricken at the distance.

“Just take a minute, I swear.”

Reluctantly, she moved away, then turned where she could see Daniel.

Jack put his back to the shop interior. “Look, I know you mean well,” he began softly. “You’ve got a job to do. But if you don’t cut Daniel some slack, he’s gonna slip the leash and you won’t be able to find him.”

That pearl of wisdom brought her pale blue-green eyes right to his. “I do not know what you mean, O’Neill.”

“You can’t stare at him all the time,” Jack explained patiently. “Give him space. Americans feel threatened if people stand too close.” He put his hands on her shoulders, moved her back and then stepped away. “This is comfortable for us. More is better, if you can do that.”

She was obviously stunned by the idea. “My people find comfort in closeness. It is how we survive difficult times.”

Jack nodded, thinking about times when that kind of intimacy was appropriate. “Yes… well… we do, too, but it’s not an ‘all the time’ thing. Closeness is something you have to wait for a person to allow, and as far as I’ve seen, he hasn’t done that with you yet.”

Her eyes were sad. “You can teach me this?”

“Absolutely. We’ll all work on it together,” he promised. “And if you respect his personal space, he’ll be a lot nicer, too. Not just to you.” He sighed. “He can do cranky, let me tell ya.”

Tzatzil nodded. “I have seen this.” She looked past his shoulder at the spot where Daniel had been.

And then she was pushing past Jack, real terror in her wide eyes.

O’Neill turned with her.

Daniel was gone.

***

They pushed past the hóstach and out the back door just in time to see a small delivery cart making a vertical take-off from the alley behind the store.

A clearly unconscious Daniel Jackson lay sprawled across the back of the cart. In the front seat, one of the Ronin Jaffa glanced over his shoulder as he piloted the craft above the building. In an instant, he was out of sight.

Tzatzil screamed.

Jack dashed back inside and grasped the hóstach by its bony exoskeletal arm. “Our friend’s just been kidnapped! Call the cops!”

The hóstachs four-eyed head canted. “The authorities have already been notified. Your friend will be returned to you shortly.” It gestured toward the front door. “Please wait for him outside.”

Tzatzil stumbled back inside the shop, obviously in shock.

O’Neill grabbed her and gave her a little shake. “Attention, soldier!” he shouted at her. “They’re bringing him back. We’ve got to make sure they hold this guy for the authorities. Come on!”

Out in the street, they watched the craft return to the main street and settle down gently. The device powered down on its own.

The pilot recognized his defeat and sat quietly, hands up in the air.

Tzatzil ran to Daniel. “He is breathing!” She beamed with relief. “It seems he is only unconscious.”

Jack grabbed the Jaffa by the shoulder pad of his uniform and hauled him out of the cart. “Did you drug him?” he demanded.

“It will wear off in a few hours,” the alien confessed, nodding. “No harm was done to him, I swear! He is only sleeping.”

Kel’nak’s eyes pleaded for mercy. “There is a bounty on that one,” he said softly. “I had hoped to use the money to help my family escape…” He bowed his head, weeping softly.

Jack didn’t let go of the man, but felt his heart softening. He could understand a motivation like that. “Where were you taking him?”

“To the House of Rati,” the Jaffa answered. “The alignment of the chappa’ai is just inside my robe.” With trembling fingers, he pointed to a spot on his chest.

Jack fished around inside, not trusting that the man was unarmed. He found a scrap of dirty brown cloth with a six-glyph Stargate address embroidered in black.

“Tell me about this bounty. How much? Who wants him?”

Another vehicle hovered above them, then moved further down the street to land. A handful of hóstach disembarked and came toward them.

“It was first offered by Hathor,” the Jaffa confessed, “for any Daniel Jackson that may be found. Now it is paid by Rati.” His gaze shifted to the oncoming aliens, and he began to shake. “My family will die if I do not return with him. They are prisoners. I beg you! Have mercy!”

Kel’nak dropped to one knee, weeping.

Jack eyed what he suspected were the hóstach police. He had no idea what these people might do to criminals. Cheaters at the game were simply booted off the planet, but aggression against other players might rate a much more severe penalty.

Maybe if the guy got away, he’d still find a way to save his family. He certainly couldn’t do it from a jail cell. Jack tucked the scrap of cloth into his jacket pocket and patted the Jaffa on the shoulder, then forced a grin at the hostach cops. “It was all just a misunderstanding,” he told them. “This guy was just giving our friend a lift to the arrival center. No harm done.”

One of the aliens stepped forward, obviously the one in charge. “A kidnapping was reported by one of our citizens. The assailant drugged your companion and took him out the rear door.”

“Nah, Daniel’s still just feeling the effects of the party last night.” Jack smiled as he lied. He had a lot of practice with lying; was good at it. The Blarney Stone ran in his veins. “He’s just under the weather, couldn’t even eat breakfast. We’ll take him home, let our doc poke him a little. He likes that. Has a favorite bed in the infirmary. Just let that Jaffa guy go, okay?” He studied Kel’nak, obviously wracked with guilt and grief. “He’s just havin’ a bad day, is all.”

“You are certain?” asked the host.

“Yep. Can you guys check on that car that was supposed to be here a while ago? I think we’re gonna need it to get Daniel home. Maybe a stretcher.” He smiled.

Minutes later, they poured Daniel into a car and watched the alien Vegas flash and glow beneath them as they headed home at last.

Tzatzil was quiet as the city rolled beneath them. “What did the Jaffa mean, O’Neill?”

“Hmmm?” He pretended ignorance, delaying while he scrambled for some kind of answer to give her, but he thought he already knew. If he were right, then another mission for a first contact team would be scheduled as soon as he could get it organized.

“He said there was a reward for ‘any’ Daniel Jackson. Is there more than one?” Tzatzil cradled the unconscious man’s head against his shoulder. She looked worried.

“One thing I’ve learned on my travels,” he told her quietly, looking out at the stars, “is that, out here… anything is possible.”

***

The Stag Pub

Jarod sipped his ice water thoughtfully. In his peripheral vision, he watched the antlered bartender serve a customer and send her on her way. “You’re sure my team won’t remember me?”

Conall wiped down the bar with a spotless white towel, moving closer so he could speak quietly. “Someone will eventually ask, when they return home without you. There’ll be an investigation, and they’ll realize their memories have been tampered with. They’ll send someone back here to inquire…” He picked up a small red notebook on the bar and placed it among the liquor bottles against the back wall. “Then the next bartender will be instructed to give them your notebook with all the clues you left behind for them.”

Next bartender?” Jarod sat up straight, meeting the ancient being’s hazel eyes. “Not you?”

“Nah.” Conall grinned like the rogue he was. “I’ve had enough of people for a while. This place runs itself, you know? I just come by occasionally for the big events, like this one.”

He threw the towel over his shoulder and propped his hands on the shiny, clean bar. “I’ll be long gone, back to the forest where I can breathe again.”

“I thought you liked people.”

Conall nodded. “I do, but in small doses. Too much of ‘em makes me frantic. I prefer my woodland friends. Less noise in their skulls, y’know.” He tapped his temple with one finger.

He picked up one of the seirbhíseach, who had come around behind the bar and tugged on the hem of his robe for attention. “Niamh, you scamp, where are your parents?”

The little one pointed toward the door, drawing both men’s attention there.

Narim stood there with his Tollan friends, waving goodbye.

Aed and Clodagh were making their way across the bar toward their daughter.

“Thank you, cara Tollans,” Conall called to them. “Safe travels. Be welcome here any time.”

“And cara means…?” Jarod took another sip of his water.

“Friend.” Conall poured two fingers of the Redbreast 21 Single Pot Still Whisky into three glasses. He pushed one of them in front of Jarod, signaled for Aed to take the second to another patron and kept the third for himself.

Jarod watched the little servant hurry over to the table where the Gamekeeper sat with a handful of Jaffa in gaudy Aztec-inspired clothing.

The man in the big hat smiled as he received the drink and lifted it in salute to the two at the bar.

“That was a nice thing you did,” Conall observed to Jarod privately. “You befriended a lonely, broken man. You gave him hope. More importantly, you gave him purpose.” He took a sip of the whisky and closed his eyes as it burned its way down his throat. He coughed and grinned. “Watching flowers bloom, cara. It’s my very favorite thing.”

He clinked his glass with Jarod’s and then downed it all in one smooth swallow. “That’s a good drop. Think I’ll take it with me.” He picked up the bottle and gestured Aed and Clodagh to his side.

Tezcatlipoca marched into the bar with the remainder of his Jaffa. He was smiling, the jewel on his chest shining bright blue.

Jarod slid off his stool. “There’s my ride,” he told the antlered man. Then he swallowed the whisky and stepped away to join the Goa’uld party.

Conall shook a finger at them. “Don’t you ring up inside my bar! You’ll take the roof clean off! Outside wi’ the lot o’ ye!”

Jarod paused at the doorway to look back and wave.

“I’ll be watching your moves, friend Rook,” the antlered man called, a soft smile lighting his face. “I have the feeling they will be mighty.”

A hóstach had already appeared to take an order at the bar.

Conall and the little seirbhíseach family gathered together and, in a shower of beautiful faerie sparks, disappeared.

***

On to the Next Story: The Lion’s Den