Originally published in The Seventh Chevron 6, 2003

 

Ninjas

 

Jack OíNeill looked as if someone had just told him he had six hours to live, and his little dog, too, and oh, by the way, when he went, he would take the entire world with him. OíNeill probably had no dog; he was offworld too often to own a high-maintenance pet, even assuming he was the type of man who fell for cute, cuddly little animals. But the desperate man who gazed helplessly out of the expressionless face was in pain, the kind of pain that wouldnít go away. Wherever the center of his being should have been, it had taken up residence in his throat or his gut or some such place a manís chi had no business being. At the sight of him, Max Keller shifted uncomfortably and shot a querying glance at McAllister, who frowned at him slightly to keep him from remarking on it. Max reined in his curiosity. There would be time for that once they found out why the two of them had been summoned so unexpectedly to Cheyenne Mountain.

The entire mood of the SGC was strange. More solemn than before, maybe filled with tension or gloom. John Peter McAllister had kept pace with the airman who led him and Max Keller to the briefing room, but he exchanged a doubtful glance with Max as they walked. The younger man lifted an eyebrow in response. He must have sensed it, too.

"The briefing room," the airman announced and waved them inside. They had been here before, on two separate occasions, but today, the room was deserted. "General Hammond has been notified of your arrival. He will be with you in several minutes."

"Thank you, son." Since he was long-retired and out of uniform, McAllister didnít respond militarily. He led the way into the briefing room, noting that the shield had been put in place to block the view of the Stargate. Even though he and Max had some clearance following their two previous encounters with the Stargate project, there was no reason to assume they had been summoned to the secret base deep in Cheyenne Mountain to travel through the stable wormhole another time. McAllister still remembered with considerable awe the one trip heíd taken in the company of the projectís premier team, SG-1, through the Ďgate to an entirely different world, when his old friend Sato, actually a Tokíra called Saítac, had requested his assistance out there. That had been eighteen months ago, and since that time he had had no contact with anyone at the base other than a Christmas card from SG-1 last winter, signed by all four members of the team. Even though he and Max lived in Colorado Springs, SG-1 was offworld as often as they were on it. Max had seen OíNeill once in the grocery store and they exchanged pleasantries, but that was that.

There was a movement at the doorway, and instead of General Hammond, Jack OíNeill came in. Colonel OíNeill was generally pretty casual for an officer, at least when he wasnít on a mission, but there was nothing casual in his posture today. McAllister felt a stiffening inside at the sight of OíNeillís hollow eyes. He looked as if he had lost his last friend and was violently determined not to let it matter. McAllister could not repress a shiver at the sight. Heíd seen a lot of unhappy men in his seventy-seven years, but OíNeill had to rank as one of the most miserable.

The dour colonel was followed by Sam Carter, and her eyes were shadowed, too. Tealíc, as usual, presented a stoic face, but McAllister saw that he, too, was affected by whatever bothered his teammates. Perhaps his kel-no-reem meditation had been unable to provide the comfort he needed. At McAllisterís side, Max uneasily shifted one step closer to his mentor.

The fourth person to enter the room was a stranger. He wore short-but-not-quite-military hair, fatigues with no rank insignia, and an affable smile, and at the sight of McAllister and Max, he rushed to shake hands with them.

"Jonas Quinn," he introduced himself. "Colonel McAllister, I have read every report about your prior interaction with the SGC. The first occidental American to become a ninja! The one who found a Tokíra living on Earth! This is an honor."

He must have clearance to have accessed the records on McAllisterís contact with the SGC, but something about him set off alarms in the Master. Jackís chi was a mess; this man scarcely seemed to possess any. He was adrift without a center, and he evidently compensated by overwhelming people. A hasty assessment, one that would probably mutate as McAllister learned more about him. Was he a civilian like Daniel? Where was Daniel? McAllister began to have a very bad feeling. He was reluctant to take it to its logical conclusion. Bad news might wait, but it would come eventually. McAllister added up the presence of Quinn, the absence of Daniel, and the despair in OíNeillís eyes, and reached a deduction he hoped to hell was miles off base.

"Mister Quinn," he said. "My associate, Max Keller."

Quinn pumped Maxís hand so vigorously that when he freed it, Max examined it carefully to make certain he still had all his fingers. While he was doing that, McAllister went over to OíNeill and held out his hand. "Colonel?"

"Colonel," Jack replied as if he might enjoy playing the rank gameóat least it would serve as a distraction. "The General will be here in a minute. He got held up with a phone call from the President."

McAllister released OíNeillís hand and turned to nod at the others. "Major."

"Colonel."

"Hey, what chance does a civilian have around here?" Max asked whimsically. "Hello, Sam. Tealíc." He hesitated and then took the plunge. Someone had to. It landed him in icy water. "Um, is Danieló"

OíNeillís face closed away completely. Sam flinched, and Tealícís stoic mask intensified. Sam was the one who replied. "Danielís dead."

Maxís mouth dropped open in disbelief. He must have seen it coming, but heíd probably hoped he was wrong. Before he could reply, General Hammond bustled into the room. "Ah. Colonel McAllister. Mister Keller. Iím sorry I was delayed. I meant to brief you before...."

Before the rest of SG-1 arrived, McAllister realized. He shook hands with Hammond. "Weíve just heard the bad news, General. Iím truly sorry." The latter was intended for all of them. OíNeillís face was closed in denial. Carterís eyes were dark with unhappiness. Tealíc kept his own council, but McAllister had met the Jaffa first and understanding had blossomed between them. Tealíc grieved in his own stoic way. As for Jonas Quinn, whoever he was, the man was in a very awkward position, if he were the new man on SG-1. He was replacing someone truly valued and loved. From Quinnís unfortunate manner, McAllister suspected he knew that, and didnít have a clue what to do about it. He might have his own giftsóhe was certain to have some abilities or he wouldnít have been appointed to the Stargate Commandís ace teamóbut he fell a little short in the people-skills department. Too bad.

"Daniel was a good man," Max added. "I didnít know him that well, in spite of going through a crisis together, but you couldnít help liking him. I know how much you must miss him. Iím sorry."

OíNeill grimaced. McAllister was curious to hear how it had happenedólikely something violent on the other side of the Stargateóbut he didnít think this was the time for questions. Hammond might have explained, but the Master didnít want him to do that in front of Danielís grieving friends. Theyíd lived it once already. Why make them relive it?

"Thanks," said OíNeill tightly. McAllister realized that was for Danielís sake, and as much as they were likely to get.

All right. Time to move on. Maybe he could talk with the team members individually. "Was that why you sent for us, General?" McAllister asked.

"No," said Hammond so quickly the Master realized he didnít want to linger on the subject. "It was about SG-1ís most recent mission. Iíd like to show you a brief bit of film."

"All right."

Sam Carter set up the video tape. Soon McAllister and Max were treated to a view of three men in a cell. They didnít sit; they prowled. Prowled familiarly. The movesóas well as the garbówere pure ninja. And each manís forehead bore the mark of the Jaffa.

Maxís mouth fell open. "Ninja Jaffa? You have got to be kidding!"

"You can tell that from one quick look?" OíNeill asked suspiciously.

"Thereís a certain feel to those who have trained in the sect," McAllister said. "Interesting. I realize the Goaíuld have taken humans from Earth to populate other worlds, but I had not realized the ninja had gone beyond the boundaries of Earth. Tealíc. You told me once that your Master Braítac had taught you many disciplines. You have seen me and SatoóSaítacógo through a practice routine, but you did not report that it was familiar to you."

"It was not, except generally, Master McAllister," the Jaffa replied. "Tauíri martial arts take many forms, and Jaffa have trained in some of them. However, the exact rituals you and Saítac performed differed from those I was taught."

"Yet these men, obviously prisoners, not only wear garb similar to my own ninja robes, they feel like ninja. Evidently, at some time, a ninja master was removed from Earth. Whether he was part of a culture taken away or an individual recruited for his skills I cannot say. I would be intrigued to speak to these prisoners."

"I hoped you would say that," Hammond replied.

"Where did you get these guys?" asked Max. "Are they real Jaffaóyou know, with the snake, uhó?" He patted his belly to indicate the home of a symbiote.

"We found them on a Goaíuld ship," Jonas Quinn offered.

"Never mind where we found them," OíNeill cut in. "What can you tell us about them?"

"Without speaking to them, only that they have definitely had ninja training. I know I donít have full clearance, but if I am to speak with them and gain information, I do need to know more."

"We have only one of them here," Hammond put in. "The Tokíra have the other two. The only reason we have this one is that Saítac felt you might be able to give us some insight into his background. Although he was historically a part of the Earth ninja sect and can gain much information, I believe he felt, as Jacob Carter does, that Earthís interests are involved. The Tokíra would have preferred to keep all three."

"They like shutting us out of the loop," OíNeill muttered. "Typical allies."

McAllister had met a number of the Tokíra on his previous off-world mission, and he had to say he could see Jackís point. The Tokíra had their own agenda, and it did not necessarily match Earthís. Sometimes, their purposes ran parallel to each other, but not always. At times, it seemed in the interests of the Tokíra to cooperate with Earth, when their interests converged, but it hadnít taken McAllister long to realize that the Tokíra did not serve Earthís interests. They served their own. "At least you have the one," he said. "I would like to speak with him." He paused. "Does he speak English?"

"He does, but he also speaks another language," Hammond replied. "Our linguists have identified it as a form of Japanese."

"And since I am fluent in Japanese and also know of the ninja, you summoned me."

"Well, Colonel, itís more like a medieval version of Japanese," Sam offered.

"Itís still Japanese," OíNeill said. "Why would that be a problem?"

"For the same reason that you donít speak like Chaucer, Colonel," McAllister replied. "I assume that, like all of us, you read a part of The Canterbury Tales in high school."

"Yeah," OíNeill allowed in a wary voice as if admitting it would brand him a geek. "So?"

"So, if you traveled back in time to talk to Chaucer do you think you could understand everything he said? And do you think he would be deceived into believing you were a contemporary of his?"

"Well, when you put it like that.... Guy couldnít even spell ĎAprilí, come to think of it."

"I have read some medieval Japanese documents about the history and origins of the ninja," McAllister admitted. "Itís true I read it better than I speak it, but I have some knowledge. Language drifts. Iím certain your ninja Jaffa speaks a mutated versionóassuming he came directly from Earth and isnít the offspring of centuries of Jaffa bred as ninja. He may even be the end product of training from a kidnapped ninja, taken from Earth centuries ago."

"If that is the case, Colonel, the Tokíra donít know anything about them," Sam admitted. "They didnít exactly want to admit their ignorance to us, but Saítac and my father did speak to us after we returned from...the mission. Howeveró" She hesitated with a glance at Hammond. "Sir, theyíll have to have at least some background if weíre to learn anything."

Hammond pondered that. "Very well, Major. Colonel McAllister, you realize your non-disclosure statement still holds. These ninja were in the service of a system lord called Anubis. He has lately risen as a new threat to us. For a great many years, he was believed dead and no Tokíra had infiltrated his ranks. It is only now that we are learning about him. If we could gain information about Anubis from the ninja weíre holding, it would greatly benefit the SGC, not to mention the planet Earth."

"Iíll give it a go," McAllister said. "Iíll want to get into my ninja robes for the confrontation. And I have several other suggestions."

"I hoped youíd be willing to assist us." Hammond smiled. "Go ahead."

"It might help if I could be rigged with a dummy tattoo to match that of the prisoner." McAllister tapped his forehead. "The robes will cover almost all of it, but enough will show for him to recognize it, which will save a lot of lame explanations and justifications."

"We can do that," Hammond agreed.

"Secondly, it would be of great benefit if Tealíc could be very near to me, but concealed, when I confront the prisoner, in case the ninja is able to sense the presence or absence of a symbiote."

"I will stand with you, Master McAllister," Tealíc volunteered.

"Iíll be there, too," OíNeill admitted. Evidently, he didnít want to be out of the actionóor else he wanted to keep an eye on McAllister. Not the most trusting of men, Jack OíNeill.

"Do you want me to robe up, too?" Max asked. He looked as if he were positively itching to do it. Legal dignity sat very lightly on Max, to be shucked off at the first sign of excitement.

McAllister considered it. "Yes, I think so. Not as a first prime, however. Since you donít speak more than a few words of modern Japanese, you will be my attendant. You would not be expected to speak, but I believe it would add verisimilitude if you were to carry a staff weapon. Is that possible, General?"

OíNeill lifted an eyebrow and mouthed the word "verisimilitude" in blatant disbelief. But a shadow came and went in his eyes. Maybe he remembered Daniel using that word.

Hammond nodded in agreement. "I think we can manage that, Colonel. Weíll send you to the infirmary and have Doctor Fraiser handle your Jaffa appliance."

"Iíll escort him, General," Jonas Quinn volunteered.

OíNeill opened his mouth to object, but McAllister jumped in quickly, "Thank you, Mister Quinn. I would appreciate that. Max, you get our gear ready while I have my make-up job."

There was no reason he couldnít have waited for Max, but he wanted to have a word with Quinn, and this seemed the best opportunity for it. OíNeill, after his abortive objection, sank back into passive abstraction. Carter glanced at him and away very quickly, and Tealíc, ever impassive, waited, steadfast, at OíNeillís side, although he didnít speak. Not that Tealíc was a wordy man in the best of circumstances, and these were far from the best.

Once they left the briefing room, McAllister spoke before Jonas could do more than open his mouth. "What is that smile for?"

"Iíve never met a real ninja before," Jonas admitted.

"You must have met the prisoner."

"Well, sort of. Tealíc is the one who zatted them. By the time I came around the corner, they were already unconscious. I havenít talked to the one we have in the cell."

That was probably just as well. Jonas had to find a way to ground himself before he could be entrusted with the task of questioning prisoners. He might have a high IQ, and probably did or he wouldnít have been selected to join Earthís premier SG team, but that didnít guarantee he had any particular common sense or the ability to extrapolate from what he knew. "Then Iíll allow the first ninja comment, although meeting a ninja is not usually cause for such delight. We are dangerous men."

Quinn wiped off the smile, uncertain if McAllister had offered him a threat or not.

McAllister hid a smile of his own; his mustache concealed the brief twitch of his lips. "So, youíre Danielís replacement?"

Quinn hesitated, then settled for honesty. "I donít think Daniel can ever be replaced. Iím just a new member of the team."

Hmmm. Now that tone of voice was interesting. "Did you know Daniel?"

"Briefly. He lost his life because he saved my people. I...stood right there and did nothing, and then I let them lie about it. I probably shouldnít be talking about it."

"Your people?" McAllister stopped and surveyed him with fresh interest. "Youíre not from Earth, then?"

"No. SG-1 came through the Stargate to meet with my people." He wasnít going to reveal anything about them; probably wise. McAllister didnít ask; that was not his concern, or his business. "So thatís when you met Daniel? I was very sorry to hear of his death. A remarkable young man."

"An impossible act to follow." Jonas sounded slightly bitter, but not as if he resented the late Doctor Jackson for being so special. "Not that anyone could have taken Danielís place. Iíve read over his notes on everything; Iíve studied all the mission reports, everything Daniel learned. Iíve taught myself everything I could. I learn fast and I remember. But the only reason Iím on SG-1 is because otherwise Colonel OíNeill would have had to accept a Russian on his team, and he would have hated that even more than having me." He fell silent and a perplexed frown wrinkled his brow. "I donít know why Iím telling you all this."

"Possibly because Iím a good listener as well as an outsider with some clearance," McAllister said. "I knew Daniel and thought very highly of him, but I didnít know him well." He sensed a lot of conflicting emotions in Jonas Quinn. The man obviously felt he had more to prove than was humanly possible. "I donít think anybody expects you to know everything Daniel knew."

"But in a way itís my fault Daniel is gone. I owe them that."

McAllister shook his head. "No, son. You donít owe them a pseudo-Daniel. You owe them the best Jonas Quinn that it is possible to be, and that isnít the same."

"But thatís what the team needs," Jonas argued. "Daniel was a linguist and an archaeologist."

"Daniel was also the heart and soul of this team, and thatís a position no one could possibly fill in such a short time, if ever. You look human; I assume you are human. But you come from another planet. Perhaps your people have different customs when it comes to grieving."

"My people know about grief, Colonel McAllister. So do I."

"Suppose you lost someone very dear to you," McAllister replied. "Would it make you feel better if someone came along and promptly tried to be that person for you? Would you feel that trying to take that personís place would be the best thing they could have done? Picture someone you love very much. Now imagine someone else stepping in and memorizing everything that person ever did."

Jonas flinched. "But Danielís knowledge...."

"Was vital to the team, yes. But knowledge is more than memorizing facts. Facts are very good, very useful, and itís as well that youíve learned what you can. Donít stop doing that. But true knowledge is what you do with those facts, how you interpret them, how you live with them, and what you learn from them. It sounds like youíve acquired the data, and that is not a bad thing. But data is not the same thing as understanding. If you mistake one for the other, you will always come up short. That wonít help you any more than it will help the rest of SG-1. They didnít accept you on the team because you could become a clone of Daniel. You must be intelligent and inventive with your own unique perspective. Try and find that perspective."

Jonas looked at him blankly. "Do you think thatís what Iím doingótrying to be Daniel?"

"Do you?"

Jonas hesitated. "But then, what should I be doing?" he asked.

"Now thatís something I canít tell you. You have to find your own place on the team. Iím sure you have done some good since youíve been here. Has your data helped the team?"

"Well, maybe a couple of times."

"Then thatís a good thing. Keep learning, Jonas. But try to season it with a dose of wisdom. Remember, the rest of SG-1 is still grieving for Daniel. You probably arenít seeing them at their best. They were a family, more than just four people who worked together. They gained that working together through adversity. They didnít gain it by trying too hard to inject themselves into each otherís lives. You are not yet a part of the family. It may come, but it has to come gradually and naturally. Now, I donít know you, and I donít know the situation here, but Iíve lived a great many years and I have a sense about people. Tealíc will tell you that is true. I may not have you pegged, not a hundred per cent, but go easy. Give them time to go through the grieving process. Everybody has their own time." He wouldnít give away the pain heíd seen in OíNeillís eyes, the pain of a man who hadnít come close to resolution. Jonas would have to learn to recognize that for himself, if possible, and act accordingly. Empathy was probably not one of his strong points, but empathy could be learned, if the person was exposed to the concept. Jonas was supposed to be an intelligent man. McAllister had said what he could. The rest would be up to Quinn himself.

"Iíll think about what youíve said," Jonas said. His face was blankóor bland. McAllister wasnít quite sure which. On the other hand, "bland" might be the face he wore to cover the fact that he was overwhelmed, overwhelmed with losing his own world, however that had happened, thrust in among the people who most loved the man for whose death he felt responsible, forced into responsibilities above anything heíd accepted before. Whatever self-confidence he had must be struggling hard to stay afloat on a turbulent sea of change and confusion.

McAllister gave him a pat on the shoulder. "Good luck, son. Sometimes meaning well is half the battle."

Doubt flashed in Quinnís eyes, but not doubt of his intentionsóat least McAllister didnít think so. Jonas said, "Hereís the infirmary," in tones of great relief, and led the way inside.

** *** **

"Itís you. Itís definitely you." Jack surveyed the elderly ninja who now bore a gold pseudo-tattoo on his forehead. Heíd donned the black ninja get-up, as had Max Keller. Now that was weird; Keller was a ninja and a lawyer. Well, maybe not so weird as all that, considering the lawyers Jack had encountered over the years.

He was glad Tealíc and Keller were there because he could see a stubborn determination in the old manís eyes. He was just dying to get Jack off alone and talk to him about Danielóand that was the last thing OíNeill wanted. Carter would have liked to talk to him about Daniel, too. In fact, there was probably a whole line of people just dying to blab about Danielís ascension, from Hammond all the way down to Doctor MacKenzie, who must be chomping at the bit to get Jack on his couch so he could psychoanalyze him. Well, tough shit. The only way Jack was hanging on was by not talking about it, not thinking about it. If he did, heíd have to remember that Daniel had chosen to go.

And what did that say about what he had to live for?

Forget it, OíNeill. Youíve got a job to do. He shoved the memories of Daniel back into the compartment where he kept them safe and whole, and called his expression to order.

McAllister touched the tattoo on his forehead. "I donít know. I can think of a few more attractive fashion accessories. No offense, Tealíc," he said. "But you earned yours."

"In the service of a false god," Tealíc said promptly.

McAllisterís eyes lingered on the Jaffa. "That doesnít discount the skills you learned and the discipline you acceptedówhich you now use in a cause you believe in."

Tealíc inclined his head at the Master without speaking. He called him that, "Master", just like he did Braítac. Tealíc really respected the guy. Heíd be glad of McAllisterís understanding.

But, for crying out loud, the guy was just a little too goddamned understanding. He looked like heíd just moved to the head of MacKenzieís line. No way would Jack allow that to happen.

They stood outside the cellblock where the Jaffa was held. Hammond hadnít come but SG-1 had trailed along as if they were joined at the hip, including Jonas, who at least was quiet and unsmiling for once. Like OíNeill, he regarded McAllister with wariness, the way he might regard a naquadria bomb about to go critical.

Scratch that image, OíNeill.

The guard at the door regarded McAllister and Keller doubtfully. Max had Tealícís staff weapon in his hand, holding it the way heíd grip a staff. Well, he probably knew how to use staffs as weapons. Maybe ninjas fought with them. He did know how to use a staff weapon; at least heíd seen them fired before. But heíd been ordered not to fire this one under any circumstances. Probably just as well. Now if heíd only obey that order. You could never tell with civilians.

McAllister slid the hood of his costume into place, leaving only the bottom of the gold tattoo and his eyes exposedódangerous eyes. Hawk eyes. Although the wealth of wrinkles around them spoke of age, seeing him in full ninja regalia reminded OíNeill that, in spite of his age, McAllister was one of the most dangerous men heíd ever met. Okay, most dangerous non-snakeheads, but still dangerous. One-on-one against Anubis, how would he hold up? Not that a bastard like Anubis ever let himself get one-on-one with an enemy. If he didnít have fifty heavily armed Jaffa at his side, heíd at least have a personal shield and a ribbon device.

"You understand your part, OíNeill?" McAllister asked. "You simply have to act the way you would if this were really a negotiation for prisoner exchange and I were really a Jaffa of Anubis."

"In other words, as if I canít stand the snakeheads? Yeah, thatíll be a real stretch."

Keller grinned. "But you like Tealíc," he threw in. OíNeill couldnít tell if he were genuinely perplexed or if he were kidding. Maybe that was an asset in a lawyer, but OíNeill was hardly in the mood.

"Tealíc doesnít work for the snakeheads any more," he said.

The Jaffa inclined his head in confirmation. "Indeed."

Carter stood with her M-90 in her hands. "Do you think heíll buy it?" she asked.

"Depends on how many ninja Anubis has in his service," McAllister replied. "From what you tell me of Anubis, he isnít exactly open with his Jaffa. He strikes me as a need-to-know kind of fellow."

"Thatís one way to put it," OíNeill replied. "Any other ways arenít quite suitable for mixed company."

"Iím an officer, sir," Carter reminded him with a faint twinkle in her eye.

"Ya think?" OíNeill hefted his P-90, and Keller struck a dramatic pose with his staff weapon. "Okay," Jack decided. "We go. Jonas, you stay here with Tealíc. Thatís an order."

Quinn looked mildly mutinous, but he restrained himself. Maybe Jack had finally gotten it across to Jonas that an order was an order and didnít require an explanation. And maybe muskies had wings and would fly out of the lake right into Jackís net.

Jack nodded at the guard who keyed open the door and stood aside.

With Max at his heels, McAllister swept past him regally, as if it were his right, and Jackís offended glare must have been right in character. He pushed past the elderly ninja and came to a stop before the prisoner, who flowed to his feet as if he didnít have a bone in his body.

"Your lucky day," Jack said to him. "Theyíve come to bargain for your release."

The imprisoned ninja stared at McAllister as if he had never seen ninja garb before. They hadnít let him keep his. Word had come back from Saítac that useful little gizmos would probably be hidden in his clothes, and the team that had checked the black costume out had reported no fewer than twenty small devices that could serve as weapons or espionage tools. Jack had taken a look at them. Only ones heíd recognized had been shuriken, throwing stars. Saítac had been right. So the prisoner was clad in plain fatigues. Somehow, he managed to look dangerous, even dressed like that.

He burst into a long spiel in a language Jack had never heard before. McAllister listened to part of his speech, then he barked something abrupt in what sounded like the same tongue. When the prisoner tried again, McAllister frowned, made a curt gesture and snapped out, "Jaffa, kree!" as if heíd been doing it all his life.

That silenced the prisoner, but there were a thousand mutinous questions in his eyes.

"You will maintain silence until I command you to speak," McAllister ordered. "I speak this language for purposes of negotiation. They refused to allow this meeting without it." He added a few quick words in the other language.

"Hey, watch it," Jack growled and waggled his P-90 at McAllister.

The Master switched back to English without a glance in Jackís direction. Max, meticulously coached, sneered at Jack and said one word in the other language. Jack had heard McAllister teach it to him. Roughly speaking, it meant Jack was a miserable species of carrion worm. One eye lowered in a wink, but Keller managed to keep his face surly and disrespectful for the prisoner to see.

"What is your purpose here?" the guy in the cell demanded.

McAllister glanced sideways at Jack, then back to the prisoner. He was supposed to be sending the guy all kinds of signals and Jack and Carter werenít supposed to notice. "My Lord Anubis has sent me to effect a prisoner exchange." He added several words in the other tongue, then held up his hands in a mockingly conciliatory gesture.

Jack raised an ominous finger. "Iím not gonna warn you again."

The prisonerís eyes were crafty, but then theyíd all decided a prisoner exchange was sure to have hidden implications, not the least of which would be an opportunity for Anubis to insert a spy in the base. McAllister had to be sneaky and pretend he was going to try somethingóand that was a good way to betray the prisoner into giving himself away.

"My apologies," said McAllister in the most unapologetic, insulting tone he could manage. He was way too good at it. Jack gritted his teeth. "We have no need of useless prisoners," the Master continued. "And My Lord Anubis has need of his Jaffa. Where are your companions?"

"In the hands of the Tokíra," the prisoner replied. He made "Tokíra" sound like the most foul insult going. "These...Tauíri told you that?"

"They did, but I do not trust their words."

"I do not trust yours. I do not know you."

"Why should you?" McAllister said placidly. "I did not know you before today. You think My Lord Anubis shares all his knowledge with his Jaffa? With his left hand he commands one group, with his right, another. But if you seek proof, you shall have it. A moment to Ďreassureí these Tauíri. It will serve neither of us if they become, as I believe they call it, Ďtrigger happyí." He turned to Jack. Stayed right in character, too. You had to hand it to the guy. He had class.

"Tauíri called OíNeill? This demonstration is not intended to violate the terms of the truce. To prove this, Xanax will allow you to hold his weapon." He gestured at Max.

Keller passed it over, resentment stiffening the lines of his body, amusement alight in his face at the name he had been given. When he turned back to McAllister, his face was taut and properly resentful. "Master," he said with forced obedience.

McAllister dipped a hand into his robes, grabbed something, and flung it to the ground. A smoke bomb. Jack put up a hand to shield his nose and mouth, even though he knew it to be harmless. If McAllister were really a Jaffa of Anubis, heíd have no such guarantees.

When the smoke cleared, McAllister was inside the cell with the prisoner. Son of a gun. How the heck had he managed that one? And who gave him permission to improvise on the script?

"As you can see," McAllister told the prisoner. "I have my gifts, as I am sure you have your own. You have played your part very well, but now Anubis summons you home."

"My Lord Anubis called upon me to die in his cause," the prisoner said stiffly. Whoa. A ton of resentment there. He pulled himself into order. "Does he now revoke this order?"

"He does. He has use for you." McAllister said something short and pungent in the other tongue and gestured at OíNeill.

Talk about emoting. Donít milk the part, McAllister.

The prisoner said something hasty in his own tongue. McAllister replied in kind, but briefly, then he held up his hand to Jack and Carter. From where he stood, OíNeill could see Tealíc standing stolid and wary in the doorway, just out of the prisonerís line of sight, a zat at ready. At his side, Jonas hovered anxiously, his brow wrinkled with urgent thought. It wouldnít take much for him to burst into the room. No matter how much he had memorized, he evidently hadnít learned the ninja language. At least he hadnít offered to come along as interpreter. Just as well. It felt good to discover there were things Jonas didnít know.

McAllister spoke in English again. "No, I will not give you the password. They are recording this conversation, and while they do not speak our tongue, there are those who might interpret it. Anubis commanded me personally to reveal nothing, not even that. And before you speak again, even hand signals may be interpreted by those who study recordings of this meeting. Not even to reassure a comrade in arms will I betray Anubis. You are weak to request such."

"I am not weak. I volunteered to remain behind. I personally slew the Tauíri who discovered us."

"The ship was set to destruct with the Tauíri aboard," McAllister pointed out. "Why did your mission fail? My Lord Anubis was most displeased."

"The Asgard Thor intervened. His consciousness had been downloaded into the shipís memory to gain access to his knowledge."

"Ah. Did none suspect that an Asgard mind might be more powerful than the shipís systems could guard against?" McAllister was winging it here. They had given him only sketchy information, enough to get by. But no one ever claimed the ninja master was not a quick study. "I know much of the Asgard," he added. Probably did. Saítac had babbled a blue streak to the guy back when they were both living in Japan. "The one called Thor was their supreme commander. You thought to gain his knowledge. Still," he added, "we did manage to render him useless. That is a great achievement for My Lord Anubis."

"Soon he shall control the entire galaxy," the prisoner said. He added something in his own tongue, but McAllister lifted a hand. "For now, we must placate the Tauíri. Once we are away from here, we shall converse at great length and you will reveal all you have learned in your captivity."

The guy didnít learn. He babbled on with a lot more gibberish. OíNeill exchanged a glance with Carter, then he stepped closer to the cell. "Uh-uh. No more gobbledygook. We have a deal here."

McAllister moved with lightning speed. One second he was standing beside the prisoner, the next he had Jack pulled up against the bars, an arm around his neck. The staff weapon Jack had been holding for Max clattered to the ground, and Max snatched it up easily. The guard, well coached, let the muzzle of his weapon track back and forth between Max and McAllister. Carter jumped forward, her weapon at ready.

"I do this because I can," the Master said in a cold voice. "You will step aside, female, and allow us to pass through your base to the Chaapa-ai."

Jack didnít have a view behind him of the cell, but he hoped the prisoner was convinced now. He caught Carterís eye and sent her signals.

"Let him go." She leveled her gun not at McAllister, who was pretty much shielded by Jack, who wouldnít be keen on serving as a conduit for a lot of bullets, even if Carter had really meant to fire, but at the prisoner. "Youíll never make it out of here alive."

"I will if you want your colonel to live. I can put just the right pressure on the nerves in his neck and leave him alive but permanently paralyzed."

Jack had to say he believed it. He hoped McAllister didnít suddenly have a senior moment and forget he was playing a part.

McAllister spoke. "Xanax. Kree."

Maxís face was pretty much concealed by his ninja mask, but he didnít look particularly worried. He did level the staff weapon at Carter, but that was because it was part of his role. She ignored it.

"We canít let you escape," Carter said stubbornly. "The Colonel knows that. The only chance you have of walking out of here is to let him go right now. Then we can resume the negotiations with General Hammond for prisoner transfer. But if you persist, then weíll have three prisoners instead of one."

Jonas erupted into the room in a flurry of arms and legs. Youíd think heíd catch on that an order meant exactly what it said, but he hadnít figured it out yet. "What part of Ďstay outside and thatís an orderí didnít you get?" Jack griped.

"Colonel, you donít understand," Jonas said urgently. He tried desperately to signal a message to OíNeill with his eyes. What bee did he have in his bonnet now? OíNeill grimaced.

"Jonas, if you say one more word, youíre off SG-1," he commanded.

"Iím sorry, Colonel, but I have to. I think thereís a conspiracyó"

Carter grabbed Jonas by the arm and pushed him toward the door. Tealícís arm shot into the room, grabbed Jonas by his other arm and yanked him backward with all his strength. Jonas went flying. Jack heard him land with a thud, and couldnít hold back a faint, fleeting smile.

"Of course there is a conspiracy," McAllister said. "It is to my advantage to take your prisoner and give no one in return. I will damage my hostage if we are not freed this minute."

"If you damage the Colonel, I will have no option but to shoot you," Carter said through clenched teeth.

"I am taking your prisoner out of here no matter what happens," McAllister said.

Behind him in the cell, the prisoner said something sharp and urgent in that weird language, followed almost immediately by the thud of a falling body.

McAllister let Jack go as if heíd turned red hot. "What trick is this?" he thundered. "My Lord Anubis will make you pay for this."

Jack massaged his neck and favored the elder ninja with a fierce glare. He didnít have to get so deep into the part. Then he saw the sprawled prisoner, limp and still on the floor, his eyes half open and blank. Now that wasnít part of the script.

"He dead?" Jack asked. "What did he say?"

"That is not for you to know." McAllister caught his eye in urgent warning. He made a few hand signals for silence and for Jack to play along. Carterís eyes widened. The script had been left far behind with this new ploy. "You must have poisoned him."

"Oh, come on," Jack whined. "I never laid a finger on him. Pretty hard when you had me in that chokehold. Iíve gotta say, Anubis isnít exactly great at respecting a truce."

"Sir, I think heís dead," Carter exclaimed. "I canít see him breathing."

"You have killed him," thundered McAllister. "The Tauíri shall pay for this deception." He grimaced and made a faint gesture to suggest the prisoner was listening to every word.

Okay, yeah, most dead guys were good at that. Jack could not see the faintest stirring of the prisonerís chest.

McAllister opened the cell door that he must have unlocked under the cover of the smoke bomb and stood aside for Carter to examine the prisoner. Tealíc and the guard came in and covered her. Jonas, his face mutinous, hovered just outside the room rubbing his left shoulder, and the glimpse Jack had of him suggested that Jonas was just dying to have annoyed words with him. That would have to wait.

"No pulse, sir," Carter said. "We better get him to the infirmary."

"So let me get this straight," Jack said as soon as the guard had summoned Doctor Fraiser on the intercom. "This guy just decided to keel over and croak? He doesnít handle stress very well, does he?"

"What did he say?" Carter asked.

McAllister shot her a warning glance. "I will not repeat his words. They are not for the Tauíri."

Jonas practically danced up and down with impatience. Jack would have to listen to him, right after he gave him a royal chewing-out for bursting in against orders like that.

Never mind that Daniel had never been particularly good at following orders. Daniel had paid his dues, earned that right, in a way, even though it had exasperated Jack time out of mind. And he was sick to the soul of Jonas as a Daniel wannabe. As if anybody could ever replace Daniel.

"OíNeill." Tealíc had an urgent note to his voice. "I must speak to you."

Okay, so maybe there was more going on here than Jack knew about. "Hold the fort, Carter," he commanded and gave the guard warning to guard the prisoner. The Marine leveled his M-90 at McAllister, but Jack caught his eye, shook his head, and gestured to the one on the floor. McAllister raised his hands pacifically. Max glared at the Marine, and pointed his staff weapon at the dead guyóor rather the maybe-dead guy.

The guard couldnít hide the are-you-crazy look he gave OíNeill, but he obeyed. Finally! Somebody actually doing what he was told. Heíd have to put the guy up for a citation.

"What is it, Tealíc?" he asked as soon as he was out of earshot of the cell. When Jonas opened his mouth to speak, Jack held up a finger. "If your name isnít Tealíc, button it." Jonas gritted his teeth but he complied.

"There is a state of deep kel-no-reem which simulates death," Tealíc explained. "McAllister has informed me that the ninja can achieve this state at will. I do not believe the prisoner is dead. It is a ploy."

Jackís eyebrow arched. "He can stop his heartbeat?"

"Not that, but he can slow it so drastically that it is not detectable without specialized medical equipment. It is not a state that can be sustained indefinitely. Those who went too deep sometimes failed to rouse."

"Okay, so the guyís in a self-induced coma. Why? Last thing heíd want to do is keel over right when they were gonna stage a jailbreak." He glanced at Jonas. "Now you can talk. Do you have any idea what he said before he dropped over?"

"No. I donít know the language, Colonel. I have never studied it. But we donít know that this is the real McAllister or, even if he is, that he hasnít been in deep cover on Earth for many years. He was involved with the Tokíra Saítac. But what if Saítac was actually a Goaíuld?" He gazed at OíNeill earnestly. "Iím sorry I burst in like that against orders, but when he grabbed you, I suddenly realized this might be part of a long-standing plot."

The frustrating thing was that Jonasís scenario just might be possible. Sure, they had McAllisterís record and they knew he was the real thing, and Keller, too. But heíd trained under Saítac when he was known as Sato, and Sato had been stranded on Earth for centuries. McAllister had been convincing enough to make Jackís neck hurt. Okay, so Jonas was just doing his job. But he had crummy timing. Jack tried very hard not to think of Euronda.

"When did you think of that?" he asked.

"When he tried to choke you."

"Okay. I think youíre wrong, but weíll make sure of it. The Tokíra are pretty happy with Saítacóbut theyíve made mistakes before, too. Weíll check it out."

Janet Fraiser arrived with a medical team and they rushed into the cellblock. OíNeill followed them, and this time he didnít try to stop Jonas and Tealíc from trailing along. McAllister walked to meet Jack and he spoke in an undertone. "If his trance state is genuine, he will not be able to hear me from this far away. He presents a far greater peril than we realized."

"Oh, yeah? Lying on the floor looking dead is a major threat?"

"He has certain chemicals in his bloodstream. Trace elements that would not appear threatening even if you put him through blood tests. Separate, they are harmless and not even suspicious. But if stimulated, they can uniteó"

"Donít tell me. And unleash a toxin that will wipe out the base?" Jack groaned. "Been there, done that. Youíd think theyíd get more imaginative."

"It would be extremely difficult to detect," McAllister said. "Evidently, Anubis has learned a great deal of the Tauíri, possibly from downloading Thorís consciousness into the mother ship. He arranged this, knowing that if the prisoner needed to be resuscitated, using the paddles on him to start his heart would activate the poisons and trigger a lethal toxin."

"Sweet." OíNeill stared at the guy on the floor. Shit, Fraiser had the crash cart with her. They were getting ready to use it. "Doc, freeze. Donít use that thing. Get over here."

She hesitated, then she must have seen the expression on his face. With a gesture to her techs, she rose and joined them. "What is it, Colonel? I need to resuscitate him immediately."

"You do that and we all die."

Jonasís mouth dropped open in disbelief.

"Thatís why he acted when he did," McAllister continued. "He didnít want to be rescued. If all else failed, his final mission was to wipe out this base, and he couldnít do that if he were exchanged. You want to know what he said just before he put himself into the trance state? He said, ĎI die for my Lord Anubis, and I take the Tauíri with me.í"

Fraiserís face paled. "Howó"

"A combination of chemicals in his blood that will react when you zap him," McAllister explained. "I do not know which ones, but evidently they are harmless separately."

"We did check him for poison in his system and we ran blood tests but we found nothing obvious." The doc frowned. She must have hated to miss that particular threat; but, knowing Anubis, he would have made certain there was nothing exotic enough in the Jaffaís blood to cause suspicion, at least nothing that could be readily detected by human medicine.

"Sending the ship into Earth orbit comprised at least several plans," McAllister said. "He kept trying to get me to discuss them, but I could only allow him to speak fragments. Had I encouraged him to babble freely, he would have become suspicious of me, and had we spoken at length in the ancient Japanese, he would have realized I was not fluent and that I was only imitating his accent. Even now, there are words I do not know, and I am not familiar with the names of the drugs he mentioned, at least not in that language. Doctor Fraiser, I will work with you and any linguists you possess to learn more, if the Tokíra cannot help you."

"Is the toxin directed at this base alone, or would it spread?"

"I got the feeling it would spread to a degree. I couldnít tell from what he said whether it would destroy all life on Earth or simply all life in this base. A wildfire scenario would simply spread it further, though. Which is, of course, what they wanted."

Fraiser frowned. "Do you think the Tokíra could deal with it, Colonel McAllister?"

"I think they might be more equipped to do so and, as they have the other two prisoners, they need to know of this threat as soon as possible."

"Can you keep that guy alive without zapping him, Doc?" OíNeill asked.

"I think life support would be safe," she agreed. "No extraordinary measures to revive him, though. Colonel McAllister, would taking him through the Stargate trigger the toxin?"

McAllister pulled off the ninja headgear and smoothed down the fringe of grey hair around his bald dome. "Evidently using the ring transport device didnít. No, I think that much is safe, but if I were you, I would run more blood tests. The Tokíra will probably know what to look for, and they could tell you what risk that would entail."

"We better break the news to General Hammond," Jack said. "Heís not gonna be a happy camper."

"That is an understatement," Tealíc concurred.

Jack went over to the intercom and asked the General to join them. "Youíre not gonna like what we found out, sir." Then he turned back to the Master. "He didnít give you any hints about the origin of the ninja Jaffa?" he asked.

"No, and there was no way I could ask, not without revealing I was not one of them." McAllister shrugged. "Unfortunately, I didnít learn very much."

"You learned enough to save the base. If heíd done his fake death thing when you werenít here, he might have succeeded in killing everyone here."

"Tealíc might have realized he was shamming," McAllister said.

"But I would not have known about the toxins in his bloodstream," Tealíc admitted.

"We owe that to you, Colonel McAllister," Carter said.

Jack nodded, then he got down to personal business. "Iíve got a bone to pick with you, McAllister. I know you had to look good, but this is the only neck Iíve got, and Iím kind of attached to it."

McAllister grinned. "I assure you, itís superficial."

"If heíd really wanted to hurt you, youíd be in a body cast," Max added with a grin. "For an old guy, he sure knows his stuff."

McAllister arched a wry brow. "Thanks, Max. You want to pass me my cane now?"

Max grinned at him affectionately and winked. Now that was a look you didnít often see on a lawyerís face.

"I think Jonas may have injured his shoulder," the Master added.

Everybody stared at Jonas, who colored self-consciously and yanked his hand away from his shoulder. "I think I pulled a muscle when Tealíc grabbed me," he admitted.

Fraiser had the ninja Jaffa on the gurney. "Stop by the infirmary and Iíll check you out after I have our prisoner on life support," she instructed and gestured for the medical team to depart.

"If I caused your injury, Jonas Quinn, I apologize," Tealíc said. "But it was my fear that you intended to give Master McAllister away."

"Itís all right, Tealíc. But if Iíd been rightó"

"If youíd been right, there still wasnít anything you could have done at that point," OíNeill told him sternly. "Next time you think we have a traitor in the base, donít break in on the situation. Tell General Hammond or security, and arrange cover. When I give an order, I give it for a reason. Iíve been through two missions with McAllister before and I have an idea how he operates. And you were there when we set it up beforehand."

"I think he means well, Jack," McAllister said quickly. "Donít forget, heís not in the United States military. He isnít even from this planet. I think you need to give him a chance."

"Iíll give him a chance, if he doesnít blow a mission and take my chances away," OíNeill said sourly.

"If heíd been right about me, he would have saved the day. Go easy on him." McAllister turned to Jonas. "Tell me, son, after our earlier conversation, did you really believe I was an undercover ally of the Goaíuld?"

Jonas hesitated. "I didnít want to think it, but when you grabbed Colonel OíNeill, it made me wonder."

"I knew we werenít supposed to be surprised by anything Colonel McAllister did, sir," Carter told OíNeill. "But a part of me couldnít help wondering when he grabbed you, too. I had to really fight my instincts to keep playing along."

"As did I, OíNeill." Tealíc admitted. "And I would trust Master McAllister with my life."

"Well, the old fellaís pretty good at the undercover route," Max said proudly. "He used to be in intelligence, after all. Sometimes I think thereís nothing he hasnít done. Heís even been offworld, and thatís pretty great for a guy who isnít a member of the SGC."

Daniel would have trusted him. Jack knew that. He even knew he wasnít fair to Jonas by comparing him unfavorably with Daniel in everything the guy did. If only Jonas didnít seem to think he had to be Daniel to make up for Danielís death. Nobody could ever do that, and Jack wasnít even blaming him any more. Long-term blame hadnít helped him in the past; holding onto grudges had gotten him into trouble before, and he was still trying to live with some of it.

No, best thing was just to sit the guy down and go over the ground rules until he pounded them into him. He could do that. Jonas did know a lot. Maybe one day heíd figure out that it took more than reeling off facts to make a great team member. And he had saved their lives on the ship, reprogramming the force fieldóunder water, yet.

Jonas irked him royally.

But he was better than a Russian on the team.

Just.

So what was that conversation McAllister had mentioned that heíd had with Jonas on the way to the infirmary to get his Jaffa tattoo? Would Jack ever know? Did he even want to know?

"One more threat averted, sir," Carter said, pleased. "No matter how it was done, the end result is what counts.

"Yeah, and now we can call Jacob in and let him haul away our prisoner. And just maybe the Tokíra will owe us for once."

"Iím sorry, Colonel," Jonas said. "I really did think there was a chance he could have been undercover."

"I could have been," McAllister said. "I could have been making nice with you in the corridor to lull suspicions. I wasnít, of course, but you werenít to know that."

"Yeah, all right," Jack said. "Okay, Jonas, you trot along to the infirmary and get your shoulder looked at. But weíre still gonna sit down and go over procedures until you have them memorized. Youíre supposed to have this great memory. Weíll see how it works out."

"Yes, sir," Jonas said, but, damn it, he was smiling again.

McAllister ruffled Jonasís hair. "Go along, son. I think youíre safe. Heís not going to kill you after all."

"At least not today," Jack conceded.

Jonasís smile faltered doubtfully, then it intensified as it dawned on him that Jack was actually kidding him. He went out with a slightly lighter step.

"That was nice," McAllister said to Jack, just as they heard the sound of General Hammond coming down the corridor, asking urgent questions of the marines who stood guard outside the cellblock.

"Nice?" Jack hesitated. It felt good to have the old guyís approval, of course, but that wasnít what brought a smile to his face.

It was the faint trace of breeze that came out of nowhere and stirred his hair approvingly before it faded away.

 

 

Authorís Note: This story is a sequel to Downtime on Planet Earth, published in Compadres 17, and available at http://www.stargatefan.com/fictiondj/downtimeonearth.htm. The incident in which McAllister goes through the gate with SG-1 in response to a request from Saítac is from a story that has not yet been written.

 

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