Dreaming men are haunted men. — Stephen Vincent Benet
Chilly air filled his nostrils, tinged with desert dust. Digging in the pocket of his field jacket for a pack of cigarettes, Jack fought the urge to sneeze. He leaned against the wall of the barracks, one of the few solid buildings in this camp which was comprised mainly of tents, a few prefab structures like the barracks, and an airstrip. Wan moonlight painted the desert landscape, and a dust devil sprang up between two shadowy structures near the edge of the camp. It whirled across the open space between the buildings before dissipating against the corner of the mess hall, its particles melting back into the landscape from whence it had come.
Cupping a cigarette in his hands, he flicked his lighter. The breeze died for a moment, and he coaxed the cigarette’s tip into flame, taking a deep drag. He held the breath for several seconds before releasing it, imagining he could feel the surge of nicotine into his bloodstream. Relaxing against the wall, he watched the sky, where stars shone brightly overhead. At Incirlik, the base’s lights had often drowned out the dimmer stars, but here there was little light used at night, and he was treated to a brilliant display.
A voice spoke from the shadows — deep, gravelly despite the softness of the words in deference to the late hour and their sleeping comrades just inside the barracks. “Got another one of those?”
Jack looked up as Frank joined him, shrugging into a field jacket that was twin to his own. “What’d you do, run out?”
A grin. “No, but you still owe me from the last time you ran out.” Frank accepted a Marlboro from the pack he held out, and took the proffered lighter, bending his dark head away from the wind as he coaxed the cigarette’s tip to a cherry glow. He handed the lighter back and leaned against the building, next to Jack, exhaling a cloud of smoke into the night.
They puffed in companionable silence for a moment, watching as another dust devil rose up to traverse the ground between the barracks and the mess hall on a suicide mission. It hurled itself against the wall and dissolved. “When d’you think they’re gonna send us in to actually do something?” Frank asked him.
Jack shook his head. “Beats the hell out of me.” They’d been in Saudi long enough to get antsy, having been moved from Incirlik, Turkey to Dhahran weeks ago, and then from there up the Tapline Road to this dusty forward camp, not far from the Iraq border. Since then, they’d left twice, both times for simulations of potential missions that had yet to materialize. “Everything’s been talk, talk and more talk. The way I figure, they’ve got us all out here, they might as well use us.”
Frank nodded, the motion barely detectable in the shadows. “It’s just more bullshit. Back and forth, conditional withdrawals, and in the end we’re all just sitting here, waiting for something to happen. I swear, it’s this damn waiting that’s gonna make me crazy. Already I keep waking up half the friggin’ night.” He gestured with his cigarette, the lit tip describing bright trails in the air. “Keeping us all sitting out here in the middle of nowhere doing nothing is a waste of time. If they haven’t got anything for us to do, send us the hell back already.”
“Something’s gonna happen, Frank. I can feel it.”
Frank looked at him, with that expression that said clearly, How the hell do you know? But he didn’t speak.
“They’re going to find something for us to do, and soon.” Jack dropped his cigarette butt on the dusty earth and ground it beneath the heel of his boot. “I don’t know what, but mark my words, it’ll be big.” He’d been in the military too long not to have developed something of a sixth sense for situations like these.
“Big, huh?” His friend watched him intently. “Whatever it is, bring it. Anything’s better than all this friggin’ waiting.”
O’Neill woke with a start, stretched in the lounge chair that occupied the space next to the telescope on the tiny rooftop deck. He could tell from the stars that he’d been asleep for all of an hour. The breeze was still warm, and carried the sounds and scents of summer. They couldn’t penetrate the cold dread that permeated his stomach, however. His buddy was out there, stuck on an alien planet, in the middle of a storm, and he wasn’t going to be able to relax until they found him. Falling asleep in the lounge chair was nothing more than stress exhaustion, he knew. That he’d dreamed about Frank and another endless eternity they’d spent waiting was telling.
Four days after the conversation his subconscious had just revisited, he and Frank and the rest of their team had been sent on a mission that was every bit as big as he’d told Frank it would be. And at its end, Jack had lain bleeding on the dusty ground while his teammates took off in the helo that had come to extract them. Shortly after that, he’d been hauled off to prison by the Iraqis…
Not Frank’s fault. He scrubbed a hand across his face, grateful that at least he’d only dreamed about the tension and the waiting before the mission, rather than anything that had happened afterward.
Levering himself upright, still slightly stiff and sore from the beating he’d taken in the Gate Room fighting the gravity well and then his impact with the concrete wall when the alien gravity released him back to the local field of Earth — thank goodness the others had managed to pull him close enough to the Control Room that he hadn’t had that much rope to swing on and build up momentum — he sat sideways on the lounge, looking up again. Despite his best intentions, he’d dozed off while picking out constellations. The star guide had fallen to the surface of the deck when he’d dozed off; he picked it up and then stood, stretching before settling the cover back on the telescope. Perhaps he’d try going inside and sleeping after all. If the MALP indicated that the storms had abated in the morning, he knew he’d be a lot more help in finding Frank if he’d at least gotten a little bit of rest between now and then.
He just hoped he wouldn’t dream about anything beyond what he already had tonight.
General Hammond stood in the Control Room, a steaming cup of coffee in his hand. He sipped at the liquid as he watched Lieutenant Simmons key the address for P2A-870 into the dialing computer. It was 0650, and the general was already on his second cup of the day.
The seventh chevron locked, and the familiar kawoosh of a newly-established wormhole followed. As the wormhole stabilized, Hammond hoped that this time they would find that the weather on the planet had cleared.
“Receiving and recording MALP telemetry now,” reported Simmons. As the general looked up, an image coalesced on the screen above their heads. Rain, falling in gray sheets that obscured the predawn light, supplemented by intense flashes that had to be nearby lightning strikes. The MALP’s microphone carried the sound of thunder, so loud that it had to be almost directly over the gate. SG-1 wouldn’t be returning to P2A-870 just yet, it seemed.
“The storms are still continuing, sir,” said Simmons.
“I can see that, Lieutenant,” replied Hammond. “Go ahead and shut it down for now. I’m not sending anyone through into that, when they won’t be able to do anything anyway.”
“Yes, sir.” Simmons set about placing the MALP back into standby mode before terminating the gate connection. “That has to be one enormous storm system, sir.”
The general nodded. “It’s bigger than anything I’ve seen in a long time, son,” he acknowledged as the wormhole sizzled out of existence. From all appearances, the storm system currently affecting the area around the other planet’s gate was bigger than even the worst thunderstorms he’d experienced while living in Texas. It reminded him almost of monsoon season in Southeast Asia…
There was a quiet cough, and he turned to find Major Ferretti standing by the stairwell, just inside the Control Room. “Was that P2A-870, sir? The planet where Colonel Cromwell is?”
Hammond nodded. “Yes, Major.”
The major swore softly. “Damn.”
The general looked at him curiously. Ferretti was in command of SG-2, and Hammond assumed he would be busy preparing for his team’s mission to P4X-293, scheduled for later that day, not hanging around the Control Room. “Did you need to see me, Major?”
“No sir. I was just curious as to what was happening on P2A-870. I was really hoping those storms would have ended by now.” Ferretti shook his head. “We’re sure the colonel’s there, though, right?”
“O’Neill found a unit coin belonging to Colonel Cromwell on the planet’s surface.” Hammond cocked his head at the major. “I wasn’t aware that you knew Colonel Cromwell.”
Ferretti nodded. “I met him and O’Neill at the same time, when they were both majors, right after I made captain. All three of us served together for a couple of years, back before the Gulf. I remember the two of them used to pal around all the time, like they were brothers or something.”
“I knew they were close friends,” acknowledged the general.
“Oh yeah.” The major grinned. “You never saw one of them without the other.” His expression sobered then. “I was in a different unit during the war, but I heard afterward what had happened to O’Neill. Later, when I wound up on his team again, he never mentioned Cromwell, but I knew why. Didn’t think it was fair, but I never said anything. Wasn’t my place.” He grimaced. “Shit happens. Cromwell’s a nice guy though, or he always was to me, anyway. I haven’t seen him since before the Gulf, but I’d sure like to. When I heard it was him we’d lost through the Gate…”
“SG-1 will be continuing the search just as soon as the weather clears on that planet, Major,” Hammond assured him. “I don’t think there’s anyone more eager to find Cromwell than Colonel O’Neill.”
Ferretti nodded again. “Oh, I know, sir. Word travels. If they need any more help, though, SG-2 would like the mission. Assuming we’re back from P4X-293, of course. That is, unless there’s any chance of postponing?”
General Hammond shook his head. “We’re already two weeks behind on our planned mission schedule as it is, Major, given that we lost that much time to that gravity well in the first place. Your team is only scheduled for twenty-four hours on the survey run. If Cromwell isn’t back by then and if SG-1 needs help, I’ll consider making that your team’s next mission.”
Ferretti saluted. “Thank you, sir.”