The truck bounced its way along the rutted road as pain lanced up his arms from the manacles about his wrists. It was far worse in his left, the one with the swollen elbow. The Sandinista coronel, Vicente, had calmly ordered his goons to dislocate it during one of his twisted little Q & A sessions back at the village jail. Between that and the fact that the manacles chafed against the cigarette burns on his wrists — another souvenir of his sessions with Vicente — Jack almost wished he could pass out again, falling back into a peaceful oblivion where the pain couldn’t reach him.
Yeah, fat chance. Besides, then he’d miss this scenic ride through the beautiful Nicaraguan countryside. It was the season for boots, lined up in all their glory along the sides of the truck where a row of Sandinista soldiers occupied the bench along each side of the rattling truck bed. The chain to which his wrists were manacled was short, terminating at a bolt driven into the center of the wooden bed, and severely limited the positions available to him. But if he craned his neck just so, he could see past the boots, up the uniformed legs and bodies to the sneering faces of the Sandinistas as they watched him shift uncomfortably with each bounce the truck made. Beyond the faces was the canvas tarp covering the top of the truck, blotting out the sky, or more accurately the jungle they were almost assuredly passing through.
Another jolt rocked the truck as it hit a pothole, this one bouncing him wildly against the wooden planks. Only the chain kept him tethered to the floor, like a paddleball. He landed with his swollen elbow pinned between the truck bed and his body, clenching his jaw to keep from crying out, helpless to stop the tears of pain that streamed from his eyes. The guards laughed, commenting among themselves in Spanish. Jack heard and understood every word. He willed himself to maintain control, breathing deeply and rhythmically until the throbbing in his elbow backed off down the scale from ‘thermonuclear’ to an intensity somewhere slightly north of ‘dull roar’. Okay, maybe not so slightly. But it was bearable, if not by much.
The effort cost him, however, and he soon found himself poised once again at the edge of consciousness, his thoughts drifting. He and Frank had harbored misgivings about this mission, but they’d tucked them away and sworn they’d get through it successfully and in one piece, no matter what. Just like always. Of course, that was before a knife fight in the small cantina where they’d been waiting for their contact turned the entire trip into one of the biggest Charlie Foxtrots this side of… well, he wasn’t sure what, exactly. His muddled thoughts wouldn’t quite focus. All he knew was that Frank had gone down in the middle of it, knifed in the side, with far too many people between them. The last thing Jack remembered from the fight was trying to work his way through the crowd to get to Frank, before something impacted with the back of his own skull and everything had gone black. He’d woken up in a cell, whereupon had commenced several days’ worth of fun and games at the hands of first the local constabulary and then the Sandinistas.
Now he was on his way to Managua, where undoubtedly more good times awaited him. Jack’s thoughts whirled, a sick spinning that brought images churning through his mind almost too quickly to grasp before each was replaced by the next. Sara, pregnant with their first child — who might well be born fatherless, if the Sandinistas had their way. Vicente, gloating at the pain inflicted by his lackeys as Jack had sat bound to a chair in the jailer’s office. Frank, bleeding in the cantina, his face stark white with shock. Was Frank even still alive? He had to be. Someone had to take care of Sara and the baby if Jack himself didn’t make it back. But more than that, a tiny hope still flickered, ever since a hastily whispered message from the limping young man responsible for cleaning slop buckets in the jail had alerted him that the other Americano was planning a rescue.
If Frank was going to pull off a rescue, thought Jack, he’d better hurry the hell up.
Without warning, the truck shuddered to a halt. The soldiers muttered to each other, and a small party of them left the truck to investigate. He heard gunfire, and the sound of bullets striking the exterior of the vehicle. The remaining soldiers bailed out, leaving him alone, still chained to the floor. A bullet pierced the canvas top just above the solid side of the truck bed, and Jack flattened himself against the rough planks, praying for survival and hoping this was the rescue he’d been promised.
There were shouts and curses from outside, amid the chatter of automatic weapons firing and the occasional scream. After a minute, Jack noticed an acrid smell permeating the air surrounding him. Gasoline? Great, someone had hit a fuel line on one of the trucks. He wondered how much longer he had before the entire convoy went up in flames with him still chained in place. Nothing like going out in a blaze of glory, he mused cynically, but it would have been nice to at least see my kid once first.
No sooner had the thought formed than the truck rocked again, and a body heaved its way into the back to fall heavily to the floorboards next to him. There was the sound of rough breathing, strained as though whoever had landed beside him was in pain. Misery, meet company. Two more jolts heralded additional arrivals, and suddenly the space around him seemed crowded. Jack felt motion against him and forced his eyes — well, the one eye that wasn’t swollen shut, anyway — open as a figure rose up at his side, silhouetted against the light from the open flap at the end of the truck before bending close enough for him to make out its face.
Frank. Either he was hallucinating, or his chances of making it out of here had just gotten a hell of a lot better. Except Frank didn’t look so hot himself. He was pale, and panting, and he moved with the stiff awkwardness of someone who was wounded and in dire need of medical attention. Jack was pretty sure he wouldn’t hallucinate his best friend looking like that.
But Frank was alive, he was here, and he’d brought help with him. Probably the contra group they’d been sent to train. It looked like maybe — just maybe — they’d both be going home after all.
The warble of the phone woke him. O’Neill fumbled for it, blinking. There was far too much light in the room for 0500. Why the hell didn’t the alarm clock go off? Between dreams and oversleeping, he wished he hadn’t even gone to bed.
Grabbing the receiver, he clapped it to his ear. “O’Neill.”
“Jack?” Daniel’s voice carried a note of concern. “Is everything okay?”
O’Neill disentangled himself from the sheets, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. “Yeah. Damn alarm didn’t go off when it was supposed to.” He scowled at the offending appliance, whose LED display read 7:10. “I’m on my way now.” See, this is why I wasn’t going to try to sleep…
“The general says don’t bother rushing, Jack. They queried the MALP again, and it’s still storming pretty hard around P2A-870’s Stargate. You can take your time; we won’t be going anywhere for at least a couple of hours.”
Daniel hung up the phone. Turning, he found Samantha Carter watching him, with Teal’c standing behind her. “He said his alarm clock didn’t go off,” the archaeologist explained. “I told him… well, I’m sure you heard what I told him.” His teammates nodded. “Which probably means he’ll be here in half an hour.”
He stretched, crossing his lab to where the coffee maker burbled happily as it finished brewing a fresh pot. Grabbing a mug emblazoned with the motto ‘Field Archaeologists Do It In The Dust’, he filled it with the strong dark liquid. Holding up the carafe, he gestured toward the mug in Carter’s hand, this one bearing the Air Force logo. “Refill?”
“Please.” She smiled in thanks as he topped up her mug. “At least General Hammond wasn’t upset over the colonel being late. Not that I really expected him to be.”
“O’Neill is obviously under stress,” intoned Teal’c.
“Can you blame him?” asked Daniel.
“Of course not,” said the big Jaffa, inclining his head slightly. “Concern for a brother in arms is not only understandable; it is a noble emotion.”
“I think it’s a little more than just that, Teal’c,” cautioned Carter. “From what he’s told us, Cromwell was his closest friend for a long time. This has got to be eating him alive. He’s never been very good at waiting for things, at least from what I’ve seen.”
“From what I’ve seen, either,” Daniel agreed. He took a sip of coffee and picked up a notebook from the long table running down the center of the room. “I did spend some time last night thinking about the people we encountered on P2A-870, though. Their language is definitely Brythonic, of course, and sounds to my ears very much like an obscure dialect of Welsh. Since Colonel Cromwell speaks Welsh himself, my guess is that he should be able to communicate with them to at least some extent. In fact, his spoken Welsh is probably a lot better than mine, considering that it was his second language growing up. Jack did say that Cromwell seems fluent in it. ”
He flipped through the pages of the notebook. “What’s weird is the fact that Rhodri seemed to recognize Teal’c as Jaffa, and yet didn’t seem bothered by his presence, nor surprised at the concept of rebel Jaffa. The word he used was llestr anfodlon, which translates as ‘reluctant vessel’ or at least very close. It seems to me that the Pridani must have encountered other Jaffa who have turned against the Goa’uld, for them to be so accepting of the idea.”
“’Reluctant vessel’… Sounds poetic,” Carter commented.
“The Celtic languages tend in that direction,” said Daniel.
“It is an apt description,” said Teal’c. “To fight against the Goa’uld and yet to know that one is dependent upon their larvae for one’s own health and survival does make each Jaffa who opposes them a reluctant vessel for his or her prim’ta.”
There was a beep, and Carter looked at her watch. “I’m heading back to my lab,” she said. “I set up some more model scenarios of wormhole behavior this morning when I got in, and I want to take a look at the latest results.”
Daniel cocked an eyebrow at her. “What time did you get in?”
“About 0530, why?”
The archaeologist shook his head. “No reason. I think I got here just before you did.”
“So you couldn’t sleep either?”
“Too much to do. The stuff SG-6 and I brought back from that dig on P3X-808, and now the Pridani…”
Carter grinned. “Well, then at least you can’t give me a hard time about my computer models of wormhole behavior.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it, Sam,” Daniel assured her. “See you at the next MALP check-in?”
The captain nodded. “I’ll be there.” She turned to Teal’c. “Want to come and take a look with me? This goes back to what I was trying to do on the whiteboard, when we were all up top in the temporary command post.”
Teal’c nodded solemnly. “Indeed.”
Left alone with his thoughts, Daniel sat down at his desk, the notebook open before him. He’d jotted down various things during his conversation with Rhodri, and was still running elements of that conversation through his head. He just couldn’t shake the feeling that he was missing something obvious, but he had no clue what it might be.
(Author’s Note: The first scene in this chapter is not completely my own work. It is drawn from the story “So Builds An Absolute Trust” by Flora and Gallagater, to whom I am forever indebted. What I have written here is my speculation on the way that Jack would recall events of the climax of that story, especially if he were to dream about them years later. The prose here is mine, but complete and total credit for the plot and concept of this scene belong to Flora and Gallagater, whose own work forms so much of the basis of my own characterization of Frank Cromwell and his friendship with Jack O’Neill.)