Chapter 1

Lincoln Park
Chicago
7 September 1995

Dusk was his newly appointed favourite time of the day, but the rush-hour crowd annoyed him as he wove his way impatiently through them, intent on reaching his destination within the appointed time.

It was always this way in crowded cities. The train ride had felt interminably long, and the people seemed particularly rude. He had never felt more dislike for small spaces and the feeling of being squashed up against several other people – some of whom clearly did not know the concept of a shower. It had brought back far too many unpleasant memories.

He alighted a few minutes later and tried to make his way out.

The narrow underground walkway was starting to feel claustrophobic and he increased his pace, eager to escape the crowd that swept into the metro in relentless waves. He ignored most of them, tucking his elbows close to his side and tried to sidestep those who walked too slowly for his liking.

The early-autumn air was already turning brisk as the man finally emerged from the tunnel. He stuck his hands in his leather jacket and inhaled a deep breath as he took a sharp right that would bring him to the nearest respectable suburb and to a park that lay adjacent to it.

It took him another ten minutes to reach his destination. The park was a small one and thankfully deserted at this hour, the last group of chatting mothers and their prams having only left a few minutes ago, as they hurried back towards home and dinner.

A glance at his watch informed him that he was nearly two minutes early. He took the nearest vacant bench and sat down heavily, absently toying with his jacket button while he waited.

It was harder to see in the rapidly deepening twilight, but the street lamps illuminated a figure clad in a dark-suit striding towards him.

Not the person he'd expected to see, and that was quite enough to arouse some suspicions.

The air beside him was gently displaced as his companion sat down next to him.

"Colonel O'Neill?"

"Depends on who's asking," he replied casually.

"Sir?"

He sighed. "Deactivated, Weston. A little piece of advice. Get re-assed to NASA. That's where all the action's gonna be."

"Colonel, the General sends his apologies. He wasn't able to see you in person today."

He looked at the messenger and smirked. "So he sent you of all people instead?"

"Sir, I…"

He interrupted before the man could go on. "Just give it to me."

"You have a new assignment, Sir."

He felt his gut clench involuntarily. There had been one that had left him in hospital for longer than he'd cared to remember, had caused more pain than he'd ever wanted to feel and had triggered a chain of events that had quite literally, ended his world and nearly his life.

Joining the military was like getting into a bad debt that you could never fully pay, he sometimes thought cynically.

This farce of a meeting was turning nerve-wrecking. Instead of the comforting isolation of the darkened playground, he suddenly felt hemmed in, as though the weight of the latest task had become a newly-fashioned military yoke around his neck.

"Oh, don't tell me," he scoffed dryly. "I'm shipping out on the next hop to the Middle-East? Or would it be Mogadishu? Or Srebrenica?"

Although it had been a while since his last major and disastrous one in Iraq, he had frankly no intention of revisiting that part of Earth any time soon. Not if he could help it at least. It was what his commanding officer had since promised when he was doped up to his ears and dead to the world in the Academy Hospital.

The Colonel turned his dark-eyed gaze to the discomfited man beside him and waved his impatience. "And? But? So? Therefore?"

"It's closer to home this time. Here," he said, gingerly extricating something from his breast pocket and held it out, "all that you need to know is inside."

Jack O'Neill did not move a muscle. When it became clear that he had no intention of doing – or moving – anything, the agent sighed inwardly and stood up.

"Consider yourself recalled to active duty. All the best, Sir."

A nondescript, pristine white envelope took the place of the departing figure on the playground bench.

The Colonel breathed a sigh of relief. He made no move to reach for it. Could he really do this now? Especially now when his judgement was in all likelihood compromised? When his thought seldom strayed further than the-

Not going there, O'Neill.

With an annoyed sigh, he finally grabbed it, tucked it into the inner pocket of his jacket and left, walking away in the opposite direction that he had come.

The way back was equally irritating. Chicago's traffic congestions were grating on his nerves, accentuated by the vagueness of the memo and the oblique manner of its delivery. He had promised Sara to be out of the house in two weeks; instead he said his goodbyes in three days, moving into a small apartment that was thankfully located in a quieter suburb on the other side of town where he wouldn't have to bump into her coincidentally.

Despite the obvious reticence that he had shown Weston, there was a faint tingle of excitement that ran up his spine, a feeling that always accompanied the start of any mission. It was an emotion that he insistently clamped down; the recent run of events had already pointed out that he had no right to any positive sentiments.

By the time he got back, all he wanted was a beer. Flipping the lights on, he toed off his shoes and checked his answering machine. Trying to ignore that damn envelope was doing him no good; despite his constant grouses that he was being increasingly sent on near-impossible missions, there was a burning curiosity that wanted to know the reason for such a clandestine meeting in a suburban park.

Jack O'Neill knew he was a good soldier and leader. It was with easy confidence that he had led several teams into volatile situations in different parts of the world. He left no man behind – even though he had been left behind himself – and had somehow, against all odds, brought everyone back to their families. And for that, he considered each mission a success. His commanding officers through the years had relied on his ability to ask no questions but deliver the done deed.

But this one bothered him.

His assignments had always been given in highly sanitised, top-secret government locations, surrounded by armoured guards and eyes-only documents, often sanctioned by the highest-ranking chiefs in the military themselves.

He strode to the kitchen, grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels from the liquor cabinet and sank down on his well-worn couch in the living room. Inadvertently, his gaze wandered to the framed picture of a boy who clutched a baseball bat like his most-prized possession.

The place was quiet. Too quiet. It was dark and uninviting when 'home' used to be warm and welcoming.

Jack swung his gaze away abruptly and took a long drink of the burning liquid, gritting his teeth against the burn. It wasn't something he could afford to brood about, not when he had barely managed to crawl up that dark precipice of guilt and overwhelming despair not too long ago. Now he hung on the edge of it, knowing that the slightest trigger could send him down that abyss easily once more.

Slowly, he removed the envelope and tossed it on the coffee table. He picked up the remote – wasn't there a hockey game on? – and flipped through the channels half-heartedly.

There was indeed a game that was showing – a replay of the Detroit Red Wings against the Chicago Blackhawks that he would have given his truck away to see live.

With a jolt of realisation, he realised that he had actually bought the tickets nearly seven months ago. That was just how much he had anticipated that clash, until…

Not there, O'Neill, he warned himself, and settled to watch the replay until a referee's piss-poor decision a few minutes later caused him to nearly hurl his half-empty bottle against the wall.

Ten minutes later, he turned the television off, tossed the remote to an opposite chair and tore the envelope open. Inside was a ridiculously thin sheet of paper, hurriedly scribbled on and clumsily torn out of a larger notebook.

Jack,

Your next one is different.

What you need is being prepared.

You know where to check for additional details.

He frowned slightly. The General hasn't even signed off on the note. Surely something that important would warrant a face-to-face discussion or a phone call? Had this even come from the General's office?

His home laptop was lying a few feet away, switched on and blaring a comical Simpsons screensaver. Ignoring it, he went into his bedroom, prying out its case that had been tucked securely under his bed. Within a minute, he had assembled a slimmer, second notebook from several discrete parts stowed in the laptop case's hidden, secondary compartment. He slid in an atypically-sized flash drive and quickly reprogrammed a part of its operating system to accommodate this technical anomaly.

Experience had made this action second-nature and he switched it on with an ease he knew wasn't supposed to have.

Assignments were rarely – or almost never – handed out this way. As far as he knew, covert operations were planned to the nth degree, streamlined to the satisfaction of the most brilliant tacticians in the military then signed off by the President himself, who thereafter divorced himself from all knowledge of them. He'd been there too many times to know.

This one had to be different. It already bore the hallmarks of internal wrangling, especially if it came from some higher-up against another higher-up.

"Hurry up, dammit," he muttered in exasperation, tapping his fingers on the keys lightly as he waited for his access code to appear on the screen.

Logging into the program was at best, tedious. He went through several security systems and its encryptions, then linked his personal network to the exclusive pool of assignments that his team frequently received.

The program loaded when the connection was successful, its white and blue interface prompting for another password.

He entered his details, and scrolled down the list of the most recent cases in which he had some part to play.

It was impossible to ignore the latest one that sat in his personal inbox. The mission brief's details stood out starkly against its black background, and he couldn't help the flicker of unease when he saw its heading.

07 September 1995

Recalled to active duty: Col. Jonathan J. O'Neill
Mission timeline: 2 weeks
For immediate deployment.

Neutralise target: Samantha Carter, Captain, USAF, service number 366349
Location: Colorado Springs, Cheyenne Mountain Complex