He'd had a bad feeling about the mission even before he set foot on the ramp, but as he stood on the other side of the stargate and surveyed their surroundings the niggling 'something not quite right' at the back of Daniel's neck turned swiftly to unmistakable dread.
Not just one or two or three - dozens of them, some newly dead, others70; well, the smell permeating the small clearing was enough to tell him all he needed to know. Put simply, this was not the aftermath of just one battle but of mass slaughter, repeated over - how long? A swift scan of the area confirmed his worse fears: from the level of decomposition of some of the corpses, whatever had taken place here had clearly been going on for a very long time.
"Oh God..." Carter's voice choked out the words but she stood her ground, alert and ready for attack. "Daniel..." The word was a caution, an enquiry: the former was unnecessary, the latter he had already answered, the Beretta out of it's holster and nestled snugly in his palm before she finished speaking. It wasn't only the rotting corpses that smelled bad here.
Heavy footfalls onto the stone behind them announced the arrival of the two remaining members of SG-1 and, with only a look flashed between them, he dropped to one knee, Carter moving in behind him, the pair instinctively providing cover for the new arrivals, to give them those vital few seconds of recovery after the disorientation of their journey through the wormhole. Under other circumstances he might have derived some small amount of satisfaction in at last having the skill, the confidence, to protect those who had so often protected him - but not today. The grimness of the scene, the scent of death and danger in the air, precluded all else but response to the moment.
"Sweet Jesus..." Jack O'Neill murmured, automatically bringing his weapon to bear. "What the hell happened here?"
"Good question," he acknowledged, "not that I'm in any hurry to find out."
"Area looks clear, sir."
"Which is more than can be said for the air," Jack grimaced. "Can somebody tell me why the hell didn't the MALP pick this up?"
Carter shook her head. "I don't know, sir."
"You don't know?" His voice rose on an edge of disbelief. "Isn't that the whole reason we send those things through in the first place, so we do know what we're walking into?"
Her expertise unjustly called into question, Carter lifted her chin and squared her shoulders. "Yes sir," she bit back "and the telemetry from this one showed the area was secure. I won't know for sure what went wrong until we get back to the base and review the tapes, but at a guess I'd say whoever was responsible for this was able to override the signal from our MALP with one of their own."
Daniel looked up from the morbid scene. "Wouldn't that take some... pretty sophisticated equipment?"
"Probably," she conceded.
"But... from the way these people are dressed I don't think..." he began, but Jack cut him short.
"Okay, it's happened. Let's save the analysis for later... Carter, Teal'c, take the perimeter. Any sign of movement... you know what to do. Daniel, you're with me. Everybody stay alert. Let's not get caught with our asses flapping in the breeze, people."
As he started to move down the steps, Daniel fell in beside him, automatically mirroring his stance, his body turned slightly to the right as Jack's was turned to the left, giving them a wide field of vision of the immediate area. Already he could feel the muscles across his shoulders tensing, responding to the situation, and he drew a deep breath, blowing it out to a count of ten to help him relax. These were the times he dreaded, the obvious danger, the unseen threat, the very real possibility that this might be the time he didn't make it home, and he thanked God that he had agreed when Jack insisted he get some military training because the geeky scientist that had made that very first trip to Abydos four years ago would never have handled a situation like the one presented to him now.
"Okay?" Jack asked softly, and the mere sound of his voice wove a thread of calm through the turmoil.
"Yeah... So, what d'you think happened here?"
"Look at the bodies..." Jack suggested grimly. Daniel really would rather look at something else right then, but he clamped his jaw against the nauseating effect of the stench and let his gaze drift across the heaps of shattered humanity. They had, he noticed now, one thing in common: all of them had their wrists bound behind them and all of them had died either from a single blast of a staff weapon in the chest or one shot to the back of the head. He knew he had seen this before, long ago, on a dig in the Far East when he was barely out of his teens, and one word rose up from his memory to describe it.
"Yeah." Jack replied, the hitch in his voice marking the obscenity of his own memories.
"You tell me. From what we've seen on other worlds, it could be their way of dealing with unpaid parking tickets."
Daniel shook his head. "No, I meant - why like this? Why here? It's almost like someone wants to... warn visitors to keep away..."
"Pretty extreme way of doing it!" Jack exclaimed, shooting him a wide eyed look before scrunching up his face in remorse. "But - you could be right. Anyone in their right mind, coming through the gate and seeing this, would hightail it out of here."
"But who ever said we were in our right minds," Daniel countered flatly.
They moved on down the dirt path between the regimented rows of the dead, each of them drawing deeper into himself as the full extent of the massacre became apparent. Daniel had stopped counting bodies at thirty - if the numbers on Jack's side of the path matched that, and they added in those stretching along the track to the edge of the clearing, there were easily getting close to a hundred.
All at once, Jack pulled up, colour draining from his face as he swallowed rapidly. "Oh shit...."
Forgetting that he was supposed to be watching his side of the clearing, Daniel was at his side in a moment, following his line of sight to two figures curled on the ground at his feet, pathetic remains wrapped in ragged green cloth.
"Oh Jeez - " he murmured as he recognised the familiar uniforms of the SGC. "Who do you think they were?"
Shocked brown eyes turned to him, unable to comprehend this new horror. "I don't know. SG-11 maybe?" It seemed unlikely. SG-11 had gone missing several months ago on P89-534, light years in the opposite direction, and for them to turn up here would surely have required the intervention of some outside force.
In a gesture of trust, Jack held out his MP-5 to Daniel, who accepted it without question, slipping his handgun into its holster and bringing the larger weapon to bear, providing cover as Jack folded to the ground on one knee.
With a gentleness that bordered on reverence, Jack reached inside the jacket of one of the corpses and extracted the tags, lifting them carefully over what remained of the skull. The rubber protectors had been melted by the heat of the staff blast and the metal was crusted in dried blood and earth: he rubbed them clean on the leg of his pants and peered at the details stamped into the metal.
"Lansdown," he said softly.
"Do you know him?"
"By name only. He was just assigned last month. To SG-9..." Dropping the tags into his pocket, he swung round to tend the second body, his hand lingering over it as if suddenly afraid to touch it. He did, but this time, as he stared at the name, a visible shudder ran through him and he lowered his head to his chest, unable to contain the emotion. "It's Stan..."
"Oh Jack..." Daniel's voice shook as grief washed through him. Of all the men Jack counted as friends amongst the officers of the SGC, Major Stan Kovacek had been the closest. They had known each other for years, had served together in the early days and had welcomed the chance to renew their friendship when Jack had brought Stan into the SGC to replace SG-9's commander. That it should end like this... Daniel had learned early on just how deeply Jack felt the loss of any colleague, but Stan had been so much more than just someone he worked alongside and compassion now moved him to take a step nearer, the close contact of his leg as it pressed against Jack's side letting him know that he was not alone.
The rustle of movement to the right tightened his grip on the weapon, alerted every sense. Part of his mind registered Jack rising from the ground, heard the sigh of the handgun as it slipped from its holster, the subliminal click of the safety being carefully released. Jack's voice in his ear, breath warm across his cheek, carrying an intimacy of mint toothpaste as he asked "Where?"
"Eleven o'clock... behind the trees..." But it was only Carter emerging from cover, returning from her tour of the area..
"Perimeter's secure, sir," she informed them, a smile tweaking her lips as she took in their positions, shoulder to shoulder against the enemy - a smile which faded quickly as she looked to the bodies at their feet. "Sir - those are SGC uniforms..."
"I'm aware of that, Major," Jack told her coldly. "SG-9 to be exact."
Her blue eyes widened in shocked horror. "What?"
"Kovacek and someone called Lansdown," Daniel took up the story. "I guess the others are around here somewhere..."
"But... I thought SG-9 were on -"
"P2K-491," Jack supplied, as if the location was etched into his memory. For a moment he was silent, unable to look away from the face he had known so well, yet could now hardly recognise, his mind drifting back, locked into another time and place. Daniel shuddered when he saw the shutters slide into place behind the chocolate eyes. Jack would deal with this, but in his own time and alone. None of them, not even Daniel, would be allowed to witness his pain.
"Okay, I'm not taking any chances here." His voice was calm, authoritative. "Daniel, dial us home. Carter... Find the rest of our people, get their tags. We'll come back for the bodies - "
"O'Neill!" The sharp edge to the Jaffa's voice was enough to alert them as a dozen men emerged from the tree line at full tilt, heading towards them. They carried an assortment of weapons - zats, staffs, rifles, as well as some that Jack vaguely recognised from previous encounters with other races. All of them looked human, or at least of human ancestry, and their clothes were as random as their armaments, a hotch potch thrown together, no doubt taken from the poor souls who had fallen victim to them. Front and centre, leading the rabble, were three men dressed in Airforce BDU's.
"Jack - "
"I see them. Get that gate open, Daniel - NOW!"
Daniel began to run towards the DHD but halfway there was brought up short as a blast from a staff exploded the ground in front of him, throwing a fountain of dust and debris into his face, choking him. He went down hard as another staff weapon roared an answering salvo over his head from behind - Teal'c! - and then a hail of bullets - but from Jack or Sam? Or was it one of their attackers? Hot grit filled his eyes, blinding him, and all he could do was remember what Jack had taught him as he kept as close to the ground as possible, crawling on his belly towards where he believed the DHD to be. Fear gnawed at him, liquefied his guts: he tried to push it aside, telling himself that this was not the first time he had been under fire and with any luck it wouldn't be the last. The difference here was that he could hardly see where he was going and certainly not well enough to provide cover for himself or his team mates.
A sharp cry - a woman's voice - Sam! Sam was down! Oh God ... NO! Jack's voice then, calling her name. No answer. He pushed on, groping his way hand over hand, streaming eyes worse than useless. Jagged stones slashed at his hands, his clothes, pierced the cotton pants to tear at the flesh beneath and he felt the heat of his own blood as it began to flow. The scream of a zat stung his eardrums - close, too close - and something heavy and soft hit the ground nearby.
"Teal'c!" That from Jack, his voice ragged, anger and frustration unmistakable even above the clamour of the fire fight.
"Jack!" he screamed, lungs straining, vying with the noise, the exertion, the dust that clogged them with every breath. "Jack!"
The silence, when it came, was deafening, the roar of gun and zat and staff rolling away like the echo of distant thunder. He listened, tuning his senses, trying to make out something, some sound, however small, that would tell him his friends were still alive. But there was nothing.
"Jack?" Tentatively, the word threaded with terror. Was Jack dead? Were they all dead? All except him? "Teal'c?" Nothing. "S-sam?"
Movement beside him, a shadow falling across his prone form. He blinked... blinked again, trying to clear his vision. Saw green clad legs above army boots... the blur of a hand... sun glinting off metal.
Then the zat gun spat agony into his veins and he saw nothing more.
Go to Part 2