Jack whirled from his position near the trees. How had something snuck by any of the older children? None of them had fallen asleep. His gaze flitted over each face before speeding to the form crouched over one of the bins. It was smack-dab in the middle of the baby bins. How had he gotten there?
Was the male-human wearing a pinstripe suit?
The baby the stranger had been trying to charm had taken the proffered digit, dragged it to her mouth and clamped down.
“Damnit, Leggo! Let go already!” The guy tried to carefully extract his finger from the baby. Jack and Ro’hane were approaching from opposite sides to remove the stranger forcefully from the middle of the babies. He obviously wasn’t the Jedi Master they were waiting for.
The stranger finally won, he took a step back and cradled his wounded hand. “Damnit! You’re not supposed to act like the Slayer already!”
Ro’hane stumbled, Jack paused. Jack’s eyes flicked from Ro’hane to the ship where Buffy was taking a nap and back again. Ro’hane took the hint. He turned around and sprinted toward the nursery ship. He did it so quietly. As much as Jack hated seeing weapons in the kids’ hands, they did act more like warriors than children and that even spilled over to how they ran. Ro’hane managed to speed to the ship with barely a whisper of sound. Charlie’s feet would have reminiscent a herd of elephants.
Sabè assumed Ro’hane’s place. Her lightsaber activated. Natal stepped up to Jack’s left flank, Nien Jack’s right. Both readied their weapons. Bail started swinging his lightsaber expertly as he closed in from the right. Afep kept his position by Vayla too close to the stranger, but the other children reminded Jack of a pack of wolves circling for the kill.
All good, except . . . “Kids, watch the perimeter.” Jack pointed his blaster at the stranger.
Jack felt more than saw the children’s embarrassment at their obvious oversight. Buffy had a pile of corpses from wild animals that would attack if anyone forgot about the jungle like they had. Natal turned one-eighty degrees in her current position and stood at attention. She did not de-activate her weapon. Neither did the other children as they moved around to equidistant sentry positions surrounding the infants, their backs to the stranger. They trusted Jack to take care of the odd man.
The stranger rocked back on his heels. “Good kids, aren’t they, Colonel?”
Jack rolled his eyes and aimed at the man.
The man threw up his hands in surrender. “I’m just here to deliver a message. I’m not going to harm any of your charges.”
“Talk,” Jack grunted. He never moved the blaster from being pointed at the stranger. “Why me?”
“Do’ya think the Powers were just going to let all your Air Force experience waste away in a high school? Youthful body plus experience and the Jack O’Neill psyche makes you a very important player. Too bad the SGC didn’t recognize it.”
Jack considered shooting the man just on principle.
“My name’s Whistler,” the stranger started. Then he screamed.
Every one of the children turned to stare in surprise. Jack blinked, startled. He was facing the ship and its only exit. How the hell had Buffy managed to sneak up on Whistler without Jack seeing it happen? She now held him, one-handed, off of his feet. Her grip must have been like a vise, gripping the back of Whistler’s skull.
Whistler still hadn’t stopped screaming with pain.
Jack glanced at the children. Most of them had turned their attention back to the jungle, but their eyes were very wide. Buffy threw the stranger at Jack’s feet, far from the infants playing in the sun. Jack’s aim followed the intruder, but it was unnecessary. Buffy was right on top of him, using her foot to pin Whistler to the ground.
Jack heard a bone snap. Whistler’s colorful reaction was muffled with his face shoved into the dirt.
“Buffy,” he said.
Buffy slowly brought her eyes up to his. Jack was frightened by how black they were, no emotion. This was how she had earned the name ‘Slayer.’ Jack hadn’t really understood the handle before. Sure, she was an expert fighter, the best he’d ever seen, but . . . those eyes matched the ones that he saw in the mirror too many mornings.
“Buffy,” Jack said again.
She softened right in front of him. She smiled at him. Then Whistler shifted and she looked down. Her smile turned positively predatory. “Whistler. Shall I lie? Or should I tell you what I really want to do you? There are three babies dead and countless children slain defending their home.”
Whistler was silent.
Buffy toed the intruder to lay on his back. He groaned as his broken shoulder blade impacted the earth. Buffy put her boot in his throat. “I want the name of the Traitor. Now.”
Whistler coughed, trying to breathe.
Jack waited until he felt Buffy had made her point. Then he said, “Buffy.”
She smiled at Jack and let up on Whistler’s larynx a bit. “Talk,” she demanded.
“I can’t . . .” the man breathed.
Buffy applied more pressure. She smiled softly and tilted her head like a little girl. “But I wanna name.” Somehow this deceptively fragile looking woman was more frightening to Jack than the Amazon of before.
Apparently, Whistler reached the same conclusion. “Darth Vader,” he spit out.
Buffy glanced at Ro’hane, who stood behind her. He was the only one of the children who had not assumed to a sentry position. He shook his head, not knowing the name.
Whistler took advantage of Buffy’s attention being elsewhere and rolled out from under her foot. Buffy let him. “But you can’t go after him.” Whistler stayed seated on the grass.
Whistler ducked his head and raised him hands. He winced and lowered the arm that was attached to the broken shoulder. “If you guys cross Vader the results will make what the little Witch did to you seem like playtime at the Kiddie Corral.” He glanced at Ro’hane and then at Vayla. “You know how the Balance is.”
Jack shook his head. That meant nothing to him. But Buffy had turned white as a ghost.
Whatever emotion Buffy was feeling quicksilvered into anger. She advanced on the hapless man. “Whistler, I’m going to skin you alive and use your hide as diapers for the babies and use your ribs to construct crib mobiles.”
Jack winced at the morbid idea, but for some strange reason Whistler brightened. “Wonderful! You’re already planning for the long term.”
Buffy’s face went blank. “You’re kidding me. What about our contact?”
Whistler spread his arms wide. “I am your contact.”
“There is no way in hell the PTB’s would put children into the hands of a Balance Demon,” she countered.
“Of course not. They put the children into your hands.”
Buffy shook her head, refusing what Whistler was implying. “I know nothing about children.”
Whistler grinned evilly. “But you did so well with the new Slayers.”
Buffy growled. “That’s something totally different.”
“Is it?” asked the demon.
“Here?!?!?” she screeched. “With no mall?”
“What the hell are we supposed to do?” Buffy asked. “Hang out here until the PTB decide that we’re needed? We’re the ‘Break Glass in Time of War’ weapon? The ace up the sleeve in the cosmic game the Powers play?”
“Well . . . more like the full house.”
Buffy advanced. Whistler scrambled to his feet and hid behind Jack. Jack smiled briefly at Buffy. Then he swung his arm -blaster and all- up and hit Whistler in the nose. He felt the cartilage snap. Next he swung down and nailed the guy in the solar plexus with his elbow. Jack whirled, saw Whistler bent over and nursing his nose. He punched the stranger in the face and Whistler went flying back.
Boy, did that feel good.
Natal moved out of the way of the falling stranger and made no attempt to assist Whistler to his feet. She trusted Jack and Buffy to protect her and kept her attention to the jungle.
Whistler rolled to sit and tried to stanch the flow of blood. “Damn. I forgot that you two are the best.” He looked up at the pair of avenging furies. “You two were redundant where you were. And redundant gives Evil an edge.”
Buffy stalked closer. “Redundant, huh?” She picked Whistler up by his coat lapels and reached one hand toward his throat. She closed her hand around something Jack couldn’t see and pulled. Jack heard something snap and Whistler jerked in pain. Buffy dropped Whistler at her feet and dangled three necklaces at him. “Don’tcha think three protection amulets are redundant much?”
“Facing you, Slayer,” Whistler countered, “No.”
One of the infants began to cry and soon others joined in. Afep and Vayla crawled over to the bins to comfort those they could reach.
Buffy seemed to soften and harden at the same time. “Why the hell should I follow what the Powers want? They didn’t give us enough food for all the kids. They’re not ready for me to do my job.”
Whistler smiled. “Slayer, like every other time, you exceeded their highest expectations. But you have everything you need now, including the right partner for the job.”
Jack frowned. He wasn’t sure how he could be the best person for raising a bunch of kids. His 0-1 record didn’t commend him in any way.
“So we what?” Buffy shot at the stranger, “Keep our heads down?”
“You stay out of the Empire until Vader’s dead and emulate Atlantis.”
Buffy blinked. “Huh?”
But Whistler vanished before their eyes.
“Whistler!” Buffy screamed at the sky. “Get your ass back here right now! I’m not through with you!”
Silence answered her.
Jack watched Buffy literally shake with frustration. The infants wailed louder. One of the aliens hit a pitch that made Buffy wince, but it gained her attention. She bent over Vayla and Afep and touched a baby.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured. Buffy looked at Jack. “I need a run. You can hold the fort ‘till then? I could even pick up the groceries.”
Jack nodded. She was unsetting the babies and the children. She obviously had a lot of things to think over.
Buffy glanced around the clearing one last time, focusing on each one of the children. Nien gave her a waterproof bucket he had been using to carry trash to the burn pile. She would have to clean it out. Buffy accepted it, and then she turned toward the jungle at a jog.
“Buffy!” Jack called.
Buffy jogged in place.
“Be careful,” he said.
Don’t do anything stupid that would get yourself killed, Jack thought. I need you alive. I can’t do this on my own. He left those thought unspoken.
For a moment, Jack was sure she was not going to respond.
“I promise,” she said.
Whistler sat on the edge of the Void. Damn, he hurt.
His shoulder might never recover. There was something about the damage a Slayer did to a Balance Demon. Even the healing spells he’d won in the betting of his life didn’t speed the knitting together of the broken bone. He only wanted to sit here on the edge of forever for a little while and rest.
The Powers appeared in front of him.
Trouble was just beginning to stir.
Of the Beginning