by The Prophet (email@example.com)
Chapter 4 of Æsirhættir, follows Wolf's Head
Violence, Goa'uld incest, rape
Spoilers for Children of the Gods, The Nox, Enigma, Forever in a Day, Shades of Grey, Rite of Passage
Stargate Sg-1 and its characters are the property of Stargate (II) Productions, Showtime/Viacom, The SciFi Channel, MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, and Gekko Productions. This story is written purely for my own entertainment, and that of anyone else who may happen to read it. No infringement of copyright is intended. It is not intended and should never be used for commercial purposes.
The original characters, situations and ideas contained within this work are the property of the author
This is the fourth part of an epic fan fiction, Æsirhættir, begun in Tears of a Clown, Hel's Teeth and Wolf's Head, and concluded in Ragnarok.
A Lagrange point is a point in space-time for which the net acceleration due to gravitational forces acting on a body at that point is zero.
Once more, I owe a debt of thanks to my beta-reader, Sho.
The Prophet, 22nd May 2002
Sam had been on board the Stupid Idea for almost five hours, and she was beginning to get antsy. She was not an impatient woman by nature, but she liked to be moving forward instead of just sitting around. She was also feeling isolated and, without the rest of her team to talk to, the time seemed to drag more than it usually would. She wondered if Teal'c and the Colonel would be passing through the Stargate soon; or if Daniel had been successful in unravelling the mysteries of Hel's tomb.
She paced up and down for a while, then went to watch the carrier's pilots in training. Thor had explained that the gallery over the training rooms was intended to appeal to the human liking for a certain 'James Bond' aesthetic, and there was something almost relaxing about watching the crew – all of whom Sam knew to have died from their old lives – practice.
"Penny for your thoughts?"
Sam turned, and saw a young man standing behind her. He had an earnest look and a pleasant face, which was familiar to Sam although she could not quite place it.
"Newman," he introduced himself, holding out a hand. "Chris."
"Carter. Sam," she replied, taking his hand. "Is that Major Newman?"
"Used to be," he admitted. "Before I died. Well; actually before I was convicted of treason and discharged to await execution."
Sam nodded. She had heard something of Newman's story from Colonel O'Neill, who judged him to be less of a waste of time than his record might suggest. "So, how can I help you, former Major Newman?"
"I was wondering the opposite," Newman said. "You look strung out. Thought maybe I could show you around; take your mind off things a little until we catch up with Niflheim."
"Sounds good," Sam admitted. "I gotta say; I find the idea of trying to 'catch up' with a prison rather strange."
"Well, it's a rather strange prison," Newman replied, motioning for her to accompany him out of the gallery.
"They're very good," Sam commented, indicating the pilots.
"Best of the best of the best," Newman assured her. "Well; best of the best of the best who weren't quite good enough not to die."
"I know a lot about you," Newman admitted, stopping in front of a door. "About all of SG-1 in fact; at least up to two years ago."
"Required reading in NID?" Sam asked.
"Just my branch," he assured her. "But that's how I know you should like this room."
"What is it?"
"The observatory," Newman replied.
The door slid open, revealing a dark space behind. Stepping through, Sam could make out dim blue light, and as the door closed behind them, she realised that the light came from a glowing mist in front of them.
"What kind of observatory is this?" Sam asked.
Newman tapped the side of his nose, secretively. "Come on; you'll see." So saying, he stepped forward, and vanished into the mist.
Sam followed. The glowing mist passed over her – it almost felt like it passed through her – and with a suddenness that took her breath away, there was no floor beneath her feet.
Sam cried out and stumbled, but hands gripped her arms and steadied her. "Close your eyes," Newman told her. "Take a deep breath, and feel the floor. Get your balance, then open your eyes again."
Sam did as he said, and sure enough the floor seemed solid enough. Then she opened her eyes, and felt a wave of vertigo pass over her. She could still feel the floor; she just could not see it at all.
"You okay?" A woman asked. Sam looked to her left, and saw Newman, then to her right, where a blonde woman was holding her other arm. Sam recognised her as Hnoss, Freyja's daughter.
"Yes, thank you Hnoss."
"Just relax," the woman told her. "You're perfectly safe."
Sam struggled to do so, and risked another look around. In an instant, the vertigo and disorientation were gone, swept away by a wave of almost childlike wonder. "It's awesome," she whispered, and for once even she was so blown away by the spectacle of what she was seeing that she spared not a thought for how it might be done.
Sam stepped forward, no longer caring that she seemed to be standing on nothing more substantial than hard vacuum. She turned on the spot, and saw, all around her, an infinite vista of stars and nebulae; galaxies and comets. "Is it accurate?" She asked.
"Completely," Hnoss assured her." Or as completely as it's possible to be. Obviously, if the Asgard could map the cosmos in an instant, we wouldn't need to track Niflheim."
"Where's Earth?" She asked.
"Earth? Is…there," Hnoss said, pointing to a small, swirling spiral that Sam figured must be the Milky Way. "At the moment we're 'in' Ida. Hang on; I'll switch the view."
Hnoss moved her hand in a series of exaggerated gestures. Sam felt a moment of dizziness, as the stars swirled around her, and Earth's Galaxy rushed towards them. Then they were among familiar constellations, with Earth hanging massive and blue before them. "Whoa!" Sam gasped, awed.
"I knew you'd like it," Newman said.
"Show me more?" Sam asked. "Please?"
"Is there any progress?" Thor asked.
Freyja shook her head. "None to speak of," she said. "But we shall find Niflheim soon. We built it to be hard to find; but not impossible. Even without the beacon, we have a rough idea of the comet's trajectory. It is only a matter of time."
"Time is the one thing that we do not have," Thor told his comrade.
"Time is the one thing that we cannot control," Freyja replied. "When was the last time you rested?"
"It is unimportant," Thor assured her. "I do not require much rest."
Freyja tactfully let the matter slide. "What do you plan to do when we capture Loki?" She asked.
"We will return him to captivity," Thor told her.
"Is it wise to let him live?"
"Wise or not," Thor replied. "Loki is protected still by Odin's injunction. No Asgard may strike a blow against him or his children, on pain of denial."
"Would he really do it?" Freyja asked. "What could it achieve now to allow one of our own to go into the final winter?"
Thor looked scandalised, his eyes widening a fraction of an inch, at what Freyja seemed to be saying. "I know that you do not see eye to eye with Odin," he said. "But he is still the leader of the Council, and the oldest and wisest among us."
"He is the oldest," Freyja agreed. "For what little that means among us now. I hold that Loki is too grave a threat to allow him to exist. Even denied his key, he has the means and the desire to recreate Naglfar. Such a being should not be allowed to live, and yet should still not be subjected to the torment you gave to him."
"You think he did not deserve such a fate?" Thor demanded.
"I think that he deserved it, and more," Freyja corrected him. "But I think that it was unworthy of you to deliver it upon him."
Thor refused to meet her searching eyes. "It is of no consequence what we do with him if we can not find him and his," he said.
"And we shall find him, in time. Until then, you should rest, Thor."
"I will rest when it is done."
"Rest now," Freyja said. "You will need your strength."
Thor subject Freyja to a long, hard stare. "None know me as you do," he said at last.
"I am right then. You intend to fight him?"
"I believe it may be necessary."
"You should not do this, Thor," Freyja said. "He almost defeated you once, and your body is not what it was then. Do not let pride blind you to that."
"It is not pride…"
"None know you as I do," she reminded him. "Thus few fear for you as much."
Dinner for the pilots was followed by dancing, after which Hnoss and Newman took Sam to a quiet grove beside a brook, where they sat and looked at the stars.
"Is this all the same technology as the Observatory?" Sam asked.
"This is mostly much simpler," Hnoss replied. "A great biosphere contained within the body of the ship. Days and nights and seasons are simulated by the projectors in the roof, which emit a light roughly equivalent to G-type sunlight. The plants and animals are real; there's about seventy feet of soil beneath us, including rock structures. An entire, simulated environment."
"It's incredible," Sam breathed.
"Just wait," Newman promised. "Freyja reckons we'll find the Niflheim sometime tomorrow, but in the meantime we can show you the Thunder Steeds."
"The fighters?" Sam asked.
"No," Hnoss replied. "The real deal. Then we can show you how to use a few bits and bobs you might find handy on the surface of Niflheim."
"Sounds great. Although I'm not sure anything's going to match riding a comet," Sam admitted.
Sam had seen and done some pretty incredible things in her time with SG-1, but nothing that could have prepared her for riding on the back of a flying horse. She clung to Hnoss' waist as Freyja's daughter guided and coaxed Grimtep – a slate-grey Thunder Steed – around the sky of the biosphere. Sam could feel her hair standing on end as the magnificent animal built up an electrical charge in its wings, before sending a flickering blast of electricity into Newman's mount.
Defeated, Newman stooped towards the ground, with Hnoss following.
"Doesn't it hurt them?" Sam yelled in Hnoss' ear.
"No. It's not a big charge, and they're not earthed. The current is low enough that it's only a sting."
The two Steeds landed side by side. Newman slid down, and helped Sam to the ground, then Hnoss dropped down beside them.
"What do you think now?" Hnoss asked. "How does riding a comet compare?"
"Close," Sam said. "But no cigar. I'm amazed you have any time for training."
"That was training," Newman assured her.
"And I was studying in the observatory when you came in," Hnoss added.
"Three hundred and ninety-three and she's still in school," Newman mocked, affectionately.
"There still plenty to learn," Hnoss replied. "Speaking of which; let's get these beauties back to the eerie, and we'll show you something entirely practical."
Newman smiled. "Well…almost entirely."
"So, do you ever leave the ship?" Sam asked, following as Hnoss and Newman led their steeds back towards the eerie; an airy cavern on a high, rocky promontory, where several dozen of Freyja's creations were stabled.
"We fly out," Newman said. "And we go on surface missions from time to time. The Asgard have also started using us for covert observation of protected planets."
"For the most part though," Hnoss said. "This is home. As much as it's nice to have a change of scene from time to time, we're always glad to get back."
"It's a lot like the Air Force, really," Newman said. "We pretty much live and train 'on base', and we have more or less everything we need here."
"I'm not sure what base you trained on…" Sam laughed, patting Grimtep's flank. "I wish we had half the facilities you have here, at the SGC."
"Don't knock it, Carter," Newman said. "You should've seen the offworld facilities we were working out of with the NID. On that last planet we had so little clean water that we needed a rota to say whose turn it was to wash their hair in the sink. We had to go offworld to scrounge for food because nothing grew on that planet. Did you ever send anyone to investigate that place?"
"I don't think so," Sam replied. "Why?"
"Just curious," Newman admitted. "There were structures, but no life; not a cockroach or a scrap of grass. As you can imagine though, we weren't provided with any personnel for cultural analysis. It wasn't a priority with our outfit. I always wondered what happened to the folks who lived there way back when."
"I'll try and let you know; if we ever find out," Sam promised.
"So, what is life like at the SGC, Sam?" Hnoss asked. "It looked very gloomy; the short time I was there."
"Well, the Gateroom is about a mile underground," Sam told her. "But we don't spend all our time in the base. Well," she admitted. "Some of us don't. I spend more than most; at the labs, catching up on my research. Sometimes I wish there were two of me, so I could go on field assignment and still stay back and investigate all the things we find."
Hnoss smiled. "And what do you do when you're not working?"
"I visit my brother when I can. I read and listen to music, and I…do work I've brought home from the SGC," she admitted. "I'm kind of a workaholic."
"And what about Jack?" Hnoss asked. "What does he do?"
"When he's not working?" Sam asked. "He fishes. Or something he likes to call fishing. He also likes astronomy, and opera, and he cooks; although often not well. Mostly though he just gets the hell out of town."
"He doesn't like the town?"
Sam laughed. "I mean he gets as far from the Mountain as he can. He's kind of the opposite of me. Not that he does a sloppy job," she added. "He sees everything he starts through to the end, but when he's not working he likes to get away somewhere quiet, and leave everything else behind him."
"Sounds nice," Hnoss said.
"Why do you ask?" Sam asked, slyly.
"No reason," Hnoss replied, a little too quickly. "Why?" She asked, suddenly concerned. "You're not…?"
"No!" Sam insisted, sharply. "I mean, not…Isn't he a little old for you?" She asked, changing the subject.
"He asked that," Hnoss said, laughing brightly.
"I told him I was three hundred and ninety-two."
Sam was a little taken aback. "And are you?"
"No," Hnoss replied. "That was last year; I'm three hundred and ninety-three."
"Plus," Newman added. "That's in terms of her homeworld's years, which are about fifteen of our months long."
Making her nearer five hundred, Sam realised. "You…you look good for it," she admitted, somewhat enviously.
"Is there further progress?"
Freyja turned to face Thor. "Not since you last asked. I thought I told you to rest," she said.
"You did. I have rested."
Freyja looked disapproving, but let the matter slide. "We have not yet found Niflheim, but we shall do."
"What if we can not find it?"
"If we can not, then Loki will have as little chance, or less. The Biliskner made contact with the rescue ship; it is the Kalliste. You know that the Stupid Idea possesses far superior sensor equipment to any that Loki might have access to. If we can not find Niflheim, neither can the Kalliste, nor the Utgard, nor, for certain, any Goa'uld mothership."
"We can not rely on that," Thor warned her.
"Which is why we will not," Freyja replied. "We will find the prison, extract the Serpent and we shall learn where his runestone is hidden."
"I do not think it will be so easy," Thor told her.
"You always were a doomsayer," Freyja replied. "But you are right of course. That is why I worry for you."
"I will be well," Thor assured her.
"Will you, I wonder?" Freyja said, gazing intently at Thor. "I have rarely seen you so affected, old friend. I know that from which your enmity towards Loki stems, but I sense that there is something more recent at play?"
"Are the crimes that he committed in the past, and those he will surely commit in the future not sufficient?" Thor asked, evasively.
"Of course. But I still think that you are hiding something from me, and it causes me to feel concern for you."
"There is no cause for concern," Thor assured her. "We shall prevail over this threat."
"Your blind optimism is not very convincing," Freyja observed. "I think I prefer the earnest doomsaying. Are you so certain that you are up to this challenge?"
Thor gave Freyja another hard stare. "You question my ability?" He asked. "I assure you I have lost none of my skill."
"Really? Why don't we find out," she offered.
Hnoss and Newman took Sam to one of the training rooms, where pilots were practising at a firing range, using some manner of energy weapon. Newman led Sam to the range, and took up a heavy arm-cuff.
"This," he told her. "Is an Asgard combat gauntlet. It's a multi-function combat accessory, with both offensive and defensive modes, fuelled by the wearer's own amplified bio-energy."
"Like a Goa'uld hand device?" Sam asked.
"Sort of," Hnoss replied. "But the gauntlet is more focused and efficient. Like a hand device, it requires a means of coupling the weapon to the bio-energy field of the user. We were all implanted with a specific type of nanocyte to serve that function when we began advanced weapons training, but the naquadah in your bloodstream should serve the same purpose. It will however be a less controlled connection, so you must be wary of applying too much force."
Newman indicated a scaled register on the device. "This meter here measures your bio-energy levels. If it turns yellow, then you're beginning to deplete your reserves. If it gets into the red, you're in serious trouble, but you'll probably already know that from all the passing out you'll be doing."
Hnoss then pointed to a small panel. "This is a training caution. If it flashes red, then you're putting too much energy into the device, and you're in danger of burning yourself out."
"Here. Watch," Newman suggested. He snapped the gauntlet closed around his left forearm, and the meter lit up green. He trained his arm at the end of the range, and focused.
"What…" Sam began, before a flare of green light flashed from the gauntlet, striking the target at the end of the range. The dummy rocked under the impact, a faint burn-mark marring its metal surface. He held up the gauntlet, so that Sam could see that the meter was barely changed.
"You want to try?" Hnoss invited.
"Okay," Sam said.
Hnoss snapped one of the gauntlets onto Sam's arm. "If you've used a ribbon device, the method is more or less the same. It's all a question of focusing your psychic energy through emotional control. Don't worry if you're not as accurate as Newman; the nanocytes are designed to help with gauntlet targeting."
Newman smiled. "Just relax," he advised. "Focus your mind on the target and…Dear God!"
A brilliant, blue-white flash shot from the end of the gauntlet, pulverising the target dummy. Shards of metal scattered across the end of the range.
"Wow!" Sam exclaimed, her head spinning; heart pounding. "Can I try again?"
"Um…" Hnoss tapped the side of the gauntlet, and Sam looked down. The training caution was flashing red, and the meter had jumped down by a two thirds. "A couple more of those and you'd be in the infirmary.
"Still," Newman added. "You can see why I said this was only mostly practical."
"Oh, yeah," Sam gasped, still reeling from the tremendous high of firing the gauntlet.
"First thing to get over when you're training with these things is the thrill," Newman said. "It's not good to get hooked on it, or you end up burning yourself out."
"How do you not?" Sam asked. Newman reached out and steadied her as she swayed on her feet. She felt drained and light-headed, as though suffering from oxygen deprivation, or extreme fatigue, but it was not an unpleasant sensation.
"Practice," Newman replied. "The buzz goes down each time – especially if you don't crank out that kind of power – so you pretty much wean yourself off it."
"Usually we try to keep the level down to heavy stun or below," Hnoss added, unlocking the gauntlet. "I can get Gersemi – my sister; she's the technical one – to fit a limiter of some kind to compensate for you not having the nanocytes. Then we can have another go and see…What?" She asked, as Sam and Newman both looked past her, to where the pilots were filing out of the range in almost unseemly haste.
"What's going on?" Hnoss asked, as a young man ran up to the firing range.
"Freyja's going to fight with Thor!" The boy exclaimed.
The Stupid Idea's pilots swarmed toward the observation gallery, but Hnoss tugged on Sam and Newman's arms. "This way," she said, leading them to a small door at the back of the training room.
"What's this way?" Sam asked.
"Being Freyja's daughter gets me a few perks," Hnoss replied. "Including access to the private areas of the ship."
Beyond the door was a narrow stair, which led up to a small gallery, where a gaggle of young women stood around a large bay window. These – Sam surmised – must be Freyja's daughters. There were eleven of them – twelve including Hnoss – some Slavic, others Nordic or Balkan, showing a marked racial variety, although less so than the pilots. Sam knew from the Colonel that each of these 'daughters' had died at birth or soon after, and been taken at the behest of her mother to be Freyja's handmaiden.
It was impossible for Sam to say which of the girls might be the elder, as all looked between twenty and thirty years old, but by her actions it was obvious that Freyja was oldest. The blonde woman pushed her way past her sisters, drawing Sam by the hand to the window. Sam saw that they were opposite the main viewing gallery, overlooking over a training room, where Thor and Freyja were in the middle of a fierce battle.
Sam's jaw dropped. If anyone had asked her this morning what would happen if an Asgard got into a fist fight, she would have said that – if they could find no way to avoid it – the Asgard would be clobbered. Watching these two veterans go at it however, she realised that their usual slow, sedate movements, and the apparent vulnerability of their spindly forms were greatly misleading.
Thor moved like a striking snake, shifting position so fast that Sam had trouble following the motions. He pressed the attack against Freyja with fierce determination, and a violence of which Sam would not have thought an Asgard capable. Freyja was slower, or rather she seemed slower. Her movements were deliberate, sweeping and graceful, but despite this she dodged or blocked every attack that Thor launched against her. The combat was clearly being conducted seriously, but the two were so finely matched, so perfectly attuned to each other's technique that it almost looked like a dance.
"Holy Hannah!" Sam whispered. "I never thought…"
"It's not something they do often," Newman said, standing at her shoulder. "They're not really fond of violence, although in some cases – Thor and Freyja included – they are very, very good at it."
"I'll say. I doubt we've got anyone at the SGC who could beat either of them."
"They have had millennia to perfect their skills," Hnoss pointed out. "You're probably much better than either of them was at your age."
The watching daughters gasped as Thor launched a snap kick at Freyja's head, which she barely avoided. She tucked and rolled, and sprang over Thor's head as he chased.
"Every now and then, Freyja comes down to help train the pilots," Newman said. "No-one's ever come close to beating her."
Briefly, Freyja went on the attack, with a flurry of kicks and punches, but the Supreme Commander of the Asgard Fleet plainly had not reached that position for looks alone, and the Stupid Idea's captain was soon forced to back off before a renewed assault. The two fought hard for more than twenty-five minutes, before Freyja finally missed a trick. Her error was slight – so much so that Sam could not in all honesty say what it was – but it allowed Thor to stagger her with a quick strike to the shoulder, then sweep her legs from under her.
A great sigh of disappointment went up from Freyja's daughters, as Thor helped Freyja back to her feet.
"That was incredible," Sam said, redundantly.
"At least I know that you will have to rest now," Freyja said, as they left the training room, hiding their fatigue from the watching pilots as best they could. The match had been close fought, and both combatants were all but spent.
"Do you still believe that I can not complete this task?" Thor asked.
"I can not deny that you have not lost your touch, old friend," Freyja returned. "I merely question whether that will be enough. Your energy is unfocused, and you will need all of it to defeat the Serpent."
"I assure you that I am perfectly focused," Thor replied. "I know what is at stake, and what my role must be."
"I wonder," Freyja said. "Is there something that you are concealing?" She asked again. "From myself, and the High Council?"
"There is not," Thor assured her.
"You are a mighty warrior Thor, and you have a fine mind. But you are a terrible liar. Has Odin charged you with another of his secret assignments?" Freyja demanded. "He should not do so; it is unfair to ask you to conceal your deeds from the Council."
"Odin has asked nothing of me," Thor assured her.
"Then it is something else. Perhaps to do with the woman who was taken?"
"It is not."
Freyja nodded in understanding. "I did not know that we had any worshippers left on Earth," Freyja said. Thor refused to meet her gaze. "Loki is up to his old methods again; trying to throw you off by making you angry. He is succeeding," she added.
"She is one human," Thor insisted. "I am sorry that I can do nothing to help her, but I will sacrifice her if I must to prevent Loki unlocking the Naglfar."
Freyja nodded, sadly. "Once, you would never have considered that."
"Once, I was young, and judged only for myself," Thor replied. "Now I am old, and I must consider the future of our race."
"Is she connected to your work?" Freyja asked, shrewdly.
There was a long pause, before Thor replied: "She is."
"Do you think that he knew that?"
"Perhaps. I hope not. If he were to discover our final secret, then our race would truly be doomed."
Freyja touched Thor lightly on the shoulder, and pressed her face lightly against his, in a gesture of support and comfort. "Do not despair, old friend," she said. "Where there is life, there is hope. While there is strength in my limbs, the woman shall not be abandoned."
"Freyja," Thor said, softly. He looked into Freyja's black eyes, and saw the depth of compassion there; a compassion he was no longer able to reflect. "How do you manage to stay so young?"
"So tell me about the Asgard?" Sam said.
"What about them?" Newman asked.
"What are they like? To work with; to be around. The only one I know is Thor, and it's not as if we ever just hang out."
"They're…odd," Newman replied.
Hnoss nodded. "I am used to mother, of course," she added. "But other Asgard seem strange to me. They profess to care about all peoples, but I do not feel it of them."
"How do you mean?" Sam asked, concerned.
"Not that they are malevolent," Hnoss assured her. "Just that…sometimes – often – they seem to act more from curiosity and boredom than from compassion. They protect a world to see what the inhabitants will do, as much as because it is right. It is…" She paused, thoughtfully. "I am certain that long ago the Asgard espoused a true and genuine altruism in their dealings with all those who did not seek to harm them, and that they explored the galaxies in the hope of expanding and perfecting their knowledge."
"Have you ever met a race called the Nox?" Hnoss asked.
"Yes," Sam replied, fondly.
"Their race is as ancient as the Asgard," she said. "And some of them are as old and powerful as Thor or my mother, but they are very different, are they not?"
"They are," Sam agreed. "The Nox seem more…"
"Alive?" Hnoss suggested.
"Yes," Sam agreed. "I suppose they do. More vital somehow."
"Somewhere, that is what the Asgard have lost. It shows in their living energy; they have far less than a human. They rarely fight as you saw them today, because it expends almost all of their reserves; similarly, they can make little use of the combat gauntlet before draining themselves completely. It is less marked in my mother – perhaps because she spends so much time around humans – but it seems as though they have lost their interest in life itself. They live for other things now: duty, knowledge, the greater good; but they are almost incapable of living simply for the pleasure of existing." She sighed. "It is sad.
"I think that now they keep to their old ways – to learn, to teach; to aid others – only from habit, and because it prevents them stagnating completely. I think the Replicators might have been very good for them, at least culturally. To have such a conundrum – such a challenge – face them made them grow and adapt for the first time in millennia.
"Not wishing them any ill," she concluded, sadly. "But I think that what the Asgard really need is a serious threat of imminent extinction to stop them dying by inches."
"So you're saying that they only help us because…what? It's what they've always done?"
"And because it's the right thing to do," Hnoss added. "I'm just not sure that they understand anymore, on an emotional level, why it's the right thing to do."
"Like Thor didn't know how to comfort Mary when she was afraid," Sam realised.
Hnoss just nodded.
"Strange, strange people," Newman agreed. "But still; I far prefer them to the Goa'uld."
Eris sat on the bridge of her mothership and sulked.
On the main screen, she watched as flash after flash signalled the passage of Jaffa and supplies from her ship, the Kalliste, to the Utgard. The latter vessel had arrived a few hours ago, and by then Loki had already completed his preparations to transfer to his long-dormant command ship. Almost twice the size of Eris' sleek, swift mothership, Loki had deemed that the Utgard should take on two-thirds of the Kalliste's crew, selecting several of Eris' finest, favourite and most pleasingly muscled Jaffa as part of this number. Why he wanted those ones, Eris did not know, as his interests ran purely to the feminine, and his shrivelled corpse of a daughter could hardly have any use for them. Once the transfer was complete, the Utgard would set out in search of Hel's brother, Jormungandr – a nasty, scaly sort as Eris recalled; of all the master's children, only Fenrir had ever piqued Eris' interests – leaving Eris with the task of recovering the runestone that Hel had managed to lose to the Tau'ri.
For more years now than she could count, Eris had lived on board the Kalliste. Years that she, trapped, tied by her own impatience, to the fragile life of this woman-child form, could never recover. It was her palace, her chariot, and her haven. Ever obedient to the last command of her mistress, Angrboda, Eris had stayed close to Loki's prison, awaiting the day that Hel's machinations would bring someone to free the master from his restraining forcefield. For all that time, she had done nothing but wait, with little to break the monotony besides making changes to the interior decoration of the Kalliste in line with her moods. She had chosen her Jaffa to provide her with distractions from this tedium, and chosen well, but always she dreamed of the day her waiting would end, and her beloved master return to her.
She had anticipated rewards once Loki was restored. A world to call her own, and a lasting place at Loki's side; in his affections and in his bed. Instead, he berated her, belittled her efforts, and sent her to clean up his daughter's mess. He had not even shown her enough care to punish her when she disobeyed him. Was he angry with her for some reason? Eris wondered. Had she done something to earn his particular displeasure? Or had he always been this way, and his past kindness to her just a false memory, bred by millennia of isolation?
Surely not; had he not given her this ship in the first place? Given her a place when others despised her immature form and infantile intellect? Called her his sweetheart?
Silently, a hologram of Loki appeared on the bridge before Eris, and she immediately sat up straight and tried to arrange herself more pleasingly.
Loki watched her with an indulgent smile. "The transfer is complete," he told her. "The Utgard has barely enough crew, but we will manage."
Eris smiled sweetly, although she knew that an Asgard mothership like the Utgard could be run at no less that 60% efficiency by a single captain, and that taking her Jaffa was purely an act of dominion. "I trust that you shall be pleased by their performance," was all that she said.
"We are certain that we shall," Loki replied. "And if not…well, our daughter needs flesh, and Jaffa can be replaced."
"Of course, Lord," Eris agreed, burying her anger. Not just any Jaffa, she thought, angrily. My Jaffa. My only company and comfort for two thousand years, that I spent lifetimes husbanding and training. The idea of her pets being discarded to clothe Loki and Angrboda's abomination made Eris' blood boil.
"You will return to us once you have accomplished your task," Loki instructed. "Do not fail us, sweet Eris," he cautioned.
"No, Sire," Eris replied, meekly. Inside she seethed, knowing that by this warning, Loki insinuated that she might betray him. Ha! She thought. That husk that calls itself your daughter is more likely to turn on you than I am; once she knows where the Ship of Nails is hidden. Eris would not be surprised if Hel or Jormungandr were to try and supplant their father. Well, however he treated her, they would have to get past Eris first; or they would do if Loki were not sending her away.
"We shall await your return to us, Eris," Loki assured her, tenderly. "Do not stay away long."
"No, Sire," Eris agreed, her heart in her mouth. Did that mean he would miss her?
Without further ceremony, Loki cut the transmission, and the Utgard pulled away from Earth's orbit, accelerating hard towards the edge of the system, where it could safely activate its hyperdrives. Eris watched it go, brooding on the unfairness of life and obsessing on Loki's final words.
" Kalliste," she said at last.
"Mistress," the Kalliste replied. Eris had painstakingly created the mothership's voice in one of the more depressing periods of her two-thousand year vigil, and its mellifluent, maternal tones had been designed to be warm and comforting for her. After all these years, they still worked, and Eris felt herself calming.
"Maintain this orbit," Eris instructed. "And try to work out a suitable shift rotation for my remaining Jaffa. Also, I have to transport to the surface of this wretched world, so make sure there is a bath waiting when I return."
Daniel Jackson sat on the edge of Dr Fraiser's desk, wrapped head to toe in bandages, watching the SGC's CMO gaze into a microscope. Every so often, he glanced sideways, to where Cassandra sat at Llew Midhir's bedside. The boy was not – so far as Janet could make out – injured, but he was in a state of shock.
"You know I'm still mad at you," Janet told Daniel. "I mean, what were you thinking?"
"I was thinking: If I tell them to stay here, then they'll stay here," Daniel replied. "Stupid, I know, but it was all I could do."
"I get that you didn't invite them off-world," Janet assured him. "And I can't really be too angry when you saved their lives and lost your skin. But I was talking about the hair."
"Oh," Daniel said, looking over at Cassandra, her naturally blonde hair stained to a rather fetching shade of indigo. "I think she looks pretty good, actually."
"I'm sure you know that's not the issue here."
"She was bored Janet," Daniel explained. "All of her friends were away, and with the best will in the world I'm no substitute for a sixteen year old girl's friends. We went to the movies and I took her shopping a few times, but I think she felt stifled. Call it acting out, or self-expression or whatever; she was going nuts, and dyeing her hair seemed to help her let off steam. I felt I the circumstances it was preferable to letting her commandeer Sam's lab to build a Battlebot."
Janet sighed. "I should be angrier," she said. "But I guess I'm too glad to see you both safe and well."
"How about Llew?" Daniel asked. "Is he safe and well?"
"Well, I gave him a full physical," Janet told Daniel. "And even I've only ever seen a handful of people as healthy as Llew is."
"Teal'c?" Daniel asked.
Janet nodded. "Maybe the Tollans I examined, but even the Tollans had faint scar tissue. Llew has none. All of his organs appear to be in rather more than perfect working order; his lung capacity is incredible, and he can hold his breath for more than eight minutes."
"He senses things as well," Daniel said.
"Cassandra told me," Janet said. "I can't account for that yet, but I do know that his range of vision and hearing is about 30% broader than yours or mine, and maybe twice as sensitive; his spatial awareness is superb, his reflex speed is off the chart, and his neural activity is about 5% higher than most humans. I'd guess that if I did a biopsy we'd find his nerves, muscles and other tissues are in an absolute optimum condition. He's in perfect health," she summarised.
"Janet; the boy was knifed in the gut and he doesn't have a scratch to show for it. I saw him stabbed; he must have lost almost a quart of blood. That's not just perfect health."
"No, it's not," Janet agreed, dropping her voice to a whisper. "At first, I thought that it might be the nanocytes in his bandages; that his exceptional health was accelerating the same effect that they're having on you."
"But, the nanocytes in Llew's bandage were destroyed before they had a chance to do anything. That black residue was all that was left of them."
Destroyed?" Daniel asked, alarmed. "By what?"
"His system is already teeming with nanocytes," Janet said. "Smaller than anything I've seen before. I can't make out anything of how they function – I can barely spot that they're artificial – but they're there, and I think we can take a guess at what they do."
"How did they get there?" Daniel asked.
Janet shrugged. "I don't know," she admitted. She looked tired, Daniel noticed. Not so much sleepy as simply bone weary. "Although, judging by their spread in his body, I'd say they've been there a long time."
"Can you get them out?" Llew called across the infirmary, making the two grown-ups jump.
"Twice as sensitive?" Daniel asked Janet.
"Thereabouts," she said, crossing to Llew's bed. "I don't know how to get them out," she admitted. "But even if I did, I don't know what it would do to you. Your life might be dependent on them."
Llew looked appalled. "Like Teal'c's is on that…thing!"
"No," Daniel told him. "Look; Hel said that you had been altered by the Asgard. Maybe this is what she meant. It would explain why they're so much more advanced than any Goa'uld technology we've ever seen."
"Why?" Cassie asked, squeezing Llew's hand tightly.
"I don't know," Daniel admitted. "But I've never known them to act for selfish reasons."
"How's Captain Kawalsky?" Llew asked, changing the subject.
"She'll be fine," Janet promised. "She was pretty banged up, but there shouldn't be any permanent harm done. We've transferred her to a regular military hospital to convalesce."
"So why am I still here?" Llew asked.
"Well; we want to keep an eye on you," Janet said.
"You don't trust me."
"No!" Cassie insisted. "Or…I mean, yes; we trust you."
"We do," Janet agreed. "But I want to make sure that you don't relapse, and a regular hospital wouldn't know what to do with you. If you don't like the infirmary, you can always stay at our place," she added.
"I'd like that, Dr Fraiser," Llew said, touched. "Thank you."
"Don't mention it. It's the only way I'm likely to get Cassie to go home and get some sleep."
"Mom!" Cassie cried, embarrassed by the obvious mothering.
"You should take your own advice, Janet," Daniel suggested. "You look like you haven't been to bed in a while."
Janet shrugged. "They called me as soon as you went missing. Aside from a few minutes on the plane I haven't slept since, but I'm okay for a while longer."
"Tired people make mistakes," Daniel told her, firmly. "As a certain doctor keeps telling Sam and me." Janet started to protest, but Daniel cut her off. "Take them home," he said. "Get some sleep. Come back and have a fresh crack at this in the morning. I'll have General Hammond assign you a driver as well; I don't want you behind the wheel like this."
"Daniel!" Janet protested, drawing a snicker from the two teenagers. Janet scowled at them, but finally relented. "Alright; fine. But I'm not putting up with anyone calling me the mother hen of the SGC again; I'll direct them to you instead."
"And I'll send them to Teal'c," Daniel replied. "Have a good night's sleep; all of you." He reached down and squeezed Llew's shoulder, encouragingly. "You're going to be fine," he promised.
Eris targeted the Kalliste's transporters at a point some distance from the site of Hel's tomb. She materialised in the brilliance of a clear, crisp morning, with a cold breeze blowing on her face. She caught a sharp breath, her first taste of natural, fresh air for two millennia. The cold startled her after the Kalliste's carefully maintained temperature, although her clothing kept her warm enough. A random sampling of native fashions had allowed Eris to choose something that she found comfortable and flattering, and that was likely to be inconspicuous. It was different from her customary chiton, but she was glad of the extra material.
Eris made her way quickly across the dig site, trying to ignore the stares of the people around her, and wondering if she had misjudged in her choice of clothing. She felt exposed, and began to think better of her decision to descend to the planet's surface unescorted. She took some comfort from her hand device – not the delicate, ornamental weapon she habitually wore around the ship, but a customised gauntlet, created for her in Kalliste's small foundry, incorporating not only a ribbon weapon, but a set of hand claws, a recall device to activate the Kalliste's transporter, a communicator and a portable scanning array – but as much as she enjoyed killing, she had never been fond of fighting her own battles when others could have done it for her. Eris would have given much to have her senior Jaffa – not bearing the title of System Lord, she was not permitted a First Prime, but she had always retained one of her warriors in a similar role – by her side, but even had she thought of this earlier, the current incumbent was now serving aboard the Utgard.
Her attention was seized by a shrill whistle, and she looked around in shock. For a moment, she felt panic rising inside her; had she been recognised for what she was? But then she saw for the first time the eyes of the people who stared at her, and she saw the desire in those eyes. A lazy smile spread across her face, and she made her way with a slower, more confident gait to the tomb, which was concealed beneath a canvas tent.
Eris dropped lightly down into the pit, and walked towards the door of the tomb. She heard a scrambling noise behind her.
"Wait! You can't go in the…"
As a heavy hand descended on her shoulder, Eris turned, catching the man by the wrist and slamming him hard against one of the granite demi-pylons which flanked the door. She caught his throat in a fierce grip, holding him pinned. The man struggled, but although he was strong, the Goa'uld was stronger.
"And if I want to go in?" Eris asked, concealing her nature for the moment and speaking in a human tone. "Are you going to stop me, little man?" There was laughter in her voice; she was enjoying the feeling of power, the scent of the man's fear.
"Dangerous," he gasped. "Rock fall."
"Really?" Eris asked, feigning astonishment.
"Dr Midhir was hurt. Took her to the hospital."
Eris eased off her grip, and began to idly stroke the man's face with her left hand. He shivered as the cool metal claws of her hand device touched his skin. "And what of the others…I'm sorry. I didn't ask your name."
"John," he whispered, hoarsely.
"Eris," she replied. "Where did the others go, John? Dr Daniel Jackson, his servants and guards." Eris was quite pleased with the progress of this interview, and especially with her handling of the local language.
"I don't know," the man said. "Honestly. They just sent word that they wanted their stuff packed up, and someone would come and collect it."
"And where is this…stuff?" Eris asked, in an intimate whisper.
"All packed up at the east of the site," John replied, in a voice that was terrified, fascinated and revolted all at once.
"Thank you, John," Eris said, releasing his throat. She looked down at him as he slumped, coughing and gasping for breath at the foot of the pylon. "You're a handsome creature," she told him, with a smile. "Would you like to be my slave?"
"You're insane," John told her.
Eris' smile dissolved as she laid her left hand on his head. "No need to be rude," she told him. "A simple no would have sufficed."
Emerging from the tent, Eris followed John's directions, and located a small stack of baggage. She passed her hand over the stack but, stubbornly, the indicators in her gauntlet refused to glow, meaning that the stone she sought was not here. That was not altogether unexpected; if a primary Chappa'ai was active, then Jackson and his servants would have travelled there from Eljudnir. But it meant tracking that Gate and probably infiltrating the palace of Daniel Jackson's master, which would be tedious; if not downright dangerous.
With a sigh, Eris dug into a few of the packs, then – having found what she was looking for – activated her recall device, and the Kalliste's transport beam snatched her from the planet's surface. Displaying her usual consideration and foresight, the ship deposited Eris in her bath chamber, where scented water steamed invitingly in the tub. Her favourite musicians – a flautist and a harpist – played soothing tunes, and her third favourite personal attendant waited on her, the other two having been taken by Loki.
Eris undressed, and sank delightedly into the bath, letting the water steal the chill from her bones. "Kalliste," she said. "Find me the Chappa'ai of this world, and tell me everything about the place where it is housed."
"At once, Mistress," the ship acknowledged.
Eris sat forward, allowing the Jaffa to begin scrubbing her back. "No hurry," she said. "I will take your report when I am done here."
"Very well, Mistress. I have taken the liberty of securing provisions from the planet's surface for your dinner," the Kalliste added.
Eris' mouth began to water. Real food; it had been so long. "Mmmm," she purred, happily. "Ah, Kalliste. What would I do without you?"
Hel reclined on a couch in her father's quarters, dimly wishing that her body still retained the living senses that would have allowed her to enjoy the surroundings. Since one of her experimental nanocytes had killed her, ceasing her biological functions, leaving nothing but the other nano-machines already within her body to keep her going, she had been aware of her surroundings only as information. She could analyse the chemical composition of anything she put into her mouth, for example, but she could not taste it. Likewise, she could sink into the luxurious cushions of Loki's couch, but she could not feel comfort and pleasure at the tactile sensation, even when clothed in another's stolen flesh.
"Do you believe that the silly child can regain my stone?" Hel asked.
Loki fixed her with a fierce gaze. "You should be wary of mocking our other servants, daughter," he said. "When it is your failure she must make right."
"I was betrayed," Hel spat.
"To allow such a betrayal is failure in itself," Loki replied, warning her that he would not fail in this regard.
Hel shrank before her father's quiet anger. The Trickster could be prone to fits of temper; black rages, wherein he would lash out at everything around him, or pummel the object of his fury into a bloody pulp with his bare hands. Such episodes could be avoided however, by the simple expedient of ducking out of sight as quickly as possible, and letting him spend his fury on servants and Jaffa. It was when Loki became calm that the wise servant feared him most.
"We set you a simple task," Loki said. "Three things we required of our children: To protect our Queen, your mother; to find places of security, and gather an army for our return; and to hold the stones which we entrusted to you. When we return to find you skulking on a lifeless world, surrounded by a handful of shambling corpses, our sweet Angrboda destroyed, and our stone taken by the Tau'ri – the Tau'ri! You can imagine that we might be a little DISAPPOINTED!"
Hel flinched from her father's bellow, averting her eyes humbly. "I did manage to keep Fenrir's stone from being lost," she argued.
"You sought to gather the stones for yourself," Loki accused.
Hel did not bother to deny that. "And it was I who freed you from your prison."
"And Eris who snatched us from that rock before the Asgard arrived to imprison us once more," Loki told her. "So of the two of you, she comes out ahead at the moment, and face facts, dear daughter; she is far more pleasant company." Loki smiled cruelly, and gestured towards his child's shrivelled form.
"That…might be remedied," Hel said.
Hel smiled, a hideous rictus splitting her necrotic face. "With the technology of the Utgard," she explained. "I can attempt to root out the particular devices that killed me, and that keep me dead. With those gone, a spell in the sarcophagus should restore me to life and health." It was not something that she had thought of before. It had been so long since she had possessed true flesh of her own that she had almost ceased to consider ways to restore herself.
Loki nodded. "Then perhaps if you please us, we shall allow you access to that technology."
"Thank you, father." Having thought of this method, Hel was eager to try it out; to reclaim those senses that she had missed.
Loki waved away the thanks. "First you must earn our indulgence," he said. "You have told us of Fenrir. We doubt that we could reclaim him; or that it would be worthwhile. We have his stone, and without it he is worthless to us. Tell us instead of Jormungandr," he instructed her, his voice proud.
Hel bridled at his tone. Jormungandr had always been the favourite. "When our mother ordered us to attempt your release by force of arms, we brought our three vessels to your prison."
"Only three? Why were their not more?"
"There were a small number of lesser craft, but only the three motherships. Mother ordered your handmaiden" – Eris, but she saw no reason to dignify the chit by using her name – "to remain behind in the Kalliste, in case the plan were to fail; as it did. Mother's vessel was destroyed, and she with it. Jormungandr surrendered, and I was able to escape."
"You left your mother?"
"Mother was already dead," Hel lied. "I tried to save her, but my vessel was too badly damaged. I barely had the power to attain hypervelocity and flee."
"And your brother?" Loki asked.
"Was taken to the prison ship; Niflheim. I was unable to effect his rescue because of Niflheim's defences. Any vessel that approaches is fired upon and destroyed; I doubt the Utgard would stand much more of a chance than my Ha'tak ship. There is a field around the prison which prevents the use of transport beams in either direction." Her smile deepened.
Loki observed his daughter, shrewdly. "In the years of your confinement," he said. "Did you perchance give any thought to a means of releasing your brother."
"I did," she replied. "I believe I can perform on the Utgard's primary transport array a similar modification to the one I made to the long-range device which carried the Tau'ri to free you. This might then be effective in landing an operative on the surface of Niflheim, and then lifting that operative and my dear brother back to the Utgard."
"Splendid!" Loki exclaimed. "Make these changes, and then we will allow you to restore yourself."
"You say that nothing can approach?" Sam asked.
Thor nodded. "The defences built into Niflheim are sufficient to destroy, or at least cripple, any approaching vessel; even the Naglfar would be damaged by the ferocity of the barrage."
Sam examined the holographic schematic of the Naglfar which Freyja had provided for this planning session. Newman and Hnoss were present, along with Sam and the two Asgard commanders. Both Thor and Freyja had extensive training in the Asgard discipline of martial philosophy, but despite – or more likely because of – this expertise, they hung on Sam’s every word. Plainly, they saw no shame in learning from the less sophisticated – but sometimes more practical – methods of the humans.
Niflheim travelled like a comet because it was built onto the back of one; massive enough to hold a thin atmosphere. Field generators beneath the city intensified the comet’s gravity to hold the inmates and their artificial atmosphere down. They called it a prison ship, but it was more of a city, its inmates constrained not by bars but by its isolation and kept in relative comfort. The perimeter wall was only there to protect them from the environment. There were gardens and parks, as well as an industrial area, where – Thor explained – the inmates manufactured whatever goods they required. The architecture was austere, but beautiful, with the administrative building forming a grand centrepiece. The city was lit dimly but continually by light from the comet beneath it, refracted by a powerful energy field, creating a perpetual twilight. Beyond the city’s limits, the surface of the comet bristled with imposing turrets, and a thin belt of debris straggled back into the comet’s tail.
"How did you manage to supply the place?" Sam asked.
"The warden’s residence was equipped with a one-way transport beam to collect necessary supplies," Thor explained. "Although we deliberately made the prison as self-sustaining as possible. When the time came for the warden to be replaced, he would deactivate the transport blocks for a few moments. All of these controls were housed in the administrative building. It would also be possible to disable the defences from the same control centre."
"Have we even found the thing yet?"
"We have," Freyja replied. "We located Niflheim about half an hour ago."
Sam nodded. "Can we see it?" She asked. "I mean, see it as it is now?"
Freyja nodded, and lifted her hand, and the schematic hologram was replaced with a solid image.
"I see Jormungandr doesn’t have green fingers," Newman noted. Sure enough, there was no sign of the lush parks which had once covered a good two-thirds of Niflheim’s surface, and only one garden was visible. The image lacked detail, especially within the perimeter wall, but most of the buildings seemed to have fallen into decay. The administrative building had almost vanished, replaced by a steep-sided mound.
"Look at that," Sam said, pointing out a number of dents in the perimeter wall. "Do the guns not stop something as small as an asteroid, or a meteor?"
"A sufficient number of meteors would confuse the weapons," Thor replied. "But the failsafes would override a locked gun the moment a large vessel came into range."
"And what about a small vessel?" Sam asked.
"A small vessel would be destroyed by a single hit from one of the defence cannons," Freyja told her.
"But what if they were screened by a meteor shower?" Sam insisted.
"The weapons might single out their power signatures," Freyja said, cautiously. "But there is a chance that a smaller vessel could slip in."
"Can you try to collect debris?" Sam asked. "Take it in tow or something?"
Freyja nodded. "We can."
"Good. Do that. Then, when we reach Niflheim, we can use that as a screen to land a small raiding party in your fighters, deactivate the defences and get Jormungandr out of there."
"Now that," Newman said, with admiration. "Is a stupid idea."
Sam smiled. "Is he the only one there?" She asked the Asgard.
"He is," Thor replied. "Although we can not pinpoint him while the anti-transport block is in place. It operates by preventing the detailed scanning required to target an individual or location."
"That is also why we can not gain a more accurate image of the area within the walls," Freyja explained.
"We shouldn’t need too many people then. Just four or five; enough to handle big, ugly, Unas-shaped trouble."
"I’m in," Newman said. "Sounds like a blast."
"You will need the best pilots we have," Hnoss agreed. "That would be Ratatosk Flight."
"The Rats," Newman told her. "Our flight."
"I also will accompany you," Thor told them. "If you encounter Jormungandr, you may require my assistance."
"I’m sure we can handle one Goa’uld," Newman assured him.
"Not this one!" Thor snapped.
Llew and Cassie sat on the back porch of Dr Fraiser’s house, looking up at the stars, as they began to sparkle in the evening sky.
"How’s your Mam?" Llew asked.
Cassie grimaced. "She’s surprisingly calm, but I think I’m going to be in big trouble later. For now she’s just glad to have me back, but that won’t last. I’m going to have to start stockpiling snacks against the inevitable house arrest."
Llew smiled. "You’ll weather it," he assured her. "But tell me: Dr Jackson and your mother…?"
"Oh, don’t you start," Cassandra retorted.
"You don’t think…?" Llew coaxed.
Cassie laughed. "I try not to. I know they’re close, but I don’t think they’re that close. Not unless they’re playing it very close to their chests." She sighed, softly. "Actually, Daniel’s pretty shy of women these days. Not that I think he was ever exactly Dr Lurve, but…"
"Bad times?" Llew asked.
"He was married to a woman named Sha’re," Cassie explained. "Who was taken by the Goa’uld. When he finally found her again, she tried to kill him; Teal’c had to shoot her to save his life."
"That must have been hard for him."
"Actually, I think it was good for him. It gave him closure, and for certain it was better for her than being enslaved like that. There’ve been other women since, but nothing really serious, and…well, according to Teal’c – who doesn’t think I need to be sheltered from the sex talk – a lot of women seem to want to possess Daniel. Not like a Goa’uld, just in a sex way; but it makes him jittery."
"I kind of know how he feels," Llew said.
"It’s the shy-guy vibe," Cassie told him. "Makes the cool girls see you as an accessory they can have, rather than a person to be with."
Llew raised his eyebrows at her tone. "Okay; once more with venom."
"Sorry," Cassie said, shrugging it off. "I’ve had men want the same out of me, and I lost someone to a girl like that."
"He was an idiot," Llew told her. "They all were."
Cassie blushed. "So anyway," she asked. "Why this keen interest in my mother’s domestic arrangements?"
Llew shrugged. "I just…I often wish Daniel hadn’t left Mam. That I’d grown up with a real father."
"I though he wasn’t…"
"Oh; he isn’t. Not biologically. But then Dr Fraiser’s not your birth mother; does that mean she’s not your real Mam?"
"I guess it doesn’t," Cassie admitted. "Although…sometimes I get scared. Sometimes, when we have a fight, and I yell at her that she’s not my real mother, I get this cold feeling inside, and I’m afraid she’ll just turn round and say: ‘Well that means I don’t have to put up with this’. And then she’d send me away somewhere."
Llew smiled, warmly. "Never going to happen," he promised her. "It’s plain to see you’re as real a daughter to her as any mother could ask for. Why else would she nag you so much?"
Cassie nodded, solemnly. "No one else knows what I just said," she told him. "You can keep…?"
"Your secret? With my life," Llew promised her. He sighed, and after a few moments his smile grew wistful and nostalgic as he returned to his own story. "I was really young at the time," he said. "But I remember Mam was happy when she was with Daniel. I’ve never seen her be with another guy who made her…glow so much."
"Glow? Is that an aura thing, or a metaphor?"
"A little of both," he replied, becoming instantly subdued. "It’s them, isn’t it?" He asked.
"Mom and Daniel?" Cassie asked, genuinely confused.
"No. These things inside me. They’re the ones that let me sense stuff." He laughed, bitterly. "My own, personal midichlorians."
"Llew…" Cassie began, conciliatorily.
"Who’s Llew?" The young man demanded, angry at the world. "I don’t know. What would I be like without them? From what your Mam said, I’ve had these things forever: Who knows what I really am."
"Don’t start this again," Cassie pleaded. "You’re not a freak. Those things inside you, aren’t you; they’re just part of you, like your blood and skin," she insisted, brushing her hand against his face. "They tell you the Goa’uld are evil, which makes them pretty good judges of character. I don’t think they’re anything that could make you into something you’re not." She cupped his face with her hand. "And I like what you are," she assured him. "Midichlorians and all."
"Thanks, Cassie," Llew whispered, gazing into her eyes. The telephone rang, and it seemed very far away.
"Any time," she replied, gently drawing him closer to her. His hand slipped into her hair, and their lips brushed together.
"Cassie! Llew!" Janet came rushing through from the house, clutching the phone.
"Son of a…!" Cassie snapped, angered at her mother’s timing. The two teenagers leaped apart as though scalded, affecting an air of utmost innocence.
"What’s wrong, Dr Fraiser?" Llew asked, picking up on Janet’s distress a few moments before Cassandra.
"Daniel says we have to get you back to the base," she replied. "Both of you. He’ll be here with a car here in ten minutes." She turned towards Llew. "I’m afraid there’s been an incident at your mother’s dig," she told him. "A man named John was killed."
"Oh gods," Llew whispered. "Poor John; and poor Tamsin," he said, thinking of John’s adoring girlfriend.
Cassie felt a surge of guilt for her anger of a moment past. She laid her hand affectionately on her mother’s arm, both giving and drawing comfort from the connection. Llew was right about one thing; blood relationship had little to do with who her ‘real’ mother was. "What…?" She began. "How did he die?"
"He was murdered," Janet replied. "By a Goa’uld."
Thor’s outburst left everyone stunned, and before they could muster a response, he turned and walked out of the room. Hnoss and Newman stoop gawping, while Freyja shook her head sadly. Sam very much feared that she looked as foolish as the other two humans, so she shut her mouth, and took off after Thor.
"Thor!" She called out, catching up with him in the corridor. At least, she hoped it was him; if it were one of the other Asgard in the crew, she would be very embarrassed. "Wait up."
Thor turned, slowly. "How may I help you, Major Carter?"
"Actually, I was wondering about you," Carter replied. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"No." Thor turned away, but Sam caught him by the arm, surprising them both.
"Thor. I have to know what I’m dealing with. What is down there that you are so afraid of?"
Thor nodded, once. "Very well," he said.
Thor led Sam to his quarters; a Spartan chamber, where he stood, and offered her what must be his sleeping pallet to sit on. She did so, and he launched into his tale without preamble.
"We were able to capture Jormungandr when Loki’s kin attempted to rescue him from his prison. We knew that such an attempt might come, and we had very clear orders in the event, that none of Loki’s children were to be slain, as all of them were to be accounted kin to the Asgard."
"I bet that went down well," Sam commented.
"None of the Asgard involved in the battle had any qualms about killing Loki’s get, but Odin was insistent, and the Council supported him. We were to use our weapons solely to disable the attacking vessels, and to board them in order to capture Angrboda, Hel and Jormungandr. Sadly, our opponents had few such scruples, and their Ha’tak vessels were enhanced with Asgard technology, to the point that they were almost a match for our motherships.
"There were three pyramid vessels, and a number of smaller ships, while we had in our battlegroup the Biliskner and the Thiazi , commanded by myself and Skadi, respectively. We underestimated the power of Hel’s enhanced Ha’tak vessels, and were nearly destroyed for our arrogance. We were saved only by Hel’s cowardice. She left the battle when she saw that we sought to immobilise her vessel, and we were able to overcome the two remaining motherships, and their commanders surrendered. This being done, we sent boarding parties to take possession of the vessels and to take prisoners.
"The Thiazi sent nine Asgard onto Angrboda’s Ha’tak. They began sending Jaffa back to Skadi’s custody, but when they reached the pel’tac, Angrboda had gone. At that moment, a small escape craft launched from the Ha’tak, and before Skadi could transport her crew back to the safety of the Thiazi, the reactors on the Goa’uld mothership detonated, destroying the entire vessel. All nine Asgard were killed."
Sam was shocked. The idea of the Asgard being killed was difficult for her to grasp. Although she understood, intellectually, that Asgard must have died aboard the ships taken over by the Replicators, they always seemed so timeless in person; constant, in their almost ephemeral way. From the sound of it, nine was a tremendous number for the Asgard to lose, and she wondered how many of them there were in all.
"Enraged and grief-stricken, Skadi fired on Angrboda’s escape craft, destroying it before Loki’s Queen could initiate her hyperdrives. She was criticised by the Council, but they had only requested Angrboda’s capture, not ordered it. Only the children were sacrosanct."
Sam swallowed hard. If it was difficult to think of the Asgard being killed, the idea of them becoming angry enough to destroy in cold blood was terrifying. "I have to admit," she said. "I find the idea of the Asgard acting in violence disturbing."
"It does not happen often," Thor replied. "Although for some it comes more easily than others."
"In Skadi, for example?"
"Yes," Thor agreed. "But Skadi was renowned for her impetuous and passionate nature."
Sam had a mental image of an Asgard suggesting a five week study of a planet before moving to a slightly lower level orbit, and an older Asgard telling her not to be so rash.
"That was a long time ago," Thor went on. "And there were few even then who could rouse one of our people to rage. Loki was the only one who has yet survived doing so."
"What about Jormungandr?" She asked, not without trepidation. She could not claim that she liked the implications of Thor’s words.
"I entered the vessel with the boarding party, and we took care to disable the primary reactors before moving on to confront Jormungandr. We took most of his Jaffa captive with but one of our number being wounded in return, and so when we came to face the Serpent himself, we felt confident that we could quickly contain him.
"We were wrong."
Thor gave a small sound, that might have been a sigh. "Jormungandr’s host had been large, even for a bull Unas, and his father and sister performed much work to make him more powerful and capable. As you know, a Goa’uld’s ability to think and reason is affected by the neural capacity of its host…"
"I didn’t know that," Sam noted. "Although it explains a few things."
"Even within an Unas, a Goa’uld is not stupid, but they think more slowly than those in human hosts. Jormungandr’s host however had clearly been altered to accelerate its cognitive functions, as well as making it stronger, faster and tougher."
"Stronger, faster and tougher than a regular Unas-Goa’uld? Isn’t that overkill?"
"Loki appeared to believe that it was insufficient kill. When we raided his laboratory, we found the remains of several experiments aimed at further enhancing his children, and Jormungandr’s Unas host in particular."
"Jormungandr was renowned for his tenacity and savagery in combat, and I can personally attest to both. Two of my companions were killed in the fight with Jormungandr, and several more injured. He almost overcame me, but fortunately Skadi arrived in time to assist me, and we were able to capture him."
Sam thought of the fight she had witnessed between Thor and Freyja, and of the power of the Asgard’s weapons. She shuddered again.
"I was injured then," Thor told her. "And Jormungandr may have been weakened by his isolated life. But it will be a hard fight."
Sam shrugged. "Look on the bright side," she said. "We may be blasted out of the sky before we reach him."
Thor looked at her for a long moment. Then he blinked. Sam had no way of knowing if he realised that was a joke.
Ferretti set the runestone that SG-6 had captured from Hel into a small, metal container. Lieutenant Jennifer Hailey – currently on rotating assignment with the SGC technical team and the SG-14 field engineering corps – closed the lid, and set a series of dials.
"Explain to me again how this works?" Ferretti asked. "And please, use small words." He was hopping with impatience, eager to join Roberts and Pearson, but before he could go to the hospital to keep watch on his injured 2IC, he had to be certain that custodianship of the runestone had been securely passed on.
Hailey smiled, a little smugly. "The box is made from Adamantium," she said.
"An alloy of naquadah, trinium and carbon, which Major Carter developed, based on information gained from the Asgard."
"Carter reads X-Men?" Ferretti asked.
"Actually, I do," Hailey replied. "I suggested the name. It’s the strongest alloy we have, but can only be manufactured in quite small amounts, and is a bit of a bugger to work. It is extremely effective at intercepting radiation, and so Major Carter felt that its most practical use would be – for the time being – in field containers for radioactive naquadah samples.
"More importantly, the surface of this particular box carries a small charge, which in theory should prevent anything within the box being transported out."
"It’s not something we’ve been able to test," she admitted. "Not having much access to Asgard transporter technology. But from everything we’ve been able to…ah…guess, about it, the theory is 100% sound."
"Yeah." She scratched her head, awkwardly. "So; has there been any word of the rest of SG-1?"
"Nothing from Major Carter yet," Ferretti told her, knowing what she meant. It was pretty well known among the old hands at the SGC that Jennifer Hailey admired Major Carter – or rather Dr Carter, for it was her scientific achievements that Hailey looked up to – almost as much as she resented the older woman for blazing the hard trail that she felt driven to follow.
"Is Dr Jackson on his way back with the children?"
"Yeah," Ferretti acknowledged. "Although I wouldn’t call ‘em kids. They’re a bit hot-headed, but they handled themselves okay."
"And the base is going on full alert?"
"There’s a Goa’uld on Earth," Ferretti said. "There’s not a lot that’s more serious than that."
Before she turned in, Hnoss had stopped by Sam’s quarters with what looked like a jumpsuit of some kind. She explained that it was an Asgard vacuum/pressure suit, to wear in the Steed.
"More for the pressure than the vacuum," she explained. "If the ship gets hit, we won’t survive to need the vac-protection, but we will be moving between different gravities, and you will need something to help compensate. If you have any trouble getting it sealed up in the morning, give me a shout."
"I’m sure I’ll manage," Sam replied.
"Not so cocky now," Sam muttered to herself. It had taken her the best part of forty-five minutes to figure the fastenings on the vac-suit, but pride and bloody-mindedness kept her working at it instead of asking for help. The unfamiliar weight of the suit bothered her, and she fidgeted as she made her way to the briefing hall of the Stupid Idea. The hologram of Niflheim still floated in the centre of the room, but two more people had joined the briefing today; a slender, athletic young woman, and a wiry man, both apparently in their twenties, and both oriental. If she had to guess, Sam would have said the woman was Japanese, the man Vietnamese.
"Carter," Newman greeted her. "May I present Ratatosk Flight. Hnoss and I you know, but I don’t think you’ve met Nekai Yukio, from the world of Yomi – P9Z-226 to you – and Phan Kim; formerly of the Viet Cong." Newman and his comrades wore their vac-suits as easily as Sam would have worn an earth-made flight suit.
"Hi," she said, uncertain how she felt about working with a former VC, and actually a little more worried about how he would feel about working with her.
The two pilots returned her greeting, and if she had any concerns about enmity, those were quickly displaced, as they – and Hnoss – began to visibly struggle with hysteria.
"Did I say something funny?"
"Say?" Newman replied, walking around behind Sam. "No." Sam started as he put his hands on her back, and released a number of the suit fastenings. "You’re just a little crooked." He resealed the suit, and Sam found that it was suddenly a lot more comfortable.
"Thanks," she said, a little embarrassed.
"Don’t worry about it," he assured her. "These guys are just a little rude."
Kim and Yukio reacted with disbelieving guffaws, while Hnoss smiled slyly. Before Sam could ask for further explanation, Freyja stepped forward, reminding them of the Asgard’s silent presence. Sam noticed that Thor was also wearing a vac-suit.
"We have now approached within launch range of Niflheim," he said. "And have matched velocity with the comet. We estimate that it will take a further fifty-one to fifty-two minutes to gather sufficient debris from the comet’s tail with the gravity scoops to provide an adequate screen for our approach. You will launch as soon as the gathering process is complete."
Freyja fell silent, and without ceremony, Hnoss stepped up. As she did so, Sam saw all traces of her playful girlishness fall into the background as she assumed a serious and martial demeanour. "Have no illusions," she told the pilots. "This will be the toughest flight any of us have ever had. We will be manoeuvring in cover of free-falling space debris, under threat at any one time from no less than three separate Asgard heavy particle turrets. Anyone not feel up to the challenge?"
The pilots gave no response.
"Good," she said, with a smile. "Because I really do not believe that any of the other pilots could pull this off.
"Yukio and I will be flying transport for Thor and Sam; Chris and Kim, you will be escort, although there should not be much to protect us from. We form up behind the debris screen, five hundred metres off the bow, and wait for the fields to release; then we follow the screen in. Formation must be loose, we must keep moving, and when we get past the perimeter wall, we need to dive in hard to get under the shadow where we will be safe from the weapons. After that we can cruise in low to the landing zone in this former park area here.
"Once we are down, we will go on foot to locate Jormungandr and contain him. Weapons should be deployed at maximum stun, but no more. Once we hit the ground, the most experienced infantry officer among us will take command. I know that we have not trained with Sam before," she added.
Sam was startled; she had not expected this.
Hnoss shot Sam a reassuring smile. "Rest assured, however, that she is a fine commander, and trust her to see us through." She turned to face Sam. "So that you know, the strength of our team is in stealth. Yukio here is one of the few Chosen to come from a world controlled by one of the System Lords. She was a member of a ninja clan, which has been leading local resistance against the Goa’uld Susanowa on her homeworld for centuries."
"It will be my honour to serve with you," Yukio assured her, with a slight bow.
"Likewise, Phan Kim’s training is in guerrilla warfare."
"I guessed," Sam told Hnoss, ruefully. "You don’t mind working under a running-dog American?"
"I’ll survive," Kim promised, affably.
"Death is a great conqueror of prejudice," Newman said. "You should try it."
"Been there, done that," Sam replied.
"All of us have," Hnoss agreed. "Let us not have anyone resurrecting that habit on this run. If your Steed takes a hit from a particle cannon there will be nothing left to reclaim and resuscitate. Likewise, once on the surface we can not be recalled by transport beam – once we get over the wall we’ll be completely out of contact with the Idea – so death is likely to have time to stick. No reckless heroics."
The pilots nodded their understanding.
"Weapons?" Sam asked.
"Combat gauntlets," Newman replied.
"Gersemi has finished installing a limiter for you," Hnoss added. "So you can fire the gauntlet without blacking out. The cockpit of a Steed is rather small for two, so it is probably best that you do not bring anything else. Also, this is a capture mission. Jormungandr may not have the stone on him, so he needs to be able to answer questions. If we kill him on the surface, there is no certainty that we would be able to resuscitate."
"How about a zat, for backup?"
"Zat’nik’tels and similar electro-disruptive technologies will be ineffective against Jormungandr," Thor told Sam.
"We’ll get you used to firing the gauntlet at a stun level before we go," Newman added. "You’ll manage just fine."
Forty minutes of gauntlet training and ten of drinking some sort of isotonic compound to restore her bio-energy levels, Sam followed Newman to the flight deck; a long chamber where dozens of the small ‘Thunder Steed’ fighters hung on racks, like suits at a dry cleaner’s. A raised walkway ran along the rear wall, some fifteen feet above the hangar floor. The flight deck was open to space at one end, half of the opening filled with the black void of space, the other with the pale glow of the comet’s head. Sam guessed that either some form of inertia, or perhaps a protective force field, must hold the air within the deck.
Thor was waiting with the pilots on one of a large number of embarkation platforms, which extended from the walkway, over the hangar area. Each now wore a lightweight helmet and a combat gauntlet, in addition to a vac-suit. Yukio also had a short sword at her hip. Thor had no gauntlet, but was carrying a massive hammer. That last gave Sam pause, especially since the Asgard simply looked too frail to lift the weapon.
"Have fun?" Hnoss asked, knowingly.
Sam returned a puzzled frown, unclear precisely what Hnoss might know. Freyja’s daughter tapped the side of her helmet, and Newman indicated a small toggle on Sam’s shoulder. She pressed the stud, and a helmet materialised around her. Newman activated a similar control in his suit, and Sam watched in amazement as a burst of light – like an Asgard transport beam – surrounded his head for a moment, dissipating to leave a helmet.
"Ratatosk Flight is ready, Control," Hnoss reported, and Sam realised her voice relayed to Sam through a comm-system in the helmet.
Presumably in response to this signal, four of the Steeds were released from the racks, and flew under their own guidance to hover in place before the platform. The Asgard fighters were small, truly not much larger than the flesh and blood Steeds. Each consisted of a wheel-shaped body, held between a pair of long, narrow wings. The Steeds were powered by four engines, one at the top, and one at the bottom of the wheel, and one on each wing. A long tube each side of the wheel – above the wing –housed the linear accelerators.
A hatch opened in the back of each Steed, and the pilots climbed aboard. Sam followed Yukio, and clambered in behind the ninja when signalled. The cockpit filled most of the fighter’s body, and consisted of a saddle-like seat, and two control yokes. Almost instinctively, she gripped Yukio’s waist, as she would on a horse or a motorbike.
"Is this right?" She asked, not wishing to be taken in by superficial similarities.
"Unless you’d rather ride with Chris," Yukio said.
"I’m not picky," Sam assured her, suddenly wondering if someone had been spreading scurrilous rumours. Yukio’s lewd cackle seemed to confirm it.
" Hnoss," Sam muttered.
"Yes, Sam?" Hnoss’ voice sounded by her ear.
"Gah!" Sam exclaimed, startled, and actually looked around for Hnoss. The transmission was so free from distortion and static that it was hard to remember that she was only hearing the voice remotely. "How exactly do these helmet radios work?"
"Well, they’re not exactly radios," Hnoss corrected. "But basically if you say the name of one of the flight members with a little emphasis, it immediately opens a channel, which stays open until neither of you has said anything for thirty seconds. I’m going to switch us all to open channel now, though."
"So we’ll all be able to hear everything everyone says?"
"That’s right. Hang on: Ratatosk Flight, this is Rat Leader; report."
"Rat Two, ready," Yukio responded.
"Rat Three, ready," Kim confirmed.
Newman was the last to report in. "Rat Four, standing by."
"Ratatosk Flight," Freyja’s voice came across the channel, with that same, disconcerting clarity. "This is control. You are cleared for launch; the debris screen will be released in thirty seconds."
"In your own time then," Hnoss said, and moments later her Steed shot forward, engines flaring blue-white. Yukio pressed forward on the control yokes, and Sam felt herself dragged backwards by inertia as the Steed accelerated toward the open end of the hangar. With only a slight bucking, the fighter passed through the energy field, and Sam felt a lurch as her internal orientation went haywire, and her body started to tell her that she was lying on her back where she had been sitting up straight. Plainly they had left the effects of the Stupid Idea’s artificial gravity, and now the only attractive force acting on them was the tractor field holding the debris screen in place at an artificial Lagrange point.
The four Steeds moved into position behind the wall of meteors and scrap metal that was to form their skirmishing shield. Yukio ran a systems check while they hovered.
"Didn’t you do that already?"
"Better safe than sorry on a trip like this," Yukio replied. Sam felt forced to concede the point.
"Ratatosk," Freyja said. "We will release the screen in ten seconds. Five. Four. Three. Two." Silently, the mass of space debris began to drift towards the comet’s head. "Screen away. Good luck, Ratatosk."
The fighters eased forward, the making minimal use of their engines, allowing the small craft to be drawn forward, for the most part, by gravity. They picked up speed slowly, as the glowing ball grew before them, and the dark stain on its back resolved into the shape of the city.
"Niflheim," Sam whispered.
Daniel quietly opened the guest room door, and looked in at the woman lying on the bunk within. She was sleeping, curled into a tight foetal position, with a look of absolute peace on her sweet, pale features. Feeling some regret that he had to do so, Daniel crouched beside the bunk, and shook the woman gently by the shoulder.
"Ganglot," he whispered. His approach to the woman was incredibly gentle, as though he were frightened of breaking her; as indeed he was. Having had her flesh repeatedly stolen by her mistress, Hel, Ganglot’s skin was currently paper thin. "Ganglot," Daniel said, a little louder.
The woman stirred in her sleep, and her eyes opened. She looked around in panic, but when her gaze settled on Daniel she became calm, and peace came over her face once more. "My Lord Daniel," she said, sleepily, speaking in an ancient Norse dialect. "How may I serve."
Daniel smiled, gently. "Not Lord," he reminded her, speaking Goa’uld, as it was better than his ancient Norse. "Daniel."
"Daniel," Ganglot corrected herself, rising to a sitting position.
Daniel sat on the bed beside the young woman; or rather, the woman who looked young. In reality, she was at least fifteen centuries old, sustained by the products of Hel’s twisted genius. "I need to know something about Hel," he said. "Did she have any way to travel to Earth, that would allow her to arrive through the Gate in the tomb, instead of through the main Gate?"
Ganglot shrugged. "I do not know," she said. "I believe that the Gate was designed to be the only way to travel to her palace, and the only way to leave. She once said that if she were desperate, she could call for aid, but that would place her at the mercy of the Asgard."
"And when did she say this?"
"About six hundred years ago," Ganglot replied.
Daniel was taken aback. "You remember things that she said six hundred years ago?"
"When I forget things, I am punished," Ganglot replied.
"Forgot," Daniel told her. "When you forgot things, you were punished. That’s not going to happen anymore."
Ganglot smiled, wistfully, and she reached out to stroke Daniel’s face with her fingers. The touch felt odd, the bandages still numbing as well as covering his raw, exposed flesh.
Daniel raised a hand, and wrapped his cloth-wrapped fingers around Ganglot’s paper-skinned ones. "Right now, though, I need you to help me. I need you to remember as much as you can about how Hel planned to leave her palace, and what she meant to do afterwards."
The free-fall descent towards the comet seemed to take forever. Without even the tractor field to provide a sense of gravity, Sam had difficulty keeping track of which way was up and which was down. Yukio seemed to have no such difficulties, but it made sense to Sam that this would be part of the training which she had been given. By leaning her body from side to side, and very gently working the controls, Yukio kept the Steed pointed steadily at the prison-city riding the back of the comet.
" Yukio? How long ago were you chosen?" Sam asked.
"Maybe twenty years," the woman replied. To look at, she was not much more than eighteen, which probably meant that she was about the same age as Sam.
"You’re very good," Sam complimented her.
"It is what I was raised to be," Yukio replied, half-turning, and acknowledging the compliment with a gracious nod. "It was hard, resisting Susanowa’s Bushi Guards, avoiding the agents of his Queen, Amaterasu. There was little room in our lives for error, so we were always taught that you must train with absolute dedication, to be the best that you can be."
"Makes sense," Sam replied, sadly.
"Don’t feel too badly for me," Yukio told her. "Our lives were not completely bleak. We worked hard, and we played hard. Whenever we had a moment’s grace for enjoyment, we used it to the full. Otherwise, what might we have had that would be worth fighting for. I hope one day to return to Yomi, as part of the Stupid Idea’s crew, and free my world."
"I’m sure you will," Sam told her, sincerely. Yukio might have high ambitions, but she spoke with the kind of simple, uncomplicated conviction that allowed Daniel Jackson and Jack O’Neill to rock worlds on their axes. Of course, she also had a long life ahead of her, and the resources of an Asgard battle carrier to bring to the table, which could only help.
"Weapons powering up," Hnoss announced. Immediately, Yukio snapped to full alert, scanning her HUD intently.
"What are you watching for?" Sam asked, as ahead of them, debris began to be vaporised by pulses of brilliant blue energy.
"Targeting beams," Yukio replied. "If the guns keep shooting at the screen that’s fine," she explained, shifting position to keep as much debris as possible between the Steed and the weapons. "But if they spot us and begin to lock on to our power signatures, it all begins to get more interesting."
"My people have a curse," Yukio said, with a grim laugh.
"May you live in interesting times," Sam guessed.
"That’s the one," she affirmed, as the Steed was rocked by a nearby detonation. Yukio swore violently in Japanese, and hauled the small craft out of a spin.
As Sam recovered her sense of balance, she realised that the firing had all but ceased. "The guns; they must have locked."
"Hai," Yukio replied. "Hopefully we can make it through before…" A red light flashed in the cockpit, accompanied by a soft yet insistent siren, and another burst of Japanese invective.
"Break!" Hnoss ordered. Yukio was already slamming the fighter into another hard turn, as the space around them filled with sub-light particle bursts.
Sam clung to Yukio’s waist, wondering why a civilisation as advanced as the Asgard could not manage a simple safety harness and pressure seat. After a moment however, she realised that she was not being thrown around the cockpit so much as she expected to be.
"Is there some kind of inertial stabilisation in this ship?" Sam asked.
"Well, duh," Yukio replied, slamming the Steed hard enough to the right to press Sam against a bulkhead.
"Why doesn’t it compensate completely?" Sam asked.
"Because," Yukio replied, tensely. "Humans function better as pilots if they are aware of the movement of their craft at a tactile level. Hold tight," she added, then the Steed stooped hard, and passed over the lip of the perimeter wall.
Almost instantly, Sam felt her stomach heave, and her body pressed into her seat as the 1.1Gs of Niflheim’s focused gravity hit her system. "Oh God," she groaned.
"It’s okay," Yukio said, sounding more than a little nauseous herself. "We’re safe now." As if by magic, the Steed shuddered violently. "What the…" Yukio began, before lapsing into the obscenities of her native tongue.
"We’re taking fire from the ground," Newman reported. "Must be from those no people who live here."
"Well, this is unex…Damn!" Hnoss snapped. "My steed has been hit," she said. "I can not make it to the landing zone. I will try to…" Her voice broke off in a crackle of static.
"Hnoss!" Yukio cried.
"Bring it about," Newman said. "We’ll go in an get her."
"No," Sam responded, sharply. "The anti-air is too heavy. Proceed to the LZ and touch down."
"What about Hnoss?" Newman demanded, although Sam was pleased to note that he obeyed her orders, even while questioning them.. "And Thor?"
"We come back for them on foot," Sam replied. "These birds aren’t built for ground attack, and she said it herself; our strength is in stealth." Yukio’s Steed heaved, and pitched right. Smoke poured from the left wing. "Also, or fighter is shot up enough I don’t want to risk turning."
"Roger that," Newman agreed. "Bringing her down."
"Let’s just hope we get there in one piece," Kim muttered.
Daniel burst into the control room, where General Hammond was just in the act of slamming down the red phone.
"Problems?" Daniel asked.
"We’re having a little difficulty explaining the urgency of the situation to the Canadians, who are – I suppose only naturally – somewhat suspicious of our claim that a dangerous sociopath is loose on their territory, but that we have no real idea what he or she looks like.
"Did anyone at the dig see anything?"
"There have been reports of a girl," Hammond replied. "High school age, dark hair, attractive; dressed in black leather. No-one on the site recognised her."
"High school age," Daniel mused. "From what Ganglot tells me, that sounds like Eris."
Daniel nodded. "Greek Goddess of Spite; ultimately responsible for the Trojan War. According to Ganglot she is one of Loki’s disciples, but not exactly Hel’s favourite person. If she’s here, that suggests…"
"That Loki is as well," Hammond reasoned.
"She probably came from a ship in orbit," Daniel said. "Loki has two that Ganglot knew of, other than those belonging to the underlords who abandoned him after his capture: The Utgard and the Kalliste."
"We haven’t detected any ships entering Earth orbit," Hammond said.
"Both ships were of Asgard make," Daniel explained. "Equipped with cloaking shields, much like Thor’s ship. We’d never know they were there."
"I was afraid of that," the General admitted. "We’ve been trying to contact the Asgard about it, but so far without success." He shook his head, but then looked up, alarmed. "If this girl has access to an Asgard vessel, then she could be anywhere now? She wouldn’t even need a set of transport rings to reach ground level."
"Yes, General," Daniel admitted. "But I think I know where she’s heading."
Sam leaned her weight against the hatch, and with a tortured groan it inched open. The Steed had come in too fast, and rolled when it landed, fortunately leaving the hatch facing upwards. As Sam scrambled out, Newman appeared and gave her a hand, then between them they lifted Yukio free of the wreck. Newman had removed his helmet, and Sam touched the control, causing hers to dematerialise. The air had a metallic, smoky taste, but was quite breathable.
Sam looked around, and got her first clear view of the prison-city of Niflheim. The buildings were mostly in ruins, perhaps from the ravages of time; perhaps from asteroid strikes. The ground was rubble-strewn, and little effort seemed to have been made to clear it. If Jormungandr were the only resident, that would make sense, he would probably not bother with most of the areas, but if there was no one else here, who had fired on them? Sam was sure she had counted at least three or four fire-points. So if people lived all over, why not try to clear up?
"What a mess," Yukio muttered to herself.
"You lost a stabiliser and one of your manoeuvring drives," Newman told her. "I’m amazed you got thing down in one piece."
Yukio smiled, grimly. She reached into the Steed and recovered her ninja-to, strapping it tightly around her lower left leg.
"Is that a practical place to carry your sword?" Sam asked.
"No," Yukio replied. "But I need to use the scabbard as a splint."
"My ankle was broken in the crash. It is not serious."
"It’s a broken ankle, Yukio," Sam told her.
"I will be well. We must find Hnoss and the Asgard."
"Stay," Sam instructed. "You and Kim stay here and guard the fighters. We may need them yet, and I don’t want Jormungandr getting his claws on them. We’ll go, find the others and come back. Then we’ll make a plan."
"Hai," Yukio accepted, reluctantly.
"As you say," the Vietnamese replied. He looked around, scanning the area. "But we are exposed here. We will take up position in that ruin," he said, pointing to the nearby shell of a dormitory building. "Where we can watch the fighters from safety."
"That’s good," Sam agreed. "Can we keep a channel open?" She asked.
"Yes," Newman replied. He touched the controls on his shoulder. "There," he said.
Sam nodded her thanks. "Okay. Did you get a good bearing on where Hnoss came down?" She asked, without much hope.
"There’s a locator in the Steed," Newman told her. "We can track it using the gauntlets."
"Those things really do do everything," Sam observed.
"Except make tea," Newman agreed, working a few controls. "Yes. Good, strong signal." He checked a readout. "Hull integrity looks okay; no leaks in the power supply. I guess something went wrong with their comms, maybe EMP from a particle rifle, but they should be okay."
"Let’s go then," Sam ordered. "Keep alert," she told the others.
It took nearly an hour for Sam and Newman to make their way to the crash site. Hnoss’ Steed had plainly been hit harder than Yukio’s, but she had held it together, and while one wing was bent out of shape, and the other had snapped off, the main capsule seemed to be in one piece. Hnoss had managed to land along a straight avenue, ploughing a furrow in the stony ground, before coming to rest against a wall at a t-junction.
"Neither of them here," Newman announced, peering through the open hatch. "Some blood though," he added, gingerly.
"Hnoss," Newman replied. "It’s red. She probably hurt her arm," he said, lifting the broken remains of a combat gauntlet.
"They must have left the crash site to avoid whoever shot them down," Sam deduced. "Yukio; any sign of them where you are?"
"Not a peep, Sam," the ninja replied. "We’ve not seen anyone."
"Damn," Sam whispered to herself. She scanned the ground, looking for tracks, but there was mostly rubble and stone; nothing to take a decent print.
Sam was distracted by a blinking light on her gauntlet. "Newman?" She asked.
"Proximity sensor," he told her. "Someone’s coming."
"Cover," Sam decided, and they moved swiftly to duck into a collapsed building. As they did so, Sam noted that it was neither really decayed, nor meteor struck, but appeared to show signs of deliberate shelling and blasting from ground level.
"Newman," Sam asked. "Do you ever get the feeling that the Asgard aren’t telling you everything?"
"Sometimes," Newman admitted.
"I don’t think this place was just abandoned and Jormungandr left on his own," she told him. "It looks like there was a war."
"Prison riot?" Newman asked.
They hunkered down as figures came around the corner of the junction where the Steed rested. For the most part, they looked human, clad in ragged robes, with dark goggles and cloths wound over their faces; there were nine in all. They were armed with an assortment of rough blades and spears, and two of the largest carried long rifles. One of the figures was small, and moved with an odd, hunched, shambling gait under a heavy cloak, and two more carried large baskets on their backs.
One figure stood out; a tall, swarthy, black-haired man who wore a battered vac-suit under a long, worn-out coat, with a band of cloth wrapped like a bandanna around his mouth and goggles over his eyes. He moved like a leader, and wore a sword at one hip, and a long-barrelled pistol at the other.
The two riflemen took up covering positions, while the leader examined the wrecked fighter.
One of the scavengers approached the leader. "What is it, Turaca?" She asked. "I’ve never seen anything like it."
"Nor have I, Setneb," Turaca replied, lifting the smashed gauntlet, and examining it with obvious interest. He turned to the shambling creature. "But if the Serpent wants it destroyed, I want it whole. Yarris; see if you can find a trail. Setneb, bring the sled. Let’s move this thing before the Che’fer come."
Setneb nodded, and dashed away.
"Have the Sky-Gods returned, Turaca?" One of the riflemen asked, anxiously.
"Easy, Chedren," Turaca replied, resting a comforting hand on the man’s shoulder. "There is no day of judgement; you know this. There are no Sky-Gods; only the Serpent and his empty words."
"I’m sorry, Turaca," Chedren began. "I…"
"It’s alright," Turaca replied. "You were raised on lies from your childhood. Lies are powerful; it will take time for you to break free."
"But I feel so weak when those fears come over me."
"You are not weak," Turaca assured him, looking the larger man in the eyes. "That is why your son will never hear those lies from his father’s lips, and will never wield a blade for the Serpent."
Chedren nodded, smiling with relief. Turaca smiled back, and slapped the man reassuringly on the back. He had an easy, yet potent charisma; an undeniable presence that drew attention. Sam could feel it, and plainly his comrades could as well; this was a leader. He had an air about him, like the best COs that Sam had ever known; the air of a leader prepared to die for and with his troops.
Yarris shuffled over to Turaca, who crouched before the hunched creature. Beneath a tattered hood, Sam could see tangled black locks, and a long snout. The creature began to speak, in a harsh, guttural tongue, which Turaca plainly understood.
"Well done," Turaca said, tousling Yarris’ hair, almost as though petting a dog.
Not long after, Setneb returned, leading a group of heavy-set men, towing a sled. Sam noticed that the sled did not actually touch the ground, apparently employing some manner of anti-gravity technology. That belied the lack of technological sophistication otherwise displayed by these scavengers.
With some effort, they manhandled the Steed onto the sled, which dipped and wobbled, but then stabilised. The broken off wing was added to the load, and Turaca held a whispered conference with Setneb, after which she led the sled team away again. Chedren and the two basket bearers went with them.
"The rest of you, we’re going after the pilot," Turaca announced. "Everyone stay alert; the Che’fer can’t be far off by now."
The scavengers left the junction, moving quickly and quietly. Plainly they were no strangers to stealth, and their tattered garments helped them to blend in with the scarred landscape.
"What now, Carter?" Newman asked, after Sam had given a brief account of events to Yukio and Kim.
"We follow the scavengers," she said, decisively. "If that tracker’s caught Hnoss’ trail, he can lead us to them."
"What if it’s a trap?" Yukio asked.
"They didn’t seem to be friends of Jormungandr," Sam replied. "Hopefully we can talk our way out of it. Besides, we’ll have you two waiting in the wings."
Moving cautiously, Newman and Sam followed the scavengers, keeping the last of them just barely in sight. Their quarry clearly knew the streets well, and they nearly lost them on several occasions, having to hurry to a street corner to catch up. It was after doing so that they rounded a corner to see Turaca and his fellows facing them down, weapons levelled. A footfall behind them told Sam and Newman that they had been flanked as well. Turaca was calm and composed, but his comrades were not. Yarris was agitated, fretting like a hound on a bad scent, and the rifleman looked too twitchy for Sam to be comfortable standing at the wrong end of his weapon.
Half-turning, Sam saw Chedren and Setneb, the latter aiming a pistol with almost as much calm as her leader. There was a whirring sound behind her, and she felt Newman grab her wrist, pressing down on the surface of her gauntlet.
"No!" Turaca shouted.
Sam turned back, in time to see the rifleman loose a shot; a bright burst of energy that splattered on Newman’s shoulder as he was reaching for his own gauntlet. A second shot came from behind, and Sam was aware of it harmlessly striking the shield which now stood between her and the world. The dial on her gauntlet went down very slightly, and she weighed up her chances. Could she take them all down? She glanced at Newman, who had fallen, and lay sprawled on the ground beside her. He looked to be breathing, but might not be for long.
"Hold your fire," Turaca ordered. Then he turned to Sam. "Surrender," he said. "Or the man dies." Setneb stooped, pressing the muzzle of her weapon to Newman’s temple.
"Sam?" Yukio asked.
"I think I’m in trouble," Sam admitted, actually unsure whether the voice that sounded so close and clear was for her ears only or not.
Turaca gave no sign of having heard Yukio’s voice. "Take off that device," he instructed. "You have until the count of five."
Sam did not give him the chance to count. She stabbed her finger down on the release, and allowed the gauntlet to fall to the ground. Then she raised her hands slowly above her head.
Eris reclined in her favourite chair, sipping a cool drink, and watching as the Kalliste played images of the Cheyenne Mountain complex in front of her. She had changed into the clothes that she had stolen from the pack at the dig site, and found them far less pleasant than those she had worn before. Still, this did seem to be how the Chappa’ai’s custodians dressed, and Eris had always been protective enough of her own existence to hold the opinion that discretion was the better part of valour.
"Can you detect the presence of the stone?" Eris asked, without much hope.
"No, Mistress," the ship replied. "The depth of rock makes detailed scanning difficult, and it is possible that the stone is somehow shrouded from my sight."
"That’s so inconsiderate of them," Eris pouted. "Now I have to go and search through all of that!" She gestured angrily at a schematic of the base.
"I have studied this palace closely," the Kalliste told her. "And it appears to hold the residences of two lords of the Tau’ri. Lieutenant General Forster of NORAD, and Major General Hammond of SGC."
"Are they kin?" Eris asked.
"No, Mistress. ‘General’ appears to be a statement of rank among the Tau’ri. Both are subservient to a man called the President."
"Ah; the overlord of the Tau’ri," Eris said. "Perhaps I should kill this President; plunge the Tau’ri into chaos, as a gift to my Lord."
"He does not appear to rule all of the Tau’ri," the Kalliste said. She sounded almost confused. "In fact, no one does. And there is a clear line of succession in the case of the President’s incapacity, to prevent such chaos, ruled over by a court of law that the President does not control."
"Huh. Strange people," Eris said. "No wonder they are so dependent on us. I wonder what would create true chaos on this world?"
"I shall attempt to ascertain," the Kalliste offered.
"Not my priority," Eris said, regretfully. "I have a task to perform. I must search the palace of SGC, and locate my Lord’s property. Ready the transport, and locate a safe spot for my arrival."
The place where Eris arrived was small and cramped, and smelled of damp and urine. She held up her hand device, letting it cast forth a soft, blue radiance which would scarcely have sufficed for a human, but allowed her to see clearly. She located the door easily, for it was straight in front of her, and reached for the control switch.
Suddenly light all but blinded Eris, and she covered her face with one arm, fumbling with the switch until the light died again. She was baffled; there was no other switch in this room, only buckets, and Mashak – training staffs – topped with strange implements, which she could only guess the use of. A flush of anger came over her, and she raised her wrist to speak into her hand device.
" Kalliste you vile traitor. You have placed me in a cell."
"I would never betray you, Mistress," the ship’s calming voice replied.
"There is no means of opening this door from within."
"Please, Mistress," the Kalliste said. "Trust in me. Put out your hand to the bar on the door, and press down."
Eris did so, and the door clicked and opened slightly. Eris did not bother thanking the ship for extracting her for a humiliation of its own devising. Instead, she stepped out of the broom cupboard, closing the door behind her and holding her tell-tale hand device under her jacket. Matching her stride to that of the other people around her, she walked a short distance, before turning into a less travelled corridor. From there, she headed for the chambers of Daniel Jackson, following the route laid out for her by the Kalliste’s surveillance.
"Hold it right there, Miss!"
Eris half turned, and saw a guard approaching her, hand on the butt of the primitive weapon at his belt. "Me?" She asked. "But I am one of you?"
"Sure," the guard replied. "You’re an Air Force Captain; and my six year old cousin is General of the Marine Corps."
"You must be very proud of her," Eris replied, brightly.
"Hands above your head," the guard instructed. When she hesitated, he drew his weapon, and Eris wearily obeyed. "Turn and face the wall."
Eris followed the guard’s instructions, next being required to place her hands flat against the wall and stand with her legs apart. He patted her garments in a manner that Eris found insultingly professional – as though he experienced beauty such as hers on a daily basis – then seize her by the wrist, twisted her arm behind her back and attempted to remove her hand device. That was when Eris’ curiosity ran out, and she began to be bored of the whole business.
The guard’s technique was good, Eris realised, but fundamentally designed for use against a person of only human capacity, which she was not. She let her anger at this treatment flow into her hand, and a burst of energy erupted from the ribbon device. It was unfocused, crude, but effective, slamming the guard against the far wall. He fumbled his gun, and as he scrabbled after it, Eris stamped hard on his wrist.
He tried to scream, but was still winded from the blast.
Eris flexed her hand, and the claws on her gauntlet expanded to their combat length of two inches. Lightning quick, she raked the claws across the guard’s throat, and left him flopping on the floor in a growing pool of his own blood.
Eris retracted the claws, and delicately licked the gore from her fingers as she walked away. They would find the body soon, she realised.
" Kalliste," she said. "Find me another way."
Turaca and his followers led Sam and Newman to one of the many burned-out buildings, and took them down a flight of stairs. At the bottom was a door, and Turaca rapped three times before a Judas window slid open.
"Password?" A harsh voice snapped.
"Civilus Hashak Yellow," Turaca answered. The window slammed shut, and a sound of bolts being withdrawn sounded from the far side. The door swung easily open, and Turaca led the group through. "Chedren, Nariev; see to the man," he ordered, sternly. The two riflemen nodded their understanding, and gently carried Newman away.
"Where are they taking him?" Sam demanded.
"To our infirmary," Turaca replied. "It’s not much, but our medics should be able to ensure that the wound is not fatal. If he is as healthy as you both look, then he should not even lose the arm."
As he spoke, Turaca pulled away his bandanna, and Sam saw his full face for the first time. He was lean and weary, and while he did not look ill, Sam could see why he would have remarked on her rude good health.
They stood in a large cellar, from which many passages and tunnels led out in all directions. Crates and boxes were stacked against the walls, and a rack held a large number of the rifles and pistols used by the scavengers. A small group of people were gathered in the cellar, including an old man with white hair and white eyes, being led by a young girl. The people seemed gladdened and excited to see Turaca’s party return, and Sam got the feeling that any time they went out, it was far from assured that they would all come back.
Setneb doffed her own hood and mask, revealing a shock of tangled yellow hair, and a narrow, blue-eyed face that showed the same weariness as Turaca’s. "Megan!" She called, beckoning a skinny red-head. "Did the sled arrive safely?"
"Yes, Setneb," Megan replied. "The wreckage is on its way down to the shop, and we’ve already begun distributing the food."
"Good work," Setneb acknowledged. "But make sure some of that gets distributed to you this time," she added. "We need that head of yours, and it’s no good half-starved."
"I will," Megan agreed. "Really," she promised, in response to the older woman’s scowl.
"Turaca, my boy," the blind man greeted the scavengers’ leader. "They say that you have found Sky Folk."
"Perhaps, Father," Turaca allowed.
"They came in flying machines, and have strange devices," Setneb commented. "This is one of them, Khoreb," she took the old man’s hand, and guided it towards Sam.
Sam reached out, and shook the old man’s hand. His hand shook, but his grip was firm. "Sam Carter," she introduced herself.
"Khoreb," he replied.
"Father," Turaca said, concerned. "You should not have come out this far. Let Setneb and Matiya take you home now. I will tell you all that we learn, tonight." Setneb flashed Turaca a look that said he had better tell her the same, but she took Khoreb gently by the arm.
"Very well, my boy," Khoreb agreed, with a patient laugh. "Although I’m not quite into my second childhood yet."
Sam jumped as something pushed against her hand. She looked down, and saw Yarris nuzzling her palm. He had a long, dog-like snout, and long ears beneath a tangle of thick, black hair. His eyes glittered darkly with a canny intelligence, and he displayed a playful nature belying his fierce teeth.
"Yarris!" Turaca said, firmly. "Go with Matiya." The little girl patted the dog-man’s head as shuffled over to her, and then Sam was left alone with Turaca and the doorkeeper.
"So what now?" She asked.
"Come this way," Turaca said. "Prudence dictates that we treat you as a prisoner until and unless we establish that you can be trusted, but we will try to make you comfortable. I have questions for you, naturally."
"Naturally," Sam agreed, following as he led her from the cellar. "If you don’t mind my asking one; who are you? We were told that there was no one here."
"You were misinformed," Turaca replied.
They passed through a series of tunnels and cellars. Sam could see that Turaca’s people had been working for many years, breaking through the divisions between the basement levels of the old prison buildings. Their tunnels were well shored, and Sam saw plenty of evidence that the entrances were well secured. The complex was also broken up at regular intervals by barricades. The people seemed to have been living in these catacombs for long enough to make themselves comfortable, and the set-up gave the impression of a well-established shanty town. Most of the doorways were covered only by curtains, but the room to which Sam was conducted had a very solid-looking door. It was part of a set of such rooms, presumably used as a holding area, and guarded by a young man, armed with a heavier version of Turaca’s pistol.
"So this is the town gaol?" Sam asked.
"It serves as such," Turaca confirmed. "But it is also a military prison, where we hold captured Che’fer."
"And what do you do with captured Che’fer?"
"We don’t get many," Turaca replied. "They are fanatical, and usually fight to the death. Those we do capture we attempt to teach the error of their ways. Sometimes we are successful; many of our best soldiers and scavengers once called Jormungandr a God."
"That is correct. You were listening then, while you were hidden in that building."
"How did you know…?"
"Yarris caught your scent. I knew that attacking you where you were would be folly, so I allowed you to come after us. Please," he added, swinging the door open. "Ladies first."
Sam assented – she was after all the prisoner – and entered her cell. As cells went, it was pretty good, and would pass for a decent barracks in the Air Force. The facilities were limited, but there was a bed that looked reasonable, and indeed proved to be quite acceptable. Sam sat down, while Turaca leaned against the wall beside the door.
"You are not of my people," Turaca said. "Yet nor are you Che’fer. You are not of Niflheim, are you?"
"No," Sam admitted. "I am not." She felt conflicted. On the one hand she felt that she needed to find out what was going on, here in this all-but-deserted prison. On the other, she wanted to try and contact Yukio again, and make arrangements to carry on with their mission. She was also concerned for Thor and Hnoss.
"So; Sam Carter. Who are you, and why are you here?"
"I’m a bounty hunter," Sam replied. She had not been wasting her time during the walk to the scavenger settlement, and had decided that claiming to represent the former masters of this prison might not be the best idea. "My associates and I are pursuing a reward on a character named Jormungandr, and…"
Turaca threw his head back and laughed out loud. "In that case," he said. "You’re very lucky I found you first."
"We know what we’re dealing with," Sam said, bristling. "We can take Jormungandr in."
"In? You want him alive?" Turaca laughed even harder. "My people have been trying to kill that particular son of a bitch for centuries, Sam Carter…"
"Just Carter," Sam said.
"Carter. He can’t be killed, and he sure as anything can’t be captured." He pushed up from the wall and stood straight. "Come with me," he said. "I want to show you something."
Dr Angharad Midhir was in a state of shock. She knew that her body had been crippled, broken and dying, yet here she was, as good as new. No; better than new. Her appendix scar was gone, and the world seemed crisper and clearer to her than it had done in a long time. She could feel, dimly, the injuries which Loki had inflicted on her, but it was as though they were phantoms; figments of her imagination instead of broken bones. She remembered also the dreams; strange, dark and terrible dreams, full of lust and cruelty. They were the kind of dreams she felt guilty for having, whether she were responsible for her subconscious or not. Now she just felt kind of detached, unable to muster any real anger over the abuse heaped on her, or even over being changed into a rather revealing blue silk gown while she was unconscious. Everything just seemed so unreal, and were it not for the dress and the cell, she might have dismissed it all as a dream.
The door slid open, and Loki entered. Suddenly, everything seemed a lot more real. He was as she remembered, powerful, menacing and gorgeous, and her treacherous heart beat faster at the sight of him.
"Come to beat me again?" She challenged, as bravely as she could muster. "What is this? Just how you get your kicks is it?"
"It passes the time," Loki replied, darkly. "Tell us about the boy?"
"What boy?" Angharad asked, defensively.
"Your son, of course."
"I don’t have a son."
"Llew, is it?" Loki asked. "We are most intrigued by him. The subject of Asgard experiment, is he not? Tell us, did you give him up to them as an act of devotion? Or did they take him from you?"
Angharad was chilled to the bone. How did they know so much about Llew? Did they have him as well?
"What about his master?" Loki asked. "Daniel Jackson, emissary of the Tau’ri? Does he serve the Asgard also?"
Now Angharad’s head was spinning. "Daniel? Master?"
Loki nodded. "So he is your master too. Then you should know that all that happens to you from now on is on his account. He dared to raise his hand against our daughter! He hurt my child!" Loki’s voice dropped to a deadly, silken whisper. "And now I will hurt his woman." His eyes burned, and glittered hungrily.
"No," Angharad whispered, pressing her back to the wall.
"Yes," Loki hissed, moving towards her.
She tried to shuffle along the wall, to get away from him and towards the door, but he moved too quickly, and seized her by the shoulders. Angharad struggled, but he held her firmly as he dragged her to the cell’s narrow bed.
"Please," she whispered, feeling the strength drain from her limbs as her body was gripped in a paralysing fear. "Don’t…"
Loki did not answer.
Turaca took Sam back to the surface, and directed her to climb a long, winding stairway in one of the few towers that was still standing. It must have been a fifteen storey climb – although there were no actual floors for Sam to refer to – and her legs were aching by the end of it, but at least Turaca did not seem to be in any better state. Before emerging, Turaca handed Sam a gas mask and a heavy grey cape with a hood, and donned similar equipment himself.
"This is our watch post," he explained. "The cape keeps us from showing up too much against the metal of the tower; the mask is merely in case of an attack. Jormungandr’s Che’fer favour a kind of gas that burns the eyes and lungs."
Sam merely nodded, not wishing to give away the existence of her helmet.
On the tower’s top, two scavengers crouched under grey capes, watching in opposite directions through bulky binoculars. They greeted Turaca as he emerged, and eyed Sam suspiciously. Motioning for her to stay low, Turaca took Sam to one side of the turret, and pointed into the distance.
"You see that mound?" He asked.
"Where the administrative building used to stand?" Sam replied, thinking of Freyja’s maps.
"You know the old layout?" Turaca sounded surprised. "Yes, where the barracks and Warden’s office were." He took a pair of the binoculars from under his coat and handed them to Sam. "Take a closer look," he invited.
Sam held up the binoculars, and was quite startled by the level of magnification which they provided. She realised that they must be optically enhanced somehow; like the anti-gravity sled, a more sophisticated technology than the scavengers’ appearance suggested. Adjusting the focus, she saw the mound for what it actually was.
"A pyramid," she said. "A Ha’tak landing platform?" She was unsure of that conclusion, as unlike the pyramids which the Goa’uld typically used for landing their assault vessels, this one had many windows and vents in the walls.
"I have no idea what that is," Turaca admitted. "That is Jormungandr’s fortress, built for him by the subjugated population. Each of those openings houses a gunner or a rifleman, and the ground is clear for five hundred yards in advance of the fortress to create a killing ground. The rear of the fortress is easier to approach, but there is no rear door."
"Really making himself at home," Sam noted. "He…damn!"
"What?" Turaca motioned to one of the sentries, who passed him a pair of binoculars.
Sam watched in dismay as a group of men dragged Yukio’s crippled Steed, and the two intact fighters, through the large main gate of the pyramid-fortress. Those not actively pulling each carried one of the spear-like rifles. "Yukio," Sam hissed, urgently. "Kim?"
For a long time, there was no response, then: "Can’t talk," the former Viet Cong hissed. Sam took it to mean that they were in trouble, so she let it lie, hoping that Yukio was still alive.
"Tell me what happened?" Sam said.
Turaca looked at her for a long moment, gauging her; trying to figure her out. "Let’s go back down," he said, handing back the guard’s binoculars, and taking his own from Sam.
Turaca returned Sam to her cell, then left her alone while he went to bring food for them both. While he was gone, Sam tried again to contact Yukio, but without success. Turaca returned with a little bread and coarse stew, a portion each for himself, Sam, and Setneb, who joined them, watching Sam with brooding, suspicious eyes.
"Where does the food come from?" Sam asked.
"There are a few gardens left," Turaca replied. "Some underground. The Che’fer control most of them, and keep a few animals for milk and meat. We also grow a small number of hydroponic crops in roof gardens and conservatories. Jormungandr also keeps a bare minimum of manufacturing operations running."
"What we need, we scavenge or steal," Setneb told Sam, as though challenging her to disapprove.
"How did this happen?"
"A long time ago," Turaca explained. "Perhaps seventeen centuries by the old reckonings, Jormungandr came to this city. He was a creature of violence and rage, but for a thousand years, the Warden kept him under control. Then Gerrid came."
"Gerrid?" Sam asked.
"The sorceress," Setneb told her. "The Queen of Despair."
"What crime she committed against the Haskar to be sent to this place, we do not know," Turaca said. "But it was clear from the first that she was not like the others here. Most of the population accepted their confinement, and some became trastars; helpers to the Warden. But this was not for Gerrid. She seduced Jormungandr…"
"Seduced an Unas?" Sam asked, astonished and appalled.
"What is an Unas?" Setneb demanded.
"The race Jormungandr poss…belongs to," Sam corrected herself, not wanting to get caught up in a discussion of the Goa’uld just now. She was already kicking herself for interrupting, instead of adding another question to the list beginning with: Who are the Haskar?
Setneb gave a faint smile. "There is something of the serpent in Gerrid as well," she said. "Although she is slighter and somewhat fairer of form than Jormungandr."
"Jormungandr already controlled a large portion of the populace by this time," Turaca continued. "Through fear and intimidation, he had a handle on most of those who were not trastars, or under their protection. When Gerrid came, she gravitated to his power, seeking to make it her own. Jormungandr had might and cunning; she had a fierce intelligence. Between them, they expanded the Serpent’s cartel, and after a few decades, they had enough power to lead a revolt against the Warden.
"The Warden tried to signal the other Haskar for help, but it was too late. The very means of our imprisonment became Jormungandr’s protection after he and Gerrid took the Warden’s office, and the Haskar could not approach. It is said that one of their chariots tried, and the sky was lit with fire when it burned. The Warden was hung from her own window; they say that it took her weeks to die.
"Jormungandr made Niflheim his domain, and offered the other prisoners the choice of serving him, or dying. He tried to track down the trastars, because they understood the machines better than anyone else; even Gerrid, whose intellect was unmatched. He wanted them to find a way for him to escape the prison, or at least to send a message out, but he has never yet succeeded. The Warden destroyed the machines for communicating with those beyond Niflheim, and there is no means – or no means that he has found – of controlling where this city goes, nor of leaving it."
"That’s right," Sam said. "The city rides a comet, and the transporters are only designed to gather supplies, not to allow any escape."
Turaca looked at Sam, shrewdly. "Instead, Jormungandr used the machines to bring others here, bolstering the servile population, and the ranks of his followers; the Che’fer. Since then, he and Gerrid have been the tyrants of Niflheim. They commanded the building of the fortress, and brought more and more Che’fer to join his army."
Sam was puzzled. "But why raise an army, if you have nowhere to take them?"
"Some think that he builds his army to capture the descendents of the trastars; those with knowledge of the ancient ways and the great machines, passed down from generation to generation. But the Che’fer who come over to us tell a different story. They say that he is raising this army for his father, whom he believes will one day come for him."
"Oh my God," Sam whispered. "He’s building a crew for the Naglfar."
"What’s the Naglfar?" Setneb asked.
"The death ship," Turaca replied. "I’ve heard the name. Some of the Che’fer speak it in connection with the legend of Ragnarok."
"The end of all things," Setneb whispered, horrified. "It is happening now."
"No!" Turaca told her. "They are legends, Setneb." The fear on Setneb’s face did not fade, even when Turaca took her gently by the shoulders. "Only legends. There are no Sky-Gods; no Goa’uld."
"Actually," Sam told him. "That’s not exactly true." Both scavengers looked up at her in alarm. "They are not gods, but the Goa’uld do exist. Jormungandr is one of these beings, and his father is looking to bring destruction on an epic scale. But he needs something that Jormungandr has; a stone. Jormungandr is here, while his father is not, and that means that we can stop them."
"You are no bounty hunter," Turaca accused.
"No," Sam admitted. "But I am here for Jormungandr. And I do know what I am doing. The Che’fer," she said. "They wear a symbol on their forehead?"
"The circled serpent," Turaca agreed. "Why?"
"He’s raising an army to be his Jaffa when he escapes," Sam said, pleased with herself for solving that little linguistic puzzle, and with it came the answer to the second. "I came here with one of the Haskar," she said. "The Asgard. We need to find him, and find a way to lower Niflheim’s defences."
"But that is what Jormungandr wants," Turaca protested.
"Because he does not know that the nearest vessel is on our side, not his," Sam told him. "We’ll have to get into the palace; and we’ll have to find Thor. The Haskar," she explained.
"Well," Setneb said, clearly still nervous about the potentially impending end of everything. "With that we can help."
Cassandra flexed her hand, uncomfortably. The Goa’uld ribbon device felt strange, wrapped close around her fingers, yet not actually inhibiting her movement. She felt her hand should be constrained, yet it was not.
"So what do you want me to do with this?" She asked.
Lieutenant Hailey smiled. "Well, we know of several uses for the ribbon device. The technology appears to function by focusing psychic energy through the crystal, and is almost as flexible as the mind of the wearer. However, I think we should avoid getting you to use the device to inflict pain, fuse synaptic connections or mesmerise anyone. Just try to knock down that tin can," she suggested, pointing to a cola can at the far end of a clear workbench.
"Okay," Cassie agreed, rolling her neck and shoulders to loosen up. She felt a little self conscious, wearing only a rather skimpy halter top above her jeans, to allow Lieutenant Hailey to attach monitoring electrode to her torso. She also had on a pair of wired techno-spectacles, which contained a low-powered laser to monitor her eyes.
"Just focus," Hailey told her. "And Llew; you might want to be back behind Cassandra. The device can discharge in a fairly wide arc.
"Sure," Llew agreed, ducking back behind Cassie’s mark. "Good luck," he told the girl, touching her gently on the shoulder.
Cassie held out her hand towards the can, and glowered at it, willing it to be knocked down. Hailey turned to her readings, and saw that the girl’s body was reacting to the stress of concentration – muscles tightening, eyes narrowing, heart rate increasing, neural activity up slightly – but nothing more.
Cassandra sighed in disgust. "Nothing," she snapped, and suddenly her readings went berserk. The levels from the neural monitors on her temples peaked at one hundred times normal, her heart rate actually slowed for a moment, and the electrodes on her left arm simply gave up the ghost and burned out.
The can rocked, but did not fall down.
"Well that was pathetic," Cassie said.
"More than anyone else on this base could do," Hailey reminded her. "Except for Major Carter, and the level of naquadah in her bloodstream is higher than yours. It’s possible that your levels are just too low to provide an adequate connection to the device, but I don’t think so. They’re not that much below Major Carter’s, and as near as I can make out with this equipment, you’re connecting just fine. I suspect that the answer lies in mental clarity and focus."
"Meaning?" Cassie asked, giving Hailey the Teal’c: Raising one eyebrow in an expression that could register anything from simple curiosity to outright offence.
Hailey smiled, kindly. "Meaning that Major Carter is a thirty-some Astrophysics PhD, with a degree of single-mindedness that many have called unhealthy, whereas you are a sixteen year old high school student, with a good mind and a crush."
"I do not…"
"Please," Hailey said. "I’m monitoring your vitals, Cassandra Fraiser. You can hide nothing from me."
Cassandra blushed furiously. Behind her, Llew looked awkward enough that Hailey needed no monitors to tell how he was feeling.
"You do seem able to activate the device," Hailey continued. "But not as a matter of true volition. Rather, it seems to be kick-started by an emotional response. Perhaps if you try imagining that the can was Nirrti…"
Cassie frowned, flung out her hand, and the can cannoned into the air, rebounding from the wall and almost striking Daniel as he entered the room. Cassie’s eyes widened in alarm. "Sorry, Daniel!"
"It’s, um, okay," Daniel said, distractedly.
Behind Dr Jackson, Hailey saw two airmen take up stations by the door. "What’s going on?" She asked.
"They found one of the guards in sector 62," Daniel told her, looking sick. "His throat had been torn out. We think she’s here."
"She…?" Cassandra knew who Daniel meant, but did not want to face the fact.
"Eris," Daniel replied. "There’s a Goa’uld on the base."
Cassie gave a short, pained cry, and tried to collapse into a ball. Llew caught her, and held on to her, and she gripped him back, tightly. Hailey looked baffled, but then, neither she nor Llew had been on the base the last time an uninvited Goa’uld had entered, searching for Cassie, and almost got her.
"It’s okay," Hailey assured her. "We’re safe here."
"No. I can…feel…"
Daniel looked at Llew, who frowned, but then nodded.
"She’s coming," Daniel told the two airmen, who readied their weapons.
Llew set Cassandra gently on the floor, then stood – still gripping her hand – turning his head, slowly. "I can hear something," he said. "In the vents."
"No-one could get through the vents," Hailey assured him. "Unless they were a raccoon or an anorexic contortionist…"
With a shriek of tortured metal, the vent panel in the ceiling was blasted out, and a figure in an Air Force uniform dropped through. As she landed, she flexed her slender frame, popping dislocated joints back into place.
"Man, I hate being right all the time," Hailey complained.
The two airmen turned and rushed into the room, but the woman held out a hand, sheathed in metal, and they were thrown, unconscious, to the floor. The woman took a moment to look around, then reached out and seized Llew by the throat, lifting him with ease and pulling his body against hers. She held him, pinned helplessly, facing his friends so that they could see his fear.
"Let him go!" Daniel ordered.
"Oh no, Dr Jackson," Eris replied. "I want you to give me what you stole. Return Hel’s runestone to me, or…" Her gauntlet changed, pointed fingertips morphing into long, razor-sharp claws. "This child’s blood will be on your hands."
Sam scrambled through the rubble on Niflheim’s surface, her face wrapped in a scavenger mask. She knew that she was doing pretty well, but the way that Turaca and Setneb handled the uneven terrain put her to shame. This seemed to be one of the most completely destroyed areas of the city, and Turaca had explained that the remains of the Haskar chariot crashed here many years ago. The ship was all but gone now, it systems cannibalised both by Jormungandr and by the scavengers, and the hull cut up and carried away to make armour. All that remained was a skeleton, composed of a metal which no tool in the city could cut.
"When I sent the sled team back," Setneb explained. "I told them to fetch out Farriah and pick up the trail. I did not want to lose the other Sky Folk," she told Turaca, looking to him for approval. "Did I do right?" She asked him, when he made no response.
"You did," Turaca assured her, with a slightly pained expression. Sam thought she understood that look; he was a natural leader, but he did not want to be.
"They sent word back that they had been tracked to the Boneyard," Setneb went on, pleased, apparently oblivious to her commander’s reluctance.
"Has there been word of any other Sky Folk?" Sam asked. "A man and a woman?"
"We found tracks around the place where your flying machines were," Setneb replied. "But lost the trail."
"We are here," Turaca announced. He was standing ahead of the two women, looking over a low ridge which must be the lip of the crash crater. Sam moved up behind him, and looked out over the Boneyard.
The crash track was still clear, after so many centuries, although the sharp edges of the banks had worn round and smoothed. They were at the terminus, the point where the Asgard mothership had come to a sudden, terminal halt, and it lay still below them, too massive to be moved, to hardy to be destroyed. The ship must have retained some use of its deceleration drive, since it had survived the passage through the atmosphere, and the impact with the ground, far better than the Biliskner when it crashed on Earth. Of course, Niflheim had far less atmosphere to consider.
Sam could still see the shape of the proud ship in it’s excarnated bones: The sweep of the wings at the rear; the engine towers and drive housings; the long, elegant neck; and a broad, spear-head prow, sharper than Thor’s hammer-headed vessel. The engine housings had survived the best, especially the starboard tower; the port tower had been crumpled and bent as the ship slewed round in the crash, but they had plainly been built to last, housing whatever fuel the Asgard used. It looked like nothing so much as a great, beached whale; dead and gone, with only bones left for the gulls to pick at, and Sam felt a lump in her throat at the thought. Air Force personnel tended to have a fairly businesslike approach to their vehicles, but Sam knew that the SGC’s hardened Marine officers would have wept at this sight.
"Where are my friends" Sam asked.
"In the tower," Setneb replied, indicating the partially collapsed port housing. "Our patrol is hanging back. The woman disabled Hura and stole his weapon, and is firing on anyone who attempts to enter their hiding place."
" Hnoss," Sam said. "Can you hear me?"
"It’s quite a long way," Setneb told Sam. "She will not hear you from here."
"I have a communication device," Sam explained. "Hers – or perhaps mine – is malfunctioning however. Newman; are you there?"
"I’m here, Carter," Newman replied, softly. "They’ve patched me up nicely, but there’s an awful lot of these guys in the corridor."
"It’s okay," Sam told him. "They seem to be friendly. I’ll try to explain when I get back, but I just wanted to be sure my comms were still working. I haven’t heard from Yukio or Kim in a while, and I can’t seem to get through to Hnoss either. I’m with some of the scavengers now, and I think we’ve found Hnoss and Thor. Can you try the others again?"
"Will do, Carter," Newman replied. "Good to hear your voice, by the way."
"Yours too," Sam replied. "Carter out."
Setneb was looking at Sam as though she were quite insane. "You are quite insane," she said.
Sam smiled. "Newman," she said. "Next time I see you; say eggplant."
"Eggplant. I’ll explain later."
They half-walked, half-slid down the sides of the crater, and approached the tower. Sam could see that the crash had achieved what all the tools on Niflheim had not, and torn an opening up the side of the tower. A mound of earth had been driven up to largely block this gash, leaving only a small entry, about twenty feet above the bottom of the crater. Around the base of the mound stood a wary scavenger patrol, including one of Yarris’ species; presumably the other tracker, Farriah.
"Hnoss," Sam said, trying the comms one more time. When there was still no response, she began to climb the mound. "Hnoss!" She called out, when she was half-way.
"It’s me," Sam confirmed. "I’ve made some new friends. Are you and Thor okay?"
"I have broken my arm," Hnoss replied. "We shall come out to you, if it is safe?"
"It is," Sam assured her.
A few moments later, Hnoss appeared in the opening. She was carrying one of the heavier pistols, and looked about her, warily.
"Your comms are out," Sam told her. "Or we’d have been here earlier."
"My helmet took a lot of the force as I landed," Hnoss explained. "It saved my life, its internal systems were damaged, as well as everything in my collar; including the comms. I also got my arm caught."
"So you broke your arm before you beat up the guy and took his gun?"
"Poor guy," Sam smiled.
Behind Hnoss, Thor emerged. "Major Carter; it is good to see you well."
"Likewise," Sam replied, affectionately.
"How are the others?" Hnoss asked.
"Newman’s back at these guy’s camp," Sam said. "We don’t know about Yukio and Kim. They were guarding the ships, and now Jormungandr has those. I haven’t been able to contact them either."
Hnoss nodded, solemnly. "So what now?" She asked.
"Let’s go and say hello to my new friends," Sam suggested. "Then we’ll get your arm patched up, and work out a way to get to our Serpent."
Daniel glanced at Cassandra, all but frozen in horror – understandably given her past record with the Goa’uld – and Lieutenant Hailey, alert, but not armed, then back to Llew. The boy was absolutely terrified, his eyes squeezed shut, whispering a prayer. Eris had his throat in her viciously clawed grip, and his right arm twisted behind his back.
"Where did you get that uniform?" Daniel asked, coolly.
"I found it at Hel’s tomb," she told him.
Daniel breathed an inward sigh of relief. He was certain that the uniform belonged to Amy Kawalsky, and had been afraid that Eris might have hurt her to get it. "You killed John," he accused, stalling.
Eris smiled at the memory, and Daniel could not help but shudder. "I did, yes. He was rude. Quickly, Dr Jackson," she prompted. "I am as aware as you are that more military personnel could arrive any second. Believe me when I say that as much as I don’t want that, the boy wants it even less." She gave a gentle squeeze, and Llew’s throat bled. The boy whimpered in pain.
"Lieutenant," Daniel said. "Would you get the runestone out of storage please?"
"Dr Jackson…" Hailey protested.
"Please!" Daniel asked, intently. "She’ll kill him."
"I really will," Eris confirmed. "And then everyone loses. You want the boy to live. My Master wants the boy and the girl to breed. And I…" She pressed her face against Llew’s neck and inhaled deeply, causing him to shiver in fear. Her eyes never turned from Daniel and Hailey. "I can think of so many things to do with the child. So make us all happy, and give me the stone."
Hailey still hesitated.
"You think his death will be quick and painless?" Eris asked. "Nothing to compare to what my Master will do if he gets the stone?" Her voice dropped to a deadly, acid hiss. "Well know this: Even if I kill him here, I can take him away with me, and bring him back, again and again, and each time I kill him, it will be worse, and each time I kill him, he will like it just a little bit more. Each day he lives – and I will make him live so many lives – he will wake, desiring death by my hand." She squeezed again. Llew was crying.
"Just give him the damn rock!" Cassandra pleaded. She was practically in hysterics, but Daniel caught a note of strength in her fractured voice.
Eris raised an eyebrow at Hailey, who was visibly shaken by the Goa’uld’s threat.
"All right," Hailey agreed.
"N-no," Llew whispered, but Eris clamped her hand harder around his throat.
Daniel balled his hands into fists, but forced himself to stay calm; for Llew’s sake. Hailey opened the vault, and brought out the Adamantium chest.
"Open it," Eris instructed. "And give the stone to the girl."
Cassandra looked up through a veil of tears.
"No way," Daniel insisted.
"You’re killing this boy," Eris told him, in a slightly playful, sing-song voice.
"It’s okay, Daniel," Cassandra told him, balling a fist behind her back. She rose shakily to her feet, held out her right hand, and took the box from Hailey. Llew’s eyes flickered open as Cassie approached, and she looked into them, willing him to understand. He looked back, his fear plainly as great as hers, and he nodded, ever so slightly.
Eris smiled encouragingly at Cassie, and held out her clawed hand for the box. "Don’t be afraid, child," she said. "I won’t hurt you."
Cassie edged closer, and suddenly, Eris lashed out, and snatched the box from her grasp. At that moment, with the Goa’uld’s weapon temporarily immobilised, Llew twisted away from the woman with all his might. Eris clung to him with inhuman strength, but for a moment he was not standing in front of her, and that was all Cassandra needed.
Anger, Hailey had suggested. Hate, rage; all that dark side stuff. Well Cassandra had them now; in spades. Come to my world? Come into my home? Attack my friends? Hurt my not-quite-boyfriend? She flung out her hand, still wrapped in the Goa’uld ribbon device, and shrieked a wordless curse as she let her righteous fury uncoil at the Goddess of Spite.
Llew felt the edge of the blast, and staggered sideways. Eris was flung backwards, caroming off a bench and landing in a heap. Fortunately, she released Llew’s arm as the blast hit, or it might have been wrenched from his socket. Lab benches shook, gas taps exploded into plumes of flame, and glassware shattered, as the cone of destruction spread from Cassandra’s palm. As the wave struck the wall, it shuddered, and a trickle of plaster dust sprinkled down.
"Holy Hannah," Cassie whispered, then she pitched sideways, catching herself hard against a lab bench. She pushed woozily off, and moved towards Eris.
"Careful, Cassie," Daniel said. "She could still be conscious."
Heedless of the warning, Cassandra crouched unsteadily beside Eris, and reached out to feel her pulse, a sick feeling spreading in her stomach. "I think she’s d…"
Eris’ eyes opened, and burned with white fire. With an incoherent shriek of fury, the Goa’uld lashed out, and caught hold of Cassandra’s shirt. Daniel was frozen, rooted to the spot for vital seconds, unable to do anything to stop whatever was about to happen. Cassandra cried out, and tried to back-pedal, but still weak from her exertion, she spilled onto her back, and the Goa’uld came with her, looming over her, one hand clutching her shirt front, the other locked tight around the box.
Then light flared, and the lab filled with a colossal, deafening boom. Daniel’s vision whited out for a second, and when his eyes cleared, he saw Eris toppled onto her back again, several yards from Cassie. Amy Kawalsky’s stolen uniform was torn, and a great burn-mark scarred the front of the jacket. The Goa’uld’s hair stood out on end, and the whole room smelled of ozone.
"You. Bitch," Eris hissed, struggling to her feet and switching the box to her unclad hand. Cassandra looked too stunned to respond, and too weak to rise, and it might have gone very badly with her if Daniel had not slammed into the Goa’uld, just as she raised her hand device.
Daniel drove Eris against the wall with his initial rush, and followed up with a left hook to the jaw. It surprised him how easily it came to him to punch a girl in the face, but since Hathor he had found it possible to look at a Goa’uld and barely see its human face at all. Unfortunately, he sometimes forgot just how inhuman they were. As Daniel cocked his fist for another punch, Eris recovered herself, and drove her knee into his side with enough force to lift him off his feet.
Eris thrust Daniel away from her, and extended her claws again, but found Lieutenant Hailey closing on her. Not having time to unsling one of the guards’ carbines, she had settled for a telescopic baton, and laid about Eris with a thorough professionalism. The Goa’uld screamed and spat abuse, raising her armoured hand to defend herself. The baton struck the gem on the rear of the gauntlet, and it lit up from within. Smiling maniacally, Eris struck like a serpent, latching onto Hailey’s wrist, as the light of the Kalliste’s transporter beam surrounded them both.
"Hailey!" Daniel shouted, but the young woman was gone, along with Eris, and the runestone. Daniel kicked out in raw frustration, sending a litter bin flying across the floor, ricocheting off the walls and benches, and nearly hitting General Hammond as he burst in with a security team.
"Dr Jackson? What in the hell happened here?" Hammond asked.
As Daniel went over to explain, in a tight, despairing voice, Cassandra felt sensation return to her body. She struggled up, and found gentle hands helping her. "Thanks," she said.
"Thank you," Llew replied.
Cassie looked around at the ruined lab and the flaming gas taps. "I did all that?"
"Most of it," Llew said, smiling a gentle, bemused smile. He hardly seemed able to take his eyes off Cassandra.
"Are you okay?"
I’m fine," he said. "It’s just. You were incredible. You put her down, twice."
Cassandra smiled back at him. "Not twice," she said. "The second time, I could barely move my arm, let alone muster another kick like that. No, what put her down was…" She reached under her blouse, and for the first time, Llew saw that there was a small hole burned through above her breast bone. She pulled out the Mjollnir pendant that he had given her; the one that he had worn for as long as he could remember. It was glowing.
"It’s never done that before," Llew told her.
"Well, it saved my hide today," Cassie said. "You said it was for protection, right?"
Llew grinned. "Right."
Cassie hung the pendant around Llew’s neck. "I think you should have it back now," she said. "I wouldn’t want to hog the divine providence."
Llew smiled, affectionately, and took hold of Cassie’s hand. "Thank you," he said, sincerely. He raised her hand, and pressed his cheek against the gem in the centre of the ribbon device.
Cassandra’s smile deepened, and she leaned towards Llew. By now, she figured she ought to know better.
"Cassie, Llew; are you okay?" Daniel asked.
"Uh, yeah," Cassandra replied. "Just tired, and a little dizzy."
"What happened to Hailey?" Llew asked.
Daniel looked down. His expression was hard to read behind the bandages, but he looked despondent. "She’s gone. Eris took her. Now they have two hostages, and we have nothing."
Cassandra looked up at Daniel, into the eyes that were all that was visible behind the bandages, and shivered at the despair that she saw there.
"Boy are you guys a sight for sore eggplant," Newman greeted Sam, Hnoss and Thor as he was brought into what passed for a briefing room in the scavenger warrens. It had a table, and a set of mismatched chairs.
"Eggplant?" Hnoss asked.
Setneb looked awed, but Turaca did not seem amused. "Perhaps we should have your injuries seen to?" He suggested to Hnoss.
"That would be most welcome," she replied.
Turaca motioned for the others to sit, while he put his head out the door and flagged down someone to escort Hnoss to the infirmary. Then he joined the others at the table. "So, Sam Carter; you said that you have a plan?"
"I said I may have a plan," Sam demurred. "In fact, it’s more of a proto-plan; it needs a lot of fleshing out. First of all, Thor; I need to know what’s really going on. Plainly, there’s more than just Jormungandr to consider."
"We did not expect anyone to have survived," Thor admitted. "Jormungandr’s rage was so great, so unfocused. If he broke our control…"
"That’s where Gerrid came in," Turaca said. "She was the one who gave him focus."
"We knew that the defences were still active," Thor continued. "Primarily from the loss of the Gungnir and her crew. That was a terrible day for our people; twenty-five Asgard lost; the most in a single stroke since Baldur’s ship was destroyed by Loki. We ceased our efforts to return to the surface of Niflheim after that time; had we known that others survived, we would not have given up so easily."
"Well, others did survive," Sam told him. "And Jormungandr’s been using the supply transporter to bring more and more people here to create an army of ersatz Jaffa to man his father’s death ship. In terms of weapons, he seems mainly to use ones like the scavengers have stolen…"
"Accelerated particle weapons," Thor said. "Primitive, but easy to construct and quite deadly. Also, a few compression pistols; non-lethal, but effective."
"I’m also worried about what he might have got from that ship," Sam admitted. "Anything he might be keeping for a special occasion. I’m assuming no transmitters or they’d be gone, but what about weapons?"
"Asgard weapons could not be used by a Goa’uld or a Jaffa," Thor assured her.
"Great, but these aren’t real Jaffa," she explained. "He may be lining them up for implantation when he gets off this rock and finds himself a nice Goa’uldish girl to settle down with, but for now he has no prim’ta." She looked Thor straight in the eyes. "Tell me, Thor; what weapons might he have access to?"
"The primary arsenal of the Gungnir incorporated two heavy particle cannons, six heavy plasmas and eight kinetic torpedo launchers. In addition, the Gungnir was armed with an ionic ram, capable of completely incapacitating an unshielded Goa’uld Ha’tak vessel in one hit."
"What if it was shielded?" Newman asked.
"If the vessel were shielded when struck, it would not be afterwards."
"Could Jormungandr be using these weapons?" Sam asked.
"The plasmas, perhaps," Thor replied. "The power supply needed to run any of the other weapons would be more than that available to the city of Niflheim. In any case, heavy plasma cannons are relatively ineffectual against infantry. Although they have a substantial impact area, they are slow to target."
Sam breathed a sigh of relief.
"However," Thor said. "The Gungnir also carried thirty Type-III plasma pikes in its armoury, for the use of the crew. A single shot from a plasma lance is less powerful than a blast from a Goa’uld staff weapon, but the lance is capable of sustained and burst fire modes."
Sam breathed deeply. "Okay. So we are facing an enemy with a large number of fanatical guards, armed with accelerated particle weapons, compression pistols, as many as thirty Asgard plasma pikes and an unknown number of heavy cannon. Our enemy is within a heavily fortified pyramid, has a brilliant and ruthless second in command, and is himself a brutal killer with the power to snap any of our necks with an energetic shrug. Also, we need to take him alive. Our objective then is to penetrate said fortress, and as a primary goal, neutralise the defences so that Freyja can send help from the Stupid Idea. That done, we incapacitate Jormungandr, and extradite him for questioning.
"In our favour, we have an Asgard who knows how the central machinery of this prison works, Turaca’s people, who know the lay of the land well enough to keep out of Jormungandr’s sight, our own accelerated particle weapons and compression pistols, two Asgard combat gauntlets and a hammer." Sam sighed. "It doesn’t look great, I’ll admit."
"Do not underestimate this hammer," Thor advised.
"These plasma pikes," Turaca said. He held his hands some eighteen inches apart. "Are they about so long, silvery-grey?"
"They are," Thor replied.
"We managed to secure about a dozen from one of Jormungandr’s salvage teams," Turaca said.
"Eleven," Setneb said. "But we have never managed to make them work."
"They are designed with significant safety features," Thor told them. "I can show you how to expand and fire the weapons."
"I also have another idea, that I hope might be useful." Setneb passed a battered hand computer to Turaca, who looked, and then passed it on to Sam.
"This will be very useful," Sam confirmed.
Setneb smiled uncertainly, then beamed when Turaca nodded his agreement.
"This is a lot more promising," Sam said. "Turaca; do you have any plans of the fortress?"
"Yes," the scavenger leader replied. "Several workers defected during the construction, and our Che’fer converts have kept us more or less up to date. I’m afraid there are no real weaknesses though."
"I’m hoping we won’t need one," Sam said. "But I will need to see those plans."
"Right away," Turaca said, starting to rise.
"I’ll go!" Setneb insisted, leaping to her feet. "You…shouldn’t," she said, a quiet anger burning behind her eyes.
Turaca slumped wearily in his chair after she was gone.
"Another thing," Newman said. "I managed to get in contact with Kim. Only briefly – he thinks his comms are being monitored – but I was able to find out that Yukio has infiltrated the fortress. She has arranged a time to contact Kim using narrow-band communications. If we relay whatever we decide to him before them she can co-ordinate with us to disrupt their defences."
Sam nodded. "That’s good. I expect that’s going to be key." She turned to Turaca, who seemed mired in a deep funk; not at all the dynamic leader they had seen until now. "Is this trouble we should know about?" Sam asked.
"It’s…personal," Turaca replied. "I…Call me when Setneb brings the blueprints," he sighed. "I’ll just be next door." He rose, and walked out.
After a moment, Sam got up to follow Turaca, but Newman beat her to it. "Carry on making plans," he told her. "I’ll see what I can do."
"You’re sure?" Sam asked.
"Guy talk," Newman told her.
Sam nodded. "Thanks," she said.
"You want to talk about it?" Newman asked, settling himself on the edge of a table. The room was obviously used for storage, and was cluttered with furniture and boxes of scavenged machinery.
"Not really," Turaca replied. "You wouldn’t understand."
"Okay," Newman said, holding up his hands in acceptance. "Obviously you don’t have a problem with her treating you like a god then."
Turaca looked up, unshed tears shining in his eyes. "That obvious?"
"Not very," Newman admitted. "But I know people, and leaders. You know, it’s not surprising that they look up to you. You’ve got the stuff; I’d take an order from you without question."
"I don’t like it," Turaca replied. "Things I’ve done – things I’ve said – have sent people to die."
"Welcome to officer’s country, my friend. It’s what we do. ‘It is the duty of every soldier to give his life for his country when required, and it is the duty of every officer to decide when that ultimate sacrifice is needed. No officer has ever served in the field of conflict without loosing men. No officer has ever served in time of war without sending men to die. Whether we can look at ourselves in the mirror depends on knowing that we would not send those people to die without reason.’"
"You make that up yourself?" Turaca asked.
Newman shook his head. "Eulogy for Lt Colonel Arnold Baxter by Major General Jacob Carter. Words I tried to live by; and pretty much screwed up. I let the goal become a cause. I was sending people into danger for the wrong reasons, and they went because they trusted me. Sound familiar?"
Turaca smiled, ruefully. "Oh, yes. My family have been running the resistance since the beginning. We were trastars," he explained. "That is, we were given certain privileges in return for…"
"I know what a trustie is," Newman assured him. "Major Carter may never have been in jail, but I have."
"This General Jacob…"
"Is Sam Carter’s father," Newman confirmed. "I was looking up to him long before I met his daughter."
"Whom you are in love with."
"Hey," Newman protested, but affably, and making no denial. "Who’s analysing who here?"
Turaca smiled. "It’s not hard to see. You took a shot for her, for which you look quite well, by the way."
"My suit sucked up most of it, and I heal fast," Newman demurred. "But yeah, okay; I’ve been in love with her for about four years, which is about three years longer than she’s known I exist. I’m sure you understand this makes things awkward."
"For two years I read every file there was on her, every report she ever submitted, every review she was ever given," Newman explained. "Women don’t usually find that kind of behaviour attractive; least not where I come from. But anyway, we’re talking about you. Your family were trastars?"
"Yes," Turaca replied, becoming dour once more. "People looked up to us, and when father began to believe that the Sky Folk would come to save us, everyone else began to believe as well. It gave them hope, so I did not try to stop it at first, but then I realised that now all anyone is trying to do is survive until the Sky Folk come. Worse than that, they’ve started to see my family and the other trastars as prophets."
"Which is why Setneb doesn’t like to see you take orders from Sam," Newman realised.
"Yes. Or even advice. Even if she is Sky Folk. She was taken from a Goa’uld world as a child, and is even more prone to superstition than the rest of us. I’ve tried to tell her that there are no gods, and that I’m certainly not one, but it’s the only thing I’ve ever said to her that she hasn’t absorbed as gospel. And she’s so clever, otherwise. So full of ideas and plans. She probably knows technology better than I do."
"And you’re in love with her," Newman finished. "Why don’t you tell her?"
"Because…" Turaca paused.
"Because she sees you as an infallible god-prophet and would fall into your arms without a thought, whether she cares about you or not?"
Turaca shrugged, helplessly.
Newman sighed. "For God’s sake man; the girl adores you," he said. "Maybe if you showed some sign you felt the same she could start seeing you as a man instead of a legend."
"I do think," Newman said. "But either way, you’re right about one thing: It is personal. You’ve been working with her long enough that this isn’t going to have any unforeseen impact on your performance."
" Newman," Sam’s voice sounded in his ear. "Setneb is back; we need to get moving again."
"We’ll be right out," Newman replied.
Loki sat in his daughter’s chambers, watching the sarcophagus. While Hel had worked on the treatments, and he had amused himself with the Tau’ri woman, he had ordered Eris’ servants to prepare appropriate attire for his child. After she performed the operation on herself, her body seemed to shut down, and she passed into death. Loki then had her repulsive form dressed, and placed within the regenerative chamber. The Utgard had no fewer than five installed sarcophagi, much more powerful than the portable versions, including this one, and Loki’s own. He had designed the ship to be a home to his family, after all, and there were five of them: Loki, Angrboda, Jormungandr, Hel, and even the boy, Fenrir.
Loki felt a bitter sting that his kin were not all assembled. According to Hel, there was no way to retrieve Fenrir from his exile, and even the loss of his most disappointing child was a hurt to Loki. But it was the death of his beloved Angrboda that hurt the most. Beautiful, powerful and magnificent, she had wielded power to challenge even his own, and that was what made her intoxicating to him. Angharad Midhir was beautiful and spirited, but she was also frail and weak, and however amusing she might be for a time, Loki would soon grow bored of her; like that silly whore Sigyn, who had haunted his imprisonment with her incessant prattle.
With a sharp hiss, the sarcophagus began to open, heralding his daughter’s rebirth. Loki stood, expectant.
"My Lord." A Jaffa entered the room behind him.
"Leave us," Loki said. Silently, the Jaffa left; a wise move on his part.
The sides of the sarcophagus lowered, and the top swung open like the wings of a great bird. Loki remembered, fondly, watching Angrboda rise from her sarcophagus, refreshed from her sleep. Sometimes, they had even shared a sarcophagus, the strange dreams brought to each of them by continuous use of the device mingling into a single, shared experience.
Slowly, Hel rose, serene and sensuous, her features concealed beneath a muslin shroud. Loki went to her side and sat, and drew the sheet from her head. As he did so, he caught his breath in shock.
"Father," Hel greeted him. "Did it work."
"Work?" Loki asked, stunned.
"It did not?" Hel asked, appalled, touching her face, trying to determine what was wrong.
Loki reached out and cupped her cheek. "It worked," he told her, awed. "But we had forgotten…how much you look like your mother."
He bent down, and kissed her in a manner that was anything but paternal.
Sam studied the blueprints of Jormungandr’s fortress, having Turaca point out all of the entrances that the scavengers were aware of. Setneb watched, glowering sullenly as her leader yielded to the Sky Woman’s authority.
"You say there’s a way in and out at the back?" Sam asked.
"An outflow pipe," Turaca replied. "The fortress is plumbed into the old sanitation systems. It’s not pleasant, but you can get in, and there’s a trash heap which covers the approach."
"Lovely," Newman commented."
"We use it when we need to sneak one or two people in," Turaca explained. "It would take a long time to get a large force through. We could be left vulnerable if we try it."
Sam nodded. "What else is there in the way of entrances?"
"A rear sally port," Turaca said. "But that only opens from the inside."
"We could use that," Sam said. "If we can get a small force inside, then get to the sally port, we could mount a major offensive. How many fighters can you muster?"
"At short notice?" Turaca asked. "Maybe fifty or sixty; perhaps twice that given three or four days."
"We’ll have make do," Sam said. "Gather who you can, and arm the best shots with the plasma pikes. Thor will show you how to use them."
"Alright," Turaca agreed.
Setneb snorted in disgust, and stormed out of the room.
"Turaca," Newman prompted.
"I’ll speak to her later," Turaca promised. "For now, I need to put the word out to the other settlements. Even for fifty it will take some time to gather everyone together, and I need to send someone to the main armoury with a sled."
Sam nodded. "Alright. But time is critical here. I’d say we have to move within six hours at the very outside."
"Very well," Turaca agreed. "But we’ll need all of that time. Also…I don’t think you should come with us," he added.
"What!" Sam demanded.
"You are an engineer, and Thor is a Haskar. Jormungandr would give anything to get hold of you two. I don’t want to risk you falling into his hands."
Sam shook her head. "Sorry, Turaca. No dice. We will be there…" She paused, and a slow grin spread across her face. "But you have given me something to think about."
The hall of Jormungandr was dark. His pyramid had been built as a fortress, and its windows were few and small. By deliberate design, the only illumination in the throne room itself came from an inaccessible skylight, high on the side of the pyramid, which cast a dim shaft of light onto the throne from behind, allowing the Serpent to see his visitors far more easily than they could see him. Nidhogg, the Primarch of Jormungandr, first among his Che’fer, was used to this effect, and by long practice it was no great matter for him to make out the massive silhouette of his master, and even to judge his moods. For the luckless souls whom Nidhogg brought into his master’s presence, it was sometimes difficult to be certain if the taciturn Lord of Niflheim was present at all.
In this case however, there could be no doubting it. As the scavenger was dragged to the foot of the throne, Jormungandr was in the middle of his meal, leaning forward over his table and shovelling half-cooked meat into his titanic maw from a silver platter. His dark amber eyes looked up at the approach of his Primarch, and they glowed white.
"Who is this?" Jormungandr asked.
"A scavenger, Lord," Nidhogg replied. "She says that she has information that she wishes to sell."
"And why would we wish to purchase that which we could take?" The Serpent hissed, leaning even further forward, and resting a great, clawed hand on the table.
The scavenger stammered. "B-because in the time it t-t-takes to extract, it will become worthless."
"Really." The voice dropped to a throaty, almost sensuous purr. "Come forward," he instructed, beckoning with a blood-stained claw.
Nervously, the woman advanced, flinching as she saw the human skull amid the other remains of Jormungandr’s meal. When the Serpent stroked her hair, leaving blood trails amid the blonde, she almost fainted, but her legs held and she remained standing.
"What is your name, sweet thing?" Jormungandr asked.
"Setneb," the woman replied.
"You are a brave little one," he said. "What is your information?"
Jormungandr hissed, angrily, but a delicate hand slid onto his shoulder from the shadows. "Peace, my Lord," a voice cautioned, feminine and sibilant. "If the child has something of value to trade, it is only right she be paid a fair price."
" We will decide what is fair, Gerrid," Jormungandr told his consort, in a warning tone. "When we have heard what she has to say." He leaned his saurian face close to Setneb’s. "Speak," he ordered.
"Sky Folk," she gasped. "They came, plan to attack you."
"Yes? Go on."
"They are led by a woman. I can tell you when and where they will attack, and you can catch them."
"And your comrades, surely." Setneb looked away from Jormungandr’s eyes, but he drew her gaze back to his by pressing a claw-tip into the skin of her cheek. "Why would you do this?"
"Because it isn’t right!" Setneb whimpered, feeling a trickle of blood run down the side of her face. "She comes here with her own agenda, and starts giving orders to our leaders, when she doesn’t know us or our needs. She acts as though we owe her, when she comes from the ones who imprisoned our ancestors."
"The Asgard!" Jormungandr sat up sharply, grabbing Setneb by the back of her head and dragging her close to him. "What of the Asgard?"
Setneb stammered in terror, her words garbled and incomprehensible. She felt the Serpent’s grip tighten on her skull, until it was intensely painful.
"My Lord, take care," Gerrid advised, her smooth-scaled hand sliding gently over his. Her supple form bent forward over the arm of his throne, and she leaned her chin tenderly against his bicep. A forked tongue flickered from her mouth, tasting Setneb’s fear. "She can tell you nothing if she is dead."
Jormungandr released the girl with a sudden motion, and she stumbled backwards into his table. She put out a hand to steady herself, and it landed squarely in the middle of the platter. She recoiled with a squeal, and as she did so, Gerrid caught her in a powerful embrace.
"Hush," the sorceress whispered. "Why don’t you tell us what you want?"
"I…I want to live," Setneb sobbed. "And I want Turaca."
"Never!" Jormungandr snarled, springing to his feet. He lashed out at the woman, but Gerrid turned her away from him.
"Let us not be hasty," she advised. "Tell us why we should give you our archenemy’s life, and give up the one person who might have the skills to get us off this rock?" When Setneb did not answer straight away, Gerrid took the scavenger’s bloodied hand and licked the gore with her long, forked tongue. "Think quickly, dear," she advised. "My Lord is already bored of you, and I too grow weary."
"A Haskar!" Setneb burst out. "They have a Haskar with them!"
"An Asgard!" Jormungandr exclaimed. "Then we shall be free! Gerrid; thank the child, find out all she knows, then break her neck."
"No!" Setneb screamed. "If I don’t return, they will know something is wrong and the attack will not go ahead."
Jormungandr made a deep, dissatisfied rumbling sound in his throat. "Very well," he said at last. "Find out what she knows, and then release her."
"Yes, Lord," Gerrid acknowledged, and dragged Setneb into the shadows.
Nidhogg approached the throne. "Will you give her what she asks?"
"Of course not," Jormungandr replied. "Turaca leads my enemies, and he must die."
"And the woman?" Nidhogg asked, with a hungry gleam in his eye.
"Why…?" Jormungandr laughed. "Very well, Nidhogg," he agreed. "If you can take her alive, you may have her."
Sam sat down, and checked her watch. Less than an hour to go. She should sleep, but the endless twilight of Niflheim had thrown her sleeping patterns, and she was too anxious to sleep besides. She was always more anxious about missions where she was in command; if they went wrong, she would feel as though all of the blood was on her hands.
Turaca’s best fighters were now drilled in the basic use of the plasma pikes; Setneb was working on her ‘idea’ behind closed doors, and apparently sulking; and Newman was out contacting Phan Kim. The scavengers had scrounged together all of the armour and weapons they could get their hands on, but the Asgard gauntlets – and maybe Thor’s hammer – would still be their big guns. Newman had also run Sam through the basics of the gauntlet’s shield function (a useful defence, but limited by the continual drain it placed on the wearer’s bioenergy reserves). The suits also possessed some nanotech enhancements, but Newman explained that these were disabled in Sam’s suit, for fear that the uncontrolled nature of her connection to the technology would make these capabilities more a danger to herself than anyone else.
Sam was not overly worried. She had survived plenty of fights with minimal armour and weaponry, and certainly without nanocytes and force-fields. She had asked Newman if Freyja might supply some of the nanocytes to the SGC for research and field trials, but he explained that – for safety reasons – the tiny machines were non-replicating, and were good only for about a month without regeneration or a fresh implantation. They were also far beyond terrestrial manufacturing methods, and Sam was pretty sure that – even if they got round all the many other issues of nanocyte enhancement – General Hammond and his superiors would not be happy with the idea of dependence on Asgard good will.
Newman arrived about half an hour before the time limit, and reported that he had been able to make contact with Kim. "I was also able to speak to Yukio, so everything is set and confirmed. Kim should be setting up as we speak, and it looks like Turaca’s boys are pretty much ready. You and Thor all set?"
"He’s meditating," Sam replied, distractedly. "Otherwise we’re good to go."
Newman frowned, and sat down beside Sam. "You okay?" He asked, laying a hand lightly on his shoulder.
Sam shrugged him off. "Don’t," she said. "Just don’t."
"What…? Oh." Realisation dawned on Newman. "Oh! God damnit!" He stood up and turned away from Sam.
"I want you to know that I am seriously freaking," Sam told him. "And I don’t freak easily."
"I’m sorry, Carter," Newman said. "I…I didn’t want you to find out."
"Don’t try to explain," Sam told him. "I’m just glad you haven’t had the gall to go around calling me Sam."
Newman hung his head, feeling wretched. "So what now?" He asked.
"Now? Now we have a plan to go through with," Sam told him. "After that, we never see each other again, so luckily I don’t see this becoming a major problem."
Newman just nodded. "I’ll go and see if everything’s ready," he said.
"You do that," Sam replied.
Newman walked away, turning only briefly at the door to say: "Good luck."
Newman kept his distance from Sam as the assault team made their way up through the derelict old sanitation works. Once, this plant had cleaned the water for the entire penal city, with the exception of the administrative building; now it sat silent and decaying, and the scavengers relied on salvaged pumping and filtration units. Jormungandr still had fresh water because – as Turaca had pointed out – the administrative building’s sanitation units still operated beneath his fortress. The stench was appalling, but Newman had his helmet to protect him, and the scavengers their gas masks. He cast a sideways glance at the tall, dignified figure, walking beside the child-sized form, both concealed beneath scavenger cloaks. Newman had no need of such a disguise, inferior in every way to his vac-suit’s chameleonic abilities, but he wore one anyway, so as to blend in with the crowd.
Newman wondered if Sam would ever speak to him again; even to tell him to stay away from her. There was no reason why she should of course, but it stung nonetheless. His actions might have been out of line, but his feelings were sincere.
Newman grimaced to himself. That could pretty much have been his life’s motto: ‘My feelings were sincere’. He had stolen from other worlds to defend Earth, and while he knew, even at the time, that his actions were reprehensible, he had done what he had done for the sake of his nation and his world. Not that his country thanked him. His actions risked war with America’s allies, and went against the powers that be. He had known going in that his actions were treasonous, but he had gone in with the best of motives, and his feelings were sincere.
He liked to think of himself as a good man, but had found it impossible to do so. When he was rescued from death row and transferred to a new offworld base he had performed his duty without his old enthusiasm. He was tired of shades of grey, and not being able to look his mother in the eye when he lied about what he did. Death had seemed a release, but turned out to be something much better. Made a part of Freyja’s company, and thinking himself a spirit, he decided that he had been granted a chance to atone. Learning that he was still alive was a shock, but made it even better. He could atone in this world, and make up for his crimes to the people affected by them.
The team left the plant, and headed through the sprawl of refuse and scrap that Jormungandr had allowed to build up behind his fortress. Given the lengths he seemed to have gone to in order to make the front of his fortress a killing ground, the laxness displayed here was incredible. Turaca had explained that Jormungandr was secure in the impregnability of the rear of his pyramid. If enemies came, he believed that they would come at the main gates, and so he did not bother with the protection of his back door.
That was sloppy thinking, and Newman did not allow himself to believe it. Even if Jormungandr were so foolish, he did not believe that Gerrid would be. The rear way was guarded, somehow; it had to be.
Like grey ghosts, the scavengers descended into a valley between trash heaps, and Newman saw it. This was the kill zone; a veritable torpedo alley approaching the rear face of the pyramid. The metal was studded with narrow openings – gun ports – and a large window gaped high in the centre of the wall. Newman keyed the zoom in his helmet and the window swept into close-up. Newman saw the projecting muzzle of an Asgard heavy plasma cannon, and also something else; something that made him smile, grimly.
The team pressed on, nearly fifty fighters in all. Most would wait outside the fortress, while two of the scavengers crawled through the pipe and made their way up to open the sally port. This was the risky time. If they were caught out in the open, they would be sitting ducks.
As they approached, Turaca signalled the two volunteers forward, but before they could respond, a voice rang out from above.
"In the name of Jormungandr, surrender!"
"Damnation!" Turaca swore, as Che’fer appeared in the gun ports, covering the scavengers with their accelerated particle rifles.
"Throw down your weapons, and surrender the Sky Woman and the Haskar, or you will all be killed," the voice continued.
"As if you won’t kill us anyway, Nidhogg!" Turaca called back.
"Not you," Nidhogg assured him. "That was part of your betrayer’s price."
"Oh yes," the Primarch crowed. "The great leader betrayed. And by his own woman!"
"Setneb," Turaca whispered, appalled.
"Weapons on the ground," Nidhogg ordered. "Now!"
"Do it," Turaca sighed, casting down his own pistol. When the others were slow to conform, he turned on them and snapped: "Do it!"
The scavengers threw down their weapons. Newman cast aside a pistol, but he saw a combat gauntlet strike the ground at Sam’s feet. Once the Che’fer felt safe, there was a pause, and the sally port opened. At least thirty warriors stepped out, with as many more still at the gun ports. In the middle of their ranks stood Nidhogg, resplendent in a reptilian head-dress which apparently stood in for the usual Jaffa helm. He was a powerful man, six-three and muscular; perhaps twice Newman’s weight. The other Che’fer were a motley crew of humans – and one or two humanoids – but they all looked tough and capable, and eminently familiar with their weapons. Several, including Nidhogg, carried plasma pikes, the silver-grey cylinders opened out to their deployed length of twenty-four inches, ready to fire.
"Send out the woman," Nidhogg ordered. "And the Haskar." The group stirred, but no one stepped forward. "Now!" The Primarch commanded, levelling his pike at the nearest scavenger.
"Alright," Sam said, and she and her diminutive companion stepped forward.
"Excellent," Nidhogg hissed, in imitation of his master and mistress. "I’ve long wanted to see the face of a living Haskar." So saying, he thrust his pike into the confines of the Asgard’s hood, and flipped it back. He froze in horror.
Yarris looked up at him, and growled deep in his throat.
"What is this?" Nidhogg demanded. In response, Sam threw back her own hood. Newman reached up to his shoulder, and toggled the open channel.
"You!" The Primarch snarled.
"Expecting someone else?" Setneb asked.
"Now!" Newman snapped, and an explosion rocked the palace.
"Are you okay to do this?" Sam asked Hnoss, a few minutes before.
"My arm will be recovered in a day or less," Hnoss assured her. "I am quite capable of pressing a button."
"If any of the Che’fer try to get to you…" Sam began.
"I’ll hurt them," Hnoss promised. "My gauntlet may not be good for anything but Setneb’s bluff, but I can handle myself."
"Okay then," Sam agreed. Do you have a shot from here?"
"I do," Hnoss replied, checking the viewfinder on her jury-rigged artillery piece. "I also see three plasmas; two to the sides, one high centre.
"I see them," Sam agreed. "But that should be taken care of."
"What?" The Che’fer gunner looked up at her spotter. They were manning the left plasma cannon nest, watching for approaching enemy, while the rest of the guard were at the back, rounding up scavengers. The gunner would have given much to be part of the real action, but duty was duty.
"I saw a flash. Something metal at the edge of the kill zone."
The gunner sat up. "Where?"
"In the last hour of the morning," the spotter replied, using the ancient Jaffa reckoning system, mapping the arc of the sun through the day to an arc in front of the gunner. This system had stayed in use with Jormungandr’s recruits, despite the absence of day and night in Niflheim.
The gunner panned around until she caught sight of something in her view-finder, then increased the magnification. Was that scavengers? Her trigger finger itched, but if it were one Gerrid’s salvage patrols, then she would be in trouble if she vaporised them. "Can you make out what it is?" She asked.
"Scavengers," the spotter reported, gleefully.
The gunner positioned her finger on the trigger. "You’re sure?"
"Sh…" Something hot splashed across the gunner’s face.
She turned, and saw her partner collapse to the floor, his spine broken and exposed through the slash wound in his back. A woman in black stood over him with a naked, bloody sword in her hand. "What the…!" The gunner managed, before the sword slid fatally through her heart.
"You’re too far forward," Yukio told Sam, her voice coming from the air at her side. "I can get a narrow-band contact with you, and the plasma cannons can see you. Don’t worry though," she added. "There’s no-one left to fire them."
"Thanks, Yukio," Sam replied.
"The gun ports on this side are empty; everyone’s out the back. I’m going to find the barracks and do what I can there," the ninja replied. "I’ll see you inside."
"Count on it," Sam returned. "Good luck." She turned to Hnoss. "Same to you, and take care."
Hnoss smiled, mischievously. "And you. And remember; I’ll fire once more after the door goes down, so don’t go rushing straight in."
"I’ll try to remember," Sam assured her.
With the forward watch depopulated by Yukio and the diversionary attack, there was little to be gained by hiding. Abandoning stealth in favour of speed, Sam and Thor dashed forward across the kill zone towards the main gate of Jormungandr’s fortress. Reaching the walls, they threw themselves down to the left of the gate, and waited.
"Now!" Newman cried, and the gate exploded inwards, as though hit by a titanic battering ram. Sam was shaken by the almost simultaneous roars of the impact of the trinium slug, and the sonic boom of its passage, but her suit and helmet were designed to insulate against sonic attacks, and she was barely even stunned. She turned, following the corkscrew vapour trail back to its source, and gave Hnoss a thumbs up. Freyja’s daughter waved from behind the controls of the sled-mounted linear accelerator, then fired again, the weapon’s built-in inertial dampeners absorbing most of the recoil.
Sam could not help wondering at the skill with which Setneb had put together the mountings for the weapon cannibalised from Hnoss’ fighter. No less impressive was her intuitive grasp of the technologies involved, to understand the gun’s operation sufficiently to come up with the idea in the first place. Turaca was right: Setneb might revere the trastar’s lineage and technical knowledge, but so far as Sam could tell, Setneb’s own abilities were nothing short of prodigal.
"Move!" Sam shouted, starting forward with Thor at her side. They passed through the ruin of the gates, and entered Jormungandr’s lair.
It looked much like any Goa’uld palace, but darker, and cheaper. Clearly, the structure had been put together from what was at hand instead of parts quarried, refined, carved, forged, and/or moulded purely to become a part of the structure, but what it lacked in conspicuous production, it more than made up for in Gothic grandeur. High arches passed across an avenue, which extended into the darkness. The only light source seemed to be the door behind them. As the echoes of the second shot faded, everything seemed almost too quiet. Sam looked warily about, anticipating an imminent attack.
She jumped back suddenly, bringing her weapon to bear as a figure lunged from the shadows near the ceiling, to land at her feet. She willed her gauntlet to fire, but at the last moment drew up her arm so that the blue-white bolt sailed into the distance. The figure collapsed at Sam’s feet.
It was Yukio.
As the scavengers ducked to seize their weapons, Nidhogg bellowed in fury. "Kill them all!" He ordered, levelling his pike at Setneb’s chest. A regrettable loss, to destroy such a beauty, but Nidhogg’s pride demanded her swift destruction.
The Che’fer raised their weapons at the scavengers, most of whom were still unarmed. Newman activated his shield, then fired a stunning blast into the nearest pikeman.
Suddenly, the trash heaps around the beleaguered scavengers erupted, as cloaked figures emerged from hiding. Eleven of Turaca’s finest fighters, armed with Asgard plasma pikes, and led by one of the finest clandestine warriors that Chris Newman had ever met: Phan Kim. Blue fire blossomed like political power from the muzzles of the plasma pikes, strafing the ranks of astonished Che’fer, while blasts of purple energy signalled Kim’s entry into the fray.
Setneb struggled backwards, and Yarris leaped to seize Nidhogg’s arm in his jaw. The Primarch screamed in pain, but held fast to his plasma pike as he punched the tracker repeatedly in the head. His fist caught Yarris hard on the snout, and with a yelp of pain, the creature dropped from his arm. Yarris gathered for another attack, but Nidhogg was too fast, firing a single bolt of blue fire into the tracker’s chest. Screaming in rage, Setneb lunged at Nidhogg, but he turned and dropped, ducking her punch and firing into her leg. As she cried out and fell, the Primarch took aim for a killing shot, but then Turaca was on him, punching, kicking and grappling, knocking the pike from Nidhogg’s hand. As they fell, struggling, Setneb scrambled up, shaking her head to clear it.
Turaca was skilled and quick, but Nidhogg was stronger, and in far better shape. He had more training, a better diet, and wore superior armour. Turaca’s desperate rage gave him strength, but not enough, and in only a few moments the fight was over, Turaca thrown to the ground.
Nidhogg scooped up his pike. "Goodbye, scavenger," he barked.
Twin blasts of energy exploded on Nidhogg’s chest. He looked up, knowing that his armour had been breached, and stared down the barrels of a brace of accelerated particle pistols.
"Goodbye, Che’fer," Setneb said, calmly. Then she shot him in the face.
Yukio was in a bad state. She was dead, and her body had been subjected to massive trauma. The front of her vac suit was torn to shreds, and the front of her body was not much better. The right hand side of her face was blackened and blistered, her head and limbs lolled at disturbing angles, and from the way her body flopped as it landed, her spine was probably broken. The gauntlet on her wrist had been destroyed, seemingly crushed by a giant hand. Her own sword had been lodged in her gut. Sam was no profiler, but just by the extent of the damage, she could tell that someone had beaten Yukio to death with far greater than necessary savagery.
And they had enjoyed it.
"Ho there! Thunderer!" The voice boomed from the high shadows, too dark for even Sam’s Asgard night-vision to pierce; the voice of Yukio’s killer. It was harsh and grating, and held a note of incredible anger and arrogance. "Are you come for another beating?"
"Jormungandr!" Thor replied, his soft voice ringing like a bell throughout the avenue. "I have come to settle with you, once and for all."
A booming, inhuman laugh filled the hall. "And they call my father a joker. I see you have brought me another of these toys to play with when you are dead."
For a moment, Sam thought that he meant the hammer, but then she looked down at Yukio, and realised that she herself was the toy. Angrily, she bunched her fists.
"No," Thor whispered. "Remember the plan." He turned his head upwards again. "Are you going to stay up there?" he demanded. "Or do we fight?"
"We fight," Jormungandr growled.
"So be it." With that, Thor swung his arm back, then hurled his hammer with all of his might at the voice. Electric fire burst from the impact, and one of the arches snapped, raining debris onto the floor of the hallway. Straining to see, Sam could make out two shapes descending from the ceiling. One was the hammer, returning to its master’s hand. The other, was…
The hall floor shuddered as Jormungandr landed, and Sam was momentarily frozen in place. Thor had said that he was big, even for an Unas, but her mind had not really processed that information.
Jormungandr was easily eight feet tall, and his body was a scale-plated mass of sinewy muscle. He sported a loincloth and poncho-tunic, like those worn by Daniel’s friend, Chaka, only of richer material and threaded with gold. His chin tusks were perhaps six inches long, and his fingers ended in long, wicked-looking claws. His scales were so dark as to be almost black, and as he moved towards them, eyes blazing, it was easy to see how those who lived in fear of Sokar’s Unas shock-troops would have considered them demons.
Jormungandr stood, legs splayed, arms wide, and bellowed a challenge. In response, Thor struck his hammer against the floor, producing a shower of sparks and a smell of ozone. The hammer looked pretty impressive, but Sam – even having seen him fight – did not much like Thor’s chances. The two combatants stood, facing each other down, until – at some unspoken signal – they rushed forward.
Jormungandr’s mighty paw swiped out in a lightning-fast blow intended to rip Thor’s head from his shoulders, but the Asgard ducked beneath the attack, and drove his hammer into the Unas’ belly. With a flash and a roar of thunder, Jormungandr was thrown backwards, and for a moment Sam though it might be over. But although he was slammed against a wall, smoke rising from his tunic, Jormungandr sprang nimbly to his feet. Sam felt a wash of despair; how could Thor fight such a monster and win?
She could not stop to consider that now. She had set herself a task, on which all was riding. Reluctantly turning from the fight, Sam slipped from the hallway and located a flight of stairs, which – according to Turaca’s map, and she could not afford for that map to be wrong – would lead her into the central control room of the old administrative building.
Phan Kim led a small cadre of scavengers behind the Che’fer lines and into the sally port. Outside, the scavengers might have claimed the upper hand, but once the Che’fer inside rallied, they could seal the port and pick off their enemies with ease. First things first; Kim aimed a high-powered blast at the port’s hinges, to keep it from closing. Then he charged up the stairs, leading with a burst of suppressing fire.
With some satisfaction, Newman noted a Che’fer tumbling from one of the gun ports. He was leading the battle on the ground, more or less; protected by his shield, he was able to safely draw fire from the more vulnerable scavengers. Turaca and Setneb were nearby, fighting side-by-side with a savage ferocity. Around him, scavengers were seizing the plasma pikes from fallen Che’fer, and cutting a bloody swath through the enemy. A fresh knot of Che’fer emerged from the sally port, but Chedren felled his former comrades with a wide-angle compression burst.
One of the Che’fer swung at Newman with a makeshift club, taking him by surprise and bowling him to the ground. The shield was only effective against energy weapons, and so the impact knocked the wind out of Newman. He hit the ground awkwardly, raising his arm to protect himself, and feeling a hot pain in his shoulder, where he had not quite recovered from the accelerated particle blast. A third hit caught him across the temple, and he fell backward as a volley of shots felled his attacker.
He tried to shake his head clear, and regretted it at once. Painfully, he rose to his feet, to see that the battle had reached a temporary lull. Just as he began to hope that this lull might stretch into victory, Kim’s voice came over his communicator: "Heads up, Chris. More Che’fer coming your way."
"You could not defeat us before," Jormungandr mocked. "Now you are older and weaker."
"I prefer to think of it as wiser," Thor replied. His body was scored by several shallow claw marks, but he was not bleeding. The Serpent’s scales now smouldered from the blows which Thor had rained upon his back, but in two millennia his nanocytes had made him – if anything – even hardier than before.
"Surrender and worship us," Jormungandr offered.
"I would never worship you," Thor replied. "No-one would worship such a crude beast."
With a roar of fury, Jormungandr attacked, slashing blindly, allowing Thor to score another blow to his back. The hammer felt heavy in his hand, and although he fell, Jormungandr still rose too fast for Thor to follow through.
"You are still clumsy," Thor observed.
"Maybe. But you grow tired, old man, while I could keep this up for hours. I only regret that your woman will not have the strength to match me," he leered, and this time it was Thor who attacked in blind rage.
Following Thor’s directions, Sam made her way through the Asgard complex to the main control console. It was covered in a thick dust, but as Sam wiped that away, she saw that it was still active. Quickly, she shifted the series of stones which deactivated the guns – the sequence was coded in a complex fashion, but memorising the necessary movements was child’s play to a woman used to juggling theoretical astrophysics in her head – then reached for the controls that would disable the transport block.
Perhaps it was instinct that warned her; or perhaps a half-seen reflection in the dusty console. Whatever the cause, Sam threw herself aside moments before an energy blast ripped the console apart. Stifling a curse, Sam slapped a hand onto her gauntlet, raising her shield, and a second blast splattered harmlessly from the protective shell. Thus secured, Sam rose to face her attacker.
Gerrid – for such this must be – looked almost like an Unas; in the same way that a modern man looks almost like a Neanderthal. Sam wondered if the two species might be distantly related in the same fashion; a robust and a gracile version of the same basic design. Gerrid had smooth, dark scales, which shone with rainbow reflections, like a magpie’s feathers. Her limbs were slender and supple, almost human in design, and she moved with a predator’s grace. Her head was hairless, earless and noseless, but her face was strangely beautiful, despite the scales and the slit-pupilled eyes. Beneath a loose black gown, threaded with gold, her chest was flat, but there was something undeniably feminine about her; or at least so it seemed to human eyes. Her hands were long and dextrous, and held a wedge-shaped weapon with which Sam was not familiar, but which appeared suited to her grip.
"How sweet," Gerrid hissed, sliding her weapon into a holster at her belt. "Thor comes to see my husband, and brings me something to play with while they talk business."
Sam shivered inside, but hid the reaction beneath her anger. "I’m not a toy," she said. "And I’m not here to play."
Throwing out her arm, Sam let fly with a bolt of energy, but Gerrid dived to one side with incredible speed and agility. Sam loosed a volley of shots, but Jormungandr’s ophidian consort evaded them all, diving, rolling, and eventually leaping up and skittering along the wall.
"Play time," Gerrid said, propelling herself away form the wall and into Sam, driving her down. She moved fast, but Sam was trained, and while not quite able to perform a text book throw on someone so quick, she was able to direct the snake-woman’s momentum away from her. Gerrid rolled with the fall, coming swiftly to her feet and attacking again.
The scavengers fell back to whatever cover that could find as the next wave of Che’fer approached. Newman was limping badly, and he could see that a lot of the others were in pretty much the same state or worse.
" Kim; how are you doing in there?"
"Not so good; but we’ll hold here as long as we can."
Newman fumed, impotently. "Is there any chance we could rush the sally port?"
"Not a hope. You’d have to come through in twos; they’d cut you to ribbons."
"But if we wait for them to come out, they’ll pick you guys off, then snipe at us from the gun ports!"
"Sucks, huh?" Kim replied. "Also, I’m down to about thirty percent; I’m starting to flag here. I’d give real money for some good, old-fashioned grenades."
Newman checked his own reserves; he was at forty-one percent. Much lower and he’d start to feel the fatigue. "Okay, Kim," he said. "I’ll try sending some people around the back, through the sewers. Maybe…"
"Ratatosk Flight, this is Gull Leader. I suggest you chaps get clear of the rear wall of that pyramid."
"Yes!" Newman cried, triumphantly. Never had he been so happy to hear James ‘Red’ Masterson’s voice. Gulinbursti Leader, a casualty of the Royal Flying Corps in WWI, might sound like a refugee from a Biggles novel, but he flew like one as well. "Go Sam!" He yelled, knowing that the defences must be down.
Moments later, Kim and his surviving scavengers were leaping from the gun ports, and sliding down the side of the pyramid to the ground. As they ran, Newman heard the scream of engines behind him, as Gull Flight rocketed out of the sky at full throttle.
"Gulinbursti Flight, this is Gull Leader," Masterson said, his channel to Ratatosk still open. "Single volley fire. Our people are down there and we don’t want to vaporise them along with that ugly, steel monstrosity."
The clash of the titans moved into Jormungandr’s throne room, and now both combatants were feeling the strain.
"You have more strength than I," Thor conceded. "But you spend it carelessly, and so exhaust it all the quicker."
"Shut! Up!" Jormungandr gasped.
The pyramid shook under the impact of Gulinbursti Flight’s guns, and Jormungandr staggered. Thor raised Mjollnir above his head for the coup de grace, but the Serpent turned his head, and exhaled a cloud of green vapour which ate into the Asgard’s skin and vac suit, burning his eyes and sending him staggering back, blinded.
In the control room, Sam was locked in combat with Gerrid. She quickly realised that the shield was all but useless against Gerrid’s direct, physical attacks, and that left active would only drain her strength. Unfortunately, she had no opportunity to break away from the melee for long enough to deactivate it. Gerrid was all over her, and while superior skill was allowing her to hold her own, the snake-woman’s speed might tell in the end.
When the blast came, it startled them both, for Sam had not heard the announcement. The chamber shook, throwing both women form their feet, and Gerrid was forced to duck swiftly aside to avoid a falling beam. Sam feared for the stability of the chamber, and if it collapsed, of the whole pyramid above.
The distraction did however give Sam a chance to deactivate the shield, and she did so. Immediately Gerrid saw this, she drew her weapon again, but as she did so she sacrificed the chance to regain her balance, and a blast of energy from Sam’s gauntlet sent her body tumbling across the floor, to fetch up, lying still against a wall. A shiver passed through Sam, as she felt, albeit distantly, Gerrid’s pain as the bolt struck her. It suddenly became clearer how the pilots managed not to become addicted to the gauntlets, although it also struck her that some people might be more likely to get hooked on this sensation than on the raw release.
Gerrid lay still, and after a few moments, Sam turned her attention to the machines. The control console was charred beyond repair, leaving no means of inputting the deactivation codes for the transport block. Her mind working overtime, Sam blasted the corner of the top panel, and wrenched it off the console. The mechanics of the console were a complete mystery to Sam, but there looked to be fairly extensive damage. A contact probe seemed to rise underneath each of the junctions on the panel however, and several of these still looked to be active; or at least they were glowing. Sam knew that moving the stones created connections between these junctions, which meant that it should be possible to input the sequence by connecting the correct junctions; but with what?"
In the corner, Gerrid groaned, softly. Sam looked over, and an idea came into her mind. With a determined stride, she moved over to the snake-woman, and punched her hard in the face to keep her out. Then she tore a long strip from Gerrid’s gold-threaded gown, and returned to the console.
Using the top panel as a guide, and praying that her understanding of Asgard technology would suffice, Sam stripped out a long strand of gold thread, and began looping it around the junction contacts. Her vac suit should protect her from the voltage inside the console, but a worrying though struck Sam. What if the console worked not with electricity, but with some form of energy flow unknown to human science? What if it were kiron-based? Or used some other elementary particle of which Sam had never heard?
"Well," Sam said to herself, as she twisted the last wire into place. "If it is, then we’re probably hosed." The final connection was made, and the console did something. Certainly the lights inside changed, but Sam had no idea if this was good or bad. "I guess there’s only one way to find out," she muttered. "Newman?" She said. "Hnoss? Thor?"
There was no response, and Sam hoped that meant that the control room was somehow isolated from radio – or whatever – contact, and that her squad had not been wiped out.
Tying Gerrid’s hands with strips of her own dress, Sam left the snake-woman in the control room, and went back up to the pyramid.
The image of Niflheim on the Stupid Idea’s screens shifted colour, indicating that the transport blocks had been deactivated.
"Full scans," Freyja ordered. Her voice was as calm as ever, but her warrior’s instinct was gnawing at her. Ratatosk Flight had been too long about their mission, which was why, as soon as the defences went offline, she had sent Gulinbursti and Vidofnir Flights to provide support as needed. Unfortunately, as soon as they passed beneath the coverage of the transport blocks, both flights were invisible to the mothership’s sensors. Only now, with those screens down, could Freyja know what was going on.
"Sensors detect multiple weapon discharges near to the administrative building," Gersemi reported.
The displays flickered, and the battle at the rear of the Pyramid appeared. The wall had all but collapsed under Gulinbursti’s onslaught, but the Steeds had not been designed for close air support, and there was little they could do now as Jormungandr’s army of Che’fer rushed out to assault the beleaguered scavengers. Fortunately, Freyja had prepared for such an eventuality, and her hands passed quickly across the controls, activating the Stupid Idea’s transport beams to send twenty of her pilots to join the assault.
"Incoming vessel," one of the Asgard crew announced. "Asgard engine configuration."
Freyja nodded, checking the new arrival’s vector, and a glimmer of precognition passed through her. "Battle stations," she ordered. "Shields to maximum power, and angle all shield generators to port. Recall the fighters from the surface. Scramble Valkyrie Flight to intercept, and get Skoll and Hati flights to their hangars."
"Commander?" The Asgard asked, uncertainly.
" Now," Freyja said, flatly. "And I want all port-side weapons to fire on that vessel the moment it arrives."
The Asgard complied, and not a moment too soon. The very moment that it dropped out of hyperdrive, the Utgard powered its weapons and fired. It was a devastating but high-risk first-strike manoeuvre, and against a lesser commander it would have settled the battle before it was begun. But Freyja was one of the greatest battle philosophers the Asgard had ever produced, and the vast understanding of combat at work in her Asgard mind granted her a near-precognitive ability to anticipate threats and respond to them. No Asgard vessel was expected at Niflheim, with all battleships occupied with the search for Loki. Thus only one vessel had cause to be approaching at such speed.
By concentrating on firing as soon as possible, Loki deliberately left his shields inactive for a few seconds after arrival. If he had succeeded in his goal, the Stupid Idea would have been crippled, her port shields collapsed and left open to a leisurely coup de grace. Freyja knew however that Loki would be commanding his mothership in person, and that – on top of his natural impetuousness – he had been in stasis for two millennia, and was thus unlikely to be in a mood to wait around. With the shields reinforced, Loki’s opening salvo was resisted, and the Stupid Idea’s weapons were able to score a number of telling blows to the Utgard’s equine prow before her shields were raised.
"Valkyrie Flight away," Gersemi reported. "Gulinbursti and Vidofnir are en route. Shields are holding."
"The undesignated attacking vessel has sustained damage to the primary weapons array and tertiary hyperdrive stabilisers. She has raised shields."
"Attacking vessel is designation Utgard," Freyja told him. "Bring the ship about. All weapons, continuous fire."
"Mai’tac!" Loki roared. "How is that thing not dead? And what is it?"
The Stupid Idea filled the display screens; a vessel unlike any he had ever seen. Her sweep-winged drive section was much like that of any Asgard mothership – albeit almost three times the size – but her hull was quite different, curving like a horseshoe to a double-prow with a great void in between. Held within this void was a massive, armoured sphere – the biosphere, although Loki did not know that. The bridge was mounted in the middle of the drive section; it would be less comfortable than a forward bridge, but better shielded, suggesting a functional, military design. The vessel’s weapons were surprisingly light, limited to plasma turrets and a few torpedo tubes, but gaping bay doors in the twin prows revealed the existence of the launch hangars.
"They have launched fighters," Hel observed. She was seated on her father’s lap at the Utgard’s pel'tac. "I have never seen the Asgard use fighters."
"Launch six gliders," Loki ordered, as the four Thunder Steeds raced towards the Utgard. "Hel," he added, lifting her to her feet. "Beloved. Find our son, and transport him to us."
"Yes, my love," Hel replied, sweetly.
Loki smiled as she moved to the sensor station. She was trying to play him, that was clear, but he was proud of her for it, and prepared to enjoy the game while it lasted.
"The transport block has been disabled," she said, petulantly. Loki knew that she had been looking forward to matching her ingenuity against the Asgard’s defences; to find that someone had beaten her to it was plainly a grave disappointment to her.
Six death gliders dropped from the underside of the Utgard, and flew to intercept Valkyrie flight. The mothership’s lesser guns opened up on them, but they were not designed for point defence, and the Steeds evaded the blasts with ease. Loki watched, anticipating their destruction as the gliders closed on them.
Four of the gliders exploded.
"What!" Loki bellowed. The two remaining gliders fired, but the enemy fighters dropped under the energy blasts, and the gliders disintegrated. "No blasts, no missiles. What happened?" He demanded.
"They must be using some kind of linear accelerator," Hel realised. "Our gliders won’t stand a chance, especially not with untrained pilots."
Of course, Loki realised. He had forgotten for a moment that he was working with Eris’ Jaffa, and not his old crew. "Jormungandr?"
"I have him." The transport beam flared, depositing Hel’s brother on the pel’tac of the Utgard. Hel swore softly to herself, as she realised that she had lost the favoured position she had only just gained.
Scouting the hall, Sam found Jormungandr gone. The fighting still raged, but after a few moments, the Che’fer began to disappear, Asgard transporters sweeping them from the field.
Sam stooped by Yukio’s cooling body. "Freyja," she said. "Yukio is dead. Can you help her?"
Light flared, and a moment later the Asgard stood where Yukio had lain, a broad-bladed sword in her hand. "We shall try, Major Carter," Freyja promised.
"Are you ever a sight for sore eggplant," Sam told her.
Freyja tilted her head to one side in a gesture of inquiry, but seemed prepared to let the matter go. "It seems that our assessment of surface conditions were inaccurate," she noted.
"You Asgard have a talent for understatement," Sam said. "A pretty healthy population survived the revolt, and Jormungandr was gathering an army for his father. We’re lucky that they didn’t get to him."
Freyja looked grim. "The Utgard attacked us as we approached, but it was driven off by the Thunder Steeds," she said. "Her transporters were highly active; we estimate that she gathered between four and five hundred people from the pyramid, including Jormungandr."
"Five hundred?" Sam gasped, realising just how desperate their gambit had been. She was very lucky that Jormungandr had been so complacent.
"My people shall aid as many of the fallen as we can," Freyja promised. "I have Chris and Kim marking their allies for priority treatment." She cocked her head sideways, as though listening. "Go ahead, Chris," she said. "I have Sam here as well."
"Hi, Carter," Newman said. "I just wanted to say, it’ll probably save time to take everyone. There’s hardly any Che’fer dead left. They got taken along with the living."
"Very well," Freyja said.
"Do you think they have the stone?" Sam asked.
"I do not know," the Asgard admitted.
"I think I know who might," Sam realised.
"Gone!" Gerrid demanded. "What do you mean, gone?"
"I mean…gone," Sam told her, harshly. "Skedaddeled, vamoosed, skipped bail, left town, headed for the border and done a runner. I mean that he’s left you in the lurch, dear wifey, so we’re going to turn you over to the custody of the scavengers."
"We don’t want to do that," Newman assured her. "Not that we like you, but we’re not monsters. But you have to give us something to work with here."
"What do you want?" Gerrid pleaded.
"No deals," Sam insisted. "If she knows where the stone is, the scavengers’ll beat it out of her and tell us. Let’s hit the road, Newman; we’ve got to drop this lot off somewhere safe, then we’ve got a Serpent to catch."
"No! Wait! The runestone. I…I know where it is, but you can’t give me to them," she sobbed. "They’d tear me apart!"
"Talk," Sam told her.
"Leave me here," Gerrid suggested. "Where I can do no harm, yes?"
"Talk," Sam repeated. "And maybe we’ll see what we can do for you."
"Please," the snake-woman begged, appealing to Newman.
"She’s stalling," Sam snapped, drawing a plasma lance from her belt. "She doesn’t know anything. Let’s just waste her and get after the big bad."
"It’s a deal," Newman said, firmly.
"Newman, you creep…!" Sam snarled, threateningly.
"We’re lifting the scavengers on the Idea," he retorted. "And there, I outrank you."
Sam stomped away towards the stairs, fuming.
"The stone?" Newman said.
"Yes. He gave it to me. A gift he said. I’ve worn it always." Gerrid lifted the runestone from around her neck and passed it to Newman. "I don’t want it anymore. I was a fool to love him; to trust him. I hate him. I…"
"Just the facts, Ma’am," Newman interrupted. He ran his gauntlet scanner over the stone, and smiled. "Thank you for your help, Ma’am," he said.
They moved up the stairs, until they were out of Gerrid’s earshot.
"Just the facts, Ma’am?" Sam asked, grinning. "Were you trying to blow it? I came this close to cracking up."
"Skedaddled, vamoosed, skipped bail?" Newman countered. "What was that all about?"
"Too much time around Colonel O’Neill," Sam admitted. "I guess we both kind of buried ourselves in the parts. After the last couple of days I think I needed a little light relief." She sighed. "I want you to know," she said. "I kind of get it."
"You," Sam replied. "What you did. I mean, it’s not like you ever had a chance to come up and say hi, and you weren’t ogling naked surveillance photos…were you?"
"No!" Newman protested.
"Good," Sam said, firmly. "That means I don’t have to disembowel you. I’m still creeped," she assured him. "But I’ve seen enough to believe you’re a decent man, and you did take a shot for me, and there’s not many guys would do that."
"I find that hard to believe," Newman assured her.
Sam’s smile faded. "It’s true," she said. "Partly because most of the ones who would, did. You want to be careful, Chris. I’m a dangerous woman to fall for."
"I’m always careful," Newman promised.
Turaca and Setneb were marshalling the remaining scavengers, arranging for messengers to spread the word to the various settlements. They clung fondly to each other as they issued instructions.
"We should be able to assemble everyone in five days," Turaca told them. "Megan’s seeing to the logistics, so it should be good and orderly."
"The Asgard will have a transport ready to take you somewhere better," Newman assured them.
"I am going to miss this place," Setneb admitted.
"It’ll seem less homey in a few weeks when the next asteroid storm hits and the defences are out." Sam assured her.
"Do you really think we should leave Gerrid here to die?" Turaca asked. "It seems very cold-blooded."
"Trust me," Setneb said, shuddering. "It is deserved."
"And she wouldn’t go with you," Sam agreed. "She couldn’t imagine that you would wish her anything but harm. Besides," she added, with a shiver. "Freyja told me what she was in for originally. You don’t want her sharing a world with your children."
"Speaking of children, you two seem cosy," Newman noted.
"I think saving my life brought home the fact that I’m only human," Turaca replied. Setneb responded by smacking him in the gut. "See?"
They were interrupted then as, with a cheerful howl, a bounding figure leaped up to the happy couple, and bowled Setneb to the floor.
"Yarris!" The woman cried, delighted. "I thought we’d lost you."
"Is he intelligent?" Sam asked. It was something that had been bothering her.
"Oh yes," Setneb assured her. "Not exactly sentient, perhaps; but definitely intelligent."
"Your friends seem remarkably skilled at medicine," Turaca noted.
"Don’t I know it," Newman agreed, rubbing his scarred throat.
"Speaking of our friends," Carter said. "Freyja; we’ve got the stone. Let Thor know the good news."
"Thor? Is he not on the surface?"
"No," Carter replied. "I thought you’d taken him up, injured or…Can you run a scan?"
"It is already done," Freyja told her. "I can not locate Thor on the planet, or on the Stupid Idea. Nor can I find Hnoss," she added, her voice desolate.
"We have to go," Sam told Turaca and Setneb, her voice grim. "You two take care of this lot," she instructed, gesturing at the other scavengers.
"We shall," Turaca assured her.
" Stupid Idea," she said, as Newman made his farewells. "Bring us up, and set a course for Earth."
Æsirhættir SG-1 Fiction Fiction Catalogue Ragnarok