Spoilers for Beneath the Surface, Sentinel, Paradise Lost
Set in Season 6
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 story is the first part of Nike, and is followed by Kupala's Tears, The Hidden One and The Black God.
Sais, from Saxon, is a Welsh name for the English. The Tafia is of course a joke about Welsh organised crime syndicates. I'm sure everyone knows by now that the Welsh run the SGC. Don't they?
Great thanks, as ever, to my overworked, elf-lovin' blue-eyed beta reader, Sho.
Keplo was a green and beautiful world, rich with life. Sadly, the Tau'ri currently resident in the lower levels of Keplo City's parliament building were in little mood to appreciate the planet's many charms. Their accommodation also left much to be desired, and from more than a merely aesthetic standpoint.
"This room is a pretty poor excuse for a cell," Captain David Chard noted. An old school military engineer, he had little patience for poor workmanship by friend or foe alike. "Give me an hour and we could be out of here."
"Everyone's a critic," Dr Paul Fairbrass noted.
"If you have a better idea..." Chard began, irritably.
"Oh, please," Paul replied. "You call that an idea."
"What do you mean?" The engineer demanded.
"Well, it might be an idea if not for the fact that we don't have an hour to work; unless you want me to ask the nice men with the sheep tattoos to leave us alone for a while."
"Why don't you go talk to them," Chard suggested. "If they find you as annoying as everyone else does, we can escape while they take you out back and beat you to death!"
"Hey!" Major Samantha Carter interrupted. "Do you mind, children? Are they always like this?" She asked Caroline Tyler.
"Couldn't say, Ma'am," the young lieutenant replied, diplomatically. Even when invited to do so by a superior officer it would be bad form to publicly bad-mouth her CO. Her long-suffering look made clear, however, that it was a common occurrence for Chard and Fairbrass to bicker like children; in a way, they reminded Sam of Jack and Daniel.
Sam and Tyler shared a wan smile. Sam barely knew the rest of SG-17, but the freckly geophysicist was one of a handful of SGC personnel who had worked under her on the initial Stargate programme, trying to analyse the Stargate's composition while Sam puzzled over its function.
The four of them shared a cell on the ground floor of the former Keplan parliament building with their team mates: Jonas and Teal'c from SG-1, and Lieutenants Edison and Blake, geologist and ecologist respectively with the SGC's geological survey unit. They had been held here for approaching forty-eight hours, ever since the Goa'uld invasion had caught them by surprise.
"We probably should have expected it," Jonas commented. "It was surprising enough that a planet with as much mineral wealth as Keplo should have no established Goa'uld presence already."
"We considered that," Tyler admitted. "But what were we going to do? Pack up and go home?"
"I guess when you put it that way," Jonas agreed. "It would be pretty daft to ignore a planet's potential on the grounds that it showed some."
Tyler gave a wry grin. "I'm starting to reconsider the wisdom of that policy," she said.
"Besides," Paul chipped in. "These people had clearly never heard of the Goa'uld; what are the odds they just show up ten days after we do? There's no real way to know an area is mineral rich until you survey it; let alone a whole planet. Even with Goa'uld sensors you'd need a low-level pass to get enough resolution."
"It is quite possible that Czernobog did not know of this planet's resources before his arrival," Teal'c said.
Sam gave the Jaffa a questioning look. "Czernobog?" She asked.
"The Goa'uld who has imprisoned us, a former vassal of Svarog. I recognise the tattoos of his Jaffa; they are goats, not sheep," he added, addressing himself to Paul.
"I am contrition itself," the Englishman assured Teal'c.
"Svarog's strength lay always in numbers," the Jaffa went on. "He commanded a host of lesser Goa'uld, legions of Jaffa and untold millions of slaves and labourers. His technological might was limited, his resources overtaxed and his lines of communication fragile, but his domain was vast and his power within that domain was brutal and absolute. It is a maxim among the Goa'uld, however, that if a Lord's territory does not increase, it must decrease, and so he was ever hungry for new conquests, often attacking worlds of little or no value simply to maintain momentum.
"The survivors of Svarog's faction are as desperate for territory as their master once was; more so, since so much of what was Svarog's has been taken by Anubis and by the other System Lords. They will take any world, however little value it has for them. Besides this, the Black God has a reputation for extracting wealth from any world, however barren."
"He has access to some kind of advanced industrial processes?" Sam asked, doubtfully; that did not sound like the Goa'uld way of doing things.
"He does not," Teal'c replied. "Czernobog is sometimes known as the Lord of Stone and Ash. He does not settle and manage worlds; he looses his harvesting machines upon them, manned by slave labour, and strips them bare. His hunger consumes every scrap of organic material and precious mineral, before moving on to claim the very rock of the planet itself as building material. His Jaffa live on lichens and fungi adapted to grow on barren stone. His home is said to be a dead world, where he once presided over the great prison-mines of Svarog as gaoler and torturer."
"What a charmer," Sam muttered.
"He also seems to be very into black," Paul noted.
"His iconography has a certain gothic flair," Jonas added. "I take it the goat is symbolic of his methods?"
Teal'c nodded. "As the goat can dwell on the rocks of the mountains, so he tears a living from the stone of innocent worlds."
Lieutenant Sophie Blake shook her head, sadly. "But this world is so beautiful," she protested. "There are species of tree here I haven't seen anywhere else in the galaxy; thousands of unique plants and animals. How can he just destroy that?"
"He is a god of death," Teal'c replied. "He cares nothing for living things."
"We have to do something," Blake said.
"As Dr Fairbrass pointed out, there's nothing much we can do," Sam admitted, regretfully. "But so far as we know, Colonel O'Neill is still free, and while that's the case, I won't give up hope."
The highest order of System Lords, the inner circle of the Goa'uld Empire, were a fairly mixed bag. They included among their number great military leaders and the rulers of vast populations; holders of strategic planets and controllers of vital resources; lords of deceit and mistresses of manipulation; generals and politicians, spymasters and temptresses, speakers and doers. Through ruthless exploitation of his domains, Lord Svarog had risen to join this august assemblage, before his ha'tak vessel and his elite guard had been lost during an attack on a tiny backwater world.
Svarog's subjects had been stunned, and for some weeks had expected him to return at any moment. When he did not, his sons began to fight over their inheritance, and like the scavengers they were, his captains, lieutenants and servants soon joined in. Each of these Goa'uld considered themselves the one true heir of Svarog, and one by one they fell, to each other or to the System Lords, until only a handful remained.
The Black God, Czernobog, was one of the mightiest of these. Small fry by the standards of Yu Huang Shang-ti or Baal, he was nevertheless a cut above Svarog's other would-be successors. As Teal'c had surmised, it was a desire for dominion matching that of his former overlord which led Czernobog to the unremarked world of Keplo. Much to Czernobog's delight, this bountiful world had not only proven to be rich in mineral resources, it had also yielded a greater prize when his First Prime, Baphomet, had captured a number of Tau'ri during his assault, including the legendary SG-1.
The leader of this most troublesome group had eluded capture for a short time, but less than a day after Czernobog first declared Keplo to be his possession, Jack O'Neill was brought to his hastily converted throne room in chains. He had with him a Keplan girl whom he had tried to defend, filthy but pretty; Czernobog intended to enjoy her once she had seen her protector broken, and told them so at the outset. As O'Neill was tortured, the girl begged for mercy; she wept and pleaded, even trying to convince the Black God that his prisoner was not Jack O'Neill but another Keplan.
Czernobog laughed at her attempts. Why would a Keplan wear the uniform of SG-1? How would anyone from such a backwards world have the strength to hold out as long as this man did before he finally broke, begging for his life and pleading with Czernobog to leave him be?
Czernobog relented for a moment, releasing O'Neill from the grip of his hand device. "Shall we continue?" He asked, looming over the man, dark eyes glittering with malice from the depths of his hood. "Or perhaps I could find some other way to spend my time. Perhaps your woman could provide a distraction?" He suggested.
"No," O'Neill gasped.
"Yes!" She pleaded. "Just let him be."
"No," the man gasped again.
Czernobog was furious; the man was broken and yet still he refused to surrender a woman to his rightful master. The Black God struck out, angrily, driving his mailed fist into O'Neill's face, over and over again, until his wretched mortal carcass hung limp in its chains, and Czernobog's robe was soaked in blood.
"No," the girl sobbed.
Czernobog looked down at her, enjoying her despair, but too frustrated by the man's resistance to savour the thought of ravishing her now. "Leave her here," he ordered Baphomet. "Bind her where she can see the body; I shall return for her anon."
"Yes, My Lord," the massive Jaffa replied. "Shall I have one of your ha'tak vessels bring a sarcophagus so that you may begin anew with the man?"
Czernobog thought for a moment. "No," he replied. "Leave him there until he rots; he is of no more interest to me." He turned and strode up to his throne, leaving the dead man swinging slowly in the breeze. "Bring the Keplan ministers to me," he instructed. "I wish to make arrangements for their public capitulation to my rule and the construction of my new temple."
"Yes, My..." Baphomet began, but he was interrupted when one of the Skull Guard raced into the former parliament hall.
"My Lord!" The Jaffa exclaimed. "The Chappa'ai is attacked; the garrison has fallen."
"What!" Czernobog demanded. "Who dares attack us? Anubis? Lord Yu?"
"The Tau'ri, Lord," the Jaffa replied.
"Explain yourself," Baphomet growled. "The Tau'ri are weak and insignificant; how could they have overrun the garrison?"
"I do not know," the Skull Guard replied. "But their last transmission spoke of an attack by aspyat."
"Death birds?" Czernobog asked.
"I know not what these things might be," the Jaffa admitted.
Czernobog snorted, dismissively. "It matters not. Execute any of the garrison who return," he ordered. "And send two gliders to destroy the invaders."
"Yes, My Lord," the Skull Guard replied, bowing low.
SG-3 and 5 led the ground assault through the Stargate on Keplo, following an advance strike by the Falcon UAVs. Lieutenants Frost and Waverley were now patrolling the area with their remote craft, while the Marines mopped up the last of the garrison. The Gate cycled closed and then open, and three more SG teams came through, followed by a contingent of SFs bringing heavy weapons and mobile defences. Major Steven Parker was anxious to see how well the SGC's newly implemented Gate assault strategy would hold up, but more concerned right now with getting from the Stargate to the Keplan capital a mile away and rescuing the captured SG teams.
"Destiny, are we clear?" Parker asked, speaking into his radio.
"Affirmative, Daredevil," Lieutenant Frost replied. Surrounded by the carnage wreaked by her Falcon's firepower, Parker was mildly surprised as he always was by the sweet tone of the lieutenant's voice. "You are clear for target approach."
"Scratch that, Five-Niner," Lieutenant Waverley interrupted, her voice crisp and level, and touched by just a hint of disapproval for her colleagues' use of personal callsigns. "I have two bogeys inbound at two o'clock. Death gliders."
"We'll have tree cover from aerial attack, Harmony," Parker pointed out. "Do we have a go, Seven-Niner?"
"Affirmative," Lieutenant-Colonel Ferretti, CO of SG-7 and leader of the assault, replied. "SG Units two and seven and support teams stand to with anti-air; we'll take down those gliders here and secure the Gate area. Units three, five and nine advance on the city, best speed."
"Roger that," Parker acknowledged. "Alright, left flank," he told his team. "I'm on point; Artemis, on the six. Duke, you and Boomer follow me."
"Yes, Sir," Lieutenant Wayne said, falling-in alongside Sergeant Thomas. As SG-5 moved up on the right hand side of the road, Parker's team did the same on the left, with SG-9 following in between. Parker took the lead, while Master Sergeant Fowler brought up the rear. Above them, the Falcons engaged the lead glider, with support from the ground; Parker was acutely aware that the combat UAVs had never been tested in a live aerial engagement.
His attention was distracted from the skies by movement in the forest. He did not exactly see anything, but he knew that someone was there; someone hostile. "Movement!" He reported, dropping to a crouch and sliding his finger through the trigger guard of his M16.
"Okay, Daredevil," Major Warren of SG-3 replied; having seniority over Parker he was the commander of the advance patrol. "Keep your team moving forwards with unit nine on your four o'clock. We'll flank wide and try and surprise anyone who takes a shot at you."
"Roger that, Grizzly," Parker replied, amused as always to hear Warren advocating caution; he had earned his callsign through a reputation for his bad temper and fierce tenacity before age had mellowed him. Parker raised his hand and signalled his unit to move forward silently, communicating by hand signals only until...
"Cover!" Parker bellowed, and the marines hit the dirt, finding what shelter they could and readying their weapons as staff fire burst from the trees. SG-9 were a little slower, and one of them took a blast to the leg before they could get down. Fowler squeezed off a single shot at the forest; Parker almost turned to reprimand her for shooting at shadows, but then a heavy thump signalled a fallen Jaffa. A few more staff blasts flew from the trees, but then the forest erupted with the chatter of M16s.
"Clear!" Warren confirmed, emerging from the tree line. "Up and moving, people."
"Breaker's hit," Captain Foley of SG-9 announced.
Warren nodded. "Leave another of your men with him to wait for the Colonel to move up," he ordered. "Everyone else, move out; same patterns." Some distance off, a flare of light and an earth-shaking crash announced the fall of a death glider. "This isn't done yet."
Even in the cell, Sam heard the crash of the glider coming down.
"Think that's good or bad?" Paul asked.
"Do you have to be such a doomsayer?" Chard demanded.
"I don't have to," Paul replied. "But I'm a terribly unconvincing optimist."
"The guards are leaving," Sam said. "Okay, Captain; time to prove your point. Show us how weak this cell is."
Chard grinned like a demon. "My pleasure," he said.
"An hour?" Tyler asked.
"Make it ten minutes," Sam suggested.
"Yes, Ma'am," Chard promised, cracking his knuckles and producing a pocket multitool from the side of his boot.
"I thought they confiscated that," Tyler said.
"They confiscated my primary Leatherman," Chard acknowledged.
Paul laughed. "That's your back-up? Why on Earth would you carry a back-up Leatherman?"
Chard said nothing; he merely gestured around them.
"Good call," Paul admitted.
Czernobog's face was a picture of anger as he listened to the reports of his primes. "Tell me," he asked Baphomet. "How is it that my forces are put to rout by a rabble of humans?"
"My Lord," Baphomet replied. "We have as yet only the first company of the Skull Guard and a battalion of Jaffa regular on the planet. We did not have time to fortify the Chappa'ai, and our air power has been limited since our defeat at..."
"I do not want excuses!" Czernobog snapped, pounding his fist on the arm of his throne so hard that the wood cracked. "Why have the gliders not destroyed them?"
"They have new technologies," Baphomet explained. "Ground-based weapons, and flying machines that we have never seen the like of, although they appear to incorporate elements of Goa'uld technology. It will take time to develop a counterstrategy to fight these aspyat, and for the moment they are proving too small and manoeuvrable for our vessels to target and destroy. We have lost two gliders already, and they have begun to attack the staging ground. The prime at the landing site also reports a saboteur."
"Summon my ha'tak," Czernobog ordered. "We shall smash these upstarts and make this city its inhabitants tomb."
Another explosion sounded from the direction of the city gates.
"My Lord; we must withdraw," Baphomet insisted. "Our ha'taks are many hours away and engaged in battle with..."
"You are a coward," Czernobog accused. "But probably correct," he allowed. "Very well; we shall withdraw from this world. There is nothing of worth here anyway," he muttered, making excuses for his retreat.
"As you say, My Lord," Baphomet replied. "I shall recall the Jaffa from the hills and..." The First Prime broke off as the ground shook once more. "They have brought down one of the al'kesh," he realised.
"Forget the Jaffa," Czernobog ordered. "Ready my transport; we leave at once."
"Yes, My Lord. Shall I have the ha'tak vessels break off from their current engagement and rendezvous with us to return to this world?"
"No," Czernobog told him. "As I said; there is nothing here of value."
"I understand," Baphomet replied.
With some assistance from Teal'c, Captain Chard levered one of the bars of their cell free of its cement moorings. "See," he said, out of breath but exultant. "I told you this cell was ropey."
"I apologise for ever doubting you, David," Paul said.
"And so you should," Chard replied, with an air of wounded pride.
"Okay," Sam interrupted. "Let's move."
"Watch it Paul," Tyler advised, as they made their way down the corridor. "If you're not careful he'll set the Tafia on you."
"Didn't I say no-one in my team was to use that word?" Chard asked, rhetorically.
"Everyone keep the noise down," Sam ordered. "Teal'c, scout ahead; Jonas, you and I will make sure no-one comes up behind us." From up ahead came the sound of distant gunfire; a sniper's weapon, Sam was pretty sure. Soon after, the sharp rattle of M16s added their voices to the din.
"I do worry sometimes that one night I'll wake to the sound of close harmony singing and that will be the last thing I ever hear," Paul admitted in a whisper, maintaining the flow of SG-17's bickering.
"Don't push it, Sais!" Chard hissed.
"Excuse me," Sam said, in a crisp, firm voice. "Does it say 'Major' anywhere on my uniform?"
"Sorry, Ma'am," Chard replied, sheepishly, echoed by his penitent colleagues.
"Right," Sam said, taking a deep breath. "Then if you're quite finished, we'll get on with escaping, shall we?"
SG-17 filed past in silence, looking for all the world like a group of schoolchildren who had just received a scolding. Sam shook her head, wearily.
"So tell me, Major Carter," Jonas asked, "when exactly did you start channelling Colonel O'Neill?"
Sam gave Jonas a patient smile to soften the blow, and said: "Shush."
The sound of battle outside had ceased and the parliament building seemed eerily quiet as Teal'c led the way towards the outer door. They walked out onto the great steps which lead down into the walled courtyard before the building. The ground was strewn with rubble and pitted with craters, most of which, Sam knew, came from Czernobog's bombardment two days ago. A handful of Jaffa bodies lay on the ground, some slain by rapid-fire weapons, others pierced by a single bullet each. A few Keplan soldiers had been left where they fell in defence of the building, black powder muskets close to their bodies, and the once-beautiful courtyard stank of death.
"Looks like we won," Chard hazarded.
"So where are 'we'?" Sam wondered aloud.
A movement at the edge of Sam's vision caught her attention. She turned, but without a weapon there was little she could do as the skull-helmed Jaffa stepped from the doorway, levelling his staff weapon at her chest.
The Jaffa fell to the ground, a small hole in one side of his helmet. There was no exit hole, and Sam knew that opening the helm would be a mistake; that while the rifle round had lacked the power to penetrate two layers of Jaffa heavy armour, the Skull Guard's head would be a shattered mess.
On the far side of the courtyard, three figures rose from cover.
"Major Carter!" Parker called.
"Are you ever a sight for sore eyes," Sam said, with a feeling of tremendous relief. She caught a movement on top of the wall, but it was only Sergeant Fowler, slinging her sniper's rifle and making her way down.
"I knew we'd lost track of one of them," Parker said, as he approached. "Is everyone alright?"
"No harm done," Sam acknowledged. "Everyone scavenge weapons," she instructed. "This may not be over just yet."
"Destiny," Parker said into his radio. "Give me a sitrep on the rest of the field." He snapped his fingers while he waited and motioned for Thomas to surrender his tac radio to Major Carter.
"Destiny?" Jonas asked Sam.
"Lieutenant Frost," Sam explained.
"Sierra-golf three is mopping up what's left in the city with support from Harmony," Frost replied. "Nine is fortifying the city gates with some of the SFs while Lieutenant-Colonel Ferretti secures the perimeter with his group. The landing field is pretty much shot to hell."
"Nice going, Destiny," Parker commended. "Those little birds pack one hell of a punch."
"Well, yes," Frost agreed. "But I think there's something or someone else at work here. I'll try and have more info for the debriefing. Have you found our strays?"
"Tell the Lieutenant-Colonel all prisoners have been recovered," Parker replied. "Daredevil out."
"Sounds like quite a force they sent after us," Sam commented. "Nice to feel valued."
Parker smiled. "The strategists reckoned we could drive the Goa'uld invader off for good if we hit him hard enough before he got entrenched. A transport ship lit out from this compound as soon as we got the city gates down; unknown class but it looked flashy enough to be the head honcho's ride, so it looks like strategy were right for once. We're rigging up some Tok'ra sensors to give fair warning if he comes back with more firepower; for now the planet is clean and hopefully grateful to us for our help, so we can bargain for mineral rights and maybe bag some more Goa'uld tech into the bargain. That's the spin for the politicians anyway; you'd be amazed what they'll authorise if you wave enough toys at them."
"How did you know that there had been an invasion?" Teal'c asked.
"Colonel O'Neill," Parker replied. "He managed to get a message to us before he was forced to retreat into the woods."
"Is he with you?" Sam asked.
Parker shook his head. "No, Ma'am; but we're hoping to find him in the forest, or maybe in the city somewhere. Speaking of which..." He raised his hand, and SG-5 formed on him. "We'll start a search of the building here," he suggested.
Sam nodded. "It'll go better with two groups and I want to divide the combat personnel," she said. "Teal'c, Chard, Wayne and Thomas; you're with me," she instructed, taking charge of the group as the senior ranking officer. "The rest of you with Major Parker except Tyler and Dr Fairbrass; you secure this entrance."
"Secure?" Paul asked.
"We wait here and shoot any bad guys who want in," Tyler replied.
"Fairbrass," Chard said, pointing to the zat in Paul's hand. "Just be careful not to shoot anyone you know with that."
"Your concern for my well-being is moving," Paul replied. "Get out of here before I start to cry, ya big lug."
Parker led his team cautiously through the west side of the parliament buildings, the offices of the Keplan parliamentary bureaucracy, while Sam took the east: the residences and offices of the parliament members, who lived and worked full-time in the building. Fowler signalled for the others to hang back while Parker took point.
"Sergeant?" Jonas asked.
Fowler shushed him and indicated he should come further back still before replying. "Yes, Mr Quinn?"
"Ah, Jonas," he corrected. "I was wondering why Major Parker calls Lieutenant Frost 'Destiny'; I though her name was Katharine."
"Is it?" Fowler asked. "I didn't know that, but Destiny is her callsign."
Jonas frowned again. "I thought the Falcons used the callsigns Angel-one and Angel-two?"
"The Falcons do," Fowler agreed. "Lieutenants Frost, Waverley and Cotton are Destiny, Harmony and Rhapsody," she explained, referring to the three officers who rotated pilot duties on the two operating Falcons. "You know; like the Angels?"
Jonas looked baffled. "I don't know those ones," he admitted. "Are they from Rabbinical sources, or Islamic?"
"They're from Captain Scarlet." She shrugged. "I guess you haven't been on Earth long enough to catch any Gerry Anderson shows?"
"I mostly just watch the weather channels."
"Ri-ight," Fowler drawled. "Well, anyway; Destiny, Harmony and Rhapsody were three of the Angels; these hotshot female interceptor pilots, although in all other ways inexcusably girly I suppose. Anyway; the Falcon pilots didn't have callsigns of their own, so after we'd been working with them for a little while, we gave them some."
"Stop me if I'm off base," Jonas said, "but aren't callsigns assigned by command with reference to a role, rather than a person?"
Fowler smiled. "In the Air Force, sure; but every marine has their own callsign, and some of the flyboys and girls have their own handles. It's just like a nickname really, but you get it from the guys you train and fight with, so it's important. That's why we tend to use our marine callsigns in the field instead of 'sierra-golf-whatnot'."
"What's your callsign?" Jonas asked.
Jonas nodded. "The Greek goddess of the hunt. Because you're a good shot, I guess."
"FYI, I prefer 'crack' shot or some reference to 'godlike accuracy' and only partly for that," Fowler added, grimacing. "Artemis also shunned the society of men and spent all her time hanging out with a pack of nymphs; when I was a boot private I had a reputation for being, ah...shall we say, unreceptive to male attention. In other words, I refused to put out for my first platoon commander, who had a vindictive streak and a classical education." She shrugged. "But what are you gonna do? You can't change your callsign once you've got it, you just have to own it and it could have been a lot worse. I mean, most marines neither know nor care who Artemis was."
Jonas nodded his understanding, wincing inside to think of some of the nicknames he had picked up at school. "And the rest of your team?"
"Thomas came close to getting saddled with Tom-Tom since his first name is the same as his last, but he's really very good at blowing things up, so they called him Boomer. Captain Wayne is Duke, for obvious reasons."
"John Wayne? The Duke? Never mind. Anyway, he's Duke and the Major is Daredevil because he...Well, look at him."
Jonas looked up ahead, where Parker was leading the way, turning his head from side to side as though listening.
"It really is like a kind of radar sense," Fowler explained, in an admiring tone. "It's like he can feel an enemy without seeing or hearing them; that's how he knew there was still a Jaffa somewhere in the courtyard. Serve long enough in Force Recon and you get to be able to do that, but he's had it since day one. They say he was born blind," she told Jonas, portentously. "But to be honest I think that's just rumour," she added.
"Right," Jonas agreed, not wanting to ask how that equated to being called Daredevil; Fowler had already given him enough Earth references to chew over.
The group made their way through the offices, checking each one for any sign of occupation hostile or friendly. All-in-all the search took over an hour, and Jonas was starting to get twitchy by the end of it. Despite regular reports from the Falcon pilots, Sam and Ferretti there had been no word on Colonel O'Neill, and Jonas was starting to worry.
At last, they emerged into the parliament hall, a long, high chamber, with raked wooden benches on either side for the MPs to sit on and a speaker's dais at the far end from the door. Tall windows above the rows of benches gave the room light, and a great, stained-glass skylight gave it colour. Or so it had been last time Jonas had seen it, less than seven hours before Czernobog's attack. Now the sun poured in through a great rent in the roof, and the floor was covered in coloured glass; bloodstains showed that the room had been occupied when the skylight shattered, but the bodies had been taken away.
On the speaker's dais two stone lecterns had risen seamlessly from the floor, where representatives of the main political parties would stand for debates. These had been blasted from their foundations and cast roughly aside. The Chief Minister's chair, standing at the back of the dais, had been covered with silks, and a pair of evil-looking marble goats set flanking it. A chain ran from a collar on one of the goats, ending in an empty pair of manacles.
All this Jonas saw and took in, his hyper-observant mind filing away every last detail, but for the moment all he could think of was the long chain, hanging from the ceiling thirty feet above the dais, and the figure dangling limply at the end of that chain, dressed in SGC fatigues.
"Colonel!" Jonas cried, running forwards.
"Major?" Fowler asked.
"Stand down," Parker ordered, following Jonas at a slower pace. "There's no-one here. Call Major Carter," he added, as he approached the end of the benches, and Jonas neared the body.
Fowler lowered her rifle and reached for her radio, but a moment later snatched the weapon back to her shoulder as a ragged figure flew at Jonas Quinn with a raised club. With casual ease, Parker reached out and grabbed the girl, pulling her into an efficient hold and pinning her until she stopped struggling. Jonas looked startled, but after a moment his concern for Jack overcame even his curiosity, and he turned his attention back to the body.
"I thought you said there was no-one here, Sir?" Baxter asked.
"Well," Parker demurred. "No-one dangerous." He grimaced as the girl managed to sink her teeth into his hand. "Not very dangerous," he corrected himself. "Let go, and don't do that again, or I'll break your neck," he told the girl, pleasantly.
Reluctantly, she removed her mouth from his hand.
"Now, we have weapons, and if you threaten us, we will use them," Parker said. "If I let you go, will you behave yourself?"
There was a long pause, and then: "Yes," the girl replied, sullenly. She squirmed away as soon as Parker loosened his hold. "I thought you were someone else," she told them. "I thought they'd come back to hurt me."
Parker's face softened. "No-one's going to hurt you," he promised. The woman was older than he had thought, probably around thirty; she just looked younger because she was so small and spindly. She was pretty and would obviously be more so if clean and well-fed, but there was a hardness and a coldness behind her brown eyes that he had never seen in anyone who had not seen death. "What's your name?" He asked, adding: "I'm Steven."
"Hesther," she replied.
Parker nodded. "Well, Hesther..."
Hesther jumped, and Parker looked around as Sam came sprinting down the aisle between the two stacks of benches, with Teal'c close on her heels. Jonas quickly stepped between them and the swinging body.
"Is he..." Sam swallowed hard.
"Is he dead?" Teal'c asked.
"Well...He's dead," Jonas said, eyeing his team mates uncomfortably. The desolate tears in Sam's eyes; the pain on Teal'c's face; the way the two of them instinctively moved together for comfort: It all made him realise that he was still far from being at the heart of this team. He was the well-liked foster child of a close and loving family, and sometimes it hurt; nevertheless, it was an incomparable joy to be able to relieve the fears of his ersatz siblings. "But he isn't Colonel O'Neill."
"What?" Sam was taken aback, hope and uncertainty battling for dominance.
"He's wearing the Colonel's uniform, and he's about the same size but..."
"His name is Esrai," Hesther said.
Teal'c turned on the young woman with cold anger. "Why was he wearing O'Neill's clothes?" He asked.
"Because they fit," Hesther replied, defiantly. "We found them on a man who had fallen down a gully. Esrai..." Her eyes fell to the ground, and her voice became desolate. "Well, you see what we have to wear otherwise" she plucked at her own patched and battered tunic "and he always let me have the best."
Sam stalked up to the woman and seized her by the collar of that tunic. "What happened to the man you robbed? What did you do to him?"
"Nothing," Hesther insisted, afraid. "We just took his clothes and boots. We didn't hurt him." She looked into Sam's eyes, and must have read something there that told her that nothing short of complete honesty would get her anywhere. "We couldn't have," she said. "He was already dead. I think."
Sam was livid. "You don't know for sure? And you just left him there?" She shook the girl violently. "You left him there!"
"Major Carter!" Jonas protested, and Teal'c came forward to pull Hesther away from her.
Hesther shook in the Jaffa's grip, staring at the people around her like a frightened rabbit.
"Take us to him," Sam demanded, in a dark tone. "And you had better hope that he is still alive."
The gully was empty.
Jonas and Parker led Hesther quickly away, leaving Sam and Teal'c searching the area for Jack's body. Jonas did not want to think what Sam might do once she was certain Jack was no longer there.
"It was there," Hesther promised, still close to tears from terror. "I swear to you..."
"I believe you," Jonas promised her. "But he isn't there now."
"There is a village nearby," Hesther said, hopefully. "Perhaps he was taken there."
"Let's go take a look," Parker suggested. "I'd really like to be able to give Major Carter some good news next time we see her."
They followed Hesther along the trail a short distance, until they came to the village; or what was left of it. The houses were broken and smouldering; bodies littered the streets, food for carrion birds and jackal-like canines. Parker fired his pistol into the air, the noise scattering the scavengers. Hesther flinched at the sharp sound of the gunshot.
"I don't believe it," she protested, weakly. "It can't be."
"It is," Parker assured her, in a tightly controlled voice. He looked around the main square, then took out his radio. "Destiny, can you hear me?"
"Loud and clear, Daredevil."
"I need you to do a sweep around my position," he said. "In particular I'm looking for the destination on two sets of cart tracks heading..." He drew out his compass and checked his bearings by the magnetic field, unable to do so by the sun on this alien world. "East and north-east of the village."
"Roger that," Frost replied. "I'm on my way."
"What are you thinking?" Jonas asked.
"That if they brought Colonel O'Neill here, he might have been shipped out on one of these wagons," Parker replied.
"Wagons," Hesther said. "When we were captured we saw wagons, but they didn't put us on them because..." Her brow creased in concentration. "They thought that Esrai was your friend," she recalled. "And that...'Lord Czernobog deems him too valuable to be a slave'. One of them also said that they were going to take the children to a camp where they would learn to man Lord Czernobog's harvesters; they did not say where the adults would be taken."
Parker nodded his understanding. "Destiny; keep an eye out for a camp of some sorts."
"Roger that, Daredevil. I'm approaching you now."
With a soft whine, the Falcon swooped in a circle overhead; Hesther crouched in fear.
"It's okay," Jonas promised her. "That's ours."
"Is it science, or sorcery?" Hesther gasped. "It flies like a bird without wings."
"Definitely science," Jonas assured her, although he had learned that the Keplans were almost as distrustful of the one art as they were of the other.
"Let's check the houses," Parker suggested. "See if we can find any trace of the Colonel."
As Jonas moved through the dead village, Hesther dogged his heels. She seemed certain that he had saved her life when Sam had attacked her, yet she was wary of him still. There was much about her that put Jonas in mind of a half-wild animal, specifically of an urbanised bundes; a shy Kelownan animal descended from the same stock as Earth raccoons.
"It's okay," he promised her. "We really won't hurt you." He reached out to lay a comforting hand on her shoulder, and she flinched as though he had touched a white hot iron to her flesh. "Sorry," he said, withdrawing his hand.
They searched in silence, until at last Hesther cried out in triumph. Jonas left his gloomy search of a child's deserted room and found her in the master bedroom of the same house.
"This was his," Hesther said, pointing to the P90 lying abandoned in the corner.
"Yes," Jonas agreed. "And look..." He lifted a roll of linen bandage from the bedside. A bucket contained blood-soiled wrappings of the same sort. Jonas spoke into his radio. "Major Carter, we've found a village near to the south end of the gully. The Colonel was brought here, and he was alive."
"Is there any sign of him now?" Sam asked.
"Looks like he was taken away on a cart by the Jaffa," Jonas replied. "With any luck we can track them and get him back."
The next voice from the radio was Lieutenant Frost's. "Sorry to be the bearer of bad news," she said. "But it looks as though several wagons came to the staging ground we located and dropped off their cargo. There are signs that a barque departed a few hours before we arrived."
"Damnit!" Sam swore.
"Meanwhile," Frost went on, unperturbed by her superior officer's display of temper. "We found that camp. Colonel Ferretti wants everyone to rendezvous at the village for a strike, ASAP."
"The rest of you do that," Sam said. "I want SG-1 to search the staging ground."
"Major Carter," Jonas said, gently. "There are kids in that camp."
There was a short pause. "I'll be there in three," Sam promised.
A few hours earlier
While his comrades still languished in their cell, and the body of poor, hapless Esrai hung in its bonds in Czernobog's throne room, Jack O'Neill was slowly regaining consciousness.
At first he was worried that he had suffered a major head trauma, because he felt as though the world were moving around him. It came as a relief to find that the world actually was moving, or rather that he was in motion, since he was lying in a wagon, surrounded by huddled groups of Keplans. They were farmers by their outfits, and clearly terrified. Not far off, Jack could hear voices speaking the harsh language of the Goa'uld and his relief was short-lived.
He tried to sit up and get his bearings, and quickly realised three things: He was unarmed; he was dressed in a suit of Keplan clothes about a size too small for him; and he had a fresh wound in his shoulder.
"Careful, stranger." A middle-aged woman leaned towards him with a forced and weary smile. "You are not strong."
Jack tried to remember how he had got there, but all he could recall was a firefight and a flight through the Keplan forest; he thought he had been trying to make it back to the Stargate and called for assistance, but he was not sure he had managed it. Then there was more running and...
"I fell," he said. "Down a cliff."
"Merely a gully," the woman replied. "But you knocked your head and injured your shoulder. You must have been out a while, because someone had taken your clothes while you were asleep. My husband brought you in and we dressed your wounds, but then the soldiers came. You might have been better off in the gully," she added, with a smile.
Jack made a second attempt to sit up, and with the woman's help managed it. "Thanks," he said. He could now see that the wagon was one of several, moving along a broad track in convoy, flanked by Jaffa in black armour; the same ones who had ambushed his team. The leaders wore skull-shaped helmets, the lesser ranks skull caps which left their caprine tattoos visible, but Jack did not recognise either helm or tattoo except from the fight and ensuing chase.
"Any idea where they're taking us?" Jack asked.
The woman shook her head. "They just killed anyone who resisted them and loaded us into the carts. The leader said to take you because you looked strong; that if you died it was no loss, but you would make a good worker. They separated out the children; I do not know where they took them." Her eyes filled with tears. Jack laid a hand on her shoulder, and drew her against his chest as she began to cry. "My husband was one of the ones they killed, and my children are gone," she sobbed.
Over the woman's shoulder, Jack saw two of the Jaffa point and laugh at her. He felt a burning rage well up inside him, but held himself in check, knowing that too many lives would be risked if he did anything foolish. "Shh," he whispered. "Don't cry; you'll upset the others."
The woman raised her head to look at Jack, uncomprehending.
"Everyone here is in a tight spot," Jack explained. "Now, either we're all strong, or we all break; I know you're scared and I know you're hurt, but you have to be strong; you need to make sure that you are not the weak link. What's your name?"
"Leyna," she replied, in a small voice.
"I'm Jack," he replied. "Now you've just got to trust me, Leyna; my friends are going to get us out of this. Okay?"
"It means 'yes', 'alright', 'understand'. It means a lot of things, but right now I mean do you understand me and trust me?"
Leyna studied Jack's face for a long moment, before replying. "Oh kay," she said.
"Kegalo, hashak!" One of the Skull Guards snapped.
"What..." Leyna began, but Jack put a finger to her lips.
"Just sit tight," he advised in a low whisper. "Don't give them an excuse to hurt you."
Jack sat with his arm around Leyna's shoulder, making himself a picture of stoic calm to lend silent support to the other Keplans. The wagons rolled on for almost an hour Jack could not be certain as either the Jaffa or whoever stole his clothes had taken his watch before they came to a massive clearing.
Goa'uld transport ships squatted in the centre of the open space, two teltacs, a barque, two al'kesh and a few vessels he did not recognise cutting sharp, grey voids in the verdant backdrop. In the distance, rising above the forest canopy, Jack saw a half-built ha'tak landing platform. Jaffa moved in squads and columns among the transports; the first elements of an invasion force preparing to spread across the face of Keplo and transform the untouched wilderness into a bleak array of slave villages and labour camps.
Jack did not know what might be in the various crates they were unloading, and in all honesty he did not want to know; it was bound to be unpleasant for somebody and with no way to do anything about it the knowledge would just have bugged him.
"Out!" One of the Skull Guards ordered. "Everyone out!"
A pair of Jaffa stood at either side of the wagon's tailgate and dragged those who seemed too slow down to the ground. The Jaffa pulled the Keplans from the pack, one-by-one, and fastened a heavy steel cuff to their right wrist. The cuffs were connected to a single, long chain, so that fifty-or-sixty people two wagonloads were all chained together. The Jaffa quite deliberately found those who huddled the closest to each other and separated them, so that as far as possible the Keplans were shackled to strangers.
Jack squeezed Leyna's shoulder as they pulled him away from her. "Remember," he whispered. "Keep strong, and you'll keep the others strong."
"Oh kay," she replied, with a look of absolute trust. Jack kept an eye on her until they fastened her to the chain, nine-or-ten shackles down.
Once all of the cuffs were filled, the Jaffa led the line of prisoners or rather, as Jack now realised, slaves into the belly of one of the barques. Three chains were forced into each of the four compartments of the hold, giving the slaves barely enough room to move, let alone sit. One end of each chain was fastened to the bulkhead, the other left loose.
"You are now the property of the Black God," a Skull Guard announced. "Resistance will be punished swiftly and absolutely. If you make any attempt to leave the hold during your transportation, your chains will be loosed and all of you will be cast adrift in the void of space; a fate which shall bring death instantly. There is little air in this compartment as it is," he added. "Try not to breathe more than you have to."
The Jaffa stepped back, and the heavy hatch covers swung down, plunging the hold into blackness. In the dark, one of the villagers began to wail.
By the time the Falcons arrived at the landing site, the barque was long gone.
Later that evening there was still no sign of Colonel O'Neill and SG-1 were feeling rather despondent.
The raid on the camp had gone more smoothly than expected, when it proved to be entirely undefended. By the looks of things, the bulk of the Jaffa assigned to the camp had fled at some stage, and those who remained had been dead for several hours. They had been killed by staff blasts, but it did not look as though they had fought with those who fled. Rather, the wounds were unusually precise; as though their enemy had surprised them, striking the bulk of the warriors down with lethal accuracy before they could react. If any had survived, they was no sign of them at the camp.
Despite the accuracy of the blasts, Teal'c was certain that Jaffa had carried out the attack. The wounds as he pointed out were all in the front; a Goa'uld would strike from behind to maximise the element of surprise, but Jaffa would only shoot a foe in the back if he fled without giving battle. Also, a Goa'uld would have killed or taken the children; Keplans would have released them.
The children were set free and taken to the city to be cared for by the provisional government the assemblage of surviving MPs who had been intended to publicly capitulate to Czernobog until their parents could be retrieved. Most of the children were in shock, and all that could be learned from them was that the Jaffa fought and then went away. Those who were most coherent said that there had been a woman who had ordered the Jaffa not to release them, saying that they would be better left for the Tau'ri to find.
The SFs were left to help maintain order and distribute humanitarian aid to Keplan refugees, while the five SG teams less Colonel O'Neill, Breaker of SG-9, two other wounded and the late Lieutenant Wright of SG-3 proceeded to the staging ground to assess Lieutenant Frost's concerns. On their way they stopped by the village to collect Hesther. Sam fully expected the Keplan woman to have fled, but they found her just standing among the death and destruction with a distant look in her eyes.
The staging ground had been hit hard. Weapons far more powerful than those on the Falcons had brought down an al'kesh, and the crash had taken out most of the supplies as well as two gliders, a teltac and another vessel, of unfamiliar design. One ship, also of unknown class, but different to the one that had been destroyed, was damaged but intact; little else remained to salvage.
"What happened here?" Sam asked Frost, looking down from a slight rise onto the landing field.
The young lieutenant, almost unrecognisable without her VR headset and gauntlets, gave the barest quiver of her shoulders which Sam recognised as a suppressed shrug. "I don't know, Ma'am," she said. A slight smile creased the corner of her mouth and she added: "It was like this when I found it."
A smile flickered over Sam's face, but she was too concerned for it to last. "You didn't shoot any of these ships down?"
"No, Ma'am. The Falcons could've maybe handled the gliders, but we would have had trouble with an al'kesh. As you know, the adapted glider cannon they mount isn't quite as potent as the original." Sam did indeed know that, having worked on the conversion and accepted that limitation in exchange for making the cannon more compact, as well as increasing its rate of fire.
"What do you think did this, Teal'c?" Sam asked.
"I am unsure," Teal'c replied. "A ha'tak's weapons would have done more damage to the al'kesh; a glider's cannons less. The rest of the damage appears to have been due to the crash."
Sam nodded. "What was the ship the al'kesh fell on?"
"A mash'an," Teal'c replied. "A carrying vessel, designed to bear small numbers of gliders at hyperspeed. It is likely that Czernobog's ha'tak vessels were otherwise engaged, and he felt no need of great numbers in the battle for this world."
"Which, I guess, is why we're still alive," Sam said.
"What about the one that survived?"
"A nadjet," the Jaffa explained. "A lightly-defended strike vessel, sometimes used in suicide missions."
"No sign of the Colonel?" Sam asked.
The question was largely rhetorical, but Frost answered it anyway. "No sign of anyone but Jaffa. Most died in the crash, but a few seem to have been shot with staff weapons. The few that survived we took out with the Falcons. SG-7 are searching the crashed ships for data crystals which might contain some sign of where the barque was headed, but it looks as though there may have been another of those nadjets to escort it, so we're not sure there's anything to find."
Sam nodded, slowly. "Thank you, lieutenant," she said. "Dismissed."
"Yes, Ma'am," Frost replied. She saluted, then walked away towards her dormant Falcon and its mobile control station.
"Damnit, Teal'c," Sam whispered. "We just got him back from that godforsaken moon last month. How can we have lost him again?"
"We have not lost O'Neill," Teal'c replied. "We have merely mislaid him. Temporarily. No doubt Czernobog will have transported the prisoners to one of his slave mines; we need only discover which and we will be able to rescue him."
"But we tried to locate Czernobog once before, when we thought that he had Captain Kawalsky and we couldn't find a trace of him."
"He can move his court with ease," Teal'c reminded her. "For all his rapacity, his permanent mines must remain where there are mineral deposits."
"Then what if he's dead?" Sam asked. "What if...?"
Teal'c silenced his friend with a stern gaze. "You know as well as I that O'Neill can be stubborn, but he is no fool. He knows that if escape would be impossible all he need do is stay alive and we shall find him and he is most skilled at staying alive."
Sam nodded, blinking back her unshed tears. "Alright then," she said, decisively. "So what we need to do is find out where the Colonel was taken."
"Indeed," Teal'c agreed. "Let us confer with Jonas Quinn and attempt to form a plan of action."
"You know what you are, Teal'c?" Sam asked, rhetorically. "You're a brick."
Teal'c raised a questioning eyebrow, but followed Sam down towards the staging ground without comment.
They found Jonas in a black silk pavilion, sitting at a Goa'uld console and scouring through the recovered data crystals. Nearby, Hesther had hunkered down in a shadowy corner, and kept glancing nervously at the goat-head icons emblazoned on the walls.
"It looks like this was a command post, but it was abandoned and never came under heavy fire," Jonas explained. "Someone's already gone through a whole bunch of these crystals," he added, "and searched this place from top to bottom. I don't think we're going to find out where Czernobog took his prisoners from anything here."
"Then we'll try elsewhere," Sam said. "We can ask the Tok'ra if they have any intelligence on Czernobog. Meanwhile, we keep looking here and..."
"Would his soldiers know?" Hesther asked, warily.
"Their leaders might," Teal'c replied. "As would the pilots."
"Not that it matters," Sam scoffed. "The Jaffa are either dead or gone."
"Some were left," Hesther said.
"What?" Sam demanded.
"Some were left behind, when Czernobog fled."
"How much do you know?" Sam asked, angrily. "And how do you know it?"
"I...I overheard," Hesther replied. "In the parliament hall I heard Czernobog talk to his general. The general said that there were still Jaffa in the hills, and Czernobog said to leave them behind."
Sam nodded to herself. "We can set out at first light," she said. "Comb the hills for surviving Jaffa until we find one who knows where the Colonel is."
"I can help," Hesther offered. "I know the hills better than anyone."
Sam laughed, even more coldly than she had intended. "Thanks for the offer," she said. "But since you know the hills because you were a bandit, I'm not sure we want to trust you up there."
"Hey!" Jonas protested. "Ease up on her, okay? She's just trying to help."
"Sure. Right," Sam replied. "I'm sure she's just trying to be useful; like she was when she left Colonel O'Neill to bleed to death."
"I did not think he had survived the fall," Hesther mumbled. "We were desperate; winter is coming and..."
"Things are tough all over," Sam replied. "That doesn't make what you did right."
"Major..." Jonas began.
"I don't want to hear another word from you on this subject, Jonas," Sam interrupted, walking away and clamping down on her feelings. Jonas had seen her react this way only once or twice before; it was not a good sign, and rarely suggested that she was about to do her best work.
"Then you shall hear it from me," Teal'c said, following his friend and speaking in a soft voice.
"Teal'c..." Sam began, but he ignored her and went on:
"Many people in this woman's situation would not have assumed O'Neill was dead, they would have made sure. Many people have done far worse things out of desperation; I am one of them. As she herself has pointed out, she knows this terrain better than any of us, yet she has not eluded us; instead she offers her help. We would be fools not to accept it."
"We can't trust her," Sam insisted.
"I believe that we can."
Sam looked from Teal'c to Jonas, and then to Hesther. "Alright," she said at last. "But don't come crying to me if she gets us all killed. We'll leave at first light." She turned and stalked out of the pavilion. Teal'c nodded to Jonas, then followed.
Jonas was amazed by the transformation wrought in Hesther once they were away from cities and machines. Before she had been awkward, melancholy and deeply afraid; in the deep woodland she seemed a different person. The sadness remained, but she was sure-footed, confident and utterly at ease with her environment. She led the way with an easy stride, showing no fear despite the fact that she was hunting Jaffa unarmed; Sam had refused to allow her any weapons.
"So where are you leading us?" Sam asked, suspicious, but less so than the day before; a night's sleep seemed to have worked wonders on the major.
"Once you get up into the hills the woods are very thick," Hesther replied. "There are only a few places where you could camp, and I know most of them. If these Jaffa have stumbled on one of them, we will find them in the next two or three days."
"And if they have not?"
"We will find a trail," Hesther promised. "It is hard to move through the woods without leaving traces that I can follow."
Jonas could not help noticing, when he turned and looked back, that there were three such trails running away behind them, his own the largest, Teal'c's the smallest; Hesther had no trail.
"Watch your step," she cautioned. "Stranglevines grow thick on this slope; you will catch your feet if you are not careful and it can take a long time to release the vine."
Sam kept her eyes locked on Hesther, as though expecting her to make a break for freedom at any moment. After about half-a-mile, her right foot did indeed catch on something and she stumbled. She tried to pull her foot free and could not.
"Stranglevine," Hesther said. "Give me your knife."
Sam glowered at her, then bent to examine the vine. It was a long, fibrous creeper, which periodically split into loops, one of the largest of which had caught her foot. Somehow the pressure must have triggered a mechanism which caused the root to swell with fluid, trapping her foot. At a guess, the stranglevine was probably a carnivorous plant, subsidising the meagre nutrients from the soil of this particular slope by trapping animals and holding them until they starved to death and fertilised the ground with their decay. Sam drew her knife and cut at the vine, but the tough skin of the creeper resisted the blade, and she felt the crushing grip tighten.
"Give me the knife," Hesther repeated.
"Why?" Sam demanded. "So you can force it to break my foot?"
"Jonas?" The Keplan appealed.
Jonas looked at Sam, trapped and angry, and then at Hesther's earnest, grimy face. After a moment's pause he drew the knife from his belt and handed it over. Hesther bent down and thrust the blade into the vine just where it parted into the loop which held Sam.
"Don't..." Sam began, but then Hesther gave a quick twist. A thick, golden sap oozed from the stranglevine, and the pressure on her foot released.
Hesther wiped the blade of the knife clean and handed the weapon back to Jonas. "You just need to know..." she began to explain.
"I get it!" Sam snapped, adding with extreme ill-grace: "Thanks!"
"You're welcome," Hesther said, without a trace of sarcasm. The young woman stood and led off up the hill again.
With no further interruptions from stranglevines, the group made good time, checking three of Hesther's camp sites that day. There were no Jaffa, but clearly someone had used one of the clearings the night before, and since it was getting dark and on the off-chance that they might come back Sam decided that was where they should spend the night.
"Three watches," Sam said. "Whoever's up keep an ear open for returning Jaffa and a close eye on our faithful guide."
"Major Carter," Jonas protested. "She's sitting right there."
"It's alright," Hesther told him, earning nothing from Sam but another scowl.
Sam heated three MREs on a portable stove for the team, and grudgingly permitted Hesther an energy bar. Jonas frowned, but Sam ignored him, causing his stomach to knot with a mixture of anger at Sam and concern for her well-being. He ate half of his meal, then proffered the rest to Hesther.
"No," she said. "It's yours."
"It's okay," Jonas said. "I'm not that hungry; you can have it."
"I'm fine!" Hesther exclaimed, leaping to her feet. She immediately looked terribly embarrassed by her outburst. "I'm sorry, sir," she mumbled, and turned to retreat into the shadows.
"Don't go too far," Sam warned her.
"I won't," the girl replied.
"Great," Jonas muttered. "Just great."
"What?" Sam demanded, icily.
"Never mind," Jonas said, getting up and following Hesther, catching up with her at the edge of the clearing. "Hey," he called, softly. She half turned, and he waved the MRE at her. "I know it's not very...any good, but it's food, and I don't think you've eaten well in a long time."
"I don't need anything from you," she whispered, with forced calm.
Jonas frowned. "Hesther?" He asked. "What's the matter?"
Hesther was silent for a long time, before suddenly blurting out: "You can not have me!"
"What!" Jonas was taken aback. "I don't...I wouldn't..." He shook his head in confusion. "Maybe I should go back and..."
Hesther turned back to face him, eyes sparkling with tears. Her body language was closed; her arms folded across her chest, head slightly bowed, shoulders slouched forward. "You don't?" She asked, with trepidation.
"I...no, I don't," he assured her. In the right circumstances she would have been a very attractive woman, but Jonas felt that flattering qualifications were not what was needed here.
"I..." She began to cry, great fat tears rolling silently down her face, leaving paler tracks down her dirty skin. "I'm sorry, Jonas," she said. "But you were so kind to me."
Jonas nodded. "And of course, that's a bad thing because..."
"You make me think of Esrai," she said.
"He was like me?"
She shook her head. "Not even a little," she replied.
Hesther sighed. "My life has taught me never to trust people who are kind to me," she said.
"I'm sorry," Jonas said, with some feeling.
She smiled at him. "Keplo is not a perfect world," she said. "Unless you're rich. I was not rich; I served people who were. One of them was very kind to me, but then I found out that he expected me to..." She squirmed uncomfortably, unable to put it into words. "...in return," she finished. "I fought him and he struck me; he would have killed me if Esrai hadn't saved me. We both struck him in the fight and had to run for our lives. He was a gentleman of quality and we were peasants; he could have had us flayed, hanged or indentured for twenty years."
Jonas frowned. "We really need to review our diplomatic policies," he muttered to himself.
Hesther sighed. "Since then, Esrai has been my only companion. We lived in the forests where no-one would find us. It has been twelve years now, and our master has probably lost interest in us, but it just seemed safer to stay hidden."
"Was he your..." Jonas stopped. "I'm sorry; that's none of my business."
Hesther smiled through the tears. "He was my everything," she said in a small, choked voice. "We weren't lovers, but I loved him and he loved me and we were all each other had."
"Please eat," Jonas said, simply, holding out the tray.
Warily, Hesther reached out and took the offered tray. She took a small bite of the food, and after a moment her eyes widened and she began shovelling away the rest. "Mmm," she moaned, ecstatically. "Oh, this is so good."
"I'm...glad you like it," Jonas said, taking a step away from this woman, who was obviously mad.
"But I still won't sleep with you," she added, warily.
"I wouldn't want you to," Jonas assured her. "Or...Well, that's not exactly true, but...you know what I mean; right?"
"I think so," she said, speaking around her last few mouthfuls, bolting down the MRE with such gusto that even to Jonas the alleged beef stew began to look tasty.
"Can I ask you a personal question?" Jonas asked.
"Alright," she said.
"You've had a bad time the last couple of days," he said. "You've lost Esrai, and now Major Carter is treating you like dirt. How can you take that so well?"
Hesther smiled. "You have to understand; I don't expect anyone to be kind to me unless they want something. I was afraid of her at first, but now...I trust her, because she's open about what she thinks of me. She doesn't owe me any gentleness and I know I would act the same if our positions were reversed." She gave a wistful smile. "I think that she feels the same way about her friend as I did about Esrai."
Hesther nodded. "That is why I take what she gives me," she concluded. "Because I have some idea what she is feeling."
Jonas shook his head, wearily. "You're a good person, Hesther," he told her.
"You are as well," she replied. "She does see that," she added. "They both do."
"I know," he said. "But I'm still not one of them. I'm not close to them like Colonel O'Neill is; or like Daniel..." He tailed off, feeling his mood darkening. "Let's get back to camp."
The flight was shorter than Jack ever realised; even by barque one of the slower Goa'uld vessels their destination was only about thirty hours from Keplo, but it felt like much longer. The hold was pitch black, and the prisoners were packed in so tight that breathing became a serious issue. Jack tried to keep everyone calm, knowing that panic could only worsen the situation, but there was only so much he could do with so many people, in so bad a spot. He could hear Leyna trying to do the same, and a few other calmer heads besides, but Jack himself was at the limit of his nerves by the time he felt the lunge of the barque returning to normal space.
"Slaves of Czernobog," a voice boomed from all around them. "You have reached the end of your journey. All of you have died, and soon you shall set foot in the land of the dead; the land of Chërt that you shall never leave."
"Don't listen to him," Jack advised, as those around him began to scream and plead. "You're not dead; he just wants to break your will."
"When the doors are opened, you will remain where you are until the Jaffa order you to come forth. Disobedience will bring punishment: Pain without end. Follow the commands of the Jaffa and you shall avoid great pain; resist, and you shall be cast into the Pit to suffer an eternity of torments."
The barque began to shake as it passed through the atmosphere of a planet, and a great, deep scream filled the hold as the vessel stooped through the air to the ground. At last there was a thud, then everything was still and Jack knew that they had landed. For a long time, there was silence, all one-hundred-and-sixty Keplans barely daring to breathe.
With a sharp hiss, the outer doors opened, gaping wide onto a desolate landscape of white sand and black stone. Cool air rushed in, providing a moment's relief from the stifling heat of the compartment before quickly becoming too cold for comfort. The villagers huddled together, none brave or foolish enough to risk punishment by trying to break free; or perhaps they were simply too afraid of what might lie in this achromatic wasteland. After a long moment, two of the Skull Guards stepped into view. They dragged the first man forward, pulling the rest of his chain after him.
Jack's had been the first chain in, so it was the last out and as he left the ship he found himself in the most unforgiving landscape he had ever seen. The land was lifeless and dead; everywhere he looked an unrelieved vista of naked basalt and pale, motionless sand. The skyline was slashed by broken pinnacles and narrow, towering mountains like cathedral spires. Some distance ahead and to the right loomed a more regular shape; a palace gouged from the living rock. The sky was black, but not like the night sky of earth; rather it was like the view of space from space, the stars hanging still and cold in a lifeless firmament. Jack found it hard to breathe; it was like being at altitude and he realised that they must be on a world with a very thin atmosphere. Moving was easy enough though and the chain felt lighter than it had done on the ship.
The chain of slaves was dragged forward and lined up before a great portico in the side of a towering wall of black stone. Within the portico was a desk, black and ornately carved, yet clearly a desk, and this image of bureaucracy threw Jack for a moment. Behind the desk sat a youngish man with a blandly handsome face and a bored expression, flanked by Skull Guards. A Goa'uld writing tablet lay before him, and at his side stood a Jaffa in especially ornate Skull armour.
"Slaves of Czernobog," the Jaffa boomed. "These are the mines of Chërt; your home for all eternity. I am Formet, Master of the Mines. Obey me, and you shall prosper; defy me and you shall be struck down. Those are all the rules you need to know. Each of you shall be presented in turn to the Recorder, who shall assign you a place in the mines. Your shackles shall be removed and you shall be branded with the Mark of Czernobog, through which the God will watch you."
Jack shivered; he did not like the sound of that. Unfortunately, there was very little he could do. He had been looking around since his arrival and there was no sign of where this world's Stargate might be; if indeed it had one. If he ran when they took off his irons, he would be running blind over powdery sand and with the thinness of the air he would not be running for very long. Shrouded in their skull-masked helmets, Jack was sure that the Jaffa would have no such difficulty.
As Jack watched, two Jaffa came forwards and seized the first prisoner. They released his wrists from the shackles and fixed the free end of the chain to a sturdy post, then led the unfortunate forward. The Recorder wrote something on his tablet and said something to the guards. Formet gripped the man's arm and pressed a pistol-shaped device against his neck. There was a sharp crack and the man cried out, but he appeared only slightly hurt and was sent on his way through the portico, rubbing at his neck.
The next prisoner was taken forward, and the next, drawing closer each time to Jack, until only the post stood between him and the Recorder's desk. Still he was too far back to hear what was said as the woman in front was marked and sent through. The guards came for Jack, unshackled him and led him forward.
"Hey there, Recorder," Jack said. "How ya doing there?" The Recorder made no response, merely waited for the Jaffa at Jack's right shoulder to strike him hard upside the head.
"Name?" The Recorder asked, in the disinterested tones of a Goa'uld.
"Sundance," Jack replied, blandly.
The Recorder did not appear to notice the sarcasm in Jack's tone.
"Have you a partner in the group?"
Jack considered naming Leyna, but thought it might seem odd if she then did not name him. "No," he said.
"Have you any particular skill in mining, industrial processing, tailoring or food preparation?"
"I worked in a power plant once," Jack admitted.
The Recorder looked up, for the first time giving the impression that he had actually registered Jack's presence. "You are assigned to power plant two," he said. "Follow the red line to the end, then the gold line; any deviation from this route will be punished severely. Power plant two," he repeated, addressing himself to the guard.
Formet came up to Jack, his skull-mask grinning maniacally. He raised his device and pressed it to Jack's neck. Jack felt the shock all along his arm, and a sharp pain where the muzzle was pressed.
"Ouch," he said, pointedly.
"Move, slave," Formet commanded.
Jack moved, walking in through the yawning opening. He raised a hand to his neck and felt a small, metal device not dissimilar in dimensions to a Tok'ra memory enhancer imbedded there. He picked at the edge of the disc, and felt a sharp, stinging sensation jar the nerves along his right side.
Past the threshold the air grew thicker and warmer, although it remained very cool. Six rows of lights flashed in sequence along the floor, forming six divergent trails into side passages: Blue, green, white, amber, pink and red. Experimentally, Jack started along the pink trail, and immediately it diverged from the red he felt the stinging in his neck again. He returned to the red and the pain went away; in fact, he felt quite good about having chosen to walk the assigned path.
"Stick and carrot," he muttered to himself, feeling a sense of dread as he passed through a metal portal with a three-foot-thick door which put him in mind of the blast doors at Cheyenne Mountain. This was a place that could be sealed as tight as the Mountain but to keep people in, rather than out.
Jack looked down to make sure he was on the right track, and saw that his legs were coated in the white sand. He realised with a start that it was not sand, but ash. Ash lying on the planet's surface so deep and thick that it drifted like the Sahara; ash that was the world's only soil, and no microbes to break it down. Centuries of ash; the powdered remains of an entire ecosystem. Jack shuddered at the thought of such wanton destruction.
After almost fifteen minutes of walking, during which various paths split off from the red line, the trail of lights ended. From there Jack took the gold route shunning the lines he dubbed turquoise, duck egg and saffron and followed that to its inevitable conclusion in a cavernous dormitory. A young man was waiting, although not specifically for Jack. Three other slaves had already found their way here, and two more followed. Only once they had all arrived, and it seemed certain no-one else would, did the young man speak.
"Welcome," he said, with all the snide arrogance of a Goa'uld's favoured servant, "to power plant two. I am your overseer, Dekan, which makes me, to you, the voice of the Black God.
"This plant provides power for the auxiliary machinery in the mining facility, including the water pumps, filters and air compression and circulation. All of which will mean nothing to you primitive cretins," he added in a mutter which might have gone unnoticed if he had been surrounded by heavy machinery. "You will all of you sleep here, eat in the plant mess and work on the plant floor. If you work well you will become a senior labourer and be given greater responsibility, better quarters, better clothing and access to the senior mess.
"Those of you with partners will be granted shared quarters only when one or both of you attains overseer status. The same applies to anyone who wishes to form a new relationship with a fellow worker. Good service brings privilege, and one such privilege is the right to cohabitation. Those who find their place here will quickly rise in status, as I have done; those who do not will remain an unremarked labourer until the day they can no longer work and are cast into the Pit.
"Follow me now. I will show you to your bunks. You will change into you work clothes, and then I will explain your duties."
Jack dallied at the back of the group, and as their tour began he lifted his gaze to the roof and whispered. "Please, let there not be an induction video."
Throughout the next day SG-1 slogged through the wooded hills, checking four more clearings for signs of recent use by Czernobog's Jaffa. At last, about an hour before dusk, they found something. As they approached the last site of the day everything seemed clear, until Hesther entered the clearing and cried out in horror. Jonas and Sam were at her shoulders in moments, P90s raised, while Teal'c spun about to cover the rear.
"Damnit," Sam muttered, surveying the scene before her. There were Jaffa here, but as at the prison camp, someone else had got here first. There were eight bodies in plain view, and each of them had been killed by a single staff blast; a precise killing blow to the head, heart or prim'ta pouch. Baggage had been ripped apart and the contents sorted and stacked around the clearing.
"Teal'c," Sam ordered, "search the area; look for tracks. I want to know what happened."
Teal'c moved off without a word, clearly as baffled as Sam. While it was not beyond reason that a group of Jaffa might be surprised by another group of Jaffa, it seemed unlikely that all could have been slain without a shot fired in return.
"Only this one was armed," Sam realised, seeing one Jaffa with his staff weapon still held loosely in his slackening grip. "Probably a sentry." She looked around to see who else had their weapons close to their bodies. "Two of the others had staff weapons to hand, but the others only had zats."
"They were attacked at night," Jonas concluded. He knelt and tugged at a finger.
"Very good," Sam commended. "We'll make a soldier of you yet."
"They've been dead more than a day," Jonas added, acknowledging the compliment with a nod. "Rigor mortis is starting to dissipate but there's still stiffness. There are no signs of cadaveric spasming, indicating no substantial pre-mortem exertion."
"Where did you learn so much about forensics?"
"CSI," Jonas replied. "It's a big favourite with the archaeologists so they make me turn off the weather channels when it's on."
"Okay, Grissom," Sam said, quietly. "What do you make of this fellow?"
Jonas rounded a shrub to join Sam. "Oh God," he whispered.
The ninth Jaffa had clearly been tortured. His face had been destroyed by a mass of deep scratches, and his pouch had been exposed, presumably to torture the prim'ta within. What other pain he had suffered Jonas could not easily tell, but the cause of death was apparent; the narrow blade that had pierced the chain mail at his breast, leaving a pool of blood to well up through the steel rings from his punctured heart.
"I don't think we're the only ones looking for information," Jonas realised.
Hesther cried out as she saw the last body and wobbled on her feet. Jonas put an arm around her for support, and this time she did not flinch, although she politely pulled away as soon as she was steady.
"Get a grip," Sam spat, although this time she looked like her harshness came from the fact that she was fighting nausea herself. Jonas knew how she felt.
"We...we can get back to the last sight we visited before nightfall if we hurry," Hesther suggested, ignoring the criticism. "I don't want to be here in the dark."
"I don't care what you want," Sam replied. "We should search the camp and see if the last lot missed anything."
"Major Carter," Jonas said, warily, indicating the stacks of baggage. "It looks as though they were pretty thorough and methodical."
Sam looked around. "There has to be something," she declared. "There!" She pointed at an unopened trunk, resting by one of the trees. "Maybe there's something..." She reached for the lid and began to lift.
"No!" Hesther cried, dragging Sam back by the collar, just as the lid exploded outwards and a wave of energy blossomed forth.
"Get off me!" Sam roared, flailing her arm and striking Hesther on the nose.
Hesther scrambled away from Sam, tears of pain welling in her eyes. Sam grabbed for her weapon, raising the P90, perhaps in anticipation of an attack to follow the energy blast. Whatever the reason and even Sam was never really sure Hesther clearly believed that Sam intended to do her harm, and she ran.
"Hesther!" Jonas called after her.
"Let her go," Sam muttered, "This has all been a waste of time."
"Including the part where she saved your life and you tried to kill her for it?" Jonas demanded. He paused. "Okay; that probably was a waste of time," he admitted. "But still..."
"Damnit, Jonas! She and her friend found Colonel O'Neill bleeding to death and they stole his boots."
"Don't judge them for that," Jonas told her. "Neither you nor I can even imagine what it's like to be as desperate as they were. Of all of us, only Teal'c has any right to say if what they did was really out of line, and so far he seems to think not. Besides; it's because of what they did that Colonel O'Neill is alive, and her only friend in the world is dead."
"We don't even know why they were outlaws."
Jonas shrugged. "As near as I could make out, the same reason Sergeant Fowler got her callsign."
"Major Carter!" Teal'c jogged into view from the trees.
"I'm alright," Sam assured him. "Thanks to Hesther," she admitted, when Jonas glowered at her. "Have I been that bad?" She asked the younger man.
"Pretty bad," Jonas replied. "But I get it. I know you were pretty much stretched to the limit when Colonel O'Neill went missing with Maybourne, and you haven't had time to sort yourself out yet. I bet you haven't even caught up properly with your sleep yet, have you? I know you haven't because if you were on your game you never would have fallen for a simple trap like that."
Sam shook her head, wearily. "God, I am such a..."
"No you're not," Jonas told her, firmly. "I don't think so, Teal'c doesn't think so; even Hesther didn't think so."
"She didn't?" Sam asked, doubtfully.
"No; although the gun may have changed her mind on that."
Sam groaned and sank to the ground. "She was right," she said. "Let's get back to the last site. If we luck out we'll find her there; if not...We'll have to come up with a new plan. This trail is dead. As dead as my sense of humour."
"Then things should be looking up," Jonas said.
The two humans left the clearing and moved away. The Jaffa waited a little longer, seemingly bothered by something in the clearing, but at last he followed his comrades. A few minutes later, a ripple distorted the air, and a figure appeared, slim, essentially humanoid and apparently female, but with narrow, pinched features, a bald head and pale, yellowish skin. She was dressed in a dark blue body suit, shot through with golden fibres, and her acid-green eyes stared after the departed team as though she could still see them through the trees and the intervening distance. A mask covered her mouth and nose.
She flexed her spine with a sinuous, ophidian motion, releasing muscles made tight by holding the exact same pose for close to an hour so as not to disturb the function of her camouflage device. Once she was certain SG-1 were out of earshot, she drew out a slender item of black metal. She took a deep breath, removed the mask and spoke into the device.
"The Mistrrress was correct," she purred. "Otherrrs are seeking."
"You have your orders," the reply came.
Power plant two reminded Jack a lot of the machine room on P3R-118. It was hot, noisy and crowded, and although the generators seemed to be more sophisticated the lack of regard for worker safety was the same; so were the uniforms. The biggest difference was the hierarchy; the workers had all been more-or-less equal under Brenna's administration, but on Chërt they clearly had no truck with such an egalitarian system.
There were the labourers and then there were senior labourers. Senior labourers might aspire to become technicians if they had particular skills, and either seniors or technicians might be promoted to overseer if they showed sufficient drive and loyalty. Overseers vied in a complex political game for the revered role of senior overseer, and then entered the hard-fought race to become the next chief overseer. With each rise in status a worker received privileges, which Jack recognised to be no more than the return of basic human rights and dignities.
There were no guards in the work area; no Jaffa within reach of an angry swipe from a wrench or crowbar. Instead, the overseers kept order on behalf of the slave-masters, their individual rooms and cohabitation rights the thirty pieces of silver for which they betrayed their co-workers. The system stank, although Jack could not help but admire the machiavellian brilliance of it.
With his past experience in muscular slavery, and the advantage of lower gravity, Jack was able to settle in quite quickly. He asked if there was a union, Dekan had informed him that he was unlikely to ever make even senior grade if he did not learn to hold his tongue. Jack was tempted to explain to Dekan that he did not intend to stick around long enough to reach his first staff review, but he recognised that he had a better chance of escape if he kept his head down and his nose clean. He hated deferring to the boy however; not only was Dekan half Jack's age, he was also a quisling of the first water and he made Jack's skin crawl.
Jack was assigned to work with one of the older technicians, Baran, who was delighted that his request for two assistants had at last been granted. The second assistant was a senior labourer named Zaya. Baran was a severely overweight mechanic who worked on some of the more delicate machines, and whom Jack suspected had been driven to seek promotion by his love of food. It quickly became apparent that he had an equal appetite for women, and poor Zaya who was pretty and no more than sixteen years old had a far worse time of it than Jack. He might have complained, but suspected he would get nowhere: Scuttlebutt seemed to be that one of the senior overseers was grooming Baran for an overseer's role, and that Zaya was to be the first of his perks.
"You," Baran ordered Jack, near the beginning of his second day of work. "Go and bring me a box of size three bolts."
Jack hesitated, as Zaya shot him a pleading glance, but there did not seem to be much he could do. "Yes, Sir," he growled, deciding he would just have to be as quick as possible. He hurried away, but almost at once Zaya squealed in fear behind him and he turned back.
"Did you say size three or size five?" Jack asked.
Baran sprang away from the squirming Zaya, who scuttled as far from him as possible. "Size three," the mechanic repeated. "Are you completely dense?"
"Yes, Sir," Jack confirmed.
"Like this!" Baran snatched up a bolt some three inches long and half-an-inch in diameter and hurled it at Jack's face. Jack casually raised a hand and caught the bolt, and Baran blanched, slowly coming to the conclusion that Jack might not be a man to mess with.
"I'll be back before you know it," Jack warned, but apparently the message had not sunk in because no sooner was he moving away again than Zaya screamed once more.
Jack went back, and saw the girl cowering, a livid handprint on the side of her face beginning to bruise. His blood boiling, Jack folded the size three bolt into his right hand and tapped Baran on the shoulder. The big man began to turn, and Jack threw a punch with his loaded fist, knocking Baran cold and stretching him out on the floor.
"You okay?" Jack asked, dropping the bolt and wringing his aching hand.
"Thank you," Zaya said, quietly.
"What is going on here?" Dekan demanded, responding with an admirable alacrity that made Jack wonder how come he had not turned up when Zaya screamed.
"Just a little labour relations dispute," Jack replied.
"Sundance," Dekan sighed. "I knew that you would be trouble. Has this man tried to harm you?" He asked Zaya.
"I..." Zaya looked at Baran's unconscious form. "No," she replied. "It was Baran; he was the one who..."
Something like triumph flashed across Dekan's face. "I always suspected that giving that man responsibility would be a disaster," he commented. "Zaya; report to the infirmary so that they can look at your injuries. You two!" He called, waving over a pair of labourers. "Take Baran to the Pit on a charge of disrupting work."
The other labourers went, leaving Dekan and Jack alone.
"He was angling for your job," Jack realised.
Dekan just smiled.
"So, you could say that I did you a favour."
"So," Jack suggested, "how about we forget any idea of punishing me for attacking a superior and we'll call it evens."
"I am sorry, Sundance," Dekan said. "But I can not allow my labourers to brawl."
"Of course you can't," Jack sneered.
Dekan's smiled deepened as he pulled back the sleeve of his tunic to reveal a coppery wrist band.
"What does that do?" Jack asked.
Dekan touched a panel on the wristband, and pain exploded from the Mark of Czernobog on the side of Jack's neck.
Jack woke up sore all over; his body felt like one big bruise and his muscles ached.
"This," he muttered to himself, "is why as a rule I never have artificial objects implanted in any part of my body."
Jack opened his eyes, and winced at the light. Squinting, he saw a dark shape standing by his bunk. "Zaya?"
"You helped me, and they did this to you," the young woman said, regretfully. "All my life, very few people have ever done anything for me without asking anything in return. Seeing what they did to you, I'm almost glad they haven't."
Jack feebly waved away her apologies and her thanks. "Not your fault," he said. "You took a risk yourself standing up to say it was Baran who tried to hurt you. Might've been easier for you if you pinned it on me, but you didn't; thanks for that." He forced himself upright, and all the pain that floated nebulously around his body seemed to coalesce in the Mark at his throat. "Gah!" He cried out.
Zaya reached out and pressed something cool to the side of his neck and the pain dimmed. "Is that better?" She asked.
"Yeah," Jack replied. "Thanks again."
Zaya nodded, graciously. "She said it would ease the pain."
"Nike," Zaya replied. "She has been here a little longer than you; she is very clever."
"Nike? Like the shoe?"
"Never mind. Where is this Nike now?"
Zaya shrugged. "Around. She comes and goes; I think that is why she has never become a senior labourer, because she wanders from her post. Are you able to eat?" She asked. "I brought you food."
Jack thought for a moment. "Yeah," he said. "I could go for food."
Zaya smiled. "Dekan ordered that you receive only bread and water until you were recovered, but I smuggled some stew and broth from the kitchens. A woman named Leyna seemed glad to provide, although she said that your name was Jack."
"Always nice to be remembered," Jack said, sipping at the lichen broth. "And it is Jack; Jack...Sundance," he added.
"The others will avoid you now," Zaya said. "You have made an enemy of Dekan."
"And Baran," Jack reminded her.
Zaya shook her head. "Baran is gone. They took him to the Pit; he will not return."
Jack gave a pained laugh. "How nice for Dekan," he said.
"He will grow more powerful now," Zaya agreed. "You will have few friends."
"What about you?"
"I will not forget what you did for me," she promised.
"Likewise," Jack agreed.
"In this place they have a saying," Zaya said. "When someone saves your life, your life belongs to them."
"I didn't save your life," Jack assured her.
Zaya smiled. "I must get back to work," she told him.
"Go," Jack agreed. "And don't worry about me."
"I'll try to bring you something more to eat later," she promised. Then she stooped and kissed him gently on the lips.
Jack watched Zaya leave, taking his empty bowls with her. For a moment, Jack thought he saw someone watching him from the far side of the dormitory, but when he looked more closely there was no-one. Still, he had a vivid impression of a girl with short, blue-black hair and an enigmatic smile.
Jack was back at work in less than two days, astonishing everyone with his stamina. Soon the mutterings behind his back had changed; people still avoided him, but now because they believed him to be Dekan's cat's-paw rather than his enemy. The rumour was that he had brewed trouble with Baran to give Dekan an excuse to Pit his rival's favourite, and the punishment he had received was just for show. Only a few people did not move away when he came near to them, and even those were reticent to talk.
"So about how often do new folks show up here?" Jack asked of one old hand, a man of about fifty-five who wore a long smock and a tired expression.
The old man laughed at him. "Planning on breaking out?" He asked, looking suddenly more shrewd than Jack would have suspected. "It's not possible; we work here until we die. Trust me, you wouldn't be the first to try."
"What happens to those who fail?"
The old man lifted the edge of his smock, so that Jack could see that his left leg had been replaced below the knee with a wooden peg. "Best case," he added. "Most die on the surface; shot dead or wounded and left to freeze by night or sizzle by day."
"I thought we were already dead," Jack commented.
The old man laughed again. "Feels like it sometimes, but I swear if I were dead I wouldn't feel the years stacking up on me, one-by-one. Twenty years I've been here. My daughter...My daughter was born here. She has never known another world," he sighed, deeply. "She's never known me."
"So if you've been here so long, how come you're not an overseer?"
"I was," the old man replied. "But then we tried to escape and they weren't about to trust me again. My wife, Jen, also survived the attempt," he added, bitterly. "We were separated and two months later she was claimed by the senior overseer; after six weeks in his bed she killed herself rather than go on. Thank you so much for asking, by the way."
Jack grimaced. "Sorry," he said.
Zeb shrugged. "You did a good thing, helping that girl," he said. "But good deeds won't win you many friends down here, and if you try to rope people into a hare-brained escape plan you'll just get them killed. I advise you forget about escape, and think about surviving."
Jack found no answer to that, and they worked on without speaking until the uncomfortable silence was broken by a klaxon, and a concussive rumble from the near end of the plant. Without even stopping to think about it, Jack dashed off in the direction of the blast. He rounded a bend and saw that one of the cooling pipes had ruptured, flooding a section of corridor with scalding coolant fluid. The valves had been shut off, but the fluid was pooling up and a number of people appeared to be unconscious at the far end of the passage.
"Back to work," Dekan ordered. "A clean-up team will be along soon; meantime the fumes are toxic, so everyone keep away from this sector."
"What about them?" Jack asked, pointing to the still forms.
"Probably dead all ready," Dekan replied.
"Back to work, Sundance."
Jack scowled witheringly at Dekan. He tore a length of cloth off the hem of his tunic and tied it around his face as a makeshift filter mask, then waded out along the corridor. The coolant was still hot, even through his work boots, but it was bearable. He felt slightly light-headed, but forged on.
"Come back!" Dekan ordered. "Come back now or you will be punished."
"No." The voice that contradicted Dekan was a woman's, but Jack had no time to look back and see who it was. "Zeb; Tylor."
Jack reached the stranded workers and stooped to check the pulse of the first. He lay half in the pool of coolant and was definitely dead, probably killed by the first escape of super-heated vapour. The next body was that of a younger man, who still lived but looked to be in a bad way. Jack hefted the man in a fireman's lift and headed back the way he had come. As he did so, three people passed him; the old worker with the peg-leg, another man, and the girl with the blue-black hair.
Between them, the four workers quickly retrieved all those who were still alive: Six men and three women. They laid them gently in the corridor, from where they were taken to the infirmary, all under the wrathful eye of Dekan.
"You," he accused Jack.
"Me," Jack agreed. "What of it?"
"Dekan; what is going on?" A tall, powerful man, dressed in a long robe walked up beside the overseer. From the richness of his garb and Dekan's immediate deference, Jack knew that this must be a senior overseer; from the peg-legged worker's reaction, he knew this must be the same one who had claimed the crippled man's wife.
"Master Ral," Dekan gasped. "It is nothing; simply a coolant leak. However, this man disobeyed my orders and risked further loss of the Black God's property to save a number of workers already dying from the fumes."
"I see," Ral said. "Then you must punish him and any accomplices for disobedience."
"Any accomplices?" Dekan asked, a hint of hunger in his voice.
"Yes, any..." Ral broke off, staring past Jack at one of the other rescuers. "On second thoughts," he said, "only punish him. The others may learn by his example."
"Yes, Master Ral," Dekan replied, disappointed. "Very well," he told Jack. "As the Mark does not seem to tame you, we shall do this the old-fashioned way. Take him to the tank," he ordered. "Give him twenty lashes then send him to his bunk; no food but bread and water until he is well enough to work."
Once more, Jack found himself lying on his bunk in incredible pain, but this time it was worse. 'The tank' proved to be a massive boiler, to which he had been securely tied while his back was scourged with a cat-o'-nine-tails. Now he had scald-wounds on his chest and lash-cuts on his back, and could not ease the pain however he lay.
Despite his better judgement, Jack craned his neck around to see the black-haired girl standing behind him. She looked young, but part of that might have been due to the boyish cut of her hair and her generally gamine appearance, which gave her the look of a mischievous tomboy instead of a grown woman. Her dark brown eyes looked old however, very old indeed.
"Who are you?" He asked.
"I am Nike," the girl replied, in a soft voice. "Keep your voice down; the others are sleeping." She sat on the bed beside him and began to smear some kind of pungent ointment on his back. It was not quite the same as the concoction that Zaya had used on his Mark the other day, but it had the same basic effect.
Jack laughed, softly.
"Something amuses you."
"No, no," he assured her, not wanting to offend her by suggesting she was named after a shoe. Besides, he was aware that the name had some other meaning, just not what it was.
"You are a brave man, but extremely foolish. This will stop your wounds from scarring and ease your pain; I hope that will not keep you from learning a lesson from this."
"To keep my head down and be a good little peon?" Jack asked.
"To pick your fights with greater care," Nike replied. "Turn over." Jack obeyed, and she began to rub the salve onto his scalded chest. "Those you helped will recover, but never completely, and now Dekan hates you more than before."
"So why did you help?" Jack asked.
"A moment of weakness," Nike replied. "Two of those you rescued were my people, and besides, I may find a use for you."
"You may?" Jack asked, warily. "I mean, you might?"
"I might," Nike confirmed, pushing a cork into the neck of her ointment jar. "Move over."
Nike wiped her hands clean and looked down at Jack as though he were dense. "Move over," she repeated. "And put your tunic on. Generator three had to be shut down until the coolant feed is restored, and since we failed to keep the supply going, power plant two is to be deprived of heating to save power. It will get very cold tonight, so everyone is doubling up."
"For warmth," Nike explained. "You know, I believed you to be a man of some intelligence. I do hope I was not mistaken; this salve is not mixed without sacrifice."
"I understand," Jack replied, angrily. "I'm just...thrown a little. It's not every day I get pretty girls wanting to climb into bed with me before we've been properly introduced."
Nike rolled her eyes. "How can that possibly be?" She asked, voice dripping with sarcasm. "Rest assured however that this is a purely practical arrangement, and any attempt on your part to make it otherwise will result in injury."
Jack decided not to bother answering, and instead he pulled on his tunic and shuffled over to make room for Nike on the narrow cot. He was becoming aware that the dormitory was indeed much cooler than it had been before, and if the temperature fell much further he knew he would be glad of the extra warmth. Nike joined Jack on the bunk. She left his covers in place and pulled her own thin blanket over them both. Jack turned on his side, facing away from Nike, and felt her do the same so that they lay back-to-back. He could still feel the heat of her through both of their tunics, but arranged this way he did not feel so awkward as he would have if they had bundled closer together.
Despite the chill outside, Nike's body was almost uncomfortably hot, and so it was some time before Jack was able to fall into an exhausted slumber.
Cold roused Jack from his sleep, and at once he knew that Nike was gone. Hearing a soft sound he opened his eyes a little and saw figures moving carefully in the dark. Jack waited until the last of these had left and then he followed, moving swiftly on silent feet, out into the corridor and after the crowd. The ache in his back was gone, and the stinging in his chest had much receded, and he wondered what exactly was in Nike's salve.
He followed along the passage and down into the plant, past the main generators into the noisy, noisome space behind the main vents, and down into a secluded bay. Here at last they stopped, and Jack crouched in the shadows as the slaves gathered around Nike.
"Is it safe to meet tonight," the peg-legged worker asked. "The overseers are uneasy."
"The overseers will not find us, Zeb," Nike promised. "And we must train each night or we shall grow soft. Everyone perform your exercises; it is cold tonight, even down here, and you will damage yourselves if your muscles are not warmed in preparation."
Jack watched as the slaves moved through a series of stretching exercises, for all the world like an exercise class at a gym. Once they were done, Nike divided them into groups, and they began to practice a form of martial art, the rhythmic, terpsichorean moves of which were at once familiar to Jack. Most of the slaves were clearly novices, but many showed great potential and when she paused to demonstrate a technique it became clear that Nike was a highly accomplished fighter, which gave Jack pause for thought.
For the most part, Nike was working one-on-one with Zeb, teaching him a variant form of the art which worked around his physical restrictions. Jack was impressed by how accomplished and agile the one-legged man was. Every now and then Nike would call the group up to display a particular point or to explain an issue of the philosophy behind the art. A small number of workers were clearly new to this training group, and Nike took them aside to explain her purpose.
"Every attempt to escape from this prison has failed," she told them. "Because every attempt was made by a small group of people working alone, who were isolated and cut down by the Jaffa. I intend to make a successful escape, by building a force which does not need to avoid the guards, because they will be able to overcome them."
"The Jaffa are too strong," a man protested.
"They are too well armed," a woman added.
Nike shook her head. "Alone they are strong, but they are fewer than we are, and their weapons are not designed for use in close quarters. If we learn how to fight against their strengths, how to exploit their weaknesses, and how to use the environment in which they confine us, we can escape."
"To where?" The man demanded.
"To wherever we wish," Nike replied. "I do not yet know how we shall escape the surface, but the important thing for us at this time is to build a force that will be ready when we do know how."
"That seems...a little vague," the man accused.
"And for that I am sorry," Nike assured him. "However, I believe that we may soon have a better idea. One of the new arrivals..."
Close to Jack's hiding place, one of the trainees fell to the ground. He looked around before he got up, and quite by chance his eyes lit on Jack's feet.
"Intruder!" The boy cried. "Intruder!"
Jack turned to run, but some of the trainees were already moving to cut him off and as he tried to move fast the wounds on his back began to hurt again. Three men moved to grab Jack. He deflected a grasping hand and responded with a series of repelling blows to gain space. His attackers backed off, clearly taken aback by his skill.
"I'm leaving now," Jack said. "I hope we won't have any trouble from this."
"Oh, I do not think that it will be necessary for you to leave," Nike assured him. "You have a great deal of skill, Sundance."
"So do you. Your Mastaba is strong. You don't seem so defeated now either," he told Zeb.
Zeb grinned. "Only a fool speaks openly of a desire and a will to escape," he explained.
Jack shrugged. "Touchι."
"You have been well trained in the warrior arts of the United States Air Force," Nike said.
Jack was a little thrown that Nike recognised his USAF training, but covered it well. "So," he asked, "what happens now?"
"Now," Nike told him, "we must finish our training. After that, you and I must talk."
"So," Jack asked, sitting impatiently on his bunk. "How long have you been training these guys?"
"I began when I first arrived, some six weeks ago," Nike explained, squinting in concentration as she probed his Mark with a slender needle. "They have come along well for people with no prior training."
"I'm impressed you managed to recruit anyone at all," Jack admitted. "Most of the people here seem pretty defeated."
Nike paused in her work to look Jack in the eye. "They always had the spirit; they required leadership, Sundance; that is all. You should know that part of a leader's role is to inspire her followers to overcome their doubts and limitations."
"Are you not a leader of men yourself?" She asked, metaphorically. "Do not bother to deny it; I know it of you as surely as you know it of me."
Jack shrugged, conceding the point. "Do you have a plan?" He asked.
"I have the beginnings of a plan, but our options are limited. This world is without a Chappa'ai, and so we will have to either await a rescue or seize a supply ship. Unfortunately while I am confident that with a little more training the slaves can overcome the guards in the mine, the supply ship will have its own troops, and any attempted rescue would doubtless lead Formet to initiate a purge of the facility."
"A gas is released throughout the facility which is highly corrosive to organic matter. Every living thing would be destroyed within minutes; not even the armour of the Jaffa is all-encompassing enough to save them. The gas is then ignited, burning off at a low heat, destroying our clothes but leaving the facility ready to be reoccupied. Formet assured me after my first attempt at escape that the process also brings the metal up to a fine polish."
Jack frowned. "If you've tried to escape, why weren't you punished like Zeb was?"
"You may have gathered that I am a very special prisoner, Sundance," Nike told him. "My General is an enemy of Czernobog, and he wishes me to be worn down so that I will betray her. This will never happen and in time she will find me and release me, if your people do not rescue us first. In the meantime the petty minions who run this place do not dare cause me serious harm, for fear of angering their lord."
Jack nodded his understanding. "So what we need to do is have everyone ready so that as soon as someone comes to spring us, our forces can take control of the mine before the gas can be released."
"That is correct," she said. "The mine must be sealed before the gas can be deployed, which will give us no more than ten minutes to seize the control room."
"Think you can make it?"
"Alone? No," Nike admitted. "With your help" she gave a satisfied grunt and withdrew the needle "perhaps."
"So this thing is off now?" Jack asked.
Nike shook her head. "It remains functional, and must do so in order to preserve our cover. The location of every slave in the facility is not tracked, but each area has its own signal posts, which query the Mark of anyone passing. If your Mark is not programmed with the correct response, or if it gives no response, then it will alert any Jaffa or overseer within signal range. In addition, it will activate its pain inducer at a low setting, creating the stinging sensation you may have experienced already. I have merely programmed the Mark to broadcast every identifying signal at once, allowing you to go anywhere within the facility."
"If we rebel, can't they just activate the pain inducers in everyone's Marks and knock us all down? Like Dekan did to me with that wrist control doodad?"
"No," Nike replied. "The pain-giving function of the Marks is not centrally controlled and each wristband can only trigger a single Mark at any one time; the system is deeply flawed, but Czernobog has not the wit or invention to overhaul it from the ground up.
"If we do survive to reach the surface," she went on, "and if we find that my General has come for me, we shall convey you to a world with a Chappa'ai along with the others, from which you may go where you please. If your friends are the ones to rescue us, I hope that you would return the courtesy."
"Naturally," he agreed.
"Then let us make a partnership," she suggested. "I give you my word on this; as one soldier to another."
Jack offered his hand, and they clasped each other's wrists and shook. "And you have mine," he agreed.
Time passed, and after two weeks the troops were really starting to get into shape. Jack discovered that not only was Nike a superb martial artist, she was also highly skilled at small-unit tactics, although her strategic ability was more limited. It was plain to see that in the service of her general she was a field commander, roughly equivalent to a USAF captain, and a damn good one at that. She was not only teaching the slaves how to fight, she was teaching them how to win quickly and without undue loss of life. She also gave a few very pointed lectures about choosing your ground, and clearly was not about to revise her opinion that Jack was dangerously rash.
Feeling he had little to add on that level, Jack did nothing to contradict or undermine her training, and instead immersed himself in the strategy of their escape. He worked out timetables and schedules, plotting mostly in his head the routines of the overseers, the best places to ambush guards responding to a crisis, and as best he could the fastest routes to the control room. The latter was the hardest part, as even with the freedom to wander the facility it was difficult to judge which routes would be most swiftly blocked by Jaffa in the event of an escape attempt.
"I figure that we should assume they'll block our retreat to the surface," Jack suggested. "That should make getting to the control room relatively easy."
"That makes sense," Nike replied. "Then we should..."
A commotion outside the dormitory disturbed them. Jack leaped to his feet and headed for the door.
"Oh dear," Nike sighed, addressing Zeb. "Fetch some of the others; I fear that he is about to do something heroic again."
Outside the dormitory, a lynching was in progress.
"You little slut!" Someone shouted. "Acting like one of us while you get cosy with the bosses."
"Well, where's your overseer now!" Another member of the mob challenged.
Jack shoved his way through the crowd, and found Zaya curled into a ball at the centre of it. As Jack approached, a big man kicked the girl hard in the side; angrily Jack caught his leg and shoved him away so that he fell back into the mob, dragging several others down with him.
"Back off!" Jack snarled, standing in front of Zaya. He looked around and saw no familiar faces; these were all old hands, not a one of them ever likely to rise above senior status despite years of toil. They resented anyone who rose swiftly through the system, blaming them for the corruption of the system itself.
"That little bitch doesn't deserve your protection," a bitter old woman screamed. "I saw her just now, sneaking out of Dekan's room, looking all pleased with herself. He's made her a technician I'll bet; well we all know what her 'special skills' are!"
"That's enough!" Jack bellowed. "Now, everyone get back to bed before anyone comes to investigate or we'll all be in for it." A man stepped up on the right, raising a length of pipe like a club. "I said that's enough," Jack said, turning and casually snatching the pipe from the man's hands. "Now..."
"Jack!" Zaya screamed.
Jack half-turned, but not before the big guy could swing up his arm and plunge a makeshift knife into Jack's gut. With an angry cry, Jack stumbled. He reached down and pulled the length of sharpened metal from his flesh and looked at it, critically. "Where'd you get this?" He demanded. "This is no good; it's all crooked." He knew that it was the shock talking; that in a few moments he would collapse as the pain hit him. Luckily, no-one else did, and they fell back, terrified that Jack might be some kind of unstoppable monster.
Jack wavered, but before he could fall a group of Nike's trainees had stepped in front of him, and the lady herself was there to support him. A few of the mob looked about ready to start something, but then Zeb snatched up the pipe, stepped forward and struck the knifeman so hard that Jack knew he must be dead.
"You may have to finish this on your own," Jack told Nike, his voice slurring.
"I do not think so, Jack O'Neill," Nike whispered. "No-one gives up on me."
"Every time I wake up around here, something hurts," Jack groaned. He sat up, slowly, and was startled to find that in fact nothing did hurt very much.
"Lie back," Nike instructed. "I am not quite done."
Jack acquiesced, and Nike raised her hand over him. He felt a warm tingling in his side, and a soft light glowed from her palm.
"That's a Goa'uld healing device," Jack accused.
"Yes," Nike admitted.
"Only a Goa'uld can use one of those things."
Nike's eyes flashed with power, and her voice took on the sinister overtones of the Goa'uld. "Yes," she said.
"Tok'ra?" Jack finished, hopefully.
"Crap." He sighed. "So Zaya tells me that when you save a man's life around here, his life belongs to you. Are you making a claim?"
"The wound would not have killed you, Jack O'Neill," she assured him.
"You called me that before," he realised. "You know who I am."
"I have done all along," she replied. "You are quite famous. I am disappointed that you had not heard of me, but not surprised. My fame is not great; except as a shoe, apparently. Please tell me that the shoe is at least associated with victory?"
"Kind of," Jack agreed. "It's a sports shoe."
Nike seemed pleased by that. "Perhaps I am not altogether forgotten on your world."
"How old are you?" Jack asked.
"Four thousand, eight hundred and seventy-two Earth years," Nike replied.
Jack swore. "Well, that makes more sense than you being twenty-one," he said. "I thought you knew a surprising amount about battle tactics; and it explains how you got so good at Mastaba."
"Naturally," Nike replied. "I created that particular form of Mastaba."
"And of course why the Jaffa and the overseers don't dare punish you." Jack shook his head. "I can't believe I got played again."
"You have not been played," Nike assured him. "Aside from concealing my true nature I have dealt honestly with you; I gave you my word as a soldier and I intend to keep it."
"I make a point never to trust a Goa'uld at her word; it only ends with me getting hurt."
"You wrong me, Colonel," Nike said, but she did not sound offended. "However, I know that the reputation of my race is against me; that is after all why I did not tell you that I was Goa'uld."
Jack lay still, too weary to debate this issue. He tried to think of some way to get around his deal with Nike, but as surely as she must need him, he needed her. Any escape attempt was risky enough with both of them working together; he would stand no chance alone, especially since most of the slaves were more loyal to her than to him. Like it or not and he really did not Jack was stuck with Nike, at least until they were off this planet.
"How do you feel?" Nike asked, at length.
"Good," Jack admitted. "I feel fine. Please tell me it was worth my getting stabbed though."
"I do not know," Nike replied.
"What about the others?" Jack asked. "Is Zeb in trouble for killing that guy?"
Nike shook her head. "Fortunately Dekan was first on the scene; he wanted to send the whole mob to the Pit for attacking his lover."
"It's nice he cares," Jack said, scathingly.
Nike laughed, dryly. "He cares that this was an attack on him and his property," she assured him. "Anyway, Zeb is fine; they've just cut his rations for a few days and your friend Leyna is prepared to sneak him enough to tide him over. As for whether your sacrifice was in vain..."
Jack looked up at the sound of running feet, and saw Zaya flying towards him.
"Jack!" She cried, flinging her arms around his neck and kissing him soundly on the mouth.
"I...Em...Hey, kid," he managed, weakly.
"Oh, Jack; I thought you were dead."
"A common misconception," Jack assured her, trying to subtly pry her arms away from him.
"You saved my life," she said, gazing adoringly at him.
"Yeah," Jack agreed, uncomfortably. "But your life still doesn't belong to me, okay?"
"Zaya," Nike said, gently, in her purely human voice. "Jack is still very weak from the treatment."
"Sorry," the girl said, pulling away from him.
"Why don't you tell us what you learned," Jack suggested, by way of displacement.
Zaya beamed, proudly, and produced a slip of parchment from inside her tunic. Nike reached out, but Zaya handed it to Jack. He smoothed the parchment out, and saw a line of nine, roughly sketched symbols. "This is the code for the control room door," Zaya said. "Dekan was very proud that he knew it; very keen for me to know how well-favoured he was. The hard part was finding where he kept it written down."
"We're just lucky he does," Jack said.
Zaya scoffed. "Like he could hold this much in his memory without straining something." She shivered, although the heating was working today.
"Sorry for what you had to do," Jack told her. "I know it can't have been easy."
"It had to be done," Zaya replied, "and he's had his eye on me since he got shot of Baran. I was the only real choice."
Jack covered her hand and gave a supportive squeeze. "We appreciate it," he said. "Even if the mob outside doesn't."
Nike took the parchment and studied it. "How long will this code be valid for?" She asked.
"Dekan says it has never been changed," Zaya replied. "That's why it's such a privilege to know it; because it is good for all time."
"Hopefully we can count on that," Nike said. "You copied this down yourself?" She asked.
Zaya nodded. "And replaced the original while he was still asleep."
Nike turned to Jack. "You know this now?"
"I got it," he confirmed.
"Good." Nike held the parchment before her, and tore it into tiny pieces before handing the shredded mass back to Zaya. "Dispose of this in the furnace tomorrow; if it is found then the codes will be changed; whatever Dekan believes."
"I will," Zaya promised.
Nike nodded. "Leave us now," she instructed. "We have matters to discuss, and you must rest."
"But..." Zaya looked back and forth between the two of them, torn between her respect for Nike and a desire to stay close to Jack.
"Actually," Jack said. "I think I need to rest first as well. We can talk in the morning."
"As you prefer," Nike agreed. "Zaya."
"Yes, Nike," Zaya muttered. "Goodnight, Jack." She kissed him on the cheek then returned to her own bunk.
"Was that necessary?" Jack asked.
"You were a little hard on her, weren't you?"
Nike shrugged. "You seemed uncomfortable with her behaviour," she explained. "I thought she might take a dismissal from me better than one from you, since she is so smitten with you."
Jack sighed. "You're probably right," he agreed. He lay down, enjoying the freedom to move without pain. "God knows why, though; pretty girl like that falling for an old wreck like me."
"She's been here a very long time," Nike said. "I don't think many people have ever been kind to her. She wants to keep hold of the one person who is, and after so long in this place, she only knows of one thing that might keep you interested in her."
Jack was silent for a long time. "Goodnight," he said at last.
Nike vaulted smoothly up to the bunk above Jack's. "Goodnight," she called down, softly.
Jack lay awake for a long while, turning over this new complication with Zaya in his mind, but eventually he managed to sleep.
The last of the SGC personnel were packing up their temporary camp at the staging ground and preparing to move out. After two weeks they had exhausted all hope of finding any survivors of Czernobog's force, and the data sources at the landing field had proven a total bust. Moreover, someone was sabotaging their equipment, particularly their sensors. While there were clearly no Jaffa forces of any great size remaining, Sam was concerned that either a Goa'uld agent although she sensed nothing of the kind or a local insurgent was operating against them. The SGC diplomatic corps was taking over matters on Keplo, seeking to establish a mining treaty conditional on certain social reforms such as the abolition of indentured labour; there was nothing more for the troops here.
SG-1 were scheduled to accompany SG-7 on a mission to extract a group of Tok'ra operatives with a possible lead on Czernobog's prison mines; right now that seemed like their best bet, although Anise had warned General Hammond that the chances of locating Jack were slim so long as he remained incognito. That left them in a bit of a bind: They would only find Jack if he made himself known, and if he made himself known he could meet the same fate as poor Esrai.
"We'll find him," Jonas promised Sam, finding her staring blankly into the forest.
Sam smiled. "Actually, I was worrying about Hesther," she said. There had been no sign of Hesther since she fled the camp and having caused her to run in the first place, Sam felt a keen sense of responsibility for the Keplan woman.
"She'll be alright," Jonas promised. "She's lived in these woods for over a decade."
"But there's something out there now," Sam reminded him. "Pro-slavery bushwhackers, general xenophobes; God help us, maybe even an ashrak."
"No-one has been killed," Jonas said. "She'll be okay."
"I hope so," Sam sighed. "I really..."
Their radios crackled. "SG-1 to the south path," Major Parker said. "SG-1 to the south path."
At the south side of the camp, where an ancient hunting trail wound out of the clearing, SG-5 were standing guard over a strange prisoner; a bald, yellow-skinned woman dressed in blue. Looking battered and bloody, but triumphantly alive, was Hesther.
"What happened?" Sam asked.
Hesther looked warily at the Major, but seemed reassured by her tone. "I went back to the camp," she said. "I found a trail; very faint. I followed it for ten days before I was able to catch up with her. She lost me three times," she added, proffering a slightly bulbous metal disc to Sam. "I think this is some kind of amulet or talisman conferring invisibility," Hesther explained. "She also had these." The Keplan woman crouched down and tipped open a cloth bag. Inside were an array of devices and weapons, ranging from a simple knife to a pistol, a respirator and what appeared to be a communicator. "Be they weapons or spellweaver's tools I do not know."
"Mostly weapons," Jonas told her. "She was heavily armed; and you caught her?" He asked, impressed.
"Not alone," Hesther admitted. "She was distracted when I finally found her, and I had...help."
"From whom did you gain assistance?" Teal'c asked.
"A...Rusalka," Hester replied, looking embarrassed.
Sam was puzzled. "A what?"
"A water spirit," Jonas replied. "A sort of Slavic river nymph."
"I do not understand it," Hesther admitted. "I thought that the Rusalki were nothing but a myth, but there she was, as plain as you are now; a figure all of water, who threw down this...thing and saved my life."
"So who are you?" Sam demanded of the yellow-skinned woman.
"Gah..." She croaked in response. "Gah-sah."
"Gah-sah? Is that a species or a name?" Sam wondered.
"Neither," Hesther replied, picking up the respirator. "She is asking for this."
"Ah," Sam realised. "Gas. She must not be adapted to a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere."
"Hold her tight," Hesther warned. "This makes her stronger."
Sergeant Fowler bound the alien's wrists with plasticuffs, then Hesther pressed the mask to her face. The respirator completely covered her mouth and nose, with a grille for her to exhale and speak through when it was strapped in place, but Hesther allowed her only a few breaths before taking it away.
"I am Arrra," the woman purred.
"Why are you here?" Sam asked.
"Forrr the same thing as you," Ara replied. "To find the Black God's prrrison."
"She was torturing another Jaffa when I found her," Hesther said. "Like the one in the camp was tortured. I think she learned something from him. She was beginning to speak into that device," she added, indicating the communicator.
Sam nodded her thanks. She picked up the communicator and studied it. "This technology looks like it might be related to the Goa'uld long-range communication devices." She turned to Ara. "What did you learn."
"Nothing," Ara insisted. "I learrrned nothing. She interrrupted me."
Hesther sniffed in disdain. "She killed the Jaffa and she looked satisfied when she had done it," she said. "I'm certain she had all she needed from him."
Sam looked inquiringly at Ara.
"I will tell you nothing," Ara said. "Unless...Take me wi..." She broke off, coughing and looked towards Hesther. The Keplan supplied another breath of gas, and Ara continued. "Take me with you so I can rrrescue my frrriend, and I shall tell you."
Sam thought it over for a moment, but only a moment. "Alright," she said. "Tell me."
Ara turned her head sideways, and looked at Sam expectantly.
"Cut her loose," Sam ordered. Fowler obeyed and Sam allowed the alien to reclaim her respirator, but not her other gear.
"Thank you," Ara said, her voice slightly tinny through the respirator. "The Jaffa said that they had been gatherrring slaves to worrrk the mines of Chërrrt; Czernobog's homeworld. They have rrrecently found new rrriches therrre to plunderrr."
"Where is it? Do you know the Gate co-ordinates?"
Ara shook her head, then took another breath of gas. "Yes," she said, surprising Sam. "But therrre is no Gate on Keplo. Czerrrnobog moved the Chappa'ai to one of the moons, wherrre he dwells in his palace. We can only rrreach Chërrrt itself if we have a ship. Rrreturrrn my communicatorrr, and we shall have a ship."
"No," Sam replied. "I don't trust you. You take us there, and later we'll return the communicator."
"But how will you get there in the first place?" Hesther asked.
Sam smiled, and took out her radio. "Lieutenant Frost," she said. "Are you good to go?"
"Roger that, Major," Frost replied. "Vandal-1 is prepped and ready to fly."
"We'll be there in five minutes," Sam said. "Major Parker; have everyone ready to go by then, and warn them it might be a squash."
"Yes, Ma'am," Parker replied.
"Hesther; can you keep an eye on Ara?"
"Yes, Ma'am," Hesther assured her. "Thank you."
"My pleasure," Sam assured her.
Leaving Hesther and the marines to bring Ara, SG-1 headed back to the landing field.
"Are you sure this thing will fly?" Jonas asked Sam.
"If Frost says it'll fly, it'll fly," Sam promised.
"Just out of curiosity," Jonas added. "Why are you so certain we can't trust Ara."
Sam smiled. "Don't worry, Jonas; this time I have reasons. You heard Hesther. She tortured a Jaffa like the one in the camp was tortured, and the rest of the Jaffa in the camp were killed by other Jaffa; right Teal'c?"
"That was my conclusion," Teal'c replied.
"So she was here with a group of Jaffa," Sam reasoned, "and since they haven't rescued or killed her yet I'd say they must have left since that attack, leaving Ara to carry on the search. That makes her a trusted servant to a Goa'uld, and thus someone we can't afford to trust an inch. See; no assumptions."
"Concentrate on the evidence," Jonas agreed. "The evidence is the one thing that can't lie to you."
Sam laughed, kindly. "You need to get out more," she told him.
"So they tell me. It's good to see you sounding like yourself again," he added, with feeling.
"It's good to be back," Sam admitted. "Now let's go get our Colonel."
The next day Jack was working on one of the regulators when Zeb found him.
"There's trouble," Zeb said.
"What kind of trouble?"
Zeb shook his head. "Don't know; but the Jaffa came down and took Nike up to the surface. Word is that Formet's got some kind of visitor; someone serious. Some of the overseers are saying the Black God himself..."
Jack stiffened. "That's not good," he agreed. "But there's not much we can do. If Czernobog's here, he'll have more guards with him than we can handle. We just need to hope that Nike will be okay." And that she won't betray us all to get out of here, he thought to himself.
"Should I get the others together?" Zeb asked.
"No," Jack said. "Warn everyone to be alert, but we mustn't do anything to make them suspicious; they'll be on their guard, now more than ever."
"Alright," Zeb agreed. "Heads down and eyes open."
Jack went back to work, very conscious of the fact that the Jaffa were beginning to walk out onto some of the gantries above the main floor. Something or someone was about to go down. Not long after, Zaya hurried around the corner and ran up to Jack.
"Oh, Jack," she gasped. "I'm sorry; I didn't mean it."
"Didn't mean what?" Jack asked, his blood turning to ice water.
"This morning, Dekan came and found me; said he'd heard about last night. He started talking about the labourers he didn't trust, and how they were going to be put in their places. I was trying to stop him thinking about you, but then he asked about Nike and I said I didn't like her. It just came out before I could think about it, and then he started asking me why I didn't trust her, and he grabbed my arm so I couldn't run away. I tried to explain that I didn't like her, rather than didn't trust her, but he wouldn't let up.
"And then the guards came and took her away, and I think I did something very wrong, Jack; I think I did something bad."
"It's going to be okay," Jack lied. "Anyway; it wasn't your fault. Dekan doesn't like Nike any more than he likes me; he just isn't allowed to punish her. He'd leap at the slightest chance to get at her; he doesn't need anything you say for that."
"But I shouldn't have said it," Zaya sobbed. "I was angry at her for last night; for sending me away. I'm so sorry Jack."
"It's not your fault," he repeated, gathering the girl in his arms and muffling her tears against his shoulder.
"It is my fault, and now they're coming for you."
"What!" Jack held the crying girl away from him and looked her in the eye. "What do you mean they're coming for me?"
"Dekan says that because you spend so much time with her, the Jaffa want to question you as well."
Jack was incredulous. "And this wasn't the first thing you said?"
"I'm sorry," she said again.
"It's okay," Jack sighed. "You're still very young, and we put a lot on you. We just need to get through this." Not far off, Jack heard heavy footsteps. "Listen to me," he said. "If anything happens to Nike and me, you're the only one left who knows how to open the control room. You have to stay free, so I need you to say I was trying to hurt you."
"They're coming, Zaya. They'll take me away, and without Dekan to protect you, they'll take you as well, just in case. You have to say I tried to hurt you; you have to say that's why you were crying, or Dekan won't take you back."
"Zaya!" Jack closed his eyes, fighting his impatience. "Just do this thing," he said. "Do it right, or we're all dead." The footstep's reached the corner, and Jack grabbed Zaya by the arm. "Scream," he told her.
Zaya leaned up quickly to kiss Jack, then pulled away and gave tongue to a scream that would not have shamed Fay Wray.
Jack's ears rang with the noise, and he genuinely reeled back with a cry of: "Son of a...!" He released Zaya's arm so suddenly that she toppled over and fell hard on the deck.
The Jaffa rounded the corner, accompanied by a triumphant Dekan. "I knew you were trouble," he crowed, looking on as the Jaffa seized hold of Jack. "You are to be taken before Lord Czernobog, Sundance, and you will suffer for your rebellion."
Jack scowled, but let the Jaffa lead him away. He looked back, and only when he was being pulled out of sight did Dekan make any move to help Zaya up.
Jack made no attempt to fight the Jaffa, realising that it would be futile; instead he allowed them to lead him up, out of the working areas of the facility, through the Jaffa barracks to the basalt palace which was no doubt the temple and home-away-from-home of Czernobog. The palace windows were small, the decoration predominantly unpainted bas relief carved into the basalt walls, leaving the passages and chambers bleak and dark. Only flickering torches, set at irregular intervals pierced the gloom, staining the walls red so that Jack had an uncanny sense of walking through the intestinal tract of some colossal beast.
The Jaffa dragged Jack through a great archway, in which two heavy, iron-bound doors of black-varnished wood stood open. Skull Guards flanked the doorway, black armour gleaming dully in the firelight and making the motionless warriors appear no more than basalt statues. Within, another pair of Skull Guards flanked a black throne, where a pale-skinned, raven haired man sat with an expression of feigned boredom on his lupine features. Although he was a rational man, Jack could not help but think that the figure looked like a Gothic vampire; cruel, cold and menacing.
A goat-helmed giant stood before the throne, a bull-whip held loosely in his hand. Formet and twelve other Jaffa stood grouped close about him, and Jack surmised this must be Czernobog's First Prime.
"Ah," Czernobog said, looking up. His eyes looked like black pits in the pallid surface of his face and every inch of his spare frame screamed of a terrible, gnawing hunger. "The one they call Sundance. Perhaps he will provide us with greater amusement than his friend. Let him through."
Warily, the Jaffa moved aside to let Jack approach the giant. As he did so, he saw that they all held their weapons levelled at the woman crouched at the big Jaffa's feet: Nike. Her tunic was torn, her back bleeding freely, but she still held herself with dignity.
"Formet tells me that you have been spending a great deal of time with my friend here," Czernobog said. "No doubt you thought her a rebellious slave, like yourself. Little did you know that she was a treacherous demoness." He nodded, and the First Prime cracked his whip across Nike's back; electric fire burst from the lash, which clung and writhed on her skin. Her eyes and mouth spewed light, and she gave a sonorous scream.
Czernobog watched in evident satisfaction, until the whip came away at last and the screaming stopped. "You see that she has betrayed you," the Black God said. "Tell me all that she has said to you, and I will spare you her fate."
"She hasn't betrayed me," Jack replied, calmly.
Anger flashed in Czernobog's sable eyes. "Did you not hear her? Was that a human cry?"
"I knew she was a Goa'uld," Jack said. "She told me."
"Nevertheless, you will tell me all she has told you," Czernobog said.
"No I won't," Jack told him.
"You will!" Czernobog repeated, growing angry.
"Won't, won't, won't!" Jack screamed, even stamping his foot for good measure.
Czernobog looked almost fit to explode. "Baphomet," he growled, barely holding his anger in check.
Jack was confused for a moment, unsure what 'Baphomet' might mean; realisation came when the First Prime raised the whip, but by then it no longer seemed so important. Jack fell to his knees as the pain gripped him, the sharp, stabbing agony of the cartilage and ligaments tearing once again managing to shoot through even the burn of the lash.
"Ah, damn," he grumbled, as the pain ceased. "That really hurts!" He protested.
"Oh, stop," Nike muttered, hoarsely. "You will make me cry. That was one lash." She looked across and caught Jack's eye.
Jack nodded, very slightly, his lips curling into the ghost of a grin; if Czernobog was stupid enough to try and break them side by side, they were going to play it to the hilt and help each other hold out. "Well, unlike some people, I don't have a snake in my head to numb the pain. How does that work anyway? Does it bite down on the nerve endings or just throttle your common sense so you don't care?"
"You can hardly complain," Nike laughed. "As I understand it, not possessing a symbiote is your own choice, despite numerous opportunities. I feel nothing but contempt for you and I hate to think that my General's secrets may be revealed because you are too weak to bear a symbiote."
"Too weak? Try too strong to need one."
"Hah!" Nike snapped.
Czernobog lost patience and motioned to Baphomet, who slashed the whip across Nike's back, and then across Jack's. They both fell forward, gasping with the pain, heads close together.
"Hah?" Jack whispered in disbelief.
"Throttle my common sense?"
They forced themselves back to their knees, facing Czernobog boldly. "Well, that hit the spot," Jack said. "I think I got a whole lot of repressed rage out on that. Probably very healthy."
"Rage is strength," Nike contradicted him. "Let it all go and you become weak."
"Tell me what Nike's mistress plans!" Czernobog demanded. "Tell me how she plans to betray Lord Anubis by defying his injunction against attacking me!"
"Well, she isn't going to say much to a mere human," Jack pointed out. "But I do remember her saying something about her General chasing you round the Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames until you spout black blood and turn fin up."
"Fin up?" Czernobog asked.
"Well; something like that anyway," Jack assured him.
"So," Czernobog accused Nike, "Athena is plotting against me! Lord Anubis will be most displeased."
"Athena?" Jack asked, turning to Nike. "I thought you said her name was Ahab?"
"What do you mean?" Czernobog asked. "Did she says that Athena planned to kill me or not?"
Jack laughed, although doing so was already a little painful. "She didn't say anything of the kind," he admitted. "She said Athena was planning you a surprise party; that's why I wasn't supposed to tell."
The whip cracked across Jack's back and he screamed, but quickly regained his bearings.
"He knows nothing," Nike said. "You may as well let him go."
"No," Jack riposted, proudly. "She knows nothing; you might as well let her go. I think you should also know," he said, "that you're getting nowhere with this bullwhip thing. I've spent most of the last two weeks in constant pain, and a great deal of the previous six years besides. I've been tortured more times than I care to think of by better men and women than you."
"You sound very experienced," Czernobog said, thoughtfully.
"Oh yeah," Jack assured him. "And I've killed more System Lords than you've had hot dinners. Ra, Apophis, Hathor..."
"Sundance, no!" Nike snapped.
"Ra?" Czernobog asked. "Could it be...? The girl on Keplo was not lying; this is Jack O'Neill."
"Ah, crap," Jack muttered.
"And Nike was protecting his identity," the Black God mused. "Well, this is a twist, is it not, Baphomet?"
"Indeed, My Lord. Perhaps Athena plots treachery with the Tau'ri."
"Not bloody likely," Jack muttered.
"This could be the fall of that accursed goddess!" Czernobog gloated.
Jack chuckled. "And how do you plan to prove that Athena is defying Anubis by working against you without revealing that you were working against her by abducting her captain?" He wondered.
"That is simple," Czernobog gloated, nastily. "By forcing one of the Tau'ri to testify to that connection."
"He knows nothing, I tell you," Nike insisted.
"We shall see," Czernobog purred. "We shall see."
"You seem most distracted, my dear Zaya," Dekan said. He had crept up behind her while she was working and whispered right in her ear.
Having heard him coming, she faked a start, and turned, forcing a smile to her lips. "Dekan, my love," she greeted him, although her stomach churned at the very sight of his sycophantic smile. "I was merely disturbed by what happened with Sundance. He had always seemed so gentle with me before."
"He was always a troublemaker," Dekan said. "I wonder that you could not see it. You have always shown such good taste otherwise."
Zaya wrestled with her gag reflex, forcing herself to kiss the overseer so that he would not see the disgust on her face. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to imagine Jack was doing the kissing, but she felt certain he would kiss better than that. How can a man be so handsome, and simultaneously so utterly repellent, she wondered.
"What will happen to him?" She asked, whispering softly. If she showed concern Dekan would get angry, but Zaya suspected that he could not resist the opportunity to gloat over his enemy's fate; especially if he thought it would impress her.
"He will go to the Pit," Dekan replied. "Where he will be tortured to death; slowly and painfully. He will..."
Zaya shuddered at the glee in Dekan's voice, but thankfully before he could go on a wailing alarm sounded through the plant.
"What is that?" Zaya asked, not needing to pretend to be afraid.
"We are attacked," Dekan said. "Come, quickly. We have to go, if we are left down here we may die along with any traitors who try to escape."
"An overseers' secret," he replied. "Concealed behind generator three is a tunnel to the upper levels, through which we can escape the gas the Jaffa will use in case of a mass escape attempt. It leads to a suite in the palace that is never used except by us. Come now." He grabbed her wrist, and was surprised when she twisted easily out of his grip.
"No," she told him.
"Don't be a fool," Dekan hissed. "Come with me..." He snatched at Zaya again, but she snapped a kick up to his chin and he fell to the deck.
Not bothering to check if the overseer were unconscious or merely stunned, Zaya ran off towards her muster point; one of half-a-dozen sites where the rebels trained by Jack and Nike had arranged to meet in the event of an escape opportunity, and where they had stashed their makeshift weapons. Zeb and several others were already arming themselves as she arrived, and the cripple handed her a length of pipe beaten into a crude stabbing sword.
"Are you alright?" Zeb asked, taking her gently by the shoulders.
"I am fine," she assured him, touched by his concern. "And you?"
"Well," the cripple replied. "Better for knowing you are safe. Do you know where Sundance is?" He added, before she could wonder at his words.
"He was taken," one of the others replied. "We're all going to die."
"We're not going to die," Zaya insisted. "I know the code, and we all know the plan; we just need to take the control room ourselves. Zeb; you and the others get as many people as possible to the upper levels; there's a secret passage the overseers keep open behind generator three," she added.
Zeb's eyes widened in amazement. "You are a marvel, Zaya. But be careful," he told her. "No-one else knows the code now, and you have less mastaba training than most of us. Keep out of the front line; please."
"I'll try," she promised, slightly disconcerted by his tone.
"Get on then," Zeb said, sadly. "We'll do what we can to help once we're clear."
Zaya clapped him on the shoulder, knowing how hard it was for him to hang back and babysit the other workers, even knowing that his injury would be a hindrance to the strike team. "Trust me. I won't let you down," she promised.
"I know," he assured her, that strange tone in his voice again. "I'm proud of you."
Zaya wanted to ask him what he meant, but he was already leaving, and there was no time.
Nike was dragged away from the throne room, escorted by the twelve Jaffa, along with the First Prime, leaving only two to guard Jack while he remained in the presence of Czernobog.
"I feel like I've been slighted," Jack commented, huffily.
"You are nothing, Tau'ri," Czernobog assured him. "Valuable only for what you might know. You are no threat to me."
"I suppose I wasn't any threat to Hathor either," Jack said. "Or Apophis; or Ra."
"Good fortune has defended you," Czernobog hissed. "But now your luck has abandoned you, Colonel O'Neill."
At that moment, the alarms began to wail. Jack smiled, grimly. "Is that so?" He asked.
Czernobog howled in fury.
The mines were gripped by panic and most of the workers would follow any group who seemed to know where to go. By the time he reached the mouth of the overseers' passage, Zeb had gathered close to a third of the labourers in power plant two behind him. The secret escape route was exactly where Zaya had said it was, tucked away behind number three generator and concealed by a thin sheet of metal masquerading as a steel plate. There were no monitoring posts, and so the Marks of the other workers did not respond as they moved out of their appointed zone.
"Go carefully," Zeb cautioned. "The overseers are not likely to take kindly to our arrival."
Heedless of his warning, the workers crowded in behind Zeb, and it was all he could do to keep moving fast enough not to be trampled. The passage rushed by, and before he knew it he was being spat out into an opulent chamber, filled with rich furnishings and glowering overseers.
"How dare you!" Ral demanded, rising to his feet.
The workers behind Zeb shrank away in fear, but the cripple stood his ground. "These people will not die in that place," Zeb said, his voice firm. He shook his head in disbelief. "When Zaya said you had a hiding place, I pictured a cellar; a dark hole for you and your rats to crawl into. But this...? How can you live like this, while others wallow in filth to support you?" He demanded.
"Better them than us. Now get out," Ral snarled. "Get back to the power plant or it's the Pit for you all."
"I think you'll find that we have the numbers," Zeb told the overseer.
"They're cowards," Ral laughed. "They'll run when you start screaming. Before I kill you though, I want you to know something." He shook his head, ruefully. "I knew trusting that idiot, Dekan was a mistake; he was too soft on the girl. If Zaya survives, I'll have to break her myself." He raised his arm, and laid a hand on his wristband. "The way I broke her mother," he added, as he pressed down on the control.
Zeb stood firm; strain showed in his eyes, but he did not scream or fall.
Ral's eyes widened in alarm. "What have you done?" He demanded. "How did you disable the Mark's power?"
"I did not," Zeb gasped, fighting the agony with every fibre of his being. "But there's only so much pain a man can feel. I've reached my limit, Ral. Do you want to know what that is like?"
"No!" Ral protested.
Zeb lurched towards the overseer, who released his wristband as he stepped away. Then the larger man came back, swinging punch after punch that the cripple blocked with almost contemptuous ease. They fought hard. Zeb was the faster of the two, but despite Nike's training his wooden leg still hampered him; Ral was stronger, but slow and awkward by comparison. Ultimately however, Zeb's disability betrayed him; he caught Ral's arm and flipped him around, throwing the big overseer to the floor, but Ral kicked out hard and the peg-leg cracked. Zeb hopped backwards, and fell.
Ral grinned in triumph. He knelt over his fallen opponent, pressing his knee on Zeb's right arm to hold him down. "Will your daughter break as easily as your wife?" He asked, wrapping his big hand around Zeb's throat.
"Jen died rather than submit to you," Zeb whispered. "You never broke her." He brought his left hand up in a sharp motion, and Ral jerked backwards, clutching at his chest where the broken end of Zeb's peg had torn through the flesh beneath his sternum. "And you will never touch my daughter," Zeb told him.
The other overseers stood in shock and alarm as Ral collapsed. Heartened, the other labourers pressed forward, and two lifted Zeb between them.
"Anyone who can fight," Zeb ordered. "Anyone who will fight, go out, find Nike and Sundance and release them. You" he pointed at the overseers "will guide them and help them, or you will answer to me. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Sir," the nearest overseer murmured, terrified.
"Good. Now get moving; and somebody find me a crutch."
The palace shook; Czernobog looked about in anger, as though the person responsible might at any moment appear before him. Two Jaffa had seized hold of Jack the moment the alarms sounded.
"My Lord," Formet's voice spoke from an intercom within the throne. "The slaves are revolting; I have several dozen Marks outside of their bounds."
"You!" Czernobog accused Jack. "Your friends will suffer for this." The Black God touched a panel on the throne, and spoke as though addressing an intercom. "Control room," he said. "Seal the mining facility and ready the gas pumps."
"No!" Jack cried, straining against the Jaffa who held him. "You son of a bitch!"
"This is your doing, Colonel," Czernobog told him. "Your friends seek to rescue you, and so others that you care for must suffer. Give me what I need to know to bring down Athena, and perhaps I will spare the slaves."
Jack looked up at the Black God with a maniac grin. "You know what?" He said. "I wouldn't give you what you needed to destroy Anubis."
Czernobog's eyes flared with rage. "Formet!" He barked. "Activate the gas pumps! Destroy them all!"
Zaya led her group of rebels as quickly as possible up through the passages to the control levels at the base of the palace. The air smelled staler than usual, and she knew that the vents had been sealed off. Ahead she saw the doors beginning to close, and she ran faster. Armed with their makeshift weapons the slaves hurled themselves forward, scattering their line so that the staff blasts of the Jaffa at the gate took as little toll as possible. Once close enough, they worked in groups, overwhelming and overpowering the Jaffa.
"You three," Zaya ordered, gesturing to a knot of rebels. "See to the wounded as best you can."
"We'll be trapped inside," one of the rebels protested.
"If we don't succeed, being outside won't help," Zaya replied. "If we do, I don't want to have left them to die." With that she turned away; the doors were slow-moving, but were almost closed and she could not afford to waste time in debate. "Quickly," she said.
"Stay at the back, Zaya," one of the older men told her. "We need you alive."
"I know," she snapped, unhappy at being given special treatment and at once sorry for her harshness. "Thank you. Alright; those with the staff weapons go forward and let's keep moving."
Baphomet led his patrol towards the cells, the Skull Guards flanking Nike in two lines of four, with three men at the rear and the last walking point just ahead of the First Prime. Nike weighed up the odds, but she would not have liked her chances against so many, unarmed and unarmoured, even if she had not been wounded and weakened by Czernobog's interrogation. She scanned the hallways, looking for an advantage, and at last she saw one. Up ahead the passage widened into a little pillared atrium for about fifty yards. It was a fair place to fight one-against-many, but more importantly an ideal place for an ambush; now she just had to hope that someone friendly to her had realised the same thing.
Sure enough, as the patrol passed through the atrium, one of Nike's rebels stepped out and thrust a crude spear through the belly of the Jaffa on point. Baphomet lowered his staff weapon, but before he could fire, Nike leaped from behind and kicked him square in the back, throwing off his aim. The Skull Guards readied their own weapons, but then a crowd of rebels and to Nike's amazement, overseers emerged from behind the pillars and rushed to the attack from all directions.
Baphomet swung his staff weapon at Nike; she blocked the attack and gripped the staff at its midpoint. Striking quickly at Baphomet's wrists she forced him to loosen his hold, then reversed the staff, shot the First Prime; she turned her head and closed her eyes against the opening blast.
Nike pushed the dying Baphomet away and turned to the next Jaffa.
Seated in the control room, Formet watched with satisfaction as the display on his monitor indicated that all mine entrances and ventilation shafts were sealed. Formet despised those who passed into his domain; he lived for the chance to cull them in this way every once in a while, and it had been more than twenty years since he last had an excuse. The overseers had their secret hidey-holes, but they would be necessary for instructing the next generation of slaves and would be permitted to live. Only the whimpering of the Recorder spoiled Formet's mood a little; the Goa'uld liked his slaves meek and cringing, and uprisings disturbed him greatly.
A number of slaves had escaped and would have to be tracked down of course, but that was no great problem. They were only slaves, and besides, their Marks told him clearly enough that a group of them were in one of the atria and another were vainly attempting to gain access to the control room. He did not know why the Marks did not have the slaves writhing in pain by now, but soon they would all be dead and all of their kind with them. He reached out and pressed the panel which activated the gas pumps, then settled back to watch the display; as the gas filtered down, the Marks would begin to register its effects, red flashes on the monitor indicating the deaths of these treacherous slaves.
One of the Jaffa cried out in warning, and a staff blast sounded from the doorway. The Recorder gave a pitiful scream and dived for cover.
"Shut that door!" Formet ordered, standing and turning. "There are rebels outside..." He froze in alarm, and in the moment it took him to recover the filthy slave girl before him had thrust a length of metal through his gut.
"My God," He pleaded, blood bubbling from his mouth. "Protect your servant." There was no response.
Zaya pushed the dying Jaffa aside and moved to the control panel. Following Nike's directions, she pressed a series of controls and was rewarded by a display indicating that the gas had ceased and the doors were opening again.
"We did it," she gasped. "We're free."
Zaya half-turned at the rebel's cry. The Recorder had risen up behind her, his hand outstretched. "You rebel scum," he snarled.
The air rippled between them, and Zaya was thrown hard into the control panel. She felt her bones crack with the force of the impact, and purple spots exploded across her vision. The pain was almost more than she could bear, but with a vast effort of will she clung to consciousness just long enough to see a volley of staff blasts converge on the Recorder and tear him to pieces.
Czernobog began to grow impatient, tapping distractedly on the arm of his chair. "Formet," he demanded, "are the slaves destroyed? Formet? Answer me you..."
"Formet is dead," a man's voice said, grim and quiet. "You are next, O Black God."
"No!" Czernobog roared his denial. "I will not let this be."
Jack laughed. "Oh yeah; no threat to you there either," he said.
Czernobog laughed out loud. "You stupid fool!" He declared. "I have ten thousand soldiers waiting on this world's moon. Your rebellion will be crushed and I shall resume operations here within the month. You however will not live to see either of these things happen."
The Goa'uld rose and strode down from his throne to stand before Jack. He raised his hand and the ribbon device burned, sending its deadly stream of energy into Jack's forehead. Jack cried out, he could not help himself; he could only marvel at the excruciating agony. His vision blurred, his ears filled with white noise and he found himself unable to think of anything but the pain.
"I will display your corpse to the System Lords," Czernobog told him, and it seemed as though the voice were inside Jack's head. "So that they can see the smallness of the man they have feared so long."
With a vast effort, Jack focused on the voice of his tormentor. It seemed to come from all around him, but he knew that it must have a source, and he lashed out towards what he thought that source must be.
Czernobog staggered backwards, doubled half over and clutching at his groin. Jack slumped sideway and began to laugh uncontrollably, even though it hurt to move.
"You dare!" Czernobog gasped, his voice a little higher than before.
"Yeah," Jack said, each breath painful. "I dare."
A Jaffa stepped over Jack, levelling his staff weapon. The tip snapped open and an energy blast exploded on the Jaffa's chest. For a moment Jack thought the staff might have backfired, but as three more blasts hissed through the air he realised that he was being rescued.
"You!" Czernobog snapped. Jack turned his head to look at the Black God. Staff blasts shot towards him, but impacted harmlessly on his energy shield. He threw a wave from his ribbon device, and Jack followed its passage. Looking back and forth in dazed confusion, Jack saw Nike diving behind a pillar, then Czernobog moved to stand on the dais before his throne.
"Another time," Czernobog snarled. He touched the back of his ribbon device, and with a scream that stabbed through Jack's tender head a set of transport rings leaped from the floor to spirit him away. Nike fired wildly at him; sparks flew and arced around the rings and instead of falling back into their grooves they dropped in a charred and disorderly heap before the throne.
"Did you get him?" Jack asked, weakly.
"No," Nike replied. "He completed the transport. Come, Jack O'Neill; we must leave this planet as soon as possible. He will have transported to his home moon and shall return with an army as soon as he is able." She knelt and lifted Jack to his feet.
"I can walk," Jack lied.
Nike laughed. "If I had less regard for your dignity I would carry you," she told him. "Come; to the control room. We can open the outer doors and summon the other workers to the surface."
By the time they reached the control room, Jack was able to walk on his own, and Nike commended him on his recuperative powers.
"Yeah," Jack grumbled. "I feel very recouped. You know, I can't believe how quickly Daniel was shrugging these off towards the end; guess he really was building up a resistance. You get the doors," he suggested, "and I'll take care of the...Zaya!"
In the middle of the control room Zeb lay on his side, cradling Zaya's body as best he could. The girl looked almost unharmed, but there was blood on her lips, which Jack knew too well was a bad sign.
"Zeb; are you okay?" Jack asked, gently. Zeb looked up, but grief had left him speechless, and it was Zaya who answered in a choked and feeble voice.
"He killed Ral," she whispered. "Avenged his wife. Hi, Jack."
"Hey, Zaya," Jack said, trying to sound cheerful. "We won."
"Yeah," she replied. "We're free." She coughed, blood bubbling on her lips.
"Nike," Jack called. "Can you help her? With your hand device?"
Nike shook her head. "Formet was too cowardly to take away any of my devices save my ribbon weapon, but Czernobog had them brought to him and destroyed. I am sorry," she added.
"Not powerful enough. There is only one way I could save her," she added, too low for any but Jack to hear, "and I know that you would not let me."
"There must be something we can do!" Jack demanded, refusing to even consider allowing the Goa'uld to infest the girl.
"There is," Nike replied, softly. "Sit with her as she dies."
Zeb gave a choking sob. "She can't..." He begged, plaintively. "Ral is dead. I can hold her now; I can tell her..." He broke off, weeping.
"Oh, God," Jack murmured. "Zeb; I'm sorry."
"What are you talking about?" Zaya asked.
"You..." Zeb swallowed hard. "You are the image of your mother," he told her. "My wife. You are my daughter, Zaya. Ral took you from me after we tried to escape, and told me that he would kill you if I ever tried to tell you who I was to you."
"F-father?" Zaya asked, unbelieving.
"Yes," he whispered. There was a long, awkward moment, as neither father nor daughter knew quite how to act towards each other.
"I want..." Zaya began. "I want to see the sky," she said. "Just once."
"Sure," Jack replied. "I'll carry you up. Nike?"
"The doors are open and the others will be on their way," she replied. "It's less than an hour after sunset, so the surface will be neither too hot nor too cold just yet."
Jack gathered Zaya into his arms, wincing at the pain in his muscles. To his surprise Nike crouched and hauled Zeb up, putting her shoulder under his arm to support him. Together, flanked by silent rebels, they made their way to the surface, and Jack laid Zaya in the shelter of a basalt tower.
"It's beautiful," she whispered, gazing at the cold, black sky. Her hand groped out, blindly. "Father," she said. Jack stepped away so that Nike could lower Zeb at his daughter's side and the cripple twisted his hand in his daughter's. Jack turned his back; he knew how hard it was to sit helplessly as your child slipped away and how little Zeb would want anyone watching.
"Our saviours are here," Nike said, looking up at a descending ship. "In a nadjet," she added. "They are certainly not expecting so many." As she spoke a blast of energy stabbed out from the belly of the ship, striking the black temple of Czernobog. "They are removing the last turrets before landing," Nike observed.
The nadjet dropped until it was less than fifteen feet from the surface and a set of ring transporters dropped from the belly of the ship. When the light had cleared Jack's face broke into a broad smile.
"Carter!" he called out. "Where'd you get the ship?"
"Keplo," she replied, as her troops fanned out to secure the area. "You seem to need less saving than we had anticipated."
"We will freeze if we stay out here much longer," Nike replied, "and Czernobog will soon return."
Sam's eyes widened in alarm. "You're Goa'uld," she accused.
"Yeah," Jack agreed. "Long story. For now keep her under guard."
"Yes, Sir," Sam replied. She gestured, and Teal'c and Parker came forward to stand over Nike.
Nike frowned. "Under guard?" She asked. "We had an agreement, Jack O'Neill."
Jack flushed. "Look; I'll talk to Hammond, but you're a Goa'uld and however indirectly you do work for Anubis. I'm sorry, but I can't make that call."
"I understand," Nike said, and to Jack's annoyance it looked as though she actually did.
Feeling awkward, Jack turned to other matters. "How'd you find us?" He asked.
"We had a little help." Sam gestured again, and Jonas and Hesther brought Ara over.
"You have established your authority well, and the training of your warriors is impressive," Nike told Sam. "You are to be commended for that, Major Carter."
"Flattery will get you nowhere," Sam assured her, although secretly she was delighted by Nike's praise.
"And for capturing Ara," Nike added. "The Clayth can be an elusive quarry."
"Credit for that belongs elsewhere," Sam admitted.
Meanwhile, the yellow-skinned woman had fallen to her knees in front of Nike and now took the Goa'uld's hands in her own and kissed her fingers. "Mistrrress Nike," she said, eyes downcast in shame.
"Ara," Nike replied, touching the top of her head in benediction.
"I am sorrry for my failure," she said. "Please forrgive me."
"It is alright, Ara," Nike promised. "You have found me and Colonel O'Neill and I have an understanding."
"An understanding?" Sam asked, with a raised eyebrow.
Jack turned away, feeling low. "Never mind," he said. "Anyway, we need a medic over there," he told Sam, gesturing towards Zaya. "There's probably more injured on the way up, and then we need to somehow get a couple of hundred people off this rock in that little..." His voice tailed off. "Is the big ship with you as well?" He asked Sam.
Sam looked up in confusion and saw her nadjet dwarfed by the sleek form of the ha'kal that was descending almost on top of it. Half as long again as a football field, the gunship's form reminded Jack of a shark, and he knew that it was far more deadly.
"Um...Ma'am," Lieutenant Frost reported. "We may have a problem here."
Jack reached over and took Sam's radio. "Ya think?" He asked.
"I thought you were supposed to know when enemies were around?" Jonas said to Parker.
"This is the problem with being a legend," Parker replied. "One little slip and everyone's rushing to put the boot in."
"Little slip?" Jonas asked.
"Colonel?" Nike asked, nodding her head towards the ha'kal, which was now hovering right above the nadjet.
"No," Jack replied. "You're about the only bargaining chip we have, so you stay right here."
"As you wish," Nike agreed. "Perhaps I might send Ara with a message however?"
Jack thought for a moment, but he knew his options were sparse. The nadjet was utterly outgunned, and Czernobog would be bringing his warriors to reclaim Chërt sooner rather than later. At last, he nodded.
Nike turned at once to Ara, and spoke in her Goa'uld voice. Ara replied, and Nike said something more, then the woman ran off towards the ha'kal.
"What did she say?" Sam asked Jonas. "I only read Goa'uld; I can't follow it spoken."
"It wasn't Goa'uld," Jonas replied. "I'd guess it was Ara's native tongue."
"Aradan Clayth," Nike confirmed. "The females of the Clayth once brought down prey to feed the family unit. They have remained superb natural hunters, despite their technological advancement. They are really a quite extraordinary people, and the Aradi clan have served my General for centuries."
"I'm sure they're a blast at parties too," Jack said.
The ha'kal dropped down, level with the nadjet, and Ara was ringed aboard the vessel. After a few minutes of tense waiting, the rings activated again, depositing Ara and a group of Jaffa in a mixture of masks; some wore the visages of owls, the others had the faces of howling demons and long, false dreadlocks at the backs of their helmets. Both sets of helms were notable for their mobility, allowing the wearer to turn their head freely.
At the centre of the group stood a Goa'uld; a woman with waist length black hair, dressed in bronze armour and wearing a dark-blue cloak. Her hair was bound into a single, thick plait. The cloak was fastened with an elaborate, bejewelled, gold clasp in the shape of a many-rayed sun. She was armed with a hand device, short sword and zat'nik'tel, and carried a staff weapon as though she knew how to use it.
This group walked forward until they stood face to face with Jack and his friends. The Goa'uld gestured, and one of the demon-masked Jaffa came up and knelt before Nike, proffering a healing device.
"Pallas..." Nike began, bowing low.
The Goa'uld raised her hand to silence her servant. "You say that your need is urgent," she said. "Do what you must."
"Thank you," Nike said, taking the device from the Goa'uld. "Jack; with your permission?"
"Please," Jack said. The new arrivals held their ground as he walked back with the Goa'uld, to where Zaya was fading fast.
Nike passed the device over Zaya's abdomen. "She is weak," she said, regretfully. "Even you were not so badly injured when I healed you. I will do what I can, however." Kneeling before the dying girl, she held out her hands and closed her eyes in concentration. The hand device began to glow; after a moment the radiance intensified, and Zaya's shattered bones seemed to light up, their image shining through her skin and tunic as they slowly bent and fused back into their right alignments.
"Nike?" Jack asked, as the Goa'uld's breathing became laboured. He reached out a hand towards her shoulder.
"Do not touch her!"
Jack looked behind him, and saw that the demon-masked Jaffa had moved up, shoulder-to-shoulder with Sam.
"Why not?" He asked.
"It could kill them both," the Jaffa replied.
"What is she doing?" Sam asked.
"A deep healing," the Jaffa explained. "She will give of herself to restore the girl."
Sam could not stop herself asking: "Why? She's a Goa'uld; what does she care?"
The demon mask turned towards Sam and regarded her with burning eyes. After a moment, the woman raised a hand to her collar and the helmet retracted, melting into its housing. Dark brown eyes looked at Sam from an olive-skinned face; a face very like Nike's own, in terms of ethnic traits if not of family likeness. This woman's hair was long however, plaited into dreadlocks like those on her helmet, and on her forehead was marked the sign of a winged circle.
"The girl fought alongside Lady Nike," she said. "She was one of my Captain's soldiers. Until this day is done, this battle spent, there is nothing that the Captain would not give for her." Sam was taken aback; she had heard Jaffa praise their gods before, but never in a manner so close to the way she spoke of Colonel O'Neill when he was not around.
With a soft sigh, Nike fell away from Zaya; Jack stooped to catch her by the shoulders. Zaya's eyes flickered open, settling first on Zeb. "Father?" She whispered, hoarsely.
"Zaya," he replied, embracing her.
Jack looked at them, knowing that his place in Zaya's affections was more or less gone. In a broken way, he had been her absent father-figure; now she had her real father, which was just a lot healthier.
"She will be well," Nike promised, rising to her feet. "Thank you, Jack."
"Your face," Jack whispered, startled.
Nike raised a hand to the corners of her eyes, where crow's-feet now creased her skin. Her hair was grey and her skin was pale. "The cost of a life; and nothing that can not be reversed," she assured him.
"Nike," the other Goa'uld called, softly, having stood silently during the healing. "We must leave now."
"Yes, Pallas Athena," Nike replied.
"Bring the girl if you wish," Athena added.
Nike looked toward the doors, where the slaves huddled in fear. "And the others, Pallas?"
"The ha'kal is not a transport vessel," Athena reminded Nike. "We can not carry so many. We shall take SG-1 and the girl, but the rest must stay here."
"I can not leave them," Nike protested. "And we can not take SG-1."
"What?" The General asked.
"What?" Jack echoed.
"We swore an oath as soldiers," Nike said, giving Jack a reproving look. "I will not abandon those I trained, nor will I betray my oath to Jack O'Neill. Unless you command me, Pallas," she added, humbly.
Athena regarded Jack and his people for a long moment, her grey eyes studying the SGC personnel in a way that made them shiver. "I shall honour your oath, Nike," she said. "I do after all owe the Tau'ri for leading me here, even if it was on the information of my spy. But we still have no room for so many."
"The Tau'ri can take the people of Keplo home," Nike suggested. "We can transport the rest to a world from which they may return to their homes, as I promised them. There will be space in the ordnance bays of these two vessels."
"The bomb bays?" Jack and Athena asked as one.
"Yes," Nike agreed. "The ordnance can be unloaded and primed to destroy Czernobog's mines for all time."
To Jack's great surprise, Athena threw back her head and gave a great laugh. "Kree, Glaukos," she ordered one of the owl-helmed Jaffa. "Do as my bold captain suggests."
"Colonel?" Sam asked.
Jack shrugged. "Hell, why not," he agreed. "Why should you be the only one to come up with crazy plans to blow stuff up?"
While Sam and Nike were overseeing the placement of the explosives trying to be as quick as possible while simultaneously not trusting each other enough to divide the work Zaya came to see Jack, who was busy watching Athena for signs of betrayal, while she did the same to him.
"What will you do now?" Zaya asked.
"Go home," Jack replied. "Then carry on doing what I do. How about you."
Zaya shrugged. "Part of me wants to come with you," she told him.
Jack sighed. "I'm too old for you, Zaya," he told her. "And you're too young to settle on a guy anyway. Now you're free you'll realise that soon enough."
"So Zeb...Father says," she agreed. "He likes you, but said I should wait. I did think that I might accompany Nike, but she does not wish to claim a right to my life either. She says that we are leaving the mines behind and we must leave their ways as well. I would quite like to go with her anyway, to learn to be a warrior, but I think my place is with Father. I want to get to know him while I can; I want him to show me trees and grass and blue skies."
"That sounds great," Jack told her.
"We'll go in Athena's ship," Zaya added. "Nike suggested we should send a message to you by way of the Keplans when we get home; to let you know that we made it safely."
Jack smiled. "I think she wants me to know that she didn't dump you in space," he reasoned.
"Something like that," Zaya agreed. "I hope we'll meet again some day," she added.
"I hope so," Jack agreed. "And take care of your old man; he's one of the good guys."
"I will." She leaned across and kissed him, tenderly. "Goodbye, Jack," she said.
"We're set to go, Colonel," Sam informed him, coming up on him while he was distractedly watching Zaya run back across the black rocks to the ha'kal.
"Isn't it incredible," he said. "Twenty years underground and they couldn't break her." He shook his head in wonder. "It's at times like this, seeing people like her, that I know in my gut they're never going to beat us, Carter," he said.
"If we don't leave now they won't have to," Sam told him. "Czernobog's mothership is approaching and most of this continent is going to be a radioactive fire pit in about fifteen minutes."
"Right," Jack agreed, jumping to his feet. "Let's not be around for all that."
"You don't want to say goodbye to Nike?"
"No," Jack replied. "I wouldn't know what to say."
They climbed up into the nadjet and squeezed onto the peltac with the other SGC troops and a handful of Keplans.
"Hey, Leyna," Jack said, spotting a familiar face. "Jonas tells me they found all your kids, safe and sound."
Leyna's grin told him that she had heard the same. "It's wonderful," she agreed. "I always knew you'd get us out of there," she added.
"You did?" Jack asked.
"You said your friends would come. You said we would be oh kay."
"I guess I did," he admitted.
"Colonel?" Jonas asked. "Why do you think Nike persuaded Athena to keep her word?"
Jack sat silently for a long time, consumed by the question.
"Perhaps she felt honour bound to do so," Teal'c suggested.
"It's head games," Jack said, angrily. "Just head games."
"Would you have asked General Hammond to release Nike?" Sam asked.
Jack sighed. "Probably not," he said. "She knew it as well as I did. We're not that kind of threat in their eyes though, so she could let us go to make us feel like we're the bastards. Like I said; head games," he repeated, trying to convince himself.
The others broke off, talking to each other about other things, but Sam leaned closer to Jack. "Sir," she said.
"If she was just playing head games, why did you let the girl leave with her?"
Jack gave no reply.
The nadjet shuddered with the stresses of hyperlaunch, leaving Chërt behind them. Moments later a white flash broke the unrelenting blackness of the planet's surface, leaving a red spot to glow like an afterimage as Czernobog's ha'tak vessel bore down on the planet.