Stargate Sg-1 and its characters are the property of Stargate (II) Productions, Showtime/Viacom, The SciFi Channel, The Sci-Fi 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 a sequel to Stone and Ash, Kupala's Tears and The Hidden One. It is part four of Nike.
I have absolutely no basis for translating 'Jaffa' as 'dutiful', but I think it makes sense.
The usual thanks and some unusual ones besides to the greatest Sho on Earth.
SG-1 drifted into the briefing room at Cheyenne Mountain with varying levels of ill-grace. Colonel Jack O'Neill looked like a bear with a sore head; Teal'c looked about ready to kill; Major Samantha Carter just looked tired; and Jonas Quinn looked as though he had just got up and was ready to face a bright, new day.
"Good morning, SG-1," General Hammond greeted them.
"Good morning, General," Jack replied. "Although in most parts of the world I think they call this night."
"I'm sorry if I disturbed your beauty sleep," Hammond assured the Colonel. "However this is a matter of some importance."
"How much importance?" Jack asked. "I always wonder. Why is it 'some' importance and not 'much' importance?"
"At oh-two-twenty hours this morning," Hammond went on, "we received a signal, broadcast through an open wormhole. The source of the signal is unknown, but from all we can tell it appears to have been broadcast by the Tok'ra."
"They didn't identify themselves?" Sam asked, surprised.
"They may have done," Hammond confirmed. "The message was very short; if we've interpreted it correctly just a string of numbers then one of letters, followed by an ASCII image." He passed out a sheet of paper to each member of the team.
"4, 16, 30, 18, 22, 0," Jonas read. "C-Z-E-R-N-O-B-O-G and a solar emblem with horns."
"A Gate address," Sam realised. "P9X-338."
"Followed by the name of the Goa'uld, Czernobog," Teal'c added.
"The Goa'uld who once abducted Colonel O'Neill; is that correct?" Hammond asked.
"Yes, Sir," Jack agreed, distractedly. "And a lovely time I had."
"Do we know anything new about Czernobog?" Hammond asked, looking to Jonas.
The young scholar shrugged. "Well, the basics are that Czernobog was one half of a mythic diad in pre-Christian, Balkan religion. He was the black god of death his name means Black God opposed to Byelobog, the White God of life. Czernobog ruled the winter and darkness; Byelobog spring and light. As a Goa'uld we know that, following the deaths of Byelobog and half a dozen others, Czernobog is the last remaining claimant to the throne of the System Lord Svarog. He's rapacious and greedy, strip-mining planets for every scrap of worth before abandoning the charred remains."
"According to the Tok'ra," Sam added, "Czernobog recently came into possession of a powerful weapon, but he hasn't managed to make it work yet. They've been pretty keen to track him down, but he abandoned his base on the moon of Chërt after we blew it up. Chërt that is; not its moon."
"I recommend a cautious...a very cautious reconnaissance to P9X-338," Jack said.
"I tend to agree," Hammond replied. "Contingent on the MALP recon I'll authorise that mission, but be on your guard. We don't know who this message came from and we all remember the last time SG-1 investigated a mystery signal of possible Tok'ra origin."
"I don't," Jonas said.
"The signal proved to have come from Apophis and the SGC was almost destroyed by Sokar," Teal'c told him.
"Oh yes," Jonas realised. "I did read about that."
"That isn't a problem this time," Jack said. "We know who the message came from."
"We do?" Sam asked, baffled, looking to the team's anthropologist.
Jonas shrugged. "The only horned sun iconography I know of is Hathor's, but she's dead."
"They're not horns," Jack explained. "They're wings. It's a winged shield; the message is from Nike."
"Are you sure this is a good idea, Sir?" Sam asked. "We're talking about a Goa'uld here; a very dangerous one."
"We can trust her," Jack insisted, staring out of the observation window. "Sort of."
"There is no length she wouldn't go to in order to defeat me in battle," Jack explained, "and she'd certainly set a trap in order to lure me in, but she wouldn't sign it."
"Unless that's what she wants you to think," Sam reasoned.
Jack shook his head, his eyes never leaving the Stargate. "She has a very distinct if weird sense of fair play. If she directly abused my trust of her, it would undermine her achievement if she defeated me."
"I just don't trust her," Sam insisted.
"That's just because she shot at your teltac," Jack pointed out. "It doesn't make you a bad person. She likes you, though."
"Was that why she shot at me?" Sam asked.
"I'm serious," Jack assured her. "She said you were a good commander and a better engineer than she was."
Sam tried not to look pleased but failed. "She did?"
A MALP rolled into the Gateroom, flanked by Security Force personnel. Despite the fact that an enemy force could never attack the base through an outgoing wormhole, almost half a platoon of heavily-armed airmen surrounded the Gate.
A moment later, Teal'c and Jonas joined Jack and Sam in the control room.
"All ready to go?" Jonas asked.
"All set," Sam replied.
Jonas nodded. "I'm curious to see what's out there, although I think I should state for the record that I'm with Major Carter and Teal'c on this one," he added.
"She's never lied to me yet," Jack sighed.
"I think statistically that makes her more likely to be lying now," Jonas suggested.
"Let's just send the probe," Jack said. "Corporal?"
"Yes, Sir," Technician Davis acknowledged. "Dialling P9X-338," she went on. "Chevron one is encoded."
"Even if she's playing this straight with you, what does she want?" Jack asked.
"You saw the message," Jack replied. "Czernobog."
"But what about Czernobog?"
"He's her General's enemy but an ally of Anubis and he has a weapon of vast power that could win him the eternal gratitude of Mr Shiny Face. More importantly, he abducted and tortured her. I'd say she wants to kill him and I'm invited."
Sam looked sceptical. "You think that's all?"
"No," Jack admitted. "But I'd put money on that being the main reason."
"Chevron seven is locked, Sir," Davis announced. "Stargate is active...wormhole established."
"Every time I see that..." Jonas breathed, as the shimmering event horizon settled into place.
"Eh," Jack grunted.
Jonas shook his head. "I can't believe you could ever get blasé about that sight," he said.
"I'm not blasé," Jack assured him.
"It's just different," Sam added. "When you've seen that opening blast kill someone."
The MALP rolled slowly up the ramp and into the Stargate. The monitors in the control room showed static for several moments, then blackness.
"Are these on?" Jack asked, tapping the screen.
"All telemetry functioning," Sam confirmed, sliding into a seat. "Corporal, give me lights."
"Yes, Ma'am." Davis hit a command key and the MALP's headlights came on, illuminating a great, black, grinning skull.
"Yipe!" Sam squeaked, before her brain could process that it was only an image on a screen. "Damn," she gasped. "There goes my reputation as a cool, tough action woman."
"We won't tell," Jonas promised, leaning down to look at the screen. "Right there with you," he whispered, conspiratorially, looking around to see if anyone had noticed his own start of alarm.
Sam grinned. "You'll always be a cool, tough action woman to me, Jonas," she promised him.
"That is one of Czernobog's Jaffa," Teal'c said.
"Doesn't look too lively though," Jack noted.
Davis manipulated the camera and lights so that the entirety of the Jaffa was illuminated. A staff blast had burned a hole in his abdomen and he lay quite still. In the wider view the foot of another Jaffa and the hand of a third were also visible.
"Why is it so dark?" Jack asked.
"Judging by the telemetry," Sam replied, "there's a layer of dense smog shrouding the area. Looks like it's one of Czernobog's operations alright. The chemical analysis of the smog suggests that everything is being burned, whether it's a good fuel or not."
"Czernobog," Jack said, darkly. He picked up the phone. "General Hammond; I recommend we proceed with the mission." He listened a moment then hung up.
"Sir?" Sam asked.
"Gear up," Jack replied. "We go in twenty minutes."
SG-1 stepped from the Stargate onto a desolate world of slag heaps and toxic fumes. It was even fouler in the flesh than it had been on the screen, if only because of the smell. The chemical sensors on the MALP could analyse the sulphurous reek of the smoke-laden fog that wreathed this world, but it could not reproduce it, nor prepare an unwary traveller for the horrific reality of it. Even through the filter masks that protected their faces the stink made the travellers' eyes water.
"Look on the bright side, Colonel," Jonas suggested, as Jack's face wrinkled in disgust. "At least it's not an untouched paradise."
"There is that," Jack admitted.
"What about Nike?" Sam asked. "When does she get here?"
Jack smiled, grimly. "She's here all ready," he announced.
Sam and Teal'c spun around, raising their weapons, only to find a pair of demon-masked Jaffa already holding SG-1 in their sights. Between the Jaffa stood a deceptively slight figure in bronze armour. She wore a heavy collar, but her helm was lowered to expose a pretty, slightly androgynous face. The stench did not seem to be bothering her.
"Teal'c," Nike went on, inclining her head in a gesture of respect. "Jonas Quinn and of course Major Carter. Welcome to Erebus." She held out her hand and at once her warriors lowered their staff weapons.
"Good to see you too," Jack replied. "Nice place for a meeting." He paused a moment. "You can put the guns down, guys," he said.
"It would not be wise," Teal'c growled.
"No," Jack agreed. "But it would be polite. Lower your weapons, Teal'c; Carter."
Slowly and reluctantly, the two of them obeyed.
Nike nodded in acknowledgement. "Thank you," she said. "The location was not chosen by me," she assured Jack. "This is one of Czernobog's industrial strongholds. The ores from mines such as Chërt are brought here, processed and transformed into the weapons, armour and vessels of the Black God's armies."
"So why are we here?" Sam demanded. "This world must be crawling with Jaffa."
"It is," Nike agreed. "However, there are several compelling reasons for our presence. Firstly, Czernobog is here and will remain so for the next day. Secondly, this Stargate is all but unknown and the governor of Erebus is sloppy, hence the guard is light, even at this critical time, presenting us with the opportunity to strike at our enemy."
"That's why you're here," Jack agreed. "What about us? You have a company of the finest soldiers I've ever seen at your disposal; four more grunts won't make a difference."
"You underestimate yourself," Nike chided. "Or perhaps you think to make me do so? Either way, your presence will make all the difference. The bulk of the Gorgons are not with me in this venture; I have but five to call upon."
Jack frowned. "Did you and Athena have a falling out or something?" He asked, genuinely concerned. "Is Psyche okay?"
At a gesture from Nike, the larger of the Jaffa, whose mask was even more hideous than her comrade's, stepped forward and lowered her helm. Beneath she wore her long, dark hair in dreadlocks to match those on her helmet. "Your concern for my daughter is appreciated," she said. "You may assure Dilg'a that she is well, however, and that she thinks of him still."
"And you may tell her the same, Meriope," Jack replied.
Meriope bowed in acknowledgement and stepped back.
"My Gorgons are all well and we serve our General still," Nike went on. "However, as you know Pallas Athena is constrained from acting against Czernobog because of his oath of fealty to Anubis. Were she to authorise me to lead the Gorgons to Erebus in force she would place herself in a very dangerous position."
"But...?" Jack prompted.
"But," Nike went on, "she has implied that she would not be displeased were Czernobog to be brought low. She has also implied that were I to be absent from her court with a handful of my warriors for a few days, this might well go unremarked. While I have every faith in the ability of these warriors to aid me in the completion of my chosen mission, I do not believe that we have enough strength to guarantee our escape. I knew that I needed a greater force and at once I thought of you."
"Of course," Sam said.
"I know of no other commander whom I could trust so utterly," Nike assured Sam. "Nor of one with a greater understanding of the need for Czernobog's fall. Moreover, I knew that even if Jack did not bring with him the most deadly Master Sergeant Fowler and her comrades in arms, he would at least bring the three of you. You must know that, as with Jack, you and Teal'c are numbered by the System Lords among the deadliest of their enemies, while Mr Quinn's reputation is fast growing."
"Thanks," Sam replied. "We're flattered. What do you want from us?" She asked, refusing to be distracted.
"This mission has three objectives," Nike explained. "To kill Czernobog, to destroy the Ancient weapon in his keeping and to escape with our lives."
"Destroy the weapon?" Jonas asked, sceptically. "You don't want it for yourself."
"I want nothing for myself," Nike replied.
"For Athena, then," Jack amended.
"My General does not care for such things," Nike assured him. "She says that all such weapons turn on their owners, if not by malfunctioning then by breeding overconfidence. Someday such a 'superweapon' may be created that will overwhelm all that stands in its wielder's way, but if such were the case with this weapon then why was it found in a devastated city?"
"Good point," Jack agreed.
"Moreover, if we seize the weapon then we would tip our hand to Anubis," Nike went on. "Another reason for asking you to join the mission is that I know you will not seek to possess the weapon either. I am aware that you have learned the dangers of such technology."
"You still haven't explained where we enter into your plans," Sam pointed out.
"It is a simple question of numbers," Nike explained. "I do not have sufficient forces to simultaneous attack Czernobog's ha'tak vessel and secure an escape route. If you are interested, we have a concealed camp where we can talk in greater safety."
"Colonel," Sam warned.
Jack nodded. "Dial the Gate, Major."
Sam breathed a sigh of relief.
"We need to tell General Hammond that we'll be gone a little longer."
Sam's further protests were to no avail, and in the end she had been forced to accept that her commanding officer had made his decision. With a rotten feeling chewing at her gut, she had no alternative but to follow the Gorgons to their temporary base.
The Gorgons' encampment was indeed well concealed and Sam could not deny that she was impressed by their professionalism. Two more of the Jaffa a man and a woman stood guard over what was essentially a camouflaged supply dump, hidden in a deep cleft between two boulders. From above the stones would seem to touch, but at ground level there was a wide opening. Dark, silk screens seemed at first a ludicrous ostentation but Sam realised that they would in fact serve to further conceal any activity from airborne observers such as glider patrols. One of the guards stood with his staff weapon at the ready while the other had his attention on a hand-held console.
Within the cleft the Gorgons had stacked a number of supply crates. Another figure sat within, his armour that of the Gorgons but his head shrouded in a black, skull-faced helm like those worn by the guards at the Gate. Sam's attention was drawn by a glimmer of metal in the shadows behind the Jaffa but as he was speaking into a Goa'uld long-range communication device when she arrived, she felt unable to move in and investigate.
Nike held up a hand for silence. Only when the Jaffa had set down the silvery sphere did she turn to her allies and invite them to be seated around a holographic projector.
"What was that about?" Jack asked.
"The guards at this Gate must report regularly," Nike replied. "We have spied out the practices of this world for some weeks now. That was not a routine report however," she added.
"No, My Captain." The Gorgon shucked his skull helm and set down the collar.
"Hey, Acastus," Jack called, recognising the Jaffa veteran.
"Colonel O'Neill," the man replied. "It is an honour to fight at your side once more." Acastus turned to face his commander again. "There have been two checks since you left, Captain," he reported. "I fear that my performance has been insufficient to convince Lord Nax."
Nike shook her head. "If he believed the Gate to be penetrated, Nax would have sent a glider squadron to investigate," she assured her warrior. "With his current guest list he would take no chances. This is merely his pathetic attempt at increased security."
"What's your perimeter like?" Sam asked, unwilling to take a chance on Nike's assessment.
Acastus looked to Nike, who nodded. "As secure as can be," the Jaffa replied. "We have a ring of sensors at five hundred paces and a secondary tac perimeter at two hundred. All sensors are operating at full efficiency. Nestor?"
"No contacts," the Jaffa with the console replied. "Nothing has moved this way since you passed through the perimeter."
Jack nodded, satisfied. "So let's move on," he suggested.
Nike returned the gesture and held out her hand; the projector shimmered into life. "This is a terrain map of Erebus," Nike explained. "The Chappa'ai is here and the forge-city is here." She indicated two points, nine miles apart and separated by a range of high hills. At her touch the second point sprouted greater detail; a small city bristling with chimneys and temple spires, dominated by a ha'tak landing platform.
"Czernobog's command vessel docked at this platform eight hours ago," Nike said, "Czernobog was on board and his Queen arrived at the same time by her own transport. They have come to collect the weapon which his engineers have been working on here. In twenty-one hours he will travel to a rendezvous with Anubis to hand over the weapon and not one of us here can afford for that to happen."
"Hang on," Jack said. "Why would Czernobog hand over a prize like that?"
"Simple really," Nike replied. "Because he can not make it work."
In the bowels of the great forge-city of Erebus, Czernobog sat, brooding, as he watched his engineers labour over his prize. He sat straight and tall in his lesser throne, but a look of grave displeasure was etched on his ashen features. He was surrounded with the artefacts of power: His black robes were shot through with a silver threads and his clothes were fastened with gold and silver buckles. A golden ribbon device wrapped his left hand and he held a jewelled sceptre in his right. The throne was less imposing than the great throne on the peltac of the ship, but it was still a mighty seat; a magnificent palanquin, carved from oak and set with panels of rare woods and precious metals, studded with gemstones and draped in folds of velvet, sable, satin and silk.
Twelve bearers, massive eunuch slaves, flanked the chair. Ever-fearful of revolt, Czernobog had taken steps to keep these powerful servants from threatening him. Their eyes had been burned out and the sockets plugged with great rubies, their tongues cut from their heads and their ears stopped with a flow of molten gold; their hands had been cut off and replaced by steel loops which engaged with posts on the base of the palanquin. To guide them the bearers on each side were fastened together by a leash with six collars and when they moved they were led by Czernobog's current favourites; the most beautiful of his black-eyed, Jaffa handmaidens.
Czernobog had power and he displayed it every aspect of his appearance, yet he was dissatisfied. He had spent more than a year removing the weapon from its resting place, more than a century before that searching for the awesome engine of destruction described in the ancient texts of a dead world and six months since striving to unlock its secrets. After such time and effort he was not best pleased to see that his engineers still had nothing to show for their labours.
Angrily, Czernobog leaped down from his chair. His handmaidens were startled to see their master leave the safety of his throne, but they at once came forward to see to his needs. The Black God deposited his sceptre in the arms of one of the girls, who staggered under the weight. As she moved to carefully lay the heavy rod in the arms of one of the bearers, Czernobog waved the other handmaiden away and stepped forward to the edge of the pit in which the weapon lay.
"Haval!" Czernobog roared, his voice amplified by the devices hidden within his garments.
One of the Goa'uld came away from the weapon and bowed before his master. "Black God," he said. "Command me and your servant shall obey."
"But you do not!" Czernobog snapped. "I commanded you to make this weapon function and you have failed to do so."
"The device is complex," Haval replied. "It is unlike anything that any of your engineers have seen before. Our understanding of the weapon grows each day, but to unlock its power..."
With an impatient sweep of his hand, Czernobog knocked his servant flying. "I do not want to hear excuses!" He boomed. "I want results!"
Haval looked up, eyes burning with barely restrained fury. "Perhaps My Lord would have better results had he not already executed his high engineer," the lesser Goa'uld hissed.
The two handmaidens gasped in appalled astonishment at the sheer nerve of the engineer.
"What?" Czernobog demanded.
"Without Xaios our work has proceeded at a crawl," Haval replied. "You know this to be true."
"I shall destroy you for this impudence!"
"You shall not," Haval replied, rising to his feet. "With Xaios gone you need me too much. You have no other servant who could keep your ha'tak vessel functioning, let alone stand a chance of making this weapon fire. You are not so strong as you like to appear, mighty Czernobog."
Czernobog bristled with rage, but his handmaidens knew as well as Haval did that the engineer was right: The Black God's strength was too far depleted for him to cast aside any skilled servant, however insubordinate. Handmaidens were a different matter of course and the two girls could not doubt that, having witnessed this scene, their lives would be forfeit.
"Work faster," Czernobog hissed.
"If I might return to my work?" Haval asked, belatedly adding: "My Lord."
Czernobog stormed back to his seat. He snatched his sceptre from the slave who bore it, even as his handmaiden hurried to retrieve it for him. In the confusion the heavy rod struck the girl hard in the head and she fell to the floor, her face a mess of blood and her nose shattered. She fought desperately not to cry out.
Czernobog looked around and waved the girl away, dismissively. "Get that out of my sight," he told the other handmaiden. "Take it to the infirmary."
"Y...Yes, Lord," the second girl babbled, trying not to give away her relief. Whether the Black God were showing mercy or had merely forgotten for a moment that his servants had to die, she was not about to question the respite and give her master cause to reconsider.
Czernobog sat heavily on his palanquin and motioned for his slaves to lift him. Nothing happened.
"Lift!" He commanded.
Czernobog's First Prime, the new Baphomet, motioned to two of his warriors to go forward and take up the leashes of the throne-bearers in place of the vanished handmaidens. It was unwise to pre-empt the Black God, but he knew that it would be more foolish still to draw his attention to his oversight.
Borne aloft by the twelve giant slaves, Czernobog was carried up from the pit to his palace on Erebus. As they emerged from the tunnels into the basalt corridors of the palace, a great rumble rolled across the surface.
Czernobog cried out and hammered a fist down on the arm of his throne. The eunuchs gave wordless cries of protest as the palanquin slammed down onto the stone of the corridor, driven by an irresistible force. The air shimmered as an energy shield sprang up around the seat and armoured plates sprouted from the sides of the palanquin to surround the Black God in an impenetrable shell.
"Stand as you are!" Baphomet roared, as small globes rose from the corners of the palanquin.
The Skull Guard obeyed but one of the regular Jaffa turned to seek out the danger and received a tac blast through his leg for his troubles.
"Stand as you are," Baphomet repeated, before any of the injured warrior's friends could move to aid him.
To his credit the downed man had not moved, nor even cried out in pain.
"Stay absolutely still," Baphomet told the youth. With one hand behind his back he palmed a communication sphere and lifted it very, very slowly before him. At one stage he must have been going too fast, because the nearest tac swivelled to face towards him.
"My Lord," Baphomet said at last, as Czernobog's pale features appeared through the mists of the sphere. "The danger has passed."
Czernobog scrutinised his First Prime's face, looking for any sign of trickery. As the fateful meeting with Anubis drew closer, the Black God's paranoia grew, until it was all but impossible to carry out the regular business of the realm. This time the alarm had been raised by a routine release of pressure from one of the naquadah foundries, but if a real attack came, most of the Skull Guard would be slain around their Lord's throne; either cut down unresisting or shot in the back by the tacs on Czernobog's throne as they tried to fight.
Only once he was certain that is was truly his faithful servant speaking did Czernobog reply: "Well done, First Prime."
The tacs withdrew into their housings and at once Baphomet signalled for three Jaffa to raise their injured comrade and bear him away. By the time the armour had peeled back and the shield was down there was no sign of the unfortunate accident.
"You have done well, Baphomet," Czernobog allowed. "You are a loyal servant and shall be rewarded."
"I ask no reward but the honour of serving the gods," Baphomet assured him.
"Well said," Czernobog agreed. "My enemies have found us here," he went on. "Load the weapon onto the mothership at once. There is no time to waste."
Baphomet bowed low. "Yes, My Lord," he said.
"Inform the Queen that she shall meet me on the peltac," Czernobog added, as the bearers lifted him up once more.
"I shall, My Lord," Baphomet promised.
"Baphomet; if the engineers have not unlocked the weapon's power by the time of my meeting with Anubis, you will kill Haval."
"With this weapon, all the empires of the Goa'uld will be mine," Czernobog said. "Without it I am nothing."
"You are still our God," Baphomet assured him. "You shall still have the favour of Anubis, the devotion of your Jaffa and the love of Our Queen."
Czernobog snorted, derisively. "Favour, devotion and love are nothing without power," he mocked. "Only a Jaffa could see virtue in such trivialities."
"Yes, My Lord," Baphomet replied, his voice penitent although he seethed to hear the values of his people belittled. "Shall I order some of the foundry slaves be loaded onto the ha'tak vessel, that you might torture and slay them for your pleasure?"
There was a pause. "I have no time for common diversions," Czernobog said at last, although he appeared tempted. "Nothing must go amiss. Load the weapon and prepare the ship to travel."
"As My Lord commands."
At a signal from Czernobog the palanquin was once more lifted into the air.
"And find those two handmaidens," Czernobog added. "They know too much and must die."
"As My Lord commands."
"Czernobog probably hoped to keep the weapon a secret until he was ready to deploy it," Nike went on. "He failed in this endeavour in part because our actions forced him to move the weapon from its hiding place on Chλrt and Anubis demanded it be turned over to him. In exchange for the weapon, Czernobog will receive great rewards. He knows that Anubis has the power to take the weapon from him and so he has no choice but to hand over his prize."
"Unless he can make it work," Sam realised. "If he could have the weapon ready by the time he meets Anubis to hand it over..."
"It would be the only chance he'd ever get to bring the thing within firing range of Anubis," Jonas added. "He was probably planning to leak the information to Anubis when he was ready but it got out too soon."
Nike nodded. "That was my General's assessment," she agreed.
"Not wanting to sound like a broken record," Sam said. "I know why we want to stop this hand-over taking place but why do you? You serve Anubis," she pointed out, in the tone of voice that she might have used to say that Nike flayed live kittens for kicks.
"My General is indeed in the employ of Anubis, so long as it affords her the opportunity to engage in battle with Sekhmet," Nike admitted. "While at present Anubis needs Athena's military expertise to combat his ancient foe, given this new advantage Anubis might be tempted to feel that Pallas Athena's services were obsolete; her predilection for independent action a liability that he no longer needed to indulge. We believe that he would..." Nike hesitated for a fraction of a second, short enough that Sam and Teal'c missed it, but Jonas saw clearly how much her train of thought troubled Nike, as did Jack. "...hand My General over to Czernobog as part of his reward; along with the former domains of Czernobog's liege, Svarog."
"What does Czernobog want with Athena?" Sam asked.
"Pallas Athena defeated Czernobog in battle several times when she was General of the Olympian armies. When Zeus stripped her of her domains and armies many defeated foes tried to destroy her, but she died and so cheated them all. Now that she has returned and they see how they were fooled, those who survive have once more sworn to exact retribution."
Jack nodded his understanding. "So; what's the plan?"
Nike turned her attention back to the map. "We divide our forces into two teams," she explained. "One team infiltrates the ha'tak vessel through the landing platform while the second secures a getaway craft from the dockyards here, sabotages the communications arrays and tracks the ha'tak to the rendezvous with Anubis. The first team will locate and kill Czernobog, throwing the ship into chaos. We will secure the peltac, lock down the vessel and take control of the weapon. When Anubis arrives to receive his tribute we will fire the weapon at him, withdraw to our escape vessel and leave Anubis to destroy the evidence of our actions."
"Wait a minute," Sam protested. "Your plan misses something. If the weapon doesn't work, how do we fire it?"
Nike smiled. "My ha'he is highly skilled," she replied. "I do not believe him capable of succeeding on his own, but I hear great things of you, Major Carter. I hope that I shall not be disappointed."
Sam hid a blush. "And if you are?"
"If the weapon can not be fired we must detonate the ship ourselves and try to make it look like a reactor overload during a failed attempt to fire on Anubis."
"And if Anubis is destroyed?" Jack asked.
"We shall still destroy the ship," Nike said. "Such a weapon would be too great a temptation even for Pallas Athena and it has already led its original makers to destruction." She looked Jack in the eyes. "What do you say, Jack?"
"I say...What the hell," Jack told her.
While Jack and Nike worked on their plans, Sam approached the Goa'uld's engineer.
"Major Carter?" The Jaffa greeted her, raising his head from his console. He was a strange sight, fair of colouring yet sporting the thick dreadlocks which were de rigueur among the Gorgons.
"Nestor, is it?" Sam asked, fighting to keep the phrase 'white Rasta' out of her mind.
"Nestor of Kalipolis," he acknowledged. "It is an honour to make your acquaintance."
"I'm...flattered," Sam admitted. "What can you tell me about this weapon we'll have to work on?"
"Not very much," Nestor replied, apologetically. "All I have is information stolen from Czernobog's communiquιs between the regent of this world, Lord Nax, and his master, Czernobog, detailing the findings of the chief engineer of Erebus. As the engineers were unable to unlock the secrets of this technology, all that amounts to is supposition and a few partial schematics."
The ha'he raised his console and a holographic display flickered up, showing scraps of circuit and asymmetric arrangements of crystals.
"I've never seen anything like it," Sam admitted.
"Nor have I," Nestor agreed. "All Goa'uld technology is based on linear crystal arrays; that of the Asgard on etched vari-conductive sheets. This uses semi-, super- and vari-conductors in indecipherable, almost organic, alignments. I can not even tell what the power source for the weapon might be."
"Do you have hardcopy?" Sam asked. "Maybe we can put our heads together over this and work something out."
At that moment, the holographic display vanished and a light blinked on the hand console.
"We have no time," Nestor replied. "My Captain!" He called. "The weapon is being loaded for immediate departure!"
"Curses!" Nike swore. "We must move now. Medusa."
The First Prime nodded and moved deep into the cleft, followed by Acastus and one of the other Jaffa.
"Carter; you're with us," Jack said. "Teal'c and Jonas; go with Acastus and secure transportation."
"Wait a minute, Sir," Sam interrupted. "I don't like the idea of us splitting up."
"Well, the alternative is we all go on board the ha'tak and leave the Gorgons to secure the getaway ship," Jack explained.
"I see," Sam agreed. Unspoken between them so as not to offend their short-term ally was the third alternative, just as unacceptable: to let Nike take sole control of Czernobog's super-weapon.
The Jaffa emerged from the cleft, pushing three black-hulled machines that floated just above the ground. They deposited them and returned for three more.
"What are those?" Jack asked.
"Our transportation," Nike replied. "We have far to go in a short time; we require something swift."
"This is folly," Teal'c declared. "Kep'ah are dangerous, even for experienced riders. Major Carter..." He turned towards Sam for support, but saw at once that he would find none.
Sam was staring at the kep'ah in absolute rapture.
"Please feel free to examine the machines for booby traps if you wish," Nike offered. "There are too few for each of us to have a kep'a, but it is perhaps for the best that you do not attempt to..."
She broke off as Sam crossed to the nearest machine and ran her fingers along the control yoke. She whispered something barely audible.
"What was that?" Jack asked.
When Sam made no reply, Jonas answered for her. "She said: 'come to mama'," he told Jack.
Sam swung her leg over the back of the machine, settling easily into the saddle of the kep'a. "How do you make it go?" She demanded.
On the peltac of his mothership, Czernobog left his palanquin for the even greater safety of his main throne. The massive, basalt structure housed more defensive devices than some Goa'uld palaces and this seat was one of the few places where he felt truly safe. There he sat, waiting impatiently for his servants to carry out his wishes.
While he waited, Djanka entered the peltac and bowed before the throne. For a long moment Czernobog ignored the beautiful figure prostrating herself before him, but at last he deigned to look at her.
"My Lord sent for me," Djanka said. She raised her head to look on Czernobog with undisguised loathing in her crimson-and-ebony eyes.
"Yes," Czernobog replied.
There was a long pause before Djanka asked, acidly: "How may I serve you, My Lord? Have you some task that you wish me to perform, or are you merely desirous of my society?"
Czernobog snorted with laughter at the latter concept.
Djanka bristled. "If My Lord does not need me, I shall return to my own transport," she said.
"I do not think so," Czernobog sneered. "I am assailed by enemies who strike from the shadows, Djanka, thus I wish to have one of them at least where I can clearly see her."
"My Lord?" Djanka feigned ignorance of his meaning.
"You would see me dead; I know this."
"I am your faithful servant," the Queen assured him, archly.
"You are a treacherous vixen," Czernobog told her. "I do not trust you out of my sight at any time, but especially not when there are so many opportunities for you to work some mischief against me."
"My Lord wrongs his humble Queen," Djanka pouted.
"Indeed? Then how might my enemies have come so close to me?" Czernobog demanded. "It can only be with aid from one within my court."
Djanka sniffed, haughtily. "There are no enemies except in your mind," she scoffed. "Who would care to strike at a petty half-god like you?"
"Sit still and be silent!" Czernobog snapped.
Djanka settled herself primly at the foot of the Black God's throne. Her black mood dispersed slightly as she watched the Jaffa pilots at the control station stare straight ahead and pretend not to have heard their god bickering with his consort.
Czernobog scowled down at the Queen. Djanka, the last surviving daughter of his former liege-lord Svarog, was almost more trouble than she was worth. Her not-quite human host was noted for its beauty and the being within was as cunning as a serpent, but for all her virtues he would have killed her in a heartbeat had he any other Queen available. She was indeed treacherous and brutal, even by the standards of Goa'uld Queens. Czernobog's Jaffa called her the Bloody-Eyed Witch and believed her to be a Kalshek'tak; of course, they said the same of him. She also made no secret of the fact that she considered him no more than an ally of necessity.
Any Queen was better than no Queen, however. Ruling Svarog's domains was a great enough challenge with a Queen to provide fresh prim'ta for his armies; without that edge he would have been destroyed.
"Where is Baphomet?" Czernobog demanded.
"He is still searching for your handmaidens," the pilot replied. "They killed the infirmarian and vanished into the forge-city.
"Summon Baphomet to the peltac," Czernobog ordered. "The handmaidens are unimportant. Is the weapon loaded?"
"Yes, My Lord," the Jaffa replied. "All systems are ready for lift off. Shall I proceed once the First Prime is aboard?"
"No," Czernobog replied. "Check the systems again and then recheck any that my beloved Queen has been near in the last six hours. I shall not be thwarted now."
The Jaffa stifled a sigh at his master's all-consuming paranoia. It was of course the greatest honour to serve the Black God, but increasingly it was a trial of patience also. "Yes, My Lord," he replied.
Jack clung to Nike for dear life as the kep'a raced across the barren surface of Erebus. Ahead of them the towers and smoke-stacks of the forge-city rose over the horizon with alarming speed; behind them the Gate was just a memory. To the left, Jack could just make out the faint dust trails rising behind the tiny, dark shapes of the three kep'ah belonging to the other group. To his right two more kep'ah sped along, closer than Jack was truly comfortable with. Jack could feel the power running through the machine and it unnerved him. The silence of the kep'a's engines gave the whole experience a dreamlike quality; only the rushing of the wind in his ears anchored Jack to reality.
Nestor was clutching Meriope's waist as desperately as Jack held onto Nike's, but Nike's First Prime barely noticed, caught up in her spontaneous race against Sam. The two women were quite evenly-matched, for all that Sam's experience of riding motorcycles did not directly translate to this semi-airborne variant. Jack was quite startled to see this side of his 2IC and he was pretty sure that he would not be able to accuse her of never having fun for at least a week after this.
For the first part of the journey Nike let the other riders take the lead, but after a while she suddenly throttled forward and overtook them both, before sliding to an easy halt in the centre of the path. Meriope and Sam came to a stop.
"Enough play," Nike said, seriously. "We are approaching the sentry line of the forge-city. Major Carter, you seem quite confident with the controls of the vehicle. Might I ask that you carry Nestor for a time, so that Medusa can take point?"
"Of course," Sam agreed.
"Don't feel like taking the lead yourself?" Jack asked.
"It's taking all my concentration to fly this thing straight," Sam replied, patting the engine housing of the kep'a fondly. "I wouldn't have much left to keep a lookout."
Nestor dismounted from Meriope's machine and climbed on behind Sam.
"Medusa; lead by two hundred paces," Nike ordered. "Half-speed, maximum stealth."
"Yes, My Captain," Meriope replied. "Be careful with my ha'he, Major Carter," she added.
"I'll treat him like he was my own," Sam promised.
Meriope pulled away, the kep'a making no more than a soft swishing sound as it flew. After a short time, Nike motioned for Sam to follow.
"I do not think I have ever seen anyone enjoy the riding of a kep'a so much," Nike commented. "Are you well?" She asked Jack, before starting her own machine. "Your grip has grown much tighter since we began."
"I'm fine," Jack promised, through gritted teeth. "Besides, at least I know now what to get Carter for Christmas."
Teal'c, Jonas and Acastus rode fast towards the spaceport attached to the forge-city. Like Sam, Jonas had refused to ride pillion, although his less-extensive experience with motorcycles left him far less confident. They were not as concerned with stealth as the other group, since their detection could only aid the efforts of the strike team and any Jaffa sent to deal with them would be recalled as soon as the assault on the ha'tak vessel was noticed or completed. In the end they saw no evidence that they had been observed by the time they pulled up their kep'ah behind a ridge at the southern perimeter of the port.
The two Gorgons dismounted from the pillions of Teal'c and Acastus' machines and stood watch while the others peered over the ridge.
"Security appears lax," Teal'c noted, looking through a pair of binoculars before passing them to Jonas.
Acastus had no need of binoculars, relying on the visual enhancers in his Gorgon mask. "Czernobog's forces have been engaged in ceaseless battle with his rivals for many months," he explained. "Between them they have decimated the armies and territories left by Svarog. While he has successfully defended the bulk of his holdings and his slave populations, Czernobog's fighting force has been greatly depleted."
"Twelve sentries patrolling in groups of two," Jonas said. "There's almost two miles of perimeter for them to cover. Eighteen towers should pick up the slack but only eight of them are manned. There's a spot about five hundred yards east where the perimeter is out of sight of the towers and no sentry will go past for a nine minute window. Plenty of time for us to get to the supply hut over there" he pointed "and into cover. From there we should be clear to the hangars. There's only two internal patrols."
"How can you know that?" Acastus demanded. "We have but now arrived."
Teal'c smiled at the other Jaffa's discomfort. It did not take a man of Jonas' sensitivity to see that Teal'c the shol'va and Acastus the loyal servant of false gods did not much care for one another. "Jonas Quinn has an eye for detail," Teal'c explained.
Jonas blushed. "It's nothing," he demurred, not wanting to get involved in any clash between the two warriors.
"It is an exceptional gift," Acastus replied. "Very well, Jonas Quinn; we shall follow your suggestion. The communications arrays are in the centre of the field, by the control tower."
"The best way to disable communications would be to steal an armed ship," Teal'c said.
"I concur," Acastus agreed. "According to our intelligence, there is a katac currently in the third hangar; out of sight of the tower."
"A katac?" Jonas asked.
"A fast transport," Teal'c translated. "I had heard that some Goa'uld were developing replacements for the teltac but I am unfamiliar with their design specifics."
It was Acastus' turn to feel satisfaction at Teal'c's ignorance. "With the ever-growing number of combat craft in the hands of the Free Jaffa and the Tok'ra, many no longer feel safe using unarmed transport vessels," he explained. "The katac is an advanced personal transport, equipped to outpace and defend itself against gliders."
"Then that would seem to be our transport of choice," Teal'c agreed.
As the group approached the low hangar Jonas caught his first sight of the katac. It looked, he decided, like a teltac that had been grabbed at both ends and stretched out. It was also shinier than most of the teltacs which Jonas had seen, the hull plates glossy black like a beetle's carapace. The vessel rested in the centre of the hangar, supported by three squat legs that projected from the corners of the pyramid. A hatch stood open in the side of the transport, a ramp descending to the hangar floor.
At a signal from Acastus the other two Gorgons moved around the side of the hangar. Dark cloaks concealed the bronze gleam of their armour, leaving the Jaffa all but invisible in the smog-bound half-night of Erebus. Acastus and Teal'c stood waiting to one side of the main door, weapons at the ready. Jonas was struck by how naturally the two Jaffa worked together; moving as one despite the deep antipathy between them.
Acastus raised his hand to touch the tattoo on his brow, then gave Teal'c a nod. Jonas followed as the two Jaffa moved swiftly into the hangar. Before Jonas could even get his bearings, Acastus had fired a zat'nik'tel into the underside of the katac and Teal'c was running for the side hatch. The sound of shots from the far side of the ship signalled the arrival of the other Gorgons.
The assault was quick and efficient. Acastus' first shot had tripped the safety systems in the katac's short-range communications array and by the time the backups were brought in, Teal'c had reached the peltac and incapacitated the operator. The Gorgons swept the hangar and Jonas followed Acastus to provide cover as the Jaffa swept the rear of the ship. In the end, Jonas' presence was irrelevant Acastus needed no cover, taking out three Jaffa without a shot being returned but he relished the opportunity to see the inside of the new ship.
At the front of the vessel were the cabin which proved to be almost identical to that of a teltac and the crew quarters. The main compartment behind these had its own external hatch and was divided into an audience chamber and a private room, both appointed to the same standard as the Goa'uld's chambers on a ha'tak vessel. There was a preponderance of black and an excess of Gothic architecture in the rooms, but Jonas had expected that of Czernobog. For all its dour appearance, the chambers were comfortable, opulent even, although only a little bigger than the storage compartment of a teltac. A great, ebony bath convinced Jonas that the quarters were designed for a Queen.
The rest of the space behind the cabin was occupied by engines and weapons and technicians' quarters: The Gorgons swept up through crawl spaces from the rear hatches, incapacitating another two Jaffa, before they met up with Acastus and Jonas.
In all, nine enemies were overcome during the assault, each one taken out by a single zat blast. The Gorgons gathered and secured them in the rear compartment then checked them off against the crew manifest.
"Two flight engineers, pilot, communications officer," Acastus counted off. "Two deck engineers, two guards and one steward accounted for. One passenger, three handmaidens and nine more guards were summoned to the ha'tak vessel. There should also have been twelve more guards on the hangar but they too were summoned."
Acastus nodded and his Gorgons raised their zats.
"Stop!" Jonas cried. "You can't just kill them in cold blood! Most of them aren't even warriors."
"We can not release them," Acastus replied. "They must not report our presence to Anubis."
"Jonas Quinn is correct," Teal'c replied. "They can not be killed as they are."
"I do not like it," Acastus admitted, "but we must protect our Captain."
"At the cost of your honour?" Teal'c demanded.
Rage flared in Acastus gaze. "You who murdered innocents in Apophis' name would lecture me on honour?" He demanded. "We do not kill indiscriminately, but we shall not be blinded to necessity. It is the nature of our mission here and that is a condition that we accepted when we volunteered to join the Captain here."
Teal'c stepped up close to the Gorgon and looked him straight in the eye. "I turned on Apophis because I was no longer satisfied to accept duty as a reason to murder my brother Jaffa. I will not stand by and watch these murdered without offering them the chance to be free."
Acastus glowered back at Teal'c without flinching. "Not all Jaffa are worthy of your consideration," he warned. "Many enjoy that duty which drove you to rebel. We can not afford such scruples in this time."
"If you would kill them in cold blood," Teal'c said, evenly, "you must first kill me."
Acastus held Teal'c's gaze for almost a minute before he looked away. "I am forbidden to fight you or your comrades while we fight alongside each other," he said. "If My Captain comes to harm from this, I shall lend my arm to anyone who would destroy you."
Teal'c nodded in acceptance of this condition.
"Secure the ship for launch and check for combat damage," Acastus ordered his Gorgons. "Rig the monitors so that the control tower will not see what we are doing." As the Gorgons obeyed, Acastus turned to face Teal'c and Jonas. "We must be cautious," he said. "There were too few guards here. I do not like the fact that they were called away; it smells like a trap."
"But who for?" Jonas asked.
"What do you mean?" Acastus asked.
"It may be a trap to lure us in," Jonas explained. "Or it may be that Czernobog has simply increased security on his ha'tak vessel."
"But why would he pull all his Jaffa away from the rest of the forge-city unless..."
"Unless he was expecting an attack on his person," Teal'c finished.
"Oh, My Captain," Acastus breathed, horrified.
Nike led the way through a massive pumping station within the spaceport of the forge-city. They were heading to a distribution valve that was still attached to the ha'tak vessel by a huge pipeline.
"So what do we do?" Jack asked, moving alongside the Goa'uld as they walked along a high catwalk among the pipes. "Climb up the pipe or float up in the fuel?"
Nike smiled. "The power for the ha'tak's systems comes from a naquadah reactor," she replied. "This pipe carries a chemical inhibitor used to regulate the reaction; it would eat the flesh from your bones in moments. However, there is a maintenance duct running alongside the cable; we can use that to enter the ha'tak vessel." She held up a hand and the group stopped.
"Medusa," Nike ordered. "Take point. Jack; stay with Nestor and Major Carter and keep them safe. Nestor, Major Carter; try to keep out of the thick of things if we get into a fight."
"Who exactly died and made her God?" Sam asked Jack, walking close to her CO so that they could talk over the din of the pumps. "If you'll pardon my turn of phrase."
"She's a good leader," Jack told her. "Give her a chance."
"I've never seen you hand off command like this before, Colonel," Sam said. "You won't operate under a Russian commander, why would you go along with a Goa'uld?"
"She knows these kinds of ops," Jack replied, "and she knows Goa'uld cities better than I do. I've seen her work before, Carter; she's good."
"I don't like it," Sam said.
"That's 'I don't like it, Sir'," Jack responded, defensively.
"What does she have over you?" Sam asked, appalled, realising how far Jack had let himself be drawn into the Goa'uld's influence.
"She saved my life," Jack replied, "and she's good at what she does."
"You trust her?" Sam gasped in disbelief.
"I trust her abilities," Jack corrected. "I trust her instincts. I don't trust her. For example, I'm certain that there's more to her preparations for this mission than she's letting on. She's got a lot more intel than she had the time or the inclination to brief us on; of that I'm certain."
"You think she's hiding something from us?"
Jack shrugged. "Not as such. I mean, do I always tell you everything I know about a situation before leading you into it?"
"I thought you did," Sam said.
"Well...okay; bad example," Jack admitted. "But only because you're way smarter than I am. But if I led a fire team to a world like this, I'd decide at the start what they needed to know and not tell them any more than that. I'm willing to bet that she's told us more than she'd tell her Jaffa."
"We trust in our Captain," Nestor told them, startling Sam who had not realised that the Jaffa engineer was close enough to hear.
"Good ears," Sam complimented Nestor.
"I could not hear words," the Jaffa replied falling back a little to come into step with them. "We are aware of the light in which the Tau'ri and the Shakka view the Jaffa, however."
"Who are the Shakers?" Jack asked.
"The Free Ones," Nestor replied. "Those who are no longer Jaffa; the Dutiful."
"You don't call them shol'va?" Jack asked.
"We do not," Nestor agreed. "Our Captain teaches that it is wrong to treat an enemy with disdain unless they have earned it and unworthy to taunt an enemy...unless you believe that he can be provoked into making a mistake."
"So you trust her?" Sam asked. "You'd do anything she told you to?"
"Do you have any family?"
"I am to marry soon, but for the present I have a sister only," Nestor replied. "Our mother was killed when Cronos' forces attacked the laboratory where she was working and our father could not live without her."
Sam was shaken by this reply. "He killed himself?"
Nestor shook his head. "However his grief haunted his thoughts until he became unable to achieve kelno'reem."
"I'm...sorry," Sam said, unable to think of anything else to say.
"Dai jaffa mel," Nestor replied, philosophically. "They died true."
"But what would you do if Nike ordered you to kill your sister?" Sam asked.
Nestor smiled. "Your question has no meaning; she would not do so unless Penelope betrayed her, and Penelope would not do so. She is a Gorgon too."
"But if Nike did give the order what would you do?" Sam pressed.
Jack shook his head. "Leave it, Carter," he said.
"I want to know," Sam insisted.
"What would you do if I told you to kill Cassie?" Jack asked.
"Same question," Jack told her. "I may not trust her, but I can't find fault with Nike's command relations. She treats her Jaffa right."
Up ahead, Medusa had stopped by an opening in the catwalk and let Nike catch her up. The Goa'uld signalled for the others to come closer.
"One guard," Nike said, pointing through the web of pipes. A little below them a single Skull Guard stood watch over a large, round hatch. Just above and to the right of that hatch, the pipeline disappeared into the wall. "The maintenance shaft and the refuelling conduit are mated with the far side of the wall," Nike explained. "The hatch leads into the shaft."
"Just one guard," Jack whispered. "I have a bad feeling about this, Nike; you said that Czernobog was paranoid."
Nike nodded. "We will have to take the risk," she decided. "Follow me and be careful of your shots," she added. "Many of the pipes carry toxic or volatile chemicals."
Without another word, Nike slipped through the opening and landed on the first pipe. She toppled forward, catching a lower pipe then twisting to thread her body down through the web. As Jack scrambled after her, the Goa'uld dropped neatly into a crouch on the floor before the hatch. The guard was only startled for a moment, but that was long enough for Nike to rise up and drive a knife through the base of his helmet. Without pausing, Nike grabbed the forked dagger from the Jaffa's belt and stabbed it into his pouch.
Jack reached the floor and turned to cover the corridor. Sam and Meriope followed and Sam tried not to look at the body as she joined Jack on watch. Nestor came last and went at once to the side of the hatch. Levering open a panel, he began to rearrange the crystals inside.
With a soft hiss the hatch began to move.
"That was quick," Sam said, enviously.
"It was not I," Nestor cautioned.
Nike stepped forward and dragged her ha'he away from the hatch, a staff blast slicing through the air where he had been standing.
"Ambush!" Nike warned, at the same moment that Jack and Sam saw a mass of Jaffa emerging from the shadows, black skull faces leering at them.
The two P90s spoke in unison, felling the Jaffa with well-placed bursts, but the Skull Guards came on in vast numbers. Jack raised his weapon and fired into the pipes above the Jaffa, dousing them in a noxious green fluid which gave off an evil steam that stung the nose and eyes; he could only imagine what the liquid itself was doing to the Jaffa.
Behind the two Tau'ri, Nike used her hand device to cast the Skull Guards back into the maintenance shaft. Medusa flipped her staff weapon over and engaged a hidden, second trigger. A stream of plasma blasts tore from the tip of the staff, leaving superheated flames smouldering on the walls of the shaft. Nike slammed the hatch shut on the screams of the Skull Guards as the pipe ruptured, letting loose the deadly inhibitor.
"Up!" Nike ordered, as another wave of Skull Guards began firing from beyond the chemical spray.
"Go, My Captain!" Medusa called, unleashing another rain of plasma against Czernobog's hapless servants before switching to her zat.
Nike seized Nestor by his belt and half-lifted him up into the pipes. Once he had a secure grip she cupped her hands and looked towards Sam. "Quickly Major Carter," she said.
Sam hesitated a moment, but at a look from Jack she moved forward. Before she could reach the Goa'uld, however, she heard a zat blast overhead. She looked up and saw Nestor drop back to the deck, unconscious, with his hand locked around the ankle of an equally incapacitated Skull Guard.
Nike yelled in frustration and fired her own zat into the darkness. Another Skull Guard fell down, followed by a metal ball that exploded in a burst of bright, burning light.
Seeking to be away from Acastus and Teal'c's bickering, Jonas found the female Gorgon working, hunched over at one of the stations on the peltac. The two veterans were arguing over whether they should immediately follow the assault team Acastus' favoured option or wait until they made contact Teal'c's. Jonas could see that Acastus knew the risks inherent in his plan and that Teal'c was not entirely happy with his, but they were just butting heads at the moment.
"Are many of Nike's warriors women?" Jonas asked.
"Not a great many, but a fair number," she replied. "Perhaps one in twenty; and one in five of the Gorgons."
"Why is that?" Jonas wondered. "That there is a greater proportion of women in the elite?"
The woman smiled. "Natural superiority," she replied.
"And modesty too," Jonas commended her.
"It is true," she insisted. "The women who serve as warriors are all gifted; many of the men simply choose that path because it is expected of them."
"Of course," Jonas realised. "I'm Jonas," he added.
"I know who you are, Jonas Quinn," the Jaffa assured him. "I am called Penelope of Kalipolis; Second Ha'he of the Gorgons."
"What is it you're doing?" Jonas asked.
"Attempting to gather intelligence," Penelope replied. "This ship is currently connected to the computers of the forge-city, as is the ha'tak vessel. If I can find the correct conduits, I will be able to tap into the ha'tak's internal communications."
"You can do that?"
"Easily," Penelope assured him. "I have already pierced the system which monitor this vessel from the control tower. Trias is clearing the ship for launch as we speak, yet the monitors in the tower maintain that we are still locked down. I have also gained access to the ha'tak's resupply umbilici and...Ah!" The Jaffa cried out in horror.
"What?" Jonas asked.
Penelope reached up and touched her brow. "One of the inhibitor pipes was ruptured. The inhibitor fluid has been contaminated by organic residue and trace minerals, including the naquadah isotope used in liquid fuel cells for staff weapons and zat'nik'tels. I can not believe it," she whispered. "My brother; My Captain."
"Show me the inhibitor compound," Jonas told her.
Penelope touched a few controls, her hands moving mechanistically. An image appeared on the screen. It showed a series of swirling, cloudlike globes, connected by lines of hissing lightning: A Goa'uld representation of a complex molecule.
Jonas reached across Penelope's shoulder and touched the controls. A readout appeared. "It wasn't them," he told her, gently.
"It...How can you tell?" She asked, her voice thick with her desperate need to believe.
"That substance would not completely destroy the compound which the people of Earth call Kevlar," he replied. "Kevlar isn't among the trace elements there, but Colonel O'Neill and Major Carter were both wearing body armour made from that compound."
"Colonel O'Neill would not let them go in alone," Jonas assured Penelope, although he was not certain of that. "Concentrate on finding them," he suggested. "Then you'll know."
Jack swam slowly back into consciousness, then waited a short while for his eyesight to return. His head was pounding like a drum.
"Colonel O'Neill?" A woman's voice shivered through his tender brain.
"Carter," he slurred in reply. "Please tell me I had a very good night last night and some very bad dreams."
"I'm afraid not, Sir," Sam replied. "Also, that wasn't me."
"Then who...?" Jack forced himself to sit up. "Meriope," he realised.
"We are imprisoned," the Jaffa told him. "Held captive aboard Czernobog's ha'tak vessel."
Jack looked around. He was in a small cell with a high ceiling and a very thick door. The walls were cut from black stone, or perhaps cast from black metal. Gargoyles leered from the corners and strange beasts writhed around the door frame. The air was cold and damp, the atmosphere oppressive; water condensed in a fine mist on the walls. Sam and Meriope sat leaning against the back wall while Nestor was resting, cross-legged to the right of the door, opposite Jack. The ha'he looked in a bad way, but his kelno'reem would help him recover faster.
Jack sat up and his head screamed at him in pain. He gingerly touched his temple and his hand came away bloody. "Looks like someone put the boot in while I was down," he muttered. "Nike?"
"Czernobog took her away," Meriope replied. "He said something about Athena betraying My Captain in order to capture you. The Jaffa guards said that we would be sent to join my other Gorgons in the naquadah mines of Stygia."
"Sounds right for a Goa'uld," Sam groused.
"It is a lie," Meriope said, with great certainty.
"Whatever you say," Sam sighed. She laughed, bleakly. "At least we're on board the ha'tak vessel."
Nike was dragged to the interrogation chamber of Czernobog's ha'tak vessel while she was still groggy from the shock grenade. Her armour had been stripped from her before she regained consciousness and she was dressed only in a loose shift. A body hung in the chamber when she entered, but it was cut down and fell heavily to the floor. Nike tried to catch sight of the dead man's face, but before she could focus he had been kicked into a yawning shaft and fallen out of sight and mind.
Nike's hands were shackled and she was hung from the ceiling. The chain that linked her wrists was placed over the high hook that had held the body so that she swung loosely, with only her toes on the ground. She had no time, in her dazed state, to gather much information about her surroundings before she was shocked out of her lethargy by the sharp, penetrating burn of a pain stick.
Pain was nothing new or unfamiliar to Nike and she held her scream in check. Her vision cleared, allowing her to see the face of her torturer. "I do not know your face," she said, thickly. "But I know your mark, slave of the Black God."
"I am Baphomet," the Jaffa said, defiantly.
"I killed Baphomet."
"You murdered my predecessor," the Jaffa replied. "I am the new Baphomet."
"Where is your master?" Nike demanded. "I demand to see him."
"You are in a position to demand nothing!"
Nike turned towards the voice and saw Czernobog upon his lesser throne. He was leaning towards her, his eyes radiating the hideous, insatiable appetite that drove his life, but at the same time his body was shrinking away. A woman in black sat at her lord's feet, raven hair hanging down like a curtain to conceal her features. Slashes of pale skin showed through the curtain of hair and her bare arms were like marble. She had an air of profound boredom, but her eyes burned, black-within-red, betraying her ravening heart.
Djanka, Nike realised. The Black Queen. The Kalshek'tak. The vampire.
"Czernobog," Nike said. "I am amazed that you could have found a woman willing to let you touch her; let alone one desperate enough to bear your crooked spawn."
Djanka chuckled softly, earning a scowl from her lord but no rebuke, confirming for Nike that while Czernobog was the stronger partner in this alliance, his power over her was not absolute. "Needs must under the hand," she told Nike in a languid purr, the trite Goa'uld aphorism gaining freshness as she crouched at the foot of her keeper.
"You would do well to curb your tongue, Djanka," Czernobog snarled, "and remember that your lot would be more pleasant if you did more to fit yourself to my rule. And you, Captain Nike...You think me short of friends, but I am better supplied than you. I am favoured by Lord Anubis; you are considered a liability, even by your beloved Pallas Athena."
Czernobog gave a low, gloating chuckle. "I am afraid not," he said. "Athena has realised that she can not defeat me. Since your vendetta makes you dangerous to any peace between us, she sent you into my waiting arms. The capture of SG-1 will gain her much renown; you...you and your Gorgons will be mine to keep and to do with as I please.
"As that bitch, Athena will be, once I am the sole power in this galaxy."
Nike threw her body towards Czernobog in rage, rattling her chains. As she did so, Baphomet stepped forward and thrust his pain stick into her abdomen. Again she kept herself from screaming.
"Athena once humiliated me," Czernobog said. "Now she comes begging to me for my aid. Soon she will crawl to my feet, but you shall be broken first."
"She is strong," Djanka noted.
"You will break her," Czernobog ordered.
With her first display of interest, Djanka rose smoothly to her feet and straightened her sable gown. She pushed her hair back from her face and smiled, showing razor-sharp, ivory teeth between bloodless lips. "Absolutely," she promised.
Teal'c and Acastus hurried onto the peltac in response to Jonas' call.
"Penelope?" Acastus asked.
"Ill news, Primus," Penelope reported, her voice trembling only slightly. "Our Captain and her strike force were ambushed at the pumping station."
Acastus touched his tattoo, fear in his eyes. "What has happened?" He demanded.
"The good news is that none of them were killed," Jonas said.
"Although they killed many of Czernobog's Skull Guards and Jaffa," Penelope added.
"However, they have been captured," Jonas went on.
"Mai'tac!" Acastus exploded. "We must move at once."
Penelope nodded and began to rise.
"Wait!" Jonas called. "Teal'c..."
"We can not leave them," Teal'c said, sternly. "Acastus is right."
"Well, obviously," Jonas snapped. "But what are you going to do?"
"We shall find them and bring them back," Acastus replied.
"By finding a guard and extracting the information. I apologise if that offends your sensibilities."
"It offends my common sense!" Jonas returned. "Penelope has hacked..."
"Pierced," Penelope corrected.
"...pierced the systems of the ha'tak vessel. You're a fool if you take her away from that console now. Moreover the Skull Guards are scouring the ship as we speak. Trying to get in would be suicide at this point."
"Then what do you suggest?" Acastus demanded.
"Penelope stays here," Jonas said. "We need her listening in on the Skull Guards."
"I would have to establish a secure communication line," Penelope warned. "It might give away our position if the pierce were spotted."
"Charging into the ha'tak vessel would give us away as well," Jonas replied, "and it would leave us without an escape route."
Acastus scowled, but Penelope hung her head. "The Captain always tells us that we must never enter a situation without knowing how to leave it," she reminded her commander.
"I know," Acastus growled.
"And if you can't get out, there's not much point to a rescue," Jonas added.
"I know." The Jaffa sighed. "Very well. Penelope, secure a line to the ha'tak. Pierce the internal sensors and communications arrays..."
"Done," Penelope replied.
"Very good. Isolate and lock down one of the auxiliary cargo rings on the lower tier; I want a secure route in and out." Acastus turned slightly aside and carried on speaking into his helmet's inbuilt communicator. "Trias; are we ready to depart?"
"Yes, Tek ma'te," the Jaffa replied. "All hangar controls are rerouted to the ship's stations and all external hatches are sealed. As you commanded the captives have been secured in the katac's equipment locker."
"Then join us on the peltac at once," Acastus ordered.
"Equipment locker?" Jonas asked.
"I promised you I would not kill them," Acastus replied. "I can not let them go however. Penelope," he went on, "continue to monitor the ha'tak and tell me when it is safe to make our assault." He grinned. "You are quite the strategist, Mr Quinn," he commended. "Now let us see how that translates to the field."
Djanka's weapon of choice was not the pain stick but the fire whip. Although it seemed that his successor lacked the skill to wield the more delicate and exacting implement, Baphomet had used such a lash on Nike when she had been held captive on Chλrt. Djanka's skill was great greater than the old Baphomet's but it had taken the Jaffa hours to even begin to draw screams from Nike and the Black Queen was having no better fortune.
"She is quite exceptional," Djanka admitted, drawing a finger down one of the bleeding welts in Nike's back. She walked into Nike's field of vision before raising her hand to lick the blood from her finger. Her fingernails were sharply pointed, Nike noted, and painted very dark red.
"She has honed her body into a perfect implement and her mind is just as powerful."
"I do not think that you shall unlock her secrets by flattery," Czernobog hissed, impatiently.
"If you are unsatisfied with my work, why not come down from your throne and take over for yourself?" Djanka challenged.
"Silence!" Czernobog roared, alerting Nike to the fact that the Queen had touched a nerve.
Clearly Djanka realised that she had crossed a line, for she immediately fell down and genuflected, pressing her face to the floor in supplication. "Forgive me, Lord," she pleaded. "I am your humble slave and I shall fulfil your commission; I swear it."
How desperate for this little influence she is, Nike thought. To take such from one she despises so. Not for the first time, she thanked her royal mother for not spawning her as a Queen.
"Perhaps I should find another torturer," Czernobog snapped.
"There is no other," Djanka retorted, raising her head in anger. "I am the greatest torturer in this galaxy."
Nike bit back a derisive laugh. Djanka had some skill with her tools, but she paled into insignificance next to Archon.
Archon had tortured Nike for days, visiting every agony in his vast repertoire upon her body with blade and bludgeon, lash and flame. Every instrument ever devised for the causing of pain had been applied to her flesh, every method of psychological torment known to the Goa'uld had been unleashed upon her mind. Her bones had been crushed with hammers, her organs pierced with knives; her hands had been burned to twisted claws and her frame wracked by pain charges over and over again. She had drunk the Blood of Sokar and the Milk of Hathor. Her senses had been deprived, bombarded, deprived again, then twisted by the sarcophagus that healed her body until she doubted her own name.
Eyeless, Archon had worked by touch, exploring every part of her body in their time together. Nike had broken after less than a day of his ministrations. Tongueless, he had asked her no questions, but for hours on end she had poured her every secret into the torturer's flawless ears. No other had ever torn away her defences so utterly. Archon was sexless, a eunuch, yet in some twisted fashion he was the closest she had ever known to a lover. He had torn her apart and stripped her of every illusion of her own strength. Nike had never again been lulled into believing that she was unstoppable, or invincible, or immortal.
At last, when Nike could do nothing but weep, Athena had released her and sent Archon away. Nike had been plagued by doubt, never understanding why Athena had demanded this terrible sacrifice of her. She had cursed her Pallas' name, in secret, each day.
Then, for the first but not the last time, she was captured by an enemy. She was tortured for nine days, but the torturer could not match Archon and she did not break.
After her escape, Nike had begged Athena's forgiveness for her doubts and her hate. Only then did she learn that the same blind torturer had robbed Athena of her illusions centuries earlier. Only then did she learn that Athena kept Archon frozen in stasis, allowing him his life only because his skills were of use to her; and because he could never speak the names of those whom he had broken.
Djanka was good, but Nike knew that she would never break for the Black Queen. That was why, even through the pain, she was smiling.
"Can you at least get rid of that infernal grin?" Czernobog asked.
Djanka stood and looked back at Nike. "As you wish," she said. She stepped up and swung a punch at Nike with enough force to crack and dislocate her jaw.
"Her eyes are still smiling!" Czernobog accused.
"That too can be remedied," Djanka assured him. She paused in the act of licking the blood from her fist and flexed her sharp-taloned fingers. She seized Nike's broken face and raised her free hand, fingers poised to strike.
"No!" Czernobog snapped. "I want her to see. Besides," he added, slyly, "I like her eyes."
Djanka's eyes flashed, dangerously. She might despise her husband, but for him to so openly cast his gaze at another woman was an insult. That this insult was apparently unplanned made it all the worse. "My Lord!" She protested.
"No," Czernobog repeated.
"Let me take just one..."
Baphomet had, since Djanka took over the beating, been listening at the door and now he turned towards the Black God. "My Lord," he said.
"My Lord commanded that his servant inform him when all was in readiness for the departure of his ha'tak vessel."
"Yes?" Czernobog snarled.
The was a long silence.
"The ha'tak vessel is in readiness for departure," Baphomet said. "Shall I give the order to launch?"
Czernobog looked over at Nike, who stared levelly back at him. "No," he told Baphomet, unable to meet that unflinching gaze. "I shall come presently to the peltac and give the order myself."
Baphomet gestured for the guards to lift the leads of Czernobog's throne bearers, but Nike's eyes flashed mockingly and the Black God indicated that they should hold. With slow, strong movements he rose to his feet and stepped down from the throne, to the clear surprise of his guards and his Queen.
"The enemy I feared is in my power," he sneered, directing his words equally at Nike and Djanka. "I see now that she was hardly worth my concern. Let the throne follow; I shall make my own way."
The Black God came down to stand before his Queen. He took a key from his belt and hung it on Djanka's, his hand lingering possessively on her hip. He laid a benevolent kiss on the Queen's pallid brow then spat at Nike's feet. He strode to the door, Baphomet at his heels. He stopped, silhouetted in the portal and turned his head. "Djanka."
"You are my beloved Queen," Czernobog said. "You may take her eyes."
Djanka shot Nike a triumphant look. "Thank you, My Lord."
"There is a plan," Meriope said. "Pallas Athena has a plan." Her words were confident, but her fingers strayed absently to her brow.
"Why do you keep dong that?" Jack asked, mirroring the gesture.
Meriope almost blushed. "It is silly," she replied.
Jack waited patiently, then motioned for her to continue.
"I am...afraid," she admitted. "Of what might happen to us before we can be rescued. I have heard many dark tales of Czernobog and his Queen. It is said that they are Kalshek'tak," she added in a whisper.
"Vampires?" Jack asked, trying not to scoff.
Sam shrugged. "Makes sense."
"It does?" Jack asked, incredulous.
"Of course," Sam told him. "Immortal, amoral, power-hungry parasites who feed on each other's blood and sleep in coffins. Who knows; maybe the legends began with the Goa'uld."
"So is that" Jack touched his brow again "to ward off vampires?"
Meriope shook her head. "To ward off all harm," she replied. "It is superstition," she added, apologetically.
"Our badge represents protection," Nestor explained. "The wings are the emblem of Nike, representing swiftness; the up-thrusting spur symbolises decisive force. But the solar disc is the Aegis of Pallas Athena. When we touch it we ask the protection of the all the gods and the forces that it represents."
"We do not truly believe that touching the Aegis will call for the gods to save us," Meriope hastened to add. "But we learned the gesture as children and it comforts us still. It reminds us that we are not alone and that our gods will not forsake us."
"How can you believe that?" Sam asked. "Surely you have been forsaken? You and Nike alike."
Meriope smiled. "Our captors said that Athena had imprisoned all of my Gorgons, to be sent to work the naquadah mines of Stygia," she reminded them. "The very air of those mines is poison."
"Nestor?" Meriope asked.
"Athena would not be so foolish," the ha'he replied.
"What do you mean?" Sam asked.
"They mean," Jack replied, "that if Athena were planning to betray Nike she would not imprison the Gorgons; she would kill them straight out."
Meriope nodded. "We would not follow a general who could betray her most loyal captain in this way and the Pallas knows this. She knows that we would turn against her and that all the toxins of the Stygian pit would not kill us fast enough to protect her. Besides, she would not turn on us, any more than Our Captain would."
Sam shook her head. "I still don't get how you can be so confident that a Goa'uld won't betray you for her own advantage."
"I have faith," Meriope replied.
"But why...?" Sam began, but she was interrupted by a commotion outside the door.
Something heavy slammed into the metal, followed by the sound of a staff blasts. There was a moment's silence, then a high-pitched whine, followed by a gurgling scream.
Nestor rose to his feet. "I know that sound," he said.
"A sonic blade," Meriope agreed, as the whine sounded again.
The door opened.
With an exultant laugh, Djanka slashed her nails across Nike's face. They cut like knives, not like fingernails at all, and only by turning her head did Nike save her left eye. Her cheek was less fortunate and the flesh was opened to the bone.
Nike knew that she would not get another chance: She was all alone in the cell with Djanka now and despite her hope the Queen seemed unwilling to seize this opportunity to be rid of her lord and master. As Djanka drew back for another strike therefore, Nike pulled up her legs and snapped a powerful kick to the underside of the Queen's jaw. Djanka was stunned, but before she could stagger too far away, Nike scissored her legs around the woman's neck and used her body as a lever to lift her hands and flip the chain from its hook.
Recovering her senses, Djanka bucked like a mule, trying to be rid of the soldier who clung to her. She shrieked in impotent rage and mounting fear but no help came. Like all Goa'uld interrogation chambers, this cell was soundproof.
At last Nike lost her grip on Djanka and fell heavily to the floor of the cell. She rolled to her feet and almost slipped, her foot resting on the very edge of the deep shaft into which the cell's last resident had been dumped. Her body was filled with pain, but she thrust that aside, calling upon every reserve of the endurance that Archon's torture had given her.
Snatching up a pain stick, Djanka thrust at Nike, but the soldier gripped the chain before her, swinging it around to entangle the stick and rip it from her torturer's grasp. Djanka stumbled forward and Nike drove a powerful kick to her midriff.
Rallying, Djanka came on again, striking at Nike's face and shoulders with quick swipes of her claws. Nike stepped back, swinging the chain so that this time it entangled her enemy's wrist. She pulled hard, dragging Djanka off balance, then stepped around her so that the Queen swung to the edge of the pit.
Djanka clawed at Nike and clutched at the chain, desperately seeking any purchase that would prevent her fall. Her flailing left hand grabbed hold of Nike's wrist. Nike reached out and snatched the key from the Queen's belt, then looked her straight in the eye.
"Wait!" The Queen begged. "Czernobog is too strong for you. Together we can..."
Nike clapped down on the back of Djanka's hand and relief swept across the Queen's face.
"Ou hoke hy haw!" Nike accused, coldly.
Nike concentrated and the bones of her jaw healed, the mandible snapping back into pace with a series of horrible popping sounds. "You broke my jaw," she repeated.
Djanka's eyes widened in horror. "No!"
Nike's fingers found the catch for Djanka's hand device and flipped it. The coils of the weapon released their grip on the Queen's arm and her hand slipped out, leaving the Queen to topple into the darkness with a scream of rage and terror.
"Kalshek'tak, mikta'na," Nike muttered.
As she donned the hand device and felt its power come to life at her touch, Nike wondered how far the pit descended and where it ended up. Would the fall be enough to kill Djanka? Dismissing the thought for later concern, she moved to the door. Healing her jaw had left her drained in retrospect it was a foolish thing to expend such energy on, but it had been satisfying and so she knew she must move quickly through the ship if she were to have any chance of killing Czernobog once she found him.
She took the key and activated it over the lock of the cell door. The two Jaffa standing guard outside stared straight ahead as the door opened, forbidden, no doubt, to look directly at their masters. With no hesitation, Nike stepped between the warriors and slammed a stiffened hand into each throat. The Jaffa slumped, choking, dropping their staff weapons as they struggled futilely for breath.
Nike caught one of the weapons and brought it seeping across, catching both Jaffa in the head and ending their fight for life. Her foot snapped out and snagged the second staff before it could hit the floor. She held her pose for several seconds, but no-one seemed to have heard the soft thumps that were all the noise of the combat.
Crouching down, Nike reached into the pouch of the first Jaffa and withdrew his symbiote, a squirming, immature thing, less than two years old. There would be little sustenance in such a creature, but Nike needed all the strength she could muster. With luck the second Jaffa would have an older and stronger prim'ta. For the time being this would have to do.
She raised the eel-like larva to her mouth and bit down hard on its neck. Beneath her feet, the deck throbbed with power.
"The ha'tak is lifting off," Penelope reported.
Acastus nodded. "Do we have an approach?" He asked.
"We do," she replied. "I have temporarily disabled several of the ha'tak's sensor arrays and am sending the course parameters to the flight console."
"I have them," Teal'c replied.
"Docking clamps released," Trias reported. "Hangar doors open."
"The Jaffa in the control tower will see," Acastus warned. "We must go..."
He broke off as Teal'c powered the ship forward. He had not needed to remind the former First Prime of Apophis of the need for speed of course, he was just annoyed that he had been forced to concede that Teal'c was the better pilot.
The katac lifted smoothly out of hangar. The massive bulk of the ha'tak vessel was already just a black speck in the black sky.
"Tek ma'te; we are challenged," Trias said.
Acastus nodded and moved one if the controls at his console.
On the underside of the katac a turret revolved to face the control tower and spewed its deadly plasma over the communication arrays. The turret swivelled again and strafed the glider pens, destroying the fighters before they could be launched to intercept the transport.
"Now we are not challenged," Trias amended.
"The ha'tak will achieve hyperlaunch coordinates in one-hundred-and-thirty-one kals," Penelope warned, using a Jaffa measure of time only slightly longer than a second.
Teal'c engaged the main engines and the katac streaked away from the surface of Erebus. Jonas checked the rear screen after a few seconds and already the black disc of the planet's silhouette was receding into nothingness. Ahead of them the ha'tak grew closer. Teal'c guided the katac in from below, following the course determined by Penelope's sensor interruption.
"Jonas Quinn; you know what you must do?" Teal'c asked.
"Just be careful," Jonas replied, "and bring everyone back."
"I shall endeavour to comply," Teal'c assured the younger man.
Teal'c stood, allowing Jonas to slide into the pilot's chair. Jonas did not touch the controls, allowing the ship to continue along a pre-set heading for the time being.
Teal'c, Acastus and Trias left the peltac and ran along the companionway to the katac's ring chamber. Teal'c and Acastus were dressed in the black armour and helms of the Skull Guards they had captured, while Trias had been obliged to make do with the dark robes of Djanka's steward. Trias' Aegis tattoo still revealed his identity, but hopefully their disguises would gain them the element of surprise in any unavoidable confrontation. Each warrior already wore a zat'nik'tel on his wrist, and they gathered staff weapons on their way to the rings.
"Stand by," Penelope said, over the intercom. "Remember, we will lose communication for approximately ninety kals after hyperlaunch. We do not wish to reveal your position, so you must contact us before we can guide you."
"Understood," Teal'c and Acastus said, as one. They turned and stared at each other, locking gazes for a long moment. Finally, Acastus inclined his head, breaking the contact.
"You honour me," Teal'c said, sincerely.
"I am a platoon prime; you were First Prime," Acastus replied, defensively. "The choice is obvious."
"I am still honoured."
A ghost of a smile crossed Acastus' face. "As well you should be," he said.
The rings activated.
"Transport complete," Penelope reported. "Ha'tak is engaging hyperdrives and...Drop back!" She cried, alarmed. "They have found the blind spot and the sensors are being restored; fall back, now!"
Jonas responded, locking out the automatic pilot and cutting the engines so that the ha'tak raced ahead. "How far?" He asked.
The engines powered up once more, even as the ha'tak vanished in the blue flash of a hyperspace window. Jonas rammed the throttle to maximum and with a shudder and a rush of acceleration the ha'tak slid through the hyperspace window moments before it closed.
"The automatics are useless now; I will have to reprogram," Penelope cautioned. She pointed, directing Jonas' attention to the heading superimposed on the screen as a series of rings. "Keep to the channel and their hyperspace wake will disguise us, but we must get closer. My link to the ha'tak has been severed and we have no communication with Acastus."
"Wonderful," Jonas muttered. He reached for the controls and redlined the engine.
After ninety seconds, Acastus tried his communicator. "Katac. Come in katac. No response," he admitted, dourly.
Teal'c nodded, pushing his concern for those left on the ship to one side. "They shall come through," he promised, reassuring himself as much as Acastus.
"Mouser!" Nestor stepped forward and swept the injured handmaiden into a hug. She wrapped an arm around his neck and leaned gratefully into him, placing all of her weight on his shoulders. "Mouser?" Nestor asked, concerned. "You are hurt."
"Sminthea?" Jack asked. The girl looked a great deal like Nike's scout, but her hair and eyes were definitely darker and she wore the goat tattoo of Czernobog. "How did you get here?"
"I might ask the same thing," Meriope agreed. "Sit yourself down, Sminthea."
"Yes, Medusa," the scout replied with a sigh. Nestor lowered her to a seat and crouched beside her.
"Carter," Jack called, softly, indicating with a nod of his head that they should secure the doorway.
"What brings you to this vessel, Sminthea?" Meriope asked.
Sminthea did not answer for a moment. She had entered the room with a knife in her right hand and now seemed utterly focused on returning it to the sheath concealed beneath her skirt. With that done she turned her attention to removing the tinted lenses from her eyes.
Nestor reached out and touched her bruised face.
"I am alright," she promised, coming back to herself. She pushed away his probing fingers and wrapped his hand in hers. "I was sent here," she answered. "Pallas Athena ordered me to come here. I was to infiltrate the ship, seek out signs of an assassination attempt against Czernobog and take appropriate action."
"But we are the assassins," Nestor said, concerned.
"And she has acted appropriately," Meriope commended her. "Now; are you well, Sminthea?"
"Well enough to deal with your guards," the scout replied. "I received some medical attention before I was forced to flee."
"What happened?" Nestor asked.
"I saw too much for a handmaiden," she replied. "Fortunately Czernobog was distracted and ordered me treated, so I was able to regain a little strength then escape from the forge-city's infirmary in the company of a true handmaiden. I decided that the ha'tak would be the last place that the Skull Guard would look for me so I left the handmaiden and came as swiftly as I could. When I arrived, I learned that prisoners had been taken; Gorgons. I knew then what Pallas Athena had sent me to do."
"And you have done well," Meriope assured her.
"May I wear my true colours once more?" Sminthea asked.
"Of course," Meriope replied.
Sminthea prodded vaguely at her brow for a few moments, without notable result. Then Nestor gently moved her hand aside and touched her skin with three fingers held in a roughly triangular configuration. At once the ink of her tattoo began to squirm beneath her skin, flowing back into the shape of the winged Aegis.
"You might want to get a move on there," Jack called into the cell.
Meriope nodded. "Are you well enough to move?" she asked Sminthea.
"I am a little dizzy, Medusa, that is all," Sminthea replied, rising unsteadily to her feet. "It will take more than this to kill me."
Meriope frowned. "Nestor; take Sminthea and locate the Captain. Wait for my signal before you take any action."
"Yes, Medusa," Nestor replied.
"Take care of my Mouser," she added.
"You know I shall."
In the corridor, Jack handed Meriope one of the staff weapons dropped by the dead guards. The sonic blade had made a terrible mess of their torsos and torn gaping rents in their armour. The plasma burns on the corridor walls told Jack the story of the fight. Sminthea had approached unremarked then stunned one of the guards. The second had tried to fire on her, but she had got inside the reach of his staff and stabbed him with her blade before finishing the first Jaffa on the ground.
"She's good," he noted.
"She is," Meriope agreed.
"So," he asked, "are those two..."
"They are to be wed in a few months," Meriope confirmed.
"Will they both continue to serve in the Gorgons?"
"Of course," Meriope said, as though it were the stupidest question she had ever heard. "Nestor is the finest ha'he I have ever known and Sminthea the greatest scout. My Captain will not willingly allow either to serve her in any but the highest capacity. Why do you ask?"
"It's just..." Jack tailed off.
"We're forbidden to become involved with those we serve with," Sam explained. "It would create complications in the chain of command."
Meriope gave a sharp bark of laughter. "What a stupid notion," she declared. "As though by forbidding a union the feelings that cloud judgements will vanish."
"It happens," Sam assured her. "It's like training or studying. The feelings kind of get rusty if you don't...use them."
Meriope looked confused. "Not among Jaffa," she said.
"Oh," Sam replied.
"Why 'Mouser'?" Jack asked, changing the subject without any pretence of subtlety.
"Because Sminthea means mouse-killer," Meriope replied.
"Of course," Jack said.
"Where shall we go?" Meriope asked.
Jack was taken aback. "You're asking me?"
"With My Captain still in custody, you are the leader," Meriope told him.
"Thanks," he said. "Alright then; if the others are looking for Nike, we should head for the peltac. Cut off the head..."
"...and the serpent dies," Sam agreed.
"Also, we'll be able to contact the others from there, I hope."
Nike reached the peltac and paused for breath. She peered into the command chamber, looking for an angle; a way to take out the seven guards and Czernobog without being hit herself. Czernobog stood in the centre of the room, flanked by Jaffa, with his lesser throne off in the wings, out of sight of the main screen. Nearest to her was Baphomet, holding his staff weapon at the ready.
No, she realised. Not his staff weapon.
In a heartbeat Nike's mind had formulated a plan and she acted on it at once. She stepped forward, fired her captured weapon into Baphomet's spine, then cast it aside. As the First Prime fell she snatched the staff from his hands; Medusa's hell-staff.
There were few such weapons still in existence. They were difficult and expensive to make and few Goa'uld saw a use for them, but a handful of First Primes carried hell-staffs and even a few Goa'uld chose them as personal weapons. They looked like ordinary staff weapons and Baphomet had probably taken this one simply for the fineness of its design, but Nike knew its secret. As Czernobog's Jaffa began to turn she flipped the staff over in her hands and opened the concealed second trigger; the one which activated the hell-staff's rapid-fire mode.
Nike swept the staff across, strafing the room with plasma blasts which scorched consoles and sent rippling waves dancing over the surface of the viewscreen. The Jaffa never stood a chance, falling like wheat before a scythe. Only Czernobog, who had the presence of mind to activate his personal shield, was able to weather the assault. The lesser throne stood untouched, out of the line of fire, but aside from the bearers Czernobog now stood alone.
The hell-staff's capacitor ran dry. The two Goa'uld faced each other for a long moment before they moved.
Nike stood between Czernobog and the great throne and so he made a dash for the lesser, dropping his sceptre, which cracked the stone of the floor where it struck. Nike dropped the hell-staff there was no time to wait for the capacitor to recharge and dived across the peltac floor. As the Black God vaulted into his seat, Nike snared one of the leashes in her hand and tugged.
Responding to the pull, the bearer slaves on one side of the throne rose smoothly to their feet. Those on the other side did not. The throne listed, then toppled, crushing the luckless slaves and spilling Czernobog onto the deck before he could activate his defences. He rolled to his knees and raised his left hand; Nike returned the gesture and two ribbon waves rolled towards each other.
Just to look at them, Nike knew that her wave was not powerful enough. She was drained, both her biological reserves and the energy held in the naquadah in her bloodstream exhausted. Czernobog's wave smashed through hers in a shower of sparks, the shock transmitting into her arm with stunning force before the wave itself dashed her to the foot of the great throne.
Czernobog strode over to stand above his would-be killer. As he passed a console he slapped an alert switch to engage the security protocols. Nike tried to summon some measure of defence, but he knocked her idly back with another wave. He crouched over her and she swung for him, but he slapped her punch aside and riposted with one of his own that rattled the brains inside her skull.
"I have waited a long time for this," he hissed, seizing Nike by her torn and bloody shift.
Nike struggled, but the Black God was too strong for her. His strength was startling in fact and too late she realised why Djanka had been so wary of angering Czernobog. He was a Goa'uld ruled by fear, but he was not weak. She and Jack had surprised him once and she had made the mistake of thinking him feeble. Now she was trapped, with no chance of escape, no hope of rescue and not even the means to complete her mission at the cost of her own life. She had made every mistake that she cautioned her followers against and it would cost her dearly.
"You are less fearsome than rumour would have it, Nike," Czernobog gloated.
"You are just as pathetic," she replied. "Doomed to mediocrity, you toady to Anubis for favour."
"Much like your General," he retorted, striking her again just to feel her flesh give beneath his hand.
"She will destroy you," Nike assured the Black God. "Just as I destroyed your Queen."
Czernobog looked her in the eyes for a long moment, then roared in frustration. "Do you. Know. How hard. It is. To get one of those?" He demanded, punctuating his words with a series of violent slaps. He raised his left hand for the coup de grace, the stone glowing in the centre of his hand device.
Unto the dark I shall pass, Nike recited in her head, waiting for the killing blow and knowing that it was better than any alternative. Behind me lies a life of honour and service; ahead of me the bright fields of Elysia. Receive me, oh lords of the Eternal Realm. Let me come among you as a blessed soul; let my duty and diligence in life find reward in death. Deh Jaffa Mel; I die true.
Jack raced through the abandoned corridors towards the peltac. Every now and then he passed a dead Jaffa and his concern increased.
"Hurry," he called back. "I've got a bad..."
Just behind him, a forcefield crackled into life, slicing the end off his staff weapon. Meriope collided with the field and rebounded hard, sprawling on the ground. Slightly behind the Jaffa, Sam had a chance to slow down and only staggered back a few steps from the impact.
"What happened?" Jack asked.
"They must have locked down the peltac," Sam realised. "We can't get through."
"You'll have to get to the peltac and shut down this field," Meriope said. "We shall hold any Jaffa who try to come this way. Go swiftly," she added. "I fear that My Captain has been this way and that she may be in danger."
"I'm on it," Jack agreed, "but don't worry about Nike. She can look after herself."
"No," Czernobog said, thoughtfully. He lowered his hand.
"Djanka cursed you as she died," Nike insisted, suddenly more afraid than she had been in many years. "She offered to aid me in killing you!"
"Perhaps you should have accepted," Czernobog noted. He pinned her left wrist beneath his knee and stripped the ribbon weapon from Nike's hand. "Djanka is a loss, but not a great one. She would have betrayed me in the end."
Nike forced a mocking laugh from her ragged throat. "Without a Queen your armies will fail," she told him.
"Fear not for me," Czernobog assured her. "I shall find another to breed my children. As for Djanka's other services..." He reached down and stroked her bruised face. "I believe I can find a replacement rather closer at hand."
"No.." Nike choked, before she could stop herself.
"Where are we, Tek ma'te?" Trias asked. "I do not recognise any of these passages."
Acastus shook his head. "Neither do I," he agreed. "The design of this vessel differs from the standard far more than any other I have seen."
"We are close to the main hangar," Teal'c announced, with great certainty. "I can hear the refuelling pumps. I do not know how to reach the detention areas, however."
Acastus activated his communicator. "Penelope," he whispered, urgently.
Acastus breathed a sigh of relief. "Report," he commanded.
"We were forced to fall back," the Gorgon apologised. "We lost communication with the ship."
"Alright," Acastus said. "Tell us where we are and how to get where we are going."
"I...do not know," Penelope admitted. "I have lost my connection to the ha'tak."
"Find a console," Jonas suggested. "If you can make a secure link back to the katac, we can re-establish the patch into the systems."
"But be swift," Penelope suggested. "Without my interference, the internal sensors will soon detect you and alert the peltac crew."
"This way," Teal'c suggested. "There will be consoles near to the hangar."
The three Jaffa made their way through the corridor until they reached a hatch. A console controlling the main hangar doors and forcefields stood in an alcove. Teal'c activated the panel and studied the display.
"Acastus," he said. "You must ask Penelope to guide us through this."
"Of course," the Gorgon agreed.
They began to work, with Trias keeping watch. Drawn by his instincts and curiosity, the young Gorgon moved to the door of the hangar and looked through the observation panel.
"Tek ma'te," he called, softly.
"Not now, boy," Acastus replied, impatiently. "No!" He snapped at Teal'c; the third red one."
"That is the third."
"Tek ma'te." Trias turned to try and attract his commander's attention. "Tek ma'te; kree!" He called out, raising his staff weapon and dropping to a crouch.
The Skull Guard's staff blast slammed into the hatch above Trias' head, the return shot burning fatally through his armour. A second Jaffa stepped around the corner but Acastus killed him. Teal'c kept working.
"We should fall back," Acastus said.
"Give me covering fire," Teal'c replied. "I am almost there."
The Gorgons sent a wave of fire down the passage to the advancing Skulls, but the black-clad Jaffa seemed limitless in number.
"Why protect the hangar this heavily in flight?" Acastus wondered aloud.
"Because the weapon is in the hangar," Trias replied.
Acastus shot Trias a stern look. "And you tell us this now?"
"Tek ma'te..." Trias protested.
"Focus, boy," Acastus ordered.
"Primus! I have contact!" Penelope cried, excitedly.
Teal'c snatched up his staff weapon and added his efforts to the defence. He was once more impressed by the technical knowledge of the Gorgons. When he had been the First Prime of Apophis, any Jaffa capable of piercing a Goa'uld's computer security protocols would have been executed. "Open the hatch behind us," he ordered.
"Are you mad?" Acastus demanded.
"That hangar is full of Jaffa," Trias added.
"We can not hold here," Teal'c told them. "Behind that hatch is their prize."
Acastus' eyes lit with understanding. "Penelope; obey the First Prime."
The hatch slid open.
"Go" Teal'c ordered, moving to cover the other two.
The three Jaffa ducked through the hatch and it closed behind them. The locks sealed at Penelope's command and Acastus burned them with a zat blast for good measure. Teal'c and Acastus turned from the door to look into the hangar and froze in alarm.
Nike tried to be strong, but could not keep herself from trembling. There was something in Czernobog's touch that even Archon's efforts could not have prepared her for; a possessive lust that the eunuch could never have mimicked. She tried to fight him, but her reserves were all spent.
"You will do for now," Czernobog grunted, breathing heavily. "But some day, I shall do this to your bitch General."
"No!" Nike screamed, protective rage welling up from the core of her being. With a last surge of strength she struck out, slamming her fist into the Black God's face. Blood spurted from Czernobog's nose and his head snapped backwards, but just as she knew that it was all she had left, Nike knew that it was far too little, far too late.
"You bitch!" Czernobog spat, eyes flaring. He raised his fist to strike and Nike knew that she could do nothing to stop him. All she could do was pray that the blow might kill her.
Czernobog looked away from Nike as a berserker cry split the air. She saw a shadow fall over him, then a flash of gold cut across her vision. A cry of alarm was cut short by a hideous crunch and Czernobog was lifted from off her and hurled away. A dark shape moved past Nike and she heard repeated cries of rage, punctuated by further crunches, each one wetter than the last.
Slowly painfully slowly Nike pulled herself back to her feet. As she did so, she began to make out words in the screaming.
"Leave her alone, you son of a bitch!" Jack yelled.
Nike looked over and saw the human standing above what was left of Czernobog, the massive sceptre of the Black God rising and falling like a smithy's hammer.
"Son of a bitch!" Jack shouted again, driving the sceptre down again.
"Jack," Nike croaked, weakly.
"Son of a bitch!"
Nike stepped over. She reached out and caught the sceptre in the backswing, stilling it with a strength that surprised her. Jack teetered for a moment as he tried to pull the weapon free, but his arms were tired and with his rhythm broken he had no force left to wrestle with even an exhausted Goa'uld. He looked at her, frenzy in his eyes, lungs working like bellows.
"Jack," she said again.
His gaze cleared somewhat.
"He's dead," Nike promised.
Jack looked down at Czernobog, then looked away in disgust. Little was left that was recognisably humanoid; only a right hand, fingers locked around the base of a console where the Black God had tried to claw his way to his feet.
Jack let go of the sceptre and Nike cast it aside.
"Nike," Jack said, as though only just realising it.
Nike put her arms around Jack's shoulders and kissed him.
"Great gods," Acastus whispered, not merely touching his tattoo but tracing every line of it. "It is...hideous."
"It is wrong," Teal'c agreed. "I do not know how, but I can sense that it is unnatural."
They stared up at the weapon, then down. It had been fixed into the hangar using a cradle of trinium steel and now hung suspended, filling the entirety of the great chamber. The walkways which would once have led to the waiting gliders had been stripped out and now only a handful of makeshift gantries led to the surface of the massive device.
The weapon itself was like nothing Teal'c had ever seen. Even aside from its cyclopean scale, the device seemed unwholesome. It was as though the Jaffa's mind had tried to find a place for the weapon in its view of the world and failed; now it was telling him that this thing did not belong. Everything from the way the light glimmered wetly on the weapon's grey-green housing, to the way the inner workings twisted and folded upon each other like the work of M.C. Escher on a bad acid flashback, to the sickly, almost oily green light that radiated from those working, to the sense of brooding and purposeful malice that the weapon radiated, told Teal'c that this was a thing that should not must not be.
Despite this sense of absolute alienness, however, Teal'c found that he knew beyond a doubt that it was hideous in its power.
"This is too much," Acastus breathed. "We can not...We would not dare..."
"Acastus!" Teal'c snapped, drawing the other Jaffa out of his fugue.
"We are seen!" Trias warned.
"Quickly," Teal'c ordered, leading them along the gantry. "To the centre."
Trained to obey, the Jaffa followed, forcing themselves to ignore the fact that they were running into an exposed position. Staff blasts zipped around them, but as they drew nearer to the weapon, the blasts became fewer and fewer, then stopped altogether.
A thundering voice called up from below. "Come down! We will shoot you down if you do not surrender."
Teal'c looked down at the Goa'uld. "You will not," he replied. "You will not fire close to this weapon and if you send anyone up I will destroy it." He took out his zat and aimed it into the heart of the hideous device.
"That...That will not destroy it!" The Goa'uld insisted.
"Can you be sure?"
"Stand back!" The order came. "All Jaffa, stand down!"
Trias looked up at Teal'c. "What now, First Prime?"
"Now, we wait."
"What was that?" Jack asked, a little stunned.
"That was thank you," Nike replied. "Do not read more than that into it."
"I won't," Jack promised. "Are you okay?"
"I believe I shall endure," she replied. "Thanks to you, my friend."
"I...We need to open the forcefields around the peltac," Jack said, deciding not to call her on her choice of words. "Then we have to lock down the rest of the ship." He looked at the nearest console. "I don't have the first idea how to do that."
Nike smiled. "Leave that to me," she said. "You tear down two of the curtains behind the throne."
"One to cover Czernobog," Nike explained, "the other to cover me." She tugged at the shreds of her shift and Jack looked away, blushing.
"Curtains," he agreed. "Right away."
"My Captain!" Meriope threw herself across the peltac to kneel at Nike's feet, gently kissing her bruised and battered hand.
"Medusa," Nike responded, lifting the Jaffa and kissing her tattoo. Her movements were smoother now and Jack was astonished how quickly she had recovered from her ordeal; physically if not emotionally.
"Colonel!" Sam exclaimed, staring at Jack's blood-drenched form in horror. "My God!"
"I'm good," Jack assured her, waving in the direction of a pool of blood, half-covered by a curtain. "This was all Czernobog's."
"Oh," Sam replied, not remotely comforted.
"Are you well, My Captain?"
"I am weak, dearest Medusa," Nike admitted. "I shall need your help to complete this mission."
"Command me and I shall obey," Meriope replied.
Sam watched this interplay with interest, mildly disturbed how quickly she had come to discern that the true meaning of the words and gestures did not vary greatly from a conversation she might have with Colonel O'Neill.
"Where is Nestor?" Nike asked.
"Searching for you," Meriope replied. "I sent him away with Sminthea..."
"Sminthea is here," Nike said. "I knew that Pallas Athena would not abandon me." Despite her confident words, Nike's whole body seemed to relax at the news of her scout's presence. "Let us see how my children have fared in my absence," she said. She reached out to her console and when she spoke again her voice reverberated around the peltac. "Kree, Gorgonis. El cha rek."
"What are you doing?" Jack asked.
"Calling the others," Sam realised. "You think they're monitoring the internal comms, so if you use the intracom, even to speak to this room..."
"My Captain; it is good to hear from you."
"And from you, Penelope. Speak, Jaffa: Do you know where Sminthea and Nestor are?"
"I have been tracking a sensor blind spot for some time," Penelope replied. "I believe that must be them. They are not far from the peltac now; however, Acastus, Trias and Teal'c are in danger. They entered the ha'tak in search of you and are now surrounded by enemies in the main hangar. The weapon is there," she added.
"Very well," Nike said. "Meriope; escort Major Carter to the main hangar, please. Penelope, use the internal communications; have your brother meet them there. I shall take care of the guards."
"What of you, My Captain?" Meriope asked.
"Colonel O'Neill and I shall seal the peltac and conduct operations from here. We shall be safe," she assured the Jaffa.
"Better hurry," Jack added. "I don't know how long we were out, but we're probably almost at the rendezvous. Go do your thing, Carter," he added, "and be careful."
Jack watched as the two women left, then turned to Nike. "Do you think they can do it?" He asked.
For the first time since they had met, Nike looked less than certain. "I do not know," she admitted.
"Oh." Jack thought for a moment, then asked: "Is there anywhere nearby where I can wash my face?"
"Attention, all Jaffa!"
Teal'c looked up at the sound of the voice, booming over the PA. He looked over at Acastus and the return glance confirmed that the voice was that of Nike.
"All Jaffa are to evacuate the main hangar in preparation for a test-firing of the weapon," Nike continued. "I repeat; the main hangar is to be evacuated at once." As she spoke, the lights in the hangar dimmed, leaving the ghastly glow from the machine seeming brighter by comparison.
With almost undignified haste, the Jaffa of Czernobog fled, ignoring the commands of the Goa'uld engineer, who insisted that there was no way the weapon could be test fired. He pursued the Jaffa to the exit, railing and threatening, but to no avail. Clearly Czernobog's Jaffa had no more love of the machine that Teal'c did.
Teal'c leaned over the gantry railing. Below him, the Goa'uld now stood with his hands raised, while Sam and Meriope aimed their staff weapons at him.
"I do not believe that it would be wise to interfere with this machine," Teal'c said.
"Nor do I," Sam agreed, reluctantly. "But wise or not, it's my job. Give us a few minutes to secure our friend down here and we'll come and join you."
Jack returned from Czernobog's chambers with a clean face and a troubled mind. There had been rather too many bloodstains for his comfort in that room. As he was leaving he had discovered the recently dead body of a young Jaffa girl in a corner under a pile of linen, her prim'ta snapped in two and dropped on her breast.
"I'm really glad I killed that bastard," he said, with feeling.
"As am I," Nike assured him. "What you did for me..."
"Nike," Jack said. "I like you. God help me but I do, but I want to get one thing straight. What I did for you, I would have done for anyone. I would have done it for Hathor, and not because I don't think she would have deserved it after...!" He stopped, taking a moment to calm down. "There are some things I couldn't let happen to anyone."
"I understand," Nike said. But I saw your face, she thought. I know something of you by now, Jack O'Neill and you would not have fallen into such rage for anyone. I know that you do care for me, more than an enemy should; as I care for you. But she said nothing more of that, because she knew that he would not wish to hear it and because it was hard enough for her to even think it.
"Are you...?" Jack began, warily.
"I remain pure," she assured him. "Although it is more than I deserve. I acted like a fool; like an animal. I let my rage engulf me and drive me to confront Czernobog alone, when I was already wounded. I have fought so hard not to let the arrogant rage of my race consume my judgement, but I let my lust for revenge guide me and my pride convince me that I did not need help."
Jack walked over and awkwardly laid a hand on Nike's shoulder. "Well, maybe we can all learn a valuable lesson from this," he suggested.
Nike turned and pressed herself against Jack's chest.
Jack was taken aback. "Nike?" He asked, unable to believe that this was the same woman he had seen swoop between the towers of Shmunu like an avenging angel.
Nike shivered, her vulnerability so real and tangible that Jack was quite startled by the Goa'uld thunder in her voice when she spoke. "If he had managed to..." She broke off, unable to out words to her fears.
"Have his wicked way with you?"
Nike nodded. "If he had, it would have destroyed me, Jack."
"But he didn't," Jack reminded her. "Don't let him break you anyway."
Nike moved away from him. "Thank you, Jack," she said, at last beginning to emerge from her funk. "You are bleeding," She realised.
Jack put his hand up to his temple. "Yeah," he said. "I think someone took a swipe at me while I was out."
"Poor Jack." She took his head between her hands and drew him down to receive a kiss on the brow. A moment later he felt a warm pressure on the cut.
"Hey!" He protested, springing back. "Did you just lick me?"
"My bodily fluids carry the healing agents generated in my blood," she told him. "My saliva will speed your recovery."
"Oh, that is just so gross."
"You did not seem to mind when I healed you with my salve on Chλrt," she noted.
"That was your spit?"
"My blood actually. And I do mean my blood; not my host's."
"I will never feel clean again," Jack told her. "Never."
"Your blood is in me now, as mine is in you" Nike went on. "We are joined, Jack; by common battles and shared blood. We are as brother and sister."
"I only ever had a step-sister," Jack replied. "We didn't get on."
Nike smiled. "What would you do if she called for your help?"
"I'd go," Jack admitted, reluctantly. "But I'd be cranky."
"You did not choose it, but you are bound to her," Nike said. "In the same way, although it is not our choice, you and I are bound; now and forever."
"You still want to meet me in battle though, don't you?"
"More than ever."
The console began to pulse, distracting Jack from Nike's peculiar brand of badinage.
"We have almost arrived at the rendezvous," Nike noted. "Let us hope our engineers have made progress."
Sam and Nestor were poring over the weapon's inner workings, trying desperately to divine the firing mechanism.
"This thing doesn't even look manufactured," Sam admitted. "It's too smooth; too seamless."
Nestor nodded in agreement. "It is as if the components were not forged but grown somehow."
"Almost as though the thing were...alive." Sam shivered, not wanting to put into words her feeling that the weapon had a brooding will to destroy.
"There is no growth here now," Nestor assured her. "Only a puzzle that we must unlock."
"Alright then; where do we stand?"
"We have established that the weapon fires by feeding charge into a vari-conductive capacitor until it becomes superconducting."
Sam nodded. "Once that happens, current flows into a chamber which somehow gathers some kind of force and projects it through the forward...protuberance."
"What we require is to discern the mechanism for feeding charge to the capacitor and that we can not do."
"Perhaps we don't have to," Sam realised. "Maybe we're looking at this all wrong. I mean; this thing only needs to fire once; right?"
"That is correct."
Sam scrambled to her feet and out of the shell, feeling an intense relief to be free of the sickly glow. "Teal'c!"
"I need your help. Could you and Acastus locate the stores and get me around eight hundred metres of the heaviest cable they have."
"So explain this plan to me again," Jack invited. "And please; go slow."
Sam stood beside the weapon, gesturing to the two cables running into its innards. "We rigged up a couple of heavy-duty jumper cables, linking the weapon's vari-conductive capacitor to the main reactor," she explained. "When we trip a breaker in the circuit, the electrical current will switch the capacitor's component molecules into their super-conducting state, causing the weapon to discharge."
"Nestor; you want to have a go?"
"In the speech of the Tau'ri, we shall hit the bugger really hard and hope that it goes off," the Jaffa replied.
Jack looked to Nike. "Wanna trade?"
Sam looked hurt. "Hey!"
Nike laughed. "I have one Gorgon nursing a heartache already. If I separate Nestor and Sminthea I might face a mutiny. Will the weapon be destroyed?"
Sam nodded. "If the surge doesn't fry it or the weapon doesn't fire, we'll blow the reactors."
"And Penny's rigged the controls of the mothership to a console in the Katisha?"
"That is correct, Colonel."
Jack smiled in satisfaction. "Then what the hell are we doing standing around here?"
The katac fell back from the ha'tak vessel under cloak, leaving the mothership hanging in space. They were far from any stars, so the vessel was in darkness, no more than a tetrahedral shadow against the starscape. Sam felt that the pyramid looked even more menacing than usual; perhaps because of the hideous weapon that lay in its belly, or perhaps because there were enemy Jaffa at her back as well as her front.
She looked to see if her CO shared her concerns, but Jack leaned casually on the back of the pilot's chair. Nike the pilot did not appear to mind.
"Launch!" Penelope warned. "Escape pod from the upper tier."
Jack sat forward. "Damnit!"
"Djanka! Stand by on weapons, Acastus." Nike powered up the engines and drove towards the retreating pod at full power.
The katac closed in on the tiny, unsuspecting pod with frightening speed. Jack would almost have thought that Nike planned to ram the escape craft; which probably would have been a viable tactic, if not exactly advisable. Focused on the pursuit, the crew almost missed the warning light.
"Look out!" Jonas called.
"Power down," Nike ordered, registering the incoming ship before Jonas had even finished speaking.
"I have it!" Acastus protested, but Nestor had already cut the power to the weapons and the ship went dark. Only the main screen and Penelope's console cast any light on the peltac.
"Visual," Nike whispered.
The dark of space was ruptured not one but twice, as a tiny, blue hyperspace window whisked away the katac's quarry and a much larger rift disgorged a massive shape like a cross between a pyramid and a spider.
Anubis' mothership loomed over Czernobog's ha'tak, a cluster of massive forward guns pointing right for it.
"They are hailing Czernobog," Jonas reported, listening through an earpiece at the communications station. "Not Anubis; it's a woman's voice."
"Quickly," Nike said. "Before he has time to get suspicious."
"I say again, Czernobog. Show yourself and make obeisance to your Lord, Anubis." Osiris drummed her fingers impatiently on the console before her. "This is not right," she said. "We detected a hyperspace wake as we emerged; this may be a trap, My Lord."
"Czernobog is too much of a coward to betray me without an overwhelming advantage," Anubis said. "He could not make the weapon work; we have Haval's reports to prove that."
If Haval was faithful, Osiris thought, but did not say. Perhaps it was the influence of her host but she did not like to rely on traitors and informers as once she had done.
One of the pilots frowned in concern. "My Lord."
Osiris raised her eyes to the screen and saw that the ha'tak vessel was turning slowly towards them.
"Hail him again," Anubis demanded. "Command that craven fool to show himself."
"Yes, My...Raise the shields! Do it now!" Not waiting for a confirmation from Anubis, Osiris thrust the startled pilot aside and slammed her hand down on the shield control.
A ghastly, green light issued from the open hangar of the ha'tak, engulfing Anubis' mothership and bathing the peltac in a sickly glow. Osiris screamed aloud as a deafening whine pierced her consciousness. She clapped her hand over her ears, but to no avail. She looked around and saw the crew similarly stricken and Anubis...
Anubis had arched backwards on his throne and seemed almost to be lifting out of his seat. Light glimmered through the heavy fabric of his robes and the shining faceplate of his helm and for a moment Osiris believed he was about to burn up from within. Can Goa'uld spontaneously combust? She wondered. Can...whatever he is?
The glow faded, Anubis sank back to his throne, apparently spent, possibly dead, and Osiris turned her gaze to the screens. The ha'tak hung there as before, but everything was different. According to the screens the mothership's shields had been completely overwhelmed by the blast and she lay exposed now, a sitting duck for another shot.
"No!" Osiris turned and swept to the middle of the peltac. As she took her station the weapons console rose from the floor and she laid her hands on it, working the two controls with practised ease. A glow was building in the hangar as she fired, and fired, and kept on firing until the plasma blasts had punched through the ha'tak's shields and through the hangar doors.
A brilliant green light flashed inside the hangar and began to expand, consuming the ha'tak vessel as it went. The hull simply boiled away to nothing as the wave of emerald energy spread outwards, and in moments nothing remained of Czernobog's mothership. The light was now visibly a ball, which continued to expand inexorably, its outer edge advancing on the katac and on Anubis' mothership.
"Shields?" Jack suggested.
"No power," Jonas replied, watching the oncoming wall of light with a mixture of horror and fascination.
Sam snapped her fingers. "The cloak."
Penelope's fingers flashed across the console. Moments later the katac shivered. A piercing whine filled the air, then all was silent and dark.
The second whine faded away. The screens were a mass of interference lines and damage reports. All long-range sensors were down and the shields were a thing of the past, but the hull of the mothership was intact and the danger was gone.
"Where is my weapon, Osiris?"
"The weapon was destroyed, along with the traitor, Czernobog," Osiris replied.
"You destroyed my prize!" Anubis was livid with rage, more angry than even Osiris had ever known him. "Do you know what you have done?"
"I acted to protect you, My Lord," Osiris replied, hotly. "Without shields we were vulnerable. They could have destroyed us all."
"You have cost me, Osiris. And that shall cost you."
Osiris stamped on her impulse to answer back. "Yes, Lord Anubis."
"Attend me in my quarters."
Osiris watched Anubis leave and she shivered to her very soul.
With a flicker, the main screen lit up.
"They're gone," Sam said.
"How could they have missed us?" Penelope asked. "We were defenceless; our cloak is destroyed."
"They must have been blinded." Sam moved to hover over Penelope's console and together they checked for damage.
"We good to go?" Jack asked.
"Yes, Colonel," the two women replied, as one.
"Can we 'drop you' anywhere?" Nike asked.
"Why do you get to do the dropping?" Jack demanded. "We've got as much claim to this jalopy as you have."
Nike smiled, beatifically. "I do not believe so."
With a flash of blue, another ha'tak vessel emerged from hyperspace. It was considerably larger than most ships of its class, although not on the scale of Anubis' mothership. This one also had no giant forward guns, but fairly bristled with smaller weapons emplacements.
"You do believe in being prepared, don't you."
"That among other things is why I am still alive."
Jack sighed. "Anywhere with a Gate and none of your folks is good, then," he said.
To Jack's great surprise, Nike ringed down alone to see SG-1 on their way. He waited until the others had gone before he asked her why she trusted them.
"You have honour," she replied. "True honour; not some foolish code but a living, breathing principle of righteous action."
"Will we meet again?" Jack asked.
Nike smiled. "By my reckoning, I am in your debt, Jack; I guarantee that this is not the last we shall see of one another."
They embraced, awkwardly, neither entirely comfortable with the gesture, yet neither willing to forgo it.
"I guess I'll see you around."
"I pray that we shall meet in battle soon."
"No offence," Jack said. "But I really don't."
Jack emerged face-to-face with a dozen M16s.
"You were a long time, Sir," Sam explained. "We were worried."
Jack noticed that his team had already surrendered their firearms and that the master-at-arms was looking unusually keen to take his weapons. "Carter?"
"We're all under suspicion of tampering," she explained. "We'll receive a medical exam and a zatarc screening as soon as the Tok'ra can get here."
"Great," Jack muttered, handing over his zat and letting the sergeant check his hands and pockets for concealed Goa'uld weapons.
"So you're sure we haven't been...interfered with?" Jonas asked.
"Why? You aren't starting to change your mind about the Goa'uld, are you?"
Jack snorted, dismissively. "I don't even trust the Tok'ra," he said.
Jonas emerged from the showers with a towel round his head. He rubbed his hair dry as he went to his locker and it was only when he was dressed and turned around that he realised Colonel O'Neill was standing by his open locker, staring at the palm of his hand with a fixed expression.
"Every time, I trust her a little more," Jack admitted.
"I do. And it scares the hell out of me." He dropped the Mark of Czernobog, long since disabled, back into his tobacco tin, put it away in the locker and slammed the door shut.