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 and Kupala's Tears. It is part three of Nike, and is followed by The Black God.
Have you ever had the feeling you've made a mistake, but you don't know what it was? Well, that's why you need a good beta reader. Thanks, Sho.
The Mesos Sector
The teltac slewed violently to one side. The inertial dampeners absorbed most of the motion but not all, and the stack of crates that Jonas and Sam were attempting to lash down slid across the cramped cargo bay towards the former's legs.
"Whoa!" Jonas cried out, leaning on the top crates to keep the pile from toppling over. "Hold it steady! There's delicate cargo back here, and I don't just mean the naquadah."
"My apologies," Teal'c called back.
The scout ship bucked again, this time from a weapon impact. "Sounds like we have company," Sam muttered. She strained hard and with an effort managed to slip the holding straps over the crates. "That'll have to do," she told Jonas. "We can't stay back here during a fight."
"You'll get no argument from me," Jonas promised.
They went forward and joined Teal'c in the cockpit. Sam slipped into the co-pilot's chair, pulled down the restraining harness and activated the defensive systems.
"I thought we'd got all of Dumuzi's fighters." Jonas said.
"We did indeed," Teal'c replied. "However, it appears that we were not the only ones to hear of this transaction."
Jonas looked to the tactical display, where a ha'tak vessel now loomed alongside the heavy barque which had been the target of the raid. "So who're our new friends? Don't tell me Bastet showed up early?"
"I do not believe so," Teal'c replied. "The Tok'ra intelligence indicated that Bastet planned to use the weapons grade naquadah she was purchasing from Dumuzi in an attack on Anubis. It may be that he learned of her intentions. I shall attempt to manoeuvre the teltac to view the insignia on the ha'tak."
"Hold that thought," Sam warned, strapping on a HUD eyepiece. "We have a glider on our tail."
Teal'c threw the teltac to one side, allowing the energy blasts from the glider to shoot past. "Jonas Quinn; you must be seated," the Jaffa warned.
"Thank you," Jonas replied, struggling to his feet. He dropped into the pressure chair that had been bolted to the deck behind the teltac's central console and pulled on the straps.
"Correction," Sam said. "Two gliders! Let's see if they're as surprised as Dumuzi's pilots were."
As the second glider came alongside the first, the teltac fired the rotational thrusters and spun the cargo vessel through one-hundred-and-eighty degrees. Sam worked her controls and energy blasts stabbed out from the nose of the teltac, downing one glider and causing the other pilot to throw his craft into a hard dive.
"They looked surprised," Jonas admitted. He turned his eye to the tactical display and his face fell. "Okay; now they look pissed." There were now three red wedges bearing down on their green circle.
"How're the others doing?" Sam asked, her attention fixed on the firing resolutions showing in her eyepiece.
"Doing good," Jonas affirmed. "The Free Jaffa are holding their own and the other armed teltacs are making a run at the ha'tak. Looks like the X-302 is covering the run."
"I hope the Colonel knows what he's doing," Sam admitted, blasting another glider. "The X-302 hasn't been used for extended combat – well, for any kind of combat – before and he's only got a few missiles left."
"I'm sure he considers this a routine field test," Jonas replied.
"Can we pull out?" Sam asked. "We came here to steal naquadah from a two-bit Goa'uld hustler, not go toe-to-toe with a mothership."
"The teltacs can withdraw at any time," Teal'c replied. "However, the Free Jaffa's stolen ma'shan can not extract the gliders until the ha'tak withdraws."
"Can we beat it?" Sam asked.
"We can not."
"Then we'll just have to make it more trouble than it's worth for them to stick around."
"Well, this doesn't look promising," Jack noted.
"We are in a formidable craft," Dilg'a replied, optimistically. The young Jaffa had been chosen to act as Jack's navigator in the X-302 and give notes, while the rest of SG-1 trialled one of the Free Jaffa's adapted strike teltacs.
"We're in a formidable and highly experimental craft with three missiles left and no cannon," Jack replied, "going up against an enemy force that outguns and outnumbers us."
"Enemy gliders at four of the clock, O'Neill," Dilg'a warned.
"I see 'em," Jack acknowledged, turning the X-302 to run directly at the wing of three gliders. "Got tone. Fox-one." He touched the trigger and fired one of his precious store of missiles. The lead glider began a turn, his wingmen following, but the missile doggedly pursued its target. The weapon was aspect-seeking, the inertial thrusters of the death gliders generating insufficient heat for a heat-seeker to lock on; they had done well against Dumuzi's pilots, and while these fliers were more skilled the missile did not disappoint. The lead glider exploded, damaging one of the wingmen, while the other barely pulled away in time.
Around the X-302 the enemy gliders had made contact with the friendlies. "Dilg'a," Jack said. "Keep me posted here. Everyone's flying gliders; I can't tell who's who!"
"Two enemy gliders at one of the clock; one enemy glider at five of the clock."
"Got it," Jack replied. "Fox-one." Without waiting to see if his missile found its target, Jack pulled back, hauling the X-302 into a tight loop to avoid the enemy fire coming from behind. Gliders weaved in and out in a complex dance, the X-302 threading between them. "Did we get him?"
"We did. Three more gliders have closed on our tail however," Dilg'a reported. "They appear to be singling us out."
"We're too distinctive," he realised. "We're the only one the enemy knows at a glance isn't on their side." A bright flash caught Jack's attention. "What was that?" He asked.
"One of the teltacs rammed the ha'tak," Dilg'a replied. "The naquadah in their hold magnified the blast and they have crippled the glider bay. The enemy can still land their gliders in the secondary hangar, but they will be unable to launch reinforcements."
"How many did we lose?"
"Three warriors," Dilg'a said, stoically. "Three friends, but they died free. A…vessel is closing on SG-1's teltac."
"Eight of the clock high," Dilg'a replied. "Near to the barque. Your team are firing on the cargo ship."
Jack hauled the X-302 into a hard turn, the fuselage shrieking in protest at the violence of the manoeuvre. "How're we doing?"
"We are matched by these forces, even without their reinforcements. They are superb warriors. Nine gliders are pursuing us, but a wing of Free Jaffa have broken off to assist us. SG-1 are firing on the barque, but the enemy…craft is closing."
"Enemy 'craft'? Isn't it a glider?"
"It is not. It is…unlike anything I have seen before."
"I'm kicking in the burner," Jack warned.
He hit the switch for the 302's 'afterburner', a pair of short-burn solid-fuels rocket designed to provide two bursts of emergency acceleration. The small craft shot forward, the sudden increase in G-forces pressing Jack and Dilg'a into their pressure seats heedless of the inertial dampeners. The barque grew in front of them, and Jack could see the teltac weaving around the larger cargo vessel, releasing its small contingent of torpedoes. Behind the scout ship came the mystery fighter, a round-hulled vessel with sweeping wings like the blades of a battleaxe. It was smaller than a glider overall – the cockpit looked large enough for only one person – and it was clearly more manoeuvrable than anything Jack had fought before.
Energy blasts stabbed out from the fighter, striking the teltac's shields. The scout ship weaved and evaded, but even Teal'c's piloting was no match for his pursuer. Jack closed in on the enemy, holding it in the centre of his targeting reticule.
"Colonel O'Neill," Dilg'a cautioned. "The barque's engines are going critical. With the naquadah remaining in the hold…"
"Two seconds!" Jack insisted. "Got tone," he announced, triumphantly, as the beeping in his ears became a sustained note. "Fox-…Damn!"
The enemy craft, perhaps alerted to the radar lock, slid suddenly to the side and out of Jack's targeting field.
"How'd he do that?" Jack demanded.
"The inertial engines of Goa'uld vessels allow for lateral manoeuvring," Dilg'a explained. "However, few pilots have the skill to execute a true sideslip at combat speeds."
"Where'd he go?" Jack demanded.
"The enemy vessel is moving away from the barque at three of the clock low."
"Pursuing the teltac?"
"Negative," the Jaffa said. "The enemy is returning to the ha'tak."
"Not if I can help it," Jack replied, turning the X-302 in pursuit.
"Colonel O'Neill," Dilg'a warned. "The enemy are retreating. This pilot is highly-skilled, our craft is an experimental model and our armament is almost depleted. I believe that your people hold that discretion is the better part of valour; perhaps now would be a time to be discrete."
"No-one shoots at my team and gets away with it," Jack replied. "Besides; if we turn back now we've just got to tote this missile all the way home. Brace for acceleration; I'm hitting the second burner."
"It worked!" Sam exclaimed. "The enemy gliders are withdrawing. With no naquadah shipment for a prize they don't fancy the fight we could give them."
"Don't sound so surprised," Jonas told her. "You'll destroy my faith in your infallibility."
Sam grinned. "Teal'c; signal the ma'shan to move in and let's get out of here."
Teal'c frowned at the tactical display. "Major Carter," he said, concern in his voice. "Colonel O'Neill is pursuing the unidentified fighter."
"What?" Jonas demanded. "Is he nuts?"
"Several of the Free Jaffa have joined the pursuit," Teal'c added, toggling the ship-to-ship communicators. "All pilots break off," he ordered. "Colonel O'Neill, fall back to a defensive position."
Sam looked up at the display. Most of the surviving enemy gliders had been defending the ha'tak and had already docked in the secondary hangar. The small fighter was considerably further afield than any of the gliders, but was also faster. Only the 302 was keeping pace with it as it sped back to its nest. On the display, the ha'tak's icon began to flash.
"Colonel!" Sam called, urgently. "Pull up! The ha'tak is activating its hyperspace engines. If you don't pull up you could be caught in the field and…"
With a bright flash the ha'tak vanished into hyperspace. The nearby Free Jaffa gliders were tossed about in the vessel's wake like dinghies on a stormy sea. Only a few hundred yards from the hangar, the unknown fighter shot forward as it was caught in the hyperspace field, vanishing into the rift.
The comm channel crackled, and Sam heard Jack's voice for a moment: "Ah…Carter…"
The rift closed. The ha'tak was gone. The strange fighter was gone. The X-302 was gone.
"Aaaaaahhh!" Jack screamed to relieve the tension as he fought the controls of the X-302, trying to keep the interceptor in line. The flickering lights of hyperspace rushed by, but unlike most of the hyperspace flights Jack had undergone, this was not a smooth ride. Judging by the feel of the controls, there were winds and currents and heavy turbulence in hyperspace, which were ripping at the tiny craft fit to shake it apart.
"We die free, Colonel O'Neill," Dilg'a gasped.
"Better than that, let's die a long time from now," Jack replied. He punched a series of buttons, and the ride levelled out. There was still turbulence, but much less than before. "Maybe we can stop somewhere and pick you up a new catchphrase," he offered.
"What did you do?" Dilg'a asked.
"This ship has a whole raft of systems for piloting in hyperspace," Jack replied. "I just switched 'em all on. Trouble is, we haven't yet managed to successfully open a hyperspace window using the X-302's generators yet, so on this flight the naquadria chamber is empty. Our only hope of ever leaving hyperspace is to follow that mothership out, which of course brings its own problems."
"The ha'tak is not travelling at maximum speed," Dilg'a reported. "The unidentified craft was also drawn into the window; it may be that they will soon exit hyperspace in order for the fighter to dock."
"Here's hoping," Jack agreed. "Until then we just wait and…Augh!" With a wrenching shudder, the blue-white of hyperspace dissolved, to be replaced by the star-spangled blackness of normal space. "That was no window," Jack noted. "Feels more like we went straight through the wall." He shook his head clear and looked out at his new surroundings. "I don't see a sun," he said. "So either we're in deep space or we're right behind…that," he finished, pointing up at a vast blackness that was moving across his field of vision, blotting out the stars. "Looks like we found our Goa'uld's home."
"I do not believe so," Dilg'a said. "The ha'tak is sending a distress signal. They are referring to a 'gravity well'. I do not know what this is, but it seems to be what pulled us out of hyperspace."
"A gravity well is the focal point of a gravitational field," Jack explained. "Like from a sun or a planet." He ran his eyes across the X-302's instrument panel. "Oh yeah," he said. "There's a gravity well. We're reading a field strength of almost twenty-five Gs outside the 302's inertial dampening field." He drew back on the stick, but the craft did not respond. "Uh-oh."
"Ah…We're going in," Jack replied, his eyes fixed on the black object growing closer by the moment. "We're going in fast and we're going in hard."
"As is the ha'tak."
"Little comfort," Jack replied. "I just hope the dampeners hold, or we'll be paste before we get close to this…whatever it is." He cut in the braking rockets, but the ship's descent barely slowed. "Okay; that's not doing it," he noted. Instead he fired the left brake only, turning the ship through 180°, then fired the main rockets. "Oh, this is so not working!" He announced.
"It was a glorious battle," Dilg'a said. "We die with honour."
"Will you stop that!" Jack turned the interceptor again, then once more cranked the rockets up to full.
"Colonel O'Neill," Dilg'a said, alarmed. "I do not understand your thinking."
"Simple really," Jack replied. "If I can get us going fast enough I can slingshot around this thing, and use the gravity well to pick up enough speed to break free on the other side. Even if I don't, there's a chance I can manage a slightly softer landing by coming in at a shallow angle."
Jack tilted the 302's nose up and gunned the engines for all they were worth. As the craft hit atmosphere he kicked in the aerospikes, then as they dropped lower he fired the jets, running all three conventional engines simultaneously, but to no avail. The X-302 stubbornly refused to enter orbit around what Jack was now sure was a planet.
"Well, it's been nice knowing you, Dilg'a," Jack said. "See you on the other side."
"It has been an honour to fight at your side," Dilg'a replied, "and an honour to die knowing that I have aided both our peoples. The naquadah we seized today shall give power to the Free Jaffa settlement on Arcadia and to the Tau'ri."
"If you still believe in any higher beings, now's the time to make your peace," Jack told him, as he searched frantically for a landing sight.
"Gods of Kheb and Lords of Amenti receive us," Dilg'a said, earnestly. "For we have lived honourable lives and we die free."
"Brace for impact!" Jack warned, and the X-302 ploughed into the earth of an unknown planet.
Dilg'a was roused from unconsciousness by the squirming of his symbiote. He was aware of a great cold, although his armour protected him from the worst of it. The cockpit lights were still operational, but the controls were all dead. He tried to stand but found himself still held firmly in the grip of the seat harness of the Tau'ri craft; the harness buckle would not yield to any attempt to release it. There was a sharp smell in the air, like lamp oil yet unlike, and Dilg'a remembered that the X-302 was powered, in part, by combustible fuel.
The young Jaffa's hand reached down and found the hilt of his knife. He pulled the forked blade from its sheath and caught the harness between the killing prongs. With a thrusting motion he sheared through the padded nylon and ripped himself free of his seat. The cockpit was still closed above him, but the canopy was cracked and with several blows of his armoured fist he managed to smash through one of the panels. He remembered Colonel O'Neill pointing out a release handle which would have blasted the entire hatch free, but Dilg'a did not feel that would be wise if the fuel were leaking.
Colonel O'Neill was unconscious and so Dilg'a leaned back into the cockpit, cut him free and dragged him out. The Colonel was a big man, but Dilg'a was stronger than he looked and wrestled the Tau'ri free of the X-302 without struggle, even if not quite with ease. Dilg'a rested the Colonel against the side of the craft while he leaned back in and retrieved his stowed gear, then he shouldered the man's weight and headed away from the crash site. The 'gravity well' that had drawn them in seemed to have no hold on the planet's surface. That suggested to Dilg'a that the field was artificial, which meant that someone would come to investigate their crash.
There was almost no light whatsoever on this world, only the dim glow of the stars, and once he was away from the artificial lights of the X-302's cockpit Dilg'a found that he could barely see the ground in front of his feet. Stopping for a moment, he rummaged in his kitbag for his helmet. One of Ker'nau's designs, the helmet combined the optical and auditory enhancements of a Serpent helm with a Tok'ra medium range communicator in a compact package. The device was highly functional and far less cumbersome than a Serpent helm, but it did look a little strange and those of Rya'c's followers who used it had been dubbed 'the Fly Guard' by their comrades.
With the helmet's eye pieces in place and the light intensifiers operating, Dilg'a was able to get his first real look at the planet. This was a desolate world of hard rock, which fortunately would make tracking them difficult, and the only flora were clusters of giant fungus. The air was completely still, as though the planet itself were dead and breathless. As he got his bearings, Dilg'a saw a rat-like creature nibbling at one of the larger mushrooms, noting that that species of fungus must be edible.
The creature stiffened, sensing Dilg'a's presence, and turned an eyeless head to sniff in his direction. The Jaffa took a step forward and the rat bolted.
Beyond a high ridge, Dilg'a found a ruined structure. It looked as though it had once been a house and part of a settlement, but his visual range was limited in this light and he did not have time to explore. He settled Colonel O'Neill and wrapped him in a blanket from his kitbag. He took out a charcoal stick, lit one end then blew out the flame so that it only smouldered. This he placed in a padded metal tin that he set inside the blanket to keep the Colonel warm. Colonel O'Neill's hands tightened over the heat source.
"I will leave you here, Colonel O'Neill," Dilg'a said, uncertain whether his words would penetrate the haze of unconsciousness. "I must return to the X-302 to see if I can find your gear. You require medical supplies, and I must reclaim my weapon."
Dilg'a winced as he rose to his feet. His body had not yet had time to heal the injuries he had sustained in the crash and the ability of his symbiote to dull the pain was almost exhausted. Moving more slowly he returned to the downed X-302, circling around to approach cautiously from one side, so as to leave as little trace as possible to the whereabouts of Colonel O'Neill if he were captured or tracked. The smell of fuel around the interceptor was stronger now, and Dilg'a knew he had to be quick. He located the Tau'ri medical kit in its plastic container, and also reclaimed his weapon from beside his seat.
Senses dulled by pain, Dilg'a was slow to react to a noise from behind him. He threw himself down and to the side, so that the staff blast missed him, but it struck the ship and that was almost as bad. Scrabbling up, he hurled himself headlong away from the X-302 as its fuel erupted in a white-hot fireball. Falling hard, he lost his grip on the weapon. Before he could reclaim it, a zat'nik'tel blast writhed around his body and blackness claimed him.
In his last moments of consciousness he was aware of a figure standing over him, dressed in a black, hooded cloak.
Jack's return to consciousness was no less painful than Dilg'a's, and more worrying for the lack of any familiar surroundings. He was surrounded by the crumbling foundations of ancient walls, smothered in darkness save for the phosphorescent light of a lantern-like device that lay near his feet. He could feel heat radiating from the device, and two small, unappetising carcasses sizzled on a spit above it. A hooded figure sat opposite him.
"Wuh?" Jack asked, blearily.
An armoured hand extended from a sleeve and pushed back the hood. Jack groaned. "You know, we have to stop meeting like this."
"My feelings precisely, Jack," Nike agreed. "Yet here we are once more. Perhaps our destinies have somehow become entangled and we shall continue to meet until we have achieved some great purpose that fate has marked down for us."
"You believe in that kind of thing?"
"I do not," the Goa'uld replied.
"That's a new look for you, isn't it?" Jack asked. "Sort of Bedouin ninja."
"The robe is not mine," Nike explained. "I took it from one of the Jaffa sent to investigate my crash site."
"How many did they send?"
Jack shrugged. "I guess they don't know you too well."
"I had no advantage of them there," Nike assured him. "The tattoos that they wore showed a stylised ram, a design used by no less than six Goa'uld, and they wore no helms."
Jack sat up, and gasped in pain.
"Move slowly," Nike suggested. "I have bound your wounds as well as I was able but you were hurt in the crash. Less so than I would have imagined; your landing must have been superb."
"Not as good as yours, apparently. You were in that little glider?"
"Indeed. I must commend you, Jack; I have not been so challenged by another pilot in many decades and to control such a small vessel through a hyperspace slipstream is an incredible achievement. You were the pilot of your craft, I take it?"
"I was," Jack replied. With Dilg'a nowhere to be seen, he did not want to tip Nike off to the Jaffa's presence if he could help it.
Nike bent and lifted a long object from the ground at her feet; it looked like a strange fusion of human-built rifle and staff weapon. "This weapon?" Nike asked. "It is not yours, is it? It resembles a Jaffa hunting crossbow, a sporting weapon used almost exclusively on Chulak, but instead of a bow arm and bolt furrow the stock houses a compact plasma conductor and staff weapon power source. A fascinating device. I take it that your companion was a Free Jaffa. Not Teal'c; Teal'c would not have been captured so easily and I understand that he still favours a conventional staff weapon."
"Where is he?" Jack demanded, angrily.
"Captured, I believe," Nike replied. "Your craft caught fire and guided me here. I found signs of a struggle; this weapon and your medical box lay in the shadows. I would presume that your companion now shares the captivity of my Jaffa." She reached out and lifted one of the spits from the lantern. "Blind fungus rat?" She offered.
Jack turned away, disgusted.
"Your rations were destroyed in the crash," Nike told him. "I have water, bread and a little sweetcake, but you will need to eat those after the rat."
"We've crashed on a barren world, and I can't have any pudding until I've finished my meat?" Jack asked, incredulous. "Is this the time to worry about etiquette?"
"It is not," Nike agreed. "But you will need the other foodstuffs to take away the taste of the blind fungus rat."
Jack reached out gingerly and took the skewer. "Thank you," he said. "Really."
Nike nodded in acknowledgment, and began to eat her own rat. "My crew were also captured," she explained between mouthfuls. "I believe they were incapacitated by a stunning blast of incredible power, like a shot from a zat'nar'tel."
"A weapon used to intimidate primitive peoples," Nike explained. "It deploys a blast similar to that of a zat'nik'tel, but fired from an orbital platform and affecting a wide area. To the ignorant it appears to be a bolt of lightning called down on command."
"Oh. One of those."
"Well, this seemed to be a similar weapon, yet more powerful still. The blast enveloped my ha'tak vessel and overloaded the shields, most likely crippling its systems as well as rendering the crew unconscious. The result of this is that you and I find ourselves once more forced into an alliance."
"You will not survive on the surface of this world without my aid," Nike assured him, "and I will have a far greater chance of rescuing my crew and escaping with your aid."
"You want to go after your Jaffa?" Jack asked. "I would have expected you to look after number one."
Nike frowned. "Do you not know me better than that by now?" She demanded. "My soldiers are precious to me and only at my General's explicit command would I take any action that might bring them to harm, or allow harm to come to them."
Jack snorted. "If you're so loyal to your soldiers, how come you'd turn on them at Athena's say so?"
"My devotion to Athena is absolute because I know that she would never give that command without reason," Nike replied. "I would never raise my hand to any one of my warriors, but if Athena told me, 'send your warriors to die in this place', I would know that their deaths in that place would have meaning, achieving something that could never be without that sacrifice. If she told me, 'lay down your life in this way', I would know that my death would serve a greater purpose. There is a bond of trust between soldier and commander; one that runs both way. You must understand this?"
Jack nodded, unhappy to hear a Goa'uld espousing a philosophy so close to his own. "How long have I been out?" He asked, changing the subject.
"About nine hours."
"And when does the sun rise around here?"
"It does not," Nike told him. "This planet is a rogue, drifting in the void. There is no sun."
Like Dilg'a and Jack, Meriope, the leader of Nike's Jaffa, woke in pain from a long period of unconsciousness. She knew the ache in her muscles to be the result of something akin to a zat'nik'tel blast and thus knew at once that she had fallen into enemy hands. As she raised her head she saw that she had been brought to a great cavern, along with the other members of Nike's elite company: the Gorgons. Hooded Jaffa stood guard over them, holding staff weapons at the ready; too many for even the Gorgons to fight unarmed.
One of the robed warriors stepped forward and moved up and down the line. He gazed disdainfully from under his hood, sneering as he passed a small, wiry woman who looked particularly unsuited for battle. Doubtless he was surprised to see any woman in a warrior's armour, yet seven of the twenty-six Gorgons were women, including their leader.
"Jaffa," their captor said, in the resonant tones of a Goa'uld. "You are all prisoners now, but where you go from here depends on you. There is a door to my right, and another to my left. Take the left-hand door and you will enter the army of your conqueror as warriors. Take the right-hand door and you shall become slaves, and serve the aims of my master in a less noble role. Choose, now."
Meriope looked up and down the line of Gorgons and was pleased by what she saw. She turned to face her captor. "We are the Gorgons," she said, proudly. "We serve only our Captain, Lady Nike. Between another banner and chains, we choose chains, but know that we shall do all in our power to escape you."
The Goa'uld laughed and motioned to one of his Jaffa. The warrior swung his staff weapon at Meriope's head, but she swayed backwards and caught the staff as it passed her face, dragging the Jaffa off-balance.
"We shall succeed," she added, contemptuously.
The Gorgons shifted their weight, spoiling for a fight and the enemy levelled their weapons. Like their leader, each of the Gorgons knew that this was a battle they could not hope to win, but at a single word of command they would have given their all and died in the attempt. The word was not given, however, and the Gorgons stood firm.
"Hashak!" The Goa'uld snapped, throwing out his hand. The ribbon wave sent Meriope and the warriors standing around her stumbling to the ground. "You are warriors no longer," he growled. "Remove your helms, armour and tunics."
The Gorgons looked to Meriope for their lead, and she nodded, accepting the inevitable. She hesitated a moment as she removed the collar which housed her demon-faced helmet, reluctant to part with the mask of Medusa which had once rested on the shoulders of the goddess herself. When she had reclaimed her right name, Nike had passed the mask to Meriope, allowing her to bear the name Medusa in battle. Reverently, the Jaffa set down her helm, and released the buckles of her red-and-bronze armour. As she worked her way down, removing her gauntlets, body plates, chain mail and tunic, she set each item on the floor at her feet, folded and neatly stacked as though for storage in the armoury of Nike's mothership.
"You will leave your armour here, to be used by the great army of Shmunu," the Goa'uld declared. He held up a stained, tattered sackcloth smock. "From now on, this will be your uniform."
Human slaves stepped forward and threw similar clothes at each of the Gorgons. The Goa'uld himself flung the most filthy at Meriope. She snatched the vile garment from the air, and wrapped it around herself with the dignity of a queen donning her robes of state.
"Take the right-hand door," the Goa'uld snarled. "Follow the passage to the end and go forth to your life of drudgery. From now on you serve my master by labouring in the mines, working your life away for the glory of the Hidden God. Your lives are nothing now. You have no rights, no privileges, no status. You are not warriors, you are the lowest of slaves. Any attempt to act like warriors will be punished. Deference to your former officers will be punished. Rebellion and resistance will be punished. Dissent will be punished.
"Serve well, and you may be rewarded with new prim'ta when your time comes. Know also that any child born in the mines is the property of the Hidden One, and will be taken and raised as a soldier in the army of Shmunu. To father or bear such a warrior is an honour more than you wretched creatures deserve.
"Go forth now to serve. Go forth to die."
The hooded Jaffa closed on the Gorgons, herding them towards the right-hand door. As they passed through into a long, stone passage, Meriope reached out and touched the shoulder of the Jaffa beside her, a woman of far fewer years who shook off her comforting touch.
"I am well," the girl insisted, although her voice quavered with fear and her fingers strayed up to brush against the tattoo on her forehead.
"I would be most surprised if you were," Meriope replied. "I am sorry that your first battle as one of the Gorgons should end this way, Psyche, and sorry that I did not make you wait another year before entering battle."
"This was my choice, Mother," Psyche replied. "I am honoured to share the fate of my comrades-in-arms."
"You make me proud," Meriope said, sadly.
"So," Jack asked, "do you have any idea where we are?"
"I do not," Nike replied. "This rogue world must be an erratic. I studied this area of space most carefully before mounting my assault on Dumuzi's naquadah shipment and it did not appear on my charts."
"Of course I am sure!" Nike snapped, impatiently. "Do you think I would plan a retreat in the path of a rogue planet?"
Jack shrugged. "I'm surprised you would plan a retreat," he admitted.
"Still you insist on thinking of me as a Goa'uld in Apophis' mould," Nike sighed. "Only a fool would not have a plan of retreat, especially when locking horns with the likes of Sekhmet."
"Sekhmet?" Jack asked. "What does she have to do with anything?"
Nike looked surprised. "You did not know? She has gathered quite a following in recent months, but she is short of supplies. The naquadah was to be sold to one of her agents, posing as an underling of Bastet. I was to bait her into battle with my General's army by stealing what was hers."
Jack shook his head. "Damn Tok'ra intelligence," he muttered. "This isn't the first time it's almost got us killed."
Nike smiled. "Be glad that Sekhmet did not intervene," she recommended. "She would not have taken it well if she found you trying to steal her naquadah. Come. We must move. We will need supplies and more weapons than we have, and you will need armour."
"I've got armour," Jack replied. "I'd rather not try and fight in Jaffa plate."
"Jaffa armour is better insulated than your Velcro…"
"That's Kevlar," Jack corrected.
"Than your Kevlar, and can be fitted with heating systems," Nike explained. "You will need that to survive on this world and a helm will let you see. I used the lantern here because your need was great, but we would do well to avoid anything that might reveal our location."
Jack nodded his acceptance of her arguments. "Alright," he said. "So where do we go?"
"My ha'tak vessel," she replied. "It was well supplied and there is a chance that it has not yet been stripped. Even if we can not find weapons and armour, there will be food and water and a place of shelter for a short time."
"Okay," Jack agreed.
"Have you a light?" Nike asked. "You will need one until we reach the ha'tak at least."
"I have a torch."
"Good. Try to keep its beam shrouded and…"
"I know," Jack assured her. "It's what I was trained for."
Nike bowed her head. "My apologies, Jack," she said. "Follow me then."
They set off across the hard-packed, half-frozen earth of the rogue planet, Jack close on Nike's heels, keeping his red-filtered torch beam as low as he could, his fingers splayed over the front window, so that the light could not be seen at a distance. His hands were cold, even through his gloves, and his feet felt like lead. Despite his objections to the cumbersome design of Jaffa armour, he could see the practicality in this situation; if it were warmer than his pressure suit, he would wear a clown costume.
"The Tau'ri have come far in a short time," Nike commented. "To produce a craft like yours. She flies well, and her weapons are formidable."
"Thanks," Jack replied. "What about yours? That little bird was pretty sweet; I didn't know the Goa'uld had fighters like that."
"They do not," Nike assured him. "It is one of a handful of experimental designs, never produced in any great number. With the loss of those on my ha'tak only three remain, and few have the skills to construct, repair or maintain them. Fortunately, one of those few is Icarus, the Master of the Udajet whom I inherited on the death of Lord Minos."
"Oh, God; that lightweight excuse for a tyrant? He tried to feed me to the lions once, you know?"
"To a bull, actually," Nike replied. "I know. I saw you there, Jack."
"That was how I knew you on Chërt. I served Minos for many years, undermining his rule so that My General could overthrow him when the time was right. Your diversion was most helpful, although I must admit that the loss of Metisa stung My General deeply."
"Sorry to hear that," Jack assured her. "But you know they're not going to give it back, right?"
"Of that I am sure. They are brave and cunning warriors, blessed with honour and tenacity and skilled in the arts of war. I look forward to facing them in battle once My General is done with Sekhmet."
Jack shook his head. "You like them, so you want to fight them?"
"What other way is there for one soldier to show respect to another?"
"I dunno. Fruit basket? A hearty handshake?"
"To avoid battle with an enemy soldier is to show only distain for his strength," Nike insisted.
"You're weird," Jack said.
Dilg'a came to on the move and was half-dragged, half-carried to a dismal, torch-lit cavern where hollow-eyed workers slaved away, mining ore from the dark rock. Unlike the Gorgons he was given no options and no audience with the overseer. His captors roughly divested him of his armour, then cast him on the ground and threw a sackcloth tunic down beside him.
"Welcome to your new home," one of the Jaffa sneered. "Work and you will live."
Wearily, Dilg'a drew himself up. His muscles ached from the zat blast and he was still injured from the crash. Against the protests of his muscles, bones and aesthetic sense, he dressed in the shabby robe, found himself a pick and bucket and forced himself to walk to the nearest rock face. A thick seam of naquadah ore cut through the darker stone, but the other workers had already clustered around it. Clearly there was no planning to the operation; each slave was responsible for his or her own quotas, and Sokar take the hindmost. Dilg'a followed the seam until it petered out, finding a narrow streak of ore at the very end that was not yet being worked.
Dilg'a took up station next to a young Jaffa woman. She stood out from the crowd in that her skin and hair were largely free of rock dust. Beneath the sackcloth her body was lithe and strong and moved with efficient grace; a warrior's body with a warrior's instincts. Her face also marked her, beautiful, proud and unbroken; she wore the Jaffa brand on her brow – a slave-mark to Dilg'a's eyes – like a badge of honour. Trying not to let her presence distract him too much, Dilg'a began to work.
He knew that he had to keep going until he had a chance to kelno'reem and heal his wounds and so he paced himself carefully. He worked for several hours, with precious little to show for it. He was slower and weaker than he had thought, and the end of the seam was shallow as well as thin. His bucket was less than half full, and a group of overseers were already beginning to inspect the line, collecting the ore in a wagon, dismissing some slaves but striking out at those whose loads were unsatisfactory. This latter group included many who had mined far more than Dilg'a had.
With a loud crash, a heavy chunk of rock dropped into Dilg'a's bucket. Two more chunks followed, smaller but rich in ore, like the first. He looked up at the girl beside him and she laid a finger to her lips. Although he was exhausted and her face was caked in dust, Dilg'a noticed that her tattoo was circle bearing four spikes and a pair of wings. The circle was an old mark, but the flesh was still a little raw around the wings, as though they were a recent addition.
The overseers reached the end of the line. The leader nodded approvingly as his subordinates tipped the rock from the girl's bucket and from Dilg'a's into the wagon. "Very good," he said. "Go through to the third cavern. You have the next quarter to eat and rest."
Dilg'a and the girl sloped off, both taking care not to show their resistance too openly in their gait or bearing.
"Thank you," Dilg'a whispered.
"My pleasure," she replied.
"I am Dilg'a, of the Free Jaffa," he told her.
"Psyche, of the Gorgons."
Nike's ha'tak vessel was guarded but quiet. They slipped on board easily enough, but it became apparent that the guard was light for a reason. The ship showed every sign of having been thoroughly ransacked. The storage cabinets and armouries had been stripped, and many of her systems had been torn out of the walls. The corridors were dark and cold and Jack's breath frosted in the air as he followed Nike deeper into the structure.
"Well, this was a waste of time," Jack muttered.
"There is more to my ship than such a crude search can find," Nike assured him. She located a control panel, moving with impressive ease on the tilted deck. She moved her hand above the console and it sprang to life. "A secondary power and relay system exists, allowing me to retain control of the ship if the peltac is seized. Of necessity this system is deeply hidden, the conduits and relays concealed within the heaviest bulkheads of the ha'tak."
Lights flickered on in the corridor and almost at once Jack felt the temperature rise. "That's better," he agreed. "I apologise for doubting you."
Nike smiled. "The lights will be invisible from outside the ship," she went on. "We should be safe here for a time. The short range and local imaging sensors are still active and the Vault has not been breached. If we can repair the damage to the long-range sensors then we can get a better idea of what we are up against. Come."
"Where are we going?"
"To the Vault."
Nike led Jack through the ship to the Shrine of Asar; the spiritual heart of the vessel. There they found that the great statue of Asar, the legendary first emperor of the Goa'uld, had been desecrated, the featureless face smashed in and the body daubed in white paint.
"Sacrilege!" Nike hissed.
"You know he's dead, right?" Jack asked. "I killed him two years ago, on Earth."
"He was not important for himself," Nike replied, coolly. "Asar is our common legacy. The destruction of his shrine is a calculated insult to our empire and our social order."
"It bothers you that Goa'uld are having a go at each other now?"
"If this Goa'uld challenges us he should do so, instead of just insulting us. This is the work of a coward."
"Maybe he just doesn't feel up to an open assault?" Jack suggested.
"He need not challenge openly, but to hide on this world, daubing paint on Asar's statue where none can see it is a vile act of self-aggrandizement."
Jack paused a moment before asking. "What are we doing here, Nike?"
"Entering the Vault," Nike replied.
She touched the back of her ribbon device, and the floor beneath their feet opened up. They dropped almost twenty yards before stopping, and only at the end did Jack realise that the floor had dropped with them.
"Welcome to my sanctum," Nike said. "Welcome to the Vault."
At another touch of her hand device, lights came on. Jack blinked to clear his eyes, and slowly became aware that he was standing at the centre of a large room, its far end dominated by a huge machine, bristling with control panels. The near end was given over to a cosy-looking studio-type arrangement and a series of palette beds. The space in between held weapon racks, training machines and a small shrine. There was also a cabinet which, when opened, proved to contain dried food and three large, clay jars.
"Here," Nike said, leading Jack to the racks and exchanging the captured staff weapon for one of her own. "Take what weapons you wish. You will probably be more comfortable with the Jaffa's plasma crossbow than a staff weapon, but help yourself to a zat'nik'tel." She lifted a suit of armour from its place. "This should fit you. It is light armour designed for use by scouts; you will not find it too confining."
"Thanks," Jack said. "Are we safe here?"
"This place is cloaked from sensors. I could live here with my inner guard for months without the ship's apparent commanders even knowing it. From here I can monitor all of the ship's systems and operate most of them without detectable power drain. The Vault contains back-up circuits for all of the sensors but the long-range array was damaged in the crash. If I can restore the auxiliary circuits, however, we can see what is happening on this planet. For now we still have short range capability."
Nike strode up to the machine and activated a console. A display lit up, showing the terrain around the ha'tak vessel. The two Jaffa guarding the ship showed as red dots.
"Let us take a closer look at our friends," Nike muttered, working the controls.
The scan image dissolved into a video feed of the Jaffa. Jack stifled a laugh. "Nice hats," he said. "What are they supposed…?" His mocking question died on his lips as he turned towards his companion. "Nike?"
The Goa'uld was staring at the image in abject horror, her face white with fear.
Refreshed by his kelno'reem, Dilg'a joined Psyche at one of the long tables where the slaves ate. The fare was paltry; thin gruel, a meagre portion of bitter, stringy meat and hard, dry bread. Psyche introduced Dilg'a to a small group of other Jaffa, all clearly new to the mines. Most wore the spiked circle on their brows, but only a few had wings.
"How many others survived the crash?" Psyche asked the others.
"Many," one of the Jaffa replied. "But we have not seen them since we were brought here."
Psyche nodded. "We were separated to keep up from conspiring, but we will not give in so easily."
"What is this place?" The Jaffa asked.
A slave who had clearly served for a long time looked across at them. "This is Shmunu," he said, in a hoarse voice.
"Why are they all so pale?" Psyche wondered aloud.
"Sunlight," Dilg'a supposed, the first he had spoken. "They must not have seen the sun in years."
"Here there is no sun," the old man told him. "We are cast into eternal night, for the Lord of Emptiness has decreed that the sun shall warm his fields and his palaces alone, never casting its light upon the ground trod by his slaves. You are new here; you still think of escape, do you not? Give no heed to such hopes; you shall never leave this place. The Hidden One is your master now and who can resist a god who commands the very sun itself."
"Perhaps it is so," one of the wingless Jaffa said and he reached up to touch his tattoo. "If we were trapped perhaps this god is more powerful than our Captain; more powerful than Pallas Athena herself?"
"Pericles is right; we can not fight such power," another agreed, mirroring the gesture. "Not without the Captain."
"We must fight for the Captain," Psyche insisted. "She would expect it."
"What if she is dead? A god can be slain by a greater god!"
"There are no gods who walk under the sky," Dilg'a replied. "If gods there are then they dwell in a world unknown to us. Any power that has flesh and blood can be overthrown and no power that can be cast down should be called a god."
"You speak blasphemy!" The old man gasped.
"I speak the truth," Dilg'a said.
The other Jaffa looked perturbed by his words and the wingless Jaffa all raised their hands to their tattoos in what was clearly a superstitious gesture of fear, but Psyche smiled slightly. "You don't say much, but when you speak you do not waste words with chatter," she noted.
Dilg'a blushed, and prodded awkwardly at his plate. He had fought a giant Unas, survived three battles and one slaughter and he could focus the efforts of a battalion of Jaffa in the face of a mighty enemy without wavering, but women had always made him nervous.
"You are fools," the old man insisted. "All of you."
"We can not fight a god who could defeat Captain Nike," Pericles agreed. "We would be destroyed."
Psyche ignored the others and looked Dilg'a in the eye. "Is that a risk you are willing to take."
"It is," Dilg'a replied, softly.
Psyche nodded. "I think I should take you to meet my mother."
The old man glowered at them. "Give up hope of escape or you shall surely be punished," he said. "Surrender yourselves to The Hidden One."
"The 'Hidden One'?" Jack asked, doubtfully. "Not exactly a name that strikes fear into the hearts of…Except that apparently it is. Nike? What's wrong? What makes this Hidden One so terrible?" He tried to sound blasé, but it was difficult. He usually had little regard for Goa'uld courage, but knew that Nike was no coward and that no idle danger would frighten her so.
"He is…the Devil," Nike replied, breathless with horror.
"I thought Sokar was the Devil?"
"To primitive humans!" Nike snapped, impatiently. "This is different!"
Jack might have been angry at her tone, if not for the unfeigned terror in her gaze. If he had been that frightened he knew he might be cranky as well. "Tell me," he said, gently, taking her hand as he had held Charlie's when he was scared.
"He has a thousand names," Nike said, her eyes gazing off into the middle distance. "The Hidden One. Lord of Emptiness; Master of the Void and God of the Primordial Abyss; The Shadow on the Sun; Black Ram of the Night…"
"I know people who have lots of aliases," Jack interrupted. "I'm scarier than most of them."
"He is the fear that haunts every Goa'uld," Nike said. "He is the monster that we hope and pray does not truly exist."
"The Bogeyman?" Jack asked, incredulous. "The…monster under the bed," he explained, in response to Nike's enquiring glance.
"Under the bed; within the shadows," she confirmed. "When System Lords teach their children to guard their borders, to cover the flanks, they tell them that if they do not then The Hidden One shall come for them."
"You can't believe that?" Jack scoffed.
"These are not stories, Jack! They are a part of my memory! I know that he exists," she insisted. "Just as I know that it does not matter how well you guard your borders: The Hidden One comes anyway and when he does, worlds die."
"Die," she repeated. "It is said that no ship can escape him – the gravity well no doubt; it would prevent any escape by Chappa'ai also – and that he never leaves a soul alive. Everyone on every planet he has touched has been killed or carried off: Humans, Jaffa, Goa'uld; everyone. The animals are taken or slaughtered, the plant life is harvested or burned to ashes and great gashes torn from the crust in search of mineral wealth to plunder. He does not strip his victims to dead stone as Czernobog does, but the worlds he ravages take millennia to recover."
"If he kills everyone, how does anyone know it is him?" Jack asked, reasonably.
"Images sometimes remain on recording devices," Nike replied. "The sky turning black; the Kerer Warriors marching through cities; udajet in their thousands blotting out the stars. And then there is the staff."
"A great iron pole topped by a ram's skull," Nike explained. "It is left at the Chappa'ai of every world destroyed by The Hidden One."
"Does he have an actual name?" Jack asked. "Like Ra or Apophis. Or Bob?"
"I do not know," Nike replied. "Maybe. Perhaps."
"Maybe perhaps what?"
"There is a name, but it seems too fantastic."
"They say…When anyone dares to give The Hidden One a name, they call him Amun."
"No way!" Jack gasped. "Who's Amun?"
Dilg'a was somewhat disturbed to find himself liking the Gorgons, especially Psyche and her mother. Meriope was the sworn and loyal servant of a Goa'uld warleader, but she had a down-to-earth, realistic approach to life and battle that seemed more akin to that of the Free Jaffa leaders. She was First Prime of Nike, yet her tattoo was plain black ink and she showed clear concern both for her warriors and for her captain. Moreover, she and her élite were largely immune to the superstitious pessimism of the lesser warriors in Nike's service.
"Where the will remains, a way shall be found," she pronounced in response to talk of defeat. "We yet live and I do not intend to remain here. If they do not kill me, I shall find a way out."
"And if they kill you?" One of the other Gorgons asked.
"They won't," Dilg'a said. "They don't have enough slaves."
"He is right, Acastus," Meriope agreed. "They need us, every one of us, otherwise they would have executed me already. This is a massive operation and they are desperate for labour."
"But how do we escape, Tal ma'te?" Acastus demanded.
"No security arrangements are impregnable," Meriope assured him. "Least of all these. The caverns are vast and undermanned and the guards are sloppy. Of course, they have reason to be complacent. The true difficulty does not lie in escaping the caverns but in finding a spacecraft and escaping the gravity trap. Also, we must recover our armour before we leave."
"Your armour?" Dilg'a asked.
"Without it we are no warriors," Meriope explained, "and our helms were given to us by Nike herself. We shall not leave them here. Perhaps you think that we should flee as soon as we are loose, but freedom without honour is nothing."
Dilg'a nodded, taking no offence. "I understand," he assured her, and he did. What surprised him was how quickly he had come to think of his armour as just another part of his gear. "I believe that we can ignore the gravity trap," he added.
Meriope frowned. "We can?"
"Your mistress might be taken to whoever rules here, but Colonel O'Neill would be brought here. He at least is loose, and will seek to release the gravity trap."
"He will not try to rescue you?"
Dilg'a shook his head. "Would Nike come for you?"
"No," Psyche realised. "She would know that we would make our own escape."
"So we need three things," Dilg'a said. "Firstly, we need to know where to go once we escape."
Meriope nodded. "Sminthea," she said, addressing the small, female Gorgon. "That will be your responsibility. Can you leave the mines tonight?"
"Yes, Medusa," the woman confirmed. "In as much as there is a night here."
"After that we only need a way to leave the mines," Dilg'a went on. "And for the escape to be successful, some kind of distraction will be…"
Warned by some uncanny instinct, the Jaffa tensed as a single body, bracing themselves a moment before a sudden rush of acceleration pressed them towards one side of the cavern.
"That can not be…" Psyche began.
"It was…" Acastus gasped.
"Hyperlaunch," Meriope agreed, grimly.
Dilg'a nodded. "Interesting."
Nike began to chuckle at Jack's question and when he was thrown halfway across the Vault by the hyperlaunch she laughed out loud.
"What was that?" Jack wondered aloud, picking himself up and dusting off his battered pride.
"Another nightmare," Nike told him, but in a lighter tone. "Thank you, Jack, for giving me a little perspective."
"You're welcome, and what kind of nightmare?"
"The ghost world," Nike replied. "A planet that appears and disappears, pausing only to unleash its armies on unsuspecting worlds. If the legend of the ghost world is true, then this is Amun's home world of Shmunu."
"Explain?" Jack demanded.
"Amun was a member of an ancient league," Nike said. "Rivals to the System Lords of the First Goa'uld Dynasty. Four Lords – Amun, Nun, Huh and Kuk – and their Queens; all children, it is said, of Asar the Great."
"I met one of his younger kids," Jack noted. "Nice girl."
"Amun's league battled with the First Dynasty for millennia," Nike went on, ignoring Jack's interjection. "Nun and Huh were killed in battle, but striking from their hidden base on Shmunu, Amun and Kuk drove their enemies back and destroyed them, one by one. Just as they were poised to overthrow their ancient rivals, however, Amun's own Queen betrayed him. Seeking to increase her own power, she went to Ra and betrayed the location of Shmunu to him, in exchange for his favour.
"Ra had in his possession a weapon of an ancient race which he had held in reserve and which he now deployed to destroy Shmunu's sun. Amun was believed killed, along with Kuk and the three remaining Queens; Naunet, Kauket and Hauhet. Amun's Queen took up her place at Ra's side, only to betray him centuries later and take up with his arch-nemesis; Apophis."
"Amaunet?" Jack asked, incredulous.
"Did you not know how old she was?" Nike asked. "And Amun was her older brother."
"Well," Jack said, "be that as it may, we need to do something; namely rescue our lost Jaffa and escape."
Nike nodded. "Agreed." She thought for a moment, then said: "I believe that the Jaffa will make their own way out of captivity."
"I concur," Jack said.
"They will also attempt to steal a spaceship, securing our passage from the enemy stronghold," Nike explained. "Such is their training and I have trained them well. What we must do therefore is disable the gravity trap and provide a signal to let the Jaffa know that we have done so. If necessary we should also acquire our own vessel and at some stage in the proceedings meet up with our forces."
"Works in theory," Jack agreed. "The first practical step for us must be to get those sensors working and find out how to get to the gravity trap. You up to taking on a legend?"
"With a killer of legends at my side, I believe I shall find the strength," Nike assured him.
Jack grinned. "Killer of legends?" He asked. "Cool."
Jack tore a strip of spiced, dried meat off with his teeth and chewed at it. He grimaced in disgust, unable to quite believe that there could be less food-like food than US MREs. He was trying to force down a meal's worth of the unpalatable fare, while Nike had already consumed enough for three men, all bigger than Jack. She had also drunk several mugs of a mineral compound which she warned would be poison to a human.
As Jack swallowed, against all better instinct, Nike returned from a repair run to the long-range array. The sudden descent of the elevator almost made Jack choke on his food. Nike ignored his coughs and went over to the consoles. Once he had recovered himself, Jack moved to stand behind her.
"Is this thing on?" Jack asked, dubiously, staring at the crackle of static which filled the scanner display.
"I have replaced the damaged relays," Nike confirmed. "I was obliged to improvise some connections, however, and the equipment must be recalibrated for the new components. Do not fear; we shall have our eyes." The Goa'uld moved her left hand through the air above the main crystal, making delicate adjustments. Then she reached out her right hand and smacked the side of the display.
"Subtle." Jack tried and failed to suppress a shiver at the piercing cold.
"If you grow impatient, why not go change into your armour," Nike suggested. "It will be warmest between the relay stations over there," she added, gesturing.
"Over there?" Jack looked doubtful.
"Yes," Nike confirmed, testily. "Is there a problem? Do you need me to show you how to don the armour?" She began to rise.
"No! No," Jack assured her. "It's just…You'll be able to see me. While I change."
Nike sighed. "I shall have better things to absorb my concentration," she said. "Now change before you freeze."
Jack went and stood between the stations. As Nike had promised the units gave off a great deal of heat and he was comfortable while he undressed. He looked up, nervously, once he had got the top of his pressure suit off, but Nike was still engrossed in the scanner. As quick as he could, he dropped the suit and stepped out of the legs, then pulled on the padded Jaffa pants. He looked up again and thought he caught Nike turning swiftly back to the console, a small smile on her face.
"Hey! No peeking!"
"You are imagining things," she assured him.
Jack sniffed the air, uncertainly. "What about that burning smell?"
"No," she replied. "That is real. Some of the improvised relays are growing hot and damaging their housing. Do not be concerned however; they will hold for at least nine hours."
Jack shrugged on the jacket of the armour and struggled with the fastenings.
"Put the boots on and come over here," Nike said.
Warily, Jack obeyed and with quick, clinical movements Nike strapped the jacket around Jack's body and fastened it securely to the pants. As she had promised, the armour was warmer than his suit.
"There," Nike said, turning back to her screen. "Put the collar on and move it around until you find a comfortable balance. The helm will adjust itself automatically to fit your head."
"I hate these things," Jack told her.
"You will find it more comfortable than other Jaffa helms," Nike promised. "I like my warriors to possess peripheral vision." The screen flickered and images appeared. "Excellent," Nike said. "The long-range scanners are operating at eighty-nine percent efficiency and sixty-one percent resolution. That is acceptable. Mapping terrain and scanning for power emissions."
The screen flickered again, resolving itself into a contour map. Several points were marked with red arrows and text displays.
"So what've we got?" Jack asked.
"Multiple power readings," Nike replied. "A large concentration to the north which appears to be a hangar and dockyard complex. Reactor signatures suggest at least five ha'tak-class or comparable vessels and as many as one hundred smaller hyperspace vessels. No mobile signatures however; there must be no aerial patrols during hyperspace flight."
"What about the gravity trap?" Jack asked.
"I believe that there are twenty-seven generators scattered around the surface of the planet," Nike replied.
"Twenty-seven? How many would we need to take out to escape?"
"If this planet can turn under its own power, all of them," Nike replied. "However, all of the generators are linked to a single power…" She stared in incredulity at the screen. "Source," she finished, in a whisper. "Here."
Jack followed her finger. "Isn't that underground?" He asked. "As in, deep underground?"
"Indeed," Nike agreed. "Serviced by main access routes here, here and here, as well as maintenance shafts from the gravity generators." She nodded in satisfaction. "Those will be our way in."
"How far?" Jack asked.
"In Tau'ri terms, the nearest is twenty-one miles away."
Jack sighed. "We'd best get started then" he said.
"You should rest first," Nike suggested. "I have a few more preparations to make before we set out."
"I'll stay up," Jack told her.
"As you wish." Nike got up and fetched some pieces of gear from one of the racks. "Have you used one of these before?"
"Tok'ra communicators," Jack realised. They were not identical to the devices he had seen Earth's allies use, but similar enough for even he to recognise the design.
"A most useful piece of technology," Nike agreed. "Here." She passed him a communicator handset and a headpiece like the ones used by glider pilots. "My technicians have made a few alterations to the devices," Nike explained. "They are a little bulkier, but they can patch into the ship's communications arrays, display scanning data and even control certain systems remotely."
"Nice," Jack commented, gingerly affixing the headset. "Do they get Sci-fi?"
Nike reached over and fiddled with a control on the side of the communicator. A little display lit up with a tiny black-and-white image of a man with a little black moustache waving his arm in demagogic rage. Before him, thousands stood fascinated by his rhetoric.
Disgusted, Jack switched the device off. "There's never anything good on," he muttered.
Once Nike was ready, the uneasy allies set out across the planet. "The ship's scanners will detect any patrols in our vicinity," Nike explained, "and alert us through the communicators. We will have plenty of time to hide, provided we are careful of our route."
"Well, since I can't read Goa'uld or Goa'uld maps, I want you to know I'm taking a lot on trust here," Jack said.
"I understand, and I am flattered."
"Don't be," Jack told her. "I wouldn't do this if I had any other choice."
"But if you did not trust me at all then this would not be a choice," Nike pointed out.
"Stop that!" Jack insisted. "Stop acting like we have some kind of bond."
"But we do," Nike said. "You know that."
They had walked almost five miles when Jack realised he was no longer fully aware of his surroundings. Fatigue and injury had caught up with him, and he was flying on vapour. He stumbled and Nike caught him by the arm.
"There is a cleft in the rocks just over that ridge," she said, gently. "We can rest there."
The cleft was narrow, but widened behind the mouth into a small cave. Jack gratefully lowered himself to the ground.
"You are very tired," Nike said. "I told you that you should have rested."
"I don't think I can sleep with a Goa'uld nearby," Jack told her.
"I do not believe you have a choice," Nike replied. "Your wounds are trivial, but in your current state I would not need to wait for you to sleep. I could take you now. Sleep."
"No offence, but…"
"I take no offence," Nike insisted. "However, you must rest." She paused. "Jack; you know how difficult it is for Goa'uld to trust each other. When a Goa'uld needs another to trust her, she will show trust herself by divulging a secret, known to no other living being.
"Jack: I am afraid. I am bitterly afraid and that is something no other has ever heard me admit to."
"No offence, but at the moment that isn't much of a secret," Jack said.
Nike nodded her understanding. "Then I will tell you this. I am unknown."
"Huh?" Jack asked. "I know you."
"You might wish it so," Nike murmured, half to herself.
"Nothing," Nike assured him. "What I mean is that no man – or woman – has known me. Carnally."
"I am untouched; host and Goa'uld alike."
"Well I…" Jack broke off. "I don't know what to say," he admitted. "That's…You're thousands of years old; right?"
"Four thousand, eight hundred and seventy-two Earth years."
"And you've never…?"
"Wow," Jack breathed. "And no-one knows this?"
"Not even my General. Only you."
There was a long pause.
"There's a woman," Jack said. "We have feelings for each other, but it would be impossible for us to ever have a relationship in our current positions. When we found out how we felt about each other, she said that no-one else had to know. I knew that she didn't mean to keep it a secret; she meant that we would bury it, pretend there was nothing there. One of us could have quit our job, but neither of us wanted to and I was just glad it was her that said it. I don't know if I would have had the guts; I would have been too afraid of hurting her, just like I was with my wife.
"When Sara left me," he went on, the words just pouring out, "I was glad she'd decided to go, because things had been wrong for a long time before that and if she was gone it meant I didn't have to try and fix it. I never called her and she never called me. I wanted her to call; even though I knew we'd hurt each other I wanted so badly to have her back. But I was glad she didn't because that meant it wasn't my fault we were failing."
"I am sorry that your marriage failed," Nike said, sincerely.
Jack shrugged. "My marriage was a failure from the start. We were holding it together because we loved each other so much and because of Charlie, but it was a mess. My point is, if I hadn't been so scared of hurting Sara I would have left her years before and actually saved us both a whole lot of pain." Jack grimaced in self-loathing. "I can face my own death without blinking, but I don't have the courage to let a woman down easy."
"Who was Charlie?" Nike asked.
"My son," Jack replied. "He died. He accidentally shot himself with my own gun."
"It is hard for a father to lose his son in battle," Nike said. "I have seen it many times. To lose him to accident while he is but a child is a grief indescribable. You have my condolences, Jack."
Jack straightened up and wiped a tear from his eye. "I don't want your pity," he said. "I don't even know why I told you that."
"You do not have my pity, Jack," Nike assured him. "Only my sympathy. We must rest now."
Although still wary, Jack lay down and removed his helmet. Without the light amplifiers he was blind, but he felt Nike press herself in behind him and drew away from her.
"You will freeze in your sleep," Nike warned.
"So light the heat lantern."
"Too much light," she told him. "This is just for warmth, Jack; we have done it before."
"Back then I thought you were human," Jack replied, but he did not resist as she moved in closer again. His limbs were tense, every muscle tight; he thought he might be shivering, but slowly it dawned on him that it was Nike who was shaking. "Are you alright?" He asked.
"I am well," she lied, a slight quaver in her voice.
"Are you nervous?"
"You're not planning anything, are you?" Jack demanded. "I mean, I know how cute I am and you might not be able to control yourself."
"I promise, Jack; I have no intention or desire to mate with you."
"Okay then. Good to know." There was a pause. "Not even a little bit of desire?"
After several hours labour the workers were told to go back to their quarters. One of the old lags explained to Dilg'a that in addition to their meal breaks the slaves in the mines were permitted a six hour rest period each 'night'.
After his kelno'reem, Dilg'a forewent the luxury of physical sleep – although they did not need sleep, many Jaffa enjoyed it – and sat up with Psyche, quizzing her on the capabilities of the Gorgons. She was wary of telling too much to a man she might someday face in battle, but she undoubtedly told him more than her mother would have done and there were other reasons that he chose her to speak with. As they sat together in the gloom of the rest area, their hands came together, and while their speech did not move from talk of plans and escape, their fingers intertwined in instant rapport.
"Do you believe that we shall escape?" Psyche asked.
"I believe we can," Dilg'a replied, "which is all we are ever given." He was very aware that the pad of Psyche's thumb was brushing lightly over the fork of his thumb and index finger and he squeezed her fingers gently in response. "The rest comes down to two things: Skill and chance."
"My mother says that there is no such thing as luck; only skill."
Dilg'a shook his head. "The greatest warrior can be unlucky," he said. "The measure is how they deal with ill-fortune. With the skill of your Gorgons I do not believe that we will need a great deal of luck, but we shall need some."
"I am afraid," Psyche admitted.
"As am I," Dilg'a replied. "But we shall be well if we do not give in and remember to take care of our own."
Suddenly seeming uncomfortable, Psyche withdrew her hand from Dilg'a's. "I need to rest," she said. "Or I shall not be able to take care of anyone."
"Of course," Dilg'a replied. He was momentarily perturbed, but with the distracting warmth of Psyche's hand gone he quickly became aware of eyes resting intently on the pair of them. "Rest well, Psyche."
"And you, Dilg'a." Hastily, Psyche rose and moved away across the rest chamber.
Following her with his gaze, Dilg'a was not surprised to see her pass her mother, who waited only a short moment before approaching Dilg'a herself.
"Primarch," Dilg'a said, standing and bowing in respect.
"Dilg'a," the older woman replied. "You are a warrior of great skill and cunning; I can see that in your eyes. I like you a great deal."
"I am honoured, Primarch."
"We are all equals here," she said. "But if you must then my title is Medusa. As I say, I like you and respect your ability as a warrior. However, my daughter is important to me, more precious than life, and I will not see her led astray."
Dilg'a gave no reply, merely waited for Meriope to continue.
"Psyche will marry a warrior of the Gorgons and she will continue in the service of my Captain. In this I am inflexible. I would never see her marry a warrior unable to win the helm of an elite, not would I allow her to wed the servant of another God. Certainly, I would not give her to a heretic and a shol'va."
"If she is so important to you," Dilg'a asked, "then why do you allow her to remain a slave to the Goa'uld?"
"We are not slaves," Meriope replied, calmly. "We are soldiers and Nike is a soldier's God. She understand the needs of her warriors and cares for us. The Gorgons have no illusions: Nike is as mortal as any of us, but there is not one of us would not give our life to save her. Psyche will marry a Gorgon," she repeated. "However, I would be proud to take you as my chal'ti."
"I would be honoured to be your student, Medusa," Dilg'a assured her. "But I have sworn never again to serve a false God."
Meriope bowed her head, regretfully. "Then you shall never be joined with my daughter."
"If it must be so," Dilg'a agreed.
Meriope's eyes flashed, angrily. "If she means so little to you, I am glad that I have stopped this now."
"Your daughter means a great deal to me already," Dilg'a replied. "But I would betray her and myself to enter the service of a false God. I shall not do that."
"You make me sad, Dilg'a," Meriope said. "Truly you do."
Jack woke to find Nike sitting by the heat lamp, shrouding its glow with her body while she cooked a meagre breakfast.
"Good morning," he said.
"There is no morning here," Nike replied, in a slightly haunted voice. "No day or night; no great rhythm of the world."
"That bothers you?"
"We Goa'uld live our lives around ritual," she explained. "Ritual belongs to a cycle. It is predicated on the fundamental truth that one day follows another in an endless, cosmic reel; eternal, constant and knowable. Without day and night there is no passage of time in the truest sense. Every moment is the same as every other moment. There are no days of rest, no time for sleep; no festivals or feast days; no celebrations and no days of remembrance. On this world there is only the abyss."
"Well that's gloomy," Jack told her.
"In a life as long as mine there are very few constants, Jack. That day follows night is one of the few solid foundations of my existence. Here that is not true; divine order is turned on its head. How apt that the home of the God of Primal Emptiness should lack even the first created thing. Time."
Jack shook his head. "You get scared of the strangest things," he said.
"Immortals have concerns quite different from mortals," Nike replied.
"You're not immortal."
"No," she agreed. "But I am not mortal either and my concerns and fears are quite unlike yours." She smiled, distractedly. "Odd then that our desires should be quite so similar."
"You are one weird lady, Nike," Jack sighed. He shook his head. "So what's for breakfast? Blind fungus rat?"
"Fortunately our supplies are sufficient that we need not resort to that particular delicacy again," Nike assured him. "Unless you would like…"
"No!" Jack assured her. "That's okay. I'm good with field rations."
Nike smiled. "I suspected as much."
They left the lantern on while they ate, still hiding the light with their own forms, allowing the heat to permeate their limbs while Nike kept half an eye on her communicator. "We remain undetected," she assured him, as she stowed the lantern.
Jack shivered as the chill set in, even through the heating units in his armour. "How far do we have left to go?" He asked.
"Sixteen miles," Nike replied. "We shall have to make better time than we did before."
"I think I can manage that," Jack assured her. "You were right," he added, grudgingly. "I should have rested before we set out."
"If you can keep pace with me, we can be there in five hours of the Tau'ri reckoning."
Jack was taken aback, having expected an 'I told you so' at least, but hid his surprise. "I can keep up," he promised.
"Good. In these conditions and on these rations, you and I shall only grow weaker and for the Jaffa it will be worse."
"What do you think is happening to them?" Jack asked.
"If they were not killed at the ship – and they were not – they must have been taken for labour. There are mines near to the spaceport; I believe they will have been taken there."
"Always with the mines," Jack muttered.
"This will ultimately be to our advantage," Nike assured him. "The Jaffa must have some liberty to work and they are within striking distance of the hangars. They will be ill-fed and worked hard, but my warriors know how to conserve their strength for a few days at least."
Jack nodded. "Sounds promising," he agreed. So, since you're the one with the plan, what happens when we get to the gravity generator?"
"For all his power, Amun's technology is antiquated," Nike explained. "My vessel can generate a jamming field centred on our communicators that will shroud us from his sensors, which means that all we will need to concern ourselves with are the senses of the Jaffa.
"The generator is manned by two warriors. I propose that we disable these sentries and use the elevator shaft to descend into the planet. I believe that I can keep their central command from realising that the station has been neutralised for some time. Once below, we locate the primary generator and disable it, dropping the planet out of hyperspace and deactivating the gravity trap. We can then make our escape.
"It will not be easy," she cautioned.
"I get that," Jack assured her. "You just worry about yourself; I won't let you down."
"Of that I am certain," she told him.
"There's an old saying on Earth," Jack said, breathing heavily. Nike had set a quick pace and the thin, cold air of Shmunu was beginning to tell on both of them. "When confronting an enemy at the end of a journey of a thousand miles, be certain that it was his journey."
"Catch your breath," Nike replied, looking only a little less tired than he felt. "There are only two guards and there will be time to rest later; it is a long descent. We should not talk," she added. "We are underneath the station now."
Jack did not bother to reply, focusing instead on bringing his breathing back under control. After fifteen minutes they both felt ready to continue. Nike brought up a map of the control post on her communicator, pointing out the control room where the two sentries would be. Jack made a clockwise motion, then raised both hands, fingers spread; Nike nodded and in return gestured up-and-under. That was all the planning that they needed, each experienced field commander knowing instinctively that the other understood them.
While Nike headed for an access hatch low down in the wall of the control post, Jack moved around the perimeter of the metal tower toward the rear door. He reached it in two minutes and located the ram's head icon that controlled the door, then hunkered down and waited. Eight minutes later, he opened the door and went in, knowing that Nike would be breaching the lower hatch at the same moment.
Despite Nike's assurances, Jack checked each room in the tower for occupants as he passed, but all he saw was machinery and glowing crystals. Carter would love this place, he thought, wistfully, wishing that his team could be here with him. He felt bad at once, realising that it was a terribly selfish thing to wish for.
The door to the control room looked innocuous enough, but Jack felt his body tense as he drew closer to it. He readied the plasma crossbow, steadying it one-handed while he reached out, turned the door switch and stepped through.
"Akreea!" He snapped, levelling his weapon at the backs of the two Jaffa. "Ay kree ah lokai!"
The Jaffa obeyed at once, stepping away form their control panels, hands held where Jack could see them. They were dressed in hooded black robes, but Jack saw no sign of armour beneath.
"Turn around," he told them, but if they understood him they made no move to comply and Nike had only given him the two basic commands in Goa'uld: 'freeze' and 'step away from the console'. Instead, Jack moved around so that he could see their faces. They were young and frightened, and he was certain they were both unarmed and unarmoured.
"In the corner," he instructed, gesturing with his hand while holding the weapon level.
The Jaffa gazed blankly.
At the sound of the resonant voice, the two Jaffa leaped to obey, all but throwing themselves into the corner of the control room.
Jack kept his eyes on the prisoners as he addressed Nike. "These aren't sentries," he told her. "Did you just assume sentries, or will there be two more Jaffa around here somewhere?"
"There were weapons signatures and they were mobile," Nike replied. "I checked each chamber from the lower hatch to the control room. They must be in one of the machine rooms down towards the main entrance." She turned to the control panel. "I will disable the communications systems and lock down as many doors as I can; you must find and neutralise the sentries."
"What about these two?"
Nike turned and fired her zat, the blast coiling around both Jaffa. "Go!"
Dilg'a and Psyche were working in the mine again, once more side-by-side at the workface. They did not have the best seam to work, but they were both strong and there was a fresh breeze at this point. Dilg'a turned his head, seeking the source of the air current. He stooped and gathered some fine dust, releasing it to float in the air and watching where it went.
"Dilg'a?" Psyche asked.
"Just a thought," he told her.
"You must think less visibly," Psyche told him. "The guards have taken notice."
Dilg'a glanced towards the two ram-tattooed warriors, who were indeed staring at him with hostile eyes. He knew that there were already two marks against his name: one because he was a newcomer and one because his ginger hair made him stand out from the crowd. The guards were just looking for a reason to punish him and he did not intend to make it easy.
He reached to lift his pick once more, but as his hand closed on the handle, Psyche brushed her fingers unconsciously against his other hand. With an effort, Dilg'a pushed his feelings down and tried to concentrate, but for a moment he was overwhelmed. His eyes closed involuntarily and his hands shook, almost dropping the pick. It was a moment, but it was long enough.
"You!" One of the guards stamped over, bearing a burning torch. He was a great bear of a Jaffa, towering over Dilg'a's wiry frame.
Dilg'a turned to face the guard, but kept his eyes on the ground. He did his best to roll with the punch that the other Jaffa landed on his chin, but it still hurt. He fell onto his back, gasping in pain. The two guards laughed and the one who had hit Dilg'a held up his torch to see if any of the other slaves had taken notice. As the light was raised, Dilg'a's eyes widened in amazement.
The guard went back to his friend and Dilg'a struggled up. Psyche made no move to help him, knowing that any open show of comradeship would be punished.
"I need to speak to your mother," he said. "I know how we can get out of the mine."
Jack moved warily through the machine rooms. His training in close-quarters urban combat – what an old friend in the British Army called FISH; Fighting In Someone's House – was considerable, but the addition of noisy industrial equipment made things far more difficult.
"Chamber secure," he reported. "Can you shut off some of these machines? It's hard to hear anything in here."
"I can not," Nike replied. "While the communications are now disabled, any interruption in function will alert the control centre. It is also imperative that you do not damage the machinery in a firefight."
"Just great," Jack muttered, falling silent before moving on to the next chamber, a three story room taken up mostly by a huge column of rods and veins. The top of the chamber was open to the night sky. Jack held his breath and listened: Mostly he heard the steady hum of the Goa'uld generators, but at the edge of his range he was certain that he could make out the regular whisper of human breath.
After a quick check of any possible sniper points, Jack dropped low and rolled on his stomach around a bank of computers. A staff blast seared the air over his head and he responded with a shot from the crossbow. Two clouds of boiling energy flew from the bow, burning through the Jaffa's armour and into the flesh behind. Jack glanced behind him and was relieved to see that the staff blast had only hit empty wall.
Cautiously, Jack rose to his feet and padded forward, kicking the staff away before prodding the body with his foot. There was no response.
"One down," he reported, staring up at the maze of platforms that crisscrossed the higher levels of the chamber. "I'm going to have to go up and see…" He broke off with a grunt as a heavy form dropped on him from above. A less experienced soldier would have died at once, the Jaffa's forked dagger slicing through the back of his neck and severing his spine, but Jack's acquired combat instincts gave him a moment's warning to turn and raise the bow in defence.
The knife came down and the plasma bow's stock wedged between its prongs. Jack twisted the weapon to strike the snarling face of the Jaffa. The warrior struck out with his free hand, gouging at Jack's eyes. With desperate strength Jack managed to force the knife from the Jaffa's hand but lost his grip on the bow. Both weapons skittered away and the two warriors were left to grapple hand-to-hand.
Jack caught at the Jaffa's wrists, holding him away, applying pressure such that the bigger and more powerful warrior could not press close to him. A little flailing got a leg free and he brought it up into the Jaffa's side, drawing a grunt of discomfort but little more.
With a great effort, the Jaffa turned his wrists outwards, breaking Jack's lock and letting him smash his forehead down into Jack's face. Jack turned away at the last moment, and only received a nasty blow to his cheekbone. He roared in pain and pushed, lifting the Jaffa a little way, but his opponent managed to free his wrists and roll away from the tangle.
Jack heaved himself up, reaching for his zat, but the Jaffa had snatched up the plasma crossbow and was holding it ready. Jack's life began to flash before his eyes, but the show was interrupted as a dark figure dropped on the Jaffa from the same landing that he had used to ambush Jack.
The Jaffa fell, his shot going wild. Nike reached down, took his head between her hands and gave a sharp twist. The crack seemed very loud, even amidst the noise of the machines.
"You are well?" Nike asked.
"Fine," Jack replied, although he felt slightly sick. While he liked to think of himself as a very modern soldier he could not pretend that seeing a slender girl snap the neck of a man bigger than himself was not disturbing to him.
"You are hurt," Nike said. She left the body and crossed to Jack, reaching out to touch his injured cheek.
"Just a bruise," he assured her, turning his face away from her hand.
Insistently, Nike pressed her fingers to his skin. The touch was firm but gentle. After a moment, she nodded, satisfied. "It is not broken," she said, rising to her feet. "We will secure the last few chambers and move on."
"What about the techs?" Jack asked.
"We can either kill them or secure them here in the knowledge that they will die for their failure," Nike replied. "I favour the former; it holds less risk."
"Why am I not surprised."
"I also find it more honest," she added. "If we leave them here we shall still be responsible for their deaths."
"I'll go with the latter," Jack replied, distastefully. "We don't know that they'll be killed."
"Alright; I don't know it."
Nike nodded. "As you prefer," she said, calmly, "although I find it odd that you would try to see the best in a Goa'uld in this of all matters."
"I don't like to be predictable," Jack retorted.
That night, the Gorgons met up again to discuss their plans, and Meriope called upon her scout, Sminthea, to speak first.
"I have spent this last cycle on the surface," Sminthea reported, "and explored the area. There is a great shipyard and spaceport close by the mines, that the Jaffa call the City Above. Not five miles from the mine entrance there is an armoury where the Jaffa are taking equipment captured from our ha'tak vessel; our armour and weapons are being stored there, for the time being at least. I heard the supervisor speak of transporting the spoils to the City Below in a few days."
"Can we find a functioning ship?" Meriope asked.
"Easily," Sminthea replied. "The port is heavily-guarded, but there is a vessel in the shipyards which will suit our purposes. It is well-protected but not by so many Jaffa as the port. According to the workers there the vessel is spaceworthy and ready to launch. They await only the celebrations of their Queen's festival to send the vessel out with great pomp."
"Excellent work," Meriope commended the scout. "The ship may be secured against intruders," she added. "Nestor; will that present a problem?"
Another of the Gorgons shook his head. "The technology used by these Jaffa is crude by modern standards. I should be able to circumvent any security measures; if we can get out of the mine that is."
Meriope nodded in satisfaction, then turned to Dilg'a. "My daughter tells me that you have an escape route in mind," she said.
"Of a sort," Dilg'a replied.
"Continue," Meriope invited.
"First I require your guarantee, Medusa," Dilg'a said.
The Gorgons seemed shocked by the boy's temerity, but Meriope smiled, indulgently. "What guarantee?" She asked.
"Colonel O'Neill and I are your enemies," Dilg'a said. "I must have your guarantee that we will be released once we are away from this world."
"You have it," Meriope agreed. "If you wish to leave, you will not be prevented."
Dilg'a nodded, gratefully. "There are vents in the deeper mines," he said. "Air rises into them, drawing a breeze down from the surface; you can feel the air moving if you stand near to the vents. They are cut into the rock about twelve feet from the floor and are no less than a yard square. The climb would be difficult but not impossible and the deep mines are poorly secured."
"The climb is possible," Sminthea agreed. "It was through those vents that I escaped the mines, but if we all attempted the climb we would be detected and the tops could be blocked before we could climb that distance."
"Exactly," Dilg'a replied, with a broad grin.
Only once Jack and Nike were certain that no more Jaffa lurked in the generator post did the Goa'uld begin pre-launch checks on the elevator. Jack made certain that the two technicians were well-secured in the post's Spartan brig before joining his unlikely ally.
"We don't seem to be going anywhere," Jack noted, after a few minutes.
"I must complete the initial checks," Nike replied. "If the alignment of the magnetic clamps is not precise, we could be killed."
"Why do you have to make everything so complicated?" Jack asked. "Why magnetic clamps? Why not just a big, honking cable."
"It is in fact far simpler to use magnetics than a cable six hundred miles long," Nike explained.
"Six hundred miles?"
"I said that we would have time to rest, did I not?"
"Well, yes," Jack admitted. "But I never…Six hundred miles?"
"Amun's power source is buried deep within the bowels of this planet," Nike said. "Therefore the elevator is guided by magnetic rails, to which the car's clamps must be properly aligned. Moreover, I must also cross-connect the systems which would otherwise alert central control to a descending car, otherwise we shall arrive at our destination only to be captured or killed."
Jack sat quietly, watching Nike work. "You know," he said, after a few more minutes. "You remind me of someone."
"Major Carter?" Nike asked.
"How did you…?"
"I was privileged to see her work when we set the bombs to destroy the mines of Chërt," Nike reminded him. "I saw much of myself in her, although she is a more gifted engineer."
"I'm sure she'd be happy to hear that," Jack said.
"Of course, I am the superior captain," Nike added.
"Of course," Jack agreed. Ordinarily he would take such a claim from a Goa'uld with a pinch of salt, but despite his high regard for Sam's abilities, he had little doubt that Nike spoke the truth.
"Nevertheless, I am flattered by the comparison," Nike assured Jack.
"Most Goa'uld would not be," Jack noted.
"A compliment should be judged by its intent," she replied. She sat back from the console. "We are ready to depart," she announced. "There are four bunks in this car; I am certain that you will be glad of a little privacy." As she spoke, the car began to descend, the acceleration making Jack feel a little light on his feet.
Following Nike's gesture, Jack located the hatch-covered alcove containing one pair of bunks. "You'll call me before we land, right?" He asked.
"Your communicator will rouse you in good time," she promised. "We shall not reach our destination for almost eight hours however."
"Eight hours in a warm bed," Jack sighed. "Right now that sounds like heaven."
"Sleep well, Jack," Nike said.
"And you," he replied. He felt restless however and knew that there was something he needed to do before he would be able to sleep. "Nike," he said.
"You saved my life," he said. "Thank you."
Nike turned her eyes towards the console. "I need you," she replied. "I can not do this alone, so it would have been folly to allow you to die."
Jack felt his temper boiling over. It was not easy for him to thank a Goa'uld and to have it thrown back in his face like that was infuriating. "Well, don't expect me to return the thought," he snapped. "I might just decide to take my chances." Angrily he slammed the hatch of the alcove closed.
Jack woke in comfort and for a few moments was able to forget the events that had brought him to Shmunu. The bunk could have been in an Air Force barracks, or even – given the feeling of constant motion – on a transport plane in clear skies.
Then the world turned upside down.
"What the hell was that?" Jack demanded, stumbling out of the alcove.
"I…I do not know?" Nike admitted. "One moment it felt as though the car was tipping over; the next all was well. Here; I have prepared some of the supplies from the post. It seems fresher than our rations and should be more palatable. I wonder where they acquired fresh food on a barren rogue, however."
"I've felt something like that before," Jack told her, accepting the food but refusing to either say thank you or be drawn into speculation as to Amun's shopping habits. "When Baal held me captive, he had some kind of artificial gravity fields in his base."
"Yes," Nike realised. "That might explain…But it could not be. He could not have…"
"What?" Jack asked.
The console beeped, cutting off any reply Nike might have given.
"We are arriving," she said. "There will be guards at the terminal, but only a routine patrol; we must leave the car now."
"Now!" Jack said. "While it's still moving?"
"We must, or we shall be discovered."
"I just wish you'd mentioned this before," Jack groused, wolfing down the last of his food and hastening to clear away the evidence of their meal. "Straighten the sheets in the alcoves or they'll know someone was in here," he said.
Nike moved to obey without question while Jack located what seemed to be a waste disposal. He checked his communicator and saw a countdown in progress; presumably as an allowance to him, the countdown was in seconds and used Arabic numerals.
"Hurry!" He called.
Nike closed the second alcove with ill grace. "I can not believe that you could have made such a mess of the bunk in so short a time. Do Tau'ri not lie still when they sleep?" She sprang up onto the console and released a hatch.
"You sound like my stepmom," Jack said, watching with grudging admiration as Nike pulled herself up by the arms and jack-knifed her body through the hatch.
The Goa'uld leaned back down and held out her hands to Jack. "Come on," she told him.
Jack reached up and grasped Nike's slender hands. For all he knew of her, he was surprised to feel the ridges and calluses of hard work on her skin, but had little time for wonder as she hauled him up with inhuman strength and dragged him into a crawl space. She pulled the hatch closed, and he followed her through a maze of vents to a second hatch. It was dark and Jack was obliged to expand his Gorgon helm in order to see where he was going.
The lift was beginning to slow as they emerged from a second hatch onto the top of the elevator. Smooth walls of black rock rushed past them, quartered by the four shining lines of the magnetic rails. The air around them was hot and dry, like the blast from the open door of a pottery kiln.
"Where are we?" Jack asked.
"In the bowels of this world," Nike replied. "The shaft must pass close to magma chambers. The engineering that must have been required to keep the walls from rupturing is incredible."
The stone walls were replaced by metal as beneath their feet, the car shuddered to a stop. On one side of the shaft was a small hatch and Nike made for the alcove in which it was set at once. She set her communicator against the wall and it held there as though magnetised – as for all Jack knew it was. Reaching inside her robe, she drew out a set of small tools and began manipulating the lock.
"Nike," Jack whispered. "What happens when they start trying to contact the surface and find out why the car came down?"
"Do not be concerned," Nike replied. "I have it in hand."
A red light flashed on the communicator and a voice spoke. "Kree Jaffa. Erak Merak'te."
A list appeared on the communicator screen. Nike paused in her work to select one of the options and a lighter voice replied to the first: "Kree ta, Jaffa. Merak'te mashent."
"I recorded several routine exchanges between the surface and the generator post while I was monitoring the enemy communications," she explained. "I was able to build up a set of responses from the voice patterns of the Jaffa on the surface."
"Merak'te," the first voice went on. "Why has the ascender car been sent down unoccupied?"
Nike selected another response. "Monitoring systems are down," the reply came. "Communications are unreliable. We sent the car as a test run on the repaired circuits, but were unable to track its progress. What is your status, control?"
"Monitoring negative," the reply came. "We did not even know the car was coming. We will send a full repair team back up to assist you."
"Kra'te, control. Send plenty of spare circuit crystals as well; we have suffered a number of minor system failures here."
"Affirmative, Merak'te. We shall be with you as soon as possible."
"Kra'te," Nike's communicator said again. "Kree na."
"Are you mad?" Jack asked. "They'll go up there and find the guards dead and the technicians tied up!"
"Indeed," Nike agreed. "But they will spend at least an hour locating spare parts, eleven hours ascending and three repairing the communications equipment before they can warn anyone. We shall be done by then; or we shall have been captured anyway."
The hatch opened with a hiss that sounded much too loud to Jack. Behind it a ladder led up.
"Follow me," Nike said.
After another half hour spent crawling through maintenance tunnels, Jack had a new respect for Jaffa technicians. Nike – for all her strength no more than two-thirds Jack's body mass – had an easier time of it, but Jack found it extremely difficult going.
"We have arrived," Nike said at last.
"A signal substation," she replied. "From here I shall be able to patch into Amun's sensor arrays so that we can spy out the land and also prevent our own detection. My ship's sensors and jamming fields are unable to penetrate this depth of rock."
Nike rolled on her back and opened the hatch above her.
Jack stifled a cry and squeezed his eyes shut in pain. "What is that?" He asked.
"Come and see," Nike invited. She pulled herself up through the hatch, then once more reached back to help Jack out of the tunnel.
Jack could not believe his eyes. "It's…the sun," he gasped.
"Chel'nak," Nike whispered. "It is incredible."
"How can it be the sun?" Jack demanded. "We're inside the planet."
"The surface of this world is dead," Nike recalled. "When it was lost in the void of space, Amun must have begun by digging out tunnels that could be heated for survival. In time however he hollowed out his entire world. He must have ejected the molten core into space," she realised, "then constructed this."
"There's grass in here," Jack protested.
"He created an artificial sun to be his generator," Nike said. "The power needed to initiate the sustained fusion reaction would be incredible, but once it was done the returns would be beyond belief. If you could harness just a fraction of that energy then capturing enemy vessels and propelling an entire world through hyperspace would be nothing."
Jack looked at Nike, at her rapturous expression, with something approaching disgust. "So," he asked. "Is this where you betray me for a slice of that power?"
"No, Jack," she replied, sounding disappointed in him. "This is where you and I destroy that power. We can not escape while his sun survives. Come; I must find a terminal."
Jack kept watch while Nike worked, splicing her devices into the circuits of the access terminal. In truth, he had no idea what she was doing and the possibility that she was summoning Amun's guards haunted him.
"It is done," she announced.
"Are we good to go?" Jack asked.
"Almost," she replied. "I must insert a subroutine to prevent our own detection, then I shall try and bring up a map of the city."
Jack fidgeted impatiently as Nike worked. "So do you feel better for seeing the sun?" He asked.
"I do not," Nike replied. "Here it must always be day; that is as unnaturally as eternal night." She moved a few more crystals and a holographic plan appeared above the terminal.
"What are we looking at?" Jack asked?
"The sacred city of Shmunu Within," Nike explained. "This is the part of the inner world given over to the most important structures; palaces and shrines, military and administrative buildings and control of the power generation and distribution for the entire planet. The remainder of the interior is occupied by farms and labourers' quarters."
Nike pointed with a finger to indicate a number of buildings in turn, each of which lit up briefly and sprouted a caption in Goa'uld as she touched it. "These are palaces," she began. "This first is the great temple-palace of Amun himself. The structure at the rear is the Queen's harem, which means he must have taken one of the other Queens of the League as his own after Amaunet's betrayal. These lesser palaces are the residences of…Naunet and Hauhet. Kuk does not appear to have a residence, but if Amun has taken his Queen then Kuk must be dead; by Amun's hand if by no other.
"This is a barracks for the Kerer Guard," Nike went on, indicating a low, squat building. "Five thousand in the city, one thousand more and seventy thousand regular Jaffa in the City Above." The next structure was a bleak, windowless dome. "The kennel," Nike read. "I wonder what kind of hounds they keep here."
"This is all fascinating…" Jack lied, impatiently.
Nike nodded. "The power conversion station is here," she told him, lighting up a low pyramid, topped with a wide platform. It was less tall than the surrounding buildings, but covered more ground than any other. "The hangar is here; less than five minutes at a good run. I will download the plans for the station to your communicator. You will have to make your way through the city waste reclamation system and then through the station to the central control core, disable the guards and technicians and override the primary safety arrays." The image of a control console appeared in place of the map. "You must locate the master safety switching panel," Nike explained. "It will be protected by a force field, but I will extract the codes needed to disable the field and place those in your communicator as well. You need only enter the codes, throw the main switch to off, remove the red crystals and throw the switch back to on.
"Once that is done, you will have to escape from the pyramid and make your way to the hangar. There we shall meet up and steal a small craft to reach the surface through this launch shaft here."
"Wait a moment," Jack protested. "Why am I doing this? You're the technical one. What will you be doing all this time?"
Nike smiled, beatifically. "You will never make it into the power centre without a distraction and the Jaffa need to know when to make their move. I will arrange a signal that will be received in the mines."
"And the distraction?" Jack asked. "What are you planning?"
Nike's smile deepened. She shrugged her shoulders, and the black robe slid away to reveal the bronze-hued armour underneath. The surface of the plates protecting her limbs and body shone like a sunset. Although it did not hug her form, the contours of the breastplate hinted just enough to be distracting. A cloak hung down her back, shimmering sliver, gathered at the neck by a golden clasp in the shape of the winged circle, although he saw now that the circle was in fact a shield. All in all, it was armour that was sure to be noticed. "I am planning," she explained, "to make a spectacle of myself."
With a certain trepidation, Jack entered the waste reclamation system. He had known all along that what Nike meant was 'sewers', but there was just something about sewers that no amount of expectation could ever prepare you for. Even with the Gorgon helm filtering out most of the stink he felt unclean just from wading through the ankle-deep filth. Knowing that Nike was, for the time being, in the same environment was little comfort.
"You so owe me a new pair of boots," Jack said.
Nike's voice echoed inside his helmet. "I gave you a new pair of boots," she reminded him. "Is the mapping projection working?"
"Coming through five-by-five," Jack assured her. "Much like the smell." The helmet of his armour had a heads-up display and currently it was showing him a plan of the sewer system complete with directions. He had to admit that Nike's equipment was rather swish, but he would have given it all for a P90 and a clothes' peg.
A movement caught Jack's eye and he turned to see a truly huge rat gazing at him with red, malevolent eyes. Without even thinking about it, he raised Dilg'a's crossbow and fired.
"Are you detected, Jack?" Nike asked, concerned.
"Not by anyone who isn't now a rat fritter," Jack replied. "The vermin grow pretty big down here, it seems."
"Try to endure, Jack," she advised. "Our concealment is incomplete and weapons fire will be more easily detected than the mere presence of a power source."
"I'm sorry," Jack replied. "It just gave me a shock."
"You have a fear of rats?"
"I understand," Nike said, gently. "I have a great dislike of serpents myself."
"You are a serpent," Jack reminded her, although once more he was confounded by Nike's apparent openness. "And I'm in position," he added, craning his neck back to stare up a thirty foot shaft to a sewer hatch. If the map were accurate then the hatch should lead him out into the basement of the conversion station.
"Very good," Nike replied. "It should be safe for you to enter the waste pumping room, but do not make your way to the upper levels of the station until you receive my signal. There are too few means of egress for you to go undetected and the facility is too heavily guarded for you to force your way through."
"I understand," Jack assured her. "I do this sort of thing for a living as well, you know."
"My apologies, Jack. I meant no slur on your ability."
"Just hurry it up," Jack told her, as he climbed the ladder up the shaft. "I want to get out of here as soon as possible and have a shower."
"Affirmative," Nike responded.
As the effluent sloshed around her ankles, Nike could not help but wonder at the human's behaviour. He seemed at times more valiant than any other warrior in her long experience, yet rats and sewage distressed him greatly. Her own fear of serpents notwithstanding, these seemed odd things to disturb a soldier. It was possible, she realised, that he was exaggerating his discomfort, but to what end she could not fathom. Did he wish her to underestimate him? Or was this performance an elaborate part of the warrior customs of the Tau'ri?
Nike pushed such concerns from her mind as the sewage took on a distinctive smell. Less pungent, but sharper and more bitter than in the rest of the sewers, the odour was quite distinct. It indicated to Nike that she was wading through waste matter processed through the hyper-efficient digestive system of a Goa'uld host and stripped of various trace minerals that were vital to the survival of a symbiote but worthless or even toxic to a human. Even under a Goa'uld palace this very specific odour would have been barely detectable; here it was overwhelming. She checked her map and confirmed that she was beneath the building described as the kennel.
"Very good," Nike whispered to herself, although she sounded anything but pleased.
The Goa'uld located an access hatch, then double- and triple-checked her position with the map. To emerge in the wrong place in this building would almost certainly be to invite a swift and brutal death. Once she was satisfied, Nike listened for movement beyond the hatch before opening it and stepping through to the kennel.
The smell of Goa'uld effluent was now overwhelming. Nike pulled herself through into a sewage pumping station, then moved swiftly on into a passageway where the stink was less. Following her map she went down the passage, not pausing until she reached a large, secured door; an obstacle that would have defeated even her skills of intrusion.
Summoning all of her composure, Nike slammed her palm three times against the door.
"Who goes there?" A voice demanded from the other side.
"Open," she demanded, putting all of her authority into her voice, "in the name of Amun."
The Jaffa within did not hesitate. The unbeatable locks were released and the unbreachable door swung open. The Jaffa's eyes widened in alarm at the sight of the warrior-woman before him, but then the butt of Nike's staff weapon came up and hit him in the jaw, laying him cold. Two more Jaffa fell to Nike's zat'nik'tel. One was reaching for an alarm as he fell, but Nike dragged his prone form away from the switch.
Nike pulled the third Goa'uld away from the console and studied the controls. This was the central control room of the kennel, with complete access to all subsystems. Quickly, Nike made her preparations, opening just the right hatches and doors to create several passages out into the city from the open area at the heart of the structure: The kennel pit.
She moved to hit the final control, but froze. If she opened the pit hatches, the 'hounds' would flee, and she would never know for certain what they were. The secrets of the kennel lay before her, behind a sound-proof blast door that led onto an observation gallery over the pit. Overcome with curiosity, despite a sick feeling in her gut, Nike crossed to the door and turned the dial. The heavy, metal panel slid away, revealing a scene out of Nike's worst nightmares.
The Goa'uld were not without fear. They feared the parents who oppressed them and the children who might supplant them. They feared death and they feared impotence. Yet these were all the rational fears of a creature that wishes to keep living. The Goa'uld had other fears too; deep, dark fears that haunted their dreams and formed the stuff of their most horrific legends.
All Goa'uld heard tales of the hell worlds: Netu, Peklo, Acheron; planets, moons or asteroids given over to the recreation of ancient, mythic realms of eternal punishment. Humans might be sent to these worlds if they greatly displeased their gods, but eternal punishment required eternal life and so for the most part they were reserved for the imprisonment of other Goa'uld. Nike had heard dozens of these tales, but nothing that would have prepared her for the kennel pit.
Wrapt with horrified fascination, Nike stepped out onto the gallery. In the dismal chamber below her, figures writhed in the shadows. Snarls, screams and howls broke the air as the creatures held in this miserable space fought to control their own little pieces of the pit. The larger and stronger ones led small packs, which defended their space while they fed on red meat or forced themselves upon their weaker cohorts. Some of the females were pregnant, but Nike saw no children, and guessed from the half-starved appearance of these wretched beings that their population would never grow in that way; a baby would be too inviting a food source.
Had these creatures, warring and copulating in their own filth, been dogs, Nike would have been sickened. Had the long, smooth limbs that tangled and grappled below her belonged to humans, her horror would have been beyond anything she had experienced before.
But these were not dogs. They were not humans.
They were Goa'uld.
"Asar's Might and Sothis' Grace preserve and watch over us."
Jack cocked his head, concerned by the muttered voice coming from his headset. "Nike?" It sounded like his ally, but yet unlike.
"Let His strength guide our hands and Her light guide our feet. Let their power bring us safely through the great blackness of the night and into the bright day; let our footsteps carry us to their bosom and the welcome of their immortal realm."
"Jack," Nike whispered. "Gods, Jack; how could he?"
"Nike; what's wrong?" Jack asked. "Do you need me to go now? Is there a change of plan?"
"Plan…? No," she replied in a steadier voice. "No change. Wait for my signal."
"Sometimes even a goddess needs a little strength from on high," she admitted.
"Is it snakes?" Jack asked, kindly.
"In a manner of speaking," Nike replied.
"God, Nike; you sound like you're about to hurl. Where are you?"
"I am in the kennel," she replied. "I can see…Do you know what we are, Jack? Where the Goa'uld came from?"
"Yeah," he replied. "I was there once. Why?"
"We retain from our ancestry a savage atavism," Nike explained. "A desire for life that overrides all that we have since become. A Goa'uld who takes a host but is denied sustenance and comforts becomes…feral. Their knowledge and wisdom atrophies and they become…worse than animals."
"Not very proud of your ancestors are you," Jack quipped.
"Would you wish to become an ape-man?" Nike demanded, her voice angry and brittle. "A brute, more beast than man."
"I did once," Jack replied, evenly and gently. "And no; I wouldn't want to do it again. I'm sorry."
"It is not your fault," she assured him. "This kennel…He keeps Goa'uld here. Goa'uld placed in human hosts then all-but starved and kept in conditions I would not subject serpents to. They have become beasts; mindless, savage cannibals. The only thing that keeps them all from killing each other is their latent lust for power. Each seeks to control the others and you can not master the dead."
"Good God," Jack whispered, horrified. "But why?"
"Terror," she replied. "There is no way Amun could ever control the ferals, but there are automated doors designed to lead them into a Chappa'ai chamber. The false sun could provide him with power enough to force a Chappa'ai to form a wormhole without a point of origin. If he dialled a world that he was approaching, Amun could unleash a horde of these things on an unsuspecting planet. The carnage would be unspeakable and such an attack would put true horror in the heart of any Goa'uld."
"A horde?" Jack asked. "How many of these things does he have?"
"I would estimate…" Nike broke off, sounding sick again.
"A hundred thousand," she replied.
"What!" Jack demanded. "How? Where could he get that many Goa'uld?"
"They…They are divided into two groups, separated by a barrier. The walls of the two half-chambers are marked with different hieroglyphic cartouches, bearing the names of Hauhet and Naunet."
"Amun is using two of his Queens to breed bestial, berserk shock troops by the thousand," Nike affirmed. "No wonder he has never been stopped."
"Until now," Jack reminded her.
"Yes," she agreed. "Until now. Stay off the streets, Jack. When you make your way to the hangar do so by the raised walkways and sewers."
"You're going to let the dogs out," Jack realised.
"I am," she replied. "It is time that Amun had a taste of his own medicine. I am also sounding the alarms throughout Shmunu. Go now, Jack; Asar's Might and Sothis' Grace preserve and watch over you."
Jack felt a deep empathy with Nike's fear and horror; a sympathy he would never have expected for a Goa'uld's plight. "Good luck," he told her, gently.
A horn-blast sounded throughout the mine. The guards looked up, concerned, but stayed where they were.
"It is time," Meriope whispered to Acastus. "Stand ready."
A distorted voice spoke, seemingly from the very walls of the cavern. "Emergency. Guards of the second battalion stand your posts; all other Jaffa are to report to the barracks for immediate transport."
"Almost a third of the guards are leaving," Meriope noted. She looked around the chamber where the bulk of the Gorgons worked, waiting until the bulk of the guards had time to get a good distance away. She was certain of her warriors, but Dilg'a worried her. She had not seen him in combat and although he showed a knowledge of battle his movements were awkward and ungainly. Meriope feared that he might bring her daughter into danger, but there was little she could do now.
Satisfied that reinforcements were far enough away, Meriope touched her tattoo for a moment, then lifted her pick and swung it hard into the neck of the nearest guard. At this signal the Gorgons rose up, overwhelming their captors swiftly and efficiently. Dilg'a dropped an enemy Jaffa with a well-aimed hammer blow, then turned and hurled the weapon at the mouth of the passage to the next cavern. A Jaffa guard coming to investigate the commotion dropped lifeless to the floor as the hammer struck him in the face. More followed him, but Meriope kicked her victim's staff weapon up into her grasp and fired.
"To arm, Gorgons!" Meriope called, somewhat redundantly, for half-a-dozen of her warriors had already claimed fallen weapons. "To me and stand alert!"
The Gorgons formed a circle in the centre of the chamber, facing outwards. Two more guards were shot down trying to get through from the upper workings, but from the deep mines no-one emerged but two more Gorgons.
"We have the lower halls," Nestor reported.
Meriope nodded in acknowledgement. "Sminthea; you know your task."
"Carry it out," Meriope ordered. "Acastus; take two warriors and guard our backs. Fall back behind us, but be sure we are not followed. Gather any of the Captain's Jaffa that you find."
"What of the other slaves?" Psyche asked.
"If they are willing to fight for their freedom, by all means let them come with us," Meriope replied. "But watch those you do not know and do not wait for dawdlers. We must be swift. Dilg'a."
"You move well when you have to," Meriope commended him. "Take the lead."
"Yes, Medusa," Dilg'a replied. He acknowledged the honour of being assigned to point with a short bow, then turned to lead the way into the mines.
In spite of herself, Meriope was as impressed by the young Jaffa's focus and discipline as she had been by his sudden and deadly display of grace. As she followed him, however, she saw that Dilg'a was once more moving with a slightly awkward gait. It was hard to reconcile this man with the one she had just seen in combat and she was experienced enough not to try to do so in the middle of a fight.
"Gorgons! Move out," she ordered.
The descent into the lower mines was swift and efficient, Dilg'a travelling fast despite his wavering stride. He was also – Meriope realised – more balanced and alert than he seemed. As his silence and open countenance hid an incisive mind, so his gangly frame hid his skill and coordination. More than ever Meriope wished that he would take up her offer to become her apprentice, although she worried that she might have insulted him by suggesting the role of chal'ti. In battle, Dilg'a already displayed the easy and instinctual prowess that she would look for in a chal'ak; a senior apprentice.
"The vents begin here," Dilg'a explained, pointing up at the shafts cut into the stone. "It should be an easy climb once we get to them."
"If you consider a two-hundred foot ascent along a shaft the width of your shoulders 'easy'," Acastus noted.
"You know the rules, Acastus," Meriope chided. "Once the mission is in progress there is to be no griping. This rule will apply to Dilg'a's plan as much as to any of the Captain's."
"Yes, Tal ma'te," Acastus replied. "My apologies, Dilg'a."
"No offence was taken," the youth assured the older warrior.
Meriope nodded in satisfaction. "Alright," she said. "Dilg'a, Psyche, Acastus; up you go." As her daughter moved towards the wall, Meriope caught her by the shoulder. "Be careful," she said, reaching out to brush her fingers against Psyche's brow.
"As you have always taught me," Psyche promised.
In the Sacred City of Shmunu Within stood the great palace of Amun, a sprawling pyramidal complex from which the Hidden One directed his campaign of terror against the galaxy. It was the holy of holies in his divine realm; the inviolate sanctum at the heart of his impregnable fortress. For twenty thousand years the silence of the City Within had never been broken, but now alarms howled and the Master of the Void was not pleased.
Amun sat in his dark throne room, the only light in the chamber issuing from the great lantern behind the throne and from the communication screen suspended before it. The Hidden One sat in silhouette, wreathed in light yet sunk in shadow, while his favourite Queen, Kauket, sat in the darkness at his feet. Both Goa'uld were dark of skin, hair and eye and both were clad in black. A serpent, black as night, coiled languidly around Kauket's shoulders.
"First Prime," Amun growled. "What is happening."
"I…I do not know, My Lord," the Jaffa on the screen apologised. "The ferals have escaped and alarms have been triggered across the planet. Most of the Jaffa have been summoned to the City Within and the ascenders are fully loaded. The workers in the fields appear to have received an evacuation code and we are having difficulty recalling them. We shall regain control presently," he added, with false confidence. "I give you my word."
"Do not disappoint me," Amun warned. He deactivated the screen and sat back in his chair, brooding. "How many escaped from that ship?" He asked.
"They estimated no more than five," Kauket replied.
"Five," Amun echoed, amazed. "No more than five and they threaten all my domains. They will be crushed for this insult!"
Kauket rose and slid into Amun's lap, winding her slender arms around his neck. The great asp slid across the space between the two, binding them together. "Of course they shall," Kauket said, kissing her Lord gently. "But perhaps it might be wise to take precautions?"
"What do you mean?" Amun asked.
"Most of the Jaffa are in transit," Kauket replied. "If someone can control our alarms they can control much more than that; all transportation could be halted by a strike against the right stations, cutting us off from reinforcements. Seal the palace, My Lord," she urged. "For safety's sake."
"I will not appear weak," Amun replied.
Kauket kissed Amun again, more passionately. "Then for my sake?"
Amun cupped his Queen's face with his hand. "For you, anything."
Jack came up from the basement into the conversion station and found the building in chaos. Jaffa warriors were streaming towards the doors, while technicians desperately tried to work around them. With the hood of his cloak raised, Jack was able to move undetected through the melee towards the control core.
On the second floor he passed a window and looked out. A mass of scrabbling figures poured through the streets, baying and howling and hurling themselves on any Jaffa unfortunate enough to cross their path, heedless of the staff blasts that slew their fellows. At the heart of the city the great pyramid was closing down, massive plates covering every window and door, walkways retracting and even substructures like the Queen's harem being drawn within the body of the palace. As the ferals drew near, laser fire stabbed out from the walls, burning the attackers down by the dozen.
Jack turned away and in doing so caught sight of a figure silhouetted at the top of a nearby roof. Staff blasts stabbed up at Nike, but she dropped back from the edge, flipping a shock grenade into space as she did so. The weapon exploded at street level, knocking the shooters cold. Nike reappeared at a run and leaped across a space between two buildings. She moved with incredible grace and it was only with great reluctance that Jack turned away to continue with his own mission.
At the door of the control core two guards remained at their posts. Jack shot them both down, but found himself missing the weight of fire from his P90. He slotted his communicator into a socket by the door and waited. The access codes were transmitted and the door opened.
Jack retrieved his communicator and went in, zat in one hand, crossbow in the other. There were three guards and five technicians in the core; Jack shot one of each as he entered, then another guard took both a zat and a plasma blast before Jack was forced to dive behind a console to avoid a volley of return fire.
"Who arms their technicians anyway?" Jack wondered aloud as he tossed a shock grenade back over the console. He waited for the flash then rose up firing. He kept on until he was certain everyone was dead.
Nike swept along the rooftops, staff held one-handed, exulting in the thrill of combat. She launched herself into space, cast a shock grenade down on the Jaffa below with her free hand, then snatched at a cornice and flipped herself onto the next roof. Further along a group of Jaffa had rallied enough to make an impact on the tide of feral Goa'uld with shock grenades and cannon. Nike was impressed by their organisation and discipline. She knew that killing their leader would cause them to fall, but for now they were keeping the ferals from the hangars and that suited her well.
Closer to the palace a patrol had been overrun. Dropping to street level, Nike gathered up their cannon and aimed it at the pyramid. With three well-aimed shots she removed three of the defensive guns on the palace, then leaped away leaving the cannon and the empty street to suffer the retaliatory pounding.
Far off, Nike heard the tell-tale whine of udajet engines. She turned to face the approaching gliders and swung her staff weapon to the ready. One of the vessels swooped down on her while the other three strafed the feral packs. Nike held her ground, waiting until the udajet's cannons snapped open, then she fired and at the same moment hurled herself to one side.
The roof where she had been standing erupted in a shower of rock and metal. Meanwhile her plasma blast flew true and struck the open cannon tip. Moments later the cannon exploded, and the glider spiralled to the ground in flames.
Nike allowed herself the indulgence of an exultant laugh before she moved on once more.
With a flash the force field went down across the front of the master switching panel. Jack tore open the panel cover to expose an illuminated console. He twisted the largest switch and the lights went off. Wary of the power coursing behind the panel, Jack waited a few moments before pulling open the circuit box and ripping out the red crystals.
"Red crystals out," he said.
"Excellent," Nike replied, her voice jubilant.
"You having fun out there?"
"I am in my element," Nike confirmed. "It has been too long since I have been so tested."
"Captain," a third voice, a woman's voice, said.
"Who's that?" Jack asked.
"Sminthea," Nike replied, although to whom Jack did not know.
"My Captain," Sminthea gasped, delighted. "I have found you."
"Jaffa, report," Nike snapped.
"Meriope is leading an escape from the mines," Sminthea responded at once. "I am in the main hangar preparing for their arrival and attempting to initiate kel'rak."
"Dilg'a?" Jack asked.
"He is with us," Sminthea confirmed.
"Excellent," Nike said. "Stand by, Sminthea; we may need your assistance."
"I shall, my Captain."
"Jack," Nike went on. "Close the circuit panel and throw the main switch, then stand back."
"Right," Jack agreed, wondering what 'kel'rak' might be. He followed the Goa'uld's direction, finishing by springing backwards. The panel lit up briefly, then exploded in a shower of sparks and flame. "Done."
"Now get out," Nike ordered. "You…" She broke off, alarmed. "Jack; there are Kerer Guards entering the station. You have to get out now. The main entrance and the second floor walkways are blocked; you will have to head for the roof. I will…" Nike broke off again, this time her voice was replaced by a sharp explosion.
"Go," the Goa'uld responded, breathlessly.
Jack went, fleeing from the control core as fire spread behind the walls. Panel after panel sparked and failed as he turned into the corridor and ran, making for the stair to the next floor.
Jack ignored the cry, except to hurl himself around the next bend and throw a shock grenade back the way he had come. He reached around and fired wildly at his pursuers, then dashed on up the stairs. At the top of the flight he used up his last grenade to buy time to check his map; there were two more floors to traverse before he would reach the roof of the station, but a maintenance shaft would allow him to bypass those and emerge at the summit of the pyramid.
Jack sprinted to the hatch which lead into the shaft, ripped it open, dived through and slammed it behind him. He heard the Jaffa charge up and then on past the hatch. He let out a relieved breath then began to climb. Recalling the plans of the building Jack tried to work out how he might be able to get off the roof when he was there, but nothing presented itself.
"Nike?" He called, softly, but there was no reply. He was surprised by how concerned that made him.
At the top of the shaft, Jack cracked the hatch open and emerged onto the roof. He moved carefully towards the edge nearest the hangars, but after a few steps he ducked back again. At the stair exit stood a dozen Jaffa, and several more were emerging from the hatch of a small vessel not unlike a teltac.
Jack took a step backwards, towards the hatch and felt the tip of a staff weapon press into his spine.
Sminthea worked quickly, fighting her nerves. Her role in the Gorgons often required her to operate independently of her comrades, but like all Jaffa she was a social creature. Despite a reckless streak that revelled in the dangerous life of a scout, she did not truly enjoy going solo. It had been easy enough for her to steal back her armour, but although its familiar weight comforted her, she was terrified that she would be discovered at any moment. More than this, she was concerned by Nike's continuing silence. Desperately afraid, she focused on her mission, as Meriope and Nike had trained her to do.
Even with Dilg'a's plan, the remaining Gorgons would need a further distraction to complete their escape and Meriope had entrusted that to Sminthea. If she failed, everything failed and the control console in front of her was stubbornly refusing to respond to Sminthea's commands. She had cracked the basic communications and monitoring arrays already and needed only a little more, but that little more was eluding her. She was frustrated by her failure; she might not have Nestor's specialist technical skills, but intrusion was supposed to be her forte.
"Come on!" She screamed out loud and as though that were the key the systems yielded to her efforts and allowed her to launch a secure data transfer to Nike's ha'tak vessel.
Behind her the door hissed open and Sminthea reacted without thought. She turned and fired her zat'nik'tel, felling the two Jaffa before they could react. Someone must have noticed the shots, however and that would bring more company. Sminthea crossed to the door and closed it, then blasted the controls.
She was now trapped in the control booth.
Exhausted, Dilg'a pushed himself out onto the surface of Shmunu. The air had grown thinner as he climbed, and now he was all-but spent. He fell to his knees and saw a pair of heavy boots in the dust in front of him.
"Pitiful," the Goa'uld jailor remarked. "Did you think it was so easy to escape from the mines of Shmunu?"
Dilg'a lacked the energy to do more than slump as Jaffa came forward to manhandle Psyche and Acastus from the vents.
Jack was forced forward at staff point.
The lead Jaffa turned from the stairs, his frog helm no longer looking so amusing. "This is the cause of our troubles?" He asked, incredulous. "A human? No; there must be others."
"Oh there are," Jack assured him. "Dozens. Hundreds. The sewers and walkways of this city are crawling with commandos. Some are hidden; some in disguise. Chances are one of your boys here is one of my boys under that hood by now."
The Jaffa commander looked around at his troops uncertainly. "You lie," he said, but he was nervous and off guard. "Put him on the ship."
The staff jabbed into Jack's spine once more and he was pressed forward to the little vessel. Another Jaffa waited in the hatch, zat at the ready.
Jack let himself be pushed forward and at the last moment stumbled. As he went down he grabbed the wrist of the waiting Jaffa and pulled his arm forward and to the side. Instinctively the Jaffa fired and his shot hit the man at Jack's back. Then Jack hammered his fist into the Jaffa's throat, ripped the zat free of his grip and turned.
"Jaffa kree!" The commander yelled.
Jack ducked into the cover of the hatch ahead of a volley of plasma fire.
"Surrender," the commander advised. "Or you will be killed."
"You surrender!" Jack retorted. "You're surrounded; you just don't know it."
"Bet your life?" Jack taunted. "Open fire!"
The Jaffa looked up in fear, searching for Jack's sniper comrades, and Jack took advantage of their distraction to let loose a volley of zat blasts. Two Jaffa fell, but the leader was more on the ball than his fellows and avoided Jack's shot. His staff snapped open, but before the Jaffa could fire he was felled by a plasma blast that seemed to come out of nowhere.
Jack was no less baffled than the other Jaffa and scanned the surrounding roofs for the shooter. He saw her standing, nine storeys up, outlined on the rooftops like a comic book superhero. The Jaffa were awestruck and it was only when she fired again that they began shooting back. Jack joined in the fight, but was pinned down in cover and unable to do much but hope that Nike would succeed.
Two more shots hit home – Nike was clearly either a much better shot than the Jaffa or had a more accurate weapon, or most likely both – before any of the returning blasts began striking the roof near to Nike. Jack could not see why she made herself such a target, nor why she did not get down low.
Then she jumped.
The Goa'uld frowned at the vents in annoyance. "Where are the others?"
"Others?" Dilg'a asked.
"The others who escaped with you? Where have they gone? Why did only three of you reach the top of the shafts?"
"Only three of us made this attempt," Dilg'a said.
The Goa'uld struck the Jaffa hard across the face. "Liar! We know that almost five hundred slaves attempted to escape from the mines by this route."
"You are wrong," Psyche insisted, crouching beside Dilg'a. "Five hundred made the escape; but not by this route."
"What?" The Goa'uld was baffled. "Then where are they?"
In her booth in the hangars, Sminthea entered the last command sequence to initiate kel'rak; the overloading of the ha'tak vessel's engine core and hyperdrives. Her screen lit up with warning indicators as the power readings ran off the scale.
The Goa'uld looked up in alarm as, for the first time in millennia, a kind of dawn broke across the surface of Shmunu. The light was brilliant, blinding, and it was followed by a howling wind that tore through the Jaffa ranks like a hurricane though a forest. Dilg'a, Psyche and Acastus were already down and they pressed as hard to the earth as they could while the shockwave from the ha'tak's self-destruct sequence washed over them.
Before the Kerer Guards could rally, staff blasts stabbed out from the surrounding rocks, as the Gorgons rose up against them, resplendent in their armour and battle helms. Behind them came Nike's lesser Jaffa and hundreds of the other slaves, bearing down on the Kerer and overwhelming them.
The Goa'uld reached for his staff weapon, but could not find it. He looked up and saw the tip hanging before him, open and ready to fire.
"They were hiding in the caves," Dilg'a explained, in response to the Goa'uld's confusion. "When you came for us, they all-but walked out."
"Lord Amun!" The Goa'uld cried. "I have failed you!"
"Yes you have," Dilg'a agreed. He fired the weapon.
"No!" Jack leaped out from the hatch, reaching towards Nike as though he could stop her fall by sheer force of will. He must have made himself an inviting target, but the Jaffa were as astonished as he was and all watched the Goa'uld's descent with fascination.
Nike's cloak flowed out behind her, the silvery cloth reflecting every colour of the rainbow as she fell. It seemed to Jack as though the cloak was growing longer by the moment, flapping and billowing as though it might at any second fill out like a parachute and save her from a sudden and messy death. Then she was gone from view, and slowly the Jaffa turned back towards Jack.
Jack fired his zat and scrambled back towards the hatch. The Jaffa all turned on him, and so they missed what Jack would later rate as one of the most unexpected pleasures in his life: The sight of Nike rising over the edge of the roof platform on iridescent wings, behind the unsuspecting heads of the Kerer Guards. She climbed to a point some twenty feet above Jack's head, then stooped with an avian scream.
By this point the Jaffa – elite Kerer Guards though they were – were beginning to lose it. Convinced that Jack was surrounded by a mixture of invisible, invincible and airborne allies, they lost all cohesion and fell into panic. Only one of the warriors managed to maintain any presence of mind, but even as he tried to rally the troops, Nike dropped down and struck him in the head so hard that the shaft of her staff weapon cracked.
Almost unnoticed now, Jack fired into the mass. Nike stretched out her hand and threw two more warriors down with her ribbon device.
The Jaffa broke in terror and ran.
"Making a spectacle of yourself?" Jack asked, wryly, trying to hide how glad he was to see the Goa'uld.
Nike actually managed a modest grin. At her back the wings were shrinking, changing, and falling once more into the shape of her cloak.
"You didn't tell me you had wings," Jack accused.
"You did not ask."
"Why didn't I get wings?"
"These were another gift from Icarus," she explained. "They are, to my knowledge, unique and besides, it takes more years to learn to use them than you have to live." She looked past him and smiled. "It was kind of the Kerer to supply transportation, was it not?"
"Very," Jack agreed. They climbed aboard the Jaffa ship and closed the hatch.
Nike ducked past to the cockpit and Jack followed her. The control yoke of the ship looked just like that of a teltac, but the screen was covered in flashing red characters.
"Is that normal?" Jack asked.
"It is not," Nike replied.
"Should we be worried?"
"A little," she said. "Take a seat; we must depart at once and fly fast."
Dilg'a drew on his gauntlets and felt something inside him click into place. In armour he felt complete; a whole Jaffa once more.
"One last piece," Meriope reminded him, passing the mantle to her daughter.
"I could not," Dilg'a demurred.
"You shall need its eyes," Meriope insisted. "And Phryxus would be proud for a warrior such as you to wear his armour."
Dilg'a bowed his head respectfully. "It is my honour to receive this from you," he said.
Psyche smiled as she laid the mantle over his shoulders.
"It is an honour to call you brother," Meriope countered. "If only for a short time." She raised her own helm, the Medusa mask closing over her like a second skin, and activated her communicator. "Sminthea; report."
"Medusa," the scout responded. "I have made intermittent contact with the Captain and Colonel O'Neill and am awaiting orders. Many ships have begun launching from the far side of the planet; unarmed cargo vessels for the most part. It looks like an evacuation. I have opened a path to the shipyards for you, but you must hurry; if everyone is leaving then the ship may be gone soon."
Dilg'a raised his own Gorgon helm. If it felt good to be in armour it was still strange to wear a full helm once more, especially one so different from the Serpent masks of Apophis. He turned his head, surprised to find that the helmet turned with him. "Sminthea," he said. "If you can, program the shipyard computers to mark the ship as not spaceworthy."
"A good plan," Sminthea replied. A dull thud sounded across the channel.
"After that make you own way there," Meriope ordered. "Your position does not sound secure."
"My apologies, Medusa," Sminthea said. "But I may not be able to comply. I am trapped."
"We shall come for you," Meriope said.
"Negative," Sminthea replied. "There is no way, Medusa. I have locked myself in, but the passage is now filled with enemies and there is no other exit. I am sorry."
"Very well," Meriope replied. "Thank you, Mouser." She cut out her communicator so that Sminthea could not hear her and swore: "Sha'kai!"
Psyche looked shocked to hear such language from her mother. "Mo…Medusa?" She asked, when Meriope gave no further word.
"Medusa…" Nestor began, his voice hollow.
"To the ship," Meriope interrupted, her tone brooking no discussion but the words coming leaden and reluctant from her mouth.
With a shudder, the rogue planet dropped out of hyperspace. Amun rose from his throne in fury. The air around him was filled with a babble of talk from his commanders, reporting failures at the kennels, the converter station, the hangars and the spaceport.
"What is happening?" Amun demanded.
"Conversion has failed," Kauket replied. "The hyperdrives have no power."
"This is unacceptable!" Amun roared.
"My Lord," Kauket said, gently. "We must leave."
Amun looked baffled, like a child unable to understand what he had done wrong. He sat down again. "Leave? But this is my home. It is my realm and my power."
"If we stay it shall be our death," Kauket explained. "We must leave."
"My armies," he protested, weakly. "Hauhet and Naunet. My beautiful city. My power."
"While you survive and I am your Queen, your power can never be broken forever."
Amun nodded. "Prepare for departure," he said.
Kauket leaped to her feet, her dynamism a marked contrast to Amun's vacillation. "It shall be done as My Lord commands," she promised.
Nike gunned their small ship towards the hangar. "No time to steal anything larger," she said. "We will have to pilot our way to the surface in this."
"How long will that take?" Jack asked.
"At top speed, less than ten minutes," Nike promised. "This vessel is much faster than an ascender. It will not travel in hyperspace however. We must make contact with the Gorgons or be trapped in the explosion."
"An artificial sun is inherently unstable," Nike explained. "It has insufficient mass to hold itself together against the explosive forces of fusion. The power converter bleeds off excess energy to maintain the sun's integrity."
"So without the converter…?"
"Micronova," Nike replied.
"I have already signalled the workers to evacuate," Nike assured him. "They are civilians, and slaves besides and I do not engage in genocide. The Jaffa are enemy soldiers. I wish them all fortune, but could not give them advance warning."
"You sent the civilians away?" Jack was impressed.
"I am not a monster," Nike assured him. She hauled back on the yoke; the ship performed a tight loop-the-loop and headed down towards a gaping opening in the ground. Darkness swallowed the ship and it plunged into a long shaft.
Once again, Jack felt his stomach twist and now he felt as though they were climbing, not diving.
"Sminthea," Nike said, turning away from Jack.
"We may need assistance. Our vessel is not equipped with transponders to open the surface doors of the hangar. Can you override manually?"
"What happens if she can't?" Jack asked.
"I am pushing the engines too hard," she replied. "At current speed and deceleration potential I do not believe that we will be able to stop before we hit the doors."
"I will not fail you," Sminthea assured them. "May I say, Captain, that it has been an honour to serve under you."
"Jaffa?" Nike asked.
"She is trapped," Meriope's voice came over the channel.
"Jaffa; what is your position?" Nike demanded.
"Control booth three in the shipyard hangar?" Sminthea replied.
"We are at the ship we intend to steal," Meriope replied. "I can lead a squad to Sminthea's position and…
"No," Nike ordered. "There is no time. Continue and launch when ready, Medusa. I shall advise." She shifted restively in her seat.
"You look troubled," Jack noted.
Nike hit a switch on the console and the plans of a facility appeared.
"What's that?" Jack asked.
"The shipyards," she replied. "Now help me find my Jaffa."
The ship was still surrounded by a construction scaffold, but it looked complete. With its power offline, the only approach was a narrow walkway guarded by a dozen Jaffa and judging by the cluster of bodies on the near side and a few bloodstains on the bridge itself, several attempts to secure access had already been defeated. Undaunted, Meriope led her troops in, she and four other veteran Gorgons heading straight for the walkway. Acastus took Psyche and three others and moved right, clambering with frightening agility over the scaffolding to take the guards from the rear. The raid was swift and efficient and not one Gorgon was so much as wounded.
Dilg'a went forward with Nestor, leaving the rest of Nike's warriors – Gorgons and regulars – to lead the other slaves down to the base of the ship. It was possible that the ship could not be seized and it would be impossible to bring everyone in through the small access hatch anyway. It would also be a disaster to have the Gorgons caught up in a crush on the walkway.
"Clear," Nestor said, as the red lights on the panel turned green. "Lower ring chambers activated."
Meriope nodded and signalled her troops below to begin loading. "Acastus; your squad will accompany Nestor to the engine room. I shall secure the peltac. Nestor; I want internal sensors as soon as you can but engines and hyperdrives are the first priority. Shut down the ring chambers as soon as we're loaded."
"Understood," Nestor replied. "But Penelope could…"
"You are ha'eh and you will obey me, Jaffa," Meriope ordered, but her voice was not unkind. "You can not help her."
"Yes, Medusa," the engineer replied in a broken whisper.
"Dilg'a; go with Acastus. All of you keep a sharp eye out. There will be other guards here."
"Yes, Medusa," Dilg'a acknowledged.
"Shaft doors open," Sminthea reported. She looked out across the hangar to the shipyards, where the great ha'tak vessel was lighting up ready for launch. "Hangar doors open," she added. "You are clear to leave, my Captain."
"Not yet," Nike replied. "Attend to me, Jaffa. Are you wearing your own armour?"
"No other would fit me, My Captain," Sminthea replied. It was true; almost no Goa'uld would employ a warrior – male or female – of Sminthea's slight build. Her armour had been custom-made by Nike's armourers because no regular suit could be adjusted to fit the diminutive scout.
"Very good," Nike replied. "Three storeys directly below you is a ring chamber. Colonel O'Neill has aligned our rings to receive from that station. You will reach the chamber and stand within the rings in the next ninety seconds."
The ha'tak vessel began to lift off, tearing free of its scaffolding.
"I can not get out," Sminthea protested.
"Use the window," Nike ordered. "Shoot out the observation window and come down the wall."
"It is a sheer wall!"
"Of low-grade carbon steel," Nike replied, impatiently. "Does not my cat have claws?"
"Yes, my Captain," Sminthea replied. She raised her zat'nik'tel and fired three times, vaporising the window. Then she hurled herself out and let gravity draw her down. As she dropped, she flexed her fingers and her gauntlets sprouted their razor-tipped climbing claws. Doubtful – she usually used the claws only for climbing on rock – but trusting in Nike, Sminthea reached out and hooked her claws into the wall.
The high-grade trinium blades cut into the wall and dragged Sminthea to a halt less than a foot from the deck. Eight long gashes marred the wall for almost a storey and a half, her fingers felt like they were broken and at least one of her shoulders was definitely dislocated, but she was down and safe and utterly exhilarated. More important even than that, the door to the ring chamber was before her. Arms burning she threw her hip into the door release and stumbled inside.
"I am within!" Sminthea cried, feeling herself pass through the circumference of the transport rings. She drew up her legs, closed her eyes and raised her hand to her brow.
"Now!" Nike bellowed.
Jack stabbed his finger down on the ring controls. The rings descended with their usual scream and the light flashed within them.
"You're a little short for a Jaffa, aren't you?" Jack asked.
Sminthea ignored the human. "Thank you, my Captain," she gasped into the air.
"There is no thanks due to me," Nike replied across the intercom. "The plan was Colonel O'Neill's."
Sminthea looked up at the human. "Then thank you," she said.
"Any time." Jack helped the injured Jaffa to her feet and they went through to the cockpit. The big ha'tak vessel loomed before them.
"We are approaching you now," Nike announced.
"We see you," Meriope replied. "I am opening the hangar now."
Warning lights flashed and a red glow lit the underside of the ha'tak.
"Best speed," Jack suggested.
"Look!" Sminthea cried.
Jack followed the Jaffa's finger and saw a terrifying sight. The ground was splitting open, swallowing up the spaceport, and from the fissure something was rising; something huge and terrible. The ha'tak which the Gorgons had stolen was larger than most, but this vessel was on a whole different level of huge. It would have dwarfed Apophis' great mothership as that vessel had dwarfed a regular ha'tak, and it fairly bristled with weapons.
"My God," Jack gasped, as recognition hit him. "Is that…?"
"The great palace of Amun," Nike replied, even as the sight was blotted out by the sides of the ha'tak's hangar. "Medusa; take us away from here."
The surface of Shmunu began to boil as the great palace-ship rose up. Flaming plasma licked out from every crack and spewed from the great chasm. Standing hand-in-hand at the rear observation window of the ha'tak, Dilg'a and Psyche watched in horror until the planet blurred into nothing behind them.
Sminthea was taken to the ha'tak's half-completed infirmary while the Gorgons conducted a sweep of the ship. Assured of her Jaffa's safety, Nike went first to the peltac to look over her new command and Jack went with her.
"Your plan was superior," she admitted. "Slowing down to pick up Sminthea would have resulted in all of our deaths."
"It was your call to make sure we got her at all," Jack replied.
"I do not like to leave anyone behind," she explained.
"So I noticed," Jack agreed. "I don't know if you thought it through, but once I'd shut down the converters you didn't really need me anymore."
"Your point?" Nike asked, refusing to meet Jack's eyes.
"You still came back. Thank you; again."
"I could not be sure I would not need your assistance," Nike insisted.
"Sure," Jack allowed. "That must be it."
A day later
The ha'tak vessel dropped out of hyperspace above the planet Revanna. The lower ring chambers were activated and over two hundred former slaves were transported to the surface.
Once this was done, Nike and Psyche escorted Jack and Dilg'a to the ring chamber near to the pyramid's summit. Jack still wore his Jaffa armour and Dilg'a had changed into a similar, non-descript costume.
"I have something for you," Nike told the young Jaffa. She lifted a bundle from a shelf and handed it to him.
Dilg'a peeked through the wrapping. "Gorgon armour," he said. "I can not take this."
"I allow only the most gifted Jaffa to wear that armour," Nike insisted. "I ask you for no service, but I will be insulted if you refuse my gift. Accept it as a token of my respect, young Jaffa; even if you never wear it."
"I…Thank you, Captain," Dilg'a said.
"It is my understanding," Nike went on, "that you were told certain things could not be allowed unless you were to be awarded the mantle of the Gorgon."
Dilg'a blushed. "You are most generous," he said. "But that is not yours to give away."
Nike smiled, indulgently. "Psyche," she said. "You have my leave and my blessing to go with this man if you will."
"My place is here," Psyche replied, sadly.
"Then Dilg'a; if you wish it, I offer you a place in my service."
Dilg'a hung his head. "I can no more accept that offer than Psyche could leave your side, Captain," he said.
Nike shrugged, sadly. "You are young," she noted. "Perhaps in time one of you will change your mind."
"Perhaps," Dilg'a replied. "I never believed that I would say this of a Goa'uld, but I hope that one day my people might be at peace with you."
Nike bowed her head, gravely. "That is an honour such as I have rarely known," she said. "Will I be spared then if we meet in battle?"
Dilg'a smiled. "If we meet in battle I shall show you every mercy that you extend to me."
Nike nodded. "I look forward to it," she promised.
Jack shook his head. "You are one weird lady," he said again.
Nike turned to Psyche. "Escort this bold young Jaffa to the surface," she instructed.
"Yes, My Captain."
"I said that they would not accept," Nike told Jack, once the two Jaffa had left.
"Yes, you did," Jack agreed. "Thank you for offering, though."
"They truly do have my best wishes," she added. "While I relish the prospect of facing that young man in battle, I hope that I shall not be forced to destroy such potential. It will be an honour also to meet you in open battle one day, Jack," she added. "I hope that you will not hold back."
"You know I shan't," he replied, sadly.
"I do indeed," she replied, with good cheer. "Those who have chosen to go with Dilg'a to the Free Jaffa or to return to their own homes have all reached the surface through the abandoned Tok'ra rings," she went on. "It is time for you to leave us."
"It's been…odd," Jack said.
"Until the next time," Nike replied.
"One more thing," Jack asked. "Do you think Amun is dead?"
Nike's face grew dark. "I do not dare to hope it," she replied.
Kauket sat on her husband's throne with her asp about her shoulders and Amun's head cradled in her lap. She gently stroked her husband's hair, while the serpent licked his face.
"How long?" He asked, for the fifth time.
"One hundred years," she replied. "The vessel was thrown through hyperspace at phenomenal speeds; to a place unknown to us. But, my love," she went on, "there will be worlds to conquer on our way back to our own galaxy. We have this vessel; we have two thousand Jaffa; one hundred udajet; and we have each other. We shall endure."
Amun turned and looked directly at his Queen for the first time since this trouble had begun. "Kuk was a wise counsellor," he said. "But killing him to be with you was the wisest decision I have ever made."
He rose to his feet then took Kauket by the hand and drew her up beside him. She went easily, enjoying this energy she felt from him. She had not known her consort so forceful and passionate in all the long years of Shmunu's wanderings; not since the day he murdered her former lord.
"One hundred years," Amun said. "Only a Goa'uld could do this to us, my love and they shall endure that little span as well as we. In one hundred years we shall return and find them, and our revenge shall be bloody!"
The Black God