Chapter 5: Learning Curve
Summary: Traveling to Nialla aboard the An Croi, which will take 9 hours at hyperspace ultra (new speed), the teams learn the basics of running the ship. Once they get to the planet, they find a few problems. Of course.
NOTES: 1. The invented science-speak won’t make sense for those who actually know this shit. Apologies in advance. 2. I’ve brazenly stolen ideas from great Sci-Fi stories and made them my own. I make no apologies.
On the way to the conference room, Daniel’s attention was drawn to the construction of the ship’s design. There were very few sharp edges. All right angles had a smoothed roundness to them. It wasn’t noticeable at first glance but once noticed, it was hard not to get momentarily sidetracked.
Daniel stopped at the doorway to the conference room and ran his hand down the frame. Jason looked back to watch him, then walked over.
“What’s up?” he asked.
Daniel rapped a knuckle on the surface of the door frame. “There are no sharp edges anywhere on this ship.” He squatted down and ran a fingertip along the bottom edge that met the flooring. It was slightly curved. Alina was closest and he looked up at her. “What’s this ship made of? Why aren’t there any sharp right angles?”
She ran her fingers down the subdued off-white wall. “Silvadyne and Trinium composite. The curved edges allow proper energy flow.”
Sam walked over. “What is Silvadyne?”
Finian stood at the table, hand on the back of a chair. “It is a compound consisting of several known minerals mixed with tritanium.”
“Tritanium?” Sam asked. “Not titanium, but tritanium?”
“And tritanium is . . .?” she asked.
“A proprietary rock found on Lia Fail and other planets in Danu, our solar system. It is not found anywhere else in the known universe.”
Jack picked up the subtle hint in the statement: there won’t be anyone other than the Lia Fail who will mine the substance.
“That’s unusual,” Sam said. “All star and planet formation follow a specific pattern and chemical makeup.”
“Yes, but there are differences,” he said. “For example, not all planets contain naquadah, trinium, and other unique metals. While all contain basic elements like nickel, iron, and copper, some have other densities that create different levels of gemstones, like diamonds.”
Sam nodded. “I see what you’re saying.”
Jack just barely refrained from rolling his eyes. “Save that discussion for another time, please. I don’t care where tritanium comes from. I only care about the here and now. The makeup of this ship—what we have to use, where everything is, and how to run it.”
Jason gave Jack a sardonic grin. “You sweet-talker you.”
Jack gave him a backhanded slap across the biceps. “So, let’s get an overall picture of what we have and how we’ll attack the problem with the Goa’uld on Nialla.”
He gestured at the table, which was situated with its narrow ends facing the left and right walls relative to the entranceway. Jack moved to sit in the center chair with his back to the wall, facing the door but didn’t sit down, preferring to wait for everyone else to take their chosen seats.
Taking the center chair wasn’t a conscious move; it was done from ingrained security measures. As everyone moved to sit, those who held the same ingrained security sense and were left with their backs to the door felt a modicum of unease that would stay with them until they stood up again. Namely, Jacob and the other Tok’ra. Teal’c sat at the left end cap and Jason had taken its opposite.
There were plenty of open seats for the Lia Fail but they remained standing. It was an annoyance that prickled Jack’s neck. “You guys wanna take a seat please?” he asked. Before sitting, he asked, “I’d like the ship to set out for Nialla. Who implements the order?”
“At present,” Alina said, “ALTA is running the ship. She’s been given a class H protocol.”
“Meaning what?” Jack asked.
“Learning Curve protocol,” Cress said. “Until you and your crew have fully educated yourselves in the operation of the ship, she will maintain all ship’s functions. Once you have become familiar with the ship’s processes, she will coordinate with your commands. For example, the shields do not operate at all times. You give the order to activate them. They consume a lot of power, and while this ship has an extraordinarily high level, it’s wiser to conserve.”
“Got it,” Jack said. “ALTA, do you have the coordinates for Nialla?”
“Please set course at the highest advisable hyperspace speed needed to get us there as soon as possible.”
The ship’s flight change didn’t give a lurching effect, which Jack expected from past experiences aboard both Earth and Goa’uld ships. Instead, there was a heaviness in the air, like a body bloated with excess gas, which then leveled out and disappeared.
“That felt weird,” he said and looked through the doorway at the long and rounded rectangular porthole. It showed the fluctuating colors of hyperspace.
“Was that . . .?” Jason began, then followed Jack’s line of sight. “Oh. Right. Nice change. No lurching.”
“Right?” Jack said.
“The difference seems to be largely a matter of spatial dynamics,” Sam said, her hand on her stomach. “It’s what makes the change in air densities that occur when traveling between normal speed and hyper light speeds.” She made a face. “That could have short-term effects on human female reproduction cycles.”
“Messes with your menstrual cycle, in other words?” Jack asked.
“Exactly,” Sam said, grimacing. “Pain in the ass.”
Daniel squinted at the light show outside the ship. Something was different. Instead of the flow indicating direction, the colors were spiraling, spreading, disappearing, then repeating the pattern.
“ALTA, what speed are we traveling?” he asked.
“Trans-hyperspeed,” said the A.I. “I perceive that you have noted the difference between the current speed and what you have previously experienced.”
“Correct,” Daniel said.
Sam narrowed her eyes and stared at the pattern outside the ship. She then sighed heavily. “I should’ve detected that.”
“ALTA,” Jack said in a “tired of” tone of voice. “Explain what they’re talking about.”
“Trans-hyperspeed is the increased speed of normal hyperspeed. It will take approximately nine-point-seven hours to reach Nialla at this increased speed. At normal hyperspeed, it would have taken twenty-point-two hours.”
“Thank you,” Jack said, nodding. “Now that’s more like it.”
Up to this point, both Lya and Narim had been, regrettably, background noise. Jack winced, mostly to himself, but Daniel caught the emotion of it.
“What?” he asked, but then directed his gaze at Lya and Narim and Jack nodded. Currently, Narim sat at the conference table between one of the Tok’ra and Major Wagner, Jason’s second-in-command of SG-2. He sipped at a glass of tea while Lya seemed to be preoccupied with running her hand along the wall as she slowly walked the room’s perimeter.
“You guys okay?” Jack asked, first looking at Narim, then at Lya.
“I am well,” Narim said. “The members of the Tok’ra, however, are concerned about their queen, Egeria.”
“We’re discussing how to proceed,” Jacob said.
Jack nodded. He stared at Lya. “Lya? Are you okay?”
She didn’t nod or shake her head. Instead, she tilted her head as if listening to something while she pressed both palms against the wall.
“Lya?” Daniel asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she said in a small voice. “This ship is alive.”
That got everyone’s attention.
“What do you mean, ‘alive’?” Sam asked.
“I feel a presence within the . . . essence of the ship. I believe you refer to it as ‘material.’ What it is composed of.”
“ALTA,” Daniel began, “would you please clarify Lya’s statement?”
“Confirmed,” ALTA said. “Masteria Lya, the presence you detect is likely myself. The ship itself is composed of inert material that is not alive in any known sentient existence.”
“Masteria?” Jason asked.
Lya blinked. “It is my Nox title. I do not use it except for ceremonial events.”
“So noted and logged,” ALTA replied.
“Okay, let’s get down to brass tacks,” Jack said, and sat down finally, not waiting for Lya. He rapped a knuckle on the tabletop. “Jacob, what’s the latest tactical data for the Nialla homeworld?”
“As I’ve stated previously, this is not up-to-the-minute, but what a cloaked scout ship surveyed and transmitted.”
“Granted,” Jack said.
Jacob set a familiar globe three inches in diameter with a cradled base on the center of the table and pointed a stylus no bigger than a ballpoint pen at it, pressing a button. A holographic map appeared showing a wide rectangular map of a planet’s surface showing several land surfaces. In the center was an additional square that magnified a small dot on the map. It showed a slightly more detailed map of a small town where Seti Ptah had set up his command around a few lakes. Housing around the area indicated the enslaved Nialla people.
The scale of the planet was indicated and drew several raised eyebrows. The planet was no larger than a small moon, at 375 kilometers by 175 kilometers.
“That’s a planet?” Alex, Jason’s second, asked.
“And what was their total population prior to the invasion?” Sam asked.
“453,” said Senna.
“How can that many Nialla fit in those buildings?” Jason asked.
“The Nialla are small in stature,” Lya said, finally sitting down between Narim and Jacob, who had been saving the seat for her. She held out a hand, turning her swivel chair slightly to accommodate. The height of her hand measured only thirty-nine inches. “In your culture, you might refer to them as Elves.”
“Huh,” Jack said into the ensuing silence. He’d have mentioned The Lord of the Rings but decided it would be a waste of time. Everyone not from Earth wouldn’t get the reference.
After ten seconds of that silence, Teal’c asked, “Why did Seti Ptah invade such a tiny world?”
“We aren’t certain,” Jacob said, “but we have an idea. The Nialla home solar system is the source material for all data crystals that both store information and power naquadah-based objects like the stargate and dialing device.”
“Yes,” Narim put in, his expression one of clueless superiority so well known to SG-1. If he weren’t truly an honest actor, the expression would come off as arrogantly self-important. One worn so well by his superior, Chancellor Travell. “We have known this for quite some time.”
“As have we,” Lya said.
Jack pursed his lips as his teammates, Jason and his teammates, and Jacob and his teammates gave looks of long-sufferance. Jack drummed the tabletop with four fingers. Slowly. He had been about to launch into a sarcasm-laden complaint about sharing information but on further consideration, how were the Tollan or the Nox to know they’d been searching for the source of the crystals for over eight years? He still felt the urge to berate but as leader of this mission, it wasn’t appropriate. Dammit.
On the other hand, he had a shiny new spaceship. Things level out eventually.
“Okay. They have crystals and Seti Ptah wants to . . . corner the market, as it were?”
“Control the market,” Senna said. “If I read you correctly.”
“Yes, that’s what corner the market means, Senna,” Jack said, swallowing another urge to spew sarcasm. He left it out of his tone. Mostly. “Now then . . .” He looked around, forgetting momentarily that he wasn’t in the briefing room, where a dry-erase board’s shelf held a retractable pointer. With a clearing of his throat, he used his finger as a pointing device and felt inadequate doing it. This wasn’t a great beginning. He set the annoyance aside.
“The green lines indicate what? A security measure?”
“Correct,” Jacob said and pressed a button on the holosphere to bring up a list of technical information. Those who saw the info backward sighed with annoyance.
Jason shook his head as he got up and walked around the table to stand behind Jack. Jack looked up at him with a pained “Sorry about that” expression. “Next time,” Jason said with a heavy sigh, “let’s arrange to have a projector so that everyone can read the information we’re supposed to have.”
Jacob made a face. “My bad, my bad.” He got up and moved the holosphere to one end of the table and hit another button. The information was projected on the off-white wall, large enough for everyone to read. Selmak emerged to say, “This is hardly appropriate.” She then altered the image so that the information filled the entire wall. Jacob then approached with his ‘pen’ that also held a laser pointer.
Jack grumbled, “Pardon me, Jacob. Got any more of those?”
Senna withdrew one of the pens from his inner vest pocket and handed it out to Jack. Jack nodded a thank you and walked over to Jacob. “Before we go on, let me state that this . . .” He held up the pen and gestured with it in a circle over his head. “is . . . we don’t have any of our typical supplies, we don’t know where anything is. How the hell are we going to help the Nialla, or anyone else for that matter, when we’re so goddamn underprepared? I’m all kinds of thrilled with this ship but we’re not operating as professionals here.”
Jacob gave him a pained expression. “We were sort of hijacked by Morrighan, Jack. Pardon the expression. Our teams are here without our gear, our weapons, or a solid plan on how to help. Exactly what were we supposed to do when we got to Nialla? I fully share your aggravation and embarrassment.”
Daniel said, still sitting, “I think we’re supposed to lean on ALTA for this mission, as a display of what this ship can do for us. That’s the reason for feeling out of our depth here. We aren’t in full command. ALTA is an A.I. after all. Let’s ask her what our options are and how to get it done.”
Jack sighed. “ALTA, um . . . you get all that?”
“Confirmed, Colonel O’Neill.”
A pinkish beam came from no visible source and scanned the holosphere, the beam moving over it six times before disappearing. ALTA then said, “Lya, and Narim of Tollana, do you have comparable data devices needed for the successful completion of this mission?”
Lya and Narim exchanged a long look, then Narim nodded and removed from his jacket’s inner pocket a clear data crystal two inches long and a half inch wide at one end that tapered to a point. Holding it up, point down, he waited while ALTA scanned the crystal, six times as before.
“Thank you. One moment please.”
“While we’re waiting,” Jack said, “Jacob, could you throw up the map again?”
Jacob did. This time it filled the entire wall instead of a small holographic area above the conference table. Given the wall’s pale coloring, it was as useful as a projector screen.
The map detailed a large swath of trees that surrounded two lakes. In the center, between the lakes, were two large buildings elaborately decorated with green ceramic tiles. One was labeled “Seti” and the other, “Temple.” On the North side of the Temple were three rows of buildings labeled “Jaffa.” Surrounding the lakes was a three-quarter semi-circle of tightly-arranged buildings, set in four groups. Two said, “Nialla Workhouses” and two said, “Nialla Housing.”
These building groups sat outside two sets of green lines marked “Laser Fence,” indicating the laser perimeters, and one perimeter fence sat within the other. The outer perimeter fence was dotted in intervals with fifteen parapet towers. The inner perimeter fence was marked with seven guard stations instead of individual towers. This meant something specific to the Tok’ra.
“We have seen this configuration before and they present a potential problem,” Jacob said, pointing. “The inner laser fencing is reinforced to block incoming transportation beams, not a ground force—although that protection is also present.”
Jack scowled. “Swell. ALTA, your assessment?”
“The data crystal supplied by the Tollan does not give the technical specifications of the type of laser perimeter fencing. We will have to wait until we are in orbit to ascertain whether or not the laser can be breached or eliminated.”
Jack made a face. “Figured you’d say that. So, gentlemen and ladies, do we wait to plan the rest of this rescue or proceed on the assumption that the fencing can, or can’t, be breached?”
Jacob tapped the wall with a knuckle over the Jaffa garrison buildings. “Assuming we breach, which do we immobilize first? The Jaffa or the Goa’uld?” He looked at Teal’c. “What do the Free Jaffa know about Seti’s Jaffa?”
Teal’c pursed his lips as he stared at the map on the wall. “I wish that I had insisted that Bra’tac join us. He has much more knowledge about the Jaffa serving lesser-known Goa’uld.”
“Bottom line?” Jack asked.
“What little knowledge I have suggests that the Jaffa owned by Seti Ptah are fanatically loyal to him. As with other Goa’uld and their Jaffa, it would require severe, first-hand exposure of the Goa’uld’s weaknesses to break that bond.”
“So he gets dressed down in front of them and they capitulate? Just like that?”
Teal’c gave him an even look. “O’Neill, you know that it is never that simple a task.”
Jack gave a grumbling sigh. “Thought so but it never hurts to ask.” He gestured at the map. “So, let’s assume we can breach the fencing but not the Jaffa’s allegiance. How do we subdue them? ALTA, any ideas?”
“There are two avenues of approach, Colonel,” the A.I. said. “Method one, we obliterate the Jaffa and their housing units using the Asgardian plasma beams and the Lia Fail targeting array. Method two, we beam the entire Jaffa garrison to a holding area where they cannot escape or interfere with the rescue plan.”
Both Teal’c and Daniel held up their hands, but Jack held up his own. “I know, I know. We avoid killing Jaffa who want to be freed from Goa’uld control.”
“Then method two should be implemented,” ALTA said. “We need to first arrange a makeshift prison for the Jaffa. Perhaps a penned-in perimeter stationed in a grassland field. There are several such locations on the planet.” She highlighted the areas on the map using twelve green dots. “I suggest this area on the same continent.” A red outlined circle appeared over the dot to the southwest of their original position. “According to meteorological data of the seasons, this grassland is experiencing mild temperature averages at this time of the Nialla year.”
“What’s a Nialla year?” Jason asked.
“Using Earth for comparison, the Nialla year is 567 days, with a day consisting of thirty-two hours.”
“And the season, in comparison?” Sam asked.
“Late spring to early summer,” ALTA said. “Nialla winters are comparably mild, equaling a late Autumn on Earth. Their midsummer compares to May on the northern American continent. This central landmass is slightly less than the size of the U.S. state of New Jersey.”
“What?” Jack sputtered.
“The planet of Nialla is a tiny world, Colonel. 1/10th the size of your natural satellite, which you call the Moon.”
“Wow,” Sam said. “Put like that, it’s a miniature speck.”
“How far away is the grassland from the town of . . .” Jack began. “What’s the name of the town that Seti took over?”
“Nialla-Sian,” ALTA said. “Approximate translation, Nialla ‘capital.’ I surmise you wish to know how far away is the grassland?”
“Approximately twenty-seven kilometers southeast of Nialla-Sian.”
Jack nodded. “Okay. So. How do we corral the Jaffa there?”
Three feet over the middle of the conference table, a hologram appeared showing a slender rod three inches wide and nine inches in length, and a translucent silver.
“This is a forcefield marker used to mark an area absent of an enclosure, such as the walls of this room. The doorway . . .”
The doorway’s edges lit up in a green outline.
“. . . has such a mechanism inside the substrate. It can become translucent or opaque.” She demonstrated, and the opaque door retained the green outline. “Once activated, the green outline indicating the shield will remain until deactivation.”
“Are all doorways like that on the ship?” Jack asked.
“Huh. What happens if your shield systems are hit by outside force rendering them inactive or destroyed while someone’s inside the room with the doorway opaque?” Sam asked.
“The shield deactivates and the doorway is open.”
Jack chewed at his lip. “So if we’re holding someone in a particular room, they can escape.”
“Theoretically,” ALTA said. “But there is a designated section of the ship used for confinement.” She threw up a 3-D holographic map of the ship with a small section blinking in translucent white. It was on a level labeled “Sublevel 3,” and the level they were currently on was designated as “Floor 1, Main, Conference Room 1.” Overall, there were seven levels on the ship: the main level and three levels above and below. Upper levels were labeled “Level 2, 3, and 4.”
“Should power be cut to the confinement cells, the doors will remain opaque until the power is restored. These are the only doorways that are designated ‘closed’ by default.”
“Good to know. And it seems that we’ve got some work to do in educating ourselves about the functions of this ship.”
ALTA said, “Educational sessions can begin whenever you wish, Colonel.” She highlighted a room that was three corridors to their right near the center of the ship on the main level. “This room is designated for learning, but you can repurpose it to whatever function you wish.”
Jack nodded. “Okay. For the time being, leave it as is. Let’s return to the mission planning. Do we place those field rods on the ground in the section meant for relocating the Jaffa or do you do that?”
“Simply mark an area and it will be tagged, or painted, to use your colloquial term, for a size adequate to containing the Jaffa. I cannot, at this time, zoom in to the designated area as this map does not allow for scrutiny. We will have to wait until we are in orbit.”
“The Goa’uld can tell who enters orbit,” Jason said. “Do you have a cloaking system?”
“Confirmed,” ALTA said. Another hologram of the ship appeared, showing a fine line outlining the ship and the location of the housing unit that contains the shielding computer. It sat in a small alcove within the large engine room situated near the rear of the ship on sublevel 1. It too was outlined to indicate that it was double-shielded to protect it from weapons’ fire.
“Okay, so we can plan while cloaked?” Jack asked.
Jack let out a tired breath. “Then I guess we can spend the time with an overall planning of the entire operation.”
They took their seats around the conference table, snacking on the food and drink beamed up from the SGC briefing room, and made a rough plan on the stages needed.
“Stage 1, recon,” Jack said. “Get all the data needed. And locate that Goa’uld ship or ships. They gotta be there.”
Jacob nodded. “Stage 2, locate and isolate all Nialla, Seti Ptah, his First Prime, and the rest of the Jaffa.”
“Stage 3, take down the forcefields,” Jason said.
“Stage 4, beam the lot to the chosen grassland prison,” Daniel put in.
“Minus the Nialla,” Sam said.
Daniel gave her a look. “Naturally.”
“Stage 5,” Jack continued. “Convince them to leave peacefully or beam them back to the ships and destroy them.”
There was quiet. “Jack,” Daniel began but paused. Jack knew what he’d say. There must be another way. But if Seti and his Jaffa didn’t leave, what choice did they have but to get into a firefight in space? And from all they’ve learned so far about this An Croi ship, it wouldn’t be a fair fight. Daniel shook his head as if to say, “Never mind.”
Jack gave him a regretful grin. “I know. We’ll see what’s what after we relocate the lot into that field and start the negotiations.”
Afterward, as they waited to arrive at Nialla, Senna was looking at Jack’s left hand, then Daniel’s and Jason’s. He said to Jacob, “Why do they wear the same rings on their left hands but there are no matching rings on the others?” Jacob had no answer and he repeated the question a bit louder to Jack.
Jack fingered the triple-leafed design of his ring composed of Black Hills Gold. “They’re our wedding bands.”
Jacob’s brows shot up. “But . . .”
“Yeah, we’re not legally wed, since poly relationships aren’t approved, but they signify a commitment to each other as partners.”
Jacob’s brows rose higher. “But . . .”
“Yes,” Jason drawled. “That means that Jack, Daniel, and I are in a committed romantic relationship.”
Jacob looked at Sam with a slight frown, as if she had withheld information from him.
“Don’t look at me, Dad. That’s their business, not our own family stuff.”
“I see,” Jacob said, clearly non-plussed and not altogether approving. But after a few seconds, he adopted a chagrined expression as his eyes became unfocused. “Selmak tells me I’m being old-fashioned.”
“You disapprove, I take it,” Jack said, but instead of feeling offended, he was amused.
“Which part?” Jason asked. “The threesome part or the gay part or both?”
“It’s not disapproval,” Jacob said quickly. “I don’t care about sexual identity. None of it’s my business. I just don’t get it. The threesome part.”
“What don’t you get?” Daniel asked, finally voicing his thoughts. “How do three people work in a relationship?”
“Trust me,” Jack said before Jacob could answer. “We did a fair bit of adjustment on that score. Daniel wanted a relationship with both of us. It was Jason and me who had to figure out how to work it out between us.”
“Did you?” Jacob asked.
Jason snorted. “I think so.” He gave Jack a slow blink, one adopted from the slow blink he and Daniel had adopted before Jack joined their relationship. It was a non-verbal way of saying, “I love you.” Jack returned the blink with a wink of his right eye.
Daniel eyed Senna and the other Tok’ra. “I take this is no big deal to you guys?”
“Threesomes are not unheard of,” Senna said.
Sariel said, “As Tok’ra symbiotes, gender means nothing to us because as our hosts age, a new host’s gender is less important than their personality and symbiotic willingness. Some of us, like Lantash and Jolinar, prefer male/female host relationships, but it was never a factor in host selection. They loved each other regardless. However, they were blended with Martouf and Rosha for a long time, so the gender became important.”
“Situational,” Sam said, slightly blushing as she recalled Rosha’s memories.
“Precisely,” Sariel said. “Threesomes, however, are not the norm, and are, in fact, very rare, since we haven’t had a long-term home in generations.”
“Though it may crop up now,” Maral said, “since we’ve found, hopefully, our long-term home on Ravenna.”
“Goa’uld notwithstanding,” Faradan said sourly.
The Tok’ra, en masse, sighed in unison.
“But now we have Egeria to lead us again,” Sedjak said wistfully.
“Indeed,” Senna said. “We need to get her back unless she’s found a way to eliminate Bastet.”
That was not greeted well by the Tok’ra, all of whom were displeased, going by the scowls on their faces.
“Sorry,” Connor said into the silence, “but I’m confused. You say gender isn’t an issue with symbiotes but Egeria is a queen, right? So clearly female.”
“The queen can be of either gender since the symbiote is genderless,” Selmak said. “It was the structure of our society, and of the Goa’uld, that decided the queen would be referred to as female.” Jacob smiled ruefully. “However, like Jolinar, I prefer to consider myself female as I prefer female hosts. Jacob and I have had to come to terms with that, so his . . .” Jacob took over. “Having a female host has had an enlightening, and maddening, effect on my lifelong prejudices. Selmak is a great partner and I wouldn’t want any other, but it did take a little getting used to.”
“Okay,” Jack said impatiently. “Let’s get back to business.”
“Jack, we’ve already outlined what we need to do,” Daniel said.
“I know. So let’s use the time we have to get to know this ship.”
“ALTA, put the specs of the An Croi up on the wall. Time to familiarize ourselves with its functions and where everything is. That way we’ll know what we have and what we don’t have to carry out this mission.”
Jack walked down the main corridor on level one, heading for the bridge. The corridors, he had learned, were rarely straight. Most curved, and one deck, Level 3, was circular with many straight corridors leading inward. To Jack, it reminded him of a restaurant layout, which was appropriate since a quarter of it housed The Café. Or An Caife, as it was known in the specs. In fact, all sections of the ship were in modern Irish. Engineering was Innealtóireacht. The infirmary was Otharlann. Since no one knew how to pronounce them, Jack had ALTA rename the sections to English.
As he passed an open doorway on his right, which was labeled Rest in soft white over the doorway whose purpose was likened to a break room, he caught sight of Daniel and Jason sitting on a sofa against the far wall. The sofas on the An Croi were pale mint-colored smooth upholstery. Comfortable, but very firm. Jack came to a halt, his bootheels making a squeaking noise.
“There you are,” he said, entering.
Daniel had an empty plate sitting to his right and Jason was picking at a cake donut. One of the cinnamon kind that Jack had inhaled earlier.
Around the room were two small tables with four stool seats at each and at the far right wall was a cabinet station containing a coffee/cappuccino machine, mugs, plates, bowls, flatware, napkins, and other items. To the right of the doorway were three machines the size of standard refrigerators, and each had a long list of common American menu items on the front with buttons to their right. The items were pastries of all kinds, donuts, and muffins.
Approximately fourteen inches from the bottom sat an open shelf where the chosen item appeared on a small white plate without fanfare. No sparkly beams, no sliding up or dropping down. They just appeared, seemingly from nowhere. Just like on Star Trek. ALTA had given Jack a long explanation on where the food came from and he’d just accepted it, leaving for examination later. Carter had wanted to pull one apart—from a break room at another section of the ship—but Jack had ordered her not to mess with the stuff. God only knew what would happen if she tripped something akin to breaking a freon line in a freezer. No thank you.
“What’re you guys doing?”
“Chilling,” Jason said.
Daniel said in a dry tone, “We’d have had sex but the doorway won’t close.”
Jack stared at him. He couldn’t tell if Daniel was kidding. He hated that. “No matter how long we’ve known each other, there are times when I can’t tell if you’re kidding.”
Daniel gave him a slow smile. “I was kidding. I think we can behave ourselves until the mission is over.”
Jack grunted. “Again, what’re you two doing? I thought we were to meet on the bridge in . . .” He looked at his watch. “Oh.” Not for another ten minutes. He made a face. “Never mind. But answer the question anyway.”
“Stomach was growling,” Jason said. “We need a better Café.”
“I know,” Jack said. “ALTA says we have to supply the Café like our mess hall or a civilian cafeteria or we have to program additional machines like those.” He waved a hand at the dispensing machines. Jack then snagged a stool from one of the tables and sat down in front of them. He wished the chair was a normal upholstered one. “So we have thirty minutes or so. Haven’t gotten a clear read from either of you about how we’re doing. Not just the mission but this whole thing.” He twirled an upraised index finger.
“I love this ship,” Daniel said. “Takes a bit of getting used to. Why’d you change the ship section designations?”
“Because every time you tried to pronounce the words for everyone, it sounded like you were about to puke.”
“Ní rinne mé,” Daniel said. I did not.
Jason burst out giggling. “Not now, but pronouncing it slowly, you did sound like you were gonna puke. You only needed to match it with the hunching over.”
Jason sobered a little as he looked at Jack. “The ship is a nice one. Like Daniel said, take a little getting used to, but for me, it’s no different than learning the design of the X-304s.”
“And the mission?” Jack asked. “Any holes?”
Jason and Daniel traded a look. “Yeah,” Jason said slowly.
“What?” Jack asked, sharpening his attention.
Jason and Daniel sat forward, giving Jack their undivided attention.
Jason said, “What do all the Goa’uld we’ve dealt with have that the specs on that map don’t?”
Daniel and Jason both said, “Dungeons.”
Jack made a face. “I thought maybe the temple would’ve been converted.”
Jason shook his head. “Daniel pointed it out as we were looking at a holo image in the engine room. Remember, Ba’al had his as a big layout on one of the floors at Bel’a’lat. Set had prisons and that open-air town square. Everyone else we’ve encountered has had their dungeons. I think this Seti will have his, too, if he follows the Overlord program, and if we can’t locate him on the surface, that’s probably where he’ll be. Not on an orbiting Hatak like the ones that Apophis used but underground.”
Jack eyed him. “Why?”
“He’s patterned himself after an Egyptian pharaoh. Their dungeons were underground or within the pyramids themselves. Since there’s no pyramid on Nialla . . .”
“Technically,” Daniel said, “They didn’t have dungeons. They had elaborate funeral layouts. Hawara, built by Amenemhet III, had a massive labyrinth.”
Jack chewed at his lip. “Okay, so we’ll need ALTA to scan for subterranean rooms.” Both men nodded.
ALTA interrupted them. “Colonel O’Neill. We will arrive in one minute.”
“Early,” Jack said, standing, and Daniel and Jason joined him.
“Confirmed,” ALTA said.
The three men could’ve sworn she sounded smug in that one word.
“Cloak after we exit hyperspace,” Jack told ALTA as he sat down in the command chair.
“Confirmed.” They exited hyperspace and a filmy, fluctuating translucent wave dropped over the wide viewscreens and settled into place.
Teal’c sat beside him in the righthand secondary command chair and Jason sat to his left. Daniel stood beside Jason and the other team members were spread out with the Tok’ra, Lya, and Narim.
In the rear of the bridge was stationed a wide, rounded, half-moon-shaped console with a wide, high chart behind it and short translucent screens attached to the front of the console. Sam sat in the center chair, with Alina to her left, Finian at her right, and Cress stood before the chart which held a live-action view of Nialla’s surface.
At the secondary command chairs, Teal’c and Jason read the information coming up on their screens.
“Cloak confirmed,” Teal’c said. “Energy output at one hundred percent.”
“All weapons ready,” Jason said, touching buttons on his screen. “Transports ready.”
“Assume wide, outer orbit,” Jack said.
“Confirmed,” ALTA said. Once everyone was accustomed to the ship, ALTA would no longer be in control, switching controls to the command chairs operated by Jason, Teal’c, and Sam. The A.I. would execute commands by the personnel while maintaining the ship’s functions and fixing any errors that crop up. All actions were recorded by the system at Sam’s console so they could be examined when the mission was complete or in pre-mission reconnaissance.
“Scanning planet per set parameters,” ALTA stated.
“Yeah, and do you see what I see, Teal’c?” Jason asked.
“Confirmed,” Teal’c said, making a few people grin because he sounded like ALTA, even though it was a standard response from him. He caught Jack’s grin and smirked. “Indeed,” he said dryly.
“What is it?” Jack asked.
“There are subterranean structures,” Teal’c said.
“Dungeon?” Jason asked.
“Possibly,” Teal’c said.
Surprising everyone, Lya walked to the front of the bridge, looking through the center viewscreen before looking over her shoulder. Up to this point, she had kept herself on the periphery, watching.
Jack had a feeling she’d just been biding her time. In their earlier interactions, Lya had been quiet. She’d used an ability to hide a Tollan cannon from an idiot Goa’uld trying to take back K’lorel before the Tok’ra got a hold of him. What was her game this time?
“There will be crypts,” she said.
“Crypts?” Jack asked.
“The Nialla are similar to the Nox in their method of honoring the dead. Underground crypts are built, expanding as needed. The access should be stationed under the main temple on the Nialla’s central township.”
“I have the temple on my screen,” Teal’c said.
“Put it on the front viewer, ALTA,” Jack ordered.
“So,” Jack began. He got up and walked to Lya. “What’s your point?” The two looked at the viewscreen map.
“There will be a complex underneath the ancestral temple. It is how the Nialla preserve their dead. The Goa’uld may have . . .” Her eyes welled up.
Jack thought, good god, no tears, please. “Repurposed the crypts?” he asked.
“Yes,” Lya said. “If you do not find him in the building he has chosen for his throne room and home, he will be there.”
Daniel and Jason exchanged a look. “Just like we figured,” Daniel said.
Jason pursed his lips and nodded. “Jack, how about we check, then beam the mother . . . you know what . . . up to the brig?”
Jack cracked a grin when Lya furrowed her brows. She pressed her lips together to form the ‘mother’ question but Jack held up a hand.
“Don’t ask. It doesn’t translate well.”
“Very well. If you transport the Goa’uld to a prison cell, his First Prime may retaliate.”
“Against the Nialla, perhaps,” Jacob said, walking over to Jack and Lya. “But he won’t know whom to send his threat. We would have to find him too and put him with his lord.”
“Let’s get crackin’ then,” Jack said, returning to the command chair. “ALTA, can you locate the Goa’uld?”
“Yes. And he is, indeed, underground. But the complex he inhabits has a proto-cyclic energy barrier acting as a reinforced shield. For what reason, I am unable to fathom.”
“A what?” Jack asked. “What kind of energy barrier?”
No one answered, including ALTA.
Jacob turned to Lya. “Do you know what ALTA is referring to?”
Lya’s eyes were just a little too wide, but not in startlement or alarm.
Daniel’s empathic sense read guilt. It was completely at odds with the woman. Since when did the Nox feel guilty about something? They are always so self-assured, even a bit arrogant—but that tended toward the feeling an adult had toward a child. It wasn’t egotistical. He walked over to her. “Lya? What are you feeling guilty about?”
“I . . . I believe I made a mistake. I did not consider . . . and now I feel I have severely disappointed myself, my kin, Narim, and you.”
“Did not consider what?” Daniel asked soothingly. “It’s okay. We’re hardly in a position to judge.”
Jack would’ve argued the point but squashed the urge.
“The crystals used by the Alterans, whom you refer to as the Ancients, originated in this solar system and are the result of exploding twin stars that collided with what you call dark matter. They collected in the rock that formed the planets, including Nialla. Some of the crystals are too powerful to use as energy data collectors typically used for the stargates and their dialing devices.
“Many have been collected and stored to keep them out of the hands of those who do not understand the nature of their power. What the artificial lifeform ALTA means by proto-cyclic could be what we call thermo-cyst crystals. They are highly unstable. You cannot break through them without causing an explosion that would rip apart the planet.”
A Teensy Issue
“Okay,” Jack drawled. “A bit of a problem.”
“The crystals can only be shut off at the source,” Lya said, wringing her hands. “I am sorry that I did not consider this outcome. My apologies.”
Jacob touched his forehead and winced. “Selmak is pissed, to put it mildly.”
“Naturally, but . . . wait . . .” Jack began, but then squinted at Jacob. “Why?”
Senna answered instead, and his voice too reflected hot anger. “Because the Goa’uld implemented this action on purpose. He is risking the lives of everyone on this planet, including himself and his own Jaffa.”
The Tok’ra Maral said, “His own Goa’uld scientists would have warned him and he did it anyway.”
“Wait,” Jack said. “There’s more than one Goa’uld down there?”
“Unlikely,” Senna said. “They would have been brought in for a single purpose and then sent away.”
“Good,” Jack said dryly. “I don’t relish locking up a collective of snakeheads. I’d rather just kill them and have done.”
“Jack,” Jacob said admonishingly.
“I know, I know. A little more bloodthirsty than you’d like to hear but it’s the damn truth.”
The Tok’ra Faradan said, “You are unlike the other leaders of the Tau’ri.”
Jack smirked. “You don’t say.” Daniel and Jason let out snorts that somehow managed to convey sarcasm. Jack gave them looks of revenge but it only resulted in toothy smiles. “Anyway,” Jack said, moving on quickly before anyone noticed the undercurrent of sexual tension. “ALTA, how do we get through that shield?”
“I will need a small sample of the unstable crystal to analyze.”
Lya said, “But regular analysis is dangerous. You will have to use low-level scanning beams.”
“So where do we get a piece of that crystal?” Jack asked Lya.
“Scan the planet’s mountains for residual gamma energy signatures.”
“Good. Do so, please,” Jack said.
To Lya, he asked, “Are there any other subjects you didn’t think were worth mentioning?”
“Several, as they do not pertain to the Nialla or this mission’s success.”
Jack rolled his eyes. “Oy. Okay then.”
ALTA said, “Colonel O’Neill. I have found a cavern of crystal in the mountains of the northwest continent.” A map appeared on the viewscreen.
“This is a graphical representation. I cannot penetrate the cave with sensors due to the energy signature’s instability and therefore cannot beam up a sample for analysis. You will have to physically enter the cave, take a sample—that is, remove an undamaged small crystal—and return to the ship and place the crystal in Lab 1’s isolation chamber.”
Jack sighed. “A lot of fuss just to take down a damn shield. All right. Carter, beam down to the location. Get a containment box first.”
“One of us should accompany her,” Finian said.
“And one of us,” Jacob said.
“Pick and go,” Jack said.
As Sam headed for the corridor, Alina and Sariel followed.
“Now we wait,” Jack grumbled. He got up from his chair. “ALTA, when they’ve grabbed the gear needed, beam them down.” He paused, thought, and grew annoyed again. So many problems arise from not knowing the An Croi’s systems. This was hardly appropriate for a mission of this importance. “ALTA, do we have communication devices or something to stay in contact with?”
“Confirmed. But they have not been calibrated.”
“For cryin’ out loud.” Jack pinched the bridge of his nose. “Where are they, what do we need to do, and can that be done before they head to the surface?”
“A, in Security Level 1 lockup closet. B, they need to be held in the hand of all permanent personnel. And C, yes.”
“I’ll see to it,” Jason said. “And bring back other . . . badges, I guess . . . for the rest of us.” He walked quickly off the bridge.
Jack walked to the viewscreen and looked through the holo images to view the planet, thinking. He then turned to the Nox woman. “Lya, once the shield is down and the snakehead and his minion are corralled, who do we contact among the Nialla? Do you know any of them by name?”
“Yes,” Lya said, smiling for the first time since arriving at the SGC. “Nerychna and her title is similar to a queen on your world. Her consort is Opalachi. There are leaders for the guilds. Do you wish me to name them as well?”
“Not necessary until we speak to them face to face.”
Jack sat back down and drummed his fingertips on the wide arm of his console chair. He hated waiting and should’ve gone down to the planet with Carter. And Teal’c, Daniel, Jason, Alex, Al, and Connor. Going anywhere was an eight-man requirement, not just by new protocols but in his head. Everyone contributed something unique: perspective.
But having been given a ship, Jack felt like Jean-Luc Picard. Nothing more than a desk jockey giving orders while others risked their lives. It didn’t feel right. And it grated that he couldn’t very well leave the ship with people on board he didn’t trust. Or rather, who hadn’t earned it, apart from Jacob, but even he had marginal trust because he was now Tok’ra and had different priorities. Damn shame that.
On the other hand, he trusted ALTA, though it operated around 99%. There would always be that anti-computer control bug implanted in his brain since The Terminator had come out in 1984. Though as he thought about it, it might have been implanted earlier when he’d read Dune in ’76. The universe in that book had an anti-computer law that declared that no computer would mirror the human brain.
“Deep thoughts,” Jacob said in a conversational tone, throwing Jack’s out of his.
“Yeah,” Jack said, blinking twice before focusing on the man.
“Care to share?”
“No. Well, I hate sitting here. I’m used to leading my people to a planet, not sitting here like Jean-Luc Picard, a literal desk jockey.”
“Jean-Luc Picard?” asked Narim. “I am not familiar with this person.”
Interested looks came from the other Tok’ra. Lya just looked occupied inside her own head. Probably a natural state. Jack gave himself a gentle kick in the caboose. He needed to be more charitable, although it applied only to those he trusted 100%.
“It’s a fictional character,” Jack said. No one on the bridge except for his own people knew what that meant. “Never mind. Not a real person. And don’t ask. Just go with it.”
“I understand what a fictional character is,” admonished Narim. “We too have such stories. Though ours usually teach something along the way.”
“We have teaching stories,” Daniel said. “But we also have fiction stories that are aimed at taking readers to places they’d never heard of or would never visit. One category is related to historical fiction, which is based on historical fact but embellished for entertainment purposes.”
“Daniel,” Jack said tiredly.
“What? If they want to know more, they can. Doesn’t sit well to give a cliff notes version.” Jack said nothing. Daniel felt aggravation rolling off him and instantly knew why. “They’ll be back soon.” He looked at his watch. “Give them an hour.”
Jack nodded slightly. “I hate it anyway.”
Jack raised a brow and grinned lopsidedly. “Yeah?”
Daniel rolled his eyes. “You know I do. Stop being ornery.”
Jack sniffed. “I am not being ornery. I’m just . . . impatient.”
Daniel sniffed back. “Control freak.”
They both grinned.
And if not for the grins, the aliens around them would’ve thought they were fighting.
“When we’re done with all this, say by Saturday, I think it’s time for stew,” Daniel said.
Jack nodded. “Still cold out. Sounds good.” He eyed Daniel, sensing there was more. “And?” he prompted.
“And I was thinking about using the island stove’s slow-cooking setting. We haven’t used it yet, except for that Chili you tried that damn near killed my tastebuds.”
“Wuss,” Jack grinned. “Sounds good, but when you make your stew, the smell is enough to put a stop to any slow-cooking method.”
Daniel grinned back. “Point.” He rubbed his stomach. “But I’m starved. Need something rib-sticking, you know?”
Jack nodded, but sourly. “Dammit. I’ve been trying to ignore my stomach. Don’t go ruining it, Daniel.”
“Sorry, Jack,” Daniel said ruefully, still rubbing his stomach. “I’m growling.”
“Stew sounds awesome,” Alex said. “Maybe I can get Cari to make some. I suck at cooking. I can somehow manage to burn salad.”
“Maybe a team night for stew?” Daniel suggested, eyeing Jack.
“Yum,” Connor said.
“Ditto,” Al said, “but the wife is set on her Mac ‘n Cheese to celebrate homecoming.” Appreciable groans made him grin.
“Okay,” Jack said irritably, “stop with the food talk.”
They all went quiet in agreement.
After about ten minutes, Jack and Daniel became aware that they were under some odd scrutiny by Narim and Lya. It grew irritating.
“What?” Jack asked. “You’ve been conferring with each other and staring at us. What’s the problem?”
“Forgive us but the two of you . . .” Lya nudged him. “My apologies. Both you and your teammates look younger than the last time we met. Is it our imagination or . . .?”
“You’re not imagining it,” Jack said. “Morrighan’s folk blessed us with something called an Orchid Ritual. How it worked, I don’t know, but it regressed our physical ages, minus our memories, by at least ten years.”
“That is a ritual saved for only the most . . . spiritual or sacrificial . . . of beings,” Lya said, eyes widening.
“On your planet,” Jack sniffed. “Not on Lia Fail.”
“Jack,” Daniel said in an undertone, wishing he hadn’t put it that way.
“Daniel,” Jack retorted. “We were just informed that we’re unworthy. And I’m sick of this superiority crap.” He turned to Lya. “Yes, we’re technologically young. Yes, we have control issues. Yes, we make mistakes. We’re not alone. But by god, we are not all the same. Not all of us are assholes, criminals, and psychopaths.”
Daniel nodded. Sometimes Jack’s bluntness needed saying.
Jack sat back in his chair. He was about to touch the comm button to ask Jason what was taking so long when the man returned to the bridge.
“Sorry, Jack,” he said and held out a handful of dime-sized decorated discs. They vaguely resembled the memory devices of the Tok’ra. He turned, presenting the back of his right ear. A small disc was positioned behind his earlobe. “Press the disc here. It takes a little getting used to and ALTA can adjust the volume setting individually so it doesn’t vibrate or echo.” He handed them out to Jack, Daniel, Teal’c, his own teammates, and Cress.
Notably, there were no devices for the Tok’ra, Narim, or Lya.
Trying to be fair after his complaint, Jack asked, “Don’t they get one?”
“ALTA said they have their own comm devices that can be linked to ours,” Jason said, sitting back in his console seat.
“They do, huh?” Jack asked, narrowing his eyes as he pressed the disc into place.
“You knew that already,” Jacob said, narrowing his own eyes back to Jack in a challenge.
“I must’ve forgotten,” Jack said. “Or maybe it’s, “no, Jacob, I didn’t know you had comm devices suitable for linking.”
As if responding to his statement, Sam’s voice came through the comm, but instead of using their links, it came through the ship-wide intercom.
“Colonel O’Neill, this is Carter.”
Jack touched the COM button on his right-hand panel. “Go, Carter,” he replied.
“Sir, we have a problem.”
“Of course we do,” Jack sighed. “What is it?”
“We’re surrounded by Jaffa. They had been using personal cloaking devices.”
TBC in Chapter 6: Issues of Command