Chapter 6: Issues of Command
Summary: Problems galore. Until they come across some hair-raising shocks.
NOTE: Unfortunately, unbetaed.
WARNING: Inferences of sexual assault but there are no acts of it.
Jack growled deep in his throat. Carter’s tone indicated anger and it matched his own. Her statement revealed something about the Tok’ra, Narim, and Lya: this so-called rescue of the Nialla from a Goa’uld may be true but it wasn’t the primary motivator.
Daniel, Jason, and Jason’s teammates all matched Jack with glowers and scowls because they felt it too.
First things first. “ALTA, I need video.”
An overhead view appeared showing Carter, Alina, and Sariel.
Fifteen feet in front of her spread out in a half-circle were six Jaffa. They weren’t wearing the typical silver battle uniform with a corresponding helmet headdress typically associated with the Jaffa’s Goa’uld master. Instead, they were in black armor that reminded Jack of Samurai clothing and armor. More specifically, Anubis’ Jaffa.
The Jaffa had swords strapped across their backs while they held an updated version of a staff weapon: slender staffs with the known Goa’uld linework but the business end was the simple blunt end of a normal wooden staff. The soldiers’ foreheads were inked in black with Seti Ptah’s symbol: a fifteen-pointed star with three overlaid circles.
“Carter, which one of those jokers is the leader?” asked Jack.
“There doesn’t seem to be one,” she replied. “The First Prime isn’t here so we can surmise that these are regular foot soldiers. One of them, however, might have contacted the First Prime.”
“How do you know?”
“He spoke into his sleeve cuff. I don’t know what he said.”
“Dammit,” Jack growled. “There goes the element of surprise.”
“O’Neill,” Teal’c said. “I would like to speak with these Jaffa.”
“You think you can talk them out of serving the snakehead?”
“I do not know, but it is worth attempting.”
“We’ll transfer them to the brig.”
Teal’c bowed his head and left the bridge.
“Transport has been completed. The Jaffa have been secured in Secure Ward One.” AKA, room 1 of the brig, which held seven cells.
“Thank you. Carter, status.”
“We’re aboard, sir,” Carter said, “and in Iso Lab 1. Ready to commence testing on the crystal.”
“Good. On my way down.” He turned to Jason. “You have the bridge. Anyone gets out of line, shoot them.” Even though he damn well knew no one was armed, he’d said it anyway to provoke outrage. Serves them right, he thought.
“Yes, sir,” Jason said, moving to Jack’s chair.
“What the hell is that about?” Jacob asked, voice raising as Jack walked off the bridge.
Jason said, “Jacob, please stay where you are.”
As Jack strode down the corridor, ALTA said, “I can beam you to wherever you wish to go, Colonel O’Neill. But if you insist on taking the Lift . . .”
Jack stopped, boot heels squeaking. “The Iso Lab, please.” Just as he faded from the corridor, he caught Jacob heading toward him, scowling, and Jason was right behind him.
“Jacob, please stand down,” Jason said.
They faded from Jack’s sight.
Jacob did a double-take at Jason. “What’s the meaning of this?”
“You tell me,” Jason said and motioned with the barrel of the gun. “Back on the bridge, if you please.” He didn’t really think that Jacob and Selmak were in on the hidden mission but for now, it was best to lump them all together until they could question him.
Once Jack appeared in the lab, he said to the A.I., “ALTA, why didn’t you detect the Jaffa?”
“The Jaffa had been cloaked, Colonel O’Neill.”
Jack sighed. “Clearly. Why the hell couldn’t you detect them through the cloak? Wouldn’t they leave an energy signature while engaged?”
Five seconds later, ALTA said, “I do not know. I am running diagnostics on my sensors.”
Jack grunted. “How are our guests?”
“Frightened and angry.”
“Good. I’ll deal with them momentarily.” He eyed Sariel. “ALTA, please beam Sariel back to her teammates.”
“Wait, I want to—” Sariel began but her voice faded along with the rest of her.
Jack now eyed Carter. “So, Carter, what do you make of the existence of the personal cloaking devices?”
She leveled a frown at him. “I believe the Tok’ra came on this mission to secure the cloaking devices, not to help rescue the Nialla on behalf of Narim and Lya.”
“Yep, that’s what I was thinking. Think Narim and Lya are aware of the secondary—or maybe primary—motives?”
“Possibly, but it’s more than likely that they too have their own motives that aren’t solely about rescuing the Nialla.”
Jack grunted in agreement but grimaced. “Why, oh why, can’t these people deal with us straight up?” Carter raised a brow. “I know, I know, pot, kettle, black.”
“No disagreement, sir.”
He watched her straight face and smirked. “We’ll get into that another time.”
She grinned. “Yes, sir.”
While they had been talking, Alina had been busy with the scanner. It was an oval device ten inches thick, two feet in height, and thirteen inches in width with an open cavity filled with ambient light. It was secured to the wall via a stout swing-arm and beside the arm at approximately seven feet from the floor were three two-foot by three-foot readout screens with several monitor sections in each. The Fey woman now set the seven-inch long crystal onto a dish within it.
She pointed from the scanner to the readouts. “This is a trans-dimensional scanning device. It means that the scanner will use seventy-two different methods from simple infrared light to interspatial sinewave registers.”
“Got it,” Jack said, though he had no idea what that last measurement involved.
Alina touched the side of the oval scanner with two fingers. Several beams crisscrossed with inner beam lines in the shape of DNA spirals moving up and down the crystal.
“Odd,” Alina said, watching the readouts, not the crystal. The readouts displayed only single-line text.
“What?” Sam asked.
“The crystal is not exhibiting an energy signature.”
Jack sighed. “Could it be that this crystal is depleted?”
“Perhaps,” Alina nodded, apparently surprised at his deduction.
“I’m not as stupid as I look.” She smiled at him and shook her head. “ALTA, scan the cave again. Could Alina beam down safely to secure another crystal?”
“Go get a few more. Carter, go with. Take crystals from several sections in that cave. Stay in contact.”
She nodded and the two women stood next to each other as ALTA beamed them down.
“We’re at the mouth of the cave, sir.”
“Proceed,” Jack said.
The moment they entered the cave, transmission cut off.
“ALTA, what happened?”
“It is likely that the combined output of the crystals has silenced the comm devices.”
Jack sighed again. “You were able to get a reading on the cave. How is it that the comm system has failed?”
“The comm devices are not as sophisticated as my sensors.”
“Okay then. Contact Finian and do so without alerting the Tok’ra, Narim, and Lya.”
“Finian, do you read?”
“ALTA will transport you to the mouth of the cave. I would like a running commentary on the actions of Carter and Alina as they secure additional crystals. The crystals in the cave cut off their comms.”
“Daniel, Jason, and Cress. ALTA’s isolated the comms so the Tok’ra, Narim, and Lya can’t hear what I’m saying. I’ve asked Finian to observe Carter and Alina as they secure additional crystals. Their comms cut off when they entered the cave. ALTA says it’s due to the combined energy signature of the crystals in that cave. I’ll explain everything in a bit.”
On the bridge, Daniel and Jason traded nods with Cress.
“What’s going on?” Jacob asked.
“We’re securing additional crystals,” Daniel said, “because it appears that the initial procurement wasn’t enough.” He’d guessed that part but it made sense. Whatever was going on with the Tok’ra, he too didn’t think Jacob was in on it, but until Jack sorted out the mess, it was, unfortunately, necessary to keep Jacob in the dark.
Senna tapped his comm device, then removed it. “This is unacceptable. Why isn’t this working?”
Daniel shrugged. “Jack will let us know. Just hang tight till he returns.”
Jason said in an undertone that only Daniel could hear, “Think they realize they’ve been found out?” Daniel nodded.
On the ground, Finian relayed to Jack what Sam and Alina were doing. As he waited, he moved the comm device to behind the top of his ear because he was picking up ambient noise that wasn’t coming from the cave. Over the next minute, the ambient noise changed to something specific: ground vibration from dirt movement.
“More Jaffa are coming,” he called in a hushed voice. “We leave with what we have.” Sam and Alina left the cave with three foot-long crystals. “Beam us up, ALTA.” The wavery beam surrounded them.
In the Iso Lab, the three of them appeared.
“What happened?” Jack asked Finian.
“Several booted feet were heading in our direction. When they discover that their squad of Jaffa is missing, alerts will go up and their standard security measures will be reinforced.”
“Confirmed,” ALTA said. “There are now eighteen Jaffa at the mouth of the cave, some of them carrying metallic boxes. They entered and were thus cut off from my sensors. I am continuing my attempts to cut through the blockage.”
Jack sighed. “What’s the issue?”
“Their shields are quantum-six-based.”
“Radiation from the crystals worn on their belts is interfering with my sensors.”
“Radiation? Won’t that kill them?”
“Their symbiotes will keep them alive.”
“Right,” Jack drawled. “Care to give an estimate on how long will it take to break through that interference?”
“I cannot give you that but try not to worry. It is only a matter of time before I break through.”
While they were discussing the problem, Alina placed one of the new crystals in the scanner and began the examination as before. On the readout screens, tables of data began scrolling.
“Wow,” Sam said.
“What?” Jack asked.
She pointed to the scrolling data. “It’s the stark difference between crystals. One inert, one not.”
“Prevailing energy composition?” he asked.
Alina tapped a few outline buttons to show Carter how to get to the most common elements and power sources.
“Energy particles of . . .” She squinted, mostly because what she read she wasn’t familiar with. “Magna-quasar radon and electro-naquadine fission.” She looked at Alina. “Naquadine? Like Naquadah and Naquadria? Is that the source of the supposed instability Lya mentioned?”
“Only in large quantities. These levels are not sufficient to cause explosive eruptions. They are controlled fission. The element was created by the Alterans, which you call the Ancients. When you saturate these crystals with a particle beam containing other elements, growth crystals are the result.”
“Why would Lya say the crystals are unstable?”
“I do not know.”
Sam and Jack traded looks. “So, they’re the same that the Tok’ra use to build their underground complexes?” Sam asked.
“They can result in that type of crystal when adjusted, yes.”
“First there’s the Tok’ra’s hidden agenda with cloaking tech and growth crystals,” Jack said. “Second, Lya’s hidden agenda.”
“Sir. I’d like to bring my dad up to speed.”
Jack nodded. “There’s no way he knew about this crap. Meantime, I’ll see what Teal’c’s been able to ferret out. ALTA, if you please . . .” He disappeared.
Sam sighed. She knew her dad and Selmak wouldn’t have agreed to keep quiet about this hidden mission. How many of the Tok’ra on the bridge know?
“Keep working on the data,” she said. “I’m gonna talk with my dad and Selmak.”
“Do you wish to be transported to the bridge?” ALTA asked.
“No. I’m walking.”
Sam headed for command.
When she reached the entrance to the bridge, she found Jason leaning against the doorjamb, one hand on his sidearm.
Jason wrinkled his nose. “They’re getting . . . obstreperous. So I returned the favor in my own inimitable style.”
She hid her grin. “Break any bones?”
“Not necessary. Besides, I think ALTA would’ve stunned them had they initiated any threats of violence.” He tapped his comm device. “She said so privately.”
Sam pressed her lips together and nodded. “Nice.”
“Sam?” Jacob asked.
She gestured with her hand. “C’mon, dad. We need to talk.”
Daniel walked over. “What’s up?”
Sam pursed her lips. “You guys come with. Cress, you too. ALTA, keep an eye on our guests?”
“Why are Lya and I excluded?” Narim asked.
“Colonel O’Neill’s orders,” Sam told them. “Just hang tight. There are security issues we need to iron out.”
“What does that mean?” Senna asked loudly.
“It means stay where you are,” Sam said. The five of them left the bridge and down the hall, entered the Lift. “Iso Lab,” Sam said.
Daniel’s brows lifted. “No need to touch these buttons?”
Sam shook her head. “ALTA informed me that we can speak our destination. Since our voice patterns have been registered, she can identify us as authorized users. Everyone else will have to touch the buttons. Besides, I’m tired of beaming about.” She shivered. “Don’t you guys feel that tingling when you’re in that beam?” They nodded. “It’s annoying.”
As the Lift moved up, then sideways, Sam then told her dad what was going on. He stared at her, expression slowly showing anger, then his eyes went unfocused as he held an internal debate with Selmak. After the Lift opened, he was still in conference as they entered the Lab. Finally, Selmak answered after watching the data tables on the readout screens.
“We had a suspicion that we were being left out of important decisions. The primary reason would be our loyalty to the SGC. The High Council believes that our loyalty should be to the Tok’ra alone. Split loyalties create problems.”
Jack and Teal’c suddenly beamed into the Lab. Jack looked around, saw Jacob, and made a face. “We got a problem. Or rather, problem number three.” He gave the ceiling a long-suffering look. “Actually, problem number three is mostly a Tok’ra problem. I could care less because it’s not a threat to our mission unless the guy is lying, which is a distinct possibility.”
“What’s the new problem?” Jacob asked.
“One of the Jaffa isn’t a Jaffa. He’s an undercover Tok’ra. How he managed to stay undetected is a mystery. Teal’c’s confounded.”
“I am puzzled, not confounded,” Teal’c corrected.
“You know what I mean,” Jack said.
“Who is it?” Selmak asked.
“Says his name is Kanan.”
Selmak’s eyes widened. “He used to be stationed as a minor Goa’uld in Ba’al’s service trying to gain intel on the gravity technology Ba’al has been developing. I did not learn what happened to him after he returned.”
“Gravity technology?” Teal’c asked. “While in service to Apophis, I heard rumors of such technology. I did not know they have since been implemented.”
Selmak said, “This is new, within the last two years. The technology Ba’al developed is specifically used for prisons and torture devices.”
“Swell,” Jack said. “That guy gets creepier by the minute.”
Jacob nodded. “Selmak thinks Kanan is, to use an Earth phrase, “a few peeps short of an Easter basket. If he’s been stationed here, his mission is beyond top secret. Only Garshaw and a few on the Council would have the specifics of his mission.” He grimaced. “As a Jaffa though? Why not a minor Goa’uld in Seti’s entourage?” Jack raised a brow and Jacob held up a mollifying hand. “He says he has intel to share with the Tok’ra in charge. And only the one in charge. And I have a pretty good idea why he’s been stationed here.”
Jacob said, “Senna is senior but F—”
ALTA interrupted with an alarm sound; a dull, medium tone that pinged every second. “Seti’s Hatak vessel has decloaked. It is using scanning beams to try and locate us. You should be on the bridge.”
“Take us all there,” Jack said. “And lock up the Iso Lab. No one’s getting those crystals.”
They were beamed away and a forcefield was erected at the Lab door.
As Jack sat down in the command chair, he was beset with questions from Senna, Faradan, and Narim. He wanted to tell ALTA to beam them all to a brig cell but decided that was too aggressive. Plus, to be the least bit fair, they needed to be aware of what transpired. They had a treaty with Earth, despite their hidden agendas. But all these questions were grating on his nerves.
“Quiet!” he shouted. “Daniel, explain.”
Meanwhile, Sam took her station as did Jason and Teal’c. Once Daniel finished his explanations, he took his position behind Jack.
“ALTA, please tell me the Goa’uld can’t find us?”
“They cannot. But they can begin firing in a wide pattern in hopes of hitting us, forcing us to return fire and reveal ourselves.”
“Like that’ll work,” Jack said, but then said, “Actually, that might. I don’t take kindly to being shot at.”
“O’Neill,” Teal’c began, “our presence has been revealed. The only difference between our cloaked status and uncloaked status is to keep them from seeing who we are.”
“You saying they probably know it’s us?”
“No, not who we are, only that someone else has been in the cave and it is not the Nialla,” Teal’c said.
Jack pursed his lips. “If we reveal ourselves, they won’t know it’s us. SG-1. They’ve never seen a ship like this.”
“Very true,” Teal’c said.
“But then they’ll have a direct target.”
“Are our shields powerful enough to withstand their firepower?” Jason asked.
“ALTA?” Jack asked.
“Confirmed,” ALTA said. “For an hour or so of continuous fire, which will deplete their energy stores.”
“Six of one, half dozen another,” Jack grumbled as he bit his lip in thought.
“I do not understand,” Teal’c said. He was familiar with the idiom, but it implied an equal solution to two problems, which wasn’t the case here.
“I meant that if we show ourselves, we’re a target that can be seen. But we’re still a target regardless.”
Jack weighed the issue. “Decloak.”
“Confirmed,” but it was Jason who said it, with a smirk, because his terminal held the defense controls. Teal’c’s terminal held the more powerful weapons’ controls. Both consoles contained the same data for the ship’s status.
Jack grinned at Jason as he said, “On screen, ALTA.” The Hatak was shown in wide view orbit. A second screen overlaid the larger one and displayed their orbits. Their ships were on either side of the planet, out of line of sight.
Jack snorted. “For the moment, getting fired at is irrelevant. But they’re not gonna stay where they are. We can play keep-away until we go on the attack. But if we disable the ship, we can’t convince that snakehead to leave, except through the ‘gate.”
“The only avenue,” Teal’c said, “is to go on the offensive. Destroy the ship and force him and his loyal Jaffa through the stargate.”
Jack nodded. “Then there’s the minutiae of getting rid of all their crap.” Teal’c raised a brow. “All the stuff they brought with them needed for this occupation.”
Teal’c nodded. Then with a tiny smirk said, “Confirmed.”
Jack chuckled and leaned an elbow on one of his armrests. He rubbed at his chin, registering in background noise that he needed a shave. He then looked over at the Tok’ra, Narim, and Lya. He nearly said, “You guys still here?” but figured it was unnecessarily provocative. Someone had to be the adult around here.
“Carter, scan for the Goa’uld,” he finally said, then clarified because sensors would pick up Tok’ra symbiotes. “Seti, I mean.”
“Stand by, sir,” Sam said, and Finian showed her the commands on her wide console. The console held a tracking monitor that rose out of the main frame and settled over the middle of the console. Its transparency was outlined in red and in the center was a wireframe representation of the planet.
“Zero target here,” Finian showed her. To his amazement, Sam picked things up quickly, intuiting other controls. “Nice work.”
“Thanks,” she said absently. Then in the wireframe, a dot began to pulse. At first in neon red, then it darkened to maroon and emitted a dim pulse. “What?”
“Carter?” Jack asked, wishing his command chair swiveled. He had to sit forward and twist around to look at her. Daniel had to step aside.
“He was clearly detected, then the signal dulled.”
“Lemme see,” Jack said, beginning to stand.
“Stay put, sir,” Finian said, and pointed to an adjustable holographic level. “Touch and swipe right.”
Sam did, and it copied her entire console to the main viewscreen. “Nice.”
“Nice,” Jack echoed.
Finian moved to the main screen. “This,” he said and pointed to Seti’s dot, “is the Goa’uld. He is moving underground. It’s the reason for the bright dot dimming.”
On the map, outlined in red, was the center square where Seti’s compound stood. Next to it lay a rectangular temple and highlighted within it was a round staircase.
“Hang on. He’s not on the Hatak. So who’s in command of the ship?”
“Very likely his First Prime,” Teal’c said. “Orders relayed from the surface.”
“So the little shit’s gone to ground. Where’s this go?” Jack asked, walking to the screen and touching the staircase.
“As I have stated previously, that would typically lead to the crypts,” Lya stated. “The Nialla don’t bury their dead as you bury your dead. They are encased in stone shrouds beneath their temple.”
“Some of our people do the same thing,” Daniel told her.
“Ah,” Jack said. “If he’s going down there, could be he’s turned it into his dungeon?” He looked at Lya for confirmation and she nodded.
“Is there, at any time in the next few minutes, the next hour, or the next few days,” Senna said, “that we Tok’ra will be included in this mission?”
Jack leaned on an elbow and regarded Senna. “Okay, let’s do this. Exactly what mission are you referring to?”
Senna frowned. “What do you mean?”
Jack watched a few Tok’ra exchange glances. “See, we’re supposedly here to boot Seti Ptah and his Jaffa off the planet. The Nox won’t do it themselves so they’ve asked the Tollan and sent Lya as a representative. But the Tollan don’t want to do it so they’ve asked the Tok’ra and sent Narim as a representative. But the Tok’ra don’t want to do it unless they get a few teams from the SGC so they’ve sent a token team as representatives . . .” He paused as Jacob winced. “Sorry, Jacob, Selmak. So here we all are. But we’ve run into a few issues that have revealed some interesting coincidences.”
Jack got up and walked around the back of the command consoles. “Coincidence number one. You guys have been after Nirrti’s cloaking technology for a long time but haven’t been able to find her. And lo and behold, we find Jaffa wearing personal cloaks. Coincidence number two. You’re short on your growth crystals, which you need to build your bases. And lo and behold, we find a cave of crystals that are amazingly able to become growth crystals with just the right sort of energy beam to convert them.”
Jack walked around the command consoles to face Narim and Lya. “I don’t know why the two of you are here. You’re not here to guard some proprietary tech you’ve brought with you.” He turned to the Tok’ra team. “If I’m being honest, you guys aren’t needed either, not for a mission like this where my shiny new ship can do the job of a hundred people. I’m betting that you’d hoped we’d have used one of the Earth-Asgard battleships, using your own alliance with the Asgard as the reason you wanted to be in on this rescue mission.”
“We brought you this mission,” Senna said, incredulous. “It seemed like—”
“I’m not done,” Jack said, cutting him off. He pointed at Finian, Alina, and Cress. “These guys are needed, and quite welcome. They have no ulterior motives. No secondary missions that are kept from the rest of us.” Jack pointed at Jacob as he looked at Senna and Faradan. “You’ve kept Selmak and Jacob in the dark about things he ought to know because he’s not just loyal to you, he’s loyal to the SGC. And you guys don’t like that.”
Senna started to say something but Jack held up a hand. “I’m still not done.” He paused, then said, “It may interest you to know that we have a Tok’ra spy in the brig.”
“What?” sputtered Senna, Faradan, and Narim.
Jack detected a bit of guilt with that outrage. “Yep.”
“Why is he in the brig?” growled Faradan. “Bring him up here immediately!”
“You don’t give orders on my ship,” Jack said darkly. “This guy was masquerading as a Jaffa—though why that was I don’t know. You guys usually pretend to be minor Goa’uld. His name is Kanan. And I’ll bet you anything that he’s been your informant on the ground, sending you the intel about the cloaks and the crystals.”
He paused in the ensuing silence. Jacob was pinching the bridge of his nose in aggravation. “That’s why he is here, of course,” Selmak said.
“Says he’s to report the guy in charge. And that would be . . .” Jack began, and he aimed a finger at Senna but moved past him to point at Faradan. “You. So. Care to confirm or deny everything I’ve just said?”
“Our . . . missions,” Faradan said, “are none of your business when they don’t concern you or involve your participation.”
Jack made a buzzer sound. “Ehhh! Wrong. When we’re working together on a mission, all secondary missions must be out in the open. It’s called transparency.”
“You’ve had hidden agendas on all cooperative missions to this date,” spat Faradan.
“Wrong. The Pentagon and the NID have hidden agendas. When our teams are chosen to work with you, they’ve always been on the level. I have always been on the level. It’s no secret that we always seek new technologies to help us defend Earth. You all know that’s our mandate. But it has been you guys, from the jump, that have operated with secondary goals that you’ve seen fit not to inform us about—” Senna started to argue but Jack held his hand up and talked more loudly. “—when those goals had a direct influence on the missions we’ve jointly pursued!”
In the silence that followed, Jack then said, “Personally, I don’t have an issue with you guys getting hold of cloaks and crystals. But it should’ve been on the table. On a mission such as this, there was no reason to keep your goals secret. So I have to ask myself what’s the point in keeping it to yourselves? The only logical conclusion is that there’s something else going on.”
“There’s nothing else going on,” Senna stated, and he traded nods with the other Tok’ra. All except Faradan. Senna frowned and took a step away from his fellow Tok’ra. “Faradan?”
Jack nodded, mostly to himself. “He’s got something else going on, something we couldn’t get from Kanan.”
Then the spell began. The edges of Jack’s vision began to grow wispy, foggy. Just like before in the SGC infirmary.
Faradan’s eyes glowed red from within the pupils. It wasn’t the symbiote takeover glow. It reminded Jack of the cybernetic terminator without his flesh mask.
Then Faradan withdrew a small, palm-sized dagger from his belt and with lightning speed, slashed the throat of Senna, spun, sliced Jack’s throat, Narim’s, then Lya’s. He lunged for the other Tok’ra but a small four-inch arrow came from seemingly nowhere and struck him in the temple, knocking him down. He then rose, hand whipping out to slice the throats of the other Tok’ra. All while having that arrow embedded in his skull.
Another arrow caught him in the right eye as he turned toward the command console . . . where Jason held the tiny crossbow that had been attached to a pocket on his hip. It didn’t slow Faradan down. He continued forward until gunfire from Jason, Teal’c, and Sam riddled him with hollow-point bullets . . .
The spell ended at that point. Jack backed up to catch his balance on Jason’s console, then continued until he sat down. Like before, the spell’s side effect of dizziness hit him hard.
Between clenched teeth, he ordered, “ALTA, isolate and contain Faradan.”
Translucent blue energy descended from the ceiling and ascended from the floor to meet in a column three feet in diameter to surround Faradan. The Tok’ra screamed in rage and began to pound against the shielding. No sounds from him could be heard except for a faint dull thudding as he beat at his prison.
“What is the meaning of this?” shouted Senna as he moved toward Faradan.
“Senna,” ALTA warned, “Do not touch the stasis field.”
Daniel was already around to face Jack, a hand on his arm. “Did you get a warning?”
Jack nodded and grimaced. “I need a Dramamine.”
“Now who’s keeping secrets,” Senna spat.
“Shut up,” Jason said emphatically as he too was standing. He pulled his sidearm and gestured at the bulkhead behind the Tok’ra. “Back off. Now.”
“It’s not a secret,” Daniel told the Tok’ra. “It’s an ability Morrighan gave Jack that gives him a kind of advanced warning when lives are in immediate danger. It’s only thirty seconds, but it’s long enough to thwart whatever’s coming.”
He then caught sight of Faradan determinedly pushing a fist against the barrier. “Weapons!” he shouted, pulling his sidearm to aim it at Faradan.
“Do not fire at the barrier,” ALTA warned. “The projectiles will ricochet.” She then said to Faradan, “Cease your attempt to breach the barrier. You will not like the result.”
Faradan wasn’t listening. He grimaced as he kept pushing, then his right hand shot through the stasis field’s barrier . . . and was neatly cut off at the wrist. Faradan showed no sign of pain. At his wrist, the stump was sealed with a film to keep blood from spraying.
Except there was no blood. There was a white, translucent fluid, tubes, and . . . circuitry.
“What the actual fuck,” Daniel said in a soft voice. “Does he have a robotic arm?” he asked Senna, who slowly shook his head in shock. Daniel tilted his head as Faradan stared at him. The pupils of his eyes were turning red, as if lit from within, not bloodshot. Then Daniel winced as a split-second of pain lanced his temples. Pressure built from within his head and he could suddenly see images of memories move like flash cards. He threw up a useless warding hand and fell to his knees.
“Daniel!” he heard from Jack, Jason, and Sam.
“I’m under psychic assault!” he cried, but he couldn’t feel his mouth move to make the sounds. He concentrated to get out two syllables between clenched teeth, “Psy . . . chic . . .”
Jason, eyes wide with panic, turned to Jack. “Psychic assault!”
“ALTA,” Jack began, but then everyone on the bridge, including the Fey, grabbed their heads and fell to their knees.
From within the stasis field, starting at both ceiling and floor, a white mist flooded the cell, enveloping Faradan. The mist itself gave off a secondary mist, as dry ice sloughs off its nitrogen.
Faradan continued the assault even as his skin froze, bubbled, cracked, and broke off, revealing a metal undercarriage that also began to form a white layer of frost. Bits of metal crumpled. But still, the psychic assault continued.
The jets of subzero cold intensified and Faradan’s body began to crumple as metal turned to granules, then powder. The body frame collapsed into a pile of parts and the head landed in the middle. The skull began to twist and sink into itself as the eye sockets burst and the pupils imploded, going dark.
Everyone on the bridge let out exhalations and sagged as a great weight was suddenly lifted. As soon as Jack could form a coherent sentence, he blurted out, “Son of a bitch!” He pushed groggily to his knees but his strength soon returned and he was able to help the nearest person, Daniel, to get to his feet as well. Their help spread outward and soon everyone was either sitting on the floor or in their sections.
Sam expressed the most common feeling on the bridge. “What . . . the . . . fuck . . . was . . . that?” She didn’t mean the assault. She was pointing at what was left of Faradan.
“We didn’t know,” Senna said shakily, a few unbidden tears dropping from his eyes before he sniffed them back. “I swear to you. We didn’t know.”
Sam pushed herself to her feet and walked over to the pile of parts, which were still surrounded by the stasis field. “ALTA, is it dead?”
“Remove the stasis field please.” ALTA did. Sam removed a pen from an inside pocket of her coat and used the tip to push around the parts. Thanks to the quickly evaporating liquid nitrogen, the servo fluid now coated the metal bits via puffy dots. When her pen touched a dot, it broke down just like any water bubble. “Cyborg. Huh. Never thought I’d see one for real.”
“Not just a cyborg,” Daniel said, rubbing his forehead. “Jesus, that pain was worse than a Goa’uld hand device.”
“I’d like to know if it transmitted to anyone while it was invading our minds,” Jack said, glaring at the pile of metal bits. “ALTA?”
“I did not detect any known means for the transmission of communication or data.”
“What about to Kanan?” Jack asked.
“He, or rather, it, is also dead. As the Faradan cyborg was held in stasis, I took the liberty to encase Kanan in the same stasis field. If Faradan was the recipient of the covert intelligence gathered by the fake Jaffa, then it followed that Kanan should be treated with the same suspicion. As you humans say, better safe than sorry.”
Jack nodded. He liked this A.I. more and more. While it still acted like artificial intelligence, it was capable of independent thought. As he trusted Morrighan, he also trusted the A.I. She had to be the one who had helped create it, and it had probably been the work of one of her brothers. From creatures that advanced, it followed that the A.I. would be a far cry from the crap Earth was developing.
“So, a cyborg?”
“Cybernetic organism, yes,” said ALTA. “But with an additional ethereal function. I believe this ability was amplified by one of the small, nested crystals found in its cortex. I apologize, but it is now powder, but can still be analyzed. It was not like the crystals found in the cave. It was extremely opaque and a red so dark it appears black. It may be the same mineral discovered on an old Atlantean colony in the Pegasus galaxy and was named naquadrazine, a member of the naquadah family, due to its similar properties. Where it is found in this galaxy is unknown.”
Jack sighed and rubbed his temple. “A Goa’uld who corners the market on this shit will have a superior advantage against literally anyone susceptible to mind control.” He looked at Senna and the other Tok’ra. “Could it be that what awaits us on the surface, or subsurface, are more of these cyborgs?” The Tok’ra didn’t know, judging by their blank expressions. “Right. ALTA, can you scan for these cyborgs? Maybe using the crystal as a scanning property?”
“One moment,” ALTA said.
“O’Neill,” Teal’c said. “The A.I. may not be able to do so. As she has said, this Kanan was also a cyborg. I detected the presence of a symbiote, so it follows that these cyborgs are able to present as symbiote carriers, faking the naquadah-present chemical.”
“Master Teal’c is correct,” ALTA said.
“Swell,” Jack sighed. “We need a defense against mind control, ALTA. Otherwise, we have to attack and isolate at a distance. There’s also no telling how many Jaffa are actually cyborg. The ones in the brig didn’t present as cyborg, did they?”
“They . . . did . . . not . . .” ALTA said slowly. “But they were not under stasis . . .”
Jack suddenly got to his feet. “Flood that cell with nitrogen!”
“Confirmed,” ALTA said with just a touch of alarm.
“On screen, if possible,” Jack said.
On the front viewscreen, from an oblique overhead view, the “Jaffa” were trying to escape the gas by trying to crawl on the walls. One was on the cell block door, trying to push through it as Faradan had and was rewarded with amputation, just as before. Five long minutes later, the cyborgs were piles of “smoking” metal on the floor.
“Jesus,” Captain Kaufman said.
“Ditto,” said Daniel.
“Okay,” Jack said, staring at the screen as he walked forward, then turned his back to it. “Let’s summarize.” He pointed to the Tok’ra, Narim, and Lya. “Since you’re here, make yourselves useful in this discussion.” He turned to Teal’c, who had returned to his console seat. “Clearly, there are no Jaffa to rescue from enslavement.” Teal’c nodded. “So, the idea of isolating them in a field is a pointless endeavor. That many of them together would kill any would-be guards. The only action needed is to kill them all, and it has to be done via nitrogen or acid.”
“No bullets or arrows?” Jason asked.
Jack shook his head and relayed the warning he’d gotten. “You can shoot them all full of holes but given that mind control, they could very well force us to turn the guns on ourselves.”
“What we need is the assistance of the Nialla,” both Daniel and Lya at the same time.
Daniel was to Jack’s right and Lya to his left. Jack held both forefingers out and brought them together. “Stereo. Odd and fun at the same time. Anyway, explain. Lya?” he asked first, giving a nod of apology to Daniel.
“The Nialla are capable of their own form of limited thought communication.”
“Telepathic?” Daniel asked.
She tilted her head. “Yes. They can send and receive. They do not control. They communicate. But it is typically family-dependent. Since there are only 453 Nialla at the last census thirty years ago, and their birth/death rate is extremely slow, that number would not have changed by much. The Goa’uld would have killed some of them to keep the others from revolting but not so many that would deplete the slaves required for his needs.”
Jack found another definitional use for TMI: too much information. He had typically thought of that where Daniel’s tendency to lecture came into it, but Lya was surpassing him with TMI: Not Needed For Analysis.
“Daniel?” he asked. He hoped Daniel caught the emotion that said, “Keep it brief.”
Daniel’s mouth twitched. “The Nialla can then assist in their own freedom if they haven’t been terrorized into immobility. But my point was that we can locate one, transport them here—in a stasis field at first—and then ask them the pertinent questions needed to get rid of the Goa’uld, his robot Jaffa, and that ship.”
“I believe I have found the answer for the temporary placement of all cybernetic Jaffa,” ALTA said.
“What is it?” Jack asked.
“They can be transported directly into the ice of the southern pole’s glacier. It is large enough to contain at the detected one-thousand four-hundred fifty-three Jaffa.”
“You found them all via scans?” Sam asked.
“I found one unique mineral, the naquadrazine crystal, on the planet and it exists within that number of individuals. It is therefore likely to assume that these are the cybernetic Jaffa.”
“Why temporary?” asked Jacob.
“The ice is not nitrogen-based. It would not hold them for more than one hour. One of my stasis fields would hold them, but they would still be free to exert their control at the behest of their master’s mandates. The natural ice will inhibit their control for one hour, perhaps a few minutes longer, but no more. They have the strength to dig themselves out before the ice immobilizes them permanently.”
Jack said, “Okay. Let’s say they’re in the ice. How do we then kill them all? Wouldn’t it be easier to transport them somewhere and flood that stasis field with liquid nitrogen?”
“I do not have sufficient quantities needed to cover the combined area of that many Jaffa.”
“Where’s it stored?” Sam asked.
“In the vacuum tanks held in the liquid cooling station of cargo bay 12.”
“What about freezing them a few at a time?” Jack asked.
“Again, insufficient,” ALTA said. “There might be an alternate method of destruction, including the Goa’uld.”
“To use a colloquialism, fire their ship into the sun.”
Jason snorted out a laugh and Jack grinned, but not long. “Yeah, that would do it. But how?”
Sam said, “We would have to disable the ship and tow it into the sun’s gravity well. We’d have to disengage and escape it ourselves, but since our ship wouldn’t be disabled, that should be easy. Provided that the frozen Jaffa stay that way long enough so that they can’t penetrate the ship’s shields in order to grab control of our minds. ALTA, if you transport them to the glacier, can you inject it with nitrogen gas to keep them inert before melting?”
“Yes, but,” Selmak said. “The distance to this system’s sun would take over an hour to reach at normal light speed. The Hatak would need to be frozen as well, and to do that would take time. The primary coolant tanks of the ship’s anti-gravity cells would need to be sabotaged. It would take roughly six point two hours for the tanks to emit a constant sub-zero temperature that would reach all parts of the ship. We can’t get onto that ship until all the Jaffa are transported off. It would need to be done quickly before they could implement any anti-tampering devices that all Goa’uld ships are equipped with. Plus, any fight between ships might disable the coolant tanks, thus ending the endeavor.”
Jack sighed. “Whatever happened to a good old-fashioned firefight with superior firepower?”
“We currently do not know if the weapons on the Hatak vessel are inferior,” ALTA said. “I have not yet been able to scan their ship. They have remained directly opposite in orbit, presumably to prevent any direct line-of-sight scanning.”
“Just once I’d like a Cake Walk rescue mission,” Jack grumbled, then straightened his spine. “Okay. Let’s begin this plan. Stage 1, locate and transport that Goa’uld to a cell. Without their boss, wouldn’t the Jaffa panic?”
“Normal Jaffa, yes,” Teal’c said. “These Jaffa are . . .”
“Sinister?” Jason offered. “Evil? Creepy as fuck?”
Teal’c bowed his head. “Indeed. But they are very effective.”
“I hate when the bad guys have good help,” Jack said. “We grab the snake. Stage 2, beam all Jaffa from the ship to the glacier. Stage 3, do the same with the rest of the Jaffa. It needs to be quick.”
“Um, sorry, Jack, but there’s a little flaw in the plan so far,” Daniel said. “We need to talk to one of the Nialla. They’ll have intel we need before we proceed.”
Jack grimaced. “You’re right. Time to meet one of the Nialla. Lya, are any of them different enough to be separated from the others?”
“The eldest of them lead, so it would be best to scan for that parameter.”
“ALTA?” he asked, wondering how the hell do you scan for the eldest in a group?
“To separate them would require a chemical element or lack of one,” the A.I. said. “For example, looking for Goa’uld inhabiting a lifeform, one would scan for the naquadah trace. It is one way to scan for Seti should he be hiding within a group of cybernetic Jaffa.”
“Nialla bones are made of connective tissue reinforced with calcium and specialized bone cells,” Lya said.
“For the record, everyone’s bones are made that way,” Sam said.
Lya gave her a head bob. “However, within the marrow is a type of protein unique to the Nialla, allowing their bones to retain strength as they attain great age. Nox bone structure is very similar.”
A blue scanning line appeared mid-air and scanned Lya from head to toe. “One moment . . .” ALTA said. Five long seconds passed. “There is a marker. For convenience in record keeping, I will name it protein enzyme Nx13. I will now commence scanning the surface, starting with the buildings surrounding the square and lakes.”
A few minutes passed and Daniel made a face as he pressed the palm of his hand on his stomach. Jack looked up over his shoulder where Daniel stood, leaning on the back of his command chair. “I heard that. Hungry?”
“Apparently,” Daniel said. “My brain isn’t. The body isn’t listening.”
Jack snorted a soft laugh. Once Jack had said the word ‘hungry,’ it set off everyone’s belly rumblings, including Teal’c’s.
“I’ll see to it,” Finian suddenly said. Within a swirling helix of energy lines, he disappeared.
“How’d he do that?” Senna asked.
“The Fey have their own modes of transport,” Daniel said. “It’s . . .” He didn’t know if he should say it aloud in mixed company and when Jack shook his head in the tiniest shake possible, he shrugged instead, letting Jack take the reins.
“Automatically carried with them, no matter where they are,” Jack said, fudging the truth. It was more than likely that Finian and the other two Fey were gifted with that type of magical ability. But telling the Tok’ra that might just get some unscrupulous sorts to kidnap a Fey and dissect the poor soul in order to replicate it artificially. That would, of course, result in the Wrath of Morrighan. It was very tempting to see if that would happen, just to watch the punishment come down, but Jack would never risk a life just to indulge that cavalier an urge. He’d be no better than Ba’al or any other psychopathic asshole.
“Penny?” Jason asked.
Jack waved a hand. “Nothing. My brain needs occupation, not idle thoughts of stupidity.”
Jason grinned. “I know exactly what you mean. I’ve been entertaining thoughts of crash test dummy scenarios.” Jack showed teeth as he laughed.
“You two,” Daniel said fondly.
Finian reappeared with a large plastic tray holding several small cups filled with a liquid and a very thin three-inch brown stick resembling a piece of cinnamon bark. “Eat, then drink. We, Fey, call it The In-between Sup. Meant to hold off hunger at a time when you can’t spare an hour for a decent meal.”
Jack broke off a piece of the stick, chewed, then felt the urge to eat the entire stick, which wasn’t much. It did indeed taste like cinnamon but with a dash of clove added. He downed the small cup of liquid that tasted like very light sugar water. Within a few seconds of that, his stomach felt absurdly full. Not uncomfortably so, just full. “Wow. What’d that do? Expand the bark to the size of an orange?”
Finian smiled as he and his fellow Fey eagerly ate the bark and swallowed their water. “No, it’s lemon water and pale cinnamon. Combined, the bark sends signals to the brain and thus to the stomach to shut up for a while.”
Lya looked like she was in seventh heaven, smiling and rubbing her lips together. “I could drink that all day.”
On the heels of her statement, ALTA said, “I have found someone with the marker. They were not in the compound, nor underground. I located them near the northern polar region, hiding in a cave with approximately sixteen other Nialla. I believe they are a rogue group, hiding from the Goa’uld and the Jaffa.”
“Will all of them fit on the bridge?” Jack asked.
Alina said, “We could use Relaxation room B. It is close to the Café.”
“Rec room B?” Jack asked, trying to remember it. “The one with the ponds and trees?”
“Yes,” Alina said, nodding vigorously.
“Ponds and trees?” Jacob asked.
Jack jogged his brows. “Okay. ALTA, if you please?”
The entire group left the bridge empty as they were transported to Relaxation room B.
Relaxation Room B was a large room that could accommodate fifty people comfortably, seventy-five snugly, and one hundred uncomfortably, and only in an emergency.
Six ambient lights ringed the room’s ceiling, setting off a comfortable glow that wouldn’t strain the eyes. In between each light fixture was a food dispenser display. Some held little cakes of various flavors and others offered lighter foods like ice cups, frozen fruit, and tubes of flavored slush. Three other dispensing machines showed only what Jack and the others had seen before: text labels that you pushed and in the tray slot near the bottom appeared whatever it was you ordered, from hot dinners to coffee and tea.
There were two twenty-foot kidney-shaped pools at either end, sitting diagonally from near right to far left. Each was filled with a small landmass containing a large, flowering tree. Ringing the ponds’ edges were clumps of leafy flowers and moss, with lily pads and lotus flowers floating in the water which also held several koi fish – which on further examination were electronic projections that came from tiny orbs set in the pond floor.
Accompanying them were three spherical pools surrounding large, flowering trees. The pools in turn were ringed with a solid stone bench. In the middle of one side of the room was a leaf-shaped frame-only awning that covered an area meant for the display of foods. Two tables with six chairs each sat under the awning’s edge. Set around the room were six more tables, six chairs each.
To most everyone’s displeasure, the hot dinner dispensers weren’t in operation. ALTA explained it as, “normal operations” during a rescue operation that needed most of the power for offensive-defensive actions.
“I don’t see how a rescue op has to go without dinner,” Jack grumbled.
In his comm device behind his ear, ALTA covertly said, “The catering modules are designed for Earth cuisine. Given the various culinary differences in the races aboard the ship, they wouldn’t touch the food you would normally wolf down.”
“Ah,” was all Jack said as he covered his mouth and ordered himself not to burst out laughing. It was a near thing. Both Jason and Daniel, and upon further checking, Sam and Teal’c, were in on the exchange. They were, apart from Teal’c, openly chuckling.
Still, the entire lot drank tea and there were many taking advantage of the dispenser.
“Okay, ALTA,” Jack said. “Do we just beam the lot up here and hope they don’t have heart attacks?”
“I suggest that Lya stands in front of the group when they appear. It is too risky to beam her to the surface to prepare them.”
“Agreed.” He looked around and found Lya. “Where, ALTA?”
A foot-wide circle of light appeared on the floor in the twenty-foot diameter open space in front of the double doors. Lya moved over the circle.
“Proceed,” Jack said.
The wavery transport beam commenced. In three seconds, there was eighteen little folk no higher than thirty-six inches decked out in what looked like homeless attire: typical clothing but smudged and torn. Some of the fashions indicated mining gear.
All of them huddled quickly together, their slightly larger-than-normal eyes round with terror. Other than that, they looked like scaled-down humans.
Lya knelt on her right knee and made a sign with both hands before extending her left palm up. On her palm lay a dried orange slice. One of the Nialla, a woman a few inches taller than the others and far older, with wispy white hair and brown leathery skin, stepped forward out of the group though hands tried to hold her back. She said something to them in tart tones and they let her go. After another step and a pause, she walked up to Lya and took the orange slice. She sniffed it, bit off a tiny corner, tasted it, and smiled. Showing very white normal teeth. Apart from the quarter-inch fanged canines, relatively large in such a small mouth.
“Yowza,” Jack mouthed to Jason and Daniel, who nodded.
The elder Nialla said something to Lya. Her voice was hard to hear. It was whisper soft with squeaks in it. Daniel figured that was inflection, going by the cadence. Lya gestured behind them at the very big people and spoke to the tiny woman with a mix of sign language and words. She then gestured at the closest table, empty, but the Nialla went to the kidney pond instead. Several of the much smaller ones that looked like children jumped into the pool making squeaking sounds and began playing with the electronic fish. Their laughter rang like tiny little bells.
Lya took the hand of the elder Nialla and the hand of a male who seemed to be of the same age but with hair peppered with white instead of fully white and led them to Jack. Lya made a kneeling motion and he dropped to one knee and rested his forearm across it.
“Ask what you need and I will translate. They will answer and I will translate back.”
Jack nodded, trying to figure out what to say. “Did you tell them why we’re here?”
“Yes. To take the Goa’uld and his Jaffa away.”
Jack nodded. “Ask them if the Nialla are in danger when we try to do that? Is there any information we need to have to spare lives that are at risk? And are there any traps waiting?”
Lya blinked. “Traps?”
Jack nodded slowly. “Traps. Goa’uld are notorious for setting traps that are designed to spring on intruders or invaders. Most of the time, that also comes from a lack of solid intelligence.”
She stared at him, then blinked, once. She nodded and turned to the little folk, kneeling as before.
As Lya explained to the little folk, Jack had to refrain from smiling at the sound of their whispers and squeaks. It might sound cute to him but to them, they were very serious. He had to think of it from their point of view and from that end, it was easy to be more serious. He wondered if he sounded to these little folk like a great bear making noise.
In his peripheral vision, he thought he saw Daniel put a hand to his mouth and he looked over. Daniel had clearly read what was going through Jack’s mind, or rather, the emotion behind it. Jack gave him a mock scowl. The grin and scowl were for one thing: Jack thinking like Daniel.
Then the little folk caught Jack’s attention with animated gestures and what looked like arguing. Either they were angry or frightened. Jack couldn’t tell which. Lya turned to explain but the elder woman and man stepped around her and walked up to Jack. He gave them a raised eyebrow as they seemed to appraise him. They looked over at Jason and Daniel, then Sam and Teal’c, and then on to the Tok’ra, whom they scowled at. They ignored Narim completely.
Returning their gazes to Jack, the elder woman said in broken English, “You leader?”
Jack nodded. He was afraid to use his voice in case he should forget to talk softly.
“Speak,” said the elder woman.
“I am the leader,” Jack said in his normal voice. She looked satisfied.
She touched her chest. “Chalinchi.” She touched the male’s chest.
“Sentashi,” he said.
“Ask questions,” she said, moving her hand in a ‘give me’ gesture.
“You understand me?”
“Yes,” she said impatiently. “We learn.” She tapped her ear and her head.
Jack pointed to Daniel. “Translator.”
She shook her head. Jack nodded and pointed, then he lost his patience. “Look, he’s better at this than I am.”
“You speak well. We will understand.”
And she did. She’d stopped with the broken English.
“Reading our minds?” he asked.
Chalinchi’s mouth curved up slightly. “Is that . . . the speak . . . speech . . . phrase?” She had slowly pronounced “phrase.” “It is a gift we have. Please continue normally.”
“Okay then,” Jack nodded. “We know about the Jaffa.” Chalinchi spat and he grinned wider. “My sentiments exactly,” he said slowly so she’d get his meaning. “We have a plan to destroy them. But we need to capture the Goa’uld first.”
“Explain,” she asked.
So he did. As he finished, she began shaking her head. “You don’t agree.”
“Yes, I do not agree. It is better to find all of us,” and she placed a hand on her chest. “Bring us to ship. Destroy planet.”
Jack stared at her. “It’s your home.”
“It is but one.”
“Ah. You wish to be taken to another then?”
Jack eyed her. “Will you be welcomed there?”
She eyed him right back. “Yes. Bigger planet, more room, start over.”
“Not big on sentiment and keepsakes are you?” he said.
She snorted and it sounded like a squashed squeak and he had to smother a smile. She glared at him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. But you do realize how you sound to us? I can only imagine how we sound to you.”
She sighed. “There are not enough words to explain that.”
He chuckled and she smiled at him, nodding. “Can laugh at self. That is good.”
“Then you’ve come to the right place.” She waved a dismissive hand and he said, “Back to business.”
He nodded. “What if we can’t blow up the planet?”
She made a face. “Not our problem if you take us elsewhere.”
“It’s your problem if the snakeheads follow us. Planet first, transport second. No sense in letting them know where the rest of you are. But here’s the problem.” He pointed to the Tok’ra. “They—”
“Want shields and crystals,” she said heavily with an eyeroll. “Lya said.”
“No beating around the bush with you is there?” he said to Lya.
“Saves time,” she shrugged.
“It does.” To Chalinchi he said, “Do you know where they keep the shields? It’s easy enough to take the crystals, but the shields are another matter. We’re not going anywhere near those scary Jaffa and I’m not letting the Tok’ra go either.”
Chalinchi turned to Sentashi and they discussed the matter. She turned to Jack. “Do you have a map?”
He nodded. “ALTA, please display a map for the elder woman to read?”
“Confirmed,” ALTA said, and a small holographic display appeared beside them, showing the town closeup.
“Here,” Chalinchi said, pointing to one of the Jaffa buildings. “Sentashi say it is this building.”
“Thank you. We’ll take it from there. In the meantime, we need to beam the rest of your people to the hold where there are passenger quarters. They are not meant for little folk.”
“Can you not transport here?” she asked, indicating the room.
“Will four hundred-fifty-three of you fit in here?”
“Could be cramped, but best option.” She suddenly blushed when Sentashi backhanded her shoulder. “Please thank you.”
Jack nodded. “Then await here to greet them. They’ll be as frightened as you were.”
“Mind if we big folk share the room until they arrive?”
“Work to do?” she asked.
“Sustenance,” he said, gesturing at the machines against the wall. She squinted. “Lya will show you what you may not find offensive.” Chalinchi nodded and she and Sentashi returned to their people around the pool. Lya followed with an approving nod over her shoulder.
Daniel and Jason walked over. “You were amazing,” Daniel said.
“I was?” Jack asked, surprised. “I thought I sounded like a great bear—”
“Making a noise, I know,” Daniel said. “You didn’t. You didn’t raise your voice, not once.”
“I was afraid I’d break their ears or something.”
“Okay, so,” Jason said, and looked over at Chalinchi. “She looks like one of the Grandmothers my grandfather was always telling me about.”
“Point?” Jack asked.
Jason shook his head as if clearing it. “Never mind. We couldn’t hear all that was said. What’s the plan?”
“Um. Plan A, the Easy way. We beam them all up, blow up the planet, and deliver the Nialla to another planet filled with their people.”
Daniel and Jason stared at him. “And . . .” Daniel began, “they’re just fine leaving all their—”
“Plan B?” Jason asked.
“Those jokers and their shield and crystal list,” Jack said sourly, not needing to explain who the jokers were.
“The Pentagon would want them too,” Jason said just as sourly. “Think we could grab a few shields for Area 51, make them happy?”
“And crystals,” Jack sighed. “So, plan B. Beam up the Nialla, then grab the crystals, steal the shields, and then blow up the planet before they get wise.”
“Wait, can we blow up the planet?” Daniel asked.
“That tiny little thing?” Jack asked. “It’s like blowing up an asteroid. Of course, we can blow it up. Right ALTA?”
“Affirmative,” she answered, and sounded a little miffed to them.
“What?” Jack asked.
“It’s such a waste of arsenal, but best to get rid of those Jaffa.”
“I’ve been wondering what Seti’s like if his Jaffa are a reflection of him,” Daniel said.
“No,” Jack said, raising his voice.
Daniel blinked. “No? No to what? I didn’t ask to go down and have a chat.”
“Okay. But just in case you’re entertaining anything remotely like it, the answer is No.” Daniel opened his mouth and Jack put a hand over it. “No. Not only no but hell no. Got me? No sneak peaks, no messages, nada, zilch, zip. We kill the bastard and his spooky minions, got it? You can fantasize what the creep is like.”
Daniel leaned over and softly said, “I never said, nor do I want, to get into a conversation with a psychopath.”
Jack nodded and waved a hand in mute apology.
Jason looked over his shoulder, saw the Nialla staring at Jack with wide eyes. He tried not to smile as he said, “Hey, Mister Noisy Great Bear, tone it down a little.”
Daniel bit his lips together.
Jack looked over at the Nialla and found Chalinchi staring at him. “Sorry,” he said, mostly mouthing the word and the little woman rolled her eyes and turned away, snapping squeaky orders. “Jeez Louise.” He gestured for his mates to follow. “Let’s go have a conference to figure out this Plan B.” He suddenly turned to them and said, voice lowered but no less caustic, “And let me state for the record that right now, I’m seriously reconsidering these allies as allies.” He started walking again and added, “And if anything even remotely goes wrong, it’s Plan A. On steroids. That elder Niallan woman knows her business. She may be tiny but she’s got bigger balls than these . . . allies.”
Arguments over details forced Jack to issue the ultimatum. Do it his way or they get nothing. He wasn’t taking chances. If Anubis was creepy and had creepier Jaffa, then Seti Ptah was a thousand times worse. If ALTA couldn’t isolate and beam the shield devices from the Jaffa storage building, then they’d move on with only the crystal stash.
They’d beam the Jaffa away from the cave. If any of them were inside, then bait would lure them out. The bait would be the most realistic hologram ALTA could devise: an injured Niallan calling from the nearby trees. Chalinchi had consented to be scanned because it had been known that she had escaped. Others had eventually joined her, informing her that the Jaffa that had let her escape had been torn limb from limb, quite literally, down in the dungeon, with all of the Jaffa to watch. Several dozen Niallan had been forced to witness the brutality as a warning. God only knew what had happened to their Jaffa guards.
Once these two tasks had been accomplished, ALTA and the Fey, with Sam observing, would move to extreme orbit, then with the use of the targeting array and the Asgardian plasma beam weapons, they would cut the planet apart. The small amounts of naquadah in sectioned caves would detonate due to the heat of the beams. If the Hatak came after them, ALTA’s squid projectiles would take care of it. From a distance. They weren’t going to get within ten kilometers of the ship and its Jaffa.
With Lya’s suggestion, Jack had ALTA beam the Nialla up to Restoration Room B in small numbers, ten to twenty people at a time, and all from separate worker houses. No Jaffa stayed within the houses but it was currently night time when all of the Nialla were sleeping, and the sudden lack of snores and coughs and the moans of the injured would alert the guards.
As the Nialla came aboard, startled, and terrified, they were quickly put at ease once they saw Lya and Chalinchi. It was at the halfway point of their transportation aboard when Lya interrupted talk on the bridge.
“Colonel O’Neill?” she asked via the intercom in the RRB (the new nickname for Relaxation Room B).
“Yes, Lya, what is it?”
“I have learned from one of the Nialla that the cloaking devices used by the Jaffa are not separate pieces worn on the uniform. They are built into the cybernetic systems.”
“Thank you, Lya,” he said, and closed his eyes for a few seconds, then turned to the Tok’ra. “That plan has now been scrapped. It’s crystals-only, folks.”
“But . . .” Senna began.
“But?” Jack asked. “If you’re thinking of incapacitating a Jaffa to dissect them for this tech, it’s out of the question. I’m not bringing one aboard, asleep or dead.”
Senna let his arms rise and fall in a defeated attitude.
Jack nodded. “Okay. So, ALTA, what’s the current situation of the Jaffa at the crystal cave? Can the plan be implemented while you’re ferrying the Nialla aboard?”
“There are now over fifty Jaffa at that cave. The only alternative for obtaining crystals now lies in beaming them directly on board, which may cause instability or render them powerless. My transportation beams are not designed to be adjusted.”
“A flaw to correct at another time,” Jack said, sighing. “Is there any other site on the planet where the crystals form?”
“Three,” ALTA said.
“Since I didn’t ask that before, and you did not volunteer those additional sites, should I assume it’s because it’s either dangerous or impossible to extract them?”
“Dangerous, yes. Impossible . . . not precisely. Just time consuming, and time is something we do not have, given that stealth is no longer an option.”
Jack sighed again. “Explain the problems.”
ALTA displayed the map on the front viewscreen.
“In addition to Crystal Cave, there are these locations. As labeled, location 2 resides under an active deep-sea volcano. Location 3 lies at the bottom of a glacier half-kilometer deep fissure. Location 4 is the ground surrounding the former crypts turned into a dungeon, with large crystal deposits inside the dungeon itself. The dungeon is less imposing, geologically speaking, but far more dangerous given the number of Jaffa that are currently occupying it. The dungeon contains a deep pit that also contains crystal remnants and lethal gas emissions. Not lethal to breathe but lethal when in contact with the skin. Pointedly, the dungeon is unshielded.”
Jack made a sound of disgust. “Just keeps getting better and better. You said this planet is the only one in the solar system with these crystals?”
“That was my data before contact with the Nialla. The much larger planet that they wish to travel to also has these deposits.”
“What?” Jack asked. “Then why in the hell are we wasting time here?” ALTA was slow to respond and Jack suspected why. “Because you’re literal-minded and don’t offer other avenues of action?”
“I am not programmed for blanket opinions, Colonel O’Neill. It is within my programming to learn and behave as an agreeable assistant. I am programmed to seek out additional means of assistance, but that is very limited in scope.”
“Don’t want you too powerful and independent so you’ll end up taking over the galaxy, is that it?”
“That would . . . be out of my operating function. But ostensibly, you are correct. I have careful controls to prevent that sort of nonsense anyway.”
Jack laughed. “Okay, so we’ll let the Tok’ra, and the SGC, bargain at the new planet. Not my problem.”
“Good. How long until we have all of the Nialla aboard?”
She was slow to respond, then . . . “Colonel O’Neill?”
“There is an incoming transmission from Seti Ptah.”
Groans from everyone on the bridge including Jack. It meant that it was likely that he knew what was going on.
“He is asking to speak to the commander of this ship. By screen, not in person.”
“Crap. My face is on every Goa’uld wanted poster. Figuratively-speaking.”
“As is mine,” Daniel and Teal’c said together. They traded tense grins.
“I can stand in for you,” Finian offered, coming to the back of Jack’s command chair. “He won’t recognize me or my race.”
“That you know of,” Jack said doubtfully, chewing at his lip. “ALTA, play the message.” She aired it through the bridge intercom. It was in Goa’uld.
“To the commander of the ship orbiting my planet. I desire a face-to-face introduction via telecommunication.”
“My planet,” Jack said, shaking his head. He looked at Finian, then shook his head. “No. I’m not putting a Fey’s face in front of a Goa’uld. Jason, get in the chair. No one knows your face, apart from Ba’al. He’s not the sharing kind.”
Jason snorted. He walked around the console and Jack slapped him on the back before he sat down. As he took his seat, he grimaced. “Should’ve worn my hat. I left it in the briefing room.”
“Idiot,” Jack playfully chided. “Here.” He reached down and pulled his hat from a recess beneath the command chair. “Put it on. Let’s see how it looks.”
It was a short-topped black leather hat with a wide brim, decorated with open carvings and an oval golden sapphire gem with pointed ends in the center, giving the effect of a third eye. “There. Now you look like Richie Sambora.”
Jason snorted. He sat back and adjusted the way his arms rested on the arm and back of the chair, hoping it looked both rakish and casual. But then he gave it up and sat as he normally did, arms resting on the chair. “Okay, ALTA. Where’s the shithead calling from?” he asked.
“The planet, at the temple or beneath it. But that may be a decoy. I am detecting a series of pings from around the planet. It may be the satellites purposely interfering with his exact location.”
“As long as he’s not calling from his ship.”
“No, it is not originating from there.”
“Any chance there’s another cloaked ship in orbit?” Jason asked.
“Why didn’t I think of that?” Jack winced.
“You did,” Jason said. “An hour ago. You just forgot to ask.”
“There are no subspace signatures indicative of a cloaked ship.”
“Like we would be exhibiting?” Jack asked.
“Never mind, Jack,” Jason said. “Silence everyone. And Teal’c? You might wanna . . .” He made a whistling sound and pointed away from the front viewscreens. Teal’c moved to the doorway. Jason looked around him. “Sam,” he frowned. She was directly behind him, though further away at her station.
She made a face. “Sorry.” She moved off.
Jason was now the only person before the screen. “Okay. Showtime.”
A picture of static appeared on the screen and it did not resolve into a clear broadcast signal. “Well that is not fair,” Jason said, adjusting his speech so he didn’t sound like he was from Earth. Contraction-free and hopefully free of very specific colloquialisms. “You see me, I do not see you. Why are you so shy, Seti Ptah?”
“I do not wish to frighten you,” came Seti’s voice. It was unsettlingly very deep and sounded like he was talking through water in the middle of an empty cavern. The dungeon? There was an odd echo.
“Liar,” Jason said. “Besides, is it not difficult to speak underwater?”
“You are perceptive,” said the Goa’uld.
“Let us not waste time. What do you want?”
“You cannot have my planet.”
“I do not want this planet. And it does not belong to you.”
“Then why are you here? For the crystals?”
“These creatures who live here?” There was laughter that sounded as if it came from within a big drum. Echoey.
Jason sighed. “With you, the odd is maximized.”
“Who do you mean?”
“Who do you think?”
“But . . . I am not a Goa’uld.”
Jason didn’t miss a beat. He said slowly, “Liar. Your Jaffa give you away, but they are an odd bunch, are they not? Where did you get such undeniably scary servants?”
“Yes, I heard that you have met. At the crystal cave. If you are here for these creatures, why bother with the crystals? I think you lie.”
“Ow. I am wounded.”
“What is your name?” the Goa’uld asked.
“Ah, a name. What is in a name? You call yourself Seti Ptah, but we both know that is stolen. Pretending to be a god. Who does that?”
“So you know of Earth. A bothersome little planet. Have you been there?”
“Now and then. Have you?”
“A very long time ago. I have plans to return.”
Jason smiled. “Liar.”
“I am sincere.”
“You may find it has drastically changed in three thousand years.”
More laughter. It was making Jason’s skin crawl. “Perhaps we can come to an agreement,” Seti said slowly.
“No. You know and I know that you people never keep your agreements.”
“So you do know of the Goa’uld.”
Jack signaled that all of the Nialla were onboard. And that ALTA said the Hatak was moving.
Jason sighed. “It is not going to work, Goa’uld.”
“An agreement with me is valid.”
“No, I mean this stalling tactic.”
“I will destroy you,” Seti suddenly snarled.
“Overconfidence. Have fun.”
“You will not have—” Seti began.
ALTA cut communication.
Jason shuddered. “Creepy,” he drawled as he handed Jack the borrowed hat. “Just creepy, creepy. I feel like my skin is crawling.” He left the chair and Jack retook his seat.
“That goes for everyone,” Jack said, shaking himself. “Time for business.”
“Business?” Senna asked.
“Yeah,” Jack said. “Comes with a Hatak and a side order of firefight.”
The ship turned slowly while ALTA used various sensors to locate the Hatak before it came into view around the planet. But while their proverbial back was turned, another ship decloaked on their port side.
“Shit!” Jack scowled, and ALTA turned the An Croi to face it.
The new vessel was slightly larger than the An Croi but only because its shape was vastly flattened and its wings spread flat, reminding everyone from Earth of the B-2 Stealth Bomber. The only difference was that the wings curved inward toward the short tail, like a hawk. It was painted in subdued blues and golds.
“That’s unfair,” Jason scowled. “It’s pretty.”
“It’s painted like the ceiling of Seti the First’s tomb,” Daniel said. Recalling part of the funeral procession “under the stars,” he had a pretty good idea what this Seti Ptah looked like. The watery speech patterns were a clue. “Uh, if you can, don’t show this dude’s face, ALTA. Block any attempt at a face-to-face in clear broadcast. There’s a reason he didn’t show himself.”
“Why?” Jack asked. “ALTA, full battle station.”
The ship dimmed its lights and three layers of translucent white covered the exterior of the ship, as seen through the viewscreen ports.
“Because he’s a reptile,” Daniel said.
There was a stunned silence on the bridge for a long five-count.
“What do you mean?” Sam asked.
“That’s not figurative, is it?” Jack asked.
“Sorry in advance,” Daniel warned. “A brief paragraph about this guy. In the mural on the ceiling over his sarcophagus is a prone Seti the First. Behind him stands the protection goddess, Teweret, represented by a hippo-headed biped with a crocodile tale and feline feet. Behind her, nearly mounting her with his head over hers, is Sobek, the crocodile god in animal form. His texts indicate he is a sexual predator, stealing wives away from their husbands in order to procreate. A serial rapist, by modern standards.”
“And . . . a humanoid croc?” Jason asked, wide-eyed.
Daniel nodded slowly. “I’m pretty sure.”
“How sure?” Jack asked.
Seti’s ship fired on the An Croi. A bright disc of light jettisoned from the ship’s nose and hit the An Croi in a full frontal assault.
Daniel yelled into the melee, “99.9% sure!”
“Son of a bitch,” Jack snarled. “ALTA, do what you can to destroy that ship without compromising life support.”
“Guys,” Jack said to everyone on the bridge. “Pay attention to your screens. This is also a teaching moment so we know what to do later.”
“Got it,” Jason said.
“Already on it, sir,” called Carter.
“Understood, O’Neill,” Teal’c responded.
Daniel said, mostly to himself, “Unless he’s a reptilian cyborg.”
Jack grimaced. “Daniel, surmise later.”
“Just sayin’,” Daniel said, not bothered by Jack’s mild reprimand. “You need to know, whether you like it or not. Just in case ALTA can’t block visual contact.”
ALTA said, “The Hatak is coming around our rear.”
“Of course they are,” Jack said.
Then suddenly, a blue wave of energy expanded from the new vessel and quickly enveloped the An Croi. Everyone on board was hit with a psychic assault. Jack grabbed at his head, grimacing, and fell out of his command chair to writhe on the floor. Through the pain, he saw everyone else doing the same.
Then Seti’s voice invaded their thoughts. It was a slithering sound, giving everyone the image of a snake talking around a darting tongue, and he spoke with the same deeply unnerving voice.
Feel my invasion as you are impaled.
Then the voice was booming, all-encompassing, terrifying . . .
HEAR ME. FEEL ME. IS IT NOT BEAUTIFULLY HIDEOUS?
While images of rape invaded their minds, convincing their bodies of the assault, another light projectile slammed into the ship.
“ALTA!” Jack ground out. “Block! Return fire!”
“Waiting for the optimal time,” she said calmly.
“Son of a bitch! Do it now!”
“A few more seconds,” ATLA said.
Jack screamed along with everyone else as bloody images followed the invading assault.
Onscreen, ALTA divided the viewscreen into two, revealing both the main ship and the Hatak.
Through the psychic assault, Jack and the others capable of sight watched as the An Croi’s lighted systems darkened to near total blackness before finally returning fire.
The Asgardian plasma weapons were blue-white lasers, slicing off one wing of Seti’s ship and one corner of the Hatak at a forty-five-degree angle. Both ships listed badly and internal explosions began to disrupt their functions.
And the psychic assault was abruptly cut off, causing wheezing exhalations, sobs, and abrupt, violent vomiting.
“Jesus H. Christ!” Jack groaned as he spat the taste of bile out of his mouth. He repeated the curse, then added several more. “Turn that fucker to toast!”
“Observe,” ALTA said.
She brought the An Croi around and moved over the planet, sending down her Squid Projectiles which penetrated the ground at all crystal locations. The ship turned and flew away at top speed while keeping a visual of the planet and burning ships on the viewscreen. When the planet was a speck in the distance, she zoomed in to catch the ensuing carnage onscreen. It took several minutes as the planet fractured along fault lines and cracks made by the projectiles. As the planet imploded, it broke apart in dozens of pieces, the largest of which took out both ships.
ALTA waited, and as pieces of the planet and destroyed ships entered range, she began to disintegrate them at a safe distance with small jet beams from the Asgardian plasma weapons. Basically, mopping up what was left.
It was glorious. And bittersweet.
But no one on board could spare the mental space to celebrate the victory.
The Fey recovered more quickly, in minutes rather than hours. From the medical bay, aka the Infirmary, they gathered the materials for relieving the suffering from the psychic assault that caused not just mental injury but physical as well. Those with sexual assault in their backgrounds, like Jack, Jason, and Connor, had to get an additional dose of the medication in order to block out the recurring memories of the invasion into their minds. Its purpose was to provide calm while the memory of the assault faded into the background. It would take months to recover but they were as functional as it was possible to be.
Unfortunate clarity was focused on the Nialla. This brief assault had been visited upon them for three years. And they could still function. In light of this, everyone was forced to put on a brave face. If the Nialla were this strong, they would try to be as well. It would take twelve hours at hyperspeed to reach the other Nialla, at a planet called Tykolan. In the meanwhile, Jack issued Mandatory Downtime. Since ALTA had been running the ship, the situation was taken advantage of.
Crew quarters were on deck 2, in the forward part of the ship. And they weren’t like typical quarters. The teams expected a bunk, a side table, a lamp, a locker, and either a closet or a free-standing wardrobe. Instead, they found apartments, complete with a furnished bedroom, living room, bath, and kitchen. Though the kitchen was merely an extension of the living room and fairly tiny. There were no appliances. There were cupboards of dishes and flatware/cutlery. There were wall machines for ordering food and drink. The beds were nothing to write home about but they were comfortable enough for exhausted minds and bodies and the same thing applied to the sofas and chairs in the living room.
One well-appreciated perk: a large encased tub in a wall nook of the bathroom. It had a shower, but the tub had jets of swirling water that came out of the wall, agitated around the body, disappeared into another part of the wall, and circled back clean and filtered in a never-ending cycle of renewal.
Daniel found Jack and Jason sharing the tub in Jack’s quarters. Nothing sexual occurred. It was the understanding, reassuring company. Daniel removed most of his clothing and sat on the wide rim of the tub that extended past the wall and soothed his husbands’ aches with temple and neck massages.
And something interesting happened. As he smoothed their skin without pressure from his fingertips, his calmness transferred into his husbands’ minds. Something like it had happened once before, where his empathic sense was able to transfer.
And from that transfer, both Jack and Jason felt the buried turmoil within Daniel’s mind. Daniel. An empath. Who had received a psychic assault. While they were both made aware of it, its trauma didn’t reach them. Daniel was making sure of it subconsciously but he wasn’t completely protecting himself while doing it. They both could see that as easily as they could see him physically.
“Hey,” Jason said, frowning and looking up as Daniel smoothed his hand over the back of his neck.
“Hmm?” Daniel asked.
Jason traded looks with Jack and the two men pulled Daniel slowly into the tub. Daniel didn’t resist. Didn’t care about wet briefs. He simply let his husbands return the favor of soothing fingertips and slow petting of hair, neck, and shoulders. As they helped him relax as he had done for them, unbidden tears slid down his cheeks to drop into the bath.
“Shh,” Jason said, but he didn’t tell him to stop crying. He cried with him and Jack joined them.
A little while later, they relaxed on the sofa, half-dressed in only their underwear, and ate dried fruit and hot tea.
Jack let out a heavy sigh and said, “There’s a problem with this gift she gave me.”
“How’s that?” Jason asked around an apple bit.
“It didn’t work on that mental assault. Psychic assault. Whatever. No warning. Need to tell her about that. I really don’t want to come across another one.”
“Ditto,” Daniel and Jason said together.
A half-hour later, ALTA intruded. “I am sorry to disturb you but we are closing in on Tykolan.”
On the bridge, Jack ordered ALTA to enter orbit, then called Lya on the intercom, not bothering to use the comm devices. In fact, thanks to the assault, everyone had either moved them to a front pocket or left them off entirely. A sign of the PTSD now in effect. They wouldn’t be wearing them for a while, if ever again. A new comm unit had to be made.
“Lya, could you and the representative for the Nialla come to the bridge. We’re being hailed from the surface.”
“Affirmative,” Lya said.
They could have been beamed to the bridge by ALTA but the Nialla didn’t like that method of transport. It was too reminiscent of Seti’s penchant for whisking them away for torture sessions. Being beamed aboard was one thing. They refused to allow it when they had a choice.
Lya entered the bridge with a woman who appeared middle-aged, with streaky white and red hair that fell in a straight sheet to her calves. Her name was Nerychna.
“We’re being hailed by someone named Tesnachi, who calls himself Leader of the Waterways.”
Nerychna smiled in happiness and stepped forward, staring at the screen.
“ALTA, if you please?”
The screen went from hazy to clear, showing an old man with long silky white hair and amazingly thick, white eyebrows that jutted out in every direction. It made all the humans who’d seen The Hobbit grin.
“Tesnachi!” Nerychna exclaimed. “You are still with us!”
“Much to the lament of my wives, I assure you,” he growled, but there was laughter in his eyes. “Why are you aboard a ship of big folk?”
“We were invaded. These good people rescued us. Our home is no more. May we rejoin our kin on Tykolan?”
“You need to ask?” he sputtered. “Get down here.”
“There is a small . . . concern,” she said.
He sighed. “When is there not?”
Jack decided he liked this guy. When Nerychna pointed at him, he said, “Greetings. We have some big folk called the Tok’ra who would like to buy the purple crystals if you have them to sell.”
“Buy?” Senna asked.
Jack waved him off and waited.
To Senna’s relief, Tesnachi said, “Buy? We did not make them. They are not ours to sell. We will allow mining in return for anything comparable to trade. Send down a single representative. We will negotiate.”
Senna chose to send Maral, who he said had experience with diplomacy. An odd choice, Jack thought, since he couldn’t recall her ever saying a word.
“We will send down ships with your people,” Jack said.
“No, do not do that,” Tesnachi objected. “There is no room to accommodate them. Do you have other transport methods?”
“Yes, but Nerychna doesn’t want to use them.”
“I will relent,” Nerychna said with a heavy sigh. To Tesnachi, she said, “It is a long, horrible story that I will tell in good time.”
Tesnachi nodded. “I await you, and we are preparing the celebratory feast.”
“Good, I am famished,” Nerychna said.
“We will send for the . . . Toke Rah . . . when we are ready,” Tesnachi said.
“Time frame?” Jack asked.
“Two or three . . .” Tesnachi made counting figures with his fingers. “Days.”
“Oy,” Jack said.
“Time issues?” Tesnachi asked.
“Of a sort. Those who govern the Tok’ra are impatient. And I would like to return home to rest. We have had some problems with an enemy.”
“I hope you sorted them out,” Tesnachi said gravely. “I do not look kindly on those who bring trouble to our doorstep.”
Jack held up a hand. “They’re dead. No worries.”
“Good. You could leave the Tok’ra and come back in two days, if you wish. They will have to find their own accommodations in our forest.”
Senna grimaced. “Never mind. We will return with our own ship, if that is agreeable. Time frame, two or three weeks.”
“Greet us as before,” Tesnachi said. “Now, come down, kinfolk. Let us celebrate our reunion.” He pointed at an open field to his left.
ALTA beamed down the entire complement of the Nialla.
Jack nodded to Tesnachi and transmission was cut off. “ALTA, let’s go home.”
In his quarters, Jack pulled out the message tablet and wrote:
GREETINGS, MY QUEEN.
GREETINGS, MY KINSMAN. HOW ARE YOU AND THE CREW OF THE AN CROI?
NOT DOING TOO WELL. YOUR “GIFT” DOESN’T WORK WITH MENTAL/PSYCHIC ASSAULT.
IN FOUR DAYS, I WILL GREET YOU AT YOUR HOME, THE HOUSE I PREVIOUSLY VISITED. WE WILL SEE WHAT WE CAN DO.
THANK YOU, MY QUEEN.
YOU ARE WELCOME, MY KINSMAN.
Jack sighed. He hoped she could do something about the memories. Otherwise, he would have to put in for medical leave. Experience had taught him that a trauma this severe would cause the kind of PTSD that resulted in unstable responses when stressed. The last thing he needed was an Article 15 or a Court Martial for giving Vidrine or, God forbid, Hammond, a black eye.
Jack looked around him. On the other hand. He had the ship. He could go anywhere, at a moment’s notice. With his team, of course. And Jason and his team. And maybe they could arrange the quarters so that there was room for three in one apartment. Then stock up the ship’s Café with a house-load of pizza, beer, cheeseburgers, and cake. Oh, and pie. And ribs. Movies. TV. Could the ship receive cable signals? Probably. He thought about watching the Super Bowl live on the bridge and grinned to himself. The first real one in hours.
Jason suddenly entered and waved his cellphone at Jack. “I got a text message. We’re several hours away from home and I got a text message. Hey, think we can outfit the bridge for a Super Bowl party?” He plopped down on the sofa next to Jack and kept rambling. The warmth and smell of him were soothing. Now, if only—
Daniel entered and paced back and forth before he sat down on Jack’s other side. “If you’re gonna watch the Super Bowl on the bridge, then I think I’m gonna have an alternate screen in the RRB so I can chill out with Sam for the regional . . .”
Jack didn’t mean to tune him out.
It was just that he felt at home. And somehow safe.
He felt marginally better already.