Bebhion should have killed her.
Daniel watches with a sorrowful look as her hands sift through cold dirt to find three sets of abandoned metal. Military tags. Shrapnel of a life past. Teal'c denies grief and guilt, smiling a deadly Jaffa smile full of dark promise and indomitable will. His eyes draw her, lodestones that anchor her within the molten heat seething beneath her breastbone and trap the wild keen she can feel trying to tear itself free from her body. Barely. Something merciless shrieks and cackles where only she can hear it. Cold logic and brutal calculations spin and glitter in her mind's eye. Distant permutations that dash and collide and rearrange themselves into new reality.
She missed a variable.
Rows of Jaffa eyes watch her, staff weapons held alertly, faces impassive, and she wonders when they will betray her. Instinctively she looks for the last piece of her soul. He gazes at her for a long moment, then studies the Jaffa coldly, tactical assessment ruthless in his desire to protect her. She watches his face, looking for the things he sees. Eight years he had spent training her for this moment. So long, and not long enough. Not nearly enough. Bright laughter has given way to stark purpose and the burnt anger in his eyes matches her own.
He will not let them betray her.
She knows the smile on her face is haunted, and Jaffa shift uneasily, hands flexing around weapons. The damning evidence of her weakness is heavy on her right hand. Daniel told her she took it from Bebhion, but he hesitated slightly and she still wonders why. The Jaffa will say only that she had her revenge, and their voices hold a strange mixture of approval and fear. The General tells her she went a little over the top--but no more than usual. 'Damn overacheiver' he says cheerfully. Teal'c just smiles. 'It was a good day,' he intones, voice dark with grim satisfaction.
She does not remember.
Their love and support flow through her, as well as the knowledge that they do not blame her for her miscalculation. The General has already pointed out that she cannot be right all the time. Besides, she will not be wrong for long. Just delayed a little bit.
The General always said she needed a hobby.
The Jaffa stare at her, a silent watchful prescence and she wonders with some bewilderment why they are willing to follow her. Teal'c whispers something to her but it is lost in the breeze that whips her hair back from her face. Finally feeling the lash of wind and wet, she realizes that it is raining. Lifting her face to the bitter chill she wonders what they expect from her.
She wants to rage at them.
Order them back through the Stargate. Back to Dakara where they can build lives for themselves. The pain within understands that she will not. It is far too late and he made her a promise, all those years ago. No one gets left behind. He had promised her, and she intends that he keep it. She will use the Jaffa, and she will break the Goa'uld screaming into a thousand pieces. Blood glitterbright to match the blood on her hands and soothe the confused part of her soul that cannot identify which equation she factored wrong.
Bebhion should not have stolen her death from her.
She looks into Jaffa eyes and wonders how far over the line they will follow her. A Tau'ri. A female. Daniel glances back and forth between her and the waiting warriors and the look on his face warns her to be cautious. Strangely, his eyes plead with her to be polite. Almost...almost as if he were worried she was going to hurt their feelings. Puzzled, but after all these years, not really surprised, she lets herself be pursuaded by his eyes and her words were not the ones she originally intended.
"Colonel Carter is dead," she says simply, feeling it only fair to warn them. It was not life they were chosing.
Inexplicably, when she steps through the Stargate, they follow her.
"Well someone had fun. Should we send a gift basket?"
The Tok'ra representatives looked away from the holographic images of destruction shimmering above the SGC briefing room table, and studied General O'Neill uneasily. The three Jaffa representatives from Dakara looked thoughtful.
Bra'tac glanced at Teal'c, then spoke carefully. "Are we to understand that the Tok'ra consider this new Goa'uld to be a greater threat than Ba'al?"
The lead representative glanced at her companion first, then tentatively around the table as if gauging the mood of the briefing participants. The Jaffa had been uncomfortable on the Tok'ra base and the Tok'ra had been so excrutiatingly formal while on Dakara, that O'Neill had finally suggested the SGC as a sort of intergalactic Switzerland. Surprising him, both Jaffa and Tok'ra had seemed relieved by the suggestion.
Perrin's eyes flashed. " To be honest, we do not know how to classify the threat she represents."
Jack leaned back in his chair."She's kicking a hell of a lot of Goa'uld ass. This can only be a good thing, right? Fighting among themselves and all that."
"She does not fight like a Goa'uld, O'Neill," Perrin said, picking her words carefully.
Jack studied her face for a long moment."Do we care?"
Most of the faces around the table agreed with him, but the Tok'ra raised a hand, palm up."Again, we do not know. That is our point. Goa'uld simply do not wage this sort of warfare. They attack for territory almost exclusively, with all other considerations factored against that aim. A Goa'uld will risk much, but only if he stands to gain much more. Even seeming random attacks have an inner purpose, a shoring up of power that is again, solely aimed at maintaining or expanding existing territory."
Daniel grimaced."The Goa'uld don't need an excuse. They enjoy destruction."
Perrin tilted her head and looked at him with careful assessment. "Forgive me Dr. Jackson, but that is not completely accurate. The sarcophagus has corrupted and exaggerated their reactions, but the underlying motive remains the same. Territory. To a Goa'uld, insult is the same as challenge. In the Empire, if you are challenged, you must respond or invite further attack. However, even the Goa'uld recognize the cost of warfare. The Empire has always been a delicate network of alliances. Many minor Goa'uld who would fight amongst themselves do not, because to move would force their liege lords to move against each other."
Daniel glanced reflexively at Jack for the tactical translation.
Jack caught the look and shrugged."Forcing the hand of a System Lord is a bad thing."
Perrin sighed. "Indeed." She hesitated, then continued slowly. "The Goa'uld fight a never-ending battle to survive and thrive. The System Lords consider themselves the strongest of a race that consumes its weak."
"You sound like you admire them," Daniel said in a flat tone.
Perrin's gaze flicked involuntarily to O'Neill before returning to Daniel. "What the Goa'uld have become is unacceptable. However, I find that I can --mourn--the sheer drive and intelligence it takes to succeed in their world. The weak do not survive, Dr. Jackson. The foolish die even sooner. I mourn the tragedy of their existence because they could clearly be so much more."
"Surely you don't think they can be saved!" Daniel asked incredulously.
Perrin's eyes darkened, then she shook her head. "No. They cannot be saved," she said softly.
"You waste pity on an enemy who would waste none on you," Bra'tac said.
Perrin's companion Calab, silent until now, shifted his eyes around the table, ending at O'Neill."She merely understands them. Surely as warriors you accept the necessity."
Daniel blinked for a moment, then glanced cautiously at Jack to see if he had heard the same bitter undertone he had. Jack's face had frozen and his eyes were watchful as he considered Caleb. Natural arrogance aside, the Tok'ra were normally more careful than this. Daniel supposed it was understandable. The Tok'ra had spent two thousand years hiding in a culture where any emotional response at the wrong time could mean death...or worse. It had taken years for Daniel to understand that Jack's desire to puncture that emotionless facade was less about him being an ass and more about trained combat reflexes that demanded he find out what the people around him were hiding.
Luckily the Tok'ra seemed willing to cater to Tau'ri paranoia.
However, that usually meant that they ignored Jack's needling and determinely kept their comments as neutral as possible. Daniel watched with interest as Perrin looked at Caleb, mouth tightening mulishly. The glare Caleb sent back was clearly warning in nature. Daniel was reminded suddenly of Anise and Martouf bickering in the Tok'ra conference room over her za'tarc research and his eyes widened as a cultural puzzle piece snapped into place. Caleb and Perrin had been so ruthlessly polite with the Jaffa, he had forgotten what interactions with the Tok'ra had been like in the beginning. Back when it had simply been Tok'ra and Tau'ri.
No one airs dirty laundry before outsiders.
That would hold doubly true for a race like the Tok'ra. Yet Anise and Martouf had squabbled like children with little apparent concern over the aliens watching them, and Daniel wondered slowly if what they had thought of as petty politics had in fact been trust. For the most part, Earth tended to view the Tok'ra as a single, somewhat distant, political entity. But the Tok'ra were not human and what did it mean when a race so vulnerable to betrayal casually accepted relative strangers as insiders?
Daniel frowned and glanced over to see Perrin watching Jack, a slightly anxious look on her face. A look that vanished when she realized Daniel was watching her.
Tok'ra never did anything without a reason. It was an instinct bred into them by bitter experience, but had Earth made a mistake in assuming that all of those motives were political? Daniel found himself rubbing his fingers together lightly as he mentally stepped through the evidence. Goa'uld were territorial. Tok'ra were Goa'uld. Regardless of the outer trappings forced on them by circumstance, the underlying motive still ruled. Goa'uld were territorial through their own biology and the inherited legacy of Unas instinct.
The more he learned of the Unas the more Daniel realized that they owed Jack an apology. When he had described the Unas as a Goa'uld with teeth and claws, they had thought he was being xenophobic and ..well...a bit dense. Unreasonably prejudiced, if nothing else. How were they to know Jack's combat instincts were that good? Daniel had forgotten to consider how Jack's mind worked. Subconsciously. Laterally. A bit paranoid. In this case, Jack had simply seen the truth upside down and backwards.The chicken before the egg.
The Unas in the Goa'uld.
Tok'ra moved from base to base, and frustrated territorial instinct must have found an outlet somewhere. So...what? The war with the Goa'uld, most definately. But Jack was damn territorial himself. Only instead of landscape, his territory was people, with serious roadblocks and warnings posted around SG-1. Daniel drew in a sharp breath as memory triggered, ignoring the piercing looks both Jack and Teal'c gave him. Perrin now watched Daniel calmly, while Caleb kept darting his companion annoyed looks that she blithely pretended not to see.
"This Goa'uld is not reacting typically,"Perrin said." She is assassinating minor Goa'uld lords in a seemingly random pattern, and yet for all the devastating effectiveness of her attacks, she makes no attempt to hold these territories for herself. Indeed, she has destroyed many bases and military outposts. Minor ones, true, which explains why no one has made her a primary target as of yet. However, the point remains. She is destroying what instinct should demand she hold. The Goa'uld she has attacked owe allegiance to no one Lord in common--alive or dead. No one appears to be benefiting, and yet she must have some driving motive. Pure insanity would not inspire the fanatical loyalty she has managed to retain among the Jaffa she allows to remain with her. We need to discover what it is."
Jack sighed."Do we really?"
Maybe Daniel was reading too much into this. He had not been sleeping well. Not since Sam...died. He smiled without mirth at his own inability to be accurate with the tools of his trade. When she was killed, Dr. Jackson, he thought to himself. When she was taken to be the future host for a Queen Goa'uld larva and was killed when Bebhion's secret base was destroyed by rebel Jaffa. The Jaffa had praised her bravery, told how she had gone back into the facilty to ensure Bebhion died permenantly. How she had been determined to blow the nest, intent on making sure none of the Queen larvae escaped. How she had not escaped the blast.
The Jaffa had searched, and found nothing. The SGC had searched as well, using the best equipment and cadaver dogs. Single radius blast. Daniel never wanted to hear those words again. Nice clean words for an explosion that melted the bottom three levels of the complex into bedrock. The Jaffa had muttered something about the base not being equipped with a self-destruct. Jack had smiled, then. The last real smile Daniel remembered from him.
"General O'Neill..." it was Caleb leaning forward this time," most of the Empire is in chaos. The intelligence networks the Goa'uld use to survive are in disarray. Even with the help of the rebel Jaffa, information about the true state of affairs is difficult to obtain. The organized threat of the Goa'uld is much diminished, but the Council is worried that this disorganized chaos may be worse. We originally intended to execute the Goa'uld in one massive strike, leaving most of the human infrastructure intact. Now, planetary governments are falling, entire governing bodies massacred as the Jaffa rise up against their masters and slaughter without regard for what they are destroying. The Jaffa are a military caste. They are not equipped to manage the economies of whole planets. The people of these worlds are going to riot when the food reserves run out. Then they are going to starve, the Jaffa with them. Many are already being raided by rogue bands of masterless Jaffa. It would take very little for a charasmatic Goa'uld like this Banshee, one who had proven herself an enemy of the old Empire, to rally the humans of these worlds to her banner."
Jack's eyes had narrowed as the words 'rogue Jaffa' caused everyone around the table to turn to Bra'tac and Teal'c. Bra'tac pursed his lips, as if tasting something unpleasant.
Bra'tac inclined his head reluctantly." To our shame, the Tok'ra have not exaggerated the situation. Jaffa have very rarely had to concern themselves with the growing of food or the myriad of tasks that seem to multiply every time a body turns around. We learn rapidly at Dakara, but even there, it has been ...difficult."
Jack quirked an eyebrow,"No one wants to be the janitor?"
Bra'tac grimaced." The Tau'ri have been generous with supplies, and I fear we are just beginning to learn how greatly your people have supported us, O'Neill. The warriors and their families are sharing the burden of preparing the fields for planting come spring, but it is only the fact that this is Dakara that we find so many willing hands. I am afraid this is not the case on many other worlds."
Teal'c flexed his hands."While the Tau'ri have proven themselves in battle, for many Jaffa, the humans of these other worlds are little more than slaves," he said, his voice extremely flat.
Alarmed, Daniel moved his eyes between the two Jaffa."How bad is this going to get?" he demanded.
Teal'c looked at the table, his eyes angry and shamed.
"What can we do?" Jack asked quietly.
Bra'tac let his shoulders relax."Much as you have continued to do, O'Neill. Provide food and supplies. Assistance with setting up our farms and industries. As we learn, we will be able to teach others. At the end of a staff weapon if necessary. It will simply take time. Meanwhile, our warriors continue to visit what worlds we can, offering santuary and assisstance. It will not be possible to relocate all Jaffa to Dakara. It is to be hoped, however, that it can form a seat of government for all Jaffa strongholds. Once the lines of command have been established, we will find it easier to control the rogue elements. We have in fact, already formed a company of our best warriors whose job it will be to hunt down and eliminate the worst of the offenders. If we are to win back the hearts of the people the Jaffa have abused, we must deal--visibly--with the problem ourselves."
Daniel tapped his fingers unhappily."This company--any of Ish'ta's warriors with it?"
Teal'c tilted his head in question.
Daniel chewed on his lips for a moment then moved one hand expansively."This is essentially a public relations project, right? Include some of the female warriors. It'll be easier if you can get the women of each planet on your side, and it'll immediately show everyone that you are different. You may even want to make a diplomatic team officially part of the company, sort of a Jaffa SG-9. They can help get the ball rolling on the cooperative government thing while your warriors hunt down the bad guys. And it might help keep your diplomats out of some rough situations if everyone knows they've got military back-up."
Jack tapped the table top thoughtfully."Make 'em calvary, T. Most of these worlds are low tech. It'll look impressive as hell and it's cheaper than gliders. It's not like you are heading into unknown territory. If this cooperative effort works out, put up a few old fashioned forts. They can double as embassies and livery stables."
Perrin and Caleb had been listening to the conversation develop with interest. Caleb cleared his throat awkwardly, "Tok'ra tunnel crystals have been used in the past to provide safe passageways for mounted patrols to by-pass high risk areas. We would be willing to provide similiar crystals for such an endeavor should the Jaffa wish to utilize the technology."
Teal'c glanced at Bra'tac who bowed his head stiffly, but said nothing. Caleb opened his mouth, then visibly reconsidered what he wished to say and shut it with a sigh.
Ka'lum, who had miraculously managed to stay silent for this meeting, raised his head and set his shoulders firmly. "We will deal with this ourselves. We don't need Tok'ra charity."
Bra'tac snapped his head toward the other."Jaffa!"
Ka'lum subsided, but did not look sorry or regretful. Daniel winced. Ka'lum was the Council's choice as replacement for Teal'c. Teal'c had decided that there was still too much work to be done fighting the Goa'uld, and that he could do more by staying with the Tau'ri. Considering how angry and frustrated he had become lately, dealing with the new Council, Daniel suspected he was finally recognizing how much he had changed over the years. The new Council was made of politicians, and while the respect they accorded Teal'c was real, they did not understand him. Nor had Teal'c been prepared for their ignorance and short-sightedness regarding other worlds and cultures.
Teal'c was officially being considered an Ambassador to Earth and the President was already working on the diplomatic end of things. Ka'lum was a steady leader and a good warrior--with Jaffa. His resentment of the Tok'ra however, was becoming a problem. Whether he had hidden his issues or whether the Council approved of them was still a concern. Regardless, he had spent most of the last few meetings silently listening to everything that went on, then snarling and insulting the Tok'ra when they made any offer or comment about the Jaffa situation. So far, the Tok'ra had bitten their tongues, but...
Bra'tac cleared his throat and looked toward the two Tok'ra. " Are you certain this Goa'uld is female?'
Caleb blinked, then focused on Bra'tac. "Our operatives have seen recordings of her, security video lifted from a small research outpost destroyed several weeks ago. She is most definately female. Is this significant?"
Both Jaffa looked at each other, then Bra'tac nodded. "The returning Jaffa, those she has banished after the attacks, say that she is surrounded by a cadre of fanatically loyal Jaffa--and that they call her Cari'Meid."
Perrin and Caleb glanced at each other, then Caleb shook his head. "We do not recognize the name."
"You would not," Teal'c said bluntly. "The name is Jaffa."
"Among the Jaffa," Bra'tac said reluctantly,"it is recognized that to care too much for another warrior, risks placing the well being of another above duty and above the love and loyalty owed to one's god. If a warrior is overly concerned about the life of his beloved, then the battle could fail, and with it lives and honor could be lost. And yet...the heart goes where it wills."
Jack's eyes widened. He moved a finger, alternately pointing between the two Jaffa,"I'm guessing you folks don't have a 'Don't ask, Don't tell' policy."
Bra'tac hesitated, mulling over the potential meaning of the words, then shrugged. "For most, it is not a problem. However, there are those whose affections for each other rival all others and whose positions could lead them to compromise both duty and honor. It is in these relationships that we see both tragedy and strength of spirit. These warriors are tested above all others, constantly torn between their love for each other, and their god. There are many stories of such, yet one of the most well-known is that of Cari'Meid and Ta'lor."
Teal'c took up the story, eyes fixed on the wall at a point just past Jack's shoulder. "Cari'Meid and Ta'lor were both raised in service to Chronus. The love of brothers changed to that of lovers when they reached maturity, and yet they were both loyal to Chronus and recognized that their great love could threaten everything they held dear. When Ta'lor was appointed First Prime, Cari'Meid walked at his shoulder for many years, and together, the two were responsible for many great victories."
Fascinated by this glimpse into Jaffa culture, Daniel tilted his head questioningly."What happened?"
Teal'c shook his head."The Goa'uld happened, Daniel Jackson."
Bra'tac looked around the table solemnly,"A rival Goa'uld, Sebhet, had learned of the warriors' great love for each other, deny it though they had, and he was determined to steal this blade from the hand of his enemy. He taunted Chronus, saying that if forced to chose between their god or each other, they would chose each other. Enraged, Chronus commanded that they fight a duel to the death."
Teal'c raised empty palms in a dramatic 'what-could-they-do' gesture as he took up the story.
In spite of the seriousness of the story, Daniel leaned forward eagerly. He reminded himself to ask Teal'c to retell the story when he had access to a video-camera. He did not have to wonder why Teal'c had never told this story before, not when Daniel's Jaffa library was open to any and all with SGC clearances.
"The warriors were loyal to their god, and yet Cari'meid feared for Ta'lor. He did not fear to die, though he knew Talor was the better fighter. It had been his choice to protect his brother these many years, instead of seeking a place at his god's right hand. With a heavy heart, he knew his god needed Ta'lor, and yet, when it came time to strike the killing blow, Cari'Meid worried his brother's courage would fail him. When that happened, they both would die, and with them their families and their honor. And so, he planned for the right moment to strike. He knew his beloved as well as he knew himself, and when the moment came, Cari'Meid dropped his guard and let Ta'lor's blade pierce his heart."
Bra'tac glanced at Teal'c sharply when he suddenly ceased speaking. Swiftly Bra'tac continued the tale. "His own heart broken, Ta'lor knew what his beloved had done, and could not refuse the sacrifice. To do less, would be to spit apon the love his brother had shown him. When Chronus raised him to him feet and asked what Ta'lor would have as a reward, he bowed deeply and asked for the head of the one who had so insulted his lord. His wish was granted. Then Ta'lor returned to the right hand of his god and became the whisper in his ear, the soul of vengeance as Chronus wreaked havoc across the galaxy, daring any and all who would challenge his authority."
"And for all the years he walked at the right hand of his god, it is said that he did not walk alone, " Teal'c said softly."For his loyalty, Chronus granted Cari'meid a place in Kheb. And yet, for love of Ta'lor, Cari'Meid turned his face away and walked at his side, the two protecting their god in death and in life, until they could be reunited in the final battle. It is said, that on the day Ta'lor fell, he died with a smile on his lips and vanished in a great ball of light. It is said that even Chronus fell to his knees, to honor his loyalty on that day, and to regret that he had not killed Sebhet before he uttered his poisonous lies."
Used to ancient tales, Daniel was unsurprised by the abrupt ending. The rest in the room waited a beat as if expecting more to the story.
When both Bra'tac and Teal'c remained silent, Caleb ventured a question, "You believe this Goa'uld is seeking vengeance for a lost lover?"
Bra'tac shrugged,"The Jaffa would not call her Cari'Meid without a reason. I admit that it surprises me that any Jaffa would grant such a name to either a female or a Goa'uld, but perhaps that in itself is a clue."
"Consorts perhaps, where both hosts are Jaffa. In service to rival System Lords or torn apart by the collapse of the Empire," Teal'c offered.
"Either way,"Jack broke in,"would a Jaffa host explain the actions of this Goa'uld?"
Caleb spoke slowly," It might, especially if the hosts were also lovers. The emotions of the host would reinforce those of the Goa'uld controlling her. If her mate were killed or traded to a rival lord, the grief may have forced a deeper Blending than is normal for Goa'uld."
"So she's pissed off and unpredictable, with a burning desire for revenge against the Goa'uld Empire," Jack said.
Caleb blinked, then nodded, expressionless. "That is most likely."
Jack thought about, then smiled brightly. "Let the good times roll."
"My Lord, Mhenet has fallen."
Ba'al steepled his fingers and considered with growing rage the untenable position in which this damnable Tau'ri female had placed him. Mhenet! A weak, cowardly, useless Goa'uld with nothing to reccomend him other than the fact he was too spineless to be disloyal. Worse, the female probably had no idea she was challenging him. If there was a pattern to her attacks, he had yet to see it. Now he must waste resources he needed elsewhere to answer for the fact that she had stolen three of his vassals from him. One he could ignore. But this made three in as many months. If only he could figure out what she wanted.
Bebhion had been a fool.
A blind man could have seen that the way to contain one was to control the others. Dead, they had no value. Bebhion had accomplished nothing except to spark a rage that had obviously driven the newly matured symbiote mad. Well, Bebhion's get had always been weak. Still, it left him with a puzzle. The female, Tau'ri or not, was no fool. Her mind was...intriguing.
The first few of her attacks had sufficed to gather ships and Jaffa. A rather annoyingly large number of Jaffa, he thought acidly. So why was she catapulting across the Empire, striking here and there, leaving only devastation in her wake. She should have turned to her true target by now. If the destroyed bases had had any military value he could have understood, but this senseless destruction was obscene.
His First Prime, newly appointed and anxious to please, knelt at his feet. Ba'al gestured for the man to speak. "My Lord, the rumors have been confirmed. Bebhion is dead, and the Tau'ri males O'Neill and Dr. Jackson were executed by her Consort several weeks earlier. However, there are rumors that the Shol'va may have survived and is currently travelling from world to world, seeking converts to his heresy."
Ba'al contemplated whether one living Jaffa was worth two dead Tau'ri.
"Bring him to me," he said finally."Alive."
She thinks it was the third time she died, that they came back to her.
Just his voice at first, telling her that she had to get on her feet. More a sense of what he would say to her than an actual physical presence. The fifth time Bebhion killed her, he was waiting for her when she woke up. Daniel arrived next, to translate. She was surprised he knew so many swear words. Then she was surprised she knew so many swear words and it scared the hell out of Bebhion's Jaffa when she started to laugh.
Daniel was the one who held her when she cried. Ran his fingers lightly over her hand, so lightly she swore she could feel it. It was he to whom she whispered her fears and her anger. When it got to be too much, being Colonel "Kick-Ass" Carter, he was the one she told.
Teal'c talked to her of vengeance. Told her she was not weak for fearing the darkness in herself. That her day would come. It was he who told her what to say to the Jaffa. What words made them pause and consider. It was he who told her what to watch for, what weaknesses she could exploit. Which Jaffa could be turned and which would run wee wee wee all the way home.
The General was the one who kept her sane.
More or less.
When the nagging voices would not leave her alone, when the pain became so bad that Bebhion started to make sense, he was the one raising a mocking eyebrow and making some comment that had her laughing at the strangest moments. His were the eyes she saw, focused on hers, his was the voice drowning out the voices that taunted her as they tried to turn her from what she knew was right. That damn yo-yo, spinning for hours. She knew what it was for, now. Always he was there with belief in his eyes and the words she needed to hear,"You can do it." and "You need to think of something, Colonel.", and "We haven't left you behind, Carter".
He had lied, of course.
Now, halfway across a galaxy, on her flagship, one ship of seven, she's throwing pottery at illusions and screaming at them. All the anger she could not show in the dungeon, all the grief and rage that carried her into Bebhion's lair, exploded. She tells them that they lied. That they left her behind. That she hates them for dying. The one thing she does not do, is tell them to go away. Then she collapses to the floor, because after everything, she is still waiting to hear it was a mistake. That the rotting corpses on Eireille were wearing stolen SG-1 tags.
That the sarcophagus drove her crazy.
That none of this is real.
A hand tentatively touches her shoulder, and she does not resist when Damar pulls her into his arms and holds her as she cries. Nor does she worry whether he thinks she is weak. It should shame her, but she does not care. Only the opinions of her ghosts matter, and they are dead. She looks into green eyes and knows that he has been waiting for this bleeding of emotion. That he thinks it means she is healing.
"They aren't real," she says.
"They are real to us," he replies, surprising her. "We see you talk to them. Take their advice. Draw strength from their prescence."
"They left me behind," she tells him, trying to explain.
He smiles."And yet, they walk with you still."
She gazes at an empty wall, seeing three forms lounging there, waiting. "We were supposed to die together," she says softly.
He does not understand. It is not really a sane thing, all things considered. Not even, she thinks, for Jaffa.
But he understands that she intends to join them.
"Well this sucks," Jack said mildly.
Daniel rolled his eyes but did not say anything. Of the three of them, he was the least bruised, but all were similarly chained to the wall of the Ha'tak prison cell. Jack sighed, then shrugged mentally. The complaint had not really been up to his usual standards. On the other hand, he wondered if he should find it disturbing that he was not more, well, disturbed. Being captured by Ba'al was not exactly high on the list of things to do when one wanted to live a long and pain-free life.
Which sort of answered his question.
"How exactly did this happen again?" he asked, more out of habit than anything.
Teal'c stared balefully at the two Jaffa guarding the entrance to the prison cell. "We were betrayed," he said flatly.
Jack thought about suggesting that they issue the loyal Rebel Jaffa secret identity cards, then thought that might be pushing his luck. He wondered idly just how he was going to kill the son-of-a-bitch who was about to arrive to gloat. A few choice comments, most recently "You'll be dead, and we'll be glad" went zipping through his head.
It had seemed like such a good idea at the time.
All three heads snapped upright as the door opened and Jack reluctantly had to hand it to the old boy. He certainly had good timing.
"Ba'al! Buddy! What kept you so long?"
The Goa'uld stopped dead in his tracks, an expression of utter disbelief on his face. "You."
Jack paused momentarily. "Yep, me. Of course you being the all-knowing, all-seeing god that you are, you should have known that." He raised his eyebrows as Ba'al stalked forward."Crystal balls getting a bit dim?"
Ba'al glared at him, flicking his eyes briefly to the other two prisoners, confirming their identities. " Bebhion's Consort killed you. Your bodies are still on Eireille."
Jack raised both eyebrows at the flat statement."You checked. I'm flattered."
Ba'al's mouth tightened. "Do not be."
Jack flipped his hands as casually as he could, considering his wrists were manacled to the wall."Yes, well, you know how it is. Death is such a temporary condition these days. As for the bodies, you'll have to ask the Tok'ra about that one. I don't really know the details. I was sort of not among the living when it was all being arranged."
Ba'al studied Jack expressionlessly. Then he turned and stalked from the room leaving Jack staring after him in confusion. Jack looked at Teal'c who looked almost as startled as Jack. They both looked at Daniel who shrugged.
"Don't look at me,"the linguist said. "The IRS still thinks I'm dead."
Choice Three, Sir
The look on the Colonel's face had been priceless.
She ignored the relieved expression on Damar's face as she disarmed the Tobin bomb and crawled out from underneath the floating weapon. There had been several close calls, including one weapon which had failed to disarm properly and which had to be jettisoned into space. Damar had wanted to use cargo ships, but she had just shaken her head. In spite of the problems created by trying to stuff so many jury-rigged systems into such a small vessel, the Tobin bombs were ideal for what she planned. Their small size made them easier to cloak and their drive systems were amazingly efficient. Their smaller mass made the real-time corrections the navigation systemneed edto make something difficult rather than impossible. The inertial dampeners meant that they could drift undetected until their pre-programmed attack run was triggered by remote.
You want to ride an asteroid through Earth...
Who knew she would ever have reason to thank Anubis?
Another two weeks and it would be time for the Ha'taks to drop the mines into position. It would take another six weeks for the tiny weapons to sneak into range as coming out of hyper closer to the targets ran too high a risk of detection. It was absolutely essential that no one know the mines were there until it was too late. Which was why all the cargo crew were volunteers.
If I engage too soon, we'll reappear right inside the Earth.
That would have been a bad thing...then.
None of this would have been possible without using Naquadria. Without the explosive potential of the mineral, the damage would be limited as two bodies attempted to occupy the same space at the same time. Packing a cargo ship with weapons grade Naquadah was the only alternative that came close to the energy output of a properly designed, 12" Naquadria core and the numbers of bombs she would need made that a practical impossibility. Using raw Naquadah seized from a shipment found at one of the outposts she had taken, she had discovered that the speed of the conversion process increased exponentially when done in a light-gravity vacumn, as long as all the required chemical components were present. It had taken her four months to perfect the process, surrounding the pre-shaped Naquadah with small forcefield bubbles. Almost two hundred prefabricated Naquadah cores were now happily converting themselves into Naquadria just outside the starboard hull of the Goa'uld freighter she had converted into a mobile weapons lab.
The Jaffa onboard tended to avoid that side of the ship.
She compromised by not telling them that if the shielding around the cores failed, it would not matter where they were standing.
Ba'al sank slowly onto his throne, the movement disguising the trembling of his limbs. Eleven. Eleven Queens confirmed dead, their larvae and Queen daughters with them. Another Queen missing in the ruins of her crumbled fortress. Ba'al stared sightlessly at the bowed head of his First Prime and considered that he now knew where her ships had gone. This atrocity could have been wrought by no other. He had thought perhaps her madness had faded, or that she had overreached herself and some other System Lord had solved the problem for him. It would seem he had been wise to restrain himself. The three lives in his detention cells might be the only thing left with which to bargain.
He had underestimated her.
His First Prime watched anxiously as he numbly scrolled through the recorded scenes of ruthless devastation. How had she gotten her weapons past the motherships? Past the cargo ships and orbital defenses? True, many of the motherships had been lost to the war with the replicators. More had been lost to the treachery of the Jaffa. But these were not remote outposts stripped of protection as a result of a realignment in resources. These were inner system worlds, with full fleet complements, built and designed to protect the greatest treasures of the Goa'uld Empire.
The fortresses had not been destroyed by energy weapons from space. By all accounts, the strongholds and orbiting motherships had been shattered from the inside, torn apart by massive explosions from within. One planet was only dust in space and another was unstable as a result of earthquakes. Not even the cursed Tok'ra could have hidden that much Naquadah from the daily scans. More insidious, the worst of the damage came from what she had destroyed, not the amount of devastation. This was a thrust to the heart of an already weakened Empire. He had been concerned about his own survival.
He should have been worried about the survival of his entire race.
She would wipe them out he realized. Assassinate by attrition. Doomed to the very fate of their Tok'ra turncoats, they would linger, growing weaker until the last of them fell to old age. Ba'al threw the recording across the room.
The Jaffa flinched, and looked confused. Ba'al felt his instinctive terror fade slightly as he began to calculate whether it was possible to turn this to his advantage. There were still Queens. She had not managed to kill them all. Not yet. Ba'al himself had one Queen daughter maturing in secrecy on a hidden planet, guarded by the most loyal of Jaffa. Much as he despised the use of Nishta and similiar compounds, with the life of his Queen, he had taken no chances. The Jaffa would die before revealing her location, and no record of her existed anywhere in the Empire.
There would be others.
Queen daughters of secondary lines. Queens of mediocre breeding, their larvae fit only for the lowest of Jaffa foot-soldier. They were useless for breeding strong sons or powerful allies, but they had held the Jaffa in check. Such Queens would not have been documented in the types of files the female had scavenged during her attacks.
He could almost admire that part of her strategy. No one had guessed. No one had considered that simple information gathering might have been at the heart of her seemingly pointless acts of destruction. Ba'al felt an unwilling smile cross his face as he allowed himself to admire the boldness of her plan. They had underestimated this female. The state of the Empire had allowed her to move unchecked, but it had been their own blindness, their own arrogance that had failed to see that this weakness existed. No matter that under normal circumstances, no Goa'uld could consider such abomination. Not even he, who had skirted the edges of the acceptable, would have ever dreamed...
Now that the deed was done, he could see advantages. His Queen daughter would mature soon, and she would need a host. A strong female to help her breed strong children. To breed the dynasty of Ba'al. Ra and his corrupt children were no more. The leadership of the entire Empire was his for the taking, if he was careful. The stray thought occurred that his Queen was not of Bebhion's get. No weakling she, his Queen could force this Tau'ri female to give up her secrets and then stand with him as they swept their enemies before them. Ba'al smiled, delighted by the image, even as he laughed at his own folly.
The last thing he needed was a host strong enough to tempt his Queen to her own ambitions.
The Empire would be shaped to only one vision. His. Perhaps the way to pull the fangs of this menace, was to return that which had wounded it. His only concern was how to proceed without provoking a retailatory rage that would destroy everything - himself included.
He looked down at his waiting First Prime. "Arrange for a meeting." He raised his hands and tapped his tented fingers against his lips thoughtfully,"Tell her I wish to discuss a trade for the Shol'va."
Bored. Bored. Bored. Bored. Bored.
"Jack? What the hell are you doing?"
"Oh, just hanging around, Daniel."
"Staring at the guards is only going to get you bruised, O'Neill. I suggest you desist immediately."
Jack swivelled his head, twisting until the vertebrae popped with an audible crack. "Does anyone else think this is odd?"
Daniel snorted,"You're complaining?"
Jack eyed the scruffy archeologist next to him."Daniel, they haven't tortured us, questioned us, or knocked us around. They let us off the leash to eat and go to the bathroom and the food isn't even that bad. That's just...wrong."
"Indeed," Teal'c said,"One can only assume Ba'al has greater concerns at the moment."
Jack looked insulted."Greater concerns than beating the crap outta us? Greater than kicking the ass of the Jaffa who stole an entire fleet out from under him?"
Daniel rolled his eyes."What? You think he missed the memo?"
Teal'c bit back a smile as Jack glared.
All three of them tensed as the Jaffa guards suddenly keyed the forcefield, then stood away to let Ba'al enter.
Ba'al ignored him, pacing the length of the cell. When he stopped to stare down at Daniel, Jack and Teal'c both tensed, watching the System Lord in wary silence. When pain was not immediately forthcoming, Daniel, who had been instinctively cringing back into the wall, straightened and stared back curiously. Jack was mentally cursing Daniel's inquisitive nature and preparing to distract the snake, when he realized Ba'al was looking more perplexed that insulted. Daniel's body language confused Jack for a moment until he recognized it as the cautiously fearless, yet non-confrontational posture Daniel adopted when talking to Iron Shirt.
Guess it worked on System Lords, too.
"So Ba'al...lose any motherships lately?" Jack asked brightly.
Ba'al scowled,"You may save your insults, O'Neill. I have no intention of harming your friend."
Jack watched, his gaze flat as Ba'al strolled over to stand in front of him.
"It would however, give me great pleasure to harm you," Ba'al stated.
Jack raised an eyebrow, "So what's stopping you?"
His hand flashed out and Jack gagged as a hard hand grabbed the front of his throat and pinned him against the wall behind him. Teal'c growled and wrenched at his shackles as Jack twisted and gasped frantically for air. Ba'al regarded his struggles with distant curiousity, then stared at Daniel while the archeologist yelled obscenities in Goa'uld mingled with demands that the System Lord tell them what he wanted.
"You negotiate for his life?" Ba'al asked bluntly.
Daniel glared,"What do you want?" he snarled.
Ba'al relaxed his grip enough for Jack to breathe. The sound of his agonized gasps were loud in the cell and Daniel ignored the angry protest in Jack's eyes as Daniel continued to meet Ba'al's eyes.
"Tell me why your Stargate Command has not yet demanded terms for your release."
Daniel opened his mouth, then hesitated, looking at Jack uncertainly. Before Ba'al could tighten his grip, Jack laughed hoarsely. The System Lord narrowed his eyes and stared coldly at the man smiling at him with defiant triumph. He loosened his grip another fraction of an inch.
Jack coughed, then let his smile widen. "Things not working out as profitably as planned?"
Jack was seriously disappointed when the snakehead did not respond to his taunt. He would like to know what Ba'al valued enough to trade away his revenge. Ba'al's interest in him had gotten disturbingly personal over the last couple of years and up until two minutes ago, Jack would have sworn Earth had nothing he wanted.
Jack felt a shiver work its way down his spine. As long as Earth kept mostly to itself, Ba'al had no interest in challenging the Protected Planets' Treaty. But Teal'c had warned Jack months ago that engaging the System Lord's interest might prove dangerous. How much was defeating an opponent worth to Ba'al? Enough to challenge the Asgard? Enough to destroy Earth just to see Jack's expression while he did it?
He realized abruptly that the harsh grip on his throat had loosened, that he had been breathing easily for several minutes and had been staring openly at Ba'al for almost as long. And the Goa'uld was staring back, a startled and confused look on his face. Peripherally, he became aware of Teal'c and Daniel watching silently with varying degrees of surprise and wariness in their eyes. Probably wondering why he was not spitting in the snake's face.
"They will not negotiate." Jack said quietly.
Ba'al had tried to manipulate him. He had tried to break him. But oddly enough, Ba'al had never despised him. He had been challenged by his resistance, and frustrated, and angered. But he had never held Jack in contempt. Nor had he seemed to derive any personal sense of worth through Jack's pain. Jack knew the difference. He had learned it in the burning sands of his own planet. It was that difference that Jack had pulled apart and studied carefully. Poked and prodded in the darkest hours when he began to worry that maybe Mackenzie was right to be terrified of him.
Maybe he truly had gone mad.
The fingers around his throat tightened momentarily, then Ba'al leaned forward and stared into Jack's eyes. Jack reflexively tried to pull his head back, thumping his head painfully against the wall. Ba'al ignored the movement, gaze boring into Jack's own defiant one. It was the searching look that did it. The familiar look reopened a psychic wound Jack had been successfully ignoring for months, even as he slowly bled to death. Jack was not even sure he cared what Ba'al did to him as a cold anger exploded deep in his gut and surged upwards. He felt his lips curl away from his teeth and felt more than saw Ba'al's startled twitch.
This was Daniel's fault.
Eight years ago, Jack O'Neil had been a simple man.
"They won't negotiate." he said again, ice and certainty ringing in his words. His fury spiralled higher and the Jaffa behind Ba'al stared as his laughter rang out. He was certain his eyes were half-mad as he smiled."Buddy, they aren't even going to stop to ask for directions. You are so screwed."
He was vaguely surprised Ba'al did not put his head through the wall.
Instead, he watched as cold logic flickered through a hundred permutations, looking for answers. So familiar. So damn familiar. Cold beauty and colder arrogance. Gleaming intelligence untempered by compassion and terrifyingly, a sense of humour that was almost human. This is what she would have become.
The Goa'uld syllables fell from his lips before he knew he meant to say them, harsh and angry and bitter. "I know you. I know what you have failed to be."
Pure shock looked back at him.
"I know what you could have become."
Why was he still alive again?
This was Carter's fault. Or maybe it was Aldwin and the way the man had watched him with hesitant regret and cautious hope every time Jack had been nice to him. Anise bore some of the blame too, for being willing to slum it because her host had the hots for grey hair and a quick tackle. Damn Air Force just had to go and train him to see potential in every damn thing. If the snake was dark to her light, holding more similarity than Jack wanted to understand, then the reverse was also true, and the unwelcome recognition spawned a raw screaming fury that the snake lived and she did not.
Life was fucking damn complicated these days.
Unlike Apophis and the rest of his inbred family of psychopaths, Ba'al apparently felt no need to protest that he was a god. But then, he had never expected Jack to swallow that crap. Unlike Apophis, Ba'al did not believe his own lies.
"Your mother was a scientist, wasn't she?" Jack asked, suddenly certain.
He heard Daniel start cursing somewhere off to his left and wondered what the archeologist was so worried about. Then he saw stars as Ba'al let go of his throat and backhanded him across the face. He slammed back into the wall and was momentarily grateful for the fact his arms were chained to the ship. It was the only thing holding him up. He wavered for a moment, then shook his head.
"Bet she's real proud of you," he managed, reflexively twisting the knife...even if he did not understand it.
This time, the world blacked out for the moment and it was several seconds before he could get his feet under him. Oddly enough, Ba'al looked like he was not quite sure why he had hit him. Jack shuddered and dredged up another grin. Yep, he still had it. Never let it be said that Jack O'Neill could not escalate with the best of them. MacKenzie was going to be horrified.
This was personal.
He felt hands clench in the fabric of his BDUs and was unsurprised to find himself nose to nose with Ba'al. Finally.
"She was better than this universe deserved," Jack said quietly. Quietly enough that he was certain only Ba'al heard him. "And you bastards killed her."
He snapped his head forward and there was a crunch and hot blood sprayed across his face. He heard shouting, but it was far too late. He smiled as he met Ba'al's shocked eyes as the System Lord staggered and then Jack's legs were winding around the host's neck. The last thing Jack felt was the give of muscle and bone, his own and those of his victim.
The last thing he heard, was Ba'al's spine as it snapped.
"My Lord, the human lives."
Ba'al ignored the fearful gaze of his First Prime and glared balefully as the Tau'ri was dragged from the sarcophagus. Much as it would please him to send O'Neill screaming back into its embrace, he did not have time for indulgence. Banshee had agreed to meet.
"Take him back to his cell."
His Jaffa were pleasantly vigilant as they dragged the human away from Ba'al's brooding scowl. Ba'al considered the distasteful fact that their vigilance was born less of loyalty and more of fear of the damnable Tau'ri. Fear! Of an aging, chained, human. And yet...
Ba'al fingered his neck for a moment.
Terror skittered down his spine and sunk cold fingers into his brain. That the human had killed him did not bother him. Reluctantly, he admired the warrior spirit and will that had allowed the human to manipulate him. Ba'al had underestimated his opponent and had paid the price. He would not forget again. The fear that rode him now had its roots in something far more worrying.
Ba'al understood fear. He understood the hatred in a dying man's eyes. He had seen a thousand reflections of worship, of awe-inspired panic. The slaves that bred like rats in his Naquada mines were easy to rule. Those enemies that had enough scientific knowledge to be useful had looked at him with arrogant contempt. He,who had fought his way to rule a race strong enough to conquer a galaxy. The Goa'uld had been nothing; tools of a near-forgotten race who had tried to build biological enhancements to their own intelligence. Ba'al's lips pulled back in an involuntary Unas snarl as ancient racial memory stirred. He wondered what O'Neill would think of his precious Asgard if he learned of the slavery they had perpetuated. Let him despise the Goa'uld then. Ba'al raised his head proudly as he considered how the Goa'uld had risen above their masters.
Never again would the Goa'uld be slaves.
The snarl rumbled uneasily in his throat and he turned his attention back to the man disturbing his sense of destiny. O'Niell. Ba'al was used to the fear. The hatred. The arrogant assumption of superiority held by those who had done nothing to earn their right to rule. Even the Tau'ri had reflected back only the familiar the last time Ba'al and he had met, claws bared. This time had been different. This time, the man had looked at him with an strange sense of recognition that had disturbed Ba'al on a racial level. How had the Tau'ri known? A sense of despair fluttered and Ba'al fought with the lifelong weakness bred into him through no fault of his own. The others wondered at his hatred of the Tok'ra? The answer was simple. He knew enough to fear them. His Queen-mother Banba had been line-sister to Morrigan and Egeria. Danu had been Ra's most favored vassal. His best scientific weapon.
Ophion had changed that.
One of Yu's favored sons, Ophion had been Blood-Hostage to seal the pact between Ra and Yu as Danu worked to breed the Ancient gene into the Goa'uld. When that had failed, they had turned to breeding the gene into their hosts. Assigned to be her protector, he had become her lover and when she spawned, Danu had merged his memories with her own. Ra had seen only her own lack of ambition. He might have used her knowledge, but Ra held nothing but contempt for her lineage. But while Ra might have forgotten the obligation an Alpha owed the Song-Keepers and Builders, Ophion had not. He had sworn true loyalty to Danu, and Ra killed him for it.
A fatal error.
Danu had spawned only once more, and Egeria had been the result.
Ba'al might share the Tok'ra hatred of Ra, but he was not foolish enough to trust them. He was not precisely certain they were sane. They certainly shared little of Ophion's warrior nature. Did they think the Goa'uld had remained free all these centuries by being weak? What did they think would happen once they had pulled the fangs of the Empire? If the Asgard did not destroy them, there were other enemies. Ba'al had earned his right to rule.
It was his destiny.
He had fought, and killed, and bled for his place among the System Lords. Worlds trembled beneath his feet and millions looked upon him as their God. It should not mean so much that one old man refused to bow his head. It would not matter that he looked at Ba'al with angry disappointment instead of contempt. It would not. Ba'al would not allow it. Because he did not understand it and he refused to fall victim to his mother's weakness. To the same instinct that had drawn her to Ophion in the first place. He would not.
That was not his destiny.
Banshee watched as Ba'al's Ha'tak disappeared into hyperspace.
"He seems too pleased with himself." Damar said from behind her.
She did not turn. She was not yet ready to face the reality of the questions in his eyes. Teal'c and the two other hostages with him. Men who would recognize her. Soldiers who would be forced to tell Earth that Lt. Colonel Carter was still alive and who would force her to admit to herself that Lt. Colonel Carter was technically AWOL.
"Are you certain you do not wish to meet them." Damar asked finally.
She shook her head.
Teal'c had not returned. Her ghost had vanished with the revelation that he was alive. She was not certain what would happen if she was forced to meet with him in person. She could not survive the loss of the rest of her team. For one moment hope had burned like acid when Ba'al had admitted the identity of his Jaffa hostage. Wild desire and terror had shaken her to her core, then logic had forced itself forward and she remembered that Ba'al was asking too high a price for one Jaffa and too little for SG-1. The pain that resulted had warned her that she was not ready to face this truth. She was not ready to look at the men beside Teal'c and see strangers.
She was not ready to lose the last of her illusions.
Banshee played her part to perfection and she had seen the uncertainty and fear in Ba'al's eyes when he looked at her. It should have made her feel powerful. All she had felt was tired. She had won, and all she had had to do was take a risk Earth would never have authorized. She had chosen her targets carefully, but it had always been possible that the explosions would trigger a Naquadria conversion process in the Naquada still buried in the planetary crusts. Luckily most of the Queens chose planets without value specifically because they were not primary targets. The one exception had been pounded into space debris.
Still...it had been a risk Lt. Colonel Carter was not authorized to take.
Banshee, on the other hand, did not give a damn.
The General watched her silently from where he leaned back against her throne. He and Daniel had been suspiciously quiet ever since they had helped her baffle and negotiate with Ba'al. In the end, all she had had to do, was agree to stay away from planets she was not interested in anyway. However, she had taken a leaf from Chronus's book of treaty codicil's and promised nothing of what would happen if he crossed her in open space. She had intended to force safe passage for Earth, but the System Lord had offered that for free.
So...she was halfway home.
She continued to stare at the ghost who meant the most to her in too many ways. She would not meet with the hostages. She would have Damar give them a cargo ship and she would send them on their way. The humans had declared themselves diplomatic liaisons to the Jaffa Nation and Jack had smirked slightly at that news. His raised eyebrow had mocked her initial hope that he could ever have been placed in that role. Watching her now, his lips were curling softly and she relaxed as she finally let herself believe he would not leave her.
She would not meet with the hostages. They had nothing to offer but pain.
Her ghosts were too precious to risk.
Ba'al considered himself to be many things, but this was the first time he had considered himself a fool.
Cold blue eyes glittered with hatred. Something that should have seemed familiar, and yet it was untainted by any sense of fear or calculation. Ba'al watched her warily, cursing the bad luck that had placed his crippled ship in her path. He had not been surprised when she held to her bargain with him, and he had been careful to do nothing to provoke her. She avoided his part of the Empire and he had been prepared to ignore her ships should they chance to meet. His victory over Caligula, however, might yet prove fatal.
Unwilling interest sparked as he wondered why she was in this part of the galaxy. She was, he admitted, an interesting opponent. The madness in her eyes was still evident, and as she talked to people only she could see it looked like nothing more than the splintering of personality that sometimes happened when the symbiote was weak. More shocking was the truth he had learned when he got close enough to sense the symbiote--or the lack of one--within her. Uneasily he wondered at her rage.
From the odd comment, it would appear that she resented his last gift.
Ba'al cocked his head. "I gave him back to you."
She stared at him coldly,"A ghost was better than nothing."
He paused to consider that, then decided madness was impossible to understand. He could only remind of her of their bargain. "Still...I returned him to you." Ba'al said cautiously.
For a moment, grief so powerful he could actually feel it, crossed her face. The hatred in her eyes strengthened, and he was truly bewildered by what he could possibly have done to provoke her rage. He sought the men at her back and frowned as he realized suddenly that they were all Jaffa. Where was O'Neill? If his sources were correct, the Jaffa had taken his place on the Jaffa High Council on Dakara, and rumours had suggested Daniel Jackson was seen often in his company. Nothing had been said of O'Neill and Ba'al had simply assumed he had stayed with Banshee.
The man was warrior enough to understand that his place was by her side.
For a moment, he surprised himself by feeling affronted. "Surely O'Neill did not refuse you." It would be just like the human to cause trouble where none was desired. " I would..." he broke off as her expression froze. The pain on her face triggered an unfamiliar impulse linked to the secret hunger he had always known. His mother's legacy. To know a strong Queen. A worthy Queen. He thinks of the Queen daughter he has hidden, one of the old line and wondered again what she would learn from such a host. It was an unnerving thought, more so because he did not find the idea...unpleasant.
"O'Neill is not worthy of you." He heard himself say, the impulse shocking him.
He courted death with this strange madness. Truly, she would kill him. He wondered if perhaps insanity was contagious. Why else would he have found himself in this ridiculous position after all these years? Perhaps it was a lunacy caught three years ago when a Tau'ri prisoner maddened and intrigued him with his inexplicable strength of will. He looked at her, certain he would find her as shocked by his offer as he was himself . No doubt she was trying to decide whether to torture him first, or laugh at his insolence.
Then again, she had obviously enjoyed insolence, once.
His thoughts darkened as they returned to his nemesis and it took him a moment to realize she had not moved. None of her Jaffa had moved and they were all looking at him with varying shades of shock. It was her eyes, however, that drew him. Pure agony, of a kind he did not want to understand, and which he refused to admit touched him, radiated from every molecule of her being.
"Two Tau'ri." she whispered, stunned."There were two Tau'ri with Teal'c."
He wanted to laugh when he finally understood. A gift, poisoned though it was meant to be, and she had not known. How lowering. He should use this knowledge. Perhaps buy himself leniency. It was with disbelief he heard himself utter the words he should have traded. He did it to hurt her, he told himself. To taunt and weaken her.
"You did not know." he said flatly.
Disbelief filled her eyes. Horror. A wild, passionate hope he has never seen, not even from men offered their lives after torture. It was a strange and glorious feeling to know he had the power to do that. Terrifying to realize that he did not want to crush it, or take it away. She would be his destruction, this haunted female, if he was not careful.
"Let him go." Ba'al blinked, as surprised as her Jaffa.
"Mistress?" her First Prime asked, clearly wondering if his lady had lost her mind.
"Disable the weapons and shields on his flagship and transfer all Jaffa who wish to go with him to it. Then let him go."
Ba'al watched in disbelief as they turned to obey. When she looked at him, he blinked again in confusion. Her face was empty, but her eyes...
"A life for a life." she said softly.
He wondered if she would think him mad if he told her that for one moment, he wished he could thrust himself inside her mind and understand her. Confused by his own emotions - contempt for her weakness, respect for the complexity of her mind, and a hungry desire to own the passion he could feel inside her - he did not resist when the Jaffa came toward him. She was so still, he thought perhaps he had broken her until she looked at him with a lucid intensity that burned. Something visceral inside him, something that had been starved and beaten and locked away in his genes longed to reach for it. Even knowing he would die, even knowing it would leave him scorched to ashes, he longed to dive into the heart of that explosion and let it consume him. It was his nature, to yearn after fire.
She intrigued him, this female, her primitive mind yielding such elegant complexity and destructive power.
It enraged him that this unworthy Tau'ri would deny herself to him, he who could lay a universe at her feet.
Perhaps it would be worth risking his Queen's ambitions after all.
The Jaffa had taken to calling him fey.
Teal'c had said it meant fated. Daniel had been more forthcoming and admitted it meant doomed. It was a recognition that the warrior in question was already dead in some manner, he was simply waiting to die. Oddly, the Jaffa around them did not seem to view this as a bad thing.
He wanted to tell them they were wrong. He did not have a death wish. Daniel and Teal'c and Cassie still needed him. The President needed him to act as offworld liaison to the Jaffa here at Dakara. The world still needed saving, there were still soldiers left to train, Goa'uld left to kill, and somewhere, out there, there was a dog with Jack's name on the collar. The unspoken agreement he had made with the universe had been honored. Jack had protected his team, had protected her, and in return they had been allowed to save the planet more times than anyone could rightly expect.
The problem was, the bargain had been his life for hers.
The SGC was getting along without him. Daniel was making new friends and SG-3, 9, and 12 were cheerfully rotating the task of keeping him alive. The geeks did not need him bothering them, the Russians were irritatingly accommodating, and he did not seem to have much of a purpose anymore. Teal'c understood, but he had better things to do than babysit a tired and aging General. The only thing that got Jack's blood hopping these days were the Tok'ra. Without Jacob, somebody needed to keep tabs on the sneaky bastards. One or two could usually be found dogging his footsteps, arguing with him over some point in the latest round of negotiations, pushing him over this or that and generally provoking a high-volume shouting match that had Jaffa and Tau'ri diving under tables and reaching for weapons. When they were not shouting, they would inexplicably follow him around for hours, and it was hard to contemplate nothingness with a snake staring at his back.
It was ridiculous to feel this way. They had both known the odds of survival. Hell, it was one of the reasons she had resisted getting involved with Pete, and truth be told, it was one of the reasons he had pushed her away. She had always scared him, because deep down inside he had known it was not fated to last. Love was never part of the bargain. On some level, he had always thought it was part of the price. But damn it, it was supposed to be his life for hers and what the hell was he supposed to do now?
He was trying.
God, he was trying. It would spit on her memory, on Charlie's memory, on the memories of all the good people who had died if he wasted the life some sociopathic otherworldly being kept seeing fit to give back to him. But he was going to have words with somebody when he finally managed to make it to the Pearly Gates. He really was.
'Cause somebody had fucked up the paperwork.
A crashing sound had him spinning in reflex, and he glared with annoyance at the Tok'ra plunging over the edge of the embankment behind him. Rocks and dirt scattered to the wind and Jack wondered what in the hell had the woman looking so frazzled.
"Damn it, are you trying to give me a heart attack?" he demanded crossly.
Anise just stared at him wide-eyed and tried to catch her breath. "O'Neill...a fleet of Goa'uld Ha'taks approach."
For the first time in months, Jack felt himself come alive. It was only temporary, of course. Whoever it was, they were so going to get their asses kicked. But by God, Jack would take what he could get. Maybe he could even convince Teal'c that a Tau'ri boarding party was needed. For old times sake.
Fey or not, Jack O'Neill had a score to settle.
She was alone.
For the first time in a year, Lt. Colonel Samantha Carter was alone.
The hand device was a disturbingly comfortable presence on her left hand and she contemplated taking it off. Thought about it, then decided against it. She was no longer the Samantha Carter who had died on Eireille. Unfortunately, she was not completely Banshee either. Her Jaffa had known she would not be coming back from Dakara. The only surprise had been the fact they would not let her go alone. Damar, who had played the part of her First Prime so well, had smiled oddly and shrugged when she asked him why. When pressed he had grinned and said that a wise Jaffa did not fight love, destiny, or the Asgard.
She had not asked him what he meant, but she wondered if he truly understood why she would not be coming back. Not as Banshee. Not even as Samantha Carter. Ba'al had crippled her in a way she could not repair. If he had lied, if SG-1 was truly dead, then Samantha would keep that promise she had been chasing. Without her ghosts, Banshee was broken. There was one last Naquadria bomb stored in the Ha'tak cargo hold. She would not even bother warning the son-of-a-bitch. Ba'al would have time to see her cargo ship drop out of hyper, then her exile would be over.
Lt. Colonel Carter would finally go home.
The Jaffa who had appointed themselves her personal guard wore the energy absorbing bodysuits of captured Kul warriors under their normal armour. She was done with hiding, although she would be Banshee one last time. Needed to be Banshee. In case...
Wearing only the suit, without the helmet or armor, she strapped a zatnikatel to her right leg. Surprisingly, the Naquadah in her blood allowed her to use the energy weapons of the Kul. She suspected Anubis had modified an Ancient design and she wore one on her right forearm. Her signature, the one physical part of SG-1 that Banshee had allowed herself was his combat knife, his initials scratched on the handle. Bebhion had kept it for some odd reason and Banshee had finally remembered that Colonel Carter had taken lethal and bloody pleasure in reclaiming it. That the edge was razor sharp was an added bonus.
It was not lost on anyone that every part of her outfit was a weapon. Kul bodysuit, Ancient energy weapon, Jaffa zat-gun, Tau'ri knife, and Goa'uld hand device. Banshee was a regular poster child for the intergalactic NRA. Even the image itself, insane Goa'uld on a mission, was a weapon. The truth was simple. Banshee was a weapon. Created by Colonel Carter with a chaser of SG-1.
The USAF had never believed in flying false colors.
She took one last look in the mirror. Blond hair cut military short with a sharp knife. The jagged scar across her cheek had been cut with a dull one. Damar had been pissed about that even though the Jaffa responsible had died shortly after cutting her. She did not remember much about the fight. The Goa'uld she wanted was behind the Jaffa, and he had been standing in the way.
It was almost familiar, her reflection. Almost the image she had seen every day since SG-1 had died. Almost. But the truth was the reason Banshee was broken. The rage was gone. The helpless, hopeless, fury of the damned was missing. The anger that had sustained her was in ashes. A terrible hope burned in blue eyes and Sam wondered if anyone knew just how fragile that hope made her.
A shadow passed behind her, and for one moment she thought her ghosts had come to say good-bye. She smiled crookedly when Damar's impassive face appeared over her shoulder.
He bowed respectfully. "It is time, Cari'Meid," he said softly.
She had never understood why they called her that. Daniel had not recognized it and suggested it was a nickname. Damar had smiled when she asked if it meant "crazy Tau'ri". Strangely they seemed almost as excited as she was by the possibility SG-1 lived and she thought perhaps they were glad to be going home. She had heard Teal'c's name mentioned, and Dakara, and occasionally Daniel. Oddly enough, she never heard him mentioned. Never "O'Neill of the Tau'ri" or "General O'Neill" or even "O'Neill" and that terrified her more than she could say. She heard Cari'Meid, and more often the more feminine "Cari", and someone named "Taylor". She wondered if this Taylor was the SGC liaison the President had been planning to assign to Dakara.
She stretched out one hand and touched Damar's arm. "Thank-you," she said softly.
She did not know what he had left behind to follow her. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything. He had never told her, and she had never asked. He held himself still for a long moment. He searched her face, then bowed deeply, the lowest bow she had ever seen him voluntarily deliver.
"Cari'Meid," was all he said.
Strangely, it sounded like an answer.
The aliens had landed.
Annoyed that everything seemed to be proceeding peacefully, Jack stopped to glare at Anise who was trotting on his heels. Not her fault, he supposed, that this was turning out to be just another contingent of rebel Jaffa, but Anise had seemed so sure something was wacky .The Tok'ra, irritatingly, had found her second wind and was not even breathing hard in spite of their recent mountain goat imitation. She was also staring past him with an expression that looked eerily like shock. Jack turned, eyes moving to see what was freaking her out. Behind him, he heard the Stargate activate.
Jack had chosen a route that would bring him up past the Stargate, and he found himself looking at the ass-end of a cargo ship. Boding well for future relations, there were no Jaffa guards posted. A contingent of about a dozen were surrounding a figure that looked suspiciously like a Goa'uld to Jack, but no one was shouting or pointing weapons. On the other hand...
Jack cursed as he recognized the familiar material the Goa'uld was wearing. Now that he was looking for it, Jack could see that the rest of the guard were wearing the same stuff under their armour. Zats and staffs were not going to do much good then, if things went south. He could see Teal'c and two other members of the Council descending the temple steps and he was reaching for his radio to warn Teal'c when Anise grabbed his wrist. He looked at her, and found her pupils dilated with pure horror.
"We did not know. I swear O'Neill, if we had known, we would have told you. Her First Prime said only that he served Banshee. We did not know." Anise held his wrist tightly, the symbiote looking as close to passing out as he had ever seen her.
Jack turned his head back to the Goa'uld and felt his world tilt as he recognized the body. The height. The hair. The walk was different. He felt his pistol fall into his hand and ignored Freya as she scrambled after him. Feeling like the ghost he was seeing, he drifted through the ranks of the curious Jaffa. He wanted to scream at them for their blindness, even as he recognized that none of them had ever seen her. These were recent additions to the rebel ranks and they had no idea they were seeing the impossible.
Christ, she was over-the-top.
Carter might have been lethal, but she had been a bit more subtle about it. Banshee was about as inconspicuous as a brick upside the head. Jack was close enough to see the shock and anger on Teal'c's face. Beside him, others were finally aiming staff weapons toward the newcomers. Banshee's Jaffa were tense, but were not pulling weapons. Her First Prime appeared to be searching the crowd behind Teal'c, but all that concerned Jack was that no one was looking in his direction.
She froze when she heard the click as he flicked the safety off.
She turned slowly, the familiarity of her nearly bringing him to his knees. None of her Jaffa moved. From their expressions, they were clearly aware they could not stop him before he pulled the trigger. A bullet at this range and her brains, and those of the symbiote, would be splattered halfway across Dakara. No sarcophagus would be able to fix that.
He met her eyes, his own cold. "You leave, she lives. Or I pull the trigger," he said softly.
Banshee stared at him, her eyes blazing with some emotion he was in no shape to read. His eyesight blurred, and he blinked rapidly, unwilling to risk obscuring his vision for even a second to wipe the tears away. He let them fall unchecked, gaze locked on the blue eyes staring back at him. Her Jaffa were shocked immobile, but Jack had no intention of letting them get their balance back. They had not come here unprepared. The Goa'uld would have some weapon, some back-up plan. Some reason that would prevent the Tok'ra and Jaffa from killing her.
No way in hell was he letting anybody sacrifice Carter for whatever this Goa'uld had come here to offer.
Banshee took a single step toward him and he cocked his head warningly. She ignored him. Her eyes traveled down his body slowly and he prepared himself for the contempt he expected to see in her eyes. Or he tried to. God knows he deserved her contempt. She had been alive. All this time, she had been alive and he had left her there. Trapped in her worst nightmare. His eyes burned and he blinked again, the hard lump in his chest making it hard to breath. She took another step forward and it was not contempt he saw in her eyes.
He told himself it was a trick.
That the Goa'uld was using Carter's body to steal it. This was his second chance. The old bargain still held and the universe was giving him a chance to make it right again. To save her. To apologize. He could still fix this. He could still make everything right. He dropped his hand when she touched light fingers to his jaw.
"Take me," he told her.
Banshee tilted her head, a question on her face.
He let the pistol fall to the ground. "Take me, "he said again. "Let Carter go. No one will stop you."
Her eyes widened. She lowered her eyes to his shoulders and ran her hand tentatively down the front of his chest. He wondered with sudden fear if he had anything to offer as a host. She had Carter. What in the hell made him think he was anything other than a broken-down soldier? Sure, he had a reputation, but Banshee had built one of her own. She did not need to steal one. He stared down at her scarred face, searching for forgiveness as she tightened her hands on his shoulders and pulled him forward.
He did not resist.
He let her thread her fingers in his hair, and when she pressed her lips to his, he opened his mouth willingly. His only regret was that he had never had a chance to do this for real. Had never found the right combination of time and circumstance to show her how he felt. He waited for the pain and froze in shock when she kissed him instead. Panic shivered along his nerves, and he almost pulled away. Then she muttered his name against his lips, need and love and desperation in her voice, and after thirteen months and four days without even the hope of her, she broke him. He knew it was the Goa'uld. He knew it, and he did not care anymore. Carter was in there, somewhere. Her tongue was tasting the tears on his face, her arms were around him so tightly he was having trouble breathing and somehow they had both fallen to their knees. He did not care. Teal'c and Daniel would rescue them.
Until then, if Banshee wanted him, she could have him.
He was not leaving her alone again.
He was startled to find she was shaking against him, hands clutching at his back. Before he could stop the reflex, he pulled her close. Tears fell from her eyes and he suddenly realized she was saying the same thing over and over again. The same thing she had been saying since she kissed him. "I'm not Goa'uld. Not Goa'uld."
He pulled back to look at her face. Not...Goa'uld? He looked around frantically and found Anise staring down at them. Tears were running down her face, and he wondered why in the hell she was crying. She could just stop right now. His arms tightened reflexively as it occurred to him the Tok'ra would want Banshee to go with them.
Movement near her shoulder caused him to glance up and he found himself glaring into the impassive face of Banshee's First Prime. Jack tightened his arms further. She did not protest, her face pressed tight to his chest. He could feel the heat of her breath through the fabric of his BDUs and could only hope her enhanced senses were not bothered too much by the combined smell of gun oil, sweaty soldier, and the dust of Dakara. The Jaffa stared down at his mistress and Jack tensed for a confrontation. The Jaffa studied him for a long moment, then bowed solemnly and backed a polite three steps away. Jack wanted to continue to glare, but found himself sighing instead. He supposed he would have to get used to them.
For lack of anything better to do, he glared at Anise. "You can't have them."
The Tok'ra stilled, expression arrested. "O'Neill...she is not Goa'uld."
"I got that part," he snapped. "You still can't have them. They stay with us. You can come visit."
Anise opened her mouth, then shut it again, obviously stunned into speechlessness. She turned to look at Teal'c who was clearly of the opinion that Jack had lost his marbles. Which was fine, as long as Teal'c covered his six while he got Carter and Banshee through the Gate.
"We'll go to the Alpha Site," he told her. "Carmichael will want to check you two out and we have a zay'tarc detector there." He looked at her, hiding his uncertainty over her wants. "It's a big planet. We can find a place for your Jaffa if they don't want to stay here." He rather thought staying at Dakara was not even on the table.
He knew a lifetime commitment when he saw one.
"O'Neill..." Teal'c was saying calmly," Colonel Carter is not Goa'uld."
"Why does everyone keep saying that?" he asked, exasperated. "I get it, okay. I don't care. The Tok'ra have enough symbiotes. They won't miss one."
Teal'c just sighed while Anise started to smile, extremely amused about something. He heard a watery snort and looked down to see Carter/Banshee smiling up at him.
"She's not Tok'ra either, O'Neill," Teal'c said patiently.
A snicker vibrated softly against his chest and she was laughing at him. A sight he had thought lost forever except in his dreams. Blue eyes glinted with a familiar humor and he froze as another possibility occurred to him. It was a possibility that did not make much sense considering the Jaffa, and, well, Ba'al, and why in the hell she had taken so damn long to come home. But then, Carter regularly did the impossible. He closed his eyes, then opened them and glanced down at her.
"Yes, Sir. Just me," Carter said admirably straight-faced.
"Ah...crap," he said faintly.
He considered all the ways he had just made a fool of himself. Then the facts of what she had accomplished as Banshee struck him, and where in the hell that would take them he had no idea. What he had said before was still true, though. He did not care. She was here, she was alive, and nothing else mattered. Teal'c had edged close enough to fall to his knees beside them and she reached out a hand to touch him. In the distance, Jack heard the Stargate activate again and he knew without looking, that Daniel would be hurtling through the Gate toward them. He smiled into her hair.
"Guess they didn't mess up the paperwork after all," he said softly.
She looked at him curiously, then twisted her hand tighter into the fabric of his BDUs and whispered the words that made everything else disappear.