Chapter 40 - Leadership
Infiltration was a guilty pleasure, so Sam thought. Even without Jolinar, she felt the surge of excitement and pride at the ability to embody another role, to succeed in a way that she would not have done as herself. Even if it meant coming down hard on people she swore to protect; even if it meant embracing the side of herself that she wasn't supposed to enjoy. But Jolinar knew all that, and her support of Sam was enough for Sam to believe she hadn't gone too far yet.
Even so, there were conflicting times. The first time she saw Kasuf, he looked at her with shock, certain that she had been lying the whole time to him. Whatever his role on this planet was, it was not within Sam's authority to change, and so she saw him little after that. It was good that he was thoroughly convinced—and yet, she had not wanted to break his trust, even if for both their sakes.
And now, as she gave new orders for the planet to be prepared for Quetesh, she was feeling oddly authentic. It wasn't an act. She really did want Quetesh to be pleased. And her motivation was almost accurate too, so that she wouldn't be killed for her failure. To be sure, there was that deeper motivation of keeping her position so that she could betray it and rescue the Abydonians, but it didn't come up that often.
*If you can be the role without losing yourself, go ahead,* Jolinar advised her in the morning. *There will always be things to remind you of your true self.*
And so Sam did, because there was much more to think about than the outside perspective on their mission. The dark clouds, saturated with rain, were drawing close to the green peaks. There were only hours before the deluge would stop all work, and Sam and Jolinar had to determine that nothing would be lost.
A half mile had been paved just yesterday, leading from the temple down to the village, and the gravel in carts beside it had to be hurried out of sight. There was nothing to be done about the fields; even the water resistant plants growing there were not built to withstand the storm surges coming down from the mountains. Some would be damaged; Sam wished now that she had had time to get a better drainage system of levies in place. As it was, there was no cover or protection, and that was that.
The temple itself was almost ready. The inner chambers were fully built, and the rooftop over the main court and veranda was set. At the peak, some pieces were not fully installed, and Jolinar ordered that they be dealt with immediately. Some were roped down if they were out of sight, others were firmly attached ahead of schedule.
And inside, the furnishings were carefully arranged and given their last cleaning; there would be no time tomorrow. There was a three-tier system to the temple, with a nearly public outer court and some smaller rooms branching off of it to house tributes and personal and temple slaves. Further in, there was the grand court with its dais and gold-inlaid walls covered with intricate tapestries. Even still, leading from a door behind one of the curtains, there was the holy of holies, Quetesh's chamber itself. Two of her most personal slaves had come several weeks past to prepare it personally, and the door had been locked ever since. No one was allowed, both to preserve the divinity of Quetesh and (as Sam and Jolinar saw instantly) for the practical reason of security. Quetesh might be as beloved as a tyrant could be, but she wouldn't let that lull her into carelessness.
But though no one had reason to go slowly, the rain began to dimple the soft clay before everything was done. Large drops began to batter everything in sight, and as Jolinar gave the final order to get under cover, lightning lit the cloud-darkened settlement and sent the metal-clad Jaffa to safety as fast as any lowly slave. Jolinar and Sam stood on the top step, barely out of the torrential rain. Anyone who looked would see them where they stood, and they intended to be seen without worry or hurry. *Never give up a chance for a good impression,* Jolinar explained. But she didn't need to; Sam understood the concept well enough.
Thunder roared down from the mountains as lightning struck their tips. Jolinar looked up as a bolt struck the top of the temple, sending curious blue lightning down to where it disappeared in the grounded structure. Soon enough the rain was too heavy to see through and the winds picked it up, carrying it past the roof of the temple and driving Jolinar to back up. There was warmth in the inner court, but Jolinar did not want to settle down yet. Rumbles, crackles, and the neverending pounding of the rain on the metal roofs built up the cacophony of the storm. And yet, it was quieter than any other day.
Without any immediate concerns, Sam suddenly realized just how busy their minds had been over the last few days. The quiet felt strange, odd, even if the release from mental strain was most welcome. And instead of retreating to hide in silence, they stood and let the sound overwhelm their senses, beat out the tension, cleanse their minds with unrelenting pressure. An hour, maybe more, later, and a sweet empty weariness filled them. Jolinar finally retired to the inner court, sitting and absorbing the warmth and gentle white noise that was all the rain made from inside. Neither she nor Sam spoke.
And then it ended. Hours after it began, the rain suddenly slowed, and the lack of sound felt out of place at first. Venturing forth, they saw that the clouds were no longer black with water saturation, but were traveling out past the fields and beyond in a light grey-white. There were a couple small snaps of lightning, and the sound of random dripping, but the storm was essentially over.
No more time for rest, Jolinar began to overlook the drenched and battered settlement for damages. A couple smaller buildings uprooted and carried a few feet were the only obvious signs. Looking closer, there were many leaks, many buildings swamped with overflowing mud, and everywhere was deep, sticky mud. No one needed to be told, but Jolinar gave the orders anyway and everyone went back to work.
Buildings were swept out as best they could be, roofs were patched, and every spare sack or blanket was used to stem the water. It was evening by the time the basic essentials were handled, and Sam started to worry even more. The road from the gate to the temple was completely untraversable, and Quetesh would be here tomorrow. To carry her in would be impossible given the depth of the mud; there was no time to pave it. Calling together the slaves tending to lesser concerns, Sam made an executive decision.
The carts of gravel were scattered loosely along the surface of the road, and the dry branches left over from harvesting firewood were placed on top. And over it all, a layer of weeds and foliage that had just started to compost. The gravel mixed with the mud, the branches held it somewhat in place, and with the compost cover over it all, at least no one sunk or slipped. It was temporary and just a little crudely built, but it would have to suffice.
Sam kept the lights going past curfew as all strove vainly to hide the effects of the summer storm. And when it was finally acceptable, she and Jolinar retired to their housing as before. Sleep would not come easy that night.
P3X-130 would have to go on the very short list of worlds Daniel had been allowed to go to without an escort. It wasn't anything against Daniel personally, so he was told; the galaxy was a dangerous place, sometimes even on safe planets. But this world? No, the only thing he had to worry about was the weather, and no escort would help with that.
The original science team had brought back conflicting geologic records that had led to a long study resulting in the knowledge that, apart from occasional core fluctuations of extreme heat, the planet was very consistently warm. More dry than tropical, but the fluctuations would bring severe changes to that. Not a good place for a military or science base, nor did the Goa'uld have any use for it. Daniel had to admire Jack, he'd picked the perfect world for the relocated Abydonians. Granted, there weren't millions of choices, but still, it seemed almost inspired.
Daniel felt the heat of the sun begin baking his face as soon as he stepped through the gate, but only for a second. The Abydonians were waiting, and all immediately smothered him with refreshingly un-self-conscious physical displays of their affection for him. He smiled beneath their hands patting his hair, his shoulders, his back, some of the smallest children hugging his legs. Their scent was of earth, sweat, family. Oh, how he'd missed them too.
"My people, my people!" he heard Adros' voice over the chaos. Slowly they backed away, and Daniel felt the sun on him again. "Welcome back, Dan'yel," Adros said, and Daniel saw on his brown face that he was trying oh so hard to be dignified and not grin like a mad fool.
"Adros," he said, slipping into the phonetics of Abydonian as if he had never left them. From there, the language was only a short step as he walked up to Adros. "You are serving your people well, I see."
They clasped arms warmly, and Adros put an arm around Daniel's shoulder to lead him away from the gate. "We are finding happiness again," Adros said. "Even as we wait for the day when our rightful leaders return." He glanced briefly to Daniel.
Daniel was all for keeping cultures intact, not meddling with their worldviews until they moved beyond them naturally, but the hereditary leadership of the Abydonians had proved problematic. Kasuf was gone, his children likewise, and only Daniel was left as connected to what essentially was the "ruling family". Since Daniel refused, and since the others were lost, the Abydonians saw every decision they made as temporary.
The process had been slow and crushing to even get them to believe that the SGC could not rescue their lost people. All the SG teams were supposed to be on the lookout for anything about Quetesh, but so far there had been absolutely nothing. And as such a small goddess, it seemed more and more strange that she should have been the one on Abydos. Maybe Jolinar had had a change of heart from Goa'uld to whatever she was; maybe it had even been an accident. He still trusted that Sam hadn't betrayed them willingly, but the rest was still up in the air.
Regardless, the Abydonians were left almost leaderless, would remain so for an indefinite time, and Daniel's visit provided a renewal of their strength. He was happy to oblige. Now was the time, the only time perhaps, when he had no other missions to take his time.
The warmth that emanated from the very rocks as well as the sky shot through to his bones, placing him back on Abydos where the days were long and never cold. The nights may have sent them all to bed with chills, some gratefully sharing warmth with another, but the days made up for it. Here, with the core of the earth nearer to the surface, even as the sun disappeared the warmth remained. Daniel was surrounded by it, embraced by it, just as much as by the people whom he had once named as family.
No feast had been prepared, for no crops had been brought to harvest yet. Indeed, it was doubtful what kind of crops would grow here; the geologists were still mapping these things out. Instead of taking MREs, though, the Abydonians had insisted on receiving the ingredients of their choice to make their own foods. Far from home, they still wanted home with them. Daniel was absurdly pleased to see that they agreed that mastagore tasted like chicken, and placed that old familiar bird in the same place on the table. Other than that, though, it was the simplest of fares.
Daniel spent the night mostly talking with Adros, though often joined by others who had been close to Kasuf and his family before the attack. The feel of the Abydonian words in his throat and mouth was like an exercise in memory and instinct all at once. They talked of problems with this world, problems with the people now moved here, and Daniel gave his own opinion even though he knew they would take it as advice. There was nothing else he could do and not appear rude.
But as the night wore on, and Daniel relished the continuing warmth from no fire, they began to speak of joys and successes. Of births, marriages, comings of age, triumphs over this strange nature, and everything Daniel had ever wanted to experience with Sha're. It was a bittersweet joy that filled him, but it was joy nonetheless.
He slept in a bed that they prepared for him, and night emptied him of emotions. By the time he woke, still comfortably warm, he realized that he could not live like this. Not without Sha're. Maybe not even with her, if he ever had the chance to test his attachment to his team. Until he had another purpose for his life, he would look forward to upcoming missions.
Morning on Dorieth came with a cool fog that filtered the sun. Quetesh's arrival was unscheduled, and so everything that could be done was started immediately. The fog burned off swiftly, and Sam and Jolinar stood once again on the temple steps and looked up and down over the prospect. It was hard to remember what it had looked like, weeks ago, when everything was as it should be under Toc'no. But if Sam could remember at all, this was close enough.
And then, the gate began to dial. A Jaffa flashed a signal down, and Sam's heart began to race as she made her way to the top. The road squished beneath her feet just enough for her to make mark of it, but she made good time. She saw the kawoosh from a short distance off, and by the time Quetesh's guards had made sure the scene was clear, the goddess herself walked through.
Sam had no idea that she would look like that. Granted, she'd had limited experience with female Goa'uld, but especially given her reputation, she'd built up a picture of Quetesh in her mind. Blond, buxom, every feature porcelain perfect—her experience was partially influenced by the Tok'ra hosts she'd seen in expecting the lighter coloring. Quetesh didn't match. Her creamy smooth complexion was framed by dark hair, illuminating most plainly her strong features—mouth, cheekbones, nose—with only her large eyes following Sam's exaggerated beauty picture. She was beautiful still, but the firm lines of her silhouette spoke of power more than delicacy, intimidation more than submission.
"Where is Toc'no?" she opened with, eyes darting around and past Sam.
*Flatter her, but not too much,* Jolinar gave as her most important piece of advice.
"Toc'no was slain for his betrayal of you, my lord," Sam answered.
Quetesh stared her down, eyes piercing. "And what was that betrayal?"
"Questioning your most perfect will on this world," Sam answered, meeting her with the look of near-humility that through all those years in the Air Force she had perfected. "His weakness showed plainly as soon as he opposed you, only doing so once you were far from here." She added the last half as Jolinar pushed the concept to her.
Quetesh's eyes narrowed and she took a step forward, her glinting grey-green gown tinkling in the mid-morning silence. "Who are you?" she demanded in a low tone.
"Coron, my lord," Sam answered, trying not to breathe in too quickly.
"I did not see Toc'no as weak," Quetesh answered.
*You can't contradict her,* Jolinar cautioned.
"Only where it mattered most," Sam responded to Quetesh.
Quetesh said nothing, but her cold gaze didn't detach from Sam's. "I will go to my temple now," she finally said.
Sam nodded, bowing her head. "This way, my lord." With head still slightly lowered, she nodded to her Jaffa and began walking down the path.
*That is as much concession as we will get for now; she intends to deal with this more fully later,* Jolinar said as commentary.
~Is it paranoid of me to be afraid of what that dealing might entail?~
*No, just that you have been observant when we have been discussing her.*
Quetesh did not mention the makeshift road, nor any damage that might be visible to the discerning eye. Her gaze didn't seem to linger on any one thing as they passed through, not even on the slaves lined up and kneeling by the road, their knees inches deep in soft mud but not looking as if they cared that their possibly only dry clothing was being soiled. Their god had stooped to this level, and so they were not allowed to have cares.
Jolinar was being helpful in keeping Sam's heart rate steady, her breathing consistent and not too fast. They were nearing the temple, and did not know what Quetesh would do then. It loomed above them, suddenly looking dangerous as Quetesh came to claim it as her own. What did it do, Sam had to wonder once more, and was this a terrible mistake?
The temple steps, washed clean of the mud and mopped as dry as could be, stood empty for the first time in the day. Quetesh paused, ordered her own Jaffa in Goa'uld, and walked up them. Jolinar had no need to translate for Sam as it was clear that the Jaffa were taking the perimeter. Aside from Sam and Jolinar and their one escort, only Quetesh and a slave were left entering the temple.
The lush smell of the sun-warmed after-storm filled the open outer court, belying the bright torch-lit interior. Everything shone, or at least passively reflected splashes of colors and patterns, around every corner and on every wall. The floors were smooth and polished, and Sam and her Jaffa's boots clicked loudly compared to the leather and silver slippers of Quetesh (and the sandals on her slave). It was empty of all worshippers, but Quetesh looked around once, and her face remained passive with only the hint of satisfaction in her smirk.
She nodded to her slave, who left silently for the inner sanctum, and Sam did the same to her Jaffa who walked to stand guard at the entrance.
"I see no need to end your life," Quetesh said, her voice low and only barely reverberating in the room. *Yet,* Jolinar said, vocalizing what they were all thinking. "You have not destroyed that which is mine. And," she added, suddenly facing Sam and giving her a closer look, "I did not expect any success."
Sam's worries didn't leave when Quetesh gave her a long look, up and down, speaking after a moment. "No female among my Jaffa has ever gained the respect that I see granted to you. That armor hides your figure well." She looked up at Sam's face, the self-satisfied smirk resting naturally on her lips. "I will hear your case in two hours' time; see that you do not disgrace my chambers with such unnecessary clanking." Turning on her heel, she swept across the hall with long, smooth strides towards her own room.
~She meant the armor, right?~ Sam clarified, letting her breath out slowly.
*Indeed she did. We have been summoned to a conference of leaders, not master and slave.*
*That is dangerous. Her testing is not over—we may never know when it is fully over—but she will expect Coron the proud leader. I cannot tell you all you need to know for how you must act, because it will not be the same as with the Jaffa. But there is yet a possibility that she will suspect me, knowing how I speak.*
Sam still had control, going swiftly back to her chambers so they could change. ~Yeah, I don't have enough experience with this side. But why should you fear her recognition?~
*I can achieve much in altering how I sound and appear, but my essence is the same, and I will not be able to forego all the movements that are particular to me, and it is also true for my words. Quetesh is observant, always, and she has not forgotten my former betrayal.*
~Oh, you betrayed her?~
*It is a long story, but the answer is yes and no. It is a matter of perspective.*
~No, this time I understand; you don't need to explain now.~ Sam focused on her thoughts, letting the control shift back to Jolinar, who immediately dropped her careful managing of Sam's body to strip the armor now that they were in their quarters. Jolinar had kept the physical manifestations of anxiety to a minimum, but to the detriment of Sam's mind. She was too nervous, and it wasn't going to help Jolinar. Already, she could feel it feedback into and from her symbiote. But it wasn't panic, thankfully, and her body's calm lent her the focus she needed to wipe her thoughts smooth.
Jolinar finished taking of the armor, and then shedding the protective undergarment. It had been warm and humid today, and there was a light sheen over arms, legs, and face. Splashing with a little warm water, Jolinar sponged herself down and let the air evaporate the water to cool herself. The humidity on this planet had challenged Jolinar's usual hair gel and so they had gone without, even though it did not matter under the skull cap. However, as leader they would not wear the cap, and so Jolinar had been making do with simply combing Sam's hair back. It was growing long and silky with all the moisture, and while it didn't quite detract from their tough image, it certainly didn't add to it either. But for this evening, they had been ordered to relax just a little.
All Jaffa on this world who were not in uniform wore the traditional long robes in softly woven colors. Jolinar chose a lighter weight, blue-grey one. It was formless, except for the slightly shaping sash from shoulder to hip, but the cut was not billowingly massive. After the short sponge bath, it felt comfortably warm.
That was not their purpose, though. Jolinar called her Jaffa aide to her, informed him of Quetesh's will, and received the reports of what had gone on after the greeting party assembled. Things were to run as silently and efficiently as possible while Quetesh was here, inconspicuous but busy, and Sam and Jolinar would have to rely completely on their subordinate commanders if Quetesh kept them detained for long. Simply giving out the detailed orders for the rest of the day took over an hour.
That left merely half an hour to finish preparing for their audience with Quetesh. Physically, they were completely ready. It was early afternoon and they were in the coolest place aside from the temple; emotions were all calmed down. Unlike the usual con, Jolinar had to put extra effort into her preparations. Sam could hear her trying to excise her opinions, her memories, her turns of phrase, to leave only the personality of Coron. There was so much that was in their favor, Sam thought, but for once Jolinar stuck to the Tok'ra tradition and over-prepared. Then again, Sam still had almost no idea who Quetesh was to Jolinar—nor the other way around.
The conclusion appeared satisfactory, as Jolinar cooled any remaining anxieties and returned to the temple. Steam was beginning to rise where the sun had baked with no break since rising, but the mud still squished beneath them. Their robes were long and Jolinar's leather boots were tactfully hidden beneath. The sun had just heated the back of their neck where the cowl did not cover to the point of a tiny beadlet of sweat, when they reached the temple steps. Quietly, they reached the top, shedding their boots for the almost moccasin-like clean shoes beneath them.
Finally, they walked further and further into the temple until they approached the chamber whose contents no one knew. Quetesh's one silent slave saw their arrival and ducked into the chamber. They had only to wait a few seconds before she came back, nodded, and held the door for them to enter. It shut behind them with a slight click, and they were bathed in the glory of Quetesh's personal chamber.
It was almost like the inner court, with the gold and jewels on every wall and rich lighting and tapestries to go with them. But the falling curtains from the ceiling, and the lack of dais or steps, added to the intimacy. A table near the front was laid with many of the supplies that Sam had seen delivered to the temple, as well as cooked food that must have been requested and brought during Sam's absence. But apart from the table and a more comfortable version of the throne in the formal chamber, there was nothing of note. As of course there would not be.
Quetesh sat as if it was a condescension to sit on her throne, resting her divine arms on its unworthy winged sides. And yet she conquered it, did not fully relax. She looked up to Sam and Jolinar with as much power as if she were towering over them. Those eyes had been cold before; the glittering fire in them now creeped Sam out.
"Coron, my self-proclaimed loyal servant," Quetesh drawled. "Do you always follow your god to the very last character?" Her eyes didn't glance up to the Goa'uld clock, but Jolinar knew that they were exactly on time.
Jolinar didn't answer. No answer would work, falling either to the sycophantic side or the insolent one. Neither could be afforded, and so she settled for the neutral option, standing erect and still.
"Sit, and give me your report," Quetesh demanded, flicking her finger towards the nearby table.
And so they sat, and started just after the beginning, as if the mutiny against Toc'no was unimportant. It was a detail adeptly skipped over, and Quetesh's level stare did not reveal how much she put on that aspect. Jolinar didn't skip a beat or stumble, listing off all the facts of successes and figures and goals.
Quetesh demanded more. There was no time for a switch, and so Sam put all her effort into giving Jolinar the little details that the symbiote had not learned by heart. The minutes passed and turned into hours, and Quetesh sat unmoving and unflinching. Her long hand would remove a round grape from the bowl at her side, and bring it to her mouth without her eyes straying from their hold on Jolinar's.
Eventually, even Sam exhausted all that she knew about this world, and her mind was spinning with the effort. It had been nearly two hours since they entered, and they had no meal since early morning.
"And the roads?" Quetesh questioned after the slightest pause.
Sam would have blinked, astonished that she had noticed that at all. Jolinar answered without a stumble, "Not efficient yet."
Finally, Quetesh made a move, slipping from her chair with the metallic tangle of her gown. Sam and Jolinar sat at the table, hands resting at their sides, and Quetesh began to walk the few steps over to them. "So," she said, only just loud enough to hear, "you not only think yourself more devoted than Toc'no was, but you hold your intelligence higher than his."
After a short swallow, Jolinar turned her head up. "Failure is not an option, so success must be striven for."
"Not an answer," countered Quetesh in a low, smooth tone, looking down towards Jolinar.
Now she truly was towering over them, and Sam felt a chill of exactly how much power the Goa'uld held in just their very presence. The way they communicated how swiftly they could snap anyone's neck without word or even visual threat. It was just there, behind the glitter of their eyes. And Quetesh's were like slow burning magma, focusing all their piercing intellect on Sam and Jolinar.
Jolinar steeled herself from flinching as one of Quetesh's hands rose from her side. Her long finger stretched out, and gently grazed Jolinar's temple with the tip. Insecurity raged in Sam and Jolinar's mind, but she held her neutral face, still looking up into their acknowledged god's eyes. Quetesh let the finger drag down Jolinar's face, just flicking away as it reached her chin.
"My mark does not destroy your face," she said, indicating the tattoo with her finger still hovering just an inch from Jolinar's face. And then, before Jolinar had to blink, "It is a shame that you have only the sensibilities of a warrior," Quetesh said with an exhalation. The predator eyes calmed just a little.
~Good god, was that...?~
"If you are starved, you may ease your hunger before returning to your duties," Quetesh tossed over her shoulder as she returned to her throne some paces off. Lowering herself back in her throne, her gaze returned to Sam and Jolinar with less interrogation.
Jolinar hesitated, and Sam felt her as unsure of what what was the best course. To give in, submit and eat while their god watched, might destroy the strength they had tried to prove. And yet, to deny their god's pleasure might ruin the favor they might have built. But as Quetesh's eyes strayed and covered every inch of their body, even Jolinar felt the urge to escape it.
"My duties are pressing," she said, rising and bowing.
Quetesh did not nod back, but showed no sign of any thought or emotion as they slowly departed.
Jolinar did not turn her back until the door closed and left them in the inner court. The sun was just lowered in the sky, but it felt dark. Jolinar shivered in a short spasm, swallowing the bitter taste at the back of their throat.
*I had hoped to forget all that.*
Sam was just glad that this time Jolinar had no desire to carry the role beyond the parameters already set. As they returned to the settlement, they knew that it was not over. They would have to manage with Quetesh for some time more. But this was a twisted game, and they couldn't be sure that they controlled all their moves.