Even for him, it was an odd, slightly unsettling experience, seeing the same face he'd seen in mirrors everyday for the past few months on the lifeless body he was dragging.
His body – no, he corrected himself, the corpse – was still warm, of course, and he'd carried it as far as he could manage, but now he was reduced to dragging it by one arm to get it deep enough into the forest for nobody to find it. With any luck, the snow that almost always accompanied the long, cold nights on this cool, dim little planet would serve to hide the corpse well, long enough for him to be able to escape through the Stargate. If he were even luckier, an Avgrak, one of the notoriously vicious local predators, would sense the warm corpse and devour it quickly, bones and all. He only hoped that didn't happen while he was still tending to the cadaver. He couldn't stand the thought of being killed twice in one day by one of the hulking venomous carnivores.
The piercing scream of an Avgrak startled him, and on instinct, he rapidly drew the Zat'n'ktel from his cloak. The sound of the weapon extending was excruciatingly loud in the silent, midnight forest. He cursed himself – he knew the huge carnivores were incredibly loud and used their screeching as a territorial marker; this one must have been several miles away. All he'd done was scare himself and alert anybody nearby to his presence with the movement and sound of the distinctive and conspicuous Goa'uld weapon.
If anybody caught him now, there would be no way he could escape short of brute force – and he knew that would be unlikely to work anyway. He was no warrior. He'd barely even used weapons before. He wouldn't have time to convincingly explain why he was in the middle of a forest late at night, far from civilisation, with a freshly killed human body at his feet before the killing blow came. People around here didn't take kindly to murder or suspicious activity, that much he did know.
He found a small natural ditch conveniently obscured by a shrub, and dumped the body. He took one last look. He'd been loathe to do it, but there'd been no choice – his old face was too well known; if he didn't find a new host, his pursuers would be sure to track him down. He'd briefly entertained the idea of abandoning a human host altogether, instead taking an Avgrak or similar as a host, warmed and cheered by the thought of the power, resilience and speed he would have in that form...but the loss of opposable thumbs, technology and access to the Stargate quickly extinguished that idea. But he knew he was leaving a trail of bodies – although he was being careful to hide the corpses of his former hosts, he was only delaying the inevitable. It would shake the Tok'ra off his scent long enough to acquire another host, but someday they would catch up. And he had a feeling of dread that it was today.
It had been a traumatic day – it had only been months since Sahmeth had last changed hosts, an experience that was taxing at the best of times for a Goa'uld – even the Ashraks, Goa'uld assassins who were bred, trained and equipped to switch hosts as often as possible so as to remain hidden and get close to their targets found it exhausting to change hosts more than once every few months unless they had access to a sarcophagus, or a year or more to rest. Sahmeth had changed hosts nine times in less than a year, three times in one week on one terrifying occasion – he'd truly believed he would die in the blending. This host had been one of the longest he'd held since he'd been on the run, but he still found himself waning, his energy almost gone. This time, there'd been no time to rest and blend properly with the new body, no sarcophagus – not that he would use one for anything short of a mortal injury – to smooth the experience and soothe the agony...and he'd been forced to cannibalise and sell his hand-held healing device for the value of its precious metals to buy passage off a desert world.
The worst part of switching hosts was the brief time he spent outside either body. He'd felt tiny and pathetic as he reluctantly withdrew his neural fibres from the brain stem of his last host, his perception withdrawing to remember his own small, limbless form, lodged at the back of the skull and neck – a peculiar sensation for a blended Goa'uld, but he was almost accustomed to it now. Unwrapping himself from around the spine, he'd burrowed out of the throat, crawled through the mouth and fallen to the forest floor, feeling naked and extremely vulnerable, half-expecting some forest predator to come to sniff the body and find a weakened Goa'uld symbiote slowly snaking across the dirt and leaf litter. He had spent so long in his original host, his own body had long since lost its fins, size and black pigmentation, and a great deal of his natural sensory perception, and constantly switching from one body to another left his cells confused and exhausted. The tissue mass of these extraneous appendages and organs had converted back to stem cells and been used to blend fully with his first host, Tuelan, and greatly enhance his strength and healing abilities, correct flaws and undo old injuries, as well as make life easier for Sahmeth by cementing the bonds with the major nerves. He hadn't enjoyed that luxury in any of the hosts since, just the sensation of being inside and in control of a large warm body, a fleshy vehicle for his own use, passing through human society unnoticed.
As his nerve bundles sought out the key points of the new human's nervous system and merged, a wave of sensation passed over him – he was so tired it almost caught him by surprise. The now familiar sensation of suddenly seeing through the larger, more developed eyes of the human was like having a blindfold removed. The first sight was of his last body – a collapsed, frail body, slumped on the ground. The man had been known as Ag'tym. His hair was grey, the skin was deathly pale, wrinkled and old, and the body was now finally dying, its indigenous consciousness having departed as soon as Sahmeth arrived, it's demise only paused while he occupied it. The body itself had begun dying as soon as he'd disconnected, through no action of his own. There was no consciousness occupying it now, and the autonomic systems were already failing – the body wouldn't have been able to sustain him for much longer anyway. Ag'tym had long since ceased to exist, leaving the body to Sahmeth entirely, and leaving it vacant once he abandoned it.
The new body was different, but familiar. It was still a male human; although Goa'uld were technically asexual, like most of his species – Tok'ra and Goa'uld alike – Sahmeth had subconsciously imprinted with the gender of his first host, Tuelan, and he felt more comfortable in a host the same gender as his first. In the last year, it hadn't always been the case – many times, he'd simply had no option but to take the most convenient form available.
He felt the limbs respond to his control, the injuries and the sensation of the venom in his new veins, the different feel to this frame, the leaner muscle and healthier heart pounding, the stronger skeleton and keener senses, but also the greater amount of extraneous tissue, fat and unneeded muscle – all fuel for repairing and enhancing the body that the malnourished and sick Ag'tym hadn't possessed. These were all comforting sensations to a neural parasite such as him, but he still felt distinctly...human. There wasn't time yet to begin the process of altering the body to make it stronger and tougher, and more efficient and comfortable for him to live in, leaving him as fragile and weak as any other human.
Lying on the forest floor, still in much the same position as he'd found the new host, Sahmeth had spent several minutes resting, gazing through a gap in the forest canopy at the stars. He scolded himself – he couldn't waste time now. Finding a position in the human's neck that was comfortable even when the skull moved, he sent out more tendrils, these tapped into the major blood vessels nearby. Ignoring the raw, dry pain it caused him due to so many blendings in so little time, he released the largest cloud of naquadah-rich stem cells he could muster into the blood stream. Within moments, he quickly felt the wound in the man's – he corrected himself again – in his chest begin to coagulate, and the familiar, almost comforting itch of rapidly healing tissue. The alternately freezing and burning sensations of the venom that had so fortuitously given him a near-perfect host died into dull throbs as his incredibly effective Goa'uld antibodies neutralised the toxin. It would be a day before the body was fully repaired, less if he could sleep for a while, but he knew he wouldn't have that luxury, and he didn't want to risk healing the brain damage yet. He had barely even begun to assimilate the man's memories, but the newest jumped out at him. He now remembered dying, in both bodies.
The new host, a man called Vinn, had been his one stroke of truly good luck in a long time, a reasonably young and healthy but mortally wounded man he'd encountered deep in the forest. Vinn had been a hunter, and the tracking and weapon skills of the body would almost certainly come in useful – part of Sahmeth's reasoning for travelling deep into the forest had been to find a hunter as a host, not least because with this planet's notoriously dangerous wildlife, nobody would be suspicious if one didn't return – but an Avgrak had taken exception to Vinn attacking the prey it had been stalking. A single swipe of its razor sharp talons had ensured he would die soon, the neurotoxin it delivered to his tissues was causing his brain and nervous system to shut down. After that, the beast had moved off to resume hunting its prey.
The hunter had been overjoyed to see this strange, tired old man walk out of the trees and find him slumped on the ground, clutching his chest and shaking as the toxin surged through his system. Vinn had thought he might just live after all – if he could be returned to his village within a few hours, the medicine man's remedy for the Avgrak venom could be applied. Instead, he saw and felt from both perspectives how he'd shot him with the zat, waited for the venom's effects to advance a little further to increase the chances of partial brain death, and wearily prepared to leave the host body he'd worn for the last few months.
Sahmeth's luck had briefly turned. The hunter had few people who cared for him, was disliked and ignored in the village, and had no remaining family, which made things much simpler. More importantly, the man had been almost brain dead by the time he'd blended – the effects of the zat had worn off, and the venom had been neutralised, yet there was no voice screaming in his head, no conflict between consciousnesses, no human mind trying to wrest control of its body back from this invader. And that was the way Sahmeth liked his hosts. In his experience, it made research and concentration far easier, and there was virtually no way they could gain control anyway, it was biologically impossible – his nerve tendrils physically blocked any signals from the host's mind, but that never stopped them trying.
He took one last look at his old body. Ag'tym had been a homeless cripple on his world, one dying of a terminal disease. Ag'tym's mindless body had served Sahmeth as host for months, and though he'd been able to heal the injury that had crippled the man, the disease that had nearly killed him would take too much effort and time to overcome. Sahmeth had settled for keeping it in check. Nobody would wonder why the man wasn't around any more, so Sahmeth had picked him as a host. Taking the man's body while he slept, he'd quickly prepared and ingested the poison he'd long since devised, one that killed the conscious parts of the human brain, but would not affect the parts he needed – and it left most of the host's memories intact.
It wasn't about the suffering of the host, he told himself. He would never be one of the Tok'ra – they would never trust him, never believe him, and never forgive him for merely being a Goa'uld not born of Egeria, and he would never subscribe to their narrow, idealistic view of the world – but neither would he ally with the System Lords. He took human hosts by force, but only those who wouldn't be missed, who would die soon anyway, and did so in a manner that quickly and painlessly killed the mind inside. He had no love of humans, nor did he trust them, but neither was he interested in enslaving them or amassing power. He barely cared about them at all, except as a means to carry out his work, as a warm place to hide and live and nothing else. There had been very few Goa'uld who lived like this, even fewer since the infamous Machello had wiped out the Linvers, those fools who had seen the end coming for the entire species, and had banded together to oppose the Goa'uld and their ways as a damage limitation exercise. To all humans, even the Tau'ri, and to the Jaffa and Tok'ra, all Goa'uld were automatically evil.
But none of this mattered. They were coming for him now – they were coming for every remaining Goa'uld, and he'd quickly discovered he knew far less about staying hidden than he thought. The System Lords were gone, fallen, and now their former enemies and servants were scouring the galaxy clean of every trace of their existence. The vast shadow cast by the regime of the System Lords had gone too, automatically bringing the smaller players into the bright light where they could not hide. For a while, while the Tok'ra, Tau'ri and Jaffa dealt with the Ori crisis and the few ex-System Lords in hiding, they had been granted them relative obscurity again, and those with foresight made sure to find new hiding places before these temporary diversions passed.
And all three of the major powers were hunting him now.
The Tok'ra were operating in the open and building vast crystal cities now, but their vast intelligence networks still found him. The Jaffa were a free race, able to determine their own future and avenge thousands of years of slavery and mistreatment at the hands of their creators and former masters. The Tau'ri were the new big power in the galaxy, and they worried Sahmeth the most – they had come too far too quickly, they had no recent history with the Goa'uld, nothing to avenge directly, yet they fought harder in many cases than those who did. Sahmeth believed that unless somebody checked their power and progress they would ultimately replace the Goa'uld – maybe even exceed their terrible reign.
Agents of all three had been pursuing him for months. He had narrowly averted capture and execution by a group of former First Primes who had been tasked by the council with removing the final traces of Goa'uld infestation in the galaxy, and he'd only done so by hiding his possessions in a naquadah ore shipment, ditching a body he'd only blended with the previous day and worming his way amongst the rocks of the shipment. Knowing the Jaffa had the gate heavily guarded, the Jaffa couldn't sense him as he escaped through the wormhole. He had lain at the bottom of the hopper in the gaps between the naquadah-rich rocks for hours, knowing that if one of them shifted the wrong way, he would be crushed. So long out of a body and so many blendings in such a short time had almost killed him, and he'd been careless when selecting the next host, taking the first person he encountered out of sheer necessity. That had severely taken its toll, leaving him unable to heal the damage caused by his blending for several days – posing as his host, who was screaming in terror and frustration in the back of his skull, he'd complained of illness and spent three days sleeping to recuperate.
He was sure the Tok'ra had him in their almost invisible, ever-present surveillance nets, and it was only a matter of time before they sent their own agents to apprehend and eliminate him for being part of their species but not one of them – if they hadn't already. Stealth and infiltration came too easily to them after millennia of fighting the System Lords, and he suspected the would not arrive by Stargate unless they had to. Somewhere on this planet, there would likely be a cloaked cargo ship in which they had arrived. He briefly had delusions of hunting for the vessel and stealing it, but he knew he didn't stand a chance. The Stargate would be similarly guarded, but there were ways to get through he had learnt in the past few months.
And now...now he was remembering Vinn had heard rumours about four humans travelling through the Stargate. He'd heard they were loud, unsubtle and pushy, all dressed in drab green and black clothing and brandishing compact black weapons. Tau'ri, for certain – Sahmeth knew they called them "SG teams", and he suspected they weren't here by coincidence. While officially allies, the three powers were competing against each other to be the one who finally wiped out the Goa'uld. They were only pursuing him because he'd been sloppy and made himself too visible once too often – he was not being hunted because he was a threat, or the next biggest player, but because he was convenient and easy. He doubted they even knew his name, let alone his history, and he knew they weren't interested. Just another snake, just another false god.
The fate of his race mattered less to Sahmeth than his own. Whoever reached him first wouldn't see a Goa'uld who picked hosts that would die very soon anyway and had negligible or even negative impact on their respective societies, a Goa'uld who ensured the host mind wouldn't suffer, even if he had to kill them to do it, or a Goa'uld who had dedicated his life to science and discovery and nothing else. They would never see him as one of the rare, virtually unknown Goa'uld who never wanted Jaffa or servants to do his bidding, didn't care to enslave and rule and dominate and conquer, only to learn and discover and be left alone. They would simply see a Goa'uld, and they would kill him for that reason alone.
He shuddered and picked up his pace.
He had to get through the Stargate quickly, before dawn came – after dawn, there would be too many people near the gate. There were probably people or surveillance devices near to it anyway, but he had little choice. He could weakly sense the circular mass of naquadah, knowing it was still hours walk away. This body, the man formerly known as Vinn, was still weak from the injury, the blood loss and the venom, and the stress of yet another urgent blending had taken its toll on Sahmeth. His own highly adaptive stem cells were doing their best to repair the damage, metamorphosing into close analogues of human blood cells, but his body's supply was almost exhausted, and besides, he didn't want to risk healing too much before he'd had a chance to prepare and ingest his unique poison – there was still a chance that Vinn existed in this brain in some form, and the only thing worse than sharing a skull and an extended lifetime with a screaming mind filled with impotent rage and frustration was a fractured, damaged, uncontrolled mind borne of severe brain trauma. Even the merely insane ones were easier to live with, but to Sahmeth, they were all a distraction from his work – and some tiny part of him felt that no animal, even something as abundant and simple and inherently verminous as a human, should have to endure that level of torture and suffering. Other Goa'uld actually relished the idea, their egos perversely feeding off the sadistically tortured, utterly mad humans they had invaded and destroyed, but to him this was merely an inconvenient and uncomfortable experience.
The terrain hadn't changed in the last few hours, but the sky was getting lighter – he'd misjudged what time of day it was, believing it to be late evening when in fact it had been early morning. Panic and anger rose in him as he realised his chances of escaping this world were slimmer than ever. Making things worse, he realised why Vinn had been so far out in the forest, on his own, hunting – the man had been starving, so desperate for food he'd risked Avgrok territory to hunt. And so, now, Sahmeth was hungry as well. Had he been able to blend properly with Vinn and alter his body accordingly, he would have been able to digest organic matter no human would consider as food.
It occurred to him that if the Jaffa found him first, he would likely be executed on the spot, a staff blast to the neck carbonising his own serpentine body and destroying the host as an act of mercy with the same bolt of superheated plasma. Only the major Goa'uld got sham trials before their executions. If the Tok'ra found him, they would extract him from his host and kill him without question – they too had given up any pretence of making the minor Goa'uld face their crimes. But the Tau'ri...that would ultimately be his only chance. They would also likely just shoot their primitive but remarkably effective weapons at him, firing dozens of small pieces of red hot metal into his body...especially that small subset that wore different, patterned uniforms and carried guns partially made of wood. But there were rumours that the Tau'ri took Goa'ulds prisoner, that these captives could live out the rest of their lives in a prison cell – and sometimes even working for the Tau'ri to earn a better quality of life. Suddenly this seemed an attractive prospect.
The rumours also said they had been burned by this on too many occasions – double crosses, booby traps, everything they should rightfully have expected from a Goa'uld. Still, it sounded like his only long term shot. He knew too well he couldn't run forever, that he wouldn't want to, but he had to keep running until he was sure only the humans from Earth were pursuing him. Then he might stand a chance of a peaceful, maybe even somewhat productive end to his days.
That was it. He knew what he had to do. If indeed the Tau'ri had come through the gate, whether they were here to find him or not, he would give himself up to them. If they killed him, so be it – somebody would sooner or later, a part of him already wanted to get it over and done with. But there was a chance they might spare him, take him to their world and imprison him. He may even be able to convince them he was useful to them, to work for them. He was a scientist, after all.
Was that really a fate he wanted? No, he mused. But it was the best of the few fates he could envision for himself – the others involved his death, often a painful, undignified demise, or spending the rest of his ever-shortening life running, hiding, switching bodies and travelling from world to world with no chance to stop and do what he truly wanted to do. A life of increasing exhaustion, until one day he was either captured and killed, or simply died of ill health. Surely it was better to gamble for a better existence?
He knew he would never make it to the Stargate in time. The sky was brightly lit now, his only chance of reaching the Chappa'ai vanished. He knew the net was almost closed, that the Tok'ra and Jaffa were on this world and aware of his presence. But he also knew the Tau'ri had a team here for the same purpose, and he had a good idea where they were – minutes before, he'd heard the now familiar screech of an enraged Avgrak followed by the report of several of their projectile firing weapons, and before he even knew what he was doing, he'd found himself running towards the sound, determined to present himself and request asylum, agreeing to any conditions they set forth. The Tok'ra and Jaffa would be much less willing to attack him if he were in the custody of the Tau'ri.
There was a clearing ahead, and he could see movement. He stopped by a tree. He counted four people – all of them wore olive green clothing with black vests, and their weapons were short, black and vaguely rectangular...they were definitely, positively Tau'ri, an SG team from the Stargate Command. The tiredness and fear and anger of these past few months seemed to fall away from him, his hunger forgotten.
The clicking sound behind him was followed by an electric crackling, and the strong smell of ozone. He sagged, closing his eyes, and turned slowly. The Jaffa bore the gold insignia of Ba'al, and a faint, cruel smile on his lips – the tip of the staff weapon was inches from his face.
So close, Sahmeth thought.