Malek, Delek, Korra, Mingala, Sina, and Per'sus arrived through the stargate onto a stone platform that had been constructed beneath and around the device. The dirt path leading from it to the Jaffa city was gone…in its place was smooth stone the color of aqua outlined with meter and a half tall pillars of what looked like crystal that reflected the overhead sunlight.
The six Tok'ra had arrived beneath dark brown cloaks, of which only Mingala removed, revealing her Scully-esk visage.
"We are the Tok'ra," she said, announcing their identity to the gate guard. "We have come to speak with Lord Bra'tac."
"You are expected," the lead Jaffa confirmed, his forehead bearing the mark of Ba'al. Neither he nor the other guards had yet earned their new symbiots. "Jaffa!" he ordered.
Four of the guards flanked the Tok'ra and escorted them up the long path into the city, bypassing the nearby ring platform and taking the 'scenic' route between the multiple spires of the sprawling Ancient-inspired city.
"Most impressive," Per'sus commented to his fellow Tok'ra.
"I concur," Delek grudgingly offered. He had been one of the strongest voices against this meeting, but Anise had not heeded his counsel. "The architecture is far beyond anything the Jaffa would have inherited from the Goa'uld, though I do detect a hint of their influence in the design."
"High praise," Mingala jibbed.
Delek bristled. "I only mean to suggest that this is not of their own doing. They have indeed allied with a stronger power…which makes them even more dangerous."
"Bite your tongue, Delek," Malek whispered to him from behind. "We are not alone."
"I was not asked to come only to be silent," Delek argued. "My voice will be heard."
"Then at least wait until we arrive," Malek pleaded.
"As you wish," Delek relented.
The party passed between the nearest of the skyscraping spires where the ornate pathway ended and the city streets began. The Jaffa escort did not break pace and continued to lead them along the very wide passages. Sparse, yet frequent Jaffa traffic passed between the buildings, of which there were no above ground connecting conduits, but Per'sus expected at least some sort of subsurface interconnected network. It would only be practical, given Dakara's arid climate…or perhaps the Jaffa saw such things as frivolous and unbecoming of a warrior.
Sina glanced at one of the Jaffa on their left as they crossed paths. She nudged Korra with her elbow through her robe. "That one has no mark."
"I believe you are correct," he said, not comprehending. "Curious. Perhaps he was born free of the Goa'uld and was never branded."
"He once was," the fore/left guard said, but did not adjust his gaze, "but his old mark has been replaced with another…one that only Jaffa may see."
"How interesting," Per'sus offered. "Thank you for the information."
"Is there anything else you wish to know?" the Jaffa asked boldly.
"Yes," Mingala spoke up, though she probably shouldn't have based on Delek's disapproving glance. "Who has built all of this?"
"The Jaffa have. Who else?" the guard asked as if she were stupid.
"I mean no offense," she placated, "but the Goa'uld did not allow the Jaffa to learn the science necessary to create such things."
"Lord Bra'tac knows how. He has provided machine laborers to fill the void until he teaches us the magics of which you speak."
"Magic?" Delek asked irreverently. "You still believe in such things, even after the Goa'uld are defeated and their lies laid bare for all to see?"
"I know not how my staff works," the Jaffa said, seeming to take no offense, "and I need not know. The inner workings of the device are magic to me…the use of the device is not," he said with just the barest hint of a threat.
"Even I can feel the magic of this place," Sina offered, half serious. "It is a truly amazing city."
"It is one of seven on the planet…with many more being built," the Jaffa said in typical monotone.
"Seven?" Per'sus asked, surprised. "You build quickly, my friend."
"The Alterra have been generous," the Jaffa felt obliged to offer. "We owe them much…and through our service to Lord Bra'tac we will repay them."
"Your service is not completely voluntary then?" Per'sus asked.
The Jaffa turned to look into Per'sus' hood with the first sign of emotion from his previously blank face. "We will never again be slaves, Tok'ra. Not to the Goa'uld…and not to you."
"What of the Alterra?" Delek prodded.
"We are honored to serve…but we do so of our free will. In our service we are united as we have never before been."
"Surely they must have some hold over you?" Delek pressed. "Do you not require new symbiots…or at least the Tretonin that now sustains most Jaffa."
"Those with symbols laid bare require your drug…but those with symbiots require nothing. They are truly free, as I shall soon be."
"I see," Delek said patronizingly. "What is the delay?"
"The Alterra gifted us with a single symbiot, from which all others will multiply. Only those most worthy have received the first few…the rest of us must wait until our time."
"I am interested in this new symbiot," Sina interrupted. "Does it mature like a normal symbiot?"
"Must it not then be replaced?"
"No. When it reaches maturity it will split in two, sustaining yet another Jaffa."
"Incredible," Sina all but whispered. "Is it truly alive?"
"I have never seen one," the Jaffa admitted. "You must ask Lord Bra'tac."
Delek grunted, but said nothing. Malek eyed him and slowly shook his head.
"This way," the Jaffa said as they approached one of the central spires that rose twice as high as the rest. These were golden, as opposed to the silver streaks that rose around them…but here and there one could see traces of red in the design. The door controls, for example, were inlaid in red panels that melded nicely with the design aesthetic. The Tok'ra's intelligence reports indicated little about this new Jaffa nation, but one tidbit that had reached them was that their signature color was indeed red. The subtle markings in the city seemed to confirm this point.
The other three Jaffa remained outside while the one that had spoken to the Tok'ra lead them inside the spire…where the red motif nearly overwhelmed them. Whereas outside the silver and gold ruled supreme, inside was the reversal. Red predominated with golden inlay on the control panels and ornamentation.
They emerged into a large, very high ceilinged atrium surrounding a central pillar that rose up half the distance where it then spat a thin column of white fire straight up, with the flames nearly licking the peaked ceiling. It was a monument of some sort, but its significance escaped the Tok'ra.
"It seems the Jaffa still require grandiose displays," Delek commented disapprovingly.
"Apparently so," Korra agreed dispassionately.
The Jaffa led them off center around the pillar of fire to the other side where they entered a long hallway. A third of the way down they neared an offset alcove into which they stepped.
"Closer please," the Jaffa insisted. Sina glanced down at the floor and the subtle markings. She pulled her body inside the inlaid circle and waited.
Suddenly there was a white flash, but they hadn't moved anywhere. Never the less the Jaffa began walking off.
"What just happened?" Malek asked, frowning.
"We have been transported up many levels," he answered, leading them down another hallway back towards the center of the spire.
"I was expecting rings," Sina commented.
"They are in the walls," the Jaffa said as the Tok'ra glanced back. The alcove had indeed been circular in design. Apparently the walls contained the transport pillars…minus the front arc.
"An improvement on the design," Per'sus whispered.
"I didn't think it was possible without a complete circumference," Sina whispered back.
"Neither did I," the lead Tok'ra admitted. "But the Alterra are ostensibly the originators of the technology. It would seem they know a way around the problem."
When they arrived in the center of the building they encountered a large Jaffa guard, numbering 15 in total, though there was enough convoluted design elements in the irregular chamber to have concealed the locations of many more. In the center of the chamber there was a more conventional ring platform imbedded in the floor…or so the aesthetic design on the smooth tile suggested.
"Security for the throne room?" Per'sus asked their escort.
"Though Lord Bra'tac is a formidable warrior, we take no chances with his life," the Jaffa said, stepping aside while giving Per'sus an intense glare. The wizened elder took the meaning immediately and stepped inside the circumference back to back with his fellow Tok'ra as one of the other guards subtly pressed a concealed jewel on a nearby pillar.
The rings rose up from the ground and there was a flash of light…then they descended and left them in a very different room.
This chamber was large, but not overly ornate. It was a perfect circle, with the ring platform off center and surrounded by four head high pillars bracketing the circumference of the rings. A black path took out forward from the cupola across the glossy red floor directly to a bank of seats…in which Bra'tac and other Jaffa were seated.
The Tok'ra slowly walked across the chamber and lowered their hoods. "I bid you greetings on behalf of our queen, Anise. Which of you is Lord Bra'tac?"
"I am he," Bra'tac said from the center seat which was identical to the others, yet raised slightly above the rest. Beneath Bra'tacs dark red cloak the chair's ornate design was obscured from view, but when unoccupied it stood out starkly from the other unadorned chairs for future System Lords. Today they were occupied by Bra'tac's command staff.
"I am Per'sus. This is Delek, Sina, Korra, Malek, and Mingala. We are grateful for this audience you have granted us. We have much to discuss."
Bra'tac half smiled. "We have met before, have we not?" he asked, addressing Mingala.
"I believe we have," she said, remembering his face. "On the day Hathor was killed."
"A glorious day that was…" Bra'tac remembered, "but to current matters, I know not what you feel is so pressing that we discuss it face to face."
Per'sus nodded, seeming to have anticipated the question. "Our queen wishes that we investigate the possibility of a mutually beneficial alliance. We know little of you, and I presume the reverse is the same. We seek the opportunity to exchange knowledge in the hopes of finding common purpose."
Bra'tac exchanged glances with his subordinates, then slowly returned his gaze to the Tok'ra. "Proceed," he said amicably.
Per'sus deferred to Malek. "What little we have gathered of your development here on Dakara suggests that your efforts have been on building infrastructure and retraining of the Jaffa, with little time or resources spent on intelligence gathering."
"Is there something happening within the galaxy that you believe we are currently unaware of?" Bra'tac asked, a bit curious.
"I am uncertain, but there have been some significant changes happening aside from your own. For starters, the Tok'ra have been gathering intelligence on the movements of the remaining Goa'uld throughout the galaxy. We've used our limited resources to track down and eliminate many of them, but some are currently beyond our reach."
"A noble task," Bra'tac commented. "One which I am indebted to you. We have not had the time for such things."
"As we suspected," Malek said, pleased that the Tok'ra still had cards to play. "Several of the Goa'uld under our surveillance fell in with marginally advanced Human worlds throughout the galaxy, trading their technical knowledge in exchange for position and power…others simply for amnesty. Within the last year, two of these worlds have become dark to us. Our operatives are no longer able to infiltrate them…and those that were on world at the time never reported back to us. We believe they were captured or killed."
"Did you not investigate?" Bra'tac said, displeased with the idea that they would abandon their people.
Malek nodded. "We sent a cloaked vessel to investigate each. Upon arriving in the first system, our ship was destroyed before it could report in. Forewarned, the second managed to relay a few images before we lost contact. Before this, neither system's indigenous population could have penetrated our cloaking devices, let alone muster the firepower to destroy them. We believe both of our ships were taken by surprise while under cloak. A follow up, more distant recon from the planet confirmed debris from our vessels. The little data we received from the brief transmission from the second craft detailed the attacking vessels."
Bra'tac frowned. "Were they familiar to you?"
"They were not, but we have begun to accumulate a great deal of data on them. We believe they have been putting feelers out to a number of midlevel cultures across the galaxy…all Human. After some digging on related worlds, we discovered this unknown race of Humans, known as the Aschen, were soliciting worlds to join their confederation with promises of material, medical, and technological relief for their populations, including a guarantee of defense against any foe."
Bra'tac shook his head and glanced to his associates. None of them had an answer for him. "I know nothing of these Aschen, but I am pleased you have brought this to my attention."
"Also, there is another…matter which you need to be informed," Malek offered, a bit more boldly. "There is another world seeking expansion into the galaxy, though their methods are less enticement and more…conscription."
Bra'tac's eyes narrowed. He could feel Malek's squeamishness. There was something he was hesitant to say. "You know this world, unlike the other."
"As do you," Delek interrupted. "The Tauri seem to be taking your example and grabbing other worlds for their own purposes."
Per'sus glanced warningly at Delek but did not say anything that would have been awkward, though Bra'tac could sense his emotions and got the gist of their internal strife.
"Speak your mind, Delek," Bra'tac urged. "I care not for verbal deceptions. What is it the Tauri have done, and why do you lay blame on us?"
Delek stepped forward to the head of the group. "Let's start with you, shall we? You've already seized three systems aside from Dakara. Up until such time I believed you might have been content with rebuilding Dakara and inviting other Jaffa to join you, but now you have taken after the Goa'uld and begun building your own empire."
"Yes, I have," Bra'tac said, saying exactly the opposite that Delek expected.
The Tok'ra's eyes widened. "You admit as much?"
"I admit we are expanding into an empire," Bra'tac said slowly, "but you are incorrect in assuming that we are taking after the Goa'uld. The worlds we have taken wished to join us."
"As we have confirmed," Malek interrupted. "My friend and others are concerned that your actions, while in the moment seem benevolent enough, could be a stepping stone to more unsavory developments."
"You believe we are becoming the enemy that we previously sought to defeat?" Bra'tac summed up.
"Our queen does not," Per'sus interjected. "But she has asked that we voice many questions. We mean no disrespect."
Bra'tac leaned back in his seat. "Any true friendship cannot hide behind lies. Differences of opinion must be voiced so that the truth of one's character may be assessed. As for my seizing other worlds, it is only right that I inform you that I now possess seven more in addition to Dakara, four of which are inhabited."
"We thank you for that revelation," Per'sus offered. "What, if we may, is the purpose of your expansion?"
"I would have thought that answer obvious enough," Bra'tac chastised. "Why does any civilization expand?"
"There are many reasons," Malek offered. "Some benevolent, some benign…"
"and some malevolent," Delek finished for him.
"What is it you wish of me," Bra'tac asked Delek. "I do not believe my mere assurance of good will is sufficient to placate your concerns?"
"Why did you reinstate the structure of the System Lords?" Delek demanded. "Surely you could have chosen another form?"
"I would remind you, Tok'ra, that that system also belongs to the Jaffa. It is the societal structure which we have lived under for years. We and you have repurposed Goa'uld ships and technology, would you cede that we have the right to do the same with their command structure."
"A fair point," Delek relented. "But one wonders if the old structure has been repurposed or simply emulated?"
Raknor leaned forward in his chair. "I could ask the same of you, Tok'ra. You take hosts, as did the Goa'uld. Is not the situation the same?"
"Of course not," Delek scoffed. "We are not the Goa'uld. We take willing hosts and share their lives. They are not our slaves."
"You may say the same of the worlds we have taken and will take in the future," Bra'tac argued. "They join us freely, and we do not enslave them."
"As you said, words are insufficient guarantee," Delek said, stuck by his own statement. "We ask what you plan to do with the Tauri. Are we free to act against them if we so choose? Or are they under your protection?"
Bra'tac's eyes narrowed. "I know nothing of which you speak. What exactly have they done?"
Korra interrupted, having done some of the reconnaissance himself. "They have taken up stewardship over several primitive worlds and have begun reshaping them to their own uses."
"Such as what?" Bra'tac asked. "I know they have had a number of offworld bases and mining sites, but I have not known them to take an inhabited world."
"They have done so now," Korra continued, "and have begun building a number of factories and agricultural facilities that the locals help operate. We don't know the particulars of the arrangement between these two parties, but the fact that the Tauri are not treating these worlds as sovereign entities is disturbing. They have made them into Tauri colonies, for what purpose we do not know."
"That is not all," Delek interrupted. "These worlds all possess stargates, but the Tauri never use them. They always arrive and depart via ship, usually replica Goa'uld cargo ships of their own construction, based on the design variants. These actions suggest less than noble intentions."
"Interesting," Bra'tac mused, his thoughts suddenly elsewhere.
"Will you shield them?" Delek demanded.
"We shall investigate," Bra'tac declared, glancing at his subordinates. Two of them stood up and left on assignments, knowing by intuition rather than telepathy what the Alterra wanted.
"Investigate," Delek repeated.
"Any intelligence you have gathered would be useful," Bra'tac prompted, "including anything you have on the Aschen."
Sina stepped forward and pulled a small crystal out of a hidden pocket. "We anticipated your request."
Bra'tac snapped his fingers and another Jaffa in the room brought a small reading tablet to him. He inserted the crystal and a hologram deployed above it.
"If what you say is true about the Tauri, then I share your concerns. While I have great faith in the people in what the Tauri call the SGC, I am also aware of less trustworthy elements on their world. I believe I recall a friend of mine telling me that the Tauri had differing priorities and that this split had resulted in an offworld base being established without using the stargates and without their knowledge. I believe they eventually shut it down."
Malek nodded. "That would explain a lot. We recently signed a new treaty with the Tauri strictly forbidding this kind of interference. We couldn't account for their duplicity, but if there are multiple factions in play then that changes things."
"I fail to see how," Delek argued. "The Tauri are responsible for the actions of their people, just as we are ours. You do not mean to excuse them on the basis of ignorance."
"Not completely," Malek argued. "But it does compliment matters."
"The Tauri are still in violation of the treaty and should be held accountable," Delak argued with his fellow Tok'ra as Bra'tac skimmed through the intelligence data as he listened. Suddenly the System Lord's eyes went wide.
"What is it?" Per'sus asked when he saw his expression.
"I am afraid I misspoke earlier," Bra'tac said, enlarging the hologram of the small ships that had destroyed the Tok'ra's second scout ship. "We have encountered them before, but we did not know their name. They attempted an invasion of Avalon, which we repelled using an Alterran ship."
"Avalon?" Per'sus asked.
"Otherwise known as Earth…the first world…home of the Tauri. My friend, be wary and forewarned…these Aschen are far more dangerous than you realize."