I know… it's been a while. Real-life stuff, burnout, a new computer and a 3 year video game backlog are to blame for it (FYI I'm currently playing Fallout 3 and Mass Effect 2). But this story was never abandoned. Here's the completed chapter 3, and work has now started on chapter 4.

Enjoy!

Chapter 3

Home Invasion

To say that General Lefarge was worried sick would have been the euphemism of the century. There had been no news from Mara Nui and the thirty-five missing crew for days after the lone confirmed survivor had managed to gate back. And the escaped planetologist's tale was a dark one.

It had all began well enough. A tropical island, friendly natives, great beaches and no hazardous fauna. Some edible plants, an abundance of fish, and hints of more land available for use in the vicinity. Major O'Neill had given his own go-ahead for an increased presence, and nobody could have guessed otherwise. In any case, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to let the crew breathe some fresh, non-canned air and walk on something else than metal floors or the still barren ground of the Dome, where experimental planting of various Earth essences was just starting to yield results.

Then the sky had fallen on everyone's head.

As far as the escaped scientist could tell, it began with an incoming wormhole, and a routine warning on the general net. It was an unscheduled activation, he remembered thinking, but nothing to get particularly antsy about. He went about his task of taking magnetic readings on a remote hill without even a Marine escort. After all, he had a gun and knew how to use it, a locator beacon and a communicator. He wasn't taking much of a risk going around on his own and he did relish the opportunity to spend some time alone, just with himself, and gobble some of the edible berries that grew on some local trees (and were verified as edible indeed, he wasn't reckless).

His unwary state of mind was shattered seconds later when shouts and the sound of weapon fire burst from his communicator, immediately followed by a general red alert broadcast.

And he didn't have time to ask questions. There was a sudden burst of static, then silence from the Gate detachment, broken a moment later with a cacophony of yelled "what's happening ?" and "we're under attack !" and all the in-between variations thereof.

Spurred by the sudden urgency, he climbed the rest of the way to the top of the hill and then crawled up the topmost tree, remembering techniques he'd put to good use during his childhood.

From this improvised vantage point he had an unobstructed, if distant view on the stargate, big as a hairpin, and even smaller dots were moving out of it. He couldn't see the native village nor the Samothracian settlement, but his heart skipped a beat when his eyes glimpsed dark dots in the sky, diving from above and resolving into fat wedges of gunmetal grey. Space ships sweeping from orbit, had to be.

The two shapes pulled out of their dive above the sea and came straight towards the land. No, towards the settlements.

He froze, squinting and damning himself for not bringing binoculars.

He didn't realize his jaw dropping nor his eyes widening in pure shock, nor even his heart skipping a beat. His brain couldn't do anything but stare, as the flying vessels curved over the distant shores and each dropped a sun-bright projectile. They seemed to arc down lazily - it was an illusion due to distance, the scientist knew - and struck outside his field of vision. But even though he couldn't see the impacts themselves, the muted flash was clear enough. And then any lingering doubt as to the nature of the things vanished when two fireballs erupted from beyond the ridgeline and grew into sizable mushroom clouds, followed seconds later by the loud rumble of artificial thunder.

Sub-kiloton blasts, his analytic mind told him automatically. Equivalent yield to a fuel-air bomb. Lethal radius of several hundred meters.

His colleagues, and the natives, were dead, he realized. Someone had come from outer space… to kill them, without any warning, without asking any questions. Who could do that ?

He felt a sudden moment of panic and terror. Was it the Draka ? Had they found them… and sent starships thousands of light-years from Earth ? How could it even be possible ? He shook his head, it was preposterous. There was no way the Snakes could build faster-than-light ships… was there ? And if they were here… only a horrible fate awaited him and any survivor. Slavery, at best. The Turk, at worst. He had to get out, had to warn Freedom Station.

He powered down all his equipment, hid the scientific instruments under branches and leaves. He couldn't see very well what the mysterious attackers were doing, and didn't dare call on the radio net. Whatever happened around the burnt ruins of the settlements, he didn't see. He waited two days before he dared make his way, as cautiously as he could, towards the stargate. By that time, the Jaffas had left with the only survivors - though he couldn't know that. The bodies of the Marines were nowhere to be seen, but there were clear signs of fighting around the stargate. Burns and bullet impacts. The burns he attributed to enemy weaponry.

He spent another two hour lying on his stomach close to the treeline, watching and listening intently. There was nothing but the rustle of leaves and the occasional insect noise. Eventually, in the deepest black of the night he leopard-crawled to the dialing pod, gun ready in his hand, and gingerly pressed the combination for Samothrace, only powering his communicator to make a quick emergency call prior to entering the outgoing wormhole.

Back to Freedom Station's relative safety he was immediately debriefed by no less than the General himself, and a dark veil of fear had descended upon them all.

The guard was reinforced in the gate room, and owing do the reported space ship threat as many of the New America's auxiliaries were moored inside Freedom Station, where they would be better protected. Those engaged in the exploration of Samothrace System were ordered to find a quiet place and go dark, as to the mothership orbiting opposite the station, there was no easy way to hide it but the sheer power of its main drive could be wielded as an improvised weapon if necessary, in addition to its main energy and railgun batteries.

Days passed in anxious anticipation of an attack, one the colonists weren't certain they could fight effectively. There were indications of defensive systems on the station, but so far every attempt at accessing their controls had proven useless, as if they needed a special access key to be unlocked. Which the Earthers felt was certainly a reasonable precaution, but in their current state of trepidation was frustrating to say the least.

And the fate of the missing seemed much too clear. A hovercam was sent to recon the area during daytime and had transmitted pictures of two scorched craters surrounded by still-smoking debris and a ring of flattened, blackened vegetation. A few carbonized human remains in the periphery of the blast zone were all that was left of the natives and crewmen on detachment.

The probe's mission was the cut short by a stream of bright golden bolts bracketing its flight path from behind, and quickly found their mark destroying the little robotic observer and making the human operator jump on his seat.

After that, no further gate travel happened out of security considerations, against the voices who called for continued exploration - if only to find a safe world to flee on in case Samothrace was found by its faceless enemies.

The wait finally ended, and at first it sounded like a happy end.

March 17th, 2011

Freedom Station, Samothrace System

It was an excited, almost to the point of stuttering, voice who woke up General Lefarge on a bright thursday morning. Of course, it was thrusday morning only so much as the colonists had kept Earth time inside the station, for the artificial environment allowed them to adjust the local day and night cycle to their taste. At least as long as they stayed inside the walls.

The sleepy man groaned at the insistent beeping coming from his bedroom's intercom panel, rubbed his grit-encrusted eyes, yawned twice, after which his trained organism remembered the routine of waking up before the expected time honed by years of military service, and then ran through the process of leaving the bed without waking up the wife, a procedure honed by years of marriage, idly reflecting on the fact that insistent machine beeping didn't wake her up, but rocking the mattress lightly would inevitably do so. Something that still didn't fail to awe him even after years of marriage, too. Maybe, he thought, because every time he did manage to silence the nagging noise before thirty seconds had elapsed.

"Yes" he half-yawned. He was careful to keep it to audio only. No need for underlings to see him in his just-out-of-bed state.

"General this is Ensign Powell in the gate room we have a situation !" a voice tinged with excitement and apprehension blurted through the speaker without so much as a pause.

Mention of the stargate brought Lefarge to full awareness, and his body stiffened perceptibly.

"Speak out, Ensign" he answered flatly.

"We have an incoming wormhole Sir… and Sir, we're getting a transmission. It's Colonel Carter Sir, she's alive !"

"What ? What kind of transmission ? Did you code check her ?" They couldn't just assume her identity.

"Affirmative Sir, both recognition words and transmitted data keys are authentic. We already checked them."

"Is the cork on ?"

"Shield's active Sir. Nothing's coming in until we drop it, only on your order Sir."

The General deliberated in his head. The guards had followed the procedure, and apparently whoever called had the right recognition codes… but those could conceivably be faked or obtained through torture.

"Can you put her through ?" he enquired a moment later.

"Yes Sir, just an instant." The Ensign's voice faded. A short moment later, another came back, not as clear as the first one and heavily filtered by the radio.

"...eneral, it's me, Carter !"

The man's brow furrowed. Despite the leap of hope spurred by the lost woman's voice, there were many interrogations raised and rattling inside his mind.

"Colonel" he addressed the disembodied voice formally "what's my favorite cake ?" The real Samantha Carter would know that, but it was highly unlikely a foreign interrogator would have questioned her on it.

There was a short, pregnant pause, then "It's lemon cheesecake Sir" came back as tartly as the cake's main ingredient.

The brow furrowed even deeper, then the man's expression relaxed completely, having reached a conclusion. He leaned closer to the com panel.

"Colonel, what's your status ?"

"I've escaped capture after the alien attack, laying low and not transmitting. There are still those alien soldiers patrolling the island, but less than before-"

"Alien soldiers ?" Lefarge cut in.

"Alien, although they look human, using energy weapons. Listen Sir, I don't think I've got much time, I just killed two of them guarding the stargate, I can't believe the rest will be long finding me out - you have to let me in !" she finished with pressing urgency.

There was a struggle inside Frederick Lefarge's head. Her story rang true - or at least paralleled the other escapee's. And if she was on the run, she couldn't afford to linger on the spot. On the other hand, she might unwittingly lead those aggressors here, or she could be carrying a bioweapon unknowingly, who could be sure ?

"Colonel, we're going to come to you. Disengage the gate and a Marine squad will -"

He was cut off in turn, but this time Carter's expression was frantic and underlined with genuine, immediate fear. "I can't Sir- they're coming for me, I hear them ! I have to leave now General ! Now please I'm begging you !" she finished on the verge of hysteria.

The man in charge of the colony's destinies muttered a strong curse under his breath. He hated that, hated the situation, hated having to take such a crucial decision on such immediate notice when there were so many variables left in the shadow.

"All right" he exhaled, "Ensign Powell, uncork the gate and let Colonel Carter in under full biological containment. I'll meet her at the medbay. Understood ?"

"Affirmative, proceeding now General."

Down in the gate room the Ensign activated the switch that powered off the translucent force field blocking off the event horizon and signalled the stranded Colonel to come through. At the same time, the waiting party of Marines and servicemen unpacked a portable containment gurney, the clear tough memory plastic inflating to form a sealed bubble ready to transport the incoming person without risk of contamination. The room itself was isolated from the rest of the station's life support system and would be sprayed with a powerful antiseptic afterwards. Naturally, the personnel involved were all wearing CB gear themselves.

The colony's authorities had formalized the whole procedure as soon as personal travel through the stargate was confirmed as possible. There was no telling what kind of diseases could lurk outworld, after all and if one danger hung loudly in the Samothracians' minds, it was the biological risk.

Unfortunately, their notion of "biological risk" eventually proved a little bit too restricted.

Samantha Carter's rematerialization out of the wormhole's end yielded a collective reaction of surprise from the welcoming party indeed. First, she walked out confidently and almost unhurriedly, belying the past urgency of her calls. Then, there was her appearance and a few O-shaped mouths greeted her youthful, glowing physique - no longer the unassuming, if attractive mousy scientist, she carried herself with the poise and erect -haughty, really- stance of a queen, head arrogantly tilted back and seemingly looking down on the men arrayed in front of her, frozen in their tracks as her changed appearance registered. The blonde hair was no longer short, regulation length and carried in a practical, simple straight cut. Instead elaborately braided curls adorned her head like thin chains of gold forming spiraling motifs on her temples, and disappeared under a glittering tiara of ruby-encrusted platinum that was as much a jewel as it was a functional piece of technology like most Goa'uld worn items.

An Egyptian-style application of black khôl made her eyes look larger and wider, shadowed by darkly delineated eyebrows, almost hieratic in shape, and luxurious lashes fanning from contemptuous eyelids in perfect coordination with the tight-lipped, sneering mouth painted in dark, purple-red plum.

Further down were even greater changes. Gone was the Alliance field uniform. Perhaps for the better (in the watching male eyes) it was replaced with a tight body-hugging suit of blood-red, vinyl-like material, smooth and thin enough to hide nothing of the curves beneath it just like a zero-gee tightsuit would, except those were worn underneath another layer of cloth. The Goa'uld garment, on the other hand, seemed to flaunt every little bump, cleft and cranny in a way that was more obscene even than complete nudity.

It disappeared at the neck under a golden, platinum encrusted collar composed of flat interlocking plates fanning over the top of her chest and just barely covering the tip of her breasts. A single, gently glowing ruby-like oval crystal was adorning the central set of plates right under her throat, the concealed emitter for the personal shield she had activated immediately after she set foot on the station.

Braces of a similar construction adorned her forearms, sporting rounded crystalline protrusions that were a copy of Kull blasters, and both hands were girdled in trinium-weave gauntlets containing the kinetic pulse emitter and torture device combination usually disguised as hand jewels among the System Lords.

An articulated golden belt hung asymmetrically from her waist, the lower right side bearing the coiled zat'niktel hugging her thigh. A pair of shock grenades was clipped over the left hip, ready to use.

She stopped a few steps away from the stargate in a lanky, hand on her hip pose, swept the room with an arrogant gaze, and flashed her eyes at the group of gasmasked men before her.

Kheshmet spoke.

"In the name of Lord Baal, I, Kheshmet claim this station and the lives of its inhabitants. Bow before me, or feel the wrath of the Living Gods !"

There was a collective "what the fuck" moment, ending with a flurry of raised rifles and the zipping air sound of the shield rushing back to plug the wormhole.

Faced with half a dozen automatic rifles pointed at her, Kheshmet answered with a crooked smile.

"I take this as a no, then. Good" she added coolly "I will take pleasure in washing this station's walls with the blood of your children !"

Half a dozen rifles began to spit high-velocity armor-piercing fragmentation bullets at her, and the protective forcefield surrounding her person flared into view as it blocked the incoming fire. The soldiers barely had time to think "fuck, what's this ?" before return fire from Kheshmet's blasters tore out smoking chunks from their bodies, ignoring the lightweight ballistic armor, and the following kinetic pulsewaves crashed the dying bodies like so many ragdolls on the far wall, along with the containment gurney which deflated with a bang upon hitting the unyielding surface at high speed.

Ensign Powell did his training proud and used the seconds bought by the death of his comrades well. His thumb jammed down on the red alarm button of his communicator, warning the rest of the station of the sudden attack. It was a redundant gesture, since the Control Center's duty crew monitored everything in the room anyway and was already in the process of raising the general alarm, but he did his duty. It was a small comfort to the Ensign during the agonizing minutes it took him to die after a plasma bolt flash-boiled his intestines.

Of course, by the time he died from shock and blood loss the rapidly decompressing atmosphere would have killed him just as thoroughly by asphyxiation. His blurring sight still managed to catch the intruder in Carter's body deactivate the gate's shield and spare him a scornful, satisfied sneer, the last vision he would take into death.

Kheshmet didn't linger on the quasi-orgasmic release of killing. The blocking forcefield down, she sent the signal for her shock Jaffas to follow and a few seconds later the first rank of armored, helmeted warriors stomped onto Freedom Station's floor. More followed as the first ones took protective positions in front of the room's shut doors, shortened staff weapons crackling, faceless under their extended trinium alloy headgear.

The shock armor, a derivative, improved version of Ra's original Horus Guard folding helmet, was less cumbersome than the oversized, unbalanced design that caused many a Jaffa of old to bump into low hanging ceilings, and easier to fight in. The collar-folded helmet was worn over a coarse trinium alloy mail and vacuum-rated undergarment that complemented its protective virtues, and the design's underlying emphasis on sensible and functional extended to the shortened staff weapon. Easier to wield in close quarters, lighter and just as powerful, if was also linked to the helmet's built-in sensor and targeting grid, allowing a quantum leap on Jaffa firing accuracy.

It was Baal's answer to the introduction of Kull Warriors, Dragon Guards and similar, improved foot soldier design among the Goa'uld. It was still much cheaper than those overly refined designs, and also much less likely to be wielded effectively against its masters. An adequate compromise, the cunning System Lord felt, as long as the current madness lasted. He was already worried by the rumors of Kull armor falling into non-Goa'uld hands, something that, he was sure, would later bite them in their collective ass.

Which, in his assessment, made it even more crucial that he, and he alone, gained control of the literal treasure trove of technology that was a fully functional Alteran installation. With such a mythical, never before encountered windfall of first-hand Founder tech, he might even be able to match Anubis' new designs and take the place of Supreme System Lord. And damn Ra, if the old bastard was even still alive somewhere. His shadow had kept them fretful for far too long already.

Baal -at least the Baal who had dealt with the two humans- would have preferred to put one of the other clones inside the human female's body, but Kheshmet was the next best one and was immediately available. And as a mitigating factor, the Jaffas under her command were fanatically loyal to his person and his person alone.

That, and he was personally leading a Ha'tak battleship to the target system in full agreement with the rest of the Baal collective. The Divine Fist of Unity was a top of the line vessel, able to match an Anubis mothership in raw firepower thanks to its oversized naquadah reactor. It should be overkill against the primitive human ships, since they didn't have control of the station's own weapon systems as the female's mind had revealed.

Inside Freedom Station a pandemonium was beginning to take shape even as internal sensors showed the flood of Jaffas to helpless operators manning the Control Center. They'd watched in dismay the... thing looking like a slutty, Draka-ish Carter with glowy eyes and unnaturally deep voice tear open an access panel and reverse the local life support settings, canceling the forced decompression. Eventually she had even managed to cut off their access to the local sensors, leaving them in the dark as to the invaders' dispositions - and then reports had started to trickle in from panicked, fleeing crewmembers in the surrounding sections.

Armed response teams were organizing and moving towards the infestation as General Lefarge practically ran through the station's passages towards the Center, communicating constantly with the duty controllers, and the thousands of civilians in the habitats were woken abruptly by the stern, dreaded alert message.

"Attention all military and civilian personnel, the station is under attack, report to your predesignated post at once, repeat, the station is under attack, report to your predesignated post at once !"

The warning echoed along Freedom Station's corridors, habitats, passageways and maglines, providing an eerie contrast to the otherwise perfectly normal succession of pleasant, serene sights displayed by the holowalls. Running footsteps brought a counterpoint around the vast bulk of the installation as a hundred thousand men, women and children rushed to reach their assigned place. Defensive positions for every adult male and teenager able to bear a weapon, the inner habitats for the mothers and children, where they would hopefully be safe during the coming battle inside hermetically sealed, closed-loop life support environments.

Down in a non-descript intersection, Kheshmet walked slowly, a crooked, cruel smile on her lips and an exaggerated sway on her hips, feeling the rush of crushing inferiors under her heel. A quasi sexual thrill that made every nerve of her extended body tingle, her intimate flesh engorged in blood. A hundred thousand humans to enslave and terrorize, cowering before her, their feeble weapons useless against her might and prowess. She would let the Jaffas streaming forward on both sides of her die and kill and rape, above all die for her as was their condition. They'd always leave enough for her. Yes, she would gorge herself today.

Sweet thoughts on her mind, the blood red woman strode onwards, helmet extended, shield bubble surrounding her, confident and invulnerable.

And deep inside the cold blue eyes the real Samantha Carter kept screaming.

Baal's domain -

Garrison World Maek'nash

There was nothing he could do. Nothing he hadn't tried already. No exit from the cold cell, two by four meters of rutted stone barely covered by damp rotting straw, rough walls sweating with humidity, a half-clogged hole in one corner overflowing with the stench of shit and piss, and no privacy afforded by the open iron grating that served as the cell's fourth wall. The heavy lock looked crude, but it was brutally robust, and the pair of guards watching him permanently didn't allow any attempt at the bolt. Nor did they answer any call. Stone faced, they stood on the other side of the barrier, backs on the far wall, their eyes following every movement he made, their hand never far from the coiled zat'niktel on their belt and willing to use it at the slightest provocation, as the captive had experienced several times before.

The watchmen didn't even have to fear killing their charge. The sarcophagus upstairs saw to it. That too, O'Neill had experienced, an object lesson that trying to rush the guards when they opened the door could only end in painful failure. Twice.

He'd lost track of the time, of the days passed since the capture and the current time. Underground, the only light came from the torches and nothing marked the passage of hours and minutes, nothing but the change of guards at various intervals. He'd tried to count his own heartbeats, and came to the conclusion that the guard relief happened no sooner than two hours, sometimes four, or at least what seemed like it. Naturally, his watch along with everything he wore had been confiscated the first day, leaving him naked and shivering. The food wasn't very filling, and tasted foul, which was expected in the setting, yet he forced himself to eat all, conserving his strength for… for what ? That was a question without an obvious answer. All he could find was, wait, bide his time, wait for an opportunity.

An opportunity to escape, as preposterous as it looked. Escaping from an unknown building into an unknown planet surrounded by unknown, presumably hostile, people ? Laughable, when he thought it over. But that hope was all he had. A tiny, feeble hope, almost crushed for good by Carter's… transformation, hijacking. If that thing in her head had access to all her memories, there was a high chance that she would indeed fool Freedom Station into allowing her in… a Trojan horse par excellence. And this Kheshmet had indeed gloated about it, gloated about its plans to do exactly that, right before she, it, left him to rot back in that cell. Sneering in that obscene red suit, showing off the clingy material, parading her peeking nipples under his eyes, recalling their perverted deeds with vicious relish and promising more later, promising laughingly to come back covered in the blood of Samothracian children instead. Leaving him, and that laugh trailing her, the laugh of a demon on her way to hell.

He didn't think more than a full day, 24 hours, had gone by since her departure. Her overlord, Baal hadn't apparently bothered to come down and see the prisoner. And nobody else had since bar the guards and the old servant who brought the prison slop.

It was a surprise then, when the endless boring wait ended with a visit. O'Neill heard the sound of footsteps, not the rough-shod beat of the Jaffas, not the shuffling traipse of the servant, but steady subdued steps descending the stairs at the end of the corridor of cells and coming closer. Their source became visible an instant later, preceded by the dancing shadows the visitor projected on the far wall.

The Major's eyes recognized the face in the lopsided flickering light. He'd seen the man before as he was being dragged through the corridors, some kind of flunky or paper-pusher from his looks and attitude. Clean-shaven, a youngish thirty-something appearance, otherwise unremarkable face, brown hair cut short, his suit following his master's pattern, only less ostentatious, almost sober in dark burgundy. It was probably the Goa'uld society's idea of a white-collar look, O'Neill had reflected. He remembered the man's indifferent face as he was dragged by the Jaffas, as if it were a common enough occurrence, something you tended to notice but forgot immediately afterwards. Maybe he'd mentioned it to his colleagues at the alien coffee machine, nothing more.

Then what was the guy doing here in the dungeon ? Was he bored and looking at tormenting the captive for fun and giggles ?

The Major's eyes perked up, catching the harsh-sounding words exchanged by the newcomer and his guards. He didn't understand the words, and the Jaffas' tone was desperately, monotonously, almost comically constant, an air of being preternaturally, angrily constipated.

He eyed the body language as the exchange developed. Office Guy seemed irritated, the Logo Heads seemed to be stonewalling a request, maybe they had orders not to let any flunky toy with the Master's personal whipping boy ?

In any case the argument came to an end, the Jaffas having apparently told "no" as politely as it came to them, Office Guy making a frustrated face, shrugging, bringing his hands up in a "fuck this" gesture, and turning to leave.

O'Neill relaxed and slumped back against the wall. The interlude was over, who knew how long he'd wait for the next break in his boredom ?

What happened ten minutes later did break his half-doze. One moment the guards were standing, the only sounds those of the torches crackling faintly and the distant muffled squeak of rats, and then two detonations banged loudly in the confined space, in quick succession, his ears identifying them as gun reports immediately.

An assessment readily confirmed as both guards' heads exploded outwards one after the other, spraying bloody chunks of brains on the wall.

His eyes went wide as the two brawny warriors collapsed down, trailing each a vertical line of blood on the stone. And then Office Guy reappeared, stepping quickly and silently into the prisoner's field of vision, a gun - an Alliance gun - gripped in both hands, his expression focused, eyes darting and scanning.

O'Neill's jaw dropped.

The newcomer kicked both dead bodies to make sure they didn't move, then lowered the gun and faced the cell. And spoke hurriedly, in broken, accented English :

"You, there, with me, come !"

"What ?" was all the captive managed to say, duly flabbergasted by the turn of events.

"I free you, you come" Office Guy, who now looked a lot less like a paper-pusher, repeated.

"Who the hell are you ?" O'Neill shot back. Escape was a wonderful thing, but there was a million questions stampeding in his mind.

His would-be savior made an impatient gesture, shook his head, then took a step sideways and pointed the guy straight at the lock. He pressed the trigger a third time, and the shot rang again painfully inside the low ceilinged space. At least this time O'Neill had time to cover his ears. The heavy bullet smashed the lock and cracked the door open, and Office-Commando Guy kicked it clear before waving the cell's occupant out.

"We need to hurry ! Now, come !" he called again, urgently, and O'Neill remarked that his liberator's speech was improving, his accent thinning and the words flowing more freely. Rising up, he asked another question.

"How come you're speaking my tongue ?"

"I had… aid, device, to learn" the other man explained, then resumed his urgent prodding, looking from side to side. "We really need to go now, those chemical slugthrowers of yours won't trip the palace sensors as energy weapons would, but they're loud ! Quick before someone comes to investigate !"

"Right, but… -" "I'll answer your questions later, Major O'Neill, but first we need to leave this place ! Follow me now !"

He knows my name too ? the officer thought even as he crossed the space between his former slumping corner to the cell's door. Seeing that his rescue was finally consenting to move, the mysterious rescuer turned and started up the corridor, gun extended.

They didn't meet anyone climbing the revolving stairs, and out in the next dark passage, until the second intersection where the fugitives met another pair of Jaffas plodding towards them. The gun barked again twice, and O'Neill silently commended his rescuer's aim. Of course, the Colt Hi-Power with holographic aimpoint was an easy pistol to shoot things with, but still, he doubted the alien had used one previously.

The palace seemed mercifully deserted and O'Neill commented about it after five more minutes going from corridor to empty rooms.

"Most of the garrison is out with Kheshmet" the alien explained matter of factly. "Attacking the rest of your people."

Shit.

"Baal wants the technology you found, and that's why I had to act" Office Commando added, perhaps sensing the ex-prisoner's unease.

"Who are you then, some kind of spy ?" O'Neill called after the other's back. A backwards glance, and "In a way. Keep quiet now". The Earther shrugged. Here he was, trusting a complete stranger, and he was still naked too. At least the activity kept him from getting cold.

The stranger paused at the end of another hallway, and stuck his ear against a metal-reinforced wooden door. They were still under the ground level, but out of the crudest part of the maze-like stone palace. There was a stillness in the deserted rooms. It was night outside, the alien had mentioned, the rest of the people were sleeping, which made sense for an escape attempt.

After a dozen seconds he straightened up and pulled a heavy brass key from a pocket, which he used to unlock the door. It pivoted aside with barely a squeak and the sort-of-spy beckoned O'Neill to enter. It was a rectangular room, some kind of storage closet lined with wood shelves covered in shapes indistinct in the dim glow of the closest torch.

There was a faint click and reddish light spilled out of a ring on the alien man's left hand, allowing the runaway captive to see. And his heart leapt in joy.

Strewn before his eyes were his battledress, neatly folded, his perscomp, rifle and ammunition. He felt like squealing in pleasure.

"Take that, put them on the bag here" Office Commando said, dousing out the moment of elation. "No time to waste, we need to leave the place fast !" He emphasized the fact by grabbing some of the gear and shoving it inside the sack, short-circuiting any protestation. They were both out half a minute later, and continued their trek upstairs where the sound of conversation drifted to their ears. Not Jaffa voices. Servants, from all appearances. And they were blocking their egress.

O'Neill watched his companion draw a narrow blade from his sleeve, and his eyes widened in realization. He wasn't going to object, though, and merely stood there as the other man walked forward into the light, acting naturally until he was close to the pair of chatting servants, who stopped talking and straightened in expected obedience. Obviously Office Man was worthy of the underlings' respect, the Major observed.

Unfortunately for them, they shouldn't have stayed up late. There was a rapid, economical series of stabs delivered coldly and clinically. Both victims fell dead almost before they could realize their fate and the OSS agent silently commended the assassin's technique, following him and sparing a detached glance at the bodies, who had an expression of surprise, more than pain, on their face.

Another minute and they reached the last door, which the spy-assassin opened carefully, cracking it first to peer out, then a little wider, just enough for passage. The exterior was dark and cold, with a frisk breeze that raised goosebumps on O'Neill's unprotected skin, and a layer of snow seemed to deaden every sound. The door opened on a small elevated stairway in a corner of a vast interior courtyard, enclosed by tall crenellations, dark ribbons of stone that merged with the blackness of night, and the only light sources were two pinpricks of fire at the other end where a larger set of gates were currently closed.

There was no sign of sentries, possibly because none wanted to stay out in the freezing air, or perhaps because they were facing outwards, not inwards. In any case, O'Neill saw why his guide had led them here. Down in the courtyard laid three dark, sleek shapes, roughly pyramidal with flowing curves. Starships, he realized. Smaller than those who had attacked Mara Nui, but the parentage couldn't be denied.

He followed his unlikely rescuer down the small stairs and jogged, half crouched, towards the closest ship.

"Not this one" Office Commando hissed, pointing away, "follow me !"

He'd apparently selected the second one for reasons O'Neill could only guess. A tap on a recessed panel on the sloping side of the dark grey craft, and a hatch opened, allowing them to leave the exposed surface of the courtyard. The door closed, cutting out the chill and the naked man began to rub his flanks vigorously, staring around. He was standing in an empty space, a cargo hold probably given the lack of furnishing - save for the gilded walls. Panels of hieroglyphs interrupted the starkness of the blue-grey alloy used on the hull, which gave the thing a preposterous aura. Hieroglyphs ? In a space ship ? Just another question to answer later, he shrugged.

In the meantime, his fellow escapee had disappeared forward, into what was obviously the cockpit of the ship. Passing through the partition, the Earther remarked a hole in the bulkhead where a small panel had been removed, and peeking closer he caught the glint of colored crystals, only it was blackened and dulled, giving the distinct impression of a blown circuit. It was more than he could determine anyway.

Interior lights came on as he entered the cockpit himself, and found his companion already seated in one of the two crew stations, tapping panels and bringing the ship's system up. A soft hum signalled the engines coming to life, and a hologram sprung out in front of the pilot.

"Take a seat, we're leaving" the other man said without looking.

The Major did so, eyes trying to take in all the sights, alien ship, glowy panels, cryptic indicators and all, and almost as soon as his bottom touched the seat's soft surface the spacecraft lifted, doing so without so much as a vibration and only the very faintest feeling of acceleration.

They climbed over the palace's obscured sprawl, then another flat hologram came up, displaying the tattooed head of a Jaffa who immediately proceeded to spout a stream of words that sounded very much like the equivalent of "Oi you, what do you think you're doing ?", followed by a flustered look at receiving a raised middle finger in reply, and then another stream of words ending in "… SHO'LVAH !"

It seemed to be the cue for O'Neill's decidedly multi-talented neighbor to bring out a small device from his suit and press a crystalline stud. Any question the Major would have raised was rendered superfluous when the cockpit was illuminated by a brilliant flash coming from below, prompting him to look over the side window and see, far under and behind the fleeing craft, an expanding fireball right over the spot where the castle would have been. It was a good thing they were already far away, because it was a very big fireball.

Very unsurprisingly, the Jaffa's head was also cut off.

Only then did the mysterious stranger turn his head and stare at him, with an "all right, now we can talk" kind of air. And O'Neill nearly jumped out of the seat when the man's eyes flashed gold, and his normal, human voice give way to a deep, oddly distorted one.

"You must have many questions, Major O'Neill, but first" he smiled, a genuine, friendly, human smile, "my name is Selmak, and I'm not a Goa'uld."

"If by 'Goa'uld' you mean 'guy with flashy eyes, distorted voice and weird lifestyle' like those Baal and Kheshmet fellows, then who, or what are you ?" Perplexity, distrust and a bit of sarcasm tainted the Major's voice, and his body posture - squeezed in the seat as far away from his neighbour as possible - made it clear that Selmak's flashy demonstration didn't exactly make him at ease. "It's funny but I can't keep myself from thinking you might have one of those ugly snake-things in your head too." He finished crossing his arms. The bag containing his gear and weapon was back in the cargo compartment, and he really wished he had his gun now.

His interlocutor chuckled apologetically and then answered in his human voice.

"Yes, I can see why you'd be suspicious, although I wouldn't refer to Selmak as an ugly snake-thing". He tapped his temple. "He is a Tok'ra, biologically the same species as the Goa'uld, but… much nicer and saner. In fact, the Tok'ra and the Goa'uld hate each other."

"What," O'Neill stared with narrow eyes "who's speaking ?"

"I'm Garam, the… let's say, original owner of this body. Selmak's host."

"Like you've got a say ? How do I know you're not just a puppet like Sam was ?" the Earther's tone was animated, still disbelieving, tinged with all the tension he was just beginning to release after the escape.

"Well, that's the difference between Tok'ra and Goa'uld. The Tok'ra hate slavery, and they only take volunteer hosts. And we're sharing, it is in every sense a true symbioic relationship. I was not forced to become Selmak's host, and I don't regret it the slightest bit. I can't prove it to you, but I'm not Selmak's slave."

"I… see but don't expect me to take your word for it. It could all be bullshit, a trap to make me trust you !"

"In your position, I'd think likewise, Major O'Neill. And I'm not asking you to trust me blindly… but Selmak and I did take a big risk to rescue you."

"Yes, and why not sooner, before Carter was, was…" he didn't finish the sentence.

"Because we couldn't, and to tell you the truth it was only later, when we learnt what exactly was involved, that we understood how important it was not to allow Baal and Kheshmet to get away with it -"

"Oh, I see" O'Neill interrupted "at first we were just some dumb humans being tortured for fun and giggles, but once it became clear that the guys you were spying on would soon acquire an enormous advantage, you had to act."

Garam stared at him levelly and answered after a moment.

"Yes. You have to understand, the stakes are…-"

"Yes I do, some kind of galactic game between those System Lords and you Tok'ra people, and compared to that the personal fate of two unlucky humans wasn't important enough. I gathered as much."

Behind the sarcastic tone there was true understanding in the OSS man's mind. He was recognizing this Garam, or Selmak, person to be something like his alien professional peer. A dangerous person, one that served a goal, had a duty, and was prepared to go to extreme ways to accomplish it. But all the same this might make him an ally in the present circumstances. And he had rescued him from Baal's clutches, after all, which was worth some measure of goodwill.

As Selmak didn't answer immediately, apparently content to just wait his companion's mental process out, O'Neill eventually spoke again.

"All right, so we're in the same boat so far. What's next ?" and the underlying, do you have a plan ?

"First, we make a stop at a safe place."

The naked man raised his brows, and watched the pilot input something into the ship's controls. A couple seconds later there was a small shudder, and the star-speckled black veil of ordinary space was replaced by a swirling tunnel of blue light as the hijacked Tel'tak jumped into hyperspace.

"We'll follow a deception vector until we're clear out of hypertracking range, then swing towards our true destination. In the meantime, why don't you take a shower and dress up ?"

O'Neill nodded, and began to rise from his seat. "There's a shower on this ship ?"

"Of course. Travel time can easily involve days, even weeks. It's the door across the cargo deck. Just call me if you have trouble with the controls, I'm staying here just in case Baal's boys try to follow our trace."

"Is that likely ?" the moving man asked over his shoulder.

"Not really. There's a sizable pursuit squadron in orbit, but, well… the duty controller suffered an unfortunate accident before he could tag us as hostile to the defense grid" Selmak smirked, and his interlocutor chuckled back, remembering the massive fireball incinerating Baal's palace and the Jaffa garrison. He started to move again, then paused "By the way, why this ship…?" and not the first one ?

"Simple. I had already removed the locator beacon on this ship and deactivated the call-back circuit. And tampered with the other ships' reactor safeties" the Tok'ra agent explained.

The clarification raised a lopsided grin on O'Neill's face.

"Glad to be working with a professional."

Freedom Station, Samothrace System

Same time

They were losing, Frederick Lefarge realized. It was the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the steady progression of the invading force, a progression that could be followed almost in real time as sectors of the vast artificial construct went dark on the tridimensional representation rotating slowly in the Control Center's holotank.

His men, operating the alien consoles were trying to slow the attackers down, shutting down local environmental systems, sealing blast doors, cutting off access everywhere the centralized damage control system allowed them. They were merely delaying the enemy's advance, as they were proving adept at overriding or bypassing the station's decentralized control nodes and hacking the doors open.

His response teams had started to weld them shut, but this was only prompting their opponents to use breaching charges, or try another way in. And there was always one in the sprawling assembly of communicating compartments, passages, vertical access shafts and maintenance crawlways that made up the station's internal structure.

Worse, the response teams were too few, far too few to have a hope in hell of covering every possible avenue of approach, and the invaders had the initiative. They had the luxury of a seemingly never-ending supply of combatants, and they kept coming despite their casualties, relentlessly.

And casualties were mounting on the Samothracian side. The New America had left Sol with nothing more than a Marine security company, and half their number was already dead, missing or incapacitated, having sold their lives dearly to slow the invasion. But no matter how many they killed, there were more to come. The teams were being shored up with Navy and civilian personnel using salvaged weapons, for the colony had not expected to fight a war at their planned destination, and as such the stock of man-portable weapons was extremely limited.

It was a cruel irony, considering that the ships themselves had the firepower to annihilate any number of foot soldiers… if only they could bring their weapons to bear. It had happened only once, when a group of enemies had forced open the great ship bay's main access. Nearly a hundred of the mail-clad soldiers had spilled on the football stadium sized central terrace like ants on a patch of concrete, in their haste to gain control of the cavernous hangar and the docked Alteran space crafts.

They hadn't counted on the pair of Alliance cruisers moored inside the zero-gee bay and their laser batteries. And thus they were flash-cooked in seconds as the powerful beams swept the flat surface clean, and the warships had since managed to interdict the bay, beating off a couple more infiltration attempts with railgun slugs and laser pulses cued by their all-seeing infrared eyes.

But even that localized success couldn't hide the larger, bleaker, situation. If the station was lost, the ships would have nowhere to go, and anyway the bulk of the colonists were already cut off from the exterior, effectively besieged by the attackers who were progressing through the external maglev rings to spread around the station's periphery, only limited by the speed at which they could run and override the blast doors delimiting the main sectors.

And for the last hours they'd been heading inwards, towards the inner inhabited sections of the station. Towards the staggered, concentric rings of self-contained habitats.

"Get that fucking door sealed tight, those bastards are right behind us !" Corporal Rodrigo Brackman snarled loudly as he crossed the threshold of the thick, vacuum-rated hatch separating two main hull subdivisions. They were deep inside the station, into the living districts, and the walls were, somewhat infuriatingly, still displaying their serene recreation of mountainous meadows somewhere in the galaxy. It could have been Earth, but for the twin suns shining down upon the bright green grass, and the lack of cows which, to the Corporal's eyes, ought to adorn such a bucolic scene.

And the contrast made the present situation almost surreal, fighting for their lives against a ruthless, faceless enemy.

He paused right inside the massive door's threshold, just long enough to grab the last member of his team and pull him energetically through the already closing twin slabs of alloy. The other three team members were already inside, covering the doorway with rifles and pistol, the latter belonging to the civilian engineer who had replaced a Marine killed ten minutes ago.

Brackman waited until the gap was completely closed and took three steps back, allowing the Navy crewman with the plasma torch to step in and begin to weld the joined metal lips.

By chance, those internal doors were made of a steel-based alloy instead of the more exotic hull material and the Earth-designed tool was having and effect on it.

It left time for the fighters to do an ammunition check, and it was bleak. Five magazines for the three rifles, two reloads for the pistol, and no more grenades. These were all expended during the past hours fighting a retreat through Freedom Station's external sections. And it wasn't just the ammo. The Corporal had started the fight under the authority of a Master Sergeant who was now dead, his head blasted open by one of those god-damned plasma rounds the invaders used, and two more Fleet men had fought alongside them as well before meeting their end.

The welding torch had just travelled ten centimeters down when a buzz came from the wall-mounted control panel, indicating that someone was trying to get the doors open on the other side. The technician gingerly jumped back and extinguished his flame, and all was quiet for a short time. Until a deep, almost subterranean-sounding boom sounded off from the alloy panels, like a muffled gong.

"Shit they're going to burn through already, fuck fuck fuck" Brackman spat "everyone move back to the next intersection, go!"

More booms followed, and the interlocking panels of metal began to glow red around the centrally mounted locking mechanism, deforming and buckling under the superheated plasma's assault. Half a minute of almost continuous fire fatally weakened the structure until it failed catastrophically, the nearly-molten disk of wrought alloy exploding out of its slot like a fireball to ricochet on the wall with a shower of sparks, leaving an ugly trail of molten droplets and a blackened, crackled spot on the holowall's no longer pristine surface. The out-of-control piece of metal finished its course a dozen meters away, where it started to cool down with various sizzling sounds.

A bitter hack of coughing came from the civilian. Without the Marine's breathing filters, he'd involuntarily inhaled a whiff of the toxic metal fumes coming from the molten door fragments.

Brackman spared the teary-eyed, coughing man a quick look, but didn't have time to do anything for him. A barrage of plasma bolts tore through the corridor from the hole in the door, where one of the Jaffas was laying down suppressive fire, walking it from left to right blindly but effectively enough. The noise reverberated inside the close space, the sound of plasma bolts tearing through the air and superheating it along their path like ripping cloth and the splashing cracks when they impacted a solid surface, melting furrows along the walls and floor and leaving dead, blackened smears onto the no-longer pristine virtual scenery.

The gunner's comrades used the distraction to brace against the door halves and muscle them apart, the weakened weld offering no more resistance than a hardened lump of chewing gum. More weapons began to fire through the crack to keep the suppression going, firing somewhat more deliberately now that the warriors could see a little where the fire was going. But it was a two-way street now and the Marines used their helmet sights to fire accurate bursts, keeping their bodies behind cover and firing the rifles around the corners, ignoring the scorching plasma whizzing past and splashing on the walls around them, unconcerned by the rising ambient heat that was beginning to burn unprotected skin.

Their focus was rewarded by cries from behind the half-opened doors and a drop in the volume of incoming fire. The Corporal instantly recognized the lull in the suppressive rain of plasma.

"Get ready to move" he shouted to the cowering, heat-burned civilian and the Fleet man. "Through that side passage" he gestured energetically at the far end of the intersecting cross-corridor, across from his own corner "get it open and ready for us when we disengage!"

The Fleet-uniformed tech nodded and began to pull the other man out with a guiding hand. Brackman glanced back at the destroyed doorway through his rifle sight and squeezed a quick three-round burst at a moving shadow behind the semi-retracted alloy panels. He saw it stagger and fall, and bared his teeth. One more dead fucker.

The next Jaffas didn't try to aim through the crack and simply resumed their blind suppressive fire, content to sit tight behind the protective slabs and pour bolts in the general direction of the defending soldiers. They'd lost enough of their number, either outright dead, their flesh shredded by the razor-sharp fragmenting crystal bullets beyond the ability of their symbiote to heal, or grievously wounded. The former were unceremoniously dragged out of the way to await a funeral detail, the latter were pulled back to the nearest cover and left there for their augmented physiology to stabilize itself before evacuation.

Similar scenes were repeated around the station's interior, and floors that had remained sterile for millions of years were now streaked with running blood and gore belonging to attackers and defenders alike.

As the Marines continued to answer the Jaffas' fire, albeit shooting sparingly to extend their remaining ammunition, Brackman tried to think the team's next steps. They'd been falling back steadily, trading ground for time or so they were hoping. He didn't want to think about that. He glanced at the color-coded location markings of the intersection. They had retreated towards the center, a distance equivalent to three magline stops. Except it had taken hours in the maze of intricate compartments and passages between the main thoroughfares. He didn't even have an idea where the next defending group was, too many metal interfering and not enough relay transmitters. He'd stick to the plan then, continue to retreat and slow the invaders until they reached the first habitat ring. There should be a defense line there, or at least someone to join with.

Maybe they should have done this earlier, he reflected. Trying to hold such a perimeter with so few men was a mistake, they should have pulled back the core sections to mount a denser resistance. But then, hindsight was always perfect, and they couldn't have expected the invaders to hack through the remote systems so easily. Attempting to contain them where they'd first appeared, at the gate room, had been a logical choice… but it had horribly backfired when the enemy had broken out of the cordon and overwhelmed the little force on site.

Of course he was just a Corporal, maybe the higher-ups in the Control Center had a better idea of the situation. But it still felt like shit to him.

His peripheral vision caught the Navy tech waving at him. Certainly the signal to pull out. The spacer was standing near the far door panel, which led to a hydroponics installation if his memory served him right. At least plants were easy to identify, unlike some of the arcane glowy stuff inside most rooms in the outer station. The civilian man was still coughing, it seemed, prostrated on his ass and apparently even more miserable than everyone else.

Remember kids, smoking's bad for your lungs! The thought rising up incongruously in his mind made him snicker.

And then his face froze mid-grin under the helmet. The far door had just skidded open, and Brackman watched, almost distantly from shock and surprise, as two of the mail-clad invaders fired their staff-looking weapons directly at the surprised Samothracians. As if in slow motion, the Fleet tech's belly exploded out as plasma superheated his entrails and forced them to burst out messily from his ruined one-piece working suit. Blood sprayed on the holowall, tainting the virtual grass red and the mortally wounded man stumbled forward, towards Brackman, eyes bulging and face contorted in astonishment more than pain before his legs gave. His body seemed to crumple down, the shattered spine no longer supporting the weight of his torso upright and letting it fold down and follow the glistening bundle of intestines smearing themselves on the floor.

The hapless man was already dying when the Jaffa pointed his weapon down and fired again, spreading cooked bits of bone and brains everywhere.

The Corporal reacted at last, and began to raise his rifle in the direction of the unexpected assault. Adrenaline flooding his mind made everything seem slower, his weapon rising, the other distant warrior pumping a bolt of plasma through the terrorized civilian's head right after the tech's messy put-down, the hint of greenery behind them, behind the rest of the warriors following the first pair stepping across the doorway.

He fired two bursts in quick succession and the two lead Jaffas stopped in their tracks as crystalline shards scythed through their own insides. Behind them their comrades had their own staff guns ready and their plasma fire crossed the intervening distance even as more Earth-manufactured projectiles streaked the other way.

Brackman saw two more of the bastards drop and then the returning fire began to hit, all in the span of a few seconds. A first plasma bolt struck the far Marine in the flank as he continued firing down the main corridor and he cried out in shock as the fiery ionized matter burnt through his light armor. Out of balance, he unconsciously stumbled sideways, right into the open and another bolt struck him face-on. The kinetic force of the blast made him stagger back and drop his rifle. The metallic clatter was covered by the scream just coming now as pain caught up with the soldier's central nervous system. The next hit might have been a mercy, whether by random or deliberate aiming it struck right in the Marine's face, shatter-melting the bullet-proof plastic and scorching away the skin from the skull. It was a dying and smoking body that fell backwards, not to move again.

The other Marine snap-crouched aside behind his corner as his colleague died and switched his fire to the new group of Jaffas, supplementing Brackman's own outgoing fusillade. More Jaffas fell but more took their place and they were facing two outnumbered men.

Brackman's ammo cassette ran out and his drilled hand moved without conscious reflexion to snatch a full magazine even as the empty one ejected from the rifle. He was fast, and the new cassette slotted in place a fraction of a section later, but there was no miracle that day. One man's speed couldn't nullify the number facing him not the volume of fire aimed at him. A plasma bolt grazed his elbow, the burning sensation making him flinch and ruin his aim. His first burst went wide, striking sparks against the far walls instead of hitting the Jaffas in the distance. Another bolt followed and went true, hitting him center. His rifle seemed to explode in his face and his arms flew apart out of the burning impact, and he fell back out of balance. The corner of his eye caught his last living Marine firing full-auto at the mass of targets, hoping to kill them before they killed him and very nearly succeeding, a half-dozen mail-clad warriors staggering out of the fight dead or too wounded to continue.

Any elation was squashed in the bud in instant later when the Marine's magazine ran out just as a staff weapon was extended around the corner, held by some Jaffa who had run down the main passage when he'd realized no more suppressive fire was coming from the defenders. He fired blind, trusting proximity and the Gods' luck to find a target, and the Gods indeed seemed to favor him.

The Marine staggered back as plasma flash-boiled his light chest armor, and then more Jaffas appeared from the distant hydroponics doorway, firing their staff guns as they jogged in. The flurry of bolts tore into the still-standing Marine, over Brackman's prone form and a sharp tremor conducted through the floor told the Corporal his last man had fallen.

Dazed, burned and wounded the Marine NCO tried to rise, cursing the hands that wouldn't support him, their flesh charred to the bones. Trampling footsteps rushed towards him, surrounded him, and he saw one of the enemy warriors towering above him. A staff butt slammed down, cracking his weakened face shield and visor and pounding the back of his cranium back to the hard floor.

Through the cracked and deformed ballistic plastic and the film of blood coating his eyes Brackman saw the same staff rise again and turn around between its owner's hands.

Shit, that's how it ends. Knowledge of his impending death brought memories and visions flashing forward. One in particular, a face, a beautiful face, golden skin and dark curls, as dark as her eyes, just as he'd last seen her this morning.

I love you Cristina.

There was a last flash, and then nothing mattered to Rodrigo Brackman any more.

Baal's domain

Unregistered system

The Tel'tak shuddered out of hyperspace right on the precise instant calculated by its navigation logic in order to reappear in real space precisely where it was supposed to, that is a few thousand kilometers from a dark and unremarkable rock floating in orbit around an equally unremarkable giant ball of gas. Unremarkable in the sense that it was one among billions in the galaxy, naturally. Seen through the small transport's viewport, it still made a majestic sight of orange-red swirls and eddies and clouds that were the size of continents despite their apparent scale.

Jack O'Neill found himself looking for the Great Red Spot, and found a couple small ones on the illuminated side of the planet's terminator line. Well, it wasn't Jupiter for sure. The holographic projection that sprung up distracted him, highlighting a region of black emptiness outside.

"There's our destination" Selmak commented for the Earther's benefit, but kept his attention fixated on the visual interface. A second later, the field of view shifted minutely as the spacecraft adjusted its course.

"I can't see anything" O'Neill complained.

"Because it's currently in the planet's shadow. Don't worry we'll be there in a couple minutes, there's no atmosphere here to limit our acceleration."

A nod answered. There was no telling what the ship's exact performance was since everything was labeled in those pseudo-Egyptian glyphs he couldn't understand, but what he could see was already head-turning. Not least because it actually travelled faster than light and was smaller than one of the New America's transorbital shuttles.

More comfortable as well. It did have internal gravity and a recognizable, fully functional bathroom, albeit some specific details were not arranged in a way familiar to an Earth-born user. In any case, he was refreshed and dressed again in his Alliance uniform, having verified that the built-in perscomp and communicator was still functional.

And he wasn't naked any more. Thinking back on what Selmak had told him of the Tok'ra, and the way they apparently moved host without necessarily keeping to the same gender, the whole thing was just a little bit too queer for comfort. Not that his present companion had exhibited any sign of un-professional behavior, but still.

A few minutes went by in silence, and eventually the ship's destination became visible to the naked eye. It was dark, almost invisible, blotting out the stars as it grew ever larger until it filled the viewscreen. It was notoriously hard to get a sense of scale in space, but that rock had to span tens of kilometers across, which was a piddle distance in astronomical terms but still imposing when viewed from up-close, and the overall darkness blurring the limits made it look even more looming, almost foreboding.

The holoplot had switched to a close mapping grid and the ship was creeping towards a golden dot that marked the end of its course. A final glide and it was there, and the field of view swung around as the Tel'tak realigned itself so that its belly faced the rock's surface.

Selmak put the ship on station-keeping mode and rose from his chair.

"There we are. Come with me."

The blinding white light dissipated and O'Neill caught the same set of floating horizontal rings flying down to the floor where they disappeared from sight. He didn't feel anything - maybe a minute prickling, but he wasn't sure. It might be his mind inventing things.

The teleporter - for that's what it was - had deposited both men in the middle of a low-ceiling circular room, and a remarkable room it was, as if carved from a forest of blue-purple crystal. The walls were crystalline, the floor, the ceiling - everything made of some extruded, translucent, glittering crystal-like material, like some geological wonder. The surface was smooth though instead of the jagged surface he'd have expected, and offered no tricky steps to stumble and trip on despite the diffracted light playing tricks in the material's thickness.

There was an opening in the wall leading to a corridor.

"This way." O'Neill followed the Tok'ra operative, glancing and gaping at the peculiar environment. "So we're inside that asteroid, huh?" Selmak nodded without slowing. "Some kind of secret base of yours?" This time Selmak looked back. "Something like that."

The tunnel led to another room and unlike the first, this one was filled with containers and random-looking objects. On one of the walls a rack held various weapons, all of them apparently belonging to different types and even worlds. Some of them looked like Eurasian War era rifles, stamped metal and wooden grips, yet on closer inspection they didn't belong to Earth's history at all. Others were made of obviously synthetic materials, polymers and crystals and sleek alloys, and some looked absolutely terrible as practical weapons.

O'Neill pointed at the most unergonomic-looking one, a cross between a handheld shower head and a pistol, except the grip angle was all wrong for accuracy and there was absolutely no visible sight. "What's this ?"

Selmak spared a side-glance and replied without a further look. "A phase pistol, built by the long-gone United Planets Federation. An antique, I think it's about three centuries old. Of course, I never used it, even the Jaffas' staff weapon's better designed" he ended in a contemptuous tone.

"What happened to that Federation? Who were they?" the Earther went on, his curiosity too strong to contain.

The Tok'ra froze mid-motion over an opened chest, appearing to think about it.

"I never dealt directly with them, but from what I learnt they were a multi-planet political entity, hence the name, populated by humans like you as well as a number of humanoid, alien species. They had interstellar travel capability, obviously, and one day they met Sokar, one of the System Lords" He paused, eyes unfocused. "They were a well-meaning, if naïve people, and they tried to negotiate with Sokar." A sharp laugh escaped Selmak's lips. "The fools! Sokar didn't negotiate, of course. He disabled the Federation ship and sent his Jaffas to board it. They slaughtered the remaining crew and Sokar found the location of the Federation worlds inside the computers."

"Sounds like they had terrible infosec" the OSS agent commented.

"As I said, they were a naïve and pacifistic people. Although possessing commendably advanced technology, their use of it was not optimal especially when it came to war."

"I take it they paid dearly for that."

"Yes. Sokar destroyed their remaining fleet and laid waste to their worlds, not bothering to enslave them as they were too advanced to believe the Goa'ulds' delusions of godhood." His voice took a faint tinge of melancholy. "Now this antique might be all that remains of their civilization" he finished, returning to his search.

O'Neill found himself digesting the information. Knowing the fate of the Feddies didn't exactly fill him with optimism.

He looked around, unable to shrug off a feeling of helplessness. Here he was in an alien spy's secret den, facing the forces of an interstellar tyrant, cut off from his own people who were probably now fighting for their lives against his invading minions. And Samantha Carter, prisoner inside her own mind, a puppet forced to accomplish shameful acts against her will. And his, although in other circumstances he might well have repeated those acts willingly. Considering the events of the past months and the succession of mind-shattering discoveries they represented, there was even a good excuse to just freak out and yell obscenities at the universe. And maybe he'd do that later, too, but for the time being he was on a mission. A desperate-looking one, sure, but it still focused his mind on something worthwhile.

Selmak's rummaging eventually produced a metallic sphere, etched in elegant curvy motifs and a little larger than a baseball in size. Holding it on his outstretched palm, he mentally sent a command and the long range communicator activated.

"Whoa!" a surprised O'Neill blurted out. A holographic projection had just sprung above the sphere, at first a white emptiness until a few seconds later, when the destination device sent back its own captured image from a thousand light years away.

A disembodied woman's head floated inside the holopicture, hair black and falling behind the shoulders, a mature face, attractive in a severe way, eyes steady and penetrative. The look of an experienced leader. Upon recognizing her caller she raised her brow and addressed him in Goa'uld.

"Selmak! I hope you have a good reason to break the comm silence. What happened to your mission?"

Selmak shot a "now be quiet and let me talk" glance at the Earther and then answered the floating head, switching to the Goa'uld tongue as well.

"Executive Garshaw. There has been an unexpected development…" an abridged explanation of the last days followed "...the perspective of Baal acquiring a large intact and functioning Ancient installation seemed to justify breaking my cover and acting to prevent it."

"I see. Your reasoning seems valid indeed, this is an extraordinary situation and something has to be done. We cannot allow Baal, or any other System Lord, to capture such an incredible find. Who knows what kind of technology lies inside this station? One Anubis is more than enough!"

Selmak nodded gravely. Despite the lack of conclusive proof it was widely believed among both Goa'uld and Tok'ra that Anubis' recent and successful comeback was due to his finding previously unknown artifacts of the Gate-Builders.

"Do you think it's another Dakara?"

Garshaw shook her head indecisively.

"We never knew what exactly was on Dakara, except that Anubis wanted it and wanted it very badly. We managed to manipulate the Coalition to destroy that mountain and everything inside out of fear. But this is different. An intact Gatebuilder station is something the System Lords will try to capture, not destroy." She sighed. "Unfortunately, Selmak, you're the only asset we have in position to do something about it. Baal's domain always proved most difficult to infiltrate successfully."

The male Tok'ra nodded again. "There is the problem of the humans there."

"They're unfortunate" Garshaw's expression was controlled and determined "but it is paramount that neither Baal nor any other Goa'uld ends up in control of that station. Everything else is secondary: if there is no other choice but to destroy it entirely, then do it, is that clear?"

"Clear, Executive." The operative's voice didn't waver and he met his superior's gaze levelly. "Mission goes first."

Garshaw's head bowed fractionally in response, and then the holographic link was cut.

The communicator went back into the chest, and Selmak answered his companion's wordless interrogation even as he began to gather various objects in the room.

"I checked in with my superiors. I have, as you say…" he paused, fumbling with the foreign, unfamiliar expression "carte blanche to prevent Baal from taking control of Freedom Station."

"Does that mean you're going to blow it up before he gets it?" O'Neill interjected, arms crossed on his chest. Selmak froze an instant, then decided to answer honestly and met the Earther's stare.

"Yes. If it's the only way." His judgment of O'Neill proved accurate.

"I understand. I'd do the same as well, but-" the Major stammered out the last part "I'll do everything I can to save my people first. Are we clear on that?"

"Very clear, Major O'Neill. It is my hope too that we can save them… but long experience taught me not to expect any miracle."

"Well, Mister Selmak, I might not be as old as you are, but I've seen strange enough things in my days."

Freedom Station

Samothrace System

There was a sick feeling in General Lefarge's stomach as he watched the surveillance feed. The invaders were barely slowed by resistance - in fact, the sheer distances involved in penetrating the vast construct had had more effect than the Marines' sacrifice. There seemed to be no end in sight to the number of mail-clad warriors advancing down the passages and living spaces of the besieged colony and the last hour had seen the defense collapse under the pressure. There were literally not enough defenders left to mount a resistance outside a few ultimate fallback points near the station's heart and the Control Center it contained like a seed inside an apples' core. Maybe if they'd done this right at the beginning of the attack, regrouping in the center inside of trying to hold them off at the periphery, a forlorn hope…

It was too late in any case. And above all, Samantha Carter's treason had made a bad situation worse. There was no use speculating how she'd been subverted, what kind of brainwashing she had undergone to exhibit behavior so unlike hers. Watching the few glimpses of her new character on the video feeds, it felt like watching an entirely different person, only sharing a superficial likeness to the former. The face was the same under the garish make-up, younger looking somehow, but the features were arranged in a different set of expressions, more… ruthless, cruel, dominating, reveling in the carnage and suffering happening around her. A Snake's face, as impossible as it seemed.

The Alliance leader had briefly wondered about it. Had the Drakas something to do with this, somehow? He'd quashed the thought soon enough, those new enemies might behave somewhat like the Snakes, but everything else was different. The uniforms, the weapons, even the language. Those warriors were not Janissaries for sure, not unless their masters had taken to tattooing their foreheads instead of their necks. Besides, neither Kheshmet nor "Lord Baal" was Draka names. It was something else entirely, another enemy a wicked universe had sprung onto the refugees.

Frederick Lefarge wasn't a very religious man despite his upbringing. Working for the OSS tended to instill a heavy dose of skepticism and pessimism into one's worldview. And right now he really, really wanted to scream "fuck you!" at God's face, if the bastard was even bothering to look.

Instead his hands gripped the handles of the command chair, the one overlooking the Control Center and its rows of consoles with the panoramic holowall surrounding everything. The stars were still shining steadily, the planet below half illuminated by the distant star's light, completely oblivious to the mortal struggle going on inside the bubble of livable atmosphere hanging alone in space's cold embrace.

At times he'd felt something he couldn't exactly qualify - he wasn't even sure it was not his own overstressed mind playing tricks - the best he could tell was like a faint echo inside his brain, as if he was shouting down a deep canyon and seconds later the sound of his voice, his mind-voice, came back distorted and foreign. As if something was there, hovering at the edge of his consciousness, awaiting to answer the right call, yet he couldn't put his finger on it. A ghost of thought. He shook his head. Vague impressions and illusions didn't help.

At the other side of the link, down in the brightly lit several story high corridor-streets of the station's inner habitat ring, Kheshmet walked with supple fluidity towards the central plaza, Jaffas around her with their helmets deployed, weapons trained outwards even though the area was secured by three hundred of their comrades, most of them in overlooking positions among the cascading terraces and balconies, scanning the wide amphitheater-like village for threats.

Not that such were to be expected. The entire section had been surrounded and cut off two hours ago by Jaffa vanguards, leaving no escape route to the trapped souls inside. Few men, most of them women, teenagers and children who had believed they were safely tucked inside, having sealed the gates and raised a few pithy barricades behind those. The following assault was quick and brutal. Barricades manned by mostly unarmed civilians did not hold Kheshmet's warriors for longer than a minute. A few defenders had died right there and then, and after that resistance had collapsed utterly along with the need to kill.

"My Lady" a tall warrior saluted, fist over heart, when Kheshmet entered the plaza "we have secured this area and gathered the captives. My warriors are ready to push forward as soon as follow-up troops can relieve us from guard duty!"

The Goa'uld inside Samantha Carter's body returned the salute. She had no obligation to do so - Jaffas were inferiors - but it was good practice for a field commander, and these warriors had done well, as expected from an elite legion. She let her gaze linger on the Jaffa facing her - strong features, square jaws expressing resolution and devotion to duty, short cropped black hair, skin tanned by multiple planetary campaigns - and the small honorary insignias on his chest. An experienced man, century old certainly, a veteran of many wars, having survived them as well pointed to both luck and skill. One of the Guard's best sub-unit commanders. Kheshmet delved into her deep memory, putting a name on the face.

"Kejar of Ladnarn" she replied, noting the way he reacted with pride at her recalling his name "you have fought well again. Lord Baal will be pleased. Now, show me those captives."

"My Lady, follow me." He turned aside and shouted at a group of warriors hovering nearby. "Jaffa, Kree!" They fell into a vanguard formation, preceding the officer and the Goa'uld commander as they strode forward into the habitat's lower sections, glancing at the towering support pillars and animated walls, keeping any wonderment they could experience at the display of divine magic for themselves.

They rounded another sculpted framework - an elaborate succession of vertical cascades and water collectors, still bare instead of overfilling with aquatic greenery and flowers as intended. They stood on the lowest terrace, directly overlooking the bottom-most floor and its wide central pool filled with crystalline water and a handful of growing water-lilies providing a few scattered patches of green. The entire level was supposed to function as a collecting point for the ornamental waterworks running throughout the whole habitat, as well as handle an accidental overfill. As a result there was no level access. The only ways down were shallow stairs, although overhanging gangways and platforms allowed audacious minds to plunge down into the pool if they wanted. Now those were supporting Jaffa guards, staves pointed down at the pool sides where the captured civilians huddled and pressed together on the soft plastic beach, unconsciously wanting to put the most distance between themselves and the watching guards.

There were more than a few gasps and muffled exclamations of surprise when the prisoners spotted the familiar-yet-different face of Samantha Carter. Murmurs ran low, questioning, wondering. Kheshmet watched in glee, savoring the scent of fear and unease coming from the thousands of human cattle huddling below.

She made her eyes flash, and spoke loud and clear, her deep Goa'uld voice seamlessly amplified by the collar she wore.

"Kneel, humans, for you belong now to Lord Baal, King of Kings, God of Gods, Master of all Living Souls!"

Incredulous words and expressions answered her statement. Anger now, curses and insults rising from the cattle. She laughed inwardly at the scattered "snake!" epithets muttered or outright shouted at her. The involuntary confusion was highly entertaining to her, possessing the corresponding memories of Major Carter. Yet defiance had to be crushed. And as always she was going to take pleasure in doing so.

"SILENCE!" the word boomed across the cathedral-sized space. She pointed to one of the most vocal dissenters, a male teenager (as such often were) whose eyes flashed defiance almost as brightly as a Goa'uld glare, and made an imperious gesture with her hand. "Jaffa, Kree!"

Answering her call, a squad of warriors strode down to the human mass and then opened a way in the most brutal manner, using steel-shod boots and staff butts to smash heads and bodies aside, parting the sea of captives like a boat and leaving a wake of bruised and bleeding limbs behind them. Their target tried to flee as they came, clawing at the flesh in his haste to escape - hopelessly. The guards watching from above wouldn't have allowed it even if the ones below hadn't caught up, the looming threat and the immediate brutality breaking any idea of resistance before it could even take hold.

The young man was grabbed by the arms and collar, hauled up and dragged away despite his flailing and screaming, and dropped again like a sack of meat near the bottom of the stairs closest to Kheshmet even as more Jaffas established a cordon outside, keeping the first rank of captives away.

Silence fell, only broken by scattered gasps and sobs, and the Goa'uld slowly descended the flight of stairs, savoring each step down with a wicked smile on her lips.

"Hmmm" she purred, stopping in front of the group. She met the black-haired teenager's gaze, noting how it kept flicking down to her chest and below, his imagination running wild even though the form-fitting garment left little to it. She traced a finger down his jaw. Strong already yet delicate and smooth like a child's. He didn't flinch. That took some spirit, she thought. "Manuel, yes? I remember your name. Your father was a soldier, I think… no?" she asked seductively, keeping her eyes locked with his brown ones.

"My father's a Marine and he's going to kick your butt, you bitch!" the youngster spat back with teenage scorn, shaking the grip of his Jaffa captors.

Slap! The backhand strike cut through the air and left a red mark on Manuel's cheek.

"Fool! Your father is dead, as is everyone who fought us on this station!" Kheshmet's reply was stone cold. "His death was honorable at least. Yours won't!" she hissed, then snapped an order. "Jaffa! Hold him!"

The pair of warriors kept a strong grip on the boy as their female overlord collar-handled him over the pool's edge. She felt him tense again, putting all his youthful strength into resisting her pressure - not enough, it only made it so much more enjoyable as she forced his face down under the water's surface. She held him there for a minute, sensing his struggle to break above and breath, and pulled up. Sputters, then a single ragged, deep inspiration before he went down again. The struggle resumed, bubbles streaming to the agitated surface, and she held him longer before pulling again. She repeated the process a third, then a fourth time, each time longer, each time the struggling growing weaker, the boy's strength drowning away. A desperate scream rose from the crowd, a female one.

"Stop, please, stop, kill me instead, leave my boy alone!"

A woman had risen out of the squatting, cowering mass of prisoners, and she was weaving her way towards Kheshmet's group a hundred paces away, placing her steps by instinct over the rest of the bodies as she kept her gaze imploringly fixed in the aliens' direction. She traced a crying line through the shell-shocked flesh, begging for clemency all along until she threw herself down on her knees behind the Jaffa cordon, prostrating herself supplicating in the space vacated by her companions of infortune, recoiling from her as though she was doomed already and touching her would doom them as well.

"Please, lady" she raised her face, flushed and wet from her crying "please kill me instead don't kill my sonny please let me do anything for you -"

"Will you?"

Kheshmet stared at the mother, keeping the son's face a millimeter above the water as he made retching sounds. Vomit splurged from his mouth, spoiling the purity of the pool.

The supplicant woman nodded nervously. "I'll kill myself if you want to, just, just please don't kill my Manuel" she spluttered out under the Goa'uld's coldly calculating gaze.

"Jaffa! Let her pass." The warriors opened a gap as instructed. Kheshmet switched to English.

"Come" she snapped out at the woman, emphasizing the order with a curt shake of her head.

"Stand" the mother did so and Kheshmet walked closer, leaving the young man in the Jaffas' grip. A silent mutual examination followed, apprehensive and fearful on one side, slyly, wickedly amused on the other. The woman was slightly shorter than Samantha Carter, brunette and brown-eyed, her skin complexion and delicate features showing her Hispanic heritage, trembling in her grey civilian overalls. She was somewhat familiar in Carter's memories. Time spent in various social circles during the New America project, back in the Solar System - we'll need to check this place too, the symbiote thought - had produced some mutual recognition and Kheshmet's enhanced memory recall produced a name as well.

"Cristina Brackman" she detached each syllable as if they were rare delicacies, her voice back to her host's natural one. "I remember your delicious crab cakes." Souvenirs from a habitat party on Ceres. Cristina's gaze turned incredulous at the turn of conversation, before it became more personal.

"You certainly have a pleasant physique too, for the mother of a sixteen year old child. Strip."

"What?" disbelief colored the woman's voice at the preposterous request.

"Strip! Or -" Kheshmet gestured back, letting the threat loom in the air. Cristina's eyes widened at once, flicking to her son's prone form.

"Mom…" he whined out, saliva dribbling down the side of his mouth.

"Don't look, don't say anything Manuel, please be strong for me!" she tried to put some strength and encouragement in her tone even as her heart beat faster, her skin flushed from anticipated shame. She waited until her son averted his face from her incoming humiliation, and then unzipped the jacket emblazoned with the New America's crest, uncovering the white brassiere underneath. A practical one, designed for support and comfort rather than looks like a sports bra, it covered most of her chest. She felt the gazes of her fellow captives on her back as well as the Jaffas', leering behind their stony masks. Carter, no, Kheshmet was drinking the sight, pupils dilated, lips slightly parted. It felt perverse, sinful. Whoever this being was, she was a Godless deviant, as shameless as the Draka themselves. But there was nothing a mother wouldn't do to save her child.

Cristina went on, unstrapping her bra, her mind blank, going through the gestures like an automaton, eyes fixed forward vacantly. She barely remarked the other woman biting her lip in appreciation. Behind her, her fellow New Americans averted their eyes, respectful of her ordeal save a few teenagers who stole ogling glances.

Trousers and panties followed jacket and bra on the discarded pile and Cristina Brackman stood straight and naked, her arms dangling along her sides, making no effort at hiding her nudity. She was expecting to be raped - growing up on the same planet as the Domination of the Draka at least made a woman passingly familiar with the idea. How many of those not-Janissaries would plow her was the only unknown part, she figured.

She didn't quite expect the crimson-clad female to close the gap between them in one stride, one hand closing around her right breast while the other wormed its way between her thighs. The wife - now a widow - straightened under the touch, rejecting it by instinct and decency. It wasn't right, wasn't right at least those soldiers were men but this - her half-strangled cry of surprised disgust was snuffed out by the mouth closing on hers and the tongue probing out, tasting her obscenely - a perverted mirror image of the other body intrusion taking place down below. Cristina's intimate muscles clenched automatically against the finger pushing up and Kheshmet cursed. It wasn't so much the resistance - that was expected - than the utter lack of reaction to her touch. Her tongue felt like exploring a dead, inert mouth and the dryness below didn't change. The naked woman was inert save for her reflexive squeeze, dry and inert. Frigid against the Goa'uld commander's expert assault. That was a worse insult.

"Bitch" Kheshmet hissed, recoiling from the uncooperative woman. "Enjoy seeing your son die!"

She glanced back and made a cutting gesture with her left hand, even as her right swung up, the golden device on her palm flashing into life. A bright glow speared down from her elevated palm to the brunette's forehead, and her body reacted to the excruciating pain tearing through her limbs, eyes bulging open, falling on her knees with her strength sapped dry, head paralyzed, upturned, receiving the full wrath of the Goa'uld above her. Shivering, convulsing, yet unable to move out of the agonizing beam, eyes rolled upwards showing their whites, face contorted in terror and pain, mouth open and dribbling on her chin, caught under the spell of the pulsating light spearing her brain.

In fact, she didn't see the Jaffa's blade sliding under Manuel's throat, and the pulsing jets of blood reddening the water below until the beam vanished, cut at the source, and a thin thread of consciousness reclaimed her mind, battling the aftershock and the dying waves of pain cutting her nerves open down their length.

"NOOOOOOOO!" the scream coming from her mouth was ragged-sounding, and her eyes went from the sight of her dying son's last convulsions to the coldly satisfied face above her, anguish and hate competing among the tears.

"Now" Kheshmet turned to face Kejar who was still standing a few paces away, watching the cowed crowd of captives with a close expression. "Rape her!"

The Jaffa's stone mask barely cracked, an eyebrow rising higher than the other. "My Lady? I am a warrior, and there are still living enemies…" he put all the respect he could muster into the suggestion. He was longing for combat, for honorable battle. Rape, while occasionally pleasant, wasn't something to do when the battlefield was still contested. And the display had left a sour taste in his mouth. There had been no need to draw out the execution, and his clan valued family enough that he took no pleasure in watching a mother lose her unique son. Even rebels and heretics, he was persuaded, deserved a measure of compassion, a clean death at least. Fortunately the sound of footsteps, hundreds of footsteps clanging on the hard floor as more Jaffas poured into the open spaces, saved him from having to abuse the female captive himself.

"Then the relief unit will have their way with those cattle" his commander snapped out impatiently. "I'll lead the final assault personally. Kejar, assemble the rest of your warriors. The prize is near!"

xxx

Another hour. Another hour and the Divine Fist of Unity, one of the strongest Goa'uld motherships in this sector of the galaxy, would exit hyperspace in the star system containing the fabulous prize awaiting Baal. A fully functional Ancient station. One left in quasi stasis for millions of years, dating back to the nebulous early days of the Gatebuilder civilization. It wasn't the technology alone. In fact, going by the captured human female's memories it might not represent a tall leap over contemporary Goa'uld capabilities. But instead of the bits and pieces and small trinkets the first Goa'uld lords in recorded memory had used to create the foundations of their empire, this was much bigger. Who knew what insights the databanks inside the station could reveal about its near-legendary creators? There were always tales and rumors about the Gatebuilders. Often they were nothing more than wild stories. In some cases, enterprising Goa'ulds looking for lost or hidden wonders had disappeared outright, victims of powers far beyond their wisdom. In a few other recorded cases, and those were always difficult to confirm for no Goa'uld wanted to let his competitors learn of their most prized treasures, ancient artifacts had yielded some of their secrets to a careful owner.

Maybe, just maybe the Ancient construct would yield clues as to the galaxy's greatest mystery, an enigma every Goa'uld had pondered since the species had learnt travelling the stars. What were the stargate's eighth and ninth chevron for? Nobody had ever found out, and not for lack of trying. It was said that Ra himself, millennia ago, spent a century dialing random combinations from an isolated stargate, to no avail, and stopped only after exhausting the naquadah of a whole star system, enough to build entire war fleets, powering the experiment.

The Baal clone pondered all this behind his customary half-smirk. A facade intended for his minions, handpicked Jaffas from his core worlds, warriors of experience who all had proven their loyalty beyond doubt. Men whose ancestors had fought for their present master, whose families were among the most prominent and honored. Dynasties of loyal servants who served not merely because of blind indoctrination but also because it was in their genuine interest to do so. Those, in Baal's experience, made the most accountable and effective servants. Not every System Lord understood this, and those who didn't, who ruled by fear and fanaticism alone, were so much more vulnerable to foreign subversion - beginning with the damn Tok'ra.

At least he was reasonably certain that no Tok'ra agent was hidden on this ship, thanks to the stringent checks performed on every member of the crew. The danger of sabotage and infiltration was too high otherwise, as many a careless Goa'uld in history had found when his powerful and near invulnerable "war chariot" had blown up under his regal bottom.

Just another hour, and Baal would be able to watch his new possession with his own eyes. He'd departed after the initial assault, with confirmation that a secure beachhead was established inside the orbital city and expectation that fully reducing the defenders would probably take days, such was the size of the contested territory. If everything had gone according to plan, the mothership would reenter realspace and find the place mostly under control.

The next question would be what to do with the humans inside. Strenuous interrogation would be useless. Most likely, everything worth knowing had already been revealed inside the female captive's mind. The location of their home planet was interesting, deep inside what used to be Ra's private domain, and apparently among the first ever to be colonized and populated with human slaves. Maybe even the first, the Tauri of legend and old lore, the source of the System Lords' slave population. An interesting find certainly, and worthy of future investigation whenever the more important matters of war were dealt with.

Inside Freedom Station

"General Lefarge"

The man nearly flinched at the sudden call. He'd been watching the various readouts and display with almost hypnotic attention, an attention proportional to the impotence he was actually reduced to. The safety of the habitats had proven to be a false one and they had fallen one after another, practically undefended; and now he was forced to watch as tens of thousands of the people he was sworn to lead and protect kneeled in submission beneath the alien invaders' weapons. Kneeled, or worse. The attackers hadn't bothered to deactivate the surveillance devices, an obvious act of psychological warfare intended for the last defenders, those hundreds locked inside the station's core and maybe a few scattered tens under the dome, hiding in the barren wilderness.

He still had cards to play, he tried to convince himself. The ships were still there, still manned and operational. But what good could they bring except for some kind of Draka-ish suicidal gesture? Detonating their antimatter fuel inside or near the station might destroy or cripple it. And then the last free humans from Earth would be gone. Such an ironic thing it would be, the General thought, reminiscing his last conversation with Von Shrakenberg. An insurance policy for the human race, he'd said. Well, it was looking like the fucking Draka would be the last ones standing as it was, at least until whatever alien power it was knocked at Sol's door.

The unexpected call had interrupted the pessimistic brooding. And replaced it with renewed anger, for it was Carter's voice, belonging to that Kheshmet murderer, her face snapping into focus on his side display.

"Hello, General" the voice repeated seductively, playfully. It was enjoying itself. "I know you can hear me, this communication panel cuts straight into the command emergency circuit."

"You" Lefarge spat with all the contempt he could muster, raising a short laugh from the other side of the conversation. Bright white teeth, long eyelashes lowered before mirthful blue eyes, the arrogance of a gorgeous young woman fully conscious of her power and willing to use it to obtain whatever she wanted from men. But this wasn't a teenager despite the looks, and the power it wielded was far more than simply sexual. It was the power of life and death, the power of the victor holding the fates of defeated enemies in his hands. And it, she knew, knew through the Colonel's memories how little was left to the human defenders.

It was time to acknowledge it.

"Me, I, Lady Kheshmet, courtesy of this endearing host body, one fit for a Queen really" she slowly rubbed her hands over her chest to emphasize her comment. Lefarge's gaze hardened.

"What do you want" he ground out between his teeth, dreading the answer.

The red-clad woman tipped her head higher, straightening her already arrogant body attitude. Her own eyes flashed and she replied in the deep guttural tones of her species.

"I want your complete surrender, in the name of Lord Baal."

Seconds ticked by before a response came.

"I saw how your kind treats prisoners. Why should I trust you? Why shouldn't I destroy this whole installation instead and take you all out with us?"

"War always implies…" Kheshmet shrugged minutely "unfortunate collateral damage."

"Collateral damage?" Lefarge's tone was laced with fury and disbelief "Is that how you call what you did to that family? Killing the son in cold blood and forcing his mother to watch? You fucking… bitch, if you're even female to begin with, you have no idea what -"

"Oh but I have, General. I know everything about the Alliance for Democracy, and the Domination of the Draka. I know your people were beaten, broken, and you are but refugees, exiles, cast off from your star system aboard those pitifully backwards things you call starships" her smirk was contemptuous as she paused, eyes boring into Lefarge's. "I am offering you a way to survive, under Lord Baal's authority. Accept, and today's suffering will be over. Your people will be transported to a safe, fertile world to spend the remainder of their lives unharmed."

She switched over to Carter's normal voice, as much to preserve her host's vocal cords as to play a psychological game, counting on the voice's familiarity to influence her interlocutor.

"Of course, you will have to relinquish your technology. You will be permitted to live as farmers and artisans. The use of any written language and technology higher than animal, wind or water-driven machinery will be forbidden under penalty of death. In time, your children will grow up to be Lord Baal's loyal subjects."

The General took a deep, forceful breath, forcing himself to stay calm even though he felt like screaming and punching the display. His stare drilled through the vid-link.

"This is no better than being under the Yoke" he spat out.

"Actually it is" Kheshmet replied nonchalantly. "Your descendants will still be human instead of genetically engineered cattle. And above all, they will be alive."

She let a moment of reflexion sink in, then added "You have ten minutes to decide. After that, my warriors will start executing the captives. Beginning with the children."

She spared another glance at the uniformed man, and then switched off the communication panel.

It was a hard bargain, as Lefarge was left to contemplate. But the bitch and her warriors held most of the cards and he couldn't deny it however much he wanted to. He didn't have an army anymore and the ships - well they couldn't do much except open fire on Freedom Station and kill everyone. He might have been willing to do that if the invaders had been Drakas, but…

He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair, feeling more wary than he'd ever been. Could he believe Kheshmet's promise that his people wouldn't be harmed? Would they be left to live their lives alone? It was a hope, a hope that, centuries later their descendants would be alive and maybe, maybe they'd find freedom again. And the horse might learn to sing.