Sing a Song of Scourges (A Pocketful of Snakes)
All recognizable characters belong to their respective owners (Brad Wright/Johnathan Glassner, Roger Zelazney).
He laid his head on his desk and muttered, "This isn't working." I made a sympathetic noise and moved onto the next light. I only had another two rows to go after this one, and this was the last room on this hall.
The man jerked his head up as if startled, and I was sure that he had forgotten that I was there. He looked up at me appraisingly for a second, then said, "Can I ask you a question?"
"Sure," I replied, focused on not dropping the light as I screw ed the new bulb in.
"If you were, say,—hypothetically, of course—a slave, forced to work on a giant building project, like, oh, say, the pyramids," he looked back up from the papers on his desk, twiddling his pen, "and had a chance to engrave something on one of the stone blocks, what would you choose?"
That...was a very specific hypothetical. I lowered my arms for a moment, giving it serious thought. "It depends," I decided, and went back to work.
His head jerked around sharply to look at me with interest. "Depends on what?"
"On whether the hypothetical 'I' was a commoner or an academic." There, that light was done, and that was the row. I climbed down to move the ladder. "If I were a commoner, probably something like 'I was here'. If I were an academic, probably a piece of prose, or a poem or a quote or a song; something famous and beautiful."
"Of course! A song! Gwefirn; song. Should've thought of that," he was back to talking to himself, and scribbling rapidly.
"Ballad," I corrected automatically, starting on the second light.
There was that head-snap again. "What?"
"Gwefirn," I said, giving it the correct pronunciation, slurring the first syllable a little, and drawing out the r. "It's ballad, not song." I grimaced a bit. "Actually, it's not even that, but English doesn't have a word for the concept. It's more of...singing-poem-story, but there are connotations. Artistic, and generally tragic. Historic." I shrugged, and it made the light do a little shake that had me worried. I steadied it, and unscrewed it the rest of the way. "Sometimes set to music, but not necessarily."
"Uh-huh," Scholar-boy was definitely staring now. "And how do you know that?"
"I'm fluent," I said, waving it off. And then I suggested he go perform dirty, illegal, and improbable acts on a goat, just to see if he was fluent as well. Actually, the question here might be how he happened to have a copy of a Thari gwefirn to begin with.
He was looking at me strangely. "Did—did you just...?—never mind." He cast around, floundering for a subject change. "That's...an interesting accent you have."
I snorted. "I don't have an accent. You do, and, actually, yours sucks." I glanced down; he looked like someone had slapped him with a wet fish. Well, he did have a horrible accent. I finished the last bulb on this row, and began the climb down. "You want me to read that for you?"
I approached the desk; he handed me a piece of paper silently. I skimmed it. "Huh. It's about how the people—I assume that would be your hypothetical slaves—are being oppressed something terrible, but one day, their glorious leader and 'lord in the light' will come to free them." I sniffed; I was not impressed. "And as far as ballads go, this one's pretty crappy. You want good ones, try Jackalin's work. Or Corwin's." I handed the paper back, and went to finish the last row of lights.
He sat up eagerly, reaching for more paper. "Does it say anything about how they were oppressed? Who was oppressing them?"
"Something about 'the man with hand and eye of flame'. It's a pretty corrupted form of the language, though. And the grammar's all mixed up."
He narrowed his eyes at me. "Really."
I made an affirmative noise, and there was silence. Two more lights, and I was done. I replaced my tools, folded up the ladder, and made to leave. His voice called me back. "Wait a second." I turned back. "Can you spare a minute or two to come with me?"
I nodded warily. It was possible he just needed something else translated, but it was also possibly a trap. Frakir was still upon my wrist and I still had a few knives, though, so I wasn't too worried. I followed at a distance as we traversed the hall, descended a few floors in an elevator, and wound our way to a large, open room with a long table and a few too many people.
"There you are!" An older guy waved from one side of the table. "You're not even very late this time!"
"Yeah, well..." Blondie ducked his head. "I got kind of held up. But!" and this was said like "Eureka!" "It was really important! You'll never believe this! Guys, this is..." he trailed off, probably realizing he didn't know my name.
"Merl." I said, stepping forward. "Merl Corey."
There was a moment of silence. "What's he doing down here? Has he got any sort of security clearance?" This came from a bald man at the head of the table, probably the superior officer. The other people had tensed, too.
Oh, I strongly dislike the military mindset. It's too narrow-minded, and all so very structured. I reviewed the spells I had hanging.
"Oh," said my guide. "I didn't think of that."
I snorted. This guy was so not military. The older man shook his head. "Daniel, you've got to stop collecting strays." He stopped for a second. "How'd he get in here, anyways?"
"I was changing lightbulbs," I said. "You guys are switching over to the new energy-saving model."
There were many blinks. Then, "Daniel. Explain."
"So," Daniel started pacing excitedly, talking with his hands, "I was working on that translation for P...from the last trip. You know, the ancient poem?" He really laid on the emphasis on that word. "So I was reading it to get the rhythm, because it's a song, you see, and he," pointing at me, "corrected my pronunciation." There was a moment of silence, and Daniel added sulkily, "And told me my accent sucks."
"It does," I assured him. "You speak it like you've never even heard the language before."
The other blonde one, the female, spoke up. "He speaks...?"
Daniel nodded excitedly. "And then he told me to go...well, I'm not sure about all of it, but it had something to do with flexibility and goats."
"So, lemme get this straight." Older guy jumped back in. "This nobody-kid-"
"Excuse me," I interrupted. He brushed me off and continued.
"-is fluent enough in Ancient, a language never spoken on this planet, to insult you?"
I blinked. "You guys never had a Thari derivant? Huh." I knew they had a Chaos one; I even took a class in Ancient Egyptian Language and Culture at school. I'd assumed they'd have a Thari one as well. Most shadows had both or neither. This, I guessed, was one of the exceptions.
"What's Thari?" The woman asked.
"That's what the language is called. What do you call it here?" I returned.
"Well-" Daniel looked all set to give an explanation, when he was interrupted. Again. This guy was getting on my nerves.
"What do you mean, 'you guys'? And 'here'?" his eyes narrowed suspiciously at me. "Where are you from?"
"California," I responded blithely. I don't think anyone believed me.
Older Guy stared at me. Without moving his gaze, he said, "Hey, General. Jacob's still here, isn't he?"
"Yes," The bald man said. I was right; he was the commanding officer here. "He was scheduled to leave in an hour, but I think we can delay that." He rose and spoke to one of the men standing outside the door. Once the man had taken off, the General returned to his seat. "Now, son, tell us how you got here."
Well, that was subtle. "I just graduated from Berkley, and a friend said he had this great summer job all lined up, only he needed another electrical engineering major. We came, changed light bulbs, and then I was dragged here." There. Let them chew on that for a while. In the meantime, I studied the other person in the room.
He was a tall black man with a gold sigil on his forehead. He was very quiet and still, but something about him struck me wrong. I brought up the Logrus sight.
There was...something in his gut. I couldn't quite make out what it was. It was a kind of swirl of Logrus line, that almost looked like...a snake. A Chaos Snake. I swallowed. Lovely.
I let the Logrus go and began thinking this out. Chaos Snakes were not uncommon, but they were growing in annoyance again. They always seemed to have the weirdest ideas about taking over various shadows. I personally hated them, but the Courts suffered them because they upset the Amberites something fierce.
The others most likely knew about the Snake. It was still young and in incubation, and it was hard to miss the giant pouch they hibernated in. Even so, maybe I should warn them?
I didn't get as far as opening my mouth. Another man entered the room, and I assumed him to be the Jacob they'd sent for.
"George," he started, "if Jack's done something stupid again..." he trailed off upon seeing me. "Who's this?" He asked rather sharply.
"Merl Corey," I said. "Nice to meet you."
"Jacob Carter," he said automatically. "And what are you doing here, exactly?"
I shrugged. "I honestly don't know."
General George spoke up, "We were hoping you could tell us where he's from, Jacob."
Jacob sent me a startled glance. "Huh?"
"He speaks Ancient," Older Guy put in. Names. I needed names. "Fluently."
Jacob stared at me again. "Huh."
As long as there was evaluating going on, I called up the Logrus sight again. I got only long enough to confirm he did indeed have a Chaos Snake in his head before he screeched in the distinctive double-timbered voice. Yup, this guy definitely had a Snake.
"Son of the Snake, Lord of Chaos!" The Snake hissed, falling back to the floor.
"Yup," I confirmed. "What of it?"
"In the Serpent's name, I banish thee! Begone!"
I laughed. I laughed so hard it hurt. Was this Snake for real? Trying to banish a Lord of Chaos? With words?
The Snake faltered. "You...you're not gone."
I smiled, still amused. "No. No, I'm not. But I'm also not here to harm you or kill you, so chill. Actually," I told it, "The Courts are really happy with you guys right now. I think Julian might be gearing up for a Snake-hunt, though."
The Snake fell even further back. "The Scourge!"
"Yeah, I forgot you call him that," I said, shaking my head. Uncle Julian hated Snakes with a passion, and took it upon himself to go on a killing spree every once in a while, or whenever they'd been particularly uppity.
"Uh, Selmac? What's going on?" That was Older Guy again. "Should we be worried?"
Yeah, these guys knew about snakes, so they certainly must know of the one their comrade carried. "No call to be worried," I told them all, "I'm only passing through."
"Thank God," said Jacob, the host. "I don't really get this Chaos/Amber thing, but Selmac is pretty much hyperventilating in a corner somewhere."
"Sorry," I said honestly. "I'm really not here hunting or passing down a decree. Last I checked though, this shadow was pretty Snake-free."
Jacob frowned. "Shadow?"
"World, whatever," I said, waving a hand. Let them call it what they liked.
"Ah," said Daniel, "Well, you see, it was..."
Jacob interrupted what was sure to be an interesting story. "I'm sorry, but Selmac wants to know if the Scourge is really coming. She won't calm down."
I frowned. "He'd been talking about it, but if he hasn't done it yet, then I think it isn't likely to happen after all." This, of course, was a lie, but I really wanted to hear this story.
"Holy crap," said Jacob, obviously viewing this Selmak's memories. "That thing's a horse?"
"No," I said. "That thing is Morgenstern, and he is so much more than a horse. Now, snakes? Here?"
"Yes," Daniel started, but Older Guy raised a finger and made an ah! noise. "Oh, come on, Jack," Daniel complained. "He speaks Ancient. He knows the Tok'ra. There's not much left that's classified."
"Doesn't matter. I don't know how he knows what he knows, but I want to know."
There was a moment as everyone tried to disentangle that sentence. Finally, I said, "Look, you guys can give me the runaround and bury this in red tape and I can go away, or you can tell me what I want to know and we'll see if I can help."
"Ooh, help," the lady murmured.
The general gave me a long, hard look, and then turned to Jacob. "What do we know about him?"
"Standing right here," I reminded him, and everyone ignored me.
"I'm not sure," Jacob frowned. "You said your name was Merl...?"
"Ah," I said. I wasn't sure how familiar this Selmak was with the Courts or Amber, but I decided it would be best to leave off some of my more official titles. "I am Merlin, son of Corwin, lost Prince of Amber, and of Dara, Queen of the Courts of Chaos."
It took a second, but then Jacob said, "Oh. Um. Beg pardon, you highness-ness. Uh, lord. Whatever, sorry. But yes, he has the power to help us, definitely. I think this could be a good thing."
"You think?" the general asked.
"Are you wondering whether you can trust me?" I asked. "Because that's kind of a redundant question, don't you think? Any answer I give will be the wrong one."
"Well, that all depends," he answered. "Why, exactly, do we need to trust you? What can you offer us?"
"Dunno," I shrugged. "Mostly, I'm just interested in seeing how you travel between shadows and how far the Snakes have spread this time."
Looks were traded, and the general said, "Jack, Jacob, can I see you in my office, please?"
Jack, I thought, and matched it with his face in my memory. The three left, and I pulled out a chair at the table without being invited.
"Cool," I said. "Hey, can I get your names?"
It took them about twenty minutes, in which time I made friends with Daniel and Sam and Teal'c, who seemed quite impressed by my ability to correctly pronounce his name.
Sam was smart, very smart. We had a brief, but fascinating conversation about theoretical computational science, and I made mental notes for future projects. It was nice, talking to someone else who didn't have a firm grasp on what was impossible.
Daniel wanted to talk about Thari, which amused me. I explained to him how he was using the corrupted grammar structure, and how it varied from the original, and he soon was taking furious notes, and quickly became lost in his own mutterings and scribbles.
I had just turned to Teal'c when the door reopened, and the three men shuffled back in, retaking their seats.
I turned to face General Hammond, as Daniel had called him.
"Here's the deal," he started. "We'll take you on the full tour, and then you help us take out a few System Lords. How does that sound?"
I grinned. "Sure. I'll point Uncle Julian towards this area. Just hide all your friendly Snakes, mmkay?"
Jacob's Snake whimpered, and then Jacob said, "That might be surprisingly effective."
"Yeah?" Jack asked. "How so?"
"Julian really really hates Snakes, but really likes to hunt," I informed him. "Don't worry, it'll go fine."
"Think of a localized, Goa'uld-homing nuclear warhead," Jacob said. "And then multiply the efficiency by about three."
Sam, Daniel and Hammond winced, and Jack grinned. "I like this plan," he said.
I did, too. Minimal work in exchange for my requests, and I never particularly cared for the Snakes, myself.
"So, the travel device...?" I prompted.
"Oh, right," Jack said, and stood. "Here, follow me."
I did, and the rest trailed behind me. We headed back out, down a corridor and some stairs, and ended up in a room that had a window. And through that window, there was a giant stone ring.
"Really?" I said. "Oh, huh; that makes sense, I guess."
"What?" Hammond asked. "How does that 'make sense'? Have you seen one before?"
"Oh. Well, not quite, but I think I kind of invented it," I said, scratching at the side of my head.
A chorus of "What?" went up behind me as I pressed closer to the window. Yes, the symbols were new, but the shape and the purpose... It was clearly a reflection of my Ghostwheel.
"I hadn't really expected it would happen this fast," I mused aloud. "Of course, with time being relative, and all...Hmm. I'll have to adjust for that."
"No, really, what do you mean?" Sam asked me. "You made the 'Gate?"
"Only on accident," I said. "How long has this been around?"
"It was rediscovered in 1928, but dates back to Ancient Egypt, we think..." Daniel started, and I tuned him out.
If it really was Ghostwheel casting reflections through shadows, then was it retroactive, or just from the point of first access? How many similar shadows would it infest? How did it synchronize for travel, and what were the effects of shadow-hopping that fast? There were so may questions.
"Can I hang around for a while?" I asked abruptly. "There's some research I want to do."
"Please do!" Daniel said. "I'd like to talk to you some more about Ancient—I mean, Thari."
Hammond asked, "Can you explain to us how the Stargate works? We're kind of working in the dark."
"I can definitely explain some stuff to Sam, here," I said, and she might even be able to help me figure out when the reflection had developed. In any case, it was better to work from their collected data than to start from scratch.
"Is this part of the impossible machine you mentioned...?" Sam asked, and I smiled.
"It's a reflection of an impossible quantitative analysis device designed to traverse dimensions and shadows, yes," I said, and her eyes lit up.
"Can we keep him?" She asked Jack. He frowned, but I laughed.
"You can try," I said. "But in the meantime, can I take a closer look?"
I only ended up staying for a week. It was interesting, to say the very least, but then Mandor called me home, and I had to go.
When I exited the base again, I blinked in the sudden sunlight, and then smiled. I'd call up Ghostwheel later, have him keep an eye on this facility and team. It wouldn't do to have something happen to them before I finished my research. Or at all, actually; I quite liked Daniel and Sam, and I didn't mind Jacob or Teal'c, though I could leave the rest of them.
Still, I made a mental note to drop back by next time I was in town, and drove back down the mountain.
"Say, Uncle Julian, you'll never guess who I ran into the other day..."
Sing a song of Scourges, a pocketful of Snakes,
Four and one together, what a team they make,
And when the 'Gate is open, the Snakes begin to cry;
Taking down the System Lords, and home in time for pie!