Debt Of Blood
Part 11: To walk apart from House and Queen…
Cierre stumbled slightly as she emerged onto the ramp at the SGC. Jack and Teal’c simultaneously moved to assist her.
“You alright, Cierre?” Jack asked. He expected that she would be suffering from the momentary disorientation that usually afflicted people on their first Gate trips.
“It was longer than I expected,” Cierre said. Her lips curved into an unexpected smile. “As the priestess of Sune said to the barbarian.”
“It was quite a pleasurable experience, and I look forward to doing it again,” Cierre added.
Jack raised an eyebrow. “Don’t tell me, the priestess said that too.”
“She could well have done,” Cierre said, her smile growing broader. “I was stating a fact and it did not occur to me that it would also fit the jest.”
General Hammond was waiting beyond the foot of the ramp, flanked by the rather less welcome figure of Dr Rodney McKay, and the usual precautionary guards with weapons leveled. The General’s eyebrows rose high. “Welcome back, SG-1,” he said. “Who is your… guest, Colonel?”
“This is Cierre,” Jack said. “A native of Toril, that’s what the locals call… uh…”
“P3A-219,” Carter filled in.
“Yeah. Anyway, she helped us out. A lot. Risked her life for us. And she’s a damn fine fighter. In the same league as Teal’c, sir.”
Hammond’s eyes narrowed. “Are you bringing her here as… a recruit?”
“Subject to your approval, of course, sir,” Jack said. “Cierre, this is General Hammond, our boss.”
“I am pleased to meet you, General Hammond,” Cierre said, and then turned to Jack and added “He will not understand me. I must put on a translation amulet.”
“My God,” Rodney McKay said. “She’s a Drow.” His jaw had been hanging open. He snapped it shut, swallowed, and spoke again. “Welcome. What is your name?”
Cierre froze in the middle of accepting an amulet from Daniel. She jerked her head around and stared at McKay. “I am Cierre. You speak my language?”
“A… small part,” McKay replied. “I hope we shall be trusted friends. What House are you?”
“What language is that, Dr McKay?” General Hammond asked.
“Drow, or Ilythiiri,” McKay answered. “It’s an invented language, like Klingon, very loosely based on Tolkien’s Sindarin. It comes from Dungeons and Dragons.”
General Hammond took his seat at the head of the briefing table and gestured for SG-1 to sit down. “I’m ready for your report, Colonel,” he said.
“It’ll take a while,” Jack replied. “You might want to consider getting in some popcorn.”
“Let’s start with the main points,” Hammond said. “You went on a simple little mission, which shouldn’t have taken more than a day or two, and come back two weeks later accompanied by… a character from a fantasy role-playing game.”
“A member of a race from a fantasy role-playing game,” Daniel corrected him. “McKay didn’t say she was actually a character.”
“That doesn’t make it any more explicable,” Hammond said.
“The drow do feature in Scottish legend,” Daniel said, “and I expect that’s where the game designer found his inspiration.” His brow furrowed, “Gary… Gygax, if I remember right.”
“Yep, that’s the guy,” Jack confirmed. “He appeared in an episode of Futurama.”
“Just tell me what happened, from the beginning,” Hammond ordered.
“I think we’d better just make it a brief précis for now, sir,” Sam said. ““I don’t think we should leave Cierre with Dr McKay for too long. He can be very… annoying, to say the least, and Cierre really isn’t the safest person to annoy.”
“Agreed,” Hammond said. “Just give me the overall outline. Colonel, if you’d begin?”
Jack obeyed. Daniel chipped in with a few points, as did Sam, and Teal’c added a couple of brief but pertinent observations about the battles. When they’d finished General Hammond leaned back in his chair, sat for a moment frowning, and then leaned forward.
“It’s almost unbelievable,” he said.
“And we haven’t even mentioned the biker chick angel with a taste for Jimi Hendrix songs,” Jack said.
“I trust you’re joking, Colonel,” General Hammond said.
Jack shook his head. “No, sir, I’m telling it like it is. Her name was Egeria, like the Queen of the Tok’ra, but not the same person.”
“She, uh, prophesized that we’d find the missing Tok’ra Queen,” Daniel put in, “but said that she wasn’t allowed to tell us where the other Egeria was because ‘others’, outside Toril, would regard it as interference.”
“It all sounded very much like what Orlin told me about the rules imposed by the Ascended,” Sam added. “She confirmed that she was an Ascended Being but I don’t think it’s quite the same sort of Ascension that we’ve encountered before.”
“Yeah, Orlin and Oma Desala didn’t have wings,” Jack said.
“Wings?” Hammond’s eyebrows rose.
“Wings, with feathers, and she could fly. She called herself an angel, and she fit the description,” Jack said, “apart from her clothes. She went in for black leather and chains. Well, except when we interrupted her in the bath.”
“One of our… allies called her for help in a fight,” Sam explained, as Hammonds eyebrows seemed to be in danger of tearing themselves free from his head and shooting up twenty-eight floors to the open air. “She materialized dripping wet and wearing a towel.”
“She was a warrior of truly remarkable prowess,” Teal’c contributed. “I believe that she would most properly be described as an ‘archangel’ in your terminology.”
“Wizards, dragons, angels,” General Hammond said, shaking his head. “It all seems more like a… bad movie than a mission.” He narrowed his eyes. “The Tok’ra told us that the planet was an uninhabitable ball of ice fifteen years ago.”
“And the Tok’ra never make mistakes? It’s habitable, it has a large population, and a history that goes back thousands of years. Either the Tok’ra meant some completely different planet,” Jack said, “or else the local Ascended Beings just made them think they were seeing it like that.”
“Or,” Hammond suggested, “the Tok’ra information is accurate and you’ve been in a virtual reality environment, in a chamber under the ice sheet, this whole time.”
Jack rolled his eyes. “What, like on the planet with that crazy Keeper guy?”
“P7J-989,” Sam supplied. “It was nothing like that, sir.”
“I think Cierre’s pretty much hard evidence that it was real,” Jack said.
“She could be a native inhabitant who had also been in the virtual reality environment,” Hammond suggested, “released by you accidentally.”
“What about the devices we brought back? And Carter has photos, even movies,” Jack pointed out.
Hammond sighed. “I know, I know, it’s not really a valid idea. I’m simply clutching at straws.” He raised a hand to his face and ran a finger along his chin. “I think perhaps we should bring in another perspective on this.”
Sam just about suppressed a groan. “You mean Dr McKay?”
“He does speak Cierre’s language,” Jack said. “Maybe he might know something. That’s assuming she hasn’t cut out his tongue, of course.” He saw an expression of alarm on General Hammond’s face. “Not that she would,” he reassured the General. “It’s just… Dr McKay. He can be…”
“Irritating,” Sam finished for him. “And arrogant. Smug. Downright infuriating.”
“He was acting more like a… fan, with her,” Daniel said. “I think he’s safe.”
“I’ll have him brought in here,” Hammond said.
“What about Cierre?” Jack asked.
“I think it would be best to keep her out of it for now,” Daniel said. “If we’re going to be questioning the fundamental basis of her world… she might not take it well.”
“We can’t leave her to roam the base unsupervised,” Hammond said.
“I will act as a guide to Cierre of Luruar,” Teal’c volunteered. “I do not think that I will be able to make any significant contribution to your discussion. Perhaps I will take her to the gymnasium. I would like to test the belt of strength to determine exactly how much it increases my abilities. I believe that she would find similar physical activity an acceptable way of passing time until your meeting is concluded.”
“Thank you, Teal’c,” Hammond said. “That would be a big help.”
“You be careful with your extra strength, big guy,” Jack cautioned Teal’c. “Don’t go breaking any of the gym equipment.”
“Your warning is unnecessary, O’Neill,” Teal’c said. “I shall not. And I shall endeavor to prevent Cierre of Luruar from doing so as well.”
“In her case,” Jack said, “I’m more worried about her breaking people.”
“It’s absolutely incredible,” McKay gushed. His grin was so wide it looked as if it was in danger of splitting his face apart. “A real Drow from Menzoberranzan. It’s impossible. It invalidates all the laws of science… but I don’t care.”
“If you would take a seat, Dr McKay,” General Hammond prompted.
“And calm down,” Jack said. “Just why is it impossible? She’s here. Therefore, not impossible.”
McKay still hadn’t sat down. “Not impossible? Do you realize that Cierre has actually met Drizzt Do’Urden?”
Jack tried to raise one eyebrow but found that the other one, despite his efforts to keep it down, crept up to join its twin. “Why is that impossible? I’ve met lots of people.”
McKay put his hands on the back of his chair and leaned forward over the table. “He’s a literary character. Completely fictional. It’s as if Dr Jackson had met Indiana Jones or you’d met… someone from a Dale Brown or Tom Clancy novel. Or you came back through the Stargate accompanied by, say, Wedge Antilles.”
“Or somebody claiming to be Wedge,” Jack said. “We know there were people from Earth there. One of them probably used the name. We never got to meet them but Sharwyn knew them.”
“Ah, Sharwyn,” McKay said. He pulled his chair out and, at last, sat down. “The red-haired bard, one of the six available companions of the Hero of Neverwinter, and she turns up again in the sequel.”
“The… sequel?” Jack exchanged glances with Daniel and Sam.
“The ‘Hordes of the Underdark’ expansion pack for ‘Neverwinter Nights’,” McKay explained. “You know? The computer game?”
“Computer… game?” Jack pulled himself together. Echoing McKay’s words made him sound like a parrot. “Look, this wasn’t any virtual reality thing. I’ve been in one and I know. We got sweaty, our clothes got filthy, we had to go to the bathroom…”
“My allergies played up when we were locked up in cells with straw on the floors,” Daniel added, “and I was snuffling and sneezing for a while, although they cleared up after Lady Cold Circle healed me. How could that have happened in virtual reality?”
“And what about all the things we brought back with us?” Sam raised her arms and displayed the bracers she still wore on her wrists. “These, for instance?”
“Yeah, and with this on,” Jack held up a translation amulet, “I can speak Russian. Confused the Hell out of Colonel Chekov when I bumped into him near the infirmary.”
“We brought back thirty-two of them,” Daniel said. “Enough for each SG team to have at least one, even if we can’t duplicate them. They’re solid, they’re not part of any virtual reality, and they work for anyone who puts one on. I would have thought they were pretty convincing evidence even if you can, somehow, overlook Cierre.”
“Which you can’t,” Jack said. He folded his arms. “Case proven.”
“Case not proven,” McKay said, shaking his head. “I never said anything about virtual reality. I think someone has built their own fantasy world… life-size.”
“Well, it’s a step up from painting little figures in your bedroom,” Jack said. “I wonder what they use for dice. Asteroids?”
“If you could just explain in plain English, Dr McKay,” General Hammond said.
“It’s a setting for Dungeons and Dragons games,” McKay explained. “The cities of Neverwinter and Luskan, the continent of Faerûn, and the world of Toril; collectively known, in the game supplements and novels, as the Forgotten Realms. Probably the most detailed and consistent imaginary world ever created. Of course Ed Greenwood, who came up with it in the first place, is a Canadian.”
“Yeah, he would be,” Jack said. “What are you getting at? You think this guy Ed Greenwood found out about Toril? Went there, maybe?”
McKay arched his eyebrows and raised his gaze to the heavens, or at least toward where the heavens would be if twenty-eight floors of the Cheyenne Mountain complex weren’t in the way, and sighed. “That’s the exact opposite of what I’m saying. He was writing stories about the Forgotten Realms when I was a kid. How could he have gone through the Stargate then? And the computer game, with the Wailing Death plague and the return of the Old Ones, came out a couple of years ago. The expansion pack was last year. Life is imitating art, not the other way around.”
“You’re saying that events on Toril are following the course of the game?” Sam’s incredulity was clear in her voice.
“And now she gets it.” McKay folded his arms and leaned back in his chair.
“How in the Sam Hill is that possible?” asked General Hammond.
“Ah. Well, that’s the part I haven’t totally figured out yet,” McKay admitted. “I have a tentative hypothesis. As I understand it, you deduced that the gods of the Faerûnian pantheon are Ascended Beings, right?”
“I don’t see what else they can be,” Daniel said, “although they’re not a lot like the ones we’ve met before.”
“I believe they decided to go one step further,” McKay speculated, “and play at being gods for real. A while ago, probably in the past fifteen years, they visited Earth and heard about Dungeons and Dragons. They found an Earth-sized planet, thawed it out, terraformed it to match the descriptions of Toril, and stocked it with the appropriate life forms. Then they took on the identities of the gods and started to play.”
“You have got to be kidding us,” Jack said. “Cierre claims to be a hundred and thirty nine years old. Even if she’s shooting a line she still has to be at least twenty-five.”
“Indoctrinated with the back-story,” McKay said, “and convinced that her fake memories are true.”
“Dr McKay…” Sam said.
“Call me Rodney,” McKay interrupted.
“Dr McKay,” Sam said again, with added emphasis, “that’s the most ridiculous flight of wild speculation I’ve ever heard.”
“Oh? Do you have a better idea?”
“I have,” Sam said. “Time travel.”
“Of course!” Daniel jumped in. “That would explain everything.”
“Not to me,” said General Hammond.
“We know there are people from Earth on Toril,” Sam elaborated. “We don’t know how, or who they are, but they’re definitely there.”
“Probably a Rogue NID group we didn’t find when we broke up Maybourne’s operation,” Jack suggested.
“Possibly, sir. Anyway, I think they’ll leave Toril in the near future, try to return to Earth, but get diverted by a solar flare and go back in time. The way we did.”
“Back to 1969?” Jack asked.
“Not necessarily 1969, sir, but it would fit,” Sam said. “Either then or to sometime in the 70s. They probably realized that anyone they told about what they’d done would think they were crazy. So, instead, they pretended it was a fantasy world, and either wrote stories about it, or told other people who wrote the stories.”
McKay pursed his lips. “I have to admit it’s feasible,” he said. “It doesn’t quite fit with what I know about the creation of the Forgotten Realms setting but the accepted account might not be accurate. How do you explain the Tok’ra saying that the planet was one big ice-sheet?”
“Which would be easier?” Sam asked. “Thawing a planet out from a ‘Snowball Earth’ ice age, stocking it with plant life, animals of every type from insects up to people – and monsters – and then giving all the people fake backgrounds, or faking out an orbiting spacecraft so that it sees what they want it to see?”
“Well, when you put it like that,” McKay conceded, “your idea is certainly simpler than mine.” He sucked in one cheek, let it out, and then sucked in the other. “That might mean you’re more likely to be right. Occam’s Razor. It doesn’t feel right to me, somehow, but I can’t come up with any logical arguments against it.”
“You’ve both completely lost me,” Jack said. “I never thought I’d come across anything where time travel was the simple explanation.”
Across the table Daniel murmured the dread word “Fascinating.”
“All I want to know,” said General Hammond, “is if this world poses any threat to us, or if it offers any opportunities.”
“It’s not a threat,” Sam said.
“Unless my hypothesis is correct,” McKay said, “in which case doing anything to annoy the Faerûnian gods, or the entities playing their roles, would be a very bad mistake. If they can turn an ice-ball planet into a fertile one then they could do the reverse to Earth.”
“Aren’t they forbidden from directly interfering with the affairs of mortals?” Daniel put in.
“I’d prefer not to rely on that prohibition,” McKay said, “just in case it’s more of a guideline.”
“I can’t see us doing anything to annoy them,” Jack said. “We have to be in Auril’s good books, and Talona’s, and Shar seemed to be pretty okay with us.”
“Those are all evil goddesses,” McKay pointed out.
“Not from where I’m standing,” Jack said. “Egeria was the Herald of Shar and she was… nice. Lethal as they come, sure, but then you could say the same about Carter. Loviatar, now, she’s evil with a capital E.”
“According to the books I found,” Daniel said, “there were some big changes a couple of years ago. Some of the Evil gods, uh, lightened up.”
“I must read those books,” McKay said.
“They’re written in an obscure script, and a language which resembles a mix of German, Welsh, and Hungarian,” Daniel pointed out. “You’d need one of the translation amulets to read them.”
“The Thorass alphabet, and the Common Tongue,” McKay said, “and of course it’s always rendered as English in the game books so I’ve never learned it. Okay, then, let me have one of the amulets.”
“Remember, Dr McKay, you’ll be going back to Russia soon,” Hammond said. “Now that SG-1 is back, and they can read the symbols on the Gate, there isn’t any reason for you to stay.”
“But I hate it in Russia,” McKay whined.
“That can’t be helped,” Hammond said. “Your assistance with their naquadah generator program is part of our deal with the Russians. As long as you’re on the Air Force payroll you’ll follow orders – and those orders are that you go back to Russia.” His tone softened. “I can let you stay until the day after tomorrow. No longer.”
“I could always…” McKay began, and then he stopped and pulled a face. “Okay. You win. Let me have one of those amulets, and a book, and I’ll get reading.”
“If you’ve quite finished,” Hammond said, “perhaps we can get back to my question? Does the planet pose any kind of threat?”
“Not unless we do something really dumb,” Jack said, “such as sending missionaries. I think that would be an incredibly bad idea.”
“Missionaries aren’t part of our remit at the SGC,” Hammond said.
“As long as Kinsey doesn’t get control over us, anyway,” Daniel muttered.
Hammond ignored the comment. “If we’re agreed it isn’t a threat, what about opportunities?”
“Well, there is naquadah on the planet,” Sam said, “but the subterranean civilizations that have access to it aren’t friendly. Getting hold of it might be a problem.”
“Naquadah? Faerzress comes from naquadah?” McKay leaned forward and raised his eyebrows.
“Naquadah comes from naquadah? What are you talking about?” Sam asked.
Jack realized that Sam still had her translation amulet around her neck. He slipped his on. “Say that again, Dr McKay,” he said.
McKay, his brows furrowed in apparent confusion, obliged. “Naquadah is naquadah,” he said.
“Whatever the word was that you said in some other language comes out as ‘naquadah’ through the amulet,” Jack said. “That pretty much confirms that they’re the same thing.”
“Amazing!” McKay exclaimed. “So a real element fills the place of the fictional substance invented for the game world.”
Jack groaned. “Please, don’t start all that again,” he pleaded. “Can we get back to the topic of what they have that we want?”
“Certainly, sir,” Sam said. “So, there’s naquadah there, but it would be difficult to obtain. Maybe something to think about long-term. In the short term they have lots of things we could use, what they call ‘magic items’, but most of all we need their medicines. They have potions with effects that are almost miraculous.”
“They are miraculous,” McKay said. “Divine magic.”
“I don’t believe in magic,” Sam said. “There’s a rational explanation for everything. The potions accelerate the natural healing processes of the body to an incredible extent – like having an improved Goa’uld healing device in a bottle – but that’s all.”
“And how do you explain…?” McKay began, and the two scientists were off into a long and convoluted discussion that had Jack’s eyes glazing over within the first minute.
Eventually General Hammond brought them to a halt. “All I want to know,” he said, “is if we can synthesize them. And if we can duplicate things like those… bags that are bigger on the inside than the outside…”
“Bags of Holding,” McKay interjected.
“…and the translation devices.”
Sam shook her head. “I don’t think so,” she said. She rambled on for a while, giving reasons, and – for once – McKay actually agreed with her. As far as Jack was concerned she might just as well have said one word. “No.”
Hammond sighed. “We’ll have to work out a way of trading for them, then. That’s your job, Dr Jackson.”
“I should be involved in that,” McKay said. “I know more about the world.”
Jack couldn’t let that pass. “Hey, McKay, which of us has actually been there?”
“None of you recognized where you were,” McKay said.
“I hardly think you’re the only person on this base who has played Dungeons and Dragons,” General Hammond said. “You can have some input, Dr McKay, but you’re still going back to Russia on schedule.”
Jack waited until McKay gave up protesting and then raised the one matter that was still outstanding. “Sir,” he said, ignoring McKay and fixing his gaze on Hammond. “What about Cierre?”
“Yes,” said Hammond. “The alien, or perhaps fictional character, who you’ve brought to the SGC. Just what do you expect us to do with her?”
“Recruit her,” Jack said. “She’d make a great member of an SG team. Tough, resourceful, she never gives up, and she’s better at close combat than anyone we’re going to find on Earth.”
“She even impressed Teal’c, sir,” Sam chimed in.
McKay rubbed his hands together. “It’s an incredible opportunity,” he said. “You can’t pass up the chance to have the Hero of Neverwinter working for you.”
“Oh, she’s not the Hero of Neverwinter,” Daniel corrected him. “That was Kenadi Nefret. Cierre killed her.”
“So, Cierre,” Jack said to Cierre, “what do you think of our world so far?”
She arched an eyebrow. “I have seen only a portion of your lair beneath the ground. It is not much on which to base an opinion. I am impressed by your training facilities, and the arrangement by which heated water sprays for bathing purposes is both cunning and pleasant, and thus far I have been treated with courtesy. The small woman who took our blood with needles had the firmness of a Matron Mother yet also the kindness of a priestess of Eldath or Eilistraee. I liked her.”
“Indeed Janet Fraiser is both determined and compassionate,” Teal’c agreed, “and is well liked by all of the people in this base.”
“You were in error when you said that my race was unknown in this world,” Cierre went on, “for Rodney knows the Drow well.”
‘Rodney?’ Jack thought, exchanging a glance with Sam and seeing her eyebrows shoot up, but he managed to hold back from making any comment out loud.
“He knows the stories I mentioned,” Daniel said. “I hadn’t realized they were actually about your world. It, uh, must be something to do with the people from Earth Sharwyn mentioned.”
“No doubt,” Cierre said. She didn’t sound particularly interested. Suddenly her face lit up. “There are many men in this place,” she said, “tall, well-muscled, and handsome. They do not look upon me with contempt or fear. On the contrary some of them seem to desire me. I should be able to get fucked on a regular basis.”
Sam’s cheeks became tinged with red. Daniel swallowed hard and blushed so intensely that his cheeks would have stopped traffic in fog. Teal’c raised an eyebrow.
“Uh, Carter,” Jack suggested, once he was able to speak, “this might be the time to have a word with Cierre about Air Force Instruction 36-2903-2.5.”
Sam’s brow furrowed. “Air Force policy on tattoos and body piercings?”
“I meant the civilian fraternization rules,” Jack said. “The same ones Daniel has to follow.”
“That would be 36-2909-3.2, sir,” Sam said, with a slight roll of her eyes. “Professional and unprofessional relationships for civilian employees.”
“There are rules governing who I may fuck?” Cierre’s white eyebrows climbed into view over the rims of the sunglasses she still wore. “I like that not.”
“Uh, it’s, uh, necessary for discipline,” Jack said. “Explain it to her, Carter.”
This time Sam’s eye-roll would have been envied by a chameleon. She said something under her breath that Jack suspected was “Coward”. She heaved a sigh. “Oh, very well, sir,” she said, “but not here. This is girl talk and requires privacy and some specialized accompaniments. Chocolate and ice cream.”
“She’s not human,” Janet Fraiser told the group assembled around the briefing room table. Once more Teal’c was looking after Cierre while the other members of SG-1, together with General Hammond and Rodney McKay, discussed the prospective new recruit.
“Tell me something I don’t know, Doc,” Jack said.
Janet clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “Which one of us performed the analysis of her DNA, Colonel?”
“You,” Jack conceded, “but I’ve seen her ears. They were enough of a clue.”
Janet rolled her eyes. “They’re the least of the differences. Her eyes are considerably more unlike those of humans. She can see much further into both the infra-red and the ultra-violet than we can and she has a tapetum lucidum.”
“A reflective coating behind the retina of her eyes,” Janet explained. “It’s an adaption to low-light vision, the same thing a cat has, and it’s why her eyes have that amber glow. She’s a natural-born night fighter.”
“I’d noticed,” Jack said.
“The down side,” Janet went on, “is that her vision is a quite a lot worse in bright daylight. Sunglasses aren’t a convenience for her, they’re a necessity.”
“That explains why she glommed onto Carter’s so enthusiastically,” Jack said.
“Which reminds me, sir,” Sam put in, “you still haven’t bought me the replacements you promised.”
“Hey, give me a chance,” Jack said. “We’ve only been back a day.”
General Hammond sighed. Jack took the hint and fell silent.
Janet returned to the topic of Cierre’s physiology. “Her teeth re-grow to replace lost or worn-out ones,” she said.
“Neat,” Jack said.
“Because of her extended life-span,” Daniel deduced.
Janet nodded. “She tells me they can live for over two thousand years,” she said. “She looks like a young woman of about twenty-five because, in their terms, she is one.”
“I get the thing with the teeth,” Jack commented. “If they wore out the way ours do the drow would have to live on soup for centuries. Not a lot of fun.”
“Amazing,” Rodney McKay said. “There isn’t anything about the teeth in the game material but it’s so totally logical. If my hypothesis about it being an artificially-constructed environment is correct the creators must have put huge amounts of thought into it.”
“Whereas if my time travel idea is right then it’s just a little detail that the travelers from Earth forgot about, or never knew about, and so didn’t mention when they described Toril to that Ed Greenwood guy,” Sam said.
“I wonder,” General Hammond digressed, “if we should question that writer, and the other man, the one who invented Dungeons and Dragons.”
McKay shook his head. “Gary Gygax is ill,” he said. “I heard he had a stroke recently. We should just leave him alone. I guess we could have a word with Ed Greenwood but I don’t see where it will get us. If he did get the original idea from Gate travelers who went back in time it must have been thirty-five years ago. How much is he going to be able to tell us that’s any use?”
“We might end up giving away more than we learn,” Sam added. “I don’t think it’s worth it, sir. If there was a security breach it dates back to 1969. Any damage has already been done.” She gave a slight shrug. “Mainly we’d be just settling the argument between myself and Dr McKay and I don’t see the point of putting much effort into that.”
“Very well,” Hammond said, “I won’t make it a high priority. We’ll nose around a little, and try and find out something about those names you mentioned, when there isn’t much else happening. Dr Fraiser, is there anything else we should know about the young lady’s physiology?”
“You can’t call her a ‘young lady’, sir,” Janet pointed out, “seeing as how she was born about the time Sherman was marching from Atlanta to the sea.”
“I’ll try to remember,” Hammond said, “but she looks about the right age to be a lieutenant, at most. Calling her ‘young lady’ is almost automatic. Unless we give her a military rank… Go on, Dr Fraiser.”
“Yes, sir. Actually, I’ve covered most things. She has almost no body hair. Her skin cells are extremely high in melanin, as is fairly obvious from her appearance, but low in 7-dehydrocholesterol. That means she probably needs to include significant quantities of oily fish, eggs, or mushrooms in her diet to avoid suffering from Vitamin D deficiency.”
Jack ignored the scientific terminology and latched on to the essentials. “Feed her mushrooms. Not a problem, they’re her favorite food.”
“Not since she discovered ice cream,” Sam put in.
“She’s exactly the same height as Major Carter, and only a couple of pounds heavier,” Janet went on, “but Cierre’s at least fifty per cent stronger even without her gadgets. With them, well, she ties with Colonel Dixon as the strongest person on the base behind Teal’c.”
“Her clothes fit me as if they were made for me,” Sam said. “She can’t have bigger muscles, so how come she’s so much stronger?”
“Her muscle fibers are more efficient, and a little more densely packed,” Janet explained. “The rest of it is probably down to her swinging three-pound swords around for a century.”
Jack nodded. He’d felt the weight of her swords.
“Her blood is a little unusual, not matching any of the known types,” Janet went on. “She wouldn’t be able to receive transfusions from any normal source. If she joined an SG team we’d have to keep some of her own blood in storage. Oh, and she does have naquadah in her bloodstream, but what she doesn’t have is the protein marker left by a Goa’uld symbiote. She probably wouldn’t be able to use their hand devices.”
“Is she an entirely alien species or is she descended from humans?” Hammond asked.
“She’s of hominid ancestry,” Janet said, “but separated from the human line of descent a very long time ago. Two hundred thousand years at the very least. Or else more recently but with a lot of genetic engineering.”
Daniel suddenly sat up very straight in his chair. “Nobody finds out about this,” he said. “Nobody. You’ll have to edit your findings, Janet.”
It was the voice Daniel used when he was deadly serious about something. If you ignored him when he spoke like that bad things happened; Goa’uld invasions, ancient death traps nearly killing Teal’c, that sort of thing. Why was he using it when they were just talking about Cierre being genetically modified… to live for… two thousand years…? “Daniel’s right,” Jack said. “If word gets out that she’s a hundred and thirty-nine but looks twenty-five then some people are going to want to take her apart to find out how.”
Sam grimaced. “Like Adrian Conrad’s people tried to do to me,” she said.
“Good call, Daniel,” Jack said.
General Hammond pursed his lips and steepled his fingers. “I think you have good reason to be wary,” he said. “Certain parties…”
Jack put his hand to his mouth. “Cough… Kinsey… cough… Maybourne… cough.”
“Nasty cough you have there, Colonel,” Hammond remarked. “As I was saying, certain… unnamed… parties would go to extreme lengths if they thought they could get their hands on an… immortality serum. They wouldn’t let moral considerations stand in their way.”
“If they tried to snatch Cierre it could get messy, sir,” Jack said. “Dead bodies, missing limbs, and that would mean paperwork. Better it doesn’t happen in the first place.”
“Agreed, Colonel,” Hammond said. “If – and I repeat if – we take Cierre on to join the SGC I’ll make sure her documentation shows her date of birth as 1979 instead of 1865.”
“I don’t think my observations about Cierre’s teeth really need to be included in my reports,” Janet said, “and a lady’s age is nobody’s business but her own. I’ll stick to those aspects that would affect her performance in the field.”
“Which brings us back to the question of if we should recruit her,” Hammond said. “Do you really think she’d be an asset to the SGC, Colonel?”
“Definitely, sir,” Jack said, “and I’m sure the rest of the team will back me up.” Daniel and Sam did so, with conviction, immediately.
“Very well,” Hammond said, “I’ll accept that she has something to offer the SGC. The question is, Colonel, do we have anything to offer her?”
Jack blinked. “Sir?”
“She doesn’t have any personal stake in our conflict against the Goa’uld,” Hammond expanded. “We have nothing to offer her except, as a great man once said, ‘Blood, toil, tears and sweat’. I’m not sure why she’d want to put herself through that for us. Unless she’s hoping to take Earth weapons back to Toril…”
“She likes us,” Jack said.
“That sounds rather slender motivation,” Hammond said.
“You haven’t seen her in action,” Jack said. “She’s a natural-born small unit combat specialist who’s spent the past fifteen years operating alone. Joining up with us, and Sharwyn and Tomi, was like… coming home for her. She belongs in a small combat team. That’s not an option back where she comes from. Plus, I’m pretty sure there’s a contract out on her on Toril…”
“The drow are a gregarious people,” McKay put in. “They have a saying ‘To walk apart from House and Queen is to walk into the grave’. If she’s been an outcast and a loner for the past fifteen years it hasn’t been from choice. All we have to do is make her feel like part of the team and she’ll be happy.”
“There isn’t a place for her on SG-1,” Hammond said, “but I think I could place her on one of the other SG teams – once she’s been trained in firearms use, and a few other things, of course.”
“That’s great, sir,” Jack said.
“Of course now we have to solve the problem of her ears,” Sam said.
“Her ears, Carter?”
“Well, we can hardly invite her to see Earth and then just keep her confined to base,” Sam said, “but those ears would draw attention. I guess she’ll have to join Teal’c in the hat-wearers’ club.”
“Make them look fake,” McKay suggested. “She’ll just look like the kind of weirdo who dresses up as a fantasy role-play character.”
Jack bit back the comment about ‘takes one to know one’ that automatically rose to his lips. “That’s… not a bad idea,” he said instead.
“Very well, then, I’ll call this meeting over,” General Hammond announced. “I’ll interview Cierre shortly. Back to work, everyone.”
Janet Fraiser cornered Jack as they left the briefing room. “I want a word with you, Colonel O’Neill,” she said.
“Is there something wrong? I feel fine,” Jack said.
“You’re actually in better shape than you were before the mission,” Janet said. “The long-standing cartilage damage to your knees seems to have cleared up completely.”
“That will be the healing, uh, spells,” Jack said. “They’re pretty neat.”
“I got the impression, from Cierre, that they couldn’t fix pre-existing conditions,” Janet said.
“Maybe they got... re-damaged,” Jack said. He avoided meeting Janet’s eyes. He knew perfectly well how they’d been damaged again; Vhonna had systematically shattered his knees with a mace.
“Exactly,” Janet said. “You, and the others, were subjected to repeated torture for several days. It hasn’t left any physiological damage but I’m somewhat concerned at the psychological implications. I think you should see a counselor.”
“I don’t think so, Doc,” Jack said. “Our past experiences in that line haven’t gone well. You’d have to drag Daniel into any sessions kicking and screaming and, really, I’m not much more enthusiastic. I think the best way of dealing with it is just to forget about it.”
Janet clicked her tongue. “I expected that attitude from you, Colonel, but I think you’re making a…”
She was interrupted by an alarm sounding. A call of “Unauthorized Gate activation” went up.
“Well, nice talking to you, Doc,” Jack said, “but it looks like we’re back to business as usual.” He scurried off to the control room.
“Receiving IDC,” Walter reported. “It’s the Tok’ra.”
“And for once,” Jack said, “I’ll be glad to see them. I wonder what they want?”
Jack knocked on the door of Hammond’s office and entered. “You wanted to see me, sir?”
It was three months after their return from Toril and a lot had happened in the intervening period. The return of a long-lost and dangerous System Lord, an attempt by the Goa’uld to destroy Earth with a naquadah-enriched asteroid, and, most importantly, the death – or Ascension – of Daniel Jackson.
“I did,” Hammond confirmed. “I know this isn’t what you want to hear, but part of the deal to get the Russian Stargate involved agreeing to let one of their officers join SG-1.”
Jack pulled a face. “This is the thanks I get for saving the world again?”
“I’m sorry, Jack,” Hammond said. It was very rare for him to use Jack’s first name and it usually meant something bad. “You’re going to have to live with this.”
“Sir,” Jack said, “can’t we just throw them a bone? Give them their own unit. They’d be happy with that, wouldn’t they?”
Hammond nodded slowly. “I think that would be sufficient,” he said. “It might be what they were after in the first place. So, what about SG-1?”
“I think you know my answer already, General,” Jack said. “Cierre.”
“She can’t fill Daniel’s role,” Hammond pointed out.
“Nobody can replace Daniel,” Jack said, “but that isn’t the point. We’ll get by with the translation amulets. The important thing is that I know I can trust her with my life. She gets the job done. I want Cierre on SG-1.”
“Well, she’s passed all necessary training, and she performed admirably when she filled in for Specialist Johnson on SG-12,” Hammond said. “Very well, Colonel, I’ll grant your wish. You can inform Cierre that she’s the new member of SG-1.”
Jack came back to consciousness. He could feel something over his mouth and nose. For one terrible moment he was back in Vhonna’s torture chamber, reliving the time when she’d paralyzed him, gagged him, and then simply held his nostrils shut until he lost consciousness, but then he managed to open his eyes and he realized that he was in the SGC infirmary. The thing over his mouth was an oxygen mask.
He could see Sam, wearing a biohazard suit, leaning over him. “Sir,” she said, “I don’t know if you can hear me. The Tok’ra have offered you a deal. There’s a symbiote that needs a host. They think it could cure you. Now, it may be your only chance. It would only be temporary. It would come out of you as soon as they found another host.”
Memories surfaced. Antarctica. The Ancient girl frozen in ice for millions of years. The disease she’d carried that had infected all the members of SG-1.
“Sir, are you getting any of this?” Sam leaned closer. At least she seemed to be okay now.
“Carter,” Jack managed to say, “over my dead body.” No way was he going to let himself be taken over by a snake, even to save his life, when there was another option. “Never…winter,” he managed to croak out. Sumia, or one of the other High Priests or Priestesses, would have him back on his feet in no time.
Sam shook her head. “We thought of that, sir, but it’s no use. We still haven’t set up the radio link and we’d have to take you across country for a hundred miles. You’d never make it. I’m afraid the Tok’ra are your only chance.”
“Damn,” Jack tried to say. No sound came out.
“Sir,” Sam went on, “the symbiote's host died while they were on a mission. The Tok'ra have strong reason to believe that the symbiote has vital information to reveal and this would give him that chance. Now, they promised that if no other host was found within a reasonable amount of time, the symbiote would sacrifice itself rather than stay in an unwilling host. Sir, please.”
Jack could feel himself slipping away. He tried to concentrate on his answer. He still felt a strong repugnance to the idea of being controlled by a snake, even a ‘friendly’ one, but he wasn’t all that keen on dying either. Carter had come out okay from her experience with Jolinar, and this seemed to be pretty important to her, so maybe it might be the least bad option. And if the Tok’ra didn’t play straight then Cierre would no doubt start in on dismembering them until they gave him back…
“O…kay,” he tried to say. He wasn’t sure if he’d managed to utter anything audible and so he nodded his head. The slight movement exhausted him and everything went black…
“The host lives, my lord.”
Jack opened his eyes. That sounded promising. Except… the Tok’ra never called anyone ‘my lord’. And was he in a sarcophagus? Yep. That mean that, wherever he was, it wasn’t with the Tok’ra. They shunned sarcophagus use the way Jack would have shunned being a Tok’ra host if he’d had any other option besides death.
“Bring him to my chambers.” It was a Goa’uld voice. Uh-oh. This looked bad.
A couple of minutes later two Jaffa dragged Jack into a room, shoved him onto a platform, and thrust him against some kind of weird metal spider-web thing that seemed to suck at him and hold him in place. The Jaffa rotated the contraption until Jack could see someone who, presumably, was the local Goa’uld. A dark-haired guy with a neatly-trimmed beard and mustache, looking like Central Casting’s idea of someone to play the part of Saladin in a movie about the Crusades, wearing a black tunic with a double row of silver fastenings. Definitely an Evil Overlord.
“Who are you?” the Goa’uld asked.
“You go first,” Jack suggested.
“You claim you do not know me?”
“Well, take no offense there, Skippy, I'm sure you're a real hot, important, Goa'uld, I've just always been kind of out of the loop with the snake thing,” Jack replied.
“I am Ba’al,” the Goa’uld announced. He sounded as if he expected it to mean something.
Jack would have shrugged if he’d been able to move. “That’s it? Just Ball? As in, Bocce?”
As usual his humor didn’t go down well with the Goa’uld. “Do you not know the pain you will suffer from this impudence?” He held out a knife and it seemed to point itself at Jack.
“I don’t know the meaning of the word. Seriously. Impudence. What does that mean?”
Ba’al let go of the knife. Instead of falling to the floor it shot straight at Jack and impaled his shoulder. From that point on things only got worse. Ba’al interrogated Jack about things he knew nothing about and punctuated his enquiries with more knives. Eventually Jack passed out and woke up back in the sarcophagus.
From there he was dragged off to a prison cell in which the directions ‘up’ and ‘down’ seemed to be variable. It was on the level when he was put in but then seemed to swap around so that he was at the bottom of a vertical shaft. Taken in conjunction with the behavior of the knives Jack guessed that maybe Ba’al was experimenting with some kind of gravity control. Then again maybe it was all done with magnets.
Jack stared up at the open door, too far up a sheer wall to be reachable, and saw a woman in black robes looking down at him. She was very attractive, from what he could see, and her clothes looked to be high quality. He had no clue who she was.
“Is it you?” she asked. Before Jack could answer she had turned and moved out of sight.
Jack lowered his gaze and scanned his surroundings. Sitting in a corner was the last person he would have expected to see. Daniel.
At first Jack thought that he was hallucinating, especially when he found that Daniel was intangible, but that wasn’t the case. His old friend wanted him to join him in Ascension. Daniel pointed out that Ba’al would, inevitably, torture Jack to death repeatedly, reviving him in the sarcophagus each time, and eventually there’d be nothing left of him. He was probably right.
Somehow, though, Jack wasn’t as frightened by the prospect as he might once have been. Ba’al’s torture was only pain. Compared with what Vhonna had done to him, the degradation and humiliation her twisted mind had come up with to amplify the effects of the torture, it was… well, not exactly pleasant, but bearable. And the other members of SG-1 were free and, undoubtedly, looking for him.
“I think I’ll pass,” Jack told Daniel. “I stuck it out for ten days in the Hosttower. This is a cakewalk after that. Ask me again in ten days. Of course I expect that by then the others will be here and I’ll be able to watch Cierre stick her flaming sword up Ba’al’s ass.”
“This place is a fortress, Jack,” Daniel warned. “It’s impregnable.”
“So was the Hosttower,” Jack said. “I’ll wait.”
Daniel sighed and disappeared. Shortly afterwards the cell changed its gravitational orientation and the Jaffa arrived to conduct Jack to another torture session. Again it didn’t get Ba’al anywhere. Again, on his return to his cell, the woman looked in on him and uttered some cryptic words. And, once more, Daniel paid him a visit and harped on about Ascension.
The next time they took him out he found that Ba’al had changed his approach.
“You are a remarkable man, O’Neill,” Ba’al said. Instead of fastening Jack to a metal grid the Jaffa had merely brought Jack to the chamber and then departed. A table and chairs had been placed in the room and Ba’al waved a hand toward them. “Take a seat. Help yourself to fruit,” Ba’al offered.
“You know, in the ‘good cop bad cop’ system of interrogation, they usually get two cops to play the parts,” Jack said. He considered picking up a chair and attempting to bash Ba’al’s brains out. It would probably be futile, against the strength enhancements of a Goa’uld, and he decided to pass. He sat down and plucked something that looked like a mango from out of the fruit basket that stood on the table. “I hear it works better that way.”
“I’m not familiar with the idiom but I believe that I understand the meaning behind the words,” Ba’al said. “I have decided not to proceed further with the torture. It is getting me nowhere. You can feel the pain, that is obvious, but somehow it doesn’t seem to bother you. I am intrigued.”
“I spent way too long being tortured by a real expert recently,” Jack said. “I don’t mean to knock your techniques, I’m sure you’re doing your best, but she wouldn’t have been impressed. She didn’t break me and you’re not going to break me either.”
“Oh? Which Goa’uld was this? Nirrti, perhaps?”
“Not a Goa’uld, just a human,” Jack said, “but, and I never thought I’d say this, worse than any Goa’uld.”
“Interesting,” Ba’al said. “Where might I find this human?”
“In Hell,” Jack said. “I smashed her skull.”
Ba’al’s eyebrows rose. “Interesting,” he said again. “I sense that you are a formidable and determined warrior. No doubt I could indeed break you with torture, anyone will succumb eventually to sufficient physical pain and repeated sarcophagus use, but it could well take more time than I am prepared to spend. Torture gives me no gratification. It is merely a means to an end. If it will not serve then I must find another way to obtain the information I seek.”
“It’ll take more than bribing me with fruit,” Jack said. He took a bite from the mango look-alike. “Hmm. Not bad. The problem is that I have no idea what the Tok’ra who controlled my body was doing. As far as I’m concerned I passed out, deathly ill, and woke up in the sarcophagus with your Jaffa standing over me. Whatever happened in between is a total blank.”
“I believe you,” Ba’al said, “but it is there, in your subconscious, somewhere. Bringing it to the surface would, eventually, be possible. I merely see no point in wasting my time on that task when I have more important projects that require my attention. No, I shall explore an alternative method. Any fool can inflict pain. It is my intelligence that makes me superior to lesser beings. That, then, is what I shall use to find out what the Tok’ra sought.”
“You’re going to employ the ‘leetle grey cells’ like Hercule Poirot?”
Ba’al arched an eyebrow. “Another factor in my decision to abandon the interrogation is that I am unable to understand much of what you are talking about,” he said.
“I mean you’re going to work it out by deduction,” Jack clarified.
“Indeed so.” Ba’al rested his chin on one hand and stared at Jack. “I have not, so far, taken a great interest in the Tau’ri,” he said, “but I have heard some accounts of the deeds of those called ‘SG-1’. You appear to attach a great importance to the concept known as ‘honor’. The term ‘chivalry’ might apply. The Tok’ra spy must have completed his mission and left long ago. He returned only after taking you as a host.”
“I guess so,” Jack said. “You’d know better than me.”
“I have not achieved any significant breakthroughs in my research lately,” Ba’al went on, “and so I doubt if his return was directly connected to his spying mission. No, it seems that the event which triggered his decision was his taking you as a host.”
“If you say so,” Jack said.
“We of the Goa’uld tend to suppress the host’s personality completely,” Ba’al mused, “but the Tok’ra do not. Something about you came through and caused him to act in a fashion that, perhaps, was not entirely rational.”
“Unfortunately it wasn’t the part that likes watching The Simpsons and grilling steaks with beer,” Jack said, “or I wouldn’t be here.”
Ba’al ignored his comment. “He tried to escape with my Lo’taur,” he said. “I had assumed that he was taking her as a prisoner, a hostage perhaps, but perhaps he was actually… rescuing her. Inspired by this strange Tau’ri code that you go by. In that case she must have been, not his prisoner, but his accomplice.”
Jack remembered the beautiful woman who had peered in at him in his prison. He had a horrible feeling that Ba’al had worked things out correctly and that the woman would now suffer horribly. “Could be,” he said, trying to appear unconcerned. “Bouncing ideas off me would work a whole lot better if I knew what’s going on here. As I don’t, well, you’re wasting your time.”
“Perhaps,” Ba’al said. “It is most unfortunate that you seem to have been, effectively, immunized against torture. If you hadn’t already killed that woman on… what was the name of that planet again?”
“Toril,” Jack said, without thinking, and then groaned.
Ba’al smiled. “Thank you. I must try more of this interrogation by civilized conversation. It is more effective than I would have expected.”
“So I’ve told you the name,” Jack said. “Big deal. I don’t know the co-ordinates. Hell, I’d probably tell you them if I did know them. It would serve you right. It’s protected by Ascended Beings, like Kheb is, only some of them are pretty nasty characters. You might end up finding out about their torture techniques first hand.”
“I think not,” Ba’al said, “but that is a matter for another time. Let us return to the question of my Lo’taur’s guilt.” His smile grew slightly broader. “You reacted to my suggestion that she was the Tok’ra’s accomplice. If you truly have no recollection of his deeds then this means that she must have spoken to you since your capture – presumably to urge you to keep a secret that you didn’t even know you possessed. Delicious irony, indeed.”
“I thought your Lo’taur was a guy,” Jack said, remembering Daniel’s report on the meeting of the System Lords he had attended in disguise.
“That is another, with slightly different duties,” Ba’al said. He stroked his beard. “Now that the identity of the traitor has been determined, it only remains for me to decide upon a suitable punishment.”
“Uh, how about exile?” Jack suggested, without much hope.
“That…” Ba’al began, and then he paused and tilted his head to one side. “Hmm. No, a more important question is how I can limit the damage that this has caused. The security of this project has been compromised. The Tok’ra are no doubt aware of the nature and the scope of my research. I doubt if it would be of much use to them and so they will presumably use their knowledge to cause conflict between myself and the other System Lords. Such research is, in theory, supposed to be shared. The others might take… violent exception to my having conducted it without their knowledge.”
“Not been playing nice with the other kids, huh? Keeping your toys to yourself?”
“Correct,” said Ba’al, apparently oblivious to Jack’s sarcasm. “I will have to rectify this before the Tok’ra disclose their knowledge to Morrigan, or Lord Yu, at some time chosen to cause me maximum inconvenience. Luckily the gravity field has proved less useful than I had hoped. The inverse square law has limited the scale on which it can be used without prohibitive power expenditure. It’s no use as a weapon and has only minor defensive applications. The only practical use I have found for it is in certain aspects of spaceship construction. If I pass it on to the other System Lords I won’t be strengthening them to any appreciable extent.”
Jack rolled his eyes. Now he was being bored to death by science technobabble from a Goa’uld.
“I suppose I should have Shallan executed in some suitably grisly fashion,” Ba’al went on. “However then everyone will know she has betrayed me. I will lose face. If I dispose of her quietly her absence will be noted. The correct conclusion might be drawn.” Ba’al stared into Jack’s eyes. “Perhaps your suggestion of exile is not as stupid as I at first thought.”
“I’m not just a pretty face,” Jack said.
“If I announce that she is retiring from my employ, and shower her with gifts in thanks for her loyal service,” Ba’al said, “then her betrayal will be a secret known only to me, and her… and you.” His lip curled in a smile that Jack might have described as ‘sardonic’ if he’d been just a little more certain of what ‘sardonic’ actually meant. “Her successor will be impressed by my generosity,” Ba’al went on, “and will be inspired to strive even more to gain, and maintain, my approval. Everybody wins. Or, at least, nobody sees that I suffered a loss.”
Jack wondered if the ‘retirement’ would consist of three blasts from a zat and reduction to unidentifiable dust blowing in the wind. He kept silent.
“I’ll send her away with you,” Ba’al said. “She doesn’t know anything of any importance. Her usefulness to the Tok’ra infiltrator can only have been in providing him with access to my chambers. The damage is done. You can take her to the world of the Tau’ri, hand her over to the Tok’ra, do what you will with her. For all I care you can feed her to carnivorous beasts – not that you will, of course, being a soft-hearted Tau’ri. What you will not do is to reveal the true reason why she’s leaving. If you do then there is no reason for me to keep you alive and I’ll simply kill both of you on the spot.”
“Right,” Jack said. “I won’t do that. No I won’t do that.”
“Of course,” Ba’al said, “I’ll have to give some sort of reason why she’s leaving with you. I know,” he decided, and the sardonic smile returned, “I’ll announce that the two of you are getting married.”
“Oh, crap,” Jack groaned. “Carter will kill me.”