by Becky Ratliff
DATE: August 2005
ARCHIVE: If I haven't submitted to your archive, please ask. (I'll say yes, I just like to know where it is.)
CATEGORY: EST, drama, AU
RATING: 15+ Adult themes, language
WARNING: Language, religious discussion
SPOILERS: Anything through the end of season 8. Major spoilers for Threads, Cure
SEASON/SEQUEL INFO: Late Season Eight. Gates of War series, follows Green Corn Moon.
SUMMARY: Sirikat returns home to mate.
DISCLAIMER: All Stargate SG-1 characters are the property of Stargate SG-1 Productions (II) Inc., MGM Worldwide Television Productions Inc., Double Secret Productions, Gekko Film Corp and Showtime Networks Inc.
The character Relana and the Sekhmet race are the creations and property of Alderac Entertainment Group, Inc.
The background information on handfastings that I researched for this story comes from several places on the web, but I found this site the most helpful: http://www.handfasting.info/ One passage has been very closely paraphrased from a page found here.
This story is for entertainment purposes only and no money exchanged hands. No copyright infringement is intended. Anybody that you don't recognize is probably mine, so if you borrow them please send me an email to let me know where they are and have them home by midnight. :)
FEEDBACK: Much appreciated.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story approaches the subject of marriage from both Pagan and contemporary American perspectives (as well as a few baliens' opinions thrown in for good measure.) For the benefit of those readers who do not wish to be exposed to religious discussion at all, or to faiths other than their own, you have been informed. Please choose wisely whether or not you wish to read further.
+ + = conversation between symbiote and host.
Jack O'Neill was just settling into his favorite chair with a beer to read the sports section of the Gazette when his phone rang. He leaned over to the coat rack and fished it out of his jacket pocket. "O'Neill."
"This is Nancy Spencer. Is Colonel Carter there?"
"Not right now, but when she gets in I'll tell her you called. Want me to give her a message?"
"Well, you see, it's about Sirikat, she's got a little problem and we need Sam to help straighten it out."
O'Neill was already reaching for his jacket. "I'm on my way."
"NO! Look, I'm on a cell and I really can't explain, but I need a female...better yet some females...like yesterday. Trust me, you'd only confuse things even more! Sirikat's barricaded herself in the bathroom, and Lydia and I've got Jonathan and Alvin under control for now...I think..."
Jack scowled, wondering what had possessed him when he let a gaggle of teenagers complicate his life. God knew what this was about, but Sirikat wouldn't lock herself in the bathroom over nothing. And he wasn't sure he wanted to know what Nancy meant about having Jonathan and Alvin "under control," but she was one of the most level-headed kids he knew. "O-kay, hold on and I'll get hold of her as fast as I can, and have her round up some help. Do you need all the female Marines or what?"
"I was thinking Granny or the doctor, but it probably wouldn't hurt if a couple of the Marines came with!"
"Nancy, you owe me a real explanation. But for now, is it safe there?"
"I believe so, yes." She sounded harried but not overwhelmed. Jack figured that she did have the situation under control. He hung up and called Sam.
An hour later, everyone was up at the mountain. Master Sergeant Kellemeyer was glaring down her nose at Jonathan and Alvin, who were sitting on a couple of chairs in the hall outside one of the exam rooms, where Kellemeyer was guarding the door. Neither of them seemed inclined to defy her. Jack wasn't surprised. Generals hesitated to defy determined Master Sergeants.
"Sergeant, what's going on?"
"Dr. Brightman's orders, sir, no male personnel beyond this point until further notice." She relented. "I'm not sure what's going on, sir, but Sirikat seems all right, just a little upset. Colonel Carter and the two girls are in there with her and the doctor."
"OK, you two in my office now!"
Both young men jumped and went--Jonathan might have the same memories as he did until a couple years ago, but that was why he didn't question an order given in that tone of voice from a general. Even if it was his own brother.
As soon as the door closed, Jack said, "I want some straight answers--what the hell is going on here?"
Jonathan said, "Look, Jack, none of this was Sirikat's fault." He was rubbing his head.
"What's wrong with you?"
Alvin piped up, "Nancy clocked him with the frying pan."
Jonathan gave Alvin a gee-thanks glare. "Nothing happened, Jack, we were sitting around playing video games. As far as I can figure out, Sirikat's coming into her--ya know, her season. She kinda--accidentally--uhh, drugged us with her nishta. None of us knew what was happening. I don't remember doing it, but they said I tried to kiss her. That was when Nancy busted me over the head with the cast iron skillet and Sirikat locked herself in the can."
Alvin said, "I don't even like girls that way but it was like she was an angel, so beautiful--then the doc zapped us with an electric shock and snapped us out of it."
"Jonathan, what did Dr. Brightman say about your head?"
"It's just sore. She didn't hit me hard enough to give me a concussion or anything."
Jack found the whole thing hysterically funny, now that he knew the situation had resolved itself with nobody seriously hurt. "All right, you two get out of here. Nancy and Lydia will fill you in later."
The boys fled like their pants were on fire. Jack managed to keep a straight face until the elevator doors across from his secretary's desk closed behind them, but then he burst out laughing.
Eventually he got himself under control. Sirikat was bound to be mortified as it was, she'd be furious and hurt if she knew he'd been laughing about it. He had sparred with her and that bo staff of hers often enough that he didn't want that to happen!
Then, thinking about how embarrassed she must be, he felt bad about it himself. He wanted to go down there and hug her and tell her there wasn't anyone in the whole damn galaxy who'd gone through adolescence without humiliating themselves at least once. He remembered when he'd been thirteen and Mary Teresa Brannigan's mother had caught them French kissing in the alley behind her apartment building. Lord, but that woman could swing a cooking spoon!
Still, he had sense enough to stay out of the infirmary and let the women take care of her.
After a couple of hours, Sam came down and tapped on the door frame.
"Come on in, Sam. How's she doing?"
"Cried herself to sleep, poor kid. She accidentally broke a major, major taboo there. Daltregonian queens never allow anyone except their handfasted consorts to be affected by their nishta, and thanks to their symbiotes it doesn't affect them anywhere nearly as much."
"Nothing too bad happened. Nobody got an eye put out or anything like that, and everyone's clothes stayed on," he said.
Sam shook her head, things that seemed like the end of the known universe to teenagers fell into perspective a few years later. "If she'd been at home she would have been around the older queens, who would have seen this coming and helped her teach herself to control it. She only had her genetic memory to work from. She didn't realize what was happening until it was too late, and it took her a while to learn to stop releasing the drug. But the larger issue is, she can't delay mating any longer. We're going to have to take her home."
Jack sighed. "Yeah, I know. She's grown up too fast. I wish I could just tell her to stop that."
Sam smiled. "In eight years you'll start getting a whole bunch of grandkids, sort of." she pointed out.
"There's that," he replied thoughtfully. Of course there was still the question of what role men had in Sirikat's culture. He still wasn't real clear on that. "Tell Daniel and Teal'c we'll be starting home with her whenever she's ready to go. Next time somebody goes through the gate, send a messenger through to go to Chulak and have her Jaffa meet us at the Daltregon gate."
"Sir," she replied, and went back downstairs to the control room to carry out his orders.
Sparks rained from a shattered console onto the face of an unconscious Jaffa. She stirred and swatted at them as if they were flies, then her hand went to a long, jagged gash over her ear. She hissed as the pain awakened her.
The bridge was a smoky hell--she could barely see more than arm's length ahead of her, except for occasional glimpses of flame. The starboard side of the peltac still burned fitfully in the rapidly thinning atmosphere. If not for her symbiote, she would never have wakened. Relana, First Prime of the proud Bast Guard and very possibly the last living thing aboard the wrecked hat'ak, dragged herself to her feet. What few instruments still worked confirmed her estimation--the ship was doomed. Anything that hadn't been blown away or sheared off when they rammed Olakun's hat'ak was burning and venting atmosphere. But none of that made any difference, because she couldn't feel the telltale vibration of the reactor coolant pumps through the deck plate. The core was almost certainly minutes from a meltdown.
She had the satisfaction of remembering that Olakun's ship had exploded on impact. Their sacrifice had not been in vain--they had deprived Anubis of his second fleet. Perhaps more importantly, the Kull Warriors aboard those ships had been neutralized. Although her sisters had not lived to see it, Bubastis was safe.
Relana found Bastet by tripping over her. The system lord was dead, thankfully killed instantly by the impact with the bulkhead. She hadn't burned, which would likely have been beyond recovery. This was not, if Relana could reach the stargate in time.
There was no time for propriety. She slung her queen's body over her shoulder in a rough fireman's carry and raced for the ring room with all the speed the symbiote in her pouch could lend her. If the rings had power to get them to the gate bay, and if that section was still pressurized, they had a chance.
The rings came down into fire. Relana shielded her eyes with her free arm and dived through it. If Netu had a gateroom, this was it. She was so focused on dialing the gate that she didn't notice her cloak had caught fire until the icy nothingness of the wormhole put it out.
A split second after she stepped through the event horizon, the ship exploded. The wormhole held, barely, but it spit them out at a tremendous velocity, launching them a good twenty feet in the air.
Heeding instincts honed by a century of warfare, she used Bastet's body to break her fall. Her lady's only hope was her First Prime's survival. Even so, the impact stunned the Jaffa and she felt ribs break.
For a long while she lay where she had landed, until the distant roar of an udajeet sent her scrambling for cover. She could have wept for joy when the craft came to an ungainly landing with its engines cutting out. The craft was one of theirs. She tried to shout for help as the pilots clambered out, but the sound turned to a hoarse yowl as her whole right side felt like it had taken a staff blast.
It didn't matter. Her sisters heard her. They were hardly in any better shape, but at least they were together--and on the deadly jungle world of Vadrak, that improved all their chances exponentially. A day's march from the stargate, Bastet had a hideout, complete with a sarcophagus. Now all they had to do was get to it. When she was sure her sisters had seen her, she let herself fall unconscious again. She didn't see the wreckage of the two ha'taks start to fall to the planet below like the fire rain of Edora.
O'Neill and Teal'c stepped out of the stargate into a gently falling snow. The gate meadow was blanketed with about six inches of it. O'Neill checked with the commander of Sirikat's Jaffa honor guard, a dark-haired man named Tha'lak. They had been on Daltregon for a couple of hours waiting for her, and he reported that all was secure. O'Neill radioed through the gate for the rest of them to bring Sirikat through.
As soon as she stepped through the stargate, Sirikat felt her ancestral home calling to her. Something in her soul answered that call and joyfully answered.
Until recently, it would have been a three day hike from the gate to Sirikat's village, but recently the Jaffa had brought in a couple of small tel'tacs, and one of these was warmed up waiting for them.
It was crowded with so many people in such a small ship, most of them packed into the back like cargo. Sirikat scrunched into a corner and shamelessly hid behind Sam. She was able to control herself this time, and there were no more humiliating accidents.
When they got home, her news was cause for celebration. Jack asked Vanira, "How does she go about meeting her would-be boyfriends?"
"A new queen chooses her first consorts from among the boys who come of age at the same time she does. In later years, there are customs that govern the choice of any other consorts. We send word to the surrounding villages and eligible young men present themselves to her. We will advise Sirikat, and a young queen does take her elders' advice very seriously. Ultimately, though, the choice is hers," Sirikat's queen replied. She pushed back her hood as they entered the warm longhouse. She wore a silver circlet set with turquoise and carved shells. Her hair hadn't had time to grow out long enough to braid after she had cut it at Daitar's funeral. She shook her head, looking at her daughter through sorrow-filled eyes, and lowered her voice. "Such times we are living in! These things usually follow a pairing that proves a mismatch and doesn't last, not a murder of three innocent young men."
Jack nodded. That was the way of things, war always took innocent young men and women--if it didn't take their lives, it took their innocence.
Karumai came up to greet her granddaughter, wobbling a little on aching joints as she leaned heavily on her staff, but her eyes were alight with joy. "Maiden becomes Matron. You bring a little midsummer to the beginning of winter. Blessings, Sirikat."
"I've missed you all so much," Sirikat said, with tears in her eyes.
Vanira kissed her forehead. "You're home now," she said. "Go up to the queens' balcony with your grandmother. I'll get our guests settled. We have another queen! She who was Ki is now one soul with Mara!"
Sirikat asked, "But isn't she Menteka's little one? Too young, surely!"
"Eee! When did that happen?"
Karumai laughed. "All you have to do is blink and suddenly they aren't babies anymore. I still think of Kat-you crawling on the floor tying Shaneska's boot laces together when she wasn't paying any attention."
Vanira said, "Go on with you, before she thinks of more stories to tell on you."
Ian Borgstrom, a civilian scientist assigned to SG-16, swatted a large and very persistent mosquito that had been buzzing in his ear for the last twenty minutes. "Beastly weather. Have I mentioned that I hate the jungle? Give me a desert world any day over this humidity."
His companion, the Jaffa Ren'auc, agreed with him, though she preferred the cool, fragrant pine forests of Chulak to either. "There cannot be much more of this, and I believe that it is Bastet's in any case. If anyone can make sense of what the jungle has left."
Borgstrom agreed with her. They had found Bastet's cartouche twice among the hieroglyphs that had survived the weathering.
A roaring sound like the oncoming rush of a freight train was all the warning they got that something was wrong. Ren'auc reacted with all the speed and strength of her kind, tackling her less athletic companion and throwing him to safety behind the ruined wall that they had been studying. Something huge passed over head, on fire, ripping through the jungle trees as if they were match sticks and raining chunks of debris the size of small cars. Whatever it was buried itself in the jungle floor a half a mile from them.
"What the bloody hell was that?" A shaken Borgstrom replied.
"I thought a meteor, but it cannot have been--would the impact not have killed us if it had been?"
"One would think...."
Their radios crackled. "Ian, Ren'auc, report!"
Ian reached a shaking hand to his radio and said, "We are here together and quite all right, Major Bowen. Is Lieutenant Reed with you?"
Bowen always grinned a little when he heard the British scientist refer to an African-American native of Atlanta as "leftenant." "Yeah, I see her, she's OK. Stay where you are, we're coming to you."
The team regrouped. A dead silence had come over the jungle. It seemed that even the insects had found a hiding place. Ian Borgstrom looked up and saw hundreds of fiery streaks across the clear blue sky. "It may be a meteor shower."
Bowen said, "It's wreckage. Something freakin' big."
Ren'auc nodded. "It must be, a hat'ak at least. Do not touch the wreckage, should we come across any. You cannot know what may be radioactive."
Bowen nodded. That immense piece could very well have been from the drive core--he imagined that some of that would be large and sturdy enough to survive reentry. "Let's get moving. We need to get back and report this. Ren, take point."
The Jaffa nodded and preceded them into the jungle. They were about fifteen miles from the stargate, so she didn't set too difficult a pace for her Tau'ri companions. On the other hand, none of them was in any hurry to stay where a piece of debris the size of a house might come down on them at any moment. They pushed on steadily for several hours, and stopped only to debate their course of action when evening caught up with them.
None of them wanted to spend the night in the jungle. Wildlife was plentiful. They had caught glimpses of large animals several times, and it only stood to reason that some of them were predators. But traveling through an unfamiliar jungle at night was at best ill-advised--especially so on an alien planet! Bowen called a halt for the night and they built a camp fire to keep the animals away.
They settled down for a tense night and none of them expected to sleep much. While they waited for their MREs to heat, Reed stood a little distance away outside the circle of firelight and kept a vigilant guard. Bowen stripped down his P-90, which had got doused when he and Reed had taken cover from the impact earlier in some rocks along the bank of a small stream. Cleaning it was a skill so well learned that his eyes were on the surrounding jungle as often as on his work. Ren'auc set up the tents and spread the mosquito netting, while Borgstrom worked on his notes of the day's explorations--there had been no time for any of that once the excitement started.
When their rations were heated, the team ate mostly in silence. Only a few quiet speculations about the nature of the battle overhead broke the silence. Like the jungle's other inhabitants, they were aware of their surroundings and nervous about what might be sharing the immediate vicinity with them. After dinner had been cleared away, all of them except Reed settled down to get some sleep while they could.
Relana and the two udajeet pilots, Tarina and Kyl'ac, had elected to push on through the night. There was a window of some 24 hours, after which there was an ever-increasing chance that the sarcophagus would fail. They were afraid if they stopped for more than a short rest, their symbiotes would instinctively lull them into a deep state of kel-no-reem to heal their wounds, and too much time would pass.
About an hour after darkness fell, Relana felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She was an experienced enough hunter to know when she had become the hunted.
Ky'lac was young, barely seventeen summers. Relana had almost left her in safety on Bubastis. Only the fact that they had desperately needed every pilot had made her give in to the girl's plea to fight with her sisters. Now she was the only one of them in full fighting condition. Tarina was her best pilot, and that was the only reason the two of them had survived that landing even though their glider had been shot all to Netu. But death had got his claws into her in passing--her arm was broken in three or four places. Relana had set and splinted it as well as she could in the field, but they all knew only the sarcophagus would get her back the full use of it. Relana was the only one in armor. The two pilots wore the heavy leather long vests and leggings that most of the Bast Guard preferred because the fighting leathers were less restrictive, especially in the cockpit of their udajeet. Ky'lac wore her hair in half a dozen long braids, coiled under her helmet in flight. They had been forced to cut off Tarina's jacket in order to splint her arm, leaving her only a bloodstained sleeveless shirt that showed off the older woman's collection of battle scars. Those and her short graying hair were all the insignia of rank she needed--Tarina had survived many years through her share of fights. People thought twice about taking her on and joining the enemies that she had buried already.
"What do you think is back there?" Ky'lac asked.
Relana gave the girl an approving glance. She hadn't yet developed the instincts of an experienced warrior, but she paid attention to her officers and learned from them. "Not any of Olakun's troops. They would be making enough noise for a bull mastadge in rut. Whether it has two legs or four, whatever is behind us is a predator."
"Would you have me conceal myself and see what it is?"
Relana smiled. "I would have you carry our Lady while I do that. You are youngest and strongest, and unhurt besides. If any one of us wins through to the old temple, it is likely to be you. Guard her well."
"With my life, First Prime."
With a silent glance she charged Tarina with guarding the both of them, and read the same reply in her warrior sister's eyes.
She doubled back, every sense alert. The soft snap of a twig breaking underfoot signaled that she was close.
Moonlight through a gap in the forest canopy revealed their pursuers. For the first time in many years, Relana was frightened, not so much for herself as for her Lady. Two Kull Warriors were on their trail.
The armored devils must have escaped Claw of Victory, either in escape pods, or possibly they had got to the gate room before her. One thing was certain, they hadn't been aboard Olakun's ship or any of his fleet for that matter--or they would be space dust by now.
That opened two possibilities, neither of which she could do anything about at the moment. For one thing, if they had survived and escaped, others of her sisters might also have done so. For another, these might not be the only Kull on the planet.
They were the only two she had to worry about--and that was quite enough.
These things could be defeated, and she knew their weaknesses as well as anyone else in their tenuous rebel alliance. Their face plate separated from the helmet, and if she could get in close enough to use her fighting claws, she could kill them. As long as they were together and fighting as a team, that was unlikely.
They were following a plain trail, but they did not seem to be aware of her. Now that Tarina knew they were being followed, she would see to it that she and her young partner left fewer signs of their passing. When they lost the trail, the Kull might split up to find it again. The First Prime bided her time. Once again, Relana was the hunter.
News of Sirikat's mating was cause for celebration in her village, and all over Daltregon as the word spread. Over a couple of days, a lot of VIPs arrived, brought in by the tel'tacs. They remembered the ashrak in the queens' camp and there were armed guards and magical wards everywhere.
Not all the VIPs were from Daltregon. Bra'tac represented the Jaffa, and he had brought Malek and Serenshai with him. Word had also been sent to the Tok'ra. Sam hoped that her father would be among them. And Jack was here as President Bartlet's representative.
Jack and Bra'tac had been admitted to the queens' balcony, where Sirikat was discussing the choice of her consorts with her elders and advisers. Little Kimara sat between Karumai and Sirikat, silent and shy and still very new to adult responsibilities. Serenshai was also there, with a slate and chalk close at hand.
Jack sympathized with old Karumai as he sat down on a floor pillow and his knees cracked. He managed to keep the pain out of his expression, but pride couldn't conceal noisy joints that sounded like two damn strings of firecrackers.
Vanira passed him a tankard of ale. That was her usual prescription for the ordinary trials of everyday life, and Jack had no reason to dispute her advice. They had some very good ale here.
Bra'tac also accepted a tankard. Now that he no longer had a prim'ta, he had developed a taste for a good pint.
Sirikat's human mother Shaneska was there as well. Her father Senadar was one of many warriors of Daltregon serving as scouts with allied forces, so he was unable to be here. His absence was keenly felt.
Vanira asked, "Sirikat, do you have anyone in mind?"
"I do. Master Bra'tac, there is no way I could overestimate the importance of the alliance between our peoples. As well as that...for so long the Goa'uld queens have seen the Jaffa as a valuable commodity. I would make it clear to all that their ways are not mine. If your customs would permit--I would not wish to offer insult--I would like to ask Al'dor."
Bra'tac considered. "Our customs are silent on this, for it is a thing which has never been done. A Goa'uld queen would consider it beneath her dignity to take a Jaffa as her pharaoh. But there is no reason it ought not to be done, if you both are willing. I know that young Al'dor thinks very highly of you."
Sirikat smiled shyly. "I had hoped so. It is our custom that a queen avoids embarrassing a potential mate in public by sending a male relative to speak to him first and make certain that the offer is welcomed. My father is at war. Would you do me the honor of speaking for me in his place?"
Bra'tac said, "My queen, it is I who am honored."
Jack asked, "How well do you know this Al'dor kid, Bra'tac? Is he grown up enough to get married?"
Bra'tac replied, "He is young, O'Neill, but that is a good thing. He is not much older than Sirikat, they still have their youth in common. Yet among our people, he is of an age to marry. I have always known him to be dependable and conscientious in his duties, and just as important as that, Al'dor is a kind and caring person. I would approve of the match were Sirikat my own child."
Jack nodded. Bra'tac's description matched his own impressions of the young Jaffa. He intended to have his own little discussion with the kid, of course, assuming that he accepted Sirikat's proposal.
Sirikat said, "As for the others, I have no one specific in mind, but I would have one be of Daltregon. And the last, of the Tok'ra. I would see if they can live by our ways and honor our customs. If so, then perhaps the path will lead the people of Daltregon to have human children with them, so that Egeria's legacy might live on."
Bra'tac said, "My lady, with this marriage you would do as much as anyone else ever has to cement the Alliance. But no one here would see you locked into some loveless marriage of state."
"I do not think it needs to be that," Sirikat answered. "But I was married for love before, and for a short time I was blessed. Now...I do not expect to find that again among consorts chosen for political purposes. I look for partners and companions. I hope that in time love will grow. But if it does not, then help me to choose good men who will dedicate themselves to the revolution as I have done, that we may at least walk our path together in harmony as friends."
Karumai said, "That is the way of it for queens. If we find one or two consorts in all our lives to simply fall in love as a man and a woman, it is a gift from the gods. But most usually, what we do is done first for the sake of our children and secondly for political aims. I have found, though, that walking a path in harmony for so many years often builds a more solid foundation for a lasting marriage than anything coming strictly from mutual attraction. Love does grow, Sirikat, have faith in that."
The old woman's counsel was directed to Sirikat, but she had been looking right at Jack as she spoke, and he knew she was referring to Carter and him. He had always found the old queen more than a little disconcerting and this was no exception. He wondered if there was anything she didn't see in her firelight visions.
He changed the subject in a hurry. "I don't know how many of the Tok'ra I'd pick out for you, if it was my choice. Malek's taken. You've got to remember, the youngest of them are a couple thousand years old. They don't look at things from the same perspective that we do. The best of them have their own agenda. And so help me God, if you get hooked up with another Kan'an, I'll shoot him myself."
Vanira had heard all about that, and it still infuriated her that someone so honorable and so beloved of her daughter had been betrayed in such a way. Her eyes flashed and she said, "Get in line. But they can't all be such cowardly bastards."
Bra'tac said, "They are not. There is much bad blood between the Tok'ra and the free Jaffa, but it is prejudice on both our parts. There are indeed good people among them. I must agree with O'Neill, though, they do have their own agenda. There are among them those who--I will not call them Goa'uld without better proof than I have, but I will say they do not all hold their hosts in the same high esteem as Selmac and Malek do JacobCarter and Jeryn, much less are they two made one spirit as are you of Daltregon. Some among them might very well see a queen as a prize. Here, queens are respected and revered. Elsewhere in the galaxy, it is not always so. Queens are often bent to the will of their lord. Few rule in their own right. Such a match between you and a Tok'ra could be a good thing, but choose well lest you bring a lifetime of trouble into your house."
"I welcome your wise counsel in this," Sirikat said to all of them.
Ren'auc was on watch when a fearsome hunting scream woke everyone and sent them all scrambling for weapons.
"What in God's name was that?" Bergstrom asked.
Ren'auc said, "That was the battle cry of the Bast Guard. We are not alone here."
Bowen pulled on his boots. "If some of Bastet's Jaffa are fighting here, the last I heard they were on our side. Let's go. Ren'auc, could you tell where that came from?"
The sound of staff weapon fire answered that. Moving with deliberate speed, they headed into the jungle, towards the fight.
Relana had dispatched one of the Kull much more easily than she had expected, but not before he had warned his partner. Now they were in a running firefight with the other one, and she wasn't going to get the chance to close with him. They were left to dodging from cover to cover, and what shots they landed were bouncing off the Kull's shields.
To her great surprise, the Kull was distracted by a volley of Tau'ri weapons fire. It was no more effective than her staff weapon had been, but it gave her the chance to leap onto the Kull from behind and hook her fighting claws in its mask. It threw her aside as she had expected, but she managed to break the seal between its mask and its helmet.
That gave them no advantage as long as its shields were still up. The thing closed on Relana with deadly intent, and her wounds prevented her from diving for cover.
Bowen threw his knife. He didn't kill it, but he did put an eye out. While it was occupied with removing the knife, a young Jaffa pulled the First Prime to safety. Ren'auc swung her staff weapon at its face with all her strength, forcing it to raise its arm to defend. She snapped into a reverse and fired point-blank. The Kull flinched back, just enough for the blast to impact its personal shield rather than going off inside and decapitating the monster. They were thrown in opposite directions by the blast.
Bowen cursed the lack of a modified TER as the Kull arced a burst of laser fire in a half circle in front of it. He heard Ren'auc cry out, and the tree he was behind took several hits.
Borgstrom set some C4 and dropped a tree on it. He wasn't expecting it to be crushed by the impact, but he hoped it would be pinned long enough for someone to take advantage of its open face plate. To everyone's horrified surprise, it caught the falling tree and pushed it aside, then climbed over it, single-mindedly making for Bastet's Jaffa again.
In an obvious last-ditch defense, one of the Bast Guard screamed like an angry panther and pounced, braids flying behind her. Without rising, Ren'auc swung her staff right above the ground and knocked the Kull warrior's legs out from under it. The Bast Guard's fighting claws pulled its mask off completely and left several deep, parallel bleeding gashes across its face. It threw the Bast Guard into Ren'auc and leveled its wrist laser at them while they lay helpless.
A net of crackling yellow energy fired from the edge of the jungle and surrounded the Kull, and its personal shield flickered and died. Relana's zat fired three shots in rapid succession, assuring that the Kull was no longer a threat to anyone.
All of them gasped at the sight of their rescuers. Six feet tall, with lionlike heads and covered with fur, they wore what to Bowen's eye were the local equivalent of abbreviated BDUs, and went barefoot to allow use of their toe claws. Long tails lashed as they hunted through the undergrowth and made sure no enemies were left alive.
Relana said something in a foreign language that none of SG-16 recognized. The leader of the patrol answered, and after a brief conversation, joined the Jaffa to look at something behind the rocks that the Bast Guard had been defending. Several of the patrol went off into the jungle in the direction Relana indicated.
Bowen checked on Ren'auc. She had a laser burn through the flesh of her left leg, it had to be horribly painful but it wasn't bleeding. Taking advantage of the chance, he tended the wound before somebody stopped him.
Relana said, "Tau'ri?"
He stood and replied. "SG-16. I'm Major Josh Bowen. My 2iC, Lt. Reed, Ren'auc, and our scientist Dr. Bergstrom. You're Relana, right? Don't think I've had the pleasure, ma'am, but I've heard of you."
She nodded. "I am indeed Relana of Memphis. Your assistance was much welcomed, though I fear without the intervention of the Elder Sisters, the Sekhmet, you would have paid as dearly for it as ourselves. I am greatly in your debt."
The patrol leader was speaking into a communications device on her wrist. Relana translated, "She is calling for help."
Bowen was very surprised when the Sekhmet helped the Jaffa remove a body from behind the rocks, and he immediately recognized Bastet.
Relana explained, "Anubis sent Olakun with his second fleet to scour Bubastis. We met them here and stopped them. By sheer luck I escaped with my Lady's body, and met up with my sisters here once we had come through the stargate. The Sekhmet have a sarcophagus, they are going to take us to it now. If you will come with us, once my Lady is returned to us, I am sure she will heal your injuries."
Bowen agreed. This was a story the SGC needed to hear, and the more details he discovered the better. "Who are the Sekhmet? We're all in their debt!"
"We call them the Elder Sisters. Years ago, before my Lady took human hosts, all her hosts and warriors were of the Sekhmet. Ra later forbade the taking of any but human hosts. My Lady thought the Sekhmet were best protected if the other System Lords believed that she had lost interest in them and abandoned them, but this was not so. Their culture has flourished here in secrecy for many thousands of years now."
A large craft hovered overhead and they were ringed up, and shortly thereafter the rest of the patrol ringed up with something heavy in a large canvas sack--a body bag. The corpse was thrown unceremoniously into a cargo hold. A Sekhmet healer began tending to the wounded, Jaffa and Tau'ri alike, before the craft ever started moving again. The three Jaffa would not be moved from their vigil over Bastet, though Bowen wasn't sure how they were still standing.
They passed through a force dome and what had looked like trackless jungle disappeared to reveal a city built in the trees. The craft docked at a platform built out from the largest central structure, and the Sekhmet led them out.
Several females in short robes--priestesses, Borgstrom informed them--met them and started up a hair-raising ritual yowling when they saw that their goddess was dead. They formed the head of a procession deep into the temple, finally arriving at the sarcophagus and placing her inside. Not a one of them, Sekhmet or Bast Guard, would stir from the room while the sarcophagus did its work.
Bowen had more questions by the minute, but he figured if he asked them here, all the answer he'd get would be a good swat upside the head. The Jaffa weren't known for patience with rude Tau'ri and he doubted the Sekhmet would be any different.
They stood there waiting for quite a while. Bowen had never had the opportunity to watch a sarcophagus in action before, and he discovered that there wasn't anything to see. Aside from occasional clicks and whirrs from deep inside, the coffin-like box just sat there.
Eventually there was a much louder click, then the lid creaked open. The Jaffa and the Sekhmet knelt. One of the Sekhmet hissed angrily at SG-16 when they remained standing, but before she could really take insult and claw someone, Bastet sat up. She was uninjured and even the soot and mud and blood were gone. Only the rips in her fighting leathers revealed that she had been through a battle.
She was just as disoriented coming out of that thing as anyone else was. "Relana? What happened? The last thing I remember was ramming Olakun's ship."
"You were victorious, my Lady, but I do not yet know of any save we four who escaped. We were hunted on the planet by two of the Kull. Even with the assistance of these Tau'ri, we would have fallen if not for the Sekhmet."
Bastet said, "So many...such a cost."
Relana told her, "All of us went into this battle knowing what that cost would be. Bubastis is safe. Our homes, our kin are safe. That is all that is of consequence."
Bastet replied, "As long as Anubis believes me dead with Olakun, it will remain so."
Relana said, "No one outside this room lived to tell the tale, my Lady."
Bastet was satisfied with that. "How did the SGC come to be involved, Major?"
"Wrong place at the wrong time, ma'am. Couple of those super-soldiers were giving your girls here some trouble, we joined the party right before the Sekhmet showed up."
"My thanks. I hope that I can depend on the SGC's discretion."
"Yes, ma'am. I'll be reporting directly to General O'Neill, and he knows who can be trusted."
"Fair enough." Her opinion of O'Neill was that he was difficult, brash and easily angered, but above all trustworthy.
She said something to one of the priestesses in Sekhmet, then she and the youngest Jaffa went off together, leaving the rest of them to continue to be tended by the Sekhmet healers. Tarina had a turn in the sarcophagus to heal her arm while the healers patched up the rest of them. About an hour later, Bastet returned, now wearing plain clothing very like her Jaffa and a leather cap that concealed her lack of a tattoo. She had hidden her kara-kesh, armed instead with fighting claws in a case on one hip and a zat on the other. Servants who walked by them in passing would just see any four Jaffa--rare but not unheard of here, just as the occasional Sekhmet had business on Bubastis and people knew what they were if they saw one.
Bastet said something to the healer, who brought her an intricately carved wooden box. Inside it was a healing device. Relana was the worst hurt, having added a number of injuries on the journey here to the ones she had already sustained in the crash.
Ren'auc saw that Bastet was visibly tired and said, "Lady Bastet, my symbiote is already healing this. I will be all right on my own if we have a little while to rest."
Bastet took another look for herself. The worst of her wounds were already showing signs of healing well. "All right. The Sekhmet will take us to the chappa'ai later. For now, they've prepared food and a place for us to rest."
The sound of an approaching tel'tac heralded the arrival of the Tok'ra. Jacob greeted Sam with a hug, then he introduced Garshaw to Vanira. Thoran they already knew. Also there were Jalen and Dalak.
Jack homed right in on Dalak. "What do you think you're doing here? Sirikat wouldn't give you the time of day, much less marry you."
"I think she's smarter than that. She knows which faction of the Tok'ra will be most influential a few years down the road, and she knows the value of cordial relations between Daltregon and the Tok'ra."
"I'm going to be watching you," Jack said coldly. "If you step just one inch out of line, I'll knock your head off."
His voice wasn't loud, but Garshaw had good hearing. She glared at both of them and hissed in a low whisper that didn't carry to Vanira, "This is a celebration and we are guests. There will be no unpleasantness, do I make myself clear?"
Dalak glared at Jack but replied, "Yes, Garshaw."
O'Neill caught Dalak and Jalen staring daggers at one another. Jack asked Garshaw, "What were you thinking bringing him here? After the stunt he pulled with Selmac and Jacob, he'll be lucky if Sirikat doesn't throw him out on his ass, and she'll have plenty of help if she does."
"General, please. This was not my doing. Dalak leads an influential group of the Tok'ra. The political situation is not a good one. I am sure that Jacob has already explained this to you. I could not be the one to refuse him. Had I done so it would have given him cause for a power play, one which I could not afford to lose and I am not sure of winning. Since, as you say, there is not a chance in Netu that Sirikat would have him, let her be the one to refuse him."
"What about his host, doesn't he have something to say about this?"
"I have no idea what Dalak and Henris have plotted between them, but I knew Henris before they were blended, and he is no innocent victim of Dalak's. He would not be the first human to scheme to be swept to high status along with his symbiote, though that was always more likely to happen in the imperial court than among the Tok'ra."
Jack nodded. "So long as I'm understood. He is not going to hurt Sirikat."
"I believe you, O'Neill. If Dalak does not--then kick him once for me! Please! He is more trouble than Anise, Selmac and Malek all together." Garshaw sounded truly harried.
O'Neill answered her with a little cold smile. "Glad to oblige."
Bra'tac looked down his nose at Dalak, and the Tok'ra had to pass between Tha'lak and Teal'c as well to get into the longhouse. He was positively dwarfed by the three silent, menacing guardians. They relaxed somewhat when Jalen came through, but still made it clear without a word being spoken that his continued good health depended on his good behavior!
Jacob laughed, apparently at something that Selmac had said. He answered Sam's curious look with a wink.
Once they got inside, Dalak polished up his good manners. There was a large, noisy crowd in the central hall of the longhouse, gathered around the kegs and tables of food. Lively music was playing, every lantern and brazier was lit, and the whole place was decked out in ribbons and banners.
O'Neill went on up to the queens' balcony to give Sirikat a heads up about Dalak. From her thunderous expression as soon as she heard his name, it was a good thing she had some forewarning. Karumai counseled, "Keep the queens' peace, Sirikat! Hear him out and simply choose another."
She nodded. "What of the dark young man there with Jacob/Selmac?"
"That's Jalen. You'll need to talk to him, I never heard if that's the symbiote or the host's name. But he was the guy who rescued Harry and me from the Furling moon. He seemed like a regular guy to me. Really curious about earth, asked as many questions as Daniel! I'll sound Jacob out about him and see if there's anything you need to know before you talk to him."
"If you're going back down, please ask Garshaw to come up here when she's done catching up with Malek so that I may greet her properly. It's considered bad luck for me to leave the queens' quarters before I choose my consorts."
The Sekhmet put on a feast for Bastet, in the walled courtyard of the secluded suite of rooms that were kept ready for her. She sat shoulder to shoulder with her warriors and her guests. The feast was a celebration of unexpected survival, but it was also a solemn time. Almost ten thousand of her Jaffa had given their lives to stop Olakun. SG-16 understood the mixed emotions very well. Nearly as many had been lost a year ago, on the Nimitz carrier group and over Antarctica, but their sacrifice had safeguarded Earth's liberty.
The courtyard was a quiet, peaceful place, near the top of the temple, high in the canopy of a gigantic tree. Mothlike creatures with six-inch pale green and blue wings glided from blossom to blossom around a gently flowing fountain and the vines that cascaded over the walls.
A couple of young male Sekhmet were sitting by the fountain playing a flute and a small harp. Gender roles appeared to be reversed here, the warriors were mostly female and the temple staff mostly male, although there were exceptions either way.
Bowen had been around enough Goa'uld to see that things were different here. Bastet was worshipped out of love, not fear. No one seemed afraid to approach or speak to her.
Soon after the dessert cart had been cleared away, a priestess and her young acolyte came up. Whatever she reported got Bastet's attention. The system lord translated, "They've been examining that Kull and they think they've found a transmitter. Do any of you know about those things?"
Borgstrom said, "I've studied a couple of the Kull Warriors, Lady Bastet. I know a little about the Ancient systems that Anubis incorporated into their armor. I could certainly have a look at it if you'd like. Do they think it's still transmitting?"
Bastet said grimly, "The way my luck has been running, I know it is."
"Murphy is alive and well," Borgstrom said with wry sympathy.
"Who is this Murphy?"
"Nobody knows precisely who he was, milady, but he posited a scientific law which states that anything that can go wrong, will. In correllary, it will do so at the worst possible time and in the worst possible way."
"We have a similar principle, but that states it much more elegantly and to the point," she replied. "Mreie, where have you moved the laboratories since I was here last?"
"This way, my lady, a transport is waiting."
The transport turned out to be a large, comfortably appointed hovercraft like the one that had brought them into the city. They set down near a large industrial-looking building. Mreie showed them to a viewing gallery with a two-way mirror. "If it is still transmitting, my lady, best that you not be seen."
Bastet said, "Of course." She stared down at the autopsy room on the other side of the glass where several Sekhmet were working around the dead Kull. Bergstrom accompanied Mreie into the room and examined the Kull with some instruments from his pack. He removed a small device from inside the armor and took out a small power crystal.
Bastet cursed in a number of languages. "Relana, did that thing ever see me alive?"
"My lady, to the best of my knowledge it did not see you at all. It may have seen the Tau'ri and us Jaffa aboard the transport, but I do not see how it could have identified you. The Sekhmet merely threw it into the hold. What it has done, though, was to record the level of Sekhmet technology. I doubt that Vadrak will escape Anubis' notice any longer. He will not take the chance. He will bomb the planet from orbit if it is still occupied when he arrives."
"We have less time than Seshat's folk to evacuate. I hope the Sekhmet have not let the evacuation drills fall by the wayside over the centuries."
Relana said, "Where shall we go? We must lead them away from Bubastis."
"I hope that Bra'tac will have us. The free Jaffa have already set themselves irrevocably against Anubis--what matters what else they do to anger him now?"
Jacob quickly took control when Selmac unexpectedly faltered, and saved them from a rather embarrassing pratfall. For several minutes, Selmac withdrew to protect him from her sudden pain, and he could feel the tremors that wracked her small body. Something was very wrong.
+Hold on, honey, let me find Garshaw.+
+No, there's nothing she can do. Jacob, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry.+
+What for, Sel? You're sick. We'll find out what's wrong and fix it.+
He felt her relax, and as she did, she reached out for comfort. +There's nothing anyone can do. This is how old age affects us, the nervous system begins to fail along with everything else. I never thought I'd have to leave you, but I will. We have to separate before I go into a coma, or I'll take you with me. The poison--+
Jacob considered. +What then? How long until my cancer recurs?+
+Technically, it's still there, you know it had metastasized. I just get rid of it whenever it becomes noticeable. It will take a few months to become dangerous, and you'll find a new symbiote by then.+
+Who, Sel? Another Kanan or Dalak?+ He demanded. But he couldn't stay angry with Selmac. +I'm too old to take a chance on that, honey. Being your partner has been great, but I don't want to be anybody's saddle horse. It wouldn't be right to take a Daltregonian symbiote when I could never be one soul with him. And I don't want to go through it with the cancer again. This is quick and painless, right?+
Selmac could only accept his assessment of the situation. +Painless, absolutely. It takes a few hours for the toxin to build to lethal levels, but it's like an overdose of barbiturates. Jacob, you could as well find another Malek.+
+I don't want you to die in a fish tank,+ he told her quietly. +I always knew we'd go together. I figured we'd go out in a blaze of glory, though.+
Selmac's humor came through. +We could always go start a fight with Anubis.+
+I want to go home,+ he said. +I want to see my son and his family again. I want to go home to Elizabeth.+
Selmac saw his memory of the beautiful beach where Jacob had scattered his wife's ashes. She agreed that was a good place to be laid to rest. +I'll linger in a coma for some time,+ she said. +You will know when it is time to settle everything.+
+Do you want to tell everyone?+
+They'll treat us differently if we do. I could have weeks or months, who knows? I don't want them walking around us on tiptoes, already mourning us and waiting for us to die!+
Jacob chuckled. +Me either.+
+Jacob, have I ever thanked you for these past few years? Because they have been among the happiest of my life.+
+Me too, honey, me too. And I never expected to be happy again after I lost Elizabeth. In all the big wide galaxy, we were lucky enough to find each other.+ With the end of the road in sight, his only regret was working late that afternoon so many years ago. He had not a single regret for the time he and Selmac had shared.
She echoed the sentiment. +I would have been content to die with Sarouche. But then there you were. We've had some hard times, but all in all, Jacob Carter of New York City, I wouldn't have traded this wild ride for anything.+
Garshaw came over to join them. "Selmac, it's time for Jalen and Dalak to formally present themselves to Sirikat."
Jacob asked Selmac, +Are you up to this?+
+I think so. I feel better now, anyway.+
The two Tok'ra watched the brief traditional introduction. Sirikat was distantly polite to both of them, just as she had been with the candidates from Daltregon who had been presenting themselves all day.
They joined the other young men who were awaiting her decision. Dalak stiffened when he saw Al'dor among them. "She entertains the idea of a Jaffa--?"
Jalen said, "If that's reason for you to back out, I doubt anyone will stop you."
Al'dor said, "Sirikat's choice is her own, not yours, and that will always be so. Queens here serve no lord. If that gives you pause, it would be best for you to rethink things before this goes too far."
Dalak stood and said hotly, "What do you mean by that? If you accuse me of being a Goa'uld then speak plainly about it--and let us take this outdoors."
Thoran said, "Be still, you fool. If people question you and your gang of young hotheads concerning your comments about certain of us being too influenced by our hosts, you have no one to blame for that but yourselves. By all means, take yourself outdoors until you find some sense."
The raised voices had attracted Merroll, Jacob and Bra'tac's attention as well. Dalak went outside in a huff.
Merroll said in his heavily accented Goa'uld, "Well, I'll swing naked from the rafters if Sirikat chooses him!"
Jacob and Selmac both laughed. "Dalak came here to lose out and everyone knows it but him," Jacob said. "A lesson in humility will be good for him," Selmac added quietly, for Bra'tac and Merroll's ears only.
A Daltregonian youth grinned, "Do they teach you to shoot a bow where you lot come from?"
Al'dor told him, "I have shot a bow, but I am by no means the expert archer that the warriors of Daltregon are."
Jalen conferred with his host then said, "I have never so much as touched one, but I would be pleased to learn!"
With that, the young men went out to the target range.
Jacob asked, "Did anyone see which direction Dalak went? I really don't want the rest of the guys to get over-enthusiastic and throw him a blanket party."
Bra'tac said, "He was headed towards the tel'tac. I suspect he will sulk there for a while. What is a blanket party?"
Jacob laughed. "That's what we used to call it in Nam, if a guy in the outfit was getting to be too much of a pain in the mik'ta the rest of the guys would throw a blanket over him and beat the crap out of him."
Bra'tac thought that was a very Jaffa way of dealing with the likes of Dalak.
As Jack had expected, Sirikat didn't entertain the idea of Dalak for a moment. Jalen, on the other hand, came with both Jacob and Malek's recommendations. Just as telling, neither Jack nor Bra'tac had ever heard anything bad about him--and neither of them was likely to forget bad news about a Tok'ra.
The discussion then turned much less serious, as the queens discussed the relative merits of the young Daltregonian men who had come to seek her favor. The older women soon had Sirikat blushing fire-engine red and playfully putting her hands over Kimara's ears to protect her new little sister from such vulgar speculation. Even Serenshai got into the act with a few choice comments scrawled on her slate. Finally, Jack asked, "Sirikat, it's a year from now and you're sitting here eating supper with your family. Which one do you see sitting across from you?"
Sirikat said softly, "Dylantar."
Vanira nodded approvingly. "He comes from the next village, near the river. They've known each other since they were little."
Karumai said, "I thought as much. When Kestran decided to bear a human child, I had a sense then that our lines would become one. It is good."
Jack asked, "Are you sure, Punkin? Do you want to take some more time to think about it?"
Vanira put her hand on her daughter's shoulder. "There's no hurry, if you want to meditate on your choice for a while."
She looked up at them and smiled confidently. "This feels right."
The Sekhmet had been prepared for the day when they would no longer be safe in their jungle sanctuary. A fleet of evacuation ships had been kept ready for thousands of years, stocked with supplies, kept in perfect mechanical condition. It had been thought they would go to Memphis, Bast's throne world.
Now that was no longer an option. Bastet had obliterated Anubis' second fleet, but it had cost her dearly in both ships and Jaffa. Only one super-hat'ak and a dozen ha'taks remained in the Memphis system to defend against Anubis' first fleet. The renegade Goa'uld queen knew that would not be enough. She hoped that, if Anubis thought she was dead, he would concentrate his forces on the free Jaffa--the battle he must win in order to consolidate his empire. What forces she had left would be best used to help defeat him in that battle, once he was already committed to action against them and could no longer turn on her throne world. Even so, the idea of leaving Memphis undefended frankly terrified her. There were five billion people there and every one of them was looking to her to protect them. Every battle that she had fought over her thousands of years would all come down to that one.
Bastet settled herself on her throne on the bridge of the last evacuation ship to leave Vadrak. Their immediate destination was a randomly chosen white dwarf system. Where they would go after that depended on the free Jaffa. Even though each evacuation ship was designed and supplied to sustain its passengers for two years, it would still be a logistical nightmare to resettle over two hundred thousand Sekhmet--as well as the herds of farm animals required by a race of carnivores.
Major Bowen and his team had returned through the chappa'ai to their own world shortly before it had been packed up for the journey. The Tau'ri would help with the resettlement effort. Although they had no room for so many refugees on their own already crowded planet, she had seen their generosity to refugees before.
If the war ended soon, perhaps they could return to Vadrak--if Anubis left them anything to return to. She resolutely put that thought out of her mind and gave the order to raise ship.
Everyone crowded into the longhouse as evening approached. The queens had disappeared into Vanira's chambers that afternoon, and wouldn't come out until time for the evening meal, when Sirikat would announce her choices and the festivities would begin.
Dalak worked his way through the crowd until he saw Bra'tac's steel skullcap towering over the much shorter forest people. "Master Bra'tac! Someone is trying to reach you on the comms. It seems to be of some importance."
Bra'tac bowed a formal thanks that had no warmth behind it, and excused his way through. Dalak noted that the crowd cheerfully made way for the old Jaffa, and the more his pride smarted, the more his resentment grew.
Bra'tac made his way to the tel'tac and answered the comms. He was startled when Bastet took the place of the young Jaffa who had first greeted him. "Lady Bastet! We had thought you dead at Vadrak!"
"As I allowed Anubis to believe, Tec-ma'te. His second fleet is so much space dust, but it cost us everything to stop him. There were but four survivors and thanks to Relana, I was one of them. However, one of the Kull had a transmitter on it that sent back data to Anubis of the true technological level of the Sekhmet people. I have a fleet of civilian transport vessels carrying two hundred thousand people, and I need a place to put them where they will not draw down another attack from Anubis."
Bra'tac was taken aback by that. For one thing, he had never seen a Goa'uld evacuate the citizens of a planet instead of fighting a doomed defense. Most would only have seen to their own escape and taken a few favorites along, leaving the common people to their fate. For another, that was a lot of people to resettle. "What is your present situation?"
"Safe for the moment, I believe."
"Come to Daltregon, then, and we will sort this out."
"Will Daltregon have me?"
"Your sacrifice at Vadrak saved far more than Memphis. They will damned well have you!" The old warrior thundered.
Bastet almost smiled for the first time since she had wakened in the sarcophagus. "Shall I await you at the chappa'ai?"
Bra'tac found Malek waiting outside. "Something important has happened. I must go to the chappa'ai. Apologize to Sirikat for me for my absence, and tell her that I will return shortly with Bastet and a few more guests."
Malek nodded. "Do you wish for Serenshai or myself to accompany you?"
"No, you are better here to help prevent any disturbance if Dalak should take his rejection badly."
"You think he might do something rash?"
"I find him unpredictable--and therefore worth watching," Bra'tac replied. "You know him better than I."
Malek replied, with a trace of bitterness under his usual Tok'ra calm, "I knew him once, Master Bra'tac, or at least I thought I did."
The Jaffa master only bowed his head in acknowledgement, then went back aboard the tel'tac. Malek stepped clear so he could take off, then went back inside to tell the others that Bra'tac had been called away.
Then on second thought, he called some of the leadership aside and gave them a heads up. He knew neither Jack nor Jacob trusted Bastet, and he could see a few nightmare scenarios resulting if her sudden appearance startled either of them here.
Jack assured him, "It's OK, Malek, she isn't on anyone's hit list here--not that I know of, anyhow."
Jacob nodded. "She's always been the best of a bad lot."
Vanira said, "She is our ally, and so long as that remains the truth, I will shelter her here."
Bra'tac landed in the gate meadow and a Hak'tyl warrior pointed out the tent where Bastet and her entourage had taken shelter. There were enough Free Jaffa present to be sure that she neither caused any harm, nor came to any. They made way for him. Bastet and Relana, two more of her Jaffa, and three Sekhmet were sitting around a glowing brazier which provided some warmth inside the tent. There was a big difference between the warm humid jungle of Vadrak and the crisp autumn air here on Daltregon.
Bastet rose when she recognized him and greeted him with a nod of her head, one general to another. "Master Bra'tac."
"Lady Bastet. As it happens, representatives of the Tau'ri and the Tok'ra are here. I will take you to them and we will sort out a place for the Sekhmet to find refuge."
Bastet found herself reassured by the Jaffa master's calm confidence. It was still soaking in that she had died for her people, and that she was only here today thanks to Relana's loyalty and quick thinking. For the first time she had a sense that they were not fighting a desperate last-ditch defense--they had a chance for a future beyond Anubis' defeat.
Another group had arrived in Bra'tac's absence. When he came in for a landing, there was a craft with the sleek curved lines and silver hull of an Asgardian ship already there. Bra'tac said, "A fortunate coincidence. It seems that more of our allies are here."
"What's going on?" Bastet asked.
"The time has come for the Lady Sirikat to choose her consorts."
The Daltregonians had never seen any Sekhmet before. Mreie and her teenage acolyte Simiri were enchanted by the little blond, blue-eyed children who crowded around wanting to touch their soft tawny fur. The little ones were a little more in awe of her companion, General Erissa, who looked much more frightening than the gentle priestesses, with her steel-capped claws and scarred arms and her habit of showing her two-inch-long fangs to best advantage when she grinned, but she had her own circle of admirers among the bolder children. Some of the adults recognized Bastet and welcomed her, somewhat cautiously.
The longhouse was a huge old log building with three stories of rooms along either side overlooking a central hall. The high rafters rang with music and laughter. The locals' faint naquada signatures gave them an ethereal, otherworldly air. It was the first time the rebel Goa'uld had ever been in the company of so many blended pairs. Peaceable villagers minding their own business had never been her chosen prey, so she had never been on Daltregon before. She could be a vicious hunter when she wanted, but she preferred to hunt violent criminals--and the likes of Sobek.
Bra'tac's destination was the queens' balcony at the other end of the longhouse. At the moment it was crowded with Cimmerians. Among them Bastet recognized Gairwyn, and nodded a greeting.
Sirikat was speaking to a tall, dark-haired man who had just given her a pair of gold bracelets, each set with several crystals. Some of the smaller ones began to glow as soon as she put the bracelets on. There were several other queens present besides Sirikat. The senior of them rose heavily, leaning on a tall oak staff. Her snow-white braid reached nearly to the floor. She held out her hand to Bastet. "Join us and sit at our fire," she invited in accented Goa'uld. "All who come in peace are welcome."
Bastet bowed her thanks as the youngest of them, a child whose blending scar hadn't yet faded, brought out another floor pillow for her. To the formidable witch-queens of Daltregon, she was a visiting queen, nothing more and nothing less. They were not murderous savages, and she was not a demon. She made the final break with the old ways and stepped into a new world ripe with perils and possibilities as she introduced herself. "Thank you, little sister. I am Bastet/Althenai."
The girl smiled shyly, not realizing what a monumental thing it was for a Goa'uld to dare introduce her host as an equal--but her elders did. "I am Kimara. My grandmother is Karumai, and that is one of my mothers, Vanira, and my sister Sirikat."
Bastet apologized that she hadn't known to bring Sirikat a gift. The younger queen smiled and said, "The tale you have to tell us will be more than gift enough, but please, eat first. Kimara, go and find Jack and Garshaw."
The girl jumped on the balcony rail and lightly dropped the twelve or fifteen feet to the floor, then darted out the back door before Vanira could scold her. The section of rail nearest the door was worn smooth by generations of such hijinks. Bra'tac showed them the local dining customs by spearing a bite of venison on the tip of his knife and holding it over the brazier to cook.
Gairwyn took the chance to introduce the other Cimmerians. "This is Robert Makepeace Alfredsson, the shipmaster of the drakkar outside, and these are my cousins Leif Jurgenson, Frida Haldorsdottir, and Wolfric Trollslayer." Each of the warriors nodded as they were introduced. Bastet wasn't sure what the Cimmerians called trolls, but Wolfric certainly looked capable of slaying one--and the other two weren't much smaller. As for Makepeace, she never would have taken the former Marine for a Tau'ri instead of a native Cimmerian if she hadn't already heard of him.
Presently O'Neill and the Tok'ra returned from watching the archery practice, followed by a crowd who wanted to see Bastet and the reclusive Sekhmet for themselves. The three younger Cimmerians went back down onto the main floor to make room on the queens' balcony for Garshaw, Selmac and the Tau'ri general.
In his typically blunt style, O'Neill asked, "How many refugees are we talking about here?"
"Nearly a quarter million," Bastet replied. "They are prepared to feed and defend themselves--but what world can take so many?"
Bra'tac said, "I have been considering that. The tides of war have shifted and New Tollana is far from Vadrak. The cities are likely still unlivable, but the weapons used there were not long-lasting. The countryside is well on its way to recovery. It is entirely probable that those so accustomed to surviving in the wild as the legendary Sekhmet will be able to colonize it. It is also to be hoped that small pockets of the Tollan have survived, and might dare show themselves with a warrior race there to defend them."
Garshaw said, "I could not have come up with a better solution myself, Master Bra'tac. Bastet, we can spare you some cloaked tel'tacs as sentry ships, but more than that--" She shook her head.
Bra'tac said, "I've been looking for something to do with Kali's legions who defected to our camp recently. I don't trust them, but they revere you nearly as much as their own lady."
Bastet nodded. "I'll have them, and gladly. Kali has been waiting to see which way the wind will blow, but we are not yet at war. Even if it is revealed to her that I have survived, she is unlikely to turn against me when she sees that I remain while Olakun is no more. If these Jaffa are still secretly loyal to her and she does intend to turn on me, then she will most likely order them to do everything to gain my trust first. I'll hold their loyalty up until the moment Kali says otherwise. More likely, they truly have turned against her. Either way, they will defend my people now, and I will honor them for doing so."
Bra'tac nodded. "A sound tactic."
Erissa said, "I can put a few prides on each of those ships to aid in the defense of our new sanctuary, my lady. They can always use more marines if they are boarded, and the presence of our forces will help keep everyone honest if Kali should prove troublesome. It will be easier for them to choose freedom with my warriors to...encourage them."
Serenshai chalked one word on her slate in Goa'uld script. "When."
Bastet said, "I must agree. It is a matter of when, not if. Kali is likely to side with Anubis, and unless I am to remain in hiding forever, she will learn that I have survived. What better tribute to bring him than the head of her old friend. It will come to that, I think."
Serenshai's hand wiped the slate, and she wrote, "Kali is mine."
Bra'tac explained, "Kali was responsible for the massacre of Serenshai's entire village. My apprentice has sworn an oath of silence until they are avenged."
Bastet said, "If you would have her, then take her before she forces my hand," she said, with evident regret. Change did not come easily to her people. She and Kali had been partners for thousands of years in spite of their differing philosophies. She regretted that sides had been chosen and the die already had been cast. Bastet saw Kali's destruction in the witch-queen's ice-blue eyes, and nothing would change that short of Serenshai's own death. Kali had made her choices freely, and now the consequences were upon her.
Serenshai bowed her head. When she looked back up her eyes had gone bright gold. A bright flash of light strobed from the large crystals on the hilts of her twin swords where they stood against the wall. In response, the brazier flared high, startling everyone except Karumai, who leaned forward to read the omens in the flames.
Karumai said, "The Dark Goddess has heard your vow, sister. May the Lady guard your path, and the Lord guide your hand!"
Serenshai bowed deeply to the ancient crone, and then her fingers trailed across the many mourning scars cut into her forearms. It was time.
Bastet felt a chill. She was in the presence of the age-old power that had kept the people of Daltregon thriving in spite of the Goa'uld's attempts to hunt them to extinction. The Goa'uld queen sensed that the hammer of the true powers was about to fall upon the heads of those who had dared the hubris to claim godhood. She hoped that she was not to be caught up in the destruction herself, although it would be deserved. She would be the last to hold herself guiltless.
She felt Althenai's touch, and it was a warm embrace, unlike the cold wall she had encountered for so many years. She could dominate this host's body, but had never defeated her, and after a time she had stopped trying. Now they were on the same side. +You walk among the angels now, Bastet. I know your heart as none other living could. We leave the long darkness and stand proud in the avenging Light, my kitten.+
+I do not expect mercy or forgiveness from anything good or just, not with the blood of innocents on my hands. Not with the evil I have done even after I stopped using the sarcophagus unnecessarily. I have devoured my own kind, who can forgive me that?+
+Ah, kitten, how many more innocent lives did you save by avoiding war with the other System Lords until the time was right? The Bright Ones are wise. They know when life gives but two evil choices, and no good ones. Yes, you bear karma for those lives, but such things are not completely beyond redemption--so long as you continue to work to be redeemed.+
Bastet thought about that. +I had better not be a mere kitten.+
Amused, Althenai said, +Pay attention, kitten. This conference is not yet ended.+
Bastet had been listening. Makepeace and Gairwyn had been trying to think of a way to arrange things to send two drakkars to assist with the defenses of Bubastis and New Tollana. They were not ships of the line like the Daniel Jackson, but they were Asgard-built, and the extended range of their sensors could give an advance warning before an enemy left hyperspace or entered the furthest reaches of either star system at sublight. With a drakkar on station at Bubastis, Bastet could send one of her ha'taks to New Tollana. And if worse came to worst, a drakkar could deal with one of Kali's ha'taks.
With that arranged, Bastet sent Erissa and Mreie to rendezvous with the Sekhmet fleet. They reported to Bastet, but the fact was that she had given de facto autonomy to the Sekhmet people many generations ago. Now that they had a place to go, and their military and religious leaders to guide them, they were ready to take their place as full members of the fledgling Alliance.
Bubastis was another story. Bastet had ruled there as queen for centuries, and although she had always given a certain amount of thought to the succession and had chosen underlords whose ideology was similar to her own, as well as primes who could govern as competently as they led in battle, no one had ever really believed that anything could happen to her. She realized now that her cocksure certainty of her own immortality had been absorbed by her people. By now, though, news of the battle over Vadrak had surely reached Memphis and things would be in chaos there.
While Kezira, her daughter and heir, was a capable woman and a promising leader, she had neither Bastet's years nor her experience. She had been thrown into a tenuous position, with the leadership of the entire planet suddenly dropped into her lap. As long as Bastet had to remain incognito, there was nothing she could do about the inevitable power struggles that would take place. Tarina could carry messages back and forth, but more importantly, she would make Kezira a worthy prime in her own right.
Jack asked, "Bastet, do you mean to return there as ruler when this is over?"
She said, "My people will likely allow me to do nothing else, once they learn that I am alive. I realized something long ago which seems to have escaped the other Goa'uld--as long as my people believe that they belong to me, so will I belong to them." She put her hand on Relana's shoulder. "The Jaffa have their own nation, their own ways and one day they will find their own homeland. These are free people who serve because they choose to do so." She turned to the young acolyte Simiri. "Long ago, Ra forced me to abandon the Sekhmet, and they have found their own way. I am a living symbol of the Mother Goddess to them, but they know I am no goddess in my own right. I am the leader of these two proud peoples by their suffrage, but I am no object of worship to them--and so they have set me free from the confines of my temple. The people of Memphis have not yet made that choice, and until they are ready to do so, my life is theirs.
That said, I do see this as a splendid opportunity to begin democratic reforms at the local level. With any good fortune, perhaps the transition can be made smoothly until in a few years I will no longer be needed as anything but a figurehead for the civilian government. This was the eventual result among the Sekhmet, but Ra gave me no chance to allow for an orderly transition there. I do not want to see a repeat of that upheaval on Memphis if I can avoid it."
Jack found nothing in that to disagree with, having seen the results of the fall of a dictatorship in Iraq. The transition to a democratic government there was not going to be easy. He didn't want to see the innocent people of Bastet's throne world caught up in a mess like that.
Bra'tac nodded as well. "A wise course of action, my lady. There have been too many worlds thrown into chaos already as their Goa'uld rulers have fallen. That need not be the case here."
When Anubis' ship came out of hyperspace over Vadrak, stray bits of battle debris still occasionally drifted too near the planet's gravity well and fell through the atmosphere in fiery streaks. But the Jaffa on sensor duty trembled in their boots as they realized the planet was deserted. There was no radio chatter. The cities were empty, and the herds of cattle and sheep were gone.
Anubis roared his displeasure, but fortunately for his bridge crew, he took out his frustration on the planet below. "Scour that miserable rock! If they would run then let them be vagabonds forever. Leave them nothing to which to return!"
By the time the bombardment ended, Vadrak was nothing but a glowing radioactive cinder--the first step towards Anubis' ultimate goal.
Sunset on Daltregon brought a growing excitement to the crowded longhouse. The queens had secluded themselves in Vanira's apartment, while everyone else waited for Sirikat to emerge and announce her choices.
Selmac asked, +Jacob, have you paid any attention to Dalak? I don't think I've seen him since he stormed out of here this afternoon, and with all the excitement about Bastet, I completely forgot about him!+
+Yeah, me too.+ He wasn't in the longhouse. The blended pairs who had a lot of naquada in their systems were highly visible among the people of Daltregon.
Garshaw and Bastet were deep in conversation and Selmac hesitated to interrupt, but both she and Jacob had a bad feeling about Dalak's absence. Jacob asked Malek, "Have you seen Dalak anywhere this afternoon?"
"No, I haven't. You're certain he isn't in here somewhere?"
"Fairly certain. Look for yourself, a Tok'ra couldn't very well hide in this crowd."
"I see what you mean. I'll go outside and look for him. He's probably realized Sirikat isn't going to choose him, and he's gone off to sulk somewhere."
"He started this, and now he'll damn well see it through. He isn't going to embarrass us or insult Sirikat by snubbing her now."
Malek agreed. He and Jeryn would be more than happy to teach Dalak a little sense, if necessary. He went outside to look around.
There were only a few people on guard outside, and none of them remembered seeing Dalak since he had left the longhouse that afternoon. They helped look in the barns and workshops surrounding the longhouse.
Malek recalled that Dalak had been heading for the field where the ships had landed. If he had been aboard the Tel'tac, Bra'tac probably would have said something. The irascible old Jaffa had even less patience with Dalak than anyone else did.
Jeryn looked for Tok'ra boot prints in the new snow, but found none except his own. +Malek, I don't think he came down here.+
They looked back up the hill towards the brightly lit longhouse. Malek replied, +Perhaps he went around back and down the other side of the hill towards the lake.+
Jeryn connected the lake to the enclosed, artificially heated spawning pool where the queens gave birth and their newborns were kept safe for several months until they were old enough and the weather was warm enough for them to move into the lake.
Malek followed his thoughts. +Jeryn, you don't think he would be mad enough to do something to Sirikat or her larvae, do you?+
+I don't know what to think,+ his host replied. +It makes no sense. I see nothing that he could gain from such a thing. But that is the only remaining place to look. We must find a queen, it is forbidden for anyone except a queen and her consorts to enter.+
+They're all in with Sirikat--except Bastet.+
+If he is in there, I hope that we can get him out before the Daltregonians find out he was trespassing! Damned troublemaker!+
Malek approached Bastet, who fortunately was still involved in her conversation with Garshaw. He excused his interruption and explained, "Dalak's lost himself somehow. We've looked everywhere except the spawning pool."
Garshaw whispered a furious oath. "When I get my hands on him, I swear he's going to be manning the most isolated, deserted listening post that I can find for the next century!"
Malek explained, "Bastet, we need your help. It's taboo for anyone except a queen to enter the building containing the spawning pool. Would you look and see if he's in there?"
"Of course." Bastet was curious herself about the Daltregonian queens' birthing arrangements. There wasn't a guard on the building and it wasn't even locked. The people's respect for their traditions was apparently security enough.
Bastet slipped her hand into her karakesh. Whatever this Tok'ra was planning, he might not approve of her interference.
The room was lit only by a flickering candle on a small altar, and obscured by a mist that rose off the fragrant, warm waters of the pool. But to her Goa'uld senses Dalak stood out plainly. He was sitting in the far corner.
"It's time for you to rejoin the other Tok'ra. They're quite put out with you."
Dalak did not respond. Bastet approached warily.
Then she realized that Dalak's host was unconscious. She closed the remaining few paces and checked for a pulse. He was dead. She pulled him forward to see if the symbiote had left his host, but when she saw no blending scar at all, she remembered that the Tok'ra entered through the back of the throat and felt along the back of his neck--the symbiote was still in there. She could see no signs of violence whatsoever.
Althenai speculated, +It looks like he suicided--poisoned his host and let himself suffocate inside.+
+The Tok'ra don't traditionally take their hosts with them.+
+I don't think either of those two had all their loose strings tied up properly,+ Althenai speculated. +They may have had a death pact. They picked an inconvenient place to carry it out, if they did!+
Bastet said, +A suicide often uses his death to hurt those who he feels have wronged him. He may have meant this to lash out at Sirikat for spurning him, and at the other Tok'ra as well.+
She felt her host's mixed pity and disdain, and couldn't help but agree. +We need to tell the others.+
Malek heard her out. He asked her, "Would you mind keeping an eye on things while I get Garshaw and Selmac?"
Both of them were horrified by the discovery. Selmac asked, "Are you sure he killed himself?"
"No, I'm not certain. But there were no marks of violence or indications that he was in any distress before he died. I thought he was sleeping at first. We can do a more thorough examination, but I didn't disturb things past checking to see if he was dead or alive."
Garshaw said, "Well, there's going to be no hiding this now. I'll get Merroll and see what we're going to have to do about it."
She drew the queen's consort aside and informed him, "One of my people appears to have killed himself."
"How terrible. Let me guess, it was that young man whose attentions Sirikat found unwelcome."
"The very one. I had no idea he might do something like this. And that isn't all. Bastet found him by the spawning pool."
Merroll swore softly. "I'm sorry for your loss, Garshaw. I assure you that the Tok'ra won't be blamed for what he did. First we need to make certain that it was really suicide. I hope he didn't make somebody angry enough to poison him."
"We don't have any poisons that would mimic our own venom--not that a symbiote couldn't clear from his host's body before it did any serious harm."
Merroll nodded. "We have nothing like that either, but I know that you have many technological things that we do not."
Garshaw asked, "Is there a place where we can examine the body?"
"There's a storehouse near the spawning pool. We can use that. Let me get Vanira."
A short while later, Vanira quietly removed Dalak's body to the storage shed, where Garshaw examined him to try to find out what had happened. O'Neill and Bra'tac were there as well.
O'Neill said, "Sirikat can't use that place until we're sure the water hasn't been poisoned or something!"
"Lord and Lady! I should have thought of that first thing!" Vanira exclaimed. "If anything dangerous is in there, I can cast spells to find it. That will take some time."
After he had controlled the swarm of Ancient weapons that had defeated Anubis over Antarctica, Jack had no doubt about her ability to use magic to be sure the place was safe. "You don't think this will bring Sirikat any kind of--bad mojo or anything, do you?"
Vanira said, "Not if I can help it!"
Jacob said, "Selmac wants to help Garshaw examine the body."
There was an uproar in the longhouse when the word got out. Karumai stood on the queens' balcony and created a bright flash of multicolored lights with a casual wave of her hand. The crowd turned their attention to her and hushed the few people who were still trying to yell.
Karumai said, "Listen to me! As far as we can tell, this man committed suicide. None of us can know what was in his mind for him to do such a thing. Let us send him light that he might leave behind whatever darkness consumed him in this life, to return to his true path in his next incarnation. Out of respect for that poor soul, Sirikat has decided to wait and announce her choices in the morning. Go ahead and start the meal, the children have gone hungry long enough. If the elders will join me in the temple, we will raise energy for cleansing the sacred pool."
There was a bustle as people quietly began to get their food, and some of the older folks went out to the temple with Karumai.
Jack went out to the storehouse to see what Garshaw and Selmac had discovered. They confirmed that Dalak had killed himself. Although they had been exasperated with him, Dalak had been their brother after all. Along with the grief of losing a loved one, every suicide left behind a legacy of guilt for the survivors.
Garshaw said, "This was my fault. I should have known something was wrong when he started all that about you last year. We all should have known it was more than just a grab for power."
Selmac replied, "It was no one's fault, Garshaw. I'm as sorry as anyone that we didn't realize he needed help, but we're not telepaths. We had no way of knowing what was going on between Dalak and Henris. This life we live takes a toll on all of us, but there was no indication that they were having any harder a time of it than any of the rest of us."
Jack said, "I'm going to check on Sirikat and see how she's holding up."
The longhouse had quieted. Families had taken their evening meal back to their own apartments, most of them welcoming a guest or two as they had room. Sirikat's tapestry was unrolled, closing off her quarters to public view, and two of her Jaffa stood guard outside. One of them let Sirikat know he was there, then immediately showed him in. Serenshai and Sirikat's friend Rialla were keeping her company.
"Jack? What happened?"
"Like everybody thought, he killed himself."
She made a sign to avert evil. "I knew I brought bad luck when I forgot myself with Jonathan and Alvin!"
"Sirikat, this was not your fault! Whatever screw Dalak had loose, he's been that way for a while now. If it hadn't been this, then something else would have set him off."
Jack sat on the big wooden chest where the sleeping mats were stored. His knees had had enough of floor pillows for one day. "Punkin, the Tok'ra have been living a hard life for a long, long time now. Black ops is never easy on anyone, and they've been in the game for--what--thousands of years. I'm surprised any of them are still firing on all cylinders. This isn't the first time I've seen someone self-destruct. Sometimes it's guilt, sometimes it's fear, sometimes people just get tired of waiting for the one with their name on it. Sometimes somebody who's getting desperate will give off signals and, if they're lucky, there'll be somebody around them who can intervene and get them some help. But just as often you find out they're thinking about it when they do it."
Sirikat had never given up, not even during her darkest hours as Garan's prisoner. She couldn't imagine a circumstance that would lead her to prefer death over life, and she didn't want to imagine it. But there was something very dark in Jack's eyes, that told her he knew very well the dark place in which Dalak had found himself. And she knew with a fresh stab of the guilt that nothing would ever erase, that with one moment's childish foolishness springing a locked drawer and playing with the gun inside, she had put that darkness in his eyes. As Charlie, she had not intended to kill herself, but she had wrecked the lives of her loved ones just as surely as if she had done it intentionally. She had might as well have shot both her parents that day, for all the pain she had caused.
Now she was soon to be a mother herself. That thought terrified her as battle never had. She told herself that she was just being emotional because she was in her season, but she sought the shelter of Jack's arms all the same.
Jacob stood against the wall, watching the celebration. It was subdued out of respect, but no one outside the Tok'ra delegation had known Dalak. Selmac was unusually quiet, mourning her brother--because even if he had become an arrogant fool in recent years, he had still been her brother, and their history went back centuries. Jacob just gave her wordless love and support and respected her silence. The crowd began to get to her. Jacob went outside by way of the back door near the queens' balcony, and followed the wooden walkways that led between rows of workshops and barns and animal pens, down to the lake. To their senses, the tiny naquada signatures of immature larva hibernating deep in the mud at the bottom of the lake glimmered like a reflection of the stars above.
+So different,+ Selmac said. +Had I been born on Daltregon, I and my first host would have passed centuries ago.+
Jacob remembered her Jaffa with her, a gentle and loving woman who had been Egeria's wardrobe mistress. They had to reach far back into Selmac's genetic memory to bring up glimpses of life in the warm waters of the Goa'uld homeworld. That was so long ago that it was foreign to her.
She said wistfully, +I had hoped to witness their blending ritual at least once.+
Jacob said, +We do have another option, Sel. Bastet's sarcophagus.+
He rode out Selmac's instinctive near-panicked refusal. +Jacob, I won't use one of those evil things!+
He sent a wave of soothing calm. +Easy, honey. No demands, no pressure. Just think about it. That panic attack didn't originate with you. It was Egeria's programming. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. We both know exactly what happens to people who get addicted, and Egeria didn't want that for her kids. But that terror you felt, it's more of a superstitious thing than anything else. Logically, you know a brief exposure to counteract aging isn't dangerous. That having been said, Sel, this is completely your decision.+
She was so overwhelmed by the wave of unconditional love he offered that she was struck speechless for a long moment. He was truly prepared to die with her, with absolutely no regrets for their years together. He truly wasn't pressuring her one way or the other, merely pointing out an option that Egeria's legacy had left her unprepared to consider. His support gave her the courage to consider it. +My mother would have told me she would never live under the conditions the Pangarans forced her into. Yet, when the time came, she fought to the last to live. Even to taking Kelmaa's host.+
+They didn't give her much choice,+ Jacob pointed out. +Kelmaa and Tylah both had to know they were sacrificing their lives, that Egeria would never have the strength to leave Tylah without releasing her poison. It was the only way they could stop an intolerable situation. But you're right, Egeria put up one hell of a fight. I don't know if I would have held on for sixty years in her place.+
Selmac said, +Nor I...but if there had been a sarcophagus available, she might well have used it to save herself, and Kelmaa and Tylah as well.+
Jacob said, +That's my thought, anyway. I really doubt that she consciously intended to put you all in a situation of refusing treatment that could save your lives just because the potential for abuse is there. What I'm seeing is her horror of becoming an addict, enslaved and twisted by it. There is a difference, Sel.+
+Bastet is walking proof of that. You didn't know her when she was an addict. She was never an evil person, not like Ra or Cronus or--or Ba'al. They would have been cruel, scheming bastards if they'd never seen a sarcophagus! But still, the difference in Bastet now is like night and day. In retrospect, it's easy to see the effect that addiction had on her. And even after all those years, she was able to break her dependence on it. That's very logical of me, don't you think? But I still don't know if I could actually bring myself to do it!+ She admitted.
Her host deliberately recalled his own trepidation at the idea of saving his life by becoming host to a horrifying parasitic alien creature, like something out of a bad 1950's sci-fi movie. The irony wasn't lost on Selmac and she burst out laughing, as she mentally drew devil's horns and a ridiculous mustache on his caricature of a giant symbiote with glowing eyes, fangs dripping poison and a long forked tongue. +Sam would tell us that it isn't about what we believe to be the case. It's about what the evidence indicates to be accurate.+
Jacob nodded. +Belief and tradition are hard things to fight, genetic programming aside. We have just as strong a history of that as you do. There are some vicious wars going on right now back on Earth because differing sets of beliefs have come into conflict and neither side is free to compromise.+
Selmac burst out, +So why didn't our tradition of respecting and protecting our hosts make Dalak want to live for Henris' sake?+
+I don't know, Sel. When two suicidal people get in the same place, they can reinforce each other. Talk each other into going through with it. I don't think that's something that anyone who hasn't been there can ever really understand.+
Selmac said, +If I don't try every way in the world to save us, I'm going to hurt everyone we care about just like he did.+
+It is NOT the same thing,+ Jacob declared.
+Jacob...after we die...they could remove me and bring you back,+ she said.
He shook his head. Although he had learned to "think" to her instead of speaking aloud, he had never broken the body language habit. +A sarcophagus restores you to the DNA pattern you had before you got sick or hurt. It would probably cure any cancers that are growing right now, even if they're too tiny for you to be aware of yet, but it wouldn't keep the cells with the messed-up DNA from starting more of them. I'd be in that thing every month or so, not every five or ten years like it would be to keep us both young. That's enough to cause insanity, and I don't think I'd be Bastet's kind of wild and crazy. I have a dark side and it wouldn't be a good thing if I let it out.+
+....True,+ Selmac admitted. She knew about that dark side--it had kept them alive during some horrible times on Netu, but it frankly scared the hell out of her. Jacob had only been able to use it because he trusted her to keep him grounded and pull him back into the light.
+Do you believe in reincarnation?+ He asked.
+Given Sirikat's story, it's rather hard to doubt it, don't you think? How else could she possibly know the things she does about Charlie O'Neill and life on Earth a decade ago?+
+Yeah, apparently life after death is more of a multiple choice question than true/false,+ Jacob wisecracked.
Selmac drew on his memories of the Air Force Academy to reply, +Be thankful that it isn't an essay question!+
He snorted--after a lifetime of report writing, he still hated anything that required him to write more than a few sentences. +What I'm getting at is, whatever you decide, we're still going to be together somewhere. Maybe back to this universe to be reborn, maybe in Heaven like I learned in Sunday School way back when--maybe we'll Ascend and show those Others how it's supposed to be done! It's going to be OK. We'll make sure everyone understands we aren't pulling a Dalak,+ he comforted her. +They'd mourn but it would be like Egeria, they'd think we're a couple of old farts who've had long, full lives. And that's true, we have.+
+Yes, we have.+ Selmac's answer came with a flood of warmth, satisfaction with a life well lived--and a job well done. But her weariness came through their link as well.
Jacob said, +Get some sleep, honey. I'm just gonna stay here and watch the stars for a while.+
Rialla brought a tray of food up to Vanira's chamber, where Sirikat had sequestered herself, as she had been kicked out of her own room so the village maidens could decorate it. Sirikat had got herself under control by then, and idly speared a bit of fish and cooked it over the charcoal brazier. Karumai and little Kimara were there as well, and Sam had also come in a little while ago. Vanira pushed the curtain aside and brought Bastet and the young Sekhmet priestess with her. Jack asked, "Should I go?"
Vanira said, "No, you are fine. You stand in the place of she-who-was-Kat's father."
"What's a Daltregonian wedding like?"
Sirikat replied, "First thing in the morning, I'll go with my ladies to the temple to ask the blessings of the gods on my choices, and to invite the spirits of those who have crossed over to come back into my family. Then I'll come back here to get dressed for the handfasting. While that's going on, the queens will be outside preparing to cast the circle."
Vanira asked, "Bastet, would you like to join us?"
"Would it be proper? I don't share your faith...."
Vanira said, "We honor all the names of the Divine. As long as your own faith does not command against it, our traditions allow it."
Bastet said quietly, "I am not sure what to believe. When I came to understand that Ra was no god, and neither were any of the rest of us, I was left at a loss. I know that there is an Eternal who is greater than us all, but I do not know any god or goddess in the way that your peoples do."
Karumai said, "If you know that much, then you know where to begin your journey. She whose name you bear has not struck you down for the audacity. Perhaps she is waiting for you to seek her out."
Bastet thought on that and nodded. "Maybe so."
Sirikat went on to explain, "I will be high priestess in this circle, and my first consort, Dylantar, will be high priest. The handfasting ceremony is more involved than the rituals you've seen me do, because every handfasting is a celebration of the love of the God and the Goddess. We believe everything that exists came from their love. After we are handfast, there will be a break in the ceremony, and everyone who is either being handfast or reaffirming their marriage will leave the circle to perform the Great Rite in private. We throw grain just like you do, that must be something our common ancestors on Earth did long ago and it has come down through both our traditions."
Rialla said, "Oh, yes, very good luck to be handfast or to reaffirm a partnership in the same circle as a queen. Your family will be blessed with many children. There will be several other handfastings besides Sirikat and her consorts."
Vanira said, "Merroll and I will be among them. This is an end to our formal mourning for Daitar. Perhaps he will come to us again soon."
Sirikat reached over to take her queen's hand. "I am sure of it, Mother."
The young Sekhmet priestess said something to Bastet and the queen answered. Simiri giggled, obviously she thought Bastet was teasing her. Bastet explained, "She doesn't understand the concepts of handfasting or marriage. Sekhmet culture is entirely matrilineal. Males remain with their mother's pride for life and raise and protect their sisters' cubs."
Vanira nodded. "We fall somewhere between, I think. We are matrilineal, but we do have formal matings and human fathers always have a place in raising their children. Likewise a queen's consorts."
Jack looked up, that was something he'd wondered about. Bastet explained, "Paternity isn't as clear cut. A symbiote doesn't just have two parents. A queen ends up using DNA from all her pharaohs, past and present, as well as from her host--and, in the case of Goa'uld, all her former hosts as well. So much of that is instinctive that we don't always consciously know where each bit of genetic code came from. And most of our genetic inheritance is handed down through our queen's line anyway. Our offspring are more nearly our clones than anything else. The system lords in male hosts would like to think they have something to do with it, but the truth is, that only happens if their queens think it's a good idea. If all else fails, we are capable of using only our own DNA and producing true clones of ourselves, though that isn't wise from a position of genetic diversity."
Vanira nodded. "Yes, it's possible, though I can't remember a time anyone here did that. We make too many political alliances by the choice of our consorts. Merroll and I were handfasted to settle a border dispute with his village, though that was many years ago. After the year and a day that sealed the treaty, we decided to stay together because we love each other."
A little while after they finished eating, they all went back to their own quarters to get some sleep. Sam said, "You know--we were talking about getting married offworld. Jack, what would you think about getting married here tomorrow?"
Jack grinned, "I'd be all for it. But we don't even have a ring."
"We can get one later. I couldn't wear it much anyway, not until we can let everyone know. But Dad's here, and we can send for Jonas."
"Let me ask Vanira few questions and see if it's OK. Why don't you talk to your dad."
Jack held her close for a long kiss before he let her go. Sam caught her breath and went looking for her father.
He wasn't in the room he was sharing with the other Tok'ra, but Thoran had seen him go out the back door a while ago. Sam zipped her jacket as she went outside, the night air was really cold. She wandered around and found him down by the lake. "Dad?"
"What are you doing standing around out here in the cold?"
He smiled. "Just doing some thinking, honey. These folks have a good life here."
"Yes, they do, now that they don't have to worry about the system lords using the place for their own private hunting preserve," Sam agreed.
"Is something wrong?"
"No, Dad," she said, a radiant smile lighting up her eyes. "Jack and I were talking and we're going to get married tomorrow, if it's OK with the Daltregonians."
"Are you sure this is what you want? Are you happy?"
He could see the truth of that in her eyes. He held her tight. "Then I'm happy for you. I've got to admit, Jack wouldn't have been my first choice for you when I first met him, but over the years I've gotten to know him a lot better. He's a good man, and he's crazy about you or I miss my guess. You two take care of each other."
"We will," she promised. That was a given. They had been taking care of one another for years now, and nothing would ever change that.
"What happened, did you guys just decide to elope?"
"Well, the president told us to keep it low-key, so we'd been considering the idea of getting married off-world where no one would see our names in the paper or anything. But it is kind of sudden. Mostly because you can be here. We'll have a big ceremony back on earth when one of us can retire, but there's no way of knowing when that will be. We're both kind of old-fashioned, I guess. We don't want to just live together."
Jacob agreed. Selmac had broadened his horizons, but at heart, he still felt couples should get married if they were going to live together, especially when there was a little kid like Jamie involved.
Sam told him about the ceremony and the Daltregonian custom of inviting their loved ones to return. Unexpectedly she found her eyes stinging with unshed tears. "I've never been much of a believer, but I'd like to think that Mom might come back to us."
Jacob blinked away a few tears of his own. "Maybe she already has, as one of Mark's kids."
Sam nodded. She saw so much of their mother in both of her brother's children.
Jacob said, "You'd better get some sack time, it sounds like tomorrow's going to be a big day."
Sam grinned. "Are you coming?"
It was about 0300 when Sam finally made it to her bedroll for a couple hours rest. She was so excited about getting married that she didn't think she would sleep much at all, but the habit of grabbing any sleep she could, any time and anywhere, was too deeply ingrained to keep her eyes open for long. Kimara came to get her just before dawn, and she joined Sirikat and the rest of the village's brides-to-be in the bath house. Everyone was talking excitedly in Daltregonian, much too quickly for Sam to follow with her limited grasp of the language, but some things are universal. They all dressed in simple white robes and each of them took up a candle, which they lit from Sirikat's as they exited the bath house and formed a procession to the temple.
The whole village had turned out to see them, and they walked two by two through a light flurry of snow. The grooms were absent, involved with a hunting ceremony of their own that honored the god, and if fortune favored them would provide game for the feast that evening. Sam caught sight of Daniel and Jacob taking pictures. Then she realized that Thor had apparently been very busy. He and Jonas were there, and so were General Hammond and Jamie, and several more of the Tok'ra. She keenly felt her brother's absence but that couldn't be helped, and otherwise it seemed all her loved ones were present.
The temple was quiet after the revelry outside. Each of them placed her candle before the altar and whispered the names of her dearest departed loved ones, then took her place in silent meditation. Sam's mother's name came first, but there were so many others, dear friends lost to this war. And then she forgave Laira, and hoped she was at peace in her faith's heaven, but if the Edoran chose to return to Jamie as a little sister, Sam found that any remaining jealousy had disappeared and she would have no hesitation about accepting her into their family. Finally she whispered, "Jolinar of Malkshur," making her peace at last with the Tok'ra who had possessed her and then sacrificed herself for her. She could welcome Jolinar back as her child. With that, she came to understand a great deal about the people of Daltregon. She lowered herself to the wide planks of the floor, worn smooth by the passage of generations, and drew the peace of the place into her soul.
After a time, Sirikat rose and led the procession into the longhouse, where an area had been curtained off for them to dress in their wedding finery. Their festival clothing had been made ready by the young unmarried girls, and as was the custom here, they borrowed and shared freely. The girls fluttered around Sirikat like so many butterflies, helping her with her gown and her intricate braids.
Sam was wearing a long blue dress that was nearly the same color as that thing she'd worn on Simarka so many years ago, it was a shade of blue that she wore well. This dress was made by and for active, fighting women, and unlike the Simarkan gown it hardly hindered her movements at all. Someone brought her a pair of new moccasins, made of the softest deerhide and embroidered with small blue river stones that matched the dress. Like Vanira, her hair was too short to braid. The girls brought out several ornate headbands for her to choose from. Sam tried a slender silver one set with blue crystals. She suspected those stones were something more than ornamental and wondered what one of the witches could have done with it.
All of them wore the long, intricately patterned shawls such as she had seen Shaneska give Sirikat once. Vanira brought over a similar garment. "This was my sister's. I want you to have it for a wedding gift, Sam." She fastened it around the Tau'ri's shoulders with a silver brooch in the form of an eagle.
"It's beautiful." She admired the knotwork pattern. "These knots have meanings, don't they?"
Vanira nodded. "This one is for long life, and this one is for peace in your house, and this one for many strong, healthy children. This one for prosperity."
Rialla held the clan sigil necklace up, then carefully placed it over Sirikat's head. She stepped back a pace, letting everyone see. Sirikat had come so far from the waif they had rescued. Here stood a strong, proud young woman, warrior and priestess and queen, ready to lead her people to their destiny of liberty among the stars.
Sam saw the pride in Vanira's gaze and nodded. She too had her own part in raising Sirikat, as well as Cassie and Jamie. She glanced at the knotwork wishing her many children, and thought that had already been granted. Though she had never given birth, she had been blessed with motherhood. And now, she and Jack were finally to be married.
Some little girls came running up to Vanira, informing them that Karumai and the visiting queens had prepared the circle.
Vanira reminded her, "Jack will be waiting just outside the main doors to join the procession. Watch Merroll, you're right behind us. I'll bring him into the circle with a kiss, then he will turn and bring you in. Then you turn and bring Jack in, and he will bring in--who is behind you? Thenaria. And so on, until everyone is in, then Kimara will close the circle. Merroll had better be explaining all this to Jack! Then when we leave the circle to come back to the longhouse, everyone will be celebrating and throwing grain. Don't let the tie around your hands come undone until after the feast, it's bad luck! The Great Rite is still part of the ritual, each of us will cast a circle within our own chamber and make love there. But that is our custom. This is a private thing between you and Jack, no one else is allowed to question you in any way. It is right that you bless your union according to your own beliefs. When you hear the singing, gather with us to return to the circle for the remainder of the ceremony, and after that the feast will begin."
Sam nodded and took her place in line.
The morning snow had stopped and the sun had come out. There was a huge crowd, apparently all the surrounding villages had come in for the day's festivities and there were a lot more Jaffa and Cimmerians there too. Sam glanced over at the meadow where the ships had landed and counted quite a few that hadn't been there last night.
Then she saw Jack and she stopped thinking about anything else. He was wearing local clothing as well, and where the relatively small Daltregonians had found anything to fit him she didn't know. He was wearing dark trousers, a white shirt that laced rather than buttoned, and a close-fitting leather jacket that she thought set off his silver hair perfectly. The collar and cuffs of the jacket were decorated with one of the complicated knotwork patterns like those woven into her shawl, she wondered what it meant. His eyes showed his appreciation of her costume as well. Hand in hand they walked to the circle, with Thenaria and her betrothed falling into line behind them.
She was too excited to remember too much of the ceremony, until the dark-haired queen named Ankyla who had fought with them in the raid on the arms factory a year ago came to stand before them. She smiled as she chanted a blessing, then bound a red ribbon around their joined hands. In accented English, she proclaimed, "If we learn nothing more in life, let it be this: The law of life is love unto all beings. Without love, life is nothing. Without love, death has no meaning. Love is before life, and after death. Therefore, in the sight, and with the blessings of everyone here, we join with you in rejoicing your handfasting. As you go forth to celebrate in fact the union of the God and the Goddess, whose love created all things, may their guidance and protection be with you now and forever. Blessed be!"
Sam realized that she must have gotten that Wiccan phrasing from either Daniel or Sirikat, and she was touched that the Daltregonian woman had made the effort to bring something of Earth to their wedding.
Vanira hadn't been kidding about the grain throwing. Sam envied Jack his leather jacket as she got pelted with corn by some towheaded boy with a gap-toothed grin. She ducked when she saw a couple of Jaffa headed their way, they still had some ammunition after they'd let a barrage fly at Sirikat and her consorts! Laughing, they raced for the longhouse and escaped into the room that had been set aside for them.
It was warm after the cold wind outside, the brazier was lit. Both of them started laughing as they realized there was no way they were going to get completely undressed with their hands tied together! That didn't discourage them in the least. Jack kissed her and whispered against her lips, "Wife."
She replied with a smile, "Husband."
"It's been a long way getting here."
Sam nodded. "It was worth the wait."
"I'm not real good at saying things, but I love you with all my heart, Samantha Carter-O'Neill, and I will forever."
She echoed, "Forever."
It seemed only a few moments before they heard the children of the village begin singing. They were laughing so hard they almost never got their clothes straightened and their hair combed. They stole one more passionate kiss before they joined the other newlyweds for the return to the circle. The rest of the ceremony was very similar to the rituals that they had seen Sirikat perform many times. Then the circle was opened and the feast began. Jacob was the first to congratulate them, he hugged Sam then shook hands with Jack--a handshake just firm enough to remind him who was the father-in-law!
Jamie got away from George and ran up to his dad. George hugged Sam. "I can't begin to tell you how happy I am that things finally worked out for you. I know you've waited a long time. It can't have been easy for either of you to put your country's needs ahead of your personal happiness for so many years. The President sends his personal congratulations to the both of you, as well as his hopes that it won't be long before you can renew your vows on Earth."
Jacob said a hearty amen, for that day would come when the war was over and they were no longer bound by duty to their current positions. He bowed his head and let Selmac have her turn at offering well-wishes.
Thor wasn't used to crowds of humans, but something about the way the Supreme Commander of the Asgard Fleet carried himself caused people to make way for him in spite of his short stature. He carried a box carved with Asgardian runes. He said, "It has been many years since my people have joined in wedlock, but thanks in no small part to your assistance, it may not be long until once again the Asgard may once again marry and have children. In the old days, it was customary for an Asgardian couple to exchange blades as a token of their promise to defend one another and their household. These weapons were often commissioned by the couple's families or passed down from parent to eldest child. I am told that this custom was kept up in some form among the Scandinavian peoples of the Tau'ri until very recently. It is my great honor to present to you such a pair of daggers, on behalf of the Asgard people, in token of our gratitude and affection. This set is a replica of the pair which my wife, Sif, and I exchanged at our wedding. May you be as fortunate in your marriage as I was."
He opened the box. Inside were two identical sheathed daggers. Each of them took one of the pair and then exchanged them, and saw in each other's eyes the silent promise: I will defend you with my life.
Jack said, "Thanks, buddy. We owe you a few times over, too. We'll treasure these."
Thor nodded, blinking once. Then the serious moment passed as he said, "Daniel Jackson tells me that the Daltregonians have mead."
"I thought you just ate those little block things."
"Yes, but I never said anything about drinking."
Jack was sure the Asgard was grinning at him.
There was a lot of laughter and ribaldry at the feast, not least of all because it was quite awkward for the couples to eat with their hands tied together. Sirikat and her consorts had an especially difficult time, because if the ribbons were about a yard long, there were four of them getting in one another's way. They got a lot of humorous but not necessarily useful advice from their friends.
After the feast, the ribbons were ritually untied by the priestesses and given to the brides for safekeeping among their treasures. Then the newlyweds were free to mingle and dance and admire one another's wedding gifts. The celebration would go on all night, but the married couples left early.
Sam and Jack were thankful for that, they hadn't had much sleep the night before and they were exhausted. Jack hugged Sirikat and told her once again how proud he was of her, then he put his arm around Sam's waist and they went back to their quarters.
Nearly everyone slept late the next morning. It wasn't until the first of the ships took off with a loud roar of lifters that everyone else started to come out of hibernation. Many of them had very little appreciation for the noise after too much celebration the night before. People were taking their leave most of the day.
Sirikat and her consorts had disappeared into the spawning pool, where they and the older queens would attend her until she had recovered from giving birth. While modern Goa'uld queens briefly separated from their hosts to spawn, the queens of Daltregon spawned as Hathor had, by altering the physiology of their hosts to allow for the birth. The Daltregonians blended to such a degree that separation was nearly impossible and certainly unthinkable in their culture.
Jack had listened to the medical details without giving away the fact that he would just as soon not know the details. He'd had a hard enough time with Lamaze classes when Sara had been pregnant with Charlie. The fact was that he didn't deal well at all with helplessness, and he could do even less for Sirikat now than he had for Sara then. Things didn't go wrong very often in childbirth here, either for a queen or a human woman, not with magickal healers around. But they could go wrong, and he had made a career of staying alive by taking the things that could go wrong into consideration. Now was no different. He was glad for Bra'tac and Merroll's company.
Selmac watched Jack standing by one of the longhouse's fire pits, drinking ale with Bra'tac, Relana and Merroll. +Jacob, I'm going to do it,+ she said decisively. +I don't care how scared I am, I can't put another sorrow on Sam, now of all times, or Jack either for that matter.+
Jacob had figured all along that she would come to that conclusion, but he had given her all the time and space she needed to decide for herself. +The Tok'ra might kick us out.+
+If they do, we'll just go back to Earth, or throw in with Bra'tac like Malek did. And it will be the Council's loss, not ours!+
+That's the spirit,+ Jacob replied, with a private grin. Once Selmac decided to put up a fight, the smart money was on her. +How do you want to work this?+
+I'm going to have a quiet little talk with Garshaw,+ she replied. +I have the feeling she won't be in too much of a hurry to give us a fight about it, after...Dalak...+
Selmac was suddenly overwhelmed by the faith Jacob had in her. He had put his life in her keeping. Even though she knew now that his choice would have immediately been to fight to live, he wouldn't leave her to die alone if she hadn't found the courage to reach beyond Egeria's legacy. That kind of love came once in a lifetime, if ever, even in the years by which her kind measured a lifetime. She felt awed and humbled and so, so in love with this incredible man. +Jacob, you are...you are my everything. I have been so selfish.+
+You were terrified, Sel, you just needed a little time to think your way around it. Everything's gonna be OK.+
As Selmac had suspected, Garshaw wasn't completely horrified by the idea. She asked, "Are you certain? Maybe it's something else, maybe you don't really need to do it."
Selmac replied, "I'm sure. Nothing else causes these symptoms. You know as well as I do."
"Well, you can't blame me for looking for another answer. You're only a century older than Persus and me, so the day's coming when we'll have to make a decision too." Garshaw said. "I think you're doing the right thing. We've lost so many of our brothers and sisters. I don't want to lose anyone else now that the Goa'uld are on the run. I can't believe that's what Mother would have wanted."
Selmac agreed. "I think the younger Tok'ra, those who never actually knew Mother, might have more trouble accepting that. There are already deep divisions. This might be enough to create a permanent split."
Garshaw nodded as she gave that serious thought. "Dalak has left us quite a legacy. His followers won't easily accept that his madness has led them astray. We are a prideful people, often to our detriment. All we can do is let them go their own way and hope that time will bring them back to us. But you can't let worry over their reaction stop you from taking care of yourself and Jacob, Selmac. Your death wouldn't change them."
"When do you mean to do this?"
"Oh, not until after Sirikat spawns. I have a while before I'll become a hazard to Jacob, and we don't want to create any more worry for Jack and Sam than necessary. I'd rather present it to everyone as yesterday's news rather than upset anyone needlessly. Also, as Jacob always says, it's easier to get forgiveness than permission. If the Council gets wind of our intentions, they might take it upon themselves to try to prevent us."
"Well, then there would be a split, because that would happen over my dead body!" Garshaw declared. "Yes, you're probably wise to keep this between us for now. As a matter of fact, even afterwards, what everyone else doesn't know won't hurt them."
"I won't lie. We've never actually had access to a sarcophagus before, so it was rather easy to be holier-than-thou about it. But now that we do--what about the next person who dies? If I've already broken the rules, it will give everyone else a fair chance to decide for themselves."
Garshaw nodded. "I can see that. But what if it doesn't come up again for another five hundred years? You could wait and let Persus or me be the first one to break tradition...officially."
"That's good of you, Garshaw, but I don't mind being the one to create a scandal. Besides, it will help when they have time to watch me over the next few years and see I haven't lost my mind. Well, at least that I haven't become a homicidal maniac. I don't want to end up like Lord Yu, either, and I'd just as soon that you and Persus were on the lookout for early signs of dementia."
Garshaw sampled a large round nut glazed with honey, one of the festival sweets that the village bakers had provided. "You know, Selmac, I wonder if overuse of the sarcophagus didn't contribute? I'm just sorry that he won't live to see the peace, because it probably wouldn't have come in our generation if he hadn't thrown in with us against Anubis."
Jacob said, "That's one thing that we old generals take on faith, that the next generation will manage the peace that we leave them, even if we aren't around to see it ourselves. I've seen Yu look at that young First Prime of his. He knows he's leaving things in good shape."
Garshaw nodded, and it was her host, Yosa, who replied. "I wish we Tok'ra could be as certain of that! Malek got disgusted and left, and now Jalen's going to be gone as well."
Selmac replied, "After the war all of us will find homes, Yosa. We've never been anything but partisans, but now we're going to have to learn to be private citizens. The transition won't be easy."
"We never even considered that there would be an 'after the war.' The struggle has been everything."
Jacob said, "It still is, you know. We haven't won yet, even if we can see the end of it coming."
"Another good reason not to say anything just yet. I'm not precisely sure just what you said to Selmac to get her to agree to this, but whatever it was, I thank you for it."
Jacob grinned. "I just gave her the idea in the first place, Garshaw. Sometimes you can't help being what your queen made you and nearly all of the time, that's a good thing. Egeria wouldn't have hard-coded such a dread of the sarcophagus into you all if she hadn't been reacting to the effect it has on people who become addicted. Back home, we use a lot of medicines that work well and save lives when they're used properly, but they're just as addictive when they're misused, and they ruin people's lives. It's the same thing. You have to do what you can to prevent abuse, but at the same time, we have a saying about not throwing the baby out with the bath water."
Garshaw nodded slowly. A symbiote could cure nearly any disease and heal all but the most severe wounds, and when that failed there was always the hand-held healing device. As a result, medical science hadn't evolved far beyond basic first aid as far as treating the sick and injured went. Both the Goa'uld and the Tok'ra had concentrated their studies on genetics and biochemistry. They knew more than the Tau'ri about how the body worked, but not so much about how to fix it when something went wrong. As grudgingly as she had admitted it as first, Garshaw realized that they stood to learn a great deal from the so-called "primitive" Tau'ri.
Life in the village returned to a normal routine once most of the visitors had gone home. Still a sense of anticipation hung in the air as everyone waited for Sirikat's children to be born. She spent nearly all her time in the birthing pool, coming out only occasionally to reassure everyone that she was all right.
That was a reassurance that Jack needed. She looked tired, but Vanira had said that was to be expected. As this was her first clutch, her body had to adapt itself to give birth, and that demanded all her resources. But other than that, she was well, and as happy as Jack had ever seen her.
At least one of her consorts was with her constantly, quick to step between her and any perceived threat, and a couple of her Jaffa guard were always on duty outside. Jack knew that would get on her nerves quickly once she was back to normal, but right now he was glad she was so well protected in her "delicate condition."
Early the sixth morning after she had sequestered herself, Jalen came running to get Karumai and Vanira. Jack and SG-1 stood around outside waiting for word.
Sam reached for his hand. "She's going to be fine."
"I know." Aside from his concern about Sirikat's safety, he kept what was bothering him to himself, because it seemed really selfish. Sirikat was a married woman, soon to be a mother, with responsibilities that would keep her on Daltregon indefinitely. This was her home now. He wondered when she would be able to come back to Colorado Springs, even for a visit. He was glad to see her happily settled. But he was going to miss her a lot in the days and years to come.
But now Sam would be coming back with him as his wife. One chapter ends and another begins.
The door banged open and Dylantar came out to announce that Sirikat had given birth to five young, and that mother and babies were all doing well. A loud cheer went up as word spread through the village.
Vanira assured Jack that Sirikat was fine. "She's asleep, and she probably won't wake up at all until this evening. The first clutch is always the most exhausting. At dusk, the babies will be presented to the gods. You can see them then."
At that, Jack managed to make an appropriate reply, but it suddenly hit him that the babies were symbiotes. While his close association with Sirikat had helped him work through a lot of his prejudice and deal with individuals in their own right, now it came slamming back full-force. He was completely disgusted with himself for that. What the hell else were they supposed to be, kittens or puppies maybe? But his only previous experience had been with larval Goa'uld, and they freaked him out.
He was determined that Sirikat should NEVER know that. Or anybody else for that matter. Especially the new symbiotes, once they and their hosts found one another. They were kids, he told himself, innocent kids completely free of the cursed Goa'uld bloodline.
Sam asked, "What's the matter?"
"Nothing, Sam, I guess I just don't do the pacing around the waiting room thing very well."
"Come on, let's get some lunch. If anything at all was wrong, Vanira would have told you, and there's no sense wearing yourself out if Sirikat is going to sleep all day anyhow."
Jack nodded, that was just common sense. They went inside to get warm and get something to eat.
Sirikat wakened late that afternoon, and her first thought was to see her babies. Al'dor helped her, but she found herself steady on her feet, if still somewhat tired.
They were tiny, only as long as her hand from wrist to fingertips, but their black eyes were open and they had started swimming around the pool, chasing each other and poking into every little crevice in the rocks. Their fangs were no longer than her thumbnail and they had only a collar of ridges where their neck fins would grow. Three of them were a pale gray, almost white. Another was more coral colored. The last, a little larger than the others, was bright green with a pattern of stripes. All of them swam up to Sirikat's hand. They were all strong and healthy, and for that she gave thanks.
"Sirikat, you've birthed a little queen," Al'dor said.
"The gods have decided we're worth another generation," she smiled. "Is it near sundown?"
"In about an hour," Jalen replied. "Have they given you their names?"
"Not yet, I'm just hearing hungry-hungry-hungry," she replied, smiling. A queen and her offspring could communicate emotions and images when they were in contact, just as she had learned the Jaffa could do with their symbiotes, although they needed a deep state of kel-no-reem to do that. "How long has it been since they were fed last?"
"About an hour ago."
In the lake, they hunted small fish, and some of these were kept in a large bowl nearby. Sirikat dipped a net in and captured a few, then released them into the spawning pool, and watched her babies catch them. She scolded the little queen for crowding her smallest sibling and trying to get its fish. Just like baby humans, they had to be taught to share. In about six months they would be old enough to begin to comprehend their racial memory, and then they would see that everyone was part of the whole.
The little ones weren't happy about being taken out of the nice warm pool and put into a gold vessel to be taken to the temple. There Sirikat celebrated a ritual welcoming them to the family and asking her gods to watch over them. Afterwards, people were allowed to come up and see them one or two at a time.
It was just like a christening back home. The women oohed and ahhed over the babies and hugged Sirikat, and there were more than a few eyes full of happy tears. Jack felt like nine kinds of an ass for having to force himself up there when what he wanted to do was run the other way.
But they weren't threatening. They were little. Incredibly little. Only a fourth the size of the smallest one he'd seen so far.
Memories flooded back. He had thought the same thing when he had first seen Charlie--he had known that babies weren't very big but he hadn't realized newborns were that tiny, small enough to fit easily in his big hands. For the longest time he had handled Charlie like he had been made out of glass until Sara had got impatient and told him the baby would be fine if he held him.
And then Charlie had died and Siri had been born, and found Kat, and now Sirikat had babies of her own, and his spirit flowed in them just as hers and her consorts' did. As he looked into the bright blue eyes of the daughter of his heart, any squeamishness he had felt disappeared, leaving only a fierce determination that nothing would ever hurt her or her children if he had anything to say about it. He folded Sirikat close in his arms. "You did good, Punkin."
He moved so that the others could see. Kimara and her consorts crowded up excitedly, pointing and staring with big wide blue eyes. In a few short years it would be their turn. But for now, they were in that magical time when they were no longer children but not quite adults. It seemed possible that they could come of age in a galaxy at peace.
After everyone had come up to take a peek, the babies were taken back to the pool, and there was a final feast of celebration. Afterwards, Sirikat went outside with the Tau'ri and walked them to Bra'tac's ship. Her eyes filled with tears as she hugged them all farewell. She told Jack, "I asked you once how I should say goodbye, and you told me that we never do. So there will be no goodbyes now. You will always be right here beside me, in everything that you have taught me about how to be a warrior, a leader--and a parent. I could not have come this far without you. I will miss you so much."
Jack said, "Me too, Punkin. Come home and visit as much as you can."
She nodded. "I will, I promise. This your home now, too." She held Jamie tightly for a long moment before putting him in Jack's arms. "I love you so much, all of you."
Sam kissed her cheek. "We love you too. Take care."
"And you as well."
The last of them climbed on the tel'tac and she stepped clear so the ship could take off. With her consorts beside her, she watched it disappear into the night sky.
To her witch's sight, the shadows of the clouds across the moon spelled out freedom.
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