Author: The Prophet <prophet_at_phlegethon_dot_org>
Summary: SG-7 learn the dangers of ill-advised experimentation when they take SG-1's place on a mission with possible Elder Threat connections.
Web Site: http://prophet.phlegethon.org/Fiction/SG-7/index.htm
Category: Action/Adventure, Drama
Spoilers: Set in Season 8, but no plot spoilers
Acknowledgements: ia! ia! Sho ftagn!
The Faculty of Archaeo-Technology was a ordinarily a quiet place. Research there was carried out at a sedate pace and most of the academics numbered among the senior faculty; their heady student days were long behind them. Noise was therefore alien to the corridors of the faculty buildings, yet on this particular night there was a great deal of noise indeed.
Dr Milos Lenz, junior research fellow in Technology of the Neomagoic Period, was disturbed by the screams and cries of alarm. Acting with a flagrant disregard for protocol, he rose from his desk and snatched up a device from his workbench. He had identified this particular artefact as a weapon some weeks ago, and confirmed that its power cell remained viable. He had removed the power source, but now he snapped the cell back into place, checking that he had it in the correct way around before he closed the casing and went out into the corridor.
"What is happening?" he demanded of a passing technician.
"An animal!" the man gasped. "An animal has escaped from Professor Scheff's laboratory!"
"Scheff," Milos muttered, angrily. The technician tried to move off, but Milos shouted after him: "Wait! What about my assistant? Have you seen Mara Belkin?"
The technician shrugged. "Not lately," he said, then he continued on his way, moving with affected calm away from Scheff's laboratory.
"Since you're not being pursued and the animal has escaped, the safest way to go would be back towards Scheff's lab," Milos muttered. "But why would I expect practical thought from an technician?" He considered simply ducking back into his own laboratory and locking the door, but as a fellow of the University he owed a duty of care to his research assistant. Tucking the weapon beneath his jacket, he set off towards Scheff's laboratory.
In the corridor outside the bio-technology laboratory, Milos found his assistant, Mara Belkin. The young woman was crouched in front of an injured man, whom Milos recognised as Scheff's assistant, Gar Kerellin. A warden stood in front of the shattered door, with a sleepwand in his hand.
Milos ignored the warden and knelt beside Mara. "Mara. What's happened to Gar?"
"Looks like something burst," Mara said. "A glass vessel of some kind. He's been badly slashed, his right arm is broken and the skin on that arm is burned; like acid. I think his back's hurt as well. He might have been thrown through the door. I asked Smiler over there to call for a medic" – she nodded towards the warden – "but he just stood there."
"Do as she asked," Milos ordered the warden; as a fellow his instructions carried more weight than Mara's and the warden took out his radio to call for a medical team. "There'll be a medikit in the lab..." Milos began. He stood up and made for the door, but the warden blocked his path.
"I'm sorry, Sir."
"Warden; I just need to get to a medikit to treat this young man's injuries."
"No-one is to enter the laboratory," the warden said. "Those are my orders."
"You're a warden, not a Sec trooper," Milos pointed out. "Your job is to see off trespassers and get unruly students back to their rooms; not to strongarm academics."
"I'm sorry, Sir, but I can't let you in."
"On whose authority?"
"On my authority, Dr Lenz." Professor Yanos Scheff strode along the corridor towards them. The Chair of Ancient Biotechnology was a tall, gaunt man with iron grey hair and a face like an axe blade. His dark eyes bored into Milos like a pair of obsidian augers.
"Professor Scheff," Milos greeted the man. "Now you are here, perhaps you can fetch the medikit so that my assistant can treat poor Gar's injuries."
"A medic is on the way," Scheff assured him. "Do not concern yourself."
"Do not...! Perhaps we should be concerned with your escapee? Why exactly was archaeo-biotech doing with a viable biological specimen?"
"I am not answerable to you, Dr Lenz."
"You are in flagrant breach of the faculty charter, Professor. This is not a biohazard facility."
"There is no biohazard," Scheff assured him. "Whatever slight danger there is will be dealt with. You have my word on that."
"I'm not sure that is enough."
"If you are unhappy, Dr Lenz," the professor said, stressing Milos' title to emphasise his own superiority, "then I suggest that you take your complaints to the Chancellor."
"Who of course will support you," Mara huffed. "With all your government contracts, how would he dare do otherwise?"
Scheff turned his gimlet gaze on the young woman. "If by that you mean that my opinions carry more weight than the good doctor's because my work produces tangible results while his is mere fancy, then yes, Miss Belkin. If you mean something else, I advise you take a moment to recall your place."
Mara's eyes fell. "Yes, Professor," she whispered.
"Oh, stop bullying my assistant," Milos snapped. "You are nothing but a thug, Scheff; politically and academically as well as socially. Come on, Mara; we'll leave Mr Kerellin to the medics."
"Yes, Dr Lenz," Mara agreed.
Together, Milos and Mara returned to the Neomagoic laboratory, where Milos disarmed and replaced the weapon on the workbench.
"Milos!" Mara gasped. "You're not supposed to use..."
Milos raised a finger to his lips. "I won't say a thing if you won't," he told her. "Honestly though, I just wish I'd shot that smug bastard. It would have been worth the dismissal to see the look on his face."
"Are you going to make a complaint against him?"
"What's the point. You're right; he'd get his way because he brings in the funding." Milos sighed. "Never mind. Let's get back to work and try to forget about Scheff, shall we?"
"Alright, Dr Lenz," Mara agreed, reluctantly.
"You can call the hospital to check on Gar when we've run the next series of differential stress tests on the ring," Milos promised, and at once she brightened. "In the meantime, connect the power supply and let's start at one-hundred thousand Sarns."
"Yes, Dr Lenz."
Mara walked over to the artefact which they were testing; a ring of crystalline stone, thirty feet in circumference, that had been recovered almost twenty years ago. It had a permanent place in this ground floor lab; the only one large enough and sturdy enough to hold it. The ring and the artefacts surrounding it were the finest examples of Neomagoic design ever discovered. Milos had devoted most of his academic career to that one set of finds, and so far he had only managed to discern the purpose of the weapon. The rest of the materials seemed inert, even though he had proven that their power cells were still viable. Sometimes Milos feared that this ring would swallow up his life's work with nothing to show for it; the way his father's life had been consumed by the pursuit of the legendary Pillars of the Gods.
Milos was snapped from his reverie by a sound like thunder. The laboratory began to shake, as though the city were caught in the grip of an earth tremor, but when he looked up, Milos saw that the cause was rather closer to home. The ring had come to life, the great chevrons around its circumference glowed red and the rumble was clearly emanating from the stone itself.
Mara backed away in fear.
"What did you do?" Milos asked.
"I did not even touch the device," Mara assured him.
The room grew still, and a sudden burst of spray erupted from the ring. Instinctively, both Milos and Mara ducked. As the plume was sucked back into the ring, leaving a clear, rippling silvery surface, Mara giggled.
"What is it?"
"I just feel rather silly," she admitted. "It's only water."
"Oh, I doubt that, Mara," Milos assured her. "With the potential power output of that device, I'd imagine that anything it does should be considered potentially dangerous."
"What is it doing?"
There was a short pause while Milos considered this, then: "Monitors!" he snapped. "Hook up the energy meters, get me a photo-scan and particle analysis on that surface. Check for radio waves, radiation and any other emissions."
"Yes, Dr Lenz."
The two academics busied themselves with equipment for several moments, aligning their various monitoring systems. Halfway through this activity they stopped, as the surface rippled and a machine emerged. It was unlike anything that either of them had ever seen or imagined; boxy and crude, with a manipulative arm and a strange belt of linked strips wrapped around the wheels on each side.
"What is it?" Mara asked.
"A probe," Milos realised. "We always knew this was a doorway; we just never imagined that someone might open it from the other side."
"You're absolutely correct," the device said in a tinny, but distinctly female voice. "This is a device which we call a MALP; Mobile Analytic Laboratory Probe."
"Yes. Collecting arm, receiving areas, visual recording devices; I assume a transceiver? This is not you is it? I am speaking to the machine's controller, am I not?"
"Again, perfectly correct," the voice said. "I'm simply speaking through the probe. My name is Samantha Carter; I'm a Major in the US Air Force."
Jack O'Neill sat at his desk, staring at the document that he was meant to be reading, willing its contents to leap from the page into his mind. So far this tack was not working, but he figured it had to be better than reading the thing.
There was a polite knock on his office door. "General O'Neill?"
O'Neill raised his head with a slightly bemused expression; he kept forgetting that he was now the General. His aide stood in the doorway, looking expectant. "Yes, Captain?" O'Neill said.
"Captain Lloyd is here to see you, Sir. She says it's urgent."
"Alright," O'Neill said, checking his watch. "Show her in."
The aide disappeared, to be replaced in the doorway by a tall, intense woman with red hair. Captain Meredith 'Merlyn' Lloyd nodded her thanks to the General's aide before entering the room and standing to attention. She held a file folder in her hand, and O'Neill stifled a groan at the thought of enduring another ear-bashing from one of the SGC anthropology team.
"At ease, Captain," he said. "Have a seat. You've got ten minutes, then I'm briefing SG-1."
"For the mission to PE1-637?" Merlyn asked.
Merlyn passed the folder across the desk; O'Neill took it as though it were a box of poisonous snakes. He opened it and took out a small stack of enlarged photographic images. He recognised them as some of the artefacts in the background of the MALP images from PE1-637.
"You think there's some danger on 637?" O'Neill asked.
"Well, Sir; I was examining some of those artefacts and there appears to be a substantial volume of them which are of Goa'uld origin..."
"Yes, Lloyd; we had noticed that."
"Yes, Sir. But there are also a number of items inscribed with a derivation of the pre-Ancient script which we encountered on P8F-951."
O'Neill felt a shiver run down his spine. Now that she mentioned it, he could see that there was an ugly, squatting, squid-like statuette in one of the images, which bore a marked similarity to those encountered on SG-7's earlier mission. "What are you saying?"
"This world was not mentioned on any of the statues at the 951 Gate, but I believe that it must have been exposed to the same pre-Ancient influences."
"Your 'Old Ones'?"
"And your point is?"
"The presence of identified, pre-Ancient artefacts means that this is our mission, Sir."
O'Neill fixed Merlyn with his coolest glare. She gazed back at him, calmly. She was not afraid, and that was unusual. She knew that she was being insolent – practically insubordinate – by coming directly to the CO of the SGC to request a mission reassignment, but she was not afraid of the General on a personal level, as most of the people who crossed him were.
"Are you telling me to pull SG-1off this assignment and give it to SG-7?" he asked.
"No, Sir," Merlyn assured him. "But by your orders, all missions pertaining to the potential threat of the Old Ones are to be handled by SG-7, operating alone or in conjunction with other SG units. I am merely bringing to your attention evidence that this mission has connections to pre-Ancient culture and suggesting that SG-7 should be assigned as back-up."
"What does Ferretti think of this?"
For the first time since she had entered the room, Merlyn was unable to meet the General's gaze. "I came straight to you on discovering this, Sir," she admitted. "Colonel Ferretti is off base at present, and I felt that time was of the essence and..."
O'Neill held up a hand to silence her. "Alright," he said. "Tell me this; have you finished your command briefing paper on the pre-Ancient threat?"
"Yes, Sir," Merlyn replied. She sounded baffled.
O'Neill stared at her; she stared at him. After a moment he flipped to the cover of the document in his hands.
"Right," he said, replacing Merlyn's report in his In-tray. "Well, hopefully this will prevent situations like this arising in the future. I can't afford to double up teams on a first contact at the moment, but I'll reassign this mission to SG-7. If you do feel that there's a need for you to take over any other assignments, I suggest you pass that up through the regular chain of command, Captain."
"SG-7 will brief in two hours; I suggest you locate Colonel Ferretti. Dismissed."
"Well, you've got a live one there, Ferretti and no mistake," O'Neill said, with a laugh. He was walking with Lieutenant-Colonel Ferretti towards the gear-up room, where the rest of SG-7 were preparing for their mission.
"True enough, Jack," Ferretti agreed, ruefully. "She can be a little...headstrong. Not to mention self-righteous, holier-than-thou, and patronising."
"You don't have to stick with this, you know," O'Neill reminded Ferretti. "You were promoted to lead the secondary general exploratory unit and SG-7 has gone specialist. Say the word and I'll switch you back to command of SG-2."
"Thank you, Sir; but I don't think I'd trade any of them for the world. Even if they do make me crazy sometimes."
O'Neill grinned. "I know exactly what you mean."
"Are you sure we won't need SG-1 to back us up? I mean, this was their mission and first contact..."
"Again; SG-7 weren't put together to research squid-monsters. You have a first-class first contact crew of your own, Ferretti. I won't say this to many people, but you don't need SG-1 to help you out."
"Yes, Sir," Ferretti replied.
"You go get 'em ready; I'll see you in the Gateroom. Oh; and Ferretti."
"I admit, I'm impressed."
"Captain Lloyd. She's got a lot of guts. Just...don't tell her I said so, okay; I don't think her ego needs any more stoking."
Ferretti laughed. "Trust me, Jack. Whatever problems Merlyn has, ego is not one of them."
Ferretti led his team through the Stargate, emerging to find three people waiting from them. One was a dynamic-looking, middle aged man with dark, coppery hair and almost amber eyes; he wore a pale-grey lab coat and rimless, round spectacles. The second was a woman in her mid-twenties – to judge by appearances – with silver hair and metallic green eyes; she too was dressed in a lab coat, although hers was white. From the initial reports, Ferretti knew that these were Dr Milos Lenz and his assistant, Miss Mara Belkin, and that the colouration of their eyes and hair was quite natural pigmentation for their race.
The third person waiting to greet SG-7 was a tall man, rather older than Milos Lenz, with very fair hair and pale, silver eyes. He was dressed in a pale blue suit, although – like the lab coats – the cut and style was subtly different from anything Ferretti had seen on Earth. Both Lenz and this other man wore a tap of bright fabric in the collar of their shirt. It reminded Ferretti of a priest's dog-collar, but according to Dr Jackson's theories was really more akin to a tie in function.
At the door behind this trio stood two more men, dressed in dark blue coveralls and carrying what could only be projectile weapons of some kind. It had been understood that SG-7 would come through the Gate armed, and equally that the people of Erd – the local name for the planet – would take similar precautions. Currently, all the weapons were lowered, however, and Ferretti hoped to keep it that way.
The man in the suit stepped forward. "Greetings," he said, in an excited tone. "I am Professor Gerred Ryzo, Chancellor of Neros University. In the name of the institution, and on behalf of the government of Perecz and the people of Erd; welcome to our world. I believe that you already know Dr Lenz and Miss Belkin?" He placed his right hand over his heart and gave a shallow bow from the waist. Lenz mirrored the gesture, but Belkin bowed with her left hand on her heart.
"Only by reputation," Ferretti replied. "I'm Lieutenant-Colonel Louis Ferretti, commander of SG-7." He imitated the bow. "These are my team: Captain Meredith Lloyd" – Merlyn copied Belkin's salutation – "Lieutenant Timothy Roberts, and Sergeant Alexander Pearson. We thank you for your warm reception."
"So many names and titles," Ryzo laughed. "Please; now that the formalities are dispensed with, I would be pleased if you would call me Gerred; in private at least."
Merlyn gave Ferretti a questioning look. He nodded. "Certainly sounds more friendly," he agreed. "I'm Louis." He motioned to his team.
"Xander," Pearson finished.
"And I'm Milos," Lenz added.
"It is a great pleasure to meet you all," Ryzo assured the Tau'ri. "It is also my privilege to extend to you an invitation to meet with our Minister for Science and Advancement tomorrow morning."
"It's my honour to accept," Ferretti assured him. "If you have no objections, we will request that an expert in diplomatic protocol be sent from Earth to attend that meeting."
"That would be quite acceptable. In the meantime, we would be honoured to extend to you the hospitality of the University of Neros. Rooms have been prepared for you in my own lodge, and if you do not mind I would like you to be my guests at high table tonight."
"Sounds great," Ferretti agreed.
"You are of course free to roam around the grounds, but if I might ask..." Ryzo gestured uncomfortably.
"Of course. Lose the P90s guys," he suggested. "If we might be allowed to keep our sidearms?" He patted the zat'nik'tel in its sling on his hip. "They are non-lethal," on the first shot at least.
"I think that will be alright," Ryzo agreed. "Although I hope that in time you will come to feel them as unnecessary as your other weapons. Dr Lenz, can you secure the weapons?"
"Yes, Professor Ryzo," Milos agreed. "Please; come this way. We have a safe for storing the most valuable artefacts and the laboratory itself is most secure." He opened the safe and waited while SG-7 unloaded and cleared their weapons, then placed them carefully in the vault.
"Your sidearms?" Milos asked, offhanded. "They appear to be closely based on a Neomagoic design."
Merlyn shrugged, helplessly. "I couldn't say," she admitted. "The zat'nik'tel is not an Earth weapon. We acquired them through our contact with a hostile race known as the Goa'uld."
"I see. We recovered a device very similar alongside the Star Gate, as you call it." He reached into the vault and retrieved what was very clearly a zat. The decoration was slightly different from that on the SGC's captured weapons, but the design of the device itself was identical.
"They've been in use for millennia," Merlyn explained. "That probably means that a Goa'uld once ruled this world."
"Chancellor...Gerred," Ferretti corrected himself. "With your permission, we'd like to dial home; let them know we've arrived safely and when to send the windba...diplomat."
"By all means."
"Ah; Chancellor?" Mara said, warily.
"We have not yet managed to restore power to the Star Gate from this side. We have encountered some difficulties in interfacing the dialling device with the Gate itself."
Ryzo sighed. "Well get it finished," he hissed, impatiently. "I apologise, Louis," he said. "There may be a slight delay."
"Maybe I could help?" Pearson offered. "I've worked with DHDs before."
Mara looked to Milos, who nodded. "That's very kind of you."
"Excellent!" Ryzo declared. He turned to the wardens at the door. "You may go now," he told them, and immediately returned his attention to his guests. "I'm afraid I must leave you now; as Chancellor I have a very busy schedule. Perhaps Dr Lenz can show you around our little campus?"
"That is most kind of you," Ferretti replied, his face beginning to ache from diplomatic language. "Pearson; you okay here?"
"An engineering problem and a pretty girl: What more could a man ask for?"
Ferretti grinned. "Lead on then, Milos."
Milos gave Merlyn and Roberts a potted history of the university as they walked, while Ferretti dawdled behind and admired the scenery.
"Prial Neros was an antiquarian of independent means, and his wife Loanna was a brilliant theoretical cosmostructurist." Milos pointed to a worn statue, which showed an imposing, patrician man and a slim, delicate woman standing together. Loanna Neros had an arm around her husband's waist, while he held her about the shoulders. Their free hands were raised, and their eyes followed their pointing fingers off into the distance; into the future.
"Cute couple," Roberts said.
"Together they founded this university as a seat of higher learning, almost three hundred years ago. It's undergone a lot of changes since their day of course, but the basic goals of the institution have never changed: Dza kra nethwoi ts'urui; ne kri magnaw ch'kauiri. That's our school motto, in Pretek; the ancient tongue of our people. It means: 'to learn from the past; to advance to meet the future'."
"It's a good motto," Merlyn replied.
"The Neros founded the discipline of archaeo-technology to study the remains of the ancient civilisations which once dominated our world, and we remain at the cutting edge of ArTech research. The Faculty's buildings, behind us now, are among the oldest on campus, but we have recently received a grant from the Ministry of Science and Advancement to construct a new research centre."
"Pardon my ignorance," Roberts said, "but what is ‘cosmostructurism'?"
"The study of the structure of the cosmos; an advanced and theoretical branch of the structural sciences."
"That would probably be equivalent to our astrophysics," Merlyn suggested. "And your people practised such science three centuries ago?"
"Oh yes. The rudiments of structural science were derived from the ancient writings almost nine hundred years ago now; unfortunately, it was nearly five centuries before the mathematical understanding of our ancestors had advanced far enough to understand the more intricate equations used in theoretical structurism."
"Is all of your science derived directly from the ancient writings?" Merlyn asked.
"Once it was," Milos admitted, sadly. "But in the time of the Neros, science was at last demystified and disentangled from the burdens of superstition and religion. Only then did we begin to understand that the principles handed down in the ancient writings were theoretical constructs which could be manipulated and explored, rather than inflexible doctrine. In the last twenty-five years we have truly begun to emerge from our scientific dark age. Our researchers have made great leaps forward in many areas which were never covered by the ancient scripts, and we are no longer dependent on what was discovered millennia before for our society to progress."
"But archaeo-technology is still an important field?"
"Absolutely; but our goal is to understand the technology of our ancient ancestors, not merely to make it function."
"And what about the Stargate?" Roberts asked. "How far are you towards understanding that?"
"We have a long way to go yet," Milos admitted. "It was discovered as part of an excavation in the mountains thirty years ago and our only real breakthrough has come with your arrival. My father was involved in that dig; an exploration of a ruined palace. The entire compound appeared to have been destroyed by an intense heat, many thousands of years ago. Most of the site had been scorched clean of any writings or artefacts, but at last they found a secret chamber deep beneath the ground. There were many items there, most of which I can show you in my laboratory, including the Star Gate."
"Had the Gate been sealed?" Roberts asked, warily.
"It had," Milos replied. "Quite deliberately. The covering was so closely fitted as to be utterly air tight. The excavators were actually rather reluctant to uncover it, but the inscription on the stone intrigued them so that they gave in to curiosity."
Merlyn was fairly intrigued herself. "What did the inscription say?"
"Nothing," Milos replied. "There was nothing on the stone itself save a symbol; incised deep into the stone. A five pointed star, with an eye in the centre. My father took it to be some manner of warning, but he was overruled by the university authorities, who declared that it was a ward against bad luck, placed on the seal by the barbarian peoples after the fall of the Neomagoic civilisation. Previous excavations have certainly revealed that after the culture collapsed, the ruins of their cities were shunned by the people who remained."
"A sealed Gate like that is usually a sign that the world has cast off the rule of the Goa'uld, who use the Stargate network to take their armies between worlds and enslave others," Merlyn told him.
"It is possible," Milos agreed. "The people of the Magoic epoch were said to live under the rule of a cruel and corrupt, but scientifically advanced élite."
"Not exactly the usual MO for the snakeheads," Ferretti noted, coming up alongside the others. Almost immediately Roberts moved away from the conversation. Merlyn realised that the two of them were actually maintaining a discrete but steady watch on their surroundings; so discrete, in fact, that she had hardly noticed it herself.
"Snakeheads?" Milos asked.
"The Goa'uld are a parasitic, amphibious species with ophidian features," Merlyn explained. "They infest a host – usually humanoid – by entering the body, nesting at the base of the brain and tapping into the central nervous system. They usually pose as gods."
Milos shuddered. "I see," he whispered, horrified. "Well, for our people science has always been our only religion. We venerate our distant ancestors for their technological sophistication; once we worshipped them. If one of these creatures wished to pose as our god, he would pose as a scientist." In search of distraction from the subject of the Goa'uld, he looked around. "Ah; would you care to see the music rooms?" he offered. "I am sure that our arts will prove to be quite different than yours."
"I'm sure that would be fascinating," Merlyn assured him.
With Mara's help, Pearson opened up the casing of the DHD. He unpacked his tools and attached an SGC multimeter to the master control crystal. He frowned at the display, and moved one of the probes around the system.
"Something wrong?" Mara asked, concerned.
"No. But the energy levels in this DHD are surprisingly low. This Gate must be very old indeed." He checked his readings and did a quick, mental calculation. "Several million years old, at least."
"That's impossible," Mara assured him. "That would be well before even the Palaeomagoic era; deep in the Geomnemic."
"The geological record shows tremendous upheavals during that period," Mara explained. "As Erd herself remembers those days, we call them the Geomnemic: Geo, earth; mnemic, memory."
"Nice. So what does Palaeomagoic mean?"
"Palaeo is old. Magoic refers to the magoi; the tool builders and scientist who once ruled all of Erd. The Palaeomagoic is the era in which the first magoi structures occurred; some ten-to-fifteen thousand years ago."
"The first Goa'uld on the planet?" Pearson wondered aloud. He filed the thought for later discussion with Captain Llyon, then disconnected his multimeter and closed up the DHD. "Well, this certainly predates that by a long way, although I can't say for sure if it was even on this planet so long ago. Nevertheless, it will keep working for a good while yet."
"So we should be able to connect it to the Star Gate and dial your homeworld?"
"With any luck at all."
"That is..." Mara broke off and looked over her shoulder in alarm.
"What is it?" Pearson asked, drawing his zat.
"It...It's nothing," she said. "I'm just jumpy I guess." She gave a shaky smile. "I'm glad you're here, Xander. I don't like being in the labs all on my own lately. Not since..."
Pearson eyed her, shrewdly. "Not since what?"
"The university orchestra is one of the best in the country," Milos assured his guests as he led them across the courtyard. "I believe they're rehearsing today, but you really should hear them in concert. If you like I can try and arrange for you to attend the recital in two days time."
"That would be great," Ferretti agreed. "You see," he whispered to Merlyn. "This is what it should be like. None of your fish-smelling flea pits; high table and high culture."
"You're hating it, aren't you, Sir?"
Merlyn smiled. "Does the university have any sports teams?" she asked Milos.
"We're not the most athletic of institutions," he replied, "but our ethry team is second to none."
"A most ancient sport," Milos explained. "A ball is propelled by means of a cupped stick, with two teams attempting to drive the ball past the opposition and into a small goal."
"Hockey?" Ferretti asked, brightening. "You guys play hockey?"
"It's a very popular sport. Children – and sometimes grown men – play in the parks most weekends in the summer."
"Hot damn! Now that's civilisation."
Merlyn smiled. "Are there any games coming up soon?" she asked.
Milos led the way up a flight of stone steps to a door. "If you are interested, Neros will be playing Saneder University during the interweek. I'm sure that we could arrange..."
Even as Milos reached for the handle, the door burst open, forcing the scientist to back rapidly away. A tall man, dressed in a black coat, swept from the building, a flute clutched in his hand. His hair was iron grey – not just dark grey, but actually the colour of iron – and this must have been his natural colour, as he was actually several years younger than Milos. His eyes, set deep in a fierce, angular face, were black, and they regarded Merlyn with some surprise.
"Hello," Merlyn said.
"Who are you?" the man demanded.
"Professor Scheff," Milos said, tightly. "These are the envoys from Earth; guests of the Chancellor and the Minister. This is Captain Lloyd, Lieutenant-Colonel Ferretti and Lieutenant Roberts."
Scheff's eyes scanned the three aliens, each in turn. Roberts' hand had strayed to the handle of his zat at the Professor's sudden arrival, but he removed it so smoothly that not even Professor Scheff noticed.
"Charmed," he said at last. "Please forgive my rudeness, Captain."
"Of course," Merlyn allowed. "You are a musician?"
"No. I do not play."
"So...what's the flute for?" Ferretti asked, innocently.
"Research," the Professor replied. "If you will excuse me, I am a very busy man." With that, he strode down the steps past SG-7 and away towards the ArTech building.
"What a sweetheart," Roberts said.
"He is...preoccupied," Milos explained, although he did not seem to like making excuses for Scheff. "What does a biotechnologist want with a Kelnian flute that he doesn't play?" he wondered aloud, but then he remembered himself and turned back to his guests.
"Preoccupied with what?" Merlyn asked.
"There was an escape from his lab. But there is no danger," he assured them, hurriedly. "The animal is quite safe."
Roberts smiled, benignly. "That's nice to know. I'm glad it's safe; how are we doing?"
Milos forced a laugh. "Um...Perhaps, the music department...?"
"An animal?" Pearson asked. "What kind of animal?"
"I don't know," Mara admitted. "But it attacked my friend, Gar. Ever since then..." The young woman seemed to shrink into herself in fear. "Professor Scheff says that the animals were shy; that they would flee from the campus back into the wilderness. But I keep on getting the feeling that there's something here; something that's watching me, whenever I'm alone."
"Mara?" Pearson reached out and laid his hand on the girl's shoulder. "It's just your imagination."
"I'm sure it's more than that," Mara insisted. She lifted her hand to lie gently on his wrist. After a moment, Pearson pulled away from her. "Anyway; I don't like being in the lab on my own anymore. I used to love it. When everything else was quiet and everyone was elsewhere, that was when I could really get some of my own work done. Now I just feel a creeping sensation along my spine and I can't think about anything else."
Pearson sighed. "Well, you're not on your own at the moment, Mara," he reminded her. "So let's get on with connecting up the DHD so I can report back, and then we can get out of here. Since I'm missing the main tour, maybe you can show me the real sights. What do you say?"
"Okay," Mara agreed. "Show me what we need to do."
"First, we open the back of the DHD. Come round here and I'll show you where the releases are."
Mara followed Pearson around the pedestal and crouched beside him.
"It's not so bad in here, is it?"
"It's worse at night," she confided.
"Well; maybe you need to get out of the lab at nights, Mara. What are you doing for dinner this evening?"
SG-7 had been given a suite of rather plush rooms in the Chancellor's lodge, all connected to a richly appointed drawing room.
"You'll find ample bathing facilities," Milos promised. "Dress for dinner at eight," he added, gesturing at the fourteen-hour clock on the mantelpiece. "The steward will serve drinks in the Chancellor's private drawing room at half-past; I'll come and collect you in plenty of time."
"Who'll be at this dinner?" Ferretti asked.
"At the dinner itself? Approximately three hundred of the student body will be attending formal hall tonight. The high table and drinks before and after will be limited to a small number of senior faculty and their partners; as well as the four of you, myself and – at Xander's request – Mara."
"Pearson?" Ferretti asked.
"She doesn't like being alone in the lab at night," the sergeant explained. "So I...kind of invited her."
"You are all welcome to bring guests of course," Milos assured Ferretti. "Although I must admit, we didn't allow for it in the seating plan. The Chair of Pure Mathematics is livid; we had to bump him from the list to make room for Mara."
"Will there be any music?" Ferretti asked.
"Not at dinner, no," Milos replied.
"Thank God for that. Sorry," he added, hastily, sensing rather than seeing the disapproving glance which Merlyn carefully restrained in the face of her CO's blasphemy.
"The Chancellor has arranged a string quintet to play during drinks afterwards."
"Gah! I mean...oh good."
"You didn't like the music?" Milos asked, crestfallen.
"Well I loved it," Merlyn assured their host.
"It had a certain something," Roberts agreed.
"Well; I hope that you find the music this evening more enjoyable, Louis," Milos said, sincerely. "The quintet is the university's very finest. I have to go now, but I shall see you a little after eight."
A little after eight, SG-7 reconvened in the drawing room and Ferretti sniffed at the various decanters on the sideboard, looking for something like a bourbon. The four of them wore their USAF dress uniforms, and Roberts had added his academy sash in deference to the educational setting. Merlyn – whose degree in folklore had been obtained on leave of absence from the Academy – wore a full-length, black gown over her uniform. Like Ferretti, Pearson's uniform had no such embellishment, and he even lacked the volume of decoration which Ferretti had earned through his long career.
Not for the first time, Ferretti looked at the ribbons on Roberts' chest and wondered how many spaces there were; how many jockstrap medals that would only ever grace the man's chest if enough of him made it home for his funeral.
"That's some pretty classy hooch they've got here," Ferretti noted. "Wish I knew where they kept the glasses."
"Cabinet on the right," Roberts replied.
Merlyn laughed. "What did you do, Roberts? Go through the rooms looking for bugs?"
"Don't you trust anyone?"
"I had a Saturday job when I was thirteen; kept my wages in a piggy bank. One week my Mom stole the lot."
Merlyn gave the lieutenant a sideways look. "I'm never sure if your life is a tragedy, a fantasy or a farce." She spoke softly, her voice too low for either Ferretti or Pearson to hear.
"So sure it's either/or?" Roberts asked, with uncharacteristic vulnerability.
Ferretti watched this inaudible exchange with concern. He knew that something had passed between the two young officers during the mission to P8F-951, but he did not know what. He had discussed this matter with General O'Neill, and although they had decided that it was not yet a cause for concern, they agreed to keep an eye on Merlyn and Roberts. Ferretti first tried to imagine, and then tried not to imagine, what secret they were keeping, but his worries were interrupted by Milos' arrival.
Their host had changed into a dark suit with a silver dog-collar, topped by a gown of surprisingly similar cut to Merlyn's, but made of claret-red fabric, lined with gold. He carried a black, leather folder under one arm.
"All ready? Excellent. Captain Lloyd; perhaps you would do me the honour?" Milos turned slightly and proffered his free arm to Merlyn.
Merlyn accepted with a demure smile. "Thank you, Dr Lenz."
"If you don't mind talking shop at the table, I took the liberty of bringing some of my father's site reports. If you are interested?"
"Oh, absolutely," Merlyn assured him.
Ferretti watched for a moment before following. "Is she flirting?" he asked Roberts.
The lieutenant shook his head. "Well; yes, a little," he admitted. "But only because the good doctor is quite...safe. I'm sure she'd tell you it was all part of the academic ritual."
"She's certainly in her element," Ferretti noted. "Oh well; come on. Lieutenant Roberts; perhaps you would do me the honour?"
"Charmed, Colonel Ferretti."
Pearson, obliged by protocol to wait on the departure of all the officers, watched the two leave, and then followed.
The Chancellor's private drawing room would not have shamed any of the most ancient colleges of Earth. Shelves full of books – no doubt all old, rare and otherwise valuable – lined the walls; the floor was covered by a thick, dark red carpet and the room was lit by the soft electric bulbs which studded a delicate, crystal chandelier. A long table of dark wood lay beneath a white cloth, and a small knot of well-dressed waiters poured a dark sherry – or whatever the people of Erd drank when those of Earth would drink sherry – into small glasses.
The three officers – accustomed to formal events, if not necessarily at home in them – struck forth into the sea of brightly-coloured gowns. Milos carefully explained the precise academic pecking order on display to Merlyn, and it was Byzantine enough to make the US combined military hierarchy look straightforward. Ferretti and Roberts watched with a little relief as Merlyn was introduced to the assembled luminaries of the senior Faculty. Without official escort, they were freed from this arduous duty.
Ferretti stifled a groan. "Gerred," he greeted the Chancellor, with false bonhomie.
Ryzo swept towards the two officers, resplendent in a gown of plain black. A woman with red-gold hair and a claret gown followed on his heels, her face contorted with boredom. To judge by her age, Ferretti thought that she must be Ryzo's daughter.
"My dearest; may I present Lieutenant-Colonel Louis Ferretti, the leader of the delegation from Earth, and his aide, Lieutenant Timothy Roberts. Gentlemen; this is my wife, Ana."
Ferretti tried to hide his surprise. "I...uh; charmed, Mrs Ryzo."
"Likewise, Mr Ferretti." Ana inclined her head politely, then turned and offered her hand to Roberts.
Roberts accepted the hand and bowed over to kiss it. "Dr Ryzo."
"Call me Ana," she insisted in a languid voice. Her eyes, almost violet, regarded him with idle interest. "And may I call you...Tim?" she hazarded.
"I would be charmed," he replied, smiling at her with the side of his face which Chancellor Ryzo could not see, "although usually only my closest friends call me that."
"Then Tim it is," Ana declared, "since I trust we will be friends."
"That's the spirit!" Ryzo said. "I'm sure that our two peoples will indeed be the closest of friends," he went on, oblivious to the grins which Roberts exchanged with his wife. "Come on, Louis; there are so many people you must meet. The Minister couldn't make it but she sent her aide and he's dying to speak to one of our aliens."
"How nice," Ferretti grumbled.
"Ana; you'll entertain the lieutenant, won't you my dear?"
Ana flashed a dazzling smile. "I'll certainly give it my best attempt."
"That's my girl." Ryzo took Ferretti by the arm and steered him away. Ferretti looked back over his shoulder and shot a look of mock-despair at Roberts.
Roberts shook his head. "Strange man, your husband; trading you for the Colonel."
"He'll be monopolising your Colonel all night; he likes to ‘show me around'."
"I hope you don't mind if I say you're worth the showing."
"I don't mind...much." Ana winked, roguishly.
Roberts tactfully did not add that there was a lot of her on show. Beneath the gown, she wore a simple green dress that exposed most of one leg and all of the other, and cut rather low in the bodice. It was certainly a daring outfit, but from the way Ana wore her gown close around her, Roberts suspected she had chosen it to scandalise her husband rather than for personal comfort. It was a shame then that the Chancellor was practically the only man in the room not taking note of Ana's legs.
"Let's get a drink," Ana suggested. "I'll introduce you to all of the interesting people; that won't take long, so we should have time to meet your friends before dinner. I apologise in advance for the tedium of the conversation."
"We'll just have to find something more interesting to talk about," Roberts suggested, proffering his arm.
Pearson watched the proceedings from the edge of the room. Unlike his team mates, the sergeant did not have cause to attend many formal occasions, and certainly none at which the majority of attendees were not military.
"Oh, dear; I smell a scandal brewing."
Pearson turned with a smile at Mara's voice. She looked as uncomfortable as he felt, and was clearly just as unused to the company of the great and the good.
"Deroy?" Mara proffered a glass.
"Thanks. I'm sure Lieutenant Roberts wouldn't do anything unbecoming an officer and a gentleman," he assured her.
"Oh; I think the Chancellor's wife quite becomes him. Better him than old Tumbledown Gerry, anyway." She shook her head. "I suppose for the sake of interstellar accord we should just be glad he isn't trying to dock Captain Lloyd."
"Dock? Is that what you call it here?"
"Among other things. What do you call it?"
"Something similar. Among other things."
"Bit of a ladies man, the Chancellor?"
"If you'll credit it. Ana was just the only one silly enough to marry him."
The echoing clang of a small gong rose above the hubbub of conversation. As the note faded, the talking died with it, and the Steward announced: "My lords, ladies and gentlemen; dinner is served."
Ferretti was unimpressed with the seating arrangements at dinner. He found himself wedged between Ryzo and the Science Minister's aide, Masz Stoivin; two faceless, grey-souled bureaucrats, intent on boring him to death. This would have been tolerable with the support of his team, but SG-7 had been scattered along the high table and Ferretti had no doubts he had drawn the short straw.
"The Chancellor was telling me about a change in plan for the new buildings," Stoivin said. "He has some fascinating ideas of what to do with this Star Gate."
"Really," Ferretti replied. "Do tell." He kept his eyes fixed straight ahead, watching the sea of faces that stared back at him, gawping as though at a sideshow curiosity. Clearly the student body had known in advance that the guests of honour at this banquet would be emissaries of a foreign power, but Ryzo's opening speech – a twenty minute snooze-fest which had allowed everyone's soup to go cold and thus endeared the visitors to no-one – had clearly detailed SG-7's planetary origins. Ferretti thought that the students were probably trying to work out if the Chancellor was drunk, joking or had simply gone insane.
"The plan I've presented to the Minister is to divert the money for the new ArTech building into the construction of a research institute and interstellar cultural centre; with the Star Gate as the centrepiece. We can send out research teams to worlds around the galaxy, expand out scientific knowledge, establish trade relations; the sky is no longer the limit!"
"Quite." Ferretti's hand dropped to his hip. The wardens had backed off considerably, even with the Minister's aide present. He was fairly sure that he could kill both Ryzo and Stoivin and still have time to turn the zat on himself before anyone could stop him.
"So, you are an educated man, as well as a soldier?" Ana asked.
Roberts nodded. "I majored in linguistics at the Air Force academy; and technically I'm an airman, not a soldier."
"I do not understand."
"Our country has four different armed forces; Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force."
Ana nodded. "And they each serve a different role."
"Notionally. Actually they all pretty much cover the basics these days, but a soldier would be in the Army."
"Which service is the best?"
"Well, we try to maintain a friendly rivalry between the services," Roberts explained. "Each has its own strengths, its own weaknesses...But basically the Air Force is the best and all the others are irrelevancies, wallowing in their essential incompetence."
Ana laughed. "And what do you do? Or what did you do before now?"
"Nothing I can talk about."
Roberts looked awkward; looked, but did not feel. He was too used to deflecting questions about his past for it to embarrass him. "What about you?" he asked. "What did you study?"
"Bioengineering and archaeotechnology," Ana replied. A light flared in her eyes; the bitter flash of thwarted ambition and wasted life. "That was another life though; before I got married."
Ana rolled her eyes. "Yes."
"Tell me if I'm out of order, Ana, but...what the hell? I mean, seriously?"
"You got a few hours?"
Roberts favoured Ana with another half-smile. "For you? Certainly."
"You seem a little distracted, Merlyn," Milos noted.
Merlyn shook her head. "I worry about my team mates sometimes," she admitted. "Roberts in particular."
Milos followed her gaze. "I wouldn't worry too much," he told her. "Ana's a big girl; she knows what she's doing."
"That wasn't really what I meant," Merlyn admitted, but she shied away from entering into theological debate with an alien. "So," she sighed. "You were talking about your father's dig?"
"Well; it wasn't his dig, as such; he was just a doctoral assistant to the dig supervisor, Dr Reznor. The site remains one of the great mysteries of our history; the near total destruction of the palace with nothing built on top of it. The discovery of the site was a great moment; the finding of the final phase of the Magoic civlization. I can't deny that my father was disappointed by how little there was to find in the way of artefacts."
"So, was there anything left?"
"The architecture of the lower levels was intact, including the chamber which contained the coverstone and the Star Gate." Milos opened his folder and drew out a large sheet of paper. "This is a transcription from the walls of that chamber. There are two tracks of text as you see."
"Yes," Merlyn agreed, running her finger along the upper track. "This is a particularly ancient dialect of Goa'uld. How long ago was the palace destroyed?"
"Dr Reznor estimated almost twenty-thousand years," Milos replied.
"Twenty...Yes; far older than the abandonment of the stronghold on Earth. That would explain the antiquity of the script."
"You read this script?" Milos asked, impressed.
"A little. I'm more familiar with the modern Goa'uld dialect; this one...It's so old that it is almost entirely free from the influence of the tribal languages of Ra's Earth slaves. The Goa'uld must have occupied this planet in the earliest years after the discovery of humans. The Goa'uld who brought your people here..."
"Merlyn; you talk as though our history is...old news to you."
Merlyn smiled, apologetically. "No, Milos. I was just thinking aloud, really. We've encountered similar stories on many planet, although never a culture which has managed to salvage quite so much after the destruction of the Goa'uld presence. Yours is an impressive achievement, and if we can work with your academics, I am sure that there is as much that we can learn from you about the early history of the Goa'uld; the Magoic culture, as you call them."
"But surely such travellers as you must know more than we could, stuck on this one little world?"
Merlyn shrugged. "The thing about Goa'uld is that they don't like history. History implies change, and if you want to present an image of yourself as an immortal deity, undying and eternally constant, the one thing that you don't want to encourage is any belief that there is even such a thing as change. If you were to decide that there was a better way to order your subjects, to control your slaves, you couldn't admit that you had never thought of it before if you are supposed to be infallible in the first place."
"Because if you were infallible, you would have thought of it before."
"Exactly. So, they change the way they run things, come up with some excuse for the masses, then change what records there are to imply that things were always done this way. Change the temple devotions that are all the people have of history, kill those who speak out, outlaw all record keeping among the laity and in a few generations there's no-one who remembers that things were ever any different. Not as anything more than folktales and fairy stories, anyway. And that's what I study, you see; not history, but the oral fragments of the truth behind history. That's why I was recruited to the SGC in the first place. It's a good opportunity really; there aren't many postings in the Air Force where a degree in folklore studies would be useful."
Milos smiled in understanding. "Your military must still be more well-rounded than ours."
"Not really," Merlyn admitted.
"Then why join the Air Force if your passion is folklore?"
"Two reasons," she replied. "One was funding, the other was discipline. I like my life to be ordered, structured; the Air Force gives me that structure. Sometimes I'm not sure if I did the right thing though."
"I see. Still; I'm sure your colleagues appreciate your learning."
"Sometimes." Merlyn broke into a grin. "Although the Colonel was pretty dismayed when I joined his team. Someone had left an apostrophe out of my remarks; he thought I was a fully-trained florist. But enough of my problems, why don't we have another look at this transcription of yours. What about the second track?"
"That? We've never been able to match that to anything else. We assume it to be a pre-Magoic text, but we've never..." Milos tailed off as Merlyn turned the sheet around.
"Pre-Ancient," Merlyn muttered. "Period A Lengian; it's usually read in a column from the bottom upwards."
"You read this as well?"
"No; but I recognise it. I'd need my reference materials to even attempt a translation and I'm afraid that would be doubtful. There are only three known texts in this script. There's no way to know...unless..."
Merlyn closed her eyes and whispered a silent prayer of thanks. "It could be," she said. "It's just possible that this is the Rosetta stone for Period A Lengian. Do you think it would be possible for me to visit the site?"
"I'm sure it would," Milos assured her. "I'd be pleased to show you around; I've been there on many occasions, since I first visited my father on the dig. I'll sign out an aircar and take you up there tomorrow."
"So, you are an archaeo-technologist yourself, aren't you?" Mara asked.
"Of a sort," Pearson agreed.
"It must be incredible," the young woman breathed. "To see so many worlds and all their science; their engineering."
"I'm not so much of a scientist really," Pearson demurred. "I really just...know how stuff works. It's all intuitive, I was a terrible student. Very useful in the field, in a pinch, but not much cop in the lab. It drives the science bods back at the SGC up the wall that I can't explain what I understand in scientific terms; drives me mad that they never understand what I'm talking about."
"I can see that it might. But...are you saying that you have no knowledge of engineering at all?"
Pearson shook his head. "I've picked things up, here and there; I just don't have any formal training, which is why I can't explain things to other people. That's what formal training's really good for; teaching you how to talk about what you know."
"Speaking as a formally-trained archaeo-engineer, thanks a bunch."
Pearson winced. "I didn't mean it like that. After all, being able to talk about things is important; just ask Merlyn," he added with a laugh. "She could give out on the subject of communication for hours. But I always work alone, you see; it's limiting. You can talk to someone and ask for help; I can't."
"Well, on that subject...There are a few artefacts you might be able to help me with, if you're willing. Maybe in return I could give you a few pointers on talking about them?"
"I'm not sure how much help that would be in dealing with the SGC science corps, but if I can help out I'd be glad to."
Mara smiled. "Can you get out of the Ministerial visit tomorrow?" she asked.
"I'm not even sure an NCO like me gets an invite," he admitted. "Shouldn't be a problem."
Ferretti couldn't really say what made him raise the subject of the escape. Ultimately, he supposed, it was just a desire to make Ryzo squirm; and to test how open he was with his Ministry superiors.
"The...escape?" the Chancellor asked, feigning incomprehension.
"The animal which escaped from the biotech lab," Ferretti explained, innocently. "We ran into Professor Scheff while he was out looking for it."
"Chancellor...?" Stoivin began.
"Oh, that escape, yes. I sent a memorandum to the Minister," he added, glaring at the aide. "It isn't a serious problem. A research assistant failed to secure a specimen cage, that is all. Nothing to worry about, I assure you."
"I think Gar Karellin might disagree," Milos chipped in, adding a belated: "Pardon my intrusion, gentlemen. Personally, I would tend to classify any major injury to a member of staff – even a ‘mere' research assistant – to be a serious problem."
"Injury?" Stoivin looked uncomfortable. "If you will excuse me, Professor Ryzo, I think I should contact the Minister about this; make certain that this memo of yours was received."
"If you think it necessary, but I assure you that Professor Scheff and our groundswards are perfectly capable of retrieving an escaped animal."
"What kind of animal was it?" Ferretti asked, again affecting an air of pure, blameless curiosity.
"A snetch," Ryzo replied. "A common animal in the suburbs and countryside around the city. I believe Professor Scheff was carrying out a toxicology analysis of snetch caught in various areas as part of his work on engineered resistance. A control specimen of course," he hastened to assure Stoivin. "Obviously any engineered animals are kept in the full containment labs in the biohazard building."
"Obviously. If you will excuse me, then."
"Well...it is against tradition for anyone else to leave before the Chancellor..."
"Than perhaps it is best if you accompany me, Chancellor."
"Yes...Yes, alright then. Louis; please forgive my haste, but..."
"Of course. I understand."
The Chancellor rose and left, followed closely by the frowning Stoivin. As soon as they were out of the room, Ferretti slumped wearily in his seat. "Thank the Lord," he whispered. "And that's not blasphemous, because I mean it in all sincerity," he assured Merlyn. "Now pass me that bottle, I need another drink."
The next morning, Merlyn rose at five o'clock, as she had done since the age of seven, and said her prayers. She performed her regular routine of stretches and exercises, then took her vitamins with a tall glass of water before showering. The exercise and warm water cleared the last of the sleep from the corners of her mind, and after a modest evening's drinking she felt fresh and alert as she dressed. Her dress uniform had been left to air overnight, and she refolded and replaced the outfit in its carrier. While the rest of her unit were attending a diplomatic function, her BDUs were more the order of business for a dig site. She checked the mechanism of her zat, unfurling the weapon to confirm that the power cell was still good before strapping it at her hip.
From waking to readiness, Merlyn's ablutions took her seventeen minutes.
Merlyn left her rooms and went into the drawing room to wait for the rest of her unit to rise. Roberts was the first to join her, but he entered from the hallway, still wearing his dress uniform.
"Good morning, Lieutenant," Merlyn greeted him, frostily.
"Merlyn," Roberts replied, his affable charm unruffled by her hostility. He inclined his head, respectfully, then went on his way to his room to wash.
Merlyn sat in uncomfortable solitude, stewing over Roberts' behaviour. She was often puzzled and frequently angered by the lieutenant's dissolute behaviour, but he was a good officer and it was not her place as his superior to make moral judgements regarding his personal conduct unless it impacted on his duty. If his actions brought the service into disrepute, that might be a cause for Lieutenant-Colonel Ferretti to intervene as CO of SG-7, but Roberts had always been very discrete. Had she been a gambling woman – which of course she was not – Merlyn would have bet good money that no-one had seen Roberts as he walked from Ana Ryzo's room to this suite.
When Roberts returned after ten minutes, he had also changed into BDUs.
"You aren't exactly dressed for a meeting with the Minister," Merlyn commented.
"I'll change later, but in the absence of an iron, my uniform could stand to hang for a while longer. Do you have other plans for the day, Captain?"
"Dr Lenz is taking me out to see the site where the Gate was found. I'm worried about some of the inscriptions that they found out there."
Roberts frowned. "Is there any connection to the work Professor Scheff has been doing?"
Merlyn shook her head. "I couldn't say for sure," she admitted. "To be honest, although I didn't want to say so to Milos, I don't think that the copies his father made are particularly good. I want to get a closer look at the actual inscriptions; take a video copy to work with. From what there is though, I'm afraid that we're looking at another Kelowna."
"Who's looking at Kelowna?" Ferretti asked, emerging bleary-eyed from his room. He had been less temperate in his imbibing than Merlyn, and he looked a little the worse for where.
"Are you alright, Sir?" Merlyn asked.
"I'll be fine once I get some breakfast," he assured her, slumping into a large armchair. "What time are we seeing the Minister?"
"The meeting is scheduled for twelve o'clock; two hours before noon," Merlyn reminded her colleagues.
"Just over three hours in our time. I've arranged to visit the Gate site," she added. "With your permission, Sir?"
"Urgent or curious?"
Merlyn thought for a moment. "If I'm wrong, curious; if I'm right, very urgent."
Ferretti nodded. "Where is this site?"
"Up in the mountains."
"Get Milos to give your P90s back before you go and look sharp. Everyone seems friendly, but every population has its extremists. I want you both back in one piece."
"Both?" Merlyn asked.
"You and the lieutenant. We're well looked after here at the university, but I don't want anyone off in the hinterlands alone."
Merlyn nodded her agreement. "Understood, Sir."
"Roberts; if anything does go wrong, try not to kill too many people. This is a diplomatic mission."
"Of course, Sir," Roberts affirmed, managing to sound hurt.
Ferretti turned as Pearson entered the drawing room. Like the two junior officers, the sergeant was dressed for the field, leaving only Ferretti in his pyjamas. "Dress uniform, Sergeant," Ferretti reminded him.
Pearson nodded, distractedly. "With your permission, Sir; I was hoping to spend some time assessing what the local researchers have to offer."
"Fan-bleeding-tastic," Ferretti grumbled.
"If you need me, Sir..."
"No, sergeant. You will undoubtedly be of greater use looking at their machines. Besides, I'll have whichever diplo-bod they send to help me out. My head's too fuzzy to remember; did you say they'd said who they were going to send?"
"Jack Rede," Pearson replied, once he had unravelled the Colonel's sentence.
"We could always tell her that you don't need any help," Merlyn suggested.
"Leave it all to my diplomatic skills? I don't think that's a good idea; I'm not at my best dealing with anyone who's moved beyond the hunter-gatherer stage. Headmen and witch doctors I can deal with, but ministers make my skin crawl."
There was a knock at the door and Roberts rose to answer it. He grinned at Ferretti as he went. "So that's a no then."
Roberts drew his zat and transferred it to his left hand, hiding it behind the door as he opened it. "Hello?"
"Oh. Come in then."
A pair of college stewards entered, a young man and an older woman with a tray. Roberts closed the door behind them and held his zat out of sight as the two unloaded several trays of steaming food onto a long table against the north wall. He only relaxed when they had left, and he had run a quick scan of the food for known poisons and of the trolley for known explosives.
"Don't' you trust anyone?" Merlyn asked.
"Not unless I know them."
"It must be a lonely way to live," she said, before she could stop herself. She was irritated at her indiscretion; normally she was so good at keeping her peace.
Roberts did not seem offended, however; he just smiled, sadly. "It would be a lot lonelier if I let you three get killed," he replied.
"And on that cheerful note..." Ferretti interrupted. "I smell bacon; or something that smells like bacon at least. So either help yourselves or get out of my way."
"Yes, Sir," Roberts said, stepping aside while his CO loaded a plate. He hung back while Merlyn served herself. It did not escape his notice that she took two rashers of what also looked like bacon, a sausage, two rounds of toast, and a glass of juice. Later she would have a cup of the local caffeinated brew. It was exactly what she would have had at the SGC commissary.
Roberts took a more exotic selection, then made room for Pearson, who seemed to be even hungrier than Ferretti.
"Are you alright, sergeant?" Merlyn asked, when the man had shovelled a fourth spoonful of the fried mushrooms onto his plate without apparently noticing.
Pearson seemed to come back to himself with a start. "Hmm? Oh; yes, Merlyn." He looked at his plate and carefully returned some of the mushrooms to the dish. "Just a little tired."
"Are you sure you want any of those?" Ferretti asked as he watched the oddly-shaped fungi fall. Despite his ravenous appetite, he had not dared these unknown mushrooms.
"I'll risk it, Sir," Pearson replied, with a wan smile.
"Rough night?" Merlyn asked, sounding rather more concerned than might be expected.
"Is something wrong, Captain?" Ferretti asked.
"Probably not, Sir; but most of the terrestrial references to the ‘Old Ones' speak of them ‘walking in dreams'. It's almost certainly nothing, but I don't think we should take any chances with creatures this powerful. I've felt their psychic influence, and if any of us do find ourselves having odd dreams, it's probably best to mention it."
"It wasn't dreams," Pearson assured her. "I didn't sleep that much. There was some kind of odd music outside in the grounds. It was...creepy; somehow uncanny." The sergeant's face greyed and his eyes took on a haunted look.
"Probably just the string quintet practicing an experimental piece," Ferretti suggested, lightly.
"No. Sir," Pearson added, belatedly. "This was different. It was just one flute, and it was eerie. I swear there was something wrong with it."
"Dissonance," Merlyn said, suddenly. "I think I heard it as well, but my room faces the other way. All I got were echoes, but you're right, sergeant; the tune was dissonant. It wasn't really music at all. It was almost antimusic."
"Flute?" Roberts mused. "Like the Kelnian flute that Professor Scheff was removing from the music building? He does play, by the way; quite well, too. He was a stalwart of the orchestra in his younger days. His assistant was better, though; a gifted violette player, star of the quintet and the chamber orchestra and first violette of the main orchestra."
"Violette?" Ferretti asked.
"Sort of like a violin, as far as I could gather; probably descended from the same route from the viol. Apparently, musical talent was one of the requirements Scheff placed on the position he awarded to Karellin. Now, why do you think a biotechnologist would want a musical assistant?"
"I can't think of a reason that isn't sinister," Ferretti admitted.
"How do you know he plays?" Merlyn demanded.
"Ana told me," Roberts replied. "It turns out that she's a terrible gossip when she's relaxed."
Ferretti laughed and shook his head. "I'm amazed you got any sleep at all."
"Yes, Sir," Roberts replied, levelly, meeting Merlyn's accusing stare with equanimity.
After breakfast, Ferretti showered and changed back into his dress uniform. He returned to the drawing room, rubbing at his lapel, to find that Milos had arrived in his absence.
"Can you see the sauce?" Ferretti asked, motioning at the offending lapel.
"Not if I didn't know it was there, Sir," Roberts assured him.
"That'll have to do. Hello, Dr Lenz."
"Good morning, Colonel," Milos replied. "I'm afraid there's been a slight change of plan. Well; two actually."
"I apologise, Captain, but this cannot possibly be good. Go on then," he told Milos. "Let's get it over with."
Milos smiled, reassuringly. "It's not that bad, really. Firstly, I'm afraid that Professor Scheff is...missing."
"What's happened to him?" Merlyn demanded.
"We're not sure where he is," Milos demurred, "but the Chancellor has asked me to guide you up to the Ministry. I'm afraid this means I won't be able to show you the dig site, Merlyn, but the aircar has been arranged, so if you don't mind I've asked my cousin to do the honours?"
"I'm sure that will be fine," Merlyn replied. "But Scheff..."
"I really can't say," he told her, evasively.
"You know that the animal has got him, don't you? It's something to do with his work. Some kind of biological weapon?"
"Any such specimens would be held in the secure hazmat building," Milos assured her. "I can't say any more. Really."
There was a silence as that sank in.
"And problem number two?" Ferretti prompted.
"Now, I didn't say problem," Milos pointed out.
Ferretti harrumphed. "No; I did. You wouldn't have mentioned it if it wasn't a problem, would you?"
Milos laughed apologetically. "True enough. I'm afraid that a signal was received through the Star Gate last night after you were all abed." He took an envelope from inside his jacket and handed it to Ferretti.
The colonel opened the envelope and read the note within. "Oh...balls."
"Colonel?" Merlyn asked.
"Lieutenant-Colonel Ferretti from SGC...regret to inform...requires urgent diplomatic mission...Tok'ra Council... sensitive mission...most experienced diplomat...every confidence in your ability...D...Blast it!"
"No Jack Rede?"
"No Jack Rede," Ferretti agreed. "They're sending a junior aide to assist me, but I'm going to have to carry out the bulk of the negotiation."
"Shall we postpone the visit to the dig?" Merlyn offered.
"No," Ferretti sighed. "The Scheff situation is starting to make my scalp itch and that's never a good sign. See what you can find out; I'll stonewall the Minister until a professional negotiator is free."
Milos nodded his understanding. "We can wait here for your aide to arrive."
"And your cousin?" Merlyn asked.
"She will also join us..." Milos was interrupted by another knock at the door. "Speak of the devil."
"Well; let's get this show on the road then," Ferretti suggested. He rose and went to the door, opening it to admit a nervous young diplomat and his guide. "Good morning, Dr Ryzo," Ferretti said. "Good to see you, Sheldon."
"C-Colonel," Sheldon stammered.
"Good to see you recovered from last night's excesses, Colonel," Ana said.
"It takes sterner stuff than your local brew to put me out of action," he assured her. "Please come in. I guess we're just waiting for Dr Lenz's cousin then."
"No," Ana replied. "That would be me."
"Oh." Merlyn felt uncomfortable, but swiftly concealed the reaction.
Ana seemed oblivious to Merlyn's cool hostility as she turned to Pearson. "Sergeant Pearson; Miss Belkin is waiting in Milos' laboratory. She seemed somewhat distressed by something, so perhaps..."
"Go ahead, Sergeant."
"We should get going as well, Colonel," Milos added. "The car is waiting."
"Lead on," Ferretti offered.
"Which just leaves us," Ana observed. "The aircar is ready on the landing pad in the north quadrangle."
Merlyn nodded her agreement. "After you, Dr Ryzo."
"Please, Merlyn; call me Ana."
"As you prefer," Merlyn agreed, biting down on her emotions with consummate skill.
The aircar was a kind of hybrid of hovercraft and helicopter, designed for low-level aerial transit. Two large turbine impellers provided lift and a jet engine along the centre of the body gave the craft thrust. The interior of the craft was spacious, almost luxurious, and it was clear that this was a recreational vehicle, not a utilitarian one. Merlyn slid into the leather-clad rear seat; to her surprise, Roberts joined her, leaving Ana alone in the front of the car.
"How common are aircars like this one?" Roberts asked.
"They're reasonably common," Ana replied, "but too expensive for widespread private ownership. Most companies keep at least one aero-lifter for light freight work, and you'd find one or two executive models at any sizeable institution. This one's a little bit special; it's Gerred's private limo, but if I'm escorting diplomatic visitors, I might as well do it in style." She ran through the pre-flight checks with consummate professionalism.
"You fly them often?" Merlyn asked.
"Not the executives, but we have a couple of hoppers we use for fieldwork. I use to fly those all the time when I was working on excavation sites. I have a first class rating, so I always got picked for chauffeur duties," she added, proudly.
There was a wistful note in her voice when she talked of fieldwork; Merlyn wanted to pick up on that, but she felt too awkward being around Ana and Roberts. She had always had problems dealing with couples; their casual intimacy unnerved her and she could feel the recriminations welling up inside her. It's a fine line, she reminded herself. It's a fine line.
"Help yourselves to drinks if you want," Ana went on.
"Not on duty, but thank you," Roberts replied.
"Suit yourselves." She pressed the starter and the impellers purred into life.
Merlyn could barely believe how quiet the engines were. She snuck a look at Roberts and saw that he was thinking the same thing she was: Pereczi aeronautical engineering was going to be high on the SGC's want list.
"How far are we going?" Merlyn asked.
"It's a six hour drive to the base of the mountain road and another two hours to climb the track to the dig entrance."
"Drive?" Roberts asked. "How far by aircar?"
"Altogether, three hours by hopper." Ana looked around at them and gave a devilish grin. "In this thing? It will take half that."
The pitch of the engines rose as the impellers thrust the aircar into the sky. It rose up above the roof of the university, offering a superb panoramic view of the suburbs of Canzec city from its bubble canopy.
Ana turned her attention forward and touch a switch on the dashboard. Canzec control, this is Neros-alpha, flight number two-six-niner. Requesting permission to depart."
"We're on air traffic control?" Roberts asked.
"Only until we get out of the city; then we're on scanners only. The traffic isn't bad at this altitude, especially in the south. The heavy cargo lifters fly much higher and land at the aerodrome several miles north of the city. Acknowledged, Canzec control."
Ana eased the throttle forward, and the jet engine whined. The noise was greater than that of the impellers, but no louder than an elderly automobile on Earth. The suburbs were quickly left behind and the aircar skimmed swiftly over a dense, deciduous forest. After a few minutes, Ana released the controls and turned her entire seat to face her passengers.
"I take it there's an automatic pilot?" Roberts asked.
"I sincerely hope so," Ana agreed. "It's always worked before, anyway. We'll get plenty of warning if we're about to hit anything." She lifted a knapsack from the passenger seat and removed a bundle of folded papers. "Milos thought that you might be interested in seeing some of my uncle's site reports," she said, unfurling a mass of plans and notes. "I'm afraid there's not much organisation to them, but that was uncle Morn for you; Milos' father that is." She reached back into the bag and brought out a cloth-bound notebook which she handed to Merlyn. "These are my own notes from the expedition which my husband led to the site ten years ago."
"Thank you," Merlyn said. She opened the notebook and was immediately confronted by a group photograph of the Ryzo expedition. There was the Chancellor, looking rather handsome at that age; much more vital and active than he was now. Merlyn could picture him as a powerful speaker, an inspirational teacher. A pretty young woman stood with her arm looped through his, and seeing the two of them as they were at the time, Gerred and Ana Ryzo almost made sense.
Reminded suddenly of the relationship between her two companions, Merlyn felt awkward again, but when she glanced up, Roberts was pouring over a map of the site and Ana was watching her, expectantly. Merlyn looked down again, trying to immerse herself in the past. There were several others in the photograph, but only one caught her eye; a tall, gaunt young man with a hatchet-face and iron-grey hair.
"Scheff was on that dig as well?"
"Oh yes," Ana said, ruefully. "Yanos and I studied together under Dr Ryzo, as was. I think he had quite a crush on me, but he was always kind of creepy. Besides I was too fascinated by my teacher's glorious intellect to notice a fellow student, however brilliant and however devoted. Ryzo noticed him though; he probably spent more time on that dig with Yanos than he did with me. ‘A wonderful mind', he said; funny how he never really noticed mine." She laughed, bitterly. "I didn't mind so much before he stopped paying attention to the rest of me."
"I'm sorry," Merlyn offered, weakly.
"I find my consolations where I can," Ana assured her. The thought seemed to cheer her, and she shared an overtly conspiratorial grin with Roberts.
Merlyn felt herself blush. She cast her eyes down and began studying Ana's notes, but it did not escape her notice that the glance was not only guilt free, but also casual and amused. It resembled less the stolen glances that she associated with lovers, than the moments of unspoken humour that were shared between the members of an SG unit.
"This chamber was only unearthed by the second dig, is that right?" Roberts asked, indicating an area on the map.
"That is correct," Ana agreed. "Ryzo was very excited about that chamber. He was the one who had deduced its existence you see. It exactly mirrors an empty chamber which Reznor excavated. That one seemed to have been gutted by tomb robbers, but if there was a second then Ryzo realised it might be intact. He had always been Dr Reznor's least favoured assistant, and I think he took a certain delight in finding something that the old man had missed."
Roberts raised an eyebrow. "Charming."
"Academic backbiting," Merlyn explained. "It makes military politics look simplistic and civilised."
Ana laughed. "He was absolutely gutted when all it contained was a handful of sealed canopic jars and a few frescos. Priceless archaeological remains, but bloody useless to an archaeo-technologist like my husband. He had to call the thing off as a bad job and turn the site over to the Faculty of Antiquities. In the end they couldn't do much with it because he'd wrecked all the contexts by whisking the jars off for analysis the way he did."
"What was in the jars?" Merlyn asked. "It seems odd to have canopic jars anywhere but a tomb. There wasn't a sarcophagus there, was there?"
"Oh, no," Ana assured her. "Not a thing. Just the jars, each sitting in its own alcove."
"How curious," Merlyn whispered to herself.
"Actually, the antiquities team did question their identification as canopic jars, but since they were all gone by that point there wasn't much to be done."
Roberts looked up, instantly suspicious. "Gone?"
"Hopper accident," Ana replied. "A lift impeller failed halfway back to the city; no-one was badly hurt, but the jars broke loose, slid across the hold and...crash."
"All gone?" Merlyn demanded.
"Nothing but fragments and dust. The driver was sacked of course and the Faculty tried to quietly sweep it all under the carpet. We didn't want the world to know that we'd wrecked one of the most important archaeological finds of the century because we couldn't be bother to properly secure anything without a functioning crystal power matrix."
Roberts shook his head in amazement. "I'm surprised they didn't knock off everyone who knew about it as well."
"Kill," Roberts explained.
"Well it's funny you should say that, because the driver actually was killed a few months after the accident."
"In suspicious circumstances?"
"Not really; he was shot dead while trying to rob a bank. His severance pay had not been generous."
"That's horrible," Merlyn opined.
Ana nodded her agreement. "He was a nice guy, too. Not too bright, but a decent fellow. I wouldn't put it past Ryzo to have had him killed, but in all honesty I think it was just a matter of tragic coincidence."
Roberts looked startled. "You think your husband could have someone killed?"
"Second thoughts, Tim?" Ana teased.
Roberts laughed, lightly. The expression could have seemed like mere bravado, but Merlyn knew better. She had to wonder if Ana Ryzo had any idea how deadly a man she had fallen in with.
"He just seemed so ineffectual," Roberts explained.
"Oh in many ways he is," Ana agreed. "He's not even much of a speaker anymore; too eaten up by self-induced neurosis. But make no mistake, he can still be ruthless when he wants to and he's fiercely ambitious. His mentor never gave him the respect he thought he deserved and he has spent the last ten years trying to destroy Armus Reznor's life's work."
Merlyn looked down at the notebook in her hands, lost in thought; wondering if Ana even realised that she never called her husband by his given name. It was some time before she was able to force her eyes to focus on the pages instead of on thoughts of the vicious politics behind that group of smiling faces.
Ferretti and Lieutenant Sheldon waited in a pleasant reception office at the Ministry of Science and Advancement for close to two hours. The Ministry was housed in a building of obvious antiquity, fronted with columns which appeared Classical to Ferretti's untrained eye, but less austere than Earth's parallel architecture. Behind the columns, the front wall of the building was mostly occupied by windows; each sheet of glass ten feet wide and five storeys high. Ferretti's understanding of such matters was limited, but he realised that no terrestrial engineering would dare fill such a space with a single pane.
The foyer of the Ministry occupied all five floors of the building, with the corridors of the upper tiers emerging onto balconies to look out from the transparent faćade onto the pleasant arboretum around which the government buildings of Perecz were arrayed. Milos announced the visitors at the front desk, and they were immediately provided with three security passes and permitted to proceed.
Ferretti noted with apprehension the armed guards posted in discreet corners of the space, but he supposed that was not unexpected in a government building. He knew that he was just feeling edgy because, in his dress uniform, he was travelling unarmed.
From the foyer they took an elevator to the uppermost floor, and Milos led the visitors to the large and luxurious outer office of the Minister for Science and Advancement, the Most Respected Lara Varios. There her personal secretary, a very dapper young man, welcomed them and invited them to sit. He apologised profusely for detaining them, but explained that the Minister was closeted with senior members of the civil service. A meeting had overrun and there was no possibility of interrupting it.
Ferretti took this delay with equanimity, and sat patiently and chatted with Milos Lenz about the differences between ethry and hockey and who the academic fancied to win the cup this year. After the first hour the Minister's secretary brought welcome refreshment in the form of coffee and slices of a sweet, sticky cake. Ferretti offered a prayer of thanks to whatever god had carried that blessed beverage to every corner of the galaxy. He felt rather foolish when Sheldon reminded him that it was the Goa'uld who had done this great favour for civilisation.
Sheldon grew increasingly nervous as time ticked by, and Ferretti could not help wondering if it had been wise for the boy to drink coffee.
"First assignment?" Ferretti asked.
"First solo," Sheldon confirmed.
"Don't worry so much. I'm sure you'll do fine. Just act like a presidential advisor."
"Leave most of the talking to me and offer snivelling apologies for my folksy naivety if and when I put my foot in it."
At last the door to the Minister's inner office opened and two men in suits emerged. The intercom on the secretary's desk buzzed, and the young man rose to usher the Tau'ri into the Ministerial sanctum.
"Minister," Milos said. "May I present the representatives from Earth; Lieutenant-Colonel Louis Ferretti and Lieutenant Robert Sheldon."
The Most Respected Lara Varios rose from her desk to greet her visitors. "Well, thank the stars," she said. "I've just spent four hours discussing the most dreary topics of the day with the most pedantic men on Perecz. I had been afraid that your people would have sent the same kind of bureaucrats along. I'm happy to be mistaken." She was a handsome, open-faced woman of Ferretti's age, with dark-copper hair and electric blue eyes that sparkled with intelligence. Her charcoal-grey blouse had the same cut as that of the men's suits Ferretti had seen, but she wore a long skirt and a wide scarf in place of a dog-collar. Outwardly she certainly appeared pleased to have another straightforward soul to deal with, but behind her genial smile, Ferretti read the fearsome, ruthless cunning of the career politician.
"Minister Varios," he replied. "It is a pleasure to meet you, and I bring a hearty ‘hello' from the people of Earth." Ferretti tuned out the discomfited squeak which rose from Sheldon, but if the Minister wanted to do things informally he was happy to oblige. No doubt she hoped that an untrained negotiator would be easier to get the better of; he would just have to try and disappoint her.
Varios' smile deepened. "Please sit down, Colonel, Lieutenant. Dr Lenz, I hope you will join us?"
"Thank you, Minister."
"I'm so sorry that I was unable to attend the dinner last night. Mr Stoivin assures me that the food was up to your university's usual standards." The Minister turned back to Ferretti. "I can't tell you what a thrill it is for us to meet the envoys of another world for the first time in all our recorded history. Although I suppose you must get tired of hearing that."
Ferretti grinned. "No, Minister; that one never gets old. I gotta admit, every time I step through that Gate and see a new world on the other side it's as fresh as the last time. Even a world like yours, where so much is the same as ours, there's always something to wonder at."
"You're too kind. Now; we are here to discuss something very close to my heart; the potential for cultural and technological exchange between our two peoples. Of course, I'm sure that a society who can travel between the stars in the blink of an eye can have little to ask of us."
"You must understand, Minster, that we didn't build the Stargate network," Ferretti told her. "We rediscovered the Gate after it had been buried for thousands of years. We have been working ever since to learn all we can of its technology, so as to advance our own understanding."
"I quite understand," Varios assured them. "Scientific progress is very important to the Pereczi. We know full-well that our society was once far more advanced than this, before some nameless catastrophe overcame them and the great civilisation of our ancestors was destroyed. We seek always to reclaim our former cultural greatness." Ferretti's wariness must have shown on his face, because the Minister gave him a questioning look. "You disapprove, Colonel?"
"Disapprove? No?" Ferretti replied. "We do the same, as I say, and you seem to be uncommonly good at it. But...It's a dangerous game, Minister, picking up after more advanced cultures; especially ones that were destroyed by nameless catastrophes. Too often the nameless catastrophe in question turns out to be the work of their own technology. We once came across a people called the Kelownans, who were also keen to resurrect the technology of the ancient rulers of their planet. The project led to the development of a horrific weapon, and almost destroyed their entire world. I don't want to tell you your business, but our engineers have a lot of experience with Goa'uld technology..."
"As have ours, if by ‘Goa'uld' you mean the ancient starfarers," Varios assured him, tightly. "I thank you for offer, Colonel, but I do not think that my country's best interests would be best served by revealing all of our secrets to your engineers."
"I meant no disrespect," Ferretti assured her, raising his hands in a placatory gesture.
"The Colonel is correct in one respect," Milos noted. "Some of our research is carried out at too great a pace."
"This is not the time or the place for such discussions, Dr Lenz," Varios cautioned. "We are here to discuss what we can offer each other."
"Of course," Ferretti agreed. "My team-mates are making an assessment of this as we speak. They're rather more technical than I am," he admitted with a laugh. "I'm really here to get the ball rolling; open negotiations on a friendly basis before we turn things over for the treaty-writers to wrangle over."
"I understand you entirely," Varios replied. "Perhaps a return visit would be in order before proceedings begin in earnest?" she suggested. "Myself and a technical team, perhaps?"
"You must understand that out Stargate is held at a secure military facility rather than a university," Ferretti demurred. "But..." he cast a look at Sheldon, who nodded. "...I'm sure we could arrange for a party from your world to pay a visit to Area 52."
"That's our main R&D facility," Sheldon added. "Any and all work on technology relating to the Stargate begins there."
"Well, that would be precisely the sort of thing I had in mind," Varios confirmed. "We can arrange the details later, but..." The Minister scowled with frustration as the telephone on her desk interrupted with an insistent chirrup. "Excuse me, Colonel." She clipped the headset over her ear and turned her chair half-away from her guests. "Varios."
Milos frowned. "That's a black priority message," he whispered. "Something is very wrong."
After listening for a few moments, Varios replaced the headset and turned to her guests. "I'm afraid we must end this meeting, Colonel. There is a...situation at the university which demands a Ministerial presence."
"Scheff," Milos guessed.
Varios cast her eyes downwards. "Two bodies were discovered on the university campus an hour ago; they had both been partially...eaten."
"Oh God," Ferretti whispered. "Who was it? Not...?"
The Minister held up a hand. "Your companions are – to the best of my knowledge – quite safe," she assured Ferretti.
"It's a small consolation," he replied, gently. "But thank you."
"If I may enquire...?" Milos began.
Varios nodded her consent and immediately answered the unasked question. "The first body was that of one of the groundswards; the second...I regret to say that the second body was that of Professor Scheff himself."
An alarm roused Merlyn from her studies, and she looked up as Ana's seat spun around to face forwards again.
"Are we nearly there yet?" Roberts asked with a grin. Merlyn could not stifle her laugh.
"We are," Ana replied.
"Bad luck, Roberts. I guess that one doesn't work here," Merlyn whispered in a conciliatory tone.
"I thought sure moaning kids would be universal."
"There!" Ana said. "Look out of the front of the canopy."
The two passengers leaned forwards and Roberts gasped in astonishment. Before them rose a spectacular mountain range; the peaks, thousands of feet high, were wreathed in cloud and covered by snow, but the foothills and the lower mountains were bare, revealing belts of dark, green trees and iridescent rocks in all shades of blue, violet and indigo.
"Oh purple mountains majesty indeed," Roberts breathed.
"And there she is," Ana said, pointing to the nearest peak. "Just where the trees thin out at the bottom there's a clearing. Do you see it?"
Merlyn followed the woman's finger and she saw the opening in the forest; an opening which surrounded a low, flat structure of stone. "I see it," she said.
"That's the shelter Dr Reznor's party constructed over the entrance," Ana explained. "Dr Ryzo had us repair it when we were here. We should be able to..." With a shudder, the aircar listed violently to the right. "Damn! Strap yourselves in."
"What's happened?" Roberts asked.
"One of the lifts has failed."
"Is that bad?" Merlyn asked.
"Not terminal. This is going to be a pretty rough landing, though. Hold tight!"
Pearson had spent a productive morning investigating the artefacts in Milos' laboratory. There was an incredible range of pieces, from simple Goa'uld toys to potent weapons. Most intriguingly, there were a number of pre-Ancient pieces, inscrutable and mysterious, notable for having been found in the same context as the Goa'uld items. Pearson had been curious to see what made these artefacts tick, but nothing in the lab seemed able to get any kind of reading on them.
"Maybe they're just ornaments after all," Mara suggested, disconsolately.
"I don't think so," Pearson replied. "I've got a couple of things in my pack that might help. I'll go and get them." He caught a nervous look in her eye. "You okay on your own for a few minutes?"
"Sure," she replied. "It's all in my mind, anyway."
Pearson smiled. "Be back before you know it," he promised.
Mara watched as the young man left, then turned back to the device they had been studying. It was a roughly cylindrical object, with a wedge-shaped grip on one side. There were three holes on the side of the cylinder beside the grip and the entire device was covered in ridges and troughs which wound and writhed across the surface in eldritch, never-repeating whorls. It looked as though it was designed to be held in a hand, but not in a human hand. Mara picked it up and noted that the balance of the device was rather awkward. There were only three indentations for the fingers, and three identical indentations lay on the far side of the grip, presumably for a trio of opposable digits. Mara suddenly realised that the three holes were also finger grips.
"Nine fingers?" Mara murmured to herself. "So maybe..." She raised her left hand and pressed her thumb and forefinger into the empty thumb spaces, then slotted the other three fingers through the holes. If she had expected the device to spring suddenly into life, then she would have been disappointed. Fortunately, her speculations had been more idle and she was only a little embarrassed when nothing at all happened.
With a self-deprecating laugh, Mara returned the device to the workbench where it lay alongside its fellows. There was no symmetry in any of the pre-Magoic devices, but it suddenly occurred to Mara that there was something that she might call three-fold asymmetry. In some way, each artefact reflected the same three-sided balance as the device she had been studying. Unexplained mouldings were suddenly apparent as handgrips when viewed in this new light; the shapes of the devices seemed a little less alien if viewed as tools for a nine-fingered, triskellic hand.
Mara stood in silent contemplation, trying to fathom the effect this would have on her people's understanding of their history. All past theories had been predicated on a continuity; the notion that the people of Perecz had remained while their civilisations and technical might rose and fell. The pre-Magoic people had always been thought to come from the same basic stock as the Magoic and the modern, but if she was right about this...
Mara was distracted from these revelations by a clatter from the corner of the laboratory. She spun around, fearfully, but could see nothing but shadows.
"Xander?" she called out. There was no reply. "Xand..."
A low, haunting whistle rose out of the darkness; an inhuman sound that chilled Mara's blood. She backed slowly away from the shadowed corner and fumbled behind her on the workbench for the ancient zat'nik'tel. With trembling fingers she found the weapon and slotted the power cell home.
"Who's there?" she demanded, trying to sound brave. "I'm armed."
Something in the shadows moved. Light glimmered off a shiny surface as something oozed forward. That terrifying whistle sounded again. A foul, sickly-sweet odour reached Mara's nostrils.
"Don't come any closer!" she warned, her voice high and squeaky with terror.
From the corner there rose a high, bubbling cry: "Tekeli-li!"
Mara stepped back in horror as the creature slid from the cover of darkness into the light. It was a dark, amorphous being, with a skin the colour of putrefying flesh, covered in tumours and pustules. It moved by a frightful process of extrusion, ejecting pseudopodia from its malignant surface to grasp blindly at the ground and drag it forward. Its motion was swift and deliberate, and for all its shapelessness, the rapid slide of its hideous bulk had even a kind of awful grace about it. It was clearly blind, yet some sence drew it unerringly on towards Mara.
Mara raised the zat and squeezed the handle. The weapon fizzed, uselessly; the power cell was in the wrong way around. Mara scrabbled with the loading gate and her trembling fingers dropped the cell to the floor. She stooped after it, and only that saved her as the creature launched a flailing tendril over her head. The fleshy pseudopod flailed after her and she dropped the weapon in haste to get away. She stumbled and the clammy, putrid touch of the creature wound around her left arm.
Mara screamed as the tentacle tightened its grip, and she felt the bones of her arm crack. Part of her mind drifted into shock, blandly wondering at the strength in such a thin and fragile limb, but by a great effort of will she fought against the consuming blackness of terror.
The tendril rippled as the mass of the creature began to work its way along that rope of flesh towards its prey. Mara pulled back and the tentacle held fast, but the creature itself was drawn along the floor with her. She pulled harder, then spun herself around and the thing was lifted clean from the floor. It swung around her in a wide arc, centripetal force pressing its mass back along the pseudopod away from her. The tendril grew thinner and more attenuated, until at the apex of the swing it had too little substance to force its grip.
"Tekeli-li!" The creature cried its rage as it flew across the laboratory, hitting the wall with a wet slap. It slumped to the ground, and at once began its appalling glide across the floor towards Mara. The girl turned and ran for her life.
Mara stumbled out into the corridor, clutching her injured arm to her chest. The pain was excruciating, not merely the sharp agony of the broken bones, but also an intense, burning sensation in the skin wherever the thing had touched her.
"Help me!" she screamed. "Please, somebody help me!" She turned to look behind her, and crashed into something in front of her. She really back but Pearson caught her by the arm. She screamed in agony and he released the mangled limb.
"God, Mara; what happened?"
"Down!" Pearson ordered. He pushed her to one side and drew the zat from his hip.
The zat'nik'tel snapped open and fired: Once, twice, three times.
Mara slumped wearily against Pearson, the shock and pain overcoming her at last. "Xander..." she began.
"Stay with me, Mara," Pearson said, urgently.
Pearson grabbed her by the uninjured hand. "Run!" He set off, dragging her after him as she slowly forced her legs to function. Then she found new strength, as behind her came the terrible cry:
Ana brought the aircar down with considerable skill, but the landing was still heavy enough to bend one of the landing struts. The passengers were unharmed however, and Merlyn's eagerness to explore the site was not diminished by the accident. Ana seemed amused by her insistence, touched almost, as though it reminded her of something that she herself had lost.
Beneath Dr Reznor's shelter, Ana showed Merlyn and Roberts a gaping cave mouth. She pointed out the remains of dressed stone columns and steps which indicated that it was not a natural formation but the remains of a cellar opening.
"Underneath the earth on this part of the mountainside there is a layer of scorched and melted stone," she explained. "All that remains of this Magoic palace is in this hidden cellar."
Merlyn leaned close to the shattered lintel of the entrance. "Is this the same sign as was found on the Gate covering?" she asked.
Ana came up and studied the faint marks which remained on the stone. A five-pointed star could just be made out, with some mark in the centre, long-obscured by age. "Yes," she replied. "I think so. There's a better example on the wall of the chamber though." She handed Merlyn a torch, and passed a second to Roberts. "You know what you want to look at," she said. "Give me a shout if you need anything; I'm going to take a look at the lifts and see what I can do. If I can't fix it then we've got a very long walk back."
"You're an engineer as well as an archaeologist?" Roberts asked, impressed.
"Archaeo-engineer," she reminded him. "These engines are based on a Magoic design which Dr Reznor helped to perfect. I studied Reznor's work in great detail during my undergraduate years. Count your blessings," she added. "Milos is terrible with engines."
Merlyn smiled. "Thank you, Ana," she said.
"Roberts," Merlyn asked, "you have everything you need?"
"Ready to go, Merlyn," he affirmed.
"Then let's see what we can see."
The Gateroom was almost empty of artefacts, and so Merlyn limited herself to making a detailed video record of the text on the walls. "And here is our seal," she said, shining her torch on the wall. Here it was clear that the design at the centre of the star was a stylised eye.
"It's kind of...creepy," Roberts noted.
"Isn't it just," Merlyn agreed. "I feel as though I know that it means something bad."
Roberts nodded. "It's a warning," he suggested. "I don't...I don't want to go near it."
"If we were Goa'uld I might think it was a genetic memory."
"How do you know it isn't. Genetics is hardly a science about which our knowledge is exhaustive."
Merlyn shrugged. "It could as easily be an air current within the room, or some kind of energy field. We should take field readings in here before we leave. Shall we take a look at the lower chamber before we go?"
"Why not," Roberts agreed. "Nothing I like better than a deep, dark vault beneath a sealed Gateroom. This whole set-up sets my teeth on edge."
"I quite agree," Merlyn assured him, leading the way to the hidden stair to the lowest level of the catacomb. "Roberts," she added, with uncharacteristic trepidation. "Why do you do it?"
"Do what?" Roberts asked.
"In this case, Dr Ryzo," Merlyn explained.
"I beg your pardon, Ma'am, but I'm not sure that's really your business. Unless you think I'm endangering the mission by my conduct?"
"I don't," Merlyn assured him. "I don't think that the Chancellor cares sufficiently what his wife gets up to, although it could be a complication if things turn nasty. This could be construed as conduct unbecoming an officer," she noted, "but I'm not asking as your superior. I just want to know why."
"I'm sorry, Merlyn," Roberts said with a shrug. "I'm not sure I really understand what you're asking."
"Well..." Merlyn stopped, uncertainly. "What does she mean to you?"
Roberts shrugged. "I like her. She's a classy lady and a lot of fun."
Merlyn could not hide her disappointment. "And that's it? Fun?"
"More or less," Roberts admitted. "What would you like me to say? That I'm in love with her? I won't, because I'm not. I'm under no illusions that she's in love with me, either."
"Because I like her and she likes me. That's all, Merlyn. There doesn't always have to be more than that."
"But if there's nothing more, why can't you just be friends with the woman? Why do you have to...do that?"
Roberts sighed. "I don't have to. It wouldn't be much fun if I felt I had to do it. But sex really isn't that big a deal, Merlyn. I'm sorry if that makes me cheap in your eyes, but that's just the way I see things. Sex is just part and parcel of the wondrous variety that is the everyday interchange of human relationships. Sex," he added, just saying the word again to enjoy the little wince it drew from Merlyn.
"Stop that," she demanded. "Do you really think that? It's just as natural to you as shaking hands?"
"Yes, although a little more involved and requiring rather more foreplay." He shook his head, sadly. "You should try it, Merl; seriously."
Merlyn shot him an ugly look.
"Or not. As you prefer."
"It isn't a game, Roberts. It's a method of procreation."
"Alright, Merlyn; you definitely need to try it sometime."
"And I will," she assured him. "When I'm married."
"Sure," he agreed. "Just try not to be disappointed if it turns out that your husband hasn't been as patient as you."
"There's no need for you to drag everyone down to your level."
"I'm not, but think about it, would you? I'm sure there are guys who save themselves. It's just that the chances of one of them meeting you are pretty slim, proportionally; and then the odds that having met you hit it off, and that he's either Catholic or willing to convert..."
"Thank you, Roberts."
"...and that given all that you could even stand someone so sanctimonious."
"Is that how you see me?" Merlyn asked, shocked. "Am I sanctimonious?"
"No," he assured her. "You've got your faults, but you don't preach, Merlyn. I walked into this conversation with my eyes open. After you," he added, as they reached the narrow entrance to the lower chamber.
Merlyn fell silent for a long time as she examined the room, a long vault, perhaps twenty yards by three with the door at one narrow end. The ceiling was almost fifteen feet above them. Six large alcoves were set into each of the long walls. The recesses were some two-foot square at the base and six feet high, and evenly spaced along the length of the room. Between them the walls were plain plaster, heavily worn; above were the remains of two long frescos bearing a mixture of text and illustrations, now all but obliterated.
"I have a bad feeling about this planet," Merlyn admitted.
"Smooth change of subject."
Merlyn had her back to Roberts and so she felt comfortable smiling. "I mean it, Roberts. The transcription was garbled, but it looked like a warning, and I've seen that sign before."
"Is it as sinister as it looks?"
Merlyn turned to face him, her face serious. "It's called the Elder Sign," she told him. It has been used for millennia – perhaps for as long as there have been intelligent beings in the galaxy – as a sign against the influence of evil. It's a mystical seal, and its presence is as clear a message as the presence of the mark of Korush N'ai."
"A sort of pan-galactic biohazard symbol?"
"And then some. The Elder Sign doesn't just mean ‘do not open', it means ‘die, rather than allow this to be opened'. If the Goa'uld who once ruled here sealed the Gate with this sign, it can only mean that he felt that there was a threat here which must not, under any circumstances, gain access to the Stargate. Something so deadly that he would seal himself off rather than risk its spread. If I'm reading the text upstairs correctly, the Magoic ruler of Perecz found something on this world that was so unthinkable that he let himself be destroyed rather than allow it to spread."
"But Goa'uld don't do that," Roberts argued.
"Not often, but it's been known to happen. The Linvris allowed themselves to die rather than risk the spread of Machello's destroyers, and there is evidence of at least one Goa'uld deliberately scuttling his ha'tak in deep space in order to take out a colony of Replicators. If there is a real danger to the race entire, a Goa'uld will give his life to stop it."
"So we're talking about something bad?"
Merlyn nodded. "Probably whatever was in these jars."
"Yes. This is a storage facility, pre-dating the Goa'uld occupation. The frescos – so-called – aren't decoration, they're warnings and instructions for the safe handling of whatever was kept here. Unfortunately they've been so badly damaged by time..."
"These weren't destroyed by time," Roberts told her.
"Trust me, I know vandalism." Roberts pointed to the walls. "There are fresh tool marks, see. These walls were deliberately defaced within the last decade or so. The same thing was done in Etruscan tombs to hide all the bits you wouldn't approve of."
"Hiding the records to try and destroy the past," Merlyn sighed. "The bloody fools. We're not talking about a few erect phalluses here; this is a warning from the past!"
"It was probably Scheff," Roberts suggested, "with Ryzo's connivance. From what Ana tells me, Biotechnology is the Chancellor's baby; his legacy; his addition to the university. He and Scheff basically Bogart all the important materials and resources because Scheff's studies in Magoic bioweaponry keep the Faculty going and bring in the bulk of the university's government funding."
"Dear God preserve us," Merlyn whispered, genuinely horrified.
"Bioweaponry, Roberts. How could I have been so blind."
"What is it, Merlyn?"
"The ‘animal' that escaped from Scheff's laboratory. I think I know what it was. The clues were there in the text, they just never named it." She looked up at Roberts, her eyes haunted. "It's a shoggoth."
"It won't give up!" Mara screamed.
"I know," Pearson replied. "We need to get back to your lab, Mara. Can you find the way?"
"We're going to die, Xander!"
"No we're not! We just need to get back to the lab. Now can you do that?"
Mara shuddered in fear, but Pearson shook her by the arm and the contact kept her solid. She took a deep breath and answered. "Yes. Yes, I can do it."
"Let's go then."
Mara nodded and took the lead. Pearson followed her, gently chivvying her along when she slowed. Her movements were becoming sluggish as shock and blood loss began to take hold of her; if he let her stop, she would never get going again, literally since their horrid pursuer would be on top of them if they halted.
"Come on, Mara; you can do it. Just stay with me."
"What's the point? It's unstoppable."
"No!" Pearson insisted. "Alright, listen to me as we go; just keep focusing on my voice, and I'll tell you just what we're going to do."
The creature entered the lab, its foul, mottled hide suppurating and bubbling in its excitement and hunger. It paused for a moment to take in the scene.
"Hello, ugly," Pearson said. He beckoned to her. "Come on then. Dinner time, you vile and eldritch mass of foetid meat."
"Tekeli-li!" The creature shrugged its way across the floor towards Pearson; when it was within reach it threw out a tentacle to snare him.
Pearson ducked the grasping pseudopod. He swung at it with a retort stand and the tendril gripped tightly. Before it could grapple for his flesh, Pearson shifted his way and spun around, spinning the creature like an Olympic hammer and releasing it to fly through the air.
Mara leaned her whole bodyweight onto the centre of the DHD, and as the creature flew towards the Stargate the Ancient device thundered into life and spewed forth its opening vortex. After a moment the event horizon settled, and the creature was gone.
"Where is it?" Mara asked. "Where did it go?"
"Nowhere," Pearson replied. "It's gone, Mara. It's gone for ever. Like my dad always said; every problem has an engineering solution." He grimaced. "Sorry about your retort stand."
Mara smiled, nervously. "Th-that's okay," she assured him. She began to giggle, then to laugh in almost hysterical release. She carried on laughing, until quite suddenly she slumped sideways in a dead faint.
"Ana!" Merlyn ran out of the cave and towards the aircar. "We have to contact the university."
Ana walked around from the back of the vehicle. "Nothing doing, I'm afraid. I tried to call in for a repair ship – the engines turn out to be pretty bad – but there's...something wrong with the radio."
"What?" Roberts asked.
Ana looked confused. "Hmm?"
"Something in your voice," Roberts said. "What are you worried about?"
"The main transmission coupling in the second lift engine is worn almost through," Ana explained. "We were lucky that both engines didn't go."
"Let me see," Roberts demanded. He strode up and looked at the component which Ana held out.
"So; am I right?" she asked.
Merlyn took a step forward. "What?"
"Sabotage," Roberts replied. "Even without knowing the tech I can see that this shouldn't be in a working mechanism. It's worn almost through."
"That doesn't make sense though," Ana insisted. "If someone were to kill you...I mean, you're ambassadors from another world."
"A tragic accident," Roberts said, sardonically. "The government would extend their regrets, but the needs of diplomacy would keep them from pursuing the case, even if they did notice the sabotage. No doubt the radio was fixed in case we were only injured. No sense in giving us a chance to survive, is there?"
"But that's horrible!" Ana exclaimed. "This is an archaeological dig, not a weapons plant."
"Actually, that may be exactly what this is," Merlyn admitted. "And I don't think those jars were on board the hopper when it crashed. Can you fix the radio?"
"Not a hope."
"What about the engines?"
"I can try, but I'm not sure I'd want to push them."
"Do what you can," Merlyn allowed. "This is becoming bigger than any of us."
Minister Varios' car pulled up behind the ambulance as Mara was being stretchered into the back. The Minister leaped out, followed by Ferretti and Milos, but while Varios ran to talk to the wardens standing close by and Milos to Mara's side, Ferretti went to Pearson. The sergeant was sitting on the steps while a paramedic checked him for signs of shock.
"Sir," Pearson acknowledged. "Miss Belkin and I were attacked in the laboratory, most probably by the same creature that escaped from Scheff's lab."
"You got lucky," Ferretti told him. "Scheff tangled with it and he's dead."
"That is impossible," Varios insisted, striding across. "Professor Scheff was meticulous in his study of the creatures. He discerned the means of controlling their actions; the details are in his research notes."
"Sir?" Pearson asked, with a meaningful glance at Varios.
"Minister Varios, this is Technical Sergeant Pearson," Ferretti said, by way of an answer.
Pearson nodded. "With respect, Minister, I don't think Professor Scheff's research can have been quite on the money if these things killed him."
"There's no evidence that it was the creature that did this."
"Bodies half-digested?" Pearson asked. "Bones cracked, skull crushed?"
Varios looked shaken. "So the wardens tell me."
Pearson nodded, despondently.
"You know what it was that attacked you, Sergeant?"
"I've heard that cry before, Sir," Pearson acknowledged. "I was pretty much out of it at the time, but I'll never forget that sound. The creature that attacked us in the lab was the same as the one that pursued us on P8F-951."
"That's what Roberts called it," Pearson agreed.
"What was the name Merlyn came up with?"
"Shoggoth, Sir. I mean, this was a lot smaller than the other, but it was the same creature."
"You have encountered these creatures before?" Varios looked crestfallen.
"Encountered? No," Ferretti assured her. "We did all we could to avoid encountering it. Good thing too. According to Merlyn's boogedy-boogedy books they're pretty unpleasant customers."
Milos stormed up. "And these creatures were experimented on in an unsecured laboratory?" he demanded. "Minister; this is too much!"
"There was no danger!"
"Tell that to Professor Scheff!"
"There is still no proof," Varios repeated, stubbornly. "Perhaps if you could tell us where the creature is now?" she asked Pearson.
"Gone," Pearson replied. "We destroyed it, utterly."
"You did what?"
"Destroyed it, utterly," Pearson echoed, with deliberate obtuseness.
Varios' face turned almost purple with rage. "That creature was the property of the Constitutional Government of Perecz," she hissed. "How dare you...?"
"I would say we should be glad that no-one else was hurt!" Milos insisted.
"Colonel, I think that this will prove a serious stumbling block to future negotiations."
"Please, Minister," Sheldon jumped in. "Clearly this was a pressure situation..."
"Stumbling block!" Ferretti barked. "If my unit aren't allowed to defend themselves when they're attacked, then there's no future for any relationship between our worlds."
"Don't you take that tone with me, Colonel!"
"Minister; the Colonel is simply upset..."
"My people are not expendable, however you choose to view your own!"
"Oh, I give up," Sheldon announced.
Varios narrowed her eyes. "It is clear to me that you have no respect for us," she said. "I think that your comrades should be recalled – before they destroy a site of priceless archaeological interest – and your unit returned to Earth."
"And not a moment too soon," Ferretti agreed.
The minister turned and stalked away. Ferretti watched her go. "Of all the stuck up..."
"Sir," Pearson said. "Was that wise?"
"We don't need them, sergeant."
Pearson shrugged. "They've developed much further than us in some areas. We could learn a lot from them."
Ferretti sighed. "It's more or less academic, anyway. I think I just burned most of our bridges in that regard."
"Our orders were to pursue diplomatic links with the utmost vigour," Sheldon reminded Ferretti.
"I know," Ferretti sighed again. "I'll see what I can do."
"With your permission, Sir, I'd like to go to the hospital and see if Mara's alright?"
"Carry on, Sergeant; anything to buy us a little time when it comes to chucking out."
"I'll have the wardens bring a car to take you over there," Milos offered. "It's attached to the Faculty of Medicine so it isn't far. I'll get up to my office and call Ana; I'll ask her to bring your comrades back."
The aircar wobbled as it lowered into the landing quadrangle. The repairs to the lift engines were not perfect, but they had enabled the craft to limp home to the university. As the occupants jumped down from the cockpit, Milos hurried out from the building to greet them.
"Ana!" Milos caught his cousin in a fierce hug. "When I couldn't raise the aircar, I feared the worst."
"And rightly so!" Ana assured him. "Someone sabotaged the car! We could easily have been killed."
"Oh, this just gets worse and worse," Milos moaned. "That animal came back. Mara's been injured and Professor Scheff is dead; one of the groundswards as well. Your friend, Xander, managed to kill it," he added, turning to look at Merlyn.
"Go Pearson," Roberts said.
"He called it a...shottog?"
"Shoggoth," Merlyn corrected. "An entirely artificial race. Amorphous and pre-sentient; they're little more than an animate mass of amino acids, but horrifically strong. Genetically they're nothing; no true genome which means they are incapable of breeding and therefore of evolving in any way. There are ancient manuscripts which refer to their creation by sorcerous means, almost certainly the remnants of a scientific understanding of their genesis. As I say, they can't breed, but they're all but immortal since they're not really alive in any accepted sense of the word and they do grow.
"We're lucky," she went on. "The ones that were stored in those jars in the temple must have been small; at any rate, too small to burst free of their confinement. The one that escaped must have been trying to feed; gain mass by consuming flesh and so grow larger and stronger. The one we encountered before must have been almost a hundred feet long, according to Major Carter's calculations regarding the impact time on the iris."
"Can they be killed?" Ana asked, appalled.
"Fire does the trick, I think," Merlyn replied. "Not that I've ever tried it in practice, but the texts speak of them dying in flames. Of course, the only texts I have are third or fourth generation copies of a translation of a transcription of a replica of an inscription on an artefact which may or may not ever have existed; when they're not just accounts of particularly vivid dreams."
"Xander destroyed this one using the vortex of the Star Gate."
"Go Pearson," Roberts said again. "At least it's done now, though. I assume the Chancellor has shut down Scheff's project and seized the rest of the jars?"
Milos shook his head. "The lab's been off-limits since Scheff's body was found. They've installed a new door and they're keeping it locked until a team from the Ministry arrives."
"This whole business stinks," Ana declared.
"But what can we do?" Milos asked.
"Where is everyone?" Merlyn asked.
Minister Varios went to see the Chancellor and they've been arguing with Louis for almost two hours now. Xander is at the hospital, waiting for the doctors to finish treating Mara."
Ana nodded. "Get to my husband's office," she said. "Help Louis; do all you can to string the meeting out. We'll go and take a look at Yanos' research."
"But the door..."
"Will open to Ryzo's master key," Anna assured him. "And I have a copy of Ryzo's master key."
"Are you sure?" Merlyn asked. "We don't want to get you into trouble."
"A little late for that," she assured Merlyn, casting a meaningful glance at Roberts. "Don't worry; I'm as anxious to see what's in there as you are. Someone just tried to kill me, Merlyn; I intend to find out why. Now come on if you're coming, because the Ministry will be along sooner rather than later to clear Yanos' notes and destroy anything incriminating."
Scheff's laboratory was huge, easily twice the size of Milos'. It was cluttered with high-tech equipment, and a series of identical, air-sealed crates stood at the back of the room. The seal on one of these crates had been opened and not properly closed; Roberts opened the crate and within lay one of the ‘canopic' jars that were supposed to have been destroyed.
"Stasis jar," Merlyn said. She examined the empty vessel closely, and ran her scanner over its surface. "Even with the seal broken the residual energy field is impressive." She picked up a pencil from the table and dropped it into the jar. As it entered the neck of the jar the pencil seemed to slow down, taking almost two seconds to hit the bottom. "Three hundred percent dilation," she estimated. "Time slowed by a third even after the generators have shut down."
"Goa'uld stasis jars use environmental seals and an anaesthetic medium to hold their captive," Roberts said. "The Goa'uld don't have any functional grasp of temporal manipulation, thank G...you."
"This isn't Goa'uld," Merlyn announced. "I'm no engineer but this is definitely way beyond what they would be capable of. This is probably a pre-Magoic artefact; something that the Goa'uld dug up."
"I guess this is where the beastie was," Ana suggested, pointing to a cage, the bars on one side of which were bent and broken.
"A cage?" Roberts asked, doubtfully.
"It does seem a little futile for containing an amorph," Merlyn agreed. "Let's get to work. Roberts; you and Ana take a crack at Yanos' research material, while I work on the translation of the text in the Gate Chamber."
"Yes, Ma'am," Roberts replied. "I just hope he keeps better notes than our scientist."
"Yanos was a very orderly man," Ana assured him. "His notes will be meticulously filed."
"Thank heaven for small mercies."
Milos met Ferretti as the Colonel was leaving Ryzo's office. The Tau'ri's face was clouded by fury.
"Louis," Milos said. "What has happened?"
"They won't budge," Ferretti replied. "They don't want or – so they say – need our help and they plan to carry on with Scheff's research as soon as that can fine someone qualified who's also got few enough scruples. They seem very excited by what's happened. The idea of an unstoppable killing machine has got them drooling on the furniture."
"The damn fools," Milos fumed. "It's always the same; research is big business and so it becomes corrupt. I suppose I should try and talk to them, although they're likely to feel I'm outside my area of competence."
"Well, someone's got to talk to them and they've decided that outsiders have ‘no direct interests in Pereczi research'. We're out of town and not wanted to return, although Varios hasn't ruled out other visits from other teams. I guess she'd still like to tap our collective brains; she just doesn't like people who ask questions."
"Our society doesn't encourage the questioning of authority," Milos replied.
"Nor does mine – the Air Force that is, rather than America – but my commanders at least listen when we have a problem with what we're doing."
"Professor Ryzo can be a little conservative in his thinking," Milos admitted. "A little obsessive, even, but he's not a bad man at heart. Maybe I can persuade them to grant your team a hearing."
"I doubt it," Ferretti replied, "but you're welcome to try. I should get my team together; we've been asked to leave as soon as Pearson has a chance to speak to Mara. She's still in surgery at the moment; the compound fracture to her arm's pretty messed up."
Milos winced. He shook his head, sadly. "Poor Mara. And Karellin and that poor, bloody groundsward as well. Even Scheff, the stupid bastard. All this trouble just to keep this project out of the secure labs."
"Why do that?" Ferretti asked. "Why not keep the damned things locked up?"
"Rules of the university," Milos replied, disgusted. "All experiments carried out in the secure biohazard labs have to be logged with the wardens and the public health. If you've gained your specimens by withholding a few priceless antiquities from the relevant Faculty – in breach of the University charter as well as several laws – you don't necessarily want to involve that level of bureaucracy."
"I can see you wouldn't," Ferretti allowed. "So the long and the short of it is that Ryzo and Varios are as crooked as my Uncle Finny. Somehow I doubt your appeal to their sense of decency will cut much ice."
"Perhaps not," Milos agreed, sotto voce. "But it might buy our friends a little more time in which to get to the bottom of this business."
Ferretti nodded his understanding. "Thank you, Milos," he said.
Milos sighed. "Well; I've nothing to lose but my tenure."
Merlyn looked up from her video screen and rubbed her eyes. Her translation of the Goa'uld text was almost complete and it was not promising. Ana had made an attempt at translation after Dr Ryzo's expedition, but it was incomplete. The dialect was unlike any other from the Neomagoic period and Ana had struggled to make the attempt. Merlyn had had problems enough; she was a folklorist, not an archaeologist, and translation was not really her forte, even having studied the handful of terrestrial sources for the language.
"You were very close," she told Ana. "You were just missing a number of key elements which fell out of use in later Goa'uld language. This is a very archaic form; First Dynasty, possibly pre-Dynastic, except that the context...Oh," she realised.
"Merlyn?" Ana asked.
"It's an incantation of sorts," Merlyn explained. "That's why he's written it in a dead language; it's a ritual prayer. He's writing in an ancient tongue because his words must have the gravity of history."
"That's the stupidest thing I ever heard," Roberts protested.
"Not at all," Merlyn replied. "The Coptic Church still use something that has more in common with ancient Egyptian than with any living language for ritual purposes."
"But Goa'uld don't think that way. They hate history."
"Sometimes everyone needs to pray," Merlyn assured the lieutenant. "There's no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole and this fellow was in a foxhole if ever there was one. He was scared; scared enough to start praying to his ancestors."
"So what do we have?" Ana asked.
"It's a spell-prayer," Merlyn replied. "The writer, who was called Nebet, is apologising for his actions; begging the forgiveness of his ancestors for endangering the Goa'uld race."
"Nebet," Ana mused. "I know that name. He was one of the élite who ruled our race in the scientific golden age of the Neomagoic era."
"Well, he was also a Goa'uld," Merlyn assured her. "And he excavated a chamber in the catacombs of his own palace – the one that was robbed out by the time of Reznor's expedition – and discovered much the same thing that you found in Ryzo's chamber."
"Precisely. Stasis jars and warning frescos about the safe use of the shoggoths within them. And, Goa'uld being Goa'uld, he immediately racked them open and began to experiment on them."
"There was something..." Ana scanned the cluttered bench where she and Roberts had piled Scheff's notes. "Tim; that book by your elbow. Thanks." Ana scanned through the pages. "Here; Scheff discovered what he believed were the bulk of Nebet's notes. That was where he learned to control the creatures."
"Control them?" Merlyn asked, doubtfully. "He doesn't really seem to have been in control of them."
"Not unless he was very depressed," Roberts added.
"According to Yanos' notes, Nebet deciphered the frescoes and learned that the creatures could be controlled using specific tonal formulae." Ana passed a book across to Merlyn. "Here. This is an image of Nebet."
"Oh my," Merlyn gasped. The book contained a photograph of a wall painting. A man wearing the robes of a Goa'uld lord was depicted in Egyptian style, playing a flute. Behind him were three dark shapes; shoggoths. Above and below the image were lines of symbols, and Scheff had annotated the upper track with strings of glyphs. "What are these?" Merlyn asked, pointing to Scheff's additions.
"Musical notes," Ana replied. "The Magoic scale was translated by Prial Neros."
"I see," Merlyn mused, running her finger along the lower track.
Ana looked around at Professor Scheff's shelves. She spotted the book she was after and retrieved it. "This is the seminal work on the subject," she told Merlyn.
"Ancient art: A review of archaeo-aesthetic studies," she read. "By Rinar and Calia Tobas."
"You have prestigious roots then?" Merlyn asked.
Ana blushed and looked away, embarrassed.
"What's the matter, Ana?" Roberts asked.
"My father died last year," she replied. "He wanted so much to see me follow in his footsteps. Instead I'm stuck here; the Chancellor's smiling trophy wife."
"Why is that?"
"No-one does research without Ryzo's say-so," Ana explained, "and he doesn't feel that the Chancellor of the University should have a working wife."
"That's appalling!" Merlyn protested. "Why do you put up with it?"
"For Milos," Ana sighed. "If I made a fuss...Milos is unconventional enough that Ryzo wouldn't have any trouble dismissing him. My cousin has given his life to his work; it would kill him to lose it now."
"But why would Ryzo do that?"
"Because my mother and uncle Morn were Professor Reznor's favourites. By rights, this should be my laboratory, you know. I got higher grades than Yanos, my doctoral thesis was better received..."
"And you were sleeping with the Chancellor," Roberts noted.
Ana grimaced. "You'd think it would help, but no. The Chancellor only tolerates any of our family because he married into it. Anyway, by that stage I wasn't really sleeping with him anymore. He made Professor the year I got my doctorate and we were married a few months later. After that he blocked my attempt to get a position at the university and suggested my place was ‘at home'. I still have no idea what he expected me to do there. He lost interest in me after that; I was just a pretty face who could talk science at his stupid receptions."
"I...I'm sorry," Merlyn said, acutely aware that she was hanging on Ana's words in the same way that a person might stare at a road accident. Having had few relationships herself, she was somewhat fascinated by other people's, and especially in what made them go wrong.
"So am I. But he isn't cruel, not physically, and breaking off sexual relations was more or less my idea in the end, so I don't have grounds for a divorce." Ana shook her head, sadly. "But this isn't getting us anywhere. We have bigger things to worry about than my marital problems."
"Yes," Merlyn agreed, suppressing her morbid curiosities. "Alright, so Nebet found the shoggoths and began experimenting. For a while he was successful in using them as physical labour; their strength was colossal and they were utterly tireless. They raise the palace for him in a day, and using them as tools and labour he ushered in the golden age of architecture. Unfortunately they rapidly grew too large to contain and they broke free. They ‘no longer danced to their master's tune'; so much for his tonal control formulae. The shoggoths ran loose across the surface of Pereczi, smashing, killing and consuming anything that got in their way."
"But he stopped them in the end?" Ana asked.
Merlyn shook her head. "They were too big to control. Not even the weapons on his ha'tak vessels were powerful enough to annihilate them, and when he wounded them they only slithered away to hide and recover. He sealed the Gate to stop them escaping, using a molecular seal to ensure that the Shoggoths couldn't force their way under or around the doors and seals. Then he tried to hunt the creatures down, but he failed.
"The shoggoths somehow infiltrated his ha'tak vessel and he was forced to scuttle it. Then they attacked him here. When he realised that they had all come for their erstwhile master, Nebet sealed himself in the cellars of the palace to complete his account and deployed a naquadah bomb to scour the surface. I guess he got all of them, but himself died here when no-one managed to open the door. With all of his servants killed in the blast, no-one remembered where the Gate was; and no-one knew to come and let him out. His body must have decomposed, his clothes rotted away, leaving only the weapons that Reznor found."
"Can you do anything other than make sarcastic comments, Lieutenant?" Merlyn asked, tartly.
Roberts shrugged. "If anything unpleasant shows up I'll kill it for you," he offered. "Until then I'm pretty much limited to sarcasm."
Merlyn smiled, patiently. "I appreciate your honesty," she said. "Let's see what else we can find in Professor Scheff's notes."
The University Hospital was built on the campus, largely to provide the Medical Faculty with a convenient institution in which to place interning students and carry out programmes of research and experimental treatment. As such, it was at the cutting edge of medical technology, with all the most modern and advanced equipment; and all the most modern doctors as well. It was probably the first time that Pearson had ever been in a hospital where the average age of the surgical staff was lower than his own.
For all that, they seemed skilled, and under the leadership of one of the Faculty surgeons they appeared to be doing a fine job of Mara's arm, setting the bones, inserting pins where the damage was too great and splinters of bones needed to be removed, suturing damaged blood vessels. It was a long process, and for all his concern, Pearson could not compel himself to watch the whole gory business from the observation room. Instead, he retreated to the main desk and persuaded the receptionist to tell him where Gar Karellin was.
Professor Scheff's erstwhile assistant was in a private room, guarded by a tall, fierce-looking man in uniform; a Ministry Security trooper. Fortunately, the man made no attempt to stop Pearson entering the room. It seemed that the Ministry had been slow to inform its peripheral servants that the visitors from another world were now persona non-grata.
Inside the room, a young man with a scarred face lay in a hospital bed, his right arm in a cast.
"Mr Karellin?" Pearson asked.
"My name is Xander Pearson; I'm one of the visitors from Earth."
"Oh. Good afternoon, Sir..."
"Xander, please. I'm a sergeant, not an officer. No-one calls me Sir except waitresses and bus drivers."
"I'm Gar then. Pardon my not getting up."
"I understand," Pearson assured him. "Quite intimately. Actually, I ran into the same creature that attacked you. I'm lucky not to have ended up in the next room down."
The young man's face contorted in horror. "The Professor hasn't caught it yet."
"I'm afraid the Professor is dead," Pearson admitted.
"Oh no! Was anyone else hurt?"
"One of your groundswards was killed as well, and Mara Belkin is in surgery."
"No! Please; is she...Will she be alright?"
"The doctors seem to think so. Her left arm was crushed and the skin was somewhat...digested, but otherwise she's unharmed. She's a resourceful girl."
"I can't believe I was so stupid," Gar murmured to himself. "I should have known better..."
"What happened?" Pearson asked.
"I turned down the field on the electro-cage," Gar admitted. "The thing seemed to be in pain so I...I felt sorry for it. Almost as soon as I turned the field down though, it burst free and attacked me. I tried to control it, but it ignored my command tunes. It was so strong...The next thing I really remember was waking up here. Could I see her, do you think?"
It took Pearson a moment to backtrack and realise that Gar was not talking about the shoggoth. "She's still in surgery."
"I'll never forgive myself."
"Well, it's dead now," Pearson offered.
"The shoggoth; the creature."
"It?" Gar echoed. "Don't you mean ‘they'?" His eyes widened in horror. "Xander; what happened to the other one?"
Merlyn sighed. "What I wouldn't give to have my reference books here." She set down the tablet bearing Nebet's ‘tonal formulae' and rubbed her tired eyes.
"There are a few texts in the library which might help," Ana suggested. "I'll go and fetch them for you."
"Thank you," Merlyn replied. "How are you doing there, Roberts?"
Roberts laughed. "Slowly. My modern Goa'uld is better than most, but it's still ropey. Still, as far as I can make out there are numerous references to Nebet's ‘formless servitors'. The courtiers seem to have had no idea where he got them from or what they were, only that they were an object of terror and reverence."
"He must have used them in much the same way as Anubis used his super-soldiers," Merlyn supposed. "A replacement for slaves and warriors alike; invulnerable, implacable, tireless and unstoppable."
"It must have seemed like such a good deal at the time."
"Just that one little catch."
"Should have read the fine..." Roberts looked up suddenly and his hand dropped to his hip.
"What is it?" Merlyn asked, reaching for her own zat.
"I thought I heard something; over in the corner." Roberts rose to his feet and drew a torch from his vest pocket. At that moment, however, the door crashed open and three Ministry troopers burst in, squat, brutal-looking carbines pressed to their shoulders.
"Freeze!" the leader ordered, hurrying up and thrusting the barrel of his weapon in Roberts' face. "Outside! Now!" One of his subordinates, a woman, levelled her carbine at Merlyn.
"Are you pretty much done here, Captain?" Roberts asked, calmly. "You don't need more time."
Merlyn raised an eyebrow, wondering what exactly Roberts planned to do if she said that she did need a little longer. "Thank you, Lieutenant, but I think I've got as much as I'm going to."
"Then we're at your disposal, officer," Roberts assured the trooper. "Or is it sergeant? No; corporal, I think. You're a little old for it, but you've probably been stuck there for the past five years; hence all the shouting."
"Move it, alien!"
"You were up all night thinking of that one, weren't you?" Roberts asked, but he did so while walking to the door, as instructed. Merlyn rose slowly to her feet and followed.
The lead trooper turned to face his subordinate. "Culsa, call the Chancellor's office and inform the Minister, then try to check everything they've disturbed against the inventory; make sure nothing is missing."
"Yes...corporal," the woman replied, stifling a laugh.
"I knew it!"
"Shut it..." the corporal struggled for a moment. "Alien! Trooper Culsa; just do your job."
Ferretti picked up his radio. "Go ahead, Pearson."
"Bad news, Sir; apparently there were two test subjects, both of which escaped from Professor Scheff's laboratory."
"Merlyn!" Ferretti barked. "Captain, are you receiving this!"
There was a long pause. "Go ahead, Colonel."
"Captain...one moment." Ferretti looked up at the sound of a commotion in the Chancellor's office.
Moments later, Minister Varios stormed out. "Colonel! Your people have gone too far!"
"Do you deny sending two of your people to spy on our research?"
"Absolutely," Ferretti replied. "I rarely have to order my people to do anything; they have a great deal of initiative."
"Then you disown their actions?" Varios asked.
"Not in a million years."
"Then I am afraid that any chance of a successful relationship between our peoples has gone. Your team will be removed as spies, at once. I have already summoned a team of Sec troopers to escort you to the Star Gate."
"That's your prerogative," Ferretti agreed, "although I'm sorry that you feel that way."
Varios turned away as three troopers appeared at the door of the outer office. "Take the Colonel away," she said. "He is to be treated with respect, so long as he makes no attempt to go anywhere but back to Dr Lenz's laboratory. Dr Lenz, will you please ensure that all four of the Earth...delegates pass through the Gate."
"I'm sorry, Louis," Milos said.
Ferretti shook his head, sadly. "I've been chased off plenty of worlds before, but rarely for killing a people-eating monster."
Ryzo stepped out from behind the Minister. "After these interlopers are gone, I think we need to have a serious talk about your priorities, and your position here at the University," he told Milos.
"It is not only Dr Lenz's position that will be in question," Varios added, darkly. "Aside from the presence of unsecured, hazardous material on the main campus, my troopers informed me that the other Earthers gained access to Professor Scheff's laboratory using your master key."
"What? But that's..." Ryzo's protests dried up under Varios' withering stare.
"May I contact my team and instruct them to go quietly?" Ferretti asked.
"You may," Varios agreed, "although two of them are already in custody." Her anger seemed to leave her and after a moment she just looked tired.
Ferretti nodded, brusquely, and lifted his radio again. "Captain; go back to the Stargate with the Minister's goons. We're leaving."
"No, Captain. They want us gone. It's their problem now."
As Mara was on her way out of theatre even as the Sec troopers came to collect Pearson, their leader allowed the sergeant to see the young academic for a few minutes. Apparently, Pereczi anaesthetics wore off swiftly, and she was wide awake when he came into her room.
"How are you feeling?" he asked.
"Groggy," she replied. "And there's a foul smell on my arm that they don't seem able to get rid of."
"It'll fade," he assured her. "Apparently Karellin's was the same when they brought him in."
"You spoke to him? Is he alright?"
"He's fine. Worried about you, though." He leaned close and whispered, conspiratorially: "I think he's a little sweet on you, you know."
"I just wanted to say, it's been nice knowing you," Pearson said. "I have to go now; they're throwing us off the planet."
"Yeah. You get rested up then, and give my regards to Gar when you're better."
"I will," she promised, flushing bright red again.
"Sergeant Pearson," his guard reminded him.
"I know," he replied, tightly. "Get well soon, Mara."
"You're making a mistake, you know," Merlyn told the corporal.
"I'm not doing anything except following orders, Miss."
"That's Ma'am to you," Roberts said in a warning tone. "The Captain is an officer, whatever the relationship between our worlds."
"And you heard the Colonel order us to cooperate," Merlyn added. "You don't actually need to hold us at gunpoint."
"Just keep moving. The sooner you're gone, the happier I'll..."
From the corridor behind them came a piercing scream. Roberts and Merlyn turned, and the corporal thrust his gun into Roberts' face again. "Keep walking," he growled.
"Say the word, Captain," Roberts said, in a level voice.
"The word," Merlyn replied.
Roberts snatched the weapon from the corporal's hands, turned the barrel aside and slammed the stock into the man's face. He took one step forward and dropped the second trooper with a fierce jab before the corporal had even struck the floor. "Sloppy," he said, disgustedly.
"Never mind the criticism," Merlyn said, retrieving her zat from the trooper's belt. "Let's go."
Ana Ryzo stood in the doorway of Professor Scheff's laboratory, a pile of books at her feet. She had clasped her hands over her mouth in a gesture of abject horror.
Merlyn ran past her and stopped. "Oh...Sweet merciful Christ," she whispered.
Roberts' reaction was more succinct. "Jesus." Ana almost fell against Roberts, shaking uncontrollably. He put his left arm around her and held her away from his body so that she did not encumber his right.
Trooper Culsa, or rather, her remains, lay on the floor of the laboratory. Her limbs were mangled, and so horribly twisted out of their natural shapes that what was left of her barely looked human. She was covered in a dark slime and where her uniform was torn to expose skin she had been burned as though by acid. The cruel deformation of her body was painful even to look on, but the worst was her neck. Her corpse ended there, in a rough and bloody stump where her head had been torn clean off.
"It's got bigger," Merlyn said, her voice numb.
"And it came back for its friends," Roberts added. He gestured to the corner, where the sealed crates had been torn open and the stasis jars smashed to pieces.
"What is going on here?" Varios demanded, striding up the corridor. Ryzo was on her heels. A group of Sec troopers came with them and held their weapons on Roberts and Merlyn.
"You know, your drill is very sloppy," Roberts said in a cold, quiet voice.
"Stand down, Lieutenant," Merlyn ordered.
Grudgingly, Roberts handed over the carbine.
From the other direction, Ferretti approached, in no better humour than Minister Varios. "Captain; I told you to return to the Stargate."
"There's been...another death, Sir," Merlyn replied, fighting her nausea. "And I believe that there are now at least ten shoggoths loose on campus."
Varios glowered at Merlyn. "What have you done?"
"We did nothing," Merlyn replied. She stepped aside and allowed the Minister to see for herself what had happened.
Varios took one look, then turned away in horror. "What have we done?" she whispered, horrified.
"Given tacit approval to an insanely dangerous bioweapons program which sought to exploit the uncontrollable," Merlyn replied.
"You knew there was a danger but you ordered Scheff to proceed anyway," Roberts added.
Ryzo looked at Roberts, and suddenly seemed to notice his wife. "Ana! What are you doing?"
Ana made no response, only glowered balefully.
"The Professor was a compulsive filer, Minister," Roberts went on. "We've seen the memos you sent, as well as the research notes. Sure, he lied to you when he downplayed the risks, but you knew this project was too dangerous for an unsecured lab."
"What's your excuse?" Merlyn asked. "Pressure from above? Or was it from below? Perhaps it was the over ambitious underlings snapping at your heels?"
"This is an outrage!" Ryzo snapped. "Using my university for..."
"You knew all about it, Chancellor," Roberts said. "Scheff kept copies of all his correspondence. I guess he didn't want to go down on his own if anyone caught him. And get that thing out of my face before I have to take it away from you," he added, fixing one of the troopers with a gimlet glare.
"What happens now?" Ferretti asked.
"Now, the shoggoth's do what they do best: Feed, grow, and destroy. For now they are small and fairly nervous. Even the big one that killed Trooper Culsa here did not want to take on Roberts and I at the same time, but that will change as they absorb biomass. They will grow, and rapidly, in size, power, intelligence and boldness, so we only have a short time in which to act."
"But what...what real damage could these creatures do?" Varios asked.
"They destroyed the Magoic civilisation," Merlyn replied. "The greatest technological empire this planet has ever known. You do the math, Minister. Also, I should add that Scheff never worked out how to control the Shoggoths. He was wrong."
"Then what do we do?"
Ferretti srugged. "We leave," he said. "We're not welcome on this world, remember."
"Please!" Varios cried. "We need help, Colonel. Please?"
Ferretti glared for a few moments, then sighed, dramatically. "I'm just too nice a guy," he said. "People take advantage of me. Captain; what can we do?"
"I think I can lure them out and hold them," she admitted. "But we'll need fire; lots of it, and hot."
Sheldon was only too pleased to return to the SGC when the Gate was opened, but SG-7 remained, and Ferretti requested that General O'Neill send additional weaponry. Less than thirty minutes later, the wormhole opened again and a loaded FRED unit trundled through.
"What have we got, Pearson?" Ferretti asked.
Pearson, the unit's armourer, checked the cases. "Two of the new portable flame units, the SGFT-3s, and two SPAS 12 combat shotguns with sunburst rounds."
"Sunburst?" Roberts asked.
"It's a newly-designed incendiary round from Area-51," Pearson explained. "It functions much the same way as a dragon's breath magnesium round, enriched with the sap of the volcano weed found in the mountains of P2W-349; the same organic compound that is used in the fuel for the FT-3s. As requested, lots of fire; very hot. We also have four suits of heat-resistant protective gear; very important addition, that. As well as protection from the heat of our own weapons, they should provide a fairly substantial defence against the shoggoth's digestive juices, if not their strength."
"We'll still be short-handed," Ferretti noted.
"Minster Varios has requested the deployment of a squad of Parliamentary troops with incinerator units," Milos told them.
"Parliamentary?" Ferretti asked.
"Our military is divided into four parts. The forces under the authority of the three High Ministries – Science and Advancement, Antiquities and Heritage, and Law and Justice – are responsible for domestic security and law enforcement. The Parliamentary troops are usually only deployed against external threats, but they have incinerator specialists. Even Varios would not be insane enough to ask Ministry Sec troopers to wield incendiary weapons without training."
Ferretti cocked his head sideways. "Is she actually mad? I was wondering."
"She's just driven, really," Milos replied. "The three High Ministries are always in close competition with each other and you don't become the highest authority on scientific progress at her age without having ambition."
"Makes you realise how little you've achieved, doesn't it?"
Roberts snapped open the catches on the case of fire-resistant suits. "If you old men are quite finished," he said, "shall we get geared up, Colonel?"
"Let's do that," Ferretti agreed. "Milos; would you take Merlyn's suit down to her, please?"
"Whatever it is she's doing in the Faculty of Music," Roberts commented.
Ferretti shrugged. "I'm prepared to wait for the explanation. I just hope it's a doozy."
"You're going to what?" Ferretti demanded.
"Sing to them," Merlyn repeated.
"It's like music made with voices," Roberts explained, helpfully.
"Great. I'm going into battle with a madwoman and a comedian watching my six."
Merlyn gave a patient sigh. "The shoggoths were designed to be controlled by a complex series of tonal formulae. When he discovered the first vault, Nebet translated these formulae and was able to control the shoggoths." She placed the image of Nebet leading the shoggoths on the table. "For a while. What he didn't realise, because the pre-Ancient race which created the shoggoths never had time to record it, was that the shoggoths could not be controlled once they had developed beyond a certain size. When that happened, hundreds of years after he released the first of his ‘servants', his entire kingdom was destroyed within months. Fortunately, he was willing and able to contain the shoggoths before his own death."
"But if it took centuries for the shoggoths to grow beyond Nebet's control, how come these ones are already resistant to the tonal commands?" Pearson asked. "Gar said that they ignored the tunes which Scheff taught him."
"No doubt," Merlyn agreed, "because when Professor Scheff interpreted this text" – she tapped the upper line of symbols on the image – "he ignored the lower track. He could not translate the pre-Ancient text and so, rather foolishly, he assumed these to be nothing but commentary."
"I take it that isn't so?" Roberts asked.
"They are words...Well; syllables, rather than actual, meaningful words I think. But I believe that they are a vital part of the tonal formulae. You can't just play the notes on an instrument, you have to sing the syllables according to the tune; and you would have to have perfect pitch. The image is something of a mislead; the flute which Nebet is using is symbolic of his music ability."
"And you've translated the syllables?" Ferretti asked.
"And do we have anyone with perfect pitch to sing them?"
"We have two," Merlyn replied. "The choirmaster, and me."
Ana, watching SG-7's deliberations along with Milos, Minister Varios and Chancellor Ryzo, shook her head, sadly.
"What's up, Ana?" Milos asked.
"Beautiful, brilliant and musical," Ana said, without animosity. "I kind of hate that woman."
"Enough of that," Varios said. "Chancellor; is the campus locked down?"
Ryzo nodded. "All students and staff have been warned to stay in their chambers. The wardens are on full alert and are patrolling the campus. The incinerator squads arrived a few minutes ago and the wardens we sent to collect Choirmaster Jezel have just picked him up from his house."
"Are your team ready?" Varios asked Ferretti.
Ferretti grinned, wolfishly. "Yes, Minister."
Flanked by Roberts and Ferretti, Merlyn strode out to the centre of the university campus. She held one of the SPAS 12s in her hands, while her comrades carried the two compact flame units. The men were nervous, and not just because of the shoggoths; the weapons in their hands were experimental units developed at Area-51, filled with an enhanced breed of napalm and not yet tested in the field.
"You okay, boys?" Merlyn asked.
"Just dandy," Ferretti confirmed. "How about you, Captain?"
"So-so, Colonel," she admitted. "This is the most complex tune I've ever come across, I'm not sure I've got the pronunciation right and I haven't done any serious singing since I left the convent."
Ferretti did a double take. "Left the what?"
Merlyn looked away and coughed, awkwardly.
"You'll do fine, Merlyn," Roberts assured her. "This isn't the time for self doubt."
"Of course not," she agreed, her voice quavering slightly. "Why have doubts when I'm surrounded by superheated incendiary weapons and I can't wear the hood on my protective suit because it would interfere with my singing?" She closed her eyes for a moment, and when she opened them again all the hesitancy was gone. "Thank you for the vote of confidence, Lieutenant Roberts. I'm ready if you are."
"In your own time," Ferretti said.
"Here goes nothing."
Merlyn closed her eyes again. She took a deep breath, and sang an experimental scale. Ferretti and Roberts looked at each other in astonishment, struck by the purity of the notes which their team mate produced.
Who knew? Ferretti mouthed.
Dark horse, Roberts returned.
"S'q'ta lo'k'w'il ch't'n'mal'k'ti qi'ss'ma't'nq," Merlyn chanted. Even without understanding the slightest vestige of pre-Ancient language, Ferretti and Roberts could tell that Merlyn was not speaking any kind of words. The strange, eldritch phrases had no meaning in an of themselves; they were purely phonic entities.
"How do we know if it works?" Ferretti asked.
Merlyn's incantation continued.
Roberts shook his head in amazement. "She learned all this waffle in less than an hour." He frowned. "Is she sounding...odd?"
Ferretti listened and realised that Roberts was right. Merlyn's voice was the same, but her chant was beginning to pick up strange harmonics, enough like the thundering tones of a Goa'uld to give one pause. They were standing in open space, but there was an echo. Deep, resonant undertones seemed to be emerging from her chest; vocal highlights rang in her sinuses. She repeated the chant, her voice rising now. The tones followed no pattern that either man recognised as music, but there was undeniably something compelling in the cacophony.
"I'm starting to really hate this plan," Ferretti noted.
"I think I know what you mean, Sir," Roberts agreed, staring in alarm as the air in front of Merlyn began to distort, rippling like a heat haze.
"We give it thirty seconds, then we stop her," Ferretti decided. "This is getting too damn weird for..."
"Sir; two o'clock."
Ferretti turned, and saw his first shoggoth. "Holy crap," he said.
Being without form, it was difficult to judge the exact size of the creature, but Ferretti estimated it at around twice the mass of a human being. It sloughed its way across the flagstones towards them, periodically evolving one or more eyes in its surface to glare balefully around at its surroundings. There was something odd in its motion; something that almost seemed like reluctance to the human eye.
"One of these things is supposed to be bigger than the others, isn't it?" Ferretti asked.
"So I understand, Sir."
"I just hope that's this one." The Colonel checked the gauges on his flamethrower. "Two-hundred yards, right?"
Ferretti stepped between Merlyn and the shoggoth. "Stay alert, Lieutenant," he ordered, then pulled the trigger.
A jet of white fire shot from the nozzle of the weapon to strike the shoggoth. Even through the heat resistant suit, Ferretti could feel the heat of that flame. The creature gave a hooting scream and half-recoiled, and yet it continued to advance into the very teeth of the fire. It tried to launch a pseudopod at Ferretti, but the Colonel swung the nozzle and burned through the tendril. The shoggoth shrank as its vile flesh was burned away, but still it crept closer, drawn inexorably by Merlyn's dissonant siren-song.
Ferretti kept the stream of fire on the creature until there was nothing left but ash on the stones. He could not feel satisfied until nothing remained of the abomination. He turned and scanned the courtyard, only to see Ferretti torching another of the vile beasts.
"Well, the flamers work then," Roberts noted.
"Good thing, too. Okay, Captain; that's enough here. There's nothing else coming."
Merlyn fell silent. She coughed, then spoke hoarsely: "How'd it go, Colonel?"
"Two down," he replied. "And...um..."
Roberts activated his radio and spoke into the pick-up in his hood. "Pearson; how's the count coming?"
"Do you want the good news or the bad?" the sergeant asked.
"Start us with the good," Ferretti suggested.
"We've finished the count," Pearson told them. "We know how many of the shoggoths got out."
There was a pause. "And the bad news?" Roberts asked.
"Every jar has been breached. We're looking at twelve shoggoths, less the one I killed in the Gateroom."
"Less two more," Ferretti corrected. "So call it three down, nine to go."
"Correction, Colonel," Varios' chipped in across the channel. "Five down, seven to go."
"Well, that's starting to look worryingly like good news again," Ferretti allowed.
"Only if we get the other seven," Varios cautioned. "We'll try the big populations centres next; the dormitories. You take the western blocks, my team will try the east."
Ferretti nodded, redundantly. "Roger that. Good hunting, Minister."
"And you, Colonel."
Despite his antipathy towards the Minister, Ferretti could not pretend that he did not admire her decision to go out with the second team. She had been under no obligation to do so, after all.
"What about the hospital?" Roberts asked.
"What about it?" Ferretti returned.
"Well, that's a population centre, and it's got to reek of blood. These things do smell, don't they? I mean they have a sense of smell? I already know that they stink."
"Merlyn?" Ferretti asked.
"Yes, Sir; very well, I believe. Nebet's account speaks of them unerringly returning to finish off injured prey, tracking across vast distances."
"Oh my God," Roberts whispered.
"We just assumed they'd stick to the campus," Merlyn said, horrified. "Stupid!"
"I'm on my way," Pearson announced. "Back-up might be appreciated."
"What do we do, Sir?" Roberts asked.
"Well, I'm not lugging a flamethrower into a hospital ward for any money," Ferretti assured him. "We'll clear the western dorms, then Merlyn can sing in the hospital car park."
Ryzo's voice crackled across the channel. "I'll take a patrol of wardens," he assured them. "Maybe we can't call these things out, but at least we'll be able to stop them if they show their faces." He paused. "In as much as they have faces."
Mara woke suddenly from a nightmare, clutching at her sheets in fear. Her arm, suspended in a sling from the ceiling, ached terribly and she had a terrible itch beneath the protective cast. She lay still, breathing slowly and evenly until her heartbeat had subsided.
"It's alright," she whispered to herself. "There's nothing here to hurt me."
Mara screamed as the shoggoth's pseudopods lashed out and fastened around her cast. She scrambled backwards, but the strength of the creature and the wires of her sling held her fast as the shoggoth heaved itself onto the hospital bed. Desperately, she snatched up her sheet and flung it over the suppurating bulk; the covering did not bother her attacker in the slightest.
The door opened with a crash and a hooded figure burst in. "Mara!"
"Xander!" she cried, recognising his voice. "Get it off me!"
Pearson levelled his shotgun at the linen-shrouded mass. "Close your eyes," he told Mara.
Mara shut her eyes and raised a hand in front of her face. There was a bright flash and an intense heat washed over her. The shoggoth released her and she started to fall from her bed, swinging helplessly on her sling. The apparatus was not designed for the weight of a whole body, and after only a moment it broke, but Pearson was there before she could strike the floor, catching and supporting her.
"Slide!" Pearson yelled, as the shoggoth reared up, making itself tall and thin, and drawing back to strike.
"The slide on the shotgun; back then forward."
It took Mara a moment to process his words, but then she saw the mechanism on the underside of the SPAS 12. She gripped the slide in her uninjured hand and, with some effort, worked it back and forth. The spent cartridge spun out of the side of the weapon.
"Now hold it steady, and close your eyes again."
Mara pressed her face into the heavy fabric of Pearson's heat-resistant suit, but once again it was not enough to completely hide the flash and she felt the heat even more strongly than before.
There was a smash of breaking glass. The curtains tore down as the wounded shoggoth flung itself from the window.
"Hold this," Pearson said, thrusting the shotgun into the crook of Mara's arm. He reached past her.
As her eyes turned to follow his hand, Mara saw that: "The bed's on fire!"
"I know," he assured her.
"And the wall!"
He took hold of the sling and released its clasps. "On your feet then, Mara; we have to get out of here."
Mara scrambled up and they stumbled out of the ward room. Pearson spoke rapidly into his radio, informing his comrades that at least one shoggoth had found its way to the hospital. While he did so, Mara grabbed the nearest fire extinguisher and turned it on the door to her room. She held the trigger down until the gas ran out. She stood there, panting with terror and exertion, staring at the charred mess.
"The fire's out," Pearson assured her.
"It came for me," Mara realised.
"I checked in on my way up; he was fine. We should get back down to him and..."
Mara flung her good arm around Pearson's neck and kissed him. "You saved my life, Xander," she whispered.
Pearson gently unwound himself from her grip. "This is what I do," he told her. "How's your arm?"
"It's good; well, as good. The cast seems to have held out." She moved towards him again, but Pearson took a step back. "Xander..." A wounded look came into her eyes. "Oh."
Pearson shrugged, helplessly. "I'm sorry," he said. "I can't. Let's...let's go and see how Gar is doing."
"Alright," she said, quietly. "And thank you, Sergeant Pearson."
"My pleasure," he sighed.
"How're you guys doing?" Ferretti asked over the channel. "We got another four here; looks like they definitely called feeding time in the western halls. The wardens are checking rooms to make sure no-one was hurt before we arrived."
"Two from the eastern dorm rooms," Varios replied. "We have at least one confirmed casualty, but no further deaths as yet."
"One more, then," Merlyn croaked. She looked almost finished. Her hair was damp with sweat and her eyes were swollen and bruised.
"Well, you certainly won't be calling it out," Roberts told her. "You can barely speak, let alone sing." He shook his head. "I'm just amazed you've held out this long. Those were some freaky noises you were making."
"I'll take that as a compliment."
"Colonel!" Varios sounded excited. "The patrol at the hospital has taken down the last of these...things. Your friend Sergeant Pearson chased it into the open. That's all of them."
"Thank God," Ferretti sighed. "Sorry, Captain."
Merlyn smiled. "I don't think that was really in vain," she assured him.
"Praise the Lord!" Roberts declared.
"Don't push it, lieutenant."
The hunting teams met up at the hospital. Choirmaster Jezel looked as exhausted as Merlyn; his long silver hair was matted and his eyes were bloodshot.
"The wardens have confirmed that no-one else has been killed," Milos informed them all, triumphantly.
"That is good," Varios sighed. "Sergeant Pearson; how are things here?"
"There are a lot of scared people, and I think I'm off Mara's Christmas card list, but no real harm done. Well; one hospital room won't ever be the same, but..."
"But all's well that ends well!" Chancellor Ryzo declared, approaching at the head of the patrol which had protected the hospital. Two of the wardens carried small flame units, with chunky, back-mounted tanks. From the looks of him, even the bumptious Chancellor had managed to muck in with the fight.
"Not bad, Gerred," Ferretti allowed. "Where'd you get the flamethrowers?"
"Scrub-burners from the groundswards stores," Ryzo explained. "With a little extra power, courtesy of the chemistry department."
"Good thinking," Pearson said.
"We're lucky they didn't explode in our faces," Ryzo laughed.
Varios sat down on the side of an ornamental fountain and gave a deep sigh. The day's excitement seemed to have aged her by ten years. "Well, I hope I never live to see anything like this again."
Milos sat down beside her. "At least it's over now, Minister," he said.
"Yes," she agreed. "Thank you for your help, Colonel Ferretti. Your people will always be welcome on Erd, and I hope that this will be the beginning of a profitable relationship."
"Of all the..." Roberts began, but Ferretti held up a hand. "Let it go, lieutenant. That sounds good to me, Minister Varios; although I think I'll leave the diplomacy to the professionals in future."
"Well, we'd best get these things stored away before they explode or something," Ryzo said, taking in the flame units with a sweeping gesture.
"Of course," Varios agreed. She stood and shook Ryzo by the hand. "Thank you for your assistance, Chancellor."
"My pleasure, Minister."
"Frost," Roberts said, suddenly.
"What?" Ryzo asked, baffled.
"There's frost on one of your napalm tanks," he said. "That's not flame tank at all!"
"Come along, wardens," Ryzo said, hurriedly.
"You've frozen it!" Roberts accused.
"What?" Merlyn jumped to her feet. "Of all the idiotic..."
Ryzo's eyes flashed with cold rage. "It is ours to do with as we please," he insisted.
"Chancellor!" Varios exclaimed, alarmed.
"These people can not be allowed to dictate terms to us, Minister."
"Terms?" Merlyn asked. "This isn't about terms! The texts tell us that shoggoths can survive in the depths of space! Extreme cold isn't going to do anything more than stun one. It will adapt, and then..."
"This is paranoid fantasy!" Ryzo told her.
"Troopers!" Varios called. Her squad moved to surround the two wardens and she stood before the man with the frosted tank. "Give me the cylinder," she demanded.
"You are determined to destroy our work!" Ryzo accused Merlyn, advancing with clenched fists. "You are panic-mongering to try and scare us into doing your bidding. Everything is under control!"
With a shriek of tortured metal, the cryo-tank tore asunder, splashing liquid nitrogen over both wardens and three of the security troops. With a cry of ‘tekeli-li' the shoggoth burst free and lashed out with its pseudopods. With a flash of flame, one of the incinerators went off, and a woman screamed.
"Well, I think this is the first time this team have ever been involved in the maiming of an important politician," Roberts mused, glumly.
"They can't blame us for this," Pearson protested.
"I suppose it depends on how badly hurt the Minister is," Merlyn suggested.
Ferretti stared angrily out of the hospital window. "I knew we should have left them to stew," he said. "And no, I couldn't have lived with myself, if anyone was thinking of asking."
"At least we got the last..." Roberts looked up. "Ana."
"We got the last Ana?" Ferretti asked, doubtfully. "You may have done, but the rest of us didn't."
"I'm delighted you have such faith in my restraint," Ana said as she walked up.
Ferretti turned, raising a hand to hide the carmine blush spreading over the back of his neck. "Dr Ryzo; nice to see you again."
"I'm afraid I'm the bearer of bad news," she admitted.
"The Minister?" Ferretti asked.
"She is still alive, but unconscious. Milos is with her. It seems that my cousin been carrying a torch for her for some years; I didn't even know they'd been at school together. Anyway; in the absence of the Minister's testimony, my husband is spinning quite a yarn for Parliament. His portrait of your team is rather unflattering."
"Oh, wacko," Ferretti muttered.
"It's probably best if you leave, at least until the Minister wakes up again. Always assuming that she does recover, she can set Parliament straight, but as it stands you're likely to be arrested for sabotaging Pereczi research."
"Oh...balls!" Ferretti spat.
"Why do you keep saying that?" Ana asked. "Tim does the same thing."
Ferretti coughed, awkwardly. "Merlyn doesn't like us saying ‘damn'," he admitted. "Alright; where's our gear?"
"I've had it all returned to the transporter in Milos' laboratory," Ana assured them. "Come quickly; before Ryzo has the wardens after you."
In the laboratory, Mara and Gar were loading the last of the gear onto the FRED, carrying the cases between them with their uninjured arms.
"Let me get that," Pearson said, coming forward.
"We're fine!" Mara insisted.
"Actually, I won't say no," Gar said. "My back is killing me."
Pearson took the case of protective suits and secured it on the FRED. Mara looped her good arm through Gar's and stood very close to him.
"Dial it up, Merlyn," Ferretti ordered. "Let's get the hell out of here."
"Take care, Ana," Roberts said. "Your husband...I think he might be a few rounds short of the clip, if you take my meaning."
"I think so," Ana replied, uncertainly. "Don't worry about Ryzo; after all this time I've learned how to handle him. You watch your back, Tim; I'd like to see you again some time."
"The feeling is mutual," he assured her, and they hugged.
"Watch out for Milos, won't you?" Ferretti asked. Behind them the Gate whooshed into life.
"Absolutely," Ana promised. "Goodbye, Merlyn." She stepped forward and embraced the other woman. "I think I've decided not to hate you."
"Well thank you, Ana," Merlyn replied, awkwardly returning the hug. "Same to you."
"Mara..." Pearson began.
"Goodbye, sergeant," Mara said, coolly.
"Thanks for all your help," Gar said, releasing Mara's arm to shake Pearson's hand, oblivious to Mara's scowl. "I can't thank you enough for saving Mara's life."
"Anytime," Pearson assured him, averting his eyes to focus on his GDO. "Code's away," he said. "I'll, ah...I'll take the FRED through, Sir."
"Okay, sergeant," Ferretti agreed.
Merlyn leaned close to whisper to Roberts. "Maybe your way is better."
Roberts shook his head. "Girl's too young to know what's what. That was trouble from the start."
"I'm not sure expertise in this area is something to be proud of," Merlyn frowned.
"Come on," Ferretti said. "Time to go."
"I'll be in touch," Ana promised.
"Looking forward to it," Ferretti assured her. "Up you go, captain; Roberts." He waited until the two of them had gone through the event horizon, before he stepped up to the Gate himself. "Take care, Dr Ryzo."
"And you, Colonel Ferretti."
Ferretti nodded once, then turned away and stepped through the Gate.
(c) 2003 by M. Uli Kusterer and the respective authors, all rights reserved.