The bundle in his left hand is heavier than he would have expected, but the weight is not enough to disturb his firm pace as he progresses along the corridor, bright with ornamentation and tributes to the glory of Apophis. Teal'c is known to the door guards, but unexpected; he surrenders his staff weapon willingly when the order comes to admit him. They do not open the bundle, and he does not offer it to them.
Apophis lounges in his great chair, surrounded by seven beautiful youths, girls and boys dressed identically in sheer white silks. Teal'c has only ever seen the god in military situations, before and after battle; he is nearly blinded by the golden shimmer of the god's dress and ornaments. One of the slaves has even applied gold leaf to the god's face, a mask across his eyes and cheekbones.
A line of jade inlaid into the floor marks the point at which Teal'c stops and kneels, keeping the distance required by the complex protocol of Apophis' court. He waits, watching the floor, wishing that he had washed before coming: there is dirt ground under his nails, spots of blood on his fingers. But it was necessary to report immediately what he had done.
The god will--he is not sure what the god will do.
He has done the right thing, Teal'c is sure of it. But as he kneels before the god, eyes fixed on the ornate patterns of the tile floor, the rush of exhiliration settles into something approaching disquiet. Bra'tac had always cautioned him against making assumptions about the god. The gods are not as you and I, Teal'c. They have their own plans and needs, things past understanding by Jaffa such as we are. You must always be cautious in your dealings with them.
"Jaffa." The god's voice booms, echoing off the high walls of the great audience chamber. "Tell me your name."
Teal'c tightens his hand on the bundle in his hand. He keeps his head down. "Teal'c son of Ronac, my lord."
"Look up," commands the god.
Eyes tracking cautiously across the floor, Teal'c slowly raises his head to look at Apophis straight on. Through the gold mask, the kohl, and the headdress, the god looks mildly curious. After a moment, the god raises an eyebrow; a flake of gold comes loose and flutters down to rest on his shoulder. "You are one of Bra'tac's proteges."
Teal'c swallows hard and replies, "Indeed, my lord."
The god's whims cannot be predicted, Teal'c. Those Jaffa who have tried, have died.
"And what brings you to me, my loyal servant Teal'c, in your ... state?" A finger encased in gold lifts languidly, indicating Teal'c's disheveled condition.
Jaffa are not great warriors--we serve the gods' needs. We live and die for them: this is our only purpose.
"I bring a gift for my lord," says Teal'c. He waits; when the finger moves again approvingly, he places the bundle on the floor before him and begins to unwrap it. The guards on either side of the throne lower their weapons warningly, but he ignores them.
This, he thinks--this will bring him to the god's attention. This is the opportunity he has waited for. His father had failed his god; Teal'c will not follow his example.
You are missing the point, Teal'c. The System Lords are powerful, but mad. Why should we serve those who do not value our lives?
He turns the cloth back, fold after fold. The inner layers are dark and wet: his hands become stained, rusty-red. Finally his gift is exposed, displayed for the god's attention on a bed of bloodstained wool.
Jaffa die for no reason in endless wars, or are killed for amusement by lords who are bored and petty. We are a great people, Teal'c: and our honor is besmirched by this service.
Teal'c adjusts the head so that it faces forward, but it will not stand upright, so he leaves it canted onto the right side. The skullcap is dark with drying blood, but Teal'c wipes the tattoo clean so it can be distinguished. One of the slaves emits a shocked gasp, quickly smothered.
Apophis frowns, his eyes flashing. "You bring me the head of my First Prime, Teal'c? Surely you have a purpose to this."
"He betrayed you, my lord." Teal'c bows his head in supplication. It all seemed so much cleaner, the decision easier, on the sparring ground. When he understood what Bra'tac was saying. Greatly daring, he continues, eyes down but his voice as clear and loud as he can make it. "He was a blasphemer and a heretic--he claimed you were but a false god. He did not deserve the honor of your service." Surely the god knows the truth: he is a god, after all. This is merely a show.
There is a silence, mercifully brief.
Teal'c lifts his head again, daring to meet the god's eyes. The god raises his hand, as if to motion Teal'c to his feet. Teal'c will be rewarded, be raised in the god's service, perhaps even be granted Bra'tac's position. He will stand at the god's side, commanding thousands of Jaffa, restoring the honor that his father lost.
But the god's hand continues to turn, the gold-capped fingers spreading, splaying, exposing the great stone as it begins to shimmer with energy. The god's voice booms, echoing through Teal'c's head, crashing against the walls of the audience chamber as the blast from the hand device strikes him. "It is not your place to question my judgment, Jaffa, or the loyalty of my officers."
Dal shakka mel, Bra'tac said as he died. Teal'c does not understand.
The pain lasts for a long time before it ends, at last, in darkness.
Detroit Free Press, June 23, 1972.
NORTHVILLE, MI -- Police in this quiet suburban town are requesting the public's help in identifying a man found dead in Maybury State Park last week. The body was discovered in dense brush, possibly hidden on purpose, and investigators estimate that the man died several months ago.
The man, referred to as John Doe until his identity is determined, was a large black man, at least 230 lbs and over six feet tall. He was dressed in jeans and an orange dashiki, but no wallet or other identification was found on him. Investigators have not yet determined a cause of death, although they have not ruled out exposure, as it is possible the body was undiscovered since some time in the winter.
No evidence of foul play has been reported, although Officer Joseph Banning, heading up the case, said that the incomplete skeleton of a snake was found on the ground next to the body. "He might have gotten bit and stomped on it, and then died," suggested Banning.
However Dr. Theodore Pratt, at the University of Michigan, states definitively that John Doe could not have been killed by a poisonous snake unless he brought it with him. There is only one poisonous snake in Michigan: the Eastern Massasauga, which is both shy and uncommon. "And certainly it would never be active outside in winter. Whatever killed him, it wasn't a native snake," concluded Pratt. Tests are being conducted, but the coroner's office indicated that it is unlikely they would be able to identify any toxins this long after the man's death.
Anyone with information regarding the identity of the man is encouraged to call the Northville Police Department, 555-7122.
The singing begins at dawn, as the priests call the people to the temple. The strong words of the chant rise up in the cool air, waking all the people of the village on this special day. The vernal equinox is for the maidens; the autumnal equinox is for the young men.
Teal'c dresses quietly and goes to the door, hoping to slip away. But he is too late. Tranna comes out of her room, tucking her hair into her hood, followed by her new husband.
"Teal'c," acknowledges Brennik, with a cool nod. His armor glistens in the pale light: his leave from duty is over and he must return to Apophis' service this day. "You slept well?"
"I did," he says. He cannot call the man Father. For his mother, he is polite, although he knows Brennik awaits the day with pleasure when Teal'c will leave this house and not return. Teal'c cannot believe that Brennik will be any more pleased than he will be himself.
"We are going to the temple," says his mother.
"I am not--" Teal'c begins, but hesitates at the look on her face.
Brennik picks up his cloak and wraps it about himself. When the clasp is fastened, just so, he looks up at Teal'c. His lips are compressed, the edges turned down sourly. "You will do your duty and go to the temple. We will honor the young warriors."
He does not need to say the rest of it, but Teal'c hears it anyway.
His mother looks at Teal'c pleadingly, and he aquiesces, reluctantly. The cape is hard to swing around his shoulders with a withered arm. When Teal'c fumbles the clasp, his mother twitches, as if to assist him; Brennik stops her with a glance. When the cloak is at last in place Brennik strides out of the house, Tranna following him.
Teal'c follows as far as the edge of the temple square, and can go no farther. He stops at the gateway and wraps his right hand--his good hand--around the post, grinding the sharp edges of the carved stone pillar into his palm.
On the steps up to the small temple are arrayed two dozen young men of his age cohort: Rak'nor, Jelnek, Tenebar, and others from surrounding villages. They have fasted and studied, been tested and tried, over the course of the preceding fifty days. Now those who have survived--and not all did--will receive their weapons and armor. Will be inducted into the army of Apophis. By evening they may even be offworld, fighting for the glory and honor of the god.
The old man in the skull cap at the top of the stairs raises his arms and begins to declaim something to the young warriors.
Teal'c turns away. The shenkara need tending, and it is something that a cripple can do. He will not be missed.
"I will not abide this."
"You have to."
"So you have said. I am unconvinced."
"...I don't get it."
"Indeed. What do you fail to understand?"
"Of all of us, you're the--well, you're the most serene. You meditate, Teal'c. I guess I figured you'd adjust pretty easily."
"Ascension has not expanded your understanding as much as you indicated to me it had."
"You claimed that my status would be an improvement over my fate otherwise."
"Wait. You think I lied to you?"
"In the years we have known one another, have I ever indicated that I would prefer observation to action?"
"Of course not! But you wouldn't have been acting, you'd have been dead!"
"I see no meaningful distinction, if I am forbidden to do anything that would help my people. Or yours."
"Why did I bother? You're as bad as Jack."
"Indeed. And yet I listened, where you failed to convince him. In this, at least, I am not his equal."
"Teal'c, no--don't go. I'm sorry. I just--it was so hard, watching him. And he wouldn't listen, wouldn't believe me. I couldn't watch you go through that, too. Jaffa--god. You take a long time to die."
"I understand. But you must understand--if I am to be powerless, I would rather die free."
"Teal'c, you're not going to--Teal'c! They won't let you! Believe me, I tried!"
It was an argument that could not be made inside the SGC.
"I don't want to talk about it, Teal'c." O'Neill threw the steak onto the grill as if it had personally offended him. His face was closed and hard, the bruising on his cheek still inflamed where one of the Parisi's stones had struck.
Teal'c tilted his head. "I am aware of that. But you do not understand."
O'Neill flipped the cap of his beer bottle towards the screen door; it missed, and clattered back onto the deck. "What do I need to understand? We came, we saw, we got our asses kicked." With a scowl, he crouched down to scoop up the bottle cap, and then winced. "Shit." His free hand closed tightly over the railing of the deck, and pain flitted across his face.
Teal'c said nothing, but extended a hand. Dark eyes met his skeptically for a moment before O'Neill closed his hand over Teal'c's and let himself be heaved to his feet. "Don't say it," he warned.
"There is no shame in injuries earned in honest battle, O'Neill," said Teal'c. The wrenched knee had slowed their escape, and for the last three kilometers SG-1 and SG-7 had been under constant fire. Martini had died on the operating table, and Barrett would be on desk duty for the rest of her career.
O'Neill shrugged and looked away; Teal'c squeezed his hand around the other man's wrist, grinding the tendons against the bone. "Do not mistake me," Teal'c warned. "This is what we are, O'Neill. We lead, and men die."
"Yeah, ow, already. I got it." Twisting his arm free, O'Neill lifted the beer to his lips and took a long drink.
As he swallowed, Teal'c took the beer from his hand. O'Neill raised an eyebrow at the presumption. "The hell, T?" His quizzical look converted to a frown as Teal'c stepped closer, crowding him into the corner of the deck.
This was a long time building, although O'Neill appeared not to recognize the fact. Tau'ri, for all their claimed sophistication, were sometimes willfully ignorant of the most elementary aspects of life. Teal'c knew that the ways of the Jaffa were not those of the United States Air Force, but he was not blind, either. And while the American military restricted personal behavior in ways that no System Lord ever would, some needs could not be controlled by rules, regulations, or social condemnation.
Major Carter and Daniel Jackson would not be joining them: Carter was in the infirmary, recovering from having her shoulder relocated, and Daniel was attempting to translate the writing on the relic he found just before the Parisi turned on them. The pines on the edge of O'Neill's yard hid them from casual observation.
A muscle jumped in O'Neill's jaw. Teal'c put the bottle down on the porch railing and placed one hand on O'Neill's shoulder and the other on his neck. O'Neill stiffened, his brows dropping.
Teal'c bent his head, putting his nose to the side of O'Neill's neck, almost--but not quite--touching him. They had showered before leaving the mountain, but anger and stress had left their mark: O'Neill smelled sour with sweat, and smoky from the barbecue.
"Teal'c, I don't--" The rest of what O'Neill has to say disappeared with a gasp as Teal'c put his tongue on the dry and weathered skin at the edge of O'Neill's t-shirt. It tasted as he had expected: he followed the tendon slowly, licking his way up O'Neill's neck to just under his jaw, and stayed there for a moment, sucking. He kept his hands where they were, gently stroking. O'Neill's hands, which had been at his sides, had fastened themselves on Teal'c's shoulders, squeezing erratically.
Teal'c straightened and pulled his head away, cupping his hands around O'Neill's neck, letting his thumbs rest in the notch of the other man's collarbone. O'Neill's eyes were wide, his face colored with an emotion Teal'c could not read.
"We lead, and men die," repeated Teal'c.
O'Neill's face worked for several breaths, as one thought chased another. Teal'c knew what they were, followed his thinking along the tangled trail that had brought them to this moment, and knew when O'Neill came to his decision. O'Neill didn't relax, but the tension beneath Teal'c's palms eased a fraction as O'Neill shifted his weight, settling back against the porch railing.
"Yeah," he said. "That's what we do."