Major Taylor Earhardt drummed her fingers on the front flap of her unopened mission report. There was no sense in ever reading the damn things; they were basically outlines for everything that would be gone over in excruciating detail during the briefings.
To Taylor's immediate left sat Dr. Xander Bly, the linguist. He was something of a pretty boy, and Taylor had always had problems with mouthy civilians, silly names aside. But apparently the guy was one of the best diplomats anyone had ever seen, having done time with the United Nations. When he'd wanted in on the Stargate Program, they'd assigned him to the first team with an opening. Which, of course, had been Taylor's own SG-14, so now she was saddled with him.
Across from Taylor and Bly was Dr. Cameron Watanabe, the physicist, who'd had something to do with the master list of Stargate addresses they'd compiled from the Abydos cartouche. Next to Watanabe was Taylor's only ally among the nerds, Lieutenant Eric Myers. He was the sort who grated on anyone trying to lead him, owing mostly to his stark refusal to take crap from anyone. But he was a damn good shot, and a sharp military mind, and Taylor liked having him at her back. Beyond that, Eric was one of Taylor's oldest friends. They'd grown up military brats together, sharing sweaty Florida summers before Taylor had gone off and enlisted.
"Major? Would you care to weigh in?"
Taylor looked up at the sound of the base commander's voice. Major General George Hammond was staring at her expectantly, catching her completely unawares. "Um," she said unhelpfully, cursing herself for letting her mind wander for perhaps the first time in years, and looking like an idiot in the process before her first official mission for the SGC had even begun.
She flipped open the file: P3R-342. Former Goa'uld mining planet. Depleted naquadah resources. Simple recon, sweep of the area. Taylor remembered all of this from the parts of the briefing she'd actually been listening to, but she had no idea what Hammond wanted from her.
"I think we're prepared, sir," she said finally, closing the folder with a decisive slap of her hand. She wasn't altogether in love with the whole idea of a mixed team, as it were. The training sessions they'd undergone together had given Bly and Watanabe considerable weapons and hand-to-hand proficiency, Watanabe more so than Bly, but they just didn't gel with Taylor personally. Watanabe was too smug and sarcastic, and in contrast, Bly was almost obnoxiously friendly and cheerful.
Whatever Hammond's question had been, Taylor's answer seemed sufficient enough. He nodded. "You depart in an hour," he said. "Dismissed." He got to his feet, Taylor and Eric following automatically, and when the General had retired to his office, Taylor scooped up her unused file and headed towards the locker room to prepare.
"Major, wait up," Eric said. Hustling, he fell into step beside Taylor and lowered his voice. "Do you think the docs can handle it?"
She glanced surreptitiously behind them, but Bly and Watanabe hadn't followed. "I think we wouldn't be going active if they hadn't been wholly approved," she said.
"Yeah," he scoffed, "but not by you."
They stopped in front of the elevator, and Taylor used the ensuing few moments of reaching for her keycard to choose her words carefully. Before she had the chance to slide it, Eric cut her off and used his own. She glared, but he only smirked back.
Inside, Taylor didn't feel the need to be quite as restrained. It was only Eric, after all. "I don't really think they'll slow us down," she said.
"But you're not so sure you want them watching our six," he filled in.
"Let's just say I'd prefer a team with a clear understanding of the chain of command."
In the privacy of the elevator, Eric seemed to abandon the regs altogether, and let their long familiarity break through. "Well, no worries, Tay," he said, and she rolled her eyes both at the nickname she'd always hated, and the complete lack of respect that came in issuing it. "You know that no matter how unreliable or unpredictable they end up being, you've got me." With a bout of unpredictability of his own, he added, "You've always got me."
Eric's proximity set off a chain reaction of memories for Taylor. There was the first time they'd met, when he'd graced her with that irresistible grin. The first time he'd shot his mouth off, approximately five minutes after they'd first met. Sitting on the dock of his grandparents' lake the summer after Eric's father died, getting drunk on a bottle snatched from the wine cellar, and passionately declaring they'd never ruin their lives for the damn army. Making out in Eric's clunker of a vehicle, slippery hands grabbing at the gearshift for balance. Screaming at each other in the middle of Eric's empty house the day she'd told him she was joining the Air Force.
"Sure," she snorted, flicking her eyes over to the rhythmic decrease of the red floor numbers as the elevator ascended. Refusing to meet his gaze was such a cowardly cop-out, but she needed the well of inner strength provided by the action to say, "You've never listened to or approved of anything I've ever said."
"That's unfair," he said, knowing instantly which example she was dwelling on, but she barely heard his muttered answer. The Eric Myers in her head was spitting insults at her like machine gun fire, unaware of the irony. In her looping memory, he was calling her a drone, and she was giving him a black eye.
Taylor glanced up and looked at the patch of skin around his dark eyes that had long since healed over the years. Time stood still for a moment, urging her to sift through the memories, the bitter or the sweet, but then the elevator doors opened and Eric suddenly seemed to be standing a mile away. "Let's go suit up, Major," he said, his voice calm and smooth for the airmen boarding the cab, as if the not-fight had never happened.
She tried to tell herself that the squalls threatening to blossom into a tempest in her stomach were just the result of first-mission nerves. "Yes," she said, her voice surprisingly firm despite intestinal turmoil, and she got ahold of herself, raising her voice to toss after him, "I'd forgotten you were in charge, Lieutenant." She only heard his snort as an answer.
In the embarkation room, Bly was systematically patting down all of the pockets on his tac vest. "Do you need an extra half hour or so?" Taylor found herself snapping.
"Do you have to run to the bathroom?" Watanabe threw in, and while his tone was decidedly patronizing, Bly laughed. Taylor closed her eyes and counted to ten.
"You have a go, Major Earhardt," Hammond said.
Taylor tugged her hat lower down her forehead and nodded at Eric. The four of them tromped up the ramp, and Taylor pushed through the event horizon.
She hadn't realized her eyes were closed for her first jaunt through the Stargate until she opened them on the other side. Gone were the stark concrete walls of the SGC, instead, Taylor was at the top of a short staircase made of stone, surrounded by a series of thick-leaved trees. Taylor and Bly scanned the area for signs of anything unusual while Watanabe dealt with the MALP and Eric took point. The wormhole snapped shut behind them.
Their mission was to sweep the area for naquadah. Traces of the powerful material in the soil suggested there might be deposits nearby. There was reason to believe this was a former Goa'uld mining site, long since abandoned, for reasons unknown. If there was anything useful left, they were supposed to grab it.
The files were right—the planet didn't look like the Goa'uld had been here in awhile. Or anyone else for that matter. The forest was overgrown with moss covering the base of the Stargate. Watanabe said they were on the lookout for some sort of cave entrance, so they strolled along, occasionally checking the readouts on Watanabe's scanner-thing.
In the beginning, Bly had been almost-humming with geeky glee, but he had eventually stopped, falling to the back of the group. Taylor shrugged herself out of a dull haze and turned to walk backwards so she could check on him. "You all right there, Doctor?" she inquired, more politeness than anything else.
"I don't think I have the stamina the rest of you seem to," he said with an apologetic smile. "Do you mind if we rest for a minute?"
Taylor glanced at Watanabe for confirmation. He shrugged, indicating they'd be as likely to find the naquadah mines sitting still as they would be walking anywhere. Comforting. "All right, let's take five." A brief flash of pain furrowed Bly's brow and she added generously, "Fifteen."
Bly unhesitatingly collapsed on top of a rock, and Taylor chose one as far away as she could justify. Eric sat next to her, and though a part of her appreciated his company, she was bristling still from the elevator incident. After five minutes, restlessness kicked in, and she started systematically grounding her heel into the dirt. The planet was such a backwater pit of nothing that none of them had even considered covering their tracks. It didn't matter anyway because the only evidence anyone would get from her crescent moon mark, neat and deep, was that she was insanely bored.
"This sucks," she muttered.
"They can't all be firefights and glory," Eric said.
Taylor thought of SG-1, who nine times out of ten came back from missions scuffed all to hell or under the influence of some alien device. They were the subject of whispers around the base, rumors flying back and forth about who was sleeping with whom, bets being placed about which alien race they'd piss off that week. Despite all that or maybe because of it, they had a distinct air of cool that Taylor loved. She didn't think she wanted the notoriety, but the respect that came from a legacy was nice.
She was about to open her mouth and vehemently declare what a load of crap this mission was turning out to be when Eric said sotto voce, "I'm sorry about the elevator. I was pushing it."
Two years, she thought, two years where she spent every workout punching at bags and officers and empty air until she ran out of energy, always imagining his face. Two years when calls home to her mother earned her not-so-subtle reports on Eric's whereabouts.
Two years and three months of replaying every hurtful thing he'd snarled at her. Then she'd arrived in their hometown airport to find him on leave after basic with a harsh haircut and a stern expression. When he saw her, he'd melted into that same smile that had broken her heart over and over again as if those two years just hadn't existed, as if they were just picking up where they'd left off, the only difference being their respective enlistments.
"You can't say things like that to me anymore," she said, shifting so the solitary jagged line in the rock wasn't cutting into the underside of her thigh.
"Right, the regs."
"Among other things. In case you hadn't noticed, neither of us are the same people who can get away with that sort of stuff anymore. I barely even know you these days." She knew Eric the soldier, Eric with impressively high marks on the shooting range, Eric with the narrow gaze and perfect salute.
"Then get to know me again," he said. "We can still be friends, you know."
"We should probably get going," Watanabe said, appearing at their side and casting a shadow over Taylor's knees. "We have a lot of ground to cover."
Taylor got to her feet and smudged her boot over the indentation her heel had made in the dirt out of habit. "You heard the man," she said.
"We're not going to talk about this, are we?" Eric said.
"Not now, no. I need time, Eric. You hurt me." She was watching Watanabe haul Bly to his feet.
"We've had lots of time," he argued.
"No. We're operating on different calendars. You're starting from when I left. I'm starting from when you left, when you became the hypocrite you always accused me of being."
"Major," she corrected. Watanabe and Bly were on top of them. "Let's get going."
The rhythm of the walk, of Bly's measured but heavy breathing, of the beeps of Watanabe's machine and his occasional muttered comments regarding it, helped soothe Taylor's temper and lull her back into the dulled state of complacence she'd found earlier.
Bly on the other hand didn't seem satisfied with contemplative silence and less so with the lack of progress. He blurted out, "Wanna play the license plate game?"
"Yes, let's read the plates of the many, many cars zooming past us," said Watanabe.
"How about I Spy?" Taylor glanced over at Eric, who had the same horrifically pained look she knew was distorting her own face. Taylor decided to be amused by Eric rather than feel a fresh wave of hate for him, the bleak comedy of the situation a better reaction. Otherwise, he'd be dead by the time they got back to the Stargate.
Undeterred by their silence, Bly said, "I spy with my little eye something... green."
"Grass," said Watanabe.
"Trees," Eric called over his shoulder.
"Traitor," hissed Taylor, and Eric smothered his laughter in his sleeve.
"No," said Bly with cheer.
"The SG uniforms," said Watanabe.
"Are you sure it's not trees?" said Eric.
"'Cause there are a lot of trees."
Despite herself, Taylor stifled a giggle. Eric grinned at her. Feeling her authority slip, she reminded herself that she didn't want her first mission report to read: "Found no evidence of naquadah but played many rousing games of 'I Spy.'" She fell back into the role of leader with ease. "May I remind you we have a job to do?" she snapped.
"Uh," said Watanabe. "I actually do spy some green. A lot of green." He held up his scanner, which was registering a green mass about five clicks northeast of them.
"Well, you win, but it wasn't that big before," said Bly.
"What is that?" Taylor demanded.
"Naquadah. I think we've found the mine."
"Well, that's good," Bly said unnecessarily.
"Let's check it out, guys," Taylor said. "Be careful and," she glared at Bly, "be quiet."
As they headed off, she heard Bly mutter behind her, "Why was she looking at me?"
Jaffa. Taylor and her team had heard scattered conversation several yards back and had ducked down low, spreading themselves flat over an outcropping. Down the hill from them was a small crater-shaped valley surrounded by rocky walls.
There was a whole mess of Jaffa, spilling in and out of the bleak earthy tents they'd erected; Taylor lost count at around fifteen. They were all wielding staff weapons and some of them were wearing full armor. Many of them were planted outside of a cave and, as Taylor figured, the entrance to the mines.
"I think it's safe to say this planet isn't completely deserted," said Eric.
"Stellar observation," Watanabe said, irritation thick in his tone.
"Okay, I get why the MALP might not have picked this up," Eric continued. Despite his almost casual tone, his face was taut and businesslike. "But why didn't we send a UAV for a full scan?"
"We were working on Tok'ra intelligence," Bly said. "This address was on a list of abandoned Tok'ra base planets."
"Abandoned for a reason, obviously," Taylor snarled, refusing to hide her distaste for their source. She hadn't had any first-hand contact with the Tok'ra, but she knew that Colonel O'Neill didn't like them one bit, seeing as how what little information they shared with Stargate Command was usually after the fact. And, as it turned out, was occasionally faulty.
There were guards posted for reasons unknown in a small clearing away from the rest of the makeshift camp. Their rank was obvious from their stiff posture, unflinching stares, and odd formation although what they were guarding was less clear. Taylor pointed them out with her gun muzzle.
"Rings?" suggested Watanabe.
"To where?" said Eric.
"A ship in orbit, maybe?" said Bly.
"I think we would've seen one."
"Maybe it's cloaked."
Taylor glanced at Watanabe. "Can they do that?"
"Small ships, cargo ships or transports. Not a mothership."
Taylor nodded resolutely, checking the tree line for any Jaffa she might have missed. "Best news I've heard all day." She slapped her palm against the dirt, firmly but soundlessly. "All right, let's move out."
"Major?" said Watanabe.
Taylor stared him down. "We came here for naquadah. That mission has been scrapped."
"We're outnumbered," Eric said, breaking the idea down to its bare bones. "And I'm not about to fight a bunch of Jaffa for control of that dinky cave."
Too aggravated to even maintain the pretense of nice, Taylor added, "Not to mention we're almost overdue for our check-in, and nowhere near the Stargate."
"We can't just leave though," Bly said, and she wasn't surprised at all that he and Watanabe were joining forces against her. "They're obviously here for a reason. We should find out what."
"Color me patently disinterested, Doctor," she said, trying to ignore the slight niggling notion that intel would be a very good thing to collect in place of very useful and needed naquadah resources.
"Well, if they're still using the mines, then we know that some naquadah is still around. We should at least find out who they're working for, see if it's worth the effort of attempting to take the mine."
"All right," she sighed finally. "Let's head back, dial up, and ask General Hammond what he wants us to do."
Nearly silently, they left their post and headed back to the relative safety of the trees, the occasional blusters of equipment against dried leaves not alerting anyone to their presence.
When they'd reached a decent distance, well out of Jaffa earshot, Bly posed the question, "How come there weren't any Jaffa at the Stargate?"
Taylor and her teammates exchanged something of a group look. "Well, if we're right and they came in by ship, they wouldn't need it," Watanabe suggested.
"Maybe they're trying to stay off radar," Eric said. "They're cloaking their ship. Posting a guard at the 'gate is sort of indicative to any visitors that foul play is afoot elsewhere on the planet."
"Then whoever the Jaffa are working for isn't one of the heavy hitters," Taylor said. "A System Lord wouldn't bother with covert ops, they'd have the numbers to cover their asses."
Then Taylor heard the crack of a snapping twig to her left. She held up her fist and her team all smoothly came to a dead halt. She didn't even have the chance to be surprised or impressed because in the resulting half-second, the crack of heavy boots on defenseless sticks suddenly became a lot more prominent. In an instant, they found themselves surrounded by Jaffa.
There were eight total, two for each of the members of SG-14, dwarfing them in size and holding staff weapons in the active position. "You are not of this world," the biggest, and presumably the leader, said. Taylor didn't know how to answer and apparently neither did anyone else. The head Jaffa turned to the warrior at his side and said, "Kree, shal'kra allorak." The other Jaffa went back into the woods.
"What did he say?" muttered Taylor to her team at large, keeping her gaze squarely on the Jaffa's face although he was regarding her with disinterest.
"Um, I believe he said 'get allorak,'" said Bly.
"What's allorak?" Taylor said.
"I don't know."
"Some kind of weapon?"
"I don't know!"
"Silence!" roared the head Jaffa. He gestured at the other Jaffa and Taylor found herself being forced to her knees. One of the Jaffa started to wrest Eric's P-90 away from him, but he didn't take kindly to that, struggling against the heavier figure.
"Myers, let him," Taylor said. It was only the first time they'd attempted to render the team helpless. Up until two seconds ago, the Jaffa hadn't made any efforts to do anything. Taylor still clung to the slight hope that maybe whatever Goa'uld they served was so far gone from the System Lords, they didn't even know anything about the Earth humans. Or hell, maybe it was even a damn Tok'ra undercover.
"Do not engage," Taylor instructed, making a snap decision. "That's an order." Much as she would've liked to shoot her way out, they were surrounded, outnumbered, and could be taken out in as little as a few staff blasts. Even if by some miracle they managed to get out of this one, there was still an enormous slew of Jaffa one horn blow away.
"Tau'ri," the Jaffa observed, dashing Taylor's hopes. So he wasn't serving a clueless Goa'uld after all. Then again, she'd been naïve to think it in the first place. In the years the Stargate Program had been in operation, Earth had certainly made it a point of pissing off the universe at large. She still kept the Tok'ra option open, however.
"Jaffa," Eric said, distaste curdling his voice. Taylor didn't even have the heart to yell at him because he'd in essence stolen the words right from her.
The Jaffa suddenly took a keen interest in Eric and studied him from head to toe. Neither of them even moved when the messenger Jaffa returned with another in tow. This must've been Allorak, judging by the way the big Jaffa stepped aside to let him through. As it turned out, Allorak was a First Prime, the second-in-command to a Goa'uld. He had gold engravings on his forehead declaring his allegiance like Teal'c, but unlike Teal'c, the symbol wasn't a serpent. It was completely unrecognizable to Taylor and didn't match anything she'd read in mission reports about Goa'uld and their Jaffa. They had no idea who they were dealing with.
"Tau'ri," said Allorak.
"Yeah," muttered Taylor, unable to restrain herself, "we got that part already."
The Jaffa fired off something in Goa'uld, and Taylor couldn't distinguish where words ended and began. "What the hell is going on?" she demanded of Bly. This was, after all, why he was on the team in the first place.
"Uh, may I remind you that my area of expertise is in written Goa'uld, not spoken?" he defended himself. "But I think they said something about refraining from killing us."
"Music to my ears," said Eric.
"I'm not looking forward to getting tortured," Taylor said. "Mind passing that message along?"
"Uh," said Bly.
"Do it, Bly."
"Right. Kree," Bly began, then said something in Goa'uld, a series of hard consonants that sounded odd and unnatural when spilling out in his Australian accent, the slow, even measure of his words compensating for his lack of mastery of the language.
Allorak frowned at them
"What did you say?" asked Watanabe.
"I said that torture wasn't necessary since we weren't going to tell them anything."
"There's nothing to tell."
"I mentioned that, too."
"Screw this," Eric said, moved from his position on the ground, whipped his zat'nik'tel from the holster, and shot the Jaffa nearest him twice. The Jaffa fell back, meeting the dirt with a dull thump, dead before he hit it.
"Myers!" Taylor yelled, but it was too late. The Jaffa were already returning fire and things had officially gone to hell. "Get to the 'gate," she commanded her team, and when that didn't seem to happen instantaneously, her panicked subconscious compelled her to add, "Go, go, go!" She zatted the Jaffa next to Bly, shooting only to stun, and cleared a path for her teammate's escape.
It seemed prompt enough, and soon even the civilians were exercising their field training and firing at the Jaffa. She wasn't exactly paying attention, too busy sinking a punch in the jowly chin of a Jaffa, but she was reasonably sure she heard only single blasts, not double ones. They were stunning, not killing.
Bly and Watanabe were clear and heading deeper into the trees. "Get moving!" she yelled at them. "We're right behind you! Myers!" She took off at a run, laying some cover fire with her P-90.
"Taylor!" she heard Eric cry out, and somewhere in the back of her mind, a place completely disconnected from the action around her, she wondered why he was being so informal with her. "Tay, get down!" Taylor dropped to the ground instantly, barely missing the misfire of a staff weapon as the energy burst careened off course. The Jaffa firing it was jerking at unpleasant angles, taking a slew of bullets to the back.
"Myers!" she tried; it was an attempt to chastise him, to thank him, to warn him, but it was too late. Another Jaffa had come to the rescue of the first, and Eric received the jolt from a zat'nik'tel for his trouble, collapsing unconscious on the cold and unforgiving armor of the Jaffa he'd killed.
"Get up, get up," she heard Bly hiss as his hands curled around her arm and hoisted her to her feet. "We've gotta go!"
"We can't leave Myers," she said. There wasn't a chance in hell she'd leave him behind.
Then Taylor heard the cock of a staff weapon about to fire, and Bly tugged her out of the way to the safety of the tree line. Watanabe stumbled to meet them, laying cover fire.
"They will bring more! Take the Tau'ri!"
Taylor took advantage of the barked order and managed to zat another Jaffa. But when the smoke finally cleared from the bullet hail and the scorch marks left on trees by staff weapons, Eric was nowhere to be seen. There was just a pile of Jaffa, dead or unconscious, and Eric was missing.
"We have to go," Watanabe said firmly. "We're sitting ducks if we stay. They could have sent a team to the 'gate already. We have to cut our losses now."
She shook her head. "Not without Eric." She didn't even care she was calling him that in front of the civilians.
"We'll figure out what to do, Major, I promise. But we're not going to be any help if we get taken too. We have to get out of here."
Taylor took a deep breath, grabbed her gun, and made her escape with what remained of her team.
Taylor and the doctors finally tired of fleeing about the same time they realized no one was chasing them. Maybe she'd overestimated the availability and the numbers of a second team of Jaffa. Whatever the case, they were gone and they had taken Eric with them.
"Dial the 'gate," Watanabe told Bly when they came to a familiar clearing and the DHD came into view. Watanabe fumbled for his GDO. "We'll get General Hammond to send reinforcements."
Bly trotted over to the dialing device. Taylor said sharply, "No."
"What?" said Watanabe.
"No. They're counting on that. They're preparing for that. They might have had the numbers to take us on, but we surprised them. They know we're from Earth, which means they probably know there's a good chance we'll come back with better numbers. They're not going to make the same mistake twice. By the time we get any sort of search and rescue assembled, they'll be long gone. We have to go back now."
"That's suicide," Bly said. The first symbol of the Earth address was lit up, the first chevron on the Stargate locked and glowing.
"Probably," she allowed, then added with conviction, "that's why they won't see it coming. This may be the only advantage we'll have. We have to take it."
Bly and Watanabe spluttered protest, but Taylor ignored it and was already in the process of assessing her remaining supplies. "I'll order you if I have to," she said finally.
"There's something else Allorak said," Bly said, neither an agreement nor a refusal. "A name. I didn't realize it at first, I thought it was just a word. But since I've had a chance to think about it..."
"Spit it out," Taylor encouraged.
"Shu," Bly said.
"Shoes?" said Watanabe.
Bly rolled his eyes, apparently having finally joined Taylor's side in the idea that Watanabe's side comments were largely unhelpful. "S-H-U, Shu." He frowned in consternation as he wracked his brain for the information. "Shu was the Egyptian air god, one of Ra's followers."
"Most likely. And if he was allied with Ra, then there's a reasonably good chance he's not aligned with Apophis."
It was good to hear, but— "It doesn't tell us much."
"Not really, no. Oh, and according to the legends, Shu had a tendency to torture." Taylor and Watanabe both graced him with an accusing glare for withheld information and Bly shrugged helplessly.
Watanabe sighed. "Are there no gods of happy puppies?"
"Not today, there aren't," said Taylor. "Are we ready?"
Bly and Watanabe shared a glance. "Just so we're clear, this is a very bad idea," Watanabe said.
"Yes," said Taylor. "But I'm doing it anyway."
"Well," said Bly, "it needed to be said." He shrugged. "I like Lieutenant Myers. I don't want the Goa'uld to get hold of him. I'm in."
"I like him too," Watanabe admitted, making Taylor wonder when the three men had gotten close enough to warrant affection. Training sessions had always been brutal, though brutality had a tendency to make people bond. She couldn't fault Eric for making friends.
"Thank you," she breathed, hoping in that moment they could see how important this was without her having to spell it out. This wasn't about Stargate Command anymore.
"Major, if we're going to trust you to do this, then you have to trust us," Watanabe said. "Can you do that?"
"Without sniping?" added Bly.
"I'm not asking her to perform a miracle, Xander," Watanabe said, and despite the circumstances, Taylor laughed.
"I'll do my best," she said.
Watanabe's face quirked in a grim smile. "All right. Let's go get the Lieutenant back."
They were met with zero resistance on the way back to the mining site. Taylor wasn't sure whether or not this was a good sign. It could have meant the ship or whatever had already packed up and left. When they returned to the site of the original battle, only the dead Jaffa remained.
Most of the valley had been cleared out, the only Jaffa present were two guarding the cave entrance and two guarding what they had assumed to be a set of rings. Taylor did a quick task assignment, she and Bly were to take the ring guards, Watanabe was to circle around back and dispose of the Jaffa at the cave. They broke up silently. While Watanabe had cover and a back way in, the only way to get to the rings was to descend directly into the valley. Taylor and Bly charged, expending as little ammo as possible to conserve it and save from drawing attention to themselves.
The gunshots certainly caught the ears of the Jaffa at the cave, but it didn't make much difference because Watanabe was already coming up behind and zatting. He did a quick sweep of the first chamber of the cave then rushed over to the rings. "We're clear," he reported. Bly took the activation device and the three stood back to back, armed but not necessarily ready for whatever waited them on the other side. More likely than not, the set of rings was going to take them to a ship. They were more or less banking on it.
There were five Jaffa in the ring room. None of SG-14 had ever been inside of a Goa'uld ship before, so they couldn't judge if it was a cargo ship or not. They operated on instinct, moving as quietly as possible through the corridors, knowing that someone would figure out their ruse before long and realize the Jaffa numbers had decreased.
Taylor followed sounds, flattening herself to the wall. The ship was in orbit, but didn't seem to be going anywhere for the time being. Whatever Shu had planned, he wasn't entirely finished executing.
Then in the next room, she heard a scuffle and a muffled scream; her organs seized for a tense moment that couldn't possibly compare to the pain in the screamer's voice. "Lieutenant Myers," Watanabe mouthed. Taylor nodded.
She pressed herself against one wall of the entrance, Watanabe and Bly doubling up on the other. They had their guns at the ready, but Taylor wasn't about to shoot if it would risk Myers. They crouched, waiting for God knew what.
A Jaffa, Allorak, stepped to the side, freeing Taylor's line of sight for the Goa'uld languishing in his throne. He was getting on in years, something Taylor hadn't thought was possible. Didn't they have sarcophagi to preserve their youth and beauty? It was one of the main tenets in their self-appointed godhood. But this one was old, his beard long and graying as he lounged in a throne too big for him. He reminded Taylor of her grandfather in a twisted and disturbing way. They were both shriveled, the skin remaining the same size as the bones shrank within. The Goa'uld was nothing like her grandfather though; her grandfather had aged gracefully with jokes about his bulldog-like facial wrinkles while Shu wore an elaborate gold dress, with a sweeping skirt to hide his withered gut and flabby arms. Taylor hated him on sight. He commanded two Jaffa with a lackadaisical flick of his fingers, and they brought a struggling Eric in front of the throne, holding his biceps in firm grips between the two of them. They forced him to his knees and he looked pissed.
Taylor's finger curled around her trigger, taking careful aim.
"Don't," Watanabe said. "The Goa'uld have personal shields."
She'd read the same damn file on an average Goa'uld's bag of tricks so she rolled her eyes. "This guy's a senile old freak with a bunch of Jaffa who are too loopy with worship to realize they're worshiping some second-stringer. The only one on this ship he considers a threat is Eric, but it's not like he's exactly in a position to cause damage. We are."
"Even so," Bly contributed, his eyes worried but his face firm with resolve, "we can't risk Lieutenant Myers."
"We can take out those Jaffa, piece of cake," she said confidently.
"Sure," said Watanabe, "until they activate an alarm, block off the ring room, and completely overrun us with an injured man, no ammo, and no exit route."
"Then we go to Plan B."
"We don't have a Plan B. We're not even working on a Plan A."
"We've got C-4. We blow the ship before it takes off."
"With all due respect, I'm opting for Plan C," said Watanabe. "We take advantage of our position as long as we can and find out what the hell is going on before we start blowing everything up."
"I thought that was Plan A," said Bly.
Taylor gritted her teeth. She had a feeling the folks back at the SGC would prefer her to eliminate a Goa'uld. Maybe even at the expense of one of their own. She sort of figured Eric would feel the same way, but frankly at the moment, she wanted nothing more than to shoot the Goa'uld, grab Myers, and run. In an ideal world, that would have been her plan. Then again, in an ideal world, they'd still be wandering aimlessly around the forests of this planet, looking for naquadah mines and making jokes about I Spy.
Taylor kept her gun steady but reluctantly released the trigger. She'd wait.
The Goa'uld spoke, his voice erupting and booming despite his years, instantly taking control of the room. "This dress," he observed, staring Eric down with considerable disdain. "It is that of the Tau'ri."
"Nice catch," snarled Eric.
"Oh, sure, antagonize the creepy freak," Watanabe muttered.
Although she didn't disagree, Taylor stared him sharply into silence. Eric's arrogant backtalk had always been something of a problem in the past, something that had infuriated Taylor as a kid and had made Hammond take her aside to warn her about keeping him under control. As if she could. He'd been that way as long as he'd known her. But the Goa'uld were rash, passionate, and unpredictable with utterly no moral center. Pissing them off was not in Eric's best interest. Then again, commentating on the matter wasn't in Watanabe's best interest at the moment either.
"There were other Tau'ri, my lord," the First Prime reported. He held himself stiffly and reverently in the face of his god. "They have since escaped through the Chaapa'ai. They have killed two Jaffa, and wounded many others."
"It'll be more than two next time," Taylor swore.
"It's more than two now," Bly reminded her. The Jaffa in the valley and the ones in the ring room.
"This one put up an impressive struggle," Allorak the First Prime said, kicking Eric's shin, "but to no avail."
"I see that," said the Goa'uld. He turned his cool gaze on Eric and allowed his eyes to flash white for dramatic effect. "Your fellow Tau'ri have abandoned you," he said with more than a little smugness.
"On a cold day in hell, maybe," said Eric. "More likely, they've just gone back to get more men to come here and kick your sorry ass."
"I have you at my mercy yet still you talk back?" To Taylor's surprise, a smile scarred the landscape of Shu's face. "You have a fire within you."
"What a coincidence," said Eric with a cruel smirk. "You're full of hot air."
"Kree!" bellowed the Goa'uld, no longer amused. Eric had officially gotten his goat. "You will bow down before your lord Shu."
"I don't think so," Eric answered.
"My lord," Allorak spoke up almost tentatively, "if I may. You have been seeking a new host as this one fails you."
Eric seemed to grasp the concept faster than anyone else on Taylor's team, because his struggle against his captors was immediate albeit decidedly futile.
"Yes," sighed Shu, his entire body sagging in compliance. "It is not long before I will pass the point of being able to abandon this host. You raise an interesting point, Allorak. This human is strong and spirited. He will make an excellent host."
"Host?" whispered Bly. Taylor did not like the sound of it at all.
But the sound she liked hearing less was the crackle of a radio to her immediate right and Hammond's distance-scratchy bark of, "SG-14, this is General Hammond. You're overdue for check-in. Please respond."
The Goa'uld glared accusingly at the door and Taylor drew as far back into the shadows as she could manage. "They are onboard," Shu said. "Find them." Two Jaffa broke off from the pack and headed towards the team's hiding place.
"SG-14—" the general tried again before there was a subtle click of the radio being turned off.
"You didn't shut off your radio?" Taylor demanded, keeping her voice low although there was no longer any point. They were about to be found and there was nothing they could do about it.
Bly shrugged, guilty and scared.
The Jaffa burst out of the room. Taylor fired her zat'nik'tel square at his chest, relying on something of a domino effect for him to careen backwards into the second Jaffa.
"Jaffa, kree!" said Allorak.
"Myers!" Taylor called out, getting to her feet and attempting to see past the guards.
"Taylor!" There was a huffing sound, a Jaffa at the business end of one of Eric's limbs. Then there was a clattering sound, and something struck Taylor's shoe. She grabbed at it without much thought, a stupid move, but it was only a GDO thankfully.
It was a GDO. She felt a sick twist pulling at her insides.
"Taylor, get your ass outta here!"
"Eric!" The rest of her statement got lost in the rush of Jaffa storming the corridor and Watanabe saying, "The ring room, everyone get to the ring room!"
"There's no time!"
"Tay, get—ahh!" Eric's last attempt got cut off with an agonizing scream, the sort that made Taylor want to close her eyes and curl into a ball. She felt her legs turning and heading back, completely disconnected from her mind altogether, and then she felt Bly once again step in to drag her out of the line of fire.
It was a nightmare, an utter nightmare. It was a training scenario gone horribly wrong, and any minute now, Colonel O'Neill would pop out of the woodwork, make some sarcastic quip, and send them off to the showers, properly shamed.
But he didn't, of course, because this wasn't an exercise; this was real and they were really screwed and screwing up.
Taylor attempted to pull herself together, relying on the methodical nature of firing a round from her P-90 at some Jaffa blocking her path. Eric's scream could only mean one of two things: one, he was a Goa'uld, or two, he was dead.
Either meant they couldn't go back for him.
"Major, I need some cover," Watanabe muttered in her ear, and she obliged, stepping in front of him to buy him time for whatever master plan he was conceiving. She had, after all, promised to trust this team. Bly had gone out of his way to keep her from getting killed, and Watanabe clearly had something up his sleeve to save their asses.
"I've got one mag left," she told Watanabe.
"I'm set," he answered breathlessly. "Go, go!"
Bly had already moved down the corridor and waved them on, indicating they had clear passage. Taylor and Watanabe scrambled around bodies to join him and they broke into a run for the ring room. Bly was still carrying the activation device. Taylor felt the rush of air as the rings lifted up around them, scooped them into nothing, then deposited them back on the ground.
The valley seemed clear of any direct threats, but SG-14 kept their eyes open as they retreated into the surrounding forest. The ground was littered with spent bullet casings from their end of the battle, still-smoking fragments of leaves and bark from the Jaffa end.
"What happened back there?" asked Bly, breaking the rhythm of their steady retreat. It was a moment before Taylor realized he wasn't asking Watanabe about his attack plans, he was asking her about Eric.
"I heard him scream," she confessed. "I'm not sure why."
"Did Lieutenant Myers get implanted?"
"I don't know. He gave me his GDO."
"Oh," said Bly soberly, and Watanabe looked down. Giving up the GDO meant he wouldn't be able to enter the access code to get past Stargate Command's iris. It meant he didn't think he was getting out of this alive.
"We should get out of here."
"Sooner than you'd think," Watanabe said. "I planted some C-4."
"I thought you nixed that plan," Taylor said.
"Circumstances changed." She felt his fingers at her elbow. "I'm sorry."
Taylor shook her head. "Now's not the time." They didn't know if Shu would send more Jaffa down to make sure the team didn't make it to the 'gate. Or maybe he already had and they were walking into an ambush.
There was a rustle ahead of them and Taylor's self-preservation instincts screamed out. She gestured at her teammates, intending to take defensive positions, but just as she was moving behind a tree for cover, she found herself staring into a gun muzzle.
"Major!" Bly called out, and after a half-second hesitation, the assailant lowered his weapon. Taylor exhaled sharply, with something vaguely resembling relief when she realized whom Bly had been addressing.
"Major Earhardt," the leader of SG-2 answered in a gruff voice befitting the nature of his name. "Dare I ask what the hell happened out there?"
"The Tok'ra need to start checking their facts," she bit out. "This world wasn't abandoned, we found a bunch of Jaffa guarding the naquadah mine. There's a Goa'uld cargo ship cloaked in orbit."
"Uh," said Watanabe, "that reminds me." He lifted up a detonator for her inspection. "Major?"
She stared at the device, deceptively small and unassuming, and knowing what Watanabe was asking.
"Where's Lieutenant Myers?" Griff said.
"Dead," she said. "He got taken, we attempted a rescue."
"You should have called in for backup."
"There was no time." Taylor's glare never wavered from Griff's leathery face, but her next words were directed at Watanabe, "Blow it, Doc."
There was the slight click of the depressing button, then the sky overhead exploded with a thundering boom. The tree canopy provided cover enough against any debris that might have made contact, but they could still see the fireball flaring the sky.
Taylor swallowed and closed her eyes. He'd told her to go, she reminded herself. Acceptable losses and all that. Except it wasn't acceptable; it was Eric.
She was doing it to save him. No one would want to live as a prisoner in their own body, which is what life as a Goa'uld would be. More than that, he knew too much about Stargate Command, information that would be instantly accessible to Shu if Eric was taken as host.
"How can you enslave an entire galaxy like that?" Eric had muttered after one of their first introductory briefings. "Some snake in your head. You're not even allowed the dignity of dying. Who'd wanna end up that way?"
He wouldn't want it either. It was maybe egotistical to even make that assumption for him, but Taylor knew she couldn't let this happen to him. She couldn't let him down.
Griff looked back and forth between the somber members of SG-14 and made his own assessment. "Shit."
"We should get back to the Stargate," Bly said finally, once Casey had finished dressing the cut on his arm. Taylor didn't even remember when he'd gotten it. He hadn't said a word. For some reason, she'd expected him to whine and complain and overreact.
Taylor turned and hiked south wordlessly, following Major Griff's lead, letting SG-2 take over. Bly was unusually stoic. Watanabe looked like he was going to be ill.
The frustrated silence that had descended on the teams was broken, however, when they reached the edge of the clearing and heard the familiar whirr of someone dialing the 'gate. "Uh?" said Watanabe, counting the seven SGC personnel.
Griff was already hoisting his weapon. "Hammond only sent one extraction team," he said. Taylor wearily crouched into position behind him.
It was Eric, looking none the worse for wear and as though he hadn't been zatted, beaten, and on board an exploding cargo ship. Taylor's mouth was open before she could think about it, before she could realize it was the same sort of idiot mistake she would have berated her teammates about before. "Eric!"
The wormhole roared to life, the unstable vortex shooting out and flashing blue on landscape for a moment. Eric turned, Taylor's stomach bottomed out and she watched his grin spread slowly, like an oil spill. It was the same grin that had so plagued Taylor's youth but, at the same time, far different.
"Taylor Earhardt," he pronounced, using Eric's lips to bring painstaking attention to each syllable. But it wasn't Eric's voice, it was the same inhuman one of the emaciated host, one that trembled with power. Power that he now probably possessed in spades since he'd abducted Eric's youthful, strong body. "This body knows you well." She tried not to shudder. She saw Griff looking through the scope of his MP-5.
"Don't shoot!" Taylor cried. It wasn't rationality or logic prompting this plea.
Shu recognized this and seemed to find it amusing. "It was noble of you to come back, Major," he declared pompously. "Noble but foolish. You will not get so lucky again."
The lord Shu, god of air, follower of Ra, straightened Eric's body to attention and brought his arm up to his head in a crisp, textbook salute. The only thing tarring the illusion was the mocking grin. Taylor had seen Eric's victory expression before when he beat her in a footrace or kicked her ass on the shooting range. It was the same muscles being used, the exact same height and width and curvature of the lips, but under Shu's control, there was nothing familiar about it at all. Paired with the flashing white eyes of the controlling symbiote, it was downright sinister.
Taylor had lost. She had failed, and now her entire planet was probably going to pay for her poor leadership and rash decisions. His point made, Shu turned and ran through the Stargate. Seconds later, the wormhole closed with disturbing finality.
The members of SG-2 were the first to recover. "Dial up Earth," Griff ordered, his voice traveling great distances to push past the cotton in Taylor's ears. "We'll have to change SG-14's IDCs. This is gonna be one hell of a report to file."
The others moved forward, all playing their parts with rehearsed grace. Only Taylor remained, dwarfed in the shadow of two trees, rooted in place. She wasn't going to pretend she had seen anything in Eric's departure that wasn't there. Shu, whoever the hell he was, was completely in control. He had a vendetta against them now, and worse, he had the knowledge to destroy them. No matter what happened back at the SGC, there was only one conclusion to be drawn.
They were so screwed.