Those times, he reminded himself he could have had Ba'al sitting in his head instead of offering a bounty on it, laid down some cover lies or fire, and hoped being crazy would continue being lucky until they made it back to the chappa'ai or their ship in one piece.
Their latest plan probably pushed that luck farther than it would hold though, explaining why the rest of their crew had abandoned them.
They had six days left. He could feel the sand trickle of each irreplaceable moment disappearing as they waited at their metaphorical waterhole. The Tanafriti was gone, along with any other options beyond this plan. If it failed, they would have to cannibalize the cargo ship drifting at their bow and limp the al'kesh they were on to the nearest world with a chappa'ai, hundreds of lightyears away.
And Mer would die.
Vala sat at the pel'tak comm station and transmitted an artfully broken up distress call, her voice strained yet collected.
"Help… request assistance… have failed… we have lost power," Vala recorded, using the Jaffa variant of Goa'uld common through most of the galaxy, leaving out any pesky details and making them sound like easy pickings. "Repeat, stranded and in need of assistance, this is the al'kesh Bright Glory of… "
She recorded it and set it on repeat, programming the transmission to run through several long-range comm frequencies with fluctuating power levels.
"There," she said. "Now we wait."
Jehan stared at her. He hated waiting almost as much as she did.
They were both good at it though, thanks to the Goa'uld.
Sometimes he recited his whole name now, his name, to remind himself of who he was and who he wasn't. He wasn't, in any way he wanted to acknowledge, Jolinar of Malkshur, for instance.
Not any longer, no matter how many of the Tok'ra's memories remained.
He was Meredith Rodney Ingram McKay.
Meredith Rodney Ingram McKay.
He'd hated that name as a boy, had taken shit for it every day of school until he left for university and could insist on being called Rodney instead. But Jolinar had called him Rodney – her voice in his head remained – and he never wanted to hear it again. Never. Not in his head and not out loud – she'd instructed the other Tok'ra to address him as Rodney as well, but never released her stranglehold on his replies.
He wasn't Dr. Rodney McKay, civilian consultant to the Stargate Command and less than enthusiastic member of SG-1, any longer either. The SGC had allied with the Tok'ra at FTL speeds when offered the chance and never once inquired about him. At least the Tok'ra council had made a token gesture toward assuring that he was a willing host.
Of course, Jolinar had kept him silent and faked answering as him. There was no way the other Tok'ra could know it hadn't been him without extracting her.
The SGC hadn't even pretended he mattered.
He'd heard Sam had got his place on SG-1. That must have made her happy. And then Jacob Carter had agreed to host Selmak to save his own life. Jolinar had been careful avoid them. When SG-1 and SG-17 came to Ravenna, they'd been busy off planet.
Maybe that had been pity on her part. Rodney hadn't been forced to see that they didn't care or know the difference between him and Jolinar pretending to be him.
Hosting Jolinar had revealed all sorts of things about the symbiotes, whether they were Tok'ra or Goa'uld. They hated changing hosts for a myriad of reasons, beginning with how vulnerable and instinct driven they were in their natural state. They augmented their own tiny brains with their host's, after all, and a smart host made for a smarter symbiote. Taking a host was dangerous in other ways too: not every Unas or human was compatible. The longer a symbiote spent in one host, the harder it became to adapt to a new one, over hundreds or even in some cases thousands of years, the symbiotes lost flexibility and would involuntarily reject any new host, resulting in death for both.
Jolinar had been frightened that if the Tok'ra council discovered Rodney hadn't been a willing volunteer – or at least amendable in retrospect – they would demand she leave him or even forcibly remove her. Only the death of her last host had forced her out and into Rodney. She hadn't believed they would find another willing host as compatible. And she hadn't wanted to give up using Rodney's brain.
There were days he'd been content with the arrangement too: when Jolinar and he worked in tandem, because she hadn't been stupid – his brain after all – and their symbiosis had offered him access to Tok'ra science and technology that they would never share with the Tau'ri.
Then the ashrak had killed her. Tortured them both until Jolinar couldn't endure it any longer and left Ro – Meredith to put himself back together with a head full of her experiences.
He'd pulled himself together. He'd put himself back together, no thanks to anyone else, and he was never going back. Not to being a prisoner in his own head, not to being Rodney, not to Earth and the questions, the study, and whatever rationalizations were the flavor of the day there. The Tok'ra had wanted him to take another symbiote – to salvage whatever was left of Jolinar. He'd got out before any of the arrogant snakes could decide for him and never looked back. Screw them, he didn't see much difference between them and the Goa'uld, not once it came down the nitty-gritty of symbiote or host.
They were still snakes.
Meredith had his own motto.
Never trust a snake.
He didn't usually think about Jolinar or being a host if he didn't have to, but Meredith had already counted all the bulkhead panels and deck tiles and dismissed his every plan for escape too; the odds of recapture were too high. Odds of recapture and death were even higher. He was stuck on the wrong side – inside – of a Tok'ra forcefield on an fetid Oranian ship that smelled like skunk and sulfur.
Tenat and Jup were both stronger than Meredith too – or any human – and they'd already 'tuned' him up, wanting the secrets to some of the tech tricks he'd built.
His skin still burned where they'd handled him, thanks to the nauseating yellow fluids that seeped from their skins and boiled into the air, adding to the stink. Butyl mercaptan or something similar and probably an evolutionary defensive adaptation. It still made him puke on Tenat at least once.
It had hurt – it still hurt, he thought they'd at least cracked some ribs as well as done painful soft tissue damage; he'd been pissing blood for several days – but on the scale of agony he'd endured under ashrak torture, it hadn't compared. Meredith had grunted and yelled and called them the excrement-eating sons of whores too ugly for an Unas they were and given them nothing else. They'd finally given up because no one out-stubborned Meredith McKay.
No one hated pain more than he did either and he'd given up on reciting pi when the aches had kept distracting and making him lose his place.
Tenat and Jup weren't exactly reliable about feeding him either, never mind what they considered food. If Jolinar hadn't fixed his allergies and hypoglycemia he'd have been in a coma by now.
If he didn't occupy his mind with something though, he'd go crazy soon. He'd analyzed his childhood, his estrangement from his sister, and his divorce. He'd depressed himself wondering what had happened to his cat and amused himself imagining just how bad the contents of his old apartment's refrigerator might be by now if left untouched. Thinking of his refrigerator reminded him of all the Earth foods he hadn't tasted in so long, though, and left him hungry and more unhappy. Remembering all his new favorite meals only reminded him he was hungry, so that was out, and thinking about sex just led back to Jehan.
He kept remembering Jehan's face and imagining it when Vala told him. Vala's mask had crumpled for a moment before she left him behind. Oranians couldn't really read human expression, but Meredith could and hers had been terrible. Jehan's would have been worse.
Mer rubbed his face. He didn't want to think about Jehan alone in the galaxy if this went to hell. Went further to hell. Because he felt afraid Jehan wouldn't stay with Vala, despite knowing her longer than either of them had known Meredith. He and Jehan had been together since three days after he came aboard as their ship engineer. He knew how messed up Jehan had still been then; he knew Jehan wouldn't turn to Vala, simply because she had too much damage to do him any good. And if not Vala, then there was no one. Jehan didn't trust anyone else.
"Crap," he said in the quiet that made his voice louder than he'd meant. "Crap, crap, crap."
He had to get out of here and back to Jehan.
If only he'd stayed aboard their ship the way he usually did. Tenat and Jup would never have taken Jehan, because Jehan was their Goa'uld-damned pilot, who they would need to fulfill the bargain. The same went for Vala. Not to mention Tenat and Jup might not be able to conceive that Jehan and Meredith would have enough loyalty to her to come back.
Hard to say. One of them had shown enough perception to realize Vala would try her best to come back for Mer and decided to use that as a guarantee against her double-crossing them. Maybe even set them up so that Meredith would accompany Vala to the meet to check the naquadah was real and genuinely refined, weapons grade. More than they'd ever scored before, so they were naturally suspicious.
Low-lives like Tenat and Jup didn't come by that sort of treasure normally.
Of course, they hadn't. Meredith had been listening to the two of them since they locked him inside the Tok'ra forcefield. They were acting as agents for someone else.
They were also planning to sell Vala and Jehan out to Ba'al.
Knowing did him absolutely no good with no way to warn his partners.
Jehan didn't recognize the ship that answered the distress call. It wasn't Goa'uld or Hebridan, but the al'kesh's sensor array had been fried by a stray bolt from a staff weapon bolt when they took the pel'tak, and that was all he could make out from the sketchy viewscreen display. If anything, it looked a little like an Asgard ship, but their ships would have dwarfed this one. He was glad it wasn't Asgard; they'd have been in trouble if it had been, no pirate or even Goa'uld had ever taken an Asgard.
He watched it approach the al'kesh at sublight after dropping out of a hyperspace window and wondered dubiously if it would even have a ring system. Not every space-going species out there used the ubiquitous Goa'uld technologies. Getting aboard would be harder if they had to suit up for vacuum rather than combat and cross the emptiness between the ships. They might even have to scrap the assault plan and play at being sole survivors in need to get aboard.
Once the ship began hailing them on the same frequency as their distress call, in stilted, computer-translated Goa'uld rather than a Jaffa dialect, Jehan stiffened. Prometheus. Human ship, then. He squeezed his eyes shut.
Vala met his gaze as he opened his eyes and raised an eyebrow. "I'll take the bridge," she offered. Jehan just nodded.
They donned their helmets and left the powered down bridge, ignoring the dead Jaffa in the darkened, smoke-stained corridors, to wait for their chance.
The two of them ringed into the boxy ship that had answered Vala's not-so-bogus distress call and separated. They should have had boarding parties with them, but had to make do with surprise and using Kull armor.
The armor they were using smelled like ass inside – dead ass – no matter how many times they'd fumigated it, but it still shrugged off both energy and projectile weapons fire. Good enough. Jehan ignored the reek and kept moving, too busy zatting anyone he came across, heading for the engine rooms while Vala headed upship to secure the bridge, to register how alien it was to the Goa'uld ships he was used to.
Mer had been the one who taught them engineers could be as dangerous as Jaffa aboard a space ship. Normally, Jehan would have been following him, covering him, while they took over, but things weren't normal. Their crew – snakelicking ha'taakas – had taken off with the rich haul from the cargo ship. Reckell had gone with them to make sure no one shorted Vala and himself on their share of the profit from the goods – if they made it back.
No guarantees, but Jehan didn't care. As far as Jehan was concerned, getting Mer back rated higher than all the ships and weapons grade naquadah in the Milky Way. You didn't abandon a crew mate. He'd have done as much for any of them, not just Mer.
No longer. The rest of them could go to Netu.
If Vala's plan worked they'd fly away with both the ship, the naquadah, and Mer, and rendezvous with their Serrakin first mate on Hebridan in a few days. Jehan had too much experience with Vala's plans to count on that. Something would go awry.
He bared his teeth inside the helmet. He had no problems with ripping Tenat and his partners off, though. Snatching Mer had already broken faith.
Tenat would have to pay for that.
Sooner or later.
He zatted three more crewmen and stepped over their unconscious forms, registering that the patches on their uniforms were names lettered in English three steps further on. Not Goa'uld or Ancient or something even more alien. The wings were US Air Force. His heart hammered a little harder, but he didn't pause.
Jehan stalked into the main engineering after taking out a raggedly organized group of seven crewmen. The comm jammers Mer had designed kept the crew compliment from coordinating and made picking them off almost too easy, but he found a thin, ponytailed woman working frantically on a panel of control crystals for the hyperdrives, hiccups making her fingers jerk and slowing her down, but enough damage already done that he began cursing in Goa'uld.
One glance told him he would be spending hours, if not several days, putting right what she'd sabotaged.
The patch on her jumpsuit identified her as Novak, L. Jehan stunned her, checked she hadn't hid anything critical on her, then carried her out to corridor and fused the door locks with an energy pulse. It would take even an expert time or a cutting torch to get inside again, but the crystals would still be there when he got back.
He left Novak in the corridor and worked his way back through the ship, checking for hideouts, before heading to the bridge.
Vala had a seat at the navigator's console when Jehan arrived.
"Not Goa'uld," she said in annoyance, looking at the controls. "This will take longer than usual. Their language is gibberish."
He didn't bother correcting her.
"I'm sure I can figure it out eventually. It's rather primitive."
"The engineer got to the hyperdrives," he said.
Vala hissed under her breath.
"Can you fix it?" she demanded.
"Probably." He wasn't Mer, but he'd hung around while Mer did his thing and paid attention. It would probably be easier than working on a Goa'uld ship. "We'll keep the engineer anyway." Keeping the rest of the crew on their prize was out of the question.
He crouched, wrestled the nearest unconscious body onto his shoulder and headed for the ring room they'd boarded by. The awkward burden of the bulky man made him stagger and swear.
Vala grabbed the ankle of another man and began dragging him along the deck behind him. The poor bastard was going to have a concussion on top of a stun headache when he woke. That would be the least of his problems, though.
He only noticed the three star rank as he dumped his man in the center of the rings with a groan. Only recognized who it had been after activating the rings and sending him on his way, the memory of the general from Cheyenne surfacing sluggishly – a sour welcome to a base about to be shut down the only meeting they'd ever had. Hammond. Mer had mentioned him. Hadn't mentioned Earth had interstellar ships, though.
It didn't bother him anyway. Screw the lot of them. He owed Earth exactly what he'd got from his home planet since the day Apophis came through the chappa'ai.
Clearing out the rest of the unconscious crew, with just himself and Vala to move everyone, turned out to be exhausting and back-breaking work. They had to hurry and get it done before any of the crew started coming around. A four-wheeled dolly for moving equipment let them sling three or four people together and roll them back to the ring room, at least, and speeded up the process.
"Meredith better appreciate this," Vala muttered. "We could both be on Lator'nin drinking Sels wine if he had paid attention and run when I told him to."
Jehan didn't tell her Tenat's people wouldn't have grabbed Meredith if she hadn't scammed them the last time they came through Freider's Moon. He just rolled a sergeant and a corporal into the center of the ring, kicked one man's feet within the perimeter and activated it. Sweat ran down his sides under the single-suit he wore beneath the armor and his shoulders ached.
He headed out again.
Jehan stashed Novak and a doctor from the infirmary, a trim and tiny woman who looked more competent than anyone else he saw, in the ship's brig once he found it. He wanted the doctor in case Mer needed better care than Vala could provide once they had him back. Everyone else went to the al'kesh. They just managed it before the stun wore off their first victims.
Prometheus was still drifting, but he trusted Vala to get the sublights online and get them away from the bait before any sharks or other do-gooders showed up. Jehan needed to find a maintenance locker and head back to the engine room to repair the door he'd fried, then start on restoring the hyperdrives.
The ship felt hollow and cold without a crew; empty shadows everywhere in the dark passageways. Vala hadn't cracked the bridge controls as fast as usual. Goa'uld tech, scavenged and simplified for Jaffa to use without reading or writing, was the norm through the galaxy, so Jehan figured she might be having a harder time with the idiosyncrasies of an operating systems based on an original design.
If they didn't have any luck with it by the time he had the hyperdrive working again, he'd get the engineer out of the brig and persuade her to hack any security protocols he couldn't.
One of the armories was open. Jehan closed it up, noting weapons were missing from several lockers. There were quite a few zats and handguns scattered where crew members had fallen. He'd have to police them up once they made the hyperspace jump.
He'd been in the Kull armor so long his nose had shut down. The helmet restricted his vision and hearing; he didn't pick up that there was someone besides Vala on the bridge until he reached the doorway.
He saw a crewman fire a weapon that probably came from the armory Jehan had noted. It hit Vala's back, the charge sizzling over her armor without effect. Vala turned and raised her zat.
The man fired at Vala again, but without effect.
"Oh, crap," he said.
Jehan almost sympathized as Vala zatted him. The man gave out a pained yell before dropping to the deck, knocked unconscious.
"You missed one, Jehan," Vala chided, turning back to the control console.
The Kull armor kept him from shrugging. More likely Vala had missed him, but it didn't matter. They had gotten lucky: these people hadn't been expecting pirates.
"Brig?" he asked, nudging the man with his boot.
"No," she said. "Tie him up. We're probably going to need someone who reads this language. Besides, he's rather nice to look at. Unlike the rest of this bucket. Haven't these people heard of design and decoration?"
Jehan almost snorted. The lack of the ubiquitous gold and hieroglyphs praising whichever 'god' had commissioned a ship came as a relief to him. Even Tanafriti felt like a flying dungeon some days. Prometheus, on the other hand, felt like a tin can or maybe an aircraft carrier.
He set about securing the man into a chair while he was still out. The combat vest, black tee-shirt and BDU combination didn't offer a clue to his name. Jehan thought that the muscles and glasses both signaled that the man was more likely a ground pounder of some variety than Air Force like rest of the crew. He worked fast and took away the glasses at the end – not being able to see would help keep the man off-balance.
"Have you commed Tenat yet?"
"No. I can't get into the system."
Jehan resisted the urge to remind her what Tenat had promised to do to Mer if they didn't come back with a ship. She knew. Acting unconcerned was just the way she coped.
Vala went back to randomly calling up screens. "This dungeating scrapheap must have sublights, so where are they?"
"I could – "
"Just let me work on this," Vala snapped. "Go make sure there's no one else left onboard."
"I need to work on the hyperdrives, remember?"
"Fine. You might want to find us both something to eat, too."
She sounded so much like the Goa'uld she'd been, Jehan wanted to snap her neck. He breathed out through his nose instead. It was just stress working on both of them. She could fetch her own damn meal, though. He was no one's slave any longer.
On the other hand, he was hungry himself.
He secured a set of plastic ties on their prisoner and left.
"Open your comm," Vala called after him. "I've shut down Meredith's jammer."
Jehan nodded and did so.
It took two tries to find the ship's mess and put together something Vala would eat. By then the comm was providing him with audio from Vala and their prisoner, who had recovered from a zatting faster than most. Vala must have kept the stinking helmet on; the prisoner still thought he was facing a Kull and began babbling.
Since even Jaffa wet themselves when facing off against Kull warriors, Jehan thought talking at one was crazy, but this guy seemed like he might annoy one into shooting him. He sounded perplexed at finding himself still alive, anyway, obviously well aware that Kull didn't normally take prisoners. No doubt he'd figure it out given enough time. Jehan figured Vala was laughing her head off where no one could see, though.
"I'm just gonna talk to myself here for a while, 'cause you're not gonna talk to me. Not that you guys are very talkative, but uh… "
"You may prove useful," Vala said.
Jehan found the mess by accident and then after some thought found bottled water and MREs to take down to the doctor and Novak in the brig. It would ease their headaches and their nerves. He kept listening as their other prisoner asked about the rest of the crew.
"Transported to the al'kesh."
The prisoner claimed they had the wrong guy and that he didn't know anything about the ship. Jehan or Vala or anyone with the survival instinct of a gnat would have lied and faked it as long as they could. Jehan dropped him a notch in his estimation.
Vala seemed set on screwing with the guy's mind. Next she said, "But you are very attractive."
Jehan listened to the poor bastard cough and blurt out, "What!?"
He hoped Vala was just messing with the man and not about to start sleeping with anything on two legs that couldn't outrun her again. She hadn't propositioned Jehan since their one disastrous night together, but she'd been celibate for months now and she usually started up again after something went wrong.
Like losing Mer to Tenat.
On the comm in his ear, the other prisoner squeaked a little as he said, "Hey, you know, big guy, I'm flattered, really I am, it's just that, uh, you're not my type. And I'm more than a little disturbed that I might be yours."
Jehan hurried the MREs and bottled water down to the brig, checked the surveillance camera and found both women awake and sitting against a bulkhead shoulder to shoulder. He opened the door and tossed in the bags and bottles.
The red-headed doctor looked up. "What do you want from us?" she demanded. Her eyes were filled with the same anger snapping through her voice.
Jehan took a page out of Vala's play book.
"You may prove useful." He pointed to the food and water. "Provisions."
Novak had her fist shoved in her mouth, but it wasn't stopping the hiccups jolting her with every breath. Jehan winced in sympathy.
Jehan headed for the engine room. If he hadn't been worried about Mer, he would have been laughing a little at Vala's game. As it was, she was wasting time with the cat-and-mouse fun. As far as he was concerned, she had until he made it back to the bridge, then he was taking over.
Jehan missed whatever the prisoner said next as he entered the elevator between decks. Static scrambled the comm connection inside the helmet he wore. The armor wasn't designed with networked operations in mind. Kulls didn't really have enough brain power to work in teams, anyway.
He caught the tail end of something Vala said as he exited.
" – not going to hurt you."
"Much," Vala continued and added brightly, with just a touch of evil amusement, "I hope."
He felt the shudder of the sublight engines activating a moment later, though, which meant Vala had cracked the system far enough to begin maneuvering the ship away from the cargo ship and the al'kesh, taking them out of range of intership ring transports. So at least she'd been getting something done while she entertained herself.
She asked about long-range transmissions and got nothing.
If anyone would know, it would be Vala. Jehan found a tool box and went to work on the door lock, prying the black-seared facing and keypad off and pulling out wires, methodically trying connections until one disengaged the air seal and the door retracted with a soft noise.
He pulled off the helmet and his gloves once inside and began work. It looked like Novak had been pulling control crystals nearly at random. Crap plan. She'd crippled the ship's chance to retreat into hyperspace if they'd been under ship to ship attack instead of a boarding action.
Jehan sat down in front of one of the computers and began accessing engineering specs. Mer was going to go wild over this ship. Some of the designs had to be from the Asgard. Jehan refused to let himself feel any guilt over stealing the ship. It was what they did and this time they had a better reason than usual.
"Uh, okay, um, look. My name is Daniel Jackson. I'm an archaeologist, a historian. I study ancient cultures, histories of the past, ancient civilizations. Have you heard of Earth, Tau'ri?"
Mer had talked about Daniel Jackson, somewhere between scorn and admiration, describing the man who had opened the chappa'ai.
If Mer hadn't told him about Jackson's search for the wife the Goa'uld had stolen as a host, Jehan would have needed to kill him.
So much pain.
A process of trial and elimination eventually got all the crystals back into place. He ran a diagnostic and smiled. The hyperdrives were functional again.
The prisoner cried out and Jehan decided it really was time to get up to the bridge. He didn't want to, didn't want to face Jackson or anyone from Earth, or deal with all the memories that explaining who he was would stir up.
He forced himself forward anyway. He still found it unbelievable that the thorn in the System Lords' side, the terrible Tau'ri, were from Earth. He'd held on for so long, alone, believing there was no one else, and they'd been out there the entire time.
They done nothing. He hated them for that.
They had ships.
Jehan brushed his hand over a bulkhead and smiled meanly. They had one less now.
Vala stripped the stinking armor off piece by piece, leaving her sweat soaked single-suit clinging to her skin, well aware of the man – Daniel Jackson, a name she'd heard here and there around the galaxy, usually accompanied by a Goa'uld curse – had his eyes on her. She flipped her loose hair back off her shoulders.
Revealing she wasn't a Kull didn't make him any more cooperative. She ended up slapping him to remind him who was in charge.
"Ow!" he protested.
Vala leaned in close and used her sultriest voice. "Shall I kiss it better?"
She was making him uncomfortable. Good. Though he was genuinely attractive and she liked men the Goa'uld hated.
"Just don't do it again," Jackson said on the heels of his refusal. "Hey, look, even if I knew what it is you wanted me to do, what makes you think I'd tell you? How the hell do you think you can steal a ship when you don't know how it works?"
"I got the sublight engines going," she said.
She'd get communications soon too, with or without him, or Jehan would, once he had the hyperdrives online again. This would have been easier with more crew, but she and Jehan could do it. And they wouldn't share any of the profit from the naquadah Tenat had promised with anyone else.
"Yeah, so you did," Jackson acknowledged.
"You really expect me to believe you don't know how your own ship works?"
He wasn't a slave born under the boot of a Goa'uld 'god', willing to believe anything more complicated than a big stick was magic. If he didn't know, he could still easily help her. If he wanted to, which she granted he had no reason to.
She seated herself in the command chair next to Jackson.
"Have you heard of Earth, Tau'ri?" Jackson asked her after babbling something about cultures and civilizations.
"No," she lied.
Jackson shifted uncomfortably against his bindings. It was distracting.
"Okay, well, we were on our way to rescue a few friends who are trapped – "
Oh, a sob story. Too bad she had her own. Everybody did, after all.
"I really don't care," she interrupted.
"Look, this really isn't necessary–"
Vala held up her hands and mimicked chitchat. Mer had taught her that one. "Can I have the ship?" she asked. She pretended the other hand was answering. "No? Okay." She stared at Jackson, dropping her hands again. "Discussion over."
He stared back, displaying an annoying stubbornness.
Vala hit the control console with her fist in frustration. The screen flashed a new message: COMMUNICATIONS SYSTEM ACTIVE.
"Oh, here we go." She nearly laughed. Another look and she had the gist of how the system worked and opened an transmission. "Tenat of Oran. Tenat, this is Vala, if you can hear me, please respond. I've managed to procure a vessel, bigger and better than what I'd hoped for," she said. She added, "Tenat, if you get this message, I apologize for the delay and will meet at the designated coordinates in one day. Vala out." Maybe that would appease Tenat's bad temper and ease Mer's captivity. She hoped.
She turned back to Jackson and smiled again.
"Now, about the hyperdrive."
She imagined the way the crinkles at the corner's of Jehan's eyes would tighten at the implication he couldn't get the hyperdrives up again.
Jackson sighed tiredly and wriggled against his bonds. Vala dismissed him from her thoughts, thinking instead of which tack they would take with Tenat. Land the ship and do an exchange for Meredith? Lay an ambush of some kind inside the ship? They couldn't just turn the ship over to Tenat or even if he left them the naquadah and gave Mer back, they'd be marooned on that worthless backwater moon with no way to get to the world in-system that had a chappa'ai.
She wondered how fast this ship could transit. Al'kesh weren't as fast as Hebridan racers, so there was room for improvement with most ships. She'd need to see what Jehan had accomplished. If this ship could beat an al'kesh's hyperdrive speed, they could reach the rendezvous ahead of time and bust Mer out first, then renegotiate the deal for the naquadah.
By renegotiate, Vala still meant the three of them leaving with the naquadah and the ship. Tenat certainly didn't deserve either.
She kept working, finding that Jehan had the hyperdrives online again, but when she tried to input a course, the navigation systems shut down on her. ACCESS DENIED. Whichever of the crew had been on duty had password locked it before she managed to stun them all.
"Access is restricted by a code," she told Jackson in annoyance.
"Yeah, too bad."
That sounded just a little too self-satisfied for her. Vala's temper snapped and she swung around and fired an energy pulse at him from her arm weapon. She pulled the shot at the last second, burning through Jackson's tee-shirt sleeve and scoring a searing wound in his arm. Smoke, stinking of burnt flesh and fabric, curled up afterward, twisting in the invisible currents of the environmental system's air circulation.
Jackson jerked and cried out in pain. Vala swiveled her chair enough to face him again, propping her boots against his chair.
"Hurt?" she asked.
She knew it did. The Tok'ra had done much worse to her when they questioned Qetesh and Qetesh had made sure her host endured the worst of it. The torture had gone on and on, until they were inseparable in their pain, until Qetesh broke under it.
She pulled one of the small, less flashy healing devices out of a pocket in her single-suit as he replied affirmatively. She placed it onto the middle finger of her right hand, like a ring turned inward to her palm. A red telltale light flickered on as she showed it to him. "I can fix it."
Jackson's eyes widened and he began breathing even harder, panic and a new level of fear mingling with the pain. "I don't know the code!" he blurted. His gaze strayed between the healing device and Vala's eyes, looking for the telltale symbiote flash.
Vala smiled at him and moved to sit on the console before him. She aimed the device on her hand at his wound and willed it on. Qetesh had used anger and arousal to generate mental force to use both the healing device and a ribbon. Vala focused on her fear. The fear was always there, beneath every other emotion she let show, a fuel she would never use up. The wound on Jackson's arm healed quickly.
The pain went away with the wound. The skin knit without a scar and Vala lifted her hand away. Only the smoldering edges of the hole in his shirt remained to prove there had ever been a wound at all.
"There," she said. "Feel better?"
The fear made her reckless. It made her want to prove she was still herself, still in control of her body, to feel something that was all hers. She knew Jehan disapproved, though he never said, the same way she knew all the things he could no longer bear after serving as a Goa'uld plaything.
Right that minute, she wanted Jackson. Well, she wanted someone and Jackson was right there, tied up and accessible. Sex always left her relaxed, the fear that had been part of her since she was chosen to become a host pushed back where it wouldn't interfere with her thinking.
She wanted Jackson, but even if she hadn't, she couldn't bear to have someone think she was a Goa'uld. That was Qetesh. She wasn't Qetesh, no matter how many times she still thought she heard the Goa'uld queen's voice in her head.
"No. But I was once a host to one."
"Which would explain the naquadah in your blood that lets you use Goa'uld technology."
"And how I quickly learned to fly this rather primitive ship." She kept it light. She had to or fall apart. Thinking about Qetesh left her feeling brittle. It reminded her of all the things Qetesh might have done to this man, given an opportunity, and it frightened that she might be forced to use the same techniques.
Worse, that she might just be looking for an excuse to use them.
"Yeah, so primitive, one would wonder if it was worth the bother," Jackson said. Very snippy.
Jehan would be grinding his teeth at the other end of the open comm. He did the flying. Mer and Jehan both agreed Vala was a terrible pilot. She could calculate a least-time course, get a ship in and out of hyperdrive, de-orbit and take off. No one really wanted to be onboard during one of her landings.
"Well, in this case it's the size that matters," Vala told him.
Jackson pinched his brows together and stared up at her.
Tenat wanted a troop transport that could face off with an al'kesh or better. Ships fitting that description weren't just lying around waiting to be snapped up. They'd scouted four different blackmarket shipyards hunting something to pirate before settling on a cargo ship and its al'kesh escort as the best of a lot of bad prospects.
Vala shifted over Jackson and glanced at his groin and the promising bulge there. "Actually," she breathed softly, "pretty much in every case."
He looked amazed and horrified by the brazen appraisal, which just made Vala want to keep teasing him or to touch him and see what other reactions she could draw from him.
She touched the healed skin on his arm.
"Tell me the code," she pleaded. "Please."
"I don't–I don't know it."
Resigned, Vala backed off.
She needed to consult with Jehan before she resorted to real torture. Maybe the engineer he'd kept on board would be better information source. If Jackson didn't have some use, he'd be better off dropped off at a world on the route to the rendezvous.
With a regretful glance back at him – she really wanted to keep him, preferably tied up and in her bed for a few days and nights – she left the bridge.
She really should have checked the ties. By the time she reached the bridge again, Jackson was gone. With a shrug, Vala dismissed him. She needed to set their course. Jehan would be up in another few minutes. He'd been irritated with her when she found him in the engine room.
Of course, the next time she saw him, Vala meant to twit him over his sub par knots.
She headed for the control console and called up a navigation screen. Jehan had managed to release it and the rest of the controls from the engine room's consoles. Expertise in the language of the ship's builders had no doubt helped him.
"Much better," she murmured to herself.
Knowing they were on a Tau'ri ship had left Jehan quieter and in a darker mood than usual. Quieter for Jehan approached mutism. She missed Meredith's babble and the way Jehan smiled and twitted him. They had to get him back; that was all. She'd survive if they didn't; that was what she did. She didn't know if Jehan would, though.
The scuff of a footstep alerted her to her latest miscalculation.
"Lose the weapon. Move away from the console," Jackson ordered.
Vala sighed theatrically.
"I liked you better tied up."
"Against the wall," he said.
Vala didn't move, watching him, calculating how far she could push before he zatted her. Could she get her arm up and a shot off from her own arm weapon before he did?
"Lose the weapon."
Probably not, she decided. She removed the weapon from her left arm and stripped off the glove she wore beneath it too.
"The suit still absorbs zat blasts," she pointed out as she strolled over to stand in front of a wall screen displaying something about the ship's status.
"Then cover your head."
She turned and said, "So you should let me take it off."
She wondered if Jehan was hearing this through the open comm. He'd expect her to deal with Jackson herself, though, since she'd been the one to leave him out of the brig.
"I think I'll turn the ship around first," Jackson told her.
"I don't know. If I had me at gunpoint, that wouldn't be my first choice."
She could see him think about it – for a second – then push away the temptation. People with principles were always harder to trick.
He went to the control console and began typing. The security code he'd denied knowing, so it served him right when the screen flashed ACCESS DENIED, rejecting it.
"What's going on?"
"I rewrote the access codes, so I'm the only one who can use the navigation systems."
And Jehan, but she thought Jackson didn't even know she wasn't alone and she'd keep it that way until she had the upper hand again.
He waved the zat at her.
Maybe a small sob story of her own would distract him…
"Listen, hundreds of lives are at stake. I'm trying to save the last of my people – " In a way, that bit was even true. Meredith was one of her crew. She gentled her tone. Looked at him imploringly. " – and this ship is their only hope."
"Maybe if you'd mentioned that off the top."
"Would you really have helped?"
She didn't believe it for a moment. Not for a pirate. Not for Meredith. They hadn't helped him before. Hadn't done anything for Jehan. The Tau'ri were like everyone else in the galaxy; out for themselves, forgetting any individual who fell along the way.
Besides, anyone who allied with the Tok'ra couldn't be trusted in her estimation.
As Meredith put it: a snake was a snake.
"Look, as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, we were also on a rescue mission."
A beeping sound came from the navigation console. Jackson checked it. Vala couldn't read the screen from where she stood.
"What is it?"
Jackson checked another console.
"A ship just appeared on our radar. It's an al'kesh."
"This quadrant is crawling with Goa'uld vessels," Vala told him. "Chances are it's not your friends. I made sure that ship was fully disabled when you showed up."
Daniel began typing in commands. "We'll see."
"We have to raise shields and arm weapons."
She really hoped Jehan was hearing this and on his way to the bridge. They couldn't afford to play games any longer with Goa'uld out there.
"I'll try and hail them first."
He began to walk away and Vala kicked out. She sent the zat flying from his hand, then back-handed him across the face. He rocked back and she swung again. He recovered fast and sent an elbow flying into her nose.
She hadn't really expected him to fight back and blurted, "Oh, oh, oh. You hit me."
"You hit me," he pointed out. Reasonably.
Vala wasn't feeling very reasonable.
"Yeah, you know we could just have sex instead," she said as a distraction.
She hit him again, kicked him next and sent him stumbling back part way across the bridge. Maneuvering room was limited by the islands formed by the control consoles. Vala took a run at him and grabbed his ear, pulling him up with every intention of slamming his head back against the deck plating and knocking him out.
Jackson fought back with a grunt. They tumbled, scrambled to their feet, and he threw a punch at her that she dodged. His fist hit a panel beside her head instead.
Vala dropped, twisted and went for a improvised weapon: a red painted cannister mounted on the wall. She slammed it into his groin.
Jackson doubled over.
Vala shoved him back to the console again and slugged him. He fell backwards to the deck again with another gasping grunt.
Gasping for breath herself, Vala reminded herself to practice hand-to-hand a little more often. She was getting out of shape.
Jackson crawled around the corner of the console, caught sight of her, and tried to crawl away. Vala sucked in another breath and leaped onto him. She caught his head between her thighs and squeezed.
Jackson surprised her, staggered up to his feet with her on his shoulders. Vala grabbed an overhead beam, glad for ceilings that weren't as cavernous as an al'kesh's, just before Jackson managed to twist out from under her. That freed Vala's legs though and she retaliated by kicking him back to the deck again.
She jumped down and onto him again.
Somewhere in their tussle, she'd marked him. A red abrasion was bruising up on his cheekbone.
"Are we done?" she asked.
"I am," he panted.
The adrenaline and fear made her stupid. She locked a fist in his shirt and dragged him up, kissing him with abandon.
Jackson jerked back and exclaimed, "You're a fruitcake!"
Vala headbutted him for that and left him on the deck, dazed, as she went for the navigation controls. Someone had to do something about the al'kesh on their tail.
It wouldn't be her, she had time to acknowledge, hearing the telltale sound of a zat powering up before it hit her. He must have aimed for her head after all. The suit ameliorated the effect enough she heard another zat sound before losing consciousness, and Jehan muttering, "Great plan. Just great."
Daniel woke with a groan before registering his head lay in Janet's lap.
"He's awake," Novak said.
He squinted his eyes open and then let Janet help him sit up with his back to one of the brig's walls.
"I got zatted again."
His head was ready to explode. The glare from Prometheus' uncompromising lighting didn't help. He wondered how close he'd come to the minimum time frame between one zat charge and a lethal second one. Close. The lingering headache and muscle pains seemed worse than usual.
Or, like Jack, he was just getting older.
"And banged around," Janet said.
Daniel opened one eye. There was that. The woman he'd fought hadn't exactly been pulling any punches. She hadn't been the one who zatted him either.
"God, I'm a idiot," he muttered and let his head thunk back against the cold brig wall.
Of course she hadn't been working alone.
The bulkhead behind him shuddered and the hum always present throughout the ship shifted, hitched, then dropped to the subtly rougher sound of the sublight engines. They'd just dropped out of hyperspace.
"Lindsay and I have tried to figure out how to get out of here, but we're not having any luck," Janet said.
"Funny how brigs make that so hard."
Novak let out small half-hiccup, half-laugh.
"At least they're not starving us," Janet said. "That thing, the Kull, came back with more MREs." She held up a bottle labeled aspirin. "And this."
Daniel held out his hand. "Gimme." He dry swallowed the two pills Janet gave him. He knew she wouldn't let him take more than the recommended dose, suspected that was why she measured them out rather than handing him the bottle.
"That Kull probably isn't one, you know," he said. "The one on the bridge turned to be a woman. Who beat me up."
"Really?" Novak asked.
She made a small, interested sound. Or maybe she was just swallowing laughter. Janet certainly had a smirk on her face.
"So," Daniel added after some reflection, "this is familiar. Zatted, taken prisoner, zatted, thrown in a cell. Some differences. Jack's not here to piss anyone off."
"Looks like you did that for yourself this time," Janet told him.
The problem being that along with missing Jack, he was missing Teal'c and Sam or Rodney. If either of them had been in the cell with him, Daniel knew none of them would have been in the cell much longer. Well, if Rodney had been there, he would have been alternating complaints, panic, and hypochondria, but he'd have been working on an escape at the same time. Daniel missed Rodney; he had discovered exactly how often Rodney had been the team whipping boy once Jack's impatience had only had Daniel to focus on.
It hadn't been fun.
Daniel didn't know if Jack had never picked on Sam the same way because she was a woman, because she'd been military or because she'd told him off after she'd resigned her commission in the wake of Rodney's loss. Jack just hadn't.
That had left Daniel and his 'pinko liberal pansy ideas' as a target, because Teal'c would not take that shit, not even from Jack.
They'd found a new equilibrium eventually though, with Sam doing Rodney's job, and later, Jonas Quinn doing Daniel's before the Others descended him and he returned, until Anise showed up at the SGC with a double whammy from the Tok'ra: Jacob and Selmak were dead and so was Jolinar, who had been responsible for Rodney's disappearance.
It hadn't been funny, finding out someone they'd assumed was dead hadn't been then but was now, and that he'd still been alive long after they had stopped looking for him. The guilt had eaten them all up; they'd been left with the question of whether they might have looked harder, longer, if they'd liked Rodney McKay a little more. The answers hadn't been pleasant.
And Sam had taken the job with the nascent Atlantis expedition in the aftermath.
"So, did they miss you on the first round up – " he started to ask.
"No, we were knocked out and woke up in the brig," Janet answered.
Daniel nodded slowly.
He didn't think Janet and Novak had been kept back because they were women. So. A doctor and an engineer. Useful people to have around if you thought someone might be shooting at your new ship any time soon.
"Great," he muttered and rubbed his temples. "I have a feeling we should probably brace our selves for a rough ride."
"Why?" Novak asked. She wasn't hiccuping and he wondered if Janet had found a way to cure her or she'd just run out of the energy for it.
"They ringed everyone else over to the al'kesh, but kept you two. They must think they may need you."
"At least we know the crew is alive, though," Janet murmured.
"Yeah," Daniel admitted. "They're not the worst pirates we could have run into. Maybe."
Janet opened an MRE and he choked down macaroni and cheese before falling asleep. Prometheus stayed at sublight or in orbit. Another pirate – Daniel guessed not the woman from the bridge thanks to the lack of suggestive or disturbing remarks – still in Kull armor, brought them more MREs – enough for several days – and a couple of blankets.
Shortly after, the engines changed pitch again. They were dropping out of orbit. Prometheus shuddered as it landed. Daniel was reminded that take-off and landings were considered the most dangerous parts of flight. Re-entry of something as huge as Prometheus, without a hint of compromise toward aerodynamics, had to stress the ship to the max. Whoever had the controls knew how to fly, though, the only thing that betrayed they were on a planet again was the groan that ran through the ship when it switched from artificial gravity to local.
"Did we just land?" Janet asked.
"I think so."
"We did," Novak confirmed. "Do you think they'll let us out here?"
"I guess we wait and see," Daniel said, but he doubted it, considering the number of MREs their captors had provided.
They all still had their watches, so despite the constant lights, keeping track posed no problem. They took turns politely looking away whenever anyone need to use the open air toilet and washing up. Running water and a toilet were huge improvement on most of the jails and dungeons Daniel had known, which he told Novak when she went red with embarrassment the first time.
"You get used to ignoring each other."
Janet wasn't bothered. "I'm a doctor. Believe me, Daniel has nothing I haven't seen before and probably stitched up," she explained.
Mer studied the forcefield again, hoping for any weak area, any chance at getting himself out. Nothing presented itself and he cursed again. Even if he found something, they'd set up the forcefield in the back of their crummy ship's bridge, where they could keep a constant watch on him. While that indicated a quite natural respect for his abilities, Mer could have done with a little more underestimation in this one case.
"Shut up," Jup ordered.
"Come in here and make me," Mer snapped back. He glared at the Oranian.
Jup laughed, a really awful sound, like an asthmatic elephant seal, and went back to massaging or oiling, or something Mer didn't even want to think about seeing, one of his two heavy head tentacle-things.
A wisp of one of Jolinar's memories made him cringe. Those were Oranian sex organs and what Jup was doing in front of him was the equivalent of a woman playing with her breasts. The memory came complete with a picture of an Oranian in full rut, the tentacles swollen and pulsing.
Mer swallowed his gorge.
He could have lived his whole life without remembering that and been a happier man. He felt safe in believing even Jackson wouldn't have cared to see that. Only a xenobiologists would and they were all batshit. The Tok'ra had only been interested in the Oranians until it became clear they were satisfied to bow before the might of the System Lords and glean their leavings. Unsuitable, unreliable and not particularly smart, not like the Tollans, who might have been useful allies, but also proved perfidious in their dealings with the Tau'ri.
Selmak had briefed the Tok'ra council on the Goa'uld's triumph over the Tollan.
Jup bent over the control panel, studying something on a small screen there intently. Mer couldn't see what from his vantage point. He thought Jup was playing a game. He wasn't watching the screens showing sensor readings for incoming ships. Mer was. He coughed hard as it registered a hyperspace window opening and something big sliding through the system to the moon they were waiting on. It was half a day ahead of Vala's last transmitted ETA.
Maybe he couldn't get himself out of here, but he could make it easier for his friends.
"Where's your buddy, Tenat?" he asked. "You really think that if you manage to collect from Vosh and Ba'al, he's going give you that fifty-fifty share?"
"Tenat is on rest shift."
"Riiiight," Mer drawled. "He's probably doing something freaky to his head things."
Jup scowled at him, which kept his back to the screen. The ship de-orbited and disappeared from the sensor's purview.
"Tenat is not a pervert!"
"If you say so," Mer agreed. He let Jup go back to his game and kept an eye on the ship's proximity security surveillance. The Oranians hadn't improved their ship beyond Goa'uld spec, which meant very basic security. Goa'uld relied on their Jaffa to keep watch, rather than spy-eyes everywhere.
He thought the ship had landed just beyond the foothills and checked the camera aimed in that direction more often than the rest. Jup cursed his game.
"Bet you can't win that game no matter how many times you try it," Mer taunted.
"You will see," Jup replied and went back to it, starting from the beginning, all his concentration bent on winning.
On one of the screens, a dark figure crested the nearest foothill and started across the plain toward the Oranians' ship.
Jup crowed in triumph. "Got it."
He needed to keep Jup distracted a little longer. "That's not all you're going to get."
"What do you mean?"
The black figure of a Kull loped steadily toward them.
"You don't really trust Tenat, do you?"
"Oh, come on. He's double-crossed us. You think he won't do the same to you?" The Kull – briefly Mer wondered if it might be a real Kull sent by Ba'al, because that would be bad, very bad – disappeared inside the sensor's blind spot. "He's still a backstabber. After all, he'd double-dealing everyone else, why not you too? It's an awful lot of naquadah."
Jup stared at him. His head tentacles curled up at the tips, looking shriveled and, Mer guessed, unhappy.
"Tenat wouldn't do that to me."
Mer laughed out loud.
"He's probably going to shoot you in the back right here and leave your body behind."
"He needs me to pilot the ship your partners are bringing."
Mer smiled cynically. "Of course. While you're being his flying delivery boy, Tenat will be all by himself, with all that naquadah. You'll never see him or it again."
"No, I – "
An intruder alarm began blaring finally. Jup spun back to the controls. The screens fuzzed to static. He lurched to the next console and began yelling for Tenat and cursing because the internal comms were down too.
Mer just grinned, recognizing the work of the boarding jammers he'd created as additions to Vala and Jehan's Kull armor. He kept smiling right up until he noticed another ship had entered the system and was on course for their moon.
Vala marched into the bridge, shrugged aside Jup's defensive fire and stunned him.
Vala pulled off her helmet and flashed a pleased grin.
"That went well. Did you miss me?"
"You're my rescue?" Meredith demanded.
Vala shot the controls to the forcefield next, frying them nicely so that it collapsed.
"Who did you expect?" Vala glanced around the bridge. "Anything we should take with us? I mean besides our naquadah?"
Meredith bolted out of his erstwhile prison and grabbed up Jup's pistol – it was an pulse energy weapon and he wanted to analyze it – then stabbed his finger at the al'kesh on the sensors. "No. We have to get out of here. That's one of Ba'al's ships."
Vala's eyes widened. "Egg of a carrion beetle," she muttered. "Bloody Jaffa."
She stuffed the helmet back on her head, rendering her voice ominous and inflectionless.
"Let's get the naquadah and go."
"Forget the naquadah – "
"Darling, it's naquadah."
"It's heavy! I'm not breaking my back trying to carry it."
He followed her down to the hold anyway, grumbling and bitching out of habit. "Do you even know where the naquadah is?"
Vala had found the naquadah first. Of course. Tenat was laid out on the deck of the cargo hold. Meredith skirted around him, thought twice and snagged Tenat's gun too, then stared at the chest holding the naquadah. "How the hell are we moving that? You know how heavy naquadah is?"
"Not to worry, it's all fixed up," Vala replied in that flat, mechanical voice.
Meredith checked and discovered she was right. The naquadah had been loaded on an sled with grav repulsors that made towing it along easy enough once they got it moving.
"They should have included inertial dampeners too," Mer complained not much later.
They were half way across the plain and the chest full of naquadah had no brakes. Once it was going in one direction, it wanted to keep going in that direction. Meredith was sweating under the hot sun and his arms ached, not to mention his bruises and the agony of his ribs. He felt sure that any moment, one might finish cracking in two and pierce his lung.
"Just shut up and help me steer it," Vala snapped back.
"Fine, but if I get shot by a death glider, I'm blaming you."
The sound of a death glider shrieking down through atmosphere followed less than a second later.
"You just had to say it, didn't you?"
Mer hunched over and gasped as he pushed the grav sled faster. He hadn't conjured the stupid death glider by mentioning it, damn it! They came with the al'kesh.
The glider flashed over them while firing at the Oranian ship. Typical of Ba'al's forces: shoot first, prostrate before their god after. Two more followed it.
"Please tell me Jehan's with the ship," he panted as they pulled the naquadah up the first hill. Loose scree slipped under his boots. His shoulders and back were both screaming now, along with every instinct that wanted to run for cover now, now, now. Sweat stung in his eyes and he could swear he tasted blood in his mouth.
"Of course he is," Vala answered breathlessly. "I almost had to chain him to the pilot's chair to make him stay with it, though."
The sled and the naquadah reached the top of the slop and kept going up into the air. Mer managed to keep hold of it and his inertia brought them back down. He wondered if his finger joints would ever be the same. He'd torn his thumbnail and it hurt like a bitch, more distracting than all the other pains he'd already cataloged. "Ouch, ouch, ou – "
He caught sight of the ship, gray and ugly as a hammer-headed metal bird, precariously balanced on the only semi-level stretch of ground available. The native grass and brush had been flattened under it. A boarding ramp dangled obscenely from its belly.
" – ch. Oh my God. Is that – "
"It's Tau'ri!" Vala declared.
Meredith gaped, then recovered. "Never mind that, it's on the ground and Jehan can't put up the shields until we're inside!" he yelled. Out on the plain, the Oranian ship clawed its way skyward, bedeviled by death gliders wheeling and curving around it as it rose. Someone had seen the second ship, though, and more gliders were arrowing toward the foothills.
He gave the grav sled a mighty push and then just held on as it tobogganed down the slope, running just to keep his feet under him. With a wild whoop, Vala latched on too and curled her legs up so that it pulled her along like a pennant.
They crashed into one of the landing struts. Vala let go in time and landed in a rolled up ball. Meredith hit with the sled and howled with pain as something crunched in his knee. The strut creaked and above them, the hull – which had to be pure trinium – boiled and sparked as it took a hit. Showers of metal droplets were flung out into the sunlight and the ship rocked unsteadily.
He did not want to under this ship if the struts failed. Pancake didn't convey what would be left. Purée, maybe. Strawberry purée.
Meredith dragged himself upright, whimpering with the pain from his knee, and gave the damned naquadah and its sled a push toward the boarding ramp. Vala made it to her feet too and joined him, dragging the sled and Meredith over. Basically, he just held on and used the sled as a crutch.
"Up we go," Vala declared. She was still insanely cheerful. It made Meredith want to hit her. A bolt of energy threw up a geyser of dirt and rocks, along with enough steam to burn bare skin, thanks to the water sublimated instantly by the plasma charge.
They wrestled the sled onto the angled ramp.
"Climb on," Vala told him.
Meredith crawled stomach down over the chest's lid and hung on as Vala gave a great heave and sent it, him, and the sled bumping and skidding up the steps and into the ship's airlock.
She ran in right behind them while Mer was still moaning and trying not to puke, hit the emergency close lock and yelled at the same time, "We're in! Go, go, go!"
Meredith slid off the naquadah chest, wobbled, and braced himself against a bulkhead as alarms howled through the ship. The deck under his boots shuddered alarmingly and he could feel the howl of the sublight engines as they took off. He counted the seconds in his head as gravity tried to pull him down to the deck.
They were out of atmosphere in under sixty seconds and that with some wild sideways maneuvers slowing them down. It took the airlock the same sixty seconds to finish its cycle and spill him and Vala into a corridor.
"I've got to get to the bridge," Vala called. She'd caught hold of the frame of the inner airlock as they went into freefall. She torqued her legs around and pushed herself at an angle down the corridor.
Meredith watched her twist as she flew so that her feet and legs could hit the bulkhead first, absorb her momentum and launch her again, even harder and faster, straight for an interdeck elevator.
"I'm going to the engine rooms!" he shouted after her. "Try to keep Jehan from blowing them before I get there or he'll kill us all."
Unless he passed out first. Little black spots floated around the edge of his vision as he gasped for breath. At least the freefall took his weight off his knee.
Mer fumbled for a handhold, oriented himself, and headed for the back of the ship. He knew how Earth engineers and designers thought. The reactors would always be as far away from the bridge as possible, down in its belly or its ass end.
Jehan punched the sublights and rocketed Prometheus into the upper atmosphere. Vala had Mer on board and they might end up knocked around, but they'd all be dead if the death gliders got in a lucky shot on the hyperdrives. He spun in the pilot's seat and leaned across the console to slap at the secondary controls that would bring up the shields. The ship slewed and swung as he did so, right into the course of one of the death gliders. It smashed into the shields before they were completely in place and the resulting force translated into spinning Prometheus like a top.
Vala shrieked over the ship comm and Jehan ignored her, wrestling the controls back under his command.
He had his hands full with maneuvering the ship. Someone else needed to man the ship's guns. Mer might be better at it, but Vala had spent several hours practicing dry fire target solutions from the bridge while they were in hyperspace. She knew the controls.
He wished futilely for even a fraction of the crew Prometheus was supposed to carry. He could fly without anyone else, but damage control handled keeping systems online, re-routing power conduits, and keeping everything critical working until there was time to do real repairs. Doing without equaled playing Russian roulette. Alarms were hooting all over the bridge in response to the hits they were taking and Jehan had to just hope none of them were for critical systems, because there wasn't anything he could do about them anyway.
Peripheral vision caught on one of the monochrome-blue toned screens that showed the three crew in the brig. They were thrown about like dolls with each course adjustment. No time to worry about them; they'd certainly be dead if he didn't get Prometheus away soon. Another screen showed Vala tearing off her helmet as an interdeck elevator brought her upship. He ignored it too.
Numbers cascaded through Jehan's mind; time to orbit, time to shield failure, juggling power to the engines for power to the shield, calculating the optimum ratio from second to second. Gravity's grip on Prometheus slipped, friction exchanged for freefall and Jehan had to curl his legs tight to the pilot's chair to hold himself in it, even while he rolled Prometheus end for end like a caber toss, radiation from the sublights' reactor exhausts slicing through two pursuing death gliders, killing the Jaffa pilots instantly.
Two hours after landing, Prometheus began taking fire. Alarms blared through the ship and Daniel knew he'd been right.
"Brace yourselves!" he yelled just in time.
Prometheus threw itself into the sky, every erg of power pushing it upward, nothing wasted on inertial dampeners or artificial gravity, and the G-forces smashed the three of them flat to the deck. As it accelerated, they slid into one of the bulkheads in a knot of bruised arms and legs.
The pilot sent the ship through a series a maneuvers better fit for a fighter jet or a hummingbird and one deep jolt after another ran through Prometheus as it began returning fire with its rail guns. Each new maneuver sent them sliding in a new direction, until Daniel wrapped his arms around the toilet stand, while Novak and Janet held onto him just in time for the overwhelming press of gravity to give way to freefall.
Prometheus continued to shake under fire and the scent of burning wiring drifted into the cell through the ventilation system. The lights flickered and gave way to red-tinted emergency systems.
"The shields can't take sustained fire of that caliber for much longer," Novak blurted. She let go of Daniel's leg and swam away, arms and legs flailing for purchase and finding none. "Oh God."
"Novak! Legs down."
"I'm don't, I can't – I'm gonna – I'm – urk."
Daniel grimaced and swallowed hard as Novak threw up. It floated in yellow-brown globules that ended up in her hair and on her clothes as she tried to get away. Bile edged up his own throat in sympathy.
Prometheus fired once more, then inertia sent Novak and her stomach contents splashing into the opposite bulkhead as the ship accelerated abruptly. Daniel clutched the toilet tighter, locking one hand around his other wrist, since the stainless steel offered no hand holds – designed that way no doubt to frustrate enterprising potential escapees. Janet clamped onto his ankle after sliding down from his knee.
Vala dived into the bridge, in a dolphin swift somersault, and caught herself with one hand on a control console. She twisted on the fulcrum of her straight arm, jackknifed as she bent her elbow and hit the gunner's seat with a light thump. Reciprocal force threatened to bounce her right out again, sans gravity, but she'd locked legs under the console by then. Her hands were on the controls and the railguns began firing.
"That's an al'kesh, if you haven't noticed, my darling," she announced, ignoring his question.
Tense with apprehension, he demanded again, "Mer?"
"Headed for the engine rooms last time I saw him. He said something about you killing us all," Vala replied, teeth flashing white in one of her crazy smiles.
Jehan relaxed and fell back into the numbers of flying and fighting. Prometheus wasn't easy to fly; she was cranky and idiosyncratic as befitted the first of her kind, but with finesse, she could fly rings around any al'kesh or ha'tak he'd ever flown.
"Al'kesh inbound on vector five-six-nine," Jehan told her. "Death gliders on four-seven-six and four-nine-six."
Jehan compensated for the force of the railguns firing displacing Prometheus from the track he'd plotted, spitting a Goa'uld curse as he did so. The al'kesh had shields of its own and shrugged off the railgun fire.
"Oh, you're turning into a real pain in the mikta," Vala snapped. She half-floated over the control console, like an anchored and militant mermaid, as she fired again. "Get us out of here, Jehan!"
"Not easy," Jehan snapped.
"Right," Vala said. "Let's try these Asgard systems." She whooped as an energy weapon lashed out at the al'kesh, sizzling through its shields. "Take that! You know, I think these are Ba'al's Jaffa – "
Jehan wrenched Prometheus through an opening between the al'kesh and two death gliders. Ba'al. His heart skipped and rushed. He'd make sure he died with nothing left to revive in the sarcophagus before he went back to Ba'al. Burning up on re-entry would probably serve, but Prometheus had to have a self-destruct too. They needed to find that and re-program so that no one could activate it against them or take the ship from them through force. And so he could be sure Ba'al would never touch Mer or Vala. The only thing worse than going back would be seeing either of them in the System Lord's hands.
Maybe he pushed the ship a little harder than he would have without that thought in his head. An alarm began screaming as the fighter bay lost atmosphere. He routed more power to the shields, pulling it from non-critical systems. Prometheus had carried a crew of one hundred fifteen officers and enlisted. It now held six people. They didn't need to waste energy heating or lighting unused portions of the ship.
The engine room comm activated and he grinned as Mer's voice squawked through the bridge. "Are you trying to break all my bones!? I'm not at my best here, you know, and this misbegotten monstrosity was apparently built by dyslexic monkeys!"
"Hey, Mer," Jehan said.
Power to the sublights jumped eleven percent and smoothed out, letting Jehan put distance between Prometheus and the al'kesh. Vala snagged some of the power and fired the Asgard weapon again, penetrating its shields a second, lethal time. It broke up in a spew of vented atmosphere, radiation and smaller, interior explosions.
"Yes, yes, hey yourself, Mr. Laconic. Get us out of here and when we get together you can stun me by stringing three words together. Now stop trying to kill us. Naquadria is significantly less stable than naquadah – you can't treat this thing like damned ha'tak."
Jehan felt like smiling for the first time since Vala returned to the Tanafriti without Mer. Jehan hadn't been able to say anything then, just settled for glaring at her. He couldn't threaten Tenat and Jup. Couldn't tell Mer he'd come for him. Couldn't have if he'd been there, since any promise would have told the Oranians too much of what Mer meant to him. Promises were too easily broken anyway; Mer knew and Jehan knew as well. They'd both been cut with other losses before.
Prometheu s was easily outrunning the death gliders and the limping but still intact Oranian vessel.
"Where to?" he asked Vala.
She pulled herself over to the nav console and began plotting.
"Ushbos. We've got enough naquadah to pay for a complete refit and I want this lovely ship to have all the extras it deserves."
He flicked his fingers toward the screen showing the three crew. It looked like Novak had been space sick.
Vala frowned then shrugged.
"I think they'd be a bit safer if we let them off on Hebridan when we meet up with Tanafriti and Reckell."
The three Tau'ri were dangerous, but not that dangerous. Jehan shrugged his acceptance. Right now, at least one of them would be useful.
"Course plotted," Vala announced.
Jehan initiated the hyperdrive and sent them into the coruscating window that opened into hyperspace. Prometheus surged forward into the hyper window like a hound loose from the traces, doing what she'd been made to do with an eagerness he could feel under his fingertips.
The engine comm sounded.
"Hey, could someone get me a crutch or something? Little Miss Greedypants nearly finished the job Tenat started on me."
The difference as the ship reached hyperspace became apparent a moment later: no more hits on the shield or hull and the nearly soothing, half-audible vibration that meant they were safe again. The alarms stopped and the regular lighting came back up.
The comm from the bridge activated.
"Inertial dampeners are on-line," the cheerful voice of Daniel's original captor announced. "Ship shields are at eighty-nine percent, hyperdrives are at ninety-three, and we are currently three days out from Ushbos. Please orient yourself to the deck. Artificial gravity will be restored at six percent intervals every ten seconds beginning on my mark."
Gravity returned gently as promised, leaving Daniel pressed face down to the floor. Novak made sick noises at the other side of the cell. The smell of stomach acid mixed with the lingering stink of smoke and a hint of ozone. He sighed and got up, moving out of the way, as Janet went to Novak and made sure she was all right before beginning to clean up as much as possible.
Novak had her head under the faucet in the tiny sink, washing the worst out of her hair when the cell door slid open. Daniel had decided the best course was staying out of the way, so he looked up from where he was sitting, while Janet spun to face the door while Novak didn't even look up.
The brig cells were all under surveillance from two cameras that left no corners unobserved. The bucket, mop and towels that the man in the cell doorway pushed inside served as a reminder. The red-scraped welt on one purpling cheekbone and the sweat-spiked dark hair registered a moment later. He pointed at Janet and gestured for her to come.
Janet planted her hands on her hips and glared instead of obeying. "We need to get clean clothes from our quarters," Janet snapped at the pirate.
One flickering glance took in Novak. The pirate sniffed and nodded, then gestured for Janet to come again. "You," he said in Goa'uld. "Come."
"Janet – " Daniel started.
The pirate raised his arm, aiming one of the Kull arm weapons at him.
"I'm going, I'm going," Janet said hurriedly. She skirted around Novak and went to the door. "Lindsay, I'll try to get you a clean jumpsuit or at least some scrubs," she called back before the door shushed shut again.
Novak finished rinsing her hair, wrung it out, and began dabbing her uniform as clean as she could get it with wet hands.
Daniel used the bucket and mop to swab the deck clean. He frowned as he worked. Where had he seen that man before?
Prometheus had a front viewport that doubled as a screen to display data from ship sensors. The twisting not-color of hyperspace translated into blue-purple seen through it. The sensors filtered and translated their data into frequencies visible to human eyes. It still gave Vala a headache. She still loved it.
Hyperspace was safe.
No one could follow, no one could engage, it wrapped around the ship and kept out all the long cold silence between the stars that otherwise seeped inside her.
They'd set the gravity generators back to their regular setting. She sank down in the captain's chair after Jehan left the bridge and stared at the viewport blankly. Slowly, her heartbeat reverted to a normal speed.
They'd beat the galaxy again, whipsawed the Oranians, the Lucian Alliance and Vosh, the arrogant, self-righteous Tau'ri and even Ba'al. She hadn't expected that whoreson snake. If Jehan… She pushed the thought of all the things that hadn't happened out of her head. They'd won. She could rest for a few more moments. The tremor in her fingers would subside once she had her breath back.
With no one there to see her, she could even let her head loll against the seat back and close her eyes. Just for a minute, she promised herself.
She'd hidden it since Jup put a gun to Meredith's head, but she'd been terrified every minute of every day. No one had seen. No one ever saw. Vala had spent every day of her life in some level of fear. As a child, the fears had been small, circumscribed by the limits of her world, but children grow up and she'd discovered so much more to fear, until the Jaffa came. Until she was chosen and Qetesh taught her terror and despair and how small she was, how helpless, how utterly alone everyone was, Vala most of all. She didn't know why she hadn't gone insane. She should have and it had amused Qetesh that she hadn't. Instead, she'd learned to use the fear and she'd also learned to always hide it too, because fear in others was a weakness, and after Qetesh, she couldn't ever afford to appear weak.
Only Jehan knew, but even he didn't see the fear; he only knew because Ba'al had taught him all the same lessons Vala had learned from Qetesh.
The same way Meredith knew.
It had been better after she found Jehan, better after Meredith joined them, because they weren't alone. Jehan had shut down when she came back without his partner though, only getting quieter as Vala faked her usual good humor and flirting with the rest of Tanafriti's crew, and she knew this time her way had angered him. She'd known and done it anyway, because it was the only way she had and because giving away how much getting Meredith back mattered would have only put them in that position of weakness, would have betrayed that both of them needed him, were afraid of losing him.
She'd done her best. Reckell, their second-shift first mate and the only reliable member of the crew they'd been running with lately, had covered too, but it hadn't been good enough to keep the damned crew in line once they had the loot from the cargo ship they'd ambushed. Solek had been looking for an opening for months. Without Meredith, Jehan had been too distracted to keep him in line and Reckell just wasn't ruthless enough – Reckell really belonged on an honest merchant ship. The rest of their cutthroats had fallen for Solek's line and then managed to intimidate Meredith's two engineering crew into siding with them too.
They were lucky they'd been left with the worthless cargo ship and the crippled al'kesh, but then again Solek had likely thought he was leaving them for dead. All without committing an obvious murder that would make the other members of the crew question whether to trust him with their necks. His mistake, because she was going to wring his when she caught up with him.
She couldn't remember the last time she'd slept for more than few minutes. Though the crew of Tanafriti had abandoned them days and days back, she and Jehan had both been on constant watch, then taking and learning to fly Prometheus had occupied them nonstop. If Jehan hadn't been with her, she would have lost the ship back to Daniel Jackson. And then Meredith would be dead, just like he sometimes said, when very drunk but not drunk enough to forget, the Tau'ri had wanted him.
The ironies made her so tired, now that the adrenaline had given away. Even the stiff, leather-covered headrest on the captain's seat felt wonderful behind her head. If she closed her eyes, she suspected she wouldn't open them again until she'd rested finally.
She forced herself up instead, hands braced against the armrests to push herself to her feet, grateful there was no one to see her sway from the exhausted headrush.
"Pain in the mikta," Vala muttered.
This ship had a genuine infirmary, a small but dedicated hospital, unlike almost every other ship she'd ever set foot in. Jehan would have Meredith and the doctor they'd kept in there now.
There would be drugs, too, because humans needed medicine, unlike Goa'uld and Jaffa, who relied on their symbiotes to fight off sickness and heal wounds.
Jaffa didn't even sleep, but she thought the Tau'ri probably had something to keep themselves awake. That's what she needed. She wouldn't trust the Tau'ri doctor to administer it, but Meredith could tell her which drug to take.
She really wanted to pick out a cabin and lie down in a bed and sleep, no matter how many nightmares she would have, but she knew Jehan would be staying with Meredith for the next shift at least and someone had to stay awake. She wouldn't let Daniel Jackson or the other Tau'ri get the drop on her again.
Meredith had about decided the floor would do a better job of holding him up than just the wall. The only problem he could see was that sliding down the wall and sitting would involve getting up eventually. He really didn't want to spend the rest of the trip – wherever they'd set course to – in the ship's engine rooms. He didn't trust the radiation shielding, for one thing, even if the US military hadn't turned over building their secret spaceship to the lowest bidder. He knew the military-industrial complex and the corners they routinely cut.
He eyed the blackened panel halfway across the engine room where a wiring fire had been burning when he made it the engine room. Using a fire extinguisher had been interesting in near-zero gravity. It had floated him across the room. With the return of gravity, the remnants of the retardant foam were dripping down the bulkhead.
The panels would need to be pulled and the entire section rewired after they came out of hyperspace again. Mer didn't want to try it with the work-around he'd created on the fly still in use.
He sighed to himself in self-pity. He'd be the one doing that work, of course.
The sigh of the door opening made him blink his eyes open, only then realizing he'd closed them. His body had apparently made the decision about the deck too, because he was down on it.
Jehan bolted across the engine room and hit his knees next to Mer. His gaze flickered over Mer's face and the bruises there and over his body, where most of the damage was covered. "Mer?" he whispered. His hands came to rest on Mer's shoulder and his opposite elbow, light and deliberately gentle. "Mer."
Another person had come into the engine room with Jehan, but Mer ignored her.
"Took you long enough," Mer told him with a smile, because in fact Jehan and Vala had done the impossible, faster than humanly possible, but most of all, they'd done it: they'd come for him. "I started to wonder – "
Jehan's expression crumpled from concern and relief into pain. "I wouldn't leave – "
Mer caught his hand and overrode his protest. "If you could, not if you would," he corrected. He slid his arm from under Jehan's hand and twined their fingers together instead. He wanted to pull Jehan closer and kiss him, but his lower lip was split and Jehan disliked public displays. Kneeling on the deck with him and holding hands was pretty overboard for Jehan.
The woman cleared her throat.
Mer squinted at her and then blinked. Short reddish hair, petite, grim expression, Air Force wings and a major's oak leaves, holy crap, they'd started letting women go offworld and that was –
She jumped in surprise then stared at him with a confused frown. Finally her brown eyes widened as she recognized him despite the beard and the bruises. "McKay?" She visibly pulled herself together and knelt on the other side of him. Her fingers were cool on his neck as she took his pulse and peered into his eyes. "Explanations can wait. I want to get you up to the infirmary and take a better look at your injuries where I can treat them." She cocked her head and ordered, "Breathe in, then out."
Jehan watched her warily as she listened to Mer's hitched breathing.
"Broken rib," Mer told her.
"What else?" Janet demanded.
"This and that," he said. "I annoyed the Oranians."
Jehan's hand tightened on his.
Janet frowned at the engine room's walls and the door. "It will take some time to get a gurney down here – "
"I can walk," Mer snapped. "Jehan."
Jehan helped him up despite looking a little uncertain.
Janet's surprise felt insulting.
"What?" he demanded.
His ribs screamed at him and he had to pant his way through it. Jehan steadied him and didn't even cringe away from the way he must have smelled at this point. A pointed glare went Janet's way, too. Mer managed to glare at Janet too once he could breathe again. "I hate to quote O'Neill, but 'ya think'?" he snapped.
Janet had the grace to say nothing in reply and they made their way to the nearest interdeck elevator and the infirmary, where she examined him with the same clinical but not unkind expertise he remembered from the SGC. Jehan stayed beside him as much as possible and never left the room.
"We looked for you," she said. "Sam resigned her commission so she could look for you."
"Sam divorced me. And she always wanted to go offworld. Besides, I know the truth. The SGC knew I was with the Tok'ra. You decided the alliance was worth more than confronting them over one scientist. O'Neill never liked me anyway."
Janet retrieved two bottles from the drug cabinet and handed them over. "Antibiotics. The other's a mild painkiller."
Jehan lifted the bottles from her hand and turned them in his long fingers, reading the labels. Distrust radiated from him. Janet sighed loudly.
"Keep the ribs wrapped for at least a week," Janet told Mer. "Unless your symbiote – "
"Jolinar's dead," Mer interrupted. He didn't miss her either. He liked having his head and his body to himself. He did miss how fast she could have knitted his body back to better health as well as shutting down useless pain signals, though.
"Are you another prisoner of these – " Janet gave Jehan a less than friendly look, " – people?"
He immediately regretted the laughter. His ribs didn't like it.
"Meredith isn't a prisoner," Jehan said.
Janet looked at his and Mer's hands, still folded around each other, and nodded. She began cleaning up, dropping empty wrappers into a trash receptacle, emptying the tray of implements into an autoclave for sterilization.
"Unlike me. Or Daniel and Lindsay," she remarked as she stripped off her gloves.
Meredith choked back another bitter laugh.
"You haven't the faintest clue. You think you're being treated badly? We'll let you go on a world with a chappa'ai and you can all go back to the SGC and tell them about terrible ordeal you endured - zatted and kept in the brig for a couple of days." He dropped off the exam table. "Try being a host or a slave for a couple of years."
"Or a couple of decades," Vala said, coming into the infirmary.
Janet's attention switched to her briefly.
Vala ignored her and studied the bandages around Mer's chest. "Ribs?"
"Shall I heal them?" she asked.
She faked it well, but Mer could recognize exhaustion under the mask. "I don't have enough energy," he temporized. "Give it a couple of days. Who's piloting the ship?"
Vala kissed his cheek. "Autopilot, genius. We're in hyperspace."
Jehan tugged his hand. Mer gave her a mock helpless look.
"Better get some sleep," Vala said in a knowing voice. "I'll escort the doctor back to the brig."
"Just a couple hours," he promised.
"I'll relieve you," Jehan added.
Vala waved her hand carelessly. "Take your time. I'm a big girl."
They headed for the infirmary door.
"You could have come back to the SGC," Janet called.
Mer kept walking as he answered.
"Why? They didn't come for me."
"You know Daniel?" Mer asked.
Meredith's voice was calm, only curious, no accusation or anger. Jehan didn't have to always face him to feel safe. He still kept his back to the wall with anyone else except Vala. Meredith had grown used to him not talking much too; he'd accept the short answer. That made speaking easier.
"I recognized him."
He stirred in the spices, keeping an eye sidelong on Yu's lo'taur. None of the Goa'uld trusted each other enough for any preparations to be undertaken by a single slave. Ba'al was more likely to blow up something than play with poison, but that didn't mean Yu or any of the others trusted his slave. Smart of them. If Jehan had had access to a poison that would kill all of them, including Ba'al, he'd have used it, even if it meant dying too.
Yu's lo'taur surprised him. He didn't look comfortable in his dress or his role. He didn't seem to get that none of them were supposed to get friendly with each other either.
"You knew they were going to eat them?" Jarren asked.
Jehan nodded and began steering the infusion. If it boiled, it would be ruined and Ba'al would be displeased. Since Jehan was the only slave with him, he would suffer that displeasure. Ba'al could be very creative in his punishments. He probably wouldn't kill Jehan this time, since he had no sarcophagus. Or maybe he would. Jehan paused and considered if it wouldn't be easiest to provoke Ba'al into doing just that, here where death could be a real escape.
"Yes," he told Yu's lo'taur. Vague curiosity stirred. Why didn't Jarren know this? "They do that every night for as long as the summit continues." Ba'al's last lo'taur had taught Jehan what to expect so that he could perform his duties properly. Not that he would have blinked at anything the Goa'uld did. Cannibalizing their young? Barely blipped the radar in his experience of what they would do.
Jehan took off his boots and set them next to the cabin's door. He left his socks on. The decks of the personal quarters were coated in rubber. It deadened sound and wasn't as easy to slip on as bare metal, but the cold of space still seeped through it.
Meredith didn't say anything more. That was different. Meredith talked. Jehan didn't know if it was a reaction to the Tok'ra symbiote keeping him silent for three years or if he'd talked that much before Jolinar took him as a host. Maybe both? Usually, Meredith would have already filled the air between them with a constant spill of words. Jehan liked it; he was never much for words himself, even before, and he doubted he'd ever get over the lessons in silence as self-defense he had learned as Ba'al's slave.
He watched Meredith through his eyelashes. The ship's doctor had let him go, so though Meredith was bruised and raw in places, he was essentially okay. The relief made Jehan's throat ache, so he shrugged out of his leather jacket and draped it over the desk chair clamped into place in the knee hole of the built-in desk. The whole ship was like that: the design integrated artificial gravity, the same as every Goa'uld ship he'd ever been on, but the builders had still secured everything against freefall. It wasn't a floating palace for a gloating parasite or a toothless cargo hauler. It was a warship. Now it would be a pirate ship.
Their ship unless the Tau'ri took it back.
"What do you think will happen when this is over? To us, I mean?"
Jehan stared at him and frowned, then said repressively, "That is between you and your master."
"Don't you think it is strange that the Goa'uld are letting us see their sacred rituals, hear their most secret conversations?"
Meredith picked his way around the cabin. Barren by Goa'uld standards or even human: it lacked portholes, and the sharp angles were unadorned by any sort of decoration. Not that there had been much, but Jehan had cleaned out the General's gear when he claimed the flag cabin for the two of them, so nothing remained now; they left any personal possessions behind on Tanafriti. Meredith rubbed his upper arms and stared at the bunk they'd be sharing.
"Not to sound like a snake or anything, but I've never understood the military conviction that efficiency has to equal discomfort," Meredith said.
Jehan walked back over to him and wrapped his arms around him from behind. Without his jacket, his arms and back felt the chill too. Meredith felt warm wherever they touched, though, and Jehan leaned into him, rested his chin on a broad shoulder, and contemplated the bunk. It would be a tight fit, but they'd be warm at least.
"Puritans and low bidders," he murmured, startling a chuckle out of Meredith.
"We are definitely getting a different bed in here when we hit Borzin's."
Jehan turned his head and nuzzled behind Meredith's ear, inhaling the scents caught there, acrid, fear-laced sweat, musk, and body dirt that a quick clean up in the ship's infirmary had missed. It wasn't precisely pleasant, but it was Meredith and it grounded him and let him exhale a shuddering breath of relief.
"We're renaming the ship too," Meredith muttered breathlessly, squirming but not moving away. "Prometheus. Shitty name. Bound in chains and getting his liver pecked out every day. The only thing worse would be Icarus."
Jehan laughed against his neck.
"Don't laugh. You chased that Hebridan ship right into the corona of their sun the last time."
"We had good shields," Jehan reminded him.
"Thanks to me," Meredith agreed.
"That was a good prize."
The Loop of Kon Garat made for good hunting. The space racers designed for speed and carried no weapons to fight off pirates and the top of the line experimental designs sold for good money on the blackmarket. It took a clever captain, sabotage or inside information, and a crazy pilot to catch them, though.
"May I speak honestly with you?"
"Have you not been honest prior to now?" Jehan replied in a dry tone.
Jarren appeared nonplussed. Did he think Jehan was Ba'al's lo'taur because he was stupid? Did he think Ba'al was foolish enough to choose Jehan for his appearance? His apparent naiveté could only be an act. Jehan certainly didn't buy it.
"Yes, of course," Jarren said, the words fumbling out. "What I mean is, can I trust you that no matter what I say, this conversation will remain between us?"
Meredith laced his fingers over Jehan's and they shuffled to the bed. Jehan dimmed the light and they crawled in under the blanket and sheet, awkward elbows and knees bumping as they stripped each other the rest of the way, finally warming as skin kissed skin. He tested where he could touch without eliciting a wince, skimming his palms over softer curves and bony angles with equal care. Sometimes they bruised each other, but not this night. Rodney's mouth tasted sour, but Jehan didn't care. He cared about the rasp of hairy thighs sliding against each other, rubbing and then stroking, his fingers finding Meredith's balls, vulnerable, secret and hot, weighing them and the rush of Meredith's moist breath into his own mouth. He savored every caress despite the urgency rising through them both. His toes curled when Meredith played with his nipples, just like always, and Meredith laughed, a sweet comfort.
Meredith whispered and whimpered and moaned when they had sex. He told Jehan what to do, announced his approval of any innovation that felt good, asked what Jehan wanted, gasped and panted and let out a bull deep grunt of satisfaction when he came. He listened too, with his eyes and his hands, for the sounds Jehan couldn't make, and took every wordless cue, translating each touch into what Jehan needed. He held on after Jehan came in a silent, ecstatic shudder, an embrace that didn't confine.
Nothing had changed. Jehan had said nothing, but he'd worried. The Lucians could be as imaginatively sadistic as any Goa'uld: eager stand-ins for the fractured galactic powermongers of only a few years before. Apparently, though, some tortures were left for only humans – or human bodies – to inflict on each other.
He'd once gone through the motions with Vala out of gratitude and to prove to himself he could, but he'd wondered if he'd ever want anyone again before Rodney signed onto the crew.
"I believe the Goa'uld are powerful beings," Jarren said, "that use humans like us as hosts. I believe they use their power to portray Gods so the masses will follow and serve them."
He'd surprised Jarren.
"You know this to be true?
Jarren's frown pleated his brow. "And yet you still serve?"
"As do you," Jehan had snapped.
Thinking about that, thinking about Ba'al, made him shiver and he wriggled closer to Meredith. The bunk was a narrow excuse to tangle his legs between Meredith's anyway. Meredith draped a heavy arm over his back and mumbled about bruises even while he pulled Jehan even closer. All the tension and terror of wondering if they'd get Meredith back finally began dissolving, but Jehan still couldn't sleep.
He whispered, "Hey."
Meredith groaned. "Of course, you want to talk now." He patted Jehan's back though. "Okay, okay. Tell me whatever it is."
"Jackson," Jehan said. "He was serving a Goa'uld."
"Impossible," Meredith said. "Not Jackson. He hates the Goa'uld as much as anyone. When did you see him, anyway?"
"The System Lord Summit, when they accepted Anubis, before Ba'al sent me to his research installation."
Meredith tensed then pushed himself up into a sitting position in the bunk. Jehan sat up too. The sheet and blanket pooled around their waists. Cool air against his sweaty, bare shoulders made his skin goosepimple. "The first thing I'm doing tomorrow is readjusting the environmental controls in this rust bucket," Meredith muttered.
The head of the bunk had a panel of controls for comms and the lights. Jehan dialed the overhead onto low, just enough light to make out Meredith's expressions.
"He was there," he insisted, "calling himself Jarren."
Meredith frowned. "Jolinar and I were on another mission then," he said quietly, the way he did when he picked through the memories the symbiote had left in him. "She always made sure we were were away if any Tau'ri were going to be around – thought someone might guess I wasn't another happy host after all."
That made Jehan grimace. He hated reminders of his time with Ba'al; he figured reminding Meredith or Vala of their imprisonment in their own bodies had to be worse.
"Not that that didn't turn out to be lucky for us," Meredith went on, "since Zipacna's fleet hammered the Ravenna base. We'd have died with the rest of the hosts and Jaffa if we'd been there when Lantash suicided." His mouth twisted downward. "Selmak and her host survived, of course, and oh… " He met Jehan's gaze. "They sent Jackson in undercover since he spoke Goa'uld. I'd forgotten. He was supposed to use the symbiote poison on the gathered system lords."
"Why didn't he?" He would have. He would have taken any opportunity to kill Ba'al and the rest of the snakes. That Jackson hadn't pissed him off. That speaking to Yu might have kept Jackson from killing them made him angry with himself in retrospect.
"How would I know?" Meredith snapped. "Ask him."
He knew he wouldn't.
He'd already said enough.
Y u had been alone in the space station corridor. He held up his hand and Jehan stopped.
"Where is my lo'taur, Jarren?"
"I have not seen him, you lordship," Jehan replied.
Satisfied, dismissing Jehan as though he no longer existed, Yu began to walk off.
Jehan weighed the possibilities. Only one fit: Jarren had been acting as a provocateur. He would report to Yu and Yu would inform Ba'al of his reactions.
He called out softly, "My lord?"
Jehan prostrated himself. "Forgive me. While you know I faithfully serve my master Ba'al, and therefore hear whatever I say with certain suspicion," he said, "I believe it is my duty to tell you that your new lo'taur cannot be trusted."
"We're receiving an IDC from the Alpha Site," the replacement gate tech announced. "And a radio transmission."
"Let's hear it," Jack told him.
"This is General Hammond. Request confirmation that the iris has been opened."
Weir joined Jack and they exchanged a glance full of apprehension. She nodded to Jack to give the order.
"Open the iris," he told the tech, "and give me a channel."
He waited for the nod and then said, "This is Jack O'Neill, General. You have a go ahead. The iris is open. Come on home."
"Thank you, General. The crew of the Prometheus will be returning with me. Hammond, out."
The first members of the crew were already walking out of the wormhole. They looked unharmed and unhurried, but the slump of their shoulders told another story.
"This isn't going to be good, I can tell," Jack remarked to Weir.
She shoved her hand through her hair, but a single head shake had the dark waves falling back into place, proving that maybe women did have something with the hairdressing. The only reason Jack didn't look like a electrified hedgehog at the end of a tiresome day was the near buzz cut. He forced his wayward thoughts back on track. A quick count of the men and women returning through the wormhole told him Hammond hadn't exaggerated. The entire ship's compliment were returning, trudging down the ramp to line up and wait in front of the SFs always on guard duty in front of the doors.
Weir had her gaze on the gate.
General Hammond, Colonel Reynolds, and Sgt. Harriman were the last ones through before the wormhole winked out.
Weir sighed and murmured, "One hundred twelve."
"Prometheus went out with one hundred fifteen crew and five supernumeraries, Sgt. Harriman, Major Fraiser, Dr. Novak, Dr. Jackson, and General Hammond."
Jack looked back at the crowd, his eyes narrowed, searching for the reflection of a pair of eyeglasses or a tiny dynamo of a woman and found neither. "You counted," he said.
Hammond met Jack's gaze through the reinforced glass separating the control room from the embarkation room. Jack kept his face expressionless.
"I counted," Weir answered. "Three crew and three supernumeraries are missing."
"God damn it, Daniel," Jack muttered.
Medical processed Hammond and Reynolds ahead of the rest of the crew. He joined Jack and Weir in the conference room off her office, the one opposite Jack's new one.
"Dr. Weir," Hammond greeted the head of Stargate Command. He nodded to Jack as he took a seat at the table. "Jack."
"General," Weir returned. "Can you tell us what happened?"
Hammond nodded to Reynolds, who recited, "While still within the Milky Way and on course to Pegasus, we received a distress signal. We located it and altered course to provide aid. On arrival at the coordinates, sensors identified a disabled Goa'uld cargo ship and an al'kesh, also damaged. The cargo ship's life support had malfunctioned, rendering its atmosphere toxic. The al'kesh failed to respond to hails, but remained viable. I led a team aboard via the rings."
"On my orders," Hammond clarified.
"We found Jaffa bodies aboard the al'kesh. Before we could ascertain what or who had killed them, the rings aboard the al'kesh activated. We lost communications to Prometheus. Upon arriving back at the al'kesh's rings, we discovered they had been sabotaged, leaving us trapped on the al'kesh. Shortly thereafter, the rings activated and several unconscious members of the crew appeared, including General Hammond. This activity continued until the entire crew were transported to the al'kesh. A head count revealed that Major Fraiser, Dr. Novak and Dr. Jackson were still aboard Prometheus."
"Was there any indication of why they were retained?" Weir asked.
Reynolds shook his head.
"The boarding party ringed onto Deck Four," Hammond said. "I was on the bridge. Intership communications, internal surveillance, and security measures were immediately jammed. We have no way of knowing how many boarders there were, however all crew reports agree they appeared to be Kull warriors."
"Aw crap," Jack muttered.
"By the time qualified members of the crew had recovered sufficiently to repair the damage to the al'kesh ring transports, Prometheus had engaged sublights and moved out of range. Shortly there after, it opened a hyperspace window and transited," Hammond finished.
Weir consulted the file open before her and asked, "What happened to Corporal Herring, Sgt. Wilmox, and Lieutenant Sulimaeo?"
Hammond closed his eyes briefly, visibly regretful.
"Herring, Wilmox, and Sulimaeo died in the course of recovering critical drive crystals from the cargo ship. Carbon dioxide poisoning. Thanks to their efforts members of the engineering crew were able to repair the al'kesh. Without them, we would still be marooned. They performed in the ideal of the US Air Force and Stargate Command and I intend to nominate them all for the highest commendation possible."
Jack looked down at his hands where they rested on the glossy table top. They were looking knobby lately. Some of the hairs on the backs had gone silver. Another sign of getting old, he knew, like his aching knees. Nothing that hit him half as hard as losing another member of his team and another friend, or hell, even a scientist he'd never met, Norfalk or, no, Novak.
"We can't assume the other personnel are… dead just yet, can we?" Weir asked softly. "Is there any reason to believe they were killed in the hijacking of the ship or can we entertain the possibility that they are prisoners or even still free and attempting either to resecure it or escape?"
"We just don't know enough, Dr. Weir," Hammond said.
"MIA," Jack added drearily.
He'd have more hope if someone had told him Daniel was dead. Daniel had died a couple of times now. But this wasn't just Daniel and luck ran out for everyone, even SG-1 – especially SG-1, McKay's ghost whispered like Jack's conscience – plus Fraiser and Nor-Novak were part of the mix too. Jack had no faith left that he would see any of them again.
"We'll instruct all the offworld teams to inquire, subtlely, about Prometheus and our people," Weir stated. "Until we know more, there is little else for us to do. I will contact the President and the Joint Chiefs with the news of the loss of the ship."
"I should do that, Doctor," Hammond said.
"Sir – " Jack said.
"My command, Jack," he said, "my responsibility."
All Jack could do was nod.
With your shield or on it.
Two days out from Ushbos, they decided they had to do something about the three Tau'ri. Ushbos had no chappa'ai, so they couldn't send them back to Earth when they made port. It would have to be before or wait until their next port after the refit. Since there were no human inhabited planets within even a day's detour from their course, after seemed the best bet. Hebridan, as Vala had initially suggested, since they'd be going there and it wasn't under Goa'uld control. They weren't bastards enough to leave three Tau'ri where the snakes could catch them.
That left the question of what to do with them while they were on Ushbos. Keeping them locked in the brig through the refit wouldn't work. Jehan was already uncomfortable with keeping them imprisoned this long. Longer would be against his own ethics.
The mess hall seemed like the best place to meet with them and talk. Food tended to ease tempers.
Meredith went down to the brig and fetched them. Between knowing two of them and being back on his game, Jehan figured he was safe enough. Vala had insisted on knitting up Mer's ribs and the damage to his knee with a healing device. They needed to be on their toes when they dealt with Borzin and the other scum who operated out of Ushbos since the shipyard and port had been taken over by the slaves that once labored there for the Goa'uld.
Meredith objected to playing errand boy, of course.
"Why me? Why do I even need to talk to them? I've got more important things to do. Borzin's going to be all over the Asgard stuff and I need to know how it works before he and the morons get their fingers on it or half of it will walk out in their pockets."
"Because they know you," Vala told him. "You're Tau'ri."
"So's – " Mer clamped his mouth shut. "Fine."
Jackson was talking before they ever made it into the mess.
" – convince her you can't just steal our ship, Rodney."
Mer walked away from him at that point, so that the three Tau'ri came to a stop just inside the mess hall door. Vala had seated herself on one of the tables and was playing with a salt shaker. Jehan slouched against the viewport with his back to hyperspace. He'd found a cache of candy bars in the supply room off the galley, snagged two for Mer and was chewing on his as they came in.
Mer's nostrils flared as he came closer, catching the scent of chocolate. His blue eyes narrowed and his hands reached forward, trying to snag the candy away from Jehan. "Give me that!" Jehan twisted away from him, laughing despite his full mouth, holding his arm up just beyond Mer's reach.
Mer plastered himself against Jehan as he stretched his hand up. Jehan enjoyed that for a minute, despite the round eyes of Jackson, Fraiser and Novak, but gave in when Mer made a frustrated noise and bit his chin. Mer snagged the candy bar as Jehan batted him away with his other hand. "Take it, I don't want you turning cannibal."
Mer grinned at him and took a massive bite from the chocolate bar.
Jehan grinned back and removed one of the others from a pocket.
Mer's face fell as he compared his half-eaten bar with Jehan's whole one.
"I was going to give you this, but since you wanted that one so much… "
"Bastard," Mer muttered.
Jehan flipped him the second candy bar too before slumping back against the viewport.
Vala kicked her legs.
"Well, here we are," she addressed the other three.
"Yes, about that," Jackson said, stepping forward, "this ship was on a rescue mission when you – "
"Diverted?" Vala offered.
" – stole it."
"Stole is such a harsh word," Vala teased. "Appropriated, maybe. Jehan, what do you think?"
He shook his head. Not getting into this game with her.
"Hmm," Mer mumbled. "Shanghai-ed?" He waved his hand at Jackson and the others.
Vala sighed and shook her head. She had her hair in a ponytail that shifted off her half-bare shoulder with the movement. Blue light from the viewport shone off the black strands. Like Jehan and Mer, she was wearing a mixture of clothing they'd picked up from the ship's stores. Vala had already customized hers, so both the black BDUs and her tee-shirt were skin tight. The shoulders and arms of her shirt had been trimmed away as well. "Annexed?"
"No, really, I think the word is stole."
"If you want to be picky about it," Vala said with a pout.
Jackson gave Mer and Jehan a look of exasperation as he appealed, "God, why is she in charge? She is in charge, isn't she?" His gaze sharpened and settled on Jehan. "Not you?"
Jehan shook his head.
"Hey," Mer grumbled. "I could be in charge."
Jackson rolled his eyes.
"Where's Ushbos and how long are you going to keep us?" the little doctor demanded before Jackson and Mer could get into it.
"We wanted to talk to you about that," Vala said. "That's why Mer brought you here."
"I thought he just wanted to tell us everything that was wrong with the design," Novak muttered.
"It's a travesty to even call it engineering," Mer snapped with his mouth still full of chocolate. "The redundant systems are wasting huge amounts of power without actually improving operational stability at all. Half of the back-up circuits are run through the same conduits. Any major damage to the primaries would wipe out their alternates at the same time."
"Half – " Novak started to protest.
"Oh, shut up, it's obvious that once I was gone there was no one left with any intelligence in the SGC. Possibly the entire planet. Sam should have caught some of these problems. I supoose hair dye-induced brain damage must have finally set in. Really, my sister could have done a better job. My sister's kid could have too and her father's an English Major," Mer interrupted her. "Of course, when I'm done and Borzin's crew have remodeled it to my spec, this will be the sweetest ship in the galaxy."
"That might impress me a little more if I thought you were going to use it for a good purpose," Jackson remarked.
"Oh, darling, we are going to use it for a good purpose," Vala told him. "The very best. Making ourselves rich."
"While the people this ship was meant to rescue suffer and possibly die." Jackson aimed an angry look at Mer and practically snarled, "Including Sam."
Mer's mouth dropped open. Jehan decided that they didn't need to go after Jackson's precious Atlantis expedition. He'd heard enough about Mer's ex-wife. The wonderous, blonde Samantha Carter could take care of herself. The nav computer had given them the plot course before Prometheus had diverted to answer their distress signal. It would have taken the ship out of the Milky Way. Jehan really didn't want to take a ship across the long dark between galaxies.
"Actually, we have no evidence they aren't already dead… " Novak winced as Jackson and Fraiser both glared at her. "And no reason to think they are, of course. Obviously. No evidence isn't evidence of anything."
"They had a course set for another galaxy," Jehan said.
"Really?" Mer's expression went from sulky and sour to bright and intrigued in a picosecond. "Which one?"
"Dwarf," Jehan answered. "Nav systems identify it as the Pegasus." Everyone but Mer looked at him as though surprised he'd spoken. He looked back expressionlessly. Fraiser and Novak lost interest after a second, but Jackson cocked his head, studying Jehan with renewed interest. Jehan turned his face away, telling himself he wasn't hiding while knowing it was a lie. He shifted uneasily and kept a sidelong eye on Jackson. "Destination was Atlantis."
"The Lost City is a Gatebuilder myth," Vala said.
"No, it just isn't here in this galaxy," Jackson replied.
Mer snapped his fingers and pointed at Jackson. "How'd you get the expedition there? None of the addresses from the Abydos cartouche or O'Neill's little brain download included extragalactic destinations."
"Doing my job, McKay," Jackson shot back at him.
Mer ignored him and even the remnants of the candy bar in his hand. Though that hand moved as he sketched something in the air, before a brilliant smile spread over his face. "Eight chevrons!"
Jackson folded his arms and mumbled, "I hate it when he does that."
"Well?" Mer demanded. "It was eight chevrons, wasn't it?"
Vala clapped her hands. "Children! The question is what we should do with our lovely 'guests'." She looked brightly at everyone. "Any suggestions?"
"Give us the ship back?" Novak asked, not like she seriously thought they would, but still needed to say it.
Vala appeared to think about it before shaking her head. "No."
Jackson looked sour and Fraiser pursed her lips.
Vala slid off the tabletop.
"Well, if no one else does? You can spend the rest of this trip in the brig until we reach Ushbos, where we'll have to tie you up and keep you somewhere under guard until the repairs and improvements are finished and we can take you somewhere with a chappa'ai." She smiled at them. "Or… "
"Or?" Jackson echoed.
"You can give your paroles and agree to make no effort to sabotage or otherwise steal our ship or harm us. Do that and you can stay in your own quarters, go everywhere but environmental, engineering or the bridge, and in general be ever so much more comfortable. Doesn't that sound much better?"
"If it makes it any easier to decide," Mer said, "I've changed all the passwords, command codes, and programmed a self-destruct in. Without one of us entering a kill command once a day, the drives will overload and blow everything to pieces. Which one of us has to give the command changes at random from day to day, as does the time frame."
"All of that for us?" Fraiser asked.
"Paranoid much, McKay?" Jackson added.
One mutiny had been enough. Jehan and Vala had both agreed Mer's precautions were more than justified this time. If they'd done the same with Tanafriti, Solek might never have chanced his hand and taken it.
"Hah," Mer said. "It's to keep any of Borzin's shadier connections getting any ideas."
"That's another thing," Vala added. "If we have to keep you under guard, someone will decide you must be valuable."
"And valuable things can be sold to the Goa'uld," Jehan finished.
He'd been a gift from Apophis to Ba'al. Lagniappe as Apophis attempted to woo Ba'al to his side in the endless jockeying for position that had followed Ra's fall.
Restless, he stalked over to the coffeemaker Mer had gleefully put into use and poured himself a mug of the black brew inside, only to stare down at it, reminded by just the smell that he'd lost any taste for it. Jehan sipped it anyway.
Jackson had been staring at him, frowning, until his face cleared abruptly. "You were on the space station," he blurted. "You were Ba'al's lo'taur."
"Was," Mer snapped at him sourly.
Novak and Fraiser were both staring. Jehan ignored them and watched Daniel silently.
"How could you serve him?" Daniel demanded.
Jehan set the coffee mug down. "No one mentioned it was a choice, unlike the one we've offered you. Parole or brig?"
Parole was all well and good, but they'd decided they'd each keep one of the Tau'ri with them through each day. Mer insisted on keeping the engineer with him to oversee the work on their ship, soon to renamed once work on refitting it finished, and Jehan had agreed to keep Fraiser with him. That left Daniel for Vala. Just the way she'd wanted it.
Teasing him was just so much fun, even if he was turning out to be quite the prude. Maybe because of that delightful prudishness. Jehan and Mer had had any hint of body consciousness hammered out of them and neither of them wanted her; she certainly couldn't make either of them go red in the face with a few innuendos and the occasional grope.
Not that she would grope Jehan. That would be too hurtful. When Vala touched him, she did it with care and warning and he returned the consideration by relaxing instead of flinching away.
Daniel, on the other hand, spluttered, which she enjoyed the same way she did Mer's rants, and his body sent out all sorts of interested signals. His pupils dilated whenever she leaned close or brushed deliberately against him and Vala did so enjoy being wanted.
They'd made the unanimous decision to sleep in shifts on the ship too, where it rested in one of the cavernous hangars that once serviced motherships, for its security and theirs. For now, she and Daniel had exited the ship and were crossing the immense stretch to a smaller building sitting within it, where Borzin did his personal business.
He caught sight of them.
"Vala Mal Doran!" Borzin exclaimed. "You have a lot of gall, coming back here." He scrunched his face into a furious mask. "Meredith is already infuriating my workers. I suppose you mean to cheat me blind again."
"Borzin, you greasy extortionist slug," Vala replied. "You have the ethics and morals of a warthog three days dead from sweating sickness. If you try to pass of second rate parts on me again, I'll have to remove your chingas and feed them to an alley dog."
They both broke into huge smiles.
"Give us a hug," she laughed and Borzin opened his arms. Vala threw herself into them, wrapping her legs around his waist, squeezing until she felt him rocking under her weight. Finally she laughed and got down. A glance showed her Daniel looking befuddled, nervous and like he wished he was armed. Perfect. The poor dear needed have his assumptions, along with his ego, punctured for his own good. She was really doing him a favor.
"You better have something to pay for all the work Meredith has my people already doing," Borzin warned her.
He gave Daniel and appraising look. "New partner?"
Vala dismissed Daniel casually. "Temp crew."
"Where's the quiet one then?" Borzin asked.
"Jehan's doing a little shopping."
A rude laugh escaped Borzin at that. "He barely talks."
"No one cares when your money's good."
Borzin nodded at that.
"But I don't see Reckell or any of your other regular crew."
Vala shrugged easily. "They're on Tanafriti. " She linked her arm with Borzin's and tugged him into walking with her. "Come along, Daniel."
Business meant matching Borzin shot for shot in his grimy, pinched office space, drinking what was either distilled naquadah or fermented cat piss, ignoring the competing smells of dirt, sweat, hot metal and incense, while exchanging insults and updates. Vala sat where she could keep an eye out. The Lucian Alliance had begun cementing control of Ushbos. Eventually, Vala really would have to stop using the port unless she wanted to pay their even more extortionate fees.
Borzin insisted on regaling Daniel with the tale of how Vala and her crew had stolen the second place finishing ship in the Loop of Kon Garat one year, fitted Tanafriti with improvements based on its tech – his people had done the work – and entered the space race the next.
Outside, heavy equipment competed with torches and welding outfits to overwhelm unprotected ears. Occasionally, a heavy generator would kick in, the vibrations running through the floor and walls. The door to the office stayed open and raised voices drifted in. Ushbos was busier than ever since kicking the Goa'uld out.
"We almost won too," Vala reminisced. "We would have if we hadn't lost time hijacking that shipment of crystals." Her toes curled as she remembered the thrill of that job. It had gone like clockwork. No one on Hebridan had a clue who had pulled it off and they'd made more off the crystal sold on the blackmarket than the Kon Garat prize would have brought them. Only a pilot like Jehan could have done it.
That had been a sweet job.
Still, the kind of prizes they'd be able to take with the new ship would leave that in the dust. Working with the Tanafriti, even the newest, most powerful ha'taks would be helpless against them. They'd lie up off the Passage of Nilor, ambush Goa'uld shipping, and get rich.
An al'kesh came down from orbit to a landing pad near her ship. Vala eyed it, but the crew leaving it were clearly not Jaffa.
Daniel listened quietly as Borzin told two more stories, including the one about raiding one of Ba'al's research installations. It hadn't been a real raid, of course. Ba'al had too many Jaffa. It had been more of a covert extraction of valuable materials…and one lo'taur. Borzin didn't know about that part of it, of course.
Vala steered Borzin back to business after that. They hammered out the terms of their deal using a steady back and forth of insults and threats. Back-up systems, hidden weapon caches, smugglers' compartments, extra weapons systems and sensor packages, all of them cost, but would be worth it when it saved their lives.
"How long?" she asked finally.
"Two months," Borzin said.
"Not good enough."
He held up his hands as though helpless.
Vala named another sum.
"One month," Borzin agreed with a pleased grin. "To be paid in naquadah."
"Would I offer you anything else?"
She joined his laughter.
"I want some remodeling done on the personnel quarters too," Vala decided.
They might as well be comfortable. The ship was home, after all. Jehan and Mer had taken over the admiral's cabin and she had the captain's quarters, but they were unjustly tiny and spartan.
"Of course, of course," Borzin agreed.
Borzin began weaving in his chair. One last shot of liquor and Vala got his thumb and voice prints on a recording crystal. Borzin's head thumped down onto his desk and she let go of his hand. A deal was a deal. Borzin needed to stop drinking with her.
"Passed out," she told Daniel.
"I'm not surprised. How much did you two drink?"
"Not that much, darling. Poor Bor just doesn't hold his liquor too well."
Her own legs were only slightly unsteady. One of the legacies of hosting Qetesh. Snakes didn't like the effect of alcohol, it weakened their hold on a host. Qetesh had permanently altered Vala's metabolism to process alcohol more efficiently and without side effect. That had served her well since. And there were always other intoxicants, though she really preferred sex anyway.
Unfortunately, while she didn't get very drunk, she still got the same hangover. Her head had already begun pounding. By morning, she would be miserable. Maybe Fraiser could be persuaded to provide a painkiller or two.
"Let's go," she said.
"I can't believe you outdrank him."
"Neither can Borzin. He tries a new liquor every time." Vala shrugged. If Borzin ever found something that did knock her out, she shuddered to think what he'd do to her. She knew it would end with her dead, because Borzin knew if it didn't she would come back and end him.
Lucky they understood each other so well. Vala didn't want to find a different shipyard to do the work on her ship. Borzin's people were good at their work.
"Say," Daniel asked as they headed into the city, "what is Jehan buying?"
"This and that. The whole ship's rather uncomfortable, you know, and all our things are still on my previous ship."
"Okay," he said slowly. "What are we going to do now?"
Vala eyed him, then clamped her hand possessively on his arm.
"Daniel, I can hardly go around wearing your awful Tau'ri uniforms now that I don't need to," she sold him. "We're going shopping too."
His groan made her laugh happily.
The month on Ushbos went quickly, but Janet was happy to leave it behind.
Next port would be Hebridan, where Vala had promised to release them. Daniel knew people there. They'd be able to get home or at least gate to the Alpha Site.
McKay had been McKay, whether he called himself Meredith or Rodney, but Vala and Jehan had been not unkind. Compared to the treatment she knew many teams had received at the hands of the Goa'uld and their Jaffa, they'd been generous humanitarians. She'd even had the chance to wander through the markets and stores in the port city, accompanying Jehan, with its sandstone walls and domed buildings like blue-painted hives, boots scuffing over a mosaic plaza hosting a fairground, the dust of an alien world settling into her pores. All something she wouldn't have been given the opportunity to enjoy as part of an SG mission, even given the change in regulations that had allowed her to accompany General Hammond's mission, but her pleasure in it was tainted.
Prometheus had been renamed Revenge. As a final touch, McKay and Jehan had painted a skull and crossbones on its hull after the refit and modifications had been finished. Revenge would not be continuing the mission to Pegasus. Janet's pleasant days on Ushbos, Novak's easy if rancorous partnership with McKay, and even Daniel's fascination with a culture that had successfully remade itself post-Goa'uld, came at the price of a failed rescue mission.
Daniel talked himself hoarse and it did no good. Vala Mal Doran was only interested in profit and even the promise of possible treasure in the Lost City didn't move her. McKay was blind with bitterness toward the SGC. Jehan remained an enigma, though he'd flinched when Daniel shouted that they couldn't just leave them behind.
Janet could think of no way to move any of them to change their minds.
Portside bars on Hebridan were like taverns everywhere in the galaxy, distinguished mostly by the sticky floors being tile or metal instead of wood or dirt, but otherwise: ill-lit, smelling of liquor and unwashed bodies fresh off the tight confines of ships, the furniture usually mismatched and dinged from brawls. Vala felt right at home as she walked in and found the Tanafriti ' s first mate waiting as they'd agreed.
"Vala!" Reckell exclaimed. He spread his arms wide as he greeted her.
Like most taverns, the denizens pretended to ignore each other and watched everything and everyone sidelong while hunching over their drinks. Unless a group started getting loud and happy, but this wasn't the kind of tavern that attracted a partying crowd.
She embraced the Serrakin and then stepped back and said, "The Tanafriti is not at the port."
Reckell grimaced, which looked predatory on his reptilian face, and held up his hands. "Not my fault, Vala. I managed to retrieve your belongings and make it here, but Solek has the rest of the crew in his pocket."
They had taken her ship.
Well, the joke was on Solek, because the Revenge was five times the ship Tanafriti was and it belonged to her and Jehan – and Meredith – alone. No crew shares to anyone else. And they'd made off with the naquadah too. She wouldn't want to be Tenat or Jup right now.
Not that she'd ever want to be an Oranian, but definitely not one of a pair that lost the Lucian Alliance's naquadah.
That didn't mean she wouldn't drop every one of the Tanafriti 's crew, especially that backstabbing ha'taaka Solek, into a vat of hungry beesek leeches if she ever had the opportunity.
"I suppose he kept Jehan's and my prize shares too?" she asked.
"He said both of you would be dead by now."
"Well," she said, baring her teeth in a not-smile, "he was wrong."
"I knew it," Reckell said. "Your things are in storage at the port."
Vala gestured to the bartender to bring them drinks and claimed a table that let her sit with her back to the wall. She paid with Hebridan credit chits bought with naquadah when they arrived and she ringed down to groundside. "So where has the worthless piece of mastage dung taken my ship?"
Reckell sat down opposite her. Once he had a beer in his grip, he answered. "Galar."
Galar, no longer shielded by the Protected Planets Treaty, had turned to higher technology and offering refuge to smugglers, mercenaries and criminals in exchange for protection from any vengeful Goa'uld still out there.
"He's using it to buy himself a place with the Lucians."
"Damn their eyes," Reckell said and drank deep. "They're even pushing here. That's the whisper in the port bars. They want Hebridan to join their coalition."
Vala sipped her own beer and considered. If Solek had the Lucian Alliance and its growing power behind him, taking the Tanafriti back and teaching him a lesson wouldn't be easy, even with the Revenge 's fire power. Some day, though, some day, she'd have a chance and she'd shoot him.
"Not going to happen, of course," Reckell said. "Hebridan didn't bow to the kralniching Goa'uld. These second rate thugs won't have any success, either."
Vala laughed and didn't tell him the Lucians would bribe where the Goa'uld had bludgeoned and have connections with the government before most of the people on the planet had even heard of them. Reckell was proud of his people, human and Serrakin, and wouldn't want to hear that corruption wasn't solely the realm of the Goa'uld. It was kind of sweet.
"Meredith okay?" Reckell asked.
A waitress brought them both two more beers.
"Yes. He and Jehan are staying with the ship."
Jackson, Fraiser and Novak were dangerously innovative. Left alone on the Revenge, they could get out and take it back, despite the modifications she'd paid to have made at Borzin's. Jehan and Meredith hadn't seemed to mind staying aboard. Jehan had probably locked the three others in the brig again so that he and Meredith could spend the day screwing in the flag cabin.
Vala shifted restlessly. Once she finished with Reckell, she needed to find one of the better port brothels and buy a pretty boy for the night. She wouldn't hire anyone that looked like Jackson, though, and she would not indulge any of the impulses Qetesh had left behind, either.
Reckell leaned over the table. "You have another ship?"
Vala leaned in too, a smile playing over her face as she told him, "A Tau'ri ship. Some of the tech on it is Asgard. We refitted at Borzin's. It could take on a mothership. And it's fast."
"Meredith's Tau'ri, isn't he?" Reckell frowned. He didn't like targeting Hebridan shipping – one reason they hadn't laid an ambush on the Loop of Kon Garat lately. "How's he taking that?"
Vala sipped her beer.
"Meredith is disgustingly delighted and lording it over the Tau'ri that are still on board."
"You kept the crew?"
"Only three. We'll drop them off here when we leave port."
She thought about the Tanafriti again. The Revenge was too big to run with just four crew. They needed a second shift at least to operate the ship optimally. "We need to pick up a couple of people before we ship out," she said. "They have to put up with Meredith, of course."
Crew who could tolerate their engineer were hard to find. Vala didn't expect anyone to like him, they just needed to be smart enough to understand Jehan would kill them if they hurt Meredith.
"I'll ask around," Reckell said. "Dushka and Signe might be willing to ship with us again, now that Solek's out of the picture."
"Should have spaced him when he started making trouble," Vala admitted.
"I'll put the word out." He tapped his finger on the table top. "Still no Jaffa?"
"No snakes on my ship," Vala snapped. She shuddered. Jehan and Meredith would both go ballistic if she brought a prim'ta aboard. Bringing aboard a Jaffa on tretonin involved its own array of problems. The need to keep a supply of the drug on hand would make them too predictable. The Lucians had too good a grip on distributing tretonin. "No Jaffa, no Goa'uld, no Tok'ra."
"Any plans for where we'll be going?"
Vala leaned back and stretched. "I'm thinking with this ship, we could lie up off the Passage of Nilor and pick off any ship we wanted."
"Then I think we can pick and choose a crew."
Third beer into the evening and Reckell lurched off to get rid of the first two. Vala stretched her legs under the table and hooked the heels of her boots on the cross piece under Reckell's empty chair. It screeched over the floor as she dragged it a little closer. Her shoulders were stiff and she arched her back, trying to loosen them up and enjoying the looks she got at the same time. She didn't know what a dominatrix was, but she could guess from the sound and the way Meredith sputtered over her outfits while Jehan asked if she wanted them to pick up a whip to go with them.
"It's about time," a half familiar voice said.
Vala tipped her head back.
"Caias," she said, surprised and pleased to see him again. He usually ran under the radar in the Goa'uld worlds, part of the precarious gray market trade between System Lords, tolerated as long as no one declared blood feud between consignment and delivery and he didn't get caught holding his real, very illegal cargoes.
She rocked the chair with one foot.
The stocky red-bearded man she'd sometimes worked with before hooking up with Jehan took the chair gratefully and helped himself to Reckell's beer while he was at it too.
Vala studied him, squinting in the dim light, noting the rough wear on his leathers that were just a tad looser than they should have been. Caias had taken on an ex-Goa'uld host and trained Vala in all the ways someone who didn't worship the snakes as gods needed to know just to survive. He'd expected her to share his bed at the time in exchange, so she didn't owe him, but she remained fond of him.
She saw Reckell coming back and flicked her fingers, low, where Reckell would see, but not Caias. Reckell went to the bar instead and pulled out a comm device.
"It's been forever since we saw each other," she said.
"Since you took off on your own, you mean," Caias corrected her. "It's getting hard for an honest merchant to break even, with the System Lords dropping like flies and the Lucians muscling in everywhere."
"You look like you're having a hard time too."
Caias slapped his hand over his heart. "Vala, I'm wounded. Are you saying I'm not honest?"
"As honest as you have to be," she told him. Caias had taught her to always look out for number one, but to leave the mark with a smile. Cheat him and you were fair game; deal fairly and Caias would too. Vala's natural morals – or lack there of – were a bit more fluid. There were partners and you did whatever you needed to take care of them and there were friends, who you took care of if you could, and everyone else should look out for themselves, because Vala wasn't in the business of charity.
Caias fell into the friend category.
He grumbled and finished Reckell's beer in two more gulps. "I could do better if I had a cargo ship, but my last one was confiscated on Galar. Confiscated! I'm flying a tel'tak. You can't carry enough in one of those to make a good profit. And you – " He sobered and caught Vala's hand in both his. "You need to watch you back, you and your partners, Vala Mal Doran. Whatever you pulled this last time, you went too far: there's a bounty on your heads, all three of you, a fortune in refined naquadah for any of you, dead or alive."
"You mean aside from the one Ba'al's offering?" Vala asked, trying and failing to keep her voice even despite the jolt of adrenaline and fear Caias' warning gave her. "Who is it this time?"
"The Lucian Alliance. That bastard Vosh."
Vosh and Netan were the odds on favorites to end warlord of warlords in charge of the Lucians and each of them were constantly undercutting each other. Vosh, no doubt the one who had provided the naquadah Tenat and Jup had lost to Vala, had been trying to obtain a ship Netan wouldn't know about.
She asked how much naquadah was on offer and winced at Caias' answer. Every bounty hunter in the galaxy would be after their heads. Every slimy worm of an informant would be trying to curry favor with the Lucian Alliance by selling anything they knew about Vala to Vosh. This was going to put a real crimp in any operations. They were lucky they'd jumped from Ushbos when they had. Borzin would have happily cut their throats for that much naquadah and kept the Revenge to sell to someone else and Borzin wasn't even the worst out there.
Damn. This wasn't just a difficulty; it made it nearly impossible to sell any cargo they lifted, no matter how valuable, or provision and repair damages to the ship. They might have just surpassed the shol'va Jaffa Teal'c as the galaxy's most wanted. It would be easy enough to get lost with an entire galaxy to hide in, of course, but she had no intention of hiding out in a nunnery on some backwater mud pit for the rest of her life and that narrowed her options significantly.
It wasn't like they could stop in to any of the Goa'uld-controlled worlds. Ba'al kept gathering in more and more territory and he hadn't forgotten about Jehan. A betrayal by a lo'taur was as bad as a First Prime turning shol'va when it came to losing face with the other System Lords. Look what had happened to Apophis…
"This could be awkward," Vala said eventually. She turned a bright smile on Caias though. He'd done her a good turn, so she would return it.
She gave him the coordinates of the disabled cargo ship they'd left behind with the al'kesh full of Tau'ri. "Life support is shot, of course, but if you pick up a environmental suit and some parts, you can ring right in and fix it up," she advised.
"What do I owe you for this largess?" Caias asked.
Vala waved her hand in dismissal. "A favor some day."
Caias looked at the empty tankard ruefully and said, "I've got to go."
She kissed Caias' beard-tickly cheek, patted it, and told him to get a trim. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
Caias chuckled as he left.
Reckell rejoined her once the smuggler had exited. "I commed Signe and Dushka. They're in," he said. "Til and Dil have been crashing with them; it wasn't clear, but one of them managed sleep with someone's wife or sister or possibly a daughter back on K'Tau and they had to do a runner. They all need money so they'll meet us at the port in the morning."
"We have another problem," Vala told him.
They were debating whether they really wanted the twins on board Revenge as they stepped out of the tavern. Til and Dil didn't have any technical expertise; they were cagey about where they came from, but it had been a Goa'uld world, probably one absorbed by a conquering 'god' they had refused to worship. They'd let slip something about temple assassins once, though not whether there were assassins after them or they had been assassins, but they were very, very good with knives and guns. The pair of them had a real hate on for Jaffa too which put them at the front boarding any ship where there would be fighting. The best they could do on a ship, however, was stand watch and yell for someone who knew what to do if any lights started flashing.
They were dependable, though, and once they signed on, their loyalties were never in doubt. With the bounties out there, that trustworthiness trumped expertise. Besides, they had Mer for the tech end and Novak if they could persuade her to stick with the Revenge. Vala wasn't stupid enough to contemplate keeping Novak if she really wanted to go though, even if she'd thought Jehan and Mer would stand for it. Neither of them gave much of damn about other crew; too tied up in each other, but they had some inconvenient scruples on occasion.
Three steps out the door, Reckell stepped in something squishy, cursed and lurched into Vala as he tried to see what it had been. The staff weapon blast seared a hole in the door behind her and left flames licking at the edges.
More blasts followed but Vala and Reckell were both running and dodging and firing zats back in the general direction of the sniper and they all went wide. Vala had brief moment of gratitude that whoever it was didn't know how to handle a staff weapon.
She sprinted for an alley, a dark slit between to buildings, and dodged inside. She flattened herself against the nearest wall as Reckell lumbered in behind her. Thoughts of an ambush flitted through her head. She let Reckell take point and stayed as close to the wall as she could so as not to silhouette herself.
Reckell cursed under his breath. Vala added a litany of Goa'uld to that, but silently. She clutched her zat. At the other end of the alley, she and Reckell hesitated. Hebridan streets were mostly well lit and well patrolled, but response times were slower down around the port. Easier to let the bar brawls burn themselves out before hauling the drunks into jail after all.
"I don't suppose you've been sleeping with someone's wife?" Vala asked.
Reckell checked the charge on the energy pistol he always carried. "No."
"It would have been nice if they'd been shooting at you instead of me for once."
"I'll go first, cover me if you can."
Vala nodded and crouched a little. "Ready?" she said.
Reckell sprinted from the alley and across the street, taking cover in an inset store front. No fire came from anywhere. Vala took a deep breath and raced out. No one shot at her either. Maybe the shooter had been working alone.
They worked their way carefully down the street until they could slip into a crowd and lose any pursuers. Portside had too many lights to see the stars but a subtle blurring of sharp shadows and darkness heralded dawn as they reached the city's main landing field. They stashed their weapons out of sight as they made their way through the first gate at port security. They had to sign in to find out which landing pad had been assigned to Revenge. An extra credit chit bought a promise that their names wouldn't be entered into the port system until after Revenge lifted again.
Sleepy dockworkers were shifting cargo from cavernous warehouses into dew-darkened haulers as she and Reckell made for the second gate. Pallets of teka filled the air with their fruity scent. Vala swiped one as she passed, giving the men carrying the crate a cheeky smile.
She ate it in three bites, sticky sweet juices running down her chin. Reckell made gagging noises – Serrakin didn't like teka.
Vala spotted four dark figures clumped together outside the second gate in the safety fence and slowed her stride until she picked out the silver glint of Dushka's short hair.
Closer, she could make out Signe, along with the twins. All of them had duffles sitting at their feet.
Revenge dropped out of orbit according to schedule, hazard lights sparking against the still dark sky, haloed by the damp air. Shimmering waves of heat came off its shields as Revenge lowered onto one of the largest pads in a cloud of quick steam. The landing struts scraped over the metal reinforced concrete. The sheer weight of the ship dug divots from the pad, but only the slightest groan issued from the Revenge as settled its weight in place. Jehan had brought it down with his typical delicate touch.
The warship looked alien among the modified al'kesh and local ships surrounding it, flat gray and right angles in contrast to flowing curves and bronze-sheened alloys; it dwarfed all of them, unadorned, uncompromising, inelegant, and brutally efficient.
The shield flickered off and a boarding ramp dropped open. Meredith strolled half-way down the steps and shouted, "Time is money! Move it!"
Signe noticed Vala and Reckell and raised his hand. "Hey, Vala, is that the new ship?"
Vala winced and began jogging toward the group.
The yell in a familiar voice from behind her warned Vala that whoever was after her hadn't given up.
She dove for the ground. Broken bits of concrete and dirt scraped her elbows and knees raw through her clothes.
The staff blast missed her and hit the Revenge's boarding ramp instead, tearing off a hand rail and sending Meredith scrambling back up the steps in a cloud smoke. Signe, Dushka and the twins scattered, while Reckell spun and began shooting back. Vala rolled onto her hip, fumbled her zat out of her jacket and tried to see where the staff blast had originated.
Til and Dil both pulled energy blasters and began firing. They alternated to some beat only they heard and split wide, triangulating on the shooter. Signe and Dushka grabbed a set of duffles each and ran for the boarding ramp, hunched over and zigzagging. Meredith ducked his head and one of the Tau'ri weapons around the edge of the opening in the ship's hull and began shooting over their heads, providing more cover. The chattering rattle of the Tau'ri weapon sounded deceptively harmless.
Reckell pointed to a cargo cart parked next to the fence around the landing field. Vala wormed her way behind its cover.
Behind her, Revenge's sublight engines howled to life, pouring power into its gravity repulsors. The massive ship shuddered and lifted fractionally. The boarding ramp stayed down, with the first step now a half meter off the ground, as the landing struts folded inside and hatches sealed over the ship's undercarriage.
Dushka leaped for the ramp and only half made it, her torso slamming against the steps. Breathless Vyan obscenities rang all the way across the landing field. She dropped the duffles and scrabbled for a handhold on the remaining rail. Signe shoved his shoulder under her ass and lifted. Dushka went the rest of the way up on all fours. Signe bounced up after her and once inside took over cover fire from Meredith.
Til and Dil had disappeared, heading around a small warehouse to flank the shooter. Reckell had some cover behind a couple of crates – the labels revealed they were supplies Vala had contracted to have delivered to the field earlier the day before. Sirens were screaming from deeper in the port, probably set off by the shooting or the bone-shaking roar of Revenge hovering over the pad in a way no ship was meant to for long. Concrete dust and sharp pieces of grit flew up under it.
The huge ship drifted sideways, bringing its boarding ramp closer and closer to where Vala was hunkered down. It loomed, black against the steadily lightening sky, and Vala realized Jehan hadn't activated the running lights. The shield was still down so they could get aboard, but he wasn't making it easier to pick out any vulnerable spots on the hull.
Another staff blast hit the cargo cart and Vala had to scramble aside as it lifted off its wheels and tipped over onto where she'd been crouched. Fire licked up its side. Vala threw herself as low as she could and curled her hands over her head. The flames reached the fuel leaking from a cracked cell and the boom and flare of the following explosion nearly deafened her.
Hands swatted her back, then grabbed her shoulders and pulled Vala to her feet. Reckell swung her around and she saw Til and Dil coming back, supporting a lurching Caias between them. "What – "
Reckell's voice sounded tinny and distant. "They got him."
"Not Caias," Vala blurted.
"Not him," Reckell confirmed as the twins arrived before her.
Til began, "He got – " and Dil finished, " – one of them."
"Oranians," Caias said. He had his arm clamped tight to his side. A dark stain spread beneath it.
Vala reached toward him.
"We got – "
" – the other one."
"Are you all right?"
"Ran into a bit of trouble too," Caias said. "Port authorities found a bit of something I forgot to declare on my tel'tak."
"Can we get out of here now?" Reckell demanded. "Before the port authorities show up here?"
"Come on," Vala told them all. Reckell had to keep a hand on her arm to steady her, but the boarding ramp was only a meter or two away. "We've got a doctor on our ship."
"With an invitation like that how can I refuse?" Caias declared. "Even if your pilot is crazy."
Jehan set a course to the outer rim and the entire crew gathered in Revenge's main mess hall once they were in hyperspace. The three Tau'ri were let out of their cabins to join in.
Vala explained what had happened on Hebridan, filling in background for those that had been present but were still in the dark – like Meredith.
"Oh, that's just great," he grumbled. They were screwed through most of the galaxy.
"It will only be worse on other worlds," Caias added. "For that much naquadah, Odai Ventrell and the other big guns will be on your tails."
"Yes, yes, we get that," Mer snarled at him. "Do you have any useful suggestions or are you just in love with your own voice? It's not like we didn't have to watch our backs before this." Not with Ba'al still after Jehan – a thought that made Meredith shudder when he remembered what Jolinar had known about that particular System Lord.
Jehan, sitting on the table between Meredith's chair and Novak and oblivious, patted Mer's shoulder sympathetically, and went on eating a granola bar liberated from the kitchen. He hadn't said anything since Vala bolted into the bridge and told him get them out of Hebridan space on a heading for Pegasus. Jehan didn't care where they went as long as he had a ship to fly.
"Daniel has explained where this ship was headed before we took it," Vala said. "The Lost City of the Ancients." Enthusiasm and avariciousness lit her up. She had the bit between her teeth now that she'd changed her mind about heading for Pegasus and, more importantly, out of the Milky Way.
Daniel slipped lower in his seat and bit back a groan.
"Think of it," Vala said. "All the treasures of the Gatebuilders."
"Ancient technology," Meredith murmured. His fingers twitched at the thought of getting his hands on it, in situ, with no one to hound him for explanations or weapons or orders to share the materials with other – sniff – scientists, none of which had a tenth of his intelligence, intuition or education. Only Sam had come close.
And there was the chance of seeing her again, too, but he didn't think mentioning that would count for much with Vala or the rest of the crew. Every time Sam came up, Jehan went tense, too. Best to focus on the technology.
"There's no guarantee anything's there," Novak muttered and hiccuped.
Daniel glared at her.
"Sorry, sorry, ignore me."
"Have you tried chewing something?" Dushka asked her. She'd taken over the kitchens and glared at anyone who trespassed – with little success. Jehan and the rest of them weren't comfortable with her mothering them, but Novak looked like she might appreciate it.
Jehan handed Novak another, still-wrapped granola bar.
While Novak tore open the foil with a crackle, Daniel said, "The expedition consisted of two hundred people who may be in trouble and need our help. I think that is the most important thing to remember."
"Only if they're friends of yours," Caias commented.
"There's no reason we couldn't do a good deed and make a profit," Vala said. "Anyone who is against going to the Pegasus galaxy?"
"No Goa'uld there?" Til asked.
"Not that we know of," Daniel replied.
"No Lucian Alliance?"
"No competition at all," Vala crowed.
Til looked at Dil, then they both nodded.
Signe laughed and said, "Why not? Even if it's a bust, we've got plenty of supplies and by the time we make it back, things will have cooled off and the bounty hunters will be after someone else, right?"
Vala laughed brightly. "Caias? Dushka?"
"You know I don't care where we go," Dushka said.
Caias stroked his beard before answering. "I'm temporarily without a ship of my own, so I'll crew with you for a pilot's share."
"Second pilot," Jehan corrected, giving him a narrow-eyed look. "Two crew shares."
"Bit greedy, aren't you?" Caias shot back. "You get a ship share, crew share, officer share and the pilot's share? Plus the net split."
"Get off if you don't like it," Meredith snapped.
"Two and a half shares," Vala offered.
Caias sighed theatrically. "You're a hard lot."
"We are," she agreed with light laugh and a happy wiggle that belied just how true that was.
Her attention switched to Novak, Daniel and Dr. Fraiser. "We'll leave you off at a world with a chappa'ai."
"I'm going with you," Daniel declared.
"Daniel," Fraiser said.
"Someone has to keep them from looting Atlantis."
Til and Dil giggled.
"Daniel, I don't think you'll have much influence in what they choose to do," Fraiser tried again.
Daniel gave her a tired look. "Janet, if I go back, I'll never get another chance. Jack will probably never let me through another stargate."
"You stay, you're just another member of the crew and obey me," Vala told him. "Junior crew. You get a half share until you prove yourself."
He folded his arms and stared at her mulishly.
"I knew you couldn't resist me," Vala teased.
Exasperation obvious, Fraiser lifted her chin. "I've already treated several of you. I imagine you can see the benefit of a doctor joining you?" Her expression challenged anyone to contradict her. "I want a officer share and a crew share."
"You've got it," Mer said, before anyone could object. Jolinar may have cured his allergies and Vala could use the Goa'uld healing device – so could he – but he preferred to have a real, Earth-trained doctor around. Even though he thought they were all making it up as they went along. Medicine wasn't a real science; bodies were all too squishy. He'd trust Janet Fraiser over any other doctor, though.
"Janet, you can't – "
"Someone has to keep you from doing something terminally stupid and it looks like I'm the only one around qualified," she interrupted Daniel. "Besides, Sam is my friend too."
Daniel shut up.
Novak coughed and cleared her throat. "I, um, this is been, uh, very exciting. I think I'd, hic, I'd, hic, like to stay."
Vala caught Mer's eyes and lifted her brows.
"Same shares as the doctor," he said. "She'll take over as second shift engineer."
"Any objections?" Vala asked.
No one said anything.
"Jehan, you and Daniel and Caias can set our course for Atlantis."