*Are you certain this is wise?* Malek asked, as Asheron entered O'Neill's office and shut the door behind him.
*Probably not, but if something doesn't change I'm going to do something much ruder.*
O'Neill glanced up and couldn't hide his grimace at who had come in to see him. He held up one finger to have Asheron wait as he finished his phone call.
Asheron sat down in the chair across from him, uninvited. O'Neill didn't seem to be in a hurry to get rid of whoever he was talking to, but Asheron waited, giving O'Neill a bland look when he glanced his way, not showing impatience. From what he could overhear of O'Neill's end of the conversation there seemed to be a supply problem.
Finally O'Neill hung up. "So. What can I do for you?"
Asheron glanced at the phone and lifted his brows. "A little overwhelming, is it?"
O'Neill stiffened, taking offense even though Asheron hadn't meant it that way. "No, not really. But I am busy --"
Asheron ignored the implicit dismissal, and took it as a request to hurry up. "I would offer my help, since I have experience with this sort of bureaucratic tangle, but I'm sure you'd just throw it back in my face, like you have every other offer of help I've made." He kept his tone level and calm, and was satisfied to see the surprise on O'Neill's face.
He leaned forward a little and looked him in the face. "You don't like me. That's all right; I don't particularly like you either, and I don't care what you think of me. But I do care what you think about Sam. And you've been treating her as though she carries some transmissible disease. That stops now. You're going to let Sam have her work back, and let her back on SG-1 to continue exploring through the Stargate where she belongs."
O'Neill listened to him. "Or?" he glared at Asheron, his hand tapping the pen on his desk. "That sounds an awful lot like a threat."
Asheron leaned back and let himself smile a little. "I have nothing to threaten you with." He paused and then added, "Just... our leaving."
For a heartbeat O'Neill froze, and then he snorted in skeptical disbelief. "Carter would never leave here. Earth. No way."
"You think so?" Asheron asked curiously. "I don't. Not if you continue treating us like your enemies." In a softer voice, he warned, "I'm not your enemy, O'Neill. But you've always thought the worst of the Tok'ra, and I'm not going to wait around while you take your time deciding that we're acceptable." He stood up, having said what he came to say.
"Are you? I give you asylum and this is what I get back?" O'Neill snapped. "There's gratitude for you."
"You expect gratitude that you've locked us in this cage? And Sam is barred from her work for no reason except your fear of us? We both want to help." He spread his arms out at his sides, more earnest than cold now. "I've been a Tok'ra for thirty years, I ruled a country before that, and Malek is two thousand years old. We've been around, O'Neill. We can help you. But you stubbornly won't let us."
O'Neill looked at the surface of his desk, seeming thoughtful, and Asheron began to have the first stirrings of hope that finally O'Neill was trying to get it. "It's not all up to me."
"But some of it is. Give Sam her science, at least. Her brain needs that."
"It is kind of a big brain, isn't it?" O'Neill agreed with a half-grin.
"She's special," Asheron agreed. "And now, with Turan, she could live a long time, as beautiful and intelligent in a hundred years as she is today. Isn't that worth something?"
"Yeah, it is." O'Neill agreed, and told the top of his desk in a mutter. "I didn't want her to be something different."
Asheron held his tongue and didn't tell him that that expecting stasis in a chaotic universe was utterly futile. He left before he fell into another argument.
*Nicely done,* Malek said, as they went down the corridor. "Now we will find out if he actually heard anything you said.*
* * *
Sam showed Asheron the internet from the unsecure computer in her lab, and was amused by how much he seemed to enjoy looking through photos of places around the world and getting her explanation for them.
"It's such a big planet," he observed, after paging through cities of the world and giant skyscrapers. He paused at the image of Tokyo at night. "Very few planets have such a population. I think the Goa'uld have never really understood how many people live here, and how impossible it would be to conquer it all. To destroy it, yes, but not to conquer and hold."
"I've wondered that, too. Though I guess Anubis' plan was to destroy enough to make the rest of it manageable."
He snorted and shook his head. "Six billion people used to fighting each other? I can't even imagine trying to impose rule on that. Ra was smart enough to leave it alone, and that was when the population was much smaller."
"The Goa'uld have never struck me as all that smart," she pointed out.
"Sam!" A voice interrupted, and she turned to see Bill coming in with an unfamiliar tall, cylindrical metallic object in both hands. Asheron jumped up to take it from him, as it swayed dangerously close to hitting the door frame.
"What's that?" she asked curiously, watching as Asheron set it carefully on the table.
"We were hoping you two could tell us," he answered. "It's obviously Ancient, as you can see from the writing. SG-11 brought it back from 3PX827."
She hesitated, wanting to go closer to look, but wary. "Bill. You got clearance to give it to me, right?"
He made a face and waved a hand. "Sure. General O'Neill said it was okay this morning. And since this one won't even turn on, I figured you'd like it." He looked very proud of himself, and she was hit by the urge to give him a hug.
Which she didn't, but she did smile at him. "Thanks, Bill. I'd love to take a crack at it."
"Figured you would. And, Sam?" When he stopped, she nodded at him to go on, when he hesitated with the awkwardness of whatever he couldn't say. He glanced at Malek then at her and nodded to himself. "The department thinks they were being stupid. We deal with aliens and alien technology every day, and treating you like you're some kind of foothold imposter is just wrong and dumb. So you've got our support," he said staunchly.
Touched, her smile widened. "Thank you. Tell the others it means a lot to me."
A moment of silence fell, and then Bill sort of shrugged as if prodding himself awake and took his leave. "Gotta get back to work. Have fun."
She went to join Asheron at the table, where he was looking at the device. "Well, it's about time. We'll have something to celebrate later." She nudged him with a hip then snickered. "You know what this looks like?"
He was going to answer something serious, caught her expression, and turned back to the device to look again. His eyes widened as he realized what she was suggesting.
"I don't think I want to turn on an alien device that large," she added dryly, and he chuckled.
Because staring them both in the face was a nearly three foot tall, rod-like device that looked way too much like an oversized vibrator.
"I may never be able to touch it with a straight face," Sam said, her snickers threatening to break into laughter.
"I don't know," he said, looking at it, now more seriously. "It's very ... suggestive, don't you think?" Hidden from anyone who might pass by in the hall by the table, his hand slid down her thigh.
"Later," she told him, but grinning. "We should work."
He let out a soft sigh of disappointment but pulled his hand back.
Considerably later, after discovering that turning on the device didn't, in fact, turn everyone on base into a raging sex fiend after all, she found Asheron still interested in doing his best to make it seem like it had.
But it wasn't for himself, but for her, touching her with those fingers that seemed to know exactly what to do, even before she knew it herself, and those lips on their languorous journey from her lips, across her breasts, down her stomach, and finally between her splayed thighs.
He teased her with his tongue and sucked on her with eager intensity that she'd never had from any lover before. His hands seemed to move idly, stroking her thighs and calves and up to her hips, but always made sure her legs stayed parted, even when she desperately needed to press them together in a futile attempt to hold back the rising seething need.
Sam shuddered convulsively, covering her mouth with her hand to quiet her own yell, as his mouth and a probing finger sent her over the edge. His tongue slowed its rhythm, easing her down. Then he kissed her stomach and lifted his head. Her chest still heaving for breath, sweat pooling between her breasts and in the backs of her bent knees, she reached down to urge him to come lay next to her.
"God, you are so amazing," she said, still too boneless to even turn and kiss him as he joined her on his back.
"That was for the other day," he murmured.
"Well, it was great," she told him, meaning every word. Then she rolled over, toward him, grinning. "Your turn."
"I don't need - " he protested, rather weakly to her ears.
"Well, I need to," she answered, with a teasing grin, and ran a slow and naughty hand all the way down his front. But before she got to anywhere interesting, he shifted on to his side.
He kissed her, accidentally trapping her arm under his. She kissed back, enjoying his passion, enough to start it rising in her again. But she didn't get so carried away that she forgot what she had intended.
She wriggled her arm free to stroke his hip and slid between his legs. Her hand stopped, fingers cupping him, as she realized that he wasn't aroused at all. Usually by this time, he'd be at least half hard and quick to raise up to an erection.
She smiled, and caressed him with intent, fondling him with strokes that had been foolproof before. But nothing happened. "I see Little Asheron needs a little help," she murmured, not wanting to appear that he was incapable. She straightened her back to give him a better view of her breasts and flicked her gaze up to his, hoping she looked sultry.
He wasn't looking at her, but up at the ceiling, and she could see the muscle in his jaw work as he clenched his teeth. He shuddered, and she had the impression it wasn't in pleasure. He reached down, grabbed her hand and took it away from him. "Stop. Please."
"Asheron? What's wrong?" she asked softly. She felt a reflexive twinge of fear that she had done something, but she knew it wasn't her.
He shook his head once mutely, the lie in every tense muscle of his body. "I'm sorry -- " he started.
"Would you stop apologizing?" she demanded, in only half-pretended exasperation. She took a breath and said in a gentler voice, "You don't have to pretend everything's okay, when I know perfectly well it's not." She bit her lip, suddenly realizing what this night had been really all about. "You don't owe me, for the other night. I'm not keeping score. Look, if there's times you don't want to make love, you know it's okay, right? There'll be times I'm not interested, too, I promise."
"It's not that I'm not interested. I am," he murmured. He rolled upright, bare back curved away from her. His voice came from far away, muffled by his hands. "But not today. I need a little time, Sam. I'm --" He stopped abruptly and she smiled briefly, as she realized he was about to apologize again. He took a breath and straightened. "Our trip raised some memories I'd really rather not have back."
"Of course. I understand," she reassured him. She knelt up and reached out to touch him, but her hand hovered above his skin, uncertain if she should. The light hit his back, and with the sheen of sweat, she could see his skin seemed eerily perfect, except for one long white scar halfway down on the right side that curled around his lower ribs. It was the immaculate skin of a sarcophagus, which erased all outward signs of torment, while ingraining those same pains on the inside. She lowered her hand. "Please, don't think I blame you or I want anything from you that you're not ready to give, Asheron. I'm not in a hurry."
He turned and kissed her on the lips. "Thank you." But afterward, he left the bed and started gathering his clothes.
"Where are you going?" she asked as he dressed.
"Someplace my restlessness won't keep you awake," he said. "Try to get some sleep, Sam. Don't worry about me."
She didn't tell him that not worrying about him was just about impossible. He was in pain, and she wanted to help him. But he wasn't ready for her help, it seemed.
"All right. Take your time," she said. "I'll wait."
His gaze met hers, hearing her meaning of more than just tonight. "You're more than I deserve, Sam," he murmured. "Please don't wait up."
He slipped from the room and eased the door closed behind him.
His face had seemed calm, but she had seen how well he could control that and was not reassured. He was more troubled than he was letting on. She was going to have to find a moment to talk to Malek when Asheron was asleep and find out the truth.
* * *
*You should tell her,* Malek advised while Asheron walked aimlessly down the corridor, away.
Asheron couldn't imagine that. *Tell her what? That her touch reminds me of Ishtar? That every time I make love to her, she's there, too?*
He flinched from the memory, of a jealous purr in his ears. '...remember, my pet, You are mine...'
Stumbling, he ran into the corridor wall and stayed there, leaning against it.
His own weakness and uncontrollable memories were suddenly more than he could handle. *Take it away,* he abruptly asked. *Just make it stop, Malek.*
Malek reminded him gently, *I can't pick and choose, you know that. I can block all of it, from Arvalle's death to our blending, if that's really what you want. But I don't think you do.*
*Yes, yes, I do,* he protested.
*You would lose your memories of how you fought her.*
His memories disproved the idea that he had fought her: screaming, begging, kneeling with his head bent to the tile floor in abject servitude, and worse, pleasuring her with his head between her legs or forcing himself to arousal when she wanted him inside her.
His gorge rose and he gagged. Coughing, trying not to vomit, he dug his fingernails into the cement, wishing it was her flesh he could rip off her bones. Or his own. *How can you say I fought her? That's the definition of broken, not fighting."
Malek's reply was quick and sharp, *No. Obedience in the face of intolerable pain and punishment is not surrender, Asheron. You never surrendered to her. You resisted, in spite of what she put you through, and you won in the end.*
*I don't want this back. I want it all gone.*
Malek tried to soothe him, sending his love and reassurance. *Remember, there was more than suffering. There was the rebellion -- you did fight her."
Asheron didn't have to verbalize an answer that one, since the rebellion had worked out so horribly -- for Naritania and him personally. Remembering it was one of the last things he wanted. Malek hesitated, and Asheron felt Malek's reluctance just before he said, *And there were times of... refuge.*
Refuge? At first Asheron had no idea what he was talking about. There had been no refuge, no place he was safe, only short respites before it all started again.
Then like another door opening, the images were there, and he knew. Dark eyes, not Ishtar's, lit with desire, not cruelty. Nights wrapped in softness and strong arms. Skillful fingers on his skin, offering pleasure not pain. The echo of want ran through his body like an electrical current.
He'd never surrendered to Ishtar, no, but he had surrendered. He'd given in, over and over again, unable to resist feeling human. It had been weakness, but of a different sort. And he had done his best to leave that behind, too.
Nonetheless Malek was right to remind him that he'd had a place, however short each stay had been, to recover and remember himself. Asheron lifted his head and opened his eyes, feeling more capable again. He managed to tease Malek, knowing what the reminder had cost his symbiote, *I can't believe you brought those forward again.*
Malek returned, *Not that I wished to, but you needed to recall there was more than Ishtar's torture during those years. I understand it's difficult to face these memories again, beloved, but you are strong. They are the past, and you can face them and let them pass away.*
*I hope so,* he murmured.
*I am always with you. Now come, you intended to go to the gym and work out some anger in physical activity.*
*I did?* Asheron asked, a bit amused, since he hadn't intended any such thing, at least not consciously.
*You did,* Malek answered firmly.
In the deserted gym, Asheron turned on the lights and looked around. There were various machines, some for lifting weights and some for stationary running or climbing. The other half of the room was empty with thin carpet, and two large cylindrical cushions suspended from the ceiling.
But it was the equipment at the side that attracted his attention -- various sticks and staffs.
*Teal'c told me that he teaches Jaffa staff fighting. I thought there might be a staff you could use to practice -- what was it called? Tel'arshek?*
*Tela'sharin,* Asheron corrected absently as he examined the few choices of practice staff for length. "It's been a long time," he muttered dubiously, but took out the one most like the staff he remembered using in the military academy.
*I will help.*
Asheron knew perfectly well that Malek was doing this to remind him of something good in his memory that had come from Naritania. But he moved with his staff to the center of the floor and tried to remember how to start.
With Malek's help dredging up lessons from a lifetime ago, he was soon able to settle into the first few patterns - blocks and attacks, lunges and sweeps.
But it wasn't satisfying to hit only air. He went to the dummy and practiced his strikes: step, hit, back, turn, lunge, sweep. At first, he kept his breathing slow and calm, in the formal pattern of training.
But as he tired, his control started to slip. His grip tightened on the staff, and his hits fell harder and faster.
If only she was here, so he could kill her again. And her Jaffa who had helped her. And all the rest of her priests and her Goa'uld servants who had stood by and done nothing.
And his people for being cowed and frightened and not fighting back.
And his family for dying and leaving him alone.
But most of all himself for being weak and afraid of things long gone.
Again and again, he hit the bag, losing all sense of grace and control, until it was nothing but pure blind rage.
Exhaustion finally brought him back to himself. He let the staff drop to the floor, panting, with his heart pounding and sweat running down his face. His arm muscles and back burned with the strain, and his hands were cramping from holding on so tightly.
He was horrified to see the rips and holes he had beaten into the bag. He had never lost his temper like that.
*Better a cushioned dummy opponent than a real person,* Malek observed, returning to Asheron's awareness. *Or yourself.*
*I wouldn't -- * Asheron protested, surprised by the idea.
*Beloved, you already turn your anger inward,* Malek interrupted. *Lacking any other target, you are angry at yourself. But you have no fault. You were her victim. She hurt you terribly and forced you to do things you would never have done of your own will. You had no choice. None. Not even to die.*
Asheron flinched, the brightness of the sarcophagus flashing before his eyes, and he was suddenly cold.
Malek continued, *If death was not an escape, how could you have done anything but what she wanted? Or when you were in a place free from her torments, how could you refuse it? You must forgive yourself, Asheron. And forgive me too, for was I not one of those who stood by and did nothing? Worse, I helped you push it away and pretend nothing happened, when I should have encouraged you to deal with it then.*
*I don't think I could have, Malek.* He stared blankly at the wall, not remembering anything in particular, only a constant sense of rage and fear. He'd done a lot of stupid things those first few years as a Tok'ra. *And there's nothing to forgive. You helped me. You were my friend. You kept me sane. I've never blamed you.*
*Then do not blame yourself either. You could do even less than I could. And in the end, you killed her. You won.*
He remembered killing her and how it had felt nothing like winning. More like madness.
* * *
Her leg clamped around him like a vice, and her hands were clawing his shoulders as he pushed inside her. His head was down, next to hers, with his forehead against the pillow. His hands braced himself, as his hips thrust forward. Her heat was around him, tight and slick.
"Come on, my king, my worm, serve your goddess," Ishtar panted, thrashing as he kept driving into her. Her nails scored his skin, thin rivers of pain that didn't break his rhythm or his own mounting need.
But the lust curdled in his chest, as he looked at her face and realized this time was different. Before, he had needed to pretend she was someone else for arousal, but this time he hadn't. He'd seen only her. Her body: The swirl of her long black hair, the full breasts, the way she writhed against him, and the deep warmth of her. Despite how much he hated her - his body was betraying him by desiring her.
Not after everything. Not her. Bad enough that he ached for release when he was with one of her servants. But not her. Not when she amused herself by making him suffer, and not when she'd butchered his people solely to punish him for trying to resist her.
Asheron would never want her. But she was breaking him down, slowly but surely. If he gave into this, soon there would be nothing left but a creature who lived and died to serve her.
Anger made his thrusts rougher and deeper, and his hands curled into fists at the irresistible tightening deep in his belly.
"Oh yes, my king," she panted, "Harder, yes, harder or I will skin you alive."
His heart lurched at the threat. She might do it, if he failed to please her. Reflexive terror welled up and joined with the hot rage knotting his chest that pleasing her mattered at all. He could barely find air to breathe and sweat trickled down his face and pooled between his shoulder blades.
But he obeyed. Again and again. Until she was crying out, and convulsing, and she tightened like a fist around him. He gasped, as the feeling jolted through his nerves, and he nearly spent himself in her. But loathing followed on its heels: loathing for how she took from him, and more loathing for himself for doing her bidding and finding any pleasure in it. He was so close to the edge, but he wasn't consumed.
His mind was suddenly, strangely clear, detached from the seething electricity in his body. She was distracted by her orgasm. He'd get no better chance. One of his fists opened and he reached above the bed, fumbling along the headboard until his fingers found the blade.
So many times he had dreamed of this. So many times in the past two years he had clutched the idea of this to him, caressed it in the dark when he was alone. Sometimes only the thought of someday killing her had held him together, when the bright light of the sarcophagus had shattered him again.
The cold metal murmured to him, as he wrapped his hand around the hilt. Now. Now it would end. No more fear. No more pain.
Her eyes were closed and her head was back, exulting in the orgasm he'd given her, when he brought the knife down. It pierced the skin of her throat so easily, sliding deeper, until it hit the bone of her neck with such force it jarred his hand.
Her eyes and mouth opened, and her body heaved trying to get him off, but he was stronger. Finally, he was stronger. She clawed at him, but he ignored her panicked flailing, smiling as her struggles faded in strength. His lower body pinned her to the bed, and the fury and pain in her eyes warmed him and kept him hard inside her.
He pulled the knife out, and blood fountained up, spattering his face and covering his hands. He ignored it, to lean forward close to her face, staring into her eyes.
"You're not a goddess," he whispered, staring at her and trembling with the force of his hatred. "And you're going to die here. How does it feel?" he demanded, drawing the bloody edge of the knife down her cheek. "To know you're going to die under your slave's hand?"
Her eyes flashed with Goa'uld light. She might have screamed except she couldn't make any sound but gurgling. He heard her silky voice anyway, "I will whip you to the bone and lock you in a sarcophagus with scarabs to eat your flesh until you beg for my forgiveness --"
"NO MORE!" He slammed the knife into her throat again, to silence her.
She was still aware, still alive, with those dark eyes still alight with malice. He hadn't done enough. He left the blade in her neck, bracing himself again on his arms.
He pumped inside her, once and again, as hard as he could, so she would feel it. She would know that he was taking her, as she had done to him. It was heady, to be above her, and she couldn't resist, couldn't speak. The last thing she would know was that he had killed her and taken his own pleasure on her. It was nearly unbearable, all the emotions tangling inside him, and he used her, seeking relief, but he kept his eyes open to watch her die. She spasmed around him one final time, and it sent orgasm pulsing through his groin and up his spine as he spilled inside her.
His arms were shaking and threatened to collapse, and his panting breaths were loud in the sudden silence. He looked down at her face beneath him. She was dead. Ishtar was dead. Her head was nearly cut off, throat slashed to the bone. Blood had soaked into the pillow and sheets around her, and the smell was suddenly overwhelming. He realized he hadn't pulled out from her, and his stomach roiled in revulsion.
He yanked himself away from her, nearly falling off the bed in his haste. He scrambled off and stood on the cold floor, staring at her.
He was shaking -- he wanted to put the knife in her again, he wanted to fall to his knees and beg for mercy, he wanted to curl up on the floor and succumb to the death that had eluded him for two years. But he couldn't do anything. His head felt stuffed with wool, and he couldn't think. He kept looking at the bloody handprints he'd left on the sheets.
She was dead. Finally she was dead. He was avenged. His people were avenged. Where had that sense of triumph and satisfaction gone? Why was there only echoing emptiness left in him?
Because the job wasn't finished. He knew better than anyone that death could be only an impermanent solution. He couldn't let her rise again. He had to make sure.
He reached over and pulled the knife out.
The knife was good enough to pry open the control panel of the sarcophagus and he used the hilt to smash all the crystals inside.
Now Ishtar was dead. And so was he. He would never survive this. But before he finally died and stayed dead, he would destroy this ship and everyone on it.
He remembered to put some clothes on and left Ishtar's chamber, knife in hand. The first Jaffa died quickly, surprised. The second died slower, because he remembered this one and his skill with the whip and chain. When he was done and standing above the body, another of the lotars came around the corner.
The young man's eyes widened. "My lord?" he asked, his voice hoarse and tentative as if he wasn't sure who he was looking at. Not that Asheron could blame him -- the king hadn't been around in a long time.
"We're going to take control of this ship, Kervan. Ishtar is dead." His voice seemed not to belong to him. "And I'm taking back my planet. Follow me."
He gathered up other slaves on the way to the command deck. A few died attacking the Jaffa, but more joined, gathering up the weapons as they went, until there was a group of eight slaves following him into the pel'tak. Asheron held only his knife but it was enough. Ishtar's First Prime tried to fight him, but he barely noticed the blows. This pain was nothing. Nothing like what this one had given him at Ishtar's bidding. Nothing like what he'd endured before this Jaffa had ordered him dragged to the sarcophagus.
The First Prime couldn't say the same as Asheron cut him. He felt only the faintest satisfaction at the Jaffa's shock and dismay as Asheron told him, "Ishtar's dead. This ship is mine. And all of you are going to pay for what you've done to my people."
When the First Prime died, the creature in his belly slithered out. Asheron was moving before he had to think of it, stabbing it behind the head.
He still had it on his blade when he turned his head, "Blockade the door. No one gets in," he ordered Kervan and the others. They blanched and couldn't meet his gaze. Asheron thought the Goa'uld larva was a lot less disgusting dead, than alive, so why they should quail back from it he didn't know.
He flung the creature into the corner and was irritated to find that his shirt was so wet with blood that he could hardly find a dry spot to wipe his blade. He put the knife in the waistband of his pants, before turning to the helm console. He'd been in this room often enough, kneeling beside the throne, to know how to set a course. It was easy enough. The ship dropped like a rock toward the fields west of the capital, and he heard several people fall with the violent lurch. He held on to the console and didn't move.
There was a battle behind him as the other Jaffa tried to get in. But he didn't turn to see. He would stay there until they dragged his corpse away. And by then it would be too late.
The screen lit up and turned white as they entered atmosphere. Moment later the surface appeared and he watched it get closer, the white of the clouds parting for the brown and green of the land and blue water of the sea.
The few people left in Naritania would see the ship plummeting out of control. They'd see the crash. And they'd know they were free. It was all he had to give them. That and his life, cheap as it was.
He knew there was nothing after death. But he couldn't help a wistful thought of seeing Jisa and Arvalle again. But Arvalle would turn away, disgusted by all he'd done and what he'd become. So maybe it was for the best there was no afterlife.
The ground was coming up so fast. He clutched the console and inhaled a long deliberate breath to hold back a sudden desire to stop the ship's fall.
The proximity alarm went off and he closed his eyes, waiting for the end.
* * *
Sam awoke at the strange sound nearby. As awareness shot through her, she realized it was soft gasping and opened her eyes. Going up on her elbows, she looked down at Asheron's face. In the light of the emergency exit sign, his face seemed crumpled with pain and fear. He was curled up, and his hands were fisted so tightly the tendons stood out in his wrists.
His lips parted to let out another of the breathy gasps, and she realized with horror that he was probably screaming in whatever nightmare held him in its grip.
How could Malek let this happen? Shouldn't he be able to stop nightmares?
She shook his shoulder once. "Malek? Wake up. Make it stop."
A shudder went through him, and Asheron fell silent. Then he drew in more even breaths and his hands opened.
"Are you awake?" she whispered.
He turned toward her in the bed and propped his head up on his hand. "I am now, Samantha," he murmured with the symbiote voice. "Thank you."
"How can he have nightmares with you around?" she asked, in confusion. "Can't you stop them?"
"I can, if I'm awake myself," he answered. "But in places of safety we rest at the same time. We share in his subconscious. The past few days that has been more difficult than usual." His gaze slid sideways, blanking, and returned to her. "He's sleeping deeply now."
"Good. I wanted to talk to you, without him hearing us."
"You realize he will know we speak now." She nodded, and he waited for her to explain, though he had to know what she wanted to say.
"He seems... very troubled," she began slowly. "Is he all right?"
Malek hesitated before answering, "Yes, he is well. As he said, returning to Naritania reminded him of things which we had both hoped had been forgotten. He's struggling somewhat with putting them back in their proper context."
Which was all what Sam expected. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
He gave a brief smile. "Continue as you have. Perhaps between us we can prevent him from brooding to excess. Something more productive to do would be helpful, too."
"You're helping in the lab... That's about all I can do," she admitted unwillingly.
"I appreciate that, but I'm afraid Asheron has little interest in science. Planning, logistics, and intelligence analysis are more his areas of skill."
She snorted a laugh. "Well, I don't think we should hold our breath for General O'Neill asking his help on anything like that. He barely lets Dad in on anything, and he's sure as hell not going to ask Asheron for advice."
"Well, more fool him then." Then he quirked a small smile of amusement and at her curious look, he asked, "If they didn't annoy each other so much, they might be friends."
She chuckled and shook her head at him. "In some parallel reality, not this one."
"Perhaps not." He coaxed her down to curl next to him again. "Sleep. Don't worry about us - we've been through this before. They are ghosts, nothing more."
She wasn't sure how she could stop worrying, when it was the ghost that worried her, but she had to get some sleep. It would be dumb to finally get something to work on and burn down the base because she was tired.
* * *
Sam was in the middle of a delicate adjustment of the device, with Malek overseeing the monitor, when someone knocked on the door frame. "Hey, Sam," Daniel said.
Without looking up, she said, "I’m working. Can this wait?"
"Jack wants you both in the briefing room at 1300," he said. "There's news about Baal, apparently, and he wants some input."
That was startling enough to grab her attention. Daniel was alone in the doorway, which freed her to make a face. "Figures. I'm finally doing something interesting and now he wants to talk. Malek, too?"
"He said so." He shrugged. "I talked with him last night. I don't know if it helped, but I told him he was being unfair."
"Thank you," Malek echoed. "We will be there."
"No problem." Daniel waved and left.
Sam turned her head to find Malek's gaze. "Does this thing have quantum reality powers?" she asked dryly, gesturing to the Ancient device on the table. "I could've sworn that was our Daniel, but it seems we slipped into another dimension when I wasn't looking."
He chuckled. "Don't say that. It is all too possible. Though not, I think, with this device." He glanced at it, eyeing it warily, and joked, "I hope."
They got to a stopping place with their test, then headed up to the briefing room. This time, Malek sat beside her, leaving her father to sit on the opposite side next to Teal'c. Jacob glanced between them and lifted his eyebrows. Sam gave a casual half-shrug, as if she didn't know what he meant, and hoped she wasn't blushing. Daniel hurried in, last, looking distracted.
"Have a seat, Daniel," O'Neill invited. "Teal'c was just about to explain to us that the Jaffa have some news about everybody's favorite megalomaniac."
Teal'c nodded his head. "Rak'nor led a mission to one of Anubis' bases. It was believed that it contained technology and possibly a weapons stockpile, and seemed abandoned or ignored by Baal in his attempt to reacquire Anubis' territory."
Malek snorted softly, and Teal'c looked at him, lifting a brow. Malek explained, "Baal ignores very little, Teal'c. And never weaponry."
Teal'c inclined his head in agreement. "Indeed. It was a trap. Twelve rebel Jaffa were killed or captured. Rak'nor barely escaped with his life."
Jacob added, with a glance at Malek, "We also learned that Baal sent Kull warriors after Amaterasu. She's dead."
"So," O'Neill tapped the table with his hands, "what this means is we've got Baal wasting no time picking up where Anubis left off. But he's no quasi-Ascended thing, like Anubis. Command wants your opinion. How much a threat is he? Is he gonna succeed? What can we do to stop him?" He directed the question at Jacob, with a wave of his hand.
But to Sam's surprise, Selmak nodded at Malek, passing the answer to him. "Of course he's a threat. Baal has many years of warfare experience. He's also one of the few Goa'uld interested in technology and technological advancement. We believe access to Anubis' knowledge was what drew Baal to agree to serve as his lieutenant. He may not know how to create more technology, as Anubis did, but he can certainly learn how to use what he's got very efficiently."
"And stopping him?"
He glanced across at Jacob and answered, "You should offer an alliance to Yu Shang-ti or Morrigan against him."
"The Free Jaffa would never accept such an arrangement," Teal'c warned.
Malek shot him a glance. "Nor would the Tok'ra but we are not in a place to be so choosy about our allies anymore."
"I don't think Morrigan or Yu would go for it," Jacob said, reluctantly.
"Oshu is Yu's first prime, and runs the empire in all but name," Malek continued. "Many other Jaffa who did not join the rebellion have gone to serve under him. But others still unaffiliated have returned to serve Baal, because he offers them what they truly want, which is a powerful lord. But without help, both Morrigan and Yu will fall, and leave Baal the unquestioned supreme system lord."
He spoke bluntly, with a slight curl to his lip of distaste, and Sam realized that he didn't want to be saying any of this any more than Teal'c wanted to hear it. It was coolly practical - and she figured it was probably more Asheron's plan than Malek's.
O'Neill shook his head. "I bet you're right, but no one's gonna sign off on a plan that relies on allying with Goa'uld. Hell, I don't like it either."
"He will come here," Malek said flatly. "He knows Earth is his most persistent enemy. And he will not be bound by the Asgard treaty when he also knows the Asgard are weak."
"Even after we defeated Anubis with the Antarctica outpost?" Sam asked. "Would Baal really try again?"
"He's not going to come in ha'taks, Samantha," Malek said. "Baal will adapt his tactics. Though he prefers open attack, he understands the value of stealth." He hesitated, gaze flickering to the side perhaps consulting Asheron, and then added, "He wants to weaken Earth, while he pursues other goals. There are likely infiltrators here already."
"You just can't help bringing good news, can you?" O'Neill muttered.
"Better the truth," Malek said, "than a comforting lie."
O'Neill grunted but couldn't argue with that. "I'll pass it up to the Pentagon, but NID's already tasked with looking for Goa'uld here, so we'll just have to depend on them keeping an eye out, " O'Neill said. "At least we know Barrett's competent. But if you've got any ideas about where Baal might plant spies, let me know," he directed Malek and Jacob, who both nodded.
The briefing finished after that, and Sam was glad to return to her experiment. Malek assisted her for a while, then admitted Asheron was bored with the tedious experiments and he was going to take a break.
"Bored?" she asked, pretending shock and then heaving a sigh. "Fine. Abandon me."
His head dropped to change to Asheron, and when he lifted it again, he looked uncertain. He opened his mouth to speak, but then she laughed. "It's okay. It's boring, I don't blame you. But I'll be there later to watch you and Teal'c."
"To watch him kick my ass some more?" Asheron asked wryly.
"You're getting better," she grinned at him. "And I promise to give you a fitting reward for your bravery."
She gave him a kiss to send him on his way, and turned back to the work, hoping she could finish before he and Teal'c started, because yesterday's session had been exciting.
* * *
One more file, Asheron told himself, and then he was going to the gym. It was fairly pathetic how much he looked forward to his daily sparring session with Teal'c.
*Teal'c enjoys it as well,* Malek told him. *You are the only person on base capable of presenting a challenge.*
*Benefits of blending,* Asheron gave a mental snort. It wasn't that he was especially skilled, although the frequent practice helped, but he had the enhanced ability and strength from Malek.
*You are welcome,* Malek said, a little snidely, as Asheron pulled the file off the stack and opened it.
His stomach clenched when he read the Goa'uld name from the first page. Moloc. He knew that name. Moloc had been one of Ishtar's many under-lords, having a handful of worlds under his direct control including a large Jaffa homeworld. Moloc had visited court only once and had paid little attention to his queen's slave.
But as Asheron read through O'Neill's report, the anxiety provoked by the reminder faded, replaced by horror.
Moloc had been murdering the baby girls. And he was glad for the note about how the priestess Ishta had been rescuing them, creating the Hak'tyl. But there was no note that the practice had ended and no notation of a follow-up mission listed.
Surely Moloc wasn't still alive? This wasn't still going on?
*Asheron...* Malek started, but Asheron stood up and went to the gym at a fast clip.
*I need to know.*
"Teal'c," he greeted hurriedly as he entered. One sweep of his gaze showed the room still empty of onlookers, so he didn't wait longer than letting Teal'c greet him in return. "I have a question about the Hak'tyl."
Teal'c raised a brow, but otherwise waited patiently for Asheron to ask.
"Have you been back there?" Asheron asked.
"I have," Teal'c answered. "To visit the priestess Ishta. Twice."
"And Moloc? Is he still alive, still... murdering the baby girls?" Asheron asked, keeping his voice level even though it wanted to quaver with horror and disgust.
"He is," Teal'c paused, regarding Asheron. "Ishta saves those she can, but not all. You did not know what he was doing?"
Asheron stared at him for a moment, aghast and feeling defensive. "No, of course not! If the Tok'ra had known, we would've done something about it." What they might have done, he wasn't sure, but something. He would certainly have pushed for Moloc's assassination.
"Moloc wanted more warriors and began these sacrifices many years ago," Teal'c had no accusation in his voice, but Asheron felt it regardless. Teal'c doubted that the Tok'ra hadn't known. "Thirty years, Ishta said. But she could only save --"
Asheron didn't hear the rest. Thirty years.
He could hear the blood rushing in his ears and his chest tightened up, claws of ice stabbing his ribs and clutching his heart so he couldn't breathe.
All he could manage was one faint whisper of denial, "No..."
*Asheron? What happened?* Malek asked in confusion, not following Asheron's leap of understanding.
Now Teal'c looked concerned. "Asheron? Malek? What is wrong?"
"What have I done?" Asheron whispered. He backed away from Teal'c, until he hit the wall behind him and couldn't retreat any farther.
He put both hands on the wall to either side, pressing against their solidity, as he explained in a voice that he could barely push through his throat. "Thirty years ago, Moloc started killing baby girls. He did that because he needed warriors, because there was unrest and a war of succession after Ishtar died. I killed her. Moloc killed those babies because of me."
*Stop this at once,* Malek snapped. *It is not your fault. Moloc is a murderous monster, like the rest of his kind. He killed the babies because he is evil and possibly insane or stupid, not because of you.*
But Asheron shook his head, answering aloud, "That's not true. Wasn't I the one who pushed the council later into destabilizing Cronus so Baal would go after his territory? He needed Jaffa for that too; warriors, not girls. That was my doing."
Teal'c was watching him, saying nothing, but Asheron was sure he saw some flicker of horror or disgust on his face.
"I need to fix this," he declared. "I have to stop it."
"What do you intend?" Teal'c asked.
There was really only one thing he could do. "I'm going to kill Moloc."
Teal'c's eyes flared wide with surprise, and Asheron felt pleased that he'd startled Teal'c out of his calm, if only for a moment. "The Hak'tyl have tried," Teal'c said, perhaps in caution. "He is well protected by loyal guards."
Asheron pushed himself from the wall, his anguish settling into cold determination. "No offense to your priestesses, but I have some experience they don't."
"You will not succeed alone."
"No. Which is why I'm going to ask O'Neill to lend me SG-1 to help. If you're willing," he waited for Teal'c's answer.
Teal'c inclined his head. "Yes."
"Good." After a moment, the weight of Teal'c's silence made him prompt, "What?"
"You are willing to risk your life for the Jaffa?" he asked.
Crystal beads from the fallen chandelier glinted like bright stars all over the dark wooden floor. Jisa's sequined dress was now dull with red blood, and her broken body was so small and limp against his chest...
He blinked and answered honestly, "For the Jaffa? No. For parents." He paused and added in a murmur, looking away, "The Goa'uld murdered my daughter, Teal'c. I still see her face; how can I condemn another parent to that, when I started it?"
He could sense the disgust coming off in Teal'c in waves, and flinched a little when a big hand fell on his shoulder. But Teal'c left his hand there, gripping lightly. "You are incorrect. You killed Ishtar to free your people; and by doing so you gave hope to the Jaffa that some day we too would be free."
Surprised by the words when he had expected condemnation, Asheron glanced at him, and saw only understanding. "I will go with you," Teal'c said. "No matter what the Tau'ri decide I would be honored to go into battle with you."
"The honor is mine, Teal'c," They clasped arms in Jaffa-fashion, and bent their heads. For a moment the dispute at the Alpha Site two years ago flashed before Asheron's eyes, and he was darkly amused that the Teal'c from back then would never have said that.
But then, there had been times he had blamed all the Jaffa for Jisa's death, so perhaps they had both learned something.
* * *
Sam didn't have to ask why killing Moloc was so important to Asheron. She remembered the night Bra'tac had told the story of the Last King of Naritania and his murdered daughter, not realizing who sat at the fire with them at the Alpha Site. She also had no doubt this mission was tied into his current nightmares of Ishtar and wanting to kill her again, if only by proxy.
He was going to go, with or without Sam. Teal'c had always wanted to do away with Moloc, so he was eager to follow Asheron's lead on this.
All she had to do was exchange a glance with Daniel, and they were going. "We can't let you two go by yourselves, without us to back you up," she declared. "But we need a better plan than marching into Moloc's palace and getting killed."
At that point Asheron smiled at her, and she got chills of foreboding spreading across her skin.
His plan turned out not quite so bad as she had feared, but it was still going to be a costume mission. She and Asheron would play Goa'uld and Daniel their lotar, and Teal'c would be their "prisoner". They'd stop by the Hak'tyl for intel on the layout of the place and get Ishta's backup.
Sam thought the plan had a good chance if they got more intel, though she was uneasy with Asheron's determination to kill Moloc himself. "His Jaffa will be with him."
He shrugged. "If he doesn't recognize me, Malek will remind him of who I was. He'll see us alone, I think, out of curiosity, if nothing else. He will not expect an attack from a minor Goa'uld seeking a stronger patron. I'm sure I can find an opportunity."
Though it didn't turn out that was true. Because they weren't going.
"Are you crazy?" O'Neill looked at them after they laid out the plan for him.
"It's a good plan," Asheron said.
"It's an insane plan. You're gonna stroll into his palace, armed to the teeth and just kill him like that?" O'Neill snapped his fingers. "That'll never work."
"As opposed to strolling into Apophis' palace to rescue Daniel's wife?" Asheron shot back. "Or any number of other reckless, so-called 'plans' I've read in your files? This is far less risky than most of those. Malek and I know him and we've played Goa'uld before. It'll work and we'll rid the galaxy of him for good. The payoff is well worth the risk."
"I thought the Tok'ra were against piecemeal assassinations," Jack pointed out, glancing at Jacob, who had reluctantly agreed to the plan. They hadn't had a chance to talk about it in private, but Sam was pretty sure he'd agreed because Asheron was going to do it anyway.
"Usually yes," Jacob started. "But this -- "
"I don't know why you're so resistant, O'Neill," Asheron interrupted. "This is something you should've done when you found out what Moloc was doing."
"Us? How about how the Tok'ra didn't do anything about it for thirty years? Why is it suddenly our job to clean up after you?" O'Neill accused.
"We didn't know. Besides, you're the one always going on about being more active against the Goa'uld. So it's okay to completely overthrow the Goa'uld hierarchy without regard for what the chaos would do to people, but when the chance comes to save babies from being murdered, you don't care? What kind of selective morality is that?"
Sam winced. Asheron either had no idea of what he was saying to O'Neill, who'd lost his child, too, or he did, and it was a low blow.
"Of course I care!" O'Neill exclaimed. "More than you do, I'm sure! But I'm not going to throw my people away on a stupid plan."
For just one heartbeat the briefing room was silent, and then Asheron retorted coolly, "Then you don't have to. I don't need your approval to go myself. I can find some among the Hak'tyl to assist, if you're so determined to let Moloc's atrocities continue."
Sam finally had it and intervened with a hand on Asheron's arm, looking toward O'Neill. "Stop it, both of you. Asheron, you went too far when you said the general doesn't care; he does, and you know it. And you," she turned her eye on O'Neill, "you nearly got court-martialed for Merrin, and that was just one girl. You know we need to try to save these baby girls, and the only reason we didn't do it before was we had no way to get close. Asheron's plan is the best one we've got for taking out Moloc. So just say yes and let us go, because I know my commission's on thin ice anyway, and I don't have a lot to lose. You can't keep us here if we want to go."
O'Neill looked stubborn but didn't have time to say anything, because the alarm went off and the PA blared with Davis' voice from downstairs, "Unscheduled gate activation."
Sam glanced out the window to see the iris closing with the bright flashes of the wormhole leaking around it.
O'Neill stood up and started immediately for the stairs, and everyone else followed.
In the small amount of time she was on the stairs, the wormhole had already shut down and the iris was opening.
O'Neill asked, "Davis? What happened? Wrong number?"
"No, sir. There was a transmission," Davis reported. He called it up on the computer and it came through the speakers.
A male voice she didn't recognize said, "Stargate Command, of Earth, this is Proctor Argelem of Pangar. We need your help. The tretonin isn't working. Our people are dying. Please we need your -- "
Then it cut off. Davis answered the unspoken question. "That's all, sir. The wormhole cut out right then."
Sam frowned. That was odd -- a radio transmission should keep the wormhole open, unless the transmission cut out first and then the wormhole because of the lack of anything passing through it.
"Dial them back, see if we can lock," O'Neill ordered.
It turned out that they could lock to the Pangar gate but no one answered their attempts at radio contact.
O'Neill glanced at her. "Well, you said you wanted action. Gear up, you have your window in ten minutes."
O'Neill turned his head to look at Malek. "And since you're so bored you want to go kill Goa'uld, I assume you want to go with?"
"Certainly," Malek answered. "If there is something wrong with the tretonin on Pangar, I must go."
"Right." He turned back to Sam. "Let's say two hours for a first status report. That should give you a chance to meet the locals and get some idea what you're up against. I'll have Doctor Brightman's team on standby if you need to medivac people. Go."
"Sir." With a glance, she gathered up the team and they headed out at a fast trot for the locker room.
Go on to CHAPTER THREE