The Jaffa brought her to a small room with a tiled floor spread with a thick carpet in a geometric design, a large window looking toward the mountain peaks, and a pair of plush arm chairs on either side of a small table set with a game that looked a bit like backgammon. On the back wall was what she thought was a painted mural of a lush flowering garden, but on closer inspection it proved to be a mosaic made with colored stones, none of them bigger than her littlest nail, then covered with some kind of clear lacquer to preserve it.
She looked around, impressed in spite of herself. Neither the usual Goa'uld tacky decorating or even Baal's interest in technology was much in evidence -- the most gaudy things were the pair of matching vases with gold patterns, but even those showed an age and craftsmanship that Sam could see.
Two Jaffa waited with her, with two male lotars who brought a plate with cheese and bread, and tea.
Finally, some ten minutes later, Asheron came through the main door. Without taking his eyes from her, he dismissed everyone from the room.
"Why are you here?" he demanded harshly, the instant the door closed behind the lotars, leaving them in the room alone. "What foolish notion brought you here?"
She tried a smile. "I thought you might be happy to see me."
"How can I possibly be happy to see you walk in here, disrupting my plans and putting yourself in danger for no good purpose?" he returned, folding his arms. "What are you doing here?"
"I wanted to see you. I wanted to know if my Asheron was still alive," she added more softly.
That caught him by surprise. But he damped it down and answered flatly, "No. Now you can go."
His horror when she'd walked in the throne room made that one a lie. She shot back, "I don't believe you." She waited, watching his face. His expression was tightly controlled, but she could sense something else there behind it that was straining to get out. "We've heard things," she said. "That you are Baal's lieutenant. That you solidify his conquests."
Actually what they had heard was far more frightening than that. Baal was systematically wiping out his competition, removing the other Goa'uld, and putting in a new system of governors, law and taxation. Jaffa were flocking back to him, and some of the subject populations had actually welcomed Baal, since he was a less harsh a master than their previous Goa'uld. Baal was not just destroying his enemies, he was building an empire.
All of which sounded suspiciously like Asheron's influence, taking away the aspect of Goa'uld evil which made their subjects hate them the most -- whimsical, purposeless cruelty -- and replacing it with order.
"All of it is true," Asheron said flatly. "All of it. Including the fact that we are lovers." He said it as if throwing it into her face, hoping to make her recoil.
But she'd known since the day she'd left him here that compliance had been part of the bargain. She just nodded. "I know you bargained for our freedom by agreeing to be his zhi'lotar. I know what it means."
"Do you?" he asked, with a dark, humorless smile. "I don't think you do, or you would never have come here."
"Then explain it to me," she challenged. But she need not have wondered if he would, since he seemed to take a ruthless delight in telling her.
Arms still folded in protective hostility, he said, "I am not his slave. We are mates by choice. I bed him by choice. He doesn't force me. He doesn't have to, because I like it." He emphasized the last words enough to make her lean backward, and she saw his satisfaction at her reaction.
He added, pressing his advantage, "There is nothing I have not done for him in pleasure or not let him do to me, no part of him I have not touched. But mostly I just like him to fuck me."
She felt her eyes go wide and then her cheeks grew hot in embarrassment. She had the sudden flash of what Asheron looked like during sex, but with Baal on top of him. Long lean bodies entwined, with sweat shining on their naked skin… The image was disturbing and wrong, but not in the way it should have been or the way Asheron intended.
Trying to get the picture out of her mind, she wondered suddenly who had taught him the word and its meaning. How he knew to use it as a shock tactic.
She straightened and recovered the step she'd taken backward, determined not to let him get to her. "This isn't going to work," she said. "You're trying to push me away."
"I'm telling you because it's true," he snapped. "But, yes, I do want you to leave."
She stepped closer to him, and he moved back, out of her reach, with a brief look of something like fear flashing in his eyes. She stopped where she was, afraid that she would provoke him accidentally into flight. But it did tell her that she was right. "Come home with me," she urged quietly. "I know you don't really want to be here. And you don't have to be. Let's go home, and we'll fight Baal and Anubis as we always did."
He shook his head once. "No. I belong here."
"How can you say that?" she demanded, as a sharp needle inserted into her heart. It hurt far more than his intentionally crude attempt to push her away, since he didn't even seem to mean it cruelly. "You belong with me. And what about Turan? Earth?"
"Somehow I think you'll manage without me," he answered, with bitter sarcasm. "It's not as if I was doing anything useful for Earth."
"Is this useful?" She shook her head in frustration. "Asheron, you are helping Baal become the unchallenged ruler of the entire Goa'uld space. Don't you see that?"
"That's the plan," he answered with infuriating calm. "There's been too much chaos, too much death. We're going to get rid of Anubis, once and for all, and go back as it was under Ra, but better."
She stared at him, aghast. But she saw nothing in his expression that indicated he didn't mean what he said. "Better?" she repeated in disbelief. "Do you actually think enslaving the galaxy under Baal's rule is 'better'? That doesn't sound like you." He didn't reply, just got a little smile on his face like she had never known him at all. Maybe she hadn't. The thought made her angry. "What did he offer to get you to help him? Will you have Inannar for your own to rule? Or is he paying you in some other coin for your services?"
She gasped, and her hand flew up to her mouth the moment the words came out. She shouldn't have said that. Oh God, the look on his face -- like she had slapped him. But then the expression changed back to that arrogant mask and he drew himself up. "I see you finally understand, Sam," he said coldly. "Did you really think that I would be content with the scraps the Tau'ri threw my way? But Baal understood what more I could become and he offered it to me." He smirked, but his eyes remained shuttered and dark. "And the price of sharing his bed was one I was willing to pay."
She couldn't speak, horror like a cold weight in her chest. Rak'nor was right, after all. A small part of him maybe wanted to leave, but there was more that enjoyed the power.
"So you see why I will never come with you," he continued. "Baal and I both have what we want. There will be order and justice, and peace and safety again in the galaxy."
At first she was going to dismiss his words and say scornfully, 'justice? What does a Goa'uld know about justice?' Then she remembered the death of Moloc, freeing the Hak'tyl. It was not the only story like it either, in Baal's quest to administer and consolidate his territory. Baal didn't know a lot about justice, but Asheron did.
She realized she was wrong. She had bought into his act, after swearing she wouldn't. This wasn't about her and Turan. It wasn't about Earth. It certainly wasn't about ambition and power, no matter what he claimed.
Managing a bit of a smile, she shook her head. "You keep trying so hard to make me turn against you, feeding me half truths so I abandon you here. Protecting me and Turan and Earth, by sacrificing yourself? Making sure nobody dies but you?" she asked softly. "Is that the real bargain? You let Baal kill you, a little each day, and he lets you rein in his instincts for death and pain? So when Asheron is gone, at least you'll have tried to do good?"
He shook his head in automatic denial, and turned away from her. But his tone softened, in tacit admission that she'd finally gotten past his defenses.
"He's not killing me. He doesn't hurt me, if that's what you're thinking," he answered, choosing the most literal interpretation of her words. "He listens. He lets me save people -- people who would be victims of his vengeance or neglect. I've persuaded him to kill some of the worst of the Goa'uld predators, and we're trying to find a way to eliminate Anubis. My plan is working."
"At what cost to you, Asheron?" she persisted, but gently. She was surprised, but relieved, to know that Baal wasn't hurting him, but then, why would he bother, when he apparently had what he wanted? "You're moving Baal away from genocidal warlord, which is great, yes, but what direction is he moving you? Expediency over right, obedience over freedom... what compromises are you making?"
"Nothing I can't live with," he answered. His voice was firm, as if he meant it, but even if it was true now, she couldn't believe it would last.
He let her word fall untouched and took a deep breath. "You have to leave, Sam. He could come back at any moment, and I -- I don't know if I can protect you again."
"You don't have to --" she started calmly, but reassured that he really did still care.
"Yes, I do." He turned back to her, anguished as he demanded, "Why did you come here? Why? If he catches you and kills you, everything I've done will be for nothing!"
"Asheron -- "
He paid no attention, wrapping his arms around himself and moving back against the table behind him. The dark eyes were open windows to a wounded spirit, completely bare of his usual control. "But I don't know that I can stop him this time. He already has everything -- my body and my mind -- my soul. I have nothing left to give him. I can't keep you safe, Sam. Please, you have to go. Save Turan if not yourself."
"Not yet," she answered. He hung his head, shoulders slumping in defeat. It just about broke her heart to see him there, so diminished. Baal had done this. But even as she grew angry at him, she knew she was angry at herself, too. She'd ignored his concerns about coming here, so sure she knew best when she should've guessed there was more going on.
Then she frowned a little, wondering. The mention of Turan reminded her that there should have been another consciousness in the room. Someone who should have been helping Asheron keep an even keel, rather than letting him fall.
"Asheron, can I talk to Malek, for a moment?" she asked.
"No," he answered too quickly.
"He doesn't want to talk to me?" she asked, frowning more deeply as she tried to understand. Was Malek more involved in this than she'd thought? Maybe her dad should have come after all. Maybe Selmak could talk some sense into the two of them.
Asheron shook his head, but still didn't look at her. "Malek went dormant," he answered, to her shock. He lifted his head, that awful not-smile twisting his lips again, and he said bitterly, "He works on the roshna cure, but that's all. He said he couldn't bear to watch me whore myself to the Tok'ra's greatest enemy."
She recoiled at the echo of the terrible words she had thrown at him. She didn't believe Malek had said it, or at least not been that cruel, but clearly that was the way Asheron had taken the words. But worse, she was appalled that Malek had left his host completely unsupported during all this. "So you've been alone," Sam whispered. "All this time." After having never being alone for thirty years. God, no wonder he'd grown so attached to Baal.
Baal had known it and taken advantage, luring Asheron to him with sex and kindness and appreciation for his political and military skills. Even Sam hadn't given him that, not really. She'd had all sort of admiration for Malek's scientific prowess, but dismissed Asheron's tenure as a ruler as little more than a figurehead. But recent events had demonstrated how wrong that was.
"Alone," Asheron repeated in a whisper and shook his head once in the negative. He fixed his eyes on his hands, which were gripping the back of the chair, seeing some distant memory. "Long ago, I was alone. I was trapped in the dark, a cringing beast with nothing left in his soul but a distant memory of once being a man. But he never hurt me. His hands touched me as though I was made of glass, so gently… I had forgotten what it felt like to feel anything but rage and pain and shame. He gave me back to myself, when I'd forgotten who I was. He still does."
She listened, filled with amazement and growing apprehension. She'd been right that Asheron and Baal had been together when Ishtar had still been alive, but terribly wrong about the relationship between them. Baal hadn't increased Asheron's torment, he'd made it lighter. As hard as it was to understand and accept, they hadn't been master and slave -- they'd been lovers. They still were.
Asheron raised his head to look at her, and she knew she'd lost him. He looked like a fallen angel, all bright and beautiful but surrounded by impenetrable shadow.
"I know you think I'm forgetting who I am now," he said quietly. "Maybe it's true. But I have to stay. I'm sorry," he offered, and took a deep, steadying breath. "I do love you, Sam. I hope you know that. But it's best if you leave and don't come back."
He turned away and headed for the door. She blurted his name, fearing if she let him go now, it would be for good. "Asheron!" Her voice caught and she had to try again, forcing the words from her throat. "You promised you'd stay and help Turan."
He paused, his hand on the door, but he didn't turn. "I know. I am sorry. Sam, do not hesitate for my sake. If the Tau'ri or the Jaffa have the opportunity, take it. I wish I could, but -- I can't. I can't do it." There was a moment, in which she realized what he was saying and she opened her mouth to protest, but he added, "I'll send Jaffa to escort you to the chappa'ai. Fare well."
Unable to speak, she watched as he went out the door and shut it behind him. Her eyes were painfully dry, as she stared at the door in the foolish hope that he would come back in.
* * *
Sam came through the gate back to the planet with the reeking pink seas, to find her father waiting nearby, sitting on a small crate and another pile of equipment next to him. He stood up on sight of her.
When the gate closed behind her, his shoulders sank in disappointment. "I guess, the good news is he let you come back, and the bad news is you came back alone?"
She nodded, weary and sick at heart. "That pretty much sums it up."
"He couldn't or wouldn't?" Jacob asked.
"Both, I think. But mostly wouldn't," she admitted. "He's ordering the Jaffa around, and hell, who wouldn't let that go to their heads? But that's not it, not really." She shed her jacket, feeling too hot in the humidity, remembering the cool mountain air of Baal's palace a little wistfully, then let out a breath. "I almost think it might be better if he was a Goa'uld. He thinks he's doing the right thing, trying to make a kinder, gentler version of Baal, protecting people."
Jacob sighed. "Malek can't possibly approve of this."
"Malek went dormant on him. How could he do that?" she demanded, frustrated. "How could he leave Asheron alone with that manipulative son of a bitch? What the hell did he think was going to happen, except that Asheron would have no choice but turn to the only person who actually seemed to care about him?"
"Care?" Jacob repeated, lifting his eyebrows incredulous, almost laughing. "Baal?"
Usually she would have agreed and probably laughed too, because of course he was right -- "Baal" and "care" did not go into the same sentence. But she couldn't even find a smile.
"It's all true," she said, suddenly feeling wrung out. "Everything. They're … mates." At her father's blink of surprise, she almost smiled. "That's what he said -- mates. He meant it that way. He said -- God, Dad, he said that back when he'd been getting tortured into insanity by Ishtar, Baal was there for him. Baal brought him back." She let out a pained laugh. "It's funny, isn't it? The same Goa'uld who tortured General O'Neill to death and revived him over and over again, saved him from the bitch who was doing the same to him."
But it wasn't really funny at all. She subsided with a sigh. "More than that, from what Asheron said, Baal has never hurt him at all. Which is just bizarre, but I believed him."
Jacob raised his brows thinking deeply, and then he said, "That is interesting. Selmak is full of all sort of theories about clever plots and evil Goa'uld trickery, but I'm inclined to believe there might be some sort of genuine feeling there. Baal isn't known for his restraint."
"But twenty, thirty years is a long time to hold on to a," she struggled to find the right word, when she had no idea what it actually was, "an… obsession. Love affair. Whatever."
Jacob shook his head. "Not to a Goa'uld. I have no idea how it happened, but assuming Asheron raised some sort of passion -- " Sam winced at the term, and he grimaced in apology, correcting himself, "-- feeling in him, I doubt a hundred years would be too long. Especially since he knew Asheron became a Tok'ra, he could wait."
She nodded that she had heard. She didn't understand, but then, there was so little of this that she understood. The only thing she was sure of, was that the man she had thought she was falling in love with was letting himself become a Goa'uld, putting himself on the wrong side for the right reasons.
"I think we should forcibly extract him before he digs himself any deeper, since Malek isn't doing anything," she said.
Jacob looked briefly tempted, but shook his head decisively negative. "I don't think we can. With Anubis back, that alliance between Baal and Asheron might be the only thing to save us, when the ZPM's depleted and the Asgard are in trouble."
She winced, remembering how the replicator version of her had played her so badly. But then she asked bitterly, "So we let him sacrifice himself for our protection?"
"It was his choice to put himself between Baal and Earth," Jacob reminded her, face soft with compassion, but a general's awareness that sometimes sacrifices were necessary. He squeezed her shoulder. "If we can get rid of Anubis and Baal, he'll be free. That's what we should work toward."
She nodded in reluctant agreement. Bending, she scooped up a large net bag full of small pieces of equipment and swung it over her shoulder. "Let's get out of here," she suggested. "This planet stinks."
* * *
Sam listened to Bra'tac and Teal'c's plan for the Free Jaffa to attack the remaining system lords, and she didn't have to say anything, since O'Neill and her father were saying it all for her.
O'Neill bit his lip. "This is... very bold. Do you have the forces to do this?"
"We have enough," Bra'tac declared. "We have the security codes. They will lower their shields, believing we are friendly."
"Still, a six-prong simultaneous attack. It's ambitious," O'Neill said, but his tone shaded to the doubtful and Teal'c picked up on it immediately.
"We must be bold, O'Neill. We must prove to the Jaffa who waver that the Goa'uld are false gods."
"In any case, the plan is set," Bra'tac said. "We will not change it."
O'Neill grimaced a smile, and asked, "Then, thanks for telling us, I guess?"
Bra'tac flashed a brief grin. "Teal'c will come with us, of course."
"And I wish to ask Colonel Carter and Daniel Jackson if they wish to join us and observe," Teal'c turned toward them.
She hesitated, then asked, "Are you going after Baal directly?"
Bra'tac shook his head, understanding her concern. "Not at this time. His ships use a different code which we could not obtain. So we will focus our attention on Morrigan, Yu, and Dedun."
O'Neill said, "Seems to me, with Baal already going after them, if you weaken them more, he's just going to snap them up."
"Territory, yes, but the Jaffa will come to us. Their hearts will not belong to the Goa'uld, after our success, and word will spread within Baal's Jaffa as well," Bra'tac said.
There was a moment of silence, when the Tau'ri figured out the Jaffa were not going to be dissuaded, and there wasn't much else to do besides wish them well. "I hope it works out," O'Neill offered and glanced at Sam and Daniel. "You want to go observe?
They both nodded, curious about how this was going to work. Sam shared O'Neill's misgivings about the plan - it seemed there was little tangible gain for such a massive operation, but still, it was important to support Teal'c and the rest of their allies.
As the briefing broke up, she and Jacob exchanged a look and without a word, he squeezed her shoulder.
The Free Jaffa were going to have to target Baal eventually, and Asheron and Malek were going to end up in the cross-fire. She reminded herself that Asheron had said not to hesitate, that he'd been prepared for the possibility. She had to have faith that he had a plan to extract himself as well.
But in the mean time, she had her own mission, and it wasn't without its own dangers, in the middle of a war.
* * *
Malek was deep in complicated genetic analysis when a diffident voice from the doorway interrupted, "My lord? There is an urgent report. Tel'nor requests your presence."
*That can't be good,* Asheron said to Malek. *Tel'nor knows not to interrupt your lab time.*
Malek turned toward the lotar and answered, "Thank you, Drelai. I will see him in the work study."
"I will so tell him, my lord." The lotar bowed his head and slipped out again.
Malek grimaced and felt disgruntled at the title. But he set his analysis to run without him, saying to Asheron. *I think Baal selected Drelai because of his resemblance to you.*
Asheron pictured the young man, who was one of Baal's favorite servants, and had to admit Malek was right, though he had never noticed it before. It was both flattering and disturbing. *What did I do? Killing Ishtar should've made him want to torture and kill me. Instead it seems to have fixed his interest.*
Malek explained, sounding reluctant to give him even this much consideration, *Goa'uld are emotional, instinctive creatures. Baal pushes to command until he finds one stronger than he is, who can earn his loyalty. Ishtar lost his loyalty, when her sarcophagus addiction and incompetence began to damage her rule. He was already challenging her before you came along. Then you killed her, something never before achieved by a lotar, and proved your worth and strength. He would naturally be intrigued by that, and now that you have proven his instinct was not misplaced.*
That gave Asheron something to think about as they returned to the main building. But he had to put it aside when they met Tel'nor in the smaller work room behind the throne room. Tel'nor nodded in greeting. "My lord. We have lost contact with two ships near Nerulis. Their final transmission was the image of their attacker." He pointed, and Malek turned to face the viewer. It wasn't an enemy ha'tak -- it was sleek and silver with strange spiky proturbances.
A shiver of recognition passed through them both, even though they'd never seen a ship exactly like it before. There was really only one thing it could be.
"Replicators," Malek said.
Tel'nor looked briefly surprised by Malek's use of the Goa'uld voice, but nodded. "I thought so as well."
"Has word been sent to R'zac and Baal?" Asheron asked, nudging Malek out of the way.
"R'zac has heard," Tel'nor confirmed. "He will inform Lord Baal."
Asheron nodded and examined the rest of the report. "I think we are in little danger here. Replicators aren't interested in planets."
*Until they have nothing left in space to consume,* Malek reminded him. *Remember the reports from the SGC about the Asgard homeworld.*
*If it gets that bad, we are all screwed, my friend.*
Malek was amused. *Both you and Baal pick up the strangest expressions from the Tau'ri.*
Which reminded Asheron of something more important. *The Tau'ri have the anti-replicator disruptor technology from the Asgard. We need that. Do you know enough about how it works to duplicate it?*
Malek answered, *Yes. Are we sure we want to use it?*
Asheron was aghast. *Who would it benefit to let thousands of Jaffa and human die?*
*The Free Jaffa,* Malek answered promptly, then gave a resigned sigh. *Though allowing the Replicators to grow so overwhelming that nothing can stop them would be foolish.* Aloud he told Tel'nor, using Asheron's voice, "I know specifications for an improvement to the weapons which stop them. After I input it, you'll need to send it to the ships nearest the Replicators for implementation before they absorb too many of our vessels and spread out too far to be destroyed at once."
"Of course, my lord."
They returned to the lab and Malek swept the research into a file for later, to start writing the specifications to change a ha'tak's weaponry into an anti-Replicator disruptor beam.
Asheron dozed off while Malek was doing things he didn't understand and for which his usual sarcastic commentary would be too much of a distraction. They ate only when Drelai brought dinner to the lab, but Malek finished after midnight.
By mid-morning, the three ha'taks had made the modifications and were on their way to intercept the Replicators. Asheron and Malek watched with Tel'nor from Saphon, and Baal was also watching from his ha'tak above Tartarus. As they all waited, Baal spoke over their private channel, "I know this is a Tau'ri secret, Malek. You could have done nothing."
Malek sneered, "No. The Replicators are a far more dangerous enemy than you."
Baal chuckled. "I feel certain you meant that as an insult, but I will take it as evidence that your feelings are warming toward me."
"Never," Malek snapped, which just made Baal laugh more, and even Asheron had to find it amusing.
But they all fell into a tense silence, broken only by short reports from the approaching ha'taks as the Replicator fleet - now augmented by two ha'taks - came into sensor range. Both fleets reverted back to normal space for battle, and the ha'taks fired as they had been instructed - as a constant barrage, targeting all the enemy ships with the full force of the augmented beams.
For a second, the screen lit up with the energy being released. And when it was clear they saw that the Replicator ships were completely untouched.
*What?* Asheron asked in dismay. *What happened?*
"It failed," Baal said in disappointment. "Did you do it correctly, Malek?"
"I did!" Malek responded with a flare of anger, but instantly grew subdued. "They must have adapted to it already." He watched the screen, dismay filling him, as the shield-strength indicators on the ha'taks dropped. "You should order them to retreat."
Baal shook his head. "It is too late. They are infected already."
His words proved true only a few seconds later when the connection with the far ships showed nothing but empty static and then closed.
"I must gather a larger fleet and overwhelm them," Baal declared heavily.
Asheron took precedence, shaking his head. "You know that won't work. We don't have the technology to defeat them. The Asgard can't stop them. What makes you think twenty ha'taks will?"
"It will not," Baal answered with a resigned, tight little shrug. "But Anubis commands, and I have no other option to present him. Unless you do?"
"Earth," he answered. "Maybe Sam has already figured out something. If not, they need to be warned."
Baal snickered, and said dryly, "I think I will refrain from presenting that option to Anubis." He glanced to the side as though someone might be listening out of sight and grimaced in distaste. "Anubis would not be pleased at the thought of the Tau'ri being of use. But unless he comes up with some better means to defeat the Replicators, I fear we have no choice but fight a slow retreat against our enemies."
Asheron nodded, understanding what he meant without the specific instruction being given and smiled inwardly at the implicit challenge directed at Anubis. "Then I'd advise you not to throw the ships at the Replicators, back off, and let them come, so they don't get stronger."
Baal curled his lip in distaste, but nodded. "Wise. I will, as much as I can. Continue with what you have been doing so ably," Baal told him and gave a little sigh. "I may be here for some time. Care for yourself."
Asheron wished him the same and signed off. Then he turned to Tel'nor. "Is the Gate hall set up with the holographic projector? I need to speak to the Tau'ri."
Tel'nor hesitated. "Lord Anubis would not approve, my lord said."
"But Baal approves, Tel'nor, or he would've forbidden it. And Anubis is going to get everyone killed unless we stop the Replicators now."
But before they could carry out his intent immediately, another Jaffa entered with another urgent report.
ONWARD TO CHAPTER EIGHT