Set in Season 9
Stargate Sg-1 and its characters are the property of Stargate (II) Productions, Showtime/Viacom, The Sci-Fi Channel, MGM/UA, Double Secret Productions, and Gekko Productions. This story is written purely for my own entertainment, and that of anyone else who may happen to read it. No infringement of copyright is intended. It is not intended and should never be used for commercial purposes.
The original characters, situations and ideas contained within this work are the property of the author.
Acknowledgements:Many thanks to my beta reader Sarah.
SGC Delta Site – Offworld Quarantine Zone
The pathogen bank of the SGC Delta Site, Biological and Biochemical Quarantine and Containment Unit – also known as the Animal House – was the single greatest store of disease-causing organisms ever assembled by the people of the Tau’ri. In addition to duplicating the stocks held by the CDC, samples of every extraterrestrial pathogen encountered by the SG Teams were stored for study in the quarantine laboratories. Suitably, the staff of the Delta House included some of the greatest pathologists, immunologists, biochemists and epidemiologists in the world, and none greater than Professor Dr Titus Howe, formerly of Heidelberg University.
Howe, an American working in Europe, had been recruited to the Stargate Program when operations at the Delta Site were expanded from a simple quarantine ward to a full-scale research facility and he had brought his own team in with him. Just a few weeks into Howe’s tenure as Director of the Delta Site, that team was already being sorely tested.
“All I can say is that I’m very disappointed,” Colonel Ferretti announced on his release from quarantine. “I can’t help feeling that we’re starting to cheapen the word ‘genius’ in this command.”
“You’re welcome to try if you think you can do better,” Dr Foster assured him tartly. Foster was Howe’s long-time collaborator and devoted lieutenant and her pretty, delicate features concealed a fierce zeal. She was primarily a medical doctor and had taken over supervision of the isolation facility from the Gamma Site’s CMO, in addition to her research duties. “We’re testing Pathogen 1X7-01U with everything we have, but it takes a great deal of time and we aren’t quite up to speed with some of the newer equipment yet.”
“The phrase ‘miracle worker’ was used no less that five times in recommending your Dr Howe.”
“Professor Howe,” Foster said frostily. “And medicine is hardly an exact or speedy science, even if we weren’t dealing with an organism of an entirely unknown kind.”
“Unknown kind?” Merlyn asked, rubbing her shaggy head; after a week in the fish tank – as the isolation unit was affectionately known – her close-cropped hair was beginning to show signs of curling.
“Well, it’s not a virus,” Foster explained impatiently. “It isn’t a bacillus or a protozoan or a fungus. It’s too simple to be a parasite and too complex for a protein. It’s quite literally like nothing on Earth.”
“So, even the great Dr Howe is foxed?”
Ferretti shrugged. “So, is there anything we can offer to the Jaffa of Haida?” he demanded, or do we just tell them they’re doomed?”
“There’s no need to be sarcastic. Do you have any idea how long it actually takes to synthesise a new antiserum? Or how difficult it is?”
“My understanding was that it took about half an hour and a monkey.”
“Not without Dustin Hoffman.”
“I’ve been mistaken for Dustin Hoffman.”
“And a lot of useless placebos have been mistaken for cures,” Foster sniffed. “Anyway, you’re clear to depart, so please do feel free to go.”
Ferretti stood a while in thought. “Did I just get called a useless placebo?”
“I think you did,” Roberts replied. “I guess your animal magnetism must be depolarising.”
“I’m a depolarised placebo?” Ferretti shook his head. “Let’s go and talk to the others, before I get too depressed.”
Merlyn sighed. “I envy Rasputin, I really do.”
“Is it her glossy raven hair or her girlish figure that you covet?” Roberts laughed.
“Just not being stuck in the tank,” Merlyn assured him. “Well, that and not having to see what’s happening on Haida.”
“Well, that I can’t argue with.”
Lieutenant Alexa Rasputin was waiting in the Delta Site’s briefing room with Sergeant Pearson. Unexpectedly, Professor Howe stood at the head of the table, his gaunt form crouched, hands flat on the surface, long arms bent, sharp elbows jutting out. Almost inevitably, Dr Foster had found her way here and hovered at Howe’s side; she did not look pleased to see Colonel Ferretti again so soon.
“Professor Howe. This is an unexpected pleasure,” Ferretti said with forced delight. “I understand that your labours on our behalf have been nothing short of…”
“Herculean?” Roberts suggested.
“I was looking for something good,” Ferretti protested.
Howe’s thin-lipped mouth curled into a sardonic smile. “Your faith is touching, Colonel, but I’m afraid my team is not having much luck. I hoped that it might help to know more about the source of the pathogen.”
“Take a seat,” Ferretti invited.
Howe folded his rangy form into a chair. Alexa and Pearson were sitting to either side of him and so Dr Foster was forced to sit on the far side of the sergeant; Ferretti took the seat next to hers. She scowled at him; he winked at her. Roberts sat opposite, leaving the floor to Merlyn.
“Haida was formerly controlled by a Goa’uld named Menenet, who was killed in the upheaval of the Replicator War, although whether by the Replicators or by his rivals among the Goa’uld we just don’t know,” Merlyn explained. “We don’t actually know much about him – he was never one of the big movers and shakers – but from speaking to the Jaffa that once served him, we know that he was a mercenary bioengineer, working for whichever System Lord would pay the bills. He created nanites and customised micro-organisms for Pelops, Sokar, Apophis, Anubis and dozens of others, many of whom we haven’t even heard of.
“Although glad of their freedom, the Jaffa of Haida haven’t signed on to the greater Jaffa Nation yet. While most Jaffa quickly accept that their erstwhile masters were not gods, Menenet used his command of biological agents to uphold his reign of terror. The Jaffa were subjected to invisible weapons and something that no other Jaffa ever suffered from; disease. They didn’t understand it and they’re still very superstitious; they hold Menenet’s abandoned fortress to be taboo. That’s why they came to the SGC – in our role as legendary god-killers – when this latest plague struck. Many of them believe that Menenet created this plague.”
“They may be right,” Howe told her. “The one thing we do know is that the pathogen is definitely artificial.”
“How can you be sure?” Pearson asked.
Howe shrugged modestly.
Alexa narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “No, really. How did you find out?”
Foster glowered at the Russian, but Howe sighed. “We used the scanning nanoscope to examine the pathogen and found that…Well, it had been signed,” he admitted. He scribbled an ornate hieroglyph on a piece of paper and passed it to Merlyn.
“Well, that’s not Menenet’s symbol,” she noted. “His Jaffa wear a simplified version of the double helix.”
“The question is can you do anything about it?” Ferretti demanded. “Whether it was artificial or not, the plague is wiping out the Haidan Jaffa.”
Howe’s brow furrowed. “I understand what is at stake here, Colonel, but we’re working in the dark. We simply can’t conjure antibodies out of nowhere. What we really need is a serum sample from a carrier or survivor, but as yet…”
“As yet there have been no survivors,” Roberts finished.
“And the carriers?” Foster asked.
Merlyn shook her head. “The medical team took samples; the pathogen is airborne, waterborne and permeates the earth. Most, if not all of the Jaffa in their main settlement are infected and cases have been reported in three of the outlying villages. Incubation seems to take between nine and fifteen days from infection to death from multiple organ failures; fortunately, those infected are symptomatic for the last third of the incubation period, but only contagious for one or two days, so isolation is possible, but with the organism in the air…”
Howe nodded sadly; for a moment, a flicker of desperation showed in his gaze. “I understand. Hopefully Dr Martinez’ samples will give us something to go on, but I can’t make any promises.”
“It sounds harsh, but it may be academic anyway.”
Alexa and Pearson both paled visibly. They both knew why they had been left out of the latest reconnaissance mission.
“It’s true then?” Alexa asked.
“I’m afraid so,” Ferretti said. “Professor Howe, we’ve kept you from your work for long enough. You’d best get back to it.”
“We just have a few military matters to sort out,” Merlyn said, before her CO could speak. “We really shouldn’t keep you.”
“Alright,” Howe agreed, but he was both reluctant and angry. “I only hope that whatever secrets you’re keeping don’t end up killing the Haidans.”
“I assure you, whatever medical data our reconnaissance produced is with Dr Martinez, including the little that we found in the abandoned fortress. She can brief you on everything…”
Howe stood sharply without waiting for her to finish and stalked from the room. Dr Foster followed, shooting a frosty glower at Ferretti as she passed him. “Definitely losing my touch,” he sighed.
The door closed behind the medics.
“It’s The Scourge, then?” Pearson asked in a voice that barely trembled.
“There is no previous mention of the Scourge, despite millennia of Goa’uld occupation,” Merlyn told them, “but yes, there was a constant stream of low-grade biotransmissions all the time we were on the planet. The frequency and coding was unmistakably that of the Scourge.”
Alexa frowned. “What does ‘low-grade’ signify?”
“A single Mind, quite weak,” Roberts replied, “but we all know how quickly that could grow.”
“Some of us better than others,” Pearson murmured.
“Well, for now it’s nothing the buffers in our suits can’t handle, so we’re heading back there as soon as we can have a Behemoth cleared medic sent out to join us.”
“A medic?” Alexa asked.
“The biological elements of The Scourge are vulnerable to infection,” Pearson explained. “If they created this plague then they’ll have to have manufactured an immunity. If they didn’t, their life-support system may well have manufactured one. Either way, we may be able to synthesise an antiserum if someone can take tissue samples.”
“Ick. Scourge jabs.”
“Better that than dying of this plague,” Ferretti assured the Russian. “We get out there in full Omega gear with disruptors and breaching shotguns, bag us a Scourge…”
“It will have to be one of the machines,” Pearson noted. “The simulacra are purely biological, they have no life-support system; in fact no immune system at all.”
Ferretti nodded. “We bag a Scourge machine, our doctor takes the requisite tissue samples and we harum-scarum back here with the cure.”
“As easy as falling off a log,” Roberts quipped. “If, you know, the log were tumbling over the brink of Niagra.”
Six hours later, the team assembled at the Delta Site Stargate, in the central hub of the quarantine zone. The design was such that teams who had been exposed to possible contamination could be brought directly into quarantine without undue risk to the staff. Like the rest of the facility, the Gate Room was buried almost a mile beneath the surface of a barren planetoid that had no business being a part of the Stargate network in the first place.
“Has our doctor even arrived?” Ferretti demanded.
“Dr Michaels is the only MO in the SGC with Behemoth Clearance and she can’t be released from duty at the Lake,” Merlyn replied. “General O’Neill sent authorisation for one of the pathology team to accompany us.”
“Which one?” Ferretti asked warily.
The airlock door from the laboratory area hissed open and a figure in Omega biohazard gear stepped out to join the five members of SG-7. Unlike Ferretti and his team, the newcomer moved awkwardly in the armoured hazmat suit.
“What use am I going to be to you in this?” she demanded angrily.
“You’ll get used to it quickly enough, Dr Foster,” Roberts assured her.
Ferretti groaned. “Just make sure you keep up if we start running.”
“There’s no point grousing at me,” Foster assured him. “I didn’t ask for this and I’m certainly no happier for wallowing through your turgid Behemoth files.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry about the rather lurid flavour text; someone let Roberts at the word processor, but we’re hoping to get that out of the next edition.”
“I don’t even know why I was chosen.”
“Because Professor Howe is needed here and Dr Martinez will be more useful briefing him on the samples she brought back,” Merlyn explained.
Dr Foster moved to the side of the chamber, muttering something about Dr Martinez’ briefs that made Merlyn glad that in an Omega suit, no one could see you blush.
Ferretti shook his head again. “What is it with that guy? I mean, he’s no spring chicken himself and all knees and elbows. Is that what I’m missing? Do chicks dig elbows?”
“They’re not an absolute essential, but if I’m honest then I’d certainly rather a man had them,” Alexa allowed.
Pearson nodded sagely. “There could be cuddling issues, otherwise.”
Ferretti shook his head. “Lock ’em down and check seals, people. Dr Foster, may I have the pleasure?”
“Your suit seals,” Ferretti said. “They need to be checked before we dial up Haida. Shall I get that for you?”
“Right. Sure. Go ahead.”
Ferretti ran through the usual procedure; Foster had made a decent stab at locking down her Omega suit, but it was a fiddly business and she had missed a few of the secondary catches. Ferretti closed them and checked the rubber seals on her air lines and nanite screens for integrity. Once he was certain that she was safe from infection, he tapped the back of her helmet twice.
“You’re secure,” he told her.
There was a brief pause before she said: “Thank you.”
Ferretti gave her a slight smile which, incredibly, she returned, and then he waited while Alexa ran the check on his suit and gave his helmet a reassuring rap.
“Okay, Sergeant; dial it up,” he ordered.
The Jaffa garrison at the Haidan Stargate was a sorry sight. Five warriors stood watch, but they leaned wearily on their staff weapons and looked sicklier than any Jaffa Pearson had ever seen. Their skin was waxen and blotchy, and their eyes had sunk into their faces. The leader of the group approached the colonel as the Stargate closed. His forehead was marked with a silver brand in the shape of the double-helix tattoo of Menenet and he seemed less exhausted than his troops,
“Tek ma’tek, my friend,” the Serpent Guard said.
“Tek ma’tek, Jereh’k,” Ferretti replied, grasping the Jaffa’s wrist. “Any change?”
Jereh’k shook his head. “None have yet survived the final phase of the curse and more are infected even since you left us. The very few who have not yet shown any sign of the plague have retreated into the hills, dividing into small clusters as Dr Martinez suggested. Perhaps some of our race will survive, but…”
At that moment the deep note of a Jaffa hunting horn rang out through the surrounding woodland. Three short blasts were followed by one longer.
“What is it?” Ferretti asked.
“The machines,” Jereh’k replied. “Will you help us in battle, Colonel?”
“Lead on. One of the reasons we’re here is to bag us a Scourge.”
The Scourge in question was one of their war machines, a squat, mottled-black egg with three strut-like legs and three clusters of silvery tentacles. Twenty Jaffa fought the machine; they were ill and moved without the usual warrior-grace, but the machine itself was not as swift as others SG-7 had met. Not that that made it any less dangerous. Green fire flashed from the single eye set in the head which swivelled on a short, flexible neck, blasting trees, rocks and Jaffa into a vile, corroded mess of amorphous molecular scum.
“Roberts,” Ferretti ordered.
“Sir.” Roberts shouldered his M181 and took careful aim. The others carried short-barrelled breaching shotguns loaded with armour-piercing rounds to crack the outer shell of the war machines, but Roberts had exchanged the plasma lance in his SCW for a 20mm cannon.
The weapon kicked hard against his shoulder, but the shell flew true, smashing the machine’s head and extinguishing the deadly ray. Roberts squeezed the trigger again and smashed a hole in the side of the machine’s casing; to judge by the size of the hole, the breaching shotguns would have been woefully underpowered.
“Disruptors at the ready and advance!” Ferretti barked and the team moved cautiously forward.
Even without the deadly beam from the evil eye, the war machine was still dangerous; the silvery tentacles were no thicker than a rattlesnake, but they were horribly strong and could slice through steel. Fortunately with the machine blinded and the casing breached, SG7 were able to manoeuvre around the tendrils and fire disruptor blasts from their MPXs into the more vulnerable innards. The Scourge were animated by bioenergy, living electromagnetic fields similar to those generated by the Telchak resurrection cube, which were catastrophically affected by the disruptors.
After only a few shots, the machine fell to the ground, twitching feebly.
“That seemed almost too easy,” Alexa noted.
Roberts moved forward, holding his M181 ready. “It did seem a little out of sorts. Do you think it was sick?”
“Let’s hope so,” Ferretti replied. “Pearson, you and Dr Foster crack this thing open and take your samples.”
“We’re a little exposed here, Sir,” Pearson noted.
“True. Jereh’k, can your boys lend a hand?” he called. “We need to get this thing on the table stat.”
“The time is fifteen-oh-seven hours,” Foster reported, “for what that means on a planet with three moons and twenty-four hour…”
“Thank you, Sergeant, twenty-nine hour daylight.”
“It’s reflected daylight really,” Ferretti noted. “The largest moon has a libido of ninety-two percent, hence the brilliance of the ‘nightlight’.”
Foster shot him a frosty glower. “Libido?” She shook her head and turned back to the table. “Beginning autopsy on…Ludwig the big, giant egg.” She lifted her scalpel and then lowered it again. “Sergeant, I think this is hacksaw work. Would you care to make the first incision?”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
“We’ll be next door if you find anything,” Ferretti said. Foster waved dismissively and Ferretti left the room. The Jaffa had no real autopsy room available, of course, but they had surrendered their sauna, which was the cleanest chamber in the barracks. The rest of the team were meeting with Jereh’k in the main robing room of the baths, with the result that Ferretti felt distinctly overdressed in his Omega suit.
“Do you associates have everything that they require?” Jereh’k asked.
Ferretti nodded. “And then some. Pearson’s doing better than I am.” Alexa chuckled, but Merlyn looked uncomfortable and Roberts, peculiarly, angry. “So, you said that the plague came before the Scourge?” he said, seeking to change the subject.
“Perhaps,” Jereh’k replied. “It is hard to be sure, for the two came so close to one another, both some six weeks past. We think that the plague came at that time with a trading party who arrived from Kelda. They came with some recommendation from our allies on Kelda and they traded goods of great quality, but each village that they visited succumbed to the plague not long after.”
Roberts and Merlyn exchanged a meaningful look. Ferretti looked a question to them.
“Carriers, Sir,” Merlyn explained. “If they did not succumb themselves, they might have the antibodies that Professor Howe needs.”
Ferretti shrugged. “Worth a try. Where did they go when they left?”
“They did not leave. We last heard of them visiting one of the villages beyond the old fortress of the M…of Menenet.” The Jaffa looked deeply embarrassed by his slip and so Ferretti pressed on as though it had never happened.
“And when did The Scourge turn up?” he asked.
“At about the same time,” Jereh’k replied. “It is hard to say precisely. It was certainly no more than one day before or after the arrival of the strangers that the first of our children began to complain of nightmares, but so many of us have been troubled by our dreams since tretonin began to be available to us that we have grown regrettably accustomed to ignoring their warnings. It was only later that we compared our stories and realised that all of those who had gone into the Silver Caverns that week had been afflicted by the dreams.” His face paled and his expression grew distant. “Only after they disappeared.”
“Disappeared?” Alexa asked, appalled.
“Nine children in a single night,” Roberts informed her.
“Including my own son,” Jereh’k added. “We tracked them to the cave and sent in search parties. I should have accompanied them, but my daughter summoned me to attend the first cases of the plague. Perhaps that saved my life, for none of the searchers returned.
“I feared the worst and, rather than risk other lives, I ordered the caves sealed.”
“But your son…” Alexa began.
Jereh’k hung his head. “My wife left our house that night. The plague claimed her before I could even find the words to beg her forgiveness.”
Alexa lifted a hand to her mouth and coughed awkwardly when it clunked against her faceplate. Ferretti shot a worried look at the young Russian; lost families were a sore point with her and sore points had a habit of eroding the psychic’s defences that were so essential in the face of The Scourge.
“And all my precautions were proved futile,” Jereh’k continued. “The machines cut their way out of the caverns and fell upon the closest of the farms, destroying the holding and abducting the occupants. Two nights later they came close enough to one of our towns for a survivor to reach help. Again we followed a trail to the Silver Caverns and found a great, gaping hole cut in the barrier of fallen rock; perfectly round, with its edges molten and pockmarked, layered with that vile filth.”
Ferretti raised an eyebrow. “Lieutenant?”
“That is what Sergeant Pearson calls the residue left by the evil eye,” Alexa explained. “Apparently it has little or no recognisable molecular or even atomic structure; that is why you can not properly describe what it feels like.”
“Speak for yourself,” Merlyn told her. “I can’t describe it because I can’t bear to touch the stuff.”
“Of course, Ma’am.”
“Then we’d better leave the Silver Caverns and The Scourge to the strong stomachs,” Ferretti decided. “Roberts, that’s you and Alexa; Merlyn and me [I] will call for a Jackal and try to track down these travelling salesmen. If we turn up nothing but corpses we’ll look into the fortress on our way back.”
Roberts nodded in acknowledgement. “Remember to keep an eye on your gauges. The nanite screens are refreshing at about nine times the usual rate; you’ll need to swap out your power packs about every five hours, but you can recharge them in the Jackal and use reactor power for as long as you’re with the jeep.”
“Ah, the wonders of the steam age,” Ferretti sighed.
“Did you manage to retrieve any of the children?” Alexa asked suddenly.
Jereh’k shook his head. “They burned that hole through the rock with a single volley. It was simply not possible to pass through without those hideous beams…” He shuddered, a gesture that seemed terrifyingly out of place on a Jaffa veteran.
“Well, they’ve got Roberts to deal with now,” Ferretti assured him. “He’s good at this sort of thing.”
“Out of curiosity, how many war machines have you destroyed, Roberts?” Alexa asked when they were about halfway to the Silver Caverns. It was a pleasant walk across rolling green hills, but the periodic tracks of war machines – churned earth, sliced up by claw-like feet – were a sobering reminder and made it impossible to ignore their purpose and enjoy the scenery.
“About half,” he replied.
“And you’re our expert on the matter?”
Roberts shrugged. “I think the Colonel just wanted to reassure Jereh’k.”
“Or give a reason for sending you, other than to keep an eye on me.” Roberts made no reply and Alexa smiled at him. “Thanks.”
“For not telling me not to be silly.”
“You’re probably the least silly person I know,” Roberts assured her. “If you were being silly I’d probably encourage it.”
“I think a little triviality is healthy.”
Alexa laughed. “I’m glad you’re here,” she told him.
“To protect you from the war machines, you mean?” he asked.
Alexa stopped in her tracks for a moment. When Roberts paused beside her, she laid a hand on his arm. “You know what I mean. I think I might just have the measure of The Scourge by now, but if I don’t then I’ll be glad to have you with me…to make sure I don’t hurt anyone.”
“That’s as may be,” Roberts said, “just so long as you remember that I plan to keep bringing you back alive for a good few years.”
“That also is good to know.”
After many years of footslogging the Jackal FAV had been created to serve as an offworld transport for SG teams. It was large enough to carry a team of six, with their gear, added a light cannon to the team’s arsenal and yet could be driven easily through the Stargate. The particular Jackal that had been sent for SG-7’s use was being driven rather awkwardly, for the driver was as unaccustomed to the burden of Omega gear as was Dr Foster.
“What I don’t understand is what you want all this power for,” Eleri Goffanon complained. “Silly thing; I barely touch the pedal and it jumps forward.”
“But that’s what I like about it!” Ferretti protested.
Eleri rolled her eyes at Merlyn. “Boys and their toys,” she scoffed.
Ferretti shot a challenging glance at his 2IC.
Merlyn grinned. “No comment.”
“So, where is it we’ll be heading?” Eleri asked.
“We’re heading for the fortress,” Ferretti replied. “That means you’ll be the expert on texts and funny formulas until I bring Merlyn back. We need someone on tap in case Dr Foster and Sergeant Pearson turn anything up while all our linguists are in the field,” he explained.
“Oh, joy,” Eleri grumbled. “You’re sure you don’t need a driver?”
“Yes,” Ferretti assured her.
“No,” Merlyn said with equal conviction.
One of the odd things about working in a unit like an SG team was how close you could be to your team mates while still knowing very little about their lives. Merlyn had decided long ago that it was vital to have interests away from work to keep a person sane, as she had her ongoing study of folklore and mythology, but she had very little idea what fulfilled that need for her comrades. She had recently learned that Pearson’s life was completed by tinkering, cats, second-hand horticulture and an architect named Steven, but whatever private life Roberts or Rasputin enjoyed was a mystery to Merlyn.
Colonel Ferretti on the other hand wore his heart on his sleeve when it came to his hobby. He liked cars. Big cars. Big, powerful, fast cars.
And he loved the Jackal.
“I mean, it’s not as good as those droolers!” he yelled over the roar of the engine.
“Druj’ha!” Merlyn corrected and then clutched the dashboard as the Jackal slewed to the right.
“We call them droolers; as in what I do when I see them!”
“Well, whatever you call them, they don’t fit through the Gate!”
“Not when Eleri is driving them.”
Ferretti laughed out loud.
“You know, there is a serious side to all of this,” Merlyn reminded him.
“I know. That’s why I take the yucks where I can get ’em.” The Colonel shifted the Jackal into its highest gear and gunned the engine along the track.
“Is this a safe speed over this terrain?”
“We need a cure and we need it fast!” Ferretti replied. “I’m not sure it’s ‘safe’ to drive any slower!”
“Understood, only we do need to get back in one piece.”
Somewhat reluctantly, Ferretti eased off the gas and let the Jackal slow down a little. Merlyn relaxed her grip on the fittings. “Thank you, Sir.”
“You know, I realise I don’t have the same kind of specialist skills that the rest of you possess, but this I’m actually very good at,” he assured her.
“I know, Sir; I guess it isn’t a rational fear. I’ve just never been that comfortable with fast cars.”
“Mostly, although Sister Agnes was a regular gearhead.”
Ferretti glanced briefly in her direction. “You have a sister?”
“No; I was brought up in a convent.”
Ferretti chuckled briefly and then almost drove into a tree. “You’re serious?”
“Almost without exception.” She gave a low whistle.
“Will you look at that,” she whispered. “Only, stop the FAV first please.”
Ferretti drew to a halt and then followed Merlyn’s gaze. They had just begun to climb up from the forest country into the foothills of a low and quite humble mountain range, and as they climbed a remarkable structure had come into view beyond the trees. The palace of Menenet was a vast dome of trinium-steel and naquadah crystal glass, with a second dome, similar but smaller, nestled within the first. The light through the many layers of crystal shimmered like all the rainbows on Earth.
“Beautiful, isn’t it,” Ferretti sighed. He had seen it before, but it still took his breath away.
“And that is where Menenet bred his plagues.”
“Damn. What a way to spoil the view.” Angrily, Ferretti punched the controls on the navigation console and called up a map of the area. Based on the UAV survey, it showed the trail, their current location as calculated by the Jackal’s Gate compass and the site of the mining town to which the traders had been heading at last report. “Do you think we’ll find anyone alive?”
“I don’t know, Sir,” Merlyn admitted.
Ferretti jammed the Jackal into gear and tore off at speed. This time, Merlyn made no protest.
“Alright,” Pearson said. “I think I’ve got it. Get ready to work fast; once I crack open this carapace the life support systems will shut down.”
Foster shivered. “There’s really a person inside that thing?”
“Yes there is.”
She nodded weakly.
“Are you ready, Dr Foster?”
Foster swallowed hard. “Yes,” she said firmly. “I’m ready.”
Pearson reached into one of the holes in the carapace and squeezed two – for want of a better word – wires together. With a sudden, spasming movement the carapace split along a hitherto invisible seam and swung open a short distance. Pearson lost his grip on the connection and the hatch froze, but he found the strands again and the carapace swung fully open.
Foster gave a gasp.
“Oh, good God! It’s a child.”
The boy was thin and pale; the demands of powering the war machine had left him emaciated and dehydrated, but even beyond that he was clearly sick. His mouth was flecked with bloody foam and his eyes were milky; when Dr Foster touched him his flesh was spongy beneath his skin.
“We…We have to get him out of there and on to alternative life support,” she said, forcing herself to remain calm and professional and to fight down the urge to vomit. “Quickly, Sergeant; you remove the connectors while I prepare.”
There was little that they could have done for him, even in the Delta Site infirmary; here on Haida, with only a handful of field equipment and hampered by their suits, there was no chance. Dr Foster fought valiantly, but the boy’s lungs would not breathe, his heart stuttered into stillness, and his chest simply collapsed beneath her hands when she tried to force it back into motion.
“He was dead before we even got him free,” Pearson told her.
“I know that,” she whispered. “I know that his body is a wreck and that his organs probably failed days ago, but that doesn’t make it any easier to bear.” She drew herself up straight and blinked away her tears, unable to wipe her eyes. “I…We should tell Jereh’k. Someone should identify the body and inform the next of kin.”
“I’ll do that,” Pearson told her.
He shook his head. “Don’t say that,” he advised. “We need tissue samples and I doubt we can persuade the Jaffa to give us time to take them. They’ll want to hold their cremation rites as soon as possible, so you need to take those samples now.”
There was a pause and then Foster nodded her understanding. “Although I do not think that we shall find what we were looking for,” she admitted. “Clearly this boy possessed no immunity; he did not recover from the plague. But we will do all we can.”
“We can ask no more.”
It quickly became clear that the Jaffa had had no idea what it was that powered the war machines and Pearson could have kicked himself for not realising this earlier. The horror in the faces of the warriors when they saw that their own children had been turned against them was painful to behold.
“They are worse than the Goa’uld,” Jereh’k spat. “They enslaved our bodies and our minds, but these hashak would feed on our very souls.”
Foster laid a hand on his arm. “Do…do you recognise the boy?” she asked.
“Barely,” he whispered. “He is changed beyond all belief, but I would know him were he burned almost to ash.”
“Do you need any help with…?”
“No!” Jereh’k snapped. With tears in his eyes, he bent and lifted the boy into his arms. “I shall attend to him.”
“Of course, I…” Foster took a few steps towards Jereh’k, but the Serpent Guard walked away, all of his attention on the pale, wasted body in his arms.
“I…” Foster stopped and stared. After a few moments she began to sob.
“Are you…” Pearson stopped himself before he could ask if Foster was okay, since that was obviously a stupid question.
“Sorry,” she sniffled. “I just…I’ve never had much of a bedside manner. That’s why I’m an epidemiologist; I can’t deal with people. I can just about manage micro-organisms, socially I mean.”
“It’s okay,” Pearson said. He felt alright saying that, since he wasn’t talking about the immediate situation. He put an arm on Foster’s shoulder and she collapsed against his chest.
“Maybe if I was better at…people, Professor Howe wouldn’t ignore me and run around after Dr Hot-Knickers.”
Foster made a grizzling sound.
Pearson sighed and put his arms around the woman. “Come on, Doc. We’ve got work to do…and you’re fogging up your visor.”
She laughed, sobbed, and laughed again.
“Not interrupting anything am I?”
Pearson groaned. “I think you know the answer to that, Eleri,” he sighed.
“Better than most, I reckon,” Eleri replied. “Present company not excepted.”
“Eleri Goffanon this is Dr Foster,” Pearson said, disentangling himself from the latter. “She’s upset.”
Eleri looked at Foster’s face and then past her to the war machine. Her sour expression softened. “Right then,” she said. “You be making us a cup of tea while the doctor and I have a little chat.”
“Go on with you. You come and sit down away from the nasty, Dr…What is your first name?”
Foster sniffled. “Susan. But I…”
“No, no; come away and talk while Sergeant Pearson makes us a nice brew. You’ll feel better for it, I promise.”
“Better do as she says,” Pearson said. “She’s very persistent. I’ll get the tea and we can start work afterwards.”
The Silver Caverns were well-named, as Alexa realised only when they had gone deep enough to shut out the sunlight. The rock into which the cavern was cut was pale grey and its surface was smooth, yet gently burred. As they moved into darkness, however, the walls of the tunnels began to sparkle with silvery light.
“Fluorescent bacterial colonies in the rock,” Roberts explained. As was their habit when they were alone, they conversed in Russian, Alexa wondering at her comrade’s fluency.
“This is nothing,” he assured her. “It should be as bright as a moonlit night in here, but the colonies are dying.”
“Dying? The plague is affecting the bacteria?”
Roberts nodded. “Everything even vaguely animal, from bacteria up to Jaffa, is dying, and a number of plant species besides. I’m afraid that even if we manage to cure the Jaffa, this ecosystem is pretty well kaput.”
“Sad,” Alexa noted; the situation seemed not to admit of anything but understatement.
Roberts smiled grimly. “Switch over to image intensification and look sharp,” he said. “We’re coming up on the fall.”
Sure enough, with the low-light filters in her visor activated Alexa could see that they were approaching a rockfall. Sharp edges and scorching spoke of recent blasting, but even more recently a long shaft had been bored through the centre of the barrier. Roberts passed Alexa his MPX and then gestured for her to move to one side of the tunnel, but she did not need telling twice; the corroded walls of the tunnel were a grim warning of the fate that waited in that dark opening.
Roberts turned his M181 sideways and ejected the huge clip for the weapon’s 20mm cannon. He slid the top round off the clip and slotted in a replacement; the shell he removed was matt black; the one he put in its place was ringed with blue and orange stripes.
“Have those things been tested yet?” Alexa asked.
“How many times?”
“Do I have time to make my peace with my gods?”
“If you’re quick.” Roberts replaced the clip and shouldered the weapon. With his thumb, he turned the airburst control wheel. “How long do you think that shaft is?” he asked.
Alexa leaned towards the middle of the tunnel and then ducked back. After a few moments a wave of green energy pulsed out of the shaft, forcing Alexa to flatten herself against the wall.
Roberts shrugged. “About seventy-one feet,” he said. “Thank you.”
“Happy to help.”
“I appreciate that,” Roberts assured her, “but if you ever do anything that stupid again I might just shoot you so I can tell the Colonel you died an honourable death.” His voice was cold, flat and lethal. “None of us want to watch you die trying to prove yourself, least of all him.”
Alexa had to swallow hard before she could speak. “Understood.”
Roberts nodded once and then fired. The SCW kicked against his shoulder; the 20mm shell ricocheted off the tunnel wall and spun away into the darkness. After less than a second a bright blue flash washed out of the shaft. Roberts was already moving, dropping prone in front of the gap and emptying the M181’s 20mm clip into the darkness. Alexa moved up behind him as quickly as she could and fired wildly after the shells, saturating the area with disruptor blasts from both MPXs.
Alexa obeyed at once, ducking out of the opening while Roberts rolled away and quickly replaced the clip. Alexa activated a disruptor charge and pitched it into the opening. It detonated some fifty yards distant with a blue flash.
When no green fire spat out of the tunnel, Roberts rose cautiously to his feet. “What do you think?”
“Well, I’d look, but I’m afraid you’d shoot me.”
Roberts stepped out into the mouth of the passage, M181 to his shoulder. Still no green flame. “I guess it’s clear.”
Alexa frowned. “What makes that any different from what I did?” she demanded.
“I have better reflexes.”
“So it’s okay for you to take stupid risks because you’re just that good?”
Roberts gave a barely perceptible shake of his head. “But it’s a better reason than because you’re just that bad.”
Alexa blushed and was glad of the darkness and the visor.
“Besides; if I get myself killed, you have to break the news to the others.”
Alexa laughed bitterly. “You think I’m getting out of here alive without you?”
Even to Alexa, Roberts’ body language was unreadable as he said: “Follow me and look sharp; some of them might be down but not out.”
They moved warily forward.
“Can you feel it?” Roberts asked. He knew her too well to think that she was making small talk at a time like this.
“Just,” Alexa replied. “But it’s weak. Even without the nanite shield, I don’t think it would be more than an irritation.”
Roberts chuckled. “Well, don’t go taking the helmet off.”
“Don’t worry, I don’t plan to, but it’s worrying. I don’t think the children can have gone much deeper into the Caverns than this, but the Scourge influence here isn’t strong enough to control…well, anyone. In fact, if the Mind was dormant I don’t even think it would even notice anyone at this distance.”
Roberts frowned. “Maybe someone fell down a crack?” he suggested.
“Maybe,” but Alexa was not convinced, or not convinced enough for it not to worry her.
Of course there was no tea, it being impossible to drink anything but the distilled water in the Omega suit’s ration pouches without at least retracting the mimetic visor, but Pearson obligingly kept away for fifteen minutes. He returned to find that in his absence it had been decided that Dr Foster should return to the Delta Site and confer with Professor Howe regarding the biological samples.
“I figure she can do the work as well, if not better, back there and she looks like she needs the…well, I would say fresh air if there was any at the Animal House.”
“I figure you’re right,” Pearson agreed. It was true, but it didn’t change the fact that he still felt awkward around Eleri. Still, he was probably worrying over nothing.
“So; were you thinking to break her heart now?” Eleri asked sweetly.
Or then again…Pearson sighed. “I don’t think to break anyone’s heart.”
“No; you don’t think.”
Pearson turned away and walked towards the war machine.
“Always machines,” Eleri muttered.
“Much as the idea of spending a pleasant few hours being insulted by you appeals, Eleri, I have work to do. What about you?”
Eleri shrugged. “Merlyn said you might need a little help with translation; you or Foster. Said I should come out and…make myself available. Not so long ago, I would’ve been skipping and dancing through the Stargate,” she muttered.
Pearson sighed again and leaned over the workbench. “Look, Eleri, there are people dying on this planet. I just watched a Jaffa peel his son out of this thing and cart him away for cremation and I don’t have time for…For I don’t know what.” He slumped and planted his gauntleted palms hard on the table to support his weight.
“Do you need any help?” she asked, relenting just a little.
“Can you recognise my tools?”
“Most of them.”
“Then you can help.”
Pearson was convinced that either Eleri would drive him nuts or he would drive her nuts within minutes, but it turned out that either she was more professional than he gave her credit for or he was. She made a good assistant and even offered a few insightful comments. She had no training in engineering, but then again neither did Pearson; he worked on the mixture of acquired mechanical know-how and pure intuition that had served him well for a decade or more.
“This is all screwy,” he said at last.
“More so than usual,” he agreed.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Wrong with it?”
“Well, something’s wrong, isn’t it?” Eleri demanded. “I know it’s vile on vile and made of things that man was not meant to wot of, but surely it shouldn’t look like that.” She pointed at the pallid, crusty blemish on the mottled surface of the war machine’s interior.
Pearson shook his head. “No, it shouldn’t.” He sighed and tapped the radio controls on his suit. “All members Sierra Golf seven, this is Monkey,” he announced.
“Monkey,” Eleri snorted.
Pearson shot her a patient glower. “All members, this is Monkey,” he repeated.
“Go ahead, Monkey.” Ferretti’s voice was distorted by static.
“We may have a little problem,” Pearson admitted. “The Scourge is sick.”
There was a brief pause. “Ah…forgive a stupid old man, Monkey, but wasn’t that more-or-less the point?”
“Affirmative, Hound, but we were counting on the mechanical parts to boost the immunity of the organic. Turns out that the machine is sick as well.”
Another pause followed; longer this time and broken by Merlyn’s voice. “Are you saying that the plague has infected a mechanical system?”
This time the pause stretched into a bona fide uncomfortable silence.
“Oh, balls.” Ferretti declared at last. “Look, Pearson; I won’t pretend to actually understand what you mean, but I presume it’s…”
The signal broke off into a burst of static. Merlyn’s distorted voice broke through: “…for the deer! Look ou…eer!”
“It’s alright, Monkey,” Ferretti assured him. “Just a little incident with a sick antelope and an overanxious backseat driver.”
“I’m not in the back seat.”
“To continue from where I broke off, I presume it’s not good?”
“A contagion that infects organic tissue and…well, whatever the Scourge is made of is not good? No,” he added, when he realised that the answer might not be immediately apparent to his CO.
“Well, at least it confirms that The Scourge didn’t release the plague,” Merlyn noted. “What’s your next step, Monkey?”
“We can try to work out what they want,” Pearson suggested. “Even without the” – he looked queasy – “living battery, I can rig up a cell to power the synaptic relays and maybe tap into the psionic network. I’ve got a program that should translate the impulses into a language stream, but there’s a problem.”
“Well, I can obtain a language stream, but the program can’t translate the syntax of pre-Ancient dialects; I can only produce a stream in…well, probably the language we found on P1A-113.”
“Well, that’s no problem then,” Eleri interjected.
“She’s…almost right,” Merlyn allowed, “if a little overoptimistic. Wicca knows that language even better than I do. Churn out the language stream; she’ll translate for you.”
“Affirmative, Hawk. Monkey out.” Pearson turned to Eleri. “Alright, ‘Wicca’; let’s get to work.”
SGC Delta Site
Professor Howe returned to the quarantine cages, where Dr Foster was waiting. She felt useless just sitting there, but she could not have entered the pathogen labs, even in her Omega suit, without a five hour surface decontamination. Howe had told her that Dr Mendez could assist him perfectly well, but this had done little to appease her.
“Is there any progress?” she asked.
Howe shook his heavy head slowly. “There are no antibodies in the samples; only diseased tissue. It seems that this Scourge has provided no immunity to the plague.”
“There was some resistance; those inside the machines survived longer with the disease than any others who were infected.”
“Constitutional factors,” Howe assured her. “The machines provided life support to maintain basic functions, but there are no additional biological agents, or rather those that there are served to accelerate the progress of the disease.”
“What do you mean, accelerate?”
“There were some nanites, and they seem to have been infected as well. The handful that were still active seemed to be pumping out their own form of the contagion; we put them in a sample of healthy tissue and they infected all of it in minutes.”
“Damnit!” Foster pounded her fist on the Plexiglas of the isolation tank. “We have to do something, Titus.”
“I know that, Foster,” he assured her coolly.
“Have you…” Foster swallowed hard. “Have you tested the nanite samples from my suit filters?” she asked.
“I don’t know that we…”
“Oh, please,” Foster scoffed. “Titus, no-one but you has a worse bedside manner than me. I know you took samples when the filters were scrubbed and refreshed.”
Howe nodded slowly. “You’re right,” he admitted.
“And the nanites in your screens were infected. In fact, they were doing exactly what the Scourge nanites were doing and pumping out new infectious agents.”
“Agents capable of bypassing the screens by masquerading as friendly nanites.”
Howe’s silence spoke volumes.
With a sigh, Foster reached up and released the seals on her helmet.
Howe put out a hand as though he could restrain her with his will alone. “Foster! We don’t know that you’re infected; let us do the blood work and find out…”
Foster removed her helmet and shook down her hair, lanky with sweat. “I’m infected,” she told him as she stripped off her gloves. “The only thing I can do now is head back and try to help as best I can before…Let me have a profile of the altered nanites; maybe it’s only exposure to the infected Scourge vectors that causes the change, in which case Lloyd and Ferretti might be okay still.”
“Foster, you didn’t have to…”
Foster forced a smile. “Maybe I didn’t. Maybe I wouldn’t, if even once you’d just called me Susan.”
Howe looked nonplussed.
“You’d better quarantine the base,” Foster sighed, “until you can check if the isolation shields are holding. At any rate, load up a medical FRED and clear the Gateroom. I’m going back to Haida.”
“Perhaps you were right about a crack,” Alexa noted.
Roberts crouched on the lip of a circular shaft, some fifteen feet across, and reached down to touch its walls. He shook his head. “This was cut by the same Scourge technology that sliced through the rockfall.” He held up his hand and Alexa could see the slippery sheen of degenerate matter on his gloved fingertips.
“So, The Scourge burrowed out from their resting place to attack. But even here the Mind would not have had the strength to sense the children,” Alexa insisted. “Not unless something had it so spooked that it was pouring all of its survival energy into a last-ditch broadcast.”
“The plague,” Roberts suggested.
“But how could it be infected this deep? Even this plague can’t simply have worked its way along the lines of bacteria; not that fast.”
“It doesn’t matter how,” Roberts said. “There’s no cure here.”
In the depths of the shaft, a dull green light flashed.
“Let’s move; back to the surface, on the double. We need to check in and see what the others have found.” He pulled a disruptor charge from his webbing and tossed it into the hole. “I don’t like the idea of The Scourge being afraid of anything.”
Once more, blue light lit the cavern walls and the sick and dying bacterial colonies pulsed weakly in response.
“Apart from us, I mean.”
The Jackal drove slowly along the main road through the mining settlement. No-one came out to look; nothing in the town moved at all, except for a few shutters blowing in the wind. The walls of the buildings showed the marks of plasma blasts here and there.
“This doesn’t look good,” Merlyn noted as they passed a smouldering pyre.
“Do you see anyone?” Ferretti asked.
“Not yet, but there’s smoke from at least nine pyres and…”
A plasma burst splattered across the front of the Jackal. It barely made a mark on the vehicle’s armour, but it was still a shock coming out of the silence.
Ferretti slammed the FAV into reverse and backed off fast. “Did you see where the shot came from?”
“Big house on the right; nearside top window.”
Ferretti nodded once and slewed the Jackal into an alleyway out of sight of the offending window. He reached down beside his seat and retrieved his MPX from the door rack. “You swing around the back of that building, Merlyn; I’ll take the front. Go easy and keep a channel open.”
“Yes, Sir.” Merlyn stepped out of the FAV and made her way along the alley. She emerged into a smaller street and moved towards the target, keeping close to the walls and watching the windows carefully.
“See anything, Hawk?”
“Not yet, Hound.” At the corner of the building she held her MPX in one hand and peeked around the wall. She could see the window from which the shot had come; a staff weapon protruded and a shadowy form slumped against the sill. “Alright, now I got him. I can only see the one.”
“Can you approach?”
Merlyn scanned the walls of the building. It was a two-storey structure, roughly clad in greyish render, with few windows and nothing moved in any of the others. There was also a back door. “Affirmative, Hound.”
“I’ll give you three minutes to get into position.”
“Affirmative.” Merlyn moved quickly across the alley and ducked into the shelter of the rear door frame. She tried the handle and the door opened; there was no lock. Inside, the building was sound and it was easy enough to move silently through the passages and up the stairs, but Merlyn knew how alert the Jaffa could be and she took no chances.
“In position,” she reported when she was outside the door to the shooter’s room.
“I’m moving in,” Ferretti confirmed.
Merlyn holstered her MPX and took out her zat. She counted to three and then pushed the door open, lifting the weapon and squeezing the handle gently so that it snapped open without firing. “Kree, Jaffa!” she ordered. “Stand down and surrender!”
Below, Ferretti moved out into the street, expecting at any moment to be shot down. Thankfully, no shot came.
The channel crackled. “Hound; you might want to come up here.”
The Jaffa had been holed up in a small bedroom with a staff weapon and a stash of food; it looked as though he had been there for a few days. He was young, no more than a decade past the Age of Prata, and clearly close to death. His skin was pasty, his eyes milky and his nose, eyes and ears were crusted with dried blood. It was understandable that he had mistaken Ferretti and Merlyn for enemies, but incredible that he had managed to hit the Jackal.
Merlyn cradled the young man’s head and trickled a little water into his mouth. “It’s alright now,” she promised. “Just try to relax.”
The Jaffa shuddered. “I am dying, am I not?” he croaked.
Merlyn exchanged a helpless glance with Ferretti before looking back to the youth. “Yes,” she admitted. “I’m sorry.”
“Death will be a release,” he assured her, “and I am pleased to have seen the Zoh’kal before my death.”
“SoCal?” Ferretti whispered.
“The Zoh’kal,” Merlyn explained. “A flame-haired spirit which comes to escort the dying to Kheb. I’m not…”
Ferretti coughed sharply.
“Sir, I can’t…”
“Confess it later,” Ferretti hissed. “Let the kid have this comfort.”
Merlyn swallowed her protests. “Yes, Sir.”
Ferretti sat forward. “What’s your name, kid?”
“Can you tell us what happened?”
“They…They came seven days ago,” the Ark’la gasped.
The Jaffa nodded. “We thought nothing of it at the time, but a day after they arrived we received a message from Gateward about the plague. We realised that the traders must have brought the infection and we confronted them, but they fought their way out of the town.”
“They fought their way past Jaffa?” Ferretti asked. “Were you already sick?”
Ark’la shook his head. “They were just too strong for us, and we were taken by surprise; their ferocity and armaments were not those of traders. They…” He broke off in a fit of coughing that brought a spume of blood to his lips. He moaned pitifully and slumped down in what Merlyn could only describe as a swoon.
“Well, that’s a new twist,” Ferretti said.
“I guess we can rule out accidental infection, and probably be certain that the plague did not originate with Menenet.”
“Might have been nice to know that before we spent three very uncomfortable days searching his fortress.”
“So, what do we do now?”
“We head back to the Stargate,” Ferretti decided.
Ferretti looked at the young Jaffa and shook his head sadly. “We’ll fire the building,” he decided.
“But…Oh.” She lowered the boy’s head to the floor and gently closed his eyes.
“What’s the matter?” Eleri asked.
Pearson shook his head. “I’m not so hot with all this…meat,” he admitted.
“People not your strong point?”
Pearson frowned. “Well, this isn’t exactly ‘people’,” he pointed out sourly. “Regardless of that, I really need Foster to help me.”
“I hope I haven’t held you up.”
Pearson and Eleri looked up at Foster’s voice and stared at her in horror.
“Um…” Eleri began.
Foster tossed a small flash card to Pearson. He plugged the card into the firewire port on his suit’s control computer and the dial went berserk.
Eleri was concerned. “Xander?”
Pearson took her arm and attached the card; her monitors flashed urgently.
“I thought this system was supposed to be foolproof,” Eleri said accusingly.
“Nothing is foolproof,” Pearson replied. “You’ve double-checked this?” he asked, bleakly.
Foster nodded. “Your suit’s filters are currently drawing power to create nanites expressly tailored to recreate the pathogen in your bloodstream.”
Pearson let fly with a startling stream of savage invective. He grabbed at Eleri and caught her wrist before she could recoil; he stabbed fiercely at the controls, shutting down the internal air supply, retracting her faceplate and releasing her helmet seals. He jabbed the same controls on his own wrist and ripped off his helmet before crying out: “I am an idiot!” It was merely the mildest of the slurs that he had aimed against his own character.
“What…? Why?” Eleri demanded; she waved her helmet frantically in the air.
“The suit was doing you more damage than the air in here,” Pearson sighed. “I should have seen…The infected Scourge technology; if the plague was engineered to contaminate biotechnology, of course it would do the same to our nanite shields.”
“So this is it?” Eleri asked. “We’re going to die?”
Pearson nodded morbidly.
“Then get this bloody machine hooked up to your bloody monitors and bloody well give me something to bloody translate before I bloody cark it for nothing.”
Eleri’s outburst snapped Pearson out of his fugue and he and Foster set to work with a will. With the doctor’s help, Pearson was able to complete the connection between the war machine and his over-sized, steel-cased laptop computer. A second cable tied Pearson’s chunky, homemade machine to Eleri’s slim notebook and when Pearson hooked a battery to the war machine’s primitive subcortex the feeble pulses that his monitors detected were bounced onward to the linguistic filters programmed by Merlyn and Eleri.
“Well?” Pearson asked.
Eleri sucked her breath through her teeth.
The girl turned her notebook so that Pearson and Foster could see the readout. “I need to go back and…” She swore under her breath. “I’ll need to arrange for someone in the Anth Lab to send me a full set of language files; there just isn’t enough to analyse.”
“But it just goes on an on,” Foster pointed out. “Surely you’ll have enough eventually?”
Pearson shook his head. “It’s a repeating pattern,” he explained. “A beacon or…” He shook his head again.
“Xander?” Eleri asked.
“It’s a warning,” Pearson said with absolute certainty. “It says ‘stay away’.”
“A plague warning,” Foster suggested. “A quarantine.”
Pearson shook his head. “This is more specific,” he assured her. “Whatever sent this plague, The Scourge knows – and fears – it.”
Eleri sighed. “And just when I thought this day couldn’t get any worse.”
The Jackal jolted along a rough trail through the withered remains of a forest; it seemed that the plague had moved from animals to plant life.
“There are days when I hate this job,” Merlyn sighed.
“It could be worse,” Ferretti noted. “It’s part and parcel of the work that we all run into a few things that make us wonder if we wouldn’t be better off filing patent applications for the Academy, but I know a few guys in the squadron who only love the job on some days.”
With a soft crump, a staff blast ripped into the right wing of the Jackal; most of the plasma boiled harmlessly from the protective plating, but the front wheel was blasted into ribbons of steel and rubber. Even a driver of Ferretti’s superlative ability and experience could not control a vehicle at such speed with a blown tyre, but he made a good attempt and actually managed to skid the Jackal most of the way to a safe halt before it struck one of the trees. The diseased wood splintered like balsa, but Ferretti was hurled savagely across the cabin and Merlyn’s belt buckle failed, sprang open, and spilled her onto the ground.
As Ferretti struggled free of the Jackal’s twisted frame, more plasma blasts struck the jeep, overheating the dispersal plates and burning away the secondary ablative armour. Ferretti dragged his dazed second-in-command to her feet and hurried her away from the FAV. Something inside the vehicle crackled worryingly.
“Go on!” Ferretti ordered.
Merlyn stumbled on; Ferretti turned. His MPX was still in its rack in the door of the Jackal, but he drew his sidearm and fired at the approaching figures. They moved with the same exhausted gait as Jereh’k and his men, but there were at least six of them and they were still firing doggedly into the blazing wreck of the Jackal. The worrying crackle sounded again and a bright light arced through the smoke and flames. Ferretti tried to recall what sort of power plant the Jackal used, remembered the word naquadah being mentioned and turned to follow Merlyn.
When its containment field collapsed, the cell detonated with a curiously muted roar. Almost two hundred yards away, Ferretti was hurled against a tree with enough force to shiver the weakened wood into splinters. He hit the ground hard and was unconscious before his body had rolled to a stop.
“They’ve stopped,” Roberts said. The Scourge guardians – twisted heaps of proto-flesh, like simulacra that had nothing to simulate – were glowering from the mouth of the shaft, but they did not approach. “Would you say that was about where the Scourge influence ends?”
“I would say so,” Alexa agreed. She sounded relieved. “I’m glad to be away from that; it’s like claws…filthy, slime-covered, poisonous claws digging at the hole in my mind.”
“There’s a hole in your mind?” Roberts asked.
“Right where you have that silver shield,” Alexa replied.
Alexa paused; she looked awkward, even under her Omega suit, as though she had said something that she shouldn’t have done. Roberts fired a parting shot to discourage any further pursuit and they hurried away, but he was not prepared to let the matter drop.
“I don’t try to look into anyone’s mind,” she insisted hurriedly. “It’s just that you do get stray thoughts sometimes, only…not from you. Not anymore. There used to be something, but since Nign…”
“Since I died?”
“You didn’t…I mean, you couldn’t have actually…I don’t know what happened, but since then you’ve stopped ‘leaking’, and…”
“And when you tried to read my mind, you couldn’t?”
“Well, it’s not quite mind reading,” she demurred awkwardly.
“But whatever it is…”
“…it doesn’t work on you. It’s almost like looking into a mirror. Most people would be pleased to hear that I couldn’t read their mind,” she noted.
“And you say you can’t?”
“I don’t need to. I can see that you’re not happy. Why is that?”
“Because you can read people’s minds.”
“It’s not quite…” Alexa stopped. “Oh.”
“Let’s get back to the others.”
“Okay,” Eleri said. “I think we have a match. I’ll run it through the translator and vocaliser.” She turned up the volume on the speakers and clicked the touchpad button.
The notebook crackled for a moment and then began to emit a digitised voice. “World…badly and unsafely. Not to come. Away go. Away.” The message broke off in a squeal of distorted sound.
“No translation there,” Eleri said apologetically. “Which is a shame, seeing that it’s probably the name of whatever did it. I might be able to do something with it; give me a little time and I can try to find something in the lexical database; something that we don’t quite have the right pronunciation for, perhaps.”
“I can try to clear up the signal,” Pearson offered.
She nodded. “Thanks.”
“Just doing my job,” he assured her.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t do mine better. Perhaps when Merlyn gets back…”
“When Merlyn gets back, she’ll do no better and no worse than you,” Pearson assured her. “You know this stuff as well as she does and at least it confirms what we suspected.”
Eleri laughed bitterly. “You make it sound like that’s a good thing.”
Pearson smiled and picked up his radio. “Hound, this is Monkey.”
Silence was his only response.
“Hound, this is Monkey.”
“Monkey, this is Cat.”
Pearson glanced briefly at Eleri and Foster and controlled his nerves with an effort. “Cat, can you raise Hound from where you are?”
“Negative, Monkey. Could they be out of range?”
Pearson shook his head redundantly and moved away from the two women, not wishing to worry them any further. “We’re running a field radio relay here with enough juice to cover most of the continent and the Jackal’s set should be able to reach us from almost anywhere. Look, did everything go alright at the caverns? Is Owl…?”
“I’m fine, Monkey, thanks for asking. Any progress on your side of things?”
“Plenty. None of it any good. Did you encounter any resistance?”
“Oh, some, but they were pretty sickly things.”
Pearson sighed deeply.
“Something wrong, Monkey?” Roberts asked.
“Just that you’re probably both infected with the plague,” Pearson groaned. “Head back here; I need to update your suit monitors and…In fact, I’ll leave the files on the desk outside the lab; check yourselves before you come in. I think we’re all in big trouble.”
“Alright,” Roberts said. “You may have a point. I mean, after all we’ve been through, I tend not to want to bandy the words ‘big trouble’ around too much, but yeah; this could reasonably be categorised as trouble that is big.”
Roberts, Alexa and Pearson sat in one of the Jaffa barracks with Foster and Eleri. Since they had the opportunity, Roberts had decided that they should all shower and change into regular BDUs. It had helped everyone to relax a little, but Pearson’s summary of their findings was enough to restore the tension and the continued absence of SG-7’s senior officers did nothing to calm their subordinates.
“Will they be infected?” Alexa asked.
“I don’t know,” Pearson admitted. “The plague infected our suit systems when we were exposed to The Scourge. It was contaminated vector nanites that turned our screens into a weapon against us; no vector nanites and their screens will hold.”
“Then where are they?”
“We don’t know,” Roberts said firmly. “We don’t know and we can’t find out right now, so we focus on what we can do and that is our jobs. Sergeant; have you managed to get anything else from the war machine’s subcortex?”
“A little,” Pearson replied. “The subcortex is a very primitive form of Mind, but it does store a little of the machine’s long term memory. Once we dug down below the – for want of a better word – conscious level, that dominated by the beacon, Eleri and I were able to decipher a few bits of the record. The machine doesn’t really think, so the impressions are dim, but something big came to Haida, at the same time as and probably with the traders the Colonel and the Captain went after. The Scourge sensed it and triggered an emergency response, draining all of its reserve power to bring in a handful of victims to tap. It was close to dead when the Jaffa children answered the call, and they brought the plague with them.”
“They spread the infection to the machines when they…joined with them,” Eleri expounded; she sounded nauseated. “Now The Scourge on this world are…is…are dying and there’s nothing they can do but warn people…Scourge away.”
“Korush-nai,” Alexa said.
“How’s that?” Foster asked.
“Korush-nai is a Goa’uld word meaning, literally, no further; they place it as a warning on worlds irreversibly contaminated by NBC weapons.”
“Nuclear, Biological and Chemical,” Pearson expanded.
“It means give up on this world,” Alexa said. “That’s what The Scourge is saying. ‘Make no landing, bring no force to bear, don’t even try to annihilate this enemy; just keep away.’ What could make them just give up like that? What could scare The Scourge like that?”
Roberts shook his head. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “Let’s find out.”
Ferretti woke up slowly; his head was aching and even after he managed to force his gummy eyes open, his vision was blurred. He felt as though his body were bobbing up and down and there was a pain in his heels and shoulders. Slowly he realised that he was bobbing up and down, with his heels dragging across the rough ground and powerful hands gripping his upper arms.
“Oh, I hate this,” Ferretti groaned.
Ferretti looked up and saw that he was being dragged along by two warriors in the black armour of kull warriors. Of course, since one of them had spoken to him, they were clearly not actual kull warriors; the fact that it took two of them to drag him was also something of a giveaway.
“I mean it. Maybe some people get used to being dragged, but not me.”
“Silence!” The warrior on his left half-lifted his hand, but no blow fell; it looked almost as though he were too tired to strike his prisoner.
The terrain beneath Ferretti’s heels was rough, but regular; probably an ill-maintained road. This suspicion was confirmed when he saw an archway pass overhead.
“Oh, have we arrived?” he asked. In answer, the warriors dropped him on the floor, gave him a half-hearted kick to make him turn face down and then picked him up again. Wherever he was being taken now, it was apparently a matter of protocol that he be dragged in face down.
He was dragged on, down what felt like half a mile of marble-flagged corridors, through a large and somewhat creaky door into a large hall. He could hear the warriors’ footsteps echoing in the open space. They stopped and threw him down; a pair of black boots loomed in front of him.
“Menenet, I presume.”
The warriors dragged Ferretti to his knees and he had his first view of the former lord of Haida. He did not look good. His face was pale and waxen, his hair lank and matted, and a trickle of blood ran from his nose. His clothes were tattered and stained. His eyes were ringed with the shadows of exhaustion and burned with the light of insanity.
As Ferretti looked around, he could see that he was in a throne room, although not the one which he and Roberts had searched a few days ago. Menenet had crowded a handful of soldiers and slaves in with him; the throne was propped up by a plague-ravaged concubine. In addition to the people, the room was strewn with bedding and supplies. Clearly this was some sort of inaccessible audience chamber which Menenet was using as his home and base of operations since the Jaffa had taken control of the more public areas of the palace.
“Times are tough, eh?”
“Silence human!” Menenet snarled, and the effort sent him into a fit of coughing. Impatiently he waved his hand; his warriors seized Ferretti’s arms, clutched at his helmet and, before Ferretti could marshal a protest, ripped it off.
Fear swept through Ferretti; his skin prickled and he could almost feel the plague seeping into his pores. After mere moments, he began to feel queasy; his stomach churned, his heart raced and his breath came in short gasps. Of course, that could as easily have been panic as plague.
Menenet grinned and cackled maniacally; any doubts Ferretti might have harboured as to his utter lunacy were banished. “Now, you will die too!” he cackled. “You will die by your own disease, along with your foul and unnatural allies.”
Jereh’k had burned his son and the last of the smoke was drifting away into the lowering sky, but the Jaffa leader did not look as though he were in any mood to speak. Instead, Roberts approached a tall, proud woman whose dark eyes matched Jereh’k’s closely enough to mark him as her father. Roberts took her hands and lifted them while bowing low, so that her knuckles brushed his forehead.
“My condolences, Mistress An’yauc,” he said sincerely.
An’yauc bowed her own head over his. “I thank you, Lieutenant Roberts,” she said softly. “Come aside; my father is struck deeply by his loss and I would not trouble him.”
“No more would I,” he promised her. They walked back to the rest of SG-7 before speaking again.
“How may I assist you, Lieutenant Roberts?”
“We have to find the traders,” Roberts replied. “The Colonel and the Captain are missing.”
“You think that the traders are the carriers?” An’yauc asked.
“We think that they brought it, whether as carriers or as couriers, we can’t be sure. Whatever the case may be, we want to find them. They’re our only lead on where our friends might be.”
An’yauc nodded. “We have word that the traders were seen camping out in the woods,” she explained. “Give me a few moments to gather my weapons and I shall show you.”
“You don’t have to come yourself.”
“My brother is dead, my mother is dead, my father is practically destroyed; I can not remain behind.”
“Alright,” Roberts agreed, “but we need words; no Jaffa revenge kicks. At least not before we find out what is happening.”
An’yauc pursed her lips pensively, but she replied: “As you wish.”
“You thought that I was dead,” Menenet ranted, “but Menenet can not be slain by any Jaffa or human! Even the spider-machines failed! I am a god and I…” He broke off in a fit of coughing; blood spurted from his mouth. Menenet’s concubine staggered up and stumbled towards her master; she pulled a filthy cloth from her bodice and dabbed at his gory mouth. Impatiently, the Goa’uld shoved her away; Ferretti heard a crack as she struck the ground.
“Silence!” Menenet roared, but the effort once more set him off into a fit of coughing; this time he collapsed with the force of the fit, retched and choked up a massive gobbet of blood and sputum.
As his guards seemed distracted by this turn of events, Ferretti took it upon himself to go over to the girl. She was lying very still with her arm twisted unpleasantly beneath her, but she was shivering with grief and pain and so he knew she was still alive. Gently, Ferretti drew her up and examined her arm; the break seemed clean and he was able to improvise a splint using the empty holster for his MPX.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“He has no need of me,” she whispered through a ravaged throat. “I have no purpose.”
Angrily, Ferretti jerked the straps tight around her arm with more force than he had intended. The girl winced but did not cry out. “He’s not the whole of the world,” he told her, but he could not find it in him to argue any further. What was the point when the girl was so near death anyway? He made a sling of one of her satin scarves and then took off his jacket and wrapped it around her shoulders. “What’s your name?” he asked gently.
“Her name is immaterial,” Menenet growled.
Ferretti turned; the Goa’uld had recovered from his fit, although his mouth was flecked with blood and foam and he kept his voice to a menacing growl rather than risk another bellow. Trying to show more calm than he felt, Ferretti turned back to the girl. “That’s a pretty name,” he told her.
At a gesture from Menenet, one of his kull armoured guards advanced on Ferretti. The guard had the advantage of height, weight and armour, but he was sick as a dog and Ferretti was mad as hell. As the guard approached, Ferretti stood up straight, snatched the demoniac mask from his face and punched him hard in the face. He was rather disturbed to feel the guard’s face collapse under his fist, the skull cracking almost as easily as the girl’s arm had done. The guard hit the floor with a clattering of armour; he did not get up and Ferretti doubted whether that was because his feelings had been hurt.
The other guards levelled their weapons.
“The girl is mine,” Menenet hissed; she smiled at that.
“Well, you should look after your stuff better.” Ferretti put an arm protectively around the girl’s uninjured shoulder, but she stumbled away from him towards her master. He simply pushed her away again. This time Ferretti caught her before she could fall, trying not to grab too hard at her broken arm.
“Keep her,” Menenet sneered. The girl stifled a sob. “Her usefulness to me is long past. Consider it a last gift to the condemned man.”
“You’re all heart.”
“Well, an envoy of the Hidden One is to be treated with full honour.”
“Right. The…Hidden One?”
“Oh, I know the signs,” Menenet assured him. “I know the mark of your master; those vile, slimy things. The creeping, hopping…” He shuddered in fear. “Frogs.”
“I saw them in my dreams. I heard their croaking voices. I knew that they were coming. I have captured His harbingers; captured His assassin.” At this he levelled an accusing finger at Ferretti. “When they come, the Kerer, I shall take them too and they shall succumb to your plague, just as you have.”
“And you,” Ferretti pointed out.
“I am Menenet, master of plagues. I shall find a cure for myself if I must strip every one of you to your base genetic state to do it; already I have done so to most of your agents. You distracted me; tricked me into fighting the Replicators and the Jaffa and the machines while your skulking harbingers did their work of infection, but I shall prevail. Even now I have you and your messengers.”
Ferretti was confused. “What messengers?”
Menenet turned to his guards. “Bring out the emissary of the amphibians.”
According to An’yauc, the team were getting close to the traders’ camp when their radios crackled.
“This is Hawk calling all members SG-7; can you hear me?”
Roberts breathed a sigh of relief. “Affirmative, Hawk,” he said. “Sergeant; get a fix.”
Minutes later, Alexa was tending the gash on Merlyn’s arm while Roberts filled her in on the state of affairs. Merlyn might have been more concerned about the failure of the Omega suits had her own not been so badly damaged in the crash as to lose containment altogether.
“Still, it gave its life in a good cause,” Roberts noted.
“You came out of a Jackal under fire…”
“By kull warriors,” she reminded him.
“…at about ninety miles an hour and got a bit scuffed up. Could have been much worse.”
“Yes. I’m so glad I’m alive to die of a horrible plague,” Merlyn drawled, but she sounded as though she really meant it. “Alright, let’s go and find these traders. I have a bone to pick with them.”
The traders’ camp was still where it had been reported, but the tents and wagons had been burned and bodies lay clustered close to the remains of their shelters. There were twenty-nine bodies, women and men, from a child of two or three to a man who might have been sixty. There was no sign of the plague about them; each one had been slain by multiple plasma burns to the chest and abdomen.
“I think the bones have already been picked,” Pearson remarked.
Merlyn shook her head. “No they haven’t. These bodies are fresh. When did this happen?”
“At least forty-eight hours ago,” Roberts replied. He was crouching beside a pile of corpses, examining the traces in the dirt with an eagle eye. “The dead are cold and so are the fires. It was probably closer to fifty-seven hours,” he added.
“They came at night.” Roberts looked up from the ground. “The attackers fired the wagons; as the traders emerged from their tents they were shot with zat’nik’tels. They were sleeping when they came.”
“They shot them with zats?” Pearson was surprised. “Zat blasts don’t leave marks like that.”
“No. They leave marks like this.” Roberts tore off a strip from a woman’s blouse and held it up for the others to see. The fibres around a tiny point were frayed, scorched and separated. “Nothing on the flesh, but the clothes can still tell the tale; the fibres can’t disperse the charge as effectively as flesh. Once they were incapacitated,” he went on, “the traders were rolled onto their backs; some were taken and others were shot dead where they lay.”
“Who would do something so…barbaric?” Alexa wondered.
“No Jaffa,” An’yauc assured her, before correcting herself: “No free Jaffa.”
“Some of these blast marks are too small for a staff weapon; a kull plasma gauntlet, I’d say. But kull warriors deal poorly with complex commands like ‘kill some and take others alive’. I think we’re looking at kull weapons, worn by humans or Jaffa; probably the same ones who attacked you.”
“Menenet,” An’yauc snarled. “He had five of the kull warriors sent to test for their resistance to disease. He kept the armour. It must be Menenet’s servants and…And that must mean that Menenet is still alive. He sent them to do this thing.”
“But why?” Alexa demanded.
“They were afraid,” Merlyn replied. “They must have worked out that the plague carriers came with the traders. They probably took the carriers – or those they thought were the carriers – and murdered the rest. Perhaps they thought they could burn out the plague that way.”
An’yauc crouched beside the body of a young woman with a dead child in her arms. She drew the woman’s shawl across the baby and gently closed her eyes. “These are the traders,” she said in a choked voice. “I knew these men and women well; they came to our world often and shared our hearths. There were strangers with them this time and none of those are here; they must have been the carriers.”
Merlyn nodded. “What I don’t understand is how the bodies look so fresh.”
“Dr Foster came up with a thought on that,” Pearson told her. “You see…”
“Why has nothing eaten the bodies?” Pearson asked rhetorically. “Because there is nothing that can eat them, since their death has put them beyond the plague’s ability to corrupt their bodies. In fact, it’s the plague that’s keeping them fresh. The plague affects everything; the scavengers are as dead as these poor bas…people,” he corrected, “but it goes further even than that. The plague doesn’t just affect component cells in larger organisms; it can attack and corrupt individual nanites, so why not micro-organisms as well? Dr Foster believes that the plague may have begun to wipe out bacterial life on this planet as well as animals, plants and fungus. The bodies don’t decay because there’s nothing to make them decay.” He shook his head. “This world will die within weeks. We might be able to save the people, but the planet is doomed.”
“Roberts; see if you can tell me who the carriers were,” Merlyn ordered. “An’yauc; find a trail. If we can follow the attackers then hopefully they’ll lead us to the Colonel.”
“We should tend to the dead,” An’yauc insisted. “They ought not to lie like carrion.”
Roberts went over to the Jaffa and laid a hand on her arm. “Nothing will happen to them,” he assured her. “They are past harm, especially in this incorruptible atmosphere; the Colonel is still in danger. Help us; I will come back with you to tend to the dead.”
“How you doing, Mattie?” Ferretti asked.
The girl looked at him quizzically.
“Well, Immaterial is such a long name; I thought ‘Mattie’ suited you better.”
For a moment, she looked utterly baffled, but then a shadow of a smile flickered across her lips and she even managed a choking laugh.
“So, how you doing?”
“I am dying,” she replied. “I am dying and I am useless. If you care at all ‘how I am doing’, you will kill me now.”
Ferretti shook his head. “Where there’s life, there’s hope,” he insisted.
The handmaiden shook her head. “The only thing that inevitably accompanies life is death.”
“Well, now I have to keep you alive so I can introduce you to Roberts,” Ferretti decided. “I’ve spent years looking for someone even bleaker than he is so that for once, he can see what it feels like.”
“Silence!” Menenet’s shout was ill-advised. He collapsed into another coughing fit, so severe that when his guard returned with the other prisoner, he could only wave for them to enter.
The black-armoured guard held his wrist-blaster aimed at a young woman in red. She was not pretty, but she was handsome in a strong-featured way and, unlike everyone else in the room, she positively glowed with health. Her broad, full mouth was curled in a confident smile and she surveyed her surroundings with queenly dignity.
“My god,” Ferretti murmured.
The woman’s eyes swung towards him, huge and pellucid, and her smile deepened. “Colonel Ferretti,” she chuckled. “What a delightful surprise, my dear Hound.”
For a long moment, Ferretti was quite literally speechless, but at last he managed to whisper: “Kahda.”
“So pleased that you remember me,” the seeress said. She advanced with the confident stride that Ferretti had never seen. He had seen her only as a puppet of her brother and her priest and it was only now that he could truly believe Merlyn and Roberts’ insistence that the quiet girl had been the true mastermind of their capture.
“And is my beautiful Cat with you?” Kahda asked. “I do hope that our host hasn’t killed him; he and I have…unfinished business.”
“Don’t you know?” Ferretti asked. “I thought that you could see the future.”
“I see some things, but I can not choose what,” she replied. “Great Cthulhu shows me what he pleases. I know that you were looking for us,” she allowed. “I sensed you sniffing around the Great Old One’s cry.”
“I sensed you and my Cat and your Monkey; and the Hawk, of course,” she added venomously. “And I could sense that you have a new puppy.”
“Puppy?” Ferretti was nonplussed.
Kahda grinned meanly. “A dear, doe-eyed puppy who follows the Hound around, ever-seeking his approval.”
Ferretti bridled. “Don’t you dare speak of her like that.”
“You seem to collect such feeble creatures,” Kahda noted coolly, eyeing Mattie disdainfully.
“Why aren’t you infected?” Ferretti demanded angrily, eager to change the subject.
“So businesslike,” Kahda sighed, “although not always, I see.” She glanced at Mattie and her grin took on a nasty curl. “But of course I am not infected; or rather, I am infected, but in a rather special way.”
“You were the carrier!”
“Of course they were,” Menenet spat; he was clearly unhappy that neither of his captives was sparing him the least attention. “You know full well that the Hidden One sent them to poison my world; but he won’t have me. He will not defeat me.”
“Who is this Hidden One?” Ferretti demanded.
Kahda shrugged her shoulders, as though she hadn’t a care in the world. “Some Goa’uld night terror whom he seems convinced that I serve,” she replied. “I have told you, Lord Menenet, that I serve none who are known to you. My master is beyond your comprehension.”
“Be silent, wench!” he snapped. He almost choked again, but was able to contain the spasms this time. “I captured you before you could complete your work,” he told her, “and I will not surrender my world to the Hidden One.”
“I do not serve the Hidden One, and I do not ask for your world,” Kahda told him. “You know what it is that I want. Only give me that one little thing and I shall give you the cure to the plague. This is your last chance, Menenet: accept my bargain and you can still survive this; refuse and you shall surely die.”
An insane glint flashed in Menenet’s diseased eyes and he laid a hand on a pocket of his robe. “Then I choose death,” he assured her, “but I shall not die alone.”
“That you shall not,” Kahda agreed.
“They went to the palace,” An’yauc announced. With Roberts’ promise given she had set to the work of tracking with a will, while Pearson and Alexa did what they could to arrange the bodies with a little more dignity, taking what unburned sheets and blankets they could find to cover the dead.
Merlyn nodded. “Then we do the same,” she said. “Was there any sign of who the others might have been?”
“None,” Roberts replied quickly; too quickly.
“Show me,” Merlyn ordered.
Reluctantly, Roberts produced an amulet from his belt pack and passed it to the captain. “You recognise the design.”
A length of broken leather ran through a loop at the top of the amulet. It was carved from a greenish-black stone which looked like it was wet when it was not. It felt…not wet, but slick, as though coated in oil. It was carved with a monstrous face, all whiskery tendrils and jagged, triangular teeth. “Of course,” she agreed.
Pearson could not help being troubled by the captain’s tone. “Ma’am?”
Merlyn was aware that a stillness had settled over the clearing; in the absence of any animal life, the quiet seemed unnatural. “The face of Dagon,” she replied with forced nonchalance. “It’s a Deep One amulet. At least we know what The Scourge was so afraid of now.”
“What? Those squishy things?” Pearson was doubtful. “How could they be a threat to The Scourge?”
“We’re squishy,” Roberts reminded him. He shared a meaningful glance with Merlyn. By common consent they had hidden certain facts regarding their first encounter with the amphibious servants of the monstrous entity Cthulhu, even from their comrades, who had been drugged at the time. As a result, the rest of the team tended to take the memory of that encounter, if not lightly, then without the weight that Merlyn and Roberts gave to it.
“And the Deep Ones have technology,” Merlyn noted. “Even if they didn’t use anything more advanced than a few stone knives on us, they are the inheritors of an ancient…a pre-ancient psionic technology. The Scourge doesn’t care about bodies, but what if something could attack the Minds directly?”
“It would hate it; as it hates me,” Alexa confirmed.
“They can control shoggoths,” Roberts added. “And The Scourge is part shoggoth.”
“Yes,” Alexa whispered. “That makes sense. The fear and anger that I felt in the caves; it was old. The Scourge wasn’t reacting to a new threat, or perhaps even…My Go…sh. It wasn’t reacting to the plague at all. It sensed the Deep Ones; that was why it reached up for the Jaffa and that was how it became infected. This is an ancient hatred.”
Merlyn shook her head. “Well, we’re stuck in the middle of it. I say we get our Colonel and get out. If we’re going to die anyway, let’s do it as a team.”
“You will suffer for this outrage,” Menenet fumed. He was slipping into declamatory mode again. “Oh yes, you shall suffer unimaginable torments before I allow you to die. Do not think that this sickness will prevent me; I have survived the System Lords and I have survived the Replicators; the Hidden One shall not finish me, not with my own weapons of pestilence and disease.”
“You are correct,” Kahda agreed, “if only because I do not serve the Hidden One.”
“No slip of a girl shall slay the great Menenet!”
Kahda smiled beatifically. “It is not my doing,” she assured him. “But you can not win, Lord Menenet; you can only survive.”
“That is still more than you shall do!” Menenet roared, and he flung himself at Kahda, a knife in his hand.
Although he was aware that Kahda was far from a helpless victim like Mattie, Ferretti’s upbringing had been too strict for him to stand by while a man attacked a woman, even one who had tried to feed him to her fishy kin. He released Mattie and flung himself at Menenet, slamming him sideways. The Goa’uld’s bones did not crack like the guard’s skull, but he fell more easily than a Goa’uld should have done and his flesh felt spongy. The knife slipped from Menenet’s clammy palm and skittered across the floor.
Menenet clawed at Ferretti and he was still strong. They grappled on the ground for a moment and Ferretti felt that he was getting the upper hand, but then the guards waved their blasters and fired a few warning shots. Kahda drew Ferretti back before any of the blasts could hit him.
“Thanks,” he muttered, uncomfortably aware that she had saved his life.
“Consider us even,” she told him. “He was…quicker than I expected with that blade.” Despite her confident words, she sounded flustered. She had probably imagined herself in control of the situation and it was lucky for her that Ferretti knew the Goa’uld well enough to see that she had overplayed her hand before Menenet turned violent.
Ferretti left Kahda and went back to Mattie; the disease seemed to have progressed even further and the girl was shivering. Menenet was also shaking, but with near-apoplectic rage. “I will make you suffer,” he promised them.
The Stargate opened and, for the first time in centuries, nobody was there to see. The Jaffa were keeping no guard; they had their hands full dealing with the sick and dying.
No-one saw who…what came through the Gate, but The Scourge felt it. Felt it and reacted with the last of its strength.
Alexa stumbled, putting out her hand to catch herself on a tree. The plague-eaten wood crumbled under her hand and she began to fall, but a powerful arm looped around her waist and pulled her upright.
“Are you alright?” Roberts asked.
Alexa knew what he was asking. “I can stand,” she assured him. “It just took me by surprise.”
He nodded and released her.
“And just what was ‘it’?” Merlyn asked.
“A psychic cry,” Alexa explained. “I think…I know it was a battle cry, and The Scourge answered. The rage, the fury…” She shook her head as if that could rattle the memory of the cry loose. “The first cry was just as inhuman as The Scourge, but…different; it wasn’t a single mind dividing itself between multiple consciousnesses, but many minds operating in union, combining into a single psychic force.”
“The Deep Ones?” Roberts asked.
“Probably,” Alexa replied. “Certainly, they hate The Scourge.”
“Well I hate The Scourge,” Pearson said.
“No,” Alexa replied. “I mean, I know that you hate them, but these…they really hate The Scourge.”
“More than I do?”
“Sergeant,” Merlyn cautioned. “I may not speak fluent Russian, but I know blasphemy when I hear it.”
Merlyn pursed her lips. “What do they want here?” she wondered, and then she looked back the way that she had come and answered her own question. “Revenge,” she realised. “They’ll be heading for the palace and their captured kin. How long will The Scourge hold them?”
Roberts and Pearson both shrugged. “Hard to say,” Pearson admitted, “we don’t know much about what they’ll be armed with, or even if…”
“The Scourge is falling,” she said. “I feel its pain.”
Merlyn nodded. “Then we move, now!”
A guard staggered into the chamber. “My lord, they are coming!” he gasped and then collapsed in a panting, gagging heap.
Menenet ignored him and turned to his other servants. “Bring them!” he ordered, waving offhandedly at Ferretti and Kahda. “Let them witness my wrath.”
SG-7 moved swiftly through the woodland to the palace dome. An’yauc led them out right by a small postern gate in the east flank of the biosphere. “I served in the palace before the Replicator assault,” she told them as she worked the code lock. “I know the layout by heart.”
“You were a guard here?” Alexa asked.
An’yauc shook her head. “A servant. It was not the place of women to take up arms under the old regime.” She reached out and touched the staff weapon that she had propped against the doorframe. “I carry this in defiance of the Goa’uld.”
“But you do know how to use it?” Merlyn asked warily.
“A Jaffa woman is the last defender of her home; she is expected to sell the threshold dearly.”
“Nice. So, where will the Colonel be?” Merlyn demanded. “Cells?”
An’yauc shook her head. “Probably in one of the laboratories.”
“We searched the main laboratory only a few days ago,” Roberts protested. “There was no sign of Menenet using it.”
“I know. If he is here then, it is most likely that he is to be found in one of the secure labs.”
“And why didn’t we search the secure labs?” Roberts asked.
“We sealed them off when we abandoned the palace,” An’yauc explained. “Or at least…we believed that we had done so. We did not go down there; we never went down there. We…did not think of it.”
“They are coming,” Alexa cautioned.
An’yauc nodded and turned her attention back to the panel. The door slid open and they went through into the outer palace.
Beneath the enormous dome, glass-panelled tubes ran across the grounds towards the pyramidal inner palace. In addition to Menenet’s dwelling, the palace contained a garden of delights and the team were momentarily stunned at the sight of the lush, teeming undergrowth around the tunnels.
“Complete isolation,” Pearson realised. “The dome kept the plague out. Plants, animals; micro-organisms. Everything is here to restart the ecosystem; if only we could get rid of the plague in the first place.”
As they made their way to the pyramid, however, they heard a cacophony of shattering glass from the north side of the dome.
“So much for isolation,” Pearson sighed.
Razor-shards of crystal rained down on the garden as the squat, squamous figures of Deep Ones broke through the dome. They disappeared into the undergrowth, but their path could be tracked by the panicked animals that fled from them as they charged towards the palace.
“Well, The Scourge didn’t last long,” Merlyn noted morosely. “Shouldn’t that make me feel happier?”
“Not really,” Roberts assured her.
A moment later, the sound of breaking glass was drowned out by a roar of engines and an almighty crash as a teltac launched from the back of the pyramid and flew straight through the top of the dome.
“Dangerous driver!” Pearson roared.
Roberts glanced back along the corridor to the external door and then forwards to the pyramid. “On!” he barked. “Move!”
Fortunately, SG-7 were used to trusting him and An’yauc was simply used to obeying orders and so they all ran. Thus they managed to make it almost to the pyramid before the huge glass panels from the roof of the dome began to slice through the corridor, shattering the tubes and filling what remained with shards of razor-sharp crystal travelling at high speed. Around them, the garden was in chaos as the falling glass slashed and crushed the precious remnants of Haida’s ecological treasures.
Heedless of this environmental tragedy, An’yauc threw herself at the door and worked the lock as fast as possible. The door slid open as a foot-long sliver of glass shot past her face, cutting a deep gash in her cheek. Smaller shards peppered SG-7 in the back as they piled through behind her. Robert slammed a hand into the control panel and the door closed.
“Is everyone alright?” Merlyn panted.
“Optical check,” Roberts suggested.
Quickly, but with the same thoroughness as when they checked one another’s Omega seals, the team searched each other’s backs, picking out fragments of glass and checking any injuries for severity. None had escaped unscathed, but there was no greater harm that the cut on An’yauc’s face.
“Good work, Lieutenant,” Merlyn commended Roberts as he fixed a dressing over a cut in her arm.
“Got to give you some reason to keep me around, since I know you’ve no interest in my boyish charm,” Roberts replied.
Merlyn smiled and turned to Alexa. “I don’t suppose there’s any hope that the fall sliced open all the Deep Ones, is there?”
The Russian closed her eyes. “No; I can still sense their anger…and their pain. They’re heading this way.”
Merlyn sighed. “No rest for the wicked.”
Pearson checked his MPX. “You’ll be waiting here and getting some shut-eye then, Ma’am?”
“Fear the wrath of Menenet,” Ferretti intoned archly. “He’s got a cargo ship.”
“You do realise that you’re delivering your wrath without the benefit of weapons, don’t you?”
Menenet laughed, coughed, laughed, coughed again and then paused to recover himself before speaking. “You underestimate the divine wrath of Menenet. I shall strike down upon your ranine brethren with my own body and scorch them with the fire of my very soul!”
Ferretti groaned. “You’re going to crash the ship.”
“And when this vessel strikes the palace I shall detonate the reactors.”
“You’ll destroy everything within twenty miles!” Ferretti protested. “The Stargate, my…” He felt a cold tingle along his spine.
“Yes. None shall survive my wrath,” the Goa’uld growled. “I shall scourge the earth with my…with my…” The Goa’uld broke off again, coughing and choking. He clawed at his throat as blood poured from his mouth. He staggered from his seat and groped for his knife, whether to attack Ferretti or Kahda they would never know. Before he could walk more than a step he fell down on his face and lay still.
“Oh well,” Ferretti sighed. “So much for that.”
“The laboratories are…Kree!” An’yauc threw herself into the cover of a junction; SG-7 scrambled after her as a group of Deep Ones rounded a distant corner. There were three of them, one tall and powerful, one squat and rotund and the third wiry, with arms like a gorilla. They held long, spear-like weapons, but no-one really felt like taking the chance that they were only spears.
“Ohr c’chul’gu!” the largest Deep One gurgled, pointing at the team with a long, webbed hand. Roberts shot it in the chest three times and it staggered, but did not fall.
The wiry one held out its spear and a flash of blue-white light stabbed out at Roberts, who ducked back just in time to avoid the blast. The wall sizzled and blistered where the blast hit.
Alexa moaned as though in pain.
Merlyn spared her a single glance to confirm that she had suffered no physical hurt. “Rasputin?”
“Psionic blasts,” the Russian sighed.
Merlyn gave a short nod. “Open fire!”
The team fired in short, controlled bursts and two of the Deep Ones fell, but the wiry one backed away to the corner, firing steadily with its spear. Once it was out of their sight it set up a keening, burbling cry.
“Roberts,” Merlyn said.
“Ma’am. Fire in the hole!” he cautioned and then fired the cannon. The round exploded at the far end of the corridor, silencing the cry.
“Well, now they won’t have a clue where we are,” Alexa groaned.
Merlyn glowered at her. “Let’s move; and quickly,” she added, as another burbling cry sounded in the corridors far behind them.
Menenet had brought two guards with him on the teltac, but they were distracted, as one might tend to be when faced with the sudden death of one’s god. Ferretti wasted no time allowing them to recover for a fair fight; he snatched the mask from the nearest and elbowed him in the face, while Kahda stooped for Menenet’s knife and drove it up underneath the second guard’s faceplate.
Ferretti wrestled the blaster gauntlet from his guard’s wrist; Kahda dropped by Menenet’s side and fumbled in the pockets of his robe.
Ferretti turned and aimed his blaster. “Drop the knife!” he ordered.
Kahda complied; she still held a silver vial with a red cap in her left hand. “Well. What now?” she asked.
“The plague,” Ferretti said. He pointed at the vial with his free hand. “I want the cure.”
“This?” Kahda asked. “No, this isn’t anything to do with the plague,” she assured him, sliding the vial into her own pocket. “But I shall make you a proposal, Colonel Ferretti. I can not pilot this vessel; you can. Take me down to the surface and release me, and I shall cure your plague.”
Ferretti shook his head. “I want the cure,” he said. “Not just for me; for my team, for the Jaffa…and for Mattie here. For everyone.”
“Then the plague will be all but useless in future,” Ferretti agreed. “Can you see how upset that makes me? But you need to get back and I need the cure, so that’s the deal.”
Kahda nodded her head. “Alright,” she agreed. “You have a deal.”
“Good. Give me the cure.”
“When I am safe,” she insisted.
“Now, how can I trust you on that?” The controls began to flash. “Oh, look; he programmed in the descent. Going down: ground floor; shirts, suits and reactor meltdown.”
“I give you my word!” Kahda cried.
Ferretti just laughed.
“My oath before the eye of my god,” she pleaded. “I swear I shall render unto you the cure, ïa Cthulhu e’glahk.”
“And let me go unharmed?”
Without another word, Ferretti shut down the gauntlet and turned to the controls. “He’s locked the reactor overload,” he noted, “but I can pull the ship out of its descent. I’m going to send it up into the sky; we’ll have to ring down.”
“The way we came up. Take Mattie through to the back,” Ferretti instructed. “Take good care of her.”
“As you wish,” Kahda agreed.
Ferretti put the ship into a climb, then looked over his shoulder to make sure that she had gone before activating the communication circuit. “SG-7 from Hou…from SG-7-niner,” he corrected himself; he didn’t want Kahda to know that they had adopted her names for them. “Come in, SG-7.”
“Hound, this is Hawk.”
Ferretti breathed a sigh of relief. “Good to hear from you, Seven-two. What’s your situation?”
“Just peachy. We’re fighting Deep Ones in the corridors of Menenet’s palace. You?”
“I’m in a flying bomb, high above that palace,” Ferretti replied. “I’ll be ringing down in a minute, probably to some sort of secondary throne room at the back of the palace. Try to meet me there; I’ll have company, not all of it very friendly.”
“Good luck, seven-two,” Ferretti said. “And, ah…can we go back to numbers. I’ll explain when I see you.”
“I know of no secondary throne room,” An’yauc said, “but those chambers were built for freight reception; they were large and could have been adapted to the purpose. I can take you there.”
For a while they met no resistance, but then An’yauc rounded the corner and took a blast of psionic energy to her chest. Roberts stepped out quickly, caught hold of the Jaffa and pulled her back around the corner, while his team mates moved to provide covering fire. Once An’yauc was safe, they moved back into cover.
“How many do you think?” Merlyn asked.
A volley of the psi-blasts struck the surface of the wall at the corner; the metal boiled.
“About fifteen,” Roberts replied.
“Any other way around?”
An’yauc shook her head and winced in pain. “This is the only connecting passage.”
“How is she?” Merlyn asked.
Roberts stripped the armour from An’yauc’s shoulder. “I think she’ll live,” he said, “but I doubt if any of y…of us would have. Lieutenant.”
“Sir.” Alexa swapped places with Roberts, tending to the injured Jaffa and allowing Roberts to join Merlyn and Pearson at the corner.
“I don’t suppose you had a chance to judge the distance to the enemy while you were doing your hero thing?” Pearson asked.
“I said thirty feet, the Sergeant reckoned forty-five.”
“Fifty-five or sixty; they’re bigger than you think,” Roberts replied. “You win, Sergeant; when we get back to base I’ll buy you a cookie.”
“Be still my beating oh gosh how camp do I sound?”
“The gosh didn’t help,” Roberts admitted.
“Sorry,” Merlyn said. “My bad. However…”
“Oh, yes; sorry.” Roberts set the airburst wheel on the 20mm cannon. “Fire in the hole!”
The rings put Ferretti, Kahda and Mattie down in the same throne room that they had left. The remaining guards were dead, their bodies blasted and crushed by the weapons of the dozen-or-so Deep Ones who stood watch around the room. In moments, half of those weapons were pointing at Ferretti’s face.
“Well…this is cosy,” Ferretti noted. He flexed his hand in the kull blaster; one of the Deep Ones hissed threateningly.
“Isn’t it just,” Kahda agreed. “Excellent. Most excellent. I must thank you, Colonel; I would not have been able to reach the surface without your assistance.”
“My pleasure.” Ferretti let the blaster slide off his hand.
The Deep One turned to Kahda and hissed and croaked at her. She responded in kind. “It seems that your friends are giving my kin a very difficult time,” she remarked. “Order them to cease fire; I shall do the same.”
Ferretti paused for a moment, but realised that there was little alternative. Even if SG-7 were to win their battle, without the cure the war would be forfeit. He switched on his suit radio. “SG-7 from Seven-niner,” he said. “Cease fire and hold in defensive positions. I say again, cease fire.”
“Affirmative, Seven-niner,” Merlyn confirmed. “Just so you know, we expect an explanation at some stage.”
“I’ll be delighted to give one.”
“Very good, Colonel,” Kahda commended him. “I think that we should part company now, much as I might like to renew my acquaintance with the good lieutenant.”
Ferretti laughed. “Oh, he’s not the good one.”
“Of course, your…”
“Do not call her a puppy,” Ferretti growled. He knew that he was outgunned and for a moment he felt just like a hound, growling at something bigger and nastier than he was, just so that he didn’t look so frightened.
“…your Owl,” Kahda finished. “Do give my love to Lieutenant Roberts.”
“What about the cure?” Ferretti demanded. He knelt by Mattie’s side and checked her pulse; her eyes were open, but she was very weak and her skin was clammy. “You gave your word.”
“Oh, of course,” Kahda agreed, “but you must make me one promise.”
Ferretti frowned. “We had an agreement,” he reminded her.
“And honour it I shall, but you must promise not to tell Roberts.”
“Tell him what.”
Kahda laughed and then darted suddenly towards Ferretti. She caught him by the arm and pressed her broad, generous mouth against his in an intimate, but passionless kiss. Ferretti mumbled a protest, but was too shocked to struggle. The kiss lasted mere moments, but what it lacked in duration Kahda made up for in thoroughness.
“Ugh,” he complained, but without real conviction.
“Mm,” Kahda mused. “Well, I shall not say that it has been a pleasure; I don’t want to give the wrong impression.”
“You have it,” Kahda laughed. “I am sure that your physicians can extract the essential part of it, but as to your little friend, she might need more immediate treatment. I can only suggest that she receive the same prescription as I made out to you. Fare you well, Colonel.”
With that, the Deep Ones swept out and bore Kahda along with them.
“Wait!” Ferretti called; his head was throbbing. “What prescription? All you gave me was a…” He stopped and lifted his fingertips to his lips. “Oh, you have got to be kidding,” he said, but Mattie groaned and her pulse fluttered erratically. “Well, here goes nothing.”
Ferretti bent his head over the girl and pressed his mouth to the girl’s. In imitation of Kahda he made the kiss thorough, but as clinical as possible. There was no immediate change in the girl, no miracle cure, but Ferretti found his headache becoming a fuzzy feeling as though his brains were packed in felt.
“Colonel?” The voice seemed very far away. Ferretti tried to turn towards it, but found himself spinning around and around until the world blurred and turned black.
The Delta Site
Ferretti came back to consciousness in the gleaming quarantine chamber. “I have never been so glad to see the inside of the tank,” he groaned.
“Welcome back, Colonel.”
Ferretti turned his head carefully and was glad to find that it did not cause the room to spin at all. “Hello, Dr Foster.”
Foster walked over to stand beside Ferretti’s bed. She checked his pulse, took his temperature and felt his brow.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
“Pretty good, considering. How long was I out?”
“Nine days; it was touch and go for a while. For such a tough guy, you turn out to have an Achilles’ heel for alien pathogens.”
“Yeah, I’m a martyr to my man-flu as well.”
Foster gave him a broader smile than he had ever seen from her before. “We were staring to get worried,” she admitted. “Everyone else has recovered already.”
“Aren’t you taking a bit of a risk coming in here without a suit?” he asked.
Foster shook her head. “We were all infected,” she told him. “Fortunately, we’ve managed to synthesise a highly effective antiserum from the one that had insinuated itself into your blood.”
Ferretti sat up slowly; he was delighted to find that this caused him no discomfort whatsoever. “How did you know I’d received the antiserum?”
“Well, aside from the fact that you didn’t die,” Foster laughed, “your little friend told me.”
“She says her name is Immaterial. We thought at first she was just being obstinately humble, but it turns out that really is her name. Or at least, she says so.”
“Mattie.” Ferretti smiled. “She’s alright then?”
“Fit as a flea; she recovered faster than anyone.”
“Sergeant Pearson said that the two of you seemed very friendly.”
“We weren’t…” Ferretti sighed. “I didn’t know any other way to pass on the antiserum. That was how…” He glanced around. “Where’s Roberts?”
“Around,” Foster replied. She squeezed his hand. “Don’t worry; Immaterial told us all about that as well.”
Ferretti groaned. “Told you all about it? Or told you all about it?”
“Told all of us – indeed, she told anyone who would listen – all about it. If she had the skill, she’d be writing ‘Colonel Ferretti: The Musical’ as we speak. I really don’t think Roberts is that bothered,” Foster assured him. “He’s spent most of his time in quarantine getting friendly with a Jaffa named An’yauc.”
Foster shrugged. “I didn’t ask and he didn’t say, although I suppose you can put it to him when he gets back. Now you’re awake again, I’ll contact the others; we can debrief once they return from Haida.”
“Haida? They went back there?”
“As soon as they were out of quarantine; all apart from Lieutenant Rasputin,” she added.
Ferretti shivered. “What happened to Rasputin?” he asked, making no attempt to conceal his concern.
“Just relax,” she advised. “Rasputin is fine, but she said that she couldn’t do much to help on Haida and…well, she’s insisted on sitting in with you whenever she wasn’t collapsing from exhaustion.”
“I’m flattered,” Ferretti remarked.
“Her loyalty…Their loyalty speaks highly of you; the same with Immaterial,” she added. “If you want to repay that loyalty, you could drop a few remarks into conversation about giant talking cats and illegal currency hoarding.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“Rasputin has been reading to you from The Master and Margarita,” Foster explained, “for all that I told her it seemed guaranteed to assure a state of delirium. Get some rest now,” she told him. “I’ll be here, keeping an eye on you.”
“Can I go somewhere more private, or are we still in quarantine?”
“You’re clear enough to use the isolation wards,” she assured him.
Ferretti swung his legs down to the floor and was glad to find that they supported his weight. “Then let’s go.”
They left the tank and walked down to one of the semi-private rooms. After more than a week in bed, Ferretti’s legs began to wobble before they got very far, but Foster put an arm around his waist to support him.
“All part of the service. We’ll get you sorted out with a little bit of physiotherapy and have you up to strength in no time.”
In the isolation ward she eased him into a chair and then turned back the bed with practised hands.
Ferretti stood and moved unsteadily towards the bed. He reached for the rail, missed, and Foster caught him before he fell. He groped for the rail and took his own weight. “Thanks again, Doc.”
Foster paused for a moment and then said: “You can call me Susan, if you like. Or Sue.”
“Then I’ll do that, Sue,” he told her. “And you can call me Lou. Although if you do, I think I’d better stick to Susan or we’ll sound like a vaudeville act.”
Foster laughed. “Then Susan it is, Lou.”
“Are you going to be supervising my physio?” Ferretti asked.
“No,” she replied. “I’m an epidemiologist; we’ll get someone with a better bedside manner to take care of you now you’re awake.”
“Your manners seem pretty good from where I’m…leaning,” he assured her.
Foster averted her eyes for a moment, but then looked up and met his gaze. “I guess it depends on whose bedside,” she offered. She put a hand on his shoulder and kissed him on the cheek. “Sleep well.”
“I, ah…” Ferretti coughed awkwardly. “Thanks.”
Foster stopped at the door. “Oh, and Lou?”
“The reason Mattie recovered so much faster than you was probably that you passed on most of the antiserum you were given, before it could be absorbed into your tissue.” She smiled warmly at him. “So it turns out you’re not just a placebo.”
Ferretti lay back with a smile. “Not quite depolarised yet, either.”
“I thought someone said that the ecosystem was screwed,” Ferretti noted.
“Yes, sir,” Merlyn agreed. “We did say that, but that was before.”
Pearson cleared his throat. “The plague was able to infect animate machine parts; in order to counteract that effect, the antiserum was also designed to act on inorganic life.”
“We introduced it into a sample of infected nanites,” Professor Howe explained. “The nanites took on the properties of the antiserum while retaining their limited independent lifespan. It was Dr Foster’s idea,” he added.
Foster beamed proudly, but not so particularly at Howe as she had done before.
“We were able to disperse large quantities of nanites into the environment to neutralise the surviving plague…element,” Pearson finished. “Enough of the plant, animal and micro-organic life in the dome survived that there’s a pretty good chance that the ecosystem can recover.”
“Recovery will still be slow,” Merlyn noted, “but possible.”
“A century, perhaps. The Jaffa have already been given the antiserum, spent their time in quarantine and relocated to a new home.”
“And the Deep Ones?” Ferretti asked.
“Fled through the Gate,” Roberts admitted.
“Kahda took a silver vial; a vial with a red cap.”
Roberts nodded. “So Mattie told us. An’yauc and I checked the biofiles in the palace and found a single sample missing; a duplicate batch of a nanite culture created for Apophis.”
In the inner sanctum of the temple, Kahda gazed loving down at the form on the altar. “Is it working?” she asked.
“Yes, My Lady,” Hyrdan burbled. “Physical growth and mental development have both been accelerated. The Chosen One will be ready…soon.”
“Perfect,” Kahda sighed. She held out her forefinger and her son caught it in a fierce grasp. “That is just perfect.”