Disclaimers: I don’t own Stargate: SG1 or W.I.T.C.H.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Thanks to Storyseeker for acting as beta reader for me. This story may be a one-shot. Progress on other projects will decide that. As usual, if you have any comments or preferences, please don’t be shy. RandR.
The title might seem a bit strange. It occurred to me after being reminded of an old joke. An optimist jumps off the empire state building. As he passes each floor, he’s heard to say…
SO FAR, SO GOOD
The final chevron locked into place, and Walter blinked in surprise. “We have a lock.”
It was rare for the addresses on the list of inaccessible gates to actually connect, but it had become routine to run through the list on a regular basis. None of the senior staff were even present. Lt. Colonel Carter had been there earlier, but had gone to get a coffee a while ago.
He hit the intercom. “Colonel Carter to the control room.” A moment later, she rushed back in and settled at the station next to him.
“Which one?” she asked without preamble, silently rebuking herself for taking this particular duty lightly. It was rare to get a hit off of the list, but that didn’t mean she could wander off when she felt like it.
“P4X-458, ma’am. The last three attempts to dial in have failed.”
“They must have just recently dug it up,” she theorized. “The MALP?”
“Ready to move, ma’am.”
“Then send it through, and let’s see what’s there.”
The MALP rolled up the ramp and through the gate. A moment later, the MALP’s camera sent back a view of a small wooded glade that would have been pretty if not for the dirt and rubble that choked most of it.
“Looks like a landslide,” Walter commented, taking in the scene that included three recently downed trees. “Could be what cleared the gate.” Carter nodded absently as she panned the camera around while setting in motion the standard battery of tests. The MALP was equipped to sample a planet’s atmosphere, test ambient radiation levels, and scan for artificial signals such as radio broadcasts. It didn’t take long to finish. The planet was Earth-like in many respects, but there were no immediate signs of advanced civilization. Something else caught her eye, though. A movement behind a tree caused her to focus the camera and zoom in.
There was definitely someone there, watching the MALP. She summoned Daniel to the control room, and kept an eye on the furtive figure while waiting. It didn’t take long, and soon the SG1’s top cultural expert, along with the rest of SG1, arrived. Teal’c seemed genuinely interested in the new world. Mitchell and Vala, Sam quickly realized, had merely been bored.
“Hello?” Daniel called to the figure behind the tree. “There’s no need to be afraid. I assure you, we’re friendly.”
“Blunk not afraid
,” a squeaky voice called from behind the tree. “Blunk great warrior
!” This claim brought raised eyebrows from two of the team’s men. Carter focused on the MALP’s readings. “What metal thing want
“My name is Dr. Daniel Jackson. We seek only peaceful contact with other worlds. It is our hope that such contact can enrich both of our civilizations.”
,” the great warrior responded. “Enrich sound good. You trade
“That is one of the things we could discuss. Perhaps we could meet with your leader?”
“Ask Queeny, Blunk will. She decide if talk to metal thing
“Of course,” Daniel replied smoothly. “The, er, metal thing you see, though, is not me. It is merely a tool we use to explore. I’m talking to you from the other side of the stargate.”
“Yes. The big ring the metal thing came through.”
“Oh. Okay. Blunk go talk to queeny. Metal thing be here later
“We can do better. If your queen is agreeable, we’d like to send a delegation through the gate to meet with her. Tomorrow at this time?”
“Okay. Blunk tell
.” With that, a small green biped in what looked like a lifejacket darted out from behind a tree and vanished down the slope into the woods.
“That’s their great warrior, huh?” Mitchell asked, staring incredulously after the odd looking creature.
“Don’t jump to conclusions, Cam,” Daniel advised. “If all of his people are that size, who knows?”
Raythor sighed. He should have expected a certain amount of penance, but this was not
work suitable for a warrior. The detachment that was rebuilding the village of Homnyr was on schedule, at least. He remembered the place all too well. It had been Raythor himself that had led the attack on it when the Knights of Vengeance had captured Tynar. The memories didn’t quite inspire shame, but he did wish that he had made better choices. Shaking off those thoughts as useless, he focused on the task at hand.
He put his back into turning the winch and raised the latest supply of roof beams up to the second story of the building. He didn’t mind the assignment, in truth. The queen was entirely correct in that it would help to redeem him in the eyes of the people. The other former Knights, at least those not in prison, had been set similar tasks.
Gargoyle was clearing rocks, the results of an avalanche he had caused, from a vital mountain pass. None of them could say that the work was beneath them, as the queen herself had been known to ‘get her hands dirty,’ pitching in with repairs and clean up where needed.
The people found it shocking at first, almost scandalous, but they had soon grown to love her even more for her efforts. The queen was due to pass through Homnyr the following day for an inspection, and Raythor wanted to be able to show real progress. The last thing he needed was a delay. Naturally, a delay materialized in the form of a smelly, strangely dressed Passling.
“Raythor! Raythor! Big news. Blunk find big metal thing in woods.”
“Big metal thing?” Raythor asked, mopping his forehead. “What are you babbling about, Passling?”
“Big ring in woods make standing water and big metal thing come out! Talk to Blunk.”
After taking a moment to analyze that statement, Raythor decided that the Passling still wasn’t making any sense. He gestured to another guard to take his place. “Show me.”
About half-a-mile from the village, there was a clearing at the base of a hill that had partially collapsed during a recent storm. He vaguely remembered the area as the site of a scuffle between the Knights and the Guardians. It was possible the Gargoyle had thrown part of the hill at the redheaded leader.
Raythor dismissed that as unimportant. What mattered was the ‘big metal thing’ and the ring Blunk had mentioned. The latter stood on edge in a small hollow created by a landslide. The former, judging by the tracks and churned up ground, had made its way laboriously to the center of the rubble choked clearing. It was unlike anything he had ever seen. Mounted on a set of strangely designed wheels, it vaguely resembled a pack animal, even having a ‘head’ of sorts. There was no sign of standing water, but that didn’t seem overly important.
He cautiously approached the machine, for it could be nothing else, and examined it. It seemed inert. There was no indication that it could move or talk on its own. That didn’t necessarily mean anything, he admitted. He knew very little about complex machines. Perhaps the queen would have a better idea what it was, or one of the Guardians might know.
“What did it do?”
“Big metal thing said explorer, and wanted to talk and trade. Maybe talk to queeny.”
“Hmph. I think the queen will be interested in this, after we make certain it’s safe.” They returned to the village and he sent back two guards to watch the ring and the metal thing. A messenger was sent to alert the queen to the situation and another was sent to the palace to gather whatever information there might be on the standing circle. The circle was a mystery, and Raythor hated mysteries. What was the ring? Who had the Passling spoken to, and where were they? What did they really want? He needed at least a few of those answers before the queen arrived and before the strangers who controlled the metal thing arrived.
They weren’t necessarily a threat, but a soldier didn’t live a long and happy life, especially under Phobos’ rule, by hoping for the best.
The message from Raythor had been urgent, but there wasn’t a lot to go on. Searching for references to the machine, he was sure, would be pointless, as it was new to Meridian. It was the ring that would matter. He organized the archivists and began to search.
It wasn’t until early the following morning that the searchers turned up records relating to the Ring. When the man who had been known as Thomas Brown on Earth read the records for himself, he felt his blood run cold. The Ring had been buried for a very long time, and it had been buried for a very good reason. He fetched a messenger bird, penned a quick note, and sent it off. Barely two hours later, a fold opened, and Blunk stepped out.
“You need to get me to Homnyr, immediately.” Blunk saw the worry on his face and simply nodded.
“Follow Blunk.” The Passling opened another fold and they stepped through to a lightless room, evidently a basement. Another fold opened and he emerged into a side street near the market of Homnyr.
Knowing his daughter would arrive soon, the man known on Earth as Thomas Brown sought out Raythor and the guards assigned to him. There was a lot of work to do.
Sam checked her P90 one last time, shouldered her pack and then headed for the embarkation room. Teal’c and Mitchell were already there, and Daniel and Vala arrived a moment later. “Everyone ready to go?” Mitchell asked, as the gate was activated.
“As we’ll ever be,” Daniel confirmed, doing his own final inventory. Even after so many years, a small part of him balked at carrying weapons on a diplomatic mission, but far too many of those missions had gone wrong for him to be openly reticent about showing up at a peaceful meeting armed and ready for a fight.
“The MALP confirms there’s a reception committee waiting for you,” the general called.
“Friendly?” Sam asked.
“Seems to be. At least, it doesn’t look very threatening. SG1, you have a go.”
They walked through the gate and came out onto the debris-strewn slope they had seen before. The worst of it had been cleared away, apparently in preparation for their arrival, and there was indeed a reception committee. A human male of about 17 stepped forward from a group of non-humans armed with primitive weapons.
“Welcome to Meridian. I’m Caleb.” The gate closed behind them.
Cam took a step forward and gestured to each of his teammates in turn. “I’m Colonel Cameron Mitchell. This is Colonel Samantha Carter, Dr. Daniel Jackson, Vala Maldoran, and Teal’c. We-” Just then, a rush of new arrivals cut him off.
A large number of heavily armed non-humans entered the clearing, led by a middle-aged brown-haired man. This group didn’t look nearly as welcoming.
“Drop your weapons,” the newcomers’ leader demanded. “Now!”
Mitchell took a second to consider the odds, given the soldiers’ numbers and the way they held their crossbows. Then, he ordered his team to comply.
“Alborn? What’s going on?” Caleb demanded, noting for himself the way the new arrivals kept the strangers so carefully covered.
“Sorry we didn’t reach you before they arrived, Caleb. We only found the records a couple of hours ago.”
“Records?’ Daniel asked, stepping forward to try and smooth over what he hoped was a misunderstanding. Three of the non-humans aimed crossbows at him. “Please. There has been a misunderstanding.”
“That’s possible,” the man addressed as Alborn allowed. “However, given what I’ve learned about the Ring, we’re not inclined to take chances.” He looked at Caleb. “This thing was buried over a thousand years ago. The last time it was used, an army of monsters tried to conquer Meridian.”
“Ah,” Mitchell nodded. “I get it. Yeah, we know those guys. They’re not our favorite people either. Let me guess. Men with the heads of animals, led by a demon with glowing eyes and terrible fashion sense?”
Alborn blinked in surprise, clearly not expecting their casual acceptance of the situation, let alone an attempt at humor. “No reference was made to his fashion sense, but yes.”
“They’re called Goa’uld,” Daniel supplied. “Conquerors who’ve caused a lot of problems for us. An alliance, including the Tau’ri, managed to break their power after years of fighting them. There are a few Goa’uld still out there, but they aren’t much of a threat to anyone. Their armies have deserted them, and those still alive are in hiding.”
“Can you offer proof of this?” Caleb asked. His tone bordered on suspicious. They’d already fought a war to free Meridian. The thought of another tightened his gut. They didn’t seem offended by their treatment, though, leaving Caleb unsure of what to think.
“We’ll share our records of the war against them, and offer what assurances we can,” Daniel offered. Their willingness to cooperate relaxed Alborn a bit, but the soldiers did not lower their weapons.
“Very well,” he said, finally. There was something about them, their uniforms most definitely, which made him certain that they needed to know more about the visitors. “We’ll take you to our queen, but your weapons will stay with us. Please remove them all; the side-arms and knives, too.”
The members of SG1 had kept their hands raised and in plain sight, their other weapons not an immediate threat. Now they shared a startled look between them. The significance of the fact that the man recognized the handguns for what they were was lost on none of them. “Just drop the belts,” he instructed, and they complied.
“We only carry weapons to defend ourselves,” Mitchell tried to protest. “We never know what we’re going to find when we go through the Gate.”
“If you aren’t our enemies, then you won’t be needing them,” Alborn pointed out. “Our queen will hear you out and make a decision about your status here. For now, consider yourselves our guests.”
“And proper guests do not carry weapons,” one of the non-humans added, directing two of the others to collect the dropped equipment. They were relieved of the rest of their gear as well, and escorted to a nearby village.
“Alborn, did you take a close look at their uniforms?” Caleb asked, leading the other man out of earshot from their guests, as they moved toward the village. “The insignia…”
“I know. I can’t explain it, but they’re from Earth, U.S. military to be precise. This could get awkward. I’ll go ahead and prepare Elyon. Be careful. They look like special forces troops, regardless of what they call themselves.”
Caleb nodded, and Alborn went ahead to speak to his daughter.
They had all noted the damage to the village on their way in, but by mutual and silent agreement, none of them asked. The meeting with the queen was enough to shove any questions they had about the damage to the backs of their minds, though.
Queen Elyon met them in the town square. She was younger than any of them had expected. Daniel guessed she was 14 at most. She carried herself proudly, though, and greeted them warmly enough, given what was suspected.
“I’m told you came through a portal that was last used by Meridian’s enemies,” she said, as they took seats around a rough-hewn plank table in the village meeting hall. She didn’t stand on ceremony, and her complete lack of pretense while she pulled out her own bench to sit down, not waiting for her servants to act for her, was a source of private speculation to Daniel, who had engaged in negotiations with dozens of leaders ranging from minor elected officials to hereditary emperors.
He nodded while watching his latest royal host closely. There was definitely a mystery here. Solving it, though, took a backseat to reassuring her. “Yes, and I understand your concerns. We take great care in guarding our own gate to keep out unwanted visitors.” He told her what they knew of the Goa’uld and that race’s incursion on their home world.
“I see. Parasites, huh?”
“Yes, your majesty,” Daniel clarified. “They look like snakes about so long,” he held his hands apart to demonstrate. “They enter the body and wrap themselves around the spine at the base of the skull.”
The queen made a face. “Yuck.”
Daniel blinked, but then cleared his throat. “Yes, very. They can be removed, but it isn’t easy. We take elaborate precautions against them.”
“Thank you, Dr. Jackson. Now that I know what to look for, I think I can spot them.” She rose from her seat. “Please stay still.” She walked behind Colonel Mitchell and placed her hand near the back of his neck. The hand glowed slightly, to everyone’s surprise, and then she moved on, performing the same test to each visitor in turn.
“What was that?” Mitchell asked. He hadn’t seen any device in her hand or any bit of jewelry that might have produced the light.
“I’ll ask the questions. Please tell me why Teal’c, Colonel Carter and Vala don’t read as fully human.”
The members of SG1 exchanged shocked looks, but Daniel began an explanation, noting that the queen never took her eyes off of him, and never blinked. He found it a bit unsettling, but he finished his explanation about the Jaffa and about Sam and Vala’s experiences with the Tokra and Goa’uld. When he was done, the queen nodded.
“You’re telling the truth.” She smiled. “Good.” She nodded to her guards. “Your weapons will be returned to you when you leave. I promise you, you won’t be needing them. You’re in no danger here.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Daniel nodded.
“Um, excuse me,” Mitchell asked. “Not that I’m complainin’, but how did you know we weren’t lying?”
Caleb and Alborn traded looks. They had been wondering, too.
Elyon smiled. “Magic. A trick I learned recently. With the right type of perception, I can always tell if a person is being truthful. It’s like the way I could tell if you didn’t have snakes in your heads.”
“An amazing advantage to be sure,” Alborn said, quietly amazed.
The queen nodded. “I only wish I’d known it sooner, but it isn’t exactly the sort of thing that Phobos would have taught me.”
There was a general darkening of the mood in the room, and several people scowled and grumbled openly.
“Majesty?” Sam asked, noting their hosts’ reaction to the names.
“It’s a long story,” Elyon sighed. “Let’s just say Meridian is coming to the end of a long dark period in our history.” She brightened. “I’m hoping that you and your people may have a part in making it brighter.”
“Yes,” Daniel took up his role as diplomat again. “We try to establish peaceful, beneficial relationships with all of the worlds we visit. The stargate, as we call it, leads to many worlds. The opportunities for learning and for trade are immense, but there are risks. The Goa’uld are not the only ones who can and have misused the gate. We can show you how to defend it and introduce you to others who would be eager to trade for goods and knowledge, but first, of course, we should get to know each other better.”
“I agree,” Elyon smiled. Keeping her concerns about the strangers from Earth hidden was, she knew, crucial. There was a lot she didn’t know about the stargate or the soldiers who had used it, but she could guess at the kind of trouble there would be if they found out about Meridian’s connection to Earth. At her orders, hasty preparations had been made. Everything Blunk had brought from Earth was being carefully hidden.
The longer the four stayed, the greater the odds were that something would slip. She might be beyond the authority of the U.S. Government, but the Guardians weren’t.
Fortunately, the five girls had been too busy to visit often. Still, they would need to be warned. After spending a half-hour or so asking questions about their world and their Stargate Program, something her parents and Caleb paid close attention to, she called a brief recess and dispatched Caleb and Blunk to Heatherfield.
Will Vandom sat alone in her room, listening to music. It wasn’t particularly good music, she allowed, but it was what she was in the mood for. Dean Collins and her mother were out again, and she could guess by the way they looked at each other that things were getting serious. Will had told herself that she was all right with it, but she was beginning to wonder if that was strictly true.
Her father was already getting remarried, and she suspected that it wouldn’t be long before Collins popped the question to her mother. That would end any hope of reconciliation between her parents.
A deep sigh escaped her. Like that was ever going to happen, anyway
. The terrible arguments the two had been having, right before they broke up, had been evidence enough of that, and it hadn’t been good for a long while before then. Still, some irrational part of her mind had been holding onto some hope that they would patch things up eventually. That hope, irrational or not, was now fading with the rapid approach of one marriage and the possibility of another marriage proposal. Hence, sappy music
. It just fit.
Her cell phone interrupted the pity party, something she was grateful for, which got her out of bed and moving again. “Hello…Hay Lin, what’s up?” She listened to the explanation and nodded. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.” Her bike would get her there in less than ten minutes, but after a moment’s consideration, she decided to teletransport instead.
Fixing the image of the Silver Dragon basement in her mind, she willed herself there. She had been working on it for a while, getting better at appearing where she wanted to be, but she still needed practice. So she took the opportunity to do just that.
Hay Lin gave a small scream when Will appeared beside her. Clutching her chest, she gave her friend a mock glare. “Warn me when you’re going to do that, will you?!”
“Sorry! I was just practicing,” Will apologized hastily, embarrassed over having frightened her friend, but Hay Lin just shrugged it off. “You called the others?”
“I wasn’t able to reach Taranee, or I would have had her call everyone.”
“She’s in Kandrakhar,” Will supplied. “Said something about talking to Halinor. I can get her back here quick.”
“You might need to,” Hay Lin nodded. “Elyon sent Blunk and Caleb to get us. Something’s happening on Meridian.”
“Hay Lin shook her head. “I don’t know, exactly. Something about visitors.”
“From Earth.” Hay Lin quickly explained what little Caleb had told her before asking for a full meeting of W.I.T.C.H.
Will quickly opened a fold to Kandrakhar to retrieve Taranee while Hay Lin called Irma and Cornelia.
Caleb finished his report and the girls were silent for a time, sharing worried glances. “Queen Elyon is, of course, worried about exposing her connection to Earth, and especially exposing you.”
“Maybe I’ve seen too many movies,” Hay Lin ventured, “but I don’t think we want the military knowing about us.”
Will frowned thoughtfully and nodded. The others refrained from commenting, which she found odd, especially from Cornelia, who had never been shy about sharing her opinion on anything. The blonde looked unusually pensive, and Will almost asked, but Blunk giving of his own garbled account of the first meeting distracted her.
“Some kind of robot probe?” Taranee hazarded. “A video camera and stuff for testing air, water and such?”
“Probably,” Will shrugged. “Question is, what are we going to do? We can’t exactly pop in and check up on them.”
“We’ll have to stay away,” Cornelia grumped. “I don’t see enough of Elyon as it is.”
“The queen does want to see you,” Caleb told them. “She’ll meet you at the castle. It will take a little time for the strangers from Earth to get there, and there are things she wants to discuss. She feels a lot of good could be done with the help Earth technology could provide, better medicine and such, but she’s worried about what will happen if they find out about things like spatial folds.”
The girls nodded. “Blunk will have to be careful around them,” Irma noted. “He brought a lot of junk over from Earth.”
Caleb nodded. “We’re on it. We’re rounding up every example of Earth tech we can find, but it hasn’t been easy.” He cast a rueful glance at his Passling friend. “Blunk has been busy.”
Blunk, taking it as a compliment, grinned and nodded.
Irma rolled her eyes. Enough
, she decided. Talking wouldn’t get them there any faster. Repressing a snide comment about the industrious Passling, she tried to focus the others. “Let’s go already. We shouldn’t keep royalty waiting.” Her tone was light, as always, but she did get the group moving.
Will opened a fold for them, and they soon emerged on the road leading to the castle, and headed in. Elyon had asked them not to fold directly into the castle, as it alarmed the guards.
The trip was a short one, and they met Elyon in a conference room that she had ordered prepared.
“It’s good to see you all again. I just wish it were under better circumstances,” the young queen said, greeting them.
The polished oak table, ornately framed portraits and intricately woven tapestries made the room a decidedly refreshing change from the meeting room she had shared with the soldiers from Earth less than two hours ago, but Elyon barely noticed, as the trappings of royalty tended to embarrass her a little.
It hadn’t been that way at first, but the fairy princess fantasy hadn’t lasted long after she assumed her queenly duties. There was too much work to be done. She had all the comforts she could want while doing that work, true, but that was actually part of the problem. Most of the people of Meridian had to make do with so little that she felt guilty about her comforts. It wasn’t the time for that, though.
Pushing those thoughts to the back of her mind, she focused on the task at hand. In as concise a manner as she could manage, she told them about the meeting with SG1 and what she had learned.
“An alien machine that allows them to step from one world to another?” Taranee was the first to recover her voice. “That’s amazing! To think, the military’s been sitting on this for years now!”
“The question,” Will interrupted her friend’s enthusiasm, “is what do we do about it? Is there anything we can do?”
“I’m hoping this will be a good thing for Meridian, but it could be very bad if they find out about you or about spatial folds and portals and stuff.”
After a moment’s thought, the others nodded. “I don’t think we want the military learning about us,” Cornelia agreed. “Maybe there is something we can do from Earth, though.”
“Like what?” Irma snorted. “Google ‘stargate’? Assuming that got us anywhere, we’d probably get exactly the attention we don’t want.”
Cornelia glared, but didn’t have a response.
“I don’t think there’s anything we can do except stay out of the way,” Will concluded. “We’ll need to be careful when we come here, and that can’t happen often until this is resolved one way or another.”
The others nodded reluctantly. “You’re going to have to keep Blunk and Caleb here. too, I suppose,” Cornelia pouted. “Blunk wouldn’t be able to resist a trip to the dump to pick up new ‘treasures.’”
Elyon nodded, secretly counting that as a plus. The smelly little guy meant well, but it was embarrassing to have her people prizing castoffs from Earth. Blunk had found inventive uses for some of the garbage he’d brought back, but it was still garbage.
She repressed a shudder, remembering the toilet seat picture frame he had sold to the royal portrait painter. The poor man had been mortified, and practically fled the castle after the way she’d reacted to his gift.
“I’ll send messages every week to let you know how things are going. If we need you, you’ll hear from me immediately.”
They spoke for another few minutes, but reached no new conclusions. The Guardians made their reluctant farewells and Will opened a fold for them. Elyon looked over her schedule and then went to check on the roundup of Earth tech and artifacts.
“So, how did she do it?” Cam wanted to know, but Sam just shook her head.
“I’m not sure. She wasn’t wearing any jewelry that might have concealed Goa’uld tech.”
“You’d think a queen would be wearing a crown or something,” Cam mused wandering a bit off topic.
“Usually,” Daniel corrected, “crowns and such are for ceremonial purposes only. They aren’t everyday wear.”
“The point being,” Sam tried to refocus the two men, “that we didn’t see the mechanism.”
“Not even a magic wand,” Cam volunteered, earning an impatient look from his second-in-command.
“It must be concealed some other way,” she finished. Glancing at Teal’c, she asked, “Did you sense any naquada? You were closer than I was.
The Jaffa shook his head. “I did not, Lt. Colonel Carter, but I was too far away to be sure. I do not think her guards would let either of us get close enough to be sure.”
“I’m betting some research will help us clear it up,” Daniel broke in. “We were offered the chance to look at their records, if you’ll recall. I’ll see what I can learn.”
“Could it be something other than Goa’uld tech?” Mitchell asked. “I’ve read reports from Atlantis about worlds using Ancient tech to defend themselves against the Wraith. There aren’t a lot of worlds in this galaxy that have successfully driven off the Goa’uld, and they don’t seem to have any advanced tech of their own. There might not be any Naquada to sense.”
“Possibly,” Carter allowed. “We’ll check all possibilities.”
“Including wands,” Mitchell added. Vala let out an indelicate snort at the look on Carter’s face.
“Funny, Cam… funny.”
Meridian proved to be a fascinating world. On their way to the palace, where negotiations could begin and where Daniel could examine their historical records, they counted at least five different species all living and working together peacefully. That was unique in their experience.
Daniel asked Alborn, who had been assigned as their guide, and the man seemed honestly confused by the question. “Why should it be strange? We all have the same needs and wants, the same goals. Individuals are often at odds, its true, but different races? We are all of the same world.”
“It is unusual in our experience. Many of the worlds we’ve visited have only one sentient species. They don’t always cooperate with each other. Meetings with outsiders, especially those of a different species can be…complicated.”
Alborn still looked a little confused, but nodded in sympathy before changing the subject. “It will take us about two days to reach the palace. The queen is already there, tending to an urgent matter.”
“Already?” Carter asked, startled. “How did she get there?”
“She has her own means of transportation when speed is required,” their guide answered vaguely, a bit wary of revealing more about magic than was needed.
They stopped at a small village the first night, and were given rooms at an inn, courtesy of the queen. A conversation between two farmers in the common room caught Mitchell’s attention.
“Couldn’t find the wretched beast, of course. Busted straight through me fence and ate three Hugong eggs. Big beast by the tracks.”
“You aren’t the only one that’s lost eggs to that thing. I’ve tried lying in wait for it with a crossbow, but t’ second it catches yer scent, it vanishes and you can only see where it’s been!”
“Varment problems?” Mitchell asked their guide, getting a quizzical look in return.
“Troublesome animal,” Daniel supplied.
“Ah, yes,” Alborn replied. “Probably a Hermeneuta, by the sound of it.”
“Herma-whatnow?” Mitchell blinked.
“Hermeneuta,” Alborn repeated. “It’s a large aggressive creature, known for destroying crops and preying on livestock. Its ability to become invisible when agitated makes it especially difficult to deal with. Usually, we have to set traps for them.”
“It can actually become invisible?” Carter asked, remembering the visit to the Nox home world. “We’ve never encountered a creature that could do that naturally.”
“There is usually some technology at work,” Daniel agreed, trying not to think of that mission.
“It is a dumb beast,” Alborn replied, “and I know of no one with devices to render a person unseen, let alone one who would wish to conceal such a destructive creature.”
“Hmm. Good point,” Jackson allowed. “I’d be interested to know how it does it, though.”
Sam repressed a sigh, remembering all too clearly what happened the last time they went hunting an invisible creature. Daniel was right, though. The brass back home would almost certainly want to capture one for study. That and the prospect of a trove of Ancient tech would have the IOA drooling.
Meridian was definitely going to draw a lot of interest.
The weather had been dry for weeks, but it hadn’t been a serious concern for the region since the nearby lake and a well-designed irrigation system provided for the crops.
One danger the people of the village of Resna had not considered, however, was fire. The fallen leaves and dense underbrush in the less traveled parts of the forest, combined with the dry conditions, created a very real threat, one that a lone hunter out catching game for his family had not accounted for.
The fire had been banked for the night, and Miras had settled down to sleep. All of his traps were set, and he would check them at dawn. For now, it was time for some rest.
As he drifted off, a safe distance from the fire, but still close enough to feel its warmth, he didn’t notice the wind beginning to pick up.
Mitchell awoke to the sound of shouting and a bell ringing. He threw off the blanket and was pulling on his boots before he was fully conscious of the situation. A glance toward the window showed Teal’c standing by the window, looking out toward the north.
“The forest to the north is on fire, Colonel Mitchell. The villagers are rallying now.”
“Lets go lend ‘em a hand, big guy.” Mitchell gave his bootlaces one more yank, and then headed for the door. Teal’c already dressed, followed him out, and they met the others on the way down. Mitchell quickly filled them in.
“I don’t know anything about putting out fires!” Vala protested.
“Good time to learn,” Mitchell answered. “We’ll see where they need us.”
Alborn was surprised by their offer, but the village leader readily accepted and set them to work at the edge of the village, creating a firebreak.
Sam passed the bucket to the villager who was soaking the wooden walls and thatched roof of a house at the edge of the village. Passing back an empty one, she accepted the next and passed it on. There weren’t enough villagers or buckets, but people did their best. The people whose house they were currently treating would stay to watch over their home, when the group was done, to make sure no sparks reached the thatch as it dried. The wind was not in their favor at the moment. Between that and the drought she had heard mentioned earlier that evening, the village was in serious trouble.
Without warning, things changed. The wind, which had been blowing from the north, driving the fire toward the village, shifted and grew stronger, pushing the fire back. Sam looked around, startled by the suddenness of it and by the cheering. She heard cries of ‘the Queen’ and ‘Guardians.’
A villager near her was pointing skywards, and Sam looked up in time to see Queen Elyon passing overhead, without any visible means of support. She was simply, hard as Sam found to credit it, flying.
Teal’c joined some of the stronger men in cutting away brush and hauling it clear of the firebreak. The long mound of dirt they were building up while clearing anything flammable from the area between the fire and the village was coming along nicely. It wasn’t wide enough to Teal’c’s liking, but he thought that, with the sudden change in the wind, it should be enough.
Shouts of alarm drew his attention to Mitchell’s position a few yards away. A tall tree, a few meters north of the firebreak, had burst into flames and was sending sparks and bits of flaming bark in all directions, starting new fires. The fire was high in the tree, and Teal’c realized it would be necessary to cut it down, a risky and time-consuming job. Before he could decide on the best way to go about it, the ground shuddered and heaved upwards, toppling the tree.
He joined Mitchell who was staring in astonishment, as the ground rose again, like an ocean wave cresting, and slammed down onto the fire, smothering the burning forest near them. The ground then rose again and fell farther away, smothering more flames. The two men shared a look.
“Any idea what’s goin’ on, T?”
“None, Colonel Mitchell, but the villagers seem to know.” He gestured to a group of locals who were cheering loudly and thanking the Guardian. Mitchell followed their gaze and saw what he could have sworn was a fairy flying over the fire, seemingly directing the wave of dirt with hand gestures.
“Teal’c? Do you see that?”
“I do,” the Jaffa agreed.
“That’s good. So, either we’re both crazy, or a fairy just flew overhead and put out the fire with a wave of dirt.”
“So it would seem,” Teal’c agreed. “I do not believe our faculties are impaired, but we have both seen stranger things.”
“The dragon guarding Merlin’s treasure,” Mitchell nodded. “Hologram, ya think?”
“I do not know, and I prefer not to speculate without further evidence.”
“Oops,” Irma concentrated and re-established control over the water she was carrying. Drenching the army guys was bound to draw attention. The cute guy was wiping his glasses off and probably hadn’t gotten a good look, but the dark-haired woman was craning her neck and gawking.
Irma picked up her speed and moved onto the nearest patch of burning woods. It would be at least an hour’s work to get the blaze under control, even with all the Guardians and Elyon working together.
They had gotten word of the fire shortly after wrapping up their meeting regarding the soldiers from Earth. It had been a rather frustrating meeting, as no useful conclusions could be reached. The fire was almost a welcome distraction from worrying about the U.S. government discovering the Guardians.
Queen Elyon knew she could handle the fire on her own, but with a village at risk, directly in the path of the fire, she also knew she’d never stop it in time.
Will told her that she didn’t even need to ask, and the six of them were flying over the countryside within minutes of learning of the fire.
There was little Will could do against the fire, so she contented herself with looking for people trapped or injured by the fire. Each of the others took their own approach to putting it out. The realization that the village under threat was the same one that SG1 had stopped at for the night was an unwelcome surprise, but keeping their secret took a backseat to saving the village. They would deal with any fallout after the problem was resolved.
The first step was to change the direction of the wind in order to stop the fire’s advance on the village. Elyon was able to accomplish this; then they focused on putting out the fires nearest the village by using her magic to smother the flames. To outside observers, the fire simply seemed to die down and go out.
Irma used her powers to bring water from the nearby lake to douse the flames, only spilling a little. She knew the woman had gotten at least a glimpse of a ‘magical pixie’, and while the expression on her face had been pretty funny, the Water Guardian wasn’t prepared to overlook the problem that sighting created for them. She hoped the others were being more careful about being seen.
Cornelia started at the firebreak, and began rising then dumping massive amounts of dirt on the fire, steadily moving away from the people on the ground. She thought she spotted two of the soldiers from Earth, but decided not to worry about it for the moment. It would be difficult to hide what she was doing, regardless of whether anyone had seen her.
Taranee hung back at first, using her telepathy to coordinate the activities of the others. She knew that Irma, and probably Cornelia, had been seen, but that was something they would have to deal with later. A frantic call from Hay Lin got her directly involved.
There were fields of crops nearly ready for harvest, to the west of the village, and the fire had almost reached them. Hay Lin had been trying to use her command of the air to blow the fire away from the fields, but it was a losing battle.
Taranee moved into the area and concentrated on absorbing the heat from the flames. It wasn’t the most effective technique, but it slowed the fire without spreading it to other areas, as Hay Lin’s winds had been doing. Air…air!
Taranee could have kicked herself. She focused on the Air Guardian. Hay Lin. Fire doesn’t burn without air. Try to move it away from the fire. Create a vacuum.
It was something the small Chinese girl had never tried, but she saw no reason she couldn’t. Concentrating first on what she wanted to accomplish, Hay Lin made a plan, pictured the desired result in her mind, and then put it into action.
Slowly, the air began to draw away from the fire, leaving it nothing to feed on. Holding the air at bay was hard, and she couldn’t maintain it for long. It naturally tried to rush in and fill the void she had created. Releasing her hold on the air slowly, so as not to make things worse, she moved on.
In truth, she wasn’t sure what would happen if she just let go and the air rushed back into the void she had created, but she thought that it might be a bad idea to find out under the current circumstances.
It got easier as she repeated the trick, essentially taking bites out of the area where the fire raged. The others, she saw, were making similar progress.
In the end, it took over two hours with all of them working in concert, but eventually they extinguished the fire. At that point, Elyon suggested the Guardians go, before SG1 learned anything more about them.
They retreated through a fold to Earth, leaving Elyon to deal with her visitors and their questions.
“She’s a queen, Cam. You can’t very well demand answers from her.” SG1’s C.O. was pacing the rooms assigned to him while the others watched, fretted or ignored him in favor of deep thought per their preference.
“What do you suggest, Daniel? Can you explain what we saw out there?”
“No, but a little diplomacy might get us the information we want.” The archeologist kept his voice calm and level, but he could see the others were having a hard time with this.
Sam had her thinking face on, and was basically ignoring the rest of them.
Teal’c was impossible to read, as usual.
Vala was watching their leader with a vaguely amused expression, having gotten over her own surprise. She didn’t have any better ideas of what was going on than the rest of them, but that wasn’t going to ruin her fun. Mitchell was confused and anxious, and that always had potential.
“Whatever technology is at work,” Teal’c spoke up before Vala could decide how to proceed, “I saw no evidence of it and sensed no nauqada. It may well be deliberately hidden in order to simulate the appearance of supernatural powers.”
“If that’s the case,” Sam spoke up, showing interest in Teal’c’s idea, “then they aren’t going to be anxious to discuss their tech.”
Daniel nodded thoughtfully, factoring that possibility into the upcoming discussions with the queen. Of course, he reminded himself, it was all speculation. They didn’t know anything, really. It might be that the queen believed it was magic, or she might be, as Teal’c suggested, perpetrating a hoax on her own people to maintain the monarchy.
Elyon had seemed honest and straightforward when dealing with them. It was possible she knew nothing about the tech, herself. Or it could be there was no tech involved. Partially ascended beings could have some pretty remarkable powers.
If that were the source of the ‘magic,’ they were out of luck. It would be impossible to know, however, without asking some discreet questions. So, when they reached the palace the next day, he wanted to have that conversation well planned out.
“I need to do some thinking, guys. See you in the morning.” The others nodded and Cam grunted a distracted “good night.”
“The Guardians aren’t under my authority,” Elyon corrected. “They come and go as they please and help out where they can. I was just lucky they were in the area.”
Daniel leaned back in his chair, regarding the Queen sitting across the council table skeptically. “They do as they please? Act without direction?”
Elyon nodded. “They have other obligations. Even I don’t know them all, but it is not just Meridian they protect. If you’re wanting to speak to them, I could ask when I see them again, but I doubt they’d sit still for an interview.”
Daniel had begun asking questions about what had happened the night of the fire as quickly as decorum would allow, once they had sat down to begin the initial talks. The well-appointed conference room was a step up from the village hall where they had first met, but he noted that Elyon seemed just as at ease in this setting as she had been in that one.
For her, he realized, a ‘royal bearing’ was a conscious effort. She was just as likely to slouch in her chair or speak without the formal, stilted inflections that he had come to associate with hereditary rulers. It led him to an important conclusion. Elyon had not been raised as royalty.
On realizing this, he shifted his approach, asking about Elyon’s own history. He was quickly proven right. She told him without hesitation that her tyrant of a brother had once ruled Meridian, having usurped the throne from her when she had been a baby.
Alborn and his wife had raised her in hiding. When she came of age, she had, with a lot of help from the Guardians and a determined group of rebels, overthrown her brother and taken the throne.
She didn’t provide many details, and gave the impression that it was a difficult topic for her. Daniel filed the information away and moved on to the subject of future relations between Earth and Meridian, and what they could do for each other.
Elyon listened to the pitch, as did Alborn. She seemed very interested, but demurred to her advisors and ministers for the actual negotiations.
From that point onward, it was business as usual. There were the standard cultural hurdles to overcome, but nothing Daniel had not encountered before. Together, he and their ministers made arrangements for future negotiations, including a schedule and a list of potential topics to be discussed, ranging from a general cultural exchange to specific topics such as medicine.
Daniel turned the page and took another picture. The language was unfamiliar to him, but he had found a Rosetta stone of sorts in his earlier researches. He could already understand a little of it, but the grammar and structure of the language was still a mystery. He had determined, though, that there was an entire section in the book that he was currently reviewing about the stargate and the Goa’uld invasion.
He moved on to the next page and snapped another picture. Meridian was a curious place, and the book he was currently perusing had at least some of the answers. The planet’s hereditary matriarchy had begun around the time of the Goa’uld invasion. It seemed likely that one of Elyon’s ancestors had been a military or spiritual leader of some sort, and had been responsible for driving the Goa’uld out.
What he found confusing were some references to something called the Heart of Meridian. Some passages, and he wasn’t entirely sure given the shaky nature of his translation so far, referred to the Heart as an object. In others, however, it was a person.
“Might be a title,” he allowed, flipping through some of his notes for a particular reference. It was too soon to tell, but he guessed that the Heart of Meridian was a traditional title that had fallen out of use. He hadn’t heard Elyon being referred to as the Heart, and some of the references seemed to indicate that the Heart was a source of enormous power. “Ambivalent form,” he muttered, flipping to another page in his notes.
“What was that, Dr. Jackson?”
Daniel turned to find Alborn watching him from the door. “Oh, sorry, just thinking out loud.” He glanced back at his notes. “I found a number of references to the ‘Heart of Meridian.’ Some of the passages indicate that it’s a person, others indicate that it is an object. In each case, it indicates that the Heart is a source of power.”
“Indeed,” Alborn ventured, sounding hesitant.
“’Power’ is used in ambivalent mode here, however. I can’t tell if it’s referring to political, military or even physical power.” He offered a self-deprecating smile. “I’m a long way from having a firm grasp of the language.”
“That text is very old, Dr. Jackson. There are scholars who can read it as easily as I do the modern language, but they are few in number. Perhaps I can have one of them prepare a translation.” He looked thoughtful. “It is likely something that should have been done long ago, anyway.”
Daniel nodded. “That would be helpful.” He suspected that whatever information he got from the translation would be heavily edited, and was glad of the pictures he’d taken so far.
“Your Colonel Mitchel has received a transmission from Earth. Apparently, they are anxious for your return.”
Daniel sighed a bit. “Always in a hurry.” He shook his head ruefully. “I’m almost done. I just need to organize what I have, and then I’ll get out your way.”
“Of course, Dr. Jackson. I can have the archivists return the books and scrolls to their proper place. They’re quite picky about that.”
Daniel smiled. “I know the type. I’ll be finished in a few minutes.”
Alborn nodded and left the archive, leaving Daniel to puzzle over his reaction. Why would mention of the Heart of Meridian make the man nervous?
Deciding that the answer was likely in the text he had open behind him, he turned and snapped pictures of the last two pages in that section, then began tidying up for his return to the SGC.
SG1 went through standard debriefing, filed their reports, and called it a day. Each went about their business. Cameron Mitchell went home to relax. Samantha Carter disappeared into her lab to work on her latest pet project. Teal’c went to his quarters to watch some new DVDs he had picked up before the mission and had not had time to watch yet. Daniel Jackson turned his pictures over to the on-base lab for processing and began reviewing his notes while he waited for them to become available on the SGC’s main computer.
Their reports were forwarded to four people at the Pentagon, and, via covert means, to an operative of the Trust. That operative, after reviewing the reports, flagged them as top priority and sent them by heavily encrypted email to his immediate superior.
From there, the reports made their way up several different chains of command. The Trust operative’s supervisor had his own loyalties. He dutifully sent them to three individuals above him, but he also copied them and sent them to the people he actually worked for. He knew the Institute would find this interesting.
Another unauthorized copy of those reports made their way from the Pentagon to the offices of a prominent law firm. By the time Cameron Mitchell reported to work on Monday morning, no fewer than 20 people had seen SG1’s reports, most of which were not authorized to know that the Stargate existed.
“SG-9 will accompany the diplomats back to Meridian to pick up where you left off, Dr. Jackson,” General Landry nodded. “You made a good start there, and there is a lot to learn from that world.”
Daniel nodded. “I wouldn’t mind spending more time in the royal archives there. There’s still so much we need to know.”
“The same could be said of every world you’ve visited,” Landry reminded him. “We’ll make arrangements for a visit at some point, but for now SG-1 has three upcoming missions that take priority. Let the diplomats take it from here. I’ll see to it that you get copies of any records they bring back. Your translation skills will still be very necessary.”
“Of course, General.”
Landry nodded. “You’ve got about an hour to get ready. Dismissed.”
Elyon greeted the new arrivals warmly. Kevin Stark, the head of the negotiation team, dressed in a suit that would have cost her father, at his job on Earth, two month’s salary. The gray at his temples leant him a distinguished air, and Elyon thought he seemed nice enough, if rather stiff. He greeted her with a respectful bow and introduced his team.
Celia Herriot, his aide, seemed young for her position, but was very sharp and anticipated Stark’s needs before he could voice them.
There was Roger Markham, a geologist and mineralogist who was interested in threbite, a fuel that was mined in some parts of Meridian. He was very interested in possible mineral resources Meridian might have to offer, as a sample sent back with SG-1 had raised a number of eyebrows. It showed potential to be a power source nearly as rich as naquada.
Martin Selkirk was a historian and linguist, a colleague of Daniel Jackson, but he had his own area of specialization, and found what little had been brought back about Meridian’s history and culture fascinating. His enthusiasm for his work made Elyon smile.
There were several other scientists. Each of them found something about Meridian exciting, from the zoologist and biologist that couldn’t wait to study the Hermeneuta beasts, to the botanist who had almost done cartwheels over some of the samples of various medicinal plants brought back.
The doctors, chemists and physicists all had valid reasons for being there, but she guessed that they were largely interested in magic, and that worried her a bit. None of them mentioned the Guardians or her own abilities, but she knew it would be high on their list of things to learn about.
The queen spoke briefly to the group as a whole, and oversaw the meetings of those individuals with the ministers and advisors best suited to their needs. She then excused herself to settle a land dispute between two villages.
Reconstruction was a priority, as were the people from Earth, but that didn’t get her out of speaking to village representatives about hugong herding problems. So, with a sigh and a cup of strong tea to keep her awake, she moved on to deal with that and with the other thousand or so problems that awaited her attention.
“It’s too early to be asking about these Guardians,” Stark said irritably, “let alone the Queen’s own abilities.” He cut off his aide with a sharp look. “The threbite looks promising, and the botanists are excited about some of the local plant life. I’ll concentrate on that during the negotiations. There’s a lot here even without the Ancient tech.”
“The tech,” Herriot reminded him in an icy tone, “is the real prize here.”
“I read the brief,” he answered irritably. “Don’t presume to tell me how to do my job. If we push for too much, we’ll get nothing.” Stark tuned out her ‘advice’ after that, in order to focus on his strategy for the negotiations. Herriot would not have been his first choice for an aide. The woman was, to put it bluntly, a spook. She was there to ensure that they got what they wanted out of the deal with Meridian, and as much extra as they could get away with.
Stark didn’t voice these thoughts, of course. They were unkind and, he suspected, a little unfair. He himself would have preferred an equitable arrangement that benefited everyone. He could make it happen if the NID would just let him work.
At the request of the men from Earth, the stargate had been moved to an open field near the village to make coming and going easier. The Earthers themselves had supplied the equipment, and a few of the troops working on the rebuilding had practically drooled over it. A polite request from the village leader had gained them use of a small crane and a few other machines.
Raythor estimated that it would cut the completion time by at least a week. Materials were hauled from the quarry and saw-mill much more quickly, and raising loads no longer requiring so many people doing backbreaking labor.
He thought back on what Tynar had told him of Earth, the small part of it he’d seen anyway. It would be nice if Meridian were like that someday, but something about the generosity and promise of changes for the better worried him. He just wished he knew why. After thinking on it a while, he finally dismissed those concerns as a soldier’s natural paranoia.
There seemed to be so many possibilities laid out before them, now that they had official contact with Earth. New machines, new medicines, new and better ways of doing so many things seemed to be hovering just out of reach. Life would change on Meridian. That was a given, but the changes necessary to make it all happen would be worth it. Right?
“So we have an agreement?” Teral, the chosen spokesman for the newly formed Threbite Mining Trust, said, looking pleased. What the Earthers asked was well within his abilities to supply. The combined output of all of the mines was more than sufficient for the kingdom’s needs, and allowed them to meet the new arrangement.
He knew some were not comfortable with the plans they had made. The quickly formed Mining Trust required the cooperation of all the mine owners. The Trust was able to set prices and determine production quotas that would keep the mines stable and profitable for years to come. That concerned some people. Giving one unified group authority over all Threbite production was, some insisted, an invitation to abuse.
Most of those who objected, however, quieted down when they learned what the Earthers were offering in exchange. The new mining technology could drastically increase the output and would make finding new veins much easier. And that was just the beginning.
“The results you get with this salve are remarkable,” Dr. Price said, as he examined the much improved rash that, just the previous day, had covered most of Private Marsh’s arm.
“It was a simple matter. The plant he became entangled in secretes a powerful irritant,” explained healer Melas. “It is a natural defense against hungry animals.”
“We have things like it on Earth,” Price nodded. “We don’t have any medications to counter them, which work that quickly, though.”
“Well, I hope you find these samples useful, then,” Melas smiled. Price assured him they would and that the things the doctors and scientists of Earth could teach him in return would save many lives.
“I had my doubts, Elyon,” her mother admitted, “but they genuinely seem to be trying to play fair.”
The queen nodded. “They do, but I’m not sure why that surprises you.” They were sitting in the private dining chamber, reserved for the royal family and close friends. Elyon and her parents were alone for breakfast. The delegation from Earth had been there a week, and for the most part the negotiations were going well.
Elyon had reluctantly granted them permission to hunt the hermeneuta beast. She was reluctant only because of Cornelia’s reaction when told of the intentions of the soldiers assigned.
Cornelia stared at her friend in frank disbelief. “Did you tell them they should make out their wills first?”
“What?” Elyon blinked, not understanding.
“You’ve never seen one of those things, have you?” Elyon shook her head. “Their like…wild boars on steroids! And the invisible thing? It just makes them that much harder to catch.”
“Wow. I didn’t know that.” Elyon suddenly found herself doubting the decision to grant the request. “How dangerous are they?”
“The baby that came through the portal in the school basement exhausted us long before its mama showed up looking for it.” The Earth Guardian shuddered at the memory. She’d had to take special precautions to hide the bruises acquired that night. Awkward questions from her parents had been the last thing she needed.
“And none of the soldiers who will be on the hunt have powers to protect themselves with.” She considered. “I’ll warn them, but they seem really determined to catch one.”
Elyon had warned them, and been backed up by Caleb who had personal experience with the beasts. The response had been patronizing. She had hidden her annoyance with effort, and wished them luck. Caleb assured them they would need it.
A week passed before they learned the outcome of the hunting expedition. The four man team that had gone out with two very experienced local trackers, dragged themselves back after four days with, between the six man expedition, fourteen broken bones, three sprains, five lacerations requiring stitches, and a much healthier respect for Meridian’s wildlife.
They had also brought back a bullet ridden hermeneuta corpse. The biologists, hoping to study a live specimen, were told by the SG team’s badly limping CO that they could catch their own.
Even Caleb was shocked by the amount of damage the beast had done. The team’s report revealed that they had tracked and tried to capture a juvenile, reasoning it would be easier to control. Why they hadn’t taken the mother into account was beyond him.
“Even I wasn’t expecting it to go that badly,” he commented to his queen. “Do you suppose they’ll give up?”
“I hope so,” Elyon sighed. “I don’t want to see anyone else hurt over this.” She then shook her head. “I doubt it, though. They want to find a way to make their soldiers and spies invisible. I don’t think they’ll give up that easily.” Caleb scowled at the idea, but said nothing. Her reasoning was sound and there was no other possible reason they could have for wanting one of the creatures. It had been tried on Meridian without success, but pointing that out to the technologically advanced Earthers would only get them more condescending looks.
He had known dealing with the US military would be very different from dealing with the Guardians or with customers at the Silver Dragon, but truthfully, he was finding this group even more irksome in some ways than the pampered customers.
“They look at Meridian and they see primitives,” he sighed. “I’ve been to Earth and you grew up there. Shouldn’t be a surprise.”
“You only saw a small part of Earth.” Elyon shook her head, remembering news footage she’d seen, as well as lessons from her history books. “It’s not that different.”
“Nothing like Heatherfield on Meridian,” Caleb noted.
“True, but there are places like the poorest village on Meridian on Earth. Those soldiers, though, probably didn’t grow up in places like that.”
“Very true, Highness,” Alborn answered from the door. “Caleb only saw one American city. Not everyone lives like that. I suggest we just be patient. Their behavior may be a bit condescending, but we can still both reap huge benefits from permanent relations with them.”
“It’s part of my job, as the ambassador’s aide, to learn as much about your world as possible,” Celia explained. “I’m interested in all aspects of life here. You have several sentient species living together and sharing resources peacefully. That amazes me.”
“So I’ve heard,” Julian answered, as he led her down a little used corridor. “Our legal system, however, might be better studied in the library.”
“In abstract, perhaps, but I would like to observe for myself. Records of court proceedings make for dry reading.”
“I suppose they would,” he allowed. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to deny your request to visit one of our prisons, though. Queen Elyon has only been in power a short time and her…’predecessor’ had an unfortunate habit of imprisoning people who disagreed with him.”
Celia had suspected as much, based on reports from the agents she had among the SGC troops. They had already provided her with quite a bit of information about Meridian’s recent history, things that the queen and those close to her were reluctant to discuss.
They had told her outright that Prince Phobos’ status and location were both closely guarded secrets, as it was possible he still had followers who might try to free him. The villagers in various pubs around her kingdom had been more forthcoming. They spoke freely of Phobos’ reign of terror and the crimes he committed against the people with his magic. Both the NID and the Trust had been very interested in those reports. Both sets of superiors had ordered her to step up her efforts.
Celia had no intention of sharing any of that with the locals, of course. She merely nodded and did her best to sound sympathetic. “The situation is a bit chaotic, then? Sorting out who needs to be released and who needs to be in?”
Julian nodded uncomfortably. It was not going as quickly or as smoothly as anyone would have hoped. Records on many of the prisoners were spotty at best. The notion of a general amnesty had been shot down after a few unfortunate incidents. One of them involved a man who had robbed one of Phobos’ arsenals. After he had been released, he had used the stolen supply of blasting powder to blow his way into a minor nobleman’s vault and empty it. Apparently, that had been his intention all along.
“The situation is rather strained,” he admitted “There is a lot of work to do.”
“And the last thing you need is outsiders underfoot. I understand.”
“We appreciate that,” he said in a lowered voice, as they stepped out onto a balcony overlooking an audience chamber. “There is a criminal case beginning in a few moments. You can observe the proceedings from here.”
“Thank you.” The court proceeding was of some minor interest, but the real goal was gathering strategic information. Whether any would be forthcoming remained to be seen.
Jik had watched the pair of Earth soldiers from a distance for some time before approaching them. They had been behaving oddly, even for Earthers. He could practically smell the secrets, and secrets meant profit.
The one that had just come from the market had been hanging at the fringe of various groups, listening while he pretended to shop. He had bought a few incidental items just to keep people from being suspicious, but Jik knew what the man was actually doing. The Passling had done it often enough himself.
It wasn’t till he encountered the second man heading into town, and the two began to talk, that Jik learned what they were actually after.
“I just spent three hours in the market and learned next to nothing,” the first complained. “No one talks openly about Phobos unless you ask, and then all you get is horror stories.”
“You didn’t-” the other began.
“Of course not,” the first cut him off irritably. “Give me a little credit.”
“Well, we’ve got a better opportunity now,” the second assured him. “Come to the tavern with me. A group of former rebels are getting together for some kind of celebration. Lots of beer ought to make the job of getting Phobos’ location out of them easier.”
The other was tired and annoyed at being dragged back to the village, but he did see the potential for information gathering. So did Jik. He knew that if they learned what they wanted to learn at the tavern he wouldn’t be able to sell them the information.
Kevin Monroe had been recruited straight out of college by the NID. He’d had just the right mix of talents and ruthlessness to mark him as a perfect operative for some of their more legally and morally questionable assignments. To date, Monroe had never let them down, whether the assignment was deep cover in a terrorist cell or stealing secrets from another government agency. Each mission was carried out with precision and unwavering commitment.
His current assignment, however, was something of a strain for him. He had dealt with all manner of disreputable people during his 10 years with the NID, ranging from fanatical terrorists ready to throw their lives away for Allah, to anal-retentive bureaucrats who would become agitated if all the necessary forms were not filed out in triplicate. But he had never encountered anyone or anything quite like the creature standing before him.
First, there was the stench. The creature made him long for a nearby open sewer in the hopes that the smell might do something to cover its body odor. Then there was what it was saying.
“You know where Phobos is?” Elcott asked, skeptical. “That’s nice, but why talk to us?”
The smelly green thing that Monroe suddenly remembered was called a Passling, gave them a knowing grin. “Jik’s business to know what customers need. Jik have many secrets for sale. Make good trade and Jik will tell you what you want to know.”
Before Elcott could feign ignorance, Monroe interrupted. “What sort of trade? What do you want for the information?”
“Jik only saving time,” the Passling said in what he probably thought was a self-deprecating tone. “Jik knows this. Smart people could figure it out, but time… Time is thing. Price is small.” His grin became wider in anticipation, “for this
“That’s all he wanted?” Celia asked in disbelief.
Monroe nodded. “One hundred MREs, 20 blankets and some spare bits of junk from the camp.”
She shook her head in amazement. “Well, I suppose it is a lot to a primitive like him. If his other secrets can be bought so cheaply we’ll be doing very well.”
“If the information is accurate,” Monroe cautioned. “Do you really think we can trust that thing?”
Celia shrugged. “We’ll verify before doing anymore deals, but next time, leave me out of the negotiations. I need a bath just from being around him.” She turned and walked away.
Monroe stared after her, his mixed emotions not showing on his face. There was the usual contempt for superiors unwilling to ‘get their hands dirty’, but there was also envy. He really wished he could shove the duty of dealing with Jik off to someone else as she just had.
Jik pretty much defined the word ‘untrustworthy’ in his book. Everything about the grubby creature screamed ‘opportunist’. There was no way Monroe would trust the little creature in anything. The smell was a completely separate; yet in his opinion equally valid, reason for avoiding the trader.
The Passling’s information was accurate. Monroe was surprised. The directions to the place had been perfect, but the security was much tighter than anticipated. It was nothing that couldn’t be overcome or circumvented, though.
Now all they needed was an opportunity. He spoke to Herriot who said she would see what could be arranged.
Cpl. Jake Hardesty led his small patrol over the hill. The fields they walked through reminded him strongly of paintings he’d seen of the prairies in the old west. Vast empty fields of tall grass stretched, according to the aerial surveillance, for several miles before giving way to woods to the south and a village, one of two in the valley, to the north.
They were there to watch one of the many groups of scientists working on Meridian. He didn’t know what this group was studying nor did he really care.
As long as what they were doing didn’t get any of them hurt or killed, it wasn’t his job to worry about theirs. The perimeter they were walking came close to the herding grounds of the local equivalent of a cow. The fact that the creature looked more like an ostrich on steroids only served to remind Hardesty that he was definitely not
on Earth. However similar the grass and sky were, Meridian was still a very alien world.
As if to emphasize that, a rustling noise began to the north and gradually grew louder. It was accompanied by strange trilling cries that also grew louder. Private Mills, who had been raised on a farm, moved quickly to the top of a nearby hillock, looking suddenly nervous. He jumped back down as soon as he had reached the top.
“Stampede!” he called out. “Run! That way.” He pointed South East, a direction that would gain them some distance and still remove them from the path of whatever was rushing at them.
Hardesty didn’t argue, but instead started running while urging the others on. A quick check of the map in his head showed him that the stampede was heading roughly for where the scientists were working. That wouldn’t do. It would not look good on his service record if the scientists he was baby-sitting were trampled.
“The scientists are right in their path!” he called. “We need to turn them!’
“Scare ‘em,” Mills called back, as he came to a stop and turned to face the herd with his P90 at the ready.
“That’ll work,” Hardesty agreed, calling to the others who quickly followed suit. The herd of huge birds was almost on top of them by now and none of the men waited on orders to open fire.
“Not only were these miscreants trespassing,” the representative fumed, “but they killed seven of our herd with their weapons. They then had the nerve to blame the herders for the incident and dismiss them as if the loss to the herd and our finances were nothing!”
Elyon frowned. The rep from West Nobere was in fine form, practically ranting. He had every right to be angry, but he had rehashed this point three times. Next he would again tell her that it had taken three days to round up the surviving birds after the gunfire had panicked and scattered them.
She looked at Ambassador Stark. Elyon could tell the man was seething despite his neutral expression. Something of this nature should never have been brought before her. It was a minor matter that could have been settled locally. She felt certain that the soldiers involved and their superiors, the ones that had treated the matter as trivial and so offended the Noberites, were going to get a good yelling at for this.
“Thank you,” she cut off the representative, whose name she couldn’t remember. “I understand the situation.” She looked at the Earth ambassador. “Your troops seem to lack judgment. The fact that this matter had to be brought before me is also a little disturbing.”
“I agree, Your Majesty. Reparations should have been made immediately, along with a full apology for the intrusion and the damage done. I have seen to disciplinary actions myself and am willing to arrange any payment deemed suitable.” He read off of a list of trade items before presenting it to the West Nobere representative.
Elyon knew that it would sound generous to the village official, but it was a pittance to the troops from Earth. The supplies and gold they offered would be well received, but Elyon decided it wasn’t sufficient. The matter was still being treated as trivial. That needed to be corrected.
“In addition to these measures,” Elyon said, “the soldiers involved are going to spend some time in West Nobere. I want this group to spend a week working around the village, doing whatever general work needs to be done whether that be mending fences, repairing roads or picking up trash. Perhaps they will be less likely to treat the people of Meridian so dismissively if they get a chance to know some of them and work alongside them for a time.” The West Nobere rep looked surprised, but pleased by the command. The ambassador looked less pleased, but hid it quickly.
“Your Majesty, the troops involved have already been reassigned. We did not wish to aggravate the situation. It was felt their presence would-”
“Their presence is required in West Nobere within three days, ambassador.”
“Of course, Your Majesty. I will have them reassigned for…community service.”
“A good name for it,” Elyon allowed. She had had to bite her tongue to keep from using it herself. It was not a punishment that had existed before in Meridian. Punishments, especially under her brother, had tended to be of a more punitive nature.
“It’s actually quite reasonable, captain. It will go a long way toward mending fences with the locals, and it might do them some good. Think of it as detached duty if you like.” He shouldn’t have to be explaining this to an officer who had orders, but the man was reluctant to turn his men over to the locals’ notion of justice.
“They’re due to be rotated back to Earth for leave,” the captain pointed out. The ambassador glared at the man and the captain realized his slip. A pass to go home or on vacation was hardly suitable punishment for the trouble the squad had caused. It was, however, what had been arranged. The matter was considered closed. There had been a reprimand placed in their files and that was that. Apparently, the captain realized, neither the ambassador nor the local high muckety-muck thought it was enough.
“Now they’re scheduled to spend a week doing community service in the village where the crime was committed. The matter is settled. If you wish to take it up with General Landry, you may, but we’re in full agreement on this.”
Suppressing his aggravation with an effort, the captain nodded. “I’ll let them know their orders have changed.”
“Thank you,” Stark answered, his voice tinged with sarcasm. He didn’t need the solder’s obstinacy on top of having to kowtow to a little girl gifted with a crown. He had dealt with more difficult people to be sure, but a planetary ruler that age simply seemed absurd to him. She’s younger than my granddaughter! All part of the job
, he consoled himself. He had been given orders, two different sets actually, and intended to see them all through. One part of the job, unfortunately, was smoothing over blunders such as the one he had just finished dealing with. Hopefully, there wouldn’t be too many more such incidents on the current mission.
His hopes were dashed two days later.
Everything had been going so well, Sergeant De Valla reflected as he ducked a thrown chair. How did we get here?
On long-term missions, doctors tested the local pants and animals as well as the water supply for a wide variety of substances ranging from simple allergens to deadly poisons before approving certain foods for consumption by visiting teams and scientists.
Approval for a fair range of foods had come down just the other day, and De Valla and five other soldiers had taken the opportunity to visit a nearby village and sample the local cuisine. De Vala had had roasted hugong with a bowl of something that tasted like lentil soup. The others had all ordered whatever sounded good to them.
Conroy had made a point of flirting with the Galhot barmaid, asking her for recommendations and praising her good taste, among other attributes.
She had seemed pleased at the attention at first and returned it to a degree. It all seemed perfectly harmless. Two of the others were making their own overtures to the local girls with different levels of success.
It hadn’t occurred to any of them that the owner might take offense at Private Conroy’s attentions to his daughter.
Frankly, De Vala didn’t know what Conroy saw in her. Galhot’s were overgrown Smurfs with bones sticking out of their heads. He supposed the body was nicely shaped, and she was even pretty if one was into ‘exotic’, but blue and bony was a bit too exotic for the sergeant’s tastes, and he hadn’t paid much attention until the sound of a slap and the tavern owner’s angry voice intruded on his enjoyment of the meal.
De Vala had stepped in, trying to assess and calm the situation, but Conroy, apparently not realizing he had crossed a line somewhere, had protested. De Vala had tried to silence him, but the wrong words came out before the younger man could be told to shut it.
At the moment, De Vala couldn’t even recall what the fool had said. An angry patron was sticking up for his neighbor by attempting to open De Vala’s head with a broken table leg, and the others were similarly engaged.
As he stepped inside a wide swing and put the other man down with right cross to the jaw, he remembered that Conroy had said something along the lines of ‘she wanted it.’ If we survive this, I’m gonna kill him.
“At what point did the shooting start?” Makepeace asked.
“About three minutes into the brawl, sir,” Sergeant De Vala stood ramrod straight, staring ahead as the colonel circled him. “We were badly pressed, and Private Davies drew his sidearm and fired into the ceiling. I guess he thought he could startle them into stopping or at least backing down, but…”
“They didn’t respond as expected, never having heard gunfire before.”
“Yes, sir. It got worse after that until the guards showed up to break up the fight. I’m just glad no one was shot.”
“There’s that at least. It doesn’t change the fact that you’re all here, in the local jail on charges ranging from vandalism to assault with a deadly weapon and specific claims against Conroy for groping the tavern owner’s daughter. What were you doing, De Vala, that the situation got that far out of hand?! You were the ranking soldier present and thus responsible for the conduct of those under you.”
“I tried, sir.”
“Evidently, not hard enough, and don’t interrupt me again. The lack of common sense this demonstrates boggles the mind!” The colonel carried on in this manner for some time, and left the sergeant feeling almost physically bruised.
Private Conroy hadn’t gotten off so easy. The queen was extremely unhappy with them all, but Conroy took the blame for starting the fight. He was worried that they would be assigned community service like Hardesty’s squad, but Ambassador Stark had convinced her that it would make a bad situation worse to send them back to the village for any reason. The villagers, the tavern owner especially, was still furious, and no one wanted a repeat of that incident.
Instead, she had opted to kick them off the planet. All six were being reassigned, De Vala suspected, to the worst duty Makepeace could manage for them.
Celia Herriot stared at Monroe incredulously. “He wants what?
“My weight in gold and one of our ‘horseless wagons’ to carry it in; I saw him watching the trucks moving building materials for the locals.” Monroe winced. “I think he’s just getting warmed up.”
“What does he know that he thinks is worth that?”
“He won’t say. Only says it’s a really big secret that we need to know.”
“Not even a hint?”
“He said we’d be safer here and at home on Earth once we paid him and found out.”
“Hmm.” Celia pondered carefully for a moment, considering carefully the likelihood of the smelly little beast knowing a secret that could endanger Earth. Finally, she spoke. “Here’s what I want you to do Monroe. Escort Mr. Jik to the base’s perimeter.”
“And then?” he asked when she paused.
“Drop-kick him over the line.”
“The people are becoming alarmed. These Earthers seem to be everywhere, and the number of ‘regrettable incidents’ has increased with their numbers.”
Elyon nodded unhappily. “And it isn’t just the soldiers that are causing problems. I’ve heard three complaints against the new mining consortium. Those who didn’t initially join the consortium are being forced out of business. They’re undercutting prices and doing whatever else they can think of to eliminate competition.”
She looked at her father and frowned thoughtfully. “I remember reading in my Earth history books about similar things happening in the late 19th and early 20th century. Once they’re the only game in town, they’ll be able to do pretty much as they please in terms of pricing and production quotas. They may not have reached me, but I’m guessing the workers are really suffering under this new arrangement too.”
“That’s probably true, Elyon,” her adoptive father agreed. He only called her by name when there was no audience, and when he had something serious to discuss with her that she might not like hearing. “Sadly, no great change has come without some suffering and unhappiness. That’s just life. There are things that can be done to make the transition easier.”
“I’m beginning to wonder if there should be a transition. Am I pushing too hard? Asking too much from everyone?”
“You’re trying to improve their lives, and that too is a great change. It’s bound to make some people unhappy, and you can’t please everyone.”
“I know,” she sighed. “What can I do to fix the immediate problem?”
“Get the Earthers to remove some of their troops. Put strict limits on their numbers.” Elyon nodded. “Break up that mining consortium as well. It was put in place for our new trading partner’s convenience, but it is clear our people are not benefiting from it.”
“That’ll do for a start,” she agreed. “Right now, I have to hear another case. It seems one of their archeologists wandered into the Infinite City. They sent in two groups of their soldiers to try to find him.”
“Where was this?” Alborn asked, concerned. He had been dodging questions about Meridian’s recent past as it related to his daughter, and especially as it related to Phobos.
“Too close to Phobos’ prison,” she replied. There was all manner of trouble her brother could cause if anyone from Earth managed to have even a short conversation with him. After all, the former prince had nothing to lose and would probably find it amusing to cause her and the Guardians problems.
“Did we get everyone out?”
“Archeologist and all. They’re charged with trespassing.”
“Won’t they think it odd that such a trivial offense is brought before you?”
“I’ve been handling almost all of the disputes between our visitors and our people. It won’t seem strange.”
Alborn nodded. “Very well, Elyon, but please be careful. We don’t want them guessing the real reason we don’t want them searching the Infinite City.”
She nodded. ”I’ll be careful.”
“These incidents have increased in number and severity, and we are growing tired of dealing with the problems your troops create. So we’ve come to a decision.”
“What would that be, Your Majesty?”
“I want you to withdraw half of your number back to your own world. Your scientists can continue to study Meridian’s plants and animals, but at a slower pace. You may bring in new scientists as current projects are completed, but the soldiers must go.”
“B-but, Your Majesty, we’ve had several incidents of our own, people injured by-”
“By their own ignorance,” Elyon cut him off. “We can provide guards to keep your people safe. They know what’s dangerous and what isn’t. Your scientists will be much safer with people watching them who know the land.”
“Some of the projects are highly classified. The military may object to having people involved that are not cleared.”
“That isn’t my concern. As long as your projects aren’t a threat to Meridian or its people, the guards will have no interest beyond keeping people safe. This is as accommodating as I’m willing to be.”
Seeing that arguing would be pointless or even counter-productive, Stark nodded. “I will have to speak to the researchers and Colonel Howe who is now heading the military side of the operation. They will need to determine which projects can be put on hold and which might require the heaviest security. I should have a definitive list within two days at most.”
“Very well, you have two days to make those preparations. At that point my own guards will take over the job of providing security for your scientists.”
Stark started visibly. “Err, Your Majesty, two days is-”
“The amount of time you have,” she cut him off. “That just leaves the trespassing incident to deal with today.”
“Ah, yes, the underground city.” Stark quickly refocused. Queen Elyon’s tone indicated that the subject was closed, but he knew it wouldn’t be enough time. The amazing level of support and cooperation they had received at first from the locals and the natural wonders of Meridian had led to a huge operation being set up, much larger than the standard off-world outpost. Two days wouldn’t be enough, but they would have to be. Her tone indicated that she wouldn’t budge.
Stark quickly moved on. “Our archeologist, Doctor Spencer, was simply doing his job. He had not been told that the city was off limits. In fact, no official mention of it has ever been made.”
Elyon nodded, quietly kicking herself for that oversight. In retrospect, it was easy to see that telling them about the city and giving them a valid and innocent reason it was off limits would have been a better choice. “I should have told you about that. Not many people know about the city, so it didn’t seem necessary. There aren’t many entrances. When we find them, we usually close them off.”
“May I ask why?” Stark already knew the reason, but he was curious as to what excuse she would give. She certainly wasn’t going to admit that her brother was locked away in a prison somewhere inside the city.
“During the days of the rebellion, parts of the city were used as base camps. They found out the hard way that some places aren’t stable. Cave-ins are a real danger. It was sealed off for safety reasons, nothing more.”
“So you made it a crime to go in there?”
“We had to keep out the curious. We wouldn’t want anyone hurt because they decided to go exploring. I’m sure you do the same on your world.”
“We do,” he acknowledged.
“I understand he was just curious, and I know he hadn’t been told the ruins were off-limits, but sending armed men in after him was just plain reckless.”
“The officer in charge made a judgment call. He had no way of knowing what was down there, how extensive the ruins were or what kind of dangers Dr. Spencer might encounter.”
“I suppose you would be careful about that,” she allowed, “after that incident with the hermenueta beast.”
“You heard about that?” Stark asked, a slightly pained look on his face.
Elyon managed not to roll her eyes. “Everyone heard about that.” She shook her head as if to clear it. “It was still reckless, and I’m still going to have to insist that they be among those who are sent home.”
“Of course, Your Majesty. I will see to it immediately. The organization of the rest of our people will take a little longer.”
“Understood. You have two days, Ambassador. That’s your deadline.”
“Two days?!” Herriot demanded. “That’s not enough time. If that brat of a queen limits our work here and has all of our people guarded, they’ll never find the tech that fuels her so-called magic.”
“The time I’ve gotten you will have to be enough.” Stark didn’t appreciate her tone, but he knew she had powerful connections. I must be getting too old for this
, he reflected. Did I really miss the point when the NID took over?
“Use the time to get organized. We don’t have a choice in this.”
“Of course we do,” she snorted disdainfully. Without an explanation, she turned and walked away.
Stark stared after her, thinking hard. The NID thought they had a great prize just beyond their fingertips, and they didn’t want to see it snatched away. He’d had enough dealings with them to know what they would do to achieve their goal. Sadly, he wasn’t in as strong a position as he would have liked. He had a feeling this was all going to end badly unless they cleaned up their collective act and did as the locals wanted.
Stark remembered similar incidents he had read about in the SGC records. There had been the time when an NID operative had murdered a man while trying to steal an advanced weapon. The inhabitants had promptly sealed their gate and had refused any kind of contact since.
It would be a shame if something similar happened here. Meridian had a lot to offer, even if they never learned the secret of the queen’s magic.
Bram had fought with the rebels when Phobos ruled Meridian, and he had fought side by side with people like Caleb and Julian when they opposed Nerissa. There was no way, he told himself, that he would stand by while these outworlders ran roughshod over Meridian, apparently, with the queen’s blessing.
He had been speaking to former comrades and listening to muttering, and knew he was not the only one who felt this way. It was with this in mind that he called together some of his old friends and began to make plans. No one was sure what they should do, but they all agreed that they’d had enough of their visitors.
The tavern he had picked for the meeting site seemed ideal. The place was large and had enough food for the large group. It also served ale to lubricate the brain. At first, nothing was accomplished. Stories were traded around of insults offered and crimes committed. People grew angrier, but no solutions were forthcoming, until a messenger arrived.
When the decision had been made to send so many of the Earth troops home, Alborn had suggested making a general announcement to that affect to calm the people.
The announcement had the desired effect on the crowd, to an extent. The alcohol had made them more outspoken and all but immune to reason. Nevertheless, the mood took an upswing. “Glad Queen Elyon’s finally seeing sense,” one was heard to mutter. Others nodded in agreement, but Bram was suspicious.
“Can we trust them to do as they’re told?” He snorted derisively. “I doubt it. They ain’t shown no regard for our laws so far.”
“So what do we do about it?” one of his neighbors asked. “We can’t go against the queen’s wishes.”
Bram wouldn’t have minded going against Elyon’s wishes at the moment, as he blamed her for letting them in to begin with. That position, he knew despite the ale he’d consumed, wouldn’t be popular. “We watch them,” Bram said after a moment. “We
make sure they do as the queen has ordered.”
“And if they don’t?” Silas, a Galhot blacksmith asked.
“Then we’ve got enough people in this village alone to make ‘em do as they’re told!” He pounded his fist on the table for emphasis, and several of the tavern’s occupants shouted their agreement.
Two of the village’s best hunters were picked to go keep an eye on the stargate where they had assembled their main base. They had been told to report back each day, or at the first signs of trouble.
Messages were sent to nearby villages as well, informing their neighbors of what they were doing. The response was enthusiastic, and help was promised from each village contacted, should the need arise.
Within a day of learning that the Earthers hadn’t complied with the queen’s command, a large force could be surrounding their base. That force might consist of farmers, smiths, and merchants, but they would be armed.
“I don’t see a choice,” Major Carson shook his head.
“And I don’t see a problem,” Athena replied. The goals of the U.S. government, or any government for that matter, meant nothing to her. The Trust was going to have the secret of Queen Elyon’s magic one way or another. She gave him his orders, and Carson nodded and left.
He had been a stroke of luck. The greedy, self-serving officer had been happy to tell the ‘private sector’ employers anything they wanted, as long as it meant the money kept flowing. It was easy enough to arrange. Her company didn’t even have to part with any of its assets. A bit of Goa’uld computer know-how and she could rearrange ones and zeroes in almost any computer system on Earth. Padding his accounts with funds that didn’t actually exist was child’s play.
It was one of the easier ways to control agents on Earth. There was also blackmail, manipulation of legitimate orders and, of course, implantation of a symbiont. Each method had its inherent risks, but playing to someone’s greed was by far the simplest and least expensive in terms of resources.
Major Carson had been a reliable pawn, so far. He carried out simple instructions such as passing on orders or sharing classified information he was entrusted with. The task he had just been given, passing on orders to other Trust operatives, would require no real effort or risk on his part, and it would gain them a very powerful tool.
Athena smiled to herself. Everything was coming together.
Colonel Samuel Howe was fuming. A child had given him a ridiculous deadline!
Still, that child was the crowned ruler of the entire planet, so he didn’t have much choice. If he was going to meet that deadline, however, he was going to need a few extra hands. Extra security wouldn’t hurt either. Some of the sentries had reported seeing locals watching the camp. Scouts, Howe presumed, making plans for an attack. Hopefully, the presence of a larger force would deter them.
The SGC had already sent something that he hoped they wouldn’t need. Someone had speculated that Queen Elyon’s magic might be similar to the abilities of the Ori’s Priors. Major Carson, one of the SGC’s Intel specialists, had ordered that one of Colonel Carter’s jamming devices, the ones that so effectively neutralized enhanced abilities within a certain range, be sent over. No one knew if it would work, and Howe hoped they didn’t have a chance to test it.
He had explained to General Landry the need for extra hands, asking that he be allowed to hold off rotating out the teams that were due to return to Earth. Those men, plus the relief teams due today, should enable us to meet the deadline.
He couldn’t really blame the locals. The military’s handling of matters on Meridian had been ham-handed at best. Between soldiers that were panicky, thoughtless, or just plain stupid, the entire operation was FUBAR.
So, they had been ordered out. The SGC wasn’t happy about it, but the diplomats had failed miserably at smoothing things over.
He set the men about their work. Some were packing up fragile equipment, while others were fortifying their position or running extra patrols of the area, all in readiness for keeping their base safe with a smaller force.
None of the scientists were happy; especially those leaving their work unfinished, but the decision had been made. The geologist and chemists studying threbite, looking for a new energy source, were more important than those cataloging the local flora. The anthropologists and linguists were complaining loudly that their studies couldn’t be interrupted at such a delicate juncture.
Since the anthropologists were one of the things annoying the locals, though, they were first on the list to be withdrawn. Some had already left. Unfortunately, some of those that remained were making their displeasure known by dragging their feet.
Howe was tempted to tie some of them up and toss them bodily back through the gate.
“It’s so good to see you!” Elyon hugged Cornelia and greeted the others almost as enthusiastically. “This last month has been awful!”
The six girls had gathered in a private sitting room. Elyon had relaxed the ‘royal demeanor’ as soon as the door was closed. Her five friends were startled by this announcement and urged her to talk to them while they sat.
“What’s been going on Elyon?” Cornelia asked. She could see her friend was tired and worried even when Elyon’s ‘royal’ face was on. She might fool some into thinking that she was on top of things and calmly dealing with the problems around her, but those who knew her well could see her struggling.
“It’s the people from Earth,” the queen sighed. “There’s been one problem after another.” Dropping onto the couch in a lazy sprawl that she would never allow in front of her subjects, she began to tell them of Meridian’s recent woes. It took time, with the girls interrupting with questions and comments on what had been happening, but when she finished her story and asked them their honest opinions on the situation, they sat for a while in silence, thinking.
“Well,” Taranee ventured. “It doesn’t sound like there was any intention to cause trouble. They were just making a lot of dumb mistakes.”
Elyon nodded. “I know. There’s no…general malice here, but they’ve got this attitude like they can do whatever they like without consequences, just because they’re more advanced. They may have better technology,” she declared, “but they’re not better people.”
“No one said they were,” Cornelia tried to soothe her friend, seeing that just thinking about this was making her angry.
“They don’t have to say it. It’s in the way they do almost everything they do here.” She leaned back and sighed. “Hopefully, things will calm down once most of the soldiers have left. The scientists are causing their own headaches, but nothing near as serious.”
“How did they react to being told to leave?” Will asked. The situation worried her for reasons she wasn’t quite clear on. The technological advantage and the soldiers’ superior attitude had created problems already, and it was at least possible it would cause more.
“They weren’t happy,” Elyon allowed, “but they didn’t object. Their ambassador is getting as tired of dealing with the trouble the soldiers cause as I am.”
“What if they don’t want to go?” Taranee asked the question that had been bothering Will. “They’ve got guns and bombs and things.”
Elyon was silent for a time, considering. “It shouldn’t come to that,” she sighed. The possibility had occurred to her, but the thought of it made her sad and tired, so she had decided to just keep her fingers crossed. Even with superior weapons, the soldiers couldn’t fight an entire world, and there was no good reason to try.
She knew she could probably drive them back through the gate by herself if it came to that, but the thought of what she would have to do was frightening to her. “If it does, I may have to make them all leave. I don’t really want to use my magic that way, on that scale, but I can.”
The Guardians shared nervous looks, but each nodded after a moment, coming to a silent agreement. “You don’t have to do it yourself,” Will told her. “If we-”
“I couldn’t ask you to do that!” Elyon protested. “They’re humans from Earth. It would be-”
“What they’re doing is wrong,” Cornelia cut her off. “If it comes to that, maybe…”
“Maybe a show of force will help,” Taranee offered. “If we all showed up together, them knowing what we can do, maybe they won’t be willing to start trouble.”
“Maybe,” Elyon agreed, still not sold on the idea. “But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”
The objective was in sight. Security had been easy to breach, and they only had to kill two of the hulking guards.
Monroe was satisfied. They were slightly ahead of schedule and had plenty of time to properly manage their exit with the package. The layout of the place was byzantine, but their Intel had been perfect, something that still surprised Monroe, given the source.
Getting in had been easy. Getting out would also be easy, as long as the delays they had arranged kept anyone from discovering the package’s absence.
He checked his watch. They had time to reach the gate, and if Herriot came through, then getting through the gate with the package should go smoothly.
Distractions on the scale she had planned made him nervous. A lot could go wrong, but if it went as planned, they should be through and out of the base before anyone caught on.
Feeling eyes on him, he turned to find the package regarding him curiously. There was no fear there, even after seeing their weapons in action, just a faintly amused curiosity. That gaze was making him nervous, so he checked his watch again and gave the word via hand signs to his men.
It was time to move out.
More soldiers. There were even more soldiers coming through that gate despite Queen Elyon’s command.
Bram fumed over the news. He had expected it, but he really had hoped that it wouldn’t come to this. He sent runners to the neighboring villages and began organizing his own people.
They would march at dawn.
In the village of Todar’s Forge, just a half-day’s journey from Bram’s own home, was a retired soldier who had fought alongside Julian in the early days of the rebellion before losing his right arm in a skirmish with some of Phobos’ troops.
Inden had remained loyal to the cause and active behind the frontlines despite his injury. When he learned what was happening, he agreed to march with the others, but he also sent a messenger bird to the palace to warn the queen.
Howe wasn’t sure if he should be pleased or not when he heard of the withdrawal of the scouts watching his camp. He hoped it meant that the locals were going to keep their distance until the operation could be complete, but he was not an optimist by nature.
“If they do come back,” he predicted, “it will be with a large force. I want to expand the perimeter being patrolled an extra half-mile to give us more warning if that happens.”
“This is turning into hostile territory, sir.” His second-in-command, Major Lopez, looked up from the aerial reconnaissance photo the UAV had taken. It showed the camp at the gate and the surrounding area. The position of the native scouts watching the camp had been marked, and the most likely routes for the advance of a large force had also been indicated. “I think we should take sterner measures in defending the base.”
“No.” Howe shook his head. “You think they’re angry now? How do you think they’d react to losing people to claymores? They aren’t our enemies, and it’s our job to make sure they don’t become so by provoking them.”
“Yes, sir,” Lopez managed to keep the skepticism out of his voice. “I’ll see to the expanded patrols.”
Howe nodded absently. “Dismissed.”
“I think it’s a good idea,” Alborn nodded. “Risky, but still a good idea. ‘Showing the colors’, as they say on Earth.”
“I’ll just be overseeing the troops’ departure and our own people taking up their duties,” Elyon reminded him. “I’m not going there to threaten anyone. It will be good to be seen, though, to remind them that they don’t run things here.”
Her adoptive father nodded, but before he could say anything else, a guard came into the room. “Your Majesty. A message has just arrived. It’s urgent.”
“What is it, Ralk?” she asked, turning to face him.
He raised his right arm, on which one of the familiar messenger birds perched. “Repeat,” he ordered it.
Elyon listened with growing concern. It was probably the longest speech she had ever heard from one of the birds, and the most disturbing. She glanced at Ralk, not bothering to hide her worry. “Have the Guardians left?”
“No, Majesty. I believe they are…‘raiding the kitchen’.
Elyon smirked despite the situation. “Have them meet me in the map room.” She turned to Alborn. “Gather the captains and bring them. We need to get organized.”
Both nodded and hurried off to their appointed tasks, while Elyon sighed and headed for the map room.
She glanced about upon entering, noting she was the first to arrive. The map room had been set up for precisely situations like this, although she had hoped it wouldn’t get much use.
In the center was a large table, holding a copy of the map that adorned the wall of her throne room. She had learned that with a slight application of magic, she could alter the map to show chosen areas in more detail. It was rather like having a spy satellite in orbit, taking pictures that could be called up at will. Her first attempt to do so on this occasion, however, failed miserably. Too anxious by far.
She took a deep breath and tried to slip into a meditative frame of mind, just as the Oracle had taught her, but it wasn’t easy.
What she wanted to do was rush out to the gate herself and sort everything out before anyone got hurt, but she had learned from the Oracle that her powers had to be carefully controlled. She didn’t want to make the situation worse by rushing into the situation unprepared, as she knew she easily could, if she tried to do too much with her magic.
A knock on the door, barely three minutes after her arrival, heralded the arrival of her most trusted military advisors. The Guardians soon followed.
“What’s wrong, Elyon?” Cornelia asked immediately, having seen how worried the guard who found them was.
“We may have a serious problem at the stargate,” she started without preamble. Touching the map, she shifted the view with a subtle use of her magic. “They aren’t leaving. A report I just received indicates that they are getting reinforcements through the gate, and they are digging in.” She waited for the exclamations of shock and anger to run their courses before continuing. “I’m afraid it gets worse. The three villages in the area,” three dots glowed on the map, “are sending armed men to try to force them out.”
“That won’t end well,” Caleb said grimly. “I’ve seen the weapons the Earthers are using. Those men won’t stand a chance. I’m not sure how well our own seasoned troops will do against them.”
“I know,” Elyon answered bleakly. “We have to prevent a fight if we can.” She looked around. “I don’t know what to do, guys. If those Earth soldiers are determined to fight, it’s going to take something big to drive them out.”
Drake opened his mouth, but Elyon shook her head. “I’d rather not draw that heavily on my magic. I could actually make matters worse.”
“They don’t know that,” Caleb pointed out. “It might just take a show of force, a hint of what you can do to convince them it isn’t worth the trouble.”
“That could work,” Julian allowed. “It would have to be carefully planned, though.”
“Yeah, it would,” Elyon agreed. She glanced at Alborn. “We had something like that in mind anyway.”
“This is a little different, Your Majesty,” he pointed out, worried for his daughter. “If they force the issue…”
“Then she won’t be alone,” Cornelia declared. The other Guardians nodded.
Elyon shook her head, taken aback at the offer. “I couldn’t ask you to-”
“You’re not,” Will interrupted. “We’re offering. Who’s in charge of the Guards you have out there now?” she asked.
“Raythor,” Alborn answered promptly and a bit unhappily. He wasn’t as forgiving as his daughter, and didn’t trust any of the former ‘knights of vengeance’.
“That’s good,” Will nodded. She remembered Raythor as the most dangerous of the Knights. He was a good leader and an excellent strategist. “Get a message to him, and let him know what’s happening.”
“What do you expect him to do?” Caleb asked. “He might well join the villagers under the circumstances.”
“He’ll follow orders,” Elyon said with confidence. “I just wish I knew what to tell him.” She noticed Will start to smile. “Something?”
“Tell him to join the villagers,” she grinned. “Have him put his troops between the gate and the people from the villages. That way he can direct them and have a little say in what they do.”
“Untrained, angry troops? He’ll love that,” Drake offered.
“Would he prefer a mob rushing the gate and getting a lot of people killed better?” Elyon asked, seeing what Will had in mind. “It’s not perfect, but it should buy us some time.”
“I agree, Majesty,” Julian offered. “I can send a message to that effect at once.” He pointed to two positions on the map. “Our troops are currently here and here.”
“How long will it take them to get into position?” Will asked, not being able to tell the way that Julian apparently could.
“It will be close, but they can be in position in time,” the old soldier assured them. “I’ll prepare the message with your permission, Majesty?”
“Go do it,” Elyon nodded and then turned to the others. “If we’re going to frighten them into leaving, we’re going to have to come up with something good.”
“Not so much frighten,” Taranee offered. “Frightened people with guns tend to use them. We need to present them with an overwhelming force, something they won’t want to pick a fight with, without frightening them.”
“That’s going to be tricky,” Drake observed. “I doubt they want a fight, and they probably know that we don’t, but that won’t guarantee that there won’t be one. The wrong word or misstep on either side and it could start the battle we want to avoid.”
“We’ll have to be careful about misunderstandings,” Elyon agreed. “We don’t have much time. Let’s see what we can think of.”
Things were going according to plan. The confrontation was larger than planned, but it would still work. A rushed exit from Meridian might even serve their needs better.
For her part, Celia couldn’t wait to leave the primitive world. She much preferred Earth or the more technologically advanced planets. The ‘rustic charm’ of the place wore thin after a very short time.
Things were not
going according to plan. Howe had spotted two large forces converging on his position with the UAV, at least until someone had brought it down with an arrow. An arrow for pity’s sake!
He did what he could to speed up the evacuation of the scientists and nonessential personnel. Naturally, some of them were arguing for more time to pack up their ‘invaluable’ data. It really was the least of the headaches he was dealing with at the moment.
The only thing really clear about the current situation was that their time on Meridian was over. He had known the locals weren’t happy with them, but he hadn’t expected such a violent response. They were leaving, just as ordered, and the extra hands had been a big help in meeting the absurd deadline. That deadline, however, seemed to have been moved up and was being enforced at sword point. And, although he knew it would create more tension, he had to fortify his position until it was safe to withdraw.
“This wasn’t part of the plan,” Mitchell noted, staring at the smoking hole in the DHD. Carter chose not to comment on that, but instead set about checking the damage.
The encounter with the soldiers of Origin had been as unforeseen as it was unwelcome. None of them knew what the small group had been doing on the uninhabited world, but it didn’t particularly matter at the moment. That threat had been dealt with easily enough. The encounter had been a surprise to both, but SG1 had been quicker to react and more accurate with their weapons. Unfortunately, one of the Ori’s soldiers had blasted the DHD before being shot. So much for a simple recon mission
, Mitchell groused, as he spread the group out to cover Carter while she worked. None of them wanted another unpleasant surprise.
Teal’c took to walking a perimeter of the small hollow that contained the gate, setting trip wires at the most obvious points of approach. The planet was uninhabited, as far as they knew, at least in the vicinity of the gate, but that didn’t mean there weren’t more Ori soldiers out there. For all he knew, there might even be a left over Goa’uld with an army of Jaffa hiding somewhere nearby.
Teal’c was his stoic self, for which Mitchell was grateful. Vala was vocal about her displeasure at being stranded, though. She and Daniel were bickering like an old married couple. After a pleading look from Sam, he separated the two and sent them off to separate hills, to keep watch.
It took almost three hours, but Sam finally had an answer for them. Closing the panel on the back of the DHD, she stood up and wiped her hands on her fatigues. “Okay, guys, the damage isn’t as bad as I thought, and with the proper spare parts, the DHD can be made fully operational again.”
“We’re a bit short on spare parts, Carter,” Mitchell reminded her.
“We don’t need them at the moment,” she shook her head. “We can’t dial earth at the moment. Roughly half the addresses can’t be dialed because of the damage, but I’ve made enough connections that we can reach another planet with a functioning gate, and then get home.”
“Good work,” Mitchell beamed. He looked to the others. “Let’s get ready to go, people. All we need to do is pick a destination we can dial.” He glanced at Carter. “Any preferences?”
“Not really. There are about 12 likely possibilities based on the symbols available and the situations known to us on some of the available worlds.”
“What do you mean?” Mitchell asked.
“Well I doubt we want to dial into an Ori stronghold or a radioactive wasteland.”
“True,” Mitchell acknowledged with a wince.
“There are also two gates on the list with DHDs damaged worse than this one, and three with none at all.”
“Point taken,” Mitchell surrendered.
“Is Meridian on the list?” Daniel asked suddenly, seeing an opportunity.
Sam examined the handheld computer she was carrying and nodded. “Yes, we can go there.” She glanced up at her friend. “I haven’t heard much out of Meridian for a while.”
“I’ve tried to keep up,” Daniel admitted, “but it’s been a pretty hectic couple of months for us. There have been indications of trouble between our people and the local population. I’d like to look in on them.”
“It would seem, then,” Teal’c offered, “we have an opportunity to ‘look in on them’.”
Mitchell shrugged. It was good enough for him. “What are we waitin’ for? Daniel, you wanna dial?”
Elyon bit her lip in worry, as she approached the stargate. Her army had succeeded in intercepting the mob of villagers, and was managing to impose some order on the proceedings. They were formed up in rather sloppy ranks, trying to impress their unwelcome guests with sheer numbers.
The Earth troops were completely surrounded and outnumbered nearly three-to-one. Unfortunately, the majority of her ‘troops’ were armed with pitchforks and other farming implements. Even the genuine soldiers didn’t have anything that could match AK-47s. Or whatever it is they’re carrying
, she thought.
The human’s weapons more than made up for the numbers Meridian could bring to bear. If her plans worked out, though, the weapons wouldn’t matter, as the Earthers would leave without a shot being fired.
The Guardians approached from the north, flying in formation and in plain sight as if they had nothing to fear from the soldiers’ weapons. They maintained their position above the vanguard of the royal troops, clearly supporting Meridian in the conflict. If SG1 had passed on what they’d learned about the Guardians, including a description of their abilities, the commanding officer would be even less eager to pick a fight.
Elyon concealed her presence from everyone for a time, just watching, but before the tension level between the two groups could rise too high, she made her entrance.
Colonel Howe had
read the reports about the Queen’s powers and the Guardians.
The nature of the Guardians’ abilities was not clearly known, but each was said to control some aspect of nature. He wasn’t sure what that meant, even after reading the description of how they had dealt with the forest fire, but he was sure he didn’t want to see them in action against his troops.
They weren’t the most disturbing reinforcements to arrive, however. From the east had come a gigantic creature that seemed to be made out of rock. One arm consisted of a spiked metal club that Howe really didn’t want to see used.
As yet, there was no one stepping forward from the native forces, offering to speak for them. That only increased the nervousness of his soldiers. Howe was on the verge of stepping forward and asking to speak to someone, when a flash of light overhead heralded the arrival of Meridian’s queen.
She appeared from the south, hovering over and slightly behind their front lines. Without a gesture, she began moving forward, over the heads of her troops and the stretch of ground between their respective armies, as easily as Howe would have crossed a room.
She stopped about midway and addressed them in a voice that reached everyone without being raised. It sounded as if she was standing next to him, and the effect raised the hairs on the back of his neck. “I would speak with Colonel Howe.”
Several heads turned to look at him, and there was a general stirring in the troops that made it plain that everyone had heard that statement as clearly as he had. If she wanted to make an impression
, Howe thought, she’s succeeded in spades
“I’m Colonel Howe.” He moved toward her, and saw her turn to face him. He realized that, even from over 100 yards away, she had heard him clearly. “I don’t believe either of us wants a fight. Can we discuss this?”
“That is why I’m here, Colonel,” the queen answered evenly. “You were given instructions and a deadline. Your ambassador agreed to them, yet you seem intent on violating both.”
“I assure you, that it not the case. This has been a misunderstanding. We… Uhh, if I may, Your Majesty? But talking like this is a bit distracting. Could we speak face to face?”
“Of course, Colonel.”
“Please. Join me and we can discuss this in private.” He regretted the offer almost immediately, not sure how she would respond. It was like asking her to step into a trap, and hope it wasn’t sprung, but she surprised him.
“Very well.” She glanced back toward her lines and nodded. One of her guards, small for the species, came forward and selected six of his soldiers. They formed up beneath her, and began to move toward the perimeter established by his men.
The aliens were wary, and kept their weapons out and at the ready. Each of the group, save their leader, carried a strange looking crossbow. The one in the lead had only a sword that he kept in its sheath. Howe made note of that one, as he carried himself easily and showed no trepidation at entering the enemy camp. His subordinates were somewhat twitchier, and Howe really hoped they didn’t fire those crossbows by accident.
If Monroe had any doubts about his orders, he buried them deep. If his instructions started a battle, it wasn’t on him but his commanding officer.
He’d been told when given the orders that he would be posted with easy access to the device Colonel Carter had designed, and he had been. If it worked against priors, the hope was that it would also work against whatever so-called magic the Queen used.
He waited until she was within range and then activated the device.
Queen Elyon had begun to float down toward the ground, as she approached and crossed their lines, but she was still nearly fifteen feet above the ground when she gave a startled cry and dropped like a stone.
There was a moment of stunned silence on both sides, and then a cry of outrage went up from Elyon’s forces. They surged forward.
There were distinctive twangs, as bolts flew from crossbows, followed by the chatter of automatic weapons. People went down and stayed down on both sides, and the fighting quickly spread.
Raythor had been briefed on the Earthers’ weapons, and he knew that if there was a battle then there was only one good chance. Just as instructed, he was proud to note, his troops had charged in at full speed, determined to get in among the enemy as quickly as possible, where their strange weapons would be as much a danger to them as to his own troops.
As much as Howe didn’t want the fight, he wasn’t about to order his men not to defend themselves. He didn’t know what had happened to the queen, but he doubted he’d get the chance to find out unless he was able to impose some order on the situation.
He began issuing orders, but was cut off when the situation suddenly became far more disorderly.
It looked like it was working. The soldiers were definitely nervous, and the commanding officer couldn’t agree to talk it out fast enough. Cornelia allowed herself a slight smirk as Elyon floated down over the soldiers’ heads. Then, without warning, Elyon dropped out of the sky to land amidst the human soldiers. Stop!
Taranee’s voice echoed in the Earth Guardian’s mind, and she realized that she had begun to rush forward. Something weird is happening in the camp
, Taranee told the others telepathically. I can feel it somehow, like there’s a dead-zone. Elyon’s powers just cut out. I can feel it too
, Will answered. I…I think it’s some kind of machine
. Focus, girls
, Irma chided as the soldiers below them roared and surged to engage the soldiers from Earth. We’ve got to try and stop this.
The group quickly conferred and Will began to issue orders.
Cornelia darted forward and raised a wall to protect the guards and villagers from the gunfire, and then sent that wall rolling forward, bowling over the soldiers. On another section of the front, Taranee raised a wall of flame and used it to herd some of the soldiers away from the lightly armed villagers.
To the East, Gargoyle entered the fray.
Elyon was shocked when her magic cut out. The crack and sharp pain she felt from her right ankle when she hit the ground was another unpleasant surprise.
She fell forward, and for a moment was unable to do anything but try to draw air back into her lungs. When she could concentrate again, she found herself surrounded by the guards Raythor had insisted on. Raythor himself was at her side sword drawn and shouting orders. They had their backs to her and had discarded their bows in favor of swords.
Dazed as she was, it took her a moment to realize what that meant, and that the loud noises around her were the sounds of a full-scale battle. Then, suddenly, things got worse.
That machine has to go
. Dodging bullets, Will decided, was nothing like dodging arrows, but she had managed with generous use of glamours to keep from getting shot. She had also been tossing off low voltage lightning strikes to disarm some of the soldiers, but she couldn’t go to the heart of the matter. Whatever was affecting Elyon’s powers was at the center of the field.
“We need to take out that machine,” she told the others, “but I can’t tell where it is!”
“Lots of things break in an earthquake,” Hay Lin pointed out brightly, as she sent a near hurricane force wind across the field to clear a path for the advancing guards.
“That’ll do,” Cornelia answered.
Sergeant Jacob Walters had trouble believing what was happening. He had been at the SGC for three years, and had fought Goa’uld, Priors, and had even seen an Ascended being a couple of times. But none of that prepared him for fairies that threw lightning bolts or tossed fireballs. He had just picked himself up after a gust of wind had separated him from his gun when he saw something even stranger.
One of the fairies landed close enough for him to get a good look at her. Everything from the long blonde hair to the shape of the nose, to the look of determined concentration was instantly familiar to him.
It was impossible, but if his sister were twenty years younger or his niece five years older, he would swear that he was looking at family, wings or no wings.
Of course, neither his sister nor his niece, regardless of how angry they got, could strike the ground with a fist, and cause what felt like a 6.5 quake.
Howe couldn’t believe how badly it was going. The flights of arrows falling upon his troops were surprisingly effective, and the superior firepower was not as much of an advantage when everything from walls of fire to geysers were suddenly erupting in their midst, forcing his men to stay on the move, just trying to avoid burns and broken bones.
He was still trying to decide how to counter the Guardian’s tactics when he was literally tossed into the air by the force of a quake that came out of nowhere. He hit the ground near the table where the anti-prior device had been set up just in time for the table and the equipment on it to tip over on top of him, knocking him unconscious.
“What the hell?!” Mitchell demanded, as he dove for cover behind the DHD. It wasn’t the first time he’d had to dodge enemy fire upon stepping out of the gate, but the crossbows were new. He and the others found cover, and took a moment to assess the situation.
They quickly realized that they had walked into a battle between the SGC personnel stationed on Meridian and the locals. Questions about what had precipitated it would have to wait, though.
“Trouble with the locals?” Mitchell asked, his voice tinged with sarcasm. Daniel didn’t bother responding. “Let’s find Colonel Howe.”
“Colonel Howe is down, sir.”
Mitchell turned to see a captain he didn’t recognize coming toward them. “Report, captain.”
“Yesterday, we got an order from the queen to reduce our numbers here. Too many incidents with the locals, so she ordered us to scale back operations. Looks like it wasn’t soon enough. Troops started arriving this morning, backed by an angry mob. The queen seemed willing to talk, but..” He shook his head. “She just dropped out of the sky when she entered the camp. No idea why, but her people attacked us at that point, assuming we attacked her.”
“Where is the queen now?” Jackson asked.
“Over there.” The captain pointed to a large group of guards fighting tooth and nail to protect one area on the field. “Lopez ordered us to secure her in hopes of ending this, but her people…”
“Where is Lopez?” Mitchell broke in angrily.
“Dead, sir. You’re the ranking officer on scene.”
“All right, captain. As of now, I’m assuming command.” He looked around, assessing the situation. What needed to be done was obvious at this point, but he wasn’t sure how to do it without getting more people needlessly killed, nor did he know what had happened to Elyon or why.
“Colonel, look,” Carter had made her way over to what seemed to have once been the command post. There was a table with various pieces of communications gear and control devices for the UAVs. Colonel Howe was laid out near the table, unconscious, with another soldier tending him. “I think this is the problem, sir.”
Mitchell made his way to her side, and instantly recognized one of the anti-prior devices. “What is that doing here?”
“Colonel Howe’s orders, sir,” the captain replied. “It was brought here in case things got out of hand and we needed to defend against the Queen’s magic.”
“Why was it turned on?” Carter demanded.
“I…I don’t know, ma’am. I didn’t hear Colonel Howe give any such order.”
“Turn it off,” Mitchell ordered. It had been damaged when it fell off the table, but it was designed with rough treatment in mind, so it was still functioning. Carter flipped a switch, powering it down. “Relay my orders to all units, captain,” Mitchell turned to the other man after realizing that the communications gear hadn’t fared as well. “Stand down. Cease-fire and drop your weapons. We’re surrendering.”
To his credit, the captain didn’t hesitate. Snapping out a quick ‘yessir,’ he moved to spread the word by radio and in person where necessary.
The word spread quickly, but it almost proved unnecessary.
When the device was turned off, the tide turned dramatically. The Guardians surged forward. Vines and roots erupted from the ground tangling the soldiers and immobilizing them. Across the field, weapons suddenly became too hot to hold, and even the stone giant that had paused at the edge of the field lumbered forward again, knocking aside soldiers and completely ignoring the bullets and occasional rockets that struck it.
When the orders reached them, the SGC soldiers still able to fight, roughly half of the original number, laid down their weapons and surrendered, although some did so only grudgingly. The losses to the guards had been heavy, and some were not inclined to accept a surrender, but Elyon’s voice reached every corner of the field without her having to raise it above a whisper, instructing them to capture the soldiers and only harm them if they resisted. The obvious pain in her voice, however, did ensure that none of the soldiers were treated gently.
SG-1 had laid down their weapons with the rest, and Mitchell, as the highest-ranking officer available, asked to speak to the queen.
A few minutes later, Elyon arrived, leaning on one of her guards for support and favoring her broken ankle. She stared at them without speaking for a moment, until Daniel opened his mouth, but Elyon cut him off. “Don’t,” she said in a tired voice, and went back to just looking at them.
Following Daniel’s lead, the others stayed silent and waited. Finally, she shook her head. “We don’t want any explanations or excuses. We don’t want reparations. We just want you to go. Take your wounded and dead. Take your toys and just go. We’re burying the gate after you.” Without another word to them, she turned and limped away.
Under the harsh glares of her guards whose weapons stayed out and ready at all times, the SGC troops gathered their wounded and sent them through the gate. The rest, carrying equipment and body bags, soon followed. Elyon watched from a distance, only wincing occasionally as her leg was set and bound. The sight of the people they’d lost hurt her far more than a simple broken ankle could.
The evacuation was going as quickly and smoothly as possible under the circumstances. Certain things were being abandoned, but most of their scientific equipment was being hand carried through the gate under the watchful eyes of her troops. In less than an hour, they were gone.
A few of them cast unreadable looks over their shoulders, as they stepped through the gate. One, however, who was being flanked by two other soldiers, as if being guarded by them, wore a self-satisfied smirk.
Elyon puzzled about that, as the man disappeared through the shimmering event horizon.
Unnoticed by all, one body remained behind. A young corporal that had taken a crossbow bolt to the neck lay concealed under a pile of abandoned crates. He was discovered an hour later by work crews clearing the area in preparation for burying the gate.
When brought to Elyon’s attention, she was puzzled because she was certain she recognized the man. It took her a moment to realize that he had been the smirking soldier that had walked through the gate.
It would puzzle her for only a short time.
Will stared at the messenger. The others, Elyon included, were speechless. “How could this happen?” she asked for the group. “I thought he was the most closely guarded prisoner in Meridian?”
“We’re not sure,” Vathek answered, his own voice betraying his anger and frustration. Although he had not been the one on watch duty, he still felt responsible, as he had been the one who had assigned the guards. “The guards were found dead with strange wounds. So, obviously, he had help.”
“Strange wounds?” Taranee asked when no one else would. The queen’s face held an expression that seemed to be fading from shock to outrage.
“Bullet holes,” she said succinctly, her voice as angry as any of them had ever heard it. “They killed two of my people to free that monster! What I don’t understand is why!”
“Magic,” her father answered. “It was no secret that they wanted to learn more about your abilities, my queen. They reasoned that you wouldn’t tell them if they asked, but he might out of gratitude for freeing him.”
“That’s crazy!” Cornelia started. “They have no idea what they’ve let loose!”
Alborn sighed. “I’m not sure telling them would have deterred them from doing this.”
Elyon rose and paced, furious with their departed guests. Her ankle throbbed horribly, but she ignored it. “All of that, just for…” she trailed off, too angry to speak. The final tally of their losses from the battle at the gate had come to her an hour earlier, and it had made her want to weep.
“Possibly, or maybe someone in the military was taking advantage of the situation,” Will offered hesitantly. “I don’t think it’s a conspiracy by the entire U.S. government.”
“It hardly matters,” Alborn answered heavily. “Phobos is free and on Earth. The question is; what do we do now?”
For a long time, no one said a word. What were they going to do now
? Phobos was on Earth, beyond their reach, with possible new allies. What they had faced at the gate had been a small infantry force, carrying basic weapons. And they had cost the lives of more Meridians in one day than any three battles against Phobos.
With the dethroned prince free on Earth, anything could happen. If they learned about spatial folding from him, burying the gate wouldn’t help. No world would be safe. There was also the very real possibility that he would tell the government about the Guardians. Elyon didn’t believe for a moment that her brother would work for someone else, but he wasn’t above cooperating until he found a way to turn the situation to his advantage. Somehow she doubted that his new ‘friends’ would trust Phobos very far, but that wasn’t much comfort. She shared her thoughts with the others. They agreed with her assessment, but it still left them with the original question. What do we do now?