an croí (the heart)
. . .
Waiting for Morrighan changed from a few hours to several. She’d sent Jack the following message:
Make yourselves comfortable. This will take eight hours and seven minutes. Apologies for the delay.
Jack had a suspicion that something else was up. He’d asked, “Is there a reason for the delay aside from issues on your end?”
She’d answered: There most certainly is, my kinsman. You will be visited by the hierarchy of your defense construct. Best to correct some errant assumptions from the beginning rather than mess with them later.
It was now hour seven and twelve minutes since contact. He stood at the far end of the conference table in the briefing room, a folded slice of pizza in hand, chewing slowly. The two teams, the Tok’ra, Narim, and Nya had been moved from their previous seats to make room for the new arrivals. It meant that they no longer had seats at the table.
In the last hour, Colonel Paul Davis had arrived from the Pentagon with Lieutenant General David Vidrine, Brigadier General Robert Atkinson, Colonel William Edwards, and their associated aides in tow. They were under some delusion that the arriving ship would belong to the Earth, aka the Pentagon.
Jack didn’t bother to protest nor to correct them. Any Q & A would come from Morrighan. Let them get a face full of her authority. Just the thought put a knowing smile on his face. In the meantime, since coffee and donuts wouldn’t be enough, he had several boxes of pizza delivered, along with bottles of water, Coke, and iced tea—with and without lemon. The latter was mainly for the Tok’ra who couldn’t stand carbonated beverages. And it was a strange fact that no matter the species, they all liked tea.
“What’s that grin on your face?” Jason asked in an undertone.
Jack didn’t answer. Daniel did. He could feel smugness from Jack very clearly. “Imagining their reaction when Morrighan corrects their assumptions,” he said, jerking a chin in the direction of the Pentagon’s representatives.
“Ah,” Jason said.
“What?” Alex asked as he reached over and snagged another slice of pizza from the boxes that sat at their end of the table.
Jason relayed Jack’s smugness. Alex snorted. Next to them, looking bored out of his skull, Narim raised a brow. Jason said, “They,” and he pointed at the Generals with his pizza, “seem to be under the assumption that they’re getting a present from the queen of the Daoine Sidhe,” pronouncing it deena shee.
“I beg your pardon?” Narim asked.
Jack waved a hand. “You’ll see.”
Narim frowned and as Daniel softly backhanded Jack in the shoulder, he explained, again, who Morrighan was. Lya, standing at the observation window, cast a somewhat awed look at them. Again, Narim looked baffled.
“She appears to be . . . well, upset isn’t the proper word but I cannot think of another word that applies.”
“Narim,” Jack said, drawing out his name in a semi-sing-song. “Do you have a higher being or higher beings that you believe in? Gods, for lack of a better term.”
“Not as such,” Narim said slowly in a bare whisper. “It is a very personal thing and something we do not share in . . . mixed company.”
Sam rolled her eyes. “In other words, people who aren’t Tollan, am I right?”
Narim bowed his head in agreement. “There is no offense intended in this.”
“Of course, there isn’t,” Jack said, rolling his eyes. “Sometimes . . .” he began, intending to go off on a complaint, but then decided better of it and shook his head. “Never mind.”
Lya suddenly turned from the window with the air of someone who has reached a decision. She walked to the conference table and sat down in the end cap chair. “I am not sure I should be here,” she stated flatly, mostly to Narim but part of her statement was also directed at Daniel.
“You wish to leave?” Narim asked, surprised. “I thought we had agreed that the Nox are required to explain the Nialla’s predicament and why your people have not assisted. Is this not still the case?”
Lya nodded to him. “It is. But with the arrival of . . .” She whispered, “Dhia,” then resumed her normal tone of voice, “I am not . . .” She seemed to search for the proper word. “Prepared. I am not the proper person to meet her. It should be Anteaus.”
Daniel intuited that she felt unworthy, deferring to the male Nox they had met previously. Her attitude didn’t conform with the usual air of superiority the Nox generally expressed. He wanted to ask questions but suspected that she wouldn’t answer. Instead, he directed a corrective statement to Narim. “Predicament?” he asked him. “I think being enslaved by the Goa’uld is far more serious than a predicament.”
“Yes, of course, but you know what I meant, Daniel. English and Tollanska do not translate fully.”
“Granted,” Daniel said with a sideways dip of his head.
“Anyways . . .” Jack said, suddenly tired of the entire situation. “Exactly how were we to rescue the Nialla, en masse?”
“En masse?” Narim asked. “I have not heard of this phra—”
Jack held up a mollifying hand. “My bad. That’s a term used by a more or less dead language called Latin. It means ‘as a whole.’”
“Why do you use words from a dead language?” Narim asked, sidetracked.
“It’s not precisely dead,” Daniel said. “It’s a language that is no longer used in its entirety.”
“I see. To the point, the Nialla are small in number. Less than 453, at last count. They are a long-lived race, like the Nox.”
Jack rolled his eyes in a long-suffering expression. “And how were we to rescue 453 people from an occupation numbering, typically, over a thousand Jaffa?”
Narim opened his mouth to answer, then frowned and closed it. “I do not know. I would assume that you would have the answer.”
Jack sighed and held up a hand. “Fine. But if we had the capability to rescue whole peoples from enslavement, we would have done it.”
General Vidrine had been coming closer to their group to listen to what they were discussing and said, “We are not in the business of rescuing alien worlds from the Goa’uld. We are in the business of protecting our own people.” He gave Jack a purposeful stare, his meaning clear: The SGC, but primarily SG-1, had no business helping to rescue anyone who didn’t offer suitable payment in return.
Which meant that SG-1 would not be authorized to help the Nialla.
Lya turned to Vidrine. “You are the one who prohibits SG-1 and other teams at the SGC from helping races in need.”
“The Pentagon decides, not me alone,” he said defensively.
“At your recommendation,” she said. “Or lack of it.”
The entire room had gone quiet.
“Correct,” Vidrine said.
Jack knew the answer, but asked the question anyway: “If you were going to prevent us from helping the Nialla, by whatever means possible, then why are you here? You could’ve just called it in.”
“Colonel O’Neill,” Hammond said in a warning tone.
“Because we are here to take charge of the mission.”
Jack gave him a wintry smile. “You mean you think you’re going to take charge of the ship that Morrighan’s bringing us.”
“In case you have somehow forgotten, Colonel O’Neill, the SGC operates at the will of the Pentagon. Not the other way ‘round.”
“How convenient,” said a woman’s voice that wasn’t Sam’s or Lya’s.
Vidrine looked around, trying to locate the source of the voice. He saw the smirk on Jack’s face and narrowed his eyes. The obvious answer was that someone was there but not visible. “Yes, it is,” he said to the room at large. “Would you mind showing yourself, please? To be cloaked invites the supposition that you’re a threat.”
In a shimmering wave of light, Morrighan appeared directly in front of Vidrine. A tall man of six feet two inches, she wore two-inch heeled boots and was eye to eye with the severe General. Her black hair was swept up in an elaborate chignon, decorated with tiny diamonds that gave off a twinkling effect under the briefing room’s overhead lighting.
She wore clothing similar to Sam’s costume. Her coat was short in front with an asymmetrical tail, a high collar, and equally asymmetrical lapels. It was deep blue indigo and royal purple with gold edging. Underneath, she wore a black silk shirt that buttoned diagonally, tucked into snug black pants with side pockets just above the knee, and tucked into the boots.
A gun belt was worn at an angle over her hips but instead of a recognizable gun, it held something like a miniature crossbow. Crossed over her chest was a sword belt, and the scabbard nestled diagonally across her back. The sword it held suggested a narrow blade as the braided black leather hilt lacked a cross brace, resembling a Japanese katana. Its curving, smooth lines reminded Jason of one of the elvish swords in Lord of the Rings.
Her face appeared severe with the makeup she wore; eyeshadow and liner in smoky browns that set off her rainbow eyes and arched brows. Her curved, sculptured lips were painted a medium red-brown and she’d shaded the contours of her face to set off her high cheekbones.
Accenting the ensemble were two half-inch thick bracelets per wrist invisible under the long sleeves of her coat. Her ears were adorned with small heart-shaped diamond stud earrings and a long silver necklace with a one-inch heart-shaped diamond pendant that rested just above her breasts.
Startled by her closeness, Vidrine rocked back half a step and scowled. The other men from the Pentagon who’d been seated immediately sprang to their feet in alarm. Vidrine’s posture was ramrod straight, a bodily expression everyone had come to recognize as his No-Nonsense Pose.
Morrighan said, “I was engaging in covert surveillance not cloaked subterfuge.”
“Be that as it may,” Vidrine snapped. “One tends to resemble the other.”
Jack thought her expression was amused but there was a subtle warning in her eyes as she fixed her gaze on Vidrine for a long two-count before looking to her right at Jack. She raised a brow at him and tipped her head once in Vidrine’s direction as if asking, “Is this dude seriously challenging me?” Although she wouldn’t phrase it that way.
Jack’s mouth twitched at one corner as he straightened his own posture, took the moment of shocked silence in the room to set the example, and bowed slightly toward her in the standard gesture of respect. His teammates and Jason’s followed. Jack wasn’t certain she would approve of the bow, but he and his teammates along with Jason’s knew it was safest to be polite. She wasn’t some Goa’uld System Lord playing god. She literally was one, even if she wasn’t the supreme deity he believed in. It was hard sometimes to remember her power. She had, after all, introduced herself as Queen, not Goddess, when they’d first met and tended to downplay her power except during combat. Or gift-giving.
On the other hand . . . Jack got the feeling that she was far from relaxed or benevolent in this instance. He had the strongest feeling that she intended to make a point with Vidrine and the others with him. Jack looked at Daniel and mouthed, “She mad?” Daniel raised his hand palm down and waggled it back and forth.
Jack cleared his throat and raised his brows. “My queen. You’re early.”
She smiled at him, revealing very white even teeth with prominent canines just sharp enough to deliver a painful bite. “My kinsman,” she said, and bowed her head right back, shifting her gaze to the others to include them in her acknowledgment. But when her gaze fell upon Lya, she was surprised to find a very wide-eyed stare.
Deliberately ignoring Vidrine, Morrighan turned and extended her hand to Jack, who took hers in turn, she kept hold of him and approached Lya. The Nox woman surprised everyone when she dropped to one knee and bowed her head.
“Eminence,” Lya said.
Morrighan reached out and placed two fingers under Lya’s chin and drew her back to her feet, forcing Lya to meet her gaze. “Lya, is it not?” Without waiting for an answer, she added, “There is no need to be formal. It has been a long time since I stood on such formality. It strains reason, in the end.”
“’My queen’ suffices.”
“Yes, my queen.” Lya was clearly non-plussed judging by her startled expression.
“How are you and your kin?”
“We are well, my queen. How is it with you?”
“Hmmm,” Morrighan said with annoyance and released Jack’s hand to place her own on her hip. “Personally, good. Overall, however . . . the Fomor are up to their old ways.”
Lya grimaced. “I thought they had agreed to stay in their own galaxy.”
Morrighan gave an exaggerated sigh. “They never stuck to their agreements in the past. It was illogical to assume they would change.”
“Excuse me,” Vidrine interrupted.
Morrighan turned her head to look at him. “Ah yes. One needs to regain authority, yes?” He blinked, then managed to look both aggrieved and non-plussed at the same time. Morrighan waved her hand in a non-committal way and placed her other hand on Lya’s shoulder in a type of soothing gesture before moving away. She looked around her at the members of SG-1 and SG-2, then at Hammond, and finally to Jacob and the other Tok’ra.
“The Tok’ra,” she said thoughtfully. She fixed her gaze on Jacob. “It may interest you to know that your queen, Egeria, is alive.”
“What?!” Jacob and the other Tok’ra said at once.
Morrighan nodded. “My intel is–” She broke off and looked at Jack. “Is that not the proper phrase for intelligence gathering?” He nodded. She regarded Jacob again. “My intel is several months old but she has been pretending to be a minor Goa’uld named Ouija operating a small holding in the outer perimeter of Bastet’s demesne.” She waved her hand and conjured a small electronic tablet out of thin air and set it on the table, then slid it toward Jacob. “Here are the coordinates and last-gathered information. Do with it as it pleases you.”
Jacob stood and his fellow Tok’ra gathered around him to read what was on the tablet. Morrighan took a few steps to return to Vidrine and smiled at him. “Now, you have arrived here at the SGC for what purpose?”
“If it’s any of your business, can’t you divine that?” Vidrine asked with rude sarcasm. “Aren’t you all-powerful?”
“Yes, but I was attempting a rather thin type of diplomacy. Your response tells me that you are not amenable.” Her smile sharpened. “How shall we correct this impasse?”
“Um,” Jack began, but Hammond’s sharp shake of his head told Jack to be quiet. The Colonel sighed heavily.
Morrighan looked at him over her shoulder, put a finger to her lips, and quietly whispered, “Shh.”
Irrationally, Jack scowled. He was hit with the sudden idea that he was being treated as a child. He knew it was horseshit but he couldn’t shake the feeling. Daniel nudged him and Jack turned his scowl on him. Daniel grinned slightly.
“Just chill,” Daniel mouthed.
Jack gave the ceiling a long-suffering look. When he looked back at Morrighan and Vidrine, he found her watching him. He blushed and hated that she’d made him do that. He then heard her voice in his head.
“I made you do nothing of the sort. Now please wait a moment. I will have fun with your General.”
“Not my General,” Jack muttered under his breath. He thought he heard her laughing in his head. Or maybe he just imagined it. He wasn’t sure which was worse.
Then Morrighan did something that fully captured his attention. She laughed. It was rich, infectious, despite it lasting only two seconds, but she spoke with the vestiges of it in her voice.
However. It was what she said that truly caught everyone’s attention.
“My dear General,” she said, hand flat on her midriff. “Are you seriously considering abducting me?”
Everyone who wasn’t Tok’ra or Pentagon lacky came to attention and, though it didn’t matter, to Morrighan’s defense. What did matter was their outrage.
“What?” Jack sputtered.
“Explain yourself,” Hammond scowled at Vidrine. He looked at the other General, Edwards, and Davis—who had the wit to look ashamed.
Morrighan walked around Vidrine to extend her hand to General Hammond, who took it and shook it. “Madam,” he said.
“General,” she said with a dip of her head. She turned slightly to include the teams at the other end of the table as she said, “They have a ship in orbit containing an Asgard transportation device and they just tried to beam me there.” She laughed again, close-mouthed, and like her full-throated laugh, it made a musical, if muted, sound.
“What the hell is this?” Jack asked, his tone filled with vehemence. “Are you out of your mind?” Hammond didn’t bother to correct Jack’s tone but Jack added, “Sir,” anyway.
Vidrine was angry, mostly because his plan had failed spectacularly. “You are a threat. And you cannot assign a ship to only one member of this facility. That ship, or anything else, must belong to the facility and by extension the United States of America and the department of defense.”
Morrighan continued to laugh with amusement.
Jack shook his head. “General, were you around the last time Morrighan visited while we were surrounded by Goa’uld warships?” Vidrine said nothing.
Morrighan answered instead. “He was linked via live video, my kinsman. They’ve had this facility under direct surveillance for the last five years.”
Vidrine scowled at her, hating that she’d revealed something they wanted to keep secret.
“I beg your pardon?” Hammond asked her, then clenched his jaw as he looked at Vidrine. “That is a violation of—”
“As you are well aware, it is well within our rights as granted by the Patriot Act,” Vidrine snapped at him.
Hammond wished this conversation was held in private. He was of the old school. You did not argue with command in public. But there was no help for it since Morrighan had killed any such private meeting by revealing the spying. Once the General and his group were gone, Hammond intended to sweep the base for all surveillance not part of their purview and remove it. This was his command, not the N.I.D.’s, which is what this revelation had also revealed. Vidrine was now in charge of that agency. He wouldn’t have been authorized for such surveillance otherwise. Hammond wondered if the President knew.
Morrighan caught Lya’s attention and after a silent exchange, Lya whispered to Narim, who blinked in surprise. He then whispered to Jason, who then whispered to Daniel, who passed on the information to Jack. Jason also warned his teammates while Jack made a hand gesture to Teal’c and Carter. Lya, meanwhile, went to the Tok’ra and passed along the warning.
Morrighan looked at Hammond and Jacob. “Would you care to join us for a tour of the An Croi?”
“The An Croi?” Jacob asked.
“The ship I have brought.”
“I would like—” Vidrine interrupted.
Morrighan snapped her fingers and everyone within the briefing room, including two SFs (Security Force), vanished in the same horizontal shimmering wave that Morrighan had previously used.
Once aboard, the group found that there were others on board. Fey. They were dressed similarly to Morrighan . . . as were the members of SG-1 and SG-2. Sam’s outfit was slightly altered to match.
Jack looked down at himself, then felt the weights of the gun belt and the sword. The weapon on the gun belt wasn’t a crossbow but a type of gun. He withdrew it from its sheath, examining it. He raised a brow at Morrighan.
“There’s a gun range on this ship, located on deck four.” She twisted her right wrist in a type of wave and in her hand appeared another tablet. “The ship’s specifications.”
Jack took it with a bow of his head, then looked around. The bridge was a wide-open space with a central command post consisting of a center chair—where the captain would sit?—and two console chairs on either side. It was similar to the setup on the X-304 line of battleships.
Joining the crew from the briefing room were three Fey wearing the same uniform.
“These are Alina, Cress, and Finian,” Morrighan said, gesturing at the group who stood before the very wide bridge window that resembled an immense visor. They looked like siblings. All were tall, slender, and had fair skin, reddish cheeks, and shoulder-length light auburn hair arranged in braids but only Alina held hers up in a braided chignon.
“They’ll be here for a short time . . .” Morrighan went on. She paused, seemed to mentally communicate with the trio, then said, “They will be here for a few human weeks to teach you the ship’s functions. They will also accompany you to Nialla to relieve them of the Goa’uld. There will be no rescuing of the Nialla from the planet. It is, after all, their home, and the Goa’uld are the intruders.”
Jacob turned to her. “Just like that?”
Morrighan’s lips curved in amusement. “Seti Ptah and his group of Jaffa will either leave voluntarily aboard their own ships or they will . . . be convinced to do so.”
Senna nodded sagely to Jacob. “I like this woman.”
Selmak answered. “Indeed.” She turned to Morrighan. “However, I must tell you that Seti will respond to our demands by killing the Nialla. He will not stop until we have capitulated and surrendered.”
Jack snorted. “Until they find out who’s aboard this ship, then the tune will be very different, I assure you. Information of that last battle at Earth had to have spread throughout the Goa’uld empire, right?”
“It has,” Senna said.
Senna turned to talk to another Tok’ra but Jack cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Senna, but you guys never got around to introducing yourselves. Think now might be a good time before we begin our tour?”
Senna, a tall and slender dark-skinned man with light brown eyes bowed his head. “My apologies.” But he deferred to Jacob.
Jacob made a brief face. “Sorry, Jack,” he said. “I’ll let Selmak do the honors.” He bowed his head, then Selmak pointed with an open hand, palm up. He introduced the five other Tok’ra as Faradan, Maral, Sedjak, Sariel, and Walen. Faradan and Sedjak had darkly tanned complexions, Maral was dark-skinned, and Sariel and Walen were fair-complected but with deep tans. Maral and Sariel were women.
Daniel observed them, nodding as they were introduced, and intuited with his empathic ability that the three men, sans Senna, were related. They looked similar but he got the impression that they were siblings who shared only one parent.
Jacob gestured at Hammond. “Could we . . . ask SG-1 and SG-2 to assist us in finding Egeria and bringing her home to her people?”
“If she’s been in Bastet’s service,” Hammond replied, “shouldn’t she have found a way to contact the Tok’ra already, after all this time?”
“Not if she’s been under strict control,” Selmak said. “Minor Goa’uld are not trusted with autonomy. They serve their primary, the System Lord.”
Hammond only nodded. “We’ll discuss it after we’ve completed the current mission.”
“Thank you,” Jacob said, and added, “We may have other options, George, but Selmak felt it necessary to put the request out there.”
“Understood,” Hammond said.
“Now what?” Jack asked, directing his question to Hammond and Morrighan.
“Observe,” Morrighan said, and pointedly touched a fingertip to a middle button on the right arm of the Captain’s chair console. The forward viewport changed from a window to a display showing the central landform of the Nialla homeworld in a tactical map format. “The tactical situation of the Nialla homeworld has been downloaded into the ship’s computer, which you can access from this panel on the Captain’s console.” She waved a hand to the entire group of people. “Please be silent.”
She directed her next comments to Jack but her voice was raised slightly to encompass everyone’s hearing. “The ship contains an artificial intelligence called ALTA. It is an acronym that stands for Artificial Lifeform Transportation Array. She will take your orders as well as the members of your teams and the Fey assigned here.”
She turned slightly so that Vidrine and the other Pentagon officials were in her peripheral line of sight.
“She runs this ship at your command. No one else. All actions taken are yours to implement, such as firing controls, ship’s speed, et cetera. All ordinary ship’s functions and maintenance are hers until you’ve learned how she operates.” She tapped the tablet in Jack’s hands. “The specifications. Read them aloud please.”
When he finished, and the specs filled the viewscreen, Sam asked, “Silvadyne?”
“ALTA,” Morrighan said to the air. “Response acquisition implemented. Do your duty.”
“Confirmed,” said a female voice that came from everywhere. It sounded almost like Morrighan, but in a slightly higher soprano.
Morrighan leaned over and kissed Jack on the forehead. “Keep me apprised, my kinsman.” He nodded. And with that, and a wave of her right hand, Morrighan disappeared.
Jack’s raised brows were mimicked by everyone else, sans the Fey. “Okiedokie,” he said, trying to hide the fact that he felt a bit overwhelmed. “Right. Okay, let’s examine the map and the specs.”
The viewscreen displayed the map of Nialla and in the air, a six-foot square hologram of light green text appeared halfway between the Captain’s chair and the viewscreen. Jack’s brows went up. ALTA was responding to his words.
“Nice.” He turned to Hammond. “I’ll have ALTA send you guys back to the briefing room. We’ll work out a plan and give it to you before departure.”
Hammond nodded. “Agreed.”
“Wait a damn minute—” Vidrine began.
“ALTA,” Jack said. “Please return General Hammond, the SFs, and the Pentagon officials to the briefing room please.”
“Confirmed,” ALTA said. The gentlemen shimmered off the ship.
“This is gonna be cool,” Sam said and Jack smiled widely.
“Damn straight.” He looked around, frowned, then said, “ALTA, is there a conference room?”
“Confirmed,” ALTA repeated.
“The Lift will take you there. It is thirty-six meters to the right of the bridge exit.” A green dot one centimeter wide appeared over Jack’s head and drew a line toward the bridge’s doorway to their left. “Simply speak your desired location. For example, ‘Conference Room A.’”
“Thank you,” Jack said. “Well, folks? Let’s go.” He paused and held up a hand. “Um. ALTA, can you beam up our food from the briefing room?”
“I can. Do you wish me to do so?” she asked.
“Yes. Beam it to the conference room table, please.”
“This is gonna be so freakin’ awesome,” Jack said as he led the way off the bridge.