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* TITLE: Fateful Endeavor
* AUTHOR: Redbyrd
* EMAIL: redbyrd (at) mindspring (dot) com
* RATING: PG-13
* CATEGORY: AU,drama, action, angst
* SUMMARY: Captain Ian Howard and the crew of the Shuttle embark on a mission to defend Earth from alien attack. Please read notes. AU for my story Desperate Endeavor.
* SPOILERS: Within the Serpent's Grasp, Serpent's Lair. POV
* AUTHOR'S NOTE: This fic takes a little explanation. It is set in the AU that SG-1 encounters in the S3 ep POV, and the events of this story are briefly mentioned in my fic Rearranging Fate (zine fic, web post planned for June 2006). You don't need to have read Rearranging Fate (this is effectively a prequel), but this will probably make no sense if you haven't already read the Endeavor stories. The question is- what would have happened to the astronauts if SG-1 hadn't been there to blow the Goa'uld ships...? Many thanks to Spacefiend, for beta-ing and extremely useful info on real Shuttle tech. Any mistakes are entirely my own.
* WARNING: Almost none of the regular Stargate characters appear in this. Also torture. Also, this is not a happy story (remember what happened to Earth before the Asgard show up in POV). OC death, lots of them.
The characters mentioned in this story are the property of Showtime and Gekko Film Corp. The Stargate, SG-I, the Goa'uld and all other characters who have appeared in the series STARGATE SG-1 together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MGM-UA Worldwide Television, Gekko Film Corp, Glassner/Wright Double Secret Productions and Stargate SG-I Prod. Ltd. Partnership. This fanfic is not intended as an infringement upon those rights and solely meant for entertainment. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author.
It was an ordinary kind of day. Chilly by southern standards, and the rain we'd had overnight still lingering on, but nothing we didn't see in the winter. Nobody cut me off on my way into work, I didn't feel any sense of forboding, no dark portents brought themselves to my attention. I let three old ladies merge ahead of me at the exit, smiling and thinking about how I have the greatest job in the world- NASA astronaut. All of which goes to show that I haven't the faintest trace of parapsychic ability. If I had, I've have started running then, and not stopped until I'd found the deepest darkest hole in the planet.
No sooner had I walked through the gate, when I was told to report to a special briefing, along with four other astronauts. We were not on the same teams normally, but looking around, I did notice that we were all military. None of the civilian mission specialists had been called up. When we were all present, our CO brought in another officer, and shut the doors.
"People, this is Major Hanson from the Pentagon. He'll be conducting the briefing today." The man sat down.
Our gazed turned to Hanson. "The first thing that I have to say is that everything discussed in this room today is classified top secret. You will not discuss today's mission with anyone, including one another, outside this room."
That got all our attention. I mean NASA has a publicity department for the purposes of shouting practically everything we do to the world. Classified stuff- well, it's almost never done. It did explain why an all military team, though.
Hanson continued. "Early yesterday, deep space telemetry picked up two objects on a course inbound for Earth. The course is not plausible for an asteroid or comet. The speed is... high. They'll be here in hours. We have reason to believe that they may be hostile." Beside me, Lewis was obviously biting his tongue to suppress the question that we are all thinking. Hanson didn't seem to mind. "You have a question-" he paused.
"Lewis," he supplied. "What reason?"
Hanson shook his head. "That information was not part of my briefing," he replied. "In fact, there is really very little that I can tell you. Your orders are to prepare for liftoff as soon as possible, and then hold for instructions."
Lewis shook his head. "It's like some kind of bad SF movie. Earth makes first contact, and we want to shoot them."
I leaned forward. "Major. Exactly what do you think that we're going to be able to do if they are hostile? The shuttle isn't exactly armed." I was waiting for someone to tell me this was some kind of elaborate practical joke, but he answered me seriously.
Hanson shook his head. "We do have another plan. Hopefully, we won't have to launch the Columbia at all. If we do, however- you'll have to do whatever you can. But if the primary plan fails, chances are the only way you'll be able to damage the ships is with a boarding action." I noticed that we had gone from objects to ships already. Obviously his briefing had included some information.
Connelly and Purcell were shaking their heads and spoke in unison. "This is insane!" Fitzgerald was only a beat behind. "We're supposed to sneak up on them and do what, plant explosives?"
"Basically, yes." The man's calm confirmation silenced us. He continued. "Purcell, you have missile background." It wasn't a question. "We have two small nuclear devices. You'll get the instructions on how to arm them. Your instructions are to get those devices on board the ships, or failing that, immediately adjacent to them. Inside is better. My briefing was that the ships may have defensive screens. If so, Plan A isn't going to work. The Columbia is Plan B."
I was stunned speechless, but nothing can keep Lewis quiet for long. "I sure hope you've got a Plan C."
Hanson frowned at him. "I believe Plan C is where the cities of Earth get bombarded from orbit, and pretty much everybody dies. So, if you can think of anything else you might need..?"
I asked, "Can we assume that these ships probably didn't build airlocks to international standards? Cause if so, we may need some stuff to improvise a mating hatch?"
Connolly said, "Guns.. something that will work in vacuum?"
In the end we came up with a short list. A large portion of the briefing dealt with communications protocols. Unlike many missions, communications for this one needed to be secure. The rest of the briefing dealt with more normal logistics. The next shuttle flight hadn't actually been due to go up for a month, and it was our good fortune that the shuttle was even on the pad. There was a lot to do to get it ready.
Outside the briefing room, the world was bizarrely serene. There was nothing mentioned about mysterious objects in space on the news. We were forced to hurriedly prep for the mission, ignoring the resentful and bewildered looks from the crew that had been scheduled to go up in several weeks. In addition to the nukes, they gave us weapons that they said had been modified to work in vacuum, a lot of extra medical stuff as well as the sealant and materials I had suggested. In some ways what we weren't told was as informative as what we were. They must have had some intelligence from somewhere. There was an unspoken assumption that if we got aboard the ships, we'd be able to breath the atmosphere. "So much for finding nothing at Roswell," Lewis quipped wryly.
Eighteen hours later, after a whirlwind of activity, we sat on the pad, holding at T minus 10 seconds. Hanson's voice came in our earpieces. "I have been advised that other measures we have undertaken were unsuccessful. It's going to be up to you." Houston Control restarted our countdown and we lay there grimly, wondering what the hell we were going to find in orbit. T minus six, and the engines roared to life. I couldn't hear anything over them, but I knew that Houston was counting down the final seconds and announcing liftoff, just as I had heard it so many times before. As the acceleration mounted, I was still wondering if this had been some kind of bizarre hallucination.
Booster separation came and went, and then the external fuel tank dropped, and we were soaring for orbit. The pressure slacked off and we started checking our boards.
"I have a location on our bogies," Purcell said. We were communicating with Houston by encrypted radio link, as they relayed information from satellites and the Hubble. I don't think they really expected the aliens couldn't see us, but they didn't want us to emit any more electronic signals than was strictly necessary.
Fitzgerald was sweating despite the cool interior of the cabin as he computed the course changes to rendezvous. Ordinarily that sort of thing would be done in Houston and we'd have no more say in where we go than a trolley on rails. For this mission, though, there was a risk of our communications being lost, so we were doing everything ourselves, with Houston only checking us. I had an easy job. I monitored the environmental controls while Lewis backed up Fitz on navigation. They traded information with Houston and the maneuvering engines burned briefly.
"On course for bogies," Fitz reported. "Howie, Purcy, you're on."
Time for me to do some sweating of my own, he meant. I unstrapped and followed Purcell into the back cabin, where the bombs awaited us. They were webbed to the floor, two innocuous crates stenciled with the familiar black radiation warning symbols. Not something I'd ever taken seriously before. I was still a kid when the Cold War ended. Nuclear war was a cool scary concept for movies starring Matthew Broderick, not a serious threat I'd ever have to face personally.
Purcell rearranged the webbing to get the crate open without letting it float free and grinned at my expression. "They're shielded, Ian. We're not going to be glowing in the dark here." He gave them a second, more dubious glance, "Well, at least so long as we don't stick around for them to go off."
"Yeah, right," I shook my head. "Once this is over, I'd sure like to get my hands on whatever Pentagon weenie thought this one up."
Purcell nodded agreement as we carefully unpacked and assembled our cargo. We both ignored the part where we knew we had very little chance of getting out of this one in one piece. "You have any idea how illegal this is?" He asked after a moment.
"Sure," Purcell said. "The US is signatory to the Outer Space Treaty. It forbids putting nuclear weapons into orbit, among other things."
"I guess they thought the prospective destruction of the planet was a good enough reason to break the rules," I said dryly.
"I can't believe it," Lewis said suddenly. "You know what these damned things look like? Flying pyramids!"
"After all those saucers," Connelly said. "The Weekly World News should be here."
Once we'd confirmed our readiness to Houston, we went to radio silence and Fitz ordered the rest of us to don our EMUs. Lewis tried to talk him out of it. "What if you need help on the controls?" he asked.
"I can manage," Fitz said. "If something goes wrong with Columbia, it's more important that you guys are able to deliver the bombs." He studied his dials. "Fifty minutes to rendezvous. I'm lowering cabin pressure now."
Fitzgerald lowered the pressure in the shuttle and raised the oxygen, while we started pre-breathing pure oxygen. Suits operate at lower pressure- at one atmosphere, we wouldn't be able to move in them- but if we went straight from a higher pressure atmosphere to a lower one, nitrogen would bubble in our blood and we'd get the bends, like divers. So we pre-breathed pure oxygen until the nitrogen was out of our blood, then we could don suits. Ordinarily we'd have done that in the airlock, but with four of us needing to suit up, we didn't have time.
We got into the suits. This was going to be the riskiest, stupidest damned maneuver I had ever heard of. We were going to have to get ridiculously close to the alien ships, and then push off from the shuttle on a long tether and try to get our bombs to the ship. Pure effing insanity. Pardon my French.
"What the hell was that?" Fitz muttered, half to himself. He hadn't started counting down yet, but we couldn't be more than three minutes away. The time that had raced by while we were trying to struggle into the awkward EMUs had slowed to a snail's pace as soon as we had nothing to do. We and the bombs were safely strapped down waiting for the final maneuvering burn that would stop us relative to the alien ships.
"What was what?" I asked.
"Dunno, a sort of sparkle. In the corner of my vision, between us and the bogies. Probably nothing."
All of a sudden, several disparate pieces of information clicked, and I said, "Shit! They said these things might have defensive screens. Probably to protect them from free floating rocks, especially when they're travelling at-"
Everyone stiffened as they took my meaning, and Fitzgerald swore. "Brace for impact!" he warned us, and we hit the shield with a deafening crash. Columbia, the clumsy old girl, did her best. The hull was breached immediately, the nose crumpling inward with the force of the blow. Fitz's suit should have protected him from explosive decompression, but it wasn't up to the task of saving him from the compression and sharp-edged debris, even if his connection to the shuttle's air supply had survived the initial impact. The rest of us got rattled hard and jolted as the escaping air caused Columbia to pitch wildly. A spray of small red bubbles formed at the front of the shuttle and then were sucked out a crack in the hull. Fitzgerald's blood, I realized. There was another crack and more vehement jolting behind us and Connelly said, "I think the fuel tanks blew," in a preternaturally calm voice.
We waited it out, knowing that with the tanks of oxygen there, an explosion was a possibility, but the tanks eventually vented, leaving us in a derelict ship on an unknown course, with only the seven hours of air in our suit tanks to sustain us.
Once the vibrations died down, I started to unstrap. "Howie-" Purcell protested.
"We can't stay here forever," I said. "Let me see what's going on." All the instruments were dead as far as I could tell. I floated to the viewport to see what I could discern with the Mark I eyeball. "Holy crap!" We were floating in very close proximity to one of the ships. It really did look like a giant pyramid, clad in some kind of gold plating, and held in a cradle with giant engines attached. I cautioned myself not to jump to conclusions. What I thought were engines could just as easily be cafeterias. "Well, we're certainly close," I said, mustering an optimism I didn't feel. "That part of our mission is accomplished. Now we just need to get the bombs aboard the ships."
The others started to unstrap. "See any hatches?" Lewis asked.
"Nope," I reported, then, "Wait a minute-." The others floated up beside me, but with the bulky suits on, only Lewis could get a look past me. "Those look like hatches," I said, a little weakly.
"The places where all those, little, uh, fighter craft are pouring out of?" Lewis asked, sounding equally appalled. There were dozens of the dark shapes, winged like miniature B1s. They swarmed out of long rectangular openings in the sides of the pyramid, which had to be larger than they looked. We were farther away than I had realized.
"Yeah," I agreed. We moved back to let the others look.
"Okay," Purcell said. "We have our ingress."
Our first challenge was getting the airlock open. The frame had warped when we crashed and despite the fact we could see stars through several of the gaps in the hull, there were no openings big enough to crawl out of. We probably could have pried it open in minutes without the suits, but that wasn't an option. We eventually tied Purcell down beside the hatch, so he could push with his legs, but be restrained from flying across the shuttle. The hatch came open with agonizing slowness and we could see the strain in Purcell's face as he pushed. It should have made a prolonged creak, but in the near vacuum of the derelict shuttle we could only feel the faintest vibrations through the anchor points we held onto.
"Uh, oh, we've got trouble," Connelly reported from his post by the viewport. "Two of the little ones, approaching- god, they don't look so little up close. Must be the size of F-16s..."
Then everyone except Purcell, who was still roped down, lost their grip and flew across the cabin. Connelly said with a rigid calm that barely covered panic, "I've got a suit puncture." Something else that wasn't supposed to happen, but the layered Kevlar of the suit was supposed to protect us from micrometeorites or rocks, not sharp-edged debris impaling you at speed.
Without stopping, she continued, her voice sounding strained. "We were rammed by one of the small bogies. It seems to be pushing us toward one of those hatches. Guess they don't have tractor beams. Brace yourselves." All the while her clumsy gloved hands went through the motions to do an emergency patch of the suit
The rest of us found more secure holds as we were nudged again and again, Connelly trying to patch as she was whirled about the cabin while the rest of us watched helplessly. A fine spray of water clustered around her torso, escaping from damaged coolant lines. She whimpered a bit and then moaned as she struggled, the suit continuing to lose pressure. I couldn't begin to imagine what it felt like, the fluids in the skin starting to boil as the pressure dropped.
Fortunately, a person can't stay conscious all the way to the end. As soon as the pressure fell too low, she lost the battle and passed out. In the viewport, we could see the hatch growing larger and larger and the jolts from the other craft had ceased. "Well, fuck," Purcell said flatly. I went to check Connolly, in the vain hope there was anything we could do. "Leave her, Ian," Purcell said. "We have two ships to take out, and we have to get these bombs out of here."
Lewis helped him detach himself from the mooring near the hatch, as I roped one of the bombs to my waist. Purcell came over to set the timer on the second one. "This should at least work," he said, "since they'll be taking the derelict aboard." He looked at us, gaze determined through his suit helmet. "I'll stay here and make sure this one goes off. You two have to get to the other ship."
I gulped. The distance between the two ships was too great. The only way to do it was going to be an untethered spacewalk. If we missed the ship or somehow failed to get in, we were doomed to a very brief existance in orbit until our oxygen ran out. I looked at the SAFER maneuvering jets attached to our suits. They gave us thirty seconds of delta-vee.. not much for a jump as big as this one. "Here," Lewis was shoving all the loose items he could gather into a sleepsack. "We can throw these to correct our course," he gave a hollow chuckle. "It's not much, but.."
Of course- equal and opposite reactions. We could change our course slightly that way. I nodded, then spoke with more assurance than I felt. "Understood." I collected my own bag, then Lewis and I were squirming out the hatch. The pyramid ship looked bloody enormous by now and Lewis and I took a moment to get our bearings. We had emerged in the shadow of the shuttle. The two ships were travelling parallel to one another. "We'll have to launch at an angle to cancel our momentum toward this ship," I pointed out to Lewis, as he checked the tether between us.
"Roger," he acknowledged. We sketched out a course trajectory in clumsy gestures, and then jumped together after a three-count, the bomb floating along behind us at the end of its own short leash.
We should have remembered the little B1s. "Bogie at nine o'clock," Lewis said as he spotted them first. We were close enough to look through the clear viewports at the occupants. Those ships really were remarkably like fighters. The alien pilots looked human, despite tightfitting metallic skullcaps and some odd markings on their foreheads. They obviously spotted us too, turning to stare, and then mouths working in unmistakeable agitation. "And they know we're here," I said, heart sinking. "Now what?"
Now what appeared to be nothing. The alien fighters stuck with the shuttle while we drifted off serenely at an angle. Our trajectory wasn't bad, but the ship was moving relative to us, and we quickly exhausted our jets getting our course corrected. We also threw a few tools and things to try and center ourselves more on the bottom third of the ship. It didn't seem to help much, though it did start us revolving slowly around one another on our tether. Just as we approached to within a hundred feet, we saw a glow around the 'engines', which were apparently exactly what I thought they were. Then we were sailing along underneath the enormous ship, looking up into the large triangular hollow of its base. "Son of a bitch!" Lewis swore.
"What?" I asked. I sounded calmer than I felt. I really didn't want to die, but the sadistic bastards in this ship were evidently going to just move out of our way and let us drift on by.
"This thing is way bigger than the pyramids we have on Earth," Lewis said, "And I think I know why. I think these things are supposed to land on our pyramids. Look at the shape."
I looked up. "Huh. Yeah, that could be. And that helps us how?"
"Not at all," Lewis said. "But it's interesting. I mean, maybe we really were visited by ancient astronauts."
"I wouldn't mind visiting them now," I said a trifle peevishly. "Just point me at the bell-pull." I should have taken running out of oxygen for two hundred, Alex. My crystal ball still wasn't working worth a damn. Just then an enormous ring appeared out of nowhere, coming down around us. It was rapidly followed by more, and then we were enveloped in a flood of blue light. No sooner did it die, then we were crushed to the floor by an immense weight.
"We're screwed," Lewis said in my earphones, as it sunk in just how hopeless our mission was. You see, in micro-gravity, zero-gee to the great unwashed public, an EMU is a massively unwieldy bundle of inertia, but movable. At full-gee, it was nearly three hundred pounds of deadweight that we couldn't even stand in without a supporting arm.
"Artificial gravity," I said, realizing just how hopelessly outclassed we were. "Let's see if we can get out of these suits." I started the miserable awkward task of getting out of the suit unassisted.
Several enormous men wearing metallic armor came closer to us, their faces concealed by elaborate helmets in the shape of a striking serpent. At least I assumed they were men.. the hands on the oddly shaped staffs looked human enough, and the faces of the men in the tiny fighters had not appeared alien.
They pointed their staffs at us and bellowed something that sounded like "Kree!" We could only lay helplessly on our backs like inverted turtles, immobilized by the weight of our shells, while we slowly fumbled to unlock our gloves. The man in charge bellowed an order and two of the men set staffs aside to haul me to my feet. They only got me a couple inches off the floor before dropping me again and babbling at the leader. "You weigh an effing ton," Lewis 'translated' helpfully.
I had to grin, "Think they'll leave me here and come back in a month if I promise to diet?"
Then the two men were back, one for me, and one for Lewis and they started helping us out of the EVA suits. With their assistance, it didn't take long. They left the pile of suit parts lying on the floor, but two other men picked up the bomb to bring with us. I was starting to have second thoughts about all this. I mean, so far, they hadn't done anything overtly hostile. Evidently Lewis was thinking the same thing. "Um, maybe we should consider a change of plans?" he said.
"Such as?" I asked.
"We explain to our gallant rescuers that we're awfully sorry about running into them and we'd like to take our widget and go home?" Lewis suggested.
"Worth a try," I said. The guard who'd helped me prodded me in the ribs and I shut up.
We were walked through several long corridors and then brought into an enormous open area. A large throne-like chair occupied the back of the room, and a huge viewport filled the front wall. Earth shone against a blanket of stars, so beautiful my breath caught in my throat. Despite my previous trips into space, it never fails to take me that way.
Someone barked an order in a guttural language and we turned to see a shorter figure in gold-washed armor, standing with the largest black man I've ever seen. His eyes flashed as he talked and his voice had a spooky vibrating tone like nothing I'd ever heard. The enormous man had a gold emblem on his forehead, embossed with what looked like a stylized snake. He looked at us as if we were vermin. "Kneel before your god," he boomed. In English.
We were so surprised, we both just stared. Then the guards who had followed us in smacked us in the back of the knees in what seemed like a well-practiced maneuver. "Ouch!" I yelped, and Lewis swore as we crashed onto the metal floor.
The gold-clad man talked and we still didn't understand, so the other man translated.
"Stupid Tau'ri. You did not think your primitive attack would succeed?" He gestured contemptuously at the bomb. "You have barely mastered the atom, and yet you challenge the power of the Goa'uld? Human scum."
"So much for diplomacy," Lewis muttered.
I said, "Um, wait, really. We didn't actually mean to challenge anyone. Honest. We were just minding our own business-"
The dark man's brow creased slightly as he watched us, but he translated the words of his master. "You think we do not know of the attack you executed against Ra through your chappa'ai?"
"Our what?" I said. "I don't know what you're talking about. Who's Ra?"
"Not Ra, the Egyptian god of the sun?" Lewis asked, puzzled.
"The chappa'ai." The dark man repeated. "You call it a 'stargate'."
I looked at him as earnestly as I knew how. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
The golden man spoke again and the other one, the head guard, I guess, turned back to us. "By the command of my lord Apophis, you will be interrogated."
We were prodded with the staff things and marched away to a cell. "What the hell?" I said. "They seem to think we should know something."
"I've got a bad feeling about this," Lewis said. "I mean, the fact that we're here at all means someone had to know something about this."
"Which they cunningly didn't tell us, because they knew there's a chance we'd be captured," I said. "You said that Ra was an Egyptian god?"
"Everyone knows that," Lewis said impatiently. "I think Apophis is another god, but I don't really remember. I took a bunch of anthro and history classes in college but Egyptian stuff was only lightly touched on."
"They've been here before," I deduced. "Pyramids in Egypt- that means they were either built as a copy of the ships or like you thought, built as landing platforms. But they didn't come back for a long time. Why?"
"Stargate," Lewis said. "Sounds like a transportation device, doesn't it?"
"You think that it was broken or something, and they couldn't come here, and then someone fixed it?" I asked slowly.
"It would explain how they have people who speak English," Lewis said.
"I don't like the sound of 'human scum'," I said. "They don't seem very friendly." They'd taken our watches, so we didn't know how much time had passed, when more guards came and threw Purcell into the cell with us. He hit the floor limply and didn't move. We rushed to his side and found he was in rough shape, bruised and bleeding. His arm was broken and dangling at an unnatural angle. Lewis and I had about the same training, so I immobilized the arm as best I could. I stripped out of my undershirt and tore it into strips. We didn't have anything to use as a splint so I strapped Purcy's arm to his body as securely as I could.
He still hadn't come around when the guards came for me.
Any illusions I had about the friendliness of the natives were quickly dispelled. I was chained with my arms over my head in a chamber that was heavily used based on the old brownish stains on the manacles and on the floor beneath me. They asked me questions in unaccented if formal English, and they told me more than I could tell them. Lewis stuck to name, rank and serial number. I didn't bother, as it seemed unlikely they were signatory to the Geneva convention.
They were mounting an orbital attack on Earth, and reducing our cities to rubble. They called us 'Tau'ri', not Terrans or Americans, and shrugged when I asked where it came from. The guards were Jaffa, and they were not human, or at least were insulted to be called human. The would-be god was the Goa'uld, whatever that was. The Jaffa worshipped him absolutely. Saying rude things about him got us hit. Our interrogator was sometimes one of the other Jaffa, but mostly the one with the gold emblem, who seemed to know the most English. They called him Tealk.
"What is the sequence of numbers that opens the barrier on your chappa'ai?" Tealk demanded, showing me a clearly Terran electronic device with a numeric keypad. The velcro straps puzzled me momentarily until I realized that it was meant to be worn on the wrist. In his other hand, he had a long clublike implement with a trio of suggestive prongs on the end.
"No idea," I shrugged. I was guessing this was going to hurt. An endless period of screaming interspersed with questions later, I knew I was right. The pronged stick worked like a cattleprod and felt like Hiroshima erupting under your breastbone. Then there was the funny-shaped pistol that shot bolts of agonizing blue lightning and the mundane knives, spikes and jagged cutting tools. They tortured me in front of Lewis. They tortured Lewis in front of me. They killed Purcell in front of both of us.
That was when my eyes met Lewis' and we knew they'd been right not to tell us anything. Because it didn't matter whether we broke or not, and we eventually would, they would get nothing. With a fierce determination akin to pleasure, I looked over Purcell's corpse and hoarsely told our interrogator to go copulate with his maternal ancestor.
I thought I'd finally managed to goad him into hurting me enough I'd pass out, but no. This time he pulled out a simple knife. I kept trying to scream for a long time after my voice actually went. I was drenched in my own blood, and knew that this time I'd gone too far. This time, I was dying. Lewis watched me wide-eyed and refused to look away, even after I silently apologized to him for leaving him alone in this hell.
Funny, I'd always thought the light at the end of the tunnel was a myth, but here I was surrounded by the stuff. Then I sucked a deep breath into my all-too-corporeal body and started coughing. A dark slit above me resolved into the lid of a coffin-like thing pulling apart, and two Jaffa guards hauled me out of the box. I felt surprisingly good for a dead guy, and reached for the bandages I was sure I'd find under my shredded jumpsuit. My hand touched smooth skin through the rents in the outfit. I stared down. The only sign of the ordeal I'd been through was the blood on the suit. Underneath, I felt fine. Better than fine. Even the bruises I'd gotten banging around in the shuttle were gone.
"Behold the power of a god." I looked up to see Tealk, regarding me with cold satisfaction.
"Behold the power of advanced technology," I retorted, staring at the golden box as the lid slid smoothly closed. There was a flicker in his eyes and I nearly jumped in surprise. "You don't believe he's a god any more than I do!" I realized.
He barked a command to the guards and they prodded me out the door. "I obey the commands of my master," Tealk said. "You would be wise to do the same."
The expression on Lew's face when they prodded me through the door into the cell was the best thing that had happened all day. "W-what? B-but... you..."
I didn't think I'd ever seen Motor-mouth Lewis reduced to babbling incoherence before. I had to grin. "Alien healing technology. Good as new. Better even."
A flicker of hope lit his eyes. "The others?" Then it died. "I don't think they can bring Purcell back. They shot his body three times with those lightening-bolt things and it just disintegrated. You they hauled away."
"I haven't seen any sign they've revived any of the others," I admitted.
"I don't suppose the treatment gives you amnesia about what happened to you, uh, immediately ante-mortem?" Lewis asked hopefully.
I grimaced. "I wish."
"So now what?"
"Now you will come with me," Tealk had reappeared and motioned to Lewis.
He came back hours later, also healed, but with a haunted expression in his eyes. "Ian, how many times do you think they can kill us and revive us in that thing?"
"I don't know," I said honestly, after a brief pause.
"That's what I was afraid of."
We never quite lost track of time, since we were never dead at the same time. We figured it was about a week when quite suddenly in the middle of a torture session, Tealk and all the guards disappeared in a dazzle of white light.
"That's new," I said swallowing, and wishing for water.
Then the light swallowed both of us. We didn't find out until later what had happened. We just had a blurry impression of being in a capsule with small gray faces peering at us, then all the pain disappeared and another dazzle of light left us standing in a small concrete room. A window across one end looked out onto a larger interior space, where we could see an enormous ring, apparently made of stone standing upright, with a ramp leading up to it.
There was a crowd of Air Force personnel in the room, along with a few civilians. A tall gorgeous blond came over to me and held out her hand. "Hello. I'm Dr. Samantha Carter. Welcome to the SGA."
"The who?" I said, taking the hand automatically. "What? What just happened? A couple of minutes ago we were..." I broke off, realizing how crazy it would sound.
A balding man with a general's stars on his collar gave us a sympathetic look. "You were prisoners aboard the alien vessel. The Asgard beamed you off." He turned away almost immediately as someone asked him a question.
"The Asgard?" Lewis asked. I was glad for once he was talking, because the adrenaline rush of relief was meeting male hormones and the presence of a very goodlooking woman and my tongue seemed frozen to the roof of my mouth.
"Alien allies," the blonde explained. "It's a long story, but when we were attacked, we found a way to contact them. They've booted the Goa'uld off the planet, and they're healing as many people as they can." She gestured. Even as she'd been talking, three more rather confused-looking people beamed in, to be greeted with pleasure and relief by the others. "They didn't know where to send you, so they brought you here." Another light flashed, depositing a tall man with salt-and-pepper hair, and a large hole in the front of his uniform. He looked bewildered. I couldn't help but sympathize.
The woman seemed more than surprised, more like dumbfounded. Her mouth fell open and her eyes welled with tears. Then she yelled, "Jack!" and threw herself at him laughing and crying in near-hysteria. I blinked, the loss of composure had been so sudden, but Lewis nodded significantly at the man's hand at the back of her head, which bore a gold ring matching the one on her ring finger.
"Son of a bitch!" said another man standing beside us. He was a major with dark hair and a long nose. He turned to us. "I swear Jack has more lives than a dozen cats. The Asgard told us they'd have trouble reviving people who'd been dead more than a couple of days, but it looks like Jack isn't one of them." He glanced back at the couple. "Um, come with me. I'll have someone brief you and find you a place to crash while we get things sorted out. We've got a whole heck of a lot of work ahead of us." He led us to the door, "I'm Kawalsky, by the way. Major Charles Kawalsky."
"Ian Howard and Randall Lewis, USAF seconded to NASA," I said. "Both Captains."
"Not for long," Kawalsky predicted.
Kawalsky was right about a lot of things. The world was a mess. Billions dead that couldn't be revived. Cities destroyed. But we weren't occupied, the Goa'uld were gone. And Lewis and I were both promoted and reassigned to the Stargate program. And the country and the world were counting on alien technology to help in the recovery, so we were very busy.
The story of our pitiful doomed attempt to take on the Goa'uld ships was widely publicized, and Lewis and I got well over our allotted fifteen minutes of fame. The story of how the SGA had gotten help from an alternate reality was not publicized, but as new SGA recruits, Lewis and I heard about it.
I can't say that it was worth it, and not even the Asgard could revive Fitzgerald, Connolly and Purcell. Staring at the stone ring that had doomed us and saved us and might well doom us again, the ring we'd be stepping through tomorrow for our first trip to another planet, even Lewis couldn't come up with anything profound. "Jesus, Howie. This is beyond cool," was what he said, but then his face crumpled with guilt that he could be so jazzed by the stargate after everything that had happened.
If I'd known it existed I'd have wanted to go from the beginning, any astronaut would. I couldn't blame the people who'd chosen to explore in the first place. And I sure couldn't blame the ones who did for fighting the Goa'uld. I'm not a big advocate of war, no soldier is, but some evils can't be reasoned with. After the devastation of the attack, there aren't many pacifists left, or if there are, at least they're pretty quiet. Despite the people who blame America or the USAF for getting us into this war, most people are more angry at the aliens who tried to conquer us, especially since the history of Goa'uld enslavement of humans has started to come out.
The Stargate program will continue, for the benefit of all mankind. And we'll never forget the millions who died to give us all this chance.
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