A sneak preview from Chapter One
Sound echoed on all sides, bouncing off jagged stone walls and low hanging ceiling: ragged snatches of breath, water dripping endlessly onto the ancient rock floor, the faraway ring of metal-clad boots.
Jack looked around, through the little clouds of his breath condensing in the still, frigid air. Maybe this niche in the tunnel walls would offer a few moments’ respite. No movement showed in the passage they had just raced through. Ahead, another tunnel angled away into the darkness, offering at least somewhere else to run.
His team gathered near him, faces turned toward the tunnels and watchful for any hint of pursuit. Carter balanced on her left leg as she scanned the darkness, denying the ache in her right ankle, twisted on the treacherously slick rock. Teal’c faced the opposite direction, alert as ever, yet his utter weariness could be seen in his slumped shoulders and slowing movements, his skin an unhealthy grayish hue.
Daniel was leaning against the dank wall, the façade of stubbornness on his face slipping as surely as his body was sliding down the uneven rocks, his lungs now emitting little more than a distressed wheeze. His left fist was still firmly planted on the pain below his ribs.
Jack shifted, vainly trying to ease the muscles knotted along his spine and the stabbing pain that had been his constant companion for what seemed like his entire life.
How the hell did we end up like this?
Movement flickered in the corner of his eye – Carter’s hand coming up and signaling they were about to be discovered.
He sucked in a gasp of cold air, reached over and grabbed a fistful of Daniel’s shirt, helping his teammate as they staggered off in Teal’c’s wake – plunging on into the unknown.
Within seconds SG-1 had vanished into the darkness, the eternal rock showing no trace of their passing.
Another Day, Another Planet
“…and we bid you welcome to P-three-R-seven-seven-niner, where the weather is a balmy eighty-four degrees. Today’s special for our campers includes palm trees, a babbling brook, lots of weird grassy things and a honkin’ huge sheep.” Jack O’Neill broke off his travelogue to give the colossal statue nestled in the valley before them a quick glance over. He clapped his hands together and continued, “As an added bonus, the management is delighted to announce that the Tok’ra will not be joining us on this mission, thus ensuring three days of uninterrupted fun in the sun.”
Jack settled his shades over his eyes and snugged his cap firmly into place as he continued to scan the area around the Stargate. Teal’c was likewise on guard for potential hostiles. Carter maneuvered the loaded FRED down the platform steps and around Daniel, who was already filming the structures before them.
“I don’t remembering buying the monologue package for this trip,” Carter’s voice floated up to him.
“Regrettably it appears to be supplied free of charge, Major Carter,” Teal’c replied. “Whether one wishes it or not.”
Their colonel feigned wounded feelings and skipped down the stone steps. “Of particular interest is our collection of big ol’ moldy buildings, designed to capture the interest of any archaeologist worth his salt.” Jack clapped Daniel on the back with enough force to break into his archaeologist’s reverie.
Daniel lowered the camera slightly and his gaze flicked to Jack for a second before being dragged back to the wonders before him. “Wow,” he muttered.
“You’re welcome.” Jack loftily took the credit and launched back into tour-guide mode. “So, we trust you all enjoy your stay and remember – take your trash with you when you leave.” He waved his MP5 expansively at the surrounding landscape. “Fan out, people.”
SG-1 moved away and began to take a proper look around. Jack circled behind the Stargate and glanced through the ring at the V-shaped valley that widened from where he stood to stretch for nearly two kilometers. Scrubby bushes and mounds of tufted grass dotted the arid soil. To the right of the Stargate he noted the brown waters of a river meandering through palm trees and large rocks; a backup water supply was always welcome. Turning from the empty land behind the platform, his gaze settled on a wide stone causeway that led directly to where the colossal statue of the ram-headed beast crouched, impassively guarding the entrance to an equally massive, many-columned temple.
Behind the temple rose a familiar sight: an enormous pyramid, built of the same pale stone as the statue and temple, and large enough to serve as a landing platform for a Goa’uld mothership. Warm breezes wafted over the team, bringing the crisp, hot scent of desert sands from beyond the surrounding rocky hills. Tiny birds twittered and darted through the grasses along the river while larger hawk-like birds coasted on air currents high above. Nothing else stirred; there was no movement among the buildings, no Jaffa coming to challenge the intruders.
Teal’c halted fifty meters along the causeway, scanning the area and absorbing what he saw with practiced ease. “This place appears deserted, O’Neill,” he called out, voice carrying distinctly in the warm air.
“Clear, sir,” echoed Carter, a hundred meters off to the left.
O’Neill finished his own sweep. “Well, what do you know? Tok’ra intel that’s actually right for once. Okay kids, have at it. Teal’c, you and Daniel go check out that statue.” He grinned as Daniel, who had been impatiently inching sideways while waiting for the all-clear, took off up the causeway at a trot, Teal’c striding along behind.
Jack ambled over to the DHD, identified the lone unfamiliar glyph as the point of origin and dialed up the coordinates for Earth, the immediate check-in with Base now SOP since their little problem on Ernest’s world.
Seven symbols locked, Jack pressed the center crystal and – nothing. He frowned, quickly checking the symbols were correct. They were, the point of origin the only unfamiliar glyph, and the corresponding symbols were locked on the inner ring of the Stargate. After a few moments the glowing chevrons winked out.
He glared at the DHD and tried again, pressing each symbol firmly: Auriga, Cetus, Centaurus, Cancer, Scutum, Eridanus, Point-of-origin. The inner ring of the Stargate spun, chevrons clunked as they locked, and Jack leaned on the big red activation crystal with deliberate force. Nothing. He pressed again, this time with both hands, but the wormhole refused to establish. Once again the symbols winked out, leaving a cold foreboding to crawl up his spine.
Looking up, Carter’s name on his lips, Jack saw the major already headed toward him.
“Can’t open the wormhole, Carter,” he replied. “Chevrons are locking, but no cigar.”
Carter dropped her pack to the ground and whipped out a diagnostic tool. She popped the access panel on the DHD and hooked up to the crystals inside. “Power readings are all within acceptable parameters, sir.” She stowed the tool and rose. “Mind if I give it a try?”
O’Neill stepped back, uneasily scanning the area. “Please, prove me wrong, Carter.” He looked along the causeway to see Teal’c staring back at them, already alerted to trouble by the lack of activity at the Stargate.
Carter hit the symbols for the address to Earth, methodically pressing each panel and muttering its name. She depressed the activation crystal and got nothing. The chevrons around the Stargate glowed cheerily in the sunlight but the Stargate itself remained merely an empty ring. After a minute, the lights winked out and the DHD shut down.
“What’s the likelihood of this happening two missions in a row? If Aris Boch is lurking somewhere….” Jack swiped his cap from his head and scrubbed at his hair. He smacked the radio on his vest and barked, “Teal’c, Daniel, fall back to the ’gate. Wormhole’s not opening.”
Jack watched for a moment as Daniel and Teal’c turned and retraced their path along the stone causeway, then looked down to see Carter again on her knees with her head nearly inside the access panel.
“Anything, Carter?” He knew he should probably give her more than a minute to come up with a solution, but still….
“Hoo boy. Take a look at this, sir.” She sat back on her heels, her face scrunched up in a mix of worry and interest.
Casting another glance around the empty valley, Jack dropped to one knee and peered inside the DHD. His knowledge of the inner workings of the alien machines was enough to tell if one was in working condition or not. The usual set of crystals was present; their color and arrangement all as they should be. What was not usual was a spidery-fine network of filaments, concealed behind and attached to the control crystals. Alien and very out of place, they glittered blackly sinister in the sunlight.
“The DHD is accepting the coordinates we enter and they’re lighting up on the ’gate in the correct sequence, but my guess is this is stopping the wormhole from initiating,” Carter said.
“Whoa, what the hell is that?” Daniel’s voice floated over Jack’s shoulder as he and Teal’c arrived and bent to peer inside the DHD.
“Good question. Teal’c, you seen anything like this before?” Jack asked, twisting around to squint up through the sunlight at him.
“I have not, O’Neill.” Teal’c’s eyes tracked the path of the black tendrils. “They appear to be connected to the crystals that are responsible for controlling power and transmitting coordinates to the Stargate.”
“That can’t be good,” remarked Daniel.
“Indeed. It is not unknown for some Goa’uld to tamper with the DHDs for their own purposes.”
Jack straightened up and snapped open the cover of his chrono. Twenty minutes on-planet already. “Well, we’ve missed our check-in. The SGC should be dialing in any minute now. Carter, you’d better work out if you need any extra gear from home.”
“Yes, sir. The piece that was missing from the DHD on PJ6-877 is still here. I don’t think we can blame this on Aris Boch.” She bent her head back inside the pedestal and began to talk quietly with Teal’c about the placement of crystals.
Daniel moved to stand next to Jack. The valley spread out before them in silent majesty. Against an indigo sky, the limestone surface of the pyramid, buildings, statue and causeway gleamed brilliantly in the sunlight. A gold capstone on the pyramid blazed in an ostentatious display that impressed even Jack. Beside him, unable to examine these wonders closely while their present problem remained unresolved, Daniel pulled out his camera and began to film.
Five, six, seven chevrons locked – and no wormhole. Jack turned away from the silent valley to see Carter and Teal’c duck behind the DHD to worry at the controls once more. Six attempts to dial out and they were none the wiser. The Stargate shut down with a disappointed whine, then almost immediately the chevrons began to light up again with another attempt. They glowed brightly for close to a minute before winking out with a mocking snap.
No way out.
Jack stalked back to his team.
Carter glanced up at him, squinting against the sun in her eyes. “Sir, it looks like the black filaments are disrupting the connection between the coordinate verification mechanism and the wormhole activators.”
Daniel appeared at Jack’s shoulder, shielding the glare from her face. “Is it just Earth’s address that it blocks? Maybe another address will get through.”
Jack shrugged and gestured with his MP5 at the DHD. “Go for it, Daniel.”
Pocketing his camera, Daniel stepped up, and after a moment’s thought dialed the coordinates for the Alpha site. Symbols lit, chevrons locked – but no gushing splash of event horizon answered his call.
He tried again, this time Cimmeria. Nothing.
Planet of the Naked White Bald Guys. Bupkiss.
One last one. Nada.
“You dialed the address for Chulak, Daniel Jackson?” queried Teal’c.
“Chulak?” Jack echoed. “What, you think we need another challenge right now?”
“Well, I wasn’t planning on going through if it worked, Jack. I just thought maybe the DHD has been tampered with to recognize only Goa’uld worlds,” Daniel pointed out. “I guess not.”
Jack allowed him that and sighed in frustration.
“Perhaps if we were to dial the Stargate manually, we could bypass the mechanism on the DHD.” Teal’c’s suggestion broke through the strained silence.
“It’s worth a try, sir,” added Carter as she stood up.
Fifteen minutes of back-wrenching labor later they were no closer to an answer.
“I don’t get it, sir,” complained Carter as they all stood sweating in the sun. She accepted the canteen offered by Daniel and swallowed a long, cool drink of water. “If the filament is stopping the DHD from sending the coordinates to the ’gate, we should still be able to dial out manually. We’ve done it before without a DHD.”
Jack’s next question went unasked when the first chevron on the Stargate lit up with a reassuring clunk.
“Yes.” Long, determined strides had him in front of the MALP, ready to make contact with the base. The seventh chevron locked and the gush of the wormhole brought a sigh of relief from them all. Within seconds of the event horizon stabilizing, the camera on the MALP was tracking around, moved by unseen hands and accompanied by the welcome sound of General Hammond’s voice, issuing tinnily from the speaker.
“SG-1, this is Hammond, please respond.”
“SGC, this is SG one niner. We read you, General.”
“Colonel, you missed your first check-in. What’s your status?”
“We’ve got a bit of a technical hitch, sir. We’re secure, no hostiles, but there’s some kind of… thing attached to the DHD controls. It’s preventing us from opening the wormhole. Carter?” Jack motioned her forward and stepped aside.
Carter swiftly filled the general in on what they had discovered so far. “Also sir, there’s a box of tools in my lab marked ‘Off-world diagnostics’. Could you arrange for it to be sent through?”
“It’s on its way, Major. Colonel, apart from the equipment Major Carter has requested, is there anything else we can do from here?”
“We’re good for the moment, sir. We’ll have a look around the buildings here, see what we can turn up. If it looks like we’re going to have an extended stay, we’ll need extra supplies.”
The thought of spending days or weeks in this empty place didn’t exactly fill him with cheer, but things could be oh, so much worse. If all else failed they could get the Tok’ra to scare up a ship and come get them. Speaking of….
“Sir, this entire mission was the Tok’ra’s idea. They came up with the address, they asked us to head a mission to check out this place for some old base of Ra’s, and yet at the last minute they’re suddenly ‘unavoidably detained by political matters’ and it’s ‘don’t wait for us, we’ll catch up with you’.” Jack waved sarcastic quotation marks in the air as he spoke.
“Understood, Colonel. We’ll contact the Tok’ra and see if they can shed any light on the situation.” Jack could just picture the look on Hammond’s face. “Heads up, people. Sergeant Siler has Major Carter’s requisition.”
They moved back, unnecessarily, as a large plastic crate popped through the wormhole, propelled by a push along the grating of the SGC’s ramp to slide gently to a halt on the stone platform a whole world away.
“We’ll dial in again at 1400 hours and on the hour after that. Good luck. Hammond out.”
The Stargate disengaged, leaving the four looking at each other.
“You think the Tok’ra set us up, Jack?” asked Daniel.
“I’m just saying it’s a mighty big coincidence.”
“Well, they were right that this planet was once used by Ra,” Daniel countered. He turned, waving an arm at the looming statue. “That’s a Criosphinx. The ram’s head design is a typical feature of smaller sphinxes on Earth that were dedicated to Amun, or Ra. Also, there’s a design above the entrance to the temple that could well be a Wadjet – The Eye of Ra. I’ll have to get closer to be certain, though.”
Jack scowled, unwilling to give up his main suspect just yet. “Well, Miseanu said she and the rest of the Tok’ra would be joining us at 2000 hours. I’ll reserve judgment until then.” He looked over his team, glad once again that he had a wealth of knowledge and experience to call upon instead of a grunt of Marines.
“Carter, Teal’c – see what you can do about disconnecting that thing from the DHD. Daniel, let’s you and I take a walk and find out what’s so damn fascinating about this place.”