Originally published as a standalone fanzine by Criterion Press May 2004
Emissaries of the God
"I’ve gotta hand it to you, Spengs," Peter Venkman said with a lot more good cheer than he customarily produced at eight in the morning.
Egon looked up from the computer screen and frowned. A cheery morning Peter was a Peter who just might prove up to something. "Why must you hand it to me?" he asked warily. "I’m not going to like this, am I?" The two of them were alone in the lab; Ray and Winston had decided to work on Ecto-1 this morning. While Peter often suggested the budget might actually run to a more modern and gas-efficient vehicle than the converted 1959 Cadillac hearse, neither Winston nor Ray would hear of such a thing.
"It’s tradition," Ray had proclaimed. "Nobody would recognize the Ghostbusters if we showed up in a boring modern van."
"This old girl can handle it," Winston agreed with him. "We’ve rebuilt the engine. Everything works perfectly. She’s a classic."
"And you love those classic car shows," Peter had agreed. "Fine. At least it’s big enough to make other cars and cabs get out of our way. But if we had something sleek and modern and classy...."
The other two had shouted him down, and Peter had conceded, but every now and then he reminded them that Ghostbusters, Inc. was a modern concern, and they needed to move with the times. "It’s not like we still use a Commodore 64," he’d pointed out. "Come on, guys, it’s practically the millennium."
"Computers are different," Winston was quick to argue.
"Ri-ight. That’s why we had that big Y2K brouhaha last winter," Peter reminded him triumphantly.
"Gee, Pete, that was a tempest in a teapot," Ray had argued. "Anyway, Ecto works fine. Why go into debt to buy a brand new car?"
The situation remained unresolved, at least as far as Peter was concerned. Now as he handled the routine proton pack charging, a task that could never be left undone, his mind appeared far from the need to whip around the five boroughs of New York in a sporty vehicle. A cup of coffee at his side to complete his wake-up process, he had already finished charging the first pack. Three of the other five—these days the team ran to six modern, up-to-date proton packs—were connected and nearly ready, and the last one, free in case of a sudden spirit manifestation at headquarters, waiting in Ecto, had been charged last night to make sure they had at least one working pack.
Peter grinned. "These lightweight packs you designed a few months ago are a lifesaver, not to mention they recharge a heck of a lot faster than the ten-ton wonders did. Nice work, you boy genius, you."
"It’s not as if we’re twenty, Peter," Egon admitted dryly. "Some of us even possess concealed bottles of Grecian Formula."
"Don’t have a clue who you’re talking about," Peter said with a classic display of mendacity. "Never touch the stuff." He tilted his head to study Egon’s blond hairstyle. "Never would have thought it of you, buddy."
Ignoring Egon’s exasperated grimace, he set aside the newly-charged pack and connected the last one in its place. Then, in what he fondly imagined might pass for a display of macho, he slipped the charged pack onto his back and whipped out the thrower. The stance looked rather silly in his street clothes, but Egon knew better than to say so. If encouraged, Peter would only resort to an even-more-obnoxious display of macho and ego. "I kind of miss ‘Old Betsy’, though. She stood me in good stead for years."
"Indeed, Peter. Remember, we still have our old packs. If you’d like to switch back, I’m sure no one would begrudge you. I thought you were the one who preferred everything modern and streamlined."
Peter made a face at him. "Think I’ll pass. We could always donate the old packs—or one of them, anyway—to the Smithsonian. I betcha they’d love to have an artifact from us. We’re famous, after all."
"If we aren’t, it wouldn’t be from lack of trying on your part. I saw you on Letterman last week—and twenty-six times since on video tape."
"Hey. Publicity means a lot. Why do you think I don’t let you go on talk shows? You sit there and you rattle off all those forty-dollar words and physics formulas, and Leno and Letterman’s eyes glaze over. TV remotes click off all over the country."
"Factual information...." Egon began. In truth, he preferred a more serious broadcast. The Nova Ghostbusting episode had been right up his alley. He’d actually had calls from several eminent physicists as a direct result of his segment of the program expressing interest in learning more about ectoplasmic physics. The more he could promote Ghostbusting as serious science with a proven track record, the better his chances for being taken seriously as a scientist. Not to mention the Nobel Prize....
Peter leveled his thrower at an imaginary ghost and struck a pose. "Yeah, Egon, I know. But you’ve gotta take your audience into account. You do your serious stuff on different broadcasts. But I’m the Carl Sagan of Ghostbusters, taking it to the general public. Billions and billions of ghosts." He shouldered the holster like a military rifle. "Next time, I’m gonna take Slimer and give a demonstration of zapping and trapping. Leno gets kick out of the little spud."
"He’ll expect multiple pizzas as a reward, of course."
Peter grimaced. "Well, yeah, but it’ll be worth it for the ratings."
"Life is more than ratings, Peter. It’s all about information."
"Ratings are part of information," Peter announced. Then, in an abrupt and dazzling burst of white light, he vanished without a trace.
Egon was so astonished by the unexpected occurrence that he simply stood unmoving for five seconds, his mouth ajar. "Peter?" he ventured doubtfully. That dazzle of light hadn’t been a pack accident. The entire firehall and a sizeable portion of Lower Manhattan would have vanished with him if the pack had detonated and triggered the other packs in the room, even assuming there could possibly have been a reason for it to explode when it wasn’t even powered up. "Peter?"
Egon grabbed the nearest P.K.E. meter. He made a point of keeping an activated meter nearby to serve as a warning, since a ghost or demon could appear at any time. The meter that lay beside the computer monitor was indeed active, but it hadn’t responded to the burst of light: no beeping, no blinking lights, no raised antennae. The meter screen displayed no residual energy, no trace of a spirit, no evidence of an open gateway between dimensions.
Human beings did not spontaneously vanish, not in this universe, at least not under any concept of physics Egon had ever encountered. Ghosts that sneaked in, invisible, to remove people, always left residual traces for the meter to detect, and there were none. Yet Peter was still gone.
Disbelieving, his stomach knotted up, his scalp tight, Egon yelled, "Peter!" at the top of his lungs.
No burst of light signaled Peter’s return. There was nothing but the approaching thud of footsteps on the stairs as Winston and Ray responded to his frantic cry. While he waited for their arrival, Egon went to the exact spot where Peter had vanished, set the meter to the most general setting possible, and cranked the power to its maximum level. The meter quivered, but the static on the screen only indicated a residual form of diffuse energy of a type Egon couldn’t pin down, an energy that matched no known psi readings, an energy that was dispersing rapidly. Hastily, he hit the ‘record’ function so he could study it later, and switched to Peter’s biorhythm readings. No response but the slightest of fading residuals to indicate that Peter had been here moments before. Biorhythm readings rarely produced residuals for more than a few minutes; they were not what the meters had been designed for, any more than the unfamiliar energy he had detected.
The other two Ghostbusters burst into the lab, Winston in the lead by virtue of his longer legs. The black man stared around the room as Ray ran in after him, eyes wide. A second later Janine appeared in their wake, the secretary’s chest heaving from her gallop up two flights of stairs.
"What’s wrong? Where’s Peter?" Ray wore a smear of grease all down his left cheek from exposure to Ecto’s engine, and his left hand still clutched a monkey wrench.
"He vanished," Egon admitted. "There was a sudden burst of light and when it faded, Peter was no longer here."
"What was he doing at the time?" Winston asked practically. He, too, bore a few greasy decorations, on his nose and on the sleeve of his tee shirt. "Could some ghost have zipped in and grabbed him too fast for you to see?"
"Or maybe a dimensional gateway opened up, right here in the lab?" Ray ventured hopefully. His eyes registered the meter in Egon’s hand, and he shook his head as he realized Egon would have tested for those possibilities already.
Good thoughts, both—not that either option would be particularly beneficial to Peter. Egon gazed at his two teammates and tried hard to will away the unsettled feeling in his stomach. They were Ghostbusters. They were accustomed to the unexpected. But the unexpected didn’t usually make one of the team vanish without a trace. True, a powerful entity could steal away a person to the Netherworld or even to a different location here on Earth. But Egon had never encountered such an event that did not cause readings on a P.K.E. meter. Negative valences would have shown up immediately; he wouldn’t have needed to set the meter separately to test for them.
"He had just finished charging the first pack," Egon explained. "He was wearing it and had drawn his thrower, but it wasn’t powered up. Wherever he is, he’s armed and ready."
"Gosh, that’s good." Ray prowled over and looked at the other packs. As if he’d suddenly realized he still held the wrench, he dropped it on the table. "What does the meter say?"
"Absolutely nothing useful, Ray. Even at the wide-open setting, I detected only diffuse energy that bears absolutely no trace of psi. No evidence of any class of ghost, none of the usual readings we get at the opening of a dimensional cross-rip. I recorded the residual energy, but it was completely unfamiliar."
"Ghost high-tech?" Winston theorized as he prowled around the lab, peeking under the tables and even into the fireplace. "Maybe some ghosts got together and decided to, I don’t know, fight back with science maybe."
It was not a happy thought. The team had theorized about such possibilities more than once, but they hadn’t encountered that type of threat before. Ghosts and high tech could prove a formidable combination, and it was not as if spirits had any reason to think highly of the Ghostbusters. "I want to study these readings," Egon said. "Ray, if you’d assist me...."
Janine edged up uneasily, glancing over her shoulder, then she took hold of Egon’s arm and held on tight to prevent him from vanishing next. "You think they took him somewhere, Egon?" she ventured softly.
"Yes." She blinked at the sudden ferocity of his tone, and he moderated it at once. "If the energy had...disintegrated him, I would have been able to detect it. Complete protonic reversal would produce a particularly unique energy signature, and don’t forget he was wearing a fully-charged proton pack. It is gone, too. Had it disintegrated, it would have blown the other packs with it, and we would not be standing here. This would be a bomb crater." Just saying it finally convinced him that whatever had happened to Peter had not been instantaneous disruption. No, he had been translocated by a process the meters had not been designed to detect, one which the team could not measure and quantify, nor understand without considerably more information than they currently possessed. Research on the unfamiliar energy might prove useful. Once he had analyzed it more thoroughly, Egon could contact other scientists and they could search the Internet for any parallels. But that would take time, and who knew what might be happening to Peter in the interim, wherever he was?
Egon exchanged unhappy glances with Ray and Winston. "Ray, I want you to check through all the reference books for any unexplained disappearances in a burst of light."
"There are some," Ray admitted warily. "I remember reading about them. But there aren’t that many and some of them are weird UFO hoaxes. Some of them were probably lies. But there are a few that were never explained."
Winston studied him, muscles taut with strain. "Uh, Ray? Did any of those people ever come back?"
Ray stood there as if at bay, his face ablaze with distress. "No," he said miserably. "I don’t think any of them ever did."
"Peter," Egon said very softly. Then he squared his shoulders. "None of those people had the Ghostbusters to search for them. We’ll begin our research immediately. I’m certain there is an answer."
Of course there was an answer. There was always a reason for any unexplained event. But whether the three of them could find it, and find it in time to help Peter, was another matter. Egon didn’t know what to hope for: a new form of dimensional gateway, a ghostly intervention by a spirit or entity that could mask its P.K. energy, Captain Kirk ordering Scotty to beam Peter up. Usually, Egon could see a means of achieving his goals, but the utter lack of normal readings baffled him. His oldest friend was somewhere, probably in trouble, relying on his friends to figure it out and rescue him.
We’ll find you, Peter, he vowed, and he meant it with every fiber of his being. But he didn’t know where to start.
** *** **
Peter Venkman blinked hard to clear his eyes of afterimages following that unexpected blaze of light. What the heck had just happened? One minute he was talking to Egon in the third-floor lab, the next he was here in this strange new place, all dark walls, shiny floors and spaces, lit unnaturally with hidden lighting. No trace of any ghosts or demons, and it didn’t feel like the Netherworld. Instead, it felt like a place of unfamiliar technology, and the subliminal throbbing beneath his feet spoke of major power. There was a strange odor in the air, not unpleasant, not offensive, but different. He couldn’t even think of anything to compare it with, but it was sharp and clean, not antiseptic, but vaguely sterile. He sniffed cautiously. Odd, but the place felt like it should be cold, yet it wasn’t. Where the heck was he? Strangest dimensional cross-rip he’d ever encountered.
"Egon? What the heck did you do?"
He studied his surroundings, thrower tightly gripped in both hands. No one was in sight at the moment. Egon sure wasn’t here, and this alien place didn’t look anything like the firehouse he’d just come from.
"Egon?" He didn’t want to call too loudly. If he had arrived here by accident, it might be better to keep a low profile and avoid alerting the inhabitants that he was here. What he needed to do was find the revolving door so he could pop back into the firehall. If this was one of the cross-rips that Ray and Egon were always talking about, it could spit him out at home any time now.
He tightened his grip on his thrower, and thumbed on the power switch. No weird ghosts better try to mess with Doctor Venkman. He was ready for them.
Was he? There could be twenty ghosts here, or twenty thousand, except he didn’t get the feeling he did when he was in the presence of ghosts, an eerie sensation honed by years of busting, years of exposure to ectoplasm, years of learning the ins and outs of the ghost game. This place felt clean, vast, technological.
He revolved slowly, checking the place out. There was a kind of window over there—or was it? He squinted. What was that wedge of blue? His mind registered it before his stomach clenched to deny it, but his feet took over and led him over to the portal—or was it a porthole?
Below him, the Earth hung, jewel-like in the blackness of space, while stars in a myriad of colors, far brighter than he had seen them—well, except for the time the team had visited the International Space Station—spread out in a vast ribbon of light.
Okay, this was weird. Were they talking alien abduction here? If so, Peter had a head start on all those other X-Files-type victims. None of Mulder’s buddies had been snatched wearing a proton pack and thrower.
"Beam me up, Scotty," Peter said involuntarily.
"I am not Scotty."
The unexpected voice, speaking in English, whirled Peter around and his eyes nearly fell out. Holy shit. There stood an alien, one of those skinny, big-eyed characters the press tended to call the Roswell Greys. He’d always thought the whole concept was a weird hoax, tabloid fodder, but unless Peter was hallucinating this guy wasn’t a hoax. He stood there looking up at Peter, a little character with skinny little arms and legs and a body probably no wider than Peter’s thigh, with an expression on that huge-eyed face that Peter didn’t know how to read. He leveled his thrower at the guy, but he didn’t fire. Blasting on a spaceship was risky—he could punch a hole in a bulkhead and open the ship to the vacuum of space. He might hit something that would damage life support. Bad idea. Let the guy know he was armed, but wait to see what he wanted before alienating a character who might be able to zap him with a look.
Besides, a fleeting memory chased itself across his mind. Where had he heard about Roswell Greys before? He couldn’t remember.
"Well, you beamed me up," he accused the alien.
"I have heard this term, ‘beam up’ before. It is an Earth reference."
"Yeah, Star Trek." Peter couldn’t believe he was standing here talking to an alien about a TV show. "This is Earth," he reminded the little fellow with a wave of his hand at his home world down there through the viewscreen.
"You are Peter Venkman?" the alien asked.
Yikes, it knew his name. It hadn’t grabbed him by a weird freak accident. It had come looking for him on purpose. Pretty scary that out of all the people on Earth it could home in on one unwilling Ghostbuster. He bristled. "Who wants to know?"
"I am Thor. You will come with me."
"Do I have a choice here?"
"Yes. If you choose to depart after you hear my story, I will return you to your home."
Peter hesitated. The urge to demand instant return thrummed through him. God, the guys must be freaking. Teleporting probably wouldn’t have set off the meters; nothing paranormal about it. They wouldn’t have a clue where he was or how to find him. This was nuts. He had to let them know he was okay. Maybe this Thor guy could send them a message. "What’s the matter, you got a ghost you want busted on your home planet?"
"We do not."
The ship was moving. Not out of orbit, thank goodness, but traveling westward across North America. Peter could see the long line of the Mississippi river as vivid as on a map—a map without borders. Weird. That was the eastern outline of Iowa. His old man had been born there and Peter used to visit his granddad on the farm when he was little. Now they were traveling a little south. "You can’t beam me home unless we’re over New York, can you?" he asked reluctantly.
"I could. However, it would require more energy. You are not a prisoner, Peter Venkman. It is good that you wear your energy device. It may serve us well."
"We charge a fee, y’know," Peter said.
"I know much of you."
That sent an ominous shiver through Peter’s veins. "So let me get this straight. Little alien guys have been spying on the Ghostbusters?"
"We have long been intrigued by your species. Your people possess great potential."
That didn’t sound so bad. What had he said his name was? Thor? He sure didn’t look like the Norse god of Thunder. No Viking helmet, no blond hair. Peter scrunched up his forehead in concentration. Where else had he heard of Thor?
"Sure we do," he said with a grin. "Someday we’re gonna be a major power in the galaxy." And that was familiar, too. Space aliens. It all came together in a rush. "I’ve got it! I’ve got it! Thor. You’re the Asgard guy."
Thor stared at him unblinking.
"Well, you are," Peter said. "You come from another galaxy, and you don’t like the Goa’uld at all. You know my old buddy Jack O’Neill."
Thor. Everything made sense now. Ever since the Ghostbusters had first become involved with the Stargate Project out in Colorado a couple of years back, Peter had realized the galaxy was a far bigger and more deadly place than he had ever imagined. Nasty parasitic snake characters called the Goa’uld took over humans as hosts and considered themselves gods. Peter had twice visited other planets by stepping through the Stargate, a portal that opened a wormhole that led to other worlds. While he didn’t know about every facet of galactic politics and every detail his friends on the Stargate project’s premier team, SG-1, did, he’d temporarily been a member of the SGC and had been granted access to a lot of classified information. Now that he had Thor identified, he could remember more of it.
"Jack O’Neill is a most promising human," Thor agreed. "Soon he will join us."
"I know you had something to do with a treaty to keep the Goa’uld away from Earth," Peter said. "And that’s a good thing. Nasty guys. Our accountant was a Goa’uld," he added, apropos of nothing, and waved a hand to change the subject. "But what do you want with me, anyway? What about my buddies? They’ll be worried sick about me. I thought you were one of the good guys."
"I am indeed one of the ‘good guys’, Peter Venkman. Your concern for your friends does you much credit. They will be notified."
"But what do you want me for, anyway?" Peter persisted. "What about my buddies? They’re handy with throwers, too. Why take one when you could have all four of us for the price of one?" He hesitated as he asked the question. Just because the people out in Cheyenne Mountain knew this guy didn’t mean Peter wanted to endanger his buddies. Thor was an alien who didn’t even come from the same galaxy, for crying out loud. Who knew what his agenda really was?
"We are facing a great threat in our galaxy," Thor explained. "It is a danger far more deadly than the Goa’uld."
Peter’s muscles tightened. "Sweet," he said in parody of Jack O’Neill. The Asgard were pretty powerful. Did this Thor dude think one thrower could take out a threat that daunted his entire race?
"Ah. You do know O’Neill. This is good. If you will excuse me, I will make the necessary arrangements." He turned and walked away on his skinny little legs. Peter blinked.
"Well, this is another fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into, Peter," he said aloud. Aliens from other galaxies? Too weird. But it sounded like he was about to be thrust into a new adventure with SG-1, and that was a good thing. Well, seeing his friends again would be welcome, but the danger part wasn’t a good thing, not if he was expected to face a danger even nastier than the Goa’uld out there that was probably about to attack the Earth. When had Peter been appointed savior of the planet? Was there any way he could resign?
Ray wouldn’t resign. He’d plunge into it with massive bursts of delight. Egon, who was always prepared to die to save the planet, would never hesitate, and Winston might grumble a little but he’d do what needed doing. Could Peter do any less than his buddies?
"Hey, Thor," he called and hurried after the departing ‘little green man’. "Wait for me. We’ve gotta talk."
Thor paused and looked at him. "Come, then."
"Listen up. If you’ve got some kind of ghost problem you need more than one Ghostbuster. You need us all." He hesitated. Did he want to risk his friends? But wouldn’t he be risking all kinds of danger to the Stargate people if he didn’t send for them. Egon would have ten different theories and Ray would never forgive him from keeping him from an outer space adventure. "Even if you only need one of us, you’ve got to beam me down when we get to Colorado so I can let them know I’m safe. Come on, bunky? O’Neill thinks a lot of you. He wouldn’t if you were the kind of guy who would just kidnap people out of hand."
Thor paused and stared at him. "There is much in what you say. So be it."
** *** **
"I have to say, it looks like the most boring planet known to man." Jack O’Neill scattered the M.A.L.P. images across the table. The foliage was a uniform khaki color, the ground was mud brown, the sky was grey, and there wasn’t so much as a hill or mountain in sight. Why would there be any reason for SG-1 to visit the alien world in the first place? Didn’t look like there were even any ruins for Daniel to play with. He glanced sideways at the archaeologist to see if he agreed with Jack, and found Daniel squinting at one of the stills. "Daniel?" he prompted.
Daniel settled his glasses and squinted harder, then he did a double-take as he played back Jack’s words. "Oh, I don’t know, Jack. This could be the edge of a structure here." He traced a pointing finer along the edge of what looked like a straight line in the midst of all that mud and khaki.
Any trace of ruins would send Daniel salivating, and Jack was a little reluctant to shoot him down after the recent events on Euronda when he’d had to stomp on the persistent Daniel pretty damned hard in the middle of negotiations with Alar and his people. Daniel just never knew when to shut up, but maybe there hadn’t been a better chance for him to speak before things progressed too far. They’d have to devise a series of hand signals specifically to indicate a need for a conference. Jack had apologized to Daniel for cutting him off so abruptly, and Daniel had later come to Jack and apologized to him for his timing. It had turned into a rather silly session that had blossomed into a series of ludicrous apologies about everything from Daniel’s craving for coffee to Jack’s love of fishing, and in the end, they had laughed a lot, shared a couple of beers and bonded over a hockey game that Daniel had picked apart, not with any degree of knowledge of the sport, and Jack had defended hotly, pointing out the skill of the goalie. When Carter came by with Teal’c—probably to make sure the two of them hadn’t gone overboard and killed each other—she had found the two of them pleasantly sloshed, companionably watching The Blob on one of those old movie channels and cheering on Steve McQueen. Teal’c’s astonished reaction to the ‘Fifties horror movie and his suggestion that a few strategic staff weapon blasts would have saved the day had put the finishing touch on a great evening. Well, that and the box of delicious brownies Carter had brought along. Jack didn’t know if she’d actually baked them—the thought of Carter possessing such domestic skills boggled the mind—or bought them, but it didn’t matter. For the moment, at least, SG-1 was in accord.
"The grass surrounding the DHD is not overly long," Teal’c pointed out. With Teal’c, you couldn’t always tell if he were excited about anything or not; the Jaffa was a past master of the straight face. "Perhaps local inhabitants keep it in order."
"There is a rocky outcrop just past the DHD, sir," Carter threw in and tapped another photo. "It’s possible the planet is mineral-rich."
"Certainly grounds for exploration, Colonel." General Hammond, in charge of the briefing before the mission to PV9-219, held up one of the imagines. "I concur with Doctor Jackson. This edge is too straight to be a natural feature. A pity the M.A.L.P. couldn’t get a better shot of it. There may be civilization on the planet. The mission is a go."
As he finished the last word, brilliant white light filled the room, and Jack sucked in a breath in recognition, expecting to find himself teleported to an Asgard ship at any second. Instead, the light faded, leaving behind a man who was definitely not an Asgard standing with his back to them. He whirled, weapon in hand, and Jack, who hadn’t thought it necessary to arm himself for a routine briefing, felt a momentary thrill of tension that was wiped away as the man blinked, identified his surroundings and lowered the device he held.
Identification was mutual. "Hi, guys," said Peter Venkman of the Ghostbusters as he saw where he was and who was staring at him in astonishment. He produced a crooked grin. "Quick, let me at a phone. I’ve gotta tell the guys I’m okay." He was wearing a proton pack, but he wasn’t suited up in his Ghostbuster uniform. The ghost trapping device looked definitely odd over civvies.
"Doctor Venkman, what brings you here like this?" Hammond demanded.
"Jack’s buddy Thor and the Asgard version of a transporter. He says he’s got something he wants me to do." Peter spotted the phone in the corner, lunged for it, and snatched the receiver. "What do I do to get an outside line?"
"I’ll have to arrange that for you, son." Hammond took the receiver from him, punched in a number, and spoke into it.
"Peter!" Daniel threw his photo of potential ruins on the table and jumped up to pump the Ghostbuster’s hand.
"Hey, Daniel. Thor just yanked me out of the firehall. Instant beam-me-up. No warning. The guys are probably going nuts. Thor sent me down so I could call. He wants some of you, too, I think."
"Did he say why?" Jack asked. Thor had dumped Jack, Teal’c and Carter on a remote planet not that long ago, and then borrowed Carter to fight the replicators in his own galaxy, but he hadn’t popped in to "brighten" the lives of SG-1 since then. Jack thought a lot of the little guy, but he had a nasty habit of bringing lots of trouble with him.
"Just something about a major threat. I didn’t know who he was at first, then I remembered what I’d heard out here. We didn’t exactly talk about the Asgard much when we were here, but I saw something in the computers when I was getting briefed that first time. I’ve gotta say I didn’t plan to be abducted by aliens when I got up this morning. Very X-Files." He took back the receiver from Hammond and punched in hasty numbers. A second later, he spoke quickly. "Egon? Don’t panic, it’s me. You’ll never guess where I am."
Hammond held up a warning hand. "Doctor Venkman...."
Peter winked at him. "Gotcha. Egon, I’m with our old buddies in Colorado. Jack and Daniel and company. I’m fine, we’re all fine here now, thank you. You weren’t worried about me, were you?" From the determined lightness of his tone Jack realized he was trying to reassure his buddies. The last thing they’d have expected would be the Asgard. They’d probably figured Peter’s disappearance was the result of some ghost abduction, but their detectors wouldn’t have picked up ghosts. Had to drive them nuts. Jack imagined how he’d feel if one of his team vanished in midair and he didn’t know about the Asgard’s teleport system. It said a lot for Peter that his first thought wasn’t the potential danger he might be facing but his friends’ worry. For an annoying guy, he had a lot going for him.
"Yeah, I’m fine. I don’t know if he’s gonna need all of us or not." A pause. "Hi, Ray. You’d have loved it. I’ll tell you all about it when I see you. Can’t say anything more on this line, even if it’s probably secure as you can get." He glanced at Hammond, who nodded in agreement.
He listened to his friends for a few seconds, a rare expression of humility darting across his face. They must have really been glad to hear from him. While they waited for the conversation to end, the members of SG-1 exchanged speculative glances. It wasn’t as if Jack had ever sat down with Thor and talked about the Ghostbusters. How the heck had he known to snatch Peter? Of course the Asgard had been monitoring Earth for a long time. Maybe they had a monitor set up to Earth TV. Better that than the thought that Thor had taken the knowledge from Jack’s mind. The image of a bunch of little Asgard guys crowded around a TV screen watching reruns of Welcome Back, Kotter or the Letterman Show tended to boggle the mind.
On the other hand, they’d downloaded the knowledge of the ancients out of Jack’s mind when he’d had it all dumped there and it had nearly driven him nuts. Who knew what else they’d had access to, even though SG-1 hadn’t known the Ghostbusters very well then? The Asgard were a helluva lot more advanced technologically than Earth was. They might have learned everything that Jack knew. Thor had never admitted anything like that, but after the big download he did say that Earth might one day become the fifth race in the power scheme of the galaxy. If true, he’d had to have acquired some knowledge of Jack and, by extension, Earth from Jack’s mind. Not entirely a good thought.
"I don’t know what’s going on yet," Peter said. "I just get schlepped around without a decent itinerary. I’ll keep you posted. Egon, that you again? Yeah, I bet you couldn’t get any readings. No ghosts involved here. We can compare notes when I see you. I hope it’s soon, good buddy. Hang in there. I’ll have somebody at this end contact you if I have to go...further afield."
When he hung up, he looked a little wistful. "Wish the guys could come along for this one. Maybe we can talk Thor into going back and picking them up. If it’s really dangerous, the more Ghostbusters the better, right, guys?"
Jack had to wonder how the Ghostbusters’ proton packs and throwers would hold up against the replicators. Now there was an intriguing possibility. Could it be that was what Thor wanted to try? Short of the submarine incident, the ongoing replicator war hadn’t made its way into this galaxy yet, and Jack would prefer to keep it that way.
Peter grinned at everybody. "Hey, guys, good to see you." He stuck out a hand to Teal’c, who had mastered the art of the human handshake, and pumped the Jaffa’s hand enthusiastically. He did the same to General Hammond. "Great seeing you, George." Then he swept Carter into his arms as if he were Rhett Butler and she were Scarlet O’Hara, and planted a massive smooch full on her mouth. For a second, Jack thought she actually responded to the kiss, then she stiffened and he let her go with a flourish. "Missed you, Sam," he said.
"I can imagine." Her eyes twinkled, but, being Carter, she didn’t give him one shred of encouragement. If she had missed him in return, she wasn’t about to say so. Just as well. Venkman didn’t need any encouragement.
Peter took that with complete calm. Instead he turned to Daniel. "So, Danny, you’re all healed up from having your appendix out? Last time I saw you, you were flat on your back. Can I see your scar?"
"He’s his usual ornery self," Jack put in.
Daniel grimaced at him. "It’s so good to have the respect of one’s commanding officer." But the way he quirked his mouth gave Jack hope that the Eurondan incident really was behind them.
"I can see you’re all back to normal." Peter frowned, his attention fading from the room and back to what lay ahead. "So is Thor just gonna leave me here or is there more work for me to do today to save the world?"
"With Thor, there’s always more," Jack volunteered, and grimaced at the inadvertent rhyme.
"I take it the mission to PV9-219 is put on hold?" Carter ventured. She turned to General Hammond.
Hammond frowned. "As I don’t believe Thor came to Earth simply to transport Doctor Venkman to the SGC, we’ll table the mission for the time being until we see what the Asgard want of us." He shot Jack a knowing glance. "I doubt you’ll mind, Colonel."
Jack hadn’t really minded the mission. He’d almost looked forward to the thought of a "normal" mission, assuming any mission through the Stargate could be considered normal. Daniel attracted trouble like a flame drew moths, Teal’c pulled down the undying animosity of any Goa’uld they happened to meet, and Carter—well, even if she was good at finding scientific ways to bail them out of trouble, she also knew how to get them in. As long as they all got out again, Jack wouldn’t have it any other way.
And now here was Venkman, who seemed to have the same bulls-eye painted on his back that Daniel did. True, he’d helped them work out the identity of the rogue psychiatrist who’d been screwing things up at the base, and he’d actually found them a spare Stargate, which they’d wound up needing when the threat involved had actually melted the gate they already had. Jack wasn’t about to tell him they’d managed to lose the Venkman gate already, not that long after it had been found. Need to know, and all that. Then there was that weird incident with the food of the gods. Jack hoped like mad Thor hadn’t sent for Peter so the team could once again be turned transparent. He hadn’t enjoyed that experience at all.
"So, what did Thor tell you he was gonna do?" Jack asked the Ghostbuster.
"Well, he said he wanted you guys along, so you need to get all your normal gear and weapons, I suppose." He pulled a little gizmo out of his pocket that had Carter’s attention just like that. "When you’re ready, I’m supposed to push this button."
Hammond’s brow puckered. "I don’t like to see you going off blind, SG-1. However, Thor has assisted us in the past. We may be technologically inferior to the Asgard, but we can also learn from them. You have my go on the Asgard mission."
"Then we better get ready." Jack headed for the door.
Peter fell into step with him. "Any chance of a quick hello to the gorgeous Doctor Fraiser?" he asked with a hopeful waggle of his eyebrows.
"She’d probably kill me if I let you get away without it," Jack admitted. "Come on." He knew that was a mistake as soon as Peter’s face smugged out. I can tell already this mission will be a barrel of laughs.
** *** **
"I don’t get it. How could he be in Colorado?" Winston’s brow puckered. "That’s not how the Star—" He broke off with a glance at Janine, who had been hovering ever since Peter’s disappearance. She knew a little about what went on out there at Cheyenne Mountain, but she didn’t have clearance to know anything more. She hated it that they were in on a secret they couldn’t share, but that was the way it had to be.
Janine’s face tightened. "You can say ‘Stargate’ in front of me. I know what it is." She whisked off toward the stairs. "I might not know how it can fetch somebody like that, and I don’t want to know. I’m going down to my desk. My nails need filing in the worst way." She whisked off with her chin in the air.
"She’s never gonna forgive us for having a big secret like this, is she?" Ray asked when the sound of her footsteps on the spiral staircase had faded.
Winston shook his head. "Not in this lifetime." He suspected it would fall to Egon to placate Janine. He was the only one she’d take it from. Egon’s expression indicated he knew that and that he was already planning how best to manage it. Well, at least the corner of his mind not actively involved in Peter’s abrupt disappearance was. Egon’s brain was big enough to compartmentalize such things efficiently.
"The Stargate is incapable of retrieving Peter in this manner," Egon replied. "What’s more, I have taken readings of the gate in operation. They don’t match the fading energy I detected when Peter was removed. I suspect either new alien technology retrieved from the other side of the Stargate or intervention of aliens. Since the Goa’uld would not be likely to transport Peter to Colorado and free him, I would assume an ally of Earth has done so. I know little about the Asgard, short of their existence and the fact that they must be the Roswell greys UFO buffs fancy, but it is possible they have teleport technology. That may be the way Peter was taken."
Yep, typical Egon. He’d figured it out already. Winston couldn’t remember much about the Asgard except that they had helped forge a treaty to protect Earth and that their leader, Thor, had been involved in it. What Thor might want with one of the Ghostbusters was anybody’s guess, but if he and his folks had been hanging around Earth for years and years, they might have seen one of Pete’s talk show appearances and decided the Ghostbusters’ equipment suited their needs. The team had never faced off against a Goa’uld, except for Louis Tully, that is, and they hadn’t had a chance to see if their equipment could do anything to remove the snake from his head. Egon had said it would be most unlikely as the snake was physical and he doubted even an atomic destabilizer carefully set at its frequency could selectively destabilize only the Goa’uld and not the surrounding brain tissue. Freeing Louis and turning him into a vegetable in the process had scarcely been an option, not when the Tok’ra, the ones who were supposed to be good Goa’uld, had better options.
"Wow, Egon." Ray’s eyes rounded. "The Asgard! I bet you’re right and that’s what happened to Peter. I remember hearing a little about them. That’s so neat. They’re on our side. I wish they’d teleported me."
"Beam me up, Thor," Egon said under his breath. When Ray grinned, Egon continued. "Knowing Peter, he will lobby for our inclusion in whatever plan Thor, if Thor it is, may have. He will make it clear that we function as a team. Therefore, in hopes of such an involvement, I suggest we prepare ourselves. Winston, how many packs are fully charged?"
Winston prowled over to the table. "Well, you said Pete took his. A couple of these are ready, one has five minutes to go, the last one possibly twenty minutes, and the one we charged yesterday so we wouldn’t be without one is still down in Ecto."
"Fetch it, please, will you," Egon urged. We’ll take all of them with us if we go in case we’ll require back-up from SG-1. "I want us all ready in case we’re needed."
In case Pete needs us, Winston thought as he hurried down the stairs. Pete hadn’t been wearing his jumpsuit when he went, so Winston paused long enough to slip into his own and his boots, grab Peter’s, and to recruit Janine to help carry up Egon’s and Ray’s. With no busts planned for this morning, they’d begun the day in their street clothes.
Janine gave him a sour glance from her desk and complied. She hated being out of the loop, but there was nothing Winston could do about that, so he gave her a shrug and a crooked grin before he trudged upstairs again with the guys’ jumpsuits and boots, proton pack on his back, Janine behind him carrying Peter’s gear. When he reached the third floor, nothing had changed except that Ray had dug out one of his books and was reading bits out loud to Egon about alien abductions.
Janine dumped the jumpsuits and boots on the lab table and stalked to the door in high dudgeon. Egon, who had learned perfectly to judge her moods, not that he always acted on them, said quietly, "Thank you very much, Janine."
She stopped, shot him a blazing smile.
"We may be going to join Peter," Egon replied. "You had best cancel our appointments for this afternoon and tomorrow, just in case."
Winston had already explained that when he’d piled the jumpsuits in her arms, but hearing it from Egon made her brow wrinkle. "You guys be careful," she insisted.
"We will," Ray promised.
Egon went over to her, put his hands on her shoulders, and smiled down at her. "Hold the fort, Janine."
"I will." She waited a hopeful moment, probably for a goodbye kiss, but Egon never did such things in public, even when Peter wasn’t part of the peanut gallery. All he did was squeeze her shoulders and let go.
Janine departed reluctantly.
"I wonder how many of these disappearance were the Asgard," Ray mused when her footsteps faded on the metal stairs. He gestured at the open book in front of him. "If there are all these UFO reports with characters who supposedly look like these Asgard, how does the SGC know they’re good guys? They might have their own agenda and only want to fool us into thinking they’re on our side."
Ray wasn’t usually the most suspicious of guys, but none of the team felt comfortable with the way Peter had been removed. He was evidently okay. He’d sounded just fine on the phone, maybe even a little excited about his experience, but it couldn’t have been fun at first. Winston wasn’t quite prepared to give the aliens the benefit of the doubt, either, not ‘til they had a better handle on what was going on.
Egon checked the settings of the charging packs. He had already disconnected the completed ones. He dressed hastily in his jumpsuit and boots as if he feared he’d disappear in his stocking feet. Ray jumped up and changed, and put on his pack as well. He took the other charged pack and hung the strap over his arm, letting it rest in his lap. "Hope I have time to stand up when the field engages," he said.
So now what? They stood around ready to be teleported? There wouldn’t be much warning, either, if Peter’s experience was the norm. Winston grinned and headed for the bathroom, with mental images of a mother telling a small, complaining child, "You should have thought of that before we left home." When he came back, Egon passed him en route. Never let it be said the Ghostbusters wouldn’t be prepared.
Ray abandoned his UFO book reluctantly but came back zipping his jumpsuit. "I still don’t like the alien abduction thing. We hear all these X-Files scare stories. If they were caused by Thor’s people, then I don’t trust him." His bottom lip shot out stubbornly.
"Frankly, I find most of those stories ludicrous inventions," Egon offered. He stood near the remaining proton pack, waiting for its alarm to announce completion of its recharge. "On the other hand, if Thor and his people are that interested in Earth, perhaps they have been at fault here. They may consider themselves so far in advance of us that they feel no guilt about such actions. We experiment on animals, after all."
"But animals can’t think," Winston argued. He didn’t like the trend of the conversation. He draped Peter’s jumpsuit over his shoulder and tied the boots onto his belt. They’d look awfully silly waiting here indefinitely if the Asgard really only needed Peter.
"Well, maybe there are levels of sentience," Ray suggested. He gnawed his bottom lip as he considered it.
"I don’t know," Winston threw in. "Maybe it’s like being pregnant—you are or you aren’t."
Ray opened his mouth to argue, then he shut it again. "It isn’t fair. Just bopping in and taking Peter away without even asking him if he wanted to go—that’s not right. I don’t like it."
He had been worried. Well, they all had. But Winston decided that he’d wait to see what Peter had to say before he wrote off the Asgard as intergalactic bandits. They didn’t even know it was the Asgard yet. It could be some weird invention SG-1 had brought home from the other side of the galaxy. Peter hadn’t sounded hurt, and he hadn’t even sounded pissed off, only determined to reassure the team he was okay. Of course there was no guarantee he was where he said he was. No one from the SGC had come on the line to confirm his location. Winston decided that was one thought he’d keep to himself. They had enough to worry about without creating whole new realms of nasty possibilities.
"Neither do I, Ray," Egon agreed. "Peter does know more about the Asgard than we do. He had time to learn more when he was out there alone. We were just brought in at the end and he couldn’t even tell us everything about that visit. Each time since we’ve learned a bit more, but there may be something far more likely than the Asgard. Speculation without additional information is futile. However, you continue your research, Ray. I want to correlate these readings and compare them with what kind of energy patterns I would expect from teleportation." He scratched his head. "There was a guy at the university who claimed he knew how to invent a teleportation system, but that it would require transfer portals at both ends to work. You could send someone anywhere but you could not retrieve him without a device at that end. I found his theories dubious at best, but now I wish I had paid more attention to them."
"We don’t have to build a teleport, Egon," Winston reminded him. "We just have to wait to hear from Peter. If he can’t convince Thor or whoever that we need to go along, we might have a good long wait. Want me to start lunch?"
"We’ll give Peter another hour," Egon replied. "If we’ve heard nothing from him by then, we’ll assume he wasn’t able to convince whoever is involved that they need all four Ghostbusters, and we’ll have to go on about our business." From the hard line to his mouth and the glint in his eyes, that didn’t sit well with Egon at all. Winston could buy that. It didn’t sit with him either, not one little bit.
Ray flipped through a few more pages. "Well, I think it sucks," he muttered under his breath, and bent his head to read another story of alien abduction.
Winston went to look for the phone number the team had for Cheyenne Mountain. If he didn’t hear something soon, he was going to break down and call them for an update. Nobody messed with one of the Ghostbusters.
** *** **
When SG-1 was ready, armed for a mission, packs of supplies on their backs and additional supplies for Peter in a shoulder tote since he was already wearing his proton pack, they gathered in the briefing room, since that was where Peter had been teleported. Daniel hadn’t seen Thor since he’d come to bear Sam away to fight the replicators, and since he had still been recovering from his appendectomy then, he hadn’t really been at the top of his form. Thor had rescued Jack and Teal’c from the infested sub, so the rest of the team had all seen the Asgard more recently than Daniel had. Jack was the one who was Thor’s buddy. The Asgard had even named a ship for him—even if they’d had to blow it up. The look on Jack’s face when he realized the O’Neill was so much space dust had been priceless.
Peter arrived to join them, with General Hammond walking at his side. They’d apparently been talking together. In spite of Peter’s irreverent nature, the General liked him, a lot, a situation that was evidently mutual. But then, Hammond was used to irreverence, in the form of Jack O’Neill.
Peter arrived munching a sandwich that looked like ham on rye and carrying a bottle of Coke. "Figured I’d have a snack before we go off and save the world," he said with a grin.
"Did you get to see Janet?" Sam asked involuntarily.
Peter beamed. "You bet." He rolled his eyes in delight. "She was glad to see me. What woman wouldn’t be?"
"Hathor?" Jack muttered under his breath.
Daniel winced. He had no fond memories of that particular Goa’uld.
"= Course she’s dead," Jack continued hastily. "One more Goa’uld notch on my gun."
"You did not shoot her, O’Neill," Teal’c pointed out helpfully.
"Well, I don’t have a cryo chamber to make notches on, so the gun’ll have to do. Let me tell you, Teal’c, literal aliens get on my nerves."
"Indeed, O’Neill? Perhaps it is fortunate you know none."
Peter’s eyes sparkled. "He’s got ya there, Jack."
Jack ignored the comment. "Well, what are you waiting for, Venkman? We’re as ready for this as we’ll ever be."
Peter cast a quick glance at General Hammond for permission, a fact that O’Neill liked. Venkman was not remotely military and his team was a team of equals, answerable to no higher authority except in the way that anyone might be answerable to someone who hired them. Yet, in spite of the irreverent way he always greeted the General now that he was comfortable with him, he never failed to give Hammond genuine respect.
"Godspeed, SG-1 and Doctor Venkman," Hammond said and stepped back.
Peter set the Coke bottle on the briefing table and swallowed the last bite of his sandwich. With a flourish, he whipped out a gizmo. "Thor gave me this to signal him when we were ready," he explained. Carter looked like she wanted to snatch it out of his hand. Peter held it away from her, pushed the button, and cried, "Beam us up, Scotty."
Even before he finished speaking, white light engulfed them and deposited them on the Asgard ship.
Daniel craned his neck to see. He hadn’t been along last time. It would have proven impossible to fight replicators while flat on his back in the infirmary. Carter was the one who looked around with interest, even though she’d already been to the Asgard homeworld. Peter did a bit of rubbernecking, too. He’d probably been too freaked last time to take a good look around, even after he found out who Thor was. Had he even heard of Thor before he was "abducted"?
As for Jack, he checked around for the cause of it all. Yep, there was old Thor, tooling along on his skinny little legs. "Thor, old buddy. Lookin’ good."
"As are you, O’Neill. Peter Venkman has told you we require assistance?"
"Yeah, but not what you need help with. Don’t tell me the Asgard have ghosts."
"We do not. Our species has no ghosts. Our planet is not haunted."
"Well, that’s good, right?"
"That is good. Other things are wrong. Wait. I have a function to perform."
He turned away. Peter charged up to him. "Hey, Thor, wait. What about my buddies? If you need one Ghostbuster, you need ‘em all."
"Even without the ‘fee’ you spoke of?" Thor asked him without stopping.
Peter scooted right along with him and the others fell in. "Yeah, no fee this time. Any buddy of SG-1’s is a buddy of mine."
"Excellent. Wait here."
Jack caught Venkman’s arm to stop him. Peter tugged against him once, then stopped fighting and shrugged his shoulders. For all any of them knew, Thor might simply need the components of his proton pack, although how the Asgard had known to teleport Peter while he was wearing it was anyone’s guess. Just a fluke? Thor wasn’t exactly the fluke type.
"Any theories, Carter?" O’Neill prompted when Thor had vanished.
"No, sir. If the Asgard have no ghosts, I don’t understand why they would need a Ghostbuster. Obviously the Asgard monitor our television broadcasts. I know I’ve never spoken to Thor of the Ghostbusters."
"Nor have I," Teal’c replied.
"So, can he take anything he wants from our heads?" Jack asked.
Peter’s eyes widened. "Mind-reading? Give me a break." But he glanced uneasily over his shoulder in the direction the alien had gone.
"He removed the knowledge of the ancients from your head, sir," Carter reminded O’Neill. "It’s possible that the process also granted him information. That’s a lot of information to process."
O’Neill stiffened. Even though he’d already considered that possibility, he wasn’t happy with the thought of the aliens playing fast and loose with his every thought. Some of them were too private and painful to share with anybody, let alone any stray Asgard who wanted to wander through the O’Neill Brain Archives.
"Nah, probably saw me on TV," Peter cut in quickly, so quickly that Jack rolled his eyes suspiciously in the Ghostbuster’s direction. The guy was a shrink, after all. He’d probably picked up on Jack’s unease.
Peter saw the look and pasted on one of his most smug, egotistical expressions. "You can bet these guys check out our TV shows. I’m famous, after all." Yep, he was doing his distraction number, all right.
"Indeed, PeterVenkman," Teal’c threw in quickly. "I have often observed you on television."
Carter nodded. "That’s most likely it."
That was one great team Jack had. He’d have to even include Venkman in his assessment at the moment. Look at Carter and Teal’c playing along with Venkman for O’Neill’s sake.
Light flared behind them and they whirled, prepared to defend themselves against a replicator incursion. Instead, the transition light faded to reveal the other three Ghostbusters, suited up and armed with proton packs and spares, Winston bearing Peter’s jumpsuit and boots, as if they had prepared themselves to be picked up. Had Thor contacted them, or had they just taken a chance and readied themselves? It wasn’t as if Peter had been given much opportunity to wheedle Thor for their presence once they beamed up.
"Peter!" cried Ray, delight and fascination filling his face. He shoved the intrigue at the thought of being on board an actual UFO to the background as he and his buddies lunged at Peter, slapped him on the back, pumped his hand, checked him out for possible gaping wounds and, in the case of Spengler, took readings of him with his P.K.E. meter.
"You gave me a scare," the egghead accused Peter sternly.
Peter accepted the jumpsuit Winston passed him, kicked off his tennies and suited up. "Not my fault, Spengs, old buddy. Blame Thor. He should be here any second. I told him he needed all the Ghostbusters. Not sure I’ve done you guys any favors, though. Whatever it is will probably be dangerous. But hey, we’re up for it, right?" He worked his arm into the sleeve.
"Right," cried Ray. "Wow, this is so cool. An actual alien spaceship." He whipped a device from his belt—it looked like the Ghostbusting team had lugged along every gadget they could easily carry—and took readings with it. "Gosh."
"What are you detecting, Ray?" Carter demanded. She edged up to him and looked at the device. "A magnetometer?"
Ray’s head bobbed. "A modified one. See?" He pointed to the screen and Carter bent close to squint at it. "I’m not getting anything that could correspond to a ghostly reading. Lots of energy, but that’s probably whatever drives the ship. I’ve got no way of telling if it’s running normally or not."
"It is," Thor confirmed as he hurried up to them.
Peter finished lacing up his boots, then he bounced up, gave the Asgard a wave and a quick, grateful grin for including his buddies in the mission. The other three Ghostbusters stared at him, mouths ajar. Good thing the Asgard ship didn’t have any flies or they’d be swallowing them right and left. Peter gave them their reaction time as he slid into his proton pack, then he lugged them forward one at a time to meet the Asgard.
"Thor, this is Egon Spengler, smartest physicist you’ll ever meet." He caught himself, glanced at Carter, and added, "Well, put him and Sam together and you can solve anything."
Carter dimpled at him, and Egon frowned. "Perhaps the Asgard have physicists of their own, Peter."
"We do," Thor agreed. "You are Egon Spengler. I have heard of you."
Gratification flashed across Spengler’s face as he looked down and down at Thor. He was the tallest person on board, even taller than Teal’c. "As I have heard of you."
"This is Ray Stantz," Peter introduced. "He’s our engineer and occult specialist. Knows all sorts of esoteric things. Heart of the team, I kid you not."
"Welcome, Ray Stantz."
"And Winston Zeddemore, guy who keeps us grounded. Taught us all our strategy."
"Pleased to meet you," Winston said formally and offered his hand.
Thor shook it, human-fashion. Jack could see Winston being careful not to break the alien, who must look awfully small and fragile to him.
"You are welcome," Thor said. You had to give it to the little guy, he knew how to be polite. "You are also needed, all of you."
"I thought we’d get to that pretty quick," Jack threw in. "You want to clue us in, Thor, buddy?"
"I shall do so. The Asgard are in need of your assistance."
"What, you guys are so smart we’re like cavemen rubbing sticks together beside you and you need our help?" Jack grinned. "Getting to be a habit, isn’t it?"
"Perhaps," Thor conceded. "That is why the Ghostbusters are here. The Asgard have no spirits, and as such, we have never needed to develop branches of science to cope with them."
"That makes sense," Egon admitted. "Ghost detection and containment is a recent field even on Earth. We have known of the presence of spirits and specters from the time of our prehistory but it has always been denied by reputable scientists, considered naught but primitive superstition. Those who encountered the supernatural were often scorned, and even today, in spite of our modern equipment and easily duplicated results, there are many who refuse to believe what we do is valid. Yet it is. I can show your scientists what we do, as well as how and why it works."
"We would value that knowledge," Thor agreed. "But you have been summoned to meet a specific threat."
"Ghosts in outer space?" Ray cried.
Carter’s brow had furrowed. "Thor, this is a ghostly threat? You aren’t considering the possibility of using the Ghostbusters’ equipment against the Goa’uld?"
"I had not considered that. Such a process might well escalate hostilities between the Goa’uld and the Tau’ri. While we might consider such options at a later time, the current threat must be resolved first."
"What exactly is the current threat?" Winston asked. "And don’t forget, we only know a little bit about what goes on out here. I’ve only been on one other planet myself."
Jack could see where this was going. "You’ll be on another soon, right, Thor?"
"That is correct, O’Neill."
"So, what’s it about?" he persisted. "And why do you need the Ghostbusters if there aren’t any Asgard ghosts?"
Thor frowned. It was hard to recognize expressions on that face, but Jack was coming to know the alien and he could tell from the glint in the eyes and the way Thor held his mouth. "Our war with the replicators continues," he admitted. "We attempted a new defense against them, one which would alter their physical make-up, to prevent them from replicating."
"Let me guess," Jack said. "It backfired."
"What did you try?" Carter asked.
"You would not understand it. The process is advanced, even for the Asgard. Our aim was to alter the molecular structure of the replicators by creating a virus specific only to the replicators, one that could not affect any other substance, being, or device."
Spengler’s eyes widened behind his glasses. "You meant to create a non-replicating mutation?"
"The process is far more complex than that, but at its most simplistic level, essentially correct."
Egon’s double-take at the suggestion that his grasp of the situation was simplistic made Peter grin and give him a good-natured punch in the ribs. "Guess that puts you in your place, right, Spengs?"
"Considering I am completely unfamiliar with the replicators in question, the nature of their threat, or their own very nature, Peter, being essentially correct is a compliment."
"Yeah, you keep on saying that and maybe you’ll convince yourself. These replicator thingies weren’t around when we last had contact with the SGC, were they? Somebody fill us in on what they are. We can’t fight something we don’t understand."
"Oh, like you understand major demons, Venkman?" Jack challenged. Peter might be a decent guy, but he usually rubbed Jack the wrong way. Daniel had once suggested that, in some ways, he and Peter were alike. When Jack had blown up at the very suggestion, Daniel had said quickly, "Smart mouth, playing at appearing less intelligent than you really are, leader type, heart of mush under a harder surface—" before Jack could cut him off. There were as many differences as there were similarities between him and Peter Venkman, and Jack wanted to disown the heart-of-mush suggestion; it made his skin crawl in mortification. Give me a break, he thought wryly.
"You bet I understand demons," Peter said. "They’re all about power, and if you think there aren’t a lot of power-hungry people in the world today, then you’re naive, and I don’t believe that for a second. I can tell where the Goa’uld are coming from, too. Same deal. Power. But I don’t know what the replicators are. I know what the word means but not what these guys are like. So clue us in."
"Think mechanical bugs," Carter threw in. "They devour what they encounter to create more of them. Put them on a ship, they’ll use it to create more replicators."
Peter shuddered elaborately and then tried to pretend he hadn’t. Evidently he wasn’t any more keen on the replicators than Jack was. No sensible man would be.
"So they’re not sentient?" Winston asked. He glanced around the pristine regions of Thor’s ship to make sure none of them were lurking. Jack remembered his battles with replicators with a complete lack of fondness, especially that moment on the doomed Russian sub when they had swarmed over him and Teal’c, just before Thor had beamed them out.
"They have a hive mentality, and swarm like insects," Thor explained. "One cannot hold a conversation with them. They exist to create more of themselves. We have battled with them at great length in our galaxy."
"Insects?" Peter mouthed doubtfully.
"Large metallic insects," Teal’c clarified dryly.
Venkman’s face fell, but he collected himself immediately and tried to appear as if he hadn’t reacted.
"Yeah, and last time they used their greatest ship, the O’Neill, to defeat them." Jack preened himself.
Peter deliberately didn’t look impressed. "Is this the O’Neill?" he asked skeptically.
"Wow, they named a ship after you?" Ray beamed at Jack. "That’s so cool. Nobody ever named a ship after any of us."
"Yet," Peter said quickly. "Nobody named a ship after any of us yet, Ray." He cast a hopeful glance in Thor’s direction and waggled his eyebrows.
Thor regarded his brows as if he had never observed such a bizarre phenomenon before. "Major Carter and I destroyed the O’Neill," he explained.
The unholy glee that lit Peter’s eyes made Jack grit his teeth. "Never mind that," he said hastily. "Clue us in on this new process you came up with, the one that backfired."
"Yes, that would be most intriguing," Egon said. He exchanged a quick glance with Carter. "Major Carter and I would enjoy going over your specifications. I assume that the end result was unexpected, and something which requires the skills of the Ghostbusters."
"That is perceptive of you, Spengler." Thor gave him a fifth-race kind of look. Jack frowned. Thor considered humanity a promising species and he had good things to say about Jack himself. Maybe Earth was still some distance away from becoming the fifth race of power in the galaxy, but Spengler must have just convinced Thor it wasn’t entirely a fluke. Carter had to have helped when she worked with him the time they destroyed the O’Neill, too. They didn’t come any brainier than Carter.
"Replicator ghosts?" Peter glanced from Egon to Thor and back again. "Machine ghosts? Bug ghosts. I think this is a good time to remind everybody that I hate bugs."
"They’re machines, Peter, not cockroaches," Ray teased. He hesitated and flung a doubtful glance at Thor. "Uh, they don’t look like cockroaches, do they?"
"They better not," Peter said darkly. "I got chased by a shapeshifter ghost cockroach as big as a Buick once, and I do not want to repeat the experience. Fee is double if there are any cockroaches in the game." He completely overlooked the fact that he had agreed to waive a fee. Maybe he thought he could bill the SGC.
"I’ll pass on that one, too," Jack said. He didn’t want to think about giant ghost bugs, or giant ghost replicators, either, if it came to that."
"What is the nature of psycho-kinetic energy?" Thor asked Egon.
"The energy produced by ghosts and spirits, and other beings of a non-corporeal state, and occasionally a corporeal entity, is quantitatively different from the energy produced by living beings, and also from mechanical energy," Egon explained.
"You and Thor can compare notes later," Jack said. "Unless you’ve got a way to test it? Do you have any of your mutated replicators here?"
Daniel had listened to the exchange without saying a word, which was, for Daniel, a long time to go without talking. He plunged in now. "Thor, you haven’t brought a mutated replicator to Earth, have you?" The look he exchanged with Jack held a ton of alarm at the thought.
"I have brought one, contained by a series of interconnecting, automatically regenerating stasis fields. They are not capable of holding it indefinitely, as, by its nature, it is able to gradually penetrate each field as it adapts its energy to match it. The barrier is self-repairing, and expands to create new fields as the inner ones collapse, but eventually a new field will expand past the walls of the ship, and those on board will be at risk."
"That does not sound good," Peter said.
"It is my hope that the Ghostbusters will be able to incarcerate or destroy it before that time."
"Tell us what you meant to do," Carter said. "Don’t forget, we aren’t as smart as you are, so make it simple." She threw a slightly amused glance in Jack’s direction. Respect from his second in command. He loved it.
"We meant to introduce a substance into the replicators’ diet that would alter them to a non-corporeal state. In such a state, we theorized, they would be unable to consume metals and would eventually phase out of existence without nourishment. At the very least, we would be able to isolate them and possibly destroy them in their new state."
"Wow, you created ghosts from solid matter." Ray’s eyes couldn’t have opened any wider without his eyeballs falling right out. "That’s so great."
"I hate to break it to you, but all you have to do to create a ghost from solid matter is to kill a person," Peter said darkly. "You know how many times a murder victim comes back as a ghost?"
"True, Peter, but gee. What if the process got loose? What would it do to a living being?"
"Nothing," Thor said quickly. A It is not designed to affect the living. The process was carefully designed to prevent it from affecting specific living species."
"You tried it, didn’t you?" Jack asked. "That’s why you had it so quick after all the replicator crises recently. You were trying to design a Goa’uld killer."
Thor only looked at him. "This process is designed specifically to act upon replicators," he said. It was not an answer to Jack’s question. There were means of affecting a whole species biologically; that’s what bio-warfare was all about. Going after the Goa’uld that way might be cool except for one thing; the Tok’ra, allies of both the Asgard and Earth, were biologically identical to the Goa’uld. If Thor’s folks had decided to go after the Goa’uld, they risked alienating the Tok’ra by doing so. This whole process could open a very nasty can of worms.
"What does it do to the replicators?" Carter asked. Her eyes had glazed from intense concentration. Probably complex formulas were sashaying around her brain. From the blank expression on Spengler’s face, he must be doing the same. The Asgard technology had progressed a helluva lot more than any Earth science. That didn’t mean those two super-smart folks might not understand what was going down here, at least enough to work with it. After all, the Ghostbusters dealt with non-corporeal beings all the time. Not a job Jack would like, but maybe the Ghostbusters wouldn’t get their jollies facing off with the snakeheads, either.
"When they consume the treated substance, they begin to lose solidity. Not cohesion; they retain their form but they are no longer able to ingest solid matter. However...."
"The mutation introduces new difficulties," Carter threw in when Thor’s voice trailed off unhappily.
"Precisely. Although the affected replicators are unable to create more replicators, they are able to infect other replicators. That was our intention in the design, of course. What we did not realize was that they could blend physically into different shapes and forms—and shift into still more complex shapes. They are able to emulate the form of living beings."
"They can look like people?" Winston screeched.
"Transparent people?" Peter asked hopefully. Maybe he thought they’d be easier to bust if he could see through them.
"To some degree." Thor frowned. "However, that is not the worst of their abilities."
"What is the nature of the threat?" asked Teal’c. He took a tight grip on his staff weapon.
"Instead of consuming physical matter, they can absorb energy. They can then use it to attack the living."
"Like shooting out energy beams, laser stuff?" Jack asked. He wasn’t happy with this at all. Seemed like Thor and his scientists had just created something every bit as nasty as the original replicators. Major oops time.
"Demons can shoot fire from their hands, and sometimes from their eyes," Peter offered. He gave the proton pack on his back a hitch.
Thor studied him until he squirmed. "It is my hope that your equipment will deal with the crisis," he said.
"Maybe I should attempt to take readings of the mutated replicator you have brought with you," Egon said. "We may need additional equipment. Er, are we still in orbit around Earth?"
"We are." Thor gestured down a corridor and headed in that direction. "When you have studied the replicator, any additional equipment you require may be retrieved. Then we will go to the site."
"What site?" Jack asked. He should have known it wouldn’t be easy.
Thor didn’t stop walking. "We put the treated substance on a vessel designed to resemble the O’Neill, at least in substance and complexity. The replicators were wary of it, but could not resist the temptation. They controlled the vessel, consumed the substance, and mutated. Their flight became erratic. Before we could halt its progress, it crashed."
"On your homeworld?" Carter asked.
"No. That would be unfortunate, but in this instance, the damage was worse. It crashed upon a planet under our protection."
Daniel’s eyes widened behind his glasses. "A planet with defenseless people on it?"
"Yes. They are perhaps as advanced as the Cimmerians."
In other words, no modern technology, nothing for the replicators to feed on—except innocent people. If the new breed of replicators could turn into colony ghosts and shoot energy at anything that moved, the protected planet had just lost all hope of protection.
Jack ran a hand through his hair; he could feel it spiking up. "So let me get this straight, buddy. You guys made ghost replicators and didn’t design anything to stop them if your plan backfired?"
"We developed a back-up system. It did not work."
"Because what the replicators turned into was immune to the process?" Egon suggested. Jack had been through enough crises with the Ghostbusters to recognize from the sliding of Spengler’s glasses toward the tip of his nose that he was hooked. Venkman kept mentioning fees but Spengler would probably pay for a chance to work this one through.
Thor bobbed his head in a nod he must have copied from the humans. "Precisely. Follow me." He led the way into a chamber that held only one item in the center of the room—centered between floor and ceiling as well as between the walls. It was round and transparent like a giant crystal ball and possessed onion-like layers that blurred the central component. As everyone crowded into the room and spread out in a line along the walls on either side of the door, the outer wall shimmered, quivered, bulged, and spit out a new layer that reflected the ambient light in a series of pulsating waves, almost like the event horizon of a Stargate, except in a kaleidoscope of colors. Egon’s meter threw a hissy fit at the production. When the light muted down to glints of energy sparkling here and there, the meter’s antennae retreated, but their tips didn’t stop blinking.
Egon said, "Oh, dear."
"It has breached another barrier," Thor observed.
Jack eyed it uneasily. The chamber was a big one, but the containment field in the center had expanded to fill more than a third of the enclosed space. Involuntarily, Jack shivered.
Peter sidled up to Egon, propped one elbow on the taller man’s shoulder and leaned, using the proximity to take a gander at the meter’s display screen. He winced, but masked the reaction instantly. "That’s not good, is it, Egon?"
Egon braced his feet to take the weight of the lean man. "No," he said simply.
Ray crowded in on the other side. He had a meter, too, and some other gizmo, as well, one in each hand. "Egon, I’m getting the equivalent of a Class Eight elemental here."
"As am I."
At that, Peter took a step back from Egon, his mouth tight. Winston grimaced expressively. Jack had a very bad feeling about that. Why was the job never easy?
"Class Eight?" Carter sounded awfully shocked. Jack had never paid much attention to the ghost class thing except to compare it to military rank. The way they sounded, a Class Eight might be the equivalent of a four-star general. > Course Gozer, who’d shown up a while back had been a lot tougher than a Class Eight, hadn’t he? "That’s more powerful than a major demon," Carter continued. She probably had memorized the ghost power scale; memorizing weird techie things came naturally to her, and she’d had a field day with the Ghostbusters’ P.K.E. meters. She’d acquired one from them a few missions back and had spent weeks modifying it to detect the presence of a Goa’uld on a planet. Trouble with that was, for living beings it simply didn’t have the range to be of assistance. By the time the meter announced the presence of a Goa’uld, the odds were the team was already dodging staff weapon blasts. Carter had been thinking of doing a micro-miniaturization of it into something that could be worn as a bracelet, and used in the event of a Goa’uld who was pretending not to be one. Not that the arrogant snakeheads ever denied their so-called godhood. They were more apt to flaunt it with hordes of Jaffa and nasty ribbon devices to zap people with. Still, such a gadget would be good for testing returning teams to make sure they hadn’t been compromised. Hammond was all gung-ho about it.
"Elemental?" Thor queried.
"Powerful beings to represent what were, at one time, considered the elements, before anybody really understood the periodic table." Ray caught himself. "Maybe you don’t call it the periodic table, sir."
"I am familiar with the terminology. Continue."
Ray practically bounced with eagerness. "Way back before science was quantified, they assumed that air and water and fire were elements. A being composed of fire might be considered a fire elemental, etc. We had a water elemental take over our TV once."
Winston gave a reminiscent shudder. "Not fun, let me tell you. We had to zap it with lightning to destroy it." A thoughtful look darted across his face. "Think that might work with these ghost replicators?"
Ray shook his head. Egon cut in. "No, while the equivalent of an elemental in power, these entities are not water elementals. That emergency process worked because fire and water are natural enemies."
"So what’s the natural enemy of a replicator?" Peter asked brightly.
"Anything that exists," Jack muttered. He didn’t want to think about the concept of elementals possessing television sets. Had to be a con. Except that they were all so serious about it. "Diametrically opposite? Carter? Any brilliant thoughts?"
She glanced up at him and her eyes sparkled. "Many, sir, but not yet in that area."
"Smartass," he muttered under his breath.
"The replicators are machines," Daniel threw in.
Winston’s grin matched Carter’s. "So we find some Luddites to attack them?"
Daniel’s mouth quirked, then he sobered. "Unfortunately, we have, if not Luddites, the residents of a primitive planet. They will not understand technology. We have to help them."
Jack glanced at the shimmering field. Was it bigger? Nah, Spengler’s meter would have told the world, hell, the universe, if it had breached another layer of the containment. A guy could go deaf around those meters. He squinted into the shimmering mess, but could see nothing but distant blurred movement within the field. He thought the shape was maybe a little bigger than Thor, but the distortion effect made it hard to be certain.
"Will your equipment defeat the mutated replicators?" Thor asked Egon simply.
Egon frowned. "It may be possible, but it will be difficult. I’ve been filtering out the energy produced by the containment field so that I can obtain more exact readings of the entity itself, or perhaps themselves. The meter suggests multiple organisms loosely bound together in a semi-cohesive whole. The valence shades toward the negative but not enough to suggest a fully physical being. I did bring the atomic destabilizer, which may serve us, as the entities will be slightly more solid than the usual ghosts we bust."
And that was a lot of nothing. Jack held back a disgusted snort. How could Thor think that four guys who ran around chasing ghosts, for crying out loud, could stop mutated replicators when the original variety were tough enough to halt, even when armed with suitable major ordnance and unlimited rounds of ammo?
"I’ll need a more precise reading," Egon announced. "Thor. Are you able to lower the protection fields and instantly firm them up again? How fast would the entity move if you lowered them for one second?"
Peter looked at him as if he’d gone nuts. "Let it go?"
"We will be facing unconstrained replicators when we reach the planet, Peter," Egon pointed out. "This would be an ideal test. Pure readings uncontaminated by the field would give us something concrete to prepare for. We could study them, work out a means to bust this smaller one, test it, bust the entity, and arrive at the planet with that experience behind us."
Well, Jack had to give him that. He sounded confident. "So you think you can bust it, then?" He shot Daniel a sideways glance. Daniel merely looked intrigued. That would have encouraged Jack if he hadn’t seen the frowns on the faces of all the Ghostbusters but Egon.
"It may prove difficult, all the more so because we are in space," Egon pointed out.
"Don’t tell me your equipment doesn’t work on a ship?" Jack protested.
"It isn’t that, sir," Carter threw in before Egon could reply. "A ship has only its bulkheads and energy barriers to protect those within from the vacuum of space. One misguided blast from a particle thrower against the outer hull could breach the hull and expose us to vacuum. We could, of course, suit up, assuming Thor has enough suits large enough to fit all eight of us, but that would limit the Ghostbusters’ movements and make it difficult for them to capture the entity. I assume it is still enough replicator to be able to damage the ship?" She glanced down at Thor.
"It can no longer devour metal," Thor admitted. "However, it can pass through the hull. The remnants of its physical being might be enough to create a microscopic hole where it had passed."
"And that’s not a good thing," Peter said. "We were on the space station before. Believe me, a hole in space would not be good." He shivered.
"I don’t want to know," Jack returned. "So, Thor, what do you want to do?"
"We will first allow uncontaminated readings. I can instantly reinstate the field. I do not believe it has the ability to hear us or to comprehend our words if it can, so it will not instantly realize it is free. Will one second suffice for readings, Spengler?"
"It will." Egon did something to his meter. "I have established the record feature and filtered out the energy from the protection grid." He tucked the meter into the front of his jumpsuit and drew his thrower. The tip of it looked different from the standard model. Was that the destabilizer thingie? Jack frowned. Not much point in blasting with his P-90. The last thing he wanted to do was face a replicator without a weapon in his hand. Maybe Carter could whip something up or maybe they could head down to the Ghostbusters’ headquarters and grab a few more. These packs looked a lot lighter than the one he’d worn when they fought Gozer. Hadn’t they had these smaller ones when they were here looking for the Food of the Gods? ‘Course they hadn’t been able to use them then; the packs hadn’t destabilized along with the rest of the team. This time the Ghostbusters had brought a couple of spares. Not enough for everybody, but enough to add to their usual power levels.
The other Ghostbusters pulled out their proton rifles—the standard kind—and lined up, ready to defend themselves and SG-1 if the ghost replicator broke free in the one second allowed it. Thor eyed them thoughtfully—at least Jack assumed that was a thoughtful expression. Much as he liked the little guy, he couldn’t always read Thor’s face. The Asgard nodded once, then he touched a control on the wall near the door.
The shimmer of the nested globes faded from the outside in until only one field encased the entity. With only one transparent level of protection, Jack could make out the features of the entity. It could have starred in any issue of the Casper The Friendly Ghost comic books except that it looked like Casper of Borg. Not one of the all-time greater looks Jack had seen. While it should have looked silly with its little bulbous head and drifting body, those metallic protrusions all over him like Jean-Luc Picard when he’d been converted into Locutus sent a shiver up and down Jack’s spine.
"They’ll never convert that into Seven of Nine," Peter said with a combination of regret and disgust, proof Jack wasn’t the only one who had been thinking of Star Trek’s Borg. Peter’s knuckles whitened on the thrower he held.
"Yeah, Casper of Borg," Jack said with a wry grin, and won a half snort of amusement from Venkman, and an impressed "Wow," from Ray.
Thor said, "Now, Spengler," and touched the controls again.
Egon’s meter practically went into overload for the mere second before the globe reformed around Casper of Borg. Sheer pain from the high-pitched beeping made Jack automatically hunch his shoulders. The second felt like a year to Jack. Conscious of Teal’c, staff weapon aimed right at the creature, his body taut with tension at Jack’s side, and of Carter’s fascinated gasp as she manipulated one of the gizmos Ray had brought, Jack didn’t even have time to raise his P-90. The ghostly machine started toward them—amazing how quickly it could react—only to impact against the reinstated force field. It looked like it had decided to go for Teal’c first, maybe because his was the most solid body, or maybe because it had sensed "Junior". For the first time, it made a sound, an eerie howl like something out of Edgar Allan Poe. Ululation, that was the word. If he sprang a fancy word like that on Daniel, he’d give him a real shock.
Daniel’s face whitened. He’d stood his ground when the field went down, and him without a weapon in his hand, but then Daniel didn’t know what it felt like to fight the replicators. He hadn’t gone down under a mob of them convinced he was going to die when they’d converged on him and Teal’c on the sub. But as the field came up again, Daniel’s hand shot out involuntarily and closed around Jack’s wrist for a second.
None of the Ghostbusters fired, but Jack could tell they’d been about a split second from it. Ray bounced eagerly on his toes—he’d probably be excited if he met up with Sokor, if it came to that. Winston stood tense and ready, Peter poised on the brink of action, with that instinct he had to protect his buddies. He’d somehow positioned himself just a fraction ahead of the others as if he could dive between one of them and Casper of Borg if the entity came at them. One of the things Jack liked about Venkman was that the protective impulse was instinctive, automatic. It was something a leader needed, and while the Ghostbusters didn’t have a leader officially, Peter was unofficially it.
The various force fields hummed into place and Thor took his hand from the controls. "Was the time sufficient?" he asked.
Egon pulled the meter from the front of his jumpsuit. The little antennae had shot up so quickly in that second they could probably have poked him through the skin. They slid down into at-rest position and the beeping and blinking faded. That sound could have shattered eardrums, but it had lasted such a short time that Jack could still hear. Just.
"Spengs?" Peter prompted hopefully.
"This is very bad, Peter."
"You had to say bad?" Winston muttered in the background. He powered down his thrower but didn’t shut it off. He muttered to Thor, "I hate it when he says bad." The Asgard gazed up at him in surprise.
"How bad?" Ray asked. He looked at his meter, too, and Carter, who stood beside him, held out the device in her hand for Ray to examine. It only upped the level of his grimace.
"The power levels are extremely high for such a compact entity," Egon replied. "The mechanical part of it retains its strength and regenerative quality, up to a point."
"Explain," Thor urged. He did not look happy.
"You designed your mutation to prevent it from devouring metallic substances," Egon explained. "From these readings, albeit hasty ones, I would theorize that your process worked. The entity, er, Casper of Borg, as O’Neill so colorfully phrases it—"
"Casper was white, not colorful," Peter put in with the air of someone deliberately being annoying. Ray and Carter gave sputters of muffled laughter, and Daniel’s mouth quirked at the corners. Jack recognized the smartass remark for what it was, a tension breaker. He played games like that himself.
Egon lifted one eyebrow. "If you must be literal, Peter, the Borg were not white."
"I stand corrected. Go on, oh great one, who understands the workings of alien mutations."
"The entity will grow and expand as the original replicators did, but in its mutant form, it will seek different nourishment. While it is not possible to theorize efficiently with such limited data, I will attempt to do so. It will seek an alternate form of energy. I have observed it since we entered this room. While it was impossible to make out details through the expanding force fields, I did notice one curious factor."
"Which is?" Carter prodded. There was a definite wrinkle in her brow. She would probably pick up the same thing if it was a science situation.
"The moment we entered the room, the entity focused on Teal’c."
"I am aware of this, EgonSpengler," Teal’c confirmed. "When the field lowered, it attempted to move in my direction."
"And this means what exactly?" Jack didn’t like the sound of that. He’d noticed it, too, once the field went down and had assumed that Teal’c’s solid bulk would have provided the most tasty snack, but from Egon’s tone he realized that was probably the wrong assumption.
"Perhaps it means that it was drawn to the symbiote he carries," Egon offered. "While it might seek living creatures to consume, there are many of us in this room, and it has focused almost exclusively on Teal’c from the moment of our entrance."
"Wait a minute. Almost?" Peter questioned before Jack could ask for clarification. Spengler had proven precise in his speech. He meant what he said.
The tall man nodded. "It focused on Teal’c immediately. But then, and perhaps I am assigning it conscious purpose when it may have been instinctive, but it studied all of us in turn, very quickly. Were I to assign it either conscious or instinctive purpose, I would hypothesize that it was attempting to determine if any of the rest of us carried Goa’uld or Goa’uld larva." He pushed his glasses into place with an abrupt gesture. "It did, however, linger slightly longer on Major Carter." He turned to Sam, and the two physicists exchanged a look. "I may be remembering incorrectly—"
"Fat chance," muttered Winston.
Egon’s mouth quirked briefly in appreciation, then he continued. "You once hosted a Tok’ra. While I am not familiar with the aftereffects of such a process, it may be possible that there remains a marker in your system to indicate this—and that the entity could sense it."
"You mean it could sense the protein marker in her system?" Daniel made an involuntary step closer to Carter as if he could protect her from the entity. To quote Winston, ‘fat chance’. It might not find him as tasty as Goa’uld du jour, but that didn’t mean the entity might not suck up archaeologists as a side dish on the way to the main course.
"Protein marker, thank you, that’s the term I had forgotten, if I had ever known it. While it may be coincidence, the fact of its consistent focus on Teal’c and the longer attention given to Sam than to the rest of us, makes me recommend that when we attempt to pull it into a trap they withdraw from the room."
"Yeah, Egon, I agree," Ray jumped in hastily. He glanced from his P.K.E. meter to the other gizmo, the one he had called a modified magnetometer. "But I’m not sure the traps will hold it. That’s a lot of energy to confine in a ghost trap, and we’ve got more of them waiting on the planet."
"I had considered that," Egon admitted. The guy could probably solve twelve physics problems before breakfast and still have time to design a new gizmo with his other hand, just like Carter.
"I had an idea, too," she threw in, right on cue. "Egon, I’ve studied the trap specs. I admit I was considering modifications that would be useful to us on missions, and I came up with a possible variation that could work on naquada. I haven’t finished my modifications, but I think it could be done quickly. However, I couldn’t detect naquada in its system."
"No, wait." Ray waved an eager hand. "I’ve got a better idea. Sam, if you’ve got your trap specs—are we still in orbit around Earth, sir?" he asked Thor.
"We are. While speed is essential, you might have needed additional equipment. We must leave quickly now that you have observed the entity. Retrieve what you need and return."
"I’ll get the specs and the modified trap," Carter agreed. She and Thor went out.
"What’s your idea, Raymond?" Egon prompted.
"If it likes naquada, why not ‘bait’ the trap with it? Configure some naquada into the inner surface of the trap. We’ll have to boost its power and reinforce the protection grid, but we can do that en route to the planet, if Thor has some naquada for us to use. I don’t know if it’s the symbiote itself or the naquada in its system that attracts the entity."
"It might be possible the Asgard modification might have intended to make the Goa’uld appealing to the modified replicators," offered Daniel. "It sounds like they were working on several possibilities. Designing something that automatically killed Goa’uld would endanger the Tok’ra. But a modification that could be specifically induced in the presence of Goa’uld and Jaffa might be more useful."
Jack’s eyes narrowed. He’d wondered about that. The Asgard had their own agenda, of course, and while it ran parallel to Earth’s in a lot of ways, there was no reason to assume they wouldn’t consider a process that killed two birds with one stone to be the ideal solution to two of their worst problems, even if it might offer a threat to the Tok’ra if the mutants managed to elude Asgard control—which they clearly had.
Egon nodded eagerly. "I wondered about that myself when I saw how the entity focused on Teal’c.
Abruptly the outer field shivered and bulged. Power rippled through the layers and by the time it stabilized, the new outer field had firmed up. Egon looked at his wristwatch. "We shall need to bust this entity within the next two hours," he stated.
"Or—" Peter prompted.
"Or the field will expand to the point that it will be difficult to remain safe from it. I don’t know where life support controls are maintained on this vessel, but should the entity’s field encompass that area, it might be possible to use the energy there to shut it down."
"And that’s bad, right?"
"Yes, Peter," Egon said firmly. "That would be extremely bad."
Peter grimaced. "I hate being right."
** *** **
Daniel watched the dimly visible shape behind the protection fields and felt a frown pucker his brow. He couldn’t help remembering the way Jack had screeched at him to blow the sub when the replicators closed in on him and Teal’c. Just seeing the creepy, partially metallic being in that one split second made his skin crawl. How much worse had it been for Jack and Teal’c when the replicators on the ship attacked them? Jack hadn’t wanted to die that way; he’d rather have been blown to bits. Until now, Daniel hadn’t fully understood, although the images of the original replicators were nightmare-inducing to the tenth power. Afterward, he’d had a few nasty dreams about Thor arriving too late, teleporting Jack and Teal’c’s dead bodies. He hadn’t wanted to mention the dreams, but Doctor Fraiser had picked up on his generally sleepy expression and pounced. He had been still recovering from his emergency appendectomy then, and Janet hadn’t wanted him to get run down. She’d pried it out of him about the dreams, assured him they’d go away—they had—and suggested he talk to Jack about it.
Jack, of course, was every bit as willing to discuss the twists in his psyche as Daniel was, that is, not at all. But her suggestion made him consider Jack, and he’d realized his friend showed traces of interrupted sleep, too. He wasn’t sure whether Janet had said anything to Jack about Daniel, but in the downtime following the sub incident, Jack had hung around a bit, and they’d gone out to eat a few times as a team, watched a lot of old movies and hockey games, and generally wound down. Euronda had thrown a few kinks into the mixture, but he and Jack had worked that out, too. The dreams had faded as dreams do. This experience might evoke a whole crop of new ones.
Daniel hoped the mutant replicators wouldn’t bring back the whole mess to Jack, too. Forlorn hope. Jack’s face was tight.
Sam came back with a trap, a laptop computer and discs, and a few of the devices she used in her lab. Daniel didn’t understand what they were for, but the approval on Egon’s face proved that he did. The two physicists and Ray went off to a corner of the room where Thor pushed a button and projected a table top from the wall for them to work at. Asgard chairs were too small to be useful to the six-foot-three Egon, but he and the others simply stood at the table and went to work on every team member’s ghost trap. Thor provided the necessary naquada.
While they worked, talking to each other and to Thor in a scientific shorthand that made as much sense to Daniel as cuneiform did to Jack, Teal’c stood guard at the force field, a P.K.E. meter in one hand and his staff weapon in the other. Daniel didn’t know if the staff weapon would do any harm to the confined creature, but it could harm a Goa’uld. If nothing else, it would give Teal’c a sense of security. Maybe.
Winston stood at Teal’c’s side with his thrower drawn. Peter had his drawn, too, and he’d offered the extra packs to Jack and Daniel, both of whom had worn them before. Jack had his thrower in his hands, too, his knuckles white on it as he stood at Teal’c’s other side, prepared to defend his friend and teammate against "Casper of Borg". Daniel chose to stand near Sam. If the fields should fail, she would need protection, too. Ray and Egon could draw their throwers quickly, of course, but Daniel suspected the entity could move extremely fast.
Peter fell in beside Daniel, protecting his working buddies and Sam. "They really get a charge out of this," he said with a nod at Egon and Ray. "Even if it’s dangerous, even if it’s as nasty as Gozer, Ray’s gonna be thrilled like a kid at a circus. And you give Egon a complex scientific problem, it’s like giving him an early Christmas present. Look at ‘em. They’re really having fun."
"So is Sam," Daniel realized. Even though the workers knew the danger, they were so caught up in the problem before them that it demanded all their attention. They had to know their friends would warn them if anything went wrong. That they could concentrate so fiercely on their work was a sign of complete trust.
"This won’t be enough naquada to override their interest in Teal’c, and in Sam," Ray decided. "But it should provide enough extra ‘pull’ for the traps to work, especially with your power mods, Egon. This design you came up with, Sam, is really great."
"With a few modifications, it ought to be enough to draw in and hold the entities, assuming the particle streams can confine them," Sam said and went off into more physics-speak. Egon countered with something that sounded like sheer gibberish to Daniel.
"Don’t ask me," Peter said with a grin. Even though tension vibrated through him at the upcoming mission, the gaze at his friends was fond and full of amused tolerance. "They do that all the time. Winston and I just walk around them and ignore them till they come out of it and turn human again."
"At least that means we are human part of the time," Egon said without looking up. "Perhaps that puts us ahead of you, Peter."
"Boy, life is tough when your buddies can slam you without even thinking about it," Peter complained.
"Doesn’t exactly require thinking," Winston threw in without turning his attention from the spheres.
Peter stuck out his tongue at him, but he didn’t look upset at the slams. The Ghostbusters had been a team for a long time. Brothers. Daniel, who had found family in his own team, could understand. He and Jack could insult each other in perfect amity. They’d had their rough patches, of course. What relationship didn’t? But in the end, they worked it out, just like they had after Euronda. Like they had after Jack had been forced to fling Daniel’s friendship back in his face, the time he’d gone undercover to expose Maybourne’s little fun and games with the covert teams using the other Stargate. Daniel hoped it would never get that bad again.
"We’ll have to adjust the throwers, too," Ray said suddenly. "Thor, would you take a look at my pack. I can give you the specs. What I’d like to do is boost the power without overloading. If we could get it up to another ten or fifteen percent, I think we’d have a lot better chance to take out the Casper of Borg modifications. It’s not just this one, it’s the ones on the planet, too."
Thor came closer and turned his attention on the pack that Ray stripped off. As he removed the outer casing to expose the device’s inner workings, Thor drew back slightly. If he’d had eyebrows, they would have lifted in surprise. "I realized your devices held nuclear power, but I had not thought to study such a primitive energy source at close range. This is your shielding?"
Ray nodded. "We keep modifying it and improving it, but I bet you could do something conceptually superior." He grinned down at the alien. "Only I bet you won’t. Do you have a Prime Directive like on Star Trek? Where you don’t interfere with emerging cultures, I mean?"
"Oh yeah," Jack threw in wryly over his shoulder. "I can’t count the number of times we’ve been told we’re ‘too young’ to be granted access to certain technology."
"It is true that the Asgard will not share the next step in this process with you. However, judging by what I observe here, it will be possible to boost the power of this device to the percentage you require without a conceptual leap. Since the Asgard created the problem we have asked you to solve, I am willing to make those modifications for you." Thor was frowning. He probably didn’t like the thought, but he couldn’t ask for help and refuse to do what he could to make it work.
"Finally," Jack muttered. "Nice going, Thor."
"I am glad you approve, O’Neill."
"Oh yeah. Keep track, Carter."
"Yes, sir." Her eyes twinkled. Daniel knew there had been no need for Jack to remind her to watch what Thor did. She might not be as familiar with the portable nuclear accelerators as Egon and Ray were, but she was so smart she was sure to learn something from the process.
The outer field shimmered and a new one coalesced around it, moving the other boundary another two feet closer to the workers. Ray glanced up at it, eyes wide. Egon merely hunched up his shoulders and focused on Thor’s slender fingers as he did something Daniel couldn’t quite see and probably wouldn’t understand if he could to the open proton pack. Jack grabbed Teal’c and moved him back the same distance as the expansion.
"When we go to trap Casper, I want you out of here, T."
"I am prepared to face the threat at your side, O’Neill."
"I know you are, big guy. But there are only six proton packs. Daniel and I will wear the other two. I want you to keep an eye on Carter and Thor. If it goes for you two first, the last thing I want is to have to pull my shot so I won’t hit you."
"Yeah, and we don’t know what its sensing range is," Peter threw in. "It might not be able to pick you up if you’re in another part of the ship. It might have to stop and try to track you. Hey, Thor?"
"Yes, Venkman?" Thor didn’t stop working, but he did raise his head.
"Are these things self-aware? Or are they just mindless feeding machines?"
"That is unknown," Thor replied. "Certainly within the modification. If it indeed is drawn to naquada or to Goa’uld or their larval forms, or even to the protein marker Major Carter possesses, it may simply exist to devour it."
"So could he sense them if they were way at the other end of your ship?"
Thor frowned. "I do not know."
"The entity reacted as soon as we entered the room," Egon said without lifting his gaze from Thor’s handiwork. "Yet it was at the far side of the containment field when we entered."
"Meaning it hadn’t picked up on Teal’c until we got here?" Jack asked hopefully.
Teal’c shot that down. "The direction Spengler indicates leads to a concentrated source of naquada."
"Yeah, gotcha. But a concentrated source might mask the naquada in Junior." Peter pointed at Teal’c’s stomach. "Still, once Teal’c showed up, Casper forgot the concentrated stuff and homed right in on him."
"And that tells you what, Venkman?" Jack asked. Daniel was sure he already knew the answer.
"That the mutation prefers the energy offered by a living body rather than a machine or metallic source," Peter said. "The Asgard programmed it to stop gobbling down metal. So I have a sneaky feeling it’s going to go after people now, or at least some kind of biological energy. What do you think, Egon?"
"I think you may be correct, Doctor Venkman."
Peter beamed at the form of address and at the respect in Egon’s voice. "Yeah, and that means the naquada in the traps will only look tasty when there isn’t a Goa’uld or Jaffa around, doesn’t it?"
"Precisely. We must therefore hope that the people on Thor’s protected planet possess no naquada in their systems."
"What will it devour if it can’t get naquada?" Daniel asked. When everybody stared at him, he said, "Well, uh, I’m sorry, but that’s what the replicators do; they consume material to make more of themselves. Thor might have changed what they consume, but I bet the process didn’t change their essential natures, did it?"
Jack licked his finger and drew a mark in the air. "That’s one for you, Daniel."
Daniel wished it hadn’t been. Deprived of a naquada source and unable to consume metals, the replicator might decide the energy produced by living beings would be a grudging substitute for their favorite food, the way Jack would only eat broccoli if there were nothing else available, and then he’d bitch about it the whole time.
"That is, unfortunately, indeed one for Doctor Jackson," Thor admitted. "That is why we are now moving with great speed toward the planet where the ship was downed. There is, of course, naquada on board, but it may not entirely offer substance to the replicators in their mutated form. They will attempt it first, but eventually they will seek other sustenance."
"How many people are on that planet, Thor?" Ray asked.
"Five million," the Asgard admitted. "They are at much the same level of technological development as the people of Cimmeria."
"The Viking guys?" Peter threw in. He must have memorized everything he’d read or heard when he’d been trying to help the SGC figure out what was driving people to violence when they stepped through the Stargate.
"Vikings?" Ray asked, his eyes lighting up. If ever a man looked like a kid in a candy store, it was Ray at that moment.
"The Sounons are not Vikings," Thor admitted. "They are a human race that were seeded on Sounon by the Goa’uld. They developed naturally on their planet. They possess a Stargate but it is protected as was the Stargate on Cimmeria. Since I mean to teleport you to the surface near the area of the crashed vessel, that will not be a problem for Teal’c or Major Carter."
"Assuming we take them down with us," Jack reminded Thor. He had that stubborn look on his face that made even General Hammond wary around him. Daniel wasn’t sure how it would hold up against an Asgard, but then Thor didn’t know Jack as well as Daniel did. That kind of expression simply made Daniel dig in his toes and persist until Jack got all pissy and military and flung words like ‘direct order’ and ‘don’t forget who’s in command’ around.
Teal’c opened his mouth to object—testing his limits, too—but Jack held up a warning finger. "Ah, ah, ah. Remember who’s in charge here, Teal’c." Daniel had to smile. There were times when Jack was just so predictable. Although this time, Daniel agreed with Jack all the way. He didn’t want to think what the creature might do to Teal’c or Sam.
"The entities on the planet may have spread out to distances that will prove impossible for us to track before they harm a great many of the planet’s population," Teal’c returned. "If I were to teleport with you, I could serve as ‘bait’ to lure them to our area." He stood facing O’Neill, determined to accept any risk for the sake of his teammates. He would absolutely loathe being benched.
"Yeah, and I’ve seen what happens to the bait when I go fishing," Jack replied. "It isn’t pretty." Every line of his body resisted Teal’c’s words.
"I am willing to endure the risk, O’Neill."
"Yeah, buddy, I know. Goes without saying. But let’s stick that offer into the last-resort category for now."
Sam opened her mouth, and Jack whirled as if he’d known she meant to speak without even looking at her. "That goes for you, too, Carter. We’ve only got six proton packs. Daniel and I will wear the two extras. I’m not sending anybody down there unarmed. Especially somebody who just spells out ‘snack’ in big letters."
"You will need a means of drawing them to you, O’Neill." Teal’c didn’t take his attention away from the protection field, but his very body language spoke of the need to face the threat at Jack’s side. "Thor can teleport me to safety before they reach me."
"That may well work, O’Neill," Egon offered, and the only hesitation in his speech was because he understood he was jumping into a private argument. His scientific knowledge evidently forced him to intervene. "Depending upon how quickly the teleport system will work, and the speed of the entity. I can measure the latter when we bust it."
Daniel was glad he hadn’t said "attempt to bust it". His actual choice of words sounded so much more positive. Peter had once claimed that the Ghostbusters always got the ghost. Of course he’d added they’d picked up a few major injuries along the way, and admitted reluctantly that they didn’t always catch the ghost the first time around. And that, sometimes, ‘getting’ the ghost meant driving it away from New York, which also prevented it from harming New Yorkers. But all four Ghostbusters were still alive and none of them had ever sustained a permanent, debilitating injury. That had to mean they knew their stuff.
Unfortunately, alien mutations were not what they usually had to cope with.
"How soon before you can bust it?" Jack persisted. He cast a quick, uneasy glance at the protection grid. "I just hate those replicator guys."
"Thor?" Egon prompted.
"I have completed the first pack adjustment," the Asgard replied.
"Wow, guys." Ray came up for air for the first time since Thor had started work. "It’s really amazing. It’s obvious, once you know. I can do it myself in nearly as little time as Thor took." He popped the casing into place on the completed proton pack and put it on while Egon removed his. At a gesture from Ray, Daniel shrugged out of the one he wore and gave it to Thor. The idea of the Asgard and the engineer racing to see who could complete the modification first made Daniel smile faintly. Egon said something to Thor about the difference in the atomic destabilizer, and blond head and bald bent over the device, conferring in low tones.
"You stand over there out of range of the field, Daniel," Jack instructed sternly. "I don’t want you hanging around close when you’re not armed."
"I have my handgun," Daniel replied, even though he could see Jack’s point extremely well.
"Yeah, and that’ll be about as much use as shooting that little green ghost, Slimer," Jack replied. "This thing isn’t really solid anymore. Don’t you go taking any pot shots at it. The bullets will zip right through and maybe through the outer hull."
"Thank you, O’Neill. I must also arrange for additional force fields to protect the outer hull area," Thor said without looking up from his work on Egon’s pack. "This area is well centered in the ship. However, the power from the modified weapons may penetrate walls. It is necessary to prepare."
"Egon and I can finish the proton packs," Ray told him eagerly.
"Yes, I understand the modifications necessary for the destabilizer," Egon concurred. Sam’s head bobbed. She stood at Egon’s side, soaking up knowledge, practically glowing from the excitement of it. Daniel wondered if he looked like that when he found a whole wall of untranslated hieroglyphs on an alien planet.
Thor inclined his head in agreement, and walked away.
Daniel stood back as Jack had instructed—there were times when he could obey Jack without question and even get points for it, and maybe it made up for the times he forgot and raced in where angels feared to tread—and watched Egon remove his own pack and pop the casing. Peter crowded in close, thrower in hand, ready to protect him while he was unarmed, and Ray said, "You and Winston are next, Peter."
As he spoke, the field shimmered and expanded yet again. Were the collapses of the inner fields coming closer and closer together? Daniel sneaked a glance at his wristwatch and shivered.
He was positive he would not enjoy this mission. The thought of the primitive peoples on the planet fascinated him. What would their culture be like? Their values? Did they have writing? Had they originated on Earth? Had the Goa’uld contaminated them before the Asgard had protected their planet? As he watched the new protection field firm up, he wondered what damage the mutated replicators might have already done to them. Hopefully the rescue party wouldn’t arrive too late.
** *** **
"There, I’m done," crowed Ray as he finished up the last ghost trap and handed it to Jack. "This should really help us against the entities. If there’s no naquada on the planet, even the traps might tempt them." He couldn’t help his excitement at the thought of the confrontation to come. Sometimes busting routine Class Twos, Threes and Fours grew just a little dull. He’d learned not to express that thought because Peter and Winston always came down on him for it, but Class Fours were just too easy to zap and trap. Sometimes they could even be caught with a trap alone, and only the tricky ones proved to be anything like a real challenge. Ray loved the nasty, powerful ones, well, as long as nobody got hurt. The entity Jack had dubbed Casper of Borg was going to be really tough, and if it could sense Teal’c like it seemed to, and maybe Sam, too, the guys would have to make sure to snag it right away so it didn’t go for them. Ray wasn’t sure exactly what it would do to them, but he was positive it wouldn’t be pretty. If they started out the mission—he liked the way that sounded, "the mission"—with things going wrong, it would mean the people on that planet were in trouble, and maybe Thor would think they weren’t good enough.
Thor had returned from doing whatever he did to enforce the hull while Ray and Egon were completing the last two proton packs. He’d watched Ray working, and Ray couldn’t help looking down to grin at him. A real alien, just like the tabloids wrote about. He even looked like the popular concept of aliens. That reporter Edgar Benedek who used to spin UFO tales for the National Register would sure get a kick out of this. Too bad security meant Ray couldn’t call him at the university he worked at these days and regale him with the story of the Ghostbusters’ adventures with the Stargate team.
Everybody wearing a thrower lined up in readiness. Peter measured the room, the angle of the field, and the space they had to work in. "Don’t forget, Casper’s gonna move fast. We want to hit him the second the force field goes down."
"Not until then, Venkman," Thor cautioned. "Should your particle streams interact with the force field, considerable damage could be done."
"And Thor’s real big on understatement," Jack threw in. His mouth scrunched up unhappily. A career soldier who knew his work, he had to be thinking he’d never signed up for anything like this. Still, he’d never signed up to fight the Goa’uld, either, or anything as powerful as Gozer. He wouldn’t back down. Ray knew that. None of them would. The times he’d worked with the Stargate people assured him of their determination, loyalty, and refusal to surrender.
"So we hit it fast the second Thor gives the word," Peter said. "Winston, Ray, you aim low. Egon and I will aim high. Daniel, Jack, let me position you. Make sure the throwers are set for maximum gain."
"And tight focus," Egon added. "It will require precision targeting, but it will also prove more difficult for, er, Casper to pull free."
Peter glanced over at Sam and winked at her. "Sam, sweetie, you and Teal’c better stand back out of the way. I think it can sense you wherever you are."
"Maybe they should retreat to the farthest part of the ship," Ray suggested.
"If they do, we can’t guarantee protection if it gets past us," Peter argued.
Teal’c planted his feet. "I will not retreat. It will be necessary to face more of these creatures on the planet. Its interest in naquada or my symbiote is only theory. We must prove it."
"I’m not going, either," Sam defended herself. She had snatched up Egon’s P.K.E. meter. "I’ll be my job to take readings of it since Egon’s hands won’t be free, and to analyze its movements. We need to know what we’ll face on the planet. Egon has to use the atomic destabilizer in case the ‘borg’ components in its makeup should prove solid enough to require destabilization, and the rest of you are armed. I understand the meters. You need me."
"I hate to admit it, but she’s right," Peter said. "Okay, you two, stand behind us, by the door. If you have to run for it, we’ll cover your tails." He hesitated, and Ray knew it wasn’t Teal’c’s "tail" he was thinking about. He tried hard not to smile.
Carter gave him a swat on the arm as she moved past him. O’Neill glared at Peter. Peter grinned sweetly back. There were times when he could enrage a saint without even trying. Ray hid his own smile.
"Jack, over here." Peter pointed, as if he hadn’t even noticed the glare. "It’s gonna try to sneak past us to get to them, and you can cover this end. Daniel, there." He pointed to a spot between Egon and Ray.
Daniel went obediently, which made Jack shake his head. "Danny-boy, you never obey me like that," he complained.
"Yes, I do, Jack." He hesitated and opted for honesty. "Well, mostly."
"This is the military, not a party."
"Well, we’re the Ghostbusters, we’re not military," Peter defended himself. "We’re civilian contractors."
"You called that, Venkman. No self-respecting branch of the service would have you."
"A cut above, right?" He added before Jack could plunge in, "Say the word, Thor. Let’s get this show on the road."
"Very well." If Thor didn’t understand the phrase, he gave no sign of it, which produced for Ray an image of the little guy glued to a monitor while old sitcoms and detective shows played endlessly. He had to smile at the thought. The Asgard moved to the controls he had activated before to lower the field. Ray made sure his thrower was set at top power, everything adjusted as it needed to be, and braced himself.
The outer field dropped first, then the next three, bing, bing, bing, one after the other. Ray saw Peter’s knuckles whiten on the thrower, Egon’s mouth purse up, and Winston’s shoulders stiffen. Jack balanced on the balls of his feet, ready to spring in any direction. Daniel stood, feet planted, holding the thrower the way he would a shovel, but he raised the tip at a quick word from Winston.
Thor touched the last control. The final field died away, revealing Casper in all its mutant glory. "Now," said Thor.
Five streams lashed out at the entity, Daniel’s a beat later. Peter actually hit it, but that was because his angle was perfect as the mutation soared straight toward Teal’c. The stream jerked it up, for all of one second, then it broke free.
By that time, Ray and Egon had time to compensate and their streams locked onto the entity. It howled, that same weird turn-the-bones-to-water cry it had given before, ghastly and atavistic. Ray shivered even as he fought to control the lock he had on it. Gosh, it was strong. The pull from the stream tugged him a couple of steps before he planted his feet and leaned back into it to halt its determined stalking of the Jaffa.
Winston jumped into position directly in front of Sam, while Jack did the same to cover Teal’c. His stream lashed out and hooked up with Casper, too. Daniel fired and missed, muttered something under his breath that sounded vaguely Sumerian, and tried again. This time, his stream hit the target. The entity wailed its eerie wail, and Ray felt the hair raise on the back of his neck at the sound of it. Peter gritted out something profane under his breath and tightened his grip on his thrower.
Winston couldn’t get a shot. The creature was right in his face, coming closer all the time. Without turning, Ray could hear Teal’c moving, and he wasn’t sure if the Jaffa was retreating or positioning himself in a place to make it easier for them to stop the creature. He couldn’t risk looking away to check. Peter’s stream held it, but it was so strong it kept right on going in spite of the particle energy. Five streams held it, but it was a tenuous lock, and Ray could feel the ferocity of its pull. Six streams might bind it, but if Winston fired from that close, the stream’s energy would burn his eyebrows off. He didn’t have much ground to give unless he went backward, and that would create a hole for it to go through to get to Teal’c and Sam.
Now they knew for sure that Casper wanted to get to them, that it could sense the naquada in their systems. Every straining movement pulled it toward them as if they were magnets and it was a huge chunk of iron.
"Sam?" Egon called. "What are you reading?" He sounded a little breathless from steadying the bucking thrower in his hands and resisting being dragged along in the creature’s wake. Ray feared the intensity of the streams might actually break someone’s wrists. The modification Thor had dreamed up had increased the power, all right. Boy, had it increased the power. But that meant all that power had to channel through the same throwers. Ray had to brace his muscles to keep the thrower from erupting from his hands and dancing all over the room while it fired indiscriminately at anything that happened in its path, like outer bulkheads and his friends’ bodies.
The thing was practically on top of Winston. "Get back, Teal’c and Sam," he yelled and gave ground slowly. He didn’t move sideways; that would create a clear path to the entity’s targets. Instead, he whipped out a trap, tossed it down under Casper, and stomped it open. "Don’t look directly into the trap," he hollered, almost as an afterthought. SG-1 had been around ghost traps before, but Thor hadn’t. Maybe his eyes were different.
Brilliant white light shot out and bathed the mutant. In the trap’s fierce glow, Casper appeared nearly transparent, its metallic replicator parts glistening as the light skittered off their odd angles, creating the appearance of a ghost with a jagged metal skeleton. The creature’s face had replicator-style eyes, metallic and glittering with harsh purpose. It fought the trap’s pull even harder than it had fought the grip of the streams. Winston held his position, his foot hard upon the trigger. Committed, he couldn’t give ground.
With power at maximum, there was no way to crank it up, but abruptly, Teal’c lunged. "Your thrower," he said to Winston, who reacted automatically and tossed it to Teal’c without taking time to shuck off his pack for the Jaffa to wear. That didn’t give Teal’c a lot of play, but he could at least get into position to shoot when Winston couldn’t. At the end of its cable, two steps backward and to the side, Teal’c took aim and fired.
The creature nearly went berserk in an attempt to get to him. Its uncanny howls intensified, oddly magnified by the energy that held it bound in place. Those nasty cries sent chills up and down Ray’s spine, and he’d heard and seen ghosts a lot scarier than Casper. An intrinsic quality in the cries might be part of its natural defense system, assuming anything like this could be called natural.
The trap’s energy field tugged at the creature, and it realized it was going down. With a sudden paroxysm, it struggled against the trap’s suction, lashing out wildly with its vestigial arms. One of them caught Winston hard across the face and he went down abruptly. Only Teal’c’s hasty step in his direction prevented the thrower from jerking from his hands.
"Winston!" yelled Peter and Ray, but neither could stop firing to go to him. Egon, his mouth tight, did something to the settings of the atomic destabilizer; fine-tuning its focus, Ray thought. When the changed beam struck Casper, he screeched and struggled to go after Teal’c, who stubbornly refused to give ground. Winston lay sprawled at Teal’c’s feet as Casper jerked with all his strength in Teal’c’s direction. The Jaffa stood stalwart and didn’t yield so much as an inch. What a brave guy!
Then, finally, with agonizing slowness, the trap’s suction worked and the entity sank down toward its glowing mouth. Its howling intensified, so shrill it hurt Ray’s ears. He could tell from the way Peter’s shoulders hunched that it was hurting him, too, but then Peter had always possessed very sharp hearing. Daniel’s mouth tightened. Ray could hear Sam muttering to herself at ground level; as the only one free, she had gone to Winston. She seemed to be talking to him but she didn’t interrupt with a health report, not when everything hung in the balance.
That must have been when Casper sensed the naquada in the trap because it gave a startled jerk. That momentary hesitation was just enough for the combined effort of six boosted particle streams and the trap itself. The howling became nearly inaudible, thrumming through Ray’s head in a way that was sure to leave him with a massive headache once this was over. At his feet, Sam moved but Winston lay completely still. Worry bubbled up in Ray’s stomach, and he could see Peter’s teeth working his bottom lip as he manipulated his thrower.
Then, overwhelmed, Casper zipped down into the trap. Everyone powered down as the doors snapped shut, entrapping it. At once Egon lunged for the trap, scooped it up, and checked the settings. "It’s holding," he said and deposited it on the table. "The modifications will allow us to contain it indefinitely." Then he joined Peter and Ray at Winston’s side. Winston sprawled, lax and still, a bright glisten of red all over his right cheek. Sam had already removed the first-aid kit from her pack, and she held a gauze pad in place.
"Come on, Zed, talk to us," Peter encouraged. He shot out a hand and touched Winston’s shoulder.
"He’s unconscious," Sam explained hastily. "He took a good clip right on the cheekbone. Evidently the metallic portions of Casper are still quite solid."
"The destabilizer did eventually affect them, but far more slowly than usual." Egon exchanged a hasty glance with Peter. "Being unable to use a wider rate of dispersal worked against us. I could only destabilize what I actually hit with the stream. I’ll work on modifying that." He let his hand rest on Peter’s shoulder a second. Ray wasn’t sure if he were seeking or offering comfort, or probably both.
"I think he’s coming around," Sam said. "His pupils are equal and reactive and his pulse feels strong. It’s just been a minute."
As she spoke, Winston opened his eyes. Immediately he closed them and groaned. "Oh, man...."
"Stay right there, good buddy," Peter instructed. He left his hand on Winston’s shoulder, probably to make sure he didn’t try to get up. "Casper belted you with one of his metal parts."
"Casper?" Winston squinted up at Peter through slitted eyes. "Oh yeah, Casper. Space ship. Thor. Gotcha." He raised his hand to touch the dressing.
"If you’re lucky, that’ll look like a dueling scar," Peter said brightly to cover his relief. "The women will love it."
"It will leave no scar," Thor corrected. He didn’t have as far to kneel as the humans did. "I will treat it." Ray couldn’t help wondering about Asgard medicine. They had to be more advanced than Earth. It would be great if he could help Winston.
"Are you able to see clearly, Winston?" Egon fussed.
"Yeah, I see two of Peter and three of Ray." When the guys drew back in alarm, he said hastily, "Kidding. Sorry, guys. Did we get Casper?"
"He’s trapped, and the trap is holding him." Egon put his hand flat against Winston’s chest. "No, don’t try to sit up yet. You’ve lost some blood."
"He whacked me good." Winston gave a faint nod, then he groaned and his mouth twisted. "Oh, man. Memo to myself: no sudden moves."
"Do you have a blanket for him, Thor?" asked Ray.
"Keep him flat if he’s got a concussion," Jack ordered from somewhere above the kneeling Ghostbusters. "We don’t want him to barf all over us."
"Your sensitivity amazes me, Jack," Daniel chided.
O’Neill rolled his eyes. "What can I say, I’m a sensitive guy. But there is one thing I do want to say. That wasn’t fun."
"It wanted Teal’c," Daniel reminded them, his voice tight. "It went right for him."
"Then Teal’c stays on the ship when we get where we’re going," Jack decided. "And that’s final."
"I am prepared to face the entities, O’Neill."
"Yeah, I know you are, T, but short of playing bait, not a good idea. Winston took a solid whack for standing between you and Casper. There’s more than one of them on the planet. If we spend our time protecting you, we might lose our best chance to defeat them."
"It required six throwers to stop it," Teal’c reminded him.
Ray sat back on his heels and looked up at them. Winston was clear-headed, even if he felt crummy. Maybe Thor could do more for him than dress the cut on his cheekbone.
"I’ll come down and wear the other proton pack," Carter offered. "I only have the protein marker in my bloodstream. It never came directly at me."
"Maybe because Teal’c was so much more obvious," Daniel said. "That marker might be enough—especially if the ones on the planet are bigger or more advanced, and if there aren’t any other sources of living naquada."
"I think a thrower might be too big for Thor," Winston said. "I’ll be okay by the time we reach the planet. I’ll go."
"We have already reached the planet," Thor replied. Ray blinked. The Asgard ships were really fast. Jack’s mouth tightened and Ray wondered why, then he realized that they were probably still in the Milky Way galaxy, which meant the ship with the mutants hadn’t crashed in the Asgard’s galaxy. Replicators this close to Earth? Ray had a sudden image of a Goa’uld. What if the mutation was really meant to stop the Goa’uld. The way it had gone for Teal’c might even prove it.
There was nothing he could do about that now, and it might be better not to mention it. So all Ray said was, "Wow, that was quick."
Thor looked up at O’Neill. "We are now in orbit. I have monitored the wreckage. It lies near a populated area. Three such entities survived the crash."
"Three more?" Peter groaned. "The same size? Just don’t tell me they’re bigger?" He didn’t let go of Winston. "No way you’re going, Winston. You think it’ll help anybody if you keel over or have to stop and barf? I’ve had concussions. I know what they feel like."
"I must tell you they are bigger," Thor explained. "I have facilities to treat Zeddemore’s wound, but I would not advise his presence on the planet for at least six of your hours."
"Then maybe we can wait," Daniel began, only to grimace. "You said it was near a populated area?" The distress in his face was so vivid O’Neill clapped him on the shoulder.
"We’ll protect ‘em," he said, but his mouth was tight.
Sam finished taping the temporary dressing into place and sat back on her heels. "Do any of these people have naquada in their systems, Thor?"
"They do not."
"Well, that’s a plus, anyway," Daniel said. "But if all three of the entities are together, how will we be able to stop them, if we have only five throwers?"
"Six," said Sam, her shoulders set, her mouth determined.
"Five, and that’s an order," O’Neill objected. "Carter, those things would consider you as a delicious appetizer. You’re staying here. If we go down, maybe we can isolate them, one at a time. If we toss out two of those traps each time...."
"There are only six traps and one is already full," Egon reminded him. He looked definitely unhappy. "With modifications on the atomic destabilizer, I can adjust its stream to more quickly destabilize all the metallic content in their systems if the situation allows a wider dispersal ratio. I noticed the other portion of Casper’s arm simply passed into Winston when it struck and out again when it withdrew."
"Ewww," O’Neill said elegantly. "That ghost stuff went into him? Sweet."
"Ghosts can fly right through a person," Ray told him. "I’ve had it done. It feels really cold and nasty, and it takes you a while to warm up again."
"Does it leave ectoplasmic residue inside your body?" Carter asked. Even with the threat facing them, her eyes lit with curiosity. Jack’s mouth twisted like he wanted to be sick at the very thought.
Peter looked down at his stomach as if he expected slime to spurt out through his belly button. "You mean all those times I’ve been slimed I’ve been accumulating goop inside me? I want a raise."
"No, Peter," Egon replied. "As you are well aware, slime eventually dissolves away. It only remains indefinitely when still attached to a spirit. Otherwise, the firehall would be six feet deep in ectoplasmic residue."
"Now there’s a terrific image. You guys are nuts, do you know that?" Jack asked.
Ray grinned up at him. "What’s your point?"
O’Neill produced an amused snort.
"I can sit up now," Winston volunteered.
"You will stay there, Zeddemore. I could put you in a stasis chamber, but that would merely maintain you. It would not heal you in the manner of a sarcophagus. The Asgard has means of treating injuries, but you would not be well in time for an immediate ‘bust’."
"So what do we do?" Peter asked.
"We go down and take readings," Egon decided. "First, I boost the destabilizer. That will taken ten minutes." He went over to the table, undoing the device as he moved. "Once that is ready, five of us will teleport to an area near the wreckage to determine what it is we face."
"Uh, Thor?" Daniel waved a hand at him for attention like the brightest kid in class trying for the teacher’s attention. "What about the people on the planet? Are they aware of you the way the Cimmerians were? They didn’t know what you looked like, but they considered you their god."
"Sort of like Apophis wanting to be considered a god?" Peter demanded suspiciously. His eyes narrowed as he regarded Thor. After all, the Asgard had high-handedly teleported him up without asking him if he wanted to go. Maybe he was having second thoughts. Ray liked Thor, but he could understand the question, even if he disagreed with it. He was sure Thor was one of the good guys. A rescue mission to save the people his race protected was a worthy action. Apophis would probably have written the people off, after snatching anybody suitable to be a host first.
"No, it’s not like that," O’Neill defended his alien friend. "The Asgard protect a bunch of planets. They keep the Goa’uld away."
"We permit the natural development of a species," Thor explained. "When the natives of a world are able to pass certain tests, they will see me as I am and understand my true nature."
"That doesn’t matter, Peter," Ray jumped in. "What does is that there’s a lot of people down there on the planet who are in danger, and Thor asked us to help them. The Asgard protect them from the Goa’uld, not dominate them."
"Do we get mileage?" Peter chirped.
Thor looked at him steadily. "You are much like O’Neill, are you not?"
"Hey, I never asked for mileage," Jack defended himself.
"That’s because you’re in the military, Jack," Daniel threw in. "You’re used to doing things without getting bonuses for them."
"Oh yeah, and how is it they handle it in universities, Mister Civilian?" Jack ribbed him. "You get grants, don’t you?"
"Only if somebody buys our theories." He frowned. That’s right, Daniel had been considered a crackpot when he was still affiliated with a university. He’d lost his grants, not to mention his position. Gee, those university big-shots had been awfully short-sighted. Ray could relate. The Ghostbusters had been kicked out of Columbia and their grants had been terminated, too. Now, of course, the university was gung ho to claim them as valued alumni. If Daniel could tell those universities what he’d accomplished, they’d be begging him to come back. He could write his own ticket.
Thor ignored the conversation. "I will remain with Zeddemore to complete his treatment. Should you require that much time on the planet, he will join you when he is well. Major Carter and Teal’c will assist me to monitor your progress, and to determine if additional measures might assist you in your attempts to eradicate the modified replicators."
It was time to go.
** *** **
When the five members of the team materialized on the surface of the planet Thor had designated Sounon, Egon looked around in complete fascination. He had visited only two other worlds in his journeys through the Stargate, one of which had been populated by hostile natives with laser weapons, while the other had possessed a vast pyramid that required destabilization to enter. He shivered involuntarily at the thought. His first destabilization had been painful and dangerous and had involved his capture and incarceration by a major demon. By contrast, his first glimpse of Sounon appeared far more positive.
The word "pastoral" might have been invented for the world that lay spread out before the team as they got their bearings. Thor’s teleportation system had deposited them on a hilltop that allowed them a view of rolling valleys in all directions. Overhead, stretched an endless blue sky slightly darker than that of Earth, dotted with cumulus clouds. The foliage held a deeper hue of green than that of Earth, shading into blues in some of the bushes and yellows in the grasses that waved in the gentle breeze. Comfortable temperatures made their jumpsuits and Daniel and Jack’s fatigues just right, and a slight breeze tugged at their hair. Here and there, clumps of flowers in vivid blues and yellows gave off a sweet scent that didn’t quite match any flowers from Earth. Overhead birds in colors that almost matched the flowers swooped about and produced melodious song. Insects chirped in chorus and some entity made a deep, irregular humming sound in a regular pattern. Maybe it was the local equivalent of frogs or toads over in the stream that bubbled over stones in its bed, widening as he meandered down the hillside.
In some of the valleys, the regular patterns of cultivated fields indicated an agrarian culture. Off to the right, a cluster of pillared buildings all in white, none above three or four stories high, spoke of the nearest settlement. The town was too far distant for the team to make out individual people as anything more than faint, moving dots. Larger dots might have been carts or wagons.
Just to the team’s left, at the foot of the slope, lay the wreckage of the crashed Asgard ship.
Egon wasn’t sure what he had expected, but it was not this massive broken ruin, its seams wrenched apart, its metal twisted and buckled. Longer than a pair of football fields stretched end to end and nearly as wide, its original shape was impossible to ascertain. Huge holes in its hull revealed a tangle of compartments, collapsed in upon themselves as bulkheads had shattered. Surely it was completely beyond repair. The hull bore the burned scarring of its fiery plunge through the atmosphere. Nothing moved in the wreckage except the flutter of a couple of hawk-sized yellow birds who had chosen to perch on the hull.
What had the natives of Sounon thought when the massive vessel roared down upon them through the atmosphere, probably streaming smoke and flames? Would they consider it a living creature? A meteor? Were they advanced enough as a species to understand the concept of space-going vessels? None of them had gathered in the vicinity of the ship, but perhaps they had run to investigate only to be driven back by the sight of the mutant replicators. They had a Stargate on their world, didn’t they? The Goa’uld had brought them here. Perhaps others came through the gate from time to time and broadened their perspective. From Daniel’s explanation of the protected world of Cimmeria, SG-1 had passed through the gate easily but a protective device at the site had detected Teal’c’s larval Goa’uld and shunted him and O’Neill to an underground prison. Perhaps it was better Teal’c had remained aboard the Asgard ship, as such a protection might exist here as well. If so, what was its range? The immediate area of the Stargate? Further?
"Whoa, that is one honking big piece of junk," O’Neill exclaimed.
"You called that one, Jack baby." Peter tightened his hands around the grip of his thrower. "Wonder if the O’Neill looked like that when the replicators were through with it." He ignored the baleful look the colonel threw at him. "Egon, any trace of Casper’s buddies?"
Egon tore his gaze from the wreckage. He had carried the meter activated when they teleported down so it would give an immediate warning of danger, but it hadn’t reacted. Glancing down at it now he saw that the antennae had slightly lifted and begun to blink lightly. On the readout screen, the grid pattern marked clearly three distinct entities. They were far enough distant that the meter hadn’t gone into overload, but they were powerful enough to give off readings from a distance, and that was ominous.
"Indeed, Peter," he replied, and held the meter so that Ray could crowd in beside him and see. "As Thor indicated, there are three of them, but none of them remain with the vessel." He measured the locations on the screen and superimposed the image it gave him over the verdant landscape. "Only one of them is near the village at the moment."
"But not in it?" Jack asked.
"No, just to the other side of it," Egon replied, squinting at the screen to make certain of its position.
"I’ve been trying to determine the culture from the shape of the structures," Daniel said. He held a pair of binoculars, adjusted to use with his glasses, and he squinted through the lenses at the village. "I don’t see any of the entities, but I’d guess the people there might have come from ancient Greece. The nature of the structures, the layout, the columns on so many of the buildings, even the way they’ve incorporated gardens into their architecture...."
"Doesn’t matter," Jack cut in, but more in the manner of friendly kidding than any attempt at repression. "What does is tracking down these replicator Borg and zapping them." He frowned as he shoved on a pair of sunglasses—the day was bright, and Egon wouldn’t have minded a pair himself.
Note to myself: next time I prepare for alien teleportation, be certain to include my prescription sunglasses.
"Gee, Egon, they look more powerful than Casper," Ray murmured. An element of excitement filtered into his voice, but that was Ray’s usual style. Unless the locals were hurt or any of the team found their lives in jeopardy, Ray would love the whole experience. They knew from Winston’s injury at least one means the mutants had of wounding people, but surely lashing out and catching an unwary person with a fragment of their original metallic composition was merely their most basic means of causing harm. The replicators consumed materials; the original ones had consumed metals and machines. These might prefer to eat a Goa’uld or two, but it was possible that, adaptive as Thor indicated them to be, they might develop a taste for human flesh. Possibly the energy from the throwers might turn into a new delicacy for them, at which point there would be no means of stopping them, at least not with conventional Ghostbusting weapons. Once or twice the Ghostbusters had encountered entities who liked the taste of proton streams. Those experiences had not been pretty.
"They do indeed rate higher than Casper," Egon replied. "Trapping them will prove complex. We may need to resort to other strategies."
"Like what?" O’Neill demanded, his eyes narrowing. "You didn’t say anything about alternative strategies before."
"We didn’t know what we’d face before," Ray reminded him. "We’ll figure something out. We may be able to draw alternative energy from the wreckage." He waved a hand down at the ruined ship. "When we faced the water elemental, we called down lightning to zap it. Boy, that was neat."
Jack looked at him as if he had lost his mind. "Lightning? Yeah, right. If it was that easy, Thor would have blasted the ship out of the sky."
"Why didn’t he?" Always suspicious, Peter cast a glance skyward as if to question Thor’s motives. "He lets it crash on a primitive world they’re protecting. Sounds like he let another one full of replicators crash on Earth. I think it would be more than my life is worth to be an ally of the little guy, if he keeps throwing wrecked ships full of replicators at the people he’s trying to protect."
"It was an accident," Daniel said hastily, then his voice trailed off and he cast a doubtful glance at Jack.
"The Asgard have been fighting the replicators a long time now," O’Neill threw in. "I think maybe they got a little carried away. Luring them onto a ship and zapping it worked before. Maybe this one got away from them."
"Yeah, well, I’m gonna hold out for a whopping big fee," Peter insisted, deliberately forgetting that he had already agreed to waive their fee. With a hand shielding his eyes from the sun, he squinted at the distant village. "We better go warn those people there are nasty goopers around."
"The replicators moved in that direction," Egon confirmed with a quick frown at the meter screen. "They are not in the village, but they are very near it. The other two are approaching it now, yet none of them have entered the settlement."
"Staking out their prey," Peter insisted. "Come on, team. Thor’s buddies might be a lot more powerful than Earth but when it comes to cleaning up their messes, who ya gonna call?"
"Thor’s a good guy," O’Neill snapped. "He’s bailed our asses out more than once. Just because he teleported you without stopping to ask you’ve got it in for him."
Peter glared at O’Neill. "No, Colonel baby. I have it in for him because, a). He snatched me without asking, b). He put a lot of innocent folks in danger, and c). I can feel it in my bones that he has a major hidden agenda and we’re the ones paying the price for it. I know you like the little guy, but he hasn’t given me any reason to trust him. Just because you say you trust him doesn’t exactly convince me."
"We’re all on the same side here, Venkman." Jack glared at Peter; even through the sunglasses, Egon could sense the anger that must be glittering in his eyes. "You’re the one who’s holding out for pay when people are in trouble, so can it with the holier than thou attitude."
Ray shot out a hand and grabbed Peter’s wrist to hold him in place. "He doesn’t mean it about the pay," he told O’Neill earnestly. "It’s just the way he talks. He already said this was a freebie. I think Thor’s neat, but I don’t think he and his scientists thought it out well enough before they dreamed up their mutation. I think they wanted to kill two birds with one stone; make the replicators impotent and turn them loose on the Goa’uld to eat. Maybe he doesn’t want to admit it, not if the Tok’ra would taste the same to the replicators as the Goa’uld would, but whatever the reason they did what they did, it still has to be fixed."
Egon wondered if he was remembering Sam’s father, who was now a Tok’ra. They’d met him a couple of missions ago, at the time of Gozer’s return.
"True, Ray," Peter said, his face tight. "And I’m not gonna let those people down there go hang." He waved the tip of his thrower at the settlement. "But I just want O’Neill to stop ladling it on so thick about how wonderful his buddy Thor is. I think the little guy is arrogant enough to feel he can use us ‘lesser’ folks to clean up his messes. That’s all I’m saying. Now let’s get down there and protect the people in the village." With one more seething glare at Jack, he stalked off down the hill in the direction of the settlement, his shoulders set, his thrower in his hand.
Ray produced an apologetic little grin at the equally annoyed Jack and hurried after Peter.
"Come on, Jack," Daniel urged as he fell in beside his team leader. "How can he think anything else with what he’s seen? He doesn’t know Thor the way we do."
"No, but we do know him. He might not trust Thor, but that means he doesn’t trust us, either." He cast a fulminating glare in Peter’s direction.
They fell in behind Ray, and Egon hurried to keep up. Better if they could resolve this conflict now, so that they could face the enemy with a united front.
"They’re risking their lives on a strange planet without a thorough understanding of the situation," Daniel persisted. "Peter’s just making a point, and it’s a good one. Even if it was entirely accidentally, the Asgard endangered everyone on this planet. You know that’s true. Thor admits it. I, uh, kind of wonder what they were really up to myself. And don’t say we’re too ‘young’ to know. I hate that."
O’Neill’s shoulders hunched. "You think I love it that they all feed us that ‘too young’ crap? That’s not the point. Thor’s trying to make this right. We’re all here to help. That’s what you do for your allies."
"Yes, but Thor is our ally. He’s a stranger to Peter. Put yourself in his shoes. You’d be saying exactly what he is."
"Ya think?" Jack grimaced. His shoulders hunched under the unfamiliar weight of the proton pack he wore—and probably under the truth of Daniel’s words.
"I know," Daniel said, and there was a smile in his voice.
"Well, he doesn’t have to sound like that." Jack waved an annoyed hand at Peter’s back. Egon smiled faintly to himself. Just so would Peter have tried to have the last word. He looked past the two SG-1 members to Peter, who had strode out in front, with Ray hard on his heels. Egon could hear that Ray was talking to Peter in his usual earnest style, but the wind came from behind them and blew their words away.
Quickening his pace, Egon passed Daniel and Jack, the meter in his hand. With a periodic glance at the screen, he monitored the position of the entities. Two of them were on this side of the village, yet some distance apart. The third had begun to move around it, perhaps to encircle the village so the creatures could close in on it from three sides. Had they determined the villagers to be consumable? Were there Jaffa in the village?
"Is there a Stargate on this planet?" Egon asked.
Daniel stopped walking and stared at him as he considered the question. "Well, ah, there must be, mustn’t there, Jack? I didn’t think of that. If the Goa’uld brought the people here from Earth, they must have used a gate."
"Could’ve used a ship," Jack countered. He scanned the area around the village. "I don’t see it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t out of sight just on the other side of the settlement, or further afield. Would the naquada in the gate draw the entities?"
Egon stepped in. "It would, but not as much as a living Goa’uld or Jaffa would." He raised his voice. "Peter, Ray, wait."
Peter stopped but he jerked his thumb at the meter Ray held. "Casper’s buddies are circling the village. We don’t have a lot of time here."
"Yeah, and that’s bad." Ray thudded back to meet them.
His words made O’Neill study him as if he’d never seen him before. "And that’s bad why, Stantz?"
"Well, gee, it’s obvious." Ray waved a hand at the buildings. "If they’re doing it on purpose, that means they’re intelligent, not reacting on instinct. If it was instinct, a mindless hunger kind of thing, they’d just charge in and wreak havoc. But if they can communicate with each other and plan, then as soon as we attack one of them, the others are gonna come—and there’s no way we can fight all three of them at once, and still win."
Respect for the summary showed on O’Neill’s face. "That’s what I was afraid you were gonna say. Any way your gizmos can tell if they’re intelligent?"
"No, they just tell the power levels," Ray said regretfully. "And we couldn’t tell with Casper, because he was just reacting to a threat. Anything with some degree of consciousness will react to a threat; even a fly will fly away if you try to swat it, and it’s sure not intelligent. But if they’re circling the village on purpose, then they’re smarter than a fly anyway."
"Wolves and lions will circle their prey," Daniel threw in.
"Can we theorize and move at the same time?" Peter insisted. He lowered the binoculars he carried. "I can’t see the Casper guys, but there are a lot of people in that village. They don’t have a clue what’s going on." He made urging gestures, and they resumed their journey down toward the village, paralleling the stream that widened as it wended its way toward the valley floor. Egon noticed how alert O’Neill was, how he guided them into the most likely cover. He couldn’t see the Casper entities from up here, but there were a lot of trees—not unlike Earth pines—and undergrowth, that could very well conceal them.
"Wouldn’t they have seen the ship crash?" Daniel asked. He glanced back in the direction of the ship. "If they did, they’d have gone out to look. Anybody would."
O’Neill measured the distance with his eyes and his brow wrinkled. "Unless Thor did his god thing and told them not to. On Cimmeria, every little clap of thunder was supposed to be a message from Thor."
"But those people had a Norse culture," Daniel reminded them. "If these folks came from ancient Greece, they would never have heard of Thor."
"Maybe not," Ray replied. Eyes alight with speculation, he gestured down at the village. "Maybe he just goes by another name with them, one of the Greek gods or something."
"Even more to the point," Daniel said, "it would be good to know what Goa’uld dumped them here. If they were worshiping that particular Goa’uld, they might not have liked it when Thor came in and put the planet on protective status."
Egon frowned. He had no experience with primitive cultures except for one fleeting encounter with tribesmen in the Netherworld. While he had studied ancient languages, he had paid less attention to the daily lives of those whose cultures he had studied than he had their mythology in his search for ancient ghost legends. Daniel had suggested that the village had a superficially Greek appearance, but Egon was no sociologist to guess how a once-primitive tribe may have progressed over thousands of years. Closer to the village, he could see that what he had assumed to be carts or wagons were as he had suspected, and that they were drawn by horse-like animals, or at least by quadruped, vaguely equine creatures with bluish-brown pelts. That could cover a wide range of progress. Some folks had still relied on horses in the early part of the Twentieth Century, and there were places on Earth where primitive peoples still did. The buildings Daniel had noted from afar did possess what looked like Greek columns, and there were bits of statuary about. From the look of the place, it had once been bigger than it was now, more than a simple village, but the outer structures had collapsed from disuse. It might be intriguing to trace their history.
"Is that a Stargate?" Peter asked as they came around the edge of a clump of bushes. He had assumed the lead again, a fact which didn’t appear to sit well with Jack, who kept shooing Peter behind him. With a hand outthrust to point, Peter turned his head to Daniel for confirmation.
Rising up out of the middle of the village was the rounded top of what could only be a Stargate.
"You bet it is. But if Thor’s got this planet locked down, there’ll be a nifty little toy at the gate to zap away anybody with a Goa’uld inside," Jack said.
Ray’s abrupt shocked gasp made everybody stiffen to attention. Egon looked around for a threat, then back to Ray, who had whitened and was pointing into the bushes. "Look!" he cried.
Jack waved a hand for silence, and circled around Ray, his weapon firmly gripped in his hand. He’d insisted in coming down with the gun as well as the thrower, and until they met Casper’s kin, he had chosen to face danger armed in his usual style. Daniel had one, too. Both of them and Peter had zat’nik’a’tel’s, the useful weapons of the Goa’uld that could stun, kill, and disintegrate a target depending on how many times it was struck. According to Thor, the zat weapons had no impact upon the mutants, except to annoy them. Egon had chosen to keep a free hand for his meter, but Ray had looked so wistful that O’Neill had instructed Carter to give up her zat to Ray. He wasn’t holding it now. Instead, his hands loosely clutched his thrower, but his mouth twisted.
Peter lunged for him, gripped his arm with the hand that wasn’t holding the thrower—in crisis he didn’t go for the zat, but with what he was most familiar. "You okay, Ray?" he asked, then he got a look at what Ray was pointing at, and his face went green. "Yikes."
Egon and Daniel crowded in to see.
"Son of a bitch." O’Neill put out a hand to gesture the Ghostbusters back, but not before Egon had spotted the body that sprawled supine just within the thicket. It looked human, but the black tattoo on his forehead, oddly-shaped to appear vaguely like a male reproductive organ, right where Teal’c wore his golden one, and the way his stomach had been ripped open right where Teal’c’s symbiote lived proved that this was not one of the locals but a Jaffa. He wore armor and a staff weapon lay flung just beyond his lax hand. Eyes wide and staring at the sky, he was clearly dead; the violent disruption of his body and the apparent removal of the symbiote explained the cause of death with no trouble. His face and hands bore many scratches like the one on Winston’s cheekbone, proving he had fought fiercely to defend himself. Averting his eyes from the torn flesh of the man’s belly, Egon studied his face. He looked young, and the open eyes still held traces of the fear that had struck him as he realized he was about to die. Even if the wounds had been less severe, the removal of the symbiote would have deprived him of his immune system and he would have died in short order. A vast regiment of the local equivalent of flies swarmed over the wound and danced along all the slashes and scratches, buzzing just like flies. Egon’s stomach turned and he had to swallow hard to regain control. It was not a pretty sight.
Peter nudged the body’s arm with a wary toe. It looked as if Jaffa went through the same stages of rigor mortis as humans did. Hastily Peter yanked his foot back and scraped his toe through the grass. "Ick," he said succinctly.
"Gosh, that poor guy," Ray breathed, eyes wide. "What happened to him? Did the replicator mutants do that?"
"Don’t get all sympathetic," Jack said tightly, although he swallowed hard. He must have seen far more repulsive sights in his long military career, but that didn’t mean he had to like them. "That’s a Jaffa. If he’s here, then there are probably more of them. And maybe a Goa’uld."
"More of them like this?" Peter squawked and waved a hand at the body.
"They couldn’t have come through the gate, not if this is a protected planet," Daniel objected. "They must have come by ship. They’d avoid the gate area, and it’s right in the middle of the village."
"What concerns me," Egon said hastily, "is the reminder that the original replicators grew as they consumed the substance of ships. The mutants obviously consumed this man’s larval Goa’uld, and possibly others. That would explain the intensity of my readings. I wondered that they were stronger than that of, er, Casper, but if they have found sustenance in the form of Jaffa symbiotes, that would explain it."
Peter glanced down involuntarily at the dead Jaffa and averted his eyes. "You mean we’re gonna find bodies like this all over the place? It’s like walking into a horror movie. I want triple pay for this."
"There you go with that money thing again." Jack sounded surly, but then his temper wasn’t likely directed against Peter; Peter was just the target for a rage that couldn’t lash out at its actual source. Knowing Peter, he was aware of that. They needed a tension breaker, and needed it badly.
"What do you do, donate your pay to charity?" Peter countered. He held up his hand to stop Jack’s response. "Here’s what I think. I think the Jaffa, however many of them there are down here, saw the crash and went to investigate. Maybe there’s even a Goa’uld here who sent them out. We didn’t go close enough to see if the ship was full of dead Jaffa. It could be. None obvious lying around outside or we’d have noticed. But I betcha the replicator Borg guys got dinner right after they hit. No waiting to be served for them."
"So they gobbled up all the symbiotes and then went looking for dessert?" Jack glanced uneasily in the direction of the settlement. "Okay, Venkman. What do we do?"
Peter opened his mouth to tell him, then he fell silent. "Egon?"
Dear god, he would have to find answers here, answers when the three entities were so powerful he wasn’t certain they could trap them individually even if the other two would hold off during the attempt to snare the first one. With only five throwers, not the six they’d required on the ship, and with the replicators free to move about—and move quickly—zapping and trapping them might prove problematic at best.
"I am still working on that, Peter," he admitted.
"Cross the streams?" Ray offered.
"Ray, Ray, Ray." Peter draped his arm around Ray’s shoulders, turning him so he wasn’t facing the sanguinary corpse. "Crossing the streams is bad. You and Egon always say so."
"I know, Peter, but maybe it’s the last resort."
"Killing all the people here and us, too, just to stop three replicators kinda strikes me as overkill," Peter chided. "Egon? What do you think?"
"I think that would be extraordinarily bad," Egon replied. "First of all, crossing the streams is very draining of energy. Unless the three were close enough to each other that we could snag them all at the same time, it would be likely the first attempt would drain the packs too much for a second attempt. Also, as you remember, things tend to blow up in the vicinity of such an event."
"Or melt," Jack muttered under his breath, no doubt remembering the incident with Gozer in the SGC’s embarkation room.
"We weren’t crossing the streams then," Egon corrected. "We used light in combination with the throwers."
"We crossed the streams the first time we encountered the Goze," Peter said brightly. "We blew up the roof of Dana Barrett’s building." He winced. Egon saw Ray give his arm a quick pat as he realized Peter was remembering Dana, the great love of his life, now a Tok’ra, somewhere out here living life as a blended human.
"Let’s pass on major explosions," Jack muttered. "Come on. We can plan on the way."
"What if there’s no way to stop them?" Daniel queried. In spite of the question, he fell in loyally at Jack’s side. Egon elevated an eyebrow. He’d seen the unity of SG-1 demonstrated on more than one occasion: he’d witnessed the resistance on the part of Sam and Teal’c at staying behind when their comrades were about to go into danger. But now, seeing Daniel gather himself for a battle he must have believed impossible to win, aligning himself with O’Neill and preparing to face it, Egon found himself impressed. In spite of the irritation he felt toward O’Neill at times, they were both good men. He wasn’t sure how much of his irritation was because of the different mindsets that existed between military men and scientists, or how much was annoyance at facets of O’Neill’s nature that Egon found acceptable, even amusing, sometimes endearing, in Peter. Peter had a heart of putty beneath his cocky exterior. He wasn’t steel almost all the way through like O’Neill evidently had to be. Egon didn’t know a great deal about the expectations placed upon a man who worked covert ops, but he’d seen glimpses of that man, seen the wall those expectations placed between Daniel and Jack. He suspected both men had bumped their noses against that wall on any number of occasions. It wasn’t like the informality of Ghostbusting, in which any given team member could take the lead, depending on the situation and the member’s particular skills. The military was a dictatorship and on a mission, O’Neill was always in charge. Daniel, coming out of academia, had learned to work in a different chain of command, one Egon understood quite well, and likely O’Neill didn’t. Seeing Daniel align himself with Jack reassured Egon, here at the heart of the crisis.
He glanced sideways at Peter, who had instantly sucked up any residual pain he might still be feeling about Dana Barrett—Egon knew he had distracted himself to give Peter time to do just that—and fell in with him and Ray.
Peter glanced at him sideways, and his eyes warmed as he felt Egon’s unspoken support. He said quickly before Egon could speak, "So if crossing the streams is a big no-no, then what do we do?"
"Something, Peter." It was not an answer; he didn’t have an answer yet. "I wonder if the power inherent in the Stargate itself could help us."
Daniel turned and glanced at him over his shoulder. "Sam would be fascinated to hear you say that," he said.
Jack didn’t stop walking, or even look around. "Yeah, what do you have in mind?"
"I haven’t had time to study the gate schematics in any detail, and what I did study was with Sam at your base. I wish she could be here, as she obviously understands the system as well as anyone on Earth."
"Better than anyone else on Earth," Jack corrected. "Do we need to contact her?"
"We may. Now that we know there is a gate here, it might be possible to devise a cable system to draw power through the DHD to enhance our throwers. It would prove a relatively unlimited power source for the duration of the bust. The only problem I see with that, assuming it would work in the first place, is that it would limit our range to an area immediately in front of the gate. If the mutations should prove to be intelligent, they will quickly learn they simply need retreat out of range."
"What about some kind of remote power boost?" Ray theorized. "You know," he added in an attempt to explain it to Jack. "The way a garage remote would operate, well, sort of. You don’t have to go up and open the door manually; you have a button to push."
"I see where you’re going with that, Ray," Egon said approvingly. He knew Ray didn’t really mean it like that; he was talking in layman’s terms. The two of them might be able to devise a system to draw power remotely from the DHD. They might need to contact Sam on the ship for more detailed specs, or maybe Thor could teleport her briefly to the gate location, assuming the mutants maintained their distance. Had they even picked up on her protein marker with Teal’c right there like a banquet? Would it be far more apparent with Teal’c out of the picture?
Ray’s head bobbed in confirmation. "Yeah, I can modify the power source to accept naquada input. I thought about that after the last few times and I designed a system in my head on the off chance we might even get to try it. I’ve got a lot of tools and circuits with me." He touched the pouch he wore on his belt. "I even got a few more from Thor just before we beamed down."
"Plan your designs, Ray," Egon told him. "I’ll work out the formulas."
"I’ll handle the people in the village, and Daniel can help me if we need to translate," Peter said. He hesitated, shielding his eyes with both hands as if he held binoculars as he squinted at the village. The sun was considerably brighter than that of Earth. Sunburn might become a problem, but Egon didn’t worry about that. He’d deal with that after he faced the crisis of the entities. If they won, Thor’s medicine could heal sunburns. If they lost, it would scarcely matter.
O’Neill still didn’t look happy with Peter over his faulting of Thor. "What are you gonna do about them, Venkman?"
"I’m gonna find out if they know about the Borg mutants, and what they know about the Jaffa we found. And see if I can figure why the mutants haven’t mobbed the village already. It’s gotta be a day since the crash."
"That Jaffa had been dead long enough for the blood to dry," Daniel reminded them. His mouth twisted. Probably remembering the flies. He might be far more accustomed to seeing dead bodies than the Ghostbusters were, but if so it hadn’t hardened him to it.
"And for rigor mortis to set in but not pass off," Egon reminded them. "Which means that if the Jaffa were in the village and went to investigate immediately, the timing would be right. We arrived here remarkably quickly. Which would indicate to me that we are not in the Asgard’s galaxy but within our own."
"Yeah, I wondered about that," Ray threw in quickly.
Peter’s face hardened. "They were messing with replicators right here in our galaxy? And you trust this guy?"
"He’s trying to fix it, Venkman."
"Stop it, both of you." That was Daniel. "We can deal with blame later if necessary. Right now let’s deal with the problem at hand."
Jack shot him a rather annoyed glance, but he backed down with only a quick grimace for Peter. They might have come to terms with each other in the pyramid with the food of the gods, but it hadn’t taken long for that truce to break down. If Egon hadn’t believed both men were pragmatic and realistic enough to set aside their grudges at the first sign of danger, he would have jumped into the fray to rein them in.
Peter gave Daniel a rather sheepish grin. "Good point, buddy," he said. "Egon, why wouldn’t the Casper clones have gone into the village by now? If they’re circling it for an attack, they’d have had plenty of time to do that already."
"That interests me as well. Unless there were considerable Jaffa and they have been momentarily sated?"
"Maybe they don’t find ordinary humans tasty." Ray scratched his head. "Or maybe they don’t like the Stargate."
"It’s made of naquada. They ought to love it." O’Neill started moving again, then he gave a half jump sideways and muttered, "Son of a bitch."
He’d had to swerve to avoid the protruding feet of yet another dead Jaffa. This one, mercifully, lay face down, but worse than the other, this one looked like he’d lived after his symbiote had been ripped out and consumed. Although he’d left a messy trail of dried blood and tissue behind, a trail swarming with insects, he had managed to pull himself a good five or six feet before he had succumbed to death.
"He wasn’t heading for the village," Daniel noticed. He pointed at the trail. The Jaffa had been heading for the stream.
"Maybe he was so out of it he didn’t know where he was going, just trying to get away. Or maybe he was thirsty." Jack craned his neck to look past the corpse. Off in the direction he’d dragged himself a faint trail showed, winding randomly through the clumps of trees and brush just this side of the stream. To the left of his path, a series of cultivated fields filled out the rest of the valley. At an angle to the body’s left, the main path down to the village stretched out in plain sight, roughly paralleling the water. Jack bent and retrieved the Jaffa’s staff weapon, tucking it under his arm.
"Let’s see," Peter said under his breath. "Two hands to hold a thrower, two for the gun, and two for the staff weapon. That’s gonna be fun."
O’Neill rolled exasperated eyes. "Venkman?"
"You are a pain in the ass."
"Let me return that compliment, Colonel, sir." Suddenly he cocked his head. "Listen!" He held up a hand. "I hear something."
They all fell silent and stood there straining their ears. At first, all Egon could hear was the buzzing of the bugs that surrounded the corpse, the frog noises, the ripple of a nearby stream, and the chirps of blue and yellow birds in the underbrush, then he realized what that distant sound was.
It was singing.
** *** **
"But I’m okay now. I could go down and help out." Winston’s frown held as much stubbornness as Sam was accustomed to seeing on Colonel O’Neill’s and Daniel’s expressions when they faced off against each other. From his couch, Winston set his jaw and braced himself, and his hands closed into fists, opened, closed. "Come on, Thor. My buddies are down there in a big mess—a mess you created. You saw yourself it took six of us to trap Casper. They’ve got three Caspers down there and only five of them. I have to be down there."
"No." Thor stood resolute. "You are not recovered. You sustained a concussion, Zeddemore. You feel better than you did, but strenuous activity on the planet would exhaust and drain you. If you collapsed, your friends would rush to your aid, therefore endangering themselves."
Sam jumped in before Winston could open his mouth to object. "He’s right, Winston. Adrenaline might give you a rush, but you’d collapse afterward. I know Colonel O’Neill and Daniel are notoriously bad patients. I’ve seen the Colonel try to get up against medical advice and fall on the floor."
"You want to be down there as much as I do," Winston accused her.
"As do I." Teal’c frowned. Of course Teal’c seemed to be frowning much of the time anyway, but this was a definite glower. "My place is at O’Neill’s side, to protect him and DanielJackson."
"Exactly," Winston exclaimed. "You can’t go because of the symbiote, so I should be down there. They need six people, and it’s not as if they can conscript a villager."
"You shall not go," Thor informed him. "I shall not send you down until I believe you are ready. In the meantime, I shall provide sustenance." He left briefly.
"Whatever you do, don’t eat the yellow stuff," Sam warned him. The last time the Asgard had fed her, she had been appalled at the foul taste of the nutrient tablet. Thor liked it; he could have her share for eternity.
"Yellow stuff?" Winston echoed. Teal’c merely arched an eyebrow.
Thor had Winston half-reclining on a couch that looked like the Asgard version of a dentist’s chair. Since the Asgard were little folks, Winston’s legs hung off the end, making him look like a grown-up in a child’s bed. It would have been comical if the rest of their teams weren’t down on the planet facing unspeakable danger without them. From the tightness in Winston’s muscles, he was probably prepared to jump up and have it out with Thor as soon as the Asgard returned. The wound on his cheek had been dressed; Thor’s treatment had practically healed it to the point where it needed no more than a band-aid, and probably not even that. Still, Sam suspected the only reason Winston hadn’t jumped to his feet to persist in his argument was because he really still felt woozy. She’d been concussed. She knew what it felt like. Even if Asgard medicine had brought him back further and faster than Tau’ri medicine would have done, his system had sustained a shock and needed time to settle.
Thor returned in time for the platter he carried to answer Winston’s question. "Is that dinner?" he substituted.
Thor offered him the platter. "I recommend the green one. It will aid your healing."
Winston grimaced but he took the oddly-shaped wafer and nibbled it cautiously. Then his face lit up. "It’s good."
"Yes, I enjoy that one as well. It will assist in restoring your strength." He turned to Sam. "Major Carter, I recall that you do not care for yellow. Perhaps blue...."
She took a cautious bite. Well, Styrofoam didn’t taste bad. It just wasn’t appealing. Still, in case the team on the planet found it would be safe for her with her protein marker she needed to keep up her strength. She chewed determinedly. At least her jaw was getting its fair share of exercise.
Teal’c took a yellow one and inclined his head in gratitude. He appeared to find it palatable. She shuddered. To each his own.
They had just finished the nutrient when the first call came through from the planet. "O’Neill to Thor."
Thor touched the control panel. "What have you found, O’Neill?"
The Colonel’s filtered voice replied. "One honking big pile of spaceship wreckage and a couple of dead Jaffa. Good thing you stayed up there, Teal’c. They’ve had their symbiotes gouged out. Let me tell ya, it’s not a pretty sight."
Teal’c’s hand traveled involuntarily to his belly. "Be wary, O’Neill," he cautioned. "There may be other hostile Jaffa still at liberty, as well as a Goa’uld."
"We theorize the Jaffa on the planet went to investigate the crash and met the mutant replicators," Egon added. He added flatly, "The mutants won."
"There should be no Jaffa or Goa’uld on Sounon." Thor’s voice tightened. "It is a protected world. The Hammer device at the Stargate should incarcerate them."
"Not if they came in ships and avoided the Stargate," Daniel added. "We’ve only seen two so far, and they were both dead." Sam could tell from the tone of his voice just how his face twisted and his mouth curled.
"Any Goa’uld ships in orbit?" O’Neill asked.
Thor frowned. "There are none, O’Neill. My instruments would have detected them, even on the far side of the planet."
"Well, they got here somehow. Daniel doesn’t recognize their tattoos, so we don’t know what Goa’uld they serve, but at least it’s not Heru-ur or Sokar."
"Describe it to me," Teal’c urged.
Peter jumped in. "If you ask me, it looks pretty much like a pe—" He broke off. "Um, a phallic symbol."
Sam hid a smile, knowing he was censoring himself on her behalf.
"Peter," Egon chided.
"Well, it does. You know it does, Spengs. I saw your eyebrows shooting up at the sight of it."
"They were shooting up at the sight of the damage done to the Jaffa, Peter," Egon corrected him. "Teal’c, does that sound familiar? Er, do you know what a phallic symbol—"
"I do," Teal’c cut in rather quickly. He glanced sideways at Sam. The subject of human sexual customs had never come up between her and Teal’c, and that was fine with her. Who knew what ‘the boys’ had discussed on stag nights? She would just as soon not know. "The symbol you describe belongs to a minor Goa’uld, Pan."
"Ah, that makes sense," said Daniel and Egon in perfect chorus, causing Sam to smile. Daniel continued. "The phallic image was used to represent him in mythology."
"Pan’s that guy with the goat’s legs, right?" Peter asked.
"As you know very well," agreed Ray. "I didn’t know Pan was a Goa’uld. Wow, that’s kind of cool. The word ‘panic’ comes from him, you know."
Sam hadn’t consciously known that, but it made sense. What little she remembered from her Greek mythology and from Daniel’s impromptu lectures on various planets indicated that Pan delighted in frightening people, chasing nymphs, and other not-exactly-delightful behavior. He’d invented pan-pipes, hadn’t he? Interesting to think that he might be a Goa’uld. They hadn’t encountered him before.
"Pan is not a powerful Goa’uld," Thor interjected. "He had aligned himself with Ra, but when Ra was destroyed by O’Neill and Daniel Jackson, Pan did not affiliate himself with another system lord. He avoids their councils. Little has been reported of him in recent years."
"You think he could have settled on Sounon?" Daniel asked.
"I do not know." Thor kept right on frowning. "If so, he could not have entered through the Stargate."
"But he could have come by ship," the Colonel said. "I know there were Jaffa here. We found a couple of bodies and there might be more in the ship."
"What of the people?"
"We’re approaching the Stargate," Egon reported. "It’s in the center of the settlement. The three mutant replicators have encircled the city but have not entered. The people there have gathered near the Stargate, and may be unaware of the threat."
"They’re having a happening party," Peter chipped in brightly. "All standing around their central square singing their heads off."
"Singing?" Thor stared at the speaker.
"Yes." That was Daniel. "You wouldn’t expect singing?"
"I have heard them sing before. Their religion is different from that of Cimmeria. They came from your planet long ago, brought here by a Goa’uld."
"If they came from Greece," Daniel threw in, "then they’d probably know the name Pan. Who did you represent yourself to be in their religious pantheon?"
"I chose the name Zeus among their people."
"That makes sense, Jack," Sam heard Daniel say. "Thor was often associated with Jupiter, and Jupiter and Zeus are different names for the same entity. In fact, you can actually see a linguistic conjunction there. Zeus plus pater, the Latin word for father. Zeus-pater, Jupiter."
"Thank you for that lesson in Linguistics 101," Jack threw in. "But all that means is that we might have majorly unfriendly Jaffa here in the service of Pan, if they haven’t all had their symbiotes served up for Casper’s pals’ dinner."
"I can come down, sir," Sam volunteered. "We don’t actually know the protein marker in my blood would appeal to them. We do know Teal’c would be at risk down there."
"And you might be, too, Carter. Listen up. I’m gonna put you on with Ray. He’s got a weird idea about drawing energy from the DHD to boost our proton packs. See if you think that’ll fly."
Intriguing. The energy required to open a gate was massive. If the gate was not in operation, the power was there idle, waiting to be used, self-regenerating. Should there be a way to link it to the throwers, the main problem she could see would be a lack of mobility. But there might be other options.
"Ray, Sam here. Do you have the necessary equipment there to channel power through it, possibly bypassing the proton pack entirely? I’m not sure I want to combine nuclear energy with the energy that naquada produces. Or I could put together an energy filter to regulate the flow. That might manage it safely. I did bring the naquada reactor. I can bring it down to you. I can see how to link it to the DHD and use it to focus power, so that you would have essentially a series of rapid pulses of incredible strength, timed in with what would ordinarily be a gate opening. Instead of dialing up the chevrons, it would send that energy focused through the reactor to be directed by the particle streams. It might take some hours to complete."
Teal’c moved in closer and spoke into the Asgard equivalent of the mic. "O’Neill, at the time of readiness, I will ask Thor to send me to the surface at the gate location. My presence will draw the mutant replicators to your location."
"Yeah, and Thor’s Hammer will send you off to a ducky underground prison. Forget it, Teal’c. That’s final."
Sam glanced over at Thor, who had been listening without offering opinions. His face was much harder to read than Teal’c’s, although that could simply be that she was far more used to interacting with Teal’c. Did he want them to work out the solution themselves? Was this, in effect, a test of the humans of Earth, to determine how they would face up to just such a crisis? The fact that five of them had already gone down to rescue a people they had never met before on a strange world had to speak much for their good intentions. She, Teal’c, and Winston wanted to be there, too, in order to stand at their teammates’ side, to share the danger they faced. But there was more to responsibility than simply the willingness to take risks. There was the need to complete the task at hand, the ability to understand the problem and reason it through, the wisdom to acknowledge when a problem was insoluble and when to step aside and yield. They hadn’t reached that point, yet, and with so many creative minds on the problem, they had a good chance of discovering an answer. The Asgard had come to the Tau’ri for a ‘primitive’ solution. If their technology had been able to defeat the replicators, they would have done it already.
"The Colonel’s right," she said hastily to Teal’c. "But I’ll need to come down and help Ray set it up. I don’t know how much you know about naquada reactors, Ray."
"Not nearly enough. I know they exist. I know naquada is what the Stargate is made of and that it’s in the Goa’uld. But I haven’t seen the specs for your reactor. I know it’s that little boxy thing you’ve got that looks like a miniature Borg cube, but aside from taking a look at it, I don’t know how it works. Egon?"
"With the help of specs, I might be able to understand it, but it would not be instantaneous."
"What?" came Peter’s filtered voice, simply reeking disbelief. "Come on, Spengs, you cut your teeth on things like this."
"Unfortunately not, Peter. While I am perhaps the world’s leading expert in ectoplasmic physics, that doesn’t mean I am knowledgeable about extraterrestrial applications of unfamiliar energy."
"But you’d get it if you checked it out," Ray said with supreme confidence. Sam could tell he firmly believed it would take Egon only minutes to solve the problem. She wasn’t sure if that was possible, even for herself. Ray’s high opinion of his friend colored his attitude.
"With the specs, and with the same for the operation of the DHD," Egon agreed.
"Sir, I’m coming down," Sam insisted. "I’ll ready the naquada reactor for interface and then when you’re in position, I’ll have Thor send me there." She whirled to face the Asgard. "Thor, is there any means of creating an energy barrier around me that will block readings of the Goa’uld protein marker in my blood?"
"An intelligent question." Thor’s high forehead wrinkled up. "Such a solution would exist for a limited duration. No more than one of your hours. A Goa’uld personal shield would last longer, but it would take more time than we could safely risk to prepare it." He looked over at Teal’c and cut in before the Jaffa could speak. "Such a procedure as I intend for Major Carter would not work to shield a living symbiote."
Teal’c’s jaw tightened. "I should be there at O’Neill’s side."
"You’d only make him need to protect you," Sam put in. She hated to discourage Teal’c when she shared the same need to stand with O’Neill and Daniel.
"I want to come, too," Winston put in. He folded his arms stubbornly across his chest. "The guys need another thrower."
"No," said Thor.
"You listen to Thor, Zeddemore," O’Neill called. "Last thing we need is somebody who’s gonna collapse on us the minute it gets strenuous. I know what a concussion feels like."
"Yeah, and I bet you’re real obedient when Doctor Fraiser tells you to stay in bed," Winston countered.
"He is not," Teal’c murmured sotto voce.
"I heard that, Teal’c." Ah, a peeved colonel. In the background, Sam could hear Daniel’s faint snicker. Peter laughed out loud. It took very little imagination for Sam to imagine the baleful look the colonel gave the Ghostbuster. At least they were in good spirits down there.
"As I intended, O’Neill."
"Listen up," O’Neill continued. "The mutants have formed a loose circle around the settlement. They could go after the people in there at any minute. Thor, if you think that field of yours will protect Carter, get it ready. Carter, you feed whatever info you need to Spengler and Stantz while he prepares it. Daniel, Venkman, and I are going to check out the village."
"Is that safe, sir?" she asked involuntarily.
"Well, so far the Caspers haven’t paid any attention to us," O’Neill replied. The people are singing their heads off, not arming up to come out and overrun us. Maybe they’re celebrating the fact that the Jaffa are dead, who knows? We need all the intel we can get about what’s going on in there. We have to make sure they won’t stop us from messing with the DHD when the time comes and we need to get the lay of the land."
"Be careful, sir," she encouraged.
"Don’t worry. Daniel speaks Ancient Greek, so if we need to talk to them that way, we’re all set, right, Daniel?"
"Um, yes. I believe Egon speaks it as well."
Carter didn’t hear a response, so presumably Egon must have nodded. "Good," the colonel continued. "Back-up. All right, you two play mad scientist with Carter. Come on, Daniel. You too, Venkman. O’Neill out."
The link was still open. Sam heard Egon say, "Be careful, Peter. Watch your back," and Ray add, "Here’s a meter." Then Egon came on again. "Sam? What can you tell us about the naquada reactor and the DHD’s power source?"
She took a deep breath and started talking.
** *** **
Peter hated the thought of leaving Ray and Egon exposed like that, caught up in weird science to the point that any lurking Jaffa or wild animals might sneak up on them. He hesitated, trailing to a stop. "Just a sec, Colonel," and darted back to his buddies. "Egon? Ray? Listen up."
"Hold on a second, Sam," Ray instructed, and nodded for Peter to speak.
"I want you to set one of the meters to those readings we get from Teal’c and boost the power up so it covers a wider distance. If there are any more Jaffa sneaking around, they’re gonna know we’re not locals. They might even think we’re responsible for the symbiote-eating ghosties. So don’t you dare let your guard down."
Egon looked up from the notepad he’d produced to scribble down Sam’s instructions. "Don’t worry, Peter, the meters will warn us of approaching danger."
"You guys let somebody get the drop on you and I’ll be real upset."
"That goes for you, too," Egon reminded him.
"Yeah, Peter, be careful in there." Ray waved him away, but not without a flash of regret on his face that he couldn’t head into the village, too.
"We shall move in your direction as we prepare," Egon explained. They’d have to go more slowly so he and Ray could take notes.
Peter hurried back to O’Neill, who had been tapping his foot impatiently. With a grin, Peter said, "You’ve got the beat down pat, Jack. Now you just have to learn the steps."
The colonel glared at him. "Let’s move," was all he said, and the effort he made to control himself was almost visible. If it were possible for steam to shoot out of a human’s ears, Jack’s would have done it. Daniel’s eyes twinkled at Peter.
"It’s okay," he said an in undertone. "He’ll be better when the action starts. He doesn’t like breaking up his team any more than you do."
"Listen up, Venkman," O’Neill said. "I had to teach Daniel military hand signals, and I bet you guys have your own brand. Better learn what I’m gonna use because when the time comes I’ll do it instinctively."
Peter nodded. This was a tough situation; he might lighten it with a few words chosen to provoke the colonel out of his tension the way he could relieve stress on a bust, but in a few minutes they’d reach the settlement, and they’d need to work together, maybe without giving anything away. "Go for it."
For the next few minutes as they walked, O’Neill gave Peter a crash course in combat hand signals. Peter concentrated for all he was worth, played them back, committed them to memory. His life and his friends’ lives might depend on his ability to react instinctively to them. This was no time to play.
Once O’Neill was satisfied that Peter wasn’t going to screw up, he picked up speed. They came out of the underbrush onto a well-defined trail that led directly to the village. A quick scan of the P.K.E. meter proved that none of the Caspers were blocking the road. What did alarm him was that they had all moved into position, equidistant from each other; a line between them would form a perfect equilateral triangle. If that was instinct, it was a precise, machine instinct. If it were deliberate, it spoke of a high order of consciousness. Peter shifted his feet uneasily as he checked the readings.
"They’re in perfect formation," he admitted. "See? Here. Here. And here." He poked his finger at each indication on the screen.
"I don’t like the look of that," Jack muttered.
"What’s worse," Daniel said, his brow wrinkling as he concentrated, "is that if I’m reading the meter right, they’re all the same distance from the Stargate."
"And that means what?" Jack rolled his eyes. "They want to consume it? They want to take a trip?"
"Could be either," Peter said. "They might even want to use the energy to feed on. You know, open a gate and suck up all the ambient energy floating around." He wasn’t sure a Stargate even produced any ambient energy, but Egon was always throwing terms like that around, and it sounded impressive.
"Possible," Jack conceded. "We know they eat symbiotes." His mouth tightened. "We don’t know they eat people without symbiotes. Casper went for Teal’c on the ship."
"All the people in the village are gathered together," Daniel reminded them.
"Still singing." Peter listened. Now that they were close enough to make out the individual words, he realized he didn’t understand them. They were singing a song with a very formal pattern, and it didn’t sound as alien as some Earth music did to him. He never could get the hang of that sitar stuff, and while he loved belly dancing as a member of an appreciative audience, it wasn’t the obscure beat he enjoyed. This music felt...Western, for want of a better term. Stylized but not like that longhair stuff Egon listened to. "Sounds like some kind of formal folk music?"
"That’s what it seems to me, too," Daniel agreed. Lines formed on his brow as he concentrated. "It is Ancient Greek, but the pronunciation has shifted. I can make out most of it. It’s not quite a folk song, though, Peter. It may have started out as one. But I think it’s more of an invocation."
"Invocation?" O’Neill prompted. He carried his P-90 in one hand and thrower in the other, and he had tucked the staff weapon under his arm so that he could drop it if needed to free his hands for the other weapons.
"A plea to the gods for assistance," Daniel explained. "Mostly to Zeus, which, in this case, would be Thor. But there are a few lines thrown in to Pan as well."
Peter grinned faintly. "Hedging their bets?"
"You betcha," Jack agreed. He quirked a grin at them. "So you’re saying they know they’re in trouble and they’re asking the gods to come and save them?"
"Exactly." Head tilted to hear better, Daniel translated, "‘O mighty Zeus, protect us from this threat.’" It’s not happy singing, if you know what I mean, but it’s not...well, it’s not panicked, either. It’s more like reminding Thor that protection is an entitlement. Sort of like, ‘hey, we’re in trouble, get your butt down here like you’re supposed to and save us.’"
Jack’s eyebrows lifted. "Thanks a heap, Daniel, now you’ve got me thinking about Thor’s butt. There’s a lot of other things I’d rather think about, believe me."
Daniel paused long enough to share an amused look with Peter. "I think they know about the Jaffa," he continued. A Because I catch a line every now and then about the evil still delivering them from a lesser one. I think that means they know the Caspers have been killing Jaffa. Maybe some of them went out to check on the ship, too, and found the bodies."
"Think Pan is here?" Jack wanted to know.
Peter craned his neck to see. He wasn’t sure Pan would want to hang around, even if he had one of those Goa’uld personal shields that had been mentioned. But the folks here might think he was, which would be why they’d throw in a few requests to him. They might be primitive; didn’t mean they were gullible or that they didn’t know which side their bread was buttered on. A god in the hand might be worth a more powerful one in the bush.
"I don’t know if he’s actually in the village," Daniel conceded. "If he is, he might have gone to shelter. If there’s a secure location there that the Caspers can’t get to, he might be hiding out there with a few Jaffa—personal bodyguards."
"But the Caspers aren’t homed in on anything but the Stargate," Peter reminded them. He tapped the meter screen. "Okay, they haven’t moved since we got close. Let me take a reading for Goa’uld."
With his tongue in the right corner of his mouth to aid concentration, he changed the meter’s settings. The range for Goa’uld biorhythms wasn’t far, although it was farther than normal human readings. Egon had picked up on Teal’c without even trying the first time, not because there was anything paranormal or ectoplasmic in Goa’uld readings but probably because the naquada in their systems boosted the detectable energy to shunt into the negative valence readings. Against the overwhelming presence of the replicator mutants, on which the meter had been specifically focused, Goa’uld readings would have been overwhelmed. So Peter focused them out and keyed in the settings that would specifically detect them. Egon had given him and Ray the figures before they had teleported to the surface.
There, he had it. Raising the meter, he aimed it at the village.
The very faintest of blips touched the screen, faded, reappeared, so faint it might have been a glitch in the meter. No blinking lights, no raised antennae, just that little smudge. Peter squinted at it, wishing for the reading glasses no one knew he had, but they were back in his desk drawer at Ghostbuster Central.
"Is that it?" Daniel had his glasses on, and he was younger. O’Neill, older than Peter, squinted at the screen.
"Scarcely shows. You sure that’s not just screen hash?"
Peter shook his head. "Not positive but it stays in the same place."
"If the Goa’uld is shielded, maybe that’s why it’s so faint," Daniel offered. "Thor said a personal shield would last longer than the temporary field he’s going to create for Sam, but it’s been what, a day since the crash? He may have devised a secure location in the village." He waved his hand at the structures.
The locals had built in stone; looked like white marble. Maybe there were tons of rock quarries nearby. If the folks had come from ancient Greece, they’d have built what they knew. Down there by the gate was what looked like a temple. It wasn’t as big as the Acropolis—Peter and the guys had gone to Greece on a bust once and the ancient pillared temple on the Acropolis had impressed the heck out of Peter—but it was similar. Simple smooth columns with no fancy curlicue stuff at the tops. Doric, Peter thought vaguely, and grinned because he’d remembered. Egon would be impressed.
Once the village had been much bigger; probably there were fewer people here now. If the Goa’uld had come in and raided them to look for hosts, they might have lost people, or some of them may have spread out to other settlements on the planet. Thor had said there were five million folks here, and this place couldn’t hold anywhere near that number. The outer structures looked mostly abandoned and some had been cannibalized for stone, a pillar missing here, a chunk of wall there. A few of the buildings had collapsed into rubble, and Peter couldn’t tell if that had been caused by age and neglect or if a Goa’uld ship had come in and started blasting. Vines and other greenery covered a lot of the ruined buildings, hiding any traces of long-ago blast scars.
"What kind of secure location?" Jack asked.
"I don’t know. Underground? Shielded by stone? Even shielded by naquada," Daniel theorized. He waved his hand. "If it’s near the Stargate, the naquada from that might help to cover his readings unless the Caspers are very specific at detecting living elements in the midst of all that stone."
"So, do we just walk in and talk to the people?" Peter asked.
O’Neill pushed his cap back and massaged his forehead. In the heat of the Sounon sun, Peter would have been glad of a cap for himself. Or some world-class sunblock. He shifted a step into the shade of one of the almost-pines and mopped his forehead with his sleeve.
The Colonel frowned. "I don’t see any Jaffa lurking around. From those bodies we found I think they would be like a neon sign for the Caspers. "We go in, but go in armed and ready."
"We could tell them we are messengers from Zeus," Daniel offered. "It’s true, after all. They might listen to us. We could go on the communicator so Thor could give a sign to back us up, a thunder clap or something like that."
"He’s an Asgard, not a god, Daniel."
"I know, but I bet he could create the effect on cue. There have got to be a few preset recordings down here, the way there were on Cimmeria. It’s worth a chance."
Thor still made Peter uneasy. In spite of the Asgard’s protection of primitive planets, there was a high-handedness about the guy that bugged Peter. He might mean a more kindly intervention than the Goa’uld did, but it was still control and domination of a less advanced culture. Did the Asgard have anything like the Star Trek prime directive? Hadn’t Daniel said that the people on protected worlds didn’t learn more until they proved themselves advanced enough to understand it. Better not get into another argument with O’Neill, who evidently thought a lot of the little alien.
"Divine messengers, I like it." Peter grinned, but he tightened his grip on the thrower. He wouldn’t mess with the zat he carried unless attacked by a horde of Jaffa. Last thing he wanted to do was zap the natives who were under Thor’s protection. Thor might not take that well, and he was Peter’s only ride home. "If they doubt us, we can give them a two-second light show with a thrower and make the point. You can talk to them, can’t you, Daniel?"
He nodded. "I might get the pronunciation a little off, but I think we can communicate."
"Then let’s move. Set your meter back the way it was so we’ll know if they move," Jack directed, and waited while Peter went back to the Casper settings before he gestured them forward.
Once the settlement could have held possibly as many as five thousand people, but from the gathering in the square around the Stargate and from the state of decay of the outer structures, Peter doubted as many as a thousand remained, and possibly less. They met no one on their way to the square, which didn’t necessarily mean that every living person in the settlement had gathered. More of them could be hiding in their houses, unwilling to call attention to themselves. They had to know the Caspers had come from the wrecked ship. Peter, Jack, and Daniel were strangers who approached from the same direction. Anybody with sense would lie low and wait to see what they had in mind—or set up an ambush.
Once they moved further into the city, it was plain to see that the people took pride in the place. No litter lined the streets, and wooden doors sported fresh paint in a variety of colors, mostly greens with a few blues thrown in and the odd red and yellow for contrast. Painted geometric designs that would have registered as ancient Greek in Peter’s mind sometimes bordered doors and windows. Huge tubs of flowers lined the streets and clustered at the corners of intersections. If people were watching them from curtained windows, Peter didn’t see so much as a flicker of fabric to indicate their presence. A few canine-style creatures slunk through the streets and ran away at the sight of the newcomers, and the song of those gathered in the Stargate square drowned out the songs of the brightly colored birds that flitted here and there. Overhead, a vast blue sky hosted the brilliant sun. Peter could feel sweat trickling unpleasantly down his back under his shirt and jumpsuit. Too bad the locals were too primitive for air conditioning.
Signs marked the intersections, with familiar writing that had Daniel stopping dead at the first sight of it. "Look at that. Pure classical Greek lettering."
"All I know about Greek lettering is fraternity stuff," Peter chimed in. "See. That’s ‘pi’. There’s ‘kappa’." He traced them with a fond finger.
"I knew you had to be a frat brat, Venkman."
"Pi Kappa Nu," Peter said brightly. "We called it Try Cuppa Brew."
"For the endless keggers, right?"
"Well, not endless," Peter challenged him. "I did come out of college with two doctorates, after all."
Daniel ignored the banter. "These aren’t directional," he said. "They’re not street signs. It’s not Plato Boulevard and Socrates Avenue. They’re advertisements."
"Must be a universal concept." Peter grinned. "What are they advertising, anyway? Ouzo?"
"I doubt they have ouzo, Peter," Daniel returned, then he grinned. "Why wouldn’t they have a variant? The climate here is somewhat similar to Greece, although probably a bit hotter due to the sun. Those trees down there, the groves—" He waved a vague hand off to an angle from the way they had come. "They’re like olive trees. Faced with a similar environment, the transplanted humans would go on with what they knew. Actually this one advertises a poetry reading."
"Fun. Let’s rush right on over."
"Well, it might be fun, Jack. It says something about refreshments offered afterward."
"Yeah, but you have to sit through the poetry first, I bet. Not my idea of a happening party."
Peter had to say he agreed with that. Sitting around listening to guys reading poetry had never been on his top one hundred list of ways to get his jollies. Egon might like it, but not as much as he’d like a lecture about mold spores.
Daniel trotted over to the next sign. "This one is a request for a lost toga. Someone named Archemedon misplaced his toga at the agora. I’m guessing that would be the area of the Stargate square."
"Sounds like Archimedes," Peter threw in. "He was a Greek, wasn’t he? Some sort of early physicist."
O’Neill pushed his cap back on his head and squinted at Peter over the tops of his sunglasses. "I’m impressed, Venkman."
"Try living with a physicist and see how many historical physicists you have to hear stories about over the breakfast toast."
"I can relate," O’Neill agreed. "Remember PJ4-902, Daniel? That campfire where Carter rattled off the names of about a hundred physicists."
Daniel groaned. "Yeah, and you countered with every military genius from the dawn of time."
"Well, yeah, you threw in all those archaeologists."
"What did Teal’c do? Give a list of the Goa’uld?" Peter asked.
That made O’Neill grimace. He snapped back to attention. "Status check, Venkman," he barked with a quick gesture at the meter with the tip of his thrower.
Peter tucked his own proton rifle under his arm and studied the meter. "No change. They’re still hanging out there. Not sure what they’re waiting for. Do they think the locals are armed and dangerous?"
Daniel craned his neck to see down the new street. It was just possible to make out the backs of some of the people in the crowd. None of them had turned in the team’s direction yet. "Maybe they’re waiting for Pan to come out."
"If they’re waiting for him to come out, it means they know he’s here. But they aren’t making a beeline for him the way they tried for Teal’c. You think something’s protecting him?"
"Maybe." Peter squinted at the screen. It didn’t give him theories, only facts. "If we knew what it was maybe we could get Egon and Ray and Sam to work with it and use it to catch the Caspers."
"Do they give any sign they’re aware of us?" O’Neill asked.
"Not so far. They haven’t moved, even when we passed between them to enter the village. Maybe they’re on break or something. You know, they have a good union." Peter tucked the activated meter into the front of his jumpsuit to free his hands.
O’Neill glanced down at the backs of the crowd. "The meter will put up a screech if they move, won’t it?"
Peter nodded. "You bet. That’s what Egon and Ray designed it to do."
"Good. Then let’s go make nice with the natives."
They headed down the avenue. This must be advertisers’ paradise; there were more signs every few feet, and some of them held pictures, no doubt advertising products for sale. Peter saw some of urns and vases, one for a fancy carriage with all sorts of curlicues and doodads on it, another for sets of scrolls. Did advertisements mean a healthy economy? Or was this just the local equivalent of billboard row? Daniel kept lagging back, darting from sign to sign, making little exclamations of delight. It was like taking Egon somewhere scientific.
"Daniel. Heel," Jack barked.
"But Ja-ack, this is great stuff. You can learn a lot about a culture from what it finds worthy of advertizing."
"Or how they market themselves," Peter threw in. "We were in Pompeii once. Ghosts from the eruption. The old city had a lot of gymnasiums for guys to work out. The first thing they’d see when they’d come out after a stiff workout was a local bar—well, a place with vats of wine and stuff. Betcha those old wine merchants really cleaned up on those thirsty guys."
"That’s true, I’ve been there," Daniel agreed. "I hope Thor will let us talk to the people after we’ve gotten rid of the Caspers. We can learn a lot from them."
"That’s for after, Daniel. We’ve got hungry entities out there waiting to strike and a rogue Goa’uld in hiding. I think reading local billboards will have to wait."
Daniel nodded and fell in with Jack. Peter grinned. He’d have to practice that technique on Egon when he went into one of his meter fixations or on Ray when they happened to pass a comic book store on a bust.
The singing stopped, and Peter thought they’d been spotted, but instead the singers took up a new song. As the team approached, Peter saw that the people were standing in a series of uneven circles around the Stargate. They held hands with their neighbors on either side and swayed to and fro in time with the music. Peter remembered Ray talking about campfire sing-alongs at Camp Runamuck, or whatever it was, when he was a kid. All these guys needed was to start singing Kumbaya.
A few steps closer and Peter noticed something else. The kids had been gathered in the inner circle. The really tiny ones, just barely big enough to walk were in the very center, and the circles expanded outward with the kiddies growing progressively older. Then the women stood in their circles behind the children, and finally the men, who had been grouped according to size. The outer group consisted of the tallest, the most muscular, the beefiest of guys. Protection. Took a lot of organizing for something like that.
They all wore tunics or togas like old Socrates when he was hanging out at the Acropolis. Peter had to admit his mental picture of that was gleaned from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and he half expected to see Keanu Reeves and his buddy popping in and out in their telephone-booth time machine. Women’s tunics came to mid-calf, men’s to just below their knees. The kiddies all just wore casual tunics and sandals. Some of the people wore eye shades, not unlike sunglasses, except that they were attached to ribbon bands that tied around their foreheads, lowering a transparent shaded piece that covered both eyes. Peter decided to ask if someone would loan him one.
The team stepped out into the square. There was the Stargate in the center, a honking big circle device. Peter grinned when he remembered he’d actually once found an actual Stargate in a junkyard in New Jersey. Good thing, too, because Gozer’s death in the gateroom at the SGC had melted the old one. Seeing it out here in this place that looked like a movie set made it seem bigger. He’d seen a couple of gates on other planets before, too, and they impressed the heck out of him. This one stood tall and dark against the white marble of the buildings that surrounded the large square. Off to the left, a small river ran through one side of the plaza, neatly bridged at every intersecting street; it was probably the same stream they’d roughly paralleled on the way down to the village.
As the three of them moved out into the vast square, people on the opposite side spotted them and broke off singing to yell and point. There were a lot of people, healthy, robust people, glowing with energy. Peter couldn’t help wishing he’d had a bath and a change of clothes before he came. He felt bathed in sweat from the day’s heat. The locals could probably smell their visitors. Peter sure could.
The singing faltered to a stop and everyone turned to stare at the newcomers. Peter felt like someone had just turned on a spotlight.
If there was anybody who liked to work a crowd, it was Peter Venkman. Since nobody was armed and firing at them, he lowered the thrower and took a couple of steps forward, conscious of O’Neill grabbing at him, and his angry hiss of, "Stop, Venkman."
Peter grinned at him over his shoulder. "Greetings," he said. "We come as representatives of Zeus, in answer to your plea."
Would have been great if he’d been able to say it in ancient Greek, but Daniel could translate. He should have thought of that first.
To his astonishment, a man pushed his way out of the crowd, who parted to allow it. He charged up to Peter, who had to work hard not to take an involuntarily step backward. It would have looked bad in a messenger of the gods. The newcomer was a man of medium height with a cluster of black curls that grew rather low on his forehead, and which had also had been coaxed to lay in waves down the back of his neck nearly halfway down his back. He wore a gold circlet around his head that might be a sign of rank, and his hair looped around it in little swirls. Very deep-set eyes were as blue as the deep blue sky, and the lines around them had probably been put there by laughter and by squinting into the sun. He wore no eye shades, revealing the blueness of his eyes and the great hawk swoop of his nose. A wide mouth like Ray’s looked like it had been designed for smiling, and the line of his chin was one of the most stubborn and determined Peter had ever seen. This guy wore a fancy tunic with patterned braid around the collar and cuffs of its very short sleeves. A gauzy over-toga sparkled with the glitter of randomly woven gold thread. Peter would have bet a month’s salary that this was the headman of the village.
"Welcome, welcome," the guy said in English. No need for Daniel to translate after all. What the heck? "We had hoped to summon the mighty Zeus to aid us in our time of trial. The lesser god Pan has taken to hiding." His mouth quirked in disgust. "He is a coward and an interloper, and we ask that you please tell Zeus we meant no disrespect to allow him here."
Daniel jumped in and said something in gibberish—there he went—before switching to English. "That is so you know we recognize the old tongue," he explained. "Th-er, Zeus will understand about Pan. He is, after all, a god, although subservient to Zeus. Sometimes lesser gods make plays for power."
"We realize this. Some were impressed by his presence and his show of authority." He glanced over his shoulder at the crowd, who maintained a respectful distance. "However, a so-called god who arrives with Jaffa in tow, and who avoids the Chaapa-ai can only be a Goa’uld. We may live simply but we are not ignorant of the worlds beyond its watery passage."
The guy was pretty sophisticated; he had a grip on the situation. "Zeus is not a Goa’uld," he said quickly.
"This also we know. You are his messengers and know the truth of him." He lowered his voice. "Speculating whether he is actually a god or simply a more powerful being than we might be heresy. If so, I speak it so you will understand that we may be simple, yet not fools. Zeus has been kind and benevolent to us and protected us from those who would come through the Chaapa-ai. Pan came to us from the sky, from a sky chariot." One eye lowered in a wink, and he added very softly, "or perhaps a ‘starship’. I have heard this term and understand that such a vessel is a machine, and machines are constructed, as we construct our wagons and carriages, only with greater skill and science."
"Zeus will not consider you a heretic," Daniel assured the man hastily. "He wishes the people under his protection to think and grow as a species."
"That is good to know. A benevolent protector would feel that way. We are right to honor Zeus."
Peter noticed he didn’t say "worship", and thought the distinction interesting. Probably most of the people here did consider Thor a god. Just as well to keep the idea in place.
Daniel plunged in with the introduction. "As Zeus’s messengers, we are peaceful travelers who come only to assist you in your time of trouble. I am Daniel Jackson, this is Jack O’Neill, and this is Peter Venkman."
Curly inclined his head at each of them in turn. "I am Socradon," he introduced himself. "I have the honor of leading my people, not only here in the village of the Chaapa-ai, but throughout all the villages of this land. Once we all settled here, but we learned before Zeus came to protect us that danger emerges periodically from the Chaapa-ai. We diversified our settlements. Zeus gifted us with the device that sifts through newcomers and removes the dangerous among them." He pointed.
Peter squinted up at the form mounted near the DHD. Thor’s Hammer. Yep, that must be what they’d had on that other world, Cimmeria. Course those were Viking types and knew the symbol of old. Interesting that this version of the Hammer had Greek designs on it. Thor was a crafty old guy. Peter spotted Daniel noticing the carvings on the device and his brows lifting as he reached the same conclusions as Peter—and probably a dozen more.
"We will pass before it to prove our integrity," Daniel announced. Good political move. Peter saw Jack’s eyes lighten in approval.
Socradon raised his voice. "Our new friends are the messengers of Zeus. Although I did not yet request it, they have volunteered to prove their integrity by daring the Hammer."
The crowd cheered, and smoothly cleared away a path to the gate. Several of the women and older children led the littlest away to make room. As they moved among the crowd, excited people pressed close. Automatically Peter held out his hands to them, thrower holstered. These folks didn’t seem hostile, and he was used to dealing with admiring crowds. Men, women, and children reached out to clasp his hands, to touch his arms, and one rather gorgeous woman with hair long enough to sit on charged up to Peter and kissed him full on the mouth. Why didn’t women do that back on Earth? He was going to have to get to work on his P.R.
Of course she did the same to Daniel, whose face flared like a stop-light, and to Jack, who tried to take it calmly but who looked pleased in spite of himself.
One of the little boys, maybe about ten, ran up to Peter. "Are you a god?" he demanded.
"Ray, when somebody asks if you’re a god, you say yes." Winston’s long-ago words when the team had first battled Gozer on the roof of Dana Barrett’s building came to Peter, and he couldn’t help grinning. Instead of following Zeddemore’s advice, he squatted down to the kid’s level. "No, I’m just a man like your father is. Today I happen to be working for Zeus."
The little boy had the same tumble of black curls that Socradon did. The leader came to stand beside the kid, and put a hand on his shoulder. "My son always has questions," he said. "We are Greek. We are born asking questions and we die with questions upon our lips. Petradon, do not disturb the god’s messenger."
"Petradon? Is that your name?" Peter thought it sounded like an obscure kind of dinosaur, but he didn’t say so. "You know what? My name’s Peter. Sounds kind of like yours."
"It means ‘a rock’," Petradon said. "Mother says that means I am a stubborn child."
"And his mother is right." Socradon smiled at Peter.
"Hey, our languages have the same roots," Peter said with a grin. "My name means ‘a rock’ too. Only my friend Egon says it means I have rocks in my head." He winked at the boy.
"I’ll buy that," O’Neill muttered just loud enough for Peter to hear.
Peter stood up easily, dropped a friendly hand on the kid’s free shoulder, and used the easy motion to plant his heel on O’Neill’s toe. "Oh, sorry," he said with exaggerated regret. To his delight, amusement shone out on the boy’s face.
Socradon gnawed on his bottom lip to keep from smiling. "Stand back now, son," he urged the boy. "We must allow Zeus’s messengers to prove to us their goodwill."
"I think they’ve got a lot of goodwill," Petradon said. He added confidingly for Peter alone, "My friends all call me Petra."
"Thanks, Petra," Peter said and offered the kid his hand.
Petra clasped with his small fingers around Peter’s wrist, and Peter adapted his grip to do the same to the boy. They shook hands like equals, and when he stepped back, Petra looked as if he’d been given a prize.
The Stargate sat mounted on a stone platform, supported by mini-pillars with elaborate tops. Corinthian? A stone ramp ran down into the square, railed in polished marble. Across from the ramp the dial-home device sat facing it, polished gleaming bright. Just to its right rose the tall column of Thor’s Hammer. Maybe they should refer to it Zeus’s Hammer here. To the left of the DHD stood another platform, simple stone, waist high, with a carved marble bowl polished to a fine shine sitting in the center of it. A red cloth ran the long way across the table, with the bowl sitting on it. Peter suspected it might be an altar. He wondered if the bowl was intended for offerings. If so, this was a stingy crowd because there was nothing in it. Maybe any offerings had been hidden at the first sign of strangers, or maybe it was just symbolic. Daniel might know. Peter made a note to ask him once everything was calmed down. It would be sure to interest Egon and Ray—and Winston, too, if he got to feeling well enough that Thor would let him come down. He was more of an archaeology buff than anyone but Egon, who found the ancient languages fascinating.
He hoped Egon and Ray were looking out for themselves.
"The hammer may not operate unless the Chaapa-ai spits forth its fountain," called someone in the crowd.
Socradon raised a hand to silence the protestor, but his face didn’t darken. Looked like they had freedom of speech here. On the other hand, it would be foolish to ignore the possibility just because it hadn’t been Socradon who made the suggestion. These people’s lives were on the line. Maybe singing and praying for salvation wasn’t exactly pro-active, but it had evidently worked for them before. One of the perks of being a protected planet. "We shall see," the leader called.
"How about we circle around and come down the ramp," Jack offered. He led the way up the ramp and stepped through the inactive Stargate with Daniel and Peter behind them. They emerged from the circle and walked down the ramp to stand in front of the DHD.
A second later a narrow stream of light pulsed out of the hammer and engulfed Daniel, who was closest. He stiffened as it studied him then slid sideways to bathe Jack in its glow. A second later, it moved on to Peter. He could feel a slight warmth to it, a slight hum as if tiny bees were marching across his skin. Not a pleasant sensation, but not a terrible one, either. Just kind of weird. It lasted a couple of seconds, then the light went out. Daniel glanced sideways at Jack to reassure himself, then turned to Peter. "Last time it took Teal’c and Jack with it," he said too softly for any of the crowd to hear. "I wasn’t sure the device wouldn’t sense that in Jack."
"Look, ma, no Goa’uld," O’Neill said brightly. He held up both hands to show that he was intact, and raised his voice. "Well, Socradon, do we pass the test?"
"You do. You are not of the Jaffa, you are not Goa’uld. You have come in our time of need."
"How do we know they didn’t cause our time of need?" bellowed someone, safe in the anonymity of the crowd.
Somebody else said something about eggs. Did they mean to lob a few rotten eggs at the three of them? Peter hunched his shoulders.
Three or four people drowned out the speaker, then another voice lifted. "They came from the same direction as the terror that waits outside the boundaries of our village."
"We did," Peter said quickly. "Because that’s where Zeus sent us to investigate the great vessel that crashed there. Have any of you seen it?" He eyed the crowd warily. Nobody seemed like they meant to throw things. Just as well. Peter found it bad enough getting slimed on busts back home. He didn’t want to think about being egged here, not when they might have weird alien birds the size of ostriches instead of just those little blue and yellow ones. It wouldn’t be a pretty picture.
"We have seen it," Socradon agreed. "A unit of the Protectors went out to investigate what had flamed so brightly in the sky, accompanied by a squadron of Pan’s Jaffa. They found a ruined starship. As they watched, three creatures emerged from it, unlike anything any of us, or the Jaffa, had seen before. They floated above the ground like gods, and my people wisely stood back to observe what they would do.
"The Jaffa fired on them with their staff weapons." He nodded at the one O’Neill still carried.
"I found this on the way here," Jack explained. "We found several dead Jaffa on the way."
"It is not a surprise to us that you did. My Protectors could only watch helplessly as the three creatures mobbed the Jaffa. Some of them fled in terror, but the bulk of them were slain where they stood, the worms that live in their bellies torn out and consumed. The sight of that was too much even for the bravest of my people. They fled. The creatures did not pursue them but instead pursued the fleeing Jaffa. The Protectors returned here and warned us."
He made his report in an emotionless voice. At his side, his little boy stood stiff and tense, his eyes shadowed, as he listened. Peter wasn’t sure it was a good idea to talk about ripping out the symbiotes and eating them in front of a kid, but maybe they were used to things like that in their culture.
"We heard a couple of them scream," Petra volunteered. "They caught them just outside the village. I saw one of the creatures. It looked like a spirit." He gave an elaborately exaggerated shudder as if to prove he was brave and unafraid. There was a hint of a real shudder beneath it, but his father didn’t call him on it.
"Their cries awakened us in the night," he admitted. "At first light, we came together as a people to invoke mighty Zeus on our behalf. By then, Pan had already fled to his shelter, like the coward he is."
"He doesn’t have a ship up there to go to?" Jack asked, even though Thor would probably have picked it up on his scanners when they came into orbit around Sounon.
"He came direct from the sky in rings of power, his Jaffa with him. I have long wondered if the other gods had not banished him here, abandoned on our world, unable to flee through the Chaapa-ai because of the Hammer."
"You’ve got rings here?" Jack craned his neck, looking.
"They are distant from the Chaapa-ai." Socradon waved a careless hand to his left. Peter remembered looking for rings in the pyramid where they’d been destabilized but they hadn’t found any.
Daniel glanced in that direction. "As long as there isn’t a ship in orbit with rings, he can’t use them to get away," he reminded Jack.
"Yeah, but who can say when a ship’ll show up."
The rings were obviously a different kind of teleport from Thor’s blaze of light. Handy banishing tool, if the ship left immediately. Did the Goa’uld who’d brought him here know the Hammer would confine him? Pretty decent way to ensure exile.
"He didn’t ever try to destroy the Hammer?" Peter asked. If that was the only thing keeping them from using the Stargate, and if it didn’t work unless they were right in front of it, why not stand off a ways and zap it with the staff weapons?
"Ah, yes, indeed he tried, messenger with a name like my son’s. His Jaffa tried to destroy it with the fire from their staffs. It is shielded. They failed. Even when six of them fired in concert, the shield held. It is reported Pan was extremely angry. This occurred when my father led the people. Pan has been here many years. He lives near the Chaapa-ai but not within range of the Hammer, and since he is a Goa’uld, many of my people consider him a minor god. He has often refrained from slaying my people, but he is a lusty god and the young maidens are not safe from him if he finds them alone."
"That’s what I’d expect, from what I know of him," Daniel agreed. "The symbol his Jaffa wear...."
"Precisely." Socradon’s mouth twitched. He glanced down at small Petra, who pasted on the expression of a kid who knew exactly what his elders meant but figured he better pretend not to. Peter liked the kid.
"So where is Pan hiding out?" Jack asked.
"You wish to speak to him?"
Peter started. He hadn’t expected that they’d meet with one of the Goa’uld. Apart from Louis Tully, who had been waaaay undercover, Peter had never encountered an actual Goa’uld before. He’d met a few Tok’ra, including Sam’s father and another one called Martouf—and of course Dana, but he didn’t want to think about Dana.
What would Pan do if they went to see him? Would he even emerge from his concealment? The last thing he’d want would be to face the same fate as his Jaffa. No, it would be a worse fate because the mature Goa’uld went into the host’s brain, didn’t they? Peter shuddered. Nasty thought. Nasty. Imagining how it would feel for one of the Caspers to rip out his brain, he could almost sympathize with Pan. Not quite, though. Sympathize with a Goa’uld? Especially one who got his jollies raping the local girls? If not for the poor, helpless host who carried Pan, Peter would shove the guy out and hope he would keep the Caspers busy long enough to figure out how to trap them.
On the other hand, what if pigging out on Goa’uld larva had made them stronger? Would a full-fledged Goa’uld add even more to their strength? Would they fight over which one got to eat them, or did they have any of the colony creature attributes of the original replicators? Peter wondered who had first created the machine entities. He had a bone to pick with whoever it was. Had the Asgard done that, too? One more reason to wonder about Thor.
"Yeah, let’s speak to him," Jack decided. "He’s in a real bind." Not one shred of sympathy for the beleaguered Goa’uld showed in the hardness of his voice. "He might even have some ideas. Wonder if there’s a way to use a Goa’uld personal shield to boost the throwers."
"Throwers?" Socradon asked quickly. He had to be sharp if he ruled his people under the not-necessarily-benevolent eye of a Goa’uld, even a banished one.
Peter whipped his out and held it so the leader could look at it. "These are the weapons Zeus gave us to fight the beings who killed the Jaffa. Six of these were sufficient to kill one of the creatures."
Socradon studied them in turn. "But you are three—and there are three creatures here, not one."
"There are more of us," Peter said. He wasn’t sure Jack would want that information to be shared, but they didn’t have to tell Socradon where the others were or how many. Definitely it wasn’t time to mention Teal’c, who would require a special explanation. Thor might tinker with the Hammer so that it wouldn’t affect Teal’c, but that would be for later. The sight of those torn-up Jaffa proved it was right to keep him on the ship. "Some of them are working to devise a means of destroying all three of the entities."
"Zeus cannot simply smite them with his lightning?" A gleam in the headman’s eyes suggested he had his doubts about Thor being all-powerful.
"Well, ah, sir, lighting is not very discriminating," Daniel threw in. "We would not want to damage your homes or injure one of you who came too close. Besides, these creatures are unnatural, part machine, part spirit. Peter and his friends are the members of the team whose task it is to pursue spirits. Colonel O’Neill and I belong to a team who fight the Goa’uld."
"Ah. Zeus deals with crises the way we humans do. That is good to know. The Hammer is a device, not simply a god’s whim. I feel far better about your answers than I would to be told that Zeus could snap his fingers and destroy people with a thought. Assuming, of course," he added dryly, "that he has fingers."
"Oh, yeah, he’s got fingers," Jack muttered. "Stuck in every pie around."
When Socradon looked blank, Daniel jumped in. "It’s a saying among my people. For someone to have a finger in many pies, it means he is involved in everything. Ah, a pie—"
"We know what pies are. We enjoy them here, too. Meat pies, fruit pies. Very tasty. When you have rid us of the threat, we will host a great banquet to honor you, with many delicacies of my people."
"Sounds great," Peter said with a smile. "So maybe we better go see Pan and get it over with."
"I will take you myself. Petra, you stay here near the Chaapa-ai with the others." He gestured for another man to come over. He, too, had gold threads through his toga, but he had no circlet on his brow. "This is Macedes, who is my lieutenant. Macedes, I will take the messengers to the Goa’uld. Resume the singing, but this time a song of praise and thanksgiving for Zeus’s intervention would be appropriate. It will raise the spirits of the people. If the Protectors warn that the creatures advance, come to fetch me and the messengers."
Peter whipped out his P.K.E. meter. "We have a way of telling if they move," he said, and showed the leader the screen. "See. Here. Here. And here. That’s where they are now. This is where we are."
"We are pinned between them with uncanny accuracy," Socradon noticed. "This is curious. Have they used the Chaapa-ai as their focus, or is it the gathering of my people?" A sudden speculation flashed in his eyes, but he didn’t speak it aloud. "Come," he said. "We must hurry."
"I’d like to contact Zeus," Jack said.
"Can you do that as we move?"
"You betcha." He whipped out the communicator. "O’Neill to Zeus," he said, careful to use the name the people of the planet had selected.
After a slight pause, a familiar voice said, "This is Zeus. What have you to report, O’Neill?" Thor must be quick on the uptake, to play along like that.
"Well, I’m here with Socradon, the leader of the settlement where the Stargate is. He’s going to take us to talk to Pan."
"You will tell Pan of my presence and my displeasure that he would dare to infiltrate a protected world." Peter had to hand it to old Thor. He could come across as definitely menacing when he needed to. His voice mellowed. "Greetings, Socradon."
"Uh, Greetings, mighty Zeus. My people thank you for your intervention."
"We shall do what we must to protect you from the threat. There are additional people who will join you soon. They are human, like the messengers you have met, like yourselves. They act on my behalf."
"We will do all in our power to assist them."
"Pan shields himself from the creatures that assail you?"
"Yes, mighty Zeus."
"Take my people to him. Speak of the Hammer if he does anything to harm them. I will hear you."
"Yes, mighty Zeus." Socradon looked only mildly disconcerted at the sound of Thor’s voice.
"We’re going to contact Spengler and Stantz," Jack went on. "Carter, you there?"
"Yes, sir. I’ve completed modifications on the naquada generator, and I’ve just been speaking with Egon and Ray. They have the proton packs adjusted for our purposes. They have started to move in your position and when they get into place, Thor will teleport me directly to the DHD."
"Good show. Make sure Teal’c stays up there with T-Zeus."
"How’s Winston?" Peter called before Sam could respond.
"I’m right here, Pete. Feeling better all the time. Thor says maybe I can come down in about an hour."
That was the best news Peter had been given in a long time. "Way to go, buddy," he exulted. "You do what Zeus tells you ‘til then."
"Zeus? Right. Gotcha, Pete. You be careful down there, ‘specially if you’re gonna go calling on a Goa’uld."
"He’s gonna be on his best behavior," Peter said with a grin. "We’ve got him outnumbered and we’ve got air support."
"Well, watch your back. I don’t trust any of those Goa’uld guys."
"Smart of you, Zeddemore," Jack threw in. "Carter, you’re gonna go with the protection field?"
"Yes, sir, it’s prepared and ready. I’ll be able to function fully within it."
"Good. See ya soon. O’Neill out."
When he tucked away the communicator, Socradon led the way down a narrow passage between buildings. There were no "billboard" here, just a series of doors in the walls of the structures, most of them painted in dark colors. Windows had been shuttered here. "This is a street of small shops," Socradon explained. "None of them have opened today, as we have all met to seek intervention."
"Just standing around singing won’t help you," Jack muttered.
"It has brought us Thor. But it is not all we have done. The Protectors are out; they have monitored the outlying area; they reported your arrival, but allowed you to pass through. Had you proven dangerous, we could have stopped you because there are so many of us, and we are not without weapons. We chose instead to hear your words. That is a much finer way to interact, to avoid making enemies of friends. We hoped you were from Zeus, but of course you could have been allied with the creatures. They do not look human, and the wreckage is such that we doubted physical beings could have survived its burning plunge to the ground and the ferocity of its impact. After the creatures pursued the Jaffa, the bravest of the Protectors searched the wreckage and found no life, nor any bodies resembling yours. It was our thought that you might not be from the vessel. And so it is proven." He smiled suddenly. "I never thought to speak directly to Zeus. He has messages that speak to us but they are patterns that repeat, not his actual living voice."
"Ran into those a few times," Jack conceded. "So Pan’s down this way. What does he do, have a Goa’uld shop? Gods ‘R’ Us?"
"The money repository is here," Socradon admitted. "It has a deep vault. Pan has made it his shelter, and once a fleeing Jaffa returned and reported what the creatures sought he took refuge in it." He smiled suddenly. "I told him I would appeal to Zeus, and he begged me to do so. It was strange, hearing a Goa’uld beg."
"Yeah, I can imagine." Jack grimaced. "Usually they just give orders."
"Or blast without bothering to give orders," Daniel added. His mouth tightened. He had even more excess Goa’uld baggage than Peter did over Dana as a Tok’ra. His wife had been Goa’ulded, and now she was dead. At least, last Peter had heard, Dana was still out there alive with her Zuul inside, and her little boy Oscar dreaming that he could have his own symbiote one day. No, meeting Pan wasn’t going to be fun.
** *** **
"There, that’s ready." Ray snapped the casing into place on his proton pack. "Gosh, we’ve had so many modifications on this trip that we’ll have to reconfigure everything we’ve got once we’re home. If we missed a ghost with these things, we’d be blowing giant holes in buildings, and I don’t think the mayor would like it."
"We’d leave it to Peter to call Mayor Giuliani and explain," Egon said dryly. "You know how he loves to play at being buddies with whoever is in charge."
"Yeah, the way he talks about ‘Rudy’, you’d think they were bosom buddies." Ray slid his arms into the pack straps and pulled out his P.K.E. meter while Egon donned his own pack. "The Caspers haven’t moved an inch since the last time I checked. I wonder what they’re doing, just hanging out there. That is weird, isn’t it?"
"Indeed." Automatically, Egon examined his own meter. "Their energy seems no higher than it was earlier. We have no way of determining if they gained energy from consuming the symbiotes. They are all more powerful than Casper was, but it was restrained, unable to feed, until Thor freed it for us to trap."
"They probably could feed on the ship during the earlier stages of their transformation," Ray began, then he jerked his head up. "Egon." He lowered his voice. "Somebody’s watching us."
Egon stiffened. "I can sense a presence, too. Non-ectoplasmic, or we would have a reading." He slid his thrower from its holster with practiced ease and powered up. Ray did the same. Automatically, they took up a back-to-back stance and moved slowly in perfect synchronization to scan the area.
"There, to the left," Ray said under his breath. "Something moved in the bushes."
"I see it." Egon raised his voice. "We have you covered. Come out immediately."
There was a breathless pause. Egon muttered in annoyance, "Perhaps I should have spoken in ancient Greek."
Before he could do so, a shape emerged from the bushes, man-high, moving on shaky feet, wearing armor, but holding no weapons. Ray spotted the phallic symbol tattoo on his forehead right away. His was gold like Teal’c’s. Did that mean this guy was Pan’s first prime? "Egon, he’s a Jaffa."
A Jaffa, yes, but without a staff weapon, a thoroughly disheveled Jaffa with blood down the left side of his face, his armor rent open to reveal the x-shaped pouch that contained his symbiote. Although smears of blood and a few small scrapes proved that one of the Caspers had tried to feed, the fact that the Jaffa was on his feet and not lying with his gut ripped open proved that he had managed to escape the entity that tried to devour his symbiote. His armor still dripped with green scum that looked a lot more like pond slime than ectoplasmic residue, not that Casper had oozed slime, after all. Maybe he’d fallen into stagnant water in his frantic race to escape.
He staggered to a stop in front of them. "I do not recognize your weapons," he said. "You are not native to this world. Whom do you serve?"
That was a tricky question. Jaffa weren’t usually friendly like Teal’c, and he had been branded a traitor to his people for his realization that Apophis wasn’t a god. If this guy served Pan, believed he was a god, he wasn’t going to think much of Thor. He cast a sideways glance at Egon. "We have been sent here to stop the creatures who killed your companions," he said quickly.
The Jaffa’s eyes narrowed. "That cannot be. My god would have informed me."
"You’re his first prime?" Ray asked.
"I serve in that capacity. Explain the weapons you wear."
Egon looked at Ray and then said, "They emit a controlled particle stream of protonic energy able to confine ectoplasmic beings."
The Jaffa sneered. "Those words mean nothing."
"We catch ghosts," Ray said brightly. Let the Jaffa stew. He was unarmed, with two throwers pointed at him set at such a high energy level that they would disintegrate him where he stood if either stream hit him, sending his atoms apart at the speed of light.
"The creatures who slew my men were hardly ghosts. Do not attempt deception. Ghosts are legends to frighten lesser beings."
"No, they weren’t ghosts," Egon agreed, "but the portion of them which is not physical has a similar element to a ghost’s makeup. Parts retain physicality, however, and it was those parts, no doubt, which ripped open the bellies of the other Jaffa and extracted their symbiotes."
Automatically, the Jaffa put a protective hand to his stomach. In that moment, he looked lost and vulnerable, but he didn’t allow the motion to continue. Impatiently, he raised his hand from the pouch opening. "Is my lord Pan aware of your presence?"
"Our comrades are meeting with him now. He, too, faces danger at the hands of the entities from the crashed vessel."
"I have examined the wreckage. It is an Asgard vessel. Are you aligned with those meddlers?"
"I never met an Asgard before today," Ray said truthfully. "Look here, sir. I don’t know who you are, but you’re in trouble. If the Caspers sense you, they’ll come for you, and the two of us on our own can’t protect you. We can team up to fight the threat, but you’d be smart to go in the other direction and get right out of range."
"I will not abandon my god," spat the Jaffa.
"Loyalty’s great," Ray agreed. "I wouldn’t run out on my friends, so I can relate to that. But if Pan is really a god, why would he need to hide from these three entities?"
Obviously the Jaffa did not like that question. He made a curt gesture with one hand. "You know nothing of my god. You are not worthy to speak his name."
It was a good thing Peter wasn’t here right now. He’d probably dance around chanting, "Pan, Pan, Pan," and really tick the guy off. Instead, Ray offered him a friendly smile. "What’s your name? I’m Ray."
Egon’s breath came out in a little amused snort. "Only you, Raymond, would attempt to befriend a Jaffa."
"Well, he’s in trouble." Ray waved his hand at the small wounds around the pouch incision. "He nearly got killed today, and he doesn’t have any way to help his god. He needs our help."
"I need no help from a mere human," spat the Jaffa.
"Fine." Ray grinned, unoffended. "We’ll just go, then. But we’ve got meters that can tell us if the Caspers move. You might want to stick close so we can warn you if they’re coming this way."
The Jaffa hesitated. Ray could tell he would prefer to rip the proton packs from Ray and Egon and use the weapons against them, but he was not fool enough to believe he could get the jump on both of them when they held unfamiliar weapons primed and ready to fire. "I do not believe you," he said.
"Cover him, Ray." Egon pulled out his P.K.E. meter and offered it to the Jaffa, who stared at it as if he thought it was a bomb. He snatched it from Egon and stared at it. Unfamiliar technology or not, it didn’t take him more than a second to realize that the readout screen showed three separate entities.
"These are the beings who attacked my squadron? What did you call them? Caspers? I am not familiar with beings of this name."
Ray struggled not to smile. "They are new to this part of the galaxy," he said quickly. The Jaffa was sure to find a long involved tale of Casper the Ghost annoying, and the last thing Ray wanted to tell him was that the Asgard’s mutation had backfired.
With apparent casualness the Jaffa tested various dials on the meter. He had to suspect Egon wouldn’t have turned a weapon over to him. At least he hadn’t jumped Egon when he passed over the device. "This evidently represents three separate beings," he said. "I have no way of knowing if they are indeed the Caspers. They do not move."
"They have positioned themselves around the settlement equidistant from each other and the Stargate," Egon explained. "We have no explanation for their failure to move. It is possible they are able to sense Pan and are waiting for him to emerge from his shelter so they can consume him."
"My god is too strong for him," the Jaffa said, but the faint element of doubt that ran through his voice was obvious to all of them. He rubbed his belly again. "My symbiote exhibits distress."
"Gee, maybe it can sense the Caspers, too." Ray’s eyes widened. "Wow. I know you don’t really communicate with it, but you can tell when it’s upset, can’t you?"
"What do you know of the Jaffa?"
Ray ignored the scorn. "Well, not a lot, really. I only ever met one before. Won’t you tell me your name? I told you mine. And this is Egon."
"What is your planet of origin?"
Was that a trick question? Ray didn’t know how long Pan had been stranded on Sounon, or if he were really stranded. Even if there wasn’t a ship here now, Pan might have sent a ship elsewhere for reasons of his own or landed one here that was concealed and powered down. He’d been aligned with Ra, and Daniel and Jack had killed Ra. So he didn’t have any ally Goa’uld now. At least, Ray realized, not that Thor knew about. He might have allied himself with one of the others. Ray didn’t know enough about them to know many of them. Apophis, Sokar, Heru-ur. There’d been Hathor, too, but she was dead. It didn’t matter. If Pan had been stranded here since Ra’s destruction, he might not know the people of Earth had re-entered the galactic theater.
He caught Egon’s gaze. Egon nodded.
"We’re from Earth," he said.
"I do not know your planet."
If he was telling the truth, that meant he might not have a link to the galaxy at large. Or he might simply not know it by that name. Ray had no intention of explaining that he and Egon were Tau’ri.
"It’s just a little planet."
"And it is your function to fight such creatures as the Caspers?" The Jaffa sneered, then he calmed himself. "Very well, human. I am Ses’tac. I will accompany you. Your mighty weapons will drive away the Caspers?"
"We need more than two of them to do that," Ray admitted. "The Caspers are very powerful. How did you ever get away from them in the first place?"
"One pursued me. I had seen it rip the symbiotes from the bellies of my underlings, and staff weapon blasts impacted harmlessly upon it. Only a fool would not flee to fight again when death is the option. How could I serve my lord if I were dead?"
"You couldn’t," Ray reassured him. "We’ve got a saying on our planet. ‘He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.’"
"He who flees in the face of danger is cowardly, but my life is not my own. It was my duty to warn my lord Pan of the threat he faces."
"So you went to warn Pan?" Egon prompted.
"I did. The Casper pursued me. It was faster than I was. I tried to cross a stream and I fell into a deep pool. As I struggled to the surface, I saw it hovering above me, but it did not follow me into the water. I stayed beneath the surface; my symbiote enables me to hold my breath for longer than a puny human could."
"But not indefinitely. Can it also revive you if you drown?" Egon looked fascinated.
"It can, if the time is brief enough. However, I did not risk that. The chance of failure would have endangered my god. Instead I saw reeds growing in the water and I plucked one to use as a breathing tube. The Casper waited a considerable time while I lay submerged in the pool. I was so still that fish swam alongside my body. Finally the Casper departed. I waited several timeparts to assure it had gone."
"Wow, that was brave of you, and clever, to think of the reed." Ray couldn’t help grinning. This guy was a Jaffa and he worked for a Goa’uld, but Ray would feel for anybody who’d been through what he had.
Egon gave him a slight nudge, probably to make sure Ray didn’t get too sympathetic. But when he spoke it was with his own fascination. "Intriguing. Your experience suggests that the Casper will not submerge itself in water. That is useful knowledge. Thank you, Ses’tac."
"Gosh, Egon, what does that mean?" Ray asked. "Do you think if we throw water on it, it will melt like the witch in The Wizard of Oz?"
"That would be amazing, Ray, but I doubt it. Maybe it was unable to sense Ses’tac through the water and merely waited because it didn’t know where he had gone. It’s also possible it found water unpalatable and chose not to risk itself. Let me study my findings and see if I can analyze the result. Ses’tac, we can follow that stream down to the village." He pointed. "If the Caspers sense you, you may again seek shelter beneath the water. We have to stop them. You have a report for Pan. If it’s impossible for you to enter the village, we will deliver it for you."
"It will not be impossible," Ses’tac proclaimed. "The water flows through the village and crosses a corner of the square near the Chaapa-ai, passing very near to Pan’s headquarters. I can cross such a short distance before the Caspers can reach me."
"Gee, I don’t know." Ray glanced at the meter the Jaffa held. "They move pretty fast, faster than you can run."
Ses’tac’s mouth tightened. "You may not prevent me from doing my duty."
"I’d sure hate to have you get killed, though," Ray told him. "We saw a couple of your men."
"They no doubt died bravely."
"Well, gosh, I think they died horribly. I don’t want to put them down because I’m sure they were brave, but nobody should have to die like that."
"Even a Jaffa?" Ses’tac frowned. "I could hear the rest of your speech, although you did not utter it. You are an enemy of my god."
"Well, I don’t like somebody coming in and setting himself up as a god when he’s just a powerful being in a host body."
"You know nothing of the Goa’uld."
"We know very little, and our knowledge is largely second-hand," Egon replied. "But our people believe in freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion. Your Goa’uld hierarchy goes against our system of belief. We will not, however, attempt to impose our beliefs on you. The fact that you will impose yours on us without hesitation is what we see wrong with it. This is hardly a time to discuss philosophy and religion, or even domination. Our companions are waiting for us to help them destroy the Caspers. We will follow the stream so that you may retreat to it as shelter if the Caspers come."
"Thus you will draw the Caspers to you when they are unable to find me." He frowned. "You are not honest with me."
"Yes, we are," Ray argued. "They don’t really want us. They want the naquada in your symbiote. We don’t have any naquada in our systems."
"Which may not render you immune if a Casper comes seeking me and finds only you."
"True," Egon agreed. "But this is not a time for differences. Will you stand with us against the Caspers? Will your god?"
"We must defeat them." Ses’tac gnawed on his bottom lip. "Very well. For the duration of the threat, I will refrain from slaying you."
Peter would have made some scornful comment about the Jaffa’s generosity, but Ray only smiled at him. Maybe they could make the guy wise up the way Teal’c had, and realize Pan wasn’t a god. The fact that Pan lurked in hiding to avoid the Caspers ought to convince Ses’tac, but he’d been conditioned all his life to buy into the Goa’uld-as-God brainwashing. Pretty hard to overcome that.
"He’ll turn on us as soon as we capture the Caspers," Egon said to Ray as they started down to the village.
"Well, gee, that wouldn’t be very nice."
"He is a Jaffa, Ray. He will act according to his nature."
Ses’tac turned to stare at them. "I am glad you realize that. You are enemies of my god with your radical beliefs. We have a temporary alliance. When it is finished, we shall again be at war. I will, however, consider the service you may do my god. Rid him of the Caspers and I will allow you to live."
Gee, that’s big of you. But Ray didn’t say it. Instead he grinned good-naturedly. "We have to stop the Caspers," he agreed. "That’s why we’re here."
The stream widened out a bit as they made their way toward the village. Instead of following the more obvious path, they moved along within a few feet of the water. While Ray kept his thrower at ready, Egon holstered his and concentrated on the P.K.E. meter Ses’tac had returned to him. So far, the Caspers remained unmoving. Ray couldn’t figure out why they didn’t just go in. Couldn’t they eat the gate? Did they need naquada within a living body? Were they waiting for dark? Music critics who hated the Sounons’ singing? The music swelled as they walked.
"Why do they sing?" snapped the Jaffa. "I hear them. They sing in their ancient language to their ancient god, Zeus. He protects them but from a distance. If he is a system lord, I have never heard of him."
But you’re still wary of him, Ray thought. "We’re in the service of Zeus," he said. "I spoke to him shortly before you arrived." He could hardly admit the Asgard had hired them, and with any luck Ses’tac wouldn’t equate Zeus with Thor.
"I don’t believe the music holds the Caspers at bay." Egon adjusted the controls of the meter. "Sound waves shouldn’t produce such a reaction, not in entities such as the Caspers who are part physical and part non-physical. Could there be something in the settlement, some element, that restrains them?"
"Maybe they’re just waiting for dark," Ray said. He wasn’t sure what difference that would make. Who could guess the Caspers’ motives?
"I still do not know that you did not bring them here to attack my god," Ses’tac snapped. "I will watch you. If you fight to defeat them, I will assist you. If you attack my lord Pan, I will slay you if I must fight to my last breath."
"Fair enough," said Ray. "You’ll see. All we want to do is stop the Caspers before they hurt anyone else."
"I do not believe you, but I will accompany you," the Jaffa replied, and walked along at their side, his every sense at alert. Ray hoped the symbiote he carried would warn him of the Caspers just as the meters warned the two Ghostbusters. An ally who would appear an appealing meal to the entities was really the last thing they needed. But he knew Egon didn’t want to let the Jaffa out of his sight any more than Ray did.
Ray felt the muscles in his neck and shoulders tighten as they made their way down the hill.
That was when the meter beeped to indicate that one of the Caspers was moving.
** *** **
"He is in here," Socradon announced, pointing to a doorway with a mosaic-inlaid arch over it, figures in ancient Greek styles with a chariot worked into the design. To one side a stylized bull moved aggressively toward a naked man; on the other, a maiden strummed a lyre. It was beautiful. Daniel wished he had his video camera to film it. The archaeologists back on the base would love it. He couldn’t wait to tell Robert Rothman about this place.
Peter craned his neck to study the arch, then he gazed into the opening. A flight of stairs led down into darkness; the angle of the buildings cut off the overhead sunlight, leaving the passage full of shadows. "Will you step into my parlor," Peter said lightly.
"Good point," O’Neill replied. "Lead the way," he urged Socradon.
The leader didn’t take that wrong. He reached inside the archway to the left and produced a torch, which he lit from a kind of tinderbox he carried in a pocket. Daniel craned his neck to see it better, but Jack made a hasty gesture that it could wait, and Daniel nodded and backed off.
"I will show it to you later," said Socradon, who had no trouble interpreting Jack’s hand motion. "Come." With the torch held high to illuminate the way, he led them down a steep flight of stairs. At the bottom, they came face to face with a tightly-fitted metal door. The frame that held it was also metal and it looked so out of place in the structure that Daniel felt his mouth fall open.
"This is the outer door to Pan’s dwelling. All may pass through this door, but the next one requires his permission to enter. Come." He grasped the handle, an ornate shaft that moved up and down. When Socradon pressed it down, a hiss of equalizing air pressure announced that the seal had been broken.
"Airlock," Jack muttered. "No wonder the Caspers aren’t hanging around out here waiting to gobble down his brains."
"That’s an elegant image, Jack," Daniel protested.
"What can I say, I’m an elegant guy."
Peter’s snort of rampant skepticism made Jack’s jaw bunch, but Daniel noticed that both men surveyed the small room they entered with wary alertness, checking it out for threats. When Socradon carefully closed the door behind them, lighting came on, a diffuse glow from several panels in the ceiling, and the air pressure equalized. "The light of the god," Socradon explained. "Many of my people are awed by this, but I believe it is caused by a machine."
"He’s made a cozy little hide-out for himself down here," Jack remarked, but Daniel didn’t think the room looked cozy. It was stark and bare with metal walls, and the only concession to the locals was a bracket near the door in which to place the torch, and a bucket of sand in which to extinguish it. Stone benches framed the door opposite the one they had entered by. Presumably the god let people wait until he was ready to grant audiences. Allowing them benches would probably be viewed as excessively benevolent by the system lords.
Socradon doused the torch and placed it in the bracket, then he crossed to the inner door and placed his hand on a flat panel beside it, just big enough for a man’s hand. The light overhead turned red.
"Uh, is it supposed to do that?" Peter aimed his thrower at the door.
"It always does that. The door will not open until it turns white again."
"Probably equalizing pressure or scanning us," Jack suggested. "Making sure we’re not somebody he doesn’t want to see or that we’re not carrying diseases or Goa’uld-busting weapons."
"You carry weapons," a voice came from the air, a voice with the familiar Goa’uld echoing rumble. "I have monitored your progress. State the nature of the devices you wear upon your backs."
"Pan," Socradon told them in an undertone. "Speak up boldly to him. He respects boldness, but punishes insolence."
Daniel held up his hands to keep Jack and Peter from speaking. They might not mean insolence but if Pan were touchy, he might take offense at their normal means of speaking. "Mighty Pan," he said, careful not to lay it on too thick, "we are sent to deal with the creatures that have infested your world. Zeus, who protects this planet, has sent us. The devices we carry are designed to capture and incarcerate the creatures that have slain your Jaffa."
"Zeus has sent you? He has no power over me."
"Right now he only wants to stop the Caspers; uh, the beings that encircle the city of the Chaapa-ai."
"You have seen Zeus? You have spoken with him?"
"Yes, to both," Peter said.
"Ah. You may enter, the three of you. Socradon, wait in the chamber. I will have speech with these interlopers."
Peter’s mouth tightened at the word "interlopers", and Jack frowned, but Socradon merely said, "As you wish it, my lord," and sat down on one of the benches.
The light overhead switched to white, and the inner door popped open with a hiss of air.
"What was that you said about spiders and flies?" Jack asked Peter out of the corner of his mouth.
"Take it as read." Peter’s knuckles gleamed white from the tightness of his grip on the thrower.
Jack stood the staff weapon against the wall beside Socradon and led the way inside, but he kept the thrower in his hand, the P-90 slung over his shoulder by his strap. Daniel could tell from the very way he moved that he was sliding into a state of hyper-alertness he always displayed in the presence of a Goa’uld. From the way the muscles in his face worked, he was also trying to hide his usual distaste at the sight of a snakehead. Daniel and Peter fell in behind them and the door hissed shut behind them. Peter glanced over his shoulder at it as it sealed and rolled his eyes.
The voice emerged from a corridor directly ahead of them. Daniel could see it opened out after about ten feet into a large room, and he hurried after Jack, who stalked down the hall as if he were hotfooting it to his seat at a hockey rink. They had to hurry here. Sam would be down soon with the naquada reactor, and Egon and Ray would be arriving to connect the packs.
They stepped into the larger chamber and stopped to survey what they saw. It was a big room, if rather low ceilinged, but the Goa’uld who stood facing them across its richly appointed space was not a tall man. He might be an inch or two shorter than Sam or Ray Stantz, who were of a height. Daniel knew the Goa’uld didn’t look like their mythic representations, so he hadn’t really expected horns and goat legs, which was just as well. Pan didn’t have them. Instead he had broad shoulders and a barrel chest, a very Greek-looking face with the same dark curls as Socradon. Women would probably consider him attractive in a lusty, earthy way. While he might be subtle, he didn’t look it. Shrewd, maybe, but not subtle. He had been might have appeared natural to them. Even if they revered Thor (in his incarnation as Zeus) as their primary god, they would see nothing amiss in acknowledging other, lesser deities as well. As long as Pan did not approach the Stargate and the Hammer, he could maintain his "godhood" quite naturally.
His right hand bore the customary ribbon device that a Goa’uld could use to immobilize and sometimes kill a subject. No glitter of a personal shield distorted the three men’s view of him, but he could raise it as quickly as they could fire. Would he know a knife could penetrate the energy shield? What contact did he have with the galaxy at large? Would he know about the Tau’ri? Many of the questions Daniel wanted answered would only arouse the Goa’uld’s curiosity and reveal too much.
Unlike the locals, he shunned the toga as a part of his attire. Over his tunic he wore a brown leather paneled skirt with metallic inserts fastened into each panel. A chestplate in the same tooled leather had obviously been designed specifically for him and fit the huge chest to every contour. It had little metallic circles fastened into place to strengthen it. Amid the black curls he wore a laurel wreath, an affectation, surely. The sandals he wore revealed manicured toes, the nails painted with a braided pattern that made his feet look strange and alien. His calves bulged with muscles, as did his arms.
Pan had penetrating eyes that seemed nearly black until they glowed with the usual Goa’uld effect. He let them dim and studied the newcomers in turn. The intensity of that shrewd black stare made Daniel uneasy. Encountering Goa’uld always reminded him of Sha’re, but he set aside the memory. They didn’t need any distractions. Instead he refused to look away from the Goa’uld’s regard. Only when Pan turned the focus of his attention on Peter, who tried hard not to squirm under it, did Daniel look around.
He wasn’t sure what this room had originally been used for, although Socradon had said something about bank vaults, hadn’t he? But more tiles painted with designs adorned all the walls. The goat-like version of Pan pursued young maidens weighted down with amphorae, olive trees sheltered goats and shepherds, musicians strolled with lyres, athletes contended with each other. It was incredibly preserved, probably maintained by the locals at Pan’s order. He had filled the room with unlikely artifacts, technological devices Daniel did not understand, a rack of staff weapons, and, over in the far corner, a sarcophagus. Daniel’s scalp tightened at the sight of it. After his addictive experience, he had feared that the presence of a sarcophagus would make him crave it, but instead all he felt was horrified revulsion. He tried not to let it show, but Jack, who noticed it, shot him a quick, questioning, supportive glance. Did he think Daniel would want to go in there, relive the torture of addiction? Daniel’s mouth tightened, and he offered Jack a fractional shake of his head.
Pan moved on to study Jack, and he must have caught the tail end of Jack’s gaze because a black eyebrow arched. "You send each other signals," he said. "I see you recognize the sarcophagus."
Peter’s eyes widened and he glanced around. When his eyes fell upon it, he said, "So that’s a sarcophagus. I’ve heard of them but I’ve never seen one before. I guess you’d need it."
Pan stiffened, but he evidently decided not to take the remark as anything but a statement of fact. "It is my privilege as a god," he said levelly. "Now. You will explain how it is that the Asgard recruited humans to do their bidding." When they reacted, he said, "Naturally I know the true identity of the ‘Zeus’ who protects this planet. It is easy to avoid his protective devices, and the people here are well trained and accustomed to worship. Even sophisticates such as Socradon, who does not believe, will offer me lip service and obey my bidding. As long as he does not betray me or run counter to my wishes, I find him useful. I chose not to allow him in here because it is to my advantage to keep knowledge of the Asgard from these people. Should I wish to turn them against Thor and his people, I shall do so, but it would serve no purpose now. Did Thor send the creatures that have devoured my Jaffa?"
Daniel thought there was more to Pan’s motives than he was willing to show. Did it amuse him to have the servitude of a man who was too wise to believe in him? Did he sometimes enjoy the companionship of someone who could look at him without cowering in fear even if he played the game? Did Socradon have a hold over Pan that neither wanted revealed? Daniel didn’t know and he was certain neither Pan nor Socradon would tell him. Socradon had a beloved child. He would do nothing to endanger Petra. Jack wouldn’t risk the kid either. He had such a weakness for kids that it sometimes broke Daniel’s heart to watch him with them, knowing Jack had to be thinking of his own dead son. It was harder when the child resembled Charlie, which Petra didn’t, and Petra had chosen to bond with Peter, not Jack. Maybe that would help.
"He didn’t send them, but he knows about them," Jack said. "He would never send anything harmful to a protected planet. He tried to stop the ship from crashing here."
"The vessel is Asgard. It would be easy for me to inform the natives that their great god Zeus sent this plague upon them." Pan went over to a chair designed to look like a throne and flung himself into it, hanging one leg over the short armrest. Carefully he arranged the panels of his skirts to make sure he was decently covered. Beside Daniel, Peter struggled not to smirk at the automatic gesture, and muttered something about Scotsmen and kilts. Jack gave him a harder-than-necessary nudge in the ribs.
"But you haven’t told them the ship was Asgard," Daniel said hastily before Pan decided to ask for an explanation.
"I will maintain the status quo until such time as I have reason to change it. Zeus will furnish me new Jaffa, or I will create them from the people here. I have done that before. Until the entities, you called them Caspers, are defeated, new Jaffa would be pointless."
"You have infant Goa’uld here?" Daniel asked involuntarily. He couldn’t help remembering the tank of them he had destroyed on Chulak. Even now a part of him shuddered at his action, but another part held triumph that he had spared Goa’uld-hood for that many innocent hosts. Perhaps his action had saved some other man’s Sha’re.
"That is no concern of yours, human. Why do the Asgard send pathetic humans in their place?" He held up a hand before anyone could speak. "Do not lie to me. I know his motive, so that the people of this world will not see him as he is, so that he will not lose their respect seeing that their mighty Zeus is so frail and puny, so inhuman. At least I look as one of them."
"Until your eyes glow," Jack pointed out.
"That is only fitting, as I am their god. You are my enemies, but for now, we will speak of your weapons. I have seen none such as these before. I will see one now." He pointed at Peter. "You. Explain the device to me."
Peter rolled his eyes at Jack, who nodded. He probably figured the Goa’uld might be smart but he wouldn’t be a physicist. At the Goa’uld’s impatient gesture, Peter took a step closer to the throne. "Uh, I didn’t design it. I only use it. But it’s a nuclear particle accelerator designed to trap and hold ectoplasmic beings until we can trap them." He whipped out a trap. "In here. This holds them."
"The creatures that encircle the City of the Chaapa-ai are far bigger than your traps."
"True, but they are only partly physical. And the traps are kind of—what’s the word?—dimensionally transcendental. You know? They’re bigger inside than outside."
"They incorporate alternate dimensions?" Pan rose fluidly from his throne and snatched the trap from Peter’s hand. The trigger pedal fell to the floor at his feet. Pan squinted down at it, prodded it with his toe, and stepped on it. Automatically Daniel closed his eyes.
"Don’t look in it," Peter yelled as light exploded into the chamber.
With a clatter, Pan flung the trap away from him. It must have hit Jack because he let out a pained yell. Peter did something that made Pan swear, then the light went out as the doors closed over the trap.
"You struck me," Pan accused Peter. Up came the ribbon device and Peter collapsed to his knees as the force of the device hit him full in the forehead. Daniel winced at the way his face twisted under the onslaught. He struggled against it, straining to pull away, pain and defiance warring for supremacy on his face.
"Geez, he was just moving you away from the trigger. The light hurts a guy’s eyes. He was trying to help you, for crying out loud." Jack stood rubbing his arm where the trap must have impacted against him, glaring at the Goa’uld. Daniel could almost sense his desire to blast away at him with the thrower. He shared it.
"He gave no warning." The ribbon device continued its relentless torture. Peter fought against it, his teeth locked into his bottom lip. Daniel had endured a ribbon device before and knew the agony it caused. It could kill a man.
"He didn’t have time, damn it," Jack insisted. "He’s the one who knows this stuff. If you want answers, you better stop."
"Very well. My point is made. None may strike their god." Pan lifted the ribbon device and Peter sagged back on his heels with a faint whimper of sound that he controlled instantly. His hands came up and clutched his head and then he just sat there shaking. At least he was conscious, but he had to be hurting badly. His friends weren’t here—just as well; they’d probably have tried to neutronize Pan.
So Daniel knelt beside Peter and slid his arm around the suffering Ghostbuster’s shoulders. "Easy, easy," he said. "It will let up soon. I’ve had it done to me, and I survived. You’ll be okay." He glanced over at the sarcophagus. Would Pan allow them to restore Peter that way? Was the nature of the injury even worth the risk of using the device. Daniel would use a sarcophagus to save a friend’s life, but he would hate it, knowing its addictive power.
Peter leaned into the supportive arm. At first he didn’t say anything, but Daniel could tell from the tension of his muscles that he was conscious.
"He okay?" Jack fussed overhead. He might not exactly like Peter, but he was always concerned for those in his command. Today, Peter was part of his team, and Daniel could feel Jack’s desire to stalk over to Pan and punch him out.
"He’s conscious, I think," Daniel admitted. "Peter? How do you feel?"
Peter shifted faintly at the question. "Gaah," he groaned. "Now I feel like I....really do have....rocks in my brain."
"Those who strike their gods suffer the consequences," Pan said smugly.
"I didn’t strike you. I was just...trying to get your foot off the trap so the light wouldn’t blind you. Try to help a guy and...look what happens." Peter’s voice strengthened but he still didn’t sound like himself.
Pan looked down at him, and as if he sensed the alien eyes upon him, Peter took his head out of his hands and forced it up to meet the Goa’uld’s gaze stare for stare. Daniel kept his arm around Peter, who wouldn’t be steady yet, no matter how stubbornly he resisted.
"You speak truth."
"Now I know what ‘brain drain’ means.... We didn’t come here to hurt you, just to get rid of the Caspers," Peter said. "That’s what I do, get rid of entities that aren’t solid." He massaged his temples energetically and winced.
Daniel was glad he hadn’t used the word "ghosts". That probably wouldn’t go over well with a Goa’uld.
"The energy of the trap is so strong it can blind a person if he looks into it too long," Peter said.
Pan’s face was tight. It would probably kill him to admit he’d been wrong. But maybe he was reasonably fair for a Goa’uld because he looked at Peter a long minute, staring past the defiance and righteous indignation that blazed on the Ghostbuster’s face, to the truth of Peter’s words. Then with a grimace, Pan whirled away, crossed the room to a box on table and removed something from it. When he returned, he wore a Goa’uld healing device on the hand that didn’t have the ribbon device. He put it on, raised his hand, supported it with the other hand and aimed it at Peter.
Peter erupted out of Daniel’s grip and flung himself shakily to his feet, fumbling for his thrower to defend himself. "Now what are you trying to do? You go to help a guy and look what happens." He stood there, wavering, at bay, and darted betrayed glances at Jack and Daniel for not jumping in to help him.
"It’s all right, Peter," Daniel said quickly. "It’s a healing device. It will make you feel better."
"You sure about that?"
"Carter has one," Jack explained. "They really work."
Curiosity darted across Peter’s face and took cover before the Goa’uld could remark on it. He squared his shoulders and raised his head. "Okay, do your stuff." Daniel could tell he didn’t trust Pan one inch and hated the fact that he had to rely on him for healing. It was only his willingness to accept Daniel and Jack’s word and his need to be a hundred percent for the confrontation with the Caspers that allowed it.
"Are you quite prepared? I grow impatient," Pan snapped.
"Do it," Peter said tightly.
Pan frowned at the abandoned trap. Its brilliance must have impressed him. And just maybe the trap’s suction had impacted on the Goa’uld within the host. Was that possible? If so, Pan had to know that the Ghostbuster equipment was powerful. That was probably the reason he was willing to heal Peter, not out of any sense of guilt. The Goa’uld didn’t do guilt.
Pan activated the device. After a second, Peter gave a gasp of surprise and the pain eased out of his face. Involuntarily, he leaned closer to it as the healing device did his work. Pan’s brow wrinkled in concentration but he displayed no trace of the effort Sam had to put into it whenever she tried to make a healing device work. She’d done it, but her successes were more hit and miss than constant. For Pan, it came easily.
After a few seconds, the device’s glow faded. Peter stood without a trace of dizziness, only the faintest lingering lines of pain around his mouth. He rolled his head on his neck, blinked a few times, then sucked in a breath that was huge with relief. "Thanks."
Pan turned without speaking and returned the healing device to its box. "You will now explain your equipment in more detail," he said.
"Gracious all the way," muttered Jack. "Nice guy." He clapped Peter on the shoulder. "You okay, Venkman?"
"Yeah. Now it just feels like the memory of a headache, y’know?"
"Been there, done that." He squeezed Peter’s shoulder and let go. They’d been arguing over Thor earlier but the crisis had pushed their conflict into the background. "You’re on stage," he added. "Make us proud."
Peter grimaced at him, then turned back to Pan. "Okay, here’s the quick and dirty version. The pack I wear is a portable nuclear accelerator."
"It runs on primitive nuclear power?"
"Yeah, real primitive," Peter agreed. An eyebrow quirked in Daniel’s direction.
"He’d probably use something like naquada," Daniel interjected hastily, "or maybe some Goa’uld device that I don’t know about."
"Oh. Okay. We’re in the process of converting now. Anyway, what it does is shoot out a specifically designed particle stream of protonic energy that lashes out and captures the entities we want to trap." He gestured with the thrower to mime blasting a ghost. "When we have it held in several containment streams, we toss out the trap under it and stomp it open, just like you did. It sucks the entity in. Doesn’t matter if the entity is as big as a...as a Goa’uld pyramid, it still fits. Once in a while there are entities that have so much power that the traps won’t hold ‘em, but we modified our traps before we came and a trap will hold a Casper without any trouble. Then we take them away and stick them in a specially designed containment facility."
"Did the Asgard design this device?" Pan asked suspiciously. He went over to the trap and nudged it with his toe, but he didn’t pick it up, and he was careful to avoid the trigger pedal on its cable.
"No, two friends of mine did. Really smart guys. The Asgard came to us because we’re the best."
Pan ignored the boasting tone. "I am not convinced the Asgard did not create the Caspers to prey upon the Goa’uld."
Daniel wasn’t entirely sure of that, either, but this was hardly the time to say so. "The last thing the Asgard would do would be to endanger the people of a world they protect."
"So the ship’s crash here was accidental."
"Those things took over an Asgard ship," Jack threw in. He went over and picked up the trap and passed it back to Peter, who slung it into place on his pack. "They probably caused it to crash because they didn’t know how to fly the thing. Thor came to us to help out."
"You are of the Tau’ri?" Pan asked. "I have heard tell of the Tau’ri, who have recently entered into the galactic conflict. It is said that the Tau’ri slew Ra."
"I heard that, too," Jack said casually. Not by so much as a twitch did he let slip that he and Daniel had been the ones to destroy Ra.
"How do I know you did not kill my lord Ra?"
"I sure didn’t," Peter said hastily. "I only met one Goa’uld before today, and he wasn’t anywhere near as powerful as you."
Daniel had heard that Peter’s father was a con man but hearing the smooth tone in Peter’s words, he finally believed it.
"I do not trust you, any of you. I will use you because only a fool does not use tools that come to his hand. But you do not have my trust. Your device may serve its purpose, but you are here and the Caspers are here, yet you have come to me rather than destroy them."
"We came because Socradon thought we needed to see you first," Jack said hastily. "Even as we speak, or allies are preparing for the confrontation at hand."
The meter tucked into the front of Peter’s jumpsuit suddenly gave a faint beep. Pan jerked. "What is that thing you carry?"
Peter worked it free. "This is a P.K.E. meter. It tells me where the Caspers are and what they’re doing." He bent his head over the readout screen. "Hey, guys, one of them is moving." Every muscle in his body tensed. "It looks like it’s heading right for Egon and Ray."
"Do they possess Goa’uld symbiotes?" Pan asked harshly.
"Well, no, but...."
"The Caspers, as you call them, passed many of the primitives of this world and did not touch them."
"Maybe, but these are my friends. I’ve gotta warn them." He reached for his walkie talkie, then stopped when Pan lifted the hand that held the ribbon device. "Easy, big guy. It’s just a communicator. I’m gonna warn them. You think I’d be nuts enough to go for a weapon in here?"
"You hold a weapon," Pan pointed out.
"The meter’s not a weapon. And we’ve held the throwers all along. Come on, let me warn my buddies."
"These...buddies? They are your teammates, your allies? You have concern for their safety?"
Daniel didn’t like the question. He exchanged a worried glance with Jack. What was Pan up to?
"Well, duh," Peter exploded. "Come on, they’re my friends."
"And do they possess meters such as yours?"
"Well, yeah, but...."
"But then they will detect the approach of the Casper without warning. You say they are working to convert their equipment to fight the Caspers?"
Peter whipped out the communicator in defiance of Pan. "Yeah, but I still want to check in with them."
"I shall ‘check in with’ them." Pan snatched the communicator from Peter’s hand. "You will be my assurance of their skill. These other two do not claim them as you do. Their garb is different from your own. Therefore I theorize two separate teams, perhaps with different function. You say meeting the Goa’uld is new to you, but for one exception. These others, they know of us, they know my weapons, they recognize the healing device and the sarcophagus. I therefore theorize that they are of the Tau’ri, perhaps the Tau’ri who destroyed Ra, who turned Apophis over to Sokar. You are a specialist, recruited for a particular mission."
Pan was no weakling in the intellect department. While Daniel couldn’t see how he could automatically assign the feat of Ra-slaying as he had, his other theories were rational and logical.
"So what’s your point?" Peter challenged. The lines of pain were gone from his face, replaced by new ones put there by concern for his friends.
"My point, as you phrase it, is that I will hold you hostage to guarantee their success. I will free you when, and only when, the Caspers are incarcerated and gone."
"Hey. They need me to help fight them. We need every one of our weapons to do the job."
"I watched you in the square," Pan said calmly. He waved a hand at a panel on the wall, and it lit with an image of the Chaapa-ai, where the locals had resumed their circles and their singing. A faint hint of the song came from the screen, but it must have been turned low.
"I figured you knew we were here," Peter said. "So what?"
"So I saw you befriend the child, Socradon’s son. Should you refuse to serve as hostage, I will take him in your place. I may not be as kind to him as I would be to you."
Peter’s mouth tightened and so did his hands, right into fists. "You take away this one thrower and you make it harder to catch the Caspers," he said.
"Socradon will wear it. He will do it to protect his son."
"They’re not easy to use like a staff weapon," Jack argued. "You don’t just point and shoot. They’ve got a kick to them."
"Socradon is a strong man and he will learn quickly." He dismissed Jack’s words and turned back to Peter. "I hold you as guarantee. Agree, or I will bring the child here. He is young to carry a larval Goa’uld but not so young that he would fail to survive. I have others, some mature enough to house themselves in a host."
"You’d turn the kid into a Goa’uld, alienate the population here, risk the Caspers getting away?" Peter stared at him. "You’re crazy. Look, the thing wants to eat your brain. Did you see the bodies of any of your Jaffa? The Caspers just ripped out the symbiotes and left them to die in their own blood. We saw the bodies. Flies all over them. It’s gonna have to rip your skull open to get to the snake inside. You need me out there with the team."
"I need guarantees that you will do what you promise and then depart."
"Don’t suppose our word would count?" Jack offered.
Pan only looked at him, contempt gleaming in his eyes.
"Take me instead," Daniel offered before he could stop himself. "I’m not as good with a thrower as Peter. If you have to have a hostage, I’ll do."
"No!" exploded Jack. "That’s crazy, Daniel. Just because this guy is such an idiot that he puts his power play before his safety doesn’t mean you have to buy into it."
"I’ve seen Peter handle a thrower more than once," Daniel insisted. "I know how good he is. The Caspers are fast and agile. I may be able to handle weapons now better than I could at first, but the learning curve on a thrower is higher than on an MP-5 or P-90. We need Peter out there."
"We need everyone who has handled a thrower before, Daniel. Socradon might be the great white hope of his people, but you can bet he hasn’t even fired a rifle before, let alone anything like this. Besides, Thor isn’t gonna like it that you messed with his emissaries, Pan, old buddy. Why not talk to him. You think he wants you on this protected planet? He can send down more hammers, y’know."
Pan didn’t like that. "I control this world."
"You don’t control the Stargate," Jack insisted. "And with the Caspers out there, you’re hiding down here inside your nice safe airlock. You need us. You need the whole team."
Pan glowered at him. "I will not tolerate insolence and disobedience. As you see, I can monitor the entire area, not just the square of the Chaapa-ai. If I allow you to fight this battle on my behalf, know that you are under my eye, and that I can control weapons to destroy you."
Peter bobbed his head urgently. "Fine, now let me warn my friends."
Pan ran his fingers over the communicator and found the on switch. "This is Pan," he said into it. "I wish to speak to the ones called Egon and Ray."
There was a silence, then Ray said hastily, "This is Ray. Where’s Peter?"
"Right here, Ray," Peter yelled. "You’ve got a Casper moving in your direction."
"I know—he senses Ses’tac, but he’s underwater now so he’s safe. I think the Casper will return to position."
Pan stiffened. "Ses’tac lives?" he demanded.
"Who’s Ses’tac?" Peter asked.
"He is my first prime." Pan stared at the communicator. "You have captured my first prime?"
"No, we didn’t catch him," Ray said quickly. "Oh, gosh, wait, here comes the Casper. Boy, is it fast."
The communicator went silent.
Peter lunged for the door, and only Pan jumping in front of him, his hand bearing the ribbon device aimed at Peter’s forehead, stopped him. "Let me go, they need me," he demanded. "Come on, they’re in trouble. God, what do you need from me? I’ll grovel if that’ll do it. Let me out of here."
"You recognize my godhood?" Pan preened himself, so smug that he missed Peter’s start when he realized his words had been misunderstood. Daniel waved a hand to warn him not to contradict Pan and saw understanding filter into Peter’s eyes. Instead of pushing past Pan, Peter bent to the communicator in the Goa’uld’s other hand. "Egon? Ray? Come in, guys."
"Amazing." Egon’s filtered voice came over the speaker. "Peter, it’s all right. It isn’t reacting to us at all. It knows we are here and it circled us just now, but then passed on. It’s hovering over the water. It must know Ses’tac went in."
"What does water matter?" demanded Pan. He lowered the ribbon device and raised the communicator.
Peter’s rigid muscles eased as soon as Egon spoke. He shot a questioning eye at Daniel and Jack.
Jack shrugged. "Thor never said anything about water."
Egon came on again. "Peter, we’re still here. The Casper is ignoring us. Ses’tac fell into a stream while it was pursuing him but it didn’t follow him into the water. He used a reed to breathe through until it went away. It may be that the Casper can’t sense him through water. It also does not seem to understand our speech. I believe Ses’tac will attempt to reach the settlement under water. He is anxious to return to Pan and report to him."
"As is my due," Pan said sternly. "Should you speak to him, inform him I have many questions. Can you destroy the Casper now?"
"No," said Ray. "Not without all of us and a device another of us is bringing. We’ll rendezvous in the square by the Chaapa-ai and set up there." He hesitated. "Are you okay, Peter?"
"Great for a guy who just had his brains scrambled and then put back together again." When his friends exclaimed, he said, "Sort of a Goa’uld brain-drain. But he’s got a healing device here."
"Sam has mentioned them to me," Egon replied. "Peter, try not to alienate Pan."
"Well, he alienated me first." Peter glanced at the Goa’uld and winked. Pan’s astonishment made his mouth drop a little open, and he closed it with a snap.
"Peter, the Casper is returning to its position," Ray called. "I can see Ses’tac swimming underwater toward the settlement. We’ll meet you in the square. Thor will send Sam down. And maybe Winston, if he’s better."
"Maybe we can get Pan to use the healing device on him," Egon suggested. "What do you think? Would he do it?"
Peter frowned. "Let me check. Uh, mighty Pan? One of our companions was injured by a Casper as he tried to protect someone else. Could your healing device cure a brain concussion?"
"It could. Why should I do so?"
"Because the more of us with proton packs and throwers, the better our chances of stopping all three Caspers," Jack said levelly. "Come on, Pan. Your life is at stake here. The last thing you want is for the Caspers to take up permanent residence. You’ve got a real nice room here, but you don’t want to stay here forever. No fresh air, no villagers to worship you."
"Besides," Peter said hastily, "if the communicators can break through your shielding, maybe the Caspers can work up to it, too. They’re evolving, getting more powerful all the time. This might be a safe little hidey-hole now, but maybe in a week or two they’ll be strong enough to zip right through the walls. Things without physical bodies can do that, y’know?"
"I will consider it. I would speak to Thor now."
"I am here," said Thor over the speaker, so promptly that Daniel realized he’d been listening to the entire conversation without revealing himself. No doubt he’d wanted to get a handle on Pan. "You do not belong on Sounon. I have tolerated you only because you have not, as yet, harmed my people. You are in jeopardy, and the people I have sent to remove the threat will protect you. Therefore, you will hold none of them as hostage. I have means of removing you from Sounon. There are other worlds, worlds where you will be recognized."
Daniel shivered involuntarily. He could hear the threat in Thor’s voice with no trouble at all. It was clear that Pan could hear it, too, and equally clear he didn’t like it at all. On the other hand, if Peter was right and the continuing mutation could enable them to pass through walls, Pan’s safety had a time limit. Unless he wanted his brain sucked out—images of the mummification process and the removal of the brain danced in Daniel’s head—he had to cooperate with Thor or find a means of defeating the Caspers himself. Hiding out in a shelter that would eventually cease to protect him was only a short-term solution. Obviously staff weapons didn’t work. Did he assume the ribbon device would work against the Caspers? Or that his personal shield would protect him?
"I have not permanently harmed any of your messengers," Pan said, his voice surly. "I even restored the one I interfered with. He will tell you himself that this is true."
"Hey, Thor, buddy," Peter said quickly. "He did zap me with his ribbon thingie but he used another gizmo to fix me up. He’s a little bit quick on the trigger, but we’re pals now." If Pan hadn’t been a Goa’uld, Peter would probably have draped an insincere arm around his shoulders to make the point.
"We are not ‘pals’," Pan replied. "We have a temporary alliance to meet a specific crisis." His brow wrinkled up and he moved away from the door and over to his throne where he settled himself again with a careful arrangements of the leather panels of his skirt.
"I think that’s a fashion statement I want to avoid," Peter muttered. He added, "Hey, Thor, he wanted to hold me hostage."
"That would be most unwise," Thor replied instantly. "I require Venkman to operate his weapon at the time of confrontation. You need no hostage. Only know that I am overhead and that I could remove you from this planet with a wave of my hand."
"I’ve seen it done," Jack said with a big grin. "Another protected planet, and the Goa’uld came in ships. Next thing you knew, they were vanishing right before my eyes. Not a pretty sight—if you’re a Goa’uld."
Pan’s mouth tightened and he made a fierce gesture with the hand that wore the ribbon device. "Agreed," he snarled. "I shall hold no hostage. But should you fail to remove the Caspers from this planet, I shall take appropriate action."
Peter ducked involuntarily, then he caught himself and glared at Pan. The Goa’uld didn’t show the least apology, but Daniel could sympathize with Peter’s reaction. He’d have felt the same, had it been aimed at him.
"You will now release my emissaries," Thor commanded. "They will rendezvous with the others of my party in the square of the Chaapa-ai."
"It will be done," said Pan tightly. "You will forgive me if I remain here. When this is ended, I shall petition the Asgard for an explanation of the damage they have done to my Jaffa and the danger they have created on a protected world."
"You may petition," Thor replied. "But you remain here on sufferance."
Meaning that any attempt to complain to the Asgard or reveal what he thought of as Thor’s treachery would probably make him wind up on another world, one not necessarily friendly to him. Pan threw himself to his feet and stalked over to the door. "You cannot depart too soon to satisfy me," he snarled and opened the door.
Outside, Socradon waited to greet them. "I hope all has proved satisfactory, my lord Pan," he said, all surface obsequiousness.
Pan’s mouth tightened. "Take the interlopers and go, Socradon, and be very glad I do not choose to take your son hostage for your part in this."
Socradon’s face drained of color, but Peter clapped him on the shoulder. "Don’t worry, buddy. Zeus won’t let him do anything like that. We’ve got his word on it." He glanced sideways at Daniel, who nodded vehemently.
"We just spoke to Zeus. He will protect your people."
Pan slammed the door behind them, and they waited for the light overhead to turn from red to white so they could leave the Goa’uld’s domain.
** *** **
Passing the sentry Casper to enter the village felt weird, but it ignored them as it had done at the place where Ses’tac had taken to the water. Egon took a reading of the creature close up. Seeing it at close range had surprised him because it was less physical than the one they had entrapped on Thor’s ship. The weird metallic Borg parts had smoothed over, though a few of them still protruded, and there might be more of it inside where they didn’t show, but the readings at the stream and again now proved the alteration induced by the Asgard had progressed. On the other hand, these Caspers had devoured larval Goa’uld. Perhaps that made a difference.
"They’ve got teeth," Ray said with a slight shiver. He didn’t look afraid, but only an idiot didn’t register danger, and the fact that, until now, the Casper had not found a human to be a succulent dish did not mean that the continuing mutation would not alter that fact. The Casper turned its head; it had rudimentary eyes, or at least darker patches where eyes would be on a human. Whether it saw them through the apparent orbs or perceived them with an entirely different sense, one unknown to Egon, didn’t matter. But it did turn its bulbous head so the two dark patches pointed at the two Ghostbusters. Egon didn’t blame Ray from shuddering. Odd that the one on the ship had possessed far more metallic eyes. Was this part of the transformation that had affected the planetbound Caspers, a result of devouring Goa’uld larva?
Ray fell into step with Egon as they hurried past the lurking entity. Egon could feel the weight of its alien gaze on his back as they moved down to the more formal road that led into the town. "Let’s hurry, Ray. I’m not certain I’m willing to accept Peter’s assessment of his condition."
"Peter wouldn’t lie to us."
"Not about things that matter, no, but he might conceal the fact if he still felt unwell, knowing we must fight the Caspers. He wouldn’t want to be benched like Winston."
"Yeah, he pretends he feels great when he doesn’t," Ray agreed with a sudden smile. "And then, when he’s got some minor little thing like a hangnail, he acts like we ought to wait on him hand and foot. When he’s not complaining, that’s when I worry about him."
"Daniel and Jack will understand the condition," Egon said positively. "They’ve endured it themselves."
"And you’ll ask the minute we see them." Ray’s smile widened. "I hope Pan didn’t do any damage. Boy, that was mean of him when we’re gonna probably save the guy’s life."
"That’s not our purpose here, Ray. It’s to protect Thor’s people. Pan doesn’t belong here. I’m sure Thor will relocate him once this is over."
"Weird that the Caspers aren’t interested in us," Ray said. He cast one quick glance over his shoulder as the buildings closed around them, then checked the meter. "At least it’s still waiting. Do you think they know Pan is here?"
"He must be in a protected shelter. The way the creature went for Ses’tac, it can obviously sense a Goa’uld at a considerable distance. Even the meter at top gain can barely detect a hint of the Goa’uld."
Ray nodded. "Gosh, look at this place! It’s like taking a time machine back to Ancient Greece. I can hear the singing really clear."
"They’re singing praise to Thor," Egon remarked. "Although the pronunciation is different, I can understand most of it, even though I haven’t heard ancient Greek spoken in some time. They refer to him as Zeus, of course."
The road led them directly to the square. The top of the Stargate became visible before they reached the square around it where the people had gathered. Egon frowned. He would have to send the locals to safety before the confrontation. He would also have to decide how to draw the Caspers into position to be blasted. Much to accomplish. Would Sam’s personal shield hold well enough to protect her? Could Thor teleport her instantly if it failed? Would the protein marker in her blood serve as a magnet to draw the Caspers into position? Would Ses’tac arrive soon? It would likely take him longer to negotiate the stream, which was shallow in some areas, thus requiring careful maneuvering to prevent any portion of him breaking free of the water. What could one unarmed Jaffa do other than serve as bait, a task he had not agreed to? Ray was eager to believe that Ses’tac would see the logic of their reasoned arguments and turn away from the Goa’uld, as Teal’c had done, but Egon did not believe in that possibility. Teal’c must be unique. Or perhaps there were other Jaffa who had seen the light. Teal’c’s teacher, for example, what was his name? Master Bra’tac? If there were two, there might be more.
The singing stopped as they arrived, and everyone turned to stare. Ray beamed and them and waved. "Hi, I’m Ray and this is Egon. We’re the Ghostbusters. Thor, uh, Zeus sent us to help you."
A little boy emerged from the crowd and ran to meet them. "My father’s the leader but he took your friends to meet Pan. I’m Petra. Welcome to our planet, and thank you for your help."
Egon hid a smile at the child’s assumption of responsibility. It wouldn’t do to hurt his feelings. "Thank you for the welcome, Petra," he said formally. "We are glad to be here."
"It’s great," Ray said. "This is beautiful. After we get rid of the Caspers for you, we’d like to look around if we could."
"My father will arrange it. What can I do to assist you in his place?"
Another man came up and put his hand on Petra’s shoulder. "I am Macedes, Socradon’s assistant. I second young Petra’s welcome. Will you battle here? Should the people move to safety?"
"I would consider that an excellent suggestion."
Light flared abruptly near the Stargate, and the people gasped and drew back. When it faded, Sam stood there, clutching the naquada reactor in her arms, accompanied by Winston, a proton pack on his back. He looked a lot better than he had before, and he no longer wore a dressing on his cheek. At first glance, he did not appear unsteady on his feet. Relief ran through Egon at the sight of him. Now if only Peter were here, too, for Egon to be reassured about him as well.
"Hello, Winston," he called.
"Winston!" hollered Ray and pelted across the square to join him. "Wow, you look great. Did Thor say it was okay?"
Winston raised his hand in greeting. "He said I had to talk to Pan about a healing device, but once that was done, I could help you fight. Man, I’m glad to be here. I hated the thought of you guys taking on the Caspers without me." He glanced around. "They still holding position outside town? When you guys said one was coming, I tried to get Thor to send me down to your position, but he wouldn’t."
"I was as close to it as I am to you," Ray said, falling in beside Winston. "It saw us, I know it did, but it didn’t attack. Do you think they have race memory or collective unconscious or something to know that throwers are bad for them?"
"An intriguing theory, Ray," Egon called. "Welcome, Sam. I shall be there in an instant to assist in the set-up." He turned back to the vice-chief. "Macedes? Would you ask the people to retreat to a place of safety? Not inside any of the buildings that abut the gate." He pointed to the Stargate. "What is it you call it? The Chaapa-ai? Our weapons are powerful, and while we will attempt to avoid damaging any property while we are here, we will have to fire at the entities when they move, and it is possible we might accidentally hit the nearby buildings."
"The meeting hall is two streets away, and it is large enough to hold many of our people. The rest of them should simply return to their homes and stay inside."
"Leave the square?" somebody yelled. "We can’t do that."
"I will stay, and Socradon will return and stay with me. You know we will guard the Heart of our people."
Egon frowned. He could hear a special significance to the words, even though he didn’t know exactly what they meant. It was surely more than protecting them from the Caspers. He looked around to see if anything obvious would leap out at him. Could Macedes mean the children?
No, the people gathered up their children, urging them ahead of them. Perhaps the vice-chief had referred to the Stargate itself. They might not relish leaving it in strangers’ hands. And speaking of the Stargate reminded Egon of Thor’s Hammer, perched there on its pillar only a few feet from Sam. She wasn’t affected by it. Thor must have done whatever he had promised to ensure it would not harm her. According to the meter Egon held, the Caspers weren’t reacting to her presence, either. Interesting that the shield was invisible. Once in a while, Egon thought he detected the faintest flicker of energy surrounding her, but only when the light caught it or when she moved abruptly. She had deposited the naquada reactor on the ground beside the dial-home device and was engaged in laying out a series of long cables that she had carried looped about her shoulder.
"You may wait," he told Macedes. A But when the Caspers come, you must agree to follow our direction and move where we need you to be. This is to ensure your safety."
Macedes responded affirmatively. Egon left him standing there and joined the others. When he reached them, Sam already had the cables laid out to connect to the DHD and, as he arrived, she stretched out beneath it to work at the underside of the control device. Ray dropped to his knees behind her, picked up one of the cables and a control tool, and ducked under the device with her.
Egon stopped in front of Winston long enough to finger the slight mark on his cheek from the Casper’s blow, and to tilt Winston’s chin for a better look at his eyes. His pupils seemed focused, equal and reactive. "Are you certain you’re up to this?" Egon asked.
"I feel fine." Winston’s mouth quirked. "Well, I feel a heck of a lot better than I did. If Pan’s gizmo completes the process, I’ll be good to go."
"Excellent. I must go assist Sam now." He clapped Winston on the shoulder, then passed him his P.K.E. meter. A Alert us if there is any movement."
Before he could drop to his knees to crawl under the DHD he heard a yell and whirled to see Peter approaching at a dead run. He pounded across the square and screeched to a halt beside Egon and Winston. "Hi, guys," he said. "Winston, you okay? You look better."
"I’ll live. I hear you’ve been to the wars, too."
"Yes, Peter, are you certain whatever the Goa’uld did with the healing device actually helped you?"
Peter nodded vigorously and the motion did not appear to cause him any problems with equilibrium. The tightness inside Egon relaxed its tension. "I’m fine, Egon. Pan says he’ll do the same for Winston. I have to admit Pan’s arrogant, petulant, egotistical, and a world-class jerk, but the healing gizmo works. He’s hiding away in a place behind a kind of airlock, and he’ll take care of Winston right away. Not because of any altruistic motives but because he’s in danger and he knows it. Takes about a second. Come on, Zed."
"With you, Pete."
"Hey, Ray," Peter called. "Keep an eye on things while we’re gone."
"You bet, Peter. You sure you’re okay?" Ray poked his head out, studied Peter carefully, and then beamed at him.
Peter struck a pose. "Hey. I look great, don’t I? Don’t you think I look great, Sam?" When she kept right on working, Peter made a moue of disappointment, shrugged exaggeratedly, and grabbed Winston by the arm. "We’ll be right back." He pointed in the direction from which he had come. Egon made sure that neither man showed any signs of dizziness or vertigo and that they both had their throwers in hand, prepared for trouble.
"Where are Daniel and the Colonel?" Sam asked without stopping her work as Egon joined her and Ray. Her hands moved deftly to remove a section of the casing which she passed it to Ray, who set it aside. He’d already laid out the tools he carried for her inspection. They’d planned on the communicator which of Ray’s and Egon’s equipment would assist in the process of tying the reactor to the DHD’s power source. The resultant power combination should be enough to get a firm lock on the Caspers—assuming they came close enough.
Peter was already moving, tugging at Winston’s arm. "Trying to get some information out of old Pan. They’ll come back with us. Let’s go, Winston." The two of them headed down a side street.
Egon propped his activated meter on top of the DHD before he knelt beside Sam and Ray. They worked together easily; previous missions and communications to discuss physics issues had made Egon very comfortable with Sam Carter. She had a brilliant, inventive mind, and he was glad the SGC had someone of her caliber to deal with the varied crises that occurred on missions to other planets, on Goa’uld ships, defending Cheyenne Mountain. He admired her ability to adapt equipment, to backward-engineer machines she found out here this side of the Stargate, and the tidy, ordered way her mind worked when dealing with issues of physics. He found himself comfortable with her, nearly as comfortable as he was with his own team, more so than any of her teammates, although he had known Daniel longer than the Ghostbusters had interacted with the Stargate Project. In a sense, Sam Carter came close to the image of Egon’s ideal woman.
That could have no bearing on the crisis at hand, so he neatly compartmentalized any such thoughts and allowed himself to revel in the beauty of the DHD functionality. A self-replenishing power source fascinated him, and he made copious mental notes at each juncture of the process. He heard Ray’s frequent gasps of excitement and approval as he helped with the hands’ on tasks of linking up the reactor. In a sense, Sam’s science fit neatly between his and Ray’s. She could do both theoretical and practical. Peter might chuckle to hear Ray, the dreamer, labeled "practical", but Ray was a brilliant engineer whose easy, unassuming nature often misled people. He didn’t intend it that way; he simply and honestly didn’t think he was anything above the ordinary. The other Ghostbusters knew better.
Macedes hovered as they worked, but he didn’t interrupt their concentration with pointless questions. Instead he planted himself before a stone platform that Egon vaguely thought resembled an altar. He’d noticed a stone bowl atop it when he passed and registered that the bowl was made of the same stone as the altar top. Maybe the locals used it for their worship ceremonies such as the singing they had done before being dispersed to places of safety. Be honest, Egon, call it ‘relative’ safety. If the Caspers mutated to the point where they found humans tasty, nowhere would be safe unless the Ghostbusters and SG-1 could stop them.
"This is all very well," he said, his thoughts progressing to the next step even while his hands completed the modification on the pack necessary to accept power from the reactor. It was much like connecting the packs for charging back home, except for the need to adapt the filters they had theoretically designed over the communicator to prevent pack overloads. "But it relies upon the Caspers actually coming within range. Unless their appetites change, they may come no closer."
"Well, there’s always Ses’tac," Ray volunteered.
Sam’s head came up. "Ses’tac? The Jaffa you encountered?"
"Yeah, I forgot to tell you. He got away by hiding in the water."
"That’s what you said before and then the Casper came and I didn’t hear more." Sam sat back on her heels. She kept right on with her rewiring, but she must have been able to compartmentalize in much the same way Egon could because her fingers moved deftly and accurately while she stared at the two of them. An occasional glint at the knuckles reminded Egon of the shield Thor had devised for her. "You mean the Caspers can’t move through water?"
"We can’t entirely theorize that," Egon replied. "It’s possible they cannot sense their prey through water, or simply that they find water distasteful. Possibly whatever their primary detecting sense is, it can’t work through water. Obviously they have a means of sensing larval Goa’uld, which would not be a visual sense. Smell, perhaps. In movies, escaping criminals will flee through streams so as not to leave scent for pursuing dogs. This may be much the same."
Sam’s brow scrunched up. It flashed through Egon’s mind that he found the expression rather attractive. Forget that, Egon, we are in a crisis. "That’s possible. But the people of this planet don’t live underwater, and evidently it can sense them on the other sides of bodies of water."
"No, they’re not like vampires," Ray threw in, which won him a startled glance from Sam. "I mean, well, uh, vampires aren’t supposed to be able to cross running water," he said rather lamely. Then he firmed up his speech. "Well, it’s true."
"I don’t doubt you, but I would prefer not to have it proven," she said. "Since we’re not dealing with vampires, we need to consider how to draw the Caspers to us. I’d prefer to do it one at a time, but I don’t see how we can do that. It wouldn’t be possible to enclose us and one of them selectively within a wall of water."
"Not with any technology I can imagine," Egon replied, "and certainly not without a considerable amount of equipment. However, with the strength of the boosted throwers, we should be able to deal with several of them at once."
"And we can still cross the streams if we have to," said Ray happily.
"We can hardly risk melting these people’s Stargate, Ray," Egon chided. He finished the link to his pack and cautiously powered up. It hummed normally, the power levels safely in the green. Holding up a hand to forestall questions, he monitored the readout for a full minute while Sam and Ray continued their adjustments. Sam didn’t have a pack and thrower; there weren’t enough to go around, but Ray snapped the cable into place on his and secured it.
"It’s operating normally within the heightened power grid," Egon said with relief. "If we were going to have a basic overload, it would have happened by now. Of course we’ll need to test it. Check your settings, Ray, and we’ll fire a few controlled bursts to determine the result."
Sam studied the naquada reactor and a device she had attached to it with a readout screen. A needle moved slowly to the middle of a grid, settling comfortably in the safe area. "I’ll monitor the grid while you test it."
Egon stood up, eyed the cable that connected his pack to the naquada reactor to make certain it was stable and long enough for some movement. He had about twenty feet to play with. When all six of them were connected, he’d have Peter devise a grid pattern for them to operate in. It should be easy for Peter, the former college quarterback. It would be like designing football plays.
"Macedes," he called.
The vice-chief motioned for one of the few other men who had remained when the people sought shelter, and nodded him into position beside the altar before he left his post and joined Egon. There were seven men positioned around it, seven men who had refused to budge when the others were sent to shelter. "You are ready?"
"We still have to connect the other four proton packs." He reached up to touch his to explain what he meant. "Once that’s done, we will indeed be ready. But we would prefer to test our equipment first. A few simple shots to make certain it, er, behaves as it should." Macedes might be intelligent, but he didn’t necessarily have any kind of technological background unless the Sounons traded through the Stargate with advanced races. If so, the more powerful races had not enslaved them. Pan might think he had, but from what Egon had heard of various Goa’uld, it seemed that Pan, while capricious, could have been far worse than he was. Thor might serve as an absentee god, but he was definitely benevolent, in spite of his high-handed snatching of Peter. He obviously had his own agenda, and Egon was positive the mutation had been part of a double-edged plan, to defeat the replicators and stop the Goa’uld in one fell swoop. Had the ship crashed on a Goa’uld world, would Thor have even bothered to recruit the Ghostbusters?
"Naturally you must test it," Macedes agreed. "It will cast out fire, if I understand correctly, fire that will harm the beings that stalk us. So you must use a greater fire to stop a lesser. We understand the need of that. You seek a target, perhaps." He looked around the square. Gleaming white buildings abutted the area, gleaming white bridges crossed the stream. A few trees grew here and there, several of them old and spreading their shade against the sun. Egon didn’t recognize the foliage, but there was no reason he should. This was not Earth.
Macedes pointed to a bridge at the far corner of the square. "That span is damaged and must be replaced. It would save us much labor should it be removed. You may use it to test your weapons."
"I’m ready," Sam said. "We can do the other connections as soon as the others return."
Egon put out a hand to help her to her feet, although he knew she was entirely capable of jumping up on her own. Her hand felt firm and slightly callused in his own. "Thanks," she said casually and bent to retrieve the reactor, which she perched securely on the DHD. "The pressure won’t activate the chevrons, not while we’re connected. Someone could come through the gate from another world, but until I remove the reactor links, we can’t dial out." She whipped out her communicator. "Thor?"
"I am here, Major Carter."
"We’re ready to do our first test of the linked packs. So far, only two are linked but we’ll perform a quick test. Have you been in communication with Colonel O’Neill?"
"I have. Pan has fulfilled his promise and used his healing device on Zeddemore. They are now departing Pan’s shelter and will be with you in moments."
Teal’c’s voice came over the speaker. "When you are ready, I will request Thor to send me down, MajorCarter. It will be necessary to draw the Caspers to your location."
"That hasn’t been decided yet, Teal’c," she reminded him. "There’s also another Jaffa around here somewhere, probably underwater, breathing through a reed. He is Pan’s first prime. He will emerge if he believes Pan in jeopardy."
"He will not support you as I shall," Teal’c reminded her. It was a good point. Egon didn’t trust Ses’tac, although Ray was inclined to give him more leeway. The Jaffa had not emerged, and that was a fact. Perhaps there was an underwater entrance to Pan’s secret base.
"The colonel will get back to you on that," she said. "We’ll report in once the test is complete."
Egon gestured for Ray, and the two of them walked out to the ends of their cables for a better shot at the bridge. The square was set with walkways and park benches, and while Egon was certain the Sounons wouldn’t count the cost of a park bench or two if it removed the threat of the Caspers, it would be better to hit only the intended target. "Remember, Ray, the throwers may have a more powerful kick to them with the additional power channeled through them. We’ll start at setting four and work up." He bent to the dial on his thrower and adjusted it down. Ray did the same.
When they were ready, the two of them took aim, Egon at the far end of the bridge and Ray at the near end. "Ready...now." Egon pressed his thumb against the trigger.
The kick nearly jerked his stream off the target but he tightened his grip, tautened his muscles and held it in place. He controlled the thrower and the stream hit the far end of the bridge, just as Ray straightened his particle stream and hit his end.
With a sudden puff of smoke and a hiss of steam from the roiling water, the bridge vanished. The activated P.K.E. meter threw a decided hissy fit, the sound shrieking up the scale so fast it hurt their ears. Hastily both men switched off their throwers. The meter scaled down smoothly and the antennae retracted. Egon craned his neck to check it, glad he’d set the record feature so he could study the power levels he’d accessed later.
"Wow!" cried Ray as the smoke cleared. "Did you see that? Wasn’t it amazing?"
"Remarkable," Egon agreed. He turned to Sam, who raised intrigued eyes from the control device. "Did that meet your specifications?"
"It did. What’s more, it hardly moved the needle. Of course it was of limited duration and only two of you, but I think all six could fire for a longer period and still have no—"
The shrill of Egon’s meter changing pitch yet again interrupted her eager conclusion. Up came her P-90. Egon could imagine her with a thrower, standing up to a major demon.
No time for that. What mattered now was to identify the source of the problem.
"Ses’tac!" cried Ray.
The sodden Jaffa dragged himself up on the stream bank, shaking his head to clear it. The left sleeve of his armor looked like it had melted and there were already blisters rising on his left cheek and temple. If not for the skullcap armor he wore, his hair might have caught on fire, unless, like Teal’c, he was bald beneath it. He cast a sour look at the two Ghostbusters. "That is your device?" he said. "The Caspers make the very air dangerous, and now you endanger the water."
"We didn’t know you were in there. Are you okay?" Ray cried.
Ses’tac dismissed his minor injuries with a quick wave of a hand. "My symbiote will heal me."
The beeping intensified. "It’s coming," Ray cried. "Ses’tac, go back in before it gets you. Hurry."
"Two of them are coming, Ray," Egon shouted. "Ses’tac, retreat immediately. The two of us alone can’t protect you."
Carter leveled her weapon at him, but he ignored her. With three limping, running strides he raced along the bank and flung himself into the water as far from the disintegrated bridge as he could put himself before the danger arrived. In the churning water from his racing dive, Egon couldn’t see the tip of the reed poking up to allow him air to breathe.
Two of the Caspers swooped into the square and circled the spot where Ses’tac had last stood. Sam leveled her weapon at them, and Ray and Egon instantly aimed the throwers. Automatically Egon moved between the Caspers and Sam, who might be a target. Without turning, he could sense her trying to see past him, peering over his shoulder. The planet-bound Caspers were larger than the one the team had vanquished on Thor’s ship, smoother of feature, with the suggestions of metallic skeletons barely visible through the translucence of their "skin". Egon squinted at the meter, annoyed when his glasses slid down on his sweaty face and he lacked a free hand to shove them into place. Tossing his head helped, but not entirely.
The power from the entities was the same as when he and Ray had taken their readings at the first encounter with the Jaffa. Sam, who had only seen the Borg Casper on the Asgard ship, studied the modified versions as best she could past the wall of Spengler.
"They’re still changing."
"Precisely," Egon replied. "We can assume they all found Jaffa once Pan sent them out to investigate the crash. I’ve adjusted the meter to detect naquada, and they possess a higher concentration of it than the original Casper did."
The two Caspers hovered over the river. It was almost as if they were trying to sniff out the submerged Jaffa. How intelligent they were Egon couldn’t say; he lacked enough data to make a determination. Although if they had positioned themselves evenly around the settlement, they must have more than animal instincts. The original replicators were colony creatures, he understood. These were different. They possessed a link of some sort or they couldn’t position themselves or work together, but they showed no indication of merging. Instead they merely drifted up and down the stream. The place where the bridge had been interested them and they swooped around the wreckage for a few more minutes. Either the shield around Sam totally blocked all evidence of the protein marker in her blood or it didn’t attract them the way a living symbiote would. Whichever it was, they ignored her as completely as they did Egon and Ray. When Sam moved around him to watch their movements, he didn’t attempt to intervene.
"Will they attack?" Macedes asked in a shaken whisper. This was probably the closest he had been to one of the entities.
Egon glanced over his shoulder and frowned slightly when he saw the vice-chief and the other men who had remained when everyone else departed. They had formed a living barrier around the altar and stood, each man with his right hand on the left shoulder of the man at his side. Although every man there had lost color, and some trembled with fear at the sight of the looming creatures, not one of them moved from his position. Macedes stiffened up his knees and faced Egon, although it cost him an effort to turn his head away from the Caspers.
"They seem uninterested in humans," Egon replied. "The energy we expended upon firing interests them."
"Is that a bad thing? Might they not find the taste of your weapons’ energy to their favor?"
"They consume a substance called naquada," Egon explained. "The Chaapa-ai is made of it, but they evidently can’t devour it in their present form. They require it in the form of life or of energy. But the energy we project is—" How to explain physics to people who had never learned it. "What we have done here is to reverse its polarity." When Macedes gazed at him blankly, he sighed and continued, "We changed it around, so it’s the opposite of what they need to eat. Do you know about magnets?"
"We have magnets," the man next to Macedes admitted.
"The correct sides of two magnets will pull them together. The wrong sides will repel. What we have done is made our energy as if it would repel. Because they crave it, they will come, but they cannot eat it. It can ensnare them, though." And that is far too simplistic, but hopefully it will suffice.
Several of the men nodded. Good. Egon turned back to stand between Ray and Sam, prepared to use the throwers if the two Caspers should attack the villagers or the gate itself.
"Egon! Ray!" Peter charged into the square with Winston, Daniel, and Jack hot on their heels, and another of the locals, a tall man with thick black curly hair right behind them. That must be Socradon, the leader, rather than Pan, for the Caspers ignored him as they did the other members of both teams. The native gazed at the Caspers with wide-eyed horror, then he made for the altar. Quickly he joined his people, and they shifted position neatly to fit him into their formation.
Peter spared him only one surprised look before he yanked out his thrower, and O’Neill already had his weapon up. Daniel clutched his thrower and even aimed it at the Caspers, but Egon held up his hand. "No. Don’t fire yet."
The Caspers didn’t seem to care about the new invasion. One final time they circled the place where Ses’tac had vanished, then they parted and soared back to their places, giving the Stargate a very wide berth. Interesting, that. What did it mean?
Winston looked a lot better than he had before. "Man, that healing gizmo is the greatest," he said in answer to Ray’s question about how he was feeling. "I’m back to normal. What the heck made those weird Caspers decide to pop in?"
"That was Ses’tac," Ray explained hastily. "We didn’t know he was in the water near the bridge when we blew it up."
Peter rumpled Ray’s hair with a careless hand. "And why, pray tell, did you decide you wanted to blow up a bridge? Last I heard, bridge demolition wasn’t in our job description." He craned his neck to study the place where it had stood. "Total protonic reversal? Ray, Ray, Ray, you have to get some help for this uncontrolled urge to destroy things."
Ray made a cheerful face at him. "Testing the new settings, Peter. Boy, has it got great power. Let’s have your pack off so we can boost it."
Peter shrugged out of his pack obediently and passed it over to Ray.
O’Neill trotted up to Sam. "So, Carter, you weren’t a target for the Caspers?"
"No, sir. Thor’s shield worked perfectly. They appeared completely unaware of me. Of course it’s possible that the protein marker wouldn’t be enough to draw them."
"Well, you leave it on. Once a guy gets used to the occasional glitter, it’s hardly noticeable." He glanced past her at the reactor and its tangle of protruding cables. "I see you’ve figured out a new weapon of mass destruction? General Hammond will be very proud of you."
"It’s not a weapon of mass destruction, sir." She hesitated. "Well, possibly it could be adapted, but we’d need a much bigger—and more mobile—power source to make it worth our while. I’m not sure it could reach a Goa’uld ship in orbit at this point. But it does give me something to work on." She looked past him. "Hello, Daniel. What was the Goa’uld like?"
"Annoying," Jack answered for both of them. "Usual arrogant snakehead. He used the ribbon device on Venkman when he was the one who screwed up and Venkman was only trying to protect him. Guy has the sense of a rock."
"That’s probably why Thor hasn’t bothered with him until now," Daniel added. "He was never a major Goa’uld, and he lacked the power of an actual system lord. He said he had larval Goa’uld, but we didn’t see any."
Daniel and Sam shared a look that Egon didn’t get. Maybe they’d encountered a collection of larval Goa’uld before. Hadn’t there been something about Hathor.... Egon pushed that aside. "O’Neill, if you would give me your pack, I can begin the adaptation." Jack removed it obediently and passed it over, and at once took a firm grip on his weapon instead. His gaze traveled around the square, lingering over the locals who had placed themselves on guard around the altar. One eyebrow quirked at the sight, but he must have decided understanding their motives wouldn’t help to accomplish the team’s objectives because he didn’t question them. He did crane his neck to see if anything resided in the marble bowl, but if he saw anything in the bottom, nothing showed in his face.
"I’ll take yours, Daniel," Sam said, and Daniel obediently removed it and gave it to her to work on. "Ray can do yours, Winston, as soon as he finishes with Peter’s," she concluded as she knelt beside the naquada generator and picked up the cable interface device. "He’s the quickest of us."
Ray’s head came up in a brief, delighted smile, then he bent over the proton pack once more. He already had the interface link in place on Peter’s thrower and was testing it in preparation to attaching it to the generator.
"A Jaffa is hiding in the water over there," Sam continued to O’Neill. One hand lifted to point, then she popped the casing of Daniel’s thrower and reached for an interface.
"He’s Pan’s first prime," Egon explained as he worked. Ray passed him the Phillips head screwdriver. "The one Ray and I encountered. He came into the village under water, and he was near the bridge when we tested our throwers on it. His emergence drew the Caspers to us. So we know what will attract them when the time comes. We didn’t fire because two of the three came and we only had two modified packs."
Jack went over and squinted down into the water in the direction Sam had pointed. Egon could tell the moment when he spotted the Jaffa, because his spine stiffened. He stood there a minute looking down into the water, then he went to the edge of the bank and squatted down beside the water. He didn’t aim his P-90 directly at the Jaffa, but he had it right to hand. "Can you hear me? Nod your head if you can," he yelled.
No matter how Egon arched his head, he couldn’t see the water from where he squatted with O’Neill’s pack. But Ses’tac must have nodded because Jack said, "Good. Listen up. Your boss, Pan, needs your help. We’re preparing equipment to take out those ugly guys who want to eat your symbiotes. They’ll rip Pan’s brain out if we can’t stop ‘em. So if you want to help Pan, when we need to draw them here, we need you to pop out and let them target you. Once they’re here, you can hide in the water till we’ve got ‘em trapped. Are you up for that?"
O’Neill had to favor that suggestion. Sam had her shield devised by Thor; whatever it was, she could work through it and interact with others, touch people, do what was needed, but the protein marker in her blood didn’t tempt the Caspers. The shield was of limited duration, Thor had said, but they hadn’t reached the limit yet. There was no guarantee what a tasty target she might prove when it dropped. Egon hated the idea of risking her like that. But put a Jaffa in the middle of the square and the Caspers would come immediately. Using Ses’tac, who had his lord to protect, would spare Teal’c, and Egon had seen that Jack and Teal’c were true comrades in arms. Teal’c would willingly die at O’Neill’s side, yet O’Neill didn’t want his death, but rather his continued ability to stand with him. If Ses’tac agreed, it was only fair, as he would be protecting Pan. O’Neill had known that instinctively.
Daniel glanced over at Jack, and a flash of appreciation lit his face. He wasn’t any more keen to face the Caspers than the rest of them, but he’d seen the first Jaffa corpse. It was all too easy for him to imagine Teal’c lying there in his place. Without hesitation, Daniel went over to Jack and stood at his side. O’Neill glanced at him, lifted one eyebrow in acknowledgment, and turned back to the water.
After a minute, Jack’s taut shoulders eased. "Good. I’ll put in a word for you with Pan once this is over."
Egon imagined that would probably infuriate Ses’tac, who would need no Tau’ri support. But he had made his commitment, not for SG-1 but to Pan, and he would stick to it. Egon might find the Jaffa dangerous and misguided, but Ses’tac had proven himself loyal and determined, not to mention a survivor. If he would play his part, they could draw the Caspers to the square.
"There are six of us and three Caspers," he said. "With the additional boosts to both throwers and traps, I believe two of us can trap one of them. If they gain more strength and size, this will not be feasible. It would be to our advantage, Sam, if you would take charge of the traps. We will form a semi-circle around the DHD, with you at the heart of it; that way we can also protect you, should your shield fail. When a team signals that he has a Casper in a stream lock, you throw out the trap beneath it and stomp it open."
She nodded and removed the trap and its trigger on its cable from Daniel’s pack.
Ray removed the trap from Peter’s, snapped the casing into place and powered it up. "The settings look good. There you go, Peter." He handed it to Peter, who slipped into it quickly and drew his thrower. At once he positioned himself to stand guard over the three who labored on the traps. When Winston handed his pack to Ray, Peter took a step closer to Egon. "Hey, Spengs?" he asked softly.
"Yes, Peter?" He finished inserting the interface in Jack’s pack and began to connect the naquada reactor cable.
"Is this gonna work?"
Jack and Daniel were just returning from the stream, so they didn’t hear him, but Ray and Winston did. Sam, too, stopped her work and looked up at him, but she left it for Egon to reply. He took a deep breath.
"Peter, it won’t be easy. I’ve seen the power emitted by the new pack settings. One instant the bridge was there, the next it was gone. However, it is a material object and the Caspers are not. The settings are carefully designed to work against them, however. We have a chance."
Ray thrust out his chin. "You bet we’ll stop ‘em, Peter. All of us are here. You and Winston are okay?" He squinted up at each of them in turn as if he feared they were covering up for major illnesses.
"Yo," agreed Winston, and Peter nodded.
"Hey, Ray, I’m a hundred per. The Venkman machine is working perfectly, no defects."
"How fortunate for us all," Sam said under her breath.
"That’s your problem, Sam. You never did appreciate me properly." Peter waggled his eyebrows, Groucho Marx style, at her. "Put yourself in my hands and I guarantee you the best time you have ever had."
"Don’t be absurd, Peter," Egon heard himself say too sharply. "This is hardly the time for one of your ludicrous propositions."
Peter stared at Egon, then the corners of his mouth curled up into a grin of sheer delight. Egon knew what he was going to say, and he could have slain him for it. But Peter merely squatted down at Egon’s side and murmured into his ear, "Is our little boy in love at last?"
"Don’t be ridiculous," Egon snapped. To his horror, he saw a twinkle of amused realization in Carter’s eyes.
O’Neill, arriving with Daniel trailing him automatically like a kite’s tail, looked from Carter’s face to Egon’s reddened cheeks, and pasted on an insufferably paternal smirk. "Ah, the romance of physics."
"Will Ses’tac help us, sir?" Sam said hastily. She looked as if she would happily have kicked O’Neill if he had not been her commanding officer. Instead she glanced in Peter’s direction as if measuring the best place for him to receive a kick. She had no military constraints against delivering it, either, and Egon saw Peter realize it. He took one half-step to place himself out of her range. Sam’s eyes twinkled, then she turned back to O’Neill, a stern, major-like line to her posture, even squatting on the ground over Daniel’s pack.
Daniel, who had looked amused at Peter and O’Neill’s teasing but who had tried at once not to show it, looked around the clearing instead, maybe to let Sam know he wasn’t part of the kidding brigade. Suddenly he stiffened, which made Egon and Ray look up to see what he was noticing and Jack frown, roll his eyes at Daniel, and then turn in his direction. A second later, Peter turned, too.
Daniel had discovered the natives lined up around their altar. Once the Caspers had returned to their boundaries, the men had let their hands drop and now they stood, spaced as precisely around the altar as the Caspers were around the settlement, their faces firm and unyielding. Egon had a suspicion that the upcoming conflict with the entities would not move them from their assigned places.
"Now what’s that mean?" Daniel muttered under his breath. "Jack, I think the altar is significant in their culture. It’s not the usual thing you see beside a Stargate."
"The DHD is the usual thing, Daniel," Jack pointed out. "Every place we go has their own variations. The table is theirs."
"I think it’s an altar, Jack, not a table."
"I, too, considered it an altar," Egon put in, more in the interests of accuracy than because he wanted to put O’Neill in the wrong, although after the "romance of physics" line, he didn’t exactly mind invalidating the colonel’s words. He offered the completed pack to O’Neill, who took it warily the way he might an unexploded bomb.
"Gee, so did I," threw in Ray. He didn’t lift his head as he worked on Winston’s proton pack.
Sam rose and passed Daniel’s pack to him. "There you go, Daniel." As he shrugged into it, she continued, "What’s the significance if it is an altar?"
"Well, it’s probably a part of their religion. We wouldn’t like it if aliens came to our planet and fought a battle in a church or synagogue, would we?"
Peter leaned in that direction, craning his neck. "Is there anything in the bowl? You know, like money?"
O’Neill grimaced. "Venkman, you’re as mercenary as Donald Trump."
"Yeah, too bad I’m not as rich. I just thought maybe they put their offerings in the bowl."
Egon checked Ray’s work. It was early done with Winston’s proton pack. The time of battle was at hand. There in the open square, under the blazing sun, they would confront the Caspers. The altar couldn’t be significant to that, except that it would be necessary to pull one’s shots and not endanger the townsfolk. Yet Egon, who had studied ancient cultures, although not as intensely as Daniel had, couldn’t help wondering why the empty altar was so significant that its guardians wouldn’t leave even in the face of the impending fight. They had looked terrified when the two Caspers had come after Ses’tac, yet not one of them had deserted his post. Socradon and Macedes were officials, of course, and maybe the others were part of a government council or simply bodyguards, or the local equivalent of the police force.
Egon had the sudden idea that they had better not risk firing in that direction. If they should damage or destroy the altar the way they had the unwanted bridge, even trapping all three Caspers would not win back the Sounons’ goodwill.
"There, I’m done." Ray jumped up with the pack and gave it to Winston. He put it on.
"Okay, team." Peter deliberately spoke before the colonel could. "Let’s lay our plans."
"Teams of two," Egon said when Peter nodded at him. "Each team with take one of the Caspers. Colonel O’Neill, you team with Ray. Winston, you and Daniel. That way each of you is with an experienced Ghostbuster." He didn’t want to put Peter with Jack. Two leaders together, even if Peter was only the Ghostbusters’ nominal leader, would create problems. O’Neill was sensible enough to take direction from someone more experienced, but he’d probably resent it from Peter, and Peter, good man though he was, had it in him to revel in his authority. He didn’t do it with his teammates, but Egon knew he would do it with O’Neill in a heartbeat. Also, Winston had been an enlisted man when he’d been in the army. He might have some built-in need to obey an officer, and right now, his experience was the more valuable. O’Neill might know strategy, but Winston knew Ghostbusting. Ray was so eager and knowledgeable that even O’Neill had to recognize it. "Peter, with me. Sam, I wish we had a back-up pack for you. We know our other weapons will prove ineffective, but if anyone should be...injured, you must take his pack and continue the fight."
O’Neill gave Egon a measuring look as if he had been able to analyze Egon’s motives in assigning the teams just like that. He nodded once in approval and moved over to stand beside Ray, who looked up at him and grinned.
"It’ll be great, Jack," he said happily. "With this much power, we’ll be able to zap ‘em and trap ‘em right away."
"This boy aced Optimism 101," said Peter. He ruffled Ray’s hair affectionately, then he took his place at Egon’s side.
"Okay, team," Peter said quickly. "Here’s what we’re gonna do. Egon and I will move in this direction." He sketched the dimensions with a wave of his outflung arm. "Ray, you and the Colonel take the far ground. And Daniel, you and Winston here in the middle. That way we don’t have to worry about tripping over each other’s cables."
O’Neill considered the instruction. It was clear he would have liked to dispute it, but he was too sensible to do that, and besides, Peter’s instruction made him the one to retrieve Ses’tac. "Right," he said with only a touch of sourness to his tone.
"Way to go," muttered Peter.
Egon exchanged a solemn glance with him. Only this morning—lord, it felt like an eon ago—Peter had vanished from the lab without a trace. He’d since been zapped by a ribbon device, a process Egon didn’t entirely understand but which had required healing from a Goa’uld. He might not be up to this, even if the stubborn determination he wore in the face of probable death had tightened the lines of his face. Having gotten Peter back after this morning’s scare, Egon felt the blossoming of a protective urge that he couldn’t allow to flower. They had to fight as they always did, each man taking his own necessary risks. The urge to protect Peter simply because he had vanished in a burst of light and had later sustained a completely mended injury was illogical.
But very human, Egon.
His closest friend gave him a tight grin and a thumbs-up. "Come on, Spengs, we’ve got the ultimate in busting equipment here. The Caspers haven’t got a prayer."
"Who was it who aced Optimism 101, Peter?" Egon asked gently.
Peter beamed. "Well, look at my team," he said. "I’ve got not one but two, count ‘em, two physics geniuses. I’ve got one genuine Air Force colonel, I’ve got the guy who opened the Stargate. I’ve got Ray, who’s so smart IQ tests don’t work for him, and Winston, who can watch my back any time and anywhere in the known universe. I’ve got an alien with a honking big ship and a Jaffa up there with him who’d be down here in a heartbeat if he could. There’s another one lurking in the water who’s gonna do his part—although I’ve gotta say I’m not sure I trust him—and even a Goa’uld who fixed Winston up. Then there’s the people here. Look at ‘em. Scared to death but they’re not moving. You gotta admire guys like that."
"And we have one smart-mouthed psychologist who is far smarter than he likes people to realize," Egon said softly, "and who is the most loyal friend I have ever known."
Peter’s eyes warmed. "Right back at ya, Spengs baby."
"Are we gonna fight the Caspers, or do we have to listen to more sweet nothings?" O’Neill griped, but Egon saw the look he had exchanged with Daniel during Peter’s list of assets. O’Neill understood perfectly everything said and unsaid.
For a moment, the Ghostbusters exchanged a four-way handshake. Then they backed off and took up their positions. "Let’s bust some Caspers," Peter called.
"Watch the reactor, Carter," O’Neill said. He turned to Daniel. "No touching the Caspers, Daniel, and I mean it."
"Have I ever—"
"Touched something I told you not to? Only about eight million times."
"Well, that’s because I’m an archaeologist, Jack. That’s what we do. I don’t tell you not to fire your weapon, do you?"
"Just as well not, because I’d have to kick you in the britches if you tried."
"Ah, military discipline," Peter caroled. "I love it."
O’Neill shot him a dirty look, then he looked around for Ray. "Stantz, you’re with me. We better go over and tell old Ses’tac it’s time for him to bait the trap."
"I’ll tell him," Ray said simply. "He likes me."
"Even if that’s true, I wouldn’t exactly brag about it, ya know," O’Neill told him and they hastened over to the embankment. They had enough play in their cables for that. Egon measured the length of the cables. They were very securely linked to the proton packs. A hard tug would likely draw the wearer up short rather than give way, but too hard a tug might break the connection with the interface.
"Be careful not to pull too strongly on the cables," Egon warned automatically.
"Yeah, the last thing you want to do is get disconnected," Peter agreed readily at Egon’s side.
"I sure wouldn’t," Winston put in.
Daniel watched Jack carefully. Egon hoped that, in a crisis, those two wouldn’t automatically back each other and break the pattern. He hadn’t wanted to pair them because neither was experienced with the proton packs. A few uses didn’t make it automatic. Sam, who knew the theory behind them, had no real practical experience other than a test firing or two, and she was needed to monitor the reactor and check for possible overload. There, half under the DHD with the reactor, she wasn’t in a position to be stepped on in the heat of battle. Laid out beside her was her P-90 and a zat’nik’a’tel, although neither weapon had proven efficacious against the Caspers. Egon hated leaving her defenseless, but even as he had the thought, he banished it. It was demeaning to a woman like Sam, who was not the helpless, clinging female of those old romance novels Janine sometimes read, but a strong, competent, brilliant woman. In spite of Peter’s and Daniel’s teasing, he had every right to respect and admire her.
He banished the thought and concentrated instead on the tableau on the embankment. O’Neill stood leaning over the water. "Ses’tac, showtime."
Egon couldn’t see the Jaffa from where he stood, but he doubted Ses’tac could hear clearly through the water. If he moved into a position to allow it, the Caspers would come. But he must have shifted because O’Neill braced himself, thrower at ready, the alertness and tension Egon had come to recognize in him when confronting a crisis all too visible.
"He means we’re ready for you," Ray called. "The Caspers will come quickly, so before you come fully out of the water, I want to tell you where it’ll be safest to stand." He raised his hand before Jack could interrupt. "I know the safety of Pan is more important to you than your own life, but you can’t protect him if you’re dead." Ray smiled down at the submerged Jaffa. "We’ll make sure we protect you. But if I tell you to go back in the water, you do it."
"Only Ray would befriend a Jaffa," Peter muttered. He cast a quick glance over at O’Neill. "Or not."
"Teal’c’s on our side," O’Neill reminded him without turning his attention from his battle readiness. "This character isn’t."
Peter nodded. What he didn’t say was that trust had to start somewhere. For Peter, the implication was a major concession. Egon could read that on his friend’s face, and was proud of him for it.
"Is everybody ready?" Ray called back over his shoulder.
O’Neill, who looked as if he would be just as happy using the thrower on Ses’tac as he would on the Caspers, said, "Yo."
It flashed through Egon’s mind that the word "yo" had a great many meanings and that more exact terminology would prove beneficial, but then the Ghostbusters, too, had their own verbal shorthand. Maybe it was a military thing.
To prove the point, another, "Yo," came from Winston, the former soldier, which made O’Neill lift an amused eyebrow.
Daniel said quickly, "I’m ready." His knuckles whitened on the thrower grip, and the sunlight glinted off his glasses. He looked like he had the same problem Egon did in the heat that inevitably produced sweat. His glasses didn’t want to stay neatly in place either. He let go of the thrower with one hand to push them impatiently into place.
"Go for it," Peter called. "Egon?"
"Power levels are stable." She raised her communicator. "Thor, we’re ready to begin. The Caspers have shown no interest in me, so your shielding works. We’re ready to ask Ses’tac to leave the water. Should it be necessary to protect him, can you teleport him instantaneously?"
"Hey!" O’Neill gave her a disbelieving look.
"I will do so and return him to you in an alternate location," Thor confirmed. "I am monitoring the presence of the entities. As yet they have not moved, other than the one foray."
Sam looked up and caught Egon’s eye. "Then we’re good to go," she said.
Ray beamed. "Okay, Ses’tac. When you come out, don’t go toward the Stargate. The Hammer will affect you if you get too close. Stay out of the immediate area of the Chaapa-ai. I’ll point it out as soon as you’re out."
"Now would be a good time," O’Neill observed with a glance at his wristwatch.
Thrower in one hand and P.K.E. meter in the other, Egon gave his attention to the meter. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ses’tac emerge from the stream, water sheeting in all directions off his saturated leather. He bounded up the bank, ignoring the helping hand Ray stretched out to him, and went to the position Ray indicated. The Hammer didn’t activate—when had Ray found time to calculate the safe distance?—but the meter nearly went into overload. The Caspers must have incredible senses.
"They’re coming," Egon reported. "Two of them. The third is waiting in its position, just like before."
"We can’t count on that lasting," Peter called as the team formed a loose semi-circle around the dripping first prime, careful not to tangle their cables. Weaponless, Ses’tac looked around, spotted the staff weapon O’Neill had carried that now stood propped against the DHD. Ses’tac measured the distance to Thor’s Hammer with his eyes, and the longing he felt to hold his traditional weapon in his hand was nearly as tangible as the heat.
"It won’t work against them," Ray said as he kicked on the power of his thrower. "We know." But before Jack could object, he darted over to it, grabbed it, and tossed it to Ses’tac, who caught it neatly one handed, whipped it around in a routine that would have impressed a champion baton twirler and finished up with a salute in Ray’s direction. Ray beamed.
Of course Jack tightened up at the thought of an armed Jaffa, and muttered, "Son of a bitch," under his breath as he gaped at Ray in disbelief.
"Would you want to face them unarmed?" Ray asked simply. "Even if you knew it wouldn’t stop them?"
O’Neill only shook his head.
** *** **
The heat, the tension, and the lingering remains of a headache that not even the healing device had entirely obliterated made Peter Venkman feel that his every muscle had been wound up tight on spools and that they would spring wildly in all directions at once if he moved wrong. That and the connecting cable that tied him to the naquada reactor and, through that, to the awesome power of the Stargate itself, made him feel tethered in every way possible. This would not be fun.
The only good thing about it was that the whole team stood together. He didn’t like facing off against the baddies, spiritually speaking, without his team at his side. A part of him wished them safely far away, but another part knew that the instant the entities arrived, his friends would function like the well-oiled machine they had become. SG-1 was another well-oiled machine, although only three-fourths of it was present. They were dealing with unfamiliar weapons but these were guys—and a gal, although Sam would probably slay him for calling her a gal—who had learned to use staff weapons and zat guns, and Daniel and Jack had both handled throwers before in a crisis. That gave them more firepower, while Sam watched the controls and made sure they didn’t overload anything. Probably an overloaded naquada reactor could make a bigger hole in the planet than if all six proton packs blew up at once. He had to say he didn’t like the image of that, not one little bit. It would make an awfully big hole in the planet.
The Caspers swooped into the settlement, the same two as before, according to Egon, although Peter couldn’t have told them apart on a bet. No distinctive Borg pieces poked out to distinguish the one who came from Peter’s left from the one who swooped in on his right. Possibly the left one was slightly bigger. Could that mean it had eaten more symbiotes? At least there wasn’t any trace of blood around its mouth. Well, assuming that dark spot on its face was a mouth. If that side of its head was even its face....
Ses’tac tensed, and only Ray’s urgent, "Ses’tac, don’t fire," prevented him from blasting away at the entities that would be immune to his attack. His fingers tightened around the staff weapon, and his mouth thinned into a hard line.
Peter and Egon swept to their left to block the bigger entity. Out of the corner of his eye, Peter saw the local guys guarding the altar, each with a hand on the shoulder of the man next to them. Something was different about them. What was it? Was the altar glowing? Were they?
No time to think about that. He barely had time to swipe his forearm across his forehead to prevent the sweat from dripping into his eyes before the entity bore down on them in its ravening haste to get to its Jaffa dinner. Peter couldn’t turn and watch Winston and Daniel meet the other while Ray and Jack stood guard on their ‘bait’. He and Egon hit the trigger buttons simultaneously and the energy streams lashed out in their jagged shimmering pattern to strike the Casper in almost the identical spot, full in the middle of its "chest".
Peter wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen when the streams struck the entity. Before, the smaller one on the ship had been able to elude them, to shake them off, to yank free of only two. It had taken all six streams to stop the smaller one they’d already captured. But this time the Casper stopped dead at the moment of impact, writhing and twisting in the streams. Its strength actually dragged Peter and Egon a stumbling step closer to the entity before they could plant their feet to regain their balance. It howled, the same eerie wail Peter had heard on the Asgard ship. He had to struggle not to shiver, even in the baking heat of the Sounon afternoon.
Off behind him, he heard Winston yelling, "Daniel, look out!" but he couldn’t risk turning his head in that direction.
"I’m okay," Daniel called breathlessly.
"Next time, duck," Jack berated him, his voice full of alarm and concern.
"Peter," Egon said under his breath.
His warning was well timed. The entity stretched out a long pseudo-arm and swatted at Peter. Son of a gun, the arm just grew, as if it were made of a bungee cord with a heavy weight at the end. It slammed down through the air, and only Peter’s frantic leap sideways prevented him from going down under it. He heard the wind whistle as it zoomed past, and the glint of metallic fragments as big as baseballs in the palm of the almost-hand proved that if it had struck him it would have squished his skull like a hammer going through a watermelon.
"Quit that," he bellowed, outraged. "Do that again and you’ll regret it."
"I don’t think he speaks English, Venkman," O’Neill called from somewhere behind him. The hum of proton streams echoed through the square, possessing a deeper, more ominous resonance than usual. Peter thought all six of them were firing, but he couldn’t be sure.
"He speaks thrower," Peter called back, tightening up the muscles in his arms to maintain his hold. "Egon, is the other one coming?"
"I can’t let go to look at my meter," Egon returned breathlessly. "But the sound level hasn’t increased."
The Casper they had snagged kept yanking at the streams that held it, trying to reach Ses’tac, and the strength of the towering entity tugged Peter sideways so he could see the rest of the battle. Winston and Daniel had their Casper locked, too. Daniel was down on one knee, blood on his forehead, vivid and glistening in the sunlight, but as Peter’s stomach tightened at the sight, he scrambled to his feet without letting go of his thrower. Just as well. The kick would probably send it flipping through the air, taking out anything that came in its path in the second it took to power down. Daniel couldn’t free a hand to wipe the blood away, but he appeared steady on his feet. It was Jack who hovered in position, standing guard over Ses’tac with Ray as the entity tried to reach the Jaffa when he wanted to go to Daniel and make sure he was okay. The Casper Winston and Daniel held was putting up a heck of a good fight, nearly ready to break free. Winston, his mouth tight, looked like he was putting fingerprints into his thrower, so tight was his grip. He yanked hard, tried to steer it around closer to Sam’s position, where the traps lay ready and waiting.
"Sam, stand by," he hollered. "Coming your way."
Sam jumped up, a trap in each hand. "Say when."
The Casper made a frantic attempt to escape and pulled up high, nearly yanking Winston and Daniel right off their feet. It swung right past the Hammer. That was when things got really weird.
All of a sudden, the hum of new power cut across the thrumming beat of the throwers. Light pulsed from the eye of the Hammer and shot out in a beam to strike the Casper that was struggling in front of it. At the sight of the beam, Ses’tac darted a few steps sideways and Ray moved automatically to cover him. But the light that scanned the Casper didn’t pass by to seek out the Jaffa.
One minute the Casper was there, writhing in the streams, the next it was gone without a trace. Had it looked like that to Egon when Peter had disappeared? The proton streams sizzled, blazed with light in a massive burst of feedback that ran visibly back down the streams toward the throwers Winston and Daniel held, and Sam went scurrying frantically for the reactor. She did something very quickly that looked to Peter like yanking wires free. Major high tech. "Winston, Daniel, shut down! Shut down!" she bawled.
Winston jerked his hand from the trigger, and Daniel copied a beat later, but enough of the energy had gotten through for the proton packs on their backs to pulse with energy. Overload? Peter measured the distance between the packs and the Stargate. If they went up and took the reactor with it—and then the gate.... Talk about a massive chain reaction. There wouldn’t be anything left for Thor to teleport home. No one in the known universe could run fast enough to escape the coming blast.
"Lose the packs," Peter yelled anyway. "Fast."
Ray lunged at the two men as they unfastened the overloading packs. He slammed his hand against the back of Daniel’s pack, then did the same for Winston’s, hitting the recessed emergency shut-down buttons. The power levels rose a few notches higher, and Peter could feel the hair rising on the back of his neck as the whine of runaway energy filled the square. He stood there like an idiot, unable to move for fear of loosing the Casper he and Egon held, yet knowing if the packs blew, his lock on the entity would no longer matter. He couldn’t exactly run a mile in ten seconds to escape the devastating explosion that would take out the entire settlement if the packs blew. They’d been idiots not to factor Thor’s Hammer into the equation.
"Come on, come on," Ray chanted as the horrible screeching sound of the packs continued. Carter crouched protectively over the reactor, for all the good that would do.
At Peter’s side, Egon stood rigid, knuckles white on the thrower as he held the resisting Casper in place. "Peter," he said softly.
"Yeah," Peter returned. "I know." This was the end. Ray’s hasty action must have been too late. He risked one quick glance at Egon to let him see all the things Peter could never say. Egon’s expression shared the emotion. The two of them held the gaze for a second, turned to catch Ray’s eye. Ray’s face was as white as the marble buildings that surrounded them. Winston deposited the pack on the ground, made to run, then shrugged his shoulders as he realized running wouldn’t do a bit of good.
Peter watched the packs. He didn’t want the explosion to kill him when he wasn’t looking.
Ses’tac stood just out of range of the Hammer, staff weapon at ready, but he didn’t try to run. Jack had reached Daniel’s side by then, and was trying to rip the pack off him so he could throw it away. "We’ll get Thor to teleport it into space," he was gabbling. From the tone of his voice, he knew there wouldn’t be enough time. His hand landed on Daniel’s shoulder.
Then the whine peaked and a second later began the long wailing wind-down. They all waited, each person holding his or her breath, Peter and Egon automatically resisting the pull of their Casper, as the sound faded and finally ebbed down to silence.
For a long beat, everybody just stood there, staring blankly at the packs. Then Egon said in a dead-level voice that was just this side of major shock, "Sam, the trap, please."
She grabbed it, flung it out beneath the writhing Casper, and planted her foot on the trigger.
"Don’t look into the trap," Ray called to Ses’tac as he knelt beside Winston’s pack to run a diagnostic.
The white wedge of light enveloped the entity. Careful not to allow it to shift any closer to the Hammer, Peter and Egon played it like a fish on the line, working it lower, lower. Peter could feel the exact moment the trap’s suction took over, and with a quick nod to Egon, he powered down. Egon followed suit and the entity slid, still fighting, into the trap. Its eerie ululation stopped in mid-cadence as the doors closed over it. Without its cries and the hum of proton packs, the square seemed very still.
When the trap’s brilliant incandescence had faded, Peter blinked hard because he could still see a glow of illumination. Puzzled, he turned.
The locals gathered around the altar really were glowing.
No, he corrected a second later. They weren’t glowing. Instead, the bowl he’d theorized might hold money emitted a gentle glow that spread out and touched the men who surrounded it.
"Well, that’s something you don’t see every day," Winston muttered.
"I don’t know about you, but half the things I’ve seen today aren’t things I see every day," O’Neill proclaimed. "Come on, Daniel, let me see your head."
"My head?" Daniel raised a surprised hand to finger the injury, and he blinked at the blood on his fingers. "Oh. I forgot. It sort of grazed me before it disappeared. Jack!" Scarcely aware of O’Neill’s attempt to mop the blood on his forehead, he flung a hand up toward the Hammer. "Did you see that? Do you realize what it means?"
"Well, I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t realize what it means," Peter said. "Except that it nearly blew a hole in the side of the planet big enough to hold Earth’s moon. If Thor could pull off a number like that, what the heck did he need the Ghostbusters for?"
"I don’t think the Hammer could have affected the Casper on the ship," Daniel corrected.
Sam snatched the full trap, checked its setting just like Egon always did after a bust, and ran several tools over it. "Daniel’s right," she said. "Don’t you see? The Caspers devoured a number of symbiotes. When the Hammer scanned that one, it detected the presence of a Goa’uld inside. So it removed the Casper."
Jack stared at the Hammer. "You mean it sent it off to a nasty underground cave like the place where it dumped Teal’c and me on Cimmeria? And nobody thought that might happen? Oh, for crying out loud!"
"I’m sure Thor didn’t know there were Jaffa here and that the Caspers would consume their symbiotes," Sam said. "But that has to be what happened. Will it be able to get out of there?"
"Not without passing through the Hammer," Daniel said. "It would kill the Goa’uld."
"I hate to break it to you, Daniel," Jack pointed out, mopping industriously at the blood, "but those symbiotes have been digested. They’re not exactly alive at the moment."
"Perhaps not," Egon said thoughtfully, "but they exist inside the Caspers and have been integrated into their bodies. The Caspers aren’t likely to have digestive systems such as we know them. Perhaps the partially ectoplasmic condition preserves the symbiotes in a state the Hammer can recognize and identify. Thor will have to explain to us whether the Casper can safely remain confined there or whether we will need to do anything further to trap it. In the meantime we still have two other factors to consider."
"What factors, Spengs?" Peter propped his elbow on Egon’s shoulder and leaned. He wasn’t quite adjusted yet to the fact that everybody was still alive and, barring more new crises, likely to stay that way.
"There is still one Casper left, and trapping it near the Hammer would risk the possibility of another overload," Egon pointed out. "It hasn’t moved, even though Ses’tac is still here, offering himself as bait."
"I am not bait," Ses’tac growled. He glanced doubtfully at Ray, then back to Egon. "I am here in the service of my god. Why does the other being not come?"
"We don’t know," Daniel said unhelpfully. "Ouch, Jack."
"Sorry. Let me get this dressing in place. It’s just a cut, but it’s in your scalp, and you know how they bleed. I don’t want you keeling over on us from blood loss, not while we’ve still got another of those honking big mothers to fight."
"I won’t keel over." Daniel stood there steadily, determined to face the threat, although he tamely allowed Jack to tape the dressing over the cut.
"You bet you won’t. Fraiser’s gonna love to get her hands on you."
"For a cut? Oh, come on, Jack. I didn’t pass out or anything."
"Don’t say I didn’t warn you."
"I’ll have to reconfigure the reactor, too," Sam said, harking back to Egon’s comment about a possible overload. She frowned over her gizmo. "I had to disconnect those overloading throwers immediately and I didn’t have time to do it properly. I’m just glad your two packs still worked. But I really need to shut down and reconfigure it. Even if those two throwers are okay, I would hesitate to reconnect them without a major diagnostic."
"And I don’t have enough equipment here for that comprehensive a test," Ray said. "I could do it on the ship, but not here. The packs seem stable, but after an overload like that, we usually strip them down and make sure everything’s okay before we risk using them again."
"Get working, Carter," O’Neill said. He glanced over at the glowing guys and frowned.
"What’s the second thing, Egon?" Winston asked.
"The fact that Socradon and his people are guarding a glowing altar."
Everybody turned to stare. Ray raised his head from his thrower diagnostic, his eyes gleaming, and Carter stopped what she was doing with the naquada generator, her brow wrinkling as she considered the unlikely phenomenon. Unlikely? Who could tell what was unlikely, way out here on a distant planet? This wasn’t exactly a normal day for the Ghostbusters, who had their share of abnormal days. Goopers in the garment district, spooks in SoHo, demons downtown. Gozer, Cthulhu, all the big, powerful ones. Peter and his buddies knew what to do when confronted with the likes of them. What did you do about shining stones?
Now that the Casper had been trapped, the glow had begun to fade, enabling Peter to see the outline of whatever it was in the bowl that had glowed. It looked vaguely like a crystal egg, light reflecting off its faceted surface in all directions, bathing its guardians in a pure white radiance. The exalted looks on the men’s faces suggested this was something particularly special to them, the reason they had refused to leave, even in the face of the Caspers’ threat. As Peter and the others watched, it dimmed still further.
"I wonder if that energy has any connection to the Hammer," Sam said thoughtfully.
Egon raised his P.K.E. meter and took a reading, then his left eyebrow did a Spock impression. "Intriguing. Pure psycho-kinetic energy, yet completely devoid of the elements we associate with ghosts. This is more like what we detect in the presence of psychic phenomena, the readings I may get at a moment when someone displays evidence of psi."
"You mean these guys are doing a telepathic number or something like that?" Jack asked warily. He gave the dressing a final pat as if to tell it to stay put, and gave his attention to the meter Egon held. Peter noticed he stayed right within grabbing range of Daniel in case he should happen to keel over. He couldn’t have sounded more skeptical if Egon had announced that the altar guys were about to pull rabbits out of top hats or saw a lady in half.
"There are many different forms of psi energy. Without much more detailed meter adjustments, I can’t be certain if the unity of the people causes the stone to glow or whether the stone itself imbues them with power."
"They’re protecting the stone," Ray said. "But I think the power comes from it and not from them. Or maybe it chose them to protect it and gives them power."
"I have not observed this effect before," Ses’tac said, his eyes narrowed. "My lord Pan will wish to know of this immediately."
"There’s still another Casper out there," Ray reminded him. Was Ray worried that Pan would come out and confiscate the stone? Had the stone been there all along? Was it invisible when it wasn’t blazing out like this? What was it for?
The glow faded away and died, and the bowl was empty. Momentarily disoriented, the guardians of the altar shook themselves out of their trance and lowered their hands from their companions’ shoulders. Socradon blinked his eyes then he said something in a low voice to Macedes and came over to join the Ghostbusters and SG-1.
"You have witnessed the Heart of our people," he said. "We had to shield it from the Casper creatures. We will also shield it from Pan." He cast a stern look at Ses’tac. "The stone will not serve him. It only serves the people of Sounon. Should he try to take it, he would find it insubstantial in his hand."
"Pan is a god," sneered Ses’tac. He will take it should he wish it. You cannot keep it from him."
"He cannot take it," Socradon said gently, "although I am certain he will try. It is our people’s Heart and has sustained us here on this world. Without it we would wither and die."
Ray left Winston’s open pack without a word and jumped up to face the leader. "What does it do?" he asked, and such was the honest curiosity and fascination on his face that Socradon gave him a gentle smile.
"It preserves us. When those such as Pan deposited my people here these many, many centuries ago, we found ourselves on a world that was bleak and harsh to us. It was beautiful, as you see, and bountiful, but its bounty was poison to us. We could not eat the grains and fruits without sickening. The game was succulent and tasty but it did not nourish us. Within fifty revolutions of the sun we became aware that we were weakening as a people. The Goa’uld had abandoned us by then and did not return; we know not why. Perhaps he battled elsewhere. We knew we would die.
"That was when we discovered the stone. It was here, near the Chaapa-ai, where it sits now. An ancestor of mine discovered it in a cavern, and when he lifted it, a sense of well-being permeated him. He felt healthy and whole. As he held it, full of wonder, it glowed and bathed him in the light. The light spread out and touched us, and each one of us was healed as it warmed us. Although we have spread out to many settlements, each year every citizen must make a pilgrimage here to bathe himself in the light. That will sustain him in health. Without the Heart of the people, we would long ago have died away."
"Wow," breathed Ray, his eyes round. "That’s so nifty."
"Amazing," Egon agreed. "These readings indicate a form of pure energy. While it is psycho-kinetic, it possesses not one shred of negative energy. It either nullifies a harmful substance in what grows here or compensates for a missing element of nutrition. Intriguing."
"Does it change the people or simply protect them?" Sam asked. She scrambled to her feet and came to stand beside Egon.
"You mean it might have mutated us?" Peter squawked. He took a nervous step away from the now-invisible egg.
"No, Peter," Egon replied. "It merely offers energy. Energy fades in time, which is why the people of this world must travel here to replenish themselves. I think it has replenished us, but not in any harmful way. I feel quite energized. Even during the battle with the Casper, I felt quite strong."
Peter scrunched up his forehead. The faint, nagging headache left over from the ribbon device attack had vanished entirely. He still felt hot and sticky, and his muscles ached with normal fatigue after a very long day, one that wasn’t over yet, but the headache no longer plagued him. He glanced over at Daniel, who had lost a bunch of blood. He was standing straight and tall, and he didn’t look remotely dizzy. Selective cure-all, then. If it pumped you up so much that you didn’t feel tired when you should be, it would enable a guy to work himself to death. But maybe that was why everybody here looked so healthy. They had regular doses of whatever it was the "Heart" gave out.
"You do this all the time?" Jack asked with a wave of his thrower tip at the altar.
"No, for it is unnecessary," Socradon said. "We do it once every summer season, and that sustains us. To do it more often is not as ideal. We would have come to the Heart for sustenance in another six days in any case; it will not hurt us to do it early."
"Maybe it’s like the sarcophagus," Daniel ventured. "Using it once to save a life doesn’t do any harm, but using it regularly creates a dependency." His mouth tightened reminiscently. "And it changes you in ways you wouldn’t like."
"It is indeed like that, Daniel," Socradon confirmed. "We have learned how often we may safely use the Heart. For what we would consider an emergency, we can activate it more often, such as today. Yet we do not control it, save that it responds to us and to our need."
"Intriguing." Egon’s long fingers worked the meter. "I have never encountered a phenomenon like this before."
"It is unique to our world."
"It belongs to My Lord Pan," Ses’tac insisted. "Everything on this world belongs to Pan."
"No," said Daniel with the kind of gentle dig-in-the-toes stubbornness that would not be denied. "It belongs to itself and the people it sustains. I don’t think Pan could take it, even if he wanted it. He’s got his sarcophagus already that will do the same thing for him. But I think the stone responds to the people of Sounon."
"Besides, Pan is here only as long as Tho-Zeus allows it," Jack pointed out. He must have enjoyed mouthing off to a Jaffa, even if Ses’tac held the staff weapon firmly in his hand. Maybe Ray had made a mistake there.
Ses’tac stiffened resentfully. "We shall see."
Ray abandoned the altar and hurried over to the Jaffa. "Pan doesn’t need it," he said. "These people do. A god should be benevolent and protect his people."
Peter could almost hear Jack’s unspoken, "Yeah, right." What little Venkman knew of the Goa’uld proved that the well-being of the people on whom they imposed worship ranked waaaaay below the well-being of the Goa’uld himself. Pan had been petulant and self-centered. He wouldn’t care about the Sounons, not when he’d threatened to turn some of them into Jaffa. Sweet guy, Pan. Not.
Ses’tac stared at Ray as if he couldn’t believe what he’d said. His head shook. "You are a fool," he stated.
"No. I’m just saying the way it should be. I know it isn’t always. You aren’t greedy. You helped us and you mean to do your duty to your god. You’re an honorable man. I know another Jaffa who is very honorable. He made a choice to do the right thing. Anybody can do that. It just takes courage."
"Are you accusing me of cowardice?" spat the Jaffa.
"Gosh, no. It took real courage to stand here when the Caspers came, especially when you knew what it could do to you, what it did to your men. I think you’re very brave. I just don’t know how honorable you are."
"Don’t push it, Stantz," O’Neill grated out under his breath.
Ray glanced over at Jack and grinned at him before he turned back to Ses’tac. Sharing a fond, amused glance with Egon, Peter shook his head. It would never cease to amaze him the people—and ghosts—Ray could befriend.
That was when Egon’s meter shrilled so loudly that Peter involuntarily clapped his hands over his ears. O’Neill jumped and tried to pretend he hadn’t, but he stilled his involuntary reach for his gun and firmed up his grip on the thrower instead.
"Egon, you’ve gotta fix that meter so we don’t need hearing aids," Peter complained. "The other Casper?"
"Coming fast, Peter. And I suspect it is the most powerful of the three."
"Can we tempt it to the Hammer?" Sam asked from her place on the pavement beside the generator. She squinted up at the towering Hammer, wondering if maybe it had overloaded, too. Even if they could lure it there, the Hammer might not work until Thor reset it.
"Not with the throwers," Egon replied. "We can’t risk another overload."
"Quick, Ses’tac, stand behind me," Ray cried. He reached for his thrower and missed the startled look the Jaffa threw at him.
"Sam?" Egon called. "Is it safe for the rest of us to use our packs?"
She frowned. "The readings are still in the green zone. I’ll monitor the generator carefully."
"Daniel and Winston," Socradon said. "You have no weapons. Come with me to the altar and we will shield you."
"Can you shield Ses’tac, too?" Ray asked.
The Jaffa’s astonishment at the question made him take a long, level look at Ray, even as Socradon studied him. "You have done your part in this battle," Socradon said. "Come. The Heart will shield you."
"I do not run from danger," Ses’tac insisted.
"It’s okay, go," Ray told him. "We’ll have enough of a fight without having to guard you, too."
"I do not know that this device will serve a Jaffa," Ses’tac said.
"Hurry, it’s coming," Egon cried.
Daniel and Winston fell into place around the altar and hands came up to land on their shoulders. Ses’tac hesitated, then inclined his head to Ray in a gesture that held pure respect, and walked over to join them.
As the light from the people’s Heart burst into being, the final Casper came, and Peter sucked in his breath at the sight of it. This was going to be bad. Really bad.
"Holy mother...." Jack’s voice trailed off in disbelief.
The others had shown signs of mutation from the one on the ship, but this one had changed even further. It was bigger than the other two, more than three times as big as the original Casper on Thor’s ship, and it didn’t even look like old Casper any more except for the rather bulbous shape of its head. It had what looked like a naquada exoskeleton with only small portions of its inner ectoplasm exposed. What showed wasn’t white and transparent like a ghost but somewhere between flesh colored and a sickly green, like a guy the morning after a major kegger who had spent half the night worshiping at the porcelain god. This one had a face with actual eyes and a mouth, with panels of naquada creating planes and angles to simulate cheekbones and a chin. To enhance the alien appearance, its head appeared proportionally longer than a normal human one, the cheekbones jutting with unnatural angles. The eyes glinted metallically sort of like the eyes Geordi LaForge got on Trek after he was able to ditch his visor, only bigger with a huge black center. Looking into those eyes was like gazing deep into a pit; there was a hint of fire inside as if inner flames burned. The eyes of hell, Peter thought, and in spite of the beating heat of the sun, a chill shivered through his body.
Even worse than those hellish eyes was the mouth, a huge, gaping maw lined with razor-like naquada teeth exactly the same color as the Stargate. It created the impression of decay even as the sunlight caught the metal and reflected with a glitter that hurt the eyes. Those teeth could bite a guy’s head right off.
"Holy mutation, Batman," Ray burst out. Trust him to find a comic book image for something that was too dark for all but the darkest cartoons.
"Egon, can we stop that?" Peter screeched.
"With four packs?" Egon looked up from his meter, tucked it away in his pocket, and then had to grab for his glasses as they nearly slid right down his nose and off his face. Every one of them was dripping with sweat. Dehydration would get them any second now—assuming the final Casper let them live that long.
"Is that a no?" O’Neill demanded.
"It’s not precisely a yes." Glasses in place, Egon firmed up his grip on the thrower. "This is not good. Colonel, quickly, change places with Winston. We need his experience."
O’Neill looked like he didn’t relish the command, but he was a military strategist and he saw the logic of it. As the Casper circled them lazily, perhaps marking the order of his targets, Jack and Winston changed places, and Winston whipped himself into the pack. Fastest gear-up on record. Peter vowed to report him to the Guinness Book of World Records when this was over.
If it was ever over....
"Okay, what do we do?" Peter braced himself. He wouldn’t like the answer.
"Readings are holding level," Sam called.
"You will die." The voice came from the Casper, a deep, rumbling echo that vibrated through Peter’s bones. Yikes. None of the others had talked. Worse, the sound came out of the gaping mouth with no evidence of lip movement. Spooky effect.
"Uh, can’t we discuss this?" he called.
The Casper must have considered the question irrelevant; it ignored it completely. "You have changed us," it said. "You have created this change. Doing so gave a deeper awareness than before. We value this. You have ensnared some of us. This will not be. We shall destroy you and free them, then we will continue our conquest."
"Too bad we can’t mutate ‘em to play down the ego," O’Neill called from the background. Peter wasn’t looking in that direction—he couldn’t risk taking his eyes from the entity—but he could see the glow rising from the people’s Heart, the stone in the altar bowl. Would it protect itself? Could it stop the Casper? Peter didn’t see how it could. All it did was correct the dietary deficiencies in the people, offer them energy, and let them survive on a planet that had proven hostile to them.
Or was that really all it did?
"Egon?" Peter edged a step closer to the physicist. They lined in up a row with Ray to Peter’s left and Winston to Egon’s right. Four Ghostbusters against something that had no right to exist, that certainly had no right to be here. All those innocent people in their houses might not have naquada in their systems, but if the ugly mother kept changing, it might get to the point where it could eat any living thing.
"Power up," Ray called. "Ready, guys. Don’t let it get near—"
"Ray!" Winston cut across Ray’s words. "It understands us."
Ray nodded. "I know, Winston." He winked. "I just didn’t want it to get near the Hammer. It can draw power from it and that would be bad, y’know." He added hastily under his breath, "Like B’rer Rabbit."
Make it look like the last thing they wanted was for the entity to go to the Hammer? Would it work? How much subtlety did the thing have? Had the replicators possessed communication ability among themselves? Peter didn’t know enough about them to guess. Would it understand trickery?
It didn’t need to. "That device entrapped a part of us. We shall not approach it. You attempt deception. It is interesting to learn that flesh beings can deceive. Until now we believed they only fought for survival."
"They thought we weren’t intelligent," Daniel interpreted. His voice held awe, but Peter didn’t think it had anything to do with replicator smarts. Must be the glowy egg. Maybe if they figured out a way to stop the last Casper, they could turn Egon and his meter loose on the local phenomenon and figure it out.
But that was a pretty big if.
"Ready," Ray called. "Blast it!"
All four streams lashed out. The thing moved so fast that only Winston’s stream hit it and he had to shut down before he could hit the Stargate. That would not be good at all. With a mocking sound, the Casper soared skyward, riding the thermals up and up. Then, abruptly, it came down in a loop any World War II ace would have sold his soul to emulate, and zipped at the team, right through the inactive Stargate. It barely fit through, but it did. Coming in low, right over the DHD and the crouching Sam, it gave them no clear target and forced them to split up, Ray and Peter to one side, Egon and Winston to the other. As it passed, it shot out long, expanding arms and lashed at them. Peter backpedaled hard and ducked, but he still took a good solid whack across the stomach that doubled him over. As he wheezed for breath he saw Egon tumble to the ground, the thrower popping from his hands as he reached out to break his fall. Glasses crooked on his face, blood blossoming over his left eyebrow, he landed harder than Peter liked and blurted out a cry of pain.
No time for that. Ray and Winston fired at the retreating Casper and their streams hit it in the middle of its back. With a yelp of fury and determination, Peter fired, too, and he snagged it even as he struggled to catch his breath.
The fierce pulls the last Casper had used to free itself were nothing compared to the biggest of the lot. It nearly yanked the thrower out of Peter’s grip, and he had to tighten his grip so hard his fingers started to cramp. We’re in trouble here.
Egon staggered to his feet, settling his glasses with an unsteady hand. Peter wanted to yell at him to hurry, to fire at the Casper, but he could see that Egon was groggy and maybe not up to it. This was bad. As Egon fumbled for his thrower, the Casper yanked hard and towed the other three Ghostbusters a few steps past the boundaries of the square, out of range of the Hammer before it could home in on the rapidly moving entity. It took time for the device to kick in, evidently. Feeling like he was on a fishing boat being towed by a fish so big the line could snap at any second, Peter glanced around to look for other solutions. Breathing still hurt but the near winding had begun to ease, allowing him to risk deeper breaths. He sucked in lungfuls of the hot, steamy air. It smelled like ozone; too much energy floating around.
Under the DHD, Sam hunched over the reactor, her hair matted in sweaty little punk-rocker spikes. She manipulated her tools, working very hard, probably to increase the power. He wasn’t sure she could do it in time. He was nearly positive she couldn’t.
The Casper doubled back on them so fast there was no time to adjust the streams. Sam whipped up a trap the way a catcher held his mitt, but the trigger lay just out of her reach. With a muffled curse, she scrambled into a better position but by then it had passed her. In passing, one long arm whipped off and caught Ray a solid crack on the side of his head. The sound was too sharp and solid to be anything but deadly. He dropped like a stone.
Time slowed down for Peter then, as if everything that happened next happened in slow motion, the sound drawn out and protracted like a movie played at the wrong speed. The way Ray lay there sprawled, utterly inert, the color strange on his face, his mouth and eyes open spelled out his fate as clearly as a neon sign flashing in front of a funeral parlor. His chest didn’t lift in a quest for air. He was still.
"Ray!" Afterward, when his throat rasped, Peter realized the anguished scream had been torn from him. The ultimate torment was the fact that he couldn’t go to Ray, couldn’t start CPR, couldn’t do anything to bring him back. He had the Casper snagged, and he couldn’t let it go. How many more people would die if they didn’t stop it right now? Egon? Winston? Sam over there, frozen with her hands pressed to her mouth? Daniel and Jack? All the people on the planet?
The light from the people’s Heart flared like a beacon, flickered, and stabilized again. As Peter fought the kick of the thrower, as Sam made some finite adjustment to the reactor that upped the kick, as Egon gasped, "Dear God, Raymond," and Winston yelled, "Shit, shit, shit!" someone barreled past Peter in a flash of sodden leather armor. Ses’tac’s skullcap was gone, revealing a glassy bald dome like Teal’c’s, but he didn’t notice. He did what Peter couldn’t, went for Ray, flung himself down at Ray’s side, pressed questing fingers against Ray’s neck. Peter could tell from the Jaffa’s sagging shoulders that Ray was dead. When he yelled something in a language no one here but Daniel would likely understand, Peter knew without translation that he was cursing fate. Ray had befriended Pan’s first prime, and it seemed the Jaffa definitely knew the meaning of loyalty. His head bent as he knelt there at Ray’s side.
The way things are going, Ray, we’ll see you on the other side, Peter thought, his heart breaking. Just wait a few minutes, and we’ll be together again.
Ses’tac knelt in plain sight of the Casper, who nearly went berserk in an attempt to get to him. The Goa’uld symbiotes must be what upped the mutation. Maybe that was why the last Casper hadn’t come till now; it was mutating, and the delay had given it time to complete its changeover. Thinking of that when Ray lay there dead on the ground didn’t help. Nothing would help. Peter darted one glance at Egon, saw the great hollows in his eyes, eyes that glittered too brightly behind the sliding glasses. Peter blinked hard a couple of times to keep his own eyes from overflowing. As long as there was the slightest chance to take down the big motherfucker, Peter meant to do it.
But it was so hard to control the Casper’s movements. They didn’t have it stabilized and locked, not with only three throwers, not when the entity had grown so powerful. Even if Sam threw out the remaining traps now, Peter didn’t think they’d do the job and suck the entity in.
As if she had read his mind, she lobbed the other three into place, one after the other. Thud. Thud. Thud. They hit the ground beneath the entity, who paid no attention to it. All it wanted was Ses’tac’s symbiote, and it would drag Peter, Winston, and the still-bleeding Egon along with it in its fierce determination to devour yet another Goa’uld larva.
Totally ignoring the Casper, Ses’tac freed Ray from his proton pack, gathered him up into his arms, and rose holding him as if he weighed no more than a baby. He looked across the clearing at Peter. Overhead, the Hammer ignored him as if he weren’t even there. Peter couldn’t read the message in the Jaffa’s dark eyes, but the sight of Ray’s lolling body cut him like ice.
"Thor, can’t you do something!" Peter yelled. He didn’t know if any communicator was open, but it was worth a shot. The Asgard were supposed to be so powerful. Why couldn’t they stop the Caspers? Why had they dragged the Ghostbusters halfway across the galaxy so Ray could die on a remote planet impossibly far from home?
When the answer came, it didn’t come from Thor.
** *** **
Teal’c felt the muscles tighten in his shoulders as he watched the events on the planet below. Forbidden by O’Neill to join the rest of SG-1 on the surface, that message reinforced by the discovery of dead Jaffa who had been savaged by the Caspers, he still found it difficult, even painful, to stay safe on the ship when his companions faced such jeopardy.
He had not expected Thor to produce visual effects, but it seemed that the Hammer on the planet could also relay images to the Asgard ship. Thus was Teal’c able to observe everything that went on in the area of the Hammer. Observing his friends’ peril only intensified his need to join them.
Apophis had taught Teal’c that a command must be obeyed unthinkingly simply because it came from a Goa’uld. Bra’tac had taught Teal’c to think, to evaluate, to weigh an order, to determine if the giver demanded respect as well as obedience. Teal’c had come to realize Apophis was no god, that he was unworthy of respect and obedience.
O’Neill had taught Teal’c that even good people could give well-intentioned orders that might prove impossible to obey. From O’Neill, Teal’c had learned not insubordination but a form of enlightened questioning. He employed that now.
"With sufficient firepower, I could stand amid my companions with as much safety as they, and could also serve as the bait to draw the Caspers into range of their weapons," he pointed out.
"This is true," Thor agreed. "However, you might prove an unnecessary complication to O’Neill. The need for you may be greater later."
"The need for me is great now." Teal’c stood very tall, looking down at Thor, who looked as fragile as a child beside the Jaffa. Yet Teal’c did not make the mistake of threatening the Asgard. Even if O’Neill had not greatly valued and cared for this being, Teal’c would not have so demeaned himself.
"It is great," Thor conceded. "I have faith in O’Neill and the others. The...Ghostbusters show themselves to be brave and skilled. This will prove to my people that I am correct in my evaluation of the Tau’ri."
Did that mean Thor was testing those on the surface? They were all human, from Earth, and Teal’c was not. Did Thor envision complications from the Goa’uld Pan, who lurked in shelter while the people of the world faced the danger he was too cowardly to confront? Once again, Teal’c’s realization of the Goa’uld’s flawed nature was reinforced.
The sudden sizzle from the Hammer nearly destroyed communication. The screen fuzzed and blinked out for a moment. Thor manipulated his controls with no evidence of alarm, but then Teal’c found the alien face difficult to read. O’Neill could do it better, but O’Neill was down there in increasing jeopardy.
"The power will overload," Teal’c warned.
Thor ignored the comment. Perhaps he felt it irrelevant, or simply far too obvious to remark upon. Whatever he did cleared the screen. Teal’c watched in horror, unable to hear the entire audio of the incident. Too much loose energy on the planet’s surface brought static to the speakers. Muscles clenched tight, powerless to assist O’Neill and the others, Teal’c stood rigid and did not avert his face from the image. If the others died from this overload, the only debt Teal’c could pay now would be to stand witness to their destruction.
He could determine from the relaxation of the joined team’s muscles that the overload had aborted. The proton packs would not explode, although those worn by DanielJackson and WinstonZeddemore might not be used again. MajorCarter gave her attention to the naquada reactor and eventually PeterVenkman and EgonSpengler trapped the Casper that had not been deflected by the Hammer.
"One remains," Thor announced. "The Hammer has removed one. It will be unable to free itself. Of this I am certain."
"If only one remains, send me to the surface."
"I cannot. This battle is not for you."
Perhaps it was because he was Jaffa, like the Jaffa in the square. Would Pan’s first prime realize Teal’c’s identity? Had he been stranded here so long he would fail to recognize the shol’va?
Then the final Casper came, so huge and dangerous Teal’c whirled top Thor. "You must allow me to join my comrades. They will need assistance."
"You would endanger them. They would defend you rather than fighting the creature."
Teal’c gazed down at Thor. Overpowering the small Asgard would prove a simple matter, yet Teal’c could not harm an ally. O’Neill would never allow such an action. Perhaps subsequent events would alter Thor’s position.
Teal’c was forced to remain a silent witness to the terrible battle. RayStantz urged the first prime to the dubious shelter of the glowing altar. That Thor’s fascination for the altar could not be concealed indicated to Teal’c that it was a phenomenon unfamiliar to the Asgard. Although Thor protected this planet, he did not know its every secret. Would that alter the outcome of the battle?
"They fight bravely," he observed. "I would face the threat with them. I could stand with Pan’s first prime and fire from there."
"You could not," Thor replied. He did not explain his statement, but perhaps the energy field around the altar would prohibit the use of weapons.
Teal’c watched RayStantz fall and fail to rise again, and knew the human was dead. Although exclaiming in shock was not a part of his nature, he stiffened. The eager young human had been brave and loyal, a worthy ally. The devastation on the faces of his companions would have been humbling to him, but Teal’c knew of the sarcophagus Pan possessed. Should the others defeat the final Casper, surely RayStantz could be restored. Not even DanielJackson would deny him that right. Pan might try, but even Pan might prove reluctant to face down so many unfamiliar weapons.
"Again I ask you, transport me to the planet’s surface."
"Again I tell you, you must wait."
Teal’c’s jaw muscle bunched. I do not fail you by choice, O’Neill, he thought, and turned his eyes to the glow of the stone the natives, as well as O’Neill and DanielJackson protected.
Or did the stone protect them?
I do not fail you by choice. I would stand at your side, if I could.
** *** **
Daniel watched the battle against the final Casper in horrified revulsion. He hadn’t been in the replicator battle on the submarine with Jack and Teal’c. It was too soon after his appendectomy for him to be released for active duty. Instead, he’d witnessed the video images, realized how ghastly it must have been for Jack to go down under the creatures, so bad that he’d screamed for Daniel to blast the sub and kill him rather than face the death the replicators would deal out. Now the Ghostbusters faced something even bigger. Daniel and Jack possessed no weapons to use against it, not after the backlash from the Hammer. Instead they stood in the circle that guarded the altar. Daniel could feel the warmth of Jack’s hand upon his shoulder and the tightness of Socradon’s shoulder muscles under his own hand.
The glow from the people’s Heart would have fascinated him under other circumstances, the way it permeated him, flowed through him with such a sense of well-being that it almost made the horror of the Casper fade away. He was conscious of Jack, sensing his presence and the strength of him, full of awareness of Jack, and even of the other men who guarded the altar. It wasn’t as if he could read their minds or even their surface thoughts, but he could feel a strange warmth, a knowledge that held a different kind of intimacy, as if the men’s souls were open to him. Even the Jaffa, Ses’tac, gleamed like a beacon, bright and true, intent on the conflict, braced to act, although there was nothing he could do. The Casper ignored him, there in the circle of light, yet it hovered outside the brightness with little darting runs that tugged the Ghostbusters’ arms to and fro as they fought to guide it into range of Sam so she could throw out the traps.
The Hammer didn’t affect it, not when it swooped right past the device. Had the overload of the packs worked both ways? Had Thor, monitoring from above, shut it down to prevent another power surge?
Then the creature whacked Peter and Egon. Peter doubled over, the breath mostly knocked out of him, and a cut opened up on Egon’s head much like the one on Daniel’s. His own head pounded sympathetically, although the light had eased his headache almost as if it had never been.
When the Casper hit Ray on the side of the head, the noise of impact appeared shockingly loud. Jack sucked in his breath when Ray fell, and the sound was one of recognition, knowledge, and despair. It didn’t take Peter’s tormented scream to tell Daniel Ray was dead. He could feel it in the way Jack’s fingers tightened on his shoulder, so tight it felt like the fingertips would penetrate his flesh.
"Damn it," O’Neill muttered furiously. Daniel could sense the tightening of his muscles as he fought the urge to break free and fling himself into the battle. It just devastated Jack to lose someone in his command, and he liked Ray, which made it worse.
Daniel used his free hand to adjust his glasses. In the fierce afternoon heat, sweat flowed down his face. The air smelled funny, as if it sizzled with strange power, as if the universe held its breath.
When Ses’tac broke from the circle, Jack let out a wordless yell as the power ebbed, but the two men on either side of the Jaffa’s position closed the gap immediately and the warmth of the Heart flowed through them again. It didn’t ease the grief at Ray’s death; nothing could do that. But Daniel clutched at it with an inner sense he didn’t understand. He watched Ses’tac walk right into the gate clearing into the range of the Hammer, the Hammer that ignored his presence, and bent to Ray. What unusual bond had formed between those two was a bond Ses’tac meant to honor.
"Jack, I don’t think they can stop it," Daniel said urgently.
"We have to help. Those other packs—"
Daniel felt the fingers flex against his shoulder as Jack prepared to let go. The other packs might explode, that was why they lay there disassembled. That wasn’t the answer. There was still Ray’s pack, but even if Jack hurried over and put it on, or if Sam did, it might not be enough.
He wasn’t sure how he knew the answer, but suddenly he did, as if his urgent need, the Ghostbusters’ urgent need, had given it definition and resolution in his head. The power of it beat through him, steady and certain, and, even though unique and unfamiliar, natural, too, as if it had always been there, waiting.
"Ja-ack," he breathed, shocked and stunned.
"I know," said Jack. He didn’t have to vocalize it, either. The unity of the link created by the people’s Heart did all the explaining at a strange sub-vocal level. The Heart protected the people of Sounon, and the Casper the Ghostbusters fought to hold at bay threatened them. Until now, the crisis had been fought off successfully, but Jack’s doubt and Daniel’s that the throwers could hold off this vast new mutation trickled through to everyone around the altar—
—and to the consciousness at the heart of the faceted stone.
It was odd but even Jack, who did not like things weird and unexplained, simply accepted. Explanations, meanings, all without words, flowed between them. Daniel craned his neck so he could look Jack in the eye, and he saw acceptance, a touch of Jack’s natural skepticism and cynicism, his grim determination not to let the enemy win, and even a halfway blame for Ray, who had been, at least temporarily, a part of his team. Jack always insisted that nobody be left behind. Maybe it was too late for Ray but it wasn’t too late for anyone else, not yet.
And maybe it wasn’t too late for Ray, either.
Sam let the traps fly, one after the other. She couldn’t know what they meant to do, but maybe she thought if she triggered all of them at once, it might help. Daniel didn’t know if it would, but he was sure that what the stone meant to do would.
The stone’s voice wasn’t in words. It came in knowledge, understanding. As if Jack had barked out orders, every man in the circle let go of his near companion and turned in perfect unison to face the Casper as it tugged itself closer to Ses’tac and the dead Ghostbuster in his arms by dragging the other three Ghostbusters at the end of their particle streams. Instead of fishermen pulling in the catch, they had become the fish, played out by the Casper on three separate lines. Not one of them elected to yield. The grim determination on their faces announced to anyone who saw him that none would surrender, even if they died trying to stop the Casper. Daniel had seen that same determination on the faces of his own team more than once, and felt exalted by it.
Jack raised his hand the way he would if he held his sidearm and pointed it at the Casper, one finger extended like a small boy playing cowboys and Indians. Daniel couldn’t remember playing cowboys and Indians in his life; in Egypt on digs with his parents, there had been no such games, and during his foster-care phase, he was more apt to creep away with a book than to join in the games of other children, even though there had been times when he had watched them and wished that he had known how to join in. He’d never imagined he’d join in when the game was so deadly, so real.
Cowboys and Indians had never been part of the Sounons’ childhood, either, nor had guns, but it didn’t matter. Each man in the circle raised his arm and pointed at the Casper, some with their whole hands, palm outward, some by pointing a finger. Daniel saw Ses’tac notice them and a frown pucker the Jaffa’s forehead and make his tattoo twitch. He didn’t back away from the power he must have sensed in their unity, but he gathered Ray more closely against his chest and retreated, one step at a time. The Casper detected the movement and gathered itself to lunge after its prey.
"Now." Daniel heard the word spill from his lips and from Jack’s at the same moment, from every man in the circle, yet he knew none of them were actually speaking. The faceted stone in the altar bowl spoke through them, and it made their voices ring out like a Greek chorus.
"You do not belong to this world. You may not stay here." Only that, no more.
And then came the fire that flashed through them in pure white light pulsed through their bodies, flowed down their arms and out their hands, and lashed out and up at the Casper to add to the force of the particle streams. In spite of the brilliance of the glow that permeated him, Daniel saw Peter’s head turn in surprise, his mouth drop open. His jaw was tight and angry, and his eyes burned with a terrible grief just like the grief Daniel had seen in Jack’s eyes when Jack had been forced to leave him, dying of a staff weapon blast, on Klorel’s ship in orbit over Earth.
Hastily, Daniel averted his eyes from Peter’s suffering, made a point not to look at Egon or Winston, so he wouldn’t have to see the misery he knew would be mirrored there. Instead, he lifted his eyes to the struggling Casper.
Its agonized shriek pulsed through Daniel’s bones and sinews, but the Heart renewed him and blotted out the effect of that bone-melting cry. The Heart’s energy throbbed through Daniel like a benison, washing away anything unhealthy, anything inimical. The pure, positive strength of the light blended itself with the potency of the particle streams, matching the streams’ power and uniting with it seamlessly, naturally, almost as if every man in the circle wore a thrower. When the glow hit the Casper, it shriveled, shrank, wailing like an air-raid siren. The naquada exoskeleton melted before Daniel’s eyes, dripping away to patter against the stone pavement of the square, leaving little puddles of liquid naquada that ran away like quicksilver between the stones. Beside Daniel, Jack made a blurted sound of astonishment. "Holy...."
Sam scrambled out from under the DHD and raised one of her detection tools at the Casper, then turned it in the direction of the faceted stone. The fervor of her scientific curiosity illuminated her face to make her shine as bright, in her way, as the stone did. "It’s working," she cried.
"Yikes, it’s melting." Peter jumped sideways to avoid a dollop of liquid exoskeleton without losing his grip on the thrower or his lock on the Casper.
"The amount of power necessary to create such an effect is astronomical," Egon said. He tossed his head to keep his glasses from falling off. Sweat dripped off the end of his nose.
"Yet it’s an energy that doesn’t appear harmful to humans," Sam put in.
All the while the energy poured through Daniel he never felt like he was spending his own. It was as if his body was a chalice into which power poured and then spilled out again, self-replenishing. He was simply a conduit, no more, but the energy of the conduit spared him enough on the way to energize him and feed him the strength to endure it.
"Takes a licking and keeps on ticking," Jack muttered at his side. Was he actually reading Daniel’s mind? Somehow, in the intensity of the moment, it didn’t feel at all wrong if he could. They could halfway read each other most of the time anyway. Sometimes, like on Euronda, it didn’t help them to see eye to eye, but afterwards, they could step back, look each other in the eye, and find the bond that united them in spite of their differences. That bond shone so bright between them that Daniel blinked. It spread out from them to touch Sam, who was part of their family, and even reached out toward Teal’c, who couldn’t be with them in the crisis, but who was no doubt gritting his teeth overhead because Thor wouldn’t send him down to help.
A team was a team and a family was a family, even if they weren’t all together.
Daniel’s heart bled for the Ghostbusters.
As more and more of the exoskeleton melted away, the Casper’s tug against the throwers let up and Peter ran a few unnecessary steps before he realized. He planted his feet as if to drive them into the marble paving stones, his mouth in a tight, fierce line, his shoulders utterly rigid. Daniel could see the whiteness of his knuckles as he held onto the thrower. This bust was intensely personal for him, just as it was for Egon, for Winston. They took their stances, too. Egon’s meter made noises but he didn’t let go of the thrower to check them. "Sam?" he called.
She interpreted the question with no effort at all. "The physical elements are fading. Class Eight is dominating, but it’s weak. Class Eight at the lowest end of its scale. With the extra energy from the altar, you should be able to trap it in approximately ten point five seconds."
"Some approximation, baby," Peter called, but the endearment came automatically and without either heart or teasing. Sam winced, not at being called an irritating name, but at the ache of grief in Peter’s voice.
Egon counted down the seconds. Beyond him, Winston, as steadfast as a pillar in the wind, gnawed his bottom lip as he waited, ready to slam the final Casper into the trap. Sam glanced at the reactor’s readout screen, then jumped to her feet.
When Egon said, "Ten," she jumped on two of the traps with each foot as if she’d taken lessons from the Arthur Murray Dance Studio on perfect footwork. Daniel closed his eyes. The brilliance from the stone was balm and blessing, but the light from the traps burned, fire-like, against his retinas. Even with his eyes closed, he could see the glare of four traps activating at once.
The Casper didn’t utter a word or a sound as it vanished into the traps. Daniel imagined it pulling apart, separating into four component pieces, four ghostly replicators, and slipping in, unprotesting. Only when the whiteness faded against his eyelids did he risk slitting his eyes open.
The light had dimmed, including the light of the stone, leaving only sunlight, slanting in from the west to show that the day was winding down. The Casper had gone, and the three Ghostbusters had powered down their throwers. Winston still held his but the slam of sound as Peter holstered his proton rifle rang out obscenely in the abrupt silence. There was no triumph on his face at the conclusion of the successful bust, only grim satisfaction and a terrible grief. Again reminded of Jack’s face on Klorel’s ship, Daniel shivered.
Egon had tidily holstered his thrower and now he bent his head over the P.K.E. meter as if it were the only thing in the world he could hold onto. Winston moved toward him, touched his shoulder, said something in an undertone. Egon hunched his shoulders, but when Winston left his hand there, Egon bowed his head and let it lay.
Jack roared past Daniel like a train on a downgrade, and Daniel followed him automatically. To his astonishment, Jack went to Peter, who didn’t even notice, and clapped him on the shoulder. He didn’t say anything. Maybe he thought Peter would deck him if he tried to offer sympathy, and Peter probably would. He was so tightly wound that he jumped at the touch. As if the stone’s light had gifted him with an edge of the strange ESP Daniel had felt, he glanced at Jack for a split second, the pain in his eyes a living thing, then he said, "Yeah," in acknowledgment of Jack’s sympathy and turned away. "Ray...." he began, then his voice trailed off and he yelled, "Ray!" at the top of his lungs.
Everyone whirled to stare, but the place where Ses’tac had stood holding Ray in his arms was empty. Had the Hammer taken him, and Ray along with him?
"Son of a bitch," Peter yelled. "When I get my hands on that Jaffa-@
"Of which Jaffa do you speak, PeterVenkman?" Teal’c materialized out of a cloud of white light. By then, Daniel was so used to unexpected white light that he didn’t even jump.
That didn’t matter, though. Ses’tac had stood full in the range of the Hammer and remained untouched. Maybe it wasn’t even working after the overload. Instead Daniel grabbed Peter by the arm before he could explode. "Peter. Peter! The sarcophagus. Ses’tac would have taken him to the sarcophagus." He squelched the inner shudder he would always feel at mention of the resurrection device.
"Huh, what? Sarcophagus?" Peter echoed blankly.
"He’s running on empty, Daniel," Jack said in an undertone. He still had his hand on Peter’s shoulder, and now he slipped his arm around the Ghostbuster. "Venkman. Listen up. We saw Pan’s sarcophagus. Those things can bring people back from the dead." He hesitated, because the fact that the sarcophagus might be able to save Ray was dependent on Pan’s permitting it. The Ghostbusters had captured the Caspers, but Goa’uld weren’t big on gratitude. They took such actions as their due.
"Back from the dead?" Peter echoed.
"Of course, Peter." Egon stood there, his hair hanging down in his eyes, blood caking the side of his face, but Jack’s words had squared up his shoulders.
"It can save Ray?" Winston sounded doubtful. Maybe the Ghostbusters has never had a chance to play the resurrection game.
"It saved me," Daniel said simply.
Peter hesitated only one more second, then he set off across the square at a dead run. The other two Ghostbusters pounded after him.
"Come on," Jack said to Teal’c as the Jaffa fell in with them. "I’ll explain on the way."
"I observed what happened from Thor’s ship, O’Neill. He would not allow me to join you until now, although he disabled the Hammer after the overload."
So that was why Ses’tac had not been taken, why the final Casper had swooped about the gate area with impunity. Daniel was glad of the explanation, but right now it wasn’t important. They could clear up their questions later.
Conscious of Socradon running behind them and people emerging from their homes and converging on the square, he hurried after the Ghostbusters.
** *** **
"My lord, I crave an indulgence."
Pan glanced at the body his first prime held in his arms. "You would have me resurrect this human?" He had observed the battle in the square, seen the man fall, and spared no concern for him except for the fear that one less fighter might cause the battle to go the wrong way. When Ses’tac had run out into the square to retrieve the body, risking the threat of the Hammer for him, Pan had considered the victim more closely. Looking at Ses’tac now, he saw stubborn determination as well as entreaty in the face of the Jaffa. Ses’tac had always been loyal but never obsequious. He did his duty because he believed it right, believed Pan was his god, which was proper. But he had done his duty intelligently, through an informed choice. Sometimes Pan thought that made him dangerous, at others he believed it granted the first prime greater strength to serve him. He had been genuinely pleased to know that Ses’tac had survived the creatures that had slain so many of his Jaffa. Now Ses’tac stood tall and urgent, proving that the loyalty he felt was an intrinsic part of his nature. The human had tried to protect him, had accepted him when other humans turned away in fear and loathing. Perhaps a remarkable human, one capable of leading a revolt against Pan and all the Goa’uld stood for.
Yet this human was one of Thor’s messengers, not a native of Sounon. Thor might save the human himself, but if Pan did it, Thor would be in his debt. The Asgard would be in his debt. Perhaps Thor would remove him from this planet, which had begun to tire him, or allow him to safely pass before the Hammer to travel through the Chaapa-ai.
"This human fought to protect you, my lord. He is brave and courageous, and he treated me with respect, not out of fear of retaliation but out of an inner strength. I value him."
Pan did respect courage, although it could be annoying in a rebellious slave. In Thor’s messenger, it was a virtue, however. "I grant your indulgence," he said. "You may save this human."
"Thank you, my lord." Ses’tac approached the sarcophagus with the human in his arms and activated it.
The human would go away again when he had been returned to life. Ses’tac would remain. Pan’s indulgence might make the Jaffa more loyal than before. Sometimes, a god could be indulgent, especially to a Jaffa of courage.
** *** **
The outer airlock door stood open when Peter reached it and he plunged through without hesitation, his friends on his heels. Daniel could tell what he was thinking. Could it be true? Was there a chance for Ray? Even if a sarcophagus had brought back Daniel a part of him was afraid to hope. Another one had also addicted him to the device, but that was after repeated uses. Daniel shivered. Ray would only use it once and another one would probably never come his way. Peter would even risk that if only it would bring Ray back.
"Peter?" Egon fell in at his side as they reached the closed inner door. "You have met Pan. Will he permit this?"
"Peter drew his thrower. "He’ll permit it," he said through gritted teeth.
The inner door opened silently, and Pan’s voice came to meet them. "Weapons will be unnecessary here. You may enter."
Peter led the way in warily, and Daniel saw him checking out the ribbon device on the Goa’uld’s hand. Then he looked past Pan to the sarcophagus on the far side of the room. It was shut up, just like it had been the first time they had come here, but Ses’tac stood beside it, his face intent. When the Ghostbusters and SG-1 crowded into the Goa’uld’s antechamber, he turned to face them. "I have placed Ray in the sarcophagus," he said. "It will restore him."
"You sure about that?" Winston challenged.
"I am—" His voice broke off as he spotted Teal’c. "Jaffa of Apophis. What has brought you here?"
"Thor has brought me here," Teal’c replied, deliberately taking the words literally.
"I know this Jaffa," Pan put in. "It is Teal’c, the shol’va." He sneered at Teal’c, who stood tall, his head raised proudly. "So, Thor’s messengers are the people of the Tau’ri. This interests me."
Peter opened his mouth, probably to ask if that meant Pan wouldn’t let the sarcophagus complete its work, but Jack poked him in the side to shut him up. Peter closed his mouth, but he shot a resentful glare at Jack before he turned his attention back to the sarcophagus.
"How do you know about Teal’c?" Daniel asked. "If you can’t risk the Stargate because of the Hammer?"
"I have other means of communication which I shall not share with you. I am a god." His voice rumbled and his eyes glowed. Daniel saw Winston stare at him doubtfully.
Egon stood beside the sarcophagus, his meter in hand, talking urgently to Sam in low tones. She replied equally softly, probably explaining what the sarcophagus did. She wouldn’t be able to explain how. Not even Sam had figured that out. Whether Egon’s readings would help or not Daniel didn’t know, although he doubted it. That wasn’t the meter’s function.
Ses’tac frowned at Teal’c and then chose to ignore him, placing himself at the side of his god. It had taken Daniel time to learn to believe in Teal’c, to see the good in him, the strength in him. Most of the time, he had to depersonalize Jaffa, or it would have been impossible to shoot them indiscriminately on missions. He couldn’t depersonalize Ses’tac now, not after he had repaid Ray’s friendship and support so open-handedly. Yet he knew the next time SG-1 might encounter the Jaffa and his Goa’uld, they would be on opposite sides and might have to kill each other. It made Daniel uneasy.
Jack took a step away from Venkman, which brought him to Daniel’s side. He cocked his head and arched an eyebrow.
Daniel produced a crooked grin. Jack knew him far too well.
"How long will the process take?" Egon asked the Goa’uld. He turned and looked at him expectantly. That was when Daniel realized there was some degree of air conditioning in Pan’s refuge. The sweat had dried on Egon’s face, although his hair still hung in limp tangles. The blood from the scalp cut was drying out, too.
"Jack," Daniel urged under his breath. "Do you still have the first aid equipment?"
"One step ahead of you." Jack produced it and went to Egon, which made Peter look up sharply from the sarcophagus.
"Spengs, you okay?"
"The wound is tender, but I don’t have a headache. It’s merely a cut, Peter."
"It better be. Jack, check him out, willya?"
"Must be an egghead wound," Jack reported after a second. "It’s almost a perfect match for yours, Daniel. We’ll turn Fraiser loose on Spengler, too."
"I assure you I have no need of Doctor Fraiser’s services," Egon said automatically. He kept trying to turn to face the sarcophagus, and finally Jack grabbed him by the chin and positioned his head so he could mop away enough blood to see the wound. Pan watched, then he gave an exasperated sigh and impatiently produced his healing device. For a Goa’uld, he could have been far worse.
"What are the intentions of the Asgard?" Pan asked Teal’c.
"Thor has informed me of his plans." Teal’c stood at attention as he gave his report, not out of any loyalty to a Goa’uld but because he was performing an assigned task. "This world is not your place. While the Hammer is disabled, you may use the Chaapa-ai, you and any surviving Jaffa. Thor reports three others have survived and even now return to this location."
"If I do not leave?" Pan asked, laying on the arrogance with a trowel.
"Thor will relocate you—and report your location to the System Lords. This planet is protected by treaty. He will overlook your presence here no longer, but as your presence is not the fault of the people here, he will not allow the System Lords to come for you here. Thor agrees that you may take your property with you."
"His graciousness astonishes me." Each time Pan opened his mouth he elevated sarcasm to a higher art form.
"Shall you depart?" Thor’s filtered voice filled the room. Teal’c held up the communicator he had carried.
"I cannot depart until the sarcophagus completes its task," Pan gritted out. "My first prime would never forgive me."
"That is satisfactory."
Behind Daniel, a familiar grating sound announced the opening of the sarcophagus. He whirled to watch. Peter, Egon, and Winston crowded in close, and SG-1 joined them around the device. The spreading wings revealed Ray Stantz, lying peaceful and still, rather like a corpse on a bier.
Peter sucked in his breath. "Ray? Talk to me, Ray?"
"Raymond?" Egon pleaded.
"Come on, Ray, wake up." Winston gripped Egon’s and Peter’s shoulders. They all bent forward expectantly.
Ray blinked and opened his eyes, then he yawned and stretched like a man waking from a relaxing nap. "Well, gee," he said in surprise. "What’s everybody staring at me like that for? Where am I? What’s going on?"
With whoops of triumph, his friends mobbed him, and Jack grabbed Daniel by the arm and drew him backward to allow the Ghostbusters their joyous reunion.
** *** **
"I’ve gotta say," Peter Venkman said with a sated grin, "there’s nothing like a good feast." He leaned back on his bench and stretched, and inelegantly rubbed his stomach.
"For once, I have to say I agree with you, Venkman." Evidently mellowed by the celebration, Jack O’Neill actually threw a smile in Peter’s direction.
Amused, Egon caught Daniel’s eye, although he wasn’t at all surprised that Peter and Jack had finally found grounds for agreement. The banquet Socradon had promised had just ended, a joyous celebration for the people of Sounon, who proclaimed themselves delighted to be rid of the Caspers and the Goa’uld in one fell swoop. They had outdone themselves in the food department. The specialty pies of the people had gone down well: sizzling meat pies in rich pastry shells, a local poultry wrapped in vine leaves, a food not unlike potatoes, baked in the skins and popped open to be laden with exotic spices and a dribble of butter, alien fruits and vegetables, and for dessert, fruit pies with unfamiliar but delicious fruits in vivid reds and yellows. Egon and Sam had tested all the food and determined that, while it looked and smelled delicious, it offered nothing that would harm the two teams. It wouldn’t provide remotely as much nutrition as a similar meal back home, which was why the Heart was needed to sustain the people here, but it wouldn’t make them ill or do any damage to them. Knowing that, the eight of them sat down with the locals to dine. Thor, in his position as Zeus, their god, didn’t come down to join them, and none of the Sounons expressed the least surprise at his absence.
Egon, Ray, and Daniel asked questions about the Heart of the people. "How did you learn of it?" Daniel wanted to know.
"It came to us of its own accord," Socradon explained. "The people sickened and weakened and we feared the gods had abandoned us. One day a shepherd searched for lost sheep and discovered a cavern. The Heart lay there on a ledge, glowing faintly. Fascinated, the shepherd picked it up, and the moment he touched it he felt so well and strong that he proclaimed it a miracle and returned with it to the city. We had only the one then. It had begun well; we had constructed many of the structures you see, including the ones that have since collapsed. As we weakened, we lost the ability to maintain them and not so many people were born. We let the outer part of the city fall into disrepair.
"But the Heart changed everything. Our elders and scholars studied it and soon learned that it could restore us. It is aware. Some would call it a living being. It communicates with us."
"I felt that during the battle with the Caspers," Daniel admitted, and Jack gave a wary nod.
"A pet rock with a difference," he muttered.
Egon felt his eyes widen. "Did it speak to you in words?"
"Wow," cried Ray. "That’s so great." Beside him, the Jaffa Ses’tac, the only one of Pan’s people to actually sit down at the main banquet table, listened for all he was worth. Would he report back to Pan the value of the stone?
Socradon saw Egon’s doubtful glance. "Do not worry," he said softly. "The Heart will not leave us. Others before have tried to remove it, and it would not go. It is truly the heart of Sounon, as well as the heart of the people. It can protect itself. Thieves have tried before to steal it, and they have been found before it, unmarked but quite dead."
Ses’tac’s mouth tightened. "My lord Pan has no need of stones to enhance his power."
"It belongs here," Ray told the Jaffa earnestly. "You’ll be out there with Pan, finding a whole new world. That’s got to be so exciting."
Ses’tac stared at him as if he still couldn’t believe a man like Ray existed. "Never fear, Ray," he said. "I have felt the power of the heart myself. Although my god would value it, he would not value or need it as the Sounons do. I could feel it was not for Jaffa. It tolerated me, no more."
Jack rolled his eyes. The presence of the Jaffa had made him keep his P-90 handy during the meal, while the Ghostbusters had sent their proton packs up to Thor’s ship. Sam still had the naquada reactor with her; she’d said something about allowing it to charge down before teleportation. Teal’c, of course, came complete with staff weapon, his demeanor all the more stiff and determined because of the sneers Pan had flung at him. Interesting to see how his team had rallied round and stood at his side, projecting loyalty and support every time Pan glanced in Teal’c’s direction.
The wine offered to top off the banquet tasted like pure nectar and ambrosia. When women in green-edged robes had circulated to pour out the wine from beautiful amphorae that had Daniel salivating—at the amphorae, not the contents—Peter had jumped in and warned Egon not to drink any due to his head injury. Egon had smiled, reminded him that Pan had used his healing device on both Egon and Daniel. Thor’s presence overhead might have prompted him, but he had still done it. Egon found the process intriguing. He would have loved to study the healing device, but Pan was not forthcoming. Never mind. Sam had one back at the SGC. Perhaps she would allow Egon to take readings of it on a future visit to Cheyenne Mountain.
The Sounons had not invited Pan to the banquet, but he had come anyway, and the locals were still accustomed to regarding him as a minor god, so they offered him up a share of culinary offerings. His remaining Jaffa, all cleaned up and wary of the Ghostbusters and SG-1, had fetched him his share of the banquet and carried it a short distance away to a table they prepared for him to eat in isolated splendor, his guards around him. They helped themselves only after their lord was satisfied. Egon suspected Pan had allowed Ses’tac to eat with Ray simply in the hopes of gaining information.
"First time I ever sat down to eat with a Goa’uld," Jack muttered with a baleful glance at Pan’s table.
"Let’s hope it’s the last," Peter countered. He stayed as far away from Pan as possible, and as close to Ray. Egon could understand that. He and Winston shared the impulse as well, especially since Ray chose to sit beside Ses’tac, plying him with eager questions about life as a Jaffa. Egon considered that risky. Teal’c could provide the same information far more safely, but Ray liked Ses’tac, and Egon had to admit the Ghostbusters owed the Jaffa for taking Ray’s body to Pan for healing, and for serving as bait to lure in the Caspers.
When the banquet ended, it was time for the Goa’uld to depart. Thor sent down a message to remind him that the Hammer would not rearm until the Goa’uld departed, but that Thor would take it up with the System Lords if Pan failed to go. Pan had snarled a bit, but he had decided discretion was the better part of valor.
The Goa’uld had, of course, taken his sarcophagus with him, which was probably just as well, although Egon would have liked to study it longer. It had done its task, restored Ray to them, given them the greatest gift it could possibly give. No amount of readings would ever enable him to duplicate the process, at least not with the current state of Earth science, but perhaps that was as well considering the addictive nature of the healing chamber. One use hadn’t addicted Ray, but owning a sarcophagus would be far too tempting, if not for the friends of the victim, for the government. Far better to avoid such complications. Ray was alive and well, and that was what mattered.
Ray stood at the foot of the gate ramp to say goodbye to Ses’tac, and Peter hastened to stand protectively behind him. Ray didn’t even hesitate to approach them. Instead he thrust out his hand at Ses’tac, human fashion. The Jaffa looked at it, then he reached out and clasped Ray’s wrist. Hastily adapting his grip to match, Ray tightened his grip.
"You were great," he told the Jaffa. "Facing the Casper like that."
"You defended me," Ses’tac replied.
"Well, gee, yeah. We were on the same side." He glanced over at Pan. "I sure hope you treat him well. He’s one of the good guys."
Pan looked down his nose at Ray, but he didn’t quite sneer. "He has served me well," he conceded, words that made Ses’tac straighten his spine.
Ray smiled at the Goa’uld. Only Ray.... Then he let go of Ses’tac’s wrist and took a step backward, beaming. Egon couldn’t remember Teal’c smiling, but Ses’tac did, fleetingly. Then he turned, fell in it his Goa’uld’s side, and marched with him up the ramp.
When the Goa’uld and his remaining Jaffa stepped through the event horizon, leaving Sounon forever, Peter slung his arm around Ray’s shoulders and guided him back to the feast.
"Gosh, that was great," Ray said with a huge grin and flopped down on his banquet bench. "The whole thing was great."
Peter’s eyes held a flash of fleeting shadows. "It turned out great," he conceded. "There were parts I wasn’t crazy about."
"Yeah, hate to say we owe a Goa’uld this time around," Jack muttered. He glanced at Daniel’s head, where the wound from the Casper’s blow had completely vanished.
As the sun crept below the horizon the blazing heat of the day had faded, and one of the locals had gone about lighting flaming torches all around the square. The pungent odor of the oil they burned permeated the gate plaza. Egon saw moths, or at least local insects that resembled moths, darting about in little circles near every light. He would have liked to examine one. There were so many things on this world he would have liked to investigate. A few readings of the heart would not have gone amiss, but it had reverted to its inactive status, and he would have to content himself with sorting out the recorded data in the meters. Daniel had spent the banquet asking an endless string of questions about the Sounons’ culture, their history, their knowledge of the Goa’uld, the oral tradition of their arrival here. He dictated everything he could into a small tape recorder. Egon hoped that, later on, he would be allowed some of the information gathered.
But now it was time to depart and Socradon stood with them near the gate, his people gathered around to speed the travelers on their way. "We thank you for your help, Messengers of Zeus."
"It’s what we do," Peter said brightly. "And come to think of it, we couldn’t have done it without you and your people." He grinned down at the boy Petra, who hovered worshipfully at his side, and rumpled the boy’s dark curls. Petra glowed.
Socradon beamed at the two teams from Earth. "Nor could the heart have defeated the creatures without the assistance of your special equipment. This I know, for I have felt the heart’s inner speech since I was a child. Just as my son has begun to hear it. We worked together, and this confirms to us the great understanding of Zeus. He did not come and strike the entities down as we know very well he could. He challenged us to do what we could do to help his messengers."
Egon could see the knowledge in the headman’s eyes, that Socradon knew Thor wasn’t a god any more than Pan was, simply a more powerful being. He would not share that awareness with his people because they were not yet ready to be cast adrift. That time would come; the race would mature and learn the truth about Thor. Daniel had explained the tests Thor had placed before the people of Cimmeria to prove they were ready to take their first steps into the galactic community. The Sounons were not yet ready, but they were nearer than they had been. The knowledge they could work together to help their ‘god’ protect them had given them strength and courage, and confidence in themselves. Egon would like to come back in a few years and see how conditions had altered on the planet, see how the Sounons had grown.
"That’s what Zeus does," Daniel told Socradon earnestly. "He protects his people, but he does not overprotect them. If he did that, your people could not find the strength to mature."
"We will derive strength from this," Socradon agreed. "Everyone felt the heart. It was not just the strength of the stone and those of us around the altar that helped you to defeat the Casper. It was the will of every woman, man, and child in our settlement, and even some of us from further afield." He rocked on his heels with an air of conscious pride.
The communicator Teal’c carried squawked to life. "This is Zeus," Thor announced. "People of Sounon, you have done well. Now that the Goa’uld has departed, I have restored the Hammer to protect you from new arrivals of Goa’uld and Jaffa. You will be safe. The time has come for my messengers to return to me." Since Teal’c stood safely within the Hammer’s range, Egon assumed Thor had altered it to prevent it from harming one particular Jaffa. Maybe Thor planned to make final adjustments once the landing party returned to the Asgard vessel.
Jack made a grab for any loose equipment and Sam clutched the naquada reactor to her breast. Egon carefully did not look at it. The reactor, yes. The breast, no. Not with Peter right there, eyes bright, noticing everything.
Then, not being one to mess around, Thor teleported them to the ship. The last memory of Sounon for Egon was the gasps of surprise and wonder as the light took their visitors and carried them away.
"Gosh, I love the teleport," Ray burst out as the eight of them solidified on the Asgard vessel. "That was so great."
Winston nodded in agreement. "Man, I never thought I’d get to do the ‘beam me up, Scotty’ number."
Ray grinned a mile wide. "It’s so cool."
Peter draped a fond arm around Ray’s shoulders. All three of Ray’s friends had hovered around him since his resurrection. Looking at him bouncing around cheerfully, watching him say his fond farewells to his Jaffa friend, he had seemed so normal it was hard to believe he’d been dead only a few hours earlier.
"Ray, you are one in a million," Peter proclaimed.
"Gosh, Peter, I’m just me."
"I know. And that’s what we love about you." Peter didn’t usually go around babbling about love, especially in front of someone like Jack O’Neill, but tonight all rules had been thrown out the door. Egon glanced over at Jack, and surprised a tolerant smile on the colonel’s face.
Ray’s cheeks reddened slightly. "I’m okay, Peter."
"He really is," Daniel assured them. "It really does work."
"What did it feel like?" Winston asked. "Being dead, I mean?" When Peter’s brow lowered, he opened his mouth to take the words back.
Ray said hastily, "It’s okay, Peter. I don’t know what it was like to be dead. I felt the Casper hit me and it hurt and then everything just went away, and the next thing I knew, I was waking up in the sarcophagus. No bright light, no near-death experience. Just like passing out and waking up cured."
Egon was glad of that. He had imagined enough unpleasant scenarios to know the memories would likely turn into nightmares to rouse him from sleep for the next few nights. Much better for Ray if he didn’t have to remember the possibility of seeing his loved ones waiting for him on the other side. Egon might talk to Daniel later, but perhaps that would be insensitive, in the face of Daniel’s unfortunate experience with the sarcophagus. Better not.
Thor had not yet arrived from wherever it was he manipulated the controls. Egon smiled at Ray, made sure he wasn’t about to take off somewhere and start touching things that could blow up or disintegrate them, then he turned to Sam. "Would you like me to carry the reactor for you?"
The minute he spoke, he was conscious of Peter and Jack watching him. The sheer delighted amusement on their faces made him want to shrivel up and die. Winston turned hastily to Ray and made some casual comment to him about the Caspers—tactful of Winston. Daniel fiddled with his tape recorder. Teal’c, of course, remained stolid, although Egon thought he surprised a flicker of comprehension in the wise dark eyes.
Sam set the reactor down on a nearby outcrop. "I’m fine. But thanks." She hesitated, took a deep breath, and plunged into speech. "Egon, I’ve been meaning to ask you, and there’s simply been so much going on that I never got the chance. How is Janine?"
Egon froze where he stood. He knew what the question meant, not only a reminder of the woman back home but a gentle means of informing Egon that there was no point in taking the attraction any further. In essence, Sam was saying, "I’m your friend, Egon. I’ll stay your friend, and that’s all."
Peter instantly pretended he was a thousand miles away, and Jack made Daniel sit down so he could check the no-longer-necessary dressing on his head. Tact from the two least tactful members of the teams somehow added insult to injury. Egon swallowed, then he gave Sam a small regretful smile. "Very much resenting the fact that she lacked the security clearance to come along," he admitted. The realization of how glad he was that Janine had been safe from the Caspers was a wonderful restorative of perspective. Sam might be an ideal, but she wasn’t his ideal. She was his friend and fellow physicist, and that was what she would remain. Janine was his friend and possibly more. If Peter told her of Egon’s brief madness, his name would be mud.
"Knowing Janine, she would probably have handled one of the Caspers single handed," Sam said with a smile. She reached out as if to pat Egon on the arm, then very delicately drew her hand back, just short of the touch.
"Or talked it to death," Peter threw in. "You’re up there in the lab back home, Spengs. I’ve only got a filing cabinet between Janine and me. Believe me, she takes full advantage of it to give me a hard time."
"Which you fully deserve," Egon reminded him.
Peter preened himself. "Yeah, I work hard at it." He looked past Egon. "Thor. There you are. Hey, Thor, Egon got a whack on the head and so did Daniel. Pan did his healing number on them, but I know from experience it doesn’t quite take away headaches. Is there any super-duper Asgard aspirin that will fix them up?"
"There is," Thor agreed. He managed to appear completely unimpressed with Peter, to Peter’s dismay. "Come with me."
Jack got a grip on the back of Daniel’s neck and steered him along in the Asgard’s wake, Sam and Teal’c hurrying to catch up, and it was left for Egon’s friends to fall in beside him, Ray chatting happily all the way as he exclaimed at every one of the spaceship’s features.
"Gosh, I wish I could tell the guys in my comic book club back home about this," he said with a delighted smile. "They’d never believe it."
"Stantz," Jack protested automatically. "Forget it. Lips are sealed, remember?" He glanced over his shoulder at Ray. "Well, you’d probably explode if anybody sealed your lips. But let’s remember the meaning of the word ‘classified’ here."
Ray beamed at him. "Well, I know I can’t tell anybody," he said. "But I still think it was neat that we got to save a whole planet. Wow, that must have been great when the Heart of the people melted the exoskeleton. I sure wish I could’ve seen it. When we get home, you guys have got to tell me every single thing you remember about it. It’s got to be so great."
Peter draped the arm that wasn’t around Ray’s shoulders around Egon’s, and Winston slid in beside Ray. Ahead of them, SG-1 matched each other’s steps without the slightest hesitation as if in formation. Jack gave Daniel’s shoulder a light cuff, arched an eyebrow at Carter, and muttered, "Come on, T, let’s move out."
Ray’s excited babble filled the corridor, a happy sound they had nearly lost. But they had him back. They had everybody back safe and sound.
In spite of losing the fleeting dream of Sam, Egon Spengler felt on top of the world.
With a faint chuckle as he caught a glimpse out a passing porthole, he realized that, this time, it was the literal truth.