Having left Beck and Kern guarding the
'Gate, the rest of SG-24 continued their journey to the town. They passed
small, neat fields edged by high hedges. Looking through the hedges in places,
they could see ripening grain crops almost ready for harvesting, and in other
places, the local inhabitants were finishing haymaking. Half-way towards the
town, a broad shallow river meandered quite close to the road on the left-hand
side. In the water meadows on either side of the river, reddish-brown cattle
were grazing. Occasionally, small clusters of farm buildings could be seen. It
looked positively idyllic. Nobody said so but each was wondering where the
As they strode along the roadway, Maxine, along side J,
remarked, "I wish we had zat guns."
"What? More like a real space gun?" J teased, and got
his arm batted. Quite hard. The closer they were coming to meeting another
civilization, the more Maxine's own personal demon was niggling at her.
"No! I meant, you could shoot people without killing
"Oh." J felt a missing jigsaw puzzle piece fall into
place. "That why you...? Erm, was that the reason you were a little...
let's say, uptight in weapons training?"
Maxine dropped her head and focused on where she was putting
"So despite what you did to our esteemed Captain Beck,
you're not a natural born killer?"
That surprised a weak chuckle out of her. She became serious
again. "That wasn't the same thing at all. I knew I could bring him
"Well, now that he's - ooh - a couple of miles away - I
hope! - there shouldn't be any need for any shooting." J gave her a
"Let's hope not."
"I suppose all the SGCs zats were buried in the
collapse?" Theo surmised. "I mean, they must have some idea where
they are, surely?"
"Well, twenty eight went missing in 2064. Surviving
members of the missing teams presumably took them when they left during the
attack on the old Alpha site and I guess whoever, or whatever, raided the base
took the rest," J said. "From what I'm told about the ones in the
armory - well, judging by the mess that was reported when they reopened the
Cheyenne Mountain Complex - it seems that collapsing rocks caused some of the
zats to fire. The electrical discharge is believed to have set off a batch of
"Messy!" Luc exclaimed.
"They excavated the whole section and cleared everything
out. Didn't want any more unplanned explosions once the SGC had been
re-commissioned. None of it was salvageable."
"Pity," Maxine sighed.
Soon they could see the town ahead.
"Hm, interesting," Theo remarked, scoping around with
mini-binoculars. J looked a question and Theo explained. "The road we're
walking along is paved with limestone slabs. They didn't come from the
mountains in the north-west. Furthermore, the finish on these stones looks to
be a higher standard than the ASP photos of the town would lead us to expect.
The barbican up ahead is also limestone, but a different type and also not from
those mountains. The curtain wall round the town looks to be made of red
"But it's pink!" Maxine said.
"Red sandstone varies in color from pink to dark red,
depending on the constituent proportion of ferric oxide in it," Theo said,
scowling at his cousin. "And if you add manganese to the mix, it can look
purple. Ish. Whatever. It didn't come from those mountains either. The question
is, where did the locals import these rocks from? Some source beyond the range
of the ASP? Or off-world?"
"Another question is, who worked the stone?" J said.
"Because it must have taken a lot of labor to work and lay all these
pavers, and I didn't think the town was all that big. We could really
have done with a wider ASP scan of the area to know where other towns are,
because there have to be more towns, don't there, Maxine?"
"I would say so, yes. But, given that the only road we've
seen runs from the 'Gate to that town... You know, I have a bad feeling about
"You have bad feelings about everything, Max," J
grinned. Then took a step backward as Maxine, a couple of steps ahead, whirled
round, green eyes flashing.
"My name is Maxine. Nobody calls me Max!" she
"Not and lives anyway," Luc observed sotto voce.
"Sorry, my fault," Theo said, pulling his cousin into
a hug. "I should've warned you."
"No, my fault. I shouldn't have taken a liberty."
"S-sorry," Maxine said when she'd calmed down and
stopped shaking. "Guess I'm just a little... uptight. I don't usually
react like that."
"Much," Theo grinned. "Though I do
remember that time when-- Erm, stumm, Maxine, definitely stumm," he
backpedaled, heeding the green warning.
"Ohh-kaay, moving on," J said, taking point.
Fifteen minutes later, they were approaching the town's
barbican. The grayish limestone, had an odd appearance against the pinkish red
curtain wall. The latter had half-hearted quality, being only about nine or ten
feet high. It also lacked a moat and both crenelations and machicolations.
Basically, it was just a wall. The barbican, on the other hand, clearly meant
business, and was pitted in places with what looked like mortar fire.
Outside, on either side of the arched gateway into the town,
two guards wearing helmets and breastplates and bearing halberds stood to
attention. Luc was pretty sure he could see arrows poking through a number of
loopholes above them and warned the rest of the team. As they reached the
gateway, the two guards crossed their halberds to deny them entrance.
"Halt! Who goes there? Friend or foe?"
Maxine stepped forward. "We come in peace and
"Hold your tongue, woman! Don't speak until you're spoken
Theo moved to Maxine's side. "With respect, you asked a
question. The lady answered it."
"I was only addressing the men in your group. And she
don't look much like a lady to me," he sneered.
J, wondering how Maxine would react to that, gave the man a
look of horror at his impudence. Luc cosied up beside him.
"A word of advice, friend," he said in conspiratorial
tones. "The Lady Esther is of very high importance and
respect in our country. As such, she does not deem it necessary to demonstrate
the distinction of her rank by the regalia of state. A peacock wears fine
feathers, but is otherwise... useless. Now, if you could direct us to your
"I will escort you there myself."
"There is no need, my good man," Maxine said with
all the imperiousness of the lady she wasn't. The guard now noticed that she
was actually looking down at him. "We would not wish to land you in
trouble for leaving your post. In my country, a man may be thrown in jail for
doing so. Simply give my Lord Theodore directions and we shall be fine."
With that, she placed a finger under the shaft of his halberd
and pushed upwards. The guard took the hint and she swept regally through the
gateway. The rest soon joined her.
"You bunch of bull-shitters !" J exclaimed when they
were out of earshot of the guards.
"Hey, don't knock it! It worked didn't it?" Luc
"It was certainly interesting," Maxine said.
"In what way exactly?" J asked.
"Well, I'm a linguist..."
"The guard was speaking English!"
"And with an American accent. Fluent English too. It
wasn't a second language."
"Don't tell me, you've got a bad feeling about
Maxine snorted in a most unladylike manner. "I already
had that. Now, I'm intrigued. So where to, Lord Jefferson?"
J sent a suspicious look her way and got a snarky grin in
"Payback," she said.
"Just follow Broad Street north as far as we can,"
Theo cut in quickly, "then turn left into Kingsway. The king is in
residence today, allegedly."
Broad Street was indeed broad - about twelve yards from side to
side and with an open sewer a foot wide running down the center. The street was
bordered by small stores, little more than booths, on each side and was noisy
with shoppers, clad like the Pilgrim Fathers only with slightly brighter
colors, and with hawkers calling their wares. Every so often, narrower streets
led off into what looked like residential areas.
When they reached the end of Broad Street, and turned in
Kingsway, the king's residence was easy to spot. It had a six foot high wall of
dark red sandstone surrounding a fair-sized park of shrubs, trees and flowering
plants around a large area of lawn. A paved pathway led from high double gates
of railings painted gold, to a large redbrick building with ashlar corners and
mullioned windows. It had two main floors plus rooms with gabled windows in the
Beside the gates was a small lodge. The team half-expected a
custodian to come out and sell them entry tickets and brochures. Instead, they
got another guard, this time armed with a long sword.
"What do you want?" he asked brusquely.
J stepped forward before Maxine landed in any more trouble.
"We are a delegation from a distant country. We seek audience with your
king for our mutual benefit."
"You don't look much like ambassadors," the guard
said disparagingly. It was enough...
"My Lords," Maxine said. "If all the people of
this town are as rude and churlish as the representatives of it that we have
already met, then I suggest we leave now and return with our armies, and our
fearsome weapon of war, the Great Panjandrum!"
"My Lady! I beseech you," Luc said, taking her hand
and kissing it reverently. "Say not so! I am sure this man did not mean to
give offence, and if we return with the Great Panjandrum, many - many! -
innocent people will most certainly be slain. Please... have mercy on
Maxine turned to the guard again, who was looking uncertain,
possibly because, contrary to the conventions of his own world, this woman was
being deferred to by the men. She raised her chin, the better to look down on
"Very well. For now. But we will hold that option in
reserve, should our mission not prosper. The king?"
"Yes, my Lady." He stuck his head back inside the
lodge and yelled, "Boy!"
A small boy of about nine or ten appeared. His look of fear
recalled the White House maid.
"Run to the mansion and alert the staff that they have
"Yes sir," the boy answered. As the guard went to
unlock the gates, Maxine knelt down on one knee beside the boy. "Do you
have a name?" she asked gently.
"Stefan, my lady," he replied cringing as if
expecting a backhander at any moment.
Maxine smiled, but it didn't seem to help. She reached into a
pocket in her utility vest and produced a small chocolate bar. She broke off
two pieces, popped one in her own mouth with a murmur of bliss, then posted the
other in the boy's mouth. His eyes grew wide with surprise and delight.
"Fang-yu my Lady," he said, looking much happier.
She handed him the rest of the bar and said with a smile,
"Tell your people that we come in peace. And eat it as you go. That way,
no one will take it away from you."
The guard watched with a mystified look on his face. His world
had just been turned on its head. A woman - no, a Lady - who looked down on
men, yet up to children... Whatever next?
The boy, Stefan, soon returned and said that they would be made
welcome up at the big house.
"Chocolate, Maxine?" J asked as the four walked
along the broad path.
"It always worked for Grandfather Daniel. If we're nice to
the least significant of the locals, think how beneficent we might be to
the really important ones."
"'Cept that we're not in any position to be
beneficent," Theo said.
"They don't know that. We find out what they need and what
they can offer, then we leave and see what we can arrange back at the SGC. If
there's nothing doing, we don't return."
"I can't see that they do actually need anything,"
Theo said. "They seem to have plenty of food and a stable social
"Possibly using slaves," Maxine scowled.
"We haven't seen any so far," J pointed out.
"Well, little Stefan isn't far off, judging by his
behavior, and as you said, someone's done a lot of work around
"Maybe they contracted out," Theo suggested.
As they walked, J said to Luc and Maxine, "You two are
developing a very nice line in bull-shitting by the way."
"It's better than shooting our way in, isn't it?" she
"Yes, it is, but don't let Beck hear you say that!"
They were still chuckling as they walked up the steps to the
double doors. These were opened for them by a couple of teenagers in dark blue
livery who bowed as they passed. In the entrance hall, they were met by a man
of superior bearing, clad in black satin and wearing a golden sash across his
chest. At first, they thought this was the king.
"Greetings, honored guests," he began. "I am
Ionascu, High Chamberlain to King Tobias. Please come through to the main hall
where noontide victuals will be provided for you. The King will join you when
he has risen. He does not normally rise until mid afternoon. You are welcome to
enjoy all the public parts of the house until then. Or you may choose to take a
walk in the park."
He led them into a spacious hall which had flights of stairs
up to a minstrels' gallery at one end. Opposite the minstrels' gallery, on a
low daïs, was the king's table with seating for seven along one side,
including a throne-like carver chair in the center. A huge fireplace, opposite
the windows, was set with logs on the fire-dogs, ready for the evening. To
either side of the fireplace, immense tapestries depicting hunting scenes hung
on the walls. In the center was a very long oak table with settings for twelve
on each side.
Ionascu led SG-24 to a smaller semi-circular table. It abutted
the wall beside a window overlooking the park and was set for four. A teenaged
attendant in the same livery as the door-openers stood behind each chair. As
the group reached the table appointed for them, the attendants pulled back the
chairs and pushed them forward again as the guests sat down. It felt rather
like an up-market restaurant - or the New White House, Maxine thought - more so
when another young man arrived, pushing a large two-tiered cart that was laden
with the noontide victuals.
At that point, Ionascu took his leave of them. Being familiar
with Grandfather Daniel's experiences with alien food, they stuck with cold
cuts of meat, carved off the bone, and fruit which they peeled carefully. With
so many eavesdroppers so close to them, they ate pretty much in silence. Until
they came to dessert.
"Won't you please try just one of these pretty little
cakes," the young man said with a beguiling smile, holding out a plate of
cupcakes with pink frosting.
When everyone declined, he moved on. "Perhaps these tasty
little fruitcakes are more to your liking," he cajoled.
He worked his way around every delicacy available, becoming
more and more urgent with each rejection.
"Pleease," he beseeched, "you must eat. Just
one. See, these are so small. Surely you have a small corner that it would
"Radu!" barked the attendant who was looking after
Luc. He seemed to be the senior of the teens. There followed a short sharp
conversation in a foreign language, during which Radu looked increasingly
distressed, hanging his head. Maxine took pity on him. Apparently.
"All right," she said, "we will take one
of your cakes each if you will take a walk in the park with us. I love
flowers and you can tell me what they are. Deal?"
There was another rapid fire conversation between Radu and the
senior attendant at the end of which, Radu said, "Deal!" with a look
of profound relief.
"Okay, guys, let's grab one of these delicious looking
Kynthia-cakes and take a stroll round the park," Maxine said, taking one
of the ones with pink frosting.
"Kynthia-cakes?" asked the senior, sounding a little
"Why yes," Maxine said in surprise. "In my
country, that's the way we describe such a gallimaufry of dainties. Kynthia was
a noted purveyor of such sweetmeats to our people. And it's quicker to
The attendant seemed satisfied and Radu led SG-24, cakes in
hand, through the house to a side entry and out into the grounds. When they
were a fair way from the mansion, Maxine pinched a 'bite' out of the edge of
her cake and put the bigger piece up to her mouth, miming taking a bite. The
smaller piece she crumbled between her fingers and sprinkled on the grass on
the blind-side of any watchers in the house. The rest copied her.
"Acum, Radu,"Maxine said, "tu shi eu trebuie
avea o putsin colocviu, da?"
Radu's jaw dropped in horror and not just at the way she
mangled his mother tongue.
"Da?" she repeated.
"Da." He looked like she'd just pronounced a guilty
verdict and was about to put a noose around his neck.
"And we'll speak in my language if you please." Radu
"You speak their lingo?" J asked in surprise.
"Hello-o. Linguist," she grinned. "Actually, I
don't speak it fluently, but I know enough to understand what Radu and that
other guy were saying. It's Romanian."
"Romanian? With that funny alphabet?" J clicked his
fingers, searching for the word. "Cyrillic!"
"Yes. And no. Cyrillic is Slavic. Romanian is one of the
"What, Harlequin?" Luc giggled. "My Nonna used
to read those!"
"No, Luc. Romance as in Romanic or Neo-Latin languages.
They come from vulgar Latin, which was the language of the military and the
merchants of the Roman Empire. The ruling classes spoke classical Latin. And
actually J, 'lingo' comes from the Latin, lingua, meaning tongue. There are
five main Romance languages - Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and...
Romanian. Unfortunately, my knowledge of Romanian is not as good as it could
be. So, moving on... First, Radu, what's in these cakes that you were so keen
for us to eat, and what effect will it have?"
"They are harmless," he replied.
"That wasn't the question. Let's try again. What's the
non-standard addition and what would it do to us if we ate these cakes?"
"You won't be--"
"Answer. The. Questions."
"They'll kill me if I do," he whimpered, shivering.
"I'll kill you if you don't," Maxine said severely.
Radu looked around at her companions and came up with three
deep scowls. His shoulders sagged.
"We call it cânepa . I don't know what you would
"Don't worry, I can work that one out and I know what it
does. So what's the other secret ingredient?"
By now, all resistence had drained out of Radu. "Something
to make you fall over. Poppy juice maybe?"
"Thank you," Maxine smiled. "Now we'd like you
to lead us somewhere where we can't be watched from the house. That way, they
won't know we haven't fallen over."
By way of rewarding Radu and maybe saving him from some of the
hot water he was likely to end up in, Maxine started walking in a slightly
drunken manner and laughing as if Radu had said something terribly, terribly
funny. The rest kept their reactions to the drugs they had supposedly ingested
on the conservative side of fuddled.
Radu chose the north side of the north wing of the mansion. The
north wing housed the private quarters of King Tobias. He had the internal
shutters kept closed to keep out the light so that his sleep would not be
disturbed. J sent Luc and Theo to keep watch at each end of that side of the
building. The other three sat on the grass close to the wall and between two
windows which Radu said belonged to an empty room.
J took over the interrogation. Speaking quietly he began,
"Okay, Radu, we need information, but we don't intend to hurt you. It's
not our way."
"You already have hurt me," Radu said
"When they come out and find you still awake, they will
know I betrayed them."
Maxine subjected him to concerned scrutiny. "What would
happen to you?"
"If I am lucky, I will only be beaten. If I am not, I
will be sent to the slave market," he sighed while Maxine and J exchanged
looks that said 'I-told-you-so' and 'okay-don't-rub-it-in.'
Radu continued, "then there will be no one to keep an eye
on my brother."
"Stefan?" Maxine guessed. Radu nodded. She'd thought
there was a family resemblance. "Where is this slave market?"
"I don't know exactly. It is through the Ring of
J sighed. "Well, if you help us, we can help you. We don't
have slaves in our country. Everyone is free." Radu perked up, hope rising
eternal. "It's not perfect, but it's probably better than this."
Radu considered what J had said. "This is not a bad life.
We have food, clothing, a roof over our heads... So long as we do what is
required of us..."
"Doesn't sound that different from home, put like
that," J muttered.
"But now, we've wrecked it for you?" Maxine asked
gently. Radu nodded.
"Okay, tell us what you can and we'll see what we can do
to make amends," J said.
Radu and his brother Stefan, who was actually twelve year old,
four years his junior, had begun life on their parents' smallholding. He didn't
know where his parents originally came from, only that they had been sold at a
slave market and brought to P5R-772, or Ceresc-tsara as it was known to the
locals, through the Ring of Despair.
His father, Alexandru, worked the king's land first, then aided
by his mother, Alisa, and later himself and Stefan, raised their own food
crops. Two years ago - a couple of years after Alisa had given birth to twin
daughters - the 'Recruiters' had come and taken the two boys away to work for
the king in the town of Noucincu where they now were.
This had been a good thing in one way - that they had positions
for life if they pleased the king. The downside was, that with two toddlers to
look after, Alisa could not spare so much time to work their smallholding and
Radu and Stefan were needed to help out. She begged and pleaded with the
Recruiters but to no avail.
A couple of weeks later, there was a rebellion led by three new
slaves. Alexandru had joined the rebels. Stories abounded afterwards, but very
little was actually known except that the rebellion was not successful and was
put down ruthlessly. The kings troops were armed with weapons whose description
suggested they were muskets.
Alexandru, Alisa and the twins along with twenty or more others
were taken away and Radu had never seen them since. Not knowing where they
were, he didn't expect to see them ever again, unless by chance he was taken to
the same world and bought by the same slave owner as had bought them. This
account ended with tears trickling down Radu's cheeks, and spots of anger
blazing in Maxine's.
Fire and water, J thought absurdly. But this
information, while it gave motive to meddle, didn't really help, neither did
the next thing Radu said, though it was both interesting and possibly relevant.
Not only had the instigators been carted off to the slave market off-world but
three others were taken there too.
These three were not involved in the rebellion and had been
high-ranking slaves. They had been on Ceresc-tsara for as long as Radu had
known about them. They were well respected elders, but It seemed they
already knew the rebel leaders, having served the same owner in the past. They
were therefore pronounced guilty by association. Their names were Jimmy, Dorek
and one who was only ever known as what Radu called the Inima de Nuca.
"Heart of a nut?" she translated looking puzzled.
"I guess the dog-tags we found belonged to Jimmy and Dorek. But who was
the third? And why didn't he - or she - leave a dog-tag?"
"Maybe he - or she - did, and we just didn't find
"So what now?" Maxine asked.
J thought a while. "If we'd eaten those cakes, Radu, and
we were now lying here unconscious - er, asleep - what would happen next?"
"Some of the king's guards come. There are twelve of
them. They take your weapons, tie you up and lock you in the cellar until the
kings wakes. Then he goes to the cellar to look at his new slaves. He decides
whether you will be useful to him or whether to send you to be sold at the
"How do you know this?"
Radu shrugged. "Slaves talk."
J nodded, considering, then asked, "Where is the
"It is under the king's quarters."
"So near here then?" J gave Radu a suspicious look.
"Where's the entrance to the cellars?"
"There are two entrances. One from the room behind us
here and one from outside - just around that corner." Radu pointed to the
western end of the north wall where Theo was on watch.
Keeping low, the three ran to the north-west corner.
"Problem?" Theo asked.
"Problem for somebody," J observed drily. "Any
movement on this side?"
"Okay, Radu, show us to the cellar door."
Just around the corner, a trench about fifteen feet long and
seven feet deep had been dug along the side of the wall. The sides were lined
with a moss-covered wall of red brick. A flight of steep stone steps led down
to a paved area outside a small wooden door painted a dusty pink. The paint was
peeling, revealing bare wood in places. It was not in the best of condition. J
smiled. It should be easy to break it down. A little C4 - no problem.
"What weapons do the guards have?" he asked.
"Swords usually, and two are mushchetare."
"Musketeers," Maxine said.
"Where would they put our weapons?"
"In the cellar."
"With us?" J asked in disbelief.
"Yes. It has never been a problem as they put them in big
chests with strong locks and chains on them."
"Hm, like this?" J pulled out a notepad and sketched
"Good. I think we have the beginnings of a plan."
He waved to Luc to join them then smiled at Radu. "And it
should get you off the hook."
Some ten minutes later, Radu was being congratulated by the
guards for arranging for the 'guests' - rather large and heavy guests - to fall
asleep so close to the cellar, and SG-24 was being carried, none too carefully,
down the steps and into the cellar. They had already been relieved of their
guns and knives and were tied up with hairy hempen ropes. The weapons were put
into one of about a dozen very large chests. Their backpacks were just dumped
in a corner. That was all to the good.
Once the guards had clattered back up the steps and locked the
door, all was quiet. J, who was nearest, shuffled over to the corner where the
packs were. In the darkness, he struggled into one of them and removed a
survival tin. Using the saw blade, he made short work of cutting the rope. He
lit the piece of tallow candle then set about untying the rest. It didn't take
long; the guards had made only a token gesture in binding their unconscious
prisoners. Very lax.
"Okay, let's have a look around," J said, holding the
candle aloft. Its small flame showed that they were in an L-shaped room with a
whole lot of boxes, chests and the sort of bric-à-brac that gathers
together in cellars in the fullness of time.
"Ah, I think that's the chest they put our weapons in.
Time to liberate them."
"How?" Luc asked.
"Ah, well, I've been picking a few people's brains about
leading a team, and one - Colonel Preston, actually - suggested that picking
locks might come in useful. And he showed me how to do it. So
that will be our next group training exercise when we get back," J
grinned. "Here, Luc, hold this so I can see what I'm doing."
In the first chest, their M960s, 9mils and their knives, had
been dumped on top a collection of mauls and maces, of interest only to Luc -
and marginal interest at that. The second chest they tried held some crossbows
and quarrels, plus a couple of SMGs. These were unfamiliar and, as they lacked
magazines, were useless.
With chest number three, they hit gold dust, metaphorically
"Oh. My. God," Maxine breathed, reaching out and
reverently picking up one of the weapons. She pulled the folded,
phallic-looking weapon out of its holster and stared at it in awe. There were
sixteen of them all told.
Hastily, they each strapped one on their thighs, emptied most
of the contents of their back packs that could be left behind and crammed the
rest of the zats into them.
Maxine choked a laugh. "Do you see the irony here? Our
first mission and we've already turned into bandits... President Warren would
be so proud!"
"Well, I for one don't feel in the least bit
guilty," Luc said. "I doubt very much if King Tobias came by these
legally. Let's try them out before we take them back to the 'Gate."
He aimed at the box of maces and mauls and fired. A satisfying
stream of electric blue particles crawled around the box. J and Theo fired too,
and the box disappeared.
"It's just like SG-1 when they got sent back in time and
destroyed the evidence that they'd come from the future," Maxine said.
"Happy now?" J asked.
"Deliriously!" she grinned.
They'd just disposed of the final box of assorted weapons when
the candle guttered and went out. None too soon. In the darkness, they heard
muffled voices, along with the tramp of feet approaching the interior cellar
door. A flickering light outlined the door as the four hid behind piles of
The door swung open to admit two youth bearing flaming torches.
They stood at either side of the door to allow the admittance of two guards
only. Clearly they were not anticipating any trouble. The guards were followed
by the king himself. SG-24 2 was certain this time.
The crown was a pretty hefty clue. It certainly drew the eye.
It looked almost black but was either made from some unknown metal or alloy or
had some kind of coating. Where the light from the torches caught it, it
glimmered a deep sapphire blue, bottle green, wine red or imperial purple -
like a dark rainbow, maybe, or the northern lights. Weird.
The guards rounded the corner of the L-shaped cellar. J
signalled to Luc. The two guards dropped to the ground in crackling blue light.
"Nobody move; nobody shout." J's voice, pitched deep
and low, carried authority and was obeyed. He stepped out from hiding.
"Who are you?" the king demanded. He was nearly as
tall as J, but of sinewy build, and had dark shoulder length that waved
slightly. He looked like a statue depicting some European king of old.
J decided to play along. It had worked well thus far. "I
am Lord Jefferson Mitchell. My companions are..." He signalled for the
rest to show themselves. "Lord Theodore Hunter, Lord Giancarlo Lucarelli
and the Lady Esther Pepperday."
The king gasped and took a step back. "No! It can't be! He
said you would never come back here."
"You! The Tau'ri."
Maxine slapped her forehead. "Ash is quite right. I am
"Huh?" J grunted.
"Heart of a nut...? Kernel... Or colonel. Colonel
Jonathan Pepperday, I'm thinking." She stalked up to the king. "King
Tobias? I don't think so. How about Major Toby King from SG-1?" Then she
sneezed. "And you want to change that aftershave too."
"I am not this person of whom you speak," the 'king'
"And you don't have a daughter called Rachel either, I
"No. I don't. I have two daughters, neither of whom is
called Rachel, and four sons, who will no doubt be hunting for me soon, if not
at this instant," he said smugly as if he'd just trumped her ace.
She moved aside as J came up beside her.
"Whatever. I don't think they'll be any trouble - not
unless they're exceptionally stupid." J said. He activated and deactivated
his zat to underline his words, smiling at the sound of its metallic clang and
the cobra-like way it moved. Nothing beats the ace of trumps.
The king's shoulders visibly sagged and he sighed. "What
to you want?"
"Now that's more like it," J approved. "You -
that is, Ceresc-tsara - and our country are going to become what we like to
call Trading Partners. We'll be sending a Trade Delegation through in a couple
of weeks or so to hammer out the details. Now, we noticed as we came here, that
you're about to begin harvesting. When you've finished, you'll deliver a
...let's call it a trade tax, of one tenth of that harvest, all nicely bagged,
to the Stargate. In respect of that, you can continue, without interference
from us, with all the little scams you've got going around here."
J held up his hand to silence Maxine. He could feel her
bristling just behind his left shoulder. "Any misbehavior -
double-crossing, aggression, creative accounting, that kind of thing - on the
part of you or any of your people, and we will return with full force of
arms. We'll reorganize your administration in a way which not include you
or your family. They will all be taken to the slave market and sold--
"You wouldn't dare!" the king protested. "I have
"So do we. We also have powerful weapons capable of
blowing up your entire planet. Not that we would wish to do that, but we
wouldn't have a problem with reducing this lovely house of yours to rubble. No,
don't interrupt again. Now the lady Esther has taken a liking to a couple of
your... slaves - Radu and Stefan. So we will be taking them with us. Between
now and the arrival of our Trade Delegation, you will track down the
whereabouts of the parents and sisters of these two and give this information
to our delegates so that we may retrieve them. Of course, if you retrieve them
for us, that would count in your favor, so the sooner you start looking for
them, the better. Are we clear on all this?"
The king, grim-faced, nodded. He'd been backed into a corner
and he knew it.
"Oh, and we'll take this in earnest of your keeping your
side of the bargain," Maxine said, snatching the crown off his head.
"No!" The king gave a broken cry, reaching out after
it in a rather half-hearted attempt to snatch it back.
"Don't worry, you'll get it back when we get the delivery
The active part of SG-24 left the town of Noucincu without let
or hindrance, along with the two slaves they'd freed. Or stolen, depending on
one's point of view. J took point with Maxine a step or two behind. Next came
Theo with Radu who was wondering what lay ahead through the Ring of Despair.
Following on behind were Luc and Stefan. The latter already worshiped the
ground his Lady Esther walked upon. It wasn't the chocolate; it was her few
kind words, spoken with gentleness - the first to come his way since The
Recruiters dragged him and Radu away from their family. He could've cried, but
still didn't dare. The adults, for their part, were each wondering, belatedly,
what they were going to do with the two boys. Rescuing them had seemed like a
good idea at the time. Now...? J slowed slightly and subtly signaled Maxine to
walk beside him.
"So, Lady Esther?" he said softly.
"Well, SG-1 brought Cassandra back to Earth from Hanka,
and then Dr. Fraiser adopted her."
"Yeah. Somehow, I can't see that happening now, even if
Timmy Flint was willing."
"Someone might be willing to take them on. If Cassie
could keep quiet about where she came from - and how - I'm sure those two can.
Shame the 'Gate is still such a big secret. I'm pretty certain Aunt Dido would
take them in. She's used to managing a couple of boys," Maxine grinned.
"Hm, wonder if we could get her clearance as a foster mom?"
"Nice idea, but loathe as I am to burst your bubble, I
think we need to be bending our minds to how to prevent them being used as
Maxine gasped. "Oh god! I never thought of that!"
"Me either," J said ruefully.
"Don't suppose we could smuggle them into the SGC even if
Beck and his henchman would agree to remain stumm," Maxine sighed.
"I think you could probably persuade them," J
chuckled, "but otherwise, I'm thinkin' that bird won't fly."
Their discussion was interrupted by a call from Beck.
"Go ahead, Captain. What do you have to report?"
"The 'Gate just activated, sir."
"Remain in cover and tell me what comes through."
"There's a couple of, no four guys wearing armor and
carrying spears. Next, there are two more guys dressed in homespuns. Oh and
they're wearing manacles. Next - two other guys in fur-edged robes and hats.
That's it. Wormhole's closed."
"Sounds like a slaving party," J grunted.
"I'd say so," Beck said, sounding as if he couldn't
"How did they react to the AVCOP?"
"They didn't. We hid it in the long grass."
"Good move, Captain! Okay, maintain your positions. Let
me know if anything else comes through."
J halted the group for a quick discussion. "We could hide
behind a hedge and let them go past, but I'd rather see if we can get some
intell if we can. Thoughts guys?"
"It would be nice free the slaves," Maxine suggested
"It would," J agreed, "but-- "
"But leaving them to fend for themselves here probably
wouldn't be doing them any favors. I know. Just wish we could, that's
"One day, we'll make a difference," Theo said with
tempered optimism. "For now, I think we have to play it by ear. I mean,
we're new to all this and we have to find our feet before we - er - before we
put our feet in it. As it were. It's a big universe out there and when we have
some idea of what's going on in it, then we can maybe work out some
system for... beating the system. Does that make any sense?"
"Strangely enough, it does, "Luc grinned.
"Good. Because I have an idea that could be useful for
making - um - side visits, once we lose our other two."
"Oh?" J asked.
"We'll discuss it later when I've got a working
"Oh. Okay, so for now, we go for intell," J decided.
He selected Luc and Maxine for the job with Radu as linguistic
back-up. They had no idea what languages the slavers might speak, but Romanian
was a distinct possibility. The rest of the group left the path and shadowed
them on the field side of the hedges. J and Theo were also carrying the others'
SMGs. Maxine felt they would look less threatening in the first instance.
"Now this is where we could've made use of the
PATTs," J commented. "Bradfield didn't think they we necessary when I
first suggested it..."
"Yeah? He'd soon change his mind if he was carrying two
SMGs and three spare zats," Theo grumbled.
"I'm thinking, when we get back, we should keep the spares
to ourselves. Get through the 'Gate room quickly and lock them away somewhere
safe. No, strike that. They have to be destroyed."
"What?! Why? If we can disable people without harming
them, that's a good thing surely?" Theo asked.
"I was just thinking ahead. Imagine a zat in the hands of,
Theo recoiled at the very idea, then the slaving party came
into view, ending the conversation. Seeing three people heading towards them,
the four guards spread out across the road, spears held at an intimidating
angle. They waited for Luc, Maxine and Radu to come up to them.
"What do you want?" the guard leader demanded
"We yearn to talk at your masters," Maxine replied
imperiously. Radu winced.
"You look like runaway slaves!" the guard said,
advancing menacingly. "Guess your master would pay good money to
get you ba-- "
"Anyone else yearn to get devious?" Maxine asked as
the guard collapsed in a blue electrical discharge. They didn't - whatever way
she said it. She was still casually carrying the crown in her other hand.
Shrugging, she stuck it on her head. The would-be adversaries took a step
backwards in surprise.
"You!" Maxine pointed at the fatter of the two
merchants. He was wearing a fur-lined gown made of dark green velvet. It no
doubt explained why he was perspiring freely. Maybe he came from a chillier
"Me?" he squeaked.
"Yes, you. Here." She pointed at a spot three feet
in front of her. He obeyed promptly.
"Where have you come from? That is, where is your home
"Dakya - of the Bruxan Empire, Majesty."
Maxine had already sketched an empty DHD on a page torn out
of her small notebook.
"We would visit your world with a view to trading with your people.
Show me which buttons you press to return to Dakya and in which order."
The merchant pointed to each in turn and Maxine numbered them in order.
"Thank you. You may now go on your way. Take him with you. He'll soon
recover and be none the worse. I bid you good day, sirs."
Once they were out of sight round a bend, the rest came out of hiding and
returned the SMGs with some relief.
"Well done, guys," J grinned. "You're going up in the world,
aren't you? - Queen Maxine!"
She reached up for the crown, sneezed violently then juggled
the crown as it fell off. Everyone laughed. "Hope I'm not developing
Grandfather Daniel's allergies. That's something I can well do without!"
"Okay, let's get out all the zats," J ordered.
Maxine and Luc, puzzled, did so. "Keep one for yourself then pile the rest
in a heap."
"If you don't mind, I'd like to keep one back," Theo
said. "For Ash. He may need one someday."
J considered it, then nodded. "Might be an idea to keep a
couple of spares anyway."
"Wait? You're going to destroy the rest?" Maxine
"Yep, 'fraid so."
"He doesn't want them getting into the wrong hands,"
Theo explained. "Me neither."
"Oh." The sound of a penny dropping.
"Okay, Theo, you take one for Ash and Maxine, you can take
a spare. The rest are going before Beck and Kern get their greedy little eyes
It seemed like vandalism as blue light coruscated around the
heap. Then they were all gone. The four stashed the six surviving zats - and
the crown as well in Maxine's case - into their back packs, and stuffed their
shirts on top. It was hot, so returning in T-shirts wouldn't cause comment.
"One last thing. Radu, Stefan, what just happened here...
well, it didn't happen, okay?" J said.
"Okay," the brothers nodded. "We won't say
anything about anything!" Radu said. It was talking that had nearly
landed him in dire trouble earlier that day. He was a reasonably savvy youth,
and disinclined to make the same mistake twice.
They turned a corner - the road tended to follow field
boundaries - and saw Beck and Kern legging it in double quick time towards
"What the...?" J exclaimed, biting off the last word
in the presence of impressionable youth. "Where's the fire?" he
"Thought you might need help," Kern said.
"Yeah, that bright flashing blue light. Thought you were
being attacked by that slave party."
"All that's missing are the horses," J said
"We thought you'd be pleased," Beck grumbled.
"I would've been pleased if you'd obeyed orders. While I
appreciate your concern - and your initiative in hiding the AVCOP - it would've
been better if your initiative had extended to the idea that we have comms
units for a reason..."
Beck gave J a calculating stare. "So what was the
J shrugged. "Dunno. Some sort of meteorological phenomenon
I guess, like the dust devil we had to stop for earlier. Ball lightning maybe.
Whatever it was didn't do us any harm and was gone by the time we turned round
to see what the light was."
Beck wasn't giving up easily. "Sure it wasn't some weapon
the slavers had?"
"I'm certain," J replied testily. "They were
carrying spears, Captain Beck - plain ordinary wooden poles with a
pointy metal bit at the end. Superior weaponry if you're from the stone age,
but otherwise not."
While this was going on, Maxine was having a quiet word with
the brothers. "Those two men are not to be trusted. We're going to have to
tell a few lies about you two, but don't be alarmed. You're not slaves any
more," she told them, "not if I have any say in the matter." She
really hoped she wouldn't be called on that one by a malign Providence.
Beck suddenly noticed the supernumeraries. "Who're
they?" he demanded.
"Excuse me?" J barked in CO mode.
"Sorry sir. Didn't mean to step out line."
"Well, you don't need to know, but I'll tell you anyway.
Radu is our language teacher. He and his brother come as a package deal."
"Language teacher? I thought Dr. Pepperday was our
language expert," Beck quibbled.
"Actually, I'm a linguist. Which means that while I'm
quite fluent in a number of languages, and have an understanding of many
others, I'm not a major polyglot-- "
"Polyglot?" Kern sounded mystified - probably
thinking about talking parrots, Maxine thought.
"Poly - many; glot - tongue. Someone who speaks a lot of
languages," she said with unusual patience. She turned back to Beck.
"Do you know how many living languages there are in, say Mexico?"
Beck shrugged. "Two - English and Spanish," he said
"Sixty two, actually," she told him and, as he
looked his disbelief, launched into a list. "There's Náhuatl, Maya,
Zapoteco, Totonaca, Huichol "
"Yaqui?" Kern asked, after brownie points.
"Yep," Maxine smiled, pleased to find an attentive
audience for once, "and Matlatzinca, Quiché, Chocholteca-- "
"Sounds like chocolate," Theo grinned, aiming at
derailing her train of thought. He was all too familiar with his cousin in
lecture mode. Then he wished he'd held his tongue...
"Well, that's not too surprising," Maxine went on
brightly. "It derives from Náhuatl, which is the language of the
Aztecs. Xocolatl is the elision of the two words, xococ, meaning bitter and
atl, meaning water." She was pleased to note that Beck looked like he was
losing the will to live. But, he wasn't quite there yet. Another couple should
do it. "Then there's Ixcateco, Popoloca, Chontal de Tabasco-- "
"Why am I not surprised, Dr Pepper-day," J
chuckled with a sideways look at Captain Beck. "I think that'll do for
"I owe you, Major," Beck muttered under his breath.
"The point I'm trying to make, " Maxine continued
undeterred, "is that with seven thousand living languages, give or take,
there is no way I can speak them all. While I'm not fluent in Radu's language,
fortunately, I knew enough about it - and similar languages - to understand
what was going on, otherwise we might've really needed rescuing."
"Well, if you understood what's going on, why do you need
"Did you not hear me say I'm not fluent in his
language. It seems likely that we may be encountering his language on other
associated worlds, so I need to get up to speed. Having a native speaker to
back up my book-learning will be a good way to do this."
Beck just didn't know when to call it quits. "Well, you
found this... Radu. Couldn't you find another interpreter on these other
"It's a possibility, but if I don't have a reasonable
command of the language, then how do we know that we're not being deceived? For
instance, suppose the head honcho says something and the smiling interpreter
tells you, 'the king says, welcome to our town. We look forward to doing
business with such a handsome stranger. Please go with these two
Maxine batted her eyelashes at Beck in a way that made him
think she was actually a damn' fine looking woman and one he wouldn't mind
bedding. She continued in the same beguiling way, "but maybe what the head
honcho actually said was, "We're not going to get much for
him at the slave market. Tell the stupid, ugly bastard to fuck
The sudden change in Beck's demeanor had the rest of the group,
Kern included, cracking up. J, recovering first, told Maxine to watch her
language in front of the kids and got an innocent look in response. "We
try to set a good example, no?"
"You're right, and I apologize," Maxine said to
Beck, thinking she should ease up on making a fool of him, easy target though
he was. "I just wanted you to see how badly we could be misled by someone
intending to do us harm. Hell, wars have been fought over a few words that got
mistranslated. So the more I can learn, the less likely it is to happen."
"How d'you know he won't trick you," Beck
"In the first place, I'm not starting from scratch here,
and I do have a few dictionaries I could check with."
"Okay, Beck, Kern, fetch the AVCOP back," J looked
around, "er - from wherever you hid it. Good work there, guys."
Beck looked smug as the pair disappeared into the chest-high
"Welcome to the BSC, by the way," Luc said to J as
"Ball lightning?" Theo said.
"Language teacher?" from Maxine.
"Oh, I get it," J said looking around at his
grinning team. "Ya mean the Bull-Shitters Club, don't ya?"
"Talking of language teaching, I think I ought to teach
you three another language. No don't groan. I only mean there may come times
when we need to talk without others knowing what we're saying. Actually, sign
language would be a good idea, too - you know, what deaf people use to
communicate with. We could try just fingerspelling. It's fun. I visited a
school for deaf children once. It was hilarious watching the kids signing
messages to their friends under their desks where the teachers couldn't see
"Sounds like a good idea," J agreed as Beck and Kern
guided the AVCOP back to the 'Gate.
Beck and Kern had already left the 'Gate Room by the time the
rest appeared. General Bradfield was waiting to welcome them home, which he did
with raised eyebrows when he saw the newcomers.
"I can see we're going to have an interesting debriefing,
SG-24. That'll be in one hour from now after your medical checks."
They made a detour via the locker room to stash their packs
with the zats. Maxine shoved the crown into a brown paper bag that had once
held groceries. "I'll join you in the infirmary. I want to catch Dr.
Feynman before he goes home."
When she reached the infirmary, there was a minor kerfuffle
over blood tests. Radu and Stefan were looking very apprehensive at the idea of
losing blood, even though they'd seen Dr. Flint take samples from three of the
team. Beck, who was waiting to see Dr. Dawson, wasn't helping, but backed off
when Maxine arrived.
She smiled at the two brothers. "Take no notice of
him," she said. "When he was your age, I bet he made a real fuss
about it. It stings a little, especially if you watch, but it won't do you any
harm. Dr. Flint just wants to make sure we're all as fit and healthy as we
should be. If we're not, it'll show in our blood and then she can make us well
again. I've had it done lots of times. Watch." After that, there
was no further bother.
The debriefing, with Radu and Stefan sitting in, went fine. J
did most of the talking, focusing on Ceresc-tsara as a new source of food and
potentially of other goods, on Beck and Kern and their initiative in hiding the
AVCOP, and finally on Radu's courage in assisting SG-24 despite the risk to
himself and his brother.
"What do you propose to do with these two young men?"
Bradfield wanted to know.
"In the first instance, I'd like them to stay here,"
Maxine said. "We have accommodation available - not perfect, but it would
be ok for now."
"And do what, Dr. Pepperday?"
"Join the Linguistics team, sir. I have an understanding
of the language of Ceresc-tsara, but as Major Mitchell said, without Radu, we
would've been in serious trouble. I need to gain greater fluency because I
suspect we may encounter the language elsewhere in the galaxy, and we really
don't want to be caught with our pants down. As it were."
Bradfield smothered a smile. "What makes you think you
might find the same language elsewhere, Doctor?"
"Well, thanks to Captain Beck's advance warning, we were
prepared for a trading party which came through the 'Gate." Maxine gave
Beck a warm and friendly smile which made him feel slightly uneasy, and
continued. "They spoke the same tongue. Now, I appreciate that they may
have been locals returning home, but they could equally have come from a
different world for trading purposes. If the latter, well, I like to be
prepared, and Radu and Stefan would be a great asset in that respect."
"You make a good case, Doctor. Very well, we'll give it a
try - say two months - and see how it works out. Does anyone have anything
further to add?" No one did, so the debriefing was brought to a close.
As everyone filed out, Maxine shepherding her two
protégés ahead of her, General Bradfield handed Maxine a folded
sheet of paper. "This arrived half an hour ago for you, Dr.
Maxine thanked him and unfolded it as she left the briefing
room. As she read it, she grimaced.
"Problem?" Luc asked, seeing her expression.
"Oh, I hope not," she said fervently.
"What is it?"
"Another summons to Washington PX - day after