The reward of one duty is the power to fulfill another. — George Eliot


“General Kasol.”

Recognizing the voice, Sholan paused in his rapid stride down the corridor but did not turn. He listened to the hurried footfalls as the speaker caught up to him.

“Your pardon, Lord General,” said Lan’ac, drawing first even and then slightly ahead to bow before him. The Jaffa warrior was second-in-command to Tirin, Bel’s First Prime. “My Lord Bel requests that you attend him.”

Sholan scowled. An audience with Bel was not how he’d hoped to spend his afternoon. {“At once?”}

The Jaffa nodded. “Yes, Lord General. You will find him in his receiving room.”

With an inward sigh, Sholan turned back the way he had come. The broad corridor here led deeper into the System Lord’s palace, eventually to the royal apartments themselves. It led outward as well, to terrace and plaza and the road to Sholan’s — or more precisely, Kasol’s — own offices in the heart of the military complex halfway across the city. Whomever the offices belonged to, Sholan reflected, it appeared that he would be delayed in reaching them by whatever question it was that Bel had for him.

Beside him, Lan’ac turned as well. Sholan threw him a glance. {“Have you been ordered to escort me, or merely to deliver our Lord’s message?”}

The Jaffa paused, bowing his head again rather than meet a Goa’uld superior’s eyes unnecessarily. “Only to deliver the message, my lord.”

{“I see. Then you are free to go on about your other duties, Commander Lan’ac. I will attend our Lord as he has ordered.”}

“Yes, Lord General.” Lan’ac vanished silently into the side corridor whose intersection they had reached, leaving the general alone with his thoughts.

Not only his own thoughts, of course. What do you suppose is on Bel’s mind now, for him to have summoned us? his host, Brice, wondered silently.

{I wouldn’t be surprised to find he’s still worried about Moccas and wishes to be reassured,} Sholan replied. He knew their internal conversations were likely what kept Brice, a native of Galla, sane through the long years they spent deep undercover, masquerading as Goa’uld and a trusted member of Bel’s military. ‘General Kasol’ had been some time in the making — indeed, the persona had been a disaffected, low-ranking officer come recently from another System Lord’s service when they’d first devised and then assumed his identity — but in this guise Sholan had since managed to rise through the ranks, attaining a position invaluable to both the Tok’bel and the human rebels. {Bel’s focus on his own upstart seed means good cover for the rebels, at least as long as their actions can be blamed on Moccas}, he reminded his host.

True, Brice acknowledged. I just wonder sometimes how long we’ll be able to continue doing that. Sooner or later something is bound to happen to plant suspicion that not everything is Moccas’ fault, and I can’t help but worry about what Bel will do when he realizes we’ve lied to him.

{With any luck, the rebels will have gained enough strength and resources by then to be more of a match for Bel, and Moccas may still prove to be enough of a distraction that it helps their efforts. With Bel’s attentions and resources divided between two threats, he won’t be able to throw everything he has at the rebels.}

No, but I’ll admit I’m also concerned about what will happen to us. There was a touch of apprehension in Brice’s mental tone, though nowhere near the level a less-seasoned host operative would have expressed. No doubt about it, Sholan’s host was nearly as tough as he was. It was part of why they were a good team. Brice had spent several years in the Gallic rebel movement before blending with Sholan some five decades ago. Sholan recognized his host’s comment for what it was: a plain acknowledgment of the fact that theirs was an extraordinarily risky assignment. A certain amount of concern, even fear, was natural. Acknowledging that and moving beyond it was the key to avoiding the mental paralysis that might otherwise result from living under such precarious circumstances over an extended period of time.

{It’s simple,} said Sholan, never one to sugarcoat the obvious. {Either we’ll get away in time to escape his wrath or we won’t. We’ve had contingency plans in place for all kinds of events over the years, and this is just one more. No sense worrying about it right now, especially when there’s important work to be done.}

Their internal conversation ceased as they approached the entrance to Bel’s private apartments. Two massive Jaffa guards flanked the stout doors, their armor gleaming and helmets open to reveal impassive expressions. Sholan stopped before them, assuming the haughty expression and imperious body language he’d long since perfected for use as Kasol’s normal bearing. Jaffa formed the bulk of Bel’s military operation and nearly all of his personal guard, but Goa’uld — especially of Kasol’s rank — were superior to them. As Sholan drew to a halt before the guards, they dropped their gaze.

{“I have been summoned to attend upon our Lord,”} he informed them.

“Of course, Lord General,” the guard on the left replied, bowing his head slightly and turning to swing open the intricately carved door open behind him. His counterpart on the right did likewise, allowing Sholan access to the inner residence.

The corridor within was softly lit by oil lamps in wall niches. Their flickering illumination seemed mildly out-of-place to Sholan. Here in Arandesed, Bel’s capital city on Bohan, the level of technology used in everyday life tended to be higher than in most other cities in the System Lord’s domain. Unlike them, Arandesed was populated primarily by Goa’uld: courtiers, government officials and their staffs, military personnel, underlings and overseers and the various lackeys and functionaries who surrounded their lord and carried out his will. Sycophants and hangers-on rounded out the mix. Beneath the Goa’uld was another layer of society, made up of Bel’s Jaffa warriors and their families. A System Lord’s military usually comprised two complementary echelons, one Jaffa and the other Goa’uld. Jaffa were slaves and tended to be footsoldiers, though obviously there were some who attained higher rank, serving as officers over their fellows, leading platoons and the like, or serving as pilots for ger’tak fighters and other ships of their master’s fleet. A System Lord’s personal bodyguard would be made up of such high-ranking Jaffa as well, and the whole of his Jaffa military operation headed by that highest-ranked of all Jaffa: the First Prime.

But it would be far too risky to entrust the safekeeping of one’s entire empire to the loyalty of a slave, and no matter how high a Jaffa’s rank, at the end of the day he was still only a slave; even a First Prime. Bel knew this as well as any Goa’uld, and his hierarchy followed the same basic format as that of others, employing a separate military structure made up of Goa’uld. Goa’uld military personnel were officers, charged with overseeing the most sensitive operations and issues of security, and carrying out the orders of their lord through the use of their own number or of Jaffa. The lowest-ranked Goa’uld officer still outranked every Jaffa with the possible exception of the First Prime, and nearly every Jaffa military unit answered to at least one Goa’uld officer, whether directly or through its own Jaffa commander.

This organizational structure was the key to why the Tok’bel and their Tok’ra cousins were able to place operatives close to their Goa’uld foes. Under normal circumstances, the rank-and-file of Goa’uld society — from middle managers to a System Lord’s inner court — were drawn primarily from the offspring of whichever System Lord ruled the domain in which those Goa’uld lived and served. Maintaining a useful population of Jaffa required symbiotes, as young Jaffa were faced with the necessity of taking a larval symbiote into their abdominal pouches to replace their natural immune system whose function had been genetically programmed to fail at the onset of puberty. It was this biological necessity that had allowed the Goa’uld to enslave their otherwise human minions for millennia, ensuring their perpetual servitude. But biologically-imperative servitude did not necessarily guarantee personal loyalty to an individual Goa’uld master; history had shown that even Jaffa could at times be opportunistic enough to break from one master in order to serve another who made a better offer. The potential for treachery on the part of their Jaffa meant that it was a good idea to keep a class of other Goa’uld in power over the Jaffa, provided these Goa’uld could themselves be counted upon for their loyalty.

Hence had come the system of fosterage in use across so much of Goa’uld-dominated space. A larval symbiote matured roughly seven years after being placed in a Jaffa’s incubating pouch. Not every symbiote could be accommodated in maturity, of course; given the long lives of the Goa’uld, there simply weren’t enough resources to support a population that large. Therefore some symbiotes were simply discarded in a random culling process upon their reaching maturity. Those fortunate enough to be chosen for continued life — virtually every queen, since those were rare, and about 40% of the males — were given hosts and sent off to be fostered by trusted subordinates or courtiers loyal to the System Lord and his queen, or to the Queen herself if she were also the System Lord, as sometimes happened.

Fosterage lasted up to ten years, long enough for the symbiote’s character to be assessed. Those deemed ambitious enough to pose a credible threat to their parents’ power were summarily executed, leaving the less-ambitious yet capable to move on to positions of service within the Goa’uld hierarchy. Most were destined to rise no higher than middle management, overseeing this or that small group of slaves in providing whatever goods and services were needed by those higher up, or possibly serving in the lower echelons of the military. These were actually quite happy with their lot, either through a sense of duty or by simply having failed to inherit the sort of ambitious yearning that drove a much smaller number of their fellows to seek higher positions and the responsibilities that went with them. A certain indolence was an integral part of the general psyche of their species; the Goa’uld had originated as parasites and scavengers, making their own comfortable living off the resources and efforts of others. Ambition was the province of a select few, although those who had it in its most extreme form tended to exercise it with a zeal that more than made up for its lack in the majority of their broodmates.

The turnover rate at the bottom of the societal ladder was hastened by the fact that access to sarcophagi was largely — though not universally — governed by an individual’s rank and his value to the society in which he functioned. The higher one’s rank or value, the more often one might make use of the device to rejuvenate one’s host or oneself. In this manner a System Lord could guarantee near-immortality for himself and his inner circle. By contrast, those at the very base of the pyramid that was Goa’uld civilization might see the interior of a sarcophagus no more than once or twice in a lifetime that was instead dependent upon how often one could procure a new host as the current one aged beyond the symbiote’s ability to prolong its short human life. Because access to new hosts was also based to some degree upon how well a low-ranking Goa’uld had managed to please its superiors, success in this regard dictated the length of one’s life. Please the boss and you might get a new host or access to a sarcophagus when the time came. Fail to do so and you lived only as long as you could maintain your host yourself. Please him well enough, and you might live long enough to reach a position where you were the one with access to the sarcophagus, and in charge of deciding who else could use it. Such was the way of things among the Goa’uld.

This created just enough churn that it was possible for the Tok’ra to insert operatives into a System Lord’s hierarchy. The broad base of the social pyramid included enough individuals that it was nearly impossible for them all to be known to the upper ranks. Furthermore, the sometimes fierce competition in the lower ranks just for the basic business of maintaining life often led some disaffected members to leave their natal group and seek their fortunes elsewhere, hoping that by ingratiating themselves to some other Goa’uld they might gain access to whatever resources they’d felt they were being slighted of at home. Sholan’s own insertion into Bel’s hierarchy had come about in this manner, when he posed as a disgruntled young officer from another domain, bringing just enough information to his prospective new superiors that he was given a chance to prove himself useful in other ways. He’d done so and over time had climbed to the rank of general, becoming a trusted member of Bel’s elite Goa’uld military machine.

Thus he had come to be in a position to be summoned today, as on other occasions too numerous now to count — though he could if he wanted — to attend upon the System Lord himself.

He heard the massive doors swing shut behind him as he followed the short, dimly-lit corridor that led to Bel’s receiving room. The System Lord’s affinity for anachronistic lighting and décor was shared by many high-ranking Goa’uld. He supposed it might stem from nostalgic memories of their early days in power on the world of the Tau’ri, when they’d first induced members of a short-lived race to worship them and eventually follow them outward to the stars and straight into slavery. Sholan’s own recollection of those days by way of Egeria’s genetic memory, inherited in turn from her own ancestors, included scenes of indecently sybaritic luxury that he found overwhelming, even off-putting. Egeria had felt much the same way, he knew. But the other Goa’uld of her time, and their non-Tok’ra descendants today, obviously saw such decadence as their rightful lot.

It was one more reason he was glad to have been spawned by Egeria, rather than some other queen, regardless of the danger and occasional hardships his role in life entailed.

He entered the receiving room to find Bel reclining on a cushioned chaise, a data tablet in his manicured hands. {“Good afternoon, my Lord,”} he said, bowing. {“I was told you had sent for me.”}

Bel looked up from the data tablet. A frown contorted the chiseled face he’d worn for at least three millennia, originally the property of some poor unfortunate soul whose only mistake had been to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and who probably still gibbered in quiet terror in some desolate and nearly-forgotten corner of the otherwise-occupied skull.

{“General Kasol,”} the System Lord said by way of acknowledgement. He gestured at a cushioned bench opposite his chaise. {“Please, join me.”}

Sholan moved to the bench and took a seat. {“What may I do for you, my Lord?”}

Bel held up the data tablet, pointing at its screen. {“According to the report I’ve had from Metan, we’ve still not seen full production from the mines on Emhain in half a year, since just after that scheming whelp of mine raided the place with his Jaffa disguised to look like my own troops. I’d like to know why.”}

Metan was the Minister of Natural Resources. Bel had met this morning with him and several other key officials, according to the dispatches Sholan had received from his own sources within the System Lord’s personal staff. It was a dangerous game he played, but at the same time an expected one. Any normal Goa’uld general would be assumed to hedge his bets slightly by maintaining a network of his own spies to keep him abreast of things his Lord might not share with him directly. By doing so, Sholan not only enhanced his own efforts at intelligence, but also played his part even more convincingly. Indeed, he might have appeared suspect if he did not cultivate such sources.

Bel’s question made him uncomfortable. Surely the rebels on Emhain weren’t drawing off such a large percentage of the mines’ output that it ought to raise suspicion, were they? That Albannu commander — Fearghas, that was his name — had to be smarter than that. Furthermore, Sabar certainly was, and Sefys as well. No, this had to be nothing more than Bel’s own paranoid nature at work.

{“May I see the report, my Lord?”} Sholan asked, reaching for the tablet.

Bel passed it to him, still frowning. {“Production has been down every month from what is normally expected, according to Metan. Yet I’m told the miners are working full shifts. Either there’s ore being siphoned off somewhere, or the miners are slacking.”}

Sholan shook his head slowly as he scanned the figures. Locking an innocent expression in place, he looked up and asked, {“But how would anyone siphon off the ore, and why? Moccas came in and simply stole what he took, or at least tried to.”}

Bel fixed him with a serious gaze. {“I don’t know. Perhaps he’s placed some of his own operatives on Emhain to draw off resources for his own ends. I don’t trust him; I never should have in the first place. Ought to have culled him the moment he came out of the pouch.”}

Inwardly, Sholan breathed a sigh of relief. At least Bel still pinned his suspicions firmly on Moccas, rather than looking elsewhere. For years, Sholan and his colleague Jiru, undercover in another segment of Bel’s hierarchy, had labored to convince Bel that none of his worlds any longer harbored thoughts of rebellion, at least not in any organized manner. Thus far, their disinformation campaign still bore fruit. {“My Lord, may I ask why you’re discussing this with me?”}

{“I want you to take a squad — Goa’uld, not just Jaffa — and visit Emhain yourself. Pay a visit to each of my worlds, for that matter. But start with Emhain. A show of force reminding the people who is in charge. I’ll visit myself once you report to me the conditions on each.”}

It was an unusual request. Normally, Bel left such visits to his First Prime and the other Jaffa. Tirin and Lan’ac were more than capable of handling them. {“When do you wish us to make these visits, my Lord?”}

{“That I leave up to you, Kasol, provided you do so within the next month. I want you to tour the mines, the processing facilities, and the major population centers, where there are any. Remind them that you are the Bringer of My Wrath and that their god will stand for nothing less than their best. Instill fear into them.”} Bel held out his hand for the data tablet.

Sholan ducked his head as he surrendered the device. {“It will be as you wish, my Lord.”}

{“Well, then. Dismissed.”}

As he exited the inner residence and made his way back up the long corridor that led toward the outside world, Sholan turned the conversation over in his mind. Yes, Bel was paranoid, but he was also hesitant to interact too closely with the human inhabitants of his domain, preferring to delegate such things to his subordinates. He made a yearly visit to each of his worlds on its annual festival day, appearing at its highest holy place with pomp and splendor to receive tribute and proclaim blessing upon those who served him well and visit punishment upn any who did not… but beyond that, he rarely set foot on them except when some wild urge struck him, which wasn’t often. His bad experience several centuries ago had made him reclusive, having narrowly escaped death at the hands of his own offspring — led by Moccas — and disappeared into exile. Upon his return to his domain he had retaken it and while he ruled with an iron hand, his personal visits had grown less frequent with every passing century since then.

It was a good thing for the rebels, of course, and made it easier for Sholan to run interference for them, but secretly he wondered how much longer their luck in this regard would last. Would Bel suddenly decide that in the face of Moccas’ predations, it was time to begin taking a more direct hand in dealing with his little empire? How exposed might the human rebels be as a result?

He paused on the plaza that fronted the palace, gazing at the western sky where the sun was already halfway through the descending portion of its daily arc. Arandesed’s rooftops gleamed with reflected light, and beyond them the low hills surrounding the city rolled away in hazy greens and golds, the colors of the farmers’ fields that supplied the populace with a good portion of their food. He felt the inner pang this sight always brought to his host, knowing that Brice had spent his youth amid Galla’s green hills and fertile farmland and still missed home in unguarded moments. {You’ll see them soon enough,} he commented.

But certainly not the way I’d like, Brice responded. Ah, well. We’ve a job to do.