One man’s magic is another’s engineering. — Lazarus Long (R.A. Heinlein, The Notebooks of Lazarus Long)


{“You wished to see me?”} Sabar paused at the entry to Garlen’s chamber, deep within the hidden fortress of Caer Ynys.

The other Tok’bel looked up from his seat at a worktable just inside the doorway. The table’s surface was littered with evidence of a brilliant, if eclectic, technical mind. A trio of data pads nestled among naquadah-alloy housing segments and half-dismantled crystal control circuitry Sabar thought he recognized as belonging to at least three different devices. A fourth, larger datascreen occupied table’s the far end where Garlen sat with a mug of steaming tea in one hand and a stylus in the other. {“Come in, Sabar, and take a look at this with me.”}

Sabar approached, taking up a position just behind Garlen’s right shoulder. Row upon row of symbolic script glowed softly on the screen; though he recognized the characters themselves, their arrangement yielded little that he could readily decipher beyond one or two basic logical statements. {“What am I looking at?”}

{“The key to Bel’s kingdom, so to speak.”}

{“Say that again.”} Sabar peered at the display. The lines of code still meant little to his untrained eye, but he knew Garlen could read them easily.

Garlen set his mug down and pivoted in his seat. {“I’ve broken the locking algorithm that controls Bel’s ring transporters. One of our operatives at the Galla shipyards managed to pass a copy of the code along, so now we have access to the system.”} He patted the top of the screen. {“That little invention I showed you plans for last year? This is what will allow it to work.”}

{“The control program for his is different from what runs the one on my tel’tak?”}

Garlen nodded. {“The hardware is identical, but the software is different. Mostly it’s a matter of security routines, since Bel is so paranoid. Remember, he doesn’t trust any of his offspring, especially now that Moccas has been nibbling around his domain. The last thing he wants is for one of them to figure out how to ring a strike force right into the palace or onto his flagship. So he had his techs rework the system to guard against it.”}

Sabar grinned. {“And now you’re saying we have that ability?”}

{“In theory, we do. In reality… ”} Garlen grimaced. {“Let’s just say we’d only get one chance and it would have to be a very small force. There are better ways for us to use this ability.”} He brightened. {“There are enough interesting tricks in here that I’ve got some ideas how to improve our own systems. I can even set it up so ours should be undetectable by anything not native to our own network. Mind if I make a few changes to the transporter on your ship?”}

Under normal circumstances, the ring system on a Goa’uld or Tok’ra vessel could detect nearby ring platforms on a planetary surface or in nearby ships. The ability to go stealth would provide an additional safeguard for Caer Ynys – or any Tok’ra base – should a Goa’uld ship pass within close range. And it would be invaluable for situations that might bring Sabar’s tel’tak in range of such a vessel, as was anticipated in the planned mission to steal Bel’s newest ha’tak, currently under construction at Galla.

{“Do it.”} Sabar drew up another seat at the table and occupied it. {“Did we get a progress report on the construction?”}

Garlen frowned. {“According to Tamar’c, the operative who got us this code, things are a bit delayed. Apparently one of the main external hull segments was being rotated into place, and the grav-generator they were using to manipulate it cut out. Inertia carried the segment right into the near side of the dry-dock. It sheared off part of the structure, depressurized the dock’s command center, and then wrapped itself around the station’s lift core.”}

Sabar let out a low whistle. {“When was this?”}

{“About four days ago now. Tamar’c says they’ll have to rebuild part of the dock, plus repairing the command center and the core. The hull segment is probably a total loss and will have to be refabricated. All this could add as much as six months to the construction time-frame”.}

Well, at least that gives us additional time to prepare, offered Cadogan silently.

{True,} Sabar acknowledged. Aloud, he said, {“We’ll have to recalibrate our timetable as we get new information.”}

Sefys appeared at the doorway. {“Excuse me, Sabar. Nasara is here to see you.”}

While Nasara’s arrival was unscheduled, it was certainly welcome. Just as long as she doesn’t make yet another ‘offer’ to couple with us, Cadogan reminded his symbiote.

Sabar chuckled inwardly. {She won’t. We extracted a promise from her the last time she was here, remember?}

Nasara awaited them in the dining lounge where she sat alone at a corner table, contemplating the steam that rose from the bowl and mug before her. {“Sabar,”} she said by way of greeting as they sat down across from her. {“I’m on my way to meet with Lantash on Qus. But I have a bit of time to spare, so I thought I would pay you a visit.”}

{“Well met, as always.”} Sabar eyed her, noting the desert robe that cloaked her host’s slender frame. She’d thrown back its cowl, and a sand-colored rucksack occupied the seat beside her. Qus, he recalled, was one of the worlds controlled by Ra, where he’d settled the bulk of his human slaves in arid climes that bordered the more fertile regions where his Jaffa multiplied and nurtured his offspring. {“Dare I ask what the Council have you and Lantash doing this time?”}

{“This isn’t Council business. Lantash wants to follow up on a hunch.”}

{“What kind of hunch?”}

Nasara pursed her lips for a moment before speaking. {“You recall I told you some years back about that rebel who’s given Ares so much trouble? Ma’chello?”}

{“The one from Dendred, that he’s been seeking for, what is it, some fifty years now?”}

{“Yes. Ares found him, and tried to make a host of him. Ma’chello escaped just before the implantation ceremony was to have occurred.”}

Sabar frowned. {“A host? Ma’chello must be an elderly man by now, no? Why would Ares wish to saddle his son with an aged host rather than a young, healthy one?”}

{“Because despite Ares’ best efforts and those of his First Prime, they gained virtually no information from Ma’chello. They tortured him for half a year, repeatedly reviving him in a sarcophagus, but the man must have a will of steel because he never broke. Implanting him was the only way to access knowledge of his rebel network and the devices he is said to have invented to fight the Goa’uld.”}

I don’t like the sound of that at all, came Cadogan’s silent comment.

{“The Goa’uld almost never give any thought to the host’s mind once they have commandeered the body, lest their own thoughts be contaminated,”} Sabar protested. {“That’s what they regard as Egeria’s worst flaw — and our own.”}

{“Yes; well, Ares in his rage has thrown convention aside and in so doing has found a frighteningly useful tool.”} Nasara shook her head sadly. {“He first located and captured Ma’chello’s wife and ordered her implanted with another of his brood, to lay a trap for Ma’chello. When the trap was sprung, they had their quarry in hand. After traditional methods of interrogation proved fruitless, Ares opted to use another of his siblings in a similar fashion. I can’t say Hephaestus was thrilled at the prospect of being ordered to change hosts, but Ares was quite intractable.”}

The image chilled Sabar to the core. {“You were there?”}

{“I was. Just after your last visit to Rak’lar, the Council ordered me to infiltrate Ares’ domain. Anise surmised that if half the rumors about Ma’chello’s work are true, there might be value in figuring out where he’s hidden some of the devices he’s made. But with her host Lena showing so much age, Anise obviously couldn’t go herself — at least not with the objective of presenting as Goa’uld and getting close to Ares. The Council sent me instead. So I saw everything, including Ares’ response to Ma’chello’s escape. He went personally to Dendred and ordered its leaders brought to him for questioning. Not one of them would volunteer a word as to where Ma’chello had gone. Ares had every one of them tortured with pain sticks, and two actually died. Still he got nothing, even when his ha’taks began blasting population centers from orbit.”}

Sabar caught the taste of Cadogan’s horror and tried to reassure his host. {Steady, my friend.} Aloud, he asked, {“How long ago was all this?”}

{“Ma’chello disappeared just over six weeks ago, and I got away from Ares’ fleet as soon as I could afterward. I had to stage a bit of an accident with a tel’tak, but Maia and I were able to walk away, if none too comfortably.”} Nasara grimaced. {“We’d seen enough, while learning precious little because even Ares hasn’t a clue. Wasted nearly a year. Meanwhile Anise and Lantash, dosed with sheta and in the guise of a human woman and her son, followed up other leads that suggest Ma’chello did not confine his activities to Ares’ realm alone. They didn’t really find anything, and returned to Rak’lar some time before I did. But Lantash won’t let it go, and went off to Qus on the basis of some whisper he heard while they were on assignment. Anise has no interest in joining his explorations, and the Council have sent Jolinar elsewhere, so Anise suggested I might go and meet up with him. At the very least, I can replenish his supply of sheta. I suspect the Council are almost relieved he’s found something with which to occupy himself in Jolinar’s absence, even if it bears little fruit in the end.”}

{“Do you need anything? Sheta, or whatever?”}

Nasara shook her head. {“No, I have everything I need. I just wanted to bring you the news. How are things with you?”}

Sabar brought her up to date while carefully leaving out the more troubling details of recent events, especially in light of what she’d just related. If the Goa’uld began taking serious notice of their hosts’ minds, the way his own folk had done since Egeria spawned them, the risk to the Tok’bel and to Cadogan’s rebels would go up immeasurably. Bel’s queen Zara still spawned offspring regularly to replenish the supply of symbiotes for the realm’s Jaffa, and a few of each brood were chosen to receive hosts at maturity. Decades ago, Cadogan’s own son Garin had been made host to Bel’s son Calir, and only Calir’s complete disinterest in Garin’s mind had prevented Bel from learning the full extent of the Tok’bel’s and Am Rhyddid’s activities. Certainly, the Am Rhyddid and its sister movements had been careful since that time to prevent those with knowledge of the rebellion from being taken as potential hosts, but they had also relied upon the Goa’uld habit of disregarding the original occupants of their host bodies for protection.

After seeing Nasara on her way, Sabar called Kharys, Garlen, Sefys and Kaldin together in the conference chamber and apprised them of what he’d learned. {“This may pose a real danger, both to us and to our human associates. If any of you have ideas as to how we can safeguard the movement, I’d like to hear them.”}

Sefys pursed his lips. {“Right now, I think the only safety we have lies in the very small number of offspring Bel allows to actually take hosts once their time with the Jaffa is over. His paranoia is to our benefit. But is it enough?”}

{“I doubt it.”} Kharys looked thoughtful. {“I never thought I’d say this, but I wonder if the Council have been right all along. Perhaps we should not have allied ourselves openly with the Am Rhyddid.”}

{“It’s too late to turn back,”} cautioned Garlen. {“We’ve tied our efforts so thoroughly to these rebels that even were we to abandon them now, it’s likely Bel might track us down out of spite if he learned the truth. Better we should focus on finding a way to deal with the situation as it stands.”}

{“Agreed,”} said Kaldin. {“So what do we do?”}

Sabar looked from one to another of his friends in turn, around the polished table. {“I think what we need is some method for suppressing or even eradicating knowledge or memories in the event a human is taken as a host by anyone not of Egeria’s line, since all of us are Tok’ra born. But it has to operate only in that event. We can’t have people just forgetting at random. How can we achieve this?”}

Garlen appeared to consider the question. {“The technology to influence human thought from the outside does exist, of course. It is possible to force someone to recall memories, and even to manipulate dreams in real-time. But it requires an external device, and that isn’t going to work in this situation.”}

Kaldin nodded. {“We need something internal, that a symbiote can’t detect. A post-hypnotic suggestion, perhaps?”}

{“There’s virtually no way to administer that to every individual who’s come in contact with us or with the rebellion,”} Sabar replied. {“I doubt we could even count on getting it to every rebel and their immediate family. After more than a century of activity, knowledge of the rebels and of ourselves — or at least the suspicion we exist — is too widespread for that.”}

{“Something miniaturized, programmable, and capable of spreading on its own through the general population might do,”} mused Kharys.

Garlen started. {“You mean nanites?”}

{“Possibly. If they were constructed of organic materials and programmed to break down and be absorbed or excreted after delivering their programming, they’d be undetectable by the Goa’uld.”} In typical fashion, Kharys warmed to a concept if it presented an interesting biological problem, Sabar noted.

Kaldin groaned. {“I’m not enamored of nanites. Can’t trust them.”}

{“We may have no choice,”} Sabar told him, then turned to his science and technology experts. {“Do you think you can make this work?”}

{“I can come up with the programming,”} said Garlen. {“The delivery system will pose constraints, but I can develop something to work with those — as soon as I know what they are.”}

{“Let me experiment with some common human viruses,”} suggested Kharys. {“I  might be able to tailor one of them to suit our needs.”}

Sabar nodded, satisfied for now at least that his people would forge a solution if one were possible. {“Get on it, then.”}