Authors: Bill McCay
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #High Tech, #General
Dawn was still hours away, but a subtle lightening of the shadows in the suburban bedroom foretold that sunrise, inevitably, would come. Bit by tiny bit, Sarah O'Neil could distinguish more and more details on the dresser and bureaus. She lay propped on one elbow, silently studying her bedmate in the indistinct gloom. Soon Colonel Jack O'Neil would be up, shaved, starched, and off to the nearby Marine base. Sarah was glad that his classified tasks now involved deskwork instead of killing people in the field-for the time being, at least. She'd feared his most recent mission was to have been his last. Jack had fallen apart when their son, Jack Junior, died in a gun accident. Their all-American boy had joined the casualty lists in a case of friendly fire-from jack's own pistol. In the months that followed, Jack had either avoided this bed or lain beside her, his entire body tight as a clenched fist. For hours he'd sat alone in his den, playing with a 1911 Army Colt automatic, an old-line officer's sidearm, .45 caliber-capable of spattering his brains all over the wall if he finally decided to swallow the gun barrel. When the orders came, sending Jack away on another mission, Sarah believed his superiors were merely aiming him like a piece of ordnance-a combination suicide bomb and detonator. But Jack had come back. And she had been surprised by joy when, even more inexplicably, Jack returned a healing man. Their son's death wasn't completely behind him, but somewhere on this mission he never spoke about, he'd come to terms with Jack junior's loss. Jack returned neither as the walking wreckage he'd been right after the funeral, nor the near parody of the spit-andPolish officer he'd transformed into upon getting his orders. He'd been-himself again. And on his return from wherever, they'd made love for the first time in too, too long. As soon as he'd undressed, Sarah saw he had not had an easy mission. Technicolor bruises marred Jack's ribs and the pit of his stomach-souvenirs of brutal hand-to-hand combat. She'd tried to be gentle. And the usually gungho colonel had been almost shy, as if he wasn't sure the pieces would fit together again. They certainly had, and that had helped the healing. Silently, Sarah examined the familiar features. From the moment she'd met the cocky young combat corporal, she'd been struck by the contradiction implicit in his go-to-hell eyes and his set, determined jaw. Now the eyes were closed, the jaw softened. In the vulnerability of sleep, the elder Jack looked almost like his lost son. Sarah slid across the bed, wrapping her arms around her husband as if trying to shield him with her body. After months of quiet, she knew that today one of those shadowy superiors Jack answered to would be coming to the base. He's had so little time to be a human being-so little practice, she thought as she clung to her husband. I hope they won't send him somewhere that will turn him back into a robot again. On the planet Abydos, Daniel Jackson looked up at the ceiling and surreptitiously flexed his fingers in an attempt to bring circulation back to his right arm. Not that he minded the reason for the lost blood supply. Sha'uri's head lay across his biceps as she cuddled against him, the fine features of her face burrowing into his chest. Daniel had followed a strange road to get here. Fellow Egyptologists had dismissed him as a crank for arguing that the sudden flowering of Nile civilization must have its roots in an earlier culture. But he'd found an artifact of that predecessor civilization on a hush-hush government project. He'd christened it a StarGate from hieroglyphics connected with the find. Then he'd been put to work deciphering cryptic signs on the StarGate itself, which turned out to represent star constellations. His key had allowed government scientists to unlock the StarGate. And, accompanying a team of recon Marines, Daniel had been hurtled to this strange planet to find Nagada, Sha'uri-and a vengeful semi-human creature who ruled Abydos and other worlds as the sun god Ra. Daniel helped rouse rebellion among the human slaves while the Marines and a few young rebels battled Ra's guardsmen. Both Daniel and Sha'uri were mortally wounded, only to be resurrected by Ra's extraterrestrial technology-a strange quartz-crystal sarcophagus. Ra explained that his technology had been the base of later Egyptian civilization, but his earthly slaves had revolted, burying the StarGate. Now, millennia later, he would punish the human homeworld through the reopened gate. He would send an atomic bomb back to Colorado, amplifying its power with his mysterious quartz-crystal. Revolt and the efforts of the Marines forestalled that plan. In the end, the nuclear blast had destroyed Ra himself. Daniel decided to stay on Abydos. The local population had not only been used shamelessly, they'd been kept illiterate and ignorant of their past. Daniel could teach them-while at the same time learning the roots of Egyptian culture. Besides, he was living out an adventure of the sort he'd only expected to see on movie screens. He'd even wed the local chief's daughter. Daniel stared up at the cracked adobe-style ceiling. There was much to be fixed here. He'd started by trying to get the local population literate. In the past months, he had taught hieroglyphics to a basic cadre-Sha'uri, several of the local Elders, and a number of interested townsfolk. This first generation was now teaching basic classes while Daniel gave advanced instruction. Today, his postgrad workshop had met in the secret archives of Nagada.
Generations of secret scribes had filled the walls of a hidden room with the true history of Ra's infamy, despite the sungod's proscription on writing. One of Daniel's first actions was to copy these hieroglyphics.
He remembered Sha'uri's halting translation of one section. "When those on Ombos rebelled, Hathor went forth as the Eye of Ra. She covered that world in blood, till, wounded, she entered the vault of Ra to sleep ever since." Daniel was reminded of an Egyptian myth. To foil a human revolt, Ra sent cat-headed Hathor, goddess of lust and quick vengeance, to slaughter the conspirators. But she developed a taste for blood, planning to kill all of humanity. The gods, concerned at the loss of worshipers, created a lake of beer stained with berry juice. The bloodthirsty goddess drank it up, fell into a drunken sleep, and awoke as her usual light-hearted and sexy self. Now we have the history behind the myth, Daniel thought. Thanks to hieroglyphics. But a voice nagged from the back of his head. Maybe you should be teaching these people English instead. Nagada depended on agriculture and handicrafts-a subsistence economy, but most of the work force had been miners. The city was near a deposit of that quartz-like crystal used in so much of Ra's technology. It had been a major export, even if the people had gotten nothing back. it might become a paying export after the scientists on Earth saw some of the items O'Neil brought back through the StarGate. Daniel tried to caution Sha'uri's father Kasuf and other city
Elders about terrestrial business ethics. But it was hard even to explain what a corporation was. For Kasuf and the others, visitors through the StarGate were friends, and perhaps heroes. Daniel could only hope it would stay that way. Sha'uri shifted and sighed. She opened her eyes, giving him a sleepy smile. "Dan-yer," she whispered, pronouncing his name in her local tongue. Smiling back, Daniel decided to put his worries on the back burner. The marble halls on the moonlet of Tuat were not made for raised voices. Especially this hall, with its pyramidal dome of crystal rising to a point far overhead. Not for the first time, Thoth wondered why Ra had topped this particular structure with a dome of viewing. Outside was merely airless rock, unblinking stars, and, hanging in the sable sky, the grayish-blue bulk of the world this moonlet circled. Even after ten millennia, the planet had yet to recover from ecological catastrophe. According to the secret records, this is where Ra had found his first servants, the hands that had built the StarGates, the exoskeletal helmets, and the weapons that marked godhood for Ra's human servants. The records hinted of a bargain being struck, that Ra would take the inhabitants from their ruined planet to a new ore. However, that world had turned out to be Ombos, the world of blood. Thoth raised his eyes to consider the planet above. Whoever those first servants had been, they'd built well. Even from this distance he could make out the regular lines of their ruined habitations. "Look at me, Ammit devour you!" Sebek's voice boomed and echoed in the enclosed space. Sighing, Thoth redirected his regard to the man prowling the pillared central aisle. He didn't know why Sebek kept glancing around. He'd picked this spot for their clandestine meeting. Thoth didn't mention that THREE other godlets-who-would-beRa had chosen the same place. It was hard to believe that he and Sebek had long ago been part of the same brood of tribute children sent to serve Ra-pretty boys and girls. They'd grown up very differently. Thoth had risen to head Ra's bureaucracy, becoming the accountant of the gods.
Physically, he resembled the headdress-creature that marked his godhood.
Thoth was the This-headed god-and the This was a stork-like bird.
Spindly of arms and legs, with an incipient potbelly, Thoth was not an impressive sight in his white linen kilt. Sebek, on the other hand, was the crocodile god, renowned for cruelty, one of Ra's planetary viceroys, an overseer of overseers. He had the thick, muscular body of a warrior.
And if he didn't have the grace of lost Anubis, foremost of Ra's fighters, he certainly had strength to spare. Right now he looked as if he was just barely restraining himself from using that strength to break Thoth's arms and legs. Thoth kept his eyes on the prowling warrior. He was reasonably sure that Sebek would not descend to the use of such forceful expedients-at least, not yet. But Thoth had learned to keep an eye on adversaries, even those courting his support. For that was what all these skulking colloquies were about-on whose side would the machinery of administration fall? "Several of Khnum's people died in a set-to with some Horus guards serving Apis," Sebek said. "The Ram has been pushing the Bull hard of late. He turned cold, shrewd eyes to Thoth. "Not that I'm telling you anything. Your scribes make excellent spies. I saw it often enough on Wefen. Ra seemed to know my secrets almost as soon as I knew them." Sebek swerved in his prowling course to confront Thoth. "But," he said, his voice dropping, "such a system can work only if there is strength at the head. I'm sure you know many things. But whom can you tell now?" Thoth said nothing. In truth, the scribes had provided much useful intelligence for Ra. But now Ra was gone, vanished for months after what was supposed to be a short voyage and visit at the backwater world of Abydos. From all over Ra's compact empire, warrior gods came by StarGate to Tuat-the-world and flew up to Tuat-the-moon-for Ra never allowed Star Gate access to his personal sanctum. And on a moonlet where Thoth had once enjoyed a position as second after Ra-as chief administrator-warriors and viceroys now jostled one another, their servants testing the aggressiveness and resolution of other factions. Predators all, they had been held in check because Ra had culled the pack. But now it seemed more and more evident that Ra was no more. The warriors' minds turned naturally to calculations of succession. And for the more thoughtful minority such as Sebek and a few others-those calculations went beyond quantifying the number of available bodies and the tally of blast-lances those bodies could use.
"You could choose worse to back than me," Sebek went on. "We ate at the same table as boys-served Him together." Throughout this talk, Thoth realized, Sebek had never mentioned Ra by name. The warrior's voice dropped to a whisper. "I remember how you dreaded it whenever you displeased Him-how you feared the punishment He might mete out." Sebek speared his old mate with cold eyes. "Think what punishment I'm capable of. And if you won't serve me for old affection's sake-then fear me!"
He turned and left Thoth alone in the hall. Raising his eyes again, Thoth studied the pitiless stars. Trust Sebek to issue the most direct offer and to couch it as a threat. Certainly, there were worse candidates for the place of power. Sebek could field a sufficient force to seize the prize. But even with Thoth behind him, could Sebekcould any of the would-be successors-retain power in the face of resistance from the other contenders? Or would the battering of the warriors destroy the prize? Shatter the irreplacable mechanical and human gears that allowed the empire to function? Not to mention that backing the wrong aspirant could get Thoth killed. If Anubis was amongst them, a fighter of such proven ferocity that the pack could be curbed ... But Anubis had gone with Ra. No comparable warrior walked the halls of Tuat. Unless Thoth resolved on a far more dangerous gamble. He had to decide soon, before hand-to-hand brawls became pitched battles with energy weapons. A dubious prospect, with hard vacuum beyond the walls of Ra's pleasure domes. Still worse, there would be no room to maneuver, no chance to temporize with Sebek and the others who wanted Thoth's support. Thoth activated his headgear, allowing the aspect of the This to cover his face. His gangling frame moved smoothly, imbued with sudden purpose. He headed for the lower levels of the pyramid, domain of machinery and the occasional mechanic. But building plans existed, and these had to be recorded, filed, and thus passed into the hands of the scribes. Thanks to the plans, Thoth had found the airlock, and thanks to other records he had learned of the necessities for workers to wear on their infrequent maintenance jobs outside. The suit accommodated his kilt but tightly gripped his chest and extremities in a sensation unfamiliar on skin that usually went bare. Hookups ran to his helmet so he could breathe. He cycled through the lock and set off across the bare rock.