Chapter 1: Guardian Angel
An unexpected arrival at the SGC causes all kinds of headaches for O'Neill.
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
You make me happy when skies are grey,
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you,
Please don't take my sunshine away.
The other night, dear, as I lay dreaming,
I dreamt that you were by my side,
Came disillusion, when I awoke, dear,
You were gone, and then I cried.
You told me once, dear, there'd be no other,
That no one else could come between,
But now you've left me, to love another,
You have broken all my dreams.
I'll always love you, and make you happy,
If you will only do the same,
But if you leave me, how it will grieve me,
Never more I'll breathe your name.
The machines towered upwards, vanishing into a gloom beyond the reach of the flashlight. Strange shapes looped of metal rings and squat pillars cast giant shadows that moved and changed shape every time Sunlight took a step forward. Unseen monsters lurked in every corner and she shivered in spite of the warm air. You couldn't hear the monsters, but that proved nothing, monsters were very clever at keeping quiet.
"It's okay," said Kantele. "Nothing lives here."
She held him up to look at him better and fumbled as she did so, the flashlight falling out of her unsteady fingers. For a moment, the falling light animated Kantele and it seemed as though his wings were really flying. She clutched the carved wooden angel for dear life and whispered, "I want to go home."
"We will." The lips didn't move, but Sunlight could hear his voice clearly. "Find the flashlight first. Put me in your bag, that'll make it easier for you to hold the flashlight."
"But you won't be able to see."
"It's all right, I can see through the bag."
So she put Kantele into her shoulder bag, the pretty pink one with the beads that Grandpa had given her on her birthday, and reached under the machine where the flashlight had rolled.
It had gone too far.
"I can't get it."
"Yes, you can." His voice was gentle and soothing.
"That big thing will fall on top of me."
"It's been there for a long time. It won't fall now."
"I want Mommy."
Kantele's voice was patient, the way Grandpa was when you didn't understand the rules of a new game. "Hold my hand. I won't let it fall on you."
She put one hand in her bag and held the wooden hand that was even smaller than her own, and crawled a little way under the alien metalwork. The queasy smell of old oil lingered there in the still air, adding to her awareness of the weight above her. Sunlight froze.
"It's all right, little one," Kantele said. "Just stretch out for it."
Reluctant fingers reached forward and touched the hard plastic of the flashlight. She grabbed it, wriggled backwards in panic and caught the leg of her denims on a protruding bracket. Tougher than the butterflies embroidered on it might have suggested, the fabric held and she managed to twist free without injury. Shaking in reaction, she ran trembling fingers over the butterflies to make sure that they weren't hurt.
"Can you see that red light?" Kantele asked.
Sunlight looked up to see where he meant. It wasn't much of a light, more like a sort of round, red glow, from a small dome on top of a pedastal that was as tall as she was. Behind the pedastal was a Stargate, just like the one she'd come through before. It might even have been the same one. The rim shone oddly in the light of her flashlight, sort of shiny and not shiny, but there was no light in the middle.
"It isn't working," she said.
"That's because we have to switch this one on ourselves."
"Why can't Grandpa do it?"
"Grandpa isn't here."
"Is Grandpa..." But she couldn't bring herself to say it. If you didn't say it, then maybe it wasn't true. Grandpa had said Kantele's magic would make everything all right again, bring everyone back, bring Mommy and Daddy back. Grandpa had to be right. Even Daddy listened to Grandpa.
"Can you reach the buttons on the top?"
Sunlight stretched as high as she could on tip-toe, but it was no good. It was too high at the back.
"Okay," said Kantele, "we'll try plan B." He didn't sound scared. That helped. "We just have to find something for you to stand on.
There were lots of funny bits of equipment around, but Kantele said most of them were no good because they had sharp edges or were too big to move. Others were too small or too wobbly for her to balance on. Eventually Sunlight found a box beneath a tall, grey machine. It might not have been an actual box, but it was at least box-shaped. Too heavy to carry, it succumbed to her efforts to push and drag it across the floor into position. Once it was next to the pedastal, she stood on it and finally she could reach all the buttons. They all had funny symbols on them, like raised carvings that you could feel with your fingers.
"Hey! Don't push that one. You've got to do it in the right order. See the top one in the inside ring? The U-shaped one with a dot on top."
"That's it. Push that one. Now count four to the right of it. Right, not left. Okay, push that one."
It was quite fun really. Each button lit up when you pressed it and the Stargate started moving round just like the one back home. Then it whooshed out at her like a massive great sideways waterfall, and she ran away from it because it was huge and frightening and it hadn't looked so big before when she'd seen the whoosh from a distance. Even when it settled down to looking like a pool of water, she still didn't want to go close to it.
"Sunlight, you have to. It's the only way home."
"But it'll be cold again, and all whirly and make me feel dizzy."
"Yes. But it's still the only way home. You'll feel better if you hold me."
The light from the Stargate was brighter than that from the flashlight, so she put the flashlight down and took Kantele in her hands. It was reassuring to feel the smoothness of the pale-coloured wood under her fingers.
"Whoops. Hang on," Kantele said. "I almost forgot. You'll need the remote."
"It's part of the magic."
The remote was in the pink-beaded bag along with Grandpa's letter, a couple of CDs and her lucky charm bracelet. She took it out and turned Kantele round so that he could see better.
"Which channel do I want?"
"Press seven then four. That's right. Now press the two, and six, then six again."
"Is it going to work?"
"Well, if it doesn't, we'll neither of us have anything to worry about ever again. Come on, best foot forward."
It was cold and it was whirly and every bit as bad as before. It was even worse than going down the water slide at Disneyworld, but after a few eternal seconds she came out the other side into concrete and light. There were people here, lots of people, and for a moment she was glad to see them because this was where she was meant to be going, but they were dressed in green and black and they were all pointing guns at her. That wasn't how it was supposed to be.
Sunlight froze at the top of the ramp. They had to have come to the wrong place.
"Wait, little one," said Kantele. "Don't be afraid yet."
Then she saw him, coming through the door in the corner.
"Daddy!" she shrieked and ran down the ramp towards him.
Daddy squatted down to meet her, but he didn't look excited at all; his forehead was all crumpled in confusion.
"The letter," Kantele said. "You've got to give him Grandpa's letter. It's the last part of the magic."
The letter was all scrunched up at the bottom of her bag, but she pulled it out and offered it tentatively. "Grandpa said you've got to read it."
Daddy gave her a funny look, but he smoothed out the paper and read what was written on it. When he got to the bottom, he smiled at her, a real smile.
"It's all right," he said. "Everything's going to be all right."
She smiled back and held out her arms. Daddy picked her up and she buried her head in his shoulder. He was warm and comfortable and smelled of home.
"Listen carefully, kids," he said. "I may have to tell a few whoppers. Whatever I say or do in the next hour or so, don't contradict me. It's important. Understand?"
She nodded, not understanding at all. It wasn't important. She was back with Daddy and he would look after everything now.
The child was so fragile, dark circles under her eyes and long gangly limbs. Maybe some day she'd grow into a beauty like her mother, but right now, she was small, exhausted and if the arms clutching him round the neck were anything to go by, terrified.
"O'Neill," Teal'c said, coming up beside him, "the child appears to know you."
"She does," he said shortly. "It's complicated. She's also either goa'uld or Tok'ra. And until I work out which, you are not to tell anyone - that includes Hammond and Daniel. I'll deal with Carter when she gets back from Stanford."
He headed up the metal staircase to the briefing room, going slow to keep his balance with the weight he was carrying. There was no need to ask whether there would be a debriefing session: some things in life were easy to predict, others threw curve balls that you couldn't have anticipated in a thousand years. He was aware of Teal'c behind him and that was good. You could depend on Teal'c. He'd keep quiet, but he would also be alert for any possible danger. Teal'c never allowed sentiment to blind him. Well, almost never.
Daniel was already sitting at the table, fingers steepled in front of him. Looking at O'Neill carrying the child, his eyebrows raised in unspoken question. Hammond was more forthright.
"Well, Colonel? I trust you do have an explanation."
O'Neill slid into the nearest seat, stalling for time and tried to sit Sunlight next to him, but she refused to let go. With a mental shrug, he settled her on his lap, her arms still clutching him, and wrapped an arm protectively around her.
"Colonel, I'm still waiting." Hammond's Texan accent was noticeably stonger when he was annoyed.
O'Neill's lips twitched into a grimace. "Her name is Sunlight on Water. She's my daughter."
He wasn't sure who looked more surprised, Hammond or Daniel. Even Teal'c blinked. This wasn't going to be easy. It was a good thing Carter wasn't here, that would probably have tipped a difficult situation into an impossible one.
"Her mother and grandparents are-" He mimed a throat-cutting gesture, not wanting to upset the girl.
"And her mother was?" demanded Hammond.
Hammond looked puzzled, but Daniel nodded in sudden understanding. "Of course. You caught the aging disease because you had, er," he paused to rub the lenses of his glasses, "physical contact with her." He caught Hammond's eye. "It was on Argos. Jack was drugged at the time, it wasn't exactly his fault."
"You visited Argos a little over four years ago," Hammond said thoughtfully.
O'Neill kept his mouth firmly shut. Leave it to the scientists. They could always improve on any theory as long as they thought of it for themselves. Sure enough, it didn't take Daniel more than a few seconds.
"Of course, you have to allow for the effect of the nanocytes. Kynthia was aging much faster than the norm. A pregnancy could be well advanced in only a couple of days. It gives a fair bit of flexibility with regard to Sunlight on Water's exact age."
Yep, that sounded pretty convincing, allowed him plenty of scope.
"I see." Hammond looked almost mellow for a moment, then pierced O'Neill with a glare. "And just how did she come to have SG1's iris code?"
Shit. Now he was really in it. Up to his neck.
Sunlight looked up. "Grandpa said-" She shut up abruptly.
O'Neill sighed in resignation. "I gave it to her grandfather, so that if anything happened, he could contact me. I went back there a couple of times. I took Sunlight a few things, clothes, toys, that sort of thing." He caught Hammond's question before the general had a chance to ask it. "No, Sir, it's not in the gate log. I didn't use the Earth gate. There was occasional down-time when we were off-world. It gave me a chance to drop by Argos."
The tone of voice gave nothing away. It was impossible to tell if he was going to get away with a light reprimand or a court martial.
"Jack?" Daniel had that anthropologist look on his face.
"Can I see that toy she's carrying? Is it Argosian?"
"Sunlight?" He patted her gently on the arm. "Can you show it to Daniel?"
She twisted round in his lap and looked at everyone seated at the table, as if suddenly realising something. Then she placed the figure on the table, allowing him to see it clearly for the first time. It looked like something out of a nativity scene: harp in hand and wings raised for flight. "This is Kantele," she said. "He's my guardian angel."
Guardian angel? Well, that was certainly a new twist.
"Interesting." Daniel had a knack for the totally irrelevant. "The name's actually a Finnish word."
"Really." O'Neill injected the word with as much sarcasm as he could manage. Daniel, as usual, took no apparent notice.
"Yes, it's a kind of ancient lap harp. You'll notice that the angel is playing a harp."
"Look, I don't care about Finnish etymology, I just got it her for Christmas."
Now if he knew Daniel, that should provoke an outburst and hopefully change the subject...
"Jack, do you realise what you've been doing to their culture?"
"You're contaminating their religious beliefs."
"In case it escaped your notice, they were worshipping a goa'uld!"
Daniel was pounding the table now. "That's not the point!"
The sound of the speaker cut through the debate. "Incoming traveller. SG-7 returning."
"Enough," Hammond said. "We'll wrap this up for now. There's a lot to think about." He got to his feet, then paused. "Colonel, why call her Sunlight on Water?"
O'Neill felt the quicksand shift under his feet, then looked out of the window to the answer staring him in the face. He gestured towards the Stargate, with its pool of shifting light patterns. "The gate, Sir. That's how I met her mother."
Why did infirmaries look so universally uninviting? All hospitals had that air of antiseptic sterility, but the SGC surpassed them with ease. Maybe it was the glamour of all those unrelieved concrete walls, or the complete absence of messy things like windows, or perhaps it was just that all the nurses were military? Who knew? At any rate, he'd never liked the place and was obscurely pleased that Sunlight didn't like it either.
She stopped in the doorway and tugged hard on his hand to try and pull him out again.
"Don't go in there, Daddy. It's a bad place."
"It's all right, honey. I'll take care of you."
Every head in the room turned towards the scream.
"Hey-" he shrugged at them "-the kid doesn't like hospitals."
Most eyes turned away, but a few remained tracking him surreptiously. Did the SGC rumour mill really operate that fast, or were they just curious at seeing a child around? He caught sight of Doc Fraiser hurrying in from the next room. Well, not exactly hurrying, just that brisk walk that got her places fast without ever looking as though she was worried about anything. Never do to scare the patients.
"Doc," he called.
"Colonel. What can I do for you?" She squatted down to Sunlight's height. "Hello. Who are you?"
Sunlight stood silent, clutching her angel, so O'Neill lifted her up and rested her weight against his hip.
"Sunlight on Water, meet Dr Fraiser. Doc, meet Sunlight O'Neill."
Someone lying on a nearby bed snickered. So the news had spread already.
That earned him a raised eyebrow and an inquiring tilt of the head, but nothing more. Janet wasn't the kind to comment on someone's personal affairs. Affairs... If only.
"She came though the gate this afternoon. It's a long story."
"I can imagine. Right," Janet was all brisk business, "medical checkup first."
"Can we do it somewhere else? First off, she's scared by this place, and secondly-" he glanced pointedly around the sea of faces "-we could use some privacy. How about one of the iso-bays?"
"All right, bay number three."
She gestured to him to precede her down the corridor. As soon as they were out of earshot of the curious, he turned to her.
"Janet, get Jacob Carter to meet us there. Use any excuse you like as long as you don't mention Sunlight."
"Is he on base?"
"I think he's having talks with SG-9. I sincerely hope so."
Sunlight tugged at his ear. "Kantele says you've got to bring a laptop."
"Does he? Okay, boss. Doc, make that Jacob Carter plus a laptop."
Janet managed an intimidating glare from about a foot below his head. "You'd better have a damn good explanation for all this, Colonel."
The iso-bay was spartan, two bunks, two chairs plus a table, one wash-basin, one toilet and very little else. The standard of decoration was on a par with the rest of SGC, a delightful combination of plain concrete, water-stained concrete and concrete with the occasional bit of gravel for heightened contrast. Oh, and a bonus in this particular room, especially for your delectation - concrete with exposed reinforcing rod.
A positive wealth of things to entertain a small child.
He sat down on the lower bunk. "Okay, Sunlight, here's what we're going to do. We're going to make a tent. We take the blanket off this bunk, tuck the middle of it through the base boards of the bunk above us and then spread the corners out."
"Are we allowed to do that?"
She giggled - the first time he'd felt anything other than fear from her. Construction of the tent took several minutes of scrambling around, getting in each other's way and generally enjoying themselves. About the time they decided to hold an Indian war, there was a knock on the door.
"Someone's there," Sunlight said helpfully.
"Okay, Sunshine, time for a pow-wow."
Jacob opened the door and looked curiously at the construction work on the bunk. As Dr Fraiser followed him, his expression shifted abruptly.
"Jack, what the hell do you think you're doing bringing a goa'uld onto the base!"
A face popped out of the tent. "Grandpa?"
"Jacob, is that any way to greet an old friend?"
Janet looked at Jacob in amazement. "If you're her grandfather, then I don't like what I think I'm thinking."
"I've never seen-"
"Jake," O'Neill said decisively. Sit down. Shut up. Read this." He took a much scrumpled letter out of his jacket pocket and handed it over. "This had better be your handwriting."
"It is, but it's not addressed to me."
"Shut up. Read it. Don't say anything, and then forget you ever read it. You too, Doc."
He watched as their eyes flicked down the document. You could virtually tell which line they were on by their expressions. He didn't need to read it again. The contents were engraved on his memory.
Dear Sam and Jack,
By the time you read this, I will probably be dead. Everyone who isn't already dead here is sick or dying. We don't even know where the virus came from, whether it was a natural outbreak or a biological warfare experiment gone wrong. It didn't start in Colorado, so it's unlikely to have been brought back through the stargate. No corner of the globe is unaffected. We have no vaccination that we can develop quickly enough to save ourselves, but perhaps the antibodies in Sunlight's blood will allow you a head start if your reality is struck by the same disease.
You both died a couple of days ago. I haven't told Sunlight, but I think she knows. She's the last of the Carters and I'm giving her the only gift I can. It seems apropriate somehow - Kantele is one of the last of the Tok'ra. The goa'uld destroyed their base a month ago and if there are any left as spies on goa'uld ships, we have no way of contacting them.
Kantele loves Sunlight on Water as I do, but this will be hard on him. He will have to bear both my death and the strain of having a child as a host. There are reasons why the Tok'ra do not take young children as hosts.
I will set the gate to take them to P3W-924, Ma'chello had a device there that allowed him to access your reality. Cell tests tell us that you are alive, but that Sunlight has no analogue in your world. I know that you will reach out to your daughter and give her the love and affection that you have always given her until now.
Jacob breathed out in a whoosh. "I've got to give it to you, Jack. You sure do pick them."
"But," Janet said, "if she's-"
"What part of 'shut up and say nothing' didn't you understand?" O'Neill asked in irritation. "Use the laptop, that's what it's for."
"Daddy," Sunlight said, "Kantele says you've got to tell me 'The Three Billy Goats Gruff' while he plays on the computer with Grandpa."
"See, the damn snake's brighter than you are."
"He's not a snake, he's an angel."
O'Neill raised his eyes heavenwards. "I'm sorry, I forgot."
Jacob, silent for a wonder, handed over the laptop and Sunlight opened it up with obvious interest. When O'Neill had her comfortably balanced on his knee with the laptop balanced on her knee in turn, he nodded to Janet and Jacob to sit either side of him on the bunk.
"Once upon a time," O'Neill began, "there were three billy goats named Gruff and they lived in a meadow beside a river." Charlie had loved this story. Charlie wasn't here, but fate had given him a second chance and he was going to hang onto her for all he was worth. "On the far side of the river was a beautiful meadow with long green grass."
Her fingers were typing away at the keyboard, as though they belonged to a completely different entity, which he guessed they did.
Sunlight is too young to fully understand what has happened. Death isn't real to her yet. People she loved were ill, and then they went away and didn't come back again. She cannot understand the concept of a parallel reality. I took her away from the SGC and told her things should be better when we came back again. To her, you are the same people that she knew before. Jack she is already accepting - you are very like your counterpart. With other people, I anticipate problems. You must try and help her adjust. Do not force her to face the reality of what she has lost.
Write down anything you want to say to me. As long as her attention is focussed elsewhere, I can talk to you without her being aware of what I am saying.
Janet pulled a pad and pencil from a pocket.
TELL ME ABOUT THE VIRUS.
There are two CD roms in Sunlight's bag. They contain all the data that you had on the medical computer before...
BEFORE I DIED?
"Yes. Where's Sam? Is she okay?"
GIVING A COUPLE OF LECTURES AT STANFORD.
"On top of the bridge lived a mean old troll. He couldn't eat the grass in the lovely meadow, but he didn't want anyone else to have it either."
Trying to follow the conversation without losing pace on the story was kind of tricky, but he knew this tale so well that he could recite it almost without thinking. Kantele and Selmak were arguing as to who had first dibs on Jacob, seemed as though one of them had died just weeks before Jacob arrived, depending on which version of reality you were in. Jacob was asking about the iris code. Yeah, O'Neill rather wanted to answer to that one himself, given that he stood a fair chance of being court-martialed over it. Why hadn't they used the Tok'ra code? Ah. Okay. Because Jacob and SG9 had decided last week to invalidate it on the grounds that the only Tok'ra who were supposed to know it were dead. Narrow escape from going splat against the iris there.
"And the first billy goat Gruff went 'trip trap, trip trap' over the rickety bridge."
Why was no one asking the question that mattered? Or were they just too embarassed to mention it with him around?
He grabbed the pencil out of Janet's hand.
"And the troll said 'I'm a troll, fol de rol, and I'm going to eat you for my supper.'"
Oh, for Christ's sake.
"But my brother, the second billy goat Gruff will be coming in a minute and he's so much bigger and tastier than I am."
"Of course. Don't you love her?"
The pencil lead snapped as he pressed too hard on the paper, attempting an exclamation mark.
"Jack, I'm so sorry."
And that was supposed to make everything all right?
"I'll get another pencil," Janet said.
"No. Sunlight's getting tired now. Let her sleep when the story's finished. Jack has a lot he needs to discuss with you."
What was the symbiote? A damn mind reader?
"And the third billy goat Gruff came to the bridge, and he was big and he was mean and he was strong. He pawed the ground with his enormous hooves, and he lowered his horns and he charged, and he booted that mean old troll right into the middle of next week.
"And the three billy goats Gruff went 'trip trip, trip trap' over the rickety bridge and into the beautiful meadow full of long green grass and they grew fat and comfortable and lived happily ever after."
There was a smattering of light, ironic applause from the adult members of his audience to which he responded with a theatrical bow of his head.
"Okay, Sunlight, bedtime. Do you want to sleep in the tent?"
She nodded. "Sing me Sunshine."
What the hell was that supposed to mean? He tapped her lightly on the nose with a forefinger. "Okay, but you have to start it."
Obediently, she piped up, "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine."
At least he knew that one. Sounded a lot better in the bathroom than embarrassing himself in front of an audience though. With a rueful smile for Janet's benefit, he tucked Sunlight into the tent, pirated another blanket from the top bunk to cover her and sang her to sleep.
"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
"You make me happy when skies are grey,
"You'll never know, dear, how much I love you,
"Please don't take my sunshine away."
Chapter 2: Subs and Subterfuge
O'Neill confesses to having told some major fibs and Daniel fills Hammond in on some painful history.
Subs and Subterfuge
Sunlight was still asleep, had been out of it for nearly twenty minutes. O'Neill rolled off the top bunk, gave a cheerful finger to the boys monitoring the security monitors and stuck a sock over the camera. Hopefully they'd ascribe entirely the wrong motive to his action - well, as long as they didn't conclude he was a closet paedophile. The others would be back soon, this was no time for an audience.
Teal'c was first. "I bring pizza," he announced.
Good man, Teal'c, you could always rely on him in a crisis.
"Is Dr Fraiser getting coffee?"
The SGC coffee made good paint-stripper, but it was hot and wet with plenty of caffeine and a couple of mugs would go down really well right now.
"I believe that was her intention. She has also contacted General Hammond and he will be along shortly."
A familiar head poked through the door. "I brought tuna subs and a supply of coke. That okay?"
"Oh," Daniel dipped his hand into a carrier bag and brought out a package, "I, er, brought along something for Sunlight. I figure they don't have Barbie dolls on Argos."
"Thanks." It was awkward to find suitable words when people did exactly the right thing. "She'll really enjoy that. Dump your food on the table."
Next item on the agenda: seating. He reached out for one end of the mattress on the top bunk. "Teal'c, can you help me shift this."
"For what purpose, O'Neill?"
"Because," he gestured at the solid concrete floor, "some of us are going to freeze our butts off otherwise."
Teal'c stood solid. "It would be more effective to fetch additional chairs."
"Yes, it would," O'Neill agreed patiently, "it would also be more visible on the security cameras."
"I see," Teal'c said, in the tone he used when he didn't see at all, but he moved obediently to take his end. O'Neill gripped the first end and, on his nod, they lifted simultaneously and landed it on the floor next to the wall. It wasn't heavy, just bulky and smelt vaguely of dust and disenfectant.
Daniel parked himself cross-legged on the mattress and leaned back against the wall. "Who gets the chairs?"
"Janet because she's a lady, and Hammond because he's going to be extremely pissed-off at me and every little helps."
"You mean more pissed-off than he already is?"
O'Neill passed down the ever-more crumpled letter. "Share that with Teal'c, but do me a favour and don't repeat anything in it to anyone else at all. If you do, I might have to haunt you."
Daniel glanced up sharply at him, but said nothing. After smoothing out the paper on the floor, he held it up for himself and Teal'c to read. Back straight as a staff-weapon, Teal'c knelt beside him. It had taken a while for Teal'c to master written English, but it was amazing what the necessity of having to write reports could achieve, apart from terminal boredom of course.
When he reached the end, Daniel breathed in deeply and let it out in a long blow.
"Did you say 'pissed-off'?"
"I believe General Hammond will be exceedingly annoyed," Teal'c added.
"Annoyed at what?" asked a voice from the doorway.
"Ah, General," O'Neill summoned up all the charm he could muster, "you have a perfect sense of timing. Come on in, pull up a pew, have a slice of pizza." He grabbed one himself by way of demonstration, bit off a mouthful of pepperoni and proffered the box in Hammond's direction. He might as well have been offering cold turkey three days after Thanksgiving.
"I'll stand, thank you. What is this? A party? Dr Fraiser gave me to understand that this was important."
O'Neill stood straight from force of habit, narrowly avoiding getting mozzarella on his utility trousers. "It is, Sir."
"Then I demand an explanation."
"As soon as General Carter and Dr Fraiser get back. I don't want to keep going over the same ground. The Doc's just going over some medical records and downloading them onto a laptop."
"Sunlight's CDs?" asked Daniel.
"Yes. Janet wanted to have both sets of data for comparison before she decides what to recommend."
Hammond appeared to gain three inches in height. His eyes bored straight into O'Neill's. "I was under the impression that I ran this command."
O'Neill winced. "Sir, keep your voice down. You can hang me tomorrow. Just don't wake Sunlight up - she's been through enough already."
He was granted an all too brief respite by the return of Janet and Jacob bearing the laptop and a jug of coffee plus a supply of plastic cups.
"Dr Fraiser," Hammond said, slightly more quietly, "would you mind telling me what the hell is going on here?"
"Best let Colonel O'Neill explain." She calmly poured out coffee and passed cups around.
The plastic was thin. Out of the corner of his eye, O'Neill could see Daniel place his cup hurriedly on the floor and wave his fingers in the air to cool them down. Teal'c appeared not to notice, either he had thicker skin, or it was one of those Jaffa things about not showing pain. Janet had the knack of it - she was holding the cups by the rim. She didn't offer O'Neill one, simply placed a cup on the table where he could reach it.
He could sense Hammond waiting. The coffee was a distraction, but it wasn't distracting the general. Hammond had the patience born of impatience, the kind that said 'I'm not moving from here until I get an answer'.
There was a cold hard knot in his guts, twisting tighter and tighter as Hammond's eyes flicked over the disabled security camera and came back to rest on his face. There was no mercy in Hammond's voice, just the cold, hard necessities of command.
"Colonel O'Neill, you've committed two breaches of security regulations in one day. You leave me with no option other than a court martial."
He'd always known deep down inside that it would come to this one day. He'd got away with it for years, insubordination here, disobeying an order there. He was good at his job, and Hammond had allowed him a certain degree of latitude as a result, but he wasn't indispensable.
Well, he couldn't dig himself in any deeper. O'Neill shrugged mentally. On a need to know basis, there were some things Hammond needed to know.
"If I'm dead already, there's a couple of other things you might as well add to the charge sheet. I lied at the debriefing session." He ticked points off on his fingers as he went. "One, Sunlight isn't Kynthia's daughter. Two, she isn't my daughter either, not strictly speaking. She's my daughter in an alternate reality. Three, Carter's her mother. Fourth, she's Tok'ra. Fifth, I'll deny any and all of the above if they are ever mentioned outside of this room."
"I see." Hammond's eyes were narrow and dangerous. "Colonel, you may just end up spending the rest of your life in jail."
"Yes, Sir." If it happened, it happened. As long as... "Jacob?" He knew he didn't need to specify the question.
"Sam and I'll work it out between us."
"And the rest of this conspiracy?" Hammond's hand flicked minimally to indicate the rest of the occupants of the room. "Are they going to deny all knowledge too?"
O'Neill swallowed. Conspiracy was an ugly word and sounded far too close to mutiny. "I didn't tell anyone anything until after the debriefing. Video-recording is a pain in the butt."
"And do they know anything now?"
Teal'c spoke first. "O'Neill risked his life to save my son Rya'c."
Fasier looked worried. "She's four years old, General. You don't know what she's been through. I keep thinking of Cassie."
Damn it, he shouldn't have drawn Fraiser into this. He hadn't the right to dump things on her, maybe risk her career.
"I'm sorry, Doc. If it hadn't been for the MRI scan..." The compulsory scan would have revealed the symbiote and then the fat would truely have been in the fire.
She reached out and touched him lightly on the hand. "It's all right."
"Jacob." Hammond's voice was harsh. "Are you by any chance going to tell me that you have diplomatic immunity?"
Jacob's head dipped.
"He is," said Selmak, "and I am in agreement. Kantele is one of the last of my people."
"Dr Jackson?" Nothing at all revealed in the voice now, just a cold careful neutrality.
Daniel scrambled to his feet with that slight awkwardness that characterised him. Somehow, you always expected him to trip over his own feet, while simultaneously apologising for getting in your way. "General Hammond, do you know why Jack was sent on the first mission to Abydos?"
Ah, this was going to be Daniel in passionate mode. He had a nasty feeling as to what was coming next.
"He was the best man for the job," Hammond said.
"No, why was he the best man for the job?"
Yep, Daniel was getting into gear now, hands gesticulating vividly. Maybe that was part of what made him such a good translator, he used his whole body to express what he was feeling. It wasn't just the hands, it was the way he stood, the way he tilted his head, everything.
"I have a feeling that you're going to tell me anyway."
"Because it was a suicide mission. They wanted someone who would blow the gate, even if he had to go with it."
"Colonel O'Neill has a strong sense of responsibility. Or at least, so I'd have said until today."
"No, you don't get it. Jack was suicidal. He didn't care whether he came back or not."
Oh God, here it came. All he could do was hide behind a blank expression and hope the pain didn't show through. You could tell who knew by their faces. Janet merely gave the slightest nod of confirmation, but then she'd seen his medical records. Hammond knew about Charlie, but had obviously never associated that with Abydos.
Daniel continued relentlessly, animated with a determined energy. "His son, Charlie, died just before Abydos. Jack was in no fit state to go on that mission, but the military didn't give a damn. He was the tool they needed for the job, and they used him. Now he's got another chance at a family, and I think the military owe him one." He stopped abruptly, stabbed a finger at Hammond.
"What's the most important thing in your life? What would it hurt you most to lose?"
"Right. What would you do if you thought they were in danger?"
"Anything, up to and including resigning this command."
Daniel stopped abruptly. "Is that why..."
"Why I resigned last year? Yes. I owe Jack a debt for that one." Hammond sat down heavily on a plastic chair. "I'm starting to get the picture, but I don't see why the girl is in any danger."
Teal'c spoke up from the floor. "She is Tok'ra. A mature goa'uld larva fetched a price of ten million dollars. A Tok'ra symbiote would have a higher value. Sunlight on Water is like myself: she has no legal existence in this world. If it became known that she carried a symbiote, then her life would be in danger."
There were times when you wanted to hug that guy.
Hammond wiped a hand across his forehead. "My apologies, Jack. I'm surprised you told me at all."
O'Neill glanced over at Janet. "Doc?"
"He had no choice, General. You have to authorise a mission to Sunlight's reality. There's a new strain of flu there that's killing around ninety percent of those infected. We need live virus samples to manufacture a vaccine in case the same disease occurs here. We know events in one reality often repeat in other realities. We can't take the gamble of being unprepared."
The table was littered with crumbs and empty coffee cups, the iso-bay was warm with the heat of six and a half bodies and someone had managed to sneak in a few cans of beer.
Selmak was holding forth and O'Neill was listening with more interest than normal.
"Kantele wasn't called Kantele to start with. I cannot recall his original name now."
"I thought you goa'uld, sorry Tok'ra, had perfect genetic memory?" Janet asked.
"We do, but that doesn't mean we recall all the trivia. Imagine having perfect recall of every book you ever read or every computer screen you ever looked at. You'd spend so much time wading though garbage in your memory that you'd never find what you were after. The trick isn't so much remembering the stuff you want, as getting rid of all the stuff that you don't. We genetically encode anything really important, the rest takes its chances in the same way that human memory does. It doesn't matter in any case, as Kantele was the name he chose for himself. His first host was from an Asgard-protected world-"
"I told you the name was Finnish!" Daniel exclaimed. "But I thought most of the protected worlds had traps on the gates to catch anyone with a symbiote?"
"I don't know the full story," Selmak said. "I believe Tuevo had left his homeworld before he met Kantele. The tale Kantele told is that his host was an entertainer, a singer and a musician. When they were joined, they worked as a team: Tuevo sang, Kantele played harmony. Kantele took his name from their favourite instrument. That's how he learnt that trick of being able to do one thing with the hands while the host is using the rest of the body. Very few Tok'ra can do that. I can't.
"I suppose you'd call him a bit of a hobo really. They bummed their way from planet to planet, earning their living as entertainers, hopping between gates and generally ignoring the galaxy at large. Most Tok'ra disapproved; Kantele did nothing to forward the fight against the goa'uld. It was only later that we realised what he was doing. In his own way, he was sowing the seeds of rebellion.
"They wrote songs: ballads, love songs, anti-war songs, comic songs, protest songs. They composed songs in a dozen languages, sang them on a hundred worlds. They wrote ditties about the System Lords that made people laugh. They wrote ballads that could make listeners weep, of heroes who fought the goa'uld."
"The ballad of Sel'ac?" asked Teal'c.
"Possibly. I do not-"
"Daddy!" The cry was high-pitched and terrified.
O'Neill was beside the bunk in a flash, kneeling down and reaching inside the tent.
"It's all right, Sunlight. What is it, a bad dream?"
She wrapped her arms round his neck, so tight she almost choked him. As he lifted her up to sit on his lap, he could feel her trembling.
"Grandpa," she whispered, "I killed Grandpa."
"Grandpa's fine. Look, he's here now."
O'Neill crooked a finger. "Jacob, she needs you."
Jacob came and sat on the bunk beside him, dipping the mattress unevenly. He stroked a finger down a side of the face that was buried resolutely in O'Neill's shoulder.
"What's the matter, Sunlight?"
"I dreamed you were dead. I killed you."
O'Neill caught Jacob's eye. If this was what he thought it might be, then it was going to be rough.
"Sunlight," Jacob began, "I dialed the Stargate for you. What did I do after that?"
"You gave me Kantele to look after, and then you kissed me goodbye and I felt all funny and then you told me to run very fast to the gate and not to look back."
"And you did just what I told you?"
"And now you're here and I'm here and I'm definitely not dead."
"But why is Kantele crying?"
O'Neill fished around under her pillow until he found the wooden angel. "Look, he's not crying now."
She studied the angel carefully. "But he's still unhappy."
O'Neill spread his hands in resignation. "The ball's in your court, Jacob. You're our resident expert on 'angels'."
"Thanks a bunch." Jacob held out his arms. "Come and sit on my knee for a minute, and I'll try and explain."
Sunlight thought about that for a while, then swopped laps, letting Jacob cuddle her while she clung onto O'Neill's hand for good measure.
"It's like this. Being a guardian angel means you're very close to someone. You love them and they love you."
"Like Mommy and Daddy?"
"Yes." He cocked a sardonic look at O'Neill. "Like Mommy and Daddy."
He was going to have to do something about that one soon, and he hadn't the faintest idea what. In many ways, it might be simpler to stick with the Kynthia story where Carter was concerned, because anything else opened up a whole nest of worms. But if he did that, he'd have to prevent the two of them from ever meeting. Hell and damnation.
"Kantele's been guardian angel to several people including Tuevo and me, and now you. When he has to leave someone to look after another person, that makes him very unhappy because he loves them. But sometimes, he has to do it to help someone else. Do you remember being sick?"
"I was all hot and cold and I hurted."
"And were you all right after I kissed it better?"
"I felt funny, and then I felt a bit better and then Kantele said we had to run for the Stargate."
Jacob hugged Sunlight a little closer, before carrying on:
"Now, I was scared and Kantele was scared, because, sometimes, when you lose your guardian angel, you die. Kantele didn't want me to die, but we talked it over and we agreed that we both loved you. Having Kantele would stop you being sick and we both wanted that, even if I died instead of you.
"Sunlight, I'd do the same again. Make sure Kantele knows that." Jacob drew a deep breath. "But it all worked out in the end. I didn't die. I found a new angel. She's called Selmak and you'll like her very much when you get to know her."
So the snake had feelings? Darn it, he was never going to get used to that, though after Lantash... Okay, so they had feelings. What's it like when you have to kill someone you love? What's it like to see somebody you love with someone else? What's it like when you know you really ought to be happy for them?
What's it like when you feel you're the only person who knows first-hand exactly what a damn goa'uld is going through?
Chapter 3: Introductions
As Sunlight gets to meet everyone, a number of difficult issues come to the surface.
Water splashed over Sunlight as the fountain suddenly shot up six feet in height and she giggled delightedly. O'Neill, used to the tricks of water features, ducked adroitly out of the way while struggling to maintain his grip on half a dozen shopping bags. If he'd had any sense, he'd have brought a backpack.
Sunlight was definitely a female of the species. Any doubts he might conceivably have had on the subject had been quickly dispelled by her delight in shopping for clothes. The function of a mere male on such occasions had rapidly been made clear. His task was to tell her that she looked pretty in whatever she tried on and then to pay for it. Spending money had rarely been so enjoyable.
Kantele's opinion obviously counted for more than his. The symbiote was consulted regularly, sometimes Sunlight stood the angel where it could see her and asked questions aloud, sometimes she just piped up with "Kantele says the pink one looks better."
Did she realise that she was sharing her body with an alien? Was she capable of that kind of concept at four years of age? Some kids had imaginary friends and talked to those. Was Kantele just a toy that talked back again?
The smell of fresh coffee drifted across the mall and as if on cue, Sunlight said; "Kantele's hungry."
O'Neill squatted down on his heels and rubbed noses with her.
"And Sunlight, is Sunlight hungry?"
Her giggle was an enchantment of delight.
"Okay, we'll go eat."
It was definitely time for a little something, which reminded him... "Sunlight, have I read you Winnie-the-Pooh yet."
Shake of head.
"Wait until we get home."
He was sure he had a copy somewhere at home. Actually, that was going to be the next problem. Where the devil did Sunlight think home was? For Sunlight to be the age she was, he had to have met Carter on the first Abydos mission and married her sometime during the following year. Either that or he'd made a pass at her within days of her joining the SGC. He hoped the first explanation was the correct one, because the alternative didn't say much for either of them. Or maybe Daniel had deciphered the inscriptions on the gate cover stone a year earlier than in this reality. Or maybe-
Whatever - if they'd got married four or five years ago, then it was highly unlikely that he was living where he was now. Whichever 'he' he was anyway. And he'd thought Carter's explanations of physics gave him a headache...
"Daddy," a voice reminded him sharply, "we're hungry."
Ah, the royal 'we'.
"Okay, boss, let's hit Barnie's."
Selecting cakes was a process that required as much care as choosing clothes, but here he was at least allowed to choose something for himself. Sunlight's preference was a banana shake and a chocolate eclair stuffed with enough cream to give nightmares to anyone concerned about their cholesterol levels. O'Neill ordered a black coffee and a slice of fruit cake and was heading for the till when a hand tugged at his sleeve.
"Kantele wants a fudge brownie."
"And a fudge brownie," he said to the girl behind the counter, spreading his hands in a helpless gesture. "It's for her doll."
Feeding Kantele was an interesting ritual. The angel was placed ceremonially in the centre of the table and allowed to suck the straw of Sunlight's milk shake. Pieces of brownie were broken off, touched to the doll's mouth and then devoured by Sunlight, or occasionally O'Neill. Kantele was allowed a taste of eclair, but most of that ended up over Sunlight's face. O'Neill didn't bother to interfere; half the pleasure of eating anything that big and squishy was in making a mess out of it. It wasn't the flavour that counted so much as the mud pie value.
While Sunlight played with the cream, O'Neill stared stared thoughtfully into the angel's wooden eyes. Somewhere in that head were all the answers that he needed to know. If Sam had Jolinar's memories, then maybe Kantele had Jacob's? Jacob would have known how he and Sam met, when they got married, even what flavour jelly Sunlight liked on her sandwiches.
And it cut both ways, Sunlight had to have Kantele's memories. She'd shared the symbiote's nightmare. How about the rest of it?
"Kantele's full up now."
"Okay." Now that was a handy twist, to have someone else to blame it on when you didn't want to eat any more. Or maybe Kantele was the kind who worried about cholesterol levels. No, symbiotes were supposed to take care of that kind of thing for you.
He cleaned the worst of the mess off with a paper napkin, then went over again with a clean one for good luck.
"Sunlight, can Kantele remember things that Grandpa knew? Say, things about Mommy and me."
"You're both..." Her voice trailed away and her eyes widened in fright.
"Jack, change the subject. Now!"
"Sunlight, how do elephants climb trees?"
"Kantele remembers you dead."
He grabbed Sunlight onto his lap, took her face between both hands and tilted it up to look at him. "How can I be dead when I'm sitting here?" You damn idiot, Jack. Why did you think the symbiote was lying low? Shyness? "Come on, think about that elephant. How does he climb a tree? He hasn't got any hands to hold onto the branches like you and me."
"He sits on an acorn..."
"And waits for spring. That's right." Thank God he'd told her the same old jokes that he'd once told Charlie. He was not going to lose her. This was a fight between him and the universe, and it was getting personal.
"And how does he get down from that tree? Remember that one?"
"He sits on a leaf and waits for autumn."
"Got it in one." Now with a bit of luck, he could remember enough corny jokes to get them back to the car park. Then a quick trip to the swings, before going over to Jacob's place for more serious matters.
O'Neill stepped back to avoid being run down by a tearaway toddler with a baby buggy and watched as Sunlight sprinted round for her third go on the slide.
"Cute kid," said a familiar voice beside him. "Never knew you had it in you."
"Harry, what are you doing here?"
"Can't I just drop by to be sociable? Maybe I'd like to meet the family."
"It'll be a cold day in hell," he said without any real animosity. Being rude to Maybourne was as much habit as anything else.
"She's a weakness, Jack. She'll make you vulnerable."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You should have left her on Argos."
"Is that a threat?"
"No, but you know you've got enemies out there."
Sunlight slid down with whoop and ran round for another pass without sparing him so much as a glance. How could something so simple and wonderful as a child bring so much pain with it? The fear of losing her was so intense that it was all he could do to remain still and allow her to run by him.
"Why do you hang around, Harry?"
"It makes life marginally less boring. Besides, you helped me get out of jail."
"Yeah, but I was the one who originally put you there."
"True." Maybourne shrugged. He held out a large paper bag. "I brought a teddy. Decide for yourself how many safety tests you want to run it though."
O'Neill cocked an eyebrow at Maybourne and stuck out an arm to intercept his daughter as she raced past yet again. "Sunlight, present for you."
Sunlight scooted to a stop, looked up and took a hasty step backwards.
"Don't let him hurt me!" She grabbed O'Neill's left leg and clung tight. "He'll take me away."
He had the brief pleasure of seeing Maybourne completely nonplussed. "Jack, what in hell have you been telling her?"
"Nothing. Now get the hell out of here."
Was this kind of thing going to happen every time he took her out? He bent down and stroked Sunlight's hair.
"It's all right, Sunshine. No one's going to hurt you as long as you're with me. Come on." He picked her up and held her close, feeling the fast beat of her heart against his chest. How many shocks could the child take? She was resilient, but they were coming thick and fast and she was so very young. Her hair was soft against his cheek and for a moment he closed his eyes, allowing himself to concentrate on the feel of her in his arms, the warm scent of her skin and the living sound of her breathing. Sunlight might need him, but he needed her too.
When he looked up, Maybourne was gone, but later, under the wiper of his pick-up he found a note.
Jack, you're either a very bad liar, or else an extremely good one. If it's the latter, then you'd better remember that the only person who knows how to deal with Harry Mabyourne is me.
Jacob's apartment was neat and tidy, or at least it had been until Sunlight and Daniel started constructing a Roman villa out of cardboard boxes. O'Neill could hear complaints from the hallway to the effect that if Daniel only had a decent supply of toilet roll tubes, he would have started on the hypocaust by now.
"Take her to the zoo if she wants a hippotamus," he called out.
"It's an underfloor heating system, Jack," Daniel called back.
"Can you get that much gas from a hippo?"
Jacob reached out and shut the study door with careful deliberation.
"Have you told Sam yet?"
O'Neill ran fingers through his thinning hair. "No. I'm still not sure that it's a good idea."
"If you don't tell her, then I will. She has a right to know."
Teal'c, standing tall beside the bookshelves, said, "I do not see why you regard it as such a problem, O'Neill."
"You don't, huh?" How could they all be so obtuse? He was so tense that it was threatening to burst out of him in one great rush. He wanted to shout, scream at them from the rooftops.
"She is very fond of Cassandra," Teal'c added.
"Oh yes, she loves Cassie." He fought to keep the sarcasm out of his voice, but didn't quite succeed. "She sees Cassie about as often as you see Rya'c. Every Saturday or Sunday afternoon. When you're not off-world."
"I pledged my allegience to the Tau'ri."
O'Neill held out a hand, palm up, by way of apology. "I know it wasn't easy for you. I don't want to land Carter with having to make that kind of decision."
"Major Carter does not have to give up anything in order to see her daughter."
"How about her career, her reputation and her independence? You don't get it, do you? Sunlight is my daughter. Why the hell do you think I got her on record as Kynthia's child? I've fathered a bastard. So what? I get called a few names, some yaddaheads even think I've done something clever. Sam admits to being the mother of my child and that's it. Sunlight's four. That means Carter and I have been screwing one another virtually since we first met. Doesn't matter if Sunlight's from another reality. Carter can't tell that to anyone outside the SGC and even some people within the SGC will choose not to believe it.
"Half the base knows how I feel about her. Hammond's come within a hair's breadth of splitting up SG-1 for that reason alone."
"And Sam?" Jacob asked.
"How the hell should I know. I don't ask and she doesn't tell."
All right, so he did know, but they'd fought it so hard to suppress their feelings that he was no longer sure what was left of the burning thread that had once existed between them. He'd wrestled his own emotions into being purely platonic, they even stayed that way for weeks, sometimes months at a time and then some chance event would reignite his desire for her as though it had never been away.
How did Sam feel now? Don't ask, don't tell.
"And it gets even better," he added. "How about a little bit of emotional blackmail?
"Hey, Sam, here's a little girl who desperately needs you, thinks you're her mother. She's having a few problems with the memories of her symbiote, but you know about Tok'ra, you're the perfect person to administer a bit of TLC there too. Of course, you can't be a Saturday parent to her, the parents she remembers are happily married. Wouldn't want to cause too many conflicts between her memories of the two realities, would we? Could cause all sorts of stresses and nightmares.
"Hey, wait, I've got the perfect solution - move in, marry me. Sweet."
He meshed his finger together tightly in his lap, squeezed until the pain gave him something to focus on.
"What if Major Carter wishes to marry you?"
Why was Teal'c always so damn calm and reasonable about things?
"If she wanted that, then she'd have transferred out of SG-1. We can sleep together or we can work together. Not both. Carter's chosen SG-1. If I try to force her into any other option, then I'm going against that choice."
There was silence, broken only by the faint sound of tumbling cardboard boxes as part of the villa succumbed to structural stresses.
After a lengthy moment, Jacob said: "Jack, suppose it had been Sam who encountered Sunlight in the gate room. How would you have felt if she'd hadn't told you?"
His fingers hurt worse than ever. Time to let go.
"Okay, so she's a grown woman." He reached blindly for his cellphone. "She's probably with Cassie right now. I'll ask her round here this evening and tell her then - but not until Sunlight's asleep. Once she sees Sam... Is it okay if Sunlight and I stay here tonight?" He was dithering, he knew he was dithering, but couldn't seem to stop. "I'm still too chicken to take her home. I don't think she knows my place and she seems happy here."
Jacob took the cellphone from his nerveless hand, and dialled.
Round about five o'clock, Hammond arrived, having spent most of the day with his family.
O'Neill grabbed him as soon as he was through the doorway.
"Did Janet give you the personnel list?"
"Hold your fire, Colonel. I've got it." He tapped his breast pocket. "Why the sudden rush?"
"Let's just say I suspect the universe of having a warped sense of humour." He gestured down the hallway. "Tread carefully. I'm not quite sure what Teal'c's been teaching her, but I think the alien minefield is currently to the left and the Jaffa base is that box by the kitchen door."
A fully-armed Jaffa emerged from the base. Admittedly it was a very small Jaffa, but it did have a staff weapon that looked suspiciously like a rolled-up newspaper.
Hammond blinked in surprise, then gathered himself together. "Hello, Sunlight, I've come to see your father."
O'Neill grinned at his reaction. "Disconcerting, isn't it? Daniel got the same treatment, but she didn't seem to know Teal'c. I think the symbiote does though."
"Does it talk much?"
"Not a word. Easiest Tok'ra I ever encountered." He negotiated most of the minefield successfully, but died on the borders of known space when hit by a section of egg-box. In death, he was avenged by Hammond who got into the spirit of things and returned fire with an assorted selection of paper death-gliders.
Finally reaching the sanctuary of the study, O'Neill closed the door to protect them against a returning air assault and flopped into an armchair.
Hammond took the swivel chair by the computer. "Exhausting is she?"
"No more so than a battalion of Jaffa. I may have to retire just to keep up with her."
"Do you mean that seriously, Jack?"
O'Neill shrugged. "I'm considering it as an option."
"The SGC needs you."
"So does she. What would you do in my position?"
Hammond sighed. "I don't know, Jack. I truly don't know." He pulled a batch of computer print-out from his pocket. "Here's the personnel records. Dr Fraiser said she could virtually track the history of the other reality just by what injuries and diseases she'd treated you for. She's removed all personal details for obvious reasons. What you see there is just names, ranks, dates of service, next of kin and current status. She's divided people into living, dead, and ill with the virus as of the time the records were downloaded."
O'Neill scanned rapidly down the list, then flung all the pages on the floor in disgust.
"I knew it! I damn well knew it! You retired last year. Guess who took over as commander of the SGC?"
"I already looked. Brigadier General Maybourne. The NID finally got control." Hammond caught O'Neill's eye. "You retired before I did."
"Yeah, I noticed that, though it looks as though I got called back in on a couple of occasions, presumably when they had a dirty job that needed doing." He retrieved a couple of sheets from the floor and checked through them. "Carter never joined the air force, she's a civilian scientist. Took a couple of years off when Sunlight was small, then came back and worked at the SGC until she died. Daniel died of the virus. Cassie's fine. Teal'c disappeared from the records a couple of years ago with no explanation given - chalk another kill up to the NID. This reality isn't as pretty as the Emerald City. Still think we need to go there?"
"Yes, I do," Hammond said. "The death rate from that virus is way too high for us to risk an outbreak here. We need to be able to fight it effectively."
O'Neill helped himself to a ballpoint pen from Jacob's desk and started doodling on the back of the personnel listing. "We'll need environment suits to reduce the risk of infection."
The pen doodled a gallows with noose suspended from it. "I always thought I'd make a lovely corpse."
"You underestimate Kantele."
He added a body dangling from the noose and scrunched up the paper to start on a fresh sheet. "A smart snake?"
"Dr Fraiser took a blood sample from Sunlight this morning. Her immunoglobulin levels are way above normal."
"If she filters it out of Sunlight's blood, there's enough to provide several days worth of protection for three or four adults."
O'Neill tossed the pen in the air and snatched it back again in mid-descent. "Four."
"Teal'c won't need it and I'm not sending Dr Fraiser. It's an unnecessary risk. You all know how to take blood samples."
"Four. And I need that mirror doo-hickey."
"I thought Sunlight came via a device in Ma'chello's laboratory?"
"She did. I'm betting they have a quantum mirror but no control device. I want the mirror and the controller, and I want them here."
"You know I can't allow it to be used outside the mountain. It's too great a risk."
"And Maybourne can't go inside the mountain without getting arrested. You owe me a favour, George, and I'm calling it in. If I've got to cope with a General Maybourne, I want someone along who knows the territory."
"Better the devil you know than the devil you don't?"
"Let's just say I don't trust anyone Sunlight's scared of."
Debriefing occurred as soon as Sunlight was finally asleep. O'Neill sprawled on the sofa. Teal'c sat cross-legged on the floor and Daniel occupied the armchair. Jacob stood, apparently unconcerned at being without a seat in his own living room.
"Well, kids, whaddya get?"
Daniel looked thoughtful. "If I ask her a simple question in Finnish or Goa'uld, she'll understand it. She doesn't understand Latin or Russian, but she's okay in Coptic. Always replies in English, though."
"She holds her staff weapon in the correct manner. When I shot her at one point, I suggested that we use a sarcophagus to revive her. She said-"
"We do not use the sarcophagus?"
"Indeed, O'Neill. But when I asked her who 'we' were, she replied that it was her and myself."
Further speculation was prevented by the ringing of the doorbell.
"Carter," said O'Neill, "right on cue."
"Are you going to tell her?" Jacob asked, as he went to open the door.
"I said I would, didn't I?"
"It's not that we doubt you, Jack," said Daniel.
"Like hell. Just let me work round to it, okay?"
"Hi, Dad." They could hear Carter's voice down the hall. "What's up? You sounded like it was something important."
"Jack's got something he wants to discuss with you."
"If it's about P43-" She stopped abruptly as she came into the living room and saw everyone. Her hand flew to her face. "Did I smudge my make-up?"
"No," Daniel assured her, "you look fine."
"Then why are you all looking at me like that?"
Realising abruptly that he was still occupying the whole of the sofa, O'Neill swung his legs down and went to stand by the window. A few cacti survived in a bowl on the window-sill, the only plants hardy enough to survive Jacob's long absences off-world. Maybe, with most of the Tok'ra gone, Jacob and Selmak would be spending more time on Earth now.
He stared out the window and tried to imagine Jacob's world. What was it like to share your body with another mind? The very idea was repellent. Residues of nightmare still clung from the time Hathor had strapped him down and placed a goa'uld where it could enter his body. Any time he wanted to conjure up stark terror, he could do it by replaying that moment. The feel of the creature in his mind...
"Carter," he turned round and smiled brightly, "we have a slight Tok'ra problem."
Instantly, she was all professional attention. "In what way, Sir?"
"Did Janet and Cassie tell you about..."
"Your little girl? Yes, but I got the impression there was a lot Janet wasn't saying. Or possibly didn't want to say with Cassie around. Are you trying to tell me she's Tok'ra?"
He nodded, not trusting in words.
"That's not possible, Sir. No Tok'ra would take a host that young."
Taking one end of the sofa, Jacob gestured to his daughter to sit down.
"One did, Sam," he said gently. "He had good reasons."
"The catch," O'Neill said bluntly, "is that she's starting to access the symbiote's memories and she's too young to handle them. It's okay as long as-" Was that a cry he'd just heard? "Hang on. Carter, stay right there."
There was no light on in the bedroom, but a nearby streetlamp cast enough light through the curtains for him to see by. There was a small ball curled up under the sheets.
"Daddy?" Her voice was small and muffled. "Where's Mommy?"
"I don't know. Come here." He sat on the edge of the bed and waited for her to crawl out for a cuddle. "I'll try and find Mommy, I promise."
He knew the rest of the routine now. The song helped her settle down. Who knew, maybe it helped the symbiote too.
"The other night, dear, as I lay dreaming,
Was there someone standing in the doorway behind him?
"I dreamt that you were by my side,
Please don't let it be Carter. Dear God, don't let it be Carter.
"Came disillusion, when I awoke, dear,
"You were gone, and then I cried.
Okay, she's asleep. Tuck her in and then turn around.
It was in his face. He knew it was in his face from the surprised look on hers. The need, the loneliness, the aching emptiness of his bed at night, she'd seen it all.
"Colonel, if you're looking for a mother for her, I'm not volunteering. I'm sure she's a lovely kid, but I'm not ready to tie my life down yet."
Smile, you son of a bitch, smile. "No sweat, Carter. I don't think I could handle two blondes in my life at once."
The colonel could be really irritating when he wanted to. Blondes indeed. No, that wasn't really fair; he'd never yet used the words 'dumb' and 'blonde' in the same sentence. He wasn't intimidated by her IQ: the only impact that it had on his behaviour was that he'd back her call in anything involving science - and the current problem was in an area she knew something about. She could at least offer him that much help.
"Sir, have you tried talking to the symbiote?"
He waved a hand at her, shooing her out of the room.
Irritation warred with curiosity.
"Can't I just take a look at her?"
He mouthed the word: "No."
This was ridiculous. She'd been happy for Janet to adopt Cassandra, but that didn't mean Cassie wasn't still important to her. You didn't have to be a full-time mother to love a child. Aunties were useful too and any child of the colonel's, regardless of its origins, was one she'd want to know. SG-1 were family.
"Colonel-" Damn, she hadn't meant to say it that loud.
The girl - what was her name? Sunlight? - twisted round on her pillow.
O'Neill sighed, reached into a pocket and pressed something into his daughter's hand. "You have to give Sam the letter," he said gently.
Leaving the child on her own, he came over and sat on the floor, leaning back against the open door, arms wrapped loosely around his knees, head tilted back as though he hadn't a care in the world. His smile was casual, relaxed.
"All yours, Carter. This is what you get for not following orders." His expression shifted, became tauter, harder. "You are not to speak to the symbiote, nor are you to discuss anything prior to today. That is an order. Am I making myself clear?"
Hearing the undertones in his voice, but not knowing their origin, she replied automatically. "Yes, Sir."
O'Neill's eyes closed; he might have been dozing on the porch on a warm, sunny day. She wasn't fooled for a moment. The colonel could be at his most dangerous when he appeared most relaxed. What she wasn't sure of was what the danger was supposed to be.
Sunlight - yes, that was it, Sunlight on Water - pulled at the leg of her denims. The child was dressed in a pale pink nightie with a large, friendly-looking rabbit appliqued on the front. In spite of the rabbit, there was an elfin quality about her, some combination of her slender build and fair hair, combined with the lost uncertain look on her face. She was so young, that was the first thing that struck home. It shouldn't have been, but it was. Somehow, Sam had subconsciously been expecting a child the age Cassie had been when she first knew her; but Cassie had been eleven and Kynthia's daughter was far less than that.
How could the colonel, who never failed to spend time with any child who passed through the SGC, have left Sunlight on Argos? He must have been to see Rya'c more often than he'd visited his own daughter. Did he really care so much about what people thought of him? Now Sunlight was alone, with her mother dead and a father she barely knew.
The colonel still hadn't moved and her nerves were screaming a warning. What was the danger?
Or was he simply letting her dig her own pit to fall into?
She crouched down to child-height.
"Hello, little one."
O'Neill's eyes didn't even open. "Her name is Sunlight. Use it."
"Sunlight, I'm sorry, I-"
Abruptly, Sunlight thrust something into Sam's hand and bolted. Straight to Jack, who already had his arms open to catch her. As he held the sobbing child, she could hear him murmuring to her, a gently flowing stream of nonsense and reassurance. There was a focused intensity to him that excluded everything outside the protective circle of his arms. Inside that circle was a world that only existed for the two of them, and Samantha Carter, whoever she was, didn't exist in that world. It was as though she'd been offered initiation into some exclusive sect and had flunked the initiation rite without even realising there was one.
There was something in her hand. A piece of paper. She felt, rather than saw, O'Neill's eyes on her.
His voice was impossibly gentle. "Don't read it here. Go back to your father. I'll stay here tonight and see her through the nightmares."
Father and daughter. For an instant, she felt it: the need to be with someone who was always there for you, whose love was safe and secure - Dad. Then, as she turned through the door, it struck her; O'Neill hadn't said if she had nightmares. He'd taken them for granted. Instinct screamed at her, "Go back" but he had told her to go and this time she did as he asked.
"Well done, Sam." Daniel's voice was sympathetic, but laced with a liberal dash of sarcasm.
"Would someone mind telling me what I did?"
Dad patted the sofa beside him. "Shut the door, sit down and read the letter."
When she sat beside him, he wrapped an arm round her shoulders and drew her close. "It isn't easy on you, Sam. Jack's got something he's wanted ever since Charlie died. I've got something I thought I might never have, but you're just landed with a dilemma."
"I don't get it."
"You will. We've already read the letter."
The letter? The piece of paper that Sunlight had given her? She unfolded it curiously, noting the crease marks and the wear on the folds.
"Dad? This is your handwriting."
She felt, rather than saw his shrug. "It is, and it isn't. Read it through to the end."
It only took a minute, a minute which dragged endlessly into the silence that followed it, a minute during which she tried to unravel the tangled skein of truth and fiction and work out what it meant for her. Her father ruffled her hair gently, something he hadn't done since she was a little girl.
"How can I be what she wants? I don't know her."
Not one parent lost, but two. Not just a family lost, but a world. How did Jack do it? How did he find the way to reach through to her? How did he create that world that Sunlight fled to for protection?
"Major Carter," Teal'c was an oasis of reasoned calm, "there is no crime in being different from one's self in another reality. You do not have to be Sunlight's mother, any more than I have to be first prime of Apophis. We are both individuals."
With her father's arm still supporting her, it was easy to remember how much she'd missed Mum when she died. Did she want to step into that gap in Sunlight's life? Could she?
"She was scared of me..."
"Look," said Daniel, "imagine that you saw your mother returning from the dead. Wouldn't you be confused? We're pretty sure that Sunlight never saw the bodies, but it's almost inevitable that Jacob did."
"And even as Jacob knows everything that I know," Selmak said, "Sunlight has access to everything that Kantele knows. Jacob, the other Jacob that is, and Kantele believed she was too young to understand the concept of a symbiote and encouraged her to communicate with Kantele as though he were an independent entity in a toy angel. I believe this has helped reduce the degree to which she draws on his memories, but it has not eliminated it."
"But she accepts the colonel." That hurt. She could still feel that sense of exclusion, of not being a part of the family.
Daniel took his glasses off and polished one of the lenses on a sleeve. "I'm guessing, but I think that's because Jack knows himself."
"It's... He knows how he'd react to a child that age, so he just does what he'd do anyway. I guess his counterpart must have been pretty much like him. Your counterpart was different from you - you've never had any experience of young children. Sunlight's bound to sense that."
"Jolinar," Sam said suddenly, not even sure what had triggered the thought. Yes, that was it. Cassie had been scared of Jolinar. "Sunlight's got a symbiote, she can sense that I was once a host. But I wasn't a host in her reality, was I?"
"Apparantly," Daniel twirled his glasses back and forth between his fingers, before putting them back on again, "that was me." He smiled suddenly. "I'm still trying to figure out what kind of relationship I would have had with Martouf."
Now there was a thought. She smiled back at Daniel. "I can imagine. I had problems coping with Jolinar's feelings for him on occasion, but at least he was an attractive member of the opposite sex. Let's just say I got lots of practice in repressing emotions."
Teal'c had that knack of looking like an ebony statue: carved and immovable and very very silent. Daniel seemed to find fascination in cleaning his glasses yet again. Dad just shifted awkwardly on the sofa.
It was Dad who broke the deadlock. "Daniel, are you driving Teal'c back to the SGC?"
"Uh, yes, sure. Come on, Teal'c, it's getting late."
"It is not, Daniel Jackson. But I will come with you."
After they'd said their farewells and let themselves out, an awkward silence settled in their wake.
"Okay, Dad, spit it out."
"Are you sure you want this discussion."
"I think I'm going to get it whether I want it or not. Just how much did you hear?"
"Between you and Jack? Well, you did leave the door open."
Yes, she had, and so had Jack. She could still see him now, sitting back against the door, holding it open.
"Habit," she said.
Never be alone together with the door closed. One of too many unwritten rules that they'd worked out without ever actually discussing them. Never give people the chance to assume you're doing anything that you shouldn't. Never put yourself in a position where you'd be tempted.
"It's... It stops people jumping to conclusions." It sounded lame even to herself.
"And they're not going to jump to conclusions if you go after him even when he just ordered you to stay put?"
"I opened the wrong box."
"Nothing." She shrugged off his encircling arm and went to look out of the window. It was dark outside, the streetlights were too bright to allow night vision to pick out the mountains, but you still knew they were there. Large and solid, they reached for the emptiness of the infinite sky; humans and their lives were mere pinpricks compared to the time they had been there.
Dad said: "I'll draw the curtains."
"No." She gestured at the invisible mountains. "I need some space."
"Sam, you know I've got to ask. Is there anything between you and Colonel O'Neill?"
"I thought you, of all people, trusted me. And you wonder why I go around leaving doors open!"
"Sam." He turned her round to face him and held her firmly by the shoulders. "I trust you; maybe I just asked the wrong question. Do you want there to be anything?"
She twisted free, turned to stare out of the window again, but her reflection in the glass mocked her.
"Dad, please don't ask. Remember when Mum died and you collected all her trinkets and jewellery together and put them in a box? You used to look at them, but not too often, because it hurt too much."
His reflection nodded, reached out a hand to touch her lightly on the shoulder. This time, she accepted the contact, placed her own hand on top of his to hold it there.
"I live my whole life in boxes. You know what it's like working on something that's classified: there are some compartments that you can enter any time, some that you can only open in certain places and some that are so dangerous that you don't open them at all."
"And the one labelled 'Colonel O'Neill'?"
"That one's fine. It's the one labelled 'Jack' that I don't dare open."
Chapter 4: To see Ourselves as Others see us
O would some Power the giftie gie us
To see ourselves as others see us!
"Carter, haven't you found the right one yet?" The colonel sounded impatient, which was reassuringly normal.
Sam checked the monitor readings were correctly zeroed and nodded to Daniel who leaned forward from his seat on the sofa and clicked the quantum mirror's controller to the next reality.
"Not yet, Sir. It takes time to do the measurements. Every time Daniel finds a candidate that roughly matches Sunlight's reality in details such as the SGC being unoccupied by goa'uld, I'm comparing measurements of universal constants against the readings I took this morning in Ma'chello's laboratory.
"Each universe has minute variations in constants such as the speed of propagation of electromagnetic radiation - that's what allows them to exist independently rather then coalescing with one another as soon as they are formed."
"I knew that," he protested.
Now that was below his usual standard. Was he more worried about the mission than he was letting on?
"We don't even know for certain that this reality has a quantum mirror," she said. "Maybe we should go via Ma'chello's device and then use the Stargate to get to the SGC?"
"No. Too risky. SG-1 are dead in that reality; we can't use the iris code."
And what about the risk of using the mirror here, in Dad's apartment? Presumably the colonel had his reasons for that too.
Daniel waved, to catch her attention. "Try this one."
It looked promising, but then so had the last seventeen realities they'd tried. Teal'c took the laser box from her hands, touched the mirror and flipped to the other side of it. Watching that process was always fascinating. How did the mirror function? So far, it had revealed no operating mechanism that could be detected by X-ray, MRI scan or any other device they'd put it through.
Five seconds later, Teal'c flipped back to her side of the mirror and gave her the box to connect up to the monitor. This time the readings were...
"Sir, I think we've got it."
"Yes!" O'Neill slammed a fist into his palm with cheerful exuberance. "Where is it?"
"In a store room at the SGC."
"O frabjous day! Daniel, get that laptop of yours connected up to the internet."
Once he'd cleared a space next to the phone socket, Daniel connected in and headed straight for a web site on old B-Movies. She'd never thought of Daniel as the Godzilla type... Flash Gordon, maybe?
O'Neill clapped him lightly on the shoulder. "Good guess."
"So," Daniel asked, with a slight touch of acid, "are you going to tell us what on Earth you want with Maybourne."
Of course, Maybourne - the only man paranoid enough to consider e-mail too great a security risk. Using a bulletin board would make it that much harder for anyone to trace him, and the NID had both the desire to find him and the resources to do so.
"We're going in blind," O'Neill said. "Maybourne's the nearest thing I've got to a local expert. Post the following message: 'Cassidy, if you want to meet Tweedledee, be here by 3pm, Alice'."
Teal'c, who had been silent until now, asked carefully: "He will understand this?"
"If he can't, then he isn't worth having along. He twigged Sunlight was from another reality when she recognised him in the park."
O'Neill shrugged. "He bugged Sunlight's teddy. If he didn't do that, then there'll be one on my pick-up. I clean them off every month or so, just to keep him on his toes."
"Which explains why the teddy bear is hanging from a noose in the kitchen?"
"You got it." You could have powered a small suburb from the electricity in the accompanying grin.
"So what now?" asked Daniel.
"We wait. Or rather, I get in some quality time and you wait."
Daniel's face acquired that expression of long-suffering patience that most people exposed to O'Neill tended to develop sooner or later.
"Rummy again?" asked Teal'c.
"Not this time. See if you can help me get my accent right on the spoken form of Linear A. Jack, you ought to find this one particularly interesting; it's an ancient dialect of goa'uld which-"
She caught Daniel's grin as the colonel dived for the door.
"Kantele told Sunlight that she had an Auntie Sam. Want to apply for the vacancy?" He looked hesitant. "In our line of work..."
Mentally, she completed the unfinished sentence. 'In our line of work, you can never tell when one of us won't come back.'
She tilted her head in assent. "Auntie, I can do. I could never fake four years experience as a parent."
Somewhere in the kitchen, Dad kept a supply of aspirin. Finally locating them in a first aid kit tucked safely away on a high shelf, Sam checked the expiration date before swallowing two with a large glass of water. Either symbiotes couldn't cure headaches, or else Dad kept them for the benefit of visitors.
Should she offer the colonel a couple? He'd looked pretty stressed too. Well, asking did no harm. She carried the packet and a glass of water into the study.
"Thanks, Carter. Can you pass me a couple?" He reached out one-handed for the tablets, swallowed them dry and then chased them with the water. His other arm cradled his daughter, now quiet and almost asleep.
He shook his head. "I'm okay. Genealogically challenged, but okay."
It hadn't been easy in the end, not for any of them. Certain truths had had to be faced up to. Her father had started the ball rolling.
She'd looked up from the paper she was drawing on. Kantele was currently doing service as a papeweight in the select company of a lunar lander and a souvenir model of the CN tower.
"Do you remember Uncle Mark?" Dad asked.
Sunlight thought about that, then nodded cautiously.
"How many children does he have?"
Sam knelt on the floor beside Sunlight and picked up a couple of crayons. "Can you help me draw them?"
Between them, they managed two stick figures, a boy and a girl. Sam drew a line leading up from each of them and added a taller stick figure. "That's Uncle Mark, because he's their father. Now who's Uncle Mark's father?"
Dad waved a helpful hand at her.
"That's right." Sam said. "Grandpa is Uncle Mark's father." She drew another stick figure above Mark and encouraged Sunlight to colour in some clothes.
"Now, Grandpa had two other children besides Mark. Do you know who they were?"
"And the other one was me. And I'm?"
A lazy voice behind her added. "Except that I'm allowed to call her 'Carter'."
"Because she works for me in the Air Force."
And the Air Force had regulations, and names were just one of the reasons for those regulations. You couldn't be 'Sam' for half your life and 'Carter' for the rest. Not with the same person. You couldn't live a life where you obeyed orders without question when working, and expected to have an equal say in everything the rest of the time. It simply wasn't possible, not when the success or failure of a mission might depend on that automatic reflex of obedience.
So keep the box shut - no matter how much it hurts.
She selected a different crayon. "Sunlight, you draw Mommy and I'll draw me."
'Mommy' appeared to have long hair, and, horror of horrors, to wear a skirt. Had her counterpart really preferred dresses, or was it that children tended to draw all stick women in skirts simply to distinguish them from stick men? She had a sneaky suspicion that the colonel was grinning at her from behind her back, but didn't dare look up to see. Having chosen a green crayon, she drew herself in BDUs, but the end result would have made a passable Martian.
"Carter, I can see your talents have been wasted in astrophysics."
She held out a selection of crayons. "Your turn, Sir."
Hands flashed up in instant negation. "Oh no, Sunlight's going to draw me, aren't you Sunshine?"
Sunlight apparently had no problems deciding where to place Daddy: bang next to Mommy. That was where she was supposed to put him - that was the whole idea: to separate Sam and her alternate in Sunlight's mind. Another bridge burnt. No going back.
Carefully, Sam added a line going down from Mommy and Daddy and drew in a small stick figure for Sunlight.
"You forgot Kantele."
So how was he supposed to be represented? "Can you draw him?"
Sunlight thought about it for a moment, then added a vertical line with a tiny head and a pair of wings close to her own body. Then she did the same to Grandpa's image. "That's Selmak." The crayon hovered uncertainly over Sam's picture.
"That's Jolinar," Sam said softly. "She's dead, she died saving me, but I think you can still feel her presence. No one's ever really dead as long as we remember them."
She hadn't intended it as a cue, but the colonel had bitten the bullet and said what had to be said. Recalling it made her feel as though she were walking over her own grave.
She'd looked up from the symbiote she was drawing on top of Sam's image.
"Come here, sweet, there's something I have to tell you."
Sunlight climbed onto his lap, face apprehensive as though she already suspected what was coming. The colonel held her close, stroking the fine soft hair.
"Remember Mommy was very ill? Remember I was ill?"
A silent nod. The knuckle of Sunlight's thumb rubbed anxiously against her lower lip.
"I got better. I'm here, and I'll always be here to look after you. But Mommy didn't get better." He took a deep breath. "She's dead - we'll never see her again."
Sam wasn't sure what she'd expected, anything from denial to hysterics, but Sunlight's grief was silent. She buried her face in O'Neill's shirt and cried. Sam knew that, because she saw the damp patch later. It was a very unsettling feeling to know that another version of yourself could be loved so much. It was also unsettling...
"Sunlight," he'd said, "your mother was a very special person. I-" His voice caught awkwardly. "Carter, could you get us some coffee, please?"
That hadn't been an order; it had been a plea for her to understand why he wanted her out of the room. Realising that, she'd gone to make coffee, taking her time over the task and making some for Daniel and Teal'c while she was at it. When she put his mug on the small table beside him, Daniel had looked up at her with a question in his eyes.
"The colonel's just told her that her mother's dead. There's things Sunlight needs to hear and it's probably best if I'm not there to hear them."
"It's always hard to say goodbye."
Had he meant the words, as she heard them, with so many different resonances? Possibly - Daniel had the gift of understanding.
Her head was splitting; she went to find the asprin.
Fortunately, she was feeling better by the time the doorbell rang an hour later. Sunlight was asleep, so everyone had taken the chance to check kit and weapons. That was one thing the colonel had drummed into them thoroughly over the years. Check everything. If your gun jams in the field, you have no one to blame but yourself.
O'Neill passed his zat to Teal'c and went to answer the door.
"Where's the party?" asked a cheerful voice from outside.
"You cut it tight; we nearly went without you."
"I don't live on the net, you know." Maybourne sounded peeved. "I only logged on half an hour ago. What would you have done if I'd been out of town?"
"You weren't going to be. You're too curious."
"So, are you going to invite me in?"
Sam had a sudden mental image of a vampire standing on the threshold, which maybe wasn't too inaccurate in Maybourne's case. Could he really be trusted?
"Before I do," O'Neill said, "there's two things that need to be clear. This isn't just you and me, this is SG-1. That means firstly that you take orders from me, and, secondly that you regard their lives as you would your own. Understand?"
"If I agree, what's in it for me?"
"Jack, you'd never cut it as an insurance salesman." Sam could hear a note of amused resignation in his voice. "Okay - I'm in."
As Maybourne came into the living room, she eyed him up and down. He was casually dressed in a light-blue short-sleeved shirt, but the brand looked expensive. Wherever he was hiding out these days, he certainly wasn't hurting financially. He worked his way round the room with a relaxed manner that had to be at least partly faked. There was no way he could feel at ease with everyone here.
"General Carter, and Selmak, I presume. A pleasure to meet you both."
Dad glanced at her, as if to ask her opinion, then briefly shook the hand that was offered.
"Doctor Jackson." Another brief handshake, Daniel keeping his face carefully expressionless.
"Major Carter." Okay, maybe she owed the guy something. He'd helped save her life and Teal'c's. She took his hand firmly, caught the slightest flicker of surprise in his eyes.
"Teal'c." No hand was offered here. Maybourne stood in front of Teal'c, eyes wary, body tense. "Gara ci kahar."
Daniel's head whipped round in astonishment.
Teal'c stood unmoving for several seconds. Finally, he said: "Ci katomba mi sandolah, kasha pe'ratouri."
Maybourne shrugged and looked to Daniel for assistance. "I just used up my entire stock of goa'uld."
"Uh, he accepts your apology in recognition of the life-debt between you. He will not kill you. However, I would not assume that he likes you."
"I do not," Teal'c said flatly.
"Children." O'Neill called them all to order. "Save the squabbles for break time. If anyone here can't work with Maybourne, then I want to know now. Otherwise, what I said to him goes for everyone else. He's a member of the team and you will treat him as such."
"I will work with him, O'Neill."
Leaning against the door, casual in his blue fatigues, O'Neill swept his eyes round the room, taking them all in.
"Okay, kids, this is the current situation. Sunlight on Water came through the SGC Stargate two days ago. She arrived, via a device in Ma'chello's laboratory, from an alternate reality in which she is the daughter of myself and Doctor Samantha Carter."
Mayborne's eyebrows shot up, but he didn't say anything.
"From the letter she brought with her, we know that her reality has been decimated by a world-wide viral infection which Dr Fraiser has identified as a previously unknown variant of flu. Its origin is unknown, but we need to obtain blood samples from infected people to allow us to develop stocks of vaccine in case the same disease breaks out in our reality. As Sunlight was able to use a device of Ma'chello's that we had been unable to identify, there is a chance that Ma'chello lived long enough in that reality to teach Daniel how to translate his notes.
"Because of uncertainty regarding valid iris codes, and the addition of an unofficial member to the team, we will be avoiding the route Sunlight used to get here and will use the quantum mirror to take us directly into the SGC in that reality. We know from the base medical records that Daniel, Carter and myself died of the flu. Cassandra barely had so much as a sniffle, but Dr Fraiser is dead. Teal'c vanished from the records a couple of years ago, and is presumed to be dead. Jacob Carter is probably dead. However, Brigadier General Maybourne recovered from the disease and is still in charge of the SGC."
"You can't be serious!"
O'Neill glared at Maybourne, who promptly shut up.
"Maybourne has been in this position ever since General Hammond retired just over a year ago."
Sam exchanged glances with Daniel and Teal'c. She had the distinct impression that they didn't like this any more than she did.
"We have no knowledge of the operational status of the SGC, but we must assume that if the base is still operational, it will be badly undermanned. Do not make any assumptions regarding anyone you recognise. This reality probably split from ours somewhere around the time of the first Abydos mission and that could lead to a lot of differences.
"Our objectives, in order of priority, are as follows: one - obtain blood samples; two - try and determine the origin of the disease; three - see if they were able to translate Ma'chello's notes and whether we can obtain a copy; four - render assistance if it can be done without any risk to our own reality. I repeat, obtain blood samples, determine origin of disease, obtain any translation of Ma'chello's work and render assistance.
"We'll split into two groups, one main party of three and a back-up of two. Carter, Daniel and I will go though first. If everything goes smoothly, then we'll get what we want simply by asking for it. If it doesn't go smoothly, then I want something the other Maybourne won't anticipate as back-up. We'll pre-empt channel 1 by taping down the PTT button on Carter's radio, so Maybourne and Teal'c can listen in on whatever is happenning. Their course of action will depend entirely on circumstances, but the mission objectives should be borne in mind at all times. Any radio conversations will take place on channel 2; remember that Carter won't be able to hear them.
"Weapons for this mission are zats. These are our own people. Any other weapons remaining on this side of the mirror are to be kept locked in Jacob's study.
"The controller for the mirror remains with the back-ups and the mirror is to be kept switched on if at all possible. If the back-ups go through, the remote remains with Jacob. His task is then to keep the mirror open, but to switch it off immediately if anyone except us attempts to come through. Maybourne, if you need to convince any of us that you're Tweedledum rather than Tweedledee, then roll up your left trouser leg. If the mirror is switched off, SG-1 will attempt to return via the Stargate and P3W-924. Daniel will show you all the dialling code and Carter will explain how the device is operated.
Maybourne raised a hand.
"Have Teal'c's radio as the transmit-only one, and use Major Carter as back-up." He glanced hastily at the tall Jaffa opposite him. "No disrespect to Teal'c, but he's not an unknown quantity. I'm assuming you asked me on this trip because you want me to try and out-think myself. I always regarded Teal'c as dangerous from the first day he joined the SGC. Carter-" he looked at her and shrugged "-I underestimated. Think of it as a blind spot where women in the military are concerned. If she's a civilian in that reality, then that will apply doubly so. He simply won't see her as a potential threat. Change out of uniform, respond to Doctor rather than Major and you'll have an edge."
The colonel nodded once, decisively. "Carter, get changed. Daniel, go and raid Jacob's fridge for the flu jabs. The jab will provide protection for two to three days. If anyone can't get back within that time then you don't come back without ensuring that full quarantine procedures are in operation, as you'll be carrying the infection."
It was easier to see through the mirror from a low-down position. Sam knelt on the floor opposite Maybourne who seemed perfectly comfortable sitting cross-legged like an over-sized, bearded leprechaun. In a room in the alternative SGC, she could see the colonel drawing something on the wall with one of Sunlight's crayons. That made sense, it would speed up the process of identifying the correct reality if they had to switch off the mirror for any reason. O'Neill stepped back to admire his handiwork, a stick figure with one hand on a hip and a halo over its head.
"I preferred him as Bond," Maybourne said.
"Roger Moore. Sean Connery was the best though."
If this was a game, then she didn't know the rules. Maybe you were supposed to call out 'Kevin Bacon' at some point. She gave Maybourne a small, frosty smile.
"What about George Lazenby?" asked Dad from the armchair.
This was getting ridiculous. She waved a hand at them both to shut up and tapped her earpiece to reinforce the point.
"Colonel O'Neill!" said an unknown voice.
If she could hear it that clearly, then Teal'c had to have the gain on his microphone set about as high as it could go. Which meant that if he spoke it would be almost deafening. She pulled out the earpiece and settled for listening the old-fashioned way.
O'Neill's voice: "Levin. No, you're not seeing a ghost."
Daniel: "We're here from a parallel reality. All we need is some medical information and a few blood samples."
Levin: "Sir, I'll take you up to the general's office."
Maybourne got to his feet, surprisingly quickly for someone of his stocky build. "That gives us a couple of minutes in hand. General, can you lend me a razor?"
Her father studied him for a moment. "Any particular reason why?"
"It increases our options. A man on the run is a step below a civilian on the social ladder. I think I'd rather look military."
"It's in the bathroom."
When he returned a couple of minutes later, not only had he lost the beard, he'd also done something to his hair. It was hard to pinpoint the exact difference, but he looked as he did when she'd first known him: Maybourne, NID, the enemy.
"I think I prefered you with the beard. I'm just remembering why I don't like you."
He grinned wolfishly. "Good. Now there's just one or two things we need to sort out..."
As far as O'Neill could tell, the layout of the SGC was unaltered. Probably because the missile silo that had pre-dated it only allowed for a limited number of ways to set up the place. He said as much to Teal'c, not that Teal'c couldn't see it for himself, but because it made sense to feed back as much information as possible to Carter and Maybourne. Besides, it passed the time while waiting for General Maybourne to decide to see them. There were small changes here and there that he'd noticed as they walked through the base. The unrelieved concrete of the walls was as familiar as ever, but the SGC logo on the wall of the briefing room was completely different. Instead of the familiar bold red, yellow and blue design, it was rendered in shades of brown and cream.
Daniel cocked his head and examined it for moment. "You know, I think I prefer it that way."
Before O'Neill could think of a suitably tart rejoinder, he was distracted by the sight of Maybourne finally emerging from of Hammond's office.
"Well well well. SG-1 returned from the grave. Or should I say, the 'original SG-1'? Whatever happened to Van de Meulen?"
"Had a nasty encounter on PX4 7JT. Met a double-glazing salesman. By the time we got to him, it was too late. He'd already signed up for full replacement windows plus PVC fascia boards and new guttering."
"I see you haven't changed, Jack."
How could he have forgotten how much he disliked this man? The oily voice, the mocking condescension and the half-smile that gave nothing away. Maybe it was the uniform that did it. Where Hammond would have been in a short-sleeved shirt, Maybourne was wearing his dress uniform jacket, flawlessly neat.
"Nor you, Maybourne. You always were a-"
"Jack." Daniel's gentle reminder caught him in mid-flow. "He is the base commander."
"My apologies, General. I'm used to General Hammond in your position."
"And you address him like that?" The reprimand was sharp and unmistakable.
He was sure he could hear a gentle chuckle through his earpiece. He'd kill Harry when he got back.
"So, what can I do for you, Colonel? Given the timing, I presume this relates to your daughter?"
Keeping his voice carefully formal, O'Neill said: "From the letter Sunlight brought with her, we learned you had a major epidemic. We need blood samples to help us develop a vaccine in case it occurs in our reality. We also need to know if you've determined where it originated. Sunlight used a device of Ma'chello's that we'd been unable to determine the use of; we're hoping that you managed to translate more of his notes than we did. If you can help us on that score, then we'll give you any assistance we can with regard to the plague."
"The letter was written by your father-in-law, I presume?"
"Yeah. How is Jacob?"
Maybourne gestured lightly with a hand. "Dead, I'm afraid. Still, look on the bright side, it saves him from a court-martial for unauthorised use of the Stargate. I must say the team at Area 51 are really looking forward to the autopsy. They're curious as to why his symbiote didn't protect him against the virus - it might provide us with a useful weapon to use against them."
It was a good thing Carter wasn't here; though come to think of it, she was probably better at keeping her temper than he was. He rocked lightly on the balls of his feet, wishing this was a situation that could be resolved by action.
"Blood samples, I can let you have," Maybourne said. "If Doctor Jackson goes down to the infirmary, Cassandra will help him collect him collect as many samples as he needs. But," he added, as Daniel moved to obey O'Neill's nod, "no weapons. This is the SGC, not an alien planet. All of you, give your zats to Levin. He'll check them into the armoury and return them to you when you leave."
O'Neill's fingers tightened automatically on the grip of his zat. It was a reasonable request, damn it. There was no reason for him to feel this paranoid.
"Your call," said a voice in his ear. "Hammond would have asked the same."
With great reluctance he handed over his zat.
"Hey, take care of that, it was a personal gift from Apophis."
Daniel seemed to have no qualms about handing over his weapon, but then Daniel would have walked cheerfully into the lion's den armed only with an energy bar and a phrase-book written by Doctor Dolittle. Teal'c was not at all happy, though only someone who knew him would likely realise that. To the casual onlooker, his face would appear as impassive as it always did.
"Why's Cassie working here?" Daniel asked, as he headed in the general direction of the door.
"She's our only immune to date. Half our medical staff are dead, the rest are ill."
"Nirrti," said Carter's voice, "could she be involved somehow? Cassie had latent telekinetic abilities. Do any of the survivors have ESP ratings?"
Now what the hell was ESP? As if she'd read his mind, Carter promptly said: "Sir, did you ever do one of those tests where your partner looks at a sequence of cards and you have to try and guess the symbol on the cards?"
Oh, those. Apparently his score had been so negative that it was regarded as an interesting statistical event in its own right.
"Maybourne, did you ever do those tests with rhinestone cards?"
"Do you make a habit of shooting yourself in the foot?"asked an amused voice in his ear, counterpointed by the glare he received from General Maybourne.
"General," he corrected himself, "did you ever do any of those tests?"
Maybourne took the seat at the head of the briefing room table and gestured to O'Neill and Teal'c to sit down. O'Neill sat, aware of a terrible case of the fidgets. Why couldn't they leave this place with a supply of pencils and paper when it wasn't in use? Right now, he had an almost uncontrollable urge to start folding a paper airplane.
"If you mean Rhine cards," Maybourne said slowly, "then I consistently score ten percent above random. Your point?"
"Nirrti wanted to breed a host with bells and whistles."
Teal'c half-raised an eyebrow. "She is quite capable of destroying an entire planet if it would help her achieve her aims."
Maybourne glared at Teal'c with obvious dislike, then addressed his reply to O'Neill. "Goa'uld think in the long term. If Nirrti developed a virus that selectively killed those without any paranormal abilities, then the gene pool in the next generation would be closer to what she wanted."
"If it's her, then she'll be here. You know that?" Nirrti and her damned invisibility gadget.
Maybourne leaned across the table, looked him directly in the eye. "If she's here, Colonel, then it's entirely due to you. Does that sit well on your conscience? The death of several million people?"
"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"
"I don't know how much our realities differ, Colonel, but in this reality, it was you and Dr Fraiser, backed up by your wife and Doctor Jackson who insisted on making a deal with Nirrti."
Oh crap. "That was to save Cassandra's life. Are you telling me you'd have let her die?"
"Yes. Nirrti as a prisoner was worth far more than the life of one teenager. Nirrti allowed to leave through the Stargate was a danger to everyone."
"So why did you allow her to leave?"
"Because," said a soft feminine voice, accompanied by a shimmer in the far corner of the room, "you looked as though you were about to shoot him if he didn't agree."
Dressed in a long flowing skirt with a highly embroidered waistband, and a bodice top stiched with asiatic patterns in delicate beadwork, Nirrti glided smoothly towards them, casually ignoring the weapon levelled at her by the airman on duty at the back of the room.
Her hand touched him lightly on the shoulder. "I owe you so much, Colonel O'Neill."
"If you shoot her now," he said, "I won't object at all."
She spread her hands, gracefully. "General Maybourne can't afford to lose me. I'm the only person who can cure this disease."
Damned if he was going to pay her any attention unless he had to. "What about the Asgard?" O'Neill demanded of Maybourne. "They couldn't intervene if the disease was natural, but if Nirrti started it then that's a clear breach of the treaty."
The bangles on her bare arms chimed together as Nirrti laughed. "There is no treaty, Colonel. The Asgard withdrew their protection from Earth long ago."
Had the replicators succeeded in destroying the Asgard?
A universe without those little grey fellas was going to be a helluva lot more dangerous.
He picked at the table top with a fingernail, but the highly polished surface didn't yield. Dammit, he needed to fiddle with something. If he picked holes in the table with his knife, Maybourne was unlikely to be very forgiving. He looked like a man who placed a high value on pristine table tops.
Damn, damn, damn.
Maybourne was talking to Nirrti...
"Before I even consider any kind of negotiation, you have to prove what you claim. Teal'c, escort her down to the infirmary."
Teal'c didn't move. "I do not take orders from you."
O'Neill gave him a nod. "It's okay, Teal'c. You're about the only person I'd trust not to let her out of their sight. Take her invisibility gadget - with your permission, General. See if she can help any of those people."
Nirrti smiled, a calm confident smile. "When I have shown that I can save your people, General, then I shall give you my terms. They will include both Cassandra and the sho'va. I think I might like to rule this world."
Before departing, she traced a smooth finger round the curve of O'Neill's neck. "Such a pleasure to meet you again."
So that left himself, Maybourne and a man with a gun. He had a bad feeling about that. There was something here that he was missing.
"Jack, he's trying to split you up."
Gee, thanks a bunch, Harry. Now tell me
"Colonel-" those two had to be playing pass-the-parcel with the radio "-remember we can't hear you now Teal'c's gone. We're moving in, unless you get a message to Teal'c to say otherwise."
"And, Jack," Harry had that mock solicitous note in his voice, "don't say anything to annoy him until we get there. Oh, by the way, in case it comes up, in our reality you've been married to Doctor Carter for just over a year."
Really? Didn't he get any say in the matter? Forget that. There were other problems to consider.
"General, what happened to the Asgard?"
"Sir, ask him what happened to the Asgard."
Beat you to that one, Carter. He mentally chalked a point on an imaginary blackboard.
"What happened in your world, Colonel?" Maybourne asked.
"We had a treaty between us, the Asgard and the System Lords. Neither the Asgard nor the goa'uld were allowed to interfere with the protected worlds. Thor asked me to represent Earth at the negotiations. We get along."
"The same thing happened here."
Maybourne was too calm, too relaxed. He had to be hiding something. The airman at the back of the room shifted his weight slightly, but never relaxed his grip on his gun. There was something vaguely familiar about his face. Where had he seen him before?
"Have you got any paper?"
"It helps me think."
With a look of outraged disbelief, Maybourne passed him half a dozen sheets of paper.
One flew down the table towards him and he caught it deftly, inscribed his initials neatly on the top sheet of paper and started to fold an origami bird.
"Look, why don't I go talk to the Asgard? They might be able to spare some resources to help." He shrugged immodestly. "They like me." And it was a fair cert that they didn't like Maybourne. They wouldn't like him because- Ah.
Maybourne drummed his fingers on the table top. "It might work," he said slowly. "It might work. As long as you tell them the truth."
"And which truth would that be? The truth about your off-world operation, the one that was stealing technology from both the Asgard and the Tollan?"
"The one that you agreed with me about. The one that you helped me run, until you left to spend more time on Earth with your daughter."
"The one-" Harry's voice, behind him "-where Jack tricked his way into my confidence, pretended to agree that allies who refused to share their technology with us were a waste of space, joined my operation just long enough to find out everything about it and then sold us to the Asgard. Did he tell you that I ended up on death row because of him?"
O'Neill spun round, nearly breaking a leg on his chair. Harry stood casual, confident, and just far enough behind Carter so that she couldn't grab the zat he was holding on her.
"Jack," she said, and there was a warning in her voice, but he didn't know what she wanted to tell him.
"Are you okay?"
She nodded, nervous, not like the Carter he knew.
He injected all the venom he could muster into his voice. "Fuck you, Maybourne."
"It's a pleasure to see you too, Jack."
The two Maybournes locked eyes, assessing one another.
"So?" General Maybourne said finally.
"So, I figured we could do a deal. You have something I want, and I have something you need."
"And that would be?" The general seemed fascinated by his double. It was as though replicas of other people were something you took in your stride, but you never expected it to happen to you personally.
"I need Ma'chello's notes. I blackmailed Senator Kinsey to escape from prison, but I'm still a wanted man. I want something I can trade for a pardon. If you got any worthwhile technology from Ma'chello, then that should do the trick."
"I see. And in return, you are offering...?"
"You need Jack to crawl to the Asgard for you. He's the best chance you've got, and you know it. But I have to say, he's not looking terribly co-operative.
"I'm sure he'd talk to them for you, he's got an heroic streak he can't quite get rid of, but your problem is how to get him to cover your ass. Jack's not terribly bright, I'm afraid, but I think even he may have worked out by now just why his counterpart co-operated with you. You had the advantage of me there - you see, he didn't have any children in my reality."
All right, he was slow. It had been staring him in the face, and he hadn't seen it.
His hand gripped the hilt of his combat knife. "Sunlight," he whispered. "You bastard, you threatened Sunlight." He pulled the knife in one swift move and had it half-way to Maybourne's throat, when a shot from Harry's zat caught him. Even as he was falling, arcing in the spasms from crazed signals running down his neural pathways, he felt a bullet clip his jacket.
"You stupid jerk," he cursed himself silently, and then the pain caught up with him and he blacked out.
It could only have been a couple of seconds, because everyone was still in the same place when he came to. That was about the only good thing about zats, the more often you got hit by them, the less time they laid you out for. He guessed his body just got used to them after a while.
"As I was saying," Harry continued blithely, as though nothing had happened, "before Neanderthal Man here got over-excited, you can manipulate him pretty easily once you have the correct lever. Now, I don't have the kid, but when I came along to find out exactly where Jack's little unauthorised expedition with the mirror was going to, I found he'd left his wife behind to look after things. I was sure she'd come in handy for something.
"Doctor Carter, I trust your husband is going to co-operate from now on?"
"Jack." Carter had the most amazing wide-eyed look, all wounded doe. "Please do whatever he says. I'm scared."
He was hard put not to laugh with relief. If Carter was over-acting to that extent, then she had to be okay with whatever Harry was up to. Okay, two could play at hamming it up.
He stretched out a suitably helpless hand in her general direction. "Sam, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have involved you in this."
"On your feet, Colonel."
Carter's abortive move to help him up was stopped by Harry's hand on her arm.
"Leave him," Harry said shortly. "He can manage on his own. Now, Colonel, you're going to take that knife, and you're going to slide it hilt-first down the table along to me."
Pins and needles were still sparking along his nerves. O'Neill made his way unsteadily to his feet, slid the knife along as ordered and collapsed into a chair. Harry caught the knife, tested the edge against his thumb, nodded in approval and held the edge lightly to Carter's neck.
"General, do we have a deal? I get Ma'chello's notes, and Jack negotiates with the Asgard without giving them the slightest reason to want to wipe you off the face of the planet."
Maybourne relaxed visibly. "Done."
Chapter 5: Bread and Salt
Can SG-1 (and Maybourne) do anything to help the people in this reality?
I have eaten your bread and salt.
I have drunk your water and wine.
The deaths ye died I have watched beside,
And the lives ye led were mine.
Jack looked tetchy, probably missing his knife. Then again, he probably didn't take too kindly to Major Carter being held at the sharp end of that self-same knife. There was something terribly entertaining about winding Jack up, but it wasn't really fair on Carter to hang around too much longer.
"Lead on, MacDuff." Maybourne gestured his counterpart into the office that memory insisted was Hammond's.
It looked good. Actually, it looked very good. The deep rich red of the desk, the flags leaning against the wall behind, the rows of books on their shelves. He had a terrible urge to go and read the titles; you could learn so much about a man from his choice of reading material. Just how much did the two of them have in common? He would have enjoyed it here in the thick of things, being a part of the SGC instead of watching forever from the sidelines. This was where it all happened; the front line of the fight against the goa'uld was here.
Keeping a careful eye on Carter, he dropped the knife and kicked it into the far corner of the office. He couldn't afford to have both hands occupied and he couldn't very well stick the knife into his waistband, it was too damn sharp. The zat was more useful, he'd need it soon enough.
'Maybourne' sat down before his computer and looked at him pointedly until he took the hint and looked away while the password was being input.
Did 'Maybourne' use his late grandmother's phone number as a password? He was tempted to ask, but then he'd have to change his own password. Numbers were so much harder for people to guess.
"Okay, this is Ma'chello's data. We got a pretty full translation - you'll find some useful stuff there."
"Stick it on a floppy."
Movement caught his eye through the glass. Jack, making a two fingered gesture at him. Well, let's see, it could either be the British equivalent of 'fuck off', except that Jack had never struck him as one to use an obscure insult when an obvious one would do, or else it was a request for an extra copy of the disc.
Oh ye of little faith. Did you really think I'd hang onto the master copy? Dead right.
"Better do another one as a back up, just in case the disc is corrupt."
That better? One for you and one for me, and will you kindly keep quiet about having a copy until I've tried to do a deal with mine.
'Maybourne' dragged the icon over and copied another disc, then made a come-closer gesture with his head. "I've got another set of files you might like. I'll put the directory on a separate disc. I know you won't have these ones."
He called up a couple of files at random: statistical data, pictures.
The pictures shouldn't have come as a shock. After all, he'd tried to do virtually the same thing himself. But the detail, the cold clinical barbarity of the destruction of a human being... Some things went beyond research into sadism. He had a nasty feeling that someone had enjoyed this, and that someone just might have been himself. Did human dignity mean anything? He'd always had doubts about that. If it did mean anything, then these pictures showed it being systematically destroyed in a man who posessed more dignity than anyone else he knew.
He didn't believe in God, but thanked him anyway that Carter was still being a good little hostage and looking in the opposite direction.
Jack was bobbing up and down again. He took the disc, dropped it in his pocket and shook his head. No way are you getting a copy of this one, pal.
Next step. Martelli still had a gun on Jack. 'Maybourne' was almost certainly packing in a shoulder-holster under that jacket. Okay, one each.
"General, she's all yours. I'm sure she won't give you any major problems."
Without bothering to look behind him, he stepped out of the office.
He tossed the first disc in the air and as Martelli's eyes moved to follow it, he brought him down with the zat.
O'Neill would take care of Martelli, tie him up or whatever. He had unfinished business.
Carter was standing, 'Maybourne' was on the floor and Carter seemed to have acquired a gun from somewhere. He felt an almost paternal satisfaction from that. It was good to have people you could rely on. He looked down at his double, read the blank incomprehension in his face.
"It makes life marginally less boring."
He aimed the zat carefully and fired deliberately. Twice.
There was something rather disconcerting about watching yourself die. It wasn't so much that he felt involved, as that he didn't. He had a detached sense of unreality, as though nothing had really happened. There was a body on the floor, but it was nothing to do with him.
Carter's voice pulled him out of his fugue - a corner of his mind noted with detached amusement that she didn't sound at all happy. Ah well, that was the end of a beautiful working relationship.
"What the hell was that for?" Jack sounded furious.
"I didn't like the colour of his shirt." Don't let them get to you. Keep your cool. Keep it smooth. The name's Bond, James Bond.
"You killed an unarmed prisoner. I don't care how you used to do things in the NID, you're under my command now."
"You tried to kill him yourself less than ten minutes ago. I just saved you from getting your hands dirty. That's your weakness, Jack. You can't sacrifice an individual for the greater good."
The word hung heavy in the air between them. Sometimes, it was easy to be lulled by the banter and to forget how dangerous a man O'Neill was.
O'Neill smiled, but the smile didn't reach his eyes.
"Been there. Done that. Nicked the t-shirt."
Harry, you're an idiot. You've read the files. He's sent Teal'c to certain death, given the order that would kill Daniel, and shot Carter. He'll do the same to you if he ever feels he has no other option. But then again, he'll only do it if completely backed into a corner. His biggest mistake in both universes was in letting Nirrti go in order to save Cassandra. That's his Achilles heel. He can't sacrifice the life of a child.
"So what now?" he asked.
"I don't know. If you were really one of my team, you'd be facing a court martial."
Ouch. That hurt. Probably because it was true.
"I saved your life ten minutes ago. Doesn't that count for anything?"
"No. You signed on as one of the team. We don't keep score. I thought you could work with SG-1. I was wrong."
"And it doesn't mean anything to you that he would happily have killed both you and Major Carter, if it would keep the Asgard from ever finding out his involvement in stealing from them?"
"You're missing the point, Maybourne. You've been a civilian too long. It doesn't matter whether you're right or wrong. It doesn't matter two shakes of a duck's ass if I'm right or wrong. What matters is whether you follow my orders.
"Now either do what you agreed to do, or else get out of here and never come back."
I'm the same rank as you, you bastard. Was the same rank. Why the hell do I hang around you anyway? I pull your friends out of the fire, and what do I ever get for it except the dubious pleasure of risking my neck?
You know why you do it, Harry. You do it for kicks. It's a game: a bigger challenge than dangerous sports, more purpose than gambling, and a higher thrill than drugs. You do it to put one in the eye of your bastard friends at the NID who fawned on you when you were on top of things, and couldn't disassociate themselves fast enough when you got caught.
"Entropic cascade failure," Carter said suddenly.
Ah, she'd seen that possibility. He'd been rather afraid she would. And it was such a nice desk too.
"Carter?" O'Neill sounded slightly exasperated.
"You can't have two Maybournes in one reality. Not for more than a day or so. Otherwise you start getting entropic failure on the person who doesn't belong in the reality. He was planning on staying here."
"Jack!" Daniel virtually bounced into the room. "I've got it. We need to talk to Ke'ra."
Ke'ra? Ah yes, Linea, 'destroyer of worlds'. Amazing how total loss of memory could cause the emergence of a completely new character. He could think of several people he'd like to try that on.
Carter's attention shifted to the more immediate topic. "It could work. She's a brilliant biochemist, and with Linea's latent knowledge of biological warfare... If she came up with a cure, the only problem would be distribution. The Asgard are the only people who could cover the entire planet in the time necessary. If we tried to do it by conventional means, millions more would die before treatment could reach them."
"What about Nirrti?" O'Neill asked. "Has she done anything useful?"
"She worked her way round half the infirmary," Daniel replied, "using that goa'uld healing device. I don't know if she's anything that would work on a larger scale. She may be gambling that curing world leaders will be enough to get them to pledge allegiance to her. She's refusing to treat anyone else until negotiations start.
"She's freaking people out as well. A goa'uld with a Jaffa guard is rather un-nerving in the SGC. If Cassie hadn't vouched for Teal'c, I think someone would have taken a pot shot at him. He's a stranger to most people here. There's lots of faces I don't know. Everyone recognises me, but I don't know them."
"Okay." O'Neill checked off points on his fingers. "Carter, I want you to rig up a generator to supply enough extra power to boost the gate as far as the Asgard homeworld. Daniel, get those blood samples back to Jacob, then you're going to Vyus to contact Ke'ra. Teal'c and I are going to have a serious word with Nirrti."
"Won't work, Jack." It was a relief to be in control of the situation again. "You can't give orders here. If you want to use the gate, you need me.
"Now, maybe I'm after a desk job at the SGC, or maybe I'm here to help you. The question is: do you trust me?" Always fun to put Jack on the spot. Fun, but risky.
"Get his uniform. Zat the body."
"Yes, Sir." He threw a mock salute, because he knew it would annoy, and went off to explore the joys of a general's uniform.
Base morale was in the pits. Hell, everything was in the pits and he'd barely got to second base. Martelli had been bullied, bribed and blackmailed (in no particular order) into acting as his aide to keep him to speed on recent events, and also to keep his mouth shut. There was an awful lot of information to catch up on, so much that needed doing and so few people to do it with.
Three teams were trapped off-world, because of the risk of infection. He'd transferred SG-2 to Vyus to provide temporary support for Doctor Jackson. SG-12 and SG-6 were now on Hanka, checking out Nirrti's old laboratory to see if that could provide any clues. All three teams had supplies and a list of safe worlds to settle on if return to Earth turned out to be impossible.
He'd argued with Jack over getting additional supplies of whatever Fraiser had used to vaccinate them with, but Jack had been adamant. Whatever had been used was in extremely short supply and only very small quantities were capable of being produced. He could get enough to protect themselves and Ke'ra, but that was all. It simply wasn't possible to protect the rest of his people.
Hell, only half a day on the job, and he already thought of them as his people. They were his people, and they were dying.
He was tired, tired to the bone. Martelli had turned in two hours ago, but there were still too many files to go through, too many things that he needed to know. He'd abandoned his office, people needed to feel he was with them. The control room was manned by only a handful of staff at this hour and he could read Ma'chello's files as well here as anywhere else.
Jack had gone home a few hours ago, saying that he had to stay with Sunlight overnight. Something about her having nightmares - hardly surprising coming from this place.
Daniel was keeping Ke'ra company in the medical lab. She'd come really come through for them, dropped everything to help, and was working late into the night running tests and doing biopsies. It was a good thing at least some of Earth's allies were reliable.
Carter was running protocol tests on the gate, said she needed to be sure that her counterpart had programmed it the same way. She looked tired too, but at least she wasn't giving him funny looks any more. They'd all done that at first, even Jack. It wasn't just the loss of the beard, it was the uniform. The moment he'd put it on, he'd sensed a change in their attitude. Colonel Maybourne: NID, the enemy. A bit like the way Ronan, and the other people who'd moved with General Maybourne from the NID, looked at Teal'c. Jaffa: potential traitor, not one of us.
"Major Carter, do you desire coffee?"
You didn't even have to recognise the voice to know it was Teal'c. No one else was that precise in their use of language.
"Thanks, Teal'c. General?"
"Yes thanks." Actually, this might be a chance to get Teal'c on his own. "I need a leg stretch, I'll come with you. Anyone else want a cup?"
"Er, yes. Thank you, Sir." Sergeant Harriman fumbled the clipboard he was jotting notes on, almost dropped it. He was one of the people Nirrti had treated, but the vision of General Maybourne doing the coffee run with a Jaffa was obviously too much for his recovering constitution.
"I do not require your assistance," Teal'c said.
"I could use some sandwiches," Carter said to no one in particular.
"In that case," Teal'c addressed an empty space about a foot behind Maybourne's head, "you may accompany me."
And just who was supposed to be giving the orders around here? It was hard enough passing as General Maybourne, without Teal'c pasting his non-compliance in letters a mile high.
The commissary was empty, even the lights were switched off, apart from the light next to the coffee machine. The effect was to make the whole room look larger, with a suggestion of ghosts lurking in dark corners. It made sense to switch the lights off. It wasn't so much a case of saving power, as of reducing heat. Heat was their enemy, here, deep underground. Every use of power generated heat and getting rid of it was an endless problem. The gate was worst of all, in spite of the chilling effect it had on travellers passing through it, it required enormous amounts of energy to power it up.
A refrigerated vending machine next to the coffee machine held a limited selection of sandwiches and snacks. They were lucky to have anything. Supply chains across the country were breaking down as workers fell ill and died.
Motes of dust swirled in the light, spirits of the unquiet dead. He couldn't lay any of them to rest, except perhaps one.
He reached into his pocket and drew out the floppy disc that had been burning a hole in it for most of the day. This was not going to be easy.
"Teal'c." The first word he'd spoken to him since leaving the control room.
The Jaffa - Teal'c - turned to look at him, one eyebrow raised in the merest fraction of a question.
"This is yours. Or rather, his." He held out the disc. "Do with it what you will. Destroy it if you prefer, or give it to Dr Fraiser if you think the knowledge is worth the price paid for it."
"What is on it?"
He drew a deep breath to calm himself. "The title of the main paper is 'An investigation into the symbiotic relationship between goa'uld and Jaffa with particular reference to the impact on the immune system.' There is also a discussion of the internal organs of Jaffa, complete with photographs of the dissection."
Teal'c face was unreadable. He made no movement to accept the disc.
"That's the only copy. He - the other Maybourne - he thought I'd want it. I've only seen the parts he showed me." Take it for God's sake, take it. It's got blood on it.
He'd really hoped Teal'c wouldn't ask that. There was only one coin that Teal'c valued, and that was integrity. Lacking it himself, it had taken him a very long time to recognise it in another.
He tried to summon up a laugh to hide behind, but one refused to come. The truth then, take it or leave it. With luck, Teal'c wouldn't believe him anyway.
"Because it took me nearly five years to realise you were a human being. Because-" he swallowed awkwardly "-because I tried to do what he succeeded in doing."
"I believe you."
Teal'c inclined his head slighly, took the disc and dropped it into his breast pocket.
In stilted silence, they collected coffee and sandwiches and carried them back to the control room.
Maybourne's eyelids felt like sandpaper. Blinking didn't help much. Everyone round the table looked in pretty much the same condition apart from Teal'c who seemed exactly the same as normal. Maybe that Jaffa meditation had something in its favour; either that, or else Teal'c had actually managed to get some sleep when not guarding Nirrti.
CNN was playing on the monitor, but with the sound turned off. They'd all heard it before, but the pictures still carried their own power. Hospitals crowded with people lying on the floor; pyres of bodies burning in a field somewhere in Europe; children in Brazil - wide-eyed and helpless; an old man with brown wrinkled skin, his face a picture of misery and bewilderment as he bore the body of his wife to the Ganges.
Dignity be hanged. He poured a spot of water from his glass onto his hands and rubbed it over his eyes. It helped a little.
Major Carter looked at him in surprise, then did the same. She'd been up all night, but she'd got her generator working and linked into the Stargate. Jack had left for the Asgard homeworld half an hour ago and they needed to cover as many other options as possible in the interim, in case the Asgard didn't pan out.
So, for the time being, his team. It was a good feeling.
Major Carter, Doctor Jackson, Teal'c, Cassandra, Ke'ra and Major Davis.
Davis looked terrible; he'd travelled down from Washington overnight and was obviously in the early stages of the infection. Heaven only knew what conditions in the Pentagon were like; the news reports claimed that the President was indisposed, but was confidently expected to make a full recovery. If you believed that, then the Asgard were fluffy pink bunnies and vampires lived in Sunnydale.
Davis winced and rubbed a hand across his forehead.
"Drink as much water as you can," Cassandra said. "You'll lose a lot of fluid through sweating. I can give you some aspirin, they'll help a little."
"Are you qualified?" Davis asked?
"No," Maybourne replied. "But most of our medical staff are dead. Cassandra has security clearance; she's doing the best she can and, right now, having basic nursing care means the difference between life and death for some of our people. The reason she's at this meeting is because she has some experience of Nirrti and because it's the only way I can get her to sit down and rest for an hour.
Carter rested a hand on Cassandra's shoulder. "I'll come and lend you a hand if I'm able."
Cassandra flinched awkwardly. "Thanks."
He called them to order with a glance around the table.
"Ke'ra, we greatly appreciate your willingness to help us in this emergency. What progress have you been able to make?"
She ran a hand through her hair, brushing her fringe back from her face. "There's no doubt at all that the virus was genetically engineered. I'm working on a counter-agent, but I can't guarantee success. Daniel-" she smiled at the linguist sitting beside her "-is working though the data sent back by SG-12. I'm hoping there may be something useful in that, if he can translate it all."
"The problem," Jackson said quickly, "is that it's all technical stuff. I don't know anything about retroviruses or genetic engineering. The terms are just as meaningless to me in English as they are in goa'uld. I'm making a bit of progress, but I'm wasting time translating bits that turn out to be of no use. What we need is co-operation from Nirrti."
Carter started speaking, only to be interrupted by Davis.
He silenced them both with a chop of his hand.
"Major Davis, I explained this when you arrived, but you weren't looking too well so I'll go over it again. Major Carter is here from a parallel reality with SG-1. I appreciate the confusion when you're used to her counterpart in this reality, but Doctor Carter is dead. The same applies to Colonel O'Neill, Doctor Jackson and Teal'c."
Davis muttered something under his breath.
"What was that?"
"Given your opinion of their originals, I'm surprised you're willing to be in the same room, let alone trust them."
He grinned, couldn't help it. Shame Jack hadn't been here to be insulted by that one.
"They have been fighting the goa'uld longer than anyone else. I have become convinced that they have a valuable contribution to make to our efforts. This is a time when personal predjudices must be put to one side." There, that should sound sufficiently pompous. Davis was a pompous ass at the best of times, might as well hit him back in the same vein.
He turned back to Carter. "Major?"
Was she hiding a grin?
"Nothing much to report, Sir. I managed to connect the Stargate to the Asgard homeworld. Until Colonel O'Neill returns, we won't know if we can get any help there."
Cassandra rubbed her eyes, screwed them up and rubbed them again. "We're still losing people. Feretti died last night. I can't..." Her face crumpled and she buried it in her hands.
"Major Carter-" he nodded at Cassandra "-as soon as this meeting is over, take her and force her to get some rest. Tie her to the bed if necessary."
His head hurt. He rubbed at his temples, forcing himself to concentrate.
"I've spoken to Nirrti at length. In essence, she demands a summit with the principal world leaders. She states that she will heal anyone attending the summit. Her claim is that she can produce a counter-agent to the virus which will neutralise the infection. If her demands, which essentially boil down to having executive power over those same world leaders are met, then she will mass-produce the agent. She isn't really aware of the complexity of our political structures, but she's thought of a lot of ways of enforcing a world government and guarding her back against assassination once she has control."
"And why should we negotiate with a terrorist?" Davis demanded.
"Because she has us over a barrel? It's not my decision to make. I'm giving you the facts as I have them and you get the thankless task of advising the President what to do.
"Essentially, you have two options. You can negotiate with Nirrti, or you can tell her to stuff it and hope Ke'ra finds a cure. The time factor is critical in both cases, and so is the issue of mass production and distribution. Nirrti is currently unaware of Ke'ra's researches, I thought you might want to save that information for later negotiations. Whether or not Ke'ra succeeds, the knowledge that someone else might be able to provide a solution may a useful bargaining tool. There's also-"
With any luck, that would be-
"It's Colonel O'Neill."
O'Neill shook himself to chase off the cold of the wormhole. He barely noticed it these days as a rule, but the long trip from the Asgard world was enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.
"Colonel O'Neill, please report to the briefing room."
They really ought to revise procedures for incoming travellers, especially ones who were royally pissed-off. How about starting with a nice hot cup of coffee and ending up with a massage performed by half-naked houris? Well, it was a thought. He sprinted up the stairs, because he had to take his frustration out on something and the metal treads made a satisfactorily loud clang when you landed hard on them.
Everyone looked up as he entered.
"Ah," said Daniel.
"You were not successful?" said Teal'c.
Carter gave a half-shake of her head.
Davis said, "What?" which was mildly reassuring. At least someone in the room couldn't read him like an open book.
"Guess what, boys and girls? We save their little grey butts, and what do we get? Squat. They're all as bad as Freyr. Planet's full of damned lawyers."
"What about Thor?" asked Daniel.
"Oh, Thor felt he owed us a favour - gave me a communicator and this." He tossed a small blue device onto the table, where it skidded along and came to rest in front of Daniel.
"Uh, what is it?"
"Oh, you're going to love this. It's a codex: the entire Asgard legal system. Or so Thor tells me. He seemed to think we might find something useful in it."
"Didn't you ask what?"
"Yes, and about three seconds of his explanation was enough to assure me that I didn't understand a word of it."
Carter spoke up for the first time. "Sir, if we saved their world in this reality as well, why won't they help?"
"According to Thor, friendships and treaties are entirely separate issues. He wished to prevent the replicators reaching Earth, because he liked me and still had some affection for Earth in spite of the broken treaty. He says he'd lost contact with the Asgard government when his ship was taken over and was thus unable to receive any orders telling him to abandon ship and allow the replicators to move onto Earth. As he had no orders, he chose to come and try to assist us. Now, if it had been me, that communications system would have been bust accidentally on purpose-" he shrugged cheerfully at Davis's look of outrage "-but in Thor's case, I think he really meant it."
"They're an ancient culture," Daniel put in. "From what we know of them, they're very set in their ways and not terribly imaginative."
"That fits my experience," Carter added. "They're highly intelligent, but they have different thought patterns to us - the concept of gambling the sacrifice of something valuable, like their new ship, against a victory that is not guaranteed, is alien to them. They're highly advanced, but also very rigid."
"So, will they help us or not?" Davis demanded.
"In a nutshell - no. I therefore, am going home. We've got what we came here for; we've done as much as we can. There's no point in hanging around. Come on, everyone."
"Doctor Jackson." Maybourne's voice cut across him. "Can you read Asgard?"
"Yes, but I'm not fluent."
"If Teal'c worked on the goa'uld translation, would you be willing to tackle the Asgard codex?"
"Hey!" O'Neill burst in. "What part of 'going home' didn't you understand?"
Daniel tapped his left ear. "I'm sorry, Jack. I seem to have this hearing problem. I can't make out a word you're saying."
At least she had the grace to look apologetic. "I did promise Cassandra that I'd try and help her."
She'd come if he made it a direct order, but did he want to force any of them that far?
Teal'c had that carefully schooled blank look on his face: the one that said... Damn it, what did it say?
"Maybourne," O'Neill said dangerously, "we had a deal."
"And you believed me?"
A choking sound diverted his attention. Cassie had her head burried in her hands and her shoulders were quivering. He came round to rest a hand on her shoulders.
"Cassie, it's okay."
"It's all my fault." The words were barely distinguishable.
"No it isn't."
She turned round suddenly and shouted at him. "None of this would have happened if it wasn't for me. Can't you see that?" Her eyes were black pits of exhaustion, her face white and strained. "You let Nirrti go in exchange for my life. Now everyone's dying because of me."
She was only sixteen.
He bent down and embraced her in a bear-hug. "If it's anyone's fault," he said gently, "it's mine."
"Damn right," said Harry.
"Will someone please explain to me what's going on," demanded Davis.
"Colonel O'Neill has decided to stay and help us after all," Maybourne said.
"Like hell I have."
"Jack, you already know you're going to, and I haven't got time to waste going through the motions."
Okay, so he wasn't going to abandon Cassie and the others, but did Harry have to be quite so blunt about it?
"How come you're the one occupying the moral high ground here?"
Harry spread his hands in a 'who, me?' gesture. "It provides entertainment."
"Who the hell are you?" Davis asked suddenly.
Harry's face underwent a subtle metamorphosis. The affable face was replaced by a different affable face. There was a guarded look around the eyes and a cynical curve to the lips.
"He's with me," O'Neill said. "He's a member of SG-1."
Davis's jaw hit the floor. Something flicked across Harry's face. Surprise? Gratitude? Hard to say.
"Has to be," he continued with exaggerated weariness. "He's disobeying exactly the same orders as the rest of them."
Chapter 6: My Object All Sublime
O'Neill and SG-1 undergo a crash course in Asgard law.
chapter 6 My Object all Sublime
"And that's a tiger. A big, fierce tiger."
O'Neill added a stripy tail to his drawing and offered it up for Sunlight's inspection.
"How can it be fierce if it hasn't got any teeth?"
Dutifully, he added two fangs. "Now, he's a sabre-tooth tiger."
He took another sheet of paper from the stack he'd liberated from Daniel's office and flipped it over to get the clean side. Sunlight turned it over again and started colouring in Daniel's runes, humming as she worked. Okay, two could play at that game. He took another sheet and coloured the runes in alternating red and blue.
Jacob looked over the top of his newspaper. "I didn't know you were into Gilbert and Sullivan."
"Well, Sam never showed the slightest interest in my record collection, so I doubt Sunlight learned it from her mother."
"Listen." He waited a few moments and then joined in with the tune Sunlight was humming.
"My object all sublime, I shall achieve in time,
"To make the punishment fit the crime, the punishment fit the crime."
He had a surprisingly pleasant singing voice.
"It's from 'The Mikado'."
"Please don't tell me we have a culture-vulture symbiote on our hands."
Sunlight giggled. "Kantele said a naughty word."
"He did, did he? Well, you tell Kantele from me-" He stopped, picked up the piece of paper she'd been colouring in, and looked at it. Daniel's, right? From that blasted codex. Please no...
"Sunlight, does Kantele know what this says?"
"Yes, but he says it's very dull."
"Make the punishment fit the crime?"
She made a face at him. "Sort of."
A shrunken head leered at him from a corner shelf. O'Neill pulled a face back at it and Sunlight stuck her tongue out in imitation. A cursory glance around the rest of the room suggested that Daniel's habits were pretty similar in both realities: you could have stocked a small museum from the contents of his office.
Daniel looked up from the paper-strewn desk.
"Hi, Jack. Come visiting?"
"Better." He shoved aside a pile of paper and a stray sphinx that seemed to have taken up residence and plonked Sunlight down on a corner of the desk. "I've brought you an assistant."
"Yeah. Right under our noses." He pulled a videotape out of a trouser pocket. "The two of them have apparently worked out a deal. Kantele gets to borrow the body for the duration of one Tom and Jerry video."
"How long's the tape?"
"About a hundred minutes."
Daniel winced. "That's it?"
"'Fraid so." He ruffled Sunlight's hair. "Never argue with the boss."
He slotted the video into the player and settled himself in a chair where Sunlight had a clear view of the screen from his lap. At least Tom and Jerry didn't have words; he wasn't up to another situation where he had to keep track of two conversations at once.
A blue cat raced around a corner, only to be hit in the face with a large frying pan. Sunlight giggled.
"Kantele?" Daniel asked.
"Sorry, I hadn't seen this one before. Why the sudden interest in the Aesir?"
"Asgard," said O'Neill.
"Same thing," said Daniel. "In some ways, the term Aesir is more correct. Asgard was the home of-"
O'Neill held up his hands. "I don't want to know.
"Kantele, the Asgard, Aesir, call them what you will, are being a collective pain about helping with this plague because the treaty between them, Earth and the goa'uld was broken by Earth. Well, by me and Maybourne if you want to be precise. Maybourne broke it by stealing stuff off them, and I failed to turn him in because he threatened Sunlight."
"So that's why you warned her about him. You were most emphatic."
"I guess so. Oh, if you see General Maybourne around the base, he's with us. The original met with an unfortunate accident. Our Harry's no saint, but he's an improvement on yours."
It was strange and yet not so strange to be talking to the symbiote like this. It probably helped that Sunlight was sitting on his lap and he couldn't see her face. If he thought of Kantele as a disembodied voice, it felt less like an alien taking control of his daughter.
"Why don't you do that Tok'ra thing?" he asked. "All the head-bobbing and taking it in turns?"
"It'd scare the life out of her if I kept on taking over. She's too young to understand what I really am. Remember, she didn't invite me in; Jake and I made that decision for her.
"Hey, did you see that bit just then? Where Tom went down the drainpipe?
"Whoops, sorry. Anyway, until Sunlight's old enough to make the decision for herself to share her body with me, it's better for her if I let her stay in control."
"What if she decides she doesn't want you around?"
"She will. She likes me. But she has to learn things for herself. If she becomes too close to me too soon, she'll become dependent on what I know."
"Imagine Sam knew all the parts of a naqadah generator, and which buttons to press, but was a techno-klutz like you."
"Just who are you insulting?"
"See any other technophobes in this room, pal? Who always got Sam to program the video?
"Now, one of my ancestors stole that generator technology - I know which buttons to press, I might even be able to reproduce one, but I haven't a clue how it works and I couldn't redesign it for another use."
"And you're calling me a technobabble?"
"I'm one up on you. I can do microwaves and videos."
The symbiote had a decidedly unfair advantage - he couldn't very well get into a fist fight with Sunlight...
Daniel coughed. Pointedly. "Have you two quite finished yet?"
Look, do you mind? We're talking about my kid here. It's a bit like interviewing the groom after a shotgun wedding. Do you really want your daughter married to this creature for the rest of her life?
"Kantele," Daniel said, "how much do you know about Asgard law."
"A bit. From the wrong side."
Ah ha. A shotgun wedding with an outlaw.
"It was all Tuevo's fault," Kantele began, "he wanted to go home. Tuevo was my first host and it was rather an accident that I ended up with him at all. He'd played with the DHD as a kid on Karelia and one day, as an adult, he finally hit a combination that worked. Went through, ended up on Chulak, right in the middle of a firefight between two groups of Jaffa. The Jaffa carrying me was killed - I'd liked him; he was an easy-going guy, believed he was carrying a god. When he died, I jumped - pure instinct. Luckily, I was mature enough to make it. I hit Tuevo.
"He was terrified and I wasn't prepared for that. I was a god. He was supposed to consider my presence to be an honour. I didn't want him to be terrified. I wanted him to like me as my Jaffa had done. So, I lay low, gave him a chance to get used to me, let him know that he could still use his own body. After a while, he got used to me, and we got on like a house on fire."
"What you're saying," Daniel said, "is that you're not one of the original Tok'ra."
"No. I didn't meet up with them for several centuries. They're a pretty dull lot anyway - hardly a grain of humour between the lot of them. I hang out with them occasionally, do a handful of missions, then go walkabout for a couple of decades and have to track them down all over again. Usually, they find me."
"The Asgard," O'Neill prompted. This story actually promised to be interesting.
"Yeah. Well, Tuevo didn't know the address of his homeworld, but I figured it had to be an Asgard-proctected one and I knew addresses for a couple of those. I knew goa'uld avoided those worlds, but I wasn't really bothered about it. Figured we could pretend I wasn't there. Didn't work: we got caught in a trap."
"Same thing happened to Teal'c on Cimmeria."
"I heard about that one. The chamber we ended up in had a hologram of Heimdall telling me I was a naughty boy and that only Tuevo could leave the place alive."
"Been there too."
"We'd have been scuppered if it hadn't been for Tuevo's mother. A friend told her Tuevo had appeared through the Stargate and then vanished. She went to the Hall of Heimdall and demanded an explanation. Heaven knows how she persuaded him to listen, but she was a very strong-willed woman and Tuevo was her only surviving child.
"Heimdall agreed to remove the offending parasite and to restore her son to her. Tuevo and I were transported onto an Asgard ship and that was very nearly it. I don't think they'd ever met a Tok'ra before, certainly didn't believe that we were an equal partnership, but were finally persuaded to put me on trial rather than kill me outright.
"Their legal system focuses on intent rather than actual actions. The penalty for attempted murder would be exactly the same as that for murder, but the reason for committing the murder would be taken into account. If you stole because you were starving, this would be considered and you'd face a lesser penalty. However, the law with regard to contracts is far more draconian. If you give your word, it is expected to be binding regardless of circumstances. If you broke your oath because you were starving, the penalty might be starvation.
"That's the way it is. When you broke Thor's Hammer, you didn't have a treaty with the Asgard. They decided your motive was to free a friend and they took no action. If you had done that after signing the treaty, it would have been a breach of contract and they might have sentenced Teal'c to life imprisonment. That's what their principle of balance dictates."
Daniel looked up. "I kept coming across the term 'balance' but couldn't figure what it meant in a legal context. You're saying that if we broke a treaty to protect Teal'c, then losing him would have been the appropriate punishment?"
O'Neill started shredding a sheet of paper, tearing it slowly and carefully into the smallest possible pieces. "Don't these laws have any get-out clauses for good behaviour?"
"Not that I know of. You have to remember, they're a very literal race. They're so inflexible because they're nearly all the same. They all look alike, and they all think alike.
"In my case, they had to decide whether by coming to Karelia I'd broken the treaty between the Asgard and the System Lords. If I was a subject of the System Lords, and virtually all goa'uld are, then they didn't even need to figure an appropriate punishment - it's written into the treaty that they'll kill any goa'uld trespassing on their worlds. If the treaty was violated, they also had to decide whether the System Lords, as the actual signatories to the treaty, were liable for my actions as one of their subjects. In that case, they would have the option of suspending the treaty until the System Lords accepted an apropriate punishment. If the System Lords had sent me to spy, then the penalty would have been to allow an Asgard agent access to one of their worlds."
"So how did you get aquitted?" Daniel asked.
"They rigged it so that Tuevo could speak without any possible interference from me."
"The Tollan did that with Skaara and Klorel," Daniel said.
"But the result was different in my case. Tuevo begged to be able to keep me. Because of that, the Asgard ruled that I was not goa'uld. After about two weeks shuffling paper and checking small print, they decided that they would adjust their goa'uld traps to let me through freely."
O'Neill shredded some more paper into a small, precise pile on the desk.
"So where does all that get us?" he asked the world at large.
"You know where it gets you," Kantele said. His voice was apologetic. "I'm sorry, I should have seen it sooner, but what difference does it make? You couldn't do it then, and you won't do it now. I'm not sure if I could either."
"Damn you," said O'Neill. He tossed the pile of paper in the air and watched the pieces fall, soft and slow as snowflakes. "I want a different answer."
A flutter of wings took took the butterfly out of Sunlight's reach again. She ran after it, laughing with delight, as it flew an apparantly random course through the dappled light between the trees. She seemed in her perfect element, a fairy child, playing in the wilderness.
O'Neill fingered the controller for the quantum mirror where it lay safe in his pocket. The mirror didn't need to be open all the time now. After they'd finished talking law with Daniel, he worked out a schedule with the rest of SG-1 that allowed regular visits and kept security risks to a minimum. That still didn't stop the controller being a constant reminder of too many other things.
Sunlight had given up on the butterfly and was off hunting for flowers.
"You're very pensive," said Jacob. He sat, leaning against a tree trunk with the picnic laid out beside him. The three of them had taken a look at the weather and decided this afternoon was a perfect time to go into the mountains. Or should that be the five of them?
"No, just trying to relax."
The sun was warm with the kind of warmth that seeps into the bones and tries to tell you that life is good. The light breeze could have been conjured up on demand to provide the perfect complement. There were birds making all the kinds of musical sounds that birds were supposed to. There were flowers. Sunlight had collected a small bunch now. She skipped back and presented them to Jacob.
"They're for Selmak."
"Thank you, they're very pretty."
"Daddy, come and play hide and seek."
"Not just now." He patted her awkwardly on the shoulder. "Find some more flowers first."
"Okay." And she was off again, a flower petal, playing on the breeze.
Jacob was giving him an odd look, or was it Selmak. Damn it, how could you tell when they weren't speaking?
"What is wrong?"
"You're giving me that look."
"No I'm not."
Selmak said, "You did not ask 'which look?'"
O'Neill scrambled to his feet. "I'm going for a walk." They were watching him, but he didn't care. He strode off into the trees without looking back.
It was cooler under the trees, the damn birds were quieter too. It made a change to be in scenery where you didn't forever have to worry if someone was hiding there about to shoot you. Habit was strong though, he found himself checking and rechecking every item of cover. Sunlight was up ahead of him, hiding behind a tree, her red dungarees giving her away completely. In the undergrowth by his feet, something moved suddenly. He jerked back, but it was only some kind of small rodent, skittering away to a new place of hiding. Angry with himself for over-reacting, he kicked at a shrub, almost breaking the stem.
Get serious, he told himself. You're acting like a child. If you walk over that way and pretend to look at that funny rock, then Sunlight should be in a perfect position to ambush you. Obedient to his own dictates, he managed to appear surprised when hit a couple of minutes later by a small blonde bombshell shouting 'Boo!'
"Carry me," the bombshell demanded.
"I'm too tired. Come on, let's go and have something to eat."
Taking her hand, he led her back to Jacob and lunch.
There was nothing wrong with the sandwiches - they had to be all right, Jacob and Sunlight had cleared most of the pile between them. The one he'd eaten had been tasteless and the coffee in the thermos was too weak. He wasn't much in the mood for fruit, and cakes just left crumbs everywhere. Sunlight climbed onto his lap and he pushed her off before she could get sticky fingers all over him.
"Can you find me some more flowers?" Selmak asked Sunlight. "I can put them in water when we get home."
Sunlight hesitated, looked at O'Neill.
"Sure," he said. "Why not get a few for me as well."
"All right," Selmak said, as soon as Sunlight was out of earshot, "What's wrong?"
"I told you, nothing's wrong. Apart from a plague with no cure and aliens who won't help."
That damn head-bob.
"Jack, she's your daughter. Until this afternoon, you seemed happy with that. What's changed?"
"Nothing," he snapped. "Can't you wrap your collective heads around that?"
"You're trying to avoid Sunlight, and she's picking that up."
"Her, or the blasted symbiote?"
There was a laden silence.
"I know, I know." He rolled over onto his stomach to stare at the grass. "I'm supposed to like you guys. I do, mostly. Okay?"
"And you've nothing against blacks either."
"I'm not a racist. I just don't..."
It wasn't that simple. He'd liked Thor pretty much from the start, but then the little guy looked so harmless it would have been hard to dislike him. Individual Tok'ra he could sometimes get along with; Selmak wasn't bad even if she did tend to throw her weight about, and Martouf had come pretty close to being a friend. They were all right, as long as you managed to forget what they were. Snakes. If he let his guard drop, he could feel the goa'uld that had been in him, crawling tendrils through his mind, sending pain shrieking down his nerves, trying to force his surrender. Even here in the sun, he could feel the cold of the cryochamber and the sheer terror that he would forever associate with that cold. To become something that was no longer yourself... Carter understood - she'd been there - but how could you explain to anyone else? You didn't. Some things were personal and they stayed personal.
"Jack?" Jacob's voice.
"You've gone awfully quiet. What brought this on? You seemed fine with Kantele yesterday. What did he do to offend you?"
And that was the other thing... 'He'.
This wasn't being fair to either Jacob or Selmak. He sat up, forced himself to look them in the eyes.
"I got to talk to Kantele this morning. He's a smart-ass, been around a bit, likes kids, isn't too keen on bureaucracy. If he was a human being, I'd probably whip him at hockey to knock the smart-alec out of him and then buy him a beer. But he isn't human, he's a thousand-year old alien and he's living in my little girl. And he's a male alien. Forget the voice, he's male."
"And Selmak's female. So what?"
"I don't have a problem with women. I have a problem when it comes to kissing men. I have even more of a problem when it comes to going to bed with one."
O'Neill hated talk sessions. Action, he understood. Action he could get on with. It was sitting around on your backside, discussing which side of the paper to write on, that drove him nuts. This mission was developing into one long talk session and he slipped away from it as often as he could. Maybourne actually seemed to enjoy the paperwork, said it was a interesting problem to try and keep the base operational with half the normal number of staff. Or was he just having a field day reading all the reports that had never made it as far as the NID?
Carter was pulling all useful data she could find from the base computers. From what she'd said, there were a few nuggets: mostly stuff that had been stolen by Maybourne in the time when he was running his off-world operation. The best so far was a series of research reports on one of those nifty devices that had allowed the Tollan to walk through walls. His conscience was clean with regard to that one; the Tollan certainly weren't going to ask for it back again - not in his universe at any rate. Given that Earth hadn't been destroyed by a phase-shifted naqadahh bomb, the Tollan had to be still okay in this universe, but they were unlikely to be feeling friendly towards Earth. Something would have to be done on that score, even if it was only to send an emissary to warn the Tollan that were about to face big-time snake trouble. Perhaps they'd be able to evacuate to another planet where the goa'uld couldn't find them. At least research on the Tollan device might produce a way of defending Earth against a bomb that could come through the iris...
Carter was sure the NID had researched more items, but the joke was on Harry there. He couldn't get into his own computer to access the NID files. Carter said he'd tried every password he could think of without luck. The idea of Maybourne trying to crack his own paranoid habits of computer security was a particularly entertaining one.
Teal'c was muttering things about protein coats and immune systems. It didn't make any sense at all, but Ke'ra seemed to feel that he was making a useful contribution, so O'Neill had quickly got out of the way and left them to get on with it. Daniel was still reading Asgard texts. He'd said something about contractual obligations being imposed second-hand being of potential significance. Obviously quite fascinating - if you were Daniel.
O'Neill felt redundant. He always did when there was nothing to do. Everyone else was poking at bits of writing, and writing didn't require an ability to make command decisions while under fire from two squads of hostile aliens. He was a field officer, not a desk jockey.
He'd sneaked out for the picnic yesterday, but that had just left him feeling confused and guilty. Dammit, he just wanted this mission over and a way of getting the symbiote out of Sunlight - if it could be done. What was it Jolinar had said? She could leave Carter unharmed, but only at the risk of dying herself. He didn't wish that on Kantele. For a snake, he wasn't a bad sort. And then there was the problem of a host. How many people did he trust with the knowledge Kantele had in his memory? About as many as he'd trusted with the knowledge of Kantele's existence...
He stared down at the Stargate through the briefing room window. The gate room had an oddly empty feel to it when the gate hadn't been used for a day or two. By all rights, it should look exactly the same, but it didn't. Maybe it was something about the light. Or then again, maybe it was just Maybourne standing behind him.
Harry sighed. "Do you think you could possibly stretch to calling me General when you're over here?"
"You mean Davis still hasn't blown the whistle on you?"
A shrug. "He doesn't have a lot of choice. He needs someone he can work with and I'm in control of the situation. He seems to have bought the story that I'm with you on temporary transfer from the NID."
"Is prepared to swear blind that I'm the genuine item."
"Assuming you weren't stupid enough to threaten her, how did you manage that?"
"I didn't. She offered."
"And you expect me to believe that?"
"Ask Cassandra. She had a healthy dislike of my predecessor, didn't even want to know what had happened to him. She claims she knew I was a ringer before Davis caught me out."
O'Neill raised a sceptical eyebrow.
"She's an intelligent young woman," Maybourne said defensively. He clapped O'Neill on the shoulder. "Come over here, there's something I want you to see."
At the back of the room were a couple of vaguely familiar looking devices. They might have come from the lab of any self-respecting mad scientist. The chair with the metallic headpiece would have been right at home in a Frankenstein move, all it lacked was bits of coloured wire sticking out of the headset and a large lightening conductor.
O'Neill snapped his fingers. "Ma'chello. That's one of his gizmos."
"It is indeed. It's a lie detector with a twist. It can separate the readings of symbiote and host. It also has the added feature that a lie can be rewarded with any degree of pain of your choosing. Nirrti is due to leave for Washington tonight, but until then, she's all ours..."
"Just what are you implying?"
Harry tilted his head in a suggestive manner. "If Nirrti can be 'persuaded' to co-operate, then Ke'ra would have the information she needs. Anything she tells us can be verified using the machine."
"Torture." O'Neill looked at him with dislike. "You're suggesting that we torture her. I've news for you: this is the United States Air Force. We don't do that to prisoners. I mean it, Maybourne. You try that and you are out of this operation."
"How well do your principles stand up to stark reality, Jack?" Maybourne stabbed an acusing finger at him. "There's people dying every minute out there. I don't know about you, but I'm an American and those are my countrymen who are dying. I'm a patriot and so are you, but I think we mean different things by the word."
"Maybe we do. I believe in what this country stands for. I took an oath to defend the Constitution. Now see, some people think it doesn't matter, you just uphold it when it suits you, but I don't see it that way. I took that oath because I believe in it. You took the same oath. Is your word worth anything?"
"I see you finally learned to fight dirty. Look at this this way: you're a soldier; you've been in special ops. Are you telling me you've never had to go out and kill a man in cold blood? You've never had to kill an unarmed man before he could raise the alarm? You've never had orders to find a man and execute him?"
O'Neill stiffened. "There's a difference."
"Yes." Warfare had rules, and civilised treatment of prisoners was one of them. The Iraquis might have broken the rules, but this was America, not Iraq.
"If you say so." Harry had that smooth, urbane look on his face. The one that masked his thoughts behind a mask of blandness. "Come downstairs with me, there's an old friend I'd like you to meet."
His feet were set into stubbornness. Harry had to be up to something. "Who?"
"Major Kawalski. He's been asking for you and Carter."
"Kawalski!" O'Neill's face broke into a grin. "That crazy bastard - I've missed him."
"Look, what am I supposed to say?" Sam asked. "Hi Major, nice to see you. I'm sorry, but I only knew you for a couple of days before you got taken over by a goa'uld and died."
O'Neill sat on the edge of a lab bench, long legs dangling, avoiding the stool that anyone else would have used. Maybourne stood, straight and formal, face wearing a polite half-smile.
"He's an old mate of mine," O'Neill said, "and he wants to see us both. Please?"
He had that 'little boy asking for a candy' look on his face. It always made her want to laugh when he did that.
"Okay," she said in resignation, "but don't expect me to keep the conversation going. And if he says..."
She waved a note at him. "I've a dollar that says he will."
Her money had to be pretty safe. She suspected the colonel didn't remember her first encounter with Kawalski as well as she did. Besides, what were the odds of Kawalski being different from every other man on this base?
"Coming?" Maybourne asked. "Major Kawalski is in iso-bay three."
"General?" a hesitant voice asked from the dooway. "I was told you might have come here."
"Cassandra." Maybourne was instant attention. "What's the problem?"
"It's..." She brushed the hair back from her eyes and started again. "I didn't want to bother you, but..."
"Take it easy." He touched her lightly on the shoulder. "I know you wouldn't ask if it wasn't important."
"Laundry." She finally got the word out. "I've no clean sheets and the washing machine's broken down."
"Okay, we'll see what we can do about it. Jack, I'll catch up with you later, unless your skills include laundromat repairs."
Sam swore inwardly. She really had wanted to spend more time with Cassie, but she had critcally important work to do in the lab. Ma'chello's method of intercepting goa'uld communications could prove extremely valuable in their own reality. The System Lords were starting to co-operate with one another, and that along with the return of Anubis could be very dangerous for everyone.
So why waste valuable time going sick-visiting? Well, if she didn't get a break, she'd be incapable of doing any useful work anyway. Besides, why waste a dollar?
As he opened the door into the iso-bay, O'Neill paused in surprise. "Elliot!"
The young man on the top bunk half-sat up, then fell back again. "Sir?"
"Jack O'Neill," said a voice from the bottom bunk. "Colonel O'Neill to you."
You could hear the awe in Elliot's voice. "Colonel O'Neill? The first man to go through the Stargate."
"Hey, " Kawalski protested. "What's the big deal? I was second."
"Coming second gets no cookies," said O'Neill. "Know who the second man on the moon was?"
"Haven't a clue."
"Buzz Aldrin," Sam said.
"Hi, Sam," said Kawalski. "Good to see you too. The guys keep on telling me you're a major. They're kidding, right?"
She held out a hand and O'Neill plonked a reluctant dollar onto it.
Kawalski glanced from one to the other. "I goofed, huh? You two guys really are, or rather really aren't..." He closed his eyes for a moment, and she could see the effort that the conversation was costing him. "You two would never have got it together without me, you know that?"
O'Neill helped himself to a chair and moved it close to the bunk, nodded at her to grab one for herself. They were the cheap plastic stacking chairs that seemed to inhabit all realities, but they weren't too bad to sit on.
"So, tell me," said O'Neill.
Did he have to ask that? It was a subject best avoided, though she had to admit to her own degree of curiosity.
Kawalski, she suspected, came from a long line of story tellers, either that or creative liars. Even with the fever hollowing his cheeks and sapping his strength, he still had that trick of modulating his voice to keep the listener's attention.
"When we went to Abydos, you were mad at having the civilians along. Jackson irritated the hell out of you and you were an absolute bastard to Sam. They got us home between them, though. Jackson found the first six symbols on a stone carving and Sam worked out that we didn't need to know the seventh symbol because all we had to do was to try all thirty-nine possibilites in turn. Only the correct home symbol would create a wormhole."
Nice to know she'd made a contribution. She'd always been surprised that Daniel hadn't worked that one out for himself, the mission report had showed the problems he'd had in working out the missing glyph.
"You were sorry about that later, though. Remember, they asked us to go back to the SGC when General West retired?"
O'Neill made a vague sound that could have been either yes or no.
"The old boy decide to call it a day when they mothballed the Stargate. He was bitterly disappointed that it had all come to an end, because Sam had convinced him that there had to be other valid addresses if only we could work them out. You'd had several months to recover from Charlie's death, but your marriage to Sara had broken down. You were a grouch, but at least you knew you were a grouch and tried to tone it down. You told me you really regretted the way you'd treated Sam."
His eyes were unnaturally bright, and his forehead was covered in a thin film of sweat.
"Water?" she asked.
He nodded, so she filled a beaker for him and another for Elliot, who thanked her with a silent smile. Seeing Elliot brought back memories that were still raw, too recent.
"So-" Kawalski grinned, skin crinkling round his eyes, and she could suddenly see why O'Neill liked him so much "-I cheated. I collared Sam, told her she needed to get out more. Said that Myra had agreed to come out with me, but wanted to make it a double date and that I had a male friend who'd love to meet her." He looked at Sam. "Do you know what you said?"
"Anyone as long as it isn't Colonel O'Neill?"
Kawalski burst out laughing, then the laughter shifted abruptly into an uncontrollable cough.
O'Neill caught him up in a hug, held him until the fit passed, then laid him carefully back down again.
"We should go. We're tiring you out."
Kawalski shook his head, whispered, "I'll be okay in a minute." He reached under his pillow and passed over an envelope full of photographs.
They were obviously meant to look at them. O'Neill split the stack in two and gave her half. The top one showed Kawalski and an attractive black woman with her hair done in a complex pattern of small plaits.
She pointed at the woman. "Myra?"
Kawalski gave the slightest of nods and she moved onto the next photo. They were a mixture of family snapshots. Kawalski and Myra with two little girls, different ages in different photos. Sometimes, herself, the Colonel and Sunlight were part of the picture. Sometimes, there were other people whom she didn't recognise, occasionally a familiar face from the SGC would appear. She came to the bottom of the pile and looked over to see if the Colonel had finished with his.
He was sitting quite still, all attention focused on the photograph on his knee. With a sinking heart, she looked at the picture. Outside the church, confetti still drifting around him, stood Jack in his dress uniform, heartbreakingly handsome. Hardly aware of her alter-ego standing beside him, she became caught up in Jack's expression: pride warring with overflowing happiness.
Regaining control of herself, she reached out and took the photo from his hand, slipped it to the bottom of her stack.
"Thanks, Carter," he said, and the moment was safely past.
O'Neill flicked rapidly through the rest of his stack, with her looking on from the side, but the rest were safe. He'd obviously been best man at Kawalski's wedding, and it looked as though the two families had gone on holiday to Disneyworld together. There were several shots of three little girls having a whale of a time together. She merged the two stacks back together and held them out to Kawalski.
"Keep them," he said. "Jack, I'm not going to make it out of here. I want you to look after Myra and the girls for me."
It was an impossible request. Jack had to know that; he couldn't take care of someone in another reality, yet she sensed the struggle within him. How long had he known Kawalski? All she really knew was that they'd served together prior to the Stargate programme. Even that much she knew more by inference than from anything the Colonel had actually said. He was very discreet when it came to talking about his work in special ops.
"Charlie," O'Neill said finally. "I'll do what I can."
He took the photos from her, stuck them in a trouser pocket and stood up, only to be promptly collared by Elliot.
"Sir," the young man asked, "you recognised me. What am I in your world?"
O'Neill hesitated, then spoke firmly. "You won a medal - posthumously. You sacrificed your life to save SG-1. I owe you one."
"What about me?" demanded Kawalski.
The Colonel's voice shifted to a teasing tone. "You got taken over by a goa'uld last year. Last thing I heard, you were ruler of three minor planets."
She did her best to match him. "Sir, you forgot the harem."
As they left the room, Kawalski was still grinning.
O'Neill closed the door carefully and stopped half-way up the corridor, leant back against the wall, face staring upwards.
"Remind me to kill Maybourne when this is over."
"He set me up."
Cassandra was tired, tired in a mind-sapping way that went beyond simple lack of sleep. No matter what she did, people kept on dying. The few that survived were freaks like herself; they just weren't willing to admit it. The old general had survived the plague. That gave her an odd kind of satisfaction. Had he realised what that made him? Would he have hated her all the more because of it?
As she walked down the corridor beside the new General, she wondered if he was aware of how people reacted to him. If he was, he gave no sign. The base was effectively split into two factions: the old SGC personnel and those who had arrived when General Maybourne took over last year. It hadn't been good for morale. There'd been a general shift in the ethos under which the SGC operated, less of a search for allies and more of a hunt to grab any useful alien technology regardless of the cost. Some of Hammond's supporters had left when he retired, but Mum and Sam had stayed on. Colonel O'Neill had encouraged them to.
"Someone has to keep an eye on the bastard," he'd said. "One day he's going to cause a war."
"Won't you come back?" Mum had asked, but the Colonel had shaken his head.
"Sunlight still needs one of us at home. Besides, if I get too close to Maybourne, I'll kill him."
He'd meant it too. She'd seen the look on his face, the day he forced a showdown over Nirrti.
"If Cassie dies, so do you."
Maybourne had looked at that tight expression, the jaw set and the laughter gone from the eyes, and he'd backed down. He hadn't even pressed charges, though a court-martial should have been the automatic consequence. There had been something black and terrible between those two.
And now it was gone.
It was as if the base sensed it. The two adversaries were working together. Not easily, not without arguments, but without the ingrained hostility. At some curious underlying level, the two of them appeared to be friends. Even to those who hadn't met him before, O'Neill's name carried weight. He might not be their O'Neill, but he was a damned close substitute, and a lot of Hammond's faction were glad to see him on the base, being treated as Maybourne's equal. It was good for morale. In spite of all the horrors surrounding them, the atmosphere was improving.
The laundry was a small, pokey room off the back of the infirmary. It was inconvenient, always too hot and poorly ventilated to boot, but it beat the security risk of sending stuff in and out of the mountain every day.
Maybourne took off his uniform jacket, folded it neatly and placed it carefully on one of the ubiquitous plastic chairs.
"Let's see if we can figure out how to get the panel off. Cross your fingers that it's not much more than a loose connection, because that's about all that I'm capable of fixing."
She looked at him in horror. "I thought..."
"I'd get someone else to do it?" His lips curled up in irony. "There is no one else. Everyone who actually has a clue about how anything works is busy on the gate. A jump to the Asgard homeworld uses masses of power and tends to throw things out of synch. The generator's burnt out and needs fixing and the gate is being overhauled as a safety precaution. Be grateful, be very grateful that Siler survived. Or rather, we owe one to you. I gather he only just pulled through."
"Mum did that. I just made sure people were kept clean and fed." She hesitated. "Sometimes, when I get desperate, I try giving people the medication that Mum was using, but it scares me. I know people react differently to drugs; I could just as easily kill them. But when they're dying anyway, what difference does it make?"
He shook his head. "I'm not even going to try and answer that one. I have enough problems arguing ethics with Jack." He knelt down and started attacking the machine with a screwdriver.
"I still can't get used to that," she said.
"You like him, don't you?"
"Jack? He's a Neanderthal." He removed another screw holding the front panel in place.
It was funny how some people always talked around a subject. Mum claimed - had claimed - that it was a male thing.
"Tell me something-" he gestured towards her with the screwdriver "-you spotted me right away, didn't you? What did I do wrong?"
Laughter kicked her in the gut, wouldn't stop, the sound hideous and hysterical. Alarmed, he came forward, caught her by the arms.
"Cassie, what's wrong?"
She clung to him, because he didn't even know, because she needed to cry on someone and he was there, because too many other people needed her to be there and she had to be strong for them even when she couldn't cope any more.
Finally, the fit passed, leaving her shaken and spent. She hung on an extra moment, because it was reassuring simply to feel the support, then embarrassment took over and she stepped back.
"Do you know what you did wrong?" Another tiny laugh escaped, but she had it under control this time. "You treated me like a human being. I'm a freak. Nirrti did something to the children of my planet, played with our genetic make-up, tried to create a goa'uld host with super-powers."
"I know. It kicked in when you passed puberty, allowed you to manipulate electromagnetic fields, but your body couldn't cope with the demand. Nirrti was persuaded to reverse the changes, though the records didn't go into details as to how."
The General made it sound like something he'd read about. He was back at the washing machine now, removing another screw securing the front panel.
"You weren't there?" she asked.
"No," he said, "but I can guess what happened here. He wanted to let the changes run to completion? Yes? Wanted to carry out every test possible, see if the effect could be replicated in other people, and wasn't overly worried if you died in the process as long as it advanced scientific knowledge."
"Whenever you looked at me, I was just an experimental animal. If Mum and Colonel O'Neill hadn't been there..."
"I can guess. I'm sorry."
"Why be sorry? You're not him."
The panel was free. He lifted it away with a heave and leaned it against the wall before replying.
"Be careful what you assume."
Reaching into the machine, he touched a block of concrete.
"One of the stabilising blocks has come loose. That's probably the problem. With that loose, the increased vibration may have shaken other things free too. I'll screw the block back and attach any loose wires. If it doesn't work after that, then it's beyond my capabilities."
"But you're a different person. You didn't do the things that he did. He scared me; I like you."
The General was quiet for so long this time, that she didn't think he was going to answer at all. He did things inside the machine with screws and duct tape, pressed a button and looked surprised when the machine actually responded. He screwed the front panel back on, replaced the tools on a shelf and dusted his hands against his pants. Then, apparently realising he was still in uniform, he dusted his pants to try and get rid of the marks he'd just left.
"Cassandra, who am I?"
"General Maybourne of the NID."
"Wrong. First, I never made it beyond Colonel. Second, I no longer hold even that rank. I'm an escaped prisoner, wanted on a charge of treason. Do you want to know why?"
Suddenly scared, she shook her head.
"But I'm going to tell you anyway." His eyes creased. "They say criminals have this urge to confess.
"I ran an operation that even the NID didn't officially recognise. We maintained a base off-world and used the Stargate there to visit other worlds and collect alien artefacts. With the aid of good old American know-how, we knew we could easily reverse-engineer anything we found. We wouldn't be dependent on the goodwill of aliens because our technology would soon be as good as theirs."
He was smiling, apparently relaxed, but there was a cold, hard edge to him that unnerved her.
"I was doing the right thing. The SGC were a load of pathetic failures, allowing themselves to be held back by a boy-scout mentality. They weren't achieving anything beyond toadying to a couple of alien races who never gave them anything in return.
"And then I got caught. By Colonel O'Neill as it happens. I ended up on death row for violating the treaty between Earth and the Asgard. The only difference is that in your reality I didn't get caught. You think you're to blame for what happened here. I use Jack's sense of responsibility to manipulate him, but the truth is that it's my doing. The Asgard abandoned you because I stole from their protected worlds - in both realities."
Nothing in her experience had prepared her for anything like this. If this was a superhero movie, then he was all cut out to be the villain revealing his evil actions before he attempted to kill her in some particularly novel and inventive manner. Except that she couldn't visualise a supervillain struggling to repair a washing machine. On the other hand, if they were in a romance novel, then he was passionately in love with her and was trying to drive her away because he felt that he was no good for her. No, he was way too old to be a romance hero.
What would Mum have said?
"Never trust a man, honey."
But she hadn't been serious, because Mum had trusted General Hammond and Colonel O'Neill and lots of other people too.
Maybourne reached out for his jacket and she half-moved to stop him, because in his shirt sleeves he looked human and the jacket reminded her of the old general.
"Well," he asked, "is this the part where you slap me in the face and run out screaming that you hate me?"
"I hate clichés."
"I find they make life so much easier. You never have to read a book through to the end."
He repelled her as much as he drew her. How could he stand there and admit to being the cause of millions of deaths, including her own mother, and talk as though he hadn't a care in the world?
What did he want from her? Why had he told her?
"Mum died," she said.
"I regret that." He slipped on his jacket. "I'd appreciate it if you don't repeat what I told you. I dislike personal violence, when I'm the person."
"Why did you tell me?"
"I really have no idea. The next staff meeting is at eighteen hundred hours in the briefing room. Be there."
And he was gone.
Chapter 7: Please Don't Take my Sunshine Away
O'Neill has to make the hardest decision of his life.
O'Neill picked up a round stone, crudely carved into the form of a woman, and weighed it in his hand.
"Jack," Daniel said, "if you're going to throw something, would you mind using an eraser? I quite like that Venus. She's a very early specimen."
He slammed the stone back onto the desk with unnecessary force. "I hate goddesses."
"I take it you went to see Nirrti then?"
At O'Neill's surprised look, he added, "Maybourne thought you would. She called your bluff?"
"You think I was bluffing? I told her I'd shoot her and I meant every word of it."
"You didn't. You're not a cold-blooded killer."
He needed to hear that from Daniel, because the line was so hard to walk, and only he knew how close he had come to pulling the trigger. Had it been ethics that had stopped him, or simply cold hard logic? Nirrti hadn't even sweated; she'd simply pointed out consequences.
"She can't cure anyone if she's dead."
Kawalski's photos were burning a hole in his pocket. He pulled one out at random and slapped it on the desk in front of Daniel.
Three little girls shrieked in delight as the fairground car dived towards the camera.
"I recognise Sunlight," Daniel said. "Who are the other two?"
"Kawalski's girls. Who am I to say to him that my kid'll be okay, but that his will probably die?"
"Jack, about the Asgard..."
"Hear me out." He looked pointedly at a chair until O'Neill took the hint and sat in it.
"This gets complicated, so listen carefully. I've checked the wording of the Asgard treaty and it's virtually identical between our two realities. The parties negotiating were the same and so were the points agreed. Earth was included within the existing protected worlds treaty between the Asgard and the goa'uld. The goa'uld may not enter a protected world, nor physically attack it, but the Asgard may not intervene in the case of natural disasters Protected worlds may not pass a certain level of technological development. Members of one protected world may not injure those of another, but are permitted to travel to them. Members of the protected worlds are not protected by the treaty when on any planet except their own."
"I remember all that stuff. There were some bits about the Asgard giving rights to various trade routes as well."
"You mean you actually read the small print?"
"Some of it." There'd been around two hundred pages of it. He'd trusted Thor on some bits, and relied on the Secretary of State for Defence to catch any serious loopholes, but he had at least tried to read it all.
"As the first human to meet the Asgard, you signed on behalf of Earth. Under their law, that gives you a responsibility to help enforce the treaty and you pay the penalty if it is broken."
"Kantele said all that yesterday."
"Yes, but what he didn't realise is that other contractual obligations may be taken into account. Your counterpart was married to Sam. That means that he had legal obligations to her and to Sunlight. If she is the price for the Asgard to reinstate the treaty, then they would inherit your obligations towards her."
"You're saying they would have to look after her?"
Could he give Sunlight up if he knew she'd be safe? It would break her heart; hell, it would break his too, but was that a price that he could pay?
"I think they'd be bound to give her the care that you owed her. It's pretty heavy reading though and there's several bits I'm not entirely sure of." Daniel adjusted his glasses upwards. "There's another thing though..."
"Maybourne was the one who actually broke the treaty. He took, or at least, those acting under his orders took, items from the protected worlds. If anyone died as a result of his actions, then he faces a death penalty."
"Harry's the wrong Maybourne."
"Everyone here thinks he's their General Maybourne."
"It's unacceptable. We don't give up our own people."
"'Well,' said Owl, 'the customary procedure in such cases is as follows.'
'What does Crustimony Proseedcake mean?' said Pooh. 'For I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother me.'"
Sunlight giggled and snuggled closer into his arms. She was happy enough now, but she'd been miserable when he first returned.
"I want Mommy," she'd said.
They'd had a long quiet talk, curled up together in the armchair while nibbling at lunch. He'd given her Kawalski's photos of Sam, all except the wedding photo, and they'd helped a little, given Sunlight something to focus on. He'd learnt more about Sam in that hour than in the last six months. Sunlight saw her through a child's eyes, a simple uncomplicated love, but one that existed in such strength because she knew herself loved in return.
Only once had the symbiote contributed to the conversation. Sunlight had glanced at the angel standing on the coffee table and said: "Kantele misses Mommy too."
He'd just about found a way of dealing with his ambivalent feelings towards the symbiote. If he visualised it with Kawalski's face, then half the problem went away. Kawalski's rough and ready sense of humour would have found the situation hilarious, but if he held Kawalski then they both knew what the gesture meant.
He dropped a light kiss on Sunlight's forehead and a tiny mental image of Kawalski blew a raspberry at him. He could live with that. There were other problems he had yet to deal with, but he'd promised himself some time alone with her before he let the harsh realities intrude.
Daniel stared blindly at the projection on the screen in front of him. The whole task was hopeless. It took four years at university and three at law school to get a law degree, and he was trying to find loopholes in an alien legal system in less than a week. Just by way of an added bonus, he only understood about two words in every three. The SGC required miracles on a daily basis, but sometimes the well was empty.
Had he understood the document correctly? Had he done the right thing in telling Jack? It was one thing to do a translation; it was another to have to make the decision. This had the power to destroy his closest friend. Charlie's death had nearly killed Jack. If he gave up Sunlight to save the lives of people in this reality, what would that do to him?
He'd seen the torment in Jack's face, knew the depths of feeling that the man was capable of, hated himself for putting Jack in the position where he had to decide.
Maybe it made no difference in the end. If the Asgard insisted on Maybourne too, then Jack was going though all this for nothing.
O'Neill fingered the device in his pocket, took it out, looked at it and put it back again. Then, giving in to the inevitable, he stepped through the mirror into the SGC, fished the communicator out again and called Thor.
Light momentarily smeared everything around him, then cleared to reveal the clean-cut surroundings of an Asgard ship. Clutter was definitely not the Asgard thing, they went in for smooth greys and surfaces that were bare apart from minimalist control panels with a selection of command runes.
Thor reclined before him on one of these banana-shaped chairs the Asgard were so fond of. Behind him, the wall-sized screen showed Earth in all her glory. Did that mean there were in Earth orbit, or did Thor just like the view? Just how great a distance could those Asgard transporters work over?
"Welcome, Colonel O'Neill." The Asgard dipped his head slighly in greeting.
Well, O'Neill assumed it was 'his'. The Asgard displayed no evidence of gender that he'd ever been able to discover, good thing really given that they didn't seem to be sold on the concept of clothing.
"You wish to discuss the situation with regard to the treaty?"
And that was another thing. Thor sounded as he always did: gentle, interested and not in the least annoyed. Which was pretty staggering when you came to think of it.
"Yeah. Look, I lost my temper a bit last time. Sorry about that."
"You are young. You were distressed."
O'Neill ran fingers through his definitely grey hair. "Thor, old buddy, I don't know what passes for young among your people, but it sure as hell isn't the same as mine."
"You wish to save your people. Have you determined what to do?"
"Not yet. I kind of need a couple of clues here."
Thor blinked slowly, lids covering the large black eyes. There was no discernable expression on his face, but then there never was.
"Understand that the war with the replicators drains all our resources. To do as you request would require many of our ships and leave us vulnerable to attack. Many on the High Council consider the Protected Worlds Treaty to be a liability that could force us into a war with the goa'uld that we would be unable to win."
"But you don't agree?"
"I believe that your species may be of value to us. Your sexual method of reproduction means that you start your lives with no memories. This leads to a high degree of curiosity among you, particularly in your young. I observed this in your daughter."
"You've met Sunlight? When?"
"When I transported you on board my ship to assist against the replicators, I did not realise that you were holding another human. Your child came with you and was unable to return because the outgoing transmitters were disabled." Another slow blink. "She was not afraid of me. She came into my stasis chamber to escape the fighting."
"Then you know what she means to me."
"You told me that you bitterly regretted what had happened with regard to the treaty, but that there was one thing that was more important to you than your honour. Although you did not say so, I understood you to be referring to your child."
"You know that wasn't me, not me me."
"I am aware of this." Thor tilted his head sideways. "It would not, however, be wise to mention it to anyone else."
"Our law regarding clones is detailed and complex. I believe that an equivalent person from a parallel reality could be regarded as a clone under our law. However, others might not agree. This could produce unnecessary delays in evaluating any case that you should wish to present before the High Council."
O'Neill slapped Thor on the shoulder. "You're a fraud!"
Thor tilted his head enquiringly.
"You're looking for loopholes. You want to help us, but you can't openly go against the wishes of the High Council."
"I would not act against them in any way, O'Neill."
The pieces were starting to fall into place now.
"Okay, don't say anything. Just blink or nod your head if I'm going in the right direction."
A flicker of the eyelids.
"Was that a blink? Okay, I'm going to assume it was. The High Council don't want you to help us present a case, because they're afraid it might drag them into a war with the goa'uld, but we have certain rights written into the treaty and if we can work them out for ourselves, then they would be forced to act."
A blink. Or was Thor just suffering from eyestrain?
"There has to be a way of reinstating the treaty or you'd have told me clean out that there wasn't."
Now that had to be a definite nod.
"And the simpler and less complicated we make our case, the more likely it is to get rubber-stamped and acted upon pronto. What happens if the main culprit is dead?"
Thor tilted his head the other way. "That would be a complication."
"Now why did I know you were going to say that."
Cassandra dragged herself reluctantly towards the staff meeting. She hadn't seen the General for hours and had been relieved at avoiding any need to speak to him. Teal'c came out of one of the labs and joined her in the corridor. It was strange seeing him alive, but easier in some ways than dealing with Jack and Sam. She remembered him as a friend from when she was younger, but she hadn't been around when he died. Yes, he was alien and different to everyone else, but he was less alien to her than the General.
"Teal'c." She caught him by the arm. "Is it true?"
"Is what true?"
"The General. Did he break the Asgard treaty?"
Teal'c cocked an eyebrow. "Who told you this?"
"General Maybourne. Or Colonel. Or whatever he really is."
"Then it is indeed as he told you. I am surprised that he entrusted you with the knowledge. I do not believe he would live long if his past actions were to become known around the base."
"But why did you bring him with you?"
"Colonel O'Neill believed that he would be of use. It is possible that he was correct."
"The Colonel trusts him?"
"Colonel O'Neill gives chances where another would not. He once trusted the First Prime of Apophis."
They were in the briefing room before his comment finally made sense to her. To her, Teal'c had always been SGC.
She took a seat as far from the head of the table as possible and Teal'c took one next to her. Colonel O'Neill arrived a minute later and sprawled in a chair opposite Major Carter. Ke'ra sat talking quietly to Doctor Jackson and Major Davis sat opposite them. It was eighteen hundred hours precisely when Maybourne took his place at the head of the table.
Everyone came to their feet, still playing the charade, and she wondered why they all continued to go along with it. Did Maybourne get a kick out of that, from acting a rank that he had no right to? It made sense in some ways - if the act was to be maintained at all, then it had to be maintained completely. It was the little things that could give you away, something as simple as being polite to a naïve teenager. He wasn't looking at her, and she was glad of that. She no longer wanted to be a part of this conspiracy, keeping his secret made her feel soiled by contact with it. What would Major Davis say if he knew he was placing his faith in a man convicted of treason? The base was running smoothly, but so what? Colonel O'Neill was taking a chance, and by doing that, he was forcing everyone else to take a chance.
Maybourne brought the meeting to order, seemingly relaxed and confident. His eyes caught hers momentarily, tearing at her with a sharp barb of pain. Why had he had to spoil the illusion? She could have gone on happily seeing him as Obi-Wan Kenobi to the General's Darth Vader. But then it wouldn't have been real - if you put your trust in an illusion, it was bound to let you down eventually.
How had Maybourne escaped from prison? What was it like for him, living a lie? How could he trust anyone without taking the risk that they would turn him in? Did he have any friends? Even SG-1 seemed distant from him; he was with them, but not part of them. And yet...
"Colonel." There was a subtle mockery on his face as he looked at O'Neill. "Nirrti is being flown to Washington directly after this meeting. We're going to give her a little incentive to co-operate."
Anger flashed in O'Neill's eyes. He looked as though he was about to say something, but didn't. Jaw set, he looked hard at Maybourne who simply gave him a slight nod in acknowledgement. Maybourne gestured to the airman on guard duty who disappeared and came back a few moments later with Nirrti and another airman. Maybourne escorted Nirrti to a seat at the table with exquisite courtesy, holding out her chair for her and ensuring she was seated comfortably. With suspicious eyes, Nirrti watched his every move, but managed to convey through her carriage that the attention was no more than her due.
"Ke'ra, would you take the chair?"
Maybourne escorted her, equally solicitously, over to a dentist's chair with a fancy headset and a couple of video readouts on a separate panel in front of it. She sat down, rested her hands on the arms.
"What do you wish me to do?"
She had a delightful voice, musical and low. Cassandra would have killed for a voice like that, or indeed to be able to look and move the way that Ke'ra did. She knew herself to be gawkish and adolescent with long, lifeless hair that never did what she wanted it to. Ke'ra's wavy blonde tresses mocked her.
"Keep your hands on the rests and let me put the headset into position. Then tell us the results of your research so far. I want Nirrti to have no doubt whatsoever that you are telling the truth." He lowered the headset, positioning it carefully, making sure her hair didn't get caught. Then, he turned to address Nirrti. "Observe the readouts. At present, the patterns on the screen are regular. If Ke'ra tells an untruth, then the patterns will cease to be symmetrical. The greater the degree of asymmetry, the bigger the lie. I'm sure you won't believe me-" he smiled knowingly "-so I shall allow you to use it yourself afterwards. In any case, I'm sure Major Davis will need convincing that you do actually have a cure for the plague before he recommends any acceptance of your terms."
O'Neill smiled, a boyish grin that crinkled the skin around his eyes. "Way to go, Harry."
Maybourne smiled back at him, a bright flash with no overt cynicism. How many facets were there to the man? She no longer knew what was real and what was pretence.
Ke'ra looked at them all, as if embarrassed to be the centre of attention, then dropped into a professional mode.
"As I've told some of you already, the virus bears some initial similarities to flu. Indeed, the first symptoms are identical to those of flu and the virus replicates in the respiratory tract and is spread by breathing. The incubation period is rapid, around one day and this is responsible for the speed at which the virus has spread.
"However, the similarity to flu ends there. The later effects of the virus are highly specific to humans. With Teal'c's help, I've been able to show that the virus has no further impact on goa'uld or any species of animal. This is because of the presence of a secondary receptor on the virus which is actually activated by the human antibody response to the initial infection. This response typically occurs over a week after the initial infection."
This was making a kind of sense to her. Mum talked so much about medical things that at least some of the terminology was familiar. Sam looked fascinated, but Colonel O'Neill's eyelids were already starting to droop.
"In humans, psychic faculties are concentrated in the hypothalamus. This section of the brain releases certain neurohormones into the bloodstream and these actually disable the virus by preventing the secondary receptor from being produced."
Nirrti was sitting up straight, hands resting palm upwards in her lap. She was so still, that the inaction actually made her look tense rather than relaxed.
"What I've done," Ke'ra continued, "is to develop an antiviral drug by first isolating the surface components of the virus and protein sequencing them. With computer simulations, I was then able to design molecules that would bind to the virus."
It was getting way over her head now. The words made a vague kind of sense, but if she'd been asked to repeat them, the task would have been impossible. Did she want to train to be a doctor? She'd thought about it occasionally and generally rejected the idea simply because people tended to expect it of her. To be able to do what Ke'ra did though - to be able to make a real difference - would that be worth the endless years of study and hard work?
"The solution I arrived at was to synthesise lots of small peptides which bind to the non-variable portions of neuraminidse and test these against the natural virus in cell cultures. By tomorrow morning, I'll know which ones have the best protective effect. They can be administered in liposomes, which allows them to cross the blood-brain barrier. Administration can be either by intravenous injection, or in the context of mass treatment, they could be sprayed into the atmosphere in a confined area and an elecromagnetic pulse applied which should induce transient breakdown of the lung membranes to allow the intact liposomes through."
Major Davis looked like a man experiencing a religious conversion. "You've found a cure!"
"Hardly." Small jet beads in Nirrti's headdress tinkled back and forth. "Let me have the chair." She gestured at Ke'ra with a dismissive wave of her hand.
Ke'ra glanced at Maybourne who came and carefully removed the helmet from her head.
Nirrti sat down. As the helmet was placed on her head, Cassandra looked at the video screens. Both screens were coming to life. Only the right-hand one had shown any reading for Ke'ra, but now there was a faint pattern on the left-hand screen as well. The thought sickened her. Somewhere, inside Nirrti, was the trapped mind of a human being, imprisoned for millennia with no power to affect its own fate.
"My name is Nirrti. I am seven thousand of your years old."
The pattern on the right hand screen jagged a little.
"Untrue," said Maybourne.
Nirrti inclined her head slightly in acknowledgement. "I am four thousand nine hundred years in age."
"True. Or close enough to count as true. We won't quibble over a few years here and there."
"Ke'ra's results are limited," Nirrti continued. "It will take you time to synthesise sufficient peptides to treat your people in bulk. It will take you even longer to administer the 'cure'. You will save thousands and lose millions.
"I already have a better solution. In a safe place on another world, I have a prepared supply of a retrovirus. It can be inhaled nasally, but once it is in the body, it will then be transmitted to other people. The effect is two-fold as in the original virus, it acts on both the respiratory cells to spread the infection and on the hypothalamus."
Was Colonel O'Neill asleep? Ah, no. He'd caught her looking at him and was pulling a 'how do I get out of this madhouse?' expression. How could he act like that when the future of her world lay at stake? Yet, somehow, it did help to reduce the stress a fraction. She resisted the temptation to stick her tongue out at him and caught a twinkle in his eye that suggested he knew she'd been tempted.
"The retrovirus mimics the effect found in psychics and hence protects against the second stage of the disease. It will spread as rapidly as the original virus and provide full protection against it for the rest of an individual's natural lifespan."
It sounded wonderful, almost too good to be true, but the General seemed to accept her statements and Ke'ra looked as though she thought it was plausible.
Maybourne came smoothly to his feet and released Nirrti from the lie detector.
"Major Davis, I believe it's time for Nirrti's flight. We're still working on the replication and distribution problem related to Ke'ra's solution, but there are possibilites. Try not to let Nirrti force the President's hand. We haven't yet ruled out the Asgard."
Nirrti's dark eyes regarded him with scorn. "You're a poor liar, General. The Asgard would not help you before, and they will not help you now."
"Don't be so certain of that."
Her lips curled into a certain smile. "Take the chair, General, and tell me then that you believe the Asgard will aid you."
Maybourne looked at O'Neill. "Colonel?"
"No way. I've been in one of those things. Never again."
Nirrti looked pointedly at Maybourne who sat down slowly and pulled the helmet into position. She radiated a sleek pleasure at his hesitation.
"Now, General, do you believe the Asgard will come?"
"Yes," he replied, but his eyes spoke otherwise, and the lopsided patterns on the screen gave the lie to his words.
His breath came in a drawn-out sigh; his shoulders slumped and she felt the weariness of his defeat and the ghosts that crowded round him.
"General," she said instinctively, "it's not-" But it was his fault...
He said nothing, but she saw his lips move, understood the unspoken words. Cassandra, I'm sorry.
"Anakin." She didn't even realise she'd said it aloud until she saw him blink. That was the answer to him. He was neither hero nor villain; neither black hat nor white. He was the good man somewhere inside the bad. If you didn't look for Anakin Skywalker then you would only ever find Darth Vader.
He turned back to Nirrti, and she could see the rise of the mocking laughter in his eyes. "The Asgard will come," he said. "I know exactly what they want and it's easy to provide."
And the patterns on the screen were as pure and symmetrical as a child's drawing of a Christmas tree.
Small and fair and impossibly real, she was the most vital thing in his world. Only a few short days and his heart had wrapped itself inextricably around her. Sunlight trusted him, believed in him. How could he possibly destroy that trust?
How could he not?
What was it Cassie had said? Something about not being able to bear the guilt of living at the price of so many lives? No matter that it wasn't her fault, she still felt as though it was. Would Sunlight feel a similar pain if he kept her safe with him? Would she hate him when she came to adulthood, or would she be grateful? What if he never told her?
It was academic. He'd promised Kawalski. There were a million other little girls besides. What did the love between one father and his daughter count against that?
He was going to betray her, and he knew with clear forsight that it would destroy them both.
He held her close in his arms and stroked the blonde hair.
"Sunlight, I have to tell you a story."
She was sleepy and relaxed in his embrace. "I like stories."
"Once upon a time, there was a king and a queen and they had a beautiful daughter. The king's adviser was his grand vizier, and the vizier was a very wicked man who wanted money and power for himself.
"The king was friendly to the fairies and the fairies helped look after his kingdom and protect it from evil; but one day, the grand vizier found a magic amulet belonging to the fairies and he realised that possession of it would give him great power. He stole the amulet and the fairies were angry and withdrew their protection from the kingdom. Then, a wicked witch cast a spell. People started to fall ill and die and everyone wondered why this was happening. The king went to the fairies and begged for their aid, but they said to him 'Where is the amulet that was stolen from us? Where is the thief?'
"The queen fell ill and died, and the king and the princess wept many tears. Then, the princess fell ill, and her grandfather, who loved her very much, gave her his guardian angel so that she might live. But there were many people still dying and everyone was very unhappy. Even the grand vizier was unhappy. He was sorry now for what he had done. He offered to give the fairies back their amulet, but this was not enough for them. They said to the king, 'We will help you, but in exchange you must give us the grand vizier and the most valuable thing in your kingdom.'
"Then the king was very sad indeed, for the most valuable thing in his kingdom was the princess whom he loved more than life itself."
"Daddy," asked Sunlight, "is this a true story?"
"Yes," he said, and the word almost choked him.
"Are they good fairies?"
"They're good fairies. They promised that they would not harm the princess and that she would grow up in fairyland with them. But the king was sad and lonely, and was never happy again."
Sunlight looked up at him, eyes large and uncertain. "But if the princess was going to be safe with the fairies, then she could give her guardian angel to the king so that he wouldn't be lonely."
Her expression shifted subtly, gaining maturity and confidence.
"Jack, I don't want to do this to her, but there's no other option. Sunlight won't recall this conversation, all she will remember is blacking out.
"You have to make a decision. If she is going to the Asgard, then she is better off without me. Her memory of you is all that will sustain her. She must not have my memories, and without you there to reinforce the image of her father being alive, she will see only the deaths that I saw.
"She must learn and grow as a normal human child. I'm only a handicap. It will be too easy for her to hide behind me, to let me take control rather than face things herself. In a strange situation where I know the language and she does not, she will become accustomed to drawing on me, accustomed to using what I know rather then finding out for herself. Her curiosity is her greatest strength - if I remain with her at this age, she will lose it. On Earth, I could be with her as a friend and not harm her. On Asgard, I will inevitably become the dominant partner. I don't want that. I want an equal partner - someone who challenges me."
"No way. There is no way in hell that I am going to let you use me as a host."
"Hear me out. I can leave her now, without killing her. That will not be possible for long. Her immune system is already depressed; another week or two and she would not survive me leaving - not without access to tok'ra technology. If she is ever to separate from me, it has to be now. Separation is dangerous for me too. When parting with a host, the nerve connections can be severed close to the host or close to the symbiote. If I sever them close to her, then I kill her but I survive. If I leave her unharmed, then the risk to me is much greater. That risk is greatly reduced if my new host shares some of her genetic code."
"Meaning me or Sam."
"Meaning you or Sam. Besides, I want to stay with my family."
"You're a goa'uld, you don't have a family."
"That's a low blow. Don't you think I have feelings? I want to be with someone who loves Sunlight. I want to be where I can still talk to Jacob. I've seen Sam though the eyes of her father and her daughter. Don't you think I want to be close to her too?"
"You have their memories?"
"Of course. Do you want that? I can give you Sunlight's memories of you. I can show you her favourite places, the games she loves best. I can show you Sam as a mother. I can show you-"
"Stop it!" He was breathing heavily, terrified by how badly he wanted what was being offered.
"More than that, you need what I know, and I need what you know. If there is to be even a possibility of recovering her from the Asgard, then we have to pool resources. Jack, we're no use separated!"
"What aren't you telling me? I just know there's something you're not telling me."
"You won't like it."
"Tell me anyway."
The symbiote sighed; it was strange to see the rueful expression on Sunlight's face.
"Tok'ra rarely have much choice in their hosts. There are few people willing and they are often only willing through necessity, because of illness or injury. We work well enough, but only once in a while do we get a host who really matches well. Tue'vo was one for me, and you would be another."
"You have a warped sense of humour."
"Probably - we laugh at the same jokes. I like your attitude towards authority; I like your loyalty to your friends. I want to spend the next century with someone who doesn't take things too seriously. I want to be with you."
"Do you have any idea of what you're asking?"
"Sure. I'm asking you to do something that scares the shit out of you, for the sake of someone you love. I'm asking you to enter a relationship that's closer than marriage and cannot be dissolved if you change your mind. Because if you agree to this, there's no going back. It will weaken me to leave Sunlight uninjured. I won't be able to jump again before your immune system is totally dependent on mine."
"And what will you do if I wake up one morning and decide to cut my throat?"
"What will you do if I decide to cut mine? You're not the only one who will miss her."
To have company for his pain, to have someone to share the memories, to rub salt in the wounds by showing him what he'd lost...
"Do it." The words slipped past his guard before he could stop them. "Do it, damn you. You know I have to keep anything that I can of her." The bitterness of the pain rose within him and with it the sickness in his stomach that threatened to make him vomit. Nails dug deep into palms, as his hands clenched into twisted fists.
"Open your mouth," Kantele said softly, "and kiss her on the lips."
He had known fear when running towards machine gun fire; he'd known the heart-stopping sensation of being tossed into the air by an explosion; he'd known the pain of breaking most of the major bones in his body; he'd faced torture at the hands of the Iraquis. He'd gladly have had faced any of those experiences over again rather than risk giving his mind into the control of another.
The hardest thing Jack O'Neill ever did in his life was to kiss his daughter.
Sunlight had been like mineral water, light and sparkling, but with only hints of flavour. Jack was a rich mature wine, with notes and tones that would take years to explore fully. Kantele dived into the depths, luxuriating in freedom from the necessity to censor his every thought, and abruptly found himself trapped. There was a wall surrounding him, built from blocks of hate and fear. Each block was of granite, roughly hewn, but massive and unstoppable. The wall moved inexorably inwards, crushing everything before it, grinding him, choking him. He had no strength to fight it; every part of himself that he could afford to leave, he had left in Sunlight.
Jack! he screamed, but there was no reply.
Why? Why was this happening? He had thought to be welcome here, not to face this overwhelming barrage of pain. Seeking an answer, he sent desperate tendrils into the mind, expending strength that he could not afford to lose. With shock, he encountered a pattern that he recognised. There had been another here before him. How? He had sensed no naquadh in O'Neill. He probed, followed the memory further, trying to shut out the pain that assaulted him from every direction.
Hathor. She had implanted Jack with a symbiote, tried to use it to torture and control him. And Jack had fought it, just as he was fighting Kantele now. But Nerin had been strong, and Kantele was weak. Nerin had been winning when the cold had come to drive it away. It had obeyed the oldest instinct of its kind, and fled the ice that would kill it, left the host to seek deeper waters where the temperature was just a little warmer. But there had been no warmer water, just the deadly cold of liquid nitrogen.
Jack, it's me - Kantele.
His voice couldn't penetrate the wall. He sent another tendril towards the conscious mind, but the path was blocked by razor sharp blades.
From far away, he heard Sunlight's voice.
"Daddy, where's Kantele? I can't hear him."
"I think..." He could sense another pain, as though O'Neill's head hurt. "I think..."
The wall slowed in its movement, the stones grinding as they grated against one another.
"...he's with me."
"Is he all right?"
A chink opened in the wall.
The thought was rough, unaccustomed.
Jack, you're killing me.
You're fighting me, and I haven't the strength to fight back. You have to relax.
That's a bit like telling a minnow in a piranah tank to take it easy.
In spite of everything, the idea entertained him. He mentally added a pair of Superman trunks to the minnow, gave it a ray gun in each fin to zap the piranhas, and tossed the image back to Jack.
There was a reluctant mental chuckle and the granite wall softened to a timber pallisade.
Do you want to speak to her? Jack asked.
Are you okay with that?
I'll have to get used to it sooner or later.
A heavy gate in the pallisade swung slowly open, leather hinges creaking with the strain.
He stretched out, found the vocal cords and the muscles controlling them; flowed freely, shot tendrils into the heart, the brain. At his command, lungs drew in air.
There was always this moment when first in a new host, when the knowledge hit you afresh. It would be so easy to take total control, to isolate the host's mind, override his control of the body and simply do whatever one pleased.
But where would be the joy in that? Humans were fun: they made good company; they liked being with other people. The punishment that drove men insane was solitary confinement. Deep within the memory of one of his own ancestors was a goa'uld who had taken delight in tormenting his host, cutting him off from all awareness, releasing him for brief moments to recall the taste of freedom, only to entrap him again and gleefully listen to the panic-stricken pleas before once more walling him up.
Charming ancestors you have.
You've got an unfair advantage - you can't remember yours.
"Kantele?" Sunlight asked, close and clear.
"Hello, little one."
"You sound different."
"That's because I'm looking after Daddy now."
He was aware of O'Neill's mental protest that he in no way needed looking after, that he'd managed perfectly fine all these years and that there was no need to refer to him as though he was about three years old. There was no real heat in the protest though; Jack understood the necessity.
Changeover - smooth and easy, like passing the baton in a relay race.
"You remember the story I was telling you?" Jack said. "About the princess? Kantele spent some time with the Asgard - the fairies. He's going to try and help me understand them better."
"Does the princess get rescued?"
His voice attempted to conceal misery behind confidence. "I don't know the end of the story yet."
Jack held Sunlight in the way that his counterpart had always done when she was distressed, curled up on his knee with her head resting on his shoulder. He held her gently, yet Kantele was aware of the tension in every muscle that wanted to clutch Sunlight so tightly that she could never be removed from him. Touching Jack's conscious mind, he could feel the pain, the love and the helplessness. He laid himself open beside that pain, sharing his own sense of loss, but it was too much too soon. Jack shoved him away with the mental equivalent of an sharp elbow in the ribs.
Undeterred, Kantele explored elsewhere. Some areas were pasted with massive 'keep out' signs; even Jack tried not to venture into those, but others had labels saying 'look here'.
Why in the name of all that was holy, was Jack concerned about General Maybourne?
Ah. This was complicated - very complicated. Just how different were their two realities? He had a lot of catching up to do...
Chapter 8: When Skies are Grey
Cassandra rolled over again and tucked her knees up against her chest, but it was a waste of time. The mattress seemed determined to poke her in every possible place and the blankets itched impossibly. She was too hot and too cold and the room was too small and there were twenty-seven floors above her all pressing down and reminding her that this place was a death-trap. If you listened carefully, there were always background noises here, some so constant that you were almost unable to recall them to conscious hearing. The ventilation system ran constantly, competing with the hum of the cooling fans in the computers, and the water pipes had a tendency to make odd noises at unexpected moments. Most nights here, the sounds helped her sleep, but tonight they were another irritant to her system. What was there to distinguish night from day when everything was the same? Only the lighting changed, a dim glow at night that could be easily over-ridden to turn the pretence of night into a false day.
What would happen when dawn stretched her rosy fingers above Cheyenne Mountain?
She gave up and dressed herself in the neat blouse and skirt that she habitually wore in the SGC, moving quietly in the dim glow of the emergency lights so as not awaken the patient in the bunk above her.
Making her way slowly down the corridor, she stopped at each room to check in on her patients. It was surprising how often a bedpan, or an arm to help someone to the toilet, was appreciated. It might be the dirty, rough-and-ready end of nursing, but it was important even so. Most of what Florence Nightingale had done was to introduce hygiene and clean sheets. It saved lives.
She'd become used to entering without knocking, but hesitated outside the iso-bay where Maybourne slept. He'd chosen to sleep on base and no one had queried the decision. Now, she wondered whether it was dedication to duty, or simply because there was nowhere in Colorado Springs that was home to him. As far as she was aware, the rest of SG1 had returned to their own reality tonight, though she wasn't entirely sure about Teal'c.
Settling on compromise, she knocked lightly; hopefully not enough to wake him if he was asleep.
"Well," Maybourne's voice said after a few moments, "come on in."
Wearing a pair of blue-striped pyjamas, he sat on the edge of the bottom bunk, clasped hands resting lightly between his knees.
"Cassie." He seemed surprised to see her. "Is this a social call, or did you have something else in mind?" There was an odd stress in the way he spoke and an ironic twist to his lips.
"I couldn't sleep. I wondered..." It seemed stupid now. He didn't need her concern.
"And you wondered....? Cassie, it never does to keep a man guessing."
She stared at him blankly, a sudden thread of fear running through her.
"Cassie, this is Colorado, you're over sixteen and you're standing in the condemned man's room in the middle of the night. What else am I supposed to think you have in mind? If you're offering, then I'll take it; if you're not, will you kindly make up your mind and let me know before I inadvertently add rape to my already-tarnished record."
"General!" How could he see her like that? The very idea was disgusting.
"Ah, I forgot. You hate clichés. Pity." He stretched himself out on his bunk, propped his hands behind his head and gazed up at the bottom of the bunk above.
It was a dismissal, but she was too angry to accept it as such.
"How could you imagine that I'd even consider doing something like that?"
"Very easily." He sounded completely unrepentant. "I can imagine it of virtually anyone. I have a very good imagination and it's working overtime tonight."
Mum had always said men only wanted one thing.
"Why not go into town?" She almost spat the words at him. "I'm sure you could find someone who'd do it for money."
"If that's meant to be an insult, then you're wasting your breath. I've paid for sex, fairly often as it happens."
She stood aside from the door. "Don't let me stop you."
Maybourne rolled onto his side and looked her in the eye. "Cassie, if I leave this base, I won't come back again."
It was on the tip of her tongue to say 'Why?' when her brain caught up with her mouth just in time. Out there was life and freedom; here in the mountain, nothing awaited him except death.
"Well, my prophetess," he said, as if divining her thoughts, "how do you suppose it will be?" His voice was laced with bitter self-mockery. "Will it be quick or will I spend another six months of my life in a grey cell waiting for justice to make up its collective mind how and when I should meet my end?"
Caught up in his mood, she came and knelt by the bunk and touched his hand.
"For Pete's sake, don't call me that. I hated the damned General. I killed the wretched man and Jack still hasn't forgiven me for it.
"Call me Harry."
"Harry." She tried the taste of it on her tongue, but it was too intimate, too negligent of authority.
"Cassandra," he said quickly, "lie to me. Tell me something, anything, just help me to forget for a while."
"Shall I tell you about Hanka?"
"I was born there. It was a good place and I had three sisters and a brother. I still remember little 'Nestra climbing on my knee. She was my littlest sister and she loved to play with dolls. I remember when the Tau'ri first came to our world. They wanted to build telescopes, because we had a very clear atmosphere and no light pollution. I didn't even know what light pollution was back then, but Colonel O'Neill told me later on - he likes stargazing."
"One of his more interesting traits," Maybourne commented. "The one careless slip in his image of being illiterate."
"He's not illiterate," she protested.
"I said 'image'."
"I'd never have got through school without him. I learnt English from the men building the telescopes; I used to spend hours every day hanging around them. I had loads of gaps in my vocabulary though. Can you really understand the size of the culture gap? I didn't know what a dog was. I'd never seen any television, didn't even know the name of the President or know what a president was.
"The other kids here made my life hell. Until Colonel O'Neill stepped in. Every time he had a day free, he'd be down the school. He played games with everyone, coached them in hockey and basketball, and helped out in class. They loved him. And he made it quite clear that I was his friend.
"Later, when he retired from the SGC, I'd go to him during the day for school holidays. I played with Sunlight and the Colonel coached me in the subjects that were still giving me problems. He got me through math classes."
"I'd have thought Major Carter would have been the one for that."
"Sam? No, she was too good."
Maybourne raised an eyebrow.
"I was years behind. I hadn't had the grounding in things that everyone else took for granted. When you know something really really well like Sam does, you can't understand why someone else can't grasp the basics. There are some things that are so obvious that you can't explain them.
"Colonel O'Neill was on my level. He could do it, but it wasn't easy for him. He had to think about it, and that made him a good teacher."
"I see I shall have to revise my estimate of him yet again."
It was still disconcerting to see the half-smile playing on his face when he spoke of O'Neill. The hatred between them had run so deep.
"You said he was the one who put you in prison. How can you possibly like him?"
"Well, let's see, he's good-looking..."
She caught the light note in his voice. "You're teasing me."
"A little. It's entertaining to watch your reaction. But I wouldn't turn Jack down if he offered. He is attractive. Sadly, he's also one hundred percent heterosexual."
"You're not serious."
"About Jack being heterosexual?"
Maybourne pointed her to a chair. "Go sit down."
"I'm okay here." Her legs were getting a bit stiff, but it wasn't a problem.
"Cassie, if we're going to discuss sex, I'd rather you were safely out of temptation's reach."
"I trust you."
"Get out of here."
He seized her wrist in a grip of iron. "Trust is a drug and it's dangerous. Care to guess how many people I trusted in the NID? Care to guess how many of them came to visit me in prison? You want to know why I like Jack? He has that damned sense of honour. People actually matter to him."
"Teal'c said the Colonel trusts you."
His free hand grabbed her behind the head and pulled her down hard to his mouth. She'd been kissed before, but never with such intensity, never in a way that shot through her and demanded a response. There was a need in him and it awoke a hunger within her, a hunger that clawed and craved and scared her with its depth.
Breathing heavily, he released her.
His finger curved in a soft stroke down her cheek.
Her face must have asked the question, because she was sure she hadn't voiced it.
"Because I don't think you've done this before. Because I'm positive you haven't even thought about contraception. And because..."
She understood. Sort of.
Stiffly, she got to her feet, trying to find the right words. How did you say 'goodbye' in a way that wasn't trite and meaningless? How could she talk of feelings when she was a mass of confused emotions? How did you say 'thank you' for being protected from your own stupidity? Because she'd have done it, let the hunger take over, and forgotten everything Mum had ever told her about safe sex.
In the doorway, she stopped, looked behind her. Lying on his back, Maybourne was staring at the bunk above him again.
"Harry." She fiddled with the cuff of her blouse. "You were right." The words came out in a sudden rush: "I'm sorry if I made things worse."
He still didn't look at her. "I'll manage."
Graffiti from the school loos came unbidden to her mind. 'Stick to masturbation, you meet a better class of person.'
It helped. It allowed her to dislike him long enough to get of the room.
The EEG flatlined.
She was gone. He stared helplessly at the monitor, but the line didn't even waver.
Her hand was still warm in his. He couldn't let go - not yet. She had meant so much to him.
Someone was trying to pull him away and he resisted.
"Please, just a few more minutes."
I should have been able to do something.
She requested no extraordinary means.
I loved her.
He wrenched himself out of the dream and sat upright, sweat pouring down his back. For a moment, he was unsure who he was, then identity reasserted itself into two separate beings. He was Jack O'Neill.
Did Sunlight go through that every night? he asked.
Not quite that bad. I've never known this happen before. You had a memory that was so close to mine that we fused. We lived though a combination of our two experiences. I didn't know you'd seen her die.
It's a long story. Some other day.
Fair hair strewn across the pillow, Sunlight lay beside him, fast asleep. If he'd spared her only one experience like that, then he'd done the right thing. Her life was going to be hard enough, without the addition of graphic nightmares.
He tried to imagine her running around with a group of small grey aliens. Were young Asgard as serious as the adults?
The Aesir do not have children, Kantele said.
Sounds like a quick trip to extinction.
They reproduce by cloning. When one nears the end of its natural lifespan, a clone is grown to adulthood and the memories transferred from one to the other. In terms of continuity of memory, Thor is the same being who visited your world millennia ago.
If they have no children- and Kantele was there, picking up the thought, racing along with him -how will they understand Sunlight's needs? Thor will do the best he is capable of, but it cannot possibly be sufficient.
Maybe I was wrong to leave her?
No. You couldn't pick her up, give her a hug, chase her, play snap with her, tickle her, play hide and seek. If Thor can't understand play, she isn't going.
Kantele paused, as though looking for something. In O'Neill's mind, the picture formed: three little girls on a water ride, screaming with laughter as the spray flung up around them.
I feel the same as you, but you know the price.
Sunlight needed another human being...
You can't be serious, Kantele said, picking up the the thought almost before he'd verbalised it. You can't trust Maybourne with her. She's terrified of him.
He's all we've got. Besides, he can almost pass for human in this reality. He knows he's facing a death sentence and he still volunteered to put his neck in the noose.
And he can't do anything for Sunlight if he's dead.
You're the one who knows the Asgard. Get creative.
There was an idea buzzing round the back of his brain if he could only pin it down. The Asgard were big on contracts. What contracts had Maybourne ever been involved in that could conceivably have any relevance?
Kantele said: If General Maybourne employed your counterpart to work on his off-world operation, then that would constitute a contract between you.
Then threatening Sunlight would be a breach of that contract.
Sounds pretty flimsy to me.
Sounds as strong as wet tissue paper to me, but the appropriate penalty for that breach...
Jack, you have a devious mind. I like it.
But will Thor like it?
Someone was shaking her by the shoulders. She struggled through layers of cotton wool to try and realise who it was.
Then it hit her - goa'uld - and she came sharply, starkly awake, struggling out of the grip that held her and scrambling panic-stricken for the other end of the bunk.
"Cassie, what's wrong?"
Jack's voice. Not Jack, please, let it be anyone but Jack.
"You're dead, and it's got you!"
"Cassie?" Harry, standing in the doorway.
She pointed an unsteady finger at the Colonel. "He's goa'uld."
As if by magic, Maybourne had a gun in his hand, pointing directly at O'Neill.
"Move away from her. Put your hands on top of your head."
O'Neill moved. Fast.
"Hey, this is still me," he protested.
The gun didn't waver. "Cassie has naqadahh in her blood, or had you forgotten? If she says you're goa'uld, I believe her."
O'Neill looked at her, as if for support. "It's only Kantele."
Kantele? "General Carter's symbiote?"
"-is Selmak," said Maybourne.
"Not in this reality," O'Neill said. "Jacob passed him to Sunlight to save her life. Sunlight volunteered me as the next host and I'm still getting used to the idea, so kindly don't rub it in."
"It could be true," Cassandra said hesitantly. General Carter had died so quickly. Would losing a symbiote do that?
"Or it could be just as likely that Nirrti escaped somehow." Maybourne's voice was relaxed, but the gun never wavered an inch from O'Neill's breastbone. "Now, I think that Colonel O'Neill would rather be dead than occupied by Nirrti, so I'm going to shoot him unless he does exactly what I say."
"You're enjoying this," O'Neill said accusingly.
Maybourne grinned. "Quite possibly. But you'd never forgive me if I didn't check it out. The lie detector is still in the briefing room. Get up there." He side-stepped quickly as O'Neill moved towards the door. "Don't come close to Cassandra or myself. You'll be stronger and faster than me. I'm not taking any chances."
He glanced down at her, eyes flicking only for an instant away from the Colonel. "Get dressed and join us upstairs. We'll wait for you. Whatever Jack woke us up for seems to involve you as well as me. If he is still Jack..."
She clung to the frame of the bunk, gripping it for support. Jack was dead. She'd watched him in his last few days, broken by grief for Sam, desperate for Sunlight to survive, but still never losing the essential kindness and humour that had made her love him. This Colonel was so akin the real one that to like him seemed almost a betrayal of the man who'd been as a father to her. But to lose this one as well... Fear paralysed her.
O'Neill caught her eye. "It'll be all right," he said gently.
But she knew that it would never be all right. When this was over, he would go back to his own world and she would be left alone again.
He'd taught her to be strong, to find courage within herself.
Slowly, she relaxed her grip on the metal.
"I'll be with you in a minute."
It was almost exactly 6 o'clock in the morning when she joined them in the briefing room. The SGC was largely deserted, but the gate control room was still manned at this hour; someone gave her a wave in greeting as she went past.
Colonel O'Neill was already seated in the chair, looking decidedly uncomfortable about the whole idea.
"Cassie," Maybourne asked, "can you fasten the wrist straps?"
"Why?" They hadn't been used before.
"Because," the Colonel said impatiently, "he can't cover me and adjust the helmet at the same time. Harry, could you set the video running? I don't want to have to go through this again with Carter." He kept fidgeting as everything was set up, twisting in the seat, drumming his fingers on the arm rest. "Did I tell you that I hate these things?"
"You did." Maybourne was unrepentantly cheerful. "You landed me in the hot seat instead. Now, it's your turn."
He switched on the two display screens and stood where he could see them clearly as they both came to life. Like pictures made by folding painted splodges in half, they were the sort of patterns you could imagine to be strange faces or exotic alien creatures.
"Who are you?" Maybourne asked.
"Colonel Jack O'Neill."
The Colonel bowed his head slightly.
"Colonel, did you consent to this joining?"
He bowed his head again.
The patterns changed and flowed, elements from one screen sometimes mimicking those on the other, but the balance of their symmetry stayed constant.
"Are you an equal partner and able to act of your own free will?"
"I am. And, Harry - thanks."
Maybourne nodded, and thumbed the eject on the video.
"Hey!" Kantele said. "You forgot the one about being a member of the Communist Party."
"Don't tell me you got a tok'ra with a sense of humour?"
"I am the only man cursed with a symbiote that invents new elephant jokes."
"How do you know an elephant's been in the SGC?"
"Don't ask him, for heaven's sake," O'Neill pleaded.
Cassandra unfastened the restraints and immediately asked: "How do you know an elephant's been in the SGC?"
"Because the canteen's clean out of peanuts."
"But they never have any anyway," she protested, then kicked herself.
"But that's because..." O'Neill said gleefully.
"All those elephants have been there," she completed for him.
Maybourne took a chair at the head of the table and gestured at them to pick any chair they fancied.
"So, what did you drag us out of bed for?"
O'Neill stopped, dipped his head.
"-Jack wants to save Maybourne's neck and we both want to protect Sunlight on Water. The Aesir-"
"-haven't a clue as to how to care for kids. Harry's her best shot at any kind of a normal life and-"
"-we found a possible legal argument for keeping him alive, which Thor says-"
They seemed to have given up on the head-dipping business.
"-is shot through with holes but ought to keep the lawyers arguing for a couple of years."
"Well, what he actually said was that it presented an interesting study in case law regarding the validity of a non-Aesir contract to be accepted under Aesir law and, in the interim period, it made logical sense for any available resources to be used towards meeting existing obligations."
O'Neill spread his hands. "You know Thor, always short and to the point."
Elbows on the table and head cupped in her hands, she stared at him in fascination.
"How do you do that?"
"Decide who's talking?" she said.
"I think the idea is that you're supposed to take it in turns, but-"
"-we just interrupt one another-"
"-which is fine for now, but he's going to have to learn to take orders if we're to stay with SG-1."
Mayborne settled himself on the sofa with a sigh. It was slightly disconcerting to be back in his own reality. Somehow, his mind expected everything to be different, but General Carter's apartment hadn't changed much in the last few days. O'Neill hovered by the quantum mirror, while Cassandra paused, taking in her surroundings.
O'Neill gestured her towards an overstuffed chair. "Welcome to child care 101. You've just been promoted to assistant teacher."
A Barbie doll sat on the coffee table atop of a pile of drawing paper, with a selection of outfits carefully laid out around her. Cassandra picked up a couple of Barbie's minimalist disco outfits and held them up in front of the doll.
"I know Sunlight likes Barbie, but her legs are way too long to be realistic," Cassandra said.
Leave a man his fantasies. Don't you know why they make them that way?
"I'll try and be back before Sunlight wakes up," O'Neill said. "I've got several things to pick up, but Kantele says there's a silk scarf of Sam's that Sunlight uses as a comfort blanket."
"She loves anything that's soft and smooth."
"Is this really going to work?" Maybourne asked. "She's scared of me."
"That's inevitable," O'Neill said. "I'd have warned her away from you and-"
"-Jacob didn't exactly think you were the bee's knees."
Cassandra assisted Barbie into a pair of tight-fitting pants and a short, strappy top. "I told her you scared the hell out of me."
"Then I'll just have to rely on my native charm."
"You haven't got any," O'Neill said.
He filtered Jack's jibe automatically, tried the more interesting occupation of imagining Cassie in that tight outfit - she looked very good in it too, far better than Barbie. Cassie was much better equipped when it came to padding in the right places. Another, slightly more respectable, corner of his mind gave the first corner a slap on the wrist. He already owed Cassie an apology and fantasising about her was not going to make that any easier. At least Sunlight was too young to present any temptation in that direction. Not that that meant getting to know her would be any easier.
"You need to change the uniform," Cassandra said in a no-nonsense tone.
He tilted his head in question.
"It'll scare her. Civilian clothes make you look less like the General."
That might be true, though the only time he'd actually met Sunlight, he'd been in civvies.
"I'll grab you a shirt," O'Neill said. "Something of mine might help a little."
And you want something, anything, of you to remain with her...
"Have you got any family photos?" he asked.
"Kawalski gave me a few. Ask Jacob if you can raid his collection when he wakes up. And remember, her mother's dead and Carter's her aunt." You could see the strain in the way Jack held himself, the tension around the eyes, the way his hands were never quite still.
"You already told me that," Maybourne said quietly. He left the comfort of the sofa, got to his feet and held O'Neill by the shoulders. "Jack, I won't let her forget you."
O'Neill clapped him awkwardly on the shoulders. "Sure." He turned rapidly and dived down the hallway. There was an awkward catch to his voice. "I'll find you that shirt."
Cassie sat Barbie on the table, legs indecently akimbo.
There was an awkward silence between them, eventually broken by Cassandra.
"I'll tell you whatever I can about her," she said. "Sunlight's like all little girls; she likes to play with dolls."
He looked at Barbie with misgiving. "What are you supposed to do with dolls?"
"Dress them. Undress them." She eyed him with sudden suspicion and he hastily schooled his face into an expression of perfect innocence. Apparently satisfied, she continued: "You play at going shopping, having tea parties with other dolls, that kind of thing."
It sounded indescribably boring. "Don't little girls ever play with fire trucks and guns?"
"Sam said she had a toy spaceman when she was a girl. I had a miniature loom my dad made for me; he was a weaver. I don't think Sunlight's ever had any weapons. I got her a water-pistol once, but Jack wasn't very happy about it. He didn't actually say anything, but it wasn't there next time I went round."
"There's a reason for that."
"If Jack wants you to know, he'll tell you."
"But you know?"
Maybourne shrugged, unable to avoid a certain smugness. "I've read his files."
"Haven't you ever heard of privacy?"
He stuck his lower lip out at her. "It's an interesting theoretical concept. I can't say that I've ever given it much attention. Anyway, I thought we were discussing Sunlight?"
Cassie stared down at her hands.
"She likes to play hide and seek and chase. She loves going to feed the ducks, but there won't be any. She likes going swimming, but I don't know if the Aesir..." Her voice trailed off.
"She's your little sister, isn't she?"
She nodded, mute in her distress.
"I don't normally believe in holding grudges," he told her, "but in Nirrti's case, I'm willing to make an exception. She's cost you both your families." He kept his voice light - dramatics never added anything to what you said. Either you meant it, or you didn't. "If I ever have the opportunity, I'll kill her for you."
"You'll have to get in line," O'Neill said gruffly. "Here, catch." He tossed a shirt at Maybourne, who caught it by reflex. It looked the sort of thing you'd wear in the wilderness: a bright check, brushed cotton affair.
"Cassie," Mayborne said, "any chance of some coffee while I change?"
"Colonel?" she asked.
"No, I'm off now."
As Cassandra headed for the kitchen, Maybourne grabbed a sheet of paper and a pen from his breast pocket. He scribbled rapidly.
"Jack, that's my pin number for an account in the name of Paul Seymour, and this letter here should hopefully allow you access to another account. The cards are in here." He passed over his wallet. "Get out as much as you can. Give Cassie a college fund." He stopped at the expression on O'Neill's face. "It's no use to me where I'm going."
The smell of the coffee helped to make Cassandra fractionally more alert. There were only two smells in the world worth waking up for: one was freshly-ground coffee and the other was frying bacon. She didn't dare check General Carter's fridge for bacon though; it was trespass quite enough to take his coffee for Maybourne.
Milk? Probably not. Jack had always taken his black, said you got used to it that way if you spent any time in the field. But Maybourne was NID. What did she really know about the NID, apart from the fact that they were as powerful as the CIA, but a lot better at staying out of the news? What strings had they pulled to get one of their own people in charge of a USAF facility?
Deciding to chance it with black, she found a sugar bowl and took the coffee through. Maybourne was sitting on the edge of the sofa, elbows on knees, seemingly deep in thought. She placed his drink on the coffee table and sat in the armchair opposite. Being too close to him was unsettling now Colonel O'Neill was gone.
"Thanks." He didn't touch the mug.
"I didn't know if you wanted it with milk."
"Black's fine." He stared at the table. "Didn't you make one for yourself?"
"I - I didn't want one."
He pounced instantly on the hesitation. "Why not?"
"Not your coffee? Not your kitchen? Or is it that it's General Carter's in particular?" He caught her reaction to that too. "Ah, lèse-majesté. Such respect for authority, even-" his lips curled in irony "-when it's totally spurious like mine. In that regard-" his eyes wandered over the table, then came up to meet hers "-I owe you an apology for last night. You didn't exactly catch me at my best."
She didn't reply; sometimes it was safer to say nothing.
"I was judging you by my own standards. Don't you find that amusing?"
She was finding the anger again now. It was a friend which helped drive away the fear, the uncertainty and the still-lingering need to be close to him and be held by him.
"No," she said, "I don't."
"You really don't get it, do you?"
"What? You sleep with anyone, so you assume I do too?"
"Almost." He wrapped his hands around the mug, so tightly that the heat had to hurt him. "Six months on death row can make freedom look awfully attractive."
Light dawned. "You were going to run out on us!" she said accusingly.
"I thought about it. I was thinking about it when you came in." His voice took on a tone of light mockery which grated on her nerves. "There's only one reason why someone your age would show any interest in someone of mine. I thought you'd second-guessed me, come to offer yourself nobly for the good of humanity."
"And if I had?"
"Oh, I'd have had a pleasant hour or so, then I'd have run out on you."
"You're a complete slime-ball."
Insults just flowed off him like water off a duck's back. Nothing she said really seemed to make any impact.
"I can't believe I nearly..."
He shrugged. "Ingrained response to authority, nothing more. Why do you think the services have a ban on relationships between ranks? It's all too easy to abuse a position of power."
"Which you did."
"Which I did. I should never have kissed you. I apologise for that."
He got up and went to open the curtains, pulling the heavy drapes back with a smooth swish.
Light streamed in with the early-morning sun, catching highlights on polished wood and enriching the colour of everything it touched. Movement caught her eye: a squirrel bounding up the trunk of a tall pine. Cassandra went over to watch it. Apart from anything else, it side-stepped the need for further conversation. The squirrel paused, investigated a piece of bark, seemed to find it unsatisfactory, dropped it and sped along a branch in a flowing motion that was almost a standing wave. Under the trees, a deer started at some unseen danger, turned in a single bound and vanished beneath the trees. Listening now, she became aware of the birdsong that had been going on all the time without her really noticing it. Where the birds were, she wasn't certain, but their voices were loud and clear. The longer you stood here, the more peaceful it was. She drank in the song and the stillness, as they eased the tension that had ratchetted to almost unbearable levels.
Would she ever have real peace in her life again? Mum was gone. Jack was gone and Sam too. Yes, she had friends and some of them might even still be alive, but they would forever be excluded from some of the most important parts of who and what she was. No matter how long she lived now, there would always be secrets and no longer anyone to share them. From now on, the lie was everything. I'm from Toronto. My parents were Greek immigrants. I went to a school where they had rather radical ideas about education; I didn't learn much until I came to America. No, I'm afraid I never followed the hockey until I came here. SGC? Never heard of it.
She was peripherally aware of Maybourne standing at the other end of the window, gazing out on the same view. What did he see out there? What was he thinking? Did he have friends out there? Was there anyone he trusted enough to tell them the truth, or was it a risk that a wanted man could never take? What did that do to a man's soul? Maybe truth was the only coin that ultimately counted.
It struck her how curious and precarious a balance they had between them. He trusted her not to dial 911 and she trusted him not to walk out of the front door. In spite of the fact that he was a slime ball, she trusted him in that. Maybe it was because he didn't try to hide the fact that he was a slime ball.
"You could have lied to me..." she said.
"I'm very good at that. You'd never have known if I had."
He turned to face her, one hand resting lightly on the window sill. "I'd been dreaming," he said. His face fell into a soft, rueful smile. "About you, if you must know. What you did in the SGC was nothing short of incredible. I talked to Nurse Rogers just after Nirrti cured her - she told me you'd not only pulled an incredible workload since your mother died, but you'd done it professionally. You'd asked her for advice; you kept records wherever possible; you checked diets for food allergies; you bullied airmen who were still fit into helping you move patients when sheets needed changing." He gave the tiniest shake of his head. "Not one girl in a thousand could have done what you did without cracking up. You handled it with the maturity of an adult, when you must have been completely ripped up inside."
Oh god, she hadn't expected this. To be reminded of the emptiness, the numbing fatigue, the need to keep on working as long as she could still stand, in order to become so tired that she was incapable of feeling the pain any more.
She swallowed hard and stared down at the floor. "If that's the lie, I don't want to hear any more."
He tilted her head up with a gentle finger. "That part was true. The best lies are always ninety percent true."
She didn't want to cry. She wasn't going to cry.
"Need a shoulder?" he asked.
"Who's asking? The slime-ball or the charmer?"
"Which one do you want?"
"The scum-bag. I know where I am with him."
"I think I may have underestimated you as well as Jack. Here-" he held out an arm. "I promise I won't do anything improper. On my honour as a bastard."
The plants were all dying. The monster Swiss Cheese plant in its familiar tub was limp and O'Neill was hard put to restrain the urge to water it. He'd had that plant for ten years or more. It could survive a bit of neglect, but the death of its owner had signed its own death warrant. In the past, there had always been a neighbour willing to water it when he was away. Now, there was no one.
This place was a strange mixture of the known and the unfamiliar. The sofa was his; the table was not. The microwave in the kitchen was familiar, but the fridge was new. The books in the study were a complete mixture of old friends and new, including some that he'd always meant to get and never quite got around to. He pulled out an astronomy text and flicked through it - pretty heavy, only just on the right side of readability versus too many numbers. The inscription inside the front cover said: Jack, Happy Birthday, Love Sam
Enough, Kantele said, we've got a job to do.
He reached to put the book back on the shelf and then stopped. It was his book, darn it; he could take it with him.
Which is Sunlight's room?
Second on the left. You can pick it out of my memory if you try.
I'm trying to maintain a degree of privacy here.
It reminded him of Charlie's room, even though it looked totally different. Clowns and carousels decorated the walls and the duvet cover. Bright picture books filled the shelves, along with enough Barbie dolls to form their own chorus line. A stuffed toy elephant stood on the windowsill in the somewhat incongruous company of a fighter jet, a floppy clown and a musical box with a pink-skirted ballerina balanced on tip-toe on the lid.
It'll be quicker if you let me grab everything, Kantele said.
It was unnerving to be a spectator in his own body. It was as though he was a ghost, passing through a place where he had once lived, but no longer remembered fully. 'He' whisked around the room, grabbing a selection of story books, a silk scarf from the bed, the cuddly elephant, several simple jigsaw puzzles, and a helter-skelter for marbles. Fleeting images in Kantele's mind filled in scenes: Sunlight rolling on a rug with the elephant; searching for a lost marble under the sofa; curled up fast asleep with the scarf pressed to her cheek.
Even the fridge was silent in the kitchen. The quiet was disconcerting. Every home had its background sounds, the noises that were so familiar that you never consciously heard them. Even more than the almost-invisible film of dust on the work surfaces, the silence proclaimed that no one lived here. Someone - Jacob - had emptied the cupboards of perishables and switched off the electricity. In spite of that, the whole house still had the faintly musty smell that houses acquire when their owners are absent. It was barely two weeks since Sunlight's parents had fallen ill and she'd gone to stay with her Grandpa, but that was long enough for their spirits to have left the place. Wherever, if anywhere, their presence remained, it wasn't here. O'Neill refused to let it bother him. Life after death was for philosophers to speculate about and archaeologists to dig up. He'd find out about it at the time, and worrying about it in advance wasn't going to affect the outcome.
Kantele raided a cupboard by the sink for a couple of treasured mugs, mostly animal designs. Sunlight's favourite seemed to be an elephant mug with the trunk forming the handle.
How do you know when an elephant's thirsty?
When Sunlight says so.
An image that had to be from Jacob's memories: Sunlight playing with the garden hose and claiming she could squirt everyone with it because she was being an elephant. O'Neill had a strong suspicion that he'd probably put her up to that one. Were there any pictures of days like those? Sunlight would want to remember home.
Photo album? he asked.
Sunlight didn't know where that was kept, neither did Jacob.
Well, if it was mine... He took them back into the study and checked the bottom shelf of the books. Yes, photo albums. He added them to the pile in the hall, then went back and grabbed a random selection of Sam's physics books, a couple of novels, the complete works of Shakespeare and a dictionary.
Can't have Harry dying of boredom.
You think he'll understand those?
No, but it'll keep him occupied while he tries.
How about the chess set? Sunlight likes playing with the pieces.
She can- it was hard, so hard. They were talking of a lifetime -play it properly when she's older.
I know. We could still change our minds.
Someone's fingers - His? Kantele's? - were stroking the silk scarf, twisting it between fingers, wrapping it around their wrists like a pair of handcuffs.
We're trapped. We've no choice.
So, we play the hero for the crowd.
The nasty man was holding Cassie, and she was crying.
Sunlight paused, uncertain, in the doorway, teddy in one hand and a fluffy towel in the other, dragged along the floor behind her.
Is he hurting her? she asked Teddy Blue.
Blue thought about it for a while before answering. He didn't talk as well as Kantele had, but he was learning.
She's holding him as well, Blue said finally.
Does that mean she likes him?
Blue didn't answer. He never knew the answer to anything difficult, but then he was only a bear and Daddy said bears weren't terribly clever.
The nasty man had noticed her. She took a step backwards, ready to run to Grandpa's room if necessary.
"Cassie?" she said anxiously.
"It's all right," he said, as Cassie broke free and turned to look at her. "Cassie's unhappy because she misses her mother."
"I want Mommie." Sunlight held the towel against her cheek. It wasn't the same as her proper cuddle, but it was better than nothing.
Cassie came down and hugged her. "I know you want her, but your Mommie's dead, just like my Mommie is." She looked at the nasty man. "Harry, sit down."
He raised an eyebrow, but did as Cassie said and sat down on the sofa.
"Sunlight," she said, "I want you to come and meet Harry."
"Sometimes," Cassie said, "but he won't be nasty to you. Didn't Daddy tell you about him?"
Sunlight nodded, cautiously. Daddy had told her his story twice, but she wasn't too sure about what it was all supposed to mean.
"Come with me. Come and say 'hello' to him."
She didn't move. "Don't want to."
"Please," Cassie said quietly. "He's my friend. I want you to like him."
"I'm scared. Teddy Blue's scared too."
Cassie took her gently by the hand. "I used to be scared as well. I promise he won't hurt you."
Sunlight took a hesitant step forward, then stopped.
Cassandra sighed inwardly. This was going to be even harder than she'd thought. How did you convince a four-year-old that someone was safe? How did she even know for certain that Maybourne was safe? For all she knew, his tastes included children as well as men and women. She really knew nothing about him. Nothing - except that she wanted to trust him, and when he held her it made the pain go away a little.
And wasn't that what Sunlight would need most? Someone to dull the pain?
Sometimes, touch could tell you things that were impossible to convey in words.
"Sunlight," she announced, "we're going to tickle him."
Interest piqued, Sunlight looked up at her.
"No way," Harry said in horror. "Absolutely no way."
She grinned at Sunlight and whispered. "You jump on him and I'll grab his feet to stop him escaping."
As one, they moved and pounced. Harry's 'ooph' announced Sunlight's arrival on target. Cassandra grabbed his legs as he struggled in a well-simulated attempt at escape. It had to be simulated; he wasn't kicking really hard, just generating enough bounce for Sunlight to have fun. An interesting selection of choked-off noises suggested that Sunlight was making an impact though. By way of assistance, Cassandra slid a hand up a trouser-leg and lightly tickled the back of a calf.
That doubled both the struggles and the sound effects. She'd got as far as the back of the knee before Harry finally cracked and begged for mercy.
"Shall we be nice to him?" she asked Sunlight.
"No!" crowed the victor.
Harry cupped a hand to Sunlight's ear and whispered something. Turning her coat with the ease of a practised double agent, Sunlight promptly jumped down off the sofa and started on Cassandra. Before she could strike back, Cassandra was caught from behind as Harry slid down and joined her on the floor, wrapping his arms around her waist and sliding a leg to either side of her. Sunlight had a decidedly unfair advantage; she already knew where Cassandra was ticklish. She started laughing, squirming to get away from little fingers that tickled her legs and tummy.
"Oh no, you don't get away that easily." Harry shifted his grip and held her close.
"You're enjoying this," she accused.
"Absolutely." She guessed the grin that belonged with that voice: wide, happy and provocative.
Sunlight was pulling Cassandra's shoe off. That was grossly unfair. She was more ticklish on her feet than anywhere else. She wriggled helplessly, tormented by every tickle from Sunlight, hypersensitive to Harry pressed against her, of the warmth of her body, even the soft touch of his breath against her neck.
"What are you thinking?" she asked, as she tried to catch her own breath.
"What you'd do if I moved my hand up three inches." By way of partial demonstration, he moved his right hand an inch in the direction of her breast.
She wanted to laugh all over again. This was her bastard, direct and to the point - hearts and flowers were for those who didn't want to hear the unvarnished truth. Then, she did laugh, as Sunlight started on her other foot.
"Let me go," she gasped, caught between laughter and an unwarranted heat rising inside her.
"Aw, just when it was getting interesting." But he released her and sat back on the sofa, breathing deeply.
"Tickle me," Sunlight demanded.
Harry held up a hand in denial. "In a minute. I need to get my breath back."
Her own breath was still a little on the short side, but she rolled over and tickled with cheerful expertise, generating high-pitched giggles and an incredible amount of wriggling. When done, she picked Sunlight up and tossed her into Harry's lap to recuperate while she went to retrieve her missing shoes. Sunlight burrowed in and pressed her cheek to the soft brushed cotton of the plaid shirt. As she pulled on a shoe, Cassandra caught the expression that flashed across Harry's face: complete bewilderment.
"Where do I go from here?" he asked.
"She needs love. If you can give her that, the rest will sort itself out."
"Cassie, I'm old and I'm cynical. Some things don't come easily to me."
"If you can love me, you can love Sunlight."
He wrapped an arm carefully round Sunlight and looked Cassandra in the eye. "What I want to do with you has very little to do with love."
"I don't believe you." She said the words without even thinking.
The ever-mobile face twisted into a leer. "You're confusing love and lust."
No, she knew the difference. And she'd learnt it from him.
"If you didn't mean it, then you'd have said it."
"Syntactically convoluted, but an entertaining hypothesis." He cocked his head slightly. "Does it actually matter to you?" He tossed the comment in as an apparent afterthought, from which she concluded that it was important to him.
Did it matter to her? And why should that matter to him?
'There's only one reason why someone your age would show any interest in someone of mine.'
It's true, isn't it? I don't feel about you quite the way I suspect you feel about me.
Am I using you? I don't mean to. I'm just not used to someone needing me.
I think I love you, but I'm not sure in which way I love you. You confuse me.
I needed someone to hold onto, someone to be a substitute parent, someone who wasn't a ghost walking in a dead man's shoes. I needed a friend, someone I could tell the things that I couldn't tell anyone else. What I didn't need was a lover, and certainly not one old enough to be my father.
What I got was you.
Sometimes, when you touch me, I burn inside. I'm not sure I want to tell you that. I'm not sure that you haven't worked it out for yourself.
He was still watching her, with eyes that penetrated too deeply. Twisting round, she broke the gaze and sat down on the floor beside his feet. Contact, but not too much contact. His hand touched her lightly on the shoulder and she accepted it gratefully, curling her fingers round his.
"I don't want to lose you," she whispered. "I don't want to lose you."
Chapter 9: Tok'ra
Everything looked okay in the near-empty meeting room. He'd trusted Daniel to set things up, the guy understood things like protocol. Not that the Asgard were as fussy as the System Lords, but it made sense to be careful. O'Neill's fingers twitched with the need to rearrange the precisely positioned blue pencils.
"Daddy, can I do drawing?"
"Sorry, sweet. This has to stay tidy."
"Harry?" She appealed to an alternative authority.
Maybourne pulled a face at her. "Princess, your dad said 'no'."
The sound of the door opening pulled their attention to Major Davis's hurried entrance.
"Colonel, General." His attention flicked between them, uncertain which to focus on. "Air Force One just landed. The President will be here in fifteen minutes."
"I thought he was sick?" O'Neill said.
"He died in the early hours of the morning. Vice-president Kinsey was inaugurated as President four hours ago. He wants to be present at the negotiations."
"You mean, wants to claim the credit," Maybourne said.
"Over my dead body," O'Neill muttered.
"Shouldn't that be over mine?"
"Do I take it that you know him?" Davis asked.
"Do I know the scum-sucking-"
"Jack... It's bad form to insult the President, especially when Major Davis has a job to do. I take it, Major, that you are about to fill us in on how much he knows?"
Davis rubbed his hands together in agitation. "I only found out myself ten minutes ago that he was coming. He didn't want anyone to know. He doesn't care much for Colonel O'Neill."
"Now there's a surprise," O'Neill said sarcastically.
"I take it he knows Colonel O'Neill is from another reality," Maybourne said. "How about myself?"
Davis shifted his balance from one foot to the other and back again. "I didn't put that in my report. The Pentagon would have appointed a replacement and I judged that would have been detrimental to the situation. We weren't making any progress until SG-1 arrived."
"We'll cover your back," O'Neill said, "if that's what you're worried about."
"Thanks. Incidentally, what did happen to General Maybourne?"
"Heart attack," Maybourne said instantly. "Seeing Jack can have that effect on people. Especially when you've been blackmailing him and you thought he was safely dead."
O'Neill caught Sunlight who had taken advantage of the distraction to go and help herself to a collection of pencils. It was better to get her away from this discussion.
"Has anyone seen Carter?"
Davis nodded. "She's in the control room, or was a couple of minutes ago."
"Okay." O'Neill pulled a videotape out of his pocket. "Sunlight, go to the control room and give this to Auntie Sam. Tell her it's from me and she's to play it in her lab with Daniel and Teal'c. Tell her it's a secret and no one else is to see it. Got that?"
"It's for Auntie Sam," she recited, "and it's a secret."
I was beginning to think you'd never tell her. Are you that embarrassed by me?
"Aren't you worried, letting Sunlight go on her own?" Davis asked.
"There's no one here who would hurt her. Not any longer." The anger slipped through in his voice and Davis reacted to it.
O'Neill swopped looks with Maybourne.
"I think he needs to know," Harry said. "With Kinsey in the picture..."
"...who'll be trying to cover his ass." He waved a hand at Davis. "Hey, Mom, we got company. Lay another two places."
Obedient to the niceties of rank, Davis moved chairs and redealt notepaper and pencils. As he worked, O'Neill began: "General Maybourne threatened Sunlight. Used her to control my alternate and hide his illegal activities. Understand this: you must make absolutely clear to Kinsey is that no mention whatsoever is to be made of alternate realities. We're selling the Asgard a pig in a poke. Only Thor knows the full story and he can't get the backing of the rest of them unless they think they have the genuine Maybourne."
"Maybe we could give them Kinsey instead?"
I thought I told you to keep quiet?
I got bored.
Davis looked down at the pencil he'd just snapped.
Maybourne smirked. "I quite like the idea," he said, "but I don't think it will wash. There's no way Kinsey will confess, not with the presidency in his hands, and I can't access my computer files to prove a connection."
"Always assuming there is one," O'Neill said. "This reality might be different."
Davis still looked as though he'd been hit on the head by a large sledgehammer.
"What's bugging you? The fact that Jack's tok'ra, that Maybourne broke the Asgard treaty, or the fact that Kinsey knew all about it and actively supported what was being done?"
Davis pulled himself slowly together. "I think it started with you saying you were going to give them General Maybourne."
"Oh, it gets worse than that," O'Neill said softly. "Sorry, Harry," he added with an apologetic look sideways.
Maybourne picked up the thread. "The other half of the price is Jack's daughter. I wonder... Did Kinsey know the General was holding her over you?"
"He knew about the threat to Hammond's grandchildren."
"You're trying to tell me..." Davis half-choked, then recovered. "...that the President of the United States..."
"Is a lying scumbag who worked with the NID to manipulate the Stargate program to their own ends," O'Neill said.
"In fact," Maybourne added, with a particularly twisted grin, "a man after my own heart who probably helped get me this job in the first place."
He's enjoying this, Kantele said.
He always does. And don't ask me how much is an act and how much is real.
"But you don't have to take my word for it," Maybourne said. "When you get back to Washington, see if you can access his computer files. He strikes me as a man of limited imagination. He'll probably have the same password in both realities."
"Oscar," said O'Neill.
"His dog," added Maybourne, by way of explaination. "And if that fails, try his wife and grandchildren's names."
Davis fumbled his way into a chair.
"Someone has to have a hold over him," Kantele said. "The SGC can't afford another General Maybourne. Hammond moved with his family to Minnesota. Is he still alive?"
"I think I can push that one onto Kinsey," Maybourne said. "A touch of persuasive blackmail. He's no way of knowing I don't have the files. Let's put it this way," he added with indecent cheerfulness, "if he appoints Hammond as my replacement, you'll know he's guilty."
"Davis, if that happens," O'Neill said grimly, "get the data, give Hammond a copy and hope he can use it to cover his back."
"You're asking me to commit treason!"
"We're asking you to help avert another disaster like this one."
"I'll think about it."
"And watch out for any surviving tok'ra. We're 'a parasitical infestation masquerading as an ally and corrupting the human soul of God's living creation'. Something like that, anyway."
"So I don't tell him you're here?"
"No. Jack says not to tell anyone at all, and preferably forget you ever knew yourself."
"And you are?"
"Sorry, I forgot we hadn't been properly introduced this time around. I'm Kantele."
Davis held up a hand. "That's it. I don't want to know any more. I don't want to know where or when or how, or even what time it is. Just get me out of this madhouse."
O'Neill checked his watch. "You've got five minutes. Better go and brief the President."
"Mr President," Major Davis ushered him through the door with appropriate formality and no apparent show of nerves. "I believe you already know General Maybourne and Colonel O'Neill."
"We've met," Kinsey said with a curt nod in Jack's direction. "General," he buttonholed Maybourne and drew him to one side, "I understand you've found a solution to our problems with the Asgard?" His voice was smooth with just a hint of condescension.
"Oh, I've done better than that. I've kept your neck out of the noose."
A bland expression and an interrogative eyebrow. No doubt about it, Kinsey was good. "After all, it would never do for the President to be charged with treason." Yes! Definitely a reaction there.
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"I recently accessed some very interesting NID files. I found proof of the NID's contribution to your campaign finances and of your support for my illegal activities."
"Now look here, General," - always entertaining to watch Kinsey climbing onto his high horse - "I supported your appointment to this post because I felt you had a detailed understanding of the policies that were necessary to defend this country."
"Oh, I'm very appreciative, but unfortunately with a high likelihood of soon being very dead. Here's the deal: I keep your name out of it, and in turn you appoint whomever I tell you as my successor."
"I wouldn't expect to have any problem with someone you choose."
"Hammond. If he's dead, someone who thinks the same way."
"I know." Maybourne allowed himself a slight sigh. "Namby-pamby, liberal-minded, way too fond of aliens, forever landing us with refugees, far too weak-willed when it comes to obtaining alien technology, and overly cautious when it comes to weapons development. Did I miss anything?"
"I sometimes wonder that myself... You need someone who can work with the Asgard. You simply can't afford to annoy them again. I'm not exactly happy with what it's costing this time."
"Me." He smiled, because he knew it would disconcert Kinsey. "And if you're thinking that lets you off the hook with regard to our agreement - don't worry. I've left a copy of the disc with a friend."
Three simultaneous cylinders of light deposited three Asgard in three curved seats. Jack spoke rapidly: "Kantele är här med mig. Jag skulle uppskatta om ni inte nämnde honom över huvud taget."
So what was that about? Maybourne wondered. Wasn't one of his languages. Why did aliens never have the decency to speak Russian?
"What was that?" Kinsey said sharply.
"A greeting Daniel taught me."
One of the Asgard inclined his head slightly. "I am Thor. I extend greetings to all friends here."
"I am Odnir."
"I am Freyr."
They might have been identical triplets. Maybe they were.
O'Neill stood. "I am Colonel Jack O'Neill. May I present Ron Kinsey, President of the United States of America; Major Davis, liaison between the President and the SGC; General Maybourne, commanding officer of the SGC; and my daughter, Sunlight on Water."
Jack sat down, and Sunlight promptly scrambled onto his lap. She was quiet and subdued, clinging to the lapels of Jack's uniform jacket. Jack in dress uniform ought to be a fish out of water, but there was no denying he looked good in it. Maybourne resisted the urge to touch the fabric of his own jacket. It had been good, while it lasted, to have the uniform and everything that went with it. Cassandra had been right about it though; Sunlight was looking at him more dubiously now. Damn it, he was going to miss Cassie.
"Please recount the events which lead to the breach of the treaty." That was Odnir. Or was Odnir the one on the left?
"But do not make the account a lengthy one. It is not wise for us to remain here for long." That one was definitely Thor.
Okay, in with the tag team. Operate on the assumption that the Asgard have lie detectors whether you can see them or not. Here goes.
"One of the remits of the NID was to oversee the Stargate program. I was in charge of the section detailed to do this. We soon became convinced that the Stargate was not being used efficiently. Opportunities to gain valuable knowledge were being passed over and alien races such as the Tollan were still being treated as allies in spite of their refusal to share their technology with us.
"When a second gate was discovered in Antartica, we made sure that it ended up in Area 51 and we used it to visit worlds which had not been properly exploited by the SGC. This operation was detected and closed down by the SGC and the second gate mothballed.
"I needed another option. Some of my team had escaped off-world before the second gate was shut down. I was able to re-establish contact with them and set up a base on another planet. We used the gate there to visit worlds and our contact in the SGC smuggled items back to Earth for us. Research on items too large to conceal on the person was conducted off-world. We obtained items from many planets, including those protected by the Asgard. This was in direct violation of the treaty between Asgard and Earth.
"I needed more people. I only had those who were already off-world, and with the second gate non-operational could only bring out new people via the SGC. This presented an obvious problem as I had no way to use the SGC gate.
Pass the baton. "Colonel O'Neill..."
"General Hammond was requested by both the Asgard and the Tollan to discover who was stealing from them. The NID were natural suspects, but we had no proof of what was being done or how the operation was being worked. The Asgard wanted me to investigate. I pretended to be dissatisfied with the way the SGC were handling things. I stole an artifact from the Tollan, with their prior agreement, and presented it to Hammond who offered me, as part of the set-up, a choice of court-martial or early retirement. I took early retirement and within a week, I was contacted by Maybourne, who had fallen for the act."
"Colonel O'Neill and I weren't exactly on the best of terms, but he was one of the best, and he had access to the Stargate."
"I accepted Maybourne's offer, and told General Hammond that I wished to make one final visit to Edora in order to keep a promise I'd made. I shipped out from the SGC and promptly used the Edora gate to reach Maybourne's base. I found out exactly how his operation was run..."
"However," Maybourne prompted him. Did Jack even realise what he was doing? He was holding Sunlight to his chest, one hand over an ear to cut her off from as much of the conversation as possible, but one finger was obsessively stroking the same short strand of hair again and again.
"However," Jack continued, "Maybourne made threats."
"Colonel O'Neill had one weakness, one thing that he valued more than life, honour or duty. Colonel O'Neill had a daughter."
Jack glanced down at the still form pressed against him. His voice was quietly intense. "Maybourne threatened to kill her."
That voice sent a shiver down his spine. Just remember, Jack, I'm the other one.
"Would you have done it?" Kinsey interrupted suddenly.
He smiled, to give himself time to think. Besides, it enhanced the 'bad guy' image. "It might have happened that way, but I think it more likely she'd have been adopted by complete strangers who genuinely believed she was an orphan." Didn't Kinsey realise what he was doing? This story was like a ballet. Get caught on the hop and they'd lose all the balls they were juggling. Now where had he been? Ah, yes.
"Colonel O'Neill failed to put in a report. He came back to Earth and retired."
"Maybourne was never caught. He realised how close he'd come and closed down his off-world operation. In time, the political climate shifted and he was made commander of the SGC by people who supported his hawkish stance."
"I've requested that General Hammond be reappointed after my departure. Mr President?" You put me on the spot, let's see how you like it.
"I have agreed to this request."
That was worth it just for the look of shock on Major Davis's face.
He rested his hands on top of the table and waited. Jack was as still as the grave. Only Kinsey seemed at ease; but then he had nothing to lose.
"You are aware of the law in these matters?" said Freyr.
"General Maybourne, as the man responsible for the theft of Asgard property in direct violation of treaty, and furthermore responsible for the deaths of those who died trying to protect that property, you are sentenced to death."
Kinsey blurted out "But..."
Maybourne treated him to a withering stare. Care to take responsibility, Pal? No, I didn't think so.
"Colonel O'Neill, as signatory to the treaty, you were responsible for enforcing it. You failed in that undertaking because of your unwillingness to sacrifice your daughter. You are sentenced to the loss of your child."
"They're aliens," O'Neill said with scorn. He turned to Thor and spoke rapidly. "Members of the Asgard High Council, I accept the judgement passed and request that you also consider the penalty that should be applied against General Maybourne for his contractual violation in threatening the child of someone under his command."
It was Freyr who replied. "It may be considered."
"Harry..." O'Neill barely got the word out.
He nodded in understanding, took the case that Ke'ra had prepared and slid it over the table. "This is the treatment for the plague. The pile of stuff in the corner is for Sunlight on Water. She will need what is there, if you are to fulfil the legal obligations that you have inherited, in loco parentis, from Colonel O'Neill."
Jack's eyes were closed, his face taut. "Whatever you are going to do," he said in a rough voice, "you have about one minute to do it, before I change my mind." He buried his face in Sunlight's hair and inhaled deeply.
"Jack." He reached out to touch his friend on the shoulder, but before he could complete the gesture-
-They were gone. O'Neill's arms were empty and his heart with them.
Only Thor remained of the Asgard, large eyes gazing gently at him. "You are a brave man, O'Neill."
"Do you think I give a damn?" The tears were flowing freely and he didn't care.
"She will be taken care of."
"And what about Maybourne? You know, don't you? He didn't have to do this."
You could drown in your own reflection in those dark eyes.
"What I know and what I may conjecture are different things. It is better that they remain that way. I will do what I can, but I can make no promises. You know, as well as I, that his crimes are genuine."
"Colonel." Kinsey cleared his throat awkwardly. "I truly appreciate what you have done for us. Remember the ram caught in the thicket. If you put your trust in the Lord, your sacrifice will not be in vain."
"If you think-"
Jack, he means well.
I don't care if he wants to marry me, he's a sanctimonious pain in the ass.
"Colonel O'Neill," Thor said in that quiet, but penetrating voice of his, "will I see you again?"
"Not unless you allow visiting rights."
"I am sorry, but that is not possible. It would be a violation of the terms of your sentence."
"Then I'm out of here already."
"Colonel, we will need a new signatory for the treaty."
It was with a certain degree of satisfaction that he turned to Kinsey. "Mr President, will you pledge your life, your fortune and your sacred honour?"
"I will." You had to give it to the man, he was no coward. "But I want to go over the wording first."
"That is not possible," Thor said. "To change the wording would require renegotiating the entire treaty with the System Lords. The people of your planet have killed many of their number. They would require harsher terms, if indeed they were willing to negotiate at all."
Kinsey produced a stainless steel pen from his jacket pocket. "Where do I sign?"
With every step, he trod on sharp splinters of glass, broken fragments of a lost future and shattered dreams. Familiar with his blacker moods after so many years, Carter, Teal'c and Daniel gave him what he needed: they were with him, but silent, neither intruding on his grief, nor asking unwanted questions about Kantele. Kantele was a living presence in his mind, sharing the raw pain of loss, and O'Neill fed back what little comfort he was able. He had known this would push him to the brink, had not fully realised that the symbiote's pain would be as great as his own. They would sink or swim together.
It was Daniel who told him he wasn't fit to drive and took him to the SGC, Teal'c who sat next to him in silent support, and Carter who gently steered him up to Hammond's office.
The discipline needed to make a verbal report helped him focus on the moment. Hammond's office seemed oddly strange; the furnishings were different from Maybourne's. It had taken so little time to become used to something different.
Hammond was looking at him with a concerned expression. "Colonel? Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Sir. Just a little tired." He caught Carter's look and ammended his reply. "All right, I'm not all right. The Asgard fixed the plague, but their lawyers demanded Sunlight and Maybourne in exchange." And that had better be enough for you for now. "I'll put the details in my written report, once I've figured which bits won't burn the paper."
"Jack..." Hammond was struggling to find words. O'Neill focused carefully on the flag behind the desk so that he wouldn't have to meet his old friend's eyes.
"I'm truly sorry," Hammond said finally. "I know how hard this must be for you."
"Forget it," O'Neill said roughly. He straightened up and came to attention. "I'd like to introduce you to the newest member of SG-1."
"Kantele?" Hammond's eyes flicked from O'Neill to Carter and back again.
"Yes, Sir," Carter said. "It's Kantele. Maybourne ran them both through the lie detector."
"And you agreed to this, Colonel?" Hammond sounded decidedly sceptical.
"Then why the hell-" Hammond slammed both hands on his desk "-didn't you consult me first?"
O'Neill stared fixedly at the wall just behind the General's head.
"I had to leave Sunlight, before she became dependent on me among strangers."
"I didn't ask you," Hammond said sharply. "I asked Colonel O'Neill."
"It was a personal matter between myself, my daughter and Kantele."
"I see. And you expect me to accept, without question, an entity who has taken no oath of loyalty to this country, who could take over your mind and body at a moment's notice and who self-evidently has no sense of military discipline?"
"What's Selmak got that I haven't?"
"Colonel!" Hammond barked. "You will tell your symbiote to be quiet or you will both be out of the Air Force so fast that you won't even see the door on your way out."
He means it. Let me handle this one.
"Sir, he'll behave." You'd better. "You have my word on it." So don't make a liar out of me - us.
"Very well." Hammond sighed. "Jack, do you realise what you've gone and done?" He held up a hand. "I'm sure you had your reasons, but that's not good enough. You have enemies out there and you've just given them a whopping big stick to beat you with. May I remind you both that General Carter does not work for the SGC; furthermore, he is not in direct command over anyone here. Must I spell out to you the impossibility of maintaining a chain of command when an order might be given by either yourself or Kantele?"
Dammit, Hammond did have a point there.
Jack, I've screwed things up for you, haven't I?
Forget it. I was thinking of quitting the Air Force anyway.
That was so you could have time with Sunlight.
And now I need time to get used to being without her.
For an instant, they were one, caught in the twist of emotion that intertwined them ever tighter together. Images flowed between them, seen from different angles. Even as he watched Sunlight chase a butterfly, he was the little girl running after the pretty colours. As he held her through the terror of a nightmare, he was the one being comforted by himself. He was the focus of her everything: the companion of her day, the security of her nights.
He was dead. No, he was alive, but she was going to lose him. Daddy!
Carter's voice. Her hand gripped his arm.
"I'm sorry." He sounded shaky even to himself. "It was Sunlight. She..."
"Colonel," Hammond said, "you will go and get Dr Fraiser to check you over, then you will take a week's compassionate leave. When you return after that, we will determine if you still have a future with the SGC." His voice softened. "I'll see what I can do, but I think it's best to assume that your days with SG-1 are over."
In the same mountain in another reality, President Kinsey looked up from the document he was studying. A deep-throated thrumming vibrated through the table he rested on and through the very walls of Cheyenne mountain itself. Pale blue, search beams shone through the solid rock, seeking life. With deliberate motion, they swept every inch, first of the SGC and over the course of the next two days, the entire planet from the tops of mountains and aircraft in flight to the bottom of the ocean and the deepest diamond mines. Wherever they encountered a human being, someone vanished to reappear instantaneously on an impossibly large ship a mile above the surface. How many people the ships held, no one ever knew. Each individual could only sense the thousands around him, jam-packed into a hold the size of a baseball pitch. The clamour of a myriad voices calling out in confusion mingled with the cries of children and the moans of the dying. Scents of sweat and fear joined with the ozone smell of the moist air and the sick smell of too many perfumes and cosmetics competing in too close a proximity to one another. Something crackled in the air, stinging the skin briefly. The hubbub rose to even greater levels and then with the suddenness of a breaking thread, it was gone as familiar surroundings snappped back into place.
Skeptical souls recorded it as the greatest mass hallucination in human history. Many had no memory at all of the event, just a sense of a moment's dislocation. Some claimed to have seen aliens with tentacles and mouths full of teeth; others reported indescribably beautiful beings with voices like angels. The only thing to be agreed on by all was that the plague victims started to recover. Membership of most churches doubled overnight, so did the membership of every new-age, UFO, SF and conspiracy group.
The US President claimed that he had negotiated a treaty with aliens.
"The word of God can be an inspiration and guidance to those of many races. The kindness and forgiveness of those who have helped us is matched only by the wickedness of the man who broke faith with them and caused them to withdraw their protection from this world."
In this manner, Kinsey's world finally came to know of the Stargate programme and of the evil of a man who cast Adolf Hitler into the shade: General Harold Maybourne. The backbone of the story was soon known to all, but there was little available in the way of accurate details - knowledge of an alternative reality was judged to be more than the masses were capable of dealing with. Members of the SGC and the NID were forbidden to speak to the press under any circumstances. In return for immunity from prosecution, men who had served under Maybourne came forth to give evidence in closed court. The National Enquirer, never hindered by the need for factual accuracy (especially when the subject wasn't around to sue them), found plenty to fill its pages and wrote a detailed biography of Maybourne's entire life and his career in intelligence work along with tasty details of his numerous lovers, illegitimate children and suspected membership of a Satanic cult.
The location of Colonel O'Neill was sought by TV crews from five continents. Reporters massed at the entrance to Cheyenne Mountain, kept back only by armed guards. A rumour that he had retired to a monastery in Tibet sent dozens scurrying there. Other stories claimed that he had left through the Stargate to seek solace on another planet for the loss of his wife and child. There was another rumour that he had in fact died a week before and was buried with his wife, but the gravestone in the small, quiet cemetery carried only one name: Samantha O'Neill, beloved wife and mother.
Sam got out of her car and hesitated. To walk towards the log cabin beside the lake felt oddly like trespassing. This was a part of Jack's life that she'd never touched - every time he'd invited her here, she'd found a reason to say no. This place offered too many dangers.
From somewhere close by, she could hear music: a guitar playing a quiet, sad melody. She put her keys into her pocket and felt the stump of the broken match. Why did they call it drawing straws, when you always used matches?
Nearly a week now, and the Colonel still hadn't contacted any of them, hadn't replied to any of the messages left on his voicemail.
The music drew her round the side of the house to where he sat, bending over the guitar, his back towards her. She could see the curve of his neck and shoulder, the grey of his hair as the sun shone through it. When had he gone grey? It must have happened over the years she'd known him and yet it had never sunk in consciously until now. His silhouette had the quality of a stone carving, a form that captured the stillness at the heart of his effervescent personality. This was the part of himself that he concealed behind all the layers. She wanted to speak, but held back, unwilling to intrude.
He hummed a phrase as if trying to recall it, then tried the words quietly to the music: "I have a photograph, preserve your memory, it's all that's left to me."
She could see him now, the child in his arms, holding her as though she was the only thing in the world that had any meaning to him.
It was a funny thing to find yourself a liar - I thought I wasn't ready to settle down, but I've opened the box and I can't close it again. I've seen too much of you now; I know what love means to you. You told me once and I hid from it, tucked the knowledge in a box and nailed down the lid. I don't want to hide any more. If I haven't left it too late, I want you to love me that intensely. Someday, and I know it will be hard for you after the loss of two children, I want a family. I never had the chance to get to know Sunlight and it's only just beginning to hit me. I wonder if having a miscarriage is like this, feeling grief for a child that you never knew?
He turned in surprise - wary, guarded, as though he would dismiss her any moment.
"Jack, she was my daughter too. I need to..."
He nodded slowly, accepting her right to be there. "Sit down.
Sitting beside him on the wooden bench, hands resting on the table, she looked out at the trees that hung over the edge of the water. It was an incredibly beautiful place, quiet and peaceful. It was easy to see why the Colonel came here.
"She loved you," Kantele said. "She loved many things: kittens, paddling in the sea, feeding ducks, orange jello. She loved bright colours, Barbie dolls, playing on swings, being tickled, even fishing, but most of all she loved you and Jack."
"I wish," Jack said, "I wish I could share the feeling with you. You deserve that."
She wanted to touch him, didn't know how to breach the barriers that they had built up over so many careful years. What were the rules now? He wasn't her CO any more. They were in uncharted territory.
The sun was warm on her arms. If she listened, she could hear the sound of birdsong, though she didn't know the species. A light breeze rippled the surface of the water, sending the reflection of the sunlight dancing in a myriad of patterns. She stared at it, entranced. You could lose yourself in that dark water, in the patterns of the light.
"Sunlight on Water," she said softly. "This is where she got her name, isn't it?"
"Yes. The first time you came here with Jack... She was conceived here."
She was close to them, so close. The faint scent of masculine skin was unsettling. She'd been this close to O'Neill a thousand times before, never been aware of him so intensely.
He stared out at the water, avoiding her gaze. "Kantele has a personal question he wants to ask you. Do you mind?"
"Tell him to fire away. If I decide not to answer, I'll try not to hold it against him."
"Martouf," Kantele said. "I sense the remnant of Jolinar within you - it wasn't that way in my reality. Jack says that Martouf loved you because of Jolinar, but how did you feel about him?"
"I liked him. I was very - fond - of him."
She was quiet for a moment, remembering how Elliot and Lantash had died. "Lantash loved me too."
"No," he sounded awkward, "how did you feel about Lantash?"
"To be honest, I tended to think of them as one person. I didn't really distinguish."
"What he means," Jack said, "is that..."
"Well, he..." He was fumbling with his words and she found the uncertainty rather endearing. "Actually, I..." He turned and looked helplessly at her.
She touched his hand lightly with her fingers and watched his wordless reaction. "If you mean," she said softly, "can I love a tok'ra, then I think the answer is yes."
"We need you, Sam. Both of us."
Jack wrapped his fingers around hers, burying her hand in his larger one. She sat, perfectly still, accepting the wonder of something so simple as being able to hold his hand. Daring, she leant close and rested her head against his shouder and felt the warmth of his arm encircle her waist.
For an unknown length of time, they sat there, watching the breeze ruffle the leaves and the reeds on the water's edge. There was peace here, peace of the kind that allowed her to gradually unwind and let the knowledge seep in that this time, nothing would separate them.
"Are you going to kiss him or not?" Kantele demanded. "He's trying very hard to be virtuous and let you have first dibs, 'cause he snuck one in on you one time when you were caught in a time loop and he knew you wouldn't remember."
She laughed. It was impossible not to. Jack looked like a three-year-old caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
Reaching up, she took his face between her hands and kissed him gently on the lips. Her fingers touched the lines of strain that showed under the darkness of his eyes and under her palms she could feel the springiness of the hair that was well on its way to becoming a beard. World-weary and battered he might be, but he was hers.
"Colonel," she said, and it still sounded right. He was still what he always had been, the man she had given her respect to long before she gave him her heart.
She kissed him again, let him take control as he kissed her back, felt the strength of the need and the passion within him. Subconscious desires rose with the heady fizz of champagne, leaving her breathless with the depth of her own response.
Alert to every nuance of him, she felt the change the moment it happened - the sudden bone-crushing intensity of his embrace, the deep shudder within him, the awkward catch in his breathing - and understood what it meant. He was afraid.
"Would it be all right if I stayed tonight?"
"I... We'd be glad of the company."
Sometime in the night, he cried out, the sound that of a man torn apart by pain and loss.
Waking, she rolled over and took him in her arms, pillowing his head against her breast. Stroking his hair, she wondered anew at the fragility of humankind.
"Kantele," she whispered, "how do I help him?"
"You are helping. You're helping us both, just by being here."
She could feel the weight of him against her, touch the scars on his skin, remember the passion with which he had made love to her, but it wasn't enough. There was a distance between them that shouldn't have been there, a part of him she couldn't reach. There was a scar that would never heal over, unless he could come to terms with Sunlight's loss. And how could he do that while she was alive and alone in the company of strangers?
How? How did one achieve the impossible?
"Will the Asgard ever give her up?" she asked.
"No. They've passed sentence. Their laws don't change. But then again their laws are also incredibly complex. Give the Aesir a reason to help you and they might look for a loophole."
"Colonel." She held him close, feeling the beat of his heart against her. "We'll find her. I don't know how, and I don't know when, but somehow we'll find a way."
O'Neill said nothing, words had never been his forté in emotional situations, but his hand sought hers and held it for the rest of that long night.
Cassandra cuts photographs from the newspapers and pastes them into a scrapbook. They are never flattering, and most of them are the same anyway. They show an ugly man with a doughy face, and an expression veering from condescension to arrogance. It's Maybourne's likeness, but there is no sign of the quirky smile that can animate Harry's entire face, no trace of the wicked humour that loves to probe and to tease. She searches in vain for understanding in those eyes, but cuts the pictures out anyway and keeps the album in a drawer where no one will see it.
At night, she sleeps fitfully. Sometimes, he's there and the dreams comfort her as they sit and talk with his arm resting lightly around her shoulders. Other times, her dreams scare her. She doesn't have the words to describe what she feels when he kisses her; it is too raw, too elemental to compare with anything she's known before.
Is it love? And if it is, why does it hurt so much?
* * * * *
Kantele's dreams are confused, some nights they merge with O'Neill's, sometimes they are separate. He sees Sam through too many eyes. She is his daughter, his mother and his lover. In the end though, it is her presence beside him that gives him comfort. She does not fully know him yet, but Kantele knows her and he loves her.
Somewhere in the dark, a child cries: "I want Daddy."
"Daddy's not here, Princess. He misses you too."
"Daddy doesn't want me any more."
"Yes, he does. Here, hold my hand and pretend."
O'Neill dreams of a child chasing butterflies through a woodland glade. She laughs and giggles in the shafts of sunlight, but whenever he reaches out to touch her, she vanishes as though she was never really there.
"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
"You make me happy when skies are grey,
"You'll never know, dear, how much I love you,
"Please don't take my sunshine away."
There is a sequel 'Truth and Consequences', which I'm currently uploading at roughly a chapter a day.