Butterflies flapped in a small swarm around my stomach. As the applause tailed off and Larry Niven took his seat on stage, I waited for my name to be announced. Following Larry Niven... I'd been a fan of his ever since I discovered science fiction. I sometimes wonder if we'll ever discover a ringworld out there among the stars.
From where I was standing in the wings, I couldn't see much of the hall but there were certainly plenty of people in the front rows at least. They were a real mixture of types in appearance, but it was probably true to say that the majority were middle-aged. Are there many young science fiction fans? Have TV and computer games killed off the novel? I'm probably as bad as any. I spend nearly all my free time in front of my computer these days. I keep meaning to read more fiction; I just never get around to it.
"And now," the fan with the microphone announced, "a surprise guest. Filling in at the last moment after Peter Madison from the Kennedy Space Centre had to cancel, is Dr Samantha Carter, an expert on astrophysics who also serves in the US Air Force."
The butterflies did an extra flip, then settled down to a gentle flutter. There was a time when standing in front of a crowd would have scared the life out of me, but I've gotten used to it now. As long as I'm invited, I can do it; I just tell myself that I wouldn't be there if they didn't want me. But even then, there's still that moment when you have to walk out in front of them...
As I stepped forward and the microphone was passed into my hand, they were all looking at me.
All except one...
There's something about the way a man moves that can make him instantly recognisable, even from the rear.
"I'm delighted to be here," I announced into the mike. "I'm looking forward to meeting all of you, even the gentleman heading for the exit."
The audience laughed. My 'gentleman' turned back, gave a slight shrug and took a seat at the end of a row.
What the hell was Maybourne doing here? I reached automatically into a pocket for my cellphone to call the police, then hesitated. Maybourne wasn't going anywhere. There really wasn't any need to interrupt the opening ceremony and spoil things for the fans. Convention security could contact the police as soon as the ceremony was over.
I took my seat on an uncomfortable chair at the back of the stage and waited impatiently as a seemingly endless list of programme changes was announced, followed by an appeal for ops volunteers, etc. I watched Maybourne and he watched me right back again. He looked different from when I'd last seen him; his hair had grown a bit and the beard was new. At least it was neat -- some members of the audience looked as though they were trying to emulate Gandalf. The beard gave his face a touch more character and god knows he needed it. If there was ever an arrogant, self-centred bastard inflicted upon the Airforce, it was Maybourne. How he'd ever risen to the rank of Colonel was a complete mystery to me.
How he'd lost that rank was a lot simpler to understand. There's nothing complicated about treason.
But what was he doing here?
When the instructions on what to do if a fire broke out finally came to an end, I'd already determined that I had to find out more. As the audience drifted in gentle eddies through the exits, I went down to join Maybourne. Seeing him closer up, he looked even more changed. Maybe it was the absence of the uniform, but he'd lost that teeth-grindingly annoying air of superiority. He seemed almost relaxed, although under the circumstances that had to be a front.
I looked at his badge. "Garak?" I asked. The Cardassian spy from Deep Space Nine?
He gave me a look of wide-eyed innocence. "You don't think it's appropriate?"
"Well, I guess you must both have a reputation for honesty, loyalty to your government and a strong sense of personal integrity." And he was probably a crap tailor as well, though he at least had enough good taste to dress neatly. It's an odd thing about denim, it tends to look good on people of all ages and Maybourne was no exception. He's never going to be handsome, but the cut of the denim jacket suited his short, heavy build and the vivid red and gold phoenix embroidered on the back gave him more character than he deserved.
"Anyone would think you didn't trust me," he said, plaintively.
"I don't. What are you doing here?"
He hesitated. "Are you going to turn me in?"
I was surprised to realise that I wasn't certain, and he must have sensed that, because there was a sudden glint in his eye.
"You owe me," he said. "I helped get Hammond back into the SGC."
"I owe you nothing. You're a traitor." Even as we were talking, I was checking around us to make sure no one was listening and he was doing the same. Security is an automatic habit when talking about work.
"I'm no use to you in prison," he said. It was a simple matter of fact statement. He wasn't pleading -- too much pride for that. "Who knows," he added, "I might be able to help you out again someday."
I discounted that automatically. Maybourne's idea of help would probably alienate the few offworld allies that we still have. Yet, I was hesitating when my course of action should have been clear. Maybe it was because he'd helped Hammond, or maybe it was because... I said he has a lot of pride. I think he's a man who likes to be in control but who isn't a natural leader like Colonel O'Neill. Once, when aliens took over the SGC, I went to Colonel Maybourne for help. He didn't believe me; in fact he fell for the cover story put out by the aliens that I'd been exposed to a hallucinogenic gas. I lost my temper and said things that you really shouldn't say to a superior officer... However, he did follow procedure enough to come back with me to investigate -- and was as irritating and patronising as hell about it.
When we were half-way back to the SGC, one of the aliens revealed itself for an instant and I shot it. Maybourne finally came though. He stopped behaving like a moron and acted like an Air Force officer instead, even personally led the assault on the SGC. I gave him some credit for that, but it's not the reason why I hesitated to report his presence to the police. It's because he apologised to me afterwards in front of Hammond. Combat is easier than an apology for a man like Maybourne. He doesn't like to lose face.
So, I hesitated. It was a crap reason considering he was guilty of treason, but I was still hesitating.
He grinned, a bright, cock-eyed grin that said he'd read me correctly. "If you want to keep an eye on me, we can go around together while you make your mind up."
"Tell me why you're here."
"You wouldn't believe me."
He shrugged. "I want to meet up with some old friends."
He was right; I didn't believe him.
Getting something to eat was my top priority, even if it wasn't Maybourne's. All I'd had to eat on the journey was airline food and I was determined to have a decent meal before I had to give a talk. So, we ate, and we talked. I can't remember the details now, but it was one of those conversations that ranges all over the place. It rapidly became evident that he'd hacked his way into the SGC computers. He was quite blatant about that, cheerfully citing extracts from recent mission reports that were supposed to be highly classified. The really annoying thing was that some of his comments made good sense. He saw the SGC with an outsider's eye and I think that helped him to see things that we're too close to notice.
In an odd sort of way, it was nice to be able to talk shop with someone who wasn't directly involved. Regardless of that, though, the first thing I was going to do when I got back was to tighten up the computer security...
I was looking forward to my first lecture and was pleasantly surprised when an audience of well over a hundred turned up. I hadn't really known what to expect, but I was ready for them. The tech crew had everything connected to my laptop and the pictures came up clearly on the big screen to the side of the stage. If the truth be told, I'd stolen half the talk from a paper written by a friend last year. Deep space radar telemetry is my cover, not my life. I know enough about it to be convincing, but haven't got instant access to the details of every near-Earth asteroid. Tomorrow's talk was to be on stars and that would be far more interesting for me. The physical processes inside a star are something that I could talk about for hours. Recent discoveries about the magnetic field of sunspots are just the tip of the iceberg.
Anyway, I displayed photos of asteroids, told all the obligatory tales about the extinction of the dinosaurs and the evidence that this was the result of an asteroid impact, referred to Tunguska as it was bound to come up during questions otherwise, and explained what America was doing to track asteroids and estimate risk factors. It went even better than I expected. The joy of an intelligent audience is that they understand risk factors and degrees of uncertainty. The joy of fans in particular is that they tend to despise the popular press. I could see heads nodding as I explained the problem of trying to present an uncertain risk to a public that wants black and white answers. Headlines such as 'Giant asteroid on collision course for Earth' help no one when the estimated risk is 1 in 10,000 and it's impossible to to give more accurate details until the asteroid has moved far enough for us to get more accurate measurements.
Maybourne, whom I'd parked in the middle of the front row where I could keep an easy eye on him, seemed to be enjoying it, though it could just have been amusement caused by my regular glances in his direction. I had to decide what to do with him...
In the end, I guess was really no other option -- I had to turn him in. I'm Air Force. I'm bound by the oath I swore. Maybourne broke his oaths when he stole from Earth's allies. If honour was to have any meaning, then I had to turn him in.
I think I know how the Colonel felt now. When he told us Maybourne had escaped from prison, he was irritated and annoyed; yet at the same time I sensed something else. I think a small corner of him was glad. Meeting Maybourne here, I was starting to understand why Jack felt that way. Between Colonel O'Neill and myself, rank is something that contributes to the way we work as a team. He accepts my input, uses it and gives an order -- I obey. It works. He never abuses his rank and he usually makes the correct decision.
With Colonel Maybourne, rank led to friction. He always seemed to use it to be as irritating and obnoxious as possible. Today, out of uniform, he was coming across as a member of the human race. Not one I'd trust, but one who could actually be enjoyable company.
I focused my mind back onto the lecture and carried on with a discussion of meteorites and what we've learnt about the composition of planets from their study. I'd saved the last ten minutes for questions and was glad I'd done it as there were quite a few. Intelligent ones as well. What were my views on panspermia? Did the presence of organic molecules on meteorites suggest that life could exist on other planets? Did America have any plans to destroy near-Earth asteroids and was it possible that blowing up an asteroid that came close would simply increase the chance of one of the fragments impacting Earth? That one was tricky, not least because we know so little about the composition of most asteroids. Some of them may be very fragile and attempting to change their course, rather than destroy them, might just cause them to break up into large fragments anyway.
It was the last question that nearly made me laugh out loud. I was asked about Velikovsky.
"Immanuel Velikovsky?" I asked incredulously. The author of 'Worlds in Collision', one of the most ridiculous pieces of garbage ever written about the history of the solar system. Written before I was born, and rejected even at the time by most people with any sense.
"Not me," the questioner said hastily. "My dad thinks it explains all the Biblical floods, etc. Have you got any simple counter-arguments I can use?"
"Apart from it being absolute garbage? Anyone who can have Mars and Venus wandering all over the solar system has no understanding of mathematics at all. If you want to explain the flood, just living on the plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers should be quite enough."
With that, still high on the buzz from the audience, I wrapped as we were out of time, and invited everyone to Saturday's talk on astrophysics. It was with some regret that I approached Maybourne.
"I'm sorry--" I began hesitantly, but he held up a hand to stop me.
"One more programme item. One more and I'll go quietly. I'll even turn myself in, so you're not involved."
"I've enjoyed your company," he said.
"Not that. Why the extra panel?"
"There's people I haven't seen for a year or two. I'd like to be able to say 'goodbye'."
He must have read the suspicion in my eyes.
"You can dial 911 at any time." He touched me on the wrist. "Major, please."
Begging? What was he up to?
"Which panel?" I asked suspiciously.
"In the Redwood room." I took out my programme book and flicked through it.
Bondage? Maybourne wanted to go to a bondage workshop? I hadn't even realised they did such things at conventions. What kind of pervert was he? I could just imagine him getting his kicks out of tying up women. Jesus.
"I'm going," he said. He tossed my cellphone up in the air and caught it. "Coming?"
When the hell had he picked my pocket?
"Give me that!"
"Are you coming?"
"Afraid? If it wasn't safe, sane and consensual the convention wouldn't allow it."
"I'm a major in the US Air Force. I can't..."
"I was a colonel. It never stopped me."
I'll bet it hadn't.
"A bit of rope work isn't against regulations," he said, "as long as it's with someone of the opposite sex."
I looked at him with instant surmise. "Yes," he said, "I'm bisexual. Does it matter?"
He tossed me back my phone and I knew I'd been neatly manipulated into a corner. I hate the military's stance on gays and lesbians. All 'Don't ask, don't tell' ever achieved was to increase the witch hunts.
The Redwood room turned out to be small and welcoming, with a selection of leather chairs and sofas. Maybourne was grabbed almost as soon as he came through the door by a tall man with a badge saying 'Raven'.
"Garak! Good to see you." Raven gestured towards a large canvas bag on a small table. "Do you want to lend a hand?"
"I'll just sit and watch for now."
I sat as close to the door as I could, but Maybourne settled comfortably on the floor near the front. The room was filling up fast and nearly all the chairs were already gone.
Once the flow of arrivals ceased, the door was closed and Raven opened his bag. As he drew out a fistful of ropes, the girl next to me said: "Do you think they're really going to..." and the woman next to her replied: "Well, it did say 'workshop'."
Raven began by talking about ropes and how to care for them. Washing line, it appeared, was ideal as long as it was washed several times before use in order to soften it up. I was struggling with the entire concept. It hadn't really occurred to me that anyone who was enough of a sadist to get a kick out of tying someone up would be concerned with their comfort. At the same time, I had to concede that a degree of restraint during sex could be exciting. I'd been in a relationship once where my partner had liked to pin my hands together above my head. That had worked. What had screwed the relationship was when he'd started trying to control me outside the bedroom as well.
The ropes were passed around for us to feel. I ran my fingers along one, feeling the softness of the texture. Knowing what they were for gave an odd edge to touching them; it was impossible to touch one without imagining it in use. I found that a little un-nerving. The girl next to me took the rope quickly, giggled nervously and passed it on quickly.
Then came the practical demonstration. I was watching Maybourne as Raven picked out an attractive young man as a volunteer, but he showed no visible reaction. It was oddly like watching a movie. It was interesting in its way, but I didn't really feel involved. The young man obviously enjoyed having his arms and chest bound and from an aesthetic angle, I have to admit that the result was actually beautiful in an odd sort of way. The rope work was as much decorative as practical and Raven was at pains to adjust the ropes to show the muscles to their best advantage. It was artistic, but not erotic. At least, not to me.
The next demonstration was wrist-tying. Again, the process seemed unnecessarily complex. There were far more turns of the rope than were needed just to tie the wrists, but as Raven explained, it was important to ensure that the ropes didn't chafe. I was beginning to understand Maybourne's earlier point about 'safe, sane and consensual'. This was a community, and a community with its own rules and traditions developed over time.
Then the ropes were passed out to the audience...
Maybourne looked at me with an amused expression and cocked an eyebrow in question. I shook my head. No way was I going to let him tie me up.
Then he threw me completely. He held out his wrists, offering them to me.
"I prefer to be tied." A simple matter of fact statement, made without pride or shame.
I was surprised to find that I admired him for that.
I took the rope and faced him, suddenly uncertain. This was crazy. There was no earthly reason for me to do this, except that he was standing there, saying nothing, just standing there with his wrists held out like a prisoner waiting for me to handcuff him. But there was no fear. In less than an hour's time, I was going to call the police, but they weren't here yet. He was doing this...
Not looking at him, I concentrated on the rope, folding it in half to find the centre as we'd been shown. I placed it across his wrists, exactly symmetrical.
Raven had drummed it into us that we should always ask, every time. I looked into Maybourne's face. I had to.
"Do you consent to this?"
His eyes met mine in a steady gaze. "Yes."
It was all there in his eyes and it was terrifying and exhilarating all at once. He was giving me control. No hold backs, no reservations. I truly believe that I could have done anything to him at that moment and he would have accepted it. It wasn't surrender, because surrender would have implied a struggle; it was a gift. He trusted me enough to give himself into my hands.
I found myself suddenly short of breath, and had to force myself to breathe normally, to try not to give myself away to everyone else in the room.
I took one end of the rope and passed it under and over his wrists, taking care to lie it flat against the first strand. I could have done another pass with the same end, but I chose to work with the other end and alternate. Doing this was a totally different experience from watching it. Watching, I understood nothing. Now I knew, without either of us having said a word, that he was reacting to what I was doing. It wasn't just what was being done, but the pattern of it, the intent. Bindings are complex because that adds time, it builds up tension, because the act of carrying it out is erotic in itself. It wasn't just about being tied up, it was about building an emotional connection between two people.
And it was working.
As I laid the last of the five strands in position and checked that they were even, I was acutely aware of him, of his every tiny movement, of his reaction to what I was doing.
There was nothing overt, no heavy breathing, no words other than to suggest how I should cross the ropes at the bottom, but my body was picking up the signs that my conscious mind couldn't recognise. I was turning him on, and that in turn was arousing me. I could smell my own skin, loaded with pheromones, betraying my state to anyone close enough to notice. Did he notice?
Cross the ropes underneath, start the cross-wrap. It tightens everything up and holds the hands apart at a fixed distance. I was using the rope now, making it my partner, drawing it gently across his skin, watching the way it moved, using it to touch him in a way that I dared not touch him directly. When I let the end fall between his wrists, it was an orchestrated action that made it fall precisely where I wanted it to fall.
We were talking. Words that crazily had nothing and everything to do with what was passing between us.
"Is that comfortable?"
He flexed his wrists. "One more turn."
I passed the rope around again and fastened it off. I can't even remember now what knot I used to complete it all. It doesn't matter. What mattered was the sense of connection, the awareness that the ropes bound me as well as Maybourne.
We stood and looked at one another and I took him in as if for the first time. Little things: smile lines around the eyes, the way he combed back his hair, the way the beard enhanced the outline of his face, even the fact that I liked the way he smelled. So many men drench themselves in a sea of aftershave and deodorants and end up smelling like a department store. Maybourne smelt like a human being; not sweaty and rancid, just pleasantly masculine.
I don't know what he drew from me, but when our eyes finally unlocked, he said: "Sam, I need to go to the bathroom."
It was the first time he'd called me by my name rather than my rank. He said it without leering, without suggesting I go with him, without even referring to the most likely reason why he needed to go.
So I untied him, carefully, methodically, trying to ignore the heat in myself every time I touched him, and released him.
He didn't come back.
Now, I sit here in my office, staring at the computer screen, trying to pretend that it never happened. I tell myself that I'd believed he'd come back again. Then I note that this was totally crazy; I'm talking about Harry Maybourne... I have to try and convince myself that I expected him to return, because the alternative is that I deliberately let him go. That's not easy to live with, professionally or emotionally.
It was wrong. It was wrong in so many ways that I'm having trouble listing them. Wrong, because I'm an Air Force officer and I should never have let him go. Wrong, because I don't know how I feel about him and that's driving me crazy.
I love Jack. That's been a cornerstone of my life for years now. It's something I keep quiet and safe at the back of my mind. I can't explore it, can't talk about it with him, but at least I can be with him every day and work by his side. I know he feels the same way. We walk a tightrope and somehow we manage to maintain our balance.
Maybourne's different. He's on the run and he's a loose cannon. He no longer has any regulations to keep, nothing to forbid relationships between ranks. He's out of my life and out of my knowledge and I'm haunted by the fact that I don't know if it was real. Was he just using me?
Does bondage always have the effect on people that it had on me or was it some unique chemistry between the two of us? Was his reaction to me genuine or faked?
Did he use me?
What would happen if we met again?
I develop relationships gradually, meeting someone, getting to know them, slowly building the emotional and physical links that join people together. It isn't sudden and explosive. It isn't a sudden fever that burns through me, wrecks my concentration and leaves me staring at the computer screen a week later trying to make sense of it all. I don't know what Maybourne is to me.
I can't forget the look in his eyes. They say: 'This is what I am. This is where I want to be.' And I know that I never knew him before -- rank was just a trap that ensnared him. I think that for him, bondage is the true freedom.
And what am I? What does it make me when I responded to him so strongly? The need is there for me too; I think it may have been there for a long time without my even knowing it. I spend my life obeying orders: to be given control so completely -- it's exhilarating. It's the same buzz that I get when facing an audience, when I'm asked to speak, but made personal and intensified.
It's addictive. I know what he is and I still want him.
To make things even worse, Maybourne's world isn't my world. The rules are different there and I don't know what they are. I have to balance lurid newspaper reports and crude jokes against those remembered words: 'safe, sane and consensual'. But with whom and how and when? Is it a world of one-night stands with strangers met in bars, or one of long-term relationships or even both.
What scares me even more is that I don't know which way I want it to be.
What are the rules?
What will I do if I see him again?
What happens when worlds collide?
Maybourne, you claim you can hack into any computer at the SGC. Are you reading this?