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.