Light shining in his eyes obscured all occupants of the banks of seating. They might be filled with tens of thousands, or they could be totally empty.
"Could use a bit of work on the decor. Touch of paint; couple of throws."
From a high bench, three Asgard looked down at him: grey faces calm, their large eyes unblinking.
"Colonel O'Neill. Kantele. You wish to present a case before this court?" The language was English, the accent flawless, the voice Thor's.
"Yeah. See this?" He held up a videotape. "I have something that you need."
"We will see it." The tape sparkled in his hand, vanished.
"Do not be afraid O'Neill."
"Who's afraid?" he demanded.
Don't know about you, but I'm petrified...
Thor had warned them it would be difficult, warned them to avoid complicating the issue further by bringing parallel realities into the arena of law. He'd also made it clear that the portal in Ma'chello's lab would be destroyed within a few days. If this appeal didn't work, they would never be able to make another attempt.
A two-dimensional image appeared opposite the bench, projected onto apparent thin air. A view of a lab in the SGC where a female android sat talking to Doctor MacKenzie.
"I went to sleep," she said, "and when your people woke me, everyone was dead."
The tape moved on from clip to clip, MacKenzie reporting his doubts that she was telling the truth, the android growing increasingly frustrated at not being allowed outside her room.
The Asgard sat silent, showing no observable sign of either interest or impatience.
The tape moved to the first of the key sequences.
"Watch carefully," O'Neill said. "Watch her hands."
The android picked up a pair of scissors and closed her hands over them. When she re-opened them, she was holding a small metal flower. She placed it on the table and smiled happily at her creation.
"This is beyond your technology," said the one that he thought might be Freyr.
"Wait," O'Neill said. "It gets so much better."
When MacKenzie reappeared, the flower was offered as a gift, but his question as to how she'd made it was obviously not what she'd wanted. Like a petulant child, she threw a tantrum.
In the next clip, she moulded a handful of paper-clips into a replicator part.
Freyr tilted his head towards his neighbour. "Vad jag skulle vilja veta är var den kommer ifrån och vem som gjorde den."
They want to know where the android came from and who made it.
Now there's a surprise.
The tape played on. Replicators ran amok through the SGC and O'Neill caught a sight of himself coming round a corner. Did he really look like that when wearing shooting glasses?
The tape ended as he shot the android in the Gate room and replicators, caught on other cameras all over the base, disintegrated.
He took a deep breath. They'd run through it with Thor, tested every possible argument on him and only one had Thor even considered. The Asgard were tied by their own laws, refused to bend or break them simply for their own convenience. They couldn't do a prisoner exchange as Sunlight was not a prisoner of war. She could not be redeemed as there was no debt involved.
"The treaty between Earth and the Aesir that was signed by Colonel O'Neill was broken. It was broken because he valued the life of his daughter more than his oath. As a result of the restoration of the treaty, the Aesir suffered losses at the hand of the replicators. Colonel O'Neill wishes to offer restitution by giving you something that may aid in the fight against the replicators."
It was loaded with holes. Thor had explained that restitution normally only applied to injury caused by the original crime, not by the payment of the penalty for it.
"What does he offer?" Freyr asked.
"You can have the android. It's worth as much to you as my daughter is to me."
"You value her as highly as a weapon capable of threatening the existence of the Aesir?"
"We will consider what you have said."
The lights went out and he was alone in a three foot circle of vision.
By unspoken agreement, they'd gravitated to Teal'c's room in order to be alone together. Daniel sat in an armchair which had never been properly introduced to the concept of padding; Teal'c occupied one of the ubiquitous plastic chairs and Sam sprawled on the bed, ignoring the roughness of the standard-issue blanket. She'd tried more than once to brighten the place up, offered Teal'c posters and quilts and some decent chairs, but he honestly didn't seem bothered. He appeared remarkably free of vanity, apparently feeling no need to do anything beyond keeping his quarters neat and clean.
Staring up at the ceiling, her eyes traced imaginary patterns in the concrete. If the Magellanic Clouds were over there, then the home galaxy of the Asgard would be somewhere just above Daniel's head, which would make the Asgard homeworld and O'Neill an awfully long way away.
"We should be with him," she said.
Daniel started down at the floor as though he felt in some way to blame. "The Codex was pretty clear in that regard. Only those who are directly involved in a case may appear before the court."
"I'm not sure that they have any. Everyone has to represent himself."
"That isn't just," she said. "Not everyone has equal knowledge of the law."
Daniel propped his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands together. "I think the Asgard do. Kantele said they're all clones. When they're about to die, they clone their own body and transfer the memories to the clone. They have lifetimes of experience to learn everything."
A bit like the Tok'ra. And how many lifetimes of experience did it take for a symbiote to work out a way of handling his feelings for the daughter of a former host?
And how long did it take the daughter of the former host to work out her exact feelings towards the symbiote in question?
She jerked out of her reverie. "Sorry, I was thinking about Kantele. I need to..." She and Jack had said farewell: no fuss, no histrionics, just a simple embrace that said all they needed to say. Then he'd dipped his head and Kantele had offered his hands. She'd hesitated a moment and seen the look of regret in Kantele's eyes. So she'd reached for him too and tried to let the emotions free, to express what she felt for him as a friend, because there was always the chance that this would be the last time she would touch him.
Unspoken between all three of them was the knowledge that this joining had come about because of Sunlight. If Sunlight was restored to her father, what then? The bond between Tok'ra and host was close, but it wasn't unbreakable.
Teal'c was watching her, saying nothing in his usual way, but offering emotional support none the less. The four of them had been a unit for five years, but Jack's departure had broken the formal structure of SG-1. Did that make them any less friends? No.
If only it was that simple with Jack and Kantele. In the last month, she'd seen the two of them grow into one another. They swopped bad jokes, they cheated at cards, they rooted for different hockey teams while avidly watching every game they could, and they both loved her.
If it hadn't been for Jolinar... If it hadn't been for Jolinar, maybe she could have coped, maybe she could have found her way back to that precarious balance that she and Jack had maintained for so long, loving one another but avoiding all physical expression of that love. Taking it slowly, step by step, it should have been possible to gently erode Kantele's barriers without causing anyone pain. She'd promised to do that.
Jolinar's legacy was naqadah. Now, there was naqadah in Jack's body as well as in her own and it called to her. Jolinar was dead, and Martouf/Lantash too, but the fragments of her memory left behind insisted that this was what a lover tasted like, that this was how it should be to make love to two beings at the same time: no hesitation, no reservations, just the incredible intensity that such a relationship could bring...
It was getting harder and harder to hold back. Her body knew what it wanted: Jack, touching her, tasting her, caressing her with those fantastic hands of his. She wanted his mouth on hers, his naked body pressed against her, and his seed bursting into her. Knowing that he wanted the same thing just made it worse.
Kantele loved her - already knew her well enough to pick up the signs - and had to know Jack's frustration as well. If they didn't manage to resolve this, then someday Kantele would make the offer to try and find another host. He would do it because he loved her and because he loved Jack. And it would break his heart.
Touching Kantele then, she'd felt a premonition of loss and understood at last how her mother had felt every time her father was sent away on Air Force duties. She'd kissed him lightly on the cheek as her mother had always kissed her father, because that was what it meant to be Air Force. No fuss, no histronics. You saw your men off and you never let them down by acting as though they might not come back.
There was frost on the window, each small pane of glass had a dense tracery that reminded Maybourne of winters in Iowa when he was a boy. There'd been pictures in the patterns: ferns and forests. All you had to do was look, to see a new world. Then you breathed on the glass, melting a circle with your breath, or, if it was really cold, thawing it by rubbing with your fingers so that you could look outside and see the world all limned in bright, sharp-edged white.
Once he'd grown up, the game had lost its interest and central heating had long ago removed the frost patterns in any case. Maybe, when Sunlight woke from her tightly-curled sleep, he'd show her how to melt patterns and write her name with her fingers on the glass. Let the Sunlight melt away the frost.
An odd zip of sound caused him to turn over in the bed. There by the door stood Heimdahl, stark naked as ever, but showing no sign of discomfort even though his breath made clouds in the cold air.
"If you must disturb a man first thing in the morning," Maybourne said, "you could at least start a fire going."
Heimdahl raised his hand and a clear stone set into the palm glowed. Around him, the air warmed to a temperature reminiscent of a mild summer's day. Maybourne felt Sunlight relax against him as the heat stole under the blankets and eased her sleep. Sighing in acceptance of the inevitable, he clambered out of bed, taking care not to awaken her, and stood up to face Heimdahl.
"What is it this time? A philosophical discussion on child-rearing? More irritating interference in my life? An execution order?"
"The latter, Harold Maybourne."
"What?" That sounded stupid. Bad move.
"The High Council of the Aesir has judged that Sunlight on Water is to be returned to her father. You are no longer required." Was he imagining it, or was there a hint of sympathy in Heimdahl's voice? Not that it really made any difference. Dead was dead, no matter how you looked at it. And just when he was actually starting to get used to this place.
"So, going to do it now? Or do you prefer the formal approach? Electric chair? Lethal injection? I hope you're not too original in your methods. I'd hate it to be painful."
"When we return to Asgard."
"I see." He contemplated the merit of making a break for it and discarded the idea almost immediately: Heimdahl always knew where to find him. Instead, he opened the linen chest and fetched his uniform out from the bottom where it lay beneath layers of other clothes. It didn't look too bad when he shook it out; the fabric resisted creasing surprisingly well.
"Why do you choose to wear that?" Heimdahl asked.
"I can't think of a more formal occasion than dying." Because it makes it easier to act with dignity. Then again, give me a way to escape and I can easily dispense with dignity. Better a live jackal than a dead lion.
"By committing treason, you betrayed your own people. Wearing their costume will not lead us to believe that you represent them in any way."
For the last time, I didn't betray them. Okay, in retrospect, it was stupid, but everyone's wise after the event. How come when I buck the system I get screwed, but when Jack does it he gets a medal? Luck of the draw, I guess. He spread the jacket out on the bed while he looked for cleanish underwear.
"Harry?" Sunlight sat up in bed, looking bleary in her crumpled nightie.
"Morning, Princess. You're going home." The words caught awkwardly in his throat.
She looked at him, eyes wide, uncertain.
"Back to your dad. See, I told you he'd manage to rescue you." Pity Jack didn't have enough smarts to get him out as well. Well, now was the time to look after number one.
"Daddy?" Sunlight's hand clutched tight to Teddy Blue.
"This time it's for real." He hoped to God that was the truth. If Heimdahl was screwing her up, there was nothing at all that he could do about it. "Come on, let's get you dressed and looking nice."
"That is not necessary," Heimdahl said. "Her father will not be concerned with her appearance."
Did the Asgard have females? Maybourne strongly doubted it, or they would understand that vanity came with the genes.
"She," he pointed for emphasis, "wants to look her best. And you are going to give her privacy while she gets dressed." And while I get dressed for that matter, and while I try to figure out anything that might allow me to get out of this alive.
The dim spotlight was just bright enough for O'Neill to find something to eat in his backpack.
Do we have to ? Kantele asked as he glanced at the MRE.
You got any better ideas to pass the time?
You have a mental age of about six.
Must be the company I keep.
Bantering with Kantele was better than doing nothing. How about 'twenty questions'?
He'd just failed to guess 'pink elephant' when the light brightened and a second spotlight came on, picking out Thor.
"Is that a question?" Thor asked in his gentle voice.
"What else did you think it was?"
"Where is the android?"
"Well, that gets kind of tricky, seeing as I left it at home. You - the other you - needs it pretty badly. There's another one in this reality; I already checked. I've got the Gate address."
The light followed Thor as he took a step forward and held out his hand.
"Wait a minute..."
"You must trust me, O'Neill."
The vast echoless room stretched out around him. What did he really know about the race that had built it? Carter might be capable of understanding something of their science, Daniel their culture. All O'Neill had to go on was instinct. He liked Thor; end of story.
With an inward flinch, he handed over the paper with the Gate address written on it.
The MRE (chicken and two veg) had been followed by an energy bar and strong black coffee. O'Neill's fingers tapped a rough tattoo on the empty carton.
Tic tac toe?
I know how to win at that.
Three dimensional? It's either that or run around in circles screaming 'Where the hell is she?'.
She'll be all right, O'Neill said as much to convince himself as Kantele. Maybourne said he'd take care of her.
You trust him?
Mostly. Against my better judgement.
You think Thor will convince the Council?
I have no idea.
The bench lit up to reveal the High Council. Whether they had left and come back again or had simply held discussions while cutting him off from sight and sound of them, O'Neill had no idea. The whole set up struck him as surreal, like some kind of conceptual art. There was a faint scent of sage in the air, and it set him on edge: for some reason, it reminded him of the Gulf War and things that he prefered not to remember.
"We are in accord," Freyr said.
A low echoing sound rang around the echoless amplitheatre, as of a giant gong. The notes wavered into silence even as the ear strained to catch the precise moment when they finally faded out of hearing.
"Judgement has been determined."
Not sage any more, but pine resin, and a far off suggestion of smoke from a forest fire.
A third spotlight snapped on, and a fourth.
In the third, stood the motionless form of the android.
In the fourth...
Sunlight clung tightly to his hand as Maybourne took in the scene around him with its spotlit highlights. He didn't recognise any of the judges, but then the Asgard, apart from Heimdahl, all looked the same in any case. There had to be something here that he could use to his advantage, but for the life of him, he could not see what. No visible exit, nowhere to run in that vast open space, nothing except Jack - who was unarmed. He checked his jacket pocket in the slight hope that the knife he'd secreted on Svenska was still there, but it wasn't. All that remained were the letters he'd brought for Jack.
Jack took a half-step forward. "Sunlight," he said, with the voice of a drowning man who finally sees the lifeboat approaching. He went down on one knee with his arms held wide in welcome.
She moved forward in response to his voice, tugging Maybourne after her, only to stop as they came up against some kind of force barrier.
"Daddy?" Her voice wavered.
"Wait," Maybourne said hastily. He picked her up, sensing her panic, and wanting to stop her going frantic fighting the barrier. After a month, his hold had some security value for her, even if he wasn't Jack. "The fairies have just got to sort a few things out."
On cue, the Asgard seated in the centre of the bench began to speak.
"A consensus has been reached in accordance with the law. Restitution has been accepted for the crime committed by Colonel O'Neill. The android is deemed acceptable in this regard. Sunlight O'Neill will be returned to her father."
"And Maybourne as well," O'Neill said pointedly.
Sunlight wriggled in his arms, trying to escape. Jack's eyes kept flicking between her and the bench, his distress clearly evident to anyone who knew him.
"You cannot make restitution for the crime of another," the Asgard said. "Only the convicted can do that."
"Fine. I give him half the android. He can make restitution with his half."
That had to be some android. What did it do anyway? Chess? Kinky sex? Fight like Schwartzneger?
"That is not acceptable." The grey face was devoid of all emotion.
"What happens to Maybourne?" Jack asked.
Maybourne drew a finger across his throat in a swift cut, pre-empting any comment from the judges.
"Not acceptable." Jack echoed the Asgard's words back with finality.
"O'Neill," one of them said, in a tone that might have been a gentle warning. Was it Thor? He wasn't certain.
Sunlight made another bid for freedom, twisted in his arms and slid to the floor, dropping Teddy Blue in the process.
Jack flinched and stepped forward, only to encounter a force barrier of his own. His arms splayed out against it, fingers stretched in the need to reach her. He bowed his head, eyes clenched shut in silent agony, pressing against the barrier that kept him apart from his daughter.
There was a curiously immobile quality to the Asgard. They never made sudden moves; their body language was hard to read because there was so little of it. Even so, Maybourne thought he detected some reaction from the Asgard on the left.
Did Thor and Heimdahl have something going on between them? His instinct for conspiracy said Heimdahl had some interest in himself and Sunlight beyond the obvious one of ensuring that he wasn't harming her. Was there anything that he could use? Was this a good time to mention that he wasn't from this reality? Would that create any unpleasant repercussions for Earth? And Cassandra...
"Jack," he said, "what if I mentioned..."
Jack shook his head, without looking up. "If you're thinking what I'm thinking you're thinking," Kantele said, "then I ought to mention that the Aesir penalty for perjury is excessively logical."
He bent down to Sunlight, trying to find the words that would reach her. "Princess, you have to wait a little." He could feel her shaking under his hand. "We have to find a way to sort this out." I don't want to die.
"Look," Jack demanded angrily, "you want the damn android; I want my daughter and Maybourne. What's so difficult?"
"There is Law and there is Justice."
"Screw your justice."
"The value of the android has been established as being equivalent to that of your daughter. Do you wish us to accept restitution? If you do not, then the situation remains unchanged."
He knew what Jack would be forced to do, even without waiting to hear it. Jack was a good man, had always been one, and that was his great weakness. Jack wouldn't let him die, no matter what the cost and you had to admire that even as you called him crazy. There was so very little that he could give in return. He reached into his pocket and drew out a bundle of letters.
"These belong to Colonel O'Neill. May I return them?"
"Yes," said the one that he thought was Thor.
He threw the package in a slow steady motion and Jack fielded it deftly. He watched as the string was untied and felt Jack's pain as he read the first one. There was no need for him to see the words; he know what they said. "Dear Daddy, I love you. Sunlight."
Jack made a choking sound deep in his throat and half-turned away.
Sunlight was starting to cry. "I want Daddy."
The hopelessness of her voice tore at him. She was only four. To lose her father for the third time... She'd end up never being able to trust anyone ever again. Like you?
You're her guardian. You promised to do the best for her that you could.
It's so unfair. Another couple of months and she'd have come to see me as her parent.
Do you suppose the Asgard care for heroics?
He stood up straight, lifting Sunlight and looking her in the eyes. "Princess, didn't I promise you you were going home?"
She nodded, uncertain.
"And so you are."
The centre judge was quick to object. "You have no say in this matter."
He grinned, in spite of himself. "Yes, I do. I'm Sunlight's guardian. Correct?"
"You are her guardian, on behalf of the Aesir."
"Then as her guardian, I have a legal obligation to do what is best for her. She needs to go home."
Jack spun to face him. "Harry, you can't do this."
"Watch me. I resign. I refuse to have anything more to do with her." He put Sunlight gently down on the floor and held his hands up out of her reach. "Jack, there's just one condition."
"Name it." He had Jack's full attention now, which was kind of nice in a way. And something more: a respect that recognised his right to make this decision.
"Make sure she gets my letters. I'd hate her to think..."
The bench interrupted. "Is restitution being formally offered?"
O'Neill was facing Maybourne, not the bench when he finally said: "Yes."
The invisible wall went away. Daddy was smiling at her. It was a funny sort of smile, but he was there and he was coming back to her and he was bending down to hug her.
There was a loud noise and Daddy jerked back and looked at the fairies. One of the fairies was holding a gun.
"Don't look behind you," Daddy said. So she looked, and Harry was lying on the floor.
The fairy shot him again and he jerked and lay all still.
She screamed and screamed, but Harry didn't get up again. She ran to him and hit him and shook him and he still didn't get up. And Daddy was angry and shouting at the fairies and she would have shouted as well, but she was too busy trying to make Harry wake up.
Mommy had gone away.
Daddy had gone away.
Even Kantele had gone away.
Daddy was hitting Harry on the chest and blowing into his mouth, but he still didn't wake up.
Harry had left her.
Everybody always left her.