"Sir." Davis caught at his arm.
For one glorious moment, he thought the airman was going to break orders and fire anyway, but the anger on his face schooled itself to a carefully bland expression and the trigger-finger slowly relaxed. Maybourne gave a half-shrug and carried on down the corridor with its mazes of pipework, cables and hazard symbols. Metallic smells, the faint tang of oil, even a slight dampness from being this far underground, all the smells combined to create a haunting palette of memory. This place had meant something to him, had given him a purpose.
He had to get out. The memories brought him no comfort, only a disturbing sense of disconnection, as though part of him were here in the past and a totally disconnected part of him observed the present. What would happen if he grabbed one of the guns and went postal? A corner of his mind played the scenario like an old silent movie reel, bullets spraying as he fired at a row of targets. No cries, no pain, just bodies falling all around him in endless slow motion.
"General," Davis said, in the tone of someone who has already tried to attract your attention once.
"I said would you like a chance to freshen up? You've obviously done a lot of travelling."
He noticed for the first time that they were just outside the men's locker room.
"You mean I stink."
"I'd have phrased it more diplomatically," Davis said. "If you want a change of clothing, there may still be something in your old locker."
"I prefer to think of it as yours." He pushed open the door and held it wide for Maybourne.
A youngish man with fair hair, head bowed deep in contemplation, looked up, startled, from the bench on which he sat. "I'm sorry," he said, "I didn't expect anyone else to be here this time of day." He blinked in sudden recognition, eyes blue behind his glasses. "General! How- Forget that, none of my business." A hand raked though his hair, smoothing down a disobedient tuft that promptly sprang up again. "I don't know if you heard," he said hesitantly, "but if you want to pray for her, you know where to find me."
As if for the first time, Maybourne's eyes took in the dog collar worn under the fatigues. The face was one he'd only ever glimpsed in passing. Father Locke was officially on the NORAD rayroll, but had taken to spending time in the SGC which was too small to justify a full-time chaplain of its own. He'd seen the man occasionally, sitting quietly with patients in the infirmary, but had never bothered to talk to him. He and religion had parted company a long time ago.
"Say one for me, Padre," Davis said. "I had to identify the body. I collected a medal on Cassandra's behalf, but-"
"Shut up!" Everything was whirling round his mind, faster and faster. You LIED to me. Just another murderer. I thought you were different. You would have let me die. His hand caught at the teddy bear in his pocket as though it were a lucky talisman. He tried to summon Sunlight's presence in his mind, but she was gone, gone in a way that shouldn't be possible, so completely gone that he couldn't even be sure that she'd ever existed.
Locke came to his feet, gangly, and taller than he'd looked when sitting. "Major, would you leave us alone for a while?"
"I can't do that. General Hammond made it very clear that I was to remain with him at all times. Sorry, Sir," he added with an apologetic glance at Maybourne.
"Are there any other ways out of here?" Locke asked rhetorically.
"Forget it," Maybourne snarled. "I didn't come here to be preached at." He started stripping off his uniform, deliberately ignoring the priest. Maybe nudity would drive the man away. Maybe hot water would enable him to feel clean. If only people would stop bothering him. If only everything would go away and he could be back with Sunlight on Svenska. Forget the crap food, forget the cold nights, just give him back something that actually mattered.
Locke spoke to his backside. "Every Christian on this base prayed for your soul, prayed earnestly that you might see the light, prayed for redemption, tried to forgive you. Only one person asked Our Lord to keep you alive and safe. Cassandra had already forgiven you. I thought you might want to know that."
Harry. For an instant, he had the sense of her as she had been, of the desperate loneliness that had pulled them together and of the faith she'd had in him.
"She changed her mind."
Locke gave him a searching look. "She was very insistent that I pray for you. So much so, that I had to ask myself 'why?'"
Maybourne's shirt was flung to the floor to land on top of his jacket where it lay in a crumpled heap.
"So you decided to forgive me too. How magnanimous. Forgive me if I fail to appreciate it."
The zipper on his fly chose that particular moment to jam. He tugged at it, fighting the demons that surrounded him on every side. Every time he thought of Cassandra, he could hear her ghost screaming his name. Every time he thought of her dead, he knew that he was...
"Father-" The word choked in his throat. He clutched at the locker for support. "Paul. Go. Please."
For a miracle, Davis didn't argue. The door closed quietly behind him as Maybourne slid slowly down to the floor, propped up only by the locker door.
"I was dead," he said to no one in particular. "I took two shots from a zat."
Locke crouched down beside him. "Then you were spared for a reason."
He laughed bitterly. "I'm here because Sunlight wanted me back and Thor cooked the books. Or so Jack tells me. I wouldn't know. I wasn't there." He waved a hand vaguely in the air, just to watch the wrist flop back and forth. "They're all clones, you know. Maybe I'm a clone. How would I know? Maybe I'm not really me at all." He turned his face, to rest his cheek against the cool metal. "Cassie wondered if she was really human. Maybe I'm no more human than she was." He scraped a knuckle across a grille on the door and was mildly surprised to find that he could still hurt physically. "Do I have a soul? Did she?"
A hand touched him on the shoulder, a quiet focus in the centre of his increasing disorientation.
"Yes," Locke said firmly.
"How would you know? Who died and made you God?"
"I know. If you worry about the answer to that question, then you have a soul."
"Then where is she now? She didn't worship your God. Where is she now?"
"I don't know," Locke said gently. "I believe God has infinite patience and understanding. I trust him to work things out in his own way. Cassandra was a good person and she had the beginnings of faith."
Maybourne shivered. "She's in Hell. When I think of her, all I can feel is pain and fear."
"Is there something you want to tell me?" The voice was undemanding and commanding at the same time, displaying a knowledge of life that shouldn't have been there in so young a man.
He'd known it would come to this, known it ever since he'd asked Davis to leave. The whole idea terrified him, but there was nowhere else to go, nothing else that might fill Sunlight's void and perhaps make Cassandra's ghost rest a little easier. If God could accept him, then maybe...
He bowed his head in the ages-old ritual that he'd almost forgotten.
"Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned."
The computer keyboard was an old and familiar friend; it represented a challenge of a kind that Maybourne could face. It took his fingers a few minutes to find their accustomed dexterity, but it wasn't long before he located the files he sought. There was an excitement to a hunt of this kind, and concentrating on Senator Kinsey's mind helped him avoid thinking of Cassandra.
How would Kinsey record things? What kind of file names would he use? Was he organised in the way he structured things?
The financial data was first to fall out out of the system, but then that was the easiest: Kinsey's dealings with the NID and their contributions to his campaign funds made for interesting reading, though they differed little from his own reality insofar as he could recall the details. Next would come his political associates, his undeclared policies, his...
Why was he doing this?
He stared blankly at the screen, let his eyes relax their focus, and stared up at the aerial photo of the Pentagon that hung on Davis's wall. The photo definitely lacked subtlety; Davis might as well have hung up a large sign saying 'SGC-Pentagon Liaison Officer'.
Glancing up from the papers he was studying, Davis asked: "Coffee?"
Maybourne shook his head.
"Sir, are you all right?"
"Fine." Well, perhaps not fine, but at least a little better than he had been before. Locke had helped him keep a hold on sanity. To find someone who could simply accept without feeling the need to pass any kind of judgement... Locke had values, and very strongly held ones, but one of those values was the importance of forgiveness. And he'd asked nothing more than that in return. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. He'd tried, was still trying. It wasn't necessary to explain things away or to understand them, simply to accept. Cassandra had managed it once. Focus on that. Forget what she wrote later in her diary. Remember that she was able to accept you - and accept her in return.
For a moment, he had it. In his mind, she held out a hand towards him, and the emotional pain was nothing to do with him, and she needed comfort from him to cope with it.
Why me? You hate me.
And he'd lost her again. Intellectually, it was easy. All he had to do was to forgive that final denial, and he'd be able to remember her as she had been and keep that memory to sustain him. Easy. In theory.
He wasn't a man who bore grudges as a rule, hadn't even held it against O'Neill when Jack had pulled the rug from under his off-world operation. The man had been doing his job; had never pretended to be a friend. Cassandra was different. He'd been at least half-way to being in love...
He had to get away from here.
Why was he doing this job anyway?
Distraction? A lingering sense of obligation?
Because you don't know when you'll have the chance to use a computer again, if ever, and it's one of the few things you do really well.
The predator in him smiled and returned to the keyboard.
Kinsey's correspondence linked him to a fascinating range of right-wing political and religious groups. Interesting how the same man could be strongly anti-abortion, but also pro-death penalty. Still, each to their own. He'd been in favour of the death penalty himself - until it affected him personally.
He wandered through some of the religious debates, skimming the topics rapidly. Did the Aesir have souls? Were they false gods misleading mankind and thus no better than the Goa'uld? Could information gained from the Goa'uld be used to aid humanity? What was the status of the Jaffa? Were they demons? Could any living being created by an alien race have a soul?
He could feel Locke's hand resting on his shoulder in tacit reassurance that he was human. He badly wanted to hold Cassie in his arms and give her that same reassurance.
More directories, more topics. Discussions with the NID; activities at Area 51; ongoing projects. Fascinating stuff and far more interesting to him than abstract theological debates. Nirrti was co-operating with the NID, to some extent at least, giving them useful nuggets of information with the promise of far more to come. She had no access to a sarcophagus and her host was aging rapidly. She was dying, and all she wanted in return for her vast knowledge of technology and virology was a new host...
Hammond would never allow that, hadn't allowed it when Apophis's host was dying of old age.
Hammond didn't run Area 51.
He thought about that one, trying to put himself in Kinsey's place. Kinsey would both hate and despise Nirrti, but he would also see the potential for gain. His religious beliefs would never allow him to give her a new host. Unless...
"Your mother loved you," Dad said, "but you don't need me to tell you that."
Sam looked down at the photo album in her hands and opened it at random. A small witch and a slightly taller skeleton looked out at her. The witch had a tall pointy black hat and silver stars on her cloak; the skeleton had big white bones stitched onto his black clothes. Behind her creations stood the seamstress with a smile on her face.
Sam smiled with her in memory - Mom had always made great fancy-dress costumes. Mark and Sam had gone trick-or-treating every Halloween, or had done until the year Mark got caught throwing an egg at the Foggon's front window. Dad had given him hell for that. Nobody liked the Foggons, but no son of his was going to act like a hooligan.
Dad had always been strict; he'd set high standards for his children and expected them to achieve. Mom hadn't been so single-minded, had never worried much about scores in class and exam results. Just be happy, she'd said. But maybe neither of them had been totally right. Dad's inflexible attitude and demand for nothing less than the best had been part of what had driven Mark away, but it had also led Sam to set high standards for herself and to succeed. Dad had never doubted that she could do anything that she set her mind to.
But it had been Mom who had always been there when Dad was away, Mom who had taught her to bake, Mom who had dressed dolls with her and had always wanted grandchildren...
"Mom would have loved Sunlight."
Dad nodded. "She would. Here-" he turned back a few pages -"this is you at about the age Sunlight is now."
The little girl in the photo was digging a hole in the garden with a small trowel. Next to her, with a plant ready to go in the hole, was her mother. You could see the resemblence between Sunlight and the young Samantha, even though the roundness of the child's face bore little relationship to the adult that she would become. The girl and her mother were both cheerfully grubby and a few doll size plates in the background showed signs that mud pies had definitely been on the menu.
"I'd forgotten that," Sam said.
"Mom always used to wear her wedding ring on a neckchain, when she was doing anything really messy."
Jacob picked up the small marquetry box that had been next to the photo album and opened it. "You can see why," he said, picking out the ring and holding it between thumb and forefinger, "it's very easy to get dirt inbetween the twists."
Red, white and yellow gold plaited together to make a ring with subtle variations in colour; it was a beautiful thing. Sam took it from him and held it as it brought back the memories.
"Keep it," Dad said.
"Are you sure?"
"She'd have wanted you to have it. If it fits, it would mean a lot to me if... That is if Jack doesn't mind."
It fitted easily on her ring finger, but then she and her mother had always been pretty similar in build. She twisted it around on her finger, feeling the texture of it, wondering at the power of something so simple to evoke so much emotion. It was the outward symbol of a union that had only been broken by her mother's death. Her parents had always backed one another up, even when they disagreed on an issue. That had been the family rule. If you asked one parent for something and didn't like the answer, then it was no use asking the other to overturn the verdict.
It made sense to her military mind. Once an order has been given, that's it. You don't argue. She'd have to discuss that with Jack. They were going to need to work out a consistent set of rules for Sunlight. Hopefully Kantele would fill them in as much as possible on what rules she was used to. Consistency was important. Stability and a sense of security went hand in hand.
"Dad, if they come back-" she corrected herself- "when they come back, can we all stay here for the first few nights? I know it'll be crowded, but Sunlight knows this place and it might help for the first day or two while I'm figuring which of my stuff to move over to Jack's place. Kantele may know which pieces of furniture she remembers. I'm sort of hoping that she'll remember some of the older pieces."
"You need to ask?"
That was Dad: a royal pain in the neck on occasion, but always there when you needed him. A bit like Jack really...
Her cellphone rang and she grabbed it, every muscle tensing as she read the caller's name. Of course Jack would have managed to bring Sunlight back. Of course he would...
"She's here." You could almost hear the smile down the phone. "Do you want to speak to her?"
No going back now. "Sunlight, can you hear me?"
"Mommy?" So hesitant. So needy. Who was going to make mud pies with her and sew at fairy costumes for parties? Had her own mother ever wanted a career? Was it really possible to combine a career and an orphaned child? Her finger rubbed at the plaited wedding ring as though it had the power to summon her mother's spirit to advise her.
"I'm here, love. I'm at Grandpa's. Come right on over and see us."
Maybourne knocked on Hammond's door with as much show of confidence as he could muster. He was conscious of the fact that his borrowed fatigues conveyed no sense of authority, but they were also comfortable and clean and bore no taint of his alter ego. Davis, standing beside him, looked far more the professional.
Straightening his shoulders and wishing yet again for a few extra inches in height, Maybourne stepped into the office.
Hammond's eyes flicked to the doorway, took him in, dismissed him and focused instead on Major Davis.
Don't grovel. No matter how important this is, don't grovel. No one respects a groveller.
"General Hammond-" he tossed a folder full of print-outs onto the desk- "I've enough here to conclusively demonstrate Kinsey's links with the NID." It wouldn't be easy for Hammond to decide how to use the information, or even whether to use it at all. Normally he'd have derived amusement from observing that dilemma, but right now there were more important things to hand.
Say it. "I also believe that Cassandra is still alive and was used with Kinsey's tacit permission as a host for Nirrti."
"Can you prove that?" Hammond asked sharply.
"No. Not with the information that I have here." He'd carried out a fast search for anything that would put concrete proof behind his intuition, but Kinsey hadn't left anything in clear view and time was running out.
"Then I can only assume that you're indulging in pure fantasy. Do I need to explain why?"
"Are you serious?"
"Show Major Davis the diary." It was a risky strategy; he could lose Davis at this point, but Hammond had to be convinced he was serious.
"If that's a bluff, then I'm calling it." Hammond reached into his desk drawer and drew out the diary. The carelessly sketched flowers on the front tugged at Maybourne, as he reached out for the diary and placed it firmly in Davis's hands.
"You were the last person to see her alive. Read it."
He sat down and rested his hands carefully in his lap. The pose looked relaxed at first glance, but he knew that he was giving himself away to anyone trained to read body language. The hands kept still so that they couldn't betray him by agitated moves or tremors; body shaped to the chair so that tension wouldn't keep him bolt upright; eyes focused on his hands so that they wouldn't stare at Davis's face and blatantly struggle to read every changing nuance of his expression. His calf muscles were cramping and he knew without bothering to count that his pulse was way too rapid. Every time Davis turned a page, his heart beat an irregular thud.
Half way through, Davis paused. "What happened?"
No need to ask which bit he was reading. "She came into my room in the middle of the last night. Wanted to say goodbye. I thought she wanted to say goodbye in a rather more intimate way. Turned out that I was wrong. Nothing actually happened." Nothing that I choose to share with you. I'm not going to tell you how it feels to kiss her, or what it's like to hold her in my arms. She gave that to me, and I'm keeping it.
"She had a crush on you," Davis said. "Anyone could see that."
Hammond sat up straighter. "You were the officer in command of this base and you took advantage of her."
"Just the once." He stuck his lower lip out slightly. "After that, I became a reformed character."
Hammond gave him a look that said 'shut up' without any need for words. Maybourne shrugged with an awkward jerk. Humour was the only safety valve he had. It was either that or start screaming.
Had Cassandra had a crush on him? Was that how it had looked to an outsider? Such a crude word to describe something so complex.
Davis turned the last page, read it, and Maybourne's nerves racked up another notch as he read it again. He tapped the tip of his index finger on the paper.
"Cassandra seemed okay when she was with me," he said. "If she was taken as a host, how do you know Nirrti didn't write the entire thing?"
"I'm certain the facts can be verified," Hammond said, in a voice that seemed to come from a great distance.
The world was spinning around him and he couldn't move from the centre. An impossible inertia gripped him as he tried to grapple with the concept. Nirrti. The symbiote had all the knowledge of the host...
"The symbiote has all the knowledge of the host," Davis said. "I concede the possibility of suicide, especially if she was correct about the past of both Maybournes being similar, but she came though everything else without breaking. Why do it now when things were starting to look up for her?"
He hadn't seen it. It had been there in front of him and he hadn't seen it. Too wrapped up in his own pain and guilt to even consider other possibilities. Locke had been right: she'd forgiven him.
The tension was draining out of him, oozing through drooping fingertips and draining from slumped muscles. Cassie, had accepted him - not easily and not without reservations, but with that inner stubbornness that allowed her to reach her own decisions regardless of what the world thought. There was a fair chance she'd punch him in the nose if she ever saw him again, but he could live with that as long as he wasn't guilty of her death.
His heart rang light as he reached out a hand to touch his mental image of her, and he knew with calm certainty that she was alive and that she needed him.
If Maybourne had a conscience - which Hammond was prepared to consider, but not to concede - then appearances suggested that it had just survived a vote of confidence. Maybourne shook himself like a dog emerging from a cold river, triumphantly bearing the ball that he had dived in for, and came to his feet creating a solid silhouette against the star map behind him. It was almost as though he had expanded physically to occupy more of the office.
"You do realise," he said, and there was an odd glint to his eye, "that if any of the diary is fake, then there's only one possible interpretation. The whole thing was pre-planned." He leaned forward, weight on his palms on top of the desk and looked Hammond in the eye. "Nirrti wanted revenge against the SGC and she also wanted Cassandra's DNA. What better way to hang onto Cassandra's genes for future research than to use her as a host? I think Nirrti's demands dovetailed neatly with what Kinsey was prepared to concede. There was no suicide, probably no car accident either. The whole deal with the medal may even have been a ruse to get Cassandra away from Colorado Springs in the first place."
He was up again, moving, taking Major Davis in the sweep of his attention, acting as though it were no longer Hammond's office, but his. He caught the diary from Davis's hands and whacked it on the desk. "I think this was pure luck. Instead of passing off her death as an accident, they were able to use things in Cassandra's memory to make a convincing case of suicide and put the blame firmly on me."
"Which I'm still inclined to do," Hammond said. The whole thing sounded like a bad episode of Colombo. "You betrayed your own people and Cassandra knew that."
Maybourne shook his head: a dismissive sideways flick. "Give me credit for knowing how the NID operate.
"Major Davis, I imagine they found you a meeting to attend, as soon as you booked a flight to travel with Cassandra? They had to ensure she'd be on her own at some point."
Hammond had always wondered how a pain in the butt like Maybourne had risen to the rank that he had. Now, he was beginning to understand. The man had brains, misapplied ones, but brains nevertheless. He'd gotten Davis into believing his story.
As though sensing his scepticism, Maybourne rounded on him.
"General, before you say you can't believe the NID would do such a thing, tell me why you resigned from the SGC?"
Hammond looked him in the eye, a slow measured look. "I always assumed that you were behind the threat to my grandchildren."
Maybourne flicked an invisible speck of lint from his shoulder. "Not in my reality." He shrugged cheerfully. "Couldn't have; I was in jail at the time. You might say that's how Jack and I got together; he needed my assistance to get the NID off your back. Come to think of it, I got you back your job in this reality as well. It's traditional to say 'thank you'."
"I'll see you in hell first."
There was a strained silence, broken by Davis. "General..."
Parents should never squabble in front of the children. Davis had served under both of them and was clearly finding the situation difficult.
He nodded for Davis to continue.
"Sir, I was there. You weren't. May I speak freely?"
"You agree that Nirrti's former host would be dying by now?"
"Yes." It seemed to be a point of pride for the Goa'uld to keep their original host as long as possible in spite of the resulting dependence on the sarcophagus. Maybe it was the only way they could be sure of convincing their worshippers that they were immortal gods.
"And that the NID would want to keep control over the knowledge that she represents?"
He nodded, reluctantly conceding the point. "Go on, son."
"Then the only remaining question is whether the new host is Cassandra or someone else."
"And if it's Cassandra," Maybourne said, "then you're almost out of time. Davis, how long since you last saw her?"
"I don't know what the exact limits are, and you've no Tok'ra to ask, but once the host's immune system has become dependent on the symbiote, you can't separate them without killing the host. It's probably only a week or two at the most."
Hammond was being pushed and he'd never liked being pushed, by this man least of all. Maybourne was too much like his counterpart for him ever to be able to trust him.
His eyes focused on a furry blue ear that stuck out of Maybourne's pocket. At the end of the day, you never could tell. And, ultimately, did it matter? Regardless of his personal degree of culpability, Maybourne's argument was starting to make damning sense. Cassandra, not Maybourne, was the one who mattered here, but was there actually anything they could do to help her?
"You don't know where she's being held," he said.
"No need," Maybourne said, "though I could probably find out." He smiled: a quick flash of white teeth. "There are other ways." He nodded at the red phone on the corner of Hammond's desk. "Do you want to do the honours or shall I?" His eyes flickered with amusement at Hammond's expense. "Blackmail is such an interesting art form."
"I can do my own dirty work."
Maybourne shrugged with complete equanimity. "As you wish. Just tell Kinsey that I left you an interesting computer disc and that Cassandra should be in the SGC within five hours. Don't take no for an answer."
When Hammond had been a young man, honour and duty had been clear concepts. He'd always known where he stood and had known beyond question what was right and what was wrong and that the end never justified the means. Time and circumstance had eroded that certainty, but he still hated what he was going to have to do. And hated Maybourne even more for enjoying it.