He really ought to go down to the commissary and get a proper meal. He wasn't sure how many hours it was since he'd eaten, his time sense was a little confused, but he'd certainly never had breakfast.
What if Cassandra arrived while he was gone?
The rational side of his mind pointed out that he was perfectly capable of leaving a meal half-eaten, but something more atavistic insisted that if he didn't wait here for her, then she wouldn't arrive.
What if she did arrive and everything went belly-up anyway? He didn't want to think too much about that possibility.
The crumpled napkin lay untidily in its corner. He glared at it, but couldn't summon up enough enthusiasm to go and pick it up.
Maybe it was all coincidence and there really had been an accident.
What if Cassandra had been brain-dead and there was nothing left of her personality?
In the end, maybe, it didn't make any difference to what he had to do. He'd made Cassandra a promise, and if killing Nirrti was the only promise to her that he could keep, then so be it.
Aware of Davis working on the other side of the table, Maybourne opened a couple of files on the screen and tapped vaguely at the keyboard. Hammond had no idea what he was letting himself in for - having a hold over Kinsey would make him a target. Anything that could possibly be used to discredit him would be. It would be no use him hoping that there was nothing that could be used against him - everyone had some skeleton in the closet; it was just a matter of finding out what it was. If Hammond was smart, then he'd learn how the game was played and play it for real - half-measures were a waste of time.
He transferred a possibly interesting file over to Davis and went hunting for pictures instead. Cassandra had to be on the base files somewhere. Bypassing a couple of security routines, he found her in a matter of minutes and sat a while studying the photograph. Though fairly close to his mental recollection of her, it felt subtly wrong: the face too rounded and lacking the lines of tiredness under the eyes.
The phone rang and he reached out for it automatically, but Davis was there first.
"Davis. Yes, Sir. I-" There was a drawn out pause, with a quick glance at Maybourne, before he said, "Understood."
As he returned the handset the its cradle, Maybourne asked: "Cassandra?"
"Just entered NORAD. They're bringing her down to the lab now. You can observe from the gallery, but you are not to have any contact of any kind with her. Those are General Hammond's orders."
"I see." No point in arguing. That would merely give them forewarning. "You know what to do?"
Davis nodded. "My hands may be tied though. The official line is that she committed suicide and that they therefore acted reasonably in using her body."
"And Ma'chello's lie detector?"
"Has conveniently become inoperable after attempts to investigate its power source. Which provides circumstantial evidence, but not enough to officially justify removing or killing the symbiote."
Officially? Who gave a damn about 'officially'. He never had.
And look where it had got him...
Davis took a deep breath before entering the lab. This wasn't going to be easy. He'd not known Cassandra that long, but during the crisis she'd struck him as an intelligent young woman being broken under the strain of an impossible situation. She'd looked a lot improved when he'd seen her last week, but, now, she glowed with an inner confidence.
The red silks of an Indian dancer fell in seductive folds, every hem enriched by hundreds of tiny gold coins stitched to the fabric.
What would Maybourne make of that? Everything about the outfit, from the bodice top, to the delicate headdress was designed to show off the wearer's figure. There was no denying Maybourne's obsession with Cassandra, the unanswerable question was whether he had it under control. He opened the door and glanced up at the darkened gallery where he could just make out Maybourne's silhouette behind the glass.
Dear God, please let Nirrti fall for the bluff, because I don't know what we're going to do otherwise.
Stepping forward, he gestured to the SF behind him to guard the door.
Nirrti turned slowly towards him, a slight flick of her hips setting off a musical tinkle from the coins.
"Cassandra does not exist any more. Nothing of the host remains."
"I'm here to offer you an option." Davis stood very straight, looking directly into her eyes. "Leave Cassandra, and we'll allow you to live. We know enough to be able to keep you alive until a willing host can be found."
Nirrti shook her head in a quick negative flick, her hair flowing smoothly as she moved.
"If I leave her now, you will not be helping her. She cannot live without me, and even should I wish to leave her, it will be weeks before I am able to take another host without risking my own life.
"Your people have promised my safety. They are well aware of the value of the knowledge that I have."
Nearly five thousand years of knowledge. The NID knew that; the government knew that. They all wanted something in exchange for what Nirrti had done to them. Alive, she had knowledge of phase-shift technology, virology, biogenetics and who knew how much else to give them. Dead, she was of interest only to pathologists. A host in good health could seem such a little price to pay, and the need to cover traces of the deed would lead to complicity across the board.
He needed a way to trick Nirrti into giving herself away, into revealing something that would allow him to act within the context of his orders, but nothing came to mind.
He looked up at the balcony in silent apology and Nirrti's eyes followed his gaze. Pointless really: although Maybourne would be able to hear proceedings through the speaker in the gallery, the link in the other direction had been disconnected on Hammond's express order to prevent any interference.
Maybourne's lips moved, but the glass barrier blocked his voice and, as Davis looked back at her, Nirrti gave a slight, self-satisfied smile.
Sam straightened the cushions, then decided the result looked too formal and threw them into a corner. How did you make a place look welcoming to a child?
No toys anywhere... Jack hadn't said if Sunlight had brought anything back with her from the Asgard. What if she'd nothing to play with?
How could she be a mother without any toys?
What were they going to do together?
There would be many long evenings picking Kantele's brain for anything he knew that could help, but she needed to get something right as soon as Sunlight came though the door.
She twisted the ring on her finger, as though it were some kind of magic talisman.
What does memory tell you? That little girl, making mud pies in the garden, what did she like to do? What would Mom have done?
It was there, staring her in the face.
"Dad, do you mind if we make a mess in the kitchen?"
"Sure. Steer clear of the spice rack though. Selmak will be very unhappy if you mess those up."
"Davis!" Maybourne shouted from the doorway, where Rogers barred his entrance.
"Sir, you're aware of General Hammond's orders."
"Forget orders." Maybourne pushed hard, twisted sharply, and almost made it thorough. His voice rose sharply in pitch. "You heard her! She needs me here."
He'd known Maybourne was close to breaking point, hadn't realised that the man had actually snapped.
"Hold him!" The SF should never have let Maybourne get that close. Why the devil hadn't he used his weapon to force Maybourne to halt? Uncertainty as to his status? Too many people here suspected Maybourne's double identity; it was officially a taboo topic, but that hadn't stopped the inevitable speculation. Hell, half the time, even he was confused.
"Maybourne! We can't cover both Nirrti and you."
Reason seemed to penetrate though the madness; Maybourne struggled on for a few moments, then allowed himself to be pinioned, arms behind his back. He stood immobile, breathing heavily.
"You heard her. You must have."
Davis stepped outside the room, closed the door carefully and locked it.
"I'll take it from here, Rogers." He took Maybourne's arm and steered him firmly up towards the gallery. He would spare him the humiliation of an audience, if at all possible.
Maybourne ignored the order. "She needs me."
People believed what they wanted to believe and if ever a man needed to believe...
There was no easy way to tell him. He said the words as gently as he could. "She didn't say anything."
"I heard her," Maybourne insisted. "I have to help her."
He was no expert, but the psychology was pretty clear to anyone. Maybourne couldn't cope with the guilt. He had to believe Cassandra needed him - it was the only way he could live with himself.
"I can play you back the tape. Do you want me to get it?"
Maybourne sank slowly into the chair and shook his head, while Davis tried to figure out what to do next. There were only so many logical steps that he could take, and very few took him in helpful directions.
Down below, Nirrti occupied herself by sketching with a pencil on one of the paper pads he'd left in the lab. From what he could make out at this distance, the drawing looked to be highly technical. Nirrti looked up once and smiled in amusement. The unspoken message didn't need to be explained to either of them.
Maybourne's shoulders slumped, as he stared down through the glass. "Use Ma'chello's device," he said, without looking up.
"You know I can't. My orders were very specific. I can only harm Nirrti if I can prove that Cassandra was taken against her will." Besides the device was dangerous to non-Goa'ulded humans like himself. Maybourne had said that Dr Fraiser in his reality had found a cure in the blood of a former host. Which was all very well, but Dr Fraiser in this reality was dead.
"Hammond?" Maybourne asked.
"Believes it was suicide. He'd like to free Cassandra regardless, but he only dares risk things to a certain point. The situation here is complex; the latest poll showed Kinsey to be incredibly popular across all demographic groupings. You know Nirrti has us over a barrel: we do need what she knows."
"So you've turned into me?"
And just what the hell was that supposed to mean? All right, he could guess, but it didn't make for pleasant thoughts. He'd worked with this man, respected him, and preferred not to think too deeply about what Cassandra's diary had implied.
Besides, he was obeying orders. If you didn't respect the chain of command then the whole system fell to pieces. General Maybourne - and possibly this Maybourne too - had disobeyed orders, acted on his own with the support of rogue elements in the NID, and look what had happened.
"Tell me," he demanded. "Tell me how to prove it wasn't suicide and I'll find a way to trick Nirrti into using Ma'chello's page-turning gadget."
"Do you believe it was suicide?" Maybourne countered.
Davis hesitated. To a man in Maybourne's mental state, doubt would only come across as denial, but he had to call it as it came. His career could be on the line here.
"I don't know," he said. "I honestly don't know."
"You can prove it," Maybourne said. "Kill Nirrti and ask Cassandra afterwards."
"And if you're wrong, I get court-martialled. You're asking me to risk my life, my career and my family."
Maybourne came slowly, heavily, to his feet. There was a wild, distracted look to him that made Davis take a step back for safety.
"I'm already dead," Maybourne said, "the Asgard killed me. I have no career; the Air Force court-martialled me long ago. My adopted daughter has been reclaimed by her father, and as for the only woman in my life..." He wrapped his arms around his head and, before Davis could stop him, took a clumsy step sideways and crashed through the window, diving down to the floor below, with the glass falling in silent shards beside him.
She was by the door the instant the bell rang, opening it while Sunlight, lifted up by Jack, still had her hand stretched out.
Sunlight clung to Jack, looking at her uncertainly.
If it was hard for her to bridge the gap between 'Aunty Sam' and 'Mom', then it was going to be equally confusing for Sunlight. A child's memory might be short, but there was a lot of pain in her life that wasn't going to be forgotten overnight.
Sam reached out and touched her daughter gently on the cheek. "I thought," she said, "that we could do some cooking."
"I'm hungry, " Kantele said helpfully. "Could you make me a milkshake and some cookies?"
"What flavour?" Sam asked, addressing the question to Sunlight.
The answer was a whisper, but at least it was there. "Banana."
There was ice-cream in the freezer and thankfully Dad turned out to have some banana milkshake mix from a month ago. Had Kantele known that? Probably.
Sunlight was a slow worker, dropping things on the floor and forgetting what she was supposed to be doing, but they got there in the end. Jack sat quietly on a stool as they worked, making occasional encouraging noises and thanking Sunlight for his milkshake when it was ready. From the occasional impulsive twitch of his hand, you could tell that he wanted to do more, but he held back.
It reminded her oddly of the first time she'd been in command of SG-1. Jack wasn't a back seat driver: doing nothing was his way of saying that he trusted her. And by the same token, she could involve him without feeling that she was losing face in any way.
"Sunlight, what sort of cookie would Daddy like?"
Sunlight was slow to respond, quiet in this as in everything else. Sam bent down and whispered in her ear, "I think he'd like chocolate chip."
Sunlight nodded cautiously.
Working on the cookie dough seemed to relax her a little. Creaming the butter and sugar allowed them both to taste the work in progress. Adding an egg meant they could push the yolk around in its slippery sac until it burst when stabbed hard with the spoon, leaving a yellow trail to be stirred into the mixture. Sieving the flour was actually fun. Sunlight rattled the sieve back and forth sending a white cloud into the air as well as a shower into the mixing bowl.
Mixing everything together was a team effort, Sam and Sunlight holding the spoon together and forcing it round the bowl. A blender would have been faster, but speed wasn't the aim of the game. Her hands were getting covered in flour in spite of her best efforts and getting the dough out of the bowl in one lump was going to get them even messier regardless of what she did. Her mother's ring would get covered in the stuff.
She dusted the flour off her hands and grasped the ring in order to remove it.
Seemingly without moving, Jack was by her side. He took her left hand, palm upwards, and kissed it softly at the base of the ring finger.
"Keep it. It symbolises hope."
Someone tugged at her sleeve - someone small.
She looked down, but left her hand in Jack's. She could feel his fingers - Kantele's - tracing gently over the wedding ring. Her mother's ring: the ring that had been on the finger of the woman Jacob loved.
"We haven't finished the cookies," Sunlight said.
"All right, we'll roll the dough out now."
So, they rolled out the dough, and some of it got all over her ring, and some of it got in Sunlight's hair and Jack/Kantele kept cheekily stealing bits and blaming it on each other, and Sunlight almost smiled.
Maybourne hit the floor with a shock that wrenched his knee badly and left him sprawled in a field of broken glass. Numbed by the impact, he couldn't move for a few moments, but managed to pull himself together enough to drag himself up against a nearby table and use it to haul himself to his feet. The data tablet and the page turning device were in a compartmentalised tray, carefully separated from one another.
Seizing one in each hand, he lurched towards Nirrti.
Unexpectedly, she took a step backwards. "Do not seek to trick me with your booby traps. I have seen Goa'uld killed by these devices."
Ma'chello had been a busy man... If Nirrti wouldn't activate the device, then that only left one choice. The part of his mind that was still capable of comprehending irony found the situation amusing; he'd already died once today, what difference did a second time make? It wasn't as if he could think of a single reason why he actually wanted to carry on living. He zigzagged the small hemisphere of the page-turner again and again over the tablet and watched with an abstract fascination as half-a-dozen tiny bumps slid under his skin from the device and moved in a steady progression up his arm.
If he wasn't insane already, this would finish off the process - Doctor Jackson had ended up in a mental institution...
"I don't care," he said to the world at large.
"I'm unable to do that," Davis said. "Anyone touching him runs the risk of being infected." His voice gave no clue as to whether this was a source of annoyance or satisfaction.
Nirrti dodged away round a table, but her movements were awkward, misplaced. He chased after her, skidding on broken glass, colliding with monitors. Everything around him was changing colour, becoming distorted in kaleidoscopic whorls. The reds and golds of Nirrti's costume were mutating into draconic scales that covered her in a skin-tight armour.
"My orders don't cover this situation," Davis said, with cold indifference. "I'd have to consult General Hammond, before I do anything that might kill Maybourne. The Air Force honours its debts."
"If he touches me, I will kill the host."
She'd rather be dead. The dragon's jaws vented hot, carrion breath and shadowed wings beat enormous strokes that took up half the room. Hallucination or not, Maybourne couldn't help but duck under them as he dived towards the scaled belly of the creature. It screamed in fury at him, a high-pitched assault that pierced his head with agony.
As he caught hold of its scaled foreleg, he felt Cassandra's wrist in his hand, human and real. He pulled her towards him and they fell to the floor, his weight pinning her across the legs.
"Fight," he whispered to her with what remained of his strength. "Fight."
Harry's touch grounded her, gave an extra dimension to her struggle for existence. She focused her hatred, forced it at Nirrti, hurled it javelin-like at the heart of her enemy.
Her breath was coming hard, her throat constricting as though she were choking. Her heart thumped oddly, its beat too slow. She opened her mouth and struggled to breathe deep, fighting for control of each muscle. Air entered slowly, syrup-like, every breath gained a step towards self-preservation.
With each breath, she refined the hatred, poured out the pain of being a prisoner in her own body, fought to do to Nirrti what Nirrti had done to her.
Now, she felt Nirrti's own pain and confusion. The symbiote was struggling, not just against her, but against something else. The nerves that connected her to Cassandra's limbs and organs were being severed one by one, inching her towards oblivion. Hate fuelled Nirrti's struggle, even as it did Cassandra's. Hatred for her host, hatred for Maybourne, hatred for the entire SGC: hatred that wrapped around Cassandra's heart and finally slowed it to an unwilling halt.
Images assailed Cassandra's mind: the children who'd laughed at the gaps in her knowledge; the school work she'd found so hard; the deaths of Jack, Sam and her mother; the lives she'd been unable to save; the worthlessness of her entire existence. Give up, Nirrti cajoled. Death is peaceful.
Fight, Harry demanded. I need you to live.
His fist thumped her chest, and her heart gave a single thud in response.
Again, she demanded of herself. She visualised her body. It was hers and it would do what she wanted it to do.
Her hands clenched into fists, her fists, finally obeying her.
She became aware of a heavy weight across her lower body. She commanded her eyes to investigate and saw Harry lying on his side, half-curled, not even looking in her direction.
"Get off me." The words came hard, her voice feeling oddly alien.
"I-" He jerked awkwardly and curled even tighter.
His hand was still wrapped tight around her wrist and trying to sit up without breaking her arm wasn't the easiest thing in the world, but she managed somehow to wriggle sideways and tip him off.
"Harry?" She shook him by the shoulder, but he only moaned and clutched his head in his hands.
Could Nirrti have gone into him?
No, she couldn't sense any naqadah in his body.
So, what was wrong with him?
She looked up into the eyes of Major Davis. He stood several feet away from her with a wary expression on his face.
"What's wrong with-" She stopped. Something was oozing out of her left ear; she put her finger up to feel a blob of jelly.
Another blob oozed out and landed with a soft plop on the floor.
"Two," Davis said, then, "Three," as another blob exited.
I have delivered you from the vile Goa'uld. The voice, oddly-accented, sounded like that of an old man - certainly not Harry. For a moment, she doubted the identity of the man lying beside her, but her hand reassured her: it was Harry.
"What's happened to him?" she demanded of Davis.
Davis looked hesitant. "I don't know how many of Ma'chello's bugs Maybourne absorbed. Four went into you, but I think some may still be in him. We had a lab accident a couple of years ago in which a man got infected. First he went insane and then a week later he died.
No cure? Her hand clutched convulsively at Harry's jacket. I've lost too many people. Hoping against the face of the evidence that Davis was wrong, her fingers reached round for the pulse point in Maybourne's neck. Roughness under her fingertips made her consciously aware for the first time that he'd grown a beard. His pulse was fast, too fast.
"Was this why you lied to him?" she asked Davis. "To stop this from happening?"
Davis's brow lowered. "I didn't lie."
"You said you didn't hear me!"
"You didn't say anything. Maybourne was hallucinating."
She'd seen Harry there in the gallery, when Nirrti looked up, cried out to him for help with everything that she had in her. "I was screaming."
"Coincidence, I'm afraid," Davis said sympathetically. "You have to realise that Maybourne's obsessed with you. It may be that you gained a degree of control for a moment and he read something in your face, but trust me, he was ready to grasp at any straw that offered itself. The Aesir did something to him - he's a complete basket case."
Rak'nor jumped a checker over two of Teal'c's to capture them both.
Teal'c contemplated the move. It left Rak'nor ahead in terms of captures.
"A passable move," he observed. "You improve at this game."
"I've been playing Sergeant Morrison. I don't speak his language well, but he was able to demonstrate the rules adequately."
Yet another demonstration of Doctor Frasier's thoroughness. As soon as Rak'nor began to show signs of recovery, she had introduced him to Morrison in the next bed. Morrison, a tall black man with an easy-going manner, was recovering from a bout of malaria. Bored, and eager for company, the two had got on well in spite of their cultural differences.
He studied Rak'nor's face while considering his next move. The young Jaffa's skin colour was good and his eye bright. If it hadn't been for the tubes in his arm, one might have assumed him to be in perfect health. Doctor Fraiser had likened the set-up to a dialysis machine, but had neglected to explain what a dialysis machine was. It was often that way with the Tau'ri; he had found the best solution was to remain silent. If the unknown word was important, it would usually become quickly clear what it was, and if not, Daniel Jackson would fill him in later.
Rak'nor followed his eye, but said nothing. To be dependent on a machine was a sign of weakness, and warriors who were weak were abandoned.
Teal'c considered his move instead. Rak'nor had played well, but he was making insufficient use of the forced capture rule. He moved a red piece forward to where Rak'nor would be forced to take it.
Rak'nor moved to capture, then hesitated, restudied the board and bowed his head in respect to Teal'c.
"I see, I still have much to learn about this game."
"Often," Teal'c said, "a sacrifice can be made to great tactical advantage." He pointed to the adjacent tank, where the Goa'uld fed on Rak'nor's blood, and the equipment that filtered its byproducts from the water and fed them back to Rak'nor. "This is not a defeat. It is a sign to all Jaffa that the Goa'uld can be enslaved. If a single Goa'uld can be kept alive in this way, then so can a queen. If we can capture a queen alive, then we will have a supply of new symbiotes for centuries."
We have to find a supply. Not just for you, not just for all of our people, but for myself. When Rya'c reached puberty, I gave him my symbiote so that he would live. That symbiote was already three years old. Rya'c's time is nearly come, and I wish my son to live.
Harry? She stroked a knuckle around the soft skin below his ear, but there was no response. Harry, Davis says you'll die. You said our realities were similar; did they find a cure in yours?
Maybourne jerked suddenly, raised a hand as though to fend off an unseen opponent, and cried out: "Don't touch the fire!"
"Harry," she shook him hard. "There's no fire. You've been infected by whatever you used to kill Nirrti."
"Help me," she said to Davis. "We have to get him to the infirmary."
"I can't. It could infect me if I touch him."
For an irrational moment, she wanted to kick his teeth in, but he was only doing what she'd have recommended if she'd actually thought about it. She wasn't thinking straight; maybe she never had thought straight where Harry was concerned. "At least get a doctor."
"The base medical staff don't know he's here. The whole level is in quarantine. If word gets out that he's here, he'll never be able to go home."
"You mean, he'd have to stand trial as General Maybourne?"
"No." She said it automatically, without thought. "He'd rather die now."
"Because-" Because the General was the part of himself that he hated. "It's personal. He told me things in confidence."
"Because he'd committed the same crime in his own reality and didn't want to have to face up to that?"
"The difference between him and the General," she said fiercely, "is that the General knew why the Aesir abandoned us. He knew we needed their help days before SG-1 arrived and he did nothing."
Davis held out a familiar pale-blue book. "Then you didn't write this?"
She snatched it out of his hand. "You read my diary?"
The look on his face left no room for doubt.
She flicked frantically through the pages, trying to remember what she'd written, how much of her private self she'd bared in the pages. Davis was saying something, but she wasn't listening. Oh God, they knew about Harry. Her skin crawled; other people's knowledge of that kiss made it feel like a cheap scene from a dirty movie. What must they think of her? She knew she was turning red, buried her face in the next page to try and hide it. She could remember writing this, remembered the Jefferson Memorial, remembered sitting with all the flowers there, remembered the men who had come to tell her they needed her help.
There was too much writing in the entry... She read to the bottom, read it again in disbelief. 'Just another murderer'.
"I didn't write this page. Did..." She struggled to keep her voice under control. "Who else read it?"
"Hammond." His eyes glanced down at Harry. "Maybourne."
"You thought-" The words choked in her throat. Harry thought... You stupid crazy bastard. You fell for it, didn't you? You thought I'd killed myself because of you?
Well, I have news for you: you're not the only person in my life; you're not even the only person I care about; you're just the only one who can drive me completely mad.
I know you're not the General. Happy? You are... And she still had no words for it, nothing to describe the way she felt about him: the complex tangle of anger, exasperation, physical attraction, affection and everything else piled together that was her relationship with Harry Maybourne.
His hand groped blindly towards her and she grasped it firmly.
"Fight," she whispered to him. "Fight, and we'll find a way out."
"Doctor Frasier," Davis said. "Your mother knows what to do, but we'd have to visit his reality."
"We can get there?"
Davis nodded. "If General Hammond okays it, I'll take you both through the Gate. But time may be tight; the Aesir are going to cut off the only route back to this reality."
"I want to see my mother," Cassandra whispered. "I feel all sick inside. I think Nirrti did something to me. I want to go home."