Sam checked the monitor readings were correctly zeroed and nodded to Daniel who leaned forward from his seat on the sofa and clicked the quantum mirror's controller to the next reality.
"Not yet, Sir. It takes time to do the measurements. Every time Daniel finds a candidate that roughly matches Sunlight's reality in details such as the SGC being unoccupied by goa'uld, I'm comparing measurements of universal constants against the readings I took this morning in Ma'chello's laboratory.
"Each universe has minute variations in constants such as the speed of propagation of electromagnetic radiation - that's what allows them to exist independently rather then coalescing with one another as soon as they are formed."
"I knew that," he protested.
Now that was below his usual standard. Was he more worried about the mission than he was letting on?
"We don't even know for certain that this reality has a quantum mirror," she said. "Maybe we should go via Ma'chello's device and then use the Stargate to get to the SGC?"
"No. Too risky. SG-1 are dead in that reality; we can't use the iris code."
And what about the risk of using the mirror here, in Dad's apartment? Presumably the colonel had his reasons for that too.
Daniel waved, to catch her attention. "Try this one."
It looked promising, but then so had the last seventeen realities they'd tried. Teal'c took the laser box from her hands, touched the mirror and flipped to the other side of it. Watching that process was always fascinating. How did the mirror function? So far, it had revealed no operating mechanism that could be detected by X-ray, MRI scan or any other device they'd put it through.
Five seconds later, Teal'c flipped back to her side of the mirror and gave her the box to connect up to the monitor. This time the readings were...
"Sir, I think we've got it."
"Yes!" O'Neill slammed a fist into his palm with cheerful exuberance. "Where is it?"
"In a store room at the SGC."
"O frabjous day! Daniel, get that laptop of yours connected up to the internet."
Once he'd cleared a space next to the phone socket, Daniel connected in and headed straight for a web site on old B-Movies. She'd never thought of Daniel as the Godzilla type... Flash Gordon, maybe?
O'Neill clapped him lightly on the shoulder. "Good guess."
"So," Daniel asked, with a slight touch of acid, "are you going to tell us what on Earth you want with Maybourne."
Of course, Maybourne - the only man paranoid enough to consider e-mail too great a security risk. Using a bulletin board would make it that much harder for anyone to trace him, and the NID had both the desire to find him and the resources to do so.
"We're going in blind," O'Neill said. "Maybourne's the nearest thing I've got to a local expert. Post the following message: 'Cassidy, if you want to meet Tweedledee, be here by 3pm, Alice'."
Teal'c, who had been silent until now, asked carefully: "He will understand this?"
"If he can't, then he isn't worth having along. He twigged Sunlight was from another reality when she recognised him in the park."
O'Neill shrugged. "He bugged Sunlight's teddy. If he didn't do that, then there'll be one on my pick-up. I clean them off every month or so, just to keep him on his toes."
"Which explains why the teddy bear is hanging from a noose in the kitchen?"
"You got it." You could have powered a small suburb from the electricity in the accompanying grin.
"So what now?" asked Daniel.
"We wait. Or rather, I get in some quality time and you wait."
Daniel's face acquired that expression of long-suffering patience that most people exposed to O'Neill tended to develop sooner or later.
"Rummy again?" asked Teal'c.
"Not this time. See if you can help me get my accent right on the spoken form of Linear A. Jack, you ought to find this one particularly interesting; it's an ancient dialect of goa'uld which-"
She caught Daniel's grin as the colonel dived for the door.
"Kantele told Sunlight that she had an Auntie Sam. Want to apply for the vacancy?" He looked hesitant. "In our line of work..."
Mentally, she completed the unfinished sentence. 'In our line of work, you can never tell when one of us won't come back.'
She tilted her head in assent. "Auntie, I can do. I could never fake four years experience as a parent."
Somewhere in the kitchen, Dad kept a supply of aspirin. Finally locating them in a first aid kit tucked safely away on a high shelf, Sam checked the expiration date before swallowing two with a large glass of water. Either symbiotes couldn't cure headaches, or else Dad kept them for the benefit of visitors.
Should she offer the colonel a couple? He'd looked pretty stressed too. Well, asking did no harm. She carried the packet and a glass of water into the study.
"Thanks, Carter. Can you pass me a couple?" He reached out one-handed for the tablets, swallowed them dry and then chased them with the water. His other arm cradled his daughter, now quiet and almost asleep.
He shook his head. "I'm okay. Genealogically challenged, but okay."
It hadn't been easy in the end, not for any of them. Certain truths had had to be faced up to. Her father had started the ball rolling.
She'd looked up from the paper she was drawing on. Kantele was currently doing service as a papeweight in the select company of a lunar lander and a souvenir model of the CN tower.
"Do you remember Uncle Mark?" Dad asked.
Sunlight thought about that, then nodded cautiously.
"How many children does he have?"
Sam knelt on the floor beside Sunlight and picked up a couple of crayons. "Can you help me draw them?"
Between them, they managed two stick figures, a boy and a girl. Sam drew a line leading up from each of them and added a taller stick figure. "That's Uncle Mark, because he's their father. Now who's Uncle Mark's father?"
Dad waved a helpful hand at her.
"That's right." Sam said. "Grandpa is Uncle Mark's father." She drew another stick figure above Mark and encouraged Sunlight to colour in some clothes.
"Now, Grandpa had two other children besides Mark. Do you know who they were?"
"And the other one was me. And I'm?"
A lazy voice behind her added. "Except that I'm allowed to call her 'Carter'."
"Because she works for me in the Air Force."
And the Air Force had regulations, and names were just one of the reasons for those regulations. You couldn't be 'Sam' for half your life and 'Carter' for the rest. Not with the same person. You couldn't live a life where you obeyed orders without question when working, and expected to have an equal say in everything the rest of the time. It simply wasn't possible, not when the success or failure of a mission might depend on that automatic reflex of obedience.
So keep the box shut - no matter how much it hurts.
She selected a different crayon. "Sunlight, you draw Mommy and I'll draw me."
'Mommy' appeared to have long hair, and, horror of horrors, to wear a skirt. Had her counterpart really preferred dresses, or was it that children tended to draw all stick women in skirts simply to distinguish them from stick men? She had a sneaky suspicion that the colonel was grinning at her from behind her back, but didn't dare look up to see. Having chosen a green crayon, she drew herself in BDUs, but the end result would have made a passable Martian.
"Carter, I can see your talents have been wasted in astrophysics."
She held out a selection of crayons. "Your turn, Sir."
Hands flashed up in instant negation. "Oh no, Sunlight's going to draw me, aren't you Sunshine?"
Sunlight apparently had no problems deciding where to place Daddy: bang next to Mommy. That was where she was supposed to put him - that was the whole idea: to separate Sam and her alternate in Sunlight's mind. Another bridge burnt. No going back.
Carefully, Sam added a line going down from Mommy and Daddy and drew in a small stick figure for Sunlight.
"You forgot Kantele."
So how was he supposed to be represented? "Can you draw him?"
Sunlight thought about it for a moment, then added a vertical line with a tiny head and a pair of wings close to her own body. Then she did the same to Grandpa's image. "That's Selmak." The crayon hovered uncertainly over Sam's picture.
"That's Jolinar," Sam said softly. "She's dead, she died saving me, but I think you can still feel her presence. No one's ever really dead as long as we remember them."
She hadn't intended it as a cue, but the colonel had bitten the bullet and said what had to be said. Recalling it made her feel as though she were walking over her own grave.
She'd looked up from the symbiote she was drawing on top of Sam's image.
"Come here, sweet, there's something I have to tell you."
Sunlight climbed onto his lap, face apprehensive as though she already suspected what was coming. The colonel held her close, stroking the fine soft hair.
"Remember Mommy was very ill? Remember I was ill?"
A silent nod. The knuckle of Sunlight's thumb rubbed anxiously against her lower lip.
"I got better. I'm here, and I'll always be here to look after you. But Mommy didn't get better." He took a deep breath. "She's dead - we'll never see her again."
Sam wasn't sure what she'd expected, anything from denial to hysterics, but Sunlight's grief was silent. She buried her face in O'Neill's shirt and cried. Sam knew that, because she saw the damp patch later. It was a very unsettling feeling to know that another version of yourself could be loved so much. It was also unsettling...
"Sunlight," he'd said, "your mother was a very special person. I-" His voice caught awkwardly. "Carter, could you get us some coffee, please?"
That hadn't been an order; it had been a plea for her to understand why he wanted her out of the room. Realising that, she'd gone to make coffee, taking her time over the task and making some for Daniel and Teal'c while she was at it. When she put his mug on the small table beside him, Daniel had looked up at her with a question in his eyes.
"The colonel's just told her that her mother's dead. There's things Sunlight needs to hear and it's probably best if I'm not there to hear them."
"It's always hard to say goodbye."
Had he meant the words, as she heard them, with so many different resonances? Possibly - Daniel had the gift of understanding.
Her head was splitting; she went to find the asprin.
Fortunately, she was feeling better by the time the doorbell rang an hour later. Sunlight was asleep, so everyone had taken the chance to check kit and weapons. That was one thing the colonel had drummed into them thoroughly over the years. Check everything. If your gun jams in the field, you have no one to blame but yourself.
O'Neill passed his zat to Teal'c and went to answer the door.
"Where's the party?" asked a cheerful voice from outside.
"You cut it tight; we nearly went without you."
"I don't live on the net, you know." Maybourne sounded peeved. "I only logged on half an hour ago. What would you have done if I'd been out of town?"
"You weren't going to be. You're too curious."
"So, are you going to invite me in?"
Sam had a sudden mental image of a vampire standing on the threshold, which maybe wasn't too inaccurate in Maybourne's case. Could he really be trusted?
"Before I do," O'Neill said, "there's two things that need to be clear. This isn't just you and me, this is SG-1. That means firstly that you take orders from me, and, secondly that you regard their lives as you would your own. Understand?"
"If I agree, what's in it for me?"
"Jack, you'd never cut it as an insurance salesman." Sam could hear a note of amused resignation in his voice. "Okay - I'm in."
As Maybourne came into the living room, she eyed him up and down. He was casually dressed in a light-blue short-sleeved shirt, but the brand looked expensive. Wherever he was hiding out these days, he certainly wasn't hurting financially. He worked his way round the room with a relaxed manner that had to be at least partly faked. There was no way he could feel at ease with everyone here.
"General Carter, and Selmak, I presume. A pleasure to meet you both."
Dad glanced at her, as if to ask her opinion, then briefly shook the hand that was offered.
"Doctor Jackson." Another brief handshake, Daniel keeping his face carefully expressionless.
"Major Carter." Okay, maybe she owed the guy something. He'd helped save her life and Teal'c's. She took his hand firmly, caught the slightest flicker of surprise in his eyes.
"Teal'c." No hand was offered here. Maybourne stood in front of Teal'c, eyes wary, body tense. "Gara ci kahar."
Daniel's head whipped round in astonishment.
Teal'c stood unmoving for several seconds. Finally, he said: "Ci katomba mi sandolah, kasha pe'ratouri."
Maybourne shrugged and looked to Daniel for assistance. "I just used up my entire stock of goa'uld."
"Uh, he accepts your apology in recognition of the life-debt between you. He will not kill you. However, I would not assume that he likes you."
"I do not," Teal'c said flatly.
"Children." O'Neill called them all to order. "Save the squabbles for break time. If anyone here can't work with Maybourne, then I want to know now. Otherwise, what I said to him goes for everyone else. He's a member of the team and you will treat him as such."
"I will work with him, O'Neill."
Leaning against the door, casual in his blue fatigues, O'Neill swept his eyes round the room, taking them all in.
"Okay, kids, this is the current situation. Sunlight on Water came through the SGC Stargate two days ago. She arrived, via a device in Ma'chello's laboratory, from an alternate reality in which she is the daughter of myself and Doctor Samantha Carter."
Mayborne's eyebrows shot up, but he didn't say anything.
"From the letter she brought with her, we know that her reality has been decimated by a world-wide viral infection which Dr Fraiser has identified as a previously unknown variant of flu. Its origin is unknown, but we need to obtain blood samples from infected people to allow us to develop stocks of vaccine in case the same disease breaks out in our reality. As Sunlight was able to use a device of Ma'chello's that we had been unable to identify, there is a chance that Ma'chello lived long enough in that reality to teach Daniel how to translate his notes.
"Because of uncertainty regarding valid iris codes, and the addition of an unofficial member to the team, we will be avoiding the route Sunlight used to get here and will use the quantum mirror to take us directly into the SGC in that reality. We know from the base medical records that Daniel, Carter and myself died of the flu. Cassandra barely had so much as a sniffle, but Dr Fraiser is dead. Teal'c vanished from the records a couple of years ago, and is presumed to be dead. Jacob Carter is probably dead. However, Brigadier General Maybourne recovered from the disease and is still in charge of the SGC."
"You can't be serious!"
O'Neill glared at Maybourne, who promptly shut up.
"Maybourne has been in this position ever since General Hammond retired just over a year ago."
Sam exchanged glances with Daniel and Teal'c. She had the distinct impression that they didn't like this any more than she did.
"We have no knowledge of the operational status of the SGC, but we must assume that if the base is still operational, it will be badly undermanned. Do not make any assumptions regarding anyone you recognise. This reality probably split from ours somewhere around the time of the first Abydos mission and that could lead to a lot of differences.
"Our objectives, in order of priority, are as follows: one - obtain blood samples; two - try and determine the origin of the disease; three - see if they were able to translate Ma'chello's notes and whether we can obtain a copy; four - render assistance if it can be done without any risk to our own reality. I repeat, obtain blood samples, determine origin of disease, obtain any translation of Ma'chello's work and render assistance.
"We'll split into two groups, one main party of three and a back-up of two. Carter, Daniel and I will go though first. If everything goes smoothly, then we'll get what we want simply by asking for it. If it doesn't go smoothly, then I want something the other Maybourne won't anticipate as back-up. We'll pre-empt channel 1 by taping down the PTT button on Carter's radio, so Maybourne and Teal'c can listen in on whatever is happenning. Their course of action will depend entirely on circumstances, but the mission objectives should be borne in mind at all times. Any radio conversations will take place on channel 2; remember that Carter won't be able to hear them.
"Weapons for this mission are zats. These are our own people. Any other weapons remaining on this side of the mirror are to be kept locked in Jacob's study.
"The controller for the mirror remains with the back-ups and the mirror is to be kept switched on if at all possible. If the back-ups go through, the remote remains with Jacob. His task is then to keep the mirror open, but to switch it off immediately if anyone except us attempts to come through. Maybourne, if you need to convince any of us that you're Tweedledum rather than Tweedledee, then roll up your left trouser leg. If the mirror is switched off, SG-1 will attempt to return via the Stargate and P3W-924. Daniel will show you all the dialling code and Carter will explain how the device is operated.
Maybourne raised a hand.
"Have Teal'c's radio as the transmit-only one, and use Major Carter as back-up." He glanced hastily at the tall Jaffa opposite him. "No disrespect to Teal'c, but he's not an unknown quantity. I'm assuming you asked me on this trip because you want me to try and out-think myself. I always regarded Teal'c as dangerous from the first day he joined the SGC. Carter-" he looked at her and shrugged "-I underestimated. Think of it as a blind spot where women in the military are concerned. If she's a civilian in that reality, then that will apply doubly so. He simply won't see her as a potential threat. Change out of uniform, respond to Doctor rather than Major and you'll have an edge."
The colonel nodded once, decisively. "Carter, get changed. Daniel, go and raid Jacob's fridge for the flu jabs. The jab will provide protection for two to three days. If anyone can't get back within that time then you don't come back without ensuring that full quarantine procedures are in operation, as you'll be carrying the infection."
It was easier to see through the mirror from a low-down position. Sam knelt on the floor opposite Maybourne who seemed perfectly comfortable sitting cross-legged like an over-sized, bearded leprechaun. In a room in the alternative SGC, she could see the colonel drawing something on the wall with one of Sunlight's crayons. That made sense, it would speed up the process of identifying the correct reality if they had to switch off the mirror for any reason. O'Neill stepped back to admire his handiwork, a stick figure with one hand on a hip and a halo over its head.
"I preferred him as Bond," Maybourne said.
"Roger Moore. Sean Connery was the best though."
If this was a game, then she didn't know the rules. Maybe you were supposed to call out 'Kevin Bacon' at some point. She gave Maybourne a small, frosty smile.
"What about George Lazenby?" asked Dad from the armchair.
This was getting ridiculous. She waved a hand at them both to shut up and tapped her earpiece to reinforce the point.
"Colonel O'Neill!" said an unknown voice.
If she could hear it that clearly, then Teal'c had to have the gain on his microphone set about as high as it could go. Which meant that if he spoke it would be almost deafening. She pulled out the earpiece and settled for listening the old-fashioned way.
O'Neill's voice: "Levin. No, you're not seeing a ghost."
Daniel: "We're here from a parallel reality. All we need is some medical information and a few blood samples."
Levin: "Sir, I'll take you up to the general's office."
Maybourne got to his feet, surprisingly quickly for someone of his stocky build. "That gives us a couple of minutes in hand. General, can you lend me a razor?"
Her father studied him for a moment. "Any particular reason why?"
"It increases our options. A man on the run is a step below a civilian on the social ladder. I think I'd rather look military."
"It's in the bathroom."
When he returned a couple of minutes later, not only had he lost the beard, he'd also done something to his hair. It was hard to pinpoint the exact difference, but he looked as he did when she'd first known him: Maybourne, NID, the enemy.
"I think I prefered you with the beard. I'm just remembering why I don't like you."
He grinned wolfishly. "Good. Now there's just one or two things we need to sort out..."
As far as O'Neill could tell, the layout of the SGC was unaltered. Probably because the missile silo that had pre-dated it only allowed for a limited number of ways to set up the place. He said as much to Teal'c, not that Teal'c couldn't see it for himself, but because it made sense to feed back as much information as possible to Carter and Maybourne. Besides, it passed the time while waiting for General Maybourne to decide to see them. There were small changes here and there that he'd noticed as they walked through the base. The unrelieved concrete of the walls was as familiar as ever, but the SGC logo on the wall of the briefing room was completely different. Instead of the familiar bold red, yellow and blue design, it was rendered in shades of brown and cream.
Daniel cocked his head and examined it for moment. "You know, I think I prefer it that way."
Before O'Neill could think of a suitably tart rejoinder, he was distracted by the sight of Maybourne finally emerging from of Hammond's office.
"Well well well. SG-1 returned from the grave. Or should I say, the 'original SG-1'? Whatever happened to Van de Meulen?"
"Had a nasty encounter on PX4 7JT. Met a double-glazing salesman. By the time we got to him, it was too late. He'd already signed up for full replacement windows plus PVC fascia boards and new guttering."
"I see you haven't changed, Jack."
How could he have forgotten how much he disliked this man? The oily voice, the mocking condescension and the half-smile that gave nothing away. Maybe it was the uniform that did it. Where Hammond would have been in a short-sleeved shirt, Maybourne was wearing his dress uniform jacket, flawlessly neat.
"Nor you, Maybourne. You always were a-"
"Jack." Daniel's gentle reminder caught him in mid-flow. "He is the base commander."
"My apologies, General. I'm used to General Hammond in your position."
"And you address him like that?" The reprimand was sharp and unmistakable.
He was sure he could hear a gentle chuckle through his earpiece. He'd kill Harry when he got back.
"So, what can I do for you, Colonel? Given the timing, I presume this relates to your daughter?"
Keeping his voice carefully formal, O'Neill said: "From the letter Sunlight brought with her, we learned you had a major epidemic. We need blood samples to help us develop a vaccine in case it occurs in our reality. We also need to know if you've determined where it originated. Sunlight used a device of Ma'chello's that we'd been unable to determine the use of; we're hoping that you managed to translate more of his notes than we did. If you can help us on that score, then we'll give you any assistance we can with regard to the plague."
"The letter was written by your father-in-law, I presume?"
"Yeah. How is Jacob?"
Maybourne gestured lightly with a hand. "Dead, I'm afraid. Still, look on the bright side, it saves him from a court-martial for unauthorised use of the Stargate. I must say the team at Area 51 are really looking forward to the autopsy. They're curious as to why his symbiote didn't protect him against the virus - it might provide us with a useful weapon to use against them."
It was a good thing Carter wasn't here; though come to think of it, she was probably better at keeping her temper than he was. He rocked lightly on the balls of his feet, wishing this was a situation that could be resolved by action.
"Blood samples, I can let you have," Maybourne said. "If Doctor Jackson goes down to the infirmary, Cassandra will help him collect him collect as many samples as he needs. But," he added, as Daniel moved to obey O'Neill's nod, "no weapons. This is the SGC, not an alien planet. All of you, give your zats to Levin. He'll check them into the armoury and return them to you when you leave."
O'Neill's fingers tightened automatically on the grip of his zat. It was a reasonable request, damn it. There was no reason for him to feel this paranoid.
"Your call," said a voice in his ear. "Hammond would have asked the same."
With great reluctance he handed over his zat.
"Hey, take care of that, it was a personal gift from Apophis."
Daniel seemed to have no qualms about handing over his weapon, but then Daniel would have walked cheerfully into the lion's den armed only with an energy bar and a phrase-book written by Doctor Dolittle. Teal'c was not at all happy, though only someone who knew him would likely realise that. To the casual onlooker, his face would appear as impassive as it always did.
"Why's Cassie working here?" Daniel asked, as he headed in the general direction of the door.
"She's our only immune to date. Half our medical staff are dead, the rest are ill."
"Nirrti," said Carter's voice, "could she be involved somehow? Cassie had latent telekinetic abilities. Do any of the survivors have ESP ratings?"
Now what the hell was ESP? As if she'd read his mind, Carter promptly said: "Sir, did you ever do one of those tests where your partner looks at a sequence of cards and you have to try and guess the symbol on the cards?"
Oh, those. Apparently his score had been so negative that it was regarded as an interesting statistical event in its own right.
"Maybourne, did you ever do those tests with rhinestone cards?"
"Do you make a habit of shooting yourself in the foot?"asked an amused voice in his ear, counterpointed by the glare he received from General Maybourne.
"General," he corrected himself, "did you ever do any of those tests?"
Maybourne took the seat at the head of the briefing room table and gestured to O'Neill and Teal'c to sit down. O'Neill sat, aware of a terrible case of the fidgets. Why couldn't they leave this place with a supply of pencils and paper when it wasn't in use? Right now, he had an almost uncontrollable urge to start folding a paper airplane.
"If you mean Rhine cards," Maybourne said slowly, "then I consistently score ten percent above random. Your point?"
"Nirrti wanted to breed a host with bells and whistles."
Teal'c half-raised an eyebrow. "She is quite capable of destroying an entire planet if it would help her achieve her aims."
Maybourne glared at Teal'c with obvious dislike, then addressed his reply to O'Neill. "Goa'uld think in the long term. If Nirrti developed a virus that selectively killed those without any paranormal abilities, then the gene pool in the next generation would be closer to what she wanted."
"If it's her, then she'll be here. You know that?" Nirrti and her damned invisibility gadget.
Maybourne leaned across the table, looked him directly in the eye. "If she's here, Colonel, then it's entirely due to you. Does that sit well on your conscience? The death of several million people?"
"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"
"I don't know how much our realities differ, Colonel, but in this reality, it was you and Dr Fraiser, backed up by your wife and Doctor Jackson who insisted on making a deal with Nirrti."
Oh crap. "That was to save Cassandra's life. Are you telling me you'd have let her die?"
"Yes. Nirrti as a prisoner was worth far more than the life of one teenager. Nirrti allowed to leave through the Stargate was a danger to everyone."
"So why did you allow her to leave?"
"Because," said a soft feminine voice, accompanied by a shimmer in the far corner of the room, "you looked as though you were about to shoot him if he didn't agree."
Dressed in a long flowing skirt with a highly embroidered waistband, and a bodice top stiched with asiatic patterns in delicate beadwork, Nirrti glided smoothly towards them, casually ignoring the weapon levelled at her by the airman on duty at the back of the room.
Her hand touched him lightly on the shoulder. "I owe you so much, Colonel O'Neill."
"If you shoot her now," he said, "I won't object at all."
She spread her hands, gracefully. "General Maybourne can't afford to lose me. I'm the only person who can cure this disease."
Damned if he was going to pay her any attention unless he had to. "What about the Asgard?" O'Neill demanded of Maybourne. "They couldn't intervene if the disease was natural, but if Nirrti started it then that's a clear breach of the treaty."
The bangles on her bare arms chimed together as Nirrti laughed. "There is no treaty, Colonel. The Asgard withdrew their protection from Earth long ago."
Had the replicators succeeded in destroying the Asgard?
A universe without those little grey fellas was going to be a helluva lot more dangerous.
He picked at the table top with a fingernail, but the highly polished surface didn't yield. Dammit, he needed to fiddle with something. If he picked holes in the table with his knife, Maybourne was unlikely to be very forgiving. He looked like a man who placed a high value on pristine table tops.
Damn, damn, damn.
Maybourne was talking to Nirrti...
"Before I even consider any kind of negotiation, you have to prove what you claim. Teal'c, escort her down to the infirmary."
Teal'c didn't move. "I do not take orders from you."
O'Neill gave him a nod. "It's okay, Teal'c. You're about the only person I'd trust not to let her out of their sight. Take her invisibility gadget - with your permission, General. See if she can help any of those people."
Nirrti smiled, a calm confident smile. "When I have shown that I can save your people, General, then I shall give you my terms. They will include both Cassandra and the sho'va. I think I might like to rule this world."
Before departing, she traced a smooth finger round the curve of O'Neill's neck. "Such a pleasure to meet you again."
So that left himself, Maybourne and a man with a gun. He had a bad feeling about that. There was something here that he was missing.
"Jack, he's trying to split you up."
Gee, thanks a bunch, Harry. Now tell me
"Colonel-" those two had to be playing pass-the-parcel with the radio "-remember we can't hear you now Teal'c's gone. We're moving in, unless you get a message to Teal'c to say otherwise."
"And, Jack," Harry had that mock solicitous note in his voice, "don't say anything to annoy him until we get there. Oh, by the way, in case it comes up, in our reality you've been married to Doctor Carter for just over a year."
Really? Didn't he get any say in the matter? Forget that. There were other problems to consider.
"General, what happened to the Asgard?"
"Sir, ask him what happened to the Asgard."
Beat you to that one, Carter. He mentally chalked a point on an imaginary blackboard.
"What happened in your world, Colonel?" Maybourne asked.
"We had a treaty between us, the Asgard and the System Lords. Neither the Asgard nor the goa'uld were allowed to interfere with the protected worlds. Thor asked me to represent Earth at the negotiations. We get along."
"The same thing happened here."
Maybourne was too calm, too relaxed. He had to be hiding something. The airman at the back of the room shifted his weight slightly, but never relaxed his grip on his gun. There was something vaguely familiar about his face. Where had he seen him before?
"Have you got any paper?"
"It helps me think."
With a look of outraged disbelief, Maybourne passed him half a dozen sheets of paper.
One flew down the table towards him and he caught it deftly, inscribed his initials neatly on the top sheet of paper and started to fold an origami bird.
"Look, why don't I go talk to the Asgard? They might be able to spare some resources to help." He shrugged immodestly. "They like me." And it was a fair cert that they didn't like Maybourne. They wouldn't like him because- Ah.
Maybourne drummed his fingers on the table top. "It might work," he said slowly. "It might work. As long as you tell them the truth."
"And which truth would that be? The truth about your off-world operation, the one that was stealing technology from both the Asgard and the Tollan?"
"The one that you agreed with me about. The one that you helped me run, until you left to spend more time on Earth with your daughter."
"The one-" Harry's voice, behind him "-where Jack tricked his way into my confidence, pretended to agree that allies who refused to share their technology with us were a waste of space, joined my operation just long enough to find out everything about it and then sold us to the Asgard. Did he tell you that I ended up on death row because of him?"
O'Neill spun round, nearly breaking a leg on his chair. Harry stood casual, confident, and just far enough behind Carter so that she couldn't grab the zat he was holding on her.
"Jack," she said, and there was a warning in her voice, but he didn't know what she wanted to tell him.
"Are you okay?"
She nodded, nervous, not like the Carter he knew.
He injected all the venom he could muster into his voice. "Fuck you, Maybourne."
"It's a pleasure to see you too, Jack."
The two Maybournes locked eyes, assessing one another.
"So?" General Maybourne said finally.
"So, I figured we could do a deal. You have something I want, and I have something you need."
"And that would be?" The general seemed fascinated by his double. It was as though replicas of other people were something you took in your stride, but you never expected it to happen to you personally.
"I need Ma'chello's notes. I blackmailed Senator Kinsey to escape from prison, but I'm still a wanted man. I want something I can trade for a pardon. If you got any worthwhile technology from Ma'chello, then that should do the trick."
"I see. And in return, you are offering...?"
"You need Jack to crawl to the Asgard for you. He's the best chance you've got, and you know it. But I have to say, he's not looking terribly co-operative.
"I'm sure he'd talk to them for you, he's got an heroic streak he can't quite get rid of, but your problem is how to get him to cover your ass. Jack's not terribly bright, I'm afraid, but I think even he may have worked out by now just why his counterpart co-operated with you. You had the advantage of me there - you see, he didn't have any children in my reality."
All right, he was slow. It had been staring him in the face, and he hadn't seen it.
His hand gripped the hilt of his combat knife. "Sunlight," he whispered. "You bastard, you threatened Sunlight." He pulled the knife in one swift move and had it half-way to Maybourne's throat, when a shot from Harry's zat caught him. Even as he was falling, arcing in the spasms from crazed signals running down his neural pathways, he felt a bullet clip his jacket.
"You stupid jerk," he cursed himself silently, and then the pain caught up with him and he blacked out.
It could only have been a couple of seconds, because everyone was still in the same place when he came to. That was about the only good thing about zats, the more often you got hit by them, the less time they laid you out for. He guessed his body just got used to them after a while.
"As I was saying," Harry continued blithely, as though nothing had happened, "before Neanderthal Man here got over-excited, you can manipulate him pretty easily once you have the correct lever. Now, I don't have the kid, but when I came along to find out exactly where Jack's little unauthorised expedition with the mirror was going to, I found he'd left his wife behind to look after things. I was sure she'd come in handy for something.
"Doctor Carter, I trust your husband is going to co-operate from now on?"
"Jack." Carter had the most amazing wide-eyed look, all wounded doe. "Please do whatever he says. I'm scared."
He was hard put not to laugh with relief. If Carter was over-acting to that extent, then she had to be okay with whatever Harry was up to. Okay, two could play at hamming it up.
He stretched out a suitably helpless hand in her general direction. "Sam, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have involved you in this."
"On your feet, Colonel."
Carter's abortive move to help him up was stopped by Harry's hand on her arm.
"Leave him," Harry said shortly. "He can manage on his own. Now, Colonel, you're going to take that knife, and you're going to slide it hilt-first down the table along to me."
Pins and needles were still sparking along his nerves. O'Neill made his way unsteadily to his feet, slid the knife along as ordered and collapsed into a chair. Harry caught the knife, tested the edge against his thumb, nodded in approval and held the edge lightly to Carter's neck.
"General, do we have a deal? I get Ma'chello's notes, and Jack negotiates with the Asgard without giving them the slightest reason to want to wipe you off the face of the planet."
Maybourne relaxed visibly. "Done."