"Jack," Daniel said, "if you're going to throw something, would you mind using an eraser? I quite like that Venus. She's a very early specimen."
He slammed the stone back onto the desk with unnecessary force. "I hate goddesses."
"I take it you went to see Nirrti then?"
At O'Neill's surprised look, he added, "Maybourne thought you would. She called your bluff?"
"You think I was bluffing? I told her I'd shoot her and I meant every word of it."
"You didn't. You're not a cold-blooded killer."
He needed to hear that from Daniel, because the line was so hard to walk, and only he knew how close he had come to pulling the trigger. Had it been ethics that had stopped him, or simply cold hard logic? Nirrti hadn't even sweated; she'd simply pointed out consequences.
"She can't cure anyone if she's dead."
Kawalski's photos were burning a hole in his pocket. He pulled one out at random and slapped it on the desk in front of Daniel.
Three little girls shrieked in delight as the fairground car dived towards the camera.
"I recognise Sunlight," Daniel said. "Who are the other two?"
"Kawalski's girls. Who am I to say to him that my kid'll be okay, but that his will probably die?"
"Jack, about the Asgard..."
"Hear me out." He looked pointedly at a chair until O'Neill took the hint and sat in it.
"This gets complicated, so listen carefully. I've checked the wording of the Asgard treaty and it's virtually identical between our two realities. The parties negotiating were the same and so were the points agreed. Earth was included within the existing protected worlds treaty between the Asgard and the goa'uld. The goa'uld may not enter a protected world, nor physically attack it, but the Asgard may not intervene in the case of natural disasters Protected worlds may not pass a certain level of technological development. Members of one protected world may not injure those of another, but are permitted to travel to them. Members of the protected worlds are not protected by the treaty when on any planet except their own."
"I remember all that stuff. There were some bits about the Asgard giving rights to various trade routes as well."
"You mean you actually read the small print?"
"Some of it." There'd been around two hundred pages of it. He'd trusted Thor on some bits, and relied on the Secretary of State for Defence to catch any serious loopholes, but he had at least tried to read it all.
"As the first human to meet the Asgard, you signed on behalf of Earth. Under their law, that gives you a responsibility to help enforce the treaty and you pay the penalty if it is broken."
"Kantele said all that yesterday."
"Yes, but what he didn't realise is that other contractual obligations may be taken into account. Your counterpart was married to Sam. That means that he had legal obligations to her and to Sunlight. If she is the price for the Asgard to reinstate the treaty, then they would inherit your obligations towards her."
"You're saying they would have to look after her?"
Could he give Sunlight up if he knew she'd be safe? It would break her heart; hell, it would break his too, but was that a price that he could pay?
"I think they'd be bound to give her the care that you owed her. It's pretty heavy reading though and there's several bits I'm not entirely sure of." Daniel adjusted his glasses upwards. "There's another thing though..."
"Maybourne was the one who actually broke the treaty. He took, or at least, those acting under his orders took, items from the protected worlds. If anyone died as a result of his actions, then he faces a death penalty."
"Harry's the wrong Maybourne."
"Everyone here thinks he's their General Maybourne."
"It's unacceptable. We don't give up our own people."
'Well,' said Owl, 'the customary procedure in such cases is as follows.'
'What does Crustimony Proseedcake mean?' said Pooh. 'For I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother me.'"
Sunlight giggled and snuggled closer into his arms. She was happy enough now, but she'd been miserable when he first returned.
"I want Mommy," she'd said.
They'd had a long quiet talk, curled up together in the armchair while nibbling at lunch. He'd given her Kawalski's photos of Sam, all except the wedding photo, and they'd helped a little, given Sunlight something to focus on. He'd learnt more about Sam in that hour than in the last six months. Sunlight saw her through a child's eyes, a simple uncomplicated love, but one that existed in such strength because she knew herself loved in return.
Only once had the symbiote contributed to the conversation. Sunlight had glanced at the angel standing on the coffee table and said: "Kantele misses Mommy too."
He'd just about found a way of dealing with his ambivalent feelings towards the symbiote. If he visualised it with Kawalski's face, then half the problem went away. Kawalski's rough and ready sense of humour would have found the situation hilarious, but if he held Kawalski then they both knew what the gesture meant.
He dropped a light kiss on Sunlight's forehead and a tiny mental image of Kawalski blew a raspberry at him. He could live with that. There were other problems he had yet to deal with, but he'd promised himself some time alone with her before he let the harsh realities intrude.
Daniel stared blindly at the projection on the screen in front of him. The whole task was hopeless. It took four years at university and three at law school to get a law degree, and he was trying to find loopholes in an alien legal system in less than a week. Just by way of an added bonus, he only understood about two words in every three. The SGC required miracles on a daily basis, but sometimes the well was empty.
Had he understood the document correctly? Had he done the right thing in telling Jack? It was one thing to do a translation; it was another to have to make the decision. This had the power to destroy his closest friend. Charlie's death had nearly killed Jack. If he gave up Sunlight to save the lives of people in this reality, what would that do to him?
He'd seen the torment in Jack's face, knew the depths of feeling that the man was capable of, hated himself for putting Jack in the position where he had to decide.
Maybe it made no difference in the end. If the Asgard insisted on Maybourne too, then Jack was going though all this for nothing.
O'Neill fingered the device in his pocket, took it out, looked at it and put it back again. Then, giving in to the inevitable, he stepped through the mirror into the SGC, fished the communicator out again and called Thor.
Light momentarily smeared everything around him, then cleared to reveal the clean-cut surroundings of an Asgard ship. Clutter was definitely not the Asgard thing, they went in for smooth greys and surfaces that were bare apart from minimalist control panels with a selection of command runes.
Thor reclined before him on one of these banana-shaped chairs the Asgard were so fond of. Behind him, the wall-sized screen showed Earth in all her glory. Did that mean there were in Earth orbit, or did Thor just like the view? Just how great a distance could those Asgard transporters work over?
"Welcome, Colonel O'Neill." The Asgard dipped his head slighly in greeting.
Well, O'Neill assumed it was 'his'. The Asgard displayed no evidence of gender that he'd ever been able to discover, good thing really given that they didn't seem to be sold on the concept of clothing.
"You wish to discuss the situation with regard to the treaty?"
And that was another thing. Thor sounded as he always did: gentle, interested and not in the least annoyed. Which was pretty staggering when you came to think of it.
"Yeah. Look, I lost my temper a bit last time. Sorry about that."
"You are young. You were distressed."
O'Neill ran fingers through his definitely grey hair. "Thor, old buddy, I don't know what passes for young among your people, but it sure as hell isn't the same as mine."
"You wish to save your people. Have you determined what to do?"
"Not yet. I kind of need a couple of clues here."
Thor blinked slowly, lids covering the large black eyes. There was no discernable expression on his face, but then there never was.
"Understand that the war with the replicators drains all our resources. To do as you request would require many of our ships and leave us vulnerable to attack. Many on the High Council consider the Protected Worlds Treaty to be a liability that could force us into a war with the goa'uld that we would be unable to win."
"But you don't agree?"
"I believe that your species may be of value to us. Your sexual method of reproduction means that you start your lives with no memories. This leads to a high degree of curiosity among you, particularly in your young. I observed this in your daughter."
"You've met Sunlight? When?"
"When I transported you on board my ship to assist against the replicators, I did not realise that you were holding another human. Your child came with you and was unable to return because the outgoing transmitters were disabled." Another slow blink. "She was not afraid of me. She came into my stasis chamber to escape the fighting."
"Then you know what she means to me."
"You told me that you bitterly regretted what had happened with regard to the treaty, but that there was one thing that was more important to you than your honour. Although you did not say so, I understood you to be referring to your child."
"You know that wasn't me, not me me."
"I am aware of this." Thor tilted his head sideways. "It would not, however, be wise to mention it to anyone else."
"Our law regarding clones is detailed and complex. I believe that an equivalent person from a parallel reality could be regarded as a clone under our law. However, others might not agree. This could produce unnecessary delays in evaluating any case that you should wish to present before the High Council."
O'Neill slapped Thor on the shoulder. "You're a fraud!"
Thor tilted his head enquiringly.
"You're looking for loopholes. You want to help us, but you can't openly go against the wishes of the High Council."
"I would not act against them in any way, O'Neill."
The pieces were starting to fall into place now.
"Okay, don't say anything. Just blink or nod your head if I'm going in the right direction."
A flicker of the eyelids.
"Was that a blink? Okay, I'm going to assume it was. The High Council don't want you to help us present a case, because they're afraid it might drag them into a war with the goa'uld, but we have certain rights written into the treaty and if we can work them out for ourselves, then they would be forced to act."
A blink. Or was Thor just suffering from eyestrain?
"There has to be a way of reinstating the treaty or you'd have told me clean out that there wasn't."
Now that had to be a definite nod.
"And the simpler and less complicated we make our case, the more likely it is to get rubber-stamped and acted upon pronto. What happens if the main culprit is dead?"
Thor tilted his head the other way. "That would be a complication."
"Now why did I know you were going to say that."
Cassandra dragged herself reluctantly towards the staff meeting. She hadn't seen the General for hours and had been relieved at avoiding any need to speak to him. Teal'c came out of one of the labs and joined her in the corridor. It was strange seeing him alive, but easier in some ways than dealing with Jack and Sam. She remembered him as a friend from when she was younger, but she hadn't been around when he died. Yes, he was alien and different to everyone else, but he was less alien to her than the General.
"Teal'c." She caught him by the arm. "Is it true?"
"Is what true?"
"The General. Did he break the Asgard treaty?"
Teal'c cocked an eyebrow. "Who told you this?"
"General Maybourne. Or Colonel. Or whatever he really is."
"Then it is indeed as he told you. I am surprised that he entrusted you with the knowledge. I do not believe he would live long if his past actions were to become known around the base."
"But why did you bring him with you?"
"Colonel O'Neill believed that he would be of use. It is possible that he was correct."
"The Colonel trusts him?"
"Colonel O'Neill gives chances where another would not. He once trusted the First Prime of Apophis."
They were in the briefing room before his comment finally made sense to her. To her, Teal'c had always been SGC.
She took a seat as far from the head of the table as possible and Teal'c took one next to her. Colonel O'Neill arrived a minute later and sprawled in a chair opposite Major Carter. Ke'ra sat talking quietly to Doctor Jackson and Major Davis sat opposite them. It was eighteen hundred hours precisely when Maybourne took his place at the head of the table.
Everyone came to their feet, still playing the charade, and she wondered why they all continued to go along with it. Did Maybourne get a kick out of that, from acting a rank that he had no right to? It made sense in some ways - if the act was to be maintained at all, then it had to be maintained completely. It was the little things that could give you away, something as simple as being polite to a na´ve teenager. He wasn't looking at her, and she was glad of that. She no longer wanted to be a part of this conspiracy, keeping his secret made her feel soiled by contact with it. What would Major Davis say if he knew he was placing his faith in a man convicted of treason? The base was running smoothly, but so what? Colonel O'Neill was taking a chance, and by doing that, he was forcing everyone else to take a chance.
Maybourne brought the meeting to order, seemingly relaxed and confident. His eyes caught hers momentarily, tearing at her with a sharp barb of pain. Why had he had to spoil the illusion? She could have gone on happily seeing him as Obi-Wan Kenobi to the General's Darth Vader. But then it wouldn't have been real - if you put your trust in an illusion, it was bound to let you down eventually.
How had Maybourne escaped from prison? What was it like for him, living a lie? How could he trust anyone without taking the risk that they would turn him in? Did he have any friends? Even SG-1 seemed distant from him; he was with them, but not part of them. And yet...
"Colonel." There was a subtle mockery on his face as he looked at O'Neill. "Nirrti is being flown to Washington directly after this meeting. We're going to give her a little incentive to co-operate."
Anger flashed in O'Neill's eyes. He looked as though he was about to say something, but didn't. Jaw set, he looked hard at Maybourne who simply gave him a slight nod in acknowledgement. Maybourne gestured to the airman on guard duty who disappeared and came back a few moments later with Nirrti and another airman. Maybourne escorted Nirrti to a seat at the table with exquisite courtesy, holding out her chair for her and ensuring she was seated comfortably. With suspicious eyes, Nirrti watched his every move, but managed to convey through her carriage that the attention was no more than her due.
"Ke'ra, would you take the chair?"
Maybourne escorted her, equally solicitously, over to a dentist's chair with a fancy headset and a couple of video readouts on a separate panel in front of it. She sat down, rested her hands on the arms.
"What do you wish me to do?"
She had a delightful voice, musical and low. Cassandra would have killed for a voice like that, or indeed to be able to look and move the way that Ke'ra did. She knew herself to be gawkish and adolescent with long, lifeless hair that never did what she wanted it to. Ke'ra's wavy blonde tresses mocked her.
"Keep your hands on the rests and let me put the headset into position. Then tell us the results of your research so far. I want Nirrti to have no doubt whatsoever that you are telling the truth." He lowered the headset, positioning it carefully, making sure her hair didn't get caught. Then, he turned to address Nirrti. "Observe the readouts. At present, the patterns on the screen are regular. If Ke'ra tells an untruth, then the patterns will cease to be symmetrical. The greater the degree of asymmetry, the bigger the lie. I'm sure you won't believe me-" he smiled knowingly "-so I shall allow you to use it yourself afterwards. In any case, I'm sure Major Davis will need convincing that you do actually have a cure for the plague before he recommends any acceptance of your terms."
O'Neill smiled, a boyish grin that crinkled the skin around his eyes. "Way to go, Harry."
Maybourne smiled back at him, a bright flash with no overt cynicism. How many facets were there to the man? She no longer knew what was real and what was pretence.
Ke'ra looked at them all, as if embarrassed to be the centre of attention, then dropped into a professional mode.
"As I've told some of you already, the virus bears some initial similarities to flu. Indeed, the first symptoms are identical to those of flu and the virus replicates in the respiratory tract and is spread by breathing. The incubation period is rapid, around one day and this is responsible for the speed at which the virus has spread.
"However, the similarity to flu ends there. The later effects of the virus are highly specific to humans. With Teal'c's help, I've been able to show that the virus has no further impact on goa'uld or any species of animal. This is because of the presence of a secondary receptor on the virus which is actually activated by the human antibody response to the initial infection. This response typically occurs over a week after the initial infection."
This was making a kind of sense to her. Mum talked so much about medical things that at least some of the terminology was familiar. Sam looked fascinated, but Colonel O'Neill's eyelids were already starting to droop.
"In humans, psychic faculties are concentrated in the hypothalamus. This section of the brain releases certain neurohormones into the bloodstream and these actually disable the virus by preventing the secondary receptor from being produced."
Nirrti was sitting up straight, hands resting palm upwards in her lap. She was so still, that the inaction actually made her look tense rather than relaxed.
"What I've done," Ke'ra continued, "is to develop an antiviral drug by first isolating the surface components of the virus and protein sequencing them. With computer simulations, I was then able to design molecules that would bind to the virus."
It was getting way over her head now. The words made a vague kind of sense, but if she'd been asked to repeat them, the task would have been impossible. Did she want to train to be a doctor? She'd thought about it occasionally and generally rejected the idea simply because people tended to expect it of her. To be able to do what Ke'ra did though - to be able to make a real difference - would that be worth the endless years of study and hard work?
"The solution I arrived at was to synthesise lots of small peptides which bind to the non-variable portions of neuraminidse and test these against the natural virus in cell cultures. By tomorrow morning, I'll know which ones have the best protective effect. They can be administered in liposomes, which allows them to cross the blood-brain barrier. Administration can be either by intravenous injection, or in the context of mass treatment, they could be sprayed into the atmosphere in a confined area and an elecromagnetic pulse applied which should induce transient breakdown of the lung membranes to allow the intact liposomes through."
Major Davis looked like a man experiencing a religious conversion. "You've found a cure!"
"Hardly." Small jet beads in Nirrti's headdress tinkled back and forth. "Let me have the chair." She gestured at Ke'ra with a dismissive wave of her hand.
Ke'ra glanced at Maybourne who came and carefully removed the helmet from her head.
Nirrti sat down. As the helmet was placed on her head, Cassandra looked at the video screens. Both screens were coming to life. Only the right-hand one had shown any reading for Ke'ra, but now there was a faint pattern on the left-hand screen as well. The thought sickened her. Somewhere, inside Nirrti, was the trapped mind of a human being, imprisoned for millennia with no power to affect its own fate.
"My name is Nirrti. I am seven thousand of your years old."
The pattern on the right hand screen jagged a little.
"Untrue," said Maybourne.
Nirrti inclined her head slightly in acknowledgement. "I am four thousand nine hundred years in age."
"True. Or close enough to count as true. We won't quibble over a few years here and there."
"Ke'ra's results are limited," Nirrti continued. "It will take you time to synthesise sufficient peptides to treat your people in bulk. It will take you even longer to administer the 'cure'. You will save thousands and lose millions.
"I already have a better solution. In a safe place on another world, I have a prepared supply of a retrovirus. It can be inhaled nasally, but once it is in the body, it will then be transmitted to other people. The effect is two-fold as in the original virus, it acts on both the respiratory cells to spread the infection and on the hypothalamus."
Was Colonel O'Neill asleep? Ah, no. He'd caught her looking at him and was pulling a 'how do I get out of this madhouse?' expression. How could he act like that when the future of her world lay at stake? Yet, somehow, it did help to reduce the stress a fraction. She resisted the temptation to stick her tongue out at him and caught a twinkle in his eye that suggested he knew she'd been tempted.
"The retrovirus mimics the effect found in psychics and hence protects against the second stage of the disease. It will spread as rapidly as the original virus and provide full protection against it for the rest of an individual's natural lifespan."
It sounded wonderful, almost too good to be true, but the General seemed to accept her statements and Ke'ra looked as though she thought it was plausible.
Maybourne came smoothly to his feet and released Nirrti from the lie detector.
"Major Davis, I believe it's time for Nirrti's flight. We're still working on the replication and distribution problem related to Ke'ra's solution, but there are possibilites. Try not to let Nirrti force the President's hand. We haven't yet ruled out the Asgard."
Nirrti's dark eyes regarded him with scorn. "You're a poor liar, General. The Asgard would not help you before, and they will not help you now."
"Don't be so certain of that."
Her lips curled into a certain smile. "Take the chair, General, and tell me then that you believe the Asgard will aid you."
Maybourne looked at O'Neill. "Colonel?"
"No way. I've been in one of those things. Never again."
Nirrti looked pointedly at Maybourne who sat down slowly and pulled the helmet into position. She radiated a sleek pleasure at his hesitation.
"Now, General, do you believe the Asgard will come?"
"Yes," he replied, but his eyes spoke otherwise, and the lopsided patterns on the screen gave the lie to his words.
His breath came in a drawn-out sigh; his shoulders slumped and she felt the weariness of his defeat and the ghosts that crowded round him.
"General," she said instinctively, "it's not-" But it was his fault...
He said nothing, but she saw his lips move, understood the unspoken words. Cassandra, I'm sorry.
"Anakin." She didn't even realise she'd said it aloud until she saw him blink. That was the answer to him. He was neither hero nor villain; neither black hat nor white. He was the good man somewhere inside the bad. If you didn't look for Anakin Skywalker then you would only ever find Darth Vader.
He turned back to Nirrti, and she could see the rise of the mocking laughter in his eyes. "The Asgard will come," he said. "I know exactly what they want and it's easy to provide."
And the patterns on the screen were as pure and symmetrical as a child's drawing of a Christmas tree.
Small and fair and impossibly real, she was the most vital thing in his world. Only a few short days and his heart had wrapped itself inextricably around her. Sunlight trusted him, believed in him. How could he possibly destroy that trust?
How could he not?
What was it Cassie had said? Something about not being able to bear the guilt of living at the price of so many lives? No matter that it wasn't her fault, she still felt as though it was. Would Sunlight feel a similar pain if he kept her safe with him? Would she hate him when she came to adulthood, or would she be grateful? What if he never told her?
It was academic. He'd promised Kawalski. There were a million other little girls besides. What did the love between one father and his daughter count against that?
He was going to betray her, and he knew with clear forsight that it would destroy them both.
He held her close in his arms and stroked the blonde hair.
"Sunlight, I have to tell you a story."
She was sleepy and relaxed in his embrace. "I like stories."
"Once upon a time, there was a king and a queen and they had a beautiful daughter. The king's adviser was his grand vizier, and the vizier was a very wicked man who wanted money and power for himself.
"The king was friendly to the fairies and the fairies helped look after his kingdom and protect it from evil; but one day, the grand vizier found a magic amulet belonging to the fairies and he realised that possession of it would give him great power. He stole the amulet and the fairies were angry and withdrew their protection from the kingdom. Then, a wicked witch cast a spell. People started to fall ill and die and everyone wondered why this was happening. The king went to the fairies and begged for their aid, but they said to him 'Where is the amulet that was stolen from us? Where is the thief?'
"The queen fell ill and died, and the king and the princess wept many tears. Then, the princess fell ill, and her grandfather, who loved her very much, gave her his guardian angel so that she might live. But there were many people still dying and everyone was very unhappy. Even the grand vizier was unhappy. He was sorry now for what he had done. He offered to give the fairies back their amulet, but this was not enough for them. They said to the king, 'We will help you, but in exchange you must give us the grand vizier and the most valuable thing in your kingdom.'
"Then the king was very sad indeed, for the most valuable thing in his kingdom was the princess whom he loved more than life itself."
"Daddy," asked Sunlight, "is this a true story?"
"Yes," he said, "and the word almost choked him."
"Are they good fairies?"
"They're good fairies. They promised that they would not harm the princess and that she would grow up in fairyland with them. But the king was sad and lonely, and was never happy again."
Sunlight looked up at him, eyes large and uncertain. "But if the princess was going to be safe with the fairies, then she could give her guardian angel to the king so that he wouldn't be lonely."
Her expression shifted subtly, gaining maturity and confidence.
"Jack, I don't want to do this to her, but there's no other option. Sunlight won't recall this conversation, all she will remember is blacking out.
"You have to make a decision. If she is going to the Asgard, then she is better off without me. Her memory of you is all that will sustain her. She must not have my memories, and without you there to reinforce the image of her father being alive, she will see only the deaths that I saw.
"She must learn and grow as a normal human child. I'm only a handicap. It will be too easy for her to hide behind me, to let me take control rather than face things herself. In a strange situation where I know the language and she does not, she will become accustomed to drawing on me, accustomed to using what I know rather then finding out for herself. Her curiosity is her greatest strength - if I remain with her at this age, she will lose it. On Earth, I could be with her as a friend and not harm her. On Asgard, I will inevitably become the dominant partner. I don't want that. I want an equal partner - someone who challenges me."
"No way. There is no way in hell that I am going to let you use me as a host."
"Hear me out. I can leave her now, without killing her. That will not be possible for long. Her immune system is already depressed; another week or two and she would not survive me leaving - not without access to tok'ra technology. If she is ever to separate from me, it has to be now. Separation is dangerous for me too. When parting with a host, the nerve connections can be severed close to the host or close to the symbiote. If I sever them close to her, then I kill her but I survive. If I leave her unharmed, then the risk to me is much greater. That risk is greatly reduced if my new host shares some of her genetic code."
"Meaning me or Sam."
"Meaning you or Sam. Besides, I want to stay with my family."
"You're a goa'uld, you don't have a family."
"That's a low blow. Don't you think I have feelings? I want to be with someone who loves Sunlight. I want to be where I can still talk to Jacob. I've seen Sam though the eyes of her father and her daughter. Don't you think I want to be close to her too?"
"You have their memories?"
"Of course. Do you want that? I can give you Sunlight's memories of you. I can show you her favourite places, the games she loves best. I can show you Sam as a mother. I can show you-"
"Stop it!" He was breathing heavily, terrified by how badly he wanted what was being offered.
"More than that, you need what I know, and I need what you know. If there is to be even a possibility of recovering her from the Asgard, then we have to pool resources. Jack, we're no use separated!"
"What aren't you telling me? I just know there's something you're not telling me."
"You won't like it."
"Tell me anyway."
The symbiote sighed; it was strange to see the rueful expression on Sunlight's face.
"Tok'ra rarely have much choice in their hosts. There are few people willing and they are often only willing through necessity, because of illness or injury. We work well enough, but only once in a while do we get a host who really matches well. Tue'vo was one for me, and you would be another."
"You have a warped sense of humour."
"Probably - we laugh at the same jokes. I like your attitude towards authority; I like your loyalty to your friends. I want to spend the next century with someone who doesn't take things too seriously. I want to be with you."
"Do you have any idea of what you're asking?"
"Sure. I'm asking you to do something that scares the shit out of you, for the sake of someone you love. I'm asking you to enter a relationship that's closer than marriage and cannot be dissolved if you change your mind. Because if you agree to this, there's no going back. It will weaken me to leave Sunlight uninjured. I won't be able to jump again before your immune system is totally dependent on mine."
"And what will you do if I wake up one morning and decide to cut my throat?"K
"What will you do if I decide to cut mine? You're not the only one who will miss her."
To have company for his pain, to have someone to share the memories, to rub salt in the wounds by showing him what he'd lost...
"Do it." The words slipped past his guard before he could stop them. "Do it, damn you. You know I have to keep anything that I can of her." The bitterness of the pain rose within him and with it the sickness in his stomach that threatened to make him vomit. Nails dug deep into palms, as his hands clenched into twisted fists.
"Open your mouth," Kantele said softly, "and kiss her on the lips."
He had known fear when running towards machine gun fire; he'd known the heart-stopping sensation of being tossed into the air by an explosion; he'd known the pain of breaking most of the major bones in his body; he'd faced torture at the hands of the Iraquis. He'd gladly have had faced any of those experiences over again rather than risk giving his mind into the control of another.
The hardest thing Jack O'Neill ever did in his life was to kiss his daughter.
Sunlight had been like mineral water, light and sparkling, but with only hints of flavour. Jack was a rich mature wine, with notes and tones that would take years to explore fully. Kantele dived into the depths, luxuriating in freedom from the necessity to censor his every thought, and abruptly found himself trapped. There was a wall surrounding him, built from blocks of hate and fear. Each block was of granite, roughly hewn, but massive and unstoppable. The wall moved inexorably inwards, crushing everything before it, grinding him, choking him. He had no strength to fight it; every part of himself that he could afford to leave, he had left in Sunlight.
Jack! he screamed, but there was no reply.
Why? Why was this happening? He had thought to be welcome here, not to face this overwhelming barrage of pain. Seeking an answer, he sent desperate tendrils into the mind, expending strength that he could not afford to lose. With shock, he encountered a pattern that he recognised. There had been another here before him. How? He had sensed no naquadh in O'Neill. He probed, followed the memory further, trying to shut out the pain that assaulted him from every direction.
Hathor. She had implanted Jack with a symbiote, tried to use it to torture and control him. And Jack had fought it, just as he was fighting Kantele now. But Nerin had been strong, and Kantele was weak. Nerin had been winning when the cold had come to drive it away. It had obeyed the oldest instinct of its kind, and fled the ice that would kill it, left the host to seek deeper waters where the temperature was just a little warmer. But there had been no warmer water, just the deadly cold of liquid nitrogen.
Jack, it's me - Kantele.
His voice couldn't penetrate the wall. He sent another tendril towards the conscious mind, but the path was blocked by razor sharp blades.
From far away, he heard Sunlight's voice.
"Daddy, where's Kantele? I can't hear him."
"I think..." He could sense another pain, as though O'Neill's head hurt. "I think..."
The wall slowed in its movement, the stones grinding as they grated against one another.
"...he's with me."
"Is he all right?"
A chink opened in the wall.
The thought was rough, unaccustomed.
Jack, you're killing me.
You're fighting me, and I haven't the strength to fight back. You have to relax.
That's a bit like telling a minnow in a piranah tank to take it easy.
In spite of everything, the idea entertained him. He mentally added a pair of Superman trunks to the minnow, gave it a ray gun in each fin to zap the piranhas, and tossed the image back to Jack.
There was a reluctant mental chuckle and the granite wall softened to a timber pallisade.
Do you want to speak to her? Jack asked.
Are you okay with that?
I'll have to get used to it sooner or later.
A heavy gate in the pallisade swung slowly open, leather hinges creaking with the strain.
He stretched out, found the vocal cords and the muscles controlling them; flowed freely, shot tendrils into the heart, the brain. At his command, lungs drew in air.
There was always this moment when first in a new host, when the knowledge hit you afresh. It would be so easy to take total control, to isolate the host's mind, override his control of the body and simply do whatever one pleased.
But where would be the joy in that? Humans were fun: they made good company; they liked being with other people. The punishment that drove men insane was solitary confinement. Deep within the memory of one of his own ancestors was a goa'uld who had taken delight in tormenting his host, cutting him off from all awareness, releasing him for brief moments to recall the taste of freedom, only to entrap him again and gleefully listen to the panic-stricken pleas before once more walling him up.
Charming ancestors you have.
You've got an unfair advantage - you can't remember yours.
"Kantele?" Sunlight asked, close and clear.
"Hello, little one."
"You sound different."
"That's because I'm looking after Daddy now."
He was aware of O'Neill's mental protest that he in no way needed looking after, that he'd managed perfectly fine all these years and that there was no need to refer to him as though he was about three years old. There was no real heat in the protest though; Jack understood the necessity.
Changeover - smooth and easy, like passing the baton in a relay race.
"You remember the story I was telling you?" Jack said. "About the princess? Kantele spent some time with the Asgard - the fairies. He's going to try and help me understand them better."
"Does the princess get rescued?"
His voice attempted to conceal misery behind confidence. "I don't know the end of the story yet."
Jack held Sunlight in the way that his counterpart had always done when she was distressed, curled up on his knee with her head resting on his shoulder. He held her gently, yet Kantele was aware of the tension in every muscle that wanted to clutch Sunlight so tightly that she could never be removed from him. Touching Jack's conscious mind, he could feel the pain, the love and the helplessness. He laid himself open beside that pain, sharing his own sense of loss, but it was too much too soon. Jack shoved him away with the mental equivalent of an sharp elbow in the ribs.
Undeterred, Kantele explored elsewhere. Some areas were pasted with massive 'keep out' signs; even Jack tried not to venture into those, but others had labels saying 'look here'.
Why in the name of all that was holy, was Jack concerned about General Maybourne?
Ah. This was complicated - very complicated. Just how different were their two realities? He had a lot of catching up to do...