There was a stunned silence for several seconds. Jonathan looked at the newcomer and wondered why he hadn't been rumbled before this. It was like looking at a mirror image of himself - literally. The scar across his right eyebrow reflected in the scar across Colonel O'Neill's left...
Everyone else was looking from him to the colonel and back again, not knowing what to say. Jonathan surreptitiously slipped one hand down inside his sock and retrieved the small silvery-grey gadget which Quinn had attempted to purloin. There was a strong possibility - make that certainty - that he was about to need it. Which was a shame. He was really beginning to feel at home here.
"You!" Colonel O'Neill snarled venomously, "can thank your lucky stars that I'm not fully fit. Yet. Otherwise, I'd be putting a lot of my special ops. training to very good use."
"What is going on here?" General Hammond demanded, jumping to his feet.
"Ask him, General," Colonel O'Neill snapped, pointing at Jonathan.
"Well, Jack... It is Colonel Jack O'Neill, I presume?" Jonathan responded, "I don't know how you've made it, but the chances are that if I hadn't... um... shot you, you'd probably be dead by now anyway. Or enslaved, at the very least. As things turned out, I'm probably not that much fitter than you are right now. And I knew what the score was."
"What?!" Jack exclaimed, failing to follow the oblique shift in the direction that the dialogue was taking.
"I used information you don't have, to bring your team home safe from the last mission, Jack. I was the only casualty. They did good, by the way, and Nyan was an excellent addition to your team."
He smiled across at Nyan, who blushed slightly as he smiled back.
"Nyan?" Jack asked, temporarily diverted. "Then what's he doing here?"
He transferred his hostile gaze towards the hapless Quinn who seemed totally fazed by the arrival of a second Colonel O'Neill - one, moreover, who seemed even less accommodating than the current one. Jonas slid down in his seat, hoping to make himself a smaller target.
"Your friend, Senator Kinsey, might be able to help you out on that one," Jonathan answered with a matching scowl.
Quinn leaned as far away from him as he could without actually falling off his chair. Major Carter smothered a smile.
"Do I take it you came through the Quantum Mirror?" she asked Jonathan, hoping to divert the bristling colonels.
Hell, she felt almost sorry for Jonas, caught between two O'Neills. Almost. Not quite.
Jonathan gave her an unaccustomed look of blank incomprehension.
"That'd be a no, then...?"
"So, what are you doing here? First you try to kill me. Now you seem to be trying to steal my life as well."
"It's a long story," Jonathan sighed.
"I got plenty of time before I kill ya," Jack said with a glittering smile as he slouched into the room.
He sat down on the other side of the table so that he had a good view of his 'evil twin'. General Hammond resumed his seat, prepared to let things take their course. He definitely wanted to get to the bottom of this before he had the interloper arrested.
"Ok," Jonathan said with a wistful sigh. "As I believe Major Carter suspects, I come from a parallel universe. My version of Earth is somewhat more advanced than yours"
Jack gave a derisive snort.
"It's true, nevertheless. My name is Jonathan O'Neill and I'm a physicist."
"That explains a lot," Major Carter murmured, wishing she could have a few days - make that months - alone with him to pick his brains before he was whisked away by the Military Police.
"I was way ahead of my peers," Jonathan went on, showing that he shared the O'Neill ego, "and was working on membrane physics a quarter of a century ago."
"Wow," Carter breathed enviously, "it's still only a theory here."
"I'm guessing you got hung up on the idea that there are ten dimensions, like we were all those years ago. Factor in the eleventh dimension, as I did, and it all works just fine."
Colonel O'Neill's eyes glazed over as his enraptured major embarked on a enthusiastic discussion of quantum field theory, superstrings, spin foams, Wilson loops, 'branes as solitons, conformal gauge theories and super gravity in anti-de Sitter space. Before too long, his face was wearing its familiar 'shoot me' expression.
"Please!" he exclaimed, "could we get back to why you're here?!"
"I'm sorry, Jack, I wasn't aware that I'd deviated off the subject."
Colonel O'Neill gave a strangled cry of frustration.
"Our Colonel O'Neill isn't a physicist," Major Carter explained, with slightly pitying look at her C.O.
"That explains a lot," Jonathan replied wryly.
General Hammond gave a meaningful cough.
"Please continue, er, Mr. O'Neill," he said.
"Ah, actually, it's Dr. O'Neill," Jonathan replied. "Well then, I was giving a public lecture at my university - er, Chicago, that was. I was pretty certain that some of the older people there weren't going to buy my concepts of multidimensional membranes. So, along with the usual equipment, I'd also taken an invention of my own that could detect places in time and space where ripples in membranes collide. It would then open a circular hole through the dimensional wall into other universes. The plan was that I would demonstrate this, then step through and - apparently - disappear. Only I would keep one foot in my own universe to keep the hole open, and then step back when everyone was speculating about where I'd gone. Just like a stage magician - ta-dah!"
"But...?" Major Carter asked, looking like a child listening to a bed-time story that wasn't unfolding fast enough.
"But... I tripped over a damn' cable! The hole closed and I was trapped in another universe."
"Oh, my God," Major Carter breathed, wide-eyed.
"Yeah, well, been there, done that," Colonel O'Neill growled, unimpressed.
"Yes, but sir, we knew we could get back," Carter pointed out.
"And he can't?"
"Oh, for crying out loud! No, of course I flaming can't," Jonathan snapped, leaping to his feet and glaring across the table at Jack. "Do you think I'd be here now if I could?! For the past twenty years and more, I've been moving from universe to universe, trying to find my way back to my own. The only time I've been in the same universe twice was on that frigging Amazon planet, and I had to go through your damn' 'Stargate' to get to it!"
He slumped back into his seat, and dropped his head on his forearms on the table. A deep, muffled sob escaped him. The rest fell silent.
Chapter 23 - Home is Where the Heart Is...
There was a short pause while Dr. Jonathan O'Neill collected himself.
"Okay, so you're trying to find your way back home," Colonel O'Neill stated, "so why the Hell did you shoot me?"
"Cascade failure?" Major Carter asked.
"Ah, no. That isn't a problem. I'm wrapped in a bubble-like membrane - it's called a 'pea-brane'", Jonathan chuckled. "It fits as close to my skin as it's possible to get without actually touching it. Technically, I'm enclosed in my own personal universe - a very small universe - moving around inside yours."
Colonel O'Neill gave up struggling with concepts which were quite possibly over Major Carter's head as well as his own, and fixed on the salient detail that affected him.
"So. You're not going to fall apart because there're are two of us in this universe?"
"So - again..." Colonel O'Neill snarled, rising from his chair and leaning across the table towards Jonathan, "why the Hell did you shoot me?!"
Dr. O'Neill gave him a long, sorrowful look. Jack sank back into his seat, sensing that it hadn't been personal.
"I said I've spent over twenty years trying to get back to my Chicago. Well, a few years ago, I kind of came to terms with the idea that it's never likely to happen. So I decided that I might have to settle for something close - a world where I could live out the rest of my life in the manner that I might have done but for my clumsiness and youthful conceit."
"Well, there's enough room on this planet for both of us What?!" Colonel O'Neill exclaimed, looking round at four pairs of round eyes and open mouths. Even Teal'c's usually placid face wore a slightly startled expression. Jonathan couldn't help laughing aloud.
"Looks like they disagree," he grinned, then sighed, "and it's true. I have no papers, no legal right to be here - nothing. The only way I could stay was by taking your place. You saw me, Jack, just a filthy, disgusting vagrant, living on my wits and out of trash cans. And I'm not getting any younger, as they say."
"Hey! We're not that old!" Jack objected vehemently.
"No, but we're not young any more either," Jonathan countered. "I've 'lived' in hundreds of universes - thousands possibly. Your world isn't perfect, but it's the nearest I've come to a level of civilization I'm I was used to. I've ended up in so many places that were prehistoric and dangerous, primitive and bestial, mediaeval and cruel, technologically superior and morally bankrupt and all places in between. And I've learned far more about torture in my lifetime than any human being should."
Jonathan looked at Jack with sad, dead eyes. Colonel O'Neill knew the look, had worn it himself for a while in Iraq - and for many months afterwards. Now, he understood. From the vantage point of his own dark and dirty career in black ops., he couldn't really blame Jonathan either. But that didn't solve Dr. O'Neill's problem. And, regardless of his motives, he was still guilty of attempted homicide.
"So, how come you survived, Jack?" Jonathan asked curiously.
"Well, I'm guessing you don't actually make a habit of killing people," Colonel O'Neill remarked quirking a wry grin. "Don't get me wrong, Jonathan, you came damn' close"
"For what it's worth, I'm glad you're still alive, Jack."
"Yeah?" Colonel O'Neill raised a sceptical eyebrow.
"Yes. Really. The more time I've spent with your team, the more I've regretted doing what I did."
"Oh," the colonel murmured, lowering his eyes with unaccustomed modesty. A soft, introspective smile flitted fleetingly across his face.
"Well, anyway," Jack continued, "the icy water slowed the blood loss, so I'm told, and reduced my heart rate and other vital thingummies. The current carried me down the lake to where a couple of teenagers were fishing. One of them had a mobile 'phone and called 911."
"Ah, the helicopter that flew over as I was... um, cleaning up," Jonathan remembered. He turned to General Hammond. "So now what? I assume you'll want to see the back of me now?"
"Well, under normal circumstances, the Military Police would already be here," the general said in considered tones, "however, I'm not entirely sure what they'd do with you, given that you, as you pointed out, technically don't exist in our world. On the other hand, you have confessed to attempting to murder Colonel O'Neill, which we cannot, in all conscience, ignore."
"There is another option, General," Jack said.
"What might that be, Colonel?"
"Send him through the Stargate to a world like ours - one that doesn't have a J. O'Neill on it. Colona, maybe. It'd be a fair exchange," Jack concluded with a sour look at its sole representative on Earth.
"Unkind, Jack," Jonathan said reproachfully, getting slowly to his feet. "I could fix that for you though... Stand up, Quinn."
Jonas looked hesitantly at General Hammond, who nodded. Standing behind him, Jonathan was fiddling with his little grey gadget. He pointed it into the space beside Quinn. A tiny ring of light, so narrow as to be almost invisible appeared in the air and expanded rapidly into a six foot diameter circle.
"After you, Quinn," Jonathan said with a feral smile, pushing Jonas through the circle. As Quinn stumbled through, Dr. O'Neill thumbed his gizmo. Both circle and Colonan vanished.
"Problem solved," Jonathan smiled.
"Where did he go?" Major Carter asked, wide-eyed.
"I have no idea. I hope you don't want him back?"
"I think we will survive his departure, Doctor O'Neill," Teal'c said, crinkling his eyes into a satisfied smile.
"You're welcome, it was the least I could do," Jonathan smiled.
He flicked his gadget on once more.
"And now I, too, will depart, though to a different universe... It's for the best, I think," he sighed, "but first..."
He stepped around the table to Major Carter, cupped her chin in his free hand and planted a firm kiss on her surprised lips.
"Hey! Cut that out!" exclaimed an outraged Colonel O'Neill.
"Thanks, Sam," Jonathan said huskily, "No hard feelings? I wish I could stay, but... Gotta go. My trip through your Stargate showed me that it is possible to revisit a world I've already been to. Who knows, maybe I'll make it home again - one day..."
Jonas stumbled through the hole which Jonathan had opened up, and collided with something rough and hard. For a few moment he saw stars. When they disappeared, he looked around for Dr. O'Neill. 'After you, Quinn' kind of suggested that he was following on behind. All he saw was blackness - a total absence of light. He held his hand in front of his face and wiggled his fingers. And saw nothing.
"Hello?" he called softly. "Dr. O'Neill...? Anybody...?"
There was no response. Only silence. No, wait a minute, he could hear voices, very faint and far away. Jonas cautiously made his way towards them. He stubbed his toe on the uneven surface beneath his feet and almost cursed.
He'd better check out his surroundings before he tried to go any further. He felt all around him and divined that he was in some sort of a tunnel roughly hacked through solid rock. The sides had jagged projections and the floor was covered in a layer of gravel and stones - better be careful not to trip or slip as he moved forward.
He wondered if he was still in Cheyenne Mountain, in a different and more primitive universe. Keeping his right hand in contact with the wall as he went, he edged gingerly in the direction of the voices, and seemed to be moving up a slope.
Up ahead the blackness seemed less absolute. Perhaps his eyes were becoming accustomed to the dark. The tunnel was bearing off to his right.
As he rounded the bend, he saw, far away a bright point of light and two longish bars of blue light. The latter made him think of the light sabres in that video that Teal'c had left for him back in the V.I.P. suite. Perhaps they were youngsters playing at... playing at...? Oh yes, 'Star Wars' wasn't it? The movement suggested they were being carried by people going quite rapidly.
Then the lights and voices were gone. Probably they'd turned down a fork in the tunnel. He carried on forward, stumbling now and again. More voices. Rough this time. They didn't sound at all friendly. Now and again he heard the clash of metal.
For the first time, he noticed a rather unpleasant smell in the tunnel. Maybe it was coming from the men following the other party. Yes, following... He didn't like that idea, especially as he was completely unarmed. Maybe he should back-track a bit.
He turned around and retraced his steps. It was harder going downwards as his feet kept skidding on the loose stones and gravel. He wondered where the tunnel went to. If this was Cheyenne Mountain, then maybe there was a Stargate at the bottom and he'd be able to dial out to another planet?
He seemed to have been walking for hours and the tunnel just kept on going, twisting and turning. There were no branching passages, just the tunnel, meandering ever downwards. He was beginning to move more confidently now, and faster, feeling more at home.
Alas, this sense of familiarity was to be his undoing. While he had investigated the wall and floor of the tunnel, he failed to consider that it had a ceiling also. Unseen, the ceiling was becoming lower and lower. He finally appreciated this when he walked into a projecting outcrop of rock and knocked himself out.
When he came to, it took him a while to remember where he was and how he'd gotten there. He painfully pushed himself up into a sitting position and groaned. He felt wetness running down his face. Blood probably. His blood. He almost fainted at the thought, and rested his head on his knees, waiting for the queasiness to pass.
After a while, he thought he heard sounds again - like something slapping softly along the slope ahead. He held his breath and listened hard.
Nothing. Nothing but the pounding of his heart drumming in his ears. He could swear he could sense a presence though, but what?
Suddenly, several cold clammy wet things wrapped themselves round his throat and a voice by his ear said, "Gollum......"