"It's okay," said Kantele. "Nothing lives here."
She held him up to look at him better and fumbled as she did so, the flashlight falling out of her unsteady fingers. For a moment, the falling light animated Kantele and it seemed as though his wings were really flying. She clutched the carved wooden angel for dear life and whispered, "I want to go home."
"We will." The lips didn't move, but Sunlight could hear his voice clearly. "Find the flashlight first. Put me in your bag, that'll make it easier for you to hold the flashlight."
"But you won't be able to see."
"It's all right, I can see through the bag."
So she put Kantele into her shoulder bag, the pretty pink one with the beads that Grandpa had given her on her birthday, and reached under the machine where the flashlight had rolled.
It had gone too far.
"I can't get it."
"Yes, you can." His voice was gentle and soothing.
"That big thing will fall on top of me."
"It's been there for a long time. It won't fall now."
"I want Mommy."
Kantele's voice was patient, the way Grandpa was when you didn't understand the rules of a new game. "Hold my hand. I won't let it fall on you."
She put one hand in her bag and held the wooden hand that was even smaller than her own, and crawled a little way under the alien metalwork. The queasy smell of old oil lingered there in the still air, adding to her awareness of the weight above her. Sunlight froze.
"It's all right, little one," Kantele said. "Just stretch out for it."
Reluctant fingers reached forward and touched the hard plastic of the flashlight. She grabbed it, wriggled backwards in panic and caught the leg of her denims on a protruding bracket. Tougher than the butterflies embroidered on it might have suggested, the fabric held and she managed to twist free without injury. Shaking in reaction, she ran trembling fingers over the butterflies to make sure that they weren't hurt.
"Can you see that red light?" Kantele asked.
Sunlight looked up to see where he meant. It wasn't much of a light, more like a sort of round, red glow, from a small dome on top of a pedastal that was as tall as she was. Behind the pedastal was a Stargate, just like the one she'd come through before. It might even have been the same one. The rim shone oddly in the light of her flashlight, sort of shiny and not shiny, but there was no light in the middle.
"It isn't working," she said.
"That's because we have to switch this one on ourselves."
"Why can't Grandpa do it?"
"Grandpa isn't here."
"Is Grandpa..." But she couldn't bring herself to say it. If you didn't say it, then maybe it wasn't true. Grandpa had said Kantele's magic would make everything all right again, bring everyone back, bring Mommy and Daddy back. Grandpa had to be right. Even Daddy listened to Grandpa.
"Can you reach the buttons on the top?"
Sunlight stretched as high as she could on tip-toe, but it was no good. It was too high at the back.
"Okay," said Kantele, "we'll try plan B." He didn't sound scared. That helped. "We just have to find something for you to stand on.
There were lots of funny bits of equipment around, but Kantele said most of them were no good because they had sharp edges or were too big to move. Others were too small or too wobbly for her to balance on. Eventually Sunlight found a box beneath a tall, grey machine. It might not have been an actual box, but it was at least box-shaped. Too heavy to carry, it succumbed to her efforts to push and drag it across the floor into position. Once it was next to the pedastal, she stood on it and finally she could reach all the buttons. They all had funny symbols on them, like raised carvings that you could feel with your fingers.
"Hey! Don't push that one. You've got to do it in the right order. See the top one in the inside ring? The U-shaped one with a dot on top."
"That's it. Push that one. Now count four to the right of it. Right, not left. Okay, push that one."
It was quite fun really. Each button lit up when you pressed it and the Stargate started moving round just like the one back home. Then it whooshed out at her like a massive great sideways waterfall, and she ran away from it because it was huge and frightening and it hadn't looked so big before when she'd seen the whoosh from a distance. Even when it settled down to looking like a pool of water, she still didn't want to go close to it.
"Sunlight, you have to. It's the only way home."
"But it'll be cold again, and all whirly and make me feel dizzy."
"Yes. But it's still the only way home. You'll feel better if you hold me."
The light from the Stargate was brighter than that from the flashlight, so she put the flashlight down and took Kantele in her hands. It was reassuring to feel the smoothness of the pale-coloured wood under her fingers.
"Whoops. Hang on," Kantele said. "I almost forgot. You'll need the remote."
"It's part of the magic."
The remote was in the pink-beaded bag along with Grandpa's letter, a couple of CDs and her lucky charm bracelet. She took it out and turned Kantele round so that he could see better.
"Which channel do I want?"
"Press seven then four. That's right. Now press the two, and six, then six again."
"Is it going to work?"
"Well, if it doesn't, we'll neither of us have anything to worry about ever again. Come on, best foot forward."
It was cold and it was whirly and every bit as bad as before. It was even worse than going down the water slide at Disneyworld, but after a few eternal seconds she came out the other side into concrete and light. There were people here, lots of people, and for a moment she was glad to see them because this was where she was meant to be going, but they were dressed in green and black and they were all pointing guns at her. That wasn't how it was supposed to be.
Sunlight froze at the top of the ramp. They had to have come to the wrong place.
"Wait, little one," said Kantele. "Don't be afraid yet."
Then she saw him, coming through the door in the corner.
"Daddy!" she shrieked and ran down the ramp towards him.
Daddy squatted down to meet her, but he didn't look excited at all; his forehead was all crumpled in confusion.
"The letter," Kantele said. "You've got to give him Grandpa's letter. It's the last part of the magic."
The letter was all scrunched up at the bottom of her bag, but she pulled it out and offered it tentatively. "Grandpa said you've got to read it."
Daddy gave her a funny look, but he smoothed out the paper and read what was written on it. When he got to the bottom, he smiled at her, a real smile.
"It's all right," he said. "Everything's going to be all right."
She smiled back and held out her arms. Daddy picked her up and she buried her head in his shoulder. He was warm and comfortable and smelled of home.
"Listen carefully, kids," he said. "I may have to tell a few whoppers. Whatever I say or do in the next hour or so, don't contradict me. It's important. Understand?"
She nodded, not understanding at all. It wasn't important. She was back with Daddy and he would look after everything now.
The child was so fragile, dark circles under her eyes and long gangly limbs. Maybe some day she'd grow into a beauty like her mother, but right now, she was small, exhausted and if the arms clutching him round the neck were anything to go by, terrified.
"O'Neill," Teal'c said, coming up beside him, "the child appears to know you."
"She does," he said shortly. "It's complicated. She's also either goa'uld or Tok'ra. And until I work out which, you are not to tell anyone - that includes Hammond and Daniel. I'll deal with Carter when she gets back from Stanford."
He headed up the metal staircase to the briefing room, going slow to keep his balance with the weight he was carrying. There was no need to ask whether there would be a debriefing session: some things in life were easy to predict, others threw curve balls that you couldn't have anticipated in a thousand years. He was aware of Teal'c behind him and that was good. You could depend on Teal'c. He'd keep quiet, but he would also be alert for any possible danger. Teal'c never allowed sentiment to blind him. Well, almost never.
Daniel was already sitting at the table, fingers steepled in front of him. Looking at O'Neill carrying the child, his eyebrows raised in unspoken question. Hammond was more forthright.
"Well, Colonel? I trust you do have an explanation."
O'Neill slid into the nearest seat, stalling for time and tried to sit Sunlight next to him, but she refused to let go. With a mental shrug, he settled her on his lap, her arms still clutching him, and wrapped an arm protectively around her.
"Colonel, I'm still waiting." Hammond's Texan accent was noticeably stonger when he was annoyed.
O'Neill's lips twitched into a grimace. "Her name is Sunlight on Water. She's my daughter."
He wasn't sure who looked more surprised, Hammond or Daniel. Even Teal'c blinked. This wasn't going to be easy. It was a good thing Carter wasn't here, that would probably have tipped a difficult situation into an impossible one.
"Her mother and grandparents are-" He mimed a throat-cutting gesture, not wanting to upset the girl.
"And her mother was?" demanded Hammond.
Hammond looked puzzled, but Daniel nodded in sudden understanding. "Of course. You caught the aging disease because you had, er," he paused to rub the lenses of his glasses, "physical contact with her." He caught Hammond's eye. "It was on Argos. Jack was drugged at the time, it wasn't exactly his fault."
"You visited Argos a little over four years ago," Hammond said thoughtfully.
O'Neill kept his mouth firmly shut. Leave it to the scientists. They could always improve on any theory as long as they thought of it for themselves. Sure enough, it didn't take Daniel more than a few seconds.
"Of course, you have to allow for the effect of the nanocytes. Kynthia was aging much faster than the norm. A pregnancy could be well advanced in only a couple of days. It gives a fair bit of flexibility with regard to Sunlight on Water's exact age."
Yep, that sounded pretty convincing, allowed him plenty of scope.
"I see." Hammond looked almost mellow for a moment, then pierced O'Neill with a glare. "And just how did she come to have SG1's iris code?"
Shit. Now he was really in it. Up to his neck.
Sunlight looked up. "Grandpa said-" She shut up abruptly.
O'Neill sighed in resignation. "I gave it to her grandfather, so that if anything happened, he could contact me. I went back there a couple of times. I took Sunlight a few things, clothes, toys, that sort of thing." He caught Hammond's question before the general had a chance to ask it. "No, Sir, it's not in the gate log. I didn't use the Earth gate. There was occasional down-time when we were off-world. It gave me a chance to drop by Argos."
The tone of voice gave nothing away. It was impossible to tell if he was going to get away with a light reprimand or a court martial.
"Jack?" Daniel had that anthropologist look on his face.
"Can I see that toy she's carrying? Is it Argosian?"
"Sunlight?" He patted her gently on the arm. "Can you show it to Daniel?"
She twisted round in his lap and looked at everyone seated at the table, as if suddenly realising something. Then she placed the figure on the table, allowing him to see it clearly for the first time. It looked like something out of a nativity scene: harp in hand and wings raised for flight. "This is Kantele," she said. "He's my guardian angel."
Guardian angel? Well, that was certainly a new twist.
"Interesting." Daniel had a knack for the totally irrelevant. "The name's actually a Finnish word."
"Really." O'Neill injected the word with as much sarcasm as he could manage. Daniel, as usual, took no apparent notice.
"Yes, it's a kind of ancient lap harp. You'll notice that the angel is playing a harp."
"Look, I don't care about Finnish etymology, I just got it her for Christmas."
Now if he knew Daniel, that should provoke an outburst and hopefully change the subject...
"Jack, do you realise what you've been doing to their culture?"
"You're contaminating their religious beliefs."
"In case it escaped your notice, they were worshipping a goa'uld!"
Daniel was pounding the table now. "That's not the point!"
The sound of the speaker cut through the debate. "Incoming traveller. SG-7 returning."
"Enough," Hammond said. "We'll wrap this up for now. There's a lot to think about." He got to his feet, then paused. "Colonel, why call her Sunlight on Water?"
O'Neill felt the quicksand shift under his feet, then looked out of the window to the answer staring him in the face. He gestured towards the Stargate, with its pool of shifting light patterns. "The gate, Sir. That's how I met her mother."
Why did infirmaries look so universally uninviting? All hospitals had that air of antiseptic sterility, but the SGC surpassed them with ease. Maybe it was the glamour of all those unrelieved concrete walls, or the complete absence of messy things like windows, or perhaps it was just that all the nurses were military? Who knew? At any rate, he'd never liked the place and was obscurely pleased that Sunlight didn't like it either.
She stopped in the doorway and tugged hard on his hand to try and pull him out again.
"Don't go in there, Daddy. It's a bad place."
"It's all right, honey. I'll take care of you."
Every head in the room turned towards the scream.
"Hey-" he shrugged at them "-the kid doesn't like hospitals."
Most eyes turned away, but a few remained tracking him surreptiously. Did the SGC rumour mill really operate that fast, or were they just curious at seeing a child around? He caught sight of Doc Fraiser hurrying in from the next room. Well, not exactly hurrying, just that brisk walk that got her places fast without ever looking as though she was worried about anything. Never do to scare the patients.
"Doc," he called.
"Colonel. What can I do for you?" She squatted down to Sunlight's height. "Hello. Who are you?"
Sunlight stood silent, clutching her angel, so O'Neill lifted her up and rested her weight against his hip.
"Sunlight on Water, meet Dr Fraiser. Doc, meet Sunlight O'Neill."
Someone lying on a nearby bed snickered. So the news had spread already.
That earned him a raised eyebrow and an inquiring tilt of the head, but nothing more. Janet wasn't the kind to comment on someone's personal affairs. Affairs... If only.
"She came though the gate this afternoon. It's a long story."
"I can imagine. Right," Janet was all brisk business, "medical checkup first."
"Can we do it somewhere else? First off, she's scared by this place, and secondly-" he glanced pointedly around the sea of faces "-we could use some privacy. How about one of the iso-bays?"
"All right, bay number three."
She gestured to him to precede her down the corridor. As soon as they were out of earshot of the curious, he turned to her.
"Janet, get Jacob Carter to meet us there. Use any excuse you like as long as you don't mention Sunlight."
"Is he on base?"
"I think he's having talks with SG-9. I sincerely hope so."
Sunlight tugged at his ear. "Kantele says you've got to bring a laptop."
"Does he? Okay, boss. Doc, make that Jacob Carter plus a laptop."
Janet managed an intimidating glare from about a foot below his head. "You'd better have a damn good explanation for all this, Colonel."
The iso-bay was spartan, two bunks, two chairs plus a table, one wash-basin, one toilet and very little else. The standard of decoration was on a par with the rest of SGC, a delightful combination of plain concrete, water-stained concrete and concrete with the occasional bit of gravel for heightened contrast. Oh, and a bonus in this particular room, especially for your delectation - concrete with exposed reinforcing rod.
A positive wealth of things to entertain a small child.
He sat down on the lower bunk. "Okay, Sunlight, here's what we're going to do. We're going to make a tent. We take the blanket off this bunk, tuck the middle of it through the base boards of the bunk above us and then spread the corners out."
"Are we allowed to do that?"
She giggled - the first time he'd felt anything other than fear from her. Construction of the tent took several minutes of scrambling around, getting in each other's way and generally enjoying themselves. About the time they decided to hold an Indian war, there was a knock on the door.
"Someone's there," Sunlight said helpfully.
"Okay, Sunshine, time for a pow-wow."
Jacob opened the door and looked curiously at the construction work on the bunk. As Dr Fraiser followed him, his expression shifted abruptly.
"Jack, what the hell do you think you're doing bringing a goa'uld onto the base!"
A face popped out of the tent. "Grandpa?"
"Jacob, is that any way to greet an old friend?"
Janet looked at Jacob in amazement. "If you're her grandfather, then I don't like what I think I'm thinking."
"I've never seen-"
"Jake," O'Neill said decisively. "Sit down. Shut up. Read this." He took a much scrumpled letter out of his jacket pocket and handed it over. "This had better be your handwriting."
"It is, but it's not addressed to me."
"Shut up. Read it. Don't say anything, and then forget you ever read it. You too, Doc."
He watched as their eyes flicked down the document. You could virtually tell which line they were on by their expressions. He didn't need to read it again. The contents were engraved on his memory.
Jacob breathed out in a whoosh. "I've got to give it to you, Jack. You sure do pick them."
"But," Janet said, "if she's-"
"What part of 'shut up and say nothing' didn't you understand?" O'Neill asked in irritation. "Use the laptop, that's what it's for."
"Daddy," Sunlight said, "Kantele says you've got to tell me 'The Three Billy Goats Gruff' while he plays on the computer with Grandpa."
"See, the damn snake's brighter than you are."
"He's not a snake, he's an angel."
O'Neill raised his eyes heavenwards. "I'm sorry, I forgot."
Jacob, silent for a wonder, handed over the laptop and Sunlight opened it up with obvious interest. When O'Neill had her comfortably balanced on his knee with the laptop balanced on her knee in turn, he nodded to Janet and Jacob to sit either side of him on the bunk.
"Once upon a time," O'Neill began, "there were three billy goats named Gruff and they lived in a meadow beside a river." Charlie had loved this story. Charlie wasn't here, but fate had given him a second chance and he was going to hang onto her for all he was worth. "On the far side of the river was a beautiful meadow with long green grass."
Her fingers were typing away at the keyboard, as though they belonged to a completely different entity, which he guessed they did.
"Sunlight is too young to fully understand what has happened. Death isn't real to her yet. People she loved were ill, and then they went away and didn't come back again. She cannot understand the concept of a parallel reality. I took her away from the SGC and told her things should be better when we came back again. To her, you are the same people that she knew before. Jack she is already accepting - you are very like your counterpart. With other people, I anticipate problems. You must try and help her adjust. Do not force her to face the reality of what she has lost. "Write down anything you want to say to me. As long as her attention is focussed elsewhere, I can talk to you without her being aware of what I am saying."
Janet pulled a pad and pencil from a pocket.
"There are two CD roms in Sunlight's bag. They contain all the data that you had on the medical computer before..."
"Yes. Where's Sam? Is she okay?"
"On top of the bridge lived a mean old troll. He couldn't eat the grass in the lovely meadow, but he didn't want anyone else to have it either."
Trying to follow the conversation without losing pace on the story was kind of tricky, but he knew this tale so well that he could recite it almost without thinking. Kantele and Selmak were arguing as to who had first dibs on Jacob, seemed as though one of them had died just weeks before Jacob arrived, depending on which version of reality you were in. Jacob was asking about the iris code. Yeah, O'Neill rather wanted to answer to that one himself, given that he stood a fair chance of being court-martialed over it. Why hadn't they used the Tok'ra code? Ah. Okay. Because Jacob and SG9 had decided last week to invalidate it on the grounds that the only Tok'ra who were supposed to know it were dead. Narrow escape from going splat against the iris there.
"And the first billy goat Gruff went 'trip trap, trip trap' over the rickety bridge."
Why was no one asking the question that mattered? Or were they just too embarassed to mention it with him around?
He grabbed the pencil out of Janet's hand.
"And the troll said 'I'm a troll, fol de rol, and I'm going to eat you for my supper.'"
"Who?"Oh, for Christ's sake.
"But my brother, the second billy goat Gruff will be coming in a minute and he's so much bigger and tastier than I am."
"Of course. Don't you love her?"
The pencil lead snapped as he pressed too hard on the paper, attempting an exclamation mark.
"Jack, I'm so sorry."
And that was supposed to make everything all right?
"I'll get another pencil," Janet said.
"No. Sunlight's getting tired now. Let her sleep when the story's finished. Jack has a lot he needs to discuss with you."What was the symbiote? A damn mind reader?
"And the third billy goat Gruff came to the bridge, and he was big and he was mean and he was strong. He pawed the ground with his enormous hooves, and he lowered his horns and he charged, and he booted that mean old troll right into the middle of next week.
"And the three billy goats Gruff went 'trip trip, trip trap' over the rickety bridge and into the beautiful meadow full of long green grass and they grew fat and comfortable and lived happily ever after."
There was a smattering of light, ironic applause from the adult members of his audience to which he responded with a theatrical bow of his head.
"Okay, Sunlight, bedtime. Do you want to sleep in the tent?"
She nodded. "Sing me Sunshine."
What the hell was that supposed to mean? He tapped her lightly on the nose with a forefinger. "Okay, but you have to start it."
Obediently, she piped up, "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine."
At least he knew that one. Sounded a lot better in the bathroom than embarrassing himself in front of an audience though. With a rueful smile for Janet's benefit, he tucked Sunlight into the tent, pirated another blanket from the top bunk to cover her and sang her to sleep.
"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
"You make me happy when skies are grey,
"You'll never know, dear, how much I love you,
"Please don't take my sunshine away."