Sunlight picked up a stone and tossed it in behind his, so he started looking around for flattish ones and demonstrated how to make one skip on the surface. Sunlight made plenty of unsuccessful attempts, before she finally mastered the knack of throwing the stone sideways like a disc and was rewarded by a definite skip.
It was even more satisfying than managing a tripple skip himself.
"Excellent. Here, have another stone." He handed over a waterworn disc of the smooth black shale that mixed in with the other more rounded pebbles on the beach.
Instead of skipping, this one sliced into the side of a wave.
"Bad luck," he said. "Here, try another one."
"What is the purpose of this activity?" asked a high-pitched voice behind him.
He turned round to glare at Heimdahl. "Oh, you finally decided to put in an appearance then. Got bored of spectating?"
"You were aware of my presence?"
"Bit hard to miss you. When you walk on the sand you leave footprints. When you walk on the pebbles, I can hear you."
Sunlight turned around, stone in hand.
"No," Maybourne said quickly, "don't throw it. Heimdahl's really here this time; the stone might hurt him. At least," he looked the Asgard up and down, "I assume you're Heimdahl." The Asgard gave a slow nod in confirmation.
"Did he magic himself here?" Sunlight asked.
"Came through the Gate or else transported down from a ship, and then used an invisibility device." He'd love to get his hands on one of those devices. Nirrti's invisibility gadget utilised phase-shift technology, but O'Neill had turned Maybourne's people in before they'd had a chance to study the equivalent Asgard device they'd brought back. Did it operate on a similar principle, or did it use sophisticated hologram technology to present an image that perfectly matched the background? Hm. Next time Heimdahl turned it on, he'd have to try tossing some sand at him to see if it passed through or not. Phase-shift technology would probably let unphased matter pass through. He smiled inwardly. Even on this backwater of a planet, there might be some things worth investigating. Getting them back to Earth and to his own reality might prove impossible though.
"Why do you throw stones into the water?" Heimdahl asked Sunlight.
"So they go 'splash'."
"Why do you wish to make them go 'splash'?"
She took a half-step backwards and looked at him uncertainly.
"Don't bother with Heimdahl," Maybourne said hastily. "Fairies don't understand games. They're very dull and boring. You and I can throw lots of stones, and then we'll dig a hole." He stooped for a handful of pebbles and chucked them as far out to sea as he could.
"That is dangerous; you should not throw that many." Heimdahl said, "you might hit Sunlight on Water by mistake."
The sand was dry above the high-water mark of washed-up seaweed. Maybourne walked up the beach a little way and sat down.
"Play with Heimdahl. He seems to know all about it."
She tugged at his sleeve. "I don't want to play with him."
He shook his head. "Sorry, Princess, I'm off the job. Heimdahl doesn't seem to like the way I do things."
Heimdahl's hands fluttered in distress. "We had an agreement."
"We did. Now, I can either stick her in a box and shove in food at intervals and recite the dictionary at her through a slot, or I can let her run around and explore and maybe risk falling out of a tree, or getting drowned, or breaking a leg or getting hit by the odd branch or stone. One way is perfectly safe and will produce someone who can recite the dictionary. I don't quite know what the other way will do, but I figure it's more likely to turn out an interesting human being."
"You said you knew nothing of children," Heimdahl protested.
"I don't, but I've seen what comes out the other end. I've been an administrator and I've worked with a lot of scientists over the years. There's two types in that field. There are the ones who follow instructions to the letter and do exactly what they're told. They never take any risks, but they make passable button-counters. The other kind are the ones who approach everything sideways. They ask all the wrong questions; they're irritating, arrogant, hate doing paperwork, love bad puns and are as likely to be playing with a mathematical puzzle as to be doing whatever you told them to get on with. They're also the only ones who ever discover anything useful."
"You are saying...?"
"She can become either a 'button-counter' or like-"
He cut himself off sharply, but it was too late - Heimdahl completed his thought.
"...or like her parents?"
"Harry?" Sunlight sounded upset.
Damn, it had been a mistake to mention Jack and Carter, even by implication. "Come here." He pulled her gently into his lap, letting her cling tight even though she was half-choking him. "It's okay, Princess."
"Why do you call her 'Princess'?" Heimdahl asked.
For a moment, he thought he was going to lose it completely. The alien had a gift for the irrelevent that ignored everything of importance. He held onto his temper for Sunlight's sake and replied: "Because I choose to do so.
"Now, listen," he continued deliberately. "You will stop asking questions that upset Sunlight. If you don't know what will upset her, then don't say anything at all. Secondly, you will stop undermining my authority. You want to argue with me? Fine, but you do it when she's asleep. Otherwise, there's too many chiefs and not enough Indians."
Heimdahl looked at him with large sorrowful eyes. "I will consider your request. Will it distress her if I refer to the portal between the realities?"
"The quantum mirror? You can refer to it as long as you don't mention anyone who has passed through it."
"Then you should know, Harold Maybourne, the portal has been destroyed at the request of the Aesir. Should Replicators locate such a portal, they would invade all the realities. We cannot allow that to happen."
Destroyed. Better make a life here and now, Harry. I don't think you or Sunlight are ever going to see home again.
'Dear Daddy' Sunlight could write that part of the letter for herself now. The letters were big and sloppy and barely recognisable, but for a kid of four Maybourne reckoned she was doing pretty well.
Convention had established that he had to write the next sentence. "What do you want me to put?"
Sunlight thought about that while posing her doll. It wasn't much of a doll; his woodworking skills were pretty well zero. Sunlight had seemed to appreciate the effort, though he suspected that his handiwork hadn't really passed muster when compared with Barbie. You couldn't win them all. It was easier to wire up a surveillance camera than to carve a realistic head for a doll.
"Tell Daddy I played with Sven and he's good at climbing trees."
He wrote as ordered. "Can you tell which word is 'Sven'? What sound does it begin with?"
"Why don't you write to anyone?"
As attempts at distraction went, it was pretty blatant.
"There's no one I want to write to. What sound does 'Sven' begin with?"
"Why?" she persisted. "Why don't you write to your friends?"
He sighed and gave up the educational struggle for the day. "I don't have any."
He reminded himself, carefully, that it was only yesterday he'd been arguing with Heimdahl that curiosity was a good thing in children.
"People in my profession don't have friends."
She had an unfair advantage. All she had to do was keep saying 'why'.
Because we lie to people, we spy on people and we manipulate people. In the end, the lie becomes so natural that you assume it without thinking. You trust no one and no one trusts you. And then, when you least expect it and least deserve it, along comes someone who makes that blind leap of faith and sees something in you that you'd forgotten even existed.
"You want to know about friends? Be very careful whom you count as a friend. Most people are just out for what they can get, and you have to play the same game. Never trust people unless you have a hold over them. Mistrust anyone who tells you everything's fine - they're trying to manipulate you, or else they're afraid of you." He was probably beyond her level of comprehension, but what the hell, he had to try and warn her. "Avoid people who make easy promises; they won't keep them. Don't make promises yourself, then you can't be held to them. Avoid emotional entanglements; anyone you care about can be used against you."
She edged away from him slightly, probably reacting to the coldness of his voice. Sorry, Princess, but it's true. Look what happened to your father - your real father, not the Jack I know. My Jack nearly couldn't do it either. He'll torture himself until his dying day, because he couldn't find a way to keep you safe by his side.
This isn't 'Little Orphan Annie'. I'm not about to change who and what I am, not even for you. There might be times when I'd like to, but the older I get, the harder it is to have faith in anyone or anything. Then again, there's always the exception that proves the rule.
He modulated his voice, tried to make it more welcoming. "Hey, Princess. It's okay. There are some people out there that can be trusted, and your dad's one of them." And what happens when the day comes and Sunlight realises she isn't really getting letters from her father, that you're lying to her about that? Or are the letters simply truth in another form? The truth is that Jack would write if he were able to. The truth is that he loves her.
The truth is that Sunlight is coming to trust you. You could take her love, turn it towards yourself. You'd have to work at it: she's already learned that people she loves will die or abandon her, but you could do it. You could have someone who loves you...
And when she reaches Cassie's age, will you have the guts to tell her the truth? Not the story that you're already editing every time you tell it to her, but the raw, unvarnished version of who you are and what you did. Or by then, will you be too much the coward?
"Why don't you write to Cassie?" Sunlight asked.
Was that insight on her part, or simply a child's assumption that anyone they both knew had to be a friend? Probably the latter.
"Because I don't know what to say."
What would be the point? You'll never see her again. Thinking about her merely fuels fantasies that were impossible in the first place. Accept the miracle that she saw a human being where everyone else sees a traitor, and leave it at that.
There are women here that you can have; there's a reason why they call it the oldest profession. Once Sunlight settles enough to sleep on her own, you'll be able to scratch that particular itch. What does it matter if they can't give you everything you desire? Play along when they pretend to enjoy your company. Pretend a whore isn't faking it when she responds to your touch. Imagine it's real when she says she doesn't want you to go.
Damn Cassandra. I could enjoy the fake until she came along and reminded me that there was something better. I can't have her; the odds are that I never could have had her; but that doesn't stop me wanting her.
Cas, do you love me?
If I were twenty years younger, would you love me then?
Thirty years younger?