Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it. — Luke 17:33
Colonel Frank Cromwell regained consciousness with no real idea where he was. He only knew that he was miraculously, inexplicably, still alive, and that it was nighttime. A glance at the sky showed no sign of the black hole he’d seen on the monitor at the SGC, meaning that he couldn’t be on the planet to which their Stargate had previously been connected. It also confirmed that he was not on Earth, either. The stars were all wrong. Not a single recognizable constellation graced the sky, though the luminous ribbon of the Milky Way crossed it, shining even broader and more brightly than he had ever seen it from Earth. Absently rubbing a tender spot on the back of his head from where he must have struck it on his landing, he sat up gingerly and surveyed the area around him. He was at the bottom of a shallow set of steps; there at the top was this world’s Stargate. The wormhole must have jumped to it, as Captain Carter had predicted it might. Though wasn’t the end connected to Earth supposed to skip? By all rights, he ought to have been pulled directly through to the world being devoured by the black hole, unless he’d seriously misunderstood the nature of what they were doing. As he’d let go of O’Neill’s harness, he had done so fully expecting a one-way trip to oblivion. And what had happened to the energy from the bomb blast? Had it been completely absorbed by the wormhole itself?
Well. Physics had never been his strong suit, and he’d been wrong before, hadn’t he? Cromwell’s misjudging a situation had once let his best friend get stranded, left behind, captured, imprisoned… He shook his head to derail that train of thought, then thought better of it as a headache bloomed. He’d knew he’d be lucky if he didn’t have a concussion.
As he wriggled out of the G-suit and climbing harness he’d been wearing when fell, he reviewed his understanding of his present predicament. The wormhole had jumped away from the black hole system; of that much he was certain, primarily because he was alive to ponder it. The fact that he apparently had still been in transit at the time had saved his life, but now he was stranded. At least for the moment, he reminded himself sternly. No telling what could happen. Hadn’t experience already taught him that?
He could only hope that someone back at the SGC knew where the wormhole had skipped to, and that eventually they’d send a team to check on whether he’d survived the trip. But that involved an awful lot of “ifs”: if Captain Carter’s calculations had been correct, allowing the SGC and its Stargate to come through the blast intact; if their equipment indeed proved capable of telling them which world the wormhole had connected to after disconnecting from the black hole; if they entertained any thought that he might possibly have survived the transit; if they could spare the personnel to mount a search-and-rescue mission. When you strung them all together like that, it was probably safer to assume he was on his own.
Of course, what he might do now eluded him. He had no idea how to return to Earth by himself, supposing such a thing were even possible. A rounded device mounted on a pedestal stood before the gate, but he couldn’t make out much detail in the faint starlight. Some kind of controller, perhaps? Not that he’d have any way of knowing how to operate it. There was little moonlight, despite the presence of not one but two moons in the sky, a pair of slightly differing crescents, both rather dim, perhaps five degrees apart in the — western? eastern? — sky. Cromwell realized that he had no clue which was which here, so he settled with his back against the pedestal and watched the sky for a while, until he could determine in which direction the stars set. Okay, so that established east and west, at least for his immediate purposes.
Scanning the horizon also gave him some idea of the general area. He was on top of a gently sloping grassy hill, surrounded on all sides by low woodlands. No city lights were visible as far as Cromwell could see, leading him to wonder whether he had wound up on an uninhabited planet, or merely a primitive one. The air was pleasantly warm, he was breathing easily enough, and the night was full of the sort of sounds one might expect to hear in any sufficiently rural place: the faint drone of night insects, mostly, interspersed with the tiny rustlings of small creatures through the underbrush. Nothing sounded terribly large, although he knew this was no reason not to be vigilant. Then again, according to his watch he must have lain un- or semi-conscious for about twenty minutes after his arrival, with no one and nothing coming to investigate.
He spent the next four hours watching the sky, listening for sounds of approach and contemplating his course of action. Not many options presented themselves. Either the SGC would send someone to rescue him, or they wouldn’t. If they did, then great. If not… Well, then he either lived out his life here, or found some way of getting off this world. While he’d been briefed on the existence of stargates, he had no idea how to actually operate one, so that last could prove tricky. It would be helpful to know whether anyone else lived here; come dawn, he’d explore the general area near the stargate to determine whether or not he was alone. He would remain relatively close to the gate for several days, however, just in case someone came to find him. And so, when the sun — somewhat yellower than the sun he was used to — rose, he took to his feet and began to look around.
The Stargate occupied a flattened plaza at the top of the hill. Three stone steps led up to the Gate itself, and the area immediately in front of the steps was paved with flagstones. The object he’d come to think of as a controller rose from the center of the paved area, and the whole installation was ringed by a circle of hewn stones, each roughly the size of a cinder block, pressed end-to-end into the grassy turf. About ten feet beyond this, a further perimeter was described by a quartet of standing stones, aligned with what were probably compass points. To all appearances, this space was still in use: the flagstones looked well-maintained, with only a few blades of grass poking up between them, and the perimeter blocks were clearly visible rather than being overgrown. So there were probably people, or whatever passed for people on this world, somewhere in the area. Hopefully they would turn out to be friendly rather than hostile.
He studied the controller. It was round, somewhat reminiscent of a sundial with a large red hemisphere occupying its center. Arranged in a double ring around the hemisphere were symbols corresponding to those on the Stargate itself. “Like dialing a phone,” Cromwell whispered to himself. “I wonder how you get Directory Assistance?” Dialing symbols at random seemed like good way to wind up in an even worse position than his current one.
From the plaza, a narrow dirt track in the turf curved down the slope of the hill and into the forest. Cromwell shrugged and set off along it, stopping just inside the treeline to stash the G-suit and harness under a half-rotten log. Stretching muscles still sore from the punishing gravity well that had led to his trip through the gate, he began to follow the trail deeper into the forest. Doing something felt better than doing nothing, even if all he could accomplish at the moment was a basic reconnaissance of the area. Besides, it wouldn’t hurt to see if he could find food and water, as well as some sort of shelter. There was no telling how long he might be here.
Captain Samantha Carter stood in the Control Room, surveying the Gate Room through newly replaced windows. Installation of the upgraded trinium-enhanced iris had been swift, and things looked to be getting back to normal. Well, almost normal, she amended. The memorial service for Henry Boyd and the rest of SG-10 was scheduled for 14:00, just under five hours from now. Due to the bizarre nature of the time dilation caused by the black hole that was slowly destroying P3W-451, they would be holding a memorial for a team who weren’t exactly dead yet, and wouldn’t be for a near-infinite span of time. However, they were completely, irretrievably lost to the SGC and the rest of the normal universe, and she supposed that was as close to dead as made little difference to the families and friends they left behind. Besides, it wasn’t as if the true nature of what had happened to them could be revealed to anyone outside the SGC. As far as their loved ones would ever know, they had simply died in the line of duty, their bodies lost to whatever disaster had been dreamt up by those responsible for making such explanations to anyone who could not be told the truth.
She wondered, however, whether there would need to be a memorial for yet another victim of the black hole. Colonel Frank Cromwell had fallen into the Stargate while helping Colonel Jack O’Neill set a shaped charge to explode in close proximity to the gate in an attempt to cause its connected wormhole to jump away from P3W-451 and spare the SGC and Earth from being destroyed by the black hole’s gravity well, which had been transmitted through the gate. After Cromwell had fallen into the wormhole, O’Neill finished arming the bomb, and Teal’c managed to pull him to safety before it detonated. The wormhole had jumped from P3W-451 to P2A-870, whereupon General Hammond had immediately ordered the gate shut down.
Only a few moments later, of course, the gate had been reactivated by an incoming wormhole as the the SG teams stuck off-world and out of contact while the SGC had been incapacitated by the gravity well’s time dilation effect began returning home. SG-6, with Daniel Jackson in tow, had been the second to arrive, returning from an archaeological dig on P3X-808. Upon being brought up to date regarding what had occurred in his absence, Daniel’s first question had been, “How is Jack?” His sixteenth, nearly a day later, was, “So, has anyone gone to P2A-870 to look for Colonel Cromwell?”
That was the one that had stopped them all cold. Everyone, including Carter, had just assumed Cromwell to be lost, victim to either the crushing pressure of the gravity well or the black hole itself. Not to mention the blast energies from the shaped charge that had detonated less than thirty seconds after his tumble into the gate’s event horizon. But what if they were wrong?
The exchange had sent her back to her calculations for yet another all-nighter, and although there were still a lot of variables she hadn’t been able to pin down, she now suspected the effects of time dilation on the internal properties of the wormhole meant there was an outside chance that Cromwell could have been still in transit when it skipped between Stargates. In that case, was it also possible that he had survived the journey to reach P2A-870 alive?
A hand closed gently upon her shoulder. Startled, Carter whirled to find Daniel behind her. Blue eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses surveyed her with an expression of concern. “Sorry, I didn’t realize you were so lost in thought. I didn’t mean to disturb you, Sam.”
She shook her head, giving him a tired smile. “It’s okay, Daniel. If I stand here any longer, I’ll start to put down roots. Want to go get a cup of coffee? I could use a walk.”
They found an empty table in a far corner of the commissary, and settled down with steaming cups. Carter turned hers around and around between her hands. “Have you seen the Colonel today?”
Daniel looked up from stirring his cup. “I thought he was still in the infirmary.”
“No, Janet told me last night that she was releasing him. I think he was probably starting to drive her crazy. You know how he hates to be stuck in one of those beds.”
The archaeologist shook his head. “That’s Jack for you. He probably went home to decompress and de-stress, maybe try to get some sleep in his own bed. It’s what I would have done after almost getting killed.”
“Don’t remind me of that.” She stared into the depths of her coffee. “I don’t know how I’d have lived with myself if he had been, considering it was my idea that had him rappelling into that gravity well with a bomb in the first place.”
“Sam, it isn’t like you had a choice. What you came up with was brilliant, from everything I’ve heard, and if it weren’t for you — and for Jack — we wouldn’t even be able to have this conversation.”
Carter sighed. “Thanks, Daniel. I’m just glad Teal’c was able to pull him back in time.”
The archaeologist fixed her with a penetrating look. “Okay, this is probably going to sound weird, especially coming from me, but have you gotten any sleep since all of this happened?”
She was busted, and she knew it. “I slept for almost eight hours after Janet told us the Colonel would be okay.”
“Mmm-hmm. And that was two days ago.”
“Daniel, I had work to do.”
“I understand wanting to catch up on things while we’re on stand-down, but honestly — ”
She interrupted him. “I’ve been doing some calculations, and it looks like there’s at least a chance Colonel Cromwell could have survived. A slim one, but it’s a chance all the same.”
His eyes went wide. “Does the General know?”
“Not yet. I mean, I only just finished figuring it out myself about half an hour ago. And General Hammond’s been tied up with preparations for the memorial service, so I haven’t had a chance to tell him yet.”
“Tell what to whom?” The deep voice accompanied the arrival of Teal’c at their table.
“Sam was just telling me that Colonel Cromwell might still be alive, on P2A-870.”
“Indeed. And you have not yet shared this information with General Hammond.” Not an affirmation; rather, a question, Teal’c-style.
“I haven’t had a chance,” replied Carter.
“Well, to be fair, Teal’c, she did just figure it out now.”
“Actually, I went looking for the General, but couldn’t find him either in his office or in the Control Room. That’s where Daniel found me, just a few minutes ago.”
“I see.” The Jaffa warrior pulled out a chair and joined them. “O’Neill will want to command the rescue mission.”
Carter massaged the space between her eyes. “There’s something else. I — I think there used to be some bad blood between him and Colonel Cromwell.”
That earned her two wide-eyed stares. Horrified, she realized the potential implication of what she had just said. “No! No! I wasn’t suggesting Colonel O’Neill would ever deliberately — ”
“Not in a million years — ”
“O’Neill would not — ”
They realized they were all talking at once. She went on, “What I meant to say was that Colonel O’Neill and Colonel Cromwell seemed to have had a history together, and it wasn’t a good one. But I also got the impression that something changed while they were getting ready to set that bomb.”
“That would explain the look on O’Neill’s face after Colonel Cromwell disappeared into the wormhole.” Teal’c finished her thought. Their CO’s expression had been one of complete anguish, made all the more horrific by their seeing it in slow-motion as he had still been deep in the high-gee zone near the Stargate at the time.
Daniel, having been off-world during all of this, was clearly at a loss. “Would one of you like to explain to me exactly what we’re talking about here? Sam?”
“When I first encountered Colonel Cromwell, he was in the Control Room. Colonel O’Neill introduced us. He said that Cromwell was here to rescue us, but then added, ‘don’t count on it’. The way he said it just sounded odd. Bitter. General Hammond showed up about a minute later, ordered the evacuation of the base and asked for two volunteers to stay behind to set the auto-destruct. The Colonel — Colonel O’Neill, I mean — volunteered. So did Colonel Cromwell. O’Neill didn’t seem happy about that at all, and asked for another volunteer. No one came forward, and Cromwell told him it looked like O’Neill was stuck with him. I didn’t quite catch what Colonel O’Neill said after that, but he was clearly unhappy about it.”
“Most unusual,” Teal’c observed.
“Also, I talked to Janet later on, and she mentioned that when she was being… escorted through the base by Colonel Cromwell and his men, and encountered Colonel O’Neill, he confirmed that he knew Cromwell. She got the same feeling I did, that there was animosity between them.”
Daniel drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “Do you think Jack’s told her anything more?”
“If he has, I doubt she’d tell me. Patient confidentiality and all that. But if I had to guess, I’d say she doesn’t know any more about it more than I do.”
Teal’c picked up the narrative. “After Captain Carter convinced General Hammond that allowing the base to self-destruct would be ineffective in shutting down the wormhole and averting the destruction of Earth by the black hole’s gravity, she devised the plan to detonate the shaped charge in proximity to the Stargate. Colonel Cromwell and O’Neill worked together to set the charge. At this point, they seemed to be working well together as a team and I detected no animosity between them. After the secondary windows of the Control Room shattered, injuring both men and causing them to slip farther down their ropes than anticipated, Colonel Cromwell appeared to be attempting to aid O’Neill in re-ascending the line. When Colonel Cromwell’s line broke, he caught and held onto O’Neill’s harness momentarily before falling into the wormhole. I distinctly saw O’Neill try to catch him as he fell, and I saw O’Neill’s face when he was unsuccessful.”
Carter pushed her empty cup away. “Daniel, he looked like a man who’d just seen his best friend die.”
Colonel Jack O’Neill sat on his couch, absently flipping through television channels. A bottle of beer, barely touched from the night before, had sweated a pool of condensation into its coaster on the coffee table before him. His body still ached from the abuse it had taken first in fighting, then being released from, the gravity field in the Gate room, but the past two days of rest and recovery had dulled the pain to a background level. The cuts on his neck and arms and the burns on his shoulders itched as they healed. He resisted the urge to scratch. Scratching was bad. He knew he was extraordinarily lucky, and was grateful to be both alive and on a world that wasn’t going to disappear down a the maw of a black hole. Carter’s genius had saved them; if ever there were a woman who deserved a medal, it was her. And probably Dr. Fraiser, too, just for having put up with him for the past forty-eight hours or so. O’Neill knew he was never a model patient even in the best of times. And this was most definitely not the best of times.
There was another pain, an even deeper ache that nothing Janet Fraiser could do would treat. Dammit, Frank. You were right. It’s hard as hell knowing you left someone behind in the field. Boyd and his team. And now you. It’s almost as hard as being the one who was left. Which, he supposed, described both of them now, each in their own way. Henry Boyd and SG-10 had been left behind on P3W-451, simply because there was no way to retrieve them. Jack knew he would carry that memory with him for the rest of his days, just as he carried the memory of his son’s death, Sara’s leaving, Kawalsky’s death. Just as he finally understood Frank Cromwell had carried the knowledge that he had left O’Neill behind in Iraq. Now Frank was dead, and O’Neill was left behind. Again.
The ringing of the phone interrupted his thoughts. He reached for the handset, groaning a bit as sore muscles and still-healing skin protested the motion. “O’Neill.” A pause. “Yes, sir. I’m fine, sir.” Another pause, longer this time. “I see, sir. Yes, I’ll be there.” A final pause. “Yes, thank you, sir. Goodbye, sir.”
Ah well, time to get up, grab a shower, and get moving. If he sat there much longer, he’d start getting all maudlin or something. There would be plenty of opportunity for that later on, after the memorial service. Damn, he hated these things. Hated the necessity, mostly. The sad fact of military life was that sometimes good people died. But he didn’t have to like it, and never would be comfortable with it. And perhaps, as long as he railed against it — at least on the inside — the memory of those good folks would burn just that much brighter. He hoped so, at least. Be a shame to expend all that energy for nothing. Not that he could stop himself if he tried.
Gah. Shower. Now. He had gotten his dress blues cleaned last month, hadn’t he? Damn…