You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. — Lazarus Long (R.A. Heinlein, The Notebooks of Lazarus Long)
The trail wound through green woodlands, at one point crossing a stream by the means of a stone footbridge. From the look of the foliage, it was high summer here. Cromwell suspected it might get quite warm before the day was over. He hiked along, keeping his senses tuned for any sign that he might be followed or watched. He’d taken up a long, thick branch for both a walking stick and weapon, since he had fallen through the gate unarmed. He’d rather have had his sidearm, but would have to make do with his hand-to-hand skills if he ran into trouble.
He noticed that the forest had many plants that were indistinguishable from plants on Earth, interspersed with others he had never seen before. It was a puzzling mixture, one he couldn’t make head nor tail of. As far as he knew, the Stargate on Earth had only been in operation for a handful of years, yet here were oak trees that must easily be decades or even centuries old, growing on a planet that had to be light-years from Earth.
Cromwell was no scientist, but he understood science well enough. Since boyhood, he’d been interested in science fiction, and also intensely curious about how the real world worked. Two different angles of approach led him to an appreciation, if not perhaps always a full understanding, of the physical universe he inhabited. As an adult, he’d maintained subscriptions to magazines like Scientific American, Omni and Discover. He figured he understood maybe three-fourths of what they printed, but it was enough to give him a pretty good grasp of how things worked. And everything he’d ever read said that convergent evolution of the sort that would faithfully replicate an oak tree on an alien world was baloney, so how in the hell had plants from Earth wound up on whatever planet this was? Something didn’t add up. Oh, he fully believed he was on another world. His Top-Secret briefings confirmed that the Stargate program put Earth in contact with extraterrestrial worlds and made physical travel between them possible. He knew the Air Force might not have shown him all the cards; however, even after years of estrangement, he had absolute faith in Jack O’Neill. Jack wouldn’t have lied to him about the reality of travel to alien planets. Besides, there was that strange sky last night. Ergo, this was an alien world. But Cromwell could see that obviously there was a lot more to the story than he’d been told.
A sound from up ahead made him pause. A moment later, it came again: a high-pitched whistle not unlike those that he and his boyhood friends had used to signal each other while playing in the woods behind his grandmother’s house in the hills of northern Pennsylvania, during summer vacations when he would spend several weeks visiting. He scanned the area, looking for movement or for outlines different from the shapes and colors of the woodland itself. There, half-hidden behind the bole of a tree about thirty yards distant on the other side of a shallow, slow-moving river, was a human-sized figure clad in dusky blue. Assuming that he — or she — was the source of the whistle he had heard, there had to be at least one companion in the area, since the whistle was most likely a signal. He turned slowly, beginning a 360-degree visual sweep. Another figure, this one in yellow, occupied a position about fifteen feet off the ground in a tree several yards from the first. It was hard to tell from this distance, but they appeared human. Damn, what he wouldn’t have given for a set of binoculars. Note to self: next time you’re gonna be stranded offworld, Cromwell, you need to pack better.
Well, he’d planned to investigate whether this world was inhabited. Moving more slowly than before, he continued along the path he’d been traveling. The trail widened a bit at this point, leading to the water’s edge, where a well-built wooden bridge spanned the flow, connecting this portion of the trail to another that disappeared into the woods on the other side. He estimated he had traveled about a mile and a half from the Stargate. The bridge likely meant there was a settlement of some sort not far ahead. The ill-concealed figures on the opposite shore of the shallow river could be anything from sentries to local youths playing hide-and-seek. They had almost certainly seen him, so in short order the local population would be aware of his presence. It was time to meet the natives.
Tightening his grip on his makeshift staff and squaring his shoulders, he set out across the bridge. Up ahead, the two figures detached themselves from the trees and approached their side of the bridge to take up places at its corner posts. Roughly fifteen feet from the far end of the bridge, Cromwell paused to study them. The one he’d seen first was the taller of the two by about six inches, apparently male, and clad in a blue homespun tunic, gray trousers, and leather shoes. His companion was female, wearing a slightly longer tunic of sunny yellow over similar trousers and shoes. Both appeared utterly human, with fair complexions and sandy hair, which the female wore in a plait falling over one shoulder. They looked to be in their mid-teens, and regarded his approach with expressions that seemed to indicate a mixture of curiosity and mild apprehension. He took another step forward, holding his staff in his left hand, his right hand held away from his body, palm open to show that it was empty. The girl glanced at her companion, and together they sketched a slight bow, ducking their heads and looking at the ground before straightening and meeting his gaze.
Suddenly, a voice rang out sharply from behind them. The teens turned as a woman emerged around a bend in the path and stopped to stare at the stranger on the bridge. Appearing to be in her early to mid-thirties, she was dressed similarly to the younger two, her tunic a dusty rose color and belted with a colorful cord. Dark brown hair hung loose in waves to her shoulders, and she carried a basket. She spoke to the teenaged pair in a questioning tone, gesturing with her chin toward Cromwell, and they responded with a flurry of speech and hand gestures, apparently outlining his approach from the woods and their sighting of him on the trail. Cromwell, being no linguist, couldn’t place the language they were speaking but he also couldn’t shake the impression that it sounded like something he ought to be able to follow. Maybe it was the addition of the hand gestures, which lent just enough meaning that the speech played tricks on his mind. He knew the human brain attempted to engage in pattern-matching, even when it had no real referents for the information it took in.
The woman approached the end of the bridge, watching him intently. Slowly, Cromwell took another step toward her, watching as she ran her eyes up and down, taking in his appearance, what was to her surely some odd garb, and also noting his apparent lack of weaponry beyond the staff he carried.
As he watched, she appeared to come to a decision. Her expression softened, even showing the guarded hint of a smile, and she too bowed her head slightly, as she beckoned him to join them on the creek bank. He did so, inclining his own head slightly in what he hoped would pass for an appropriate greeting among these people. She spoke again, the words seeming to dance just beyond his comprehension. There were no accompanying gestures this time, and yet his brain still insisted that he should be able to grasp what she’d said. The hair on the back of his neck prickled. Here was another piece in an increasingly convoluted puzzle. He had been flung light-years from Earth, arriving on an alien world orbiting another star, to find not only familiar flora, but people who appeared to be as human as himself speaking a language he felt himself on the verge of understanding.
A flash of memory brought to mind his grandmother. Lydia Eynon Cromwell had been born and raised in Wales, coming to the United States as a young woman after the First World War. She spoke Welsh as well as English, and had taken great pride in seeing to it that her children and grandchildren learned to speak at least a modicum of their ancestral tongue. His childhood self had found it fascinating enough to learn more than a little. While this language was not itself Welsh, he realized, its sounds and patterns were similar enough that his brain kept trying to fit them to that framework, and it was this that gave him the feeling that he ought to understand them.
While turning this revelation over in his mind, he allowed himself to be led along the trail through another short patch of woods and into a clearing. What he saw there gave him pause. A wall of timber and stone rose ten feet high, surmounted by a walkway upon which people moved about. A wide gate in the wall showed what appeared to be a village square, surrounded by homes and workshops. His guides led him through the gate and into the village, to a table beneath a thatched awning, where he was urged to a seat on a wooden bench while the woman gabbled to the teen girl in not-Welsh and the girl brought him a mug of something cool that smelled of sweetness with a mild tang of alcohol. Warily, he took a small sip. It turned out to be fermented cider. He raised his eyes above the rim of the cup to see the girl peering at him anxiously. He gave her a smile, which she returned shyly. There was a nudge at his elbow and he turned to see the older woman placing a plate of bread on the table before him. Okay, so clearly food and drink were not going to be a problem, at least for the moment.
While all of this was going on, the boy took a seat on the other side of the table, then suddenly rose again and waved, calling to someone across the square. Cromwell looked to see three men approaching. They looked to be around his own age, and carried themselves with a military bearin. As they arrived beside his seat, Cromwell began to rise. The man in the middle smiled and waved him back into his seat, then pulled up a neighboring bench and seated himself, flanked by his companions. He spoke something akin to the same greeting that the woman had spoken at the bridge, then followed with what was, from its inflection, a question. Cromwell could only shake his head and shrug, trying frantically to parse what his mind still insisted ought to be intelligible speech. The other man frowned slightly, and spoke again. This time, the sounds were somewhat different. Another language, something other than the not-Welsh this time?
Cromwell was at a loss. He’d known communications would be a problem but hoped he could solve it. He decided to take a chance.
“Fy enw i yw Frank,” he began. “Nid wyf yn siwr fy mod yn deall chi.” My name is Frank. I am not sure I understand you.
He watched as the three men took on puzzled expressions, and suspected they were now sharing the same feeling he’d had since he first heard the teenagers speaking at the bridge. Well, it was a start.