Our strength is often composed of the weakness that we’re damned if we’re going to show. — Mignon McLaughlin
Sixty-seven minutes after O’Neill’s confrontation with Hammond in the Control Room, SG-1 stood in the Gate Room, waiting as the gate was dialed.
Samantha Carter glanced at O’Neill’s face as he prepared to lead them through the the gate to P2A-870. He looked almost… Well, ‘haggard’ was a term she hated to apply to her CO. But he was clearly still feeling the effects of all that had taken place recently. The fact that Janet had cleared him for this mission obviously meant that he was physically up to gate travel, but all the same, there was something just not quite right. Carter supposed that what she was seeing was the cumulative effects of physical and emotional trauma. If he were anyone else, she might be almost tempted to use the word ‘fragile’ to describe the way he looked and moved at present. But if there was one thing in the universe that Jack O’Neill was not, at least in her experience, it was fragile. A lot of other things, perhaps, but never that. Not even when he’d thought he was dying, lying there in the ice cave created by the Antarctic gate. Delirious, regretful, half-frozen, severely injured, and damn near dead, yes. Fragile, no.
She shook her head to clear it, and blinked as the familiar kawoosh of the unstable event horizon dominated the Gate Room for a second before settling into the calm ripple indicative of a stabilized wormhole. Watched the Colonel square his shoulders before turning to look first at Teal’c, then at Daniel and herself as the MALP trundled up the ramp and disappeared into the gate. She saw him fidget impatiently as they waited for the device to arrive on the other side and send back its telemetry. After what seemed an interminable interval even to her, General Hammond keyed the mike from the Control Room above. “SG-1, SG-5, MALP telemetry indicates mild weather conditions and no sign of snow. Also no sign of hostiles or any other presence in the immediate vicinity of the gate. You have a ‘Go’ for the mission. SG-5, proceed through the gate and set up a secure perimeter, then report back via radio. SG-1, you may embark as soon as SG-5 reports.”
After SG-1 shed the cold-weather gear they’d donned as a precaution, O’Neill continued to fidget while waiting for SG-5 to signal them. He turned to her and commented in a stage whisper, “You’d think we’d never gated solo to another planet before.”
Carter smiled in spite of herself. “Well, sir, to be honest, having a little help on this one isn’t a bad idea. If nothing else, it gives us more pairs of eyes and ears for the search.” She caught the split-second of bleakness in his eyes before he schooled his features to something closer to his normal demeanor. Carter felt a faint regret over her words. Not that she’d said anything wrong, she knew, but clearly her CO was on edge over this mission, and she’d apparently triggered something. This definitely means more to him than just the normal ‘leave no one behind’ thing, she realized.
SG-5 must have sent a signal back, because Hammond keyed the mike again. “Okay, SG-1, you’re cleared to embark. Godspeed.”
O’Neill was halfway up the ramp before the General finished speaking. Carter darted a glance at the other two team members as she jogged a little to keep up. Daniel gave her a nearly imperceptible shake of his head, while Teal’c merely raised an eyebrow. They caught up to O’Neill just at the verge of the event horizon, and the gate swallowed all four of them together.
Stepping out onto P2A-870, the first thing Carter noticed was bright sunshine and abundant greenery. As far as she could tell, the blizzard encountered during last month’s attempt to explore the planet must have been a meteorological fluke. Today’s weather was pleasantly warm. As the wormhole snapped out of existence behind them, SG-1 descended shallow stone steps to a flagstoned plaza. Lieutenant Barber already had SG-5 arrayed around the area, weapons at the ready. “We have secured the perimeter, Colonel,” he reported. “Still no sign of hostiles.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant.” O’Neill eyed their surroundings. The Stargate occupied a flattened circular plaza ringed by four stone megaliths atop a low hill surrounded by forest. He turned to his team. “Fan out, and we’ll comb the area from here to the edge of the forest. Maintain radio contact, and no one goes into the woods alone. If we find no sign of him in the open, we’ll split up into pairs and tackle the woods.”
Half an hour later, they had a good overall idea of the terrain immediately surrounding the gate, but there was no sign of Colonel Cromwell. However, Teal’c had noted a well-worn trail leading into the forest. It showed signs of recent use. O’Neill detailed Barber and his team to search the forest nearest the stargate and maintain radio contact while SG-1 investigated the trail.
As they followed the trail — almost more of a narrow road, really — all four members of SG-1 kept a sharp eye out for signs of any human activity or passage. Sam and Daniel noticed a number of trees and other plants that appeared to belong to Earth species. “Looks like there’s been some transplantation from Earth, Jack,” Daniel commented.
“Wonderful.” SG-1’s leader grimaced. “That means the Goa’uld were busy here, too?”
“So it would seem, O’Neill,” agreed Teal’c. “I have no personal experience with this world, however.”
“Sir, at least that means this trail was probably made by humans. If Colonel Cromwell is here, he may have been able to obtain shelter and aid from the local population.” Carter was determined to find something she could say that would lift the shadow from her CO’s eyes. Although, on closer inspection, it appeared that simply having arrived here and being engaged in some type of action was helping. He still seemed tense, but she recognized it as the tension of anticipation now, rather than of dread. She knew him well enough to be aware that as long as he was doing something positive, he would cope better than he would while merely waiting for something to happen. She often felt the same way herself.
“Carter, I hope you’re right,” O’Neill responded.
They hiked along for another couple of minutes in silence, until Daniel broke it with a question.
“Sam, there’s something I still don’t get.”
“What’s that, Daniel?”
He frowned, blue eyes squinting behind his glasses the way he always did when he was trying to visualize something just beyond his understanding. “Well, when the SGC dialed out to P3W-451, what caused the black hole’s gravity field to leak back through the wormhole? I didn’t even know that was possible.”
Carter shook her head. “Neither did I, actually, until it happened. But as far as I can tell from my calculations, it’s got to be part of the same mechanism that allows MALP telemetry and other comm signals to travel through the gate bi-directionally, even though matter transmission is strictly one-way. Conditions inside the wormhole simply affect matter and energy in different ways. The gate breaks down and reconstitutes whatever matter enters or exits, depending on whether it is in sending or receiving mode. That’s part of the difference between an incoming and an outgoing wormhole. But since energy is already energy, it gets transmitted in its original state. The gate doesn’t have to do anything to it, so it just passes through, regardless of what the gate itself is set to do. Gravity is energy, rather than matter, so it passed through the same way. This was the first time that we’d ever encountered a gravitational field of that magnitude, which is probably why we never noticed the effect before.”
“So gate technology treats matter and energy completely differently, right?” Daniel asked for clarification.
“Well, yes. I mean, inside the wormhole, everything is energy, and exists outside of our universe in a realm where the laws of physics operate differently from what we’re used to. The wormhole itself can theoretically be affected by structures in our universe projecting into this super-universe beyond, but within the wormhole, our physical laws simply don’t apply, which makes wormhole physics a completely different field. Once I went back and re-did the calculations last night, I realized this was the same reason why once Colonel Cromwell had passed our gate’s event horizon, the gravity and even the bomb blast would have ceased to affect him in any normal sense for as long as he remained within the wormhole. From there, it was only a matter of calculating how the energy introduced by the bomb would combine with the gravitational energy and the time dilation to affect the internal geometry of the wormhole itself, including the time it would take an energy pattern representing an object inside to complete transit from one end to the other, compared to how long it was from the time of entry until the wormhole jumped. Once we knew how far the jump was, that gave me some figures to work with that I didn’t have before. The model I’ve constructed still isn’t perfect, but it was close enough” — she waved an arm, indicating the forest around them — “to send us on a rescue mission.”
Daniel was nodding now, while Teal’c looked intrigued. Carter glanced at the Colonel and noticed that his eyes had taken on that glazed look he got whenever she tried to explain the science behind something.
“Care to simplify that for me, Captain? It sounds like you’re saying that we’re transmitted as energy when we travel through the gate, and we only become matter again as we exit. Have I got that even close to correct?”
She hid a smile. “What did you think ‘molecular deconstruction’ meant?”
“Did it ever occur to you that I’ve spent the past couple of years trying not to think about it?”
Cromwell glared at Nenniaw in the yellow lamplight. He had been herded into a nearby building by Nenniaw and the other man, whose name, he overheard, was Celyn. Tesni lit their way, at the same time supporting her nephew. She was silent, her face troubled in the flickering glow of the torch. Once inside, Celyn ushered a stumbling, bleeding Ris into an adjoining room and shut the door, leaving the other three alone. With Tesni translating, Nenniaw began by asking Cromwell exactly what had led to the fight.
Incredulous, Cromwell goggled at him. “I don’t know. What would you do if somebody took a flying leap at you from ten feet up?” he growled. The adrenalin was still in his veins; on top of that, he had finally run out of patience and didn’t particularly care who knew it. At this point, he’d been awake for damn near forty hours by his count, minus the twenty or thirty minutes he’d spent unconscious upon his arrival through the stargate. In that time, he’d led a strike force into a military base suspected of being overrun by hostiles; rappelled into a high-gee gravity well with a bomb; been sprayed with shattered glass; fallen through an even higher-gee zone after the line suspending him snapped; had his atoms disassembled, transmitted through God-knew-what permutations of spacetime and reassembled light-years from home; sustained a minor head injury; and then spent an entire day in the local equivalent of language school followed by several hours of trying to decide exactly how much of a security risk for Earth his presence here might pose, all before being leapt on in the pitch-darkness and having to fight his attacker only to find out it was just some local kid. And that was just a partial list. Yeah, just another peachy day at the office. Goddamn, I need a friggin’ smoke.
He could hear Tesni hiss sharply as she prepared to translate his sarcastic reply, but didn’t look at her. She spoke to him, though, after translating his words for Nenniaw. “Ris made a mistake, Frehnk. He was not meant to do this.”
“Well, then why did he?” He turned the glare on her now, at full intensity. To her credit, he noted that she didn’t flinch.
“He is young, and takes himself too seriously at times. He was simply to watch for danger from beyond the wall, as our watchers do on any other night. I do not think he expected you to be in the street.”
“But why leap on me like that? Am I not allowed to leave this place?”
“His choice of action was stupid and deserves discipline. However, I suspect he thought you were absolutely required to remain in my house, which is one error that is not his fault.” She cast a pointed look at Nenniaw, and spoke in Pridanic far too swift and complicated for Cromwell to follow. She appeared to be taking the other man to task for what had happened. Nenniaw responded hotly, and Tesni repeated whatever she had said. Nenniaw shook his head, gesturing at Cromwell as he responded again.
Impatient, Cromwell broke in. “Am I a prisoner or not?” He directed the question at Nenniaw, but he looked to Tesni to make sure his meaning got across. Tesni spoke again to Nenniaw, still too rapidly for Cromwell to follow more than a few words. He could see Nenniaw’s brow furrow. The response was equally fast, and Tesni translated.
“He says you are not a prisoner. You are a free man. But he would know why you were sneaking along the wall in the middle of the night.”
“Tell him I was looking for the way out, and I was under the impression that I might not be allowed to leave. Tell him I wanted to go back to the compass circle.” Tell him I want to go home, and I don’t have the first fucking clue how to do that.
Nenniaw listened as Tesni explained, then responded with a stream of Pridanic that left her nodding before turning to Cromwell.
“He says that you have enjoyed our hospitality, shared a meal with us, and been given shelter. These are the duty owed to a guest. But you came here a stranger, and by your clothing and your speech, you are not from our world. Honesty is the duty owed in return for hospitality, no? Nenniaw would know who you are and where you come from, and he would have you share that information with the cadlywydd in Dinas Coedwyg.” Tesni paused, then added what appeared to be her own explanation. “He says you are free, but he does not trust you yet. The cadlywydd will decide whether you can be trusted. We have enemies, and must be careful.”
She paused, then added, “I trust you, and will speak to the cadlywydd myself in your favor tomorrow when we see him. Please, remain here and go with us tomorrow. I give you my word that you will not be harmed or detained.”
“This cadlywydd will listen to you?” Cromwell asked.
A small smile. “He has reason to do so. Please, I can tell you no more right now. Let us go back and get what sleep we can.”
“I have friends who may come looking for me, and if I’m not here when they arrive — ”
She stopped him. “I will have Tegwyn keep watch. You can leave some sign with her to show them your presence. We will return here before nightfall.”
There was nothing for it but to agree. If it took more than a few days before the SGC sent a team to locate him, he knew it would be helpful to have people in the area who were friendly toward him. Cooperation now would help to ensure that, while refusal would likely alienate the locals, something would prefer not to do at the moment.
He shrugged, spreading his hands in aquiescence. “It seems I have little choice. What about Ris?”
“He will apologize to you in the morning, before we leave.”
Cromwell shook his head. “The boy was doing what he thought was his job, Tesni. I just want to know whether he is all right. I hit him pretty hard a time or two.” Truth be told, he was very glad that he hadn’t gotten to land the type of blows he might have managed had he not been been both dog-tired and fighting in nearly total darkness. Despite the very real fact that sometimes the forces he had to oppose — or even some of the ones he was expected to aid — included minors in their ranks, Cromwell was never comfortable with the idea. As far as he was concerned, combat of any sort was strictly a job for adults, and the thought of putting kids in harm’s way turned his stomach. Granted, with Ris it had been guard duty rather than the front line, but that didn’t change much, in Cromwell’s mind. The fact remained that the kid had been placed by his elders in a situation he wasn’t ready for, been given too little and/or possibly misleading information, and had misjudged what he should do as a result. Cromwell abhorred the thought that he might have seriously injured the youth over what was basically a misunderstanding.
Tesni shook her head. “I believe he is only bruised. He will recover.” She shrugged. “It is the price of making a mistake.”
Cromwell couldn’t keep the darkness from his voice. “He is lucky. The price could have been much higher.”
He and Tesni had spoken in the cobbled-together mixture of Welsh and Pridanic they had worked out over the course of the afternoon. Regardless, Nenniaw appeared to have at least gotten the basic gist of the conversation, probably from their tone and their mention of Ris by name, for he turned and motioned them both to follow him into the next room.
Ris sat on a bench against the wall, a blood-streaked cloth pressed to his face and a mug half-full of ale within reach. He started when they entered, but Celyn, seated next to him, stayed him with a quiet word. The boy looked pale in the lamplight, an impression only enhanced by the purple bruise beginning to bloom under one eye. Still, he was alert, which was a good sign. Cromwell reminded himself that at least the kid would probably heal quickly due to the resilience of youth.
Tesni planted herself squarely in front of Ris and unleashed a torrent of Pridanic, which was punctuated by the occasional short, sharp bark of reply from her nephew.
The three men — Celyn, Nenniaw, and, a second later, Cromwell — shared a look. Ris was getting his ass royally chewed by his aunt, Cromwell realized. Although the exchange was far too fast for him to follow, one look at the youth’s expression was enough to make him feel sorry for the kid. Hard on the heels of that came the unbidden thought, based on the tone of what he was hearing, that Tesni might well give his old drill instructor from ROTC field training a run for his money in terms of sheer vehemence. He fought to stifle the amusement generated by that image even as he reflected that there was clearly far more to this woman than appeared on the surface. He wondered again exactly what kind of situation he had been dropped into.
As Tesni concluded the verbal discipline session, Ris glanced in Cromwell’s direction, and said something that gave his aunt pause. She snorted, then turned to Cromwell with humor in her eyes.
“My nephew asks me to tell you that if you remain among us, he would be honored to receive lessons from you. After he has had some time to heal.”
Cromwell found he didn’t quite know how to respond to that. What he did know was that he was just about as bone-weary as he remembered being in a long time, and that dawn couldn’t be more than five or six hours off. If he was going to travel to Dinas Coedwyg at first light — and he had already decided he didn’t really have a better option at present — he was going to have to get some damn sleep first.
He allowed Tesni to lead him back to her house, although he insisted on carrying their light — a lantern this time — as well as the staff that had been returned to him at Tesni’s urging, even over Nenniaw’s objection. Once inside, Tesni lit a fat candle on the table, placing an amber glass chimney over it. The room seemed somehow more comfortable with a little light, Cromwell had to admit. If nothing else, it pushed back the external darkness, leaving him only his own internal supply to deal with.
Despite the fatigue that had overtaken him, he was unwilling to be seen keeling over into the oblivion he craved right now. Instead, he sank down on one of the benches and leaned his back against the table. Let Tesni go to bed, then you can crawl off into your corner and pass out. Less embarrassing for both of you. He reached up to massage his forehead, where the headache that had taken up residence earlier in the day was beginning to make its presence more strongly felt. He noted with disgust the visible tremor in his hand as he did so. The adrenalin rush had passed, and that combined with forty hours of wakefulness left him on the verge of the shakes. He’d been there before, and always hated the feeling. Dammit, get it the fuck together, Cromwell.
Tesni must have noticed too, because she gestured firmly toward his pallet. “Please, lie down and sleep.”
“I will. Just give me a moment.” When she said nothing, he glanced up. “Go back to bed. I will be all right.”
Tesni fixed him with an exasperated stare, of exactly the sort one might use on a recalcitrant child who’d insisted on staying up long past bedtime. Making her way around the end of the table with a sigh, she sat down on the same bench, perhaps a foot away from him. Her expression softened a bit as she reached out slowly to pull a piece of dry grass from his hair. He held very still at the touch.
“I do know what tired men look like,” she said quietly. “You need rest. I need rest. Do not concern yourself over tomorrow. Nenniaw talks much, but the cadlywydd will listen to me, and Nenniaw will listen to the cadlywydd. If your friends come while we are gone, Tegwyn will keep them here. It will be easier if you give some token she can show them, but she will do it.”
“Tesni, why do you trust me, when Nenniaw does not?” Cromwell was genuinely curious.
She gave him another of those small smiles. “I understand people, Frehnk. Better than Nenniaw does, although he is not usually so thick-headed as he is at present. I spoke with you for most of the day, and by the end I said to myself, ‘Now here is a man who is lost. He is not where he means to be.’ No?”
He shook his head, couldn’t help the wry smile. “A good way to put it.” What’s the Pridanic word for ‘understatement’?
“You said you want only to return home, but you do not know the symbols for your world, and that is why you remain. I believe that, and so I think you mean us no harm. That is what I will tell the cadlywydd.”
“And he will believe you?” Cromwell still had his doubts.
Tesni clearly did not share them. “He will.” She gave him a questioning look. “You have told me the truth, as much as you have told me anything. I think also you are reluctant to tell me more.”
How could he explain it to her? And more importantly, why did he feel as though he should? Because you’re hell and gone from home, and this woman is the closest thing you have to a friend here, that’s why. He sighed. “It is nothing to do with you. Just a very long story, and one I am too tired to tell now.” Even if I dared, which I don’t, and I have no idea what I’m going to tell your cadlywydd tomorrow, but I’ll think of something.
She reached out again, gently brushing another blade of grass from his hair. He closed his eyes, then forced them open again after a second. “So sleep, before morning comes,” she said. She was silent a moment, as if in thought, before asking, “Do you trust me?”
Cromwell examined the question, and realized that it was completely separate from the one he’d already spent hours wrangling. He didn’t trust the situation he was in, not so far as he could throw this house. But Tesni herself? Yes, he decided.
“I trust you.” God knows why, but I do.
She nodded solemnly. “Then believe me when I tell you that all will be well, or as much so as I can make it.” She rose from the bench then, and gestured once more toward the pallet. “I say again, sleep while you can.”
He was past fooling her at this point, Cromwell realized. He nodded this time, standing and making his way across the room to fall, exhausted, onto the makeshift bed. With eyes half-closed, he watched as she turned back to the table. Pausing over the candle, she looked a question.
“Blow it out,” he mumbled. They had to make their own candles here, he was sure, and the inside of his eyelids was all he’d be looking at for the next few hours anyway. Even as he completed the thought, sleep took him.