Nothing is too high for the daring of mortals. We storm heaven itself in our folly. — Horace


Cromwell pounded his way along the winding trail, one of many that formed a network crisscrossing the forest between Llanavon and Bren Argoed. Each breath he drew brought with it the heady scent of the woodland: rich humus, the tang of pine, the scent of flowering plants that formed part of the underbrush. Birdsong filled the forest as its avian inhabitants greeted the dawn; jays scolded him from the boughs of oak and ash as he passed below. In the pale light of the newly-born day, leafy branches at the narrowest points of his route anointed him with dew as he brushed past them, adding their moisture to the sweat of his body.

At the height of summer, just after dawn was the sole time when it was both cool enough to run and bright enough to see the trail easily. Despite the effort he knew he’d put forth during a daily schedule of activities that might include anything from drill with his unit to working in the fields upriver, he preferred to begin most mornings with a run. It was a habit begun in his youth as a high school athlete who ran cross-country, played football and wrestled, and which he’d carried on for more than thirty years since, down to the present day. As someone who pursued a military career, this natural inclination to activity had perhaps made PT a less odious chore for him than for some of his fellows over the years. The exertion had always served a twin purpose, both conditioning his body and clearing his mind, allowing him to face the coming day with as much equanimity as he could muster. Though there’d been times past when no matter how far he ran, he couldn’t muster much of it at all…

He found it easier to summon that mental state now than he had in many years. Some of that was no doubt due to the peace that he and Jack had finally made between themselves a year ago. Despite telling Tesni he suspected the absence of any search team from Earth was because they thought he was dead, he still worried about his friend’s fate in random moments. But the knowledge that he had made amends and cleared the air with Jack, no matter what had happened afterwards, gave Cromwell more peace of mind than he’d known in a long time.

Another source for the increased sense of peace that had begun to settle in his soul these days was, of course, Tesni herself. Their marriage was definitely good for him, he knew, and he certainly hoped it was as beneficial for her. She’d seemed happy these past three weeks as they embarked on their shared life, and he found he could easily picture them growing old together — still happily married two, perhaps even three decades hence if he were lucky.

He’d be nearing eighty by that latter point, and would have long outlived his father at either of them. Owen Cromwell had died of a sudden heart attack at the age of fifty-two, when his sole remaining son was a junior at the University of Tennessee. By contrast, Clarence Cromwell — the colonel’s grandfather — had lived to see his eightieth birthday, passing peacefully in his sleep not long afterward when the colonel was a young second lieutenant at Nellis, his first duty station. If the job doesn’t get me, here’s hoping I take after Grandpa and not Dad. It was another thought that hadn’t crossed his mind from the end of the Gulf War until the day he’d rappelled into a freak gravity well with Jack at his side. If at any time in the eight-plus years between those events the dangerous job he’d chosen had gotten him, he knew he’d likely have regarded his own death as a relief, more than anything. Now, however, although he had a similar and no less dangerous job, he also had something to live for.

He reached the crossroads where a connecting trail led off toward the fields and orchards that supplied a portion of Llanavon’s food and turned onto it, slowing marginally in compensation for the gentle upward slope. At the top of the rise, the terrain flattened before rising again. This pattern repeated twice more over the next couple of klicks as the trail climbed the terraced hill. Cromwell followed it until just before the beanfield, where a broader trail skirted the cultivated land, looping back toward the river and following it through the trees to join the main trail that led from Llanavon to the compass circle and the stargate. The downward grade toward the river was a trial for legs fatigued by the upward push just completed and he worked to control both speed and stride while his breathing and heart rate began to fall off from what they’d been during the earlier climb.

The circuit he followed this morning was his normal routine, and by the time he reached the river itself he generally was in the zone where mind and body had reached a certain harmonic equilibrium, his mind clear and his legs moving nearly of their own accord. Today was no different, and he loped along the riverbank at a reduced pace, beginning a cool-down phase that would see him re-enter the village ready for a visit to the baths and the commencement of the day’s tasks.

As he neared the village, he approached the place where yet another trail met the one he followed, just before the turnoff leading to the compass circle. The soft thud of footsteps reached his ears from beyond the screen of trees and brush before he reached the confluence of the two lesser trails, and he slowed slightly lest he collide with whomever was coming. He suspected he knew the other runner’s identity, and was rewarded a moment later when Tesni appeared, turning onto the trail just ahead of him and at a pace that matched his own. The colonel drew up alongside her with a smile that she echoed, the two of them unconsciously falling into stride together as they covered the last half-klick to the gate in the village wall.

He’d discovered early on in their acquaintance that her daily routine mirrored his own in this regard, when he’d encountered her early one morning perhaps a week after his arrival, running flat-out along the road that led to Dinas Coedwyg. The next day, she’d shown him some of her favorite routes along the local trails and then left him to his own devices, perhaps sensing even then that his exertions had more than one goal. He and Tesni could of course choose to share the entirety of their morning run, and in recent months they sometimes did. Despite his slightly longer stride, she had little trouble matching his speed; neither did she lack his endurance. The gap of thirteen or fourteen years — depending on whose calendar he was using — between their ages clearly helped to make up for differences in gender and training, bringing them close in line in this, at least. Still, Cromwell knew his bride was by now well aware of his craving for some small measure of solitude in which to order his thoughts on any given day. He did this best while physically engaged, and so she accompanied him on his morning run solely at his invitation, otherwise joining him only for this last stretch after following a different route of her own choosing.

She seemed wholly unperturbed at this arrangement, and when he’d recently asked her whether she were indeed content with it, she’d smiled and responded, “Do you think you’re the only one who needs some time alone now and then, Nye? We’re not so different, and this is one more thing in which I suspect we’re more alike than either of us may have thought.”

They slowed to a walk as they approached the village gate. A gentle breeze rustled the foliage, the moving breath of air raising gooseflesh on the colonel’s sweat-damp, naked back even as it promised another hot, humid day to come. He looked forward to visiting the baths and then enjoying a cup of tea and some breakfast before the heat of the day began to assert itself. Today was a non-drill day, and he knew he would spend most of it in meetings with Cadogan, along with the cadlywydd‘s other senior staff in local residence. There was also the inevitable paperwork — well, ‘waxwork’ given the use of diptychs for much of it — that went with command of a military unit, even one so small as his own. At least I’ll get to spend most of the day in the shade.

“Don’t forget, tomorrow is Tegwyn’s birthday,” Tesni reminded him as they crossed the village square toward home. “The family are planning a small party for her at Bennaeth Bod in the afternoon, leading into the village gather night tomorrow evening.”

He grinned. “So Bennaeth Bod will be overrun with teenaged boys, I take it?” Tegwyn would be turning fifteen on the morrow. Tesni’s niece was blossoming into a lovely young woman, and Cromwell knew she had her share of admirers among Llanavon’s complement of adolescent boys, most of whom were friends of her brother. Ris was a bit protective of his younger sister, though so far none of the other boys had managed to offend. The colonel chuckled inwardly, recalling dynamics within his own social circle at around the same age.

Although Vietnam had unfortunately deprived him of Nick’s presence, he’d nevertheless taken the bulk of his far more extroverted brother’s advice — dispensed via letters while Nick had been in the Army — to heart and at least attempted to employ it in high school. Being naturally on the shy side, however, he’d still found himself engaged more often in admiration from afar than direct interaction when it came to his female classmates. It wasn’t until college that he’d found himself becoming anything resembling confident when it came to women, and even that had come about only after he’d donned the uniform of an AFROTC cadet. Controversy over the ongoing war in Vietnam meant the sight of a military uniform reaped mixed reactions on campus, but a number of women seemed to be attracted to male cadets. This wasn’t the reason he’d opted to enroll in ROTC; a chance at tuition money and a genuine desire to serve his country had driven that decision. In truth, he’d found even the positive attention he’d sometimes garnered in uniform to be its own source of embarrassment, but his first real girlfriend had come along after he’d made his commitment by accepting an AFROTC scholarship for his sophomore through senior years. He and Pam had chosen to part company midway through his junior year, and he’d opted afterward to concentrate on his studies and preparation for his coming military career rather than actively pursuing the dating scene… but it had been fun while it lasted.

Here in Llanavon, it was a foregone conclusion that virtually every young person, male or female, would serve the Am Rhyddid in some capacity upon reaching adulthood regardless of whatever other livelihood they might also pursue. Ris and Tegwyn were already training in that regard, with Cromwell himself as one of their instructors. He reflected privately that Tegwyn likely had little need of her brother’s protection. Not only were most of the local boys well-behaved, but Tegwyn, despite her diminutive size, was perfectly capable of taking care of herself should any of them attempt to cross a line with her. The rather spectacular bruise she’d given her brother during a sparring session the previous week was ample evidence of this, and the colonel had been hard-pressed not to chuckle when she’d delivered the blow that caused it. The look of surprise on Ris’ face had been priceless, although after ascertaining that the injury was largely confined to the young man’s pride, Cromwell had quickly turned the incident into a teaching moment on the importance of never underestimating an opponent, even one whose measure you thought you had long since taken.

“Yes, and Idris has suggested you might help him with crowd control,” joked Tesni.

“Oh, has he?” The colonel chuckled aloud this time at his brother-in-law’s droll, dry sense of humor, even delivered secondhand via Tesni. He saw in Idris occasional glimpses of what he suspected Nick might have been like by middle age, even though Idris was younger than himself rather than older, as Nick had been. There was just something in Tesni’s brother that echoed portions of his own brother’s character, and as a result Cromwell felt a kinship with him that went beyond the adoption and marriage that made them family in the eyes of the Pridanic community. “It’ll cost him.”

Tesni gave him a sidelong smile. “Hmmm. What’s your price, so I can tell him?”

He laughed again. “I’ll decide that after I’ve taken a good look at his wine cellar.” Bennaeth Bod did in fact boast a rather nice wine cellar, which Idris and Cadogan kept well-stocked both with Tyr Awyri vintages and others brought in from elsewhere among the Five Worlds. Cromwell was far from being a wine connoisseur, but he knew what he liked when he encountered it and both Tesni and Cadogan, along with Idris himself, had seen to the education of the colonel’s palate with regard to what the Celtic worlds had to offer. He had taken readily to their instruction, conducted as it was in the context of family dinners.

“Mercenary,” Tesni said, chuckling.

“There’s a first time for everything,” he replied with another grin.


Cromwell found Cadogan in the baths. The cadlywydd lounged in the facility’s soaking pool, flanked by Nenniaw and Gerlad, the three of them deep in conversation.

“Good morning, Neirin,” said Cadogan by way of greeting. “I trust you passed a pleasant night?”

It was the cadlywydd‘s standard formula for a morning greeting, and Cromwell smiled. “Yes, thank you.” He dropped the pair of sandals he carried to the floor beside a nearby bench, then set a towel-wrapped bundle on the bench itself, extracting clean clothing and placing it in one of the wall storage cubes provided before laying out soap, razor and washcloth.

Taking a seat, he began to unlace the combat boots he’d worn on his arrival through the stargate. He’d had to replace the laces with new cording recently, but the boots themselves were still in good shape. The colonel didn’t wear them for drill or maneuvers anymore as he had long since acquired a perfectly serviceable pair of the sturdy brown leather boots that formed a standard part of the Am Rhyddid uniform, such as it was. He still insisted on wearing his watch, but felt he could pass that off as found technology, having seen Cadogan and some of the other Tok’bel wear personal chronometers on occasion. It was less easy to explain a pair of boots in a style noticeably different from that worn by his men, and while laced boots weren’t uncommon for general use among the Pridani, the cut of USAF standard-issue differed enough from the local version to invite questions. They made good running shoes, though, or at least he was accustomed to running in them. If he wore the loose trews in which he exercised over them rather than tucked in, most of what set them apart was hidden.

Here, in the presence only of men who knew the peculiarities of his origin if not its details, the colonel didn’t bother to hide his unique footwear as he removed it. After tugging off his unlaced boots he stripped to the skin, taking up soap and cloth before turning to the washing pool. He stepped in, finding the water comfortable at this time of day.

Getting due for another trip to the barber, he observed while washing his hair. He had kept his hair regulation-length or even shorter throughout his entire Air Force career, and since coming to Tir Awyr he’d allowed it to grow only that slight bit truly necessary to blending in with the local population. Thankfully, the men of Llanavon tended to wear their hair fairly short as well; Cromwell wasn’t sure he could have dealt with having his own much longer than its current length, not quite an inch beyond what he’d been accustomed to. He’d adjusted well enough to the local style of clothing and ways of doing everyday tasks, but retaining what little he could of his prior life brought him a sense of comfort and continuity. While it was true that he felt less need now to hold tightly to his past as an anchor in his present than he had perhaps six or eight months ago, that didn’t mean he was willing to give it up altogether.

He completed his ablutions while listening to the conversation between Cadogan and his companions in the next pool. Most of it centered around the unit under Nenniaw’s command, and Cromwell got the sense that the senior filwriad was delivering an informal report. Moving to the shaving mirror, he reviewed the situation in his own unit, mentally composing a report that he could give to the cadlywydd verbally, even though he knew he would later have to make a written version as well. Cadogan’s memory for detail was uncanny, and the colonel wondered how much of that was the man’s own ability and how much was a product of his symbiotic relationship with Sabar. Either way, he’d quickly discovered that if you told Cadogan something, the cadlywydd retained it. Nevertheless, written records were kept of most things, and Cromwell suspected that much of this was also duplicated in whatever data storage was connected to the electronic tablet devices used by the Tok’bel. Certainly he’d seen Cadogan and Sabar make use of one on a regular basis.

Cromwell finished shaving — the habit of going clean-shaven was something else he was glad to note was common among Pridanic men as well — and joined the others in the soaking pool. The hot water felt good on muscles gone tight with the exertion of his run and the other exercises he generally put himself through most mornings.

He knew that Nenniaw and most of the other local command personnel followed similar routines, as did those under them even outside of what passed for group PT among the Am Rhyddid. Just because most of your soldiers were also farmers and craftsmen, that didn’t mean you could field a fighting force that wasn’t fit and expect to get anywhere. Nor could you lead a fit fighting unit effectively if you didn’t push yourself hard enough to serve as an example. What was comparatively easy at twenty-five or thirty-five might take more effort at forty-seven or forty-eight, but the colonel prided himself on his ability to match the majority of his men in most contests — even besting many of them, despite being older than even the eldest among them by a handful of years.

He reflected again that one thing he found truly impressive about Tesni was in fact the extent to which she could keep up with him in trail running, considering her gender and slightly shorter legs. Given how hard he pushed himself and measured his own abilities against those of the younger men in his command, he found himself hard-pressed to believe that the mere age differential between himself and his wife could fully account for her matching him as well as she did, though it certainly must be a factor. Still, he figured either he was losing more ground than he’d anticipated at this point in his life — and his men with him, for some reason —or there was another element at work of which he was unaware. The first possibility was cause for concern, while the latter mystified him.

Leaning back against the side of the pool, he stretched his legs, flexing his ankles as the water lapped about his chest. “By thunder, that feels good,” he commented.

“Long run this morning?” inquired Nenniaw.

“No longer than usual,” the colonel replied. “I took the hill trail yesterday, and I think I’m still feeling it.” The hill trail, true to its name, ran out past the tilled fields and into the hills beyond, working its way up- and down-slope among the orchards. It was in fact an access route for those orchards, but Cromwell and others often used it for hiking and running as well.

“Did Tesni go with you?” asked Cadogan.

The colonel shook his head. “On the hill trail? No, she ran the route she usually takes, at least as far as I know.”

The cadlywydd nodded. “I see. Actually, though, I meant to ask about today.”

Gerlad took up the thread of Cadogan’s explanation. “I saw you coming back into the village together just a while ago, and mentioned it. Cadogan thought perhaps you had run the same trails today.”

Cromwell supposed that was a logical assumption. “No, not today. Lots of days I’m so busy that a run is my only private time to think,” he admitted. “Tesni knows that. I think she probably takes the same approach, to be honest.”

Another nod from Cadogan. “She often has. Maybe not so much when she was training for a race, but on a normal day, certainly.”

A race? An alert began chiming softly in the background of the colonel’s thoughts. “I’m sorry?”

Nenniaw grinned and took up the conversation. “A race. You know, a footrace, like the one held last month, before the heat got so bad. That young lady Ris likes so much won it, remember?”

He did remember. Young Nia had managed to cover herself with glory, earning even more admiration from his protégé. While the Pridani didn’t have anything remotely resembling the scholastic sports structure common to American schools, physical culture was important to them and he knew that many of their youth — though not exclusively youth — enjoyed training and competing in athletic contests and games as representatives of their communities in a manner not dissimilar to that of the ancient Greeks. The race Nia won had included runners from throughout the district surrounding Dinas Coedwyg, and had strongly resembled the cross-country meets in which Cromwell himself had participated as a teen.

“I take it Tesni used to do the same thing? She’s never mentioned it to me.”

Cadogan laughed. “I’m surprised, though I suppose I shouldn’t be. Tesni’s never been one for self-promotion, but yes, she used to compete in quite a few races and other events when she was a young girl, and even into her early twenties. She hasn’t competed in the older groups, though, even though I’ve suggested it more than once. I think she’s afraid of spoiling things for everyone else.”

Now Cromwell was beyond curious. “All right, what is it you haven’t told me, Cadogan?”

His uncle fixed him with an innocent gaze. “Me? It isn’t my story to tell, Neirin.”

The colonel wasn’t having any. “Cadogan…”

Beside him, Nenniaw stifled a laugh as the cadlywydd waved his hands in mock surrender. “Well, I certainly hope she doesn’t have some reason for not having told you this, Neirin, because she’ll have my hide,” Cadogan began. The merry look on his face belied any real concern over the likelihood of his niece’s retaliation. “Tesni didn’t just run the races she was in; she won nearly all of them. For several years in a row. She set a speed record at the age of twenty that still hasn’t been broken in this district, by any age or either gender, and it was on an endurance course.”

The pieces fell into place, and Cromwell barely kept his jaw from dropping. So his wife had been a star athlete in her youth. Clearly she had taken care to maintain her abilities, once honed. It was one more thing they had in common, except that her record far outshone his. He hadn’t been any sort of athletic star, merely the sort of mid-grade, hard-working participant needed on nearly every team. It was enough. He’d never entertained any fantasies about winning football scholarships or competing in the Olympics. He’d always played for fun and self-satisfaction, no matter what the sport.

It sounded like Tesni had taken things more seriously than that, though now she seemed to run for her own enjoyment and well-being. It explained her ability to match him on the trail, however. “I’m almost afraid to ask this, Cadogan, but you wouldn’t happen to recall exactly what that record was, would you?”

Cadogan told him. A moment’s conversion in his head gave the colonel its equivalent in the Earth terms with which he’d grown up, and he resisted the urge to laugh in relief. Tesni could have been an Olympic hopeful, on his home world. He knew that he had never come close to her lifetime best. Even fifteen years on, she was fast, but at least now he knew he’d made no mistake in timing himself on his own runs. Good grief, I was beginning to worry there. Now I don’t feel so bad.

“I had no idea,” he admitted. “She’s never said a word to me about any of it.”

The cadlywydd shrugged. “That’s Tesni for you. We were all quite proud of her, and still are. But I suppose I’m not surprised she never mentioned it to you, and it isn’t something you’d necessarily hear about in casual conversation.” He grinned. “If you’re worried about keeping up with her, don’t be.”

Cromwell chuckled. “I’m not, at the moment. Ask me again in a few years, though.” Like when I’m fifty, and she’s still in her thirties. That’ll be interesting, I don’t doubt. Dear God.

His remark had set the other three to laughing. The colonel thought he detected an odd, faraway look in Cadogan’s eyes, behind the mirth, though it vanished before he could be certain.

As the quartet settled back into conversation, they were joined by Armagil, Cromwell’s erstwhile company clerk who now served as Gerlad’s occasional assistant, although he was still a member of the colonel’s unit. The young man had likely come from a workout of his own, for he walked in sweat-covered, his dark hair plastered against his scalp. After a wash and a shave, he eased himself into the soaking pool next to his CO. “Good morning, filwriad Neirin,” he said respectfully, before turning to the others and repeating, “Good morning.”

Cromwell returned the greeting with a smile. “Good morning, Armagil.” He glanced back to Cadogan, who had just begun to outline an idea when the younger man joined them. “Now then, what was this you were saying about Goa’uld ships?”

Cadogan shrugged. “It isn’t my idea; it’s Sabar’s. The Tok’bel have some craft we’ve managed to collect, mainly ger’tak, the small fighter ships the Goa’uld deploy from the ha’tak carriers for space and atmospheric fighting. They aren’t much good without a carrier craft, because they only have short-range capability. They can’t get above the speed of light, or even close to it, so they’re only useful within a planetary system or in a localized volume of space. Still, he’s convinced that some of the Am Rhyddid personnel ought to be trained to fly them, in case we get an opportunity to use them.”

Cromwell was aware that what Cadogan called ger’tak were the same craft referred to as ‘death gliders’ in the mission reports he’d been given to read, back on Earth. Not quite analogous to a fighter jet, perhaps, given that their range relative to the area of operations involved in dealing with the Goa’uld was more limited than that of an F-15, say, was in relation to the area of operations involved in most terrestrial conflicts. Besides, you could refuel a jet in flight to increase its range, while the problem with a ger’tak was clearly a matter of not having the right engine to make any kind of long-range journey on its own. “If you don’t mind my asking, Cadogan, what good will it do knowing how to fly them if we can’t get them to where they’re needed?”

The cadlywydd nodded. “A fair question. Sabar had the thought that perhaps we might manage to relieve Bel of one of his ha’tak at some future point, and if so, having trained pilots and weaponry specialists prepared to make immediate use of the ger’tak it could carry would give us an advantage, coming as it would on the heels of Bel’s surprise over losing his ha’tak in the first place.”

Cromwell goggled, as did both Nenniaw and Armagil. Only Gerlad remained largely unperturbed, although Cromwell thought he could detect a faint sense of unease in his expression. Obviously, Cadogan’s aide had heard this plan already and was less than completely sanguine about its chances of success. He couldn’t blame the younger man, for he felt the same way. Admittedly, the idea did have merit from a strategic point of view. The ability to bring the fight to Bel and his personnel on a level closer to Bel’s own capabilities would no doubt be of tremendous benefit to the rebels. But contemplating the danger involved in attempting to divest the Goa’uld tyrant of such a vessel was enough to strike trepidation into even the stoutest of hearts.

It was Nenniaw who found his voice first. “Cadogan, is Sabar out of his mind?”

The cadlywydd chuckled. “Funny; that’s what Kaldin said too, more or less.”

Cromwell searched his memory to connect the name to an individual. Oh, yes. He’d met Kaldin a year ago and had encountered him several times since, mostly in the context of keeping watch at the stargate. His host — Joron? — was a tall man, perhaps some sixty years old or so if Cromwell’s guess was any good, with the look of a veteran fighter about him and a physical manner somewhat at odds with his apparent age. The colonel had never managed to learn which of Bel’s captive planets had been Joron’s original home before he took up life with Kaldin, if indeed Joron came from any of the Celtic worlds at all. He got the impression that Kaldin’s role among the Tok’bel wasn’t much different from his own or Nenniaw’s among the Pridanic rebels, occupying a position that seemed to rank not far below Sabar himself, and occasionally advising him. The Tok’bel leader certainly seemed to value his judgment.

“I’m guessing Sabar claims to have a scheme for doing this?” asked Nenniaw.

“You’ll remember the report from Galla last month, when we learned about Bel’s plans for a new ha’tak?” Cadogan glanced around the circle, receiving nods from the others. Even Armagil knew of the report via Gerlad, despite not having been present at the meeting, which had involved only senior officers. Both the Tok’bel and the Am Rhyddid had operatives inside the shipyards, the former posing as Goa’uld engineers and the latter seeded among the human laborers. They’d carried out a program of sabotage on a number of al’kesh and tel’tak vessels right around the time of his own arrival, Cromwell had later learned. He suspected he knew what the cadlywydd was about to suggest.

Nor did Cadogan disappoint him. “Sabar feels that we ought to be able to take control of the ship just as it is nearing completion and launch. With our own people on the inside, we should be able to set things up in such a way that we can simply pluck it directly from Bel’s grasp just before his own personnel would otherwise take command. With luck, it may even have its own complement of ger’tak already loaded aboard, meaning we’d gain an extra measure of mobile firepower.”

The colonel had to admire the sheer audacity of the idea, even as he wondered how in hell they would pull it off. Still, he knew that a small human force had on at least one occasion managed to gain control of a ha’tak for the time necessary to destroy it, and had done so while the vessel was not only under the direct command of its Goa’uld master but also both fully crewed by Jaffa and underway. By comparison to that, he realized, this should be a much simpler operation. Not to mention that they’d have far more personnel available to carry it out than a four-person team… “How long do we estimate before the ha’tak is close to completion?” he asked.

Nenniaw turned and stared at him. “Don’t tell me you seriously mean to encourage this lunacy?”

The colonel saw Armagil’s eyes go wide at Nenniaw’s outburst, and suppressed a mixed reaction that was half shudder, half chuckle. To say that the Am Rhyddid‘s style of operation and command was relaxed in comparison to that of the U.S. Air Force was rather like describing the Sahara as being ‘a bit on the dry side’. A certain amount of dissension even within the officer corps was very nearly a given in any military organization at one point or another, but for one senior officer to argue openly with another over the plans of their superior in the presence of both that superior and a non-com would have been virtually unheard-of in the circles he’d moved in a year ago, nor would it have passed without repercussion. Here, under the relatively informal practices of the Am Rhyddid, it happened with regularity and went nearly unremarked-upon. Yet morale, esprit de corps and the level of good discipline in the field were as high among the Celtic rebels as he’d seen them in any outfit with which he had experience — including his own 121st Special Tactics, whom he’d ruled with an iron hand. The men of the 121st had seemed to thrive nonetheless, but if he was learning anything from his exposure to the local way of doing things, it was that there was generally more than one way to achieve a goal.

“I was only asking for information at the moment,” he told Nenniaw mildly.

Cadogan chuckled at their exchange. “Assuming they get started on it within the next month or two, as indicated, we both expect it will take just about two years to complete. So we’ll have lots of time to prepare. Ha’tak are large ships, but they follow a well-defined plan, and the Galla shipyards have plenty of personnel. The biggest obstacle is raw materials, but we can look for Bel to divert resources from elsewhere in his domain if he has to in order to get this done. He’s most likely feeling threatened by Moccas, at least based on reports from Tok’bel operatives within his organization. He’ll want to have every advantage that an extra vessel can give him in case Moccas mounts another incursion into his territory. In Sabar’s opinion, it’s only a matter of time before Moccas does precisely that.” He grinned as he continued, “What’s more, he aims to find a way to carry out this operation so that while we get a capital ship for our own use, Moccas gets the blame.”

‘Audacious’ didn’t begin to cover it, Cromwell decided. ‘Outrageous’ might be closer. And yet… well, wasn’t blowing up a pair of the same vessels in near-Earth orbit an outrageous undertaking as well? Granted that there hadn’t been much choice. Still, what Jack and his teammates had done was little short of insane, and it had succeeded. He still remembered gazing up in shock at the brilliant glow in the sky over Ramstein Airbase in Germany on Christmas Eve more than a year and a half ago now, and wondering what in hell he was seeing. When he’d found out a couple of months later, shock had given way to awe even as he’d reflected that if there were one human being in the universe who might have been likely to pull off such an endeavor, it would of course have been Jack O’Neill.

Perhaps it was time to take a page from Jack’s book, and pull off something outrageous of his own. Sabar certainly seemed to think it was possible, and Cromwell was pretty sure that Cadogan trusted Sabar’s instincts in this, if the conversation here were any indication. If Sabar thought it could be done, and Cadogan was game to try, who was he to say otherwise, when he could be helping to make it happen?

“I like it,” he said.