I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

— From the poem “High Flight” by Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., American aviator and poet who served
in the Royal Canadian Air Force (b. June 9, 1922 — d. December 11, 1941)


Autumn leaves whirled down on a stiff breeze as Cromwell and Cadogan walked the trail from Llanavon to the compass circle, accompanied by Gerlad. Despite the occasional gust, which quickly passed, the day was pleasantly warm, and sunlight illuminated the brilliant reds and golds of the forest. This late in Medi — the local equivalent of September — the heat of summer had long since given way to milder conditions. Daytime tended to bring comfortable temperatures, while nights were generally cool enough to require a cloak. If the previous year were any indication, Cromwell knew the first frost was likely to be no more than three weeks away.

Nearly two months had passed since Cadogan had first revealed Sabar’s plan to obtain Bel’s new ha’tak by infiltrating the shipyards at Galla. Once the initial shock at the Tok’bel’s audacity had worn off, Nenniaw had declared himself in favor of the plan. Cromwell still wasn’t sure to what extent, if any, this might be due to his own assertion of support. Nenniaw was, after all, technically his superior by virtue of seniority among the Am Rhyddid, although Cadogan had seen fit not only to give Cromwell a command of his own a year ago, but also to include him among the rebellion’s senior officers shortly thereafter. The cadlywydd solicited his advice as often as Nenniaw’s, and Cromwell had worried at first that the other man might feel put out by this. He’d since come to the conclusion that Nenniaw wasn’t bothered in the least, and seemed actually to welcome his contributions to the planning and execution of their operations. On occasion he even went so far as to defer to the colonel’s judgment with regard to this or that element of strategy or logistics. Like Cadogan, he tended to keep his curiosity regarding the source of Cromwell’s expertise carefully hidden most of the time, although the colonel knew it was there.

At any rate, Cadogan and Sabar had begun to move forward, if slowly, with preliminary preparations. According to Tok’bel and Am Rhyddid observers insinuated among the staff of the Galla shipyards, construction of the massive vessel had just begun, and its estimated completion date was somewhere in the early autumn two years hence. On the basis of this timetable, Sabar had recently announced his intention to begin assembling and training a squadron of human pilots for the ger’tak fighters that the ha’tak would be able to carry, and also to train another unit of the rebels to serve as the ha’tak’s crew. Toward that end, Cadogan had solicited from among his own senior officers both suggestions of likely flight candidates and volunteers, as the pilots would themselves require leadership.

More comfortable with ground combat and sabotage operations than with the idea of space or even atmospheric flight, most of the filwriadau had exhibited a reluctance to step forward themselves for flight training, although each had suggested several candidates from among their own personnel. Despite his own personal familiarity with the principles of atmospheric flight — even if he’d usually been a passenger and had often parachuted out halfway through the ride to run a mission on the ground — Cromwell too had held back from volunteering, though he did recommend Armagil and Tathan from his own team as pilot candidates. Space flight was, after all, a completely different animal from flight occurring within a planet’s atmosphere, the colonel reminded himself.

Not long afterward, Cadogan had approached him in a manner reminiscent of the way in which he’d broached the subject of Cromwell’s accepting command of the team which he’d now led for a year. “Both Armagil and Tathan will make good pilots, I think,” the cadlywydd had told him over cups of ale in a corner of Llwyn Gelyn, which translated from Pridanic as the Holly Bush, a small public house just off Dinas Coedwyg’s town square that was frequented by most of the Am Rhyddid’s senior staff as well as the general populace. Neidio Ceirw, or the Leaping Stag, was a similar establishment which operated in Llanavon.

Cromwell was privately amused by the names of these places, especially the Stag, as he’d encountered more than one small pub bearing some variant of that name on his homeworld, both stateside and overseas. He supposed some things were more or less universal, including the naming conventions for taverns. For that matter, he remembered reading that in Roman Britain, a holly bush had been a common sign used for such establishments. By now he was certain he’d seen the thread of Roman influence throughout the Pridanic and other Celtic cultures he’d encountered among the Five Worlds. It was faint and obviously of ancient vintage, but it was unmistakably there, providing clear evidence that the ancestors of these peoples had been brought here from Earth at some point after contact with Rome. Taken together with the history given him by Tesni, his own observations regarding the difference in the length of the Tir Awyri year from that of Earth, and the knowledge that the Pridani numbered their years beginning from their own ancestors’ first arrival on Tir Awyr somewhat less than two millennia ago, he estimated their departure from Earth as having been nearly at the end of the first century AD, which meshed well with what he recalled of the interaction between Britain and Rome. There would have been ample opportunity for enough of Roman ways to have rubbed off on the local tribes for that influence to have survived their relocation to another world and been propagated down across nineteen centuries, just as Roman customs had survived on Earth.

“They’re good men, and up to any challenge, so I’m happy to recommend them,” he’d said to Cadogan. “Tathan’s as steady as they come, and so is Armagil. He’s already pretty busy, of course, since he’s been assisting Gerlad. But he can handle it.”

“I’m sure he can,” agreed the cadlywydd. “Armagil would make a fine officer, for that matter, and I think he’s ready.” The rebels promoted their officers from among the general membership based on skill and experience. “But Sabar would still like to see at least one or two of the senior staff take up piloting as well, and so would I.”

Cromwell had gone silent for a moment at Cadogan’s remark, turning his ale cup on the wooden surface of the table. “So no one has come forward?” he’d asked, as the silence grew uncomfortable.

“No one,” Cadogan confirmed. “Neirin, I hate to impose, but out of all of them you’re perhaps the most adaptable, and it occurs to me that you might serve as an example.”

The colonel looked up sharply. “The most adaptable? What makes you say that?”

“Oh, come on. Do I need to spell it out?” Cadogan gestured with his own cup. “You’ve had barely a year to adjust to what has to be a very different existence from what you’re used to, and you’ve managed both to do that and to carry out a major role in this organization at the same time. Not everyone is aware of that, of course, but know it, and so does Sabar. All I’m asking you to do is add another learning experience to the list. Tok’ra and Goa’uld vessels use identical technology, and piloting them isn’t actually that difficult. If you’d be willing to learn, I’m fairly certain it would set a good example for the others — both the senior officers and the enlisted personnel who’ve been recommended.”

Discomfited, Cromwell had hidden his reaction in his cup, taking a long drink of ale while he composed a response. “You don’t ask for much, do you, Cadogan?”

The cadlywydd fixed him with an earnest stare. “I wouldn’t ask if I had any doubts about your ability to learn this,” he said quietly. “I’ll admit I haven’t a clue where you learned half of what you’ve shown that you know, but the fact that you know it is enough for me. And it tells me that you can learn anything you need to, if you put your mind to it.” He took a sip of ale before continuing. “I’m aware that I’ve asked what may seem like quite a lot of you in your time among us, and if you feel I’ve asked too much, you’re free to say so.”

Taking a deep breath, Cromwell shook his head. “No, I wouldn’t say you have, Cadogan. It’s just that… well, setting an example for the men in my own unit is one thing. That’s part of the job description. But beyond that, I don’t think of myself as any kind of example for others to follow, and I’m not sure how comfortable I am with the idea, to be honest.”

“Someone has to do it,” observed Cadogan. “Why not you?”

“I don’t know.” The colonel shrugged, at a loss for a better answer.

Cadogan smiled at him across the table. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “You don’t have to take up piloting ger’tak for me in order to be of help. But Sabar and I could use another person — someone who isn’t Tok’bel — who knows how to pilot the tel’tak. We’ll eventually need people who can handle the al’kesh as well, and it occurs to me that if you learn to handle the control systems for both of these, then at the very least you can help train others. We’ll leave ger’tak aside for the moment. Fair enough?”

Put that way, how could he refuse? “Fair enough,” he’d agreed.

The result, a couple of weeks after that conversation, was this hike through the forest to Tir Awyr’s stargate in order to go to the Tok’bel base known as Caer Ynys. Cromwell had never visited the Tok’bel stronghold before, but Sabar’s small transport vessel, the tel’tak, was kept there when not in use, and today was to be the day the colonel learned to pilot it.

He had to admit that his trepidation was strongly tempered by a thrill of excitement. As a young boy, he’d eagerly read any number of science fiction stories involving spaceships, and from time to time he’d fantasized about being at the controls of such a craft. The Sixties had marked the culmination of the space race, as well as encompassing his later childhood and most of his teens. During this time he’d been well aware of how different the actual craft that carried men like Yuri Gagarin, Alan Shepard and John Glenn into space were from what was depicted in the works of authors like Heinlein and Asimov or on television shows like Star Trek, which he’d watched as faithfully as he could given the busy schedule of sports, schoolwork and chores that had occupied his teenaged self. But that hadn’t kept him from dreaming about the day when mankind might design and use ships that made spaceflight similar to air travel. The advent of the space shuttle in the Eighties had brought that a bit closer, although it was still a far cry from the literature of his youth. By this time, of course, Cromwell had long since resigned himself to the fact that nothing like the vessels of his fantasies would be coming along in his own lifetime.

Quite by accident, it seemed he was about to get a taste of what he’d once only dreamed about, and he wondered momentarily whether his admittedly uncharacteristic reluctance to take on the task had been born of some unconscious desire to avoid shattering his old fantasies, should the experience prove less than fully satisfying. He shook off the feeling and turned his attention to Cadogan, who was speaking to him.

“So, are you looking forward to your first experience with the tel’tak, Neirin?”

Cromwell started. Christ, what does he do, read minds? “I suppose I am,” he admitted cautiously. “I’m curious to see this base of Sabar’s, too.”

Cadogan chuckled. “I imagine you are. Though it’s basically a bunch of tunnels underground. There’s nothing terribly picturesque about it.”

“Even so, I’m curious anyway.” The colonel turned to Gerlad. “You’ve flown this tel’tak before, haven’t you?”

The cadlywydd’s aide nodded. “Many times. It really isn’t difficult, Neirin. But the more people who can pilot the craft we have, the better off we’ll be.” He grinned. “And I daresay you’ll enjoy it.”

“Hmph. That may be,” Cromwell allowed, hiding a smile. The closer he got to the actual doing of it, the more he was willing to admit — at least to himself — that the idea had appeal.

They reached the compass circle and the gate, and Gerlad dialed the address that would take them to Caer Ynys. Upon exiting the stargate in the Tok’bel stronghold, the colonel looked around, somewhat awed by the crystalline patterns of the tunnel walls. “Cadogan, this is amazing,” he said.

His friend chuckled again. “That’s a common reaction. The crystals grow in formation; these tunnels essentially construct themselves. That they’re aesthetically pleasing is really only a by-product. Still, if I had to live here all the time, I expect I’d get a bit claustrophobic.” Cadogan paused, his expression momentarily taking on the slightly distant look that indicated he was in conversation with his symbiote. “Sabar says that he would too, although many Tok’ra find the tunnels quite comfortable.”

A pair of other Tok’bel entered the chamber containing the stargate; Cromwell recognized Sefys and his host Duthac, along with Kaldin and Joron. Both Tok’bel sketched slight bows of greeting in Cadogan’s direction, and Cromwell watched as Cadogan engaged in the long blink that signified his giving control of his body to Sabar.

{“Welcome back,”} said Sefys, echoed by Kaldin a split second later.

{“It’s good to be back,”} said Sabar. {“You’ve both met Neirin ab Owein, haven’t you? He commands one of the rebel units from Llanavon.”}

Sefys nodded, and Kaldin smiled at Cromwell. {“Indeed I do remember meeting you, Neirin. Welcome to Caer Ynys.”}

Kaldin had always impressed him as very friendly, especially for a Tok’ra, and Cromwell returned the smile. “Thank you, Kaldin. It’s good to see you again.”

{“I wanted to show Neirin the base, and I’m going to be teaching him to pilot the tel’tak,”} Sabar explained. {“He’s recommended some good pilots for our ger’tak program, but it’s important that the Am Rhyddid have officers who can control our other ships as well. Not to mention that if we’re very lucky, at some point we may have additional vessels… assuming we find ways to liberate them from Bel’s fleet, of course.”}

Sefys nodded. {“If we can, that will be excellent. In any case, having additional human pilots is a good thing.”} He inclined his head in the colonel’s direction.{“Thank you for volunteering. The success of Sabar’s idea depends on having enough people with the right skills, and while I realize this will be something very far outside of what you’re used to, you’ll be filling a crucial need.”}

“I’m happy to help,” Cromwell told him.

True to his word, Sabar first took the colonel on a tour of the base, with Gerlad tagging along and occasionally answering a question himself. The maze of tunnels led in all directions, and along the way they encountered other Tok’bel going about their daily business. Cromwell saw the dining area, meeting rooms, recreation facilities, and shared bathing chamber reminiscent of Llanavon’s baths, albeit with more modern accoutrements. Sabar capped things off with a look at his own quarters. {“This is fairly standard for any Tok’ra in terms of sleeping space and work space,”} he said, gesturing at the chamber containing a bed, a desk, a small table with two chairs, and an alcove that clearly served as a wardrobe. Another alcove catered to personal needs and included private bathing facilities. {“The shared baths are nice, but on occasion Cadogan and I really need just a bit of solitude,”} he explained. {“Even Tok’ra can feel that way from time to time, although you’ll rarely hear it admitted.”}

Leaving the residential complex, they turned down a long, narrow tunnel that led away from the main living and working portion of the base. At its end, Cromwell was almost surprised to encounter a door; the rest of the base hadn’t included any. Must be hell for anyone who really wants to get a bit of privacy in this place, he reflected.

The door led to an airlock. The trio — four, counting Cadogan — stepped inside and Sabar cycled the lock, ceding control to Cadogan as the second door slid open to reveal an enormous crystalline chamber populated by Goa’uld-designed spacecraft. Dim lighting brightened as they entered, and Cromwell looked around in awe.

“Impressive, isn’t it?” Cadogan asked, grinning.

The colonel only nodded, trying to find his voice. This was something straight out of his boyhood imagination and the pages of his favorite books, and here he stood in the middle of it. He turned slowly in a circle, looking around the subterranean hangar, taking in the sleek lines of the craft that stood in ranks of three, their metallic surfaces reflecting the diffuse lighting whose source he couldn’t pinpoint until he looked up and realized that the entire ceiling glowed softly. A long, low whistle escaped him. “Impressive… is certainly one word for it,” he managed.

Gerlad chuckled softly, echoed by Cadogan, who clapped the colonel on the shoulder. “Take a moment to look around if you like, and then when you’re ready, we’ll get on with it,” he said.

Cromwell paced slowly up one row of ger’tak. These, then, were the ships he’d read about in Jack’s mission reports. ‘Death Gliders’, his friend had called them, and Cromwell could see why. They certainly appeared deadly. Imposing in size, the craft had no discrete fuselage, being instead composed of a single aerodynamic shape that incorporated lift and control surfaces with the main body of the craft in unbroken lines. In this, they resembled the blended-wing aircraft design occasionally seen on Earth, as in the B-2 stealth bomber so recently put into operation by the US Air Force, only with oddly forward-swept wings. Armed with menacing-looking weapons similar to the ma’tok he’d become used to handling, although in a much larger size, these craft would certainly strike fear into the heart of anyone caught in a strafing run. He shuddered inside as he imagined SG-1 caught on the ground while ger’tak plied the air above them, as he knew had happened on more than one occasion. Reading about it, he’d tried to relate the image to experiences he and Jack had shared on missions together, or that he’d encountered during his tenure in command of the 121st. Seeing the actual vessels up close, however, gave a whole new dimension to what he’d envisioned.

Turning, he looked down a wide aisle toward the ‘front’ of the hangar — the area closest to what must be the entrance/egress doors for the vessels, at any rate. A larger ship sat there, parked where it had easy access to the doorway. He’d seen Sabar’s tel’tak before, as it had been used on a few of the missions in which the colonel had taken part over the past year. He’d only viewed it from the outside, however; today that would change. “I see ger’tak and the tel’tak, Cadogan. Where do the Tok’bel keep the other ship, the al’kesh?” He knew it was a much larger craft, so it stood to reason that the Tok’bel wouldn’t keep it in this same hangar with the others.

Cadogan gestured vaguely back toward the airlock by which they had entered the hangar. “Did you notice the other tunnel branching off a little way back, before we reached the airlock here? That leads to a much larger landing bay perhaps half a mile off. The al’kesh is there. It took the Tok’bel a while to construct a chamber large enough for it, because they had to actually work with the rock of this moon itself. Their crystal stock wasn’t sufficient to grow something that big.” He shrugged. “Sabar tells me that on board a ha’tak, the ger’tak bays would be sealed with only a selective forcefield rather than pressure doors, but here it’s necessary to both house and hide the craft, so the pressure doors are disguised to look like native rock from the outside. That opening is actually part of a canyon wall. But there’s a forcefield behind it, so that we don’t have to actually depressurize and repressurize the entire chamber when a ship enters or exits. The airlock we came through is only there as a backup measure in case something goes wrong with the field.”

Cromwell shook his head. Whenever he thought he’d wrapped his mind around his strange circumstances, something new popped up to remind him how utterly far removed he really was from the familiar world he’d known. Spaceships, forcefields, alien lifeforms, artificial gravity, hyperdrives… He blinked and forced his thoughts back to the task at hand. “All right, I think I’m ready. Let’s get this show on the road.”

Moments later, he found himself nonplussed again, staring blankly at the reddish orb that occupied a good portion of the tel’tak’s flight console. “I don’t understand,” he said. “How does this work?”

Cadogan smiled. “When you make physical contact with the control orb, you can use a combination of thought and gesture to control the vessel. It does take some getting used to, but once you do, it’s quite easy. The most difficult thing is learning to interpret the feedback you get from the orb itself. You’ll feel sensations of heat, pressure, motion and vibration in your hands, but mostly what you’ll get are mental impressions that map to what the tel’tak is actually doing. Your sensory system will be linked via the orb to the ship’s own sensors for as long as you remain in contact with the orb.”

Apprehension returned in full. “I don’t know about this, Cadogan,” the colonel said weakly. “I’m a little out of my element.”

Gerlad stepped in. “I thought the same thing, Neirin. But it only took me a few sessions to get comfortable with the controls, and after that, everything else came easily.”

“I had the same experience as Gerlad, you know, before I became Sabar’s host,” Cadogan assured him. “Sabar taught me to operate this vessel a very long time ago, back when I was a much younger man and served as his aide myself, just as Gerlad serves now.”

Cromwell regarded the cadlywydd from beneath raised eyebrows. “All right. I’ll give it a try,” he said cautiously, settling himself into the pilot’s seat. Christ, what am I getting myself into here?

“First, take a deep breath and clear your mind,” Cadogan instructed him. “I can tell you’re tense, and that won’t help you learn this.”

The colonel did his best to get a rein on his mental state, taking several deep breaths and willing his body and mind to relax. Eventually, he felt the tension drain away, or at least most of it did so. “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. Now what?”

“Place your hands on the orb, and tell me what you feel.”

He reached out and cupped the orb with both hands, pressing his palms lightly against its surface and extending his fingers to rest along its curves. There was a mild vibration, as though the crystalline sphere — for it was, he saw, a large smooth crystal — were noticing and reacting to his touch. The vibration died away almost as quickly as it began, replaced by a faint warmth. “There was vibration, and now heat. It’s like it knows I’m touching it,” he said in tones of wonder.

Cadogan chuckled. “It does, in a way. Oh, it’s not sentient or anything like that, but there’s a feedback mechanism tied to the artificial… well, I hesitate to call it intelligence, because it really isn’t, at least not as such… anyway, there’s a certain level of machine awareness, I guess you could call it, and it senses the operator’s touch and intentions, and will respond to them. I could get Garlen, our resident technology specialist, to explain all this in more detail, but at the moment I fear that would only confuse you more.”

“Yeah, probably. All right, so it knows I’m here. Now what do I do?”

Gerlad and Cadogan ran him through several exercises designed to accustom him to sensory feedback from the orb, and instructed him to visualize certain functions. To Cromwell’s surprise, the vessel’s systems responded, allowing him to control aspects of its operation with a whisper of thought and the merest suggestion of gestures against the crystalline sphere’s smooth surface. As he continued the exercises, he found that his level of comfort and confidence increased. There were flashes of imagery as he fed commands to the tel’tak under Cadogan’s direction, and he described these to the cadlywydd. “It’s like when I envision something happening and the ship does that thing, then it sends me an image of what it’s doing. Sometimes I can feel it, too.”

Cadogan nodded. “That’s precisely what should happen. The controls of a modern tel’tak are designed to deliver sensory feedback optimized for a human nervous system, since both Tok’ra and the Goa’uld have long had human hosts. That’s why Jaffa and unblended humans like Gerlad and yourself, or me in my younger days before I became Sabar’s host, can pilot the ships as well. All that’s happening right now is that your own sensory apparatus is learning to interpret signals from the orb and issue commands using the same pathways. Once you’ve gotten yourself attuned, you should be able to operate any vessel that uses the same technology right from first touch.”

The colonel was awestruck by the sophistication of the technology in use here, so far beyond anything in his prior experience. Given what he was learning about Goa’uld tech and the general level of scientific knowledge apparently available to them as a species — assuming that what the Tok’bel had mirrored what their Goa’uld counterparts could access as well — he was surprised that his own world had managed thus far to defend itself against the Goa’uld as well as it had. This line of thinking also fueled the lingering worry, never far from his mind, that the crisis which had served to land him here among the Tok’bel and the Pridani might have somehow compromised those defenses.

With an effort, he pushed the thought away, reminding himself that there was nothing he could do about it in his present circumstances, at least not without potentially jeopardizing Earth if what he feared were in fact not the case. Even were he to return to his homeworld right this instant and find everything intact, surely there was little he could realistically bring to the table in terms of improving its defensive capabilities. The SGC already had access to the ma’tok staff weapons and zat’nik’tels he’d learned to use on Tir Awyr. They had some contact with the mainline Tok’ra, and would hopefully be even now learning what they could from them. Would the Tok’ra teach them how to fly ships like these, or offer any technology at this level, though? Perhaps that was the best thing he could do for Earth, assuming he might eventually regain contact. He might not be able to provide the actual technology, but if he learned what he could about its use, then if anyone from the SGC proved capable of actually capturing Goa’uld craft, he at least could teach their operation, if the Tok’ra chose not to do so. He had no reason to suspect that they wouldn’t, of course, but also no reason to assume they would.

“This is amazing,” he told Cadogan. “How long does it generally take to really master, though?”

The older man laughed. “You’re already halfway there, Neirin. Let’s take a break right now, since you’ve been at it for over three hours, and then we’ll come back when you feel ready and work at it some more.”

Three hours? Cromwell checked his watch and saw that Cadogan was right. Shit, it feels like maybe an hour, tops. He’d been so immersed in what he was doing that time had flown by. “I can keep on right now, you know.”

Gerlad chuckled. “Neirin, I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a break myself, and something to eat. I suspect the cadlywydd feels similarly — don’t you, Cadogan?”

Cadogan grinned. “Something like that, yes. Neirin, trust me, this will get even easier if you rest for a bit and eat something. Let’s take an hour or two, and then when we come back, we’ll try some new exercises. There’s every chance we’ll have you actually taking the tel’tak out into orbit or even beyond before the day is over, but not if you wear yourself out too quickly. I know that what you’re doing doesn’t really feel like hard work, but your brain and sensory apparatus are actually putting in more effort than you realize.”

Cromwell decided not to argue. “Fine,” he said. “An hour, and then I really want to work on this some more.”

A rest period and a light meal brought back energy the colonel hadn’t realized he’d expended, and they soon returned to the tel’tak. Cromwell took the pilot’s seat once more, reaching out to re-establish contact with the control sphere. This time, he fell into rapport with the vessel’s systems far more quickly, extending control and awareness to run through a rapid inventory of its capabilities and resources. Glancing up from the orb without relinquishing contact, he noticed Cadogan regarding him with a look of satisfaction. “Do you feel ready to try actual flight?” asked the cadlywydd.

“If you think I am, then yes,” replied Cromwell. “Tell me something, though. I’ve been exploring the feedback I get from the systems and the engines, but I can’t quite decide exactly how the motive force functions. I think I’ll want to understand that before I try to make use of it.”

Cadogan nodded. “Wise thinking. You’re familiar with action and reaction, acceleration and velocity, inertia and momentum, correct?”

“Yes, of course.” Under the circumstances, his university physics classes might seem like a lifetime ago, but the colonel felt sure he’d retained enough knowledge to apply at least some of it in his present situation.

“Well, inertia isn’t as much of a factor here…” The cadlywydd launched into an overview of the mechanics of Goa’uld flight technology that could only have been born of long association with Sabar, and probably with this Garlen person mentioned earlier, whom Cromwell had yet to meet.

After a few moments, the colonel held up a hand. “All right, I think I understood maybe half of that, but with any luck it’ll be the half I need.” He’d wrap his mind around the rest as he went along, he decided.

Cadogan chuckled. “I wouldn’t worry. The vessel itself will tell you most of what you need to know. Let’s get out where you can learn to make it do what it’s designed for.”

The cadlywydd took over the controls temporarily, long enough to bring them out of the hangar — which Cromwell realized was quite well-camouflaged from the outside, once the massive doors had slid closed in the wake of their departure — and into space. “You’ll practice takeoff and landing, too, but first let’s get you accustomed to the way the tel’tak moves.”

The colonel nodded, his attention temporarily riveted by what was outside the vessel. Cadogan had brought them around the moon’s curving horizon as they glided up and away from the base, and the gas giant around which the moon orbited hove into view as the tel’tak turned slightly onto a new trajectory. Cromwell had never seen another world from space, other than on television, and he drank the image in. The planet was striated in a manner similar to Jupiter, its colors largely shading green and grey, its bulk filling much of the view. They were near the terminator, and the contrast between the sunlit dayside and dim night side was sharp and crisp, almost as if someone had painted a line dividing the planet in half. The colonel could make out the distant speck of another moon riding just off the dayside horizon, glowing yellowish-white against the infinite, star-scattered darkness beyond.

He suddenly felt very small, and very humbled. My God. All this coming and going through stargates is one thing, but how easy it is to forget what space is really like. Vast, and cold, and here we are in orbit around this clump of matter, itself in orbit around a ball of burning gas that’s only one of uncounted numbers… and even it’s tiny, too. What the hell am I doing out here, anyway?

No, he realized a moment later. He knew what he was doing: the only thing he could do and feel it was right, that it mattered. He might be hell and gone from Earth and from everything he’d known for most of forty-seven years, but the time he’d spent with the Pridani and with the Am Rhyddid had made it clear where his duty now lay, especially when he had no way back to where he came from. He had a job to do that wasn’t much different from what he’d had before, and if that job entailed things he’d never thought to encounter in his personal experience, well, some of that was a bonus. Moments like this might come as a shock, but they came with beauty as well, and how many men had been privileged to see the sort of thing he was now seeing?

He turned to find Cadogan watching him from the pilot’s seat. A smile played about the corners of the cadlywydd’s mouth as he said, “The first time you see something like that in person is a moment you never forget. I know I haven’t.” He glanced out the window himself for a long moment, taking in the vista as he adjusted their position. “I wasn’t sure whether you’d ever been in space before.”

Cromwell shook his head. “No, I hadn’t. This is a completely new experience for me.”

“Well, take a moment if you need one. We’ve got plenty of time.”

It didn’t take long for him to make the necessary mental adjustment. He likened it to his first jump in a way, suspended over the landscape with wind rushing by and nothing but a fabric canopy to support him. Gravity was both an old friend and a terrible foe, but he’d become accustomed to the drop, the fall, and the jerk of snapping harness as his ‘chute opened, catching air and giving him the tool he needed to force a stalemate. You didn’t win against gravity in that environment; rather, you made your peace with its terms, while forcing it to take less than it wanted from you. And in the end, wasn’t that what he’d still managed to do — if strictly by accident — the last time he and gravity had met as opponents?

Out here, it was different, of course. There was still the mental adjustment, the realization that the universe really did present you with three dimensions in which to work, and that there was a lot more of ‘down’ than the human mind was naturally accustomed to. For that matter, ‘down’ could be any direction, in the enormity of space. The hull and engines of a ship were simply a different toolset, for use in a realm where you fought not only gravity but other forces, bending some to your will while making peace with others.

I can do this, he remembered telling himself nearly a quarter-century ago, before that first jump. I can do this, too, he told himself now.

Something must have shown in his face, because Cadogan stood, stretching, and stepped away from the pilot’s chair. “Ready?”

Cromwell nodded. “I am.”

By the end of the day, he had practiced a number of basic and increasingly more complicated maneuvers, including landing the craft on the moon’s rocky surface and taking off again. He was simultaneously both mentally tired from the effort of mastering this new skill set, and physically pent-up from having spent so many hours in the pilot’s chair. But more than either of those, he felt a strong sense of satisfaction. Far from being a disappointment in relation to his boyhood imaginings, flying the Tok’bel ship was exhilarating, if very strange when compared to his knowledge of terrestrial craft. Sabar and Cadogan had both taken a hand in this first day of his training, along with Gerlad who provided a purely human perspective untouched by the influence of a symbiote, and all three of his instructors seemed quite pleased with his progress.

{“Let’s head back,”} said Sabar, who’d taken over from Cadogan a short while earlier. {“You’ve done well on surface landings, so if you like, you can bring us in to the hangar. That is, if you feel comfortable navigating the canyon?”}

The hangar doors were set into the side of a jagged rent in the desolate plain beneath which the Tok’bel had situated their base. The canyon wasn’t particularly narrow, but it was far more confined, naturally, than open space or the empty skies above the moon’s surface. Nevertheless, Cromwell knew by now that neither Cadogan nor Sabar would suggest his attempting the landing if they weren’t fully confident in his ability to carry it out. At this point, he was loath to second-guess that confidence. “I’ll manage,” he said, bringing the vessel about and pointing it in the proper direction. The landscape rose up gently to meet them as he piloted the craft slowly in the direction of the base, responding to minute changes in the feedback sensations the control system generated when the vessel flew in close proximity to the ground. The canyon came into view, and he guided them into it, slipping over the edge and down, seeking the specific rock formation the orb presented to the visual center of his brain until the technologically-generated imagery matched what he saw before them.

{“Now trigger the hangar doors,”} said Sabar from behind him. {“Four taps on the center of the orb.”}

He did as instructed, the tel’tak feeding back acknowledgement via the orb as it sent out an encrypted burst that set two sections of what appeared to be the canyon’s rocky wall into motion. The lighted chamber within appeared, and the colonel brought the vessel in close, slipping within the chamber as the doors finished parting. External sound returned suddenly as they penetrated the forcefield barrier that kept the atmosphere inside, and Cromwell brought the vehicle down gently onto the crystalline floor, with barely a bump to signify contact. He kept his hands on the control orb for a moment longer, shutting down systems and feeling them settle into a quiescent state.

When he finally withdrew his hands, he noticed he was sweating. Releasing the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, he drew another, deeply, and exhaled slowly before looking up at his instructors.

Gerlad was grinning from ear to ear, and Sabar — or had Cadogan taken control while he’d been busy landing the ship? — was positively beaming. {“Most impressive,”} came the harmonic-laced voice. Sabar, then. {“My host concurs, by the way.”}

Cromwell allowed himself to sink against the back of the chair, tension going out of him like water from a tipped cup. “I need a drink,” he said.

Gerlad chuckled, while Sabar bowed his head and ceded control to his host. “I think we can arrange that,” said Cadogan, looking up with a chuckle of his own. He clapped the colonel on the shoulder. “Excellent job, and you’ve more than earned that drink.” He turned toward the doorway that led from the flight deck — it was pointless to waste power using transport rings to enter and exit a ship that was sitting in a secure pressurized environment, and Sabar’s scout vessel was equipped with a more conventional entrance located amidships, in addition to the rings. — as the colonel unfolded himself from the pilot’s chair. “Come on.”