Chance ever fights on the side of the prudent. — Euripedes


Snow fell softly outside the windows of Bennaeth Bod as twilight deepened. Cromwell rubbed the mist of his breath from the pane with the cuff of his sleeve and turned to watch as Tegwyn lit the seventh and final lamp in the wrought-iron chandelier that served as the primary source of lighting in the manor’s great room. She replaced the lamp’s glass chimney, and her brother Ris tugged at the chain that raised the chandelier into place above the dining table.

“Tesni, tell me what Tegwyn and Ris are doing. Use Arverenic,” said Cadogan. He and his niece were seated across from one another at the table and a clutter of maps, papers and diptychs occupied the space between them, along with a jacketed pitcher of mulled ale and three mugs.

Tesni barely hesitated. “Nu cyna lugu,” she offered in the language spoken by most denizens of Arverenem, one of Tir Awyr’s sister worlds. Her uncle had begun teaching her over the summer, and the two of them engaged in regular practice sessions whenever both were present in Llanavon.

The cadlywydd smiled. “That’s right. You’re doing very well at this lately. Even your accent has improved.”

“It’s getting easier,” Tesni agreed. Rubbing her hands together, she turned to her nephew. “Ris, when you’re finished with that, will you add another log to the fire, please?”

Although the large stone house was not often what one might term truly warm in mid-winter, each room boasted a fireplace that kept the interior at a reasonable temperature. The Pridanic winter wardrobe featured layers of woolen garments, which helped a lot. Long-accustomed to modern thermal fabrics for outdoor use and efficient indoor heating, at least in permanent structures, Cromwell recalled his first winter on Tir Awyr as having been something of an adjustment period. Now he found himself quite comfortable, however. At the moment he wore a fitted tunic in heavy deep-grey wool that buttoned in front from high collar to its hem at mid-thigh, over black woolen trews whose lower legs were cut close about the calf and tucked into sturdy leather boots. The tunic was belted at his waist to prevent drafts, the belt also providing a place for a pouch and the utility knife he was given to carrying. The Pridani wore undergarments of soft linen closest to the skin, and on especially cold days a second shirt of lighter-weight wool between undershirt and tunic. A pair of thickly-knit woolen socks inside the colonel’s boots ensured warm feet. All in all, he felt nearly as comfortable as he had while wearing BDUs in his quarters back at Ramstein two years ago.

Two years that seemed almost like a lifetime.

Cromwell glanced at Ris, who was still securing the chandelier’s chain to its moorings. “I’ll stoke the fire, Cadogan,” he said, beginning to make his way toward the hearth.

Cadogan shook his head and beckoned him toward the table with a wave. “Let Ris do it, Neirin, and come join us instead. I know you haven’t been studying Arverenic for six months as Tesni has, but I assume she’s been helping you out with it?”

The colonel took a seat next to his wife, drawing the ale pitcher toward himself and filling a mug. “A little. I’m nowhere near her level though, I’ll be honest.”

In truth, he was torn between feeling guilty over not getting up to speed with the new language Cadogan had recently asked him to learn, and being slightly burnt-out on the process. It wasn’t that he didn’t genuinely enjoy learning new things, because he did, and language was no exception. Besides his native English, childhood Welsh and the Pridanic he now spoke in everyday life, he was fluent in the Spanish he’d studied in high school and had used since on more than one occasion, especially on black ops in Central America. Courtesy of his military career, he could also get by well enough in German, Arabic and Pashto. Still, he’d had so many new things thrown at him out of necessity over the past seventeen months or more that he sometimes craved a breather; not that he’d ever really complain. Good grief, you’d think six foreign languages would be enough, but here I am needing more because the Five Worlds don’t share a common tongue. And I can certainly see Cadogan’s reason for wanting me to learn enough to function during off-world missions. It’s no damn good to have a team leader who isn’t able to communicate. We were lucky as hell on Emhain.

Cadogan favored him with a smile. “I understand, Neirin. And I do agree with you that we’re going to have to do something about putting a language standard in place for the movement now that we’re becoming more active, even if it’s just a simplified version of Pridanic. But until that happens or even when it does, familiarity with the tongues of our cousins is something you’ll find useful. I already know you’re good with languages; after all, you certainly learned ours quickly enough.”

Cromwell grew wary, the way he always did when anything related to the subject of his origins came under discussion. “Remember that I already spoke something close to it when I arrived here, though. It isn’t quite the same thing as learning a completely new language.”

The cadlywydd nodded. “I know that, too. Nevertheless, I was impressed then and I still am. Besides, most languages of the Five Worlds do have strong similarities. That should help you, just as it’s helping Tesni. Sabar tells me that he’s certain the languages of our cousins share their origins with each other and our own far back in time before Bel removed our ancestors — and another of his kind probably took yours, I should think — from the First World. Not that there aren’t differences, but there’s a lot in common. I don’t have his experience, obviously, but I find the whole idea fascinating.”

Once again, the colonel was struck by the similarities between Cadogan and himself. The cadlywydd was obviously an educated man — not only in terms of what constituted education within his own culture, but by every useful criterion Cromwell could think to apply. Moreover, they shared a common and wide-ranging curiosity, one which Cromwell was pleased to be able to exercise in his current environment in part due to Cadogan’s library and generosity of its owner in allowing him access to its contents.

As if reading his thoughts, Cadogan continued, “Do you remember that shelf of non-Pridanic books upstairs? The ones where you recognized the alphabet, but couldn’t make out the titles? A number of them are in Averenic, and they’re works you might enjoy. I know we’ve been working on spoken Arverenic for the most part, but if you feel you’d do better by incorporating literature as well, I’ll be happy to loan you some.”

Caught off-guard, Cromwell chuckled, watching as Ris finished stoking the fire and left the room with his sister on his heels. “Hitting me right where I live, eh? You know, I think I’ll take you up on that offer.” He had to admit that the chance to enjoy more of the Celtic worlds’ literature increased the appeal of studying their languages.

“I thought you might.” His CO gave him a wicked grin. “I also have one or two in Gallic, and I’d like you to try that as well once you’ve gotten a bit farther with Arverenic. They’re similar languages, and you can work with Nenniaw a bit. He speaks Gallic well, having been fostered there for a time as a youth in a little exchange the movement arranged. I’ll need you able to handle Gallic too, by the time we go after that ha’tak.”

So that was Cadogan’s aim! “If Nenniaw is fluent in Gallic, why not just put him in charge on that mission? Or use local teams from Galla?”

The cadlywydd shook his head. “Neirin, I want to run this thing with my best people, and that’s the core group right here in Llanavon and Dinas Coedwyg. Besides, keeping as much of the planning for this as possible away from Galla itself minimizes the risk of security leaks.”

“I’ll concede your point on the security issue. Still — ”

Cadogan cut him off. “My mind’s made up on this. Look, I’m going to need at least three teams on that ship, maybe more. I’ll lead one myself, of course, but the other two will also need leaders who can speak the language the local work gangs use. I wouldn’t even want to try this mission without your Wolves, because they’re that good. And I won’t have the Wolves under anyone but you, because you’re one of my best commanders. Besides, you’ll get more out of your men than anyone else could even dream of. They’d follow you into Bel’s own palace if you asked them to, you know. That means you’ll be learning Gallic, along with as many of your men as you think can handle it.”

Cromwell blinked. “Cadogan, I — ” he began.

His friend put up a hand to forestall the protest. “Neirin, you’ll do fine. Trust me on this.”

“It isn’t that,” said the colonel. “With all due respect, Cadogan, are you sure you should be on that ship at all?”

“It’s my mission, Neirin. Well, Sabar’s and mine, technically. Much the same thing, don’t you think?”

It was, but that didn’t mean Cromwell had to like it. “So set up a command post and coordinate things from there via encrypted communicators if you have to. Send in the strike teams under Nenniaw and myself and whoever else you think is qualified, but I’d prefer you wait until we’ve secured the vessel before you come anywhere near it.”

Cadogan shook his head again. “We’ll need someone capable of actually piloting the ha’tak. The best choice for that is one of the Tok’bel, because they have the knowledge to do it. It isn’t as if we can teach you, for instance. The flight control systems for a ha’tak are different from those used in the tel’tak and ger’tak. We obviously don’t have a ha’tak available for practice and even if we got someone like Garlen to build a working simulation of the control panels, I’m afraid it just wouldn’t be sufficient to train a human pilot well enough for the kind of tricky maneuvers that might become necessary. That needs the actual ship.”

Having personally piloted both the tel’tak and ger’tak, the colonel could understand Cadogan’s concerns from a technical standpoint. “All right, but does it have to be Sabar? Why not someone a little farther down the chain of command?”

“Why not Sabar, Neirin? You know I won’t send my people where I’m not willing to go, and neither will he.”

Cromwell pursed his lips. “Because you’re the leader of the entire Am Rhyddid, that’s why. And Sabar leads the Tok’bel. You’re both too valuable to risk capture.” He ignored the internal twinge produced by uttering the word, even in an entirely different language from his native English.

Cadogan closed his eyes briefly and sighed, before favoring his friend with an understanding smile. “Neirin, I appreciate your concern. I’ll even concede your point, I suppose — to an extent. But we’ll need a Tok’bel to pilot that ship properly, and while we’ll have a few involved in this mission, Sabar has more personal experience at a ha’tak’s controls than most. We’re already taking a high risk bringing so many people aboard who won’t be familiar to Bel’s Jaffa. Sabar and I are still trying to work out a plausible cover story for that, but we can’t do this with just the handful of personnel we actually have among the work crews.”

Tesni spoke up. “What about the Tok’bel operatives already in the shipyards themselves? I know you’ve told me they’re quite familiar with the ship’s systems. Couldn’t things be arranged to get one of them aboard to pilot the ha’tak away from Galla? They’d have the added advantage of already being known to Bel’s personnel, so it’s likely no one will think twice about their presence.”

“Hmmm. That could work… ” Cadogan looked thoughtful, and Cromwell suspected he might be conversing with his symbiote again. “Of course, it will cost us an operative within the Galla facility. We won’t be able to reinsert him afterwards because there are likely to be too many questions. Anyway, Sabar really wants to be the one to take this ship away from Bel personally. The whole idea was his, after all. And by thunder, I don’t mind admitting that I’d like to be directly responsible as well. This will be a major coup, and someone from Branoc’s own line should do it.”

“Uncle, you’re already coordinating the mission, or at least the human side of things,” Tesni reminded him. “Isn’t that enough?”

“She’s right,” said Cromwell. “How many operatives do the Tok’bel have undercover at the shipyards?”

“Just two. One works primarily in the administration block on Galla itself,” Cadogan replied. “The other is a section head in the orbital facility where much of the construction work actually takes place. Bel could build his ships on the planet’s surface, but it’s easier to maneuver large components in a weightless environment, so he uses mainly Jaffa techs and a certain number of specially-trained human laborers to handle the actual work. The overseers are mostly Jaffa officers, with Goa’uld overseeing them.”

“Tell me more about these orbital facilities, will you?” asked the colonel. “I’m not really used to that kind of thing myself, if you want to know the truth.”

Cadogan nodded. “I understand. Most Goa’uld shipyards are on a planetary surface rather than in orbit, because it’s easier to use simple slave labor in a terrestrial environment. Bel does things a bit differently, although he used to have his on the surface as well. When Bel’s offspring staged their coup, most of his fleet disappeared, and no one really knows how or why, at least for most of it. But according to accounts from the time, he had two ships just ready to leave the repair yards on Galla when a mixed human-Jaffa army loyal to his son Daras — who was his administrator for Galla until the coup — destroyed them and their crews on the ground. Afterward, when even Daras was gone, the people of Galla dismantled the shipyards and repurposed what materials they could for their own use. When Bel returned, he chose to place his new shipyards at Galla again, because it has the highest amount of raw materials, especially naquadah, out of all the Five Worlds. But he ordered that the main construction center be built in orbit about the planet rather than on its surface. According what Sabar has been able to learn from Tok’bel operatives placed within Bel’s organization, he reasoned that it would be better to train a loyal group of trusted human technicians to work in orbit where their Goa’uld and Jaffa masters control every material resource right down to food, water and air, than risk losing additional ships should something go awry a second time.”

“Smart thinking, I suppose,” acknowledged Cromwell.

“Well, Bel is a bit paranoid. He has good reason to be, considering that his fleet isn’t large and his worlds really don’t possess the level of resources a lot of other Goa’uld have access to. As System Lords go, he’s kind of a limited player and he knows it, although he tries to put on airs to hide it. Sabar saw this himself when they first encountered each other, long before he ever became involved with the rebellion. In any case, it’s mainly the administrative and general resource-processing that takes place planetside. All the rest is done in the orbital docks, parts of which are gravitized and pressurized, and parts of which are open to vacuum and in zero gravity. Don’t worry, though; what we’ll be doing will all take place in the portion that has an atmosphere and normal gravity.”

“And your guy oversees that part of the facility, or at least some of it?” The colonel took a sip from his mug.

“He does, which means he’ll be in a position to have access to the ha’tak itself,” Cadogan assured him. “I hate to lose the opportunity to keep him in place, though, because having someone at that level of Bel’s operation has been useful.”

Cromwell raised an eyebrow. “More useful than having a ha’tak will be?”

The cadlywydd grinned. “Good point.”

“And this operative can actually fly the ship?”

The cadlywydd nodded. “He knows how.”

“All right, so that’s settled,” said Cromwell. “We’ll use him. It’s a trade-off, I know, but it’s better than taking a chance on you and Sabar falling into Bel’s hands if something goes wrong, especially given everything you two know about the rebel movement. I know you’re a hands-on commander and I can relate, but some things just make good field sense, and keeping you out of the enemy’s reach on something this big is one of them.”

Cadogan gave him a pained look. “Don’t you think I know that, Neirin?” He sighed again. “Not that Bel would be likely to get anything out of either Sabar or me, even if we were captured. But you’re right. Sabar’s a risk-taker and so am I, and it’s the kind of insight you’ve just given that I value from you. There’s a reason I have you advise some of the other commanders, so I’d be a fool not to take your advice myself.”

The colonel was relieved. At least his CO was willing to be sensible. Still…“As long as you’re inclined to take my advice, I have another suggestion. I still don’t like the idea of only having one option for piloting the ha’tak out of there. What if something happens to the operative?”

“We really don’t have too many choices here,” Cadogan reminded him. “Not if we’re going to limit the number of Tok’bel directly involved.”

“So we use someone else as a backup. Look, how much different are the controls for a ha’tak from those of, say, your tel’tak? I realize the ha’tak is a much larger vessel, but if all the pilot has to do is maneuver it away from the construction dock, get into hyperspace and set a course for wherever it is you want the ship brought, that sounds like it should be manageable even by non-Tok’bel.” Indeed, Cromwell had performed much the same sequence with the tel’tak, starting out in the underground hangar at Caer Ynys and piloting the ship to one or another of the small moons or uninhabited worlds where the Tok’bel maintained hidden equipment caches, supply dumps or — in one instance — a small refining and manufacturing facility for turning the scant quantities of purloined naquadah ore and other material obtained from the Celtic worlds into items the rebellion required for its efforts against Bel. He’d found the concept of hyperspace disconcerting at first, but after the first few trips he’d become accustomed to it. “Unless there’s some reason why only someone with a symbiote could operate the system?”

“No, it doesn’t require a symbiote. Granted, ha’tak are generally piloted either by Goa’uld or by Jaffa, but an unblended human could do it with the proper training. But we don’t have anyone like that, Neirin.”

“So train me.” Ignoring Cadogan’s skeptical look, the colonel plunged ahead. “Look, you’ve said that Garlen could probably rig a simulator for the control system. I realize it isn’t the same as flying the real deal, but it’s better than nothing, and I’d rather we have a backup plan than not. I’ve already learned to fly two other types of ships, so why stop now?”

“You’ve never piloted anything that size,” the cadlywydd protested.

“So let me start with the al’kesh you’ve got stashed away at Caer Ynys. You told me you wanted me to learn to fly that one of these days anyway. It may not be as large as a ha’tak, but it’s way bigger than the tel’tak, so at least it’ll give me some sense of what I’m doing.”

“The control system for that is the same as in the tel’tak, though. It still won’t give you the experience of piloting a ha’tak.”

“That’s why you have Garlen build a simulator. I’ll use that for learning the different control interface, and the al’kesh for getting used to something with some size to it. Besides, I have at least a year to work on this, if the intel you say we’ve gotten about progress on the ha’tak’s construction is any good. With luck I won’t even be needed to fly it, but if something happens to that operative, at least we’ll still have a chance of getting that ship.” Cromwell spread his hands on the table, fixing the cadlywydd with an intense gaze. “We’re going to a lot of trouble to put this mission together, Cadogan, and I don’t want to see it all fall apart because we’ve pinned the most crucial part on just one individual. We have to have a back-up plan.”

“Nye does have a point, Uncle,” added Tesni quietly. The colonel shot her a grateful look.

Cadogan glanced from one to the other before his face took on the slightly distant expression that meant he was conversing with his symbiote again. After a moment he blinked, sighing noisily. “All right, Neirin; it seems that Sabar agrees with you as well, much as it pains him to admit it. We’ll do this your way, although Garlen is probably going to tell us both that we’re crazy. Then again, knowing Garlen he’ll also enjoy the challenge of building a working simulator.”

“If he likes challenges, I’ve got another one for him,” said Cromwell.