1. Aftermath

Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it. — Luke 17:33


Colonel Frank Cromwell regained consciousness with no real idea where he was. He only knew that he was miraculously, inexplicably, still alive, and that it was nighttime. A glance at the sky showed no sign of the black hole he’d seen on the monitor at the SGC, meaning that he couldn’t be on the planet to which the Stargate had previously been connected. It also confirmed that he was not on Earth, either. The stars were all wrong. Not a single recognizable constellation graced the sky, though the luminous ribbon of the Milky Way crossed it, shining even broader and more brightly than he had ever seen it from Earth.

Absently rubbing a tender spot on the back of his head from where he must have struck it on his landing, he sat up gingerly and surveyed the area around him. He was at the bottom of a shallow set of steps; there at the top was this world’s Stargate. The wormhole must have jumped to it, as Captain Carter had predicted it might. Though wasn’t the end connected to Earth supposed to skip? By all rights, he ought to have been pulled directly through to the world being devoured by the black hole, unless he’d seriously misunderstood the nature of what they were doing. As he’d let go of O’Neill’s harness, he had done so fully expecting a one-way trip to oblivion. And what had happened to the energy from the bomb blast? Had it been completely absorbed by the wormhole itself?

Well. Physics had never been his strong suit, and he’d been wrong before, hadn’t he? His misjudging a situation had once let his best friend get stranded, left behind, captured, imprisoned… He shook his head to derail that train of thought, then thought better of it as a headache bloomed. He’d knew he’d be lucky if he didn’t have a concussion.

As he wriggled out of the G-suit and climbing harness he’d been wearing when he fell, he reviewed his understanding of his present predicament. The wormhole had jumped away from the black hole system; of that much he was certain, primarily because he was alive to ponder it. The fact that he apparently had still been in transit at the time had saved his life, but now he was the one stranded. At least for the moment, he reminded himself sternly. No telling what could happen. Hadn’t experience already taught him that?

He could only hope that someone back at the SGC knew where the wormhole had skipped to, and that eventually they’d send a team to check on whether he’d survived the trip. But that involved an awful lot of “ifs”: if Captain Carter’s calculations had been correct, allowing the SGC and its Stargate to come through the blast intact; if their equipment indeed proved capable of telling them which world the wormhole had connected to after disconnecting from the black hole; if they entertained any thought that he might possibly have survived the transit; if they could spare the personnel to mount a search-and-rescue mission. When you strung them all together like that, it was probably safer to assume he was on his own.

Of course, what he might do now eluded him. He had no idea how to return to Earth by himself, supposing such a thing were even possible. A rounded device mounted on a pedestal stood before the gate, but he couldn’t make out much detail in the faint starlight. Some kind of controller, perhaps? Not that he’d have any way of knowing how to operate it. There was little moonlight, despite the presence of not one but two moons in the sky, a pair of slightly differing crescents, both rather dim, perhaps five degrees apart in the — western? eastern? — sky. Cromwell realized that he had no clue which was which here, so he settled with his back against the pedestal and watched the sky for a while, until he could determine in which direction the stars set. Okay, so that established east and west, at least for his immediate purposes.

Scanning the horizon also gave him some idea of the general area. He was on top of a gently sloping grassy hill, surrounded on all sides by low woodlands. No city lights were visible as far as Cromwell could see, leading him to wonder whether he had wound up on an uninhabited planet, or merely a primitive one. The air was pleasantly warm, he was breathing easily enough, and the night was full of the sort of sounds one might expect to hear in any sufficiently rural place: the faint drone of night insects, mostly, interspersed with the tiny rustlings of small creatures through the underbrush. Nothing sounded terribly large, although he knew this was no reason not to be vigilant. Then again, according to his watch he must have lain un- or semi-conscious for about twenty minutes after his arrival, with no one and nothing coming to investigate.

He spent the next four hours watching the sky, listening for sounds of approach and contemplating his course of action. Not many options presented themselves. Either the SGC would send someone to rescue him, or they wouldn’t. If they did, then great. If not… Well, then he either lived out his life here, or found some way of getting off this world. While he’d been briefed on the existence of stargates, he had no idea how to actually operate one, so that last could prove tricky. It would be helpful to know whether anyone else lived here; come dawn, he’d explore the general area near the stargate to determine whether or not he was alone. He would remain relatively close to the gate for several days, however, just in case someone came to find him. And so, when the sun — somewhat yellower than the sun he was used to — rose, he took to his feet and began to look around.

The Stargate occupied a flattened plaza at the top of the hill. Three stone steps led up to the Gate itself, and the area immediately in front of the steps was paved with flagstones. The object he’d come to think of as a controller rose from the center of the paved area, and the whole installation was ringed by a circle of hewn stones, each roughly the size of a cinder block, pressed end-to-end into the grassy turf. About ten feet beyond this, a further perimeter was described by a quartet of standing stones, aligned with what were probably compass points. To all appearances, this space was still in use: the flagstones looked well-maintained, with only a few blades of grass poking up between them, and the perimeter blocks were clearly visible rather than being overgrown. So there were probably people, or whatever passed for people on this world, somewhere in the area. Hopefully they would turn out to be friendly rather than hostile.

He studied the controller. It was round, somewhat reminiscent of a sundial with a large red hemisphere occupying its center. Arranged in a double ring around the hemisphere were symbols corresponding to those on the Stargate itself. “Like dialing a phone,” Cromwell whispered to himself. “I wonder how you get Directory Assistance?” Dialing symbols at random seemed like good way to wind up in an even worse position than he presently found himself.

From the plaza, a narrow dirt track in the turf curved down the slope of the hill and into the forest. Cromwell shrugged and set off along it, stopping just inside the treeline to stash the G-suit and harness under a half-rotten log. Stretching muscles still sore from the punishing gravity well that had led to his trip through the gate, he began to follow the trail deeper into the forest. Doing something felt better than doing nothing, even if all he could accomplish at the moment was a basic reconnaissance of the area. Besides, it wouldn’t hurt to see if he could find food and water, as well as some sort of shelter. There was no telling how long he might be here.

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