Borren and Mollem dump Joseph in the mud by the Gate like so much grain and leave in the harvester without a word. Joseph dials the Gate home with trembling hands and the expectation that the Aschen might return at any moment for retribution. Major Carter taught him the dialing sequence back on Earth when Joseph told her he preferred not to leave the solar system without knowing the way back home; she also told him that he couldn’t safely enter the wormhole without first sending a special code called an IDC. Joseph doesn’t have a special code. He doesn’t have a radio either, so he watches until the ethereal blue light of the Gate winks out. Then Joseph waits for the Aschen to return.
They don’t. The harvesters keep running in distant fields, and from time to time, Joseph can see Aschen personnel operating the equipment, but they ignore him. After a few hours, Joseph straightens his tie and starts walking down the road. “O’Neill was right about the shoes,” he says under his breath, mud squelching between his toes.
A few miles and more than a few blisters later, Joseph comes across a farmhouse nestled in a copse of trees that look like pines. A woman sits on the porch shelling peas into a large woven basket. “Hello, stranger,” she says.
“Hello,” Joseph says. His throat is parched, and his voice breaks on the word. “Might I trouble you for some water?”
She pumps the coldest, freshest glass of water Joseph has ever tasted into an earthenware mug and then asks Joseph who he is, where he’s from. “You must have come through the circle of water,” she says. “I have never seen clothes quite like yours before.”
Joseph says, “Yes. I came through the circle from a planet called Earth, but now I’m stuck here. I can’t go home.”
The woman frowns. “Have you asked the Aschen for help? Surely they can take you home in their ships if the circle of water will not work for you anymore.”
Joseph feels a manic giggle welling up, but he swallows it down. “They can’t help me.”
“That is most unfortunate,” the woman says. “My name is Meea. Shell these peas with me, and we will talk. You need a place to stay and food to eat, and I need someone to help me tend the farm. Maybe we can help each other.”
Later when he is tucked underneath a painstakingly crafted quilt watching the moonlight play on the wooden planks of the floor, Joseph boggles at Meea’s generosity. She isn’t wary of him at all, and Joseph supposes he has the Aschen to thank for that. Strangers coming through the Gate always bring medicine and technological marvels to the Volians, and Meea never thinks for an instant that Joseph could mean to hurt her. Thankfully for her, he doesn’t.
Days pass, and Joseph doesn’t understand why he’s still alive. Maybe the Aschen don’t like getting their hands dirty if they don’t have to; Joseph supposes whether one man lives or dies doesn’t matter much to them at all. They want to control whole civilizations, not individual people. He even sees Borren once or twice staring out impassively over the fields from the deck of a harvester, but Borren never acknowledges Joseph’s presence. Slowly, Joseph stops expecting the Aschen to murder him or torture him for information about Earth.
Over the next few months, Joseph learns many things. He learns that Meea’s parents died last year in a farming accident of injuries that even the Aschen could not repair. He learns the satisfaction of watching the seeds he has planted transform into fruits and vegetables, into grain. He learns that opening the Stargate and watching futilely as the wormhole closes fills him with a kind of impotent rage he can only slake through hard physical labor. He learns that Meea has a wicked sense of humor, that she makes a mean stew, and that she is a gifted storyteller.
Once they have settled into a kind of routine, Joseph tries to tell Meea the truth about the Aschen. “I don’t believe you,” she says. “You mustn’t say these things where anyone else can hear.” Joseph eventually gives up. It doesn’t matter if Meea believes him anyway. Her belief would change nothing about his situation or hers.
Unconsciously, Joseph begins to travel less and less to the Stargate as time passes, and one day he realizes he can’t remember the last time he stood at its base with his hands clenched into fists at his sides. Instead, Joseph spends most of his days working—repairing fences, hanging out the wash that Meea wrings through a contraption straight out of the Spanish Inquisition, pulling renweed from Grandfather Tem’s flowerbeds.
Even so, Joseph has hours for himself. He takes to spending far more time in the ruined cities beneath Volian than is safe, but at this point, he doesn’t much mind the risk.
“What do you do down there?” Meea asks him, her needle flashing in the candlelight, her stitches impossibly neat and tidy along the hem of Joseph’s winter work shirt.
Joseph shrugs. “Explore. Look for treasure.”
Meea laughs, her face beautiful in the flickering warmth cast by the hearth. “If you find some, will you share?”
“I owe you my life, Meea. No treasure I could ever find could repay your kindness to me.”
She ducks her head down over her sewing and blushes.
Joseph doesn’t tell her what he’s really looking for, the holy grail of all his searching—a radio. Instead, he brings her back a jewelry box full of rings and bracelets and one long strand of smoothly polished green stones. Meea weaves the strand of gems into her braid and piles the hair on top of her head, and that night at dinner, Joseph thinks to himself that he’s sitting across the table from the most stunning woman in the galaxy.
The morning he finds a radio with an intact power source, Joseph rushes, not to the Gate, but back to the farmhouse. He throws a pile of dirty laundry out of Meea’s arms and kisses her breathless. They make love on the floor in a nest of dresses and sheets, and afterward Meea holds Joseph’s hand all the long walk to the Gate.
“Hello?” Joseph says into the radio. “Stargate Command? Are you receiving my signal?”
For one heart-stopping moment, Joseph hears only silence. Then a voice says, “This is General Hammond speaking. Identify yourself.”
“It’s Joseph Faxon, sir. I’m calling from Volian. It’s taken me this long to locate a working radio in the underground city.”
Again, Joseph hears only silence for a long time. Then General Hammond says, “Mr. Faxon, I’m sorry, but we cannot open the iris for you.” Joseph thinks he hears genuine regret in the general’s voice. “Volian is an Aschen-occupied world, and the Aschen are enemies of Earth. You can’t prove that you haven’t been compromised or that opening the iris won’t allow the Aschen to attack.”
Some part of Joseph thinks he should cry or scream or feel something other than the wave of numbness that washes over him. Maybe he’s always known that he can’t ever go home.
“I understand, sir,” Joseph says, and Meea squeezes his hand. “Would it be possible for you to send some of my things through the Gate?” The general agrees although he’s clearly skeptical about Joseph’s identity and motives, and they arrange a time for the delivery before the Gate disengages.
“You were telling the truth about the Aschen, weren’t you?” Meea says in a small voice, the voice of someone who is learning how to be afraid.
Joseph holds her tightly in his arms, her head tucked under his chin, and says, “It doesn’t matter. They can’t hurt your world any more than they already have. Let’s go back to the farm.”
Joseph doesn’t contact Earth again for another year, not until Meea huddles limp with fever in their bed, her eyes bright and glassy. She refuses to take any medicine the Aschen have provided the village, and Joseph can’t blame her. He suspects whatever harm the Aschen intend to do Meea has already been done long ago, but the thought of her ingesting anything made by those bastards makes his stomach roil.
“Please,” he says into the Stargate. “Meea needs antibiotics. Please.” Joseph’s voice grows thick with tears, but he doesn’t care who might hear him cry.
Joseph knows that if Meea dies, he’ll likely spend the remainder of his days locked in an empty stall of the constable’s barn. None of Meea’s neighbors will understand why she refuses to take the medicine; they have hidden her condition from everyone thus far, but Joseph will be blamed for her refusal if she dies. No one will kill him in retribution; it’s not the Volian way. Instead they’ll frog march him down to Constable Terre’s barn, throw him in a pile of hay, and leave him there to molder until nature wreaks their vengeance for them. However, it’s not the prospect of a life sentence in prison that frightens Joseph more deeply than anything ever has before.
No, what Joseph fears most is waking up alone, never knowing what Meea looks like with grey hair, losing the only good thing that’s happened to him since he walked through the Gate.
Dr. Frasier questions him about Meea’s symptoms, and within a week, the medicine that she sends through the wormhole works its magic. Meea is once again hale and whole. She and Joseph get married in the township courtyard as soon as her strength returns, and Joseph’s only regret is that his parents aren’t there to watch Meea become his bride.
“May your union be blessed with much fruit,” the constable says at the end of the ceremony, but both Meea and Joseph know that they will probably never have children. The Aschen have not completely sterilized the Volians, but population growth is close to zero. Only a very few people in each generation prove fertile—just enough to replace those lost to old age or extreme injury. Sometimes at night, Joseph dreams of a little girl with Meea’s eyes, but the odds are stacked against them. As the years pass, the yearning for children of his own never quite fades, but Joseph knows better than to be greedy. He has his life, and he has Meea, and most days he can’t believe he’s been lucky enough to keep them both.
One morning while he’s eating breakfast, Samantha Carter appears in the middle of the kitchen in a flash of light. “Your hair is different,” Joseph says stupidly, his spoon paused halfway to his mouth.
Sam smiles at him, that gorgeous grin he remembers from another life. “So is yours,” she says.
“How did you get here?”
“It’s a long story,” Sam says, “but the short of it is that the Asgard gave us their technology, and we finally have ships that can travel to Volian in a matter of days as well as cloaking devices to hide them from the Aschen.” Sam’s grin fades. “We came as soon as we could. I know it may not seem like it, but . . .”
Joseph interrupts. “I believe you, Sam.”
She smiles again and looks around her curiously. Joseph wonders what she thinks of the rug that Meea braided using strips of Joseph’s suit, of the platter that Joseph carved from a tree felled in last winter’s only ice storm. “Let me help you pack. You can bring whatever you like back with you. The Hammond has plenty of storage capacity.”
Joseph looks out the window. He can just barely see Meea harvesting glaw berries at the edge of the treeline, her red head scarf winking in and out among the low-hanging branches.
“Joseph,” Sam says, “are you alright?” She takes a half a step forward, her brow furrowed in concern. “I’m here to take you home.”
He says, “I know. I’m just not sure where that is any more.”
When Meea comes back from berry-picking, Sam has returned to the ship to await Joseph’s decision. He doesn’t know if Meea would be willing to leave everything she’s ever known and travel to Earth with him, but he does know he’s not leaving this world without her.
“If we do this,” he says, “if we leave, I’m not sure we can ever come back. We’ll be a security risk no matter what we do. I imagine you and I will never see a Stargate again.” Joseph takes both Meea’s hands in his own. He wants to be certain she understands exactly what he’s asking of her. “If we leave this planet, we leave for good.”
Meea is silent for a long time. Then she says, “When we married, Kelya asked me what I would do if you were able to return to your world, if I would go with you or stay. I wasn’t sure then, but I am now.” She takes a deep breath. “I will go with you. We can leave your radio with Constable Terre just in case we ever want to send a message.”
Joseph asks Meea if she’s absolutely sure so many times she stops answering him and starts folding clothes and packing them neatly into baskets instead. By the time they’re finished, almost everything in Meea’s house has been gathered into a neat pile in the kitchen that Joseph tops with the locator beacon Sam gave him.
Later, after Meea has said all her goodbyes and Sam has welcomed them both aboard the Hammond, Joseph and Meea stand hand in hand before a viewport on the ship’s bridge. Meea squeezes his hand, her face beautiful in the cold flickering light of the bridge controls, and Joseph’s heart feels so full it might burst.
“Are you ready?” he says. Meea nods.
“Alright then. Let’s go home,” Sam says, and Joseph watches as Volian disappears behind the vortex of an open hyperdrive window and the way forward opens up before them.