Chloe traces shapes on Matt's bare back, marking with her fingertips a series of lines and circles and curves. He grunts and opens an eye, the other half of his head still buried in the pillow. It's the middle of the night, Destiny time. She should be curled up next to him, not sitting bolt upright in the darkness, obeying an inexplicable urge to pen chapter and verse on the nearest available surface, in a language she doesn't understand.
"Mmm. Am I supposed to guess what you're writing?"
"You can try," she says, going over a triangular symbol that seems more familiar than the rest. She clutches at the meaning, drifting on the tip of her thoughts. A warning to run, to hurry, to dash—
Matt closes his eye with a satisfied smile. "I think I got it."
"Me too," Chloe says, sitting back amid a tangle of sheets as she mentally lists the synonyms. Run. Hurry. Dash.
"Why am I writing your name in a strange alien language on my boyfriend's naked back?" she demands, storming into the control room. Rush, sitting alone in the half-light, exactly where she knew he'd be, blinks at her in surprise.
"The symbol for it. They use symbols, the way we use words, and letters. Everything has its own—" She puts a hand to her forehead, eyes wide. Her stomach is taut with fear. "How do I know that?"
"My name," Rush repeats. "On your boyfriend's naked—"
"This is important, Rush!" She marches over and prises the stubby pencil from his hand, the one that's almost as familiar a part of him as the station he's sitting at. He crosses his arms as she bends over, her dark hair fanning across the screen.
"Is there a particular reason you're defacing my console?"
Chloe turns and holds up Brody's notebook, stolen from his post on her way to Rush. He gestures reluctantly for her to continue. She finishes writing and straightens up.
"What does it say?"
Rush frowns at her, clearly trying to assess whether she's drunk or insane, or both. He peers down. "Destiny," he says with a sigh.
Something unknots inside her. She drops the pencil into Rush's outstretched palm.
"So you understand it too."
"Is your handwriting really so bad that it comes as a surprise?"
"I didn't write it in English," Chloe says softly.
Rush reaches for his glasses and pushes them up his nose. He stares down at the paper for a long moment, eyes moving over the contours of her handiwork. A single, smooth shape, elegant in its simplicity. A replica of the one she somehow recognised on that alien vessel, abandoned on that barren world, as representing the ship they're travelling on. Much to the surprise of Matt, and Eli – and most of all herself.
"Well," Rush says eventually, a model of understatement. "That is interesting."
Everyone else thinks Chloe is learning Ancient; that she's given up her yoga in favour of exercising her brain. Her knowledge of the other language remains a secret outside of the long hours she spends closeted with Rush, sorting symbols from shadows with only dreams and snatches of memory for reference.
They don't need words, alien or otherwise, to express how afraid they both are: of what has slipped unwillingly into their heads, a poison they're desperately trying to extract. Of what else might be lurking there too, that hasn't yet slithered to the surface.
"Look on the bright side," she tells him one day, striving for some sort of positive, while they're poring over a draft of what passes for an alphabet. "At least if they ever come back, we'll be able to talk to them."
"Hold up a sign, perhaps," Rush says. He runs a weary hand across his stubble. "Speech is out of the question. Our vocal chords are completely incompatible."
"You know they sent us a message in English, telling Colonel Young to surrender?"
"Knowledge extracted from my brain."
She flashes him a wicked grin. "Maybe they picked up some choice Scottish cuss words while they were there."
"Then they'll understand perfectly what I intend to write on my sign," Rush says briskly, eyes drifting back to his notes.
Chloe sketches one of the symbols that between them they've managed to decipher, one that means child, or offspring, or in general parlance, young. She slides it over. Rush thinks for a moment, then adds one of his own before pushing it back across the table, a ghost of a smile playing on his lips.
She snorts down a giggle and gets back to work, thinking how strange it is, that it should take an alien abduction, and an alien language, for two human beings to begin to understand each other.
Destiny is a big ship, but the crew lives in such close proximity that it's impossible to keep a secret for very long. Chloe is sitting in the mess, reading over her notes with a bowl of the hydroponic version of grapes for company, when Eli appears and plonks down opposite her, and proceeds to blow this particular secret wide apart.
"Alrighty," he says, rubbing his hands together in glee. A kino floats silently behind him, his near-constant companion.
"Time to see how good a student you really are, Miss Armstrong."
She crosses her arms and leans teasingly towards him. "I graduated from Harvard. That makes me an excellent student."
"Ah, but they don't teach Ancient at Harvard."
Chloe feels the colour drain from her cheeks as Eli hunts through the pockets of his jeans, pulling out a spare kino remote, a pair of elastic bands, and finally a scruffy notebook. "I prepared a test," he says, in eager puppy dog mode, flipping open the book. "Multiple choice, nothing too challenging..."
She chews at her lip. "Eli..."
"Right. Question one—"
"Eli, stop. I don't understand a word of Ancient. Not a single syllable. I've never even tried to."
He flips shut the book with a frown. "Then what have you and Rush been doing all this time?"
She hesitates. "Would you believe me if I said I was teaching him...um...German?"
Eli shakes his head, looking wounded. "You said this would never happen again. You looked right in my eyes and promised me, Chloe! All the sneaking around, lying to your friends, plotting mutinies behind our backs..."
"We are not plotting a mutiny!"
"Then what are you doing?"
She sighs, trapped into the confession. "Do you remember that alien ship – when we were stranded, trying to get back to Destiny – when I saw that symbol...and knew what it meant?"
"Ye-es," Eli says slowly.
"Well, Rush knows too."
He rolls his eyes. "Is there anything Rush doesn't think he knows?"
"I'm serious, Eli. That symbol wasn't just a lucky guess. It was the tip of the iceberg. There's an entire language, locked away inside our heads. We're trying to piece it together, work out what it all means..."
Eli nods, more to himself than her. She impulsively reaches out and takes his hands in her own. He looks down, as if he doesn't recognise them as hers.
"It has to be a secret, Eli."
"It just does," Chloe says, struggling to articulate it, even to herself. Maybe it's the fear of the other, of the unknown; her awareness that no one else can understand, and will probably be too scared to try. Or maybe it's the uneasy thought that keeps preying on her mind, that their language wasn't the only thing the aliens left behind, like an unexploded bomb in her brain. If it's occurred to her, it's bound to be the very first question on Colonel Young's suspicious lips.
"Fine," Eli says tonelessly, a world apart from his usual effusive self. She wonders briefly if he's ever really forgiven her, for daring to choose a different side.
She smiles at him and squeezes his hands. He slips out of her grasp and holds up the notebook with a rueful shrug.
"Since I don't speak freaky-blue-alien, I guess all I can do is wish you Qapla'."
Chloe frowns. "Ka-pla?"
"It's 'success' in Klingon," Eli says, snaking out a hand to steal a grape. He beams at her proudly. "I'm practically fluent."
"German?" Rush demands, as they walk through a labyrinth of dark winding corridors, on the way to Chloe's quarters.
"It was the first thing that popped into my head!"
"But why German?"
Chloe swings her arms by her sides like a schoolgirl, transported back to the light and fresh air of home. "I tried to learn it, when I was in high school."
"For extra credits?"
"To impress a cute boy. He was the son of a diplomat, from Berlin. My father was a senator: we hosted all kinds of people. My mom was never short of excuses to crack open a bottle."
"And did you? Impress him?"
She sighs, blushing at the memory. "As screw ups go, it wasn't quite JFK and Ich bin ein Berliner...but it came pretty close."
"You realise that story is an urban legend."
"Yeah – but it's a comforting one."
They stop outside her door. Rush seems deep in thought. Chloe taps her fingers against her pants, a coiled spring of tension, certain she won't like what's coming. But it's a conversation they're going to have to have, sooner or later.
"We have to consider the possibility that the transference wasn't just a side-effect," he says finally.
She was expecting it, but still it hits her like a physical blow. She stares at him, forcing out the question between lips that are suddenly as dry as that first desert planet. "Why would they want to put all this in our heads?"
"To program us?"
Chloe closes her eyes and rests her back against the bulkhead, trying to steady herself. It feels sturdy and warm, as if Destiny is embracing her, protecting her from the coldness of space, and everything that dwells there.
"They couldn't have known we were going to escape," she points out, switching to logic, the language he understands best.
"They planted a tracker in my body," Rush contends. "It's not unreasonable to assume they also had the foresight to place instructions in my head."
She takes a deep, stuttering breath, unable to argue. The possibility looms large in the darkness, a spectre every bit as horrific as the dreams she's been plagued with.
"How long have you been thinking about this?"
"Since it happened," Rush says matter-of-factly. "I didn't want to alarm you."
She opens her eyes and looks over at him, his angular face lit up by the dim lighting of the deck, the rainbow swirl of FTL streaming in from the porthole in her door. His voice is even, as cool and pragmatic as ever. But his eyes tell a very different story.
How had she never noticed before, that he was just as terrified, in need of a sympathetic ear, as she was?
"I think we should work on sentence structure tomorrow," she says, gently shifting the conversation back to safer ground.
"An excellent idea."
"Okay." Her hand hovers over the door control. She's oddly reluctant to press it, to leave him here, vulnerable and alone in the dark. "See you in the morning, then."
"Auf Wiedersehen," Rush says in response, his face inscrutable as he turns to disappear into shadow.
Chloe grins after his vanishing back; almost sure she can see a smile of his own written there, in the set of his green-clad shoulders.
Eli is hopeless at keeping secrets. He's already told Colonel Young about Rush's tracking device, let slip to Matt Chloe's imaginary conversations with her father. It was inevitable, really, that he was going to share this with them too.
Chloe is furious with him. Rush seethes silently next to her in the gate room, where they've been summoned for what feels part interrogation, part inspection. To make sure they're still human, and not alien spies; traitors who any second might peel back pink skin to reveal blue.
"So you understand my concern," Young is saying, hands behind his back, pacing back and forth between them as if he's on parade. Matt stands behind him warily. Greer is hovering somewhere in the shadows, waiting for an excuse to start shooting.
Young pauses in front of Rush. "Am I making myself clear, Rush?"
"Crystal," he assures him, voice edged with badly-concealed boredom.
"You're both to report to the infirmary. I've asked TJ to run some tests."
"She poked and prodded us once already," Chloe protests, resisting the urge to add: and she still managed to miss the alien satnav inside Rush's chest.
"If those aliens did something to your brain chemistry, Chloe, we need to know about it."
"It's just their language," she insists. "It's harmless."
Rush flinches beside her at the words; the reaction barely perceptible.
"With respect, sir," Matt says, stepping forward to defend his girl, "maybe she's right." Chloe smiles at him gratefully. "We should look upon this as an opportunity. Doctor Rush said he'd translated an entire flight manual. Maybe there's battle plans in their heads too, or weapons schematics—"
"We don't have the resources to wage a war, Lieutenant."
"And if we ever run into them again, this could be our only chance to broker a peace. We'll be able to talk to them, in their own words. Right now, we don't even know their name."
He and Young wait, expectant. Chloe exchanges a glance with Rush, who speaks for both of them.
"Oh, we know what it is," he says. "We just can't pronounce it."
It turns out that the alien language isn't the only one she's developed a knack for. An away team finds etchings on a lush green planet that no one can figure out, much less comprehend why the natives would have abandoned their camp like the Marie Celeste. It's Chloe who works out what they mean, seeing patterns and logic where no one else, even Rush, can spot them.
No one thanks her for translating the text that reads run like the wind if you value your life, but when they're through being chased to the gate by a gigantic red-dotted wasp, even Greer is grudgingly forced to admit she had a point.
It's exhilarating, being capable of that kind of understanding. She's found her niche, and she's hungry for more. She hunts for meaning on every planet they stop at, tackles Ancient – for real, this time – and forges doggedly on with the symbols that keep popping up in her head, ignoring Rush's grumbles about how if Young hadn't blown up the alien shuttle seconds after they stepped off of it, they'd have an actual database to work with, which would be almost as good as a dictionary. He's being a little creative with the truth, but she knows what he means, and doesn't correct him.
Even Park and Brody's chatter about Destiny seems less baffling than before. Science and math, after all, are languages too.
Weeks pass, and there is no sign of the aliens. She settles into the knowledge that she and Rush are the only people in an entire galaxy who understand what it was like, who will ever have to understand it, and it's a feeling as intoxicating as the rest. The horrific experience they shared has changed her mind forever.
Maybe it's changing her heart as well.
She wakes screaming, dream and reality colliding with a jolt, as Destiny rocks from a wave of weapon fire. There are shouts from the corridors, the groan of metal, as the crew dives to stations and the ancient ship shudders under the onslaught. Chloe scrabbles from her bed and heads for the control room, her heart pounding, a cold sweat prickling on her chest.
Rush, Eli and Young are already there. Eli's hands dart over a console, but Rush is gripping the sides of his own and staring down at the screen. She goes over and gently places a hand on his. He blinks at the touch, as if he's emerging from a trance. It dawns on her that his hand is trembling.
"It's them, isn't it?"
He turns to look at her, lips parted. She shakes her head and drops her hand, backing off towards the door as bile begins to rise in her throat.
"No, no, no, no..."
Eli calls her name, but she's already running, as fast and far as her shaking legs will take her.
The dreams are always variations on a theme. Sometimes they start with the abduction, carrying her away in a cradle of light. Sometimes they just end that way, cruelly shattering the illusion of safety in whatever scenario her mind creates. And then there's the tank, where she's trapped, submerged and helpless. Staring out at her mom, who morphs into a creature with electric-blue skin, hissing guttural sounds that Chloe is beginning to recognise as words, instead of noise.
She doesn't need a therapist to analyse it. Her mom – the alien – the tank, where she's floating as if in the womb. The words are her mother tongue. They've crawled inside her head, inside her very sense of self. She's their child, and she left home, and now they're coming to take her back.
She finds a dark space somewhere near the robot bay and scrambles inside, pulling her knees to her chest. Her heart is thudding in her ears. It's loud, so loud, and if they hear it, they'll be able to find her. She needs to be still, and quiet, and wait. But the alien words are swimming relentlessly upwards, wriggling like eels in her throat, squirming on her inadequate human tongue. She gulps them back, trying to focus on slowing her heart. Yet still they come, dancing on her teeth, hammering on her lips, demanding release.
She opens her mouth – and screams as a beam flashes across her face, and a figure appears in front of her eyes, crouching before her.
Rush takes hold of her wrists, pulls her up to her feet, and quite unexpectedly, wraps his arms around her, holding her firmly against him.
"Wrong aliens," he whispers, warm breath feathering against her ear.
When she's finally stopped shaking, he lets her go. Chloe rubs her hands against her cheeks. They're soaking, strands of her hair plastered across them. She hadn't even realised she was crying.
"Is everyone in this entire universe obsessed with getting their hands on this damn ship?"
"Only those with sense," Rush says, quite seriously.
"They were firing at us – I just assumed—"
"They had the same idea as our mind probing friends," he says. "They just weren't quite so efficient."
She peels the hair off her face and pulls it back, exhaling. "Well, I made a big fat fool of myself, didn't I?"
"Panic attack. Perfectly understandable."
From anyone else, it would be a meaningless platitude. But Rush knows what it's like: to live constantly in fear, as scared of yourself as of the strange blue thieves who steal you away in the night. The aliens had him in their watery cell for far longer than they had her. He endured that, and everything that came after, so much better than she did. Or so she'd thought. She's learned to interpret the signs, and she knows now that he's just good at repressing it.
But Chloe is not. And with her defences down, it all comes rushing out in a torrent.
"It doesn't matter anyway. They don't have to try to get on board. They're here, all the time, in our heads. And for all we know they're just watching, and waiting, and one day they'll flip the switch and we'll just..." She gives him a weak smile. "Complete our programming."
Rush stays eerily silent, just listening.
"I'm sick of seeing symbols in my head. Of knowing what things mean without knowing why. I tried to pretend it was all the studying we'd been doing. Wow, natural gift – who knew. But it was never me, was it? It was them. They tinkered with my brain, like Colonel Young said. They put things in my head that were never supposed to be there."
"Perhaps they unlocked things that were there all along." Rush is gazing at her, a strange expression on his face. Something indefinable shifts in his posture. "You simply weren't ready to notice them."
Chloe looks over at him and tries to work out what he's thinking; what he's feeling. It's hard, with only hazy torchlight to lead the way. But then it clicks neatly into place. Another puzzle solved, another mystery decoded. And like she has so many times before, she gets it.
She doesn't see symbols when she kisses him. She'd like to say she sees stars, romantic fantasy made fact. But she sees nothing, and that – it turns out that makes it perfect. It's just him, and her, solid and real, pressed together in the black.
Two bodies, speaking precisely the same language, without having to say a word.
Destiny's atmospheric filters are playing up, making the air hot and humid, and if it weren't for the steel walls and distinct lack of sunlight, just like being on a beach. Rush is working around the clock to fix them, but he still finds time to stop by her quarters and admire the sight of Chloe, lying on her stomach reading his book, stripped to her bra in the pretence it's a bikini.
"You've read that twice already," he observes, sitting on the bed and ghosting his fingers across her back.
"It's that or join Riley's band."
"The one in which broken pipes are passing for percussion?"
"It's surprisingly tuneful." She closes her eyes, shivering at the feel of rough fingertips, brushing past soft skin. "You'd better not be solving equations on my back, Doctor Rush."
"It's not an equation," Rush says thoughtfully, "but it does require solving."
There's a pause she takes for a nod. He retraces his steps, and this time his touch is firm, branding a sure and certain path across her. She rests her head on the pillow as understanding sets in, a secret smile tugging at her lips.
"Yeah. I think I got it."